Viola stories

The viola in this photo has had quite a journey. It was, many years ago, part of Portsmouth Sinfonia – a 1970s student project that was about participation rather than skill level. The viola went to The Albert Hall as part of this. 

Quite some years ago, I knew the owner of the viola through Druid circles in the Midlands. When she left the area and needed to downsize, she offered me the viola because she hadn’t played it in a long time. At that time I was mostly playing violin, but I was not the sort of person to turn down a free instrument! 

My primary musical collaborator at the time had a stringed instrument that mostly played in Bflat, so I down-tuned the viola to make it easier to play with him, and I learned a few tunes on it, and took it to sessions for times when having an option on keys with flats in was handy.

I’ve been a violin player since childhood. Not because I had any particular interest in the instrument at first, but because there were free lessons at school. What I really wanted was to play the harp, (proto-druid issues) but there were no harp lessons to be had, so I learned the piano and the violin. The logic was that I could get into the orchestra and then somehow options would appear – which they did not. I was a mediocre violinist at best during that time.

In my late teens, I started going to a session at my local pub, playing with The Old Spot Pickers – and there I started learning how to jam in with other musicians. There were a lot of them, and they were loud so it was easy to be quiet and join in. Actually falling in love with the violin didn’t happen until I got to the Midlands in my twenties. Suddenly there were a whole lot of musicians I wanted to play with, and that made me practice. That in turn led to spending hours every week playing with other people, which grew my skills considerably.

Shoulder damage made the violin impossible to play, and when I came back to Gloucestershire  I had no one to play with. However, I’m back in a position of there being multiple musicians I am keen to do music with, and lo and behold, I’m motivated to practice again. The larger body of the viola is feasible for my damaged body, and that’s all working out well.

I didn’t choose the viola. It happened to me. It’s been a gift in every sense, and increasingly a blessing, opening up possibilities and connections that otherwise I would not have had. I’m playing with a number of people and there’s more of that to come, that’s now obvious. There are three other musicians I’m going to be working with (Robin Burton, Keith Errington, Jessica Law)  and I’m looking forward to talking about that as things progress, and at some point having videos to share. There’s also scope around this to form up as bigger bands, depending on need, so The Ominous Folk (usually four of us) is going to have a big band version, we’re Robin’s Minstrels when we’re at The Folk of Gloucester and other possibilities also exist. Adventures, there will be many.

Book review: Spells for the Second Sister by Nimue Brown

Merry has written some very lovely things about my novel, Spells for the Second Sister. You can find the ebook over here

Meredith Debonnaire

Book cover has a greenish background, lighter at the top fading to blue mist at the bottom. Large peastalks grow up through it. The same person at different stages of her life is represented, sthe youngest at the bottom and the oldest standing near the top of the page looking at the viewer. She is white, with dark hair and strong eyebrows. The book title Spells for the second sister is across the cover in whiteSo here we are at the start, which is clearly not the beginning, it is just the point at which you have jumped in.

I first read this book back when it was a word document, and I loved it then. Having an actual physical copy in my hands was very exciting indeed! Spells for the Second Sister is rather hard to describe: we follow Kathleen Sylvia West at seven year intervals in her lives (yes you read that right), as she encounters woodlands that are bigger on the inside, strange men in cottages, eats far more cold baked beans than anyone deserves to, and her life becomes increasingly bizarre to the point of absurd. It is an incredibly emotionally touching story, which is a skilled thing to be able to write into absurdity.

Kathleen is a narrator I am definitely a bit in love with. She’s angry, and unreliable…

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The world is full of magic

As a child, I craved magic. There was a hunger in me for wonder, for awe and for something to take me beyond what I saw as the ordinariness of everyday life. Fantasy fiction featured a lot, alongside fairytales, folklore and mythology. I wanted actual talking animals, walking trees, women of flowers who turned into owls. Her especially.

I thought that maybe there was an age at which the magic would just turn up. A lot of fiction aimed at children suggests this, and as an adult I don’t think it’s a very helpful idea. There was no door in the back of the wardrobe – I checked, repeatedly. The Goblin King did not come and take me away, despite repeated requests. It felt like the magic was always somewhere else, somewhere out of my reach, promised but never given.

All too often, the ‘magic’ aimed at children is just a marketing strategy. There’s a lot of money tied up in buying the magic for the young humans, and not just around Christmas. And for every adult trying to sell you fake-magic there’s another one ready to crush the breath out of the magic you found for yourself. Trapped between the two, so many people grow up jaded, and disenchanted.

When I was a child, I had a cat who always knew when I was in trouble. She was a little black cat called Holly, and she would invariably turn up to comfort me when I was distressed. Now, cats are often sensitive creatures and will move towards people to comfort them in times of distress. Purr therapy is most assuredly a thing. Holly would do that for anyone who came into the house who needed cheering, and was reliably kind to angst-ridden teens. 

It went far beyond that, however. There were times when I stood at the window, looking out at my parent’s garden and crying, only to watch that little black cat appear. She spent a lot of her time out in the field, or the wood beyond it, far away so that she could not have heard me. But she’d known, somehow. She’d known when I needed her most, and came running to me, repeatedly. Her affectionate headbuts and purring comforted me more times than I can count. She might not have been able to talk out loud, but she spoke with her whole being.

It’s funny looking back at my childhood perceptions of things. I grew up with ghosts, but it bothered me that I could not shoot sparks out of my hands – although what I’d have done with that, I do not know. I wanted to see things other people could not see, and know things other people did not know. I think in essence I needed some justification for why I felt so at odds with the world, and with most of the people around me. Magical powers would have been a good explanation for why I never felt like I fitted or belonged.

There was one book which particularly helped me, though, and that was Paul Gallico’s The Man Who Was Magic. What stuck with me most from that book was a comment about how the cows were magicians, making grass into milk, and that the world is full of magic and transformation. It really is. Magic is everywhere, life itself is a wonder and a miracle, and you don’t need to be able to shoot sparks out of your fingers for it to be true.

I didn’t get to the sparks bit until I was a teen – it turns out I’m good at building static charges and in the right circumstances I can give people little electric shocks.

Druidry and Protest

Justice is very much a consideration for Druids, and protest can be part of how we seek justice. However, it’s all too easy for protest to be a sort of self indulgent performance piece that doesn’t lead to change. Shouting some slogans, waving a banner and marching about can feel powerful and important, but that’s not going to result in justice all by itself.

Protests have to be targeted so that the people who should be making change feel pressured to do so. That means taking the action to the right people. Three protestors outside the local bank aren’t going to change the company policy. Three protestors outside every branch plus media/social media coverage have a shot at it.

Protest has to be clear – it’s not just about having a lot of people protesting. You have to be clear about the change you’re demanding. You have to be able to express that in a way that brings people in rather than making enemies. This may be a particularly good area of protest for Druids to engage with, and is certainly where bards should dig in. Communication is vital for making protests work. People engage more with emotive content, but push too far and this works against you. If the emotive aspect of the process makes people feel powerless, fearful or overly guilty, they won’t come onboard.

It is really important to be for something. Protesting can tend towards resistance and being opposed to things, and sometimes that’s really the best focus. However, alongside that, you have to keep a sense of what it is that you are for. Being against things becomes exhausting all too quickly. You can raise up a lot of anger around fighting something, but that is more likely to burn people out than sustain them. If you’re involved in protest for the long haul, this is a really important issue.

For protest to work, there has to be a sense of consequences for the people you are trying to pressure into changing things. It is important to consider the ways in which you are prepared to escalate if your protest doesn’t work. If there’s no threat, the protest can and will be ignored. With politicians, it’s the threat of not being voted for, which means you have to persuade them enough people care about the issue in the first place. With companies, the best threat is the loss of revenue. Sometimes the threat of public shaming can get things done. We know from history that sometimes protests have only worked because they’ve escalated into mass strikes, riots and other forms of violent expression.

Peace is often considered to be an important part of the Druid path. However, genuine peace is not founded on oppression or injustice. A peace maintained by sacrificing the vulnerable, harming the planet or allowing unjust things to occur, isn’t peace, it’s capitulation. It’s important to think about what we’re prepared to put up with for our own comfort, and how much privilege we have when we choose to do that. At the same time, the potential for violence is a complicated issue if your personal dedication is to peace. 

Increasingly I think we’re all going to have to consider how uncomfortable we are willing to be, what kinds of risks we are willing to take and what our priorities are. With physical protest being made harder in the UK, we undoubtedly need to either be more innovative, or more inclined to deploy in huge numbers.

Druidry and the open heart

Something the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids taught me was how to be more wholehearted and open hearted – the two very much go together. Druidry is a world-embracing, life-celebrating sort of path, and to do that, it is necessary to be emotionally open.

That doesn’t mean being obliged to go through life with your heart on your sleeve, totally vulnerable to everything and everyone. Boundaries can be good, helpful, needful things.

That said, as a younger human I was decidedly full on, and unboundaried. As a consequence, I was desperately vulnerable and took a lot of damage, to the point of becoming unable to meet the world in an open hearted, wholehearted sort of way. 

I have missed that version of me. I have missed my own courage and ridiculousness. I like me better when I’m throwing myself wholeheartedly into things, without fear of the consequences. This year I’ve started doing that again, I think in wiser ways.

The world is a big place, there are many souls in it, unthinkable amounts of possibility and more options than you can throw your ogham sticks at. Open hearted and wholehearted still gets a vote in where to direct that. It doesn’t have to mean being buffeted endlessly in any and all directions. It doesn’t mean having to welcome everyone who seems to be moving towards me. There are, after all, only so many hours in a day so it makes sense to pick the directions I’m going to hurl myself in.

I’m picking my directions, and I’m hurling myself. I’m open hearted enough at the moment to be able to love the brightening blue skies of spring and the abundance of wildflowers out there. I’m back to being able to take giddy joy in a song and to get excited about the idea of doing things. Having spent far too long feeling empty, I’m finding there is a capacity to pour something of myself into the world again. It no longer feels like bleeding out. It feels like becoming a spring, or a well and having a flow within me that I do not need to protect. 

The experience of flow is vital when it comes to being a spiritual person in the world. You can’t pour endlessly out of yourself with nothing coming back in. The quality of what you’re experiencing is, over the longer term, going to inform what you can do. None of us exist in isolation, and that web of connection Druids like to talk about is extremely relevant when it comes to us as individuals.  You can’t be a meaningful part of that web if you can’t show up and be open to it.

When we’re lifted, supported and nourished we can do more. When what’s around us is grim and exhausting, our own resources will be depleted by this. It’s worth looking at the kinds of psychological and emotional ecosystems we’re operating in. Where is it possible to build virtue cycles, so that good things can be built on top of each other? Where is it impossible to make any meaningful change? 

Increasingly, I’m looking for the spaces and relationships where it’s all about lifting each other. I’m identifying places where turning up wholehearted gets something done. Rather than hurling myself at situations that are like brick walls and rows of spikes, I’m hurling myself at spaces where if I play a tune, someone else might feel inspired to dance.

Mystic Beach – reviews

I picked up these three books from the Mystic Beach series to review, because I thought they looked like fun. The series itself is much bigger, but these three books are closely related and need reading in the right order! Happily the author has a website with substantial notes about how the books relate to each other, content warnings and other useful stuff.

I don’t normally read books from the same author back to back, but I did with these three, flat out during a very rough few days, punctuated by a lot of sobbing. If you’re in a bad place and need some catharsis, these certainly do the trick. There’s also comfort – I find – in watching fictional characters making awful choices and messing up their lives yet somehow pulling through it all in the end. There’s hope to be found in the idea that you can mess up badly and still come through ok.

The plot involves a rock band who become super famous, some reincarnation romance, people making terrible choices and a litany of dire relationship mistakes over 15 years. It’s unusual to see a romance played out over such a long time frame and I liked watching characters evolve over time in that way. There’s a surprising amount of Paganism in here once the first book gets going, and I really liked that aspect of it and the relationship between love and sacredness in the story.

The sex is (by my kinkster standards at least) mostly vanilla, with a teensy bit of kink. The romances are straight. I think if you’re picking up a romance series about rockstars in a setting with magical and paranormal elements you probably aren’t looking for realism, but at the same time, there’s enough that’s grounded here to keep the fantasy feeling plausible, which is good. And Gods know, we could all do with some cheery fantasy content here and there. There’s an interesting tension between the joyfulness of everyone’s career highs and the gutting relationship disasters.

There are some difficult themes in these books – abusive fathers, dead mothers, suicide, bullying, fat shaming, slut shaming… there was more of the substantial content than I’d been expecting. This is handled deftly, with a light touch that doesn’t diminish the importance of these topics, but also probably won’t shred you unless you’re already feeling raw to begin with. The emotional angst will probably shred you though and that’s clearly very much the intention. 

I thought I was going to be reading a lightweight distraction. What happened instead is that these books turned out to be very timely for me, and I found comfort and wisdom in them, and far more psychological insight and relationship insights than I anticipated.

More on the author’s website

Ebooks, Publishers and going full circle

Electronic publishing began in earnest long before social media really existed and when many people weren’t online. Twenty years ago we relied heavily on egroups – mostly Yahoo groups to find each other and share books. Tiny publishing houses proliferated, and sold books directly to readers. Some of those houses grew enough to be able to afford artists for book covers, which is how Tom and I met.

When Amazon got into the ebook market, it was because that market already existed. Their early policies made it hard through to impossible for small houses to keep publishing via their own websites. Of necessity, we had to all sell through them, accepting a loss of control and lower income on each book in the hopes of reaching a wider audience, and of not being made obsolete. 

Many of the more successful ebook houses at that time were selling smut, and the kind of material you couldn’t get elsewhere. I watched Amazon have rounds of shutting down kink authors, shutting down queer authors, changing the rules, changing the rules again. Mostly as a company they seemed torn between the desire to make as much money as possible, and the censoring urges of the occasional Puritan they’d somehow employ. It was not fun being part of a small publishing house while that was happening.

Things evolved. Amazon got into print on demand. Other sites become more open to small houses, although that has everything to do with distribution now. One of the key things for a small publisher is to be able to get in with a distributor so that your books show up in online stores and can be ordered through physical bookshops. At this point, this is one of the major differences between self publishing and being published. As a self published author you may not be able to manage getting your print books distributed, at which point doing print on demand books with Amazon can make a lot of sense.

At this point, there are enough ways of getting your book out that Amazon can’t afford to have policies that entirely lock authors into working with them. And so it is that we’re coming full circle and seeing publisher websites offering both ebooks and hard copies. Even the bigger publishers are doing it. This is a reaction to the mess the publishing industry is in, which is in turn about the attitudes of publishers to not growing authors and not investing in marketing. Books do not magically sell because someone has published them and I really wish more publishers actually understood this. A staggering number of people in publishing seem to think that books just sell by magic.

Diversity is good, and massive corporations are problematic in so many ways. If you like an author, it is worth buying directly from the publisher if you can. Authors are usually paid a percentage of what the publisher gets, and when the publisher gets the full cover price, that really helps the author. When you see a book on sale in a supermarket for a few pounds, the author will be getting pennies for each copy sold. It’s just another bit of modern capitalism that really doesn’t work and there are parallels in many industries.

John Hunt Publishing has started selling directly, so if you’re looking for my traditionally published Pagan titles, do please have a look.

The rules of trauma

(CW: Details of triggering processes but not of traumatic experiences)

I’ve got the kind of brain that has always tried to figure out what the rules are. I seek patterns, I have a huge need to understand what’s going on, and to make sense of things. This week it struck me that this will have had implications for how I’ve dealt with traumatic events.

I’ve been going through some triggering (as one does) and while that’s horrible, it’s also the time when it’s most possible to expose the mechanics of the thing. So, here we go…

Triggering itself happens because something in the current situation brings the previous trauma up in such forceful and immediate ways that there are invasive thoughts, flashbacks, or the emotional impact of the past seeps into the present. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve needed to use the skills I developed to deal with a previous awful situation. No surprises that I haven’t been coping so well.

However, what’s struck me is the way in which my brain has created some kind of rule set to go with the previous distressing experience and how much my brain wants to apply those rules to what’s going on now. My need to understand things is such that I am, in a weird way, happier having a clear idea what the rules are. Terrible things that make sense are less awful than not knowing what’s going on.

I don’t have to be at the mercy of this. Yes, there are parallels, but no, things going on right now are in so many ways radically different from the situation they evoke. I do not have to let the past become a rule set for understanding what’s going on right now, nor are those older experiences a meaningful guide to what to expect.

Even more startling, is the realisation that sometimes there may be no rules. There may be no underlying order that I can uncover to make sense of things. There are probabilities, possibilities, theories, there are ways of using the past to map the possible future, and it is fine to think on those terms. The very idea of not knowing the rules and needing to figure them out comes out of experiences where I’ve been frightened, socially alienated and unable to cope – and that goes all the way back into my childhood. 

I’m not the sort of person to believe you always have to find a silver lining. Sometimes things are just shit and happen for no reason at all. At the same time, I’m in a position where I’ve been able to take some crappy experiences and use them to reconsider how I relate to myself and my history. I can unpick this relationship between hideous experiences and the idea that those form a pattern for what to expect, because that’s clearly not true. I can recognise my rule-seeking thoughts as a valid defence mechanism for dealing with threat, but I don’t have to go ahead and keep applying it.

Sometimes there are no rules. What one person does, is not a reliable tool for predicting what another person will do, no matter how distressed I feel or how similar situations feel. Parallels are not proof of anything. Just because I have learned to be afraid, does not mean that I need to keep feeling afraid.

Piano Dreams

Back in my teens, I had some memorable dreams about living under a baby grand piano. I played the piano from aged eight into my early twenties, and I admit to seriously coveting baby grands. Especially Broadwoods – which used to be made locally. 

A little while back on Facebook, author and artist Imelda Almqvist asked something about dreams in relation to instruments (it was a while ago, I don’t remember the prompt). I shared my dream, and she’s gone on to make this amazing piece of art inspired by it.

I’ve been a fan of Imelda’s work for years, and I own one of her originals. 

Pianos are very much an ancestral thing for me – I learned to play on my grandmother’s piano, in the house that had first belonged to my great grandparents. My son taught himself to play one autumn, on that same piano, in a house that (with he and I living with it) had been a home to seven out of the last eight generations of my family. There is of course also an ancestry of tradition, because of the piano music that I greatly loved when I was learning to play, and all of the people who played that work before me.

Find out more about Imelda’s work over here –

More than colouring in

The photo is from last week’s gallery show, where we took Hopeless, Maine original art out in public. I admit that I felt a bit fraudulent as we put the work up – most of what’s on the walls, I had coloured and I felt very odd about having my work in a gallery. Through the week, as people came in and asked who the artist is, I have mostly pointed at Tom.

In comics work, it’s entirely normal for people to do different jobs. Drawing, colouring, and inking are often handled by different people. It’s not even a comics specific issue – famous painters often had teams doing work for them. I live just down the road from Damian Hurst’s art factory and it would be fair to say he isn’t the only person working there. There’s also a place near here that makes big sculptures for artists.

However, when we think about art, we often think in terms of the single artist alone doing their thing, and not the process that involves many people. It’s the same with books, and in both cases most often it is the work of the wife of the artist or writer that disappears from view, these days. 

So here I am, not disappearing but standing next to the work I coloured. And yes, every now and then some bright spark insists on phrasing that as ‘coloring in’ which evokes the kinds of things children do with printed images. Being a colourist is very different from colouring in. My colour choices have to support the work as a whole, and have to be to a certain standard. 

I’ve been through some anxieties along the way because my colouring is so different from standard digital colouring. But, as we’ve seen more generic AI art in recent months, I’ve been ever more aware of the advantage of having a personal style and the obvious presence of a physical medium. Even when scanned and tinkered with using art programs, what Tom and I do retains the signs that someone physically created it, and increasingly I’m recognising that as a good thing.

I like helping create images, and I like having this be part of what I do. Writing is always going to be my primary focus as a creator, but I need the music and the visual art, the dancing and crafting and all the rest of it. I’m happier with more diversity in my life.

It’s also worth noting that there are diminishing returns on doing one thing all the time. Doing one thing for an hour or two every day will eventually make you an expert. Doing one thing for four hours a day won’t make you an expert twice as fast. There are things about how we learn and grow that work at their own speed. If I spent ten hours a day writing I would not progress more rapidly as a writer. If I spread myself around a bit, I can have more skills at a decent level, and I find I prefer that.