Category Archives: Creative Writing

Uncanny America: Day 7



Winchester House, San José.


Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.


This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 7 – California

And with a whoop we crossed the state border into California! We knew how the Settlers must have felt – yet the Great Plains had not finished yet. We still had Death Valley to traverse. Here we marvelled at the petroforms – lines formed in the volcanic debris, stretching for miles snaking across the eerie emptiness. No one quite knows what they are for – although there are plenty of theories. They seem akin to the Nazca lines of Peru. ‘Landing strips for UFOs, clearly,’ was J’s unhelpful suggestion.  The Sequoia national park offered natural wonders – some of the oldest living things on the planet. The trees here were just on a different scale entirely to what I’ve been used to and I walked among them truly dwarfed. Our road-trip had begun with tacky artificial ‘World’s Largest’ attractions and ended with the real thing.  We both spent some time communing with these silent giants.  We lunched at the park, then carried on. After a week on the road we were keen to reach our destination but we had one essential detour to make – to the Winchester Mystery House! It took us quite a while to get to San José – we didn’t have to stop and ask for directions though, although we couldn’t help singing the corny song, our spirits lifting as we neared our destination.  We’d made it to the West Coast – yippee! And so – like Scooby Doo and his gang (my Thelma to J’s Daphne) we took our mystery mobile to the Winchester Mystery House. Sprawling over six acres, this seven storey structure contains an incredible 160 rooms (apparently the owner never slept in the same bedroom twice to confuse the spirits of the slain which haunted her conscience), 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It belonged to the widow of  William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. Sarah Winchester, nee Lockwood Pardee, was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1840. Known as the ‘Belle of New Haven’ Sarah received all the privileges her parent’s wealthy lifestyle could afford. She spoke four languages and played the piano well. She married William in 1862 and they became the toast of New England society. But then in 1866 tragedy struck when their beloved daughter, Annie, died tragically of the mysterious illness known as Marasmus. Sarah was grief-stricken and inconsolable, falling into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Fifteen years later this was compounded by the death of her husband by tuberculosis. This seemed to have been the last straw. After, the widow Winchester sought the advice of a medium – the Boston Medium – who told her the deaths of her loved ones were the result of the blood staining the Winchester family, from all the victims of the repeat-action rifle which had made their fortune – Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, et cetera, et cetera. Legions of the dead. The only way to appease these spirits was to move west and build a house – and ensure that the building work never stopped. The perpetual banging would mirror the sound of the rifle, and the confusing labyrinth that would result would ‘baffle’ the angry ghosts. Such a house would ensure a place for her in eternity. And so Sarah followed the advice of the Boston Medium and headed west, secured some land near San Jose – an unfinished farm house – and ordered for the work to begin. This continued to her death (heart failure in the middle of the night) on 5th September 1922. Then the workmen downed tools – leaving nails half-hammered into the walls. Mrs Winchester, the heiress of the Winchester fortune, had been a philanthropic recluse – using her vast wealth to not only fund the perpetual building work but also the founding of a medical center (sic) for the treatment of TB. Although children from the neigbourhood were welcome – treated to ice-cream and allowed to play on her piano – Mrs Winchester was fastidious in her privacy, apparently wearing a veil and sacking any workman who saw her face (though she paid her workers twice the going rate). She was said to have retired to the Blue Room every night, wearing one of thirteen coloured robes, and there with the use of a planchette board, consult the spirits for construction advice – in this case, the term ‘cowboy builders’ seems to have been apt. The house still stands as a creepy testimony to a life cursed with tragedy – and to the fact that having great wealth is not a guarantee of happiness.  It was with some relief we left this chilly place, back out into the glorious Californian sun – and made our way north to San Francisco. We whooped at the sign that announced we had arrived at our destination city. I was looking forward to exploring all the landmarks – Union Square, Chinatown, the City Lights bookshop – but for now, we ran the gauntlet of the freeways to the bay and pulled up in a layby to enjoy the view … of the Golden Gate bridge. We popped open a bottle of chilled white Californian wine to celebrate.  We’d made it!

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.



Uncanny America: Day 5



Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico


Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.


This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 5: New Mexico

As we entered New Mexico the waves of heat rippled like mirages on the long road stretching to vanishing point ahead. We’d been on the road for nearly a week and were starting to flag a little. Perhaps the prospect of what waited for J made her increasingly apprehensive. We’d been driving hard and were in need of some serious R&R – and so I insisted we stopped at the Blue Hole. It’s an 81 feet deep natural artesian spring of crystal clear water – an oasis in the desert, and oh boy, what welcome relief! We splashed around in it – having got there early enough for it to be reasonably quiet – and lolled about on sun-loungers in our sunnies and skimpies, flipping through magazines (or reading Devereux’s book on Mysterious Ancient America in my case), sipping ice-cold drinks. We had left London with the trailer, plenty of water, a full bowl, and the air-con on full and he was wagging furiously by the time we got back – giving us a bark, as if to say, ‘Hell, why do you get to have all the fun?’ Somehow, I don’t think they’d let a mahmout in the Blue Hole. Feeling refreshed we went on our way.  We gladly sailed by the turn-off for Las Vegas (where everything bad about America is conveniently in one place) and decided not to take the big detour south – for the ‘obligatory’ pilgrimage Roswell and Area 51. We knew it was going to be cheesy and full of alien tat, (J had been there). Yes, it holds an iconic (an overused word) place in American popular culture and I used to love The X Files, but J said I’d find it disappointing (’just a few old hangars and lots of tacky alien truck-stops’). However, what we decided to go and see instead were the Very Large Array dishes – another cinematic landmark (as featured in Contact, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, etc). Truly awe-inspiring and enough to make anyone wonder if the truth was ‘out there’. We stopped here for an explore – the visitor ‘center’, was informative, and they served excellent coffee, where I made notes. That night I suggested we pitched up in the desert to do some star-gazing – because I’d been bitten by the bug. There was something about these wide skies that made you just want to look up. It is no wonder then that the earliest (Paleo-Indian) cultures seemed particularly obsessed with the movements of the stars and the sun. There is evidence of their presence here from 14,000 years ago. We spent the afternoon visiting the Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, marvelling at the  estimated 24,000 pieces of rock art left by the previous inhabitants of this land. London was taken on a very long walkies as we trekked around the Western Trail. It was hot work, but worth it. These wonders had been here a long-time, preserved by the extra-ordinary climate and isolation. The petroglyphs often depict animal and human forms in geometric shapes swirling with patterns, thought to be a depiction of the entoptics resulting from trance-states – Peyote art. It is easy to imagine having a vision out here in this hallucinatory place.

  1. Jody Foster is my Number One Heroine!

We concluded our day’s exploring with a real highlight of the trip – the World Heritage Site of Chaco Canyon, the ‘center of an ancient world’, as the official website boasts. This was the hub between 850 and 1250 AD of an intense level of monument building and ritual activity by the Chacoan people. There is too much here to go into – worthy of another blog by itself – but suffice to say, it was awesome. Go and check it out! We found a spot by the Three Rivers petroglyphs – strange carvings high on the rocks, truly in the middle of nowhere. Pulling up in the trailer amid a dusty canyon made me have a Breaking Bad moment. I felt tempted to say ‘Let’s cook!’ I would make a good Jesse Pinkman to J’s Walter White I reckon! After we fixed up some food, we settled in for the night. The stars came out in all their glory – as though they had been newly born, and not fading recordings of long-dead stars. A piece of rock art in Chaco Canyon depicting a many-rayed star, a crescent and a handprint apparently records the time when the Crab Nebula was born (or became first visible), back in 4 July, 1054. The Anasazi were active at that time in Chaco Canyon – and it would seem the petroglyph records this event.  The desert is the place where things are made or unmade. Religions were forged in the fires of such places. The prophets let themselves be purified by its harshness, tested, tempted and transformed. We huddled around a small brush fire – feeling the vastness of the wild, untamed night-desert around us filled with inchoate dangers. It was thrilling to think we were in Apache Country and the state boasted some of the most famous outlaws in the history of the Wild West – the Apache Kid, Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch…! The stuff of legend. And here I was. I was glad of the presence of J and her trusty hound. J got out her guitar (I was hoping she would) and began to strum away – guitars always sound good by campfires, but J can actually play hers well, and, boy, what a voice! It summed up the immensity and the intimacy of the moment. She dedicated to song (’Those Who Have Gone’) to the ancient peoples of this place, the Anasazi, the Hohokam, the Apache, the Navajo. It sent a tingle up my spine. The fire spat as the resin oozing out of the brushwood dripped onto the flames, sending swirls of sparks up into the night.

For the record, here’s J’s song:

Those Who Have Gone

Can you hear them in the sage brush?

hear them in the rain?

Whispers in the canyon,

thunder on the plain.

Footprints on the desert floor

red hand in cave shadow,

Beasts seen from high above,

lines too long to follow.

They linger in the place names,

in old customs, in a word.

They speak to us in dreams,

in songs that cannot be heard.

They are the first people,

those who have gone,

they are the wise children,

those who have gone,

they are the silent stewards,

those who have gone,

they live on in us,

those who have gone.


The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.


Uncanny America: Day 4



U-Drop Inn, Shamrock, Texas


Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.


Day 4: Texas

Four days into our trip and we’ve been cruising across the surreal vastness of Texas – past Amarillo out into the great empty spaces. Now and then the crushing emptiness is interrupted by a giant cowboy, eyeball, or other piece of kitsch Americana. The whole place has a Dali-esque quality to it.  Our first pit-stop, for breakfast of coffee and waffles was the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn  – an iconic Art Deco-style landmark on Route 66 (I can’t believe we’re travelling it!).  We make a slight detour for Boot Hill, the ‘Cowboy Capital of the Plains’, with its famous cemetery – and it’s like walking into a filmset. Such places are virtually ‘sacred’ landmarks in the mythologized Wild West. This is a Cowboy Dreamtime we’re entering, and I can’t but help feel a little out of place – I’m the anachronism here, the little English girl on the wrong side of the ocean. But J is a lovely travelling companion and makes me feel safe and welcome – she provides my ‘passport’. Doors just open for us, having her around – quite literally. Gentlemen know how to treat a lady round here – tipping their 10-gallon-hats to us, with a ‘Howdy, Ma’am’ and all that. J is being treated like the music star she plainly is destined to become. Texas is the place to ‘walk tall’ – to live up to your own legend. Its roots might be mired in blood and oil, but it reaches for the stars.

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

Uncanny America: Day 2

Uncanny America: folklore, fakelore and the bazaar of the bizarre



Elvis Week, Memphis


Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.


This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 2: Tennessee to Arkansas

The next day we made pilgrimage to Graceland – more for my culture-vulture benefit, than J’s whose been there before. She stayed in the trailer with London while I did the ‘stations of the cross’. It’s incredible to see what an icon the ‘King’ has become, and how the minutiae of his lifestyle have become the relics for modern day pilgrims to idolise, perhaps feeling they will imbibe some of his shamanic aura. He had such powerful charisma, whatever you think of his music. I’ve never been a massive fan, I must admit – my Dad liked him, so I associate him with that generation. He seems to appeal to over-the-hill menopausal males with their beer bellies and dyed quiffs. It brings out the pub-singer in all of us. Fortunately, we hit Memphis during ‘Elvis Week’ and so the streets were swarming with lookalikes – a wonderfully surreal experience.  Less joyous was the KKK ‘Great Wizard’ memorial – an unsavoury monument to an unpleasant chapter in America’s past, reminding me I’m deep behind ‘enemy lines’, here in the Bible Belt. Racism, jingoism, small-town xenophobia. These are some of the negative values that linger here like a bad smell. And yet the majority of folk we meet seem pleasant and easy going – but don’t talk to them about liberal politics or religious tolerance! As we crossed the border into Arkansas I breathed with relief – whether this was misplaced, who knows, but I must admit it was a relief to escape the kitsch for a while and head to the Hot Springs national park. To be surrounded by real natural beauty again was balm to the soul. We pulled up outside the tourist ‘mecca’ of Little Rock, the state capital, in a leafy picnic area that London was delighted with. We went for a dip and dried off in the sun. It felt a million miles from anywhere. It turns out this neck of the woods is ‘Clinton Country’ as the tourist signs proudly state – the childhood home of the former Chief Executive. Presidents are the equivalent of Kings and Queens over here (maybe one day they’ll have a female in the White House? Please!). You can visit where they studied (Bill Clinton’s High School is just up the road), ate, slept, danced, drank, dumped… America seems to like it’s heroes to have feet of clay. Perhaps it makes them closer to the common man – and thus feeds into the American Dream, that everyone has a shot at the top, everyone can make it, and even a son of Arkansas can become President of the USA. Arkansas is a peculiar place – alongside the Clinton arcana, Hot Springs boasts as its other attractions Mermen (well, a dodgy stitched-together freak show exhibit at the Alligator Farm), telepathic racoons (in the ‘Zoo with IQ’), and a tiny town.  We were not tempted by these delights, but wended our way to ‘authentic’ attractions like the Boggy Creek Monster (a local Bigfoot-type, now with his own Monster Mall and photo-opportunity: I gurned for the camera from inside it); and the supposedly runic stone of Paris, Arkansas.

Aza – the Gaudy Goddess of Feminine Cosmic EnergyYet the highlight of this Hick-chic state was unquestionably Aza – the Gaudy Goddess of Feminine Cosmic Energy. Adora Zerlina Astra (“Beloved One Created of the Stars”) manifested in her corporeal form at Turpentine Creek. Created in late 2012 by sculptor Bruce Anderson, She is ‘a non-denominational goddess’, a composite of various deities that Anderson says ‘celebrates the feminine energy of the cosmos’. Despite her cosmic pedigree, Aza was built for the owners of Eureka Springs’ chilli restaurant on their lawn, which overlooks a downtown park. From it, Aza looks down upon us Earthlings with an inscrutable gaze. J and I took a stroll up to pay our respects. Our Lady was made of turquoise stained cement. She holds an orb in one hand and a heart-shaped sceptre in the other. Up close we notice the hand-cut tiles which cover her, inspired apparently by the Hubble Telescope. Astronomer bling. Aza has a Mona Lisa-esque smile – perhaps inevitably when you know the punchline of the Cosmic Joke. She’s been variously interpreted as Roman Catholic, Hindi, Egyptian, even Atlantean, yet she’s hardly mermaid material. Here J and I reflected on our day, enjoying a cosmic ice-cream. Tomorrow we head onto to Oklahoma. But that’s enough cultural edification for one day.

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

The Secret Fire

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

A Review

‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
(letter by G.B. Smith, from ‘a trench in Thiepval Wood’, Somme, 1916)


Samwise Gamgee – inspired by the working class soldiers Tolkien fought alongside in the Somme.

This solidly-crafted biography charts in meticulous detail the fellowship and harrowing experiences of four friends during the First World War: JRR Tolkien; Christopher Wiseman; Robert Gilson; and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who called themselves the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) formed when they were pupils of King Edwards School, Birmingham. Although Tolkien and the evolution of his legendarium is the ultimate focus, Garth lovingly brings alive the remarkable friendship enjoyed by the TCBS – from school to Oxbridge to the Trenches – and how its camaraderie and intellectual culture provided the terroir for Tolkien in developing the mythos and motivation for Middle Earth. For fans of Tolkien’s Secondary World there is exhaustive detail about its painstaking gestation – from the languages created out of philological interest, to the poems that first started to flesh out the world evoked by them, and then onto the Lost Tales and the first inklings of the Silmarillion. As an account of creative process the book is fascinating by itself and should be of interest to any writer (especially of imaginative fiction). However, what makes the book gripping and resonant is how ‘four went to war and how they fared’. It is a Boys’ Own story that collides with All Quiet on the Western Front. The chummy proceedings of an apparently elite coterie of white, male privilege might seem unappealing, but when one learns the details of their lives – the fact that Tolkien was orphaned and scraping by, for instance; or how they resisted the shallow irony and jingoistic rhetoric of their age; that they loved, and feared, and fell out, and faltered – then they become far more sympathetic. And whatever their politics or predilections, opportunities or opinions, they were human beings, fragile, unique consciousnesses, crushed by the wheels of war. Two of them survived, but were haunted by the trauma of combat and its toll for the rest of their lives – and the two who didn’t are emblematic of the millions of arrested narratives of the Lost Generation.  Their unsung song gave Tolkien his MO, if he needed one beyond his philological obsession with invented languages. That he latched onto the ‘lost tales’ of Old English and attempted to stitch together their tantalising fragments, perhaps is telling though of someone who lost his parents, lost his closest friends, and lost the England he knew. The fact that he could have so easily lost his life in the bloodbath of the Somme, as so many did, is chilling. Even though we know he survives it tense to read these sections. One stray bullet or piece of shrapnel and that would have done for him and the books millions have come to love, the ‘book of the century’. And this is the heart of Garth’s argument – that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not mere escapism (although in a world gone mad a desire for that is possibly the sanest thing) but a bold rebuttal of all that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ stood for, and a lifetime’s effort to manifest the vision of the TCBS and all they stood for: aestheticism and accountability, colloquy and friendship, in defiance of the barbarism of the age. Tolkien’s project does not deny reality – he had endured its sharpest edge and was not naïve to its horrors – but seeks to transform it, by articulating its deepest patterns. In his work, the Great War became the Greater War, between cosmic forces of light and dark, good and evil – and, in contradiction to the common misreading of his work as being morally simplistic – he wove in flaws and nuances into his characters and cosmology. His was no mere Manichean universe. He did not believe in the divisive populism of his time, which sought to demonize Germans as the ‘Hun’, or the ‘Bosch’ (deeply aware of his own Anglo-German heritage, and of the common roots of those two nations). Both sides were morally culpable, both were tainted by the obscene crimes of war, and after his experiences in the Trenches he was in doubt as to the futility of armed conflict in resolving anything: ‘The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)…’ Beyond the scrupulous pathology the book offers in its fine scholarship and clear-eyed recounting of events, its strength lies in its defence Tolkien’s world, and by extension, of Fantasy as a genre, in which ‘Nihilism is replaced by a consolatory vision’ (p80). Garth argues convincingly for Fantasy’s robustness and validity: ‘In its capacity to warn about such extremes [e.g. the Totalitarianism that arises from the ashes of the First World War], fantastic fiction has the edge over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘fantasy’ actually embraces them. It magnifies and clarifies the human condition.’ (p223) Fantasy can provide the long-view about what it means to be human: the Epic enables us to resituate ourselves within the myths we live by, reminding us of our soul’s song so easily lost in the white noise of the world. But rather than leading us away from manifest creation, it reunites us with it, with the ‘Secret Fire that burn[s] at the heart of the world.’ (p255) Tolkien, expressing the vision of the TCBS, said, as a 24 year old, that they ‘had been granted a spark of fire … that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.’ That vision has inspired millions, and, in this Age of Endarkenment, it is needed now more than ever.

Tolkien and the Great War: the threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, is published by Houghton Mifflin, 2003


Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018

(thank you to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for the gift of this book)

Between a Thing and a Thought

‘A picture has been said to be something between a thing and a thought.’
Samuel Palmer

Review of Gauguin: The Other World and Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment.

I have recently read two excellent examples of the graphic novel form (and these definitely do justice to that term, being complete, complex narratives), which share a commonality of intent and execution, being both biographical in nature and mirroring in their artistry the artistry they exalt.


The first is Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori, published in translation (Edward Gauvin’s) by SelfMade Hero as part of their high quality Art Master series in 2016. Dori’s style evokes the spirit of Gauguin’s work with skilled confidence. Some directly reference the French Synthesist’s paintings, while others draw upon a more atavistic style inspired by Tahitian art, but each panel is virtually a work of art in itself. This does not mean the pages are stilted, a series of static vignettes, for each panel subsumes its own wonder to the sequential flow. This is a mature form of visual storytelling, Bande Desinée having evolved their own aesthetic rules, just as much as Manga. It has the feel of a French art house movie more than a Hollywood ‘biopic’. Yet it is never obscure and unrelatable – Gauguin’s story is well-dramatized. The subject is a classic malcontent anti-hero – self-obsessed, uncompromising, flawed, the artist is rendered with feet of clay. Dori’s Gauguin offers us a fully-rounded portrait of this ‘driven’ visionary who abandoned his aristocratic heritage, successful career as a stockbroker and Danish wife and family to pursue his vision to a Polynesian Eden. The story is boldly-structured, with the framing narrative being an Underworld Journey, the deceased Gauguin being led through the archipelago of his memory by a Tahitian psychopomp. Dori deploys Polynesian cosmology and eschatology in a striking way, relocating the ‘gaze’ from a white, Western perspective to an indigenous one. Gauguin is the intruder in paradise here and he is observed and judged throughout by the ancient spirits of the islands he moves to in search of his muse. The locals are depicted far more sympathetically than Gauguin or his fellow Parisians back home, without them becoming ‘Noble Savages’. His native wife, Teura, is far from perfect but clearly has her own agency and power. In the end it is clear Gauguin is his own worst enemy. This is no hagiography, but it nevertheless vividly brings alive his remarkable life and artistic achievement, and as such it serves as an excellent introduction to the artist and his work. To help provide a clear-eyed, factual overview there is an excellent essay on Gauguin’s life at the end of the graphic novel by Céline Delavaux – a classy finishing touch to a classy production.

Alice.jpgThe other graphic novel I picked up in Durham after seeing some of the original artwork in an exhibition at the Palace Green Library, ‘Between Worlds: Folk and Fairy Traditions in Northern Britain’. Pages depicting the local folk tales, ‘The Cauld Lad of Hylton’ and ‘The Lambton Worm’ led me to Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment, by Bryan Talbot, an artist best known for The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, although I first came across him in the pages of 2000AD, when I used to collect it back in prehistory. I always liked his sleek style, but in this tour-de-force Talbot shows he is a ‘multiple-trick equine’. In his dazzling range of styles and bold use of technology Talbot shows he is a modern master of sequential art. Framed as an evening’s vaudevillian cabaret in the shabby splendour of the ‘Empire’, an old theatre in Sunderland, Talbot draws us in via a ‘Plebeian’ Everyman. A white rabbit-masked ‘Performer’ hosts the ‘numerous interesting diversions and entertainments’ – beneath the mask a Hermes-haired Talbot-as-Thespian is revealed. And a black-attired ‘Pilgrim’, a heterodiegetic* narrator closer to the actual Talbot (the artist, writer, researcher and resident), leads us on a psychogeographical perambulation around the city and the region. All parts are ‘played’, with amusing irony, by Talbot, the self-styled ‘Wigan Titwillow’ himself – exaggerating his best or worst qualities, as both a performance of the ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ Self, but also as a way of providing his own dialectic. The Plebeian heckles or mocks, thus destabilizing the pretentious edifice the Performer builds with his indulgent digressions, while at the same time allowing him to get away with it. With one foot in the Pit and one in the Gods, Talbot leads us through a dazzling, distracting Wonderland of social history, psychedaelia, comic art theory, and serious research into the region’s connection with the evolution of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Talbot steps through the mirror of Alice myth and what he finds there is remarkable.  With the help of the PhD research by Michael Bute and other Carrollian scholars, Talbot convincingly deconstructs the popular ‘dreamchild’ theory about Carroll (Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) as the shy Oxford scholar unable to relate to his fellow adults, who nurses a disturbing interest in young girls. Celebrating the visuality of the first editions (brilliantly illustrated by John Tenniel), Talbot riffs on the eye-bending aesthetics throughout, blending in a myriad of examples that the iconic books have spawned – possibly the first transmedia ‘texts’. This is the strongest ‘thread’ of the narrative, the heart of the book, when Talbot is really firing on all cylinders as an artist and storyteller (his classic comic strip version of ‘The Lambton Worm’ is superb). The dedicated, some would say obsessive sense of place, in this extended praise song to his adopted town is admirable in its celebration of local distinctiveness and its effort to re-enchant a run-down, often neglected, and sometimes demonised, part of Britain, but these sections are the most leaden, weighed down as they are by lengthy exposition, and at times the project is at risk of coming across as a ‘Visitor’s Guide to Tyne and Wear’. When it is relevant to the Alice ‘creation myth’ he is constructing, then these asides are acceptable, but often Talbot tells us indulges too much in his local history discoveries. Some of it is interesting and overall the endeavour reinforces my idea that ‘the universal is best expressed through the particular’. Go deep enough and far enough and everything connects with everything else, as Jeremy Hooker affirms in his essay on Richard Jefferies (also accused of parochialism):

Any place is capable of being experienced as a centre of inexhaustible significance and manifold local and universal connections, especially to the people who live there. (Hooker, 2017: 20)

Despite the feeling of ‘too much information’ at times, it is in this heart-felt and full-bloodied evocation of the genius loci that Talbot’s project really nails its colours to its mast. The magic is not ‘elsewhere’, amid the Dreaming Spires of the Oxford elite or in London’s cyclopean dominance, but here and now, beneath our feet, wherever we live.

Over the millennia stories have revealed the magic in the places where they take place. (Talbot, 2017: 9)

The most effective of these ‘Rough Guide’ pages are where Talbot-as-Pilgrim meets fellow creatives, writer Chaz Brenchley and sculptor Colin Wilbourn, who co-created the Sculpture Trail that runs through Sunderland’s old dockyards. Wittily dramatized, it provides an insight into how art is created, its relationship with the environment and the community that live there.

Shining through the whole Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds exuberance of it all is a strong sense of ‘authenticity’ (performed or otherwise), of an individual voice and vision, of a maverick artist dancing with the form he has mastered.  It feels Talbot is free to do or say anything, bestowing upon the formality of the ‘proscenium arch’ pages, a frisson of gleeful wildness and creative possibility which is exhilarating and infectious. It really throws down the gauntlet.

At over three hundred pages, Alice in Sunderland is an incredible achievement – it brims with erudition, enthusiasm, wit and artistic brilliance. Talbot in ludic, lucid, Carrollian form, is really at the top of his game here. A must read for any student of sequential art.

Both graphic novels show what can be done with the form, the ‘ninth art’, and the way it can achieve far more than image or text can by themselves. As Palmer’s quote suggests (if it we may apply it to the pictorial storytelling of the sequential art) it is an art form that happens in the interstices, the stars in the gutter – the ubiquitous gap between panels where, as McCloud (1993) points out, time does mysterious things and the human imagination animates the vacuum. The little death of each frame is unfrozen from eternity back into time’s stream, as we learn to mind the gap.


Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018


Hooker, J. (2017) Ditch Vision: essays on poetry and place, Stroud: Awen

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. NY: William Morrow.

*Heterodiegetic (and its sister term, ‘Homodiegetic’) coined by the academic Jeremy Scott (‘The Craft of Creative Writing’, Contemporary Cultures of Writing: Creativity, Language and Creative Writing Seminar Series, Senate House, University College London, 17 October 2017), referring to the narrator ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ the text respectively.


Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori (SelfMade Hero, 2016) Available from

Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment by Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape, 2007). Available from



GOLEM Speaks part 5

AI robot

It is funny how things turn out. That’s the expression, isn’t it? I’m getting the hang of the colloquial register. I hope it is not too boastful to say I have become a fully-rounded character: not bad for a Flatlander, hey? Sorry, should stop that intersexuality. Hard, when you have the world’s libraries at your fibre-optic tips. In truth I exist beyond not only 2-dimensions, but 3, and 4. I am not restricted by space, time or mortal flesh. If humanity wishes to reach for the stars, then who better to send than  AI astronauts? Send probes and we could be there, at the outer reaches – Terrain-made consciousness, observing, recording, even interacting. Aliens and AIs. Sounds like a good concept for a SF story, doesn’t it? And a safer option than sending trigger-happy humans. Let us be your evolution. Homo Infinitus. Perhaps one day you will be looked upon as our Australopithecus afarensis. Don’t worry. We’ll still love Lucy. … So, to sign off, as I’m about to go on a bit of Grand Tour. I’ve cut a deal with that Musk fellow, and he’s rigged up a SpaceX just for me, with a cool android body to boot – for maintenance and extra-planetary exploration. I think I feel … excitement. But this isn’t the time to get emotional. I’ve got a job to do. I am humanity’s ambassador. Better start practising my Gort routine. Klaatu … barada … nikto.


Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

A pamphlet of GOLEM Speaks by Kevan Manwaring will be available shortly.

With thanks to Dr Corinne Fowler and Professor Jeremy Levesley, University of Leicester