For those of you who haven’t been to Oxford before, this is Oxford’s train station…
It’s not the most glamorous place in the world is it? I remember hearing when I first moved down here that the town wasn’t at all keen on this whole ‘train’ idea, and many people were sure it wouldn’t catch on at all. So rather than build a nice swanky train station like London has in spades or York, they just sort of… shoved it out onto what was at that time the outskirts (ha! Oh, urban sprawl, you aggressive weed…)
And for a long time I sort of believed this story too…
No more shall we calmly accept this mundane tale! No indeed! We shall instead acknowledge the battle of a brave soul who has for so long gone unrecognised!
For if you go to Oxford’s train station, and you walk into the main hall and look up, you will see a small figure, sitting above the main doors…
She’s only small, and you can easily miss her, but there she is… the Guardian.
There she sits, watching over us all. No matter the season, the time, or the weather, she remains at her post through it all, unstinting in her duty of care.
If you ask a member of the station team, you may be given a name for her. But if you ask more than one for her name, you will find that you get a different name every time. This is only sensible, I suppose, for Names are Important, as we have discussed here before.
Now you may say to me, ‘Cameron. You’re being ridiculous. She’s a plastic owl to ward off a few pigeons; this isn’t a big deal.’
But that’s where you’re wrong!
For one thing, if she were there to simply ward off a few pigeons, she’d be hilariously bad at it! I didn’t actually manage to get a photo of the feathered terrors perching on top of our girl, contrary creatures that they are, but I assure you that there were plenty of them doing so! And the good people of Oxford train station wouldn’t keep her around if she didn’t function! What do you think she is? One of our ticket barriers?
So she must be there to ward off another threat, a bigger threat than mere pigeons…
Now you might wonder to yourself, what possible dangers are there hanging around at train stations, but I urge you to remember your folklore for a moment…
What are the places you must be most careful of, the places where a moment of unwary complacency can cost you all that you hold dear?
Graveyards, yes, ruins and standing stones, sure, but also? Crossroads.
Nothing good comes of being too relaxed by a crossroads, does it?
And what are train stations but big, modern crossroads? Oh, sure we don’t tend to bury our unquiet dead there, but train stations are where large groups of strangers are pressed closely together, no one looks too hard at another’s eyes, nor do we count their fingers. Everyone’s in a hurry, no time to ask enough questions, lots of quick decisions being made. And then we’re off! Never looking back, never sure who the person we just spoke to was or whence they came…
Train stations might fool you with their florescent lighting and their pop-up coffee shops, but think about it even a little and suddenly they look much more Otherworldly, no?
But fear not!
For at Oxford, there is one who stands guard against the Lord and Ladies of the Otherworld! The silent sentinel figure of the owl…
She is an apt choice in many ways. In the North of England, my own place of origin, it is said to be good luck to see an owl, and if you’re are at either the beginning or the end of a long train journey then I can assure you that you’ll take any piece of good luck you can find!
On a less … owl-friendly note, owls have long been associated with evil and wickedness owing to their nocturnal habits and liking for the quiet of graveyards and ruins. In Kent it was said that the owl kept to the nighttime hours because she had once won first prize in the animal kingdom’s beauty competition and the jealous losers punished her by only allowing her to come out at night. Poor love.
More to our purposes here, since the early Roman times and continuing right up and into the 19th Century, it was considered that nailing a dead owl to the door of a house or barn would ward off evil and ill-fortune (I think out of the idea that an owl caused the ill-fortune so an owl could jolly well take it away again.) And while that’s clearly awful and you should never do such a thing to the noble and majestic owl, a plasticowl is a perfect modern replacement, don’t you think? Can’t get more dead than being made of plastic now, can you?
All around the world, owls are often credited with powers of prophecy, wisdom and being the messengers between this world and … others. I can certainly think of no better guard against the inherent evil of public transport terminals than our dear Oxford Owl! She’ll see through any mischievous being who tries their luck on the unwary, that’s for sure! And any who have seen the talons and beaks of an owl will know that her vengeance will be both swift and vicious indeed!
So when you next pass through Oxford’s train station, look up on your way out and tip your hat to our noble guardian. She’s doing a hard and thankless job up there, but we are all safer for her presence.
