Monday, 17 July 2017

A Short Story in Seoul

Jeoungisus used to read novels aloud in the streets

You’re not supposed to use the word ‘suddenly’ when writing a story, but that is how this trip happened. In mid-June, I found myself with a Korean Air flight number, and 48 hours later I was aloft, along with graphic novelist Gareth Brookes.

I pretty much stayed aloft for the two weeks I was there. What a fantastic and fantastical place Seoul is, like being in a storyland you don’t quite understand, but in which grow endless delights. I freely admit I enjoy gorging on novelty, and culture-shock, the baffling and the bizarre, and so by the end of this trip, I was stuffed. I had also eaten a lot of awfully delicious food.

We were sent there by the British Council to take part in a kind of artistic exchange, between Bradford Lit Fest and Wow Book Festival in Seoul. I would write a story inspired by Seoul; this would be turned into a short graphic novel by a Korean artist. Likewise, Gareth would work with a Korean writer, to turn her short story (about Bradford) into a graphic novel. We got to visit Seoul. The Korean contingent got to visit Bradford. Suffice to say, we have all been inspired, and jetlagged.

Here, I share some extremely edited highlights, because I loved every minute of this trip.


The marmite of Korea: you either love them (most of Seoul’s inhabitants) or hate them (some older people, apparently). Wherever you stand, there will be a cat café within a few hundred yards. Cats appear in comics, art, design, everything. Soyeon, the Korean writer on the project, has a cat called Cattain Kirk. He has over 5,000 twitter followers. I now own a fridge magnet of Cattain Kirk.

One tired cat

When it comes to animal cafés, though, the cats are trumped by the meerkat café and the racoon café. Best to wear bicycle clips to those ones, I imagine.

Plastic Food

I love plastic food, for some reason, and it is everywhere in Seoul – one step up from the extremely useful pictures of food that adorn most restaurants.

Inedible appetising soup

Trumping both plastic food and picture food, though: golden anthropomorphic giant ginseng.

Ginseng promenade

Random statues and artworks

‘Random’ is a lazy way to say unexpected, incongruous, possibly even inappropriate… walking the streets of Seoul, I encountered surprising art everywhere. Some of it was beautiful, some hilarious, some haunting. 

A levitating girl

You might think from the above that I didn’t engage with any ‘proper’ culture while in Seoul. I will just say that photos of items in museums are even more tedious than photos of weird stuff.  The National Folk Museum of Korea was a great source of inspiration to me, not least the wet weather gear for agricultural workers displayed here: a thatched coat, wooden shoes and a concertina hat. Sou’westers and anoraks now look rather boring.

No such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing

The Cheonggyecheon

This deserves a blog post of its own. A former stream running through Seoul – once more of an open sewer like the old Fleet in London – was paved over with a four-lane road in the 60s and 70s. Then it was magically rejuvenated in the 21st century to become an unlikely place of respite for people, herons, carp, cormorants, and butterflies, in the middle of the city. Look up from sparkling waters and willow trees and you see soaring skyscrapers.

Remains of motorway pillars still standing in the Cheonggyecheon

Most days I dipped my hot feet in these waters (sorry, carp), enjoying some piped classical music and the sight of city-dwellers giggling on the stepping stones. The Cheonggyecheon ultimately inspired my Seoul story, which will soon be a webtoon by the amazing Hong Jac Ga.

Nature vs city

Non-plastic food (and drink)

It’s hard to write enthusiastically about food without sounding like a desperate hipster, these days. Even so, it was a thrill to be led through the inner mazes of Gwangjang market, to find cafes serving raw beef and mung bean pancakes to soak up the makgeolli. For a home-brewer, makgeolli (fermented rice drink) is intriguing stuff, milky-mousseux, homely yet exotic.

Bibimbap for one

Seoul is now about as hipster as it gets when it comes to beer micro-brewing, and I spent an enjoyable evening hearing from a proud brewer about his successful blends of Korean and American styles. But it was ginseng chicken soup that stole my heart; why is this not a craze in the UK yet? What are we waiting for?

Wonderful people

Thank you from the bottom of my Seoul-inspired heart to the Wow Book Festival and British Council people in South Korea, as well as to Soyeon and Hong, our Korean creative counterparts, for such a kind and brilliant welcome. I can’t wait to go back for the book festival in September, not least to see what wonders Hong has worked on my story, turning it into images in ways I cannot imagine. Seoul will be working magic in my mind and in my writing for a very long time to come.

A legitimate sweet shop.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Leverets & Plovers: the origin of the Easter Bunny?

There'll be hares (and eggs) out there somewhere

My favourite theory about the origin of the Easter Bunny is this one, which I found in a wonderful book called The Leaping Hare, by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson. 

‘Some images have their origin in the observation of nature, and that may be true of the Easter hare. Birds, like the plover, that make nests on the ground lay their eggs near the hares’ forms. They may even choose a deserted form and convert it. Their eggs and baby leverets are frequently found on the same terrain in spring.’ (p134)

I love this idea of spotting hares nosing about in old forms (the sort of dent, or seat, a hare makes in a field, to lay low in) where there might now be plover, or lapwing, eggs.
In a separate section of the book, we’re given a wonderful transcript of conversations with a warrener and gamekeeper named Percy Muitt. He was born in Blythburgh, Suffolk in 1909 and worked nearby. (Incidentally, Blythburgh church now has a special animal blessing service at Easter, where pets are brought along. When I attended, one girl brought a spider in a match box to be blessed.)

Percy Muitt gives many vivid accounts of hares, and here’s the part that supports the ‘observation of nature theory’:

‘Well, I go about: I’ve done nothing else all my life only wandered about here, and I fell in with these little leverets; and I’ve seen ‘em as I’ve looked for plovers’ eggs. I’ve seen two little leverets on an owd stubble, on an owd corn-stubble. They make little seats just like their mothers do, just backed in, you know. Before I left that field there was a tremendous storm; and I was back on to this field after this heavy storm because I thought they must be dead; and there they set – just the same; and everywhere was all over water. I saw these little owd chaps there and I said to myself: “Well, they can’t survive.” (but we used to look at the field every four days, so we used to look at ‘em twice at that time o’day, look at ‘em twice to pick these owd plovers’ eggs up, years ago.) They’d moved two hundred yards away, and they’d grown. They were four or five days old, nice little chaps; they were alive and well’. (p55)

An old-fashioned egg hunt with baby hares all about, and nice little chaps too. It’s certainly an image that’s hard to resist. I wonder what Percy Muitt would have made of chocolate eggs wrapped in foil and cartoon bunnies everywhere…