Over on Vulpes Libris I write enthusiastically about the Historic Fictions Research Network conference, how amateur historians rewrote the Battle of Trafalgar, and the invented town of Agincourt, Iowa, that teaches architecture in North Dakota. It was all about the fictions that history tells us, and it was great. Follow the Network @HFRN, and the Journal of Historical Fictions @journalhistfics.
First Light is an Unbound book, initially paid for by its subscribers. Because the book has to sell before it’s published Unbound have to do a great deal of pre-sell publicity, and it certainly helps if the author, or subject, is famous. In this case – First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, edited by Erica Wagner – the subject is famous (if you’ve read any of his novels: I was stunned to discover that my husband hasn’t, so his pile of books-to-be-read is now substantially larger than it was). The editor is famous if you’ve read any of her novels, or any of the newspapers or magazines that she writes for. But, even if one wanted to buy the book because one liked The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or Wagner’s book reviews for The New Statesman, outside these two groups there is a gaping hole, and into the hole a host of celebrity contributors have been poured. If writing by a Big Name is printed in a book supporting a Lesser Name, then all the Big Name’s fanbase will flock to buy the book, or at least tweet about their intentions of so doing. This is the third Unbound selling strategy.
First Light is an exceedingly handsome book (though, annoyingly, it lacks an index). It’s a deeply absorbing collection of 43 essays and poems, a Robert Macfarlane word-map and Cornelia Funke’s unexpected illustration of Garner as the Horned One. It creates a fractured kaleidoscopic picture of Garner, packed with surprises. He was the teenage sprinter who did his training with Alan Turing on Alderley Edge. He was a promising young classicist who left his hard-won place at university to learn how to write. He is the descendant of generations of stone-workers who have lived in the same place in Cheshire for hundreds of years. He rescued a medieval hall, and moved a Tudor cottage 16 miles to join it. He carried an oak shovel around in his kitbag for four years during his National Service, worried that if he didn’t have it with him it might disappear again, as it had in his infant school, and in the mine down the road where the Victorian miners dug it up. It was later carbon-dated to the Bronze Age and still works perfectly well. Things get dug up in his own garden all the time.
He also wrote novels. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath captured me before I was 12, but I never really liked The Owl Service or Red Shift, though we had to read them at school. I inexplicably missed out on Elidor, but devoured The Guizer, The Stone Quartet and A Bag of Moonshine. As an adult I returned to Garner when I found Strandloper and Boneland high and dry on a bookshop shelf (I reviewed them two years ago for Vulpes Libris). I’ve got Thursbitch and The Voice that Thunders on my reading list now (with Elidor). If nothing else, First Light has given me a much better grip on what other Garner works are out there that I should be reading.
The essays that really spoke to me are the ones that told me more about the books I know, or now want to know, by how they worked on other readers. Helen Macdonald and Rowan Williams’ poems do this. Neil Gaiman’s observation about Boneland makes complete sense of the whole Colin and Susan saga for me: that there is a missing third novel that hasn’t (yet) been written, preceding and explaining the terrifying, schizophrenic anguish of Colin’s search for his sister in the Pleiades. I’m so tired of Stephen Fry’s multiple appearances in every medium, but what he says about Garner’s writing rings true: Garner is a writer who trusts his readers. Ali Smith’s recollections of seeing The Owl Service on TV, Philip Pullman’s carefully-chosen words about the moral relationship between craft and writing, and Margaret Atwood’s totally bonkers story about a people-skinning raccoon – these are the Big Name contributions to draw the unGarnered reader in, to find out what their heroes think of him. It’s unclear what the Atwood story says about Garner or his writing, but what anthology editor is going to refuse a short story from Margaret Atwood? Perhaps it was simply a present.
Less well-known names (unless you’re into archaeology or professional storytelling, for example) give revealing recollections of how a Garner book did things to their mind, or how he popped up in their professional or private lives one day holding a thing of wonder to show them, and how he has never left. There is pain in some essays, that articulate how Garner’s writing work as healing and therapy. These moved me: seeing behind the public frontages of these Big Name authors lessened my dislike for their writing.
There are also New Big Names included who were presumably asked to write something because they are so hot right now. There are So-So Names who get in because they are part of the London literary scene, on the spot for commissioning because they move in the same circles as the editor, or in Unbound’s orbit. Many of these contributions were uninteresting, being not much more than ‘My favourite Alan Garner book and why’, which we can all write ourselves. At least one was a regrettable froth of self-indulgent twaddle. The most memorable essays are those by specialists pointing out something hitherto unnoticed or remarkable that Garner has said or done, and the people from Garner’s life who have no particular public presence, whose biographical stories prevent the book slopping into woolly mush. It might so easily have gone that way, had it merely been a luvvy-festschrift (which is good, because Garner is absolutely not a luvvy). Despite all the necessary publicity and puffery needed to get this book off the ground, it’s a great addition to biography. I’m glad I subscribed.
