Adventures with Words: The Tripods trilogy by John Christoper

The White Mountains by John Christoper
City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher
The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

As a boy, I all but lived in the local library. Indeed, the most exciting days of the year for me were the couple of days before an official bank holiday because then you were allowed to take two books out on a card, rather than just one. So that meant I could borrow eight, eight books from the library over a bank holiday weekend. Of course, I loved being able to buy books but we did not have much money and besides, if I had bought the books I read, we would have had to sleep in the garden for lack of space! So the library was my door to wonders, and adventures, and ideas, and I went through it two or three times a week. Perhaps the most enjoyable moment of all was getting home with my treasure trove of books to read and then deciding the order in which I was going to read them. My normal practice was to put aside to the end one (or if it was a bank holiday weekend and I had eight books piled up in front of me, two) reliable books that I knew, because I had read the author before, I would enjoy. I would pick another favourite to start off with and then, for my middle reads, turn to the ones that I had picked to see where they would take me, not knowing too much about the stories beforehand.

That was how I came to read John Christopher’s Tripods novels. I must have been quite young when I read them as I remember I borrowed them from a long-closed library in Archway and we moved from the area when I was eight – so at least fifty years ago! That’s a long time for books to stay in the memory, particularly without rereading them, but I had retained a vivid impression of them, and in particular the Capping by which the aliens exerted control over the entire adult population of the earth. It’s not hard for a child to believe that all adults might be being secretly controlled by aliens! What’s even better is to think that children might be the ones to save everybody – and that is exactly what happens in these books. Brave Will Parker runs away before his own Capping, makes a dangerous journey through France to the White Mountains (which I now know to be the Alps but did not know at the time) and becomes a member of the secret resistance to the Tripods. Then, in the second story, Will infiltrates the city of the alien tripods and learns their weakness. And in the final story, Will is a key figure in the plan to overthrow the aliens.

It’s heady stuff for a child to read and Will has sufficient flaws to make him a thoroughly believable and relatable character. It was a joy to read the books again after so long and feel the thrill of recognition as characters I had not remembered but immediately recalled made their appearances in the story, particularly Beanpole, the clever French boy that escapes with Will to the White Mountains, whom I realise now I had identified with.

Fifty years on, did the books stand the test of the passage of half a century and the very different world we live in today? Yes. Absolutely yes.

Adventures with Words: Archangel by Gerald Seymour

Already we forget. It’s thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down and the prisoners stumbled from the Gulags, but we are busy forgetting. While the Holocaust has, rightly I suppose, spawned an industry of remembrance, the victims of the Soviet Gulags are disappearing into a historical black hole. It seems no one is interested. Neither in the suffering and deaths in the Gulags, nor the almost miraculous end to it all: a Soviet system that seemed as unyielding as the Wall itself fell all but overnight and with virtually no bloodshed. We can look back at the events leading up to the end of the Soviet block and the finish of the Cold War but its actual denouement seems to cast a pall of unreality over people: it’s as if, seeing a miracle, people cannot bring themselves to look at it, but rather forget.

A large part of that forgetting is the Gulags, the system of forced labour camps that the Soviet Union employed to dispose of dissidents and counter-revolutionaries. While not extermination camps per se, nevertheless estimates suggest that around 1.5 million people died in the Gulags, worked and starved to death, frozen, diseased or simply executed and thrown in ditches. The great chronicler of Soviet cruelty, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, seems to have been removed from literary consideration while the Gulags themselves have been brushed under the carpet of the new Russia.

Archangel was written when the Gulags still ground people through the system, and takes the reader on an uncomfortable trip back into still fairly recent history. Long out of print (I picked my copy up from a second-hand bookshop) it tells a slightly unlikely story of a doomed attempt to overthrow the Gulag system from within. It’s unlikely in that the protagonist is a captured British agent and it seems unlikely that any such revolt would be led by a foreigner, but the story vividly conveys the every day acts of defiance and humanity that allowed the inmates of the Gulags to remember that they were men. As such, Archangel is a great book for this age of forgetting and if you can find a copy I strongly urge you to read it.

A Marmite Book

‘Burn all copies.’

‘A stunningly mature and elegiac read of cold duty and family love.’

‘Written like a 10 year old…A talking squirrel.’

‘A bold, wildly imaginative story.’

‘No fan should read this book.’

‘Silent Hunters was the first book in years that i couldn’t stop reading.’

‘It seems that the editors and the author himself have some kind of sexual disorder.’

‘The plot twists are just breathtaking.’

‘We are faced with the feverish delirium of one writer who has composed a simply high-quality graphomaniac fan fiction, in which “the power of love and castration” surpasses everything in the world.’

All genuine quotes from reviews of Silent Hunters.

As you can see, it’s something of a Marmite book. Now it’s out in paperback, why not read it yourself and make your own mind up. Silent Hunters is available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

St Paulinus of York

The oldest coin minted in York, dating from c. AD 620, shows the face of a man for whom we have the first physical description in British history – and the image backs up the description. In 601, a Roman monk named Paulinus arrived in Kent as part of the mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. A few years later, Paulinus accompanied King Edwin to Northumbria, becoming the first bishop of York and establishing a mint in the city. Paulinus is the first man in British history for whom we have a physical description, Bede describing him as “a man tall of stature, a little stooping, with black hair and a thin face, a hooked and thin nose, his aspect both venerable and awe-inspiring”. Looking at the face on the coin, it is as if we are looking back over the gulf of centuries into the face of Paulinus himself. 10 October is the feast day of St Paulinus of York.

Canaletto – Venice in Paint

A Venetian himself, Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), or Canaletto as he is better known, made his name by painting views of his city that were marketed to British gentry making the Grand Tour. When war stopped visitors coming to Italy from England, Canaletto moved to England, painting views of the Thames among other places. But nothing matches the light-drenched canvases of his views of Venice.

How St Mark Came to Venice

In 828, two Venetian merchants, Buono of Malamocco and Rustico of Torcello, were in Alexandria doing business. Alexandria had been conquered by Muslim armies and in 828 it was under the control of the Abbasids. Speaking to the priests of the church of St Mark in Alexandria, Buono and Rustico learned that the priests feared for the safety of the relics of the saint that they kept in the church, and indeed their own safety under the Abbasids. Hearing this, the Venetians offered the priests safe passage back to Venice – at the price of bringing the body of St Mark too. The priests agreed and, taking the body from its sarcophagus and replacing it with a less eminent corpse, they put the saint’s remains in a chest, carefully covering the body with a layer of salt pork and cabbage, before loading the chest onto the Venetian ship. Before setting sail, Muslim customs officials came on board to inspect the cargo but, seeing the pork, they recoiled in horror without digging any deeper. Safely out to sea, the saint’s body was taken from the chest and placed in honour on deck, surrounded by thuribles and candles. And so St Mark came to Venice, where he swiftly supplanted the city’s previous patron, St Theodore, in the affection and devotion of Venetians. Mark had arrived by sea and it was to the sea that Venice looked for its fortune; it was a fortuitous, or providential, arrival.

The Venetian War Galley

For the four centuries of Venetian mastery of the Mediterranean, the war galley was the instrument of Venetian power. Shallow drafted, manoeuvrable, and fast, the war galley allowed the Venetians to dominate the sea ways of the eastern Mediterranean. To produce the necessary ships, the Republic created the Arsenal, the largest industrial site in Europe before the Industrial Revolution. Surrounded by walls, the Arsenal could mass produce up to a hundred ships at a time in a way that was unique for the age, with the ships being floated to the different craftsmen in a manner that predated Henry Ford’s production line by centuries. Uniquely among the Mediterranean sea-going powers, Venetian galleys were usually crewed by free men rather than slaves. This meant their ships were not liable to sudden mutinies during battle and that the rowers could take part in boardings of enemy vessels. Venetian galleys also had lateen (triangular) sails, which allowed them to tack into the wind, providing greater manouevrability than square sails. But only the ship’s officers had any protection from the elements, with a tent being erected at the stern. The rowers had little or no shelter, from rain or sun.

Barbarian Hall of Fame: Theodoric the Great

Theodoric (454 – 30 August 526), known as the Great, led his people, the Ostro (‘eastern’) Goths into Italy in 489, defeating Odoacer, the first barbarian king in battle and beseiging him for three years in Ravenna. When Theodoric could not take the city, he negotiated a shared rule and entered the city. All seemed cordial at first but then, ten days later, Theodoric personally murdered Odoacer and his men killed all Odoacer’s family. So one Barbarian Hall of Famer met his suitably barbaric end at the sword of another. Nevertheless, after this bloody beginning, Theodoric strove to maintain peace for the rest of his rule, trying to persuade his people to treat their Roman subjects well. His remarkable mausoleum still stands in Ravenna.

Barbarian Hall of Fame: Odoacer

Odoacer (c.433 – 15 March 493) deposed the last emperor of the western Roman Empire and became the first barbarian king of Italy. Like many barbarian warriors, Odoacer had found employment with the remnants of the Roman army under the command of Orestes, the ‘master of soldiers’. But when Orestes appointed his son, Romulus Augustulus, emperor and refused reward for his men, Odoacer killed Orestes and deposed Romulus. But so powerless had the emperor become that Odoacer let Romulus live, giving him a pension and a long retirement with his relatives. The Roman Empire in the West was finished: the barbarians had won.

Adventures with Words: The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault

“All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play? Fate deals its stroke; sorrow is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death, or triumph; there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make a tragedy – and that is as well, for one could not bear it – whose grief is that the principals never met.”

I first read ‘The Mask of Apoll’o when I was in my teens and the book’s last paragraph, and particularly its last sentence, has haunted me ever since. Now, decades later, I reread the story that I might remember what lead up to that last sentence and it is indeed as devastating a story as that final sentence demands. For I read the book because at the time I was also reading the dialogues of Plato and ‘The Mask of Apollo’ tells the story, through the eyes of the actor, Nikeratos, of Plato’s attempt to put his theories of statecraft and the philosopher king into practice by teaching Dionysus, the tyrant (in the ancient Greek sense of a king relatively untrammeled by the restraint of law) of Syracuse in Sicily, the principles and ethics of philosophy, and of Plato’s brilliant pupil, Dion, a Syracusan aristocrat who could have seized the throne for himself.

The decades had rubbed away Renault’s brilliant depiction of the realities, at least so far as we can reimagine them, of Greek theatre, but it had not removed the tragedy that hangs over the story. The first-order tragedy is a man, Dion, by temperament and training perfectly suited to be the philosopher king of Syracuse who turns down the chance precisely because he is a man of pre-eminent virtue and will not usurp a throne that is not, quite, rightfully his. This is coupled with the tragedy of Dionysus II, oscillating between his good and evil selves, with Plato as the physical presence of his decaying conscience.

This is a thorough examination of the workings out of political philosophy in reality and is thoroughly absorbing, highlighting all the best features of historical fiction in its bringing to life of an ancient culture, the events within that culture and the people who lived through those events.

But it is final chapters of the book, after Plato’s death, that bring it to a higher level of tragedy. Nikeratos travels to Macedonia with his theatre company and there meets a young prince in his early teens but already almost god-like in his charisma, a fire seeking fuel for its burning. The young Alexander has a tutor, and no ordinary tutor for his teacher is no other than Aristotle. But the fire in Alexander’s soul is, Renault implies, searching for a different fuel. Alexander burns through the world seeking it, but what he is looking for in the world has already left it, broken at the failure of his attempts to foster a perfect kingdom. Hence the final, gutwrenching, sentence of the book.