7 November 2019


Phil Rickman. The Merrily Watkins series of novel:  The Wine of Angels; Midwinter of the Spirit; The Remains of An Altar; To Dream of the Dead; The Lamp of the Wicked; The Secrets of Pain; The Magus of Hay; The Smile of a Ghost; The Cure of Souls; Friends of the DuskCorvus Books.

Breaking new ground here, I think. The Magonia Review herewith edges into fiction, with a due sense of duty to inform and entertain (not necessarily in that order). 
But rest assured, these particular books are no random choices, being truly Magonian through and through in breadth of subject and implications. That’s my excuse for waxing lyrical about what is in my view simply the best - and surely at least the chunkiest – series of books to read, reread, and lose oneself in.

First and foremost, Mr Rickman has created an utterly believable world you can step into and rummage around, though due to the dark atmosphere of satanic threat and gore-fest criminality you often you wish you hadn’t. Cosy his world ain’t. But when you reluctantly have to get on with that annoying thing, real life, you find you’re still keeping the door ajar so you can nip back from time to time, violent, bloody and above all, sinister, though it might be.

This is NOT Chick Lit, let me reassure you, though the main character is a woman. The only real romance is the author’s obvious passion for the often-bleak Herefordshire countryside and the neighbouring Welsh borderlands. In fact, with themes such as Neo-Nazi Satanists (or are they?), child abuse, implicit necrophilia (or is it?) and Fred West copycats (or are they?), we are in a very gritty world. And right at its centre is Merrily Watkins, C of E vicar and first female exorcist – sorry, Deliverance Consultant - who also happens to be single mum to Jane, the complex teenager with pagan sympathies…

Oh yes, these books are hard-hitting. Oh yes, they’re intricate and packed with characters who you actually look forward to encountering again – such as Gomer, the wiry old plant hire man and absolute stalwart who is easy to love. On the other hand, there’s terror of her retirement home, Anthea (who prefers to be known as Athena), the former intelligence agent with roots in the occult, whose love-hate relationship with Merrily is often a major thread of the stories, and who is less cuddly but more multi-layered and, let’s be honest, more fun than Gomer.

Already I can feel some of you bristling. Ah, the occult! An exorcist! Hmm, you say, outraged - look, I’m a good Magonian sceptic – it’s not for me… Up to you, of course, and after all, fewer circles are more amenable to differing viewpoints than Magonia. But dare I point out that in dismissing the Merrily Watkins books out of hand you really would be missing the point by miles, largely because Rickman’s genius – and I use the word advisedly – lies in the almost impossible balance he almost always manages to pull off between presenting the world of ‘Other’ as real or as…. well, not real.

After all, Merrily herself has that very problem. People go to her because of some deeply disturbing weirdness in their lives, but there is always that underlying profoundly unsettling conundrum. Could this apparent haunting, poltergeist, curse or possession be in any way objectively real? Or could it be the massing of psychological shadows rather than a real spiritual threat? But if it is indeed a manifestation of real tangible evil, how on earth does one little self-deprecating woman, usually with almost no support from the diocese, even begin to fight it? That’s Merrily’s problem. And all the stories hang on that, which is, after all, the classic theme of one little person against overwhelming odds – but the odds here are, perhaps, all the worse for being intangible…

At this point it might be the turn of those of you who quite like serious spooky stuff to turn away, thinking that perhaps in these books anything that purports to be weird will turn out to be not so, a la Agatha Christie in, say The Pale Horse. Smoke and mirrors? Flim flam? But again, not so. Rickman really does leave the question of spooky reality in the air – somehow. Which means you, too, will come back for more.

Only one, as far as I know, of these books, has been dramatized on the telly - Midwinter of the Spirit, starring Anna Maxwell Martin [below, with David Threlfall as Huw Owen], which is a huge shame, as with their highly evocative setting – somehow you only believe the raw and foggy Herefordian weather, not the rare bursts of blue sky heat – and their genuinely relatable, if not always totally loveable, cast of regular characters, it could easily have carved a regular place out for Sunday evening viewing.

The backdrop is Ledwardine, one of the ‘black and white’ villages of the Herefordshire countryside, rapidly being turned into the ‘New Cotswolds’ by incomers from ‘Off’ with their second homes and – almost always – total lack of understanding of the local history. The tension between the traditional and modern communities is palpable: clearly this is something Rickman himself feels passionate about. Usually the cri de coeur is given to Jane, the teenager desperate for a cause – Merrily insists, rather sweetly, on calling her ‘Flower’ - who travels from pagan to sceptic and back to semi-pagan sympathiser via run-ins with TV archaeologists, property developers, conspiracies of fake mediums and Satanists (or are they?), not to mention more run-of-the-mill assorted thugs and murderers. (She also segues from virgin to not-virgin, which is a great relief to her, and possibly to we the readers.)

Jane begins by hating her Mum’s job, screaming at her about being pathetic and embarrassing – Merrily dares to pray in the hotel room they share – and pandering to medievalism. Getting up at dawn to invoke the goddess on the vicarage lawn is surely priceless. But her arguments against organised religion are, believe me, rather sound.

Merrily herself, we soon realise, is prey to all manner of doubts, not just about being the first C of E female exorcist, but also even about being a priest, perhaps even a believer. We learn she had a landmark vision of seeing a ‘blue and gold lamplit path’, with an aura of enormous peace, which helped her into the church, but we often encounter her desperate to recover that transcendent sense of mission, and all too often rising from her knees feeling cold and empty, undermined by the realisation she’d simply been talking to herself.

A young widow – her husband was killed on the motorway with his mistress – she left her career as a lawyer to become a priest. (As Jane never fails to point out, it’s far easier for a widow to enter the church than a divorced woman, which, had her husband lived, she would have been.)

Her only training for her strange, medieval-ish job, was a course in a bleak old house on the Brecon Beacons from Huw Owen, an older man with shaggy hair, a dog collar the colour of bone, and a tendency to get his socks too close to the open fire. He is, I’m afraid, also a comedy Yorkshireman, possibly the only one who actually says ‘’appen’, meaning ‘perhaps’. (In fact, I don’t even recall anyone saying it, halfway seriously at least, in backstreets’ York in the 50s.) But we can forgive him the Monty Python ee-bah-gum – he’s a stalwart with, of course, a complex history, involving shouting obscenities at God. And he’s a great friend and support to Merrily, so we love him anyway, just like we love old Gomer and policeman Frannie Bliss and all the other regulars with their sliding scale of flaws, needs and heroics. (Huw warns her in his characteristically vivid fashion that as far as many creeps that hang around churches are concerned, a female exorcist might as well have painted targets between her breasts. Though he didn’t say ‘breasts’.)

Despite an annoying tendency to dither – Merrily says ‘Erm…’ a lot – her tight-knit support network also includes the imperturbable Sophie, the Cathedral’s guardian, and Merrily’s love interest, the deeply damaged Lol Robinson, a musician and former inmate of a mental institution. If Merrily irritates with her hesitancy, Lol will have you throwing the book across the room. And the two of them together…! Aarrrgh. But rest assured, they finally do jump into bed together – encouraged by Jane – and look set to have, if not a smooth future relationship (this is Lol and Merrily, after all), at least some kind of relationship. Oh please.

Throughout my fervent reading and re-readings, one point niggles more than others, however. It might sound minor, but perhaps it isn’t. While it might be laudable that Merrily, Lol and Jane barely touch alcohol – and rarely go out or let their hair down at all, annoyingly - the fact that they rarely eat is strange and even unsettling. True, they encounter such grisly events on a regular Midsomer-Murderesque basis that they might well be put off their dinners from time to time, but you read even in the absence of bits of bodies or three-week-old corpses how Merrily merely nibbles on a piece of toast, or how Jane makes a few sandwiches that they hardly touch, or how they peck at a salad.

There’s actually more here to mull about than a fear the Watkins women will die of scurvy or anorexia. To me, sadly – and clearly I hate to criticise Rickman on anything much – it all smacks far too much of the kind of sexism redolent in Victorian days, where heroines just didn’t eat. Merrily fits that out-dated pattern perfectly. She is, of course, small, just like all such ‘good’ women. She does that highly unlikely thing and forgets to eat, while in real life anyone doing such a stressful job would be on the Mars Bars and whopper burgers, not to mention the large G and Ts, with wild cries of relief on an all-too regular basis.

Mr Rickman, I love you, but please give the woman a slap-up meal and a night down the pub once in a while. Endless pots of tea and packets of Silk Cut simply don’t endear modern female readers. True, we don’t want a sort of clerical Bridget Jones obsessed with men, big knickers and calories, but we don’t want Jane Eyre either. A bit of normal humanity in the kitchen or the pub would be nice, please.

Small she might be, in old-fashioned ‘angel of the home’ mould, but at least she’s by no means perfect. She can be sharp-tongued and even negligent (though usually as a result of fatigue and low blood sugar, it seems: see above). And she is constantly faced with the mix of sociological, psychological, spiritual and criminological traumas that none of us will ever have to face. As Rickman says of her: ‘It doesn’t help that she sometimes has to work with psychiatrists and the police. Or that her employer, the Church of England, is far from free of prejudice, sexism, greed and corruption…’

Indeed, one of the most recurrent themes is the factionalism and back-biting of the Anglican community – even if you couldn’t care less about organised religion, this window into the seething morass of vindictive politics is an astonishing eye-opener and clearly based on inside knowledge.

In one of the early books she is set up by a Tony Blair-like bishop who has no real spiritual belief and…. Well, that doesn’t end well. Some of her fellow clergy are actually atheists. Some have breakdowns and trash their churches. Some have been members of the locally-trained SAS and have roots in pagan soldiers’ cults. Many have simply suffered at the hands of the hierarchy. The background of her fellow priests is in itself a rich seam of dramatic tension, as many of them plot against Merrily and seek to have her ousted from her job.

So, fiction. So, a female C of E exorcist. So brilliant.

This is no ordinary priest. As Rickman notes, ‘Her least favourite word is “pious”.’ And given all the tumult of her everyday adventures, he adds: ‘No wonder she smokes. No wonder she occasionally lapses into language hard to find in the Bible…’

Small wonder, indeed. That’s Merrily Watkins. -- Lynn Picknett

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hasn't Tony Blair become a papist?