A little Gossip & Tales

Here’s the latest newsletter from the terrific Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, from my alma mater, the University of Chichester. Their journal, Gramarye (details in the newsletter on how to order), is beautifully produced, and well worth your money – it’s a must for anyone interested in folklore and fantasy.

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Michaelmas

Colyford Goose Fayre, Devon. Photo: seatonbay.com

Today, the 29th September, is Michaelmas Day, the feast of St Michael the Archangel, and historically in England one of the four “Quarter Days” that marked the beginning or ending of legal contracts (between landlord and tenant, or between employer and employee). As such, it often witnessed Hiring Fairs, which started in the reign of Edward III and lasted up until the Second World War in some places, where employers would look for new apprentices, and would-be employees would wear a badge or carry a tool to denote their skill (for example, a crook for a shepherd, or a milking-pail for a dairymaid). Once agreement had been reached regarding rates of pay, etc., the employer would give their new worker a shilling (also known as earnest money, fest, God’s penny or arles) to seal the bargain. These fairs became important festivals, and would, like many similar events, often descend into drunken revelry.

Traditionally, a fattened goose was roasted and eaten on Michaelmas Day, and tenants would often give one to their landlord as part of their rent (which would have been due at Michaelmas, as a Quarter Day). There are still goose fairs held at some places in England today, the largest and most famous of which is Nottingham Goose Fair, which dates from the Thirteenth Century, and two smaller ones in Devon – the Goosey Fair in Tavistock, and the Colyford Goose Fayre in Seaton Bay (see photo above). When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in Britain in 1752, many people continued to celebrate important feasts on their old dates, several days later (for example, Old Twelfth Night on January 17th), and so the Nottingham and Tavistock goose fairs are now held in early October, and it is no longer legal in the UK to sell live poultry at markets, so the fairs today are more about rides and (cooked) food.

But Colyford’s tiny fayre is perhaps closest in spirit to those earlier fairs, with villagers dressing in medieval costume, local produce for sale, a demonstration of traditional skills such as archery, and a mummers’ play.

Horticulturally speaking, there are at least a couple of flora with connections to Michaelmas – the aster, or “Michaelmas daisy”, is so-called because it blooms late in the year. And then of course there is the legend that, when St Michael cast Satan out of Heaven, he fell into a blackberry bush and cursed, spat or urinated on it (take your pick). According to tradition, that is why blackberries go sour after Michaelmas.

Michaelmas daisies.

 

Walking Away From Myself

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Terrace Field, Richmond, London, looking upriver towards Twickenham.

Walking, for me, is a process of forgetting – a soothing, temporary self-annihilation.

You are walking away from yourself, but you are walking towards yourself at the same time, moving from one existence to another, changed – hopefully – reinvigorated, redefined, renewed.

You have forgotten yourself, but you have also remembered who you are.

Here are some pictures I took today whilst out walking in one of my favourite places, Richmond Park in London.

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The Bowman’s Bridge (new excerpt)

More sequel-related mini-posting today…

“The bridge appeared suddenly, around a wide bend, arched high above the river. It was called the Bowman’s Bridge because it looked like a longbow, balanced carefully upon the ground, and as it met the southern bank it was framed, and almost hidden, by two great willow trees, wandering in the wind. And so it wasn’t until we were almost upon it that we saw the old man, leaning against the abutment, smoking a pipe nearly as long as his arm, and eyeing us strangely as we approached.”

“Logan” – somewhere between Heaven and Hell

Warning: spoilers

What is “Logan” trying to tell us?

The end credits roll to “The Man Comes Around”, Johnny Cash’s upbeat take on the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ, though I don’t think you could call “Logan” a religious movie in any conventional sense.

Certainly the question of redemption runs through it like a thick seam, but it has this in common with countless other Hollywood movies, redemption being one of Hollywood’s favourite themes.

But there is no hope for an Afterlife here, no promise of a better world (though there is the possibility of it).

Some critics have warmed to the “darker”, more “serious” tone of this, the latest in a long run of X-Men films now stretching back nearly twenty years, and there’s no doubt that the central cast are getting on – Hugh Jackman, as the title character, is nearing fifty, and though playing the Wolverine has probably paid his mortgage several times over, he’s no doubt tired of having to spend all day in the gym to get into shape for it.

Patrick Stewart, of course, is now in his late seventies, though here he plays a Professor Xavier in his nineties (the film is set in 2029).

After a catastrophe which is only obliquely referred to, but in which we are led to believe people have died because of Charles Xavier’s inability to any longer control his great mental powers – a result of his encroaching dementia – both he and Logan are hiding out in an abandoned factory in Mexico, with the latter taking work as a limo driver across the border to raise money for Charles’s medication. The other mutants, we are told, have all gone – though the explanation for this, when it eventually comes, feels unsatisfying and incomplete, one of several frustrations I had with the script – and only Caliban (a revelatory and nicely understated performance from Stephen Merchant, who I’ve only seen in comedies before now) is left to help look after Charles in Logan’s absence.

Logan himself is grizzled and ailing, his ability to magically heal having stalled somewhat (again for reasons that are never fully explored, though apparently something to do with the adamantium that coats his skeleton slowly poisoning him), and his never-cheery persona is soured even further by the appearance of Laura (Dafne Keen, superb), a young girl who turns out to be his (cloned) daughter, and who has escaped from the lab of evil corporation (is there any other kind?) Transigen, who have been experimenting on children to create a new species of mutant. She, Logan and Xavier go on the run, trying to find a mythical “Eden” somewhere on the Canadian border, whilst poor old Caliban is captured by the bad guys, who force him to use his tracking powers to find his friends.

So the set-up is in place for a road movie which promises – and delivers – plenty of gory action, and quite a bit of ripe language (it’s been given a 15 certificate here in the UK, unusual for a superhero film), but left me feeling pretty short-changed nonetheless.

Why?

Well perhaps it’s the undercooked plot, with what exposition there is, as I’ve already stated, feeling ill-thought-out and flimsy, and supporting characters who are never given much room to develop – Richard E. Grant, as villainous Zander Rice, does what he can with an underwritten, cardboard cut-out role, but neither he nor sidekick Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) are the antagonists Xavier and Logan really deserve, and I missed the chilling authority of Ian McKellen as Magneto. And we have hardly been introduced to the kindly family who give our heroes some (brief) respite from their troubled existence before they’re unceremoniously despatched by the X-24 (also played by Jackman), the latest of Rice’s clones.

I enjoyed the carefully chosen suggestions of a nightmarish near-future – driverless trucks hurtle down the freeway, and at one point Pierce mentions in passing that the tiger is now extinct. The metatextual references to X-Men comics – which Logan grumpily dismisses – are a nice nod for the fans, and the scene in a hotel when Charles has a seizure and Logan deals out retribution to his attackers – in violent slow mo – was genuinely exciting, the best action sequence of the film. But I’m afraid this wasn’t enough for me – the movie as a whole felt like standard formulaic superhero fare, its aspirations to grimy authenticity like those of a forger who has just dipped a supposed ancient manuscript in tea to make it look old. Logan may be greying and addicted to booze and painkillers, but he’s still ludicrously buff – no middle-aged flab here. And likewise Professor Xavier’s Alzheimer’s only manifests itself right at the beginning, when we see him spinning round in his wheelchair and babbling nonsense – after that, he comes across as an admittedly frail, but otherwise perfectly compos, old man.  There was no real sense of the humiliation and desolation of dementia, the way it takes everything from you. Jackman and Stewart are both hugely talented actors, but I didn’t feel either of them were really stretched here.

What is “Logan” trying to tell us?

I’m not really sure.

All the older mutants in the film die warriors’ deaths – in battle. No fading away in a care home for them – an ending which, I can’t help feeling, would have been much more radical. Just before the end credits, and that Johnny Cash song about Christ, Laura turns the cross on Logan’s grave on to its side so it becomes an X. She obviously knows the score. Christ may or may not return, but the X-Men certainly will, at a multiplex near you, and soon.

 

Valentine’s Day! It’s got absolutely nothing to do with St Valentine…

Surprising Facts About St. Valentine - History in the Headlines

Photo: history.com

Strange but true – there is no evidence to link St Valentine with lovers or courtship, though both St Valentines – there are more than one – in the Roman Martyrology (one was a Roman priest who died in AD 269, the other an Umbrian bishop who was executed a few years later in AD 273) are said to have met their end on the 14th February, a date which since the 1300’s has been associated with love, apparently arising out of the mistaken but charming belief that birds chose their mates on this day.

It is also historically the Eve of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, in which young men dressed in goat-skin thongs went about striking women to make them fruitful (please don’t try this at home), and people chose lovers by lot.

In the 1380’s Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called The Parlement of Foules, in which the birds squabble over their suitors. And in 1477 Margery Brews wrote to her fiance John Paston, addressing him as her “right wellbelovyd Voluntyn”.

What began in courtly circles in England and France soon spread, and by the 1660’s Samuel Pepys is mentioning in his diary Valentine’s customs whereby both married and unmarried people have to draw lots and present their “Valentine” with – sometimes quite lavish – gifts (Pepys himself complains of the cost of buying one Martha Batten seven pairs of gloves for the princely sum of 40 shillings in 1661). He also refers to the custom that the first person one sees on 14th February will be your Valentine – his wife had to spend most of the day in 1662 with her hands over her eyes for fear of seeing the wrong person (she and Samuel had the painters in at the time).

There are fascinating local examples of Valentine’s Day traditions from across Britain, and not all are for lovers or sweethearts.

In Street in Somerset, talking to someone of the opposite sex before noon on February 14th was thought to be unlucky, but in some areas of the country children used to go from house to house before dawn, singing:

Good morrow, Valentine,

First ’tis yours, then ’tis mine,

Please to give me a Valentine.

They would expect gifts of fruit, money, or special cakes called Valentine Buns or Plum Shittles in return. In Norfolk, if they appeared after the sun came up they could be refused gifts on the grounds that they were “sunburnt”. Likewise, on St Valentine’s Eve there was a tradition in the county of leaving presents on people’s doorsteps, knocking on the door, and then running away – secrecy (or supposed secrecy) being an important ingredient of the celebrations, then as now. In Derbyshire, if a girl did not receive a visit or a kiss from her sweetheart on Valentine’s Day she was said to be “dusty”, and her friends would then sweep her with a broom or piece of straw.

By the Eighteenth Century, sending cards to one’s Valentine instead of expensive gifts was increasingly popular, and what at first were handmade and handwritten items became, from the 1840’s onward, commercially produced. These were embossed and gilded, and sometimes perfumed – but, as the Nineteenth Century wore on, their quality decreased, and humorous and sometimes unpleasant “Anti-Valentine” cards led to a decline in the Day’s popularity by the turn of the century.

By the late 1920’s, however, Valentine’s Day was starting to once more regain its former status, and though the folklorist Christina Hole – writing as recently as 1976 – claims that “it has not yet recovered (and probably never will) the enormous popularity of its Victorian hey-day”, today, in 2017, she might have cause to revise her opinion. The traditional date of the St Valentines’ martyrdom is now a multimillion-pound industry of flowers, chocolates, cards and dinners à deux, and one you may embrace or reject depending on your point of view and/or romantic status.