A Pagan Story – an early hero myth – experimental novel

Mountain with rainbow for a pagan story

I have been working on a pagan story, an experimental novel, and reached a section that required a myth cycle. This is the starting point of that cycle. It just fell out of the fingers, and this is how it appears in first draft with minor corrections. I have no idea where it will take me…

How do they get here, these night visitors? I remember as if peering through a crack in a wall, seeing only a limited scene, how I asked my mother this once. As a woman and thus a keeper of the Old Lore, she told me the story with a smile on her face that told me she was telling me this for entertainment. But later when I asked about it, she was deadly serious that every word was true. She said:

Sjemantuk the brave one found the Old Gods were real by firing an arrow into the sky. This is how it happened.

Sjemantuk was a mighty warrior who had been told the Old Gods lived in the cloudland, upside down above the neathland. So, he decided to see if the sky was flat, as he had been told.

He tried once, making a mighty bow from the rib of a whale that he found sleeping in the earth waiting to wake up. But the arrow fell to earth, burying its stone tip deep in the ground and leaving a deep hole, and this is how the first sea was made. The whales sleeping in the ground awoke and swam in the waters that poured into the New Deep.

Sjemantuk made another bow from the trunk of the One Mighty Tree, Hjemfang. He flexed his muscles in a stupendous effort and after drawing this massive bow with his powerful grip, sent a great shaft with a brass tip into the sky. It glanced from the sky but did not stick, and fell to earth. Where it hit, water began to leak from the sky, and this is when the rains began. The bow also broke under the great strain, and the shattering wood of bow and arrow made all the forests in the world.

Still Sjemantuk wondered how he might best travel to the land of the sky.

One day, as he was walking, he caught the Sun and Rain in discussion over a mountain top. Watching closely, he saw their child, the Rainbow, had wandered away from them to the next mountain. Sjemantuk the hunter sneaked upon Lusjak Rainchild and tried to catch him-her. But Lusjak was too clever for him, and every time he pounced upon her, he-she was elsewhere. And so he chased him-her up the mountainside while she laughed at his bumbling efforts.

But then, high on the mountain, Sjemantuk found the magic stone that is both cold and clear, and trapped Lusjak within it as he-she taunted Sjemantuk. Now, when light shone through the magic stone, Lusjak appeared. Lusjak was frozen solid in the ice. Sjemantuk took hold of her-him and tied a string made from the hair of rainfall shedding on the mountain. In this way, he fashioned a bow that was both subtle and powerful. To this he added a lightning shaft made from the the old serpent Manark, and drawing Lusfang, the greatest bow the world has ever seen, he sent it flying to the sky. The arrow caught fast in the sky. And then Sjemantuk, having tied a rope to its tail, climbed upward to the sky.

Experimental novel extract: A Pagan Story

Man in green mask

I have been writing a novel with an experimental feel, the opening rough of which is here. I think some of the loneliness within it echoes things that are going on in life around many of us at the moment. Disassociation and alienation, bewilderment and hallucination are central to this short scene.

So, I thought I would try it out on a wider world. This is exactly as it was written with no corrections:

My father’s dreams come in powders and grow from the sacred mycelium each year. They offer renewal, a doorway into the otherworld that is one of the places where the gods, the Others, wait and plan and scheme.

In this dream I am walking through a woodland with paths that branch and branch outward and seem to go somewhere, but I follow them and they load only to more paths that branch. And one of those again leads to more branches. After days of walking in this way, I begin to sense there is someone nearby, just out of reach. The breathghost comes into being beside me with each step I take and every breath I take, but when I look to it, it is not there, though sometimes I catch fleeting visions of eyes disappearing into nothingness.

I become more agitated and can feel the shock of fear in my limbs, a rising anxiety that makes my limbs sting as if they somehow have honey running inside them, and not the blood which is the life of the world and is half sea, half earth and somehow, half spirit. The honey feeling rises, and it is not quite fear, and more like uncomfortable excitement.

I feel a rising sensation in my stomach that is like laughter and sickness at once, and around me in the shadows between the trees I see more eyes. Eyes everywhere. In the knots of wood, on the ends of the tiny tongues of needles in the branches, the raised eyes on stalks of snails. The stars are eyes that I catch between the gaps in the trees, and when I see the blackness above me, I wonder if there is the firmament there or infinite loneliness that stretches on far and far beyond the bounds of life into eternity.

I see a figure now in the woods, leaping and crouching, making strange twisted shapes with his body. He is wearing a mask of green leaves that covers his face, and he is green from head to foot. There are living oak leaves in his hair that flutter in an unfelt wind, and his clothing is a long green robe woven with the shapes of pine, and holly, and ivy, and the brown seeds of the trees, and the acorns. I am afraid of him as he approaches me, but his eyes watch me as afraid and confounded as I am.

I fall on to my knees, and scream, for he is a nightmarish figure, and he says in a voice I seem to know, “don’t be afraid, it is me.” I look up, aware that around us there are other eyes watching from every tree and every life and every needle and I realise this is why I am afraid. He reaches up and pulls of his mask to reveal another mask made of wood that he can’t pull from his face, though he tries. And so I watch him struggle with trying to take his face off.

I hear another voice as he pulls himself into the strangest shapes, and as I do I know new knowledge that rises in voice like a roaring wind through the trees:

“The gods also live in shadows and in the forest, in the sap of branches,” the voice says as the man in green convulses himself, in a crazed frenzy trying to pull the mask free. “And the great aerial-rooted trees that reach long fingers down into the world below from the cloudlands, from where they send the rain to fall on the neathland.” Fingers reach up from the soil, breaking the surface, the hands of men who have trodden here before, I know. And the voice goes on: “Trees, too, are the silent houses of watchful gods, for each tree is born out of spirit as much as earth, for earth is also spirit, and the soul of the heartwood is sealed in to it by the Earth herself, who shares her power in turn with the half-spirit sea (for it is spirit that continually moves the sea), and over all arches the Great Sky swarming with creatures made of the First Breath.”

And the trees sway and sway more, and begin to uproot themselves and walk in a circular dance around me. And still the voice rises, the sound now of a hurricane:

“All of this signifies the mystery of sorrow for us in the neathland. Our earthly paradise, digging in the soil, the mud and dirt is held together only by the rituals with which we implore, beg and petition the Others. The mystery of sorrow, the sorrow of pain, the pain of ending, the ending of life, the life of mystery, the mystery of sorrow. These are the gifts from the gods, for life is sorrow and life is sometimes joy – and everything in between is praise for the gods!”

And the trees clear a path and a patch of earth where corn begins to rise from the musty loam. And the voice cries out: “Childbirth, the ecstasy of the hunt, the reaching to the sky of the corn, the death of the BarleyGod, the teaching stories that are the legends of the Others. So much sorrow, but amongst it all, the glimmer of transformation. Transformation of life to new life, and an escape to something higher. What the Archimandrite himself tells us of – the chance to rise above Earthly pain. And so we serve the Others. We all serve the Others!!”

The Corridor of Selves

alex iby mirror picture provided via unsplash

Listening to old music from my teens, all alone, and I realise how many people we are in our life. Perhaps this is the karmic wheel: we are reborn into each minute as the child of our actions in a former moment just a few seconds before. This, then might be reincarnation.

A vast corridor of selves through which we walk, with each of them looking out at us, as if through a mirror. How can we live like this? With all these strangers in our heads that we hold together with a gossamer narrative?

Is it possible to find a single narrative to fit all those errant, wayward people that we are? And what do we have to sacrifice and suppress in order to maintain integrity of personality?

A gossamer narrative. Gossamer. Spider’s strand. Sometimes we are caught in the unreality of our own being, it seems.

And yet perhaps so. The spider builds a structure to serve its purpose. What do we catch with the story we tell ourselves? Dignity? Denial? Another day we might not have reached were it not for the lies we pretend? Is this, too, reincarnation? How often are we close to death?

Sometimes I wish I could start it all again. “This tangled web we weave”. But we are here only once, and soon are dust. And to start again now is an impossibility. What is life. An ‘F in lie’?

Wonder Woman 1984: a biting Trumpian satire

Wonder Woman 19984

In the wake of the storming of the Capitol by Trump Insurrectionists, Wonder Woman 1984 seems extraordinarily prescient, and here’s why.

!!WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS!!

When I first watched the latest offering from Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and the DC Universe, I admit there was something I didn’t get. Though its opening scenes featured the soaring golden sunlight of Themyscira, and Lily Aspel reprising her role as the young Diana in a gripping action sequence, it then came to 1984 Washington DC. On first viewing I couldn’t work out why.

The hoodlums the Themysciran Goddess wipes the floor of a glitzy shopping mall with in the establishing action sequence seemed slight in contrast to the sombre trench warfare horrors of her first cinematic outing. But I soon realised the flat shadowless colour register straight out of ET, Trading Places and even Superman III revealed subtler horrors – and more urgent one in the context of the modern day.

The very first shots in the mall sequence show a consumer chomping down on a fat greasy burger, while older men exchange glances at the imagined invitation presented by the lycra-pinched posteriors of dancers sacrificing dignity to sell product. That Mall is no coincidence – because this film is all about consumerism, greed, desire and what happens when you ignore the consequences of wanting something to be true so hard you ignore reality.

Maxwell Lord against a gold background.
Trump is often portrayed against a gold background

The villain of this story is Maxwell Lord, portrayed here as a wannabe billionaire willing to offer the masses whatever they want so he can get ahead. The film is awash with parody of phoney self-help products, selfishness, greed and dishonesty – to oneself and others. Lord himself is associated with images of gold and wealth from the very start…

Farage and Trump in a gold lift
Maxwell Lord and far right amphibian super-villain Nigel Fartage against a gold background.

Sound familiar? Those themes are exactly the themes that have blighted America in the last four years – and if you still doubt this is its intention, the film is pretty explicit about which modernday swindler it is targeting.

The dialogue is revealing. When a disgruntled investor calls Maxwell Lord a conman, Lord defines exactly who he thinks he is: “I am not a conman! I am a television personality and a respected businessman…” And just in case you missed the reference, he says this from beneath a mass of bouffoned hair with just a hint of gold, while striding around in an ’80s powersuit.

One of Trump’s favourite insults is spoken through Maxwell Lord’s mouth. When the same investor calls Lord a loser in front of his son, he turns to his boy and tells him, “I am not a loser. He’s a loser!” Anyone who has seen Trump’s tweets knows that one well enough, and they will also recognise his accusation that anyone criticising him is in a conspiracy driven by jealousy – another straight lift from real life.

More of Trump’s false dreams and promises appear as the movie goes on. Take, for example, the sudden appearance in the Middle East of a wall that comes from nowhere at the behest of a fanatical Egyptian royal who wants to reinstate his ancestral realm.

The emir wishes “for all the heathens that have trod upon it to be kept out forever so that its glory may be renewed.” – Really?!? A MEGA movement to Make Egypt Great Again!?! One which excludes foreigners and anyone not from the “in” group? How apt!

In response to this wish of a nationalistic dreamer, a giant wall is created around the lands, described by a reporter’s voice/over as: “A bizarre phenomenon… called the Divine Wall. it’s an unexplainable event that now sees Egypt’s poorest communities entirely cut off from their only supply of fresh water…”

As well as making a wider point about the obviously divisive nature of wall building, one can’t help asking: is this wall a mirror image of the notorious Israeli separation wall that keeps Palestinians penned in with restricted water supply? Or is this an echo of those who died of dehydration crossing the Mexico-US border?

In the DC Universe the tyrant actually gets the wall he dreams of, and nobody pays for it. Except the whole world. But that’s later.

President Trump giving the thumbs up to President Kim
Psychopathic dictator President Kim gets the thumbs up from failed businessman Maxwell Lord.

Such Trumpian echoes, and, for example, the thumbs-ups from Lord, occur throughout the movie. Seen in this way the allegory of the Trumpian wannabe dictator who breaks all the rules is absolutely clear. Just before the film enters its third act, Lord arrives in the Whitehouse and discovers that POTUS wants “more” – in this case, more nuclear weapons. His wish is granted.

Still from Wonder Woman 1984 with Maxwell Lord giving the thumbs up.
Donald Trump giving the thumbs up in Wonder Woman 1984

In return, Lord steals the powers and command of POTUS: “You know what I’d like? I would want all of your power, influence, authority, all the respect you command – and the command everyone must respect! I mean what else is there?”

And then, for all those who have accused Trump of collusion with Russia and other foreign powers, another telling line: “Now, tell your people I would appreciate absolutely no interference whatsoever. No taxes, no rule of law, no limits. Treat me like a foreign nation, with absolute autonomy.”

And so, the Whitehouse is taken over by a businessman whose only interest is to serve himself.

In amongst all of this, the co-supervillain, Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah begins her own descent into cruelty and selfishness due to the corrupting influence of the Wish Stone. Initially a meek and mousey woman, she becomes a ruthless psychotic cat-creature by the end of the movie.

Picture of Kirsten Wiig in Wonder Woman 1984
Kayleigh McEnany: a semi human predator devoid of a conscience?

Let’s face it: a sweet-looking blonde bombshell who is actually a brawler and bruiser willing to do anything to protect her impostor leader seems eerily familiar to anyone who has seen Kayleigh McEnany, Kelly-Anne Conway or Hope Hicks at work spreading lies and misinformation.

Kayleigh McEnany, Whitehouse Press Office
Barbara Minerva – AKA Cheetah (Cheater?) is played by Kristen Wiig

The movie’s final scenes had a shocking resonance after the horrors of the Capitol Insurrection. In Wonder Woman 1984, the streets of not only America, but the world descend into chaos as the utter selfishness Lord unleashes with no regard for reality.

The Capitol Insurrection
Not Wonder Woman 1984

But this is not the only way in which Wonder Woman 1984 captures the nuances of the disastrous Trump administration. Placing the film in the 80s points directly at the roots of consumerism and greed, of aspiration without an acknowledgement of responsibility and a divorce from the cause and effect that relentless selfishness and shortsightedness has on society today. In fact, the very era when Trump first rose to major prominence.

Scene of anarchy at the Capitol in Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984

The story accelerates toward the end, as we see Lord, the presidential interloper using television to get his message across to the whole world. He promises people whatever they want throughout, while his own power grows and grows as he takes something away from each person trapped by their unrecognised Faustian pact. The metaphor of a charismatic despot feeding on power stolen through abuse of the media is a stark and biting attack on the Trump regime. It is a story exactly of now.

The Capitol Insurrection
Also not Wonder Woman 1984

Each person within the movie is forced to face one painful truth – you can’t have whatever you want without paying for it in some way. When as a viewer I discovered that the supervillain behind this is none other than Wonder Woman’s Golden Age nemesis, the Duke of Deception, the extreme topicality of the movie hit home – it comes now, in the real world, after four years of being told that truth is lies, and that journalistic reports sounding the alarm against tyranny are fake news.

Toward the end of the film, as the world descends into anarchy and I looked at it through eyes that have also seen the Capitol insurrection, I found it eerily prescient – to such an extent that I got shivers down my spine.

We all knew what Trump was capable of but never thought he would achieve… but the sheer collapse of law and order that Jenkins captures in this script is near clairvoyant.

– How did she know? – I asked myself, as the credits began to roll. Perhaps more importantly, how did so many who voted for him not know?

The answer: because they were deceived – and that, in the end is what this film is about.

On hearing Beethoven’s 9th on Brexit Day

Brexit image

Sitting in my car today, on the 1st day of 2021, when Britain has departed from the rest of the European Union, I switched on the radio to hear the steady build-up of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – the “Chorale”, and I was suddenly thrown back on myself and the awful struggle that has been part of my life over the last 4 years as I hoped with a passion that Britain would not be so foolish as to REALLY leave the EU.

Hearing the tune that is used at the EU anthem on the day the connection was cut hit me like a hammer blow – the pain I felt, the sadness and the longing that mingled together.

Behind all my rage about Brexit is a simple truth: deep grief about the loss of that part of my identity bigger and better than pure Britishness. It is a psychological diminishment I may never recover from. The EU added richness to my Britishness, it did not limit it.

I mean this in the same way that I am English and Celtic. The Celtic part of my identity embedded me in a rich non-Anglo-Saxon tradition. My European Union citizenship did exactly the same.

It’s interesting to me, and saddening, that while many Brexiteers vaunted identity and a pure British identity as the desired object of their politics, it is exactly the opposite of that purity – the richness of mixing it up – that gave my life a sense of joy.

What I find fascinating is the feeling comes form the tangible. I had often mocked Brexiters for becoming so passionate about the colour of their travel document, but now that I see the legal support and underpinning, the treaties and the international understandings a passport represents removed from me, I can at least understand something of their passion, even if the thing in itself that I miss is the direct opposite of what they wanted.

Let’s be clear, the future that I imagined and loved was a European one, just as they imagine a British one.

I don’t know how that rift will be mended within a UK that essentially is two nations now: one that looks to its homeland in Europe, with all the enlightened attitudes and politics that entails, and its opposite – an aggressive nationalism. Do I feel I have more in common with friends in France, Germany or the Netherlands than I do with my next door neighbour? Yes, absolutely. I was quite happy to accept them on terms of equality under the stars of the EU flag, rather than regard them as strangers under two flags. We were, somehow, sharing an endeavour of building a unique civilization that was broad, big and most of all optimistic.

I have no idea how to stop this pain. The thing Brexit has taught me, is after this sense of loss and pain, I am now a European more than I ever was when I was in the EU. The parting and pain makes the identity more meaningful. This will never go away. So, we are two nations in the UK. I will never love my country in the way I once did, because that country has told me I cannot be who I am at my heart.

I distrust narrow nationalism with a passion that comes from hating the nationalism of The Third Reich or of The British Empire. Neither were about equality, and this is what I find so troubling about the direction Britain is now headed in.

But that is enough. For now, I’ve had my say.

For New Year 2021 Give Me A New Type of Story

As we enter 2021 together, I do so personally with a deep sense of foreboding.

Degradation of the planet and use of resources, mineral, vegetable and animal is accelerating, sea levels are rising and more and more people are being displaced. In response, nations who could help to solve these problems have instead of reaching out retreated into nationalism and racism to preserve what they fear others will steal from them.

Those baser instincts are being repeated across the world, now. As countries seek to hold on to the resources they have, be they fish, or land, or oil or whatever, co-operation is undermined and the game of King of the Hill continues apace among people and nations alike.

It has to stop. The dangers facing the world, be they the pandemic, climate change, deforestation, slavery, plastics poisoning, carbon emissions, pollution, overproduction are all based on an economic and political model that simply cannot hold any more. And that reality, once again, that pressure for change, has people afraid of others.

Leaders like Trump and Johnson – and there will be more like them – plug into the cognitive dissonance of those who refuse to accept the real causes of their situation and turn to conspiracy narratives and simplistic solutions for comfort.

So, do I stand at the start of 2021 with the normal sense of hope I feel at New Year? No. I can’t pretend I do. Even that energy has been sucked out of me by – not by the pandemic alone – not by one thing or another – but by a sense of tiredness that people seek to solve difficult problems with simple answers, with narratives that cast others as “evil” and themselves as “good” – and that the storytelling instinct applied in this way makes no sense and is destroying the world.

We need new ways to tell stories.

Ways that will pull together people from across the world in shared endeavour, events that will cause people to lower the drawbridge and help people connect.

In 2019 I was involved in just such a project – the transmedia storytelling event that was Cursed City: Dark Tide, which grew out of my novel The Snow Witch, and which generated a brand new narrative created by numerous writers, based on the characters from the original story.

Fumbling our ways through learning how to make narrative in entirely new ways, with stories fractured across numerous media, from street art to facebook to art exhibitions to a Tarot-reading night to musical performance was deeply liberating. After three weeks, it culminated in this magical night of music, that I give you a snippet from here:

After three weeks of storytelling and teasing our audience, we came to the final magical gig…

No longer was I just a writer working alone in my room to wind out a story, but was part of a massive group of artists and writers who made storytelling something I never knew it could be – far more interesting and diverse than I ever imagined.

It was our first attempt at storytelling in this way, and so of course we made mistakes. But it was also a joyous event and it showed us ways to draw people together in ways we had never fully anticipated.

This, then, is what I wish for 2021. For new ways to deliver stories, to weave stories in a more complex manner than before and to engage a general public in solving problems and learning more about themselves and others. It is a small thing, really, but it is the expression of a different type of consciousness from the one that has reigned for the last decade, and especially the last year.

 Jo Oliver's Snow Globe of The Snow Witch.jpg
Jo Oliver’s Snow Globe of The Snow Witch

2021, then, you may be a monster ahead, but we will go round you and through you, and you will become our friend. We need to train you, and contain you and show you, in the end, that love is stronger than hate, that curiosity and interest will burn through fear and that difference between people is constructed from lies and fear.

2021, let’s remake you in our image with art, hope and kindness. Let’s bedeck your pelt with stars and feed you with love and tickle you with joy so that you become tamed, and trained and you learn that we are all on this planet together and have to find a way to live and love side by side with the hate and anger gone.

Quite a task ahead, then.

A Christmas Story – experimental opening to a new novel

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story – draft 1 – opening.

The night sky is poked through with the inverted peaks of the mountains hanging from the firmament above our world. That upside-down land, among blue cloud mountains is where the Others live. Tonight they will come and it will be for the first time – at least for me, for this is the first Yuletide I will remember.

Shadows and light, these are my memories from before this time – though I remember my mother telling me we must prepare the way, prepare for Him to come. We call him the Lord of Years, the God of the Axle-wheel.

The tribe is happy to prepare for his coming as they have done, they say, for generations. This I learn later. This first year I it is my job to create objects of remembrance; for now it is all new to me.

“First things first, little one,” my mother smiles. She of the brown locks, long, braided. Winter flowers in that hair from the winter hedgerow by the fields and iron trees; the freezing water her laugh pealing in the winter light. She wears winter; the traditional dress of the season, long gown, blues and whites, shade of nightbound glacier, frozen air, night shadows, and white the teeth of the forest wolves, the shivering of the field creatures: iridescence.

So we prepare. There will be a procession, so first there is the making of the torches. The binding of precious oil-soaked cloth around the haft, the putting in place of the tray to catch the drips. “Like this,” she shows me how to bind the cloth. “Like this, too,” and we put the guard there for small hands, my tiny hands. Fire. The golden energy that eats the Gods of the Night, that sends away the shadow wolves stealing behind walls waiting to pounce yet never willing to leap so long as the brand is held high. Only the light that keeps them from attack, as it has always been from the beginning, light our only defence.

The wrapping of the cloth has a song that goes with it, to bind the power of the light.

‘Of The Light’, a title that speaks of honour: the goddess Syumak Of The Light, who also creates the heat for the oven where bread rises, new life imparting homoeopathically to all who eat the same life. From the belly of the oven, life is given to the bellies of the family so the old saying goes. My mother speaks: “The bread grows and takes shape in the oven as a baby does in the womb, and this is how life and bread are one and the same. We worship bread and the cutting down of the corn, an act of sacrifice that gives new life to all.”

