Knowledge of Angels – book review

Knowledge of Angels, by Jill Paton Walsh

A story with such a title, set in medieval times on a Mediterranean island with a wolf child and written by Jill Paton Walsh – I was smitten before I started reading.

Paton Walsh writes with the beautiful clarity of the best English writers for children, with clear simple phrasing, elegantly expressed ideas and a compelling other-worldliness. You dive into her books and are submerged.

This is an adults’ book – I think I read it first in my late teens and found it quite disturbing, but have re-read it often since and find the reading a vivid experience. I recently walked on the rocky shores of just such a place as this is set and recognised the world she describes: the monastery with the orange grove and the goats on the mountains and everywhere the view of the “hazy dazzle” of the sea.

The question that underlies the story is this: if a child has no human contact – raised by wolves in this case – will she come to recognise God instinctively?

The enigmatic Palinor “falls in” from an unseen ship and swims ashore. He claims to come from an island no one knows and the local prefect tells him must register as a visiting Christian, Saracen or a Jew.  He claims to have no religion, so is locked up. “A man of no religion might do anything.”

As a heretic, he is condemned to death unless the gentle scholar Beneditx can convert him. The men read and talk and discuss proofs of God but Palinor is not convinced and  Beneditx eventually questions own beliefs.  Palinor’s last hope to escape death lies with the child rescued from wolves on the mountain.

As an experiment, Amara the wolf child is kept in strict confinement at a monastery, where she is taught to speak but there is no mention of God.

If she discovers God on her own, this is proof that everyone is born with knowledge of divinity. If she has no concept of God, this proves that religion is not innate and must be taught, and therefore a man, like Palinor, who has never been educated in God is not guilty of turning away from God, but pitiable and ripe for redemption.

An Inquisitor from Rome arrives, hell bent on burning heretics at the stake.

God certainly moves in mysterious ways.

 

Not Forgetting the Whale – book review

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger

This is my “go to” book when someone asks for a good read. It’s light and lively, a good tale, with a back story that dives deeper than the whale.

Apparently there are three, three letter words that can bring down civilisation.

War. Oil. Flu.

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger, tells the story of Joe, a young, clever analyst who uses modelling to predict the coming of the third – a flu with the destructive force of a plague, capable of disrupting the world and tipping us into apocolypse.

It’s pretty big stuff for a story set in a little town in Cornwall, with nicely recognisable characters, networks of romance and relationships, and a visiting whale (cue book club discussions on symbolism, metaphor and allegory).

In the growing disaster as the fragile connections that underpin our world collapse, the town becomes an Ark as Joe and the locals close the borders and struggle to survive.

Joe’s modelling predicts that if Oil, War or Flu should bring us down, total collapse is inevitable.  But his clever computer, which analyses economics, supply chains, political activity and journalist reporting world wide, has missed the human factor.

Give this book to the pessimists in your life.

 

Camp fire story

A shaggy dog story by Tristan Bayliss

Stories are the best way to entertain the kids around a camp fire, and they need to be adaptably long, shaggy, and with a structure that makes them easy to remember.

Last week, rafting and camping on the side of the Mohaka river, our storyteller had a group of kids enraptured by The Ballard of Henry Tidwell, the last man to suffer the death penalty in New Zealand. (Only he wasn’t, I found out later.)

I asked him how he did it and here is his advice.

When I tell a very long shaggy dog story, people ask how it is possible to remember so many details, and often dismiss it as impossible for themselves. The truth is, if you follow these few simple tips, anyone can (and should) tell a long and complex story to entertain friends and family around those campfires or on long trips. For the purposes of explanation I have included a very long story, The Ballard of Henry Tidswell, a version of which  was told recently on a camping trip.

  1.     Punchline  

The shaggy dog story starts with the ending, with an idea of a pun, or a joke. It doesn’t have to be uproarious, as the whole point of this sort of story is the journey to get there. In some ways, an ending that makes your audience groan rather than laugh is a good result. In this example it started with an old joke around the ambiguous meanings of the term ‘conductor’.

  1.   Structures

This is the most important rule for successfully telling a longer story. This is the skeleton that you hang the story on, and what makes the whole thing possible to remember and achieve. The structures can be familiar pictures or simple sequences, with a finite pattern or infinitely expandable. The example story is full of different structures, some obvious, some less:

  • Henry keeps one penny for each shilling, then 2, then 3 etc. For the purposes of this story, it finished at 4, but could easily have expanded to 12
  • The time between Mary’s spending sprees halves each time, first 2 months, then 1 month, 2 weeks, 1 week etc. Also the cost of each purchase rises; first a shilling a week, then 2, then 3 etc. These structures build tension by creating the sense of rapidly approaching disaster
  • Each time Mary makes a deal, she gets a new dress of a different colour, and the sequence is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Not only is it easy to remember the rainbow, but the darkening end of the spectrum matches the story as it darkens towards the end
  1. Visual Associations

This technique is what enables you to include the richness of detail which makes a good story. It requires developing a pictorial thinking and memory, which is far richer and more effective than a language or conceptual one. Make a visual picture of each scene, and when it comes to that point in the story, simply recall the picture in your mind’s eye and describe what you see. It will be different each time as you forget some things and include others, but it will be more alive and the amount of detail possible will be limitless. Also you can include visual themes that are connected to the structures, which aid the memory.

In this story, for example, the things Mary purchases are associated with the colour of her dress, e.g red for Rosie the house help, orange for the copper and brass washing machine, yellow for the yellow curtains and furniture etc.

  1.  Repetition

This also is related to the structures, as you naturally have repeated scenes and dialogues, but if you can focus on a particular catchphrase and repeat this at opportune moments, this is like a little homecoming within the story and can bring great delight to your listeners, especially children. If done well, you can merely suggest the line and the audience will finish it for you. In the example, we have the repetition of “because she was clever with her hands” which has been given subtle variations for the benefit of an older audience. Also the punchline itself has been used as a catchphrase in this story, which rather than lessening its impact as an ending, enhances it, for the listeners have to think twice before realizing it now has a new meaning.

  1.  Characters

These are what bring the humour and life to a story. Give your characters a back story (even if you don’t relate it, but just for your own sake to bring the character alive). Use mannerisms, accents, speech impediments, anything that makes them interesting. The only caution I would place on this is to leave your main protagonist quite plain, as it can be tiring for an audience to listen to a constant put-on voice, and also it allows their imagination to inhabit the character easier if it remains slightly amorphous.

  1. Practice

Lastly, eloquence is not something you are either born with or without. It requires practice to develop, and then constant practice to maintain. Take whatever opportunities you have, the best practice being, of course, telling bedtime stories to your children. Start by memorizing traditional folk tales or fairy tales (practise using your pictorial memory) and telling these without the book there (perhaps by candlelight). This will build up a rich store of phrases, characters and story archetypes which you can use in your own made-up stories later.

Happy storytelling

Read The Ballard of Henry Tidswell, adapted by Tristan Bayliss.

The Wish Child – book review

The Wish Child – by Catherine Chidgey

If you’d asked me what I thought of Catherine Chidley’s The Wish Child as I was reading, I might have been slightly ambivalent. The writing is poetical and descriptive but I had to concentrate to hear the different voices of the characters – Eric, an adopted boy from Poland, Sieglinde from Berlin and a third, unexplained, narrator.

But ask me now I’ve put the book down and and I’ll say: here is a book that needs to be read. The story and the confusion over the shadowy narrator is a slap in the face that haunts me.

The story is set in Germany during WW2 and told through the everyday lives of Sieglinde and Eric’s families. The fact that Sieglinde’s father is employed to cut words like “love” and “truth” out of books is just one strange part of the slowly twisting background of their world. The is an horrific and violent event – and I guess brutality is a byline of every war story – but I felt this was slightly gratuitous.  It feels raw and clumsy in the otherwise gauzy read – maybe that is quite deliberate, but I almost put the book down there.

I’m glad I didn’t, because the poignancy of ending made me go back and read the whole thing again, immediately.

Toronto, streets and jazz

Impressions of Toronto walking by day, jazz by night

Toronto sprawls flat and is scratched with expressways, to the north of a great lake that is pretty much invisible from the city behind a barrier of industrial land, rail and roads.

It is mostly devoid of geographical features other than the gash of the Don Valley. This is crossed by a wonderful viaduct whose story comes alive in Michael Ondaatje’s passionate book In the Skin of a Lion, thought this doesn’t feel like a city for authors.

We drove around similar looking suburbs for hours behind huge gas guzzling vehicles with single occupants (and wondered about their compensation issues) on busy four lane highways that swoop through Toronto’s grid of streets, past bunches of high rise condos and stores selling stacked cheap goods and through dirty, dispirited neighbourhoods. The occasional group of brick facade terraces – old houses which have been kept for their historical value – just served to emphasise what the city might have looked like if it hadn’t sold its soul to growth and convenience.

Public transport is accessible but old fashioned, and locals complain not joined up – city, district, state, national.  Take a metro ride just to witness the wonderful diversity of faces. Toronto’s trams are famous, they do the job of a subway above the ground and we jolted through the nicer part of town around Dundas and Yonge before a pleasant walk through the leafy and quiet University of Toronto. There’s old money and designer shops here. Some grand buildings from the early days of the city remain – they looked straight out of Glasgow, heavy squat stone churches, civic buildings and an old museum with a sharp glass extrusion sicking painfully out of its side, as risky as the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris and less successful. All framed by the towering glassy skyscrapers that cluster all over the skyline here. We explored the more youthful Spadina Ave by foot, the miles of poor shop fronts relieved by some hip fashion spots, through one of Toronto’s China Town’s (there are a few) and we sat on a trendy roof top bar in the muggy, late summer heat with a vibrant, smart crowd of after work drinkers.

Later, we went to The Rex and lucked out with the best of the city’s jazz – the Pat LaBarbera and Kirt Macdonald Quintet playing their annual birthday tribute to John Coltrane. Neil Swainson on the Bass was something else. A charming elderly bloke squeezed on our table and had an entourage passing all evening to greet him. He’d taught them all to play the sax. They’re friendly in Toronto.

We’ll make the effort to cross the tracks and see Lake Ontario and the city islands tomorrow.

Ortegia

and Syracuse in Sicily

The thin ribbon of tourists ripples from the bridge up the main shopping street to the Cathedral and down Via Roma right across the island. We are in Otrigia, the small island which is the historical centre of Siracuse in Sicily. This is the birthplace of Archimedes, and one of the prettiest tourist towns I’ve ever visited.

The first thing you notice, especially after a weekend in rather grubby Catania, is that this little island town is absolutely spanking clean. It is built of white marble and rubbed smooth, not only with the passing of so many feet but professionally scrubbed and polished. There is no graffiti, where the occasional ancient stone work joins brick and plaster the transition is smooth. The crumbling bits are shabby chic.

It is early September and tourists are sparse compared to the hordes of Rome and Sorrento. Step away from the main trail and the small alleys winding the gully between whitewashed houses are full of large leafed pot plants but empty of people. You get that ridiculous tourist thrill of thinking you have discovered the real, old Italy, but the locals pull up on scooters and unload their shopping in bulging plastic bags and look at you as if to say – your patch is the main road, why are you here?

We go looking for authenticity, but of course there is no real Ortigia, no original people, you can go back through the layers of time to trace a tide of invaders, settled until the next lot arrived. The current invasion of tourists spend in the restaurants and shops and marvel at the Cathedral, where the Roman stones mould around the Doric columns of the earlier Greek Temple, there are echoes of Arabs, Jews and centuries of other worshippers here.

At the point of the island, cannonballs are strewn around the castle like balls of ice cream, dropped on the ground thousands of years ago.

We walk the circumference of the island one day, and the next go over to the main city of Syracuse where the Greek and Roman amphitheatres lie side by side on the hill. It’s wonderful to imagine the intelligent Greek orators in this vast open space informing and entertaining the theatre goers. It’s very different feel to the Roman ruins where the crowds were entertained by brutal gladiators spurting blood.

Greek ampitheatre

Walking the Amalfi Coast

Thousands of steps

The Amalfi coast consists of battered marble stairs that thread around and under houses and go up: irregular, steep, connecting across the winding roads and hundreds high, then a corner, and another hundred and a corner and a few hundred more until you collapse, exhausted at the top of the world with far more sea than you could ever view from the ground.

Everywhere is a walk down or up – hard on the knees but good for the heart, and what starts as breath talking surprises becomes the expectation: whitewashed houses built into outward leaning cliff faces, a ledge of rock holding an exquisitely proportioned church, a scrap of near vertical land terraced with lemons, a view that reaches from Capri along the whole stretch of the Amalfi Coast.

From a height, the towns are rustic and their history obvious, goods flowed down to the port for trade. Olives, figs, lemons, tomatoes. On this coast there is no flat land, so the little villages fill the crevices in the steep hills upwards from the sea. The stone steps of the original paths have remained, too steep to evolve into roads, and the narrow roads overlaid, following the contours, stuck into a crack of a cliff, best driven at speed in an Aston Martin with dark glasses and a movie star smile.

Close up, the towns are now a setting for tourists and the mishmash of joined houses clustering the port sell sandals and cool linen clothing, jewellery, pottery painted with lemons and sun hats to an international crowd. If your idea if heaven is a restaurant with a fine sea view and fresh basil, tomato and mozzarella on the menu, go to Positano, Amalfi, Praiano, Atrani, Minori, you’ll dine with the gods every day.

If you’re walking (do some hills before you go), take the Sunflower Guide and follow their descriptions of the paths, there is no detailed map that can guide you along the path in the direction of the single island and up the narrow pathway to the left of the church until you find the wooden fence by the olive grove. You need that level of detail and it helps, as you’re climbing, to imagine a future life when your job is a full time checker of Sunflower Travel Guides. We didn’t see anyone else with packs walking from town to town – busses are everywhere, but I would do the same again. Felt like a pilgrim.

Amalfi to Ravello is at least 1500 steps with long steep paths. Most people take the bus but the very few of us on the path recognised fellow heroes. There’s a beautiful pause when you reach the shelf that holds the gardens of the the Villa Cimbrone on the edge (very edge) of Ravello. A step further and you’re flying. Ravello is an impressive, established town that looks, from the coast, like a couple of houses, but the town unfolds as you crest the peak to a thriving hub with several large churches, a sunny piazza and busy streets. Ghosts of Virginia Wolf, Gore Vidal, DH Lawrence, Wagner give a good, boho vibe.

We kept walking inland, up yet another 300m staircase when we were already on top of the world, and skirted the Lattari mountains on a mule track back to Amalfi, inside the deep limestone bowl of towering cliff faces.

The most famous track, with tourists to match, is the Path of the Gods, which starts with a bus trip up the cliffs to Bomerano and ends, several gods later, in a million steps (not really a million) down to Positano.

My absolute number one walk was from Colle di Fontanelle to Sorento via Sant’ Agata, a glorious ramble on the rugged land’s edge where cliff meets high pasture and terraces, right across the peninsula with occasional views on both sides and no other tourists. The path led through a couple of small towns where kids played football in the square and ancient three wheeled vehicles laboured up the hills.

This wasn’t on my bucket list but I am ticking it off anyway. You feel the Gods all across this region, but on this track “ZEUS WAS HERE” is carved into the stone.