Asexual Myths & Tales

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Happy New Reading!

It's almost 2018, and here I am with my Christmas/birthday book haul. Possibly the best ever. I thought I'd post this now, at the threshold to a new year and revisit it later when I've read all the books in the pile, so you can hear my verdict on them.

So, here's the list:

  • To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child. Strange things happen when a husband goes to explore the interior of Alaska and his wife is left behind.
  • At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, author of my beloved Phantastes. Classic Victorian fantasy about a boy and a cab horse.
  • The Paper Magician by Charlie N Homberg. First in a series about a student magician.
  • The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo. A fairy-tale memoir of Finland and Sweden. Recently mentioned by booktuber Jen Campbell.
  • The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote by Dan Micklethwaite, one of my fellow Fogotten & Fantastical authors. A modern fairytale of the inner city.
  • The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa. A Japanese novel in the tradition of the classic I am a Cat.
  • Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn. The beginning of a new epic from the author of Across the Nightingale Floor.
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. A winter fairy tale of Russia.
  • The Caller by Juliet Marillier. Concluding part of the Shadowfell trilogy by one of my favourite ever authors.
  • Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger. Graphic novel that became a ballet, by the author of The Time Traveller's Wife. (Not in the picture because it's still in the post!)
I'm quite happy with this list, because it contains a mixture of English-language and translated books, as well as independent and mainstream. 

Do you have a big Christmas haul of books to read? Or any reading resolutions for the new year? Let me know!

Monday, 23 October 2017

Holidays with Hitler: The Seduction of Nostopia

Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd

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

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

A vintage travel poster

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

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

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

An early cover for Grimm's Fairy Tales

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

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

Monday, 21 August 2017

Prizes Galore at Swanwick!

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

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

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

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

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

Winners all round, then?

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Past, Present and Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 7 July 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Nearly Infallible

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Hopes and Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 June 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Meet and Greet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to do it all again tomorrow!

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

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: The Kick-off

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Stones of York

Earlier this week, I had a short break in York.  And I did something I've been meaning to do for years - go around the Minster in an attempt to identify the statues Susanna Clarke brings to life in her novel of quarrelling Regency magicians, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

I'm probably not the first fan of the book to do this, and I'm sure I won't be the last.  But I'd like to share with you my candidates for the identities of those marvellous statues.  You may disagree.  After all, nothing comes more naturally to magicians!

The Cathedral of York, from a window in High Petergate, home of Mr Honeyfoot.

Peering up into the gloom of the chancel, where little stone figures jut out.  One begins to speak...

"...this was the man who had murdered the girl...We know where he is buried.  In the corner of the south transept!"

One of the fifteen stone kings.  (With other, smaller statues above).

"...a little group of queer figures with linked arms...atop an ancient column."

"In the chapter house there were stone canopies with many little stone heads with strange headgear."

A stone dragon?  Or another strange creature?

And here's another one!

The only statue I couldn't identify was the one I thought would be the easiest: "a copy of a work by Michael Angel."  Is there such a statue in York Minster?  Was there at one time?  Do let me know.  And do share any other contenders for Mr Norrell's talking statues.  We could discuss them at the next meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians.

Which, incidentally, meets here:

All quotations from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (London: Bloomsbury, 2004)

NB: Minster = a mission church, founded by monks.  
Cathedral = the seat of an Archbishop.  
York is both.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Tales from the Hidden Grove

Coming soon to an eBook store near you...

Tales from the Hidden Grove

Elizabeth Hopkinson has had over 60 short fantasy stories published. Now for the first time, 12 of them have been collected in this charming slim volume. Booksellers and emperors learn to fly, fairies deliver the milk, and horses, knitting needles and the Houses of Parliament are not what they seem. Sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always imaginative, this book will take you into the magical world of an author Black Pear Press called: "Amongst the finest short story writers in the UK right now. " This book also contains the previously unpublished "Paper Prince", and a brief "About the Stories" describing the inspiration behind each of them.

It will soon become available on iBooks, Kobo, Amazon etc.  But if you can't wait for that, you can buy it direct at:


I really hope you like it.  There are stories that have previously appeared in the likes of Byzarium, Vitality, Silver Blade and Strange Horizons.  There's even my very first short story publication "Fairy Dairy" and a short story version of Silver Hands.