This remarkable compendium of the history of British radical communities is colourful inside and out: the typefaces change depending on the category of the text (commentary, quotation, reportage), and the stories are astonishingly addictive. ‘Just one more’, as, oblivious to the cold room or the early start next morning, you keep reading past midnight yet one more of these stories of the Utopian dreams of the British.
The publisher, Diggers and Dreamers, is a long-running network of British co-housing communities, which publishes directories and histories as well as community living guidance and inspiration. Utopia Brittanica shows the remarkable amount of dissent and independent thinking running through the history of the British people. It includes ample evidence of the dismaying gullibility of the British for religious sects founded on exploring socially-outlawed sexual practices. (The 19th-century Abode of Love in Spaxton made the rape of virgins a devotional, purifying act.) Islands of socialism across time populated by artistic visionaries show that the New Age was reinvented in practically every century since the fourteenth.
I was amazed by how these communities and forgotten movements connected together. Joanna Southcott (she who famously did not give birth to rabbits) would lead onto early socialism; the poet Southey would lead to the poet Coleridge. The Scrooby Separatists turned into, or were sanitised and rebranded as the Mayflower Pilgrims. The 17th-century Ranters and Diggers worked out the structures of British socialism two centuries before the next attempt. Friendly windmills (as in, windmill cooperatives operated by the early Quakers) led to socialist turnips.
British utopian ideas spread overseas as well. The successful anarchist state of Pitcairn Island established female suffrage in 1838, on the initiative of the descendants of the settlers from the Bounty in 1814, and from the good sense of Captain Elliott of the visiting British Navy, whom they asked to draw up the island’s constitution. Radical ideas also spread back to Britain: William Wordsworth was at school with the Bounty’s Fletcher Christian, who may have been the original Ancient Mariner. The inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha were evacuated in 1961 due to volcanic explosion, but returned two years later, unable to bear the rigours of unUtopian English life.
Printing was vital to radical movements, since without this none of the radicals’ ideas could have been spread, nor could the expression of their ideals as art have become widely known. Ruskin’s Guild of St George, the Cotswolds Cooperative Handcrafts, the Artists’ Rifles and the Welsh Academy were all idealistic communities predicated on art. For Augustus John and Eric Gill, copious sexual activity within their particular circles was as important an expression of their vision of the ideal of living as their artistic activities.
The history of communitarian living is strangely littered with the good, the mad and the fraudulent. Theosophy, the Kibbo Kift, the Gore Kinship, Q Camps and the still-influential institution of the Camphill Schools, were all connected by belief systems from the occult to eugenicism, to public health and curative education. The combination of architectural vision and town planning on a human scale related the Garden City movement to the Settlements in the East End: it was all about making life better for everyone, not just the rich and landed.
There was plenty of opposition to attempts by the people to establish independent living. The Chartist estate and land colony of O’Connorville was brought down by political sabotage from those who feared its success in making the working classes independent of capitalism. Community living is easily derided, and often mocked, yet it continues, quietly and purposefully. Utopia Britannica is a marvellously uplifting history of stubborn independent thinking about how the roof over one’s head can be the best roof for everyone.
Chris Coates, Utopia Britannica: British Utopian Experiments, 1325-1945 (2001, Diggers and Dreamers Publications): buy it here.
This weekend, I lost what was happening in the rest of my world because I was immersed in the first Historical Fictions Research Network conference, in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University. The CFP for the second one, in February 2017 at the National Maritime Museum in London, will be sent out in the next week or so. There are conferences for historical novelists, but until now, there has been nothing for researchers studying how fictions and history work together. Science fiction professor Farah Mendlesohn and the Royal Holloway classicist Nick Lowe set it up with a team of postgraduate students and Anglia Ruskin colleagues, and I did my bit by running out to buy the biscuits. Next year I hope to be working on the new scholarly journal that the network is planning.
Normally at academic research conferences I bail out for one session, conferenced-out by too much earnest density in the papers. Show-off point scoring in the questions is also damned irritating. None of that happened this weekend. High points were:
- Nick Lowe’s revelation that far more historical fiction is written about Ancient Rome than Ancient Greece
- Abi Hunt’s recovery of the forgotten agricultural work of Lincolnshire women and children, refuting the post-Second World War fiction from local history that they never worked on the land at all
- Victoria Whitworth‘s detective work tracing influences from the Book of Kells in an obscure roadside memorial plaque above Loch Ness
- Debbie Challis’s unpeeling of Flinders Petrie’s Victorian fictions about ancient Egyptian pharoah Akhenaten
- Jerome de Groot’s energetic attack on history, calling it an absence of the past, and a traumatic experience of seeing a void
- Rowan Ramsey’s creation of Agincourt, Iowa: the Mid-West town that never was, but whose history and structures are built every year by North Dakota architecture students
- Greer Gilman’s spectacular reconstruction of Ben Jonson’s world in Exit, Pursued by a Bear
There was also my paper, about how Naomi Mitchison and Nicola Griffith both use science and scientific research methods to give women characters agency in their historical novels. Cultural differences caused a minor kerfuffle in the questions afterwards, over the apparent marginalisation of men in these novels (which is not what I had said at all), and so a few people have asked me to post the paper as a pdf. Here it is: K Macdonald on N Mitchison and N Griffith
I met Ursula Buchan a few weeks back, after corresponding by email on and off over a year, and we got on like a house on fire, since we are both researching the same subject but from different angles. She sent me a copy of her most recent book – A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War – and I liked it so much I reviewed it for Vulpes Libris. Gardening history, social history, the history of how Britain managed to learn to feed itself during the Second World War, and how horticulture and the science of food was revolutionised under pressure, how could anyone not be fascinated by that? Highly commended reading.
This week, Martin Fowler, software developer, incessant traveller and author.
Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?
During my last couple of years at school, a history teacher recommended Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers to me. It’s a history of cosmology, how people understand the relationship between our earth, the planets, and the stars. It begins with the Greeks, who figured a great deal out, goes into how that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages, and then focuses on how it was rebuilt again, finishing with Isaac Newton. The heart of the book is the biographies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.
The great theme of the book is that human knowledge does not grow in some ordered and steady manner. Kepler blundered around with various half-baked ideas all the time, in the process running into his vital discoveries as a side-effect. Galileo got into arguments with people and his approach was to humiliate them in debates, which made both him, and the knowledge he’d uncovered, very unpopular. Koestler puts most of the blame for the division between religion and science on Galileo. I took from the book that science and understanding is a very human process, subject to the same human foibles as any other endeavour, and not something that progresses in a straight line. Professionally there are a lot of books that have had a big influence on me, but that’s only of interest to other software developers.
If you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?
I tend to have only one book on the go at once, so I don’t have different reads for different situations. I also rarely read fiction, so the choice of author is much less important to me than the topic area. Some authors, however, have written enough good books that I’m likely to get a new one. (Since I mostly read history, however, good authors aren’t able to be prolific.) Standing out in my mind at the moment are Doris Kearns Goodwin, William Manchester, and Jean Edward Smith.
I tend to pick up on books where they sound like they have a reasonable coverage of something I don’t know much about. And as I grow older I learn about more things I’m ignorant of. I used to do this in bookshops, but the last few years I’ve moved to entirely electronic books as they are so much easier to carry around on my travels. That’s a pity as I so loved browsing in a good bookshop – I wonder if I’ll have the inducement to visit Powells (my vote for Best Bookshop in the Whole Wide World) when I visit Portland next month. Now I worry that my book-buying habits are overly dependent on reviews in The Economist.
What was your last huge reading disappointment? (why and how, rather than who and what)
I haven’t had a huge disappointment stand out at me for a while, but there are smaller ones. A regular one for me is a common problem with non-fiction books. In order to provide all the evidence to support their argument, they have to put in a lot of material to wade through. I wish people would adopt a style by which they keep their core narrative brief, and push any skippable material into a clearly marked area. (I say this with a degree of narcissism, since this is a style I use, calling it a ‘Duplex Book’.) That wouldn’t work in fiction, of course, but I think that non-fiction writers forget that narrative doesn’t have to cover the whole story, and short books are often better than longer ones.
Happy reading surprises happen for me when a book gives me more understanding than I was expecting, often because it brings in more topics than I thought it would give me. The last one of those was in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. I got the expected good double biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. The bonus was some really interesting thoughts about how one can succeed with reforming a corrupt political system. (Not for the first time Goodwin seems to be writing as much for the present as anything else.)
If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.
Next week: Susan Vollenweider, history podcaster, Kansas City Star columnist, novelist
On most Sunday mornings in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up, my family had a ritual. My mother would cook a fried breakfast (fried bacon and eggs, fried bread, sometimes black pudding for my father, sometimes tomatoes and mushrooms). This glorious feast, that we only ever had on Sunday mornings, would be eaten in a reverent munching silence listening to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on BBC radio. This was my parents’ choice of programme, obviously, because if it had been mine we would have been listening to Radio 1 all day every day. But on Sundays, I graciously allowed them their old people’s ways, and sat quietly making my bacon and eggs last for as long as Alistair Cooke’s voice was speaking.
What he said wasn’t so important. His voice was smiling, very civilised, warm and easy-going. It had a delightful reassurance of frequent jokes, though perhaps not very many on the radio. Through the crunching of my mother’s incomparable fried bread he represented that strange and huge country far, far away: America. I expect my parents liked his programme because we had lived in the USA for short stints in the 1960s and 1970s while my father was working in laboratories there. Cooke’s voice was burringly, purringly Anglo-American, because he was (he died in 2004) a British journalist working for the BBC who had lived for most of his working life in the USA. He became a mediator of popular culture to the masses, specifically the radio-listening and television-watching masses, from the 1930s to the very end of his life.
The Brits know him mainly for his BBC radio half-hour Letter from America: the Americans know him for his pre-war NBC Radio London Letter, and as the host of PBS Masterpiece Theatre for twenty-one years. He was a people’s broadcaster, and a genius at saying exactly what he felt in the most urbane and inoffensive way, thus getting quite radical ideas past corporate censorship. His programmes were like listening to a highly-valued old codger talk about something he really knew something about, so you listened, and were impressed, and enjoyed the experience so much you’d come back next week for more. He taught me most of what I knew about the USA before I returned as an adult. Cooke’s authority and his moral gravitas were as important as his warmly instructive voice: I can still recall the cold disappointment in his voice when he described Nixon’s activities before Watergate. You could trust Alistair Cooke: it was an instinctive reaction.
The first volume of his Letters from America, the one for 1946-1951 (originally published in 1951) comes out in March 2015 as an ebook, and I read it in two sittings. It’s a dangerous book, because the short essays lead you on, and on, until an hour or more have gone by and you’re still just about to go and do something else, convinced that you’ll only read one more. Like all the Letters, the 1946-51 volume gives you hidden history; what it was like to try to find a new apartment in New York in the 1940s; of what living on Long Island was like when it was just a nice empty place to rent a house for the summer; of what the Native Americans in Arizona thought about D H Lawrence when he lived there; of why J B Priestley was wrong when he dissed New York’s obsession with buying and spending; of what it was like in the New York subway in the summer before air con was the norm.
And like good history in the raw, these Letters have dated tremendously. I’ve used the modern term above for what Cooke calls the Indians, and I will now tread nervously by discussing the words he uses for African-Americans, because so much has changed in social politics, and he signed off on these Letters over sixty years ago. He uses ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’, but not offensively, and does it respectfully, because he wasn’t an offensive or disrespectful person. He wrote about the stirrings of modern political correctness and the speed of its evolution, by questioning Jewish jokes, and the forced changes to Jerome Kern’s lyrics to ‘Old Man River’. His description of the unreconstructed poverty of Florida’s turpentine workers makes plain the unconscious assumptions from his culture that he relays in his words, while he exposes ghastly near-slavery conditions in the 1940s.
There are rich pickings here for the social history of American times and skills so recently lost and gone. Nowadays, you hardly ever see someone lying underneath their car on a Sunday morning doing amateur engine tinkering, yet this was once an American (and British) norm: ‘Most Americans, even rich ones, were brought up in a culture that never expected somebody else to do the rough work. Most boys in college who can afford good cars can also take them apart’. Cooke talks about people I have hardly heard of and knew nothing about, but they were bywords in his day: the vaudeville star Willie Howard, the great boxer Joe Louis, and Will Rogers who was ‘part Cherokee Indian’, who ‘broke in horses for the British Army during the Boer War’ and ‘broke in a charger for Winston Churchill’. And here’s me thinking he was just a cowboy film star.
He has a good deal to say about Washington political architecture, and its ambitious neo-classical street design plonked down in a swamp. Of the low-level hum of permanent gossip that makes DC choke with intrigue: ‘its intrigue is less like that of the court of Louis XIV and more like that of a vast church bazaar, in which hot-eyed matrons wink and whisper in the hope that Mrs X’s pickles will be rejected’. Nice put-down to a nuclear nation.
He is magnificent on the seasons and nature’s changes in the USA’s multitudinous parts: New England’s oaks in autumn ‘entirely revise your ideas about the infinite fine range of colour between gold and lemon’. He does a splendid analysis of the fashion photography and modelling industries on the East and West coasts. For science historians and fans of early computers, his essay ‘The Big Brain’ is a fascinating encounter with the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, which Cooke endearingly calls Poppa, since it is the parent monster to the Inland Revenue’s adding-machine powered by vacuum tubes, and the great-great-grandparent, I surmise, of the thing that I am typing these words on right now. For this essay alone, this book is a classic of modern journalism and computing history, and an excellent choice for americanophiles, and Americans who can’t remember much past 1960.
Alistair Cooke, Letters From America: 1946-1951 (1951) (Open Road Integrated Media 2015) ISBN 9781497697683, $14.99, published 3 March 2015