Things that go bump in the night

Recently I spent a pleasant hour inserting mildly relevant emoticons into the names of my ‘Contacts’ on my new mobile phone. Well, I lead a very dull life and have to take my fun where I can find it. The friend referred to in this blog as ‘Daisy’ had a daisy and ‘Rose’ had a rose; my friend down the road who in her (misspelt, incomprehensible) texts seem fixated on the ladybird, got a ladybird. My plumber got the umbrella + raindrops, my dentist got the little yellow man in the surgical mask and my doctor got the sickly green face. Ex got the anchor, and I won’t expand on that one.

When it came to the hospital I found myself automatically selecting the skull and crossbones. Half an hour later – superstitious, I suppose – I went back in and changed it to a spider’s web. Once in the hospital, I reminded myself, it is almost impossible to find your way around, and difficult to locate the Exit when you leave.

I suppose we are all a bit anxious about skulls. I remember the point in my childhood, if not the exact age, when I suddenly realised I had a skull inside my head, and that was what was keeping my brains in. It worried me. And then I started looking at Mum and Dad, and Nan and Grandad and everyone. They’ve all got skulls inside their heads! They’ve all got squidgy brains inside them!

It’s just one part of the vertebrate skeleton, but there’s a certain fascination, isn’t there? Why do skulls appear everywhere at Halloween? I guess we like to be frightened, but not too much. Presumably in imagination we superimpose the living face over the dead bone, and we don’t only do this for our contemporaries. Isn’t it fascinating to come face to face with a real Neanderthal, modelled from an ancient skull?


I was writing about paintings of St Jerome yesterday, and how he is surrounded by his own particular ‘iconography’ – red clothing, book, writing materials, and sometimes eyeglasses. This morning it occurred to me that I hadn’t said anything about the skull, which he always has. Was it the same little whisper of anxiety that made me delete the skull emoticon from my Contacts?

Skulls appear all over art, particularly medieval and renaissance art. In those days, life was, from our perspective, unimaginably short. A man from a landowning family in the Middle Ages had an average lifespan of 31.3 years. This is taking into account an infant mortality of 12% or thereabouts. Even in the Renaissance, say late 16th and early 17th century, the average lifespan was 39.7 years. Not long to win your passage into Heaven, and not long to avoid the terrifying actuality of Hell. So paintings of the time showed the skull, to remind people that they must focus on spiritual matters.


Sir Thomas Aston at his Wife’s Deathbed

All this is a bit creepy, Halloween or no. However, in paintings of St Jerome the skull has a more nuanced meaning. The skull is the seat of thought and of spiritual perfection. The death of the physical body, symbolised by the skull, enabled one to be reborn at a higher level, where the spirit could rule. In St Jerome’s case – he was known for his translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin, and for his many Commentaries on the books of the Bible, and he is often depicted as a very old man with an angel, or occasionally a dove, whispering in his ear. The skull in paintings of Jerome, therefore, indicates that he is writing down truths from the spiritual world, even as his physical body fails him.

I don’t know whether you like Halloween? I personally don’t, mainly because, in this country anyway, it has become so tawdry and ridiculous. I live on my own and don’t like the prospect of four large teenage boys wearing masks knocking on my door at eight o’clock at night demanding – anything. Trick or Treat seems to me just a disguised form of blackmail, an implied threat. I also think it’s plain stupid, in this day and age, for smaller children to be sent out after dark to knock on strangers’ doors, with no knowledge of who or what might be waiting to open that door to them.

I prefer the pre-Christian festival of Samhain (sow-rin) or All Hallows. In Celtic times, after Harvest, it was customary to mark the arrival of ‘the dark half of the year’. People lit bonfires and wore costumes to frighten away ghosts, for it was believed that on All Hallows Eve, and at this time of year generally, barriers between Earth and the Other World became thin. The Living and the Dead might interact: there would be ghoulies and ghosties about.

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggety beasties
And thing that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us.

I’m a little weary of eerie

Bah, humbug – or halloweenbug – or whatever!

By the way, the picture above should not be taken as meaning that I approve of the boiling of lobsters, or even the eating of fish, or that I believe cats should be wrestled into Halloween costumes when they have no idea of the significance of Halloween and hate having to wear stuff. Cats are cool with wearing the same furry outfit every day, and think how much simpler their lives are: this idea even appears to be catching on with a few free-thinking humans.

I hate Halloween. Well, I hate most things including Christmas, Easter and birthdays. Here are half a dozen reasons why I hate Halloween:

  1. I hate the very thought of fancy dress. I have only ever worn fancy dress once in my life. Many years ago, Ex and I were invited to a posh party, except that we didn’t know it was posh and made our own costumes instead of hiring them. We didn’t understand about hiring – life had moved on since our childhood. I forget what Ex’s costume was but it was probably passable, since he was an artist. I went as a Tree, complete with leafy apples. I don’t remember why. I made the costume on my ancient Singer sewing machine out of brown and green bedsheets. I looked like a twerp. A conspicuous twerp. Furthermore, I couldn’t sit down all evening.
  2. I hate children. Well, that’s not absolutely true. I’ve nothing against infants in principle and no doubt would speak kindly to a child if ever a child came within fifty feet of me. But they don’t. They stare at me. Spooky! Babies smile at me, in supermarket queues, but then babies smile at anything. It’s probably wind. Or the spectacles. I am advised that they are fascinated by these strange mirror-things some people balance on their noses. Cats are the same, actually – take a swipe if worn, chew if not.
  3. I hate people knocking at my door after dark. I particularly hate it if they are wearing masks and ghoulish costumes. I hate it even more if they are six feet tall male adolescents, and sniggering. It frightens me. No one ever knocks on my door and sniggers normally. If they can’t be bothered to knock on my door and snigger for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year why should I buy huge tins of sweeties or a mountain of salt and vinegar crisps to dole out to them for the privilege of being terrified on the three hundred and sixty-fifth?
  4. I hate pumpkins. They are obscenely big and too orange (hate orange, so common!) and silly-looking. Can you even eat a pumpkin? What is the point of them? I once mentioned to a girl I happened to be sitting next to in the call centre that I had never tried to carve a face in a pumpkin and had no idea how to do it. She gave me that look that people always tend to give me and issued detailed instructions for pumpkin-carving. I still haven’t carved one.
  5. I hate anything designed mainly to extract money from people – by making them feel they need to buy a whole lot of useless plastic, net, tinsel and paper stuff or a greetings card. That includes Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day…
  6. I hate e-cards and Halloween is yet another occasion for people to send them. I hate the unwanted spam-type email they come in, the instructions to click Here when you don’t want to click Anywhere, the lengthy semi-animated cartoon-thing you are forced to sit through when, inevitably, you do click. I hate the thought that I am not worth going out and buying a card for, not worth a second-class stamp or a trip to the post box, not worth a human signature and a row of wobbly ‘X’s.

However, the world’s in such a perilous and spooky state at the moment, any little problem I may have simply pale into insignificance. So I’ll make sure to lock the doors early this evening. I’ll barricade myself in the living room and shut the curtains so they can’t see the television. I’ll turn the sound right down. I’ll stand on one leg and try not to breathe till they’ve gone away, I’ll… And I dare say I shall survive yet another Halloween.

I dare say we all will.


A pelican of the wilderness

(actually written in pencil yesterday evening while my computer was away in the Magic Workshop)

I knew this was going to happen: bound to, really, since my computer is one of my three best friends. Correction, only friends. Pathetic. Just pathetic!

When it gets dark outside and it isn’t a full moon (everything looks better under a full moon); when the cats are fed and all asleep and therefore I might not exist; when the hedgehog and I have surprised one another at the feeding station yet again (we never seem to learn); when the Evening News is over and there’s an hour and a half to go to Stargate: Atlantis; when I need to look up a word or can’t remember the name of a song or the next line of a poem; when I’ve listened to that Jennifer Warnes CD for the third time in a row; when I start thinking about Mum and what away-with-the-fairies disaster she could be involving herself in right now, and I wouldn’t know; when I begin to avoid looking in the mirror in case I see some other woman there; when I feel tempted to fetch yet another bowl of Frosted Wheats from the kitchen even though I know they give me indigestion; when I …

I’ve run out of whens. But whenever any of these ‘whens’ occur, usually I would hobble upstairs, do that little shimmy thing with Mr Mousie to bring the computer back to life and immerse myself in blogging, Amazon-surfing or clicking through those strings of weird photos of People Who Could Not Possibly Exist, Child Stars Who Grew Up Ugly or Worst Plastic Surgery Disasters Ever, that you know are going to be rubbish and will probably send the Internet Security thingy into a fit of little red Xs but somehow cannot resist. But tonight…

Tonight, I am thwarted. Famous Blue Raincoat remains in the CD player and I just can’t seem to get up off the sofa and remove it. She’s got to that creepy one about Joan of Arc again;

  • Well then fire, make your body cold
  • I’m gonna give you mine to hold
  • And saying this she climbed inside
  • To be his one, to be his only bride

If only I could unglue myself this obsessive-compulsive Jennifer-Warnes-playing thing I could put in something less suicide-inducing like Mary Black or James Taylor. An hour or so of tuneless carolling along to James Taylor would change everything; he’s the best possible medicine for attacks of weltschmerz or existential angst. How could you be downhearted whilst singing I fix broken hearts, baby, I’m your handyman or Goodnight you moonlight ladies, rockabye Sweet Baby James to a roomful of sleeping cats?

How loud that central heating sounds. Did the radiators always rattle like something out of A Christmas Carol? Maybe I could wake a cat or two.

Twenty-nine hours. Only twenty-nine hours to wait. What am I going to do?

There’s plenty I could be doing. There’s a green plastic trayful of blog-post ideas, a stack of green and yellow refill pads for writing on and a Shaun The Sheep mug full of perfectly sharpened pencils. There’s that copy of Peter Pan that arrived in the post today, finally. I could be reading that. There’s that strange Christian blockbuster novel I downloaded onto my Kindle on a whim and have hardly started. What is this slight obsession with Christianity at the moment? Just a phase, probably. Or second childhood.

There are Christmas presents I could start wrapping but it’s hard to get in the mood since we’re not even over Halloween yet. If I wanted to I could hoover the living room with my extremely loud, old-fashioned hoover to welcome home my neighbours who – I see from the black hearse parked outside their house – have just returned from their six month sojourn in the South of France either building their dream villa or staying in a friend’s caravan, depending which other neighbours you choose to believe. Oh here we go – word association again:

  • Je suis un rock star
  • Je avais un residence
  • Je habiter la
  • A la south de France
  • Voulez vous
  • Partir with me?
  • And come and rester la
  • With me in France?
  • Bill Wyman – (Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star

I do love Franglais, particularly really determinedly, arrogantly bad Franglais. I believe the French detest it.

My sister just telephoned from Canada. It seems she is suffering a similar sense of dislocation, for different reasons. Her kitchen cabinets have all been ripped out and the fitting of the new ones has been delayed for a day. All she can do is microwave and boil water. All her bits and pieces in cardboard boxes. I keep wandering into my office, seeing screen, keyboard, mouse, printer, router, all in their usual places and wondering vaguely why they won’t still work. Could that dull-looking black box-thing really have been the heart of it all. Cables and plug-in thingies trail onto the carpet like severed arteries.

Most of my life I have been typing. Typing and thinking have become one and the same thing to me. Now the pencil looks strange in my hand and my own handwriting – though surprisingly attractive – seems to belong to someone I used to know.

After a few pages your own hand starts to yell at you. Writing hurts!

I could go out. At least in theory. At least tomorrow, when it gets light. Except where? I could try living some sort of real life for a little while, but what would a real, live person do?

Maybe they would decide to attend the Halloween Extravaganza at the one and only pub this Friday. Someone pushed one of those glossy advertising fliers through my letterbox this afternoon, or rather into my letterbox where it got stuck and concertinaed by those twin brush-things. What are the twin brush-things on letterboxes for, does anybody know? Maybe just to frighten postmen.

