On the whole I was not super-productive during lockdown. I was highly stressed and anxious and my concentration during those long bouts of not being allowed to see people, was dire. However, I’ve been self employed for most of my adult life, so I already know how to work from home and how to manage myself without any external input. Things like getting dressed and remembering to move about weren’t so hard for me, so in some ways I had a better time of it than many.
During the first lockdown, I accidentally wrote a book. I didn’t set out to write a book, not least because I never imagined we’d be locked down for so long. But, I wanted something to focus on and to share with friends, and so the Wherefore project was born. In the first few months of UK lockdown I recorded three episodes a week for youtube – with support and input from friends who both offered ideas and responded to what I’d put out.
As lockdown eased, I kept going, dropping from three episodes a week to one or two. By the summer there was a book’s worth of material, but I hadn’t run out of ideas. Which was as well as we went into winter lockdown and I needed to distract myself.
As a result I now have three books worth of material – silly and speculative fiction set around the Stroud area. I’ve just finished the third series. I may well do more episodes here and there but I’m not going to continue doing them regularly as there’s just too much else I need to be working on.
You can find all 3 series on youtube, and I’ve got pdf versions of series one and two – the third pdf will be along as soon as I can get it sorted.
Her face is marble smooth. No traces of those imperfections that speak of life and humanity. She could well be a doll. She might be loaded with botox and carved to lifelessness by the cosmetic surgeon’s blade. Equally, that waxy perfection might speak of death and careful preservation.
Life, after all, is messy. Her dress is vibrant, but anyone can put clothes on a doll. Fashion is not proof of life. Look closer and you will see five hundred feathers, each carefully attached to give colour to her costume. It does not seem likely that this bounty came from living birds. You wonder how much of a market there is, killing beauty to profit from the plumage.
You think about the softness of skin that wrinkles with time and use. The way pores open and close in a living face, and changing patterns of blood flow give away mood and emotion. Her pallid features will not flush with desire or embarrassment. She will not sweat in a hot room, or become flushed and undignified from too much alcohol. You will not find a stray hair growing from her chin, or a childhood scar on her forehead.
Still you cannot tell, is she a doll, or is she alive? You try to read her eyes, which are too large and too bright. But even so, you think there is something in her gaze that speaks of longing.
Does she envy your marked flesh? Can those perfect, glassy eyes see the marks that time has left on you? Does she know that your humanity is written in those countless tiny signs? And you, in your living skin with every story time has etched upon you, are more beautiful by far than she could ever be.
This fantasy novel by Jacey Bedford is due out in January 2022, but I had the lovely opportunity to read it in advance!
This is a fantasy novel set in a reality that is like our Earth but significantly different in various ways. The familiar aspects serve to rapidly ground the setting and there’s a good balance between what is familiar and what is fantastical. The action takes place in Europe, and we’re at a technology level that gives us printed newspapers, officers on horseback, guns and artillery. In a scenario where assorted small nations are jostling with each other, a King is murdered, and this where the book starts.
We follow a number of characters, including the man blamed for the King’s murder and the assassin hired to do it. I always enjoy stories that make me complicit with problematic characters, and Jacey does an excellent job of persuading us to like the assassin. All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions. The story is compelling and nicely paced while not being overly demanding.
There are a number of rapes and attempted rapes in the book – which are integral to the plot and to the backstories of some characters. Part of the story is about exploring the impact of these experiences, which is done in a thoughtful way. I hate it when rape is used carelessly as a plot device, but that’s not what happens here, and given the way the story circles several key events, if you needed not to read the more detailed bits it is easy to see them coming and it would be feasible to skip over them. There is a significant amount of violence, including horrible execution methods, torture, nasty injuries, slow deaths, so if you’re a squeamish reader this probably isn’t for you. If you like your fantasy on the dark side without it glorifying the more horrific elements, this book will suit you well.
What I found most interesting was the sexual content. There’s a lot of sex and no jealousy. There’s an attitude of positivity towards sex workers that I really enjoyed. While it’s clear that some of the cultures value virginity in women, none of the female characters are shamed for being sexually active or promiscuous during the story. Contraception is very present and treated as normal in the setting. There are some queer characters – all of the focal relationships are straight, but there is an important background queer relationship in there too. Sex for comfort and not underpinned by a romantic relationship also features. The book has a lot to say about consent, love, attraction, and relationships as various of the characters move through different kinds of relationships with each other during the story. It’s not a straightforward romance narrative, and features a number of relationships that are important to the plot but that have very different shapes.
The magic in this story will engage Pagan readers. The author is clearly well versed in all sorts of traditions so the magic is rich and well informed.
I enjoyed the language used in the story telling. Faux-archaic writing can be the bane of the fantasy genre, as can the habit of fantasy authors to invent language off the cuff with little sense of how languages actually work. I found the approach to language exceptional and highly effective. But then, Jacey is steeped in the folk tradition and it shows in the work.
