Interview with Paul Jenner by Powell’s Books

PaulJennerPerhaps there’s a line graph somewhere that explains the correlation between an abundance of available technology and one’s increased interest in getting back to basics. Judging by the feats of time and space that one can currently achieve on an iPhone and the surging popularity of books on subjects like homesteading, crafting, and gardening — it’s substantial.

Lost Lore is a dream for anyone interested in practicing nostalgia. Drawing on superstition, folklore, ancient texts, and maybe even an anecdote from your great-grandmother, it’s an eclectic collection of wisdom and timeless tips that includes methods to cure drunkenness, forecast the weather through your pet’s behavior, predict the sex of a baby, and tell time by the stars. It’s the perfect antidote to the internet.

We caught up with Lost Lore coauthor Paul Jenner, and talked about how he conducted his research, why he feels books like this are important, and whether or not you should trust a dowser. (Do you feel lucky?)

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Megan: You’ve got one of the most interesting bios I’ve seen in awhile, and write about a varied, eclectic set of topics in Lost Lore. Could you talk a bit about your background, and how you’ve managed to gain such vast field of expertise?

Paul Jenner: [Laughter] That’s all very flattering. I started life as a journalist, and that of course will give you all kinds of experience and stories, and so on. I started writing books about twenty years ago. My partner Christine Smith and I wrote a book about the Pyrenees, Rough Guide to the Pyrenees, and for that we did a lot of hiking, outdoors things — canyoning, skiing, cycling, horseback riding — and met a lot of interesting people who are still practicing old crafts. We used to live in England, and decided to move to France. So we lived there for a few years, and then moved to Spain, where we are now. And as a result of that, you meet a lot of different people and get to do a lot of different things. We have horses, so I’ve learned how to shoe them, and I have a sailing boat and learned a lot about navigation.

Megan: Why do you think there’s an audience for books like Lost Lore?

Jenner: There’s always a market for nostalgia — the way that things were done, crafts that are dying out.There’s always a market for nostalgia — the way that things were done, crafts that are dying out. It’s fascinating, the way people lived, the culture, the etiquette of life years ago, I think it continues to fascinate us. Certainly where I’m living, in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, there are a lot of people who have come from all over Europe to live here, and get back to a lifestyle that’s much more in touch with nature. And consequently, they’re interested in these types of things, even if they don’t practice them. I think learning to tell the time from the position of the stars is something that’s quite fascinating, even if we have watches and so on. I think it’s important that we know how these crafts and skills were carried out in the past, and some of them are still quite useful today. It’s a part of our heritage, and I think it would be a shame if we lost sight of that.

Megan: Do you have a goal that you were hoping this book would accomplish?

Jenner: To answer your question, truthfully, as a writer, I love finding out all this information. There’s nothing I like better than getting a new project, and having all these things I can research and interesting people I can interview and find out how they do things, and how they think about things. That, for me, is the fascination, and I hope that the readers find it fascinating and interesting and informative when they’re looking through the book.

Megan: How did you do your research for this book?

Jenner: Some of it, I drew upon my routine knowledge. I’ve got a sailing boat, and I learned navigation, and in fact one time, when I wasn’t writing, I used to deal a little bit in nautical antiques — sextants, telescopes, globes, scrimshaw, ship’s figureheads, etc. I even had a stall on Portobello Road in London for a time, because I was quite an enthusiast. So some of it comes from my own experience, and some of it comes from interviewing people who still practice these crafts and techniques. And, of course, I have to spend time with old books, old manuscripts. That’s a big part of it, and what gives it a sort of intensity and nostalgic fascination is that you can get the voices of people who were writing in the nineteenth century, and the eighteenth century, and even two thousand years ago.

Megan: Could you give examples of any of the books you used in your research?

Jenner Sure: Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry by Thomas Tusser, The Prisse Papyrus (c. 2000 BC), The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man by A W Moore, Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, to name a few.

Megan: I imagine you met some interesting people you met during the course of your research?

Jenner: Oh, yes. Here in my house in Spain, it’s an old water mill, but now there’s very little water here, it’s quite an arid region. So we had to have a well dug here, and we had a dowser come. And this guy worked using a pendulum, to find the site of the water and then to decide on the depth he’d pick up stones and weigh them in his hand, and that would give him a feeling, he said, for how deep the water was. So we had him come, and then we had the firm come to dig the well, and they got down to 65 meters before they hit water. Fortunately, they did find water, and we still have that well in use today, ten years later.

But the funny thing is, a week after we had the well dug at great expense, my partner and I were walking on part of our land, and we noticed a spot where the grass was much greener than the rest of it. And after searching around, we found a small stream that was coming out from out of the ground. So the dowser had completely missed a stream right by the surface, and instead we dug down 65 meters, which we didn’t need to do.

I think that’s one aspect of the folklore that’s fascinating, and I know that people believe it in still today… but I don’t. [Laughter] I had asked him if he was dowsing to find gold and he got quite cross with me.

Megan: Did you learn any new skills?

Jenner: Oh goodness, yes, I learned lots and lots of things. I hadn’t known, for example, about how to tell the time by the stars.

We have watches nowadays, but that’s a really fascinating little trick, to be able to look up at the stars and say to someone who’s with you, “Oh, it must be 11:30 right now.” That rather confounds people when they discover that you can do that.

I also quite like some of the things like the old tea ceremonies, which still take place nowadays. In our lives today we don’t tend to have much of a place in the west for rituals and for ceremony. But I think it’s something that has significance still, and it has a way of setting up things and engaging the unconscious mind. I think that’s something that we’ve lost, that’s important.

Megan: Is there anything that you learned that you’ve incorporated into your daily lifestyle?

Jenner: I learned about shoeing a horse, and I can do it, if I had to. But I’d rather not, it’s very hard work. So I always have the blacksmith come to do it.

Megan: So you’re not navigating by the stars on your sailboat?

Jenner: No, afraid not — GPS. [Laughter] I think the old methods are fascinating, but generally speaking, the new methods are better.

Megan: Were you surprised by anything you learned while writing the book?

Jenner: I felt a bit surprised when I was doing the sections on romance. On the one hand, you could say that life was more romantic in the Victorian era, and earlier, but I think that life today is much, much better for couples. People just didn’t know each other in those days, and when you read some of these novels, you realize just how people would get married knowing almost nothing about one another. I think that’s rather sad, so in that aspect, I think life is much better now.

Megan: What are you working on right now?

Jenner: A few things. I’m very interested in things that have to do with sex and romance, and I’ve just finished a book called Lost Love, from the same publisher, and now I’m doing one called Teach Yourself Tantric Sex.

Megan: What are you reading right now?

Jenner: Well, most of my reading has to do with things like that. In fact, I’m reading a book called Why Mrs. Blake Cried, about the wife of William Blake. What many people perhaps don’t realize is that tantric sex hasn’t just come to the west recently, there’s always been sort of an undercurrent of westernized tantric sex, which William Blake, the poet and artist, practiced.

Paul Jenner spoke from his home in Spain on Dec 22, 2009.