If you do decide to give it a go, could you please do me a huge favour and leave a review or star rating - either in the place where you bought it or on Goodreads.  It doesn't have to be long ("I liked it."  "Good.")  But that sort of thing helps authors immensely.

I'll be waiting for you in the Hidden Grove...

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Have You Heard the Whispers..?

Just to let you know, I now have a subscriber-only newsletter, Whispers from the Hidden Grove. Subscribers receive updates about my books, stories and author events straight into their email inbox.

If you would like to subscribe, just click on this link.  There are exciting things afoot, including a new short story collection...

Listen out for those whispers!

Monday, 17 April 2017

Three Magi, Three Marys

It's Easter, the happiest time of the church year.  And I've discovered a lovely correlation between the traditional Three Magi of Christmas and the traditional Three Marys of Easter.  It makes for a beautiful balance, particularly in Matthew's Gospel, where the story of the Magi is recorded.

The Three Magi...

  • Came from the east
  • Brought incense and myrrh
  • "Where is the boy born King of the Jews?"
  •  Went to the wrong place first (Jerusalem)
  • Real answer was in Bethlehem, "for this is what the prophet has written"
  • "When they saw the star, they were overjoyed"
  • Bowed down and worshipped him
  • Sent back to their country by another route

The Three Marys...

  • Came at sunrise (east)
  • Brought myrrh and spices
  • "Tell me where you have put him"
  • "Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here"
  • Real answer had been foretold by Jesus. "Remember how he told you..."
  • They were "afraid yet filled with joy"
  • Clasped his feet and worshipped him
  • Told to await Jesus in Galilee 
I also decided to make a picture of my discovery (see above).  I wish you the joy of Easter, especially to my fellow-believers and those suffering persecution.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Beauty and the Beast: King of the Wood

She asked for a rose.  Her father reaches out to pluck one.  Suddenly, a Beast appears, furious, accusing him of theft.  The penalty is death.  Or the surrender of his daughter.

But why such a harsh penalty for plucking a rose?  Much has been said - or invented - on the possible meaning of the rose.  When the last petal falls, the Beast's fate is sealed eternally.  It is the first thing he has learned to love.  It symbolises virginity; the plucking of the rose mirrors the deflowering of the daughter; the aristocratic Beast is excercising his droit du seigneur over Beauty, the merchant's child.

But why should the plucking of a flower carry such a heavy penalty?  And why does the same motif occur in other fairy tales?  For example, Rapunzel, in which the father must sacrifice his child as payment for picking herbs from the Witch's garden.

One answer may lie in ancient mythology.  Most ancient polytheistic religions have sacred groves, where it is forbidden to break the branches or pick the flowers, for fear of angering the deity that lives there.

One sacred grove myth that seems of particular relevance when considering Beauty and the Beast is that of the Rex Nemorensis, the King of the Grove or King of the Wood, made famous by James George Fraser in his book of comparative mythology, The Golden Bough.

The story goes that this King of the Wood or Grove was a priest of the goddess Diana at Lake Nemi.  He would arrive at the wood a runaway slave or other fugitive, and break a golden bough from the sacred grove.  At this signal, the reigning priest would appear and challenge him to single combat.  He would kill the priest and take his place in the grove, until another came to challenge him.

This legend prefigures much that happens in medieval romance.  It also recalls the fate of Lascelles in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, when he becomes champion of the Castle of the Plucked Heart and Eye.

It also sheds light on one of the more mysterious aspects of Jean Cocteau's 1946 La Belle et la BĂȘte, namely the presence of a forbidden Pavillion of Diana in the grounds of the Beast's castle, to be unlocked with a golden key.  When Avenant (the presecurser to Gaston in the Disney versions) breaks into the Pavillion to steal the treasure, a statue of Diana comes to life and shoots him with her arrow.  At the very moment when the Beast is transforming into a prince, Avenant transforms into an identical Beast. (The fact that both characters are played by Jean Marais makes this especially potent).

Another myth about Diana is that she transformed Acteon into a stag as punishment for watching her bathing naked.  He was chased by his own hunting hounds and torn to pieces.  

This is referenced in the 2014 La Belle et la BĂȘte.  In this film, the Prince is in love with a Princess, who promises him a son if he will stop hunting an elusive golden deer.  The Prince breaks his promise and kills the deer with a golden arrow. While dying, the deer transforms into the Princess, who reveals that she had been a forest nymph all along, allowed to take human form in order to experience love. Her father, the god of the forest, punishes the Prince by transforming him into the Beast, the dogs into small creatures named Tadommes, and his friends into statues. Towards the end of the film, the Beast himself is killed with the golden arrow, before being revived in a healing well.

So, going back to our original question, what new light does this shed on the significance of the rose?  We could say that the Enchantress in the 2017 and 1991 Beauty and the Beasts equates in some way with the Diana of the Wood.  In the 2017 version, she is depicted at one stage as a wise woman, living in the forest.  If the selfish Prince had taken the rose she offered, he would have willingly become her champion.  Instead, she transforms him into a beast, as Diana did to Acteon - a beast that will be hunted to the death.  He becomes an unwilling King of the Wood, imprisoned in his magical castle as Diana's priest was in the grove.  Beauty/Belle's father enters the castle as a lost soul, like the runaway slave or fugitive.  The plucking of the rose could signify the arrival of a new challenger, a new prisoner to take the Beast's place.  But instead an exchange is made.  A daughter.  And instead of chaste Diana, we move into the realm of a new mythology, that of Cupid and Psyche.

But that's another story.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3

Last Saturday, I had a wonderful night out in Nottingham, at the launch of The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3, an anthology of fairy tales for grown-ups.

As one of the contributing authors, it was great to meet my fellow writers, sign books together and listen to readings from each other's stories.  It was particularly special for me, as I missed last year's launch for The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 due to illness.  It was also great to spend Sunday's journey home reading everyone else's stories, along with notes on the inspiration behind them, and of course the wonderful illustrations by Emma Howitt.

I'm not going to go through every story here, but I will mention some of my favourites:

The Web and the Wildwood by Lynden Wade
I LOVE the Lady of Shalott, and medieval romance, so this story was ideal for me.  It has a woman in a tower, a unicorn and a tapestry.  Oh, and a monkey!  What more could you want?

Iron Man by Claire Stephenson
I won't say much about this story, since it's very short, only that as a fellow fibromyalgia sufferer I appreciated a story that took this illness as its inspiration.  Also, Iron Man was my husband's nickname, many moons ago...

Bearskin and Bare-skin by Carys Crossen
One of two Bear stories in the collection.  (The other is Melissa's Bearskin by Ronne Randall).  It tells of a girl brought up with a bear for a sister, and what happens next.

Midnight Riders by Dan Micklethwaite
This story kept me guessing for a good while about the identity of the mysterious coach driver.  Particularly relevant since I was on a National Express bus at the time.

My own story in the collection is The Lost Children of Lorenwald.  Narrated by a woman called The Storysinger who goes into forests to gather her songs, she is told the forest of Lorenwald is forbidden. It stole the village's children.

Supporters on Patreon will be able to see the full video diary of my trip in April's update.  Click the big orange button for more details on becoming a patron.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

10 Under-used Bradford Stories

This week I read Bradford: A Centenary City by Tom Montgomery , written 20 years ago in 1997.  Tucked away between the familiar tales of Lister's Mill, Saltaire and the Bradford Pals were less familiar stories from the history of Bradford - stories ripe to be retold, adapted and used as springboards for fiction.

I can't possibly write them all myself.  And, even if I did, I wouldn't write the same story you would.  So, for your delight and delectation - and for your inspiration too - here are 10 stories from the history of Bradford that deserve to be told:

