Ten years ago I attended the first-ever DWJ conference, in Bristol, organised by Drs F Mendelsohn and C Butler. In 2019 I attended the third, also in Bristol, organised by the same pair of distinguished academics. Plus ca change…
Well, yes and no. We were all a little older, a little greyer, and Diana, sadly, is no longer with us. The venue was different – not a university campus but in the heart of the city, at the Watershed in the midst of a thriving entertainment area. The people were different – one delegate presenting on the Saturday celebrated her 21st birthday that weekend. How many DWJ books had she even read ten years ago, one wonders?
It became rapidly clear, however, that what had not changed was the enthusiasm and friendliness of the events. As old friends greeted each other, new friendships were being started. Twitter handles might have been exchanged instead of LJ identities, but links from which future relationships may blossom were still being made. And in the middle room of the three dedicated to the conference a superb ice-breaking activity saw crafters creating origami dressing-gowns.
Yes, that was a Chrestomanci reference. So was the significant number of delegates who donned beautiful, often flamboyant dressing-gowns for the opening session, in which Cathy Butler greeted the assembled crowd and Farah drew our attention to the immense relevance of Diana's work to the organisation of conferences and conventions alike. Deep Secret, of course, is a crucial text for this, but many other books were used to demonstrate how much she knew about cons and fans. And her advice to avoid responsibility of this sort? Farah paid close attention. And then ignored it – for which we were all grateful.
The first panel session dealt with the challenges of teaching Diana' books at college level, led by Donna White, Martha Hixon and Jackie Stallcup. Fascinating accounts of students at undergraduate and post-graduate level tussling with often-unfamiliar British children's fantasy, led to some even more compelling discussion of other uses of her work in classrooms from primary age right through to high-achieving graduates. Her books, it was generally agreed, offer much to the student, but are often complex, disrupting expectations and failing to offer easy solutions as other magic books for young people might be suspected of doing.
Farah Mendelsohn expertly helped people to organise themselves into groups to find evening meals, and many and various were the continuing discussions as the day ended, but not the determination of the delegates to immerse themselves in Diana's work.
Saturday morning opened with a very moving as well as interesting Keynote speech by Isobel, Diana's sister, providing context for the ways in which her imagination worked. Herself an academic of standing, Isobel shared with the assembled conference how delighted she was to encounter so many different ways in which academics and readers continue to engage with her. There were several anecdotes about their shared childhood, such as the time an air-raid warning evacuated their school – apart from Isobel, who had been put alone into a separate room as punishment for writing with her left hand. (!) Diana’s fury was impressive, and demonstrated what an impassioned protector of her younger sisters she invariably was. She read her stories, for which their appetite was insatiable, aloud to them at bedtime, and was the "leader and namer" of all their games and activities. She was an unconventional schoolgirl, full of ideas and reluctant to conform, which often brought trouble. Isobel went on to share excerpts from some of the many letters she had kept from Diana, which were, she said, "her workshop and laboratory". One delightful detail concerned her son Colin (now a distinguished Shakespearean academic), who "keeps stabbing me with a plastic dagger, crying 'ow!' as a hint to me to react." There can be no doubt that Diana's authentic voice was strong in these letters, and those present were privileged indeed to be allowed to hear it once more.
After a short break for essential tea and coffee, the delegates divided themselves into two groups. A lively Twitter feed (#DWJ2019) made it possible to follow something of what occurred in the other room, but undoubtedly many regretted the pesky constraints of time and space which made it possible to attend only one at a time. Diana might well have been able to offer suggestions, but we had to make our choices.
In Watershed 2 a lively sequence of papers by David Clark, Lotte Reinbold, Teya Rosenberg and Debbie Gascoyne offered insights into many of the inspirations deriving from Diana's vast and impressive range of reading. Old Norse, Old English and Celtic writings , Piers Plowman, E Nesbit and CS Lewis all had a part to play, and it was easy to agree with Lotte's assertion that the texts "contain layers on layers that can tell us something if we look, but that we don't need to understand" in order to enjoy the books. The power of children, Teya told us, lies in their invisibility, metaphorical or literal, and their ability to access power adults are unable to perceive. Debbie explored the power of allusion in the books, and the ways in which metonymy works, opening up both the new work and the original to further exploration. In questions the nature of immortality and of Art were discussed, and David pointed out the crucial element for Diana, that "immortality must not be static, must be fluid" in its nature.
After a capacious repast, carefully made as accessible as possible to the range of dietary needs in the group, there were further panels, on concealment and revelation and the nature of hidden identities in one group, and on the importance and impact of families in the other. It may be worth noting that both Diana's agent and one of her sons were present, which added a certain frisson to those aware of the fact! Madeleine Maylor felt that, as the oldest of three herself, she finally felt "seen"; and understood for the first time when she read Howl's Moving Castle. She also pointed out that when we are told that "everyone knows" something, that assertion is invariably far from the truth. Ulrike Pesold looked at the nature of the families in books created during the Thatcher era, suggesting that to many of the mothers in these works the children, especially daughters, were a very low priority. Ai Baker, however, looked at ways in which step-parents subverted traditional tropes and stereotypes, in particular the figure of the stepmother. In Fanny (HMC) and Sally (The Ogre Downstairs) we see much more complex women, still young, trying to do their best in difficult circumstances.
After a very brief break the delegates recombined for another set of panels. Caitlin Herington, via Skype, talked about the unconventional women and female figures, including Mini the elephant, and responded later to questions at what have been an astonishingly late hour for her. Caroline Webb looked at the differences between guilt, felt for what one has done wrong, and shame, at the actions of others. Polly in Fire and Hemlock feels both at different points, but is able to confront each and still move on to act according to her higher priorities at need.
After much-needed tea, we moved on to Gili Bar-Hillel's Keynote paper to round off the day. Gili translates books and publishes them, and is proud that she has been able to introduce quite a few of Diana's works to the Hebrew-reading community. She herself first encountered Charmed Life at the age of seven in the British Council's Library, and is able to date key points in her life by where she was living when she found other books in a life made somewhat peripatetic by her mother's academic work. Translating, she emphasised, "is not just substituting one word for another word: it's much more complicated than that." She showed how the complexity of language we take for granted can make translation tricky – think of the multiple meanings of "bound” and “bounder”, for example, which a native reader of English will recognise apply, often several at the same time, to The Homeward Bounders. In a language such as Hebrew a single word may well not be able to do the same work, and hard choices have to be made. Moreover, references and allusions fall very flat if they are to works unfamiliar to the new audience. Gili herself, unable to find a satisfactory translation of Donne’s Song: Goe and Catch a Falling Starre, but aware of its importance to the story of HMC, translated it herself. It is now included in anthologies of poetry without any reference to the novel for which it was translated. Apparently, when translating a Harry Potter book, she was forced to invent a suitable word to express “apparate”, which has now entered the Hebrew lexicon! Gili affirmed her gratitude to members of the DWJ mailing list for helping her avoid mistakes and find ways through her difficulties. How do you explain Welsh culture or cricket to child readers who know nothing of either? Ask Gili – she can!
In the evening a huge and lively crowd descended on a Lebanese restaurant not far away for the conference dinner – delicious food and extremely active discussion kept us all busy and happy. Even if the desperate state of the world and certain politicians cropped up in conversations, they seemed to matter far less than usual, while principles of fiction, the art of writing, the value of fantasy loomed decidedly larger. A very good swap, methinks.
On the Sunday morning a slightly smaller number of (bleary-eyed in some cases) individuals attended at the correct time, but the rooms steadily filled up. Kathleen Jennings, hugely talented in a terrifying number of areas, explained the application of theories of law to magic in DWJ's worlds, with particular reference to Calcifer, tied to Howl by a contract which he must not be seen to break but which he knows it is important to free both himself and Howl from. There is, she pointed out, a very long tradition in myth, folklore and fantasy, of contracts, and equally long of ways in which individuals, from the woodcutter's son to the Devil Himself try to slither out of them.It's not simply demonic bargains, however – apprenticeships are just as much legal affairs, and the language of spells themselves have something of the nature of contracts. Karina Coldrick looked at the science of the Multiple Universe theories which DWJ herself said "I was doing it before it was a Thing" – not quite the case, in strict chronological terms, but evidence of the ways in which her keen imagination was able to turn anything to good use. Diana's work, she concluded, provides a ladder by which children can begin to access even very complicated areas of scientific exploration. Catherine Olver looked at worldbuilding, and specifically the way in which the use of the senses builds a layered reality in the Dalemark books – Moril, for example, as a musician, is very aware of the sounds in his environment. To some extent there is a progression, from the ancient era of Spellcoats, in which touch is dominant, to the late Mediaeval/Renaissance world of the bulk of the other books, in which hearing and oral traditions matter, to Maewen's industrialised world in which looking and reading predominate. In all cases, however, story is what matters most and in whatever form is always the source of power.
In the final panel session, Junko Nishimura talked about the nature of cats and their importance in the books, while Verena Rodriguez looked at the figure of the Trickster. Howl is not a god, but like Anansi or Loki, in or out of Eight Days of Luke, is often too sophisticated – and clever – for his own good, always part of some sort of gambit, often needing to be saved from the consequences of his own actions. Matthew Knights shared with us the enjoyment and understanding developed by his young pupils encountering some of the shorter stories aimed at a younger audience; they loved the bizarre antics of the adults in the collection marketed as Freaky Families, while, it would appear, relieved that their own families were free from such characters!
In the final, final session we all gathered once again for the last Keynote paper. The writer Robin Stevens talked about her early encounters with the books as a child and the sense of wonder they instilled in her from her discovery of Dogsbody when she was seven onwards. As an only child living in an Oxford academic community, she found friends in the books – she said it was actually difficult at times to remember that she did not have a boyfriend called Mitt! (She seems to have been a Lyra in real life in many ways.) The power of books to make one feel struck her in particular, and the ways in which they show children "how to deal with loss and grief, anger, the loss of friends" – and that it pays to be kind. Robin's own books have "no magic, no wizards – there's just murder", but she pointed out how frequently deaths drive the plots in DWJ's books as much as her own. "Above all," she asserted, "there is no literature higher and more important than that written for children."
And then it was over. Robin signed copies of her books, friends old and new hugged and departed, or eked out a few minutes more by sharing meals from the Watershed's menu, then reluctantly moved on, with only memories remaining. My train actually left precisely on time, as did its connection. I was back in the "real world" now, and the travel jinx no longer applied.
Gill Othen spent over three decades teaching English and Drama to secondary school pupils. She saw the reading of books for young people as both a perk and a duty, and thus encountered DWJ in the early 80s. She made sure both her daughters shared her enthusiasm for her books, which is why one of her copies of Howl's Moving Castle ended up lost in Ulaan Bataar, obeying the classic travel jinx. She now has two grandchildren to begin working on.
Attendance at the first Conference made her realise that the world of study might not be fully closed to her, despite advanced age and decrepitude, and after leaving teaching in 2011 she embarked on Master's level study, first at Warwick University, then at the Shakespeare Institute of Birmingham University, based in Stratford-on-Avon. She spent lockdown sewing scrubs and other equipment for medical and care workers and becoming involved in a Zoom group reading project of the complete surviving repertoire of the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men, linked to ongoing research. She hopes never to have to stop learning and does her best to indoctrinate all young people she encounters with the love of Diana Wynne Jones's books.