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Tuesday 31 August 2010

The tales of William Palmer

What if all the myths and folktales of these islands were true? And what if they were not only true but present now in our world? All the spirits, existing, as they have always existed, in the gaps between tower blocks, in the shadows under bridges, in the corner of our vision...
(from the Pilgrim programme info)

Stepping slightly off the crooked path of fairy tales and into the undergrowth of folklore that sprawls alongside, I wanted to let you know about Pilgrim, a wonderful series of BBC Radio 4 plays by Sebastian Baczkiewicz inspired by the folklore of the British Isles.

William Palmer is 900 years old—he was cursed by a fellow pilgrim on the road to Canterbury in 1185 for claiming that Christianity would wipe out the old beliefs. That pilgrim was the Lord of Faerie and William must forever walk between the worlds of the Greyfolk (them) and the Hotbloods (us). Pilgrim is a delightful—and frequently chilling—mix of tales old and new. The second series started today with The Drowned Church, and it's available to listen to online for the next seven days. There's also an interesting 'making of' blog post here. It's a series not to be missed!

Photo by Steve Bowbrick CC license: some rights reserved.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

On Anti-Tales

Robert Powell, Lance, 2008, watercolour etching

...most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode...
—Angela Carter, 1983

My two favourite things about going to conferences are meeting fascinating people, and returning with a notebook stuffed with names and links and titles and doodles—all of things I desperately want to find out more about. The Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment Symposium was no exception. It always takes me a while to unpack when I've been away (over a week later my rucksack still has things in it) but I thought I'd unpack my notebook a little bit here, and share some of the things I got a tantalising taste of and want to follow up on.

Over the course of two days there were 23 papers, 2 plenaries, an artist's talk and 3 fiction readings given. Researchers came from a range of disciplines and from universities around the world. Happily many of the papers given will be collected together and published by Cambridge Scholars publishing in 2011. I can't possibly do justice to everything that went on, so I'm not going to attempt to. I do hope the following links may be of some use though...

(apologies that this is in no particular order, and messy, like my notebook)

Tales and books I now want to read:
  • After hearing about Nalo Hopkinson's reimagining of Bluebeard in a postcolonial setting 'The Glass Bottle Trick', in a paper by Natalie Robinson, I really want to get my hands on Hopkinson's collection Skin Folk.
  • One of my favourite papers was Dr Jessica Tiffin's exploration of the vampiric versions of Snow White by Neil Gaiman and Tanith Lee, and of the unusual interplay between the gothic and fairy tale elements in these tales. I now really want to read Tiffin's examination of narrative and metafiction in modern fairy tale Marvelous Geometry.
  • 'A Suburban Fairy Tale' by Katherine Mansfield, covered in a paper by María Casado, is a brilliant tale I'd not come across before and really should have. It's available to read online here.
  • I was intrigued by humorist James Thurber's tales, covered in a paper by John P. Pazdziora. Thurber has been named as an influence by Neil Gaiman and I definitely want to read more.
  • Hearing about Rikki Ducornet's tales, in a paper by Dr Michelle Ryan-Sautour, was a revelation for me. Why had I never heard of Ducornet before?! I am now desperate to read her collections The One Marvelous Thing and The Complete Butcher's Tales. Hunting for info on her online I've come across this interview and this electronic chapbook (which features several of her tales and some of her artwork for the wonderful Borges story 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius'). Ducornet is also the illustrator for Kate Bernheimer's forthcoming collection of fairy tales Horse, Flower, Bird (another book I want!).

Some of the other writers covered (whose work I was already more familiar with) included A S Byatt, Roald Dahl, Sara Maitland, Margaret Atwood and, of course, Angela Carter.

Art and the anti-tale:
As well as literature we were treated to several papers on the anti-tale in the work of visual artists such as Dorothea Tanning (I have included her painting Birthday, to the right) and Paula Rego. The symposium also had a resident artist, Robert Powell (I've included an image by him at the top of this post). He is currently exhibiting his stunning work at the Henderson Gallery in Edinburgh.

In terms of film, a paper by Professor Suzanne Buchan on the Quay Brothers' Street of Crocodiles, followed by a screening of the film was a real treat. Buchan's paper also included what has to be my favourite quote from the symposium, taken from the Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin:
Children are fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked on. They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, carpentry, tailoring or whatever. In these waste products they recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together materials of widely differing kinds in a new volatile relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the larger one. The fairy-tale [sic] is such a waste product—perhaps the most powerful to be found in the spiritual life of humanity: a waste product that emerges from the growth and decay of the saga. With the stuff of fairy-tales the child may be as sovereign and uninhibited as with rags and building blocks. Out of fairy-tale motifs the child constructs its world, or at least it forms a bond with these elements.

