The Secret of the Selkies

Selkie by Natalie Reid

On Friday night the selkies will be climbing on land at the Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield....

If you are anywhere nearby, please join Fay Hield, Lucy Farrell, Duotone (Barney Morse-Brown), and me for an evening of music and spoken word about the seal people and the lore of the sea.

This event, sponsored by the University of Sheffield's Being Human Festival, continues one of the threads of work developed by Fay, Lucy, Inge Thomson and me for the Modern Fairies project. (Sadly, Inge can't be with us on Friday -- but Barney, who was also on the project, will bring his own considerable magic to the evening.) I'm so looking forward to seeing my MF colleagues again, and weaving spells of sea salt, music, and language.

All are welcome, and the tickets are free. For bookings and more information, go here.

The lovely selkie art by above is by Natalie Reid, created for the Modern Fairies project.


Recommended reading

Undine by Arthur Rackham

"Mermaids: What and who are they? What do they look like? How are they different from sirens? How are they related to other water beings around the world? What are the cultural, religious, and popular beliefs that sustain specific plots of human‑merfolk encounters? Why do we continue to tell stories about eerie mermaids and other water spirits in the 21st century?"

Fairy tale scholar Cristina Bacchilega answers these questions and more in her insightful, beautifully written essay "How Mermaid Stories Illustrate Complex Truths About Being Human," published today on Literary Hub. Please don't miss it.

The Little Mermaid in Her Element by Helen Stratton

Art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gannets at Rathlin Island by Angela Harding

I'm finally starting to write again after three hard weeks of flu. It's only for a little while each day, as I'm still in the last stage of recovery -- but its good to be out of bed at last, and I'm very glad to be back to Myth & Moor.

Let's start the week with songs of the sea: of sailors and selkies and all those who wait on the shore....

Above: "Forfarashire" by London-based singer Kirsty Merryn, with Steve Knightley (from Show of Hands). The song -- which appeared on Merryn's first album, She & I (2017) -- tells the story of Grace Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse-keeper, who rescued survivors from the wreck of a paddlesteamer

Below: "Shipping Song" by Lisa Knapp, also based on London. This piece, woven from the language of the Shipping Forecast (the daily radio broadcast of weather reports for the seas off the British coast), appeared on Knapp's second album, Hidden Seam (2013).

Above: "The Call/Daughters of Watchet/Caturn's Night" by Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater, based in Somerset and Devon. Watchet is a harbour town on the Somerset coast, its history bound up with fishing, farming, and mining. The song can be found on their joint album Findings (2017).

Below: "The Golden Vanity" (Child Ballad #286) performed by Iona Fyfe, from Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The song appears on her latest album, Dark Turn of Mind (2018).

Above: a gorgeous version of "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad #113) sung by Julie Fowlis, from the Scottish Hebrides, with the The Unthanks from Northumbria.

Below: another fine version of the same ballad performed by English folksinger Maz O'Connor, who grew up in the Lake District. The song appears on her second album, This Willowed Light (2014). The video was filmed by a member of The Icicle Divers Sub Aqua Club, based in Crewe. 

Detail from Seal Song by Angela Harding

The art today is by printmaker and painter Angela Harding, from Rutland, in the East Midlands of England. "For the past 10 years," she says, "I have worked solely at my art practice in the village of Wing -- which is very apt for a women inspired by birds. My studio is at the bottom of the garden and houses all I need to make my work, including a recently acquired Rochat Albion press. The studio overlooks sheep fields surrounded by gentle sloping hills. It’s not a dramatic landscape but somehow a comforting one and to me feels very much like home. The Rutland countryside does have a wealth of animal and bird life that is a constant inspiration for my work. Rutland Water is just over the ridge which attracts a great diversity of bird life that is world renowned."

To see more of her beautiful work, please visit her website and online shop.

Detail from Black Throated Diver by Angela Harding

Art above: "Gannets at Rathlin Island," and details from "Seal Song" and "Black Throated Diver." All rights reserved by Angela Harding.


Sentences & Mermaids

Sea Nymph by Edward Burne-Jones

It's my personal belief that it's not possible to be a truly good writer without a love of words and sentences. Plotting and storytelling skills will only you take you so far, for writing is the art of language: how it rests on the page, how it sounds in the mind's ear, how it sinks down deep like a stone thrown into the unconscious, leaving ripples of metaphor and meaning behind. Today's quotes come from a variety of writers, reflecting on sentences and the writer's craft.

The mermaid art is a response to the beautiful poems by Jane Yolen and Wendy Howe in the comments under yesterday's post.

Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Stanley Fish:

"In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, 'Do you think I could be a writer?' 'Well,' the writer said, 'do you like sentences?' The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that 'if he likes sentences he could begin,' and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. 'I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I like the smell of paint." The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabour it), is that you don't begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other."

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

Annie Proulx:

"A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say -- which is where a lot of writers stop -- and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story….

"There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works."

The Land Baby by John Collier

Barbara Kingsolver:

"My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it's because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head."

Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Ernest Hemingway:

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences and I have to get rid of them fast -- talk them or write them down."

Mermaid by Howard Pyle

Colm Tóibín:

"The sentences I write have their roots in song and poetry, and take their bearings from music and painting, as much as from the need to impart mere information, or mirror anything. I am not a realist writer, even if I seem like one."

Murmur of Pearls by Gina Litherland

Alice McDermott:

"I've got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them but by the language with which they're described."

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

John Burnside:

"I love long sentences. My big heroes of fiction writing are Henry James and Proust -- people who recognize that life doesn't consist of declarative statements, but rather modifications, qualifications and feelings."

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Gwendolyn Brooks:

"My sentences tend to be short and rather spare. I'm more your paragraph kind of gal."

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

John Banville:

"When you're writing there's a deep, deep level of concentration way beyond your normal self. This strange voice, these strange sentences come out of you."

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Wendell Berry:

"A sentence is both the opportunity and limit of thought-- what we have to think with, and what we have to think in."

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing

Jhumpa Lahiri:

"Even printed, on pages that are bound, sentences remain unsettled organisms. Years later, I can always reach out to smooth a stray hair. And yet, at a certain point, I must walk away, trusting them to do their work. I am left looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have structured one more effectively."

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

Zadie Smith:

"Don't romanticize your 'vocation.' You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no 'writer's lifestyle.' All that matters is what you leave on the page."

Looking for mermaids

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

 The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Myths & shibboleths

Jana Heidersdorf

From Startle & Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing:

"Writing is a mysterious process, and this vagueness about it makes it into a mystique. Writing is so various; it rises up from so many curiously undetectable springs, it has so many contradictory intentions, and critical judgement swings so wildly that what is good writing in one decade is execrable in the next.

"Like every mystique, it has its sets of shibboleths, its injunctions and freedoms, some of them true or untrue, helpful or harmful, and a good many constitute a systematic discouragement for the beginning writer. Let me mention a few of these myths.

Jana Heidersdorf

"Writing is a performance. This statement has the impact of aphorism, and aphorism is something we must fix with a wary eye. It sounds good; therefore it must be true. Most writers will say that writing is a matter of groping your way to some kind of truth, an act of exploration. Joan Didion plainly said that she writes so she can know what she is thinking, and V.S. Pritchett, a writer I particularly admire, said that he wrote so he could feel out the surface of what he is and where he lives. Notice the implicit modesty of these statements. And notice the moderate though not unintelligent voice. And notice how these assessments remove the burden some writers feel that they must make every word shimmer and every insight dazzle. Survey the whole field of fiction and you will see that pyrotechnics are only a small part of it. There is a great deal of moving people around and listening to what they are saying.

Jana Heidersdorf

From the ''100 Mermaids'' project by Jana Heidersdorf

"Another injunction, a double one this time. All fiction is a form of autobiography. And the command: Write about what you know. This is a serious problem for a beginning writer since there's a good chance he undervalues what he knows and a good chance, too, that he doesn't want to risk exposure. Writers of course draw on their own experiences, but the fact is, few draw directly. As Alice Munro wrote in an essay entitled 'What is Real' in the magazine Canadian Forum, she requires for her fiction a portion of actual experience that acts as a kind of starter dough -- I'm assuming you're familiar with bread-baking terminology. John Irving, a writer I have grave reservations about, said in an essay that his writing comes out of the act of revising and redeeming actual experience. Pritchett goes all the way, saying a fiction writer's first duty is to become another person.

Raven Boy by Jana Heidersdorf

"One of the most discouraging admonitions is this: Don't write until you have something to say. How often have you heard that one? Clearly everyone has something to say, whether she writes it down or not. You don't get to the age of six without knowing fear or intense happiness. You don't get to the age of twelve without having suffered. You don't arrive at eighteen without knowing what it is to love someone or, just as painful, not to love someone. Everyone has something to say; it may not be codified or arranged in the neat linear patterns of philosophy or the point of view of political commitment or as a moral conviction, but the raw material is there, the 'something' to write about.

Jana Heidersdorf

"There's a novel in everyone. You've heard this one. It's a myth that has suffered misinterpretation. There probably is material enough and more in every life, but does this mean that anyone, given time, can write a novel? Time is what you sometimes hear people say they need. In fact, I have heard of one writer who got so tired of hearing people say 'I'd write a book if I had the time,' that when he came to write his autobiography he titled it I Had Time. Time isn't enough. Skills of observation and skills of language (attention to rhythm, extension of vocabulary and distortion of syntax) are required. A feeling for structure. Stamina -- for it takes an extraordinary effort to write even a bad novel or completed short story.

"Finishing has always seemed important to me. The end of a story is as important as the process. The feeling of completion, however imperfect, is what makes art -- when we feel something being satisfied or reconciled or surrendered or earned."

Jana Heidersdorf

About the artist:

The imagery today is by Jana Heidersdorf, a young illustrator and animator in Germany whose art is inspired by folklore, fantasy literature, and the natural world. Her work is filled with animals, birds, and various forms of aquatic life, viewed through the lens of myth, surrealism, and the darker side of fairy tales. "There is mystery in unpredictability and wildness," she says. "I have an undeniable romantic side that idealizes the rawness and chaos of nature, especially opposed to our need as humans to categorize and order everything. One of the reasons I primarily like to draw animals, or at least non-humans such as mermaids, is that we cannot apply our set morals to them. They can be scary or dangerous, but never evil. That’s something that fascinates me."

To see more of her magical art, please visit her website and Tumblr page.

Jana Heidersdorf

Words: The passage above is from Startle and Illuminate: Carol Sheilds on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016). All rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: Jana Heidersdorf's art above includes illustrations from her "Raven Brothers" series, inspired by the Grimms' fairy tale The Seven Ravens, and from her "100 Mermaids" project. Identification can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Victoria and Tilly, south Devon

This morning, the call of the sea...and life on the coast....

Below: "The Call/Daughters of Watchet/Caturn's Night" by singer/songwriters Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater, from their gorgeous album Findings (2016). Hardy is based in Somerset, and Drinkwater in Exeter, here in Devon.

Above: "The Bow to the Sailor" by Ange Hardy, from her beautiful solo album The Lament of the Black Sheep (2014). The video was filmed on Watchet beach, Somerset.

Below: "Boat" by  alt-folk band Flats & Sharps, based in Cornwall. This charming song appears on their first album, King of My Mind (2017).

Above: "In Spirit,"  a new ghost ballad by Kim Lowings and the Greenwood, from the English Midlands. The song appears on their recent album Wild and Wicked Youth (2017).

Below: "Lady of the Sea" by Seth Lakeman, about a shipwreck off the Cornish coast. I never get tired of this one, which is from an early album, Freedom Fields (2006). Lakeman is from here on Dartmoor.

One more: "Alive" by Skippinish, an alt-folk group from the Scottish Highlands. The song appears on their new latest, The Seventh Wave, and the video is just lovely.

