The Tree Seat

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Reading tree
Reading tree

What better place to read a book than here? (And, what’s more, I made and fixed the tree benches myself, sawing notches into the trunk to anchor the planks and then screwing them into place.)

I’m going to add a rope ladder next!

On Magic and Science

Wizard worlds
Wizard worlds

So, you’ve got – as a writer – your carefully worked out world, complete with dragons, various branches of the faerie folk with names artfully changed to suggest that no, you really didn’t mean Elves like in Middle-earth, and, of course, magic. After all, what fantasy world would be complete without a bit of magic, a little sprinkling of wonder and strangeness across the boundaries of the mundane that hem us into our own world. And, what’s more, the book works! You find a publisher, the public read it, clamour for more, you are rolling in authorial clover (if not money; get real, this is a first novel after all). Time for the sequel. Ah, the sequel. Now, what exactly can Wizard Wiz do – and what can’t he do? What about the Witches? Broomsticks – that’s as read. But what other powers do they have? Better start working this out.

And this is precisely where so many fantasy worlds and fantasy authors start going wrong. Yes, as one goes deeper into a secondary world, you have to work things through and understand them more deeply, but the danger with magic is to start treating it as engineering with a veneer of Latin. So, taken to its conclusion, you have a sort of Tops Trumps version of magic, where strength 5 wizards with additional special powers are, literally, trumped by the authorial McGuffin of a blocking ability or the amulet or token that trumps other powers; it becomes a Marvel/DC universe, where fans (and the Lord knows I’m one of them) can spend enjoyable hours debating whether the Hulk would beat Thor: power trumps everything.

Engineering is magic, but not the right sort of magic
Engineering is magic, but not the right sort of magic

But this is not magic. This is to view magic through 21st-century, scientific eyes. To put it simply, magic is not science. Science proceeds by virtue of its method, which means that while it might take a genius such as Newton or Einstein to propose a new theory, once published it is possible for anyone of reasonable intelligence to follow the reasoning by which they came to their conclusions. Similarly, science is demonstrated by experimenters of genius, like Michelson and Morley, running tests to show if predictions match results. But, once the experiment has first been run, anyone following the same method should be able to replicate the results.

Science is repeatable. That’s its point. It might take a genius to find the path through the overwhelming array of data, but once the path is found anyone should be able to follow it. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can do it.

The point of magic is that any Tom, Dick or Harry cannot do it. A magician, a wizard might take years to learn a spell, a craft, a potion but even if you, the reader (or indeed, the would-be wizard), followed the same practices as diligently and for as long, there would be no guarantee that you could repeat the spell. Magic is personal and particular; in that it resembles elite sport or virtuoso musicians. I might practice batting for as long as Kevin Pietersen, working as diligently as he does, and yet at the end of it I would not be able to do what he does. Why not? The short answer: I don’t have his talent. The slightly longer answer: I do not have the combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics that make him a great batsman – my deficiencies ranging from poorer eyesight and being a good six inches shorter through to lacking a taste for physical confrontation as confirmation of my own abilities.

Only 9,982 hours to go
Only 9,982 hours to go

Similarly with music. Pace Malcolm Gladwell, but 10,000 hours of practice might be necessary for mastery of an art, it is not necessarily sufficient for it. I could have set aside eight hours every day on the guitar – I did, for a number of years – and yet I never even came close to mastering the instrument, and this for a particular combination of physical and psychological reasons. To coin Albert’s law: practice is necessary for mastery of an art but it is not sufficient for it; you need talent too. And by talent I mean the particular combination of physical, psychological and spiritual traits that are necessary for a particular person to master a particular skill – and note that these will differ according to person and art.

Similarly with magic. A wizard is, by nature, singular. Defining magical laws, turning it into engineering, is to filter it through the wrong lens. Try applying the laws of performance to it, and you will be on stronger writing ground.

The Four Causes
The Four Causes

As so often when writing fantasy, JRR Tolkien provides the best example. He barely mentions magic in The Lord of the Rings, and when the Elves do talk about it, they say that what they do is not magic as understood by mortals. And nor is it. Tolkien, being well grounded in Thomistic theology, understood better than most the Aristotelian underpinning of Elvish magic and its relationship to the four causes indentified by the Stagirite, to whit the formal, material, efficient and final causes, so Elvish magic, or art as they themselves more likely saw it, was the deep understanding of causation in relation to any object and the ability to see more clearly through to its true end, and bring that about. Tolkien distinguishes this from sorcery, where the ultimate aim is the subjugation of the free will of others to the sorceror – the greatest sin within Arda, for it seeks to subvert the supreme gift of Eru (God).

So, writers, when writing magic and wizards, banish thoughts of Warhammer outcome tables and video game power ups; think rather of Yo Yo Ma or Zinedine Zidane then apply that mixture of refinement, ability and the pursuit of perfection to magic and you won’t go far wrong.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!
Happy New Year!

A very happy New Year to all my readers! I should have wished you a merry Christmas as well, but the exigencies of the season, culminating in a visit to A&E on the evening of Christmas Day with a toddler alternating between asthma and hyperactivity (the blue asthma pump, from which he received 30 blasts in an hour, acts as a stimulant as well as relieving asthma) rather put paid to any internet posting. So, belated wishes for Christmas and timely felicitations for the feast of Janus.

The Secret of a Happy Marriage: Reading The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows

You can dispense with psychological testing, horoscopes, compatibility checks and relationship counselling, all the panoply of means devised to test whether you and your proposed spouse are destined for a lifetime of conjugal bliss or will split, amid recriminations and bitterness, in a few years’ time, for I have found the answer. To know whether you are truly compatible, find out what he or she thought of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and the age at which your intended first read it.

For myself, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is the first book I can recall reading – my mother tells me I was five at the time but since she is firmly convinced of my genius we can probably take that with a pinch of salt – my little legs, marked with the signature pattern of British Rail upholstery, drumming against the metal beneath the seat in one of those old-fashioned train compartments as I breathlessly read through to the end, oblivious of the delight I’m told I caused the other passengers as this small, brown boy plunged into the most English of literary landscapes. I re-read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ many times when I was young, and regularly through the years, managing to keep my edition in good condition. But this time, when I went to read the story again, for a change I picked up my wife’s edition, to find it marked with the inscription ‘Harriet Whitbread 1975 Christmas’. So she was six when she first read it, and it has travelled with her through an itinerant life as an actor, through digs and flats, to finally settle with me; we were destined from the moment we each entered Grahame’s England.

So there, that is the answer. If you and your intended both read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ at about the same young age, if you both skipped past ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter because you didn’t really understand it but now find that it has become close to your favourite part of the book, if you both want to take tea with Toad and settle down next to the fire with Rat and Mole, then you have met your soul mate and a life time of domestic happiness is ensured.

However, if neither of you have read ‘The Wind in the Willows’, then you place yourselves at the mercy of Aphrodite; will she make her blessing permanent, or temporary? In all likelihood it will be a marriage that endures rather than blesses. And if your reaction to ‘The Wind in the Willows’ differs then, I am sorry to say, you are surely destined for divorce; far better not to marry, and find someone else who read the story at the same time as you and appreciates it as you do.

And if you tried to read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ as a child and found it undreadable, objectionable or boring, which opinions you still hold despite being grown and able to know better, then I, for one, am glad never to have made your acquaintance.

A Tidy Desk

Is this weird? I get a huge thrill in tidying up my writing desk when the rest of the family, who encroach on it constantly, have covered it in tottering mounds of books, magazines and papers, not to say messing up its perfectly logical internal arrangement.

My tidy desk
My tidy desk

Here it is, looking pristine and neat. Isn’t it lovely?

Catalan Monsters

This article was first published in the Time Out Barcelona Guide.

What to do if little Johnny won’t go to sleep at bedtime? A glass of warm milk? A gentle lullaby? Or a blood-curdling horror story of child abduction and flesh-eating monsters? Catalan folklore is full of decidedly non-PC espantanens (‘child-frighteners’), designed to make kids behave and – as a side effect – turn them into gibbering emotional wrecks.

El Coco; Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
El Coco; Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
El Coco is one of the best known. With shaggy black hair and fluorescent eyes, El Coco preys on children who don’t go to bed when they’re told. Only leaving his hidey-hole in the dead of night, he lingers in the shadowy corners of children’s bedrooms and taunts them with a scary grunting noise, before grabbing them and carrying them home to eat raw. Sadly, it can be just as dangerous to go to sleep, at least when La Pesanta is around. In the form of a huge black dog with human hands, she jumps on to the chest of those who sleep on their backs; her great weight gives them terrible nightmares before suffocating them to death.

Warning of ‘stranger danger’ is L’Home del Sac (the ‘bag man’), a sinister old man dressed in old brown rags with shaggy hair and a giant sack on his back. Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he lures over any children he sees out alone with sweets and toys and then tosses them in his sack. Back in his castle, he boils down the children’s juicy flesh to produce a fine oil, which he uses to grease the train tracks.

Caçamentides
Caçamentides

Then there’s the Caçamentides (‘liar hunter’), a man as tall and wide as the towers of the cathedral and with fingers as sharp as claws, which he uses to snatch up children who tell lies. He knows who they are because when a lie comes out of a child’s mouth, it turns into an invisible bird that flies away after leaving a dark stain on their teeth. The birds fly to Caçamentides and tell him where the child is to be found. He barbecues his captives and eats them seven by seven.

Much feared by little girls who live in Bruç, Esparreguera and Piera is the Cardapeçois, a strange and bad-tempered old woman who’s obsessed with well-combed hair. She visits little girls with long, tangled locks and goes at them with thistle heads and, in especially bad cases, the sharp iron spikes used to card sheep wool. She combs until she’s pulled all the hair out, and the offender is left bleeding and bald.

Putting on the frighteners out in La Vall de Ribes de Freser is Jan de Gel, a boy made of ice, and so cold-hearted that children freeze just by looking at him. He throws the human popsicle on his back and carries it to his ice cave to make it into a hearty soup. Another winter sprite is La Tinyosa, who appears as a mass of foggy cloud, descending over any children lost in her territory of the Montserrat mountains and the plains of Vic, and carrying them away.

England’s Wet Wildernesses

In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, from his lair in the fens. In the most characteristic tale of England’s past – though set in Denmark it is England’s story – the monster comes from the marsh. The poem itself was likely composed in the kingdom of East Anglia, whose greatest king, Rædwald, was probably interred in the ship mound of Sutton Hoo, and the East Angles knew well the dangers and glamours of marsh and sea.

Wicken Fen

Think on the map of Britain. There’s probably no outline better known to us today, but it’s a modern creation. Britain, and more specifically England, used to cut a very different profile. The distinction between land and water was not nearly so clear, with vast areas occupying a liminal position between the two, sometimes dry, sometimes wet, according to tide and flood. Great bites into England’s body were made twice a day by the tide, seeping in to the salt marshes and bogs that covered the Fens, pushing the River Thames to half a kilometre wide in the London area, running upstream through Romney Marsh to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. Names bear witness to this past, with areas, often far inland, being called islands and only habitual use deadening us to the strangeness of the title: the Isle of Thanet at Kent’s south-eastern edge, the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Wicken Fen

Perhaps nowhere is the strangeness of this historic landscape more marked than on the Isle of Thanet. Now firmly part of the mainland, the Wantsum Channel, a tidal watercourse fed by the River Stour, separated the isle from Kent. As the most easterly part of Kent, and with the security of the Wantsum Channel, the Isle of Thanet was the perfect stepping stone for invaders, and they employed it, again and again and again. First, the Romans – Julius Caesar used it as a base in his abortive invasions of 55 and 54 BC – then the Anglo-Saxons, with the legendary Hengist and Horsa being given the isle and liking it so much they decided they wanted the rest of the country too – and, finally, the Vikings: the Wantsum Channel provided safe harbour from fierce Channel storms, and the Northmen first experimented with overwintering in a secure base on the isle before using the tactic to conquer most of England. But the Wantsum Channel, once two miles wide, slowly silted up, although Thanet is still clearly shown as an island in maps into the 15th century. But the slow deposition of silt and the indefatigable drainage work of Augustinian monks sealed the island’s fate, and the last ferry sailed across the narrow strait in 1755. The Isle of Thanet was an island in name only and the Wantsum Channel a drainage ditch: an ignoble end for a piece of history.

The Isle of Thanet’s fate encapsulates much of the difficulties faced by England’s wetland wildernesses. They’re mainly on the east, and when boats were more reliable forms of transport than roads, they became highways for traders and raiders. New ideas and technologies spread easily from the Low Countries to the Low Counties, with Dutch engineers imported in the 17th and 18th centuries to lead the push to drain the flatlands. They were still too wild and too dangerous to be allowed to continue, wet worlds where Parliament’s writ held no sway.

Charles Kingsley saw their end:

A certain sadness is pardonable to one who watches the destruction of a grand natural phenomenon, even though its destruction bring blessings to the human race. Reason and conscience tell us, that it is right and good that the Great Fen should have become, instead of a waste and howling wilderness, a garden of the Lord, where

‘All the land in flowery squares,
Beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind,
Smells of the coming summer.’

And yet the fancy may linger, without blame, over the shining meres, the golden reed-beds, the countless water-fowl, the strange and gaudy insects, the wild nature, the mystery, the majesty–for mystery and majesty there were–which haunted the deep fens for many a hundred years.

White Dwarf and Warhammer Visions

Apologies in advance for the supremely geekie nature of this post, but it’s a lament for a lost magazine and this generation’s denigration of the written word over images.

Warhammer 40k
Warhammer 40k

For many years, Games Workshop (the company that produces Warhammer and Warhammer 40k games) published the magazine White Dwarf – the monthly fix for people who like to paint little plastic figures and then fight battles with them using insanely complex rules. As part of the gaming experience, Games Workshop also developed the universes these wargames inhabited, employing some extraordinarily talented writers to do so (Dan Abnett, Justin Hill, Ian Watson). Every month, White Dwarf contained the new releases, interviews and features about the worlds of Warhammer and 40k, and a battle report, an in detail look at a battle with lots of background information opening up on to the wider fictional universes. And I loved it – I just loved it. I didn’t play the games much – the rules and gameplay are too lengthy and complex for the time I have available – but I became quite immersed in the shared universe the company and its writers and game designers had created. I used to look forward each month to White Dwarf arriving through the post (I even subscribed, that’s how much I looked forward to it).

Image source: Bell of Lost Souls
Image source: Bell of Lost Souls

And then, they stopped it. Without any warning, Games Workshop stopped sending me White Dwarf, and they replaced it with Warhammer Visions, a handsomely produced, thick small mag/large book, full of gloriously reproduced photos of wondrously painted Warhammer and 40k figures. At first, I leafed through it in amazement. And then I looked through it again, looking for the writing. There’s nothing there. Well, not quite nothing, but where before you’d get a thousand-word feature, now there’s a paragraph. One paragraph. The battle report has become pages of beautiful photos and about four paragraphs.

Damn it, what’s with people today? Doesn’t anyone read any more? Are you all just staring into some little screen (which will turn you blind before you’re old, you mark my words!). Come on, Games Workshop. Give us our words back, give me my worlds back! I have an imagination – I don’t need your pictures, I can make my own, if you just give me the words to trigger them.

This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a word but a picture.

Our Lady of Mercé

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé
Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?