Tales from the Hidden Grove

Tales from the Hidden Grove
"Amongst the finest short story writers in the UK right now" ~ Black Pear Press

Monday, 12 March 2018

In Praise of Hairy Women

Who doesn't love Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Lady character in The Greatest Showman, who sings the iconic anthem, This is Me? Yesterday, my daughter took me to a singalong version of the film for a Mother's Day treat, and we both belted out This is Me at the tops of our voices. Both Lettie and the song have become symbols for anyone who feels marginalised or different.

It so happens that last week I watched another film about a hairy woman, the very beautiful Norwegian coming-of-age film, Løvekvinnen, or The Lion Woman, based on a book by Erik Fosnes Hanson. It tells the story of Eva Arctander, who is born in a small town in the early 20th century and struggles to find her place in the world. Especially, it concerns her relationship with her stationmaster father, widowed at her birth. I loved this film - which I watched on Netflix - and I definitely want to see it again.

One of my best reads of last year was Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch, based on the real-life story of Julia Pastrana (pictured) a Mexican-born "human oddity", who sang and danced on tour across the USA and the world. It's a fascinating and moving story about what it is to be human, and has a wonderful timeslip sub-plot. If you haven't read it, run to the library now!

And finally, for a contemporary, own-voices take on female body hair, please watch BBC3's video Things Not To Say To Hairy Women. This is part of a brilliant series that takes you into the lives of others - and the stupid cliches they encounter. Let's all be more understanding! And let's celebrate human life in all its variety!


Monday, 19 February 2018

Hairy Worms Revisited

On this blog, I have written a number of pieces about parthenogenesis and asexual reproduction. The first was this one: Giving Birth to Hairy Worms, which was inspired by a book called The Manly Masquerade. In it, I noted the Renaissance belief that reproduction could happen spontaneously, that things could be born of putrefaction, and that:

  • Women's wombs could spontaneously produce all sorts of things, from monsters and harpies, to wood, glass or combs, to serpents, toads and hairy worms.  (I particularly like the hairy worms.  Why hairy??)
 It seems this idea is less far-fetched than it seems, as today I was reading about homunculi. Rather than attempt to explain it myself, I direct you to this article: The Homunculus Inside. (Trigger warning: the photos are not for the squeamish!)

It seems this would also be a good time to tell you that my articles on parthenogenesis (as well as my own experience of both asexuality and gynaecological problems) have inspired a couple of short stories, both of which are currently submitted to magazines. One is called Pandora's Pithos, in which the protagonist finds herself the mother of:
Tiny winged people, russet-green as rose thorns.  A hare in a nun's habit.  A bird with cat's ears and the face of a woman.  Weasels with wings made of cogs and pistons.  A comb with eyes, running sideways on its many teeth.  A serpent with braided hair.  A glass toad.
And the other story A Wingless Wedding - which I read at the Brick Box Rooms' "Talking in Tongues" during LGBT history month - was directly influenced by the discoveries about gall wasps, noted in Amazing Asexuality:
Wingless don't reproduce sexually.  That's the task of their children, the Winged, who in turn have Wingless children.  We're the only planet in our star system where this happens, and it's the same in every country.  Customs and traditions vary, but one thing has stayed the same the world over.  There has never been a Wingless wedding.
I do hope you find all this as fascinating as I do!

Monday, 12 February 2018

Puzzles in the Alice Books

Recently, I listened to a radio documentary called Two Thousand Years of Puzzling, tracing the history of the puzzle, from mazes to crosswords and everything in between. It mentioned Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - aka Lewis Carroll - author of the Alice books. Dodgson was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, and loved a good mathematical puzzle. In fact, he seemed to love puzzles of every kind. Just thinking about Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, I was struck by how many different types of puzzle feature in them. Here are some I noticed:

  • Chess and Playing Cards. The main settings of the two books. Obviously, these are games, but there can be a lot of mathematics involved, and plenty of chess and playing card puzzles have been set and solved over the centuries.
  • Riddles. The infamous, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Frustratingly, this one has no answer (although Jasper Fforde - that great Aliceophile - comes up with a few in his Thursday Next books).
  • Spacial puzzles. How can Alice fit through the little door? She has to experiment with making herself bigger and smaller until she finds the answer.
  • Word play. The Alice books are practically swimming in this. (See what I did there?) One example I like is towards the end of Looking Glass:
    • "You look a little shy; let me introduce you to that leg of mutton," said the Red Queen. "Alice - Mutton; Mutton - Alice."
    • "May I give you a slice?"
    • "Certainly not. It isn't etiquette to cut any one you've been introduced to."
    • (In this example, cut means both "to slice with a knife" and "to deliberately blank someone.")
  • Games with complicated rules. The Caucus Race. (Another pun). The Queen's croquet game, played with hedgehogs and flamingos. The Rules of Battle between the Red and White Knights.
  • The puzzle of Who Stole the Tarts?
  • Mathematical calculations. Often simple ones made ridiculously complicated, as when Alice has to write down 365-1=364 as a sum for Humpty Dumpty, and even then he isn't convinced of the answer.

