Asexual Myths & Tales

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Happy Christmas 2015

I would just like to take this opportunity to wish a very merry Christmas and a happy new year to all my readers, editors and writing friends.

2015 ends with a bumper crop of short story publications - most of which can be accessed through my Facebook page - with more to come in the new year.  #MargaretsVoyage is off to a good start, with copies of Silver Hands winging their way to all corners of the globe.  (Defying geometry there!)  More to come on that front in the new year too.  

And maybe 2016 will be the year the Angelio Trilogy sees the light?  The game is afoot!  

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Back To The (Dickensian) Future

Today was Clayton Dickensian Market day in my home village.  Unfortunately, the weather is so awful that the outdoor events had to be cancelled and as many stalls as possible moved indoors.  Claytonians showed true Yorkshire grit, however, and the indoor venues were packed.

So, to cheer us along through the storms, I have posted the little story I wrote for this year's programme.  I hope it brings back memories of better years...

Back to the (Dickensian) Future

Scrooge raised an eyebrow. 

“I assure you, Spirit, we have not met.  I think I would recall such outlandish dress.”

“Oh, we have!”  The Ghost chuckled.  “Under rather different circumstances.  I dressed in black in those days and did not speak.  You were rather afraid of me, I think.”

Scrooge blinked at the Spirit’s youthful smile and colourful, floppy clothes.  It couldn’t be…  It must be…

“The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?”

Scrooge mumbled the words to his boots in case he was mistaken.  But the Spirit only laughed again.

“The very same.”  And before Scrooge could declare his amazement: “It is the change in your attitude that changed me.  When you decided to honour Christmas in your heart and keep it all the year, the Future itself changed.  Would you like to see a little?”

“Oh, very much!”  Scrooge clapped his hands.

In an instant, they were transported to a village street, filled with stalls, music, and the smell of roast chestnuts. A little fairground turned in the park.  Falcons preened.  Children sang. 

“It looks…  It looks just the same.”  Scrooge gazed, wondering.  “How far in the future is this?”

“Oh, 170 years, give or take.”  The Spirit shrugged.  “It’s like this every year in Clayton.  And it’s all thanks to you, Mr Scrooge.”

Scrooge wasn’t listening.  He was too busy filling his memory with the sights and sounds.

“Clayton…” he said thoughtfully.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Two Carlos

         Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie"

On 24 January 1705, Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi was born in Apulia, Italy, into a noble family that had fallen on hard times.  Fifteen years later, on 31 December 1720, Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart was born in Rome, into the deposed royal family of Scotland, England and Ireland.  Since he grew up in Italy, he may well have been known to childhood friends as Carlo.  These two Carlos are better known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie and the castrato singer Farinelli.

                   Carlo Broschi, "Farinelli"

Both died in the 1780s, but who had the better life?  Charles Edward Stuart was fĂȘted and adored as a child in Rome.  He had a successful military career, and believed in his destiny to reclaim his family's throne.  Carlo Broschi was castrated at a young age, and had to work and study hard to achieve success as a singer.  However, by 1734, he was at the height of a career which made him rich and adored throughput Europe, but he never let it go to his head.  He had a successful second career as a music therapist to Philippe V of Spain, ultimately holding a high position in the Spanish court.

By contrast, after the failure of the Jacobite rising of '45, Charles Stuart became increasingly frustrated and bitter.  He turned to drink, forcing his mistress Clementina and daughter Charlotte to abandon him.  He became increasingly unpopular with his former allies, both Jacobite supporters and European royalty.   And his marriage to a Belgian princess failed due to his alcoholism and violence.  He died - fat, ugly and alcoholic - at the age of sixty-seven.

Carlo Broschi died in retirement in Bologna, still rich and famous.  Of course he could have no children, and he was lonely, but he was still respected and visited by many people.  He took consolation in music and prayer, and in his lifelong friendship with the poet Metastasio - his "twin" - who died only a few months after him.  He was seventy-seven years of age.

I know which Carlo I would rather be.  What about you? 

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Good Death

I hate the modern Hallowe'en, but I love the idea of a "Season of Remembrance", running from All Saint's Eve on October 31st to Armistice Day on November 11th.  In my opinion (and experience, as someone who has provided the music for a lot of funerals) death isn't spooky or morbid (if that's not nonsensical).  It's natural, as natural as leaves falling from trees and the year turning from summer to winter.  The dead are not to be feared.  They are our ancestors, our relatives, our family.  It's good to spend time remembering them, praying, or simply lighting a candle.

Neither must Death be a figure of fear or horror.  Death can be kind.  We have only to think of the late Sir Terry Pratchett's wonderful character of Death, who always spoke in capitals, and walked with Sir Terry at the end.  Or the compassionate Death, narrator of The Book Thief, who gathers children's souls in his arms during the air raids.

In that vein, I give you this wonderful video link to Schubert's Death and the Maiden, by Andreas Scholl.  I have read that the poem comes from a European myth in which Death demands a maiden give herself to him on her wedding night, or generally tempts and seduces a maiden.  To some, this could be the ultimate creepy tale.  But Andreas Scholl's video brings out a comforting meaning to the words and image of Death and the Maiden, one which probably comforted Schubert himself as he faced his own early death.  Like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Death turns out to be  - not a cruel ravisher as the maiden fears - but gentle, loving and kind.  

Stay away! Oh, stay away!
Go, fierce Death!
I am still young, please go!
And do not touch me.

Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender vision!
I am a friend, and come not to hurt you.
Be of good cheer! I am not cruel,
You will sleep softly in my arms!

  • Saturday, 26 September 2015

    Launching Margaret's Voyage - A Giveaway With a Twist

    In Silver Hands, Margaret goes on a voyage that takes her from the English coast to the East Indies, feudal Japan and beyond the Edge of the Map.  To celebrate that, I'm launching a special giveaway that will send Silver Hands on a voyage of its own.  Who knows where it might end up?

    This is how it will work.  I have two copies of Silver Hands to give away.  I will send them to two randomly chosen followers, regardless of where they live in the world.  (If you live beyond the Edge of the Map, that could be tricky, so we'll limit it to non-magical countries! 😉)  It will then be your turn to give the book away to a person of your choice.  They will then give it away to a person of their choice.  And so on and so on.  The idea is to get these two copies of Silver Hands on the longest voyages possible.  

    The book will arrive with a special message inside the front cover, welcoming you to Margaret's Voyage.  Read the book.  (I hope you enjoy it!)  Then comes the important part:

    1. Sign your name in the cover, along with where you live. That way, future readers can see how far the book has travelled.

    2. Take a picture of yourself with the book.  For example, here's a picture of me with Silver Hands in Lincoln.  If you don't want to include yourself, just take a picture of the book in an interesting setting!

    3. Post the picture to Twitter, using my Twitter handle @hidden_grove and the hashtag #MargaretsVoyage.  Tell us where you are!  

    4. Pass the book along to the next intrepid reader!

    Rules for entering the giveaway
    To enter, put something in the comments box on this blog.  Not on Twitter or Facebook etc.  This might seem mean, but unless I do it this way, it becomes very difficult to keep track of who has entered.
    The giveaway will run until 19:00 GMT on Saturday 3rd October,  I will announce the two lucky winners in the comments to this blog, and invite them to email me their postal addresses.  If a winner fails to supply a valid postal address, they will be discounted and I will pick another winner in their place.  The books will be sent via recorded mail, using the normal postal service.  This means they may take a while to get to some countries, but should arrive.  If the book doesn't arrive after a reasonable amount of time, please contact me at, and I will chase it up.

    That's all.  Good luck!

    Tuesday, 15 September 2015

    Henry III and the Fairies

    I recently picked up a second-hand copy of Nigel Cawthorne's The Strange Laws of Old England.  As a source for story ideas, this is a brilliant resource, full of all sorts of strange legal goings-on, not just in Old England, but also in Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man etc.

    One thing that caught my attention as a fantasist was a short paragraph saying about Henry III - the king responsible for the re-issued version of Magna Carta I was fortunate to see myself this year in Lincoln.  (There is more than one copy, in case you are about to protest that it is somewhere else!)  The book says that Henry signed a law making it a capital offence to kill, wound or maim a fairy.

    This sounds almost as if Henry III was making the fairy a protected species, as we would do nowadays with endangered animals.  However, although Henry III had a menagerie, I doubt the fairy was considered an endangered species in the 13th century.  In fact, as a super-pious king, and one who passed the Statute of Jewry in 1253, which attempted to segregate Jews and enforce the wearing of Jewish badges (Yes, very Christlike, Henry, I don't think) I would have thought it more likely he would want fairies dead.  Or did he want them all corralled and badged up too, where he could see them?  Not very likely to happen, from what we know of fairy folklore.  Perhaps he was scared of them, and feared retaliation from their kindred in the Other Realms?  And then there is the question: what incident could have occurred, to bring such a law into existence??  

    Is the story even true?  Elsewhere on the Internet ( another blogger claims that this was just a joke made up by American satirist Ambrose Bierce for his 1906 book The Devil's Dictionary. However, just because it appears under fairy in Bierce's comic definitions, this doesn't necessarily mean he made the whole story up.  Prove it to me!  (I mean there must be someone out there who would like nothing better than to read through a load of 13th century legal documents!) ☺️

    Another website ( brought up an extract from The Fairies in Tradition and Literature  by Katharine Mary Briggs, which recounts the tale of a magical white hind - a fairy hind - that appeared in Henry III's time and was given chase by the Lord of Kilmersdon before she vanished.  Does the "Fairy Law" - whether it exists or not - have some connection with deer hunting and forestry laws?  We know that Henry signed a Forestry Charter.  (I've seen it!)  It is possible that barons fearful of the fairies wanted to stop anyone from killing a white deer (or any other animal that seemed particularly mystical). Or it could just have been that the king wanted to preserve his hunting rights, and this seemed a good way to do it.

    Whatever the truth of the matter, you can't deny that there's a fine fantasy story waiting to emerge from this.  I'd better get writing! 

    Monday, 31 August 2015

    The Scandalous Lady at Harewood

    Shaun Evans, Natalie Dormer and Aneurin Barnard in The Scandalous Lady W. Photo: BBC2.

    Today, I enjoyed a family day out at Harewood House, near Leeds, West Yorkshire.  One of the things I was most looking forward to was a chance to see the portrait of Seymour, Lady Worsley, subject of BBC2's recent courtroom drama, The Scandalous Lady W. 

    The BBC2 website has this to say:

    "In 1781, wealthy heiress Seymour, Lady Worsley, caused outrage when she cuckolded her husband, respectable MP Sir Richard Worsley, and ran away with her lover Captain George Bisset. Furious, Sir Richard responded by suing Bisset for criminal conversation and demanding a record £20,000 for the damage done to his property - Lady Worsley. While Seymour and Bisset hid out in a London hotel, Sir Richard and his lawyers set about proving his wife's infidelity through a series of devious schemes. When the case came to court, Sir Richard lied about his relationship with Seymour, painting a perfect picture of their marriage and persuading others to do the same. Bisset looked sure to be facing penury and prison until Seymour devised a bold plan. To save her lover from ruin, she disclosed a shocking secret - one that astounded the court, put her reputation in jeopardy and turned the trial into the greatest sex scandal of the eighteenth century."
    But what is Lady Worsley doing in Harewood House, when she lived in Hampshire?

    Myself at Harewood House. Lady Worsley's portrait in the background (dressed in red). Edwin Lascelles above the fireplace.

    She was the step-daughter of Edwin Lascelles, who inherited the Harewood Estate in 1753 and built Harewood House.  The same room in Harewood houses three portraits by Joshua Reynolds - Edwin Lascelles, Lady Worsley and her sister, Lady Harington.

    It seems that scandalous Seymour was getting into trouble long before the court case.  Harewood House displays a letter revealing her antics there over Christmas 1778/9.  Here is an extract:

    "I have a good story of some ladies, some of whom I believe you know.  There has been a great masquerading this Xmas at Harewood, and all the rooms both ladies and gentlemen were thrown open and made common.  Lady Worsley and two Miss Cramers threw most of the gentlemen's clothes out of the window, particularly their breeches, thinking them I suppose unnecessary.  

    One night these three heroines desire of Lascelles to lend them his coach up to Leeds, which he refused.  They therefore took the cart horses and rode them.  They stopt at one of the inns and told the waiters to show them into such a room, which he could not do, as it was kept for the officers of the Militia and their Colours etc were there.  But they were determined to go in, and took the pokers and broke open the door.  Then they heated them red hot and poked them into the Colours which set them into a blaze."

    The letter goes on tell how the ladies then sent for a gentleman - "a principal person of Leeds" - who dressed in his best to meet them.  But they were waiting for him, one with water and one with soot, which they threw over him and his fine clothes.

    You might think that was enough pranking for one Christmas, but the letter says they went on to Canon Hall (another country house in the Leeds area).  There they broke open Spencer's (the owner's) library, threw all his books about and took away a pocket full of bank notes.

    According to the letter: "They were three days on this expedition."

    All this makes me wonder more about Seymour, Lady Worsley.  Throwing underwear out of the window sounds like a harmless prank, but stealing bank notes, wrecking a library and burning flags makes the three young ladies sound like upper class delinquents.  Was Lady Worsley quite the innocent victim the BBC made her out to be?  Of course, throwing water over a dignitary is nothing like as serious as forcing your wife into sexual perversion (if that is indeed what Sir Richard did).  But still... Why did she behave like that?  You could say that Seymour and her friends were getting back at men for having all the power, and rebelling against their role in society.  Or that they were scarred by what they suffered in marriage.  Or alternatively, that they spent Christmas 1778 acting like spoiled brats.  

    We may never know the truth...

    Scandalous Lady W quotation from
    Letter to Mr Hewett, dated January 20th, 1779, copied by hand from the original by me.

    Tuesday, 18 August 2015

    The Swanwick Effect

           Picture from Swanwick website.

    It's that time of year once again when I arrive home, tired but happy, from a week in beautiful Derbyshire with my fellow writers.

    I've been attending Swanwick Writers' Summer School for about 10 years now, and it always helps my writing career in a new way.  In the early years, it was invaluable for learning new skills, and for getting inspiration for my stories.  Many of my short stories - Awaken the Dawn is one that springs to mind - began life at Swanwick.  Then it became a place where I could meet agents face-to-face and discover that they were normal human beings.  And this year, my highlight was time chatting with another delegate, who helped me create a plan to organise my time and maximise on my success.  Let's see how it goes!

    Swanwick is also the place where I first learned the skills of teaching a writing workshop.  This year, I led an early-morning session - with the aid of Story Cubes!  I also led Sunday Worship in the Chapel.  And, for the first time, participated in a manic activity called Page to Stage, in which my comedy sketch was frantically cast, rehearsed and performed within two days!  One particular delegate has now become Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for all time to come!

    The best thing about Swanwick is that the friendships last from year to year, and even continue between Summer Schools.  So if you are a writer or wannabe writer from Britain (or just fancy a summer visit to Britain!) check out the website.  You will have a wonderful time!

          Picture from Swanwick website.

    Tuesday, 14 July 2015

    EdgeLit Derby - Enlightened by Grimdark

    This last weekend, I went to a convention in Derby for fantasy/sci-fi/horror writers, called EdgeLit.  It was the first time I had been to this or any convention - except for the time I went to pick up my James White Award at the 2005 Hugos, which was a flying-visit blur of nerves, Alan Lee, and people in Ming the Merciless cloaks.  This time, I had actually paid to go.  It turned out to be a very enjoyable day, both inspiring and entertaining.

    As is often the case with such things, one of the best sessions was one I only decided to go to at the last minute: a panel discussion entitled Into the Grimdark – Is Darker Fantasy a Trend, or Here to Stay?