Cycles, the world is circles. Just so with the wrapping of the cloths and the incantation that goes with all ritual work:

Syumak says round the brand once
And light will come as the sun shall shine
Syumak cries round the brand twice
And the rain shall feed the corn and vine
Syumak laughs round the brand thrice
And Barley green turns barley brown to cut and grind
Syumak shouts four times round and more
And we feel the heat of the oven’s roar
And light shall raise the dead to life
and shadows run from shining knife

We strike the brands into light once the cloth is wrapped. The shining knife is the brand we lift above our heads as we step out, myself, my mother and father into the frozen night, and we proceed down the steps to join the river of villagers ahead of us, each with brands held high, and we mingle in sound and light and heat and air, the slow chanting and murmur of hymns rising up to the sky with a cloud of vapour voices hanging and echoing until the sound dissipates, to be replaced by the next cloud of sound, rich, intense, earnest.

“Sing, my son, sing – louder, so the Lord of the Years can hear us and the great Axle-wheel will turn, with our world upon it.”

Child of the years
Father of time
Two faced god
See the world
Through your eyes
Round the circle of darkness and light
Make the world afresh in your sight
Sleep and rise again
A world beyond our pain

So we make the procession to the House of Divided Paths – the Wishmaker’s Hut, low in the glade – a building made of all that is good and all that is bad. Its smell is of spice and sweetness in some moments, but not for long. It is never stable. I pull back at what I see, a growing sense of fear at this vision that plays before my eyes; the brand shakes in my hand.

My father lays his palm on my shoulder and explains in amused voice.

“Isn’t it a wonder, son? This Wishmaker’s House is one of the Winter Mysteries – existing through difference, unstable, shifting between possibilities.”

– He is right, it is a wonder. One moment a lowly hovel, the next a castle the next a ruin, a cottage prim and proper surrounded by apple trees and moss and gold and light. In this later version it settles as we approach – a line of apprehensive children, our eyes popping out in excitement and fear. The younger ones in the line ahead of me look as afraid as I am, the older children almost embarrassed at wanting to come back here, as if the secret it offers is for a younger version of themselves, or as if they are in on a secret they know they cannot share.

I step forward under the torch light as one child after another disappears through the doorway. For those who wait, our blazing brands fill the air with black smoke that sits heavily in our lungs causing a lazy cough in us, and it seems, a stupor sometimes – lethargy falling through limbs, weighing them down as if they are made of lead or gold. I see my arms shining, reflecting, metallic and see the metal of the knife in the brand I hold above me – the gold that is the source of the sun, forever, unchanging. The catechisms and wisdoms of my very earliest memories the chants of the elders in exactly this way. Yet, tonight most of my past is behind me beyond a dense cloud as if I am new born here.

And the singing goes on, and the stars that are the ice-bound peaks of the inverted Otherworld above twinkle in reflection of our brandlight, and the night becomes a whirl of shadows and faces and light and stars and the breathghosts of life and the dark creatures in the wood, the chill deathghosts of the children before us. The spirits of the woods have gathered here, those of the tribe who haunt the barrows and towers of death, and who a few times a year venture forth to see their children’s children are performing the rites correctly.

One after another, the children are consumed by the Wishmakers Hut, it seeming now to be the mouth of a great worm breathing reeking fumes into the air. And the fumes lay heavy on my lungs.

At the entrance, my parents push me forward and tell me “Just go. Go forward. You will see.” And so I go inside.

I am not sure what the building was when I entered the doorway. Inside it is a lowly hut, and there is someone sitting, I see it, a shape in the darkness that beckons me forward.

“Come to the mirror” she says, an old crone with lines on her face. In the next instant a red-headed girl who smiles at me and says, “Look and I shall know your wish.”

I look at her a moment longer, and perhaps it is the smoke, perhaps it is something else , but I wait and know the world to be different from what I have always imagined, less safe than my parents told me, and colder, and stranger, and crueller.

I feel lonely then, as I look into the mirror and see the swirling darkness of the Old Gods take shape in its depths. A movement there in its shadows, the first fumblings of matter, into shape, directed by my awareness – though I can not know that, not now, for I am a child and do not understand how we make our worlds.

She smiles and pulls the mirror away, and laughs. A woman in her prime, beautiful, blue eyes with black, black hair the colour of the darkest night, of forest sighs, of the deep web of growth that lives below the tree roots.

“And there it is. The Christmas Child!” she shouts with delight. She twists a piece of gold into a shape between her glowing white fingers and says:

“You are a rare one. Here is your wish – ” and hands it to me, now a silver-bearded man in a green cape.

It is shaped in a twisted loop – uroboros – the elders call it. It means a circle. I look at it and do not understand.

“How can this be a wish?”

I glance a challenge at her, for she is now back to the old crone.

“You will see.”

A Round-Up of Netflix’s Christmas Movies, 2020

Every year, Jackie and I watch cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix. Many of them are medium ranking attempts at feelgood movies, some of which succeed and others of which fail. Some are actually great movies. And others are just the pits, with actors delivering lines from a wooden script, and looking like they would rather be anywhere else, or, are actually clueless as to how to make a scene come to life.

So, some of our faves:

Klaus. This is is absolutely brilliant. A great piece of animation, funny, wry, unexpected and stylish. A brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed alternative origin story for Santa Claus, its central message is exactly right for Christmas Enjoy.

Christmas with the Coopers. A surprisingly good cast, with John Goodman and Amanda Seyfried, Alan Arkin, Diane Keaton and Olivia Wilde is a classic “dysfunctional family gets together at Christmas” comedy. Slightly hit-and-miss, it has a good heart and some real wit to it, bolstered by strong performances.

The Christmas Chronicles and The Christmas Chronicles 2 is lifted by a fun performance by sexy Santa Kurt Russell, alongside Goldie Hawn playing an equally sexy older matriarch. While the first is a screwball comedy in parts, the second goes for full fantasy adventure, and both are endearing thanks largely to the heart displayed by Russell. Fun.

Holidate has a surprisingly tight and witty script which lifts it above the ersatz, while not quite escaping the well-worn made-for-tv holiday romance genre. It scores with its comedy moments more often than not, and that’s largely due to the performance of Emma Roberts, who is really likeable as the goofy girl who just can’t get a relationship to work.

Home for Christmas is a series rather than a movie, Norwegian with subtitles. There is genuine plot tension in this series (now running to two Christmas seasons) and one can’t help feeling a lot of empathy for the hapless but kindhearted nurse Johanne who is at the centre of a tangled web of relationship.

The Grinch is the latest CGI version of the The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. As often happens with modern remakes, for some reason it is a little melancholy, focussing on the psychology of why the Grinch became so grinchy – but the high production values and funny script really help it out.
I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, but these stuck with me.

Now, for the middle rankers:

Not on Netflix, but Disneyplus is Christopher Robin. Not directly a Christmas movie, but certainly a holiday season type of a show. Unfortunately, this one struggles with a layer of melancholy that slows it down and brings down the holiday mood. Personally, I find Ewan MacGregor to be wooden in every role I’ve seen him play, and this is no exception, but the real issue is the rather downbeat Pooh bear, who is too introspective and sad to be likeable. It feels as if the scriptwriters were embarrassed that they had written a show with talking toys in, so took a long time making the drives “real” by doing a load of digging in childhood trauma. Tbh, it’s a show with talking toys in it. They should have got over themselves with that realisation.

Jingle Jangle. This is a near miss for me. Visually it’s stunning, using a kind of Steampunk aesthetic to present an alternative Victorian England fantasy in which the main roles are all taken by black actors, which is refreshing and not often seen in “traditional” Christmas movies.

The show is lavish, beautiful and with some great dance routines and singing. There is the right balance of adventure and some sterling performances from Madalen Mills and Lisa Davina Phillip – the latter being a revelation. She is funny, her comic timing superb and her singing and movement generally just fantastic. She really lets go in her character as Ms Johnston the postwoman, and the result is joyous indeed. I hope to see her again. Less impressive was the mumbling inwardness of Forest Whitaker, and the ineptitude of Kieron L Dyer as Edison. For this reason, this otherwise great show comes down to the middle tier.

The Christmas Prince series is now on its third outing. It’s cheap film, cheesy and utterly nonsensical. Yet the whole idea of a stuffy royal in an imaginary Germanic-looking European country called Belgravia where everyone speaks the Queen’s English falling for an unsophisticated US journalist has enough comedy moments (both intentional and unintentional) to make the series worth watching.

The Princess Switch series is a similarly fantastical slice of cheese in which the doppelganger of a European royal (both played by Vanessa Hudgens) surfaces from the USA, with all the comedy of manners and etiquette that entails. The utter tastelessness of what the director thinks an American audience will think is classy adds an extra layer of unintended comedy, and one can just relish the cheapness of it, alongside its good heart.

Christmas stinkers:

The Knight before Christmas looks like it should have it all. Comedy and magic as a mediaeval English knight magically appears in modern New York. But Josh Whitehouse (also seen in Poldark) stumbles through the script and his clear sense of embarrassment at playing such an awful role is clear in the lack of life he brings to each scene. This one also stars Vanessa Hudgens, and while she is endearing, the whole offer of the Princess Switch series is a better vehicle for her.

Christmasland. I don’t know where to begin with this dreary, suffocating tale which actually does have it all: irredeemable writing, unforgivable acting and terrible, soulless direction. The ideas and concepts in this story of a woman falling in love again with the Christmas village she has inherited from her grandmother are half formed, the acting dreary and the lack of plot tension frustrating. If you like staring wallpaper for 90 minutes, this is the film for you.

Christmas Break-In – actually I’m in no position to review this, since I managed the first 4 minutes and then couldn’t carry on. But, that’s sort of a review, right?

I’m sure there are others we’ve watched that I’ve missed… but… enjoy!

Holmes Fest 2019 – The Fest that never was

Looking back over the last two years, it has been an extraordinary time of highs and lows. There was the amazing success of The Snow Witch projects, which led to an art exhibition in Cascades shopping centre, Portsmouth, and to a three week odyssey of transmedia storytelling that played out on facebook, through street art and graffiti, via puzzles, tarot readings, a treasure hunt and finally a gig at the Groundlings Theatre, Portsea. This was thanks to the £15k fund we got from The Arts Council, Cascades and the enthusiasm of local artists and creators, and the amazing team who rallied round.

These successes had their casualties, however.

It was with some regret that I realised I just wasn’t going to be able to do Holmes Fest last year. I made the decision late in the day after I’d put out the artwork above inviting people to participate. With a whole series of other commitments, something had to give.

However, when I posted the idea on facebook in March 2019 the willingness of people to get involved really told me about the amazing dynamism in Portsmouth, so hopefully I’ll be back on it next year. What’s great is that I’ve got some of the branding work done already – and it’s interesting to think how easy it is to recycle things – in this case the artwork from A Study In Scarlet, and the new strapline – either Portsmouth – Sherlock’s Home, Southsea – Sherlock’s Home, or Pompey – Sherlock’s Home.

A Study In Scarlet was kind to me in 2019. Earlier that year locally born international megastar Neil Gaiman retweeted news about my reprint of A Study In Scarlet. And, of course, having done the artwork already, it didn’t take much to adjust things a little for the upcoming Fest. So… for the upcoming Holmes Fest 2021, here is a retrospective on the artwork that we’ll be using in the future…

Really chuffed with that strapline!

So, after a dormant 2020, roll on 2021 – and here’s to a bigger and better Holmes Fest!

Race – this stupid, outdated idea needs to be retired

Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

I guess I’m lucky.

I grew up in a household which didn’t put race on the agenda in the way I’ve now realised many others did when I was growing up in the 70s.

Yes, my dad repeated “jokes” he’d learned as a wartime kid, and, yes, I repeated others that bobbed my way like crap down the cultural sewer pipe, little stinking pellets of unthinking stupidity and careless cruelty.

I hang my head and see it now as the squawking of a parrot mimicking sounds from its environment. We were deeply ignorant and didn’t have the knowledge, perspective or conceptual tools to look deeper into what those supposed jokes said about English culture’s view of non-white people. My youth was stupid, un-self-aware, but not deliberately cruel.

There was plenty of encouragement to get nasty. The obnoxious stereotypes of On The Buses, even the clumsy comedy of Love Thy Neighbour which portrayed a racist white neighbour living next to an intelligent, kind black couple, casual jokes in the playground and simplistic mud hut representations of other cultures and all the other indications that Britain had not learned to deal with race issues was part of my childhood’s psychic background. I took race for granted, I suppose.

Growing up on a housing estate in Hampshire in the 70s, I rarely saw black people. Dad had been a naval officer and in a naive way asked anyone of colour where they were from. I thought this was normal, and continued doing so into the 1990s, until I at last thought about the implication that it was telling them that this was not their home. I cringe at the thought of it.

And yet, on another level, we had a girl at school, Yolande, with dark skin and beautiful long, straight black hair. I really liked her because she was basically a nice person – kind, calm, friendly, considerate. Her parents were from somewhere foreign – somewhere exotic – but I never asked her where she was from, because her house backed on to the school playground. So that’s where she was from. She was just another friend at school and I didn’t really think of her as different, or one of the black people that the jokes were told about.

I first encountered active, aggressive racism when I heard another girl schoolfriend shout Sambo at her. I was about 8 years old and I found the incident baffling. We had a book called Sambo at school, but it was about this smart African kid who outmanoeuvred a tiger by turning it into butter. It was a fantasy with a positive hero, and it just didn’t map onto the real world, or on to Yolande. None of it made any sense to me, yet my friend was angry and shouted that word and many others at her, telling her to go back home. Which was odd, because she was in her back garden at the time.

I was disturbed by this first real encounter with actual race hatred. I’m sure I had absorbed racist views from society, in the same way I did sexist ones, but I didn’t know yet that I was a naïve racist who just went along with many of the norms in the culture at the time.

I had no idea what the cultural attitudes I grew up with meant to others because I only thought about myself and my attitudes. Thinking about the lived experience of the people around me who were different from me came much later. It started with the study of English Literature, where I learned to think through other people’s experiences, and that learning is still going on now as I cringe at some of the things I’ve said in the past, usually not maliciously or deliberately, but out of yet more white, male ignorance.

Every day as I grow older, race seems to come up as a discussion point, and I admit that same sense of bafflement I had as a child continues. Because the more I think about the word race, the more I realise I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

Just recently I received another perspective on this word race from an unexpected source.

I have been been reading The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace as part of research I’ve been doing.

Wallace was the man who came up with the Theory of Evolution at the same time as Darwin. Wallace even minted the phrase survival of the fittest. He was an extraordinary man, spending 8 years in what is now called Indonesia, living on numerous islands among the natives, collecting tens of thousands of specimens for the Royal Society, making observations of the natives while he shot, captured, catalogued skinned and pinned birds, butterflies, weevils, animals – basically anything non-human that lived.

His interest lay in the diversity of species across Indonesia. His theory was that the animal productions of the massive 1700-island archipelago were divided into two distinct and separate groups depending on which of two continental plates the islands were found on. Hence, in the eastern side of the archipelago tree-climbing kangaroos and birds of paradise related to Australian species are found. In the west, we see tigers and babirusa pigs related to species from the Indian subcontinent.

Sometimes the islands might be 15 miles apart, yet their evolutionary spheres are completely separate.

The creatures he wrote about have adapted to their surroundings and specialised into particular species. They thus have particular qualities. The tree kangaroo in New Guinea climbs trees to escape predators, and has adapted to do so more recently, which is why they aren’t very good at it. A species of oriole bird on The Moluccas mimics the colouring of the honeysucker bird, since the latter has strong claws and beak to deter predators, or an insect may look exactly like a leaf to camouflage itself.

And so Wallace categorises each animal, looking at its strengths and weaknesses, seeking to discover why they have evolved to a particular form. Sometimes he refers to the family of parrots as the “parrot tribe”, an odd use of the word which hints at the process of division and categorisation going on in Wallace’s mind in other areas, too.

Toward the end of the book, things take a new turn.

Just as has already done with the birds, insects and animals, he now starts to classify the races of people living in Indonesia and their (what he considers to be) inherent qualities. As he does so, the colonial European attitude is laid bare.

I should be clear. Wallace is not an out-and-out racist or unquestioning imperialist. His book is fascinating in part because he uses his studies of the nature of beetles or the modifications of butterflies and the treatment of the native tribes to reflect on the way society does or doesn’t work, advocating for regulation of the free market – at times even taking a near-socialist stance.

At other times he speaks of the Dutch imperial system in glowing terms as a kind of benign paternalistic institution good for all members of society, in contrast to the British free market philosophy which he argues inevitably leads to lower wages and poverty. It is a very particular view that misses the exploitation and brutality in the Dutch system. He seems to mistake native resignation to oppression for satisfaction.

Wallace talks about savages and primitive societies all the way through his book. Just as he does with the other animal productions of the archipelago, he discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different natives. The highest form are the Malays, he contends, while the lowest form are the Papuan savages.

One line in the book, viewed in the light of what happened in Europe with Hitler’s equally unscientific racial theories made my blood run cold:

We most of us believe that we, the higher races have progressed and are progressing. If so, there must be some state of perfection, some ultimate goal, which we may never reach, but to which all true progress must bring nearer.

Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Vol II, 1869

Here, Russell Wallace kicks over his scientific background and falls straight back into superstition. Variation thus far has only been presented as an adaptation to environment. Now, however, there is a goal, an endpoint toward which evolution is aimed. This implies intention and direction, which is very different from the unconscious mechanisms of adaptation he has been writing about before.

Suddenly, we are no longer looking at people as well or ill-adapted to their environments. He has added metaphysics to the discussion.

Thus, the Malay people have a superior moral sense, which Wallace argues is part of their race. Evolution then, is not only a physical adaptation to the environment. The same process of evolution leads to moral improvement, and the state of a nation’s morals is another indication of the stage of evolution of the race formed from it.

Wallace elucidates further: some of the groups of savages he has encountered are immoral and lazy as a racial trait, while another race of savage is energetic, and though ill-disciplined shows great promise in having a moral sense.

This racial theory of morality has deep problems. Not least the lack of any scientific evidence for it.

His idea of a racial teleology is an adaptation of an old idea. Throughout the millennia, prophets have promised us perfection. In the bible, we are offered a New Jerusalem, a perfected world and society in which, in Christian terms, the virtuous dead are resurrected and literally build a perfected heaven on Earth once those who don’t fit in are removed from that perfect society.

Here that same old idea surfaces, now recouched by Wallace in terms of human evolution – an evolution that includes morality.

How can that be? In reality, moral traits that in one situation are considered anti-social or dangerous are in other situations exactly what society demands.

Recently a man was attending a conference in Fishmongers’ Hall, London, when he realised that a terrorist in a suicide vest was killing people outside. Seeking a weapon, he snatched the horn of a narwhal from the wall and tackled the killer.

The man, Steven Gallant, said he simply acted on impulse without thinking. He was proclaimed a hero. His story, however, is more complex than that. Gallant was on day release to attend a prisoner rehabilitation course. He had been imprisoned for his part in the premeditated murder of a violent offender who had himself been acquitted of the attempted murder of a prostitute. The man that Gallant helped beat to death had been so severely mutilated that the ambulance crew were unable to find his mouth.

Where is this evolutionary morality Wallace claims exists? The very same traits of willingness to use sudden extreme violence without considering the consequences were present in both cases. One is interpreted as immoral, the other as moral. In fact, in the former case Gallant might argue that he was acting under moral compunction to set right the scales of justice. In the latter, he acted on impulse. His own view of matters might well be the reverse of how others judge it.

If one wants an example that answers European stereotypes of the savage rather than with the higher race Russell Wallace suggests is a European trait, we need to look a little closer to home than the Malay Archipelago.

Wallace goes on to elucidate his view, and we realise that he believes the perfectly moral citizen will be in accord with a perfectly moral society:

What is this ideally perfect social state towards which mankind ever has been, and still is tending? Our best thinkers maintain, that it is a state of individual freedom and self-government, rendered possible by the equal development and just balance of the intellectual, moral, and physical parts of our nature,—a state in which we shall each be so perfectly fitted for a social existence, by knowing what is right, and at the same time feeling an irresistible impulse to do what we know to be right, that all laws and all punishments shall be unnecessary. In such a state every man would have a sufficiently well-balanced intellectual organization, to understand the moral law in all its details, and would require no other motive but the free impulses of his own nature to obey that law.

It is both absurd and simultaneously seductive to a European. In Wallace’s view, evolution will take us to societal perfection, and Europeans are nearer to it than savages. Europeans have a heightened moral sense, they are superior, better, higher – while the rest of humanity is either being driven by evolution to become like Europeans, or is savage.

We have in Russell Wallace an early view that, taken on one interpretation, could lead to a theory of eugenics and fascism, and on another to an idealised Utopian socialist state. Both require a single standard which everyone must meet – not necessarily so with socialism, but that is how it has been interpreted by the great monocultures of the 20th Century that called themselves socialist or communist.

And then, just when we think he is irredeemable for his strange blindness to the failings of the higher race of Europeans that at the time were oppressing huge tracts of the globe, the paragraph below follows on from that above:

Now it is very remarkable, that among people in a very low stage of civilization, we find some approach to such a perfect social state. I have lived with communities of savages in South America and in the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that wide-spread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbour’s right, which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.

Is it it possible that once more we are seeing what appears to be an adapted religious idea shaping Russell Wallace’s world view? The description of an idealised humanity in its most atavistic form has an echo in Christianity after all. If primitive humanity has an innate goodness about it, then it is similar to the innocence Adam had before The Fall.

If this is colouring his thinking, it is yet more illogic and superstition. It is romanticising noble savages as much as his racial theories malign them.

Well, you may ask, what has all this to do with race?

The point is a simple one, in the end. The imprecision of thinking, and the use of taxonomic analogies from the study of nature was overlaid by men like Russell Wallace onto a consideration of the different cultural, intellectual, psychological, moral and biological variations to be found in humans and used to hierachise those variations in terms that were hugely tainted by prejudices and a sense of superiority. The term race itself, then, is tainted by ideas of racism from its earliest uses. Race is a term when it is applied to humans that very roughly equates to species, or sub-species – and from very early on it has been a way for Europeans to distinguish themselves as somehow superior. All of this is inherent to the Russell Wallace’s use of the word. And Alfred Russell Wallace was by no means a far right bigot when compared to other Victorian gentlemen.

The word race, springs from a muddled set of European values designed to evaluate, belittle and censure those who are not like us. This process of judgement is absolutely central to the term, and I don’t know how you can talk about race without those unconscious judgments being present.

That, I believe, is why we need a new word when we talk about the biological diversity that is humanity. The word we use now is crass, outdated, and just not up to the job.