Mrs Prothero and the firemen

One of the downsides of living a largely interior life is that others find you dull – so very dull, in fact, that they cannot think of anything to ask you when they meet you. I have noticed, you see, that when ‘exterior’ people bump into each other in the street they tend to enquire about a whole range of things –

How are the kids?

How’s the revising going for that big exam?

Did your Aunt Mabel ever make that attempt on Everest?

And so forth.

It’s like they have a mental filing cabinet. They see you walking towards them in the street. Quickly they open a drawer in the filing cabinet and out pop the kids, that big exam, Aunt Mabel, Mount Everest and a whole lot of other potentially conversational stuff. Memory – it’s a rag bag. Dylan Thomas put it much better than me, a very long time ago:

I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs Prothero and the firemen.

But when people meet me – or rather realise they are not going to be able to avoid me – on the street, they have no Mrs Prothero, no convenient firemen. When the silence becomes too awkward most of them ask one of two things:

Do you still have all those cats?

How’s your mother?

And what can you say?

Yes.

Still quite old.

It was not always so. During my married years Ex’s friends would often come to the house to visit him – never us.  Often it was to discuss model engineering at great length whilst staring into the middle distance; very occasionally it was to buy a painting; once in a while it was to persuade him to fix their lawnmower. (It’s one of the things with being self-employed and working from home – people don’t regard it as proper work, so you’re bound to have time to fix their lawnmower or get their grandfather’s pocket-watch ticking again.)

During my married years all these middle-aged ‘men’s men’, for whom I was an embarrassing and inconvenient appendage to the Real Person of the house, if absolutely forced to address me would enquire either –

Ironing? or

Knitting?

And what can you say to that?

Yes.

No.ironing

But worse, spend too much time alone and you become as uninteresting as other people think you are. I went to visit my friends the other day, and we had coffee. You know how, after a conversation you tend to go back over it, try and remember what you said? As I clambered into the car and headed for Tesco’s all I could remember was that I had talked nearly all of the time about dustbins and those little orange caddies they provide you with to recycle your food waste. Oh yes, and maggots. Those little orange caddie things are prone to maggots, which is why hardly anyone uses them. And there’s nothing worse than maggots…

And so I think, should I try to do a number of Interesting Things, to help out casual acquaintances? Should I maybe volunteer to feed the homeless, then people could ask:

Have you fed any more of those homeless people recently? And I could say, Well, yes, actually I fed one only yesterday. Soup, it was. And sandwiches.

Maybe I should attempt to become good at Sudoku. Instead of staring at my Chinese Sudoku board (“Number Is Alone”) for three hours, then giving up because the numbers just won’t go in the right places, maybe I should get good at it and go in for competitions.

Maybe I should join a fitness group and become taut and toned like those people in the post-Christmas home fitness ads. Then acquaintances who inconveniently bumped into me in supermarkets could gush:

Is that really you? I hardly recognise you, you’ve got so slim! And  just look at those abs!

Or maybe I should try and knock up a cynically quick novel – a thing about rampant vampire lust, perhaps, or some sort of murder mystery involving a locked gymnasium and a vaulting horse, or a body buried under a vegetable patch resulting in a suspiciously wonderful crop of onions. And then people could ask:

Did you ever get that vampire novel published?

And I could say.

Well, no.

I have dwelt at some length on the worship of trees…

And dwell at some length he does, throughout the whole of Chapter IX (The Worship of Trees) and Chapter X (Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe).

In England the best-known example of these leaf-clad mummers is the Jack-in-the-Green, a chimney-sweeper who walks encased in a pyramidal framework of wickerwork, which is covered with holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons. Thus arrayed he dances on May Day at the head of a troop of chimney-sweeps, who collect pence. In Fricktal a similar frame of basketwork is called the Whitsuntide Basket. As soon as the trees begin to bud, a spot is chosen in the wood, and here the village lads make the frame with all secrecy, lest others should forestall them.

