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Extract: 'Moonlight Travellers'

Posted on 10 Sep 2019

Read an extract from the collaborative book by the legendary Quentin Blake and Man Booker Prize-nominated writer Will Self.

When Quentin Blake embarked on creating a set of new drawings on fantasies of travel, even he had not envisaged a series so sombre, so haunting, as Moonlight Travellers. With characteristic sharpness, Self mingles fact and fiction to transport the reader on a radical tour of Blake’s mysterious lands on a dreamlike journey.

‘The pictures in this book are drawn on sheets of Arches fin watercolour paper with a reed pen, and Payne’s Grey watercolour. Only the colour of the moon varies from picture to picture.’

Sir Quentin Blake

You’re riding on the very tip-top of wind-tossed boughs – or standing in the crow’s nest of an ocean-going sailing ship. You sense this through the shifting currents of sleep, as they carry you, sliding over somnolent boils and into gentle eddies; sense this as a parent lofts you from the back of a car, or a pushchair, before bearing you safely to bed. Is there ever anything sweeter than this, the enfolding arms that are both impersonal and unimpeachably intimate? And then the descent, in a fall that’s at once free and utterly secure – a fall that ends happily … drowsily … in the fast-warming safety-swaddle of the covers. You lift your face for a last look at the world, and there, scudding behind a cloudy tracery, you see her, the goddess Selene, staring down at you with serenely loving indifference.

Over the years, every night-time journey you’ve taken has, in some way, conformed to this piercingly nostalgic paradigm: cars, buses, trains, boats and aeroplanes – all, at some point in the transit, would seem to be moving with the steady gait of a careful parent. But then, at other times, it felt as if all that supported you was some strange contraption. Perhaps you were like me as a child, trying to build go-carts out of old pram wheels, or to cobble together from hangers and black plastic bags kites capable of lifting you aloft, or to blast off for the moon in cardboard-tube rockets fuelled by 3-IN-ONE Oil. It was when I imagined myself balanced upon – or dangling below – such vehicles that I rumbled and swooped and shot precipitately, my parabola kissing the tips of those wind-tossed boughs. Did you, I wonder, kiss them with me?

At night the traveller is thrown on his mettle – there can be no dereliction of the duty to maintain course through the darkness, darkness that is not absence of light, but has the semi-solid character of de Selby’s ‘black air’. If you’ve started before sunset, then you’ll have seen the light leached from the sky – yet it isn’t until the moon rises that you realize the colours all went with it as well. For what lies before you now is a black-and-white world, near-infinitely gradated, and with the sparks and scintillations of silver leaf applied to real ones. This realm, so complex, so delicately wrought, bears little resemblance to the world of the day; to journey by day is to make prosaic progress straight from A to B, but the moonlight traveller its from L to O, to V and E – so constructing, foot by foot, his own metrical poetry.

I sense another walking with us – a third figure, ghostly and flitting, whose round spectacles shine brightly in the darkness. But when I confront him, he melts away into mustiness … the cloth wound round the handles of old tennis racquets … the aroma of gutta-percha … and esters of sweat. Don’t you see him? Don’t you? If I address you thus – insistently, persistently – doesn’t that somehow make of you a part of me? For we’re confined together in this text, you and I, swaddled in its warm words the way our parents wrapped us in blankets when we were children. And what is life in the final analysis? The unnamed poet descants of a chief ’s hall crowded with his feasting retainers; of mead drunk, songs sung and all the happy fellowship to be found there. And what of the little bird that flies into the hall? What does she feel, as she flaps over the upturned faces to the accompaniment of tumultuous laughter: that this is her real life, while what preceded it is all darkness – a darkness into which, all too soon, she’ll flit?

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