Another excerpt from the new novel

Work continues on my upcoming book, a sequel to “The Witch of Glenaster”, and as promised here is another mini-excerpt…

And then, softly at first, but growing steadily louder, I heard again the sound that had haunted me ever since I had first heard it in the Moonland, many months before. A gentle singing, that didn’t seem to come from any throat, but floated above and around us, as if part of the air itself; and as I listened it took on a richer timbre, that made you feel like you had just awakened from the sweetest sleep, or drunk a flask of wine, or eaten chocolate that was the more delicious because it wasn’t yours. And these feelings coalesced into a presence, that pressed itself onto my mind before it appeared; and it was as though the fabric of reality shifted to accommodate it, and it had slipped in, between worlds. And, looking up, I saw a tall man, striding through the trees towards us.

 

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Always The Journey

I thought I’d post some haiku and other mini-poetry here (really I’m too lazy to write maxi-poetry) that I’ve written from time to time. I might offer some handwritten versions (on lovely paper, naturally) in future to anyone who is interested in such things…

 

Always the journey –

The river slides past like an

Assassin – cold, deep.

Short excerpt from the new book

Hopefully I’ll be publishing a few of these from now on, as publication day draws nearer, just to give a flavour of the next book…

 

“My people have always been wanderers, since the time of Coris, our great father. We have never owned land, nor worked upon it. We take only those things which the earth provides for us, and what gifts kind people bring us. But we are skilled craftsmen, and brave soldiers, and many of our kin are fighting now, in the emperor’s wars, or serving in the households of great lords, as carpenters, and cooks, and smithies. Some do not return to us; but most do, for the call of the wild is strong in our folk, and we are the sons and daughters of the trees. We have never been rich, except in our hearts.”

Hurrah for Jodie Whittaker!

 

Apparently some people in the Whoniverse (as I believe the kids call it) have been getting all worked up about the casting of an actual lady as the Doctor’s 13th incarnation, and I find myself thinking, Really? A fantasy sci-fi show about a centuries-old shapeshifting alien casting a woman as the title character actually bothers you?! You should get out more, etc.

Wisecracks aside, I think this is a really promising choice, and I thought Jodie Whittaker was superb in “Broadchurch” (written by next Who showrunner Chris Chibnall, and where of course she starred with 10th Doctor David Tennant).

Nicely atmospheric trailer, too, with a well judged soundtrack (and I really, really hope that under Chibnall’s direction they can lose the awful, syrupy incidental music that is one of my personal bugbears about New Who). And she rocks the greatcoat-and-hoodie combo, too.

“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.

 

The Elements – Air (Birds)

I thought that any look at the air in relation to folklore had to include creatures that fly, and as I’ve already covered dragons pretty extensively in other posts I wanted to look at birds, which it seems to me are a good subject for study in any context, but here are three examples that struck me:

Wrens

Steve Round snapped this Jenny Wren out and about in Cheshire.

Photo: bbc.co.uk

In folklore the wren is often characterised as female (“Jenny Wren”), wife to the robin. In Latin it is called regulus, or “little king”. Harming or killing a wren is said to bring misfortune – in Scotland, killing one was meant to make your cows give bloody milk, and in France if you robbed a wrens’ nest your house could burn down, or your fingers rot off as your punishment. However, for one day in the year – usually St Stephen’s Day (26th December) – there was once a custom called Hunting the Wren, found in Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and some parts of England, which saw groups of boys (the Wren Boys of Christmas) use poles and cudgels to catch and kill one of the birds. The unfortunate creature was then laid on a tiny bier, and with it the boys would visit every house in the village, and be given ale in exchange for a feather plucked from the bird’s breast. It would then be solemnly laid in a specially dug grave. There are many different explanations of this ritual, some connected to Christianity – that the wren’s fluting song betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or even St Stephen himself as he tried to escape his jailers. But it is likely that this most sacred of birds, haunter of hedgerows and dark places, has been ritually sacrificed since pre-Christian times, so it might bring people good fortune for the coming year.

Owls

Barn Owl - Facts, Pictures, Diet, Breeding, Habitat, Behaviour ...

Photo: animalsadda.com

The screech of a barn owl is an eerie sound, and it’s perhaps no wonder that traditionally it is said to presage death – likewise, if you see one during the day, or one knocks against your window, it is an ominous sign.

Again, there’s a Christian connection – the apocryphal story of Jesus begging a baker’s wife for bread. When she was about to bake him a good-sized loaf, her daughter snatched most of it away, deeming it too large for a mere beggar – but the dough swelled up suddenly, and in her surprise the daughter turned into an owl.

Robin

Robin (Clive Timmons)

Photo: birdwatchireland.ie

Like the wren, the robin is held sacred – it was once said to have had a white breast, turned red by Christ’s blood from the cross (various versions account for how this happened – that the robin was taking water in its beak to relieve Christ’s suffering, or that it was trying to pluck a thorn from the crown of thorns; another story is that it was singed while carrying water to souls in Purgatory).

To injure a robin, or steal its eggs, therefore brings misfortune, as it would for a wren – but as is often the case, there are counter-traditions that hold that the robin is a bird of ill omen, and there are accounts of people throwing away Christmas cards with pictures of robins on them for this very reason.

The link with death is more general that just the crucifixion, too – if they came across a dead body, robins were supposed to cover its face with leaves and twigs, out of charity and respect.