Asexual Myths & Tales

Monday, 22 December 2014

One Last Time

Two years ago, when the first Hobbit film came out, I took a retrospective of my relationship with Lord of the Rings, and Legolas in particular.  I commented that it was ten years since my first fan poem, "Legolas", which was to spark a whole wave of fan fiction, and lead me back into creative writing as a professional.

Now, fresh from viewing the final Hobbit film, I would like to complete that retrospective (although my writing relationship with Middle-earth will never be ended).  It has been wonderful to see Mirkwood on screen, to see Legolas and Thranduil together, and to see another person's angle on those classic fan girl questions: "What was Legolas doing during the Battle of the Five Armies?"  "Did he really get on badly with Thranduil?" And, "What about Legolas' mother?"  I'm sure a lot more of those thoughts will come out on the extended DVDs, but for me, watching the Hobbit films has been like being inside a living fanfic, revisiting so many of the places I went in my own writing.

Since my fanfic days, my own writing has moved on a lot.  In 2013, my first novel, Silver Hands, was published.  I sent a copy to Orlando Bloom.  I was blessed to receive a lovely signed photo in thanks.  That very week, a rave review of Silver Hands came out in Wellington, New Zealand.  Connected?  I'll never know.  But it goes to show that the Lord of the Rings connection goes on and on.  It will never cease to be godparent to my writing.

So, by way of farewell (until the next time) I would like to print, "The Mirkwood Lament", written in June 2003.  I think it says it all about Legolas and Thranduil's relationship.  And, no, I don't think Thranduil would ever say this to his face.  Thank you, Lord of the Rings.  A star shone upon the hour of our meeting.

The Mirkwood Lament

When shades of night are falling upon the leaves of green
A figure like a shadow of a shadow may be seen.
Fair is his face and blue-grey are his eyes.
The Elf-King of the forest, to the forest night he cries:
"Alas for my woods, which once were proud and great.
Fading is their glory as the years grow late.
Fading are my people, as shades that meet the day,
And no more shall men see them, seek though they may."

When the autumn leaves are falling red and gold
Amidst the swirling mist, his voice sounds clear and cold:
"Alas for my son who hunted by my side.
The quest was set before him and he would not be denied.
I saw the sea reflected in his eyes of blue and grey.
The Blesséd Isle had called him, no longer would he stay.
Oh, Legolas!  Legolas!  The deer are on the heights
But no more will you hunt with me by cold starlight."

When the boughs are swaying in the soft summer breeze
The song of the Elf-maidens comes stealing through the trees.
"Where now is Legolas, of all the Elves most fair?
White was his forehead and golden was his hair.
We put our question to the moon, but he would only say
That Legolas went sailing in a ship of Elven grey.
Oh, Legolas!  The harpists play a sweet and mournful tune
But no more will you come to dance with us beneath the moon."

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Wolves are Running

My vintage copy of The Box of Delights by John Masefield

I made a wonderful discovery this week.  This year - 2014 - marks 30 years since the BBC first showed their iconic TV dramatisation of The Box of Delights, the magical Christmas story by John Masefield.  I was 10 years old in 1984, and I remember it well.  Herne the Hunter.  Curates who turn into wolves.  Kidnapped choirboys.  "The Boy" appearing out of a table.  The mysterious Punch-and-Judy man, Cole Hawlings.  And the phrase that still has the power to put a shiver down my spine: The wolves are running.

30 years on, and the magic hasn't died.  I've read the book Christmas after Christmas.  I've watched the series again on YouTube as an adult.  The Carol Symphony by Victor Hely Hutchinson, used as the theme tune, is on my Christmas playlist.  And I'm still trying to write The King of Ice Leaves, influenced by The Box of Delights.  One day...

Recently, I've been reading some books on old Christmas customs and folklore, and it reminds me again that what makes The Box of Delights great is the perfect mix of Christian and pagan in its influences.  Herne the Hunter and the Lady of the Oak Tree arrive in sleighs drawn by lions and unicorns to ensure the Bishop, clergy and choir get to the Cathedral in time for the Christmas service, and there is nothing incongruous in that.  It sums up precisely my own joy in Christmas, as a time both magical and holy.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Amputation in Fairy Tales

                            The Red Shoes: The Archers/J Arthur Rank, 1948

The other night, I was watching the classic 1948 film, The Red Shoes.  When the film was over, I decided to read up on the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson, which brought me back to the subject of amputation in fairy tales.

When I was writing my novel, Silver Hands (based on Grimm's fairy tale, The Handless Maiden) I had to think carefully about how I was going to approach amputation in my re-telling.  I decided early on that, in my version, the hands were not going to grow back as they do in my source tale.  The 2012 Paralympics made everyone in my country much more aware of the achievements of amputees.  In real life, limbs do not grow back; what can grow, however, is confidence and new abilities.  This was what I wanted to portray in Silver Hands.  Margaret learns new skills in painting and calligraphy, and gains the self-confidence to face up to Van Guelder, only after amputation.  She loses her hands to find herself.

But is this what the loss of the maiden's hands means in the source tale?  In her ongoing epistolary tale, Elk Lines, Sylvia V Linsteadt takes a different approach.  She links the withering and dropping off of her heroine, Eda's, hands with the annual shedding and regrowth of antlers undergone by elk (in common with deer etc.). For an elk, the dropping off of a body part is part of the natural rhythm of seasons, like the falling of autumn leaves.  In Sylvia Linsteadt's story, nature has become out of balance.  The elk's antlers are not growing back, and the loss of Eda's hands heralds the start of her journey back into the natural world.

But what about The Red Shoes?  In Hans Anderson's story, it seems that the shoes are associated with sin.  They draw her away from the holy worship of the church, and lead her to abandon her foster-mother in her illness to go to a ball instead.  When Karen finds she cannot stop dancing in the shoes, or take them off, she asks the executioner to chop off her feet instead.  However, the feet and shoes keep dancing on their own, and Karen is ultimately only redeemed through her death.

This reminds me of something in The Handless Maiden.  At the start of the story, the Evil One makes a claim on the maiden's life.  In the end, the only way she and her father can escape the Evil One is for her hands to be cut off.  This raises some questions about The Red Shoes.  Is the old soldier with the red beard the Devil?  (He sits outside the church, and later appears in the wild wood).  Or is he a foreshadowing of what Karen will become?  (He has crutches, as she will later have).

This idea of resisting the Devil or temptation through amputation recalls Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount: "And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (Matthew 5:30 NIV). Of course, this is a kind of hyperbole or picture language; Jesus is not suggesting that his disciples actually cut off parts of their bodies.  But fairy tale is symbolic, is it not?

Resisting temptation, a natural season of loss, a new beginning.  What does amputation in fairy tale symbolise to you?

The Complete Illustrated Works of Hans Christian Anderson (London: Chancellor Press, 1983)
The Complete Illustrated Works of The Brothers Grimm (London: Chancellor Press, 1984)
Elk Lines, copyright 2014, Sylvia V Linsteadt 
The Holy Bible, New International Version, copyright 1973, 1978 1984, International Bible Society

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Steampunk in Haworth

I don't know about you, but I do like a bit of steampunk.  I've written a few steampunk stories in my time, including The Marvellous Machine and Sense of Duty.  But I've never actually been to a steampunk event until today, when I decided to pay a visit to Haworth Steampunk Weekend.  It was a great chance to get free entertainment, shop for Christmas presents, and walk round one of my favourite local tourist spots in one of my (many) more flamboyant outfits, and still feel underdressed!

Unbelievably for Haworth in November, it was nice enough to eat lunch outdoors, while being serenaded by a band that included a sousaphone.  (Nobody can be uncheered by a sousaphone).  There was a craft fair, as well as all the usual Howorth shops.  But the best fun was to be had looking at people's outfits, which ranged from a mere nod towards steampunk fashion to fantastic creations that had obviously taken a lot of time and money to make.  One lady had a dress that was entirely printed with passages from Wuthering Heights.  There were also all sorts of gadgets, gizmos, cog wheels, goggles, mad hatters, brass accoutrements, corsets and boots.  I don't know what Emily, Charlotte or Anne would have made of the day, but I bet Branwell would have loved it! 


If you fancy a bit more steampunk in your weekend, I will be highlighting steampunk short animation Invention of Love on Silver Petticoat Review very soon.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

My Christmas Wish List

It's now the time of year when people usually start to ask the famous question, "What do you want for Christmas."  Usually, for me, it's books and films.  What more can anyone ask than a story that takes you away to a magical time and place?  Last week, I discovered that three animated films I had been waiting to be released have already been longlisted for Oscars.  One is already on DVD.  They're from three different countries and are all totally magical, and my wish  is now to see them all before next Christmas.

1.  Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart.
I have been waiting for this one ever since I read the book it's based on - The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu (original title: La Mécanique du Coeur).  The English translation of the book came out in 2009, so it's been some wait...

2.  Song of the Sea
This beautiful Irish film is made by the same people as The Secret of Kells, which I love.  It's about selkies.  What more can I say?  Think I might have to wait until next year before I can see it, though.

3.  The Tale of Princess Kaguya
This is my favourite Japanese fairy tale.  AND it's Studio Ghibli.  And I can't believe it hasn't been shown in England.  (Or Bradford, anyway.  And they call us the City of Film...)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Autumn Giveaway!

For the next couple of weeks, I'm running a giveaway for a lucky winner to receive one of these handmade flash fiction bookmark/wristbands from my Etsy shop.  They would make a lovely gift for a friend (dare I say an early stocking filler?!) or just for yourself, to cheer up a gloomy day.

The bookmark is printed with a magical and haunting fairy story, that hasn't been published anywhere else.  It is decorated with its own fairy toadstool, and comes with a detachable French-knitted wristband.  

All you have to do to enter the prize draw is to leave a comment, either on this blog or on my Facebook page before 4th November.  And you could have your very own autumn fairy wristband to treasure!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

It's Festival time!

                      Nicola Griffith and her novel Hild at Ilkley Literature Festival 

Autumn is drawing on fast (in my part of the world, at least).  The nights are closing in, and it's time to curl up in front of the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book.  So it's not surprising that, in many places just now, literature festivals are taking place.

My nearest big festival is Ilkley Literature Festival, which was born in the same year as me - 1973.  Long-term fans will know I have a long-standing relationship with the festival.  It was here, after a one-to-one, that I first made the decision to pursue professional fiction writing as an adult.  I have performed in the Open Mic twice.  And I have twice appeared in the festival Fringe, with themed short story readings - Bradford: City of Fantasy and Tales of Royalty and Imagination.  

This year, I have joined the review team.  (You get free tickets!)  My first review has just gone live, a report on Nicola Griffith's epic historical fiction, Hild, about the girl who would become St Hilda of Whitby.  (Readers of Silver Hands will know how I love Whitby!)  There are three more to come.  Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides (see here for my review of their She Stoops to Conquer) reading Simon Armitage's The Death of King Arthur, a reworking of the 14th century Alliterative Morte Arthur.  (So many layers!)  Then Razwan Ul-Haq's fascinating-sounding Sultan vs. Dracula (just in time for the film!) And finally, Professor Tom McLeish on "Faith and Wisdom in Science," of which I'm sure Dr Lemuel would fully approve!

So do go over to The Pickled Egg (great blog title!) to take a look at my reviews, and those of other people.  And, if you can, get down to your local literature festival.  You will have a great time!  

Monday, 15 September 2014

It's time for Evelina!


It's that time of year (in Britain, anyway) when, as the nights start to draw in, drama makes a welcome return to our TV screens, especially costume drama.  Within the last week, we have had The Village (1920s), The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Victorian), Houdini (late C19th-early C20th), Our Zoo (1930s), and Cilla (1960s), and Sunday sees the return of the all-conquering Downton Abbey.

Many costume dramas are based on books.  I am still anticipating (with equal amounts of excitement and dread) the promised adaptation of my favourite historical fantasy of all time, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  I would venture to suggest that the two most adapted authors are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  Dickens, of course, was prolific.  He wrote 15 novels, plus novellas and short stories.  Jane Austen only wrote six completed, adult novels (there are examples of unfinished novels and juvenilia).  But this doesn't seem to prevent more and more Austen adaptations coming out each year, including spin-offs like Becoming Jane, Lost in Austen and Death Comes to Pemberley.  People love Jane Austen.  They love the idea of passions burning away behind restrained manners and social convention.  They love a hero like Mr Darcy, a gentleman in every sense of the word, who acts with honour and discretion, and ultimately whisks you away to live in a stately home.

Given our love of the Austen style of storytelling, it amazes me that no one has thought to dramatise the works of her forerunner, Fanny Burney, and in particular Burney's wonderful first novel, Evelina.  I first came across Evelina as a university set text, and every time I read it, I become just as emotionally swept up in it as I was the time before.  To me, Fanny Burney is, "Jane Austen before Jane Austen".  She was undoubtedly an influence on the young Jane.  Evelina contains many of the same themes and motifs as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility: class snobbishness, navigating a complex world of etiquette, emotionally charged moments at balls, embarrassing relatives, a seductive suitor (called Willoughby!) and a gallant and sensible hero, the lovely Lord Orville.  But it has a bit more action in it than Jane Austen typically puts in her novels.  Who could read Evelina and ever forget the fake highway robbery, the attempted suicide, or indeed the bizarre race between two old ladies?

First published in 1778, Evelina is an epistolary novel (ie written in the form of letters between the characters) told mainly from the viewpoint of 16-year-old Evelina Anville.  Evelina has been disowned by her aristocratic father and brought up in the countryside by a vicar, but now she must enter the world of fashionable society where, not really fitting properly into any social class, she is dragged hither and thither by groups of friends and relations, while being amorously pursued by a variety of men.  I really feel for Evelina.  Like me - and like many teenagers - she is shy and awkward in social situations. She wants to do the right thing, but struggles to decide what that might be, often inadvertently pushing away her real friends, particularly the long-suffering Lord Orville.  At her first ball, she first goes into fits of giggles over the foppish behaviour of Mr Lovel, then completely clams up at every attempt Lord Orville makes to start a conversation with her.  Sometimes, the sheer complexity of etiquette - and her shame at her own mistakes - reduces her to tears.  (I know exactly how she feels there; the same thing happened to me on my visit to Japan).  And yet she can be brave too, rescuing the depressed Mr Macartney from suicide, and finally facing up to her estranged father.

Lord Orville is one of my fictitious crushes.  Many of the aristocratic men Evelina encounters are driven more by lust than by love.  In 18th century society, a girl with "no family" is unlikely to be considered as a serious marriage prospect by the upper class, although she may be highly desirable as a mistress.  The business class men Evelina meets can be brash and take liberties with her.  Lord Orville rises above all this.  He is polite, caring, intelligent, has a sense of humour, and looks good on the dance floor.  But most of all, he's so sweet!  He really loves Evelina.  He says things like, "I am very sorry... that I have been so unfortunate as to distress you" (1).  He rushes to her lodgings to make sure she is all right after she has been coerced into a carriage with Sir Clement Willoughby.  He gets angry when he finds out his sister and friends have been treating Evelina with contempt.  I feel for him just as much as I do for Evelina when he can't understand why she keeps avoiding him, but doesn't want to ask her impertinent questions.  I'm sure a screen kiss between him and Evelina in the wedding carriage would be just as satisfying as the one between Elizabeth and Darcy in 1995.

I do feel a bit worried that anyone who wanted to adapt Evelina for the screen might want to change the characters of Evelina and Lord Orville, to make them more outgoing or more "modern".  But not enough to take back my opinion that it's way past time we had an on-screen Evelina.  Not everyone can cope with a 448-page 18th century epistolary novel.  But people across the world love to watch dramas in period settings, especially ones with a good love story.  So come on, Andrew Davies, Julian Fellowes and all you kings and queens of costume drama!  It's time for Evelina!  

(1).  Burney, Fanny, Evelina (1778) (Chalford: Nonsuch Publishing, 2007) p.330
Picture: illustration for Evelina by Hugh Thomson via Pinterest

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Karin Bachmann - A Blog Hop Interview

For my blog this week, I am proud to present a "blog hop" between myself and Swiss children's author Karin Bachmann.  Karin and I first met at Swanwick Writers Summer School about 10 years ago, and have been friends ever since.  We have each asked the other 14 questions.  To read Karin's questions for me, and my answers, go to Karin's blog 

Karin is the author of THE VENETIAN PEARLS, the first book in the N.C.D. Mystery series, and a number of short stories.  She also tweets for Swanwick Writers Summer School.  Karin lives in the canton of Berne, Switzerland.

Your blog is called Stories 4 7-77.  Can you explain that title to us?
I write mainly for children but occasionally also for adults. And don't we all love to listen to stories, no matter whether we are 7 or 77? I wanted the title of my blog to mirror that, hence "stories for seven to seventy-seven". To express that in numbers was actually my mother's idea.

On your blog, you are currently serialising Serena and the Knights of St. John, an exciting historical adventure.  Have you written many historical stories, and what periods of history do you like best?
History has always fascinated me. My father introduced me to Greek mythology when I was about five or six. There are many periods I love: Ancient Egypt, ancient Greece or Rome, the Middle Ages, and the 16th up to the 19th century with their great discoveries. You name it. I don't write a lot of historical adventures. But in the sequel to the PEARLS, THE GRANDMASTER'S SWORD on which I'm working, I use glimpses into different historical periods to show the course of the eponymous sword. It was great fun researching and writing those. I liked some of the minor characters in those historical scenes so much, that I decided to write SERENA AND THE KNIGHTS OF ST. JOHN as a spin-off.

