In Which The Farrells Go To Ratlinghope To Visit Shropshire’s Last Sin Eater

Okay. Hands up those of you who know about sin eaters. I certainly had not registered their existence despite having read Mary Webb’s Shropshire novel Precious Bane (1924) which includes a sin-eating scene. It was coming across an article by  environmental scientist, Harriet Carty, (also Shropshire based) that alerted me. She was describing the work of the non-religious charity Caring For God’s Acre which has set itself the task of recording Britain’s churchyard flora. I read it back in March when we were in Pembrokeshire and it prompted me to do a post featuring the fine show of lichen in St. Bride’s graveyard. Helen Carty’s article also mentioned the grave of the last sin eater, one Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 and is buried in St. Margaret’s churchyard, Ratlinghope (pronounced Ratchup), up in the Shropshire hills between the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones.

What could be more curious and curiosity-inducing than the grave of a sin eater. Clearly an expedition was called for. Ratlinghope is only twenty miles or so from Wenlock, and so last Thursday, after doing the shopping in Church Stretton and with the weather set fair, we headed for the hills.

That Ratlinghope is an out-of-the-way place is an understatement. The lane from the busy Shrewsbury-Ludlow highway at Leebotwood is mostly single track, and wends up and over the northerly spur of the Long Mynd. If you stop and look behind you, all of the Shropshire and Cheshire Plains spread out below you. On Thursday, though, it was rather hazy, but you’ll get the general idea.

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Now for sin eaters. The first thing to know is that the sin-eating custom that once featured at funerals appears to be both ancient and confined mostly to the Shropshire, Hereford and Welsh Marches region. In the extract below, Mary Webb, suggests the sin eaters could be wise men, exorcists, or poor people somehow outcast by misfortune. At a burial, the last meal of the corpse – usually bread and ale – would be passed over the coffin for the sin eater to eat. Through this act, he took on the sins of the deceased thereby ensuring that the departing spirit went in peace. In latter times, it is said, the poor took on the role willingly in order to have a decent meal.

But this was not the case for Richard Munslow of Ratlinghope. He came from generations of respectable farming folk and had his own farm at nearby Upper Darnford where he employed at least two labourers. He also enjoyed the sheep grazing rights on the Long Mynd. The style of his memorial certainly indicates a man of substance.  He in fact revived the sin eating custom of his own volition. It is thought that he was inspired to do this through personal loss and an elevated sense of compassion. The gravestone also provides the clue. In 1862 Richard and Ann Munslow lost their first child George aged 11 weeks. Then in the first week of May 1870 they lost all three of their children to scarlet fever. Later, though, there were two daughters who did outlive them. Richard died in 1906 aged 73. Ann lived on until 1913.

The little church itself has its origins some time before 1209 when an Augustinian cell for a prior and seven brethren was established at Ratlinghope. It was an outpost of Wigmore Abbey in north Herefordshire. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued life as the parish church. There are few signs of the original building beyond the foundations, and the church you see to day is the product of successive rounds of renovation. The oak front door, though, has the date 1625 carved on it – a gift of the then church wardens. It is a peaceful place for the last sin eater to take his rest, even if there was no one to perform like offices on his behalf.

Next: sin-eating as described in Precious Bane.

Mary Webb was born at Leighton, near Much Wenlock in 1881, and spent her teen years in the town. She also knew the communities of the South Shropshire Hills and was well versed in their folklore and local vernaculars. It is probable she was familiar with the sin eating of Richard Munslow, hence the passage in Precious Bane, though she gives the performing of the rite her own narrative twist.

I’m posting the whole extract here, not only because it paints a picture of past Shropshire life, but because it includes some fine writing by this often under-valued author. The novel is set in the early 1800s and the narrator is young Prue Sarn, a sensitive and good-hearted farmer’s daughter, who believes no one will ever marry her because of her hare lip. Her older brother, Gideon, is a hard-nosed go-getter who thinks only of making money. At this point in the story Prue’s father has just died.

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It was a still, dewy summer night when we buried Father. In our time there was still a custom round about Sarn to bury people at night. In our family it had been done for hundreds of years. I was busy all day decking the waggon with yew and the white flowering laurel, that has such a heavy, sweet smell. I pulled all the white roses and a tuthree pinks that were in blow, and made up with daisies out of the hay grass. While I pulled them, I thought how angered Father would have been to see me there, trampling it, and I could scarcely help looking round now and again to see if he was coming.

