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I thought I’d write a word or two about trolls. The subject came up as the government or some other authoritarian body talked of putting legislation in place to catch the ‘trolls’ who plague social media. I’m not sure how they’re planning to do this. It might require some sort of vast inter-net possibly? (sorry, I couldn’t resist).  It might require a stick and then another bigger stick. Obviously no carrots. Trolls don’t eat them.

I have a problem with internet trolls. It’s not just their idiotic, childish and bullying behaviour; I mean that I object to them being called ‘trolls’. I think it gets the mythical beasts a bad name, or at least a worse name than previously.  An internet troll, it seems to me, is a bit of a sad sack with a limited vocabulary and an inflated sense of their own self-importance. They’re small minded and nasty.

Trolls aren’t. Well, ok, the limited vocabulary might come into play although the one sitting under the bridge that was the major trans-Alpine highway for the Three Billy Goats Gruff seems to have been quite the poet. ‘Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?’ he demanded with some theatrical gusto. This troll, it seems, had a sense of his own place in mythology and folklore and wished to make a good show of it. He was fair and logical when offered the choice of ‘eat my brother, he’s bigger and fatter than me’ although he did then fall foul of the superior fighting skills of the eldest Billy Goat Gruff.

trollsTrolls, in Scandinavian folklore, have considerable skills with stone and wide ranging geological knowledge. They are excellent pot holers for instance, making their chief residences in cave systems. Admittedly this genus of troll, the Jotnar, are also a bit keen on a slice of long pork, or ‘human’ as it is also known but can we really despise them for that? I mean, a lion likes a nibble on a bit of leg especially if it is wrapped in safari suit. We don’t call lions ‘evil’ do we?  Although I think that’s largely to do with the fact that lions have that elusive thing called ‘beauty’. A lion is majestic and therefore appealing whereas, poor stony-faced trolls, they can best be described as ‘craggy’ or possibly ‘rugged’.

The troll just happens to be a predator, albeit a giant one. If you’re tramping through fjord country, or possibly paddling through it since most of a fjord is underwater, then the Trip Advisor advice might be to not take shelter in any caves after dark. It is only polite to respect the indigenous residents of a country. If you don’t bother a troll they, most likely, won’t bother you. You are unlikely to see a troll in the daylight as, unfortunately, they are rumoured to turn into stone in sunlight. See, it isn’t easy being a troll, constant night shifts make people grumpy.

Not all trolls are giants. Some are Moomins. Others of course are the more football hooligan end of the social spectrum, the cave troll from Tolkein’s meisterwork is not a happy chappy. Consider his lot, he’s a henchman and heavy labourer. Perhaps, given the chance for some social mobility he could pursue his heart’s desire of being a stonemason or open his own showcave system, taking people on tours underground. If a cave troll fancied owning his own bridge he could do worse than start out at the Second Severn Crossing of course but the little booths might have to be enlarged. No Mr Troll, not smashed to pieces. Put that toll worker down!

There are trolls with gravitas and dignity, if slightly dodgy business practices. In Discworld there is Chrysoprase, him diamond, for a start. For me the internet namesakes with their limited intelligence and playground bully mentality are more like a goblin.  But there, that carries its problems. What’s wrong with goblins then? I’m being Goblinist about this.

The point of this ramble is that this is how the monsters and beasts are woven into our culture. My only problem is that sometimes the epic creature is diminished by its association with us. To call these anonymous and vindictive people ‘trolls’ lends them a cachet that they don’t deserve.  They have not earned the title.

Gits. I think we can settle and call them Gits.  It is the politest term I can conjure before the watershed. I’d like to hear John Humphries announce on ‘Today’ the new law to slap down ‘Internet Gits’. Where do I sign that digi-petition?

 

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Yesterday my husband came wandering into the kitchen, from his YouTube perusings, and he asked me “If I asked you to run #LikeAGirl, what would you do?”

A memory burst into my head of me, at ten, racing home from school, the wind in my hair, the pavement pounding beneath my feet.  A sense of being maybe one mile an hour away from actual flight, if I could just go a little bit faster. Freedom. Wildness. Wow.

‘Always’ the sanitary protection people have been running a campaign called ‘Like a Girl’. The sad fact of their YouTube video selection is that when asked to ‘Run like a girl’ most people, including women, start to flap about and be, basically, a cartoon bimbo. ‘Oh my hair’s getting messed’ says one saddo.

There is, however, redemption. They ask some actual small girls to ‘run like a girl’ and they pretend to run like the wind. When asked to ‘box like a girl’ they take on an invisible Tyson and floor him. ‘Throw like a girl’ and imagined spears cut through the air. It’s wonderful.  The campaign asks ‘when did ‘like a girl’ become an insult?’ and it is a good question.  I have no answers.

I don’t think about being a girl. I just think about being ‘me’ as that is all I have to work on. I can’t remember being anyone else, of whichever gender, so I can’t draw on that other experience, although if I was hypnotically regressed that might prove useful. I’m myself. I talk to myself in my own head about me-stuff. I’m a ‘me’.

I always thought the sexist people were idiots.  I’m including women in this too, whether it’s the female teacher who thought I shouldn’t read sci-fi because I was ‘a girl’ or the female colleague who thought my Dad, a widower, no doubt lived in a festering pit of domestic hovelry because he was ‘a man’.  What sort of an idiot thinks like that?  What a narrow arrow slit of a mind some people possess. Nothing gets in. Little comes out.

I’ve been at a disadvantage of course. Not because I am #likeagirl, far from it, no the problem is I was brought up, by my crazed and clearly eccentric parents, to believe that I could have a go at anything, be that sky-diving or patisserie. It didn’t matter whether you had to be #likeagirl, to do it, it just mattered that you had enough interest or curiosity or the necessary kit. Skis. Wool. Oxyacetylene torch. Hard work wouldn’t go amiss either in the achievement of goals. Ah yes goals. I don’t like football. That isn’t because I’m ‘a girl’ it’s because I find it boring. Like Formula 1 and Jazz music. I never colour code myself with pink either. Yuk. Hate pink.

I don’t like lists of films for ‘mums’. Steel Magnolias or Beaches or You Before Me that sort of mullarkey is not for me.  I’d rather have swords and/or time travel in my cinematic epics.

I’m looking forward to the Wonder Woman movie in fact on that principle. Gods and warriors etc, always appealing. She fights #likeagirl but also dresses, #like a girl, what with going around in her pants all the time. Mind you the Spartans did tend to trot around in their loincloths. Put a shirt on boys. Or a bit of armour. Armour would have been really helpful to Leonidas and the other 299.

There you go,  they should have dressed #likeagirl after all; Viking Shield maidens didn’t dress in their pants to go to battle. They wore suitable attire for bloodletting and warfare. They plaited their hair to keep the gizzards out of it. They fought #likeagirl of course, Valkyries in fact.

 

In case it is not immediately obvious, I’m not a great fan of Organised Religion. I prefer my spiritual belief system to be disorganised. A bit of a ramble and a couple of pine cones make my temple.

To illustrate this point I accidentally harassed a Chaplain the other day. I was on duty in the library and the perfectly personable gentleman introduced himself. He is a Council Measure to assist staff with their ‘stress issues’ caused by the tumbrils arriving to collect those newly volunteered into redundancy. The Chaplain is here to help and, with that in mind, we began a spiritual discussion.

Some half an hour later and I was part way through my Pagan diatribe, having only just arrived at a mention of running naked round the Ring of Brodgar, when the Chaplain seemed in a sudden hurry to leave. “I have to go… over there” he pointed quite, well, pointedly, into the middle distance and ran off.  I have this effect on Jehovah’s Witnesses too, many of whom are seen fleeing from my doorstep with Morrigan at their heels.

One of my problems with organised religion is the sidelining of women and the mad idea that women don’t have a part to play except to do the flowers or polish the silverware. Even nowadays, when women vicars are largely keeping the Church of England on its knobbly old knees, there are those who disapprove of ‘women’ in ministry. So. Not for me. No thanks. There’s enough sexism in life without encouraging it in your faith.

The Vikings had other ideas of course. The sensible Scandinavian peoples believed that women had intuition and insight and that some women, called the Völva or staff bearers were the shamans, the people who could help connect with the spiritual.  Yes. I like that. Let’s share the spiritual chores folks. It’s a religion not a Gentleman’s Club.

I can hear you, you know, whispering about the blood and darkness, the ‘human sacrifice’ of pre-Christian belief. I can see the smug sneer and the assurance that I’m cherry picking my pagan information and research here. I’m avoiding the bad bits.  No. I’m not. I’ve seen Lindow Man on display and I understand his fate. I think we can close the subject of pre-christian religious brutality down quite quickly once we think of the idea of The Atonement. Plus we  can all dismount from our high modern religious horses, bow our heads and recall Joan of Arc perhaps, or the 20th century horrors of the Magdalen Laundries.  And no one of course expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Anyway, I am not here to proseltyse. I’m here to lend a flavour of what I believe.  “Do you believe in fairies?” someone sniggers at the back. Why not? What’s the difference between a fairy and a saint?  No. Seriously. What is the difference? A stained glass window?

I am not the kind of person who feels compelled to make others follow the same spiritual path.  I feel connected to a Pagan idea of belief and spirituality but to my mind, this is something fundamental, it goes beyond a label. You cannot pin a Pagan in my book.  Anyone who jumps up and says “No you’re not Pagan, you don’t do this and observe that and why aren’t you in your Druid robes?”  is missing the point. The point is, there shouldn’t be rules, just connections.  Instinct. Intuition. Thought.

Many people, over the post-Christian centuries, have belittled and diminished the word and idea of ‘Pagan’. If you’re a Pagan then, to some people, you’re a bit of a New Age hippy at best, at worst a joke.  Ha, worshipping trees? This, I’m sorry to tell you, is a bully boy tactic employed in the sweeping change to Christianity. If you make something small, if you pick on something you can diminish it, you can push it aside. Its like a mega brand supermarket taking over the corner shop. You disconnect people from their own spirit and frighten them and force them into your way of doing things.  You must be a bully boy if you want to steal away belief.  Let’s, for the sake of this blog, slot in the phrase ‘pre-Christian belief systems’. Yes. Before there was Jesus there were other ideas, there were trees and the sun.  There were wolves and snakes and hares and it was all connected.

Pre-Christian belief systems were about this connected sense of the world. People worshipped the sun because it affected their lives. It  shone on the crops and it all but disappeared in the winter time. If you are living in the landscape you are more connected to it. To me, there is nothing stupid about worshipping the sun. Why not? Saint Sun? There is a certain logic to it.

I was raised in the Church of England, so that’s my established religion reference point. Sundays appeared to prove Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity; outside Church, time ticked with an atomic regularity; inside Church, it slowed to spaghettify us all. The joys I found were in singing hymns and candlelight. I even like the word ‘Hymn’ and its odd cluster of consonants. There are lots of other beautiful liturgical terms; plainsong and litany are two examples. Language played a big part for me. There’s a lot to be said for ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’.

The vestments were splendid too, my mum, a skilled needlewoman, embroidered two sets of vestments for our church, that folks, is just how Churchy we were, plus my dad was the organist.  I loved the colours of the fabrics, the gold of the thread she had used.  At the end of the service the servers at the altar would snuff out the candles and I loved to watch the thin curls of smoke leave contrails in the cold church breath.

It was brutal stuff of course, even in the soppy old C of E. At Christmas we were all singing to the Infant Jesus and everything was Christingle and mangers. A few months later Easter dawned and there was the violent and dark story of the Crucifixion. There is little more bloodthirsty and terrifying, to your average eight year old, than the Easter story. Crowns of thorns. Swords. Nails. Crosses.Tombs. Religion is not PG rated. I shudder at the memories of Good Friday.  I will gloss over the fact that Christianity plastered its Paschal doings all over the Pagan idea of Oestre, a time of rebirth and fecundity. You don’t nail the Easter Bunny to any sort of cross, rather you let him run wild and free across the nearest field bringing life and vigour.  Oh. Er sorry about that. Forgot to gloss. Oops.

I preferred the Roman and Greek Gods and their squabbles and triumphs. There was sunlight and magic in these Gods, they were more, well, human. They had faults and mischief and they were connected with the world. There is the Celtic pantheon too, appealing with its wise salmon and War goddess. Yes, a woman on horseback, wielding a sword, talking to crows, an idea that plugs straight into my central imagination system. Mabh and Epona make my heart beat faster.

My idea of being Pagan is the idea of looking out into the world and letting it speak to you. It is about looking up into the sky or into the branches of a tree, watching a squirrel move her kits out of the path of the sparrowhawk.  It’s more Springwatch than Eucharist.  It is about the wooden spoon that speaks to you because of its shape and the burn marks you have made on it over the years and the fact that that spoon adds better flavour to the stew than this other spoon and you have no idea why.  Let everything speak to you, you just have to listen. It is not about commanding or chastising or a catechism. The badger is your bishop if you are Pagan inclined.

My own Pagan beliefs are about the mythic whilst also looking out and up in the Here and Now. Each day Odin sent out his ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory, to keep an eye on the world and I think about that whenever I see a raven or any of the corvids. I connect to their intelligence and beauty. I did some research on the flight of birds for a creative writing workshop and the knowledge that their muscles are springloaded, that they have big hearts to power their flight only added to the joy I feel when I see jackdaws lift out of the trees in my garden. They enjoy their flight.  Walking along the canal last week, my husband and I watched the jackdaws coming in from all across the sky to roost in a particular stretch of woodland. The massed sound of their calling reached right inside, to the place I would call my soul. The way that they greeted each other, one battalion rising to thread themselves through and between the other and all twist and drop and swoop together, lit the twilight of the day. There are some religions that maintain animals don’t have a soul; stand beside that woodland and tell me they don’t.  You are missing the point. The spark. The life.

There is something epic about a red kite hanging on the wind, yawing and stooping.  There is beauty and practicality and strength in a swan’s foot. Ever looked at a swan’s foot? It is time you did.

Of course somewhere I can hear Richard Dawkins footsteps rushing to catch me up and tell me that nothing has a soul, only bones and sinews, it’s all neural synapses.  I’ll listen to him. Yes, I know, Biology.  Yes, yes, Physics.  I see the science, Richard, I understand perfectly.

I also see the sky reflected in a robin’s eye.

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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