Makes Me Happy
There are lots of books that make me happy, and I have written blog posts about a lot of them. One I haven’t written about before is Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book. All of the artwork is by Brian Froud, and the text has been written by Terry Jones (the Monty Python Terry Jones!).
Here is my miniature version:
When I was about twelve years old, my mum’s friend brought this round to the house and let me read it. I read it all in one go, and she let me hold onto it for a while. Goodness only knows how many times I read this. It was the inspiration for many short stories that I wrote as a young teenager too.
Angelica Cottington is the only child of Lord and Lady Cottington, and instead of pressing flowers, she presses fairies. The book follows her from her first fairy at age four right up until her last, with wonderful accounts of her life and her relationship with fairies throughout. The premise of the book is that it is being represented as an historical find, having been uncovered by squatters and protestors trying to protect what was once the Cottington family home from being demolished in favour of a “Prestige Office Block in an unspoilt country setting.”
At age 12, the fact that the whole thing was written by Terry Jones went completely over my head. For a while, I believed that the impressions left by the fairies were real and that someone had hired Brian Froud to render artist’s impressions of the fairies themselves. This was encouraged by my mum and her friend, and started off a lifelong obsession with Brian Froud’s drawings and also the work done by his wife, Wendy Froud.
This miniature copy was bought for me by my mum’s friend; I think she felt bad asking for her copy back! I also have the wonderful 10 3/4 anniversary edition, containing a DVD with instructions on how to press fairies, given in a rare interview with an elderly Lady Angelica Cottington (Terry Jones in a dress).
There were three sequels/companion books; Strange Stains and Mysterious Smells, Lady Cottington’s Photo Album, and Lady Cottngton’s Pressed Fairy Letters. It is a wonderful fantasy world to be engulfed by, and if you read them all in one go you’ll only be in there for a few hours. You’ll come out feeling like you’ve just been to a really great concert, or to see a film or play that temporarily affects the way you look at the outside.
(These books are also where my desire to learn calligraphy started! I wanted to write like Angelica Cottington. It is very beautiful handwriting.)
Me (via text): Hello. I need some help. I’m in a bookshop and I have £57 worth of books in my hands. Please help me choose which ones to put down.
Friend: You just got paid. What else do you need to buy?
Me: Birthday presents. And I need to save.
Friend: The books might not be there next time…
Me: I have a big to-read pile …
Friend: BUY THE FOCKEN BOOKS YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE
That weekend I came back from Manchester and my dad’s house with seven books. The Master and Margarita by Milhail Bulgakov, Glass by John Garrison (part of the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury), Villette by Charlotte Brontë, and then His Dark Materials and Gormenghast, which were both at my dad’s and I miss them so they came with me.
In The Shadows
As soon as I read the prompt for today’s photograph, a character instantly popped into my head: Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Every description of Steerpike that can be found outside of the book makes use of the word “Machiavellian”. In fact, have never read The Prince, Steerpike is where my understanding of that word comes from.
Understandably, he is fed up of his lowly position within the castle, and spends the story slowly working his way up through the social heirarchy. By any means possible. This is a boy who is very much capable of guiltless murder, while remaining a charming underdog. You know he is doing wrong, but you want him to win, you want him to get what he wants but at the same time you want him to realise what he is doing to those around him and reform. While still getting what he wants.
His actions are completely unjustifiable, but instead of hating him, you find yourself thinking “oh no, Steerpike, you didn’t have to do it this way. You’re clever enough to know that there’s a better way of doing things!”
There are two things that I particularly love about this character. The first is the fact that he stands in a courtyard all night to try and figure out what is wrong with him when he suddenly feels bad about the fact that his only next progressional step is to kill Fuschia. To the reader it is obvious that at least some of his feelings for her are real, while Steerpike himself, having never received affection before, cannot even recognise it in himself.