  1. 1770s-90s: The move from the piece-work of cottage industry (spinning, weaving and wool-combing) to the very first machines and mills.  A key player here is the Quaker John Hustler, after whom the street Hustlergate is named.
  2. The "Wild West Riding" of the 1820s-40s, when Bradford was a "lawless frontier town."  Before the Incorporation Act of 1847, Bradford was a squalor of mills and slums, with money the only driving force behind the mill owners.  Both Luddites and Chartists were active in this period: Bradford was a dangerous place!
  3. Bradford composer William Jackson, who was a favourite of Queen Victoria and the first conductor of Bradford Festival Chorus.
  4. "The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo," Joseph Hobson Jagger, who cleaned out a Monte Carlo casino in 1875 due to his superior knowledge of the effects of wear and tear on wooden spindles (gained in his job at Bottomley's Mill).
  5. The Bradfordians tricked into emigrating to Brazil in 1892 by unscrupulous recruiting agents.  A rescue mission was mounted to bring them back from their dire straits (yellow fever, starvation and work "only fit for slaves") but only 59 were brought home.
  6. The vanished Manningham Hall, home of the Listers, which was demolished to make way for Cartwright Hall and Lister Park.
  7. Manningham Rugby Club (founded 1876), a founder member of the Rugby League, but converted to Bradford City Football Club in 1903 when soccer became more popular.
  8. The tragic demise of Little Germany due to the onset of World War 1.  Members of influential merchant families that had made Bradford great found themselves persecuted and faced with conflicting loyalties.
  9. Tramp Arthur Blackburn, who coped and indexed hundreds of grave inscriptions in the 1920s-30s, but whose own grave went unmarked.
  10. Bowling Park and Birchlands - homes of mill-owning brothers Abraham and Joseph Mitchell - which were demolished in the 1990s and rebuilt in Japan as golf club houses.
So, there you go!  It wasn't all "trouble at t'mill" in the West Riding.  Happy writing!

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Friday, 27 January 2017

King Kong and the Nightmare of Xenophobia

King Kong: RKO pictures, 1933

I have recently finished reading Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga, an excellent book, which accompanied a BBC TV series of the same name.  I can't praise this book enough, and I'm not going to say everything that is to be said about it here.  Instead, I'm going to talk about something that came out of my reading of this and another book: The Anatomical Venus by Joanna Ebenstein.  It concerns a recurring image of paranoia, racism and sexism that ends up as the much-remade RKO film, King Kong.

Before I start, let me warn you that this blog contains images and text that some people may find distressing and/or offensive.

It begins with a painting: The Nightmare by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. 
The Nightmare: Henry Fuseli, 1781

There are several versions of this painting, but it basically depicts a beautiful young woman, asleep or swooning, with an ape-like incubus perched on top of her.  This hideous creature is the Night Mare of folklore.  The Tate Britain has this to say about it:
This painting created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. What is the subject of this painting? We may never be sure; Fuseli wanted his picture to intrigue us. The leering imp may embody the physical effects of a nightmare, or be an emblem of sexual desire. Is this picture an allegory, an illustration of a literary source, or something more personal?

Fuseli had opened a whole box of Gothic nightmares about madness, dreams, terror and sexuality, that was to go on unfolding during the 19th ceuntury.  The painting went on to be copied and lampooned many times.  

It appears again as a waxwork exhibit in Emil Hammer's Munich Panopticon.

The Nightmare: Emil Hammer

According to Joanna Ebenstein, "These exhibitions (panopticons) fall somewhere between aristocratic cabinets of curiosity and modern museums, displaying for a popular audience anatomical and pathological waxworks, human specimens, death masks of celebrities and murderers, ethnographic busts depicting the "races of man", and assorted curiosities, including...monkey skeletons. Panopticons also presented live acts, such as singers, dancers, ventriloquists, hunger artists (who "starved" for an audience's entertainment), living "freaks" and "ethnic rarities."  They claimed to be educational, but came with a hefty slice of voyeurism, titillation and morbid fascination.  The woman's body is objectified in a way that is quite disgusting. As are the bodies of the "freaks" and "ethnic rarities."  (God help the person who was all three!)  

This was the age when not only individuals but whole communities were exhibited in large-scale fairs and exhibitions.  For example, Frank Fillis's "Savage South Africa" show of 1899-1900 or the Senegalese Village at the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908. Anthropology and the psuedo-science of Social Darwinism had led to people being exhibited under the topic of  "natural history," both in Europe and North America.  In two of the most horrible examples, a young man called Ota Benga was kept in a cage with monkeys in the Bronx Zoo, and an unknown African man who was stuffed and mounted in a museum in Spain.

The horrible new "scientific" strain of racism that made these atrocities possible claimed that races of people could be classified and placed on an evolutionary scale.  (Just as other living creatures had been classified in the way you might remember from biology class).  Unsurprisingly, since it was invented by people of white European descent (or so they thought - who knows what was in their family tree that might have proved them wrong?!) Europeans were at the top and Africans were at the bottom.  There were even suggestions that some races were the "missing link" between mankind and apes.  

The psuedo-science of Social Darwinism

In a article for the Guardian, Pamela Newkirk reports that a New York Times editorial said:

 “Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.”
The editorial said it was absurd to imagine Benga’s suffering or humiliation. “Pygmies,” it continued, “are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education of books is now far out of date.”

This gives the symbolism of The Nightmare a sinister new twist.  (As if it wasn't sinister enough already!)  Added to Gothic fears about "what lies beneath" and a disturbing strain of sexist voyeurism is an equally disturbing layer of toxic racism.  Who is that ape meant to be?  We know that behind the turn-of-the-century belief in degenerate races was a fear that the people of Europe might degenerate into savages and imbeciles themselves.  (We only have to read Dorian Gray or Jeckyll & Hyde to understand that). But how much harder is it to take a look at the monster lurking inside you, and how much easier to project the image of the monster onto the Other?  One of the worst racist fears - which persisted long into the 20th century - was that of racial mixing, particularly that of African men with white European women.  (This harks back to a very old racist stereotype about Africans being highly sexed).  Not only was there a belief that a mixed-race child inherited the worst characteristics of both parents (why not the best?!?) but a hierarchy of races was necessary for the control of empire.

By the late C19th, Britain, the USA and Germany were all imperial powers, as were France and Belgium.  The "Scramble for Africa" means that that thousands of black Africans were under the rule of primarily white nations.  In this situation, the subjects vastly outnumbered the rulers.  It is inevitable that the oppressors would fear what might happen if the oppressed rose up.

Political cartoon, showing USA, Britain & Germany being carried by Africans

Of course, the Imperial powers also feared one another.  As the world descends into the Great War, the ravening apes get bigger and more monstrous.

Bolshevism brings war, unemployment and famine. 
Association for conquering Bolshevism - 1918

This German propaganda poster depicts Communism as the terrifying Other.

This American poster depicts Imperial Germany as the monster.  The swooning woman of The Nightmare is now carried on the arm of the ape, who is both angry and violent.  A giant ape and swooning woman similar to this appears on the guidebook cover to a German museum of the type discussed above.

Which brings us to King Kong.

King Kong poster: RKO, 1933

We've arrived at the 1930s, and the ape is now enormous.  Much bigger than the woman, who is still blonde, scantily-dressed and swooning.  Blogs have been written about the racial stereotyping inherent in the "tribe" who worship Kong and sacrifice women to him, seemingly seeing a white woman as "superior" to one of their own.  But what about Kong himself?  Who is he?  Like Ota Benga, he is taken from his homeland by strangers and exhibited in a show.  The way Kong is forced to re-enact his home life on stage recalls the "African village" exhibitions of the 1900s.  Some of the earlier "villagers" were in fact professional performers; others like Ota Benga were deeply unhappy. (Benga was eventually rescued from the zoo and educated by a church minister, but later committed suicide).  The film shows some sympathy for Kong, but he is still a dumb animal.  At his best, he is childlike; at his worst, violent and destructive.  This sounds all too like the imperialist Social Darwinist view of people of African descent.  It's a worrying thought, especially considering how many times King Kong has been remade.  

To be honest, I don't know what King Kong means.  Any more than I know what The Nightmare means.  I'm just following a trail of images.  I do know that, as I write, the nightmare of xenophobia looms large once again.  I thought it was worth pointing out.

Books quoted:

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London: Pan Macmillan, 2016)
Joanna Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016)

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

I'm on Patreon!!

Hello, you lovely people!  Just to let you know that, as of today, you can be a partner in my writerly endeavours by supporting me on Patreon.

For those of you who don't know, Patreon is a website that has basically re-invented the old idea of artistic patronage.  (And, for a lover of the 18th century, what could be more appropriate?)  Only instead of having one big, aristocratic patron (Count Pageno, I'm looking at you!) you have lots of little patrons.  (Financially speaking.  This is not a comment on your worth as a human being, because you're all excellent specimens, as evidenced by your reading my blog.)

So, it works a bit like a fan club.  If you click on the big orange button above, you'll see that you can join the club at different levels, for different amounts of money.  The lowest price is $1/less than £1, which is less than the price of a cup of tea.  (Unless you're drinking in the local village hall or something, in which case it's probably the price of tea, toast and a biscuit!)  Readers outside the US, please don't be alarmed by the dollar signs!  You can pay through PayPal and the site will do all the conversions for you.

You will see on the site that I've given the different levels names suitable to the Angelio Trilolgy, my major work in progress, so its starts at Courtyard level and goes right up to Secret Library level.  I've got a whole range of rewards lined up, from sneak peeks to exclusive stories and surprise bundles. Patrons at Orangery level ($3) and above will have access to behind-the-scenes files, which means you'll get to learn a little about Angelio and find out exactly who Count Pageno is. All patrons will have the satisfaction of being part of the creative process, and helping to fund all those things a writer has to do, but that occasional, one-off payments for stories just don't cover - whether that's maintaining my website, research trips, or my annual week at Summer School, getting much-needed support and inspiration from my fellow-writers. As a patron, you'll be able to see exactly what you've funded, freeing me up to write more of the stories you love.

This is a big deal for me, so if you would like to support, sign up today and tell your friends.  If you don't want to support or haven't got the money, just tell your friends.  Rich friends.  Or total strangers on the bus.  Bus drivers.  Next-door-neighbours.  Dogs.  Well, maybe not dogs, but you get the picture.

The adventure begins!

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Gender Diversity, Aged 9

I don't normally write about stuff like this on my blog - I hate controversy and arguments of every kind, which I find distressing - but I felt I must respond to the many adults I read of who have expressed the opinion that educating children about gender diversity somehow amounts to "child abuse."

To that end, I would like to share with you some extracts from The Fieldway Five, a story I wrote when I was about nine years old.  It is my homage to the Famous Five stories, an improbable tale of gypsies and gold mines, which ends with the children triumphantly pushing enormous slabs of gold home to their parents.

In my very un-subtle homage to Enid Blyton, Timmy the dog is replaced by Ann the cat, and tomboy Georgina, who you will remember dresses as a boy and insists on being called George, is replaced by Philip, who prefers to wear a dress while being addressed as Philipa.  As a child, I saw nothing sinister in this; I was just being creative.  Also, my best friend at the time was feeling outnumbered by his three sisters and expressed a wish that he was one of them.  (He has remained comfortably male in the many years since.)

Here are a few extracts from this exciting work of literature (with transcriptions for those who prefer not to read in small, faded pencil):

When they got there, John exclaimed "Where's Philip." "Oh, Philipa! He's upstairs" said Aunty Jane. "Philipa?" cried Lucy. "Yes he wants to be a girl" said Aunty Jane.

That night as John was getting undressed a blond haired figure entered the room. The blond hair was middle long and straight. "Are you Philip?" asked John. "No!" came the reply. "I'm Philipa!" "Sorry" said John. Philipa got undressed quickly and climbed into bed. As John looked at the pile of clothes he saw clothes made for a girl - shorts and T.shirt. "How girlish" he whispered.

When she (Lucy) went for John she saw Philipa wearing her red dress. With a cry of "Philip!...a" she rushed in. John looked at Lucy and then at Philipa. "Never mind old boy, I mean girl" he said.

At breakfast Aunty Jane and Uncle Tony didn't seem to mind the dress on Philipa. They just whispered at each other "Trust Philipa" and "He should have been a girl."

And the happy ending...

"We're going to school soon" said Lucy... "Wear half the girl's uniform and half the boy's" said John. That is just what Philipa did.
No adult ever told me to write this story.  I wrote it out of the innocence of childhood.  In fact, when I showed it to adults, they became very uncomfortable and said boys couldn't dress as girls.  Their opinion eventually rubbed off, for quite some time.  But the fact is that it's a perfectly innocent story written during a happy childhood.

Adults need to remember what it is to be children.