A celebration of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s The Stone Cage

This piece of mine, about one of my favourite childhood books, was published in the wonderful books magazine, Slightly Foxed, in issue 18, in 2008. I know a lot of people share the same fond memory of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s gorgeous book, The Stone Cage(and his other lovely works) so thought I would republish it here, as a new year’s gift. Hope you enjoy!

Nicholas Stuart Gray

by Sophie Masson

first published in Slightly Foxed, issue 18, 2008.

If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family or school or public events, but in stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly remember picking them up from the shelf—an ordinary act—and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. The pure pleasure of it, the immediate liberation. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, stepping through the borders into another world, where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility. And I found my own calling as a writer.

It can be dangerous revisiting those important, beloved stories, as an adult, for it’s not just a book that might be found wanting, but memory itself. And yet, when it works, when the barriers of time dissolve before the sheer magic of a real storyteller, it is probably the most thrilling experience a reader can have.

The Stone Cage, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, was one of those books that I remember clearly not only because they were so good to read, but because they were also so influential on me as a developing writer. Picking it up again after a gap of more than three decades was one of those magical moments that made me rediscover not only my childhood self, but also the reason why the book stands out in my memory. For from the very first sentence, you are plunged into a briskly unsentimental fairytale world, tartly guided by Tomlyn the witch’s cat:

Ever heard of a ‘dog’s life’? I’ll bet you have. Everyone has. Means a low, miserable kind of life. Full of kicks and curses, and nothing much to eat. I don’t know, I’m sure—what about a cat’s life, then? There’s not much said about that, is there? Nine lives, yes—but what sort of lives are these supposed to be? I’ll tell you the sort I had—a dog’s life.

I have to admit it isn’t every cat who lives with a witch, though.

And what a witch! Bad-tempered old —! No, it’s not fair to a cat or she-dog, to liken her to one of them. Let’s say she was a bad-tempered old beldam, and leave it at that. She hated people. She hated Marshall, her raven. She hated her bats and her toads. She hated me. Sometimes I think she even hated herself. A great old hater, was madam.

A naïve young stranger intrudes on this loveless, isolated mini-dictatorship, and is forced to pay a terrible price for his presumption, as he must give up his only child to the witch. And so the poor child is taken from her parents and put into a world where no-one trusts anyone else, love isn’t allowed to exist, and bitterness and cruelty reign. But all is not lost, for this is a very special child indeed, who will achieve an extraordinary miracle, greater than the greatest of spells, greater even than the most malevolent hatred.

As I read, I was swept along, just as in childhood, on the irresistible tide of a gripping story that for all its wit, humour, accessibility and clarity is also a compassionate, tender and complex evocation of the transforming power of love. But it’s certainly not all sweetness and light. Going way beyond a mere retelling of the fairytale of Rapunzel, on which it’s based, The Stone Cage reaches deep into the darkest, most painful aspects of life, as well as its most beautiful and joyous. In the way of the best children’s literature, it attains a profundity that’s all the more remarkable because of its sheer lucidity and unpretentiousness.

I finished The Stone Cage exactly as I’d done all those years ago: with tears in my eyes, and a thrilling heart, for the book also ends in one of the most perfectly judged, moving yet unsentimental scenes of its kind. Allied to my renewed love was a keenly increased admiration for the artistry of the author, which had easily stood the test of time. The characterisation is superb, the dialogue crisp, the pace good, the combination of light and dark subtly achieved. And the beauty of the style! Fluid, graceful, it is humble—in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and yet it’s fresh, distinctive, individual. The Stone Cage had been so important to me because everything in it worked. It was all so natural, so flowing, so multi-layered, its world richly imagined, yet delicately evoked. It was a real masterpiece, a novel just about perfect both in concept and execution, and timeless in its appeal, a novel that should have just as many young readers now as it did back then.

Aye, there’s the rub. For The Stone Cage is out of print, and has been for a long time. In fact, and rather astonishingly, in a culture like Britain’s that generally does value its children’s literature, all of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s books are presently out of print. Beautiful, original and accessible though The Stone Cage, Mainly in Moonlight, Grimbold’s Other World, Down in the Cellar, The Seventh Swan, and his other works are, they are unobtainable except through second-hand shops and the Internet, although some are still in libraries. It’s not as if modern children don’t like them, or don’t understand them, either; I know of lots of  young readers who, introduced to Gray’s books by their parents, have loved them just as much, and have found them just as easy to read. It’s not as if there’s anything dated or offensive in them, no obvious or hidden misogyny or racism or class stuff or anything like that. There is nothing really to properly explain this puzzling situation, other than that they’ve simply been overlooked.

And yet, Gray’s work has deeply influenced many of today’s writers working in the fields of children’s literature and of fantasy—Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman and Cecila Dart-Thornton, for instance. I’m certainly not the only reader-turned-writer to remember Gray’s books with great love and respect. Australian children’s novelist Cassandra Golds, author of the acclaimed Clair de Lune, wrote to me about the huge impact on her of one of Gray’s books, Down in the Cellar :’I will never forget the Sunday afternoon on which I finished reading it. I remember feeling a kind of mysterious desolation, partly because I’d finished reading it and would never be able to read it for the first time again, but partly also because I KNEW I had now read the best book I was ever going to read. And I felt, then and still, that the only possible response to that experience was to become a children’s author myself.’  As an eighteen year old, Cassandra had written the author a fan letter, and she still treasures his modest, graceful reply, in which he said, amongst other things: ‘As all my books and plays are only written for myself and not for any imagined audiences, readers, age-groups, publishers, etc, it is always a delightful surprise to get proof that anyone BUT myself ever reads or sees them..’

Perhaps that answer gives a clue as to why Gray’s work is not recognised as it should be. This was not a man who blew his own trumpet, not a writer who sought publicity, but one who loved his work and felt privileged to be doing it, and who was too humble to thrust himself forward. Who was perhaps also at heart a rather private, reserved, even secretive person, despite his long association with theatre, which many people would consider the home of trumpet-blowing, egotistical extroverts. Certainly, when I went to research his life, I found precious little information.

Nicholas Stuart Gray was a Highland Scot, born in 1922, the eldest of four children. As a child, he wrote stories and plays for his siblings. Not one to bend easily to the routines of school, he left at the age of fifteen, to become an actor. He kept writing as well, and his first play was produced two years later. His first children’s play to be published was Beauty and the Beast(1951), and from then, he wrote and produced a good many plays for children, before turning his hand to novels and short stories(where I think his true gifts flowered).   Some of his novels, like The Stone Cage (1963), he also adapted for the stage: he told Cassandra Golds that he himself played Tomlyn in the play’s premiere at the Edinburgh Festival and its subsequent successful seasons in London and on tour. (That would have been something to see! ) He never married or had children. His plays fell out of fashion, but his novels and short stories continued to be published until his untimely death from cancer in 1980, and right into the late 80’s, we were still seeing frequent reprintings of his books.

But in the last fifteen years or so, there have been no more new editions. In this new Golden Age of children’s literature, it’s more than time to bring his books back so that a whole new generation can fall under their spell. Any publishers out there listening?

As a present-day coda to the end of my piece: as I mentioned in the article, second-hand copies of The Stone Cage are not easy to track down–and I’m certainly hanging onto my own beautiful hardcover copy, found by chance in a secondhand bookshop in Oxford some years ago . So it always astonished me that The Stone Cage hasn’t been republished, but when, five years ago, on behalf of the little publishing house I’m involved in, I made enquiries as to who might own the rights, it appeared that no-one was actually sure what had happened to them. Gray had no direct descendants, though he did have extended family, but a letter to an address I was kindly given by the ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) in the UK went unanswered.

Easy and delicious version of Bûche De Noël

The French Christmas cake, or Bûche de Noël (Christmas log) is a delicious cake, normally consisting of a Swiss roll-type sponge cake, filled with coffee, chestnut or chocolate butter cream and covered with the same cream, then decorated to look like a log, with extra little decorations on top. But in my childhood, my mother invented a new and equally delicious version of it, which was eminently suitable for an Australian summer Christmas. It’s super easy, doesn’t heat the house up–because no baking required at all!–and can be made Christmas Eve. I make it every year. It’s always popular!

I’ve published this recipe before, but not for a while, so here it is again, Maman’s Bûche de Noël.

Ingredients:

1 packet sponge finger biscuits

200 g unsalted butter, melted

1 or 2 eggs(depending on how much mixture you have)

half to 3/4 cup hot strong sweet coffee(a good instant coffee works fine)

Good cooking chocolate, melted with a little cream.

Crush all the biscuits (you can do this in the blender), add the hot sweet coffee, the melted butter, and mix well. Add the slightly beaten egg(or two). You need to obtain a good stiff mix that you can easily shape into a log. That’s what you do then–shape it into a log, and then put it in fridge till it is set. Meanwhile melt the chocolate over a low heat with a little cream, stir till all melted and glossy. Spread over the cake, on the top and sides. Put in fridge to set overnight. You can decorate the top with angelica leaves, almonds, rose petals, candied flowers, whatever you feel like! (Picture above is of one I made a couple of Christmasses ago)

A Hundred Words for Butterfly in bookshops now

The print edition of A Hundred Words for Butterfly is now available through any bookshop, across Australia! Returning from my big five-week trip to Europe–including to the Basque country–I was delighted to receive copies from my lovely publisher, Bronwyn Mehan of Spineless Wonders, and to meet in person with her and SW team members Camilla Cripps and Bettina Kaiser, on a beautiful sunny day in Sydney!

The Buyers: a short story to enjoy

Well, here we are now in the festive season: Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, New Year, all the lovely celebrations that happen at this time of the year. It’s not been the easiest of years for anyone, that’s for sure, but still we reach towards hope and joy as we approach the end of 2021. It’s a time when people like to relax and read, watch and listen to light, happy, warm stories full of love and magic and the unexpected. And it’s also a giving time. So I’d like to combine those things today and offer all my readers a short story I’ve written recently. It’s called The Buyers, it’s for adults, it’s set not long before Christmas, and I hope it will bring a smile to your face. You can download it from the link below.

(Do feel free to link to the story from this post but please note it is fully copyright-protected and cannot be used commercially. My authorship should also be acknowledged, if you share the story).

May you all have a peaceful and happy festive season, whatever you celebrate, and a relaxing and fun holiday break. And see you next year!

A new review, and the day of the launch of Butterfly

Today, at 6pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, we are launching A Hundred Words for Butterfly online, with interviews, reading, cocktails and pintxos, games and more! It’s going to be such fun! If you’d like to attend, you can simply join via the Spineless Wonders Facebook page, or register here to get the link. (It’s all free). It’s going to be such fun!

And as a lovely lead-in to tonight’s festivities, there’s another fabulous review of the book, this time on Google Play. It’s by writer Claudia R. Barnett. Here’s a short extract:

Like a flavoursome, aromatic Basque soup, this immersive tale leaves you wanting more. In part, this is due to the dialogue. It sounds authentic – as though you were eavesdropping on a friend’s conversation. And it is brought to life by Sarah Kennedy’s exquisite narration. But the real charm of Masson’s story are her engaging, relatable characters.

You can read the whole review here. And watch the lovely trailer for the book here.

And now, I’m off to start putting together ingredients for the pintxos I’ll be making for tonight, to have with a couple of those celebratory cocktails!

Pintxos to have with your Butterfly cocktails

Here are the perfect snacks to have with Abby’s gorgeous cocktails: pintxos!

Pinxtos (pronounced ‘pinchohs’) are the Basque version of tapas.  They are very popular in the Basque country(and beyond!). San Sebastian, just across the Spanish border, is renowned for its pinxtos bars but there are lots of popular pinxtos bars in the French Basque country too, especially on the coast, in my mother’s family’s stamping ground of Biarritz, Bayonne, Anglet, St Jean de Luz and so on. And people make them at home for parties, family gatherings etc. They are pretty hearty and a plate of assorted ones can constitute a real meal! Pinxtos differ from tapas in that they are always served on bread( very often slices of baguette), with a toothpick holding down the topping(actually ‘pintxo ‘ literally means ‘spiked’). The toppings will often feature Basque staples such as tomatoes, ham, eggs, capsicums, fish, seafood, cheese, etc, but can be as simple or complicated as you like, and there’s no one right way to do it: it’s totally up to you what you do! Just the bread and the toothpick are the basics:-) Piment d’Espelette of course can add that authentic touch!

With most, brushing the bread with a bit of olive oil first is a good idea.

Here’s some ideas for simple Basque-inspired toppings to get you started:

Roasted capiscum with marinated squid/octopus;

Semi-dried tomatoes with soft goat’s cheese and a dab of cherry jam on top (the combination of cheese and cherries is very popular in the Basque country)

Black olive tapenade with  Serrano-style ham or salami

Green olive tapenade with half a boiled egg and a sprinkle of piment d’Espelette or paprika

Grilled or barbecued prawns on cooked spinach

Marinated sardines or anchovies with caramelised onion

Mix of roasted vegs(eg capsicum, tomato, eggplant–or your choice) with roasted garlic

Cocktails for Butterfly celebrations, by Abby Rose

At the celebratory event online for A Hundred Words for Butterfly next week, there’s going to be a cocktail party, with everyone joining in from their own homes. And Abby Rose, marketing intern and a member of the wonderful Spineless Wonders team that have been creating the fabulous publicity for the book, has been busy concocting some fabulous cocktail recipes and ideas, themed around references to the Basque country and my family connections. Here, in images and words, are her fabulous creations, with explanations, ingredients and instructions! Thank you so much for this fantastic array, Abby!

Celebratory event for Butterfly on September 15!

So this is coming on September 15th, the fabulous online event celebrating the release of my audio novel for adults, A Hundred Words for Butterfly! Join us to celebrate, with special guests including me, the wonderful voice artist Sarah Kennedy (pictured below, she narrates the audiobook), and the winners and some finalists of the #100Words4Butterfly writing competition. Come along (virtually!) for a super fun night of games, cocktails (including the one below!), readings and more!

Zoom link to come. You can register your interest right now at the Spineless Wonders Facebook events page for it. The event will start at 6pm, Australian Eastern Standard Time.