Bride and readiness: The plots and ploys of Jane Austen.

Bath JA museum 2
The Jane Austen Centre, Bath

If I don’t get a move on I’ll be the only blogger/author/reader in the western world not to have had their say about Jane Austen this 200th anniversary year. Everyone has their own take on Jane Austen, even if it’s only to say (ruefully in partner’s case, defiantly in son’s): “I’ve never read any Jane Austen”. But she’s part of the national psyche along with Shakespeare and Dickens. We all remember our first read of her or our first film adaptation or if not we have her high on our bucket list of guilt.

I first came across Jane Austen in the hardback set belonging to my parents, published by Hamish Hamilton in their “Novel Library” series in 1947. The pretty same-but-different covers fascinated me. I’m not going to claim to have been one of those precocious “reading the classics at three” children, but I did pick them up and pretend to read aloud from them in language I made up as I went along, long before I knew what they were about or who had written them. My mother thought this extraordinary but as a teacher I now know that to play act reading having seen adults do it is common and very healthy behaviour. Sadly, the copy of Mansfield Park is now lost, probably to one of my games, but the others remain.

 

Bath JA novels 1
My mother’s set of Jane Austen, minus Mansfield Park.

There were BBC adaptations of Pride and Prejudice we’d have watched as a family, long before Colin Firth took his shirt off and inexplicably became such a heartthrob. (I thought his performance wooden; he didn’t move me until The King’s Speech.) It is a truth universally acknowledged (now I’ve thought of it) that “Bride and Readiness” reflects the plot but runs off the tongue less elegantly than the title of the most famous novel. Even those who have never dipped into it could probably place the first line, but they’ll have missed the humour: when the execrable Mr Collins seeks a bride and finds the eldest Bennet daughter “likely to be very soon engaged”, he “…had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth––and it was soon done––done while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire.”

Bath JA 4I’d certainly read P&P by the time I came to study the bleaker Persuasion for A level. This remains my favourite, along with Mansfield Parkbecause they both have more direct references to the wider economic and social realities of the time. Poverty is genteelly hinted at offstage in Pride and Prejudice but in Mansfield Park it is shown, Austen not baulking at the despair of women unable to avoid multiple unwanted pregnancies. Mrs Price, having married unwisely, finds herself now with “an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor.” Her letter to Lady Bertram speaks “so much contrition and despondence, such a superfluity of children and such a want of almost every thing else…She was preparing for her ninth lying-in and…bewailing the circumstance.” One child, Fanny, is taken in by richer relations and experiences a more elegant lifestyle, but she knows she can’t depend on it continuing. When she visits her original home, the sunshine that would enhance a richer household only brings out “the tea board never throughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy…” as “her mother lamented over the ragged carpet.”

 

In Pride and Prejudice the soldiers prance about showing off their uniforms but in Persuasion, although the Napoleonic wars remain offstage, there is much more discussion of and respect for the Naval men’s experiences – and for their feelings too. Captain Harville: “If I could but make you comprehend what man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!'”.

Bath shop window
Shop window display, Bath

In all her novels, Austen watches from the corner of the room to snipe at snobbery even more effectively than Thackeray. As Mr Collins tells Elizabeth: “Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” When the first line of Persuasion tells you Sir Walter Elliot’s favourite amusement is looking himself up in The Baronetage, you know she’s going to have fun with him – but this isn’t out of date. Jacob Rees-Mogg, and any MP with a duck house to restore on his moat, could have moved in the same circles. Fanny Price’s overcrowded family home, and her tired mother unable to afford the consumer goods she’d like are entirely recognisable to anyone restricted to a 1% pay rise for the past two parliaments.

(For an effective and quick description of how Austen describes the social questions of her time and ours, there’s an incisive little article in last week’s Guardian by the comedian Sarah Pascoe. It may even convert the men in my family…)

Poulteney bridge
The view from inside a shop on Pulteney bridge, Bath

Northanger Abbey turned up when I was at university, on the Romanticism in European literature course. We studied mad Gothic novels, full of castles, ghosts and sinister old retainers; here was Austen’s lampoon of the same. The Saturday Guardian is fond of asking celebs who they’d invite to their dream dinner party: if I was celebrated enough to be asked, I’d have Austen and Stella Gibbons and relish the discussion between the satirists who created Northanger Abbey and Cold Comfort Farm. “And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch which is the true heroine’s portion; to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself if she get another good night’s rest in the course of the next three months.” 

Sense and Sensibility is highly readable, the satire on genre conventions more subtle than in Northanger Abbey, but still much alive: “…though [Elinor’s] complexion varied, she stood firm in incredulity, and felt in no danger of an hysterical fit or a swoon.” For me this novel has made the best film adaptations, perhaps due to the double act of the two sisters of equal importance to the story structure.

The only one I don’t really enjoy, despite dutiful re readings, is Emma. For me, she’s just too dislikable, and it isn’t compensated for by her growing wisdom during the story. True, she is Austen’s deepest study in snobbery, but the nutshells and vignettes, the de Burghs and Sir Walter Elliots do the job just as well while allowing space for a more interesting main story. In Emma I think Austen takes longer to say much less, and the whole premise has dated more than her other stories.

Bath Royal Crescent
Royal Crescent, Bath, under restoration I assume

Last month we had an overnight stay in Bath. This UNESCO world heritage city features in Northanger Abbeywith naive heroine Catherine Morland  impressed and excited by the cosmopolitan glamour, and in Persuasion when the older Anne Elliot finds it sordid and exhausting. Bath tourist office will point you to the places where Austen lived and wrote and to the sites used in the novels and there’s a dedicated museum which is well meaning but verges on the vulgar. (How Austen would lampoon it, or fastidiously ignore it perhaps.) There’s a nice personal account of touring relevant parts of Bath by an Austen enthusiast here. It’s always a pleasure to visit Bath: fascinating glimpses of the backs of buildings as well as their yellow stone facades, all elegance and symmetry, bring social history and class divides to immediate life here, the realities for servants and tradesmen as visible as the fanlights and carriage sweeps of the rich. As in Austen’s time, Bath is crowded, fashionable, expensive and can be indigestible: you must escape to the wonderful surrounding countryside to get your breath back. For a fascinating fictionalised account of how similar architecture in nearby Bristol was built, see Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. Much of it is, I’m equally true of the beautiful terraces of Bath.

Bath house backs - Copy
Backs of houses near Royal Crescent

Anyway, that’s my Jane Austen. I’d like to hear about yours.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Writing about NOISE!

How do you write your blogs? Are your subjects meticulously planned out weeks in advance? Book reviewers structure posts by publication date or genre, gardeners by season, travellers by route. Mine are more random, with the proviso to involve words, reading, writing, language. When I taught, we defined four language skills in order of acquisition: listening which comes long before speaking (think of a baby absorbing and imitating sounds), much later reading and a little after that or concurrently, writing. For an adult, those skills may be conflated or even reversed – most adults feel more comfortable reading than trying to speak, although the phonetic way they do it plays havoc with their pronunciation. And many adults can’t listen.

house 16Anyway, recently, I can’t do any of those. I can’t listen to words or music, because of noise from masonry drills and other power tools. A masonry drill works at between 110-147 decibels, depending whose health and safety advice you read (this is from New Zealand, but we have the same anatomy). A builder using such drills should wear ear protection to reduce (not completely prevent) sudden and irreversible hearing loss. A neighbour of a house which is having its chimney breasts removed has no such protection. She can shut the windows but since the house next door now has no back wall, she’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted (noise can confuse a writer: there isn’t now and never was a stable).

I can’t speak because there’s no one else here. My daughter who works from home as a translator has gone to head office in despair. If I phone anyone up they go “What? Pardon? Wh…? You’ll have to speak up! Who?”

33870669I can’t  read because although I’m in the middle of the delightful Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes Hallett, it’s hard to concentrate on the construction of a landscape garden in the 17th century when the china is rattling in the cabinet and it feels like tanks are about to roll onto the sofa. Of course, works then must have been just as disruptive to the locals: a right of way was threatened, bogs were turned into lakes, statues rolled in from Italy on rumbling carts with outwalkers to check the axles didn’t collapse. There were no masonry drills but gunpowder may have been used.

I can’t write. Well, yes, I can. I can write objections to planning applications, requests (unanswered) for notice of dates of especially loud work or the erection of scaffolding next to my bedroom window (which was, to be fair, taken down reasonably promptly), and this moan of a blog post.

I had builders when I moved here. The project expanded, because the house was in a worse state, underneath the pebble dash, than the survey had shown.

house 17
In fact the pebble dash had been holding it together.

But we were not extending beyond or above the existing building line. My builders were jocular, working from about 9.30 to 4pm with lunch breaks. One reason they took over a year was because while I was at work they did other jobs for my new neighbours up and down the road. At weekends they gave us all a break. I lived in the house as the work dragged on, available morning and evening to be complained to, but I didn’t have one complaint. Could be I’m complacent, of course. Could be the households around were all full of wax models of me, and their occupants were busy sticking in pins.

I’m afraid I’m intolerant too. I’ve complained about the new toilet and washing machine and dryer that will rumble against a party wall with my living room. I’ve objected to losing light from my ground floor, views from my kitchen and garden, sunlight for my plants. I’ve objected to the building line of the whole terrace being disrupted by an extension pushing into what was coherent green space (we border a conservation area). A new loft will also disrupt the terrace roof line and three new RSJs will bore into my party wall. I have no formal right to object to this or even to refuse access to my land so the building work can be done. (Many other houses already have standard dormer designs. When those lofts were converted there were appropriate planning regulations keeping them to scale and protecting the environment and neighbours. Such guidelines have now been relaxed so permission is automatic.)

house 15

There are an increasing number of policy makers who would simply say, “Well, it’s property development.” Those who would build on green belt land are among them. Property development is, for some, a virtue in itself and any wound to the environment, to local relationships, to neighbours’ health and homes is simply collateral damage. (Oh, there’s that war metaphor again.) Only time will tell whether the objections of people in the firing line were over-reactions.

The planning application for the ground floor extension was rejected, on the grounds of my objections. Hooray! Now it’s been resubmitted. It will stick out 80cm less, otherwise it’s identical. The time consuming stressful rigmarole of objecting begins again. Sooner or later, one of us will lose. I don’t say one of us will win. Relations are sour. My new novel is, broadly speaking, about communities getting on well. I can’t do any revisions in these circumstances and anyway, I’m inclined to think: sod that. Maybe I’ll turn it into a war novel, immersing myself in ambient bangs, booms and thuds while I have the chance.

noise 2

Ah me, silence is golden. I wrote about it once. Meanwhile I’ll try watching Wimbledon. As an English (wo)man whose castle (house) is under siege, my assaulted brain can only think in clichés: every cloud has a silver lining. The power tools are very loud, but at least they drown out John Inverdale.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

A day in the life of Agent X

Agent X stretched after a poor night’s sleep. She really ought to get more exercise…spend less time staring at screens…eat more sensibly.

But a new day beckoned. She had a fascinating submission to read – she’d requested the full ms after tearing through the first three chapters and was looking forward to finding out what happened next. She wasn’t entirely sure how to place it, but the writing was so good and the premise so original, she was expecting competitive bids from several publishers. If, of course, another agent didn’t snap it up first, like the author she’d been slightly too slow to respond to last year who ended up with a six figure advance.

Agent 4Her existing authors were clamouring too. There might be answers to their questions among the 112 new emails in her inbox. She made coffee, cut a crisp pear into safely unsticky wedges and took them to her desk.

 

Dear X, Lovely to see you at the Book Fair. I’ve now had time to read The Pontoon Bridge by Amos Fearsome and I agree the writing flows beautifully and the plot has some interesting twists. However, I couldn’t quite identify with the main character, and so, with regret, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline this one.

Dear X, Thank you for reminding me I’ve had Pull the Other One by V. Erbose since last year. Sorry about that! It’s a great idea, but I’m afraid this one isn’t quite right for our list. I wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Hi X! Just to let you know I really enjoyed The Darkening Sun by Omar Zafiq, and will be taking it forward for consideration by the acquisitions committee next week. I’ll keep you informed on the outcome.

Dear X, Peter Plainman, Accountancy Services Ltd, is able to offer you a special offer of only £YYY for 12 months insurance against the additional cost of responding to any HMRC investigation during the tax year 2017/18.

Dear X, Please find attached the contract for Above and Beyond as agreed for signature by yourself and author Martin Middleman. Please sign and return…

Dear X, Please join us for drinks at the Globe on … This is a farewell jolly for all our associates over the past ten years. Regretfully we are winding up the company as the pressure on small publishers has become unsustainable. But we ‘d like to go out with a traditional publishing bang!

Dear X, Please join us at Amazon Towers for the Kindle Self Publishing Awards on….

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to The Bookseller is now due…

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to our worldwide publishing database is now due…

Dear X, I submitted my ms Tedium Dismissed! last week and I’m wondering whether you received it as I have had not a response from you as yet…

Agent 2Dear X, I am emailing speculatively as I appreciate from your website you dont deal with dystopian fantasy.  However I’m sure your going too feel differently when you enter my world! In 140,000 amazing words I explore landscapes no one else could possibly imagine, with my heroine Alexandra the Greatest who’s battles against the greatest evil the universe has yet known are inconceivable! I am a stay at home dad and would be available to meet, subject to childcare duties, at any time convenient to you within easy reach of Basingstoke…

X tapped keys, forwarding, deleting, commenting, replying, congratulating, ignoring. (But it wasn’t really ignoring, as deciding whether to ignore in itself took time and thought.) She remembered to roll her shoulders, a few random yoga moves her nod to preventing back ache. She highlighted sections of a trade press article about the legal ramifications of digital royalties – essential but dull information she regularly digested on behalf of her authors.

Agent 7
A range of agents are listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

It was wonderful working from home (the business couldn’t afford office overheads), but she missed the daily walk to the station, the water cooler banter and opinion exchange. Thanks to some recent successes she didn’t worry about losing touch – her existing connections kept her informed, as did social media and the trade press. For every promotion, move, retirement, or redundancy there was a new appointment, a new intern, or a regretfully slimmed down company to build productive relationships with, and weekly trips to meet editors and authors. She arranged these for coffee or tea times to avoid the cost of lunches – her accountant would only swallow so much – but they made for a change of scene. When she wondered if she wouldn’t be happier commuting all week, maybe to a desk in the foreign rights department of a glamorous trendsetting agency in Camden or Islington, she consoled herself that her one woman operation saw so much variety, personally dealing with each author right through from submission to post publication. Agent 1

Now to be inspired: the new ms! She settled on the sofa with her laptop and more coffee. Chapter Four…

It didn’t grab her as the beginning had. But it was definitely worth pursuing. Three hours later, she’d decided, impressed by the well produced text (no attention tripping typos). The middle sagged, and would need some robust structural editing, which she hoped the author would welcome, because the end more than compensated. What an exciting find (overall)! She emailed straight away to express her strong interest and suggest a meeting. It was important to meet authors, face to face or on Skype, because her role was to take care of their baby. She needed to know if they were open to suggestions, confident, adaptable, able, eventually, to help market their work. If you got on well it helped so much. Ideally there’d be more books later, so this could be a relationship lasting years – she checked. Yes, this author mentioned a sequel in preparation, and had a self published backlist that looked respectable enough to bring to a publisher’s attention.

She’d still eaten only a pear, but decided to tick off some admin before an early supper. (She ought to continue her line edit of a revised draft she’d been sent – it could be sent out once the author had agreed the corrections. But it would be better left to tomorrow; she was getting tired now.) She dumped a pile of unwanted paper submissions firmly in the recycling box. It felt less terrible to do that than it had when she first set up the agency, because she did state clearly on the website that she only accepted work  electronically…Although sometimes the only human being she saw all day was the postman, ringing the doorbell with the latest vast packages.

Dear X, Please would you clarify the position on my royalties for Celebration at the Pierhead. I have been chasing the publisher without success and wonder if you would be able to resolve this…

Agent 3Dear X, I’m very disappointed with sales for Going, Going, Gone. What are your thoughts, going forward, for promoting this? I didn’t realise, when you advised me to self publish because you felt you had submitted it to all possible publishers, that the onus for marketing would be so fully on my shoulders. Also I am wondering whether, if I had it translated, it would do better in the Latin American market. Can you suggest a translator who would be willing to undertake this? I would suggest we share the cost…

Dear X…

But it was time for supper. And to start the debut novel everyone was raving about – always worth trying to identify the spark that had inspired a record advance.

************************************************************************

Dear readers of this blog post/story. If you are an agent, please consider this a submission. Please advise whether it would be better if my heroine was a private detective rather than a literary agent. Please suggest whether it should be set in London or the Outer Hebrides perhaps? Please advise whether I’d have more chance of publication if I submit it under my own name (white middle class middle aged straight UK female) or give myself the nom de plume Fatima Begum or Leroy DaCosta? On the other hand bearing in mind the successes of McEwan, Faulks, de Bernières, and Barnes should I go for John Smith? And btw would I stand a better chance if I considered transitioning before or after publication? 

If you are an editor, edit away! I welcome critiques.

If you are a reader, please review it!

If you blog, do comment, reblog, share…

Note: Agent X is an entirely fictional character drawn from a composite of observations made to me by literary agents big and small over the last few decades. Her head’s just above water, and she’s on the verge of a big, big breakthrough (maybe). Or she may become a private detective. I invented her in response to this blog post which started a lively thread last week in the Facebook group, Book Connectors.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Order, order! Ideas for a cross party parliamentary book group

I’ve put together these titles and questions for my imaginary cross-party MPs’ book group, meeting at the House of Commons once a month. Since participation will help all MPs do their job in an empathetic, efficient, positive way, I’ll let them claim the books on expenses (also there are so few local libraries left they’d be lucky to get them there). I’ve allowed 48 books, one per month for four years, sorted into themes, plus a year to digest. So there can’t be another election until they’ve read them all, ok?

On poverty and deprivation, and the effect they have on the lives of potentially healthy human beings:

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)

Germinal by Emil Zola (1885)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1914)

Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood (1933)

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand (1935)

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (1945)

Wigan Pier Revisited by Bea Campbell (1984)

Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth (2005)

The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited by Stephen Armstrong (2012)

MPs’ book group question: How far do you think living and working conditions have improved in the UK and elsewhere since each of these books were published?

On the rich, and how their behaviour affects other individuals and society as a whole:

Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac (1835)

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

MPs’ book group questionsDiscuss the extent to which the characters in these novels enjoy equality of access and opportunity. Discuss the ways they use their money, when they have it.

On immigrants, migrants, displaced people and their places in our society:

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham (1939)

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (1949)

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (2004)

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007)

The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed (2013)

No Country for Young Men by Julia O’Faolain (2015)

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016)

MPs’ book group questions: Imagine you are a character in one of these books. What would be your main hopes and fears, and how realistic are they? Can you get what you need without harming other people and how vulnerable do you feel yourself?

On War and its effects:

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1953)

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the worst scenario of all the ones described in these books? Do you think the world is a safer place now than at the time of the wars these books discuss? How could you end existing conflicts and prevent new ones?

On the death penalty:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

A Perfect Execution by Tim Binding (1996)

MPs’ book group question: In your view, do the main characters in these two books make you more or less sympathetic to the idea of imposing a death penalty, and if so for which crimes?

On old age and dementia:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014)

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (2014)

MPs’ book group question: Can you imagine being old yourself? What difference do money, company, good mental and physical health and empathy make to the life of an older person?

On education:

Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)

Roaring Boys (1955 by Edward Blishen

Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School by Leila Berg (1969)

The School I’d Like Revisited by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor

MPs’ book group questions: All these books raise questions about how and what we teach children. In what ways do you think our treatment of children and the curriculum we deliver have improved since these books were published?

On the environment:

The Tower to the Sun by Colin Thompson (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify ways in which adults receive the same message, and how the problems it highlights are being dealt with?

On First World/Third World inequality:

Angus Rides the Goods Train by Chris Riddell and Alan Durant (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is also a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify any novels for adults which deliver the same message? How are the problems it highlights being addressed internationally?

On the NHS:

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (2014)

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MPs’ book group questions: This book describes  surgical expertise developed within the NHS. How precarious do you think this expertise and practice is, going forward? Will it still be possible to write a book about a contemporary NHS in five years time?

