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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And they call it ‘the flash’…

Thursday afternoon I called in to see my parents.  After we’d caught up on family news, we got to comparing plans. ‘We’re off to Cheltenham tonight,’ I said.  ‘For an open-mic story evening, Flashers’ Club.’

‘Oh,’ said dad, ‘are you reading?’

‘No.  I’m going to listen,’ I said.

‘You’re taking something along though, aren’t you?’ said Ray, when I got home.

‘I’m more comfortable listening,’ I said.

‘That’s because you avoid doing it.  You need practice.’

‘I don’t think I’ve got anything suitable,’ I said, switching on the laptop and trawling through my files.  ‘Most of my stuff is intended to be looked at rather than listened to.’

I did put a story in my pocket. I even found time for a couple of read-throughs, figuring out which bits made me stumble, and making minor changes. I’d done the poetry reading, last year; I sit in front of groups discussing story theory and practice without a qualm, but this was different.

During the twenty-minute drive through lashing rain, we talked.  ‘Is it right at these lights?’

‘No, straight over, then left at the roundabout.’

‘This rain’s getting heavy.’

‘I’ve an idea about your dad’s birthday present.’

There was a five minute dash from car park to street, and the decision about what to order to eat.  It’s so much easier to open the fridge and see what needs using up, than having to chose from a list of tasty dishes someone else will prepare.

‘Where will you be sitting?’ said the woman at the counter.

‘By the window,’ said Ray.

As we settled, two more people came into Smokey Joes, and headed for the glass doors beside the serving counter.

I said, ‘I think it must be open.’  A woman at the next table did too. She picked up her plate of food and migrated through those open doors.

Ray said, ‘You’re right.  We’d better follow, if we want to nab a table too.’

Flashers ClubAlex greeted us with a smile. ‘Three pounds if you read, four if you don’t.’

That’s clever, because it isn’t about saving the money.  How many other events can you find that cost less than a fiver?  Besides, all the proceeds go to charity, so I don’t begrudge a quid.  But, having paid less, not reading would have made me a fraud.

I’d picked one of my shortest pieces of writing, less than a page, double-line spaced, font size fourteen, for ease of reading, and luck was on my side.  My name was not first out of the hat, it was second.  Phew, no time to think, I was up at the lectern, concentrating on my paper and trying not to stumble.

Heart pounding in a way I don’t remember ever experiencing in classes, I tried to breath as I spoke. Slow and clear, I told myself. I concentrated on one word at a time, and followed the punctuation, and wonder of wonders, I arrived at the last full-stop only slightly breathless.

It was done.  I could sit back and enjoy the other readings.

What a selection, aliens, memoir, fantasy, vampires, crime and comedy.  This is why, even if you think you’ll never ever stand at the open mic, you should seek out your nearest story-reading event.

‘The difference is,’ said Ray, on the way home, ‘in class you’re talking about other people’s stories.  Tonight, it was just you, revealing glimpses of your imagination, of yourself. Vulnerability! We don’t do that, do we?’

Story Generators part two

Following on from my random low-tech post two weeks ago, here’s another idea if you’re looking for inspiration – museums.  It does need a little more effort than my previous suggestion, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

at-bristolOn Saturday, we went to At Bristol – and no, that is not a grammatical error.  At Bristol, or @Bristol as it is also known, is a science museum full of interactive exhibits, and packed with stories.

I’m not just thinking of the stories of human development and biology, of space exploration, food production, physics, engineering and chemistry, or even the animations section where every aspect of devising, creating and producing films was being practiced, although there is plenty of material in any portion of that.  You could, of course, look up many of those facts from the comfort of your armchair.  What you get when you visit a place, is something basic and obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway – an opportunity to people watch.

at bristolSo why a museum?  Because they’re places where people behave differently.  In the traditional style ones everyone has to be ‘hands-off’ and that can provide some interesting situations.  But when it’s hands on, people of all ages engage with things.

What I liked was watching how much braver children are than adults.  Whether they understood what they were doing or not, they moved water, drowned ships, made music from plastic spheres, built landscapes in sand, models in giant lego bricks, weighed brains, did psychological tests… and sometimes studied the accompanying short explanations.  If I met something out of my comfort zone, I started with the instructions, and followed them faithfully, or nurdishly enjoyed the short theories presented and made notes to find out more.

Children just launched in.  They pushed, pulled, and pressed without fear of consequences or inhibitions.  Every so often when I stopped playing and watched, I saw that the barriers and boundaries between adults and children were dissolving as the day progressed.

I’ve come home with a lot of ideas.  For some of them I’ll need to do some research, but the human parts of the stories have been generated by that wonderfully basic creative writing tool, people watching.

bristolcardiff013

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

Discovered: Pietro Grossi, writer.

fist-by-pietro-grossiI begin with a big THANK YOU to Fiona, who passed Fists on to me.  Fists being a book of three stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi.  Not, I hasten to add, in the original language, but in a translation by Howard Curtis.

Having just finished the final story, I feel I’ve been to Italy.  Not skimming across the surfaces that tourism offers, you understand, I’ve experienced the world as lived by three Italian men, and it wasn’t what I expected.

Yes it was macho, there was boxing, there were horses and blood-letting, but there was also variety and insights.  I found passages I wished I had written.  Look at this, ‘He was like a Greek statue in motion, with the same rigid still perfection.’

I wasn’t sure which centuries all three stories were describing.  Horses might have been in the last one, or maybe the one before that.  It didn’t matter, I was in that valley accepting that the most technological innovation mentioned was a shotgun.

In these versions of Italy the women were mostly shadowy, even when exerting power.  Seen from a male perspective, maternal influences are questionable, maybe a challenge.  Yet, in the absence of a mother, what happens to two small boys and their father?  What kind of men will the boys turn into?

Reading Boxing, reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.  Despite the fact that I know only as much about either football or boxing as any media savvy person absorbs by accident, I read every jargon-laden word of both texts.  Why?  I think it was the enthusiasm of the narrators, who not only hooked me, they swept me along with them.  I’m still not a fan of either sport, but I’d be happy to read both again. Besides, don’t make the mistake of imagining either story is entirely about sport, both are character driven.

Here are the opening lines of Grossi’s short story:

Let’s get this straight: I really liked the whole boxing thing.

I don’t know what it was, whether it was the sense of security or the awareness that I was doing something the way it should be done.  Maybe both, maybe also the terrific feeling that there was a place where I had what it takes, where I could fight on equal terms.

It quickly becomes apparent that our narrator is a nerdy adolescent boy.

One day, I told my mother I hated the piano.  Music was fundamental, she said, it gave you discipline.  Discipline.  Why discipline?  I was the most disciplined child in the world.  I was so disciplined, I’d almost vanished from the face of the earth.

Before you start guessing about the significance of this domineering mother, read this segment:

Six months later, I was dancing in that ring like a ballerina and scattering straight lefts like summer hailstones.  It was undeniable: even though no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body, it was as if I was born to be up there.  And since I’d started training, my piano playing had improved, too, and I was even starting to like that bastard Beethoven.

fists-by-pietro-grossiAt this point there are forty-one pages of story still to be told.  They’re full of incident, detail, character development and introspection.   I forgot I was reading until I turned the last page and found myself musing over the last line.  I put the book down, feeling a little lost, now that I had to leave ‘the dancer’ behind.  I needn’t have worried, as you can probably tell, I think he’s staying with me for a while yet.

Before I pass this book on to it’s next reader, I may revisit those three stories.  Meanwhile, I’ve added Pietro Grossi to my list of authors to look out for.  If you haven’t come across him before, maybe he’s someone for you to look out for too.

 

 

The joys of a Treasure Hunt

Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games.  Remember?  The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us:  ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’  I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now.  Let’s play statues.’

