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Spells. I’ve been right/write in the middle of the end of a second Witch Ways book, and I’ve been really working out the magic stuff. I’m picky as well as Pagan. I know what Strengths I want and how the mental mechanics of it must work.

Once again I must bow to the Pratchett school of Witchcraft and admit that I prefer a more hands on approach to the practice of magic and indeed, the not practicing it but steering well clear of the dangerous volatile stuff. I want my witches, all three of them, to be armed and dangerous, but only to those who mean harm and are dangerous. Ooh, I quite like that, I might use that sometime. Oh. I just did.

Anyone having a quick tramp round Glastonbury in their glass slippers can see that there’s some seriously heavy industry around Wicca and witchcraft. You don’t need to travel all the way to Diagon Alley to get kitted out these days either, you can, if you can’t get yourself down to Glasto, click and receive any number of witchery pokery goodies.

That said, on my internet prowl of Witch Kit I feel that I’m not really sure what you’re ‘supposed’ to have and what you need. It is a bit like hiking I suppose, do I really need this solar powered charcoal grill or should I invest in this survival bag instead? Hm? My head was literally spinning (hey, witchcraft anyone? Spinny head is top of the to do list) after a brief browse over some ceremonial daggers. These are for your rituals (instructions online) and they go by many different names including ‘Athame’. You can have any dagger you like, long and thin, short and sharp, embossed, engraved, curly bits on the handle.

There’s any number of cauldrons and pots on the market too, take your pick. Plastic seems a bit of a waste of time really but I suppose it looks decorative by your hearth next to your magic stuffed cat. In Glastonbury there are actually some stuffed cats, not the cute cushiony kind filled with kapok but the dried and skinned kind made by taxidermists.

Dagger. Pot.  Magic cat. Check. What else? Nice velvet cloth for your ritual table anyone? Or a lovely sweeping black velvet gown for your next coven meeting or if you’re really proper, Sabbat? Pointy black hat? Victorian style boots? I am giving away my particular witchy preferences here. I am old school. You can have any colour you like as long as its black, any hat you like as long as its pointy. And black.

If you need to sort out your transport to the Sabbat then how about a lovely Lakeland Plastics besom? In this case I don’t think a Dyson will do it.

Oh, good grief I almost forgot! Wand? Where would the average witch be without a wand? Imagine getting to your chosen Sabbat and finding, on a search of the many and myriad silk lined pockets of your velvet coat, you can’t find your wand?

Imagine. You would be powerless.

And that is where the shopping stopped and the spell binding began. It is all very well having a wand but what if someone takes it from you? You shouldn’t need the wand itself, what you need is the power it represents. A wand is, if you look at it, a pointy stick. It could be a twiggy bit that dropped off an elm tree, a splinter that shaved off a chair leg, a chair leg itself. It doesn’t matter, it is the person wielding it that counts. The wand is just a point of focus so I wonder if a knitting needle wouldn’t do just as well? Especially a needle that has knitted a lot of jumpers with love and two-ply. Surely that must empower the needle and make it, essentially, a wand?

The ritual dagger? Does it have any power at all if you got it off the internet and it was made in China? There is a magical theory that things only take on a talismanic effect if they mean something to you, if they are imbued with a spirit of use. A ritual dagger is too glamourous a creature, it’s a fake. Your true ritual dagger should be something that you like the feel of when you use it, something that is to hand, it sits on the worktop or rests in the drawer.

Now I have to clamber back onto the psychiatrist’s chair here. My Grandma Ellen would cut you down to size with the phrase ‘You slept in the knife drawer’. By this she meant you were a bit sharp and needed to come down a peg. This phrasing is, effectively, one of my Grandma’s spells, not that she knew it. She had no interest in anything Pagan. She was all for the Pope. This phrase, and its idea of taking up the attributes of the knives, has stuck with me. I cannot put a knife away, butter or dinner, without thinking it. I am bound in a small way, to the knife drawer and its contents. Consider that at certain times of stress I think of myself having a short nap in the knife drawer and gathering in the strength. At other times I just hide in amongst the imagined blades for protection. For me, there is linguistic and memory magic in the word ‘knife’ itself, a word we were given by my favourite band of people, the Vikings.

So shouldn’t a breadknife be as useful if you need an Athame? After all, it is trusty and hardworking and familiar. My breadknife came from Ikea but it is the best cutter ever and, better still, it sounds like a sword as you pick it from the worktop. Bingo. The objects that become most talismanic belong to you and have power only because you alone know what that power is.

Is it wrong that I have a soft spot for ladles too? Just the sound of the word ‘ladle’ casts a mental spell for me, of soup and steel and fairytale. It is also apparent that almost all my pans are cauldrons. I thought I bought them because they are capacious but neat on the hob, the handles don’t stick out. Nope. I was filling the big black one with boiling salted water and my son commented “You’re cooking pasta in a cauldron.” He’s right. I bought them because they are cauldrons. Practical but magic.

It is not the weapon that matters, but the idea of actually being the weapon yourself. No one can disarm you if all your power is inside. I worked out that the most powerful room in my house is probably my kitchen. I love my kitchen and the cooking I do there. It is a messy wasteland scented with garlic and rosemary and slightly mouldering washing but, I warn you, don’t confront me there. All my power concentrates into that small, culinary space and, rest assured, the knives and ladles will be out.

 

 

 

I never understand the current trend of making fun of people with red hair. I have always wanted red hair. Red hair, by the way, is a hard thing to attain, even genetically. It is, I remember reading somewhere, a recessive gene and one that is in my family. My great grandmother had red hair although when I knew her she had long grey hair and a bottle of barley wine and bore more than a passing resemblance to the Wise Woman in Blackadder.

I did have a sprinkling of red in the general dark brown and, interestingly, the red bits are the ones that greyed first. Possibly that is also part of the lure of the Ginge, it is otherwordly and ephemeral.

Once my red-like-ish hairs had turned white and created an effect much like a bird strike on the top of my head I tried dying my hair to sort of tidy it up. Now, I’m not a great one for the new-fangled, I am typing this into a computer and I load my dishes into a dishwasher, but when it comes to things like hair dye I prefer to tread the natural path.

The natural path led me to Lush and their supply of Caca. These are bricks of henna that look like a kind of techno cowpat, that is, a cowpat made into a rectangle as opposed to a more rustic splattered styling. I perused the colour choices, The Browns, The Black,  The Marron, all the sort of nutty brown orange and navy blueish black options really. I’d attempted a henna transformation on previous lazy Sundays and the browns had been richly brown, which was all well and good but this time I took a risk and chose the reddest.

The idea of henna is that you take the brick home and with a cheese grater and hot water you return it to its original ‘pat’ consistency. Then, you rub it all over your head, you squidge and smush it into your hair and then you leave it to dry for as long as possible. I have always liked the ‘historic’ aspect of henna, the fact that it is ancient, that the Romans tinted their hair with this.

The Romans were more skilled. This particular Sunday I thought I’d do a bit of gardening as my henna hair cured and so I wrapped it in a plastic carrier bag turban and headed out.

Six hours later (count them) my hair was a range of bright oranges. We are talking a citrus rainbow of tangerine and clementine with just a splash of belisha, dependent upon the level of greyness or brownness of the strand within. It was oddly fascinating, like a magical colour chart, some hairs producing previously unseen umber tones and others turning into wildly bronze bits. That is the essence of henna, there is a certain magic about the process and I had overcooked it in the sunlight of the garden.

The kind of red hair I’ve always admired and let’s be honest, coveted, is the rich red kind. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the strawberry or the fruit pastille shade of orange, all fruity and unusual, but the deep red, the rich russety ember red is, for me, always the most appealing.

The other thing I love about red hair is not just the intensity of the colour, the bronze, the umber, it is it’s mythological status. The celtic warrior goddess The Morrigan,  (note the definite article here because she’s fierce, not just any Morrigan folks) is sometimes portrayed as having red hair and this symbolises her fierceness and her strength.  Red hair is magic hair, the hair of power, the kind of hair of fairytales although I believe Rapunzel is generally portrayed as a blonde. It is my theory that if Rapunzel had been a redhead that tower would have been a pile of stones and a ring of scorched earth the second she hit puberty.

There is also the Viking aspect of Ginge. I am pretty much a Northern hemisphere kind of gal when it comes to my mythologies. I like the Norse and the Celtic. Red hair, or so I’ve heard from some historicky, scientificky programme on Radio Four is a Viking trait so I cling to that thin thread of my heritage.

I cling to the Irish myth of Me too. My granddad McKiernan, standing in his workshop with his blue overalls on would lean down and say, as he tinkered with the innards of a clock or a particle accelerator, “You know you’re an Irish princess don’t you?” and then would follow tales of my lineage tracing back to a man called Niall of the Nine Hostages. I imagined myself, red hair billowing like a pennant, riding into battle on one of the flame horses of the Tuatha de Danann. Did I mention my sword? Always had a sword, and not a little piddly rapier, no, a big broadsword. One of my favourite words, as well as weapon of choice. Broadsword! Cue Richard Burton.

Of course nowadays I am eschewing the henna and treading that natural path once again and have let it go grey. Witch influence. I’m reclaiming my cronehood of white haired womanish wisdom. I am lustrous silver, she-wolf white perhaps? A colleague said, post henna, ‘Oh, you’ve let your hair go grey…it suits you…you look….” she paused and I held my breath waiting for an innocent and well meant insult,  “…luminous.” she sighed at last.

Starlight. Starbright. I’ll take that.

 

 

As anyone who reads this blog will know (yes, I mean both of you), I’ve been writing a new series of books called ‘The Witch Ways’ and part of the process is the building of the fictional town of Woodcastle in my head. This, it must be said, is a fun part. Just lately I have in fact been dreaming I am wandering the streets of the place, amassing the sub-conscious geography, mapping the mental A-Z.

Shops feature. Shops are useful because characters can live in, own and interact in them. Woodcastle is a small contemporary town but there are no chain stores in it. This is, after all, my town and I’m sorry but chains are banned. I want artisan and local and independent. I like, for instance, a florist and I love a butchers shop or, better still for some weird reason I don’t quite fathom, a fishmonger. Seriously. White tiles, a shoal of herring on ice. A side of salmon. That sea brine scent of silver hake.

The concensus is that the internet is killing the High Street with its ‘click and collect’ ease and accessibility. Postmen everywhere are getting hernias and wearing out shoe leather delivering all the digital parcels from groceries to uranium rods. My view is that it is not the digital universe that is killing the High Street, it is a distinct lack of Mongers.

I am, as my daughter delights in reminding me, half a hundred years old and therefore I remember the Seventies. These are the nineteen ones, not the eighteen ones and, in the 1970s we had a rag and bone man.  This gentleman, in a cap that would not go amiss in an episode of Peaky Blinders, would roll up on a cart drawn by a horse. Hm, actually what with the equine transport and that crinoline I was so fond of, perhaps I do remember the 1870s?

The horse, as I recall, was not much more than rag and bones itself and had, most likely, once won the Grand National but been, ultimately, downsized and recycled into a cart transportation operative. The Rag and Bone man collected scrap and rubbish of many kinds (the poor horse possibly an example) and was, in point of fact, an early eco-warrior and recycler. I don’t know where he took the rags or the bones but the idea had a good heart to it and lends some credence to the fact that we weren’t always wrecking the planet.

Our local market was at Bury, one of the most famous markets in the world, up there, so I am told by the marketing people at Bury, with the Rialto in Venice. At Bury market my mum, armed with a string bag and a basket, would shop at, amongst other stalls, John Shaw’s Greengrocer and Fruiterer (read that moniker and weep with nostalgia), the plums and onions would be dropped into neat little brown paper bags before said bags were twirled by their corners with circus skill, thus sealing in the carrots or the potatoes, the cauliflower or the well, more onions actually, this was the Seventies after all, we didn’t have courgettes or garlic.

The market was a vivid place, my mum proving unable to walk past the Seconds baskets that lured you in to the towering earthenware and porcelain delights of the Pot Stall. You could get anything at Bury Market in those days; flying carpets, black pudding, shot silk, skate wings. You still can, every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

I think the true issue here is that you can’t buy magic beans at Tesco. Cannelini, Borlotti, Heinz, yes, tick all the above. Magic beans? Nope. Sorry. Supernatural legumes require a specific kind of retail experience.

Firstly I do appreciate that the whole cash cow exchange rate thing is a problem. I don’t happen to have a cow to take to market, Bury or otherwise. I think perhaps a little red hen might be legal tender, or possibly three little pigs. A purse of gold might be a useful financial alternative. Black sheep anyone?

So, currency sorted, where do you go to make such a fairytale purchase? Might I hazard a guess that a Monger might be involved?

I wouldn’t go to the cheesemonger unless your fairytale transaction involved mice and the necessity of buttering up the said rodents so that your fairy godmother could perform some major league shapeshifting on them. I think iron and fish are probably a no go too. Faeries and elves are not keen on anything vaguely ferrous. With fish, one must beg of them an ultimately disappointing boon.

A greengrocer would be an option although I suspect the most magical beans only come into your possession by crossing paths in a wood with a stranger in a red hat. Also, if you read the Ladybird books version of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ then the cow/beans exchange rate is one to five. Those beans are, after all, packing some serious magic punch.

The High Street would be much more exciting if you could pop into the Cordwainers. For a start, what does a cordwainer even do? Surprise! Leather goods, for instance, gloves and belts. And next door there is the Haberdasher where you could buy ‘notions’.

I learnt about ‘notions’ from my needlework teacher, Miss Loftus, many moons ago and was most disappointed to discover that they are not ‘notions’ of the thought kind, such as ‘I’ve a notion to travel to Exeter on a donkey’ or ‘I’ve a notion I might go to the milliner to buy a hat.’ (ha, do you see what I did there? Milliner!) These sorts of idea notions, sadly, are not freely available in little brown paper boxes. Haberdashery notions, as it turns out, involve zips and tailor’s chalk. You find Notions with the Sundries.

I doubt very much if there is any call for the cobbling skills of elves at Footlocker and there are, frankly, too few smiths these days. Silver, Gold and Black are relative rarities. You know you have made a proper purchase when a crucible and a forge are utilised in its manufacture.

Well, I have to say that all this talk of historical retail therapy has made me thirsty so I think I will pull on my Seven League Boots and pop out for some provisions. A firkin of gin from the Vintner perhaps?

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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