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.

This is not a nature blog

Seals on Tyne


So. Although this site is mainly about words and that, nature keeps creeping in. Yesterday I was cycling along the banks of the Tyne. The tide was going out, so there were mud banks showing on both sides of the river. Nearer Newcastle that exposed traffic cones flung off bridges, the ribs of old boats and water-logged tree-trunks that have become stuck in the mud. As I came round one bend with a broad stretch of mud on the outside of the curve I saw plenty of gulls and waders, a few cormorants and another couple of tree-trunks.

Expect they weren’t. They were seals. Two seals lying on the mud beside the Tyne.

I stopped to watch and photograph. I don’t have a wonder-camera, only my phone, which is why the photograph above is so grainy – maximum zoom and they still look tiny. As I watched I realised there was a third seal in the water, occasionally it would arc out of the water and splash back in.

The two on the bank busied themselves with lying there, but now and again would curl their tails or go into a stretch of head and tail that made them look like a big, brown, furry banana.

After a few minutes I cycled on, got to the mid point of my ride, crossed the river and cycled back, choosing the path that would take me along side the river all the way. As I had hoped, the seals were still there: now all three of them on the mud. The one that had been in the water was smaller than the others and was more bothered by the sea-birds that came gradually closer. When they got too close it rippled furiously towards them. I took more pictures and finally cycled on.

After the excitement of seeing them – and I was excited, pointing them out to passers-by – I wondered whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that there were seas in the Tyne. On the one hand, it could be good, because it is a sign of the improved water quality. But then it could be a sign that life for seals is so grim elsewhere that it’s worth taking a chance on the Tyne. I hope it’s the first, but I have no data.

But just to be clear: this is not a nature blog.

Small stories of cycling

Grey heron against grey water and grey mud

So. A few small stories from a week in cycling.

Story One

On Tuesday I locked my bike up outside Newcastle City Library. I had a couple of hours between meetings so I went to a quiet spot and worked on Gilbert the Liar. When I came out the little box of cycle extras (tyre levers, patches, allen keys) that lives in a pouch under the saddle was gone.

Story Two

This morning, as I was cycling along the Keelman’s Way just west of the King Edward VII bridge, I saw a heron at the water’s edge. I stopped and watched it for a while and took a picture (yup, that’s it on the right). After a couple of minutes it took to the air and flew up river, never more than ten feet above the water.

Story Three

A couple cycling the other way asked for directions. They were heading for South Shields as part of a ride along Hadrian’s Wall. Their map, which would have been fine for the rest of the route, was really too small a scale for navigating Tyneside. We discussed their route back to Central Station: it doesn’t matter how you do it, but a one point in any ride from the river to Newcastle city centre you have to go up hill. I tried to push that thought out of my mind as I rode on.

Story Four

On a path to the north of the river I saw a woman calling a dog. Then I saw the dog, standing proud on a hillock. The dog wasn’t listening to her, but was giving me its full attention. That was worrying. Finally, it responded to her calls and bounded down the hill. By the time I reached them, the dog was all over the path, bouncy, but not aggressive. I stopped. The woman apologised.

It was her husband’s fault. The previous Saturday she had taken the dog for a walk and her husband had cycled up. Now the dog thought that every cyclist was him and would go up to greet them. Not a problem, I said, and cycled on.

Story Five

At the Ouseburn Cycle Hub I stopped and bought replacements for my missing tyre levers and puncture kit, and a little tin box to keep them in.


National Poetry Day

So. Today (6th October – Gregorian Calendar) is National Poetry Day. Hurrah. Poetry is good enough to deserve a day. Unfortunately, I have not written a poem today: too busy working and thinking about heat loss and condensation.

But I did write a poem yesterday. Normally, I would post a little bit of a poem, but I am not going to post this one, because there is serious scope for being misunderstood. Not only does it include words I would not normally use – not sweary or vulgar but differently unpleasant – but it does not represent my own feelings or opinions. How so?

Because I have written the UK’s next ‘Song for Europe’ which turns out to be an unpleasant, self-satisfied, xenophobic rant.

I am torn. At one level, I think it is appropriate and very, very pointed. And at another level, I am shamed of having used some of the words in it, and I do not want anyone to be in anyway confused and to think this might be my actual real opinions. So I will not post it, or publish it, until it is being sung by the next incarnation of the Spitting Image puppets.