Conversation with the Author Ruth Thomas
Q: Laurence is the quintessential anti-hero in that he is a typical crabby bachelor, always griping about something or another, and seemingly in a state of permanent outrage. Some of the sentiments expressed would be deemed quite politically incorrect.
RT: They are. However, the tide is turning and it is no longer fashionable to be politically correct, though large swathes of the media seem slow to wake up to this fact. Laurence knows perfectly well he is a walking anachronism and out of sync with the times. But sometimes the anti-heroes are the real heroes because they remain true to themselves. Authentic people are rarely popular: the Victor Meldrews of this world are loathed by officialdom, because they insist on making their views known, and registering their objections to perceived injustices or nonsensical rulings. They simply will not shut up and do as they are told.
Q: Due to the frequent time-shifts, the book appears distinctly old-fashioned in parts, whilst being irredeemably modern and quite cynical in others, which some readers might find unsettling. Some of the language the children use, for instance, seems somewhat dated.
RT: The temporal dislocation is a deliberate device – in this instance enabling the reader to view the central characters in three distinct settings: as adults battling with the stresses and challenges thrown up by the 21st century, as children growing up in post-war Britain, and finally, as adults reclaiming their childhood in order to re-enter the timeless realm of Albion. If the vernacular seems old-fashioned in parts, this is because these sequences were set in 1959. I can think of at least one best-selling novelist who chooses to set his stories in the 1960s but has his child protagonists bandying insults like “pussy” or “wuss” (to describe a wimp) when children growing up then would have used terms like “scaredy cat” or “cowardy custard”.
Q: The boarding school Laurence and Philip attended is quite horrendous: a cross between Greyfriars and Tom Brown’s Schooldays, where boys are regularly caned and subject to kangaroo courts presided over by an elite group of prefects.
RT: The pupils themselves would not have found it in the least horrendous, as it is what they were accustomed to. In the 50s and 60s nobody viewed corporal punishment as “abuse”, nor would the masters have felt obliged to show “respect” to pupils in their charge – quite the reverse. The masters at Brocklebank would not dream of tolerating anti-social behaviour. They had their own methods of dealing with little thugs, which didn’t involve patting them on the back. Old Soames is a perfect horror, but the boys know where they stand with him and what to expect.
Q: When the children first stumble across a magical portal into the enchanted forest of Albion, they wake up to the gnomes toasting bread with a toasting fork. It all sounds very snug and cosy, like a Hobbit home.
RT: Up until the early 70s my grandfather would toast our bread in the mornings by thrusting a toasting fork into the stove. There was no toaster and it would not have occurred to him to use the grill, if indeed the cooker had one. The Grumblegoods are partially based on my childhood memories.
Q: The chapter entitled Beechwood perfectly illustrates the contrast between the preoccupations of children then and nowadays: the children play boisterous games upstairs which get them into trouble and poke fun at the grownups downstairs, and their parents are like something out of Enid Blyton.
RT: Actually I thought they were more like the Darlings in Peter Pan – benevolent but somewhat vague. She is the kind of mother who would ensure the children had hot water bottles in their beds during the winter months (because there was no central heating) and he is the kind of father who will dock their pocket money if they misbehave (because he believes in discipline)
Q: But won’t modern readers find it difficult to relate to a worldview that has its roots in the post-war era – isn’t there a danger of alienating a class of readers who cannot identify with that kind of background?
RT: There is a lot of stuff being published that I cannot relate to, such as “Fifty Shades of Bullshit” or “Celebrity Airheads Mouth Off”. Are you saying that modern readers cannot relate to anything that is not in a contemporary setting? I don’t subscribe to the dumbed-down approach – that all entertainment must be mindless and avoid contentious topics. I take the view that people who buy and read books have more wide-ranging and catholic tastes than they are generally credited with. I chose to write about the English middle-classes because it’s familiar territory to me. I was blessed – or cursed – with a multitude of great-aunts and uncles who would periodically descend on my grandmother’s rear lawn for protracted tea parties. As a child, their antics struck me as being immensely silly, but there was something solid and comforting about that world. The chapter was written as a semi-nostalgic evocation of a vanished era, but it has its comic moments and was meant to be mildly entertaining.
