The Reader’s Gazetteer: P

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We were in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Orsinia for the last post in this series, and we’re going to stay there for a little while, in Portacheyka:

… whose peaked slate roofs and climbing streets lay under the windows of the monastery school… The town was set in a deep gap between Sinivya and San Givan Mountains; framed by the towering slopes, Portacheyka’s northward view had a quality of vision. It seemed as if the shadowed pass could not lead out to those remote and sunlit, azure hills, but only look down on them as if on fabled kingdoms across the barrier of possibility. When clouds gathered full of thunder on the peaks and hung low over the town sometimes the view of the lower hills shone out in a clear, golden light, an enchanted realm, free of the storm and the darkness of the heights.

Those lovely mountains! I’m living in a very flat land at the moment, and have to find my gradients where I can. Fiction is as good a way to get there as any.

Idling by the Golden Lion Inn, Itale saw the coaches of the Southwestern Post set off for distant cities or come in, high, swaying, dusty, from their journeys; and Portacheyka, the gateway of his province, had for him the glamor of voyage and the unknown that a seaport has for one whose country’s border is the sea.

Indeed, there’s nothing to stop characters from a fictional location to find their way into less fictional ones. In John Buchan’s Castle Gay some mysterious foreigners turn up in Scotland, which is real enough, and the town of Portaway, which isn’t,  and find it a lively place.

The town of Portaway lies on both banks of the Callowa, which there leaves its mountain vale and begins its seven miles of winding through salty pastures to the Solway. The old town is mostly on the left shore; on the right has grown up a suburb of villas and gardens, with one flaring Hydropathic, and a large new Station Hotel, which is the resort of golfers and anglers. The capital of the Canonry is half country market town, half industrial centre, for in the hills to the south-east lie the famous quarries, which employ a large and transient population. Hence the political activities of the constituency centre in the place. The countryside is Tory or Liberal; among the quarrymen is a big Socialist majority, which its mislikers call Communist.

To tell the truth, it didn’t occur to me until I started this blog series that Portaway and the Canonry were made up by Buchan. Having had the Dickson McCunn books read to me as a child, it didn’t occur to me to doubt any of the Scottish bits. I understood of course that there wasn’t any such place as Evallonia, because you can’t very well have your characters meddle in the affairs of real monarchs, but what’s a by-election here or there? When I was eleven, Portaway was as real as London, and both were a very long way from where I was, just on the English side of the Welsh border.

Actually, this is a really good example of how to introduce a fictional location in half a paragraph. We have the physical geography, contextualised with a real-world feature, and then, more importantly, we learn about the people: the residents, the visitors, the workers, the politics (and those take us back to the physical geography: no quarries, no workers). The casual ‘famous’ is doing a lot of work, here; if we haven’t heard of this place before, it implies, then that’s an accident, because it’s been there all along. The politics will turn out to be useful a few chapters later, but here it’s doing the equally important job of telling us what this town is like some time in the 1930s.

In the same decade, we can travel through a little cluster of English villages along with Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride, previously Harriet Vane, on the way to their Busman’s Honeymoon. After a day that’s taken them from Oxford (apologies: that map was the best I could find) to London, in an epistolary prologue composed of the first person narratives of various friends and relations, we follow Peter and Harriet (and, of course, Bunter) into Hertfordshire:

A town with a wide stone bridge, and lights reflected in the river…

‘Are we getting anywhere near?’

‘Yes – this is Great Pagford, where we used to live. Look! that’s our old house with the three steps up to the door – there’s a doctor there still, you can see the surgery lamp… After two miles you take the right-hand turn for Pagford Parva, and then it’s another three miles to Paggleham, and sharp left by a big barn and straight on up the lane.’

It’s an expansive, disjointed, chapter, with the time of the journey filled with memories: earlier in the day; earlier in the week; earlier in Harriet’s life. Paggleham is perhaps too much a stereotype of an English village, or perhaps the problem is more with its residents. I rather think that’s meant to be a feature, not a bug, at least in Harriet’s eyes:

In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son, and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares.

And of course it undercuts itself: usually dukes’ sons don’t marry doctors’ daughters. But that happened in London. I’m still very fond of this book, though, and ended up rereading the whole thing the day I looked up that passage.

Finally, further west, J. K. Rowling has another Pagford. I’m not sure that I would want to reread The Casual Vacancy – partly for the appalling fatphobia, partly because the whole thing is intentionally pretty bleak – but it definitely deserves its place in this series. It’s a fairly typical English village, in both appearance and culture:

They drove down Church Row, the steeply sloping street where the most expensive houses stood in all their Victorian extravagance and solidity, around the corner by the mock-Gothic church, where he had once watched his twin girls perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and across the Square, where they had a clear view of the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey that dominated the town’s skyline, set high on a hill, melding with the violet sky.

But what makes it particularly credible is the politics, of which there is plenty. I’m not sure that I can find a particular passage to quote, because the whole novel is saturated with the pettiness, the power games, the paranoia, of local politics; it informs everyone’s actions and character, usually not for the better. Some of Rowling’s characters are as much caricatures as Sayers’ are, and as susceptible to Funetik Aksents, but the overall impression is depressingly convincing. It’s the people that make Pagford what it is: a small-minded, suspicious, affluent, Nimbytown. You might want to live there, but you wouldn’t want to think about it too hard.

Books mentioned in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers

 

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Stay at Home book tag

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Joanna Victoria tagged me for this meme (yes, in internet years I’m ancient, I cut my HTML teeth on LiveJournal, I call it a meme), which began with Princess of Paperback on Youtube, a couple of days ago.

Lying in bed – a book you read in one day

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I only picked this up to check something for my next Reader’s Gazetteer post (it’ll be coming up under P for Paggleham) and then bang! that was the rest of Sunday afternoon gone. Nobody would tell someone to begin the Lord Peter Wimsey series with Busman’s Honeymoon, but it was the first one that I picked up, having run out of Agatha Christie, in my mid teens. Hadn’t a clue what was going on for most of it, but I loved it.

Snacking – a book that is a ‘guilty pleasure’ read

I’m with Joanne Harris here – there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure read.

(I’m always tempted to name a book by one of those dreary Great White Middle-Aged Men novelists in this category, but nobody would believe me.)

I don’t think that snacking is a guilty pleasure, either.

Netflix – a series that you want to start

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(Apologies, by the way, for the way that my ebook reader makes book covers look so dull. I’ve done my best with a German tablecloth here.)

Working my way through fictional lands for the Reader’s Gazetteer, I’ve noticed that my focus has been very Eurocentric. I was intrigued, therefore, to come across a series set in, or featuring characters from, a fictional African country named Thesolo. I’m not a great reader of romances, but the Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole does look intriguing.

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And, while I’ve read a lot by L. M. Montgomery, I haven’t read her ‘Pat’ series, despite having had a copy from someone on BookCrossing years ago.

This one would also work for the next prompt:

Deep clean – a book that has been on your TBR for ages

*hollow laughter*

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I thought that this looked absolutely delightful, and bought it, and have never got round to reading it. As the name suggests, Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal is a diary by a young girl from the period in the nineteenth century when the Alps were just becoming a desirable holiday destination.

Animal Crossing – a book you bought recently because of the hype

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Well, there’s certainly been a lot of hype around The Flat Share – which is a fun take on the old Cox and Box ‘two people share a living space but never meet’ story – though I probably wouldn’t have bought it as soon as I did had it not been a pick for one of my book clubs.

But I’ve been playing Animal Crossing on and off since university – more or less as long as I’ve been on the internet, in fact – we played it in the same way some other student households watched Teletubbies.

So instead I’m going for a ‘childhood classic I only got round to in adulthood’:

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There were plenty of school stories in the house when we were growing up, but we missed Antonia Forest’s Marlows series. I think I probably appreciate them more now than I would have then: ‘school story’ is only half the story, and the eclectic, often experimental, mix of genres, and the bleak verging on cynical worldview, would probably have put me off when I was younger.

(I haven’t been on Animal Crossing since early December, by the way, and my village will be full of weeds and my house will be full of cockroaches. And my hair will be a mess.)

Productivity – a book you learned from or had an impact on you

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I’d heard of Bird by Bird a while ago, but had been putting off reading it as I feared it was going to be twee and wholesome, and I have to be in a very specific mood to put up with being exhorted to let me creativity flower or whatever.

Now I’m actually reading it I find it’s not like that at all: it’s deliciously bracing and down to earth. Some of the lessons in there I’ve already worked out by trial and error. Some of them I hadn’t got round to putting into words. Either way, though, I’m enjoying Anne Lamott’s company, and will be looking out for her books that aren’t about writing, too.

Facetime – a book you were given

I cannot bring myself to write ‘gifted’ as a verb. Sorry.

Anyway, nobody’s tried to give us any books since we moved, which is probably a good thing, but I did win a BookCrossing sweepstake:

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Self-care – what is one thing you have done recently to look after yourself?

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I’ve been setting my alarm for 7.15am (when I go back to commuting to London it’ll be over an hour earlier than that, but let’s not think about that) so that I can get in a walk before breakfast and morning prayer. And I’ve been trying to spend as much time as possible in the garden, slowing down, paying attention, doing very little.

Bonus – an upcoming release you are looking forward to

I am, as always, out of the loop on what’s new, and massively behind on reading what’s recent. But I do have my eye on Joanne Harris’ Ten Things About Writing.

 

My new ‘self-isolation reading club’ badge is from _erisapple_. I never tag other people, but if you like the look of this then consider yourself tagged.