Friday, 28 March 2014

'Daughters of Time' at the Oxford Festival

This coming Sunday, 30th March, 2.00 pm, I'm heading for the Oxford Literary Festival to join my fellow authors Mary Hoffman, Penny Dolan, Leslie Wilson and Celia Rees who will be talking about this book,  'Daughters of Time'.  We're all founding members of The History Girls blog, created by Mary Hoffman to celebrate historical writing, fiction and non-fiction, from a female perspective.  We were thrilled when she suggested that some of us might get together to write a series of children’s stories centred around significant women in British history. In the end, thirteen of us took up the challenge: too many to fit on one panel! So I've got the easy job of sitting in the audience -  but I'll be there to help sign books at the end.
Why did we feel this book was important?  Growing up in the 1960’s, the history taught to me at school was mostly about men. I heard of few women role models. When sibling rivalry between me and my younger brother descended a level or two, we might wrangle about whether ‘girls are as good as boys’ or ‘boys are better than girls’, but if he challenged me with ‘Why are there more famous men than women, then?’ my arsenal was small. Queen Elizabeth the First.  Grace Darling.  Joan of Arc (though being burned at the stake was hardly something to aim for). Um. Queen Victoria? – a dull old lady who wore black and was not amused?  Not very inspiring to a child.  I knew of only one woman scientist, Marie Curie (culled from the pages of my Grandma’s ‘Reader’s Digest Book of Famous Lives’, I was a child who read everything).  Famous authors? – well, I knew about the Brontes. And that was about it.

True, I devoured the historical books of Geoffrey Trease who usually had a brave, cross-dressing heroine adventuring alongside the young hero.  But that wasn’t real.  Rather gloomily I supposed that women didn’t have adventures.

How wrong I was.  And ‘Daughters of Time’ amply demonstrates it. When we came to decide who we should pick, we were spoiled for choice: we had heated discussions about which women to include: we could have written three anthologies, never mind one! (Some of the names which had, inevitably, to be left out are listed at the back of the book).  Among us, we wrote about queens, visionaries, reformers, political thinkers, dramatists, scientists, pilots and activists. And I knew immediately who I wanted to write about: Lady Julian of Norwich. 

Lady Julian, a medieval visionary and anchorite who spent perhaps thirty years of her life walled up in a small stone room or ‘cell’ at the back of St Julian’s Church in Norwich, may seem a strange character to offer to readers of nine plus. But she was an amazing person, strong, sane and compassionate.  She is the author of the very first book known to have been written in English by a woman – ‘Showings of God’s Love’, in which she vividly recounts her visions. It’s a very good book, too – full of imagery drawn from everyday life, as when she describes how God showed her ‘a little thing, the size of a hazelnut’ on the palm of her hand, and when she asked what it was, told her, ‘It is all that is made’.  And she has a wonderfully feminist take on religion, describing God as a Mother who tenderly cares for us: ‘for when a child is in trouble or scared, it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can’.

Julian’s message down the centuries is one of hope.  ‘All shall be well,’ God promised her. We still need to hear that message, and that was why I chose it as the title of my story in which twelve year-old Sarah, Lady Julian’s new little maidservant, battles with homesickness and grief.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry

An airthlie nourrice sits and sings,
And aye she sings, Ba lily wean!
Little ken I my bairnis father
Far less the land that he staps in.

So begins the old ballad of 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry'. As Laura Marjorie Miller discussed a few weeks ago in her guest post here, most selkie tales – or at least, most of those familiar to a modern audience – concern a seal woman who is captured or taken to wife by a mortal man, usually a fisherman who spies her dancing in mortal form on a moonlit beach and steals her sealskin robe, so preventing her from returning to her kindred in the sea.

In Margo Lanagan’s thought-provoking ‘Sea Hearts’ (UK title 'The Brides of Rollrock Island’), the men of the island take beautiful, passive, mournful selkie brides in preference to ordinary human women, but this communal act of selfish, sexual exploitation rebounds upon them. The men cut themselves off from genuine relationships, and they and their children suffer from the seal women’s terrible, unspoken grief.

