One day… (Liebster Award, Part 1)

One day – (a very long time ago now!) – Aubrey, of the utterly captivating Café Royal blog, very kindly bestowed the Liebster Award upon Bookish Nature.

Liebster Award

It arrived at a time when I was bleary-eyed and stressed, spending all my days and alternate nights on a hospital ward, taking it in turns with my husband to “sleep” on a fold-out bed alongside our son’s, whilst he underwent lengthy and arduous medical treatment. It was a wonderful boost to receive the award, and my thanks go to Aubrey for sending a spark from her shining star my way. Aubrey’s blog is a place of riches. Of stories and seeing, of intriguing glimpses into worlds of sparkling vision and imagination – a place to step into nature, history, art and into the inspiration of extraordinary lives and adventurous spirits through Time. It is a place of beautiful words.

And now it is midsummer – and unlike Puck, who can ‘put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,’ I have taken the far more wandering route of a Scheherazade and her 1,001 nights…

Arabian Nights Stories - an old edition from the family bookshelves...

Arabian Nights Stories – an old edition from the family bookshelves…

Arabian Nights Stories - Detail from the "Come to Life Panorama"

Arabian Nights Stories – Detail from the “Come to Life Panorama”

….negotiating my way around physiotherapy duties, bouts of illness, huge backlogs of stuff-to-catch-up-on, teenage daughter’s GCSE exams and general family happenings – in order to gather time and stories, and fulfil the criteria of accepting the award, which are:

Give thanks.

Tell 11 things about yourself.

Answer to the best of your ability the 11 questions that are asked of you.

Nominate 11 other bloggers for this award – and let them know.

Ask the above nominees 11 questions of your own, or use the questions you were asked.

And so, we begin – at last! (My apologies for taking so long to finally release the Genie from the lamp):

Arabian Nights Stories - Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Arabian Nights Stories – Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Eleven things about me

One.

I hail from a family of storytellers. Word-weaving folk, who love to share the events of their days. Never in a simple transmission-of-fact-way, as in: “We did this, or saw that today.”

No; everything has to be told from its beginning.

"One January day..." Opening of 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth - 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One January day…” Opening of ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth – 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One day, I was walking by the old wood yard,” my grandad might begin. “And the wind wasn’t half blowing a gale – enough to whip my hat clean off my head! Whoosh,” (cue a brief mime to indicate the trilby’s astonishing trajectory) “away it flew! All the way down to that corner shop where old Smithy used to sell those wonky-handled brooms! Yes, you know the place I mean; next-door to where Mrs. Know-it-All… (her whose son danced the Highland fling after one too many beers)…made toffee so hard, your teeth would threaten mutiny just at the thought of it.” Here, Grandad would pause to whistle his sense of awe through his (false) teeth. “Yep, that wind was a big ‘un. Never thought I’d get my hat back – but, as I grabbed it from the gutter – who do you think I met…?”

That sort of thing.

Sometimes, the ‘one day’ of my grandparents’ tales would be just the previous week – sometimes it would be 1913 or 1930 or 1969…

Snippets of our personal and family histories have always been relayed in this way. Over the years, my mum has often unpacked, detail by detail, a ‘one day’ from when I was four years old, and about to leave nursery school. Mum relates how, on the cusp of that momentous step towards “Big School,” my nursery school teacher fell into a reverie of prediction:

“You know,” Mrs. M said, nodding towards me, “I’m sure, one day, that child’s going to be an actress or a writer.”

Apparently, Mrs. M would often hand over the last tale of Story-Time to me. We would sit on the floor, forming our magic circle around a chosen book – our portal into many worlds.

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

To hold that treasure in my hands, to be right at the hub of where the story’s spell was sparking, was like being a curator of a party of dreams. I loved to “read” to the other kids – to share the book’s jumping off places from where all our imaginations could soar, together.

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

I couldn’t actually decipher more than a few of the words on the page, but I had memorised the stories. And the illustrations were alive; filled with spellbinding detail, movement, texture, colour, light, shade and suggestion. As I “read,” I would add in all sorts of invention, theatrical effects and character voices. I’m told I used to entertain the other children enormously. Personally, I think I must have been a right royal pain! But this anecdote, as well as making me laugh, also fills me with a lovely sense of being found out. Someone else saw an inner something I held dear; noticed that it was there. Witnessed it when it was in the very act of seeking those moments of ‘best living,’ when the very self settles most comfortably, and is happy. But this story also makes me feel a little sad too – because, after I went to “Big School,” I became very, very shy; really quite withdrawn (when at school anyway – at home I was still that same girl).

But, Mrs. M must have been a very astute teacher – because, despite my later shyness, I continued to seek outlets for my inner performer in every school production and play, and went on to do Theatre Studies ‘A’ level.

And, ever since I first realised that books didn’t just appear by magic direct from Fairyland, but were created by someone known as an Author, I’ve always wanted to be a children’s story creator… Mrs M. saw my dream forming before I even knew what name to give it.

Remembering how all that felt has been a good lesson to carry with me. It’s been a constant fuel. A motivator to keep honouring that core wish to reach out through stories; to promote the richness that books hold in keeping us connected to who we really are, to other people – and to our moments of ‘best living.’

And, who knows… though, at this time, I don’t feel I can own that magician’s title of ‘Writer,’ (lots more learning to acquire yet) maybe Mrs. M will be proved right – one day…

…There you are, see what I mean? I couldn’t just tell you that I have a deep-rooted urge to connect to storytelling at almost every level of my life. I had to make a story out of it!

I must make my other answers less epic – or we’ll be here all day!

Two.

I love horses. (There; that was nice and brief) For those of you who also love horses, this will need no explanation. Here’s a beautiful clip that will make you heart sing. And, if you’re not already an admirer of all creatures equine – surely, after witnessing such enchantment, resistance to a conversion will be futile!

Three

Making bread pudding is one of my culinary specialities! It’s a family tradition, handed down the generations. I still use the same oven-proof dish my mum baked her bread puddings in when I was a child. It must be over fifty years old now – it’s certainly older than me.

Four

I’m a bit of a metalhead! Heavy rock music took root very early in my consciousness, due to an older brother who, during our growing up in the 1970s, filled the house with the glorious sounds of Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Jimi Hendrix etc. By the age of six, my musical tastes embraced an eclectic mix – from Purple Haze to Pinky and Perky! When I met my husband, the already powerful appeal of bands such as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rush, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd et al – in all their big musical realness – became even more firmly embedded in the soundtracks of my life. And, from time to time, over-driven guitars play out for real in our house (whenever my Beloved can get the chance to recapture his youth via his Les Paul and Fender Strat!) Now, it’s our son whose favourite songs range wildly from Metallica’s The Unforgiven to CBeebies’ Postman Pat!

I know that heavy metal/ hard rock is not everybody’s cup of tea, but here’s a great video, courtesy of the sublime Bill Bailey, which I think has the power to connect anyone to the largeness of a genre which, on the whole, tends not to take itself too seriously. Everyone can rock out to this:

Enter Sandman (via Bill’s own inimitable style!) ‘…take my hand; we’re off to Never-Never Land!’

Five

As some regular readers at Bookish Nature know, I’m a huge Kate Bush fan – and, when I was a young teenager, I once stood just a few feet away from her (we both happened to be shopping in our local branch of Boots). When she saw my expression of astonishment, she smiled and said hello. She lived a few miles away from us at the time (late ’70s/early ’80s). I remember a dance I made up back then in the privacy of our living room – a wild, whirling set of moves to accompany my frequent listens to Kate’s song Babooshka (luckily, I didn’t feel the urge to unleash my inner performer in Boots that ‘one day’!)

Six

They say you either love or hate Marmite – and I’m a definite love it person. I could eat it by the spoonful! My husband shudders at my foolhardiness.

Seven

I remember reading in Marian Keyes’ warm and uplifting collection of articles, Under the Duvet, her tongue-in-cheek claim that women generally fall into one of two categories: those who love shoes – and those who love bath products. In her experience, the two groups tend not to overlap. It’s an either/ or thing. Whether this bears out as true or not, I have no idea – however I do own very few shoes (and find shoe shopping a tedious experience) – but I’m an absolute sucker for the scented delights of a bottle of mandarin and papaya bubble bath, or a strawberry and vanilla body wash – and other similar concoctions and little luxuries (all environmentally friendly and not tested on animals, of course!)

I trace it back to my mum being such a good Avon customer, and so spawning a childhood fascination with weird and wonderful perfume and bubble bath bottles of light-glinting richness of colour – some shaped like telephones or snowmen or turtles or bells, or pianos, peaches, doves, harps – all manner of surprising things. And then there were the soaps shaped like the seven dwarves, a bath brush shaped like a giraffe, a comb shaped like a caterpillar. And soap-on-a rope! Who could forget soap-on-a-rope? I still own bits and pieces from Avon’s “Small World” childhood range from the 1970s:

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood - Avon children's range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament - from my grandma's dressing table!)

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood – Avon children’s range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament – from my grandma’s dressing table!)

Every few weeks, an impossibly glamorous Avon lady would visit, carrying an intriguing blue check-pattern suitcase laden with such temptations. When its lid was unzipped – voila! – a stunning rainbow of tiny nail-polish bottles was revealed – like an array of magic potions. My mum’s dressing table was a place of wonder!

Eight.

Despite the influences of the Avon lady and my mum’s dressing table, I don’t like wearing make-up. I only ever wear it (grudgingly) on special occasions. I don’t feel comfortable not looking like – well… me. And applying and removing it takes too much precious time when I could be reading!

Nine

I hand reared one of my (late) dogs and her brother. They were brought into the veterinary surgery where I was working at the time, when they were just three days old. Their mother had been unable to feed them, and most of the litter had died or were dying. The owner didn’t want the surviving pups. So, I took on the job of round-the-clock feeding. Their lives hung by a thread at first, but we soon established three hourly feeds, using special canine formula milk. Weeks later, when it was time to find them both a home, I’d formed such a bond with the (utterly scatty) female puppy, I just couldn’t part with her.

My dog's early puppyhood...

My dog’s early puppyhood…

She stayed with us all her life, and lived to a good old age. She never quite lost her scatty ways (a friend of ours from Devon affectionately dubbed her “The Maze Hound”) – but her impeccable behaviour was a marvel to behold after my daughter was born (she transformed into an absolute model of canine calm and instinctive good sense in Bookish Nature Junior’s company, reverting to puppyhood when she wasn’t required to be the Wise Old Pooch of the West). We all miss her.

Ten

My hair is a kind of chestnut brown – but, when the sun shines on it, streaks of fiery russet come out from hiding (along with an increasing number of silvery strands nowadays!) There’s a history of red hair on both sides of the family. I like to think of my fiery highlights as a link to my hidden Boudica (complete with pony-drawn chariot… Did I mention that I love horses?) A whole section of my ancestors came from East Anglia, so maybe some kind of link to the Queen of the Iceni isn’t stretching the fantasy way beyond all plausibility!

Eleven

During my family history research online, I was astonished to discover the existence of a portrait of some of my ancestors! The portrait is unsigned and dates from circa 1830. Looking at various records, I found out that one of my several-times-great aunts married a portrait painter at about that time. So, immediately, my romantic storyteller mode kicked in – casting said aunt as the young woman in the family portrait, and the commissioned artist as the young man she eventually married. Maybe, when I look at that painting, I am witnessing a very significant meeting of eyes across the easel; love blossoming amidst the Kentish meadows… The portrait also revealed one of the sources of the red hair inheritance (there are several auburn mops amongst the children in the posed family group).

My sister-in-law did some investigating and found out that the portrait is kept in the archives of a museum in Kent – and that it is printed on notelets available to buy from the museum’s shop! A whole section of family history, which was never passed on via the inherited storytelling-habit, began to reveal itself. My grandad’s own stories were of growing up in a working class family, his father a jobbing gardener, his mother’s father an itinerant farm labourer. But I discovered a history I don’t think he knew about – that his dad’s father was the son of a gentleman farmer who owned 200 acres of land and lived in a moated farmhouse (originally the site of a medieval manor!) How that story unfolded is yet to be revealed – one day!

Part 2 to follow…

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Berlie Doherty’s newsletter, a glacier & some ghosts!

It was a really lovely surprise to see Bookish Nature mentioned in Berlie Doherty’s latest (Feb. 2013) newsletter this week! Many thanks, Berlie – your kind words are much appreciated!

It was also exciting to learn that Berlie’s new novel, The Company of Ghosts (due out in September) is now available for pre-order. She describes it as being set on a Scottish island – and as ‘very spooky.’ Having loved Daughter of the Sea, I’m looking forward to exploring more of her writing – and this new addition sounds so enticing…

You can read the whole newsletter at Berlie’s lovely website, which is a fantastic port of call for anyone who loves voyages of discovery through the vitality and depths of truly good literature for children…

Lately, Fate seems to keep stepping in and causing all sorts of serendipitous events – and Friday evening was no exception. After tea, I was scrolling through the options on the BBC Radio iPlayer, looking for some distraction to lighten the task of washing the dishes, when amongst the programme listings, Berlie Doherty’s name caught my eye. Clicking the link through to Radio 4 Extra, I discovered it was a reading of one of Berlie’s short stories – a perfect invitation to catch up with more of her work! Minutes later, and I was transfixed, hands suspended in soap suds, caught by the fascination of the story’s setting – and so moved by the perceptive clarity and truth of its telling.

No longer scouring saucepans, but clinging to the raw majesty of a mountain glacier, I was there with the story’s characters; two women – strangers to each other – each, and together, confronting their own frozen dams of emotion. I won’t say any more. When entering a short story, you need to be in the moment; to arrive where it begins – its invitation glittering in the distance – and your expectations of where it will take you completely open…

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, you can listen to Crossing the Glacier here (now just a few days left to listen).

Advent Windows of Story – Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come

Wintry reads and curl-up-by-the-fireside-words have a special hold during this season of retreat and dreaming…

They push through into magic lands of imagination, treading patterns of memory which – like the ghosts of Christmas – explore story past, present, future through the long nights and snowy paths of winter.

Back cover design of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Back cover design of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Before the minutes began to run like loose glitter through school concerts, Christmas letter writing, billows of washing to prepare the house for the gathering of the clan, I was working on a couple of long, exploratory posts – which now don’t seem appropriate for this time of heading-for-bolt-holes and home; and of nuggets of thought to toast by the fire.

Now, words spill into the festive season and come out in the shape of carols and family conversation and plans, and daft paper crowns, and pulled crackers spilling laughter…

So, here are some nuggets of winter reading to aid the dreaming and the journeys through snow-filled imaginings. Nuggets that speak for themselves; marsh-mallow pieces of story-delight to stick on the end of your toasting fork of dreams, and gently melt and savour into Christmas…

(The long, winding posts of literary investigation can wait for the long, winding paths beyond New Year’s soon-to-open doors…)

In the meantime, happy dreaming – and happy reading. Hope you enjoy peeking through these advent windows into the worlds of various books – where Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come all become one, blended like a warm festive drink in the magic punch bowl that is memory and imagination:

(There are more story advent windows here than there are days left until Christmas – but I couldn’t resist adding in some extra!)

It was late afternoon before they finished the Christmas tree, and it was growing dark. They lit the old red Chinese lantern and many candles so that they could see to work. There were no glaring electric bulbs on this tree. Mrs Oldknow had boxes of coloured glass ornaments, each wrapped separately in tissue paper and put carefully away from year to year. Some were very old and precious indeed. There were glass balls, stars, fir-cones, acorns and bells in all colours and all sizes. There were also silver medallions of angels. Of course the most beautiful star was fixed at the very top, with gold and silver suns and stars beneath and around it. Each glass treasure, as light as an eggshell and as brittle, was hung on a loop of black cotton that had to be coaxed over the prickly fingers of the tree. Tolly took them carefully out of their tissue paper and Mrs Oldknow hung them up. The tiny glass bell-clappers tinkled when a branch was touched. When it was all finished, there were no lights on the tree itself, but the candles in the room were reflected in each glass bauble on it, and seemed in those soft deep colours to be shining from an immense distance away, as if the tree were a cloudy night sky full of stars. They sat down together to look at their work. Tolly thought it so beautiful he could say nothing, he could hardly believe his eyes.’

From The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

Front cover - The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Front cover – The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

‘Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.’

From The Dark is Rising (Part Two, The Learning – Christmas Eve) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition, illustration by Laura Carlin

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition, illustration by Laura Carlin

‘He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before. Now and forever, he knew, he inhabited a different time-scale from that of everyone he had ever known or loved… But he managed to turn his thoughts away from all these things, even from the two invading, threatening figures of the Dark. For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was on the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside.

Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living-room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down. Will lay on his back on the hearth-rug staring into the smoke wreathing up the chimney, and was suddenly very sleepy indeed.’

From The Dark is Rising (Part Two, The Learning – Betrayal) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition - title page and illustration by Laura Carlin

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition – title page and illustration by Laura Carlin

There they go, Moss and Blister, hurrying up Blackfriar’s Stairs and on through the dark streets, under a sky fairly peppered with stars as cold as frozen sparks. Up Coalman’s Alley, across Bristol Street…

“ ‘Appy Christmas, marm – and a nappy Christmas to you, miss!” bellowed a bellman, coming out of an alehouse and wagging his bell like a swollen brass finger.

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given!” He hiccupped, and drew out a little Christmas poem of his own composing, while Moss and Blister stood stock-still and listened. Then he held out his hand, and Moss put a sixpence in it, for it was Christmas Eve, and Moss, who was a midwife, felt holy and important.

Ordinarily, Moss was brisk and businesslike to a degree, but on this one night of the year she was as soft as butter and gave her services for nothing. She lived in hopes of being summoned to a stable and delivering the Son of God.

“It’s written down, Blister,” she said to her apprentice after the bellman had weaved away. “It’s all written down. Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time.”

Blister, a tall, thin girl with sticking-out ears and saucer eyes, who flapped and stalked after stubby Moss like a loose umbrella, said “Yus’m!” and looked frightened to death. Blister also had her dream of Christmas Eve and a stable, but it was not quite the same as Moss’s. She dreamed that Moss would be delivering her of the marvelous Child.

Naturally, she kept her ambition a deep secret from Moss, so that the dreamy frown that sometimes settled on her face led Moss to surmise that her apprentice was a deep one…..

…..At the end of every March, she’d lie in her bed, waiting with ghostly urgency for Moss to appear beside her, for Moss had a gift like the angel of the annunciation. She could tell, long before it showed, if any female had a bun in the oven, a cargo in the hold, or a deposit in the vault – depending on the trade concerned…..

…..But she never looked at Blister in that certain way, and every Christmas Eve Blister would grow frightened that someone else had been chosen to bear the glory of the world.’

From The Apprentices – Moss and Blister, by Leon Garfield

The Apprentices by Leon Garfield, published by William Heinemann, 1982 edition. Jacket painting by Stefen Bernath

The Apprentices by Leon Garfield, published by William Heinemann, 1982 edition. Jacket painting by Stefen Bernath

It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.

Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’

From The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Chapter One) by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, Red Fox Books 2004 edition, published by Random House Children's Books.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, Red Fox Books 2004 edition, published by Random House Children’s Books.

“I am going mad.” Aunt Valentina fell into a chair, shot up as a cat yowled and escaped, sank down again with her doeskin boots stuck out. “It’s too much. I am going mad.”

Poor Val. She did have bad luck. When she and Rudolf came to World’s End, which was only just often enough to remind everybody whose house it was, she was either chased by the ram, butted by the goat, tipped off the donkey, or had her foot trodden on by a horse. Today when she arrived loaded with Christmas spirit and parcels, with miniature golden angels dangling from her ears, she ran full tilt into Tom carrying a dead dog, Carrie and Em and Michael behind him with candles, chanting.

Val’s Christmas spirit left her in a flash. “I am going mad.”

The procession went on out of the side door to the place under the weeping willow where dead animals rested, and where Michael had asked to be buried, ‘when my time comes’. He had already made his own gravestone, the blade of a broken oar stuck into the ground and painted with the message, ‘Micel Fidling. At Rest With His Frends’.

At Dusty’s graveside, Carrie recited a short poem she had quickly run up when he died at noon:

‘Here the good old friend of Liza Jones,
A wanderer dog lays down his weary bones.
He mustn’t be forgotten, must he?
For all his name, he was not so dusty.’

When they went back in, Valentina had recovered from the shock of having a dead body carried out as she came in, but she started up again when Dad lit the candles on the tree. The other lights were out, and it looked heavenly, the small pure flames like stars.

But Val screamed, “Fire! It will catch fire!”

She lunged forward to blow out the candles, and knocked one off the tree. It set light to a piece of tissue paper on the floor.

“Leave it alone, Val.” Jerome Fielding put out the small fire with his foot. “We’ll blow them out when they get lower.”

“Go ahead, Jerry.” Uncle Rudolf was genial enough today, though his marble head and stiff back were not made for it. “The insurance money is worth more to me than the house.”

From World’s End in Winter (Chapter 18) by Monica Dickens

World's End in Winter by Monica Dickens, 1972 edition, published by William Heinemann

World’s End in Winter by Monica Dickens, 1972 edition, published by William Heinemann

For a beautiful winter solstice-time post about Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising – slip through this portal to the Whistles in the Wind blog.

And for another The Dark is Rising related treat – and lots of winter woods enchantment – find your way through the back of the magic wardrobe to this post by Diana J Hale.

Daughter of the Sea by Berlie Doherty

‘My tale is of the sea. It takes place in the far north, where ice has broken land into jagged rocks, and where black and fierce tides wash the shores. Hail is flung far on lashing winds, and winters are long and dark. Men haunt the sea, and the sea gives up a glittering harvest. And it is said that the people of the sea haunt the land.’

As we said a sad-sweet goodbye to the Angel of the North…

The Angel of the North – sculpture by Antony Gormley, near the A1 at Gateshead.

… (our annual ritual of leaving and returning…)

…something made me turn to those opening words of the prologue to Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea.

This 1998 Puffin paperback edition…

1998 Puffin Books paperback edition of Daughter of the Sea by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Sian Bailey

…was nestled in a bag by my feet in the car – along with all my other Barter Books summer finds. We were driving away from the far north of England and towards the autumn; the winter already a furthest-north-thought creeping steadily southward from invisible horizons behind us.

I discovered a few years ago, on another long road journey, that I’m able to read in the car as long as we’re still on the motorways; twisting lanes play havoc with my head if I try to focus on the page. But with three hundred miles of motorway from the North-East back to the South-West ahead of us, it felt like a good journey of the mind, and an honour paid to an always complex sense of parting, to allow this tale of the sea, and of rugged northern lands, to carry me home.

And so it was that, as we passed through a bright land of harvest and surreal summer-green (the trees and hedgerows kept strangely lush and leaf-abundant by exceptional amounts of rain) my thoughts were called towards ice, and crofters living close to the rock-rimed bones of remote islands; edgelands where the breath of survival moves with the sea.

In her Author’s Note at the back of the novel, Berlie Doherty tells us that: ‘Some of the stories woven into Daughter of the Sea are based on ancient tales from Iceland, Scotland and Ireland.’ And in the narrative, she achieves that feeling of a generic North – an evocation of shared cultural strands that knit place, experience and a Far North landscape of mind.

Philip Pullman, quoted in the blurb on the back cover, describes the ingredients of the book’s atmosphere perfectly:

‘Tension, emotional honesty and more than a touch of cold northern poetry as well.’

– Philip Pullman, Guardian.

A slender book, ostensibly for children, but with tendrils of deep archetypal concern that hold fast for readers of all ages, Daughter of the Sea casts its net far around a teeming weight of significance – just as the tight-woven, sparse words of folktale reach to catch big ideas, glinting with truth and meaning.

Berlie Doherty tells a tale of humans and selkies locked in an interrelationship which both washes towards the land, and pulls away into unknown deeps. People of the land are drawn to the sea, and the people of the sea are drawn to the land. The netted strands that join them are irresistible – and yet fraught with difficulty and danger. It is a relationship of both gifts and destruction; of both lifeblood and the ever-present threat of death.

It is an interdependence that reveals the very edges of life; the deepest concerns of spirit and survival, where the natural order is broken at your peril. The people in this novel’s pages live with a heavy sense of submission to what the sea must take in return for what the sea relinquishes. They live with a pact that, if broken, exacts terrible price – great sorrow and loss. But, it is also a pact that can bring vital restoration and healing. In these natural cycles of giving and taking, there is a balance of joy and sadness; of wishes and what must be; of possession and letting go.

Daughter of the Sea is written with a lilting call of voice. Its prose is an invitation to the fireside, whilst the snow and ice grips the darkness in the howl of the wind outside. The sea not only haunts the book’s characters and story, but its whole tone too. We feel the touch of ancient depths of human experience in its telling; the accumulated voices of many folk long gone, as the waves of the narrative take up each character and deliver the timeless and interwoven longings and acceptances of their lives…

…The life of Gioga, the daughter of the sea – delivered up by the waves to the yearnings of a childless couple; of Eilean o da Freya, the ‘crab-woman,’ who guards a secret, and lives alone in a den beneath an upturned boat, her story told in the ‘language of her singing’ which ‘has lilts and hisses in it, as if she has listened too long to the sea.’ And Hill Marliner, the mysterious white haired stranger who wears ‘a full grey cloak’ and whose appearance answers to the descriptions in Eilean’s tales of ‘the lord of the oceans’ who ‘rides the waves from morning to night, from ice to ice, from the world’s end to the world’s end.’ And of the islanders, who weave their tales through the cycles of nature; cycles that permeate every moment of their existence:

‘My tale is of the daughter of the sea. The best way to hear the tale is to creep into the lee of the rocks when the herring boats have just landed. The gulls will be keening around you. The women hone knives on the stones, and their hands will be brown from the wind and the fish-gut slime. And as they work they talk to each other of the things they’ve always known.

That’s when the story’s told.’

– (Berlie Doherty, opening to ‘Daughter of the Sea.’)

‘Reckless’ in Bath with Cornelia Funke

On the evening of 4th October 2010, Bath was bathed in golden light. Enticing vistas – distant trees, columns, roofs – glowed like reachable other worlds. We followed the dusk into the park, searching for conkers under ancient horse chestnuts, whilst birdsong mingled with the Sunday bells of the Abbey…

…We were on our way back from an hour long sojourn in Mirror World, still a little unsure as to which layer of reality we were actually moving through. For my daughter and me, Cornelia Funke’s presentation of her latest book, Reckless at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, had served up more than a small dose of enchantment…

Picture of hardback edition of Reckless by Cornelia Funke

An hour before, under the Christmas tree dazzle of the Guildhall’s beautiful chandeliers, all eyes had turned to the ballroom doors, as Cornelia entered – like a high priestess of fairytale – resplendent in a the most amazing dress I’ve ever had the privilege to share a room with.

I wish I could describe Cornelia’s Reckless tour dress in a way that would give you a truly accurate picture of how dazzling it was. Even these photos on her fan website don’t do it justice. Cornelia introduced it to us (immediately, I find myself referring to it as a living thing…) as a ‘crazy’ dress, ‘made by witches,’ every detail of it hand made to create a work of fairy tale art. Designed by Oscar winning costume designer, Jenny Beavan, it was a dress straight out of an Arthur Rackham illustration. Made from luminous layers of fabric in shades of moss and woody green, it was like an organic thing grown from ancient oaks in hidden groves, festooned with cobwebs.

An upright semi circle of green and gold feathers adorned the collar and, as Cornelia moved, the feathers and fabric glittered with random pulses of multi-coloured sparkle – making the prosaic electric spotlights of our, familiar, world reflect back at us like tiny points of magic made visible. It was as if the world from the other side of the mirror was glimpsing back at us from the shine of our own world. And this, as Cornelia explained to us, is very much what Reckless is about.

Mirror world, she explained, is the fairytale world – a world that ‘wants to grow up’ and which uses our world, the world we perceive to be real, to do so – capturing people and technology from this world in order to progress. It is the land which protrudes through to our world in the faces of stone gargoyles and the grisly tales of folklore – a world populated by a shape shifter fox woman, a Dark Fairy, children stolen from our world and turned into stone, a sleeping beauty crumbling into the passing of time, her skin turning to ‘parchment’ like the dried rose petals falling from the thorns surrounding her castle.

Picture of the back cover of Reckless by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia explained that the book is the result of a three-way collaboration between herself, Lionel Wigram (producer of Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes films) and her cousin Oliver Latsch. Lionel came up with the initial idea of the fairytale world that wants to grow up; together he and Cornelia wove from that a whole world of ideas and narrative turns and surprises; she did the writing – and her cousin Oliver translated her drafts, and numerous rewrites, from German into English.

In answer to one child’s question from the audience expressing surprise that, with such excellent spoken English, Cornelia doesn’t write in/ translate her work into English herself, Cornelia explained that she has to write in her native tongue because it is in German that she feels most able and free to play with language and grammar, to ‘break the rules’ to create the effects she is chasing. She told us that a native English speaker is better able to translate these effects into ways that sound natural to an English speaking ear. She told us too, with real relish, of her ‘passion for words’ and that she could happily play with one sentence, altering, polishing, chasing that exact desired effect for eight hours or more, and love every minute of it. Whereas, with her original role as book illustrator, before she took up writing as a career, drawing didn’t engender the same love of time spent perfecting.

Picture of an illustration by Cornelia Funke from her novel, Reckless

During the event, Cornelia was in conversation with Damian Kelleher. He began the journey into the world of Reckless by asking Cornelia to read us the opening of the novel. This is a threshold moment – both within the book; and within the room. Cornelia reads, unfolding the moment when Jacob Reckless discovers, and passes through, the mirror. The pin-drop silence of the audience, the many absorbed minds concentrated on her words, suspends the whole room on a threshold – a hovering between this world and the world of the book; each one of us drawn in to our own personal reflection of the narrative.

Afterwards, Cornelia told us how, when she reads aloud, she loves the thought of so many interpretations of her book existing in the room simultaneously. Once a book is made into a film, this tends to reduce to one shared version, and that is a loss. She prefers the thought of her books remaining books, rather than being turned into films. She also talked about the importance of attaching fiction to reality for depth and meaning; of the importance of research and real detail to inspire, anchor and enrich the story and its world.

She spoke too about how important it is, as a writer, not isolate yourself too much in this very solitary profession – but to remain in the flow of everyday life – because life and its very ebb and flow is what fiction is all about – and what it needs to feed from for any sense of Truth.

She told us about her ‘writing house’ in the garden of her home in Los Angeles. How she plasters the walls with pictures of things relevant to her current work, in order to immerse herself in the atmosphere those things conjure up. Hence, during writing Reckless, she covered her writing house walls with pictures of the nineteenth century; Romantic landscape paintings, the art of the pre-Raphaelites, pictures of nineteenth century industry and machinery, architecture etc.

She also talked about women’s roles in the nineteenth century, how her perceptions of those roles had been challenged by finding out more about individual women of the period who defied the passive ideal served up by those times. She linked this to the Victorian versions of fairytales – how girls in these versions are generally timid and passive; not at all like the feisty, independent characters to be found in the pagan world of older, scarier versions – and in her fairytale world in Reckless.

Picture of dust flap of Reckless by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia talked about modern and old worlds meeting and overlapping through her characters, Jake and Will (their names being part of the book’s general nod towards the Brothers Grimm) – brothers from the ‘younger’ ultra modern society of America, placed in the old world of Europe. She talked about how, as a frequent traveller herself, she is acutely aware of the existence and overlapping of different realities – the contrasts of place and shifts of thought as she might move from the snow, forests and lakes of Europe, to the heat of her garden in L.A. where hummingbirds feed outside the window of her writing house.

At the end of the event, Cornelia again read to us from the novel – this time from the scene where Sleeping Beauty still sleeps in a version of the tale where the Prince never turns up, and Will Reckless’s skin is slowly turning to jade. Again, the magic of the many mind-pictures at work within the room seemed to layer the moment with many realities and fictions; separate worlds of imagination, experience and vision all woven together and spellbound by the power of the edged, spare, tightly written prose of the novel. At one point, Damian Kelleher remarked on the tightness of the prose – and Cornelia said, in response, that very spare writing had been her aim, as she felt the fairytale nature of the story demanded that effect. She also spoke of the pleasure of this style, as a change from the very ‘Baroque’ nature of the language of the Ink World novels.

Picture of Chapter one page of Reckless by Cornelia Funke

I made no notes whilst at the event, so this account is entirely from memory, and so may be full of blips and trips for which I apologise – and I’ve left out some details, simply for the sake of aiming for brevity (which I still don’t seem to have achieved!) For certain, this version will be a product of my own individual perception and interpretation. Another person’s version would offer an alternative reality; the other side of the mirror. What stays with me though, is a sense of ‘this world’ and ‘other-world’, hung on the balance of the language – the precision of words creating a suspension in a place of deep-seated familiarity; the familiarity of both the ‘real’ and the fairytale – a vital, formative mixture that enriches our lives as we, like Mirror World, continue to grow up.

And what stays with me also is that amazing dress – and I’m sure it will be a memory that will stay with my daughter too. Thank you, Cornelia for creating this living memory bound up with the world of books and story; the fictional made real – the book stepping into the room.