I’d like to recommend, C.S. Forester.

There are authors who lie unattended on bookshelves for decades, and some deserve to. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of fiction. I started young, raiding the boxes of old novels my grandfather used to keep in his spare bedroom.

Even then, I knew most were flimsy. Now, I realise they were largely pulp fiction. They often used expected stereotypes, strong men and women who needed to be rescued, and kissed, or married. Occasionally, though, there were some gems. It was there I first read, The African Queen, by C. S. Forester.

Forester is probably better known for his Hornblower series. Horatio Hornblower, a British naval officer of the Napoleonic wars was played by Gregory Peck on the big screen, in 1951, and by Ioan Gruffud for a tv series between 1998 and 2003.

The African Queen has, so far, only been filmed once. But, it was a good one. Made in 1951, it starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Yes, the set looked a little suspect at times, and the dialogue was occasionally clunky, but I don’t think it was for technical details this movie was preserved in the USA National Film Registry. I think it was for the same reason I fell for the novel when I first read it, aged about fourteen: the characterisation.

On one level, the story is about Rose and Allnut’s plan to ‘strike a blow for England‘ in the heart of German controlled Africa. On another level, their battle is against nature, in terms both of environment and personality.

Rose has been blindly loyal to her older brother all of her life. She had gone with him to Africa at the age of twenty-three. She’s now thirty-three.

‘She had been his housekeeper and the most devoted of his admirers, his most faithful disciple and his most trusted helper…’

It is the death of her brother and the presence of the Germans that forces Rose out of her rut, and provides the motivation for her to become an unlikely heroine. Allnut, her companion, is just as unlikely a hero.

Allnut had played lone hands occasionally in his life, they were not to his liking. Sooner than plan or work for himself he preferred to be guided – or driven. He was not avid for responsibility. He was glad to hand over leadership to those who desired it, even to the ugly sister of a deceased despised missionary. He had arrived in Central Africa as a result of his habit of drifting, when all was said and done.

The story of their journey along the river Ulanga has no obvious glamour. Both protagonists are mid-life, and flawed. We see them in glimpses, Rose has a ‘big chin‘, ‘thick eyebrows‘ and she exists in a ‘frozen spinsterhood‘.

Yet, at the very beginning of the novel there is a hint that we should be careful how we prejudge her. Despite her respectability, and knowledge that ‘no woman of the age of fourteen and upwards ever appeared in public’ without a corset, Rose has (on account of the hot climate) reconciled her conscience and abandoned hers. She’s even considered ‘wearing no underclothing at all beneath her white drill frock.’

Allnutt is largely presented through his cockney accent. As with Rose, physical details are occasional, but telling.

In later years Rose could never picture Allnutt to herself without a cigarette – generally allowed to go out – stuck to his upper lip half-way between the centre and the left corner of his mouth. A thin straggling beard, only a few score black hairs in all, was beginning to sprout on his lean cheeks.

The two characters spend most of their time sweating, and dirty, and arguing. In that process, though, they are revealed to each other, and to us.

There is one thing bothers me. For a novel with such a powerful African setting, we meet few Africans, and those we do are stereo-typically of the period. This might be because mostly they are described either through the consciousness of one of the protagonists, or by them, and in terms of their absence. Villagers have either been conscripted by the German colonial chief, or disappeared in order to escape capture.

It is this rounding up, that has already taken place when the novel opens, that provides the spark for the rest of the story. In his book, African Settings in Contemporary American Novels, Dave Kuhne says that the river Ulanga is ‘the only important African character in the plot‘. It certainly held a more central role in my consciousness than Von Hanneken managed to.


Six degrees of separation: from Fight Club to Weaveworld.

This week I can’t resist joining the monthly Six Degrees Meme, where the challenge is to create a literary chain that starts from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club.

I liked the film so much I had to read the novel, and loved that even more. So, I expected finding my first link would be easy. It took a little more thought than I expected, but I found it in the text.

Three weeks and I hadn’t slept.  Three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience.  My doctor said, “Insomnia is just the symptom  of something larger.  Find out what’s actually wrong.  Listen to your body.”

