Borrobil at Beltane 
Friday, April 30, 2010, 04:17 PM
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It’s Beltane tonight – an excellent time to read Borrobil, a book I liked very much as a child and have just reread. William Croft Dickinson’s children’s novel was first published in 1944, just a few years before The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The adventure begins on Beltane Eve when Jean dances around the fires which have been lit in a mysterious circle of stones. She and her brother Donald are immediately transported into the mythical past where they meet Borrobil, a kindly though mysterious little man who acts as their guide through a series of exciting adventures.

It was interesting to note which bits had stuck with me for 30 (Ok, maybe nearer 35) years, which I'd completely blanked out, and which I simply hadn’t understood. The rather static and heraldic set piece fights proved forgettable, whereas I remembered some of the novel’s jokes and wordplay word for word.

One aspect of the novel which completely passed me by as a child was its Scottishness – Borrobil can be seen as a kind of Scottish answer to Puck of Pook's Hill. Kipling’s novel begins very similarly, with two children unwittingly tapping into ancient mysteries. Dan and Una perform scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and summon Puck to their side. He explains that he is one of the last People of the Hills, ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’, and tells them many stories from England’s past. Borrobil seems to have been William Croft Dickinson’s invention, but he can be seen as a kind of Scottish Puck, telling the children tales loosely based on Scottish myths and chronicles, and showing them the Brochs of Orkney to balance Puck’s focus on Wayland Smith and Hadrian’s Wall.
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Dim Sum at Charlie Chan in Cambridge 
Sunday, April 18, 2010, 10:05 AM
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On the couple of occasions I’ve eaten at Charlie Chan’s in the evening I’ve found it fairly standard – ok but nothing special. But it’s completely different at lunchtime when traditional Dim Sum dishes are served. Lunch at Charlie Chan is exceptionally delicious – and amazingly good value. We ate there yesterday and the bill for six came to just over £50.00 including service, tea and a couple of soft drinks. We had shredded pork soup, char siu cheung fun, crispy spring rolls, sticky rice wrapped in leaves, and various other dishes including more conventional choices like sesame prawn toast and spare ribs. All the dishes are small – like Tapas - but they are also very cheap – some around £3.00. So if you have maybe been to Charlie Chan’s in the evening and thought it was good but not great and wondered why some people rate it so highly – give it a try at lunchtime.
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Literature and Transhistoricism: a colloquium 
Wednesday, April 14, 2010, 08:16 AM
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Last semester I found myself discussing the problems of writing about literature from a ‘transhistorical’ perspective with a visiting scholar from Umeå, Berit Astrom. We have now decided to co-organise a colloquium exploring this topic – to be held at Anglia Ruskin University on 30 October 2010 - and have issued a call for papers. Here it is.

The way English is structured as a discipline encourages academics to focus their research on a particular period. Very few students attempt PhD topics which span several hundred years, and job advertisements and publishers’ catalogues also act as deterrents against a more transhistorical approach. Interdisciplinary approaches, by contrast, are welcomed, including those which involve research in areas remote from literature such as medicine. However if you claim to have something to say about Chaucer and Shakespeare and Tennyson you may be viewed with suspicion.

People are quick to note that a transhistorical piece is less likely to exhibit the same complete expertise in all literary periods as a specialist, historicist approach. This is true, but it is also true that the historicist critic may overlook the influence of a much earlier text, and that this oversight may prevent that critic from grasping a work’s full significance.

This one day colloquium is being jointly organised by Berit Åström (Umeå) and Sarah Annes Brown (Anglia Ruskin). It is aimed at anyone working in the field of English literature (or related disciplines) who has interest or experience in transhistorical research. The proceedings will include both formal papers and workshops/discussion sessions. We welcome papers which either exemplify transhistorical research or are reflections on the methodological challenges of such research.

If you would like to offer a paper (20 minutes) please send an abstract (no more than 300 words) to Sarah Annes Brown by 1 June 2010.

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In praise of Shirley Jackson: The Lottery and Other Stories 
Thursday, April 1, 2010, 06:29 PM
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I was browsing in the sf section of the Cambridge Waterstones and noticed a pleasing little display of dystopian fiction. I’d read some of these already but this caught my eye and I decided to give it a go. I have to confess that I had never heard of Shirley Jackson before, although a quick look on Google confirmed that I should have done. She wrote a great deal, including The Haunting of Hill House (which I had heard of, but only because it was made into a film). Her writings fit within the tradition of American Gothic, and among the writers I was put in mind of as I read were Ray Bradbury and Bret Easton Ellis.

‘The Lottery’ itself (I now learn) was considered extremely shocking when it first came out. It is the very last story in the collection and although it is chillingly effective (a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone) it wasn’t my favourite. It also felt like the odd one out – very much a stand-alone tale. The other stories, by contrast, repay reading as a collection. Although they are powerful individually, they also speak to each other in all sorts of strange ways. (I was reminded of the experience of reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.) Having finished the volume I now feel I should reread it as I’m sure there were many subtle connections which passed me by first time round. Some of the stories don’t seem uncanny at all – and that in itself is strangely unsettling.

