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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The Reader’s Gazetteer: H

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What did I say when I introduced this series?

Do I believe that I, a normal human being with no powers more sophisticated than being able to hold a map the right way up and knowing how to use the Deutsche Bahn app, could get to the place?

But when an author’s kind enough to not only give me a real life station, but a date and time of departure, too, who am I to quibble because I’m not magic enough to get onto the platform? Let’s talk about Hogsmeade. You (if you’re a witch or a wizard on the way to school at Hogwarts) get there by catching the 11am from platform nine-and-three-quarters at London King’s Cross on 1 September. (Any other means of getting there definitely fall outside the scope of this blog series.) And it takes all the rest of the day to get there. Which puts it somewhere in Scotland, although, as ‘the only entirely non-Muggle settlement in Britain’, it seems to have developed its own distinctive culture:

Hogsmeade looked like a Christmas card; the little thatched cottages and shops were all covered in a layer of crisp snow; there were holly wreaths on the doors and strings of enchanted candles hanging in the trees.

Harry shivered; unlike the other two, he didn’t have his cloak. They headed up the street, heads bowed against the wind, Ron and Hermione shouting through their scarves.

‘That’s the Post Office -‘

‘Zonko’s is up there -‘

‘We could go up to the Shrieking Shack -‘

‘Tell you what,’ said Ron, his teeth chattering, ‘shall we go for a Butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks?’

But there, alas, you and I cannot follow.

I could quibble because nothing goes north of Peterborough from platforms 9, 10, and 11, but that would just be petty. Besides, there are all sorts of strange things that go on at King’s Cross. It’s got a fully functional platform zero, for goodness’ sake. And here’s a picture of a Festiniog railway loco in the middle of the concourse.

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The whole question of the Hogwarts Express got me thinking about train journeys in other school stories: they’re quite often used, as in Harry Potter, as a liminal space, to introduce important characters and answer the protagonist’s questions about the world that they’re about to enter.

What I can’t decide is how the trains themselves work: would it be most usual to have a charter train, or to add a couple of reserved carriages onto a regular service, perhaps making an extra stop at a station nearer the school, or just to have the students travel by normal services? I’d assumed that the trains that take students to Malory Towers (leaving, one assumes, from Paddington) were chartered, but I don’t think there’s any evidence either way. (Incidentally, my father points out that, in any book where Darrell arrives by train, then so do most of the others, and if she’s driven down by Daddy then everyone else arrives by car too.) The Kingscote girls must be travelling (from Victoria) in reserved carriages on a standard service, because the Head is concerned about what other travellers might think about their behaviour.

I haven’t any other school stories in the house to check, so let’s return to the East Coast Mainline, and take a look at J. B. Priestley’s They Walk In The City. The city in which they walk is actually London, but a substantial portion of the narrative takes place in Haliford, which is a decaying mill town along the lines of Bradford or Huddersfield.

Haliford, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, is a textile town. A hundred years ago it was of no importance at all; merely a little market town, with a few small mills dotted about the hillsides. It grew steadily during the Fifties and Sixties; then came the Franco-Prussian War – a godsend – and Haliford made money… and after that, in spite of a slump or two towards the end of the century, the town grew and prospered, until at last there came the Great War – and what a godsend that was – and… the town, though a little lacking in brisk young manhood, reached its peak. It started slipping and sliding down the other side, towards nobody knows what, early in the Nineteen Twenties. The world seemed to take a sudden dislike to Haliford and its undeniably excellent products. Now, most of the mills have begun to look old. Some of them – grim black stone boxes though they are – have even begun to look pathetic. You feel – as they say round there – that they are ‘past it’. In the watery sunlight of the Pennines, their windows sometimes look like the eyes of a blind beggar. The tall chimneys that are still smoking do it now in a leisurely fashion, like retired men making a morning pipe last as long as possible. Many of the chimneys have stopped smoking, not having known the heat of a furnace for years. The air above Haliford ought to be clear by this time, but somehow the old haze still lingers, perhaps out of kindness to the bewildered townsfolk below, who would feel naked without it.

These days you’d probably be able to get a very good curry there.

Priestley obligingly tells us how to get to Haliford – at least, he tells us how to get to London from there, so it’s easy enough to reverse the process:

Both of them knew all about the ten o’clock train. It took Haliford men to the wool sales in London. It took them to buy wool in Australia and South America. It took them to sell Haliford fabrics all over the world, from Paris to Shanghai. Some of these fellows, with bags fantastically labelled, were already settling into their corners of first-class smokers, frowning over their pipes at copies of the Yorkshire Post and Manchester Guardian… In [Edward’s] right-hand waistcoat pocket was a ticket to King’s Cross, London, to say nothing of Beauty, Romance, Riches, Glory, Love… The station itself, with its glass-covered altitudes of quiet  and indifference, its sudden snortings and red glares, its high echoing voices, its fascinating suggestion of only being half in Haliford, the other half being anywhere you would like it to be, diminished and engulfed them both in a not unfriendly fashion…

‘It only stops at Doncaster, Grantham and Peterborough,’ said Herbert solemnly.

And it will not arrive at platform nine, ten or eleven, I can tell you that much.

Books mentioned in this post

Malory Towers series, Enid Blyton

Autumn Term, Antonia Forest

They Walk In The City, J. B. Priestley

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling

The Reader’s Gazetteer

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