What was the first story you ever had published?
It was an adventure/crime story for 8-12-year-olds called "Der Fall Mateo" (The Mateo Case). A hair rising story about an heir's abduction. In retrospect, I wonder how it was ever published. But then, I was only 16 when I wrote it.

You write detective stories for children.  Do you feel in touch with your inner child?
I'm afraid, I've never completely grown up. Sometimes I think writing, especially plotting, would be easier if I had. Often, my sense of adventure gets the better of me and the resulting plots have more holes than substance. 

Did you enjoy writing stories as a child, or was it something you came to as an adult?
I've always thought up stories for as long as I can remember. But only in my teens did I begin writing them down.

You do schools visits as a writer.  Has anything funny ever happened there?
They're always great fun and I marvel at the depth of the questions that come up. Often the kids try to sound "adult". One day, when I visited the same school for the second time within a week, I walked behind a child. When he heard my steps, he turned around and said, "Why, it's Ms Bachmann. Sorry I didn't recognise you at once. How are you today Ms Bachmann?" He sounded so grand and adult that it was hard to keep a straight face. I'm glad I managed it and was able to give him a suitable response because at the same time, his reaction was very flattering.

In your day job, you are an optician.  Does anything from your optician's life ever find its way into your stories?
Yes. My day job is a great source for building characters – not only the appearances but also character traits, gestures and figures of speech.

How do you fit writing into your daily life?
Sometimes with difficulty. I work 80%, which gives me an additional day to write, apart from at the weekend. I work long hours, so come home after seven pm. By the time I've cooked dinner and cleared the kitchen, I'm often too tired to write. I'd rather get up early on my days off and try to sit at the computer by eight am. On a good day, I write two hours in the morning and three to four in the afternoon. Unfortunately, there are also household chores to be done, but tedious work like vacuuming and ironing are great plotting time – so is commuting to work. 

You have just published a children's book, The Venetian Pearls, in English.  What affected your decision to do that, and was it difficult to do?
Why did I consider writing in English? Delusions of grandeur, most probably. To be frank, it was the English teacher I had in New Zealand who egged me on to try it, promising he'd correct everything I'd send him. (He's kept his promise up to the present day). Also, I learnt a lot about writing in English at the Swanwick Writers' Summer School. The support I found there also let me give writing in another language a try. I was also lucky to find a great mentor in a Swanwick friend. All that made the process much easier than it could have been without any help.

What is your favourite story or book that you have written?
It's a whodunit for 8-12-year-olds published in Switzerland called "Die Zirkusaffäre" (The Circus Mystery). I love the characters in it and think that – for once – I found a good balance between suspense and humour. 

You have been coming to Swanwick Writers' Summer School in England every year for several years now.  (And this year you won their Writing For Children competition) What do you get out of coming to the school?
Where to begin? Writing is a solitary business. It's fantastic to have a place where you can "talk business" all day long for almost a week without anybody's eyes glazing over. The people at Swanwick have all been there, made similar experiences and can give hands-on advice on just about every aspect of writing – not to mention a shoulder to lean or cry on if need be. 

What are you reading at the moment?
Usually, I read several books at the same time. One before going to bed, one while commuting and during the lunch break, and an eBook. 
I've just finished your SILVERHANDS and absolutely loved it! Now I've tackled the third part of the BARTIMAEUS trilogy as my night read. THE TV DETECTIVE by Simon Hall is riding on the train with me and THE IMPORTANCE OF WISDOM by Michael O'Byrne is my present e-read.

Most readers outside Switzerland don't know much about Swiss literature.  Do you have a favourite book by a Swiss author that you could recommend?
THE PLEDGE (Das Versprechen) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is an absolute must-read. The complete Dürrenmatt, actually. Here's a writer who always confessed to not believing in justice on earth. And yet all his stories come to a satisfying and, in the wider sense of the word, just finish. 

How can readers get in touch with you?
You can find me on Twitter (@BookwormKarin), Google+ and, most recently, on LinkedIn. And, of course, you can contact me via my blog. I'm always happy to hear from readers.

I would like to thank Karin very much for coming up with this idea, and for answering my questions.
(Thank you for participating and for your interesting questions.)

Saturday, 6 September 2014

She Stoops to Conquer - with leopard breeches

Last night, as my wedding anniversary date, I went to see Northern Broadsides' production of She Stoops to Conquer at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, West Yorkshire.  I had never been to this theatre before; it is built under the arches of an actual old viaduct, a great place to watch historical plays.  As you can see from the photos we were allowed to take before the play, the audience sit on two sides of the stage.  Along with the wonderful scenery, this made it feel like sitting in an old inn yard theatre, which is especially good because the main plot of She Stoops to Conquer centres around the local squire's house being mistaken for an inn.

The play was one of the most enjoyable I have ever seen.  She Stoops to Conquer is a very funny play, full of disguises, mistaken identity and - ultimately - true love.  I know I had to read it at school once, but I didn't remember anything until it got to the part where the carriage is stuck in the horse pond. (Why did that stick in my memory?)  The actors were excellent, and the performance was delivered with roistering, 18th century liveliness.  As well as speaking their lines, the cast sang, danced and played musical instruments (including violin, cello, flute, piano, guitar and trumpet).  The music covered the full range of 18th century tunes, from country dances to drinking songs to opera, including a very funny rendition of the Papageno/Papagena song from Mozart's Magic Flute.

And so to the leopard breeches.  All the costumes were wonderful.  (Mrs Hardcastle's wig deserved a Hogarth engraving of its own).  But it was the costume for Tony Lumpkin, the prank-playing brother, that caught my eye on the poster before the play had even begun.  The costume designer, Jessica Worrall, had chosen to kit him out in leopard print waistcoat and breeches.  Some audience members might have thought this was simply Ms Worrall doing what she stated in the programme, "using references from noted eighteenth-century satirical cartoonists such as Gillray and Rowlandson and then giving them a modern edge with the use of some contemporary colours and fabrics".  But I remember well the Two Nerdy History Girls (whose blog is linked in the side panel) posting picture after picture of 18th century dandies sporting leopard breeches.  It was real!  And what a joy it was to see it in the flesh.  (Fur?)  

She Stoops to Conquer was a brilliant night out.  I got to welcome my husband into the 18th century world I inhabit every day.  And, as I remarked, our own courtship was only fractionally less complicated than the one in the play! 

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Baroque in Berlin

This time last week, I was visiting my brother in Berlin.  Known for the Brandenburg Gate, the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin is maybe not the first place one associates with the delights of the 18th century.  But my visit happened to coincide with the annual Nikolai Festspiele, a living history festival that takes place in the historic Nikolai Quarter, an 18th-century square surrounding the medieval Nikolai church.  The whole place was bombed during the Second World War and has been lovingly reconstructed, with the much-rebuilt church now a museum (housing some wonderful baroque decoration).  The houses of the square are associated with key figures of the Enlightenment.  If I went again, I would very much like to go inside them.  But for last week, there was enough entertainment from the festival itself.

It truly was a treat for lovers of early modern history.  Reenactors and residents paraded the streets around the square dressed in costumes ranging from the Renaissance to the pre-World War I empire, but centred most of all on the 18th century, the time of Frederick the Great of Prussia.  There were ladies, dandies, soldiers and crafts-folk.  Crafts demonstrations covered a variety of trades: blacksmith, basket maker, fletcher, candle maker, scribe etc.  Musicians treated us to amusing performances of German folk songs on traditional instruments.  There were traditional games for the children and, of course, food and drink.  

In a huge capital city like Berlin, it was a refreshing change to find something on a manageable scale; it put me in mind of village history festivals back home.  If you are ever in Berlin in late August, I thoroughly recommend a visit.  In the meantime, you can visit the official website at
for more wonderful pictures.

Monday, 28 July 2014

A Feast of Fools

As I write this, there are only 15 days to go until the UK publication of Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb.  I am a huge fan of the Farseer/Tawny Man trilogies, and especially of the Fool.  I was devasted by how his story was left hanging at the end of Fool's Fate, and am very excited (and somewhat nervous) to see how things will progress in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

Robin Hobb's Fool is one of the all-time great fantasy characters.  However much we get to know him, he will always remain a mystery.  (Is he even truly a he, for a start?)  A self-confessed coward yet courageous, affectionate yet capable of inflicting deep hurt, learned yet a fool, he shifts gender, changes colour and is impossible to pin down.  His love for Fitz is heartbreakingly touching, and his androgyny and insistence that love doesn't require sex make him, for me, one of the great asexual icons.

The Fool has influenced me professionally as well as personally.  It is safe to say that Tammo and Carlo in my current project, the Angelio Trilogy, would not exist were it not for Fitz and the Fool.  My Fitz/Fool influenced song, Beloved, is linked at the bottom of this blog.  And the drawing of the Fool at the head of this page is - again - one of mine.

Of course, the figure of the fool or jester is not exclusive to Robin Hobb.  He has been with us through many centuries, appearing in many guises.  So, while we await the Fool's reappearance, let us take a look of some of my other favourite fools from page and stage:

1.  Wamba son of Witless from Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
Jester to Cedric the Saxon and "playmate" to Gurth the swineherd, Wamba has always struck me as one of the most loveable characters in Ivanhoe.  A fool in the traditional mode, he makes great play of his supposed stupidity, while exercising great wit and sharpness.  His role gives him licence to insult the great and powerful (including all the plot's villains) which he frequently does.  And yet he is never cynical.  There is innocence and playfulness in all he does.  Loyal, brave and big-hearted, Wamba the fool is probably the most sensible person in the book.

2.  The Joker from The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder
Less loveable but deeply intriguing is the Joker, "who sees too deeply and too much."  He is an actual joker from a pack of cards become a "dwarf with cold hands."  In a story where character and incident reflect each other like a maze of mirrors, the Joker could be a type of Hans Thomas' father, the amateur philosopher who sees himself as the joker in the pack.  But he is also the catalyst for Hans Thomas' discoveries, and a rebel, whose realisation that he is created from someone's imagination threatens to destroy his whole world.

3.  The Fool from King Lear by William Shakespeare 
I hated being made to study King Lear at school, but I never forgot the Fool.  I expect he is the prototype of many of the later fools - pretending to be stupid while making witty comments, and loyal to his deposed king when all others abandon him.  No one who has seen King Lear can forget the (seemingly neverending) storm scene in which Edgar, who is pretending to be mad, and the Fool, who acts mad professionally, keep up their acts while attempting to care for genuinely mad King Lear.  It always makes me very sad when King Lear says, "And my poor fool is hanged."

4.  Patchface from A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
A Game of Thrones and its sequels contain many fools - Ser Dontos, Moon Boy, Butterbumps - but the one who stands out for me is poor, tragic Patchface.  So called because of the motley squares tattooed on his face, Patchface was sent to Westeros as a precocious talent, who could juggle, riddle, do magic and sing in four languages.  But a shipwreck deprived him of his wits, and now all he does is sing cryptic fragments ending in, "I know, I know, oh, oh, oh."  I can't help thinking that Patchface really does know something that other people don't, and that a second accident might restore his wits and enable us to find out what it is.

5.  The Little Spirit from Lord of the Dance by Michael Flatley
This could be a cheat because it was only in the 2010 reunion tour that The Little Spirit was dressed like a jester.  But her innocence and flute playing make her, for me, another type of the traditional fool. I was inspired by a combination of The Little Spirit and Robin Hobb's Fool to create The Little Fool in my interactive story, Within the Rain Palace.  Read it here.

Here is my Fool-inspired song, Beloved:

Friday, 4 July 2014

A Castrato in London

Back in March, I wrote a post about "the castrato poet", Filippo Balatri.  I said it would be great if someone who knew Italian could translate a website I'd found about him and his autobiographical poem, Frutti del Mondo.

It gives me great pleasure to say that Leon Conrad, who I interviewed in my last blog, has done just that!  What follows is Leon's rough (and amazingly speedy) translation of a section of Frutti del Mondo  dealing with Balatri's visit to London.  According to Leon, this extract really shows off Balatri's sense of humour, as well as being a fascinating insight into the life of a castrato singer.  A huge thanks to Leon for this favour.

It’s dedicated to ‘The Hon. Mr World’ by his humble servant.


This is a rough summary of the section which covers his trip to the UK, along with some additional notes added on to the text on the website.


arrive in a marvellously walled city.

Accompanied by a nobleman.

I ask him to leave me at an inn.

He’s shocked – “What? When my house is available?”

I wouldn’t want to disappoint the Grand Duke who had such high hopes that you might lodge with me (lit. be counted amongst those who dined regularly around my table)

How will you find your way around without a word of English, without a guide, without a clue how to get from A to B? I’d be committing a schoolboy’s error (lit. grammatical error) in serving you so badly as a patron.

When I was in Florence, your master treated me very kindly. It’s the least I can do to repay his favour.

can’t refuse this noble Englishman, and find myself lodged in his house where  fournoble persons were to be found: father, mother, sisters and a brother-in-law.

They greet me as if they’d known me all their lives. I put my good fortune down to divine providence.

I lack for nothing. I’ve landed on my feet, in a house with a church just round the corner, (something about finding an ambassador perhaps thanks to his escort???) and have found sustenance for both my body and my soul.

There I find 4 ambassadors – all of which have private chapels at home and priests, where I, who have taken catholic vows, can offer up [prayers] to God, without fear of repression.

Music is so popular in England and so sought after that singers who have any reason to be proud of their achievements in voice and art are fought over by rival camps – they go to war over them!

Anne, the present queen, hearing that I, a renowned singer, have arrived in town, has made it known to me that  Ill shortly be called to prostrate myself at her feet – an honour which Ivery glad to accept.

The invitation’s come – it’s made me so happy – and I’m told that if she likes the way I sing, my reputation will be established here.

My host tells me that she liked a castrato called Nicolino and rewarded him richly with gold – and that my singing’s better than his, and will probably please her more.

He says she prefers singing that’s full of pathos to the happy stuff – and that she likes voices that flow sweetly forth rather than give her earache with their screaming.

He tells me all this with more affection than any father would have shown their son. I thank him with tears flowing down my cheeks and promise him my eternal gratitude.

Lady Burlington [Miledi Borlinton], who’s greatly favoured by the queen, asks me to call on her and tells me, “Get ready to perform your best arias at court.”

(Perhaps Lady Burlington, wife of the Duke of Devonshire, a member of the court)

Her Majesty will send you word through me when she would like you to present yourself at Kensington [Kisinton] where the court is currently, and stay there perhaps for a few night.

(The reference is to Kensington Palace)

Get your things ready and as soon as you receive news from me, be ready to set off promptly to satisfy her every wish.”

Following which, she asks me to sing an aria, so she can tell Her Majesty whether Ican sing or whether I just sound like a rattle.

sing an aria that’s full of pathos, and I notice that Her Ladyship is enjoying it, which made it easier for me to hit the mark.

That done, Her Ladyship demands I sing something that – so to speak – shows off the skill I have that people admire so much of singing in my other register [?].

Apparently the royal invitation depends on whether I can cough up the goods. [this is a liberal interpretation]

take my leave, and make preparations as commanded. She’s so chuffed, I don’t think her nose stopped pointing upwards for a week! [Again – a very liberal translation – the phrase is ‘che niun osa toccarlo sotto’al mento’ that no one dared touch the messenger under the chin (or chin strap) – possibly a reference to an Italian hand gesture - – perhaps I’m reading too much into it]

Here’s a carriage that’s come to pick me up. I’m in the antechamber. While I’m waiting for the great moment to arrive when Her Royal Highness will grace me with her hearing,

The courtiers [Li Milordi] crowd round me  one or two of them speak [some sort of] Italian – and with a truly superhuman effort try to interrogate me until they’resatiated.

They want to know about the Czar, the Khan, and I make sure they have their satisfaction, until finally, face-to-face with Bacchus, I surrender – I can hardly stand, let alone draw breath.

An hour passes. Another two. I’m finally dismissed. They’re called away by affairs of state, and whatever general stuff they usually get up to.

I’m told I’ll be informed when I should return. Bowing in every direction to the courtiers around me, I take my leave from the Lords of the court.

I’m on my way back into town, to wait to be called up on another day; but Mr World decided to taunt me, to make me suffer.

It was not the affairs of state as I stated that got in the way of Her Majesty seeing my moustache and hearing me warble [lit. my ululations],

But overcome with sorrows, so bowed down by them was she that evening, got so fed up and frustrated with life,

That in three days’ time the news spreads round London that the Queen has given up. On the fifth, that she’s passed on to the afterlife, and my good luck’s run out.

(The Queen died on 1 August 1714)

The two main parties – Whigs and Tories – wake up. They have no thought for music – their main concern is to rage against everything else.

Some want George to be the king; some the president, and London’s turned upside down. The strongest party carries the vote. And now George is King of England.

He doesn’t come to claim his country; but spends his time partying to music so bad he must be deaf; so all that’s left for me is to pack my singing up in my bag and leave town [?].


It should be noted that:

FB had the opportunity, nevertheless, to be heard in aristocrats’ homes; his host, who brought him to London and whose name remains unknown, put him up for 6 months, and introduced him to society, recommending him to everyone he knew; they, in turn,didn’t hold back in terms of lavishing praise on Baratri, offering him gifts such as boxes, watches, cases, rings, swords … even though they didn’t offer him cash gifts. Londoners were generally of the opinion that he was a ‘gentleman’ – despite this, he never appeared on the London stage. It is with pride that we note that Baratri did not frequent low-life dumps, limiting his performances to churches, oratorios and chamber music. He gained much in terms of honour, and little in terms of cash: his brother came to visit him from Rome and this aggravated his relatively precarious economic situation: at last, the Grand Duke of Tuscany ordered Balatri to return to Florence, in the company of a rather dull and boring Tuscan emissary [?].

