Tag Archives: Charlie Butler

Reflections of DWJ

Once I get going on a topic, there is not stopping me. I was happy to find that there is a new book featuring talks and essays by Diana Wynne Jones, all of which she chose herself during the last months of her life.

It’s a bit like when I read obituaries of people I might have heard of, but knew little about. They sound so interesting that I am furious they had to die before I found out. I’m beginning to favour living obituaries, heaping praise on someone while they are there to enjoy it.

I did know Diana was special, because everyone said so. I just procrastinated. So not only am I rather belatedly setting off on a DWJ-readathon, but I have these marvellous little pieces as well.

Because I wanted to bring Reflections to your attention, and because I want to slowly savour her reflections on the magic of writing, I haven’t yet read every single piece. I am dipping into the book, little by little. And I’ve only now realised I didn’t start where my adviser suggested, with ‘Why don’t you write real books?’

But then, I am quite happy with where I did start. And also with where I went after that.

Neil Gaiman was a fan. Obviously. Diana was very much a writer’s writer, which is why so many admired her so much. Neil has written the foreword to Reflections, while Charlie Butler – another DWJ fan – reflects on this collection. Diana wrote the preface. It’s good that she was able to.

There is a hilarious tale of when the 9-year-old Diana ended up babysitting half the village’s children. And, not too far from that topic, there is an amalgam of school visits that rings so true. (They ought to be ashamed of themselves!) Vomiting at Halloween, children playing in the woods, the mumbling of J R R Tolkien, and how to appreciate your talents all get their own ‘chapters.’

Even if you’ve never heard of Diana, this makes for first class reading.

What language do you read?

And I don’t mean whether you can manage Harry Potter in Chinese. Charlie Butler blogged about English versus English the other day. Very interesting. As a non-native reader I used to be foolish enough to believe that English was English. Yes, I know the British have something that differs from what the Americans swear by, but people can get by, can’t they?

Seems not. I remember the little witch looking at the Mrs something-or-other in Blyton’s Castle of Adventure. I went to Mother-of-witch and asked what Mmmrrsss meant. (I tried to pronounce those three letters.) It’s the same as Fru, in Swedish. Once I knew this, I knew this, and I had learnt a new word, and also how it’s meant to be pronounced. I felt cosmopolitan and clever. (I was about eight.) I can still remember what it means.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’m currently living in Britain because of that Mrs. Not because I turned into a Mrs myself. There was something so satisfyingly exotic about all things British. I coped admirably with shillings, and didn’t require them to be turned into öre. Miles can be confusing, but only because you have six British miles to a Swedish one.


Some years ago I read a book by Beverly Naidoo, set in South Africa. It would have been useful knowing how much a Rand is worth, but not essential. Could have looked it up, I daresay. But ‘translating’ it into pounds and pennies wouldn’t have helped. After all, how much is a knut?

You could have footnotes, but they can get a little tedious. A glossary is one solution, but not for too many words, or it’s tempting to skip looking at it.

Reading Agatha Christie can be tricky, because she sometimes uses French, which I don’t speak, and I think the reader is meant to. On the other hand, when I read Adrian McKinty’s Fifty Grand recently, I didn’t object to the Spanish he used. So it’s all relative.

Helen Grant’s The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is a nice proper British English book, except it’s set in Germany and Helen has put German phrases in her story. Words, and whole sentences! I think it adds a very nice flavour. The same goes for Caroline Lawrence using Latin all over her Roman Mysteries. ‘Euge!’ say I.

I think we need some foreign-ness in books. Not just random Chinese, obviously, but anything that belongs to the story. We often talk of dumbing down these days. Translating 50p to one dollar is dumbing down. That’s how people end up not knowing it’s different in the other place.

Just not too different, because we’re mostly he same. Except when we’re not.