It’s hard to pick out a favourite – I liked the way ‘The Daemon Lover’ hinted at troubling and uncanny possibilities which never quite materialise – or do they? ‘The Tooth’ was also very striking – as was ‘The Flower Garden’. Is the topic of racism concealing a quite different taboo? I found the ending of ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ much more shocking than the ending of the more sensational title story. It is good to see that Shirley Jackson’s works are being re-edited by Joyce Carol Oates for the Library of America.
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My Post-apocalyptic Top Ten  
Sunday, March 21, 2010, 03:21 PM
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I went to a dinner recently where I was sitting next to a theatre researcher who is working on a project about global warming and narratives of apocalypse more generally. We both liked some of the same sf novels on this theme and, inspired by our discussion, I thought I’d post my post-apocalyptic top ten. I found it impossible to rank them – so they are in alphabetical order.

David Brin, The Postman (1985) After the ‘doomwar’, in a fragmented and decaying United States, Gordon Krantz comes across a postman’s uniform which he starts to wear, becoming an icon of hope for people who desperately want to believe that, somewhere, an ordered government still exists. Much of the interest of the novel lies in comparing the different paths taken by scattered, isolated communities. Unlike some post-apocalyptic narratives, this is not a morality fable about the evils of science. Brin’s sympathies are firmly with those who are trying to keep science alive and against the misognynistic and brutal survivalists.

John Christopher, The Death of Grass (1956) A wonderfully bleak and British example of the genre. A virus strain attacks rice crops in China, and soon spreads to all grasses. Martial law and the breakdown of society are quick to follow. The novel compares well with John Wyndham’s better known, and similarly understated, evocations of disaster, such as The Kraken Wakes. There was a very good Radio 4 dramatisation of the novel in 2009.

John Christopher, Empty World (1977) This children’s novel is not so well known as Christopher’s Tripods trilogy but it’s an effectively chilling read. As in The Death of Grass, the apocalypse first seems to be someone else’s problem – the story opens with a mysterious plague hitting Calcutta. The novel’s child protagonists have to learn to cope by themselves as they live in an (almost) empty world. A bit like a much grimmer version of The Children Who Lived in a Barn.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980) Hoban is a very difficult writer to pigeonhole – among his other varied works are the charming Frances stories, picture books about an independent-minded little badger. Riddley Walker is very different. Written in a distinctively ‘debased’ (yet eloquent) English, the novel is set some centuries after a nuclear war has devastated England. Although the population has returned to a primitive way of life, certain fragments of culture (memories of Punch and Judy and a version of the tale of St Eustace for example) survive in a mutated form. A very literary example of the genre, which has been much praised.

Stephen King, The Stand (1978) This is a kind of horror/sf hybrid, and an extremely gripping and powerful book. The premise is standard science fictional fare – scientists are working on a destructive virus (known as ‘Captain Trips’) which gets released into the general population and wipes out 99.4% of mankind. What is distinctive about The Stand is its use of supernatural and religious elements and the novel turns into showdown between the forces of good and evil – the latter spearheaded by the mysterious Randall Flagg, a demonic figure who has since found his way into several other of King’s novels.

Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) ‘Leibowitz’ is a Jewish engineer who converts to Christianity following a nuclear war and founds an order in his name. The action begins many centuries after his death and charts the slow recovery of civilisation, a recovery which offers many ironic parallels with the progress of Western civilisation after the fall of Rome – parallels which have predictable final consequences. Bleakly amusing.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004) Although only the central (and chronologically final) section is strictly post-apocalyptic, I couldn’t bring myself to leave out Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite novels of recent years. The relevant section, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, is set on Hawaii in the aftermath of a nuclear war. It is effective on its own terms, but only acquires its full power when read in the context of the other five narratives within which it is embedded – and indeed within the context of the many other sf novels to which it alludes (including Riddley Walker and, I think, The Chrysalids).

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826) This has to be one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It opens with the narrator’s discovery of some ancient fragments of text in the Sibyl’s cave near Naples. These turn out to be prophecies of the 21st century. The novel proper tells of a plague which, as in Empty World, spreads slowly and inexorably from the East. Shelley’s account of the social and emotional effects of the plague is extremely effective. She gives a very convincing account of people’s ghoulish appetite for gloom and doom stories in the newspapers, for example, anticipating our own fascination with AIDS, swine flu and global warming.

Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1999) I thought this book was hugely underrated as it’s one of the most compelling and haunting sf books I’ve ever read and a short account can’t do justice to its full complexity. Its premise is that Wells’ novel The Time Machine was based on fact. The hero discovers the machine and travels several centuries into the future where he discovers London in ruins and a world transformed by global warning. He has to become a detective and archaeologist to find out what has happened and there is something wonderfully chilling about the random snippets of information and chance documents he discovers as he – and the reader - begins to get some sense of all the horrors which have intervened between our time and this future world.

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955) In post-apocalyptic Labrador a society has grown up which looks on machines with suspicion and on even the tiniest deformity with horror. But one of the mutations brought on by nuclear catastrophe is a gift – telepathy. I thought I’d read all of Wyndham but my dinner companion drew my attention to Plan for Chaos – which I look forward to reading in due course.

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