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Friday, 25 May 2012

Books on The Pendle Witches - 400 years ago this year

I parked in a car park opposite this pub, The Golden Lion, a few weeks ago on the way to the shops in Lancaster. As I passed it I remembered that this was the spot where the famous Pendle witches stopped for a last drink before being taken to Gallows Hill to be executed.

I stopped to read the two plaques that are on the wall. The scroll gives the passer-by a little information, and the brass plaque is like a memorial and lists the names of those who were executed.

The year was 1612, exactly 400 years ago - a turbulent time in England's history, an era of religious persecution and superstition, under the reign of James I. At the foot of Pendle Hill, (later the inspiration to George Fox's Quaker Movement) nine villagers were accused of witchcraft following the deaths of several people in and around the Forest of Pendle, and they were later sent to trial at Lancaster Castle, where they were found guilty and then executed.

In both my books, The Lady's Slipper and The Gilded Lily, the shadow of witchcraft hangs over the women of Netherbarrow in Westmorland. In The Lady's Slipper Alice Ibbotson spends time in Lancaster Castle accused of witchcraft, just as the Pendle witches did, and in The Gilded Lily, Sadie Appleby is terrified of being accused of being a witch because of a birthmark on her face.

In the 17th century witchcraft was blamed for anything that could not be rationally explained, and the fact that James I was obsessed with finding witches did little to help the causes of those people, mostly women, who were accused.This extract showing how people were afraid of witchcraft is from the excellent Pendle Witches website, where there is a wealth of information on the women themselves and on the trials and executions.

"During the sixteenth century whole districts in some parts of Lancashire seemed contaminated with the presence of witches; men and beasts were supposed to languish under their charm, and the delusion which preyed alike on the learned and the vulgar did not allow any family to suppose that they were beyond the reach of the witch's power.

Was the family visited by sickness? It was believed to be the work of an invisible agency, which in secret wasted an image made in clay before the fire, or crumbled its various parts into dust.

Did the cattle sicken and die? The witch and the wizard were the authors of the calamity.Did the yeast refuse to ferment, either in the bread or the beer? It was the consequence of a 'bad wish'.

Did the butter refuse to come? The 'familiar' was in the churn.

Did the ship founder at sea? The gale or hurricane was blown by the lungless hag who had scarcely sufficient breath to cool her own pottage.

Did the river Ribble overflow its banks? The floods descended from the congregated sisterhood at Malkin Tower.

The blight of the season, which consigned the crops of the farmer to destruction, was the saliva of the enchantress, or distillations from the blear-eyed dame who flew by night over the field on mischief bent."
From History of Lancaster 1867 - Thomas Baines.

If you are interested in reading a novel about the Pendle witches then I can recommend Robert Neill's "Mist over Pendle". A nice review of it is over at What Kate's Reading.

Alternatively you might try "Daughters of the Witching Hill". You can read an interview with Mary Sharratt here about her process of writing.

Events to commemorate the Pendle Witches are happening throughout the year of 2012.
Those listed below are just a few. More information from Lancashire Witches 4000

"Sabbat" at the Dukes and Hoghton Tower
Witches Art Trails through the Forest of Bowland
`A Witch-Themed Murder Mystery` at Lancaster Castle
The Crucible by Arthur Miller at Lancaster Priory
Exhibition by Joe Hesketh – The Pendle Investigation, The Dukes
Lecture - Fair Trial or a Foul Bill - The Legal Significance of the Lancashire Witch Trials, Lancaster Priory
Service - In Solidarity with Victims of Persecution and Hate Crime, Lancaster Priory
Exhibition: Spellbound: Superstition, stories and the silver screen
Exhibition: A Wonderfull Discoverie: Lancashire Witches 1612-2012
Witches and Guy Fawkes Festival
Lancashire Witches Guided Walks around Lancaster City
Guided tours of Lancaster Castle.
A multimedia exhibition spanning time and place: “Witch Hunts, then and now”


Sunday, 13 May 2012

Spinning -The Roots of the Language of Writing

The language of story is peppered with references to the craft of spinning. We 'spin a yarn', and 'weave' a tale. The art of 'fabric'ation has very deep roots as one of the earliest forms of creation.

Spindles and spinning are also built into our mythology and folklore. Who can forget childhood tales of Rumplestiltskin or Sleeping Beauty? Plato says the axis of the universe is like the shaft of a spindle with the milky way as the whorl of wool in his Republic. In Greek mythology, Arachne challenges the goddess Minerva to a spinning and weaving contest and when she fails she is turned into a spider. Theseus follows a thread out of the Labyrinth. The three Fates, or Norns, spin, measure and cut the threads of life. The art of spinning is also identified with nature's spinner, the spider, and her web. Most of us writers use the web every day, without thinking much about its roots.

Before the spinning wheel, to make yarn, wool or plant fibre was twisted or spun by hand onto a stick or distaff and then wound onto a second stick or dropspindle. The act of turning the fibres bonded them together into a continuous thread. (Have you ever lost the thread of your story?) The female side of the family used to be called the "distaff" side of the family, the spinning of flax on a distaff being a female occupation.
Warterhouse - La Fileuse

Thus, the dropspindle was 'the primary spinning tool used to spin all the threads for clothing and fabrics from Egyptian mummy wrappings to tapestries, and even the ropes and sails for ships, for almost 9000 years.' (

In order to increase the spin, a whorl was added. The spindle, or rod, usually had a raised lip to hold the whorl. A wisp of prepared wool was twisted around the spindle, which was then spun and allowed to drop. They are amongst the most common Medieval finds, as the process of spinning was the most common occupation. The majority of whorls were made from stone or recycled pot but some were carved from wood or cast out of lead.

It was a natural evolution that spinners invented a way of speeding up the process - the spinning wheel. However, no one knows who invented the first one, but it probably originated in India between 500 and 1000 A.D. It is said that the hand spinners in India were able to spin almost half a million yards of yarn from a single pound of cotton (Hochberg), a fine quality that machines until recently were unable to do. 

In the  past spinning was mostly done by women.The resulting thread was woven by men onto looms to produce cloth. Hand loom weavers were men because of the strength needed to batten the cloth. Many superstitions abound about winding thread - for example fishermen's wives would not wind wool after sundown, for if they did they would soon be making their husband's winding sheets.(Dictionary of Superstitions).

By the13th century spinning wheels appeared in Europe, putting an end to handspun thread, and in 1764, a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves invented a hand-powered multiple spinning machine that was the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel, ending the 'homespun' era for good and paving the way for modern machine produced goods.

Like Theseus, when writing  I often feel I am following my own thread out of the maze of the plot, and after writing a book, I often think of  editing as 'tidying up loose ends' and 'winding it up' neatly, both expressions which have probably originated in our lost spinning culture.

I can recommend this book, Women's Work, for those who want to know more about spinning and weaving in early history.

Want to try metal detecting to find some spindle whorls of your own?

Interesting You Tube video on spindle whorls

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The History Room by Eliza Graham

I am delighted to welcome Eliza Graham today,  to talk about her new novel, The History Room.

Hello Eliza, nice to have you here. Letchford, the private school in The History Room feels very genuine. Did you base the school on any particular place?

My children are at schools that sometimes play matches against various other schools in the South that look pretty amazing: acres of grounds, beautiful old buildings.Some of the pupils are pretty slick and amazing-looking, as well. It's easy to think that everything must be perfect. But of course, teenagers are teenagers wherever they are. I certainly had an idea of what the school looked like and it was fun building the world in my imagination.
I was interested in how you parallelled the effects of the past, particularly war, on two different generations. The repercussions of the injury to Meredith's husband and his rehabilitation must have been difficult to write. How did you go about tackling this subject?

We live quite near Wootton Bassett, to where repatriation of dead service personnel used to take place until recently. Every time I saw one of those big Globemasters overhead I'd feel a sense of dread and wonder who was waiting for a lost son or husband or father. I spent some time watching documentaries about how emergency medical transfers are operated between Camp Bastion and England to get the contemporary details right (I sincerely hope). Very sadly it seemed that almost every week there were details of casualties in the newspapers and it wasn't hard to learn about the work institutions such as Headley Court in Surrey, the rehabilitation centre, offer. It was tragic to read about the effects on relationships of injuries in warfare. But some of the stories of service personnel who'd survived appalling injuries were inspirational, too.
How did you research the Czechoslovakian wartime history? Were any of the events based on real incidents?

I read biographies to try and get a real sense of the tragic history of Czechoslovakia from 1938 and through the Soviet occupation and there were stories I came across that were similar to the one I tried to portray of young people deciding they couldn't bear to stay on in their own country once the Soviets smashed the Prague Spring. The escape stories were quite gripping in many cases. It must have such a hard decision to make: to leave your home or stay on.
Emily is a very dark character and pivotal to the plot. Please give us an insight into how her character developed. 

Although she is dark she was actually really interesting to write, which sounds awful. But most of the other characters are more or less decent people, or aspiring to be so. So writing about someone who has no scruples was rather a release. I wanted to play a rather unpleasant stunt involving a very lifelike 'Reborn' doll and I needed someone who could do unpleasant things and was exploitative, preying on younger girls.
On a more serious note, I have read quite a lot about adolescent girls who cut themselves. I found it hard to understand at first but the more I read about it the more I wanted to know. So Emily was quite intriguing for me and I enjoyed writing her parts of the novel.

Thanks very much, Eliza. 
Check out Eliza's other novels, Playing with the Moon, Restitution, and Jubilee 

Review of The History Room
This is a novel where nearly everyone has a secret past, and their past impacts on the present to create a plot that gradually unfolds for the reader. The plot begins with a prank at a private school, which shocks the pupils and staff. In trying to find the culprit, Meredith Cordingley, a teacher at the school, must delve into the motives of her pupils and into her family's past. In doing so she discovers her father, the headmaster, is not the man she thought he was, and that the repercussions of war still haunt him. Not only must she contend with family secrets, but Emily, a teaching assistant at the school has an axe to grind, and will stop at nothing to get revenge for events of the past. Chilling and mysterious, this is a book I can highly recommend. 

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Why is my Kindle Library so unappealing?

Like many other bookaholics I have bought a Kindle and have quite a few books on there waiting to be read. They are historical fiction books that were offered free for a limited time, other books I thought at the time I could not wait to read, and books about my craft of writing. I intend to get around to reading them all, or I wouldn't have downloaded them.

So why haven't I?

The answer is, there is an equally large To-Be-Read pile sitting on my bookcase. These are paperback books. More often than not, if I want a book I will go to this pile, rather than the Kindle. This is because I am in fact browsing again for my choice of book, and in this browsing process of what to read next, the cover and the blurb  makes a big impact on my choice all over again.

Seeing a typed list of which clothes to wear in the morning is not the same as looking at them hanging in the wardrobe.

So very often it is a book from the paperback pile that I will choose, and the Kindle books stay unread unless I am going on a long-haul flight. After all, most of my reading is done at home, and when I am packing to go on a short trip, my choosing is done at home.

This lack of appeal on the device makes no difference to the publishers - after all they have already made their sale. But it does make a difference to writers. If someone buys a paper book, there is a good chance it will be read - or recycled via a charity or thrift shop to someone who will read it. On the kindle, a book can get lost in a list for a long time, and as it takes up little space, may never be read.

The World Book Night Books I gave away

When I gave out books for World Book Day, they were all physical books. A physical book jogs the memory - hey, I'm here! So I like to think many of them will be read, even though I gave them away free. I collected them from Arnside Library where a big part of the Library experience is browsing. I cannot imagine a library where I just read titles.

Arnside Library 
As a writer, I want to be read, rather than just stored on a machine, so it seems to be that the more sensory data there is with a book, the more likely it is to be read. I like to browse my books, so the sooner the Kindle can come up with this browsing function, complete with colour cover image and graphics, the better.

What do others think? Have you many books sitting unread on the Kindle?