For clarity, I do know the author and have worked with her in the past while we were both wearing entirely different hats. Back in the days when I ran a folk club, Jacey was an agent I worked with on a number of occasions. I’m a longstanding fan of her band (Artisan) and have seen her performing on a number of occasions over many years. This is the first novel of her’s that I’ve read, but there are others and I hope to get round to them.
I have a great love of the darker genres when it comes to films and books. I love gothic stories, and I am partial to the more psychological and monstery ends of the horror genre – relentless violence doesn’t do it for me unless it’s funny. However, I really don’t like dystopian stories and I’ve been thinking a lot about why that’s the case.
Gothic and horror stories are personal – it’s about the individuals involved. The monstrosity is personal, the horrors are perpetrated by individual people or entities or groups. This also means that the scope for overcoming the terrible things is both personal and possible, or you die trying. Stories in which there is a last girl standing, or in which someone thwarts the horror – even if they die in the process – are actually uplifting and cathartic in their own way. Stories in which people have to come to terms with the darkness comfort me in all sorts of ways.
Dystopian fiction has an impersonal quality to it. The problems are systemic and go way beyond the individual. Granted, sometimes you get stories about dystopian systems that the individual is able to take down, but for me that’s a differently shaped story. Really dystopian fiction may offer escape or reprieve to the protagonists, but the system itself remains. The surface of the story looks like a win, but nothing really changes.
There’s an additional problem here that dystopias often depend on taking something akin to the oppression suffered currently or historically by the global majority and asking what would happen if someone did that to white people.
I’m not convinced we do ourselves much good with stories in which winning is impossible and the system will crush or corrupt you. It’s something that bothers me greatly about the Aliens films, for example. A few people might survive a fight with the monsters, but the system that relentlessly brings them into contact with people while trying to capture and weaponise them, remains. At least with most monster films, there’s a point where they run out of desire to reboot and the monster stays dead.
There is of course a certain kind of comfort in dystopian stories. They tell us that it is ok not to resist, because resistance is futile. It’s ok to do nothing and accept what is done to you because fighting back changes nothing. This is a story shape that worries me.
The Bird Atlas by Anna McKerrow is a beautiful fairytale. It’s a fairly small book but I spent about a week reading it because I wanted to live with it, and because it is so rich that I didn’t want to take it in too quickly.
Wren is a spirit girl, from a long line of Bird Fliers. Her people carry the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Wren lives in a gothic house on the edge of our world – it’s just her and her grandmother and the girl is lonely, and frustrated. And so the tale begins, and we learn more of who Wren is as her journey takes her through time and to different places. In losing herself, Wren finds out who she really is.
I found this to be a really emotional read – there’s nothing graphic, but the story deals with bereavement and grief. I found it deeply affecting. There are also themes of forgiveness, self-forgiveness, working out how to move on – there’s a lot of life lessons here. It’s a book that could well turn out to be healing for anyone dealing with grief and loss.
This is a book that could be shared with a younger reader – it’s quite wordy, and given the emotional content probably isn’t suitable for the very small ones. I know I would have really appreciated it as a child- I struggled a lot with the concept of death and would have found this story comforting and helpful from an early age. If you’re not sure whether it would be helpful to a young person in your life, read it first.
For the grownups out there whose inner child craves fairy stories, this is a lovely read. It’s rich with ideas and enchantment, and is a warm hearted, emotionally reassuring sort of book. I thought it was lovely and very much recommend it.
Don’t be so vain, they said. Your pretty face is skin deep, it means nothing. The accident of good bones, good skin, inherited from your ancestors and just luck. Just because other people praise other girls for the accident of their face, don’t you expect anything.
It’s what you have on the inside that really counts.
Try harder, they said. Be faster. Why don’t you know this already? And don’t say it’s because no one taught you or showed you. You must be 100% all the time, and better than all the others at everything. You must be perfect, but you must also be modest. Don’t seek attention, don’t make a fuss, don’t you dare think for a moment that what you do makes you special or important.
But what does she have on the inside?
Rage. All the rage that has no way into the world. All the frustration of endless striving only to find that she has never reached the goal, never proved good enough fast enough. She is not perfectly perfect and superior to all others, she is only a small girl, full of anger that she is not allowed to show because that would be making a fuss and being a nuisance.
It’s what you have on the inside that really counts.
She is surprised when it emerges, but also relieved. Tearing through what was only ever skin deep. Not so pretty now. Tearing through the people who tried to control her. Not so biddable now. And when she stops tearing at herself with these many hands made of rage, she realises that she is bigger than she knew, and more dangerous than she feared, and she is done with their shit. And no one, no one is going to tell her again who she is supposed to be.
I have taken the earth colours into my skin. The signs and symbols of seeds are on me and inside me. I am the grain, I am the bright flowers feeding the bees. I am the seed who waits in the soil.
I am the seed collector. I take a part of what I find, never all. Vital to leave the makings of new life where I find it. The living plants do not need me to guard them, only to treat them with honour. I am the guardian of the plants who do not yet live, the ones who will flourish in times to come. I carry the seeds to new places, I plant hope.
There was a life before this life. I try not to think about it. I prefer not to remember who I was, or what I saw. There is a hideous monotony to war, to death, to destruction. It may shock and horrify you day by day, but it is only ever reduction, you only have less. There is just fear and grief, and more grief and trying to stay alive. In my mind it is a blur, a haze of pain. I do not want to remember.
I don’t want to hear war stories. I don’t want us to compete over who saw the worst thing, who hurt the most yet somehow lived. We are all marked, inside and out. I have tattoos to cover my scars, so that you will see the art on me first and not the damage. I have put my new story of seeds and life onto my skin to blot out what went before. When I look at my body, I see my chosen symbols, and not the damage done to me.
I am the person I chose to be when I had almost nothing left. My body tells that story well enough. I am not what happened to me, I am everything I decided on for myself.
Once there were magicians who made women out of flowers. They wanted women who were pure and innocent, and they understood neither womanhood, nor flowers. For in truth, flowers are promiscuous, happily opening their petals to one and all, welcoming insects, bats, birds, even the wind, depending on their nature. The magicians may have been clever, but they lacked for wisdom.
Why even did they crave purity? Well, the truth of it is that inexperience makes a person slower to detect the failings of others. The less you know, the more easily you may be persuaded that what you are experiencing is normal. Purity is no shield at all. But how can a woman made of flowers be innocent? Made of colour and joy and the exuberant sexual nature of the flowers themselves, the flower women were joyful, sexual, colouringful beings and not the meek creatures the magicians had hoped for.
Then there came a time when the land grew barren. With so many people and so few plants to feed them, the magicians wondered if perhaps they might make flowers out of women. They had learned the art that finds the seeds for all things inside all things, and so it was not difficult for them to make flowers in this way. They did not ask whether anyone wanted to be turned into flowers. However, it was a time of great sorrow and people who are in despair are not always careful of their own interests.
But still their plans did not meet with great success. They had looked upon women and flowers alike merely as objects for use. It is impossible to truly understand the world if all you can think of is how you might make use of its various parts. For all that they had great magic at their command, they did not put an end to suffering. Because of them, you will still sometimes find women who are really flowers, and flowers that remember being women, and many other strange confusions that their meddling has caused.
(art by Dr Abbey, story may or may not turn out to relate to other projects – I’m not currently sure!)
Wherefore was my lockdown sanity project in 2020. With prompts and supports from a number of good friends, I set out to write a barmy soap opera. Wherefore is set around the valleys of Stroud, and in it the area is populated with wizards and shapeshifters, as well as the performance artists and bemused poets it would be reasonable to expect.
There’s a mix of whimsy and seriousness. There’s a great deal of animism in the mix. Mostly my aim with this work is to amuse and comfort people. I am still somewhat surprised to find I can write about a novel’s worth of material in about six months as well as doing other things. I was incredibly prolific in my twenties, but I’ve slowed down a lot since then.
I’ve been doing this as youtube episodes – they average at about 7 minutes a shot, on the basis that many of us had no concentration to speak of last year. At the end of each series, the text gets polished up and released as a pdf – these are free, on the grounds that the videos are also free.
In the beginning, when the world was new, and dry and lifeless, the first God lay dreaming. All of what might be lay inside of the first God, who was nothing and everything. Life came to The Hand of God, and as the first God slept, she drew from him the seeds for all things.
They were all mixed together, these seeds. They were dreams of the world as it might one day be. One seed might become elephants while the one next to it would be acacia trees. From the tiniest microorganisms to the giants of the ocean, there were seeds, and The Hand of God took those seeds out into the world and tossed them far and wide.
Some seeds fell where they could germinate and live at once. Others lay dormant for a long time, waiting for the right conditions. No doubt some of them lie dormant still.
All the while the first God lay dreaming, replenishing his seed stock. He did not wake, or stir or act, having no desire to be in the world or to interfere in the lives of the seeds that had come forth from him.
The Hand Of God became her own self, and in time she took other names and titles. She is the sower of seeds and the gatherer of dreams. She is there at the planting and at the harvest, and to some she is Mother Grain. She is the woman with the open hand, all bounty and life flows from her.
The Sower of Seeds was the first of the Gods to walk upon the land. Amongst her seeds were the beginnings of all other Gods, and each emerged when their time came and they were needed in the world.
(A possible creation myth for the project Dr Abbey and I are developing. I had an initial idea about a seed sowing deity, but we talked about myths and what resulted was an image inspired by ancient Egypt, and this story. I’m also rather entertained by the implications this would have for a second coming!)