Thursday, 23 May 2019

Goodbye, Judith Kerr

My twitter feed today was full of tributes to Judith Kerr, author of the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, as well as her autobiography When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As a child, she was part of a family that fled Germany to come to England just before the Second World War.
She has just died, aged 95.
Last year, she was a speaker at Hay Festival.
I first came across the Mog books when I lived in London in the 1980s, with a teacher friend who videoed children's programmes at home to use with her class. One of them was Mog, and I thought it was delightful.
The picture books still sell well, because Mog is such a lovely character. And the last story, Goodbye Mog, has been known to make grown adults cry.

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Saint Tackles Council Corruption and an Arabian Coup

I enjoyed The Saint Plays With Fire, so I've been watching a few more episodes from late 1963 and early 1964.

The Well-Meaning Mayor starts with a local election, and deals with council corruption in an English seaside town - a new civic centre is being built, and somebody is making a lot of profit from it. Some of the episode was shot on location on a real building site, and it amused me that the entrance to the site had a big sign up saying "New Civic Centre" in case the viewer was in any doubt.
The idea of a council overspending on a building project struck me as being quite topical.

And then there's The Wonderful War, set in a fictional Arab country next-door to Kuwait with every Middle Eastern cliché going. There's a wicked prime minister who organises a coup once oil is found in the country, a young prince who escapes and gets the help of the Saint - and it seems that the Saint can speak fluent Arabic now. He gives a rabble rousing speech in support of the prince, dressed in Arab robes. Oh, and the Arab soldiers are about as good shots as Star Wars Imperial stormtroopers. There's even a hilariously bad sword fight, which is about at the same standard as Richard Greene's Robin Hood. Modern fight choreography is in a totally different league.
The Saint is assisted in his plot to regain the prince's throne by the wonderful Noel Purcell, as an Irish oil man, a pretty girl (daughter of another oil man who has been murdered) and a middle-aged Scottish lady who lives in Kuwait.
There's a feast with a belly dancer, where the Saint is offered a sheep's eyeball to eat. And all the Arab characters are, of course, played by white English actors. The nearest they get to an Arab is Ishaq Bux, who played "Arab (uncredited)" and was actually Indian.
The belly dancer, however, was a real princess - Princess Soraya Esfandiary, the second wife of the Shah of Persia!

Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Saint Plays With Fire

I fancied something vintage to watch last night, and so picked up the next DVD in my pile of The Saint episodes.
The beginning was a bit of a shock, to be honest - The Saint was observing a Fascist rally in Trafalgar Square, with some stock footage of protesters struggling against a cordon of police. I don't know who they really were, but in the story they were anti-fascists trying to get to the podium where the leader of the British Nazi Party was speaking.
A punch up ensued.
The Saint observes to camera how much he hates Nazis, and that it's only 20 years after the end of the Second World War and here they are again.
He's then drawn into an adventure involving files stolen from the British Nazi HQ, detailing the rich donors to the party. This information is passed to a journalist who is going to write a magazine article about it. The whole premise of the story is that, if the magazine article is published, this will be the end of the British Nazi Party, and will totally discredit all the donors. They will, therefore, stop at nothing to prevent the journalist from writing his story, while trying to get the information back from wherever it's hidden.
And the Saint finds out how difficult it is to burn through his bonds with a cigarette lighter held by the beautiful girl he's been imprisoned in a cellar with.

If only today's Fascists could be defeated with a well-placed magazine article....

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Memories of Freddie Starr

I wasn't a great fan of Freddie Starr's comedy, but I was sorry to hear of his death at his home in Spain the other day.
It reminded me of an incident in my childhood....

When I was young, we had a caravan in Blackpool, and in the summer holidays we would always go to a big show at one of the Blackpool theatres. This particular year, top of the bill were the Batchelors, Con, Dec and John, and somewhere near the bottom of the bill, just starting out, was a young comic called Freddie Starr.
At the interval, mum took us round to the stage door to see if anyone would come out to give autographs. Con came out, and as he did so a woman stepped right in front of my little sister, who would have been about seven years old, to ask for his autograph. Con neatly swerved round the woman, signed my sister's autograph book, and headed straight on to the bar.
We stood around, hoping that someone else would come out, and Freddie Starr chose that moment to walk past the stage door on the inside. They were double doors with a round window near the top like a port hole. Seeing us, he stopped, and pressed his nose against the glass, and made faces at us to make us laugh.
He didn't have to do that - he could have just walked on.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Jack Cohen, Biologist and SF Fan

I was sorry to hear of the death of Jack Cohen this week.

Back in the 1980s I saw him speak at a couple of Star Trek conventions. Some of this was about his work as a biologist. There were some - interesting - slides of a very strange variety of sexual organs.... Also, he talked about the sexual life of tribbles. I remember him setting the audience some problems that confounded us, and which I still sometimes use if I want to appear cleverer than I really am!
I remember him being very enthusiastic and happy to talk to SF fans at a time when there was a perception that serious scientists didn't do that.
He was also a consultant to SF TV shows and novelists, including Anne McCaffrey and James White, Harry Harrison and David Gerrold.
And then there was the collaboration between Jack Cohen, Ian Stewart (another scientist) and Terry Pratchett, resulting in the spin off series from the Discworld universe The Science of Discworld. There was a talk about this at LonCon 2014, with a picture of Jack and Ian receiving their honorary degrees from the Unseen University!

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Black History in Manchester- Henry Box Brown

I've recently discovered the website "I Love Manchester", and alongside the current news about what's on around Manchester, they are running a series of posts about Manchester history.
Some time ago I got interested in trying to find out about black people living in the UK throughout history, but I wasn't able to find out very much about Manchester - until now.
#16 of the series The Story of Manchester in 101 Objects is about the campaign to abolish slavery.
As Cottonopolis, Manchester imported vast amounts of cotton from the Southern States of the USA - cotton that was picked by slaves. But towards the end of the 18thC, the case for the abolition of slavery began to be made, and Thomas Clarkson came to speak at what is now Manchester Cathedral (then just the parish church) in 1787, to make the case for the end of slavery. A huge crowd attended his speech, including a group of 40 or 50 black people standing near the pulpit.
So in 1787 there were at least 40 or 50 black people living in Manchester.
The talk led to abolition societies being set up in Manchester, and when William Wilberforce was collecting signatures for a petition to present to Parliament on the subject 10,639 signatures were collected in Manchester, which was the largest single petition. Sadly, it was lost in the fire in Parliament in 1834.
In 1792, there was a boycott of West Indies sugar to protest about slavery.
One former slave settled in Manchester. He escaped his owners in Virginia in 1849 by posting himself in a box to a group of abolitionists in Philadelphia, and was thus known as Henry "Box" Brown. For a while, he became an abolitionist speaker in the US, but in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and Henry was worried about his safety, so he travelled to Liverpool. He toured with an anti-slavery panorama, becoming a showman and magician.
Back in the US, Henry had escaped his master after he had refused to buy Henry's wife and children when they were put up for sale. In England, he married again, to Jane, a Cornish tin miner's daughter, and later toured the US as a performer with his new family.
While in England, he settled in Manchester. In 1871 the Census shows him living in Cheetham with his wife and a servant.
Finally he returned to the States, some time after the Civil War was over, and died in Toronto in 1897. He wrote an autobiography - Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself - the first edition in Boston in 1849 and a later, revised edition, in Manchester in 1851.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Chewbacca has Died - Goodbye Peter Mayhew

Farewell to Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca from 1976 to 2017. He was 74.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Stonehenge World Heritage Site Under Threat

I went to Stonehenge many years ago, on a coach trip, when access to the stones was via a grim little underpass from a bleak car park. The stones themselves were great (though I preferred Avebury, where you could wander around the stones, and which we visited on the same trip).
When I go back to Stonehenge, as I intend to do one of these days, I want to see the new visitor centre, and I want to see the stones as part of the amazing landscape that I've learned about over the last few years. It's far more than just Stonehenge - the archaeology extends over the whole Plain, linking many different sites, and it's a unique picture of prehistoric communities coming together in a place that was special to them.

And, of course, the government wants to put a road through it.

There's a road there already, of course, the A303 - originally built when nobody was terribly interested in archaeology and what it could tell us about the past.
The plan is to widen the A303, and put a 2.9km tunnel under the Stonehenge area. This will not just be a tunnel - it'll be the slope down to it at both ends, and it's planned to be a four-lane Expressway with deep cuttings and junctions.
It will cause great damage to the surroundings of Stonehenge, and the site will probably lose its World Heritage status.

There's been a campaign to stop this from happening for some time now, but it's important to keep reminding the powers that be that the road scheme is opposed.
There is a website at
They also have a Facebook page and are on Twitter at @savestonehenge

The Stonehenge Alliance is supported by Ancient Sacred Landscape Network (ASLaN) (you can see they chose the name just to get that acronym!), Campaign for Better Transport, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth and RESCUE: the British Archaeological Trust.

As a former archaeologist, I really have to support this campaign, or I'd have to hand in my trowel!

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Doreen Valiente's Witchcraft for Tomorrow

A friend lent me a copy of Witchcraft for Tomorrow by Doreen Valiente, one of the founders of modern Wicca.
I'd been aware of her name and her importance in the history of paganism in this country, but I'd never got round to reading anything she'd written before.
To start with, I was surprised to find she'd written the book in 1978 - I may have been mixing her up with Dion Fortune, but I thought her work was earlier than the 1970s. And in 1978 I was starting to do some research to find my own spiritual path - I would have lapped this book up if I'd found it then. Now I'm looking at it more as a historical text, since the tradition has evolved over the years.

Doreen Valiente knew Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca (who wrote a book called Witchcraft Today in the 1950s) - she calls him "old Gerald" throughout the book, and talks about the Museum of Witchcraft where he was the resident witch when it was on the Isle of Man.
It's quite a comprehensive beginners' guide to Wicca, talking about the eight festivals of the year, how to find a coven, and various rituals and how to perform them. I did like her sense of humour about the new books about witchcraft that were starting to come on the market at that time, supposedly written by people whose family had been witches for generations, and they'd learned the ancient rituals at the knee of their old granny - and Doreen took one look at the words of the ritual, and thought "I wrote that!"

She does throw all sorts of things into the pot when it comes to historical influences on Wicca, though, and some of them have been debunked since she was writing. She thought highly of Margaret Murray, for instance, and repeated the story of the Templars worshipping the demon Baphomet.
She talks about the Age of Aquarius, and Atlantis, and Aleister Crowley and the Order of the Golden Dawn. Then there's "Old George" Pickingill, a Victorian witch and teacher of witches, supposedly founding nine covens across the country. There's also a section about Tantric sex, so they were borrowing practices from all sorts of different traditions. There's even some archaeology.

The descriptions of the rituals are refreshingly down to earth. For instance, for candle-lit rituals she stresses the importance of placing the candles where they won't set fire to billowing robes (if the participants are not working sky-clad), and gives different options for where they should be placed "as long as there is sufficient light". In rituals where wine is drunk, she says it should be whichever wine the participants prefer.
At the end of the book is Doreen's own Book of Shadows, based on older material - she was also the owner of Gerald Gardner's own Book of Shadows.

Monday, 8 April 2019

When Three African Kings Met Queen Victoria

I came across a fascinating book in the Victorian History section of the shop where I work, about a little known State visit to Queen Victoria.
The book is King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen, by Neil Parsons.

In Southern Africa, Cecil Rhodes was increasing the territory under the control of his British South Africa Company.
In the 1880s and 90s, he was looking at the territories ruled by three dikgosi - kings or chiefs - in what was then known as Bechuanaland.
Dikgosi Khama III had worked closely with the British military during his reign - he ruled the Bamangwato people.
Dikgosi Bathoen ruled over the neighbouring Ngwaketse people, and Dikgosi Sebele I ruled over the Kwena people.
Together they agreed that they didn't want to be ruled by Cecil Rhodes - so in 1895 they decided to visit the Queen of England and put their case to her.
They were supported in this by the British army and local missionaries.
At first they were denied an audience, so they went on a tour of the British Isles to put their case to the British public. They gave speeches in chapels and at town meetings and gave interviews to newspapers, through interpreters, though Sebele and Bathoen spoke Dutch/Africaans as well as their own language of Setswana. There were even ballads written about them.
Eventually, they did meet with Queen Victoria privately. The result of the meeting was that their lands were put under the direct rule of the Crown, rather than the British South Africa Company, under the Chamberlain Settlement (Joseph Chamberlain was Secretary of State for the Colonies).
This agreement eventually led to the independence of the country of Botswana in 1966, and in 2005 a monument was put up to them in the capital of Botswana, Gaborone.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Vonda McIntyre has Died

I'd already read Dreamsnake by the time The Wrath of Khan came out, so I knew Vonda McIntyre was a good SF author. She won a Hugo award for Dreamsnake, only the third woman ever to win a Hugo for best novel. She wrote original Star Trek novels as well as film novelisations, and gave Sulu and Uhura their first names, which became canon - Hikaru and Nyota. I think I bought them all.
So her name is inextricably linked with my period of greatest Star Trek fandom, which I remember with great fondness, and I was sorry to hear that she was ill, a little while ago.
It seems that several writers I follow on Twitter remember her with fondness, too, and they have been relating what a welcoming figure she was when they were starting out, or when they met at Conventions, and she was also the "fairy godmother" of people who had attended the Clarion West writing workshops.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Goodbye, Scott Tracy

I've just heard that Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott Tracy, has died.
Shane Rimmer was a Canadian actor, who also appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me, with smaller parts in other James Bond films - he's believed to have appeared in more Bond films than any other actor apart from those in recurring roles.
He appeared in many films, including Star Wars, as a Rebel Fighter Technician!
In his long association with Supermarionation, not only did he provide the voice of Scott Tracy, but he also wrote scripts for Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Secret Service, as well as providing some of the uncredited voices. He also appeared in UFO and Space:1999.
He also appeared in Doctor Who's brush with the Wild West, The Gunfighters, and appeared in The Persuaders.
He was 89.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

More about Boscastle

I've got to go back - I only saw a fraction of what Boscastle has to offer.
When I got back to work, I found a guidebook to the area. It's by Jim Castling, and it's very comprehensive.
The map at the beginning of the book shows me that the pretty little river that flows through the village (the one that occasionally floods catastrophically) is the River Valency, and it's joined around the Wellington Hotel by the River Jordan.

The Wellington Hotel ran a daily coach and four service to Camelford Station until the beginning of the First World War, and famous visitors include Edward VII, Sir Henry Irving the actor, and Guy Gibson of the Dambusters.
Thomas Hardy stayed there when he was working as an architect (before he became a famous novelist) when he was working on refurbishing nearby St Juliot's church. and beside it was the Old Mill, which still has a (now only decorative) mill wheel.

I'd been looking around to see where the castle that gives its name to Boscastle was - and it's actually further up the Jordan valley, with a whole other part of the village that we never saw.
Even further up, on Forrabury Common, you can still see the medieval field system with the strips that were shared among the community. Each strip is about an acre in size, and the area covers 80 acres.
Forrabury Church is dedicated to the wonderfully named St Symphorian. Originally Norman, it was rebuilt in 1867, so there probably isn't much left to interest church-crawlers like myself.
There's also the Minster Church nearby, once the site of a medieval monastery.

The Cobweb pub, where we had lunch, was a warehouse up until 1947, for corn, coal, building materials and household items. The building itself dates back to the 17th century.
Boscastle Pottery, next door, used to be a bakery.
The Old Manor House pub we passed on the way to the Witchcraft Museum really was the old manor house, and amazingly there were once 18 pubs in the village!
The little National Trust bookshop, which we didn't have time to go in, further along, used to be a blacksmith's forge. The National Trust bought the entire harbour, right up to Forrabury Common, in 1955.

There's an old lime kiln by the Harbour restaurant. This was once the village hall, and the local cinema. The lime kiln wasn't the only industry in the village - another building, now called Seagulls, was a manganese mill, and then there were the "fish palaces" where fish were processed. There was even ship building along that stretch of river, and a service that carried passengers from Boscastle to Quebec and New York up until the 1850s!
In its heyday as a port, Boscastle handled up to 300 ships in a year, carrying anything from coal to wines and spirits into the port, and taking out cargos of slate and limestone from nearby quarries. This went on until the railway reached Camelford in 1893. The last cargo ship to come to Boscastle was the Francis Beddoe in 1916.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019


On the Sunday of the Pagan Conference, we all went down to Boscastle for the day. Boscastle is a small coastal village which is home to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, and they had agreed to let Conference goers into the museum free when we showed them our badges.
There are a lot of artefacts relating to the history of witchcraft, and information on famous witches of the past. One room is done out as a typical witch's cottage, with a tape on in the background talking about charms and spells. Upstairs is a case full of 'poppets' with pins in them - one sad case was a doll dressed as a nurse, with a nail through her belly, apparently made in 1941 by a nurse who had become pregnant, and who was hoping to cause a miscarriage.
Everywhere we looked there was something interesting, like the figure with a goats' head mask, holding a stang, (a sort of trident cum pitchfork) which was used in ritual magic.
It's a fascinating place, and we didn't really spend enough time there, because the Gloucestershire Pagans had booked lunch for 1pm at the nearby Cobweb pub, for 26 of us. The carvery was pretty good, and the pub itself was all flagged floors, low beams and local beer.
By the time we'd finished lunch the weather had worsened, but I was determined to get to the end of the harbour. I left my friends either sheltering in a gift shop or struggling along the path behind me, while I leaned into the wind, felt the hailstone coming in horizontally on my face, and danced along the path to the first harbour wall.
Up there, even I thought it was too windy to go any further, but I did take a photo to prove I'd been that far:

Back in the village, I treated myself to a yarn bowl from Roger the Potter at Boscastle Pottery. It's decorated in their unique mochaware style (with the use of a secret herb to make the tree like markings on the purple and green glaze). I've already used it to keep my ball of wool from rolling around the floor while I'm using my lucet.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Pagan Phoenix - Miranda Aldhouse-Green

I'd been looking forward to the last talk of the afternoon. Miranda Aldhouse-Green is Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University, and under the name Miranda Green she's written books about Celtic Gods and Goddesses. I've got the one on Celtic Goddesses, and it's very good.
The title of the talk was Silent Gods? Spirits and the Sacred in Roman Britain.
She began with what Roman people thought of Britain - and even in the 3rdC AD, when Roman Britain had roads and cities and villas and every aspect of civilised life, Roman writers were claiming that the island was a swampy forest full of half naked savages!

There have been some interesting finds recently, though, which give us more of an insight into Celtic religion of the time. She mentioned the Le Cottilon hoard in Jersey, for instance, a solid lump of coins, gold torcs and silver jewellery - which was probably not just buried as a sort of bank, for safe keeping, but had a religious meaning. One of the pieces in the collection was an antique even to the people who buried the treasure - a Bronze Age spear head.
She also mentioned a bronze figure which had been found at Culver Hole in Gower, which may have been a moon goddess.

Something really exciting turned up at Chartres in 2005, though - an underground Roman shrine which included four incense burners, one for each of the four directions. Here there's no doubt about the Celtic nature of the worship, because the incense burners are marked with the word "Dru", meaning druid.
There's a theory that the owner of the shrine was consciously re-creating a pre-Roman belief system which was no longer being used. Also, the druid priests of the past may have been converted, in this re-creation, from human priests into spirits which could be worshipped.

Then we got something to be passed round the audience - replicas of "spoons" which often turn up in a religious context. They have no handle as such, apart from a bit at the top of the spoon bowl to hold it, and they always come in pairs, one of which has a raised cross on the bowl and the other has a small hole, off centre. The idea is that these are tools for divination, by which some sort of powder is blown down a straw through the hole, making patterns on the other spoon with the cross, as they are held together.

The head has always been important in Celtic myth, so it was interesting to discover that when Boudica attacked the Temple of Claudius in Colchester, they cut off the head of the statue of Claudius which stood outside and threw it in the river!
At Uley, in Gloucestershire, there was a Temple to Mercury - and the head of the statue of Mercury was buried when the shrine became Christianised. The statues of Mercury in Britain tend to have horns on their heads rather than the more classical wings. Uley is also one of the places where curse tablets can be found - curses inscribed into lead, mostly invoking horrible fates on people who have stolen the curser's property.

Meanwhile at Lydney Temple there seems to have been a special association with dogs - several figurines have been found there. Lydney was the Temple of Nodens, a god of healing, and overlooked the River Severn where there was a good view of the Severn bore.

Roman towns were laid out in the same way across the Empire, and one of the reasons for this was to allow "perambulations" between the most important buildings, something that an important Roman would do regularly to see and be seen.

Then we were off to Hadrian's Wall, where Roman and Celtic gods were being worshipped together. For instance there's an altar to Jupiter (Best and Greatest) at Maryport fort on the Wall, which was the official altar of the legion, but on the back is a carving of a wheel, symbol of a Celtic god who was obviously important to the troops stationed there.
Also at Hadrian's Wall was a temple to a god unknown anywhere else, Antenociticus, who is presumed to be a local deity, but was important enough to the builder of the temple to have a life sized statue.

Even further north, at the Antonine Wall, there was a Temple of Mithras I hadn't heard about before. It also had a mask of Sol with cut out mouth (so the priest could speak through it) and cut out rays around the head, so a light source behind the mask would make it look much more impressive.

Going back to Boudica - there's a tombstone in Corinium/Cirencester to a woman called Bodicacia.

And finally (the talk had over run a little because of problems with the slides earlier) at Bewcastle Roman Fort, again on Hadrian's Wall, there are five altars dedicated to the Germanic god Cocidius, and one dedicated to an amalgam god, Mars Cocidius. The Romans saw nothing wrong or strange about mixing their gods together and creating something new.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Pagan Phoenix - Damh the Bard

Penstowe Manor asked people who wanted lunch to order it earlier in the morning, but even so the queue was slow-moving. We eventually shared a table with some of the group of Gloucestershire Pagans that my friend belongs to, which was very pleasant. Behind the table was a stall of stunningly good artwork - but I had already spent to my limit on CDs and songbooks of Damh the Bard's music.

He was the next speaker, on Y Mabinogi - the Four Branches: their History and the Bardic Mysteries.
I'd been looking forward to this, being reasonably familiar with the Mabinogion since I first read the Evangeline Walton series The Islands of the Mighty. They were published as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy range in the early 1970s and I came across them a little while after that.

The talk began with a quotation from Rowland Williams:
"For thee of English birth
But British heart
Our bardic harp neglected and unstrung
Moved to the soul
And at thy touch there start
Old harmonies to life
Our ancient tongue opens
Its buried treasure to impart"

Damh the Bard has been working on his version of the myths of the Four Branches, and two CDs were available on his stall. He starts with the tales of Pwll and Annwn, Rhiannon, and Bran.
The theme of the day, harking back to Andy Letcher that morning, seemed to be the tension between Mythos and Logos - the experience and the writing down. The tales of the Mabinogion were written down by Christian monks, but they are older and stranger, and very much part of an oral tradition.
They were almost forgotten in Wales, until Lady Charlotte Guest translated them into English, starting with the King Arthur stories. She married John Guest, of Dowlais ironworks near Merthyr Tydfil, in the early 19th century and, being an accomplished linguist, taught herself Welsh. It is thanks to her that the stories became known again.

Damh said that the stories could be divided into two parts - the stories of the family of Llyr, and the stories of the family of Don. The stories of Llyr are all associated with the sea, and tend to be emotional, while the stories of Don are associated with the land, and are earthy and practical - and both sets of stories show what happens when the characters make terrible mistakes!

The story of Blodeuedd, for instance, the Woman of Flowers, has Gwydion creating a bride for Llew Llaw Gyffes (who has been cursed by his mother Arianrhod to never have a human wife), without thinking of the consequences. She falls in love with another man, and plots to kill her husband - and is eventually turned into an owl as punishment. There is a standing stone in North Wales, Llech Ronw, near Blaenau Ffestiniog, which is associated with the legend - the hole in it supposedly shows the passage of the spear which kills Gronw, as revenge for trying to kill Llew. Another, modern stone stands on the bank of the River Dovey. This one was carved for the 1969 TV series The Owl Service, Alan Garner's re-telling of the myth.

Another important part of the stories is how closely they are tied into real places in Wales. You can go to the place where Llew and Blodeuedd lived, and visit valleys and hills that are mentioned in the tales.

There's a lot, too, about transformation - Blodeuedd is made from flowers; Gwydion himself is transformed into a series of animals, along with his brother Gilfaethwy, as punishment for the rape of King Math's foot-holder Goewin. They spend a year each as a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves, producing a fawn, a piglet and a cub, before they are restored to human form by Math. Llew Llaw Gyffes, after the attempt on his life, is transformed into an eagle, until Gwydion tracks him down and restores him to human form.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Pagan Phoenix - Carolyn Hillyer

After the coffee break, and opportunity for retail therapy, Carolyn Hillyer took the stage.

Where Andy Letcher's talk had been quite chatty and informal, this was more of a studied performance. She began by saying that she had been waiting impatiently to get old enough to write her new book, Book of Hag - Travels towards Ancientness! She performed fragments of the book, including a folk tale style story about an old woman and bear, which was very funny when they came to discuss what sort of folk tale the old woman was in. Was it, perhaps, one in which she and the bear had sex and created a race of half human half bears? The bear replied that this would be unlikely, since the bear was also female.
Later, she even got the audience chanting in Proto-Celtic to the beat of a drum.
It was a performance to experience, rather than take notes about.

In the evening, she provided the musical entertainment, but by that time we were all too tired (and the rain was too horizontal) for any of us to want to climb back up the hill from the chalet.

According to the programme, she lives at a farm on Dartmoor, where she's built a Neolithic-style round house, and is known as a musician, drum maker and writer.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Pagan Phoenix - The English Magic Tarot

The venue for the Conference was at the back of the main building, through Stately Wayne Manor. The room has a bar area as you come in, with a sunken area in the middle with seating facing a stage, and two levels at the far end. Stalls selling all sorts of wonderful stuff were ranged round the sides of the hall. There were pyrography boxes and wands and jewellery and books and CDs and knitted goods and spell packs. Near the door was a big loaf sculpted into the shape of a phoenix, and made by one of the people at the Conference, who is a baker. There was also a table with prizes for a raffle, to raise money for two young people who are going to Kenya to do volunteer work soon. The raffle raised over £300 for them.

The proceedings opened with an Isis prayer, in Ancient Egyptian and English, and the first speaker was Andy Letcher, who wrote the book to go with the English Magic Tarot deck. In fact, he is immortalised as The Fool in the deck. The artist is Rex van Ryn, who has also been a student of Tarot for many years. He used to be a comic artist on 2000AD, so the pictures have that comic art look, with clean lines and a simple colour palette created by Steve Dooley. They just happen to be neighbours of Andy's in Devon.
The method he used to create the deck was interesting. He would meditate on a single card each morning, for about twenty minutes, and then he would sketch whatever came to mind. Which meant that, when Andy Letcher came to write the book, he had to rationalise why there were squirrels on one card, or why hares kept coming up in others. The style of the cards is consistently set in the period from the Reformation to the Restoration in English history, a hey day of English magic.
He also revives a Renaissance technique (used in the TV series Sherlock) of the memory palace, where magicians memorised things by imagining a building and placing images in certain places within it - he said it was also a way of looking at the cards differently so the reader could see different things within them.

I did write down the name of the artist who illustrated the traditional Rider-Waite pack, - she was Pamela Colwell-Smith, a member of the Golden Dawn who also illustrated actors in the days before photography was common - so she was good at showing people in action (in this case, the actors playing their parts).
The illustrator of the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot deck was another woman, Lady Freda Harris, and she had to incorporate some very precise imagery for each card.
However, Andy Letcher said that all sorts of things could be used to do a reading - including a jar full of buttons!

He also talked about meeting his hero Kit Williams, when a public footpath led him across the artist's garden. He was responsible for Masquerade, the picture book that gave clues to the whereabouts of a golden hare. The hare is now owned by some multi-national company, but they did bring it out to put it on display recently, so he got to see it up close ("the big guy lurking in the background of the photo was the security guard").

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Pagan Phoenix Fiendish Quiz

I've just come back from a Pagan Conference in Cornwall, which was a fascinating weekend. We all had a great time (apart from the poor lady who couldn't face a night in the Very Cold Chalet with the Inadequate Heaters).
We were staying at Penstowe Manor Holiday Camp - they hadn't quite opened yet for the season, so we were the first people there.
The old Manor House itself is at the top of the hillside, once owned by the Grenville family (there were banners up around the bar). We took to calling it Stately Wayne Manor. A village of chalets of various types is scattered down the hill. Here's the back of ours, in the middle of the picture:

I've never been on a holiday camp holiday before, so I was surprised at how spacious the chalet was - there were 4 of us sharing a chalet that slept 6 (plus a sofa bed), so there were three bedrooms, bathroom, small kitchen, and a big open room with a dining table at one end and sofas at the other, with a picture window that looked out onto a hedge.
Beyond the hedge, this was in the distance:

It took all day to get there - I set out on the college bus from Hay at about 7am, and got to Stroud by about 11am, where I met the rest of the party, and we drove the rest of the way through mostly appalling weather and, when we got to Cornwall, fog. Through the fog, wind turbines loomed.

But we did get there in plenty of time for the Fiendish Quiz in the evening.
Quiz teams were supposed to be five people, but one potential member wandered off to sit with friends across the bar, and another was eating her dinner, so it ended up with the Herne's Hunters team only having two active members. I think we did quite well to get 14 points, especially as some of the questions really were fiendishly hard.
There was a picture round which was Name the Pagan Artist! By that time we were reduced to writing things like "Alistair Crowley's girlfriend?" and we didn't get any points for having seen one of the paintings in real life (MacGregor Mathers, which is in the Atlantic Bookshop near the British Museum, painted by his wife). There was also a difficult music round - but I was very pleased to get the Pink Floyd album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, for bonus points!
The Mad March Hares won the quiz with 27 points.

The friend who had invited us is one of the Gloucestershire contingent of Pagans, and we spent the rest of the evening very pleasantly in their company, before we crawled away to bed.
We discovered later that Damh the Bard had been singing in the bar after we left, which we were sorry to miss. He was one of the speakers at the conference the next day, so this was very impromptu

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Andrew Preview

Sorry to hear that Andre Previn, the classical musician, has died.
Here he is in one of the greatest moments of Morecambe and Wise:

All the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order....

Thursday, 21 February 2019

One of the Champions

I learned today that Richard Barrett was the former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6. He was giving his opinion on the case of Shamima Begum.
So that's what he did when he left Nemesis!

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Too Many Targets - Avengers from Big Finish

This is the British, 1960s, Avengers, of course, not the more famous Marvel Avengers. Big Finish don't only do audio adventures for Doctor Who - they've branched out into other cult TV shows as well.
It's a great temptation, because of the Doctor Who link to Big Finish, to think of this story as Steed with all of his Companions. The story is set at the time when Steed is paired with Tara King, played by Emily Woodward, but gradually brings in all the other people he's worked with up to that time.
It took me a while to get used to Julian Wadham as Steed - after all, Patrick Macnee had such a distinctive voice, but as they said in the actor interviews which are also on the CD, the characterisation is all there in the script. They'd got the way Steed talked exactly right. It's also quite nice that Christopher Benjamin, who plays Mother, also appeared in several episodes of the original series.
Cathy Gale gets involved because of a rogue killer gorilla in Surrey, and Beth Chalmers does have a voice very like Honor Blackman's. All the actresses involved said it was great fun doing the period RP accents!
Mrs Peel (Olivia Poulet) is now running Knight Industries, which also seems to be involved in the case, and Dr David Keel (Anthony Howell) gets involved when a colleague of his gets kidnapped.
There's a glorious scene with the constantly frustrated KGB agent who is Steed's Russian counterpart(voiced by Dan Starkey, sounding very much like Warren Mitchell, who originally played the part).
The script is based on a novel that came out in 1990, written as a homage to the series by John Peel and Dave Rogers, and it really captures the witty banter and bizarre situations of the original series.
I loved it!

Monday, 14 January 2019

Visiting The Long Earth

I've just been reading The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, which was very good.
The premise is that there are a multitude of alternate Earths to either side of our Earth, with the important difference that none of these other Earths have any humans in them, and now people have discovered how to visit those other worlds by means of a simple device called a Stepper.
Some people wander the worlds, others head out in groups like the old Wild West wagon trains.
The book mentions a problem also talked about by Charles Stross, in his Merchant Princes series - secure places are no longer secure when you can Step one world over, walk to the middle of the place you want to get into (for instance Fort Knox) and Step back into this world, right into the bank vault. Though in Charles Stross's books only particular families have the ability to step between worlds, and all the worlds are inhabited.
I started thinking about what I would want to see if I could Step to another Earth - and came to the conclusion that there would be nothing much out there that I would want to visit. It would be interesting, of course, to see the Wye Valley in its primal glory, filled with ancient woodland. But when I go out into the wilds, I'm looking for the signs of ancient habitation, the stones and banks that show that people have lived in that landscape before - and in the Long Earth there is no archaeology, because there have never been people.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Rider Haggard's 'She'

I downloaded this classic adventure tale from Project Gutenberg the other day - in the story I'm writing my characters are visiting the lost city of Kor, and I wanted to see how Rider Haggard had originally described it. This was great fun, discovering the ruined city inside the crater of a volcano, with lots of interesting caverns to discover as Ayesha led Leo down to the Flame of Immortality.
And then they came to an abyss, which was crossed by a narrow plank - and I stopped and thought "Where on Earth did the plank come from?"
I'm pretty sure the locals weren't building their homes with planks, though descriptions are somewhat sketchy as Rider Haggard's characters are not much interested in native huts. And it's a Lost City - they weren't trading with anyone anywhere else.
It's just one of those little world-building touches that I think Rider Haggard didn't even consider, so he just put in something familiar to his readers (and himself).

Thursday, 3 January 2019

A Room Full of Stars

I'm feeling rather pleased with myself. I've just spent the evening building my own Constellation Projector, including wiring a switch for the first time in my life.
It looks something like this one, from the Science Museum - mine was made for The Works:

When I switched it on for the first time, and turned out the main light, all that time fiddling with tiny screws and double-sided sticky tape was totally worthwhile! I was standing in the middle of a cloud of stars, and it was magical!
Something like this:

I'm heading for bed now with a mug of cocoa, so I can play with the settings - it's supposed to be able to show which constellations are overhead for any month of the year, and by the hour.
My own personal galaxy!