It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Guessing the Clarke

It’s that time of year again, when the books submitted for the Arthur C Clarke Award have been revealed – see here – and we get the opportunity to second-guess the judges. Sixty books were submitted, not all of which appear to be science fiction. Many are literary, rather than heartland sf. Some are even fantasy. In fact, looking at the heartland sf titles, I don’t think they don’t make an especially good showing – Leviathan Wakes is regressive, Neal Asher has never been favoured by the Clarke, Steve Baxter may be the most short-listed author but Bronze Summer is the middle of a trilogy, Bringer of Light is the fourth in a series, The Recollection is a little too generic, and I’ve heard mixed reports about Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three. Some of the others are simply not award-worthy.

So this year, I’ll not be surprised if we see more of a literary list. On my first pass, I ended up with ten books, but the short-list is six and six only. I thought Eric Brown’s The Kings of Eternity was good, but it failed to make the BSFA Award short-list. Embassytown should be a dead cert, but from what I’ve heard it’s not as successful a novel as The City & The City. Reamde I’ve been told is a bloated techno-thriller, and no one has a good word to say about Blackout / All Clear on this side of the Atlantic. Which leaves three genre novels people have been talking about: The Islanders, By Light Alone and Osama. All three of which are also on the BSFA Award short-list.

I am also not expecting an all-male short-list. Given the discussion on women sf writers over the past year, I don’t think the judges would be so foolish. And since women literary writers who write sf seem to be more successful with the Clarke than women category sf writers… Both The Testament of Jessie Lamb and The Godless Boys have been highly praised. Random Walk is my left-field guess, because there’s always a left-field candidate on the Clarke short-list.

So I think the short-list will look like this:

Random Walk by Alexandra Claire (Gomer)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS)
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood (Picador)

And I think The Islanders will take the gong.

Of course, I could be completely wrong, and the short-list will be entirely space opera…


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World fiction reading challenge #2: The Door, Magda Szabó

Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done. The Fat Years (see here) may have been an unsatisfactory novel but it was a fascinating read. The Door by Magda Szabó is from Hungary, and is similar to last month’s read in that its story is intertwined with the history of its native country. It is also a fascinating read and an excellent novel.

The unnamed narrator of The Door is a thinly-veiled portrait of Szabó herself, but The Door is about the old woman, Emerence, who the “lady writer” takes on as a housecleaner. The novel follows this relationship during the years of the Kádár regime, or “Goulash Communism”, from 1956 to 1989. There is a state funeral mentioned at the end of the novel, but the deceased is never named. I did wonder if was Kádár himself, but some of the details mentioned in the novel don’t quite add up, and the chronology is not exact. I know almost nothing about Hungarian history – although I have now read the Wikipedia articles on the topic – but I suspect the identity of the person would be plain to a Hungarian reader.

But all this is by the by. The Door is about Emerence. She is a fascinating character. One newspaper review of the book described her as the sort of person which communism saw as its ideal citizen. She is uneducated but possesses a sharp natural intelligence. She’s unafraid of speaking her mind, and indeed fearless in her relations with the authorities. She is fixed on living her life according to her own rules. She is generous and open-hearted to a fault, but unforgiving of fools or those who disappoint her. The door of the title is the front door of the flat in which she lives and through which only a handful of people have ever passed. Emerence guards her household and privacy with fierceness.

During the twenty years over which the novel is set, the lady writer’s career takes off, though her life-style does not change. She is awarded prizes, appears on television, and is even invited to a writer’s conference in Greece as the Hungarian representative. Throughout all this, her husband – who remains unnamed – also writes but no mention is made of his career. In fact, it is his ill-health which drives part of the plot of the novel.

Emerence and the lady writer argue a lot, and often fly into rages. These sudden attacks of anger were quite strange initially, as the characters felt far too volatile to be entirely credible. Perhaps it is Hungarian character – I’m not familiar with it. But then we British are known for our reserve, so it’s likely just my perspective. Whatever the explanation, as the story progressed the less remarkable it became. As Emerence and the narrator grow closer, so Emerence reveals snippets from her life. Some of this goes toward her explaining her character. It is the lady writer’s betrayal of Emerence which brings the story to a close – and I had to wonder if the relationship is perhaps a symbol of something wider, something a Hungarian reader would recognise.

Emerence is one of those great characters you often find in literature. She is as mysterious as she is carefully drawn, and it is the slow revealing of the pieces which go to make up her personality that are the real strength of The Door. The remaining cast, many of which are not named, are also well-drawn, but The Door is about Emerence and is Emerence. I really liked this book.

Magda Szabó is one of Hungary’s most popular and lauded writers, but Imre Kertész is the only Hungarian to have been awarded the Nobel Prize, in 2002. The British translation by Len Rix of The Door won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2006, and the book was also short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A film of the book, directed by István Szabó (no relation), will be released this year, with Helen Mirren in the role of Emerence. Here’s the sales reel:

 


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Being poetical

Lawrence Durrell’s poetry doesn’t always work for me. I like the fact there’s plenty to unpack in them, though many of the references are often unfamiliar to me. Their chief attraction for me is the beauty of the language Durrell used. He had a knack of painting an image with just the right words. Here are a few examples from Selected Poems (1956):

Ten speechless knuckles lie along a knee
Among their veins, gone crooked over voyages,

‘A Rhodian Captain’

On charts they fall like lace,
Islands consuming in a sea
Born dense with its own blue:

‘Delos’

Where minarets have twisted up like sugar
And a river, curdled with blond ice, drives on

‘Sarajevo’

There is a metaphysical and mythological aspect to much of Durrell’s poetry – while he saw what was there with a painterly eye, he also described what could not be seen. And as a result his poetical portraits of places, and people, feel complete in a way many other poets have not managed. Durrell called this his “Heraldic Universe”: “that territory of experience in which the symbol exists … for every object in the known world there exists an ideogram”. He also said, “‘Art’ then is only the smoked glass through which we can look at the dangerous sun.” I like the sound of that.


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When men were men and so was science fiction

After reading the 2011 science fiction novel which prompted my Whores in Space post (see here), I read a 1950s sf novel: This Island Earth by Raymond F Jones. I’ve seen the film several times, and it’s fairly typical of its period – manly hero, women there only to scream, ugly mutant, flying saucer. I read the novel because I’d been toying with the idea of adapting part of it for a short story, and because I wanted to see if it was different to the movie.

It is.

The first half of the film more or less follows that of the book. Cal Meacham is a manly electronics engineer in California. When an order for parts for a project goes awry and he receives instead some devices which are decades ahead of what he is expecting, his curiosity is piqued. He orders a catalogue, and from it he then orders the parts necessary to build an “interociter”. Without actually knowing what an interociter does. The bits are delivered, he figures out how to put them together… and it’s a communications device. Which is promptly used by someone to offer him a job as he has “passed the test”.

In the film, this is a man called Essex Exeter, but in the book he’s called Jorgasnovara. Exeter is head of a secret thinktank with access to technology more advanced than that known to 1950s USA. Jorgasnovara is head of an industrial plant which builds interociters using technology more advanced than that known to 1950s USA. Both, it transpires, are actually alien and are using the Earth as a supply depot in a war. In the book, the war is intergalactic and between a good bloc, the Llanna, and an evil bloc, the Guarra (whose members also smell bad). There is no Metaluna in the book, and no mutant monster.

This Island Earth was originally published in 1952. It’s a fix-up of three stories published in 1949 and 1950: ‘The Alien Machine’, ‘The Shroud of Secrecy’ and ‘The Greater Conflict’. Meacham fought in WWII, and is determined that the devices invented and built by scientists or engineers should never again be used as they were in that conflict: “like careless and indifferent workmen they have tossed the product of their craft to gibbering apes and baboons”. He is not only an engineer but also fervently anti-war. (But not anti- the occasional need for fisticuffs, however.) His engineering know-how and can-do-it-iveness therefore means he is better than everyone else. Only he knows the rightful use to which the devices he builds should be put. (It is this very arrogance which Jorgasnovara uses to recruit engineers to his organisation.)

And then there are the women…

The lone female in the novel is Dr Ruth Adams. She has a doctorate in psychiatry, but is employed as the assistant to the head of personnel. Meacham is immediately attracted to her. When he picks her up for a dinner date, he considers it “impossible to think of a MD and PhD in that dress”. Surprisingly, Ruth keeps her job after she marries Cal, though she does all the cooking – despite a mention earlier that Cal is capable of cooking for himself. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect a strong female character with agency in a 1950s sf novel written by a man, one which elevates engineers to the status of special universe-saving snowflakes. But Ruth’s portrayal still offends – she may be educated, but she’s very much Dale Arden and not Hildy Johnson.

It’s not the only aspect of the book which should upset modern sensibilities. The working class fare badly too. When the plant manager fires an incompetent employee, the union pulls everyone out on strike – despite what appear to be reasonable grounds for termination. And then someone sabotages the assembly line. Meacham immediately accuses the shop steward. Because, of course, manly men of science fiction despise anything that smacks of socialism, and so it naturally follows that a union man would obviously destroy the very factory where he works because management won’t meet his “unreasonable” demands.

Meacham’s manliness and engineering expertise means he never surrenders – always there is a solution, or a means of escape. Ruth, of course, is always the first to scream and give up when the couple find themselves in jeopardy. This also applies to the “Greater Conflict”, which by the final quarter of the book is threatening to destroy Earth. Despite the war having raged for millennia, and involving uncountable alien races far more advanced than humanity (they have giant computers!), it takes a can-do engineer like Meacham to spot why the Llanna have been steadily losing. They rely on their giant computers to determine strategy and tactics. As a result, they’ve become predictable, and the Guarra can guess their every move. They need to act randomly! Like randomly saving the Earth from the approaching Guarra battle fleet!

This Island Earth is not even tosh. It’s desperately old-fashioned, and probably felt so back in the 1950s. The pilotless aircraft which carries Meacham from his company lab to Jorgasnovara’s factory near Phoenix, Arizona, is propeller-driven, though you’d have expected such an advanced organisation to have jet aircraft (which had been flying for nearly a decade by 1952). The science throughout is nonsense: the journey to the Moon, for example, takes all day in one chapter, and mere minutes in another. In the same spaceship. Earth is apparently only a few hundred light years from the edge of the Milky Way (it’s closer to 25,000 light years). But then Jones doesn’t seem entirely sure what a galaxy is, or how great the distances between them (clue: The Andromeda Galaxy is about 2.6 million light years from Earth). Oh, and the interociter turns out to be a telepathic communications device – its use as a videophone is just there to disguise its true function. Except it is later revealed to be a weapon which fires devastating telepathic blasts… which also kill the interociter user…

No wonder the Llanna were losing the war. If only they had recruited a manly engineer from Earth a couple of thousand years earlier.


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Burning for you

The Future Fire, the online magazine of “social-political and progressive speculative fiction”, is back after an 18-month hiatus. And their new issue includes a flash fiction story by Yours Truly. It’s titled ‘ A History of the 20th Century, with Illustrations: Atonement’ and it’s about… Well, go and see for yourself. You’ll find it here. And while you’re at it, you might as well read the other excellent stories in the issue.


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World fiction reading challenge #1: The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung

I know very little about China and almost nothing about its literature or literary tradition. So a book from the country seemed a natural choice for my reading challenge this year. And since Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years had recently been gaining notices, appeared to be sf masquerading as mainstream fiction, and was about, and set in, China, then it seemed the perfect book to choose.

Having read The Fat Years, I now know more about China and her recent history. I suspect I still know almost nothing about Chinese literary tradition, however, because The Fat Years is in many respects constructed like a Western novel. Except it also isn’t. More on that later.

The novel opens in 2013. Old Chen, a novelist and journalist, is a Taiwanese resident of Beijing. He is, like many middle-class Chinese, happy and contented. Suspiciously so, in fact. Further, the entire country – including the rural population – appears to be happier and more successful than they can previously remember. While the rest of the world suffers from a financial crisis, China is the happiest nation on Earth.

But not everyone is so contented. One or two people feel this happiness is artificial. It also seems to have come about after the events of February 2011, when the global economy crashed. Except there is no official record of that month. The economy crashed, and China’s “Age of Ascendancy” began – at the same time, according to the records. Old Chen finds himself dragged into a hunt for the missing month, which eventually leads him to the reason for China’s unnatural happiness. This he learns after he and some friends have kidnapped a Party leader Old Chen knows. The Party leader explains it all.

As a novel, The Fat Years is far from satisfactory. Chen meanders about, meeting friends and acquaintances, but not actually driving the plot forward. And the dénouement is one big info-dump delivered by the Party leader. According to a translator’s note, it is this last section which is of most interest to Chinese readers – chiefly because of its criticisms of Chinese society and government. Myself, I found the frequent asides and info-dumps on China’s twentieth-century history the most fascinating aspect of the book. I was even inspired to read up on some aspects on Wikipedia.

I’m glad I read The Fat Years and it is an interesting novel. But it’s also not an especially good one. It is its subject which fascinates, rather than its story or the presentation of its subject.


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Now we know where we’re going

News this week that the Eibonvale Press anthology Where Are We Going?, edited by Allen Ashley, will be launched in London on 2 March 2012. Details here. And look at the lovely cover:

This is the anthology which contains my bathypunk story – see here – so I’m especially pleased to see it. Looks like it has a top line-up too: there’s some very good names in that TOC.


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Whores in Spaaaace

I am currently reading a big fat space opera which was published last year. It has received a number of positive reviews – George RR Martin himself even describes it as “kickass space opera” on the front-cover.

Part of the story is set in the Asteroid Belt. In the future of the novel, a number of asteroids have been settled – there are, in fact, some 150 million people living in the Belt – and the largest such settlement is the hollowed-out dwarf planet Ceres (approximately 480 km in diameter, six million population). The society in Ceres, and by implication in other colonised asteroids, is essentially US, capitalist, corporatist, with a few touches of foreign colour. This is neither especially convincing nor especially unusual in space opera – even one set in the relatively near-future as this one is. Ceres also has organised crime, gangsters, protection rackets, corruption, bent cops, poverty, drugs… And prostitution.

So, basically, the author is saying that he wants one half of the human race to exist for the gratification of the other half. He can’t claim “realism” because this is an invented world. He made it up. This is an artistic decision he made. He has put the women in his universe in that position. He includes a few named female characters – with and without agency – and thinks he’s covered his bases. His detective, for example, has a female captain – there, that must be good enough. But. Prostitution. Underage prostitution. Human trafficking. All three are mentioned. All three are taken as givens in this future universe.

FFS.

Is that the best an intelligent person living in the twenty-first century can do? Create some sort of Randian frontier-town society and think the presence of spaceships and AIs and some big melodramatic space-hopping plot makes it alright? It doesn’t. If you have prostitutes in your sf story, you’d better think damn hard why they’re there. If you have a rape in your fantasy story, you’d better think even harder why it’s there. Neither are acceptable. They are not genre tropes. You have no excuse for creating universes in which women are treated in this way.

Science fiction was created by (mostly) inadequate teenagers who grew up to become (mostly) dirty old men. But the bulk of sf writers these days fit neither of those descriptions. And yet those pioneers set the tone of the genre. After eighty-five bloody years, isn’t it long past time we got rid of that? Isn’t it about time we started treating half of the human race like, well, like human beings in our science fictions? Isn’t it about time we started giving them respect on the page? (Respect in the real world is a given.) It’s not like it’s difficult, it’s not going to hurt, it’s not going to cost you money. You have no excuse for not doing it.

But you know what’s worse than that? The fact this is only one of many battles that need to be fought.


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Hi de bloody hi

So Liam P emails that he has some free tickets to SFX Weekender 3, and who fancies going? While some people seem to think the SFX Weekender is the future of cons, I’m not convinced – though, to be fair, everyone claims to have a good time. Since this year it’s in Prestatyn, North Wales, and a good deal closer than the previous two in Rye, Sussex (166 km by road compared to 413 km, according to Google Maps), I decide I might as well see what all the fuss is about. So I say yes. Then a whole bunch of people pile in and start organising chalets – because SFX Weekenders take place at Pontin’s holiday camps – and I don’t know any of these people and it starts to seem less likely I’ll be in one of the chalets they’re arranging. So perhaps I won’t be going after all.

Then Lavie Tidhar emails me: three of them are staying in a nearby hotel and they need a fourth to make up two twin rooms. I check out the hotel – it’s definitely close and it looks quite pleasant. I agree. So it seems I am going after all.

Beaches Hotel

Except the person I’m supposed to be sharing a room with pulls out two days before as he’s now staying in a chalet. I ring the hotel and get my booking changed to a single room. They agree too quickly, so I ring the next day to make sure… which is fortunate as it had all got garbled. But. Anyway. I have a hotel room.

I catch the train to Prestatyn via Manchester and it’s a painless journey. As I walk into Beaches Hotel, I see Lavie and David Tallerman, who have also just checked in. I dump my bags and together we head off to Pontin’s, a walk of about 800 metres. There’s a queue for tickets out the door at the main facility, so we blag our way in. Lavie and David’s tickets are with their publisher, Angry Robot, but I’d have to queue for mine – I’ve been told I just need to ask at reception, they’ll have my name on a list – but I’d sooner wait for a smaller queue.

After a pint, I head back outside to see if the queue is smaller. It’s not. It now stretches across the car park. But I have no choice so I join the end. Two hours later, I reach the front. And it occurs to me that perhaps I should ask at the Artists & Media window for the free ticket. So I do. They check but I’m not on any list. They give me a free ticket anyway. I’m in. And it only took two hours of unnecessary queuing. I go look for the others. They haven’t moved.

The Pontin’s venue consists of a foyer, which they’ve decked out with grey plastic panels and hazard tape to look science-fictiony; and a large main hall with banked seating at the back. Next to that is the dealers’ room, which is pretty large, though all the books on sale are new books. (I only buy one, Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion, so I can get it signed. I think that’s a con record for me.) There is also a lot of media stuff being sold. A passage leads alongside an amusement arcade and into another hall, which has no stage, but stepped levels to left and right with tables and chairs. There is a long bar running along the back of the room. And finally, there is the Queen Victoria pub. Everywhere looks a bit run-down and cheap and nasty. The function areas are painted black, like low-rent night-clubs. The beer is not especially cheap – £3 for a pint of lager, £1.90 during the 7pm – 9pm happy hour.

The main venue

I later heard about 6,000 people turned up, though the Saturday was about twice as busy as the other days. Most people seemed to be there for the media side of things, but I met a surprising number of people I knew through written sf – including, in no particular order, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Michael Cobley, Jaine Fenn, Jim Burns, Peter F Hamilton, Ken MacLeod, Ian Whates, the aforementioned Lavie and David, Sam Moffat and Paul Skevington, Donna Scott and Neil Benyon, Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, Sandy Auden, Andy Remic, editors from various publishers, Terry Martin from Murky Depths, Chris Teague from Pendragon Press, Roy Gray from TTA Press… I got to meet Jared and Ann from Pornokitsch for the first time, and also China Miéville and Joe Abercrombie. Others I spoke to include Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke, Liz Batty, Gareth L Powell, Paul J McAuley… and no doubt many more whose names I either didn’t catch or have criminally forgotten.

I managed to attend three programme items – well, two and a half. The Kitschies Awards ceremony, and then the pub quiz which followed. We came third, though this was chiefly due to Saxon Bullock, who knows far too much about sf films and television. And I sat through the first half of the space opera panel, before the heat drove me from the room.

People throughout the weekend seemed to flip between two states: drunk or hungover. I was back in my room by midnight every night, and up early for breakfast the next morning. Unfortunately, there was nowhere on the Pontin’s site to sit down and chill out. Everywhere was too noisy. I only managed to read a single book over the weekend, Betrayals by Charles Palliser. (It’s very good.) There was a canteen which sold food and coffee, but it too was large and loud. I seem to recall spending most of the time wandering from one bar to the other, walking to the hotel and back, going to chat to friends on dealers’ tables, and having snatched conversations in the pub. I ate lunch in the hotel bar on the Friday and Saturday – and it was very nice – but failed to eat in the evenings. The Gollancz party was fun, though somewhat compact. There were a lot of people wandering around in costumes, including some dance troupe in weird costumes on stilts. And there were Imperial Stormtroopers everywhere, often stopping the cars driving through the camp.

This is not the droid you're looking for

Having now survived an SFX Weekender, I’m not convinced it’s the future of cons as some claim. It’s a more commercial convention than a typical sf con like the Eastercon. There was no real time for reflection or quiet conversation – those were probably supposed to take place in the chalets. The cosplayers weren’t all that different to the masqueraders you used to see at Eastercon, though there were more of them – and, of course, the cosplayers’ costumes were (mostly) recognisable as media sf and fantasy characters.

The Thursday night was cold, but Friday was sunny and warm. I even went for a short walk on the beach by the hotel. It chucked it down all Saturday. And the heating was on full-blast that day in the venue, making it uncomfortably hot. How some of the cosplayers – especially the Wookie – put up with it is beyond me.

We’d known for weeks there was no rail service from Prestatyn on the Sunday. But someone clearly neglected to tell whoever had organised the replacement bus service there would be several thousands people heading home from SFX Weekender on that day. I got to the station at 10 am, and there were already several hundred there queuing for a coach. I’d been told a taxi to Chester would only cost about £40, so was cheap enough if split four ways. I mentioned this to the guys next to me in the queue. We decided to do that. I then saw Al Reynolds waiting in line for the replacement bus, so invited him on our plan. A couple overheard us, and they too joined in. We got a six-seater minibus, and it cost us £50 in total. Result.

At Chester station, I bumped into Mike Cobley, who was taking the same train as me, though not all the way to Manchester. He’d got a lift to Chester in a minibus laid on by Orbit for its authors. As the train moved out of Wales and into England, so snow began to appear on the ground. In Manchester there were several inches. It made the weekend I’d just spent in a holiday camp surrounded by Imperial Stormtroopers seem even more unreal and otherworldly.

Will I go next year? It’s going to be in Prestatyn again. I don’t know. Beaches Hotel is very pleasant and I recommend it. If I do go, I’d definitely stay there. But I suspect I need more of a reason than simply attending to do SFX Weekender 4. If I was selling or promoting something, perhaps it would be worth going. We shall see.


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Yet more Durrelliana

As I was writing my post about the Durrell Centenary (see here), it occurred to me that I hadn’t posted photos of my more recent Durrell acquisitions. And since this is Larry’s year, I felt I should do so. Durrell’s books also, as someone put it, constitute high-class book porn, and that’s always welcome.

Three novels. I’ve no idea how I managed to miss The Black Book the last time I posted up some Durelliana, but never mind. My edition is signed. White Eagle Over Serbia was a recent purchase, though I’ve had a paperback edition for a number of years. The Revolt of Aphrodite is an omnibus of Tunc and Nunquam. And yes, I own the individual volumes as first editions too.

A trio of poetry collections titled, with a great deal of imagination, Selected Poems (1956), Collected Poems (1960) and, er, Selected Poems (1977). The 1977 collection is signed.

Three travel books: Sicilian Carousel is about Sicily, obviously. The Greek Islands is about… go on, have a guess. Caesar’s Vast Ghost, however, is about Provence (where Durrell lived from the late 1960s until his death in 1990). My copy of The Greek Islands is signed.

A pair of books about Durrell: Robin Rook’s Lawrence Durrell’s Double Concerto, signed by both Rook and Durrell, from 1990, and My Friend Lawrence Durrell from 1961.

Finally, three limited editions. The Red Limbo Lingo is slipcased and was published by Faber & Faber. My edition is unsigned, so obviously I plan to correct that at some point. The book with the marbled cover is Henri Michaux: The Poet of Supreme Solipsism. It is signed. And the big one with the colourful cover is a poem by Durrell set to music by Wallace Southam, In Arcadia. It is signed by both.

Here’s the title page of The Red Limbo Lingo.

Here’s Durrell’s signature in Henri Michaux, plus a prospectus for the book which was included inside when I bought it.

And here’s the signatures of Durrell and Southam in In Arcadia.

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