Thursday, March 28, 2013

SILENT SATURDAY - the trailer


I am delighted to present the book trailer for Silent Saturday, my upcoming thriller set in Flanders! The film was made for me by Lumiere Productions, who made my previous book trailers. You can see those on my YouTube channel as well as location films and other short videos. 
The Silent Saturday trailer features Clare-Marie Kelly as 17-year-old heroine Veerle De Keyser. I'm hoping to post a short interview with Clare-Marie about her experience of playing Veerle, after I get back from my trip to Belgium to launch the book this weekend. I'll also be posting some comments from director Lalla Merlin about the making of the trailer. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Upcoming events in Belgium!

Just a reminder that I have two upcoming events in Belgium, so if you happen to be based there, please do come along and say hello!

As I have mentioned before on my blog, my new thriller Silent Saturday takes its name from Stille Zaterdag, the day after Good Friday, when church bells in Flanders fall silent, and have supposedly flown away to Rome to collect Easter eggs! The very first scene of the book is set on that day.

For that reason, I thought it would be brilliant to celebrate the publication of the book by travelling to Belgium for the real "Stille Zaterdag", which is 30th March this year.

I shall be at Waterstone's in Brussels on Saturday 30th March from 3pm onwards.
The address is: Boulevard Adolphe Maxlaan 71-75, 1000 Brussels. Tickets not required but if you know you are definitely coming, you can confirm to Waterstones at events@brussels.waterstones.com

On Sunday 31st March I shall be at Treasure Trove books in Tervuren from 12 to 3pm.
The address is: Brusselsesteenweg 7, 3080 Tervuren.

I shall be signing books and chatting to readers. I'm always happy to talk about books so please do come and ask me a question!

I shall try and post some photos of my trip to Belgium when I get back. If you're not based in Belgium: I shall be posting details of some UK-based events soon!

Friday, March 22, 2013

The past is a foreign country...


About ten days ago I mentioned in a blog post that I had visited the graveyard at Quoig and was very intrigued by what appeared to be a single fragment of wall of a vanished church or chapel. It was not at all obvious what vanished church it was - even Victorian OS maps referred to it simply as "church" - and I have been attempting ever since to satisfy my curiosity about it.
It is difficult to explain quite why I find such places so fascinating. As I said in my previous post about it, it probably wasn't a significant church in any way; if it were, there would be a lot more information readily available. All the same, I  knew I wasn't going to be happy until I had identified it!
I find the whole topic of recorded information about the past interesting in itself. Even the relatively recent past slips away so easily. I remember my childhood in the 1960s and '70s very clearly, but I haven't kept very much from that time - not a single magazine or newspaper, nothing that would tell me what happened on a specific day. We all know the major events of a particular period - wars, coronations, famous deaths - but those are, so to speak, the highest peaks of History's mountain ranges. So many other tiny events occurred that are now consigned to oblivion. I spent a long time this week poring over newspapers from 1919 and 1920, and alongside all the major national events recorded in the news were dozens of small news items: a teenage girl who went missing and whose body was discovered frozen into a lake; a servant girl badly burnt by an accident with an oil lamp; a railwayman run down by a train. All of them personal tragedies that would have seemed enormous to the families involved; all of them now long forgotten.
I felt very much the same when I visited the Paris catacombs a couple of years ago with a friend. The bones of an estimated six and a half million Parisians lie stacked in the catacombs; I went there expecting (if I am honest) a thrill, but came away feeling melancholy. Every single one of those browning skulls was once a person; every single one of them had their own story. And now they are stacked up together, with no way of identifying a single one of them ever again.
Still, before we get too morbid, the thing I find very exciting about researching the past is the feeling of piecing together details to bring part of that vanished time back to life. The more details that can be unearthed, the more vivid the picture. I imagine the past almost as another place, that can be glimpsed as though through a window.
Sometimes the details cannot be conclusively verified, and then we have a probable picture, which to all intents and purposes becomes the truth, because there is no better information available. For example, some years ago I visited Saint Bertrand de Comminges, the scene of M.R.James' story Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, and attempted to identify the building upon which the sacristan's house in the story is based. Eventually, with the help of the cathedral guides, I was able to make an educated guess. The guides were no spring chickens; at some point they will retire. It is entirely possible that no more accurate information will be uncovered. So has my educated guess effectively become "the truth"? I wonder.
Anyway, to return to the subject of the church at Quoig, I decided to pursue some new lines of attack. There is a first World War memorial in the graveyard there, and according to the Scottish War Memorials' Project's web page, it was unveiled and dedicated on "Sunday 27th October 1920". The website also says that the monument "stood at the southside of the Monzievaird and Strowan parish church, which was built in 1804 and demolished in 1964." I was keen to verify this identification of the church because web searches for "Monzievaird and Strowan" tended to throw up either Monzievaird old parish church, allegedly on the site now occupied by the mausoleum at Ochtertyre, or Strowan parish church, which is ruined but far more complete than the ruin at Quoig and is most definitely separate. I was not finding anything about a church for both parishes located at Quoig.
I decided therefore to try perusing the Strathearn Herald for October 1920 (below) and see if there was any reference to the dedication ceremony.


