Porter Girl: The Vanishing Lord

lucy brazierJust had a cracking afternoon following the shenanigans and rumpuses of life at Old College.  Lucy Brazier’s second novel about life as the first female to take up the post of Deputy Head Porter at a Cambridge college is an unconventional detective story.  It’s a good pacey read, with plenty of twists, turns, puns and double-entendres.

What happens when you give a woman access to a bowler hat?  It goes to her head, and then she gets to grips with the rest of the Porter accoutrements – starting with tea (lots of tea), yummy biscuits and some sharing of extra large mugs of whisky.

Sounds fun, but where’s the mystery?  There’s a Head Porter with personal problems, a missing oil-painting, flashbacks to the founding of the college, convenient deaths, an interesting relationship with The Dean, and keys, lots of keys opening all sorts of locks. What does a college porter have to do with keys?  Well at Old College, everything:

The uninitiated are often perplexed to discover our disinterest in their luggage and our almost obsessive fascination with keys.  And hats, food and tea.  Old College does like to attribute unusual and inappropriate titles to things.

So why else would there be keys?  Well this is a novel of detection, which makes keys the perfect metaphor, too.  Watch out for the fishy ones.

Are you tempted yet?  Try a little scandal.

Night Porter is looking at me aghast.

“So, it’s true, then,” he says.  “What on Earth do you see in him?”

I consider this question wisely. The fanciful affair between myself and The Dean has been a very good cover for all number of even more scandalous machinations, but it is a difficult pretence to maintain.

“What can I say?” I reply wearily, “It’s his intellect.  And inventive use of the ‘F’ word.”

I’ve been allowed within the gates of a privileged world where sins come in different shapes and sizes, and encompass all kinds of actions, from buying the wrong kind of biscuits, and walking on the grass, to the breaking of bones, locks and desks and a lot more that fall between and around those examples.  And it’s all done at a cracking pace and with charm and wit.

And the crucial question, where can you get hold of a copy?  There are links for both Porter Girl novels on the Porter Girl blog site, where there’s lots of additional photographs and material, as well as snippets from Lucy’s other fictional enterprises, including Poirot parodies, and some political satire.

Or you could just check it out on Amazon – but the blog has so much more to enjoy I’d recommend that route.

 

A random, low-tech, story generator.

Wondering what to write?  Where to start?  Looking for inspiration?

DSCF8123Here’s something simple you might like, and all you need is a scrabble set.  You know those game rules, don’t you?  Shake the scrabble letter bag, take out seven tiles.  What have you got?  Rubbish letters?

Let me make the first move.  Hmmm, I’ve got a rack full of vowels, so I’m going to scream in Bacchic frenzy, and play EUOI.

Euoi is a useful word to know if you play the game regularly.  It allows you to make room for fresh tiles without having to lose a turn.

For writers, it’s an equally useful story starting point.

Bacchus was the Roman incarnation of Dionysus.  That much I know without looking him up.  What else?  He’s connected to wine, taken in excess.  There have been cults that worshipped him at various points, both before and after Christianity came to the fore, usually as an excuse for outrageous behaviour.

His cults can be found in  supernatural and realist stories, historical and contemporary.  There’s a lot you could research, but don’t do that now.  The point of this exercise isn’t to think, it’s to write.

That’s not enough to start a story?  Fine, it’s your turn to play: create a name.  What do you mean, no names in scrabble?  This is scrabble for writers, we adapt the rules to suit our need, don’t we?

So, what names do your letters make?  Notice I used plural there?  I’m going to miss my turn, because I think two characters would be useful.

Now you’ve got someone to react to that Bacchanalian outburst, and you’ve given yourself more choice when it comes to deciding on point-of-view.

My turn, and just to make things interesting I’m going to play two words that you have to include in your story.  I’m putting WAX across the triple word score, because you’ve left that wide open.  Then, because I’m generous, I’m giving you WOOD on the down line.

On the board, besides all of the ways you can interpret the word WOOD, there are a surprisingly large number of words you can put with it.  Add one of those, and you could reach another triple-word score.  Story-wise, I think I’ve been generous too, WOOD is such a flexible word for the literal and the lateral interpreters.

That should be enough pointers.  The point of this exercise isn’t to give you an easy run, it’s meant to be a challenge.  But I like to be generous, so if you’re really stuck, top up your rack and make another word to be included in the situation (always remembering that old adage about what to do if you’re in a hole, of course – stop digging).

Now do the same with procrastinating.  Start with that Bacchanalian cry of impassioned rapture and get writing.

It’s official, creativity is good for us.

Take heart, friends, involving yourself in the arts has finally been recognised officially as improving our lives.  Yes, you may have missed this, I nearly did, but the All Party Enquiry into the Arts that has been investigating the latest innovations in the ‘field of arts and health’ since 2014, has released a report saying that creativity is beneficial. Wow, is that good?

David Shrigley

Illustration by David Shrigley, from The Arts Report 2017

 

Well, in theory, it should be, but what will happen to these findings, I wonder?

 

Ideally, it will be reflected in practical ways, and the value of adult learning that is not job-centred will be recognised by the funders.  According to Mark Brown, writing in the Guardian, the former Arts minister, Lord Howarth, said:

 “Sceptics say where is the evidence of the efficacy of the arts in health? Where is the evidence of the value for money it can provide? We show it in this report.

“The arts can help people take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing in ways that will be crucial to the health of the nation.”

Don’t get me wrong, learning for work is good, very good.  As someone who came late to Higher Education I value the chances to re-train, and change professions. But I also took part in creative writing evening classes for adults for several years before that, and we definitely were part of the ‘recreational’ learning provision.

Our ages ranged from early twenties to late seventies.  Some of us had jobs, many were retired.  For two hours a week we put aside our other lives and entered new worlds.  I’ve never forgotten the joy of having that space, or the way we were encouraged to share ideas and reach outside of our boxes.

If most of the students kept their classes at hobby status, that didn’t mean the courses were frivolous.    What I saw then was how the mix of ages and ambitions came together to create something enervating.

I credit those classes with giving me the confidence to get back to formal education, when the opportunity arose, even thought that wasn’t their purpose.  Classes have always been about so much more than training.

The social interactions between people who share interests doesn’t just stimulate the learning synapses, it engenders social skills.  Students exploring ideas on one subject digress onto others, share experiences, interact with people they might not have had chance to mingle with any other way.

Is it too broad a generalisation to say that learning turns us outwards, rather than inwards?  Now that I view the world from the other side of the desk, my answer is no.

So I do think these findings are important, but I’m also concerned about what might be done with them.  Let’s not think only in terms of placing creativity where it is part of a therapy system, we need to recognise that giving everyone access to creative-learning benefits the system.

It is important that the therapeutic value of the arts is recognised, and expanded on, and this report is valuable on those grounds.  But let’s not forget preventive strategies.  In other health reports, we’ve been told that keeping our minds active is one of the keys to achieving a healthy and happy longevity.

Ed Vaizey, arts minister for six years, said:

“I was very conscious as a minister that I worked in a silo and it was incredibly hard to break out of that silo, incredibly hard to engage with ministers from other government departments. The arts, almost more than any sector, is a classic example where silo working does not work.”

Hidden Figures

Hidden figuresThis is a catch-up film review, because you, like me, may have missed this when it was released.  In case that’s so, let me give you a gentle nudge towards it now.  Although it came out last December, there are still showings happening in Britain, especially in some of the smaller cinemas.  It’s worth a visit, on so many levels.

First, because it’s a great piece of entertainment.  I watched this at our local church, where the sound quality was ropey, to say the least.  We had subtitles, and at times I needed them.  But I forgot that church pews are not comfy (even when you take along a big cushion) until the credits began to role, because I was carried along by the characters and their story.

Some of the reviewers in the British press haven’t liked this film, comparing it unfavourably with the book it was drawn from.  I haven’t read the book, but after this, I will be looking out for it, so you may hear more.

I’m not sure I agree with criticism that the film foregrounds Kevin Costner.  Yes, he’s the (entirely fictional) character who runs the project, and so he confronts a couple of racial inequalities (that never happened), but I never thought he did it for heroic reasons.  My reading of his character was that he was so driven by the need to get to space that anything obstructing that route was going to be removed on those grounds.  The only white male I saw take on racial inequalities was John Glenn, and he was, in this film, a secondary character.

Marie Hicks, in The Guardian, called the film limited.  She says it, ‘straddles the line between allowing these women to be the protagonists of their story and crowding them out of the spotlight.‘  Not for me.  Katherine, Dorothy and Mary were the centre of this film.  To the extent that I forgot they were being portrayed by Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.  I spent the few scenes they weren’t in wondering where they were and what they were doing, that’s how far I was involved in their stories.

I don’t care if some of the film detail is historically inaccurate.  I think Theodore Melfi and Allison Shroeder have created a good drama.  These were ground breaking black women who did achieve what is portrayed, but over somewhat different time-scales.  I didn’t go to see a documentary,  I went to watch a drama, and that’s what I got.

There was a great soundtrack, an unexpected amount of humour, and a lot of warmth.  I felt the contradictions of that moment when at the same time as making scientific break-throughs, much of America was enforcing a shameful, often barbarically implemented social system of segregation.

To look back and see how recently this was happening is chilling.  So, a few anomalies to make a point are acceptable in my book.  I’d be glad to watch it again, tomorrow.  Now how often can you say that?

Hearts and minds are in currency.

Have you been looking for a way to both have displacement activities and make time for writing?  Would you like a solution that doesn’t involve a series of complicated spread-sheets and rotas, or the setting up of rigorous rules about how you divide your day?

Well, dare to dream.  This week I was supplied with a solution, and I’m going to share it with you.   Yes you, for free.

We all know how tricky it can be to make time for our writing, well despair no more.  I’ve discovered a simply wonderful gadget that will remove all need for self-discipline, scheduling and juggling of priorities, and not only is it on the internet, all the models are pre-owned, so it gains points on environmental grounds too.

Is there a catch?

Anything this good has to have a drawback, doesn’t it?  The Time Machines of Tomorrow – Yesterday website states that:

…you will not be permitted to buy, own or operate such a device before 26/05/2514. Due to strict continuum and time line regulations it is forbidden to allow technology to be sold before the technology exists.

If you’re interested, and can spare some time to speculate right now, I recommend a visit to the Used Time Machines website.  There are eight fascinating models to fantasise about.

time machineOn the 26th of May, 2514, this Philips Portal will cost – ♥ 12.9.

Even if you don’t have enough spare Bitcoins gathering dust down the back of your favourite chair, or tons of ‘hearts’ to spare  (do any of us, these days?), you could start planning, now.

I’m sure that if anyone can figure out how to overcome this, minor inconvenience, a writer can.

In fact, with so much time available, mightn’t it be worth thinking big, and aiming for the delux version?  The Lightyear 404 is a military model, so it’s big enough to carry a platoon of people.

Remember the old saying that the more we share, the more there is to go around?  This is me passing the message on.  Good luck.  I hope you’ll let me know if you work it out.  If we aim big, there should be room for all of us, shouldn’t there? 

time machine 2

The Year 1000

the year 100I’ve been time-travelling again.  I bought this in an Exeter charity shop, for my research shelf, a couple of weeks ago, then got stuck into it during the train journey home.  I’ve been dipping in ever since.

It’s not a heavy tome, based as it is, on a small document from AD 1020-ish, called The Julius Work Calendar.  There are twelve beautiful line drawings from that document.  They act as chapter headings.

For instance, January is titled, ‘For All The Saints’.  It explains not just how and why saints were important, it begins by building character:

If you were to meet an Englishman in the year 1000, the first thing that would strike you would be how tall he was – very much the size of anyone alive today.

…the bones that have been excavated from the graves of people buried in England in the years around 1000 tell a tale of strong and healthy folk…Nine out of ten of them lived in a green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet that grew sturdy limbs – and very healthy teeth.

I love this kind of detail, combined with the cartoonish drawings, it brought the book to life.

How does it connect to saints?  Well, because  there was the need to replace the:

‘…legion of little people, elves and trolls and fairies, who inhabited the fears and imaginings of early medieval folk… the Julius Work Calendar was to provide a daily diary of encounters with [saints]…’

Isn’t it beautifully logical?  It is also, of course a little more complicated, but I’d have to quote the whole chapter to explain.

This book is about the practicalities.  Here are hay-makers, from the middle of the year:

Julius calendar July

…the toughest month of the year…since the spring crops had not yet matured.  The barns were at their lowest point and the grain bins could well be empty.  Tantalisingly, on the very eve of the August harvest, people could find themselves starving in the balmiest month of all…

The rich could survive on the contents of their barns, and they had the money to pay the higher prices commanded by the dwindling stocks of food.  Grain and bread prices could soar to exorbitant levels.  But this scarcity made July the month when the poor learned the true meaning of poverty…grinding up the coarsest of wheat bran, and even old, shrivelled peas and beans to make some sort of bread.

November: Females and the Price of Fondling, addresses the fact that there is no mention of women in the Julius Work Calendar.  Documentary evidence is slight, but Lacey and Danziger interpret what there is in a positive light:

All human beings were menn, the term being used for both sexes. …In the year 1000 the role that women played in English society was more complex than surface impressions might suggest.

Using wills and divorce laws (yes, it seems people could easily, and fairly, divorce then), they provide some examples of powerful women taking control of kingdoms and religious houses.

But, what happens if a wife commits adultery? Canute’s Law 53 says ‘…her legal husband is to have all her property, and she is to lose her nose and her ears.‘  There’s no mention of what happens to the man…

Already I’m at November, only one month and a short conclusion to go, how will I survive my return to the digital age?

Actually, I might time-travel in that region again, but with a different companion.  Michael Wood’s Doomesday has been gathering dust on my shelf.

 

What makes an artist?

I went out on an errand yesterday and left the radio on.  I was only supposed to be gone a minute or so, but gave in to gossiping, so by the time I returned my provincial play had been replaced by an American voice I vaguely recognised.  Time to get back to my paperwork, I thought, heading for the off-switch.

‘I had no idea what kind of composer I wanted to become,’ the man was saying. Kerry Shale, I thought, can’t mistake him.  But who is he being?  Fact or fiction?  It was a fatal hesitation.

Mahler-Symphony-9-Grant-Park-audition‘My study of the orchestra’, he continued, ‘came through a time-honoured practice of the past, copying out original scores.  In my case, I took Mahler’s ninth symphony as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full size orchestra paper.’

I was hooked.  One of the little cartoon characters racing round in my head gave the attention bell a resounding ping.  Musicians did that too?

Shale continued, ‘This is exactly how painters in the past studied painting.  Even today, some can be seen in the museums, making copies of traditional paintings.  This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid tool for orchestration technique.’

The cartoon character in my head stopped ringing her bell and turned to cartoon character two. ‘You see?’ she said triumphantly. ‘You see?  Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you all along? It’s not just painters who need to keep a sketch-book: all artists learn by studying the work of previous generations.’

‘He didn’t say study,’ objected character two.

‘But you must see that’s what he was doing,’ said character one.  ‘How could an artist copy out a work of art and not learn something about the means of its construction?’

‘Sounds like plagiarism to me.  And what about innovation?’

‘Surely that comes from an understanding of the past.’

‘Well,’ said character two, ‘I don’t want to have my writing infected by someone else’s style and ideas.’

‘Mmm,’ said character one.  ‘It’s not an exercise that suits everyone.’

Meanwhile Kerry Shale read on, and I looked up the schedule to see if I’d correctly guessed the author.  I don’t know much about music, apart from whether or not I like the sound of it.  But I do know a well shaped story when I hear one.  It was the memoirs of Phillip Glass, Words Without Music.

Time I widened my musical horizons, I think.

 

 

“The Figure in the Carpet”? – I’ve Read It!

henry jamesI had an hour to spare yesterday, so I picked up a little black Penguin Classic that I’d been loaned.   It’s been waiting for my attention since March, but I have to be in the mood for James, even when he’s writing short.

Let me start by being Jamesian, and call this text as he preferred to, a ‘short tale’, rather than a novella, in a sentence that is longer than you might have anticipated, when you set out on it (are you still following me?).  Sorry, couldn’t resist having a play with some clauses, but I promise to behave now.

Back to March, then, when Helen stopped me on the way out after a discussion about the novella, What Maisie Knew.  We’d drawn comparisons with some other James texts, raising mixed responses.

Holding out the small Penguin Classic, Helen said, ‘This one isn’t so well known, but I think it’s more interesting than The Turn of The Screw. Would you like to borrow it?’

Intriguing.

I knew I wasn’t going to have time to read it just then, but Helen said that was fine.  Though she may have changed her mind about that by now, of course.  However, that’s how the little book came to enter the sea of research that is my desk, and for a while sank below the surface.

This wasn’t the easiest of novellas to get into, but is there such a thing as an ‘easy’ Henry James?  He could write short sentences, and use simple language, but mostly he chose not to.  There are various theories about why he developed that style, and how it connects him to the modernist writers, but I’m going to stay with the straight-forward approach in this reading-reflection.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of what makes a good story, and one of the definitions that comes high on my list is, does it entertain or intrigue me?  After my first dash at the text I might turn to reviews and analysis to see what I’ve missed, but before that, I want to be engaged by the writing.

This time I wasn’t, I’m afraid. I couldn’t decide whether James meant the un-named narrator to come across as irritatingly priggish – to use a Victorian term – and I didn’t really care whether he learned what the ‘figure in the carpet’ was.

In fact, I felt cheated by his title.  Here was an image that suggested surreal.  It has mysterious possibilities, yet turned into a story that never attempted to explore anything other than the vanities of a few characters who seemed flat.

Titles, I tell my writing groups, are important: are worth taking trouble over.  They can set a tone, imply a theme.  Readers are influenced by them.  I expected a mystery on the lines of  Turn of The Screw, because I saw a parity between the two titles.  Was that my mistake, or James’s?

Writing to order.

‘Write a story,’ my mentor said. ‘Today.’

I took a deep breath and picked up my pen.  ‘Any suggestions?’

Mentor gave me one of those old-fashioned quizzical looks.

I said, ‘You’re thinking about that ‘finish the story’ flash competition I saw yesterday.’

‘Exactly.  Only 400 words.  It’s time you put all that wise advice you dish out into practice.  This has to be a perfect story-trigger: a ready made character with a situation to be resolved.’

‘Don’t call me hypocrite,’ I muttered, as I pulled the magazine out of the reading pile, and studied the 400 words already written.  It had a good hook, and finished on a cliff-hanger that implied a variety of possible outcomes.

Where do I start?  With setting I think.

A man visits a woman in a nursing home.  Her son’s been missing 48 years, and this man speaks as if he knows something about it.

Well, if the story is present day, the back-story is 1969.

How old are they both, these characters?  Initially, she mistakes him for her son, so I need to play around with some numbers, fix his age, then add on at least sixteen years for hers.

She’s alone.  Was she a single parent?  What’s happened to the boy’s father?

Each answer raises another question.  It’s like being given a jigsaw puzzle without a picture for guidance.  I match up pieces, and try to guess what the colours mean.  There’s a lot of gold, maybe a sunset?  But what about the jewel-bright flowers, perhaps it’s an impressionist corn field.

Working up from the bottom straight edge, I need to put a lot of it together before I reach an ivory ankle.  That’s what happens when you keep adding pieces, the picture begins to make sense, and once that happens… I’m flying.

The_Kiss_-_Gustav_Klimt_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

Thinking about building short stories.

‘I’m not happy with the ending of this one,’ said Anna, preparing to read out her story.  I glanced down at the sheets of paper she was shuffling together.  There seemed a lot of them, and they looked to be laced with far more words than the five-hundred limit I’d set.

The Reader by Irving Ramsay Wiles 1900Before I could frame a question, Anna was reading.  She began well, introduced three characters, provided nicely balanced dialogue that moved the action forwards, and delivered ambitions, and a situation.  It was only as Anna flicked over the page that I realised her story was printed double-sided.

I eyed the sheaf of pages, and began to multiply them by minutes, but after a paragraph, Anna left page two, and moved to page three.  As she flicked past that page after a couple more paragraphs, I realised that her redrafting had been printed out in the story.

The heap of paper was diminishing fast as Anna picked out solitary paragraphs from amongst the text.  The story picked up pace and jumped a few decades of time to round off in a neatly comfortable conclusion.  There was a murmur of approval.  ‘That was fun,’ said Emma.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Anna.  ‘It seems… unsatisfactory.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s not in your usual dark style, but the ending fits.’

It did.  ‘There’s a clear dramatic arc,’ I said, ‘and the characters are interesting and distinctive.  But, why that conclusion?’

‘I thought I’d be cheery for a change.’

‘Ah,’ I said.  ‘What about all those words you didn’t read out?’

Anna fidgeted with the edges of her pages.  ‘The story kept going wrong, drifting off.’

‘So you had that end in mind from the beginning?’

‘A happy ending, yes.’

I said, ‘You were writing against your instincts?’

‘Well, yes.  I wanted to write a happy story, for a change.’

I nodded.  ‘You’ve done that, and we enjoyed it, despite you trying to put us off before you started.  But maybe that other, darker story, is waiting to be told, too.’

*    Illustration: The Reader, by Irving Ramsey Wiles (1900)