December Reflections 30: thank you for…

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… a successful book launch

… a trip to the opera

… a week on the Book Bus

… a weekend in the country

… new friends and old friends

… reading whatever I felt like

… learning to teach, and enjoying it

expanded horizons (internal)

(finding space in my faith for the fullness of myself)

… railways that got better and better

expanded horizons (external)

I came into this year, and in particular I went into the InterRail trip, thinking of it as the last chance to have fun before things got terrible. And who knows, it may still turn out to be that. I’ve been scared of 2019 for… well, two years. And so I was thinking of Patrick Leigh Fermor, hiking from the Netherlands to Constantinople during the rise of Nazism; I was thinking, do it now, in case you don’t have a chance later.

But about two days in I knew that I was going to have to go back. I was going to have to go back to Hamburg; I was going to have to go back to Copenhagen. I was going to have to bring other people to see them. I was going to have to go back to mainland Europe and see things I hadn’t got round to this time round.

I wrote, on the way home,

This isn’t the end of anything. This is about understanding that it’s all mine for the enjoying, that much more is possible than I ever thought, that in fact I can have both/and.

Maybe I won’t be able to. Maybe politics or money will get in the way. Maybe I’ll be doing other things. There are many things that might stop me – but it’s less likely, now, that I’ll be one of them.

So. It sounds ridiculous now, and goodness knows what it’ll sound like in a year’s time, but thank you, 2018, for hope.

December Reflections 18: I said hello to…

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… this charming lizard in the botanical gardens at Innsbruck. Actually, I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that I was very pleased to see it. I am very fond of lizards; one sees them in Ventnor sometimes.

I met all sorts of people when I was InterRailing. I’m not massively outgoing, and I got half way through the trip without having a conversation (beyond the basics required for checking in/ordering food/buying tickets) with anybody I wasn’t married to. I had long ago come to the conclusion that I was not like Paul Theroux or a Buchan hero, and that I was  not likely to get talking with interesting people.

Then after a series of mishaps with trams I ended up having dinner with a coloratura soprano in Vienna, and the next day I met a Canadian couple on the train to Ljubljana. And in Innsbruck, the night before I met the lizard, I got adopted by a group of friendly Austrians who ordered schnitzel and fries for me when I was too tired and hungry to look after myself properly, and then we managed to have quite an extensive chat even in my limited German.

So maybe it’s just something that happens if you travel far enough, for long enough, on your own.

December Reflections 14: 2018 taught me…

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… that Stockholm is beautiful, but looks even better after a nap;

… that Bratislava is delightful, but not until you’ve had a shower;

… that carrying too heavy a bag detracts from one’s enjoyment of the great art in the Zwinger at Dresden;

… that nothing is fun if I’m hungry;

… to travel first class, check my suitcase into left luggage wherever possible, and wear comfortable knickers.

In short, to attend to my bodily needs in a timely fashion. And travelling alone meant that I had to take responsibility for all that myself. I had no companion to suggesting that we go to bed, or to decide which café we ate in or what sandwich I wanted. 2018 taught me to take care of myself.

December Reflections 12: best meal of 2018

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The best meal of 2018 was undoubtedly breakfast in Bratislava. I quote from my diary:

… not overpriced at all, because there was a huge amount of it. If anything, the menu undersells it. Nicest breakfast I’ve had in ages. Orangey sausages – presumably with paprika – cherry tomatoes, red peppers, courgettes, squash, mangetout, French beans, various salad leaves; poached egg; toast.

In Slovak, assuming I copied it down correctly:

klobásky s. gril. zeleniou a pošírovaným vajcom

I ate an awful lot of bread and cheese when I was InterRailing, and by the half-way point a breakfast that consisted of bright colours and all the major food groups was very welcome. Dinner the previous night had been very good, and cheap (gnocchi with sheep’s cheese; white wine; Slovak whisky: just over €10), but even allowing for the stock of apples I’d been hauling round Europe I thought I was probably running a vitamin deficit. This was a delicious way to put that right. And the menu had some good advice, too.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: D

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D and E will both feature books from John Buchan’s Dickson McCunn series. I’m not going to apologise for this: I can think of few authors who are so good at landscapes, either real or imaginary, and, if you don’t know the place yourself, it’s difficult to tell where the seam is between the two.

D is for Dalquharter, but it’s interesting to see how Dickson McCunn gets there. He starts in Glasgow – real enough – and takes a train.

A little after midday he descended from a grimy third-class station whose name I have forgotten. In the village near-by he purchased some new-baked buns and ginger biscuits…

We’re already in imaginary countryside. Dickson stays overnight in a village called Cloncae, which Google optimistically suggest might be an anagram of ‘Conceal’, and passes through Kilchrist, which also seems to be fictional. Then he reaches Kirkmichael, which might or might not be this village, and spends the night at the Black Bull before setting out again:

Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flapping listless sails.

And then he gets the map out:

The peninsula was called the Cruives – an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that ‘cruives’ had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind.

By this point I’m very happily convinced. I’ve had my railway journey (and some extra trains), I have a reasonable idea how I’d get there from the real world, and I have been shown the map.

Dickson encounters a poet, John Heritage, who he’s been avoiding, and they speculate about Dalquharter and Dickson’s psyche before heading towards the village.

In front of groves of birch and rowan smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green ‘loaning’, on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it…

… There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office – only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend ‘The Cruives Inn’.

And we’re off. Up until now, Dickson was on holiday; from here on it, it’s an adventure. And this, I think, is why the McCunn stories are my favourites. I don’t have mysterious men getting murdered in my London flat, and I don’t get recruited for spying missions. But I do go on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday turn into an adventure as yet, though there was that time I found myself in Vienna, explaining to an opera singer how to go about organising a strike…

Come to think of it, that’s probably John Buchan’s fault, too. More on that next time.

Books referred to in this post

Huntingtower, John Buchan

December Reflections 2: favourite photo of 2018

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(What happened to December Reflections 1? You can see the picture here. But I’m using this prompt series as part of my Advent practice, and Advent only started today.)

I left on my InterRail adventure in the middle of April, which this year followed up the snowpocalypse of March with two solid weeks of grey dreariness, and all the trees stayed bare. The first day took me from London to Hamburg, which is about as far as one can comfortably get in a day. I had to change in Brussels, then Welkenraedt, then Aachen, and then finally Düsseldorf on the way.

I’d got it all planned – and, as my plan came to pass, I became increasingly confident. I was not worried about the Eurostar. I felt a bit nervous about the Belgian trains, but after I’d boarded and alighted from two I was beginning to feel as if I could do this. There were young green leaves on the trees in Belgium, too.

And the timetable worked out in such a way that I had a choice of trains at Aachen. I’d originally envisaged myself pushing right on through to Hamburg as fast as possible, but then I thought it would be a pity not to see where Charlemagne was crowned, and so I decided that I could be brave. I could be spontaneous. I could change my plans.

I talked a bit of German. I worked out the left luggage locker. And I hot-footed it across Aachen to the cathedral.

And outside Aachen cathedral was this glorious magnolia tree, in full bloom. It was as if my long-delayed spring had come to me all at once – except that I’d gone to find it.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: A

When I first started thinking about writing this series, I imagined that I’d be ignoring fantasy altogether. I wouldn’t be able to locate Narnia on a map of the world; at least, I couldn’t point to where it should be, so was it worth my while considering the genre at all?

But I realised pretty quickly that dismissing fantasy would rule out one fictional nation that definitely deserves its place in this gazetteer.

I’m talking about Alpennia, from the series by Heather Rose Jones.

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If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. Which is why we’re here.

The worldbuilding is meticulous. Alpennia is made distinctive by physical geography, by history, by religious practice, and, perhaps most obviously, by language. Where some authors would have let matters carry on in assumed French or German, Jones gives Alpennia a language of its own, and it works remarkably well.

How do you get there? How do I get there? Because that’s my main criterion for including a place in this gazetteer. And if getting there had to involve magic, it wouldn’t make the cut.

In Daughter of Mystery, Alpennia’s location is established in relation to Switzerland:

Chalanz was well out of sight around a curve of the hills behind her but in the other direction, to the south, she could see all the way to where the mountains rose, snowcapped, on the southeastern border of Alpennia, guarding the roads to Switzerland and places beyond.

In The Mystic Marriage we get a fix on it from the other direction. Antuniet travels from Heidelberg to Rotenek, the country’s capital, via Basel.

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As it happens, magic in these books might impede travel, but it doesn’t seem to enable it in any meaningful sense. They’re set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and people travel on foot, or horseback, or coach. I imagine that there’s a railway line these days, and perhaps even an airport.

Leaving the realms of fantasy – or, since I’m now turning to Anne of Green Gables, perhaps not – and crossing the Atlantic brings me to Avonlea.

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I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot over the course of this series about how characters enter and leave fictional places, about outsiders and insiders are identified, and about how the established community is set up.

Anne of Green Gables does all of those things within the first few chapters. A typical opening would see the orphan Anne arriving on a train, to be met by Matthew Cuthbert and escorted into Avonlea.

And in fact that’s what happens. But it doesn’t happen until Avonlea has been introduced to us. The novel opens with Mrs Rachel Lynde seeing Matthew leaving Avonlea, and wondering why. It’s a clever move to get the best of both worlds: Avonlea may never have seen anything like Anne, but we can’t understand the significance of that unless we understand a little bit about Avonlea.

In passing, we get a geographical clue:

Mrs Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window… keeping a sharp eye on the main road that crossed the hollow and wound up the steep red hill beyond. Since Avonlea occupied a little triangular peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of St Lawrence, with water on two sides of it, anybody who went out of it or into it had to pass over that hill road and so run the unseen gauntlet of Mrs Rachel’s all-seeing eye.

Then we follow Matthew out of Avonlea. There’s a little hint of the lyrical descriptive note that the narrative voice shares with Anne, but it’s nothing to what hits the page when we meet Anne herself and she meets Avonlea:

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley, and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless south-west sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

This alternation continues throughout the book. Marilla Cuthbert takes over the more prosaic point of view, while Anne keeps the descriptions. (Matthew continues not to say very much.) It’s effective: in the reader’s mind, Avonlea becomes a very beautiful place, but one that’s the creation of a very human community.

How to get there? I refer you to this thoroughly evidenced page matching the locations in the books with real-world settlements. Find your way to Charlottetown, and off you go. Actually, I’m not sure whether, growing up, it ever occurred to me to doubt that Avonlea was real.

Books referred to in this post

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

The Mystic Marriage, Heather Rose Jones

Mother of Souls, Heather Rose Jones

Anne of Green Gables (and, obliquely, much of the rest of the Anne series), L. M. Montgomery