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The re­cur­ring fas­ci­na­tion with fairies is at the heart of an ad­mirably grown-up if flawed col­lec­tion of writ­ing

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - Re­view by Brian Mor­ton

MAG­I­CAL FOLK: BRI­TISH AND IR­ISH FAIRIES 500 AD TO THE PRESENT Edited by Si­mon Young and Ceri Houl­brook Gib­son Square, £16.99

MY grand­mother Maud and aunt Olivia (known as Evie) were both strong be­liev­ers in fairies. Maud claimed no sight­ings, but at­trib­uted var­i­ous house­hold woes – cur­dled milk, stopped man­gle, the dis­ap­pear­ance of ev­ery sev­enth radish from a row – to the dis­plea­sure of the “lit­tle peo­ple”. Phys­i­cal ev­i­dence for them was re­stricted to troves of “fairy pipes”, which look very much like reg­u­lar clay pipes abraded in her sandy soil; I have some of them still. Evie’s be­lief was more de­vel­oped. She was reg­u­larly vis­ited by a small fig­ure in a green felt suit, who was de­scribed as “distin­guished” and a “gen­tle man” (with equal weight on the two el­e­ments, in the Ul­ster way). He was some­times heard walk­ing at speed along the lane, but was also seen sit­ting on the yard wall, qui­etly smok­ing one of those pipes. He was ap­par­ently harm­less, but Evie took the pre­cau­tion of curt­sey­ing to him when they crossed paths.

Maud and Evie both be­lieved in fairies, but were se­vere on the sub­ject of wings. These, I was al­ways told, were fic­tional, the in­ven­tion of book il­lus­tra­tors and an­i­ma­tors, and not to be taken se­ri­ously. Iron­i­cally, my Scot­tish grand­fa­ther, a prag­matic and em­pir­i­cal man, but also a pro­found ad­mirer of Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle, was in­clined to share his hero’s undy­ing be­lief in the ve­rac­ity of the Cot­tin­g­ley fairies, which were pho­tographed in 1917 and 1920 by cousins nine-year-old Frances Grif­fiths and 16-year-old Elsie Wright. His logic was that Doyle was a man of sci­ence and there­fore un­foolable. He was also, of course, caught up in the anx­ious spir­i­tu­al­ism of the post-war years, where ev­ery fam­ily had lost a son or brother and in which a new con­struc­tion of fem­i­nin­ity – and very young fem­i­nin­ity – was coun­ter­ing the aw­ful re­al­ity of wretched men in blood­ied, mud­died khaki, with bru­talised limbs and faces.

Richard Sugg’s chap­ter in Mag­i­cal Folk on York­shire and the Cot­tin­g­ley pho­to­graphs – which were even­tu­ally re­vealed to be fakes in the 1981 when both women con­fessed – is the most de­vel­oped in the book, but then the Cot­tin­g­ley story has al­ready been cov­ered, pro and con­tra, in umpteen ar­ti­cles, books, doc­u­men­taries and screen­plays. Mel Gib­son even tried to buy the Midg and Cameo cam­eras which were used, but they were saved for the na­tion and wel­comed home to the pho­tog­ra­phy mu­seum in Brad­ford by cheer­ing crowds.

Si­mon Young and Ceri Houl­brook provoca­tively sub-sub­ti­tle their col­lec­tion “500 AD to the present”. Be­lief in fairies, like that in witches, is thought to be atavis­tic and su­per­sti­tious, but mod­ern sight­ings are still fre­quent. Houl­brook’s ex­cel­lent chap­ter on Scot­tish main­land fairies in­cludes a meet­ing with a mother and two daugh­ters near Rose­markie on the Black Isle. The girls, en route to the cin­ema and Pizza Hut, solemnly place coins in a tree al­ready crusted with trib­utes. Fairy Glens were once com­mon in Scot­land. I grew up in Dunoon where a favourite tourist at­trac­tion (we some­times won­dered in ado­les­cence if it was the only one) was Morag’s Fairy Glen, ba­si­cally a mod­est son et lu­miere with a few plaster sprites.

Why do we still be­lieve in fairies? The best sin­gle state­ment of a rea­son comes in Young’s Cum­bria chap­ter, headed Fairy Holes and Fairy But­ter, where he lists var­i­ous lat­ter-day man­i­fes­ta­tions, in­clud­ing fairy doors, fairy ham­lets and a gnome vil­lage at the bot­tom of Eng­land’s deep­est lake, Wast­wa­ter, where divers ap­par­ently take self­ies with kelpies. Wrong breed of lit­tle per­son, but the phrase­mak­ing is ir­re­sistible. For Young, this is all about “in­dus­trial, and now digital hu­man be­ings re­con­nect­ing with the wilds that they have left be­hind”.

Psy­cho­anal­y­sis may also have put paid to other rea­sons for be­liev­ing in fairies, which of­ten in these es­says come across as tricky, if not ma­lign, crea­tures. Var­i­ous pucks, pooks, poukes and pwca will lead you astray in the night, which is fairy time. It is also drink­ing time, and many a lo­cal fairy leg­end was pre­sum­ably con­cocted to ex­plain how you ended up sleep­ing in a ditch. Other ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tions were more elab­o­rate. A horse found sweat­ing in its sta­ble in early morn­ing was a sure sign of hav­ing been rid­den by fairies. Or used in a smug­gling op­er­a­tion. Or for car­ry­ing a hus­band to his mis­tress’s door in the small hours.

Houl­brook doesn’t say what movie the young girls in Rose­markie were off to see. Per­haps it was one of the Harry Pot­ters. JK Rowl­ing has to claim some credit or blame for re­viv­ing in­ter­est in such indige­nous fig­ures as the dobby (who as Dobby the House Elf is the most an­noy­ing char­ac­ter in movie his­tory af­ter Jar Jar Binks; I pos­i­tively cheered when the lit­tle blighter died) and the Cor­nish piskey. The lat­ter proved the un­do­ing of Hog­warts’ hap­less teacher of de­fence against the dark arts, Ken­neth Branagh look­ing and sound­ing like he’s just en­coun­tered a foot­ball crowd on its way home. Young’s point is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant here: where Frances and Elsie had to use old-fash­ioned film pho­tog­ra­phy, digi­ti­sa­tion and CGI bring an­cient crea­tures to vivid life.

What is de­light­ful about Mag­i­cal Folk is that the au­thors, nearly all aca­demics with a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in Bri­tish folk­lore, take their sub­jects very se­ri­ously and plainly in­deed, with­out com­plex psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­cus­sion of what squirmy cor­ners of the un­con­scious fairies and their kind come from. Their re­search has been hugely as­sisted by the digi­ti­sa­tion of vast amounts of in­for­ma­tion; re­gional news­pa­pers, an­cient re­search pa­pers, lo­cal bul­letins, hand-writ­ten tes­ti­monies, once lost in dusty ar­chives, are now ac­ces­si­ble to all. Of course, digi­ti­sa­tion has the down­side of go­ing hand in hand with glob­al­i­sa­tion, and there is a dan­ger that fairy lore loses its dis­tinc­tively lo­cal el­e­ments as it be­comes more widely stud­ied and in­sti­tu­tion­alised. For­tu­nately, the edi­tors have di­vided up the Bri­tish Isles county by county and re­gion by re­gion, in order to pre­serve the dis­tinc­tive­ness of re­gional vari­ants. In one part of the coun­try, it is hu­mans who re­pair fairy “pells” (for lift­ing bread out of the oven); in oth­ers, it is fairies

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