I just wanted to sleep.  I wanted little blue Amytal Sodium capsules, 200-milligram-sized.  I wanted red-and-blue Tuinal bullet capsules, lipstick-red Seconals.

chapter 2

That list of drugs took me straight to Michael Chabon’s, Wonder Boys. In his novel another first person narrator, Professor Grady Tripp also has a close relationship with pharmaceuticals. “Looks like my old friend Mr Codeine…” the injured Tripp tells his student, James Leer, as he rifles through a friend’s luggage. They’ve just been hiding the body of the dog James has shot in the boot of Tripp’s car.

The dog belongs to the husband of the woman Tripp has been conducting a five year affair with, Sara Gaskell. She’s chancellor of the Pittsburgh college where he teaches Creative Writing.

The time frame is a mere weekend, but the roller-coaster of events are epic in scale. It is, on one level, a reworking of Homer’s, The Odyssey, so this is my third link.

Homer’s epic could take me in a variety of interesting directions. I choose Penelope, wife to Odysseus. One of the strategies she uses to fend off the unwanted suitors who claim Odysseus must be dead, is weaving.

Who else for my fifth link, then, but Silas Marner, George Eliot’s ‘weaver of Raveloe’. The story opening takes us back to a time, when hand-loom weavers lived in villages:

‘… – there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.’

Chapter 1

It is this suggestion of ‘otherness’ that leads me to my sixth link, Weaveworld, by Clive Barker. In his novel, a magical race known as the Seerkind have woven a secret world, called ‘the Fugue’, into a carpet.

Maybe I’ve always been fascinated by rugs. All I know is that after reading this novel, I became certain there was something waiting to be seen.

Working Story

I originally posted this way, way back in August 2012. Yes, I’ve been putting up posts since then! Did miss a year in the middle, though.

This week though, as the first of my writing groups starts again, and I’m thinking about structure, I revisited this post, and decided that I liked it enough to share it all over again. Sometimes, when I think the story has worked, I don’t want to retell it in any other way.

Cath Humphris

One of the first handouts I was given at University was a list of seven points that defined the short story.  It had been compiled by Dilys Gater, in her book, Short Story Writing*.   At last, I thought, learnable theory I could apply in my writing.  Better still, someone else had worked it out for me.

Yet, for several weeks after that I was unable to finish a story outside of class-work. I never lacked ideas, my writers diary was crowded with characters, scenes and fragments of conversation, but they remained notes. I told myself not to worry, I was completing our set exercises on the mechanics of the simple linear plot, and that was what counted.

Until I took my results to the tutorial.

‘It’s got no life,’ my tutor said, handing back my assignment.  ‘Start again.’

‘All this work?’

She waved aside my folder of notes and handouts. ‘Count it as background,’ she said. ‘Forget…

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The naive narrator.

I picked up Kit de Waal’s Six Foot Six while I was waiting to pick up Ray, because I’d given him a lift to work and although it was time to go home, he was still talking to students. There were no magazines in the lobby, not even tatty ones. But amongst the donated books by the coffee table was a slim paperback from The Reading Agency.

I’d heard about this project to encourage new readers. Penguin commission well-known writers from a variety of genres to produce short texts. My literary head whispered, novella, but I knew publishers don’t like to use that term, so I shushed it.

Inside, the font size was larger than I usually buy. I liked the look of it. There was no knowing how long I’d be waiting, and by skim-reading I might finish it. If not, a few pages would give me a flavour of Kit de Waal, who I’d not read before, and an idea about how Quick Reads work.

I told myself it was professional interest. I like to believe I’m efficient, and put my time to good use. Much better to claim professional curiosity than admit I’m forever losing myself in imaginary worlds.

Besides, I wasn’t intrigued by the cover. The blurb said a young adult would get involved with a desperate builder, and have to ‘collect money from thugs‘ which didn’t sound promising. It was not something I expected to invested emotion or imagination with.

I liked the opening paragraph though, which ticked four of the orientation boxes for creative writers: who, where, when and why – while raising all sorts of sub-questions at the same time.

Timothy Flowers stands at the corner of Gas Street and Yew Tree Lane. It’s the third of November and it’s Friday and it’s fifteen minutes past eleven o’clock in the morning. In a few minutes, Timothy will see the number forty-five bus. It will be the new Enviro 400 City Bus with the back-to-front design. It’s electric. You can get the internet on the new Enviro 400.

The precision of this information, and the detail about the bus was intriguing. Although it’s third person narration, by the end of the paragraph I knew it was focused through Timothy’s consciousness, and that he thought in short, simple sentences.

The second paragraph confirmed that syntax: ‘Timothy has seen the new bus before. Once.’ Using third person narration allowed de Waal to control the content, and include some background information. It was, we are told, Timothy’s twenty-first birthday, and he was as excited by that as about seeing ‘the new Enviro 400 City Bus‘ go past.

This repetition of the bus type could, I first supposed, mean Timothy was the road equivalent of a train-spotter. Then I thought not.

I realised I’ve seen him on the corner of a road I take to work, watching the traffic pass. It’s a busy road, and I’ve wondered about him, and worried about his vulnerability.

When Timothy was accosted, at the bottom of the first page, with an, ‘Oi, mate!‘ I worried for him, too. Timothy’s mum, the narrator told me, ‘…says that sometimes, when his brain hasn’t had enough rest, Timothy gets confused, so she makes sure he goes to bed by nine o’clock.’

A man in the basement of a derelict house across the road kept calling to Timothy, who knew he should ‘never ever talk to strangers.‘ I worried. The man kept intruding. ‘As well as shouting, the man is pointing at Timothy and waving. ‘Yes, you!’ he says. ‘You! The Longfella! Here, down here.

When Ray came out of the office Timothy had crossed the road to talk to the man, and I couldn’t leave them like that. I bought the book.

Naive narration is a tricky voice to maintain. It’s easy to unintentionally slip in explanations, or anomalous vocabulary.

There is a deceptive simplicity about this short novel/long story. The events of Timothy’s birthday are logical and straightforward: each triggers the next.

However, because Timothy’s understanding is limited to what, where and when, it was me who supplied the how and why aspects of the situations, and all to often, I later had to admit, I miss-judged them. This was one of those reading experiences where not only had the protagonist experienced a change through the course of the story, by the time I turned over the last page, I too had learned something new and important about Timothy’s world.

Who was the author, anyway?

Can a writer be unravelled from her writing? I’ve been discussing Elizabeth Taylor short stories again, this week, and as she was getting published at a time when another Elizabeth Taylor was regularly in the headlines, this has involved some investigation into the writer’s life.

The role of the author was one of the questions we examined when I was at University. I’m remembering in particular, the 1967 essay, Death of the Author, by the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes.

Barthes argued that reading with an awareness of the experiences and biases of the author, limits our experience of the text. He suggested that it is only when the text is anonymous, that we can see multiple layers of meaning drawn from “innumerable centres of culture”.

He went on to propose that the reader was more important than the writer. It’s a useful thought for a reading group, from an essay that was intended to raise debate.

If ever there was an author who seems perfectly fitted to this warning to read the text without expectations, it’s surely Elizabeth Taylor. Here was a woman who looked middle-class, was married to a successful businessman, had two children and lived in a large country house. A lot of her stories involve just such women, and a lot more don’t. Yet somehow she came to be seen as a writer who was always looking back. Worse, she wrote about domestic situations, so in Britain, she became known as a woman’s writer.

One way to counter this narrow approach might be to read Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. It contains some surprising revelations about the life of the woman who in 1953, told The New York Herald Tribune:

I am always disconcerted when asked for my life story, for nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened.

Our idea about how this statement works depends on the definition we assign to that word sensational. But put that aside, because even if you decide that Elizabeth Taylor was being evasive with her answer, reading the biography still returns us to the question of ‘so what?’, in terms of how we read her fiction. Do the unexpected aspects of her life mean her writing should be read in a specific way?