I could go if I was prepared to dress up as a witch (little make-up required) or a pumpkin-lady in plus-size orange tights and a cardboard pumpkin body; and if I was prepared to go unescorted into a public house; and if I was happy to abandon the twelve cats to the onslaughts of door-rattling, menacing little trick-or-treat-persons. Were I to do so I might enjoy, according to the flier:

  • Apple Bobbing (check)
  • Mummy Wrap (children permitted to encase female parent in yards of toilet paper, just this once?)
  • Zombie Dancing (would they be importing a bona fide Zombie Dancing troupe to give a demonstration, or would they be selecting Michael Jackson on the jukebox and expecting all present to dance along to Thriller, making those fearsome faces?)
  • Jelly Bobbing (like Apple Bobbing but substituting jelly for water? Isn’t this overkill? I mean, first you get your hair wet then you get a faceful of strawberry jelly)
  • Disco (check)
  • Balloon Games (oh no. I remember balloon games from my youth. Undignified)
  • Beer Pong (Beer Pong? Beer Pong? Like Ping Pong perhaps only with pint mugs flying back and forth?)

Reality makes so very little sense.

Twenty eight hours…

I have become like an owl of the waste places. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.

Psalm 102:6


Bye BYE, says Ciggie Annie, finishing her survey with the customary high-volume flourish and coughing fit.

Faint mocking echoes from around the call centre, everyone in their rabbit hutches-no-pods so you can’t see who’s doing it:

Bye BYE …

Bye BYE …

Bye BYE…

Somebody giggles.

Over my head hangs a giant spider in black sugar paper, with orange-and-silver eyes. I don’t mind spiders but every time I look up this one is getting lower. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble. There are artificial cobwebs sprayed silver. There’s a hand with black fingernails poking out from behind the flickering strip-light. A fire risk, no doubt.

Bye BYE…


In the kitchen someone is on their ten-minute break and is microwaving a curry. It is a meaty one, I can tell.

In what type of…type of housing does your target customer live?

Duplex? Mobile Home? Military Housing? Apartment? Houseboat? Condo…condo…condo…minny-um, thank you. Single-family house?

Who lives with your target customer?

Parent? Grandparent? Child? Romantic partner? Romantic partner?

(They mean like spouse, or boyfriend)

Romantic partner? Grandparent? Nobody?

Giving Margaret the woolly bear was a mistake. I just meant it as a good luck gift for the radiotherapy but she got better afterwards, or for the time being better, and now she can’t throw it away. I just meant it for luck but it’s become a talisman to her, a kind of amulet. She daren’t lose it. Did the wrong thing there.

In what type of housing does your target customer live?

The one who looks like a witch, except it isn’t fancy dress. Never remember her name but she’s sat next to me tonight. She says she can see my aura. It’s purple, she says, and purple is a really, really excellent colour for an aura. It means… I can’t remember what it means. Since then I’ve been squinting sideways in between surveys trying to catch other people’s auras by surprise, which she says is the best thing to do. But I still can’t see them.

Duplex? Mobile Home? Military Housing? Apartment?

Apartment? Like flat? That you live in?


Why can’t I see other people’s auras? If only I could. You’d thing I’d be able to. At least mine’s purple. I expect that’s something royal, something highly advanced on the spiritual plane.

Oh, yoghurts again.

Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in a store-bought yoghurt?

Tasty? Fruit pieces? Thicker texture?

We were told we could come in fancy dress but not many people have. One of the floor-walkers has a witches’ hat with streamers. Agency punk girl flounces past in a pink tutu and shredded black stockings. Spiders’ webs painted on her cheeks with eyeliner.

Thicker texture?

Which is most important to you when selecting a store-bought yoghurt?

All the men are looking. Still surveying, but looking. Are they actually suspenders?

Value for money? Attractive packaging?

Positive. Vivacious. BUBBLY. At all costs, bubbly.

The very old guy in the corner is sinking lower and lower, as if hoping eventually to merge with the fabric of the desk. He came back from the colonies expecting to be still employable as something high up in an office, like he used to be. He told me once what it was. Something responsible and administrative in connection with accounts. But he wasn’t. Employable. No one wanted him. He has a lovely voice for the phones though. Deep. Respondents like deep. Soothing. Trustworthy. They like the sound of older men but not older women. Particularly Ciggie Annie.

Bye BYE.

He has a much-younger wife from some middle-European country – Slavic or Baltic or something – and he loves her. Perhaps she was mail order. He’s desperate to earn money to  regain her respect, keep her stitched to him, and this is all he can get. Despair bows him lower and lower as the evening wears on. He’ll no doubt die here. Fall off his swivel chair. Or if he stays on his chair the Certified First Aiders will wheel him out, one on either side to keep him sat up. I’ve seen that happen.

Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in your store-bought yoghurt?

That curry’s disgusting.

Why is Ginger Martin wearing a baby-gro with ears?

They’re called onesies. He’s come as a teddy-bear.

You know those pumpkin faces you light candles in – how do you actually make them?

You don’t know that either? Good God, woman, where have you been?

How do you tell someone – concisely – that no one ever carved a pumpkin for you, and you couldn’t have children so you never got to carve pumpkins for them? How do you tell them you’ve never so much as touched a pumpkin, or a child for that matter?

How do you tell them that on your birthday party, which consisted of the little fat girl from down the road since Mum didn’t like people coming in, your Dad arrived home from work and sat at the tea table, a giant in his green overalls, and ate all four of the chocolate swiss-rolls on the plate, and you found yourself throwing a tantrum because at least one of the chocolate swiss-rolls was meant to be for you and one for the little fat girl because it was after all your birthday party. And then Dad hit you round the ears and the little fat girl got sent home with a smug look on her face and there were no more birthday parties after that.

How do you tell them you spend every Christmas morning alone with your Mum, looking out at her sunny, overgrown garden and dead hydrangea heads? And that she might eat half the microwave meal you brought with you and microwaved for her in her microwave that’s all rusty and manky before jabbing her bony old finger at you and starting on the usual litany:

It’s All Your Fault, Whoever You Are.

I’m Going To Walk Out And Drown Myself Tomorrow.

You Might As Well Go Home Now I’m Sure I Don’t Want You.

How do you tell them you’ve never had fun, ever, not once in your life, and if fun were to happen to show signs of happening to you nowadays you’d be terrified?

I’m standing here naked, says the man.

Oh, I see, I say, thankful that I can’t.

Do you mind me answering your questions Naked, Young Lady?

Young Lady! I got a Young Lady!

No, I don’t mind. But would you like a chance to fetch your dressing gown?

No, I’m fine as I am. Naked. I like to be Naked sometimes. On the phone. He sighs, in a suspiciously shuddery way.

Well then, I say. Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in your store-bought yoghurt? Tasty? Fruit pieces? Thicker texture?

Thicker texture, he says. Oh definitely. The thicker texture.

There is a wrenching of polystyrene panelling as part of the ceiling sags down into the room. Luckily it’s sagging over some other woman’s head not mine. Ginger Martin in his baby-gro-no-onesie, clatters out with a giant aluminium stepladder and teeters plumply at the top of it trying to push the panel back. It doesn’t want to go. The woman below him is a real pro, none of your temp trash, and goes on with her survey. I can just about hear she’s on Hair Care:

Which of the following products do you use at least once a week?

Volumizer? Curl activator?

What’s curl activator, I wonder.

Straightener? Sculpting wax?

Wax? In your hair!

Heat protector?

The polystyrene panelling still teeters over her head, as does Ginger Martin on his stepladder in his onesie. She’d have an interesting view if she looked up, but she doesn’t.

If you could choose only one hair care product other than shampoo, which would you choose?

Volumizer? Curl activator? Sculpting wax?

On my other side, Jonathan stands up, turns around and sits down. He does that that every now and again, and in between he’s rocking. There’s something a bit wrong with Jonathan. This job’s ideal for someone with something a bit wrong. Most of us fall into that category.

Do you have any paracetamol? he asks.

I give him two from my stash. I don’t use them myself, they don’t touch my headaches, worse than useless, but I bring a packet in because everybody kind of expects Old Biddies to have handbags-full of pain-killers, safety-pins and paper tissues.

Any indigestion tablets while you’re at it? He asks, standing up, turning round and sitting down again. He gets incredibly stressed, does Jonathan. I like him. We have something in common but I don’t know what. He can only ever sit facing the door, otherwise he falls into a panic and throws a hissy fit. I pass him a whole sheet of Rennies. It’s a big box.

Keep the rest for later.

He blows his nose, loud and squelchy, and throws the wet rag onto the growing heap in the back corner of his cubicle. He’s getting the cold that’s going round. He begins to rock in his chair. I saw a Gnu do that in the zoo, once.

In what type of (sniff!) housing does your target customer live?

Any minute, the paper spider’s going to get me.

That curry just doesn’t dissipate.

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts

There are almost as many ‘explanations’ of ghosts as there are ghosts themselves. One day, all ghostly phenomena may be explicable in scientific terms or, one day, we may become aware of a parallel or interfused reality in which they, and other such inexplicable things, have their existence. Here are just some of the possible explanations:

  • A ghost could be a folk memory of an ancient tragedy. For example the crying child ghost heard at the Roman fortress of Reculver, in Kent. In 1966 the skeletons of several babies were discovered beneath the foundations. Could the crying ghosts be ‘memories’ of a ritual child sacrifice some 2000 years ago? At Richborough, sixteen or seventeen miles from Reculver, a ghostly Roman cohort is sometimes seen, its phantom soldiers marching into the sea.
  • Ghosts are not even always human beings. Phantom ships have been seen sailing towards shore, leaving the water and continuing to ‘sail’ for a considerable distance overland. In Cornwall ‘corpse candles’ were said to foretell a death. These small blobs of yellow light would process along the street and stop over the house where a death was imminent. This is a strange, parallel – Cornish lights hovering over a house of death; the Star of Bethlehem hovering over a house of birth.
  • In some parts of Britain there have been reports of spectral coaches drawn by headless horses. This could be a ‘memory’ of the Norse invaders and their god Odin/Woden – whose Wild Hunt was said to cross the night sky in Winter followed by baying hounds. To witness the Wild Hunt was to be carried off to a distant land. To speak with the Huntsman meant certain death. Spectral dogs could be a folk-memory of Odin’s fearsome hounds.
  • Many ghosts are said to be those of famous or royal personages. It may be that we just cannot let go of the idea of these individuals – that they are so vividly alive in our imaginations that we cannot accept the mundane fact of their deaths. Think of Elvis Presley and all the rumours that he did not die, that he has been sighted walking past a window at Gracelands and so forth.
  • And then there is the legion of Grey Ladies, Brown Ladies and other nameless ghosts, whose original purpose for remaining has faded with time, but who still walk the corridors of country houses, or haunt the cellars of castles, apparently manifesting some long-ago instense emotion – love, hate, fear, the need for revenge or a final farewell – leaving some kind of pattern in the fabric of time for sensitives to pick up on.
  • Animals react to ghosts in different ways. Horses sweat and shy, and dogs bark in the presence of a ghost, but cats enjoy the company of ghosts and are said to purr when they are around. The farmyard cockerel could banish ghosts and avert the evil eye, at least in the Hebrides. A cock crowing at dawn told the farmer it was safe to rise and begin his day’s work, for the spirits of darkness had all been banished. It was said that a cockerel could frighten away the Devil himself – one reason cockerels appear so often in church weathervanes.
  • Many of the old customs around the time of death and in connection with funerals, were not so much to honour the dead as to make sure they could not come back and haunt their fearful relatives. Touching the dead person, gently and respectfully, prevented the toucher from being haunted by the ghost of the corpse. It was also a way of proving that goodwill existed between toucher and corpse. A murdered man’s body was said to bleed if touched by his murderer.
  • Fairies were once believed to be the ghosts of those that had died before Christianity came to Britian, and of the stillborn and the unbaptised.
  • The festival of Samain or Samhain (pronounced sahwin or sowin), the Gaelic festival marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter (31 October/1 November – the origin of our Halloween) was a time when natural laws were suspended and ghosts and demons were free to roam. Samain was the beginning of the celtic calendar and signified both death and new life. This was the time for animals to be slaughtered to provide food for winter, and for sheep to be mated for next year’s flock.

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.


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.


  • Isn’t it rich?
  • Are we a pair?
  • Me here at last on the ground,
  • You in mid-air.
  • Send in the clowns.

Stephen Sondheim: Send in the Clowns

 Sorry about the pun. Couldn’t resist.

I’ve been thinking about doppelgangers – or doppelgänger if you want to be faithful to the original German. I mean, it is the sort of thing you think about, isn’t it? With Halloween coming up an’ all.

My first brush with these mysterious doubles took place, unusually for me, in real life rather than literature. I was in my twenties – a couple of years married – and had just started a job at a small publishing firm. This small publishing firm was at the far end of a dire industrial estate. I sometimes feel as if I have served time in every office on every dire, concreted-over, weed-and-speed-bump infested industrial estate in the South East of England.

We published two things, mainly – Book Auction Records and Art Prices Current. My official title was Editorial Assistant but all I had to do, all day long, was leaf through auction room catalogues converting catalogue entries into reference-book entries – selecting the required information and abbreviating it. This abbreviated gobbledegook then got transferred onto a white file card and filed into a filing cabinet. Our boss had a personal hygiene problem. One of the girls I worked with – a real hippie, with long blond hair done in those marvellous ripples you could achieve by plaiting and sleeping in the plaits overnight – used to file white cards at random:

Mr X should buy deodorant… Mr X niffs a bit.

I felt a bit sorry for him really, poor wee fellow.

Back to doppelgangers. One morning one of my fellow lady Editorial Assistants remarked in a knowing tone that she’d caught sight of me one lunchtime getting out of my car and going into some man’s house. This was in a road I had never heard of, in a part of the town that as far as I knew I had never visited. I had only moved into the area when I got married, from forty miles away. I told her she must be mistaken but she swore black’s blue it was me. Then someone else said they had also seen me, in another part of town. At this point I stated to worry, if only to myself. Could I have somehow visited these streets and these mystery men during some sort of sleepwalking or schizophrenic episode? When I continued to insist that I had never been there I got knowing nods and winks all round and realised it was hopeless – they were smugly convinced I was having an affair and had been visiting these unknown roads/men for some noontime nookie.

Then my husband came home one day and said the people in the newsagents round the corner from our flat had accused his wife of not coming in to collect and pay for the serialised sewing magazine she had ordered, and would he please ask his wife to pay up. He was annoyed. I was bewildered. I had certainly been into that shop once or twice but had no memory whatsoever of ordering a sewing magazine. I wasn’t even interested in sewing.

After I had protested my innocence at great and tearful length he said it was OK, but I could sense that he neither trusted nor believe me. And of course I could never set foot in that shop again. What sort of mischief was ‘other me’ up to? Was she deliberately playing tricks on me? After that I scanned the crowds for ‘me’ everywhere I went in the town but I never, ever spotted ‘me’. I came to the conclusion that ‘me’ existed purely for the purpose of being spotted by other people.

Writing this, I suddenly recall a poem I wrote there, around the same time – Remembrance Day, it was called. The poem has long since vanished. I can only remember one line, probably because it was the only line worth remembering:

While my green ghost stands behind me spending money.

Thinking about it does bring back the general atmosphere of the poem. It was written, unsurprisingly, on Remembrance Day (the eleventh day of the eleventh month) and was partly sparked off by the little wooden crosses with poppies on, arranged around a war memorial in a little park, the park being the space once occupied by the town’s main church, destroyed by a wartime bomb. There was just one small corner left standing, a kind of clock-tower. The rest was now neatly-mown grass, and a pathway, and this memorial surrounded in November by poppies and crosses, paying tribute to the dead of the two World Wars.

I remember standing around in the November drizzle staring into shop windows and wishing I had some money – any money – to spend on something. Retail therapy: I just desperately wanted to spend something, on anything, to make myself feel better. The green ghost was a kind of avaricious alter-ego. I remember being very, very unhappy in that God-forsaken seaside town that wet November, no doubt because I had married the wrong man and knew he was the wrong man even before I married him, and because there seemed to be no possible escape from the situation I had got myself into. I had thrown away my career for a lifetime of dead-end jobs and unhappy co-incarceration with a man who was wishing he hadn’t married me. In my misery, could I have somehow brought into being that ‘green ghost’, as young teenagers are said to create the poltergeists which wreak violent havoc on their behalf?

After four years we left that town and never came back, and as far as I know my double did not come after me. Is it possible she is still meandering round the old town, placing orders for things in newsagents and not returning to pay for them, visiting strange men and making sure people see her doing so? Maybe she doesn’t realise I’ve left…

… and with any luck she won’t be reading this blog.