Archive for December, 2012

December 26, 2012

Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

This afternoon I Christmas lunched with my parents and friends of the family and someone complained about an uncle and I said “there are always uncles at Christmas” and everyone seemed very confused.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is out of copyright in Australia and is therefore available on Gutenberg AU. Though that way you miss out on the lovely illustrations that are in my edition.

Thanks to Alex(-who-no-longer-has-a-blog) this year I also discovered this.



As an atheist child with a Hindu surname in England, Christmas was probably my favourite festival. Diwali involved visits to relatives and amazing food, but I loved winter, and Christmas was all around me, and because it wasn’t ‘our’ festival I didn’t have to adhere to any particular social activities. My Christmases are quiet and personal, and over time they have acquired their own rituals.

Among the more recent of these is a reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Thomas was a Welsh poet who was perhaps best known for his radio play Under Milk Wood. It was through Under Milk Wood that a friend and I (the friend who would later gift me my first copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales) discovered him in school; and it was clear from the beginning that this work was meant to be heard, rather than seen. I could not read it without reading it aloud.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is made up of two separate pieces. The first, “Memories of Christmas”, was broadcast on BBC radio in 1945. It tells the story of one particular Christmas, when the kitchen caught fire in the house of the narrator’s friend, Jim Prothero. The boys throw the snowballs they had planned to use on the neighbourhood cats into the fire; the firemen come; Christmas is saved, if somewhat damp. As with Under Milk Wood, it’s immediately clear that this was made for radio. Thomas’ prose was meant to be read out loud: “Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, [the cats] would slide and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes”. And the piece ends on a lovely, bizarre note when Jim’s aunt walks into the room, sees the firemen, and asks them if they would like something to read.

The second part, “Conversation About Christmas” was written for the magazine Picture Post in 1947. As the title implies, this is a conversation with a much younger child about the narrator’s memories of Christmas. This part, made for print, is scarcely less lyrical than the earlier section, and like it is also touching, and strange, and funny. Here we have Thomas’ account of postmen bearing useful and useless presents, who “with sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully”, of uncles who fall asleep in armchairs after lunch and aunts who get tipsy and sing, and of the time the narrator and his friends went carolling outside a strange house and ran away in terror when a thin, old voice from within joined in “Good King Wenceslas”. The whole thing is suffused by the warmth of nostalgia, a haziness of detail but sharp recollection of feelings. Thomas’ narrator may not be able to remember “whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six”, but the fires, the sound of a whistle, the music and the “close and holy darkness” he seems able to experience still.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales was first published as a book in 1954. My edition of Thomas’ gorgeous memoir was published in 2004, when the book was half a century old. It has bright, muddled illustrations by Chris Raschka that almost make up for the disadvantage of having to read and not hear these words. Not that this (or a winter sore throat) has the power to stop me happily croaking and squeaking my way through a dramatic reading of my own. Probably not the best reading of Thomas that I’ll ever hear, but it wouldn’t be a proper Christmas without it.


December 25, 2012

Movie notes: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Frame narratives

One of the ways in which Jackson tries to place this movie in continuity with his Lord of the Rings trilogy is to place the whole of this story within a frame narrative, in which Bilbo is apparently writing his memoirs on the day of his party (which seems overly ambitious? surely he could have started a few months in advance, at least?) so that Frodo will know everything when Bilbo leaves the Shire later that day. As a result, the book is ‘addressed’ to Frodo. Which makes the decision to use Tolkien’s exact words a little odd; “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” is an iconic first line so fair enough, but we go on to see Bilbo describing to Frodo what a hobbit hole is, and how it is very comfortable — when Frodo himself has been living in the hobbit hole in question for many years now.


The Fall of Erebor

The Hobbit gives us a pretty basic cause-and-effect relationship for the coming of Smaug:

Dwarves are good at mining and making things → dwarves have lots of gold.

Dragons like gold →Smaug goes to where gold is.

Gold is a big part of the reason for the quest in the first place. Tolkien’s dwarves show something of an obsession with their gold (Terry Pratchett later parodies this rather wonderfully); the song they sing at the beginning of the book has them vowing to “seek the pale enchanted gold”, “claim our long forgotten gold”, “win our harps and gold from him”. At least three verses of this song consist of descriptions of the amazing treasures that lie in the mountain. It’s Thorin’s refusal to share out the treasure that will lead to even more disaster later in the book.

Jackson’s dwarves are presumably still broadly pro-gold, but I suspect gold is insufficiently noble a reason for the sort of epic quest narrative that this movie wants The Hobbit to be. Instead we get a great deal of emphasis on Thror’s growing lust for wealth, and his conviction that the finding of the Arkenstone legitimates his divine right to rule (interesting, since The Lord of the Rings would appear to legitimate Aragorn’s divine right to rule and that isn’t coded as ominous at all). A “darkness” falls over the kingdom and it is this, not the mere fact of riches, that draws Smaug. For me this is a bigger change than it might first appear to be because it shifts this world from one in which Bad Things (like dragons) just happen occasionally to one in which Bad Things may be a sort of judgement upon a kingdom or its ruler.

This entire section is told through a historical flashback and it’s not badly done, if rather insistent that you look upon this flaming dragon kite and this burnt doll because Symbols. But as the crowd flees the mountain there seem to be visible female dwarves, which pleased me greatly.



Deprived of the gold as an excuse Jackson (along with whoever wrote the script) plumps for the tragedy of a lost homeland and exiled people. The trauma of the dwarves’ displacement becomes Bilbo’s reason for joining them–because he, loving his home, is horrified that the dwarves don’t have one. This is one of the places where the movie is only saved by the fact of its being The Hobbit– in The Lord of the Rings this would sound unbearably trite.

Unfortunately, it raises another problem. The dwarves of the book seem to have accepted that a dozen of them aren’t going to take down a dragon; this is why they hire a burglar instead of a really good archer. It’s just possible (and let’s be clear, this was never a stellar plan) that a burglar could sneak into the dragon’s lair and steal a good bit of gold before the dragon notices and fries him; but at this point actually killing the dragon seems unlikely. Which means that a plan involving Bilbo is not consistent with a plan to win back the lost homeland; homelands are not easily-transported and Bilbo is quite a small hobbit.


Cunning plans

So what exactly is Thorin’s plan? We don’t know, because he is too grumpy to talk and communicates through smouldering sexily at things. He smoulders at the elves because some completely different elves wouldn’t fight a dragon for him. He smoulders at wargs who are trying to attack him. He smoulders at the orc he thought was dead. At Bilbo because Bilbo doesn’t look sufficiently like a burglar; perhaps he was expecting a stripey shirt?

Martin Freeman as John Watson in the BBC "Sherlock"

(Could not resist, sorry)

So Thorin spends most of the movie being angry with various people for not helping him to …do what? What is his battle plan? Why, based on what little we see of his battle tactics  in flashback (rallying his losing side for one final attack, so that more of them die and the dwarves still fail to win back Moria) are these people following him?


Azog the Defiler

Or “the pale orc”, apparently. A lot more defiling seems to be going on that Tolkien might have intended- at one point Thorin is growling about the violation of “our sacred holes”. Why is Azog so set on eliminating the line of Durin? Are we going to get backstory, or is this some randomly evil thing he has decided to do in order to give this movie an antagonist?


Animal creatures

I will admit to being a little melty at Bilbo sneaking apples to Myrtle the pony, and I suppose this ties in nicely to Sam and Bill in The Lord of the Rings (are hobbits genetically predisposed to be nice to horses?). I’m also a huge fan of Sebastian the hedgehog, who appears to live (along with his family) with Radagast the Brown. Radagast also has a sleigh pulled by bunnies.

I said on twitter that the whole Radagast sequence reminded me of a live action Once and Future King- a book that does manage to switch registers from silly to epic without feeling awkward in a way that this one entirely fails to do. Perhaps Jackson should have taken White as his model for this.


While on the subject of wizards

A couple of things. Did the Serious Councils of the Lord of the Rings movies appear as stiff as the one at Rivendell, or is it the contrast with the less serious parts of the plot that make them so?

Gandalf does not remember the names of the Blue Wizards. I haven’t read the appendices since school, but I do; they are Alatar and Pallando. What I’m wondering now though, is whether the film’s drawing attention to this is a sort of meta-commentary on their erasure? I’m not sure.


I will probably add to this post later; for now, let it stand.

December 20, 2012

Philip Pullman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm and Mervyn Peake (illus.) Grimm’s Household Tales

I wrote last week’s column in a bit of a hurry, and had no idea that this week was the 200th anniversary of Grimm’s fairy tales. There’s an adorable Google Doodle today to commemorate this- it tells a version of the Little Red Riding Hood story in which knitting and rule of law triumph over wolfly evil. Video (from youtube) below; fortuitously-timed column below that.







“This is not a text”, proclaims Philip Pullman in his introduction to his new collection of fairy tale retellings, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.  That these fairy tales don’t operate in quite the same way as other forms of story is something we all know. The basic forms of the stories are familiar to most of us – whether through books and parents as children or Disney films. We become aware quite early on that the fairy tale is infinitely adaptable. For many people I knew, this realisation came in the form of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, in which the author rewrote such classic stories as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” to give them much more sensible endings. Dahl’s Goldilocks is caught and punished for her various criminal acts, while Jack learns that simply by bathing he can prevent the giant from smelling him.

