Here I'm posting pictures and more info about some of the stories I relate in the book, The Circle of Nine. If you'd like to know more about the Woman in the Scarlet Raincoat, the Mother Stone on Easter Island or May Day in Padstow, read on!
A Real-Life Queen of the Night I have finally traced my all-time favourite ‘Queen of the Night’! In the first edition of The Circle of Nine, I mentioned a contemporary woman writer that I’d seen on a television documentary, someone who walked the streets of London alone every night. The film showed how each evening she would pick up her sandwiches her husband had made for her, and set out for hours of nocturnal prowling. She was a thriller writer, and loved the sense of mystery, of another world opening up in the hours of darkness.
I admired her fearlessness, and envied her unique explorations of darkness. I identified with her quest, even if I’d never dare to do the same myself. But when I came to re-write the book in 2018, I had long forgotten the name of this woman, and couldn’t verify who she was. Internet searches proved fruitless, and so I couldn’t add anything more for the new version of The Circle of Nine. But just recently, a few months after it was published, I found her in a book called Soho in the Eighties. Author Christopher Howse mentions the documentary, called Night and Day, and identifies my Queen of the Night as Celia Fremlin, as ‘A 71-year old thriller writer, who stalked the streets of London from 11pm to 5am, to lose herself in what she saw as a kingdom magically produced by darkness.’ As another article says (this reference now led me to other mentions of her), ‘she argued that London’s streets were actually safer for women walking alone at night than they were during the day. Fear, she maintained, was the true threat.’ http://www.optimamagazine.co.uk/read/leisure/exhibitions/1832-when-night-falls-on-city-streets
This was my woman – and I lost no time in searching out one of her novels. The library found me a copy of The Hours Before Dawn, her most famous work and first published in 1958. I found it so gripping that I had to stop reading it late at night, in order to have a chance of sleep! She writes about a young mother who herself takes to walking at night with her baby in a pram, as the baby is an endless cryer, disturbing the household and taking the mother herself towards the kind of craziness induced by lack of sleep. Is she being followed by the sinister female lodger, who seems to have her own malign intentions? She doesn’t know quite if she is awake or hallucinating as she dozes in and out of consciousness on a park bench by a lake, and when she comes too, the baby in the pram is gone... The power of this passage is, I am sure, because Celia knew all about night states of being.
Celia died in 2009, and her work is little known now, although one admirer describes her as ‘the lost treasure of crime fiction’ *. I too think we have indeed lost something special, by allowing most of her works to slide themselves into obscurity. I hope that my mention of her, as a ‘Queen of the Night’, will help to keep her memory alive. * http://www.crimesquad.com/events.asp?id=44
The Woman in the Scarlet Raincoat Who was this extraordinary woman? For sure, she was a Lady of the Dance. Our cruise ship had berthed in Yalta, on the Black Sea, and to mark our departure a local orchestra had gathered on the dock to play us out. And then into their midst burst this lady wearing a scarlet hat and raincoat. She danced exuberantly, joyfully. She abandoned herself to the music but with such style and grace that she had to be a truly skilful dancer. We cheered and clapped, as she danced, apparently just for the love of it, as there was no chance to reward her except for a bottle of champagne that one of the crew brought out in tribute as she ended her performance. I have often wondered who she was – an out-of-work, Russian-trained ballerina? Or a woman whose passion was dance, and who longed to perform to a wider audience? Her story is still waiting to be told.
The Circle of Stones on Easter Island This is another story from a cruise – my husband and I worked as artist and lecturer respectively on various exciting voyages around the world. The most amazing trip we took was to Easter Island, or Rapa-Nui, which is the most remote inhabited island in the world, and five sailing days from the coast of Chile. Of course, we wanted to see the giant Moai heads, but in a guidebook I also found a brief mention of a circle of stones that had been built by the sea shore, no one knows how long ago. As it turned out, this was a stone circle dedicated especially to women, who come there for support and guidance during their pregnancy. We needed transport to get there, and it was our great good fortune that we found ourselves in the cab of the only female taxi driver on the island, as none of the others would have understood its purpose. Our guide led me into the circle and showed me how to place my hands on the ‘mother’ stone, to feel its energy. The Great Mother was present, and it just happened to be Mother’s Day in the UK too! My husband – who was allowed into the circle himself later – sketched us and this is the painting that resulted. I treasure this memory.
Queens of the Earth at Padstow! Padstow, in Cornwall, is famous for its May Day celebrations. All night, and all day, the town throbs to the sound of drum beats, and the air is full of singing and cheering. Everyone has a good time. The Queen of the Earth is linked, as I explain in the book, to the Queen of the May in old British traditions. In Padstow the Queen is represented by decking the town with flowers and branches of greenery, by women garlanding themselves with flowers, and musicians decorating their costumes and instruments. Young women – the ‘princesses of the earth’ – may be seized by the hobby horse (the old ‘oss’) and disappear out of sight, under his cavernous black hood, a kind of ritual impregnation which these days is very harmless and causes nothing but shrieks of laughter! I heard one girl tell her boyfriend off for getting drunk on the day – no need for that, she said, as everyone gets high enough on the spirit of the ceremony, and the flowering of the earth itself. Here's some of the many photos I took on the day - May 1st, 2015.
Russian Wise Woman - the Lady of Light I was deeply involved in Russian culture for many years. I travelled there nearly sixty times, owned a little house in an artists’ village, and studied Russian folk traditions. Mostly, this sprang from my business at the time, running a Russian arts gallery in the UK, but I became so absorbed in the life there that I decided to write a book about my discoveries: Russian Magic (or The Soul of Russia, as it was known in the UK). One of the women I talked to for this book was a Russian émigré in the US, who had been profoundly influenced by the traditions of the Russian Wise Woman – let us call her, here, the Lady of Light, who is associated with wisdom and healing. Natasha explained in her own words what this had meant to her: ‘My mother was a znaharka in her own right. In spite of having university education, she was very keen on learning from wise women and knew many of them. So I understood that they had a kind of underground network and learned from each other. My mother knew how to get rid of warts, ‘lichen’ (eruptive skin diseases), boils, rheumatic fever, and how to treat deep wounds, diabetes and gangrene. As far as I remember every treatment commenced with “Hail Mary…” Her greatest achievement was the health of my father who came home after the war dying of wounds and diabetes. His condition was so bad, that the Soviet hospitals refused to take him as “terminally ill”. My mother kept him alive with her herbs and spells for 19 years! Our house was a virtual herbal factory with drying herbs all over the place, which she gathered in the woods, meadows and from her own garden. I still remember the wonderful fragrance of drying herbs in her house. ‘When I was about to emigrate, she said: “Daughter, I don’t have anything to give you as a parting gift but this. Use it when you are in big trouble,” and handed me an old Slavonic magic spell. I used it few times and it works very well. I can’t give you the text, but can tell you that it is beautiful and begins with invocation of powers of Mother of God. However the text itself is definitely not in the Bible or any prayer book. She died in her sleep with a smile on her face. I am sending you her photograph taken shortly before she died. It is hard not to notice a kind of aura of blessedness around her. At least, this is what I feel about her.’ (You can read the story in full in Russian Magic, p108)