Carpenters and Shepherds -- Susan Price

The Carpenter and Other Stories

 Years ago, more than forty of 'em, I landed a year as a writing fellow at a teaching college in Scarborough.

I apologise to the college. Young and inexperienced as I was, I didn't shine as a fellow. In fact, I think the only reason I got the place was because as soon as I saw the calibre of the other applicants, I gave up all hope of getting the job. (One was, for instance, Authors Electric's very own Jan Needle, who would have made a far better fellow in every way than me. Sorry, Jan.)

Knowing that I had no chance took all the pressure off and I decided to just practice my interview technique. When called in to meet 'the board,' I was relaxed and chatty and rather looking forward to a cuppa at the train station. Only towards the end of the interview did I start to read the glances the interviewing board were shooting each other and realised, with cold horror, that they might actually choose me. I knew I'd be no good but, if they offered me the post, I couldn't afford to refuse it.

And reader, offer me it they did. (Sorry, Jan.)

I got to live in Scarborough for a year -- a lovely town if you avoided the mini-Blackpool by the beach and even that had its amusements, such as the 'penis pens' and mugs with tits sold there. I often travelled into York, where I visited the Jorvik dig, which was still just a large muddy hole in the ground. They set out buckets of excavated oyster shells for you to help yourself. The Vikings liked oysters and the dig was knee deep in them. I used to have a quantity of thousand year old shells, but can't remember what happened to them. They'll puzzle future archaeologists, wherever they are.

One of the best things about getting the position of fellow was that I got to use the College's wonderful library. Since it trained primary school teachers, at a time when they were still allowed to encourage a love of books and reading, they also had a separate, very well-stocked library of children's literature-- and a top class section on folk-lore, folk-tales and mythology. It was here that I first encountered-- fell into-- the magnificent four-volume 'Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language' by Katherine Mary Briggs.

It's called 'British Folk-Tales in the English Language' because Scots, Irish and Welsh stories are included, in English translation. I was spell-bound by these books, and they have remained an inspiration ever since. I missed them when my year as a fellow was over and several years later, when I came across them as two great bricks of paperbacks in a Birmingham bookshop, I rushed them to the till and paid a gob-smacking price, thinking that if I didn't buy them then and there, I might never have the chance again. I think, together, they came to over £30, the most expensive paperbacks I've ever bought. The woman at the till said, "Oh, thank goodness! We bought those in by mistake and thought we'd never sell them!"

That's the edition I bought, left, with a detail from Dadd's 'Fairy Feller's Master Stroke' on the cover. It's now going for over £68 on Abe Books, if you're interested.

I still have the books, scribbled with my own notes, and they have been the starting point for many of my own books. They were the inspiration for the very first collection of folk-tales that I ever published, with Faber. That's it, at the top of this blog and to the right: The Carpenter and Other Stories.

The nineteen stories have an overall theme of Christianity running up against paganism. I found the kernels of many of the stories in Briggs -- such as the title story of St Cuthman, who searches far and wide for a site to build his church. He can't leave his old mother behind, so he takes her along, pushing her in a wheelbarrow. (It was the mother in the wheelbarrow that sold the story to me.)

The mermaid on the cover belongs to a story found in Briggs too: the Cornish story of the second-sighted Lutey family.

Others tales came from my reading of Scandinavian legends. The harp-player on the cover is a Neckan, a northern water-spirit who is playing his harp under his waterfall and minding his own business when a passing Christian preacher suddenly denounces him as an evil pagan demon. And there's King Olaf's Warning, where an unfortunate member of the king's household is seated in the magnificent, 32-seater royal privy, when the most ghastly apparition imaginable rises up through the furthest seat, bids him good evening and announces its intention of dragging him down into Hell. At least his constipation was cured. I didn't illustrate that story for the cover.

The character on the moon (bottom left) is Pan Twerdovski and he's included because my Polish uncle demanded that he be. "ALL the little ones in Poland know Pan Twerdovski!" I liked the story when I heard it. It's a Polish version of the Faust legend, except instead of being carried off to Hell, Twerdovski saves himself by singing the hymn to the Virgin he learned as a child. The Devil is forced to release him and, falling towards Earth, he lands on a horn of the crescent moon and has to remain there, singing the hymn, until Judgement Day. (Though it still puzzles me that the Devil was dragging Twerdowski to Hell via the sky.)

Above the church and under the wee devil is the Scot, Michael Scott, riding off to Rome on his demon horse, to ask the Pope for the date of Easter. (He'd been appointed to travel to Rome to find this out, but had been too busy conjuring demons and had forgotten all about it until the last minute. His only chance of getting the job done was to call up a demon horse, 'faster than a storm.') And he outwits the Pope too, before riding his demon home.

My reason for going on about all this here, of course, is that I've republished The Carpenter as a paperback and e-book. Well, you have to do something to pass the time until the Tories finally destroy the UK and my Scots partner has to go back where he came from.

The Book Shepherd 

 

My other bit of news is that I've compiled a Shepherd's Book List. 

 

If you love books, the Book Shepherd site is a fun way to browse for your next read, jumping from list to list, depending on taste -- 'The Best Books About the Wild West by People Who Actually Lived in the Wild West'?

'The Best Fiction for Recovering Erased History'?

'The Best Children's Books to Bring History to Life'?

 There are many, many more lists to choose from. Not only does the site allow authors to recommend books they've loved, but they're allowed to head every list with one of their own books. So it helps to spread the word both about your own work and all those titles you wish everyone else would read.

My list is called The Best Books That Shake Fantasy and History up Together.

 I headed with my 'The Sterkarm Handshake.'

But you'll have to head over to Book Shepherd to find out which five books I chose for my list.


The ruthless FUP Corporation intends to use a time machine to strip the past of fossil fuel. They go back 500 years to the border between England and Scotland and dismiss the local Sterkarm family as ‘peasants armed with sticks.’ Big mistake. The Sterkarms are a smart and war-like clan, armed with longbows and eight-foot lances. Superb light cavalry, they acknowledge no rule but their own and defend their land against all comers.

FUP embeds their researcher, Andrea Mitchell, with the Sterkarms and she falls in love with Per, the chief’s handsome son. As misunderstanding grows between the Sterkarms and the 21st Century ‘Elves’, Andrea struggles to keep the peace. But when the two centuries go to war, she is forced to pick a side…

'The Sterkarm Handshake.'


Comments

Jan Needle said…
Believe it or not, Sue, I remember that day in Scarborough like it was only yesterday (as we literary types say). For my money I think the best gal won! Cynic that I was even at that young age, I'm pretty sure I only applied for the gig because there was money in it, whereas your sincerity shone through whether you wanted it to or not. But you can always buy me a drink to make up for my desperate disappointment…
Susan Price said…
That's very kind, Jan, but you would have been more confident, more pro-active, would have known more about earning a living as a writer... You would certainly have done a better job than I did. But there you go, luck of the draw...
Peter Leyland said…
Great Susan. Really interesting to hear about a writer's life so thank you. I know Scarborough fairly well as I have relatives in Hunmanby and of course Alan Ayckbourn hails from there. So what a place to get started and to be successful which is clear from your fantastic post. Thanks too for the swipe at our current govt.

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