Later in life we would all come across more versions of these fairy tales, often written specifically for an adult audience. Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber is the classic of this genre. Carter’s versions of these stories are lush and dark and feminist, and very characteristic of the author’s work.  The Bloody Chamber was published in 1979. Since then, fairy tale retellings have become a genre of their own and rather an exhausted one. Writers do occasionally come up with fresh takes on the stories (the Kate Bernheimer edited My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a particularly good recent collection). But on the whole, the writerly trend of making a fairy tale one’s own has been mined out.

I’ve recently acquired two collections of Grimm’s fairy tales, both with the names of well-known writers on their covers. And yet both editions do something unusual.

The first is published by the British Library, and is simply titled Grimm’s Household Tales. The cover proclaims that it is illustrated by Mervyn Peake, the great artist and writer. What it doesn’t mention is the name of a writer or translator other than the Brothers Grimm; it’s as if these stories, having  been collected by the Grimms, appeared spontaneously in English. It’s as if the author has been eliminated completely – why should one reteller, only the most recent of hundreds, be given credit over all those others who shaped the story in the past? It’s an artistic choice that earlier editions of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) often made, but it’s not one I’ve seen frequently used in my lifetime. In the absence of a visible author, Peake’s weird, intricate illustrations are given even more prominence.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, by contrast, has Pullman’s name featured prominently on the cover. In his introduction Pullman discusses the “tone licked clean” of Grimm’s fairy tales- in the versions of the stories recorded by the brothers there’s no sense of an individual author or style, simply because there is no “single mind” behind any of the stories. Pullman affirms the right of any reader of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen to make the story her own, but he appears to be doing the opposite. There’s nothing about Pullman’s retellings in this collection that makes them quintessentially his own; the author appears to be attempting to obliterate his own literary style in the service of the stories. At the end of each story Pullman adds a few notes on the various ways in which it has been interpreted; again, this is an attempt to embed the stories in their tradition rather than to take them out of it.

It’s convincingly done; to achieve prose this clear and this anonymous is no mean feat. If a child (or adult) were to only ever read one collection of fairy tales, Pullman’s would be ideal. If she was the sort of person who had an entire shelf of them, however, she might find it hard to tell the difference.


December 16, 2012

Reading notes: The Hobbit

Stuff about which I thought while rereading The Hobbit recently. Very self-indulgent, yes, feel free to ignore or mock.



In my teenage years I knew a lot more about the history of the writing of Middle-earth than I do now. So I’m no longer sure of how much of the larger mythos existed when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and how far it was written to tie into that – or to what extent it has since been edited (beyond the editing of the Gollum chapter to better fit The Lord of the Rings; I do at least remember that much) to fit. So when Tolkien’s narrator says that he does not know things – how Gollum got his ring, which we will learn; or the ancestry of Beorn, you can read this as either a potentially omniscient narrator/author who doesn’t know these things because they aren’t there to be known or you can read it as how a children’s book would be written, in that world, by an author who may or may not (probably not though) know these facts about the world he lives in even though those facts exist in the world and are knowable.

One of the things I think I’m trying to get at here is that I like the gaps in Middle-earth where Tolkien either admits of not knowing or knows but doesn’t tell. Tolkien fans often seem to love the mapped-out-ness of Middle-earth — here is a history that starts out from before creation, all neatly set out with dates and family trees and philology. M John Harrison’s clomping foot of nerdism.

The Hobbit is another world. I don’t know where the trolls come from. I don’t know why a man who occasionally turns into a bear and who has trained animals to do his housework exists. And I don’t know what Tom Bombadil is, of course).

As I write this I’m rereading Verlyn Flieger’s “’Do the Atlantis Story and abandon Eriol Saga’” (Tolkien Studies 1.1 (2004): 43-68). Flieger writes (in a far more informed and articulate manner than I ever will) about Tolkien’s “strategy of presentation” of his various Middle-earth books, and the question of “Who would be telling his stories, to whom, and why?”. If the Silmarillion is to be a history of Middle-earth as written by a denizen of Middle-earth, it’s incomplete and biased, it privileges some narratives over others. Which narratives it privileges are possibly a result of Tolkien’s own biases, but that’s a different matter entirely. If Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth is to be vast and complete it’s a vision in which books exist and tell different sorts of stories. Genre is in itself a sort of acceptance that the world can be herded into types of story; that we pick and choose so some extent. Which, I suspect, means that part of the completeness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is to make the stories it tells itself about itself incomplete. I’m not sure if this means that Tolkien’s worldbuilding is inextricably linked to a kind of anti-worldbuilding, that I agree with MJH, or that I have somehow talked myself around to having Tolkien agree with MJH.

[All of this is why I find the Peter Jackson attempt to place The Hobbit in proper continuity with LotR ominous. By their own logic they are not a book and its sequel; they’re works in separate genres that purportedly tell different parts of a history. At the time of writing I haven’t seen the movie and it’s possible I’m doing it an injustice. But I suspect that nerdism’s foot has clomped with great clomp.]


Riddles in the Dark

The impression one gets is that telling riddles is a thing people do regularly – which is why Bilbo so readily remembers a few. I’m interested in how Gollum’s language changes while he’s asking riddles; he’s quoting. So is Bilbo, to a less obvious extent. Which has the effect, to me, of turning the whole into less of a competition and more a formal game. There are a finite number of structured, existing riddles and one either knows them or doesn’t. No wonder Bilbo’s pockets question is such a breach of the rules.


Moon runes

These are a really stupid idea, dwarves. I thought this when I was 7, and I think it now.



This was one of my favourite parts of the story as a child. Beorn is fascinating.

All the time they ate, Beorn in his deep rolling voice told tales of the wild lands on this side of the mountains, and especially of the dark and dangerous wood, that lay outstretched far to North and South a day’s ride before them, barring their way to the East, the terrible forest of Mirkwood.

He is also dangerous:

In this hall we can rest sound and safe, but I warn you all not to forget what Beorn said before he left us: you must not stray outside until the sun is up, on your peril.

Perhaps it’s years of sexy werewolf fanfiction or perhaps it’s an echo of the Cupid and Psyche myth passing through time or Beauty and the Beast (and perhaps sexy werewolf fanfiction is also an echo of the Cupid/Psyche myth + Beauty and the Beast) but I cannot help seeing this scene as having great erotic potential. If I recall correctly, LotR mentions Beorn’s “sons” in passing. Does he turn men into werebears by biting them, or does he have a mate, and is she (presumably) bear or human? There is probably self-insert fanfic of this out there somewhere.



“Still elves they were and remain and that is Good People”. Sigh. On the whole The Hobbit offers a far better format than Lord of the Rings for seeing people as complex, flawed individuals. But it’s Tolkien and biology is morally important, so elves will always be basically good and orcs will always be basically bad. Bard the Bowman isn’t just a good man with archery skills; he has to be the descendent of Girion, Lord of Dale, so that he and Thorin and Dain echo the Return of the King plot. All will be well when the Rightful Descendant comes to the throne.

“[The elves'] hatred for the goblins is cold and bitter”. There’s a much stronger sense of this here, for me, than in LotR simply because the elves are presented to us as capable of having feelings that are cold and bitter.

The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. There the Light-elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves went and lived for ages, and grew fairer and wiser and more learned, and invented their magic and their cunning craft, in the making of beautiful and marvellous things, before some came back into the Wide World. In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt, or to ride and run over the open lands by moonlight or starlight; and after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk.

Cliffnotes for the early bits of the Silmarillion; I wonder if these were in the original Hobbit or added later to fit in better with the rest. It’s a useful reminder of why I prefer the Sindar to the Eldar- who are “fairer” and “wiser” and have a history of colonialism. Also, what lands are ‘lost’ (apart from Numenor) and who/what are they lost to?

I seem to recall that the Appendices state that Legolas eventually leaves Middle-earth for Valinor. What is that like, if you’re a wood-elf and your people are pretty much defined by choosing not to go to heaven and to stick with the land and the trees that they love?



“But our back is to legends and we are coming home.” Applying something so mundane as character arcs to the sort of things Tolkien wrote is guaranteed to get you angry people claiming you’ve missed the point, but if there’s one character you can do that to, and if there’s one character you can treat as a sort of moral centre to this world, it is Bilbo. He isn’t heroic (and surely part of the appeal of the the hobbits is that they don’t belong in a world of heroes, they exist in a more common-sensical register in which people can be greedy and lazy and kind and fundamentally decent all at the same time) but he achieves a sort of heroic kindness by the end of it, and he will always have my heart for this in ways that no one in LotR can quite manage.


December 13, 2012

Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault, Virginia Wolf

I bought Maclear and Arsenault’s gorgeous children’s book recently, and therefore had to write about it for this week’s column.



In her essay “On Being Ill” Virginia Woolf observes how little of our literature is about illness, even though illness is a state of being with which most of us are intimately familiar and which we experience so intensely.

Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault’s Virginia Wolf looks at first like a typo (and if you enter this title into Google it will helpfully assume you’ve got it wrong and provide you with links to the great modernist writer). But it really is about a little wolf named Virginia.

Virginia is not a werewolf, at least in the conventional sense of the term. But sometimes she wakes up feeling “wolfish”, as her sister puts it; she growls, moans and scares people away. She asks her sister not to wear an overly cheerful dress. Her sister can do nothing to make her happier.

The whole house sank.
Up became down.
Bright became dim.
Glad became gloom.

