Angela Carter – Three Things I Learned

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Not actually Angela Carter

So. The BBC have just shown a cracking documentary about Angela Carter (available on iPlayer until early September 2018). There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, but three things stood out for me.

1. She wrote a lot, consistently, over a twenty-five year writing career. That may seem a strange thing to take away from her life, but I am impressed that she discovered what it was she ought to be doing and got on with it, despite (possibly because of) the crap that was happening in her life. ‘Getting on with it’ or ‘turning up’ at the desk to write books, stories and articles, without worrying that many people don’t appreciate them, is an emblem of a real writer.

2. She didn’t have much time for the constipated middle-class novels of the 1960s and 1970s. There’s a lovely clip of her dissing the Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac. I know the feeling. Here’s a little doggerel fragment I jotted down a few years ago under the title ‘why I have given up reading modern novels’:

… with kind and beastly people
having largely beastly lives;
and all the beastly people
are cheating on their wives
(or husbands …)

Carter wrote the novels she wanted to write which, for all their ‘fantasy’ were still deeply political. Sometimes, the best way to write about something is to write about something else.

3. She held the view that the writer and reader create a contract, and so long as what happens within the writing sticks to that contract the reader is content to read. That is a very different test from ‘could that happen’ or ‘is it real’, and should be liberating for both the writer and the reader. If I apply that test to my current work in progress (Fortune’s Favourite – a story set in the eighteenth century english theatre world) it tells me to turn the volume up, not down.

Thank you, Angela. 

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

badger
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

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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? 

Radio playing

20160507-100850.jpg So. I went to Alphabetti Theatre to see Frank Sumatra by Mike Yeaman, which the publicity described as being performed in the style of a radio play. (As an aside – if I needed any encouragement for that – if you are in the North East of England go to Alphabetti. It’s a shoe-string operation which does great theatre in a basement.) It was a great evening with a funny, well-performed piece, which left me thinking about the radio play format.

In my teens I listened to a lot of radio drama: adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers detective stories, half-hour comedies, proper plays. I even tried writing them myself. (My early 70’s play about a plane hijacking – very topical then – used a hoover for the sound of an aeroplane taking off: that was before I got my first cassette recorder.) Despite all that listening I haven’t thought about them very much: so here goes.

The first and obvious thing about radio plays is that you can present any scenario you want, provided you can present a realistic soundscape. You can do things you can’t do on stage or in film without a massive budget. In Frank Sumatra, Frank was an orang-utang, four months old at the start at the play and fully grown by the end: eat your heart out Richard Linklater.

Beyond even Frank are the Goon Shows, which used the freedom of the format to create astonishing sound images: a rabid Christmas pudding terrorising people; a man travelling in a crate (Eccles: ‘Ah this is the life, being nailed up in a crate and carried across Africa’); a canvas tent with an upstairs.

Why does that work? My current idea is that radio draws on our experience of oral storytelling: it is a step beyond Charles Dickens giving readings from his work, but still on the same path. In the same way as our friend giving us the ‘he said, she said’ of their day, the radio play invites our engagement with a vocal story. We have to put ourselves in the path of the play.

The second thing I noticed was the treatment of time. The radio play, like the novel (and the TV advert) can make huge temporal jumps: ten seconds of a Frank Sinatra song and the characters in Frank Sumatra have conceived, carried and given birth to a child. Brilliant. And no need for a nine months later caption. The story-telling roots permit the leaps in time, which the more visual presentation of theatre and film balk at.

The more I think of it, the more interesting the format becomes, even without the additional layering of the live stage performance of Frank Sumatra (and, in its first incarnation Anomalisa). I might have to give it a shot myself.

Contra crepusculum

men_of_the_old_stone_age_28191529_wolf
Polychrome painting of a wolf in the Font-de-Gaume cave (drawing by Henri Breuil)

So. I find myself in a trap of my own making, caught between Angela Carter on one side and Stephanie Meyers on the other, because I have decided to write about wolves. More specifically about wolves and people with an indefinite and poorly defined line between them.

Currently, I have a short, ten-minute, play with one character who is a wolf and who is also, somehow, human (or, at least, appears to be). I managed to write that without leaping to the obvious conclusion that everyone reading this will reach in a few milli-seconds: I have written about a werewolf. Which is where Angela and Stephanie come in.

I have not read the Twilight Saga and do not intend to. I have not read Angela Carter’s wolf and werewolf short stories, but I have bought a copy of The Bloody Chamber, the collection in which they appear, and I will read them in the next few days. I am, though, wary, as they will inevitably change by thinking on the subject, and I will lose the knowing innocence that has served me so far.

My problem is that I don’t really want to write about werewolves, certainly not in the Meyeresque (hence the title of the post). I don’t want the huge, leapy, instantly-transforming things of team Jacob (even without reading/watching I know too much). I don’t even want the dorky New Zealand werewolves of What we do in the shadows (that good, but bloody vampire comedy).

I want to write about wolves and people. As yet, I don’t know how to do that, but I will find out in the only way I know how: by writing about it. And I’m starting to think I might want the wolf of Gubbio.

The Well at Narnia’s End

IMG_2130So. One of the questions supposedly asked of writers is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ (Although I have to say, in my case no one asks. Either because it’s so obvious, or because they don’t want to catch the same disease which ravaged my imagination.) For popular writers it becomes something of a little business, with readers and academics hacking away at the text and trying to find where the various pieces have come from. It’s rather like the geologists who established the stones of Stonehenge came from South Wales.

For the writings of C S Lewis the mining has gone on for decades and there have been fascinating results: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia came on a rich seam (we are probably going to have a lot of mining images today) when he made a clear identification between each of the planets in the Ptolemaic cosmology and the books of the Narnia series. He also found a very strong link with Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Now, we know that Lewis read a lot (I think someone, somewhere, possibly in A N Wilson’s biography, remarks that Lewis had read everything). I have often wondered about the influence of William Morris on Lewis and Tolkien, given that both went ‘northern’ (possibly Tolkien more than Lewis). Those wonderings cropped up again recently, while I was re-reading Morris’ The Well and the World’s End (a book we know Lewis admired). This time I stumbled on a couple of strata that it seems Lewis had mined (told you) for the Narnia series.

The first was a stone table on which the crone who enthralled (in the ‘making a thrall – slave – of’ sense) the future Lady of Abundance sacrificed the white goat. The sacrifice was not exactly substitutionary, but it did fulfil an undefined need for blood. Who else to we know who was sacrificed on a stone table?

The second was the disguising of Ralph, Ursula, the Sage of Swevenham and their horses against the pursuit of the Lord of Utterbol’s nephew, so the pursuers saw only rocks and skeletons. Now, where in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe are two people disguised as objects? (Clue: one of them is a witch, one a dwarf.)

(I also have a vague recollection of a Tolkien link, but like many night thoughts it was gone with the morning.)

I don’t think either of those are new links: you can bet there will have been plenty of PhDs that discuss them. Neither, for me, do they diminish Lewis’ text. (I am well aware of Tolkien’s rebuke to those studying Beowulf: But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.) Rather, they root it back into something older, show more of its trajectory; perhaps make it appear less the product of the mythological bran-tub than it sometimes does.