Michaelmas

For the Catholics, today is the feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael (the Archangels); for Anglicans, Saint Michael and All Angels. In olden times, the feast was celebrated on October 10th or 11th. The Orthodox festival of All Angels is on November 8th.


Michaelmas celebrates the time when Archangel Michael hurled Lucifer from heaven. Lucifer fell into a blackberry bush, so we are advised to eat no more blackberries after this date. Be warned.

Like Equinox, it is a festival of light. The Archangel streaks across the heaven of our imagination, a flash of inspiration in the darkness of the shortening days and impending winter. According to some, this is a good time to wage war against our lower nature, but most of us will prefer another cup of coffee.

On which note, here is a fable from the Middle Ages. A scholar undertook to teach the wolf to read. – “A.B.C. Repeat these letters,” said the scholar. – “Lamb,” said the wolf, who was thinking of other things. This is how the mouth betrays the secrets of the heart. (Fable of the Scholar Instructing the Wolf).

From Sculpteurs au Moyen Age, Collection Compas no. 4, Editions L’Instant Durable.

Let’s make Michaelmas a festival for Historical Novelists. This is the day to overcome your inner demons who tell you you are no good, you can’t do this, you will never succeed. Fry them in the light of your gaze! Slice off their heads with your blade of steel! They are not who you are.

By happenchance I discovered last week that we had our civil marriage blessed in church on the feast of Michael. I knew it was ten years ago, but wasn’t quite sure of the date. Now I know.

Postscript to Equinox.
I heard from Tom Bree, a sacred geometer, yesterday that the full moon on the equinox happens every 19 years, ‘it’s part of the sun-moon nineteen year cycle’. So there we go: it was special.

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Autumn Equinox

So, it’s here, and this point in the calendar is personal. For about five years now, I’ve only written in the winter. It’s a Proserpina life: I spend the summer out on the allotment with Ceres and the winter at my desk with Pluto. Today is the day I return to hell.

It’s never so neat. The harvest is not yet fully in – many pumpkins and squashes await the barrow to bring them home. The raspberries are still producing merrily, and the runner beans. Many things will live until the first frost. So today is a transition rather than a threshold, but there is something I can do. From now on, writing comes first and everything will have to fit in around it, somehow. I’ll probably not manage more than three hours, even on good days, but the sense of priority is all-important.

The task this season is relatively simple. I’ve been writing a prequel to the trilogy. Set in the first half of the 15th century, it’s the story of Fra Filippo Lippi, a cheating, lying, lazy-good-for-nothing who was blessed with divine vision and the ability to paint it. The young Sandro Botticelli is his apprentice. I’ve written three drafts and it’s finished, at least structurally. But while all the attention has gone to making the story hang together, there’s not been enough on style.

There is one technique which works brilliantly, and that’s to read your work out loud. But it’s fiendishly difficult to do if there is someone else in the house, especially if he is smiling to himself fondly while you burble your drama – even worse if he’s actually listening. But now I have the summerhouse, I have somewhere to go, and thither am I bound after breakfast.

When reading out loud, you find the most natural way to say things, and that’s what I’m after.

And now here are a couple of postcards back to Mother Ceres. The last of the apples (we may not know the year when Newton discovered gravity, but we know the month), and the frog in my dustbin lid pond who has got over his shyness enough to pose for the camera.

English history in one village

Starting tonight on BBC 4 is Michael Wood’s series on the history of Kibworth in Leicestershire. Focussing on one small village, we will travel from prehistory to present day. Michael Wood is great – this is not to be missed. For our friends in the States, a book will be available. Michael said in a radio interview that it was like ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ (the genealogy programme) for the whole nation. England’s history is not the same as the history of the British Isles and future series doing the same in Scotland, Wales and Ireland are being considered.

Blurb from the BBC site:

Groundbreaking series in which Michael Wood tells the story of one place throughout the whole of English history. The village is Kibworth in Leicestershire in the heart of England – a place that lived through the Black Death, the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution and was even bombed in World War Two.

With the help of the local people and using archaeology, landscape, language and DNA, Michael uncovers the lost history of the first thousand years of the village, featuring a Roman villa, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings and graphic evidence of life on the eve of the Norman Conquest.

Weather Diaries

The man from British Gas, who’d come to sell us a new boiler, looked up at the kitchen window. ‘Spiders,’ he said, noticing the couple we are hosting outside the kitchen. ‘Always means autumn, doesn’t it?’ I’d been thinking that very thing: if there are spiders it’s September.
When I went back to my scriptorium after having been sold a boiler, I found someone had been busy in my absence. (Spot the web – must get better camera).

Each month and season has its image – something which tells us exactly where we are in the year. It’s good to incorporate these in our writing.

EXERCISE
Write a short descriptive piece which doesn’t tell us when it is, but shows it.

One of the best historical novels ever is The Man on the Donkey by HFM Prescott. She was an Oxford academic and principal of St Hilda’s College, but you wouldn’t know it from the book. The research is immaculate, yes, but the story is passionate, not romantic, passionate. It’s about the Pilgrimage of Grace, is set in a village in the north of England, and I’d bet you my bottom dollar that she spent at least one year in that place. For the novel is a weather diary. The weather becomes a major character in the book, so accurately and descriptively is it charted. It’s weather as weather is, unpredictable and strange. In real life, for example, we’re as likely to get hail storms in July as the cliched heatwave.

EXERCISE
Keep a weather diary for one year. Write something every day to describe how it is. Days such as today are the real tester. On September 10th, 2010, it is dreary. Is that good enough? No! Grey? No! Rough, matt, unpolished.. getting there.

Go out with your camera at least once a month and take pictures of the month. If you file them under the name of the month, it’s quite illuminating to see what you were taking the previous year.

I was wondering while looking at the hawthorns if they get their name from ‘haw’ for berries. No – ‘haw’ is old Germanic for hedge.

Back in April, a friend asked me to prove to her it was spring (it was cold if you remember) and I took pictures of hawthorn in leaf. Now, hawthorn to hawthorn, the summer is past.

QUESTION

Why do spiders only become visible in September?

St Bartholomew’s Day

Sorry! – I missed this one. It was 24th August. The traditional end of summer, when we begin to turn the candles back on. It’s a time for markets and fairs, such as St Bartholomew’s Fair, held at Smithfield since the Middle Ages.

So now we know a bit more about that ghastly event, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which happened in France in 1572, and while historians tell us that it was the day when the evil of Catholics was indelibly printed on the minds of Protestants, we novelists can imagine ordinary folks setting up their stalls, the Hugenot weavers getting their products ready for the biggest market of the year, dreaming of nothing bloodier than a good spit roast…

When I got up at 6am, it was only just getting light. We are full of beans and excitement as we go off to the local car boot sale. Everything in life is different now, and so much is the same…