Friday, 16 February 2018



Mankind's love/hate relationship with the wolf.

At some far distant time and in a far distant place, no-one knows quite when or where but probably about 15,000 years ago in Central Asia, a hunter-gatherer adopted an abandoned baby wolf and raised it up. Very likely he took it home and his ‘wife’ and children cared for it. Under their nurturing it became a friend and an asset, possibly as an aid to hunting, possibly as a guard to their hearth, possibly as a warning which kept other animals off. As it was an asset other members of the tribe tried to do the same thing and gradually, as the tame-wolf population grew and interbred they became less fierce and slowly developed into dogs. 

That is quite a thought—just 15,000 years ago there were no dogs, just wolves! 

With that in mind it is not surprising that humankind has always been fascinated by wolves. I will admit, right now, that if I had to choose a favourite animal it would be the wolf. I don’t know why, I just admire a lot of things about them. I have obviously seen them in zoos and on TV documentaries and a magic moment was when I saw one in the wild. I described the experience in my book of animal folk tales ‘Where Dragons Soar’:

(Where Dragons Soar and other animal folk tales of the British Isles published by The History Press 2016. ISBN 978 0 7509 6186 8 )

“One of my own most magical animal experiences was (almost) meeting a wild wolf in a forest in Central Europe. It was high summer and my wife, Sue, and I had stopped for a picnic in a glade half-way up a mountain. Suddenly everything seemed to go quiet and across the glade behind Sue strolled a wolf—out of the trees, across a few yards of open grass, and then it disappeared again. It did not look our way, although I am sure it knew we were there. It just walked by, minding its own business, almost as if we were not worthy of its notice. Sue knew nothing about it until later when I told her. People have suggested that it was a dog but wolves and dogs look and move very differently as you will know from all those films where they use German Shepherds as very poor stand-ins for wolves!”

The other side of the coin though, is that ever since people ceased to be hunter-gatherers and started keeping domestic animals they have been trying to annihilate wolves. There were bounties placed on their heads from the Middle Ages onwards and by the end of the 19th century there were very few left in Europe. The same happened in America. Since the 1950s though, they have been staging a comeback, and it was reported recently that one had been seen in Belgium so they are now present in every country in mainland Europe! Numbers are still small, of course, but they are growing.
My meeting described above was in Austria which is a crossroads for the different wolf populations when travelling across the continent.
My daughter, Lucy, heard wolves at night in Maramures in Romania where they are quite common.
It’s hard to say when wolves became extinct in Britain for they died out at different times in different parts of the country. Wolves probably died out in England, through a deliberate effort to rid the country of them,  by around 1500—except perhaps in the wildest parts of the Peak District. In Wales it was later and in Scotland it was probably not until the 18th century although one was reported in 1888. But, reports of wolves have continued long past these dates. Could they be true or are they wishful thinking—like the Beast of Bodmin and other ABCs? (Alien Big Cats) In my book I told stories of several wolves which may have been real, imaginary, escapees from collections or even werewolves!

The Wolf of Allendale (in Northumberland) is supposed to be a true story of events in 1904. But it’s a mystery. Was there a wolf? Was it a dog? Or was it a case of mass hysteria and panic? An Almost Human Beast starts off in much the same way and seems like a simple account of a wolf or dogs attacking a flock of sheep but as the story progresses we hear that “the creature rose on to its hind legs and peered in through the window. Its eyes were blue and it looked intelligent and human.”
This leads on to the much longer story of the Derbyshire Werewolf.
There aren’t only werewolves, of course, but also werefoxes, as in the famous song Reynardine.

It is now accepted that there is a supernatural element to that song but it is actually a recent addition. The song, when it was originally written in the early 1700s probably, was a simple tale of a young woman falling in with a highwayman. It was Bert Lloyd who changed the whole mood of it by adding the line “His teeth so bright did shine”. Amazing what so small a change can do!
There have been moves to reintroduce wolves into their previous range. The most famous reintroduction is probably at Yellowstone in the USA. By adding wolves they were able to transform the landscape and take the environment back to something like what it was before mankind wrecked it. The wolves kept the deer numbers down, the deer didn’t eat the young saplings, tree cover grew back, other animals and birds returned... and so on. Similar results have been found when beavers have been reintroduced in parts of the UK. 

Could we bring wolves back to UK?
I don’t know. I don’t think we have enough large areas of wild land away from farms and human habitation. Wolves need a large range. They travel. They are also lazy and might be tempted to feast on sheep rather than go to the bother of chasing deer. And with the press which they have had over the past 1000 years I can’t imagine many English people welcoming them into their neighbourhood! 

Oh Granny, What big teeth you have!
All the better to eat you with, my dear.  

You can buy Pete's book 'Where Dragons Soar' 
and the CD Blue Dor by Popeluc on which Pete sings Reynardine from the Shop page of Pete's web site:

There are a lot more videos on his You Tube channel: Pete on You Tube

And you might be interested in Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine which he edits: Facts & Fiction


Thursday, 14 September 2017


Justice in Georgian England

For many years I’ve enjoyed singing a song called Fanny Blair which was collected in Somerset by Cecil Sharp in the early years of the 20th century. Bert Lloyd sang a powerful version of it and I recorded it on my 1999 CD ‘Mearcstapa’. It is a song which you cannot sing casually. I only do it if I feel the mood and the audience are right. The subject matter is difficult and some people disagree with it, some even find the song offensive—although I don’t think they would if they stopped to think more about it and the times it comes from. However, if you don’t feel upset by it at all then you aren’t listening carefully enough!

The song is set, probably, in the early 1800s although it isn’t time-specific. That means it coincides nicely with Winston Graham’s  Poldark books. When I started to think about the two together and they each cast a light upon the other.

Those of you in the UK will know that the recent Poldark TV series was hugely successful and will continue next year. I enjoyed it until I started reading the books. There is far more in the books than on the TV. That’s understandable when you consider there are twelve longish books written in two batches over a period of nearly 50 years. As well as telling a good story they are also remarkably well researched and are historically and socially accurate. They tell the story of the Poldark family—small scale gentry whose income is derived mainly from tin and copper mines in Cornwall. They are set about 20 years either side of 1800.

(The current (Aug 2017) issue of Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine, which I edit, has a nice piece about the music in the series by Mike O’Connor who was an adviser.)

Fanny Blair tells the story of Henry Higgins of Branfield who is suddenly pulled from his bed one Sunday morning and taken off to prison accused of raping an 11 year old girl (Fanny Blair) although he says:  ‘I never had dealings with her in my time/so now I’m condemned for another man’s crime.’

Higgins, whose occupation is not specified but is obviously a simple working man, has only his own word as his defence. A ‘Jackie McNeal of Newcastle’ could, apparently, prove his innocence but he has mysteriously disappeared! 

Higgins is brought to trial—a trial that is somehow orchestrated or influenced by Squire Vernon. At the trial Fanny Blair is stood upon ‘a green table’ to give her testimony—a thing which accentuates her youth and innocence,  and ‘The lies that she swore to I’m ashamed for to tell, But the judge he spoke up quick saying, ‘You’ve told it to us well.’ 
So, no witnesses, no evidence gathering, no cross examination or defence for Higgins, just Fanny’s story which is cut off quickly by the judge.

Higgins is, of course, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

The final verse of the song is the one with which people have the greatest difficulty and I can understand why:

On the day that young Higgins was condemned for to die/The people rose up with a murmuring cry, saying/“Well catch her, we’ll crop her, she’s a perjuring little whore/Young Higgins is innocent, of that we’re very sure.” 

We are all, sadly, aware of the outcries against child molesters and paedophiles which have happened in recent times so for the local populace to come out in defence of Higgins and call Fanny a ‘perjuring little whore’ is something we find shocking. At the end of WW2 shaving the heads of women who had collaborated with the Nazis in France was a shocking enough form of assault and degradation but to threaten that on an 11 year old girl is almost beyond belief.

Fanny is only the scapegoat though. The anger is really aimed at the ‘justice’ system and the individuals who sit and condemn their fellow men. It is a broken system which, although called ‘justice’, is definitely not that.

At which point we will return to Poldark:

The picture the Poldark books paint is of the huge disparity in wealth and lifestyle between the classes of Georgian England (a gap we are rapidly approaching again in 2017!) is almost unbelievable. Those in power live a life of comfort with every benefit of civilisation which was available at the time while the ‘ordinary people’ just about manage to keep themselves alive—and not always that.

Many of the houses of the well-to-do of that period survive today and are much sought after. With the addition of electricity and plumbing they make beautiful houses. I personally love their style and would live in one if I could afford it! The worker’s houses, however, were not much superior to animal sheds—just one or two rooms, a ladder to the upper floor if there was one, an earth floor and no glass in the windows!

Money and position also bring power, and society at that time was built on a rigid system of class and manners. The higher up the social scale you were the more you were at liberty to do almost anything and get away with it—as long as you didn’t upset someone who was your equal or better, of course, in which case you might be either ostracised or have to fight a duel.

Justice was dispensed almost on a whim by the local landowners who got themselves elected to Parliament or made JPs in order, very often, to protect their own interests and to line their own pockets even further.
This is illustrated by the difference in attitude of Ross Poldark and George Warleggan. The former is happy to live a quiet life and does not want to take on the responsibility although he eventually gives in to persuasion, the latter wheedles his way into becoming a JP.
So, if often happened that a lawbreaker, perhaps a poacher or petty thief—would find himself being judged and sentenced by the very person he had offended against. The Gentleman was literally, accuser, judge, jury and (almost) executioner! This was the situation in which Henry Higgins found himself. He was the victim of a ‘broken’ system. Fanny Blair was probably assaulted by someone but was it by Henry Higgins or was he a convenient scapegoat? If a member of the gentry was guilty of a crime against a little girl (Squire Vernon?) he was in a perfect position to offer her family a bribe, have an innocent, powerless man accused of the crime, and get his ‘mates’ on the bench to pass a guilty sentence about which no-one could do anything.
No wonder the populace rose ‘with a murmuring cry’!

A reviewer of the CD captured the situation perfectly:

PETE CASTLE: MEARCSTAPA : It's been a while since I listened to traditional folk and I'd forgotten how wickedly dry and unsentimental these songs can be. The revelation on this album is "FANNY BLAIR", a lean, angry piece of early 19th century tabloid journalism which deals with the case of a young man hanged for raping a child. The balladeer takes the side of the accused and threatens vigilante justice on the "perjuring little whore" who sent him to the gallows. It's fearsome and troubling and Castle ends it with a series of isolated chords that sound like question marks. Was Henry Higgins really innocent? How do his protestations weigh against the vivid image of the eleven year Fanny stood on a table to deliver her damning testimony to the court? It's a mighty piece of work, as timeless as the Oresteia and as up to date as this Sunday's News of the World.                         [Tony Grist]