To woodcock (verb)

Posted: September 30, 2017 in language, Life, Music
Tags: , , , , ,

Earlier this week Ian (bf) and I went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in concert at Nottingham Ice Arena. Cave has long been one of my favourite songwriters, and it was an awesome concert.

But before it began we had a lengthy wait in our seats. At one point, Ian discreetly drew my attention to a guy sitting in the next row, reading his kindle while he waited.

‘Look,’ Ian said. ‘He’s woodcocking.’

This is a relatively common occurrence in our lives. Ian is always astonished when he finds someone not of my clan displaying the same behaviours he finds so particular to my sisters and I. I believe he shares his observations with my sister’s husband. Possibly they titter.

To woodcock now has at least four distinct meanings, according to Ian.

Woodcock (verb):

  1. to use every pot and pan in the kitchen in the preparation of one meal.
  2. to take any opportunity to go for a wee, whether you want one or not.
  3. to blink when your photograph is taken.
  4. to carry a book wherever you go, and fit in a quick read at any and every opportunity.

I suppose it’s oddly pleasing to be made into a verb, however irreverent the intention. But it’s also strange to find that behaviours you take for granted as absolutely normal can seem less so to other people.

I kind of hope woodcocking one day makes its way into your dictionary.

emma in robot mask

I have learned to mitigate for woodcocking (3) tendencies by wearing a mask.

The following is an edited transcript of an illustrated talk I gave at Inspired at Wirksworth Festival on Tuesday 19th September 2017.

I’m going to talk about a piece of art that was a very direct inspiration to me. But also about some of the other ideas and influences which fed into the creative process, and helped to shape what eventually became my second novel. I want to show the sometimes meandering route that inspiration can take, the seeming dead-ends, and the role chance can play in tying a lot of disparate ideas together.

Seven years ago, in October 2010, I’d recently published my first novel, Darklands, and I finally had time to think about what I was going to write next. I had it in my head I’d like to write a ghost story. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always enjoyed the creepy and macabre.

I did some initial research. I took a field trip to an Elizabethan manor house, Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, which boasts not one, but three, priest holes.

A priest hole is a small hidden room where Catholic priests could hide to avoid persecution during a time when it was illegal to practice Catholicism. This was because of various Catholic plots against the life of Elizabeth I. Catholicism was considered high treason, and punishments could include torture and death. When the authorities came round, a priest might have to hide in one of these cramped spaces in the dark for hours, or even days, before he could be safely released.

I’m sure you can imagine the creepy and sinister potential of a forgotten priest hole in a ghost story.

So I had a few ideas, and some atmospheric material from my field trip, but I didn’t yet have a story.

One day I was driving to work, and listening to the radio, as usual, and I heard Anatoly Lyadov’s tone poem, Kikimora.

Pleasant though it was, I can’t say it actually grabbed me that much at the time (though I’ve listened to it a lot since, and love it more each time). But what particularly struck me that day was after the music finished the presenter read out Lyadov’s program notes about Kikimora.

This is what he wrote.

“She grows up with a magician in the mountains. From dawn to sunset the magician’s cat regales Kikimora with fantastic tales of ancient times and faraway places, as Kikimora rocks in a cradle made of crystal. It takes her seven years to reach maturity, by which time her head is no larger than a thimble and her body no wider than a strand of straw. Kikimora spins flax from dusk to dawn, with evil intentions for the world.”

As soon as I heard those words it was a story I wanted to read. It conjures so much that is familiar from the kind of stories I loved when I was growing up, from fairy tales and folk tales.

Kikimora grows up with a magician – like so many iconic protagonists. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, like The Once and Future King, like many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books: Howl’s Moving Castle, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant.

The magician’s cat can speak – like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Like Aslan. And, again, there are many examples in Diana Wynne Jones’ books.

The cat tells endless stories – like Sherazade in 1001 nights.

Kikimora’s head is no larger than a thimble – bringing to mind classic fairy tales, like Thumbelina or Tom Thumb.

And like Rumpelstiltskin, she spins flax.

With just a few words Lyadov has summoned a storm of associations and memories – treasured memories from childhood, of the magical, fantastical stories I loved best, and that transported me to other lands and other lives.

But then right at the end, he gives it a twist: she has evil intentions for the world. So is she the heroine of this story, or is she the villain?

I wanted to find out. So I searched online for books about Kikimora – and I found nothing. She had a mention in a couple of books on Russian and Slavic folklore, and a wikipedia page, but I could find absolutely no fiction in English that mentioned her.

14-Kikimora

Kikimora, 1934 illustration by Ivan Bilibin

I found it incredible that seemingly no one had picked up on this gem of a story, when it seemed to me so ripe, so full of potential. I decided that I would write her story.

