A little bit of magic?
Something was definitely going on with The Snow Witch.
At the novel’s launch in 2017, a friend of mine, Eilis Philips sang a song inspired by an earlier draft of the book. A song of snow, witchcraft and the wicked things people do, it touched on the many points in the story with a gentle quiet inwardness. People at the launch who had read the ARCs actually gushed about it in a way I had never experienced before. It seemed to get in people’s heads.
A few months later, long before Roy Hanney came to me, I was approached by Lucille Scott, with a proposal: could she run an arts exhibition based on the novel?
It was kind of mind-blowing, to be honest. (I’m sure there will come a point where I’m over the delight, pleasure and surprise at this, but I’m not quite yet, so please allow me to enjoy this!)
Lucille is a well-respected blacksmith, with whom I’d collaborated previously on a World War One project. For that project, she had asked me to come up with some words for an idea to commemorate the work of the women munitions workers during those dark days. Some of these women were known as the “canary girls”, because their skin turned yellow from the chemicals they were in contact with. Many of those women were taken seriously ill due to chemical poisoning. Some were killed in explosions at the factories.
I was interested by the idea of the shell connected with warfare and death, and the shell as the delicate enabler of new life that was laid by birds – perhaps by canaries… It spoke to me of the dual role of women in the war, both as mothers and creators of death.
Lucille pointed out that these women were also doing what were traditionally seen as “men’s jobs” – welding and creating the shell casings, as well as packing them – and once again this opened further ambiguity to do with their societal roles at the time.
We worked together on the idea of trench art – a common use for the hundreds of millions of spent shells that were decorated and sold as souvenirs during the war, and together hit upon a mother nestling inside an original World War One shell casing, nursing a baby shaped like a bullet. Lucille is a great craftswoman, and her final conception included repoussé work showing a woman welding and Morse code on the on the shell case, with the shape echoed by the woman inside. Lucille used traditional trench art skills to make it.
The final piece was displayed at the Ypres Peace Monument https://www.yprespeacemonument.com/lucille-scott/ in 2016, and later at Hereford Cathedral. It is excellent work.
With this history between us, of course, I agreed to her idea of the Snow Witch Art Exhibition. Her reasoning behind it was simple: “I’m a blacksmith,” she told me. “I would love to do an art exhibition on my own, but it would mean making at least a dozen works. I don’t think I’ll have the time to do it. If we get more people in, we could really make something of it.”
So it was that we had a few drinks and we brainstormed ideas. And then, at Hallowe’en 2018, I gave a presentation to 40 Portsmouth artists, highlighting themes from the book.
Once again the response was great. People loved the book. And once again I wondered what was in my book that got into people’s heads in this way? I’d never had anything like this happen to me before – and desperately wanted to bottle it and use it again!
At this stage, I wondered if the art exhibition and the transmedia story of Roy’s would somehow clash… it was all due to take place in 2019 over Hallowe’en for Dark Fest – the celebration of the dark, strange and macabre that occurs in Portsmouth at this time of the year.
I had no idea that the two events would become a part of something much larger. But that is for another blog post!