Media

How Social Media Has Helped my Research (or, the kindness of strangers!)

This is a title I never thought I’d write! But, having finished another book (submitted exactly a year ago today!) I’m in that reflective mood again, thinking back to some important moments and turning points.

Researching and writing a monograph is like going on a journey without a detailed itinerary. You sort of know where you want to go but you don’t quite know what is the best way there, or what places you absolutely must stop and visit on the way (so that your final destination becomes worth reaching). My first monograph was based on my PhD thesis – so it was, really, an act of re-writing. But my latest book, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, was a different story: I thought about it as a book, right from the beginning, and did a lot of the research (and thinking!) for it during maternity leave.

Not much writing at all happened during that time (baby in the house!), but a lot of close reading of primary sources (lots of children’s fantasy novels – quite apposite while getting used to life with a little one!) and a lot of thinking and note-taking (mostly on my phone while feeding, nap-time, etc.) Then, came the digging further into the Irish and Welsh sources my fantasy authors used (a lovely opportunity to go back to my MA in Early Celtic Studies reading and catch up with the scholarship since then). Also, a thorough read of interviews, lectures, reflective essays and blogs given/written by my selected authors (how lovely to be working with contemporary authors!), and – in many cases – a conversation with the authors, either face-to-face, or by email. In the case of the late Pat O’Shea, her partner Geoff Windle was so generous with his time in answering my emails and giving me an insight into her bookshelves and research. Also, my research on Lloyd Alexander was enriched by consulting his manuscripts at the Free Library of Philadelphia, though I never set foot there… but that is letting the cat out of the bag!!!

So during that research journey, there were times were I needed help: a quick chat with an archaeologist friend about Seahenge in Norfolk (which was part of the inspiration for Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge); a question to Welsh speaking friends and colleagues about an obscure (or imaginary?) Welsh word Alan Garner describes in The Owl Service; a telephone conversation with a former tutor about Roman helmets (for the chapter on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence). All of these friends and colleagues are thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

But there were also times when I (nearly) hit a dead end, and that’s when Facebook and Twitter came to the rescue! I was able to directly contact Jenny Nimmo because of Twitter. A series of messages there led to exchanging email addresses and a great conversation on The Snow Spider trilogy. Twitter was also the only way I managed to get hold of Marged Haycock (the editor of The Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin) and get a quick clarification on the title of the Welsh “Preideu Annwfyn” (The Spoils of Annwn).

As for Facebook, that’s where I moaned about not having a “portkey” for immediate transportation to Philadelphia, to see Lloyd Alexander’s manuscripts. I had been trying for a while to get in touch with the curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia, but my emails were bouncing back. Immediately, fellow Tolkien scholar John David Cofield (whom I had never met, but with whom I had “talked” on Facebook about Tolkien before) responded to my post to say that he knew someone working in the Free Library of Philadelphia. He put me in touch with the lovely Helen Azard who printed off my email and physically handed it to the curator! At the same time, Katherine Sas responded to let me know that she lived reasonably close to Philadelphia and that she’d be willing to go to the library for me if needed. So when a bit later I realised that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Philadelphia, but that they were happy to admit a research assistant on my behalf to photograph what I needed from the manuscripts, Kat took on that role immediately! The chapter on Lloyd Alexander would have been so much poorer without the manuscript research, and if it wasn’t for David, Helen and Kat I wouldn’t have seen the material at all! And all of this because of a moaning post on Facebook!

The second big Facebook success was related to my research on Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. I really needed to get hold of an obscure little book which shed more light on Garner’s involvement with the TV adaptation of his novel: Filming the Owl Service: A Children’s Diary. This is ostensibly the diary that Garner’s son and two daughters kept during the filming of the series (1969-70) which was then published in 1970 with contributions from Alan Garner himself, and Peter Plummer, the director. This little book has been out of print for years. Every now and then it does appear on second-hand bookshops online, usually for an extortionate price, and at that point there was just one copy on Amazon marketplace for an astronomical amount. At the same time, the few libraries that held the book had it marked as “reference only” and wouldn’t consider sending it to me as an inter-library loan.

In desperation, I went on the Alan Garner Facebook group and posted the cover of the book with this message: “Hello all, I was wondering whether anyone in this group has this book?” When a few members said they did, I explained further:

 

And, guess what? Katherine Langrish (THE Katherine Langrish, fantasist in her own right and author of the award-winning Troll Trilogy among many other novels!) responded straight away and within two days I had the book in my hands!!! And, I got to “meet” Katherine, even if only electronically!

Last but not least, I often used Facebook and Twitter just to keep awake during the many late nights I spent working on the book (well after midnight most of the time!) or motivated during the equally numerous occasions of having to work on weekends. Here’s only a selection of such posts:

And, triumphantly, the last one, posted at 05:20AM, exactly a year ago today!

 

Literary Tourism: Wales, Land of Legends

Literature Wales (http://www.literaturewales.org/) launched today their new literary tourism website: Land of Legendshttp://www.landoflegends.wales/.

This was a project funded by Visit Wales (http://www.visitwales.com/) and I was delighted to have been one of the consultants on literary connections of specific locations in Wales, now linked to the literary map available on the website for tourists to use. More information on the project can be found here: http://www.landoflegends.wales/about-land-of-legends.

My contribution was mostly on Tolkien and Wales (under the “Living Language” theme: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/living-language) and on the Welsh landscape in the works of children’s fantasists such as Alan Garner and Susan Cooper (under the “Childhood” theme: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/childhood).

I have worked with Literature Wales on literary tourism before, specifically on Tolkien’s Welsh connections, but this time I was also able to draw upon my recent research for my new monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave Macmillan): http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137552815

Here are links to the main ten themes of the Land of Legends hub:
Rebels …Outlaws, Rioters & Uprisings: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/rebels
Sacred & Spiritual …Pagans & Pilgrimages: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/sacred-and-spiritual
Childhood …Fantastic Family Tales From Wales: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/childhood
King Arthur …Merlin, Dragons & The Sword In The Stone: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/king-arthur
Boots & Bread …Industrial Heritage & Hardship: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/boots-and-bread
Living Language …Welsh & National Identity: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/living-language
Folklore & Tradition …Weird & Wonderful Welsh Myths: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/folklore-and-tradition
Watery Worlds …Waterfalls, Caves, Lakes & Waves: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/watery-worlds
Battles …Warriors, Warfare, Castles & Kingdoms: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/battles
Ghosts …Spooky Haunts & Tales Of The Otherworld: http://www.landoflegends.wales/theme/ghosts

CBeebies Alice in Wonderland: A Journey of Imagination

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Having a nearly three-year-old means that I’m always attuned to what’s new on CBeebies and, naturally, there’s a lot of bespoke Christmas entertainment this time of the year, including the ever-popular Christmas panto. Last year it was Peter Pan, the year before it was A Christmas Carol, while this year, so appositely on the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carrol’s celebrated children’s classic, it was Alice in Wonderland.

Of course, these pantos are adapted for the target audience of CBeebies, i.e. toddlers and very young children under 6, so one expects a simplified storyline, and favourite CBeebies presenters and characters to make an appearance (I suppose the episodic nature of Carroll’s narrative helped a lot with the latter). So this year the very talented Cat Sandion was a refreshingly non-blonde and rosy-cheeked Alice, CBeebies favourite Andy Day impersonated the iconic Mad Hatter, while Justin Fletcher – justly dubbed “CBeebies royalty” – was a hilarious Queen of Hearts. There were other great casting choices including the “naughty pirates” trio from Swashbuckle, Captain Sinker, Cook and Line, now transformed into the Duchess, Cook (naturally) and a hilariously oversized Baby.

What was very different from Lewis Carroll’s Alice was the emphasis of this panto on imagination and make-believe. The first scene presented Alice and her entire family (not just her older sister as in the book) having a picnic by the riverside. Alice, dressed in the recognisable blue pinafore dress popularised by the Disney adaptation, declares that: “I don’t have any imagination… I can’t make-believe at all…” Her family endeavour to convince her otherwise, pointing to possible mundane things that can become magical in their opening song: the rabbits in the field, the father’s pack of cards, or a caterpillar (of course prefiguring some of the best-known scenes in the book). And sure enough, the white rabbit appears, prompting Alice to follow him down the rabbit hole.

Alice becomes huge and then very small via some clever stage magic, meets the caterpillar (very nicely played by the newest CBeebies presenter Ben Faulks) and the Duchess and co., talks to the Cheshire Cat (again, very clever staging here!) and plays a variation of “musical chairs” with the Mad Hatter, the Hare and the Doormouse. And it’s at that point that she suddenly realises that she can create things by just imagining them (though I have to say that the make-believe food at the party reminded me more of Peter Pan than Alice). By the time she reaches the Queen’s party she can imagine and create a lifetime’s supply of jam tarts to save her family from the Queen’s wrath. So instead of having a vivid dream that can be sometimes weird, somewhat disturbing and definitely a little scary at times, this Alice and her family create and navigate their own Wonderland, which makes this narrative more of a journey towards appreciating the power of imagination as the proper domain of children (a staple characteristic of the ‘Romantic child’ still with us today) than a journey into the unconscious or towards maturity, as Carroll’s text has been often read. Perhaps this is the result of the educational role of CBeebies: tellingly, the producer, Jon Hancock, noted that:

there’s also a beautiful message we’re bringing out of the story that I hope will inspire parents and children – to have fun with your imagination, and for parents to really invest and partake in imaginary play with their children.

The panto did invite some audience interaction – as one would expect – by having children wear rabbit ears, and “explained away” or eliminated some of the most disturbing elements of the book (the scene that used to scare me as a child was the Duchess’s baby turning into a piglet but here the baby just wears a pig’s snout and says that he has “dressed up” for the party).

Overall this panto was completely within the tradition of previous CBeebies shows, full of colour, catchy songs (I’m still humming “Use your imagination…”) and excellent staging (it was recorded at the Wales Millennium Centre at Cardiff Bay). It managed to incorporate CBeebies characters, showcase the talented CBeebies presenters and introduce young children to a story they will read and watch many times in the future in numerous adaptations. Yes, perhaps the main theme of the story was altered to suit the needs of the CBeebies agenda, but that’s what adaptation is all about: “repetition with variation”, as Linda Hutcheon has shown.

  • If you missed it, you can watch the CBeebies Alice in Wonderland here
  • For the entire cast of the panto see here
  • For a Q and A with the producer see here
  • For clips, games and activities (including ideas for a CBeebies panto party) see here