You probably don’t think that a book set in the rolling hills of the Welsh Valleys has much to do with Boro, but you’d be surprised. Like all the best books, it’s a winding and unexpected story!
Written by Alan Garner and published in 1967, The Owl Service tells the story of Alison, Roger, and Gwyn, who one hot summer, fall headlong into an old legend which is doomed to play out again and again in every generation. Uniquely, it’s all triggered by the discovery of a set of old plates in the attic. Weird? Yes. Surprisingly enjoyable? Also yes.
The plates are central to the book; a whole dinner service patterned around the edge with what looks at first like intricate flowers, but once you realise it also looks like owls, you can never unsee it. Never unseeing the pattern is a theme throughout the book – the owls and flowers keep coming back again and again, blossoming into an old Welsh legend about a woman (Blodeuwedd) who was crafted out of flowers, but was eventually turned into an owl as punishment for an affair.
The great thing about the book is that you don’t realise that you’ve gotten sucked into the story until the action begins and suddenly you can’t turn the pages quickly enough!
Huw looked at Gwyn, and looked through him. “She’s coming,” he said. “She won’t be long now.”
Gwyn heard something drop behind him, and he turned. A lump of pebble-dash had come off the wall, and another fell, and in their place on the wall two eyes were watching him.
[Woah! Don’t stop now! Read faster!]
But how is this wonderous tale linked to Boro, I hear you cry?
Well, because the ‘owl service’, on which the original book was based, was designed by none other than Christopher Dresser! And as we all know (I hope), Dresser is one of Middlesbrough’s adopted sons, and has a large part of the Dorman Museum dedicated to his work.
This brings me neatly to part two of this post – the ‘Petals and Claws’ exhibition opening at the Dorman in just a few short weeks!
The exhibition is based on The Owl Service, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and will bring the book’s characters and folklore to life.
It promises to be a feast of sight and sound, with a mix of photography, video, painting, sculpture, music/soundscape, poetry, and dance; every bit as atmospheric as the book itself!
As if that wasn’t enough, there are also events planned, including a talk by Alan Garner’s wife Griselda, who will be telling the story behind The Owl Service. I for one will be at the front of the queue for that, so I’ll see you there!!