My own 'Troll Mill' (the second part of 'West of the Moon'), opens when a fisherman’s wife, Kersten, thrusts her newborn baby into the arms of the young hero, Peer, and flings herself into the sea. Hampered by the baby in his arms, Peer tries to stop her:

Rain slashed into his eyes.  His feet skated on wet grass, sank into pockets of soft sand. She was on the beach now, running straight down the shingle to the water. Peer skidded to a crazy halt.  He couldn’t catch her. He saw Bjørn, bending over the boat, doing something with the nets. Peer filled his lungs and bellowed, ‘Bjørn!’ at the top of his voice.  He pointed.

Bjørn’s head came up. He turned, staring. Then he flung himself forwards, pounding across the beach to intercept Kersten. And Kersten stopped.  She threw herself flat and the wet sealskin cloak billowed over her, hiding her from head to foot.  Underneath it, she continued to move in heavy, lolloping jumps.  She must be crawling on hands and knees, drawing the skin cloak closely around her.  She rolled. Waves rushed up and sucked her into the water. Trapped in those encumbering folds, she would drown.

‘Kersten!’ Peer screamed. The body in the water twisted, lithe and muscular, and plunged forward into the next grey wave.

Writing 'Troll Mill', I found myself exploring various themes of possession – can one possess a child? – a wife? – another person? – and motherhood. I wanted to explore the paradoxical selfishness of a ‘good’ and likeable man, Bjørn, who has used love as an excuse for trapping the woman he wants. And I saw the selkie’s return to the sea, abandoning her child, as a metaphor for post natal depression.

'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry' differs from the ‘selkie bride’ legends insofar as the selkie in question is not female, but male. The earliest known version was collected by Captain F.W.L. Thomas of the Royal Navy, who heard it sung by ‘a venerable lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland’ some time around 1852: he sent it to The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  Later in the century it made it into Child’s Ballads, number 113, and an original tune for it was collected in 1938 by Professor Otto Andersen on the island of Flotta, Orkney, who heard it sung by John Sinclair:

Sadly I can’t find a recording. The best known tune for the ballad was written by James Waters in the late 1950s (sung below by Joan Baez).

As with most stories of human/otherworldly liaisons, in 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry' things have gone wrong from the very start. The ballad opens with the ‘airthly nourrice’ – the mortal woman nursing her child – lamenting that she doesn’t know who his father is. ‘Little ken I my bairn’s father, far less the land that he dwells in’. It’s easy to let the beautiful tune sweep you away into a pleasant mood of romantic melancholy. But stop, stop and think!  What does it mean, when a woman doesn’t know who her child’s father is? How can that happen? It can happen if that woman has been raped.  There’s a lot of rape in ballads, much of it quite casual, probably reflecting everyday life.

So here’s this woman, this unnamed woman, rocking and nursing her child, not knowing who his father is, and then something fearful happens.

Then ane arose at her bed-fit
And a grumlie guest I’m sure was he:
‘Here am I, thy bairnis father,
Although I be not comelie’.

‘One arose at her bed foot’ – in her home, in her bower, into the safe place where she’s nursing her child, there emerges, surges up like an apparition from the foot of the bed, this grim, rough creature which once forced itself upon her. (The illustration by Vernon Lee, above, powerfully suggests the uncanny terror of the moment.) And he acknowledges her child as his. And he tells her the terrible truth: he’s not even human, and if he has a home at all other than the wild sea, it’s only a tiny rock far out in the North Atlantic, far from land.

I am a man, upo’ the lan,
An I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae lan
My hame it is in Sule Skerrie.’

The woman reproaches him.  ‘It wasna weel,’ she says, ‘That the great Silkie of Sule Skerrie should come and aught a child to me.’ But in response, this happens.

And he has ta’en a purse of gold
And he has put it upo’ her knee,
Saying ‘Gie to me my little young son
And tak thee up thy nourris-fee.’

He’s paying her off, flinging money into her lap. ‘Pick up your money and give me my son.’ It’s like a blow to the face; his indifference to her is chilling. This is not a happy story, and the selkie, being a supernatural creature, has the gift of foreseeing how it will all end: badly.  One summer day, ‘when the sun shines hot on every stone’, he will take his little half-mortal son ‘and teach him how to swim the foam’. But by this time the woman will have married a man who can shoot with a gun. (I wonder if when this ballad was new, guns were new too?) At any rate, either by accident or by design, he will shoot both the selkie and his son.

