World Enough and Time

               In life, there isn’t a lot you can do about Time. Like it or not, it goes on in just one direction, inexorably. Sometimes it seems to be passing slowly (hospital waiting room) or whizzing by (fun evening with friends or family) – but those are just perceptions. You can’t hold on to a lovely moment, or fast-forward tedious or tragic weeks out of your life.

That’s where  a writer has the advantage. If you’re a writer, you can play all sorts of tricks with Time; you can stretch it out, or curl it up into a ball, you can bend it, tangle it,  twist it, do anything you like with it. Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway make a single day last for hundreds of pages,  while The Count of Monte Cristo  unfolds over years. You can go back into Time Past, as in Puck of Pook’s Hill, or jump into Time Future; The War of the Worlds;  you can change the past altogether, as Joan Aiken so brilliantly does, so that we can visit the England of James III. 

I used to love time travel stories,  and one of my childhood favourites, which I’ve recently found again, thanks to the power of the internet, was Sun Slower, Sun Faster  by Meriol Trevor,  a story which takes two young twentieth century children on a tour of  the history of Catholic England.  It’s still a compelling read, though it has more history, and more religion, in it than a modern child would probably want. But the central story, where a Jesuit priest escapes from Elizabethan pursuers is genuinely exciting still. Writing time travel stories can present problems of management - ( I felt that Audrey Nifenegger in The Time Traveller’s Wife made unnecessary work for herself by having her hero arrive back in past time naked)    – but Meriol Trevor overrides all of these. Her twentieth century children arrive back in history appropriately clad, speaking and understanding the language, and are taken as ‘cousins’ by the historical children they encounter. When they return to the twentieth century , no time has passed, so no-one has missed them.

Historical novels for young people aren’t fashionable at the moment. When I was a young reader, Fantasy barely existed, and historical novels offered the kind of imaginative escape that Fantasy does now. I loved Hilda Lewis, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, Rhoda Power. And especially, of course, Rosemary Sutcliff, who made the Dark Ages no longer dark to so many of us. I believed that she must have been a great traveller herself to have written so evocatively about so many times and places – what a shock to find that a childhood disease had rendered her almost immobile – but that’s the power of writing for you.

If you’re writing a historical novel, you’ll find that as you write, you’re actually inhabiting that time in your head, so that you return to your own time with a lurch of surprise.  Probably, you’ve done a good deal of research into your period, though of course you try not to let it show.  Yet you often find that when you make a guess where you don’t have the facts to hand, that guess  turns out to be almost spookily accurate.

The writer of straight historical fiction has to solve problems, too:  how do your characters speak? Authentic sixteenth century dialogue would be quite unreadable, but you have to be careful that you don’t let  twenty-first century idioms contaminate your style. You want a style that your reader hardly notices, yet which feels authentic.  Also you need to avoid letting all that lovely research you’ve done hang heavy in your prose. We’ve all read the equivalents of ‘By’r lady,’exclaimed Dickon, fingering his parti-colored liripipe, the latest fashion from the court of King Louis…’  And yet your reader needs to feel immersed in your chosen century. It’s not easy.

But, when it works, it’s great fun. And until Thomas Cook offer us Time Travel excursions via EasyJet, the best way of going back in time is to write or to read about it.

 

The Plot Thickens

Well, I’m hoping to talk about my new book soon, the last volume in The Girls of Troy sequence.  But while I’m waiting to have something to show, I’m recycling some older blogs. Here’s one I wrote in 2011.

The Plot Thickens

               Help! I’m going too fast! My writing I mean. Wait a minute,  isn’t that a good thing? What about this dreaded writer’s block you lot are always banging on about?  Well, yes. That can be bad too. And writing away at ninety miles an hour doesn’t feel bad. It feels great, in fact.

But…it isn’t always the right thing for your story.  You can go too fast for your own good; you can speed too lightly over the surface.  Sometimes you just need to slow down and let the plot thicken.

Strangely enough this can be harder than making a story shorter.  I rather enjoy cutting a manuscript down. Out with it! off with its head! I cry , as I slash and burn page after page.  And usually, it’s much better for it.

 

But adding – that’s another business. What do you add? For a start, certainly not the dreaded ‘description’ that they were always telling you to put in at school. Who wants page after page telling you exactly what colour the cushions were, or how the sunset streaked across the sky? No, what you need to put in is the small, but telling detail. And that needs concentration, and concentration is good, because it’s what’s missing as your fingers hurtle over the computer keys. Maybe all it takes is the replacement of a weak and vague verb by a strong and suggestive one.  Maybe, it’s looking harder and harder at a scene your eyes have just flicked over, and saying to yourself, now what exactly is going on here?  Your villain, for example, whose speech you’ve had such fun with – is his villainy going to come across to the reader? No? Then look at him again. Hard. What exactly is he doing as he speaks?  Maybe he’s shredding to bits a flower from the bunch of flowers the heroine has thoughtfully placed in the centre of the table. Maybe there’s a small nervous tic in the corner of his eyelid that betrays something about him that we haven’t noticed.  Maybe he’s lovingly stroking his adored dog… Or maybe none of these things, but something much more relevant and vital noticed by you, the writer.

As I write this, I scoop up from my brain a couple of instances where the tiny observed detail has brought someone or something to life.

When we first meet Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch we’re not very taken with her. She’s sanctimonious and priggish, and we wonder how we going to endure spending several hundred pages in her company. In the first scene, she’s going through her mother’s jewellery, and because she thinks she despises jewellery, intends to give it to her more frivolous sister. But she’s seduced by the beauty of the gemstones; her pious mask slips for a second, and we realise that we’re getting to know her a bit better than she knows herself, and that it might actually be rewarding to spend those pages in her company:

         ‘They are lovely,’ said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy…

Aha, Dorothea! Got you!

 

And here’s Dickens, the master of the tiny telling detail, introducing Little Dorrit’s vain and self serving father, living like a lord in the debtor’s prison. A well intentioned workman makes the ‘mistake’ of trying to give him a few coins, rather than slipping them discreetly to Little Dorrit. The Father of the Marshalsea is outraged, and once again, we feel we’re being told all we need to know about him:

The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copper yet. His children often had, and with his perfect acquiescence it had gone into the common purse, to buy meat that he had eaten, and drink that he had drunk; but fustian splashed with white lime (the workman) bestowing halfpence on him, front to front, was new.

        ‘How dare you!’ he said to the man, and feebly burst into tears…

 

And, oho! We know you too, Mr Dorrit!

 

The plot has thickened, not through a build up of verbiage, but by choosing the exact ones to help us ‘see’ the characters ; ‘feebly’  ‘perfect acquiescence’  ‘trying to justify her delight’  The effect is easy, almost unnoticeable, but Eliot and Dickens didn’t achieve it without a great effort of concentration, of pure and focussed vision. So when I feel myself rushing in my writing, euphoric though this can be, I have to tell myself, slow down, think, go deeper, not faster….

 

 

 

 

Edward_Thomas

I’ve just been reading with great enjoyment  the new biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. I’ve written about Thomas before,  after we visited his grave last year. He’s a difficult and complicated person who somehow draws you back and back again to his poems;  deceptively calm, they give you that sense of encountering something familiar that you recognise instantly, dusty nettles in the corner of a yard, a tiny railway station glimpsed in passing, a road gleaming after rain, making you feel that he’s writing for you personally.  There’s something about their quiet strength that reminds me of the work of Eric Ravillious, whose work we visited the Dulwich gallery last week to see; both use pastel colours, sometimes radiant , sometimes sombre, turning a keen gaze upon the everyday and apparently banal. Ravillious too gives you the sense of transmuting your own experience,  a third-class railway carriage (even for those too young to remember them) a greenhouse full of cyclamen,  into something timeless and archetypical.  And both men, the writer and the painter, demonstrate a quality usually described as ‘quintessentially English.’ To try and describe what this means would require a whole other blog post, would have to take in music, Elgar and Vaughan  Williams as well, and I fear would be beyond my fairly puny critical powers, so I shall leave it at that.

I’ve chosen one of my favourite Thomas poems, ‘Words’, in which he uses the conceit that words choose the writer rather than the other way around.  But Thomas’s choice of words, and his ability to position them so as to draw out their cadences,  is exquisite. Who else, in ‘Adlestrop’ could make the names of two English counties into one of the most beautiful lines in poetry?

 Words

UT of us all

That make rhymes

Will you choose
            Sometimes–
          As the winds use
           A crack in the wall
           Or a drain
          Their joy or their pain
              To whistle through
           Choose me
           You English words?
          I know you
         You are light as dreams
,        Tough as oak,
         Precious as gold,
            As poppies and corn
        Or an old cloak;
             Sweet as our birds
            to the ear,
             As the burnet rose
              In the heat
               Of Midsummer
            Strange as the races
            Of dead and unborn:
             Strange and sweet
              Equally,
             And familiar,
               To the eye
             As the dearest faces
             That a man knows
             And as lost homes are:
              But though older far
                Than oldest yew
              As our hills are, old
             Worn new
                Again and again:
               Young as our streams
                After rain:
               And as dear
              As the earth which you prove
             That we love
               Make me content
               With some sweetness
                 From Wales,
              Whose nightingales
               Have no wings
               From Wiltshire and Kent
             And Herefordshire,
           And the villages there,–
               From the names, and the things
           No less
           Let me sometimes dance
             With you
            Or climb,
            Or stand perchance
            In ecstasy
             Fixed and free
              In a rhyme,
              As poets do.
                                   Edward Thomas

Going For Gold

Well, it’s actually our golden wedding today, although neither of us is a great one for  ceremonies and parties so we’re keeping it  fairly low key.  Still, fifty years is a long time, and we’re quite surprised to find that we’re still both here. Though looking back on that day fifty years ago, I find I don’t remember it with much pleasure. My mother, who was a sweetie but a very ardent Catholic, was upset because we wanted to get married in a registry office. Thus the wedding had to take place on a Saturday because she was  too ashamed to let anyone at the school where she taught know that her daughter wasn’t getting married in church. And Richard’s wicked stepfather decided to throw a wobbly, because we were getting married on a Saturday – the Sabbath.- so he managed to make himself ill – I think it was intentional - On the wedding day we had to troop into the bedroom where he was lying pale  and unsmiling in his pyjamas,  and make anxious noises. I’m sure he was all right again the following day.

In those days – and maybe it’s the same now, you couldn’t just go through the motions and have a Catholic wedding. You had to confess and go to communion in the Nuptial Mass, and your partner had to receive instruction, (which would have gone down well with Father O’Moron and Richard), and promise to bring your children up as Catholics.

I never wanted a fancy wedding with a meringue dress, but looking back on it, I think people could have been a bit nicer to us. It felt more like a funeral; no-one smiled (except my father who got a bit sentimental)  and no-one took a single  photograph. I  was sorry to upset my mother, but I couldn’t see any alternative. Some years later, when she was dying, Father O’Moron took me aside and hissed in my ear that I had broken her heart. Still, this didn’t so much upset me, as to confirm me in my belief that , though Jesus talked of love and kindness, religion as an institution seemed to be mostly about exclusion and wishing sin on others.

Anyway, fifty years later we’re still here. I have no idea what happened to Father O’Moron, but I don’t wish him any good.  But Richard and I are still talking and still enjoying each other’s company. There have been difficult times, but on the whole things could be much worse.We decided that while we don’t really enjoy being in our seventies, it’s better than the alternative. So we’re going to celebrate quietly with our nice family – two daughters, who are still talking to us and are doing well in their lives, lovely partners and friends, and probably the two nicest grandchildren on the planet. ( Or so we think anyway)  So if you’ve got a glass to hand  -always a good idea-  do raise it to us and share in our quiet celebration..

Goodbye, Eleanor

It’s always a shame when you have to abandon a  writing project; I’d been planning to write a biography of Eleanor Farjeon and had started research. But biographies take a great deal of time, energy and commitment, and I decided sadly that because I don’t have much of those qualities at present, I wasn’t going to be able to   carry on with it.

Over the period that I’d been researching her, I’d grown quite fond of Eleanor.  I first became interested in her partly because she seemed to know so many people, and straddle so many litereary eras; in her youth she was a friend of Edward Thomas, D.H. Lawrence and a clutch of artists and musicians. Later she became a prominent writer  and champion of childrens’ books- and she supported herself and the man she lived with for many years purely through her writing – as someone who’s never managed to make anything like a living by  writing I’m always impressed by people who can do this.

She was an intensely romantic soul, and always needed to be in love with someone; most famously with Edward Thomas. He was married to Helen,  and  though he was very fond of Eleanor  and seemed to crave her company, was not in love with her.  After his death, she lived for many years with George Earle, a married teacher, though that did not stop her having a passionate though platonic affair with an American musician when she was in her fifties. At the end of her life, her companion was the homosexual actor Dennis Blakelock.

But all her life, she was writing and writing. Her father and two of her brothers were writers, and it came as easily to her as breathing. Much of what she wrote was light verse, perhaps unfashionable now, but she also wrote some lovely sonnets , one of which I’ve quoted in an earlier blog. She’s perhaps best known today for the lyrics of ‘Morning Has Broken.’

She  appeared to be a cuddly. cosy person,  uninterested in fashion or glamour, a homemaker, who adored cats. Though she was always able to drown unwanted kittens, which shows that she had  a surprising ruthless streak too. Perhaps all writers need one, though not for drowning kittens,  Everyone seemed to love her and she had an extraordinary gift  for friendship.  I’ve enjoyed her company over the time I’ve been working with her, and I shall miss her.  I hope someone else will want to write her biography now.

Meanwhile, I’ve just brough myself a present, which arrived in today’s post – a new biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, so I see I shall be spending more time in her company, and the fascinating, depressive man who was the love of her life.