Friday, 20 June 2014

Introducing... Liberalis Books

I've decided to have some guest posts here in the Hidden Grove.  Today we begin with a two-way interview with Leon Conrad of Liberalis Books, a new imprint of John Hunt, the publishers of Silver Hands.  Liberalis' website says:

"Liberalis is a Latin word which evokes ideas of freedom, liberality, generosity of spirit, dignity, honour, books, the liberal arts education tradition and the work of the Greek grammarian and storyteller Antonius Liberalis. We seek to combine all these interlinked aspects in the books we publish."

Leon is also Co-Author of Odyssey: Dynamic Learning System
A simple, innovative educational intervention with inspiration hard-wired in it.
Due to be published in late 2014 by Liberalis Books.

Leon's questions for me

What comes naturally to you and what do you value in terms of technique when it comes to storytelling?

I think humour comes naturally to me.  Even in serious stories, there's often a lot of witty/insulting banter between characters.  That's what I grew up with at home, so I think that's why it's so natural.  Emotion is another thing that comes naturally.  I feel the emotions of my characters (I think I probably pull the faces when I'm writing!)  And I value the classic plot patterns laid down by fairy tales.  You can always use them to "hang a story on," and you know it will work because those plots have stood the test of time.

Your main language, as a writer, is the language of words - the classical liberal arts featured other languages, such as the language of numbers and the language of music - how do these feature in your works and your approach to writing?

The language of numbers is another thing we get from fairy tales.  Patterns of threes crop up a lot, for example, and I often find them in my writing too, whether in sentence structure or the overall plot.  It's something that just feels right.  Or I will often plan a story (short or novel length) in five parts.  The classic story structures seem to break naturally into five.  I was taught a method for dissecting stories called Freytag's triangle, where numbers 1-3 would be placed on the ascending line of a triangle, and 4-5 on the descending.  So even geometry has a connection with storytelling; I would never have believed that when I was at school!
Music is especially important in the Angelio stories I am writing at the moment.  Music is a language that speaks to the spirit, and it can definitely be used to tell stories too. (Take Peter and the Wolf, for example, or the William Tell overture).  In the Angelio stories, Tammo communicates with his flute, first with the birds, and then with people.  It's a magical, mystical thing.  And it refers back to Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute.  Carlo, the castrato character in the stories, also communicates by song, and is known in childhood as the Nightingale.  I actually play the flute and piano, and can sing soprano (in an amateur way), and write music and songs for fun.  So I have written pieces for Tammo to play, inspired by birdsong.  For me, that's part of the story.  I have get involved in all different aspects of creativity, just as I would do as a child.  

My questions for Leon

What "lost" area of learning would you like to see brought back, and why?

Your approach is fascinating - the series of three is not just integral to a triangle, that triple quality is what gives the simplest solid form stability - and what makes rhetorical series of three work. I'm not surprised you find it works structurally as well - but to answer your question, here's the thing: we've lost sight of integration - I'd be surprised if you could find a mainstream educational institution of any kind today in which all staff members actively practised integration, as a goal, rather than having it buried in a statement of values - subjects are taught separately, in a disconnected way; and as a result, students' minds, bodies and spirits are also kept very much apart. It's not my understanding of what a liberal arts education is about - there's a mysterious thread which relates the tangible and the intangible that lies at the heart of it which was ever present, particularly in the early days - it's there in Aristotle's categories - it's there in words: in the distinction between categorematic and syncategorematic words (if you're not familiar with those terms, check out my TEDx talk here) - it's there in numbers: in the distinction between rational and irrational numbers - it's there in grammar, in logic ... it's the stuff of philosophy, and ultimately it's what inspires purpose, the realisation of which involves getting all three aspects of our humanity - our minds, our bodies, our spirit (that series of three again) - to work together.

I'm sure I sound like an old fogey harping on about how stuff was better in Ancient Greece - actually, Seneca the Younger was saying the same thing around two thousand years ago - according to him, the liberal arts education that was being bandied about then was just as unintegrated as it is now. The integrated version that he valued was just as hard to find.

Liberalis is set up to make it easier for contemporary readers to access this integrated approach to the liberal arts - not to mention celebrating the art and craft of storytelling.

I'm very interested in combining storytelling with other art forms - I've created both digital interactive fiction, which makes use of technology, and "FictionCrafts", which combine handcrafts and stories to create gift items.  Are there any multidisciplinary forms of storytelling you would like to see - or have seen?

Well storytelling itself is both an art and a craft - but from a multidisciplinary perspective, in terms of live storytelling, many stories are associated with string figures, paper folding and art - the Japanese Kamishibai tradition, for instance, involves illustrations being shown as a story unfolds. If you think of it, it's rather like a magic lantern show, or a traditional shadow theatre performance (I'm particularly fond of contemporary shadow theatre and have produced work in the medium). In terms of literary storytelling, there's a wonderful picture book my daughter used to love called The Quiltmaker's Gift, which has won several awards, which features loads of visual puzzles wrapped up in a story that itself surrounds you like a warm quilt of love.

At Liberalis, I want to celebrate the ability that words and stories have to do that to people - wrap them in the transcendent world of story and I'm always on the lookout for people who are in tune with the ethos of the imprint to write for us. You can find out more about Liberalis here. And it's easy to submit an inquiry via the on-line form.

I'd like to thank Leon for his time and enthusiasm.  Leon has also contributed to next time's blog with a translation of the English adventures of the "castrato poet" Filippo Balatri.  Don't miss it!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Amazing Asexuality

One of my most popular posts on this blog has been, "Giving Birth to Hairy Worms", all about the Renaissance belief in spontaneous generation (ie giving birth without the need for sexual reproduction).  While the idea may seem far fetched, it turns out that spontaneous generation is in fact all around us.  And it's called parthenogenesis.

In fact, it's right in my garden.  The round things growing on my tree are oak galls.  They are created by wingless, asexual female gall wasps, which are born from galls in the tree roots, created by winged females, who have mated with males.  The tree galls hatch more wasps, which begin the double cycle again.  So every other generation of female gall wasps will be asexual and wingless.  The next generation will be sexual and winged.

Other creatures that reproduce asexually incude aphids, which produce exact clones of themselves, and a certain species of ant.

Amazingly, parthenogenesis is not limited to small creatures like insects.  Something as big as a Komodo dragon is capable of reproducing asexually when there isn't a male around.  But then it can change back to sexual reproduction when males arrive.  Check out this site for more instances:

Imagine if this were possible for humans.  How would it work in science fiction or fantasy?  Would you like to have little clones of yourself?  Could reproduction be brought on by looking at a picture of your ideal baby (or your ideal spouse)?  What if people could change back and forth like the Komodo dragons?  How would men feel about this, or would they be able to reproduce as well?  What if we had a double life cycle, like the gall wasps?  The possibilities are endless...

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Where are the shy heroines?

Last night, my daughter and I watched Frozen for the first time.  (Yes, I know, we took a while getting around to it).  I don't intend to write a review of Frozen here (basically, I didn't think it was as good as Tangled).  But I do mean to say that I found the heroines a bit annoying.  They were too loud for me, too independent, too feisty.

I've never liked feisty heroines.  Right from reading Little Women as a child.  I know so many people wanted to be Jo, but I wished Beth could have been the writer (as well as a pianist).  Then she would have been like me, right down to the name.  Growing up, I identified with Marty South (Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders), following Giles about, too afraid to admit she loved him, Fanny Price (Jane Austen's Mansfield Park), bossed about by everyone in the house with only Edmund treating her like a human being) and especially the Lady of Shalott, trapped in her tower, unable to cross the room.  (Yes, we're back to women in towers).  When I wrote my first woman-in-a-tower story, The Ice Queen and the Mer-king (  she was very much in the vein of those characters.

Actually, what I dislike is the fashion for feisty heroines, which seems to have been going on all my life. The idea that seems to get pushed is that feisty = good.  Where does that leave the shy girls, the quiet and compliant ones who want to do the right thing?  Underneath, we are angry that rebellion and outspoken-ness gets the upper hand.  We are being shouted down by the gobby kids, just like we were at school.  We just want to get a word in.

Have we seen a decent shy heroine since the 19th century?  People seem to think the heroines of the past were insipid, either oppressed or repressed.  Now, oppressed and repressed aren't good.  I've just read The Bride of Lammermoor, in which quiet, compliant Lucy suddenly flips and stabs her bridegroom to death.  But it is annoying to be told that an introverted temperament is insipid.  We are not insipid.  We don't like being shouted down or to feel that other people are controlling us.  But we don't want to freak out like Lucy of Lammermoor either.  We just want to live our lives.

When I wrote Silver Hands (  I tried to make Margaret my kind of heroine.  She is basically a good girl who wants to do the right thing.  I think it surprised me as much as it did her that she had to do some defiant and brave things in order to avoid being controlled by Van Guelder, because that isn't her natural way.  She is happiest in the peace and quiet of Taro's garden, with someone who gives her plenty of space.  She also needs men to help and protect her.  Yes, you heard me.  She needs men.  She has weaknesses.  Disabilities.  Things she can't do for herself.  She's basically a lone female surrounded by mostly male friends.  And she needs those guys, because they do the things she can't. Because brothers and male friends are great (speaking as someone with plenty of experience).  And admitting where you need help is a strength, not a weakness.

OK, so maybe there is some of that in Frozen as well.  I'm not having a go here.  And if you're a feisty person, then obviously you want to see a heroine like you.  But don't put the quiet ones down.  And don't write us out of the story.  Like I say, we just want to get a word in. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Silver Hands - Your Questions Answered

Yesterday, I did an author event at Blackwell's Universty Bookshop, Leeds, talking about my historical fantasy novel, Silver Hands.  Seeing as only people who were available at 2pm in 
Leeds could be there on the day, I thought I would post the answers to one or two Frequently Asked Questions about Silver Hands and writing in general.

Q: How long did it take you to write Silver Hands?
A: I got the first ideas for the story after reading The Handless Maiden in Grimm's Fairy Tales in 2007.  I started actually writing down the story in June 2009.  I finished editing and started submitting in 2011, and the book was published in 2013.

Q: How do you discipline yourself/Do you have a writing routine?
A: I always find this question hard to answer, as I think my feelings about writing are more devotion than discipline.  I would rather be writing than doing anything else, but sometimes it is hard to get motivated because of anxiety/depression.  The best advice I ever had for that situation was, "if you feel too tired or dispirited, aim to write 10 words."  You usually end up writing more.  Also, I don't separate my writing life from other aspects of life, such as household chores.  For example, I'm writing this blog in the launderette! 

Q: Is it worth taking a creative writing degree/module?
A: Again, hard to answer, because I have never taken one.  The university I attended had dropped creative writing from the English degree by the time I got to the year when it would have been an option.  I know other writers who have taken them and seemed to get a lot out of them, but I am wary of relying on creative writing degrees alone, as a path to professional writing.  I have learned on the job, attending ad hoc workshops and conferences at the same time as writing and submitting, and I think there's a lot to be said for that.

A: Do you write longhand or on the computer?
Q: This question always slightly baffles me as to why people think it is important, but it's not hard to answer.  When I started submitting 10 years back, I wrote everything with a pencil and paper, and then typed up, editing as I typed.  (I can touch type quite fast).  Nowadays, I use the iPad a lot.  I have a stylus and an app that converts handwriting, and I generally have my manuscripts on Google docs, which saves a lot of time and faffing about.

If you have any burning questions you want to ask me, just leave them in the comments box.  All the details about Silver Hands can be found here: