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Tuesday 31 January 2017

WITCH – is she or isn’t she?

My Tuesday Talk guest: Tracey Norman

talking about her theatre production of 

The idea for WITCH was born late in 2015. I had recently graduated from The Open University with an Honours degree in History and wanted to do something practical with it. A few ideas kicked around for a while, but none really caught my enthusiasm. Whatever I chose needed to be heavily connected to some aspect of social history, which has always held a deep fascination for me. I believe that it is essential to capture and preserve past traditions and experiences wherever possible, using whatever medium suits them best. I have seen stunning contemporary photographic work which captured the everyday lives of a moorland family whose house and farming practices were still rooted in the traditions of the 1950s. Recalling that display made me wonder if there was a way for me to do something similar, but using the medium of theatre. As a professional actress and member of a new Devon based production company, Circle of Spears Productions my project had to involve theatre somehow.

One day, I hit on the idea of dramatising witch trial transcripts. Having visited the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic earlier in the year, it highlighted the importance of so many traditions, superstitions and practices which could all be collated under the umbrella of ‘witchcraft’ whilst still being a skill in their own right, such as herbalism. This idea caught my imagination - I was curious to see if there was a way of presenting the actual words spoken by those involved in witch trials to make them more accessible. I mulled over a few possible treatments for a while before approaching the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle to ask if they had any transcripts I could work from. That was how I first encountered Deanes Gimmerton, who became the inspiration for my character Margery Scrope.

Deanes Gimmerton, of Lyme Regis, Devon, was tried for witchcraft in 1687. Hers is the most complete written record of an English witch trial and I was able to read the various depositions given by the victims in the case. They were absolutely fascinating and contained a wealth of information. They particularly excited me because I had never heard of the case and it was precisely that sort of material that I wanted to try to bring more into the public awareness. However, I realised that I needed to slightly shift my focus. The information, while fascinating to me as a historian, would not translate particularly well to the stage.  A huge amount of attention is normally given to torture, interrogation, the trial process and the execution of the accused. I wanted to do something different and look more closely at the accusation itself. What had happened within communities to make neighbours turn on one another in this way, knowing that such an accusation was likely to end with the death of the accused? What social factors could have influenced people to take that course of action?

I started researching the history of witch trials more widely and, gradually, the story took shape. I selected a variety of actual occurrences both from my research and from the Gimmerton papers and from this, created my three characters: Margery Scrope, the accused; Thomas Latimer, her accuser; and local magistrate Sir William Tyrell. The play is set in Sir William’s library and takes the form of an informal deposition as the magistrate questions Latimer and Scrope, trying to determine whether the accusation has merit and whether Scrope should be committed for trial.

The story needed a less informal setting in order to bring out the various plot points, so a little dramatic licence had to be taken with the early Elizabethan legal system. The questioning had to be less structured than it would be in court and the characters had to be able to react freely to what they were hearing. In addition, my accused, Margery, needed to be able to provide rebuttal to Latimer’s evidence against her, which she does with great energy. Ultimately, the story seemed almost to write itself and, unusually for me, I found that I didn’t want to overdo the editing, a trap I generally fall into every time. I sent the finished script to a historian friend who is an expert in witch trials. After a few facts were corrected, I approached the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic to see if they would be interested in Circle of Spears performing the show for them.

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic’s managers, Peter and Judith Hewitt, were incredibly enthusiastic and supportive of the project from the outset and were happy to arrange a test audience for the show. I wanted to make sure that I had got my facts right, both as a historian and as a writer portraying witchcraft when I am not a witch myself. I was overwhelmed with the positive feedback we received, which included a fantastic review by author Joyce Froome. One or two tweaks later, the show was ready to be premiered.

Our summer season at the Museum ran from July to October 2016. The show was incredibly well-received by all who have seen it and the audience feedback has been absolutely fantastic. “Compelling throughout”, “Deeply moving performance”, “The best thing I’ve seen in years”, “Well-researched,” “Thought-provoking” and “Utterly immersive” are just a few of the comments received. In addition, several audience members have been reduced to tears by the end of the show. I won’t give anything away, but there are a series of twists in the plot so the ending is not necessarily what you would expect…

The play is specifically designed to stimulate discussion, so while it poses a variety of questions, it does not necessarily provide answers. I didn’t want the audience to find themselves following a predictable, linear story where the accused is clearly innocent or guilty. There are a lot of grey areas. This has enabled us to have some brilliant Q&A sessions after each performance – audiences are overwhelmingly keen to engage with us and talk about the play’s themes of loss and persecution and the fact that they resonate with our world today just as much as they did with Margery’s world.

