‘I died in Hell (They called it Passchendaele)’

hellfireWhat’s it like to be at the heart of Hell?  Very hot, in most people’s minds. Unbearably hot. The hottest and fieriest part of a mythical world in which the wicked are burnt forever in punishment for their misdeeds.

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Dante Alighieri

Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong, according to Dante Alighieri, whose first part of The Divine Comedy, the Inferno, is an imaginary descent through all the nine circles of Hell. Not about the wicked being punished – that’s non-negotiable – nor about the parts of Hell that do rage with fire (hence the modern use of Inferno to describe such terrible disasters as Grenfell Tower); but about the centre of Hell itself, the lowest circle in which the wickedest souls of all are punished. They are the traitors, betrayers of family, country, guests, benefactors and finally, God himself. There is no heat of passion in their crimes, only cold, ruthless calculation; their punishment is to be frozen forever in a vast, desolate, treeless plain, an outside manifestation of the ice in their own hearts.

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Hell freezing over for Dante and Virgil (Gustav Dore)

The depiction of Dante and Virgil stumbling among these immobile figures, trying not to kick at the heads just poking above ground, in the teeth of a bitter wind, is one of the most chilling episodes of the whole Inferno. Not only that: the Hell created here has an immediacy of detail that brings it horribly close to human experience. Take away the moral judgement aspect, pockmark the plain with craters and jab it with barbed wire fences, scatter millions of cartridge cases and pieces of shrapnel, add bursts of machine gun and shellfire, relieve the darkness sporadically with flares and waterlog the ground with steady, unceasing rain – and you have Siegfried Sassoon’s famous line: I died in Hell – (They called it Passchendaele).

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Passchendaele – Hell on earth. (Photo courtesy of IWM)

This is why, when updating Dante’s Hell for my children’s version of his story, Ante’s Inferno, I could think of no better way to try to match the horror of his ninth circle than to follow Sassoon’s lead. An accident at school sends 12 year-old Ante (Antonia) on a journey through the Underworld, accompanied by her worst enemy, Florence, and Gil, a boy who died 100 years before the story begins, on the eve of the First World War. At first, the three of them have to deal merely (!) with creatures and monsters from classical legend – Cerberus, Charon, harpies, the minotaur.

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Charon ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx. (Gustav Dore)

It’s lower down that man-made instruments of destruction come into their own, culminating in the bottom of Hell consisting of a recreation of the battle of Passchendaele, arguably the most terrible of the whole war. From its beginning on 31 July until the capture of Passchendaele ridge by the Canadian Corps on 10 November, 1917, the casualties on both sides came to well over half a million: shot, blown up, gassed and even drowned, as vast areas of the ground had been churned into liquid mud many feet deep. Siegfried Sassoon wasn’t wrong. Even in light of so many other appalling WW1 battles, Passchendaele stands out.

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Australian troops at Passchendaele. (photo courtesy of IWM)

This year marks 100 years since the battle took place, an anniversary I’ll be bringing out on a number of school visits I have booked around Remembrance Day in November (I have room for more, any Year 5 – 8 teachers out there!). In honour of the Centenary, Ante’s Inferno has undergone a special reprint, the jacket updated by the addition of a haunting photograph from the Imperial War Museum.

Looking at that flat, grey, desolate wasteland of mud and stagnant water, its only features the shorn trunks of trees where once a forest had been, I think Dante would have understood.

Ante Inferno Passchendaele copy

Always assuming he’d forgive my cheek in reimagining his masterpiece in the first place…

(From a blogpost on Authors Electric  )

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Not at Hogwarts on World Book Day

IMG_0011Charms, pacts with demons, magic spells, astrology and crystal balls aren’t normally subjects taught in schools (unless you’re lucky enough to attend Hogwarts). Yet for one hour last week, talking about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, I managed to squeeze such dark mysteries into the curriculum of three different schools, in groups ranging from 140 primary school children to smaller classes of Years 7 and 8.

Yup, that’s right, I’m talking World Book Week here, that glorious time of the year when authors are invited to descend on classrooms and school libraries, celebrating with young people the joys of reading, writing and dressing up as dubious literary figures. (Overheard in one school: ‘Sir, sir, can I come as Karl Marx?’ ‘[wearily] Well, Alex, if you can prove to me that Karl Marx’s work is literature….’)

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Books by pupils at SS Philip and James

It’s tiring and by the end of the day my voice needs much tlc (oh all right then, several cups of tea) but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I write stories about things that excite me and to be able to pass on that excitement to young readers and see their imaginations fired up gives me a huge thrill. Each audience reacts differently: some are bursting with questions the whole way through about magic, alchemy, and how I think up my characters; others wait patiently till the end of my talk and grill me then about my ideas and way of writing. Either way it is heartening to see so much enthusiasm for books and writing among young people: well done to them, and to the teachers and librarians who inspire them!

28 reasons for following Authors Electric

…Starting with No. 1.  Me.

Before I am justifiably deluged by an electric storm of outrage at such hubris, I should clarify: I am only No 1 in the sense that I’ve joined the wonderfully diverse and fascinating band of writers that is Authors Electric and have been allotted the 1st day of every month. The other 27/28/29/30 days belong to my 27 fellow sparks, with the remainder going to guest writers. I’m honoured to be in this company. The only brief is to write about anything and everything to do with books and writing and already I’ve discovered, through reading other Electric Authors, writers I hadn’t heard of, and enjoyed discussions of all kinds, ranging from playwriting to indie publishing to the Rise of Donald Trump.  Actually, delete ‘enjoyed’ for that last topic.

Here’s my blog for 1 November:

Good Halloween reading

Today I’m posting my First Ever blog for Authors Electric. It comes the day after a somewhat strenuous school visit, in which my aim was to persuade 40 Halloween fixated Years 7 and 8 that stories of pacts with demons, crystal balls, charms, spells and alchemy, all dating back hundreds of years, are at least as exciting as pointy hats, plastic orange pumpkins and wriggly worms. I’m pretty sure I succeeded. Mostly.

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More exciting than a pumpkin

Even more important – and this is why I love school visits – is the chance to enthuse children with the sheer magic of books themselves. Some will be keen readers already. Others, not yet, but give them a glimpse into other worlds and you never know when they may follow it up. My favourite books as a child were either retellings of great myths and legends – T H White’s The Once and Future King, Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy – or stories that recreated a classical world of monsters and magical creatures, such as C S Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles. These were all terrific stories in their own right: I didn’t need to know anything about Malory or Homer or Ovid to enjoy them. Only much later, encountering those authors at university, the feeling of coming home I experienced filled me with an even stronger appreciation of the writers I’d loved as a child. They really, really knew their stuff. More, they were determined that children should have the chance to know it too.

So when, at the end of my talk (sometimes during, which can be distracting but hats off for enthusiasm), somebody asks, ‘What made you become a writer?’, the answer is easy. I had to. Because while you’ll find hundreds of books by excellent children’s authors based on King Arthur and the Greek and Roman gods and heroes, some of the world’s greatest literary works have been ignored in this respect.

    Dante’s Inferno, for instance. A brilliant, grotesque imagining by the poet of descending through 9 circles of Hell, based on the classical underworld, complete with Cerberus, harpies, furies, Minotaur, rivers of blood and fire – surely it could only be a matter of time before somebody made this into a cracking children’s adventure story? Well, I waited… And my own children grew up a bit and gave me more space to think… And one day I decided enough was enough and sat down to write about a girl called Ante (Antonia) who finds herself plunged on a dark journey to the heart of Hell, guided by a mysterious boy called Gil.  I wrote the kind of book I’d have loved aged 12 and when Ante’s Inferno (Matador, 2012) came out, was delighted to find plenty of 9 – 12 year olds out there who feel the same (enough to vote Ante’s Inferno to win the Peoples Book Prize).

Why did no one do it before? My guess is that people assume that Dante, a 14th century Italian poet studied by theologians and academics, must be too difficult for children. In my experience young people are often underestimated in the kind of ideas they can grasp and enjoy. In my school visits, I sketch in a few details about Dante and the purpose of the Divine Comedy. I invariably find the audience fascinated by the idea of a Hell based on myths of the underworld (some of which they know), arranged into individual circles for different kinds of wrongdoing. Many of them want to read Ante’s Inferno as a result (hurrah!) but more importantly, they’ve been given a taste of the great wealth of literature and legend that’s out there.

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Seven deadly sins – popular with children

Which brings me to the topic occupying my current school visits. Not Greek legend and the Seven Deadly Sins – also very popular with children, incidentally – but Elizabethan magic and devilish bargains.  Perhaps you can guess the inspiration behind my latest book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in which a 13 year old boy, finding himself in a spot of bother at school, hits on the brilliant idea of summoning supernatural aid.

Unfortunately, entering into a pact with a helpful fellow called Mephistopheles lands Henry in rather more trouble than he’d bargained for….

Follow me and my fellow electric authors here!

3 schools, 2 hundred miles, 1 tired author

But a very happy one.

Last week I drove the many-roundabouted way from Oxford to Cambridgeshire, visiting first Stretham Primary, a lovely village school near Ely. The Year 5/6 teacher had bought a dozen copies of Ante’s Inferno for her class – would I come and talk to the children about it?

Stretham Primary School

Stretham Primary School

You bet I would. I love sharing the backgrounds to my books, in this case Dante’s Inferno, Greek mythology and the First World War. And don’t let anyone tell you that those subjects are beyond the understanding of the average 10 year-old. With the aid of some dark, atmospheric illustrations by Botticelli, Blake and Dore projected on a screen, the children at Stretham easily grasped the idea of Dante’s Hell being based on the Ante thumbnailclassical Underworld, complete with Styx, Charon, Cerberus, Minotaur etc.  I asked them lots of questions as I went along and – as happens every time – the children were delighted to find they know more than they think they do, both about classical mythology and how to write a story. Some had already read Ante’s Inferno but most hadn’t, which is what I normally expect – much more fun to leave them desperate to read the book once I’m gone.

From one extreme to another – the mixed 5/6 Year group at Stretham Primary numbered 30 children. The next day I found myself in a hall at the King’s School, Ely, watching 160 students file in: the whole of Years 7 and 8, come to hear me talk about my new book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. OK, I’ve talked to large groups before but this was definitely the largest; a challenge to the lungs on my side and to concentration on theirs. Luckily both held up. Sinister Faustian pacts and Elizabethan magic intrigued the students, and while I am (fairly) certain that none of them will be tempted to call up a demon, it was very exciting to find a long line of 12 and 13 year-olds waiting for me in the library afterwards, eager to buy a copy.

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The King’s School, Ely

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

Third visit was on Monday, back in Oxford, to Year 7 at Leckford Place – a school I have a particularly soft spot for, as it hosted one of my first Ante’s Inferno talks. Here the teacher had prepared the students beforehand. While not strictly necessary, it does mean they get even more out of the talk; for the first time, everyone in the room knew what a Faustian pact was.  Lots of hands went up to answer my questions and even more to quiz me afterwards – and at least two thirds of the group clustered round me at the end for copies of the book.

And all without recourse to any charms, incantations, spells, astrological forecasts or even the tinsy-winsiest Faustian pact. Honest.

How to make an author happy

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How often does an author make a school visit – and find that every child in the room has read her book?

Not often, I bet.

But that was my experience visiting Year 6 at Pegasus School in Oxford last week. The inspirational Jill Hudson, head teacher of Pegasus before taking on the overall headship of the Blackbird Academy Trust, to which Pegasus belongs, liked Ante’s Inferno so much when it came out in 2012 that she chose it for the Year 6 Reading Groups, effectively making it part of the curriculum. Now children read it all together as they move into Year 6 and discuss its themes of bullying and self-knowledge against the story’s background of classical mythology, fantasy adventure and the First World War.

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This meant that for the first time ever, my task wasn’t to introduce my audience to Ante’s Inferno, but to delve more deeply with them into characters, story and the inspiration behind them.  My standard talk describing Dante’s imagined journey through Hell (with lots of dark, scary images by the great illustrators) always grabs children’s interest but this time it was even more exciting as they recognised the shape of the Underworld into which Ante, Florence and Gil descend, together with the monsters and mythological creatures they meet. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm in their faces and hear it in the questions and comments that flowed throughout the talk and after – not just because it showed how much they loved the book, but also that they understood it.  A story that interweaves such rich and apparently unconnected themes as Dante, classical mythology and the First World War isn’t – as I was warned by numerous adults – far too difficult for primary school children to grasp.

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How would they respond to my new book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst (out 28 August 2015), with its equally ‘demanding’ themes of Elizabethan magic and pacts with demons? Well, here was the chance to try it out. I finished my visit by reading an extract from the book, half-wondering if it would be more appropriate for Years 7 and 8.

I needn’t have worried. ‘Ooh, I really want to read that!’ cried a curly-haired boy at the end before leading the group in spontaneous clapping.

Pegasus, you are awesome.