The Bideford Witches

It was 30th July 2016 and crowds were flocking to see a play. Sorcery, suspicion, darkness and death, interspersed with gymnastic twirls and archaic words. The world premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre, London? No, the Bideford Witches at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter.

This play concerns the accusing, trial and eventual hanging of Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards. Charged with witchcraft, they were executed in Heavitree, Exeter in 1682. Along with Temperance Lloyd (hanged 1682) and Alice Molland (hanged 1685) they were the last people to be executed for witchcraft in England.

With the audience seated in-the-round, it begins with three women sat on the floor staring at a screen. Through this we witness the silhouetted hanging of Temperance Lloyd. The characters then introduce themselves through a series of short monologues, accompanied by the sorts of limb movement that can best be described as contemporary. Thereby setting the tone for the remainder of the show.

Mary and Susannah, the two beggar girls. Grace Thomas, the incessantly coughing victim of Temperance Lloyd. Joan Jones, the rabble-rousing villager, forever stirring suspicion through gossip. And William Herbert, a farmer whose crop failed after Mary was seen on his land.

In an early scene Grace collapses when talking to Mary and rumours quickly spread that she has been cursed. It is assumed that as Mary’s friend, and friend of the witch Temperance, Susannah is also responsible and so both are taken to Exeter for trial. Here they are variously accused of ‘giving gossip to the moths’, having an inordinate number of teats, conjuring magpies, having something living behind their teeth, as well as causing illness in Grace.

Naturally, these accusations are cast through the medium of dance: “I accuse you of being a witch!”, balletic leap and dramatic flick of the hand. Not to be outdone, when stood in the docks Mary responds with a flurry of inspired arm movements. “That ought to prove I ain’t a witch,” she seems to think.

There is hope they might be let off due to their impoverished state. However, fate and ‘the greater good’ intervene, and it was decided they would be executed anyway to prevent civil unrest. The play ends with the hanging of Mary and Susannah, and the final heartbeat being one last coughing fit from Grace. Proof that the witches were not the cause of her illness.

For this adaptation of the Bideford witches’ tale we can thank High Wall Theatre company, the self-declared specialists in telling stories through movement. Pointed hats off to them and their movements. The actors would stride across the stage exchanging pointed toes and dialogue, before leaping gaily into each others’ arms and exiting stage left. I found this somewhat distracting but perhaps I need to get out more.

On a set with no stage props the actors themselves became the props. Without the pirouettes it probably would have been oddly staccato and dull. And despite the overall bizarre feel, the story was ever grounded in a dark human reality. Albeit a reality in which people are prone to link hands and dance a spontaneous waltz when saying something profound. Just to be more, you know, compelling.

The shortness of the play and the intimacy of the setting enhanced the audience’s horror for these poor women dragged to their deaths by scapegoating.  I recommend it to anyone with the ability to go back in time and see it.

 

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Yew are in for a treat

Summer is here and so are the grockles (Devon for tourists). The Quay is teeming, and you have no desire to sit on the Cathedral green (which we all know was the site of a mass grave for plague victims). And so with a hot-blooded sense of adventure you make your way over the hill and, fighting through the eager crowds, catch a glimpse of the infamous Heavitree Arch.

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Yet Heavitree is no stranger to fame. To mark her diamond jubilee, the Queen was offered a cutting from the oldest tree in Exeter (a 5oo year old yew tree still standing in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels Church, Heavitree). Whether she accepted it or not is another matter. And to top it all, the Heavitree Yew was then named as one of the 50 most important trees in the country.

So what about the Heavitree Arch?

Well, it was designed by Michael Fairfax, the man responsible for the mirrory construction in the town centre (as well as sixty bollards in Exmouth). Along with Ralph Hoyte, a self-declared live-art, spatial and GPS poet who is credited with idea-initiating and then co-creating the world’s first audio-play for located media in an intelligent environment. Love poets and their way with words.

The verse on the Arch is that of Richard Hooker (16th century Anglican priest) and speaks of humanity and nature living harmoniously together.

However, the Heavitree Arch was riddled with controversy from its inception. This 2008 installation, which was originally said to have cost £70,000, in fact cost £172,000. Although to be fair it does light up nice and shiny at night time.

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Soon after the plan for the Arch was revealed, a mural of a white elephant (indicating something useless) along with the words ‘coming soon’ appeared on the shop wall designated to be the backdrop. This was shortly joined by the painting of a red-faced bureaucrat with his fingers in his ears (said to be mirrored on Exeter Council members).

A particularly grieved local resident took to Youtube and amateur elephant animation to voice his disapproval (flushing the Arch down the sound effect of a toilet). Nevertheless the Arch went up and the mural remained until eventually being painted over later the same year.

If you are feeling hard done by after hiking all the way out to Heavitree to see the Arch you have heard so much about, don’t worry for the party continues across the road.  Here we pick up the tale on the pavement with words from locals about growing up in Heavitree:

‘Everything was what we had you see’, so it starts and then winds its way up a central oak tree before finishing with: ‘Goal! Cliff Bastin scores six for Ladysmith then up the Horse & Jockey for a glass from the Heavitree Brewery’.

If you are struggling to take this all in, why not pop into the adjacent public toilets to get some head space. Reminisce about the good old days when Cliff Bastin would bring home the trophies.

Who ever said Exeter isn’t packed full of fun things to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Exortercist

To coincide with the release of the new Ghostbusters film I thought I’d embark on a bit of busting myself. Albeit locally, on foot, and without a vacuum cleaner on my back.

And so after consulting the extensive literature on the subject I packed a bag (water bottle, cheese sandwich, camera and crucifix) and headed off to Summer Lane pedestrian tunnel (Tunnel 14a to locals). Known to at least dozens of people as Exeter’s most haunted pedestrian tunnel.

Indeed, according to Exeter: Not a Guide:

“Loud banging noises, accompanied by groaning and screaming as if there is a fight going on, have been heard coming from the tunnel. When locals investigate there is nothing there, though the smell of blood has been reported.”

Sounds suspicious to me, so I lay in wait with my camera, crucifix at the ready. Some of my photos may shed fresh evidence on the source of the disturbing noises:

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I don’t wish to put the tunnel’s haunted status into question but even the national Paranormal Database doesn’t mention it. Rather, it lists 29 other haunted locations in Exeter. Most notably Marks & Spencer, where “phantom heavy breathing and light, poltergeist-like behaviour has been reported.” Not to mention the apparent ethereal coughing of the ghost of sir Walter Raleigh at the Royal Clarence Hotel. Exeter, it seems, is plagued by a host of mildly ill ghosts.

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Take that A.E. Bennet Town Clerk

The tunnel’s poltergeist obviously takes offense at the local council’s incessant interfering in what are clearly the personal affairs of an eternally restless soul. When smashing something up doesn’t quiet satisfy you, go ahead and mark a large cross through it. Job done.

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If you look closely it is impossible to disprove that this car is not being driven by a ghost

Blood famously smells like rusty iron. This tunnel is beneath a railway line. So obviously perfect cover for spooky haunting and spiritual bloody letting. So overt it’s covert.

It was after nearly ten minutes stood leaning against the wall of the tunnel, waiting to be violated by a spectral creature, that my prayers were answered and the Dementors came. Like all frustrated muggles, I have repeatedly watched the documentary film: ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’. But never did I expect to star in my very own scene.

I walked home sullen, pale and with all hope of ever feeling happy again gone. Although, on second thoughts, that could’ve been because I was hungry. And it was raining. I think I’ll leave the ghost hunting to the experts. Or someone with a bigger crucifix and a more imposing hoover.

 

 

 

Rowling with my Witches

-2 (1)It’s fitting that J K Rowling would gain inspiration from a City known as the site of the last Witchcraft executions in England. Probably more a coincidence actually, but let’s stick with fitting. Otherwise what else would students have to tell their parents as they drag them eagerly down Gandy Street: “Look dad this is Diagon Alley!” On the way pointing out the Freemasons Provincial Grand Lodge, and possibly a subtle mention of the Phoenix theatre ( you know just to heighten the mystery and give fuel to the imagination).

Then into the Firehouse to gawp at the wooden tables and dripping candlesticks: “Mum I promise you this is what she based the Leaky Cauldron on.” Oh, hang on a second, wasn’t it the Black Horse? Come on let’s pop in for a mid-afternoon snakebite to soak up the magical ambience…

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In 1682 Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles were accused of causing death and sickness through the black arts and subsequently hanged for witchcraft. After being tried for their crimes at Rougement Castle, the women were hanged in Heavitree. Lest we forget what real witches look like, these poor women (known as ‘the Bideford Three’) have been immortalised in a mural behind Exeter library.

However, their plight continues in the form of a petition calling on the government to pardon the women for their ‘crime’.

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The keen-eyed will notice that the deadline for the petition has already expired. Although it does mention in passing an intriguing tale of how King James I believed his cousin had tried to assassinate him with witchcraft. Who knows, maybe Guy Fawkes was a wizard.

But the witches’ memory is alive and well, with an upcoming play about them at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre. Stay tuned for a review.

 

 

 

Enough from Amman

Ramadan is over, and so am I. It has been an interesting time. In the first week I ripped a large hole in my trousers (destroyed my second pair a few days ago), and in celebration I then sat on, and broke, my glasses.

I studied for four weeks with a local poet called Mohammad Zaki. Or Zaki for short, which in Arabic means either cute or tasty although I can’t vouch for either.

Zaki’s work has been described by one critic as “a complicated form of pornography with a somewhat intriguing use of pronouns.” Knowing this, I would often resort to my get-out-jail-free card when asked for an interpretation, “well, I can see a sexual theme to this …”.

He introduced me to the work of his late friend Mohammad Tomaliah (regarded as Jordan’s pivotal satirical newspaper columnist, and author of a book on his writer friends entitled ‘the Enthusiastic Bastards’ – “of which I am one,” said Zaki with a wide grin).

Zaki, keen to show me how the Jordanian satirical mind works, explained how Mohammad would get fed up of people mis-pronouncing his surname:

“Mohammad Talyama, Mohammad Talmaliah, Mohammad Tamliya, they just couldn’t get it right, so he said enough, and decided to go and change his name.”

“Oh right, so what did he change it to?”

“Mahmoud Tomaliah”

Ha.

We would meet up in the French Institute in Jabal Luwebdeh. Home to Amman’s most cultured set of security guards, known to all as shilat el-ons (which translates to something like ‘the good time crew’). Nasir (chief of security) would reluctantly put down his Diwan of Rumi’s poetry to search my bag every day.

‘Someone else lives after you’, ‘When he sleeps’, ‘Absentmindedness’, ‘…’, ‘In the fall the sun is destroyed’, ‘A moment…and the words are broken’.

Just a few titles of Zaki’s poems, compiled into a diwan called: ‘patched on a blind piece of paper’. Me neither. But when should ignorance ever be a barrier. “I wrote it and I don’t understand it,” Zaki would say in an attempt to console me as I sat knee deep in paper, sweat and torn-out hair. “The important thing is to try and understand what it means to you, not what I intended it to mean.” At this point I would usually start crying .

Besides my introduction to Zaki’s form of mystical Sufi atheism, I have learned some other things too. The Freemasons rule the world (where did you find that out? where’s your proof? do you know who the Freemasons are or where the name comes from?). But where’s your proof they don’t? (ah very clever, I see what you did there).

Also that the use of the English word ‘mosque’ is very offensive to a particular sheikh from a small town in the Jordan Valley. We should be saying the Arabic word masjid. Why? Because the use of ‘mosque’ is insulting to Islam (said by a man who can’t speak a word of English). I asked him where he got this information from. This provoked an hour of incessant googling before eventually admitting that another sheikh had told him, probably.

After ten seconds of googling I found this link: https://muslimspeak.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/the-meaning-and-evolution-of-the-word-mosque/

It references a book entitled ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam’ and a particular passage which states: “The English term mosque is derived from the Spanish word for mosquito.”

It then embarks on a (in my opinion) pretty convincing linguistic exposition of why this is complete rubbish. In short the English word ‘mosque’ comes from ‘masjid’ but had to jump over many linguistic hurdles to get there.

After gently reminding some people to put themselves in my position, my impression of life in the insufferably hilly, Ammani neighbourhood of Tila’ al-Ali has been one of tolerance and acceptance. For example, I enjoyed nothing better than a bit of gentle ribbing by Sheikh Mahmoud whenever I wore short shorts (strictly for domestic purposes of course). And even a knowing smile and wink when he asked how the weekend away with my girlfriend was. There’s an understanding of differences, which is smoothed over with a bit of light banter than you move on and talk about V8 engines or something.

My experience living in a two bedroom flat with eight young men was, well, cosy. Evenings would be a race for the two beds and the one fan. If you lost out then it was the floor, a mattress and a face very much directed towards the window. A gust of wind would occasionally blow in and linger on your face, which was nice.

My mind has slowly deteriorated. A combination of general disillusionment and background existentialism, mixed with the occasionally blaring anger and frustration that however much Arabic you think you know there is always a day (or a week, or a month) where you have no clue what anyone is saying. Still that’s the fun of learning a language.

I am looking forward to a cup of milky tea, a bath and a story or two about oriental zombie death falafel robots. I may even write one myself.

When Amman needs a think


Too often Amman is the butt of other peoples’ jokes. The Milton Keynes of the Middle-East (because of its many roundabouts), is the main one doing the rounds right now.

But this ancient city of Roman ruins and Herculean temples is far more than the mind-numbingly dull cardboard box-shaped (and coloured) buildings that line its dirty, polluted streets. It is a city built on seven hills (what great city wasn’t), that now sprawls nineteen and deserves to be famous for more than just being near the Dead Sea. For instance it is also near a city whose name translates as ‘The Blue Town’, how fun is that!

Forget Petra and Wadi Rum. You are a modern, educated and thinking human being. You know that to really see a country you must mix with its people, get ripped off, have shouting matches with taxi drivers and lose your dignity in public. If only to have something entertaining to tell your friends over a celebratory craft beer on your return. You left home searching for something, an idea perhaps, or the ending to somebody else’s poem. You have a notebook and a camera but need somewhere for inspiration. And, more importantly, you need it to be public so other people can see how earnest you are. Or how nice your sandals are.

With this sort of traveler in mind, and with Jordan likely to remain popular as a ‘stable’ Middle-Eastern tourist destination, where best to go in downtown Amman when in need of a good think?

Street book stallsa place to buy thoughts

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Whether you are after an Arabic copy of Mein Kampf or a used Christmas card you can find these and much more at the various book vendors of downtown Amman. All at a low price, and not just the ones that are apparently held together by their own fading will power. All are generally sold by an old man who appears to be more book than person.

Shoman library –  a place to read thoughts

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The Iraqi Embassy, kind of puts the library to shame

A public library that looks like a bank. Probably because it is sponsored by one. Opposite the Iraqi Embassy (whose entrance is beautifully modeled on the gates of Babylon – although be prepared for an angry response from the guard when you try and take a photo. Why didn’t you just paint it beige then?). Outside the library is a small cabinet labelled as a street library, where you can swap a book for a book (surprisingly still full). Inside you’ll find free wifi, ample tables and a central island full of plants and palm trees stretching all the way up to a clear glass ceiling. Pure air mixed with the smell of a good book, nothing better when in need of refuge from the sun.

Darat al-Funun a place to sit and sip in thought

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Set on the steep, downtown-facing slopes of Jabal Luwebdeh, Darat al-Fanoon is the wandering traveler’s haven. Home to the Palestinian space agency, terrace cafe with views over the hills of central Amman (occasionally accompanied by a lute player), three art exhibitions, ancient ruins of a 6th century church, shade, greenery, a bubbling fountain, cats in various states of disrepair, and a cosy, upstairs library said to be where Lawrence of Arabic wrote some of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Perfect. What is more, entrance is free.

Downtown poema place to stare in thought

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It reads:

Let us imagine
The rivers burning in the distance,
We hear the silence, then suddenly
The music comes towards us,
To kill us,
So that the dance returns stronger
Beneath the white sun

Inspired by the words of Moroccan poet, Mohammad Baz, and turned into street art by artist Abdullah Karroum on the side of a derelict multi-story car park as part of Darat al-Funun’s exhibition ‘Expressions on riverbanks and other activities’.

Jordanian website Aramram interviewed some people on the street about this poem. Most didn’t realise it was there. But now you will. How great is that. And you can discourse on its many nuances at length to those who couldn’t care less, and would you please buy this bottle of perfume.

This list would probably be complete with a nice restaurant or some such eatery, but Ramadan has its restrictions. Food for thought…

Amman in a taxi

This is my translation of a blog post by Osama Romoh (original post: http://osamaa.com/jordantaxi.php)

When you say “taxis of Jordan”, what comes to mind is the sheer extent of progress and prosperity in Jordan. Your imagination will soar until it reaches the outskirts of that philosopher’s ‘perfect city’. But then you put it into reverse and are suddenly back in a dried riverbed in Amman. Anyhow, let’s have a look at the different types of taxi drivers in Jordan:

The quiet taxi:

The driver of this taxi is not prepared to tire himself out talking to you. He’s chilled to the max and doesn’t want to disturb or distract you. No, come on, but he clearly looks like a tender fellow right? He doesn’t say a word the entire journey, not even Mr Bean managed that in his last film. Though he just might, in the middle of the road, break the silence with: “down here mate?” He says it in a way so frightening it chills you to the core. But that’s fine, you cope with it…Word of advice: it’s better you answer the question so he doesn’t throw you from the car.

The pimped up taxi:

No one else but this guy knows the ladies of Amman. He loves himself (and no one else), naturally he has done everything worth doing and, well, he is just the best. Don’t go thinking he will give you any space to talk, but be ready, for he will surely tell you all about Sally, Lena, Tamara and Christina. You may feel like you are in the middle of a soap opera. But then he will lean in close, take your hand and squeeze it (in a moral assurance kind of way). If he does this, don’t move or say a word, stay natural. But if he tightens his grip then open the door and get out. It’s better you don’t carry on.

The Doctor taxi:

Amman is full of this kind of taxi driver. He tends to have a B.A. or a PhD but didn’t find work, poor guy, and so went to work in a taxi (or so he will tell you of course). He may say that he used to be a company director in Dubai, but all he really knows is how to count pennies. Even looking at his face you won’t find any answers, this guy’s an enigma. Anyway, just tell him you need to arrive quickly and hope to God he’s not an author of a book nobody has heard of.

The badboy taxi:

Now we’ve come to the main man himself. The driver of this taxi does Karate, Taekwondo, Judo, pumps iron and plays chess. You can pick him out by his razor blade-scarred face and being the sort of guy who looks happiest when using his fists. Among his hobbies: handbrake turns and leaning-out-the-window driving, the sort that really draws attention (especially in a wedding procession). Important advice: try to not get in his taxi, and if you do, God forbid, then pretend to be an idiot. If he starts effing and blinding don’t try and put up resistance, just say: “ok sir”. But if he ups the swearing, then join in and start cursing yourself with all your God-given strength. Swear words hurt less than that fist.