Thursday, 21 July 2016

Playing at Shakespeare

My father, on his 21st birthday
My father was a Victorian, born before the century moved from 19th to 20th, but he had modish ideas about playtime. When I was quite small…five, six, seven…and my mother wanted a day out shopping in town, I’d stay with Dad and we’d play together. He was in his fifties and already retired when I was born, so he was always there, in the house, a ready-made nanny when my mother needed a break.
If it was sunny, we’d go for a steady walk together, maybe to the local farm, where we could see the animals and pick up eggs, but I didn’t enjoy that. Dad was not a well man. He’d stop all the time, resting on walls while his breathing steadied and his colour returned. And I was shy of the farmer’s wife because I knew Dad had told her a lie on our first visit. She’d looked down at me, kicking my sandals against the doorstep, and asked him if this was his granddaughter.
“Yes,” he’d said. 
Now, as a grown-up, I understand that little fib. We’ve all told them, when the truth is just way to complicated to go into with a stranger. He could have said, “This is my daughter by my second marriage. I have a son in Australia, a married daughter with children of her own and I lost my eldest son in the war,” but of course, he wasn’t going to go into all that. Even so, the little fib rubbed on my young conscience and on my guilty distaste of having such elderly parents, whom I loved, but wanted to hide away from my friends. 
So it was when it rained, that I enjoyed our times together best. I much preferred to stay in the house and play at Shakespeare.
Print by Charles Sherwin (1764-1794)
after an original work by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).

Shakespeare was my favourite game to play with my father, and of all the versions, the Three Witches of Macbeth
was the best of all.
Firstly we’d have to find the props. I’d rush round the house and garden, collecting a cauldron (usually Mum’s old enamelled washtub), plus evil things to throw into it. Building the fire was the most challenging, but usually I sneaked into my parent’s bedroom, because there would be soft silky things in scarlet. Once we had the fire lit in the middle of the dining room, with criss-crossed sticks from the real pile of kindling and the soft silks peeking out between, the cauldron was balanced on top. Then we dressed ourselves up, draping counterpanes and old curtains round our shoulders and making pointed hats from newspapers or cereal boxes. Dad would start the game, reading from a copy of the complete works that long ago had fallen into disrepair.
“Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d!” He used a cracked, high-pitched voice which instantly hit me in the stomach, dispatching me into a dark wood, to the mouth of an even darker cavern. When it was my go, he mouthed my words at me (we only had one copy) – “Tis time, 'tis time!” I screeched back, and we circled the fire, me skipping, him taking his usual steady pace.
“Round about the cauldron go; 
In the poison'd entrails throw…”
I had all the entrails in one of Mum’s forgotten shopping baskets and we took turns to throw them in, choosing items which at least vaguely resembled the original.
“Toad, that under cold stone…swelter’d venom sleeping got. Fillet of a fenny snake, Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and owlet's wing…”
And then, my favourite bit, which we’d cackle out together.
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
When we ran out of things to throw in the pot, and I’d have to scamper off again, searching anew for something that, with a bit of imagination (and we both had plenty of that), could represent the next batch of magical ingredients.
Scale of dragon…waxy laurel leaves usual did the trick. Tooth of wolf…a sliver off a tallow candle. Witches’ mummy…an unfortunate rag doll.  Maw and gulf of the ravin'd salt-sea shark…frankly, if there had been fish in the fridge, we’d’ve commandeered it, but mostly we managed with a cut-out fishy shape. Root of hemlock was nice and easy, a weed pulled from the flowerbed (least, we hoped it was a weed), and slips of yew even easier as we had a hedge full of it. In fact, not much stumped us, certainly not nose of Turk and Tartar's lips – I had saved a set of grotesque plastic lips and false nose from a cracker, just for this purpose. Even finger of birth-strangled babe, however macabre that was, however much I shivered at the thought of it, was easily got – there was always an old wine cork in the pantry somewhere. But liver of blaspheming Jew…that was tricky. For a start, I wasn’t sure what a blaspheming Jew was, and Dad never precisely explained, and liver, which I utterly hated the taste of, was not something I fancied handling. Dad usually dealt with this by throwing in the soft, round red cushion that he used for the back of his neck. Once all of these were in, we’d set off again.
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
Then Hecate would appear. Dad would swap his witch’s hat for one of my mother’s best ones, further raising his voice so that it trilled out. “And now about the cauldron sing, live elves and fairies in a ring, enchanting all that you put in.”
This was my cue; the best line in the entire game. “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, Whoever knocks!”
Dad would throw off Mum’s good hat and put on his trilby, transforming into Macbeth.
This game could happily take an entire rainy afternoon, but, despite the deep love for Shakespeare it gave me, what I recall most about it are not the words – powerful and iconic though they are – I had no idea that this stuff had been loved and studied across the world for almost five hundred years. My happiest memories are searching for the cauldron’s ingredients, scabbling in the cupboard under the stairs, at the backs of kitchen drawers and in my mother’s wardrobe, where odd-looking items like corn pads could always be uncovered. Playing The Three Witches of Macbeth grounded me in my own home in a way the other Shakespeare games couldn’t do. Hamlet only required bedsheets (even so, the ghost frightened me to the core), and Romeo and Juliet, although needing pretty things for me to dress up in, was a bit long-winded, in my view, and Dad never attempted climbing to the balcony, he merely took the stairs to where I stood on the upper landing. R&J was generally a bit of a let-down compared to The Witches.
Naturally, my mother never knew about the game of Shakespeare; she was always out when we played it and the entire thing was rapidly cleared away before she returned – silken petticoats (probably snagged) back upstairs, the washtub stored outside, and the pointed hats smoothed down, ready to screw up for the fire.
I would love to be able to thank my father for his introduction to the Game of Shakespeare, but I’m sure he was well aware of the long-term results. And anyway, he loved our secret afternoons together just as much as I did. They remained our secret, until I shared them with my own children.
The original Complete Shakespeare, in tiny print on wafter-thin paper, had fallen  apart long before my kids were
old enough to dress up and dance around cauldrons, so I bought a three volume edition, embossed in a dust-proof slipcase, which I’ll still get out and read, before a trip to the theatre.

My father died shortly after my eleventh birthday, and he never had the opportunity to take me to a Shakespeare play, but when I did finally see one – which was not until I took my English Lit exams – I instantly fell in love with them. I cannot, to this day, hear the words, “round and round the cauldron go,” without being winged back to that old house, the rain drizzling down the windows, the smell of the drawers by my mother’s bedside, and me and my dad playing at witches.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Further Adventures at the Hay Festival

I'm not the only one with happy, if quixotic memories of a day at the Hay. Photographer Amano was out and about with his camera, trying to get pictorial imagery of the world of book festival;

 … an official accosts me. Perhaps he saw me taking a photograph of the bus stop outside where people were queuing up or maybe he just noticed the camera, a small one hardly bigger than a phone, strung around my neck. Of course, I am used to being challenged as a photographer but am still surprised to be told that no photography is allowed on site and that if I am seen with a camera, I might be asked to leave since cameras are not actually allowed on site unless one has permission… 
Read more of Amano's adventures at the Hay Festival here

Friday, 8 July 2016

‘We Need New Names,’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

 NoViolet Bulawayo
 a Guardian first book award nominee for
We Need New Names.
Photograph: Mark Pringle
Novels sometimes grow out of short stories. In a previous blog, I talked about Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrell the 900 page fantasy that only got noticed after its author, Susanna Clarke, had a short story published. NoViolet Bulawayo has experienced something like this; she won the Caine Prize for African Writing with Hitting Budapest a short story which tells the story of poverty-stricken children on the hunt for food at any price. Now she’s been shortlisted for the Man-Booker with what feels like an expansion of this tale; We Need New Names. A great title, by the way, as it both demonstrates the major theme in the book but is also uttered by one of the children in the story as they play their games around a grim shanty town ironically named Paradise. Bulawayo uses the eyes of ten-year-old Darling to portray everything she believes is wrong with government policies in her home country, Zimbabwe. Her characters are destitute – and desperate – they no longer have a school or a house, or even enough food, since the police bulldozed their township.

Darling, and her gang of friends, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina may be children, but they have experienced a lot of life. Chipo is pregnant after being raped by her grandfather - later in the novel we watch her childhood disappear as she matures into a very young mother.

Playing in the scrubland, they see a body suicide hanging from a tree. They steal the woman's almost new shoes to sell for bread.Then  Darling's father returns from South Africa with AIDS and she empathetically describes how the children respond to a terminally sick person. 

In the Guardian, reviewer Helon Habila, does raise the issue of cramming into the novel every ‘African’ topic” …as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning's news on Africa…  ( this is a good point, new writers should always do well to avoid the temptation to ‘tell all their world’, but I think she pulls this off using a brilliant combination of continued action with a fine sense of rhythm and use of language. Bulawayo uses original images to portray her scenes of Darling’s world…the bulldozers appear boiling… constructing a powerful ‘voice’ for Darling’s narration, which imbues her with dignity, resilience and a fighting spirit. In a tense chapter, the gang are ‘scrumping’ for guavas in a posh neighbouring suburb, when, still up in the trees, they witness a pro-Mugabe attack by black partisans on the whites living in the huge houses, binding their hands and taking them away, chanting "Africa for Africans!”

Darling has been promised that she will be sent to America, where her aunt Fostalina lives. This move is needed in the novel – Bulawayo clearly wanted to contrast Darling’s two lives – but I enjoyed the first half of the book a lot more.

Being a very real pre-pubescent girl, Darling soon reinvents herself as a typical US kid, and this weakens the link with the core themes of the novel. Even so, we’re reminded just how much work that might take…“The problem with English is this: You usually can't open your mouth and it comes out just like that--first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right.
But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it's as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it's the language and the whole process that's messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don't know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying…

Darling naturally begins to forget her old land and previous love of her old friends, although not so completely that we can’t keep tabs on them in the book; during a Skype call Chipo tells her, “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?”

 NoViolat Bulawayo is the pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele. Born in Zimbabwe, In 2010, she gained a fellowship after completing her MA in Creative Writing at Cornell University.  This short, very readable book that bravely recounts a life in a country we’re usually allowed to know very little about.

Friday, 1 July 2016

An OCA Excursion into Literature

Marlon James, 2015 Booker prize-winner,
with OCA alumni, Pat

A  Day at the  Hay with the OCA

A day in the sun at Hay…it’s one of the selling points of the Hay Festival – photos on the website are focused on people under sun umbrellas reading their latest purchase and drinking cool lager. This is a risky ploy for a Welsh summer event, but it paid off for the Open College of the Arts posse that arrived at the festival grounds on bank holiday Saturday. We’d come for the culture, of course we had. We’d come for the literature, naturally, for the heightened conversation we’d enjoy with each other after sharing events. But the fact the sun was out certainly helped. We'd come to see the stars of the literary world, and they turned out to be really nice people as well as great writers...
A Nobel Laureate, a Man-Booker winner,
the Samual Johnson Prize winner...
no, not us in the selfie, the great writers we'd come to enjoy
to read the rest of this blogpost, follow the link to weareOCA

Friday, 24 June 2016

Join me at the 10th UK Shamanic Gathering

Thursday 8th  – Sunday 11th  September 2016

If you feel you have a leaning towards shamanism, as a spiritual path or as a spiritual tool within your own path, then why not join us at the biggest gathering of shamans in the UK? Each year the gathering acts as a meeting place for those interested in shamanism as a living path of spiritual wisdom. It is open to anyone – with any level of shamanic experience – and is held within a friendly sacred circle
Shaman Nicolas Breeze-Wood,
editor or Sacred Hoop and
Doris, our shamanic clown
at the 2015 gathering.
You don't have to have had any formal shamanic training to join the circle - just a willingness to be open-hearted to the spirit world which is all around us. A fine feast of ceremony, workshops, discussion groups, dance and teachings from many traditions with:

Maria Runningwater • Christiana Harle & Martin Wilford • Sika Rose • Amir Korvalian • Trisha Mulholland • Jonathan Weekes • Michelle Easton • Rosemary O’Toole • Annie Spencer & Howard Malpas • Supi • “Doris” The New Age Guru • Nina Milton • Derek Gane • Kate Merriwether • Catherine Brew & Angie McLachlan • Leo Rutherford • Sarah Howcroft • Moira Lake

 check their website here 

The Conference will take place at the green and peaceful venue of Earthspirit, just outside of Glastonbury in the tiny village of Compton Dundon. Lovely accommodation and delicious food are always part of the Gathering experience.  I was there last year, when over 70 people gathered together for this event and found it one of the most happy, friendly and fulfilling experiences I've recently had. This year I'm back with a workshop for participants who also write (or want to) creatively; Writing over the Rainbow Bridge.

listen to a shamanic chant here

the 4 Day Programme includes…

Workshop for those new to  Shamanic Journeying 
or those wishing to Recap: Mari Runningwater 
Lighting the Conference Fire and Opening the Gathering in a traditional
International therapist and profession gardener
 Carrie Thomas
Mongolian/Tuvan way: Christiana Harle and Martin Wilford

Workshops include;
Shamanic Drum Birthing Ceremony: Jonathan Weeks
Gratitude and Sacred Plants as Offerings: Michelle Easton
Wand of Dreams: Rosemary O’Toole
Rites of Passage and Initiation: Annie Spencer and Howard Malpas
Free Me: Unbinding the Gender Binaries: Catherine Brew and Angie McLachlan
Choosing the Right dream: Supi    
Dancing the Dream Body Awake: Trisha Mulholland Plant Spirits and the Sacred Dream: Moira Lake
Shamanigins: “Doris” The New Age Guru                           
Writing Over the Rainbow Bridge - Write Creatively with help from your Spirit World: Nina Milton
Discover the Magic of Ceremony: Derek Gane
The Heart Beat of our Ancestors: Kate Merriwether
Colours Without Names:  Sarah Howcroft
Trance Dance: Leo Rutherford and Sika Rose

Ceremony of Gratitude and Connection: Annie Spencer, Trisha Mulholland 

Regular Discussion Groups, meetings in Home Groups and Meditation and
Movement workshops

The yew tree in Compton Dundon Churchyard

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

I could tell The Chimes was written by a poet, as soon as I opened it and started reading – long before I discovered Anna Smaill has also had a book of poetry published. The language here is lyrical, with the introduction of words that add to its strangeness, the narrative necessarily fragmented and filled with sensory impressions. But it’s perhaps because Smaill is a violinist, that in her first novel, she’s deeply imagined what a world without writing, but full of music, might be like. 

She describes a dystopian future, where Britain’s democratic government has been swept away by a catastrophic event called the ‘blasphony', and replaced with an autocratic, musical ruling elite in Oxford, known as the Order. The written word has been replaced with the ‘Carillon’, a vast musical instrument made from palladium, the ‘pale Lady’, a rare metallic element, which sweeps away people’s memory, leaving them with a life that feels the same each and every day. At times, the pitch of ‘the chimes’ causes physical collapse followed by death

Anna Smaill Photo Credit - Natalie Graham
Simon Wythern has inherited a gift from his mother, who died of ‘chimesickness'. Like her, he can see other people’s memories. Now, he's heading for London, his memory bag over his shoulder and a melody in his head that leads him along…

‘You going in to be prentissed?’ 
I shake my head. ‘I’m going in to trade.’ 
He studies my farmclothes and my single roughcloth bag and is tacet awhile. ‘And a ride back?’ he says. ‘You’ll be looking for one, I suppose?’
I meet his look and there’s nothing in my eyes. I don’t need a ride back. I have a name and a song to find, a thread to follow. But it’s not something to share. With my gaze I dare him to ask again, but he turns to the front and hitches the reins. We go forward and the cart’s bumping goes through me…

Simon joins a pact of urchins, run by a boy called Lucien. They mudlark the Thames riverbank and search ‘the under’, the abandoned subterranean city tunnels, for the Lady, which they can trade for food, not knowing that this trade maintains the Carillon which oppresses them.

Simon’s friendship with enigmatic Lucien becomes a beautifully described love affair, as they begin to piece together the memories Simon’s mother left him, with the memories Lucien has of being a gifted musician in the Order. 

Rather like Pullman’s His Dark Materials, every small child in The Chimes learns to play an instrument and finds the meaning of themselves through the music they make. This creates a focus for the novel, a point we can understand about this complex world; 

I pick up my recorder and I start to play, even though I don’t know how to make the voice that is missing. When I have played all my feeling into the first part of the tune, I still don’t know, but by then it is too late and I no longer care, so I just play it. I play it high and reckless and free so that it flies above all the others. I play it with some of the anger I feel and some that I throw in for extra. I play a voice that has never known anything except for luck and beauty…

The Thames from Oxford to London

It took me a little time to get used to Smaill’s use of music as a controlling, menacing force, but I loved the way she used musical terminology in her character’s speech. Above the story, which starts out as an absorbing read, is a wider theme of shared  memory and how important that is for a cohesive society, and the dystopia she creates is very believable.

But as Lucien and Simon travel to Oxford, bent of destroying the Carillon, the plotting thins and loses its connection with the body of the story. When Smaill needed to ‘up’ the dramatic tension, as we reach the climactic end of the book, her plotting doesn’t quite succeed as well and her rich writing style. I can vouch for how hard it is to create a convincing, plausible and yet thrilling end to a story, tying in the loose ends needed to be tied, while yet not knotting them up too tightly or letting them unravel completely, and keeping the reader believing in the tale and its inhabitants. I wished Smaill had spent a few months sorting out what was wrong with her denouement, but it didn’t stop me enjoying the world she’s invented, the language she uses, and the glorious characters who inhabit The Chimes.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Seven Acts of Kindness for your Favourite Author

Seven Acts of Kindness
 to Show Your Favourite Author
How Much you Love their Books
I’m a reader, as well as an author. I frequent bookshops,
Readers, writers and photographers at the Hay
hang around libraries and love literary festivals (just back from the Hay Festival). I try to get to author’s events. But it wasn’t un
til I became a published writer, that I began to understand just how important is a reader’s support. Before this, I didn’t do much more than pass books I’d loved onto friends, but, if you really love a book, (and especially if you love mine), there is so much more you can do to help your beloved authors – and it’s far easier that you might think. Here are seven little acts of kindness that are quick and free, and could mean so much to those poor, half-starved writers who have grown pale and thin in garrets, while they created the books you love.

Recommend their books!  
Recently, I explained to a new fan who was asking me when number four would come out, that publishers don’t continue with series which aren’t selling steadily. “Oh, my goodness,” she said. “I’ll get my friends to order it.”
Pop into your local bookshop to ask them if they’ll stock the series you’re reading so avidly. Tell them how you loved this book and how you know people in the neighbourhood will too. Take a copy, show them how the cover worked for you.

Be there for them
Events, workshops, signings, readings, launchesit is awful to do one of those,
and find only your sister and a few close friends in the audience. Recently, I held a launch for the third of my series, and the place was packed; so I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone again for taking time out to be there. It was a great day and everyone enjoyed themselves.

Write an honest review. 
Love them or hate them, they are a massive component in book sales. Reviewing on Amazon can really help books you loved rank higher in the Amazon search engines.  My kind reviewers have help me keep five stars for my Shaman Mysteries, reviews like this one for the latest in the series; 
By Sandy on 5 April 2016 Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is innovative and interesting. The writing is excellent. The weaving of the Arthurian legends into the book adds quite another dimension to the Sabbie Dare stories. It is mystical and intriguing. The atmosphere of 'otherness' works well. I really enjoyed the smooth transition from what is - to what might be. Hidden among the ancient tales in the mists of Avalon. The plot is complex, and dare I say devious, it twists and turns to the final climax. Nina Milton is to be congratulated on this most original and intriguing story.

Amazon reviews don’t need to be long, but if you end up writing a lot, you could think about sending your review to a magazine you take. Recently I had a lovely review In Indie Shaman, a magazine for modern shamans, which was also kindly posted on Amazon by its writer – here’s an extract:
Beneath the Tor seamlessly blends the mystical with the realities of every-day life into an absorbing and intriguing murder mystery. Set in the West Country, Beneath the Tor is the third of author Nina Milton’s Shaman Mystery series in which therapeutic shaman Sabbie Dare uses her shamanic skills to solve murder mysteries. But the Otherworld rarely gives a direct answer, as discovered by many a contemporary shaman…

Sign up your support.
Your cherished author will have a Facebook Page you can ‘like’, a twitter account you can  ‘follow’ and a website – or, like me,  a blog site where you can sign up to receive each blog as a regular email. My followers have signed up because it prevents them missing out on news and great reviews of other books, as well as hints and tips for writers. Just go to the top of this page and fill in the very short form. And nothing is permanent; you can cancel just as easily.

Ask your local library to carry their books.‎ Bristol Central Library new wing
So long as you recommend my books to others, I really don’t mind whether you get my stories from a library, a charity shop, an online order or a visit to a local bookshop. What’s important is telling others to read too. A friend of mine recently recommended a crime fiction author I’d never heard of, and I’m reading his book, borrowed from the library, but if I enjoy it, I’ll probably buy the next one. Librarians are always on the lookout for new works, so go ahead and ask for them to stock the writers you love.

Share the love on social media!  
Authors rely heavily on social media to spread the word about their work.  When you read something they’ve shared, pass it on, with a share on Facebook, a retweet, or a pin on Pinterest. I get a real buzz when I post something and someone comes back saying - “just reading your book and loving it” - that’s happened several times. And don’t forget the book-loving social media sites, like Booklikes (independent) or Goodreads (Amazon-owned), My most recent review on Goodreads  was by Facebook friend by Sue Hewitt; I was charmed to read this well-written novel full of diverse characters reminiscent of people I have met on my own life journey. Shamanistic elements of the story merge seamlessly with the more mundane day to day lives of these characters. It does not matter whether you believe in the ability of a Shaman to travel between the physical and the spiritual world. For sceptics, suspend your disbelief for a while, and just go along for the ride. The twists and turns of the plot kept me guessing throughout and the various threads are drawn together in an unexpected climax. Thanks so much Sue!

Go really crazy!
I know a doggie-loving fan of  Shiela Webster Boneham's Animals in Focus Mystery Series, who pinned up photocopies of the book covers at her local vets, where she works as an animal nurse. It's up on the board amongh dog food adverts and notices about pet-sitters. I have a lot of lovely support in the pagan and shamanic communities, with people recommending my books by taking their copies to moots and festivals and showing them around. Thanks so much for that!

I use bookmarks to share with my friends and I’m always happy to hand more out (I’m at After all, many authors make little profit from their books - they write because they have a story to tell. Send the ones you admire the most an email saying how much you appreciate their work. Add a picture of yourself reading their book! If you do that for me, I will love you back forever!

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Writing the 4 Simplicities

This week, I'm guest blogging again for, the blog for all artists and writers concerned with learning with the Open College of the Arts. I'm a writer, tutor and assessor for the OCA, and love its deep commitment to engaging with people of all ages and backgrounds, who want to improve and connect with artistic endeavour, including painting and drawing, photography, music and creative writing, as well as things like art history.

Ironically, writers do not necessarily find simplicity easy to attain. First drafts often result in spontaneous explosions of writing which feel very good to get down on paper, but perhaps disappoint when you read them through. You have probably repeated yourself unnecessarily or written in an overblown way; you may even find the dreaded ‘purple passages’ – darlings that need to be murdered. 

This week on the blog, I'm looking at the four basics for good, strong writing as laid down in the very first of the creative writing courses most students do:
economy (or brevity)
But I've discovered that there is a fifth fellow, who belongs in 
this list and it's that one I want to talk about... Click Here to read the entire blogpost on the OCA BLOG,

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - The Finest English Novel

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me …

Dressed in an oriental robe and a white skin-suit scribbled all over with the predictions of a medieval English magician, I cried out those lines in a fit of madness. 

I was playing Vinculus, a character in the amazing, intriguing and compelling book called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A group of 10 of us, all lovers of this 1000 page (if you include the copious footnotes) work of magical fiction, had gathered together to enact, discuss and explore this amazing achievement. Acting out a huge piece of fantasy is not as daunting as it may seem; the same group of people have acted out Tolkien’s work and all of Homer’s, using a three day period to do so. In that time, we eat, dress and sleep the book in question. 

 Susanna Clarke writes about her invented world with such ease; it’s easy to believe England could really be like this – filled with magic and romance. It has been described as  'Harry Potter for grownups’ but that really does not do this eloquent and momentous work justice, although adults who adored Harry Potter will be impressed with the rich characterization and the great finale to the story.

Clarke has a flair for language, utilising the right words at all the right moments. She chose for her style an emulation of Jane Austin, (including archaic spellings). Some passages made me laugh aloud – Austin was funny, and here is another layer spread upon that ironic wit. 

I’m not alone in loving the book; Neil Gaiman said,  Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It's funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical...

This was Clarke's first book, although she’d prepared the ground by writing some short stories set in her parallel universe – a world that has the same history as our own, except for the fact that England was once filled with magic and magicians, and the North of England was ruled separately, by the Raven King – John Uskglass – a man who had been spirited away to fairyland as a child and returned full of fairy magic.

Ready to dance till dawn
 at the Fairy Ball in the kingdom of Lost Hope
But all that was centuries ago. When the book starts in1806, England is struggling with the Napoleonic war, and practical magic has faded into the nation's past – now magic is only studied ‘theoretically’.  But two of these students discover that Mr Norrell can really do magic. He’s studied the books all his life, and his displays of magic lead him, and his mysterious servant, John Childermass, from the north of the country to the bustling city of London. After he successfully brings a beautiful woman back from the dead and  terrifies the French army with a fleet of ghostly ships, he is taken to the bosom of the rich and fashionable. Gilbert Norrell is dedicated to book-learning and he's trying desperately to ignore and forget that in raising Lady Pole from the dead, he has awaken an amoral fairy king, who is now strutting around our world, enchanting people. When Jonathan Strange, the 2nd magician in the prophecy emerges, a dangerous battle of wills begins. Strange is young, dashing and daring, and not at all interested in only learning magic from books. While Norell,  a reclusive and cautious man,  is trying to get rid of any taint of dangerous fairy magic, Strange is actively bringing it back. He has no idea what a menace the fairy king posses, especially to his own lovely wife.

I was soon hooked on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the first time I read it, even though you need to get through at least the first 200 pages to even begin to see where the plot is going. Reading it again for the weekend event made me love it even more. All its depth and humour and the true cleverness of the carefully crafted plot became even more clear. One thing I really loved was the vast history of magic Clarke invents for England. Long after I finished it, I was still thinking about the menacing settings,  the wonderful characters, the brilliant narrative development and the history she creates.

Of course, I also watched the TV series, now available both in the UK and the US to watch again.  Bertie Carvel who plays Jonathan Strange so well, said; I read it years ago and loved it … They've preserved the scale and majesty of the story … So you have credible, fully imagined characters recognisably of the same world we inhabit.  Paul Kaye, who played my chosen character in the film said, I read the book and loved it. It sort of obsessed me for a while and I felt an affinity with what turned out to be my character, Vinculus. I found the footnotes addictive! If there wasn't one on the next page I would be disappointed

You can watch the TV adaptation at: