God Jul! Or, Norway & nostalgia

Hello again.

So, whatever your feelings about, you know, let’s say it, it’s Advent now so I think we can, CHRISTMAS, which for all its attendant commercial falderol is still an important, some might say vital, break that makes the long cold winter (or long scorching summer, if you’re in the southern hemisphere) bearable, and also provides plenty of fodder for folklore-themed blogs like this one to riff on old and new traditions, and muse on popular culture more generally – if you live in the Western world at least, Christmas, whatever you think of it, cannot be ignored, and as well as highlighting or underscoring our good / bad relations with friends and family, is also a handy barometer of how a society more broadly sees itself, and what it chooses to prioritise.

So – does Christmas make you feel nostalgic?

I ask because it does for me – up to a point – but I wanted to interrogate why this was. I’d be lying if I said Christmas was as important or special to me as it was when I was younger, and losing my father earlier this year has brought into stark relief just how much I have lost, including a sense of Christmas being a reassuring, comfortable time. As I have for the last few years, since my father first became ill, I will spend it with friends who are as close to me as family, and it will no doubt be a pleasant and even joyful occasion, and I am lucky to have such friends, as many people don’t; but there is no escaping the empty feeling sometimes of going through the motions, as if Christmas now is only an echo of what it was then, when I was younger, like mulled wine that has lost its warmth.

Of course, nostalgia plays its old tricks, smoothing out the wrinkles of the past, and I’m sure that, especially when I was a young child, there were plenty of Christmases where I overdosed on chocolate and excitement, and there were tears before bedtime. But we all want, I suppose, especially at Christmastime,  to feel safe, and loved, and reassured – and these things cannot be manufactured, or bought.

Back in early November, I spent a few days in Norway, and it was nice to be out of Britain, with its Brexit-related neuroses, if only for a short while, and to be a stranger, travelling from place to place, in a friendly country, like my own but also subtly different, letting some things go, and bringing others into focus.

I wandered the streets of Oslo and Bergen, big cities by Norwegian standards, but having more of the feel of large towns, and I took a trip down the fjords, which were every bit as beautiful as I’d hoped, and everywhere I went was fairly quiet, as it was out of season, but I kind of prefer it that way as I’m not a fan of crowds. From the top of Fløyen, one of the hills surrounding Bergen (with its own funicular railway – definitely a highlight if you ever visit), I looked out over the city, and wandered some of the hiking trails, and ate some Kvikk Lunsj  (the Norwegian version of Kit Kat, only nicer, and with thicker chocolate – apparently in Norway they usually have one, along with an orange, as part of a packed lunch when they’re in the great outdoors), and felt cheerful despite the drizzly weather. Back in London, I visited the various Scandinavian Christmas markets, drank glögg (mulled wine), and bought some Christmas presents. I’m told that in Norway the shops are closed for much longer over Christmastide than they are here in Britain (where the sales start first thing on Boxing Day), as it’s seen as a time for friends and family more than shopping, and I think they’ve definitely got their priorities right there. But wherever you are, it’s important, I believe, to find something at this time of year that has meaning and resonance for you, whatever that may be, and to be thankful for what you have. I hope to post at some stage about my love of the North – as a native of northern Europe – and about Norse mythology especially. But for now, a very Happy Christmas – or God Jul, as they say in Norway – and normal service will be resumed in the New Year. In the meantime, here are some photos from my recent Norway trip –

 

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Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien | Vulpes Libris

Tolkien’s illustration for the original dust jacket of “The Hobbit” (1937).

Hi there.

Just got back from Oxford, where I went to visit the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition at the Weston Library.

This is a must for fans of Tolkien’s work, and as it’s free (though it’s a good idea to book in advance) and runs until the 28th October, I strongly advise you to visit if you can. The exhibition collects together some of Tolkien’s art, including some stunning watercolours and pen-and-ink illustrations, some of which were used by his publishers for the dust jackets of early editions of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, plus pages of notes, personal letters, and some mail he received from famous fans including Iris Murdoch, Lynda Johnson (sent on White House headed notepaper), and a young Terry Pratchett. There are also items from Tolkien’s study, including his chair and writing desk, and some of his pipes, and a couple of interactive maps, through which you can trace the journeys of his characters across Middle Earth.

