Sunday, 19 February 2017

Free Lines inspired by Len Cohen’s phrase, 'Dance me through the panic ...'

Strings vibrate your soul
Embracing the unreal
Drums thump against  your heart
You breathe, your distinctive sweat
threaded through with Elan by Coty.
Your feet itch to stomp, to jump and sway,  
Your body invades your brain  
Your voice sings  along, anticipating
the new world drenched with promise

Crowded places, detailed lists,                    
a thousand colours in your eye
sidelong looks, curling lips
leaden heart, boiling brain
shaking hands, frozen self
trapped tightly in one place
recalling futile actions 
and aborted promises
copping out, settling for less, 
embracing compromise.
haunted by unborn children,
breathing behind a wall of glass

Here comes  the panic and now there is no dance

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Love Song for France

(Inspired by Leonard’s Cohen’s eponymous prose piece)

Why I Love France

The heat in the morning, the click of rigging and the rustle of  
of sailing boats setting out for Africa: a long old journey
The wash of the tide against the staithes
Spreading out the seaweed yet again. And again

Francine and Joe waiting in the shadows to walk into my story
Pere Goriot walking arm in arm with Jean Valjean
Alongside Jean Sablon and Simone de Beauvoir.
The padding of my sandalled feet matched by the click of jackboots
And the hollow calls of Jean Moulin

Church celebrating the sea breathes smoke and scent
Seagulls, cormorants; a man counting untypical ducks,
their ducklings ticking along behind.
Boys - a whole day to play with -  swoop into the sea on a tripwire.
Pink sunset catching the tall buildings in relief
Rose red moon rises yet again over…
Moliere, Robespierre, Desmoulins, Beaudelaire, Maupassant
Inspiring revolutionaries and English poets.

Then there is Paris, dusty elegance in straight lines
Bateaux mouches cruise the slumberous Seine  
Markets like still-lives illustrating a world of plenty
Men in overalls drink cognac with their morning coffee,
Music and chatter leak out of riverside cafes and
songs gargled with laughter spill across the cobbles
towards paintings lined up against the stone walls of a church
A woman in a black dress pocked with fragrant lavender seeds
tips her ear to the voices of Americans who
have danced in this favoured city.

France is world of veils and shadows, pregnant with story.

Afternote: Francine and Joe walked into my novel Writing at the Maison Bleue. W
See sidebar 

Also see sidebar for An Englishwoman in France

Monday, 6 February 2017

This Writer’s Perspective on the Legend of King Arthur

The Book of the Graal

The following tumble of thoughts was inspired by another post-Christmas read, The Book of the Graal by Josephus, originally written about the year 1200. translated in this 2016 version by E C Coleman who offers this partial narrative, ‘… what I take here to be all in good faith the original story of Perceval and the holy grail, whole and incorrupt as it left the hands of its first author.’

The straight narrative here is a deep pleasure for this writer, uncorrupted as it is by nineteenth century romanticism and the ongoing twentieth century Disneyfication of the egregiously plumped-out legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.

Our human condition hard-wires us physiologically and psychologically to search for story. Story is the way we make sense of our complex worlds. We inherit, build on and invent narratives that give form to the chaos that is human experience.

When I say story I don’t mean stories written down as text-to-be read out loud and handed down, I means told stories which, through millennia, build themselves into our so deeply into our DNA -  not just the brain but in the flesh. It sits there for us to dig into intuitively for an explanation, a rationalisation for the strongest and strangest of human experiences – love, hate, death, murder, revenge, lust, passion, poetic delight. We call on this intuitive understanding of story to find an appropriate explanation to the palimpsest of our own unique experience. This ‘hard wiring’ explains why some us experience flashes of past and future events, apparently shared, by others in the past and the future.

Reading the pages in Josephus’s book I found my own story-hard-wiring sparking up like a Catherine wheel. I was on familiar ground. Hadn’t I used this whole panoply of fourth century sources - images, objects, song and story when researching my Welsh/Celtic/Roman novel The Pathfinder? The time-context of my novel predates the time-context of Josephus’s narrative. In fact the historical Uther Pendragon – father of Arthur – has a walk-on part in The Pathfinder,

So here we go.

As translated here Josephus’s narrative has the distinctively singular tonality the flowing movement of the oral storyteller rather than the transformative poet or pedantic historian. In those times Celtic priests - sometimes called Druids; in my novel I call them Seers - were alarmed as the emerging custom of writing things down rather than remembering them. They feared  that their acolytes would lose the gift of intricate memory that could install a thousand years of memory in a single human brain. These were times when high culture was expressed in prodigious memory, intricate social organisation, beautiful artifacts and world-wide trade – and did not rely on the written form. This written form emerged with Roman invasion and occupation and is often used to support the   false 'fact' that the Romans were among primitive people who could only benefit from being conquered,

The people's own oral narrative tells a different story. However, even in this intriguing volume we only have half of the grand history. The first half, (which must be buried in some archive)  is missing.  In this narrative we have to take for granted what we have been brainwashed with: the grandiose Victorianised version of the kingdom of Arthur and his round table of perfect gentle knights.

Josephus’s fascinating original narrative takes up the story half way through, presenting the interweaving narratives of the knights Percival, Gawain, and Lancelot with the shadow of a broken Arthur behind them. Arthur really only emerges towards the end, revivified by the heroic exploits of his three top knights. 

 The picture this story paints is of a South Western Britain and Northern France covered with forests as closely as rabbit’s fur. Knights are depicted as emerging from,  and retreating into the forest on their horses. Forest clearings are the locations of encounters between enemies and knights and fair damsels. Robbers – not worthy of a gentleman’s death by the sword or the axe,  are taken into the forest to be hanged   

 Scattered across this sylvan territory are castles of various kinds and quality, inhabited by tribal kings who are seen by the storyteller as good or evil. The knights of each court battle against their opposite numbers. Good against evil. Evil against good. The situation is clearly very fluid. As the depressed King Arthur’s virtuous rule recedes in the country,  evil Kings gain a foothold. So Arthur  sends Percival, Gawain, and Lancelot on various challenging quests to restore the balance between good and evil. The central thread binding their quests together is to find the ‘holy graal’ (not grail), which is here represented   here as a platter rather than the more recently evolved cup 

Alongside the ubiquitous fine horses, the accoutrements of battle – swords, axes, shields - are central to this narrative. Knights are identified (sometimes mis-identified) by their shields. As the questing knights enter a castle they dis-arm themselves,  or are dis- armed by ‘fair damsels’ who go on to wash them and dress them in silken robes so they can be entertained at the feasting table in a civilised fashion, even by their enemy

As I thought about  this I got a quick flash of a 1960S Western where the heroes and the villains leave their guns on the bar. Then I got a flash of secondary school children leaving their phones on the teacher’s desk as they enter the classroom.

As well as disarming and dressing the knights the damsels carry precious symbols like a golden circlet and the graal,  They also have their own personal quests. In the case of one damsel this is to carry round the heads of slain nights to mark the victory in battle.

This cult of the head is everywhere – carried around to identify and sometimes honour the dead, displayed as an offering to a leader or stuck on posts at the gates of a castle to claim victory.  ( A Custom which lasted down to the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The weapons of execution are also highly symbolic. Central to one part of this narrative
Joseph  of Aramathea
is the sword that struck off the head of John the Baptist and brought to the British shore by Joseph of Aramathea. The story has it that this same sword was stuck in a stone column in a chapel  (not a rock) waiting to be pulled out by an honourable knight.

This cult of the head struck a chord of recognition with me. Although this volume was not part of my research for my novel The Pathfinder, in that novel the hall of a powerful northern chieftain (dreamed up by me) is lined by the skulls generations of defeated enemies and honoured ancestors. He too lives in dense forested land, as does the chieftain father of my heroine Helen, who lives deep in the forests of West Britain in the land we now call Wales.

My novel also marks the gradual change from Celtic pantheism to the worship
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Also on Kindle
(sometimes forced) of one God and the emergence of Christianity. This narrative is also threaded through with the historical imperative of the spread of the Christian church in the wake of the Roman occupationm

As the knights go hither and thither on their various quests they encounter hermits in chapels where they say mass when they return from, or set out on their journeys. Masses mark the passing of time for these itinerant knights.

As the story evolves King Arthur (sensibly wanting God on his side) confirms the importance of the masses and the hermits. And this , interestingly, is when he ordains that all chapels should have a big bell  to ring out their celebration of this new faith,

The female element in this legendary narrative is well established by the attendance of  comfort damsels, by their ritual deceased-head and symbol-bearing role mentioned earlier. The holy presence of the Virgin Mary as the female ideal underpins much of the narrative, This is sustained by the presence of the mother of Percival and the offstage presence of Guinevere who dies, also  offstage before the end. In this early narrative there is no mention of a dishonourable relationship between  Lancelot and Guinevere, merely his veneration and deep love being unrequited

So here is a perfect narrative surely handed down in the Celtic oral fashion and written down hundreds of years later  in 1200AD- praising the role of honour in society, knitting together various actual events, distilling the actions of symbolic heroes and villains inhabiting a world on the edge of chaos. It welds together the ancient spirituality  with the dawning dominance of  Christ worship, making some kind of order through claims and counterclaims, evolving rules  of courtesy and precedent, embodied in the person of the gentle perfect knight who is trusted because of his natural valour and virtue.

This is a much more graceful and charged account of those days, coming down as it does through oral accounts. It is so much purer  than the later romanticised, over-decorated Victorian  renderings such as Morte d’Arthur, which lean  on  it Victorian context rather than its true Celtic origins.

Interestingly, missing in this narrative are such familiar embellishments  as dragons. (There are real lions here,, not dragons. The only dragon is on the shield of a West Briton Knight).  And  missing also is betrayal of Arthur by  Lancelot’s and Guinevere. Also missing is the concrete existence of Camelot except by naming.  Then the castles here are not be-ribboned edifices; they have little resemblance to the Hollywood Camelots. I have the impression of  those great wooden stockades more familiar to us from the American Western.

I loved reading this book because its reflection of Celtic and post-Celtic culture has a ring of truth for me. And I loved reading it because it made me realise that in writing The Pathfinder I had quite intuitively rung the bell of my own narrative  truth, as clear as one of Arthur’s chapel bells.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A Writer’s Commentary* on 'The Invention of Angel Carter' by Edmund Gordon,

 I've just finished reading my Christmas present from @lickedspoon : the new biography of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon. It was a thoughtful present. She knows  I am very interested in the esoteric elements of the writing process as well as the unique cultural and political processes of the twentieth century,

So, I passed several days avoiding the inevitable post-Christmas torpor in reading this biography of a writer who perhaps saw herself - and was seen - as the Che Guevara of English Post WW2 letters.

 I don't envy this biographer his huge task of apprising the millions of words, in terms of work, journalism, commentary, and letters in her archive, including a thousand pages in letters to a single friend - all now deposited in the British Library, if you want to dip into it -   that flowed from her pen in the complex task of self-creation - of  defining and redefining herself, inventing herself, endowing reason to her impulses, adapting her interpretation of her thoughts and experiences  to 'prove' the truth of the centrality of myth in her world-view.

Even as a feminist from the beginning I have never thought of Angela Carter's work as more than marginal and of esoteric interest (although she did anticipate with prescience the present-day tranche of simplistic erotic vampire teenage sub-literature.)

But the more I read Gordon’s book the more interested I became in the way the unique psycho-drama of her own life and the weird psychopathology exploded into her writing. Having just finished a novel myself, focused on the inner life of an imaginative girl child I was a particularly captivated. 

I began to see how 'the clever-undergraduate' characterises Angela's writing. Because (although she had a truly big brain tuned into fantasy and turned that to good effect) she didn't get to Oxford at eighteen. Her intense reading was a rag-bag - widely eclectic and impulse-driven, and - although she later did a degree as a mature student - without the essential filter of intellectual discipline or  academic discourse to sort it all out so she could internalise it and allow it to bed down in her consciousness. Only in this way do we begin to integrate our acquired knowledge into our unique conssiousness  – to make it our own. She was confident enough then to rubbish certain lecturers and experts and adore others. So she missed out on the true academic discourse that prevents youne junior school argument
Jane ‘tis so!
John ‘tis not!
Jane ‘tis so!
John ‘tis not!
Jane ‘tis so! 
Jane bashes John over the head,

As the details emerged in this biography it seemed to me that Angela was like a magpie picking up bright things (and people) with which to line her writer's nest. The result of this unique evolution has been - despite the hagiographic splurge of comment that emerged after her very sadly early death at 51, the range of her literary output can still be seen is somewhat chaotic, derivative and distinctively un-synthesised.

These are the characteristics of an autodidact, of course. Being a bit of an autodidact myself I am aware that we grasp on every new bit of knowledge or insight like a sweetie and parade it around like a banner. Angela Carter did this with her mixture of Freud, Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, de Balzac, Baudelaire, Burgess, de Sade, Grimm, Perrault and many others (A formidable task for this biographer to explore ...)  Sweeties from all these sources were selected to fit her particular imagined world-viewn regarding what it was to be human or animal, what it was to be a man and what it was to be a woman. And she communicated her special view  that the differences between all these -  (animal, human, man, woman) were essentially a social construct rather that a given identity -  through her literary and journalistic output.

I began to think that there is something of the infant in Angela’s phenomenal self-absorption.  I was also very impressed by her literary self-confidence. She always felt she was a great writer and fated to be famous, and convinced the people around her of this, through her forceful self belief, her overt un-synthesised scholarship, alongside her mannered whimsical charismatic charm. These qualities in total made her  free spirit attractive to a wide range of people who were much less sure of themselves in those changing times. These included Carmen Calill and Liz Calder, themselves gifted literary change makers; they included her baffled depressed first husband and her silent, enamoured young second husband. They included her two Japanese houseboy/lovers – one who thrived in later life, on who didn’t. They included some of the students she mentored at the Universities of Sheffield and East Anglia. (The advice she gave, documented here, seems strange to me.)

I began to think that her greatest creative product was herself; self-made, self-storying, self-constructed. Her complex  construction included the paradoxes confident/awkward, boastful/overtly modesty.

I ended up wondering whether Angela had ever recovered from being the intensely spoilt, greedy child of indulgent parents especially including an obsessively possessive mother. The latent cruelty which blossomed in Carter's emotional make- up and in her encyclopaedic writing was brought to flower in part through her lifelong demonising of her mother, in her struggle to declare her own separate soul. The stifling, intense feminisation of her childhood experience, it seems to me, set in motion her further dogmatic (ie intellectually unsynthesised) assertions that the differences between men and women are a social construct. And that there need be no rules, no boundaries to her writing.

Still, when she feels strongly about something one can trace an inverted snobbery in her commentary. She flags up her distant working class background when it suits her, to despise the pretentious middle class around her, of which she is a member. And then her reflections on the working class people around her focus more on the ridiculous and comedic than the human,

It seems she is such a dedicated individualist she lacks empathy with both the middle class and the working class contexts in which she finds herself. This might have afforded her much greater insight as a writer into the true nature of myth and fairy tale in society. This might have happened had she not hi-jacked them to fit her own psycho-social worldview and make her personal art form.

The inchoate tumble of these ideas - much vaunted as 'groundbreaking' and 'original', by her reader and writer-fans - lacks the discipline which would have allowed her to work out a credible coherent argument and contribute widely to thinking and storying in this field. Her self-described role as the 'moral pornographer' is disingenuous. It has a   lot of esoteric charm but it lacking in rigorous thought.

Reading Gordon’s engrossing account of the talented Angela Carter’s invention of her own life did not at all put me off recognising her as a good writer in her time.  But  I kept thinking of the bright universal wisdom of Ursula le Guin which for me places her way above Angela Carter in terms of the skill, the fantastic insight which endows true literary value of her work in the similar field.

The Invention of Angela CarterA Biography

By Edmund GordonChatto & Windus 2016 

NB* This is my own commentary* - a writer’s reaction this book.
For a more straightforward review read
Rosemary Hill’s review in the Guardian 

Monday, 21 November 2016

WIP Another Patch for the Quilt that is my Big Novel

Primrose’s Kingdom

                      12th  November 1942

There was no doubt that Primrose Baggot loved men. This was useful because there were many men in her life. She dealt with them in business. She dealt with them in the bar. She had a different banter for every customer. . Maggie, who admired her free and easy ways, thought that Primrose had something of the man about her. She didn’t kowtow to anyone. ‘I’d never fettle for any man,’ she once told Maggie. ‘That’s why I never married. Bed, board and body, that’s all they want. But when they’re that side of the bar they’re canny enough,’
Maggie thought there was no doubt that the men liked Primrose. Her regulars  liked her free and easy, near the knuckle banter and they laughed and joked with her as they never did with their wives, as they sat down to  their Sunday dinner on the dot at three o’clock before they went to bed for a snooze before returning to The Bell at six o’clock on the dot.
Maggie had a suspicion that one part of Primrose’s life with men had been more professional in nature. One night an old man picked up his pint from the bar and leaned forward till his face was close to Maggie’s.  ‘Like our Primrose, do you?’
Maggie smiled. ‘Doesn’t everybody?’
The old man winked, ‘Ye should’ve seen our Primrose before she had the pub. Glamorous as any film star. That Katherine Hepburn was nothing on her. A lady she was, like, but hard with it. She had them queuing up. He slurped his beer. ‘That’s how she got the pub, like.’
Maggie moved down the bar to pull a pint for another customer.
In time Maggie realised that a version of this was still going on at The Bell. In the first week she realised that she wasn’t the only one on the top floor. Her cluttered room took up only half the space. Sometimes when she was settling Alice down at eight o’clock she could hear bangs and laughter through the dividing wall. That night as they were gathering dirty glasses she asked Primrose. ‘Is someone else living in the attic Primrose?’
Primrose hefted a heavy tray onto her hip and drew on her cigarette. ‘Malisi? Well she doesn’t actually stay in the loft. She lives back of Princess street in the old court. She works here at The Bell .’ She smiled, her white teeth beaming in the smoky pub light.
‘Works?’ said Maggie.
‘Works!’ Primroses nodded. She wedged her cigarette in her mouth,  squeezed her eyes against the smoke and put the tray on the bar. See to these, will you? I’m just off to put my feet up.’
After finding out about the woman called Amisi Maggie started to notice men slipping through the door that led to the stairs. One day  as she was coming down the stairs to the bar at twelve she passed an olive skinned girl with a cloud of black hair.She nodded at Maggie. ‘Mornin!’ she said, a slight smile on her face. ‘Off to work? Me too.’ Then she went on up, her gait somehow lopsided.
Maggie nodded at her and later, as she took the tea-towels off the pumps, the image of the girl’s smooth olive face came to her mind. It had been somehow familiar. As she pulled a starter half-pint from each pump, it dawned on her just why the girl seemed familiar. She was like Amoss, Alice’s father. She looked like him. Almond skin; dense black hair, dark liquid eyes. Maggie wondered if she like him was from Egypt. She saw Amoss again, in his sailor’s coat, his sailor’s cap. She watched him again, with his rocking sailor’s gait as he departed from her, down the Quayside to his ship.
And that day in the bar that day she noticed now the men who came in, bought a pint, out it down on the bar and slipped away through the staircase door. Forty minutes later they would come bar and pick up their pint and join their table, as though they’d just been to the toilet. But Maggie knew the toilet was not upstairs. It was across the yard. Maggie looked at the other men at the man’s table. They went on playing their dominoes.
The next night she met the woman agin as she went up with the sleeping Alice in her arms. The woman flashed a smile. ‘Is she yours?’ she said.
‘Oh yes,’ Maggie smiled back. ‘She’s all mine.’ She stopped and pulled the blanket away from Alice’s sleeping face.
The woman put out a slender hand and stroked Alice’s face.  She looked up at Maggie. ‘A beautiful bairn, so peaceful.’ She paused. ‘I’m Amisi. You must be Maggie?’
‘Amisi?’ Maggie frowned over the name.
‘Egyptian,’ the girl said. ‘It means flower.’
Maggie frowned at her. ‘I met an Egyptian once. His name was Amoss. He was in the merchant navy.’
Amisi smiled. ‘That name means child of the moon.’ She glanced back at Alice. ‘You must be Maggie? Primrose told me about you. Getting out from under the bombs at Shields, like.’
Maggie nodded. ‘Seems like a world away from here. Looks like they’re still getting it in London.
‘My cousin was in Coventry,’ said Amisi. ‘They didn’t half get it.’
Maggie wondered how many babies were born in Coventry, like Alice with the bombs raining down.
‘So you’re working here now?’ said Amisi. ‘Me too.’
‘How do you like it here, then,’ Maggie instantly regretted her slipshod words.
Amisi beamed, ‘It’s all right for the time being. Pretty nice working for meself, I’ve gotta say. Primrose doesn’t even charge me for the room. Really, though, I fancy being in pictures, me. You never know. Mebbe if I were in London. I might just get into pictures.’ She paused, ‘I might just get blown to bits meself, but.’
Maggie wrapped the blanket more closely around Alice.
Watching her closely, Amisi said, ‘Do you like the pictures Maggie? ‘
‘Not since I came here,’ said Maggie,
‘You should get yourself there. There’s everything there, in a film. War, love, life death, murder, crime. They are just like real. That’s what I want to do. To be in pictures. I might just do it. This man gave me an address to send my photos too.’ She turned and made her way further up the stairs. ‘Nice to meet you Maggie.’ And then went on singing. My darling, hold me tight and whisper to me, Then soft through the starry night I hear a rhapsody.

When Maggie got there the bar was full, but the noise was down to a murmur. There was no loud, deep chatter, no clink of glasses. Primrose’s corsets creaked as she stretched up to turn on the beautiful polished radio lodged safely behind the bar. A few squeaks and whines exploded from the wireless and the bar fell silent. Then a voice boomed out. This is the BBC news and this is Alvar Liddell reading it… They listened to the routine, unvarnished news of the war and then a cheer went up as they heard of General Montgomery’s successes at El Alamein. There was another cheer for snippet of news a about a British soldier captured in Dunkirk who had escaped from a prison castle in Germany. The news ended and the hubbub rose again in the bar. At one corner table two old men, who had fought in the trenches on the Somme, raised their pint glasses to the General for sorting out those Huns in the desert,

Alice was whimpering when Maggie got back up to their room after her shift.  She picked Alice up, undid her blouse and held her close to feed her, relaxing now after a hard day.
She was aroused from her own drowsy state by a knock on her door. Still holding Alice, she went to open it but it wasn’t Primrose, as Maggie had expected. It was the girl Amisi, looking tousled but still glamorous in a fine red blouse and a narrow black skirt with a slit above the right knee. ‘Is the bairn all right?’ she said. ‘I heard her crying.’
‘Come in.’ Maggie opened the door wider, ‘She’s fine.’ She sat down on the bed. ‘It’ll take her a little time to settle down again, but she will.’
Amisi sat down on the only chair, an ancient thing with brown velvet cushions and a seat that slid forward and backwards. She pulled off a high-heeled shoe and rubbed the arch of her foot. ‘I was wondering if you’d like to go to the pictures on Saturday afternoon? There’s this American film, Citizen Kane. A customer told me it was the best film ever. He says go and find out a bit about America that’s not about the war.’ She pulled a packet of Players from her sequinned bag and offered Maggie a cigarette,
Maggie shook her head. Soothed by Alice’s contented sucking, she was feeling sleepy. ‘About the pictures, I don’t know if Primrose…’
‘Go on! Primrose is a good sort! She telt me you don’t get out enough. You’ve worked here day and night since you ducked the bombs. I know that.’
Maggie unhooked Alice and wrapped her snugly in her blanket and placed her in her cot.
Amisi stood up and pushed her hands down her thighs to straighten her skirt. ‘Well, better get off home.’
‘Do you live near here?’
Amisi drew on her cigarette and spoke to Maggie through trailing smoke. ‘Yeah, with my old mam and dad. Ancient they are. Me grandparents really.’
‘Don’t they mind that you …’
‘Do what I do? Nah. They don’t know. They think I’m an usherette at the  Tivoli.’ She laughed. ‘They’re very old, like. Mam does know the time of day, but not him. Born underground, worked underground, lived underground. A bit like a little old mole putting out his snout now and then. The money suits them, like. I give them the usherette’s wage and keep the rest.’
‘You keep the money?’
Amisi flashed a smile. ‘Yeah. I’m saving it for when I go to London. That’s where things will happen.’
As she closed the door behind her Maggie wondered how an exotic creature like Amisi was related to Mr and Mrs Mole. It might just be that Amisi had something in common with Alice. And, she thought,  with Maggie herself.

(c) Wendy Robertson 2016

Friday, 18 November 2016

WIP Alice in the First Class

My New Big Novel is growing in colourful patches, like raw material for a patchwork quilt. 

Loving the writing. Here is an early 'patch'.

Alice in the First Class


At first Alice had been shocked by all the movement and smells that pervaded the school. But she got used to it and the colour and the shouting and the pulling and pushing. She began to think school might be all right. She liked the pictures on the wall which showed children playing among trees and at the seaside. She liked the globe of the world on the teacher’s desk which had red patches all over. Miss Wilson, her teacher, said  they were Our Empire and the reason why Britain was Great and why we won the war       Alice liked the little books and soon got to read them from cover to cover. And she liked the exercise book which came to her with her name written on it,. Every day she    copied  a page of words written on the board by her Miss Wilson who wrote like an angel..
       Miss Wilson  was a giant: a big rangy woman with large hands and feet. But Alice liked her low musical voice, especially when - if the class had been good all week - she read out stories to the class on Fridays. Alice could have listened to her forever.Miss Wilson liked her children to be good and ‘get on’. This was no problem for Alice who liked to be good and ‘get on. After all she lived in a pub and was used to being good and ‘getting on’.       Alice stopped liking Miss Wilson the day her teacher  was called out of the classroom Miss Wilson told the class they must ‘be good and get on’ while she was out of the classroom.  Her eye flicked around the classroom. ‘Patricia Thorn,  stand out!’ she said.
      Patricia 'stood out, very tall', in front of the class. Miss Wilson gave Patricia a long stick of white chalk.  ‘Now Patricia if anyone speaks or does not get on, write their name on the blackboard.         The door clashed behind her and there was a ripple of whispers and giggles around the class. Alice got on with the picture she was drawing of a big house with three trees. She would, she thought, put a dog in front of the door. After twenty five minutes the white chalk screeched  on the blackboard as Patricia Thorn  wrote ALICE on the blackboard in big letters.      After thirty minutes Miss Wilson returned and Patricia sat down. The teacher surveyed the classroom. ‘Alice Cross,’ she said. ‘Stand out!’
       Alice crept out and stood before Miss Wilson, who said, ‘Hold out your hand, Alice Cross!’
       Alice held out her hand and watched as Miss Wilson selected a wooden ruler from her desk, weighed it in her hand, and then brought it down four times: twice on each hand. ‘Now go and sit down, Alice Cross,’ she said in her soft clear voice. ‘And get on with your work.’        Alice's  palm stung and tears welled up in her eyes. Her hand felt sore but she got on with her picture.. She decided not to draw the dog because the tears had clotted in her head and she couldn’t remember what a dog looked like.
       After that day Alice didn’t like Miss Wilson. Not at all. But she had learned now that schools were places where the truth did not necessarily count.

(c) Wendy Robertson 2016

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Work in Progress: The Door

The desk in the window was making a difference. This was, she thought, down to the light streaming in and the grass and the trees. It was easy to sit there for three or four hours and concentrate on a book or a blank, naked page. It was not so intimidating as the other place.

The other space which was the back room with its big dark door. She had wanted this to be the perfect workroom with a living fire, space for shelves and tables for papers.  And, of course,  a desk for the big computer.

But there came a day when she could not pass the door without a shudder or enter that room and had to move into this room with the sunny window.

She began to think that her revulsion the back room had something to do with essence, spirit. In her life she had glimpsed and heard things that she knew where not there. She’d learned not to speak of this because of the knowing looks, the half-smiles. As a child she’d been accused more than once of being away with the gypsies.

Now she thought about this essence, spirit, Perhaps the feeling of dread came from the spirit of some eighteenth century maid or wife for whom the room was a much feared place. Or perhaps it was world flooding in through the firecracker gateway of the computer: a world which was too vast, packed with too many people, too many things, too much pain, staining the screen with cruelty,

Then she thought, perhaps this revulsion was to do with her own guilt about work undone, tasks untackled. Or perhaps it was the timid soul which knew was at her core.

The morning in the sunny window space she decided to pull herself together, to get out of the house and away from its essence, its spirit. It would be too easy, she thought, to  stay locked in and fall asleep yet again,

So she had fled the house and driven out through  trees to find a calm. strange space where she could attend  to her life, manufacturing order out of chaos and make decisions to move forward.

She thought this new strength was all about being away from the house, freeing her from the inner strings that pulled her away from herself. Away from the dull routine which made her dislike the person she had become. She knew she was not that person. She had manufactured that person to meet the low expectations of her partner. She knew she loved him in her own way, She knew they were woven into each other after so many years, love or no love. Caring for him was no different to caring for herself, Revolting against him was revolting against herself.

It was complicated.

And it was truly best to get away often from the house and its threatening back room with its dark door.  Then the rest could fall into place.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Creative Process and Planning in the Writing of a Novel

After thirty years of writing novels -  now embarking on a big project – my unique writing process is very much on my mind.

Writing is about the process – the organic growth over time of a whole new world. It is equally about the prose – the right illuminating word in the right place.

And writing is about creative planning. This is not planning that chokes the life out of the idea to make you, the writer, feel safe. Creative planning is a tough demanding process which involves making human insightful decisions and logical connections to create an original compelling narrative.

Inevitably in my case this has meant that each story is very different to the others. The only things my novels have in common is – I hope – the quality of the writing and the human values at its heart. I am so happy that clever readers recognise this and come back for more.

My three latest novels might illustrate this for you.

On Amazon
The Bad Child focuses on the life of Dee, an urban middle class child who is seen as disturbed but who is the architect of her own recovery as she swims lakes and travels through England. We see her story and the o0ther characters  through Dee's eyes.

On Amazon
Writing at the Maison Bleue  is about the unravelling lives of a group of very different and variously successful writers who meet and write in a house in the Languedoc. Their stories weave together to make an historic story of murder and betrayal.

On Amazon
The Pathfinder, set as the Roman occupation of Britain crumbles, when the original people of the island – the makers of the old tracks and paths – emerge to take back their own. At the centre are the true figures of a Cambrian tribal princess and the last military leader of Britain, later a ‘usurper’ of the title of Roman Emperor.

On Amazon
A Woman Scorned. Based on the true story of so called (not by me…) ‘serial killer’ Mary Ann Cotton, this story – see through the eyes of London outsider, based on all available evidence – comes to a very different conclusion that those who condemned her  in a curiously modern chorus of gossip, stereotype, envy, primitive forensics and press sensationalism.

As you will see, these stories are very different to each other. Each evolved its own unique identity through time in the process of creative planning. And each novel, I hope, shares with the others some great, unique characters, the values of historic insight, a feeling for justice and an abhorrence of the cruelty of stereotyping which exists in our own present day.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Writer and the Shoreline Ape

One midnight recently I was beguiled by a pair of radio programmes by David Attenborough about the controversial Waterside Ape Theory. (I instantly transposed it in my head to the Shoreline Ape Theory which I like better and I will use here.) These programmes challenged the received and scientifically respectable theory that man evolved from a hair covered quadruped to a smoother skinned bi-ped by surviving on the dry plains of the African Savannah in the end rearing up onto two legs as he went about hunting prey and making bloody scraps available for the less skilled females and children so they could survive into the next generation.

But now the ‘rather suspect’ Shoreline Ape theory has emerged in the last thirty years, supported by the discovery by palaeontologists of fossil remains of hominid bi-peds on the lake and sea shorelines of Africa.

The thought is that here on the shoreline the apelike quadrupeds evolved  into upright ape-like bipeds  supplemented their resources on the lake and sea shorelines by  diving in the shallow waters, harvesting and eating the freely available shellfish from the rocks.  There is logic in this. Standing up on two legs was much easier in the water; finding food to survive in this way reduced the life risks and the hard labour of hunting for food by chasing and killing animals across the threatening savannah.

For the hunter gatherer this easier less physical work meant that as part of this stage of evolution he- or she (now it was very commonly a she) became accustomed to holding their breaths for long periods as they dived for their prey underwater. They developed tiny bones to protect their eardrums, not unlike those developed by modern deep sea divers.

It seems that the shoreline ape-like bipeds, unlike their land based hunting ape cousins, are the only species that has a layer subcutaneous fat under their skins. (Protects them from the cold in the water of course.) Modern women too have this helpful layer of fat.  In this perhaps the shoreline apes were more like their seagoing mammalian cousins, the whale and the dolphin.  This gives us an image of the females buoyed up by water. Even while heavy or pregnant the females could hunt and swim for food to provide for their families on a more than equal footing with the males.

This element of evolutionary theory hints that there is another narrative about how we all evolved. This theory tells us that at least alongside the master-hunter male 'Tarzan' figures of the African Savannah we are also indebted to the much less macho shoreline ape for the fundamentals of our human identity.

This is on my mind now because here I am in the sun on the shores of a sea-lake that leads to the Mediterranean. After that, Africa! In all my life I have taken every opportunity to spend time by the sea, or within sight of other kinds of water such as lakes and rivers. I feel at home there. I have an intense affinity with water.

It so happens that I’ve just published my new novel, The Bad Child, where water and swimming is very significant. In order to get the details of my story right as well as all this palaeontology, I’ve researched our human relationship with swimming, reading in particular contemporary sources which refer to the increasingly popular culture of Wild Swimming where people swim in ponds, lakes and in the sea, seem to find it a deeply satisfying way to spend their time
The literature of Wild Swimming is obsessive, poetic, and even euphoric. Some writers allude to pre-memory memories of water being not just there around and above them but as their natural habitat.

So sitting here by the shoreline I am feeling natural affinity with Dee, my heroine. And my million times grandmother the Shoreline Ape. 


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