An it sall come to pass on a simmer’s day
When the sin shines het on evera stane
That I will tak my little young son
And teach him for to swim the faem.

An thu sall marry a proud gunner,
An a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first schot that ere he schoots,
He’ll schoot baith my young son and me.

What was the point of it all, then?  If it was always going to end in such tragedy?  Why did the selkie take the woman in the first place, why did he father her child? You might as well ask, ‘What is the point of “Hamlet”?’  The ballad is a song, a poem, and if it’s about anything it’s about the harshness and unfairness of the world, and the brevity and beauty of life.  The best moments are in the last-but-one verse: it’s full of light: the glorious heat of the sun on the shoreline stones in the short, bright northern summer, and the sensuous joy and tenderness of the bond between the selkie and his ‘little young son’ as he teaches him to ‘swim the foam’. Those are the moments that make the story bearable – and surely, the ballad says, those are the moments which make human life bearable, however brief it may be.

 Joan Baez' haunting version of 'The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry', tune by James Waters.

Picture credit:  Vernon Hill's illustration of the tale. From Richard Chope's 1912 collection Ballads Weird and Wonderful

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Self-created fantasy worlds

Many children and teenagers develop their own private fantasy worlds. I had one. Age nine, I was the imaginary leader of the red horses of the sunset clouds... my name: ‘Red-Gold’. My friend was the leader of the white summer clouds (‘Cloud’); our adversary, the black horses of the thunder. It was obvious enough (you can tell I was horse mad!) but it gave me much pleasure and sent me off to sleep composing adventures. For a feel for the intensity of the thing, here’s a prose poem I wrote about it when I was just thirteen:

And out of the mist come horses galloping, born of the wind with wings like to it, dancing and running, plunging through the cool air, out of the golden, out of the glory, straight from the sun as it shines through the mist: dazzling, glorious, horses of the morning, horses of the sunrise, horses of the dawning, shining horses of the steel-blue sky. 

My head may have been almost literally in the clouds, but I don't believe it did me any harm at all. But here are three interesting books which study the effects of fantasy worlds built by young people, and ask what purposes they serve for good and for ill.

The first and earliest is ‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest, published in 1961, part of her series of novels/school stories about the Marlow family which began with ‘Autumn Term’(1948). Forest was a writer who transcended genre, and her well-characterised, insightful stories (now reprinted by Girls Gone By) are well worth attention. In this one, set during the Christmas holidays, the younger Marlows and their friend Patrick begin using an old stable loft (‘Peter’s room’) as their daily meeting-place. Inspired by the Brontë sisters’ Angria and Gondal, they pass the time by inventing an imaginary world with themselves as characters – role-playing, if you like. Gradually, their fantasy characters begin to exert influence on their real lives. It nearly ends in disaster.

Forest was writing with unusual foresight about the seductive power of role-playing (think Second Life) – but also, the book is about the creative process – the way characters develop lives of their own and often take their authors and creators in unexpected directions. When Patrick’s ‘avatar’, the heroic sounding ‘Rupert Almeda’ evolves into a traitor and coward, it throws Patrick himself into existential doubt. Is he too a coward?  How much of himself is in Rupert? Who, really, is he? Forest is in no doubt that the process can be extremely dangerous. The reader doesn’t have to follow her all the way. It could be argued that role-playing is (usually) a safe way of exploring the possibilities of individuals and relationships. Just so long as it doesn’t take over…

A more playful but no less thoughtful exploration of the subject is Jan Mark’s wonderful book “They Do Things Differently There” (1994) in which two bored and lonely teenage girls living in a very ordinary new town called Compton Rosehay, form a friendship by inventing an utterly bizarre alternative neighbourhood called ‘Stalemate’. Local landmarks become ‘Lord Tod’s Corpse Depository’ and ‘The Mermaid Factory:

“There is a mermaid factory?”
“You know that big iron barn place at the end of Old Compton Street, just opposite the bus stop at the end of the slip road.”
“Where it says O GLEE...?”
“That’s the place.”
“It’s got petrol pumps outside; I think it used to be a garage.”
“You may think so,” said Elaine, “but remember, here in Stalemate what you see is not necessarily what is there. Earth’s fabric hath worn thin. The real Stalemate is all about us, but we only get occasional glimpses of it. You’ll just have to take it on trust. It’s a mermaid factory.”

