Asexual Myths & Tales

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

5 Friendly Deaths from the World of Books

It’s that time of year again, when people start posting “spooky” Hallowe’en blogs, pics and videos. I famously detest the modern Hallowe’en, but am all in favour of the more recent rediscovery of the season as a time to honour the dead, perhaps via the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Last night, I watched the classic Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal for the first time. (The one where the knight plays chess with Death.) Contrary to common belief, the film isn’t wall-to-wall bleakness, and Death actually has a sense of humour. I love his deadpan - excuse the pun - delivery when he is sawing down a tree in which a man who has just escaped death is hiding. 

Yep, I’m Death. I’m just sawing down this tree because your time is up. Nothing to see here. As you were. (I paraphrase).

Anyway, it got me thinking about literary portrayals of Death, and how Death in books is often anything but bleak. Or even final. Here are my top choices:

1. Discworld by Terry Pratchet

When most of us think of Death personified, this is surely the first one that springs to mind. The late Sir Terry’s Death always speaks IN CAPITAL LETTERS, has a horse called Binky, likes gardening and has some of the best lines in the books, like this one from Hogfather:

IT IS ... UNFAIR.‘That’s life, master.’BUT I’M NOT.

It is fitting that the last ever tweet from Sir Terry’s account depicted him and Death walking off together.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
The End.

2. The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak

This modern classic, set in the Second World War, begins with the voice of Death:

Here is a small fact.
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic.

This is a compassionate Death who, in the brutality of war, lifts sleeping children into his arms, even weeps for them. And who can forget the book’s last line?

I am haunted by humans.

3. The Princess Bride by William Goldman 

This book - along with its film adaptation introduced us to the concept of “mostly dead”, courtesy of Miracle Max:

You see... there’s different sorts of dead: there’s sort of dead, mostly dead and all dead.

Thanks to Max, Westley is able to move from one state of deadness to another. And then back again. And then forward again...

“I wish I could remember what it was like when I was dead,” the man in black said. “I’d write it all down. I could make a fortune...”

And then there’s the final line of the book:

I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.

4. Through a Glass, Darkly by Jostein Gaarder

Most people know Jostein Gaarder from Sophie’s World, but in this much shorter book, terminally ill teenager Cecilia is visited by a bald, chatty angel called Ariel. Their chats about the big questions of life, death, God and the universe ease Cecilia into her own inevitable departure. Here Death is not only compassionate, but beautiful.

“Would you like to come out with me and fly?”
She laughed. “But I can’t fly.”
The angel Ariel sighed indulgently. “It’s time to finish with all that nonsense. Just come here.”

5. Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

This popular graphic novel series explores the moral conundrum of crime and punishment when a Shinigami (death god) drops his notebook and it is found by a student called Light. Light decides to rid the world of murderers by writing their names in the book, thus causing their deaths. But by doing this, he becomes a wanted murderer himself...

Much of the books’ light relief is provided by the grotesque but humorous Shinigami, Ryuk. Bored by the Realm of Death but sardonically curious about the human world, Ryuk hangs around Light invisibly, making wisecracks and eating apples. 

But anyway, Shinagami these days don’t have feelings like “I don’t like this human” or “Let’s make the human world a better place” or “Let’s make it a worse place.” They just don’t want to die, so they get life from humans and then they go on with their empty lives... Nobody even knows what we’re here for any more. Talk about a meaningless existence...

Phew! What do you do when even Death is having an existential crisis?!

Anyway, those are my 5 top literary Deaths. What are yours?

Monday, 15 July 2019

Halifax Discoveries Part 2

Last week, I wrote about a historical discovery I made after a visit to Halifax Minster, final resting place of Anne Lister.

I mentioned that 
there was a lot of radical, grassroots religion going on in the West Riding in the 18th century, and I ended up going down quite a rabbit hole of research.
One of the places that research led me was to this monograph about the man I believe one of my brothers was named after:

He is sometimes called “The Wesley of the Baptists”, and indeed knew the Wesleys and Whitfield, but ultimately formed his own New Connection of Baptist and Independent Methodist congregations, which eventually became the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It was his inspiring preaching tours that led to the creation of a congregation at Queensbury (then named Queenshead after its local pub, popular on the pack horse route between Bradford and Halifax. This in turned spawned my own spiritual home at Clayton Baptist, now under a decade from celebrating its bicentenary.

