Not gate-crash­ing a funer­al

Published Categorised as Books, Life in General, Popular Posts, Travel 3 Comments on Not gate-crash­ing a funer­al


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(Christ­mas Steps in Bris­tol- the photos are all from my old phone, which turned out not to have the greatest camera)

I actu­ally atten­ded this funeral/​memorial for children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones over 2 years ago. I had meant to write about it for a long time, but I didn’t want to write anything without having the programme of speak­ers from the event to hand, and it stub­bornly disap­peared until recently when I had a big clear out of papers (and faded with some print rubbed off after 2 years), so here it is.

Diana was my favour­ite writer grow­ing up. A few years ago I made a zine about her books (you can see/​order the zine here, and there will be a new reprin­ted/re-layed out edition very soon), and Diana was kind enough to answer my inter­view ques­tions in great detail (you can read the inter­view in full here) and vari­ous people contrib­uted essays. Sadly, I didn’t get the zine finished in time for Diana to see it, because she died of cancer. Terrible procras­tin­at­ing.

The family had a private funer­al, and then a year later had a public memori­al in Bris­tol, where she had lived. An edit­or from one of Diana’s publish­ers named Sharyn Novem­ber sent me an invit­a­tion, because she’d seen the zine, so I booked a cheap bus tick­et and took myself off to Bris­tol. I considered invit­ing someone, but my then boyfriend had never read any of the books, and the two people I thought might be inter­ested had both recently given birth (and one was living in Scot­land). So I went alone.

The plot of one of Diana’s most popu­lar books (and my favour­ite), Fire and Hemlock, starts out with the main char­ac­ter, Polly, acci­dent­ally gate­crash­ing a funer­al as a child because she’s dressed in dark colours and no-one real­ises she shouldn’t be there. The funer­al and the connec­tion it gives Polly to the sinis­ter Leroy family have long-running effects on her life, and funer­als are a very import­ant theme in the book. This time I was invited though, it wasn’t quite a funer­al, and eating or drink­ing anything there wouldn’t unknow­ingly entrap me. It didn’t quite seem right to wear black like an actu­al funer­al, but neither did it seem right to wear bright colours, so in the end I settled for a purple blouse and black dress.

I really like Bris­tol, and know the city fairly well. When I was 18 I had a place at the univer­sity there, which due to a complic­ated and boring set of bureau­crat­ic reas­ons I ended up not being able to start. The city just has a nice atmo­sphere (despite the steep hills and the wet climate- more on that later). On the two hour­ish bus jour­ney I listened to Mogwai- Christ­mas Steps and My Fath­er My King seemed appro­pri­ate, the former being named after a street in Bris­tol and the latter remin­is­cent of the Golden Bough, Polly in Fire & Hemlock’s read­ing matter on her ill-fated train jour­ney to Bris­tol.

I arrived in Bris­tol a couple of hours early, into a rain­storm. Bris­tol, like a lot of west­ern coastal regions of the UK, has a very wet climate. At this point I real­ised I’d forgot­ten my umbrella, so I bought a very cheap one from a shop near the bus station. The cheap umbrella seemed ok initially, but the more I used it, the more I real­ised it was hungry for my blood, and would like noth­ing more than to skin one of my fingers. I managed to get through the day without shred­ding my hands, but every time I opened or closed the umbrella I had to do it very slowly and with great scru­tiny. Onlook­ers must have thought I was very pecu­li­ar.

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I decided to find the venue first, and then go for a wander. The venue was easily found (on a route that went past Christ­mas Steps), and turned out to be really beau­ti­ful, a Greek Reviv­al church from the 1820s now used as a concert hall. The nearby streets are full of solid old stone houses, slightly damp, arranged around oddly flow­ing slop­ing roads.

I decided to have a wander up towards the univer­sity, and then come back and have a coffee in one of the nearby cafés before the event star­ted. Whichever direc­tion you go in Bris­tol, it seems to be uphill some­how. I think M.C.Escher laid out that city. As I was trudging up the steep slope of Park Street, which seems to form right angles to slopes at other angles some­how, the rain star­ted again in earn­est. A mini tidal wave of rain suddenly sloshed down the street, and me and anoth­er woman walk­ing along the street had to suddenly jump over some water. We looked at each other and burst out laugh­ing. I slogged around in the rain a bit look­ing at nice old build­ings, but in the end I just sat in a cafe until it was time to go in.


Once the venue opened I got anoth­er cup of tea and had a look at the displays. There was a small exhib­i­tion of hand-writ­ten first drafts of books, and vari­ous covers over the years. The family also had a cellar-full of paper­backs of vari­ous trans­la­tions of the books. They had made a huge tower/​pyramid of Babel of the books, and you could put your name on a post-it and reserve them for later, putting some money in the char­ity buck­et in exchange. I put my name on a few Span­ish ones, because at the time I wanted to brush up on it.

Here is the list of speak­ers-
Michael Burrow
(Nick some­thing I can’t read on the faded prin­tout)
Isobel Armstrong
Richard Burrow
Colin Burrow
Laura Cecil
Howl’s Moving Castle & Archer’s Goon clips, and state­ment from Miyaza­ki
Greer Gilman
Stella Paskins
Sharyn Novem­ber
Meredith MacArdle
Gili Bar-Hillel
Piano music from stage produc­tion of Black Maria- Tom Armstrong
(can’t read)
Chris Bell
Sharyn Novem­ber reads some words from Neil Gaiman
David Devereux
Ursula Jones read­ing from the Islands of Chaldea
Recor­ded inter­view with Diana about how she came to write her first books

Diana’s family members talked and gave their vari­ous perspect­ives on her work and as a person, and her bizar­rely awful parents and eccent­ric upbring­ing. One of her sons had some­times had a diffi­cult rela­tion­ship with her, and it was inter­est­ing to hear that Seb in Fire & Hemlock owed a lot to him as a teen­ager. The other speak­ers were friends and/​or connec­ted with Diana in vari­ous profes­sion­al capa­cit­ies. I won’t attempt to summar­ise the talks sever­al years down the line, but they were all very inter­est­ing, and I wish there was some­where I could read them again. There were also inter­ludes with clips from the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle, tv version of Archer’s Goon (now avail­able in full on youtube!), piano music from a stage produc­tion of Black Maria, and a message from Hayao Miyaza­ki.

I think my favour­ite talk was from Gili Bar-Hillel, an Israeli trans­lat­or who has become a bit of a celebrity in her home coun­try for trans­lat­ing Harry Potter. She grew up in a bi-lingual family, read­ing mostly in English because there wasn’t a great selec­tion of children’s books avail­able in Hebrew at that time. As an adult she decided to special­ise in trans­lat­ing children’s books because she felt that a lot of the trans­la­tions then avail­able were dull and liter­al-minded and wouldn’t inspire chil­dren to read. She talked about the chal­lenges of trans­lat­ing books between two very differ­ent languages, and how do you deal with trans­lat­ing some­thing like Diana’s books where the same word often gets used in ways that can be inter­preted in multiple ways- the example she gave was the Home­ward Bounders, where bound could mean direc­tion, restric­tion or oblig­a­tion, and also brings to mind “bounder” as someone disrep­ut­able or the idiom “they’re bound to”, and where the book itself often delib­er­ately echoes Milton or the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was really inter­est­ing.

There was also a tantal­ising read­ing of the first chapter of an unfin­ished book called the Islands of Chaldea that star­ted out really strongly. (I was disap­poin­ted with the actu­al book that ended up being published, but that’s some­thing for anoth­er time, and is often par for the course with posthum­ous work that was still a first draft)

On the way out, I collec­ted my Span­ish books from the tower, or at least attemp­ted to. It was at the top of the tower though, so it was a little diffi­cult. Luck­ily one of Diana’s grand­sons was at hand to help. He was at the sort of age where listen­ing to a lot of speeches about his grand­moth­er wasn’t too thrill­ing, but the chance to demol­ish a huge tower of books certainly was. Other people star­ted asking if I could books from the pile, and before I knew it there was a bunch of people demol­ish­ing the books and sort­ing them into piles and going “do you think this one is in Dutch?”. I also had a nice chat with Sharyn before I had to leave to catch my bus back to London.

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  1. Hi Emma – Thanks for bring­ing back memor­ies of that day! (The Nick whose name you couldn’t make out, by the way, was Nick Tuck­er, DWJ’s child­hood friend amongst many other bowstrings.)

  2. Hello! I just have to leave you a comment thank­ing …uh, “thank­ing”?… you for alert­ing me that I can see the whole Archer’s Goon series on YouTube, that being one of my favor­ite DWJ books. Now I just have to find the time to sit and watch them all!

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