Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

185px-Guards-Guards-coverTerry Pratchett is a craftsman. He takes the mechanics of old stories – fairy tales, legends, fantasies high and low, anecdotes, clichés – and subjects them to careful scrutiny, puzzling over the desires and difficulties that drive them, pondering the question of how they might be adapted to the peculiar circumstances of a modern urban society. Behind him is ranked the massed knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of voracious reading, and the strangeness of this readerly access to the echoing halls and crowded taverns of the past – and of the passages and corridors that take us there, the twisty labyrinthine imagination – never ceases to trouble and delight him. From the Discworld books I plucked Guards! Guards! more or less at random for analysis in the classroom, wondering what it is he has brought to so many readers over a career that was cruelly cut short, and yet delivered an unrolling epic comedy on a scale no one else had dreamed of.

Two elements drive the novel’s plot: the standard story of the dragon and the hero who slays it to rescue the lady, and the story of the unheroic rank and file (here reduced to the ‘rank’, one suspects because of their attitude to personal hygiene) known as the Guards, whose main function in narratives is to be fooled, ignored or randomly slaughtered. Combining the two elements gives rise to an essentially political question: what kind of society perpetuates these particular clichés, one ancient, the other more or less modern (though Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram unseated and casually slew innumerable anonymous knights in Malory), and how do they sit in a world that claims to value democracy and gender equality? How do they sit, indeed, as working models of anything at all? What desires do they cater for? What possibilities for better social structures do they tend to suppress?

One answer, of course, is that both fantasies pander to a certain view of masculinity. Men fight to show their manhood, as the young adopted dwarf Carrot (who is over six feet tall, and rather stooped from having been raised – no pun intended – in the dwarfish mines) has been led to expect, since he sets out on his journey armed with a battered sword and a reinforced codpiece. The hero fights and wins; the Guards fight and lose; the hero thereby confirms his greater share of testosterone. Carrot’s codpiece confirms one of the flaws in this male rite of passage: that even the strongest warrior can be floored by a well-aimed kick in the testicles. The lone hero is ridiculously vulnerable under any circumstances, and the concept of the lone hero facing up to an armour-plated flying monster that breathes fire merely serves to reinforce that vulnerability to a ridiculous extent. Pratchett slightly tips the scales in the hero’s favour by ensuring that his dragons, too, are flawed, despite their scales: their habit of breathing fire involves an insanely volatile digestive system which is vulnerable, in its turn, to spontaneous chemical explosions at awkward moments. The traditional über-masculine hero and the traditional dragon, in other words, are imaginative confections, ill suited to the rough-and-tumble of real city life in any era. Why then do we persist in imagining them, rather than turning our attention to more practical fantasies – such as the unheroic Guards in Pratchett’s book, who prefer not to fight at all, thereby preserving every portion of their bodies, not just the family jewels?

guardsguards11The same thing, of course, could be said of the law – which Hope Mirrlees identified in Lud-in-the-Mist as one of the most inventive products of the human imagination. As well as his sword and codpiece Carrot owns an ancient lawbook, and seeks to put its precepts into practice against all odds, even (at one point) placing a prone dragon under arrest while reciting the charges against it with meticulous reference to the entries in his volume. The city of Ankh-Morpork, to which he travels to enlist in the City Guard, has little respect for either law or order. Indeed its cynical and efficient ruler, Lord Vetinari, has built his success on the principle of encouraging lawbreakers to police themselves in order to protect their own interests – not so much organized crime as crime legitimated, without reference to conventional legislation of any kind. The thieves have their own official guild, which ensures that the proper quantity of robberies is committed each year, and the guilds of assassins, merchants and beggars are equally well integrated into the machinery of the commonwealth. As a result the upholders of the law, the City Guard, have been rendered redundant by the time Carrot joins them. Undaunted by, indeed wholly ignorant of this redundancy, the young man flings himself enthusiastically into the task of enforcing long-forgotten regulations; and in the process he reminds not just the rest of the Guard of the value of what they stand for, but the city as well, whose lapse into absolute pragmatism and self-interest gets arrested – no pun intended – by his quiet assumption that he can do the impossible: uphold the good and protect the weak.

There is something endearing, of course, about Carrot’s idealism, and the city is soon endeared by it – though this is partly because Carrot is immensely strong and, thanks to his codpiece, more or less indestructible by any being of a similar size. He reduces even the troll Detritus to a tearful wreck in a barroom brawl, though here, too, there’s a sound practical reason for his victory: the troll is unfortunate enough not to own a reinforced codpiece. Carrot can stride through areas of the city barred to other Guards, thanks not just to his ignorance but his size; and he can take lodgings in a brothel not just because he doesn’t know what a brothel is but because he affords welcome protection to its workers. Carrot is not just an idealist, he’s a practical asset. And not just because of his strength. His willingness to see the best in everybody helps to forge communities where before there were only loose agglomerations of people banded together for mutual protection. Carrot, then, is not just a stick to beat the wicked, like the traditional hero, but a carrot to tempt them. He has value, which is sometimes measured in carrots – or at least in carats, which are rather less useful than the currency Carrot deals in, honesty, commitment and affection. By the end of the book we have discovered that Ankh-Morpork contains very little gold (the dragon that threatens it is disgusted by its absence); but Carrot imports or restores a new set of valuables – not private parts or a crown, but the simple truths it was in danger of forgetting.

Carrot stands, in fact, for several truths of some importance: that the hero cannot manage on his own; that the qualities traditionally associated with masculinity aren’t enough to sustain an individual, let alone a community; and that the best intentions are useless – indeed highly dangerous – unless they have a solid material basis, a foundation in pragmatism; that is, unless they incorporate a recognition of what can practically be accomplished with the ingredients available. Guards! Guards! is an extended meditation on the precise combination of ingredients required to enable a society to function without falling into either tyranny – totalitarian control by a single authority – or anarchy – not organized anarchism but a Hobbesian struggle for survival. There are a number of characters in it who represent certain points on the scale between the two conditions; and indeed the sheer number of characters that represent these points is what makes each of Pratchett’s later fantasies such a complex feat of narrative engineering.

paul-kidby-night-watchIt’s worth pausing to consider the narrative form within which these characters operate. A Pratchett novel is made up of a series of short chapters written from different points of view. At first the reader has no notion how these points of view – most of them those of misfits, obsessives and eccentrics – fit together in the machinery of plot; and a final understanding of the role of each element is never achieved until close to the end. No one plot strand takes precedence over any other. It’s a democracy of narratives, a cityscape of storytelling, and enacts Pratchett’s philosophy of collectivism; the notion that any major event involves collective rather than individual action – the precise reverse of the philosophy that drives the fairy tale of the Hero and the Dragon.

Motifs and allusions form part of this assemblage, and like the multiple strands of plot reveal their function in the overall machine only near the dénouement. Guards! Guards! includes, for instance, at least a couple of references to that old chestnut of a movie Casablanca. On p. 94, Captain Vimes of the Guards thinks to himself about the dragon that is stirring up trouble in Ankh-Morpork: ‘Of all the cities in all the world it could have flown into […] it’s flown into mine’. At this point, for Vimes the dragon is a solitary problem and an ungendered one; it bears no relation to any other aspect of the narrative, as far as the Captain is concerned. Towards the end of the novel, however, another quotation from Casablanca shifts the focus to another narrative strand, and draws attention to what has changed in the interim. Having accepted an invitation to supper from the dragon-breeder Lady Ramkin, and enjoyed her company, Captain Vimes searches for a way to express his growing fondness for her. ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ is what he comes up with (p. 285). The context for this second reference to the movie is, of course, quite different from that of the first; and it indicates a radical shift in perspective. By this stage in the book the marauding dragon is no longer a neuter ‘it’; the monster has become a female, and ceased to be a monster by teaming up with Vimes’s pet marsh dragon Errol, bred (of course) by Lady Ramkin. As a breeder of dragons, Lady Ramkin has shown an interest in the giant scaled intruder from the start; it is for her a splendid example of the draco nobilis, and therefore related to her marsh dragons. For her, then, the giant dragon is no isolated terror but the member of an identifiable species, linked by blood and habits to the diminutive creatures she rears in her shed. But the dragon’s breed also associates it with Lady Ramkin herself, who is both a member of an ancient breed – the aristocracy – and the kind of large-scale, dominant woman who used in the past to be branded a ‘dragon’. The dragon-breeder’s attitude to the dragon has brought it in out of the cold, so to speak: integrated it into a community, given it a home. And Vimes’s second quotation from Casablanca confirms that something similar has happened to Lady Ramkin. Thanks to the dragon, her status as an eccentric outsider living in isolation in her dilapidated mansion has changed – as has that of Vimes himself, who at the beginning of the novel was a broken-down drunk with only the shreds of an official function. When he parrots Humphrey Bogart, Vimes is looking at Lady Ramkin and really seeing her, perhaps for the first time – not merely (against romance convention, given her size) as a desirable woman, but as a person with many qualities: ‘style and money and common-sense and self-assurance and all the things that he didn’t [have]’ (p. 284). He is looking at her, in fact, as the emblem of the city he loves: ‘she had opened her heart, and if you let her she could engulf you; the woman was a city’. The second Casablanca reference, in fact, identifies the moment when both Vimes and Lady Ramkin settle at last into the urban community – thanks to the dragon who first flew into and threatened that community (‘Of all the cities in all the world…’), and later found, like them, that it had brought her love.

Vimes’s reference to Lady Ramkin as a city reverses the cliché he first uttered in a drunken mumble in the novel’s opening pages: that the city is a woman, who both acts like a ‘lady dog. Puppy. Hen. Bitch’ and also has moments when she opens ‘her great big booming rotten heart to you’, catching you off balance (p. 8). Captain Vimes’s trajectory from solitude to companionship, from half-affectionate resentment at the city to contentment with what it offers him, is the point of the novel, which uses it to illustrate the necessity of coexistence in a complex society, and offers itself as a fable of the techniques that make coexistence possible. His journey to companionship identifies Vimes as a true member of the Guard, all of whom are in the end bonded to the city as well as each other. Sergeant Colon shares his house with a wife he never sees, since she works the day shift and he works nights; they communicate through written notes, but their companionship seems to work well for both of them. Lance Constable Carrot, who begins the novel yearning for the dwarf lover he left behind in the mountains, ends it in a contented relationship with one of the workers at the brothel where he first found lodgings. Corporal Nobbs is a member of a Morris dancing club, which shares its quarters with other clubs – including the secret society that summons the dragon. The Guard is a collective, and seeks companionship outside its ranks (or the rank) as a logical extension of its duty to protect and serve the urban community.

64216In this communitarian impulse, the Guard stands in opposition to the other strand of myth that shapes the narrative. The legend of the Hero and the Dragon depends on exclusivity and uniqueness: the hero is unique in his strength, the princess offered to the dragon is unique in her birth, virtue and beauty, the dragon unique in its monstrosity. And in this novel, the conventional dragon myth is the product and province of self-centred loners. The anonymous Supreme Grand Master of the secret society that summons the dragon, who scorns the other members of his circle and looks forward to the time when he can rise above such dross (his name, when we discover it, turns out to mean Lone Wolf). The members of the society themselves, each of whom harbours a grudge against his fellow citizens. The dimwitted hero selected by the Supreme Grand Master to defeat the dragon, who has been carefully bred in seclusion to think himself special. The dragon itself, as the Supreme Grand Master conceives it: a lonely being, bigger and nastier than any other creature. All these people perceive themselves, and the dragon they summon, as solitary animals – despite the fact that solitude, for Pratchett, is more or less impossible, since no one can survive for long without the help of others (and solitude in this respect is not the same as loneliness, which is suffering born from the fact that being alone is not a natural state for human beings). Solitude is often the chosen state of the selfish rather than the condition of the disenfranchised. It can be a fantasy as recklessly extravagant as dreaming of dragons. To seek to make that fantasy concrete, for instance by seeking to demonstrate your own uniqueness through an act of reckless daring, can be highly dangerous – to yourself as much as to the community you plan to foist it on. Certain kinds of fantasy, in fact, are pernicious, and no practitioner of fantasy fiction can afford to forget it.

There’s a third element in the novel besides the gregarious Guards and the self-segregating Supreme Grand Master: and this is the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, ruler of the city. Vetinari stands (among other things) for cynical pragmatism: the notion that men and women are ruled not by ideals but by self-interest, and that they can only be controlled by appealing to their concern for their own well-being. It’s on this principle that the Patrician founded the Guild of Thieves; if crime cannot be wiped out, why not make it pay? And of course he has a point. At various moments throughout the novel the citizens of Ankh-Morpork find themselves consenting to atrocities, happy to tolerate tyranny if this will ensure their continued survival. When a king emerges to kill the marauding dragon they forget democracy and make themselves monarchists. When a dragon seizes the king’s throne they put on tunics embellished with a dragon emblem. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler sells his sausages with equal enthusiasm on every occasion: at the ritual sacrifice of an innocent woman to the dragon, at the coronation of the king who purportedly killed the dragon, and at the dragon’s installation as the king’s successor. For the Patrician, this makes ordinary citizens like C.M.O.T. Dibbler ‘bad people’; people who will ‘follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity’, out of a ‘kind of humdrum, everyday badness’ (p. 274). He counts himself among them, which is what distinguishes him from the solitary tyrant (or tyrant’s vizier) the Grand Master wishes to become. Lord Vetinari is thoroughly democratic in his dismissal of the moral fibre of humankind. And he also sees what he calls ‘badness’ as functional. Good people, like Captain Vimes of the Guard, need bad people like himself because they know how to plan ahead, as the good do not. He demonstrates the fact aptly by fitting his prison with a lock on the inside, for the eventuality that he might one day be locked into it, and by making friends with the city rats, ahead of the day when he loses the support of his human followers. Planning like this would have been branded obsessive lunacy or visionary madness by anyone who had known about it before it was confirmed as ‘pragmatic’ or ‘well-planned’ by the Grand Master’s coup d’état, and the Patrician’s imprisonment.

The truth is – as this last sentence implies – that inhabiting a city, and the planning that makes it possible, is not a matter of simple pragmatism, whatever the Patrician may claim (and he admits as much a short while later when he confesses he needs idealists like Captain Vimes). Dreams are necessary, as well as practicality, if the city is to retain its resilience, its endless capacity to reinvent itself in response to every twist and turn of an arbitrary fortune. The adaptability of the citizens of Ankh-Morpork is a testament to their imagination as well as their unerring instinct for survival. They aren’t absolutists – not committing themselves to any one philosophy, since this would limit their capacity for self-defensive metamorphosis. But they are perfectly capable of seeing things from a new ideological perspective when this becomes necessary. And they are also perfectly capable of defending their interests against real oppressors, again when this becomes necessary and not before. A healthy community, in fact, depends on a volatile balance of dreams and pragmatism, much as a dragon’s fire depends on a volatile mixture of chemicals in its various stomachs; and this is the place to return to Carrot, who is the gold standard by which to measure that balance.

As a personality, Carrot has all the qualifications to become a unique hero of the sort the Supreme Grand Master needs to fight the dragon and win the kingdom. A member of the Grand Master’s secret society lists these qualifications before Carrot has even entered the narrative: ‘There used to be some old prophecy or something […] “Yea, the king will come bringing Law and Justice, and know nothing but the Truth, and Protect and Serve the People with his Sword”’ (p. 17). Sure enough, Carrot arrives a few paragraphs later carrying a sword he has inherited, wielding Law and Justice in the form of a book, literal-minded enough to believe he knows what Truth is, and determined to Protect and Serve by joining the Watch. Later in the book, some of his fellow Guards notice something else about him that makes him kingly: ‘“Something odd about that boy,” said Colon, as they limped after him. “He always manages to persuade us to follow him, have you noticed?”’ (p. 253). But by this time Carrot has been integrated into their company; he has changed them and they have changed him. No longer so strait-laced about Law and Justice, Carrot has instilled in them a new sense of responsibility towards their fellow citizens. He may be leading them towards danger like a hero, but before doing so he has asserted the interdependence of the Guards by citing the first part of the famous catchphrase of the Three Musketeers, ‘All for one!’ – to his comrades’ confusion. He has brought them dreams, they have brought him pragmatism, and their qualities have become fused, making all of them stronger. Throughout the book the conventional reader is waiting for the moment when Carrot will be exposed as the true king of Ankh-Morpork – perhaps a few minutes after he has slain the dragon. That moment never happens. The dragon is not slain – it gets a happy ending. Kingship is abolished. The myths are changed. Things are arranged much better than they were in those old stories about winged lizards and expendable nobodies.

tumblr_static_tumblr_static_arig1ne892gockooskw0o4g08_640Of course, the rearrangement of the stories involves a good deal of magic, though to a different end than the magic of the sword that killed the dragon. One kind of magic involved is the old cinematic magic of the million-to-one chance: the last-minute escape or rescue in a thriller, which is just barely believable, because it could work, but so unlikely as to resemble divine intervention. Another is the magic of the imagination, which conjures dragons into existence as we read. On the final page of the novel, the image of two dragons flying out across the void that circumscribes the Discworld represents just about as magical an ending as you could wish for. The magic that propels the lizard lovers is the special kind Pratchett has engineered out of the components of his tale: a utopian, urban, pragmatic kind of thaumaturgy, unseen outside his books, at least before he wrote them (it has spread since). The sense of community it fosters, too, may last beyond the final page. Or, to paraphrase Pratchett’s last two sentences – themselves paraphrased from the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – perhaps it won’t. But then again, what does?

The Islands of the Blessed

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The Western Isles mark the outermost bounds of human knowledge. East of their sands I have scanned the world from the wings of experience and found it wanting. Westward lies the sea, and beyond that, some say the world’s edge, others the Islands of the Blessed. But I have different expectations. I am a counter of things: I have numbered the hairs on a man’s shin, the blades of grass in a prince’s lawn, the endless combinations of the clouds – everything can be reduced to figures, and the sum of my calculations I proclaim forthwith: all is vanity. But being of an optimistic cast of mind I am offering life one last chance to prove me wrong before I dispense with it altogether. Here is my plan.

They say there is a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow; but I am concerned with greater riches. Every day for untold ages a sun has dropped behind the horizon, sometimes as a great gold coin, sometimes a ruby or a diamond. The accumulated treasure beyond the world’s end could buy heaven and earth a thousand times over. But material wealth means nothing to me; the purpose of my journey is different. I mean to travel to that heap of suns and engage in one last dazzling feat of arithmetic, counting them by hundreds and thousands, with the help of my faithful tally stick, until I have found out what I wish to know: the value of existence, the total sum of days and weeks and years, and whether it is worth it, after all. If yes, then I shall fill my leather bag and return to the world to take up a position worthy of my venture: a warrior-king, an archpriest or a prophet. If no – then I shall let the suns consume me, content to vanish from the face of the earth and be forgotten, like my nameless forefathers before the days of tally sticks and coins.

Of all the petty human race the Western Islanders are the pettiest. Thirty-three – no more – have gathered on the beach to see me off, all ignorant of my vision. The white-bearded Headman leans on his decrepit wife among a gaggle of elders. Children hop in and out of my boat where she rests on the greyish sands. They have stocked her with rations enough to last me many weeks, although the dullest eye can see that the horizon is only five hours’ journey distant, and when I have arrived at my destination I do not expect to need corporeal nourishment.

The boatbuilder hangs between his crutches scrutinizing his handiwork, head sunk between his shoulders. The other onlookers are shepherds and fishermen with weather-blackened faces, rosy island girls, hags swathed in shawls with eyes as dull as rocks among the heather. A little way off the village cow crops the bitter sea-grass. A bird bobs on a nearby rock, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket. I long to throw off these barren regions and attain the vivid country of my dreams, where objects stand forth each from each in bold shapes and brilliant colours, all obedient to the eternal laws of geometry. These farewells have been protracted beyond endurance.

The Headman creaks a blessing, good wishes scutter from the elders like stones dislodged by my boots. The boatbuilder, who has grown familiar with me through our shared concern with his craft, nods his crushed head between his props.

‘Aye, aye,’ he whines through splintered teeth. ‘There’s wonders abroad on the bottomless deep. I’ve heard tell of savages ten feet tall with skin black as ebony from head to toe. I’ve heard of pygmies two feet high with bones in their noses who blow poison through tubes and devour little children. There’s tales of the anthropopagi whose heads sprout from their chests, whose eyes can pierce the blackest smoke and whose ears can hear the fall of a grain of salt in another room. There’s talk of the leviathan with stones and trees rooted in his back; of monstrous maneating birds and mermaids with breasts of ice. Aye, aye, we builders of boats might as well mould vessels of butter on bonfires as wear our bones to dust carving the seagull’s flight into hard wood that’ll rot at last among the crabs and oysters.’

Before he has half done I have set my shoulder to the boat’s stern and given her a mighty heave. Shepherds and children rush forward to help drag her to the water and shove her out beyond the breakers. Ripples chop against the hull. In these ungainly regions everything is always knocking against everything else! I shall arrange things better when I return from looking on the order of the suns.

The first real swell snatches at the boat’s ribs. I swing myself on board making the vessel lurch. Pebbles grate beneath the keel; for a moment I fear that the next surge will nudge me ignominiously back to shore. But the shepherds give me a final thrust and the ocean sucks me in.

Looking back I see the people gesticulating wildly, but their voices are already lost on the breeze. Could they not have raised a concerted shout, a song perhaps to cheer me on my way? Disgusted by their inadequacy I stumble forward to curl myself in the foresheets, fixing my attention on the brightness in the west. Waves open their glutinous mouths beneath the belly of the boat and I slither down their tongues, bubbles seething to left and right. An eddy and a swirl, then my face is pointing skywards between fleshy walls of water, a pallid lump of firmament clasped between their writhing lips. To my horror the waves are resolving themselves into human shapes, lifting and dropping on every side. Did I not, then, leave humanity gesticulating on the beach? The boat rushes to meet the clouds, which resemble the flabby buttocks of old men; but it has left part of my stomach stranded on the sea-bed.

Enough of frail mortality! My spirit can break free of this fleshly prison whenever it likes – leaving a safety cable anchored in my skull – and speed ahead of this coracle in the wake of the sinking sun. Only a few short hours and I will have reached the land where golden orbs form patterns on the pavement of eternity, where the houses are pillared with sunbeams and roofed with the crystal of the spheres. If only this boat would settle into a steady rhythm! The sea rises and falls, the boat rises and falls, even the clouds toss like seaweed at low tide. My paltry frame has no conception of its destiny. All at once earth, sea and sky dissolve into a single stream that gushes through my body. The boat swoops westwards on the wings of fate, while I crouch retching over the prow.

Just before dark I glimpse the tip of the island’s highest peak as it drops below the horizon. In a fit of facetiousness I compare its disappearance to that of the sun, and wonder whether there might not equally be a mound of islands lying below the eastern edge of the world like a pile of dung, bearing witness to the folly of creation as the suns bear witness to its glory. The sky spins round my head, spray soaks me to the marrow, boreal winds dash in from every side to spear me, as if the finny folk in these parts have turned harpoonist. I have seen men fish in my time, but never before fish men. I shall have one tale to tell, at least, if I return! Another convulsion jars the boat from stem to stern; but whether it was the sea or my body that caused it I cannot say.

Hours later, the sickness at last releases me. The invisible waves tumble on through the night. Wedged between lobster-pots and a water-butt at the bottom of the boat I wonder how far I have come, how much farther I have to go. Do I dare consume some of my rations? At the thought, something stirs in the place where my stomach once was, and I hastily turn my mind to my approaching transfiguration. Within hours I shall have looked on the greatest hoard of them all and either been scorched to cinders or begun my ascent to immortality. Men who were once my equals will become the lowest order of creation by virtue of their very likeness to my image. The earth shall split open at my footfall, planets fling themselves down in homage. Death shall swing from my belt. Words shall issue from my mouth as flames.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment at which the prospect of what I shall become stops being attractive. I know only that I have suddenly started to yearn in the darkness for little fires. Peat fires in hearths blackened by the smoke of generations; the flicker of light in the glaze of a simple pot; flakes of flame flashing in the eyes of a family huddled round a blaze at dead of winter. One among their number tells a story: the tale of the great house that lies below the horizon, pillared with sunbeams, roofed with the crystal of the spheres. Shadows shift on the walls as the tale unfolds, and in each heart there is a little bonfire that whispers and dances in response to the speaker’s words. So that no matter how far the mind may stray, whether to the fever-ridden plains of the anthropopagi or to the glass forests of the Arctic alive with a million rainbow hues beneath the Aurora Borealis, there is always a gentle warmth to greet its return, an answering warmth that flares up when the roofs of the tumbledown homestead hove into view.

What welcome can I expect on my return from the sunny country? Will the boatbuilder glance up from shaping the prow of a smack? Will the Headman hobble down to the dunes leaning on his ancient consort and kiss my cheeks with withered lips, as once he did when I blessed his hovel? But this is frailty, wanderer. On your return there will be no more need of welcomes. Spray drenches me, the boat leaps like a hooked fish, and I am awash with sentiment. I should be ashamed of myself. Am I not more than human? Have I not stretched forth my hand to grasp the celestial orb and drawn myself up alongside it in lonely splendour? Yet here I float on the flood, yearning for a flame, a match, a candle. Surely the boat is spinning in circles, an apt emblem for my frailty.

The sky is light again, the sea no different. But look – as I am shrugged on the shoulder of a wave above the sea’s concupiscent rolling – surely that is land I glimpse rising like dawn from the disorder! In my astonishment I loose my grip on the gunwale and sprawl face downwards in the bilges: for stability in this chaos is a greater miracle than a city of golden spheres! When I top the next wave I find myself closer. In desperation I thrust my hand over the side and paddle till my fingers lose all feeling. At the next crest – heaven be praised! I can almost distinguish rock from heather!

How far have I floated? What land is this? Visions spring unbidden from my memory: of the land where rivers run uphill, where the lotus blooms tended by nymphs of unspeakable beauty with ambergris and jasper in their hair. Visions of bejewelled chimeras, unicorns, golden fruit and the armoured basilisk, the cockatrice, the corkendrill and the solitary firebird. The firebird, hatched from the sun! To this I am transformed as I shrug off the darkness. My nostrils snort the wind in quest of some spicy fragrance. My clothes glow with a tropical warmth, encrusted with salt like coral. All it needs is for the sky to turn a deeper blue and I shall know myself to have entered the odoriferous Indian ocean or the balmy waters off the coasts of Afric. As I have not done since childhood, I raise my feeble voice in a squawk of thanks to the powers that drove me hither over the turbulence.

It seems only moments before I am approaching the shore. I have studied it carefully from a distance to make sure it is no leviathan. The skyline is surely too ragged, the shape too irregular for a fish, however monstrous. A savage climate it seems, scourged by hurricanes, beaten by the tide. A land peopled with primitives who will submit without question to the behest of a golden voyager borne in on the ceaseless surf. And I will be their generous lord: for I no longer despise humanity. My heart leaps in my breast, for here, as if at my summons, a band of natives troops down from behind a promontory to congregate on the dunes. Broken shreds of noise stream past on the wind.

And what a band it is! Giants ten feet tall with skin black as ebony, pygmies no more than two feet high who leap about as if eager for human flesh. One creature appears to be swathed from head to foot in white hair; another is an anthropopagus whose face sprouts from his chest and whose legs spring from his shoulders. Ruddy sirens hang like seagulls above the sands, attended by spirits draped in lichen. And what shaggy beast is this that prowls the middle distance? Surely it is the fabulous cameleopard that stalks the African bush? Legs trembling, I stand erect in my ship to salute the fruitful alien soil. Ever closer skims the boat. My heart soars in my breast.

The keel grates on pebbles, water chops against the hull. Giants and pygmies rush into the shallows sending showers of spray about their knees. They seize the gunwales, cheering and shouting, and draw me up onto the sand. My love for these bright beings is beyond endurance.

Somewhere nearby, an angel spins on a stone, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket.

Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop

61F+j+HLN1L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Among the strangest of all the strange things about The Magic Toyshop (1967) is the fact that it is set when it was written, in the mid 1960s. These were the days when the electrified Bob Dylan shucked off the ‘easy answers’ and ‘easy imagery’ of his early protest songs and became, as Carter put it, a ‘prophet of chaos… clanging and vulgar, neon and plastic and, at the same time, blackly, bleakly romantic’; while the trial of the Rolling Stones could be portrayed as an act of sartorial warfare, with ‘the judge, in ritually potent robes and wig, invoking the doom of his age and class upon the beautiful children in frills and sunset colours, who dared to question the infallibility he represents as icon of the law and father figure’.[1] Over the years, when I’ve asked students to tell me when The Magic Toyshop takes place, they’ve located it at the beginning of the twentieth century in the early days of the decline of the British Empire; or plumb in the middle of the Victorian era, when Dickensian crossing-sweepers begged for alms from top-hatted villains outside Old Curiosity Shops where Little Nell lay dying in a welter of saintly sentimentality. I myself hardly noticed the references to cars and televisions and central heating when I first read it. And Carter clearly intended to generate this chronological confusion: it’s the topic of the book. Her cast of eccentric characters sit on a precarious fulcrum between past and present, like the Western Archipelago itself, like the postwar world, struggling and failing time and again to release themselves from the nightmare of history.

By problematizing the historical location of her novel, Carter put her finger on the pulse of the decade. The precision of the book as an evocation of its period lies in its amazed recognition that 1960s England was still to a great extent 1860s England, that the modern was still struggling to break through the putrescent morass of decaying Victoriana: junkyard relics whose dusty, worn-out, randomly heaped-up contents invade every urban space like Philip K. Dick’s kipple, encumbering every effort of the nation’s exhausted inhabitants to move into another mode of social living. What some now see as acts of massive cultural vandalism in the 60s – the driving of motorways through the heart of great Victorian cities, the wholesale demolition of richly ornamented public buildings, the erasure of parks, fountains, monuments and astonishing feats of industrial engineering – were perceived by many then as a struggle to the death against an oppressive past that refused to die, a grim self-image that pervaded British society from the topmost level of government to your own front room, monstrously perverting every effort to achieve rational change. The Magic Toyshop stands now as a record of this struggle between old and new, the radical young and the reactionary middle-aged. In it, as Carter said of Dylan’s new sound, there are no easy answers, no easy imagery. And the situation seems to have delighted her as a writer as much as it horrified her as a political agitator. It gave birth to her own uneasy imagery, and she went on returning to this clash of timeframes and ideologies in novel after novel, story after story, essay after essay.

Magic-Toyshop-for-display-520x245The Magic Toyshop has the shape of a Victorian novel. Our innocent but plucky young heroine, nicely brought up and well to do, suddenly finds herself orphaned and penniless, struggling to maintain her identity in the grimmest of working-class households, bravely taking on the burden of responsibility for her helpless younger siblings, wearing her fingers to the bone in appalling conditions, consorting with rough men and women who turn out to have hearts of gold, repelling the unwelcome advances of her evil uncle before winning through to freedom and independence with the heroic assistance of a brave young man. The elements of this plot are so deeply familiar that in themselves they constitute a reminder of how far our Victorian heritage continues to permeate our culture – a situation of which Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events takes full advantage. In Carter’s novel, as in Snickett’s series, each element of the conventional plot undergoes a metamorphosis through the agency of pastiche. Melanie’s wealthy middle-class background, for example, is no idyll – or if it is, it’s a very silly one. The working-class environment to which she’s transplanted isn’t horrible in itself, but only because it’s dominated by an abusive patriarch. Melanie never really takes on the burden of caring for her siblings, although she toys with the idea of doing so when Mrs Rundle puts it into her head. The work Melanie does hardly wears her fingers to the bone; it’s mostly monotonous, and sometimes enjoyable. And so on. But the presence of the familiar Victorian plot keeps reminding us that this book is a fiction, one of an infinite number of fictions by which we measure and judge the lives we lead. And as such, it takes its place among an enormous range of texts – stories, poems, songs and myths – to which Carter alludes in the course of her narrative, as if to demonstrate that we’re constructed from head to toe by the stories we tell ourselves: from the fairy tale of Bluebeard’s Castle which Melanie can never get out of her head, to the poems of Donne and Keats from her school anthology, quotations from which open and close the book; from the Irish songs that comfort the ‘Red People’ in Uncle Philip’s menagerie to Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic Through the Looking Glass, which supplies Finn’s Pleasure Ground with its chessboard pavement, gives Aunt Margaret her unruly head of hair – borrowed from Carroll’s White Queen – and invites Melanie to wonder if she is being dreamed by Mrs Rundle (p. 95) as Alice is dreamed (perhaps) by Carroll’s Red King. And everywhere in the novel there are references to Shakespeare, the English ‘national bard’ whose words have taken root in the thoughts and conversations of all Carter’s characters as if in confirmation of the playwright’s dubious status as spokesman for all humanity. It’s worth lingering for a while on the significance of this wide range of textual reference.

If our minds are shaped by old fictions – from the ancient, such as the story of Bluebeard, to the Elizabethan – Donne, Shakespeare – and the late Victorian – Frances Hodgson Burnett, the younger Yeats – then how we tell stories acquires an importance that’s hard to exaggerate. The twists Carter gives to all these tales and allusions become the signs of the times, the markers that indicate potential transformations we will undergo as we launch at last into the new and unexpected narratives that will shape our future. One of the questions this book asks is: will these new narratives succeed in breaking free from the cycle of repression and oppression that has stunted our growth in the course of the twentieth century? – that has left the bulk of the world’s population, at a time of unprecedented technological innovation, locked in a desperate hand-to-mouth existence, needlessly imprisoned in a state of intellectual and political disempowerment, and ignored or humiliated by their self-appointed rulers? Another question she may invite is: which parts of the old stories are worth retaining, and which need to be rejected as the instruments of tyranny, the tools rather than the indicators of a corrupt social hierarchy? As one might expect, she doesn’t answer these questions – she doesn’t pose as a reader of tea-leaves, as Francie does very briefly when he tells Melanie that someone will soon be leaving on a journey. But we can better understand the terms of the two questions if we look at some of the odd things she does to the familiar novelistic situations she sets up.

scan0001Here are a few of them. For one thing, the book is full of absurd and excessive touches. The nanny who cooks only bread pudding and who has changed her name to Mrs Rundle by deed poll. The puppet in Uncle Philip’s workshop which bears an uncanny resemblance to Melanie when she put on her mother’s wedding-dress and climbed a phallic apple-tree – an incident he cannot possibly have known about. The twelve-year-old boy who is so uniquely obsessed with sailing ships that he eventually disappears into his own fantasy. The dog that beats its tail in time to music, and which is spotted at the end of the book running upstairs with a basket of flowers gripped between its teeth, in exact mimicry of the portrait of it that hangs in the kitchen. The severed hand of a child that appears in a kitchen drawer, then disappears without explanation. Any reading of The Magic Toyshop has to account for these bizarreries in one way or another; if not, it won’t be an honest response to Carter’s text.

One way of accounting for them is to say that they’re there to remind us, over and over again, that what we’re reading is fiction; that we shouldn’t let ourselves be seduced into accepting it as a slice of historic truth, as we might if it posed as ‘realism’. Bertolt Brecht did something similar in his drama, which he designed as an instrument for exposing the fantasies and fabrications by which the ruling classes maintain their grip on power. Into each play Brecht incorporates a series of devices that make us step back and recognize our position as a theatre audience, capable of analysing the action dispassionately without having our judgement impaired by an excess of imaginative sympathy. Analytic detachment is built into Carter’s novel by the fact that her characters – especially our heroine, Melanie – are so detached from things themselves: ‘She thought vaguely that they must look very striking, like a sot from a new-wave British film, locked in an embrace beside the broken statue in this dead fun palace’ (p. 106).[2] The dog, too, in her uncle’s household, might have been invented simply to surprise us into reassessing our relationship with the narrative. At several points in the story Melanie is not sure if she is looking at the dog or at Finn’s painting of the dog; and the moment in the last chapter when it appears with the basket of flowers might be meant to make us recognize the sheer absurdity of trying to distinguish a painted animal from a ‘real one’ – when the real one is itself only a fabrication constructed from words on a page. The absurdist elements in Carter’s book help to prevent us from abandoning our reason in sentimental sympathy with the plight of our lovely heroine, as we are constantly invited to do by Victorian narrators. But each has, too, a specific function at the moment when it occurs. Each one helps to point up other, less obvious absurdities, which permeate the culture of the 1960s.

tumblr_inline_n06lw0skKR1soxkr5Take Mrs Rundle, for example, whose fake title articulates her desire to rewrite history so that she will have fulfilled her destiny as a woman – according to the Victorian conventions by which she lives. She is described entirely in terms of popular fiction: the plays of J. M. Barrie and the comic theatre of the 1950s: ‘She had hairy moles and immense false teeth. She spoke with an old-world, never-never land stateliness, like a duchess in a Whitehall farce’ (p. 3). And she prays in church ‘astonishingly’ for a fake memory to go with her fake name: ‘Please God, let me remember that I was married as if I had really married […] Or at least […] let me remember that I had sex’ (p. 8). Mrs Rundle is clearly ridiculous; but she’s no more ridiculous than, say, Melanie’s father, who insists that his family go to church as a means of forgetting his own class origins: ‘Born in Salford, it pleased him to play gently at squire now he need never think of Salford again’ (p. 7). Indeed, he has so immersed himself in his public role as a successful writer that his own daughter cannot imagine him ever abandoning his tweeds, his tobacco and his typewriter ribbon – even when dying in a plane crash or making love. And his wife, Melanie’s mother, is not much more substantial: she is a set of clothes, and in the course of the novel anything else about her rapidly melts away into oblivion before the more robust presence of the new family Melanie finds in South London.

The rural idyll in which Melanie lives at the beginning of the novel is, in fact, an elaborate fake. So, too, is the ‘naturalness’ of the class system that all this fakery is constructed to preserve; or the illusion of permanent prosperity her first family lives under, which tricks Melanie’s father into failing to save money against a rainy day; or the moral system that assures Melanie she is being ‘punished’ for stealing her brother’s unwanted Biggles books when the false eyelashes she buys with the proceeds prove impossible to apply. The happy family home, too, of the novel’s opening pages, is an elaborate forgery. The loving parents who die, for instance, are total strangers to their children. They know so little about their son that they buy him Biggles books on the basis of his appearance – because he looks like the kind of boy who will enjoy such texts – not of his tastes or wishes. And the three children in this idyllic home spend all their time apart, in separate rooms – in Melanie’s case, at least, behind a locked door. The world they inhabit is the epitome of middle-class individualism, where other people are simply irrelevant to a person’s existence except as an unfocussed backdrop for their private internal dramas, and where money is never thought of except as a kind of atmosphere, a pervasive presence whose loss is unimaginable. Their move to Uncle Philip’s household makes them sociable, as they never were at home.

Mrs Rundle’s name identifies her as the nexus of a network of fantasies that envelop Melanie in the novel’s opening pages. So it’s interesting that she should prove the most enduring element from Melanie’s earlier life later in the novel, reasserting her claim to remembrance by sending the children practical, warming Christmas presents at a time when they have nothing else – and when their parents have left them nothing of themselves at all. Uncle Philip has the role of the moustache-twirling, sadistic, self-satisfied stage villain of Victorian melodrama in this novel; but his contempt for Melanie’s father has a sound material basis:

‘I never could abide your father,’ [he tells her.] ‘He thought ’isself too good for the Flowers by a long chalk, he did. A writer, he called ’isself. Soft bastard, he never got his hands dirty.’
‘But he was awfully clever!’ protested Melanie, stung with defiance at last.
‘Not so clever he thought to put a bit by to take care of you lot when he’d gone,’ Uncle Philip pointed out reasonably. ‘And so I’ve got his precious kids all for my very own, haven’t I? To make into little Flowers.’ (p. 144)

For Uncle Philip, children are there to be shaped into puppets, to perform scripts of his own devising. This is pernicious; but in the rural idyll that opens the novel, too, Melanie is little more than a puppet, shaping and reshaping herself in front of a mirror, but each time coming up with a male fantasy of which her father might approve – in other words, bodying forth a script devised by some higher authority. It’s worth considering, then, how far her life before and after her symbolic Fall in the Edenic garden of her father’s mansion may be described as an exile from Paradise. Or should it rather be described as the first step in the direction of a potential escape-route, a route that would have been closed to her if she had remained her father’s daughter? This view seems to be supported by Melanie’s reaction to a customer who enters the toyshop about half way through the novel. ‘She was an expensive woman,’ we’re told, ‘all in suede, come by car from north of the river. She represented a type of customer they persistently attracted, whom Uncle Philip especially loathed’ (p. 95). Melanie finds she shares Uncle Philip’s loathing, serving her with reluctance and mentally branding her ‘mean bitch’ when she buys the cheapest toy on offer. And as she leaves the shop, we’re told: ‘She was the sort of woman who used to come for the weekend at home, sometimes, with a suitcase full of little black dresses for cocktails and dinner… Melanie could easily have grown up into that sort of woman’. In the course of Carter’s novel, Melanie’s class sympathies shift, and it’s the analytical advantage this profound shift gives her that opens up new possibilities of escape for her from the restrictions and absurdities of middle-class fantasies about women, in which she is so sensuously enmeshed in the book’s first chapter.

81026Melanie’s reaction to the ‘expensive woman’ also shows how she is starting to make an internal map of London, despite her limited experience of the city. Her division of it into two halves, North and South, with different class affiliations, is one Carter returns to throughout her writing – as in her final novel, Wise Children, whose narrator tells us: ‘Once upon a time, you could make a crude distinction, thus: the rich lived amidst pleasant verdure in the North speedily whisked to exclusive shopping by abundant public transport while the poor eked out miserable existences in the South in circumstances of urban deprivation condemned to wait for hours at windswept bus-stops while sounds of marital violence, breaking glass and drunken song echoed around and it was cold and dark and smelled of fish and chips. There’s been a diaspora of the affluent, they jumped into their diesel Saabs and dispersed throughout the city’ (p. 1). Melanie’s recognition of the suede-clad woman as a migrant from the affluent North marks a stage in her naturalization as a citizen of the capital.

But let’s return to Mrs Rundle one last time. As we’ve seen, her name is one of many fantasies that dominate Melanie’s rural childhood; but it’s also representative of the most potent female fantasy of all, the myth that marriage represents the ultimate fulfilment for a woman. And this myth takes a terrible grip on the novel, monstrously seizing hold of and imprisoning all the female characters we meet. On her wedding day, Melanie’s mother disappears in a ‘pyrotechnic display of satin and lace, dressed as for a medieval banquet’ – we’re never told whether as a guest or as the decorative main course. After this ‘epiphany of clothing’, she never really re-emerges from under the weight of her extravagant garments, and a memory of clothes is all that’s left of her after her death. On her wedding day, Aunt Margaret loses her voice and acquires a straight grey frock and a jewelled choker as emblems of her slavery. Melanie practises repeatedly for her wedding day in the course of the narrative: first with her visions of a ‘phantom bridegroom’ in some ‘extra-dimensional bathroom-of-the-future in honeymoon Cannes. Or Venice. Or Miami Beach’ (p. 2); then when she dresses up in her mother’s wedding dress and finds herself assaulted by a monstrous apple-tree, emblematic of the violent and oppressive masculinity her daydreams have not yet equipped her to deal with. Later she is dressed as a reluctant child-bride by Uncle Philip in an effort to enslave her in his egocentric fantasies, as he has enslaved her aunt; and she’s assaulted again, this time by Philip’s puppet-swan. And finally, new visions of marriage usurp her visions of the future. No longer convinced by the notion of a ‘fancy’ marriage to her phantom bridegroom, she dreams in the end of a working-class marriage full of red-headed children, poverty, squalor, and a replacement Philip in the person of Finn, who appears to her in the role of husband when he takes over Uncle Philip’s chair in the kitchen. Is the vision she has at this point an accurate reading of her future? For her, at this point in the book, it’s the ultimate nightmare, and Finn seems to her less the mythic hero of old Ireland than the end of the road; but he also ends Philip’s swan, burying it in the ruined Victorian pleasure garden where it belongs, then coming to Melanie for comfort, crawling into her bed at night like a child in search of warmth and approval. There’s a potential here for balance and equality between them, if they can find a way to break the vicious cycle of birth, marriage and death that shaped them.

92d2164a1a02f330fdb8a82c6223fcf6-1The most monstrous manifestation of marriage in the book is the moment when Melanie sees the severed hand of a little girl in the kitchen drawer. It’s the hand of a child bride as Philip might have imagined it:

It was a soft-looking, plump little hand with pretty, tapering fingers the nails of which were tinted with a faint, pearly lacquer. There was a thin silver ring of the type small girls wear on the fourth finger. It was the hand of a child who goes to dancing class and wears frilled petticoats with knickers to match. From the raggedness of the flesh at the wrist, it appeared that the hand had been hewn from its arm with a knife or axe that was very blunt. Melanie heard blood fall plop in the drawer. (p. 118)

The little girl’s hand might suggest to us that this is the moment when Melanie recognizes that her connection with her past has now been violently cut off; after all, the hand belongs to the kind of girl she once was, a child from a prosperous background for whom nothing was too fancy. But the vision also invites us to think of marriage, since the fourth finger is the place for a wedding ring, being the finger ‘from which a vein leads to the heart’ (p. 120). So marriage too would seem to be a form of severance or cutting off. Above all, perhaps, it is a means of infantilizing women. The silencing of Aunt Margaret renders her childish; and Uncle Philip imagines his child-bride Leda as a child when she is violently wedded to the swan, and attempts to represent Melanie as younger than she is when he incorporates her into his appalling Christmas show, his pastiche of the Christmas story in which another virgin, Mary, was impregnated by another winged visitor from heaven. It’s not surprising, in other words, that the moment when Melanie finds the hand is the moment when she recognizes for the first time her affinity with the Jowles, and especially Margaret. She has become one of Philip’s many imaginary brides – among them Mary Queen of Scots and Philip’s own sister, Melanie’s mother, whose wedding picture he keeps in his room as if from an incestuous desire to share her marriage with the brother-in-law he despises – and as such she has become Margaret’s honorary sister, able to exchange glances of solidarity and understanding with her despite her dumbness.

The severed hand is just one of several emblems in the book of arrested development: of organic growth stopped in its tracks, which is one way of describing the Victorianism of 1960s England. Uncle Philip’s house in particular is full of such emblems: the fact that it is a toyshop, and one self-consciously modelled on a Victorian business, indicates his dedication to the infantilizing of its inhabitants, stopping them dead at a primitive point in their personal evolution. Presiding over the building is a cuckoo clock containing a real stuffed cuckoo: the herald of the Spring symbolically murdered on one of its annual visits and incorporated into the machinery that measures Uncle Philip’s inflexible timetable. On the shelves of the shop are toys that diminish the members of Philip’s ersatz family by mocking them: monkeys wearing Margaret’s and Francie’s clothes and playing Irish music on their own instruments, the fiddle and flute; a Noah’s ark with a miniature Finn on board, which is bought and taken away in cruel mockery of the ‘real’ Finn’s inability to liberate himself from Philip’s clutches. But the toyshop is no more infantilizing an environment than Melanie’s father’s house. There her little sister Victoria first learned to act like an infant, despite being five years old – the age when most children start school. Melanie imagines her continuing as an infant for the rest of her life, hidden away like a second Mrs Rochester in an upstairs room of the family house and ‘pushing her indecent baby face against the bannisters to coo at unnerved guests’ (p. 8). The world of post-Victorian England babifies its female citizens; and the Victorian origins of this process are indicated by Victoria’s name. The British Empress is alive and well in the 1960s, but dwindled to the stature of a cooing toddler and with no prospect of achieving anything more impressive than a baby achieves for the rest of her insignificant and slightly embarrassing existence – despite all the potential for intelligent action cooped up in her diminutive head.

magic toysh firstIf Victoria is an infantilized Queen, the magic toyshop itself is a kind of shrunken, worn-out replica of the lost British Empire, containing within itself all the essential components of that vast edifice – rather as the Crystal Palace, to which the novel alludes in its usual slantwise fashion, contained representative products from every corner of Britain’s global demesnes. The Jowles are the last sorry remnants of the colonies, flamboyantly Irish in their every word and gesture, playing traditional music, embodying famine, donning Easter Rising trilbies, spouting fatalistic rhetoric and nurturing a dark family secret which is merely one more affirmation of the many cod Irish myths they personify. The silent stoicism of Francie and Margaret under Uncle Philip’s tyranny makes them horrifyingly complacent with it, as they watch Finn’s defiance escalate towards its suicidal climax. Melanie is equally complicit, acquiescing to the various roles imposed on her in the toyshop, allowing herself to be absorbed into the Jowle family, finally letting herself be rescued from a fire by Finn – who often wears a second-hand fireman’s jacket – at the book’s conclusion. Each of them has allowed him- or herself to become Uncle Philip’s toy, his puppet, incapable of thought except in the terms he permits them to think in.

Yet by the time he rescues Melanie, Finn has taken the last and boldest step in his career as an insurrectionist: he has destroyed Uncle Philip’s swan, which is as much a token of mythical Ireland, thanks to Yeats, as it is of patriarchal oppression. Melanie has abetted him in this revolutionary act. Finn has regained his voice and so has Margaret; the two of them have kissed as they parted with ‘stately formality […] like fellow generals saluting each other the night before a great battle where one of the is like to die’ (p. 197). The revolutionary promise of the name Melanie gave the Jowles when she first came to the toyshop – the Red People – has been fulfilled, and a departure from the cycle of oppression even looks feasible. The final sentence of the novel finds Finn and Melanie standing on the edge of an uncertain future in another garden, facing each other with a wild surmise (p. 200); and the phrase both conjures up the spectre of colonialism and entertains the possibility of change. It comes from Keats’s famous sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, in which he exults over gaining access to the works of the epic poet in translation (Keats’s family couldn’t afford to have him educated in Greek, which at the time was the preserve of the British elite). The young poet compares the experience of reading the Iliad and the Odyssey to that of a Spanish conquistador confronted by the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the New World:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortez is of course the embodiment of colonial oppression – another Uncle Philip. Yet Keats’s poem is a celebration of success in overcoming the disadvantages of his educational background – an effusion of pleasure in new knowledge, and in the promise of further knowledge yet to come. That such knowledge might include ‘new planets’ as radically different from the old as Utopia was different from Europe has been the hope of imaginative writers since the sixteenth century – and Utopia, too, was located in the New World. Carter’s final phrase contains, then, the hope of new knowledge – even as it reminds us of the poetry Melanie imbibed at school, not all of it dedicated to the celebration of oppressors or of marriage. It sums up the hopes and fears of her epoch as quirkily and vividly as the rest of the book does. And one might surmise, too, that it instructs her readers in the state of mind they should entertain when approaching her experimental fiction.

[1] Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 323 and 107.

[2] Quotations are from Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2009).

The Quitting Shop

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The man stood in front of the shop window, hesitating.

He was so much in two minds that his body seemed to have divided itself at the waist, shoulders and ribcage twisted round to face the shop, hips and legs striving to drive him forward towards an important meeting in one of the anonymous streets that stretched out in all directions from this roundabout. A twinge at the base of his backbone promised hours of painful regret for his indecision: he would spend this evening stretched out on the sitting room carpet with the cat crouched on his chest, trying to relax as the unctuous voice of the therapist oozed into his ears through headphones thick with earwax. But his two minds would not be reconciled. He was already late for his meeting – and yet the shop called to him in tones of piercing sweetness, assuring him that the meeting did not matter, that meetings need never matter again if he accepted its promise.

Two things drew him towards the shop. One was its situation on the roundabout, lodged in the middle of a row of shops, its windows humming to the throb of passing traffic. The curve of its façade suggested it had been designed to sit on this roundabout, perhaps at a time when the traffic wasn’t so heavy, when you could easily cross to the circle of grass in the middle of the ring of roads and settle yourself on a bench beneath an ornamental tree, among curved flowerbeds, to enjoy the spectacle of passing horse drawn vehicles, the occasional motor driven by men and women wearing goggles and thick leather gloves. Now crossing the three lanes of traffic towards the grass would be an act of suicide, and there was nothing to cross for anyway, no tree, no bench, no flowers on the central island, just a windswept savannah of badly-mown grass. The shop stared out at a blur of hurtling vehicles, torpedoes aimed at targets far away. It had the look of having been stranded in the middle of nowhere, a symbolic ‘O’ of nullity. Yet that gave it a mysterious aspect, transforming it into a kind of small, neat question. This shop had made the transition from somewhere to nowhere with its dignity intact; there must therefore be something behind or beneath its bland white frontage that gave it a firm foundation, a stable identity, in defiance of time and change. What could it be?

The other thing that drew him to the shop was the sign, painted in fancy letters on a grass green background. He read it again as he stood twisted underneath: THE QUITTING SHOP. A shop that invited you to quit. A shop entirely dedicated to making an end. Quit what? he asked himself. Make an end of what? The windows gave no clue. They were entirely screened by expensive-looking white blinds, pulled down so low you couldn’t get a glimpse of the interior by peering underneath. What was this shop inviting him to quit? Well, his journey to the meeting for a start. Late or not, he would have to go in, he knew it now, despite the familiar knot of anxiety that had lodged itself in his chest, despite the urgent alarm bells sounding in his ears, which told him, as his watch did, that the meeting had already started, that he would be late.

He could still get there, he thought, in less than five minutes. This would make him only fifteen minutes late – quite an acceptable margin if he claimed to have been delayed for some specific reason, rather than just because of incompetence in planning his journey. But extend that narrow margin to thirty minutes – such a stretch of time would put the seal on his inefficiency, mark him out as a business associate you could not trust. He hadn’t taken a mobile number, couldn’t call to offer his excuses in advance. He would fetch up on the doorstep red-faced and sweating, without a decent story to excuse his lateness. Could he come up with a decent story inside the shop? He doubted it: his mind was blank, and for all its pull upon him, its magnetic attraction, it didn’t look the kind of place to inspire invention, to awaken the smooth, soft-spoken eloquence that had eluded him on such occasions throughout his life. It looked small and neat and plain. It had no truck with eloquence.

He twisted his hips around till they were aligned with his chest. He could not help himself; he was obeying impulse. He approached the door.

Inside, the shop was as small and neat and plain as it had looked from the street. Plain white walls, ornamented with a single picture: a square of faded patchwork framed in teak. A counter made of some man-made, fawn-coloured substance, smooth and cool. A door behind the counter with a grass green curtain hanging in front of it. Another door in the back wall of the shop, to the right of the counter, this, too, discreetly veiled by a grass green curtain.

A stage set, he thought, for a modern play, an exercise in minimalism.

Somewhere in the depths of the building a little bell rang to announce his entrance. He walked to the counter and laid a hand on the smooth cool surface, hoping to look as if he had a purpose. And he had a purpose, he suddenly realised. He would ask for directions. He would ask the way to the house where the business meeting was now in progress. He would note the directions down on the square of paper he always kept in the inside pocket of his various suits. Everything fell into position: that was why he had entered the shop, that was how he would explain his actions when he finally arrived, in ten or fifteen minutes, waving the paper with the directions on it as evidence of his resourcefulness. He had done the sensible thing: stopped to make inquiries of a friendly local, who would offer him guidance with the clarity and precision one might expect from the proprietor of a shop as neat as this one. The fact that he was a man who never asked for directions, on account of his consuming shyness, would not occur to the people at the meeting, because they did not know him. He had effectively made himself immune to accusations of incompetence. A warm glow swept across his body from left to right, and he relaxed. He would be late, but it did not matter. He was… well… saved.

No one came.

His contentment drained away as if through the hand lying on the counter. He shifted position. He looked around to see if there was another bell to ring, perhaps on the fawn-coloured front of the plastic counter, perhaps to one side. He knew there was not. Anything as conspicuous as an electric button or a bell pull would have stood out in that plain room like a footprint on the unblemished surface of a field of snow. He allowed his fingers to drum the top of the counter, very softly. He looked at his watch.

It was time to go. His tardiness was getting embarrassing.

Still he did not move. A faint draught was stirring the bottom of the grass green curtain that covered the door to the right of the counter. He peered at it, with studied casualness, out of the corner of his eye. He was still facing the curtain behind the counter, but he could feel his body reorienting itself inside, twisting as it had done outside the shop till it faced in two directions, not just one. His feet pointed at the counter in their polished shoes – the left shoe was a little scuffed, he should give it a rub. His chest and head pointed at the door on the right of the counter. He wanted to walk to it, twitch aside the curtain. It seemed an impossibly bold and dangerous move, a move not to be countenanced. He yearned to make it.

He walked to the door, twitched aside the curtain. It was heavier than he had expected. Was it made of velvet?

Beyond the door his nearsighted eyes took in a rolling expanse of countryside, a patchwork of fields that stretched as far as the eye could see into the hazy distance. He adjusted his glasses. He needed a new prescription, had needed one for many months, there never seemed time to make an appointment at the optician’s. He breathed in the scent of the crops in the patchwork fields: the honey smell of pollen, the wholesome smell of wheat and oats and barley, the soothing fragrance of lavender, the perfume of poppies, the whiff of toadstools hidden in the grass. He hadn’t seen fields like that for ages, hadn’t smelt them for even longer, since he was a child. He took a step forwards –

And tripped on something, and pitched forward, reaching blindly out with both hands to cushion his fall.

He sank into fabric. The fields yielded at his touch and folded round him. Their cargo of vegetation pressed against him like a lover’s cheek. The scent of lavender filled his nostrils. Music sounded, and he closed his eyes, and opened them again to find himself sprawled on a giant quilt, an eiderdown for a child as big as the moon. Stars shone above him, embedded in the ceiling, he assumed, or pinned to the fabric of the sky like a million sequins on an evening gown.

He sighed, and settled deeper into the softness.

*****

quilts

The woman stood in front of the shop window, clutching her bag.

She had known for many weeks that she would enter the shop on a day like this, had planned ahead for this very moment, packing samples and other necessaries in the holdall, putting on her stoutest shoes when she rose this morning – to the excitement of her mother’s dachshund, who thought the shoes must signify a walk. But now she’d arrived at the door she stood there irresolute, hanging fire, unsure if she should step inside or hurry away. No one knew she had meant to come to the shop this morning. She could just as easily have been going to the shopping centre, or returning from it, though the holdall was an odd kind of bag to take to the supermarket. And if she did go to the supermarket after all, and if someone looked inside the bag as she was putting things into it at the till, they might be surprised to see, alongside samples of fabric from her seventh quilt, a floral nightdress, a heavy torch, a first aid kit, a knife. She wasn’t sure herself why she had packed them. The eccentricity of the lonely, she supposed.

She hung outside the window, practically balanced on the tips of her toes, the handles of the holdall clutched in both fists. Why couldn’t she move? She’d been promising herself this visit ever since she’d first seen it, when walking the dachshund in the wrong direction, looking for the park. Though she’d walked that way before – or thereabouts, she couldn’t be sure, all the streets near her mother’s house looked much the same – she hadn’t noticed the shop, she thought, till that afternoon, and only then because the old dachshund had chosen to have a kind of seizure in front of it, throwing itself down on its old bald belly and quivering from head to tail like a wound-up spring. After tending to the dog – which quickly recovered, looking up with an apologetic wag of its whiplash tail as if to say, ‘Sorry! I was just practising! Not dead yet!’, she had glanced up at the sign above the shop as if in search of some kind of clue to the dog’s condition. THE QUILTING SHOP, the sign had said, in fancy letters on a grass green background. Quilting, she’d thought. What a lovely word. And the picture had formed in her mind of an ancient eiderdown of her mother’s, handed down for generations, which lay on the bed in the unused bedroom at the back of the house. A slightly musty-smelling eiderdown, its colours dulled by the passing years, but patterned with ingenuity and exuberance, like a map of a strange but half familiar country.

Quilting, she thought. The construction of a new pattern from old material. I’d like to try that, one day.

She’d taken a mental note of the shop’s location – marked it on the map in her head with a small red dot, as a thing of importance – then picked up the dog and set off back the way she had come. She had joined a sewing club that week, begun her first quilt, completed it in a frenzy of activity inside three weeks, begun another. She didn’t visit the shop, not yet. She must have a reason. It was not the sort of place you could simply enter, as you’d enter a café for a cup of tea. And then, quite suddenly, the reason came. She had run out of fabric half way through her seventh quilt. So unprofessional! Such a lack of foresight! She was sure no self-respecting seamstress in the old days could have so radically underestimated the quantities of fabric needed to complete a simple design. She must get help, as well as fabric. Expert advice. She must visit the shop.

That night she had packed her bag, but she did not go to find the shop the following day. Day after day went by, and she always found reasons for putting off the visit. A trip to the dentist (though this reminded her to put a toothbrush in the holdall). A doctor’s appointment (ditto paracetamol). A shopping expedition in a neighbour’s car (that was when she had bought the folding knife). It was only that morning, when she woke up, that she had known it was the right day. She had thrown in a few more items: a sunhat, a pair of plimsols, a pen and notepad. She had kissed her mother goodbye, and phoned the carers as she walked away, the leather bag bashing her knees like a malevolent substitute for the arthritic dachshund. ‘Are you still all right for tomorrow? Oh good; that’s kind. I shan’t be able to visit for about a week. I’ve stocked her up – frozen meals and such – but I’d be so grateful if you’d just be willing to keep an eye… You’re so sweet, thank you! See you next week!’ Now, as she stood in front of the shop, she wondered what she’d been thinking. The holdall was very heavy, and the shop very small and ordinary – and besides, her mother might be calling for her even now, in that quavering voice that made you think her frail till you made out what she was saying, the commands, the threats, the imprecations.

She had better go home before she made herself look even more of a fool than she was already.

She raised her eyes to the sign. THE QUILTING SHOP, it continued to say. Quilting: the making of something new from something familiar. She took a deep breath and plunged inside, as if she were plunging into the sea on a chilly morning in early June.

Once inside, she gave hardly a glance to the plastic counter, paid no attention to the distant bell. With a resolution that took her by surprise she marched across the brown linoleum to the curtain that concealed the door on the right of the counter. She swept the curtain aside with a theatrical flourish. Then she stood staring across the rolling fields of barley, the fields of wheat and oats and rye, field after field heaving up and down like breakers towards the dim and distant hills. She gripped her holdall and screwed up her eyes against the rays of the setting sun.

Far, far away, on the crest of a hill, she saw a figure marching away towards the sunset. She thought it was a man dressed in a suit, the jacket of which he had taken off and was carrying loosely across his arm.

She set off after him, walking briskly.

After a while she put down the holdall and began to walk faster.

A few minutes later she began to run.