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.

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.


A short history of writing on the move

A Handspring (2000 AD) and a Palm Tungsten (AD 2003)

This post is a little like Ikea, if you want to skip past the kitchen displays and the bedrooms just get to the marketplace and checkouts then just jump here.

And I can only assume that if you are still reading you are ready for a little meander.

I have been writing for years (I tried to write an encyclopaedia when I was about ten: was this ambition?), but have only been writing on computers thirty years. This has been a good thing as my handwriting is both abominable and abominably slow: since I have using computers people have been able to read my words – for good or ill. The downside was being tethered to a computer keyboard. First a mainframe terminal, linked to a computer running MTS (Michigan Terminal System in case anyone’s interested), then an Amstrad PCW 8256 and a little later a PC (a 386 from a manufacturer which folded a few weeks after I bought the machine).

Any time I wanted to write I had to be at the desk, which was really annoying. I had all manner of attempts at working around, including a dictaphone (for which I made a little foot pedal – screwing a switch to a piece of plywood and doing a spot of soldering). If I was away from the machine I would write – on paper, with a pen – then type it up. I wrote a couple of unpublished (unpublishable) manuscripts (let’s not call them books) using that method. It was so frustrating – particularly (did I mention) given my handwriting was slow and bad: in the worst case I can only read my own writing within five minutes of writing it.

Then, towards the end of the 1990s (so long ago) there were Palm Pilots, the first laptops, the Apple Newton. Hints towards writing on the move. Finally, in 2000, I bought a Handspring: a green plastic block with a blocky screen. No keyboard, but a stylus for making almost writing shapes. Wonderful. I could write where I was then upload the words to my PC and drag them into a Word document. Even better when I got a folding keyboard to go with it and I could touch type to the small green plastic block. The scary thing with the Handspring was changing the batteries: thirty seconds to do it or everything vanished.

The Handspring was a game changer, but the whole Palm/Handspring landscape that seemed so solid, so well developed, has vanished like the missing part of a Norwegian valley – ground away under the weight of a glacier. Three years later I upgraded to a Palm Tungsten, which slid up and down on itself and had a folding keyboard. I wrote some good stuff on that. But, of course, a but, there was still the need to transfer the text to a proper computer and fiddle with it. And editing a document of any length was painful.

The split of little device and tethered computer disappeared when I got my first laptop, a G4 iBook. It wasn’t one of the orange or blue clam cases (I still love that design, even though I never had one). The iBook was a breakthrough, the words in the right format, wherever I was. It was good, and got even better when I tried out Scrivener: astonishing software which just fitted with the way I write. I mean, how often do you start at the beginning and keep hammering on to the end until you’ve finished? Or do you write bits and pieces in different files and on little pieces of paper that have to be connected with letters in big circles and squares to link it together. I am definitely in that second category, so Scrivener was almost a miracle.

I have written so much in Scrivener: plays, brochures, stories, technical books. The only thing I don’t start in Scrivener is poetry: for some reason that still starts on the page with a fountain pen.

But lap tops weren’t that small, still a couple of kilos to carry around. Not exactly stick in the pocket stuff. So when the iPads came out I got one: with a bluetooth keyboard it was a nice writing machine (I still can’t cope with the on-screen keyboard, touch typing doesn’t work on an immobile screen). But I was back in the dark valley of syncing and formatting. Until July 2016, which is when Scrivener for iOS was released.

[And a welcome back to those who have cut through and missed the wardrobes and kitchens.]

Scrivener for iOS is as astonishing as Scrivener on the Mac. The whole paradigm of writing in pieces, not writing in one long stream. The binder, the synopsis, the metadata, the document notes (because a document is not simply a piece of text, but an embedded part of a network of thought and words), all there on the iPad.

And all synchronising back and forward before the iPad and the Mac, happening solidly through Dropbox. The same words, the same formatting, here, there, on the bigger screen, on the smaller screen. Even (thank you aeroplane mode) thirty thousand feet above the ground). Somehow this brings together the mobility, the decent keyboard and the proper formatting.

Scrivener of iOS is not the be all and end all: it still doesn’t make the coffee, and I still have to hammer the words out from my head. But it is a wonderful piece of software. So thank you Keith (not Kevin).

And everybody else, please buy Scrivener.

About bricks

So. I’ve spent some time in Siena and, apart from the Duomo and its marble, the overwhelming impression is one of brick. Mediaeval brick, renaissance brick, modern brick. Brick which makes walls, arches, columns, even floors (though strictly the Sienese probably count that as tile).

You can trace the history of a wall in the changes in the brick, the infill, the lack of bond in one corner, the change in brick size, or the way a string course suddenly stops. The wall I am facing now has a blocked up window with three different brick lintels and arches above it. Some of the arches are uniform, some have rubbed bricks at the centre of the flat arch to create the necessary forces to hold it up: each arch reflects a remodelling, someone’s decision to change the way they use the building.

Now, one of the things about these bricks is that they have all been made by hand. Someone has dug out the clay, puddled it to get out the biggest impurities, slapped it into a mould, let it dry and then fired it. All of that before any kind of building work has taken place. Also, at one step further down the process, someone has cut down a lot of trees in order to feed the kilns that fire the brick. Every brick is therefore a hand-made object and a record of human activity.

There are maybe ten thousand bricks in the wall facing me, which is one wall of four storey building. The rest of the street’s façade has maybe ten times that number: so a hundred thousand bricks on one short stretch. Give each building a back, party walls and floors and we are up to maybe half a million bricks. Add the other side of the street and we are up to a million bricks. (By this point my numbers have become very approximate and I should perhaps stop estimating and multiplying, but it is tempting to continue.) If we say the streets of mediaeval and Renaissance Siena are somewhere between two hundred and fifty and five hundred times the length of this short street – which is not impossible – we end up with a somewhere between a quarter and half a billion bricks in Siena.

That naive, arithmetical reflection can lead me in one of two ways: I can think about the community of interdependence required to create those bricks: the digger-out of clay, the brick-maker, the forester, kiln-master, waggoner, blacksmith, wheelwright. All those people need to eat, drink, sleep, marry and give in marriage. There needs to be a whole bunch of other people busy at their work before a single brick can be laid. (And I haven’t even started on the making of the lime mortar necessary to bed the bricks. Somehow, perhaps because it is shapeless, the mortar doesn’t get the attention it maybe should.)

And that actually brings me round to the second way of thinking about bricks: economically, as an expression of the use of surplus. The level of production in Siena and its territory has to be much greater than would be required just to keep everyone fed, clothed and sheltered.The bricks consume the surplus, just as the city elites consume the surplus of the countryside (leaving trade aside for the moment): in fact, as I think about it a little further, the bricks are a consumption of the countryside, as much as the brocades, velvets and laces of the city.

There is a weight pressing down in the bricks of Siena that is more than just the mass of burnt clay.

The morning after the morning after


So. At this time on a Saturday morning, with the weekly shopping done, I would normally be writing poetry. But poetry takes a certain amount of focus, and today I do not have that. Following the referendum result, the UK and Europe face years of challenge and uncertainty. I find myself uneasy and worried.

I know there are many people who see this as a wonderful new start for the UK, free of the shackles of the European Union. I trust they will use their sudden freedom responsibly, to make the UK a peaceful, stable, generous, welcoming place.

As for me, I do not share their near-mystical faith in the British (look how I am already in a terminological mess by the third paragraph as I try to tease things out). There are many, many good things about the UK and, having lived here all my life, I know how things work and I can be comfortable here. (I prefer East Anglian beer to any other in the world, but that is, in part, because that was the beer I started drinking.)

I can admire the view across a valley, seeing the pattern of the hedgerows and fields, the woods and the single oaks in the pastures. Yet at the same time I know a large part of that landscape was formed as the result of an eighteenth century land-grab, carried out by the elite and sanctioned by their unrepresentative parliament. (And the same, or worse, can be said about the grouse moors of Scotland.)

There is a certain inevitablity in quoting Chesterton when talking about the UK (and again, the terminology: Chesterton wrote a History of England, not a History of Britain). When, during the Boer war, he was faced with maddened imperialism, he observed:

‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

You love your mother because she is your mother, but do you want her to behave like that?

Britain no more has a ‘rightful place in the world’ than the USA has a ‘manifest destiny’, and the ‘British way of life’ has no more intrinsic value than any other. Such value it has comes from its alignment to universals such as justice, truth and kindness.

But we are where we are. So the question is ‘what do I do?’

Despair and resentment are not options. My answer is that I must act with justice, truth and kindness, and I must work that out in everything that I write and create.

It is time to write poetry again.