Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

Lost books, L-space, libraries and the odour of bananas

I have a recurring dream of a lost book that I have somehow found. It’s a beautiful book, filled with marvels, hand-written in quirky calligraphy as if by someone who has seen how calligraphy looks but has never been taught how to do it “properly” (bit like me, actually). It has drawings in it that remind you of illuminated manuscripts, and some which are entirely different. It has some resemblance to Jung’s famous Red Book, but the writing is in English and the drawings are not the same. Each time the book pops up in dreams, I wonder whose book it is, whether it exists in our ordinary reality or whether it is something that may one day exist or has once existed and exists no more.

A few nights ago on British TV, there was a programme on BBC4 on the lost manuscript of Julian of Norwich. I’ve long been a fan of Julian and her work (see my blog post here) and I watched with great interest. The programme itself was a tad irritating (largely because the presenter made too many assertions that simply don’t bear closer scrutiny), though it did have some great sequences filmed in and around Norwich, which is one of my favourite cities in Europe (and only about 25 miles away), but it revealed some facts about Julian’s book I hadn’t known before. The manuscript itself was suppressed and hidden, going underground (so to speak), because its contents were liable to be seen as potentially heretical and certainly revolutionary (a loving God who was seen as our Mother and who cared for each and every human and written by, shock, horror, a woman? Gosh.). Its route to the mainstream was a strange one; copies of it were held in various monastic libraries, like that of Walsingham Abbey, but it’s unclear how many and how widespread they were. At the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries, many of their libraries were confiscated and countless bookish treasures destroyed. The Revelations of Divine Love disappears, only to have a copy resurface amid the books taken to France with nine young Englishwomen setting out to found a new Benedictine Order in the early part of the seventeenth century. The book was copied by the nuns and perhaps dispersed until the French Revolution intervened, and such orders attacked and destroyed. When their Carmelite sisters were sent to the guillotine, the English sisters expected to follow, but the terror came to an end, and they were allowed to return to England (taking with them relics of their martyred Carmelite sisters, and whatever other things they’d saved). The order still exists, in God’s own county, at the abbey they founded on their return, Stanbrook Abbey. But they didn’t have Julian’s book, either copies or the original.

Fast forward to the early part of the twentieth century and the era of the suffragettes, and a determined Scottish woman comes to the British library in search of a copy of Julian’s book, aiming to find the original or as close to that as possible, to make a new translation of the original. Mis-shelved under witchcraft and magic, and mis-titled in the catalogue, a copy made by those English nuns turns up, no one knows how, and is the closest to the original fourteenth century text that anyone knows of.

The book has dipped in and out of biblio-history, escaping the bonfires of fanatics and the vagaries of time itself, championed largely by women, and emerging time and again when women need it. At the end of the programme, a professor of medieval literature says that it’s eminently possible that the original manuscript itself might one day just turn up somewhere; he comments that rare books do this all the time.

Books are fragile things, subject to the forces of time and the forces of nature, and yet they endure. If you have read Umberto Eco’s brilliant book, The Name of the Rose, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, the idea of a lost book, hidden and suppressed yet passed on secretly and lurking on the shelves of libraries or even bookshops, is a seductive, romantic (in its truest sense) and obsessive notion. If you have read the Discworld novels by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, you will be familiar with the concept of L-space: the theory that the sheer weight of books creates a kind of kink in the space-time continuum, whereby all libraries are connected and all librarians are mystical custodians of L-space. The librarian of the Unseen University, whose name has long been forgotten, is an orang-utan (the result of a spell cast but since the shape proved to be more congenial to his job, the Librarian resisted all offers to restore him to his original human form).Wandering the darker recesses of old and rambling libraries, where a poorly-plotted route through the dusty stacks on a winter evening when the night falls hard and cold outside and the interior is cosy and warm, if fuggy, can result in getting lost in areas one didn’t know existed, and one can not only believe in L-space but it becomes the only thing that makes any sense of how books can disappear for centuries, and reappear in unexpected and improbable places, hardly aged, but bearing the faint traces of the odour of bananas.

First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men

First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men

For Christmas I amassed a respectably high pile of real books(as opposed to digital; if the books on my Kindle awaiting reading were physical, my bed would be encased by stacks of books) as gifts from kind friends and family. I’ve been working my way through them rather slowly; my concentration at present is rubbish so something has to really grab me to keep me going for more than ten minutes at a stretch.

I’ve also found that however much I value my Kindle, I still definitely prefer the feel, look, smell sound and did I mention FEEL of a real book. Anyway, the last few nights have been spent reading to help me unwind to try to get to sleep, and I’ve just finished The Wee Free men by much-loved author Terry Pratchett. Let me emphasise though: this is not a book review. I will say that virtually everything this man writes is wonderful and this book is not exception. I do wonder at the wisdom (ha! Or lack thereof) of calling this series children’s books, because, like all superb children’s books this can be read by adults with as much pleasure as any of his others.

The plot of the tale is a simple one, and one drawn surely from some of the very oldest of fairy tales, but with any of Sir Terry’s works, do not let the apparent simplicity of plot fool you into expecting a simple book. Or simple characters for that matter because every being in this book has a complexity that bewilders.

There are several things I’d like to share with you from the book. The first of these is perhaps one of the most closely guarded secrets to magic. This is first sight. Not second sight. First sight is seeing what others do not, and that is seeing how things really are. Not how we wish them to be, or how they ought to be. But how they are. This is not easy. For some it’s virtually impossible from years of choosing illusions over reality. For others, it’s what they’ve always done. It tends to make you unpopular.

‘Aye, you’re a born hag, right enough,’ said the kelda, holding her gaze.

‘Ye’ve got that little bitty bit inside o’ you that holds on, right? The

bitty bit that watches the rest o’ ye. ‘Tis the First Sight and Second

Thoughts ye have, and ’tis a wee gift an’ a big curse to ye. You see and

hear what others canna’, the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye ‘re

always like the person at the party with the wee drink in the corner who

cannae join in. There’s a little bitty bit inside ye that willnae melt and flow.

‘Ye have the First

Sight and the Second Thoughts, just like yer granny. That’s rare in a bigjob.’

‘Don’t you mean second sight?’ Tiffany queried. ‘Like people who can see

ghosts and stuff?’

‘Ach, no. That’s typical bigjob thinking. First Sight is when you can see

what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there. Ye

saw Jenny, ye saw the horseman, ye saw them as real thingies. Second

sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see.”

The next thing worth hearing about are Second Thoughts. These are the thoughts that are about observing and analysing what you have seen and making good sense of them. There are Third Thoughts too, a voice in your head that does the thinking when you’re too tired or scared or ill to do it. It’s that voice that tells you that even if you don’t think you’re hungry, it was ten hours ago that you last ate and you need to eat NOW. You might call Second thoughts logic and third thoughts the survival instinct.

Books like this have characters who never appear except as memories or dreams but who are vital to the story because they are vital to the main character. The heroine of this tale is nine year old Tiffany Aching, but her grandmother, dead for two years, is here so powerfully she feels alive.

Who was Granny Aching? People would start asking that now. And the answer was: what Granny Aching was, was there. She was always there. It seemed that the lives of all the Achings revolved around Granny Aching. Down in the village decisions were made, things were done, life went on in the knowledge that in her old wheeled shepherding hut on the hills Granny Aching was there, watching.

And she was the silence of the hills. Perhaps that’s why she liked

Tiffany, in her awkward, hesitant way. Her older sisters chattered, and

Granny didn’t like noise. Tiffany didn’t make noise when she was up at

the hut. She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards, and listen

to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up

onto the downs, somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

When you are a small child, when people ask what do you want to be when you grow up, often what you want to be is a certain person, and those role models are usually initially the people we see on a daily basis: family, teachers, tradesmen. It’s important that we have role models that are the right ones. Growing up is actually more about growing to fit ourselves and a mould that is roughly the right shape is a big help. So many of us grow up trying to fit ourselves into shapes we can never fit into, and emulate people with whom we have no single point that might fit. Granny Aching is a powerful role model for a child like Tiffany; she’s a witch who never wore The Hat or claimed the name and so too is her twentieth grandchild, who has inherited that uncomfortable ability to see what’s really there and examine it with care and some detachment. These abilities stand her in great stead in her adventure but in real life, they are demanding and often isolating qualities. In my post Disneyland and let’s pretend, I explored this a little. But having that strong, solid role model is of such importance that I am considering time travel to try somehow nurture my child-self!

Another aspect of the book that I found extremely interesting was the sense of how much a place was in your bones. The Achings live on a vast area of land known as The Chalk, and have done so for so long no-one remembered a time when they didn’t:

It was actually called the Home Farm. Her father rented it from the

Baron, who owned the land, but there had been Achings farming it for

hundreds of years and so, her father said (quietly, sometimes, after he’d

had a beer in the evenings), as far as the land knew, it was owned by the

Achings. Tiffany’s mother used to tell him not to speak like that,

although the Baron was always very respectful to Mr Aching since Granny

had died two years ago, calling him the finest shepherd in these hills,

and was generally held by the people in the village to be not too bad

these days. It paid to be respectful, said Tiffany’s mother, and the poor

man had sorrows of his own.

But sometimes her father insisted that there had been Achings (or Akins,

or Archens, or Akens, or Akenns – spelling had been optional) mentioned

in old documents about the area for hundreds and hundreds of years. They

had these hills in their bones, he said, and they’d always been


To have been a part of a land means that the land is also a part of you, and while this has become diluted in our world, it’s probably at the root of a lot of discontent and tribalism. Too many have become detached from their lands. I have lived in a fairly wide range of counties of England in my time, all distinct with their customs and traditions and their bones.

“….and then, like someone rising from the clouds of a sleep, she felt

the deep, deep Time below her. She sensed the breath of the downs and the

distant roar of ancient, ancient seas trapped in millions of tiny shells.

She thought of Granny Aching, under the turf, becoming part of the chalk

again, part of the land under wave. She felt as if huge wheels, of time

and stars, were turning slowly around her.

She opened her eyes and then, somewhere inside, opened her eyes again.

She heard the grass growing, and the sound of worms below the turf. She

could feel the thousands of little lives around her, smell all the scents

on the breeze, and see all the shades of the night. . .

The wheels of stars and years, of space and time, locked into place. She

knew exactly where she was, and who she was, and what she was.

‘I never cried for Granny because there was no need to,’ she said. ‘She

has never left me!’”

To feel so much a part of a land is something is so little understood and undervalued, but it explains a little of how I feel about my country. It may not be the best country in the world, but it is mine and that of my ancestors for as far back as anyone can reasonably be expected to go. I’m beginning to get an understanding of both Motherland, and Gaia our Mother.

To find a set of such important ideas in what is deemed a children’s book gives me great hope. The fact that it’s also a rattling good adventure tale is even more exciting; reading a story is always more interesting than learning a lesson……

Terry Pratchett speaks…

I shall be writing an article soon about this most beloved of authors(whom I met a long time ago, a memory I cherish) but this article from the Guardian is a good background.

Warning: please have a hankie handy. Seriously. If this doesn’t move you, you may need a forklift truck or CPR.