Recent Posts

Witch-hunter General

Witch-hunter General

When the Royston Crow dropped onto the doormat this afternoon, it came as a bit of a shock to see my ugly mug staring back at me. On page 4, there’s an interesting article written by Bianca Wild for Local and Community History Month. It […]

Cracked Voices pamphlet

Cracked Voices pamphlet

ISBN 978-0-9524753-2-3 48pp One Tree Publishing (UK) The Cracked Voices 48 page pamphlet featuring the stories and poems from the lost borderlands of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire is now on sale. Proceeds will go to help with the restoration of Royston Parish Church which was badly […]

Curiosity killed the cat

Curiosity killed the cat

If you believe some blogs, the cat was first killed at the turn of the 20th century. Wikipedia claims that the saying first appeared in print in 1873 but a brief search of the British Newspaper Archive reveals it was in common usage in Ireland well before that.So what does that prove? Not a lot. Just that you shouldn’t take things you read at face value (not even this)…and that’s the most important thing any would-be researcher can learn.

A lot of what we take for granted about the past is – well – alternative facts. It’s not so much fake news as misremembered myths. Just as in the children’s game of Chinese Whispers (aka Telephone), the history that gets passed on subtly alters with each retelling. By the time we finally hear the story it has little resemblance to the one that was first told but that doesn’t make it essentially untrue.

Take the Royston witches. As far as I know, they didn’t have a black cat, nor did they boil up animals in a large cauldron or fly through the air. Since I rediscovered them for Creative Royston in 2014, this however has become the dominant picture people have of them, largely due to an image created for an art trail at the time.

Let’s return to the whisper I first heard in 2014. I had not set out to search for witches. I was looking for something else entirely when I came across a reference to Royston in a book. That book (Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618) reprints part of a pamphlet from 1606 called The most cruell and bloody murther committed by an Inkeeper’s Wife… A copy of the original pamphlet is held at the British Library in Euston and anyone can access the original there (for anyone interested, it’s also transcribed here). Like so many other cheap chapbooks, it was not printed to provide an accurate report of recent happenings but rather to ensure they were sensationalised in a way that would confirm the readers’ prejudices, increase sales and make the publisher and street-sellers a fast buck. After dealing with the Hatfield murderers, the pamphlet goes on to tell another story – that of Joan Harrison and her daughter, two women from Royston who were executed for witchcraft that August. Or does it?

The chapbook is full of accusations and intriguing detail but gets the basic facts wrong. Its writer may not even have been in Hertford for the Assizes but possibly only heard the story second hand. If you trawl through the court records held at the National Archive in Kew you can go back to that first whisper. In the indictments for the Hertford Summer Sessions (NA, ASSI 35/48/2)* the Royston women are named as Alice Stokes and Christiana Stokes, not mother and daughter but both spinsters (possibly sisters). So how much else in the pamphlet is actually accurate? And why were Alice and Christina suddenly singled out in 1606?

King James of Scotland had come to the English throne only three years earlier. On his journey south he had stopped in Royston and taken note of the good hunting to be had on the extensive heathlands. This was a man who was fascinated with witchcraft, who had previously written a book on it called Daemonologie. This was the year of Shakespeare’s new play Macbeth – where witches haunt the heath – and, apart from hunting, James himself also participated in a number of witch-trials. The king had recently established a bachelor pad in Royston, so what could be more politic for the locals than to furnish him with two women to hang?

Of course, this is all pure speculation as no contemporary account has been found to support or refute it. That’s the problem with history. It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat. Sometimes you think you’ve got it and then you find out you haven’t!


Are you still curious? Is that cat still breathing? Why don’t you do your own digging and try to prove me wrong?

And while you’re doing so, don’t forget these five key questions:
• How reliable is this account? Was it written by an eye-witness? Was it written at the time? Did the author really understand what they were writing about?
• Why was it written? Was it just to make money or to curry favour? Was it meant to persuade people of something?
• Who was it written for? Was it for public consumption? Was it intended to be read at all?
• What was the context? How does it fit in with what was happening at the time? Do the words still mean the same thing?
• Can you find anything that backs it up? Do other primary sources support your interpretation?
All very curious…

Notes
*Transcribed in Witch Hunting and Witch Trials: The Indictments for Witchcraft from the Records of the 1373 Assizes Held for the Home Circuit AD 1559-1736 (1929) edited by C. L’Estrange Ewen, p.197

National Writing Day 2018

National Writing Day 2018

27 June 2018 is National Writing Day. Thanks to Creative Royston, I am delighted to be leading workshops over two consecutive mornings on 26 & 27 June with students from Greneway and Roysia Schools. We’ll be exploring non-fiction writing in the run up to Creative […]

Facing Rob Roy

Facing Rob Roy

Exhibition Thursday 13 September – Saturday 6 October 2018 10am-4:45pm Royston and District Museum FREE Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy, this one-off pop-up exhibition explores the changing faces of Scotland’s ‘Robin Hood’. From Macready to Liam Neeson, […]

Finding your voice

Finding your voice

It is said that every poet should find their own voice.

But perhaps not every poet should use it – or not in public, at least.

Reading your work in to an audience is not the same thing as reading it at home. No matter how good the words are, someone needs to breathe life into them and, invariably, that someone should not be the writer.

Now, I have the greatest respect for Dylan Thomas (the writer, not the man). But if I had come across Dylan reading Under Milk Wood when I was ‘dreaming wicked’ as a boy, would I have been electrified by it’s sonorous music?

His pulpit delivery, occasional awkward pauses and strange intonation induce sleep not stunning revelation. Bored, I suspect that I would simply have tuned out, turned on my brother’s Atari and zapped a few space invaders for the pure nihilistic exhilaration.

Fortunately for me, on my first visit to Under Milk Wood I was not guided by the poet but by Richard Burton, who knew everything there is to know about setting the senses on fire. It must have been a 1970s rerun of the 1954 classic. That original BBC radio play remains the defining moment of post-war performance poetry. The irreverent humour, the exuberant joy of word-music, the tension of a world about to explode with angry young men. It’s all there. And teenagers still get it (as I discovered recently when using it in a workshop with Year 10 students).

Those same students would not have understood the recent review in PN Review entitled ‘The cult of the noble amateur’. The piece attacked Hollie McNish’s incredibly popular work for it’s supposed lack of craft and sent shockwaves through the broadsheet papers. It mistook the directness of youth for brash naivety.

True, we all need to learn our craft and performance poetry often does not translate well to the written page but the reverse is also true. There is a strain of poetry that is meant to be viewed (like an artwork on a wall) but it is no better than any other.

Poetry grew out of music and music is meant to be heard. We should remember our roots and celebrate them. We should not merely focus on the marks on the page, but their sounds, rhythm and the audience they anticipate.

‘That’s what all we are: amateurs.’

As that master of performance Charlie Chaplin said ‘That’s what all we are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.’ Let’s not be snobbish about this, we are all still learning.

Perhaps the biggest thing that poets need to learn is not that some poetic forms are intrinsically better than others but that some are better performed and some are better left as eye-candy on the page.

At least that’s what I thought until I started working with the composer Jenni Pinnock on ‘Cracked Voices’. The experience taught me that even a poem obviously written for the printed page (in this case a schizophrenic mono/dialogue based on a meeting between Charles Dickens and the ‘Hertfordshire hermit’) can, in the hands of a skilled composer and interpreted by a singer like Donna Lennard or Miles Horner (people who have spent years learning their craft), become a spine-tingling performance piece.

Which takes me full circle. A good performer is someone who can take a work and focus it like a lens until it becomes something far greater than the marks on the page.

Are you sure you’re Richard Burton? If not, perhaps you still need to find your voice.

The challenge of writing history

The challenge of writing history

When you treat history creatively, how do you ensure you aren’t faking it? This is one of the things I was asked to discuss for the ‘Doing History in Public’ blog: A Cracked Voice.

Riddles

Riddles

Bilbo Baggins bets his life on a riddle in The Hobbit. Fortunately, for the story he doesn’t lose (or else the dwarves would never have kept their appointment with Smaug!). That riddling competition takes place in a dank deserted cave under the Misty Mountains – […]

Welcome


As Mark Twain wrote, ‘Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.’

I’m keeping on crossing out.