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I’ve been thinking a lot about witchcraft lately. That’s what happens when you spend your days wandering around Havoc Wood with the Witch Ways. You read up and read around and your head is full of spells and incantations and mugwort. Turns out I’m not alone in this passion. The recent tv viewing in our house has included Salem and A Discovery of Witches and now, we’ve got Sabrina. It seems it is indeed the Season of the Witch.

I’ve always loved witchcraft and the supernatural. I say that in a measured tone. I’m from Lancashire and therefore have seen the historical sharp end of what witchcraft has meant to people. I don’t look at it with rose tinted glasses, at all. I use a scrying dish and try to look at all the layers, the darkness and the light. Forewarned as they say.

Initially my source material was bedtime stories.  I was always interested more in the fairy godmother than in Cinderella, because she was practical and had skill.  Aside from the rich illustrations of the Ladybird story books, pumpkins did not feature too heavily in my childhood. They were not on the menu in 70s Britain. When, in my mid twenties, I travelled to the east coast of America and it happened to be October, the place was rolling in pumpkins. Big. Small. Some roughly the size of a stagecoach. It was as if someone had cast a spell. I never got over the goosebumps. It was, in the literal, old sense of the word, wonderful.

I visited Salem too. The east coast is my favourite, erm, haunt.

So I’m a sucker for anything that is supernatural and witchcraft based. I will draw my chalk lines here, so that you know which side of the pentagram I’m standing on;  I don’t like horror per se and I don’t like zombies at all. Vampires and werewolves; lovely thank you, full moon and garlic. Witches; Yes please. But, there’s a coda. I am very particular about my witchcraft. I like things to be dark. I’ll use the word ‘Gothic’ I think.  Penny Dreadful is my Star Wars shall we say.

Bewitched was good fun back in the day and I can actually wiggle my nose, but by far my favourite Bewitched character was Samantha’s deliciously wicked mother, Endora. Elegant, classy, clever, skilled. And dark.

Then of course I stumbled into Discworld and Nanny and Granny set the bench mark higher. It’s a measure of Terry Pratchett that he, a MAN, wrote two of the finest women characters in the history of literature. That’s not my humble opinion, it is a factual fact. What I love about Nanny and Granny is that they get on with it. They take no prisoners. They appreciate the idea of power and they have access to magic but the real skill is understanding how dangerous it is and how best not to use it until absolutely necessary.

In the dim and distant past, when my children were school age and I was supposed to be cooking the tea or encouraging them to learn their times tables, I watched Sabrina; the Teenage Witch with them.  I liked Salem the talking cat, the feline equivalent of Endora with his wit and sass. So, it is with some interest that I started watching Sabrina, the netflix reboot. Sabrina, for all her blonde, All American styling, seems to embrace the Granny and Nanny ethos of ‘this is dangerous, be careful’ and in refusing her Dark Baptism simultaneously strikes a blow for feminism and free speech. I am only a few episodes in but already I love the American Gothic style of the show, the deep jewel colours and the darkness. Greendale, haunted by its own past, has that edge of danger that is missing from more brightly lit dramas. I like the fact that the witches themselves hid the tragic past in order to continue with their future. There are no patchouli scented witch shops for the citizens of Greendale.  This is what I crave from my witches. I don’t really like sparkle, I want shadows.  I like my witchy dramas to be old and battered and Bohemian. I like the idea of the magic butting up against the edge of the everyday, that notion of danger or the ‘Other’ being just behind you. When I’m writing The Witch Ways series I like the idea of life going on in Woodcastle as if nothing is happening in Havoc Wood. You are on the edge Woodcastle and you don’t know it. Look behind you!

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much care for wand type magic. I prefer the sort of supernatural shenanigans that are reflected in a crow’s eye. I love the fact that Sabrina is tied into the wood, that the place she takes Harvey to show him her special talents (?!*) is the wood. There are woods in all of my books, not just the supernatural ones. From my home you could wander to the wilds of Healey Dell, a sylvan spot in a post industrial area. It hinted at the past, at another space and time existing alongside everyday life. There are hints of the wild and the Other in these places, that reach out for you, its easy to get lost amongst the trees with no landmarks and the sky broken up above you. Of course, there was the long shadow of Pendle Hill.

Aunts featured in my other fave bit of witchery, Practical Magic. What I love about these characters is the sense of knowledge and wisdom and don’t give a damn what people think. These women are really powerful and on their own terms. They are, who they are. In the netflix Sabrina, the Aunts pull me in again. I love the banter ‘She was annoying me, so I killed her and buried her in the yard.’ Yep. That’s sisters for you. For me there’s a freedom in witchcraft stories.

I’m currently typing up my first draft of the third Witch Ways book. The sisters, Anna, Charlie and Emz have been brought up by their grandmother to think of their Strength as similar to breathing. It’s a part of them. Over the years, growing up, they’ve been out in the ordinary world and life has shifted away from this part of themselves. Only since inheriting the wood have they begun to rediscover this aspect of their lives. The world outside Havoc Wood, the town of Woodcastle and modern life, doesn’t make much room for something as ancient as witchcraft.

When the Witch Ways walked into my head, they walked in through a path in the wood. Mentally, I was looking at Pike Lake and wondering, where is this? I could see the castle just above the trees. You have to have a wood for  a witch story, not the built up, bricked in places that we construct but the wild spaces, some of which might not have changed for hundreds of years. I read recently that there is such a thing as a screaming wood, one where the timber was clear felled in WWII and then the site was replanted. There are many across Britain, including the one nearest to me. These woods are considered to have a different sense to them, the old wood has become a ghost, lingering. They are unsettled places, wrenched from their past. If you’re willing to walk through a wood with your senses turned to 11, you might feel this edge. Who hasn’t walked through a regimented conifer plantation and felt the dark, quiet energy of it? A wood is the edge of somewhere, a movement from open to sheltered, from exposed to hidden. Tree lore tells of the different powers inherent in different trees. Did you know that blackthorns are bad tempered? Next time you walk in a wood, take a step off the path. It will be a different wood, I promise.

I think the current thirst for all things witchy; Sabrina, Salem, a Discovery of Witches, shows us all that we’re all looking for something other, something more, something, connected. We need magic. We need, more importantly, the Divine Feminine, an acknowledgement of the place of women in the world, the balance has been skewed. Witch hunts, through history, were as much about destroying feminine power as religious fervour. But that, probably, is for another blog.

So. I’m here, typing, in my Gothic green workroom at the back of the house. It looks out onto the rambling wilderness of my garden. My reading light casts a golden circle of light but as I look up, I notice that beyond the pool of the lamp, the room has gone very dark. I’m hoping that it’s because the clocks went back, but you never can tell. I mean, should that shadow be just there? Aunt Zelda? Is that you?

 

Long long ago, in a primary school far far away, I attempted to sell balloons for cash. The cause was a good one, we wanted to buy stuff for the school, an institution fighting against budget cuts even back then. Our little PTA pulled out the stops at regular intervals through the school year and ran Tea Parties (not political, only involving cake) and Fairs of varying sorts; Harvest/Christmas/Summer. This one was Christmas. I remember because we were inside and did not have to suddenly muster 20 tables in through the assembly hall doors whilst dodging the lightning.

I was not, shall we say, the best at selling. I was too shy, too timid and too aware that many people didn’t have the cash for school uniform never mind an idiotic balloon. My husband suggested that I suck up some of the helium in an amusing sales drive which ended badly when I inhaled too much and sailed, like a human balloon, into the rafters. The fire brigade were called. It was very messy.

My sales skills were honed a little better at the library where I slaved and toiled for many a long hour. Hours are much longer in the library due to all that L-space (see Pratchett:Discworld) Time bends and distorts. While I was standing at the desk, Mrs Hopemore had travelled back to Victorian times in the middle pages of a Wilkie Collins and, in the childrens library, young Conrad was currently orbiting Jupiter with Little Bear.

I had time, and space (pun intended) to overcome some of my shyness here.

The process began during a Creative Writing event I did to celebrate the new library. I had come with a  ‘Poet Tree’ idea that involved me, armed with a stack of handwritten cards, persuading people to write poems to stick on the aforementioned tree. I had constructed this aboreal effort with tubes and paper and branches. It was, erm, rustic, shall we say?

There I was, under the gothic tree and it became clear that I had to be a bit more Del Boy and take my wares to the punters. If I didn’t I’d sit alone under the tree all day, like a human mushroom.

Off I went. I learned, very swiftly that some people DO NOT wish to be approached. Others were happy to smile and say hello but were too shy to write a poem in public so in the end I altered it slightly. I asked a family to pick a word each from the many flashcards I’d written up. Instead of getting them to make the whole poem I put the chosen words on the table and shuffled them around like a magician and we picked the words together. Pretty soon other people/families wanted to shuffle them around too and we ended up with a few poems. People don’t like to be tried or tested or feel they’re sitting an exam.

In my role as a relief library assistant my shyness dissolved even more and I was more than happy to approach everyone, although I still had respect for the DO NOT APPROACH faces. The joy of the library was not the assassin of a trolley loaded with books ready to kill me or at least graze my ankle, the delight was the people, helping the people.

So what’s all this waffle and baloney about then?

MY BOOK IS OUT. Saints preserve us. Slow Poison, has been released into the wild. It is the second book in The Witch Ways series and, in the manner of the muffin man or whoever Jack Horner nicked that pie off, I have to hawk my wares. Needs must and I must a pedlar be. Sales, is not what a writer is gifted at, if it was I’d be a billionaire owner of a shopping channel. What writers are good at is words. We are wordsmiths, wordmongers. I can’t choose, I love both those titles. So here goes. You sit there and pretend you are Sir Alan Sugar or Deborah Meaden.

Wordmonger. Get your lovely book here, this is my book, hand made and crafted in lovely binary for the old laptop gadget or black and white print and paper for the old school geezers. Get it on Amazon! Lovely book for a bit of cash. Tale that lasts a lifetime. Lifetime guarantee.  Reuse and recycle whenever you’re stuck for a story. Get your words here, mate. Free commas and question marks! Get your luvverly words right here.

No. I can’t. Wrong style. Not me. Deep breath. Have another crack.

Wordsmith; I have forged this book from the iron of my head folks. Sparks have flown. The pages have, hopefully, caught alight and this digital witchery of a story will fill your head. Slow Poison, if you buy it and let it, can work magic. It can take you to a place that is in my head, this place is Havoc Wood and, as Laurie Anderson once said  ‘It’s a place, about seventy miles east of here’. Everyone who buys this book and reads it, gets that ticket to travel to Havoc Wood whenever they choose. That time might be on the bus, on the train, although probably not in your car if you are driving. You can read it at night when the monsters bite, this book will take you away from them, it will send you to the safe haven of Cob Cottage in company with the Way Sisters. They’ll be able to help you. That is the magic of pages and story. They are the exit strategy for us all.

 

Who knows if this link will work, I work with ink, I am not a techie. Fingers crossed.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Slow-Poison-Witch-Ways-Book-ebook/dp/B07FKLPDGJ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535463525&sr=8-1&keywords=Helen+Slavin+Slow+Poison

 

 

I like cooking as a general rule but just lately I’ve lost my mojo a bit. I think it is looking back over all the many thousands of meals I’ve cooked and having my nearest and dearest laugh at the memory of the giant memoryfoam pillow sized ravioli I once made or the Dwarf Bread.  I manufactured that by fluke, without the benefit of a recipe or even a smallish bag of wholemeal grit. Bread is a hard taskmaster, emphasis on the hard there. It has taken me the best part of 20 years to get it right.

I have always been conscious of budget and quality. I don’t require everything to be dirt cheap because then it is generally made, as my husband might put it, from lips and arseholes. I don’t want my meat ground or mechanically recovered. Some people think this is snobby, they are the kind of people who feed their dog on kibble.

I was always one for eat less meat but eat free range when you do. In recent years we took the idea of Meat Free Monday and ran through the rest of the week with it. Meat is a treat, a special occasion. I am still, however, chided on the future of the planet by my militant Vegan daughter. I am beginning to think that we should have named her Vegan. I find it amusing that my conscious parenting where I brought them up to think about nutrition and food and care about plants and animals, has come back to bite me. Literally. Is THAT CHEESE???!!!!

In my mind my dream time travel job has always to be employed in a kitchen somewhere in a castle or stately home. I think it comes from the Ladybird book Dick Whittington where the kitchen, where Dick met the cat, always looked busy and welcoming, if not very vegetarian friendly with its roasting hog. Also lets not mention the rats. I have previous where they are concerned.

It might also be down to the fact that I was brought up with the idea that food was love. I cannot eat salad cream without thinking of all those crispy Iceberg lettuce and prawn teas at my Grandma McKiernan’s house. There was tinned salmon and celery and spring onions. It might involve tinned crab or ham perhaps as my grandmother had honed her cooking skills in the war. It was a feast, not just on account of the pickled beetroot but because it was with family.

I envision myself as the kind of cook who is called ‘Cook’ and who can concoct a vast array of decorative and delicious cakes and comestibles with one swipe of her ladle. I am wearing rosy cheeks and a pinny in this fantasy and also a mob cap. I’m the kind of cook who is kindly to the snivelling scullery maid and always has the kettle on the boil ready for cups of tea. Although in the castle scenario this alters slightly, the mob cap vanishes and is replaced by a linen caul and dorelet number and there is no tea, only a flagon of something I have brewed earlier.

Did you know that once all the brewers were women? It was considered one of the feminine arts and they were known as Brewsters. Fact. It’ll pop up on The Chase no doubt.

In the Past, I’m the kind of cook who knows all the local gossip but in an informative and secret keeping fashion. I am the kind of cook that Cinderella could ask for a stray pumpkin, or if she can check that the trap has any mice in it to be transformed into footmen.

Oh. So maybe I don’t want to be a cook at all. Maybe, what I really want to be is a Fairy Godmother.

 

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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