So what is next for WITCH? It has already gone further than I dared hope and I am currently in discussion with several tour venues for 2017. We have dates for Exeter in February and April and will be at Crediton’s new East Town Theatre during this year’s Credfest in June. Most exciting of all, I recently successfully pitched a book proposal to a publisher in Cornwall – the book will be based on WITCH and will examine in more detail the various aspects of social history, folklore and tradition which appear in the play, but will look at them from the point of view of my three characters to show how theatre can be used to preserve our social history.
As one of the new writers-in-residence at the East Town CafĂ© in Crediton, you will find me there on Wednesdays, working on the book. You can also pick up a copy of the audio version of the play from the online store at and follow WITCH-related news on Facebook (Tracey Norman’s WITCH – preserving folklore and tradition through theatre) and Twitter @WITCHplayCoS

website (to be active soon) 

Tuesday 24 January 2017

The Silent Shadow of the Barn Owl

A collection of owls: A Parliament, or a Wisdom of Owls.

One of the biggest delights, I discovered, when moving from a busy North London suburb to the rural countryside of North Devon were the owls. Not just hearing them at night, but actually seeing them, in flight or roosting in the trees near the house. The icing on the cake occurred two weeks after we had moved in on a snowy 18th January 2013. My husband and I happened to be in the kitchen looking out at the glorious (if somewhat wintery) view – and saw a barn owl gliding over the field beyond the orchard. It was the most wonderful moment and even now, these few years later, there is still something magical about watching ‘our’ barn owls hunting over that same field.

photo ©Kathy Hollick-Blee
Owls are fascinating – even awesome. Fossils have been found from sixty million years ago, revealing that the species has changed very little. They are admired or feared, worshipped or condemned. They have been regarded as good omens, bad omens, associated with superstitions, witchcraft, medicine, death, birth and even the weather. Why? Probably because they are night birds (although we have seen the barn owls hunting as late as 11a.m. and as early as 3pm – in the summer.) Almost undoubtedly the fear of them is because they are silent. Barn owls rarely call (unlike the noisy Tawny Owl) and their flight is completely without sound. You don’t hear their wings beating, or even a swish of sound as they glide past.

All owls are carnivorous, devouring small mammals, small birds, reptiles, large insects. They have sharp beaks and claws, and some can be particularly vicious if encountered. Most owls have a rounded shape and large head, with face-feathers which form a facial disk serving to direct sound towards the ears – a bit like your TV satellite dish. An owl’s vision is highly developed with eyes in a frontal position, allowing for depth and three-dimensional sight. They can turn the head 270 degrees. Owls have particular flight feathers, fringed at the top surface and then contoured. The friction between the feathers and the air is damped, thus creating the silent flight.

photo ©Tony Smith
In many branches of folklore and myth, like in Indian culture or the Greek Myths, owls are associated with prophecy and wisdom: “The wise old owl lived in the old, old oak, the more he heard the less he spoke; the less he spoke the more he heard – now why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

To dream of an Owl is to be forewarned of shipwreck or robbery, and it seems owls became a night bird as a form of punishment: the 12th Century English preacher and fabulist, Odo of Cheriton, insisted that because an owl stole a rose, the flower of beauty, the other birds condemned it to a life in the darkness.

The Greek Goddess of Wisdom, Athene’s symbol is the owl, although her bird is a Little Owl, Athene Noctua. The Goddess – and her owl – were seen as protectors of Athens and her armies. Soldiers took it as a sign of immanent victory if an owl flew overhead just before battle commenced, and as a guardian of commerce and trade the owl was depicted on the reverse side of coinage.

For the early Romans, however, a dead owl when nailed to a house door to ward off evil, a custom which persisted throughout Europe, and England, into the 19th century. 

For a Roman, to hear an owl calling predicted a death. Apparently before Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa died, owls were heard. Not really surprising if owls were in abundance and it was evening – no one seems to remark that on other nights when owls were active various figures of importance managed to survive the night!

In Europe, by the Middle Ages, however, owls meant witchcraft, even in Roman times witches changed their appearance into owls to drink the blood of babies. Owls were regarded as wicked spirits, portents of death and the carrying-off of the spirit or soul. Understandable when you think of a dark forest, an eerie call, and a silent shape gliding through the frightening shadows. On the other hand, various countries, and in particular in the north of England, owls were considered to bring good luck.

photo ©Kathy Hollick-Blee
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) used the barn owl as a bird of doom in his poems, while for weather-watchers, an owl’s screech meant the coming of cold weather or a storm, although if it was already bad outside an owl’s call indicated a change in the weather. (Nothing like hedging your bets is there?)

A raw owl’s egg will cure drunkenness, or cooked until they became ash would be a cure for poor eyesight. (With my failing sight… no, I am not going to try it!). Whooping cough could be cured by drinking owl broth.

Some American Indian tribes regard owls as bringers of sickness and death, others as protective spirits or the souls of the recently departed and should be respected. The Cree of North America believed that the calls of owls were spirits, if a person answered with a similar sound he (or she) would soon die. In Dakota the Hidatsa Indians thought of the Burrowing Owl as a spirit to protect their warriors, while the Hopis Indians thought of the same owl as the god of the dead, a guardian of fires and carer of things underground, including sown seed. They called the Burrowing Owl the Ko'ko, meaning "Watcher of the dark." In California, the Newuks believed the brave and virtuous became Great Horned Owls after death, whereas wicked people become barn owls. For the native peoples of the Sierras the Great Horned Owl took dead souls down into the underworld. For some tribes death was described as passing over the owl bridge.

The barn owl, Tyto Alba, with its pale colouring and heart-shaped facial disk is unmistakable. It doesn’t build a nest, but the female lays her eggs in tree holes or buildings – often barns, hence its familiar name. Adding to the superstitions, their ghostly pale colour, silent nocturnal flight and a tendency to nest or hunt in places like graveyards it is no wonder that they are associated with the spirits of the dead. When they do vocalise (they have seventeen different calls) their voice when alarmed or issuing defence is similar to a human scream.

photo ©Tony Smith
Whether you think them lucky or unlucky, the barn owl is an endangered species, lack of suitable habitation, pesticides, and meeting with oncoming cars being their greatest danger. When you think that a pair of barn owls can devour about 2,000 mice a year, to farmers they are essential. Be wary if you (or your fictional characters) find an injured owl, use a jacket or sack (or lady’s underslip?) to wrap it in – those claws and beak are sharp. Leave it in a quiet, dark place and contact your nearest wildlife centre - except of course, in the context of historical fiction.

One of the most famous old Welsh stories about owls can be found in the MabinogionBlodeuwedd, the Goddess of Betrayal, was created from flowers by the magician Gwydion, but due to her actions of betrayal she was transformed into a white owl, destined to haunt the night forever in lonely sorrow. In Welsh, Blodeuwedd means ‘owl’.

photo ©Tony Smith
Barn owl hunting over the field behind our orchard
February 2016
©Kathy Hollick-Blee

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Tuesday 17 January 2017

War and the Manly Science by Lucienne Boyce

Please welcome my Tuesday Talk Guest

Lucienne Boyce
In Bloodie Bones, the first Dan Foster Mystery, Dan, who has just taken part in a bare-knuckle boxing match, finds himself justifying his love of pugilism to Anna Halling, a woman he has recently befriended. He tells her, amongst other things, that money made in the ring is “honestly earned, more or less”.

In fact, as a serving Principal Officer of Bow Street (Bow Street Runner), Dan knew all too well that boxing was illegal. Fighters could be brought up on charges of duelling (regarded as attempted murder), and if the worst happened in the ring and an opponent died, the charge could be manslaughter. In addition, fights drew huge crowds and could be scenes of disorder and affray, and fighters and organisers were thus liable to charges of breaching the peace or unlawful assembly. Fights also attracted thieves, prostitutes and conmen.

Faced with this lawlessness, magistrates occasionally took steps to prevent fights taking place. In 1801 British champion Jem Belcher of Bristol and his would-be opponent Joe Bourke were arrested when magistrates learned that a fight between them had been arranged. Later that year the Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza was arrested when he planned to fight Jem Belcher. To avoid falling foul of magisterial interference, fights were often arranged to take place on county boundaries where it was easy to avoid arrest by hopping from one legal jurisdiction to another. To further confound the magistrates, it was not unknown for the location to be changed on the day of the fight.

Yet all too often magistrates turned a blind eye to these huge boxing events. In the main, the law only intervened if the crowd threatened to be disorderly, and most fights went ahead without any interference from the justices. But why were authorities so tolerant of this illegal activity? Dan suggests that one reason is because the sport was popular with the upper classes, including the Prince of Wales – and they could hardly go around arresting members of the royal family.

There is another explanation. Bare-knuckle fighting had its heyday in a period when Britain was almost continually at war. It suited a government hungry for sailors to man its ships and soldiers to populate its battlefields to tolerate a sport which instilled militaristic values. It was an idea Pearce Egan, the author of Boxiana: Or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812) elaborated upon in his claim that sports like boxing made the British soldier daring and intrepid, and Jack Tar quick to man the guns when called upon.

According to Egan, boxing formed the national character. It gave Britons “generosity to their disposition – humanity to their conduct...[and] courage.” It was directly linked with British military victories, for it put “that true heroic courage…into the hearts of Britons, which have made them so renowned, terrific and triumphant, in all parts of the world”. Boxing made men brave and strong: the Battle of Dettingen was won literally by strength of arm when British soldiers used their broad swords to force their way through enemy lines.

Egan argued that it is natural for men to quarrel and fight, but boxing is the best way to settle scores. It is less deadly than duelling, and preferable to the murderous methods favoured by foreigners: the Dutch with their long knives, the Italians with their stilettos, the French and Germans with sticks and stones. By contrast, quarrels in Britain do not end in assassination and murder. A good clean fist fight settles the matter, and afterwards men shake hands and all resentment is forgotten. In this way, Britain’s manpower is preserved for the service of its country, for “the life of an individual is a loss to the state, from the peer to the peasant”.

Boxing was British. As the anonymous author of The General History of Boxing (appended to Daniel Mendoza’s book The Complete Art of Boxing, 1788) expresses it, “this gymnastic game of ambidextrian exercise is wholly British”. Critics who level accusations of brutality against it are “Frenchified” and “effeminate”. As far as Egan was concerned, boxing originated in Britain, where its history stretched back to the time of Alfred the Great. Pugilism, Egan wrote, is “in perfect unison with the feelings of Englishmen”. It knows no distinction of class: it is the sport of dukes, lords and princes as well as commoners. It instils national pride, and reflects the British sense of fair play. Foreigners might sneer at the British for their rude manners, but thanks to boxing they have something better than affected politeness – honesty and sincerity.

Indeed, some supporters of the sport claimed that without it Britain would fall. William Cobbett in his 1805 essay ‘In Defence of Boxing’ argued that pugilistic qualities were essential to the survival of the nation. Without them there was a danger of men becoming effeminate; this would ultimately lead to “submission to a foreign yoke”. As Egan put it, “the English character may get too refined, and the thorough-bred bull-dog, degenerate into the whining puppy”.

Given the role of warfare in maintaining and expanding the powers of the ruling elite both before and since, it is perhaps not surprising that the authorities turned a blind eye to a technically illegal pastime that primed Britons for battle. Strong, courageous and honest, the  boxing Briton was the terror of the world. As A Boxing We Will Go, one of the sport’s favourite drinking songs put it, champions like Tom Cribb, Daniel Mendoza, John Gulley and Tom Molineaux would stand up to Napoleon Bonaparte (Boney) wielding only “nature’s weapon” – the fist. “If Boney doubt it, let him come/And try with CRIBB a round,/And CRIBB shall beat him like a drum,/And make his carcase sound.”

Lucienne Boyce
January 2017

Helen Says: It's interesting that the debate still continues with modern-day boxing, despite its various safeguards etc. So many boxers (Ali for instance) suffer such tragic brain damage, is it really a 'sport' that can be justified? Opinion in the comments below are welcome! 

Biographical Note:-

Lucienne Boyce writes historical fiction and non fiction. She has published two historical novels, To The Fair Land (2012) and Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery (2015). Bloodie Bones is a winner of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016 and was also a semi finalist in the M M Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction 2016. She published The Bristol Suffragettes in 2013. She is a steering committee member of the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network, and is currently working on the second Dan Fostery Mystery and a biography of a suffragette with Bristol connections. Lucienne recently joined BCfm Radio (Bristol) as a presenter on the Silver Sound programme.
        Amazon Com

 Lucienne's Other books:

 For other buying options (Ibooks, Kobo etc) and to preview Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery etc see

Social Media:-

Twitter: @LucienneWrite

Tuesday 10 January 2017

My Next Book

I recently shared the cover of my next book to be published with those who subscribe to my (sort of) monthly newsletter. Now they've had their 'sneak preview' I'm ready to go fully public. 
So drum-roll please:

It is a non-fiction about - well, pirates, and I explore some of the common things we know about pirates, some things not so common, and take a look at why we are so fascinated with these dastardly rogues! There are biographical chapters, chapters about things of interest (for instance, I take a look at rum, its production and lucrative stealability) and interspersed within the non-fiction I explore the fictional side of pirates, drawing on my own Sea Witch Voyages and several other sources (Frenchman's Creek as example!) 
Due for publication in the UK on the 15th February (US May 1st) you can order your copy now 

"Pirates have fascinated people for several centuries. The master terrorists of their age, the sailors of the early 18th century, who went "on the account" hoping to gain fortune and fame, often led a short but exciting life—albeit one supplemented by rum and debauchery. Theirs was a harsh life, overshadowed each day by the presence of death, either by injury, illness or the hangman’s noose. But the lure of gold, the excitement of the chase and the freedom that life aboard a ship offered was worth the risk. Or was it? The fictional world of pirates, represented in novels and movies, is somewhat different to the base reality, but what draws readers and viewers to these notorious "bad boys" of the past? And what are the facts behind the fantasy? Where does fiction end, and fact begin?"
It's Hardback - pre-order a copy now!  published 15th February £20.00  published 1st May (note at the moment it carries the wrong title) $29.95

Here are some of the lovely comments left by my newsletter subscribers - please do add your own (and maybe subscribe to my newsletter?)
  1. Shiver me timbers, tis a good un, aahh.
  2. Looks brilliant Helen - very appealing. xx
  3. Wow! So excited for you Helen. A-l-m-o-s-t clicked share... But, I didn't. How fabulous. Great book cover. I want it... on my Kindle Library... so I shall have to wait a while, I guess. May have to have a G & T in Celebration... Well done you. And Happy Christmas to you and yours x Caz and Geoff, and my girls Lucy and Rosie... #cockerspaniels x
  4. Just received the wonderful email. Thank you! Readers just love you! Merry Christmas Helen!
  5. ps Coz there's always a ps... should you do one of your competitions, I shall have to enter to win a hardback copy, o'course. #Justsaying x
  6. Excellent news. Cover is outstanding, the quote an eyecatcher! Good luck and see if I can get around to reading it!!!
  7. Wow! Walk the plank should you dare to share just yet. Love it!
  8. Great cover Helen
  9. That cover should certainly stand out in a crowd - and the great thing about a non-fiction book on a subject like this is that it has no sell-by date, so with a following wind it should go on selling well for years to come. Happy Christmas.
  10. Great cover!
  11. Fabulous! Can't wait!
  12. Cripes, Helen, Oi'm lookin' forward ter a real good read of "Pirates" roight soon. Meanwhile Oi wish yew a fine an' merry Christmas!
    Wiv luv from, Jenno...
  13. Perfect cover for a perfect book about Pirates! I will be ready and waiting for it to be available in stores. I just love to read about pirates! Helen, I would like to wish you, your family and your readership a Very Merry Christmas and a very successful New Year!
    Love, Carole in Canad
  14. That cover howls "Secure ship; we're about to be boarded." Quite foreboding and, for those of us who love pirates, most tempting. Even wearing an eye patch, potential readers won't be able to miss it.
  15. Love it, Helen! Calls for a hearty glug from the rum ration in celebration. Best of luck.
  16. How exciting to be taking on this challenge. Congratulations, Helen. Wishing you and yours happy holidays, Merry Christmas and a great 2017.

You're welcome to leave more comments below! LOL 

Thursday 5 January 2017

So its Tuesday Talk...

...On a Thursday.

It's been a long ten...eleven...almost twelve days since Christmas, 
with too much to do and not enough time to do it in.
(Not helped by the increase of S.A.D. which I'm currently battling. 
Roll on the longer, lighter, days!)

So why is Tuesday talk appearing on a Thursday?
This is why...
below just about sums the end of 2016 and start of 2017 
 for me so far ...

Virtual or actual hugs will be gratefully welcome.