Those are just some that I have spotted. Can you think of any more?

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Happy New Reading!

It's almost 2018, and here I am with my Christmas/birthday book haul. Possibly the best ever. I thought I'd post this now, at the threshold to a new year and revisit it later when I've read all the books in the pile, so you can hear my verdict on them.

So, here's the list:

  • To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child. Strange things happen when a husband goes to explore the interior of Alaska and his wife is left behind.
  • At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, author of my beloved Phantastes. Classic Victorian fantasy about a boy and a cab horse.
  • The Paper Magician by Charlie N Homberg. First in a series about a student magician.
  • The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo. A fairy-tale memoir of Finland and Sweden. Recently mentioned by booktuber Jen Campbell.
  • The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote by Dan Micklethwaite, one of my fellow Fogotten & Fantastical authors. A modern fairytale of the inner city.
  • The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa. A Japanese novel in the tradition of the classic I am a Cat.
  • Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn. The beginning of a new epic from the author of Across the Nightingale Floor.
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. A winter fairy tale of Russia.
  • The Caller by Juliet Marillier. Concluding part of the Shadowfell trilogy by one of my favourite ever authors.
  • Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger. Graphic novel that became a ballet, by the author of The Time Traveller's Wife. (Not in the picture because it's still in the post!)
I'm quite happy with this list, because it contains a mixture of English-language and translated books, as well as independent and mainstream. 

Do you have a big Christmas haul of books to read? Or any reading resolutions for the new year? Let me know!

Monday, 23 October 2017

Holidays with Hitler: The Seduction of Nostopia

Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd

This week, I have been reading Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd.  It might sound like a grim read, but actually it's fascinating.  According to the blurb:

Travellers in the Third Reich is an extraordinary history of the rise of the Nazis based on fascinating first-hand accounts, drawing together a multitude of voices and stories, including students, politicians, musicians, diplomats, schoolchildren, communists, scholars, athletes, poets, journalists, fascists, artists, tourists, even celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Beckett. Their experiences create a remarkable three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler – one so palpable that the reader will feel, hear, even breathe the atmosphere.
And it's true.  You really do feel like you're there, all the way from 1919 to 1945.  What may seem incredible to some is that foreigners (especially British and American) kept on holidaying in Germany and sending their young people there for cultural exchanges and education, right up to the outbreak of war.  And it wasn't necessarily because they were fascists.  Many had happy memories of honeymoons or student days in Germany before the Great War, which they wanted to relive.  Many didn't even notice (or excused) the sinister aspects of the regime, such as anti-Semitism, brainwashing, or preparations for another war.  What they saw were medieval towns, mountains, castles, singing peasants in traditional costume, clean streets and polite young people.  They could put Brown Shirt violence and the endless marching and heiling to one side, because what their cared about was "their" Germany, the "real" Germany.  The Germany of Goethe, Schubert and the Brothers Grimm.

A vintage travel poster

It's easy to be seduced by this idea.  Even now, it's easy to put the Nazi regime to one side and tell ourselves that the rich heritage of music and story is the "real" Germany, and that other thing with the jackboots was just a bad dream.

Except, that seduction was the Nazis' most powerful tool.  Most people didn't come to support and revere Hitler because they wanted to march in perfect formation all day holding flags (although some did).  Even less because they wanted to send people to the gas chambers (although some wanted that too).  What they wanted was the same as what the tourists wanted: an ideal Germany of castles, forests, and pretty little villages, straight from the pages of a fairy tale book.  A Germany of what we would today call nostopia.  A place where they didn't have to worry about debt or unemployment or Soviet Russia, or be made uncomfortable by people on the fringes, who thought, worshipped or loved differently from the average.

On one level, this is an innocent, childlike desire. "It was all lovely, and now you've gone and spoilt it."  On another, it is a noble, even a heavenly desire, the vision of Revelation, of a world with no more crying or sorrow or pain.  BUT where it is far from innocent or noble is in the idea that you can create such a world by sweeping all that is undesirable into the bin, and turning your fellow-countrymen into unthinking automata, who WILL be happy, because you say so.  After all, one person's dream is another's nightmare.

An early cover for Grimm's Fairy Tales

I didn't go into this book intending to reflect on present-day politics.  I actually intended it as research for a story I've been trying to write since the noughties.  But, travelling with Julia Boyd through the Third Reich, I could understand the seduction of everything from "Islamic State" to Trump's America.  The idea that you can somehow put the world back to factory settings, and it will all be perfect again.  You can't do that.  You have to go on and change the world slowly, one person at a time.  And embrace suffering.  Your own suffering, not a suffering forced on others.

I won't lie.  I find the idea of a fairy tale world deeply seductive.  But all fairy tale readers know that pretty gingerbread houses contain witches, that wolves lurk in the forests, that the castle holds something unspeakable behind a closed door.  We mustn't be taken in.  We must journey with the protagonist, not get seduced by the frontispiece.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Prizes Galore at Swanwick!

I'm always excited when the week comes around for my annual pilgrimage to Swanwick Writers' Summer School.  But this year was extra-exciting because I'd won 2nd Prize in the annual Short Story Contest.

As regular readers of my blog will know, this story was about 19th century abolitionist and showman Henry "Box" Brown, about whom I read in David Olusoga's magnificent book Black and British: A Forgotten History.  And, oh yes, I might have mentioned once or twice that I met David at Bradford Lit Fest and told him all about it.  I don't think I will ever get sick of this photo:

I was a little disappointed that only 1st prize winners got a reserved slot in the Prose Open Mic, meaning that, while I did get to read my story, my 5 minutes ran out before I reached the closing line, "Henry Brown will never escape the box," and I was so late in the programme that most people had left for the bar/Wild West Disco.  However, it was enjoyed by the faithful few.

I must add that I carried the rather heavy framed certificate home in a box.

What I didn't expect was that I would become the runner and prizegiver of my own competition.  During the journey to Swanwick, I decided to set a fun quiz for people bored on trains/buses.  Could anyone name the children's novel that provided the name for our cat, Sootica?  When no one came forward with an answer, I decided to raise the stakes by offering a real prize instead of a 🎁 virtual sticker.  To wit: a review copy of my ebook short story collection, Tales from the Hidden Grove.  The winner was Helen Ellwood, who named the answer as Gobbolino the Witch's Cat by Ursula Moray Williams.  Helen she has agreed to give me a review of my book when she's read it.  And possibly of Gobbolino, too?!

Winners all round, then?

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Bradford Lit Fest: Past, Present and Future

This is my last day at the festival, as I have responsibilities tomorrow.  Looking at my planned line-up of events, I expect to have my mind blown!

I begin in the Old Building of Bradford College, which feels like a fascinating journey into the past.  I took a course here once, but have never been in the Sir Henry Mitchell Hall.  It feels like one of the theatres from my Angelio Trilogy.  I'm here for Jerusalem: The Anthem, although we have to wait a while for all the speakers to be ready.  One of them is Ben Okri, who I had to study at uni, so this should be interesting, since I studied Blake as well.

We are given some background to the poem, which originally appeared in the preface to two handmade copies of Milton.  We learn of Blake's pacifism, his unique but strong brand of Christian faith, and his sense of himself as a prophet, who saw a landscape infused with the spiritual.  We also hear how Hubert Parry was commissioned to write the music for a rally in 1916 to renew flagging fervour for the War, and how he quickly came to hate the use it had been put to.  How Parry bequeathed the copyright of his version to the suffragette movement, which was how it came to be taken up by the Women's Institute, and how it was put into Anglican hymnals in the 1930s.  An extraordinary history that reflects that fact that - as Ben Okri reminds us - we read all poetry through the lens of ourselves and our own times,  I feel a great affinity with Blake's vision of walking in of a symbolic universe.  And by the end, I sense we all feel the poem should be reclaimed in the name of peace and justice.  The event ends with a special performance of the song, which has now taken on a new life in our hearts.

After a quick sandwich, I venture into the Time Theories of JB Priestley.  I know pitifully little about Bradford's famous son, but he turns out to be another visionary, whose writing prefigures later movies like Fight Club and Sliding Doors.  We hear about the pre-War academic writings and philosophy that influenced him and other writers such as Eliot, Joyce, Tolkien and Huxley.  For example: living multiple lives in alternate timelines. The circularity of time. The idea that dreams are in a different dimension of time where you can see the past and the future.  I go away with a reading list and the sense of a newly-discovered kindred spirit. 

Lastly, I prepare to explore The Science of Immortality, with Anthony Peake from the previous event, and Akram Khan.  It's hot and I feel a bit faint; I hope I get through it.  The discussion takes in questions of bodily life (What are we made of? Can the body regenerate?), questions of AI (would a human consciousness downloaded into a machine still be human?) and questions of subjective experience, such as Near Death Experiences and déja vu. We are led to question if all our reality is actually part of a larger singularity, or even a holographic projection.  It will take me a few weeks to process all these ideas, but I see lots of potential for new stories!

As I come to the end of my time at the festival, it seems fitting to end with this thought: that we come from ancient stardust and will go to far future stardust.  I'm sure something eternal has been created this week.