Books in Lincoln

I have recently returned from a lovely trip to Lincoln. I’d never been there before, but have a friend who recently moved there, who lured me to visit him by supplying me with a brochure for the Lincoln Book Festival. I’m pleased to say that Lincoln struck me as a remarkably literary city, but my view may be warped by the things I did while I was there…So many excellent secondhand bookshops! I particularly liked this one, halfway up Steep Hill (they’re not kidding) – Reader’s Rest; how appropriate! I’d hardly been in Lincoln for two hours when I went to my first event, a talk by Joanne Harris about her new book, The Lollipop Shoes, which I have to admit I haven’t read yet, but she’s an engaging speaker whom I’ve been to hear before (and you can read about that here). She suggests her new book is about fear, and managing what we are afraid of, which is often reflected in fairytales and European folklore, which has permeated Western thinking and affects every story we tell. Perhaps we’re not as sophisticated as we’d like to be, she says; we still believe there are monsters out there, be they disease, stalkers or other threats; and so we also need to think that there are people who can fight for us and vanquish these dangers. As she put it, we’re still sitting round the campfire hoping the light will extinguish the darkness.
The next day I went to a discussion on A S Byatt’s Possession, one of my very favourite books. Actually I didn’t feel it covered a great deal that I didn’t know, though I was intrigued by the suggestion that Christabel LaMotte is signposted by Byatt as being based on Christina Rossetti by referring to her as the “Monna Lisa” instead of the “Mona Lisa”, thus referencing Rossetti’s sonnet sequence “Monna Innominata”. Much could be made of that, in terms of gender roles in romantic relationships etc, but this was sadly skipped over – and besides, Byatt says she intended to base LaMotte on Rossetti but eventually settled for Emily Dickinson (for rather odd reasons, I think, but I won’t go into that now!). What did strike me from the talk, though, is how you can read Byatt’s book as a kind of puzzle she’s set, for those with the patience to unravel it. It’s an enormously intertextual, referential, erudite volume, drawing on classical and Norse mythology, Victorian literature and history, genre boundaries, academic mores and so on – you could spend a lifetime unravelling it.
After an exciting day of bookshops, tea and the cathedral, of which Ruskin said: “I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles”, we went to hear the linguist David Crystal lecture. Like most linguists that I have come across, he is afflicted with an enormous fascination for place names, with which he entertained us for a while (did you know that Bricklehampton is the longest place name in the world – I think – that is a first order isogram?) We also learned some interesting terms such as an unkindness of ravens, a puddling of ducks (really!), and a wisp of snipe (which may be specific to Snitterfield.) I was fascinated to hear about the Americanisation of Harry Potter, which has changed crisps for potato chips, crumpets for English muffins, wastepaper basket for trashcan, and so on, but his (and my) favourite is that the nicely English “That’s a bit rich coming from you!” has been changed to “You should talk!” American English seems so pointless when you compare it like that…We also heard about naming places (why don’t we have a town called Shakespeare? The Russians even renamed a town Gagarin, to honour Yuri). Equally, why do we name objects? In the course of researching his book, Crystal came across Yorrick the Yucca (Alas, poor Yorrick…but apparently he lived longer than the owner anticipated); Tardis the garden shed, Cedric the ashtray, and a butter knife called Marlon. The best, though, is a car called Simon because of the Rattle…and a teddy called Isaiah, because one eye’s higher…I have to confess, I went through a stage in my teens of calling things Engelbert; the last, I think, was Engelbert XIII, who was a potted baby Christmas tree. I loved the Victorian phrases that people learning English were taught: “Unhand me, Sir, for my husband, who is Australian, waits without.” “The postillion has been struck by lightning.” But the most uproarious moment of the evening must have been Hamlet’s soliloquy delivered in words which began with H, concluding with “Head holy housewards!” I have a feeling I may be working on King Lear with words starting with L…
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