Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

“the overbearing mother, the emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant guilt and fear ” – draft review of The Cure, Rachel Genn, TLS, 2011

The TLS ultimately used a much edited version of this review of a book I evidently didn’t like. Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the line “having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet.” Bad sex writing ahoy!


Eugene Mahon is a familiarly depressive fictional Irish male, living a
life of quiet desperation in Salthill, Co. Galway. He is kitted out
with the accoutrements of his type – the overbearing mother, the
emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant
guilt and fear. His father, Séamus, died some years before, marinated
in alcohol – his drinking accelerating after a Shoreditch building
site accident which left another man worse off than dead. And in a
familiar move both in reality and fiction, Eugene lights out for
London town; specifically to work on the sites and to live in The
Beacon, the pub lodgings where his father had stayed.

Della, landlady of the Beacon, receives Eugene’s letter announcing his
arrival with dismay. She recalls, in a passage that alternates
logistical and lyrical modes, having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet
(“Between the sink and the toilet there wasn’t much room for the V of
her thighs – ‘Weightlifter’s thighs,’ Seamus had kidded, his fingers
digging into the underside of them for a second … Even then, at the
moment where wanting becomes having, she had known that she would wake
with the barbs of who and where carelessly jagging over her” ). Jack,
a confrere of Seamus’ from the old days, is still is residence at The
Beacon. Della’s Oxbridge educated daughter Julia (“Little Miss May
Balls” as her mother mockingly calls her), and Julia’s shiftless
philosopher-boyfriend Rhodri (working on a volume of aphorisms and
daydreaming of a column: “’Grey Matters – where Psychology meets
Philosophy meets the Popular.’ The better Sunday supplements were
crying out for it. Perhaps even the TLS if he shaved off the
expletives.”) also populate this dive.

Upon arrival, Eugene goes to work on a site presided over by the man
who employed his father, tough but benevolent Buck O’Halloran and his
far from benevolent son Noble. The sites are no longer the preserve of
Irish refugees from miscellaneous misery; this is a truly
multinational crew. Eugene livens up – a little. Of course, an
Irishman in a novel cannot be all that happy for all that long, and
Eugene eventually wakes in a police cell, with a charge of racially
aggravated assault and no memory of how he got there or what lead to
the charge.

“The Cure” reminded me inescapably of Fitzgerald’s dictum that “Begin
with an individual and you end up with a type, begin with a type and
you end with – nothing.” Eugene’s almost stereotypically miseryguts
Irishman may live a little in London, but never takes on a spark of
life. His mother, his brother, his girlfriend back in Salthill – all
seem barely reheated leftovers from an Edna O’Brien novel. The writing
is slightly livelier, slightly more engaging, dealing with the
multiethnic crew of the site – but even these figures feel half formed, and tend to speak in the contemporary equivalent of Kipling’s aspirate-free Tommies.
Of all the characters, Rhodri’s absurd philosophising and pretension
(“he believed that writing in pencil let more of the self out”) are
closest to memorable, striking attributes.

While the flashbacks to Salthill largely read like an updated Angela’s
Ashes, there are some moving moments. The rain-sodden depressive
Irish caricature has a basis in reality, and Genn captures some
elements of the mother-son relationship very well – but more in discursive
passages (“it was obvious to her that her children had been trying to
get one over on her since the day they were born so she countered this
with apocalyptic predictions”) than in action or dialogue. These moments aside, The Cure moves with plodding overinclusiveness towards an unearned epiphany.

Poem on Ballymanus Mining Disaster, 1943

On May 10th, 1943, a stray mine washed ashore in the Rosses of Donegal. What happened next is recounted in this Irish Times piece on a memorial unveiled in 1999:

Many watched the mine from the shore for several hours as it bobbed in the water. When it finally came ashore, they rushed to see what it was, despite warnings to keep clear.
Some climbed on top of it while others banged on it with stones in an attempt to crack its shell, unaware of what lay inside. Without warning, the mine exploded, killing 17 young men ranging in ages from 14 to 34, including three brothers. Two more died in hospital soon afterwards. The explosion was so loud it was heard over 40 miles away in Letterkenny.

Among those who died were two of my grand-uncles.

At the Donegal Heritage blog there is posted a poem by author unknown on the tragedy. I note that it refers to 18 deaths, not 19 (or 17) which I wonder may help with dating it.

Oh weird and wild the wail of woe now borne

Upon the startled night-winds from the west-

Deep gasps of grief and soul-sighs from men torn

By death, grim hideous unbidden guest-

From where great breakers piling on the shore

Awaken eerie echoes o’er the dunes. Fell waves!

Foul, treacherous for-ever more-

While lethal-laden, chanting […]

the rest is at The Mine at Ballymanus 1943 — Donegal Heritage

Fifty Years On: “I Heard the Owl Call My Name”, Margaret Craven

I first read I Heard The Owl Call My Name when I was about 14. It was one of those books that one reads far too young to really understand; its beautiful cover perhaps seduced me. At the time I was disappointed: a recent re-reading had a powerful impact. I would agree with the poster here that Mark’s terminal illness is one of those conveniently fictional ones, and that Mark himself is a little bit of a too-good-to-be-true cipher. However, this is a far from sentimental portrait of a remote community. Is it really slight? There are two incidental characters – the atheist teacher and an overbearing anthropologist – who Craven uses to neatly and concisely skewer some of the academic approaches to this kind of First Nations community. The book overall is far from slight – like The Great Gatsby or Heart of Darkness, a brief book with a power far beyond its pages.

Leaves & Pages

i heard the owl call my name margaret craven 001

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven ~ 1967. This edition: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7720-0617-2.138 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a slight, quiet, non-sentimental though rather romanticized novel about a young, terminally ill Anglican priest and his short residence in the Tsawataineuk (First Nations) village at the head of remote Kingcome inlet, on the southwestern British Columbia coast, opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The time frame is contemporary with its writing, in the mid 1960s.

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than…

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“our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise”

The geodesic dome  was the brainchild of Buckminster Fuller,  a polymath perhaps noted best for the number of his ideas than the successful execution of any of them. Geodesic domes are perhaps the most emblematically retro-futurist structure – in the 1980s, one thought we would be living in domes on the moon by the year 2000.


At TreeHugger.Com, Lloyd Alter has a piece on his own experience of owning and living in (or trying to) a dome. The whole thing is worth reading, especially this closing section:


Lloyd Kahn of Shelter Publications wrote two books about dome building in the early seventies and built many of them. He wrote many years later:

Metaphorically, our work on domes now appears to us to have been smart: mathematics, computers, new materials, plastics. Yet reevaluation of our actual building experiments, publications, and feedback from others leads us to emphasize that there continue to be many unsolved problems with dome homes. Difficulties in making the curved shapes livable, short lives of modern materials, and as-yet-unsolved detail and weatherproofing problems. We now realize that there will be no wondrous new solution to housing, that our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise.

He goes on to describe the waste of materials (cutting triangles out of rectangles), the problems with plastics, the impossibility of roofing them properly, the issues of wasted space.

I learned from my dome why we have roofs that are different materials than walls, why we have roof overhangs, why windows are vertical instead of sloped, why square is better than round. Useful lessons, and an interesting ride getting here.

But with every generation there is revived interest in geodesic domes and I only have one bit of advice: Don’t do it.

Some extracts from “The Woman Who Waited”, Andrei Makine

‘She is a woman palpably meant for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being) and yet so casually, it seems, she has chosen solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to love …’

This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have another person’s measure (this woman, Vera’s). Up to that point all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of their hidden depths. But one their secret has been decided, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorising. It all becomes comprehensible, reassuring. Now the routine of a relationship, or indifference, can take over. The other one’s mystery has been tamed. Their body reduced to a flesh and blood mechanism, desirable or otherwise. Their heart to a set of predictable responses.

At this stage, in fact, a kind of murder occurs, for we kill this being of infinite and inexhaustible potential that we have encountered. We would rather deal with a verbal construct than a living person….



It must have been during those September days, in a village among forests stretching all the way to the White Sea, that I noted down observations of this type: ‘a being of inexhaustible potential’, ‘murder’, ‘a woman stripped naked by words …’ At the time (I was twenty-six) such conclusions struck me as vastly perceptive. I took enjoyable pride in having gained insight into the secret life of a woman old enough to be my mother, in having summed up her destiny in a few well-turned phrases. I thought about her smile, the wave she greeted me with when catching sight of me in the distance on the lake shore, the love she could have given so many men but gave no one. ‘A woman palpably meant for happiness …’ Yes, I was pretty please with my analysis. I even recalled a nineteenth-century critic referring to a ‘dialectic of the soul’ toe describe the art with which writers probe the contradictions of the human psyche: ‘… A woman made for happiness, but …’

That September evening I closed my notebook, glanced at the handful of cold, mottled cranberries Vera had deposited on the table in my absence. Outside the window, above the dark treetops of the forest, the sky still had a milky pallor suggestive of the somnolent presence, a few hours’ walk away, of the White Sea, where winter already loomed. Vera’s house was located at the start of a track that led to the coast by ways of thickets and hills. Reflecting on this woman’s isolation, her tranquility, her body (very physically I imagined a tapered sheet of soft warmth surrounding that female body beneath the covers on a clear night of hoar-frost), I suddenly grasped that no ‘dialectic of the soul’ was capable of telling the secret of this life. A life all too plain and woefully simply beside the intellectual analysis.

The life of a woman waiting for the one she loved. No other mystery.


Hore Abbey, Cashel

Hore Abbey, Cashel

Hore Abbey is literally overshadowed by theRock of Cashel. It is well worth taking the path down from the Rock to the considerably less touristed Abbey. There is a relative lack of interpretative material, to say the least, except for this interesting information, especially on what I suspect was a rather convenient dream:


The abbey is reached by paths via a field which was populated by cows (and cowpats) aplenty. One doubts a Royal Visit is imminent.
From above on the Rock it appears a somewhat slight structure, an impression quickly corrected closer to. An air of monumentality remains, all the more accentuated for the relative abandonment.