The edition for Saturday 30th October contained quite a long description of the dedication, which took place the previous Sunday (ie. 23rd not 27th as stated on the war memorials site), naming the church (then clearly still standing) as Monzievaird and Strowan Parish Church.


I must say that definitively putting a name to the ruined church was not particularly satisfying. There are still so many things I would like to know! Why, for example, was there a vanished Monzievaird church, a ruined Strowan church and a ruined Monzievaird and Strowan church? And what did it look like? (Why, you may be asking by now, do I even care? But as I said last time, I simply can't stand not knowing.)
At any rate, knowing that I was searching for that particular name was a help. Eventually I stumbled onto the "Statistical Account of Scotland" for 1834-45 at EDiNA (the National Academic Data Centre based at the University of Edinburgh). The online archive allows various searches including an alphabetical one, so when my initial search for "Monzievaird and Strowan" failed to turn anything up, I looked under M and discovered that in 1845 it was spelt "Monivaird and Strowan" instead. At last! Some actual information (though still no picture). The account for the parish was given by the Reverend John Ferguson and the relevant passage runs as follows:
"The exact period at which Monivaird and Strowan were united, is involved in obscurity, but it is evident, from the reports of the Commissioners of Teinds from 1661 to 1673, that the union had taken place prior to the year 1662. Each parish had its own church, in which Divine worship was observed every alternate Sabbath, and the communion dispensed every alternate year until 1804, when a new church was erected in a central situation, equally convenient for both parishes. The population being considerably scattered, the majority are from one to two miles from the place of public worship, while very few individuals are distant above three miles. The church is in good repair and affords accommodation for 600 persons. All the sittings are free. It is a remarkable fact, that the incumbency of the last two ministers extended over the long period of 105 years; the Rev. James Porteous having been ordained 4th August 1730, died 25th November 1780; the Rev. Colin Baxter, ordained 23rd August 1781, died 5th January 1835. The present incumbent was ordained 9th June 1835. The manse is distant a quarter of a mile from the church (1837). It is an excellent and commodious house, and regarded as the best planned and finished manse in this district of the country...The number of families belonging to the Establishment (ie. the Church of Scotland) is 128. In these there are 569 individuals of all ages. The number of Dissenting or Seceding families is 14...Divine service is generally well attended; and the average number of communicants is about 300."


(Above: the remains of a section of the south wall; below: memorial plaques from the demolished church.) 


For me, the most surprising piece of information from the account of the parish is that the church could accommodate 600 people. It is impossible to tell anything about the architecture from the small chunk of wall that remains, but I had not imagined anything large enough to accommodate so many. To give an idea of probable scale, the parish church at Clachan (Kilcalmnonell) is about 40 years older than the Monzievaird and Strowan parish church was, and seats a similar number; you can read about it on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland site here: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/38943/details/clachan+kilcalmonell+and+kilberry+parish+church+and+burial+ground/
I shall keep an eye out for a picture of the church, although I am not terrifically confident that one exists. There was no picture accompanying the article in the Herald, and although I went through every single edition for 1964 I was unable to find any reference to its being demolished that year, nor any picture of its past glories. There was a brief reference in the November 14th edition of that year to a service at the war memorial, "although Monzievaird Kirk is no longer in use", but that was all. As to why the church was eventually disused and demolished, no explanation is forthcoming. However, the location at Quoig, though once "a central situation, equally convenient for both parishes", is pretty remote, and it has been a long time since it could drum up a regular congregation of 600.
If I ever do find a picture of the church, I shall post a link to it, or at the very least describe it. In the meantime, I am happy to have satisfied my curiosity as far as possible - and I've heard of another interesting graveyard, on the road between Innerpeffray and Auchterarder...





Sunday, March 17, 2013

Take care what you wish for...

Today I went to Innerpeffray Library (Scotland's oldest lending library) again. I go there as often as I can manage - I still can't quite believe my luck that when we moved to Scotland we landed so close to something so amazing! It's on a par with discovering that our home in Germany was only 10km from Steinfeld Abbey, scene of M.R.James' ghost story The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.
When I set out, it was raining heavily, so it was just as well I had the car for once. As you can see from the photo (taken from the carpark outside the library), the setting is about as rural as you can get. There are no cosy hostelries in which a soaked cyclist might shelter on the way!

I only had a single hour so I decided that I would return to my old friend The Treatise of Specters and transcribe a few more choice passages for the edification of you, dear reader. There are three today, and they are all from the section alluringly entitled An History of Dreams, Visions, and mockings of Evil Spirits. All of them are, I would say, united by the common theme of having to watch what you say. 

In the first, someone challenges St. Peter:


59. When at a certain Feast at Bononia, a Cock was dressed, served up to the table, and carved with much art, one of the guests said, It is impossible Saint Peter should restore this Cock to life; immediately upon his words, the Cock leapeth up, restored to life, and clapping his wings together, scatters the broth which was in the dish, into the faces of them who sate at the table; the blasphemer was immediately punish’d with an hereditary Leprosie. Vincentius,lib.25.cap.64.

An hereditary Leprosie, eh? Nasty. The other two passages concern pious men who prayed for particular things - the first, that he might have his sight restored so that he could admire the bones of a dead saint, and the second, that he might be cured of his terrible lust problem. Of course, it all ends in tears...

67. When the body of Vedastus the Attrebatensian Bishop was translated from the place, wherein times past it was laid, a blind man, named Audomarus, desired of Almighty God by prayer that he might see the bones of the Saint, and forthwith he received his sight, and praying shortly after, that if his sight did any way hinder the health of his Soul, that his infirmity might return, he was again struck blind. Merul.lib.5.cap.4.

68. Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople, was pursued with much hatred by his enemies for his worshipping of Images, who corrupting a notorious common Whore with a sum of Money which they gave her, caused her to accuse him that he had ravished her, and that before the chief of the whole Senate: all which he bore with admirable patience, till they ordered that the Holy man, before Manuel and many of the chief of the Senate, should be admitted to no other purgation, but having spoke some few words removing that part of his cloathing which covered his privities, he should shew his members to them, which done, they appeared withered and mortified, whereby it was obvious to all men that he was utterly incapable of Venery; which to the Orthodox was great cause of rejoicing, and of sorrow to Sycophants and calumniators: and when the Holy man was asked whether sicknesse had been the cause that his members were so weakened, not without a modest shame he answered, that in time past when he lived at Rome he was by the Devill instigated to the lust of the flesh, by the often burning flames of love, which daily growing and increasing in him and he fearing lest he should lose his resolved continency and chaste life, he invocated the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, that they would help him in this combat, and praying incessantly to this purpose, In the night, saith he, in my sleep I saw two men standing by me, one whereof touched my privy parts with his hand, saying to me, Be of good heart, thy fire of lust shall be suddenly asswaged, who seemed so to burn my privy parts, that with the extream pain therefore I waked: Rising from sleep, I found my privities enfeebled, and almost mortified, from which time I was never troubled with fleshly lust. Cuspian.


Above: a leper squint at the church at Fowlis Wester. This would allow the gentleman afflicted with "an hereditary Leprosie" to observe the mass without mingling with the congregation. Though whether he would feel like doing so after being so afflicted by St. Peter is another matter...


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

First review of SILENT SATURDAY, I do believe!

I'm delighted to say that what I believe to be the very first review of my upcoming novel Silent Saturday has just appeared! 

It's by Dutch book blogger Mieneke van der Salm, better known as the Fantastical Librarian. You can read the interview here:
http://www.afantasticallibrarian.com/2013/03/helen-grant-silent-saturday.html
(It's also on Goodreads.)

I was particularly interested to read what Mieneke thought of the book since, like my heroine Veerle, she is a Dutch speaker (I have used the terms "Flemish" and "Dutch" pretty much interchangeably in the book - Flemish is what the locals speak in Flanders, but if you go to classes there, as I did, it is "Dutch" that is being taught, as my teacher was quick to point out). Mieneke is uniquely placed to appreciate some of the occasional Dutch invective, at which she has raised a literary eyebrow!

I won't quote the whole review here as it is all available via the link above, but I will just say that I was particularly pleased with the following observations: "Grant lived in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking half of Belgium) for several years and her affection for the country, its people and its language is obvious. I liked that she chose to respect the language divide in Belgium in how she chose to name the towns. While she chose the English versions for big towns such as Ghent and Brussels, she kept the other towns the way they would be named by their inhabitants. So Tervuren is Dutch, but Namur, which is in the French-speaking part of Belgium is called by its French name and not the Dutch Namen. Besides lending veracity to the book, it also shows respect to the quite complicated political situation in Belgium." 

It is true that I developed a great affection for Flanders as a result of living there, and I am so glad that this has shone through. I do sometimes wonder whether the inhabitants of the locations of my books (eg. Bad M√ľnstereifel) will forgive me for populating their home with ghosts, ghouls and serial killers! It is a sign of affection - really. 

I also spent a lot of time debating which versions of Belgian place names to use, as I have described on a previous blog post. I hope I have got it "right" or at least, that I have shown my respect to the complex society that is Belgium!

Vlaanderen, ik hou van je!


Addendum (14th March): Just out is a review of the book by the Bookwitch! You can read it here: http://bookwitch.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/silent-saturday/ I've just this minute seen the review, having seen the Fantastical Librarian's last night, so I reckon it was a bit of a photo finish over whose was out first! 

I'm pleased to say that the Bookwitch has also posted an interview with me, which you can read here: http://bookwitch.wordpress.com/interviews/helen-grant-im-still-an-expat-sticking-out/ - it includes some of my musings about the experience of being an expat in Flanders and now living in Scotland. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In which nobody wants my blood...

Today I went down to the Community Campus to give blood, but I am sorry to say that after three different haemoglobin tests they told me I couldn't donate today, and sent me away clutching a leaflet about red meat and leafy green vegetables. This was faintly annoying because i) I am now covered in plasters, ii) I lost some working time, and iii) I had to walk back past the queue of donors, with the uncomfortable feeling that they were all wondering why I wasn't donating ("I bet it's leprosy"). 
However, the afternoon was not entirely wasted because since I was down at the Campus I thought I would pop into the library and have a quick look at the local history section. 
As you may have gathered if you've read some of my earlier blog posts, I have a completely irrational passion for old churches (the older the better - I tend to agree with P.G.Wodehouse that "Whatever may be said in favour of the Victorians, it is pretty generally admitted that few of them were to be trusted within reach of a trowel and a pile of bricks") and indeed old graveyards, ruined castles and anything else with a whiff of the Gothic about it. 
My nearest and dearest have learned to humour me on this, especially since it has been a creatively fruitful interest; my books have featured a castle (The Glass Demon), a ruined house (Wish me dead) and a church belfry (in the upcoming Silent Saturday). Indeed, sometimes they come back from their more hearty, healthy passtimes (running, mountain biking) with news of a new cemetery spotted in some remote place, or a ruined church as yet unvisited; they know this will alway be greeted with enthusiasm! 
Thus I recently visited the mausoleum of the Murrays at Ochtertyre (pictured left), which is supposedly built on the site of an earlier parish church in which members of the Murray family were burnt alive by the rival Drummonds in the 1500s. It was my daughter who alerted me to this site, having zoomed past it with the running club. A week or two later my husband informed me that whilst out cycling he had noticed a graveyard at the side of the road between Crieff and Comrie. Very naturally, I said, "Can we go there now?" (I must say I still think it was deeply illogical of him to spend hours biking over the hills of Perthshire in the freezing cold and then complain that it was too chilly to go visiting graveyards; however, kind-heartedly, he agreed anyway.) 
The graveyard turned out to be at a tiny spot called Quoig. I was not surprised I had never noticed the place before; although you can see some of the memorials from the road, they are not terribly obvious, and normally when I drive along that stretch of the A85 I am looking at the road ahead, and not the hedges at the sides. Anyway, we parked and went into the graveyard. In it, we found this:



Yes, dear reader, it is a wall. Well, a bit of a wall. But what wall? That is the question. It seemed pretty obvious that it was all that remained of a church, chapel or perhaps mausoleum. Apart from anything else, there was a heap of memorials at the foot of it:


I freely admit that many people would at this point be thinking, so what? If there was a church here, it probably wasn't a significant church, like, say, the church of St.John the Baptist where John Knox preached his fiery sermon. All the same, if there is one thing I really cannot stand, it is not knowing
I started ferreting around amongst books and maps, consulted the librarian at Innerpeffray, and exchanged tweets with fellow denizens of Perthshire. I know what this building wasn't. It wasn't the old parish church of Monzievaird, which was supposedly on the same spot as the mausoleum. Nor was it the church of Strowan, which still exists in a ruined state. The ordnance survey map for 1886 (thank you David McCallum for the tip-off) has it marked as "church" but gives no name. 
One of the memorials pictured above is dedicated to the Rev. the Hon. Arthur Gordon, so I have been pursuing some lines of enquiry about him too. I daresay at some point the mystery will be solved and in the meantime I am having a great deal of fun investigating! We make our own fun in Perthshire, you know...
Anyway, to return to the library: I had a quick peep at the local history books but none of them listed "Quoig" in the index, although I did find some other, interesting material (of which more later). I then turned my attention to the library's collection of back numbers of the Strathearn Herald, a publication that has been running since the 1800s and is still published today. I remembered that the Rev. Gordon had died in 1919 and on the assumption that this would have been recorded in the local paper, with perhaps some mention of the church he belonged to, I fetched the enormous binder for 1919 and began to go through it. 
Unfortunately, although I could remember the year of the Rev. Gordon's death, I could not remember the month at all, so I had to start at January and work my way through. I must say it made very interesting reading - the murders, the fires, the railway accidents and the occasional mauling by a wild animal (though those didn't normally take place in Crieff)!
In the end I ran out of time, having got no further than March 1919; when I got home and checked the memorial, it turned out that the Rev. Gordon died on June 11th, so I shall go back as soon as I get a chance and check the issues for that month. If I discover anything fascinating, I shall post it on my blog!  Actually I think the entire contents of the binder are fascinating. It is a peep into a vanished age. 
Anyhow, to return to the other material I mentioned: whilst perusing the local history books, I found two volumes listing all the memorials of North and South Perthshire. I wasn't particularly hopeful that they would contain anything about Quoig but I looked anyway (they didn't). What the South Perthshire volume did have, however, was a list of all the memorials that used to stand in the graveyard of the old parish church in Crieff, and even better, a plan of all their locations. 
The old parish church of St. Michael (below) is another of my minor obsessions. It was built in the 1700s to replace an older church, later used as a parish hall, and is now closed altogether. Friends who have lived in Crieff a good deal longer than I have (which is just about everybody, really) tell me that the inside of the church is really not that interesting at all. As it was used as a parish hall, it has no church fittings inside. Still, the mere fact that the church is closed and you can't get in gives it an irresistible attraction in my eyes. 


