The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

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The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

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The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

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The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

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The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

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The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.

 

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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This post is going up on Christmas Eve so I thought it would be good to look at one of the Christmas books sent as occasional gifts by Allen Lane (the founder of Penguin Books) and his family. This isn’t a review of one of the greatest works in English literature, rather I want to look at the book itself and how it came into existence.

The Ancient Mariner was the gift in 1945 from Allen and his brother Richard, sadly the third brother John had died during the war, and this was the first one published since 1930. The tradition of an occasional privately printed limited edition book was started by Allen’s uncle, John Lane, who founded his company The Bodley Head in 1887 initially to sell antiquarian books. In 1894 he started publishing in his own right and that year sent a small volume of the autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley as a Christmas present to family and friends. It is not known how many copies were printed but it is rarely seen so presumably the print run was quite small. I featured this book in my first ever post on this blog.  There were three books printed as gifts from 1928 to 1930, the first was from Allen and Dick Lane, the other two were from Allen, Dick and John Lane and then whilst there was a gap in the production of books, there were some interesting Christmas cards printed instead in some of those years.

As mentioned above John Lane (Allen’s brother as opposed to his uncle of the same name) died during the war so this restart of a tradition came from Allen and Richard (no longer calling himself Dick). The resultant volume bears the mark of being a little hurried, after all it was only a few months after the end of the war and it was presumably also a little celebration that the conflict was over and normal life could start to return. The cover is full dark blue Niger leather with a medallion stamped in gold and looks rather fine (although it does fade quite badly) however the title page in particular is a bit of a mess with five different fonts and type sizes used in just seven lines.

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After that unprepossessing start though the presentation of the poem itself is rather lovely, the paper is hand made with a gilded top edge, the illustrations by Duncan Grant are also quite atmospheric and whilst better than the original attempts which were rejected by the artist were apparently not as good as they might have been.

Duncan Grant was not happy with the first illustrations we produced, so we did them again, adding I think two more colours

Richard Lane

Quite what they would have looked like without the extension of the colour palette I can’t imagine as they are fairly restricted in colours used even as ultimately printed. Hans Schmoller, Head of Typography and Design at Penguin Books from 1949 to 1976, also felt that they were not as good as they might have been, although for a different reason.

I’ve always thought it a pity that Duncan Grant’s beautiful coloured drawings were reproduced photo-lithographically instead of as auto-lithographs.

Auto-lithography is definitely a far superior process and one that Penguin already used very successfully to give far more subtle colour grading and is also under control of the artist so would presumably avoided Grant’s original problem with the first version of the prints. Maybe it wasn’t done because of this extra work that the artist has to do, but anyway the illustrations are good but as Schmoller says, could have been better.

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As can be seen above the actual text is very pleasingly done with the main part of the poem being in black whilst the commentary on the action is in Venetian red. There is also a lot of blank space round the text which makes it easier to read, this is especially noticeable after the cramped styling forced on publishers during the war when the need to conserve paper stocks led to small fonts and words as close to the paper edge as possible. Richard Lane again:

During the war the production of our publications was only moderate – very narrow margins and as many words to the page as we possibly could fit in – so in The Ancient Mariner we went to town on production

I like the book a lot, it is one of the more difficult Lane Christmas books to find as it appeals not only to collectors of these works but Duncan Grant is also very collectable and there were only 700 copies produced. This is a lot compared to the other Christmas books right up until 1950 when the first one with a print run of 1000 appeared but this does appear to be quite elusive, so was one of the last I have managed to acquire for my collection. I leave you with the image of the first appearance of the albatross that would cause so many problems for the Mariner and wish my readers a very Happy Christmas.

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Misericords – Philip Sharpe and Andrew Judd

This lovely book wasn’t planned to be a post on this blog because until the 23rd November this year I didn’t even know it existed. On that day I was in Hay on Wye, which is the worlds first book town, and discovered a new shop that I hadn’t seen before. Balch and Balch (also trading as The Story of Books) specialise in books from Private Presses and although the main room was closed at the time as they were preparing for the Winter Festival to be held the following weekend Graeme kindly brought a selection of about eight titles for me to have a look at, top of the pile was this one. Now he couldn’t have known that I have a lifetime fascination with misericords and if ever I am in a medieval church or cathedral always check to see what delights are hidden away there in the choir stalls.

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So before reviewing the book, just what are misericords? The description as given at the start of the King Penguin book on the subject (written by M.D. Anderson and published in October 1954 as K72) is reproduced below.

An intelligent sightseer who wishes to understand the mentality of ordinary people living in the Middle Ages will find a rich reward for even a superficial study of the carvings on Gothic choir stalls, particularly those of misericords. The medieval priests, finding the physical strain of standing through a succession of long services beyond their endurance, devised a hinged seat with a corbel projecting from its under-surface which, when the seat was tipped up, allowed them to combine the comfort of sitting with the appearance of standing. In an age which was lavish in the use of fine craftsmanship it was natural that these corbels, although seldom seen, should be decorated with carvings and the work gave a rare opportunity for self-expression to carvers employed.

As implied there is a wide variety of subjects to be seen on misericords and a lot of the time you wonder what they are doing in a church, real and imaginary animals, people making beer or wine (and drinking it), various domestic scenes, knights in armour or even in New College Oxford a series depicting the seven deadly sins… What is rarely depicted is religious subjects. these carvings after all were intended to be sat on and it was not seen as suitable to have sacred images for that purpose. This brings us to the carvings in St Mary’s church at Ripple in Worcestershire, England which were used to inspire the illustrations in this book. Of the sixteen misericords in the church twelve depict ‘the labours of the months’ and Andrew Judd has produced some lovely linocuts of these to accompany not only a medieval poem but also twelve new works by Philip Sharpe that fill out the story.

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The book is printed in a limited edition of just 50 copies of which mine is number 45 by a private press called MKB Editions about whom I have unfortunately been able to find out very little other than it appears to be a Hereford based collaboration between Sharpe and Judd as everything I can find published by the press involves one or both of them. Of the 49 other copies of this book, two are held in libraries according to worldcat, at the University of Oxford and also, somewhat more randomly, the University of Arizona.

It really is a beautiful book, printed by letterpress on Zerkall paper it is quarter cloth bound with printed boards forming the cover. In total there are fourteen prints, one for each of the months along with one facing the anonymous medieval poem that formed part of the inspiration to the book and a further image making up the final page; all are based on the misericords in St. Mary’s. I admit to buying it for the prints rather than the poetry by Philip Sharpe which is OK but without the images I would not have looked twice at the book. There are several references to the River Severn (which flows roughly 100 yards from my front door) and also its propensity to flood, which living here I am all too aware of, so the verses ring true to my locality. But sadly other than the geographic recognition I don’t have a deep feeling for the text; but I will treasure the book nevertheless for adding to my love of the remarkable misericord and a chance discovery decades ago in childhood that has led to a fascination with old churches that I still retain today.

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Hansel and Gretel – Simon Armitage

This was not the book I expected to be writing about at the beginning of June as the publication date is not until the 24th of this month, but on the 31st May a wonderful package arrived and I couldn’t help abandoning what I had been reading and starting on this beautiful volume straight away.

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Simon Armitage has just been made the Poet Laureate for the next ten years and this is therefore his first newly published work since that honour. The poem originally appeared as a ‘libretto’ to a puppet production designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins which toured England between July and November 2018 but this is its first book publication.

You can see the entire production with the darkly appropriate music by Matthew Kaner, performed by the Goldfield Ensemble here

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has produced a wonderful series of illustrations for this book published by Design For Today. These are clearly based on the theatre production without being limited by his original work.

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The subtitle of the poem is ‘A Nightmare in Eight Scenes’ as the Hansel and Gretel story has been re-interpreted as a modern tale of refugees from a war zone. Without giving too much away the family are starving as the bombs rain amongst them at the start of the book and the parents decide to at least get the children away from there to somewhere where they stand more chance of survival. Hansel and Gretel though mishear their parents planning and think they are simply to be abandoned. This is not the only time that mishearing becomes a plot device in the poem.

As in the original Brothers Grimm tale there is a ‘witch’ and a gingerbread cottage, a trail of stones, a trail of breadcrumbs and abandonment to avoid famine followed by a return only this time without the treasure that would lead to a happy ending. In the modern world of war meted out against helpless civilians there is rarely a happy ending…

The illustrations fit the text so well and the design of the book is beautifully done. I particularly like the colour coding of the words so that you know who is speaking, each character has their own colour as specified in the cast list at the start.

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Oddly I’d never read any Simon Armitage before this but I will definitely be seeking out more of his work. According to his website there are a lot of books to check out

The total production run of this book is two thousand copies, of which one hundred form a further limited edition signed by Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins and which include two extra art prints. Mine is copy number twenty two.

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White Horses – Eric Ravilious

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Puffin Picture Books, an imprint of Penguin Books intended for children, started in December 1940 and ran until March 1965, although by then you were lucky to get one new title a year. In all 119 titles were published out of 120 that were given numbers, the missing title was 116 assigned to Life Histories by Paxton Chadwick and this was eventually printed by the Penguin Collectors Society in March 1996 under the guidance of Steve Hare. The story of the series appeared to be complete, but there were in the archives references to other titles that never even got as far down the path to publication that Life Histories had. One of these was Eric Ravilious’s White Horses. The beautiful watercolours of chalk figures and hills on the English chalk Downs intended for the book did exist but there appeared to be nothing more.

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Ravilious had been approached by Noel Carrington, editor of the Puffin Picture Book series to produce illustrations for a thirty two page landscape book of Downland figures back in 1939 and he was originally very enthusiastic about the project working of watercolours straight away. By the beginning of 1941 he had produced a dummy which showed the planned layout but by then commitments to the War Ministry left him no time to do more. Sadly on 28th August 1942 Ravilious was killed in an air crash whilst working as war artist in Iceland, the dummy of Downland Man (as Carrington referred to it)  disappeared and the planned book appeared to have died with him.

The story leaps to 2010 and the rediscovery of the dummy tucked away with other papers in the possession of Roland Collins. This critical evidence is now held at The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and it is with their permission to make use of the document that the book I now have in front of me exists. Step forward Joe Pearson, owner of a small printing company in London, book and illustration collector and Penguin Books expert.

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Design For Today has, since its launch in 2015, already built up a reputation for producing fine examples of illustrated books based on Joe’s love of mid 20th century design, either reprints or more often using contemporary artists as inspired by the period as Joe is. As their website says…

Design For Today’s artists’ books are all designed, crafted and printed in the UK, using quality, sustainable materials and printed using the traditional processes of lithography, letterpress, screenprint, or linocut.  Editions are small, from 500 – 1500

Joe had been hinting throughout 2018 that White Horses (as Ravilious titled the dummy) was a project he was working on; with Alice Pattullo commissioned to produce the black and white illustrations needed to complete the artwork as Ravilious had only ever done the colour pictures and Puffin Picture Books are a mix of both. The text of the final book is by Joe himself.

On the 31st December 2018 disaster struck, as the warehouse holding all of DFT’s stock, along with part of Joe’s own book collection and personal items, was burnt to the ground and nothing could be saved. White Horses is the first book to be launched after that loss of all of the back stock from the first years of the business and members of the Penguin Collectors Society are to receive a copy of the standard edition with their June mailing.

My copy of the limited edition version, which also includes a signed A3 print of one of the pictures by Alice, arrived the other day and it is an excellent piece of work not just well printed as I expected having quite a few of DFT’s products already, but entirely in the spirit of the Puffin Picture Book series.

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The double page spread above shows the sort of village that the creators of the earliest chalk carvings would have lived in at about 1500BC and this is the illustration that comes as the print with the limited edition book. The limited edition appears to have sold out already but standard copies of this beautiful book are available for £15 plus postage from Design For Today, anyone who like me loves Puffin Picture Books and/or the works of Eric Ravilious is sure to want one.

The Antipope – Robert Rankin

The first in the increasingly inaccurately titled Brentford Trilogy (currently eleven books with at least one more to come, which is claimed to be the last of the series) The Antipope also has the most straight forward title. Rankin has a passion for punning titles but as this was also his first ever book, originally published in 1981, maybe he felt something more mainstream was required. My copy is the 35th anniversary limited edition privately published by Rankin and signed by him, it is also the first time the book has appeared in hardback. Rankin himself describes his work as far fetched fiction, indeed his privately published volumes are by Far Fetched Books, at the time of writing the limited edition of The Antipope was still available and is illustrated internally by the author, the cover is by the brilliant Josh Kirby

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The full list of Brentford Trilogy books so far is as follows; and from this you can see his love of wordplay with other book titles and songs:

  1. The Antipope (1981)
  2. The Brentford Triangle (1983)
  3. East of Ealing (1984)
  4. The Sprouts of Wrath (1988)
  5. The Brentford Chainsaw Massacre (1997)
  6. Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls (1999)
  7. Knees Up Mother Earth (2004)
  8. The Brightonomicon (2005)
  9. Retromancer (2009)
  10. The Lord of the Ring Roads (2017)
  11. The Chronicles of Banarnia (2018)

The Brightonomicon and Retromancer (2009) are included above although they aren’t in the list of Brentford Trilogy books at the front of this book which only has the first seven but equally on the dust wrapper it says:

The Antipope was the first book in the Brentford Trilogy which now includes at least nine books and will feature one more with the launch of The Lord of the Ring Roads – the first book in a new Brentford Trilogy – some time in the not too distant future.

The reason for the confusion in the number of books to be officially counted in the series is probably due to the appearance of several characters from the set appearing in other books by Rankin which means that those may, or may not, be part of the canon. The books also do not appear to have a specific reading order; things that happen in one book are ignored in later volumes, characters even reappear when they were apparently killed off or written out in earlier books and never with any explanation. Individual volumes are consistent within themselves however just don’t expect a sweeping narrative across them all.

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Brentford itself is one of the least eventful places in the UK and certainly contests strongly for the top spot for this amongst towns within Greater London. Looking on the time line on the wikipedia page reveals that the only act worthy of mention in the last ninety years is the 1965 opening of the elevated section of the M4 motorway, an opportunity the express road took to bypass Brentford entirely. This makes the location all the funnier for the ‘far fetched fiction’ that Rankin has take place there and the cast of odd characters that populate the books. Chief amongst these are John Omally and Jim Pooley who are the reluctant, and frequently drunk, heroes of the book. They are never happier than when enjoying a pint of large in The Flying Swan served by Neville the part time barman at that establishment. It should be noted that Neville appears to be the only barman at the Flying Swan so he does seem to be full time although is always described as the part time barman. The other main characters for this tale are Professor Slocombe who understands more than most what is going on and guides the characters to the ultimate defeat of the Antipope; Norman Hartnell (always described as not to be confused with the other Norman Hartnell) who is a mad inventor and runs the newsagents; Soap Distant explorer of the inner Earth; Captain Carson from the Seaman’s Mission and Archroy who, at least at the start of the book, is working at the local rubber factory.

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The plot starts with the arrival in the Flying Swan of

a beggar of dreadful aspect and sorry footwear

All those who encounter him feel compelled to cross themselves even if they are not Catholic and he slowly encounters most of the main protagonists most especially Captain Carson as he moves in and then takes over the Mission house. Quite what a seaman’s mission is doing in Brentford is also a mystery, the town is on the Thames but a long way from the sea. The plot gets odder and odder with each flight of fantasy by Rankin including ‘magic’ beans, vast underground chambers, an attempt to wade the English Channel and a cowboy night nobody will ever forget amongst other things.

Now I’m going to have to read the others in the series…

To conclude with Robert Rankin’s own explanation of Far Fetched Fiction from a 1999 interview in Dublin

 I’ve said this before, when I went into writing I wanted to create a new genre of fiction that wasn’t like anybody else’s. It was going to be called Far Fetched Fiction, I would have my own book shelf in Smiths, with just my books in them and it would be bliss. But it didn’t quite work out like that, I ended up in a general fiction section, and then they realised that I didn’t write general fiction and I ended up in science fiction, which I feel a bit of a fraud for being there. Because people who write science fiction don’t know what I write, and… I’ve forgotten what I was going to say, what was I going to say?

Sourcery (book proof) – Terry Pratchett

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The fifth Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett was published on 26th May 1988, before that however Gollanz released a sample for book reviewers and this was the only time that the book proof of one of Terry’s works was not the complete book. Instead what you got was just the first 61 pages and an essay from Terry explaining Discworld as it was still not well known. It is this short essay that makes this book so interesting as it has never been reprinted so you can only read it is you are one of the lucky few people that own a copy. It is not known exactly how many were printed but the proofs of books four and six in the series were both only of circa 100 copies produced so it is not unreasonable to assume that it is also the case for this example. The poor production value of what is basically a pamphlet with what looks like a bad black and white photocopy of the cover for an author who was not then famous would also suggest that not all of the printed editions were kept.

When Sourcery was printed for real the first edition (see below) ran to 7,600 copies, ten years later Carpe Jugulum (printed 5th November 1998) would have a first edition print run of 160,000 in the UK alone although the proof for that book was still only 148 examples. Pratchett UK book proof collecting takes a lot of looking to find copies and they are all rare.

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But back to the sample book proof, the essay inside describes how Terry saw the Discworld at the time, over the years this evolved and it is fascinating to read his views then, just four and a half years after the first book in a series that would eventually run to forty two novels, along with numerous other books, maps, plays etc. that added to the Discworld universe. The essay is headed

An Introduction to the series, composed by the Author, and included to make this special preview sample of Sourcery even more valuable as a collector’s item

In it he gives this description of why he invented Discworld in the first place

 It was created as an antidote to all those trilogies whose worthy heroes stagger across three volumes in order to do whatever it is that the fates have decreed that a hero must do. But fairy tales and folklore and all the feedstocks of fantasy have been dragged into it, and the humour gently teased out of them by the simple process of taking them seriously and staffing them with real people. This is very unfair on them, because it is like turning loose a large herd of cows in a small pottery.

This was indeed the case in the early Discworld books, the story is played for laughs and there is a strong sense of parody about the writing particularly in the ones up to and including Sourcery. The name of the novel by the way is also a joke and is deliberately spelled that way rather than Sorcery. The concept is that the eighth son of an eighth son is automatically a wizard of power but if he then goes on to have children each son would be as powerful as any existing wizard and if he has an eighth son then he would be a wizard squared and be all powerful with access to the source of all raw magic on the Disc hence a Sourcerer rather than a sorcerer. This duly happens and wizards start building towers to fight with one another, laying waste to the lands and peoples between; does this remind you of any three volume series by any chance? Pratchett specifically mentions Tolkien a little later.

Thus on the Discworld, wizards smoke. Nothing new about this Tolkien revealed to the world that wizards smoke. But on the Disc they really smoke, you can tell a wizard by his golden fingers, stained beard, tendency to cough when walking upstairs and, in the dark, by his little red glow.

The book goes on the amplify to the ridiculous numerous tropes of the fantasy novels up until then, barbarian heroes that are either like Cohen at 87 years old and sometimes needs to be carried off by the young maidens he has just rescued from sacrifice or patently unsuited for the role they have chosen such as Nijel who is far too polite for this sort of thing with his battle cry of “Erm, excuse me”. The book is very funny especially if you are well read in the sort of books that Pratchett is mercilessly parodying.

People keep asking for maps of the Disc, on the basis that all fantasy world have to have a map, but I retreat into my Somerset bunker and refuse on the ground that I may decide to move places around a bit if it makes a better joke.

As stated above there are now maps not just of the Disc itself but also specific regions but they weren’t created by Terry, instead Stephen Briggs eventually convinced him that it could be mapped, starting with the city of Ankh-Morpork and eventually the whole world and yes it did prove difficult because there wasn’t a map when the books were written and the lost continent of XXXX had to have a huge extension added just so that one of the books worked. The later books are also less parody of fantasy novels and more a humorous parody of life on Earth, back then Pratchett could never have seen where his work would take him and the millions of books he would sell, indeed he was somewhat bemused that it was as popular as it was even then.

the evolution of the books into a cult has rather perplexed me.

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At the time of writing there is a copy available on Abebooks should you be interested at a quite reasonable (considering its rarity) £225