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Magical Objects Tags: Apotropaia talismans superstition writing research Foreign Encounters Writers Abroad anthology The Idalo Man Northampton Museum Hidden Shoes I



During a visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park last year a print by illustrator, Alice Pattullo, caught my eye. The poster was entitled, 'Apotropaic Devices For the Home.' I wasn't sure what apotropaic meant, but the mirror-image china dogs triggered a childhood memory of dutiful visits with my mother to an elderly neighbour who had the same ornaments on her mantelpiece. We had few decorative objects in our farmhouse apart from photos of prize-winning sheep or horses displayed on a sideboard. Our main source of heat was a Rayburn (similar to an Aga) so we didn't even have a mantelpiece to put china dogs on but still, I coveted them. After googling the word I learned that apotropaic meant designed to avert evil, and discovered that china, or Staffordshire dogs were not merely ornamental, they also guarded against malign forces entering through the fireplace.



Even though we never had china dogs, my mum was quite superstitious; always buying J-cloths or scrubbing brushes to appease Gypsies who called at our house to prevent them from casting spells upon us, always turning a horseshoe right side up so the good luck didn't fall out and always closing umbrellas before entering the house. Naturally, I inherited some of these behaviours. As I sit here typing, I can see at least three protective talismans in my home. The Indalo man (dating from the Paleolithic period), which was a lovely gift from fellow WA member, Chris Nedahl; a nazar (stylized glass eye) which I bought in Istanbul; and a Mexican day of the dead skull which I bought in Leiden's Museum of Ethnography.

Story Inspiration

Since leaving the depths of the countryside and living amongst the more rational Dutch I have become less superstitious but for our second WA anthology, Foreign Encounters, I wrote a story, Blow Me a Kiss, about a curious object which fascinated me. Displayed in the tiny but entrancing Butcher Row House Museum, in Ledbury, Herefordshire, was a child's shoe which had been found bricked up in the chimney of a local cottage. The museum attendant told me it was common practice to place shoes in portals of the home, i.e. chimneys or above windows or door lintels. The shoes were meant to ward off malicious forces, luring evil entities to attack the shoe rather than the wearer. A child's shoe might also promote fertility according to local beliefs so my initial impression that a child had died in the house was unfounded. The Ledbury shoe had merely been outgrown and granted a second life protecting the home's inhabitants.


An Archive of Hidden Shoes

The custom was so widespread in the UK that in the 1950s a Hidden Shoe Index was set up by former curator June Swann, at Northampton Museum. The index lists just under 3,000 shoes found in properties from the Shetland Islands to the Isles of Scilly, with the greatest number being from the south-east of England. The museum also holds 250 found shoes, the oldest dating to the 1540s from St John's College, Oxford (pictured above). The practice was taken by immigrants to the New World where it continued into the 1920s and 1930s. The current curator still receives two or three messages per month about found shoes from as far afield as the US, Canada and Australia. The museum index has recently been digitized and should you want to research further there is also a user-generated, online catalogue of hidden shoes with their locations on Historypin.


Are Writers More Superstitious?

So in an age where science and technology rule our lives what makes some of us still superstitious? Are writers and creative folk generally more superstitious than others? Does a writer's need to attribute meaning to events or objects when creating a story make us more susceptible to magical beliefs? Do you (consciously) have apotropaic devices in your home, perhaps you are even wearing one? Would these objects be a good way of describing a character who owned them? Or perhaps even the catalyst for a short story like the shoe I saw in Ledbury. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


With thanks to Alyson who reawakened my interest in hidden shoes by sharing this BBC article. Images courtesy of Alice Pattullo and Dr Ceri Houlbrook

This week on Writers Abroad Jan 22
Category: Site News

  • Alyson has written a fantabulous blog about how you can jazz up your writing and avoid clichés by substituting regular verbs with more surprising ones from professions such as cooking or hairstyling, or abseiling, or tree surgery or whatever! Why not try making a portmanteau by pushing two words together to create a new one? Alyson writes that offbeat descriptions will make your writing stand out when entering competitions.

  • On The Bragging Stool we have Bruce, who has had a collage and a poem published in literary journal, Whitefish Review. Bruce and Debbie have also had worked accepted for the next edition of ArtAscent. Well done to both of them! Keeping the Ad Hoc fiction flag flying are Maggie, Chris, Sue B and yours truly.

  • Debbie has shared some juicy prompts and photos on the Monday Muse forum to get our pens racing across the paper. There is surely a mother-lode of gold waiting to be revealed amongst the dark rocky gloom that is January.

  • Jill has a story on January Challenge about the surprising benefits of a feline friendship which she is planning to enter in the Swanwick Writing Competition. Bruce has posted a new chapter of his novella, Medium Rare, set in sultry Rio de Janeiro, on Works in Progress. I wonder what will happen to the roguish Luiz and long-suffering Maria in this chapter?

  • Arrivals and Departures A hearty welcome to new trial member, Sue Roebuck, who I'm sure will be introducing herself very shortly. We look forward to getting to know her and her writing better.

  • We were all very, very sad to read that long-standing member, Crilly has decided to take an indefinite time-out from Writers Abroad. But we are heartened by the knowledge that she may come back when family matters have resolved themselves a little.

  • Next Formal Chat is Sunday 28th January 4pm CET on Skype. Lesley is in the chair.

Well that’s it! Hope you all have a very creative week! If I have forgotten something please shout.

Believe in Furry Tales – by Angela Williams Tags: Reading Cats Rescue Cats Childhood literacy Author's Cats Book Buddies

Positive news stories are few and far between these days but when I came across this one which combines two of my favourite things, cats and reading, I just had to share it with you. I kid you not; cats are helping kids to read!

Organized by the Animal Rescue League — an animal shelter in Berkshire County, Pennsylvania — 'Book Buddies' is a program that allows children to read to cats which are waiting to be adopted. The program, which aims to both improve reading skills among children and help socialise the shelter animals, allows kids from ages 6 to 13 at any reading level to participate.

It is a win-win situation. The rescue cats learn to relax in human company, and kids who are shy or lack confidence in reading aloud start to enjoy a hitherto unpleasant and even embarrassing activity. Cats are not judgemental and tend to sit quietly and so make ideal reading companions.

As a child I loved to read and even though I was always two years ahead of my actual age in reading ability, I did have the disadvantage of being painfully shy. When I was little I don't remember reading to my ginger tabby cat, Henry, but I do remember rehearsing a school dance performance for our family horses as they looked out over the stable doors. A truly captive audience! They didn't have score cards and say SeVEN, but their expressions were definitely more Len Goodman than Craig Revel-Horwood (Strictly Come Dancing fans will know what I'm on about.)

All the positive social media attention around the Book Buddies program has been good for the children's self-esteem and the publicity has seen an increase in the number of cats being adopted. The idea is being rolled out at other cat shelters too. What will come next, I wonder? Cats teaching kids to write? Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Ray Bradbury and Colette were all cat-lovers and claimed their feline friend's presence enhanced their creativity. Do you have a favoured animal companion for reading or writing? Maybe you didn't have a pet as a child but always dreamed of one? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


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