There are rumours of this or that person who may or may not have a key, so perhaps one of these days I shall be able to satisfy my curiosity. In the meantime, I have spent several happy half-hours in the churchyard admiring the exterior of the church and the gravestones (hmmm, okay, I admit that does sound a little strange). 
The gravestones were at some point in the past removed from their locations and lined up in a row parallel to the churchyard wall, presumably to make life easier for whoever has to mow the lawn. 


However, someone (I forget who) told me that the graves themselves were not moved. So all the bodies are still dotted about under the turf somewhere. It has often given me an odd frisson to wander about on the grass wondering whose remains might be lurking underneath it. Well, now I know. 


It would appear that when I recently stood before the church door examining the metal door-handle with its date and initials, I was standing directly above William Graham, farmer of Hosh and Crieff, died 1854, and his wife Euphemia, died 1862. As my grandmother might have said, it makes you think, doesn't it?
I am not sure whether there is any point to such adventures (well, I consider them adventures). Still, I am often asked "where do you get your ideas?" and I suppose the answer is, "in places like these." A snippet of history, a local legend, anything that piques the interest, can lead to all sorts of ideas. As I have mentioned before, the entire idea for my new trilogy set in Flanders grew from the story my Dutch teacher told me, about the church bells falling silent on the day after Good Friday - "Silent Saturday." Such things are the weird seeds from which ideas grow! 
And now, having creeped myself out slightly, I am going to have a cup of tea...

Addendum: I went back to the library this evening (13th March) and looked through the whole of June and July 1919 without finding any reference to the death of the Rev. Gordon. On my next visit I shall try the years of his becoming parish priest and later leaving the position, and see if anything about him is mentioned. 









Monday, March 11, 2013

Two poets and a novelist!

If you're within striking distance of Crieff (Perthshire, Scotland), I'll be doing an event next month together with poets Kona MacPhee and Patricia Ace and we would love to see you!
We all have books coming out around now. Kona's is her new collection What long miles, Patricia's is her new collection Fabulous Beast and mine is my upcoming novel Silent Saturday, the first in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy set in Flanders.
We're getting together for a literary evening of readings, slides, inspirational talk and time for questions. I shall be talking about where I find the inspiration for my books, and showing some slides of the spine-tingling locations I have visited!
After the event there will be an opportunity to buy signed books from the authors.
The event is being held at Strathearn Community Campus, Pittenzie Road, Crieff PH7 3RS on Thursday 18th April 2013, starting at 7.30pm. I will post any further relevant details when I have them. Hope to see you there!
P.S. There will be other events arranged for the launch of Silent Saturday, not all in Scotland - I will post details in due course.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Women of History

This morning I went over to Innerpeffray Library again.
I am actually supposed to be working on the edits to The Demons of Ghent, which I hope to have finished around Easter time, and generally when I am working on a book I am very tough about not allowing myself mornings off unless I have finished all the work I had planned for the week. However, I knew I was going to have the car today (a rare event) because I had to take one of the children to an appointment, so it made sense to make the most of it.
It can be wonderful cycling over to the library through the beautiful Perthshire countryside, but you need good dry weather; cycling for half an hour each way would not be pleasant in driving rain!
I went to Innerpeffray to discuss a possible event there - full details in due course - but as usual I couldn't resist perusing the books. (Who could?) My usual haunt is the main reading room with its fabulous 16th and 17th century tomes, but there is a smaller room with more modern books (I say "modern" but there is nothing less than fifty years old!), and it was there that I spotted this small and intriguing volume (pictured above).
It is entitled Women of History and appears to have been brought out as a kind of companion to a well received book called Men of History. I was intrigued because given the antique appearance of the book, I thought it would be interesting to see which women had been selected for inclusion, and how their lives would be described. I should be rather surprised if it had Emmeline Pankhurst in it, for example.
Unfortunately a proper perusal of the book will have to wait for another day, because most of my time at the library was taken up with the meeting and after that I had to leave to go to the next appointment. I did however manage to read the introduction and the list of contents.
The introduction said that unlike the book about men, for this book "it has not been considered necessary to attempt a classification of the subjects in the manner followed in the preceding volume, from the fact that the feelings and motives which generally influence the lives of celebrated women are of a nature different from those of the opposite sex, and from the consequent want of a standard sufficiently distinct to adhere to." Make of that what you will.
At any rate, the contents list includes Lucretia (a Roman matron famed for her chastity), Sappho, Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette, Queen Anne and Charlotte Bronte. I perused the story of Lucretia very briefly and considering the knots into which the writer had tied himself in trying to express that she had been raped without actually saying so, I cannot imagine what he will make of Sappho. I shall read some of the biographies properly on a future occasion and report back on this blog!


Above: Women - not easily classified? 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sleep well? I don't think so.

I've just been reading another story from my recent acquisition, The Ruby Fairy Book, and I am marvelling anew at what people thought was suitable reading for children in the early 1900s.
Reading this particular story - it's by Luigi Capuani and is called The Cotton-Wool Princess - has given me a most unpleasant feeling that I have rarely felt since childhood, a kind of claustrophobic repulsion, the sort of feeling I used to get when waking up from a particularly nasty nightmare.
I mentioned this on Facebook and fellow author Keren David exhorted me to "tell" - as there isn't really space on Facebook I thought I'd put it all down here, so I can horrify you too, dear reader.
The story concerns a King and Queen who live "a thousand years ago" and have a beautiful young daughter. The King of France and then the King of Spain both seek her hand in marriage, but her parents are too fond of her to part with her. In a fit of pique, the disappointed Kings club together and hire a magician to wreak revenge on the princess. The magician gives them a magical ring which will do something horrible to the princess once it has been on her finger for 24 hours.
The Kings now have the problem of how to get the ring onto the princess's finger, since they are no longer on speaking terms with the palace. The King of Spain disguises himself as a goldsmith and is thus able to present it to her. Twenty-four hours later the palace is rent with screams but when everyone grabs candles and rushes to the princess's room she shrieks at them to take the lights away, because she has turned into cotton wool.
I don't know why this strikes me as being so very much more horrible than dropping dead, falling into a sleep for a hundred years, having a toad drop out of your mouth every time you speak or any of the other nasty fates a maiden can undergo in a fairy tale - but it does. In fact it gives me a churning feeling in the pit of the stomach!
The princess's father the King then resorts to the obvious measure of saying that whoever can cure the princess may marry her.
Along comes the kind-hearted son of a shoemaker, who proves his goodness by rescuing a toad from some boys who are stoning it. The toad turns out to be a powerful fairy in disguise, and she then advises him how to help the princess. She tells him how to get to the castle of the evil magician who has cast the spell on the princess, and gives him a magic sword. The magician is terrified of the sword and apparently agrees to help, by giving the lad a second magic ring, which he says will make everything right.
The young man goes to the palace and assures everyone that he can cure the princess, but when he puts the ring on her finger she bursts into flames (see pic above) and screams the place down! The shoemaker's son wisely legs it and calls upon the fairy for help.
The fairy tells him the magician has double-crossed him (no sh*t, Sherlock...) and gives him a magic dagger with which to threaten him. The lad goes back to the magician's castle and loads him in chains, fastening them to the ground by the dagger, and says that he will not let him go until the princess is alright. The magician tells him to remove the first ring from the princess's finger and all will be well.
The shoemaker's son hastens back to the palace and having assured everyone that this time the princess really will be alright, he removes the ring from her finger. Instantly she turns from cotton wool back into a flesh and blood princess - but it now appears that she has no tongue, ears or eyes because all of them were burnt away by the flames!
The shoemaker's son rushes back to the enchained magician, intending to kill him for his trickery, but the magician, seeing that it is all up with him, finally tells the young man how to remove the spell. Then follows much shenanigans with the magician's siblings, all of whom appear to be as unpleasant as the magician himself; rather bizarrely they give him a piece of red cloth, two lentils and a pair of snails.
The lad returns to the palace and puts the piece of red cloth into the princess' mouth, and it turns into a tongue. You would think that the princess would be grateful for this, but in fact the minute she can speak she gives him an earful, calling him a miserable cobbler.
The young man is somewhat taken aback at this ingratitude, but he puts the lentils into her burnt eyes and all of a sudden she can see again. The very first thing she does is to put her hands over her eyes and complain how ugly everything is.
By this point, were I the young man, I would probably be tempted to make the princess eat the snails, but he patiently claps them to the sides of her ungrateful head, where they are instantly transformed from molluscs into "sweet little ears." This does not prevent the princess from giving him another earful of abuse.
The shoemaker's son storms off to find the fairy, who laughs herself silly over the whole sorry affair and reminds him that he has not yet removed the second ring from the princess's finger. "Oh dear! I did not think of that in my confusion," exclaims the youth, 'seizing his head between his two hands in mingled terror and shame' - an early instance of #facepalm. He rushes back to the sour-tempered princess and removes the second ring, at which her sweet and kindly nature is restored and the pair of them are finally able to marry and live happily ever after.
I suppose I am pleased for them, but I don't think I shall be reading this story again in a hurry, nor reading it to either of my children at bedtime...


Above: not suitable for children?




Friday, March 1, 2013

Crime and Punishment


I am thrilled to say that today (1st March) Innerpeffray Library re-opened after its annual hibernation, so I took a morning off and went over to see its new exhibition, Crime and Punishment.
I very rarely have the car during the working week so I had made my mind up to cycle over, whatever the weather. Fortunately, it was a really gorgeous dry sunny morning, so it was very pleasant indeed to cycle through the Perthshire countryside. My bicycle (pictured, outside the library) has been christened La lanterne rouge, after the competitor in the last place in cycle races such as the Tour de France, because whenever we go cycling as a family I am always at the back! Also, handily, it is red.
Whenever I cycle anywhere I pass keen sporty cyclists in head-to-toe lycra and high vis jackets; generally we greet each other cheerfully, but I don't belong to that particular club (not fit enough, hem-hem). La lanterne rouge is a means of transport, one that hugely extends the range I could manage on foot, and using it to get about always gives me the delicious sensation of having stepped back into the 1950s. Really, I should put a bottle of ginger beer in my backpack!
When I arrived at the library it was to find that the gardens outside were full of snowdrops. Sometimes I stop to look at the leper squint in Innerpeffray church, or some of the old gravestones, but I didn't do any of that today; I have missed my visits to the library over the winter months so I was dying to get inside.

The new exhibition is excellent. I never get tired of telling people that if they are in the area they should visit the library, and here is a new reason. I am not going to detail every single book on display because that might discourage you, dear reader, from actually visiting the library if you find yourself in the area. But I have to tell you about one that for me really was the star of the show. It is Richard Sanders' book of Physiognomie and chiromancie, metopopscopie, published in 1653.
The book purports to be a scientific work demonstrating how a person's disposition can be judged from his physical appearance. This includes, apparently, relating the facial features to the signs of the Zodiac!


The most entertaining aspect of this work is that there is a series of pages depicting different facial types and explaining what type of character each of them represents:


One of these pictures represents a murderer and "one that shall suffer a violent death"! See below - ring any bells? If your boss looks exactly like this, then according to Sanders it is time to be worried. Very worried. 


The picture below, from a different page, shows a gentleman with a couple of parallel wavy lines on his forehead, which is supposed to predict "drowning, or great perils by water"! 


Other intriguing books on display include my perennial favourite the Discoverie of Witchcraft, as well as the supremely nasty Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Interestingly, the library also has a Victorian copy of Foxe's, with very much milder illustrations than the original, so that you can compare and contrast, should you so desire. 
If you find yourself in Scotland and would like to visit the exhibition, you can find directions, visiting hours, etc. on the library's website here: http://www.innerpeffraylibrary.co.uk/