The second thing I love is how the reader perception of his ultimate goal shifts from the first to the end of the second book. In the beginning he is a threat with an impressive goal; he wants to have power, he wants the most power in Gormenghast. He wants to take it away from Titus Groan, the heir of Gormenghast and the next Lord Groan. By the end of the second book, Titus doesn’t want any of that. Gormenghast to him is old and small; he wants to go out into the world. Suddenly Steerpike and his ultimate goal seem small and juvenile. But not to Steerpike.
The Gormenghast trilogy is possible my favourite story. Possibly. And every character is as interesting as Steerpike. Is that possible?? Yes. It is. And Mervyn Peake did it.
Science Fiction. Some science fiction I cannot read; huge space operas and very technical sci-fi don’t interest me very much. Today’s prompt made me think about the kind of science fiction that I do like, and why. Below, in the picture, are books I have read but which are not mine (lots of my books are still in storage). I like these books, especially Cat’s Cradle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. If I had all of my books with me I would have included these also (at least): Valis, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, The Man In The High Castle. And now I realise that most of the science fiction I have read and loved is Philip K Dick. Who DOESN’T love him, really. I’ll never forget the typo that turned out to not be a typo in Ubik but was instead a giant plot hinge. That was incredible.
They are futuristic. The technology is a huge mash up of outdated technology of the time and where they thought it would go. There are completely new worlds, new religions, new species. Fairly standard science fiction fare. What makes me love a science fiction story is when there are identifiable characters, sympathetic characters, who are interacting with their surroundings in an interesting how and relatable way. The story hasn’t been written to focus on a world or a government system; it has been written to show the way in which people like us might interact with it, and the advantages and dangers of such a situation.
What I love about Philip K Dick is that there are always bigger things within the stories that can be explored, like the politics of the world in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep for example. But instead, he focuses on the morality of destroying human-like androids, and what that can do to the people responsible for that task.
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is similar. It is essentially a story about a revolution that happens to be set on the Earth and Moon of the future. Science fiction is most enjoyable to me when it is about familiar people in unfamiliar situations. Which is probably why I enjoyed the Night Vale novel so much too.
Arthurian Britain! The Holy Grail is, in my opinion, the best Monty Python film. They are all absurd, and that’s why they’re brilliant, but this one is special. I’m struggling to find the right words! Maybe it’s because I loved going to the Camelot theme park as a kid, who knows. And I love how Monty Python portray peasants. Swinging cats against walls, collecting the dead in carts, harvesting filth. “This is how people entertained themselves,” they’re saying, “finding good dirt if you’re poor, and if you can afford to not have shit all over you like the rest of us, you make up silly quests.”
I’ve only progressed about half way through Le Morte d’Arthur (there are so many names!), but what has struck me so vividly is the suspicion I had while reading it that maybe Monty Python aren’t so off the mark with their absurd interpretation. Lancelot arrives in one story, ready for a fight, and accidentally kills people he shouldn’t have. He later apologises. As expected of his own particular idiom.
This absrdity can also be found in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (The edition here is the translation by Tolkien, which includes Pearl and Sir Orfeo. One of the really great things about this edition is all the notes on the text and all the information about the anonymous author and original text. I learned about the difference between medieval and modern alliteration.) Sir Gawain takes up a challenge offered by the mysterious Green Knight, and the qualities that make him famous and one of the most esteemed knights of the Round Table are tested. A trap is laid, and the results are very amusing to the other knights when Sir Gawain recounts his adventures back at Camelot.
Eventually I will read the rest of Le Morte d’Arthur, and will forever have a better appreciation for the surprising accuracy of the Monty Python rebelling of the Grail quest (at least in atmosphere and attitude)!
(Photo credit goes to my beautiful assistant, who kindly took the picture for me while I am away visiting family!)
One of the many wonderful things about books is that, like with music, you can sometimes go backwards through the influences. One book that you love might make references to other stories, or might make use of some strange styles that you aren’t familiar with, and you love the book so much or you become so curious that you are compelled to learn more about it in order to appreciate the experience of reading that particular story a little more.
One book like that for me is His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I read it as a young teen, as an older teen, in my early twenties and then again two years ago. Each time I read something different. A friend of mine bought me the Folio editions for Christmas, and after reading the new author’s preface I fell into a YouTube hole of videos discussing His Dark Materials. The best one was by Jen Campbell, in which she briefly mentions research she did on growing up as a sin in children’s literature.
After watching all of these videos and reading the author’s preface I decided that I really wanted to read Jon Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Philip Pullman cites as a huge influence. Here is my first edition hardcover copy of the edition of Paradise Lost with an introduction by Philip Pullman, signed by him too. I’m not going to ask how it was procured; I’m simply very grateful to have been gifted it.
Just the other day I wrote on this blog that poetry scares me because I don’t know how to translate it into normal English. In his introduction, Philip Pullman explicitly states that it is an absolute shame that poetry is taught in this way in school, to break it down into simple banalities: “everything that made the poem a living thing had been killed and butchered.” I decided to follow his advice and read the poem as a story, to enjoy the language instead of worrying about trying to understand everything, and his advice is really helping.
What does also help is the fact that the poem itself is, and I am surprised to see myself writing this, enjoyable to read. I am enjoying reading this. Compelling is a word I would use, and not in a clichéd “I can’t think of a better word” way. It really does command your full attention, and before you realise what is going on, you’re reading poetry and enjoying it and following the story and marvelling at how he can say so much with so few, well thought out and well placed words.
The fact that I saw the one man production of Paradise Lost last night is totally coincidence. It all seemed to happen at the same time and I’m very glad it did. The book will always be linked in my mind with that strange and beautiful production.
Also, I know Satan is traditionally the bad guy, but I am really enjoying him as the hero of this book. He is terrifying in his powers of persuasion and his absolute fearlessness. He is so far honest, too, and plain with his honesty. Even though I know how the story ends, I want him to win in the same way that I wanted Steerpike of Gormenghast to reform and realise that he really was in love with Fuschia.
Once I have read this, I will go back to His Dark Materials again and undoubtedly find something else new to think about.
These blog entries are usually written in the evening when I have some spare time. Tonight, I went out, and when I got back ten minutes ago and thought “time to do the blog,” I saw the prompt and realised that it is too late to go outside with a book and take a picture in the sunshine. So here is the moon and the night sky.
This evening I saw a one-man production of Paradise Lost at Déda in Derby, presented by Lost Dog, as part of the Derby Book Festival 2016. I had no idea what to expect, having never read the poem, and also I was unaware that the performance would include dance (even though it says this on all of the advertisements). The only familiarity I have with the poem comes from Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials, which was enough to make me want to see this. Also I’m a fan of weird and unknown-to-me theatre, and the risk usually was a good decision. It certainly was tonight.
Having never been to a dance performance before, I was surprised to find that I didn’t feel excluded from the performance in any way; there was nothing to suggest I had to be part of some secret dance world to understand what was going on. Having read some of the things that Philip Pullman has to say about the poem itself regarding the fact that not being a poetry scholar should in no way affect your enjoyment of the piece, I felt that this natural acceptance of what was going on to be very appropriate. It was inclusive and engaging. Most importantly, it had a sense of humour. Just before it would get too personal or too despairing, performer Ben Duke would bring it back with a self aware joke about God’s mobile phone or a child’s friend being traumatised by a leotard.
As a complete contemporary dance novice, and drama illiterate, I don’t know if I am qualified to say that the ending was perfect, but the ending was perfect. I wish I had stolen a chickpea to take home.
Handwriting practice. The white on purple is the last stanza of Remembrance by Emily Brontë.
The huge book underneath is for handwriting practice too, and in it I have been writing out The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Poems are very good for handwriting practice, which means that I am reading more poetry and getting over my fear of it. One day I may even be able to read it without worrying about whether or not I understand it and enjoy it instead.