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September 2015

Revisiting the myth of Odysseus
3rd September 2015 - 12 Midnight Christopher Rush

 

AccPenelope's Wevlaimed novelist Christopher Rush developed a fascination with The Odyssey at school, a legend he revisits in his new novel, Penelope’s Web. Here he explains why Homer's epic account of a ten-year journey home remains a cornerstone of Western culture.

 

 

Penelope's Web took me five years to write, though I could say I’ve been writing it all my life. I was born in a little east coast Scottish fishing village, St Monans, in 1944, and the sounds and scents and shapes of the sea worked their magic on me from the start.

 

In my teens I attended Waid Academy in Anstruther, Fife. It was a secondary school founded by a naval man for the sons and daughters of drowned skippers and sea-captains. I was taught English by a remarkable schoolmaster called Alistair Mackie. Mr Mackie had few fixations other than poetry and the translation of poetry from European languages. One of these fixations was Odysseus, the old fox, the crafty seafarer, the war veteran and hero who overcomes impossible odds to return home and slaughter the men who have been attempting to seduce his wife in his long absence.

 

Under Mr Mackie’s tutelage I too became fixated on Odysseus, in whom I found a metaphor for the human struggle, the pull and counter-pull between war and peace, home and the unknown, stress and calm, the security of the harbour and the huge pull of the tide, which tugs at the heart like an infant at the nipple. Odysseus is hungry for skylines, suckling his blood, and he obeys that call, even while he homes in on Ithaca, his roots and hearth-ease, the lure of his wife, the thirst for revenge. What happens when he does get back cracks open the bloodiest climax in literature. But apart from the violence, Odysseus is for me the paradox of man, of all of us, caught between content and discontent, the faithful husband and the free spirit, seduced and tortured by gods, monsters, songs, women, wine – and war.

 

The OdysseyOld stories long to be re-told. But re-tellings are not enough – they have to be re-imagined. When I first read The Iliad and The Odyssey, I realised that here was the greatest war story and the greatest travel book of all time, also the story of literature’s greatest survivor, a man scarred by war and flawed by his humanity. It was only when I looked at recent and current conflicts in the Middle East, in parts of the world not all that far from Troy, and learned more about the problems experienced by returning soldiers, that I asked myself what it was really like for the men who fought and died at Troy, as they still do in the killing zones we see and read about daily, nightly. What was it really like for Odysseus, coming back?

 

In the Greek myth his wife Penelope has been busily weaving a web, a shroud for her father-in-law. It is a ruse to keep the suitors at bay. I decided to take up the story at the end. Even after her husband returns and wipes out the suitors, Penelope can’t stop weaving. Instead she weaves an account of the war, and of her husband’s wanderings. It is a very different one from the blunt and brutal one he gives her. This allowed me the opportunity to comment on the gap between the realities of war and the myths and lies we continues to propagate. It let me draw parallels between ancient and modern conflicts, and to show that little has changed, except for the weaponry. In the Trojan War, Helen was the weapon of mass destruction, and Greeks went to Troy to find her. In reality she was not the reason for war, she was the excuse, and when leaders want wars, excuses will serve as well as truths. Truth is the first casualty. At the end of the novel Odysseus opts out of all of it, and sets out on a final voyage of departure which I feel transcends anything I’ve ever written. The world we live in is a brutal, beautiful place. There is no better mirror of that beauty and brutality than the Bronze Age world of the Mediterranean, the world of which Odysseus finally takes his leave.

 

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The giants of London
3rd September 2015 - 12 Midnight Carolyne Larrington


The Land of the Green ManAmid a history full of battles and kings, there is another, eerier Britain, steeped in legend, full of dark forests, druidic mysteries and creatures usually only seen out of the corner of the eye.

 

The Land of the Green Man is Carolyne Larrington's journey through the supernatural landscapes of the British Isles: the marshes and moors, riverbanks and rockpools that given rise to myths of a myriad of creatures.

 

As well as elusive creatures such as barghests and selkies, goblins and water-horses, there are the giants who bestrode the land in ancient times and, as Carolyne explains, two of them, Gog and Magog, have long watched over London.

 

 

 

Giants are traditionally associated with wild, uncivilised places, the high moorland or the mountains; in British folk-tale they are traditionally rather stupid, throwing stones about and acting in impulsive rage, in ways that change the landscape completely. Yet Anglo-Saxon tradition imagined the giants of the past as city-builders and skilled workers in stone.

           

The Anglo-Saxons did not know how to build in stone when they first arrived in the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries, preferring wood and wattle-and-daub for construction. Those splendid cities: Verulamium, Deva, Eboracum (St Albans, Chester and York, respectively) built by the Romans were probably scarcely maintained after the legions were recalled to Rome, and their stone structures must have fallen into dangerous disrepair. Only later in the Anglo-Saxon period did the immigrants start to build in stone, often dismantling parts of surviving Roman buildings to provide ready-worked stone for their new projects. Quite a few Old English poems refer to stone buildings as ‘the ancient works of giants’. The poem The Wanderer associates crumbling, snow-covered walls with giants, while in the wisdom-poem known as Maxims II, cities (ceastra – deriving from Latin caster ‘camp’), with splendid stone ramparts are said still to stand; they are described as orþanc enta geweorc (the well-thought-out work of giants). This resonant phrase haunted JRR Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, who chose Orthanc for the name of the great tower of Isengard, the headquarters of the wizard Saruman, in The Lord of the Rings.

 

Guildhall giantsGog and Magog, (the biblical giants mentioned as a pair in Revelation 20 rather than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s single emblematic giant), are patrons of the City of London. Enormous wooden statues of the two giants stood for centuries outside the Guildhall; their first incarnation was burnt up in the Great Fire of London, while the second pair, installed in 1708, were casualties of the Blitz. Their current replacements, carved by the sculptor David Evans, stand nine foot three inches tall and were installed inside the Guildhall once more in 1953 (see picture). Magog traditionally bears a phoenix on his shield, symbolising rebirth from fire. Since 2006, Gog and Magog have once again led the annual procession at the Lord Mayor’s Show. Reconstituted by the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, these huge wicker figures are light enough to be carried, though they are perhaps as dangerously inflammable as their unfortunate predecessors. Their cousins include the Gigantes celebrated yearly in September in Barcelona, and the hugely popular marionette Giants who have appeared more than once in Liverpool, dramatising the city’s connection with the Titanic in 2012, and its history in World War I in 2014.

 

These urban giants fulfil multiple roles. In Thomas Boreman’s Gigantick History, published in 1741, they are said to symbolise the fact that ‘just as much as those huge giants exceed in stature the common bulk of mankind’, so the City of London towers above all others in defending ‘the honour of the country and the liberties of this their City’. But Gog and Magog have a larger function, I think, speaking very clearly to the dualities which giants symbolise. On the one hand, in their embodiment of nature, as huge and terrifying, they are co-opted to warn all supernatural evil forces that the City can call on powerful and determined guardians to repel its enemies. ‘Our’ big friendly giants make valuable allies and dangerous foes. And on the other hand they re-introduce the natural, the non-human into the city. They remind the city-dwellers that there are forces which, despite their ingenious technologies, their concreting over the clay, humans cannot control, and which they must remember to propitiate. Gog and Magog also recall to the merchants and moneymakers of the City how the land and its resources underpin the wealth generated in the buildings they guard; they foreground an ecological awareness in the metropolitan environment, bringing nature back to spaces where the green world seems to have been banished.

 

The land of Britain traditionally is shaped, originally inhabited and guarded by giants. The giants of London intersect with the modern conception of the Green Man and other protective nature spirits, the spirits who bring the green into the city, the wild back into the civilised and who call into question the idea of progress and culture. Yet there’s always something melancholy about giants; they seem to belong definitively in the past and their legends are often sorrowful in complicated ways. The Anglo-Saxons understood this when they associated giants and ruins, both markers of a time gone before, a time which can never be recovered.

 

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Age is not important (unless you're a cheese)
1st September 2015 - 12 Midnight Sarah Ward

 

In Bitter ChillIn Bitter Chill is a first novel by Sarah Ward that shows how the darkest secrets are often those closest to home. It opens in Derbyshire in 1978, when two girls go missing: Rachel returns, Sophie is never seen found.

 

30 years on, Sophie's mother takes her own life, which reopens old wounds for Rachel. She comes to realise that the only way she can have a future is to finally discover what really happened all those years ago.

 

As the Prime Writers group have highlighted recently, the book world's focus on young talent has seen many excellent older writers overlooked. As an author in her 40s being published for the first time, Sarah looks at the advantages of experience.

 

 

I’m not sure there’s an ideal age to publish your first novel. I think the book appears when the time is right whether you are 18 like Françoise Sagan when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse or Mary Wesley who had her first adult novel published at the age of 71. Good writing needs time and a certain amount of confidence in your own abilities. These come to people at different ages.

 

However, unlike other professions, age can be a positive advantage when writing. Older writers have a raft of their own experiences to draw on and a mature outlook on the world which is a gift when chronicling the foibles of others. This is particularly true of crime fiction. Some of this country’s best crime writers began their careers over the age of 40.

 

Cover Her FaceLee Child wrote The Killing Floor at 43 after being made redundant from his job as a TV director. PD James combined a successful career as a civil servant with that of a crime writer, publishing her first novel, Cover Her Face at 42. And Colin Dexter’s first Inspector Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock was published when he was 45.

 

What’s interesting about these three writers is the confidence which marks their debut novels. Child admits to studying the genre to see what other books were out there and what the essential elements were of a crime novel. Dexter was already a writer of academic textbooks and his novels are marked by an intellectual playfulness. James wrote in firmly in the police procedural tradition, drawing on the structure and characterisation already laid down in the Golden Age period of crime writing. You could argue that the maturity evidenced by these writers first books are a reflection of their confidence in their place in the world.

 

This isn’t to denigrate younger writers. There are plenty of debut novels from authors in their twenties and thirties that are excellent. Claire McGowan’s The Fall, published when she was 28, highlights the disparity between rich and poor neighbourhoods. It’s hard to imagine a older writer detailing so confidently a murder taking place in a nightclub.

 

The joy of crime fiction is that there’s something for everyone, from comforting cozies to hard-edged noir thrillers. They’re written by writers of all ages and both genders are well represented. It’s a democratic genre and it’s reassuring to know that there’s no cut-off date to create the book that you’ve always wanted to write.

 

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Latest Blog
Revisiting the myth of Odysseus
03/09/2015

Christopher Rush developed a fascination with The Odyssey at school, a legend he revisits in his new novel, Penelope’s Web. He explains why Homer's epic account of a ten-year journey home remains a cornerstone of Western culture.

The giants of London
03/09/2015

The author of the The Land of the Green Man, an exploration of Britain's rich supernatural heritage, looks at the history of the two giants who have long watched over the City of London.

Age is not important (unless you're a cheese)
01/09/2015

As a writer in her 40s being published for the first time, Sarah Ward, author of In Bitter Chill, looks at the advantages of experience when it comes to writing fiction.

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