The Power of Words

Working life in a boarding school doesn’t exactly give me the time to write I crave. It hardly offers much time for reading, for that matter. But, when a moment comes along when I don’t have lessons to plan, PDPs to fill out, reports to write or duties to carry out, I grab a book and my quote diary and escape for as long as my tired brain allows. I’ve kept a quote diary since 2015, charting my progress through the books I’ve been reading and jotting down any particularly wonderful words or beautiful descriptions – writing that stays with you long after you close the book, like the smoke in the night sky left by a magnificent firework. It’s not the most labour-intensive of blog posts, and yet it is the work of five years of reading. Here’s a selection of my favourite lines from the books I’ve read in that time.

Oh, and if looks as though there’s a lot of H.R. Haggard and M.M. Kaye in there… it’s because there is. Together with Bryce Courtenay, Michael Morpurgo and John Wyndham, they’re my all-time favourite authors.


 

The Garden of Eden, no doubt, looked fair before man was, but I always think that it must have been fairer when Eve adorned it.
Henry Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines

Her father was a man “led by a star”, as the natives say, and would follow it over the edge of the world and be no nearer.
Henry Rider Haggard, The Ghost Kings

It is certain that few build up the temple of their lives upon some firm foundation of hope or hate, of desire or despair… but rather take chance for their architect – and indeed, whether they take him or no, he is still the master builder.
Henry Rider Haggard, Montezuma’s Daughter

Almost every flock of vultures has its king.
Henry Rider Haggard, Marie

“Duty is a fool-word that makes bones of a man before his time and leaves his girl to others.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Marie

“There’s so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing.”
Joy Chambers, My Zulu, Myself

“A man’s half licked when he says he is.”
Jack London, White Fang

For most of the years of my life I have handled human nature in its raw material, the virgin ore, not the finished ornament that is smelted out of it – if, indeed, it is finished yet, which I greatly doubt.
Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

There is nothing more uninteresting than to listen to other people’s love affairs.
Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

“He who walks into a storm must put up with the hailstones.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

“First serve, then ask for wages.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife

“What is life but loss, loss upon loss, til life itself be lost? But in death we may find all the things that we have lost.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife

Complete happiness in this world is not allowed for even an hour.
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife

“Music is a living art, ambassador. It’s meant to illuminate the emotions of the one who gives it life. How can written music have any feeling?”
Thomas Hoover, Moghul

“The Infinite will of God is always mysterious, mercifully granting us what we need more often than what we want.”
Thomas Hoover, Moghul

“We are all searching for our own self. But the self is not easy to find, so we travel afar, hoping it lies elsewhere. Searching inward is a much more difficult journey.
Thomas Hoover, Moghul

Kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

There was something in Johnny’s character that was pure gold without a trace of alloy.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“No man goes so far as he who knows not where he is going.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

Conway Barton possessed a love of two things that have never yet failed to ruin those devotees who have worshiped them to excess: Drink and Women.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

It was an age of lavishness. Of enormous meals, enormous families, enormous, spreading skirts and an enormous, spreading empire. Of gross living, grinding poverty, inconceivable prudery, insufferable complacency and incomparable enterprise.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

It is darkest under the lamp.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

Ten men with one heart are equal to a hundred men with different hearts.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“No sport is worthy of the name that does not include an element of risk.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“Though I can feel the wind and hear the thunder, I do not yet despair of avoiding the storm.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“I put my hand upon my knife and walked as a cat walks in an alley full of dogs.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“I have yet to learn that cure is preferable to prevention.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

Dasim Ali was a placid and pleasant person who harboured no bitterness towards anyone – except on occasion towards God, who had granted him no sons.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“Fire is a good friend when men are few and foes are many.”
Henry Rider Haggard, The People of the Mist

What a vast gulf there is between love and loved! It is measureless.
Henry Rider Haggard, The People of the Mist

The devil – a very convenient word at that – is a good fisherman. He has a large book full of flies of different sizes and colours and well he knows how to suit them to each particular fish. But white or black, every fish takes one fly or the other, and then comes the question – is the fish that has swallowed the big, gaudy lure so much worse or more foolish than that which has fallen to the delicate white moth with the same sharp barb in its tail?
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“If the snake had the strength and brain of the elephant, and the fierce courage of the buffalo, soon there would be only one creature left in this world.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“You don’t understand. If only you understood, you would understand.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“You white men are very clever and think that you know everything, but it is not so, for in learning so much that is new, you have forgotten much that is old.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

The night is dying, the day is not yet born.
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“New journey, new stick, Baas!”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

Love is the best of medicines – if it be returned.
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“I am a cosmopolitan. But then the gods of nationalism rose up.”
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

In the summer of 1929 he left for England for a year at Oxford; he felt alone and out of place the whole time there, surrounded by people who mostly seemed either to be decadent aristocrats or pretending to be.
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

“This view reminds me of a story I learned at school: He took Jesus to a high place, and showed all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and said, ‘All these things I will give thee, to have dominion over, if you will fall down and worship me’.” He frowned. “That is not quite right. Was it ‘dominion’ or ‘power’? Anyway, it was something like that.”
“Jesus was a Jew, wasn’t he? Who was it who took Jesus to the high place?”
Gunther shrugged. Then he remembered, with a superstitious shiver, that it had been the Devil.
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

“You don’t see it, do you, people like you? That all you’re doing is standing against the tide of historical destiny. Which, by the way, is about to drown you.”
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

“Love’s a game for the young and lovely, and the mirror, my dear, never lies.”
Aimee Liu, Cloud Mountain

One hundred wireless networks password protected; one thousand humans in an acre holding their wallets close to their genitals.
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

I heard it said that in London you’re always looking for either a job, a house or a lover.
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged.
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

One day you’ll boast of coming here, but realise you remember nothing about it.
Jane Johnson, Court of Lions

Like eyes they were, and seemed to watch him. The few cliff-dwellings he had seen – all ruins – had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude and something past.
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage

“Proselyter, I reckon you’d better call quick on that God who reveals Himself to you on earth, because He won’t be visiting the place you’re going to.”
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage

European women are so cold they give you a chance to say no at every turn, and you feel good about it, too.
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Wednesday looked like he had learned to smile from a manual.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

If he were a real woodsman, he would slice off a steak and grill it over a wood fire. Instead, he sat on a fallen tree and ate a Snickers bar and knew that he wasn’t a real woodsman.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

A salesman in America is naked without his smile.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

That is the tale; the rest is detail.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

We need individual stories. Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

“The Americas just swapped Liberty for sugar.”
Thomas Hoover, Caribee

“What can a man know of wine if he samples only one vineyard?”
“A woman might say it depends on whether you prefer flowers or wine.”
Thomas Hoover, Caribee

“You are hungry and honest, and that is very rare in this country.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

When he was younger he had admired people with moneyed childhoods and foreign accents, but he had come to sense an unvoiced yearning in them, a sad search for something they could never find.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

“My name is Gabriel Oak.”
“And mine isn’t. You seem fond of speaking it so decisively, Gabriel Oak.”
Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Poets must first be hanged, then mourned at the gallows.
Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman

My empire is of the imagination.
Henry Rider Haggard, She

“Swift – be swift- death is in the air we breathe.”
Henry Rider Haggard, She

Mediocrity is the best camouflage known to man.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“My mouth tastes like the splash-board of an Indian lavatory in the mango season.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

I imaged hundreds of eyes hungrily devouring my freedom as they watched from the prison darkness.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“Animals, that’s my speciality. You can ask me anything about animals. You name it,” – he brought his hands up as though he were squinting down the barrel of a rifle, pulled an imaginary trigger and made a small explosive sound – “I’ve shot it.” He lowered the imaginary rifle and grinned at me. “I love wild animals.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

The concept of a white man coming along and forgiving everyone’s sins and then getting nailed to a post for his trouble seemed a highly unlikely story. As Dum pointed out, white men never forgive sins, they only punish you for them, especially if you are black.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

Ruthless logic is the sign of a limited mind. The truth can only add to the sum of what you know, while a harmless mystery left unexplored often adds to the meaning of life.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“All I know about the Bible is that wherever it goes, there’s trouble.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

A natural leader, I have found, need never explain. In fact, they less they explain the more desirable they are as leaders.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“To play black, the music must come from your soul and not from your head.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

Once a man has lived long enough, every moment is a reflection of some other moment.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

The name of God is now in the water.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

Every person wants to feel that some other man can guide them back into the light.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

“Put your God away. You have one too many loyalties.”
James Clavell, Shogun

“Endeavour” is an abstract word, and unsatisfactory.
James Clavell, Shogun

“Love is a Christian word.”
James Clavell, Shogun

Mutiny breeds in idleness, not in hardship or hard work.
C.S. Forester, The Gun

“The hand of God is at work in León.”
C.S. Forester, The Gun

He had seen for himself, on a brief visit to the interior, one of the slave routes that wound across Africa. A trail that had been clearly marked by hordes of vultures that perched among the flat-topped thorn trees, and the bleached bones and rotting corpses of the innumerable captives who had been unable to go any further, and been left to die where they fell.
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

Men were covetous, and the world no longer wide enough.
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

“If it is a traveller’s tale, where then are the travellers?”
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

One day the old cities, if they were not destroyed by war, would be pulled down and swept away, and in their place would arise a flavourless uniformity of brick and mortar, populated by once-colourful people aping the white men’s dress and speech, so that all cities would in time become identical masses of houses and factories, shops, boulevards, and hotels, linked by trains and steam-ships, and filled with imitation westerners imitating western ways.
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

The pinkness overwhelmed a person, as an aphid might feel suddenly thrust into the petals of an overblown rose.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

If you went indoors for a moment, you’d sense from the change of light that something had happened and then, when minutes later you came out again, there were the towering castles of grey tinged with white, real estate for gods and frightening giants.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

“Altruism costs a great deal.”
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

Suspicion feeds upon itself like a cancer.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

People are people through people.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

The law cannot stop a man and a woman.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

Doris with the wonderful tits was about as subtle as a meat-axe.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

“My people [the Jews] have an instinct for knowing when to move. The only we denied that instinct we paid too big a price.”
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

“I do not suffer from the affliction of being white.”
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

Together since the world began, the madman and the lover.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

God allows no fragmen tof our souls, no atom of our dust to be lost from his universe.
John Rollin Ridge, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murrieta

“The usual trouble with liberal-minded men is that they think others are, too.”
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

A city is a desert of bricks and stones.
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

“There are times when one fails to see why God invented the ostrich.”
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

The Bomb appears to have no other destiny but to be held up and shaken threateningly.
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

Listener, the joy of a story is in its telling.
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account

Quote Unquote: ORIGIN by Dan Brown

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This week’s attempt at escapism was even lazier than usual, since it required no actual reading on my part but rather dipping in and out of the Audible app on my phone during the emptier moments of the day. You might call it “tactical” escapism, though I suspect it’s still just another tired synonym for procrastination. This week I decided to go for a writer I have somehow managed not to read thus far, that being Dan Brown, author of the best-selling Da Vinci Code. What can I say? The film came out before I got around to reading the book, and Dan Brown doesn’t exactly cut to the chase. Origin, one of his more recent works, does not yet have a film adaptation in the works, so it was one that had to be read. The fact that it takes place in Spain had nothing to do with it.

And on that humongous white lie, let’s dive in. Oh, and before you read on, I might add ***SPOILER ALERT***  (because it’s not an easy book to pick apart without giving away some pretty critical spoilers).


 

If you’ve read/seen The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, you’ll already be familiar with Brown’s clever plots. Expect the same in Origin. In fact, expect a lot of what you’ve seen before: a highly suspicious bishop, a strong, silent-type hit-man with an agenda, a glamorous female sidekick, a mind-blowing secret that you have to wait until the end to discover, and Doctor Who levels of sci-fi explanation. Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire futurist and Elon Musk by another name (Musk even gets a nod at one point), announces to the world that he is going to change what it means to be human (another moment Doctor Who fans might be familiar with), but is shot by a hidden assassin before he can make his ground-breaking reveal. It’s up to Robert Langdon, Kirsch’s one-time mentor, and the director of the Guggenheim Museum and future queen of Spain, Ambra Vidal, to finish the job, racing against the clock to deliver Kirsch’s discovery to the world. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the novel is Kirsch’s supercomputer, a sentient AI known as Winston, who guides the protagonists towards their goal with godlike success.

I’ll admit, I expected a little more from Origin than I got. I wasn’t actually all that bothered by the familiarity of the storyline, but for a book dealing with religion on Spanish soil, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed when the Muslim and Jewish characters were killed off early on and nothing was made of this. Fair enough, Spain is a primarily Catholic country, but Angels and Demons made such an exciting use of the spectre of the Illuminati that I went into Origin expecting some dark vestige of Spain’s bloody history to raise its head. Instead we got the Palmarian Church – an innovative introduction to most of us, but given its role in the story, hardly the most threatening or thought-provoking of obstacles. All the same, I enjoyed Brown’s modern, pop-culture-imbued writing style, as it is so far-removed from my usual material, which I am increasingly coming to see as verbose and out of touch (though the travel writings and adventure novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s will always hold a position of glory in my heart for the lexical skill of their writers).

I haven’t mentioned the role played by the Royal Family of Spain, largely because it is so insignificant to the main plot that it might as well have been a soap opera flickering away on a TV in the background. The ghost of Franco was conjured up – but for just a moment. Barcelona loomed into view – but nothing was made of the Catalans. The Spanish Inquisition was mentioned several times, and a terrorist attack on Spanish soil was explicitly detailed – but there was only ever one religion truly under fire all along. Brown has always been good at misdirection in his plots, and he was subverting expectations in Origin like Rian Johnson did with the new Star Wars movies.

The big reveal? Not as mind-blowing as I anticipated, I guess – but then, Kirsch set the stakes very high. When the truth came out at the end, I was surprised it unsettled the Parliament of the World’s Religions so much that they considered prematurely sabotaging his discovery before it could go public. I’m not all that firm a believer myself, but I didn’t find myself questioning my faith once: Kirsch’s expositions on the seventh kingdom and the origins of mankind were insightful, but not exactly earth-shattering. By this point in our history, a future where we share the world with, or perhaps even cede it to the silent sentience of artificial intelligence is more or less inevitable. What started out as a plot device for a 1970s sci-fi nightmare is now almost a matter of fact. My question is, why should that kind of knowledge shake the foundations of the faithful?

My journey with Catholicism is still in its infancy. That comes from growing up in a country which threw off the “shackles of the papacy” a long, long time ago. Though I live and work in a Catholic enclave, it is precisely that, an enclave. It’s easy to forget that, beyond the bubble, most of my countrymen don’t go to Mass on a Sunday, meatless Fridays aren’t the norm, and many of the rules and expectations that seem so normal seem out of date if not alien. Everybody has their own take on their own religion. For me, it’s a family affair. It’s my way of reaching out to my grandfather, a man I never knew, and to my cousins, uncles and aunts in Spain. It’s a way of sharing in that rich and beautiful legacy of ages. Futurists and scientists like Brown’s Edmond Kirsch take great delight in tearing down the temples of the ancients, but what are they doing if not building glass temples of their own in their stead, just as humans have delighted in doing for all time? Religion isn’t about rules and false truths. It’s about love.

My experiences as a student at a Kent grammar school, where daggers-drawn atheism was almost a state religion, actually gave me more of an appetite for a faith of my own. Ironically, my highly opinionated contemporaries pushed me towards God more readily than any beaming, hot-chocolate touting, guitar-strumming Christian Union friends ever did. I suppose what I objected to more than blind faith and the endless four-chord songs about some heavily distorted Western Jesus was the hostile rejection of hope, which has ever been my most treasured of core values (there’s a modern buzzword if ever there were one). And yes, in case it isn’t clear already, modern Christianity and I aren’t exactly a match made in heaven. Somebody once put it to me that Christian music adapted to suit a modern audience. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d take a hymnbook over guitar worship any day. I appreciate the staggering irony in that statement as a devotee of Gospel music, and I’m afraid I’ll have to hold up my hand as an all-too-human hypocrite on that count. For me, Gospel music has never been about a white Jesus who loves everybody, rather about bridging the gap between worlds and reveling in the rage, the sadness and the hope together with the joy of faith. Because that’s what faith is: perseverance in the face of insurmountable adversity. Kirsch, like many characters from my own past, went head to head with the world’s believers with a smug smile, believing he could sweep away the dark religions so that sweet science could reign. In doing so, he betrays his humanity: there are many for whom the most bitter of blows fall like rain upon their faith. Faith is not founded on facts. It comes from a deeper well.

I am one of those for whom the great questions – where do we come from? Where are we going? – have never held all that much interest. For most of our history, mankind has sought to make itself master of all things, seeking the logic and the reason behind everything in an attempt to bend it to his will, to subjugate it, for knowledge is power. And while I love to learn new things, I am no Kirsch. For me, the real beauty of faith is in the great mystery. There are some things that will forever be beyond my understanding. And I’m ok with that. It’s not so much “Jesus, take the wheel”. It’s more of a “I’m mysterious, folks. Deal with it.” Sometimes – as Rowan Atkinson’s character says in the 2005 film Keeping Mum – all we need is a little grace.

 


Favourite scene:

The chase scene in the Sagrada Familia was pretty spectacular. Brown knows how to pick a good setting, that’s for sure. There’s always something terrifying about the idea of fleeing from a searchlight – some “flight” instinct, buried deep, from a time before flashlights when we ran, ducked and weaved to get out of eyesight of predators who were after our blood, perhaps. Those were always the levels in video-games that scared me the most (Zelda: Wind WakerMetroid Fusion, Harry Potter etc). I digress. Brown’s assassin had a gun and had just killed a man with his bare hands, but that torch in his hands was his most frightening weapon by far. To survive, Langdon and Vidal had to keep in the shadows. Add that to their escape taking place within a cathedral as bizarre and unorthodox as the Sagrada Familia and it makes for a truly terrifying pursuit.

 


Favourite character:

Winston is far and away the standout success in Origin. Think HAL voiced by Stephen Fry. Educated, intelligent and eerily human, Winston is immediately likable from his first appearance. In fact, I found him such an interesting character that I felt a real sense of loss when Langdon and Vidal lost contact with him at a certain point in the narrative. I had my suspicions about the whole monte@iglesia affair, but the twist that he was the mastermind behind it all hit me like a sucker punch. I didn’t stop liking him for it. In fact, I found him an even more interesting character by far. And that recurring trait of his awkward laugh was a stroke of genius: endearing in its first appearance, terrifying in its last. Origin could be criticised for being a recycling of Brown’s old plots, but his Oxford-educated HAL makes it worth every page.


Favourite Quotes:

“The devout can always benefit from listening to non-believers. It is in hearing the voice of the Devil that we can better appreciate the voice of God.”

Zeus, more than any other god, resisted his own extinction, mounting a violent battle against the dying of his own light, precisely as had the earlier gods Zeus had replaced.

“I’ve been taking confessions for fifty years. I know a lie when I hear one.”

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Quote Unquote: THIN AIR by Michelle Paver

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The funny thing about being busy is that it makes all the things you wanted to do when you were free that much more achievable. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When time is on your side and you have a stack of books to read, it can be hard to even chip away at one. When you have lessons to plan, essays to write, work to mark and affairs to set in order, reading for pleasure suddenly becomes both more appealing and more feasible. Somehow those twenty minutes you carve out of the day always come around. I suppose routine is the answer, as it so often is. It’s just a pity that routine is harder to maintain when you have nothing but time on your hands.

The days are growing shorter. Prep ends in darkness now, and this Saturday just gone, the martins gathered on the abbey roof, as they always do on a certain day every year. The following morning they were gone. All of them. They say a swallow does not a summer make, but for me, summer is always over on that day when the swallows and martins take their leave. Now is the time of cold, crisp mornings, clear blue autumn skies, mist in the trees and the musty smell of mushrooms.

It is also a wonderful time of year for ghost stories.

……..

Thin Air tells the tale of a British expedition up the southwest face of Kangchenjunga, a mountain of fearsome repute in the unforgiving wastes of the Himalayas, as seen through the eyes of Dr Stephen ‘Bodge’ Pearce. The expedition party, an assortment of British public-school chaps (the swot, the bully, the priest and the major), have set their sights on being the first to climb the evil mountain, which has turned away all previous comers and slain several for good measure for even trying. Struggling with an unenviably rocky relationship with his brother, Kits, Stephen tags along as the expedition’s medic. From the very beginning the expedition is hag-ridden by the previous sortie led by the larger-than-life Lyell and company, whose disastrous defeat casts a long shadow over the group’s attempt – in more ways than one. It quickly becomes apparent that Lyell’s disastrous attempt to climb Kangchenjunga was less of a heroic withdrawal than it seemed at first, and as Pearce’s company scales the mountain, something sinister begins to dog them by degrees. Bullied into silence by his older brother, who alone seems oblivious of the creeping dread, Stephen begins to believe they are being haunted by a vengeful spirit. The mountain may not be the only thing determined to prevent them from carrying out the mission that Lyell started…

The story is full of men walking in the shadows of others. Kits marches in the footsteps of his hero, General Lyell. Stephen plays second-fiddle to Kits for most of the narrative, who seemingly does his level-best to keep him from stealing his place in the spotlight. The sherpas follow meekly in their wake, dismayed at their employers’ ignorance, and both a dog and a raven – stylised with the more ominous name of gorak – shadow the company on their ascent into the darkness. More chillingly still, there is always the nameless presence of something unspeakable. And then, of course, there is Kangchenjunga itself, overshadowing them all.

Kangchenjunga is not just a setting. It is an objective, an idea, an antagonist and a fierce deity. It is also far and away the standout character of the story. There are more sinister incarnations of rage at work in the tale, but one is never allowed to forget the raw ferocity of the mighty mountain. It threatens the company with its avalanches. It sends blizzards to slow them down and it reminds them of their chances with the cairns of those who have tried to master it and fallen in the attempt. One of my favourite parts of the Lord of the Rings growing up was the section of Fellowship when the company of nine attempt the pass of Caradhras and are beaten back by a mountain that is more sentient than it appears. There is something truly awesome about nature at its most raw, and Kangchenjunga is Tolkienesque in its might (interestingly enough, Caradhras’ other name, the Redhorn, is evoked at least once in Paver’s description of the mountain’s “dark-red precipices” – a colour that instantly stands out from the whites, greys and blues of the snowbound Himalayas). Stephen, a Western doctor ruled by his head, flatly denies it all, shooing away the sherpas’ fears as the darkness settles:

“This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is.”

The question is: are you convinced?

This is genuinely one of those books that merits re-reading. There is so much subtle foreshadowing throughout, and a great deal of it will pass you by until the end. To read it again is to watch Dr Pearce and the company march knowingly into the jaws of doom with an even greater surety than before. You knew the mountain was a killer from the word go – Lyell, Pearce and all the others point to that endlessly – but the way in which Paver weaves the narrative forwards and backwards is spine-chillingly precise. I have deliberately avoided talk of the ghost in this ghost story, if only because the less that is said about it the better – the strength of a ghost story is often in that which is left unsaid. If you know, you know, if you don’t, give it a go. And when you’re done, seriously, skim back through and read it again. It’s almost scarier the second time around. Which is exactly what a good ghost story should be.

 


Favourite Scene:

The first cairn. It is Dr Pearce’s first encounter with the reality of their situation – and also his first brush with the nameless terror of the mountains. For the superstitious, there is an ancient belief in some parts of the world that walking the wrong way around a sacred object, such as a pillar or monolith (or in the case of Thin Air, an urn) brings on bad luck. I remember the tradition being used to comedic effect in Tintin, but as soon as it showed its head in Paver’s narrative I knew we were in for trouble – I’m glad she made use of that old trick. Because it felt like the necessary snowball that starts an avalanche. Dr Pearce’s musing before the cairn of Dr Yates, the doctor on the Lyell expedition is both stark and satisfying in its foreshadowing – and powerful in the ensuing scene it delivers. This is definitely one of the scenes that is worth a second look.

 


Favourite Character:

Kangchenjunga. For all of the reasons I laid out above.

 


Favourite Quotes:

Surely the purpose of a grave is to benefit the living. Aren’t the dead beyond caring where they live?

It’s lack of knowledge which lets in the shadows.

Perhaps that’s what we find frightening. Being on a mountain forces us to confront the vast, unsentient reality that’s always present behind our own busy little human world, which we tuck around ourselves like a counterpane, to keep out the cold. No wonder that when we trespass into the mountains, we create phantoms. They’re easier to bear than all this lifelessness.

There is no justice in this world, so why should we expect it in the next?

 


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I Need A Hero: My Favourite Fictional Leads

I’m off on another adventure in a couple of days. A fortnight in Catalunya awaits – because where better to spend the fallout from all this Brexit madness than with a people who have tussled with independence for centuries? I doubt the Catalans will be all that interested in the petty squabbles of a rather recalcitrant Guirilandia – and anyway, I’m a good deal more interested in their own history – but with another adventure looming, my mind turns back to the world of fiction. I always take a book with me when I travel, as it’s pretty much the one time in the year I can guarantee I’ll get some serious reading done. Frankly, given how important fiction is to me, I’m surprised I haven’t turned my hand to it as a topic more often. So tonight’s post is about putting that to rights. And I thought I’d start with an illustrated list of my favourite storybook heroes.

Perhaps the collection below says a lot more about me than I at first thought possible…


8. El Cid (Cantar del Mio Cid, Anonymous)

Kicking off the top ten with a bit of a controversial one, as this particular hero was a man of flesh and blood before he was a fictional character. Whether or not you choose to see him as a hero rather depends on whose account you choose to follow. Certainly, the Muslim chroniclers of the day didn’t exactly paint a very pretty picture of him. All the same, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is a larger-than-life character in his epics, and the seesaw story of his rise and fall and rise again is – for want of a better word – one of my favourite tales. And now that I’m not at university anymore and don’t have to analyse him as a masculine image, or a symbol of religious fervour, or any of that academic nonsense, and can instead indulge in boyhood fantasies once again, he’s a damned impressive hero who is good to his men, be they Christian or Moor, loyal to his wife and king, protective of his daughters and a generally wise arbiter. It’s just a shame about the episode involving the Jews Raquel and Vidas, or he might have placed higher on this list. For some reason they didn’t include that little episode in the 1961 film…

H_Cid


7. Rat (The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame)

I think one of the things that shocked me most when compiling this list is how quintessentially British most of my favourite heroes are. Come to think of it, there are only really two characters on this list who are not Englishmen by birth or blood. I’d pretty much given up on my homeland for the beauty of foreign lands during my teens. Rediscovering the joy of reading in my early twenties completely turned that around, and made me appreciate on a deeper level characters from my childhood that I’d perhaps not understood fully until that moment. Rat is definitely one of them. An English county gentleman, who balances his seasonal desire to travel and see the world (depicted as a sudden madness) with his unshakeable attachment to his riverside home and his often poetic delight in the countryside around him. Rat always made me think of an England long since gone, albeit much beloved and not entirely forgotten. I could always empathise with Mole stumbling blindly around the new world and Toad still makes me laugh (especially voiced by Rik Mayall),  but I think my heart always did and always will go out to courageous, country-loving Rat.

H_Rat (2)


6. Bill Masen (Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham)

There’s something about the quiet, reflective protagonist of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids that has always drawn me in. Another Englishman, and in many ways as much a caricature as Rat, Bill Masen takes the apocalypse with just the right amount of melancholic reflection and stiff upper lip that you might expect. For a sci-fi book – and a thumping good one, if I might say so – there’s a refreshing absence of the brash, gun-toting, “gotta save the world” Americanisms of your average apocalypse narrative. When he’s not dodging paramilitary groups or sinister man-eating plants, Bill spends most of the book musing on the state of the world after man, the foolishness of man and the loneliness of the human spirit. Triffids will be one of those books I treasure when I grow old, as it was Bill Masen’s thoughts on loneliness that gave me solace when I travelled solo across Spain.

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5. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn (The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye)

Let’s be perfectly honest here, to write a list of my favourite fictional heroes and not include the central character of what has always been my favourite book of all time would be nothing short of criminal. Orphaned shortly after birth in an opening that never ceases to chill me, Ashton (Ash) is raised by his father’s syce and spends his childhood under the impression that he’s Indian, before being rudely awakened to his English heritage after a series of adventures. He spends most of the book dealing with the fallout from that revelation, never entirely sure where his loyalties lie, and consequently never truly fitting in anywhere. The only trouble with Ash is he’s just too perfect. He slips up and gets hurt, and you can really feel his pain and his anger when he does, but even as a naïve young man he comes across as just a little bit too good to be true: fluent in more than five languages, an extremely talented sportsman, a natural with the ladies from his first experience and frustratingly good-looking, so much so that he spends most of the book being able to pass for Englishman, Afghan, Nepali or just about anything the plot requires, without having a drop of Pathan blood in him at all. Even so, I confess myself charmed by his tenacity from the beginning and have rarely felt so strongly about a protagonist as I have for Ashton Pelham-Martyn.

H_Ash


4. Hazel (Watership Down, Richard Adams)

The second anthropomorphic hero on this list is a rabbit, and this one doesn’t even dress like a hero. He’s just a rabbit, and neither the strongest nor the fastest of the rabbits of the Sandleford Warren, but in many ways he’s a greater hero than many of the characters on this list. John Hurt’s voiceover in the 1978 film only sealed the deal. I admit that I saw the animated movie before I read the book, but it evidently didn’t scar me for life as it did to many others as I did go on to read the book (though whoever decided that a visual representation of rabbits being gassed en masse was deserving of a U-rating obviously had some demons). Hazel is wise, caring and self-sacrificing; a true leader, equipped with all the merits of El-Ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits (a sort of lapine Anansi/Coyote). I know Bigwig has always been the traditional fan favourite, but for me, it’s got to be Hazel, because he’s the kind of leader I could believe in. A hero with no pretensions to glory or leadership, but who looks out for every single member of his clan, and who becomes a leader quite organically as the story develops.

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3. Tintin

Probably the most well-known character on this list, Tintin has been in my heart since I was a lad. His agelessness, his never-ending sense of adventure, the fact that you could essentially paint yourself into his shoes wherever he went… and the fact that I’ve been compared to him in every single line of work I’ve ever had, due in part to my round face and strange quiff-thing going on with my crowns. If we forget his earlier iterations (Tintin au Congo was written by a Belgian in a very different age), Tintin is a young man with a heart of gold. Tintin in Tibet is probably his finest hour, showcasing the Belgian reporter’s winsome determination and hope to find his lost friend, who pretty much everybody else has given up for dead. I had every Tintin book bar one as a kid (Dead Sea Sharks), and he’s one of those rare heroes whom I value above the supporting cast, no matter how colourful and memorable they may be (here’s looking at you Captain Haddock, Cuthbert Calculus and, of course, Thompson and Thomson).

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2. Peekay

The top two spaces go to two heroes who share the same country: South Africa. British by blood, Peter Philip Kenneth Keith – unfortunately named by his parents, more fortunately shortened to Peekay by the author – has a hard lot growing up as a little boy in an adult world. You hardly even notice him age as he often seems mature beyond his years, the result of being forced to land on his feet by his born-again mother and his tormentors, including the Judge and the vile Sergeant Bormann. The way Courtenay has him describe loneliness is every bit as powerful as Wyndham, if not doubly so in that it comes from the voice of a child. And Peekay’s fierce sense of justice and morality – a common feature in Courtenay’s heroes – is exactly the kind of thing I could go for. Throw antiheroes and bad-guys-gone-good at me all day, but I love a hero with a strong moral compass. I wanted to learn to box when I read the book and watched the film, so greatly did I fall under the spell of this particular fighter. All the same, when it comes to the title bout for my favourite fictional hero, there’s one man who just beats Peekay to the punch…

H_Peekay


1. Allan Quatermain

If you’ve read my writing before, this will be no surprise. Allan Quatermain is my favourite fictional character, hands down, no contest. Not the version you might have seen in League of Extraordinary Gentleman movie (though the graphic novel is close enough), I’m talking about the original. Humble. Wise. Melancholic. Cynical, but not unadventurous. And, though modern readers might find his language more than a little antiquated and even offensive, rather advanced and liberal-minded for his day. Allan Quatermain was the inspiration for such legendary figures as Indiana Jones, but I’ve always found the source material a good deal more inspiring. Maybe it’s his undaunting appearance – a wiry old man with bristly hair, a short stature and a shrinking habit – that makes him so likeable. He lives alone, but keeps good company and is a ceaseless fountain of wisdom, whether that wisdom comes from his own mouth or the mouths of his sage companions like Hans, or Umslopogaas, or Indaba-zimbi. Perhaps, above all else, the true quality of Allan Quatermain is the quality of his writer. The old adage, write about what you know, can be a little restrictive for those who enjoy historical fiction. Henry Rider Haggard, however, was at the very heart of the world about which he wrote, seeing the Boer Wars at first hand and even taking an active role in them himself. Quatermain taught me a lot about the world when I started reading again, but most importantly of all, he gave me a reason to embrace my homeland once again. It will be a while before any hero, great or small, topples the great Macumazahn from his seat at the top of this list.

H_Allan

Special mention: Quint & Maris (The Edge Chronicles, Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell), Harry Flashman (Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser), Richard Sharpe (Sharpe’s Tiger, Bernard Cornwell) and Tommo (Private Peaceful – but just about every protagonist from Michael Morpurgo’s books would do)

Did you like this list? Feel free to copy the idea for posts of your own. BB x

Man Cannot Live on Bread and Hummus Alone

Day-to-day life in Jordan rumbles steadily on. The haywire that was this weekend’s travel spree is over and we’ve been back to the five-hours-of-Arabic-a-day slog since Sunday. Sometimes I forget to breathe.

Here’s a snapshot of my daily routine. Woken up by the pneumatic drill outside at about half seven, if the sunlight doesn’t get me first. Breakfast of one of a variety of egg-based dishes that would make the creative minds behind Durham’s potato team sweat; fried, scrambled, thyme-infused green, veggie-packed omelette etc. Eggs, eggs, eggs. I thought I’d go full veggie out here, but at this rate I’m in danger of becoming a qualified ovivore. The fact of the matter is, eggs are the cheapest thing around. Fruit and vegetables, much as I’d like more of them, are frustratingly pricey in our neck of the woods. If you want variety in your breakfast, you have to go downtown. That’s like going shopping for your groceries in Central London. Barmy. Especially so when we’re paying $500 a month each for a two-room apartment in this ‘convenient’ district…

Class starts at eleven, but more often than not Andrew and I are in Ali Baba an hour in advance, if just to make use of the internet – a little slice of home. I’d use the excuse ‘I need to check my British Council’, but I’m not alone – we all do. The waiting game continues, almost eight months since application began. That’s usually a good time to review last night’s homework, too. Then it’s a two hour slog in Arabic until break at one, which lasts for twenty minutes – just enough time to rush home for a mug of tea and/or some sneaky hummus – and then back to work until three, with about two hours’ worth of homework on the books. We’d make a start on that immediately, of course, whilst we’re still in the zone, but at 3 on the dot we have our language assistant sessions, which means Arabic conversation for about an hour and a half. Once that’s over, we can finally get started on the homework… so by the time we’re done with the day’s work, it’s about six o’clock and the Ali Baba staff shut up for the night, at which point we split up and head home to collapse into bed for a well-earned two hour sleep – because by that stage of the day, we’ve little energy for anything else.

Wake up again at around eight thirty and read some Henry Rider Haggard. I’m into King Solomon’s Mines at the moment and I’m planning to bomb my way through his entire collection whilst I’m out here. Anything about Africa would do just fine for the time being; I’m still missing Morocco something awful, let alone Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. (If anybody knows any great fiction set in Africa, let me know – I’m on a reading streak like I haven’t known since I was twelve!) One or all of the girls might join us at around nine thirty, at which point we head to one of two locations: Doors Cafe, a shisha joint on the neighbouring street, or Downtown, where all the action is. It being Ramadan, nothing really gets going until about ten o’clock anyway. Even so, we’re not usually out that late, and like as not we’re in a taxi bound for home by midnight.

And so it goes, day to day. Amman’s not the easiest place to knock yourself out, so to speak, unless we’re talking in the literal sense, in which case it’s a simple matter of trying to cross the road; any one of the local drivers will do that for you. I didn’t expect much in the way of entertainment, it being a capital city – fun is what you make of it – but what this place lacks more than everything else is somewhere quiet and green. I’m glad I’m not alone in that regard; Eloise, also a country girl, is feeling the absence of it. After a costly bit of road-tripping last weekend, we’re going to take it easy this time around. If there were a decent park nearby, this’d be the time. In the absence of that, I think I’ll blow the dust off the novel and flex my writing muscles for a bit. I’m no athlete, so I guess I ought to be flexing a muscle of some description. BB x