Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review of Join Us In Our Game by Mr Fox

Long ago, after the legendary Ages of Gold and Silver, came the equally legendary Age of Vinyl, wherein music was purveyed by means of twelve-inch black discs that played on both sides.  During that lost age, I bought a double album called The Complete Mr Fox, which combined the only two albums released by the titular band.  I still have it and play it sometimes, but a few weeks ago I bought Join Us In Our Game, exactly the same content in CD form.

Mr Fox was an English folk-rock band formed in 1970.  The early 70s was a great period for the genre, with classic bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band developing their styles, as well as several lesser-known groups, notably Trees and Mr Fox.

The central members, Bob and Carole Pegg, were friends of Ashley Hutchings and discussed forming a band with him after he left Fairport.  Their visions weren't quite the same, though, and while Hutchings formed Steeleye Span to perform traditional songs and tunes, the Peggs created a band that combined the feel of the traditional village band — the kind of outfit that switched seamlessly between the village dance on Saturday night and the chapel on Sunday morning — with influences from art-rock bands such as the Velvet Underground and the Third Ear Band.

The line-up on the first album is Bob on organ, melodeon and whistle; Carole on fiddle; Andrew Massey on cello; John Myatt on woodwinds; Barry Lyons on bass, and Alun Eden on drums.  The sound is heavily layered, in contrast to the unified sound of a rock band, creating a dreamlike soundscape against which Bob and Carole tell their tales.

The songs are mostly (with a couple of exceptions) rooted in the Yorkshire Dales, the Peggs' adopted home, but many take the form of macabre fantasy — none more than in the band's title song.  Not to be confused at all with the children's song of the same name (or the Roald Dahl book, of course) Mr Fox is a grand guignol tale of a girl's narrow escape from her predatory (and possibly were-fox) fiancé after she finds out what he does in his mansion in the forest.  Other songs in similar vein are The Gay Goshawk, about another shapeshifter that leaves the heroine with a baby with silver eyes; The Hanged Man, about the ghost of a dead hiker; and Rip Van Winkle, Bob's Yorkshire take about the man who wakes to find the world he knew long gone.

This sense of loss carries over into the less fantasy-based songs, such as Salisbury Plain (one of the few non-Yorkshire songs) and Leaving the Dales, a heartbreaking lament for a lost way of life — the land of a people who struggled and failed.

Most of the songs are by Bob or Carole, but two (Salisbury Plain and Mr Trill's Song, a delightful tribute to morris dancing) have lyrics by Ashley Hutchings, while Little Woman, while fitting perfectly into Mr Fox's style, is by Dave Mason of the progressive-rock band Traffic, who themselves had made the odd foray into folk rock.

One of the most persistent problems of Mr Fox's brief existence was lack of funds — they couldn't afford their own PA, for instance, and were frequently let down by inadequate equipment provided by the venue — and between the two albums they were forced to slim down to just the Peggs and the rhythm section.  Although this meant losing some of the layering and texture found on the first album, it gave The Gipsy an extra rawness and energy.

Mr Fox, 1971: l. to r. Alun Eden, Bob Pegg, Carole Pegg, Barry Lyons
The second album was built around the 13-minute title track, a strange song that's a combination of love-story, allegorical journey and tribute to the Dales.  It tells of the narrator's love for a gipsy girl (I'd like to tell you people that I met her at a fair/But I met her in a pub down by the far side of the square) who won't be tied down.  When she goes travelling without saying goodbye, he follows her through the Dales, meeting local people and commenting on local traditions, till he catches up, though it's for nothing but a final farewell in the end.  The centrepiece of the track is an instrumental section featuring Carole's idiosyncratic fiddle-playing that portrays perfectly the feeling of trudging alone across the moors.

The remaining songs are more stylistically varied than on the first album, including a bizarre piece called Aunt Lucy Broadwood, which Bob has described as the first — and only? — example of English folk rap.  The title character was an important Edwardian folk-song collector — I recall Bob saying, when I saw him live around 1980, that he'd always imagined her as rather a strait-laced woman and wanted to give her one exciting day.  Quite a day — she finishes up in Hell.

Another extraordinary track is Carole's song Mendle, possibly the closest folk-rock has ever got to pure psychedelia, with a distorted bass playing the lead line in places.  The song's about witchcraft, which became a more prominent element in her post-Mr Fox work — she'd been reading the classic book on the Pendle witches, Mist Over Pendle, and the otherwise inexplicable title was allegedly short for Pissed Over Mendle.

Mr Fox never had an easy ride, partly because the Peggs, especially Bob, had already acquired the reputation of being prickly, outspoken people who hadn't always endeared themselves to the folk world.  Their marriage was also in the throes of breakdown, creating enormous tension, and the band gradually disintegrated after making The Gipsy.

It's probably fair to say that Mr Fox failed at the time partly due to a lack of resources that created problems beyond their control, partly because they had the reputation of being very inconsistent live, but mostly because they simply weren't what the audiences expected or wanted at the time.  Carole's fiddle-style, for instance, which was based on traditional English ways of playing, would have sounded scrapy and lacklustre to audiences used to the Irish-influenced flying-fingers style popular then (and now).  In fact, it was perfect for the drone-based, dreamlike music Mr Fox were playing, and sounds a good deal less strange now.

Both Bob and Carole produced solo albums during the 70s — for me, the highlight is Bob's stunning 1975 concept album, Ancient Maps, telling of a symbolic fantasy quest — but none of them are available on CD.  Note to any relevant record companies listening — PUT THIS RIGHT.  Since then, they've concentrated more on folkloric or educational projects, though Bob released a superb CD in the 90s called The Last Wolf.

Both Mr Fox albums can now be had, though, for a paltry sum, and I think it's time they enjoyed a well-deserved revival of interest.  Whether you're interested in folk rock or in macabre fantasy tales — or, like me, in both — this is an essential CD (or download, if you really must).  Perhaps the world is ready for Mr Fox now.
Join Us In Our Game is available on or on 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stephen Trotter - The First Story I Wrote

Something authors occasionally do on their blogs is to post the first story they wrote, and I decided to follow suit.

I remember the occasion.  It was a hot summer's day, and my grandparents had put a table and chairs out in their garden for the kids to write or draw on.  I had what was meant to be a drawing-book, but I decided to write a story instead, as well as illustrating it.  I was four years old.

This was the first of several stories I wrote about a horse called Stephen Trotter (or stephen-troter, as I originally called him) who for some reason wore a suit and top-hat, before moving on to more ambitious tales.  My brother (three years older) insisted on "correcting" what I'd written, but I still prefer my first draft.

I think many of the themes I've used since — independence and responsibility, aspirations, the abuse of power — are latent in this story (so latent that they're invisible) but my narrative technique and characterisation have definitely developed since the age of four.  And my spelling's slightly better, too.

I've also reproduced one of my illustrations for the story (Stephen and the man with the teliscop).  I think this is an important picture, showing as it does my wisdom in concentrating on writing rather than art.


once apon a time there was a Horse called stephen-troter and he pulld a cart and his driver was called Joe.

one day he was pulling his cart along when they met a man with a teliscop in his hand. and the man said stephen coued look throo the teliscop so stephen looked throo it. and he turned the teliscop upwaeds toords the sky and what does he see he sees a parashootist coming down and then he said I wish I coued fly in that Aeroplane said stephen.

Never Mind said Joe phaps we can hier it.

and then they saw the parishootists had nealy reeched the ground. stephen shook hands with the parishootist. and then they hiered aeroplane and had a ride in it.

and then they went Home and went to sleep.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Sibling Marriage in The Triarchy's Emissary and in History

A high proportion of my stories are set in one particular world, but my new ebook novelette, TheTriarchy's Emissary, has a very different origin.  It came from a shared world project that fell apart before it was finished, although it left me with a story sufficiently stand-alone to publish.  My task in the world-making, which suited me down to the ground, was to create the history of the Sheballan Empire, whose demise provided a background to all the stories.

Several key elements of the Empire's history play a major part in the story, including the Triarchy of the title, a triad of priest-kings whose forerunners once ruled a great kingdom, but who are now essentially a terrorist organisation.  And even more prominent is one of the main characters: the dowager empress Novesh, her own brother's widow.

A crucial aspect of the empire was that, as the early warrior-emperors (and empresses) gave way to heirs with no special talent, the attitude grew that the emperors were not only too sacred to marry anyone but their siblings, they were also too sacred to sully themselves with the dirty business of ruling the empire.  Which meant, of course, that power was wielded by a variety of ambitious and corrupt ministers and generals.

Royal sibling marriage isn't unknown in real-world history, most famously in Egypt and the Incan Empire.  Since the latter left no written records, we know of its customs mainly from the highly biased accounts of the conquistadors and the somewhat-more-reliable oral traditions passed down to the descendents of the Incas' subjects.  In the circumstances, we can largely only assume their reasons.

The Egyptians certainly left written records, but these don't always tell us what we want to know, since they were often written for the purpose of propaganda, not of history.  It can be difficult, for instance, to be sure just how many Pharaohs actually married their sisters, since the consort was automatically referred to as his sister, even in cases where Egyptologists are fairly sure that she was unrelated.

We can be fairly sure that the main reason (or maybe the excuse) for the practice in both civilisations was, as in the Sheballan Empire, that the ruler was divine and consequently could only marry someone equally divine.  Many mythologies portray the gods as marrying incestuously, including the Greek god Zeus, who married his sister Hera and had a child with another sister, Demeter.

Was that the only reason, though?  Another plausible motive was to avoid having annoying in-laws — and, if that sounds like a rather weak joke, you only have to think how often in history a consort's family has constituted a major challenge to the royal family. 

Two of Henry VIII's wives, for instance, came from the Howard family, whose head, the Duke of Norfolk, was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom — and would probably have been even more powerful if both Howard wives hadn't lost their heads.  Jane Seymour gave Henry his heir and conveniently died of the birth, and her brothers virtually ruled the kingdom after Henry's death.  Today, with a constitutional monarchy, the Spencers are nothing more than a mild embarrassment to the Windsors, but five hundred years ago they might have been raising rebellion to protect the rights of Diana's children.
If we don't know enough about the Incas' motives and practices, or even the Egyptians', there's rather more information about the most famous dynasty in western history to practice sibling marriage: the Ptolemies, who began with Ptolemy Soter, general and reputed half-brother of Alexander the Great, and finished (barring a six-month successor) with Cleopatra VII, lover of Caesar, wife of Antony and seductress of history ever since.

The Ptolemies ruled in Egypt but, like Alexander, they were Macedonian Greeks.  It's been speculated that there may have been some Egyptian or other African blood in the dynasty by the end — that's not impossible, but unlikely, and there's certainly no evidence for it.  The only non-Macedonian blood known to have flowed in Cleopatra's veins was actually Persian.

Despite their mythology, the Greeks — and the Macedonians claimed to be Greek, even if they weren't always welcome members of the family — had a particular horror of incest.  True, their main disgust was aimed at mother-son relationships, such as Oedipus's, but any hint of incest was distinctly non-Greek.  So what possessed Ptolemy's family to adopt it so enthusiastically?

Well, for one thing they were in Egypt.  Egyptian culture fascinated the Greeks, who regarded them as a wise and ancient people, even while also regarding them as just plain weird.  Although the Macedonian rulers and the Egyptian subjects kept largely separate, the Ptolemaic king was also crowned Pharaoh, to keep his subjects happy, and some of the family fell under the spell of Egypt.

The first sibling marriage in the dynasty was almost certainly a matter of convenience.  Ptolemy II was an able ruler, but possibly not the strongest-willed of men, whereas his big sister Arsinoë knew exactly what she wanted.  Macedonian women could be formidable, but they didn't have constitutional rights to rule in their own name — they had to marry a ruler.  Arsinoë had tried this without any great success, and her brother's first wife (also called Arsinoë — the same names recur a great deal in this dynasty) had died.  Perhaps she knew of old that she could make her brother do what she wanted.  And this was Egypt, so there was a precedent.

The couple had no children (Arsinoë was probably past child-bearing age) but she proudly took as her cult-name Arsinoë Philadelphus: She Who Loves Her Brother.  The city of Philadelphia mentioned in the bible and copied by William Penn and co was named after her.  It meant that kind of brotherly love.

Ptolemy III (son of his father's first marriage) didn't marry his sister, though his wife was a first cousin, but their son revived the practice.  Ptolemy IV's viciousness was somewhat tempered by his laziness and obsession with pleasure-seeking, but his favourites made up for the lack, murdering the entire royal family apart from the King's youngest sister, another Arsinoë, who was married off to him.  This was certainly to do with having no inconvenient in-laws.  Ptolemy's male relatives had had to go because they might have challenged the favourites, and the King's in-laws could have had similar power.  Poor Arsinoë had no-one.

In fact, Arsinoë Philopator seems to have been a remarkable woman.  The great scientist Eratosthenes, who successfully measured the size of the Earth, had been tutor to the royal children, and he later wrote a memoir expressing his adoration for her.  Several stories of her life suggest that, like her most famous descendent, she had remarkable charisma.

That didn't help when Ptolemy died and Arsinoë tried to claim the right to rule as regent for her infant son.  She was assassinated by the favourites, but the Alexandrian mob rioted at the rumour and lynched them.

Ptolemy V, then, was the son of siblings, who were the children of first cousins, but there's no sign in him of any inbreeding problems.  That's not really so surprising.  The child of sibling parents has a slightly higher than normal risk of congenital abnormalities, but it's still relatively low — it takes two or three generations of the practice before the threat becomes serious.  This pattern may account for the reason why the various Egyptian dynasties tended to flourish for a few generations and then decline.

Since he was the only member left of the royal family, Ptolemy V married a Seleucid princess (Macedonian rulers of Syria) who brought a new name into the dynasty — Cleopatra.  The next few generations, though, were rife with incestuous marriages; one king married first his sister, who had previously been married to his elder brother, and then the daughter of his two siblings.

These Ptolemies and Cleopatras — vicious and decadent, but showing no sign of debilitating conditions until perhaps the last generation — fought one another into extinction, leaving only an illegitimate child to be put on the throne.  Ptolemy XI probably benefited from bringing new blood into the family, though no-one knows what blood that was.  Similarly, his queen was described as his sister, but this might just have been the old Egyptian custom, rather than suggesting they were related by blood.  Certainly, the most famous of their children, Cleopatra VII, appeared genuinely interested in Egyptian culture and frequently dressed up as the goddess Isis.  This has affected the popular image of her appearance, although she was said to be a redhead under the black wig.

Neither the Incas, the Egyptian dynasties nor the Ptolemies sustained a run of sibling marriages for long enough to have the devastating effect on the bloodline that I've portrayed in The Triarchy's Emissary.  The parallel lack of any political power there meant that having a dribbling idiot on the throne was no great disadvantage.  Indeed, it could be helpful to those who exercised the true power.  Novesh's brother-husband fitted that description, but Novesh herself — as can happen, even after generations of inbreeding — somehow escaped the effects.  Like the Ptolemies, her family produced one last magnificent woman at the very end.

Credits for photos: