Wunderkammer: Edmund, The Martyr King

I was in Bury St Edmunds this week, taking a breather from writing The Mighty Healer. I’m immersed in research about Bedlam lately, and there’s only so many times one can read the phrase ‘urine-soaked straw bedding’ before depression sets in. So I thought I’d take a break and return to my comfort zone: hideously brutal martyrdoms.

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I photographed this statue of Saint Edmund outside Bury cathedral. In recent years, the interior has been restored to its colourful medieval self, all sky blues and reds and golds, like something a child might paint. The nearby abbey was badly hit during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries – only a few romantic ruins remain – but the site was once a popular pilgrim destination: the shrine of Saint Edmund, martyr king of England.

StEdmundsburyAbbeyPanoramaEdmund was the king of East Anglia during the 9th century. Now the patron saint of wolves, pandemics, and victims of torture, Edmund’s feast day – the 20th of November – marks his death at the hands of Ivar The Boneless during the Viking invasion of England. He is considered by some to be the true patron saint of England. In fact, he was until 1348 when he was officially replaced by St George, presumably because an armour-clad hunk thrusting a spear through a dragon is a more respectable national emblem than a weed with a bowl-cut meekly accepting a beating from a gang of Danes.

St George being of Greek/Palestinian blood, he doesn’t make an awful lot of sense as Patron saint of England beyond the ‘slaying things is wicked cool’ angle. There’s a campaign to reinstate St Edmund; I met a few of the supporters in 2006, just before Parliament rejected their petition to bring him back. They’re still going, if you’re interested.

After killing Edmund, the Vikings managed to erase almost all contemporary evidence of his reign. We really know very little about the man, but Anglo-Saxons being Anglo-Saxons, we have some nice accounts of his death…

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Saint Edmund the Martyr King of England – Luc Olivier Merson

“King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. Lo! the impious one then bound Edmund and insulted him ignominiously, and beat him with rods, and afterwards led the devout king to a firm living tree, and tied him there with strong bonds, and beat him with whips. In between the whip lashes, Edmund called out with true belief in the Saviour Christ. Because of his belief, because he called to Christ to aid him, the heathens became furiously angry. They then shot spears at him, as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog (just like St. Sebastian was).

When Ivar the impious pirate saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with resolute faith called after Him, he ordered Edmund beheaded, and the heathens did so. While Edmund still called out to Christ, the heathen dragged the holy man to his death, and with one stroke struck off his head, and his soul journeyed happily to Christ.”

– Ælfric of Eynsham, Old English paraphrase of Abbo of Fleury, ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’.

st-edmundIvar had Edmund’s severed head thrown into the woods. Edmund’s followers searched for him, calling out “Where are you, friend?” the head answered, “Here, here,” until they found it, clasped gently between a wolf’s paws. The villagers then praised God and the wolf that did His work. It walked tamely beside them before vanishing back into the forest.

Wolf Guarding the Head of St Edmund by Doris Clare Zinkeisen

Wolf Guarding the Head of St Edmund
by Doris Clare Zinkeisen

The 14th century poet John Lydgate called the “precious charboncle of martirs alle”. If you believe Lydgate, Edmund performed dozens of miracles after his death, including setting fire to an uncharitable priest’s house, materialising before the Danish King Sweyn and stabbing him with a spear (because you would, really, wouldn’t you?), and my favourite, catching a Flemish pilgrim in the act of stealing jewels from his shrine whilst pretending to kiss it. Edmund miraculously glued the pilgrim’s lips to the shrine until he apologised.

Right! Back to Bedlam.

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Review: Horsehead

nightmare I used to be able to dream lucidly. It took practise. I had a notebook covered in Chinese silk that I kept beside my bed. Whenever I woke from a dream, I’d turn on the light and immediately write every detail down. After several weeks of this, I was an active player in my subconscious world. I could choose where to walk, what to look at, when to fight and when to run away. I wouldn’t call it fun – to be inside and outside one’s body simultaneously – but it made me aware that the world of dreams is as real and as valid as the waking one. You can find answers there that you can’t in daylight.