After we’d milked, Gideon went for the beasts, and I put black streamers round their necks, and tied yew boughs to their horns. It had to be done carefully, for they were the Longhorn breed, and if you angered them, they’d hike you to death in a minute. The miller was one bearer, and Mister Callard, of Callard’s Dingle, who farmed all the land between Sarn and Plash, was another. Then there were our two uncles from beyond the mountains. Gideon, being chief mourner, had a tall hat with black streamers and black gloves and a twisted black stick with streamers on it.

They took a long while getting the coffin out, for the doors were very narrow and it was a big, heavy coffin. It had always been the same at all the Sarn funerals, yet nobody ever seemed to think of making the doors bigger. Sexton went first with his hat off and a great torch in his hand. Then came the cart, with Miller’s lad and another to lead the beasts. The waggon was mounded up with leaves and branches, and they all said it was a credit to me. But I could only mind how poor Father was used to tell me to take away all those nasty weeds out of the house. And now we were taking him away, jolting over the stones, from the place where he was maister.

I was all of a puzzle with it. It did seem so unkind, and disrespectful as well, leaving the poor soul all by his lonesome at the other end of the mere. I was glad it was sweet June weather, and not dark. We were bound to go the long way round, the other being only a foot road. When we were come out of the fold-yard, past the mixen, and were in the road, we took our places—Gideon behind the coffin by him- self, then Mother and me in our black poke bonnets and shawls, with Prayer Books and branches of rosemary in our hands. Uncles and Miller and Mister Callard came next, all with torches and boughs of rosemary.

It was a good road, and smoother than most—the road to Lullingford. Parson used to say it was made by folk who lived in the days when the Redeemer lived. Romans, the name was. They could make roads right well, whatever their name was. It went along above the water, close by the lake; and as we walked solemnly onwards, I looked into the water and saw us there. It was a dim picture, for the only light there was came from the waning, clouded moon, and from the torches. But you could see, in the dark water, something stirring, and gleams and flashes, and when the moon came clear we had our shapes, like the shadows of fish gliding in the deep. There was a great heap of black, that was the waggon, and the oxen were like clouds moving far down, and the torches were flung into the water as if we wanted to dout them.

All the time, as we went, we could hear the bells ringing the corpse home. They sounded very strange over the water in the waste of night, and the echoes sounded yet stranger. Once a white owl came by, like a blown feather for lightness and softness. Mother said it was Father’s spirit looking for its body. There was no sound but the bells and the creaking of the wheels, till Parson’s pony, grazing in the glebe, saw the dim shapes of the oxen a long way off, and whinnied, not knowing, I suppose, but what they were ponies too, and being glad to think, in the lonesome- ness of the night, of others like herself nearby.

At last the creaking stopped at the lych-gate. They took out the coffin, resting it on trestles, and in the midst of the heavy breathing of the bearers came the promising words— “I am the resurrection and the life.” They were like quiet rain after drought. Only I began to wonder, how should we come again in the resurrection? Should we come clear, or dim, like in the water? Would Father come in a fit of anger, as he’d died, or as a little boy running to Grandma with a bunch of primmyroses? Would Mother smile the same smile, or would she have found a light in the dark passage? Should I still be fast in a body I’d no mind for, or would they give us leave to weave ourselves bodies to our own liking out of the spinnings of our souls?

The coffin was moved to another trestle, by the graveside, and a white cloth put over it. Our best tablecloth, it was. On the cloth stood the big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine. It was the only thing Mother could provide, and it was by good fortune that she had plenty of it, enough for the funeral feast and all, since there had been such a power of elderberries the year afore. It looked strange in the doubtful moonlight, standing there on the coffin, when we were used to see it on the table, with the colour of the Christmas Brand reflected in it.

Parson came forrard and took it up, saying— “I drink to the peace of him that’s gone.” Then everybody came in turn, and drank good health to Father’s spirit. At the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them. Then Sexton stepped forrard and said— “Be there a Sin Eater?” And Mother cried out— “Alas no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.”

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying—I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the byways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place.

Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.

So Gideon said— “We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?” But Mother cried and moaned all night after. And when the Sexton said “Be there a Sin Eater?” she cried again very pitifully, because Father had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him, and besides, he had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good. So she thought he had great need of a Sin Eater, and she would not be comforted. Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said— “There is a Sin Eater.”

“Who then? I see none,” said Sexton.

“I ool be the Sin Eater.” He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

“Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?” he said.

“No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!”

“What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.”

“No, no! Leave un go free, Gideon! Let un rest, poor soul! You be in life and young, but he’m cold and helpless, in the power of Satan. He went with all his sins upon him, in his boots, poor soul! If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.”

“And you’ll give me the farm, Mother?” “

Yes, yes, my dear! What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.” Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up. Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said—

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud. But when Gideon said, “Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,” I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser. Now it was time to throw the rosemary into the grave. Then they lowered the coffin in, and all threw their burning torches down upon it, and douted them.

The full Hathi Trust novel text is HERE

 

 

She Knows Where She’s Going ~ Thursday’s Special

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We’ve just returned for a two-day trip to Hay-on-Wye, the second hand book capital of Great Britain, if not the universe. This ancient, tiny town stands on the banks of the mighty River Wye, on the Welsh side of the Wales-England border and, astonishingly for so small a settlement, has 23 book shops. Some are small and specialist – catering for poetry  enthusiasts, natural historians and sleuthers of good murder mysteries; others are labyrinthine emporia, the size of college libraries – where all topics are covered. Many sell new books too and also, since the advent of the famous annual Hay Literary Festival, have upped their game from being the fusty, dusty places I remember from years ago, and transformed themselves into smart bookish resorts where you can curl up in a big leather armchair and spend the whole day reading. Richard Booth’s Bookshop even has its own cinema and very popular cafe. Treats all round then.

This photo was taken through the window of Mostly Maps and I think it covers all Paula’s word prompts for her December pick a word. Here we have the portrayal of a young woman by a non-human mannequin. She has the most sagacious looks too, clad in the re-worked remains of old ordnance survey maps. There are more remains reflected behind her – the dark silhouette of Hay Castle ruins. And then, here and there, are small stellar bursts from street and Christmas lights. Tarrah!

Now please visit Paula to see her and other bloggers’ cunning interpretations:

Thursday’s Special: pick a word in December

P.S. There will doubtless be more about Hay and our meanderings along the Wye in upcoming posts

Our Very Own Treasure ~ Wenlock Books

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Aren’t we lucky to still have our own independent bookshop when across Britain such places are sadly becoming a thing of the past. So here it is, Wenlock Books, a landmark on the High Street, and housed in a wonderfully restored 14th century building. Its owner, Anna Dreda, is passionate about book selling, and has nurtured it and us for over twenty years, creating a haven for book lovers of all ages, from infants upwards. Downstairs the shelves are brimming with crisply published new books, while upstairs you can sit in cosy corners surrounded by ancient timbers and read the pre-owned and antiquarian books. Or if you are nosy like me, you can look out of the window on to the street below and surreptitiously see what Wenlock’s citizens are getting up to.

Also when you pop into Wenlock Books for a good browse, don’t be surprised if you are offered a cup of tea, or invited to join one of the reading groups that meet around the big upstairs table. The most recent book on the go in the Slow Reading Group has been George Eliot’s Middlemarch wherein those taking part, week by week discuss a single chapter over coffee and biscuits. The next slow read starts in September with Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. That month too there will be the Children’s Book Launch,  starting with local writer, Sarah Griffiths, who will be reading  her book Douglas’s Trousers  to 2-8 year olds.

It will not surprise you, then, to learn that the bookshop has won national awards. Anna was also the founding force behind the hugely successful Wenlock Poetry Festival which over several years has hosted poets of international standing, and has Britain’s former Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy as its patron. (You can what poetry lovers get up to in the town HERE.)

This year the festival has taken a break. Anna also has been very unwell, but I’m glad to say, she tells us that she is feeling very much better.

So all best wishes, Anna, for your continuing good recovery.

In the meantime, if you go to the Wenlock Books link, you can meet Anna in a splendid 3 minute video. You can also have a snoop inside the bookshop and see just why it and its owner are so very much loved and appreciated by all of us.

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past

In Book Heaven At Scarthin Books

And no, the place isn’t haunted by the ghosts of bibliophiles past, at least I didn’t meet any while I was there. That’s me caught accidentally in the mirror, and with a daftly blissful look that reminds me of the Bisto Kid adverts wherein lads do much paradisal sniffing of delicious aromas. And of course books have their own parfum – from  well used and hypnotically musty to freshly pressed. So why would I not be looking happy in Scarthin Books? This well known Derbyshire emporium has 100,000 thousand volumes, old and new – spread over three floors (often literally) and stacked up to the rafters in 13 rooms.

The bookshop was once voted the 6th best in the world and, in  the forty odd years since it began, it has become a landmark and institution in the small Peak District village of Cromford. And if that name rings a bell, then it is the place where in 1771 Richard Arkwright built his cotton mill, thereby bringing us the factory system and all that went (still comes) with it. But please overlook that bit of unsavoury orientation. Overbearing capitalism is not the atmosphere one finds in the bookshop. Far from it. You can tell that, can’t you – even before you set foot inside.

