Victorian Christmas cards

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again.

The Victorian era was weird.

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A beetroot man. The Victorians liked oddly-shaped vegetables as much as we do: ‘haha, that beetroot has legs!’

There’s a method to the madness, though. Throughout researching and writing The Grandest Bookshop in the World, I’ve attempt to get inside the Victorian psyche. I’ve come to understand their jokes, their parties, their aspirations, their aesthetic preferences, their dirty talk, their musical tastes, the radical and conservative sides to their major issues, their prejudices, their manners, their pop culture, and a hundred other strange little facets of their society.

I know why they looked so serious in photos. By the 1880s, photographic technology was, in fact, fast enough to snap a natural-looking smile, but the Victorians preferred a neutral expression. It was thought to make the light fall more flatteringly on the subjects’ features – and besides, having a portrait taken was a formal affair. Wide grins showed a lack of proper composure, although of course, they still smiled and laughed in less formal settings.

I know why they had long tablecloths. The Victorians maintained a public face of purity – although, under the surface, they were voracious consumers of erotic fiction and photography. So determined were they to keep this impression of angelic chastity that they avoided mentioning certain body parts. Like, for instance, legs. Even a shapely table leg could – ooh – make people think of shapely lady legs, which could – I say! – make them think of situations in which they might see shapely lady legs, which could – oh Lord! – make them think of sexy sexy sex, oh NO!!! Make that slutty table cover up right away! Every couple at this afternoon tea already has twelve kids!

And I also know why their Christmas cards were so very strange.

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I think this might be Punch, of the popular puppet show, carving a hilariously-oversized pudding. I also think this image will haunt my nightmares.

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The Thought Police on the Mantelpiece: An Elf on the Shelf parody

At holiday time, Santa sends me to you

To watch and report on all that you do…

It’s December, and you know what that means: time for Santa’s cheeky little helpers to move in!

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Or, I should say, Satan’s creepy little hell-pers. I do not like this little man. I do not like him, Sam-I-Am.

As a child, my favourite toys at home and Kinder were mostly made of cloth and wood. My dolls were soft and round, with simple stitched eyes and a line for a mouth. I’d heard a lot about Barbies, but the day my friend brought some over, they struck me as cold, hard and a bit sad. They weren’t huggable in the least.

I must have asked my parents at some point why my Goldie and Carmen weren’t smiling. I’m sure my mum would have said, ‘You can imagine them making any face you like,’ because the idea stuck with me. No expression is better. No expression can be any expression. And Goldie henceforth could be goofy or pensive, and Carmen could be haughty or mischievous, or whatever the game required. Small, stiff Barbie with her glossy human-like hair and frozen grin struck me as weird.

What was more, in my head, Goldie and Carmen were “really” girls just a little younger than me, though I had them play babies or teachers in our games. I think this was subconsciously reassuring because of the power dynamics at play. Were my dolls to spring to full-grown life one day, I would have been greater than or equal to them in power. Barbie, an adult, would have been in charge of me.

So, yeah, I’ve never liked dolls with fixed expressions. I’ve never liked dolls that seem to have more power than the child.

And I especially don’t like this doll. Look at their nasty little side-eye. Look at their know-it-all smiles. That is a face that says, ‘We hid a human liver in your house! Bet you’ll never find it, tee-hee!’

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Spoiler alert: it’s in your bolognaise. Congratulations, you’re a cannibal now.

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The silkworm’s lament

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My Grade Twos on placement are doing the old classroom silkworm experiment, where you raise a batch of silkworms from eggs to moths. This is very exciting for me, because I never had the chance when I was a kid.

While observing the pale silkworms munching their mulberry leaves the other day, I wondered at the starkness of their plump white bodies on the green leaves. They weren’t camouflaged at all. Birds would have a feast. Then my mentor told me that the adult silkmoths are flightless. How could these things survive in the wild?

I began to suspect that, in fact, they didn’t survive in the wild. I knew the Silk Road had been around for a good few thousand years – therefore, people must have been using silk and silkworms long enough to breed them selectively. Iron Age pigs and cows, after all, were much smaller than the ones we eat today, and wild red jungle fowl are smaller and skinnier than the chickens in my backyard.