In this book, the fantasy world the girls create is the basis of the friendship between them. The book’s a celebration of the delights of invention and imagination, and of the joy of finding someone else with the same sense of humour. In the end, though, as the name suggests, you cannot stay in Stalemate. You have to move on.

The most recent book I know which looks at this subject is “The Traitor Game” (2008) by B.R.Collins. Michael and Francis share an imaginary world called Evgard, involved in bitter civil war, with a city called Arcaster. Michael invented it, and it’s been a refuge from the bullying he endured at his last school. Now Francis has been allowed in.

There was only one other person who knew where Arcaster was; who even knew it existed: Francis. It was as secret, more secret, than a love affair or a drug habit...
And sometimes… when they worked on something together, and ... when both of them were talking about Evgard, arguing, joking, pushing at each other for ideas, Michael felt like he could stretch out his hand and nearly, nearly feel the world of Evgard beyond the real one... He’d catch Francis’s eye when he looked up from his drawing, or hear him say, ‘No, but no, you couldn’t get from Than’s Lynn to Arcaster in two days, it’s winter, you’d have to go the long way round, via Gandet and Hyps,’ and suddenly he’d want to grin like an idiot. It was crazy, they were fifteen, for God’s sake, it wasn’t like they were kids, but here they were inventing a country.

So when Michael believes Francis has betrayed him, his emotions are catastrophic; and the betrayal occurs in Evgard too. This is a dark unflinching book which delves deep into jealousy, cruelty, anger and fear.

All three of these very different books are powerful explorations of friendship and selfhood, and the dark as well as the joyful side of the impulse to create.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Ballad of Mulan

I've always liked Arthur Waley's translations of Chinese literature and poetry, and came across this recently in an old edition I found in a second-hand bookshop. The rough ballad style he has chosen seems well suited to the simplicity of the story, to which he adds the note: 'Written in northern China during the domination of the Wei Tartars, Sixth Century AD'.  You can compare it with a more recent translation here:

Click, click, for ever click, click;
Mulan sits at the door and weaves.
Listen, and you will not hear the shuttle’s sound,
But only hear a girl’s sobs and sighs.

“Oh tell me, lady, are you thinking of your love,
Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your dear?”
“Oh no, oh no, I am not thinking of my love,
Oh no, oh no, I am not longing for my dear.

But last night I read the battle-roll;
The Khan has ordered a great levy of men.
The battle-roll was written in twelve books,
And in each book stood my father’s name.

My father’s sons are not grown men,
And of my brothers, none is older than me.
Oh let me to the market to buy saddle and horse,
And ride with the soldiers to take my father’s place.”

In the eastern market she’s bought a gallant horse,
In the western market she’s bought saddle and cloth.
In the southern market she’s bought snaffle and reins,
In the northern market she’s bought a tall whip.

In the morning she stole from her father’s and mother’s house;
At night she was camping by the Yellow River’s side.
She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
But only the voice of the Yellow River as its waters swirled through the night.

At dawn they left the River and went on their way;
At dusk they came to the Black Water’s side.
She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
She could only hear the muffled voices of foreign horsemen riding on the hills of Yen.

A thousand leagues she tramped on the errands of war,
Frontiers and hills she crossed like a bird in flight.
Through the northern air echoed the watchman’s tap;
The wintry light gleamed on coats of mail.

The captain had fought a hundred fights, and died;
The warriors in ten years had won their rest.
They went home, they saw the Emperor’s face;
The Son of Heaven was seated in the Hall of Light.
The deeds of the brave were recorded in twelve books;
In prizes he gave a hundred thousand cash.

Then spoke the Khan and asked her what she would take.
“Oh, Mulan asks not to be made
A Counsellor at the Khan’s court;
I only beg for a camel that can march
A thousand leagues a day,
To take me back to my home.”

When her father and mother heard that she had come,
They went out to the wall and led her back to the house.
When her little sister heard that she had come,
She went to the door and rouged her face afresh.
When her little brother heard that his sister had come,
He sharpened his knife and darted like a flash
Towards the pigs and sheep.

She opened the gate that leads to the eastern tower,
She sat on her bed that stood in the western tower,
She cast aside her heavy soldier’s cloak,
And wore again her old-time dress.

She stood at the window and bound her cloudy hair;
She went to the mirror and fastened her yellow combs.
She left the house and met her messmates on the road;
Her messmates were startled out of their wits.

They had marched with her for twelve years of war
And never known that Mulan was a girl.
For the male hare sits with its legs tucked in,
And the female hare is known for her bleary eye;
But set them both scampering side by side,
And who so wise could tell you “This is he”?

Translated by Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems, George Allen & Unwin 1936

Picture credits: 

Hua Mulan on white horse: image from

Hua Mulan on bay horse: image from

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Review: ICEFALL by Gillian Philip

So here is it at last – the fourth and final volume of Gillian Philip’s YA/adult fantasy series ‘REBEL ANGELS’, which began with the electrifying ‘FIREBRAND’ and was followed by ‘BLOODSTONE’ and  ‘WOLFSBANE’.

If you haven’t read the series yet, what a treat you have in store as you follow the fortunes – over ben and glen and mountain moor and across centuries – of Seth MacGregor, exiled leader of a clann of the Scottish Sithe, and his struggle against their ruthless queen Kate NicNiven, who aims to rip down the Veil which separates the faerie and mortal worlds, and impose her rule on all.

At the end of ‘WOLFSBANE’ things were looking tough for Seth, his lover Finn, and his son Rory, the ‘Bloodstone’ whom Kate NicNiven needs to fulfil ancient prophecy and tear down the Veil.

Taken together, the four books are a tour-de-force, full of action and excitement, with a huge cast of characters deftly managed. Seth is a tough, laconic, sexy, flawed hero who does his best – and his best isn’t always good enough. Gillian Philip isn’t one of those authors who spares her characters.  People die – lots of them.  People you like die.  Terrible things happen.  There’s love and sex and loss and grief and bloodshed. Forget 'Game of Thrones'. This is better.

One of the things I’ve loved about this series is its boldness. FIREBRAND was set in the tough and bloody sixteenth century – you can find a description of it here.  But its successor, BLOODSTONE, jumped straight to the twenty-first, taking advantage of the faerie longevity (definitely not immortality) of the main characters, and resituating them in the no less tough and bloody century we all inhabit today. Exiled faerie characters, good and bad, live on Glasgow sink estates, or have served as mercenaries in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Well, they’re fighters, they have to do something.) But the faerie world calls.  Beyond the magical watergates, which may be found anywhere from a wild woodland pool to a flooded basement in a condemned tenement, lies home – no less dangerous but infinitely more beautiful, with its kelpies, its selkies, its feuds and loyalties and treacheries.

ICEFALL introduces Philip’s most sinister creature yet, a mummified child oracle – the Darkfall – which even Kate NicNiven must approach with care. Deep in a cave:-

The breath of the Darkfall was around her. Kate felt it whisper across her skin. Still she waited, until at last a faint light sparked, and grew, and threw shadows that she wouldn’t look at too closely.
            The child had been dead for years. Centuries. The light was cupped in its hands. Cross-legged in its alcove on the cavern wall, the child lifted its head and gazed at her with eyeless sockets.  It opened its mouth.
            How does it feel?

It's one of those archetypal creations which seem immediately familiar, as though you’ve always known about them. I believed in the Darkfall to the marrow of my bones – and sat back to enjoy the ride.  ICEFALL lives up to all the promise of the earlier books. It’s explosive, violent and touching, with an emotionally satisfying ending that gives you, not necessarily everything you've hoped for - but everything you need.

ICEFALL by Gillian Philip will be published by Strident on March 18, 2014

Visit Gillian Philip's website: