A definitive guide to HDM

I occasionally fantasise about having written this fantastic reference book – The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – but then I catch myself and I know it’s not something I could even remotely have managed. But I don’t mind knowing the woman who did write it.

The guide first came into my hands over twelve years ago, and it was hard to believe that someone was out there who had not only read and loved the three books by Philip Pullman, and who was crazy enough to write a detailed analysis of every single thing in that trilogy. As Philip himself says, whatever you want to know about the world he made up, it’s all in the guide. He ‘can’t recommend it too highly.’

And now Laurie Frost’s reference book is back in a new fresh version, just in time for the second Book of Dust – The Secret Commonwealth – which is published today, and for the soon to come television adaptation of the original story. If you don’t already have a copy, you will want one, if only so you can show off and obsess and look up anyone or anything you may have forgotten.

Over to Laurie:

Laurie Frost

What on earth possessed you to sit down and write the book?

I figured, if I didn’t write this guide, someone else would. I expected someone was already writing one, so I found Philip’s home address and sent him a few pages. At this point, work was beginning on the National Theatre production and The Golden Compass movie, and he was getting a lot of questions a book like mine could answer.

If it was now, would you start a book like it?

I was 20 years younger and had a better memory and more energy. I’m far better at doing nothing now. I have no desire to deal with publishers ever again. So, no.

Had you ever written a book before it?

Yes. I re-cast my dissertation as Reminiscent Scrutinies: Memory in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a small and eccentric meditation. The little academic publisher and its warehouse burned down years ago.

In fact, did you know it would turn into a book rather than a pamphlet?

It would either be a book or nothing. It passed pamphlet length after a few days!

Has anything been changed since the first – how many? – editions?

Different covers. The 2019 edition has newly drawn maps. I added a sentence or two.

Are you tempted to add The Books of Dust to the guide?
.
Somewhat. But I’d do separate ones for the interludes and Book of Dust. Unless a publisher paid me upfront and handled the page numbers, I wouldn’t do it with the same level of detail.

What are your thoughts on La Belle Sauvage?

La Belle seems prophetic to me on the dangers of climate change and a wake up call regarding the historic and contemporary instances of family separation and undermining of the family as a fundamental unit of stability and humanity.

Have you any specific hopes or expectations for what will happen in The Secret Commonwealth?

I’ve long thought that the found materials at the end of Lyra’s Oxford would mean a visit to the Mid-East. This has been confirmed in this week’s New Yorker interview. The title makes me expect more time in alternative realities, compared to La Belle, almost exclusively set in Lyra’s.

Will you race through the book, or go slow, savouring the experience? Or have you had access to an advance copy?

Slowly.

Did any of the many stage versions of HDM get close enough for you to go and see one?

Not remotely. I haven’t been overseas since 1979.

What did you think of the Golden Compass film?

I thought the movie was awful. It was way too short. It was unsatisfying to readers and incomprehensible to newcomers.

And what do you think the new television adaptation will be like?

I will watch the mini-series, and I think a longer format will work better than the film. But these are novels of the mind. Consider Moby Dick. Credible action movies have been made of the plot, but none approaches the encyclopedic essence of Melville’s masterpiece. The daemons seem like they would be a cool way to reveal a character’s thoughts, but they really emphasize how much the novels are about body, soul, and mind, making them hard to translate to film. We will see. They will probably work better for people not meeting daemons for the first time.

Do you have a daemon?

Well, as a human, I must. But I haven’t glimpsed him. I argue with myself a lot. So I guess that voice is my daemon’s.

How has your life changed through writing the guide?

The best thing that has come from writing the book is the kindness of Philip’s support.

Also, I will have something my kids and theirs can see as evidence that their mom had a curious mind. Or was a bit obsessive. Or both.

Can we expect to see you in Oxford one day? There is a bench waiting for you to sit on.

Some day. Maybe.

Laurie Frost, The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

Advertisements

Trains and unicorns

It’s not too late, I suppose. But I probably won’t.

Recently I was looking into train travel, of which I was in favour long before Greta. Let’s just say that it’d be an awful lot easier if this wasn’t an island, or at least if I lived at the southern end of it. So this time round I won’t be going to Berlin by rail.

I’d thought to make it a killing two birds with the one train ticket thing, stopping long enough in London to go and see a play. If you have to sleep somewhere en route, it might as well be London, and if sleeping in London I could do something there before bedtime. Like going to the theatre.

Because I’d happened to see the advertisement for Maggot Moon at the Unicorn Theatre [where I’ve not been for nearly ten years]. Sally Gardner’s book was one of the best that year, and I fully expect the play to be worth seeing. So discovering it’d be on in the month when my fictional train travel was about to happen, was a real boon. An encouragement.

But the best laid plans, and all that. 36 very expensive hours, or a dreadfully early start one morning but soon over, and for a reasonable amount of money… Well, let’s say I didn’t book a theatre ticket.

On the other hand, October isn’t over – it’s only just started – so a trip to London can’t be ruled out. But, well…

A Shot in the Dark

How quickly time passes! Lynne Truss set her crime novel – featuring the best of Brighton’s landmarks – in 1957, making it somewhat historical and retro. But my mind boggles as I realise that I first set foot in Brighton a mere twenty years later, and moved away ten years later still. That almost makes me retro as well.

Lynne Truss, A Shot in the Dark

It’s amusing to find the streets and squares of Brighton in the names of the characters; Old Steine, Brunswick Square, and little Twitten, not forgetting Groynes, Palmeira and Adelaide.

Inspector Steine is an idiot. Sergeant Brunswick so-so, while young Constable Twitten doesn’t miss much, unless it’s social cues. What I don’t know is how long it would have taken me to know who the villain was, has Lynne not actually talked about that at her Bloody Scotland event. Was it very obvious, or just a bit obvious?

Whatever. It’s an entertaining story, poking fun at old-style crimes and old-style policemen, with a dash of Brighton Rock thrown in.

After the Bloody Scotland ‘cosy’ discussion about swearing and authenticity I couldn’t relax, but had to look for discrepancies. I always do this. There was much swearing for a ‘no-swearing’ book. And it’s never easy knowing what life was like around the time you were born. To some extent I’d say Brighton in 1977 wasn’t much different, albeit perhaps with a few more language schools.

I went to my first panto in the Theatre Royal. It was slightly more lacking in bloodshed that time.

If you are nostalgic for times gone by, this is your book.

Time for Bath

Someone I spoke to during the summer ‘knew’ where Janet Smyth was heading after leaving her job organising the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s children’s programme. We were both sorry to see her go, but you kind of accept that people need to move on, and our loss is someone else’s gain, and all that.

But it now seems that this ‘knowledge’ was incorrect, because Janet is about to start a similar role to her Edinburgh one in Bath. Which is very good news for Bath. I even feel a bit jealous that she’s going to live there. At least I assume she is. The commute from Scotland would be tough.

Janet is not the only one, though, as she will be working with Fritha Lindqvist, whom I’ve been in contact with over the years in her role as publicist, both in publishing houses and freelance. So that’s another pair of good hands for this book festival (that I’ve still not managed to visit).

I don’t like change. (Except, obviously, when I demand it…) But this sounds very promising.

Under Earth

Because Ellen Renner’s Storm Witch had resonated so deep within me, and the memory of it had stayed, I was cautious as I began reading the sequel, Under Earth, in case it wouldn’t deliver. But of course it did! Please bring on book three, The Drowned Ones, as soon as possible.

Storm is now the Weather-witch, and more powerful than most, and more than she herself understands. Travelling on her uncle’s ship, they are heading for Bellum Island to trade. But it seems it’s not just goods that can be traded; Storm is also desirable to others, because of her powers, so is not safe among the kind of people who will stop at nothing.

Ellen Renner, Under Earth

As with the first book, this didn’t head in the direction I imagined, nor did it keep going the way I thought it would. She’s only 14, but has to be wise beyond her years if her own island and its people are to survive. But she also wants revenge for the death of her mother.

Bellum is another world compared to Yanlin, and the people live differently there. At times I was wondering if Ellen was describing the island she and I inhabit when she talked about the wasteful and discriminatory way the leaders of Bellum govern. The fact that they don’t ‘make.’

Storm finds it hard to know what to do, and who to trust, but she at least has a few people to guide her. Let’s hope that will be enough. It doesn’t look like book three will involve much plain sailing.

Plane reading?

I’m just as surprised every time. I board the plane – yes, I know one shouldn’t; sorry, Greta – and I have my book handy, and I intend to read. And if it’s then the late plane, as it often is, it’s dark and they turn off the lights.

Yes, OK, one can turn on the little reading light above. Except, I don’t have the arms for it. I imagine they shrunk, because I know I could do it once.

So what to do? Ask the neighbour if they’d mind reaching up for me? Call the flight attendant and ask them to, as though I need a servant? Or I sleep instead.

I suppose, if I could teach my memory to remember, I could turn the light on before I sit down? But then I can’t change my mind.

And speaking of sleeping; most people that late do seem to snooze more than any of the other things they might do. Last time my neighbour switched her light on long enough for her to see to pay for her bottle of Prosecco, and then off again, for some cosy drinking in the dark.

That’s it, really. If I get that light to shine, would I be inconveniencing everyone else? If they want to sleep or otherwise relax, does a neighbouring light disturb? Is it as bad as when the tall chap in front of you leans back in his seat, depriving you of what little space you had left to breathe?

I’m thinking about this now, since everyone in the family is currently flying or did yesterday and/or will tomorrow. It’s only me here. And I am intending to disobey Greta very soon. Only because the cost and the time for the alternative became such an obstacle that I nearly had a melt-down.

Willow and the water

It’s the small successes that count the most. Or so I’d like to think.

The Resident IT Consultant and I popped in to have dinner with friends. Our hostess pointed to Giles Andreae’s and Guy Parker-Rees’s Be Brave Little Penguin, which she had lying next to the sofa.

I gathered that it’s been a big hit with little Willow, her grandson, and it’s been read many times.

While it’s obviously a rather lovely book, about the penguin who’s afraid of going in the water, it has some relevance for Willow. This summer he went to the beach with his mother [and the rest of the family, so he wasn’t alone] and she went right into the sea and disappeared! By which I mean she likes to put her head under water, so she did. And Willow did not like it. Not one bit. Mothers are not meant to just disappear.

So he’s not all that keen on swimming and water and all the rest. He’s only two, so may come round one day, but until then… It’s good, and useful, to find yourself in literature. In this case, I suppose Willow is Little Penguin.

But to end on a Swedish proverb, perhaps mothers shouldn’t ‘ta sig vatten över huvudet.’ At least not when your toddler is watching.