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In fact, once in there, it’s as if time has stopped, despite the ticking of the clock. There is nothing you need do; no schedule to keep; no quota to fill or target to reach. It’s more like stepping into Looking Glass Land then.

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Do I know this man?

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Books, books and more books on every conceivable topic. You could spend days and years here. And the good thing is there’s no need to leave because they feed you too – delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes, produced from behind a bookshelf in what passes for a kitchen.

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And if the bookish experience becomes too overwhelming, you can take the air with the sunflowers up in the roof garden. What an utterly sound establishment.

And in case you are wondering which books tempted me, I bought Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead: A Writer On Writing, which I am yet to read, but made its presence felt from a nearby bookshelf while I was eating the delicious carrot soup, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which so completely entranced me that, once home, I set about tracking down everything Jean Rhys had written, and so mislaid the Atwood. Fortunately, writing this post has reminded me to locate both books, so I can re-read one and make a start on the other.

The places then – both physical and metaphorical – where words take us, including the disgracefully dusty bookcase under the bedroom window. So thank you Ailsa for this week’s prompt at Where’s My Backpack. Please follow the link below to see her ‘words’ challenge photos.

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This post is for my good friend Kate who is also a devotee of Scarthin Books.

Now please watch the video which will tell you more about the bookshop, how it began and the people who love it.

Where’s My Backpack: WORDS

New Edition on the way ~ Mau Mau Brother

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It’s always a thrill, nerve-wracking too, when the book proofs arrive. But then with this new Sharp Shades edition of Mau Mau Brother  there was no need for qualms. Ransom’s Art Director, Stephen Rickard, has done my story proud, both in the final edit, and the inclusion of some moody grey-scale images.

The story that was 6,000 words in the original Shades series has been chopped in half, but spread  over the same 64-page format to become a Sharp Shades edition. And it works. And I’ll repeat that for the benefit of any writers who are reading this, and who are a touch sensitive about heavy editing: three thousand words from my tightly written 6,000-word story (you can see an extract  of the original HERE) have been expunged, and the end result is great.

I’d better explain.

When I am not growing cauliflowers, making leaf mould and generally hanging about on WordPress, one of the very important things I do is write short fiction for teens who are striving to build a reading habit.

Back in the spring, Ransom, who publish these works, suggested that my latest title, Mau Mau Brother,  would make a good Sharp Shades edition if I was prepared to cut it by half. As I wrote in a post back in April HERE, I was doubtful that I could, but I said I would try. In the event, I found myself stuck at around 3,400 words and Ransom asked me to hand it back for some more pruning; they would let me see the finished text for my approval, they said.

A few days ago they did just that, and I am really pleased with the end result. They are great people to work with.

Not only that, Ransom Publishing are specialists in the production of accessible fiction and nonfiction for struggling readers of all ages. Their strap-line is ‘UNLOCKING LITERACY’. For those of us who can read and write fluently, it is hard to imagine not having these skills.  But if you can’t read well, you are effectively disenfranchised as a functioning member of the community. Locked out in every sense.

The Shades series includes some 60 titles written by many well known and seasoned children’s writers. The titles are aimed at young adults with an interest level of  12 years +, but a reading ability of 9-10 years. Many young people are also daunted by the size of a book, while still wanting ‘the excitement of a great story told with pace and style. ‘ At 64 pages, the books are compact, easy to handle. The cover images are striking, edgy, and with all the style of quality mainstream fiction. In other words, they may be small, but they don’t look  ‘less’.

Inside, the story is presented novel-style, in chapters, but with plenty of white space on the page.  To cater for the less able reader, the Sharp Shades editions have half the number of words of a Shades title, far fewer words per page, are set in a larger font and have added illustrations.

Personally, I think the books in both Shades series are appealing to any reader of any ability. They make for handy quick-reads that fit in most pockets. And just because they are aimed at people who struggle with their reading, doesn’t mean the stories are either simple or simplistic. They embrace themes that matter to all of us: love, hate, fear, injustice, belonging, relationships, families, overcoming threats and hardship. So I’m not going to say any more about Mau Mau Brother. The blurb on the back of the book pretty much covers it. Thank you, Steve Rickard.

 

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Related:

Killing Words ~ a case of verbal decomposing?

Losing Kui – an extract

 

@ransombooks  #RansomPublishing

@Literacy_Trust  #NationalLiteracyTrust

Killing words ~ a case of verbal decomposing?

