On bees and republicanism

The Feminine Monarchie
Illustration from Charles Butler’s ‘The Feminine Monarchie’

We have let poetry down.

That’s a big claim when there are probably more people writing poetry now than at any other time in human history. I am not talking about quality – I do not have the data to assess whether there is proportionally more bad poetry than there used to be – but about scope, subject, ambition.

Maybe it is fairer for me to say that I have let poetry down. How so? By making it too small, by accepting it is only ever going to be a personal thing about me any feelings, by not expecting it to make a difference to myself or anyone else, by making it about capturing the minutiae of one life with little reference to anything else. So, could my poetry do more than just chronicle my young adult whinings about women? (If you go to The Vault you can read some of those terrible poems in Poems Volume Minus Two.)

Yes, I think it can. And I have an example. It’s called The Republic of Bees.

I have been coming back to the works of Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth century doctor and writer, for many years. I finally decided I was ready to engage him in a conversation through reflections on his writings. I also wanted to write a poem about insects that live in colonies, bees, wasps, termites, ants; I didn’t really mind. Reading Browne’s Garden of Cyrus – a fantasia on the quincunx (the shape you get when you plant four apple trees in a square with a fifth in the middle) – I came upon this:

… much there is not of wonder in the confused Houses of Pismires [ants], though much in their busie life and actions, more in the eidificial Palaces of Bees and Monarchical spirits; who make their combs six-cornered 

Bees, I thought. Why not bees. Then, with a little more poking about, I learned that the paramount bee of the hive had only been identified as female in the early years of the seventeenth century: Charles Butler published his book The Feminine Monarchie in 1609. Even during Browne’s lifetime there were those who still defended the views of ancient writers such as Aristotle, that the chief bee was a king, not a queen, and using that view to defend the divine right of kings. There was the subject of my poem.

I began to write, weighing up the human and apian monarchies. The human monarchs came out of the comparison quite badly. I remember that when I started writing the poem I would have classified myself as a lukewarm monarchist: we have monarchs, but they don’t do too much harm now. But by the time I had finished the poem (which took a few months), I realised I had moved to a position of at least theoretical republicanism: there is no justification for monarchy and we would be better off without them. I still hold the position: probably more strongly.

The change came through the process of writing the poem. It was a big subject, worthy of poetry. We need big poetry. So as someone who writes poetry, I think I have an obligation to go bigger. There are plenty of subjects to address, the monarchy being only one of them.


The Republic of Bees will appear in Minor Monuments, a collection of poetry that I am publishing in the next week or so. In the meantime, here are the first two verses.

The hive sits snug along the orchard’s bounds;
wall-sheltered from the North wind, it receives
the gaze of the austral sun which drives off damp
and lifts the spirits of its folk in spring.
The wooden walls define a waxen realm,
ruled by a monarch absolute and firm,
who bids the deft, obedient subjects range
the airy streets, and in their gathering play
procurer to the vegetable lusts
of plum and apple, cherry, quince and sloe.

Their city gate in form’s a busy quay
where all the goods of industry and trade
are garnered for the service of the hive,
as in the constant fluxing of the tide
each homing vessel, ready to discharge
its dusty cargo, rides the counter-wake
of other barques with course American.
The tribute of their Indies and Levant
is celled to form the winter sustenance
of all their ruler chooses to preserve.

An herb?

IMG_3417So. A last (for now) comment starting from Stephen Sondheim. I was reading his book Finishing the Hat when I come across a line which includes an herb. Well now, that brings me up short. Sondheim’s pretty hot on grammar, so I know it’s not a mistake. A few moments of reflection and I remember that in American English herb has a silent h. Nonetheless, it’s disquieting, in the same way as hearing Paul Simon on Rhythm of the Saints sing about drinking an erbal brew, rather than a herbal brew.

(I think at one point Sondheim rhymes scone with throne. I’m going to presume that is the standard American English pronunciation. Personally, I would rhyme scone with gone, but poking at that would get us into discussions of language and class in the UK. I really don’t want to start that now.)

Now, don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying erbal brew or an herb are wrong. They are normal for American English. That’s fine. It’s just that I notice them because they are not normal in British English (at least my RP version of it).

But then I’m left wondering why the h is silent. Is it one of these things where pre-modern English had a silent h and the British have started pronouncing it, while the Thirteen Colonies (and the successor states) have stuck with the original? (The same sort of process which makes the American English use of gotten seem quaint and archaic to British ears) Or is it because of the Italian influence on American English (what are zucchini?) with the silent h of Italian slipping into the pronunciation?

I don’t know. But it reminds me once again that whenever you come to a new language you have to leave behind the sounds of your language which you have come to associate with some of the shapes of the alphabet. It’s not that the Italians pronounce z as ts. Rather, there is a letter shape which English associates with the sound z, but Italian associates with the sound ts. (I know, even in writing that, I have ended up using the English associations to reflect the Italian ones – without using the international phonetic alphabet I can’t think of another way of expressing it.)

I suspect this is something which those brought-up with two languages (which includes me) understand better than monoglots. Letters are woozy signposts at best. Any attempt to make them more than that is delusion.

Looking like what it looks like

So. I have been thinking about visual art, mainly as a result of a blog post by a friend who is a conceptual artist. He was thinking about the apparent chasm of understanding between conceptual art and what we may, for lack of a better term, call ‘the public’. His thoughts prodded me into thinking about the root of the problem which goes much further back than conceptual art. It seems to me, as a non-visual-arts-practitioner, that part of this issue with the visual arts stems from the origins of the discipline in representation. Now, I am not saying that representation is the core of visual art, but for many centuries the practice of visual art has been based around representation. Broadly, people have judged visual art on whether it looks like what it is meant to be, so when works of visual art cease to be about ‘looking like something’ people turn away from them as they are unable to engage.

Of course, visual art has always been about more than ‘looking like something’: much renaissance art is based around allegory and symbols, which viewers at the time would have recognised, but which most of us, now, do not recognise. ‘Reading’ such a painting is more than seeing what it looks like. Unfortunately, recognition of the need for ‘reading’ among the broader audience has been weak, so when we get into the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the gap between practitioners and audience gets broader. Until we get to the stage we are now, with a divide between popular art which ‘looks like something’ (e.g. Jack Vettriano) and unpopular art which does not.

That was as far as I had got until a recent trip to Paris which took in the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay, both of which have collections of late 19th and early 20th century paintings and sculpture. Looking at those collections it was clear that the ‘problem’, or better, the ‘divergence’ really kicks in with the Impressionists who have a different approach to ‘what it looks like’, resulting in works thst would have had them laughed out of the eighteenth-century academy. Not that they couldn’t have produced works of academy style and standard, but they chose a different way of looking (and, not that the academicians thought they were only dealing ‘what it looks like’).

Once that different way has started there’s no going back: ‘looking like what it looks like’ in the academy way is no longer the path: that get us to post-impressionism, cubism and all the rest. And that’s fine. There is no requirement for works of visual art to resemble anything: but there are, I suggest, requirements of competence and good faith.

Good faith: that’s a bit of a strange one, isn’t it? Maybe, but it came to me as I was looking at the Matisses in the Orangerie and comparing them to the Derains on the opposite wall. The heads of Matisse’s people looked wrong. Not grotesquely wrong, or ‘I-can’t-do-any-better wrong’ (which is what we excuse in Rousseau), but very deliberately not quite right. He chose to do that, even though he could have painted them ‘right’. That faux naïf approach from a man who clearly could draw annoyed me, like a good musician deliberately playing out of tune.

Of course, he had a reason for doing that (at least, I hope he did), a reason which overrode the need to ‘look like’. Unfortunately, I’m not able to get past the naiveté to connect with that reason.

But opposite that was Derain’s Table de cuisine (Kitchen Table) a painting that ‘looks like’ something, a lot of things, but also does more than that. I find it difficult to describe exactly what that ‘more’ is, but I think it lies in the arrangement of the items and their emphasised edges. We have more than just an image of a kitchen table and some kitchen objects. Derain has given us the table and some.

I don’t have a snappy conclusion to these thoughts: I am still thinking and happy to listen to the views of the better informed.

Overtaken by events

Temporarily used for contact details: Historic England, Archive Services, The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email: archive@HistoricEngland.org.uk, Website: http://www.HistoricEngland.org.ukSo. Recently I have been reading a few of my early short stories (there aren’t many later ones as I gave up writing them) with a view to making some of them available in The Vault (the collection is called The Platonic Egg and Other Stories). I’m happy to put most of them up there, but there are two I have not. One because it is an embarrassing reminder of my younger self, in an exercise in wish-fulfilment no one else needs to read. The other, because it has been overtaken by events in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

I don’t think my story merits much more consideration, but I think there is an interesting question of how we treat stories and other works of art that sit on the far side of a gulf of events. Let me use a rather better work than mine as an example.

Back in the mid-nineteen eighties the BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of the Saki short story The Unrest Cure. In the original story, Clovis overhears a fellow passenger on a train discussing the dullness of his life and decides to provide a stimulus, a more exciting life; the opposite of the conventional ‘rest cure’. Clovis diverts himself to the man’s house and announces that he has been sent by the local bishop to organise a massacre of all the Jews in the district. There is panic, alarm, distress, but, in the end, no massacre as Clovis vanishes as mysteriously as he arrived. Yet, in the broadcast version, the object of the massacre was changed from the local Jews to the local Irish.

Now, there is enough in history to see why the Irish were chosen as the replacement victims; centuries of colonial rule and oppression made them suitable understudies. Despite that, when I heard the broadcast something didn’t sit right, because, for all the troubles that Ireland suffered, at the time Saki was writing, there were not massacres of the Irish taking place. Yet there were pogroms against Jews in Russia and anti-semitism was widespread across Europe: a massacre of Jews had a horrible plausibility, and would not have been the first in England.

So why the change? The adapters of the story found themselves reading it across the nearly incomprehensible chasm of the Holocaust and decided that, out of respect for, and recognition of, the suffering in that terrible persecution of Jews and other groups, they could not broadcast it as it was written. (I do wonder what would have happened if they had gone ahead and broadcast it leaving Jews as the intended victims: it would have been ghastly to listen to, and our knowledge of later events might have overwhelmed the story, but we might have glimpsed something of the on-going evil that is anti-semitism.)

The change from the Jews to the Irish was understandable, but also misguided. I would have rather they had left the story unbroadcast. This is not censorship: the story is still in print and readers who want to understand something of the perception of Jews and jewishness in Edwardian England can still read it (alongside at least one other Saki story that victimises Jews). Rather, it is an acknowledgement that some fractures in history are so deep they cannot be obliterated with a coat of green paint.

The sleeping bard

Gweledigaethau'r Bardd Cwsg D.S.Evans (ed.) 4th ed
So. I have been trapped down one of the research mines I wrote about earlier. This time, a reprint of an archaeological report from the 1980s led to a Welsh writer of the eighteenth century and his visions of the ills of society.

Ellis Wynne was a clergyman in North-West Wales, whose reputation today rests on his book Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard), first published in 1703. I’d be surprised if you’d come across it: for all its status as a classic of Welsh literature, moralising visions of hell and destruction are not widely read these days. (If you want to have a read, the text is available on Project Gutenberg in both the original Welsh and George Borrow’s 1860 translation.)

Wynne’s targets in the book are for the most part commonplace (the proud, lawyers, the Pope: eighteenth century Protestants were not very ecumenical), but there were a couple that pleasantly surprised me. Here’s my first extract: the narrator is asking why the devils in Hell regard rulers and nobles as worse than common thieves.

“Pray, my lord,” said I, “how can you call those illustrious people greater thieves than robbers on the highway?”

“You are but a dupe,” said he; “is not the villain who goes over the world with his sword in his hand and his plunderers behind him, burning and slaying, wresting kingdoms from their right owners, and looking forward to be adored as a conqueror, worse than the rogue who takes a purse upon the highway?  What is the tailor who cabbages a piece of cloth, to the great man who takes a piece out of the parish common?  Ought not the latter to be called a thief of the first water, or ten times more a rogue than the other?—the tailor merely takes snips of cloth from his customer, whilst the other takes from the poor man the sustenance of his beast, and by so doing the sustenance of himself and his little one.”

Conquerors and those who enclose common land; worse than highwaymen and cheating tailors. Yup, I’ll go with that.

And a second extract: here a knight is trying to excuse himself from damnation on the grounds that he comes from a noble family; the devils are having none of it.

“If your ancestors and your ancient house be all that you can bring in your defence, you may go the same road as he,” said one of the devils, “because we can scarcely remember one ancient house, of which some oppressor, murderer, or strong thief did not lay the foundation, and which he did not transmit to people as froward as himself, or to lazy drones, or drunken swine, to maintain whose extravagant magnificence, the vassals and the tenantry must be squeezed to death, whilst every handsome colt or pretty cow in the neighbourhood must be parted with for the pleasure of the mistress, and every lass or married woman, may consider herself fortunate, if she escape the pleasure of the master.”

Almost every noble house has been founded by an oppressor, murderer or strong thief (that is, a violent one) and their continued existence is a financial burden and moral risk to all around them.

Wynne may be laying it on thick – the visions are extreme – but too often we to go after the little crimes, ignoring the big ones because their size deceives us into thinking they can’t be in the same category.

I think Ellis Wynne may end up featuring in my poetry.

Where a million diamonds shine

mapsectionSo. Recently, I have spent a lot of time down a number of deep dark holes. On occasion, they have been wonderful, packed with shiny, interesting things, with little gems and nuggets there for the taking. And once down one of the holes I often find side passages that lead off into other caverns and caves, all with their surfaces glistening, all offering attractive trinkets. I can spend all day down there: which means the work of the day doesn’t get done.

I have, of course, been doing research.

Research is a respectable word for loafing around on google trying to find stuff out for my latest writing project. Fortune’s Favourite is set in the mid-eighteenth century: a period I know a fair bit about, but not quite enough. That means, when I want to refer to a stretch of the Thames by the appropriate name, I need to go hunting for it.

That afternoon I read a lot about navigation on the Thames, I learned something about working the slack, which may come in useful later, but I also now have vestigial memories of having briefly known something about rules for coxes and the dead key which coaches must always use (if they fall out of the launch the key will be pulled out and the launch engine will cut out, preventing accidents). Just to be clear, I don’t know that, I only remember that I read it.

I also read a lot about the building of Westminster Bridge – the original one – with all its subsidence problems. (That, later on, made me doubt an episode of Dr Who, because the Thames wouldn’t have been deep enough to hide the size of monster they put in it.) Unfortunately, none of that helped with the original question. I spent a good hour down a dark hole full of shiny things and wrote nothing.

Another hole is the 1749 map of London that I have on CD (that’s the image at the top of this post). It is absolutely fascinating and has helped me work out the route the main character took on his arrival in London, but it is so easy to vanish into it, looking for places I don’t need to know about, or zooming in on an alley with an interesting name. Research is a curse for this sort of project: there is so much that I could do with knowing, but I still need to do the actual writing, particularly as I am still hacking together a first draft (a very good first draft, but still a first).

However, I am pleased to announce I have come up with a plan which will keep me out of the research mines when I should be writing, but will also let me log all my queries so I can come back to answer them, if I find I need to. The system works in Scrivener, which is where I have written for nearly ten years now, so some parts are Scrivener specific, but I am sure it would be possible to do something similar in W*rd.

I have never used Scrivener’s Status metadata, preferring to colour code labels for progress, so I have set one status as text query. When I come across something I think I need to know (it might be a query about make-up, or whether there still were Jacobite heads on pikes on Temple Bar in 1750 (yes, is the answer)) I highlight the words or phrase in a bold burgundy, then set the status for that document from N/A to text query. If needs be I can make a short note in the document note field.

I then keep writing.

Later, I can identify those documents with queries in the Outline view and easily see what needs to be resolved. Even later, I could save a search as a collection to pull them all into one place.

I haven’t got to that stage yet, as I’m still enjoying the novelty of staying in the sunlight and writing, instead of disappearing down the research mines. I’m going to run with this for a while: I may let you now how I get on.

Blinking into the light

Thomas Bewick’s woodcut of a badger

So. Let’s start with a beast fable.

One day a badger decided to dig a new sett. She walked through the wood until she found a sloping bank sheltered from the wind but open to the afternoon sun. It would be a good place to bring up her cubs.

She dug, clawing soil away and flinging it far behind her. Soon her snout disappeared into the ground, then her shoulders. By lunchtime, all that could be seen were occasional clumps and spurts of earth spattering out of the mouth of the sett.

She dug for days, cutting and shaping the sett until it was just as she had imagined it. At last, it was finished. The badger came out, blinking into the evening light, just as a fox strolled past.

‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the fox.

‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the badger.

‘A new sett is it?’

The badger suddenly felt shy. ‘Well, it’s something I threw together in my spare time. I’m not exactly sure it’s all right, but for the moment. You know.’

The fox tilted its head. ‘A new sett is always interesting. Why don’t you tell me about it?’

The badger scratched at the ground with a forepaw. ‘Well, the soil is dry, loamy, but with a hint of iron. About six inches down there’s a big tree root, that took a bit of getting through, but it makes a lovely feature on the side of the passage. A sort of pale disc, that glows when the light hits it. When you get about a foot and a half down the soil changes to a silty clay. I wonder if there was an old stream bed through here. The taste is gritty…’

The fox yawned. ‘Just tell me how many bedrooms there are.’

‘There aren’t any bedrooms as such. There are places for sleeping in, but the way they open off the main chamber means they aren’t really rooms.’

The fox looked passed the badger. ‘Will you excuse me, I’ve just seen a vole which hasn’t seen me.’

The fox bounded off.

The badger watched him go. ‘It is a very snug sett,’ she whispered.

I am like the badger (and not just because my beard has white streak down the middle). I have just finished the first draft of a story. Now I have to tell people of it, but I hesitate, partly out of shyness and partly because I know they will ask ‘what is the story about?’ That, as the badger found, is a difficult question. Not because the story isn’t about anything – far from it, there are forty-one thousand wonderful words I have been immersed in for months – but rather because identifying the essence of the story those words form is tricky.

When my partner asks ‘what’s it about?’ I mutter and murmur, going either too long (‘we’re in eighteenth century central Europe, do you remember when we went to Czechoslovakia to česki Krumolv and česki Budjeovice, well, its a bit like that …’) or too short (‘it’s about knowing your place in the world’). Both of those are true, but neither of them is the right answer: the scale is wrong.

So yesterday, I called out to the internet ‘help me sort out a summary for this story’ (which is called Gilbert the Liar). The internet sent me Graeme Shimmin, or at least, his web site, and particularly this page on the elevator pitch. I worked through the methodology for the log line, finally getting:

In eighteenth-century Europe, a duke’s son flees the ancestral castle to avoid marrying the bride chosen for him. An unplanned meeting with an unreliable baker gives him the chance of a life with the girl he has fallen for, if only he can overcome his strong sense of family duty.

And the Hollywood style pitch:

Trading places meets Cyrano de Bergerac.

Does that sound even a little bit interesting? If it does, you can read a few chapters here. I’m going to let it rest for a week or two and then come back to groan over it. Because that’s what I do.

The Carnival of Tyron

So. I’ve been tidying up my study, a job which has mainly involved excavating the ‘heap of shame’ which has sheltered there for several years. The heap was a combination of a two, last-millennium PCs, some of my papers, unsorted photographs and papers from my parents’ house, and a suitcase of 35 mm slides from my great-aunt Kate. Not a quick job then.

But steady work, and a lot of shredding and recycling, has cleared the heap of shame. Not that I have completed the sorting: there are still boxes of slides to go through, and papers that need to be finally sorted now that all the duplicates have gone. Instead of the heap of shame there is clear floor.

The spirit of sorting also extended to my filing cabinet and my laptop, where I have been exploring a murky folder labeled ‘archive material’. I have now pulled out The Carnival of Tyron, a fantasy novel I wrote back in the 1980s. I tried at the time to find a publisher, but didn’t have any success.

Inspired by the spirt of sorting I have rationalised the multiple paper drafts I had stashed away, thrown away the letters of rejection from agents and turned the final electronic draft into an ebook. (As I had the text in a series of word documents (one per chapter, which was how we rocked in those days) it hasn’t take much to format it in epub and kindle formats.) The Carnival of Tyron is now available as a free download from The Vault.

It’s free because I regard it as a curiosity: interesting, flawed and, for me, a memento of my earlier writing, not something that I want to charge for. If, however, after, during, or even before reading you want to pay something for the experience, and by doing so support my current writing, I am not going to stop you. Quite the opposite: I am going to make it incredibly easy. You’ll find more details on the Lighting the Lantern page.

Tess, Tess, your life is a mess

So. This post doesn’t so much contain spoilers, but is a spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending or major events of Tess of the d’Urbervilles look away now.

I have a complicated history with Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which started before I read it, because Thomas Hardy wrote it and I had to wade through Under the Greenwood Tree and The Mayor of Castorbridge at school. I saw the film (no, Normandy does not look like Wessex) and read bits of it. Many years later one of my children was in a musical adaptation. (They didn’t use the title of this post as a chorus to one of their songs: but they should have, as it summarises the whole book.) Now, another of the children is studying the book for A level.

Tonight after tea, the discussion turned to Angel, and is he a baddie or not (it was a more nuanced discussion than it sounds). Soon we found ourselves asking in what week of the apprentice would the various characters in the novel have been fired: a most interesting question.

Alex should be first to go, given that raping Tess is one of the worst things that happens to her, but we reckoned he would actually last quite a few weeks, perhaps even getting to the semi-final and the interviews, mainly because he would be clever enough to present a pleasant appearance, until Margaret would tear apart his CV.

Tess’s father would go in an early week, seeing as how he was a lazy, boastful drunk, but we agreed it would be her mother who would be fired in the first week for being too keen to push Tess towards the d’Urbervilles and for failing to warn her anything about men.

The final would be Tess and Angel going head to head. Tess with her business plan for a dairy and Angel with his internet travel company specialising in South American tours. Which one would Lord Sugar (I am in the UK) choose as his business partner? 

Great as in auk

The Great Auk

So. Two short thoughts as we head for the door.

First, a recent article in The Guardian told us the French and Germans had decided Brexit was going to be treated as a masculine noun, while the Italians, although they hadn’t quite decided, were probably going to treat it as feminine noun. It was the justification I enjoyed: the underlying word in Brexit, exit, is uscita in Italian, which is a feminine noun, consequently Brexit should be feminine.

I want them to go one stage further. There is no logical reason why they have to call it Brexit. They could call it anything they liked – even something uncomplimentary. So why stick with the English word exit? Why not use uscita? Then they could call it Bruscita, which is almost an Italian word. And the English can think erroneously of toasted slices of bread with delicious toppings.

Secondly, there is a lot of talk about making Britain great again. Hmm. But it was Great Britain before the United Kingdom became an imperial power and it continues to be Great Britain even after it has ceased to be an imperial power. How so? Because Britain is Great Britain in the same sense that the Great Auk was great: to distinguish it from another similar but smaller thing. In the Great Auk’s case it was the Lesser Auk. In Britain’s case it was Brittany, that well-known settlement of Britons on the Armorican Peninsula.

The United Kingdom could turn into an unpeopled waste land, but it would still be Great Britain on the maps.