LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Narrator/diarist Anna is attending a meeting of a coven of witches]
Gerald went and fussed with the stuff from the backpacks and put what looked like a cage on the other side of the fire from me. I didn’t dare move.
“Now we shall go sky clad,” he said and Mrs W and Mrs B led me to the edge of the glade and began to take off their sensible thick coats.
“Come on,” said Mrs B. “It’s far more effective if we’re sky clad.”
They carried on peeling off their clothes and I could see the men stripping beyond the fire on the other side.
“Everything off!” said Mrs B in her jolly way. “It’s quite warm next to the fire, you know.”
So I obeyed in a kind of trance. There we were, completely nude. The damp grass felt bone-cold and there were a lot of twigs. We went and stood together by the fire and she was right, it did get quite warm. We were hot in front. Behind us the wind was wuthering a bit in the bare branches. The men stood on the other side of the fire and I was glad they were mainly hidden from us by it. Fortunately I’d seen quite a lot of Greek art.
commentary: Witch Way Now? is described as a Paranormal Romance, though that’s a limited description of the content. I absolutely loved it: the book is eccentric and funny and very different, and it gives – amid various supernatural manifestations – a wonderfully convincing picture of life in the 60s, and the thoughts and experiences of young women (any time, anywhere).
The book starts as a teenage diary, and all too realistically so – that obsession with what you have to eat and what you wear, and the awfulness of social events. I am a great believer in the Eleanor Roosevelt remark that ‘no-one can make you feel inferior without your permission’ but as Lucy and narrator Anna truly say, ‘Eleanor doesn’t go to our school’.
It’s all there – gonks, trolls, Top of the Pops, tan corduroy skirts, Moon Drops perfume. Anna is a child with a comic one minute:
I got out an old Bunty annual when I got home and picked some possible futures: putting on my own circus with farm animals and of course ponies and saving the school sports field from a wicked property developer.And the next is discovering she has supernatural powers. She gets pulled into the very dubious coven above, but decides to avoid them in future – which means she gets on the wrong side of them.
After some uncomfortable moments, she leaves school and goes to live in a hostel with other young women and takes different jobs. Her parents have moved and she gets involved in more doubtful goings on, another group of people interested in psychic and similar possibilities. It’s a good plot in a wandering way, you never know what will happen next, and Anna is an endearing heroine, who grows up a lot during the course of the book.
Again, the life is real – Anna goes to see the films Fantasia, Rosemary’s Baby and Belle de Jour in quick succession, as one does at that age. It’s funny too – Anna’s supernatural experiences are particularly enthralling, and I loved this conversation with a spirit friend:
“Halloween – I shall be abroad.”Of course the young people visit Biba:
“Oh no, where are you going?” I didn’t know ghosts had holidays.
“I mean I shall walk the earth and have power – and so will unpleasant spirits.”
Diana had been up to London to shop at this new boutique called Biba “But all the clothes are tiny! I got stuck trying to take off a stripy dress and the shopgirls just said ‘If you got into it, you can get out of it’ and I thought I’d be there forever with a dress over my head! It was so claustrophobic! I couldn’t see anything!”And later:
Irene, Georgina and I went to Kensington Church Street (it’s not far) where all the trendy shops are, like Hung on You, and Biba. I tried on some dresses, but it was a bit unfair as they’d never fit the others. The girls selling the clothes in all the boutiques looked a bit like me - small and skinny, with long straight hair. But they all wear lots of way-out makeup with white eye-liner and painted-on eyelashes, and one had a daisy drawn on her cheek.I particularly enjoyed all the details because I am the right age, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that you would have to have lived through the times to get the most from the book. (When I was younger it was assumed that we all would and could read books set in other times without the slightest problem, and that it would be interesting and informative for us, and I think that this was roughly true.)
Lucy Fisher is a good friend to this blog, and a very good writer - she has done a guest blog and has frequently recommended books and commented here - click the label below for more. She didn’t ask me to read her book, or suggest I review it.
But it does give me to think. I get sent many books, am asked to review them, or I offer to – I have probably obtained 20-25 new novels so far this year. Very few of them were as good as this book. One in particular – I will not name it here, but I reviewed it fairly recently – has been much touted, has had a lot of publicity and is said to be an authentic picture of the swinging 60s. But it just isn’t – it’s clear that the author has done only the most superficial research, and has no real feel for what the time and place were actually like. Witch Way Now? is about ten times better.
I truly don’t understand how so many mediocre books attract the attention of big publishing houses, while a book like this one is passed over. I very much hope more people might discover it and tell other people about it: I wish I had more influence on the reading public.
The top picture is The witches Sabbath, by Luis Ricardo Falero.
Picture of people getting changed in Biba from the 1960s.
Clothes from the Biba mail order catalogue.