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It’s all my publisher’s fault that I haven’t been writing so much on my blog. He, the lovely Creative Director of Ransom Publishing published my quick teen read Mau Mau Brother  in their Shades 2.0 series last summer. As with most of my stories, there are many earlier versions. The Ransom Shades edition is aimed at teens with a reading age of around 10 years. Its 6,000 words have been arranged into 11 chapters spread over 64 pages. The purpose of this kind of presentation is to keep an unkeen reader reading, and so give them the satisfaction of finishing a book.  And so yes – maybe they will then want to read another. ( I do have other titles in the series).

The story, though undauntingly presented on the page, tells of challenging times during the 1950s Kenya Emergency.  The narrator is 15 year old Thuo, and his story is one of personal conflict. His hero elder brother, once a British Army sergeant who fought in Burma, has gone to the forest to join the Land and Freedom Army. These are the men and women fighters whom the Europeans dub Mau Mau; their sworn aim is to drive the British from their land.

As the terrifying events unfold, Thuo finds himself hating his own brother: surely it is Kungu who is the root cause of all his family’s terrible troubles. But at the heart of Thuo’s hatred is another fear – that he, Thuo, is a coward. Only when the forest comes for him, does he find out what kind of man he truly is.

In this excerpt Thuo tells how he helps the wounded Kungu out of the fortified village-camp where Thuo’s family have been forced to live under the British Emergency regime. The village is surrounded by barbed wire and a deep ditch set with bamboo spikes. Kungu is now a wanted man and must escape back to the forest.

I haul Kungu from the hut. He half-walks, half-leans as we creep past our neighbours’ huts, across the compound to the ditch.

Behind us comes Mugo with a broom, ready to back off fast and sweep away  our footprints. Kungu flinches as I help him slide into the ditch.

Watch out for the stakes! Mugo throws me his sheepskin. I’m carrying a gourd of gruel in a sling, holding a branch to wipe away our footprints on the other side. I slither into the ditch behind Kungu. We edge between the spikes.

It takes a lifetime.

At last I push him up the far side. Then he pulls me up. Then it’s through the wire, our sheepskins saving us from the worst barbs.

Beyond the wire, a zone of bare earth surrounds the whole village. It is swept before the night curfew and checked  for footprints at dawn. We shuffle backwards. I hold Kungu with one arm, while brushing away our tracks with the other.

The sweat runs down my face like tears. Any second I think the watchtower searchlight will find us. The brushing takes precious times, but if our tracks are found in the morning the whole village will be beaten, or worse.

When at last we reach some cover Kungu stops dead. I am stunned when he hugs me.

“Go back, Thuo. God go with you. You have proved your courage. I was wrong to taunt you.”

I stand in the darkness, the wire, the ditch, the village-camp all behind me. I think of my mother and the promise I am breaking. I think of my father, maybe dead in Manyani detention camp.

I think of my real home that the Home Guards set on fire. But mostly I smell my brother, the unwashed forest warrior who is fighting for my freedom.

Again I make my choice.

And now to the reason for the lack of writing in recent blog posts. A few weeks ago Ransom suggested I might write a new version of Mau Mau Brotherthis for their Sharp Shades series that caters for teens with a reading age of 8-9 years. The books will still have 64 pages, but half the number of words, plus some B & W illustrations.

Half the words – 3,000 instead of 6,000; 250-300 words per chapter. Heavens, that’s tight.

Yet the interesting thing is how much I’ve been enjoying killing off my words. I’ve done for about 1,200 so far, this in a story where I thought I’d already pared it right to the bone. And there’s a lesson here for all writers. Being pinned down to a tight word count can be good for your prose. Of course in this case, it’s not only about self-editing and the removal of all superfluous words. The original text had already been well edited. Now it’s more about re-composing the original into a shorter form.

At every point I must ask myself how I can convey meaning in the most vivid, yet briefest form, tackle the body with a forensic eye. Later, I will need to restore rhythm and check for any lost meaning.

And I’ve still a long way to go. There is also the lurking doubt that I won’t be able to do it without killing off the story completely. But then that’s a challenge too. Time, then, to get back to the bone-trimming and resuscitation department.

 

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

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For ePub version

For book and Kindle versions:

Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.com

Nook ebook

Kui’s 5-star review on Amazon Kindle

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Cover: Kathleen Collins Howell

There’s nothing like a good review for recharging flagging  creative spirits, and believe me, they do flag. So I was more than delighted to receive this one for my novella Losing Kui. Many thanks bjg.

You can read the opening chapters on an earlier post HERE

Available on Amazon and also on ePub Bud for Nook, iPod/iPhone

Flickr Comments ‘K’ words

 

Jennifer Jones comes to Wenlock

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It’s hard to imagine, but in 1949 Hollywood descended on my little home town of Much Wenlock. Both its locations and inhabitants featured in David O. Selznick’s screen version of Mary Webb’s 1917 novel, Gone to Earth. The film’s star, Oscar-winner Jennifer Jones, certainly looks the part, and in this respect she well conjures the book’s central character, the untamed but doomed spirit that is Shropshire lass, Hazel Woodus.

As an American, Jones of course had to receive specialist drilling in the Shropshire dialect, a form of speech which these days is scarcely heard, but would have been the norm during Webb’s childhood. She writes it very clearly in the book’s dialogue, and Jones makes a good stab at it, but it perhaps sounds overdone to modern ears. People in England do not speak like this any more.

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Mary Webb herself spent her adolescence in Much Wenlock, and for the rest of her too-short life lived in various parts of rural Shropshire. She knew country ways intimately. Her writing is rooted always in the landscapes of her own growing up – the upland wilds and rugged long-gone lead-mining and peasant farming communities, the small market towns. But although she observes the hardship and poverty with a keen eye, she has tended to be dismissed as a writer of the romantic and rustic, her work parodied in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.

In her day, though, she had some very well known literary admirers  including Rebecca West  and John Buchan (Thirty-Nine Steps). I think her novels deserve a rediscovery. Her themes are still relevant today: male attitudes to women being one of them; human cruelty and wilful destructiveness for another.

In Gone to Earth, the central character, Hazel Woodus, is eighteen, motherless, and living in an isolated cottage with her coffin-making, bee-keeping father, Abel. Her only companion is a tame fox, Foxy, and her only guidance in life is dubiously received from her dead mother’s book of gypsy spells.

Two men want her: the Baptist Minister who marries her and tries to protect what he sees as her innocent spirit, and the fox-hunting landowner who wants only bodily possession. Hazel herself is torn between respectable conformity and her growing sexual awareness. And if I tell you that the term ‘gone to earth’ is the huntsman’s cry when a fox goes underground to escape the hounds, you will know that the story does not end well.

In other senses the book’s plot may be purely allegorical. Above all, it is about the pointless destruction of natural beauty and freedom. Webb was writing it at a time when three of her younger brothers were fighting in the World War 1 trenches.

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Much Wenlock 1949 in outside and inside the medieval Guildhall: scenes from Gone to Earth, director Michael Powell

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The making of the film did not run altogether smoothly, and there are perhaps some parallels between Hazel as an object of male possession and control , and the position of the film’s star, Jennifer Jones. She had had an affair with the executive producer, David O. Selznik, and by 1949 they were married. He wanted Gone to Earth to be solely a showcase for her, and he did not think the film’s makers, the fabulous storytelling team of director Michael Powell, and screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger, (The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) had done her justice. He even took them to court for not producing what was in the script. He lost the case, but he still had the right to make an alternative version.

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The upshot was that for the 1952 American release, renamed The Wild Heart , he chopped all the scenes that did not make the most of Jones, had new scenes shot, and to make sense of the makeover added a commentary by Joseph Cotton. The film was not well received, and so did not serve his purpose.  Only recently has the original Powell and Pressburger version been fully restored.

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In the film clip below you will see, not Much Wenlock, but a location some miles across Wenlock Edge. Here are the beautiful hills of South Shropshire, in particular the Stiperstones with its bleak outcrop known as the Devil’s Chair. This is where Hazel goes at night in expectation of guidance from one of her mother’s superstitious rites. This silly, girlish act, and mistaken reading of events will have tragic consequences.

 

Hazel goes to the Devil’s Chair

 

For more on Mary Webb:

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“This year’s discovery has been Mary Webb, author of Gone to Earth. She is a genius, and I shouldn’t mind wagering that she is going to be the most distinguished writer of our generation.”

— Rebecca West, review of Gone to Earth in the Times Literary Supplement, August 30, 1917

 

Mary Webb: neglected genius for the synopsis of Gone to Earth and also for details of her other works.

 

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Early Edition: Mau Mau Brother

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An exciting little parcel arrived last week – copies of my latest quick-read for teens (or even for adults) in Ransom’s Shades 2.0 series. It’s a small, neat book. Pocket sized. As per the Shades’ format, it is a novelised short story, the text broken down into brief chapters, the whole designed for readers who find bigger books, and dense text too daunting to tackle. The pages have much white space, and the story’s 5,000 words are spread over 64 pages, which of course makes it easier for anyone to read. The aim is to build reading muscles and so (hopefully) nurture a love of books.

But if the books are small-scale, there is nothing ‘slight’ about their content. Their themes are of adult interest too. As a writer I can think of no bigger challenge than to woo readers who would probably rather not read. It unavoidably demands your crispest most affecting prose.

I knew, too, that historical fiction can be off-putting to many teen boys. In Mau Mau Brother, then,  I used first person, present-tense narrative to make events more immediate. The story tells of the 1950s uprising against British rule in Kenya as seen through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Thuo. This perspective on what happened is not widely known outside Kenya; the British authorities deliberately destroyed many records.  But for Thuo there many kinds of war – not only with the British, but also with the African Home Guard, and even with his own freedom fighter brother whom he blames for all his troubles. But in the end, the biggest war he  has to fight is with himself.

And now for an extract:

The British are bombing Kenya’s highland forests to flush out the freedom fighters. Thuo and his family have been driven off their farms and made to live under curfew in a fortified village. Their every move is ruled by the African Home Guard. Then one night Thuo’s elder brother, Kungu,  a seasoned fighter, finds his way to Thuo’s hut. He is wounded, and sick, and  Thuo is faced with the starkest choice – to inform on his brother, or risk detention and death to help him.

 

After the plane goes, Njonjo whispers that he’s overheard the Home Guards talking.

‘They know Kungu is near,’ he hisses. ‘Tomorrow the British soldiers will sweep this part of the Reserve.’

That night we sit in our hut ,weighed down with fear, expecting the worst. I am stunned when Kungu says, ‘I must leave now.’

‘But how?’ I cry.

This time I am more scared for him than for me. His brow glows with sweat. He still cannot walk properly.

‘The way I came, through the barbed wire.’

‘But the ditch. The stakes.’

‘I will roll down. Crawl out. Like a cockroach. Have no fear, little brother.’

‘But where will you go?’

‘A cave I know. I once shared it with a she-leopard.’

I shiver. A window on hell has just swung wide. I see the big cat’s yellow eyes, the white fangs. Then I see the falling bombs, hear elephants screaming, the rifles’ crack-crack, feel the breath of a pseudo-gangster on my neck.

The words fly from my mouth before I can stop them. But, once said, I cannot take them back.

‘I’m coming too.’

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

When Henry James came to Wenlock

“If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don’t for the world fail to go.”

Henry Adams in a letter to Henry James 1877

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This is the house where Henry James stayed  on his visits to Much Wenlock in 1877, 1878 and 1882. At the time it was known as The  Abbey, but  once it was the Abbot’s House, and part of a great medieval Cluniac priory whose ruins stand beside it. Only the house, and the town’s parish church survived Henry VIII’s great monastic dissolving campaign of 1540.

I’ve recently read, too, that the Dissolution did in fact involve actual structural ‘dissolving’. The first thing King Henry’s agents did in their bid to disempower the clergy and seize their estates was to rip the lead off the monastery roofs. The wear and tear of English weather then did the rest. Since Wenlock Priory was once one of the most imposingly large religious houses in all Europe, you can well see how efficiently the elements did their work.

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The adjacent small town of Much Wenlock town dates from at least from Saxon times when St. Milburga, daughter of a Mercian king, founded the first religious house here. She was Abbess of Wenlock  between 675-690 AD. The later priory was the work of the invading Normans, who liked to use looming architecture to cow the natives into submission. The monks were brought in from France, but it wasn’t  until end of the 12th century when Bishop Odo, a former Cluniac monk, published his account of the discovery of St.Milburga’s bones (he describes them as “beautiful and luminous”)  that this great house acquired the kind of saintly cachet that ensured serious pilgrim-appeal, and thus brought much prosperity to the town.

After the Dissolution, however, pragmatism ruled, and much of the fallen priory masonry was used to build or expand the town’s homes and businesses. Thereafter, Much Wenlock’s success was based on providing a small but busy mercantile and manufacturing centre for the local agricultural and quarrying community. It even had two Members of Parliament.

But back to  Henry James (1843-1916). What on earth had brought this widely travelled writer to the little town of Much Wenlock? And not once, but three times.

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In fact it was only the urging of a friend, Harvard history professor, Henry Brooke Adams, that brought James here at all on that first visit in 1877. He hardly knew his hosts, Charles and Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell. Charles Milnes Gaskell, rich barrister and landowner, was a close friend of Adams, and it was Adams who indirectly secured the invitation for Henry James. He knew that James would love the Abbey. Hence the exhortation: “If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don’t for the world fail to go.”

And so, further enticed by “a gracious note from Lady Catherine Gaskell” and armed with a copy of Murray’s Handbook of Shropshire, Cheshire and Lancashire, Henry James left London for deepest Shropshire, travelling by train to Much Wenlock. The details of how he spent his time on his  five-day visit appear in a travel sketch called Abbeys and Castles, later published as part of Portraits of Places (1883).

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At the station (now private houses) he was met by the Gaskell’s coachman, Crawley, driven into the town, passing in sight of Holy Trinity Church (today without the spire shown in the Frith photo). Here they  turned left into the Bull Ring… 

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passing Priory Cottage on the left…

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…the turning right into the Abbey’s winding drive…

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…with the priory ruins on the left.

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The carriage would then have swung hard  into the open courtyard of the Abbey, and this would have been Henry James’ first view of his destination. Well-travelled as he was, I think he would have been astonished.

Adams’ certainty that his friend would love the place was spot on. In Portraits and Places (p278)  Henry James says:

“It is not too much to say that after spending twenty four hours in a house that is six hundred years old, you seem yourself to have lived in it for six hundred years. You seem to have hollowed the flags with your tread, and to have polished the oak with your touch. You walk along the little stone gallery where the monks used to pace, looking out of the gothic window places at their beautiful church, and you pause at the big round, rugged doorway that now admits you to the drawing room. The massive step by which you ascend to the threshold is a trifle crooked, as it should be; the lintels are cracked and worn by a myriad-fingered years…it seems wonderfully old and queer. Then you turn into the drawing room, where you find modern conversation and late publications and the prospect of dinner. The new life and the old have melted together; there is no dividing-line.”

In letters James admits to being rather  in love with Lady Catherine, whom he describes as a perfect English rose. She was only twenty years old at the time, and expecting her first child. She apparently put garden flowers in his room and made sure he had plenty of writing paper and pens. But when it came to entertainment, this was down to Charles Gaskell. Despite the rainy weather, he and James appear to have yomped all over the district looking at stately homes and other ruins. They also took the train to extend their excursions to Stokesay Castle and Ludlow. Henry James was clearly enchanted. Of Much Wenlock and its setting he says:

“There is a noiseless little railway running through the valley, and there is an ancient little town lying at the abbey-gates – a town, indeed, with no great din of vehicles, but with goodly brick houses, with a dozen ‘publics’, with tidy, whitewashed cottages, and with little girls…bobbing curtsies in the street. But even now, if one had wound one’s way into the valley by the railroad, it would be rather a surprise to find a small ornamental cathedral in a spot on the whole so natural and pastoral. How impressive then must the beautiful church  have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside, and its bells made the stillness sensible.”

Things have changed of course, although we still have a fair few ‘publics’ for so small a town – five in fact. But there are no longer little girls who curtsey to gentleman, and sadly no railway, which means instead we do now have the inevitable din of vehicles..

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An interesting aside to the Henry James’ Shropshire travelogue is that he is said to have been working on his disturbing ghost story The Turn of the Screw while staying at the Abbey. He certainly had the supernatural on his mind during that first visit.

“…there is of course a ghost – a gray friar who is seen in the dusky hours at the end of passages. Sometimes the servants see him; they afterwards go surreptitiously to sleep in the village. Then, when you take your chamber-candle and go wandering bedward by a short cut through empty rooms, you are conscious of a peculiar sentiment toward the gray friar which you hardly know whether to interpret as a hope or a reluctance.”  (Portraits of Places)

And this does rather remind me of a passage in The Turn of the Screw  where the governess narrator describes how her young charge, Flora, takes her on a guided tour through the rambling old mansion at Bly:

“Young as she was, I was struck, throughout our little tour, with her confidence and courage with the way, in empty chambers and dull corridors, on crooked staircases that made me pause and even on the summit of an old machicolated square tower that made me dizzy.”

But then Henry James seems to have made a life’s career of ‘staying’ in, or visiting large country houses. All the same, I like the idea of his brewing this grim tale in Wenlock. Certainly from across the old monastery parkland, the Abbey does have a more brooding and sinister air. And now I’ve sown that notion, I’ll leave you with some more views of undissolved monastic relicts:

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References:

Cynthia Gamble John Ruskin, Henry James and the Shropshire Lads New European Publications Ltd 2008

Vivien Bellamy  A History of Much Wenlock Shropshire Books 2001

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell