Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts from December 2020

Not The Box Of Delights (part one)

In which we rewrite a Yuletide classic

I was inspired by a random comment I read on Twitter to attempt a modern-day update of the classic inter-war Christmas fable The Box Of Delights. This is the result, or at least as much as I have written so far. Great apologies are due to the ghost of John Masefield, I suspect.

It was a dreary, grey afternoon, the winter solstice approaching, and the last day of the school term. Kay Herald sloped home, uniform tie already off, with a spring in their step and half a smile on their face. In one sense, the Christmas holiday meant a fortnight of boredom with little to do and nothing happening. Kay was too old now for all of the magic to be real, and felt almost ashamed they once had genuinely believed in it. Nevertheless, in their heart they still knew it was a magical time, their family following the same rituals every year, putting up the same tree as always and hanging the same trimmings upon it, the same tinsel on the mantelpiece, just as when Kay had been a baby. It was still the time to light a log in the grate, turn down the lights, and hang stockings on the ends of their beds knowing they would be full of presents in the morning, and Kay still looked forward to that however much they grew cynical about adults, about school, about every aspect of growing up, getting older, and losing all the excitement and freshness of childhood.

Kay wondered, as they wandered, what it had been like back in the days of boarding schools, when you didn’t see your parents every day, when seeing them for Christmas must have been fresh and new and exciting. Spending your days in a strange, cloistered world full of its own curious traditions, jargon and slang; your own little barracks civilisation almost entirely unlike real life. And then, to be wrenched from it and put on a train with a steamer-trunk, on your own, sent back and expected to make your own way, changing at remote railway junctions and not getting fleeced by the other travellers. Back home to some strange adults you hardly knew and who didn’t really want you around the place. Or maybe, Back In Those Days, your parents would have been away in The Colonies and you’d be sent to live with a crumbling great-grandmother in a haunted manor house. Christmas with some friendly 17th-century ghosts sounds far more exciting than just being at home and not having to go to school. And the whole idea of finding your way across half the country on the train on your own, when Kay was barely allowed to walk by themselves any further from home than school.

They walked down a narrow, steep path between a railway embankment on one side and allotments on the other, a shortcut between two parts of the city which would have been a long way apart via wider roads. At the bottom, where the path met a road in a triangle, stood two people. One tall, thin and leaning on a lamppost; the other shorter, fatter, looking at their phone. Kay gave them a wide berth, as you do with strangers on the street, but nevertheless the thin one looked up as they passed. “Why hello there,” he said, in a soft, neutral, generic-American accent.”

“Yeah, hi,” said Kay, warily, looking at them but still gently moving.

“We don’t want to alarm you,” said the thin man. He was thin in many ways, with thin lips and thinning ginger hair. His ears twitched, and almost seemed pointed. “We’re not from around here; you might tell! We’ve gotten ourselves a little muddled here.”

“Hey,” said the other one: a woman with long curly dark hair and a chubby, dimpled face. “We didn’t want to startle you. We’re just like strangers here.”

“We thought you looked like a guy who, well, knows the neighborhood,” said the thin man. “We’re just a bit lost here. Annie here can’t get a signal.”

“Yeah,” said Kay, “the phone signals round here are pretty poor, and the maps get confused too.” They looked at the two Americans: they looked almost like some sort of cultists or missionaries, but they weren’t wearing the sharp suits of the Mormons who stood trying to hand out their own Bibles by the park. Instead they were in some sort of strange black robes which changed as they turned, looking loose at one moment and tight-fitting the next. When the man stood straight it looked like a shiny trenchcoat; when he lounged, like a matt black surplice. Each also wore some sort of white dogcollar around their bare necks, which did nothing for the overall strangeness of their outfits.

“We’re trying to get over to Downley,” said the woman, Annie. “Is it up the path, or down this road?”

“And is that there path safe for strangers like us?” added the ginger-haired man. “You know, not knowing the lay of the land like you do.”

“Yeah,” said Kay, shrugging. They had never had any problems on that path, but they had never tried to go down it, unlit, too late on a dark afternoon.

“Well that sure is good to know,” said the man, with Annie nodding along. “We’re neighborly folks ourselves, we don’t want to cause any trouble now.”

“We sure don’t, that’s right!” the woman said. “Do you look out for your neighbor?”

“I guess,” said Kay. They lived in an end-terrace, and the house next door had been empty for a while. Like many houses in the neighbourhood, it had had a “For Sale” sign up for all of a couple of days before it turned into a “Sold” sign, but then the sale itself had presumably been tied up in months of negotiations on the exact price and state of the crumbling Victorian place, the “Sold” sign had stayed in place and no new neighbours had arrived.

“Well you certainly should do,” said the thin man. “Keep an eye on him, and let us know how he is. Good to meet you, Kay.”

“Whatever,” said Kay, and turned to walk away. After a few steps they looked back over their shoulder, just to make sure. Indeed, the two Americans had disappeared into the darkening afternoon. Kay heard a rustle as some animal ran through the bushes alongside the railway line, and suddenly thought: how did they know my name? They shivered slightly, and started walking slightly faster home.

As it turned out, Kay was going to have a new neighbour sooner than they had realised. A removal van with a London address on the side was blocking the street outside their home, its hazard lights flashing like an invulnerability spell and burly men lifting furniture out of it. The front door of the empty house next to Kay’s was open, and in the front garden a man was rocking and tugging on the Sold sign as if it were a loose tooth. Kay made the mistake of pausing to look at the operation as they hunted for their house-key, for of course the man stood up and raised a hand in greeting. “Good evening, my neighbourhood friend,” he said, in a deep, warm and curious voice.

“Hey,” said Kay, wondering if this conversation would be as strange and threatening as the last. “Moving in?”

“How very observant, young fellow,” said the man, in a friendly voice which diluted some of the pomposity of his words. “Moving on and moving in, indeed. Doctor Redwald Johnson, pleased to meet you and so on and so forth. And may I ask, so as not to offend, but are you a he-creature or a she-creature or a they-creature?”

