The Past Stays



   The Watkins Book of English Folk Tales. Neil Philip (Watkins Books 2022)


Gaiman tinged and dedicated (just as it should be)
To the great Alan Garner; Neil Philip curates and re-authors
English Folk Tales from their source. With Watkins Books
The new realm, or finely bound kingdom within which
The adventurous modern reader and still shining past

Can discourse.  For time is swirled here, stirred in a soup
Mixed by muses, as Beanstalking Jack bobs in water,
Alongside Clever and Lazy, and the Giant Killer, too,
As froth forms like mist from the lake that lets all arcane
Creatures through it, from the Skillywidden,

To The Pale Rider, and if white pages are mist,
This list warms. For there is the familiar here in this
Re-publishing of the 1992 Penguin edition, as well as
Golden endorsements from Marina Warner, Neil Gaiman
And Philip Pullman, authors whose hold on the idea

Of legend navigates for a rudderless generation,
Just how the mantle of reader helps to substantiate
All that’s true. Ours is an old isle of elves, sprites, shadows,
Phantoms. The fantastical forming from a shift in the air,
Or star slant, which this collection reflects, just as  it did

Thirty years ago, as the power of these ancient voices
Resonates just as strongly as contemporary song,
Anthem, chant. From their chapbook starts to this
Handsome edition, Philip’s erudite introduction tracks
Travel and troll through the hill; from their oral births,

To these written relations, each tale is a nation,
And a nature of course, where spells spill. Philip charts
It all, as he examines each earthly origin. Each tale
Has its own reference number and founding source,
As facts stun.  And the variations accrue, either

By studying the 19th century folklorist Joseph Jacobs,
Or by detailing how some of these stories were
Transcribed after hearing what some entirely other voice
Had begun.  Or revived. Or relayed.  As all Folk tales become
Grounded rumour growing and gaining a sense of some

Of our lost mystery. For these were rueful warnings,
Sign-posts as well as reminders of rules we once lived by,
In places like Alderley Edge way back when. Stones seeped
With tones as pilgrims progressed across forest. You really
Could get blood from them, whether in a Sussex street,

Or wild fen. People like William Thompson were our guides,
Through the Denham Tracts, or David Naitby’s diary;
When men chased pigs to charm dinners out of unsuspecting
Wives and where ghosts boggled the mind. Ours was a panoply
Of invention. In which each dark image made pre-tech ridden

Man feel alive. Neil Philip speaks of Ruth Tongue, praising her
And all storytellers and it is that tradition that while it survives
He supports, above all others it seems, making this book
Positively talismanic, as he efficiently orders each growl from
The grave through word-sport. From a Lincolnshire farmhouse

Servant’s Glass Mountain, to Liverpool’s De Little Fox wonder-child
Genre, ‘the ole formel times’ prove persuasive as abandon
And art filter through; we hear the voices which heard,
Housed and perhaps decorated, the stories now shining
From this magical tome. Pages of ghosts, and unearthly

Performance, or that which comes from the rustic,
Straight to your street and cleansed home.  Place this book
To your ear and you will hear the past like an ocean,
Held in the shell-space or between its bound frame,
As pictures from the past are preserved, pied and painted,

Whether by Tom Tit Tot, or Suffolk’s old gypsy woman,
Establishment ladies collating below stairs or steppe
Stories, as they would stones at the beach for sun games.
From Cap O’ Rushes to The Ass, The Table and The Stick’s
West and East Riding versions, we get to trawl across country

With this net of words, fun as fish, as whether they chill,
Or charm, cajole, or beguile us, to immerse yourself
In these forays is to grant the oldest of us a child’s wish.
This is a necessary purchase if you want some form
Of future and if you wish to cast light on a present

Which falls into muck more and more.  Take hold of this
Gold from the field, the village square and the boundary
Between the detritus of Heaven and your seemingly
Solid floor. Mr Vinegar lives. A bonnie lad’s golden ball
Begins rolling. Over 400 pages, from The Flying Childer,

To The Pear Drum, amaze. Here is a world to be won.
And a land to be let into your bedroom.  Is your lounge
Or living room truly living if you do not engage?
These dreams glaze not only the eye. But the ear as well.
You can hear them. The Watkins Book of English Folk Tales

Is daring us to continue what Alan Garner’s still writing.
His new book Treacle Walker is first tasted here.

The past stays.



                                                                   David Erdos 27/9/22  


The Watkins Book of English Folk Tales is available from October 11th 2022




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