Dan Taylor was a Calderdale man - from  Northowram - and began his spiritual life at Halifax Minster (aka Halifax Parish Church). Revd George Legh was his vicar, and in fact had Wesley to preach at the church. Taylor became involved in his local Methodist Society (Methodists were a society to begin with rather than a distinct denomination) and later abandoned the Anglican Church completely, throwing himself into the Evangelical Revival happening in the West Riding at the time.

This was a real grassroots religious movement among ordinary working people. (Taylor was a miner with no formal education). Preachers toured the countryside on horseback, preaching in the open air to crowds too big to be contained by a church. One key venue was the churchyard at Haworth, where the Brontë sisters would later live. (Although they and their father were no evangelicals!) They sang hymns to popular tunes that people knew. The sermons were in clear and simple language that everyone could understand. Those who wished to convert joined local societies and small groups, where they could learn together. It was very much part of the changing aspect of Britain in the Enlightenment era, changes that would lead to working class politics, self-improvement and the modern world.

“Evangelical” has become something of a dirty word these days. But what it meant in the 18th century was a religion that relied on the Bible for guidance rather than clerical authority (or tyranny, as some saw it), a belief that you really could be assured of eternal salvation, and that spreading this good news (evangel) was the job of all believers. It was religion for the common man.

Like Hoadley (see last week's blog), Dan Taylor also spoke to Royalty. On 11th June 1800, he addressed George III as spokesman for the General Body of Protestant Dissenting Ministers. Probably to appeal for an end to discrimination against dissenters from the state church, which did in fact happen. (Repeal of Corporation and Test Acts, 1828). All this from a miner from Calderdale. The West Riding certainly has produced some remarkable people!

Monday, 8 July 2019

Halifax Discoveries Part 1

Following on from last week’s literary adventure, this weekend I went to a marvellous Anne Lister event at the marvellous Halifax Minster. The event featured, Sally Wainwright who wrote the Gentleman Jack script, Anne Choma who wrote the tie-in book, and O’Hooley & Tidow who sang the Gentleman Jack song.

This is the church where Anne Lister was baptised, worshipped, and was buried. It’s a very old church, which started as a monastic mission. (Hence the title Minster).

As you can see from the picture above, by complete fluke (or Providence) I was sitting next to Anne Lister herself! Or rather, what is left of her memorial. (She is buried somewhere near the font). The memorial unfortunately got broken up for various reasons, so the Minster is hoping to raise money to create a new one. Something tells me they won’t be short of donors!

While I was in the queue for the loo (lol!) I read a plaque on the wall which I found very interesting.

Near this Place
in the same Vault, are deposited the remains of the Revd George Legh,
and his 2 beloved wives FRANCIS & ELIZABETH, to whose joint
Memory this monument is erected; he was the Vicar of this Parish of Halifax
above forty four years: during which Time he interested himself with
laudable Zeal in the cause of religious Liberty & Sincerity, being the
last Survivor of those worthy Men who distinguishd themselves by
their opposition to Ecclesiastical Tyranny. He defended the Rights of
Mankind, in that memorable Hoadlian Controversy.
The Bible he considerd as the only standard of Faith & practice, to the
poor & distressd & Public Charitys, he was a generous Benefactor, by his
Will orderd Bibles to be given for the benefit of the poor,
he did honor to his Profession as a Clergyman & christian,
esteemd when liveing, in death lamented,
he died composd on the 6th of Decembr, 1775,
in the 82d year of his age;
his wife FRANCIS died Decembr 9th, 1749,
ELIZABETH Febry 8th 1765

What an interesting sounding man! And secondly - what the heck is a Hoadlian Controversy?!

Turns out that in 1717, Bishop Benjamin Hoadley preached a sermon to George I, saying that since Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), there is no justification for the Church wielding worldly power and lording it over people, owning lands, raising taxes etc. This released the 18th century equivalent of a Twitter storm, with hundreds of pamphlets being written to argue both sides. 

I think we can safely conclude that Rev George Legh was on the side of Hoadley in this argument, and a general good egg. Actually, there was a lot of radical, grassroots religion going on in the West Riding in the 18th century, and I ended up going down quite a rabbit hole of research. But more of that another time! In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of me and Mick in our Jack the Lass T-shirts, which we bought on the night.

Monday, 1 July 2019

A Literary Weekend

It was a beautiful sunny day in Bradford on Saturday for Bradford Lit Fest 2019. And what a lovely, happy day it was for me. I started off by going to a panel on Mapping Fantasy Worlds. Who doesn’t love a fantasy map? Or indeed any map? I was pretty surprised, though, by the answer to my question: did any of the panel have imaginary worlds as a child? None! Adrian Tchaikovsky said he got into fantasy worlds through role playing games. Interesting, because I’m currently listening to the audio book of Ready Player One (narrated by Will Wheaton aka Wesley Crusher). Personally, I’ve never been that interested in RPG. I always preferred to create my own worlds. But there you go!

I then moved onto The History of Snow White, with one of my favourite BookTubers, Jen Campbell. Again, what could I not love about that? The nicest thing was that, when I asked her to sign my copy of The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, she remembered my name! What a lovely person!

After lunch (Jamaican street food) I met up with my husband, who had just been to The Lost Art of Scripture. He said he’d bought the book so he wouldn’t have to bother telling me about it! But there were a couple of other friends there, so we discussed it for a bit with them, anyway.

And finally for Saturday, I joined my daughter for Chris Riddell’s 10 Books That Changed My Life. Again, absolutely lovely. He was drawing all the way through. And was so encouraging to my daughter about her illustration career.

The next day, on Sunday afternoon, we visited Shibden Hall. The Hall and Park have been special to me all my life, but of course tourism has sky-rocketed in the past few week due to the "Gentleman Jack effect". I noticed quite a few Anne-focused changes in the presentation - and even in some of the decor! Anne's old room is now decked out just like in the TV series (rather than Edwardian Art Nouveau). But much is the same as ever, including my favourite goat-legged table and chair.

Unbeknown to me, the Estate Worker's Cottage (part of the attached folk museum) was used as a setting in the film Peterloo, which I was going to see that very evening as part of Bradford Lit Fest. Oh, the serendipity! Really enjoyed the film. I remember learning about Peterloo in history with Miss Robson (where are you now, Miss?) but this film brought the time alive so vividly, it was like being there. And it was gratifying to know that Rory Kinear was standing exactly where I had stood just a few hours previously.

And then, of course, I had to round off the day with the latest instalment of Gentleman Jack, testament to that great Shibden diarist. If you haven't seen episode 7, I won't give spoilers. Except for one word. Thermometer!!

What a great, literary weekend!

Monday, 20 May 2019

Jack the Lass

Last night Anne Lister of Shibden Hall seduced her latest victim - me! With the first episode of TV drama Gentleman Jack airing on BBC1, a whole new set of people were introduced to a character I have been aware of most of my life. And while I've had a lifelong love affair with her estate of Shibden Park and family seat of Shibden Hall, last night was the first time I was definitely on Team Anne for more than just her legacy of landscape gardening and home improvements.

Don't get me wrong, Anne has always been a character of interest, although I do feel her reputation rather overshadows her other relatives. Which is why, when I wanted to write a Shibden Hall story for Come into the House, I chose to write about the Listers of the early 18th century. So, what gratification to find them mentioned in the drama script, too! You may have missed it the first time, but listen out for the mention of two brothers who tried to import wood from America. That was part of the inspiration for my story, "The Yorkshire Defiance".

My early impression of Anne as someone rather dour and scary comes from having this as my main visual reference for many years, glowering from information boards around the estate:

This becomes scary on another account when you read things like this quote from Angela Steidele's book Gentleman Jack (London: Serpent's Tail, 2018):

The heart-shaped locket may have contained pubic hair.
Too. Much. Information.

Too much information could well be the subtitle of Anne Lister's diaries. That scene in episode one where she writes in the diary immediately after making love to Mariana Lawton? All too likely. Even to read Angela Steidele's book, which contains only extracts from the diaries, requires a strong stomach, especially for someone as ace as me.

I bought this book earlier in the year, to read ahead of  the TV series. And I have to say that Anne does not come across as a particularly nice person in it. As a member of the landed gentry, she was not at all keen on the change and reform of her day, and was pretty snobby about the manufacturing class. She was one of those indefatigable people who took mammoth walks every day and had no sympathy for other people's weakness. (When she was abroad, her companions were almost killing themselves to keep up with her). And she wasn't even that nice to her lovers. She would string several along at the same time, and always seemed to be falling out with them. Worse still, her first ever lover, a mixed-race girl called Eliza Raine who she met at boarding school in York, was unceremoniously dumped and ultimately put into an asylum, with Anne's full blessing. What I wondered - did her many lovers see in her?

There is an interesting side note to this. In 2013, I wrote a blog called Captain Keeldar and Gentleman Jack, asking whether it was possible the Brontes knew Anne Lister. Angela Steidele thinks it is. Emily Bronte taught at Law Hill School in Southawram from 1838. The school's headmistress, Elizabeth Patchett, knew Anne Lister personally, and Emily met numerous relatives of Ann Walker, Miss Lister's "wife".

However, I didn't really fall under the Lister spell until last night, watching the first episode of the show that Matt Baker described as "Downton Abbey meets Pirates of the Caribbean". Sally Wainwright has done a magnificent job with the source material, working an awful lot of historical and family background into a small format. Of course, what could excite me more than to see my beloved Shibden Hall as a working family home, complete with fires, chickens and drying candles? Then there's the casting, the costumes and of course the splendid theme song by O'Hooley & Tidow (already downloaded and playing on repeat).

And Suranne Jones has brought a magnificent swagger to the part of Anne Lister. The top hat, the reckless driving, the cheeky asides to camera. The drama hasn't shied away from Anne's conservative politics, her ruthlessness or her career of serial seduction. But it has brought us something you don't get from the cold page, yet which Anne Lister must have had in spadeloads to do what she did. 

Her charisma.

Hang onto your hats for episode two!

Friday, 15 March 2019

A Day with the BBC

"I write asexual fairytales" - BBC

How often does an opportunity like this come up? "The BBC are running a special week on Bradford, across all media. Send us your stories." My home town. On the BBC. And it coincides perfectly with my crowdfunding campaign for Asexual Fairy Tales. I can't send the email fast enough!

Which is how it happens that - on an unusually springlike morning - a shiny, black vehicle containing camera equipment turns up on my street of small, back-to-back houses, with an operator and a reporter, ready to start filming. I have warned Louise from BBC News how small my house is, and have been assured the camera will be a small one. Obviously, she meant small by BBC standards. Still, the cameraman is unfazed by the fact that one camera and stand fills up practically all the available floor space. We squash in, just as we always do with friends and relatives. And, as it's a nice day, we film some stuff on the front step, and in the surrounding streets and fields.

We film a lot of stuff. Me reading. Anna drawing. Me talking. The garden. The walls. The cat. So much of the cat that I fully expect half the film to be about her, and am a little disappointed she doesn't make the final cut at all. (Unlike my pitching video for Asexual Fairy Tales, where she is walking on a neighbour's wall in the background). Still, the BBC must have enough footage to make a separate film entirely about Sootica ("I am a Bradford Cat" or something) which she would probably prefer.

And it's not boring. Usually, I hate having my photo taken or being filmed. Standing still, holding a fake smile or an unnatural pose. Trying to make walking look natural and ending up looking like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. But with a professional film-maker, it's fun. You feel part of the artistry. Choosing different shots. Using different angles and effects. Wondering how it will all be edited to produce the film itself.

And the final effect? Beautiful. OK, so my hair looks a mess in the wind. But this is Bradford! We're only a short distance from where Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights. You've got to expect a bit of bleakness, a bit of Yorkshire stone, a person walking their dog who comes up and asks what is going on, a Yorkshire Water and a highway maintenance van that park side-by-side on the already overcrowded street just as you're about to begin filming. OK, so those last two aren't in the film. But it's all part of the fun.

Would I go on the BBC again? Yes, I think I would, given the chance. I rather like the idea of myself presenting a documentary for BBC4, striding along the Bronte way, talking about giving birth to 17 rabbits.

But I'd get my hair lacquered first.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Asexual Fairy Tales - Crowdfunding Now!

In case you have somehow failed to notice, loyal readers, I have written a book of Asexual Fairy Tales, which I am currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter. The illustrations are by my lovely daughter, Anna Hopkinson, and SilverWood Books have agreed to publish it if we meet our target.

All we need now are backers. We've got a fair few already - 60 as I write this blog. If you are one of them, thank you so much! We can't do it without you. But we need more. And we've only got until 28th February to make it happen! The great thing is that February is LGBT History Month in the UK, so it coincides with some great promotional opportunities.

So, what's in this book, I hear you ask? Twelve tales, some original, others retelling of classic tales from around the world. Tales from Greek mythology, 1001 Nights, Arthurian legend. Japanese, Scandinavian and German collections. Even a 20th-century fairy tale from the days of silent film. Featuring many of your old favourites from this blog, including The Man Without Desire, women in towers, sleeping beauties, asexual icons, miraculous births, the Forgotten & the Fantastical, Sir Galahad, the Virgin Mary...  What more could you ask for?

Pledges range from £1 to £60, and rewards include ebook and signed paperback copies of the book, sneak peeks and exclusive art prints of the illustrations. You can even buy one for you, one for a friend.

So, go ahead and pledge on Kickstarter. Click here! And if you have pledged, don't forget to tell all your friends on social media. Share this blog! Word of mouth really is the best way to promote anything.

And I hope that, in March, I have good news for you about its publication.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

What am I up to?

As writers, we are asked lots of questions. Most are some variation on:

Are you still writing?
How's the writing going?
Are you writing anything at the moment?

We writers can feel pretty frustrated by these questions as, for us, they are the equivalent of asking a plumber: "Done any plumbing lately?" Or asking a specialist doctor: "How's the gynaecology going?"

However, we know you mean well and are interested in our work. So, in answer to your questions, I thought I'd bring you up to date with my three main projects.

Asexual Fairy Tales

This is a book of retold and original fairy tales I've been working on with my daughter, Anna, who has done the beautiful illustrations. It's all written, and I'll be launching a crowdfunding campaign to fund it on Kickstarter. (You pledge money to help fund it, you get a signed book and/or other goodies). I'm doing it this way as I believe it's the best way to connect the book with it's main audience in the asexual and fairy tale communities. I've already had a lot of interest and goodwill on Twitter, so I'm optimistic we can do this! The Kickstarter campaign will start in the next week or so, and I'll be putting links everywhere. I mean, everywhere!! It would be great if you could support us, even if you don't want to read the book. A £1 donation will get your name in the back of the book as a valued supporter, and I'll be very grateful!

The King of Ice Leaves

This is my current work-in-progress, the thing I'm actually writing now. It's a winter fantasy based on my own fairy tale "The Ice Queen & the Mer-King", which features in Asexual Fairy Tales, as well as other tales like "The Glass Coffin" (also in Asexual Fairy Tales) and "The Snow Queen." I have at least one agent who would like to read it when it is finished, so that's a positive start.

The Angelio Trilogy

Some of you will not have forgotten my trilogy - beginning with Cage of Nightingales - about Carlo the castrato opera singer and Tammo the flute-playing bird-charmer. I am still seeking the right home for it, and feel optimistic that Asexual Fairy Tales will help me find my audience. (My platform, as they call it in the business). I certainly won't let this one go, as it's my heart and soul, and means the world to me.

So, that's what I'm up to. Thanks for asking. Now, how's the chartered accountancy going?

Saturday, 5 January 2019

17 Rabbits: This Time It's Personal

Several times on this blog, I have referred to the story of Mary Taft, who in 1726 supposedly gave birth to 17 rabbits. In my discussions, it has usually been linked with ideas of parthenogenesis, monstrous births and fears about the contents of women's wombs.

And now the 17 rabbits have surfaced again, in the film The Favourite, about Queen Anne, the last (officially recognised) Stuart monarch, and her court favourites Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham.

In the film, Queen Anne has 17 pet rabbits, which she keeps in little cages in her private chambers, and lets out to hop around and be petted at various intervals throughout the film. We are told that each of these rabbits represents a child that Anne lost through miscarriage, stillbirth or cot death. I have to say, the rabbits are incredibly cute, and provide some much-needed relief from some of the more disturbing aspects of the film.

Having done a fact-check, I can tell you that the real Queen Anne did not keep pet rabbits (as far as we know). According to BBC History Magazine, director Yorgos Lanthimos simply meant them to stand as a symbol and visual reminder to the audience of Anne's lost children.

But I can't help thinking that Yorgos Lanthimos knew of Mary Taft and her outrageous claim to fame. Or is it too much of a coincidence that lost and aborted babies are replaced by rabbits? 17 rabbits? 

What do you think?