It’s possible to read this as a simple mood swing of a sort, but it’s also a surprisingly realistic portrayal of depression. Arsenault’s artwork captures this beautifully. While Vanessa, the sister who narrates the story is a clearly delineated little girl in a yellow dress, Virginia Wolf is an undefined dark smudge with wolfish, pointed ears. She is literally transformed by her depression. The earlier pages of the book are all monochromatic greys and faded colours.

Of course the connections to Virginia Woolf are more than just the pun in the title. It becomes clear that the story is loosely based on Woolf herself. The narrator of the book is named Vanessa after Woolf’s own sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. There is a reference to their brother, Thoby Stephen. The magical place to which Virginia claims she would fly if she could is called “Bloomsberry”. Woolf would later in life live in Bloomsbury, London (and be an important member of the ‘Bloomsbury group’) – though Maclear’s characters, who imagine the place to resemble a beautiful garden, would probably be disappointed in this part of London. And most importantly of all, Woolf suffered from depression.

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals”, says Woolf in “On Being Ill”. Mental illness is a serious topic, it’s a difficult topic, but it’s one that a children’s book is still capable of tackling in ways that feel above all true. Virginia’s despair and Vanessa’s helplessness are familiar, particularly to a reader with any experience of depressive disorders. But to feel helplessness, or sadness that you cannot articulate and that won’t go away, are also things that children understand.

Vanessa’s solution is to recreate Bloomsberry at home. She fills the house with pictures of flowers and fruits, paper butterflies and confetti. She allows Virginia to take refuge in art.

The whole house lifted.
Down became up.
Dim became bright.
Gloom became glad.

Suddenly the book is full of bright pinks and sunshiny yellows. Virginia turns and we see that she has been a little girl all along; the ‘wolf ears’ merely the silhouette of the bow in her hair.

For the adult reading it, this isn’t quite the happy ending that it might otherwise be. We know that sometimes loving sisters are not enough, that art can’t always save us. We know that, in 1941 at the age of 59, Virginia Woolf would fill her pockets with stones and walk into a river.

If there’s one concession Virginia Wolf makes to its audience then, it’s not to make this clear. Except perhaps in Vanessa’s nervousness the next morning, it’s possible to believe that the wolf has been banished, or at least tamed for good. As a tale of love and wildness and transformation, this has some of the power of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. As a book about depression it shies away from that last step, and I don’t know whether to be sorry or glad.


December 12, 2012


I have a (much delayed, this is entirely my own fault) review of Nick Jackson’s The Secret Life of the Panda over at The Future Fire. I’ll admit I asked for the book mainly on the strength of that unusual cover – which you can also see, along with a blog post by the artist, here. Chomu Press have brought out some beautifully designed books and this may be my favourite out of those I’ve seen.

Jackson’s stories are good too, though occasionally in a rather gruesome way (it is possible that I am squeamish) – dark and controlled. More details at the Future Fire website, but if you’re too lazy to read the whole thing, know that I approved of this book.

December 12, 2012


In November’s National Geographic Traveller I learn that the best advice to offer someone who needs to fit a definition of the sublime into one sentence and then move on from it is “don’t”.



There’s a frequently quoted section at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the narrator describes his childhood fascination with the unexplored places of the world, represented on maps as “blank spaces … white patch[es] to dream gloriously over”. Over time, as we have learnt more about the world, those white patches have been filled in so that little of the earth is left unknown.

For most of us there are still at least two big white patches on the globe. The polar regions, both Arctic and Antarctic, are usually depicted this way on regular maps as well as the maps in our heads. Even now, with all the tools to find out at our disposal most of us know little about the physical geography of these regions, except that there’s a lot of ice and snow.

And so for centuries stories of explorers to the far north or far south have gripped us because they carry the sense of going off into the unknown. European sailors who travelled north often did so in hopes of finding “the Northwest passage”, a shortcut to the other side of the world. One such explorer in fiction is Robert Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Walton’s ship rescues the stranded scientist Victor Frankenstein as it attempts to navigate the ice of the far north. Through a series of letters to his sister he tells the story, not only of his own frustrated quest, but of Frankenstein and the creature he has brought into the world.

Exploring the far north had a solid, practical advantage; the commercial possibilities of the Northwest passage were end enough in themselves. The farthest south was a different matter. When Captain James Cook crossed the Antarctic circle and reached the island of South Georgia in the late eighteenth century he does not appear to have been impressed with his discovery. He described the land as “doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness” and concluded that if there was land further south “the world will not be benefited by it”.