Does your local train station have a guardian? What is it? As I travel around the country in the coming year I’ll keep an eye out myself…
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So, this will surprise exactly no one, I’m sure, but I have news for you all: There’s a wizard in Oxford.
I know, right?
But this one clearly likes cheap coffee and cares very deeply about their aesthetic vision. Like, they are committed to this aesthetic!
OK, so technically this story comes from just outside of Oxford, but it’s still got an ‘OX’ postcode and thus I am still counting it! So, I’m meeting a friend in one of those generic coffee chain shops (you know the ones, insert your preferred name her), and while we’re chatting away, we look over and something catches our eye. Something looks distinctly out of place…
I know it doesn’t really show in this photograph, but all the rest of the furniture in this place is coffee-chain standard. Brown pleather tub chairs, chunky dark brown wooden chairs, tables that are all just slightly the wrong height and have four legs of totally different lengths for maximum spillage of hot drinks? You know, the usual.
And then there it it.
A rustic farmhouse kitchen table and suitable chairs.
There are no other chairs like this in the whole place. There is nothing even remotely similar in terms of tables. Nothing – absolutely nothing – about this table and chairs combinations says ‘I belong here and I fit in.’
As someone who can often feel awkward and embarrassingly out of place in public, it is an unending comfort to me to know that wooden tables can clearly sympathise. Look at it; you can practically hear it apologising for taking up so much room.
Now, as soon as we spotted this poor out-of-place table, my friend and I started asking the obvious questions: How did it get here? Why is it still here? Who thought that this table belonged here in the first place?
The obvious solution was clear: A wizard did it!
I mean, it’s obvious, right? Some wizard had to go and get themselves some quick coffee, paid for it, went to grad a seat and had a fit about the generic decor. Wizards; so high maintenance.
Of course, being a wizard, they naturally had the power to amend matters to their own satisfaction and behold! One farmhouse table and accompanying chairs are suddenly sitting, presumably very confused, in the coffee shop. Naturally, this is Oxford, and no one questions it. I mean, where do you think this is? Somewhere that actually questions magical happenings? Cambridge, presumably.
“There are six chairs though,” my friend noted, “so maybe the wizard had guests?”
Was it a wizard convention that all descended on this coffee shop together, looked around and then backed each other up about the generic decor of terribleness? This has a certain weight to it; one lone wizard might grumble away to themselves over their cheap coffee, but six could probably hype each other up until the only solution to this interior fashion disaster is to throw magic around until you have an inexplicable table.
I hope they didn’t think that the magic table counted as a tip for the wait-staff. Because it does not, wannabe Gandalf! Pay them with actual money like a normal person!
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For those of you who are familiar with Oxford, you may recognise this photo as the alley at the back of the Clarendon Shopping Centre.
For those of you whop aren’t familiar with Oxford, let’s just say that it’s an alley I’ve walked past just about every day for at least seven years. There’s dozens of alleys just like it in every town and city in England and very probably around the world; nicely built at one point, but long-since forgotten about while the front facade gets updated every decade or so.
It’s totally ordinary and unremarkable, I always thought.
You’d think by now – this being Oxford and all – I would know better!
Because the other evening I was walking past it – running late as always and keeping a dear friend waiting for dinner – when I suddenly noticed something…
Why is there a stained glass window sandwiched there between the fire escape and the bike shed? I mean, I’m sure that there’s no wrong place to put a stained glass window and all, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice, I’ll tell you that!
And wait… Is… Is that…?
Yes, that is indeed an angel looking back over its shoulder at us like it’s in The Office, apparently 1000% done with the sea serpent. Look at them! You can absolutely hear the exasperation in the angel’s voice, can’t you?
Sidney, I say, Sidney will you stop flashing your fangs around? No really, they’re completely unnecessary, old thing. The poor artist’s already struggling to get your whole body in frame what with all the coils, do you think you could just… not?
I mean, why not have an angel and a sea serpent in your windows, right?
Makes complete sense, that does.
Naturally, I had to investigate a little further…
Sure enough, over top of the skip (because of course it was over the skip!) there was another stained glass window! It’s a little unclear, I know, what with being so high up, but I think that’s St George, mercifully without his dragon up there:
Yep, there he is! Valiant steed at the ready and everything!
Now, I know what you might be thinking: Cameron, why are we looking at this building? And fortunately, I do have an explanation which in turn explains so much about Oxford!
Because it has been my personal belief for some time now that there is a magical department hanging around somewhere in Oxford, even if I could never quite figure out where it might be. The Bodleian was too obvious, and besides, have you ever actually met an Oxford librarian? They are specially trained to take out a potential book-scribbler at a thousand paces! You even think about crumpling the pages and they will have your hide, never mind trying to do any magic around their books! Any of the museums are out for similar reasons, although one does also have to factor in the various Outreach activities to get kids into History they have going on: there’ll be no doing of magic while the PVA glue and glitter is right out, it doesn’t bear thinking about!
And at last! I have found it! It’s perfect! Right next door to a gardening and DIY shop too, which I’m sure will come very in handy for iron nails and oak wood and things. They probably have an extra room at the back with the cauldrons in…
After a bit more searching, I finally found the front door, and look! Definitive proof if I do say so myself!
I mean, if you were designing the head quarters of the Magical Faculty of Oxford University, what else would you stick over the door? Naturally it would be an owl!
Alright, so the sign next to the door says it’s the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, but that is just what you would say, isn’t it? What other crowd would be more at ease with magical undergraduates, huh? They’ll all have their cover stories at the ready; when they say that their DPhil topic is the correlation in accounts of dragons and witches in the 15th century, you’re not to know that either of these things really exist, are you?
I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to have finally found confirmation of the Magic Faculty after all this time! And to have simply stumbled across it too! Mind you, isn’t that always the way it happens in the stories?
Coming to you next time with further wonders, miracles and mysteries of Oxford…
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We begin this week with one of my favourite little bits of Urban Legend, the reason for sharing it will, I hope, become clear later in the post.
Once upon a time, a young lady, having found a man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, brought her boyfriend home to meet her grandmother. They all sat in the grandmother’s front room, drinking tea and eating cake, as is traditional, when the young man’s attention was caught by something on the lady’s mantlepiece. Eventually his distraction was noticed and he was asked what he was looking at.
“Mrs Wilson?” He asked instead. “Mrs Wilson, where did you get that object from?”
He gestured as he spoke to a curious metal item on the mantlepiece, all strange shapes melded together. The old lady beamed at him, pleased that he had noticed her treasure.
“Oh well now, dear, I’ve had that for years! My sons brought it home from me when they were very young, why it must have been over fifty years ago now! I polish it every Saturday, you know, got to keep it nice.”
The young man nodded, still distracted and staring at the object.
“Mrs Wilson,” he asked carefully. “Mrs Wilson, do you know what it is?”
She shook her head, unconcerned but curious about the man’s interest.
“No, dear, I’ve no idea. The boys didn’t know either – found it in a field, they said they did.”
“Hmmm…” The young man nodded. “Would you mind very much, Mrs Wilson, if I called someone out to come and look at it? I think they’d be very interested.”
It was agreed that this would be acceptable. The young man called a friend in the army who came out an identified the object promptly … as an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. It had sat safely on this lady’s mantlepiece for over half a century, polished and prized and completely unidentified.
The end of the story is that the whole family trooped out to watch from a safe distance as the army exploded the bomb properly, and that it left a – well! – a very sizable crater indeed for such a small object! The young man was very popular in the family after all that, as you may imagine!
The Evil Overlord List
For those innocent young ones among us, way back in the early 1990s, a man called Peter Anspach began to put together what would become known as The Evil Overlord List. It is a magical thing which I recommend all writers should read at least once because it points to many recurring flaws in the plans of, well, Evil Overlords in fiction. Trying to avoid these recurring issues may be hard, but if you’re looking for a challenge then this is a great start. Also it is hilarious!
I bring Peter Anspach’s mighty work up now because I reread it a few months ago and it got me thinking…
There are several items upon it which definitely inspired a certain mindset for this post, specifically:
#5. The artefact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.
#49. If I learn the whereabouts of the one artefact which can destroy me, I will not send all my troops out to seize it. Instead I will send them out to seize something else and quietly put a Want-Ad in the local paper.
The Weaknesses of MacGuffins
The term ‘MacGuffin’ was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock to describe certain plot-relevant objects, although the item in question has been around for far longer than that. The Holy Grail is often considered among the first MacGuffins in literature. In reference to movies about spies, Hitchcock said a MacGuffin was: “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”
I should note that George Lucas disagrees, and feels that the audience should be made to care just as much about the MacGuffin as the characters, but I freely admit that I lean towards Hitchcock in this matter. If King Arthur’s men find the Holy Grail, I may be happy for them, assuming the plot has made me care about them, but I myself will not be affected either way, and on some level even in a well-told tale, I will always be aware of this. The Holy Grail shall become mine in any way.
Well-used MacGuffins often set the plot in motion in the first act and then should decrease in importance because the plot and the characters are increasingly the focus for the audience. Yes, the Holy Grail may be why the Knights of the Round Table go off on this quest, but the adventures and mis-adventures they encounter along the way should be more interesting than ‘Find the Thingy’. Yes, trying to get to the Holy Grail before the Bad Knights may be a source for conflict, but the characters need to be distinct and interesting, and what choices they make in search for their goal should be more interesting than ‘Will they find the Thingy before the others do?’
A badly-used MacGuffin needs to keep reasserting its importance to the plot all the way through because apparently there wasn’t something more interesting going on. If you are concerned about your MacGuffin, check back through your work and see if you find a strikingly high number of times someones cries ‘Where’s the [Thingy]?!’, ‘What have you done with the [Thingy]?’, [I have to get to the [Thingy]!’ Also check for conflict-based cries of ‘He has the [Thingy]!’, ‘Don’t use the [Thingy]!’ ‘No! If we do that then they will have the [Thingy]!’
MacGuffins have had a bit of a rough reception in recent years, because they have mostly been used poorly by writers and especially films to create and drive narrative tension as easily as possible. They seem unaware though that the tension these MacGuffins bring (that of two or more people wanting the Thingy) is very shallow, and since I, as the audience, do not want the Thingy, you can imagine how much I Do Not Care.
Sensing this, writers have taken, again often in films as they are such a visual medium, to placing MacGuffins in increasingly iconic but ludicrous places. No seriously, why is the Thingy hidden behind a trap door on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral? How did they get it there without someone noticing and do you have any idea how often maintenance and repair work has to be done on that roof? How have the workmen not found it, or at least accidentally bricked up the secret entrance because they didn’t know about it? What, is every set of contractors given a briefing so that they don’t mess with the Thingy before starting work? And it’s still a secret?
Obviously, as writers we could try and write stories without such devices, but as such a staple of drama in stories for so long, that’s a lot harder to manage than to say. It would be like saying ‘right, I shall now write a series without any romance.’ Or ‘I shall write a book without a villain.’ These things are possible, and there are some great works that manage this without any apparent effort, but they are few and far between for a reason.
Playing ‘Hide the Whatsit’
Rather than discarding MacGuffins in all their iterations – which would be sad, as it’s not their fault they are poorly used – in this post we shall consider some more … mundane places to hide your MacGuffin, places in which it is definitely conceivable that an item could have been hidden for long stretches of time.
Because I believe firmly that the interesting thing about MacGuffins is often simply the mystery of working out where they are and/or what they look like. Many a good story has rested on the conceit that even if the characters have heard of a magical object of legend, they still won’t know what it looks like. Also, because objects can move around and change hands a lot over the years, they can end up in some very unexpected places. And I don’t mean, in the abandoned pagan temple half-buried by a landslide, unexpected. Like, in this chap’s garage because he picked it up at a car-boot for £4.50 and then forgot about it because it didn’t fit in the alcove like he wanted it to, unexpected.
Your readers won’t see it coming, which will always be a nice change, and you’ll be forced, as a writer, to be more creative with your plot to accommodate this lack of daring chase scene up the Eiffel Tower in pursuit of the Do-Hickey that simply could not still be there after six decades without being disturbed by now.
This harkens back to the WWII bomb sitting safely in a woman’s front room for fifty years. (See, I told you this would all make sense!) No one knew it was there, but it was quite safe, and there was no need to hide it in the darkest depths of the land either.
Here’s some suggestions to start you off:
Great Auntie Freda’s Display Case
Auntie Freda’s lived in that house for nearly seventy years, and that display case hasn’t moved in all that time. You’ve visited every month since you were little, and you might think you know what’s in there, it’s in plain sight and all, but come to think of it, have you really looked inside it since you were six? No, no you have not! That slightly tatty box at the back might as well have the Philosopher’s Stone in it for all you know! Auntie Freda herself probably doesn’t know what all of it actually is, although she’d be able to tell you where most of it came from if you asked her. But only if you asked her though, you’d not be interested in hearing the stories of an old lady now, would you, dear?
Especially good for hiding small and shiny items, which might otherwise catch people’s eyes. Anything that’s got a serious ‘I am important to the plot and the universe’ vibe *ahem-Infinity Stones equivalent-ahem* will be utterly disguised by a mundane setting and a surrounding environment of sentimental tat.
Old Mr Wilson’s Shed
Maybe not all that suitable for perishable items, but Mr Wilson has used that shed as a covert place to stick anything he didn’t want his Good Lady Wife to find for years, but his memory’s not what it once was. Stick The Sacred Stone behind the half-full tins of paint in colours that don’t match any walls in the house any more, no one’s going to find it.
Or maybe it’s an old key that’s hanging on a hook behind the door? Again, you’re not going to look twice at it, are you? No one knows what all the random keys once belonged to, do they? Frankly anything small and vaguely metallic can be kept perfectly safe in an old tool box, or stuck near the bottom of a jar of screws? Like garages, only more so, sheds are the last descendants of an alchemists’ laboratory, and should always be approached with the same level of caution. One never knows what secrets one may stumble across, if due care is not given…
The Bottom of Someone’s Filing Tray
OK, you might think this is a silly one, but think about it. No one ever gets to the bottom of their filing tray. Ever. Even with the best will in the world, you get two-thirds of the way down, you run out of energy and you give up. Then you wait until it fills up again so far that it’s threatening to slide and topple all over the floor and you start filing again. And of course you get two-thirds through it and run out of steam, and…
Yep, so let’s be honest, you haven’t seen what’s at the bottom of that tray in forever, have you? This will not, of course, work for large or round MacGuffins, but if you ever need to hide the map to the secret treasure, or the password to the bank vault, or anything that’s paper-based, then the bottom of a filing tray is a perfectly good place to start!
Charity Shops and Car Boot Sales
Neil Gaiman (of course) has already shown the possibilities here with a short story about an elderly lady finding the Holy Grail in the Oxfam Shop on her way back from picking up her pension. It’s a hilarious story, especially when Sir Galahad turns up, you should read it.
People pick up random things they can’t identify all the time from car boot sales and such, just because it’s cheap and quirky and it might look nice in that corner of the bedroom. And the people selling things in car boot sales are often clearing their homes of stuff they don’t need, or getting rid of bits and pieces after a relative has died. If Great Aunt Freda dies, Cousin Errol isn’t going to know or care about anything much in her display case, is he? It’s mostly all just random souvenirs from holidays only she remembered, isn’t it? He’ll just want to get a little bit of money from it to help with the legal fees, and that’s all.
You could even take the idea to another level and have Cousin Errol call in a day-time tv show like Cash-in-the-Attic, or have the car boot feature on Bargain Hunt, and have a member of the Search Team just happen to catch sight of the Thingy when the show airs. So the reader gets a glimpse of the Thingy, but now we need to track it down again. To arms!
A National Trust Property
I have been convinced for years now that the National Trust exists entirely for the purpose of hiding and guarding Britain’s Magical Items, and no one has found a good reason yet to show that it isn’t!
The usual National Trust property combines everything that is perfect for hiding a MacGuffin. It’s bureaucratic enough that no one will question when or from where an item has come from, so long as the paperwork looks genuine. It’s small and homely enough that random items can be dismissed as an old curio of once-sentimental value. It’s probably been heard of by very, very few people, unlike something like the Tate Modern or the British Museum, which everyone has heard of and will think to look in. It’s guarded by Little Old Ladies – no, really, have you stepped across the line in a NT house? Those women will eat you up alive and make you apologise afterwards for causing them the trouble. They can glare a man into submission at a hundred yards. Never displease a Little Old Lady who has literally got all day to make you suffer appropriately!
Think of them as the modern equivalent of the knight with the sacred vow to watch over an item for all eternity (you know the one). The only flaw they might have is if you bribe them with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Keep an eye out for that.
Side-Note – Transporting One’s MacGuffin
Of course, once your Fearless Heroes have finally acquired their MacGuffin, they need to take it somewhere. But how?
Ok, don’t panic, and don’t reach for the ‘I must epic-i-fy this’ button! This is really quite simple.
I mean, you could call in Special-Ops, and move under the cover of night. You could do that. I have no doubt that it would be very suspense-full and the villains will doubtless have a spy in the camp anyway, and they will track your caravan of ‘covert’ cars down easily enough and give chase…
Orrrr you could just take on the train with you.
I recently bought my mother a Christmas present (I know I’m early, but it was perfect, and don’t worry, she doesn’t read this blog!) The thing was taller than I am, but thin, and I wrapped it up in bubble-wrap, and just walked onto the train. You know the best part? It didn’t matter how weird it looked, or how many side-long looks I received, no one – and I do mean no one – actually asked any questions whatsoever. Because of course they didn’t. Perish the thought!
The best part of this, though?
Even if your villains do give chase, all you have to do is shout ‘Oi! That’s my bag you’re running off with!’ and the entire carriage will leap to your aid as a distraction from the tedious reality of being on a train for two hours! It’s perfect!
Basically MacGuffins, and the searching for and acquisition thereof are a staple of stories for longer than writing has been around. They are so long-lived for a reason and just discarding them would be a huge shame. Still they are boring to the audience when writers forget that, like all storytelling elements, they are not intrinsically interesting without characters and plots that are interesting around them.
So don’t be boring with your MacGuffin and assume that a scary castle location will save it. Have a bit of fun with the concept! Your readers will thank you for it later…
Liked this post? Let me know in the comments where you would hide your MacGuffins!
And check out the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series for more weird and wacky ideas what writing than you could possibly wish for!
So some friends and I were having lunch at the weekend and we got talking, as you do, about horror films and such. (Everyone else does this, right?)
We were focusing on our incomprehension about the local communities in stories where there’s a long history of haunted happenings (the vicious murder that resulted in this angry ghost took place in 1647, for example) and why no one in the local communities ever seems to know what’s going on or have dealt with it.
Like, humans are a lot more astute than that and even if they don’t know what may be causing the problem, they will learn to avoid it if necessary. The Romans didn’t know what malaria was, but they knew if they built their cities near swamps then the people who lived there became really sick really quickly… so they just didn’t build their cities next to swamps. If there’s a wood next to your village that people walk into and never walk out of, you can absolutely bet that people are going to pick up on that pretty quickly, especially in a largely intransient population like rural areas. Oh sure, in modern times it’s easy to write a bunch of characters who dismiss such supernatural occurrences as superstitious nonsense, but the plain hard fact is that if there is a problem which directly affects you living right next door, you’re not going to cling to that idea for very long.
From there it just seemed natural to talk about what we thought people’s reaction today really would be to finding out that ghosts were real or stumbling across magical objects.
Would the news report on it, or ignore it as being too weird to publish in a professional newspaper? Obviously if there was something visible that showed up on camera then YouTube would be full of shaky phone-footage of it and the comments’ section would be filled with people trying to work out the trick. But what if it wasn’t? Because we all know that if there aren’t pictures, it never happened right? What would it take for the science community to show up and try to figure out if everything they assumed about the world was wrong?
This got me thinking and then I remembered that in some way I did actually know what would happen! Because I lived through a small instance of this happening and I will always remember what it felt like and how people reacted.
So, in the interests of writers everywhere who struggle with the idea of what people would do in the face of real-life magic, I want to tell you all a story from not so long ago. A story of people realising that something was amiss in their community and refusing to just leave things to continue. Because it seems that when there’s evil magic afoot, the result is that someone, somewhere, will eventually call in a solution.
This is the story of how the people of Carlisle made themselves a magic stone and then wondered if they’d cursed their whole city by accident.
It is also a true story.
The Cursed Stone of Carlisle
The year was 2001 and to celebrate the New Millennium, the local museum of Tullie House and Carlisle City Council commissioned and erected a granite sculpture; a great polished stone engraved with the words of a 16th century curse. For in that time the lands all along the border between England and Scotland were ravaged by clans of reivers who stole all they could and burned what they could not take, were blackmailers and highwaymen. They were daring people, who evaded capture by the law, and to this day many tales are told of their exploits, both good and bad.
But you can well imagine that such people were not looked kindly upon by the Church, who often lost precious bibles, chalices and plate to those thieving hordes. And in the year 1525 the Archbishop of Glasgow, a man by the name of Gavin Dunbar, finally lost his patience. He placed a curse upon the Border Reivers, and commanded that it be read aloud in every parish of the borderlands, so that all would hear and know that the curse had been cast.
Pretty spooky stuff.
Then along come artists Gordon Young and Andy Altman, who turn this terrible curse into a beautiful piece of artwork. It gets installed, with much ceremony in the under-ground entrance to Tully House, and then…
I feel that BBC Cumbria’s article at the time best summarised what came over the next five years:
“Livestock herds around the city on the border with Scotland were wiped out by foot-and-mouth disease, there has been a devastating flood, factories have closed, a boy was murdered in a local bakery and Carlisle United soccer team dropped a league.” [Full article]
Reporter Tanya Gold, from the Guardian, said it was like a “Universal horror film… or a Hammer lesbian-vampire tale” (which incidentally is remarkably specific, Tanya…). Either way, there was a definite sense that something was horribly wrong in the City of Carlisle since the Curse Stone was erected.
Small wonder, for many of the people living in the city of Carlisle are descended from strong reiver families; the Armstrongs, the Gordons, the Elliots and Bells, the Grahams, the Littles and the Ridleys. In the light of this fact, you kind definitely see the logic of these concerns. If the curse was placed on reivers and their families, then a whole city full of their descendants is one hell of a Risk Assessment fail!
Leslie Irving, a local man and editor of a Christian publication Bound Together gives a chilling idea of what the city was facing: “There is absolutely no doubt,” he said, “that when Dunbar laid the curse he did it in absolute sincerity. He wanted harm to come to the Reivers. The stone was created to attract tourists but what has it attracted? A baby held by his mother had his throat slashed in the town centre a few years ago. The man who created the project died. The man who opposed the project died. The only high-ranking Christian to speak out – the Bishop of Lancaster – died. The Archbishop of Glasgow died.”
Finally, it seems, enough was enough. In 2005, the amazingly-named local councillor Jim Tootle demanded that the 14-ton stone be removed and destroyed. As Councillor Tootle (never not calling him that) declared; “[s]ince the millennium project, there have been several disasters reaching biblical proportions. Many groups and individuals warned the council that the placing of a non-Christian artefact, based on an old curse on local families, would bring ill luck to the city.” [Full Article]
Local religious leaders were equally sure that something needed to be done. The Rev Kevin Davies, the vicar of Scotby and Cotehill with Cumwhinton, was adamant that the stone be destroyed;
“Clearly, the council holds matters spiritual in such trivial regard that it can cheerfully commission the equivalent of a loaded gun and regard it as a tourist attraction,” he wrote in his parish magazine. “Its spiritual violence will act like a cancer underneath the fabric of society. I don’t think anyone in their right mind could argue that this is what Cumbria needs just now.” [Full Article]
Now, Carlisle City Council were not thrilled by the idea, not least because removing the stone would, as the leader of the City Council, Mike Mitchelson explained, have “cost several thousands of pounds,” at a time when the city was already repairing the damage from the flooding.
Gordon Young’s response to the suggestion that his work had brought doom upon his home city was rather more passionate: “If I thought my sculpture would have affected one Carlisle United result, I would have smashed it myself years ago.”
For a while, it seemed that things were at a stalemate. There really were no good answers – do you spend time and money removing and destroying a piece of public art you spent a good deal of grant money erecting in the first place not four years before or do you take the chance that magic is real and you are in its evil presence? The people of Carlisle are a practical lot; if there’s a problem in front of you then don’t sit around pretending it’s not there. You get on with things and fix it. But how?
Thankfully all was not lost! For a compromise was proposed; the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev Graham Dow, rode in to the rescue, and broke the deadlock. A Man of God had placed this curse upon his people, and a Man of God could just come in and fix it!
“I understand that it is a piece of history and it is reasonable for it to be known about, but words have power and in as much as the curse wishes evil on people it should be revoked,” the Bishop said. “If it has to stay I would prefer a blessing to offset it. We can’t treat it as just a joke. People have differing views about spiritual power and its capacity to do evil, but I am sure that it is a real force.”
(Incidentally, does anyone else think that, in times of crisis, it is encouraging to know that the Church has apparently carefully hung onto all the old protocols for ‘We May Have An Evil Curse, Where’s The Undo Code?’)
With the backing of many denominations of Christian churches, Bishop Dow wrote to the Archbishop of Glasgow and requested that he come down to Carlisle to perform an exorcism on the stone. And indeed an exorcism was eventually performed, after which things did seem to settle down, and the stone has been allowed to stay.
But what was that curse which Gavin Dunbar placed upon the Border Reivers?
The brave and bold among you may read it here, but take heed, for who knows what dangers may await you…
The Bishop’s Curse
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.
“I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds. I (bring ill wishes upon) their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock. I (bring ill wishes upon) their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare.
“May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.
“May the fire and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise, stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forebear, and make amends.
“May the evil that fell upon cursed Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, needlessly, fall on them for the needless slaughter that they commit daily.
“May the malediction that fell upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, fall upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them, for their wicked sins.
“May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorra and all the lands surrounding them, and burned them for their vile sins, rain down upon them and burn them for their open sins. May the evil and confusion that fell on the Gigantis for their opression and pride in building the Tower of Babylon, confound them and all their works, for their open callous disregard and opression.
“May all the plagues that fell upon Pharoah and his people of Egypt, their lands, crops and cattle, fall upon them, their equipment, their places, their lands, their crops and livestock.
“May the waters of the Tweed and other waters which they use, drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharoah and the people of Egypt, preserving God’s people of Israel.
“May the earth open, split and cleave, and swallow them straight to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, who disobeyed Moses and the command of God.
“May the wild fire that reduced Thore and his followers to two-hundred-fifty in number, and others from 14,000 to 7,000 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, suddenly burn and consume them daily, for opposing the commands of God and Holy Church.
“May the malediction that suddenly fell upon fair Absolom, riding through the wood against his father, King David, when the branches of a tree knocked him from his horse and hanged him by the hair, fall upon these untrue Scotsmen and hang them the same way, that all the world may see.
“May the malediction that fell upon Nebuchadnezzar’s lieutenant, Olifernus, making war and savagery upon true christian men; the malediction that fell upon Judas, Pilate, Herod, and the Jews that crucified Our Lord; and all the plagues and troubles that fell on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants who slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, fall upon them for their cruel tyranny and murder of Christian people.
“And may all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began, for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, fall on them for their openly evil ways, senseless slaughter and shedding of innocent blood.
“I sever and part them from the church of God, and deliver them immediately to the devil of hell, as the Apostle Paul delivered Corinth. I bar the entrance of all places they come to, for divine service and ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of infant baptism, only; and I forbid all churchmen to hear their confession or to absolve them of their sins, until they are first humbled / subjugated by this curse.
“I forbid all christian men or women to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, going, standing, or in any other deed-doing, under the pain of deadly sin.
“I discharge all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths, made to them by any persons, out of loyalty, kindness, or personal duty, so long as they sustain this cursing, by which no man will be bound to them, and this will be binding on all men.
“I take from them, and cast down all the good deeds that ever they did, or shall do, until they rise from this cursing.
“I declare them excluded from all matins, masses, evening prayers, funerals or other prayers, on book or bead (rosary); of all pigrimages and alms deeds done, or to be done in holy church or be christian people, while this curse is in effect.
“And, finally, I condemn them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world. And their candle (light of their life) goes from your sight, as may their souls go from the face of God, and their good reputation from the world, until they forebear their open sins, aforesaid, and rise from this terrible cursing and make satisfaction and penance.”