It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades.  I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process.  Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement.  It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.

enid-blyton-illustration-famous-fiveI think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way.  I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.

Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like.  There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked.  So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.

It took hours.  This was no casual project.  It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy.  There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.

The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book.  I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way.  But if I did, it was worth it.  I can still remember how impressive the finished article was.  We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar.  Then we handed out the first clue.

Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties.  Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon.  I don’t know what we did with that first map.  Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.

pirates-of-the-caribeanThis year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day.  It was fun working it out.  This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again.  While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.

And you know what?  It was a creative buzz.  In this story I had real characters to work with.  I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure.  I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them.  Was it too easy?  Was it too hard?

Oh, the relief when they came into view.  Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it.  I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away.  This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.

 

 

Snail, and The Simple Linear Plot.

DSCF5265Despite being an enthusiastic, if erratic gardener, I’ve always had a sneaking affection for snails.  It’s not just their shells, which are actually far more decorative and varied than seems necessary, I like the delicate elegance of their antenna, and I’m fascinated by the way they move about.

Out walking on damp mornings, I find them crossing the slick tarmac lane.  Sometimes I anthropomorphize them.  Why did the snail cross the road? Are they fearless, or just oblivious? I’ve often stopped to move them onto the verge.  It’s a quiet lane.  I wonder what I shall say if someone sees what I’m up to?

This is despite the fact that at this time of year, when I’m trying to raise a veg garden, the battle between me and the various gastropods turns epic.  In one night, a sneaky squadron of six slugs turned the leaves of my four young courgette plants to lace, and lacerated the stems either on the way to or from their feast. 

My tolerance doesn’t stretch that far.  I found them skulking under a potato plant nearby.  Don’t tell Dad, who tried to teach me that there’s no place for sentiment in gardening, but I launched them over the fence into the field.  There’s a lush headland of weeds there that ought to keep them happily fed, if they can overcome their homing instinct. 

Yes, snails do have one, (so I assume slugs share it) it was proved in the radio 4 great snail-expirement in 2010.  Apart from anything else, I was glad to discover that I’m not the only gardener who’s too soft-hearted to extinguish them.  Why else would someone have set out to prove that they return again and again?

My gran kept a giant slug in a pot on the garden wall, when I was little.  She called it George and said that he was the biggest she’d ever seen.  That could have been just for entertainment, or to teach us about gardens.  I like to think there was an element of affection involved, that eventually she released him into the wild, rather than ended his life in a salt bath.  It’s far too late to ask, but I thought of her when I turned the bathroom light on the other evening and discovered an uninvited visitor travelling across the window sill.

 After I’d taken a few pictures (well, it’s a talking point, isn’t it?), I un-suckered my mollusc from the tiles, took it out to the hedge and hurled it into that patch where the others had been sent. 

Next night Snail, the same one, surely, was back.  This time Snail had made it past the windowsill and was heading down the wall to the bath.  I’m too well versed in linear plotting to take this lightly.  In making a second attempt, after overcoming my first obstacle, Snail had achieved the status of PROTAGONIST.

Something big was required, something that would leapfrog the story to its third and climatic stage, and have an outcome that was good for me, the ANTAGONIST.  If Snail got the happy ending it was intent on, then one evening I might find tens of freshly hatched snails traversing my bathroom tiles.

So I took Snail on a hike to a woodland glade, about half a mile down the road.  It’s well supplied with tasty flowers and leaves, sunshine, dappled shade, and plenty of protective cover from predators.  It’s surely a snail des-res.

baby snailsI wonder if I’ll feature in the epic stories Snail will recount to all the hatchling snails as a benevolent giant, or an indomitable ogre…Either way, I didn’t give Snail chance to lay a trail of breadcrumbs or pebbles. 

I’ll be keeping close watch on that bathroom window, but I don’t think Snail will be back.  It’s occurred to me that travelling up a wall, a pane of glass and over the window-ledge could be counted as Snail’s first obstacle, and therefore all three plot points have been achieved.

 

 

The True story of Ethel & Ernest

In the process of building a bibliography for my Family History Writing Course I discovered this Raymond Briggs graphic novel.  What a find.Ethel and Ernest book cover

Beautifully drawn, gently humorous, it hooked me from the first picture.  Should I have said cartoon?  The story of Ethel and Ernest begins, as such a title should, with the meeting of the couple, on a Monday in 1928.

How about this for an opening?Ethel and Ernest page oneEthel and Ernest page 2

This story of a working-class couple covers most of the twentieth century.  Each frame concentrates on Ethel & Ernest, and shows us how one family faces and embraces change.

I like the way it keeps its focus, and includes social and political history as part of the plot.  For instance, in one of the 1930s domestic-evening frames, Ethel is doing the ironing as Ernest reads out from his paper: “It says ‘The average family needs £6 a week to keep it above the poverty line…”

Ethel says, “What’s the poverty line?”

“Dunno,’ says Ernest.  “I just wish I earned £6 a week.”

There is an elegant economy about the way Briggs tells his story that we prose writers can learn from.  It says no more than it needs to, and trusts us readers to fill in the rest.

Look again at those first two pages, and what you see is a young woman in a black dress, apron and cap dusting a table.  Her role is clear.  The house is implied by the richness of the curtains, and her feelings by the colour that comes and goes on her cheeks.  We can imagine the rest.  The young man is crouched over his handlebars, glances back, and waves his cap.  The street is no more than a shadowy outline of prosperity.  What matters is his wide grin and the cigarette clenched between his teeth.

 

Why don’t we tell people, you’re special, more often?

David Bowie as Ziggy StardustI never bought a David Bowie record, but when I look back I find that his songs illuminate some key moments in my life.  It’s not something I was conscious of until this week, when I’ve been hearing fragments of his songs most days and found myself washed over with nostalgia.  Judging by the quantity of tributes across the media I suppose something of the same effect has been experienced by many of us.

Suddenly, we are discovering how artful his life was, even the ending, as it coincides with the release of his latest album.  Critics are analyzing his lyrics, thinking about the significance of who he was and what he created.  Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

Crumpling a newspaper to set up the fire this morning, I read fragments of scandal about this or that celebrity being proved to have the same clay-like feet as the rest of us.  For the successful, it seems this is the only alternative story to the reports of their death.

After all, this is journalism.  The definition of News is newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.  A problem for journalists is that they can only write the surface of a character.  Bowie seemed able to exploit this.  I’m amazed by how much I seem to know about him.

Alan-Rickman-by-Andy-GottOn the other hand, the actor Alan Rickman, who also died this week, and is someone I have looked out for in films and trusted to deliver quality entertainment, I knew nothing about until after his death.  Whether villain, hero or support, he convinced.

What made these two artists special for me, was their ability to convey characterizations.  To see either man perform was to believe them.

With Bowie, I’m reminded that scandal for the artist, is not about shock in the sense of a newspaper, which tends to reinforce our prejudices, it is about pushing us to look beyond narrow and easy perspectives.

Here’s an Alan Rickman quote that seems to sum up something of what the lives of both men stand for to me:

“The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”

 

It’s the bank holiday…

…here, and in some other countries, so I’m offering a brief post this week: a quote from Middlemarch.

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her.

…In the story of this passion…the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting.

George Eliot’s novel was published in 1871.

It seems to me that her observation is still true.  So come on, you blocked writers, what are you afraid of?

Next time you have doubts about your writing, think of all the fiction that has been published since this quote: the millions of characters who have interacted with each other.  Then ask yourself why you shouldn’t tell your version of any story.

And in case that doesn’t impress you, here’s Sappho, born circa 620 BC.  The fragments of her poetry that remain are all centred on love and passion.

pompei_-_sappho_-_man