Hidden gems in old books.

The first story in The Children’s Own Wonder Book 1947, a fairy tale, turns out to be set in Parkgate, on the Wirral.  It’s called The Price of Shrimps, and was written by Olive Dehn.

It was the illustrations that caught my eye.  I knew nothing about Olive Dehn, until I Googled her, but I had visited Parkgate.

parkgate the price of shrimpsSome years ago, Ruth, Rachel, my dog Zoe, and I, shared a house near Lark Lane in Liverpool.  Zoe, possibly the most anthropomorphic dog I’ve ever met, swopped from country-life to city-living seamlessly, but we humans were prone to cravings for more open landscapes.  We wandered in and out of the city, between essays and classes.

I don’t think we’d have found Parkgate on our own.  It was the culmination of a mystery trip organised by Ray, who designating himself as our native guide, took us to a range of intriguing locations.

Mostly, probably because it was term-time, our destinations were wind-swept, and deserted.  That afternoon, as we drove along the marshland road the wind seemed to drop and the sky cleared.  By the time we arrived, Parkgate was bathed in balmy sunshine.

What I remember is an impression of improbability.  One side of ‘The Parade’ was a row of traditional Georgian houses, all immaculately coated in pastel paint. The tall, narrow buildings belonged in a harbour scene, but instead of facing yachts at anchor, and beached skiffs, the opposite curb of the road held back acres and acres of marsh.  Shimmering grasses seemed to stretch to the Welsh coast, just visible through the haze.

We bought ice-creams, and tramped footpaths leading into the sea of greenery.  There was a time-slip quality to the juxtaposition of that silted-up estuary with the neatly maintained street.  It seemed that someone had transposed two opposing scenes on top of each other.

Dehn’s story, set ‘long, long ago, when Birkenhead was a cottage and Liverpool conisisted of two shops and a church…‘ and ships docked at Parkgate, conjures a picture of a busy port, visited by such famous luminaries as Jonathon Swift, and his friends Mr Addison and Mr Steele.

Those were the days when the coaches rattled through Parkgate at nine miles an hour, and smugglers met on moonless nights in the cellars of the Boathouse Inn.

From 1610 to the 1830s, Parkgate was the place to catch the ferry for Ireland.  It was a town, with a sea-wall, fashionable shops, and lots of visitors.

parkgate the price of shrimps 2At some point (in the 1720s probably), seven year-old Rebecca Mapletop, the seventh child of a fisherman, runs across the sands looking for cockles, and gets caught by the Witch of the West.  She’s held captive for seven years, looking after the Witch in her cave at the bottom of the River Dee estuary.

When Rebecca outgrows her clothes, the Witch allows her a visit home, to borrow some new ones.

“You may go, but for one day only.  I shall be on the quayside at twelve o’clock tonight.  I shall call you as the clock strikes midnight, and if you do not answer” -the Witch’s voice took on a blood-curdling note – “WOE BETIDE YOU.”

“And if anything should happen to you – if you should forget to call me, what then?” asked Rebecca.

Forget!” said the Witch.  “ME? Don’t be impertinent.  Well, if I did forget, you would be free.  the spell would be broken, that goes without saying.  But it is a foolish question,” said the Witch of the West, “because I never forget – NEVER!”

The unhappy girl is saved from return through a clever intervention by Dr Swift and his two friends, but when the Witch realises how she’s been tricked, she is maddened with rage.

…she jumped astride her broomstick of shrimps’ whiskers and shrieked and howled and yelled and screamed up and down the sands of Dee for seven days and seven nights like one possessed…she brewed and baked such storms in her cauldron that the meadows were flooded from Chester to Hoylake, and when at last her fury had abated, it was found that the Dee had silted up and it was no longer possible for ships going to and from Ireland to dock at Neston and Dawpool, at West Kirby and Parkgate.

Those days in Liverpool were long enough ago for me not to remember how many times we visited the silted harbour.  Probably not many.  What mattered, was that feeling of crossing a boundary, which happened each time we turned onto The Parade.  Maybe it was a feeling that belonged to that period of my life.  I hadn’t forgotten the place, but it took Dehn’s story to transport me back to that feeling again.

Fiction, it’s just magic.

parkgate the price of shrimps 3

Illustrations by Trefor Jones.

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School Drama, BBC Radio 4: teaching Shakespeare

This week, I’ve been gripped by a four-part Radio 4 play, School Drama, written by Andy Mulligan.  I’ve listened on the I-Player, rather than as it was scheduled, and it’s available there until 13th April 2018, if you’re interested. Professional actors take the leading roles, other parts are played by students and teachers from Portsmouth Grammar school, where it was recorded. It’s a lively production, with some contemporary sub-plots.

school drama, andy mulliganGeoff Cathcart, ‘has-been actor’, steps in to direct a production of Romeo and Juliet for a secondary school that’s taking part in a Shakespeare competition.  The teacher who was in charge has taken indefinite sick-leave, and his drama colleague would rather direct ‘Oliver’, but is told she must work with Geoff on the Shakespeare.

The two director/producers are as far apart as the Capulets and the Montagues. They don’t agree on how to cast, interpret or stage the play. When Geoff’s innovative approach draws in some challenging students, tensions are hiked-up.

Andy Mulligan, explaining where his inspiration came from, writes:

A few years ago I was hired to direct a Shakespeare play in a school that was inching out of special measures. The project foundered, partly because of internal politics and resentments, but also because the joy of interrogating a provocative play with teenagers didn’t sit well with a school frightened of upsetting parents.

Teenagers, the play demonstrates, are not only capable of exploring the intricacies of the plot, exposure to the whole text transforms them. Given access, and encouragement, the players blossom.  Students from opposite ends of the learning scale earn the respect of their peers, and develop inter-personal skills.

In contrast, the responses of the teachers, bound by the rules of safe-guarding and the dictates of biased school-governers, gets narrower.  As Geoff and the students take control of the play, the teachers, unable to recognise the beauty and originality of what is happening, are driven into increasingly radical action.

school drama 2The writing isn’t so straight-forward as to suggest that Geoff, the maverick, has all the answers.  He’s a rounded character who carries ‘baggage’, and clearly hasn’t enough understanding of the real and wider importance of ‘safe-guarding’.

I don’t think Mulligan was claiming we should abandon the rules.  The problem with the teachers was that rules, and safety, have become everything to them.  Targets, academic and economic, mean that simplifying is standard.  In discussing his own experience, Mulligan writes:

One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text. Why not? Because the exam would test three particular scenes, so those were the ones photocopied, annotated and taught into the ground. Why waste time reading the rest of it?

I  hope some teachers were listening to this production, and not focusing only on the dangers.  When I was at school we did the whole text of Macbeth.  At the point where we were introduced to it we went to see what, I think, must have been the 1971 Roman Polanski version. There was nudity, blood, and rude jokes from the gatekeeper to make us snigger.  But I remember that every teenager there was hooked.

school drama 3

Performers from Portsmouth Grammar school: Rory Greenwood, Rebecca Emerton, Finn Elliot and Rob Merriam

 

*Photos above from BBC, include actors, Tom Hollander, Divian Ladwa, Heather Craney, Tony Gardner & Sian Gibson

Here’s another reason for writers to like fairy stories.

This week, my friends Ruth and Annie, who run the Logie Steadings bookshop in Forres, Scotland, (please note, everyone, this is not just a shameless promotion for excellent purveyors of reading material, staffed by brilliant and welcoming staff -though if you’re in the area, do call in! – this post is a few thoughts about reading journeys) have been running a promotion for Ladybird books. Their on-line publicity featured one of the first books I was ever allowed to choose for myself, Puss in Boots, and that I read, quite literally to bits.

Ladybird puss in boots

I’ve no idea how it happened that our junior school gave each child a book, but I’m still grateful.  Until then, books materialised magically, opening unlooked for doors of my imagination.

One year though, was I six, seven or eight? I don’t know, what I remember is sunshine, and young leaves on the copper-beach tree, and mum handing back the glossy leaflet I’d brought home. ‘Which book would you like?’ she said, and when I opened that paper out, there were lists, and lists, of titles.  Each was numbered, accompanied by a little picture and a box to tick.

The decision was agony.  Even though I dismissed all the non-fiction titles instantly, that left many favourite stories.

So why Puss rather than one of the many gorgeous princesses?  Maybe because he was like our cat, not just in being tabby, but in having a jaunty stride and a knowing tilt to his head.  Look at him, staring right at us, surely he’s about to wink. Sometimes, when stories are illustrated, or dramatized, they become the definitive version.  Eric Winter’s illustrations caught me.

A couple of decades later, when I discovered Angela Carter’s reworked fairy tales, in The Bloody Chamber, I fell in love with Puss-in-Boots all over again. No matter that her feline, aptly named Figaro, was a marmalade tabby: his clothes, his demeanour, his attitude, were a grown-up version of that Ladybird book.

…oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro… a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated… proud of his bird-entrancing eye and more than military whiskers; proud, to a fault, some say, of his fine, musical voice. All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.

Innuendo laden Puss-in-Boots made me think again about that Ladybird book.  Other stories might have action, magic, anthropomorphic animals, but how many were as slyly audacious? He lies, he cheats, he steals and charms, those are the events of the story.

Most fairy-tale heroes are defined by their looks, white-as-snow, red-as-blood, fairest-in-the-land, beautiful and they’re always good.  Evil characters put them in jeopardy, and they must maintain their moral ground, resist temptations. Often, they’re not clever, just brave in the face of adversity, and so worthy of rich rewards.

Ladybird puss in boots.jpg 2Amongst all those passive Ladybird characters, Puss stood out partly, because he puzzled me.  What was the message?  Carter played up the ambiguity that had kept me returning to the story.

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then, after I celebrate his generosity with a fresh obbligato the moon no fuller than my heart–whoops! I nimbly spring aside–down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr.

‘Merrrrrrrrrrrci!’

The machinations of Puss are not unique.  Go back to Grimm, Perrault, or some of the other folk & fairy story collectors and you’ll find many of those Ladybird characters showing their feisty side.  What might they say, given an opportunity?  You tell me.

When you don’t start with a plot…

I couldn’t think what to write this week.  This is my fifth start.  However, my deadline is approaching, so the pressure is on. I have to go with whatever slips onto the screen.

Actually, I prefer this way.  You know that old Tommy Cooper joke, ‘I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure’? That’s me.  I’m hopeless with all kinds of decisions if I’m given some space, from what to order in cafés; to deciding on paint colours; which film to see, or which book to read next. In such situations, ditherers like me can be time-consuming nuisances.

Set me a snap-decision-situation, though, and I’m transformed.  In writing terms, I’m what’s technically referred to as a ‘seat of the pants-er’. I tend towards instinct rather than working to a plan.

Even when copying notes from the page onto my laptop, I often stray from the original, and it only takes a couple of extra words to throw a character off-plot.    I used to try and control this, to align the new material to my original plan. It never worked. Situations became forced, characters acted in unnatural ways, spoke lines I didn’t believe in.

Some writers work out every stage of their story before they pick up a pen, or touch the keyboard.  I’ve tried pre-plotting: used post-its, mind-mapping, charts, story-boards…  They’re in boxes at the back of my office, mouldering.  Ideas may have spun off them, but the careful central workings remain untouched. Why?  They feel wrong.

It was workshops that helped me to become comfortable with ‘pants-er’ writing. Taking part in timed-exercises, when the aim is to produce a first draft for re-working at home, often I’d produce something that felt close to complete.  Sometimes it was only as I took my turn in reading out, that I realised the sense of what I’d written.  I’d come away from those sessions walking on air.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGradually I learned to trust my creative responses.  Over the years I’ve stopped measuring how random or surreal a starting point is.  I let the words, the characters, lead me.  Sometimes they go no-where, but I keep them.  I’ve found, often, that it can take time for the sense of a piece of writing to become clear.  The opening lines for one of my stories that made it into an anthology waited over a year in my notebook, before I began to see what it could become.

*Picture by By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40274671