Per my mentor’s recommendation, I started researching the invention of silk as a fabric, as an exercise for the class. I turned out to be exactly right. There is a wild variety of silkmoth – in fact, there are more than 500. The image above shows two female silkmoths – the domesticated one on the left, and its ancestral Bombyx mandarina on the right, which survives today. People have been tampering with silkworms since at least 3,500 BCE, although we were probably eating them before we were wearing silk. This, at least, is the conclusion I draw from the archaeological discovery in China of a silkworm cocoon cut with a Stone Age knife.

Oh, and by the way, that cocoon was roughly as old as the first wheel we’ve ever discovered (a pottery wheel in Mesopotamia, circa 3,500 BCE).

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Sensory writing in primary school

Well, I’m on placement again. On Thursday, for the first time, I had two dozen eight-year-olds for the whole day.

Maths was all set up from the previous day – we were doing graphs and statistics, with a whole-class graph on the colours inside Clinker lollies to act as a bit of motivation.

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Yellow was the winner.

Humanities was to continue an established unit: inventions. Having excelled at history in undergrad, I was all ready to teach them that the traditional “caveman” never really existed (Stone Age people weren’t the dumb, filthy troglodytes of popular fiction); that the earliest wheel ever discovered was a pottery wheel in Mesopotamia in 3,500 BCE; and how important wheels are in the modern world.

But what was I to do with them for literacy, the longest period of the day? Spelling was off the cards, scheduled for another day. There were no writing projects to continue. They’d done reading groups and comprehension the day before.

What perfect conditions for a creative writing session.

I decided I could get them working on a deceptively simple exercise: sensory writing. Humans are visual creatures, generally speaking. We focus a lot on how things look, and that’s even more true of adults. Kids want to touch everything – feel the texture of a stick or the weight of a gumnut or a million grains of sand moving through their fingers. I wanted to see if I could get these kids to use their imagination with not only their mind’s eye, but their mind’s ear, nose, hands and mouth.

Here’s how it went.

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Right – No, Left – No, Right-Hand Man: Chapter 4 (Finale)

This post is Part 4 of a serialised short story. In Chapter One, we met Dale Truscott, a teenage boy in a medieval fantasy world destined to play a vital role in the grand cosmic narrative. Unfortunately, that role is ‘Stock Henchman Killed by Heroes in Combat, Dubbed Over with Wilhelm Scream.’

In Chapter Two, destiny kicked down the front door and dragged Dale off to work for the Dark Lord Gilbert of Mortis Valley. His father’s hot tip for surviving in the fantasy world’s most dangerous occupation is: be strategically lazy, cowardly and stupid, and hope like hell that luck is on your side.

In Chapter Three, faced with the massacre of his comrades, Dale began to question the wisdom of his father’s strategy and found a loophole in the storytelling conventions that allowed him to cheat his inevitable death. Instead of firing him, or taking his concerns on board, Captain Truscott called his son a disgrace to henchmanity. Dale is now consigned to guarding the gloomy dungeons until he can conform to the crony code of honour – that is, resigns himself to dying in incompetent service of the Dark Lord. 

All his life, Dale has believed he was destined for the noble but stupid death of an underling. He believed the universe to be governed by incontrovertible cosmic laws. He believed his father would always be proud of him, and love him no matter what.

Now those beliefs have been shaken to their foundations. What will he build in their place?

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Dale’s second-hand uniform was full of stitches. They were independent of the seams. Stitches over the heart, across the belly, down the spine. Stitches puckering and criss-crossing the fabric. The awkwardly-sized armour he’d foraged from Lost Property was too tight in some places, too loose in others. The smaller plates pressed the stitches against his flesh, the ghosts of other men’s wounds.

So his father cared more about abstract concepts than he did about Dale. Duty and honour were more valuable than a human life. Rules and narrative conventions were mightier than imagination or kindness or using your damn head. The world didn’t just expect Dale to die – it hoped he would.

He glanced at the fusty skeleton in the corner cell. It was still shackled to the wall, despite having no tendons to keep all its wrist and ankle bones in place. Not much risk of that one escaping. In the adjoining cell was an emaciated old man with a knee-length beard. He couldn’t be sure whether this one was asleep, or dead. He could have gone into the cell to check, but to feel for breathing or a pulse would have required him to move the matted beard, and he was pretty sure that only forty per cent of it was growing from the old man’s face.

That settled it, then. Really, the only difference between Dale and his wards was that the latter didn’t have to be dragged home and humiliated in front of their families when the shift was over.

What else is there for you, Dale? What else could you possibly do? 

‘I guess it’s better that I know what he really thinks,’ he muttered aloud, to drown out the dreadful internal echo with a meagre bright side. ‘Knowledge is power, right?’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ replied the skeleton. ‘I haven’t had a brain in decades.’

Dale was surprised in a flattened sort of way, like a man finding that his yoghurt has gone mouldy well before its use-by date. ‘Rotted away with the rest of your face, did it?’

‘Sure did!’ said the skeleton.

‘But you can talk just fine without lips or a tongue?’

‘Of course.’ It shrugged. ‘Everyone knows voices are psychic. Haven’t you ever been in a body-swap storyline?’

This information took some time for the waters of Dale’s mind to engulf. ‘You mean, those ones where people’s souls swap places?’ Magic – he’d need magic. He wondered if Agatha Bindleweed still lived in his village. He could swap with his father and teach him a lesson. Or with the Dark Lord. Or perhaps with the King. Knowing all the internal workings of Mortis Keep, he could succeed where the Forces of Light had failed, and wipe his workplace off the face of the world.

‘It never lasts. One of them always learns a valuable lesson about empathy, and they end up back in their original bodies.’ The skeleton sighed and glanced down at its ribcage, which, without lungs or eyes, was easier said than done. ‘What I wouldn’t give to be that elf princess for one more day… frolicking in the woods, naked as a popinjay…’

Dale stared it in the sockets. ‘You’re naked now.’

The skeleton looked down, and shrieked until its jaw fell off. Continue reading

Right – No, Left – No, Right-Hand Man: Chapter 3

Note: This post is Part 3 of a serialised short story. In Chapter One, we met Dale Truscott, a teenage boy in a medieval fantasy world destined to play a vital role in the grand cosmic narrative. Unfortunately, that role is ‘Stock Henchman Killed by Heroes in Combat, Dubbed Over with Wilhelm Scream.’

In Chapter Two, destiny kicked down the front door and dragged Dale off to work for the Dark Lord Gilbert of Mortis Valley. His father’s hot tip for surviving in the fantasy world’s most dangerous occupation is: be strategically lazy, cowardly and stupid, and hope like hell that luck is on your side.

Dale has honed the first three to a fine art. But his luck may be about to catch up with him.

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The attack came late in winter.

Some kid on a skinny dragon was leading the King’s army. The Forces of Light were hopelessly outnumbered by the Dark Lord’s underlings. Dale and his colleagues were a heavily armed, fully trained, tight-knit military unit, fighting downhill against bunch of ragtag misfits armed with nothing but farm tools and pluck.

They never stood a chance.

Dale took an arrow in the thigh within five minutes of the battle beginning. As he buckled in agony, Pete from Accounts – who was a minotaur – accidentally elbowed him in the head.

Dale came to on the way to the medic’s tent. It was a marvellous stroke of dumb luck, and his comrades all slapped his shoulders and called him a blessed bastard.

He didn’t feel blessed. Especially not the following week, when the castle echoed with the footsteps of the survivors. The Dark Lord had gone back into hiding. The Humanoid Resources team were out patrolling the realm for new recruits. There wasn’t much to do around the keep. Dale watered the fungi in the dungeons with a squirty bottle. He scrubbed bloodstains off the outer walls with Great-Uncle Eustace. He stood at the castle gates with his father, guarding against nothing.

He leaned on his halberd. His strategically-loosened visor clanked down. He pushed it up. The valley lay before him, a trampled wasteland of pockmarked earth. The bodies were gone. No life remained down there, except for a few very fat ravens strutting around in the hope of a gory tidbit.

Dale wasn’t a fast thinker. His mind moved like a big river, its unstoppable currents rolling thoughts over and over in the deep. And what he was thinking was: what a waste. What a stupid, pointless waste. Why didn’t we just surrender? So many men – and dwarfs, and orcs, and all the rest – died down there. All to fill in the background in someone else’s adventure.

Captain Truscott was staring at the distant silhouette of a hippogriff soaring on the thermals.

‘Dad?’ said Dale quietly. ‘I mean – sir?’

‘Yes, Dale?’

The battle flashed in Dale’s head again: henchmen who had smiled at him in the cafeteria, who had made small talk with him on the castle ramparts, falling and bleeding and twitching in the dirt. ‘Do you think we could have saved them if… if we didn’t attack our enemies one at a time?’

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