Monday, 23 April 2012

Muse Monday: THE BONNIE FIGHTER - Catherine Czerkawska

I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, although my family members were pretty laid back about the whole thing. My Irish nana had married a Yorkshire Methodist, and although my Polish father was nominally a Roman Catholic, having come through the war and lost most of his family in the process, he was sceptical about matters of doctrine, and provided a useful balance to the ferocious stuff we were occasionally subjected to at school. Mum, on the other hand, had a strong and abiding Christian faith which she maintained throughout her life, and since dad loved her very much, he kept his own counsel. He would debate with me though. Most writers of prose fiction are – like Humpty Dumpty - able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. As I grew older – and began to write - we sometimes locked horns about spirituality. He was a scientist, but he was the kindest of men and our arguments never lasted. I attended a small RC primary school in a rather poor part of Leeds Our infant teacher was a motherly woman who cared more about the extreme poverty of some of her pupils than the state of their souls. But I always think that the church is a bit like Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. So it’s unsurprising that my muse owes something to my early education. Not, mind you, that he’s exclusive to the Roman Catholics – Islam and Orthodox Christianity can lay claim to him as well.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of him: my inspiration, my protector, my angel. Not just any old angel, either. One of the high heidyins, as they say in Scotland. Michael the Archangel has threaded his way through my life in various subtle or quirky ways. One of my secondary schools was called St Michael’s and I’ve lived in a village with a church which bears his name for many years. All kinds of churches and other holy places are named after Michael and there’s some evidence that the early church was invoking a protective – albeit somewhat combative – power, in opposition to an older force that was perceived to inhabit certain places and landscapes. And as a writer for whom a sense of place is very important indeed, I find this idea fascinating.

Predictably, Michael (that’s him on the left, looking supercilious, as well he might) has also found his way into my fiction – most notably in The Curiosity Cabinet. When I was researching the historical background to this novel, I was intrigued to find that the Celts celebrated Michaelmas (the Feast of St Michael on 29th September) with horse racing, usually bareback. On the evening before, it was permissible to ‘borrow’ a horse from your neighbour, for using in the races, as long as you gave it back later. It was a day for giving and receiving love tokens too and women made special cakes, or ‘struans’: a rich egg batter cooked in layers, flavoured with blueberries and blackberries – and which they would give to their sweethearts. All of this fed into the historical sections of the novel and gave me the background to a major turning point between two of the characters. When Henrietta asks Manus McNeill what the people are singing, he tells her that they are singing old songs to the blessed Michael the Archangel whose sword is keen to smite and his arm strong to save; a bonnie fighter indeed. He is our warrior of the sea, the protector of boats and boatmen everywhere, as well as of all horses and horsemen.

Michael is the protector of soldiers and the sick and suffering as well. Intriguingly, the old Michaelmas festival fell on October 10th or 11th and the tradition – which still survives, at least in this part of the world - was that blackberries should not be picked after this date. According to old beliefs, Satan was banished from heaven on this day after battling it out with Michael, and losing. He fell into a blackberry bush and cursed the bramble berries – as who wouldn’t?

The name of Michael is translated as ‘who is like to God?’ not in the sense of him being ‘like to God’ but – curiously – in the sense of nobody being quite like God. He’s called ‘saint’ only in the sense of being ‘holy’ and is pretty well evoked – I reckon – by John Travolta in the movie that bears his name: warm, loving, powerful, protective, compassionate - but fond of a good battle too.

At school, we used to say the prayer to St Michael:

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.

All this, a bonnie fighter - and a muse too!

Thank you, Catherine.
Catherine Czerkawska writes atmospheric historical novels. Her website can be found at

In honour of World Book Night, you can try her new book for Kindle
The Amber Heart free today. (US readers click here.)

More ebooks in the World Book Night giveaway can be found at


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