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Life in the big smoke

Some thoughts for the equinox

At the end of our holiday in Finland earlier this year we spent a couple of days in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. We hiked through forests and spent several kilometers staring at the narrows paths between the bilberry bushes and the moss, trying not to stumble over any of the red pine roots criss-crossing the ground. We climbed up watch towers and looked out over a never ending forest. The air was so clean it felt thick and satisfying, like a fine meal for the lungs.

The days were cloud-covered and sometimes it rained. The temperature hovered around ten degrees centigrade. We stopped by a cold and windy lake on one of our hikes and watched three otters playing in the grey waves, slinky shadows underneath the water. Every now and then a head popped up, watching us watching them.

For a bit more than a week after we came back to London I dreamed of these forests. When I woke up in the morning the only thing on my mind were the trees. Every year I feel more and more homesick when I come back to London. It’s as if I miss the land itself, the forests and the air and the water. And I kept dreaming about trees.

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Little by little the memory fades and I sink back into the reality here in London. We have a house to renovate and decorate and there is a lot of other work to do. We’re in the process of emptying two rooms upstairs and have set up camp in the living room downstairs for the first time since we moved in. These last few weeks are the first we’ve been able to use the fire place we installed at the beginning of the year. We found some boxes of old wood at the studio and have been keeping the fire going most nights. That reminds me of home. Even though this is a tame fire, in a perfect and sealed modern stove, a different beast to the smoky, fierce flames in the open fire place at the summer house.

Yesterday we had a fire. Yesterday was the equinox and the days will grow shorter now. That made me think of this Sami story I read while we were in Lapland. It’s about a pagan woman, Mariska, and the priest who tries to convert her. I found the story on this blog.

The priest says, “My poor child, you are now the only pagan left in this region”. Mariska agrees and turns around and sends a kiss to the Sun. She answers, “When you are old like me, you will like the warm Gods”. The priest continues: “But what happens, when the Sun disappears in the winter, behind the clouds?” “One of Beaivvás´ sons sits upon my wood oven. I give him firewood to eat.”, replies Mariska.
“I thought that wood is also one of your Gods. I have seen how respectfully you treat the bark and use it in your handcrafts. How can you put your God in the fire?”, asks the priest. “Only a God is worthy to be food for another God”, answered Mariska, and then she explained that she prefers a God that can be cut down, like a tree, instead of a God she cannot see nor touch.

So this winter I will keep feeding the fire, thinking of home.

Why England is the world’s most haunted place

It’s been called the first media circus. The country is at war and a huge storm hits London, overturning boats on the Thames and smashing windows, but what really mattered in the spring of 1762 was the ghost craze on Cock Lane.

You can visit the narrow alley today, a clean and sanitised short-cut between office blocks in Farringdon. Back in the 18th century it was a very different street near the infamous Smithfield market. The stench of cattle and blood must have hung in the air. Hundreds of animals were brought to Smithfield every week, some were sold and some were slaughtered. Before the cattle market the square had been the site of brutal executions. Over the centuries death burrowed its way into cobbled stones and the bricks around Smithfield.

In 1759 a young couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes, moved in with the Parsons family on Cock Lane*. But all was not quite what it seemed with the youngsters. They weren’t married. Kent had in fact previously been married to Lynes’s sister, who had died in childbirth. The pair seems to have fallen in love after her death, but the laws at the time prevented them from marrying.

The Parsons were struggling to make ends meet, but offering the couple a room wasn’t the only way Richard Parsons, a church clerk with a drink habit, was able to buy rounds for his friends at the Wheat Sheaf. William Kent was a loan shark and lent Parsons twelve guineas.

A teenage girl and a ghost

The Parsons had two young daughters and Fanny Lynes struck up a friendship with twelve-year-old Betty. When Kent was away on one of his many business trips Fanny and Betty shared a bedroom on the first floor. And that’s when the hauntings started.

Knocks and scratches could be heard in the room, but no logical explanation could be found for the mysterious sounds. Fanny Lynes became convinced it was her dead sister come back to punish her for running away with Kent.

The noises and scratches became louder and more pervasive. Eventually Kent and Lynes were evicted from the house. It was a decisions that was set to have tragic consequences.

The heavily pregnant Fanny Lynes caught smallpox and died a few weeks before giving birth. The hauntings then intensified. Betty Parsons started suffering from convulsive fits. The Parsons decided to accuse William Kent of poisoning Fanny Lynes. It was now her ghost that haunted the house.

“Scratching Fanny”

Things escalated. The Parsons started charging for access to séances in the house. The ghost became known as “scratching Fanny”. Celebrities came. Rowdy, drunk séances were held night after night around Betty Parsons bed. William Kent tried to clear his name. Fanny Lyne’s coffin was disinterred and opened. The popular press took sides, some accused Kent of murder. Hundreds of people gathered on Cock Lane every night to get a glimpse of the ghost.

After much excitement it turned out Betty Parsons had been creating the sounds by beating her chest and knocking on a piece of wood under her bedclothes. She was taken away from her family to be examined by older male “experts”. Several people were jailed, among them Richard Parsons and his wife.

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“The most haunted country in the world”

I’ve been reading books about British ghosts. I’d stumbled across the saying “the English see more ghosts than any other people” and I wanted to find out more. Was there anything to the suggestion that England is the most haunted country in the world?

One of the best books that fell through my letterbox was “A Natural History of Ghosts” by journalist Roger Clarke. He’s had a life long fascination with all things spooky and became the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research. The Cock Lane ghost story is one of many in his book.

Clarke writes with both excitement and detachment about hauntings, séances and spooky legends of the British isles. He explores how both seeing and hunting ghosts has become important to the tourism industry in the UK. This is a country where the mention of a ghost might bring more visitors to a pub, a hotel or a castle. Perhaps that’s why the English see so many of them.

Nostalgia and boredom

Ghost sightings become more common in times of crisis. During the First World War some Brits had something called a time slip experience. People claimed to have seen an imprint of a more comfortable past, a manor that had burned down appeared to people who walked by the site at the right time of the night, the sounds of old parties echoed through time.

This hints at what is perhaps Clarke’s most interesting explanation of why the English see so many ghosts. Nostalgia and class.

“For most of the last few hundred years, only the upper and lower classes tended to believe in them. The middle classes have always deplored the idea of ghosts … Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.

The twin polarities of the haunted British landscape make it clear: the haunted pub and the haunted stately home … If you were poor, it was because you hoped for the future; and if you were aristocratic and rich, it was because you trusted in the past.”

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*Yes readers with a dirty mind, I know this whole thing sounds like a ghost story from the Viz.