Tales from the Hidden Grove

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

Monday, 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?