How Grimms’ Fairy Tales can lead to even grimmer fairy tales

It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when someone slips you a few searching questions.  I loved doing this interview with fellow (if a little, ahem, younger) university graduate and writer Amna Boheim http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/.  Who knew that early exposure to toadstools, matryoshka-red-fly-agaric-mushroom-mushrooms-forestgingerbread houses and angry kings could set you on the path to Hell and pacts with demons?  I mean, they could have led to botany, cookery and, oh, I don’t know, the Wars of the Roses.

But in my case they didn’t.

 

 

pexels-photo-185360Discover more about the tangled roots of Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst on Amna’s blog:

http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/ 

How to celebrate New Year: with physics and hot chocolate.

Anno 1676 1 January

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London coffee house, 1674

‘On the first day of this month, I met Mr Hooke at Child’s coffee house in St Paul’s Churchyard after he had addressed the new Philosophical club within the Royal Society. We stayed until 11 pm, eating meat and drinking chocolate.’ John Aubrey My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.

I challenge anyone to find a better way of spending New Year’s Day. It has everything: a lecture from one of the founding fathers of modern physics, an evening spent in conversation with the great man, sustenance – how well-cooked isn’t mentioned, but the dinner sounds solid enough – accompanied by, oh joy, a steady supply of hot chocolate. Somehow this last detail sharpens the immediacy of the scene (though that may say more about the place of chocolate in my own life than in John Aubrey’s or Robert Hooke’s).

I belong to a very small book group. There are three of us. So disorganised are we that managing four meetings a year is good going; agreeing on a book to read, a bonus; and the possibility that at least two thirds of the group will have read the book by the time the meeting takes place, a positive miracle. john-aubrey-my-own-lifeShocking, such lack of discipline, and of course we could do better; yet even such unpromising circumstances have led us to read books we wouldn’t have otherwise done, surely the ultimate achievement of any book group. And in 2016, John Aubrey My Own Life by Ruth Scurr became one of these.

I was daunted at first by the book’s length (just shy of 500 pages, yes I’m a wuss). Nor do I read many biographies (why not? Or as John Aubrey would put it, Quaere). But this isn’t a biography as the word is normally understood. How do you write the life of a man who dedicated himself to recording details and anecdotes of the lives of others, surveying the counties of Surrey and Wiltshire, noting architectural styles, inscriptions on buildings, place names, items of natural curiosity, folklore, ancient manuscripts, all with a passion to preserve things that would otherwise be irretrievably lost? Engaging, self-effacing, easily distracted and financially chaotic, Aubrey saw his role as enabling the talents of brilliant contemporaries to find expression, quoting the Roman poet Horace: ‘I perform the function of a whetstone, which can make the iron sharp, though is itself unable to cut.’

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John Aubrey

Friend and supporter to so many scientists, architects, doctors, antiquarians and other prominent contemporaries, a writer who compiled reams of notes on all subjects that fascinated him, yet succeeded in publishing only one, relatively minor, work in his lifetime (Miscellanies; A Collection of Hermetick Philosophy 1696), Aubrey as a subject might, Ruth Scurr feared, ‘vanish inside a conventional biography.’ If only he, like Pepys and Evelyn, had kept a diary…

And there Scurr found her answer. Using Aubrey’s own few pages of autobiographical writing combined with the immense amount of correspondence with his contemporaries, she has constructed his life in diary form. She invents nothing: if there’s no evidence for where he is or what he thinks in one particular period, then those months are thinner than others for which there is much more. Some 35 pages of Endnotes cite sources for the diary entries, proving how scrupulously Scurr adheres to Aubrey’s voice alone, resisting all temptation to embroider or speculate. As a result, John Aubrey leaps from the page, his charming, inquisitive, modest, intelligent, forgiving and, at times, infuriating personality growing organically as the book progresses. Other well-known historical figures are fleshed out along the way: the hard-headed Elias Ashmole, bequeathing his antiquarian collection to Oxford on condition the University built a museum to house it; or a surprisingly devious Antony Wood, borrowing manuscripts from Aubrey which he ‘forgets’ to return for months despite his friend’s pleas. One of my favourite characters is Mr Wylde, if only because, according to the ‘diary’, his main role in Aubrey’s life seems to have been to go to coffee houses with him and annoy Mr Hooke with assertions such as ‘the blood of a black cat can cure chilblains.’

We owe much to John Aubrey. Today he’s most famous for his collection of short biographies of such 17th century figures as Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, John Dee, Thomas Browne and others in Brief Lives. Yet his passion for preserving the past led him, while still an impecunious student at Oxford, to commission a drawing of the ruins of Osney Abbey: a vital record, since what remained of the buildings collapsed only a few years later.

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Stonehenge

He discovered a series of holes at Stonehenge, now named after him, and fought to prevent the megaliths at Avebury from being chipped at by the locals for building material. His suggestion that druids built Stonehenge, while making the date too recent by thousands of years, brought him still nearer the truth than contemporary beliefs that the stone monument was the work of the Danes or – as asserted by Inigo Jones – the Romans. (For a clever, well-written and amusing discussion of theories about the monument down the centuries, see Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill.)

And I needn’t have let the book’s length daunt me. The diary device allows information about these achievements and much more to flow easily across the pages, interspersed with such gems as ‘Jane Smyth, who is somewhat better, and I met Mr Hooke this evening at Cardinal’s Tavern in Lombard Street. We drank until past midnight and Mr Hooke vomited up wine’ (12 March, 1677).hot-chocolate

Note to Mr Hooke: next time, stick to hot chocolate.

Shall I compare thee to a Sonnets Day?

img_2917In these uncertain times, it’s good to be able to report that the Shakespearian sonnet is alive and well.  This was my conclusion after a delightful Sonnets Day at the Weston Library (the airy, austerely beautiful new wing of Oxford University’s Bodleian library) a couple of weeks ago.

By way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian decided to create a special edition of the bard’s 154 sonnets, inviting letterpress printers from around the world to print a sonnet each in any style or language they chose. Sheets of widely differing sizes, colours, design, fonts and languages flooded in and are being collated at the library, and to mark the conclusion of this Sonnets 2016 Project, the Bodleian held a brief exhibition of some of these wonderful hand-printed offerings, many on handmade paper.img_2919

Earlier in the year, half a dozen Oxford primary schools took part in a Sonnets Alive! Project, run by writer in residence Kate Clanchy.  Pupils wrote their own sonnets, a selection of which were gathered in a charming letterpress booklet, magically titled I Feel That the Heart of June is in Me (the title of a poem written by Windale School pupils), hand printed by children from Pegasus School. Some of these contributions were read out by their authors and the quality was astonishingly high, showing an acute understanding of metre and some breathtakingly beautiful images.img_2925 Even Oxford Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage’s warning in his welcoming speech that he planned to steal a few of these lines (and for praise you can go no higher than that) didn’t prepare me for gems such as

‘….I am the dawn when children

wake and see the pale sunrise piercing the shorn

shadows. I am the flame which yet burns on.’

(Flame by Jemima Webster & Khanh Pham).

After the readings it was time to look at the exhibition, which included an enchanting Sonnet Tree: a structure hung with couplets, quatrains and full-length poems, all written by schoolchildren during the Sonnet’s Alive! workshops.  Here again, richness of poetic imagery, instinctive understanding of rhythm and metre, together with a positive revelling in Elizabethan vocabulary showed just how much these young people had immersed themselves in Shakespearean sonnetry. As Simon Armitage wittily implied, with budding poets like these hammering at the door timg_2915he current generation of poets had better watch their backs.

As for Shakespeare’s own place in the canon… I defy anyone to put this more succinctly than 5 year-old Inigo:

Banbury Literary Live – a magical festival

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What a terrific audience for my talk on The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst at Banbury Literary Live on Sunday!

There were 4 other talks going on at the same time, including one on a children’s story about football, so with that competition I’d have been happy if only a handful of people had turned up to mine. To my delight, a good couple of dozen adults and children were intrigued enough by the sound of Elizabethan magic and demons to plump for me. Yesss!

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John Dee’s crystal ball. British museum.

No demons/spells/charms/crystal balls actually appeared – apart from in the slides, that is – but the audience’s keenness and knowledge, especially in the case of some of the younger members, with-girlimpressed me no end. Some very perceptive questions – again, coming mainly from those under 13 – got a fascinating discussion going on magic, legends, Dr Dee and the craft of writing in general. Ah, and Ante’s Inferno got a look in too.

Thank you, Banbury Literary Live, for having me to your thoroughly enjoyable literary festival.

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 lucky winners!

Yup, it’s over.  My Goodreads giveaway finished last week and three FREE copies of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst are now in the post to the winners who, rather pleasingly from a broadcasting point of view, are scattered all over the UK (inasmuch as you can scatter, er, three people).  2-img_1987

Over 200 people entered, which is a terrific number – thank you, everyone, for being intrigued enough by the book to try for a copy!  If you were one of the winners – or even if you weren’t, and have read the book anyway (oh lovely person) – please take the time to leave a review on Amazon.  The more reviews a book has – and they don’t even need to be ecstatic ones – the more Amazon will recommend it to other customers, leading to more eager readers like these ones.

(Who needs lessons?)

3 FREE copies of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst

My children’s book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst (FINALIST in the People’s Book Prize) was released a year ago this month.  To celebrate, I’m running a giveaway on Goodreads beginning TODAY.  Enter here for your chance to win one of THREE free copies.  All I ask is that if you do win a copy, once you’ve finished feverishly turning the pages, you would find a moment to post a review on Goodreads and Amazon.  THANK you kind readers.