That’s the premise of Horsehead, a 2014 horror film directed by Romaine Basset. Jessica, a young woman studying the psychology of dreams, travels to her mother’s home in France for the funeral of the grandmother she never really knew. Relations with her mother aren’t any better, and when Jessica goes down the with flu, dreams are her only escape from their bickering. The fever, coupled with the bottle of ether she keeps sniffing, makes for some horrifying dreams, and she is quickly confronted by a horse-headed priest-beast called The Cardinal. When it emerges that her grandmother committed suicide, Jessica must follow her spirit deep into the subconscious mind to discover the secret The Cardinal is guarding with his scythe.

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Firstly, this film pushes all my aesthetic buttons. Everyone will recognise the Fuseli Nightmare painting above, and most scenes are shot in that kind of amniotic red darkness suggestive of opiates and deviance. It’s all very consciously Angela Carter-esque, with shades of The Company of Wolves in the costumes and the inventive gore. (Mild spoiler: it’s not a gory film, per say, but if pregnancy-related violence is too much for you, you might want to give Horsehead a miss.) Jessica’s mother lives in the kind of pretty, cobbled French village no normal human being could ever afford a house in, but by night it descends into medieval darkness. The quaint, winding streets take on a haunted quality as Jessica roams them in her penitent robes and Riding Hood cape.

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There’s a constant sense of unreality which might annoy some viewers. Everyone speaks in an overly-deliberate way, even when Jessica is awake. George, the baritone caretaker, verges on something from The Dark Crystal, though the echoing industrial soundtrack (free of jump scares) keeps the film from becoming ridiculous. I liked that about Horsehead. If you’re going to have a literal horse-headed monster lumbering about, unreality is something you need to embrace with enthusiasm. Though the family do keep the dead grandmother upstairs for an awfully long time.

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If you enjoy visually-striking, thought-provoking horror or fantasy, you’ll likely love Horsehead. If you prefer quests and defeatable demons, however, there’s likely more reading between lines than you’ll have patience for. Horsehead belongs thoroughly in the realms of the subconscious.

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Welcome to Cryptspace

Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs – my peculiar little novella of magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish – goes out into the world today. Thank you to everyone who’s already pre-ordered the paperback. Help yourself to cake.

It's what he would have wanted.

Lenin cake. It’s what he would have wanted.

Get Beauty Secrets from Amazon, HeffersFoylesWaterstonesBarnes & Noble, or ask your local bookseller to order it in. (Ebook formats will follow shortly.)

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Silvan, at home in Dubrovnik

While you’re waiting, have a peep inside the cover…

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Pre-order Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs

My novella of magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish is now available to pre-order in paperback all over the show.

beautysecretsGet it from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, or scare the living daylights out of your local bookseller by walking in and actually buying something. Alternatively, get your local library to order it in.

If you end up liking it, it’d be lovely if you left a short review somewhere or told your fantastically-minded friends.

(Ebook formats will be coming soon.)

Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs from blessedwhiteeyesore on 8tracks Radio.

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Review: The Man Whose Mind Exploded

“I just want them to take you seriously.”
“Is that possible?”

drako2Drako Oho Zarhazar had seven lives. Having survived two nervous breakdowns, two suicide attempts, and two comas, he was left with a brain so damaged it could no longer record new memories.

In his second coma, he experienced enlightenment in the form of a voice telling him:

TRUST
ABSOLUTE
UNCONDITIONAL

The words were tattooed on his body, along with tribal mandalas and what appears to an enormous celestial ram doing the splits. Born in 1936, Drako lived his last years in a council flat in Brighton where he was a familiar character, sweeping around town in a cape, telling ladies at the bus stop how he was once Salvador Dali’s angel and supplied The Rolling Stones with weed. The aristocratic RP and circus strongman panache might lead you to assume this was a deluded poseur – it’s Brighton, after all – but in Drako’s case, it’s all true.

drako Toby Amies’ The Man Whose Mind Exploded peeks in on the life of this magnificently peculiar man, his wild past, and surreal, sad twilight years. Drako lived alone, experiencing each day afresh. “Do you remember me?” the filmmaker repeatedly asks. “Not especially, no.” But he was, as he put it, happy to be used. Drako was nothing if not an exhibitionist. Which perhaps you can tell at a glance.

Amies spent four years getting to know Drako, in the disjointed, repetitive way brain damage requires. The distance a filmmaker is meant to keep from his subject is breached from the start, giving the film an intimate edge which makes for high emotional impact. Amies was practically Drako’s carer, urging him – and sometimes pleading him – to take more care while candles burned amongst his toppling stacks of art and scribblings. It was an inferno waiting to happen, but Drako liked it that way.

Tout_Love_hands_tattoo-814x545“I love it all,” he would say, again and again. “The theatre of life.”

This is no pity party, nor would Drako want it to be. He laughed often, spicing up his musings on art and faith with seemingly random instances of surreal filth, simply because he liked it. It’s kind of endearing, once you get used to all the phalluses hanging from his ceiling.

(And there are a lot of phalluses. Just… flocks of cocks. Wow.)

It’s impossible not to love Drako. For all his kinks and his squalor, by the end of the documentary, you hope there will always be people like him, baffling bystanders. Drako was affectionate and friendly and maddeningly stubborn. He lived in the moment, and entirely in his own style. “I love it all.”

Low budget, tender-hearted, and hilarious, The Man Whose Mind Exploded will appeal to fans of Grey Gardens and Marwencol. It’s available to download from iTunes.

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Combattez pour la patrie! Or not, whatever.

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On the morning of July the 14th 1789, the people of Paris had had enough. The medieval fortress Bastille, a symbol of the abuses of the monarchy, was stormed by a mob of a thousand men, women, and children. The garrisoned guards, sympathetic to the cause, joined the vainqueurs, helping to free the Bastille’s prisoners (all seven of them, including one chap who thought he was Julius Caeser). Ninety-eight attackers were killed. The Bastille’s governor was beheaded after kicking a pastry cook in the groin. It was the flashpoint of the Revolution, a pivotal moment in Europe’s history.

For Gaetano Polidori – father of The Vampyre‘s John Polidori and grandfather of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti – the rise of the people against the injustices of poverty and monarchy really put a dampener on his morning stroll.

“I was passing by the Palais Royal while the populace were running to assault the fortress; and, having encountered a highly-powdered wig-maker, with a rusty sword raised aloft, I, not expecting any such thing, and hardly conscious of the act, had the sword handed over to me, as he cried aloud—‘Prenez, citoyen, combattez pour la patrie.’ I had no fancy for such an enterprise; so, finding myself sword in hand, I at once cast about for some way to get rid of it; and, bettering my instruction from the man of powder, I stuck it into the hand of the first unarmed person I met; and, repeating, ‘Prenez, citoyen, combattez pour la patrie,’ I passed on and returned home.”

In summary: “Screw you guys, I’m going home.”

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As always, at moments of great historical significance, you have bystanders who’d really rather be at home with a cup of tea.

The Rossetti link to the Bastille doesn’t end there. I’ve already blogged about Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s youthful trip to the site of the Battle of Waterloo with fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt. While the battlefield with its meddlesome tour guides left DGR distinctly unimpressed, the site of the Bastille was far more stirring. In October 1849, he wrote home to his brother William:

The other day we walked to the Place de la Bastille. Hunt & Broadie smoked their cigars, while I, in a fine frenzy conjured up by association and historical knowledge, leaned against the Column of July and composed the following sonnet:

How dear the sky has been above this place!
Small treasures of this sky that we see here
Seen weak through prison-bars from year to year;
Eyed with a painful prayer upon God’s grace
To save, and tears which stayed along the face
Lifted till the sun set. How passing dear
At night, when through the bars a wind left clear
The skies, and moonlight made a mournful space.
This was until one night, the secret kept
Safe in low vault and stealthy corridor
Was blown abroad on a swift wind of flame.
Above God’s sky and God are still the same:
It may be that as many tears are shed
Beneath, and that man is but as of yore.

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed The Castle of Otranto, you can see how, on balance, Rossetti would prefer the sort of battle that involved ghastly dungeons and the tears of the damned. Revolution, of course, was a cause close to the hearts of the PRB, though perhaps, as this hasty sonnet suggests, it was the sentiment of revolution and not the act itself that lent itself to art.

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The Column of July, Paris. The PRB loitered here.

