Chris Blake grew up in the United Kingdom, and was lucky enough to experience the tale end of the fading glory of one of the old rural oral traditions, the social life of the west country pubs of North Devon.
“My formative years were spent in Woolacombe, North Devon, one of the great surf beaches of the world, framed by spectacular scenery and seascapes, including the notorious Morte Stone, the tidal rock in the rip that the wreckers used in olden days to trap ships and sweep their crews onto Rockham Beach, where the women of the village waited on the tideline to pitchfork the sailors back into the undertow. Folk memories of that time still exist in some of the local place names: Beaconsfield where they hobbled the donkey to set the false light, Slaughtersfield at the back of the cliffs where the women used to wait, and Mortehoe of course, death ahoy in the old French.
Our farmhouse itself was steeped in history, its beams and rafters were oak from ships’ timbers. Outside repairs often breached old middens to reveal clay pipes and broken brandy bottles from the days of smugglers. There was a story in the village that the steading was haunted, and no one would cross the fields to visit after dark. The tale went all the way back to the Armada, and a Catalan galleon that cleared the tip of Scotland to run south down the Irish Sea, and blow into the Bristol Channel to fetch up on the Morte Stone on the incoming tide. A Spanish lady was swept overboard and washed in at a small cove known as Bennet’s Mouth, where she scrambled up the contours of the valley drawn to the candles in the farmhouse windows. No one was home, everybody was either on Morte Point or the beach chasing wreck, but the door was open and she entered in to climb the winding stairs of the turret. She crawled into the first bedroom at the top, and climbed onto the bed. When they returned in the early hours the occupants found her there, dead from hypothermia and exhaustion.
To this day certain visitors can sense her, more often than not the very young or the very old, those closest to the threshold of life and death. It’s a darkening of the deepest shadows in the furthest corner, and a sense of bitter chill. Or sometimes the guest wakes up imagining a cold clammy body sharing the bed, damp with salt and sea spray, and raddled with the smell of wrack. The villagers called her ‘The White Lady.’ They say they stripped her of her gown and jewels but left her shift. As I got older my parents made me sleep in there in the high tourist season so that they could rent out my room, but I never saw her.
There was a wonderful tradition of storytelling in the local pubs. Another legend in the village was about one of the knights who slew Thomas a Beckett. Mortehoe was his manor and after the killing he was exiled there by the king. The story goes that he was never allowed back to court and lived out the rest of his days in the parish of Lee. When he died, he was laid to rest in the churchyard of the old Norman church. During the war the locals drinking in the pub, awash with cider, whisky and dreams of plunder, decided to dig him up to share out his treasure. But the grave was empty except for a lead lining in the shape of the coffin. There were no jewels, no grave goods, not even the remnants of a sword, and no bones. It had been centuries. Apparently, the ringleader claimed the lead, and used it as a trough to feed his pigs. Which probably would have poisoned them, and eventually him.
I went onto to read Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Literature at the University of East Anglia. I’d be lying if I claimed my choice to be inspired by the legends from home, but it makes a good story. In any case I fell in love with the Dark Ages, that time of history where civilisation was fading into shadow, the imperial order breaking down and technology going backwards. The Anglo-Saxons themselves could only envisage the architecture of the Romans as ‘the work of giants.’ There’s this pervasive sense of loss and mystery, underwritten by the unyielding courage needed to face both the unknown past and the fickle future.
A chance encounter with a friend from Melbourne led me and my family on an adventure to Australia. Our travels inspired me to write ‘Ratpackers’, a children’s story about a bunch of rodents crossing the Nullarbor. Eventually I found a home in Tasmania, another place of extraordinary landscapes but also tainted by a dark history. While working as a teacher in the old Bridgewater High School, its first incarnation before the kids burnt it down, a class debate about ethics morphed into the idea for a story about genetic engineering. We talked about civilisation and what makes a safe society, and we got onto Law, and we agreed that the most important law in the Judeo-Christian tradition is not to kill each other. Then someone pointed out that although legally we didn’t agree with murder, we seemed to manage it on a regular basis. Then someone else in the class proposed that with all the recent research into the Human Genome we could edit our genes to eradicate the urge to kill, in much the same way as we could programme safety into a robot? (Asimov has written on this with his proposed ‘Laws of Robotics’). However, then I thought, why would conservatives ever agree to a compulsory edit of their children’s genes? They would see it as an interference into natural evolution (a divine right). But if in the future this ever happened, how would the progressives, those who’ve risked becoming engineered, ever be able to defend themselves?
Then one of the girls said they’d find a way, but it would require intelligence not testosterone, and that’s how ‘Erin’s Sword’ was born.”