On Women:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (2009)

Saving Safa by Waris Dirie (2013)

MPs’ book group questions: Would you say the lives of women in the first novel and the second book of are reflected anywhere in the world in contemporary society? How much do you know about FGM and forced marriage? What measures can be taken to protect women from all kinds of exploitation and abuse?

On LGBT rights:

Maurice by EM Forster (written 1914, published 1971)

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides (2002)

Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson  (2011)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the earliest date at which these books could have been published without significant personal risk to their authors, and why? How can you continue to protect LGBT interests?

On human rights and freedom of expression:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

1984 by George Orwell (1948)

For Every Child: The Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures by UNICEF (2000)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (2000)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016)

MPs’ book group question: What measures would you personally take to ensure that none of your constituents were ever subjected to any aspect of any of the kinds of oppression described in these books?

Good luck, new and returning MPs! I’m sure most of you are truly good people who genuinely have the interests of your constituents and of the people and places of the world at heart. I hope you will enjoy and learn from these books and make wise decisions based on what you have read.

If any fellow bloggers or those who follow this blog would like to make their own suggestions below, please do so! I wanted to include books on addressing the threat of terrorism, but got a bit stuck. And on childhood, but had too many – that will be for another post. And on Remain/Leave/Soft/Hard/No-deal Brexit… Over to you!

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

The Three Tenors

So you thought the three tenors were Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Vienna 3Pavarotti? Not so – they’re sausages, a frankfurter, some other darker variety and a veal sausage and they’re available in the Café of the Vienna Staatsoper. In this pretty room you may if such is your pleasure order “Three Tenors” or a “Rigoletto” (which is a sausage salad). My photo of this disconcerting dish is very small, for minimal offence to my vegetarian readers. (I chose the spinach strudel, with lettuce.)

51wntwjpdalSince in Vienna the three tenors can be anything, I’ve chosen a third variation: books, During a recent trip I read or reread three novels set in Vienna (with thanks as ever to the wonderful TripFiction site which you can consult for reading matter to match any destination you can think of). They give five stars to the first I chose, but I’m afraid I’d remove at least two of those. A Woman of Note by Carol M. Cram (2015) starts in 1827 with an excellent idea for a heroine, Isabette, a fictitious young woman pianist and composer whose ability rivals Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. But it sinks into cliché with too many descriptions of a singer friend’s pretty gloves and blue ribbons. The author neglects what could have been evocative descriptions of this most visual of cities. Instead she gives us endless expository dialogue to help shift the one dimensional characters around in the style of a Woman’s Own short story from the 1970s, and provides a (mercifully) brief sex scene worthy of the Bad Sex awards: “He moved his hand up her thigh, his breath becoming ragged and out of rhythm. Andante to allegretto. …he pushed his body and hers to allegro.” Hmmm. I wonder what variations Mozart’s fingertips might have conjured for that.

Vienna 9
The piano in the apartment where Franz Schubert died in 1828.

Plot digressions into lesbianism and sexual abuse are worthy rather than interesting, although I am sure music teachers and promoters did abuse their protegées and played their parts in keeping women’s career prospects unequal. An erudite bibliography suggests a lot of authorial research (sometimes plonked unharmoniously into the narrative) and genuine pleasure in the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. This was a missed opportunity to create a convincing story and explore a fascinating period of women’s and musical history in a unique setting. Looking at TripFiction’s list again it seems others have dealt with the same theme, so it does get exposure elsewhere.

Vienna 11
Vienna State Opera House, which opened in 1869. The architect committed suicide after Emperor Franz Josef referred to it in displeasure as “a railway station”. I hope it’s not too heartless to point out what a good plot that would make.

51jrqt32cqlI had better luck with Mortal Mischief (2004) by Frank Tallis. It’s a 19th century detective romp. To judge by the selections listed on TripFiction, Vienna’s baroque and 20th century architecture and dense cultural history encourage writers to indulge in a wild cocktail of music, classical and modern art, sculpture, historical events, psychoanalysis, medicine, education, imperialism, nationalism and the whole gamut of politics, cafes and brothels, coffee and cakes, Vienna 13clairvoyance and fairgrounds, bombastic urban settings and the wonderful Prater park. Tallis just about brings it off – I was a bit bogged down by the heavy velvet brocade of his opening storm scenes: “Liebermann looked up at the livid millstone sky. Ragged tatters of cloud blew above the pediment of The Imperial like the petticoats of a ravished angel. The air smelled strange – an odd, metallic smell.” But as he got into his stride the descriptions became more digestible and it was a pleasure to revisit the Belvedere Palace grounds, the Secession Building, the University and the Prater as his story hurtled through the city like a Viennese tram, picking up colourful characters at every chapter – a surgical instrument maker, Sigmund Freud, a locksmith, prostitutes, actresses and mediums, English governesses, police chiefs, magicians and kitchen maids.  If some of them are more caricature than real, well, that reflects Viennese grandeur, exaggeration and cuisine. The musical accompaniment tinkled comfortably alongside the narrative whenever detective Rheinhardt and his doctor friend Max Liebermann took a breather with a relaxing session of Schubert duets. I was pleased to find these new (to me) discoveries feature in other adventures, particularly as Leibermann and the governess left a romantic thread unfastened at the end.

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Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, from their information leaflet.

Mortal Mischief features the Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, and so of course does my third choice, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, the novel treatment of the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s famous 1949 film noir. The Vienna of The Third Man is not the confident 1900s cultural capital of Tallis, and lacked the exuberant fairground where we spent our last morning. Instead it’s a bombed out city divided into four zones where petty and serious crime thrive in an atmosphere of curfew and desperation. “The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away.

Actually there’s surprisingly little verbal description of Vienna as a setting in the book of The Third Man, which Greene himself said in his Preface “was never written to be read, but only to be seen. It was dedicated to Reed, “in admiration and affection and in memory of so many early morning Vienna hours at Maxim’s, the Casanova, the Oriental.” My forceful image of ruined buildings and unlit streets through which Harry Lime dodges his pursuers must come from the film. But in both, the labyrinthine sewers, scrubby landscapes, muddled policing and befuddled hero serve as a metaphor for fallen glory, profiteering and corruption. We saw very little of that in the bustling, affluent, well behaved city we visited, so Vienna has created a successful veneer since those days. Or maybe business dealings there now really are cleaner than in London. It wouldn’t be difficult.

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Warning: if you read this edition, the introduction contains spoilers for both plots!

Greene and Reed found more than one kind of suspense in Harry Lime’s confrontation with Rollo Martin (Hollie Martin in the film) in the topmost gondola – an idea to which Tallis pays homage when Liebermann also takes the ride with the man he suspects of murder. In Mortal Mischief the innocent characters also return to its thrills whenever they can – as Freud explains, it replicates the experience of flying. It’s a sad reflection on over stimulated 21st century travellers that we became rather bored when dangling at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Health and safety means there’s no danger of a villainous shove through an open door or of smashing the glazing, and the views are stunning. But the ponderous wheel turns slowly and waits a long time in each position – unlike the pacy plots of all three books above, though not dissimilar to the way my companion reported the Three Tenor Sausages sitting in his stomach. No Sachertorte for him that afternoon!

 

(Information for coffee drinking, cake eating bookworms: The cafes we visited were the Prückel, the Tirolerhof, the Mozart and the Oper, all equally memorable. The Tirolerhof in particular is a quiet reader’s dream, all customers engrossed in books or the newspapers supplied by the establishment, no music, and voices that rarely rise above a whisper. You could write a novel here before the waiter bothered you with the bill.)

 

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Pattern Creep and Plot Wander

I’m troubled by an earworm, an old folk tune with the lyrics run amok:

‘Twas a sunny May morning, the last of my youth,

As I plot wandered happy and free,

When Squire Pattern Creep in his herringbone tweeds,

With his wiles was the ruin of me.”

You what? I’ll explain. The expression “pattern creep” came from my mosaics teacher. What it really means is, you’ve got so involved in sticking on your little bits of tile that you haven’t noticed they’re not cut regularly, or they’re not stuck evenly, or they’re sliding around in pools of too much glue. Beware! Stand back! Your intended image has “crept”.

This especially affected me last month when I went on a weekend course at the wonderful Phoenix Studios.  I embarked on an ambitious mosaic panel – a herringbone design to echo my parquet floor. But I hadn’t allowed for my mediocre measuring skills and trembly tessellations, for my hand cut tiles being so much smaller and more numerous than real parquet pieces, with more potential for departure from my plotted line. Ever heard of curly herringbone? The sagging lines couldn’t be resolved. There was nothing for it back home but to chisel bits off here and there, then whole rows, and then the whole bloody thing and start again in the centre, with more meticulous selection, cutting, and sticking and no ragged border to lead me astray from the wings.

Pattern creep 10

For a writer, the syndrome is familiar. Mosaic Pattern Creep is not some Jilly Cooper seducer in a paisley dressing gown, it’s a tendency also known as Plot Wander, and I can’t be the only novelist/ story writer/ blogger to have been ambushed by it.

I started a novel about the power of fairy tales for children, all poetic language and lyrical images. My turns of phrase were romantic and swirly, elegant and mysterious, and my characters were filled with wonder. For about twenty five pages. Then my characters stopped soliloquizing and began pontificating. The story turned to gritty social realism, about the education system and racism and modern poverty and grime.

Pattern creep 3

I started a novel about a vulnerable, misguided artist who tried to sell her work door to door, unaware that her images could be misconstrued and she was pulling herself into danger. It was sinister and disturbing and I wanted the reader to shout “Watch out!”, and run after her to stop her before something terrible happened. The tension lasted a good, oh, thirty pages. Then somehow it became into a description of the road I lived in and the households within it. Nobody was ever going to escape their everyday cares reading that.

I published a novel about a beautiful island full of characters with wonderful illusions and high minded ideals, coming into conflict with morally upright, hard working, underprivileged locals. It was menacing and threatening and tense – for about forty pages. Then the themes got lost inside the characters’ introspection and reviewers accused the plot of disappearing. (To be fair to myself, although the book wandered away from the crime genre, it’s held its head up as contemporary fiction, I had a nice new review only yesterday.)

921359I tried a sequel, my previous heroine with a new relationship plucked from a new set of characters. After about thirty pages the warning signs appeared: paragraphs about shoddy building practices, a runaway housing market, and casual refugee labourers. I had ideas of an updated The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and was tumbling headlong into the same traps Robert Tressell did, of long winded, well meaning worthiness. (That’s not to say I don’t have great affection even for the boring parts of the original and still play around with the idea sometimes.)

I’ve written (counts back) about seventy blog posts that have begun with one premise and, often enough, wandered off down the side alleys of another. Does it matter so much, in a blog post? You can always return to it and edit it. You can always just add a few more tags. The links will probably only ever be read as part of Facebook posts or Tweets where patterns don’t just creep, they ricochet. But a story, a novel, should really be complete and unified at the point of pressing “publish”.

17333223That’s Plot Wander. It infects greater names than mine. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch comes to mind. The Lord of the Rings, too, and later Bill Bryson when he gets lazy and just repeats himself (I’m going to make some enemies here.) A minor case of Plot Wander may only involve an unnecessary character, or an unresolved question that didn’t matter much anyway. Severe Plot Wander has more dramatic symptoms: a character inexplicably changes name, age, or gender; the voice of a narrator doesn’t match their personality; a rural setting suffers from urban blight; a total change of genre occurs from one chapter to the next.

Does Plot Wander occur because the author is sabotaged by things that matter more – you could argue racism, housing, education and deprivation are far more important than any silly little love story or unsolved crime I could invent (it’s just that plenty of other people already commentate them far better than I could). Is Plot Wander some kind of automatic safety device, stopping an author from embarking on trite stories with unoriginal characters? (In that case, why does it work the other way too, halting a perfectly decent story and turning it into mush?) Is it that all an author can write is innate and pre-programmed (in my case gritty social realism) and s/he has no more chance of escaping it than of changing DNA?

You set out an idea. You tweak it, consider it, arrange it,choose the colours, and you think it has the potential to be great. You put it together, concentrating hard (you think) dedicating days, weeks, months to the composition. You stand back. It’s a loose, illogical, low impact shambles. (Was that Plot Wander or a new enemy, The Confused Identifier? One minute I’m referring to the author as he/she, the next they have become you.)

Pattern creep 6

You (?) get out the chisel and you start again.

(By the way, the sculptures – celebrations and discards both – are from the Phoenix Studio gardens where we take our lunch breaks. Do have a look at their courses. Chipping away at stone, life drawing, fine art and crafts are a wonderful complement /antidote to hacking away at words.)

‘Twas a freezing May morning, in my senior years,

And I’d scribed the bright words from my head,

When I saw on the page my ideas gone astray

Plot Wander had grabbed them, and fled.

Pattern Creep warning (or is it Abrupt Ending Syndrome?) I’ve blogged weekly since April 2016, and all without pay. When I was in paid employment I had holidays. My Union (me) thinks I may be due a short break. It depends where the plot takes me. I’m flying away – see you when I see you!

Pattern creep 7

© Words and photographs Jessica Norrie 2017

In praise of beautiful writing

Such an obvious thing and so easy to overlook: stories and books are composed of words so it’s the words that matter most. In these days of unreliable heroines, bodies eviscerated in infinitely revolting ways, and rush-to-the-finish plots, what a refreshing pleasure it is to be greeted by an author who won’t let you pass on by without stopping to admire her words. And having paused, you find yourself re-reading and reciting them to benefit fully from the careful cadences.

25064563This week I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m not even half way through. I’m on a walking tour through musical Irish prose and I’m in no hurry for it to end. The plot is important, she makes that quite clear, and so far it has included many different ideas as well as events, with first hints and then revelations of domestic betrayals and terrible, true war crimes. But I’ll consider the plot as a whole when I reach the end. For now I’m lingering in the language.

Note: I started writing this when I’d read about a hundred pages. I read some more this morning, and O’Brien has jolted me back into the plot with a twist more shocking than I’d anticipated. Interestingly, now I’m propelled by events, I’m not finding the language so engaging. Nonetheless for those hundred pages I was enraptured by words as mesmerising as waves breaking onto the shore. Since they’re what I set out to look at, they’re what I’ll continue with for now.

Some of her language is poetic; these lines occur within just four pages:

“Clouds chased each other across the heavens that bright afternoon, when she drove into the hotel car park. It was much further south and the air was balmy. Yes, clouds on a great maraud, up there staging a tournament.”

“…she heard the lilts and hollers of children.”

“From the slant of the hall light she saw the spray of rain on his hair…”

Some is indirect speech, rhythms and phrases caught in the present tense like pinned butterflies:

“Sister Bonaventure is lost for words and also worried about the palpitations. She can hardly believe it. A surprise party and she thinking she was going to the chapel to say the rosary.”

Some is fierce: “As for the bodies, that was a matter for the engineers, hence the zillions of secret graves that litter our land.”

“He is all alone (…) with the frozen lostness of the abandoned.”

Such care taken: active  “clouds on a great maraud” where most would settle for “marauding clouds”; an “also” added to Sister Bonaventure’s worries, mirroring her speech and also echoing the sounds of the word “lost” that preceded it; “zillions” – I thought, is zillions a real number? Is it childhood slang for a massive uncountable amount beyond thinking and reason? Juxtapose “zillions” with engineering projects to create “secret graves” and you see how naivete and carelessness, attractive attributes in childhood, can lead adults to genocide. I’m still only a couple of pages further on, and the pickings are rich. Yes, words on a great maraud, staging a festival between the covers.

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See “Country Girl” for O’Brien’s own account of her writing and her life.

I don’t have the patience to take such care crafting my own prose. I didn’t start writing, like Edna O’Brien, in my late teens and I haven’t nearly reached my late eighties, and even if I’d had her time, it’s unlikely I’d have developed her skill. I do try to write well. I try to construct clear sentences, of varying length for interest, with one appropriate word instead of a blitz of six. I try to make them lead on from the one before, without unnecessary length or repetition or cliché. Unlike O’Brien, I haven’t spent a lifetime listening, adapting, honing and polishing, consorting with Marianne Faithful and Marlon Brando and undergoing therapy with R D Laing, interviewing terrorists and piling up literary prizes in the bulging trophy cupboard. Nonetheless, I – we all – can learn from her.

In this matter of cadence, what makes a beautiful sentence? For O’Brien, her Irish heritage provides a sound (in all senses of the word) foundation. “Lilting Irish” is a cliché, but clichés only come into being because they are true. So much Irish prose, poetry  and song does lilt – but lilting implies lulling and Irish writers inevitably go on to pack in a shock. Think of Yeats’ first lines: “Although I’d lie lapped up in linen”; “I think it better that in times like these”; “On the grey sand beside the shallow stream” – then look up what comes after. Think of Beckett, Molly Keane, Toibin, Boyne, Anne Enright…no, I’ll think of them for another post, on Irish writing, another time.

The Irish are front runners but often the language of a title signposts a book from elsewhere whose language will stop you in your tracks: “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” (Italo Calvino), (as beguiling in translation as in Italian); “After Leaving Mr MacKenzie” (Jean Rhys)“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” (Jon McGregor); “By Grand Central Station I Sat  Down and Wept” (Elizabeth Smart). (Note how many of these titles start with what is now inflexibly labelled a “connective” in school English teaching.) Or the effect could be gained from something as small as a comma: “Cry, the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton). These elegiac titles precede lyrical prose, while economical, clean, precise writing may be heralded by a single powerful word: Persuasion (Jane Austen); Futility (William Gerhardie); Atonement (Ian McKewan).

 

Exposure (Helen Dunmore), which I reviewed here, also has a one-word title announcing gleaming prose. Dunmore is of course a poet as well as a novelist, her words as thoughtfully arranged, selected and refused as in her verse – test any page by reading a paragraph aloud. Another of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes, has written extensively of his debt to Gustave Flaubert. 10746542Nobody took more care with prose than Flaubert, who would spend weeks on a single sentence and coined the term “le mot juste” which ecompasses infinitely more meaning than the translation, “the right word”. In my review of The Noise of Time, I discuss how Barnes uses language to make the reader stop, and think.  Incidentally (but perhaps it’s not incidental) good prose can be more successfully re imagined in other media: the recent film of Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is concise, clear, meaningful, allowing the reader/viewer space for reflection, as are the successful film versions of McEwan’s novels.

This was a small reflection on words. I could go on, but I’d like to hear examples that you have found beautiful, and we can take a moment to share them. Perhaps as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the sounds between the notes – are what make these works so special. I think I’ll look at that next time.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

What can I say?

It’s Friday again. Unusually, I haven’t made any notes for today’s blog post during the week. I’ve done no writing or editing either in the past seven days. But if I don’t post, it’s the start of a slippery slope, a particular shame as I approach next week’s Blogiversary. So what can I say?

One good reason for not writing was reading. I finished On Golden Hill, which I thought one of best books I’ve read in the past couple of years. It’s a spoof on early English novelists like Sterne and Smollett (at least, I think it is. I’ve never read them, just accumulated enough literary bric a brac over the years to think I would know what to expect if I did. And now along comes a 21st century author with an easier to penetrate, shorter pastiche so I’ll never have to.)

On Golden Hill 2
Detail from cover of “On Golden Hill”

There are great characters – the hero, with the deliberately neutral name of Smith, his friend Septimus Oakeshott, a complex, poignant, wily figure, Tabitha the peculiar heroine, who echoes Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and the mysterious, tragic but ultimately strong slaves Achilles and Zephyra. Slaves from A-Z, you see? The descriptions of New York in the first decades of colonial settlement are fascinating, and the research into detail impressive – for example 18th century theatre craft or how citizens kept clean. There’s an amusing device, presumably Sternian or Smolletesque, whereby the narrator begins a minute description  – of a card game, for instance, or a duel, and then stops short, telling us he doesn’t have enough technical knowledge and we shouldn’t pay him any credence. Tabitha struck false for me almost from the beginning to the end, but otherwise, this was a stylistically impressive, richly entertaining story with, at the end, a surprising twist that reminded me I was reading in the present day after all.

Then I galloped through the latest Nicci French, Saturday Requiem. If you’ve been with this series from the start, on Blue Monday, you’ll be familiar with psychotherapist Frieda Klein who is unwillingly drawn into investigating whatever gruesome crime the police last made a mess of solving, all the while making powerful establishment enemies, continuing to see clients, and attempting to protect the interests of those who have suffered collateral damage. I thought Monday, Tuesday’s Gone and Waiting for Wednesday were excellent, but by Thursday’s Child I was finding it harder to suspend disbelief and Friday on my Mind has barely registered there.

I’m afraid Saturday is another step down for me. As usual, there was an ingenious plot and I couldn’t put it down but this time it was more because I wanted to tick it off than because I was gripped. Frieda has now walked around London in the small hours a few times too often – the London settings are normally evocative enough to be a character in themselves but these felt barely sketched in. She’s played too many calming chess games, confronted too many invasions of her home and threats to her sanity. As with Eastenders, you can only take so many episodes before you become too inured to be affected. In Saturday Requiem French toys only fleetingly with Frieda’s old adversaries before they disappear without explanation, and doesn’t bother to give her the usual love life or dysfunctional family related setback. This must be because even calm, counselled and counselling Frieda would be too damaged to continue into Sunday – the dilemma for which is set up on the last page and which French is presumably contractually obliged to deliver. It’s an object lesson for a crime writer. Never start a series of books with Monday, or worse still January, in the title.

To be fair, my concentration is not what it was (is anybody’s? Roll on the collective legal action against Facebook, Twitter and all their scheming relations for compensation for damage to our synapses.) Also I was tired after an exciting week. Top sopping for the Hackney Singers at the Festival Hall went very well on Monday, thanks very much for asking. Adrenaline flowed, the London Mozart Players sparkled, the soloists soared and the conductor brought the whole cast together in glorious celebration.

HS

All this just five nights after the same hall was evacuated and events cancelled for the attack on Westminster on Wednesday 22nd. I do not for one minute wish to belittle the suffering and shock of the victims and their families, but Londoners of all races and backgrounds are the heroes of this story. Why? Because in London terrorism cannot keep a foothold however much the media magnifies it: we all just get on with what is important to us. My daughter’s response on the night of the attack was to get on the tube and go into central London so she didn’t miss her evening class – all the other students and the teacher turned up as well. Ours was to deliver the concert we’d been preparing since Christmas. The audience was full, the South Bank was packed in the sunshine, the blossom is out and the great city of London is alive and well.

Blossom

(In my opinion London is more likely to sustain long term damage from the UK’s own foolish Brexit decision and our ridiculous posturing government – satirical material aplenty there for a modern Smollett or Sterne. My despair at that may be the less positive reason I lost writing energy this week.)

However – onwards and upwards! Next week – look out for a giveaway! Look out for some awards! This blog will be one year old and there will be due celebration.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Introducing Ed Itor, bully and critical friend…

…or more correctly her* multiple personalities, Copy Ed, Structural Ed and Picture Ed. They work as a team although as in all teams not all of them are always fit to participate.Sometimes they’re benign, and can’t find much wrong. That’s not such good news as it sounds – it only means they’re having an off day or they’ve lost their specs. They’ll find plenty to mutter about next time they look.

*You thought Ed was a man didn’t you? Ha! Ed is short for Edwina.

Ed Tracking 3

Sometimes their advice is straightforward. With an airy swipe Structural Ed points out the end of a paragraph would be better at the beginning, (or indeed the start of the book better at the end). Or not there at all. They monitor my daily allowance of telling not showing, telling me to dramatize more or change everything to dialogue. I love interior monologue, but neither Copy Ed or Structural Ed agree with me on that one so if you’re one of my exclusive group of readers you have the Eds to thank for pruning my neural suckers, and also for weeding if not wholly zapping my more clumsy metaphorical parasites.

If Structural Ed can’t find fault with anything major, such as the setting, characters, time scale, tone, or theme, Copy Ed, who has a more antsy persona, zooms in for a good old nitpick of my commas, m and n dashes, indents, and ellipseez (is that the plural of ellipsis?) She loves nothing more than a session of semi-colonic irrigation. The semicolon is, for me, the writer’s third gear. (When I learnt to drive, cars had only four gears and my favourite was third. You could start in third if you had to – downhill in my ancient Mini I often did – and complete whole journeys, up to quite a speed.) Ed tracking 1Often I’m not sure whether to continue with my sentence or leave it at that; at such times the semicolon is my friend. Copy Ed performs a regular purge; Structural Ed, meanwhile, is on immigration control. She’s spotted too many Points Of View (POVs to the initiated). Slipping in and out too often, with no legitimate reason to be in the text and frequently incorrect usage. They’re unreliable, multiple, I should insist they get entry visas or ban most of them altogether.

Picture Ed is quieter. Maybe I’ll make him male since we all need a consistent pronoun (Copy Ed told me that). He turns up fairly reliably every week with some copyright free photos I can use for the blog. Sometimes I’m short of ideas and if it wasn’t for the inspiration from his photos there wouldn’t be a post at all (for example when I corresponded from Leyton High Road). Sometimes he goes AWOL, off on some research assignment or just looking for a battery, and then I have to do a drawing, or create some sort of montage to illustrate my post that week. To that end, while I was busy taking photos of my keyboard in the bin (What? See below…) some gremlin stuck two sets of brackets in that paragraph! How the Eds are shaking their heads! And all those exclamation marks… Tut Tut.

Recently the Eds have taken to turning up when I’m reading the work of other authors. They sneak up behind me to point out that J K Rowling…really does use…far too many ellipses…when she wants… to show people …breathlessly…running away.. (and why not just say “they” instead of “Harry, Ron and Hermione” every time? She might have cropped a few pages that way.) Louis de Bernières gave a child two different ages within one page early in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, spoiling the rest of the book for me so much that I can’t find the exact reference because I gave it to Oxfam. Do read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It’s a mostly brilliant book, great setting, characters, themes – but what’s with all the would’ve and must’ve let alone she’d’ve and he’d’ve and the extraordinary he ought to’ve in an otherwise formal literary tone? The Essex Serpent‘s Ed must’ve’d a bad day because the ending is disappointingly inconclusive, I might add… However Linda Grant in The Dark Circle can’t be blamed for inconclusiveness (inconclusivity?). She wraps up an otherwise sympathetically told, well paced, interestingly researched story of diverse believable characters with a brief part three information dump, as though she resented having to spend any more time with the reader.

 

Less recently, James, Faulkner, Woolf, Proust and Joyce wrote such long sentences they collectively traumatised all the Eds they knew, causing them to bluster hysterically and go off to find a pier to jump off before changing their minds because after all it really was a question of style or perhaps only a passing thought and such thoughts come and go never knowing which way they’ll lead a protagonist next on the great despairing journey through a world without the comfort of religious certainty full of railways and Guinness illegitimate children shame haunted governesses colonial unfairness mint juleps charlatans snobs and magic in the shrubbery? These past traumas may account for why the Eds of today are so keen on brevity, so down on adverbs and so fixated with colonic purging.

13732457(I’m a few chapters into the dense and beautifully written On Golden Hill by Francis Spufford though, and even the Eds can find nothing wrong yet. So as the best fiction should, it really is helping me escape into a different world.)

When the Eds mess with my reading mind I tell them to go off duty. Can’t I even read a book just for enjoyment any more? But I wish they’d turn up for emails, facebook posts and notes to the window cleaner. They seem to think that’s beneath their notice and yet I can assure them, I make plenty of errors then too.

But to a writer of course the Eds are helpful, really. I wouldn’t be without them, really (were those reallys really necessary, given that I’m not writing dialogue here…reallys seep from my neural byways along with actuallys and of courses and justs. They must be stopped! We don’t need my authorial interior monologue as well as interior monologues from all those jostling POVs.)

The only one I (really) can’t see the use for is their dark shadow, Mess with the Ed. (Copy Ed: Your readers won’t get that unless they read it aloud with a London accent. Me: Who cares? Nobody reads my stuff anyway. But since you insist I’ll add an apostrophe and change the e to lower case to show the dropped h. And if anyone notices maybe they’ll comment and then we’ll see who’s right! Structural Ed: Less interior monologue here, please. Get on with it!)

So – Mess with the ‘ed is the author’s equivalent of live-in emotional abuser. Isn’t your writing crap? Who cares what you have to say? Your characters are unbelievable (not in a good way); your themes pointless; your setting blurry; your ideas out of date; your prose over/underwritten; your dialogue banal, your plot – what plot? You think you’re an author? You think it’s worth even revising this so called first draft? You think the Eds don’t have better things to do?

Ed keyboard in bin 2I came across this article by William Ryan. I waved it jauntily at Mess with the ‘ed. But this week, even Ryan’s clarity and common sense ain’t working. I gaze at the first draft and really just want to give up. It’s uncanny but the keyboard has gone on strike in sympathy: despite changed batteries it’s skipping letters, disconncting, takng th sense frm my words even if I bang it like a high stepping typewriter.. Copy Ed’s refusing even to pick up her red pen until I invest in a new one…my inspiration is draining fast…Dementors loom on the horizon…letters n spaces dispersng… wht’s hppning….where are Harry, Ron and Hermione when you need thm?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

A Word About World Book Day

I support everything World Book Day stands for. Who wouldn’t want to support reading, advance literacy, encourage authors and readers, swell the book borrowing and buying audience of all ages and races? Do you sense a BUT coming? It’s only a small one.

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Ginny and Ron Weasley, 2002

The schools I taught in and the ones where my children went celebrated World Book Day. One way to do this was by inviting the children and staff to dress up. (Fortunately for you, ex colleagues, I’ve lost the photos.) For me as a parent it was, mostly, fun deciding with the children who they would dress up as, how to put together the costumes, working out the inevitable challenges (Babar’s ears, Pirate Pete’s parrot). Some of that time I was working from home as a translator; at others I had access to my own school library and stationery cupboard which clearly did make my challenge easier. Even so, making a costume at home, if the school gives you enough notice, is not usually difficult.

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Babar, 1998

It’s creative, collaborative, and involves exploring the story, characters and illustrations in more depth than you do by “just” reading the books where they feature (I put “just” in inverted commas because learning to read and continuing to want to read are incredibly complex processes – but that’s for another post).

Making a costume together promotes all the following skills: gross and fine motor skills; listening; decision making; art and design; interpretation; acting/role play; compromise; language – receptive and active; imagination; mathematics (measuring, perception, shape, calculation); sense of humour (yes, humour is an innate skill but if it doesn’t get practice, it withers). And it promotes parenting skills and the right to a childhood. All that, just from making a costume! (Oh, and thrift, as ideas can be reused – Babar can be adapted for Jill Murphy’s Mr or Mrs Large, or for The Elephant and the Bad Baby. Meg can grow into Ginny Weasley, the Worst Witch or witchever you prefer.)

So I was saddened to read this year, that by 27th February British people had spent at least £386,000 on World Book Day costumes. If you DO want to take the quick and easy route, of course you could buy next year’s costumes in the Tesco sale now. When I was trying to consult the Asda cheap costumes page a BMW advert kept driving over it: perhaps you could wear officially licensed Dorothy Deluxe Red Slippers available on Amazon for £80.45 as you go for a spin. But if parents are going to spend £80.45, or £386,000+ for World Book Day, shouldn’t it be on books and literacy projects, not in supermarkets and online giants?

There’s a way of getting ahead of the game for next year, spending just £1 and benefiting Book Aid International, by using one of their 18 costume templates. The World Book Day site’s inspiration page also refers you to Book Aid International, and has plenty of other ideas. Book Aid International aim to equip and run libraries in sub-Saharan Africa: a better cause than Tesco, surely, at 25% of the sale price of their cheapest item today? (I’ve added the link to show I bear no grudges). Tesco do at least manage one black child model out of 20+ (unless they’re all hiding under the superhero costumes), but Book Aid International – sadly, in view of their aims, but in fact in view of everything – none at all. Whoops, I’m going off post again.

The photos on this blog post, rather dog eared and faded now, from pre digital days, are not intended to be smug. I was a good parent in this respect because it appealed to my own interests, but inadequate in others (nutrition, sport, and patience come to mind). What my photos illustrate are happy memories of joint parent/child projects, inspired by books we read together. I’m now milking the experience by writing in the novel in progress about the relationship between parents and schools and the everyday pressures and joys involved for both – the first rough draft went to the agent this week which is a milestone of sorts. March 2020 update: that novel became The Magic Carpet. It took off successfully and got some great feedback, but you could help me celebrate this year’s World Book Day by buying, reading and reviewing it – please! I do have some review copies available (ebook or paperback with UK postage only). Please comment below if you’d be interested in reviewing it.  

I’m quoting from the Manchester Evening News now: With the … finding that 28 per cent of children will choose to dress up as fictional characters that aren’t even from books, and a further 33pc as a character from a book they have never even read, the company is reminding people to not lose sight of the real meaning of the event

book-day-rob-artful-dodger
The Artful Dodger, 2001

We used to have a poster at school, in the library, which we showed to parents who asked about tutors and workbooks and extra homework. Often they were stressed themselves and were stressing their children and the poster was intended not to criticise but to help. It looked more exciting than this but all it said was:

Ten Ways to improve reading:

1.Read. 2. Read. 3.Read. 4.Read. 5.Read. 6.Read. 7.Read. 8.Read. 9.Read. 10.Read. 

I would add: 11. Enjoy! (See my post from 2016 for some more ideas – and they don’t involve dressing up.)

No children were hurt in the making of this post and we all continue to live happily ever after.

© Jessica Norrie 2017