Wednesday, 27 October 2010

All Souls, All Saints

I have watched the growth of what I believed was the American import of Hallowe'en with cynicism, thinking, like Father's Day, it was created to give the retail trade another spurious event to promote. However, a tiny bit of research reveals the tradition evolved from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain - a Gaelic word meaning 'end of the summer' - which is believed to have been a celebration of the end of the harvest and a time of preparation for the coming winter.

(Image courtsey of A Journey Around My Skull, by John Buckland Wright's illustrations for Poe's The Masque of the Red Death and Other Tales)

All Saints, to you who were not raised Catholics, originated with Pope Boniface IV, who instigated the idea in the early 7th century when he consecrated the Pantheon in Rome as a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, and ordered that that date, May 13, should be celebrated every year. Several centuries later, Pope Urban IV (d. 1264), ordered it to be a day specially to honour those saints who didn't have a festival day of their own.

How All Saints ended up being celebrated on 1st November, I have no idea.

All this is by way of an excuse to talk of books that go bump in the night. It was prompted by this article in The Paris Review which mentioned a book I have referred to in an earlier post, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

The mistake I made is I don't really do anything that goes bump in the night - books, films or theatre. I find life too frightening already, what with daughters and granddaughters, to further scare myself on a voluntary basis. What is really scary Is I will be facing them all for a belated birthday dinner in honour of Rebecca at my ex's on Hallowe'en. The littl'uns will be trick and treating. I won't.

I will be in bed early with the duvet over my head.


This may explain my horror of horror. One of the many houses we lived in when I was a child in Malaya was a pre-war, single story house, built of wood then grey with age, and raised on stilts. You walked up the stairs, through the door into the main reception room, with bedrooms and what have you in the eaves on either side. Steps at the back led down to the box room and out to the servants' quarters. (We kids, Ukow, Onyow and I - and apologies to any Chinese speaker for my useless phonetic spelling - found a cobra's nest complete with eggs in one of the boxes out back. That was fun. I also discovered a hornet's nest under the building. More fun.)

To get to the story:

The house stood alone, away from other habitation, and when we first moved in my parents discovered a sign in the overgrown garden that they presumed was in Chinese. They thought no more about it.

Now, given the humidity, my parents slept in separate beds. One night they were woken by the most horrific screams seemingly coming from between the two beds. My father, who was raised in Burma and so well-used to the noises of the jungle at night, was still shaken enough to leap out of bed, grab his revolver and turn on the light. All they could see were some ugly stains on the wooden wall high up between the beds. It was, as you can imagine, very disturbing. Especially as the event happened on more than one occasion. They could think of no natural source or explanation for the tortured noises.

However, matters were to turn more sinister. 

They invited a professor they knew to dinner one evening during the course of which they showed him the sign, curious as to what it meant.

'It is not in Chinese,' he said, 'but Japanese. This building was once an interrogation centre during the war.'

Genuinely spooky, no?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Fry's Five Boys

This is a special post for someone I met at D. J. Kirby's launch of Without Alice a couple of weeks ago. This someone is slightly, ever so slightly, obssessed with a certain Mr. Fry.

    I mentioned Fry's Five Boys Chocolate, as it was known, but was met with a blank. Not surprising as it was withdrawin in 1972, several years before this person was born.

    As I remember, the bar had a soft centre with each section a different flavour.

    It was pure serendipity that someone on The Antique Roadshow brought along a collection of chocolate bars which had been rescued from ancient station vending machines having fallen down inside, and one happened to be a Fry's Five Boys. The image is a screen-grab.

    Wednesday, 6 October 2010

    Dear Diary

    Dear Diary,

    You have been very patient but my life is not filled with much excitement since I gave up extreme skateboarding to concentrate on my collection of 1930s dried peas. However, this weekend was an exception.

    Saturday went to London on train with Sue. She was going on to see her fresh out of the box, brand new grandchild still with decorative bow and price tag in his hair. However, before separating, we went to the National Gallery to look at the work of Pissarro, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir and Degas, among others. And we did it just for the hell of it. We are both becoming very abandoned in our wayward lives.

    Rebecca joined us straight from the hair salon for lunch in Chinatown. She did look rather gorgeous.

    We, Sue and us, said our goodbyes on the tube and I went back with Rebecca to Bethnal Green. She, poor dear, was exhausted after a late night the night before. So as she went out to see friends in the evening, she promised not to be too late. She managed to get back before 4.00 a.m. I don't know what passes for early in London these days so made no comment.

    Around midday Sunday, we met Emily, Amy and Katie at Old Street tube station. Young Amy looked like she'd stepped straight off the catwalk. Young Katie just scowled. It was a long walk back to Rebecca's, but it gave Amy the chance  to show off her style to a wider audience. And, of course, it gave Katie the opportunity to glower at more people. (And, in the interest of fairness, I have to mention that Emily looked rather gorgeous too.)

    The weather wasn't great, so we decided to go to the V & A Museum of Childhood, which so happens to be situated five minutes from Rebecca's flat.

    A little of its history from their website:

    The Department [of the original V & A] thought there should be similar museums in north, east and south London and in 1864 put the idea to each district. Only those responsible for Bethnal Green were interested and in 1868, following the architectural guidance of J. W. Wild, construction on the plot at Bethnal Green began. The work was carried out by S. Perry and Company, led by Colonel Henry Scott, an officer of the Royal Engineers. The Prince of Wales opened the Bethnal Green Museum on 24th June 1872. Wild had designed a garden, clock tower and library amongst other features. Due to the lack of funds however, his design was only fully realised in an 1871 edition of The Builder magazine. The final structure was decidedly less grand, the east and west façades being the noticeable remaining original design elements.

    It is a lovely, large space, light and airy, with a broad gallery running around its midriff, filled with toys from every age right up to a plastic Harry Potter broomstick. We grown-ups rapidly shrunk to children again as we oohed and aahed at each toy we recognised from our childhood. Amy didn't get our enthusiasm. Katie glared; however, there was so much for them to get their hands on neither was particularly bothered one way or the other.

    To round off our visit, Emily and Amy gave an impromptu puppet show that, much to their surprise and Amy's delight, drew a crowd. And Katie discovered a sandpit was the answer to relatives who annoy and was very happy.

    On Monday, I did little till the evening when I went to D J Kirby's book launch at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. There was a Tube strike so I had to bus it. I don't know if the strike brought out the Dunkirk spirit among those who managed to make the event, but there was a great atmosphere with lots of mingling. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though the evening, of course, belonged to Denise and her newly minted Without Alice.

    So, dear Diary, I made my way south on Tuesday to a flat empty of small children demonstrating their karate prowess with blows from needle sharp elbows to my most delicate parts or reducing me to jelly with their laser-eye treatment but filled with the sound of someone somewhere in the block arbitrarily drilling holes in concrete just to drive me mad.

    I can only take so much excitement these days.

    Friday, 1 October 2010

    Creative Writing Course: Lesson Four

    The Evolution of Language

    The history of literature is most visible in the changing face of its language. This is Mr. Lockwood describing his arrival at Wuthering Heights, the book being published in 1847:

       'One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage. They call it here "the house" pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour generally. But, I believe, at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter -- at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues and a clatter of culinary utensils deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking about the huge fireplace, nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been underdrawn; its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns and a couple of horse-pistols, and, by way of ornament, three gaudily painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures painted green, one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under the dresser reposed a huge liver-coloured bitch pointer surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies, and other dogs haunted other recesses.'

    This is a description of Bunker's Hill in the opening chapter of Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, published in 1913:

      'The houses themselves were substantial and very decent. One could walk all round, seeing little front gardens with auriculas and saxifrage in the shadow of the bottom block, sweet-williams and pinks in the sunny top block; seeing neat front windows, little porches, little privet hedges, and dormer windows for the attics. But that was outside; that was the view on to the uninhabited parlours of all the colliers' wives. The dwelling-room, the kitchen, was at the back of the house, facing inward between the blocks, looking at a scrubby back garden, and then at the ash-pits. And between the rows, between the long lines of ash-pits, went the alley, where the children played and the women gossiped and the men smoked. So, the actual conditions of living in the Bottoms, that was so well built and that looked so nice, were quite unsavoury because people must live in the kitchen, and the kitchens opened on to that nasty alley of ash-pits.'

    Both passages are highly descriptive, but you can sense a shift in attitude: where Emily Brontë's prose moves at a somewhat leisurely pace, Lawrence's is marginally more brisk. Sixty-six years later, the reader has less time to linger, to luxuriate in a bath of language, especially as it is a year tense with the anticipation of war. After the Great War, of course, all lies in fragments, as best exemplified in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

    Today's Shorthand 

    Now, nearly a century after Sons and Lovers, with barely the time to identify our arse from our elbow, we have developed a sophisticated shorthand to compress and read information. This is in no small part due to the influence of film, the internet, texts on mobile/cell phones and all pervasive graphics .

    Why do I go on about history when you are trying to write a book today? Because you are the child of history. You are in a process. And you need to understand the process and why we have arrived at this point to write successfully for a contemporary readership. Okay, I doubt Dan Brown cares a fig about history - well of course he does; he's managed to reinvent it very successfully in a language neanderthals would have understood.

    Understand the History of Your Genre

    My point is not that you as a writer of a particular genre need to go back to university but that you, as the writer of a particular genre, should understand how that genre has changed over the years and why it has now reached the point it has. Understanding this will help make your writing pertinent, contemporary and, with luck, more publishable. It will also help you push the envelope, to use an ugly metaphor, of the genre and write something truly original.

    In brief, my message is to read in and around what you like to write about. But to read critically.