Washing the Lions

01524d6342b565a278fa7be96daba7d399ccf5af7f-2B-2-1Today at the Tower of London it is the annual ceremony of the Washing of the Lions. All tourists welcome! The noble beasts are to be released into the moat, where their keepers will take up brush and water and perform the dangerous yet dignified ritual of the annual scrubbing of the Kings of Beasts.

Lions have been kept at the Tower Menagerie since the year 1235, when the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, presented a gift of three lions to the English King Henry III, to celebrate his marriage to Henry’s sister Isabella. Those three lions have endured as the symbol of English royalty, and the history of lions as residents of the Tower of London is a long and fascinating one. Meganerie2

(Most of the above is true. However, the lions will not in fact be washed today. Since 1698, it has been an April Fool’s Day tradition among Londoners to advertise the Washing of the Lions as a lure to unsuspecting tourists and a jape for those in the know. Sometimes, gilt-edged invitations have even been printed. But while lions were indeed resident at the Tower Menagerie for hundreds of years, they are no long present. And even if they were, any gathering to see them soaped would join the many who over the centuries have been left swallowing their missing pride.)

Happy April 1st!

 

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout…

You never forget the moment you first hear a witch sing a Cursery Rhyme. Not in a letter or from faraway. But up close. In the flesh. So you can smell her liquorice breath as she weaves her spell and tells you all the things she’s going to do to you, and all smuggled into your ears disguised in the old rags of a familiar verse…

“Beneath the causeway, they glimpsed again those strange orphan shadows that had chased them from the awfulage and which had played hide-and-seek among snow and pine trees during their carriage ride. Dark and plump as carp, they drifted now beneath the surface of the blood-red River Mold, diving or drowning among the weed, it was hard to tell which. And as those shadows swam by, Isabella began to sing. Her voice sounded both like the high note of a violin and the low rasp of the bow being scraped across it, and the burbling, bubbling voices of children rose from those diving, drowning shadows to join in the chorus. At the same moment, the handle of the music box around Molly’s neck began to turn, as it played along to the tune of Isabella’s song…

‘Two blind mice! Two blind mice!baba1ef7747dbede4146594decc5d391--arthur-rackham-halloween-decorations
See how they run! See how they run!
Cut out their hearts with a carving knife,
To see all the wishes they wish for life.
Hang up their hats on a thorny tree,
To let all the thoughts in their heads go free.
Cut off their tails for the cooking pot,
Tie them all up in a witch’s knot.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Feed them cheese to make them dream,
Catch their nightmares when they scream.
Tease their ribs with prods and tickles,
Turn their giggles into pickles.
Call them names to make them cry,
Prick the teardrops from their eye.
Made from nephews, brewed from nieces,
Auntie’s little bits and pieces.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Boil it in a jammy jar…
Melt it to a sticky tar…
Mix it to an oily ointment…
By a witch’s royal appointment!
Wear it where the wish-bones chime,
Cast it to a Cursery Rhyme.
Spell it right, her name’s a portal:
Isabella, Izzy Mawtle!
Two blind mice! Two blind…

…NICE!’ Isabella whooped.”

 

From Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, © Copyright Jason Hook 2018
Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 

1914 & Other Poems

Old books make perfect time capsules. The turning of their pages can transport you back to the moment they were written, printed, bought or given.

In a charity shop this week, I happened upon an edition of 1914 & Other Poems by Rupert Brooke. The book looks plain enough, its dark board cover blank but for a sepia label on the spine displaying title, author and publisher, Sidgwick & Jackson. It contains an ethereal portrait of its writer, and was printed in June 1915. The date carries you back to a world still in the first convulsions of the First World War – amid which, life carried on, and someone stepped into an English bookshop and made a purchase: an old pencil note on the title page records the sale: ‘2/6 nett, 15.6.15’.

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Two months previously, on 11 March 1915, the Times Literary Supplement had published two of Brooke’s five war sonnets, ‘IV: The Dead’ and ‘V: The Soldier’. Written late in 1914, the sonnets capture the tragic idealism and patriotism of a nation yet to confront the full horrors of the conflict. On Easter Sunday 1915, ‘The Soldier’ was the reading at St Paul’s Cathedral, resonating with the poet’s most famous line: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.’

Three weeks later, on 23 April 1915, Rupert Brooke, at the age of 27, was dead. Sailing for Gallipoli with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, he suffered blood poisoning from an insect bite, and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. The poet was mourned throughout England and 1914 & Other Poems was published the following month. My copy was the second of eleven impressions made that year alone.

The book holds an additional secret. Whoever bought it that June day was buying it as a gift, and the half-title page bears a small inscription: ‘F.M.T from EEP, June 1915, p.24’. I step into the time machine and, as another hand once did a century before, turn to the instructed page. I find the most beautiful verse, the perfect poem to offer as a certain kind of gift: ‘The Great Lover’.

Immediately, I long to know the identities behind the inscription. Was EEP a soldier himself, presenting his lover a book before he went away to fight. Did he nurse the same noble ideals as the poet? Was his life cut as tragically short? Or was he, instead, F.M.T., carrying his lover’s gift in an army coat pocket as he stood knee-deep in mud in the trenches and thought of home?

I would love to think those initials could somehow be decoded, what time travel that would be! In the meantime, we are left with the poem, printed two months after the ‘drowsy Death’ of its poet, and kept safe in the small, plain, dark-boarded covers that have travelled who knows where. Somehow, it has survived its journey, and now passes on the words that were once a lover’s dedication. They are, heartbreakingly, a love song to such simple pleasures as it is easy to imagine a homesick soldier reciting in a foreign field: a celebration of life at a time of dying. And I feel humbled a century later to hold them in my hands. Something remains. He loved.

THE GREAT LOVER
by Rupert Brooke

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming….
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns….
Dear names,
And thousand others throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing:
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass.
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
—Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what’s left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers….
But the best I’ve known,
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
Nothing remains.

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed
Praise you, “All these were lovely”; say, “He loved.”

Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

A Shadow-Raven

This week’s excerpt is short and anything but sweet…

“Isabella had squashed and squeezed Pip’s shadow into a feathery shape. She was reaching up now to place it in a brass bird-cage that swung from the ceiling. As she did so, she whined and whinnied the most whicked of Cursery Rhymes:

And now I have your shadow, Pip,
I shall do many wrongs to you.
I’ll cage it, like a raven,
And I’ll teach it to sing songs to you!

 I’ll hold your shadow in my hands,
All feathered, fresh and fine.
And keep it like a pet, because,
Without it… you are MINE!”

tumblr_o39du1pgzz1rp1q8wo1_500hExcerpt from Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

Artwork Copyright © Mervyn Peake 

An Invitation From A Witch

003135We all love to receive letters. But there are certain letters that should be left on the doormat where they land. Once touched, there is no untouching them. Once opened, there is no closing them. And once read, there is no turning back. A birthday invitation from a witch is one such letter. You may recognise it in time. The envelope will be pristine white, but the card inside will be yellowed and crumpled, as if it has been sent many times before.

If it contains a gift, beware.

If it contains the following address, be afraid…

Miss Isabella Belladonna Mawtle
THE MILL-ON-THE-MOLD
Ferryman’s Lane
ALLCROSS

And if it contains this rhyme, then we are already too late…

My dearest [please insert name here], my very special friend,
Please find enclosed the birthday past and present that I send.
Another year has gone (but you’ve so many more to spare!),
And so, I send a gift to show you just how much I care.
I offer you the chance to come and share my happy home,
To stay with me eternally, to make my life your own.
To come along where you belong, to share with me your dream,
And take your parts in making my Immortal Vanishing Cream.

 I simply won’t allow you to refuse this generous gift,
To have you in my home will give my heart and face a lift.
My hopes are high, but stocks are low, there’s little on the shelf,
I need your help to make it, as it just won’t make itself.
Do bring someone to help you, one is never quite enough,
I seem to need at least the two, these days, to make the stuff.
We’ll work together, tooth and nail, we’ll make up such a team,
And take your parts in making my Immortal Vanishing Cream.

 (If contents break in transit, please return them to the cellar.)

 Ever umbilical cordially yours…

 ISABELLA’

 

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook, 2018

 

 

The Gossip’s Reward

You should be careful who you gossip about. Gossip about a witch, and she will know. Not only that, she will send you something in return. And if she’s a witch who wishes (as most witches do) for eternal youth, then that something might just be the signs of old age she wishes someone else to wear on her behalf.

That’s the essence of this second Cursery Rhyme from my unpublished children’s story Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream. It tells you quite a lot about Isabella, and why you should keep your gossip to yourself, or at least away from the ears of a witch…

‘I’m a 329-year-old whitch!c0838af53b092ef93ba5bd6f079de0a1--blackbird-singing-crow-art
Not a ‘witch’ but a ‘whhhitch’,
Say it right, if you please.
I’m a whitch, which is why
I don’t witter or warble,
I whhhisper, I whhhheedle,
I whimper and wheeze.
When I spell out my spells,
I spell them out crisp,
I speak them in lines
With a whitchety lisp,
And all those old gossips
Who talk of my shame,
Why, I make them grow old
When they whisper my name.
When they tittle and tattle
And laugh at my tears,
I stamp them with warts
And I brand them with years.
Even now, my old eye-bags
Have packed up their lies
And have gone off to live
On the old miller’s eyes,
Where they puff up like
Pastries and slowly turn sour,
And hang from his face like
Two sackfuls of flour.
And there, my old crow’s-feet
Have found a new life:
See them perched on the face
Of the fat butcher’s wife,
Where they flap at her pig’s-feet
And fly to her moans,
As they peck at the neck
Roll of fat on her bones.
(There is always a debt
To repay on our loans!)
A shade on her chops!
An ache in her joints!
Three fingers point back from
The finger that points!’

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

The Great Golden Pleasury Of Cursery Rhymes

I am about to embark upon the ticklish process of taking the newest incarnation of my children’s novel, Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, and throwing it upon the mercy of potential agents. I thought, at the same time, I might set free to the wider world a few of the spells or ‘Cursery Rhymes’ that the central character scatters throughout the book. Please take care of them.

This is where the witch, Isabella Mawtle, first shows her spell book to her niece and nephew, Pip and Molly, and explains something of its powers:

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“When I was small, I was left on my own,
So, I played with this book like a dog with a bone.
I’d no toys and no friends, and no father or mother,
So read it alone, and from cover to cover,
And took from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It taught me to write, and it taught me to talk.
I had learnt it by heart by the time I could walk.
So, beware of its words, and take care of them well,
For I learned how to speak when I learned how to spell.
And I shook from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It holds verses of curses, and chapters of charms,
With indexes of hexes and hoodoos and harms,
There are tables of fables, and rituals and runes,
Filled with abras, cadabras and hocus-poked tunes,
It’s the sorcery source of my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It’s a book that can look to the sound of your voice,
It will write you a juju or jinx of your choice,
All its pages will turn to a birthday girl’s sigh,
To her verse, or her curse, or her sweet lullyby!
And she’ll write in this book of her happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!”

 

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018