Tales from the Hidden Grove

Tales from the Hidden Grove
"Amongst the finest short story writers in the UK right now" ~ Black Pear Press

Monday, 23 October 2017

Holidays with Hitler: The Seduction of Nostopia

Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd

This week, I have been reading Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd.  It might sound like a grim read, but actually it's fascinating.  According to the blurb:

Travellers in the Third Reich is an extraordinary history of the rise of the Nazis based on fascinating first-hand accounts, drawing together a multitude of voices and stories, including students, politicians, musicians, diplomats, schoolchildren, communists, scholars, athletes, poets, journalists, fascists, artists, tourists, even celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Beckett. Their experiences create a remarkable three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler – one so palpable that the reader will feel, hear, even breathe the atmosphere.
And it's true.  You really do feel like you're there, all the way from 1919 to 1945.  What may seem incredible to some is that foreigners (especially British and American) kept on holidaying in Germany and sending their young people there for cultural exchanges and education, right up to the outbreak of war.  And it wasn't necessarily because they were fascists.  Many had happy memories of honeymoons or student days in Germany before the Great War, which they wanted to relive.  Many didn't even notice (or excused) the sinister aspects of the regime, such as anti-Semitism, brainwashing, or preparations for another war.  What they saw were medieval towns, mountains, castles, singing peasants in traditional costume, clean streets and polite young people.  They could put Brown Shirt violence and the endless marching and heiling to one side, because what their cared about was "their" Germany, the "real" Germany.  The Germany of Goethe, Schubert and the Brothers Grimm.

A vintage travel poster


It's easy to be seduced by this idea.  Even now, it's easy to put the Nazi regime to one side and tell ourselves that the rich heritage of music and story is the "real" Germany, and that other thing with the jackboots was just a bad dream.

Except, that seduction was the Nazis' most powerful tool.  Most people didn't come to support and revere Hitler because they wanted to march in perfect formation all day holding flags (although some did).  Even less because they wanted to send people to the gas chambers (although some wanted that too).  What they wanted was the same as what the tourists wanted: an ideal Germany of castles, forests, and pretty little villages, straight from the pages of a fairy tale book.  A Germany of what we would today call nostopia.  A place where they didn't have to worry about debt or unemployment or Soviet Russia, or be made uncomfortable by people on the fringes, who thought, worshipped or loved differently from the average.

On one level, this is an innocent, childlike desire. "It was all lovely, and now you've gone and spoilt it."  On another, it is a noble, even a heavenly desire, the vision of Revelation, of a world with no more crying or sorrow or pain.  BUT where it is far from innocent or noble is in the idea that you can create such a world by sweeping all that is undesirable into the bin, and turning your fellow-countrymen into unthinking automata, who WILL be happy, because you say so.  After all, one person's dream is another's nightmare.

An early cover for Grimm's Fairy Tales

I didn't go into this book intending to reflect on present-day politics.  I actually intended it as research for a story I've been trying to write since the noughties.  But, travelling with Julia Boyd through the Third Reich, I could understand the seduction of everything from "Islamic State" to Trump's America.  The idea that you can somehow put the world back to factory settings, and it will all be perfect again.  You can't do that.  You have to go on and change the world slowly, one person at a time.  And embrace suffering.  Your own suffering, not a suffering forced on others.

I won't lie.  I find the idea of a fairy tale world deeply seductive.  But all fairy tale readers know that pretty gingerbread houses contain witches, that wolves lurk in the forests, that the castle holds something unspeakable behind a closed door.  We mustn't be taken in.  We must journey with the protagonist, not get seduced by the frontispiece.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Prizes Galore at Swanwick!



I'm always excited when the week comes around for my annual pilgrimage to Swanwick Writers' Summer School.  But this year was extra-exciting because I'd won 2nd Prize in the annual Short Story Contest.

As regular readers of my blog will know, this story was about 19th century abolitionist and showman Henry "Box" Brown, about whom I read in David Olusoga's magnificent book Black and British: A Forgotten History.  And, oh yes, I might have mentioned once or twice that I met David at Bradford Lit Fest and told him all about it.  I don't think I will ever get sick of this photo:


I was a little disappointed that only 1st prize winners got a reserved slot in the Prose Open Mic, meaning that, while I did get to read my story, my 5 minutes ran out before I reached the closing line, "Henry Brown will never escape the box," and I was so late in the programme that most people had left for the bar/Wild West Disco.  However, it was enjoyed by the faithful few.

I must add that I carried the rather heavy framed certificate home in a box.


What I didn't expect was that I would become the runner and prizegiver of my own competition.  During the journey to Swanwick, I decided to set a fun quiz for people bored on trains/buses.  Could anyone name the children's novel that provided the name for our cat, Sootica?  When no one came forward with an answer, I decided to raise the stakes by offering a real prize instead of a 🎁 virtual sticker.  To wit: a review copy of my ebook short story collection, Tales from the Hidden Grove.  The winner was Helen Ellwood, who named the answer as Gobbolino the Witch's Cat by Ursula Moray Williams.  Helen she has agreed to give me a review of my book when she's read it.  And possibly of Gobbolino, too?!



Winners all round, then?


Saturday, 8 July 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Past, Present and Future



This is my last day at the festival, as I have responsibilities tomorrow.  Looking at my planned line-up of events, I expect to have my mind blown!

I begin in the Old Building of Bradford College, which feels like a fascinating journey into the past.  I took a course here once, but have never been in the Sir Henry Mitchell Hall.  It feels like one of the theatres from my Angelio Trilogy.  I'm here for Jerusalem: The Anthem, although we have to wait a while for all the speakers to be ready.  One of them is Ben Okri, who I had to study at uni, so this should be interesting, since I studied Blake as well.

We are given some background to the poem, which originally appeared in the preface to two handmade copies of Milton.  We learn of Blake's pacifism, his unique but strong brand of Christian faith, and his sense of himself as a prophet, who saw a landscape infused with the spiritual.  We also hear how Hubert Parry was commissioned to write the music for a rally in 1916 to renew flagging fervour for the War, and how he quickly came to hate the use it had been put to.  How Parry bequeathed the copyright of his version to the suffragette movement, which was how it came to be taken up by the Women's Institute, and how it was put into Anglican hymnals in the 1930s.  An extraordinary history that reflects that fact that - as Ben Okri reminds us - we read all poetry through the lens of ourselves and our own times,  I feel a great affinity with Blake's vision of walking in of a symbolic universe.  And by the end, I sense we all feel the poem should be reclaimed in the name of peace and justice.  The event ends with a special performance of the song, which has now taken on a new life in our hearts.

After a quick sandwich, I venture into the Time Theories of JB Priestley.  I know pitifully little about Bradford's famous son, but he turns out to be another visionary, whose writing prefigures later movies like Fight Club and Sliding Doors.  We hear about the pre-War academic writings and philosophy that influenced him and other writers such as Eliot, Joyce, Tolkien and Huxley.  For example: living multiple lives in alternate timelines. The circularity of time. The idea that dreams are in a different dimension of time where you can see the past and the future.  I go away with a reading list and the sense of a newly-discovered kindred spirit. 

Lastly, I prepare to explore The Science of Immortality, with Anthony Peake from the previous event, and Akram Khan.  It's hot and I feel a bit faint; I hope I get through it.  The discussion takes in questions of bodily life (What are we made of? Can the body regenerate?), questions of AI (would a human consciousness downloaded into a machine still be human?) and questions of subjective experience, such as Near Death Experiences and déja vu. We are led to question if all our reality is actually part of a larger singularity, or even a holographic projection.  It will take me a few weeks to process all these ideas, but I see lots of potential for new stories!

As I come to the end of my time at the festival, it seems fitting to end with this thought: that we come from ancient stardust and will go to far future stardust.  I'm sure something eternal has been created this week.



Friday, 7 July 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Nearly Infallible



I start the week tired, but excited to see Bradford Lit Fest on the Channel 4 News.  Added to the fact that AA Dhand is on the cover of Writing Magazine, and that the David Hockney celebrations also make the national news, I feel that Bradford is getting some amazing positive exposure.

I hope to return to what I've dubbed "Bradtopia" on Wednesday, for Lunch Bites: Fantasy Fiction, but unfortunately it is cancelled as speaker Naomi Foyle has broken her ankle.  

So, it's Friday again, and I'm going to A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation. I approach with some trepidation.  As a Christian who is committed to ecumenism, and whose spiritual DNA is part-Baptist, part-Catholic, there a few events in history I feel more conflicted about.

It turns out to be an enjoyable and informative event.  Author Nick Page manages to inject humour and a balanced view into an incredibly complex history.  Our whirlwind tour takes in Playmobil Martin Luthers, Top Trumps of Reformers, and scatological sermons.  Key to the talk is the power of the printing press as the Internet of its day, and the way that, once you start letting out alternative ideas, it's impossible to control what will happen next.

The talk is so good, I decide to buy the book.  According to the cover, John Calvin says I am predestined to read it!

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Hopes and Fears



It's day two, and I have considerably less energy than yesterday.  Still, I manage to drive down the hill and park in the Broadway.  (A considerable acheivement for a nervous driver!)  To do this, I have had to leave partway through a sermon entitled: "Are you in prison?"  The question resonates.

Today, I have my 1-1 Meet the Literary Agent with Kate Nash.  Bizarrely, I find this less helpful than my impromptu chat with Lisa Milton yesterday, as Kate is clearly expecting less experienced writers.  I  feel somewhat dispirited as I eat my jacket potato in Esquires.

I am now pinning considerable hope on the experience of hearing David Olusoga speak to his book, Black and British: A Forgotten History.  I have brought my own copy from home, in the hopes that he will sign it, and maybe allow a selfie.  I do my lipstick, just in case.  

Mercifully, David does not disappoint.  I am completely starstruck as he talks through themes and issues from the book, the most important of which is that Black History IS British History.  An impassioned Q&A follows, in a council chamber that has doubtless seen a fair few impassioned debates in its time.  I get my book signed AND a selfie, and am able to tell David that I have written a short story about Henry "Box" Brown (that's just won second prize in the Swanwick competition).  Happy, happy, happy!

My final event (before I collapse) is Why Do We Like to Be Scared?  I'm not entirely sure that I do like to be scared, and I'm really only attending in the hopes of talking to Anne Perry.  It turns out to be an informal panel chat on the role of fear in literature.  The panel discuss how one person's "fun scary" is another person's disturbing fear, and vice versa.  Our fear of not being in control.  And how our relationship with horror changes throughout our lives.

Afterwards, I shake hands with Anne, who I have only previously met through email.  Job done.  I'm ready to go home and have my tea.  It's been an action-packed weekend.  Time to rest.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Meet and Greet

          The Arabian Nights panel.  Abdul-Rehman Malik, Robert Irwin and SF Said.

It's the first full day of the festival and I can't wait to get going.  I even do my nails!

My first event of the day is Book Bidding Wars, which takes place in City Hall.  One of the panellists is Kate Nash, with whom I have a 1-1 tomorrow, so I am listening carefully.  The panel take us on a fascinating tour of the inner workings of publishing, such as:  What makes a bestseller?  What makes for a distinctive authorial voice?  What happens in acquisition meetings?  The impact of cultural trends (both platforms like Netflix and YouTube, and values like kindness and self-care). And the struggle to achieve diversity in publishing.  A lively Q & A time follows, and the festival volunteers have to evict us from the room to set up the next talk.

I then miss my next event on The Arthurian Legend because I am asking panellist Lisa Milton for advice on my novel-pitching problems.  The conversation gets off to a better-than-expected start when she says to me, "I recognise you. Are you famous?"  It turns out she remembers me from Liars' League at the National Gallery.  This is great, and her advice is helpful.  I marvel that conversations like this are happening in the middle of Bradford!

After refuelling at Waterstones, I hike up to Bradford University for Arabian Nights: The Original Science Fiction.  Our host Abdul-Rehman Malik (who reminds me of an Asian George RR Martin) takes us through an interesting discussion with author and academic Robert Irwin and children's author, SF Said.  Topics range from speakers' personal relationships with the Nights, to its influence on classic SF and the English novel, as well as its relevance to modern Muslims.  On the way, we take in alchemy, mythology and talking cats!

There's time for a quick meet-up with fellow Forgotten & Fantastical author Dan Micklethwaite in the Festival Hub before I join my husband in Sunbridge Wells for the Game of Thrones Quiz.  We are nothing like super-fans and we come last, but we should get points for creativity for our answer of 21-and-a-half.  (I can't say what for!!) 

Now to do it all again tomorrow!

    House of Hopkinson.  Like Jon Snow, we know nothing!!



Thursday, 29 June 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: The Kick-off


400 Writers. 300 Events. 10 Days. One City.

Bradford Lit Fest is here again! It's truly incredible how this world-class festival has been built up in only three years by Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi. In true Bradford style, it's a cutting-edge festival that reflects our city's diversity and desire to discuss religion and politics openly. It's also an intelligent festival.  There are serious academic discussions with serious academics, alongside fun, family events. And on the menu for 2017, a whole stream on Fairy Tales, Myth and Legend!

This year, I have been offered a feedback pass by the festival organisers, which means I will be going to LOADS of events!  And I'm going to attempt to blog about every single one of them.

My first event is Mastering Eloquence with linguist David Crystal.  I've heard David - and his actor son Ben Crystal - speak more than once at Swanwick Writers' Summer School, so I know to expect something good.

David doesn't disappoint.  He keeps us entertained and laughing, while basically teaching us how to make a public speech, and very much demonstrates that old authors' adage: "Show, don't tell."

I now feel enthused for tomorrow, when the festival begins in earnest!