"In the rain recently I've been trying to listen. There is not much richness in my hearing yet, but I hope it will grow. There are characters in Thomas Hardy's fiction so knowledgeable in rain that they can find their way across dark country (even when drunk) by comparing the sound of the water on different crops:
'Sometimes a soaking hiss proclaimed that they were passing by a pasture, then a patter would show that the rain fell upon some large-leafed root crop, then a paddling plash announced the naked arable, the low sound of the wind in their ears rising and falling with each pace they took.' " (Desperate Remedies)
"Dickens began Bleak House in the dark November of 1851 and finished it the following year during three months of near-continuous rain. The heavy drops fall ('drip, drip, drip upon the broad flagged pavement') when we first meet Lady Dedlock looking out blankly over a leaden landscape. 'The waters are out in Lincolnshire', and it rains for the first twelve chapters before pausing and raining again. Drops fall with the rhythm of footsteps as they might be heard on the haunted terrace, 'drip, drip, drip, by day and night', so that when Lady Dedlock has finally gone into the icy dark, and Sir Leicester lies distraught, and the house waits in grey anticipation, there is one inevitable sound: 'It is falling still; upon the roof, upon the skylight, even through the skylight, and drip, drip, drip, with the regularity of the Ghost's Walk, on the stone floor below.' "
"The best of Ted Hughes's laureate poems was Rain-Charm for the Duchy, a celebration of first rain after months of drought in 1984. Gift-wrapped as a baptismal offering for Prince Harry, it was really a bardic prayer for a whole stretch of Devon, particularly its rivers and their salmon. The rain brought out a civic streak in the poet of lonely Crow. Drops come 'sploshing' down (there's a wellington skip in the child-like word) and thunder strikes up its brass band."
"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real. As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."
"I remember that as a child I was so absorbed in my tellings to others that they could see what I saw. I could always get an audience. Not that I looked for one, the telling was all, or rather, the seeing. I don't think I write for children, any more than the great Miss Potter. For what? Whom? Well, myself, perhaps; I never think of an audience, that would kill everything. I think all children's books are grown-up books. When children's books are children's books they are not worth reading."
"In the course of our studies, we often had to go to museums to gather ideas for our work [...] Looking for old stories demands great effort, but it is well worth it, for it puts one's imagination to work and brings contemporary people in contact with the mystical-ritualistic world of [the past]. It is a kind of dialogue with what has been, from which new stories emerge."
"If the Wild Wood ... symbolises the darker side of human psychology, it also has a place in that layer of The Wind in the Willows which examines the proper and improper role of Imagination in the individual's life. Here, it seems to stand for the tangle of rich and dangerous symbolism which threatens the mental life of even the most sober of artists. The image is not unusual; for example, Charles Williams used the wood Broceliande to carry just this meaning in his Arthurian cycle of poems, Taliesin through Logres. Williams described this wood as 'a place of making', from which either good or evil imaginings may come, and so it is with Grahame's Wild Wood.
The most striking fact about the Wild Wood is that, despite its threatening nature, Badger dwells at the heart of it; and Badger is the most wise and perfectly balanced character in the book, with his gruff common sense, his dislike of triviality (he chooses to come into Society only when it suits him) and his strength of character which can - at least temporarily - master even the excesses of Toad. Badger is, of course, a certain kind of English landed gentleman, but he is far more. He is the still centre around which the book's various storms may rage, but who is scarcely touched by them. He is, one may surmise, the deepest level of the imaginative mind, not easily accessible; perhaps he stands for inspiration, only visiting the artist when it chooses, and then behaving just as it wishes. 'You must not only take him as you find him, but when you find him,' Rat says of Badger. Above all he is not to be sought out deliberately: 'It's quite out of the question, because he lives in the very middle of the Wild Wood.' The deepest level of the imagination dwells (as surely it must) right in the middle of spiritual or psychological danger."
"If there is one thing I have learned, it is that you must have at least some emotional connection with every soul who figures in a story. You may like them, love them, find them disgusting or hate them, but you must react to them in some way. You must see them as real and treat them with the same respect you would accord someone you meet in the street. Only then can they take on any life of their own. And they do. I always love it when people I have invented start behaving unexpectedly, as real people do - being themselves, in fact."
"The Select Book Club had its offices in a courtyard near St. Paul's Cathedral. [...] On the sunlit side of the court a small bay window was dressed with the Select Book Club choices arranged with carefully contrived casualness against a draped backcloth of purple velvet. The Club had been carefully named. Select Books catered for that class of reader which likes a good story without caring much who writes it, prefers to be spared the tedium of personal choice, and believes that a bookcase of volumes equal in size and bound in exactly the same colour gives tone to any room. Select Books preferred virtue to be rewarded and vice suitably punished. They eschewed salacity, avoided controversy and took no risks with unestablished writers. Not surprisingly they often had to look far back in the publishers' lists to produce a current choice."
"... aiming for the moon and getting halfway there gets you further than if you just aim for the roof and only get halfway upstairs. People's achievements in life depend quite startlingly much on what they expect to achieve ...
[In myths and folk tales] you find all the troubles and problems of this modern age - any single one you care to name as long as it is archetypal - becoming timeless and distanced, so that you can walk round them and examine them without feeling helpless. This is where fantasy performs the same function as joking, but on a deeper level, and solves your problems while keeping you sane. It is no accident that the majority of folk tales at least have a happy ending. Most of them are very deep-level blueprints of how to aim for the moon. The happy ending does not only give you gratification as you read it, but it also gives you hope that, just maybe, a fortunate outcome could be possible. Your brain likes that. It is built to want a solution."
“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “
" 'I thank you, sir, I thank you,' her murmured, and placed George Herbert between Spenser and Piers Plowman on the shelf. 'You give me great wealth for the gift of a book is the gift of a human soul. Men put their souls in their books. When one man gives another a book then three souls are bound together in that most happy thing, a trinity. "
"... He ground indigo leaves, pulped and dried them to a powder, mixed them with palygorskite and heated them in copal resin to a rich dark zaffre that could colour a night sky at that moment of dusk to dark. He fired ochre to the almost-black of midnight. Cooked white lead to the yellow of noon. Cooked it again to the red of dusk. He soaked saffron with egg white, transformed the scarlet stamens to citron golds. Discovered the magic of salt. Mixed it with mauve-tinged azures, violet reds. Boiled roots, and thickened the dye with turpentine and alum. He found vermilion sunsets in mercury sulphide, fired them to an orange cinnabar. He ground berries to a pulp, discovered purple when he mixed the juices with acid, ultramarine when he mixed them with alkaline. He ground up malachite, found cyan and celeste, celadon and olive. Ground up madder, found crimson, ruby and alizarin. Crushed azurite, inhaled lungfuls of deep blue, as if the air were now visible.
Then he bound these colours, set them, with gesso, plaster, linseed oil, sap from cherry trees and resin from sweet pines. He melted wax. Dabbed at his creations with paintbrushes made from fine horsehair, and swept colours across reams of white parchment paper, over and over, until he'd sought out some arcane perfection. His pigments were luminous and brilliant. They did not fade in the sun, in the wind or the rain. They lifted skies and made rich the blue red earth."
From Jakob's Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, a quite superb debut novel that is also a heart-rending read.
"One day, we go to the square in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, where the booksellers are. To our surprise, we find none of the quiet reverence one associates with reading.
The shops are adorned with brightly coloured signs that enchant me: ships, water nymphs, Moors' faces, bishops' mitres, snarling dragons and Saracens' heads. As for the shopkeepers, they have the same stentorian voices as the vendors at Cheapside or Leadenhall. You'd think you were at the vegetable market, save for the Latin mixed in here with the English.
'What do you require, my good sir?'
'The Mirror for Magistrates! New illustrated edition!'
'Freshly printed! Never before published!'
'Buy my map of the New World!'
'Chronicles and homilies!'
'Come on! Come on! Take a look at my book! All you need to conjure the perils and pitfalls of the sea!
'Read my Book of the Courtier! With engravings! Custom and decorum, all explained!'
It is the same at the Royal Exchange, between Cornhill and Threadneedle Street, where all the world's merchants meet to discuss their business. On the first floor there is a row of shops: apothecaries, armourers, bookshops, jewellers, mercers and haberdashers, all vaunting their wares - a fashionable garment here, a love potion there, wigs and fragrant musks; one sells beard brushes, another handbells; there are coat linings, purses, the finest Toledo blades ... I forget.
The place I find most entertaining is the area around the Exchange. Here is a mosaic of fruit sellers, hawkers and chimney sweepers, apprentices dallying gaily with housemaids, and clerks scurrying hither and thither, all in a commotion, a monstrous choir of carters thundering past, their singing often audible above the racket, shouts from tavern gardens, farriers' hammers, carpenters' mallets, the din of smithies, barking dogs and the laughter of all those who, like myself, feel infinite pleasure at this monumental symphony."
"The space that stories grant us, by allowing us to bail out some of the emotional and logistical paraphernalia we carry with us in the real world, makes extraordinary things possible. With our minds free of everyday concerns and the volume turned down on our interior monologues, we have the scope to engage in creative activity of our own, as our imaginations construct the fictional worlds sketched out by the words before our eyes."
" ... in almost all of my Edinburgh novels the characters inevitably at some stage make their way to Jenner's, that great Edinburgh store which dominates one end of Princes Street. Jenner's has always represented Edinburgh - or at least a certain part of Edinburgh - distilled. Edinburgh primness and respectability is, of course, a huge joke that we all enjoy. Jenner's, with the grandeur of its building, and its tea room, is the very embodiment of the old-fashioned city - its face turned firmly away from any form of coarseness or vulgarity. Of course life, for most, is distinctly not a matter of cream teas and perjink respectability, but it adds to the texture and variety of a city to have such things in our midst. (Perjink, incidentally, is a Scots word that I think Edinburgh should claim for itself. Perjink is neat and tidy, perhaps a bit fussy. And it is the fussiness that makes it a real Edinburgh word. Edinburgh is not at all fantoosh - another wonderful Scots word. Other cities can be fantoosh (flashy and showy), but not Edinburgh. If you want to buy anything really fantoosh, you probably have to go somewhere other than Jenner's."
That's from A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh by Alexander McCall Smith, and in a typically personal note to the picture shown above (Jenner's Tea Room, 1895), a place he describes as "the headquarters of genteel Edinburgh", he goes on, "Jenner's features in a number of the Scotland Street novels - not least as a place where the characters go while the author is deciding what should happen next." Sad to say, the tea room visited by Domenica and friends no longer looks as it did in 1895.
For 'Cornflower in conversation' with this much-loved author, click here.
"... one of the most characteristic and compelling features of [Tolkien's] books is their ability to evoke a palpable sense of untold stories and unexplored vistas, of landscapes glimpsed at the edges of other foregrounded pictures, that are at once suggestive, enticing and unbreachably distant: we desire to go there (to hear the story), and at the same time know it is, for now, unbearably beyond our reach - like the luminous countries glimpsed through windows in fifteenth-century Italian paintings. The means Tolkien uses to achieve this effect are, most usually, names: unglossed but resonant, with a felt (because real) internal consistency and meaning. This is the fruit of the linguistic background of his tales; the languages, he insisted, presupposed a world they described, and so by devising the one he necessarily created the other. This is exactly the function that technical philology had for Tolkien and for scholars like him: words and phrases implied a reality, a world inhabited by their speakers and best described by these very words."
From Tolkien by Raymond Edwards - which I warmly recommend.
"As long ago as 1924, Vita had recorded simple everyday occurrences guaranteed to make her happy: 'walking on crisp snow; running a stick along railings; stamping on a nut; stripping the shell from a hard-boiled egg; writing with the really ideal nib*; plunging into the sudden comfort of warm water on a cold night'. Each inspired a sensation she labelled 'through leaves' on the analogy of the uncomplicated pleasure inherent in kicking one's way through dry leaves on an autumn walk. Though not intended as an inventory of personal fulfilment (Vita's list omitted Harold [her husband], poetry, gardening, her houses, Ben, Nigel [her sons], dogs and intimate friends, it indicates something of the nature of her engagement with her world."