(I found the quote online, in a paper by Buchan on 'Animation Spectatorship: The Quay Brothers' "Animated Worlds"', in EnterText journal)

So what is an anti-tale?
I'm not a literary theorist, or fairy tale scholar, I research fairy tales for fun (and get a lot of inspiration from them for my own writing along the way). Whilst the term anti-tale was used and applied widely at the symposium I think everyone had their own particular idea of what it means. Retellings, reimagnings, subversions, new tales—all can come under the banner of anti-tale if they are employing motifs, or themes, or characters from the glorious ragbag of traditional tales in non-traditional ways.

What the symposium brought to light, for me, was the sheer abundance of anti-tales in literature and art. And although anti-tales can be identified as being contemporaneous with the oldest known fairy tales, within 20th and early 21st century literature they would seem to be the dominant of the two forms.

Anti-tales and fairy tales draw from the same well of material, but, perhaps, where a fairy tale dips a sturdy wooden bucket beneath the surface, the anti-tale is as likely to use a glass bucket, or a plastic sandcastle one, or a shoe. We are lucky to have such a diversity of tales to treasure.

Many thanks to symposium co-organiser Catriona McAra for sending the photo of me above, and to her and David Calvin for such a fantastic event in all respects!

Thursday 5 August 2010

Guest post: Matthew Finch on ZooNation's 'Into the Hoods'

This summer, ZooNation’s Into the Hoods has returned to London at the Royal Festival Hall after an acclaimed 2008 season in the West End.

The ninety-minute urban dance show, which made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, follows a boy and girl who, venturing out of their playground, become prisoners of the landlord of the Ruff Endz estate.

At the outset, a narrator speaks over animations of an illuminated manuscript book and a twinkling music-box refrain, giving the gloss of tradition, but the MC’s announcement, ‘This is theatre…but this is hip-hop theatre, so MAKE SOME NOISE!’ lets audiences know that they’re not exactly in for Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen.

On the Ruff Endz estate, familiar figures from the world of fairytale are updated for the urban present. Spinderella is an aspiring DJ; ‘Prince’ is a Pop Idol reject, the estate’s ‘E-list’ celebrity; Wolf is a money-grabbing wannabe record mogul, while Lil Red dreams of singing stardom, and Jax of being a record producer, while the crimelord Giant does his deals from a penthouse at the top of the tower block.

The landlord makes a bargain with the lost children – he will give them money for bus tickets home if they fetch gifts for the 18th birthday of his daughter Rap-on-Zel: ‘An iPod white as milk, a hoodie as red as blood, weave as yellow as corn, and trainers as pure as gold.’

On their quest, the children interact with the iconic fairytale characters, who play out their stories in contemporary form – Wolf luring Lil Red into an exploitative record contract by impersonating her Grandma, Jax ascending to the Giant’s penthouse for a martial-arts faceoff, and Spinderella empowered to DJ at Prince’s ball, thanks to the gold shell-suited Fairy Gee, who dances to Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in this witty, energetic show – from the spot-on musical choices (Spinderella’s theme is the plaintive ‘Roads’ by Portishead, that of the Ugly Sisters ‘U-G-L-Y’ by Daphne and Celeste) to the inspired choreography, including a couple of eye-popping perspective shifts which allow the Giant to fall ‘away’ from the audience and Rap-on-Zel’s hair to be climbed across stage to the theme from Mission: Impossible.

The whole show is ripe with modern references – the due date for Jax’s rent is counted down as an homage to ‘24’, and pensioners dance off with zimmer frames and wheelchairs in a parody of It’s Like That, while Rap-on-Zel’s room is decorated with posters of Eminem, Foxy Brown and Missy Elliott…and prison-style tally marks scratched on her wall.

For fairy tale lovers, however, the most exciting change to the traditional stories lies in their juxtaposition. What were, in traditional versions, quest narratives with single protagonists, become the linked struggles of a community on the estate. Friendships and allegiances complicate the idea of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters – ‘Prince’ is unreliable and egotistical, but he gets on with Jax; the girls show solidarity with one another and are all equally immune to reject Prince’s advances; when Jax is evicted and left homeless, it is Lil Red who is there for him (they share iPod earphones and even have a romantic moment beneath a ‘’ billboard).

The production is punchy, unsentimental about its urban setting, but also true to the tales from which it draws, and positive about the human spirit to the extent that every character gets their happy ending (including the Ugly Sisters, who become a girl group lip-synching to the Shoop Shoop Song).

Kate Prince’s show remains an inspired and vibrant tribute to the power of the fairy tale, loosely adapted from Sondheim’s Into the Woods but by now very much its own work. It’s on throughout the first half of August at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, and well worth a visit for any lover of fairytales. You’ll find all the information you need for a visit at

Matthew Finch blogs at

Monday 2 August 2010

Quick Link: Top 10 transformations

A lovely list of transformation stories, compiled for the Guardian by Ali Shaw (author of haunting transformation novel The Girl with Glass Feet).