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Issue #128 - April 2006

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A Place of Learning

By Cheryl Morgan

Or in this case, one very learned man who, rather famously, is not an academic, and one very charming lady who is also a talented artist.

The book is called Polder. It is edited by Farah Mendlesohn with a glittering cast of contributors from all over the science fiction community. And it is a tribute to two people and one building: John and Judith Clute, and 221b Camden High Street, London.

Letís start with the man. John Clute is a critic of incredible erudition whose reading in the field is so vast it prompted the not-normally-shy-and-retiring Bruce Sterling to write in his contribution, "Upon witnessing John Cluteís towering, God-almighty collection of sf reference works, I realized that I was a hick." In our own little community, Clute is a phenomenon, a force of nature. You simply cannot (or at least should not) attempt SF criticism without being aware of Clute.

Naturally asking a bunch of fellow critics to contribute to a Festscrift is a red rag to a bull. Several of them cannot resist the temptation to comment upon one or two of Cluteís better known prognostications. These are entertainingly diverting for those who us who enjoy such hair-splitting, but perhaps not so for others. Suffice it to say that with time all forms of SF will die, or at least become moribund. But, hydra-like, each time one head dies two more interesting, and sometimes bizarrely different, heads will grow to take its place. The function of the critic is merely to identify which heads are busting with vivacity and which merely zomboid. That nostalgia for certain lost heads results in a feeling of THINNING amongst their adherents should not surprise any reader of Clute.

THINNING Ė the idea that a fantasy world is somehow becoming diminished and decayed, often as a result of the action of a DARK LORD.

(A definition cobbled together by me because I donít have a copy of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy to hand.)

Rather more importantly, other contributors, in particular Gary K. Wolfe and Edward James, make note of the fact that in many cases we are only able to have such debates because Clute has defined the terms for us. Were you perhaps wondering where the title of the book came from?

[Roz Kaveney] "Are people going to know what the word means? I mean, Dutch land reclamation? Is this an accessible concept?"

John looked at me with those narrowed eyes and suddenly more intensely domed temples which means he has made up his mind.

"Theyíll know," he said, "because I will define it for them."

POLDER Ė "An enclave of toughened reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world."

From The Encyclopedia of Fantasy

Which brings us to the building. It is an apartment, currently residing above a sports shoe shop, but quite likely of a more permanent nature than any commercial enterprise it may share its Camden Town footprint with. It wears the same plain black colors as Clute himself. You come in off a street infested with multifarious examples of Londonís long and eccentric fashion history: punks, Goths, skinheads, Rastas. You name it; Camden High Street has a fashion store catering to it. From there you climb a narrow staircase lined with bicycles because there is nowhere else to keep them. You turn a corner past the (only) restroom, and suddenly you are in Book Heaven.

By now I realized that the house itself was bit like the Tardis, somehow dimensionally wrong, with more space inside than outside.

Sean McMullen

It isnít just that Clute has more books than anyone else I know (except perhaps Charles Brown with those famous library stacks), it is that he has more interesting books, more rare books, more important books, and they are all out on display in serried, ordered ranks.

(Later, of course, you discover that Clute has an entire cellar full of other books, ones he doesnít have room for in the house and which he doesnít need to refer to quite so often. Not to mention an entirely separate library in North America. You also discover that every single one of these books is catalogued with ferocious precision, and that Clute knows where each one of them is.)

Remember that scene at the beginning of V for Vendetta when Evey wakes up to find herself surrounded by piles of books? The Clute house is like that, only orders of magnitude more organized.

The fame of the building is not merely a result of the air of erudition it conveys, but also its role as a home from home for science fiction persons the world over. Whilst the number of guests it can hold is relatively small, the guest book is always busy. Every one of the contributors to Polder has, I believe, stayed at the house at one time or another. Many are regular visitors. One or two have written famous works while staying there. When you see me comment in Cherylís Mewsings that I am staying Chez Clute, it is to this small haven, this polder, of sfnal reality to which I have come. And a haven it most certainly is, in more ways than one. Which brings us to Judith.

Judith doesnít feature in the book nearly as much as John. This is hardly surprising, because most of the contributors to the book are word people, not picture people. Iím certainly not competent to pronounce on Judithís art, except to say that I like it, especially her use of color. But the 221b experience is very much a Judith experience. She is, after all, in charge of the guest book. And as John is almost always busy doing something (or away on a trip) it is mostly Judith memories youíll come away with: Judith heading out into Camden to get fresh bread and fruit for breakfast; Judith supplying a succession of inventive and tasty meals; Judith telling amusing tales of her experiences as a guide on London Walks tours. The house just wouldnít be what it is without Judith.

There is, of course, one member of the Clute family we havenít touched upon, though at least one contributor did remember to mention him. As might be expected from a Clute pet, Mr. Pepys is one very smart cat. He also has a certain reputation for viciousness when offended. So please, donít tell him he hasnít been included in the book. Iíd hate for anything bad to happen to Farah.

Finally, back to the book, because beyond the LitCrit stuff I havenít said much about the content. It is very varied. Some authors such as Geoff Ryman, M. John Harrison and Liz Hand have contributed extracts of their books that are set in Camden. Others have written stories. Brian Aldiss even has characters called John and Judith Clute, and one called Farah Mendlesohn who has unaccountably dyed her hair bright gold. Somehow I canít see Farah defecting to the Blonde Side. William Gibson wrote a poem. Others just reminisce.

This was the coolest thing about John: he treated me as if I were as smart as he is. And so I would need to be, if I were going to survive the conversation without breaking anything. And he treated me (he treated anyone he was talking with) as if my opinion had weight and merit, or rather, he was capable of picking out bits that had weight and merit from the gubbins and detritus of burble, and pointing them out to me. And that was magic.

Neil Gaiman

As the book shows, there are very many reasons for remembering a visit to the Clutes, but Neil perhaps comes closest to my own experience. My father always used to tell me that a day in which I hadnít learned anything new was a day wasted. One thing I can be sure about when Chez Clute is that I will not waste a day in that way.

Of course there is also the fact that John and Judith Clute are two of the nicest people I know. Judging from Polder, many other people feel the same.

Polder - Farah Mendlesohn (ed.) - Old Earth Books - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee