ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Re-reading ‘Merrily Watkins’

Merrily Watkins

Then: I discovered Phil Rickman thanks to the wonder that is the local library. At fifteen, I was trying to expand my literary horizons beyond epic fantasy and teen detective fiction, and so I would randomly select books from the adult section that I liked the look of. This wasn’t always a very successful method, but The Wine of Angels, with its gothic street and gaslamp, looked just my thing (although the book I expected within is probably not what I got — I can’t remember any more.) And so I discovered Merrily Watkins, vulnerable-but-tough female priest; Jane, her volatile, passionate daughter; and of course Lol, the gentle, damaged songwriter. I was totally hooked.

In fact, The Wine of Angels was probably perfectly timed for me to fall in love with. I was old enough to know that the evangelical christian community in which I was brought up was not the only world that existed, and to have no tolerance for the kind of YA stories that ventured into the topics of religion, as they were invariably black and white in their approach (i.e. church-sanctioned novels in which the received wisdom was either ‘religion-is-TRUE-therefore-the-only-good’ or edgy YA novels in which ‘religion-is-BAD-and-will-only-destroy-you’) and both of these types of novel tended to write as if Christianity was the only religion in existence. The Wine of Angels presented a character with religious convictions who was neither fanatical nor even particular certain about her own beliefs, and placed that narrative within a myriad of alternative faiths; in other words, the way that the church really fits into the world. It was almost shocking to discover a book that plainly walked on both sides of the line, without treating one side or the other as ridiculous.

Not only that, but it might have been one of the first books I read that felt like it had living, breathing characters from the real world. Sure, I’d read plenty of fantasy series that I’d bought into the characters, but Merrily felt like a real person that I might meet in my normal life (say what that will about my normal life.) Jane, with her teenage angst, I clung to. I bought Radiohead CDs, and researched Mondrian. And one further, Lol: through him, I discovered Nick Drake, whose music I am in love with to this day.

In some way, this was my first experience of taking a book and exploring the places it leads to. Sure, I’d had my generation’s Harry Potters and Lord of the Rings, which led to huge shared fandoms, but that was different. The Phil Rickman’s books felt like they belonged to only me, and so (with an adolescent solipsism) I felt like I was the first teenager to ever discover Nick Drake, or Radiohead, or music. I single-mindedly collected every book of his I could find, and to this day in a secondhand bookshop I automatically look to R on the shelf, even though I have multiple copies (all the different covers, plus hardback and paperback!) of everything that precedes Merrily Watkins.

At some point, I realised that there was more Merrily after The Wine of Angels, and bought the full series. At that point, I think three or four of them were out in paperback, and when the new hardbacks came out my parents — who knew the authors I hankered after but tended not to examine the content too carefully anymore — would always buy them for Christmases or birthdays. The developing of the story into Deliverance, taking in the politics of the church, country gothic, and the alchemy of songwriting in obscure country recording studios, gripped me (in the same era that I was also writing stories about demons in Whitby, and writing songs every time I learnt a new chord on the guitar.) I developed a burning desire to visit the Welsh border, which my father happily indulged, and we spent a week on holiday near Hay-on-Wye in a remote cottage. Whilst driving aimlessly through the country with me in the front seat studying the map for locations for the books, I spotted a sign for Cascob and screeched like a banshee. My dad executed what was effectively a handbrake turn, and we found our way to the tiny village where I was disappointed to find the church closed. But — in a manner far more friendly than anyone in the books ever was — our poking around was noticed by the church’s caretaker, and they let us in to poke around. I have a number of photographs of me in the church from the book, searching out the details I could remember, and another of me looking solemn and exorcist-like next to the Cascob road sign. (However, I was fifteen, and several stone over weight. This photo will NOT be seeing the light of day.)

My point here is that my love of the books had spilled well beyond simply reading them; even my family happily trekked around the borders in search of places they had never read about, simply because I was excited to see them. I found joy in interacting with the books beyond simply reading. A few month later, I went a step further.

At school, I harbored delusions of becoming a rock star. I desperately wished to learn to play electric guitar, and the trade-off for my parents paying for lessons was that I had to start to learn with an acoustic. When I finally graduated to electric, I hated it, and traded it back in almost immediately. At the same time I was building a love of delicate singer-songwriters (a la Nick Drake) and fancied myself something of a troubadore. I couldn’t sing, but my friend Hannah could, and together we formed a duo called Trespass (terrible name). We performed only once, a memorable occasion in which I forgot how to play one of the songs (terrible gig), but we also recorded a whole bunch of songs using a cheap microphone and some free recording software (terrible recordings). Around about this time, I think we’d reached the release of Lamp of the Wicked, and one Christmas holiday I scoured through all of the Merrily books and pulled together all of the lyrics to Lol’s ‘Sunny Days’ that I could find. It was mostly the chorus, and so I created verses to go with it, and Hannah and I recorded it on our tiny laptop, set to a free drum backing track we’d found. When I think back, the song bore little resemblance to how Sunny Days should have sounded (what with the pop drum track, female vocalist and lack of any folk-y guitar work) but I was quite proud of it, and so we sent the recording on CD to Phil Rickman.

I’d only once done something like this before (sending fan fiction to J.K. Rowling who sent back a nice but clearly stock letter) but it felt incredibly exciting, actually sending out my own creative work to the person who originally inspired it. For someone who wanted to write books, and dreamed of having people read my stories, it was a powerful feeling to know that I as an insignificant reader could reach out with my own work to the writer of something I held dear. This feeling was compounded when Phil wrote a letter in return. He liked the song, and his wife said that Hannah sounded a bit like Neil Young (quite charitable, that). A couple of days later, the song was mentioned on his website. And when I recently posted about sending this song in on the Phil Rickman Appreciation Society facebook group, I was informed that the song we had sent was the seed of the idea that eventually became several albums worth of Lol’s music composed and recorded.

Sadly, though, I fell away from the series. Sixteen to eighteen is an enormous gap, and when I went to university I found I hadn’t the time to keep up. (Or read anything, in fact – a conundrum which I’ve documented before on this blog.) Many of the things that obsessed me through my adolescence became things that I no longer followed, and from 18 to 21 I spent a lot of time shedding the things of my youth, which unfortunately included plenty of things I loved and shouldn’t have. But that still didn’t stop me automatically looking to R on the shelf of the bookshops.

Now: Shortly after I conceived of this re-read project, the TV adaptation of Merrily Watkins was announced, and so it seemed a no-brainer to go back to Merrily. I had originally planned to re-read The Wine of Angels, but when the TV show adapted Midwinter of the Spirit, I opted for that instead.

The TV adaptation was a thorny subject for quite some months, online. The fans, whilst mostly excited for it, weren’t enormously happy with changes to their beloved series. (The casting of Doc Brown as Lol was… controversial. Myself, I was surprised, but didn’t mind.) It was a curious experience watching the group; in my personal headcanon I still thought of Merrily as one of my favourite series despite being several volumes behind, and had anyone brought up Phil’s books in conversation I’d have declared myself a big fan. But when placed in contrast with the society of readers, I felt like a completely ‘amateur’ fan in comparison; it burst that bubble of feeling as if Phil’s books were ‘discovered only by me’. But still, I awaited the TV show with some anticipation. I won’t go into a review of the show except to say that I enjoyed it on its own terms, but found the horror aspect to be more text than subtext as I remembered from the books, and missed the soulful songwriter aspect of Lol’s character.

Then I came to re-reading Midwinter of the Spirit, (after watching the show) and discovered, thank god, that I still absolutely loved the series. Which perhaps is not surprising, but I was deeply concerned that (like my recording of ‘Sunny Days’) with ten years distance it might be a bit… well… crap.

Anything but, though. The strength of the Merrily series is the characters, and those remained as subtly characterised and deeply flawed as I recall: Merrily with her doubts about her faith and her path in Deliverance; Jane with her developing views on spirituality and the tensions it creates in her relationship with her mother; Lol and his tentatively gained strengths. The aspect that I loved the most about the series is front and centre in Midwinter: that the ‘horror’ elements remain perfectly balanced in the hinterland between actually happening, or being imaginary, or being a mixture of the two, but always speaks more about the people that believe in it than about the events themselves. (It’s a perfect mirror for my feelings as an adult about Christianity; I am not eager to dismiss religion as absurdity, but neither can I buy into it. Rickman’s treatment of spirituality is spot on as far as I am concerned, with a sharp understanding of the power of faith of any kind in people’s lives.)

Interestingly, Jane felt like a different character than the one I remember. Watching the show I thought her teenage stroppiness had been played up, but it was pretty accurate to the book. Perhaps at fifteen I read her angst as a little less irrational or teenage, but one way or the other it is monstrously realistic.

Chief amongst the triumphs of Midwinter is that I have once again been reignited with my fandom for the books: I want to trek off to the wild hills of the Welsh borders and search down obscure churches; I want to pull out my guitar and try to piece together Nick Drake songs; and I most certainly want to catch up on the series, re-reading those I remember and discovering the ones I haven’t read. Merrily marks one of the first series that felt like my own discovery (which as any reader knows is one of the beauties of reading and loving a book), and one of the first series through which I extended my love of the thing to create other things. There would be more of those, but Merrily was really the first, and I am so glad the books stood up to my re-read.

(*Also, an additional comment that’s sort of about Midwinter, but not entirely. Something I loved then, though possibly without understanding why, and love now with some sense of analysis, is the presentation of beta male romantic heroes. You don’t come across them often, but putting Lol – damaged, sensitive and creative – front-and-centre as a love interest makes me giddy-happy. But in fact it’s Eirion on whom I’ve had a longstanding crush: I mean, he’s welsh, a bit stocky, and plays the guitar, which is pretty much a textbook description of my type. I’m going to have to read more of the series, just to get more Eirion.)

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