June 25, 2022
Many parts of the world have legends about underground sleepers that will awake in an hour of need, and Britain has its fair share of such legends (including the North West, although not, as far as I know, the Wirral), often featuring King Arthur and a company of slumbering knights.
The flip side of these legends are the so called 'chained Satans', sleepers that will wreak havoc on the world if awoken. Such dark myths are far rarer than the King Arthur kind, perhaps demonstrating that (if only subconciously), we really do prefer heroes to villains?
Ancient druidic cultures, as Professor Horniman tells Sangster, did worship lake, rock, and tree, take note of eclipses, measure their year by a number of named days rather than seasons, and indulge in drug-fuelled rituals including human sacrifice. Details, however, are are sketchy, the resurgence of this kind of faith in recent decades making it hard to tell modern alternative religious doctrine from original ancient belief systems. For all that, we can't really be sure what our distant ancestors thought about the world, or how they acted on those thoughts. This makes wondering about the people who might have been sitting in my back garden (or whatever was there in the same spot a few thousand years ago), all the more interesting (to me at least!).
Hooded Crows are, as Sam Youd notes, non-native to the North West of England, but do live close enough to feasibly fly to the area if the mood were to take them. These large, intelligent birds, associated with magic and trickery in folklore, are often linked to the End of Days, particularly in Irish myth, such as the utterings of their namesake goddess Badb, whose desolate words, I am afraid to say, are exactly as recited to Sangster by Sarah.
Peregrine Falcons, like the ones Sangster sees in the quarry, are not, as far as I know, associated with any mythology. But, anyone who has seen these amazing birds in flight (easily the fastest animal in the world when they 'stoop' at 200mph plus to dive after prey), will agree that peregrines have a magic all of their own.
Spotted fly agarics are today very well known to be hallucinagenic, and also deadly poisonous unless meticulously prepared for ingestion (don’t try this at home kids!). But, they were perhaps not quite as well known for their psychedelic properties in 1969, when the events of The Face Stone take place. I chose agarics as Michael’s way of alleviating his ADHD symptoms partly because these most iconic of fungi do grow in the woods near the Face Stone. Another reason, however, was an account of Shamans in Siberia using agarics as crude antidepressants (as Mrs Magister tells Sangster). These holy men would let a reindeer eat the fungus then drink the animal’s urine, thus apparently avoiding the toxins (the high must really have been worth it!).
When researching The Face Stone, I was surprised to learn (as Janie Dent was), that the usually autumnal agarics very occasionally grow in spring, and the toxins they contain are much stronger when they do. And I was even more surprised to find that the secretion on the cap is chemically identical to the secretion on a toad’s back. Is this why we call agarics Toadstools?
The last person to be convicted in relation to witchcraft in the UK was one Helen Duncan, brought to trial at the Old Bailey in 1944. As Sarah tells Sangster, Duncan was not charged for being a witch, rather for pretending to be one in order to extort money from gullible members of the public, although at the time, and after subsequently being subjected to repeated raids by the authorities, fraud was never proven, Duncan proclaiming herself a genuine spiritualist until the day she died. The ancient Witchcraft Act of 1735, under which this trial took place, was only repealed in 1951 (partially as a backlash against the Duncan trial), replaced by the less interestingly named Fraudulent Mediums Act, so in Sangster’s 1969, the last British witch trial was still very recent.
Michael Le Conte probably suffered from a heavy dose of what we now call Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD, widely known today but as yet unnamed in 1969, and little understood by all but a few specialist researchers. Children with the condition back then were generally considered simply ‘naughty’, and it has only been in recent decades that MRI scans of the brain and drugs like Ritalin have enabled us to properly understand and effectively treat ADHD. The rest of Michael’s personality was his own and cannot be blamed on any condition, so please make of it what you will!
Sangster’s beloved Jaguar, a British Racing Green 1968 Series 2 E-Type 4.2 litre roadster, was, in its day, a (relatively) modest priced but high-performance sports car, and would have been quite a status symbol in 1969. The E-Type has now, of course, become a classic symbol of the ‘Swinging Sixties’, with even the great Enzo Ferrari declaring it ‘the most beautiful car ever made’.
The British Leyland Austin Eleven Hundred driven by Geoffrey Hart (to his wife’s embarrassment), was a popular small family saloon of the sixties and early seventies (over two million built, at least a million of those driven in the UK alone). Eleven Hundreds generally came in suitably neutral greys, blues, browns and so on, but occasionally sported vivid colours quite at odds with the car’s very down to earth character. The Harts’ lime green model would certainly have fallen into this latter category.
‘The Sands of Dee, recited by Sarah in the Cathedral Cafe, was written by Charles Kingsley, then a canon attached to Chester Cathedral, and first published in 1850. The poem may well have been inspired by a real drowning (cattle were once grazed on Burton marshes, although well before Kingsley’s time):
‘O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee;’
The western wind was wild and dank with foam,
And all alone went she.
The western tide crept up along the sand,
And o’er and o’er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see.
The rolling mist came down and hid the land:
And never home came she.
‘Oh! is it weed, or fish, or floating hair,
A tress of golden hair,
A drownèd maiden’s hair
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
Among the stakes of Dee.’
They rowed her in across the rolling foam,
The cruel crawling foam,
The cruel hungry foam,
To her grave beside the sea:
But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee.
‘The World is Too Much With Us’, the verses of which Professor Horniman struggles to remember, was written by William Wordsworth and first published in 1907:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we waste our powers;—
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the Moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forelorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
The quaintly titled 'A prembulation of the Hundred of Wirral in the County of Chester, with an Account of the Principal Highways and Byways, Old Halls, Ancient Churches, Situated Between the Rivers Mersey and Dee' was written by Harold Edgar Young, and first published in 1909.
The rest of the books, newspaper articles, quotes and other literary references in The Face Stone are inventions to suit the plot, with the exception of two passages Sarah reads to Sangster from the encyclopaedia; the King in the Mountain entry (loosely taken from an entry in Edwin Sydney Hartland’s 1891 book ‘The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry Into Fairy Mythology’), and the prophecies of Badb, which are taken from direct translations of traditional Irish saga texts.