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Peel back and reveal…

Finally, I can share the gorgeous cover made for Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs by James at Bookfly Design.

Beauty-Secrets-of-the-Martyrs-Web-MediumLook how pretty it is. I’m beaming. Wait till you see the back.

The novella will be available to order soon, so hold onto your hats/scapulars/mortal remains.

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Between you and me, William…

As it’s the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I thought I’d share this Pre-Raphaelite tidbit from the twenty-one-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In the autumn of 1849, he and William Holman Hunt took a holiday to the continent together. Rossetti journaled the experience in verse which he duly sent to his brother, William Michael, back in London. Between sniggering in art galleries and noticing pretty girls (French ones weren’t as nice as English ones, naturally), the PR Brothers took in the usual famous attractions, including the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Here’s what Rossetti thought of it:

On the Field of Waterloo.

So then, the name which travels side by side
With English life from childhood—Waterloo,
Means this. The sun is setting. “Their strife grew
Till the sunset, and ended,” says our guide.
It lacked the “chord” by stage-use sanctified,
Yet I believe one should have thrilled. For me,
I grinned not, and ’twas something:—certainly
These held their point, and did not turn but died:
So much is very well. “Under each span
“Of these ploughed fields” (’tis the guide still) “there rot
Three nations’ slain, a thousand-thousandfold.”
Am I to weep? Good sirs, the earth is old:
Of the whole earth there is no single spot
But hath among its dust the dust of man.

Oh dear. But he does have a point. And then, in a letter to William at home:

One of the great nuisances of this place, as also at Waterloo, is the plague of guides from which there is no escape. The one we had at Waterloo completely baulked me of all the sonnets I had promised myself; so that all I accomplished was the embryo bottled up in the preceding column. Between you and me, William, Waterloo is simply a bore.

Yawn.

Yawn.

 

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Open Day at Cambridge’s Pre-Raphaelite Church

This Saturday, the 13th of June 2015, All Saints Church on Jesus Lane will be open to the public from 11.00am to 3.00pm.

Building started on site in 1863 where no former church existed. Instead of a mishmash of different ages like most medieval churches, All Saints is a testament to the vision of one man, George Fredrick Bodley, one of the most significant architects of the Gothic Revival.

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With the artistic input from William Morris, Charles Eamer Kempe, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, Frederick Leach and Philip Web, there are plenty of stories to tell. Volunteers will be on hand to guide you around the church’s intricate details, including the pre-WW1 graffiti in the chamber to the right of the altar.

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Friends of All Saints are always looking for more volunteers. Opportunities include being part of an advisory forum, research, events and fundraising. Email Karen Fishwick for more details: kfishwick@thecct.org.uk

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No need to book – just drop in between 11.00am and 3.00pm All Saint’s Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, CB5 8BP.

Please contact: southeast@thecct.org.uk or phone 01223 324442 for more information or see visitchurches.org.uk.

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Skint historian in ‘pleads for your help with prohibitive copyright expenses’ shocker

I’ve created a GoFundMe campaign. Here’s why.

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My cousin Thomas Holloway was one of the richest self-made men in Victorian Britain. From a humble Cornish childhood in a notorious smugglers’ pub, Thomas built a patent medicine empire known as far away as the pyramids in Giza. He went on to build Holloway College in Surrey and the Holloway Sanatorium for the insane, and amassed a record breaking public collection of Victorian art. Not bad for a man who once languished in debtors’ gaol.

I’m writing The Mighty Healer, a book on Thomas’ life, due for publication by Pen & Sword in 2016. The book looks at the shocking quack medicine trade of the nineteenth century, the fight for women’s education, and the treatment of the mentally ill. It charts Thomas’ spats with Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, the inevitable family squabbles over money, and the great legacy he left Britain.

Unfortunately, none of Thomas’ immense fortune trickled down to me. Buying permission to print pictures is an expensive business, and as I have a disabling connective tissue disorder, I don’t currently have a day-job to fund my writing. I need some help. I have sourced a few images royalty free, but three that I can’t do without – including the cover image ­– are in an archive and need paying for. It would mean a lot to me, and to my future readers, if you could help make The Mighty Healer as visually arresting as possible.

There are small rewards to be had, including an acknowledgement in the completed book.

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