Cook was probably right about the impractical nature of exploration to the Antarctic. But practicality had little to do with the fascination that the Polar Regions would have for Europeans. Mary Shelley’s Robert Walton may be on an eminently sensible mission, but when he speaks of the far north it is in terms of sheer romance, “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”

In large part this fascination was aesthetic. The eighteenth century was also the time when philosophers like Edmund Burke were discussing the quality of the Sublime in nature – a quality not necessarily beautiful, but inspiring awe or even terror. The bleak frigidity and extreme climate of the polar regions were a wonderful example of this. And so we have the horrors of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, about a nightmarish voyage to the south. The young heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre never leaves her own country, but she dreams of the “death-white realms” of the Arctic. And of course Robert Walton’s romantic dreams come face to face with the horror of what Frankenstein has done.

Then there are the writers who focus more on the potential for terror in these bleak regions than on their beauty. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket puts its titular character through all sorts of terrifying ordeals, including ghost ships, cannibalism and an island of evil savages. But the final horror is left unspoken. In the dreamlike final sections of the book Pym and his companions sail further south towards what appears to be an immense cataract. They see before them “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men” – and there the novel ends.

Rather less restrained than Poe is the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It’s obvious in Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness that he’s familiar with Poe’s novel – his story makes more than one reference to it. Lovecraft’s characters are on an exploratory mission to the Antarctic, where they not only find evidence of a city much older than anything humanity can claim, but discover that some elements of this civilisation still live. Lovecraft often describes the landscape of Antarctica by making reference to the weird beauty of Nicholas Roerich’s Asian paintings. Unlike Poe, Lovecraft describes his monsters in detail – and they are no less alarming for all that they are slightly ridiculous.  Like him, though, he chooses not to describe the final horror. As the men leave the area by plane one of them looks back and sees behind the mountains something that drives him insane. The one hint we’re given is that whatever this was, the powerful inhabitants of the city feared it too. Now that men are exploring the continent, Lovecraft implies, it’s only a matter of time before this terror is unleashed.

I recently discovered the English writer Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time, a history of his country’s fascination with the vast frozen regions of the south and the far north. Spufford ends the main part of his wonderful, scholarly account with the death of Captain Scott in 1912. But as long as the Antarctic remains part-mystery, and as long as we continue to be awed by vast and empty spaces, I suspect the poles will enthrall us, in life and in fiction.


December 11, 2012

On the body of Howard Mollison

A few years ago, J. K. Rowling wrote a blog post in which she ranted about the use of “fat” as an insult. Naturally, this being the internet, lots of people gushed at how wonderful this sentiment was- while others pointed out that Rowling’s treatment of fat in her own books was far from ideal.

I’ve been trying to make a list of fat people in the Harry Potter books, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  • Vernon and Dudley Dursley (and I think Vernon’s sister Maude). These characters are unpleasant. They’re also portrayed as greedy, particularly in Dudley’s case. Dudley’s parents are blamed for spoiling him by allowing him to indulge in unfettered greed. At one point the character is physically turned into a pig.
  • Crabbe and Goyle. Big, and also greedy. To the point that, in a castle filled with strange potions and mischievous poltergeists, it is easy to drug them with inexplicable chocolate cake. With that level of self-preservation I’m impressed they manage to survive till the last book.
  • Moaning Myrtle. At least, she claims to have been teased for being fat, and the text describes her as “squat”.
  • Hagrid and Madame Maxime. Both these characters are described as large; understandably, since they’re half-giant. Neither is “fat”.
  • Neville Longbottom. Has a round/plump face, to the best of my recollection. He either loses the puppy fat or Rowling chooses not to mention it as he becomes a stronger character.
  • Horace Slughorn. Fat, greedy, cowardly. Weak.
  • Molly Weasley. Plump, maternal, more concerned with her family than with her appearance.


So it’s not that (or not entirely that) the good characters are never overweight in these books, though they generally aren’t. It’s that when they differ from body norms, as they sometimes do, there are ‘good’ reasons. Hagrid cannot help being half-giant, and Molly Weasley’s plumpness both emphasises her difference from someone like Petunia Weasley and places her in a tradition of comfortable maternal figures (Lily Potter can be beautiful and ethereal, because she’s dead). But if you’re Dudley Dursley, or Horace Slughorn, or Crabbe or Goyle, your fatness is linked explicitly to your food habits and what they say about you. You can’t just be fat without its being a character trait; you can’t have thyroid-related issues (which St. Mungo’s could probably just magic away), or because you have a disability that means you can’t exercise, or because of genetics unless one of your parents was literally of another species. No one’s suggesting that Rowling interrupt the story and have Madame Pomfrey lecture the class about, say, PCOS. But she could treat fat as just another physical marker—like glasses or hair and eye colour, and not as an indication of a fundamental inability to avoid cake. She does not.

The Casual Vacancy’s Howard Mollison is a bit of a slughorn—if the world of Harry Potter had room for sexually creepy men. He’s a social climber, he’s smarmy, and he really loves food. He runs a delicatessen. Rowling’s first action is to inform us that he and his wife don’t share a bed, and that:

A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.

(n.b. this has never been my first thought upon seeing a fat person and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this)

Here are some reasons to dislike Mollison:

  1. He’s a bigot.
  2. He’s a snob.
  3. He pervs on schoolgirls.
  4. He cheats on his wife.
  5. He pays his daughter negligible sums of money to keep his cheating on his wife a secret.
  6. He thinks drug addicts should just go cold turkey and why are they choosing to do drugs anyway?

Parminder, Howard’s doctor, is convinced that his various health problems are a direct consequence of his weight, which could be fixed with “a few lifestyle changes”. Parminder does not share Howard’s views with regard to the continued access of people from the Fields to healthcare and social services. These people need state-provided medical care, she argues. You know who’s a real drain on resources? Fatties.

‘Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour?’ said Parminder.

‘In a nutshell, yes.’

‘Before they cost the state any more money.’


‘And you,’ said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, ‘do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?’

A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard’s neck into his cheeks.

‘Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?’

As Parminder’s voice became a scream, other councillors began to protest on Howard’s behalf; Shirley was on her feet; Parminder was still shouting, clawing together the papers that had somehow been scattered as she gesticulated.

‘What about patient confidentiality?’ shouted Shirley. ‘Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous!’

Parminder was at the door of the hall and striding through it, and she heard, over her own furious sobs, Betty calling for her immediate expulsion from the council; she was half running away from the hall, and she knew that she had done something cataclysmic, and she wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by the darkness and to disappear for ever.


This whole scene turned my stomach (which, theoretically, could stop me eating and make me thin again; thanks, Rowling!) Because at no point is it even a possibility that Howard’s weight might be the result of anything other than a fondness for cheese. Other people have legitimate problems that Howard is dismissing (and he is, he’s a piece of shit), but Parminder’s not arguing that Howard is failing to understand the complexities of addiction in the same way as others might fail to understand the complexities of weight. She’s arguing that he’s a fat, selfish parasite who is taking up resources he wouldn’t need if he would just eat less. The text doesn’t wholly endorse Parminder at all times (she is, for example, a terrible parent) but at no point does it seem to go against the content of this argument. Instead, towards the end of the book it mawkishly contrasts Howard’s time in hospital with that of a small boy.

In the theatre upstairs, Howard Mollison’s body overflowed the edges of the operating table. His chest was wide open, revealing the ruins of Vikram Jawanda’s handiwork. Nineteen people laboured to repair the damage, while the machines to which Howard was connected made soft implacable noises, confirming that he continued to live.

And far below, in the bowels of the hospital, Robbie Weedon’s body lay frozen and white in the morgue. Nobody had accompanied him to the hospital, and nobody had visited him in his metal drawer

Robbie is a small child and a victim of circumstances. Howard is alive, receiving decent medical care, and somehow this is a travesty because Howard’s illness is his own fault.

December 8, 2012

Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath

Here is an inconsequential story; a number of my childhood memories are in England, in the early evening (between school and bedtime, of course) and suffused with a sort of golden light that I used to assume was purely the result of nostalgia. It was only on trips back as an adult that I realised that the light actually was different. For now I’m assuming it’s the result of being at different latitudes or something equally scientific.

And so Tidbeck’s “something about the light” is something I see all over this collection, and it makes it weird and alien in a way that nothing else quite could.


From last week’s column:


 “There’s something about the light here that makes the longing bloom”, says the narrator of “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrӧm”, an early story in Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck’s first collection, Jagannath. Tidbeck’s work is full of this sense; of an unknown longing, sounds barely heard, a hole in the world, something at the very edge of perception.

The collection opens with “Beatrice”, a story about a man who falls in love with a plane. “Franz Hiller, a physician, fell in love with an airship” is not in itself a fantastical sentence, but in the pages that follow it we’re rapidly moved into a world where falling in love with a machine is – if not common – not unheard of, where relationships between machines and humans are possible; and where failures to understand one another can have, as in all-human relationships, horrible, stomach-turning consequences. It’s a lot to pack into a few pages, and Tidbeck achieves it by being entirely matter of fact about her weird, compelling world.

Jagannath is a collection of short stories, written over a decade, many of which have been previously published in Swedish or English. Yet there are certain ideas to which Tidbeck constantly returns so that, intentionally or not, certain stories build upon others. “Brita’s Holiday Village”, for example, has a writer on holiday meet some people who claim to be distant relatives. There’s something fundamentally off about these people, who seem to be almost too much “a cliché of Swedish culture”.  Meanwhile, the strange pupae she’d seen under the eaves of cottages seem to be empty. The next story in the collection speaks of the Vittra, creatures of legend who look human but aren’t. A later story, “Pyret”, is a cod-scientific report of a chameleon-like creature that mimics and infiltrates groups of animals, often bringing good fortune to the herd or flock. The Pyret is only able to superficially assume the shape of the creature, however, and it craves physical contact. Tidbeck gives us a nightmarish village taken over by Pyret in the form of humans, and then abruptly moves us from horror to sadness, as these creatures slavishly imitate human action without success. As with “Beatrice”, one of Tidbeck’s great strengths is this subtle shifting between moods.

Similarly, “Cloudberry Jam” and “Miss Nyberg and I” both contain women who “grow” creatures of their own to love. “Aunts” is a story about characters who are mentioned briefly in “Augusta Prima”, and it deals, like “Jagannath”, with self-regenerating, autophagic creatures. “Brita’s Holiday Village” and “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrӧm” are told in similar confessional voices to the narrator of “Rebecka”.

In her afterword, Tidbeck speaks about the process of translation, and of writing in a language that is not her own. “Being exposed to both [British and American English], neither of which is your own, makes it difficult if not impossible to keep track of what word (and often pronunciation) belongs where. You make do with the resulting composite.” What she doesn’t say, though her fiction bears it out, is that the “resulting composite” may carry either or all of its potential meanings and pronunciations. The title story is an example of this. “Jagannath” is Sanskrit, of course, and refers to the huge chariots pulled during the Rath Yatra, under whose wheels devotees were apparently crushed. The word has passed into English as “juggernaut”, used to mean a large, often destructive, scheme or movement that requires complete devotion from the followers who make it up. Tidbeck uses it to describe a massive lifeform- a “Mother” who generates the children who live and work inside her, and who are absorbed back into her when they die. By using the Sanskrit form, and in an English book, she gives the situation both sets of meanings to draw upon.

The stories in Jagannath move between the almost-real and the wholly fantastic, all of them precise yet quietly unsettling. It’s a strange, powerful collection, and one I will be returning to.


December 7, 2012

November Reading

Things I read last month:


Caroline Stevermer, Magic Below Stairs: This is set in the same world as Stevermer and Patricia Wrede’s collaborative Sorcery and Cecelia novels but it’s Stevermer writing alone. It feels both younger and more slight than the  earlier works, but it was enjoyable anyway.

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: I wrote about this here.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: I began to write up my notes from this particular reread and about 2000 words later (more than half of which I subsequently deleted) gave up and went to bed. But that’s a forthcoming post, I suppose. It is still the best of Tolkien’s works, though I’m in a minority for thinking so.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat: I reread this, it was very funny. That is all.

Sam Thompson, Communion Town: I wrote about this here.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home: I wrote about this here.

Terry Pratchett-as-Felicity Beedle, The World of Poo: This is a book about poo in the Discworld. So while it includes information on what cow and dog excreta looks like, it also tells you about gargoyle faeces. It’s beautifully designed to look like an old-fashioned children’s book (I wonder how many of Pratchett’s fans even grew up with old-fashioned children’s books? I didn’t). But it’s more a parody of a book than a book itself- though we can debate the line between the two until I agree that it it doesn’t really exist.

Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath: I wrote about this for the Left of Cool column, which will be on the blog in a couple of days.

Grace Burrowes, Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight: I love Burrowes’ three books about the Windham brothers because they do something that most regency romances do not- they create worlds in which men have genuine relationships with the people around them. I’m less enamoured of the Windham sisters books where that sense of familial closeness and just being part of a society is missing; I don’t know whether this is because I have lower expectations for the depiction of male characters. Which is to say that Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight is a perfectly decent romance novel, but that’s about it. With Burrowes, that feels like a disappointment.

Andy Runton, Owly: The Way Home and The Bittersweet Summer: My fondness for owls is a bit of a joke among friends and family. This was a birthday present from a friend. It’s absolutely wonderful and warm and glowy and did things to my heart.

Sarah Caudwell, The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Sibyl in Her Grave: I had forgotten many wonderful things (though not, tragically, the identity of the murderer) about The Sirens Sang… – though I remembered the delightful helicopter rescue attempt at the end of the book I had little recollection of the excellent story-within-a-story. The Sibyl in Her Grave, on the other hand. I said in this piece that it was darker than the others, but I’d not realised quite how dark it was. What a bitter, heartbreaking end.

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum: I had many serious things to deal with this month. I reacted to them by taking refuge in books I know. I had a craving for Agnes Nitt so I read all the Discworld books with her in them, then read the rest of the Witches books (except Witches Abroad, because I’d reread that earlier in the year) and felt a lot happier about the world.

Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders, Nemesis, Taken at the Flood, The Secret of Chimneys, Dead Man’s Folly, One Two Buckle My Shoe: See above. I then moved on to whichever Agatha Christie books I could find lying around. I remembered who did all of them. I had forgotten how dismissive every other character in Nemesis was about rape, however. I wish I hadn’t had cause to rediscover this.