The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches…

the circle shows the house

The picture shows Pendle Hill in Lancashire – home of many a wonderful witch and, indeed, peeping out from the trees, as marked by the circle, you can just about make out the house where I was born!

The house was haunted by a Cavalier soldier killed in the Civil War – arms and legs removed at elbow and knee, left to bleed to death where he fell. He wasn’t a nuisance as a ghost and merely sat on my brother’s bed, ‘stroking’ his face with arms that weren’t there.

Behind the house and up the hill is a cairn where modern-day witches meet on Halloween. I doubt the original witches met there, busy as they would have been with trying not to be labelled such. But for decades wannabes have kept alive a quite unrealistic image of the witch – for fun, for tourism. And I suspect those hung mercilessly and unnecessarily in the 1600s, probably spend each of these Halloweens twisting and turning in their graves, wishing they had some eye of toad and tongue of newt to cook up a potion to rid Pendle of such pretenders.

a closer view

The post title comes from that of the famous Lancashire witch trials – The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster – documented by one Thomas Potts, clerk to the court, but reputedly selectively edited by the two judges themselves in order to help advance their careers.

Despite being born on Pendle and brought up in an area steeped in that witchy history, I’ve never read into the subject as deeply as I feel I should have done.

Too many books, too little time, alas…

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Brown paper packages tied up with strings…

… these are a few of my favourite things.

So sang Maria (and yes, I’m sorry, I can’t get it out of my head now either). And here are some more of my favourite things! This time it’s films – in no particular order as I’d find it impossible to rank them.

Shooting the Past – a Stephen Poliakoff masterpiece. A beautiful story about a photographic library, housed in a gorgeous old building which is purchased by a developer. The buyers aren’t interested in the collection and want the photos either sold or destroyed.

The eccentric staff of the archive can’t bear to see the collection broken up and must persuade the American company to save it as a whole.

The story unravels so luxuriously – the setting is marvellous, the filming atmospheric, the photos themselves are amazing and the acting first class. I’m a fan of most of Poliakoff’s work but this one is my favourite.

Caché – a French psychological thriller about a successful professional Parisian family who discover they’re being watched when they receive anonymous video footage of their house and odd crayon drawings etc. The relationships between husband, wife and son start to break down when the husband won’t go to the police – but he can’t tell his family that he knows who’s doing it and why…

To say more about this one would spoil the plot, so I shan’t. But the French seem to do psychological thrillers really well – there’s always a great atmosphere, they get the tension right and their dialogue errs towards sparse which works, I think, to enhance those crumbling relationships and the overall atmosphere.

Brief Encounter – yes, the dialogue is dire and worthy of parody and, yes, the RP accents and unnerving politeness are dated and, yes, the extent of the love affair is laughably tame… but isn’t this just one of the best films ever?? I think so.

It would be impossible now to remake Brief Encounter without saucing it up to suit modern mores and turning it into just another tacky illicit sex romp in the process.

The beauty of this film is its simplicity, its tameness and all the things it doesn’t show or say… it’s gorgeous and I love it and it always makes me cry.

Crustaces et Coquillages – a French farce. This is a genre in which, in my opinion, our voisins Français excel. British farce is a hateful thing… I can’t abide the way we do them… but the French farce is – along with their bread, cheese and all-round style – the best in the world!

This film is set in the Côte d’Azur. A family takes a summer holiday in a house the father has recently inherited from his aunt. It’s the usual cocktail of interconnecting relationships, extra-marital affairs, a son who’s assumed gay but isn’t, a father who’s assumed straight but isn’t… and the manic revolving-door kind of activity that makes for a great French romp.

Gosford Park – I love this film and have watched it so many times I’m sure I could recite most of the dialogue. I find the upstairs/downstairs observation fascinating, along with the period detail that goes into these films. The story is brilliant, the acting sublime – what a cast list! – and the setting fabulous.

According to Wiki: the film was shot with two cameras, both moving perpetually in opposite directions. The cameras pointed toward no specific area, intended to cause the audience to move their eyes throughout the scene which is a nifty trick and something I’ll look for next time I watch it.

L’homme du Train – a truly beautiful film about two very different men who develop a brief unexpected friendship. One is a retired poetry teacher about to have major surgery, and the other an out-of-town criminal due to lead an armed robbery on the local bank. Both events are to take place on the same day.

Each man envies the other’s life. Johnny Hallyday is the criminal, Milan – edgy and reluctant initially to trust and warm to the poet, played to perfection by Jean Rochefort. The older man persists – coaxing and pestering until Milan finally opens up.

I shan’t spoil the ending but it’s one of those that makes you smile and cry at the same time.

Before Sunrise/Before Sunset – Two strangers spend the night walking the streets of Vienna and falling for each other. They part without exchanging details as they don’t think they’ll see each other again. At the last-minute they panic about this and agree to meet in the same location in six months’ time.

Nine years later, they meet again by chance. He’d waited for her at the agreed point but she’d been unable to contact him to say she couldn’t be there. Each is now in a relationship, but they still have a strong attraction… Will they or won’t they? Ha. That’d be a spoiler.

Le Dîner de Cons – a French comedy about a group of professional men who hold a weekly dinner party where each must bring along ‘an idiot’ for the entertainment of the others – the winner being he who brings the ‘best idiot’.

This is THE funniest film I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched it many times and still I cry laughing at certain scenes. It is, for me, the ultimate Cheer Me Up film. Thierry Lhermitte is wonderfully straight-faced as the publisher, Brochant, whose chosen ‘idiot’ causes mayhem, and Jacques Villeret fantastic as Pignon, the idiot in question.

I adore this film and pester even complete strangers into watching it.

Last Year in Marienbad – the weirdest film I’ve ever seen (though it’s a close call between this and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover which was pretty surreal). It’s on my list not because I love it for itself but because of the profound effect it had on me. It haunts like flashbacks from an acid trip. In fact I’m half-convinced that if a person watched this film on acid it’d make perfect sense.

It’s been described as both the worst and best of films – pretentious, pointless and unintelligible on the one hand, clever, artistic and deep on the other. For me, it’s like a work of art – filmed beautifully, it just looks gorgeous. There isn’t a plot – it’s a series of scenes replayed, most making no real sense. Being immersed in this bizarre yet beautiful film is like being stolen for a couple of hours, or asleep – the atmosphere is very powerful. This lingered, for me, for months – as if I was still trying to analyse a most peculiar dream… which a person can’t do, of course, because dreams rarely make sense. It’s amazing, disturbing, but beautiful.

And those are my favourite films… I’m sure the minute I post this I’ll think of another batch.

A virile self pity…

I never complained that my birthday was overlooked; people were even surprised, with a touch of admiration, by my discretion on this subject. But the reason for my disinterestedness was even more discreet: I longed to be forgotten in order to be able to complain to myself. Several days before the famous date (which I knew very well) I was on the alert, eager to let nothing slip that might arouse the attention and memory of those on whose lapse I was counting (didn’t I once go so far as to consider falsifying a friend’s calendar?). Once my solicitude was thoroughly proved, I could surrender to the charms of a virile self pity.

                                   ~ Albert Camus, “La Shute”

Like Jean-Baptiste Clamence, I used this as a tool to affirm my possibly unreasonable but quite strong views on the online world. With no Social Networking Bot to remind them, I imagined my online friends would remain oblivious to my birthday yesterday. I figured we’ve all become a bit pathetic – we click things without thinking about them, we respond to Bot-suggested niceties… “say hello” to this person, “wish happy birthday” to that. We do these things on auto-pilot but, without the prompt, probably wouldn’t do them at all – and this, to my mind, renders them pretty worthless gestures.

I’d become quite cynical about it all.

I didn’t particularly like feeling so negative. It’s all in that last line – surrender to the charms of a virile self pity – so I rose early on my birthday morning to seek this book, this particular snippet, to remind myself of Camus’ observation… how this kind of self-satisfaction is not a pretty trait.

Jean-Baptiste is a particularly unpleasant character because he represents the darker side to us all. Nothing else I’ve read quite sums up the human beast as much as this monologue. He is Everyman on truth serum. It makes for uncomfortable reading (though I’d recommend the book to anyone… it’s sublime).

In conversation with the lovely Jane Alexander, I mentioned my cynicism – how it was my birthday, how I hadn’t displayed this date publicly because I’d rather have no birthday wishes than a host of Bot-induced ones from people who ordinarily have nothing to say to me. I admitted I was probably being grumpy and over-cynical but, hey-ho, doesn’t the online world make you feel like that sometimes? I said.

So the mischievous Jane wished me a happy birthday publicly and over the next few hours I was amazed how many more birthday messages appeared – on both Facebook profiles, by email and on the Authomony forum thread she also started in my honour. It made me feel SO ashamed for all the negative thoughts I’d had! Here were people not merely clicking into a convenient little box proffered by the Bots, but taking time to visit my pages and write a personal message.

Thanks, Jane, and thanks everyone else for quashing my cynicism and adding an extra layer of cheer to my birthday in the process!

(I reckon Jean-Baptiste Clamence wouldn’t have stood a chance against the might that is Jane Alexander…)

We do not remember days, we remember moments

Sipping grappa is nice, but there’s also a pleasure
In listening to the venting of an impotent old man
Who’s back from the front and asks your forgiveness.

~ Cesare Pavese, “Sad Wine”


I met a lovely old man today in town. The sort I’m drawn to – glimmer in the eye, chirpy nature…  signs of a remaining spark inside a body which is failing. 

When you see that glimmer, it means stories

We’re in a lift and it’s stopped inexplicably. He’s leaning on a stick, his other hand clutching his wife’s arm. He must be late eighties – possibly even early nineties – and his back is so stooped he’s permanently looking at the floor. They’re an intriguing couple. The minute I see them I’m curious. He, with his cheerful face, healthy, scrubbed complexion, bowed back, tweed jacket, flat cap, almost unnaturally large hands – retired farmer, think I, he has that look.  

She, on the other hand, is exotic. Younger than him – probably in her late seventies – and dressed like a Romany fortune teller. Very bright clothes swathed and floor-length, a turban-style hat, huge ornate earrings, eyebrows non-existent but painted on with a thick, wobbly black line – way, way, way too much make-up all round. And yet a lady. Perfectly polite and well spoken. Just barking – totally eccentric. 

They make an extremely Odd Couple. I love people like this.

So, we’re in the lift. It’s not moving – or, at least, is taking a time. The old guy lifts his head, his back twisting with the effort, and says you ever been stuck in one of these things?

No, I say. This is an accidental lie, I realise later. I was stuck in a lift once, many years ago – it lasted twenty minutes or so and, apart from one girl who became a tad claustrophobic, wasn’t scary and excused us twenty minutes of a dull psychology lecture. 

But, I tell him, I did write a short story about a couple stuck in a lift and used my imagination to work out what it would be like. Was it awful for them? he said. I hope you made it awful

Well, yes, I said. They die in the end. 

Oh, he says. That’s pretty awful then. It is like that though. 

We exit the lift and he tells me they’re like punishment cells. And I’ve been in one of those too, he says. So many potential stories here, I think – wonder where he was in the war. I ask him which was worst then, the lift or the punishment cell? His eyes sparkle again and he chuckles – the lift, he says definitely the lift. Thought I’d never get out

We chat a bit longer. He asks what I write but I don’t say, there’s no point. I tell him I have an over-active imagination and will write anything.  He says he has one too. And I just know this man has a zillion stories to tell, and he’s itching to tell them, but there’s no opportunity to listen. It’s a shopping centre. I contemplate asking whether they’d like to go for a cup of tea, but that seems creepy and odd. Yet there’s a part of me that reckons he’d love to – he’s certainly not going to walk far in town with those legs, the stick, the need to lean onto his wife’s arm every step. 

But I don’t ask. 

We say cheerio, how nice it was to chat, and go our separate ways. 

These are the moments, I think, which add richness to lives watered down by banality. All too few of them, though, and often short lived. 

The photo, incidentally, was taken in a restaurant which used to be a chapel. They’ve kept the confessionals… well, the doors at least. The walls are gone and, as such, the image is not quite trapped in a lift, nor confined in a punishment cell, but more symbolic of the prisons in which we place ourselves – when, caught in the noise of our lives, we fail to see those interesting people shuffling by; and when we let banality win out by thinking there “isn’t time” to carry on a conversation or that it’d be “wrong” to pursue a potential one. 

Shame. I do hope I bump into them again.


a thousand conversations

        grey drapes its cloak
        across sun’s light touch;
        wind turns in sharp from colder
        climes, cuts through ambiance
        with quiet, persistent menace.

        all is lost to this darkness,
        to this end –
             warmth,
             colour,
             the promise of life
                  – taken.

        and the words of
        a thousand conversations
        scatter like dead leaves;
        gather in corners,
        curl, rot… seep
        silently into icy ground,
        and are gone.

                                              ~ 5th October 2011