How do we make people behave themselves? Throughout history there have been ways to control behaviours through belief systems. Fear has often been the most effective. Fear of hell, damnation, of reds under the bed, of being shamed in the stocks, of invasions by others, of our most precious things being robbed or violated. Stir up fear and people can be made to behave differently, sometimes for good.

Parents have to teach their children how to behave and stories of bogeymen and cautionary tales are part of our tradition. Struwwelpeter is a famous part of Victorian childhood, the book’s terrifying pictures of a boy who sucked his thumbs having them chopped off the most famous example.

“The door flew open, in he ran

The great long red-legged scissor-man”

Too scary to write the rest as memories of my fear and disgust are evoked from the ancient copy that was part of my childhood. We were breathless with terror and made a bit hysterical with dread as we looked together at the illustrations. One of the stories was about the punishment of racism, another of Frederick, a boy who was cruel:

“He caught the flies, poor little things

And then tore off their tiny wings,

He kill’d the birds, and broke the chairs

And threw the kittens down the stairs.”

Maybe Protestant Christianity was failing to control some children, not taught enough about St Francis the lover and champion of animals and the natural environment? By now the elves and spirits of previous centuries who had protected nature had been confined to harmless fairy tales, the sense in these increasingly godless colonial times was of the natural world being there for all to harvest at best, plunder at worst. My old fashioned geography lessons at school were about tobacco and coffee plantations and how very many apparently essential products came from whales, while the teacher who was after all kind hearted, told us in tears about how she had seen aborigines in Australia locked away behind fences and treated worse than animals.

This plundering is the result of a complete disconnect between man and the planet. My grandmother Jan Struther, with EH Shepherd as illustrator, wrote The Modern Struwwelpeter in 1936.

These stories are about how city children have to learn to cross the road safely, not play with electricity, and not want too much of all they see in shop windows. The children were named after her children and nephews. My mother’s story has her punished for saying too often “I must have that” and she gets turned into a wax shop dummy who can only forever “stand and smile and pose In the most expensive clothes.”

For my exhibition Otherworld I have aimed to evoke a reconnection with nature through those tiny spirits which might once have haunted the Heath which the gallery overlooks. Last summer I was deeply upset and infuriated when a wild part of it where I had just been photographing butterflies, including a colony of Essex skippers, was mowed the very next day by the council.

This contravened an arrangement where some areas of Blackheath were supposed to have been left wild after discussions between local experts and Greenwich  council (which doesn’t have an ecology officer). An amazing number of ants bees and wasps can be found there. And will continue to be, but only if wild flowers and grasses are allowed to remain. Locals need to know about and understand this. If my eco-fantasy of a new culture of fear of harming the little folk came into play (including terrifying curses acted out on those who ignored and damaged them) perhaps the Heath could flourish and respect for the wild flowers, insects, bees even wasps be generated in all citizens, gardeners and the local council. That would be good for all of us to help prevent a real curse: a catastrophic decline in insects numbers.


Do you believe in fairies? I remember seeing Peter Pan in a theatre when I was little, and to revive the dying light that was Tinkerbell we all had to shout out “I do believe in fairies”. For a time I worked as a researcher for the American children’s book writer Nancy K. Robinson when she was writing about the supernatural. We went to Mull together for research for her latest book involving a ghost caught on camera, and I read all there was to know about the Cottingley fairies and the relationship between the two girls who took the photographs and Arthur Conan Doyle who along with many others, was convinced by them. In 1984 they admitted that they were faked but still insisted that they had seen fairies. Now fairies belong only to an older version of childhood and to New Age mythology, who would admit to ever seeing one?

However I have met two people who did. One was in my primary school when I was five. A girl whose mother was very cruel, and who actually, astonishingly, ran away from home with her little brother, told me she saw fairies in her garden and spoke to them. I found it hard to believe but knew she totally believed it, and she certainly needed their support.
The other time was when I was a teenager and travelling with my mother, a freelance journalist, and my two younger brothers around Cornwall. My mother’s family were Scottish and I grew up with stories of the supernatural and second sight. Her Aunt Rachel was the most wonderful story teller. And these were stories about people she knew, or had been passed down through generations. So in Cornwall we naturally gravitated to sites of the supernatural. We visited the spooky Zennor, and Men An Tol where children were taken to be passed through the stone with the hole to be cured of rickets.  Studying biology my theory was that the sunlight cured them, but I loved the place and the stories. Then one day we got up very early to find a wishing well my mother had heard about. We were driving through a remote and misty valley, lost, and came across an old postman on his bicycle. My mother asked him if he knew of the place. His face lit up and he told us where it was adding that he had just that morning seen the little people. He had a glow about him, there was no question that we believed him. We found the “well” and it was remotely tucked away through briars and bushes. A little trickle in the ground it was actually a spring. All around it tied on the branches were ancient and recent pieces of fabric, mostly reds and browns. It was a magical place and still in use.

The Celts were animists, believing that all living things had a spirit, like the kami in Shintoism in Japan . Some sites, like the well we visited, were holy and were entrances to the Otherworld. These were protected by the supernatural, and nature spirits or shapeshifting animals like hares, were a vital part of that. Hobgoblins, elves, sprites, fairies are all remnants of this belief that if you harmed or failed to respect nature you would be punished. Old stories of what happened when you killed a seal were told to me as a child, as they were believed to have a strong connection to humans. In my exhibition Otherworld I am aiming to remind people of these old stories and revitalise a respect for natural forces. Our planet needs protection, and if humans won’t do it, let them be punished by the light and dark little folk.