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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth  as a child for the simple reasons that I missed its publication and was soon too old. So when I read Lucy Mangan’s enthusiastic comments in Bookworm I decided to see what I had missed. She described her delight when it was read to the class by her primary teacher and how she longed for the daily readings. From this experience she found that …

… words weren’t just markings on a page to be passively absorbed and enjoyed but could be tools, treasures and toys all in one. (219 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

What a gift from Norton Juster! She recalled Milo ‘the first unlikeable central character’ she had ever come across. But recalled also the pace, wit, invention, action and wordplay which fell from the pages ‘like sweets tumbling from a bag.’ This, I thought, I should read.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo is introduced as follows.

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. (13)

Milo is clever and has lots of books and toys but he has no friends and does not settle to anything, is not interested in what he learns at school and sees ‘the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time at all’. Until one day he finds a package containing a tollbooth in his room and in his toy car he pays his toll and sets out on a journey to Dictionopolis, which is marked on the map that was supplied with the booth.

He arrives in Expectations where he meets the Whether Man and soon finds himself in the Doldrums. He is rescued by the Watchdog called Tock, who will not let him kill or waste time and joins him on his adventures. Later they meet Humbug. They find problems in the land that arise from the banishment of the princesses Rhyme and Reason by two warring brothers. The princesses were banished for refusing to adjudicate between the relative importance of numbers and words.

Our three heroes set off to rescue the princesses, [it is the early ‘60s and the second wave of feminism had not yet broken] meeting on the way such characters as the Spelling Bee, Officer (Short) Shrift, Faintly Macabre the Official Which, Dischord and Dynne and musicians who play colours, the .58 of a child from the average family which had 2.58 children, the Senses Taker and so on. They visited both Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and when they return with the princesses harmony is restored, although squabbling breaks out as soon as Milo makes his farewells.

When the three friends meet the princesses Reason explains the importance of learning, from experience, from mistakes, and for its own sake. When Milo complains about what he has to learn in school having so little significance now she explains,

‘…for whatever you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.’ (234)

And when he returns home and finds that the tollbooth has disappeared, he realises that his books will open doors to other worlds, and there is so much to do.

Here’s Lucy Mangan’s assessment:

It remains a masterfully wrought, glorious, hilarious, life affirming read – a celebration of words, ideas, sense, nonsense, cleverness and silliness but also a love of learning for its own sake. I suspect, in a world in which education is increasingly being reduced to futile box-ticking and forcible rendering into measurable quantities that which can never be made tangible, this is a message that will only become more revelatory and valuable to those lucky enough to hear it. (221 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

Norton Juster

Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929. When he wrote this book he was trying to write one for children about cities, having trained as an architect. Apparently he had not, at that point, read Lewis Carroll, which is surprising because Alice in Wonderland is precisely what came to mind when I read it.

Famously he also shared an apartment building with Jules Feiffer, who was just making his name as a draughtsman. Jules Feiffer’s illustrations are an integral part of The Phantom Tollbooth.He captures Milo’s innocence and pre-adolescent energy perfectly.

Norton Juster went on to make a career as an architect and an academic, and he also published more books, some of them for children. None seem to have met with the acclaim of this one. It is, with justification, known as a classic. It is also great fun.

Bookwormby Lucy Mangan reviewed on Bookword in July 2018.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton JusterFirst published in the US in 1961. I used the Harper Collins 50thAnniversary Edition (Essential Modern Classics). 256pp. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Reading, Reviews, words

Stitching up our rights

I expected to be interested in the Magna Carta Exhibition at the British Library. You can’t take the history degree out of the girl. But I didn’t expect to be moved, to be so moved. This was my response to Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery currently on display alongside the main exhibition. Another crossover arts piece and like Woolf Works it begins with words.

The Magna Carta

If you didn’t know that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, 800 years ago, you must have been out of the country. The media loves a round-numbered anniversary and so do museums and governments. The original Magna Carta was signed by King John under duress from his barons who were objecting to his arbitrary justice and tyrannical rule. The document was basically a peace treaty and it represented John’s acquiescence to the demands of his barons. It was promptly annulled by the Pope. The settlement with the barons had lasted less than three months.

More important than John’s immediate struggle with his barons, the Magna Carta came to stand for the guarantee of rights for people all over the world. Initially, of course it was only men the barons who mattered. In subsequent struggles with the monarchy the clauses were revised and the document rewritten, so there are now many versions. The idea of a guarantee of rights was taken up by other British men (The Chartist movement), by women (The Suffragettes), by the French Revolutionaries and by those subjected to colonial rule, in C18th US and elsewhere. Nelson Mandela referred to it and to British justice in his famous and final speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964: ‘…I am prepared to die.’

Only three of the original clauses are still in force. The rights of the Church and of the City of London featured in the original Magna Carta as the first and ninth clauses respectively. Individual freedoms were placed much lower. But here is the essence of subsequent claims to individual legal rights:

Clause 29: NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. (From Wikipedia entry accessed 10.6.15)

Note we are talking about free men – not about women at all. The number of freemen in the C13th was limited and women didn’t get a look in until much, much later (ie C20th).

181 Votes for W Magna C

Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

I have long enjoyed Cornelia Parker’s work, especially Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View aka the Exploding Shed (1991), and also the witty and alternative items she submitted to the Turner Prize in 1997.

I like how she makes us look at something in a different way, shows us the underbelly of her subjects, and involves others in the production: steamroller operators, Royal Artillery explosives experts and so on. She is inventive and inviting.

181 ContributorsThe finished Magna Carta embroidery is 13 meters long. In this form it recalls the Bayeux Tapestry, albeit is laid on a table and not displayed on a wall. Its creation was a joint enterprise of people involved with the legal and penal systems of our country – prisoners, judges, lawyers, civil liberties campaigners, MPs – as well as professional embroiderers.

It is not the document itself that is embroidered, but a wikipedia page. A nice touch to indicate the wikiness of the treatment of the Magna Carta over the centuries, constantly updated by users.

Here is why I was so moved:

  1. The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. The detail of the embroidered text and wiki images are a pleasure in themselves. Who can deny the skill of the embroiderers who have reproduced the postage stamp images from the webpage? They are objects of great beauty and skill. And even the underside gives great pleasure. The photographs in the British Library pack include many of the underside. 181 word
  2. The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Magna Carta is about our rights in law. Every conceivable person – nearly 200 people – associated with the law that you have heard of stitched a word or more. There are famous prisoners and many referred to only by their first names, mostly men. Julian Assange, Moazzam Begg (formerly held in Gitmo), judges, QCs (Michael Mansfield QC, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC), Gareth Pierce (solicitor), campaigners and other relevant stitchers: Jon Snow (broadcaster), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), MPs, Alan Rusbridger (former editor of the Guardian) and Edward Snowden.
  3. The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
  4. Our Human Rights Act is in danger. The new government threatens to repeal and replace the legislation. The outcomes are not likely to enhance our freedoms or further the principles of universal entitlement to rights.
  5. Needlework is a political act in Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Exploring how traditional and female crafts can be political acts has always interested and excited me. The Suffragettes used “An Army of Banners” to draw attention to its claims. (The blog Woman and her Sphere has an interesting post about the Artists’ Suffrage League: here.) And a large data base of banners and banner designs were collected by the Women’s Library and can be viewed here. Think of all those Trades Unions’ banners. There is a good tradition of subversive quilting as well. 181 huddersfield-banner
  6. Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery (and ballet) carry ideas. Although the Suffragettes found words did not get attention fast enough!

181 WSPU banner

And a late and much admired addition to the Suffragette banners in this post is this one designed by Mary Lowndes:

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Thanks to Eileen (my co-author) for discussing the experience with me and giving shape to some of the blog. Mistakes are mine, of course.

I shall be at Eye of the Needle: Art, Stitch, Partnerships and Protest on Monday 13th July at the British Library. See you there?

MAGNA CARTA Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1st September 2015.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker can be seen (free) at the British Library until 24th July 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. A pack including fold out reproduction of front and back, photographs, interviews and essays. Published by the British Library.

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Filed under Feminism, words