The latest Gossip & Tales


Just thought I’d post a link to the latest edition of Gossip & Tales, the newsletter of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy. Plenty of stuff there to tickle the fancy of any folklore fan, including an upcoming symposium on Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland celebrates its 150th anniversary this year), and talks by Kate Mosse and by the writer Jacqueline Simpson, who co-authored, with Terry Pratchett, The Folklore of Discworld. Yesterday she wrote this moving testimonial to him:

Sir Terry Pratchett, whose death we mourn today, wrote fantasies which probed far deeper into human nature than other writings of this genre. He is rightly famed for his wit, his verbal dexterity, and ingenious plotting, but more powerful than all these is his rage against the cruelties of men, of society, of nature, gods and fate.

Everyone at the 2014 Convention was given a booklet from him, as he could not be there himself. It includes a message of advice, and the best I can say is quote bits of it:

        “Spread joy wherever possible. Laugh at jokes. Tell jokes. Make puns and bugger the embuggerances. . . . Question authority. Champion good causes. Speak out against injustice. . . . . Make the world you interface with a happier place. . . . Live. Strive. Love.”



This is the word that Sir Terry Pratchett, who, it was announced today, has died aged 66, wrote on my paperback edition of Reaper Man back in the summer of 1992. He scribbled a picture of a scythe beside it, and then his name beneath.

I was 18, and had just left school. The queue to meet him at the local bookshop snaked down the street. He was courteous and friendly, as I gather he always was with his readers, and patiently signed everyone’s books. It is strange to think that back then he was hardly older than I am now. What a fantastic life. And what an enormous amount of joy – and much wisdom, smuggled in amongst the humour – he brought to so many people.

If you’ve ever thought about writing fantasy yourself, you really should read his 2007 essay, “Notes From A Successful Fantasy Author: Keep It Real”. You can find it in the book of his collected non-fiction, A Slip of the Keyboard, though I first read it in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. It’s only a couple of pages, and full of sage advice for aspiring fantasy authors.

As the man himself said: “It only takes a tweak to make the whole world new.”

Photo: The Guardian

Buried skulls & mummified cats



Hello again.

Thought I’d share with you this article from the Irish Archaeology website, about the horse skulls found beneath the excavated remains of houses built in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries.

I was aware of the practice of placing such items in buildings to ward off evil spirits, though I hadn’t known before that these horses’ heads were also used to improve the acoustics! Reading this piece reminded me of the mummified cat – known by locals as “the extremely dead cat” – kept at Keswick Museum & Art Gallery in Cumbria. It was found in the rafters of St Cuthbert’s church near Penrith in 1842.

Cats often get a bad rap in folklore terms – and I have a somewhat jaundiced view myself, being allergic to the little critters – and their association with witches hasn’t helped. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, in 1677 on Queen Elizabeth’s Day (an old festival that used to be held every November 17th to commemorate Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558) the effigy of “a most costly pope” was burned on a bonfire, “his belly filled with live cats which squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire”.

Still, black cats are often seen as lucky, though not always for the cat itself, as various bits of it – head, tail, ears – used to be removed, and used in cures for eye-ache, styes, and shingles.

For more on the Keswick cat, and related apotropaic magic such as witch bottles, have a look at this excellent post from Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore.

Dessicated cat from Keswick Museum

The Keswick cat