Q: In the book certain trees act as portals i.e. provide the means of entry into other realms. I was fascinated by the way you have made the forest and the trees central to the story, and how the creatures of the forest communicate by means of tree-language, with the trees acting as de-scramblers of messages and listening posts, as well as transmitters of information and news.
RT: The Celtic tree alphabet was a closely guarded secret, its occult significance known only to the initiated. Druids actually believed the human race was descended from trees, and the superstitious proverb Knock on wood derives from this ancient respect for trees. The Faery Queen, whom the children enlist in their fight against her evil twin Ermentrude, is the only one who can unleash the mighty power of the forest.
Q: There are obvious parallels with Narnia. Albion’s ruler, Ermentrude, displays similar character traits to that of the White Witch: to what extent were you influenced by the works of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien?
RT: Most authors are consciously or unconsciously influenced by what they have read, and draw inspiration from what has gone before. The Good Fairy and the wicked stepmother, the evil sorcerer, the sacrificial prince and so on are universal archetypes deeply embedded within the human psyche. They are not the intellectual property of any one author, and artistic licence permits an artist to give whatever form he/she chooses to the great myths. Esmeralda and Ermentrude are dual aspects of a very powerful ancient female deity: The mythopoeic propensity of mankind is so ingrained that we cannot help ascribing mythological attributes to the most banal everyday occurrences: an evening spent drinking with friends becomes “epic” in the recounting, a pop idol is a “legend” or an “icon”, the mother-in-law is a monster like Medusa or a dragon, Big Brother is the one-eyed Cyclops, an Olympic athlete is elevated to the status of “hero”. We keep on recycling the old archetypes with each new generation. The challenge is to take the existing archetypes and create something new. The stuff of folk tales and legends provide the templates – the raw malleable material from which new forms can be fashioned.
Q: In your book the enemies of Albion are the goblins, usurpers who ruthlessly seize what doesn’t belong to them, whereas the gnomes are far more tolerant of their neighbours: they are fond of their creature comforts and gnome food seems to consist of all the old favourites (shepherd’s pie, rice pudding, and treacle tart with custard) Would it be fair to say that gnomes represent the values of Middle England, rather like the hobbit shires in Lord of the Rings?
RT: Tolkien’s Middle Earth was intended to represent rural England, and the gnome character traits you mention are associated with the English as a whole. I think you do people a disservice when you view them as representatives of a given “class” instead of as individuals. Such distinctions are invidious and completely foreign to my way of thinking.
Q: The goblins are portrayed as vicious and avaricious opportunists – outsiders and interlopers owing no allegiance to the Forest of Albion, and the final chapters see a call to arms, followed by the Battle of the Trees. Isn’t there a danger that certain vested interest groups might hijack the book as a platform to propagate their own political beliefs?
RT: I have no control over how any given interest group might interpret my novel in pursuit of their agendas. I am a novelist, not a writer of political tracts. You could just as well argue that the gnomes represent an Underground Resistance similar to that during the last war, and the ensuing battle with the goblins could be construed as the ongoing struggle against fascism.
Q: Are you opposed to immigration in principle?
RT: I think anyone in their right mind is opposed to mass uncontrolled immigration, as it is simply not sustainable: our infrastructures are collapsing under the strain. But blaming foreigners for all our woes is pointless and stupid. About as pointless as taking out your frustration on a waiter for poor service, when management policy makes it inevitable. This is to confuse the symptoms with the underlying causes. If this country is in a mess you can be sure the root cause lies with self-serving and corrupt politicians, some of whom actually thought it might be a good idea to alter the social composition and demographics of Britain forever in order to garner more votes at elections. For the record, I have never belonged to and never will belong to any organised political party, and get quite agitated when others take it upon themselves to do my thinking for me. I pilot my own ship.
Q: So what do you stand for?
RT: I stand for what most people stand for: the freedom to live our lives without undue interference from the State, and old-fashioned tolerance. After all, hurling a bomb at your neighbour would be quite unthinkable if you are busy tucking into treacle tart with custard. Gnomes of Middle England, I salute you, I take my hat off to you!
Q: You stated earlier that the politically incorrect tenor of the book made it difficult to find a traditional publisher who would touch it, for fear of giving offence in certain quarters.
RT: The fact is that most publishers refuse to take risks, and it didn’t fit neatly into any of the known genres, such as mainstream fantasy – which has a limited audience because it is not rooted in material reality – or most contemporary fiction, which portrays only too faithfully everyday life. I wanted to write a multi-layered book that would appeal to adults as well as children, and you cannot write convincingly for adults if you take a head-in-the-sand approach and ignore what’s going on in the wider world.
Q: Gillian is equally pertinacious in standing up for her principles: she is at odds with the local council, who have given their consent for an ancient primaeval forest to be bulldozed in order to make way for a new housing estate. Some of the topical issues touched upon are bound to strike a responsive chord with the general public. But no sooner has the reader become absorbed in Gillian’s battle with a leading councillor, than she wanders into the woods at night and vanishes into another realm. The bewildered reader is taken unawares by the unexpected plot twist, and is totally unprepared for what might happen next.
RT: If they have read the preceding 3 chapters the “bewildered” reader, as you are good enough to describe him or her, should be amply prepared! After all, something very similar occurred in Chapter One when, following a tedious day at the office, Laurence stumbles across an active portal – an oak tree – in Kensington Gardens. The point about fantasy worlds or alternative realities is their internal consistency: thus a disgruntled city stockbroker is whisked back in time to his old boarding school, and from thence into the magical domain of Albion by climbing a tree in the school grounds (in order to enter Albion you first have to become a child) Whether it is aimed at children or adults, most fantasy fiction is characterized by the temporary suspension of disbelief, and the same applies to a theatre or movie audience. My primary objective is to address a cynical modern audience and magick them into enchanted realms. But the proof is in the pudding. It all depends on whether people like thought-provoking content dished up alongside their entertainment.
Q: Speaking of puddings …I loved the scenes where the children’s aunt takes them to Marjorie’s Tea Parlour and they all get stuck into to those mouth-watering puddings! During the winter months Marjorie’s Tea Gardens was transformed into Marjorie’s Tea Parlour. People could come in out of the cold into her front parlour where there was always a blazing log fire, and partake of her marvellous steamed puddings. For the adults, there was ginger pudding with brandy sauce or marmalade pudding laced with whiskey, and for the children – spotted dick or treacle pudding with custard. It was a curious fact that as soon as you walked into the parlour the outside world with all its cares simply ceased to exist and any niggling worries receded into the background. Everybody, without exception, was soon giggling – as carefree and light-hearted as a gaggle of school-children released from the school gates and looking forward to the holidays. Passages like this read like pure escapism.
RT: Yes, it’s all rather jolly isn’t it? I’d like to see lots of Marjorie’s Tea Parlours springing up all over the country – where people can stuff themselves without worrying about the carb content – and engage in silly parlour games. I suppose that most fantasy fiction is harmless escapism, an attempt to recapture and reclaim our childhood. Once you lose sight of your inner child, you are in danger of losing your sense of fun and spontaneity.
Q: In the book you hint that the youngest, Josie, has been homeless with schizophrenic episodes. Considering they were supposed to have had an idyllic childhood, why have they all turned out dysfunctional as adults?
RT: Who said they were dysfunctional? It could be that modern society itself is dysfunctional, which is precisely why they are misfits. They don’t fit. The two eldest, Gillian and Philip, lead relatively normal lives; at least they both managed to get married and have kids. Mind you, Gillian’s husband thinks his wife is completely loopy. So you could say their marriage is dysfunctional, though that is not a word I would choose to apply.
Q: Laurence comes across as being emotionally constipated. Any over-familiarity, such as hugging his own sister-in-law, sets his teeth on edge.
RT: Only by modern standards. It has taken centuries of breeding and education for a certain class of English to cultivate the reserve and stiff upper lip they are renowned for, but nowadays these responses are labelled as emotionally constricted or somehow dysfunctional. We live in an age when people lay floral tributes or fluffy toys at the roadside graves of complete strangers to whom they can have no personal connection, and where the participants in televised talk shows divulge their intimate marital secrets for public consumption. Are these responses any more mature or healthy? Sentimentality is frequently mistaken for depth of feeling or real emotion, when it is merely symptomatic of the populist craving for public acceptance. Surely it is preferable to possess an inner sense of self-worth, rather than to be always looking outside for approval?
Q: You said earlier that the magical domain of Albion mirrors England, providing a landscape of the imagination. I associated the enchanted Tor with the glass isle or spiral castle of myth and legend – Glastonbury.
RT: Folklore has it that the entrance to the mysterious otherworld of Faery can be found inside hollow hills, in which the Little People are said to dwell. The Pink Citadel perched on the promontory of Stormy Point was inspired by Tintagel, and the Lily Ponds actually exist, in Pembrokeshire.
Q: I quite warmed to Darius – is his character based on anyone in particular?
RT: Darius is Prince Arthur – saviour of Britain at the 11th hour when all hope seems lost – he is Hamlet the Melancholy Prince, he is whoever you want him to be. To Ermentrude he is the Pretender, a traitor with a price on his head. Being of royal birth he is a trained warrior and very handy with a sword, but he is also just an ordinary boy, when all is said and done. Despite the perils and fear of the unknown, the remaining four occupants of The Pink Citadel take a unanimous decision to leave behind all that is comfortable and familiar, and to join forces with Darius, because they realise they have to make a stand. They all love Albion and if they don’t defend what they love it won’t exist for much longer. In the same way the British people were forced to go to war with Germany in 1939 if they didn’t want to be overrun by Nazis. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that the dangers have not gone away.
Q: Are you suggesting Albion is really imperilled?
RT: What do you think? Do you think everything is hunky dory and that we can all sit back and rest on our laurels?
Q: But what exactly is at risk, and from whom do you envisage the threat?
RT: What is at risk is the dissolution of our society, the steady erosion of ancient privileges and hard-won freedoms enjoyed since time immemorial. The chief threat is posed by those who are intolerant of any opposing viewpoint, who prefer violence to reasoned argument and debate, and seek to eradicate everything the British stand for. This country has numerous enemies: some are avowed terrorists, hard-liners and fanatics who wish to impose their world-view by means of force, some are militant Trade Unionists who want to bring the country to its knees, some are top-ranking politicians who hold high office, and some are prominent journalists and broadcasters. Quite why they hate this country so much is a complete mystery to me, but I think most hatred stems from an inferiority complex and is rooted in feelings of envy and jealousy. Goblins come from all walks of life. But I think you will find the largest concentration of goblins strutting about the council chambers of town halls. Not to mention the threat posed by Brussels sprouts.
Q: You’ve lost me there.
RT: The Thought Police over in Strasbourg have been busy drafting legislation designed to stamp out free speech for once and for all, making it a criminal offence to criticise the European Union. I mean, who else but some self-important Eurocrat could come up with the notion of making anti-European sentiment a punishable crime? Our national cohesion is being undermined and systematically destroyed by the insidious effects of political correctness and European Federalism – the twin altars before which our leaders habitually prostrate themselves. Great nations can be destroyed from within as well as from without, and the politicians seem to have done a pretty thorough demolition job without any outside help.
Q: Towards the end of the book Philip says: “The gifts the Faery Queen bestows are emblematic, tokens of faculties we all possess. To enter the Forest of Albion all one requires is the magical key” Can you expand on that?
RT: The experience of encountering the Faery Queen has transformed and enriched their lives, opened them to new possibilities. None of them will ever be the same again.
Q: Before the children leave Albion the Faery Queen tells them “Never be afraid. Remember that good always triumphs over evil. Evil only attracts weak and corrupt spirits, whereas the strong and the pure in heart are attracted by what is good. And that is why its power is so much greater, and why it will always win in the end” Do you believe that?
RT: Yes, I do. It makes sense in a crazy kind of cosmic way, if you think about it. On the surface, the forces of Good and Evil would appear to be equally matched, but I think it’s true to say weak characters tend to gravitate towards crime whereas those who possess real strength of character – I am speaking of the great spiritual leaders and prophets – are naturally drawn to what is good, which is what tips the balance in favour of the latter.
Q: Any final Message?
RT: It fills me with dismay me to see so many people sleepwalking through life. Not stupid – just asleep. WAKE UP! Your house may be on fire! Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you truly believe in, and don’t do something simply because everyone else is doing it. Avoid gossip and the spurious cult of celebrity: don’t waste precious time on Twitter and Facebook – read some good books instead.