Category Archives: My ramblings

Fairy Tales

Today, on the radio, as I drove into work, I heard that Richard Dawkins didn’t think fairy tales were good for children because it might encourage them to believe in things that weren’t real, and that they should instead focus on being cynical.

I was quite annoyed about that. Then I checked Dawkins’ Twitter feed and saw what he said.

“Interesting Q[uestion] what effect fairytales might have on children. Might foster supernaturalism. On balance more likely to help critical thinking.”

To be honest, I actually agree with him on the critical thinking front. I realised that among all the positives I could come up with about fairy stories was the idea that whatever magical content the story has (witches, dragons, magical swords, talking animals) the driving force of the story is usually if you use your brain, out-thinking the villain tends to work better than anything else. The whole point is that nothing is what it seems.

Is there usually some sword action? Yes. But the end-boss-fight tends to be preceded by the hero or heroine getting the info first. There’s a helpful old woman/bird/talking cooking pot that gives guidance and steers the protagonist away from just blundering in. I’m thinking of “How Ian Direach got the blue Falcon” or “The Princess Bella-Flor” and such stories. The hero overcomes the problems and dilemmas set before him by being brave, yes, but also by being kind and listening to wise counsel.

While writing this I was  waiting for Dawkins himself to speak on BBC World Service about the issue, and get a better idea of what he actually thinks.

What do we even class as fairy tales? The first ones that come to mind are the big obvious Disney ones: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid… the ones with wilting princesses and fairy godmothers. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. I point you towards Andrew Lang’s collections of folk tales from across the world. He tracked down and wrote up oral tales that were being lost. At home, I have the Orange Fairy Book. It has stories from Scotland and Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia… and most of those are about young people (not always children) solving problems and kicking ass. They’re practical and often brutal.

Illustration by Pogany, W. (mid 20thC)

The Goose Girl (Grimm) Illustration by Pogany, W. (mid 20thC)

Dawkins seems to be all about the quest for truth. In stories like “The Enchanted Wreath”, “The Bird of Truth” and “The Goose-girl”, self-serving, lying characters do all they can to keep the truth from coming out. Eventually it always does. Of course, the premise is usually about false brides, but I guess they’re a product of their time. The point is, it’s still relevant to modern day. The wronged party sticks to their beliefs and plugs away, seeking justice or a way to get their voice heard. The more the liars work to keep the truth from coming out, the bigger the mess, and the harsher the punishment from the King/Prince/Universe. It’s also a reminder that good people, who seem intelligent, can be taken in by smooth talking.

What about Anansi and the trickster tradition? Brer Rabbit, Reynard the Fox? Those tales are all about outsmarting your adversaries. They’re about quick wits and comeuppances.  Sometimes the trickster is the one who falls into his own trap, but that teaches its own lesson: alright, be smart… just don’t forget your social skills.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

Have now heard him on World Service and made some quick bullet points from what he said.

–          Fostering supernaturalism is a downside of fairy stories

–          Fairy stories beneficial for learning there are stories that are not true: can learn to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and gives children exposure to making those judgements

–          enjoyment: good to stretch the mind beyond the mundane (he points out that science  and science fiction can also fire the imagination/curiosity)

–          Child psychology issue  – why do children stop believing in Santa/Tooth Fairy/dragons but grow into adults who still believe in God? (to be honest that is an interesting question and I say that as a Christian)

–          How do we make the distinction between frog à prince and water à wine? (in his opinion both are equally fairy stories)

So I missed his point and he didn’t mention any of mine. Dawkins is arguing that stories as whole bubbles can be used to compare fantasy with reality. Not a bad point, and I think we all go through the internal process of analysing fairy tales or doing a mental check against reality when we’re children. It doesn’t take long to get the idea that in stories dogs can talk, but Mrs Next Door’s labrador can’t. That’s a natural thing and it happens anyway. I assume that’s what he means. I don’t think he’s asking parents or teachers to make children explain or write essays stating that they understand these points. We don’t have to show children a biology textbook alongside The Frog Prince, or get them to do background research on the rich/poor divide when they’re reading The Prince and the Pauper. He’s pointing out something we do without prompting already.

On the other hand, I think he’s selling kids short. Children are not stupid. The awesome part of being a youngling of your species is your endless capacity for learning. Children are infinitely absorbent sponges of knowledge be it street-smarts or academic. They are constantly adapting to new environments and experiences. They’re like natural Borg.

Joanne Harris (oh my beloved Chocolat) is quite passionate about this today. She tweeted:

“Children instinctively understand the distinction between “telling lies” and “pretending”. Why then do some adults find it such a challenge?”

and that’s a reasonable point. Children are among the biggest, meanest cynics on the planet. Anyone with a three-year-old can attest to that. They know you don’t actually have their nose, they know exactly where you hid the chocolate biscuits, and they know that a pumpkin can’t really turn into a carriage. Perhaps because from birth (until they can decide for themselves what they want to read) they are told stories, they appreciate being in on the joke. They go along with it, perhaps because they pityingly think that you still believe, but they’re not fooled. I have been fixed with the withering stare of a small child who thinks I’m an idiot for talking – outside the context of sanctioned pretending-time – about mermaids or dragons. “Poor you,” their eyes say, “you gullible fool”, before they pat me on the hand and ask for juice. Fairy stories, or any kind of fiction really, are not lies.

That’s where the enjoyment comes in. Children (and adults too!) like to pretend. Fairy stories give all children the chance to experience high adventure, danger and excitement without the need for fancy gadgets, downloadable content, or surround sound. They don’t need to worry about if they can afford it, they don’t have to share their imagination with eight siblings like they do their toys. All they have to do is let themselves dismiss reality for a while. It’ll still be there when they come back.

I really don’t want to touch the “The Bible is (not) fiction” hornet’s nest. I am a Christian who believes in God, and I don’t mind whether you do or not, or if you believe in a different God. That’s your business, as my beliefs are mine. But objectively, Jesus feeding the five thousand with the loaves and fishes, or walking on water… neither of those would be out of place in a fairy tale. Clearly there is a whole lot more to religion and faith than that, and it isn’t the main point of this post, but I didn’t want to just gloss over it. I can see why as a non-believer it would be difficult to see the difference, is all.

The two Caskets - a story of a good sister and a lazy sister who both get exactly what their behaviour deserves!

The two Caskets – a story of a good sister and a lazy sister who both get exactly what their behaviour deserves!

Critical Thinking is indeed a skill that we should all become basically competent at, and for the most part our daily decision-making is based on it; consciously or unconsciously. But there is a lot more to the contents of the stories that Dawkins seems to acknowledge. Yes, they are enjoyable and feed the imagination, but they’re also a good way of showing:

–          in order to overcome problems you need to take action

–          evil happens where good people do nothing

–          friendship and kindness are two extremely powerful things

–          helping those in need is never wasted time

–          using your brain is often more effective than physical force

–          sitting around complaining while others do the work doesn’t go well in the long run

–          schemers and liars get their bad karma dealt out to them in spades

–          there is good advice out there, if only you listen to it

The problem with all that is of course that it is intangible and unmeasurable: you can’t quantify the emotional benefits of kindness. But I find those points just as useful life lessons as Dawkins does the power of logic and analysis. People cannot be dissected and measured; they are irrational, emotional, reactive. Fairy stories help us to work through complex issues by making them manageable. Memorable simple stories stick with us through our whole lives. If we stand up to bullies, does it matter that it’s because we remember Belle standing up to Gaston? If we are brave enough to tell our boss we found some problems with their latest awesome project, does it matter that we were inspired by the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes?

There is room for both mine and Dawkins’ opinions on why fairy stories are beneficial: as whole constructs or for their hidden lessons, I hope we can agree that everyone – not just children – should use all available resources to make informed decisions on how they live their lives. Whether that’s scouring a narrative for implausibility or remembering that showing people kindness makes people more likely to be kind to you, isn’t it just a good thing people are thinking about it?

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I know I haven’t updated in ages. I suck at the online presence thing. Most of my life, would you believe, takes place outside of Twitter and Facebook. I know. Such a Luddite.

But after some prodding from a friend, who is the only one who regularly reads my blog apart from J (who can’t help but see it when it shows up in his update feed) here I am. I have two weeks off work and while my free time is filling up fast, I should be able to fit in some blogging. And writing.

With that in mind, please enjoy the following video. I have known about  2Cellos for a while but this video in particular had Rivka and I in fits over breakfast. We couldn’t help but notice their resemblance to the Winchester brothers from Supernatural and this led to me thinking about an amazing end of era plot twist: Sam and Dean are concert cellists in the NY Philharmonic where their dad is the musical director. They are so bored by their lives spent touring the US that they invent a Walter Mitty style alternate life for themselves where they tour the US killing demons. So there they are in the orchestra playing on autopilot but both staring out into space because they’re in some shared delusion where they are drenched in blood and spreading salt all over the place. With guns! And Bobby! And pie!

So Rivka suggested I write the fanfic to go with it. I don’t often write fanfic and if I do get round to it I will not be sharing it here, but it’s nice to be feeling creative.



After that musical interlude, let me share with you a tale of rage. I thought I’d mentioned this before but I couldn’t find it anywhere so maybe I was too upset about it. A couple of months ago, I was part of a quiz we did at lunchtime. It all sort of spiralled out of control, but someone dared to imagine they knew more about Harry Potter than I did. That. Shall. Not. Stand. Then a couple more people got involved so we ended up all making up five questions and having a round robin quiz thing. I lost, and did not cope very well with it. I don’t like failure, as you may remember, and failing at something that was Knowledge-based nearly killed me. It threw off my whole weekend, and I know how ridiculous it seems to be so hung up on something that is so unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but I say again I do not deal well with failure on any scale.

WELL, last week I was at a party with one of the other quiz participants, who revealed to me that there had been some cheating. The other two people making up questions had shared their questions and answers beforehand, reasoning (quite correctly) that if they hadn’t they would have lost miserably. I was raging. My disproportionate rage matched my disproportionate depression at losing. It really shook me up. Something I took seriously was treated like a joke to everyone else. So I felt just as humiliated and like people were laughing at me as I did the first time. On the other hand I was vindicated!

And at the end of the day their questions were rubbish and not at all plot related. And half of them were film related. So they were doing it wrong from the very beginning. Double win.

Time to make myself presentable. And listen to more cello. Happy Saturday, beautiful people.


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Whatever the weather

Saturday morning… a glorious time. The morning after the night before… And to top it all off, a new month as well. I’m feeling pretty positive today. I have a ton of work to do, but I PROMISE I will do it. Honest Injun.

But first…

Let’s talk about the weather. As an Englishwoman I feel pretty well attuned to the weather. Having an opinion on the elements is hardwired into the DNA of my national stereotype, after all. This morning, helping my mood, the sun is out. Inspired by this I have opened my bedroom window (gasp!) though I’m sure I will regret that soon because it’s not actually that warm outside.

I think about the weather when I’m writing (if I’m writing. Sigh.) because it’s all part of the experience of the story. Just like in film. Even though it might not be as obvious in writing – a thunderclap isn’t quite so epic, come on – all those little atmospheric details go in and register in the reader’s brain.

At school, writing stories in English would inevitably make the teacher ask us “What was the weather like?” “What time of day was it?” because we were so focused on the action of the narrative nothing else occurred to us. It might also have been another way to boost word count. But mainly, it was to help us to realise that the reader does not automatically see from our writing what we saw in our heads when we wrote it. I can tend to have the opposite problem. I’ve written things before (yet another unfinished something) that I’ve shown parts of to friends who told me it was quite dense, quite description heavy. Well yes. I wanted them to see what I saw. Exactly. Exactly as I saw it. No. Other. Option. Yet as a reader I am happy to get into debates about what characters look like and how it differs from perhaps an official author-description or an actor who plays them in a film, or the cover art (see Chris McGrath’s Aragorn version of Logen Ninefingers on the cover of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself).

I think I have to let go of that sort of thing. The weather on the other hand, can be fairly explicitly portrayed. And it can affect how we see a character or a plot point and the way we perceive the emotions tumbling out on the page. The weather can match or counter point a character or event.

When something awful happens: it’s more likely to be raining, or threatening rain.

When something cool is happening: sun, warmth, clear skies

That’s the basics. Obviously you have to take the season into account. Also, snow makes everything magical (I think this is a The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe cultural hangover – the Tumnus part, not the Jadis part).

Take this morning: I was jazzed! The sun! The warmth! Vibes! If it had been raining my mood probably wouldn’t have been so good, OR I’d have been bouncing off the walls to banish the gloom and keep my high. Same with the above. It’s almost as much of a stereotype to go against the weather for dramatic effect now as it is to go with it to enhance the overall emotion of a scene.

Something awful happens: The sun is a spiteful ball of joy in the sky. The warm summer breeze could not lift the chill in his heart.

Something good happens: Not even the darkest clouds could spoil the day! Electricity in the air from a storm just makes people more excited!

…aaaand snow makes everything magical.

The weather is so important to storytelling. Thomas Hardy was a big fan of scene setting. So much so that when we read Far From the Madding Crowd at school our same English teachers who told us to add weather details told us to skip three pages because it was all just Hardy waxing on about the bucolic joys of the countryside in spring. You win some you lose some.

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Snowed Under (without snow)

I was all set to write about the calm solitude of a Saturday morning when Ivory stumbled through the kitchen. I’m usually the earliest riser so I tend to have the place to myself first thing on weekends. It’s nice to bimble about and get first crack at the washing machine, and to have some time to process the week.

I originally planned to have the blog update on Tuesdays and Fridays but things have become so busy that’s clearly not happening. You should see my schedule for work for the next six weeks. If we all get to Easter without a mental break down it will be a miracle.

So I will have three times in the week carved out for definite: Monday night for Zumba (I know… but it’s actually not as awful as I feared), Thursday night for Powerhoop (pummel that midriff!) and Saturday morning for blogging. Anything else at the moment is fair game. I’m really going to have to pull my finger out and do some actual work. Like properly 100% put in effort. That’s not to say I don’t do my job well. But there’s always more I can do and with all the changed to my job this year I’ve sort of been treading water a little. So I need to get my head down and not do my usual thinking on the fly.

Which means that writing and everything else I enjoy will be once again crushed under the weight of being an actual functioning adult. Do I have to keep doing this every day for the next sixty years?! I mean, I like being busy and I like having stuff to accomplish but… it’s depressing thinking about all the things I won’t have time to do without feeling guilty for “wasting” time.

So why the hell am I still here blogging? I’ve got this one last weekend to have a serious blowout of reading and sewing and stuff. Living the dream. Living. The. Dream.

Until next week, with hopefully some writing or reading news assuming I will have done either of those things in the next seven days.

On the plus side, Ivory being up means I’m munching a nice warm pain au chocolat I wouldn’t otherwise have had 🙂

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I’ve not written much for a while. My laptop suddenly died and I have a new one, but…

Like a complete idiot, I never backed up anything. I was planning on getting a new laptop anyway this month so I was literally a day away from transferring things across to an external hard drive when my poor, overheating, dying baby went kaput.

So there’s 240k of words trapped and lost in an oubliette of my own digging. Some of them were even pretty good, I thought. I don’t think they’re gone forever – they’d better not be or I think I will throw myself out the window – but getting things off my hard drive and back into view will take a while.

I was one of those people who thought it could never happen to them. Even after a bluescreen on the last day of NaNoWriMo 2012 when I thought I’d lost everything. Even that didn’t make me start putting things on Dropbox or something. Well now it has happened to me and I have a few days off work and I really want to write… but I have three drafts that are unavailable.

It’s like I’ve lost a part of me. In a way I have. It’s more than the drafts: photos, short stories, poems, work documents… cast adrift in a little broken bottle in a sea of tech that I can’t do anything about.

Learn from me, people of the intertubes. Learn from my despair.

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A tale of two journeys

Last week (and wow, how has it only been a week?) you may recall I went to a ceilidh. Go back one entry. Tada!

On my way out I was running late. I had been faffing around as usual, and was just about on time for being fashionably late when I made the mistake of texting an acquaintance and inviting them to dinner (I was feeling brave and empowered possibly because I had a razor in my hand ready to get my legs all smooth and womanly). Then I swanned off into the shower. On my return, with one eye on the clock, I checked my messages and had this rambling spiel from the guy spelling out FRIEND. OH GOD, FRIEND in massive neon letters. So I had to ramble back, with some wit and some half-truths, to save myself a little embarrassment. That meant that when the ceilidh started I was sat half-naked on my bed with a damp towel wrapped around me and a tablet computer in my slightly sweaty hands, frantically tapping out a carefree, it-was-just-a-suggestion-calm-yourself message. So I went to action stations.

Luckily, I already knew what I was wearing, and since I don’t wear make up anyway and my hair was going to be left down, I was ready pretty quickly. I also thought I knew where I was going. I left my room looking like a hurricane in Dorothy Perkins and off I went. It was dark and the roads were quiet, though the next round of major roadworks was getting set up so there was a bit of a hold up on the bridge and a bit of impatient steering wheel tapping. The sky was littered with lilac fluffy clouds. I had a hairy moment on a large roundabout because the idiots round here have no concept of lane discipline (there are no roundabouts on farms) and then I was up in the estate, looking for a village hall. I found it, exactly where I expected it to be. An old man in a spectacularly patterned piece of knitwear came out and helped me to reverse park (without me asking him to, and without me needing him to) further making me think I was in the right place. I wasn’t. I was exactly where I expected to be but that wasn’t where I was supposed to be. There are two community halls in that estate and I was in the wrong one.

I was flustered, I was even more late, and I was now following sketchy instructions that I was trying to remember as I drove down roads I’d never been down before. Every time a car got close behind me I got more frustrated because I didn’t want to be that driver who makes sudden turns or crawls along clearly lost and gets in everyone’s way. I found the place, eventually, after having done a circuit of the one-way system, and parked up. Then I couldn’t find the door of the place. I was seconds away from going home. I could see through the window a whole host of people I didn’t know and if I’d been in the wrong place again I think I would have had a breakdown. Luckily it was the right party. I crept in, searching for anyone I recognised, an hour late, sweaty and anxious, cross, embarrassed and tired. No wonder I had trouble getting a dance partner.

The way home was different. I gave some guests a lift home through the roughest estate in the top end of the town, and hoped I could find my way back out again. Once I was back on the main road, and homeward bound, I felt myself relax. The clouds had cleared and as I turned off the main road and trundled along the Firth, I was the only person around. Above me, Orion was striding across the sky leading me back to the village. I found myself grinning. I sang along to the radio and rode the curves of the tarmac. I saw no other moving vehicle. It was the witching hour and everyone sensible was in bed, where I wanted to be. The village was deserted and the street lights were urging me into a parking space. I was almost too tired to climb the stairs but after one last look at the stars I closed our rickety front door and made it to my room.

I very nearly just crawled into the pile of stuff and slept there.

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Ceilidh blues

Scotland, I think we should put aside the thorny issue of independence for a while and focus on what’s truly important: rules for ceilidhs.

Guess where I went last night?

I was invited to a birthday shindig and despite arriving an hour late – there’s an epic tale of heartbreak and bad directions in there for another time – I had a lovely time. I could have had a few more dances, but there was a lack of available partners. Most people present were couples. That’s fine. Be all loved up. See if I care. There was a pair dancing like Danny Zuko and Cha-Cha DiGregorio who showed off their moves all night! That’s not what Mr Kellerman is paying you for! I’m possibly mixing my dance movie metaphors.

I think, and I’m sure the few other single/came-by-themselves guests would agree, that we need to do something about this. I told a friend about my couple-goggles later and he wondered if perhaps I hadn’t noticed as much last time I went to a ceilidh which was probably true – last time I ceilidh’ed I didn’t go alone – but didn’t help me get my feet on the dancefloor.

What I propose is this:

1. Arrive with your partner/significant other/meatshield

2. Have a warm-up dance with them just so everyone knows who belongs to who

3. Dance with some different people!

4. Maybe have one dance you do particularly well that you can show off about with your real partner

5. Dance with some different people!!!!

6. Leave with the person you came with.

Now, there are a lot of dances where you swap partners all the way through. That’s fine. But you need someone to dance with in the first place to be on the floor to make the set, or the circle or whatever. Where can I find one of those? I invited a friend to go with me to the dance but he was busy not being socially awkward. I did get some dancing in though. I did Dashing White Sergeants and the Canadian Barn Dance, and one I don’t know the name of before we finished with the Orcadian Strip the Willow I’ve posted about before. And I got birthday cake. So it was all good really.

On with the weekend – much ado about work and play. Possibly rest. Happy February everyone.

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