Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Language In Prehistory by Alan Barnard

Language In Prehistory is a tour through the academic world of proto-language and all things symbolic leading up to the acquisition by early human beings (quite which ones being a matter of guesswork) of full language. This is quite a scholarly book with not a huge amount for the general reader, but I did enjoy it, especially towards the end as the author got into matters mythical and storytelling. The conclusions are fascinating and the whole book thought-provoking. A bit advanced for me, but I’m glad I read it.

lang pre

The Trickster

The Trickster is a universal and ancient archetype. Why did such a character become so important in prehistoric, then in historic myth? Tricksters were everywhere: Loki in the Norse pantheon, Hermes in Ancient Greece, the Coyote or Raven spirit to certain Native American tribes, Anansi the Spider in West Africa, and so on.

Not all tricksters are the same. Some (Loki for instance) display gender fluidity – as a mare, Loki gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir – while some are variously heroes and/or villains, and some are more thief than anything else. But the prime focus of the trickster is deceit.

Deceit is a fascinating concept. Some scholars of language suggest that the human capacity for deceit is the basis of metaphor; in other words, a metaphor is a layer above reality that at the same time isn’t reality but also summarises, or describes it better. To make a metaphor about, for instance, shock as a ‘hammer blow’ you have to be deceptive regarding the lack of a hammer or a blow.

But deceit has one fundamental characteristic which marks it out as crucial in human evolution, and therefore in mythology. To deceive somebody you have to have what psychologists call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding each of us has regarding other people, i.e. that they too have a mind which they use in an identical way to ours. Children acquire theory of mind when they are fairly young, depending on circumstances – it can be as early as six years, or as late as eight or nine. Before then, it is easy to show through experiment that young children are unable to grasp what other individuals may or may not believe. Chimpanzees and great apes have been shown to have a basic theory of mind, which means they are able to grasp what other members of their social group may or may not believe, or know. Some male chimps use this in mating strategies: many chimps use it to conceal food stash locations.

The human capacity for theory of mind however far exceeds what apes can manage. We are capable of extraordinarily complex feats of understanding, which we rather take for granted because it is such an integral part of life, but which in fact are remarkable, and a major clue to the nature of consciousness. As a result we are able to make sophisticated calculations about the knowledge or beliefs of others. In literature, this is called order of intentionality. For example: the author of a novel believes certain things about their readers; a character in the novel will have their own beliefs; that character may believe or know something about another character, who may in their mind know something about another, and so on… One of the reasons Shakespeare is so lauded is his amazing ability to manipulate for the benefit of his audience complex many-ordered intentionality amongst his characters.

Theory of mind, then, is the essence of the trickster. The trickster is universal because theory of mind is universal and fundamental to social life. The trickster is in fact the metaphor for theory of mind in mythology, folklore and fireside tale. Our very earliest myths (which, as Karen Armstrong so brilliantly pointed out, are at once real events, retold versions, and instructions for living summarised in those retold versions) contain this archetype precisely because it is fundamental to social life.

Ethnographic studies have shown that hunter-gatherer communities talk about many things during the day – the minutiae of life – but at night four fifths of talk is storytelling. In prehistoric times we needed examples of how theory of mind is used. We needed to know why the Norse trickster Loki changed his shape into a mare then gave birth to Odin’s steed Sleipnir. All this passed on in pre-literate cultures one of the essentials of social life: our capacity to deceive.


Beltane 2019

An extract from Memory Seed for today, May 1, Beltane.


On Beltayn Eve, Haquyn, acolyte of the Goddess, chaperoned children around southern Kray, helping them in their task of decorating twigs and branches earlier snapped off by defending groups. The younger children – at least, those who did not spend time teasing their elder siblings – made crossed hoops of bedecked cane, straw dolls and garlands for decoration.

Meanwhile thousands of young friends met at inns serving free ale throughout the night. From safe roofs and from the open windows of high towers came the sounds of horns and drums, klaxons and conches, and reed pipes three yards long, accompanying the festivities.

But in the Green and the Archaic Quarters, in the passable districts of the Andromeda Quarter – even down as far as the Temple of Felis – and in those parts of the Carmine Quarter smothered by plants overflowing from the Gardens, there was silence. Silence, except for the swishing of trees and the pattering of rain. North Kray heard no music. This year, Beltayn was confined.

At sunrise Arrahaquen returned to the Carmine Quarter with her charges, everyone singing, then let them go in order to begin the house decoration; well-liked people would be favoured with flowers and leaves around their windows and doors, while the unpopular had nettles and creepers thrust upon them. Gifts could then be requested from Kray’s older residents. Arrahaquen looked upon all this with the eye of one who had lived most of her life in the bland buildings of the Citadel.

Collecting Zinina from the house, Arrahaquen led the way to a dew pool. It was the custom for women to bathe their faces with dew to ensure what in Kray was the ultimate beauty – a clear complexion.

An hour after dawn, they walked south. A light mist of yellow drizzle fell from bright clouds, filling the air. Already, feats of strength, singing and dancing, pyuter graphics and archery were being exhibited in the streets. Food and drink was to hand in every road – free from the Food and the Water Stations. Arrahaquen gazed east towards the Citadel. Somewhere atop its summit the Portreeve would be sitting at breakfast, apart, with a sour face.

Mystical figures appeared as the dances became more boisterous. The Leaf Man, a woman jigging in a bulky costume, danced along the street, flowers and coloured ribbons decorating her face. Elsewhere stalked the Moll and the Fool, the latter, dressed all in white and attended by girls in white jumpsuits, attacking those already drunk with a bladder affixed to a hazelstick. Arrahaquen, not quite able to join in with the jollity, feigned insolence and was rewarded with a clout on the head. Zinina laughed at her, but Arrahaquen’s face remained glum.

They walked on. The drizzle stopped, though the sky remained overcast. Music swelled from windows and from street bands led by aamlon conductors with leaves in their cuffs. Noon passed by. The two women walked to the garland-strewn Market Square, where this year’s Kray Queen was to be crowned. It would be a momentous occasion for many since it was widely believed that today marked the city’s final Beltayn. Girls wreathed in flowers danced around poles, the slabs below their feet a ring of colour where their adornments had fallen away. Others sat on leafy posts that they had made, comparing size and quality with those of others. From behind a vacated post Arrahaquen watched the tall, blonde and rather mysterious priestess Tashyndy crowned. She had nominated herself Kray Queen on Vert Day.

Taziqi, the High Priestess of the Goddess, had departed the temple to see her spiritual student crowned. People avoided her. Dressed in a sheath of lime and emerald silk, emeralds on her fingers and toes, she wore a three-faced mask, to the left a maiden, central a woman, to the right an old woman. When she spoke in encouragement, silence fell…


Beltane is for love.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed

The Origin Of Our Species by Chris Stringer

Chris Stringer is well known as a senior scientist at the Natural History Museum, his area of expertise human evolution. The Origin Of Our Species wittily riffs on Darwin’s classic work, providing an overview of the state of our knowledge about human evolution.

The book was published in 2011, and a few things have changed since then, mostly down to ancient DNA analysis. This however being a Chris Stringer book means it remains essential reading: wide-ranging, entertaining, packed with fact and theory. He is generous with the work of others, but not afraid to take on those, e.g. evangelists of the Multi-region Hypothesis, with whom he has struggled before. And as he points out, the Out Of Africa Theory which he helped develop is now widely supported and accepted.

The book covers palaeontology, the importance of scientific techniques, the limits of interpretation, then a brilliant few sections on deducing human behaviour and trying to determine how and when modern cognitive thinking developed.

Some reviewers have criticised this book for being too dry. I think that’s well off the mark. It’s not dry, it’s sophisticated, comprehensive and written from immense experience. A fascinating coda for instance explains how ideas that we’ve stopped evolving are nonsense.

Highly recommended.


Gene Wolfe RIP

I quoted Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun as the greatest SF novel ever written on a shelf strip when I ran the SF & Fantasy section at Waterstones in Exeter. After hundreds of sales over four or five years from that recommendation, only one person returned it, as I recall because he said it was mis-described. Not a bad record!
Of course, Wolfe really was one of the all-time masters of SF, and I felt perfectly justified in naming his magnum opus as the greatest genre novel.
And so, two weeks ago today, he passed away aged 87, a stack of plaudits at his side, and any number of adulatory obituaries.
Why was he so great? I remember reading TBOTNS for the first time – I was instantly smitten. The world was deeply imagined, complex, haunting and evocative. I devoured the books, then began recommending them to my SF-loving friends. Wolfe had a way of using mystery, enigma and beautifully written prose to convey a world profound in its operation and sensual in its feel. He really made you imagine you were there – the mark of a master craftsman. Add to that wit, humanity and wisdom and you had the whole package.
And he was left-handed, as am I. Sometimes I wonder if that 10% fluke of nature added to his imagination. Although I don’t subscribe to the old dominant hemisphere theory of neurology, I do think left-handers have something a bit different about them, which often comes out in creativity.
His other novels showed a wide range of interests and skills. The Fifth Head Of Cerberus was labyrinthine in its plotting and deeply enigmatic. Free Live Free was funny and light, There Are Doors moving, the Soldier books fascinating, and he was one of the greatest writers of short stories going – his collection The Island Of Dr Death & Other Stories & Other Stories being essential reading.
I didn’t like everything he did. I think for instance that most of the remainder of the Sun books were flat in comparison with TBOTNS, especially the second series.
So, what should I say in conclusion about this extraordinary man, who delighted, entertained and influenced me, and so many others? That the world was a better place for having him in it. He took from the world, he enjoyed it and learned from it, but he contributed too in equal measure.
His legacy will live on.


The Wisdom Of Wolves by Elli Radinger

The Wisdom Of Wolves is a book about wolves.

The subtitle however is: How wolves can teach us to be more human. In fact, although there is a little section at the end of each chapter on this theme, the book isn’t really about anything other than wolves and wolf society. Most of the human equivalences are either trite or so over-generalised as to be meaningless. This sounds like heavy criticism, but it isn’t really, because the human end-chapter sections are very short.

And the author really knows her subject – this is the joy of the book. It’s science, based in meticulous, loving study over a period of decades. Mostly the book covers the extraordinary and fascinating wolf societies of Yellowstone, and here the reader is left in no doubt that the author is a voice of authority. Several chapters stand out as fascinating, especially the one of wolf/raven interaction, and the one on how wolf packs manage old wolves and ageing.

The book has been criticised in some quarters for New Age babble, and there is a tiny bit of that sprinkled throughout it. There are also a few errors, for instance the bizarre reason given for wolf domestication during the Palaeolithic. But the vast majority of it speaks of the author’s immense experience of observing wolves and understanding them.

A rewarding read.


Shrewsbury library workshop

A couple of photos from last night’s workshop. It was good fun! Many thanks to librarian Joe Shooman for setting it up, and for the photos. Joe is in the process of setting up a writers’ group for Shrewsbury Library.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Stories So Far

The stories so far…


Workshop at Shrewsbury Library

Tomorrow I’ll be giving an informal author workshop at Shrewsbury Library: How To Get Your Writing Noticed. The events is free, and is from 5.30pm – 6.30pm. Many thanks to Joe Shooman for setting this up.

Carolyn Hillyer & Nigel Shaw

I first saw Nigel Shaw playing live in 1994. My then wife had been told by a colleague that he was playing a gig in Bedfordshire, quite close to where we lived and worked, so we went to see him. He played solo: synthesizer and Native American flute. I was captivated by that flute, which must have been one of the earliest ones that he played. After the gig I chatted to him about it. He was friendly and approachable – a lovely chap.

I liked the music on CD, but it was only after we moved to Devon a few years later that I really got into his music, and that of his equally extraordinary partner Carolyn Hillyer. We used to see them at local gigs in Devon and Cornwall, and soon his influence affected my own music – I bought a Native American flute from him, not one of his own, but one made by Guillermo Martinez, a Californian he worked with. It’s a gorgeous instrument, that I still play. I got to speak with them quite a few times, which was always a happy, positive experience. Nigel is open and friendly, with a charming manner; he has the same obsession with and love of musical instruments that I have. Carolyn is I think more serious, perhaps more intense, and she has a distinct ‘mystical’ quality about her. I remember watching her preparing for at a gig by the River Wye a few years back; she seemed to be staring into some other world.

Over the years I realised just what special talents these two were. Nigel had begun in New Age circles, but he was by far and away the best musician in that genre, and really not part of it at all, except perhaps in the early days. Dartmoor, the land, and tribal societies were strong influences on them both, which gave their music a deep foundation.

Over the last twenty-five years their music has diversified, progressed and deepened. Some of the music is like Nigel’s early stuff – haunting flutes, synth washes and other light instrumentation. Meanwhile, Carolyn has produced an amazing series of tribal and song-based albums, a really extraordinary part-improvised album using just her voice, and there is a strand too of what they call ancient folk, which are my favourite works.

Their music I find deeply soothing, not just because of the quiet, ambient quality of much of it, but because of that foundation in land, seasons, weather, nature. It anchors me. Nigel’s Dartmoor trilogy is particularly strong here, but so are other favourites – the icy/upbeat Ancestors, and the beautiful Nocturnes. Each album has its joys and delights. When, a decade or so ago, my personal life was a wreck I listened to their music for weeks – it helped get me through. I bought all the CDs I didn’t have from Shrewsbury’s alternative shop.

Nigel and Carolyn both make their own instruments, for themselves and their music, and for others; they run instrument-making courses too. They have played with many musicians from across the globe. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to receive one of Carolyn’s shamanic drums, made with her own fair hands from sustainably sourced deer hide. It’s a lovely thing, and records beautifully. Hopefully I’ll have one of Nigel’s flutes in due course.

Even though they make a living from their music and all their other activities, and are well known, I’m still amazed at the lack of public recognition. Why isn’t some production company making a documentary about them and their lives? They’re well known in Devon of course, and in alternative/underground circles, but I’d love to see some sort of national recognition – a film would be perfect.

Where to begin if you don’t know their music? Songs Of The Forgotten People will always be a favourite of mine – truly an inspirational album – but also Ancestors, Weaving The Land and Riven. Carolyn’s Ice is a favourite, as are Nigel’s Nocturnes and Dartmoor Journey.

You can find them at Seventh Wave Music. Happy listening!

c & n