The Reader’s Gazetteer: M

DSCF8522

M is another of those built-up letters. Hardy gives us Marygreen, Melchester and Mellstock. Wikipedia tells me that there was a Maltovia in one of the Biggles books, but if I read it (and I read a lot of Biggles, back in the day) then I don’t remember it. Helena Fairfax gives us Montverrier, and a dedicated exploration of the Ruritania series takes us to Mittenheim. (Well, it doesn’t really; a Grand Duke comes from there, but we never really learn much about it.)

Then there’s Maycomb. Google supplies a wealth of maps (extrapolating them from To Kill A Mockingbird seems to be a popular school activity) but I’m going to quote this lovely train journey from Go Set A Watchman:

The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.

The station at Montgomery nestled in an elbow of the Alabama, and when she got off the train to stretch her legs, the returning familiar with its drabness, lights, and curious odors rose to meet her…

For no reason an ancient fear gnawed her. She had not been in this station for twenty years, but when she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot.

The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.

Although even this train doesn’t quite get us there, and the journey is completed by car:

No trains went there – Maycomb Junction, a courtesy title, was located in Abbott County, twenty miles away. Bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.

To reach Middlemarch these days you’d take a train out of London Euston and you’d be there in about an hour. But at the time that the action is set, the railway has not quite made it. In fact, we see it being built.

It’s not connections or landscape that make Middlemarch a place we can believe in. It’s the people. It’s the systems. It’s the systems in which the people live and move, and the people who make up the systems. There’s the class system, the minute gradations of commerce, the churches and the hospitals, the vain attempt to move up a rung, or at least keep oneself from moving down one, to escape it entirely, and the pettiness of the whole thing…

I know how to get to Middlemarch because I believe the introduction when it tells me it’s basically Coventry with the serial numbers filed off. (Which makes me wonder whether anyone’s written anything set in post-war Middlemarch. Or anything about the Middlemarch bicycle industry…) But I believe in Middlemarch because I believe in the people who live in it and around it.

 

Books mentioned in this post

Middlemarch, George Eliot

In the Mouth of the Wolf, Helena Fairfax

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope

Biggles Goes To War, Capt. W. E. Johns

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

ABCDEFGHIJKLM

One in a million/a million to one

I felt guilty for years after 2003 because I did not join in the protest march against the Iraq War.

It took me a long time to appreciate the absurdity of my belief that had I gone it might not have happened.

It took me longer still, and a lot more marches, to understand what it is that a march actually does.

It was two years after the Iraq marches that I attended my first actual protest, and it was very small scale by comparison. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter planned to close the Music, Chemistry, and Italian departments. Much of the student body disapproved. We went for a desultory march around campus and rallied outside the Great Hall.

When I started working for a trade union, the protests started coming thick and fast. We marched: for the NHS; against austerity; for a fairer society; probably for some other things I can’t remember now. Some were on my doorstep; some meant a train to London; one meant a train to Manchester. I ended up with my picture in the Morning Star (deflating one of those giant balloons in Hyde Park) and the Guardian (one little figure in a Where’s Wally style crowd scene; you had to know which banner to look for).

As protests became just a part of my job, my feelings changed. I was no longer under the impression that I’d change the world by walking down the street, no matter how amusing my placard (and I saw some good ones). There was inevitably a load of hassle beforehand: phoning union branch secretaries, looking up coach operators, ordering stickers and vuvuzelas and other hideous tat. Usually, by the time the actual day rolled round, I just wanted it to be over. Some I probably shouldn’t have attended: in Manchester, I was going down with a cold, and ended up flat on my back in a park woozily watching the clouds. I did miss the 2018 one, having mashed my foot up falling off a narrow gauge train a few weeks earlier.

There was always a lot of standing around, a lot of stopping and starting, and then more standing around when we got to the other end. And yet I inevitably came away from them feeling energised, buoyed up, ready to go back to work on Monday and keep on going.

It was not that my presence, one person more or less in a million-strong crowd, would change the outcome of the issue. It was that it changed my perception of the fight.

I was not the only person who was angry. I was not the only person who cared. It was worth carrying on with this.

Did the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter care what the students thought about his plans to close the Music, Chemistry and Italian departments? Probably not. Did he care after we protested, noisily, against them? Still probably not. Italian was saved by some revised plans by the department itself; Music and Chemistry went. Austerity continues to bite; the NHS wobbles; society seems rather less fair than it did even when I started protesting about things.

But I continue to care.

Protests change things not by sending a message to those in power, but by equipping the rest of us with hope. They say yes, I care, and yes, I’m angry, and then, yes, we care, and yes, we’re angry, and then we keep on going.

Anyway, I’m about to clean my teeth and put a hat on and go and protest against prorogation. If you’re about to do that too, then good luck and stay safe, and maybe I’ll see you there.

And if you want to be or you think you should be but you aren’t, if you can’t because you’re busy, or you can’t do crowds, or you’re looking after the children, or you’re working, or you’re ill, or it isn’t safe for you, or if (like me in 2003) you have no idea where to start, or if it’s just too much, or for any other reason that I haven’t thought of, then know that I understand, that I’ve been there (or, rather, not been there) myself, and I’m protesting for you, too.

Keep on going.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: L

DSCF8462

L takes us back to Britain and back to the ecclesiastical shenanigans novel in Catherine Fox’s Lindchester series.

Lindchester is explicitly in the same universe as Barchester, and it has a rather more explicit location:

The diocese of Lindchester is not large, squashed as it is between Lichfield to the south and Chester to the north; so don’t worry, we will not be travelling far.

This locates it, unusually for an ecclesiastical shenanigans novel, in the northern province. The Archbishop of Canterbury surely has quite enough to deal with in Barchester, Christminster, Starbridge and Torminster. It’s only fair that the Archbishop of York gets to fret about Lindchester’s problems.

Transport links? If you were starting in London, you’d get a train out of Euston. Euston is horrible. Maybe don’t start in London. Change at Crewe.

I’ve been using ‘Lindchester’ as shorthand for the locale in which the action happens. This is not limited to the town of Lindchester itself; it encompasses the whole diocese: Lindchester, Lindford, Cardingforth… (In fact, the narrator is scrupulous about not depicting anything that happens beyond the diocesan boundaries.)

Recently, I’ve been mulling over a hypothesis about fictional places, about the difference between Barchester and Ruritania (I know we haven’t got to the latter yet). And I’m not convinced it’s entirely down to geography. It’s not the difference between a city and a state – in fact, so many modern Ruritanias are so tiny that they basically are cities. I think it’s more to do with the way that the characters – and particularly the protagonist – interacts with the place.

If you’re the protagonist, Ruritania is the place you visit. You might have a longstanding connection with the place, your visit may have a disproportionate effect on the place, and you might very well get more than you bargained for on that visit, but you’re essentially an outsider. Barchester is the place where you live, very probably the place where you were born. In Barchester, you’re a part of the system, the whole complicated interconnected web of human relationships. You may well be able to effect change, but the system is something that has shaped you. You can’t just pass through it.

That’s because the place itself exists within a larger system, whether that’s political, religious, social, or any combination. It’s a system that the author suspects that many of their readers know well, might themselves exist within. Lindchester is a diocese within the Church of England. It operates in a similar way to any other diocese in the Church of England. Happy endings are very much a possibility, but they have to be negotiated within the constraints of the real-life system. The author has control of the fates of the individual characters, but they don’t mess around with the way we all know things work. That would be cheating. That would be far less satisfying.

 

Books referred to in this post

Lindchester series (Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory), Catherine Fox

Barchester series, Anthony Trollope

 

ABCDEFGHIJKLM

#indiechallenge – First Time Ever (Peggy Seeger)

DSCF8407

The blurb

Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy Seeger enjoyed a childhood steeped in music and politics. Her father was the noted musicologist Charles Seeger; her mother, the modernist composer Ruth Crawford; and her brother Pete, the celebrated writer of protest songs.

After studying at Radcliffe College, in 1955 Peggy left to travel the world. It was in England that she met the man, some two decades older and with a wife and family, with whom she would share the next thirty-three years: the actor, playwright and songwriter Ewan MacColl. Together, Peggy and Ewan helped lay the foundations of the British folk revival, through the formative – and controversial – Critics Group and the landmark BBC Radio Ballads programmes. And as Ewan’s muse, Peggy inspired one of the twentieth century’s greatest love songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

Peggy’s life comprises art and passion, family and separation, tragedy, celebration and the unexpected – and irresistible – force of love. It would by any standards be an extraordinary story, but what elevates her account is the beauty of the writing: it is clear-eyed and playful, luminous and melodic, fearless, funny and always truthful, from the first word to the last.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

How I got this book

Around my way, there’s a tradition of leaving unwanted items outside one’s front gate in case someone else likes the look of it and takes it away. I liked the look of this and took it away.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; possibly ‘Biography’, though Seeger in fact recommends someone else’s biography of her to be read alongside this to fill in the gaps; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, despite the blurb’s strenuous attempt to ignore the fact, ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

I think Peggy Seeger is great. I saw her perform at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago, and when I asked her to sign one of her CDs she complimented my hat. So there. Anyway, she’s a member of a great musical dynasty and she’s a great musical figure in her own right. In this book she looks back on a long life, with a complete absence of self-pity and an honesty that sometimes made me wince. There was much that resonated, including the thoughts on class, and the impulse to hope that keeps you writing in the face of looming political despair. It’s fascinating as history and as a reflection on the art of performing music and, most of all, as a portrait of the development of a person.

#indiechallenge – Smash All The Windows (Jane Davis)

DSCF8210

The blurb

For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.

Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.

If only it were that simple.

The author and publisher

Jane Davis is the author of eight novels; her first novel won the Daily Mail First Novel Award; her seventh was Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year 2016; and Smash All The Windows won the first ever Selfies Award.

She’s someone who takes writing and self-publishing very seriously, and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her at the London Book Fair earlier this year.

The bookshop

I bought the ebook version from the Kobo store.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘A Women’s Press’; ‘A New To You Press’; ‘An Award-Winner’, or ‘Book from a micro press’.

My thoughts

This is a really good book. It takes as its starting point an imagined crush disaster in a London tube station, and follows the families of the victims as they variously seek the facts, campaign for justice, and come to terms with their loss. Sometimes diving deep into the day of the disaster, sometimes looking several years beyond it, the interweaving strands are easy to follow, and the characters are well delineated and all very human.

There were times when I forgot that I was reading fiction, and found myself wanting to go to Wikipedia to find out more about the disaster. Jane Davis says that she thinks of fiction as ‘made-up truth’. She’s certainly achieved that here.

Form

My love is older than the rocks:
I planted it when life was young
and watched it bloom with new delight
where a new, hopeful, stream had sprung.
I kept it close through seismic shocks:
betrayal; anger; pain; relief;
then sent it whirling into flight
to take its chance with joy or grief.
Now you can hold it in your hand,
washed clean, worn smooth, by time and tears.
An age of time, a flash of art
brought it to you from dust and sand.
It’s grounded by the weight of years
and rests contented in your heart.

 

*

This is another one written for a Lioness Challenge. There’s something about Elise’s pieces that gets me experimenting with tight forms that I’d usually write off as ‘too much like hard work’ or ‘not for the likes of us’. But in this case, with dinosaur bones for inspiration, it had to be a hoary old form like a sonnet.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: J

dscf8213.jpg

Well, I have to admit it: I’m stuck. I couldn’t think of a single fictional place beginning with J. Nor could my father, who has got enthusiastically into this excursion, as will be seen from his postcard.

And I think I can explain why they’re so difficult to find.

I’ve said before that the thing about fictional places is that you have to be able to believe in them. And it’s difficult to believe in a place if you’re not sure how you’re meant to pronounce it.

J – believe me, I know – is not an obvious letter. (The number of places in which I’ve been addressed tentatively as ‘Miss… er, Yo-veet?’…!) Is it the English dg sound? The French zh? The German y? Maybe even the Spanish hk? Or perhaps it’s more like Latin and you should treat it as another form of i. Well, you might be able to work it out from the location or the language, but you might equally well not, and it’s a bit distracting to spend the whole book wondering whether you’re pronouncing the site of the action correctly. I can see why authors don’t take the risk.

(In fairness, I should add that the ever-entertaining Smart Bitches, Trashy Books came up with a post that led me to a book set in somewhere called Jura, but I haven’t got round to following it up, so I don’t know whether it’s pronounced like the Hebridean island or the French mountain range or something else entirely.)

Next time: K. You know where you are with K. (Except in Swedish.)

 

Books mentioned in this post

The English Bride (Royal Bride), Joan Wolf

 

ABCDEFGHIJK