Perhaps we should turn to another author to think about this. In 1986, her friend Robert Liddell published a memoir about his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

“Later we were  both shocked (as Ivy was) by the betrayal of Rose Macaulay by her literary executor, who published some of her intimate correspondence, and Elizabeth remarked how coy and silly letters could look when seen out of context.  We both detested Katherine Mansfield and her whining, coarse letters, and we were aware that our private jokes and Ivyisms would look no better to outsiders than her Dickensianism and her ‘my strikes!’ […] in the course of the years, there were some letters that were painful, and meant for no other eyes: and no other eyes will see them.

Elizabeth and Ivy by R Liddell

How tricky it is to hold true to the wishes of the dead. I might condemn John Middleton Murray for going against his wife’s bar on publishing her private letters and diaries, but I’ve read them. I claim it was background for my reading groups, as I do all the material I’ve looked at for Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Gaskell, Somerset Maugham, T.H. White, Kate Atkinson…

I’m left with the question that I keep taking to my reading groups: does knowing more about the lives of writers inform us as readers, and/or writers, or is story enough?

The book I lent came back…

…and I was glad to see it. I’d missed its presence, not daily, but more than twice in the six months since I’d forced it on Phillip, who said he’d not read poetry since school.

‘This is a useful anthology,’ I’d said, pulling Penguin’s Poems for Life off my shelf.

‘I’ll give it a try,’ Phillip said. ‘I do want to know more about this writing lark.’

I hadn’t realised how much I’d taken the book for granted, until it was gone. So many of my favourite poems are in it. While I have collected works, and pamphlets from various authors, sometimes only an anthology will do.

Oh, I know we can look up any poem on the internet, and I do stumble across new gems there. But reading on the screen is not the same as riffling through pages, or being provided with a well-thought out selection.

Sometimes I know roughly how far into an anthology a particular favourite is and the book, having taken shape from my visits, falls open just where I wanted it to. One natural parting place is Adrian Mitchell’s tribute to Phillip Larkin’s This Be The Verse. In three short stanzas he mirrors the rhythms of the original, and reverses the emphasis, having simply swapped a T for the F.

They Tuck you up, your mum and dad,
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

If I’m looking for a theme, I browse the index. The categories range from Birth and Beginnings; Childhood and Childish Things and on through the stages of our lives, to Mourning and Monuments.

What I like in an anthology is variety and range. With that, I’m likely to stumble across a poet I’ve not met before. I’m a dipper in, rather than a page turning reader of poems.

Amongst the old familiars and favourites in this selection I recently discovered Ann Bradstreet, talking of how it feels to watch her children grow, in 1659.

I had eight  birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest.
I nursed them up with pain and care, 
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare,
Tall at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the trees and learned to sing;

How can there still be so many early writers I should have heard of? The other day, somewhere, I saw a suggestion that an early eighteenth century reader could expect to have read every fiction written. Perhaps that’s true, if they had no other activities to occupy them.

I don’t think I aim for that. There are books, and poems I’ve given up on, and some of them are classics. For me, reading and writing should be about enjoyment.

‘Well,’ said Phillip, handing the book back. ‘You know me, I don’t really read. Poetry’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? I think you need a key, and I never really liked it at school.’

Mostly poems charm, challenge and fascinate me, but I know that’s not the effect they have on every other reader. I put the anthology back into the slot it had vacated, one shelf above a copy of The Sport of Queens that I was loaned more than a decade ago, by a friend who knew I enjoyed Dick Frances thrillers. ‘You’ve got to read this,’ he said. ‘It’s all about how Frances rode the Queen’s race horses.’

I think I may have read the first page, but the truth is, it’s not really my thing.

New Year’s Eve twitters.

Hashtag: celebrations?

Annual round robins arrived safely.

Perhaps we could meet up in person, this year…

Promises, promises.

Yearly broken.

Neighbours visited.

Enmities put aside.

We’re joining the wassail.

Yule log gathered, ready to burn.

Encouraged to sing out:

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!/And gie’s a hand o’ thine!

Really mean it, this year!

Photos from AMBERBALTICS and Pixabay.

Happy New Year, my friends. I’ve disabled the comments section for today. Hope you have a lovely evening, whether you’ll be celebrating or not. 🙂

The time has come, the Walrus said…

Talk of Many Things is smaller than modern annuals, and my copy has lost its shiny paper dust jacket. It was a First Prize at Westcolt Infant’s School in 1944, and time has not been kind to its exterior. Or perhaps it’s just been well read, though not by me, for a long time.

So long, in fact, that I’d forgotten what was inside. The subtitle promises, A Book of True Fact and True Fancy in Prose and Verse. Now there’s a promise I can’t resist, it’s so much in keeping with that conversation the Walrus had with the Carpenter. Sure enough, on page 26, there is the whole Lewis Carol poem, plus an illustration of the grieving gourmands preparing to eat their companions.

I flick on through. Oh, that paper, it’s what tactile reading is about, smooth surfaced, and heavy. There are some lovely illustrations, in bright strong colour, as well as nice line drawings.

What starts as a browse becomes a dipping-in. My attention is caught by Dust and Clouds. It begins:

It is always exciting to watch something that appears and disappears as if it had a “cloak of invisibility” like a prince in a fairy tale. That is why most people like to look at the tiny specks dancing in the beam of light that steals between the curtains into a dark room.

Instead of skipping straight on to the True Fancy I began reading science. Is this True Fact? There’s certainly plenty of knowledge, but it’s a long way from dry.

Did you ever watch dust motes in a shaft of sunshine? Look at how Maribel Edwin explains it.

Children playing at signalling with small mirrors can exchange messages from a long way off. When they are standing far apart they cannot see each other’s mirrors, but the flashes of light are perfectly clear. In the same way it is not the finer motes themselves that are seen, but simply the play of light on their surfaces.

Reading this as an adult, it is not the science that captures me, it’s memories. In writing for children, all those decades ago, Maribel Edwin has reminded me of the wonder I remember.

Dust and light together make pretty patterns in a shaded room; but, what is much more wonderful is, that it is dust that makes the sky so beautiful. There is dust in the heart of every raindrop and snowflake, in every cloud or wisp of mist, no matter how white it looks.

Which suggests to me that since we can’t avoid the stuff, maybe there’s no need for me to spend time on one of the most tedious parts of housework there is. I can’t think why I haven’t read this before.

I’d like to recommend ‘Wild Seed’

I can’t think why I’ve not read anything by Octavia Butler before. Surely she’s been available.  My copy of Wild Seed is from the Victor Gallancz Science Fiction series, and there are elements of science about this fiction.  But I’m not so sure it’s the category I would have shelved it under. Maybe I haven’t been looking closely enough at the genre sections lately.

The setting is recognisably historical, it begins in 1690s Africa: 

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see about what was left of one of his seed villages.  The village was a comfortable mud-walled place surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees. But Doro realized even before he reached it that its people were gone.  Slavers had been to it before him. With their guns and their greed, they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years.

This is a time so far away from most of our experiences that it is easy to accept that word ‘seed’ dropped into the first sentence.  Perhaps it’s a contemporary word.

Then again, what does the reference to ‘a thousand years‘ mean? What is the work that has such a long history, and how is Doro related to it?  

These questions are first indications that we are in the company of a character who has special characteristics.  Not only does he have control over several villages, it’s apparent he has no need of companions.

It was a matter of pride with him that he protected his own.  Not the individuals, perhaps, but the groups.  They gave him their loyalty, their obedience, and he protected them.

He had failed.

What I liked about this opening is that Butler doesn’t pause to explain, she continues to describe Doro’s responses to the situation.  There’s a sense of pace that keeps the reader moving, leaves no time to query or question.  If they wish to keep up with Doro, they must accept the unexpected revelations. 

He wandered southwest toward the forest, leaving as he had arrived – alone, unarmed, without supplies, accepting the savanna and later the forest as easily as he accepted any terrain.

 The suspicion, the improbable idea, that Doro is exceptional is building.

He had not been this far west for several hundred years, thus he could be certain that whatever, whoever he found would be new to him – new and potentially valuable.  He moved on eagerly.


That was the moment the story truly hooked me, several hundred years? Doro was interesting, a puzzle.  I wanted to know about the something that drew him away from the importance of reclaiming his missing villagers. It had to be powerful, and my money was on ‘the woman‘ mentioned in the first line. 

I’d been waiting for her return. She was a promise, a foreshadowing of a significant introduction, and I wanted to know more.  Butler soon brings her into focus.

Anyanwu’s ears and eyes were far sharper than those of other people.  She had increased their sensitivity deliberately after the first time men came stalking her, their machetes ready, their intentions clear.  She had had to kill seven times on that terrible day – seven frightened men who could have been spared – and she had nearly died herself, all because she let people come upon her unnoticed.  Never again.

From one promise to the next.  Here’s my woman, and she’s not going to be a push-over, even for Doro.  I’m on the second page, and there’s already so much at stake I’m getting deeply tangled. 

Anyanwu has a conscience.  She is not a psychopath, the list of her killings are qualified in the same sentence, by the language: ‘that terrible day‘, and her understanding that the men were ‘frightened‘.  Her recognition that their deaths were due to her failure tells me a lot about her personality.  Yes, I’m hooked, I read and read.

Is it science fiction or fantasy? I’m not sure that matters.  It’s a story that is escapist, and yet it’s also about slavery, power structures and race.  There are three more books in this Patternist series, plenty of pages to make my mind up.

What links ‘A Christmas Carol’ to ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’?

This month’s challenge, from Kate, at  #6degrees, is to create a chain of books that starts from A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. The call for participants always goes out the first Saturday of the month, but I can find no deadline, so I’m going to arrive fashionably late – do people still say and do that at parties, I wonder? 

If not, they should.  You might say that’s what Scrooge does, after the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future have provided their version of shock therapy, and transformed him from an obsessive miser into an avid party-goer. His crisis may have happened a little after mid-life, but does result in a turn-around on his personality.

Whereas the businessman, John Thornton, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, is approximately thirty when he meets nineteen year-old Margaret Hale. That’s when his world begins to tilt.  He’s never seen any young woman the equal of this southern lady, and has no idea how to respond. If he’s to have any hopes of winning her, he has to transform.  Margaret too has a few things to learn.  She’s never met the likes of John, transplanted as she’s been from the softer, genteel climates of London and Hampshire.  

Another transplant is the feisty and knowing Flora Poste, who must move from super-sophisticated London to Cold Comfort Farm in the rural backwaters of Howling, Sussex. Stella Gibbons’ novel is a wonderful comedy that parodies a variety of writers.  When Flora is orphaned, and discovers she’s penniless, she invites herself to stay with some relatives she’s never met.  There, because she’s a very-well-read young woman with modern ideas and no fear, she is able to predict and counter the primitive conservatism and various oppressions that have held her unfortunate family in desperate misery for decades. Yippee, don’t I keep saying all we need are stories? 

millenium trilogyThe orphan Lisbeth Salander, in The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larson, is also modern and fearless, and proves to be a powerful ally for friends in trouble.  She has created a code of rights and wrongs that she adheres to, even though this often brings her into conflict with conventional authority. 

Another orphan in conflict with authority from an early age is Jane Eyre.  Charlotte Bronte’s feisty heroine provided a role model for generations of girls. 

The bullying she experiences at the hands of her Aunt Reed are mirrored, one hundred and fifty years later, by the orphaned Harry Potter who is taken in by his aunt and uncle Dursley. J.K. Rowling’s central character will also be enrolled at a boarding school.  There he will find mentors and friends, and learn the extent of his inner strengths by facing up to some challenging situations.

Well, that’s my chain. I wonder which links you would choose for A Christmas Carol

If you want to check out how other people created theirs, have a look on booksaremyfavouriteandbest. You’ll also find information about next month’s challenge.