So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

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According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/treacle/ suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

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Why Do Beautiful Days Hurt the Most?

800px-Temple_wood_2006

Temple Wood cairn in Kilmartin Glen, by Lnolan at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7247430

So… there I was, driving home from family visits in England. I crossed the border early in the morning, with a quick stop at Gretna for coffee and to say ‘hello’ to Scotland. I had errands to run in Glasgow, and ended up mid-afternoon on the last leg of the journey to catch my ferry, pushing on through torrential rain in a queue of cars all possibly heading for the same destination. Due to a road closure, I’d been forced to take the long way round, south from Inveraray to Lochgilphead, and then up the back road to Oban. The rain gradually eased and the sky lightened. I passed through an area of poor radio reception and pressed the CD button.

I hadn’t registered it consciously, but over the last few weeks I’ve become less and less likely to be struck with a sudden wave of unbearable grief, and I’ve got used to driving again. It’s ages since I’ve had to actually pull off the road and curl up around a pain so awful that it feels as though I’m going to stop breathing. The empty hole in my chest is much larger than a heart ought to be – I’m sure it occupies its own mysterious pocket universe, as no matter how much I feel it seems to have an infinite ability to feel more at a moment’s notice. But there we are – I’d hardly thought about it at all for days. I hadn’t considered the way bad weather keeps us at home, or if we go out it makes us keep our heads down, concentrating on the task at hand rather than taking in our surroundings.

I came round a bend in the road just as the CD started up and a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the rich green pastures of Kilmartin valley, one of the most beautiful and interesting pre-historic sites in Scotland. The song was Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure For Love”, and its haunting saxophone intro hit my ears just as the shaft of sunlight struck the ground, and I remembered that this – this place, these ruins, this history – was one of the places I’d planned to bring Mark to, as soon as we had a chance.

It’s a very beautiful location – lush, rich pastures laid out across the floor of a broad valley, with scattered remains of cairns and standing stones dating from both Neolithic and Bronze Age periods of occupation. I went there with my Dad last October, and I’ve passed through a couple of times on the way to meetings. It’s such a contrast to the rough lands to the north, with their steep slopes and skeletal soils, fit only for forestry or vast swathes of bracken.

Mark had a great love for old places. He wasn’t necessarily compelled to find out the facts about them – he loved to wander into a ruin, perch himself on a pile of stones and pontificate about what life might have been like at the time they were laid down. There are certain abandoned villages on Mull that I can’t visit without breaking down, because his presence there is still so strong. He’d have loved Kilmartin; the place is rich with history: every stone has its story. Under the blade of sunlight lancing down from the heavens, all the brighter for the dark hint of rain behind it, the fields glowed an almost impossible shade of green and Cohen began,

I loved you for a long, long time.

I know this love is real.

It don’t matter how it all went wrong,

That don’t change the way I feel,

And I can’t believe that time is gonna heal

This wound I’m speaking of.

There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.

I shut my eyes. I was in the middle of traffic, at fifty miles per hour, on a winding country road and I shut my eyes. I couldn’t help myself. It only took seconds to extricate myself from the line of cars and pull into a side road where I could stop. There weren’t any tears – I doubled up over an oh-so-familiar pain and as the sunbeam broadened and the landscape glowed I heard myself making a terrible sound, like an animal with its leg in a trap. Interesting thought – if I could rid myself of this pain by some means analogous to gnawing my own leg off, or even if it was possible to free myself by some simple expedient such as medication (and don’t think it hasn’t been suggested to me) – I don’t believe I’d do it. I’m not ready to let go yet.

Someone asked  the other day – not just me, there was a group of us and it was a pretty general question – if you could bring anyone back from the dead for five minutes, who would it be? God. I would bring him back mouldering and half-skeletal for the pleasure of hearing his voice again. I would bring him back just long enough to get there and tell him I loved him before he was gone again. I’d bring him back simply to be there in that final moment, so that he would know he wasn’t dying alone. God help me I’d bring him back for good even if it ended time and destroyed the universe. Thank goodness it isn’t possible to raise the dead!

Of course I didn’t stop breathing. The song ended, the sun went back behind its cloud, the world became ordinary again. My heart kept beating. I’m sorry, my love. For such a long time I hoped it would stop. After all, it isn’t mine. You gave me your fragile but reliable heart, and I promised to take care of it. You broke mine, so badly that it couldn’t keep you alive any more, and now I have your steady beat in my chest and it won’t let me stop. The sun shines, there are still songs to be sung, and beautiful places are somehow even more beautiful now that I wear my nerves exposed and raw. And I couldn’t give your heart back now, even if I wanted to.

It was Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586) who wrote these lines. They are ours, and they remain true.

My true-love hath my heart and I have his,

By just exchange one for the other given:

I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;

There never was a bargain better driven.

His heart in me keeps me and him in one;

My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:

He loves my heart, for once it was his own;

I cherish his because in me it bides.

His heart his wound received from my sight;

My heart was wounded with his wounded heart;

For as from me on him his hurt did light,

So still, methought, in me his hurt did smart:

Both equal hurt, in this change sought our bliss,

My true love hath my heart and I have his.

Why do we(*1) fall in love with the antihero(*2) (part 1)?

love antihero 1 pics

  1. By ‘we’ I mean me – or, more properly, I. And maybe you.
  2. Here I’m talking about both the ‘bad’ guy (antagonist), and the character who clearly intends to be the hero of the story but due to some issues, such as personality defects or utterly appalling decision-making, causes mayhem and disaster, up to and occasionally including the end of the world (sit down, Arthur Dent; it wasn’t your fault). I’m very happy to entertain discussions (and even arguments) about all and any points raised here. Much as I love words such as protagonist and antagonist (and for that matter deuteragonist, which is a word I only learned yesterday and already find adorable) I’m lumping them all together for the purposes of this article.

I’ll give you an example. In the film Die Hard, we were invited to admire and give our attention to the flawed hero John McClane. I’d seen Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, I knew that twinkle, I was prepared to buy into the first of what turned out to be a very successful movie franchise. But partway through the film something odd happened (and I know I’m not alone – there’s an entire universe of women who’ve told me they felt the same): I found myself falling for the villain (Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman). The more he curled that lip and uttered his pithy psychopathic monosyllables, the more he threatened (and the more he became aware that he was losing control of his perfect crime) the more I liked him. There was something indefinably attractive about that character – he commanded a level of attention that I just couldn’t give to poor old McClane, who was forced to go to greater and greater lengths (from bodily harm to shootings to exploding half the building) in order to regain my interest.

Don’t let’s get hung up here on whether I’m talking about sexual attraction, the charisma of an intriguing individual, or the kind of stunned fascination a bird feels for the approaching snake – in Die Hard, they were all pretty much the same thing. Here was a masterful portrayal of a malicious, genuinely amoral character who would stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and who had planned from the beginning to kill, and intended to enjoy it – evil through and through, but, damn, did he look good on it! When the bad guy met his inevitable doom, I regretted it. I’d have reached out a hand to save him. The first time I watched Die Hard I dreamed about Hans Gruber – and, yes, it was one of those dreams. (And before I hear a ‘but…’ – I’ve seen Alan Rickman in films and plays where his character was not attractive. That’s acting.)

Of course, the character of John McClane himself was an antihero, of the type that tries to do everything for the best but pretty much messes up whatever he touches (although since it was an American film it got the obligatory happy ending). Attractive enough in his own right – but he spent the whole film playing catch-up to the villain.

Here’s another one. And for me it’s even more disturbing. I’m loving the brand new Starz/Neil Gaiman series ‘American Gods’, starring Ricky Whittle as one of my favourite book characters,  Shadow Moon. I adore Shadow, and Whittle’s portrayal is spot on. This is definitely a flawed hero – an ex –con with a penchant for making friends by his fist. He doesn’t think he’s a hero – in fact, he’s so reluctant to play the role that it’s beginning to become apparent that he’s being slowly pressed into a mould that’s a very bad fit for him indeed. Who is doing the pressing? None other than (spoiler alert) Woden himself, Mr Wednesday, the one-eyed god whose potency is fed by conflict and war.

Played with a horrible and oily charm by Ian McShane, the once-mighty AllFather of Norse myth is now a seedy down-at-heel rogue on a road trip across America, trying to enlist the aid of other gods – from cultures as broad and diverse as the USA’s population – to come to his aid; for what purpose, we do not yet know. So far he’s scammed a first class flight ticket (and who among us wouldn’t do the same, if we could?), set up a bar fight, made a bit of lightning and robbed a bank (it’s early days yet). He’s also made love (on every level from a raised eyebrow to the full naked-girl-on-bed) to an assortment of women – he’s happy to turn his eye on anything female, and they all seem to respond to him. Creepy, right?

Strangely, not. In fact, I find myself watching intently to see who he’ll draw in next. The Mr Wednesday of American Gods is barely hanging on to godhood – Odin’s divine grace is not on show here. All the power he has lies in Ian McShane’s ability to show us a man who believes he is a god: a small-town sleazy snake-oil salesman. What on earth is attractive about that? But he is. God, he is.

I think that in part it’s about flaws. A man with faults is much easier to love than perfection. In fact, in my experience ‘perfection’ really only loves itself. But there’s more to it than that. I’ve known (in real life) snake-oil salesmen with a sweet line in patter and a charm that’s no more than a few microns deep. Most intelligent women (and it took me longer than most) will see through that kind of fakery. Wednesday, however, clearly believes the line he’s selling. He’s better (divinely better) than the average con artist. Hans Gruber, on the other hand, made no attempt to charm the victims of his heist, or indeed the members of the film audience. And yet, the attraction was there.

So what is going on in my head? That’s a question I’ll come back to, because there’s plenty more thinking to be done before I come to a conclusion. I’m still gathering evidence. There may be a list. Or it might be that I’m heading home to watch Die Hard again.

But I’ll leave you with this thought. If Shadow is the flawed hero, and Wednesday his companion – does that make Wednesday an antihero? Or a villain? Keep watching. You’ll find out.

“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. “

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Pullman Philip 2

Wise words from Philip Pullman, who received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2005:

Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. If you don’t give a child food, the damage quickly becomes visible. If you don’t let a child have fresh air and play, the damage is also visible, but not so quickly. If you don’t give a child love, the damage might not be seen for some years, but it’s permanent.

But if you don’t give a child art and stories and poems and music, the damage is not so easy to see. It’s there, though. Their bodies are healthy enough; they can run and jump and swim and eat hungrily and make lots of noise, as children have always done, but something is missing.

It’s true that some people grow up never encountering…

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Call For Submissions: One Sentence Only

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Guest Post: Jennifer C Wilson on the living dead.

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5 things to do with Kids when you holiday in Tobermory, Isle of Mull

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Today is publication day for Taming the Tango Champion by Cait O’Sullivan

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Six Things to Know about the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

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MINE!

The Bingergread Cottage

It was a strange picture outside the modern University Hospital’s main doors when an emergency vehicle arrived in the middle of the night, hotly pursued by an obscure figure in black robes on a white horse. Seeing the signs in French, an observer might have been surprised to hear the shroud-wearer talking English to a shadow in a pointy hat, stout shoes, stripey stockings and shapeless female garb.

“WHAT ARE YOU UP TO, NANNY?”

“Sign must have slipped. Was only off on my travels. Sorry.”

“MIND BINKY FOR ME AND I WILL SEE IF I CAN GET YOU OUT OF THIS!” The words were clipped.

In the intensive care unit, the older woman in the black garb appeared to be trying to die. Despite the best efforts of the young doctor in charge, her heart kept stopping. Seven times the skeletal figure shouted “NO” and grabbed her shoulders while the medical…

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