It was a real thrill to see all of these things, gasping at the extraordinary detail of Tolkien’s invented world (I highly recommend this article by Rowan Williams on this), and, though the exhibition space is quite compact, they fit a lot in (my ticket told me I only had half an hour to look round, but despite it still being the summer holidays it wasn’t unbearably busy, and no one told me off for spending the better part of an hour there). There is a lavish book accompanying the exhibition, though like me you may find the price tag of 40 quid a little steep! But the Library bookshop has a large selection of works by Tolkien, as does the nearby Blackwell’s bookshop.

Writing is Thinking

Hi there.

Hope all’s well with you all.

So, I’m currently working on the third – and probably final – book in the Glenaster Chronicles series, and, after much hammering away at it, and tearing out what’s left of my hair, I think the story is now taking shape as I would want it to, and moving towards a conclusion which will hopefully be both exciting and satisfying for readers of the earlier books.

The writing process is such a delicate thing that it can often seem like the slightest breath of wind could blow it all away, and once I’ve finished I can never quite remember how I got there, almost as if my mind just wants to wipe away the memory of the effort involved. You write, you rewrite, you edit, you move this bit here and that bit there, you delete an entire section, you write a new one, you restore a bit you’d earlier deleted (which is why you should never completely delete anything you write, and always keep copies of all your drafts), you decide to give up and have a cup of tea…

I believe it was Toni Morrison who said (and I can’t find the exact quote online, so forgive me if it’s not quite right, or if I’ve misattributed it) that readers “shouldn’t see the join, shouldn’t see the sweat” when they read a novel, and this is one of my favourite observations of the writing process – however difficult it is, when it’s done the reader should be able to just enjoy reading it without worrying about the process of its creation. Or, to put it in cruder terms, with novels, as with sausages, it’s best if you don’t know what went into making them! But it’s always good advice to do a bit of writing each day, even it’s only five minutes, to be disciplined about how and when you write, even if you hate what you’re writing at that particular moment, and to remember another one of Morrison’s observations – that “writing is thinking”.

“The Witch of Glenaster” Smashwords giveaway

THE WITCH OF GLENASTER COMPLETE

Hi there.

Just to let you know that “The Witch of Glenaster”, the first book in my Glenaster Chronicles series, is currently available for FREE (till the end of July) over at Smashwords. Its sequel, “The Widow’s Thorn”, is likewise available at half-price for the rest of the month.

Happy reading!

Adam Roberts on fantasy and violence

Hello again.

Apologies for not posting on here in a while, but there have been a few things going on in my personal life which have occupied all my time and attention, and I have not been able to give much consideration to anything else. Anyway, I hope to be posting again with greater frequency from now on, and wanted to start back by pointing you in the direction of this post from Adam Roberts, Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence, which is very long but well worth your time, as he expresses some real doubts about the current trend towards sadistic violence in fantasy, and how this is feeding into (or fed by) a political / social context which is increasingly polarised and lacking in empathy. It’s one of the best essays I’ve yet read on the fantasy genre, and certainly gave me some food for thought.

As always, thanks for reading.

Companion Dogs as Seers, Healers, and Fairy Steeds — Mimi Matthews

When considering dog folklore, we generally think of those stories which feature the Grimm, the Gytrash, or other sinister black dogs roaming the moors in the North of England. But there is more to canine folklore than the ominous black dogs of legend. Companion dogs, such as pugs and corgis, have their place in dog…

via Companion Dogs as Seers, Healers, and Fairy Steeds — Mimi Matthews

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club

Hello again.

Last night I went along to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, which meets every month at various locations, but yesterday was at the quite extraordinarily posh offices of Hachette UK in central London, right up on the sixth floor, where their meeting room gives onto a spectacular view of the London skyline.

Three authors currently making waves in SFF read from their debut novels – Anna Stephens with Godblind, Alexandra Christo and To Kill a Kingdom, and Nick Clark Windo with The Feed.

All three authors fought valiantly against the room’s aircon unit to read from their work, and to talk engagingly and informatively about how they came to write their novels, and of their struggle to be published (in Anna Stephens’s case, it took 13 years from writing the first draft to publication). Nick Clark Windo’s book has just been picked up by Amazon for adaptation into a TV series, and all three books – very different in theme and scope, and a reminder of how broad a genre SFF can be – have gone on to my Want to Read list.

There is a (very reasonable) entrance fee for the meetings, and as you get an evening of readings and talk from some of the most prominent SFF writers around, plus a free book (I picked up No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston), it seems like a bargain to me. Well worth popping along if you enjoy fantasy and live in or near London.