Post script: This upbeat music was chosen and posted before I heard the news of the shooting in Las Vegas. My heart goes out to all friends and family in America.

Me and Tilly, north Devon

Photographs: Our daughter and Tilly on the south Devon coast; me and Tilly on the north Devon coast, near the Cornish border.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Jeanie Tomanek

Tales of sailors, stars, and storms this week, from London and the West Country....

To begin with, two songs by Emily Mae Winters, a singer/songwriter whose work is inspired by history, myth, and literature. Winters was born in England, raised on the Irish coast, and studied music and theatre at Central in London. Her debut album, Siren Serenade, is due out in April.

Above: "Star," a wonderful song referencing a classic poem by John Keats.  The video was filmed in the "Poets' Church," St Giles in the Fields, in London. 

Below: "Anchor."  Both songs can be found on Winters' Foreign Waters EP.

The next two come from The Changing Room, an award-winning music collective in Cornwall performing songs in both English and Cornish. The group centers on songwriters Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain, working with a range of musicians including Jamie Francis, Evan Carson, Morrigan Palmer Brown, Kevin McGuire, John McCusker, and Belinda O’Hooley.

First, "The Grayhound," a song about Cornwall's lively history of smuggling; and about the ships, known as revenue luggers, whose aim was to hunt the smugglers down. Second, "Gwrello Glaw," a Cornish-language song about weathering storms both real and metaphoric. Both pieces come from The Changing Room's fine second album, Picking Up the Pieces (2016).

And to end with today:  "The Bow to the Sailor" by singer/songwriter Ange Hardy, from Somerset. It's from Hardy's third album, Lament of the Black Sheep (2014), which is lovely -- as is all of her work.

Jeanie Tomanek

The art today is by Jeanie Tomanek. Please visit her beautiful website to see more.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

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Away With the Birds by Hannah Tuulikki

I'd like to follow up last week's music (classical compositions inspired by birds) with Hanna Tuulikki's Away With the Birds, a project exploring the mimesis of birds in Gaelic folk songs. Tuulikki is an English/Finnish artist based in Edinburgh, known for creating interdisciplinary works rooted in myth, folk history and the natural world. In the video below, she gives a talk explaining the genesis of Away With the Birds:

"The idea for the work grew out of an interest in music from around the world," Tuulikki says, "noticing that in cultures where people have an intimate connection with the land they are also good mimics of the sounds around them, and their music seems to grow directly from this relationship. I believe our music, and even our language, originated and evolved from our listening to the sounds of the animate landscape, or what eco-philosopher David Abram calls the more-than-human world. So I began a journey looking for this kind of sound-making process closer to home..."

To learn more about Away With the Birds, go here...and then follow the link at the bottom of the page to the project's interactive website, where you can explore "two hours of film, half an hour of music, over two hours of commentary, field recordings of over twenty birds, fifteen drawings, and audio recordings of nine Gaelic songs and five poems. "

The Wildscreen event where Tuulikki was speaking was a celebration of natural storytelling held in Glasgow, Scotland last May. In the video below, from the same event, Scottish singer Julie Fowlis performs two Gaelic songs about seals: "An Ron" and "Ann an Caolas Ododrum." She's accompanied by Donald Shaw (from Capecaille) on keyboard, backed up by gorgeous film clips of seals and shore birds from the BBC series Hebrides.

Grey Seals (from the Hebredies tv series)

To end with, here's Julie Fowlis again, performing "Smeorach Chlann Domhnaill" at the Folk Awards in 2015. Hank by Carson EllisThe song includes the following words (in translation):

A mavis, I, on a mountain top,
Watching sun and cloudless skies.
Softly I approach the forest
I shall live in otherwise.

If every bird praises its own land,
Why then should not I?
Land of heroes, land of poets...
The abundant, hospitable, estimable land.

Illustration by Honore Appleton

The image at the top of this post is by Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova. The seal photograph is from the Hebrides tv series. The drawings are by Carson Ellis and Honor Appleton (1879-1951). More avian folk songs can be found in "Going to the Birds." For avian folklore:"When Stories Take Flight."


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Isle of Eigg

Today, music from the Songs of Separation project: the brainchild of folk musician Jenny Hill, conceived during the contentious run-up to the referendum for Scottish independence. Hill's idea was to bring ten English and Scottish women folk musicians to a fairy tale island off Scotland's west coast to create an album reflecting on "separation" in its many forms.

"Celebrating the similarities and differences in our musical, linguistic and cultural heritage," she writes, "and set in the context of a post-referendum world, the work aims to evoke emotional responses and prompt new thinking about the issue of separation as it occurs in all our lives. The collected songs aim to get to the heart of what we feel when we are faced with a separation, both good and bad."

The musicians (along with Jen Hill) are: Hazel AskewJenn Butterworth, Eliza CarthyHannah James, Mary Macmaster, Karine PolwartHannah Read, Rowan Rheingans, and Kate Young. They spent an intensive week planning, rehearsing, and recording the album on Isle of Eigg in June 2015 -- including recordings made at the two sites central to the ‘Big Women of Eigg’ legend.

Above: A short video on the making of Songs of Separation, which includes fascinating discussion on the project's theme, on the creative process, and on the role of folk arts in society -- a perfect combination for Myth & Moor.

Below: An even shorter video from project's video diary, documenting a group sing, in Gaelic, with the Isle of Eigg community, along with a glimpse of that beautiful landscape. (You can view the other "Daily Reflection" videos on the project's YouTube channel.)

Next, two songs from the album itself.

Above: "Echo Mocks the Corncrake," featuring Karine Polwart. As Helen Gregory notes in her insightful review of the album, this traditional song "contains subtle political content and references to at least two forms of separation, even though it’s often thought of as a simple love song. The lyric tells of a young man whose partner leaves him for the bright lights of Ayr (located on 'the banks o’ Doune'), an act of separation which is one manifestation of the rural depopulation occurring as a result of the impact of the spread of industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries, further exacerbated in Scotland by the greed-fuelled brutality of the Highland Clearances. And the corncrake? The subject of the separation of humankind from the natural environment is key: habitat loss has meant that the numbers of this migratory bird have declined across the British Isles since the mid-19th century. Consequently, corncrakes are now restricted to Ireland and the northern and western islands of Scotland including, of course, the Isle of Eigg. So it’s fitting that 'Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ opens with a field recording of the bird’s distinctive krek krek call which sets the rhythm of the piece, picked up by percussive beats on a variety of instruments ahead of Karine’s vocals."

Below: "It was A' for our Rightfu' King," written by Robert Burns in the 18th century, arranged here by Hannah Read. "The song is inspired by the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, lead by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720 - 1788)," explains Pauline MacKay. "The Jacobites sought to restore the deposed Stuart dynasty to the Scottish and English throne. The Jacobites were defeated at the battle of Culloden in 1746, forcing Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee to the highlands. He eventually reached Europe where he died in exile (in Rome). In this song a young woman laments the failure of the uprising and her Jacobite lover's absence from Scotland."

For those of us who have been following the project since it was first announced, the good news is that the album has now been released, and has proven well worth the wait. For those new to the project, you'll find more information on the Songs of Separation website, and updates on their Facebook page.

There's also a concert tour in the works -- but if you can't make it to any of the tour locations, perhaps you'd like to help someone else attend through a random act of musical kindness. (I'm assuming they'll continue to run the "Save Our Seats" program for other venues on the tour, though it's not listed on the website yet.)

The musicians of the Songs of Separation project


One last post on the magic of water

Morning coffee

This morning, in a pause between rain showers, I took my coffee break out on the hill with The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen in my bag and the hound at my side. This lovely little edition from A Midsummer Night's Press contains poetry rooted in fairy tales, folklore, and myth -- including five gorgeous selchie poems, and one based on The Little Mermaid. I recommend it highly.

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