    The discussion began with an attempt to define Grimdark as a sub-genre.  There was some disagreement as to whether George RR Martin (Game of Thrones etc.) came under this heading.  I think it was generally agreed that Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora books did.  As far as I now understand it, Grimdark is a sub-genre with low magic, a smaller setting (usually, hence the Martin debate), ordinary people, and a much greyer line between heroes and villains.  In fact, there are no true heroes, certainly not of the "shiny" type.  If I think of Locke Lamora, it's basically likeable bad people with a sense of humour trying to outwit other bad people to stay alive.  They don't always succeed.  It's about daily, individual survival rather than a higher purpose.

    Several times, the panel guests spoke of this being a "realistic" approach to fantasy, rather than the "escapism" of high fantasy.  A response to the grimness of the real world ( the one outside books).  The view was voiced that most people don't spend their days in an epic battle between good and evil, but simply figuring how to exist from day to day.  Interestingly, they also claimed Grimdark was more inclusive of minority sex and gender identities.

    Some readers may remember a blog I wrote called Curtains to the Darkness, in which I wrote of my frustration at a general tendency to equate "dark" with "mature" or "realistic".  It's particularly frustrating that the opposite of "dark" is "light", which carries with it connotations of "lightweight".  It implies that anything that is not "dark" is mere escapist fluff.  So I was keen to ask the panel if they went along with this view.  Did they perceive a prejudice against light-filled fantasy?  

    In asking this question, I was thinking particularly of my current work-in-progress, The Angelio Trilogy, which is also low magic, small scale, mostly about personal relationships and definitely inclusive of minorities.  But it's not "dark".  Everyone is basically good and redeemable; even the "villains" are just insecure schoolboys.  Neither does it subscribe to the notion that ordinary people aren't engaged in a battle between good and evil.  How you see that depends entirely on your perception of the world and of your rĂŽle in it.  I suppose Angelio could be seen as "religious fantasy", in that it comes from a religious world view, and that view is upheld by the main characters.  I suspect Grimdark comes from a non-religious world view, in which daily survival brings meaning to life.  

    I was pleased to find that the panel did not go along with the anti-light prejudice.  A story can be "realistic" without being "dark".  One observation made in answer to my question was that the people on our street or in our block of flats are mainly good people.  So a world in which people are basically good reflects reality perfectly well.  They even suggested a new name for my kind of fantasy, one which has no connotations of "lightweight".  Uplifting.  So now I can proudly say I am a writer of Uplifting Fantasy.  And it's just as real as the grimmest Grimdark. 

    Wednesday, 8 July 2015

    Come into the House

    12th July sees the publication of Come into the House, a new anthology from Corazon Books, showcasing the winners and short-listed entries from a competition they ran in partnership with The Historic Houses Association (HHA), to write a short story either inspired by or set in a historic house.

    One of those stories is my tale, "The Yorkshire Defiance," inspired by Shibden Hall in Halifax, West Yorkshire.  Outside the local area, Shibden is best known for being home to lesbian diarist and landowner Anne Lister in the 19th century.  

    Read my blog on Anne Lister and Charlotte Bronte's "Shirley"

    But there is much more to the Hall than Anne Lister.  When I went to Shibden Hall to write my entry for the competition - "in situ" - I drew inspiration from 18th-century family portraits in the Great Hall, and from earlier members of the Lister family.

    One such character was Martha Lister, who grew up at the Hall along with her sisters, attending the local dame school, and benefiting from the instruction of a dancing master and a pastry master!  In or around the 1720s-30s, she eloped with one William Fawcett, who subsequently abandoned her, forcing her to return to Shibden Hall with baby William in tow. In the 18th century, I should imagine this would effectively mark the end of any social life Martha might have had.  She became the central inspiration for my story.

    I was also intrigued by the career of her three brothers, Thomas, William and Jeremy.  (A lot of Williams in the early 18th century!) They bought shares in a ship called The Yorkshire Defiance, which traded with the American colonies.  Sadly, the brothers were not good businessmen.  They bought a load of deer skins, which arrived in Britain in a ruined and unsaleable condition.  Thomas bought and sold 15 slaves, although his brothers couldn't understand why.  William then moved to Virginia, and later Carolina, where he married and acquired property.  But his life ended when he was lost at sea in 1743.

    All in all, the Listers of this period seemed a rather tragic family, and I couldn't help sympathising with them.  Nor could I help making a link between the failure of the ship, The Yorkshire Defiance, and the failure of another Yorkshire Defiance in the form of Martha's elopement.

    Do visit Corazon Books' website and have a read of the anthology.  It will be an interesting read, and will bring a whole collection of historic houses to life, the way the Shibden Hall came alive for me.

    Saturday, 13 June 2015

    The Brontës and Waterloo: 10 Things I Learned

                 The BrontĂ« sisters, by Branwell BrontĂ«.  Credit: The BrontĂ« Society.

    I've just got back from BrontĂ« Parsonage, Haworth (not far from where I live) where I went to see a special exhibition on "The BrontĂ«s, War and Waterloo."  It was absolutely fascinating.  If you're in the area, go and see it! For those who live further afield, here are 10 things I learned from it:

    1.  All the BrontĂ«s were huge fans of the Duke of Wellington.  The Rev. Patrick even wrote him what was basically fan mail.  The Duke's reply (in display in the museum) is typically scathing.  Poor man!

    2.  They had a love/hate relationship with Napoleon too (especially Branwell).  Since Napoleon was a Byronic hero to Lord Byron himself, and the BrontĂ«s were big fans of Byron (later producing those famously Byronic heroes Heathcliff and Mr Rochester), you can understand the tug of emotions.

    3.  It all began with a box of toy soldiers bought for Branwell.  When told they could choose one each, Charlotte and Branwell immediately named theirs Wellington and Napoleon, and went on to create adventures for them, which expanded into whole fantasy worlds.

    4.  As children and teenagers, the BrontĂ«s were basically fantasy role-players.  They collaborated together to build worlds and stories, full of battles, empire building and bitter rivalries.  The Glass Kingdom Federation created by Charlotte and Branwell sounds to me like an ideal concept for online gaming.  If someone hasn't adapted it yet, they probably should.

    5.  Most of their knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars came from a 1827 biography of Napoleon by Sir Walter Scott.  The BrontĂ«s were big fans of Scott, too.  Why am I not surprised?

    6.  In Charlotte and Branwell's fantasy world, the Duke of Wellington was ruler of Glass Town and lived in Waterloo Palace.  He headed up the Glass Town Federation, a group of colonies on the West Coast of Africa, run by a dozen eminent men known as The Twelve.

    7.  In the next generation of the Glass Kingdom, a new country called Angria joins the Federation.  It is ruled by Wellington's son, Zamora and his Prime Minister, Alexander Percy, who is basically a version of Napoleon.  Cue civil wars, betrayals, banishments and battles.

    8.  In a civil war of the nursery, Emily and Anne defected from the Glass Kingdom to create their own fantasy empire, Gondal.  Described as an island in the North Pacific, its landscape resembled Yorkshire and Scotland, and was divided into four kingdoms ruled by rival families.  Many of the Gondal writings are now lost, but its rivalries and tensions seem to have fed into Wuthering Heights.  Many surviving poems focus on the relationship between strong-willed Augusta Geraldine Almeida and her lover Julius Brenzaida, a sort of proto Cathy and Heathcliff.

    9.  Charlotte once wrote a story similar to "A Christmas Carol" in which Napoleon is led around Paris by the spectre of his general, Jean-Charles Pichegru, to show him the error of his ways.

    10.  The BrontĂ« sisters may have visited the site of Waterloo itself.  We can't know for sure, but they did spend time in Belgium, studying with tutor Constantin Heger, who gave Charlotte a piece of Napoleon's coffin.

                             War picture by Branwell BrontĂ«.  Credit: The BrontĂ« Society.

    Thursday, 7 May 2015

    Elizabeth and Carlo, sitting in a tree...

    Well, sitting on a sofa, anyway.  Or a sopha, if you prefer.

    I simply had to share this portrait by the wonderful Kirsty Rolfe (@avoiding_bears) of the Divine Farinelli and I as BFFs.  (It even says so on our mugs.  I hope we're drinking mocha!)  Kirsty had the inspired idea to raise money for relief aid in Nepal by offering a portrait of yourself with your favourite historical character.  I think my selection was a no-brainer!  

    This is just a scan.  The real thing is on its way to me, in the post.  I can't wait!

    Thank you, Kirsty, for such a great idea, and for helping to raise funds and awareness at this difficult time for Nepal

    Friday, 1 May 2015

    My journey into gender-fluid fiction

                Tilda Swinton as Virginia Woolf's Orlando from the film of 1992: BFI Player

    I recently listened to a fascinating online lecture by Cheryl Morgan about gender fluidity in science fiction and fantasy.  Regular readers will know that issues of gender and (a)sexual identity feature a lot in my blog.  So I was interested to read some of the books featured in the lecture.  Here's what I managed to find in my local library: 

    Orlando by Virginia Woolf
    This famous literary novel is quite strange, and I doubt anyone truly knows what Virginia Woolf meant by everything in it.  The title character, Orlando, begins as a 16th-century nobleman and favourite of Elizabeth I.  By the end of the book, she is a woman (still called Orlando) and living in Virginia Woolf's own day, the 1920s.  The part where Orlando becomes a woman is spectacularly unspectacular.  He goes to sleep a man and wakes up a woman.  (Initial reaction: "Oh, I'm female now.  Whatever").  But I do like the part a bit later when Orlando tries to analyse his/her new identity by thinking, "This thing about me seems masculine, this seems feminine" etc., and Virginia Woolf points out that everybody has those kinds of issues at some point.

    I also watched the 1992 film of Orlando on BFI player.  It's a beautiful and atmospheric film, very much in the spirit of the book, although not everything is identical.  In the book, Orlando has an admirer who initially approaches him dressed as a woman (when Orlando is a man).  Later, when Orlando is a woman, the admirer returns, revealing that he is male and always was.  The film misses out the part where the admirer is in drag, introducing him as a man.  However, Queen Elizabeth I is played by a man (at the point where Orlando is a man, played by a woman).  I'm not sure what that's trying to say.

    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin
    I listened to the BBC Radio adaptation of this, which may not have been the best way to go.  This seems quite a political story and it was hard to fully grasp everything in the dramatised version.  However, it's what was available to me at the time.  The story involves an ambassador from a human interplanetary alliance, on an ice-age planet where everyone is gender-neutral.  They only become male or female at a particular time in their monthly cycle, for the purpose of procreation.  One thing that interested me was that many people saw the ambassador as a "pervert" because, in their view, he was permanently on heat, being male all the time.

    Eon and Eona (The Dragoneye Duology) by Alison Goodman
    This enjoyable YA fantasy in an East Asian setting is about a girl disguised as a boy, trying to become a Dragoneye - a sort of warrior-mage who bonds with a dragon to control the weather.  I enjoyed the first book the most (although the second has a very compelling romantic strand).  It has the most gender and identity issues, and is mainly set in a Forbidden City-like capital, which I loved.  As well as the obvious girl-as-boy disguise, there are literally hundreds of eunuchs (which leads me to think the author's main influence was the Ming Dynasty), a hormone potion and the fascinating character of Lady Dela - a Contraire or Twin Soul ie a man with the soul of a woman, who dresses and lives as a woman.  The second book has a lot more warfare in it and concentrates mainly on humanity's relationship with the nature-dragons.  

    Gideon Smith series by David Barnett
    I haven't actually got up to the book mentioned in the lecture, Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, but I made a start on the series in order to get there.  It's a fun, steampunk series, set in an alternate 19th century.  The first book actually has a lot of identity issues - who is a real person, who is a real hero etc.?  We meet a mechanical girl called Maria, Count Dracula's widow, and an elderly gay couple ( whose supposed roles as Hero of the Empire and his chronicler are in fact reversed).  The second book seems to lose the edge, and concentrates more on action, making it feel shallow by comparison to the first.  (Maria hardly features and all the other characters are human).  However, in book 3, Maria supposedly meets a transgender woman and they talk about what a "real" woman might be.  I look forward to that.

    As you can see, the range of my local library didn't really stretch that far.  I'd still like to read one of the books that features truly agender characters.  But I've made a start.

    Saturday, 4 April 2015

    An Eighteenth Century Easter

    It's Easter!  For Christians, the Feast of Feasts.  For others, perhaps a time associated with eggs, chocolate and weekends off work.

    But what could you do at Easter in the 18th century?  Let's take a look at a few suggestions from around the world.

    1.  Hear a JS Bach cantata.  
    If you were lucky enough to live in Leipzig, you could hear one of Bach's famous Passions conducted by the maestro himself.  The St Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday (11 April) 1727 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and revised for new performances in 1736 and 1742.  The St John Passion was first performed on April 7, 1724, at Good Friday Vespers at the Nikolaikirche.  Bach's Easter Oratorio performed as a cantata for Easter Sunday in Leipzig on 1 April 1725, and revived in 1735 and in the 1740s.
    (Source: Wikipedia) 

    2.  Bootleg a Psalm.
    Legend has it that a teenage Mozart heard Allegri’s Miserere being performed in the Sistine Chapel on the Wenesday of Holy Week.  Writing it down and performing it elsewhere was punishable by excommunication.  Later that day, however, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Mozart was summoned to Rome, but instead of excommunicating the boy, the Pope showered him with praise for his feat of musical genius and the ban was lifted.

    3.  Become a Pace Egger.
    In English villages (especially in Lancashire and the Calder Valley) 18th-century villagers would still have been putting on the traditional Pace Egg Plays.  This was a traditional pantomime-type play that involved a battle between St George and a character called Old Tosspot.  Other characters might include: The Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave, The Noble Youth, The Doctor, Betty Brownbags, Bold Slasher, The Fool, and (later) Lord Nelson.  The Pace Eggs themselves were carefully preserved in onion skin, and children had egg-rolling races down the hill.  Pace Egg Plays started to die out with the Industrial Revolution, but have since been revived in their traditional heartlands.

    4.  Discover an Island.
    The island known as Easter Island or Rapa Nui - now famous for its stone heads - was first discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday ( 5th April) 1722.  Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the man.  By the time Roggeveen arrived, it was already deserted of most of the Polynesian civilisation that created the giant heads.  Nowadays, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
    (Source: Wikipedia, National Geographic)

    5.  Celebrate with the Doge.
    Holy Week and Easter celebrations seem to have been particularly spectacular in Venice.  And the most striking of all was the Good Friday procession.  It was made up of clergy with flaming torches, who carried the Sacrament on a bier covered in black cloth out of the church, through the street and back into church again.  The Sacrament was then sealed in a tomb with the 
    Doge's ring, and not brought out again until Easter morning.  On this day, another procession of clergymen fetched the Doge from his palace and escorted him to church, where there was a formal "knocking on the door" ceremony.  The whole procession then entered the church, where they would receive the Blessed Sacrament.

    So there are five suggestions to be going on with.  See how they measure up with your weekend!
    I wish all who are celebrating a very Happy Easter! 

    Friday, 20 March 2015

    Ladies, Gentlemen and a League of Liars

    Last night, I had my first experience of Liars' League Leeds.  Until a few weeks ago, I had never even heard of it.  In fact, when I first read the call-out for stories, I thought it sounded like a Yorkshire Locke Lamora!

    It turns out there are Liars' Leagues in Leeds, London and New York- at least.  The premise is simple.  Writers write.  Actors read.  Audience listens.  Everybody wins.  Every month or two, the Liars' League gives a call-out for stories on a particular theme.  Five or so are chosen.  They are then read out by actors on the night.  It's like being on the radio.  Only live.  

    The theme for this particular night was "Ladies and Gentlemen".  The stories chosen were nicely varied, and covered a variety of settings and moods.  It was interesting how many of the other writers had taken the typical showman's announcement as a starting point.  (That approach to the theme hadn't even occurred to me).  There was the moving tale of a conjoined twin, performing with her sister on Coney Island.  A stand-up gig that turned out to be absolute hell.  Literally.  A ghost story told by a man seeking entry to a Victorian gentlemen's club.  And the account of a failed actress-turned-carer and her relationship with one of her clients.

    My story was "Knights Round a Table," a comic tale about a woman who invites five of her crushes from the pages of literature to dinner.  I wrote this story quite some time ago, and always knew it deserved a home, but never found one until now.  It was read on the night by Rachel Watson, who has worked in theatre and storytelling.  I found the whole process of being involved a lot of fun.  The story was edited, as it might be for radio, and I think they managed to make it even funnier!  It was great, hearing my story being read by someone who wasn't me.  It meant I got to enjoy all the satisfaction of doing a reading with none of the work!  Being live, it also meant I could meet and shake hands with the actor who performed my story.

    May I just add that the venue, The Crowd of Favours, was very pleasant and easy to find.  I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening (without the need to slay any dragons - that's a joke about my story!) and I would definitely like to do it all again.

    Friday, 13 March 2015

    Cards on the Table...

    This week, when working on my current work-in-progress, I decided that my characters should be playing a game of cards.  I eventually decided on scopa, an Italian game with a long history.  I downloaded an app so I could learn how to play - and have some idea what I was writing about!  It is a fun game, which involves capturing cards with other cards of the same value.  You can score extra points by clearing the table and by possessing certain special cards.

    What makes it especially fun for me is that it is played with a different set of cards from the one I am used to.  Before I started researching this week, I didn't know that different European countries have their own traditional packs of cards.  Traditional Italian cards are divided into cups, swords, coins and clubs (batons), the numbers go up to seven, and the three picture cards are all male.  Traditional German cards are divided into hearts, acorns, bells and leaves.  (I love that one!)

    Readers of different backgrounds to me are probably now going: "How could you not know that?"  "I used to play scopa with my nonna" etc.  But I didn't know.  I was aware of Asian playing cards because I once went to see an exhibition of Ganjifa cards from the Indian sub-continent, which are round, and have their own symbols and pictures.  But I didn't know about variations on my own continent.  Seeing the cups, swords, cups and batons in the Italian cards, now explains to me their presence in the (tarot) cards of Marseilles, which were originally used for playing a game.

    I've always enjoyed the symbolism of playing cards, and the storytelling possibilities within them, so discovering new (to me) suits of cards is fun.  For religious reasons, I steer clear of the fortune-telling aspect, but I love the variety of artwork that has gone into them over the centuries and the resemblance to heraldry.  The four suits (of whatever kind) have been taken at times to symbolise the four seasons, four elements, four compass points and four estates of man (clergy, nobility, merchants/artisans and peasants).  But the great thing about them is, they can mean whatever you want them to.  They could be a secret language.  They could come to life as real characters, like in Alice in Wonderland or Jostein Gaarder's The Solitaire Mystery.  They could be the start of a whole new story.

    Or they could be something for my characters to play with in the story I'm already writing.

    Thursday, 19 February 2015

    One God, One Farinelli! Well, two Farinellis, actually...

    Iestyn Davies as Farinelli, Globe Theatre, Brenner Photos.

    One of my most popular posts on this blog has been a short piece on the castrato Farinelli and the music therapy he undertook for Philippe V of Spain.  So what could be more exciting than a play entitled Farinelli and the King?  Taking place in a reconstructed 17th-century theatre?  Featuring arias that Farinelli himself sung?  Starring countertenor Iestyn Davies as the singing voice of Farinelli?  Human spontaneous combustion!!

    This is what I experienced last night at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (the new indoor addition to Shakespeare's Globe in London).  The play was written by Claire van Kampen, and also stars her husband, Mark "Wolf Hall" Rylance as King Philippe, Melody Grove as his Queen, and Sam Crane as the acted part of Farinelli.  (More on those two Farinellis later!)  

    So, where to begin?  Let's start with the magical space of the theatre itself.  I was dying to see this even before I heard about Farinelli and the King.  But this was the nearest I was going to get to a night (or day) at the theatre in the 17th or 18th century.  It's exquisitely beautiful.  Wooden galleries, columns and benches.  Gilded dĂ©cor.  A musicians' gallery with a harpsichord.  Some audience members had seats above the stage, virtually in the band, which would have been a great spot to show off your finery back in the day.  And speaking of finery, while the cast and musicians were the only ones in actual 18th-century dress, I had decided to dress for the occasion by wearing a silk ball gown and wig (well, felted Elflocks anyway).  It made me feel so much more a part of it, as I was in standing room at the back of the upper gallery, pressed up against the barrier.  I could quite easily picture myself in a scene from the 1994 film Farinelli Il Castrato.  I didn't actually swoon, but I was most definitely in raptures!

    Sam Crane as Farinelli, Globe Theatre, Brenner Photos.

    I very much enjoyed Sam Crane's portrayal of Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli.  Although he didn't create the kind of delicate speaking voice Stefano Dionisi does in the film, he was in all other ways exactly as I imagine the historical Farinelli to be: kind, gentle, modest despite his fame, and a little bit vulnerable.  Very much like my Carlo in my current project, the Angelio Trilogy.  (Incidentally, unlike Claire van Kampen, who says in the theatre programme for Farinelli and the King, "I can't say I thought the film was a good one," I think Farinelli Il Castrato is a very good film, beautiful and full of symbolism. It just isn't a biopic of Farinelli, but rather uses him as a figure to explore issues facing the castrati in general and to tell a moving tale of two brothers).  He (Sam Crane) and Iestyn Davies wore matching costumes (right down to the rings!) and subtly shared the performance, Sam stepping back when Iestyn had to sing and vice versa.

    I have to say, I am quite a fan of Iestyn Davies, but when he sang last night, I felt I was actually hearing Farinelli.  His stance, his gestures, the way he looked up to the galleries, his ornamentation... And the arias, most of which I could have sung along with had I wanted to ruin the performance!  I knew this was as close as I would ever get to actually hearing the real Farinelli sing.  The result was complete ecstasy.  I said in the interval that I wished I had roses to throw.  But when, in the second half, the character of Farinelli spoke of the emptiness of standing onstage, crushing hundreds of thrown roses under his feet, I felt it wouldn't perhaps have been sensitive towards his feelings.  This makes me feel that there were two Farinellis onstage in more ways than one, the public and private.  Iestyn Davies was the Divine Farinelli, sending me into raptures with his song, and Sam Crane was carissimo Carlo, inviting sympathy and friendship.  Both halves made me fall in love with Farinelli more than ever.

         My hairdo for Farinelli and the King.

    Saturday, 24 January 2015

    Boxes of Delight


    In December, I wrote a blog about The Box of Delights, which fans of the Christmas classic were kind enough to enjoy.  For my birthday, I received my very own box of delights, a keepsake box with a secret way of opening.  What could I possibly keep in it?  How could I make it as magical as the box Cole Hawlings gives to Kay Harker?  Obviously, it couldn't really transport me into the past or on an adventure with Herne the Hunter.  Or could it?  What if I turned it into my own miniature cabinet of curiosities?

    Cabinets of curiosity have fascinated me for a while now.  They feature in Brian Selznick's wonderful children's book, Wonderstruck.  I once went to a multi-arts event entirely inspired by them.  And I've just (in the last hour) looked round an exhibition very much in the spirit of the curiosity cabinet, Stranger Than Fiction by Joan Fontcuberta.   The artist has created photos (and actual taxidermy) of strange beasts, of the sort our ancestors used to collect and show to their friends - winged deer, tree-dwelling ducks, fossilised mermaids - all with their own backstories.  There are notes, "field drawings", biographies of the men who discovered them...  Now, that's what I call world-building!  To add to the eclectic mix, there's also a whole sub-section devoted to the miracles of a strange Karelian sect, again with artefacts - just the sort of thing for a cabinet of curiosities!

    Cabinets of curiosities were the forerunners of museums.  They were private collections, housed in display cabinets or small rooms, often as fantastical as the objects within.  And with the early ones (before the late C18th) there was absolutely no categorisation.  Stuffed birds might sit next to cups made of shell, foreign masks, odd gadgets and the skeletons of animals with birth defects.  Basically, it was anything the collector found interesting.  We've probably all been like this at some time in our lives.  Children love to collect and hoard sticks, feathers, plastic toys, birthday cards etc.  Some of us never changed.  In preparing this blog, I've realised I keep my whole house as a cabinet of curiosities.  Wind chimes, Japanese calligraphy, a Burmese puppet, a plan of Captain Cook's Endeavour, a flute from Cameroon, original fantasy art and a 1960s school map of Great Britain are all in there.  Books overflow.  The walls are running out of picture space.  And, do you know what?  It's wonderful.

    The museum shop where the exhibition is currently showing has this magnificent display of books relating to cabinets of curiosity.  I want them all, especially that big red one at the top!  But since I can't afford them, I've had to resort to making a Pinterest board about cabinets of curiosity instead.  Take a look.  You'll even find some of my weird collection in there!

    Monday, 5 January 2015

    Arty New Year!

    Well, it's 2015!  My Christmas decorations are coming down, which is very sad, but there are lots of things to look forward to in the new year.  Of course, no one can predict the future, but these are some of the arts and history things I'm looking forward to this year:

    1. A glut of costume dramas exploding onto my TV as the new year kicks off.  The Musketeers, Grand Hotel, Foyle's War and Mr Selfridge, to name but four I know of.
    2. Watching my two Christmas gift DVDs that I haven't yet seen: the new La Belle et la BĂȘte and Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart.
    3. Going to the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse in London to see Farinelli and the King in February.  Not only is the play about my all-time 18th-century icon and the subject of one of my most popular blogs, but it's in a theatre I've been dying to see, and stars Iestyn Davies, one of my favourite countertenor singers.
    4. The Manga Jiman Competition exhibition at the Embassy of Japan.  My daughter is involved in that one, so it will be particularly special.
    5. The eagerly anticipated TV drama of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in spring.  This is my favourite book, so I'm kind of dreading it too, but hopefully it will be good and do the book justice.
    6. The centenary of Waterloo on 18th of June. Waterloo features in Jonathan Strange. And Sharpe.  And Vanity Fair...
    7. Fool's Quest, the next book in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, following the cliffhanger at the end of Fool's Assassin.  What will happen to poor little Bee?

    I'm sure there'll be lots of other things, but that's enough to get us started.  Hopefully, I will post reviews of most of these either here or on Silver Petticoat Review (see side panel for link).  Have an arty new year!