Category Archives: Philip Pullman

Travelling to Narnia

My first memory from meeting Katherine Langrish seventeen years ago, is that at the age of nine she wrote her own instalment of the Narnia books, because to her mind there weren’t enough of them. I was glad, because I used to feel like that about some of my childhood books, but I never got past page two. That was in 2004 and she was in our neck of the woods to talk about her first children’s book, Troll Fell, a Norwegian style fairytale. In fact, the days of Katherine are all Before Bookwitch, since the third book in the Troll trilogy was published on February 5th 2007, one day BB, making Katherine a very early author acquaintance of mine.

Anyway, back to Narnia. While I believe she might have shown us her childhood book then, I have now seen pages two and three up close, being used for the endpapers of her brand new book From Spare Oom to War Drobe, Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self (isn’t that a glorious title?). This is a book I’ve been looking forward to so much, despite it being about books I have not read and firmly believe I wouldn’t like, just because, well because I am convinced this is a really great book (with a quote from Neil Gaiman on the front cover), and because we say that you should write about what you know best. And I believe Katherine has arrived in Narnia, where she belongs.

It’s a gorgeous-looking volume, and one I’m very tempted to read, if only to learn more about Narnia. Half the population can’t be wrong, and in her online launch this evening Katherine mentioned Philip Pullman and his dislike of the C S Lewis stories, not totally disagreeing with him. The way I understand it is that it’s a pretty academic look at Narnia and its creator. It’s got footnotes. And the support of many literary names.

One of them, Amanda Craig, talked to Katherine about her book, as one big fan to another. It was quite enlightening and I really enjoyed their chat. I like people who like things that much. It’s good to look at stuff in-depth and to have sensible comments to make. I understand Amanda encouraged Katherine to write this book, after having read her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, which is mostly about fairytales, and which has left me in awe of all Katherine’s knowledge.

This could have been a great launch in real life, but as it was, online made for a different great event, with many of Katherine’s peers peering out from behind their respective Zoom cameras. And the sun shone on her, forcing her to keep shifting her position.

A piccalilli pair of days

Sometimes I just need to go back in time.

My 2015 piccalilli trip to London, as I think of it, was full of serendipities. It began when Liz Kessler wrote to ask if I could make it to her London book launch. And I felt I could; having determined that something special was all I required to invest in train tickets. I’d obviously need to stay two nights, before and after, to make sure I was there for the main event.

And then I started looking to see what else might be on.

The Society of Authors had an event on the evening I arrived in London. It was ‘only’ Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively chatting to Daniel Hahn at Waterstones Piccadilly, but I was happy enough with that. 😉

Son bought me a ticket for the event, which I wasn’t supposed to use. So I bought another. When Anne Rooney realised she wanted to go but was too late to buy a ticket, wasn’t it handy that I just happened to have a Society of Authors member ticket? Yes it was. And her predictive texting gave me the piccalilli.

It was Celia Rees who had told me about the event, so she was around too. And then there was the sighting of Judith Kerr one row in front of mine. That wasn’t a half bad evening.

For the next morning I’d agreed to have coffee with Marnie Riches, who just happened to be in town, before leaving again. From there I almost had to run to get to my next meeting, having booked an interview with Anthony McGowan, seeing as I had so much time on my hands! Somewhere there must have been a brief opportunity to eat my lunch sandwich. I’ve forgotten. Although I can tell you that the Hampstead pub we met in could use a longer setting for the light in the Ladies. Good thing I have arms to wave.

Tony was also going to Liz’s launch, which is where we went next. And basically everyone was at the launch.

For my second morning I had arranged to do brunch with Candy Gourlay before hopping on a northbound train.

It’s amazing how many authors can be fitted into slightly less than 48 hours. I keep living in hope, but there has yet to be a repeat of this.

And it’s not even my past

But anyway, it’s too late. The book has sold out, and I only got mine on Monday.

Throughout lockdown, Ian Archie Beck has entertained his followers on Twitter with art. And it’s not any old art. His paintings and drawings from – mostly – around where he lives; the local streets, the back of his house, his vase, possibly even his flowers. Absolutely gorgeous!

So I thought, this could be a series of postcards to buy, maybe. Or a book. I’ll look out for it.

So, just before Easter he admitted that yes, there would be a book soon. And he’d be selling it direct and I could order one. Thank god I had the good sense to order it there and then. Because it’s already too late, as I said.

I don’t know all that much about Ian. I’ve read one of his children’s books. We’ve gone to the same parties. And with this book he has proved that art is like writing books (only harder, I imagine); it gets a lot better when you deal with what you know best.

As lockdown began, Ian’s dog Grace apparently pulled him in the opposite direction from where their usual walks would go. Ian discovered new areas of his part of Isleworth. He went home and painted what he’d seen, and what he’d been inspired to notice.

And it’s this pictorial lockdown diary he has treated us to, first on Twitter, and then as a book. All right, and also as postcards. And you can buy the original art. Or you could. It sounds like it’s mostly gone already, like the book. Which is just as well, because I couldn’t afford those prices, and my available wall area is not all that available. And the painting I loved the most wasn’t even on the price list of the art for sale…

So that’s fine.

I will sit and dream over the paintings in the book, and maybe frame one or two of the postcards, because as Daughter wryly pointed out, I might have room for those.

The paintings. Well, streets and houses and still lifes, and it all brings me back to my childhood. Which is strange, because that’s not where my childhood happened. But it’s my archetypal English town, the kind I used to dream of when younger.

And I’m clearly not alone, since Philip Pullman expressed very similar feelings on Twitter. As did most everyone else. And I think we can only keep our fingers crossed that there might be a second edition of The Light in Suburbia, and more postcards, and maybe more paintings, and why not a second book?

You know, we can’t have enough of this kind of wonderfulness.

Serpentine

I might have said yesterday that I think Philip Pullman should spend his time writing the last instalment of the Book of Dust, and not fritter his time away on the short books set in the world of HDM.

Any book is obviously always welcome, and years ago I was quite excited by the other two short books, both the red one, and especially the blue one. And now here we are with a green one. Even shorter, particularly if you take into account the illustrations.

I liked it well enough. It provides a brief chapter on Lyra in her mid teens. Or so I believe. The age, I mean. She returns to Trollesund. She asks some questions, and gets a few answers. But that’s about it. The sneakiness of daemons is made more obvious; how both humans and their daemons have to contrive to do things without the other noticing.

It’s just I’m beginning to despair of book three. It’s not going to be next year, is it? I’m thinking 2022 at the very least. There had better not be a yellow shortie while we wait.

‘I’m discovering things about daemons all the time’

We could see the writing on the wall. Literally. Blackwell’s Thursday event with Philip Pullman took us to his study, where words appeared to be hovering above his head. It was a quote in Spanish, which he claimed to have mostly forgotten about. Something along the lines of you should find out about everything, and then keep the best.

Philip was speaking to Sian Cain, although at one point a bearded man also appeared, waving, as though this would make him go away. Zoom is nearly always interesting.

There was much talk about splitting from your daemon and how it feels. There was quite a bit of mention of the third Book of Dust, ‘which hasn’t happened yet’. Well, it should. Just saying, in case other fans haven’t already. Philip is not a short story person. So maybe stop writing these little extras? Write more on Dust?

He loves Mrs Coulter, who has no inhibitions. But it seems he loves Lee Scoresby the most. I like an author who can have favourites! And Lee was a wise choice. We love Lee.

Philip does not travel for research. It’s far too uncomfortable. The Bodleian does just fine. He points out he is old, and ill. (Which is when Daughter shouted ‘finish your book!’) He also claims to like the BBC version of His Dark Materials, which caused more shouting at our end. But he’d not wanted to write the script; there is too much time wasted on talking when you are involved with filming.

There were questions. The Lord of the Rings would ‘impress an Edwardian schoolboy’. And Narnia lacked Christian charity. He loves Michael Sheen as narrator of his books. (Well, who doesn’t?)

The good news is Philip wants to return to writing about Sally Lockhart. Although, that’s what he said in 2005 as well…

Now that we’ve seen his study, we know what it’s like, and we will urge Philip on to finish the writing. First Dust. Then maybe Sally.

Catching up on season one of His Dark Materials

That’s before season two. And no, that’s not me doing it.

As I might have mentioned, neither Daughter nor I were convinced by the first season of His Dark Materials on the BBC. As I suggested at the time, for me to continue watching after the first two episodes seemed fairly unlikely. And I didn’t, so when the time came two weeks ago to settle down with season two, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.

In fact, it was almost an afterthought that made me mention it to the Resident IT Consultant, seeing as he did sit through all of last autumn’s. He’s more open-minded, it seems. So he has by now watched the first three episodes, and is reasonably happy.

But Daughter, who decided to catch up on season one, on the minute off-chance that she’d watch the new one live, has been anything but happy. As a serial audio book listener, she knows the story inside out. And believe me, BBC, that does not make for satisfaction right now. There have been little – and not so little – screams over every wrong thing.

We both understand and accept that for film technical reasons you need to adapt, abridge, and so on. But writing a new story and changing the characters when you have a perfectly good story already?

No.

I get that this version looks good. But it could have looked good while sticking to the original story too.

I suspect that the nice people I know who actually like it, are those who have not nerded over HDM for the last two decades. Perhaps they read the books, liked them, and promptly forgot any details, and thus the BBC series comes as a new thing of beauty.

Perhaps.

Susanna Clarke was there

No, we would not sit at the back. For this event the teenage Son insisted we descend all the way to the bottom, and front, of the cake slice shaped auditorium at the Gothenburg Book Fair. Uncharacteristically I followed him and actually sat a long way from the door.

This was fifteen years ago. Perhaps not to the day, because the fair happens when it happens, and it just so happens that it begins today. The online 2020 Book Fair. Then, it was our first, and we’d come in search of Philip Pullman, but once he’d been dealt with, we had a list of others we wanted to see.

Susanna Clarke was one of them. The bookshop we used to frequent had a lovely, well-read girl working part time for them, and it was she who had suggested Son might like to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. He did, and he found it good. (I could never quite manage it.)

We both liked her event, and this was so new to us, and Son enjoyed being able to go up and chat to the various English-speaking authors as ‘one of them’. At the time I don’t believe we realised quite how exhausting the public event lifestyle is for an author.

I was made aware of how tired Susanna Clarke was in this Guardian interview the other week, when they spoke to her in connection with her next novel, Piranesi, which is out now. It’s been a long time, but I don’t blame her. Chronic fatigue is not much fun.

So what was the start of a book world whirlwind future for us, was perhaps the beginning of an essential period of rest for Susanna. I’m glad she’s found her way back. I hope the Gothenburg Book Fair does all right, and that we will all meet again at some other live event or book festival, but that we will also take it easy and not overdo things. None of us is getting any younger.

(I almost said older, which proves how tired and confused I am.)

And I like Susanna’s thought that ‘one day, there will be the wardrobe’.

The Bookwitch and Pullman screen adaptations

This time twelve years ago I was full of the latest Philip Pullman adaptation on BBC television. It was The Shadow in the North, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I persuaded the Guardian to let me blog about it for them. There was a lot to like, and I went on and on.

The Shadow in the North - Guardian blog

And now? I still like the various televised Pullman books. But the recent His Dark Materials I have almost managed to push from my mind. Not actively, but I’ve been surprised at how little I’ve thought about it. I never went back after the first two episodes, preferring to do other things when the Resident IT Consultant sat in front of the television for another six Sundays.

I’d happily watch the Sally Lockhart films again, not to mention I Was a Rat. ‘All’ we need now is The Tiger in the Well. Except I guess Billie Piper is too old. The Tin Princess might work, though, as Sally is older in the last book. And dare I say it? There was meant to be another book or two, or so Philip said a long time ago.

Lost verse

‘I can’t find the Oxford Book of English Verse,’ the Resident IT Consultant said one evening.

‘Well, I don’t know. It must be there, somewhere,’ I replied.

We searched. ‘Could it be we don’t actually have a copy?’ he asked.

While we do seem to own a fair few copies of these large, worthy, Oxfordy type tomes, I concluded this was a possible explanation.

Because it wasn’t upstairs with the other poetry. And not downstairs with the large books.

‘What did you want it for?’ I thought to ask.

‘I wanted to read Paradise Lost,’ the Resident IT Consultant said. ‘I suppose it’s lost, heh heh.’

‘Which part?’

‘The first two.’

‘Well, I have those. It was set reading at university. I don’t remember culling my copy, so it’s probably still here. Upstairs with the rest of the poetry.’

Turned out I was right. It was. And Bookwitch had saved the evening. She, who doesn’t do verse much.

I guessed the whole thing was set off by letting the Resident IT Consultant read The Secret Commonwealth when I was away for a few days. And he got to watch the first episode of His Dark Materials on television, also without me. Goes without saying that Paradise Lost is his next port of call.

Whereas when I got to the Smyrna bit in Philip Pullman’s second Book of Dust, I couldn’t help thinking of Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost…

His Dark Materials on television

His Dark Materials BBC

No one could be more surprised than I am. But – so far – I don’t like His Dark Materials. Not one little bit. If I hadn’t read the books, I’d have no idea of what’s going on. If I hadn’t read the books I’d not be tempted to continue watching.

Having missed the first episode live last week I took to social media on Monday morning. I was upset to see that some people didn’t care for it. At all. But having time on my hands I read every status and every comment and came to the conclusion that more people liked it than not, and they’re people whose opinions I trust.

The Resident IT Consultant had liked it, and Son tweeted his approval. But then came the delayed viewing of Lyra’s Jordan, and separately from each other Daughter and I both found it wanting. She, charitably, said she’d give it one more chance. I have just done that, the second viewing, and, well, goody, they have already moved on to The Subtle Knife with some content.

Seeing as the first episode began with a scene from The Secret Commonwealth, I have to say we are getting a wide and varied diet here. We have a square alethiometer. And already Lyra has been told who her father is. Could have kept the suspense a bit longer, I feel.

Apart from Lyra, who’s very well played by Dafne Keen, they seem to have got most of the casting wrong. And there’s a definite lack of daemons everywhere. For instance, we’d never have been shown Billy Costa’s daemon last week if it didn’t have an important role to play later. Poor Ratter…

Meanwhile Lord Boreal is already climbing through windows.

Will I make time for episodes three and four? I am not sure. Can’t watch them live, but possibly curiosity will bring me to the television to catch up before the second half of His Dark Materials, by which I suppose we really mean The Northern Lights, not the whole HDM, is on.

But oh, the disappointment.