This is the unmistakeable voice of Sir James George Frazer (1854 – 1941), regarded as one of the forefathers of modern anthropology and the author of The Golden Bough, a twelve-volume monster Study of Magic and Religion. Having, between the years 1890 and 1915, published his twelve huge volumes Sir George set about abridging them, to make his work available to a wider audience. The copy I have is a second-hand £1.99 Wordsworth Classic abridgement, but it still runs to 756 pages of teensy-tiny print. Love it! The paper is cheap and thin, and gloriously toasted at the edges. It smells like dust and vanilla. Love vanilla!

Some of his stories of mankind’s superstitious doings are almost too painful to read nowadays, let alone quote – like the burning of cats in bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent, in some cases hanging them over the fire from the end of a pole and roasting them alive. Without a qualm, I would have roasted the roasters alive. Others are more lyrical:

Halloween, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old a time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? And could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

It’s… it’s Biblical. Bleak winds whistling among swaying boughs and snow-drifts deepening in the hollows – the very essence of winter.

The Golden Bough is one of those books that, for the omnivorous reader, have a tendency to keep cropping up, along with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (don’t have) and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (have). I was always meaning to get hold of it and see what it was all about, but somehow I never did. Then quite recently I was seized by the idea of writing fantasy in earnest, rather than just dabbling. Fantasy, I suspect, is my mind’s default setting. The Partners of the law firm for which I used to work classified me as Not really with-it, but unique, according to a female colleague. For an instant I was flattered, and then I hated her. (Always the reaction to being bitten by an arch-bitch.) But what to write fantasy about? I was not inclined to be inspired by elves, since it was they who had been stealing my mother away in instalments, and had latterly substituted one of their own, a grouchy elder elfling far past its prime. So I decided to do some ‘reading around’, and The Golden Bough is part of that.

One of the great merits of homeopathic magic is that it enables the cure to be performed on the person of the doctor instead of on that of the victim, who is thus relieved of all trouble and inconvenience, while he sees his medical man writhe in anguish before him. For example, the peasants of Perche, in France, labour under the impression that a prolonged fit of vomiting is brought about by the patient’s stomach becoming unhooked, as they call it, and so falling down. Accordingly, a practitioner is called in to restore the organ to its proper place. After hearing the symptoms he at once throws himself into the most horrible contortions, for the purpose of unhooking his own stomach…

I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of a book of British Myths and Legends, which I think may be the one that inspired Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) to write his 1977 album Songs from the Wood. Tiresomely, the spindly prog-rocker failed to quote the exact title of the book in his CD booklet, only saying that was given to him as a present one Christmas in East Anglia, Buckinghamshire or somewhere else rural and folksy, by Joe Lustig, his American ‘press and promo guy’. I wanted that same book – felt I just had to have it – and spent a long time on Amazon scrolling down lists of folklore and legend books, eliminating those published post 1977. Not that I’m a nerd…

I am hoping that these two books, together, will inspire me to write the best-selling fourteen-novel fantasy saga which will save my bacon, financially. You can never have too much inspiration when there is bacon to be saved.

…Hence, from the primitive point of view, it is perfectly possible that a savage should have one soul in his sex totem and another in his clan totem. However, as I have observed, sex totems have been found nowhere but in Australia; so that as a rule the savage who practises totemism need not have more than one soul out of his body at a time.

tree-worship.jpg

Frazer was a social anthropologist, and his genius was to do two things – to collect, obsessively, more or less everything ever written in the way of superstitions, rituals and legends, and then to notice and explain, lucidly, the connections between them. He also possesses a dry sense of humour. He actually got into trouble for placing the story of Jesus and the Resurrection on an equal footing with ‘legends and superstitions’ rather than making a special case for Christianity. He implied, for example that the idea of the Lamb of God might be a relic of a pagan tradition and pointed out that the dates of many Christian festivals coincided with those of prehistoric pagan rituals. This doesn’t seem particularly outlandish now but it shocked many of his readers to the core. As a result, in subsequent editions his work was watered down and censored.

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city and stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcasts as scapegoats. One of the victims was sacrificed for the men and the other for the women. The former wore round his neck a string of black, the latter a string of white figs.

The Golden Bough was to influence subsequent generations of writers, poets and thinkers including T S Eliot (The Waste Land), W B Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium), H P Lovecraft, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud.