“Dublin Folk Tales” by Brendan Nolan (2012)

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dublin“It is very hard to be a storyteller in Dublin for everyone has a story to tell if you will but listen.”

Earlier this year I read Sussex Folk Tales, which was exactly what it said on the tin. About this time last year I was in Dublin and picked up this addition to the series because, well, I like a story.

As in the Sussex book, it lists a number of stories that have survived down through the ages that took place in and around Ireland’s capital. Most of them seem to take place more recently than those from Sussex and are far more focused on people than on fantastic creatures. Granted, there are a few about ghosts, pig-faced women, and monstrous creatures that stalk and kill through the streets at night, but the vast majority look at some of the city’s more eccentric residents.

Some of the characters here are well known, like Molly Malone, and it seems Dublin has hosted numerous famous people from the annals of history such as St Valentine and Little John, of Merry Men fame. Most of them, though, are just ordinary people. There’s Bang Bang, a simple-minded man who would pretend to shoot city residents with a key, delighting when they joined in and shot back or pretended to die. There’s the unsolved murder of Sarah Kirwan who may or may not have been drowned by her husband, the tales of headless coachmen who came to claim the bodies of the dead, the legend surrounding the famous Ha’penny Bridge, and the story of the coal that seemed to produce a miracle, and the Devil’s personal visit to the city’s Hellfire Club.

The stories aren’t ordered by area or age, but form a mixed bag of stories both entertaining and interesting. Dublin is a beautiful, colourful city and it is tales like this that will ensure it remains so. Just a short review today, but if you like Ireland, tall tales or spooky events, give this a go.

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“Sussex Folk Tales” by Michael O’Leary (2013)

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sussex folk“When I was asked to tell stories at a place called Gumber Bothy, I thought it must be somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.”

I suppose that most people have a fondness for wherever they were brought up. Or, at the least, a fondness that means they can insult it but heaven help an outsider who tries. I happen to hail from Sussex, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful and interesting county (or rather, pair of counties, as it is divided into East and West) in the British Isles. Home to Rudyard Kipling, Simon Cowell, Virginia Woolf, Sir Patrick Moore among others, it also holds the claim to originating thirty variety of apple, and being the last place Lord Lucan was seen before he disappeared.

But Sussex is old, being one of the first places colonised in the British Isles as it used to be linked to the continent. It’s where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 (near the town of Battle, not Hastings), and where the Home Guard of Dad’s Army were ready to fight on the beaches in World War Two. It has had a long history of mystery, magic and a fair bit of smuggling. Over time, stories have laced the landscape, from Gatwick Airport in the north and Brighton in the south, from West Wittering in the west, to Rye in the east. This book fills us in on those stories.

Moving around the county in a widdershins direction (anti-clockwise), O’Leary tells us many strange legends and myths. He is a professional storyteller by trade and argues that he’s not a folklorist, so cannot give explanations for anything that happens; he’s just interested in the stories themselves. He’s clearly passionate about his subject too, and constantly professes to us that he isn’t lying, because what would he have to gain from that? I’m prepared to accept all the stories as true.

It’s hard to say how many of them are well known to the wider world, but being from around here, I knew of a few of them. There’s Devil’s Dyke, a valley dug by Satan himself in an attempt to flood the county’s churches. He was bested by Old Nan, an elderly woman who lived in Amberley Swamp and turns up in numerous tales. She tricked him into fleeing before he’d finished, leaving behind an unfinished furrow and clods of Earth that became the South Downs and the Isle of Wight. Old Nan was known to be too, as I live near Nan Tuck’s Lane, a forested road where her shade still haunts and there’s a patch of ground among the trees where nothing ever grows. I was also aware of the Piltdown Man, who is not only a famous archaeological hoax, but also a strange Frankenstein-like creature who can catch you unawares as you drive through the village of Piltdown.

But there were so many other stories I had no knowledge of. There’s Lord Moon, the creepy moonlight trickster who leads people to their doom; Elynge Ellet, the frog-like demon who lives in marshland and steals your favoured possessions; Daniel Ratcliffe, the King of the Cats who walks on his hind legs and has no time for humans who are stunned by his ability to speak. And that’s before we get into the numerous knuckers (dragons) and pharisees (fairies) that seem to populate every lake and hill respectively within the county borders.

O’Leary also gives details on other stories that are well known but perhaps not usually linked to Sussex. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, the ship doomed to never arrive at shore, begins in Sussex when a man who killed his brother is sent to sea for penance, and Little Bo Peep is said to have originated somewhere in East Sussex. We learn why the Long Man of Wilmington is lacking in the private department (and why the Cerne Abbas Giant seems to be packing spare), what lives down in the Mixon Hole, and discover that folklore is still developing and growing with the new legend of Trevor’s Boots.

I may be biased, but when I stood last week looking out across the South Downs from atop the Seven Sisters cliffs (they’re probably the ones you mistakenly think of when you think of the White Cliffs of Dover) I find it impossible to not love Sussex, and this book brings home some of the magic therein. I’ve you’ve not been before, pop down and have a look round. I’ll get the beers in.

“Generation A” by Douglas Coupland (2009)

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gen a“How can we be alive and not wonder about the stories we use to knit together this place we call the world?”

The bees are dying. No one really seems to be able to explain conclusively why this is, but the fact remains that global bee populations are dwindling. It might not sound terribly important, but bees are one of the primary pollinators of the world. Not only would a loss of bees mean a loss of honey, but we’d also lose dozens of crops, among these being watermelon, tomato, tangerine, sunflower, strawberry, raspberry, quince, pear, onion, mustard, lime, kiwi, hazelnut, fig, fennel, cucumber, cranberry, cotton, cauliflower, carrot, broccoli, blueberry, apricot and apple. I’m not going all environmental on you here, but I’m just setting up the world we’re about to enter in Generation A.

It’s the year 2024 and bees have died out the world over. Juice is synthetic, cotton clothing is a thing of the past, and everyone feels a bit guilty about the fact they let it happen. As such, most of the world has become addicted to a new drug called Solon, which gives the user a feeling of solitude that is at one calming and addictive. Once you start taking Solon, you stop caring about anything else.

Then, quite out of the blue, Zack, a corn farmer in Iowa is stung by a bee. Before he even has much time to register what has happened, he is pounced on by the authorities, zipped up into a bodybag and transported to an anonymous room somewhere deep underground where scientists proceed to conduct tests on him. Not long after this, four more people are stung. Sam in New Zealand, Julien in France, Diana in Canada, and Harj in Sri Lanka. The same fate befalls these stingees too, and once they’re kicked out of their holding cells, they find that they have become the most famous people on the planet and can barely move without being surrounded by people demanding autographs and DNA.

The five realise that they have to be together, and the opportunity comes with a scientist called Serge has them all transported to a quiet island off Canada, a place where Solon is banned and the natives only tolerate their presence because they might bring the bees back. There, not far from the site of the last hive (now a UNESCO World Heritage site), Serge has them tell one another stories, telling them that it is all part of a scientific experiment, one that may change the future for humans and bees alike.

A spiritual sequel to Generation X, this book too deals with lonely people who have tried to escape the world. It’s also all about stories and the power of storytelling, although this time suggests that the stories the characters tell actually have a physical power. It’s fun to read the narratives the characters come up with, as they start inserting in-jokes into them and making them connect with those of the others.

Zack is a reprehensible character, but actually very likeable. Sam and Harj tie for the nicest characters in the book; although she is reeling from the fact her parents have just informed her that they don’t believe in anything anymore (which may or may not be connected to the fact they’ve started taking Solon), and Harj has faced much hardship since his family were swept away by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and now idealises America and the life one can make for oneself there. Julien is the least likeable, being pretty stuck up and apparently determined to blame anyone but himself for his failings. Diana is the least interesting of the five. She has Tourettes, but it feels like it’s a trait that’s been tacked on to make her more memorable.

The drug Solon reminds me hugely of soma, the hallucinogenic drug from Brave New World. They’re both used freely by the masses who seem unable (or simply unwilling) to take notice of the fact that they’re probably doing their bodies and minds much more harm than good. The idea of a drug that placates the population is a horrifying one and almost pushes this book into dystopia territory. However, I think it maintains a little more hope than some dystopias. The world has not quite fallen apart, but things are not as they once were. It’s not really about the bees; it’s about how humanity is slowly eating away at itself and one day it will be too late to undo all the damage we’re currently inflicting on the world and ourselves. Coupland once again stands firm and shows how much he understands the world, displaying his usual frightening clarity. While not my favourite of his books, it’s a strong contender.

I’m almost done with Coupland now. I’ve re-read all his books, as I said I would way back when, and now I’ve just got one more to go, his newest novel Worst. Person. Ever. which I’ve never read. Expect that one along soon. Meanwhile, I’d like to say that if you ever think you should re-read an author you loved, do it. You’ll only fall even more in love with them and their work.