|A Fantastic Legacy: Day One
||[Oct. 1st, 2014|09:51 pm]
The holiday catch-up posts begin just before we went away, with the Diana Wynne Jones conference I had attended immediately before leaving England (and when I say 'immediately', I mean that we had deliberately scheduled our departure for the day after the conference). Two days, two locations, and enough interesting material that I could happily have spent the entire afternoon in Cambridge - no, another two whole days - talking through it all with nineweaving and rushthatspeaks. But we have LJ, we can open the conversation wider than that.
The first day of the conference was at Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books in the Ouseburn. I was a little nervous about making the morning start-time - it's been a while since I commuted to Newcastle, and the Ouseburn (half artists' quarter, half derelict post-industrial) is a little off-centre; but durham_rambler dropped me at the station with the words: "Learn and contribute," (this, I suppose, is my contribution) and the journey went very smoothly. I was able to stroll down Lime Street picking blackberries and walk into Seven Stories with time in hand to scour the bookshop, and incidentally find a birthday gift which was becoming rather urgent (Shaun Tan's The Rules of Summer). Then up in the lift to the main event - and since I found myself sharing that lift with steepholm, I was able to introduce myself, which was a pleasant way to start the proceedings.
Home base for day one was the Artist's Attic, the very top floor of Seven Stories, up among the rafters; a child-friendly space that can be challenging for adults who are taller than I am. Its windows overlook the Ouseburn and the City Farm, and admit the enticing aroma of the Ouseburn's coffee roastery. This is where we gathered to register, drink coffee, hear the day's speakers, and later lunch and generally hang out.
After the formal welcome, the first speaker was Laura Cecil, DWJ*'s agent. She spoke well, if a little formally - which is to say that she read a prepared lecture. There was no real problem with this, but I wondered whether an 'in conversation' format would have allowed her to relax more into her material - which was fascinating. She had been DWJ's agent for the whole of her career, and clearly she was a good fit: the two of them got on well together, and understood each other, and she read delightful, funny, illuminating extracts from the letters DWJ sent her. She had a ringside seat for the editorial process, and what she told us about the editing of Fire and Hemlock (in short, that DWJ had just moved to a new publisher, and she and a new editor were feeling their way into a working relationship: the editor was keen that everything in the book should be absolutely clear, while the author preferred the reader to do some of the work; "she hated to be edited, and didn't mind loose ends") made me want to look again at the book.
What Laura Cecil told us about DWJ's working method also explained why completing The Islands of Chaldea after her death was such a challenge: she would write a full first draft without rewriting or making a plan as she went, and was clearly one of those authors whose writing is driven by their own desire to find out what happens next. On one occasion, Laura Cecil said, the two of them had spent a very happy afternoon talking about a promising idea and all its ramifications, after which DWJ had never returned to it: it was as if she had already sucked all the goodness out of it. They never made that mistake again. Perhaps it became a bit of a superstition. And of course to change that practice for The Islands of Chaldea would have been an admission that DWJ would not live to finish it herself.
Nicholas Tucker is apparently a scholar of children's literature; "read his obituaries!" urged Kimberley Reynolds, introducing him. But his talk on Marjorie Jones - a Woman of her Time drew on his personal acquaintance with the Jones family: his parents had been in the same leftwing circles as the Joneses, and his family had been visitors at the school they ran (as not entirely fictionalised in The Time of the Ghost). The burden of his dispatches from the past was that childhood was very different then to what it is now, and that children were expected to be self-reliant to an extent which would now be treated as borderline abuse. Also that Marjorie Jones did not follow the line of least resistance for a woman of her time and class, and that her work greatly enriched the lives of people who attended the school and would not otherwise have encountered the opportunities it gave them. But if I was expecting to hear that 'Well, Diana was writing fiction, you know, she may have exaggerated a bit,' - no, nobody said that. The closest we came was that the other children, who were similarly treated, did not react with the same fury. He was the first - but not the last - speaker to quote Marjorie Jones's remark about one of her daughter's books: "Yes, you were very neglected. It's been very useful to you."
The morning ended with a brief introduction to the Seven Stories collection and in particular the DWJ archive by Hannah Izod, who had worked on DWJ's papers when they came to Seven Stories. Her talk may be seen as a prelude to the part of the conference I found most frustrating: in itself it was fascinating, and I could have done with more of it, and for it to be more closely tied to the time we spent with the archives themselves. But I had the impression that the afternoon's material was being stretched to fill the space available. We broke for lunch - and it was a very good buffet lunch, and I enjoyed chatting to people while we ate it. But I didn't need the lunch break to be extended by an extra quarter hour 'because we can.' We then divided into three groups, to do three things: a tour of the current Seven Stories exhibition, a visit to the archives, and a period 'at leisure'.
Seven Stories exhibitions are designed for families, for parents with children: they aren't designed for me, and there's no reason why they should be. The current one is being run in collaboration with the Media Museum in Bradford, and is about fairy tales that have made it into film (and includes Howl's Moving Castle): I'd be interested in a consideration of the choices to be made in adapting a particular story, and the different technical options at fifferent times. We did get a clip from Méliès's Cinderella, which was fun, even if it was largely justified by the inclusion of Hugo. And I did like the giant furnishings of the Borrowers' corner. But as I say, not your target audience, and I was ready to move on before our time here was up.
Next we went to the archives, where a selection of DWJ materials had been laid out for us, and we struggled into our child-sized white gloves, so that we could be allowed to touch them. I am a bad student, because I just wanted to sit and read things, but to be fair, there wouldn't have been time for a detailed study. Here was the edited draft of Fire and Hemlock, sliced apart and sellotaped together in response to editorial comments (though Laura Cecil had suggested that the text had not always been changed between the slicing apart and the sellotaping together): I would have loved to be able to compare the original draft (in DWJ's beautifully neat and legible longhand) and the edited typescript. I was amused by an early version of Charmed Life which began: "Cat Chant did not like his sister Gwendolyn", changed to quot;Cat Chant admired his sister Gwendolyn". That's so clever! And there was a letter from Kaye Webb: Please could you write something for our special ex-members' issue of 'Puffin Post', in case the ex-members don't come up with the goods? Are your sons ex-members, by any chance?... But our time in paradise was short, and we were cast out to enjoy some more leisure. Which would have been a good time to vsit the bookshop, if I hadn't already done that at the start of the day, so instead I took my book up to the attic and read until the closing session.
This was Ursula Jones on Cymru to Chaldea, on growing up with Diana and on completing The Islands of Chaldea, and I may have wondered whether there could be anything left to say about even that extraordinary childhood. But Ursula Jones is an actor by profession, and she gave us a brilliant performance, hugely entertaining on the challenges of completing the book and obviously gratified that no-one had been able to identify the point at which the elder sister dropped her pen and the younger took over. And she did, in fact, have a few more childhood gems up her sleeve, from memories of the Liberty bodice to the poetic wilderness of the abandoned Other Garden, and the caustic remark that when playing with dolls, "we never played 'mothers and fathers', we played 'Doctor Barnardo's'."
One anecdote in particular intrigued me: I wanted to cross-examine it, to determine how much it owed to the version given to a younger sister, and whether the interpretion that came into my head could be justified. It seems that at some point, Diana was sent to boarding school in Saffron Walden. This was presented as surprising, not consistent with the family's usual attitudes; but I wondered whether the school in question was the Friends' School. That would go some way to resolving one puzzle, but would create another, because the school as Ursula Jones described it was not full of Quaker principles; it was a rather snobbish place, where the day pupils, many of them the children of agricultural workers, were looked down on by the boarders, and felt themselves to be outcasts, pariahs. DWJ's reaction to this was to found a club for day pupils only, called 'The Pariahs'. Thus far, this is the plot of Elsie J. Oxenham's The Girls of the Hamlet Club (though the Pariahs did not enjoy the success of that earlier socuiety: the school exerted pressure, and the Pariahs were closed down). Had DWJ read and emulated it? Or had she adopted the narrative as the basis for a tall tale of her own? Or something else entirely?
There was still more to come: there were closing remarks, and there was a drinks reception to celebrate the publication of The Islands of Chaldea, and there should have been a dinner thereafter - well, there was, but I had snarled up my understanding of which day it was, and in any case I was already replete and weary, so I raised a polite glass to the new book and took myself home to do a little frantic packing.
And that was day one; there would be more tomorrow...
*After two days listening to - and talking to - people who had known Diana Wynne Jones personally, some of them very well, we were all falling into the habit of talking about 'Diana'. Outwith that context, I feel impertinent continuing that usage (however well I may have felt I knew her as a reader). Hence this compromise.