I read what little I could find on Kikimora. She’s a figure from Slavic folklore, a kind of household spirit. She often lives behind the stove, and helps good, respectable housewives who leave out offerings for her, but plays tricks on mean or slovenly households.

In reading about her, I found other fascinating figures from Slavic folklore, and they also found their way into my story. Such as Leshy. Leshy is a spirit or god of the forest. Like Kikimora he can be kind or troublesome, depending how he is treated. He can shape-shift, and can be very temperamental.

Leshy

Leshy, from a magazine cover, 1906. I’ve been unable to find the artist’s name.

Rusalkas also feature in my story. If you’re not familiar with Rusalkas, they’re basically a Slavic, fresh-water mermaid. They live in the water, are very beautiful, and lure unwary men to their death.

But again, they are not always seen as evil in early traditions. And I think this ambiguity in all these folklore characters is a large part of what appeals to me about them. They are largely reactive – they treat humans according to how humans treat them. And that seems a very obvious, but still very powerful way to view the natural world – which I think is essentially the purpose of a lot of folklore. In a pre-scientific and pre-industrial age, to try and make sense of the often cruel and capricious world around us.

These Slavic characters may well be unfamiliar to you, and you might wonder why I was so drawn to them and their stories. How could they mean anything to me?

But although their names are unfamiliar, there is much about them that is familiar. There is a universality in these characters which transcends their origin. The same tropes and archetypes are evident throughout British folklore, European fairy tales, and mythologies from all around the world.

Rusalkas have obvious parallels in mermaids, sirens, kelpies – our more local versions, Jenny Greenteeth or the grindylow.

In British folklore, we have our own versions of household spirits, like Hobs or brownies – or Dobby the house elf.

When I was growing up my family had our very own version: Icky. I’ve no idea where the name came from, but whenever something went missing or a mess was made that no one would own up to, we said it must have been Icky.

Even the very fact of being Russian seems kind of familiar. The Brothers Grimm collected their fairy tales from all over Europe – including Russia. And many of the most evocative and beautiful fairy tale illustrations have a Russian flavour to them. Such as the works of Jan Pienkowski or Edmund Dulac.

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski

So I gathered a great amount of inspiration from these folk characters. I had Kikimora, my protagonist’s, origin story in the quote from Lyadov, and I had a sense of conflict or unease between humans and the natural world.

The inspiration that had eluded me when I was trying to write a ghost story came flooding in. I was very close to having a story. But one more ingredient came along which directed the course of the novel.

I mentioned at the beginning that it was October 2010. If you remember, it was during that time that 33 miners were trapped deep underground in a copper mine in Chile. By then the men had been trapped for two months. Their story gripped the public imagination, and it gripped me just as much as everyone else.

I have long had a mingled horror and fascination for underground spaces. There is something primal about being deep underground – think of the neolithic cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira.

cave paintings at Lascaux

cave paintings at Lascaux

The common interpretation of these paintings is that they serve some sort of spiritual or ritual purpose.

Think of hidden caverns where incredible, gigantic crystals grow, such as Naica cave in Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico.

Naica Cave, Mexico. Look at the size of these crystals. It’s like Superman’s fortress of solitude!

Underground places can be beautiful, awe-inspiring.

But they are also dangerous, and frightening on a very primal level. All that weight of earth and rock balanced above you. The fear of your only light being extinguished – of the utter, pitiless darkness. Of being trapped. Lost. Alone. Being unaware of anything happening outside the cave – say, torrential rain that could flood the caves before you know a thing about it.

When those Chilean miners were finally safely rescued it seemed the whole world breathed a sigh of relief.

All of these things fed into the story I eventually wrote.

And in the end, I did write a sort of ghost story, without realising it. My version of Kikimora creeps around someone else’s home, silent and invisible, doing mischief, throwing things on the floor and causing trouble. Just like a poltergeist.

I even used the idea of being trapped in the dark – albeit, being trapped underground, rather than the priest hole I was initially researching.

I used characters and tropes from folklore and fairy tales – but they are very much my own personal take on those characters.

I seasoned it with the mingled terror and awe I feel about underground spaces.

And of course, in any story there must be conflict. In this case, another of my preoccupations, the conflict between humans and nature, between technological advancement and the exploitation of the planet’s resources.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story about writing a story.

I include below a short excerpt from Kikimora.

To set the scene, Anatoly is a powerful magician. He lives in splendid isolation in the mountains of Korsakov forest. Every month he plays cards with his friends, Leshy and the North Wind, and they stay up very late, drinking lots of vodka and setting the world to rights, as men are inclined to do.

Between them they try to ensure the natural world is all in order, and things are kept in balance. But they are disturbed by the activities of some miners from the nearby town, who are encroaching on the forest, and don’t show the proper respect.

During one drunken night they hatch a plan to deal with the miners by creating a monster. This Anatoly does, but his plan goes awry from the start.

He names his monster Kikimora.

Excerpt from Kikimora

Kikimora gathered up her embroidery to finish in the pantry. It was cold in there, but that had never troubled her. She was a creature of the cold, and though she enjoyed the comfort of a crackling fire, her resilience to Korsakov’s bitter winters was remarkable. She had never owned a pair of shoes, nor felt their lack.

She was almost at the door, when the North Wind said, “Wait. How old are you now, girl?”

“Almost seven.”

Anatoly’s long fingers fumbled as he filled the glasses, which all clinked and rattled against one another.

“Has it been so long?” asked the North Wind in some surprise. “Surely it is time?”

Anatoly swallowed his vodka at a gulp. “There is still much I would teach her. Her reading is sorely neglected. She has not yet begun The Art of War-”

The North Wind snorted his disdain. “She might have completed all the reading even you could wish for years ago if you didn’t have her working as your skivvy all the day long! I heard your banshee wail,” he told Kikimora. “It wasn’t too bad. What else can you do? Can you sour the milk with an evil thought?”

Kikimora nodded.

“Can you hide from human eyes? Creep past men silent and unnoticed?” Two more nods.

“Can you send bad dreams to trouble the sleep of man, woman or child?”

She hesitated.

“Well?”

“I have no one on which to practice such a skill.”

The North Wind frowned and harrumphed. “What of that cat I’ve seen around the place? Surely you could disturb its sleep?”

Kikimora’s eyes grew wide at this suggestion, and Anatoly muttered that it was more than any of their lives were worth to interfere with the cat.

Leshy took a bite of cake, and exclaimed at its sweetness. Washing it down with a mouthful of vodka, he added that he’d never tasted finer spirit. Kikimora knew he was trying to cheer her up, and she summoned a smile to show she appreciated it.

“Congratulations,” the North Wind said sourly. “Your monster is a fine cook and house-keeper. How those men will tremble in their boots.”

Earlier this year I was honoured to be invited to take part in a peformance at the Wirksworth Festival. Titled ‘Inspired,’ the evening showcased local artists and performers talking about their work and their inspiration.

It took place last Tuesday at Wirksworth Town Hall.  Seni Seneviratne read some of her moving and beautifully written poetry about growing up in Leeds as a child of Sri Lankan heritage. George Grignon spoke very engagingly about how he became a musician, and played us some of the music he loved as a teenager. Photographer Kate Bellis showed some of her recent work documenting the lives of Derbyshire hill farmers, and talked about her motivations. And I presented a short talk on how my version of Kikimora came to life while I was struggling to write a ghost story.

Public speaking is most definitely not my natural environment. I was in a state of constant, stomach-churning panic from about two weeks before the event. But somehow it all came off flawlessly. And I must admit, it was very gratifying when people told me the story of Kikimora’s genesis intrigued them to read the novel.

You can read an edited transcript of my talk here.

Thank you to Pam Taylor and Debi Hedderwick for inviting me, and to compere Paddy Turner for talking to me calmly and soothingly pre-performance. Thank you also to the audience, who listened attentively and laughed in the right places.

Below are a few photographs from the evening, courtesy of Phil Richards.

Emma at Inspired talking about classic fairy tale illustration by Edmund Dulac

Emma reading from Kikimora at Inspired

You can barely even see the fear in my eyes

Kate Bellis at Inspired

Seni Seneviratne at Inspired

Well, it may be a couple of years late, but I’ve finally come up with the perfect sales pitch for Kikimora.

While signing books in Cromford recently, I was asked numerous times, ‘So what’s this book about?’

Despite having done these things a few times now and always getting the same questions, I was no better prepared than usual. I floundered my way through a couple of vague explanations, before tiredly offering,

It’s basically Poldark with magic.

That got a response (although one punter astutely pointed out: that pitch will only work on women).

Demelza Carne

‘Scruffy, neglected waif’

It’s not a facetious or cynical pitch though. In a blog post from five years ago I mention reading the first couple of Poldark books as research into mining in the (approximate) era, and being pleasantly surprised by their pace and humour. But I was very aware it was an obscure reference, meaning little to anyone under 40 who didn’t remember the 1970s TV show.

By the time new Poldark became the Sunday night TV phenomenon, I’d moved on from promoting Kikimora, and forgotten all about it.

But Kikimora actually bears a few similarities with Poldark, notably in the relationship between the charismatic but troubled mine owner, and the scruffy, neglected waif who takes up residence with him; in the families of marriageable young ladies eager to make his acquaintance, and their bafflement at his reluctance. Then there is his very plain (and consequently pitied and scorned) sister (cousin in Poldark)…

I won’t say more, to avoid spoilers.

Of course, Kikimora has many other things going on as well, in the battle of wills between the miners and the spirits of the forest, in Kikimora’s troubled genesis, and her journey to find acceptance.

I’d be interested to know, do any of my readers see the similarity? Or is it just my own over-familiarity with the story that brings it to mind? Let me know in the comments?

Wirksworth Book Fair, April 2017

Wirksworth Book Fair, April 2017

After a smashing day at the Wirksworth Book Fair in April, tomorrow I will be signing books at Celebrating Cromford.

It’s five years since I last did a book signing at the village festival. Last time I hitched a ride on the Women’s Institute stall (courtesy of my mum). This year I’m sharing a stall with fellow Cromford author, Sam Salt. Hopefully my mum will still come along and help – she is ten times the salesperson I could ever be!

Cromford is a lovely little town in Derbyshire, and is where I grew up (one of my sister’s friends refers enviously to our ‘Enid Blyton childhood’!) The weather forecast is scorchio. There will be live music, an Ale Trail, other refreshments, and a wishing pig, apparently. So it should be a fantastic day out.

Cromford, April 2017

Cromford, April 2017

If you’re in the area, do come say hello. It would be lovely to see you 🙂

Books and freebies

This Saturday I’ll be signing copies of Darklands and Kikimora at Wirksworth Big Book Day. I’ve also got some freebies and goodies to give away, so do come and say hello if you’re in the vicinity.

There’ll be other book stalls, and I am promised a variety of book-themed events going on around town.

Wirksworth is where I went to school many years ago, and is a picturesque little town with bags of character. There is fantastic involvement with and support of the Arts in the town, and its annual Arts Festival in September is deservedly renowned.

If you haven’t visited before, now is an ideal time to acquaint yourself with its charms.

The Book Fair will be in the Memorial Hall on St John’s Street, from 10am until 4pm, Saturday 8th April.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Embed from Getty Images

My work in progress, Slinter Wood, is largely set in the late 1980s, mirroring my own school days. I’m currently doing a lot of research to get the right tone and detail for the period.

I’d love it if you could help me!

Tell me in the comments (or via social media) any details you remember about school life, fashions, fads, insults, and pop culture in the late 1980s. If I use your idea in Slinter Wood you’ll get a thank you in the book – and (if it’s really good, and I haven’t already thought of it) a free copy when it’s released! (Don’t hold your breath. Given my usual pace, it’ll be years yet…)

It’s not the big stuff I’m interested in, the world events, the politics, the disasters – that’s easy to research. It’s the small, inconsequential details of life circa 1988. Sometimes we forget how much life has changed, but once you start thinking about it, it was a very different world back then.

What do you remember about those days? I’ve already filled 50+ pages with my notes and memories, and I know it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not looking for cliches and buzzwords from popular memes (Spangles! Boggle! Marathon!), but actual memories – it’s those minute, true details that give a story depth and richness.

Here are some of mine:

  • That stink of stale cigarette smoke every time I walked into any school toilets. Burn marks on the toilet seats, and the unfathomable mystery of the ancient, rusted ‘Bunny Incinerator’* on the wall
  • the breath-taking agony of getting a hockey stick whacked round my ankles on a frosty morning
  • the school bus: a narrow prison of torment, with no escape from those who would shout insults, pull your hair, kick your seat, whisper about you – just loud enough so you knew, even though you couldn’t hear what they were saying. The humiliation if you stumbled when the bus lurched to a halt; the hot, damp horror of all that laughter directed at you
  • watching Threads** in Humanities class at school, and the idea of nuclear war becoming a constant background fear. Waking in the early hours and hearing an aeroplane high overhead, convinced it was about to drop a nuclear bomb
  • owning only three video cassettes, but being a typical obsessive teen and wanting to hoard all my favourite things; having to make the painful decision of which much loved music video or comedy sketch to sacrifice when I needed to record something new.

I could go on, but I think that gives you an idea of what I’m after: snapshots, impressions, details that bring the period vividly back to you. I’d really appreciate it if you’d share any with me.

Thank you.

* Because I think that is going to confuse a lot of you, just as it confused me all those years ago, let me assure you it involves no cruelty to small furry creatures, but turns out to be some old-timey solution to the disposal of feminine hygiene products.

** Having just read the Wikipedia entry, it’s a wonder I ever slept again!