Diana Wynne Jones confer­ence notes

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A couple of weeks ago I went to an academ­ic confer­ence in Bris­tol focused on the works of Diana Wynne Jones. She is prob­ably best known for writ­ing the book that the Studio Ghib­li film Howl’s Moving Castle was based on, but she has around thirty other books aimed at a vari­ety of ages. Even the ones aimed at chil­dren have a surpris­ing amount of psycho­lo­gic­al and liter­ary depth, and a will­ing­ness to explore very dark issues not usually found in books for that age group, giving her work a huge appeal to adults and academ­ics.

Diana herself was also an extremely well-educated and well-read woman who was married to a special­ist in Medi­ev­al Liter­at­ure, who delib­er­ately left all kinds of trails to inter­est­ing cultur­al things in her books that would ignite the curi­os­ity of chil­dren, and set off sparks of recog­ni­tion in adults with the right cultur­al frame­work to recog­nise them.

I was one of the last people to inter­view Diana before she died a few years back. Sadly she was too ill to meet, so we conduc­ted it via email, but I did end up being invited to a memori­al service in Bris­tol, where I met some of her family and her Hebrew trans­lat­or and edit­or, Gili Bar-Hillel (who also did the Hebrew versions of Harry Potter and the Wizard of Oz). I wrote about it here.

I really enjoyed my time at the confer­ence- I got to listen to a vari­ety of inter­est­ing and well-researched talks about one of my favour­ite writers from speak­ers from a spread of differ­ent fields, and I met a lot of inter­est­ing and friendly people from a wide range of walks of life and coun­tries. It’s always good to get out of your social bubble, and it reminded me how much I enjoy academ­ic confer­ences. I’m not affil­i­ated with any kind of academ­ic depart­ment, and so don’t have any career pres­sure on me at confer­ences. I’m just there to enjoy getting my mind expan­ded.

It also reminded me that I prob­ably need more substance in my life to be happy. I don’t get out to museums or talks often enough these days. Yeah I can certainly drink, social­ise, chat with people, whatever, but I don’t find it very fulfilling if that’s all I’m doing.

When I did an Art MA, we had to keep a Creat­ive Diary with entries of all talks and exhib­i­tions we went to. I got into the habit of creat­ing block notes with mark­ers, and I made notes on every talk I went to at the confer­ence. I’ll provide a bit of context with each image. I’m sorry I don’t have the names of all the speak­ers, I can’t find what I did with the confer­ence programme.

The first page was a talk about intro­du­cing Diana’s books to students in the Deep South who might not have chosen to read them, and how the way she plays with genre and expect­a­tions is prob­ably annoy­ing and/​or discon­cert­ing to people with rigid expect­a­tions. (And one of the things that makes her books so appeal­ing to her fans)

The next section is Leah Koch-Michael’s archae­ology talk. She is a marine archae­olo­gist based in Denmark. She took a look at the Dale­mark series compared to the actu­al archao­logy of the North Sea. The book series has two stor­ies set in the early modern/​cusp of the Indus­tri­al Revolu­tion era, one set in the Iron Age, one set in the modern era (with time travel) and events in a clearly early Medi­ev­al type era often refer­enced. The coun­try the books are set in is fiction­al, but it has clear refer­ences to both Wales and Denmark. It was espe­cially inter­est­ing for me to hear about the pre-Chris­tian­ity era Balt­ic culture, because this is a time peri­od that interests me, but my focus was always on Britain or the Mediterranean/​Near East.

Going to an archae­ology talk on a Saturday morn­ing brings joy to my heart, and is some­thing I should do more often.

Here’s some more archae­ology notes, and a talk about bound­ar­ies, belong­ing and home about the Home­ward Bounders (a book which is notably popu­lar with people who grew up in a milit­ary or diplo­mat­ic family as well as those with exper­i­ence of being a refugee).

The next page is about Year of the Griffin, one of my least favour­ite of Diana’s books. It’s always seemed like very hurried fluff to me. The talk was really enga­ging though, using the plot of the book as a frame­work to talk about the harm­ful polit­ics of neolib­er­al policies of univer­sity market­isa­tion. I actu­ally re-read the book after­wards to see if I’d missed some­thing, but I still didn’t rate it.

The next talk is by Gili Bar-Hillel talk­ing about the magic of trans­la­tion, and espe­cially how do you handle liter­at­ure where a word is delib­er­ately used because it has multi-layered mean­ings in one language which may not carry over to any trans­la­tions. Kafka is a good example of this- his sentences in German are short and super­fi­cially simple, but most of the words he picks have ambigu­ous mean­ings in German, making him hard to satis­fact­or­ily trans­late.

The next two talks were both about the Chresto­manci series and how the straight­for­ward use/​occasional subver­sion of Edwar­d­i­an mansion settings (albeit it with the added dimen­sion of multiple universes) relates to colo­ni­al­ism and psycho­geo­graphy.

I also squeezed in some notes on a talk about the use of magic­al disguise and psycho­logy.

The next talk was Karina Coldrick’s discus­sion of how the multi-universe travel in some of Diana’s books relates to actu­al current theor­ies in phys­ics.

The next talk was about the use of sens­ory exper­i­ence and descrip­tion in the Dale­mark books. As I have already said, they are set in differ­ent time peri­ods of the same imagin­ary coun­try. In the pre-modern era, half the coun­try is a Three Musketeers/​Elizabethan England type police state where people are very care­ful with what they say, but also have a very strong oral cultur­al tradi­tion. The Iron Age setting focuses very strongly on tact­ile phys­ic­al culture. The main char­ac­ters of the books are also respect­ively a weaver, a musi­cian, a fish­er­boy and a modern liter­ate girl (albeit heav­ily involved in look­ing after horses) who each narrate things through a differ­ent sens­ory aware­ness that their skills and exper­i­ence give them.

These two pages are a confus­ing mix of a talk about the use of Diana’s Welsh herit­age and her refus­al to provide neat little maps of her inven­ted places. The geography is meant to be as confus­ing for the read­er as it is for the char­ac­ters.

Diana frequently made use of a buried alive/​Once and Future King motif in her books. Most liter­ally in Black Maria and Hexwood, but also figur­at­ively in terms of char­ac­ters forget­ting who they are/​what they know.

“The Myth­ic Past is Made of the Same Messy Mater­i­al as the Chaot­ic Present” is always a good motto to live by. And prob­ably the thing drummed into your head the strongest if you study Ancient History. Also a good motto every time you look at Instagram or other attempts to present perfect lives.

The talk on the left was titled “The signi­fic­ance of the Goon’s small head”, and was about use of power, corrup­tion, ego and narciss­ism in Archer’s Goon. The presenter made me laugh out loud by present­ing the idiom “swollen headed” and point­ing out that the Goon, the only magic­al char­ac­ter with any sense of propor­tion is consist­ently described as having an unusu­ally small head.

The talk on the right is about the BBC tv adapt­a­tion of Archer’s Goon from the early 90s. I loved it when it was origin­ally on (and the extremely Marc Almond-esque Torquil), but it’s pretty dated now. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube here though!

And my last pages are about the delib­er­ately subver­ted use of known char­ac­ters from myth or legend in Hexwood and how includ­ing that kind of cultur­al thread in your work leads read­ers to expect certain things, which can then be turned on their heads.

The last page is about esoter­i­cism and how it relates to Diana’s use of magic in her stor­ies. She doesn’t go for a Harry Potter type set of rules and instruc­tions about magic- it’s some­thing psycho­lo­gic­al, intrins­ic and hard to pin down.

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