“A they-creature,” they said. “Kay. Thanks for asking though.”

“Lovely to meet you, Kay,” said the man. His olive-complexioned face was bearded, and it hid his age with great success. His head seemed shaved bald, but was largely covered by an oversized and worn flat cap. His clothes seemed well-worn but carefully-chosen, an eclectic mixture of fabrics and stuffs, with waistcoat, cravat not matching shirt, moleskin trousers tucked into worn-out riding boots. With pierced ears, the overall air was of some sort of aging hipster trying not to age. If you had to guess his profession, you might think off-duty chef, or artisan baker, or development brewer at a tiny and exclusive microbrewery. In short, exactly the sort of man you would expect to move into Kay Herald’s slowly-gentrifying inner city neighbourhood.

“And you, Doctor Redwood,” said Kay.

“Redwald,” said the man. “Redwald Johnson, for all my sins. I hope this is a good town to be.”

“It’s always been fine for me,” said Kay. “Mostly anyway,” they added, remembering the slightly strange American cultists. “I’ll see you around.”

“I’m sure you will,” said Redwald Johnson. “And we should better be going. My house needs to be rearranged, and I am sure you have a great deal of holiday things to be doing. Katsu curry waits for nobody.”

“The sign’s got a number on it,” said Kay, “to come and collect it after you move in. On the back. Anyway, see you.” They opened the door, and walked into their house.

“What’s for dinner?” shouted Kay, as they shuffled up the stairs to their bedroom. There was a sound of bustling and clattering from the kitchen, but no answer. Kay kicked their schoolbag under their bed, quickly changed into clothes without any school crests or logos on, and went back down again.

“You know I don’t shout halfway across the house,” said Kay’s mum. “I’m not shouting when you can come in here and ask.”

“Sorry mum,” said Kay. “What’s for dinner?”

“Katsu curry,” she replied, “as you like it and as it’s your last day of term. I thought I’d better do something to make you sit and have dinner with the rest of us.”

“Ooh, thanks,” said Kay. “What do you think of that guy then?”

“What guy?”

“The new guy next door.”

“There’s a new guy next door? I thought I heard a lot of noise, but I just thought it was more builders.”

“I thought you must have talked to him,” said Kay. “He’s ok. A bit strange, but not as weird as the Americans who stopped me in the street earlier.”

“What did they want?” said Kay’s mum, breaking blocks of curry sauce into a pan.

“I dunno. Just directions? I think. It was all a bit weird. They knew my name too.”

“You probably just had your bag open,” said their mum, “and saw it on one of your books.”

“I guess,” said Kay, unconvinced.

Kay’s dad exploded into the room, a bundle of sudden energy. “Have you heard the news?!” he interrupted, his face in a beaming smile.

“We were having a conversation in here, you know,” said Kay’s mum, “before you burst in here. I’m sure it’s not important.”

“Andata are going to open a big new European office right in the city centre! Jim Bright himself is going to have an office there! Just over the road from where my office is.”

“Not that you ever go there any more,” said Kay’s mum. “Not important. How is that going to have any effect on us?”

Kay had heard of Jim Bright: one of a handful of men who lived on the west coast of America who could, if you believed the stories, pay to feed everyone in the world twice over and still have enough money to live on for any sort of forseeable lifetime. His first few million dollars had been generated from a piece of software that seemed deceptively simple but had taken geniuses to create: it tracked all the music you listened to, and then sold you the music you didn’t know you wanted to hear and the machines to listen to it on. At first Jim Bright’s recommendations took control of the music charts until they were effectively obsolete; after that, his company, or rather his subtle software engines, began to compose new, tailored music especially for each listener, targeted to satisfy, to heighten or dampen any of your own personal emotions. It was either insanely popular or entirely despised, depending on your point of view. His corporation, Andata, had branched out and now earned its billions from renting out its computer power to anybody who needed it.

“You never know!” said Dad, almost bouncing up and down with excitement. “What if I’m buying a coffee to take to the office, and Jim Bright is in there buying one too? We might even get to have a chat!”

“Jim Bright,” Kay’s mum replied sensibly, “has people to go out and get coffees for him. And besides, it’s not as if he’ll ever actually be there. It’ll just be full of sales people and accounts people and nothing you’d actually be interested in.”

“No, really,” said Dad, unwilling to give his hopes up, “he’s going to have an office here himself and everything! Look!” He thrust his phone screen in front of them, and pressed play on a news clip.

Even on the screen he looked like a tall man, bald, with a deeply-lined face and a wise smile. “…ommunity,” he was saying, “is really at the heart of everything we do here at Andata. We’re not faceless scientists. We’re not Silicon Valley wizards in our castles. We’re all about community. And this city … you love tech! You’ve got startups here, you’ve really gotten going in the last few years, you’re full of smart passionate people. And I just want to build on that.”

“But why does this project matter so much to you, Jim?” said a softball interviewer, off-camera.

“England … it’s always meant so much to me. I grew up here,” he said, and as he said it Kay realised his American accent was really just a few superficial vowels on top of a deeper more European stratum. “You guys all think of me of some Seattle guy, some West Coast technologist. And, sure, I’ve lived there a long time, in one sense I guess that does feel like home to me. But England … I grew up there, y’know? I grew up in Herefordshire, right in the depths of the countryside, in this little old boarding school run by monks, where our grounds were in England and Wales was just over the hedge. Now, I learned everything I know about math, and AI, and tech, at college in the US, but I learned everything I know about people, and history, and the land, from Reverend Doctor Boddledale’s strange little boarding school. And that’s made me who I am today. And that’s—” and at this point his voice grew deeper and all the American vowels and vocabulary suddenly faded away from it, “—why I’m back.”

“See!” said Dad, fizzing with excitement. “Jim Bright’s going to be right in the city centre! You never know, I could be working at Andata this time next year!”

This year, though,” said Kay’s mum firmly, “there’s something else I need to tell you both. Your Jones cousins are going to have to come and stay for Christmas. Auntie Susan is back in hospital again with her post-viral thing, so better they come here and can spend it with family. It’ll be better than last year if nothing else. At least they’ve all had the vaccine.”

“It’s going to be a squash, isn’t it?” said Kay. There were four of the Joneses, quite a squeeze in a small terraced house.

“Two in the spare room and two in the front room,” said Kay’s mum. “Or one in your room maybe. I don’t know. I don’t really care. I just want to make sure they have a better Christmas this year.”

Later on in the evening, the dreary clouds cleared. The temperature dropped, the stars came out, and Kay went offline and down to the bottom of the garden. Being in a city the views were not great, rather orange-tinged from light pollution, and Kay’s garden was in something of a dip; but nevertheless Kay would set up their telescope and look up at the planets and stars. The garden was long, thing, and sloped steeply down away from the house into a little nameless valley. Once it had been the site of a paupers’ burial ground, and Kay was always slightly nervous about probing the ground at the bottom of the garden lest they uncover a skull or a long-bone. Down the bottom of the garden was quiet, though, aside from the occasional screech of a fox, and well away from the parents. Tonight Kay leaned back in their deckchair, the telescope set up on a picnic table alongside but not being used. The big December meteor shower had been just a week ago, and there were still maybe the odd one or two to be seen. Kay leaned back, looked up at the sky and as their pupils dilated more and more stars came into view. Aries to the south, Andromeda above it, Perseus and Orion following behind.

“Why hello, young Kay,” said a voice. Kay sat up, sharply. “I’m sorry there. I did not at all mean to startle you. It is I, Redwald Johnson, conjurer and technologist, on the other side of your garden fence.”

“Who isn’t a technologist these days,” said Kay. “Dad’s one. You’re one. Everyone is in technology now. I just wish I could go back and be a hedge-witch or something.”

“Ah, the very same thing though,” said Redwald Johnson. “The astronomers and the witches and the alchemists: technology, all of us. Every year in its own way, doing our little thing to spread magic and enjoyment into the world. I didn’t mean to alarm you. I enjoy the company of a fellow-traveller among the stars, in an observational manner of speaking, and I am also wary we may be able to help each other, when we both need it.”

Kay leaned their head back again, and looked up at the stars. Redwald Johnson’s voice from over the garden fence was rich and luxurious, like buttered crumpets with jam.

“I feel I must be on the same side,” the man continued, “of anyone who enjoys the shows the heavens can put on for us. You were expecting meteors, I take it?”

“There were a lot last week, at the peak,” said Kay, “and a good few since. Might still be some in the sky tonight, especially later.”

“I fancy,” he said, “we may well have a show. And look, one is early!” A lazy, fat line of light scored its way across the sky before fading away. “Slow things, these Geminids,” he continued. “Not flashing across the sky like arrows as the Perseids do.”

“The long ones are always earlier in the night,” said Kay. “They have shorter trails later as their origin gets higher in the sky.”

“Burning up and dying away as soon as they are noticed,” Redwald Johnson replied. “And they have only been in the sky for a few decades, these winter marvels. Newcomers. Your Babylonian sky-watcher would be baffled by them, or any other of us astronomers from Pagan days. Now the rest of the sky, all those distant lights, their lives are far longer than yours and even mine. They were here when I was young and might be here when we are gone. Which are you drawn to?”

“The Pleiades,” said Kay. The Pleiades had always been their first love in the sky.

“Ah, the seven sisters,” said Redwald Johnson. “Although I am sure that telescope of yours can pick out many many more. Such a tragic story, those women. Watch.” And Kay watched, and could see, not just six faint stars, but seven bright ones, and each of the seven stars was a woman, sitting in the sky, tears rolling down her face. “Mourning their father,” Redwald Johnson said, “and always running.” And behind them came a great hunter, his feet on the rooftops, his sword at his belt, an animal-skin draped over his shoulders.

“Orion!” whispered Kay.

“Orion himself,” said Redwald Johnson. “And he hunts, as he has always hunted. At least as far back as men can remember.” Orion slashed out with his sword, at all the creatures around him: a hare at his feet, a horse approaching, a great bull at his shoulder. The horse turned its head, and Kay saw a slender, spiralling horn glinting in the starlight.

“Unicorn!” said Kay. A dog below the hunter’s feet darted from between the unicorn’s hooves, and worried at the hare; its eyes were so gleaming bright, Kay knew it must be the Great Dog of the sky. “They’re going to fight. It’s going to turn into carnage.”

“These stars are all fixed in the past,” said the man. “Tomorrow night, they will be back in their appointed place. That is their joy and their doom. They have eternal life, and the price of it is higher than you might think. But you are lucky, to see this show, for many look at the stars at night and are not granted this display.” The unicorn whinnied, so loud Kay thought it must wake the city and the dead. It shook its head at Orion the hunter, and Kay saw the desperation in its eyes. Orion drew his sword, and its ancient bronze blade was a sparkling host of new worlds continually forming. His figure blurred and faded, and Kay saw the millions and billions of years of stars and galaxies and nebulas, all in front of their eyes, stretching away beyond human sight into the shadowy world of the moment of the universe’s birth.

“Are they always there?” said Kay. “I mean … are the constellations real? Not just stars?”

“They are stars, and they are real, together,” came the reply. “And not all of them are the constellations you might expect. Greece and Babylon did not have a monopoly on wisdom. They fight out this play every night, for those who can see it, for not many can. But at the same time, they are stars, they are vast, and they are unimaginably remote and from times past. Just like myself, you could say.”

“I wish I could see them again,” said Kay. “I wish I could always see them.”

“It will happen again,” said Redwald Johnson, “whether you see them or not. They are eternal, unlike the meteors. And unlike me. Draw your sword at you and me, and neither of us will be here upon the next night. The days of setting heros among the stars have ended.”

“I’m not sure anyone here has a sword,” said Kay, thinking at the same time that some people in the city probably did.

“Ah, well,” said the old man. “The Wolves are Running. They’ve been Running before, as you may well know. They’ve run at me before, and sometimes they’ve run me very close. And now they’re Running again and they’re still after me.”

“We have foxes,” said Kay, “but we don’t have wolves.”

“These Wolves are not always in the shape of wolves. Sometimes, they are, and sometimes, they are not. They might be here already; I think they may be. We must be on our guard. Will you help me, when they come running for me?”

“I’ll do whatever I can,” said Kay, unsure if they really meant it.

“Why thank you,” said Redwald Johnson, “it may be a great help. I fear it is close to midnight, and that is often their hour, so I feel we should head into the safety of home. Goodnight, Kay Herald. And remember, the Wolves are Running.”

“Goodnight,” said Kay. Overhead a meteor flashed, and disappeared.

Part Two of this story is here.

Christmas craftalong

Or, Yule enjoy some sewing

The other day I mentioned losing the Office Party and gaining various remote seasonal events instead. For example: someone thought it would be a nice idea to all have a seasonal crafting session together. Everyone who volunteered an interest was sent a small-but-festive cross-stitch kit, and then we spent a lunchtime getting together on a video call to sit and stitch for an hour, whilst the organiser explained how to get started and the rest of us found various ways to make mistakes.

Festive crafting

Full marks if you can spot everything I’ve got wrong so far. This represents quite a bit more than one hour’s work, because I’ve spent a while working on it since. You never know, I might even get it finished before Christmas.

On Troopers Hill

Or, photo post of the week

As it is such a lovely, sunny, bright and winter day, we went out for a walk, for a picnic on Troopers Hill. The lumpy, bumpy and steep slope overlooking the Avon, crowned with a rough and slightly wonky chimney. It was busyish, not crowded, but full of groups of families, walking dogs, eating picnics and flying kites. We sat and ate our food, tried to look at the view without squinting, and watched buzzards hovering and circling over the woods.

The chimney

The chimney was probably built in the late 18th century for copper smelting. Various copper and brass works lined the Avon and Frome in the 18th century; it was Bristol’s major industry, powering the city’s corner of the transatlantic slave trade. The chimney on Troopers Hill fumed to turn copper and zinc ore into brass kettles and other ware, for sale in West Africa in exchange for people, to be shipped as slaves to the Caribbean for the enrichment of Bristolian merchants. Quite a dark history for a local landmark. The brass works did not survive the end of the slave trade, as they no longer had a guaranteed profitable market for most of their products; by the mid-19th century, the copper smelters had closed. Troopers Hill was still covered by other heavy industries, though: coal mining, clay mining, stone quarrying, and a tar distillery. As the industries declined through the twentieth century, though, it slowly turned into a slightly wild and unruly green space. The chimney, though, was left looking over everything.

A view from a hill

The council have repaired the base of the chimney, where the flues would originally have entered it, and built a little passageway into it. Inside, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Chimney entrance

Inside the chimney

I like your idea of fun

Or, doing things in your own way

So, we’re coming to the end of a strange and challenging year. And I know it’s been a strange and challenging year, because at the office we’re in the middle of our end-of-year staff reviews and the phrase “this has been a strange and challenging year for all of us” features prominantly when summing up what’s been going on.

One aspect of this strange and challenging December, though, is something I’m actually quite enjoying. The death of the Office Christmas Party, where you and all your colleagues squeeze in to a cramped and busy restaurant for some mediocre food and the chance to pull a cracker. They do vary, of course: some are better than others. The year we went to allegedly the biggest all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant in Europe was a particular low point: at any time of the year, eating there involves so much queuing and slowly shuffling around under neon signs holding a plate that by the end of the evening you feel like an extra in a cyberpunk remake of Oliver! Wherever you end up, though, the food is never great, the music is always awful, and there are far too many people around who are very, very drunk. This was even the case a few years back when due to a double-booking mix-up we ended up having to have our Christmas Party in early November, way before anybody had even had a mince pie.

This year, though, no cramming into a crowded restaurant! Hurrah! Instead, we’re having a Remote Christmas Meal—order from wherever you like and expense it—and various other events spread through the month organised by different departments and teams. I’ve ended up booked into about four pub quizzes because quite a few teams have gone for that as a default option,*, but there’s plenty of variety and choice, and, more importantly, it’s all optional. There are enough different Christmas activities going on that I can dip into a mince pie eating session one day, a pub quiz the next and help judge a tree-decorating competition the day after. Because it’s all optional, none of it seems at all forced.

I know a lot of you don’t really feel like remote socialising is real socialising at all; find it more stressful than the pre-2020 in-person kind of socialising. For someone like me, though, it’s a comfort to know I can just switch Zoom off and I’m back in my own room again. Even in-person, though, I’d always have much preferred this idea of a slate of smaller Christmas events that you don’t have to go to if you don’t want to, than the traditional standard Everyone Goes Out office party. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat a mince pie and tomorrow watch someone try to disguise their cat as a reindeer. Cheers!

* In fact I’ve already won one of them at the time of writing.

Astronomy news of the week

Or, how to spot a shooting star or two

This is not going to turn into an astronomy blog, I promise, and I know I already mentioned some exciting upcoming astronomy news just over a week ago. There is something else interesting and astronomical happening in December, though.

In the meantime, the clouds did briefly break on Saturday evening to give us our first chance of using The Child Who Likes Space’s telescope without the moon shining bright in the south. We had a look at Mars, and then I successfully found Uranus, navigating downwards from Sheratan, the nearest naked-eye star I could easily pick out; it’s currently near to the boundary between Aries and Cetus. Looking just like another blue star, I would have had no idea, without guiding myself with a map on the computer, that we were looking at a planet instead.

And then, naturally, I started sending messages to people saying “Guess what? I’ve been spying on Uranus”, because I still have the sophisticated sense of humour of a ten-year-old.

The exciting event that’s coming up in a week or so’s time is: the Geminid meteor shower. I say “coming up”: it’s expected to be at its strongest at around 2 in the morning next Monday (the 14th), but if it is a strong shower this year, there should be activity visible for a few hours either side of that time, and even for a few days. Incidentally, because of the geometry of how meteor showers work—they happen when the Earth passes through the trail of dust left behind a comet or asteroid—the peak time is the same wherever you are, with the location of the peak moving around the planet as it spins. The Geminids were first noticed in the 1860s, but their “parent”, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, was not discovered until 120 years or so later.

I’m not sure I’m going to risk keeping The Child Who Likes Space up until midnight to watch for meteors, much as I’m sure he would like to. If the skies are clear late one night this week, though, I might try wrapping up warmly and setting up my deckchair in the garden. There’s no point trying to use a telescope or binoculars to spot meteors; all you need is a comfy chair you can lie back in and look up at the sky. Give your eyes half an hour to adapt to the dark, then look up, look around, and wait for them to streak across the sky.

Winter chills

Or, what makes a ghost story frightening

With winter starting to approach, it’s time to start thinking about traditional Yuletide activities. Putting up the tree, sticking tinsel around the mantlepiece, lighting the candles; and settling down in an armchair to read a scary story.

I’m not sure when “reading a ghost story” became one of the traditional Yuletide activities, but it can only have taken a few decades at most, from the invention of the literary ghost story, to them being specifically written to read to friends by the fireside at Christmas or Yule. As early as the 1840s A Christmas Carol tied Christmas and ghosts tightly together, at precisely the time that many of our Yuletide traditions were being newly-minted. Dickens’ other famous ghost story, “The Signal-Man”, isn’t a Christmas story per se but was written for the Christmas 1866 special edition of All The Year Round. Communal Christmas ghost-story-telling is the framing story in The Turn Of The Screw, written in the 1890s by Henry James; however, I suspect that this is just a device, and that The Turn Of The Screw is rather too long to actually read out in an evening.

One of the best known English ghost story writers, however, did write his stories specifically for performance. M R James was an academic who spent virtually his whole life at either Cambridge or Eton, living in the rooms provided by the colleges he served and led. Every year, more or less, so the story goes, he would write a ghost story and perform it to his inner circle of colleagues and acquaintances at Christmas; they were then published in magazines and every few years in collected editions. He must have started doing this in his mid-30s at the latest, as his first collection was published in 1904 when he was in his early 40s and he averaged just under one published story per year from then until his death. It isn’t an enormous output: most of his time was taken up with a very active academic career as a medievalist, curator and art historian, and he also found time to occasionally write guide books for the Great Western Railway too. However, nowadays, unless you’re a medieval manuscript specialist, if you’ve heard of M R James it’s because you’ve heard of his ghost stories: they are considered classics of the genre. Indeed, they’re an entire sub-genre in their own right. The typical Platonic James ghost story can be summed up as follows: a shy, nervous academic somewhat resembling M R James is either carrying out some sort of research, or is on holiday; wherever they are, they discover some sort of antiquarian artefact or, more often, fragment of manuscript. They are then haunted by firstly a sense of terror, and then by some sort of horrific spirit which slowly gains physical form, either a humanoid shape or quite often something vile and spidery. And then, the threat somehow … goes away.

That description makes his stories sound rather anticlimatic. But, that’s because the real reason I’m writing this essay is something I feel I have to whisper to you privately, as if it were a secret unsuitable to tell you out loud. Despite his reputation as a master of the English ghost story, I don’t think very much of the work of M R James.

This isn’t because I object to the narrowness of the world he portrays, the world of late-Victorian and Edwardian academia in which men spend all their time in libraries and cathedrals and women are hardly ever at all visible. That was James’s world; he strongly believed that ghost stories should be set in the normal world of the everyday, so he wrote about what he knew. There are two things, really, that have always stopped me from enjoying James. Firstly, to my modern ear his writing sounds very clunky and awkward, especially for something originally written to be read aloud. This is the opening of “The Tractate Middoth”, published 1911.

Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library, and addressing himself to an attendant, stated that he believed he was entitled to use the library, and inquired if he might take a book out. Yes, if he were on the list of those to whom that privilege was given. He produced his card—Mr John Eldred—and, the register being consulted, a favourable answer was given. ‘Now, another point,’ said he. ‘It is a long time since I was here, and I do not know my way about your building; besides, it is near closing-time, and it is bad for me to hurry up and down stairs. I have here the title of the book I want: is there anyone at liberty who could go and find it for me?’ After a moment’s thought the doorkeeper beckoned to a young man who was passing. ‘Mr Garrett,’ he said, ‘have you a minute to assist this gentleman?’ ‘With pleasure,’ was Mr Garrett’s answer.

More importantly, though, I’ve never found there to be any true terror in James’s writing, however much horror there is. The stories are always resolved, but the resolution comes quickly and without any problems. If there is a villain then he will get his just desserts; often he will be attacked by some sort of supernatural entity, and the coroner will find his heart has inexplicably stopped. In many cases, though, the protagonist is rescued and the threat just goes away.

Regular readers might remember my post recently about Robert Graves, and in it, Graves’s (or rather A E Housman’s) test for a “true poem”: it makes your hair stand on end. That’s because, in Graves’s mind, a “true poem” must invoke terror, because it is about the White Goddess, who is a terrifying character. Regardless of what you think about Robert Graves and his intensely narrow-focused view as to what counts as genuine poetry, it’s fair to say that a ghost story should be able to invoke terror. I first read James’s stories in my teens, buying a cheap reprint,* and I remember being surprised that such famous ghost stories, despite many attempts to invoke horror, didn’t seem terrifying at all. My skin stayed entirely unprickled.

As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve started to feel that the real key to the ghost story isn’t necessarily just terror: the best ghost stories are also filled with emotion and sadness, of a constant sense of loss and longing. To say the obvious, they are about death, which means inevitability, eternity and regret. Ghost stories can be the saddest stories possible, because they reflect on the impossibility of changing the past and of undoing mistakes. In a very real sense, they are about regretting the path not taken. There is nothing like this anywhere in James: his characters are virtually emotionless and seem entirely free of introspection. This, combined with the flat, matter-of-fact style of writing, produces a curiously unaffecting text. I can read it and see, on an intellectual level, what James is trying to do, how he is mechanically advancing the plot; but there is no tension, no emotion, no way to draw me into the story.

I can remember, the first time I read James, that only one story really stood out and stuck in my mind, and it did so for entirely mechanical reasons. It was “A View From A Hill”, in which an antiquarian discovers a pair of binoculars that can apparently see into the past. He then takes them into a church, and they stop working entirely: the view becomes completely black and opaque as if you had left the lens caps on. The story ends with him discovering how they were made. I was fascinated by this story purely because of the artefact, the rules by which it operated, how it was made. It’s simply not a ghost story, though, and has no suspense, drama or action of any kind. A man finds a thing, he breaks the thing, and he is still the same person he always was.

There are, to be fair, good spots and good moments in James’s stories. One of the best is a relatively early one, “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”. The opening has a waspishly comic touch, with a line almost reused by Monty Python some seventy or so years later:

‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography

He does reuse the same joke again a few paragraphs down, but we can probably forgive him that. “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is one of James’s best stories, let down largely by an unnecessary final paragraph which he seems to have realised himself is superfluous, because it begins with the words “There is really nothing more to tell”. It has also benefited from an excellent and genuinely frightening TV adaptation made in the late 1960s by Jonathan Miller: he changes the character of the protagonist somewhat, but makes the ghost of the piece far more eerie and threatening than James’s writing itself conveys.

The success of Miller’s TV adaptation led to the BBC producing a regular series of Christmas ghost stories, the most famous of which is probably Dickens’s The Signalman with Denholm Elliott in the title role. More recently, in 2013, Mark Gatiss revived the idea by dramatising “The Tractate Middoth”. It needed quite a lot of alteration to turn it into a good enough storyline for modern TV, and to give the characters some sense of emotion and inner being. The female characters in the original story are barely anything more than ciphers, plot devices. As in “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You” the story ends with an extraneous additional paragraph, a single sentence, written almost apologetically to explain that James just doesn’t know how to write about male-female relationships; in the TV adaptation it turns into an entire subplot. Moreover, one of the big flaws of “The Tractate Middoth”, the story, is that in its first act the most significant events happen off the page. The main character, a library assistant, goes off-scene to fetch a book. The next we hear, he’s been taken ill. A scene or two later, we discover he was found unconscious among the stacks; and then he relates a description of the supernatural thing he saw that shocked him into a faint. The whole structure, I feel, doesn’t make sense. Rather, it feels as if James is slowly trying to introduce the sense that something wrong and frightening has happened, but the effect is to lessen, not increase, the fright. With TV, you can fix this: you can show the events as they happen, rather than describing them further down the line.

I realise, in writing this, that I’ve given lots of examples of what I don’t like in James’s writing, without really giving very concrete examples of how to write a good ghost story. That will, to be honest, have to wait for another day, because this essay is already as long as it needs to be. I’m also very aware that above I’ve criticised two of James’s stories for ending with a short additional paragraph that just doesn’t need to be there, so I’m doing my very best to avoid committing the same sin myself. Part of me thinks that, if I do know what makes the perfect ghost story, maybe I should try to write one myself at some point over the Christmas break. Watch this space, and we’ll see if I do.

* It was the Wordsworth Classics edition back when Wordsworth Classics were only £1 each.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part four)

A bit more papercraft engineering

After a few weekends without touching it, I did a bit more work on the papercraft pinhole camera (previously discussed here, here and here) today. I’m sure The Children have completely forgotten that it was supposed to be for them originally.

Today was the moment that some of the key engineering parts of it dropped into place. Firstly, the film take-up spool was glued into its position.

Film take-up spool

The main stem of the spool had to be threaded through a triangular hole in a small piece of card with small flaps on the inside of the hole, and these flaps had to be glued to the spool without sticking anything to the main body of the camera, so that the spool is free to rotate. My biggest worry was not pushing that piece of card far enough up the spool, because the spool has to be wide enough to hold a roll of film. It’s one of those things we will only find out about when we try to put a film into it and wind it on, I suspect.

You can see, also, that I’ve tried to fix my earlier mistake building half the camera upside-down, by hacking at the body with a scalpel and extending the frame mask downwards a little bit. I might touch up the edge of that with a black marker.

Next, the shutter mechanism, made by laminating six pieces of card together, trapping a sliding shutter piece in the middle. The sliding piece—itself laminated from two thicknesses of card—is the rectangular piece in this picture.

Starting on the shutter

When the whole mechanism is built up it’s a fairly chunky-feeling assembly, complete with a functional bayonet-mount on the back just like an SLR.

Finished shutter

The main “pinhole”, which is a metal sheet, is then stuck in place in front of the shutter assembly with double-sided tape, and various semi-cosmetic rings of cardboard are stuck on in front of it, partly to make it look like a real camera lens and partly to hood the pinhole from glare. I’m quite pleased just how well the shutter itself seems to work, but not really confident in my cardboard-rolling ability for the next step.

Photo post of the week

Into the woods

If you have a day to spare at the tail end of autumn, and the weather is all damp and misty, what better to do than go for a walk in the woods? In this case, a Forestry England wood just outside Failand, Ashton Hill Plantation. At its centre is a stand of sequoias, looking suitably mysterious in the mist. For a moment you can start to imagine you’re in some sort of supernatural horror-mystery filmed in Washington State.

Grove of sequoias

In the shelter

However, brief glimpses of the rolling landscape outside the woods, showing off the traditional English fear of outsiders, soon remind you where you are.

Keep out

Near the edge of the wood is a fairy tree, naturally beloved by The Child Who Likes Fairies, decorated with several tiny doors and various garlands and trimmings round its base. Further up, I noticed at adult head height, something that seemed much deeper, speaking directly to the fairies themselves, not there to entertain children.

Corn dolly

A corn dolly pinned to the tree with a baby’s teething toy. Some sort of offering; some sort of old ritual; maybe some sort of prayer.

Books I Haven't Read (part eleven)

On myth, poetry, and all that

When I first moved down to South-West England, I was intrigued to note that one of the major local commercial property firms, their boards decorating every half-empty high street, was called Alder King. No doubt this is because at some point in the distant past Mr Alder and Mr King got together to form a business (their website is sadly unhelpful on the subject), but in my own private imagination I liked to think that their founder was deliberately trying to invoke a mythical archetype, implying that the cycle of closure, vacancy and opening on the High Street echoed the ancient cycle of death, sacrifice and rebirth, the brief but spiritually charged reign of the sacred king destroyed by the Great Goddess as described by James Frazer and popularised by one of the twentieth century’s best-known English-language poets. No doubt that poet, if he had lived to the 2010s and had seen Alder King’s advertising boards himself, would have thought the same. Rather, he would not just have thought “that’s an amusing coincidence of naming,” as I did: he would have thought it yet more evidence that all of his theories about mythology and prehistory were incontrovertibly, emotionally and poetically true, and that anyone who disagreed with him was probably a contemptible writer-of-prose or Apollonian poetaster with a degree from Cambridge. At least, I assume that’s what he would have thought. I’ve never managed to finish reading his book on the subject, and I’ve threatened to write a blog post about it more than once in the distant past. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is, as you potentially have already guessed from this introduction, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

I have a strange relationship with Graves. I’ve been intrigued with him, puzzled by him, almost obsessed with him, since I was a teenager and my English teacher loaned me his own copy of Goodbye To All That, Graves’s infamous autobiography. He wrote it in a great rush to raise cash in the late 1920s after abandoning his final full-time salaried job, and it’s a fascinating mixture of anecdote and recollection dominated heavily by the one great horror at the heart of his life. He had the bad luck to be born into the English upper-middle-class in the mid-1890s: he left public school, and was about to join Oxford University, in the summer of 1914. He became an army officer without even having to try; whilst still a teenager he was a lieutenant, and by the time he would theoretically have been graduating, he had almost been declared dead and was no longer fit for front-line service. Writing your autobiography at the age of 32 might seem somewhat precocious, but the greatest part of Graves’s is purely about his life between the ages of 19 and 23. I hadn’t even realised, when reading the book, that I was reading the now-standard second edition. It was revised by Graves when some thirty years older to take out the more controversial parts: some passages that hugely upset his close friend Siegfried Sasson, and any references to his 1920s attempt at “feminist” polyamory. The original text is a lot harder to find these days, which is no doubt what Graves would have wanted.

I have a strange relationship with Graves, but I don’t think I could ever like him, and certainly I don’t think we would ever have got on if I should happen to somehow go back in time and meet him. He was a mass of contradictions and swirling neuroses. He always insisted he was a poet, but the majority of his income was from novels and biography, books that he himself always derided as “potboilers”. He had a great skill for making stories make narrative sense, though. His retelling of mythology in the Greek Myths has almost become a standard from a literary standpoint, but he picks and chooses sources and details indiscriminately according to his own subjective view of what feels “more mythological”, or in other words, what he feels best fits the story he wanted to tell. Similarly his best-known novel, I, Claudius, is no use at all as history precisely because its point is to fit a narratively-satisfying story on top of a patch of history which Graves felt needed a better explanation than evidence alone could provide. Above all that, he seems to have been a fairly horrible person: misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and with an irrational hatred of anyone with a degree from Cambridge.*

This post, though, is supposed to be a review of The White Goddess and why I’ve never read it all the way through, or, indeed, got more than a few chapters in. Its subtitle is A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth, and in it, Graves first gives a very narrow definition of poetry, before explaining why his interpretation of ancient Celtic sources proves that his definition of poetry is correct in an almost geometrically-perfect circular argument. In short: poetry is verse which inspires subconscious terror, fear, and makes your hair stand on end,** because its subject is always male devotion to the all-commanding White Goddess, the triple-goddess of birth, fecundity and death, the goddess who marries her suitor the Alder King for one glorious day before he is destroyed as a sacrifice to her.

All true poetry—true by Housman’s practical test—celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story (p20 of the fourth edition)

“Hang on a minute, Captain Graves,” I can almost hear you saying. “I mean that’s fine for you to say, but I’ve written some poetry and it wasn’t about that!”

In that case, clearly according to Graves’ rules, you’re not a poet and you weren’t writing Poetry. To you and me this might indeed sound like nothing more than highest-order gatekeeping, but Graves goes into great effort to explain that it’s true, much of what you might think is poetry just isn’t Poetry by the standards of Graves The Dedicated Poet. Indeed, according to his standards, the English have barely understand poetry at all.

The Anglo-Saxons had no sacrosanct master-poets, but only gleemen; and English poetic lore is borrowed at third hand… This explains why there is not the same instinctive reverence for the name of poet in the English countryside as there is in the remotest parts of Wales, Ireland and the Highlands. (p19)

So, Robert, you’re saying that the True Poets are those dashing chaps in flappy shirts like Byron and Shelley and so on, who were always saying they wanted to dedicate themselves to their muses?

This is not to identify the true poet with the Romantic poet. … The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny. (p21)

In other words, the only true poets in the world are, really, Robert Graves and a handful of contemporaries he respected (Alun Lewis being one example he quotes approvingly). Others? Sorry, no, whatever you thought you were doing, you’re just not writing poetry by Graves’ standards. The problem I have with this is not just the way it immediately writes off huge swathes of literature, but that this is apparently done so in order to centre Graves, his neuroses and his relationships as the epitome of Poetry, the pinnacle of literature. Graves described himself as a feminist as far back as the 1920s, but his feminism was one in which in reality he was at the centre of things: in which he chose a woman, elevated her onto a holy pedestal, and jealously ensured she stayed there. An emotional masochist, he poured his creative energy into worshipping his chosen muse almost in the hope that she would make him suffer for it. In this sense, his explanation of what makes True Poetry is nothing more than a recapitualation of his personal relationships of the 1920s and 1930s, which he claims to be some sort of universal religious truth. Jealousy itself is elevated to being a vital emotion for the True Poet to have.

What evidence is there, in The White Goddess, that Graves’ inner demons really are the key to both True Poetry and to the ancient mystery religion he claims to be decoding? A dense and cryptic analysis of medieval Welsh poetry, specifically the poem Cad Goddeu, taking it like a set of crossword clues and reordering lines and stanzas in order to produce something that Graves thought made more sense than the original poem. Graves’s “poetic logic” here is much like his logic in writing I, Claudius, or his Greek Myths, or his novel about the life of Jesus: his rewrite of the poem makes a better story, because rewritten it supports his argument, and therefore his argument must be true, because the poem supports it. As a key to understanding Cad Goddeu it is not really anything other than speculation, and certainly not the self-evidently true reconstruction that Graves insists he has produced. To be fair, Cad Goddeu is a famously impenetrable poem and most interpretations of it are little more than speculation, but at least most of the people who attempt to understand it admit that they have no clue what it really consists of.

I said earlier that Graves’ life was governed and steered by the pure luck of being born where and when he was. Similarly, he wrote The White Goddess at just the right time for it to become highly influential: at precisely the time that a new religion was being created in Dorset. As Ronald Hutton has documented in The Triumph Of The Moon, Wicca arose from a seething mixture of British and Irish cultural influences from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and The White Goddess, coming at the very end of that period, was one of the most influential on later Wiccan development. Its goddess and its underlying Frazerian story are now widely adopted in modern Paganism, and I’m sure you can find pagans who not only worship Graves’ goddess themselves but believe the ancient Welsh did too. The book has stayed in print for many years, although I do wonder how many of the sold copies have been read all the way through.

So why haven’t I—as of the time of writing—been unable to complete it, despite several attempts? I suspect I’m just too well aware that its basic premise is wrong, or at least, fundamentally flawed. Graves seems to always have been greatly annoyed that academics in both literature and archaeology didn’t think much of it, and that any reviews that did come from academia were generally scathing. He showed it in quite a passive-aggressive way: not only did he write long letters of reply to magazines that gave it a bad review, but some are printed as an appendix to the modern Faber edition. Sadly, they largely show nothing more than his own arrogance and lack of understanding: his insistance that his own outdated knowledge of archaeology and anthropology was far more accurate than that of the professors criticising him. Given I received an introduction to Welsh myth and archaeology at university, I am well aware firstly that much of Graves’ understanding was wrong (even at the time it was written, and it has only grown more wrong since), and secondly that some of his statements make huge leaps in logic and present whole towers of assumption and supposition as if they were solid fact. The entirety of the text rests on sweeping syncretism, with claims such as that the Welsh mythological magician Gwydion is the same character as the Norse god Odin, or that Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes is the same character as Hercules and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. The text resembles a grand conspiracy theory as any similarity between stories and people, however weak, is jumped upon as meaning an equivalence. I opened the book at random to find an example and found this passage, on the ancient Irish poem Song of Amergin:

Tethra [a name mentioned in the poem] was the king of the Undersea-land from which the People of the Sea were later supposed to have originated. He is perhaps a masculinisation of Tethys, the Pelasgian Sea-goddess, also known as Thetis […]. The Sidhe are now popularly regarded as fairies: but in early Irish poetry they appear as a real people. […] All had blue eyes, pales faces, and long curly yellow hair. […] They were, in fact, Picts (tattooed men), and all that can be learned about them corresponds with Xenophon’s observations […] on the primitive Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast. […] They occupied the territory assigned in early Greek legend to the matriarchal Amazons. The ‘blue eyes’ of the Sidhe I take to be blue interlocking rings tattooed around the eyes, for which the Thracians were known in Classical times. Their pallor was perhaps also artificial—white ‘war-paint’ of chalk or powdered gypsum, in honour of the White Goddess, such as we know, from a scene in Aristophanes’s Clouds where Socrates whitens Strepsiades, was used in Orphic rites of initiation.

There you are: the “real identity” of the mythological Sidhe is uncovered by picking apart random coincidental parallels with things Graves had picked up in his Classical-themed public school education. It’s more like a word association game than genuine historical research. Apologies for editing out the description of the Mosynoechians; it’s impossible to tell from Graves’ account whether there genuinely were coincidental similarities between them and the mythological Sidhe, or whether Graves is being Graves and jumping to conclusions based on the flimiest of matches.

Hopefully one day I will complete reading The White Goddess. The last time I picked it up, I was tempted to live-tweet every time I came to a passage that infuriated me, but soon realised what a thankless and hopeless task this would be after just the second page of the introduction contained the line that Judaism is “a Semitic [religion] grafted onto a Celtic stock”, which is closer to conspiracy-history than anything grounded in fact. I’m certainly not ready to read it just yet. Maybe, instead, I should write something better. Something that is full of open inspirational ideas, not closed and self-justifying ones.

* As someone whose degree is from one of the Ancient Scots Universities, I don’t really have a horse in this race; but I do wonder if he generally thought that any universities other than Oxford were beyond contempt, or if it was just Cambridge specifically.

** This isn’t me colloquialising. He specifically says: a verse is a poem if it makes your hair stand on end if you recite it silently whilst shaving. I can imagine that’s quite handy for doing those tricky bits around your chin; as a test, it’s attributed to A E Housman. I can’t really imagine Housman agreeing with the rest of Graves’ thesis.