Reasons to be cheerful…

Those of you who are old enough might recognise my title as belonging to a song from late in the 1970s. It was catchy, and therefore popular for a while, but not something that struck me, at the time, as important. After the few weeks when it seemed to be on the radio every day, it was overtaken by some new tune. That’s the way popular works.

Except for me, the phrase, ‘reasons to be cheerful,’ had not gone. Those four words were swirling around my head when I woke on Sunday morning.

I spent my half-hour walk with Rusty struggling to match them to a tune that I later discovered belonged to a song by another group. Thank goodness for search-engines.

As soon as I’d read that Reasons to be Cheerful, Pt 3 belonged to Ian Dury and The Blockheads, I remembered the correct tune, though the rest of the lyrics defeated me, until I looked them up. It was a list song, and I’d been developing a writing exercise based on lists only four days earlier.

My idea had been triggered by a review of a book called, 14,000 Things To Be Happy About, by Barbara Ann Kipfer. It was first published in 1990, then was revised and republished again, twice: first in 2007, then in 2014. In her forward, Kipfer says the book is a record of 50 years worth of moments. It takes the form of a stream of consciousness list that can be dipped into.

About a thousand years ago (and how magical does that sound?) a Japanese woman called Sei Shōnagon wrote a series of intriguing lists in her Pillow Book. They are a poetic observations that are beautiful in their own right, but also provide a fascinating glimpse into her life at a Japanese court. The titles alone are worth savouring: Things that should be short; Elegant things; Rare things

All of these things (and more) were in my head as the sun set. A couple of blackbirds began arguing in the shrubs beyond my office window. Outside was icy: inside was warm. If I hadn’t been thinking of anything wider than that, creating a list of my own good thoughts would still have seemed an appropriate activity.

I opened a small pristine notebook that has been waiting for a special project. I wrote the date on the first page, and without too much thought, began…

Snowdrops budding through weeds, bluetits, finches, robins and sparrows flock around feeders, and across the field four Roe deer pause to watch before flashing white rumps as they turn, their parallel route rousting a pheasant into squawking flight, unsettling the roosting buzzard and the mass of fieldfares chattering in the ash and the oak; mud builds on my boot soles, soft, smooth and heavy; the pull of earth, and branches slick with drizzle.

The drift of wet washing in the winter breeze, to be gathered at dusk…

New Year: new me?

It doesn’t feel like three weeks since my last post, though I’m glad to report that Ray is making great progress with his recuperation, (the human body is an amazingly forgiving organism) and we had a lovely Christmas and New Year. But can that really all have taken up the last twenty-one days?

Is it only me who finds taking a break is often not so much about having a rest, as providing an opportunity to reflect?

If we’d used the time to go away on holiday somewhere – ah, remember those days? – we’d have been kept busy adjusting to the accommodation and exploring our surroundings. Holidays, in my experience are adventures.

This time, spent at home pottering, hasn’t been consciously given to contemplation. Although I’ve put some time into lesson preparations as well as my domestic duties, we’ve both just taken time off, and not thought or talked about work for days at a time.

It was only when I began to transfer class dates from the notes in the back of my old diary to my term-planner, last week, that I drew in a sharp breath. Could I have been sane when I committed to so many teaching hours?

I was. I swear I was.

But, there is going to be a lot of reading. It’s going to be fun, too, meeting so many people from all over the country, sharing our ideas about reading and writing – without any need to spend time driving!

I’m loving on-line teaching. It’s very different to classroom based groups, which I look forward to returning to, it has a slightly different dynamic and I hope I’ll be doing both in the not too distant future. However, this term something is going to have to give, at least for the next three months.

I’m tempted to let the housework slide, so, so tempted… But the truth is I do prefer not to live in squalor.

My reading has already been slimmed down to the eight novels and nine short stories that are on my class reading lists, and the background research that goes with them. There is, I realise, as I settle at my desk on Sunday the third of January, one other way to make some space in my diary… I can, temporarily, cut back my blogging to a monthly, instead of a weekly schedule.

So, lovely readers, I’d like to send you all my very best New Year Wishes. I hope we’re all heading into much better times than the last few months have offered, and I hope you’ll continue to drop in and see what I’m rabbiting on about, on the first Monday of each month… at least until April.

On reading Aesop, then taking a little break.

The connections made in my title are purely coincidental. Reading Aesop has not sent me scuttling to shelter. Although, the story from the 1937 collection, Great Short Stories of The World, I’ve been reading this week is, The Country Mouse and the Town Mouse, and now I think about it, on one level it is a story about taking holidays.

Reading it took me back to childhood, but not in either a positive or a negative way. It was just a story that I remember regularly sighing about because it had popped up in yet another comic or collection.

I’ve been trying to decide whether it really was one of the most repeated stories, or if I just noticed it because it wasn’t a story that I liked. After all, I was happy with the variations on fairytales.

I can imagine that some adults would think these anthropomorphic mice make a child-friendly tale. They must be lovely to illustrate. The plot is time and region-less, and so can be made specific in ways that some of the other fables by Aesop can’t.

I can still remember a very English Tudor-period version that I liked to look at but, even then, the story failed to grab me. I didn’t know why. The story has as much going on as The Hare and The Tortoise, which I did enjoy, so I assumed it was a matter of taste.

Now, returning to it as a translation made by Thomas James, and first published in 1848, I wonder if it was that the set-up seems flawed. I’m wary of blaming Aesop, who was the aural storyteller of these fables. The versions we read weren’t written down until long after his death.

James says the town mouse was condescending. ‘How is it, my good friend, that you can endure the dullness of this unpolished life?’ But, his story begins by stating that these two mice are friends, old acquaintances. So, my question is, how is it that they know so little of each other?

Story worlds, the theory goes, must be consistent, should have a logic that keeps the reader absorbed in them. In the best case, we readers are so involved we suspend our disbelief and are surprised when we remember our world works differently.

The greatest fantasies achieve that, even at their most fantastic. When I read either, Alice in Wonderland, or Through the Looking Glass, no matter how much Alice shrinks, stretches or distorts, or how far she falls, I’m convinced, because each event is shown to fit logically with the next. Even at the end of Wonderland, when Carroll uses the cliche of ‘it was all a dream‘, he does it in such a way that Wonderland and the real world intersect plausibly.

This may well be ‘a particular type of story… known as the Beast Fable, a brief incident related in order to point a simple moral…’ but I’m sorry it was chosen as an example for inclusion in an anthology called Great Short Stories of The World. I would have preferred The Lion and The Mouse, or one of the ones that feature a wolf or a fox.

These are, of course, only my opinions. I’m prepared to be corrected.

I am, however, also allowed to dislike something… even if it is a classic.

In the meantime, please accept my excuses, dear readers and fellow bloggers, I need to drop out of sight for three weeks. My partner, Ray, who is usually standing, unsung, in the background of my writings, has just returned home after a quadruple heart-bypass operation.

While he would happily continue in the role of ideal reader, checking for sense, non-sense and typos before I post, I’m of the opinion that he should follow the recuperation guidance and take things easy. So, I’m putting a few things on hold to supervise his recovery.

Photo by Elly Fairytale on Pexels.com

I’ll be back here on January 4th. Hope to see you then. In the meantime, I wish you all the very best festive wishes. I hope you all find lovely ways to celebrate.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

The bargain.

The thing about my muse is he’s always been a little elusive. I know the kinds of places where he hangs out, he’s a story-muse, lurking between the lines of other people’s writings. But I’ve never been able to predict which pages will reveal him.

Typically, he leapt out from the challenge set by Diana Wallace Peach, for bloggers to share dialogues with their muses, after her deadline. Luckily, Diana is a forgiving, generous soul who gave us an extension.

Give my muse an inch and immediately he takes advantage. So, instead of the conversation Diana had suggested, my muse led me back to that afternoon, around a year ago, when he finally fixed on a form.

Up to that point he’d had two modes of presence. Mostly, he preferred to be almost invisible, hovering just beyond my eyeline. No matter how quickly I turned, or craftily I looked into mirrored surfaces, I’d not see his shape.

This, no doubt, was influenced by his preference for omniscient narrators. Although, now I think about it, perhaps his disembodiment had been inspired by the number of omniscient narrators in my early reading. It all depends on whether he’s been directing my reading, or my reading has directed him. I’d ask, but he’s not the kind of muse who provides anything I request.

At other times he’d shift from one form to another without worrying whether I was midway through a project, or not. I’ve known him to grin suddenly from a corner of a complicated abstract painting; stare out from a crowd scene in a film; uncurl from misshapen lumps on trees, fissures in rock-faces and shadowed lamp-posts on deserted streets. He’s got that kind of sense of humour. He loves jumping from one novel to another, to a poem, to a flash fiction and back to a novel again, crossing continents and centuries, clothes and shape. Often I didn’t realise until hours later that he’d been there.

So it was a shock to find that not only had he settled into a perfectly formed and detailed miniature, but that he had seated himself on the edge of the top shelf in the bric-a-brac section of our local charity shop. He was leaning forward. One leg dangled, the other was crossed across his knee and he was resting his elbow on it, watching as I entered the shop.

Jasper, I thought, as naturally as if I’d always known his name.

Despite his plain brown habit, he stood out. Perhaps it was the large nosed face, or the wrinkles of concentration on his forehead. Maybe he winked. He certainly smirked as he saw me turn away from the bookshelves.

One hand cupped his cheek, half hiding the twist of his lips, but I could see by his eyes that he smiled, and I smiled back, then moved hurriedly forward, in the opposite direction to the bookshelves, past the other browsing customers, to claim him.

He was heavy, reassuringly so, and had gravitas. I’d not expected that, especially since I could see that he was slyly picking his nose. Well, I thought, it probably could be worse. At least I’d got him now. From this point on, I would always know where to look.

Jasper quirked an eyebrow.

I settled him on my palm as I scanned the bookshelves. Was I really going to buy my muse? Was that even possible?

Jasper gave me a straight look. He jiggled his dangling foot, and waited for me to find my money.

What price? Well, the charity shop charged me £3.50.

Thoughts on reading two Ancient Egyptian short stories.

The first stories in the Great Short Stories of The World anthology are THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA), and, SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. According to the editors, both of these date from ‘about 1400 B.C.’, and are by that most prolific of all authors, Anonymous.

They go on to say that these tales ‘have an extraordinary interest in that they are the very earliest examples that we possess.’ Thinking that such a statement may have been challenged by now, I had a quick look through some more recent sources on my bookshelves, and then did an internet search.

The first thing I was reminded of was how slippery the term ‘short story’ is. If we demand that it is something told strictly in prose form, then yes, these two stories from Ancient Egypt are some of the earliest written examples. It would get a lot more complicated, though, if we included stories that employ rhyme, rhythm and repetition, hallmarks of the oral storytelling tradition. Then, questions about when, where and how the dividing line between story and poetry come into play, and I’d need to open up a longer reaching discussion than one small blog-post usually manages.

I’m going to side-step that can of worms, and hand responsibility for starting in Egypt back to the esteemed editors, Messrs Clark and Lieber. However, while I’m happy to concentrate on the content they’ve provided, I am not going to rely on them for historical accuracy.

In presenting SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK, they claim that the original manuscript, ‘came from the workshop of the scribe Anena, who flourished in the reigns of Ramses II, Menephtah, and Seti II.

I don’t know how changes in the archeological science may have affected this theory, in the decades since 1937, but I am convinced by the textual argument David K. Jordan Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of California, makes against it. On an internet page published in 2011, and updated in 2020, he suggests that we should be careful of taking too much notice of what may seem authentic detail. Our narrator, says Professor Jordan, makes some significant errors about Egypt in the time of Ramessses II.

…that setting was either mere romanticism or an inaccurately understood historical tradition, for the writer of the existing copy of the story seems to have imagined the capital to have been at Memphis (one of the Ptolemaic capitals) rather than at Thebes, where Ramesses really had his capital, and the author gives far more attention to the god Ptah than would have been appropriate for a story from the time of Ramesses. Some Greek names also point to the Ptolemaic copyist’s (or author’s) lack of attention to historical accuracy in the setting of the tale.

Professor Jordan says that this story was ‘probably copied… somewhere after 305 BC‘.

What’s a century or two, between readers?

Well, it can be the difference between sense and confusion. There was such a moment for me in this translation of THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA). It was made by William Flinders Petrie in 1895.

Anpu’s wife has falsely accused Bata of trying to seduce her. Anpu takes up a knife and tries to kill Bata, and is only prevented when the God, Ra, helps Bata by causing a vast stretch of croccodile infested water to form between the brothers. In order to convince Anpu of his innocence, Bata ‘took a knife, and cut off of his flesh, and cast it into the water, and the fish swallowed it.’

Wow, I thought, that’s extreme, and rather random, but I didn’t take time to think it through. The story was moving fast, and I was still acclimatizing to a culture in which it seemed to be acceptable for Anpu to return home and not only kill his wife, but feed her body to his dogs.

Meanwhile, Bata was busy making a home in the desert, building a tower and meeting nine Gods, who made a wife especially for him. All, I thought would be fine, now.

I should have remembered my Mabinogian*, in which two magicians made a woman from flowers, to give to the hero Lleu.

Funny thing, but this woman didn’t seem grateful about her given position either. Soon I was so intent on her devious machinations I read right over an important piece of contextual information. Well, that and the slightly arcane narration William Flinders Petrie had decided would give the correct atmosphere for the period.

And Bata loved her very exceedingly, and she dwelt in his house; he passed his time in hunting the beasts of the desert, and brought and laid them before her.

[This reminded me of a cat I used to have, called Jester.]

He said: “Go not outside, lest the sea seize thee; for I cannot rescue thee from it, for I am a woman like thee; my soul is placed on the head of the flower of the acacia; and if another find it, I must fight with him.” And he opened unto her his heart in all its nature.

Oh boy, some men just don’t know how to keep their mouths shut. Still, the stage was now set for all kinds of developments. While I was still pondering the significance of the acacia flower, the nameless girl had enticed a Pharaoh into her orbit, established herself as his princess, and was scheming to make sure Bata couldn’t steal her back again.

And when I think about it, why should she want to live in a tower in the desert? Is it me, or does this bit remind you a little of Rapunzel?

Anyway, before I give you any more spoilers, let me say that I loved this, as I did SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. The editors offer a description that might be applied, these days, to magical realism.

Whether or not the Egyptions actually beleived all they were told in a fairy tale is an idle conjecture, but it seems probable that the strange happenings described in this story were accepted by many. Even the present age of science has not entirely banished a belief in magic…’

After finishing both stories, I looked them up. One of the summaries named the portion of sliced off flesh that William Flinders Petrie was too modest to identify, and suddenly Bata’s action made a lot more sense.

I read both stories again, and again, tantalized by glimpses of fairytales and myths I knew from other cultural backgrounds; reminded of Aristotle’s claim that we retell the same seven stories over and over again, and of Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes. How far back does the short story go? What does it include? I’m still working on these questions.

*Footnote on The Mabinogian: these are the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. (Wikipedia)

Great Short Stories of the World

This anthology is one of my dusty bargains from a second hand shop. Its old, and looks it. The hardboard covers are bound in a pale cloth, and stained. Perhaps that’s why, having re-homed it several years ago on a high TBR shelf, its been neglected. If I hadn’t decided to do a little rearranging this week who knows how long it would have remained there.

Once opened, it was too tempting to put back. After all, don’t I frequently claim that one of the advantages of short fiction is that it can be dipped into? Admittedly, this volume is hefty. There are, the cover boasts, one thousand and eight pages, containing one hundred and seventy eight stories ‘drawn from all literatures, ancient and modern’ . I don’t have pockets big enough, and if I had, I suspect that after carting this around I’d develop a limp. So this book is now lodged conveniently on the corner of my desk.

The tattered dust jacket is tucked between the pages, too fragile to be other than a bookmark. It’s thick with promises.

‘This miracle, this triumph of bookmaking… has run to no less than ten editions at the original price of eight shillings and sixpence.

I put the figures into a currency convertor. Eight shillings and sixpence would have been the equivalent of a days wages for a skilled tradesman working in Britain in 1926. I’m trying to decide whether I might pay a sixth of my wages for a book, if I was a skilled tradesman. What kind of reader would that make me, what might my aspirations be?

The opening lines of the preface say:

This collection marks the first attempt to bring together in a single volume a characteristic group of the outstanding examples of the Short Story as it has been practiced by writers of almost every race, from the earliest days of civilization down to the present century. Its purpose is not to shew, by a series of texts chosen on academic grounds, how the form developed, but to bring together the best examples of every form by which men have endeavoured [sic] to entertain and instruct their fellows.

How popular has this collection been? My copy, a 1937 reprint, says that, ‘in response to overwhelming public demand it is reissued, complete and unabridged, at 3s 6d.‘ The currency converter tells me that in today’s terms that would be a drop from the 1926 equivalent price of £60 to £24 in 1937. Sounds like a bargain. But, the 1930s were times of turmoil, and although wages had not gone up, and most foodstuffs had dropped in price, there were high levels of unemployment. I’d love to know who did buy this, and why.

After thinking about the history of The Short Story, the preface becomes more practical.

Of recent years there has been a good deal of theorizing about the Short Story as an art form. A whole literature of theory has come into being in order to explain the work of Maupassant and Poe and O. Henry, as well as to guide the would be writer.

Possibly, then, this is useful research for those trying to break into print.

The preface lays much stress on the theory, history and the processes of critical reading. The editors have aspired to gather together ‘little-known or quite forgotten tales.’

There is an academic approach to the division of the book into sections.

The volume… besides being the first to include examples of stories of practically the entire world, introduces several new writers to English and American readers.

At one time non-fiction books were such a popular household item that salesmen hawked encyclopedias and educational literature from door to door. The New Statesman says, ‘This is a most astonishing venture – a library in itself.

I hope Barret H. Clark and Maxim Lieber would be gratified to know that it’s still succeeding on all fronts, so far as I’m concerned. I’ve just finished The Two Brothers, a tale from Egypt, dated by their estimation, at 1400 BC which was entertaining and intriguing.

6 degrees of separation: from W Somerset Maugham to Rana Dasgupta

This month, the six degrees challenge set by Kate W, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is to begin with a title that has concluded a previous chain. Last month I finished with Maugham’s short story, A String of Beads.

This is such a very short story that it might seem slight. Should I simply follow the governess? The snag is, that would almost inevitably lead back to the starting point for the chain it came from, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

As with so many Maugham stories, all this one needs is a second read. There are several lines I could pick up, all tempting. But then, this is a story about story-telling. I’ve chosen the moment when Laura pauses her story so that she can explain it.

“We all laughed. It was of course absurd. We’ve all heard of wives palming off on their husbands as false a string of pearls that was real and expensive. The story is as old as the hills.”

“Thank you,” I said, thinking of a little narrative of my own.

Could the narrator, perhaps, be remembering Maupassant’s short story, The Necklace? At any rate, I was.

My link is in the introduction to the pretty and charming girl who has had no chance of marrying ‘a man of wealth and distinction‘, and so has ‘let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education.’

She suffered endlessly, feeling herself born for every delicacy and luxury. She suffered from the poorness of her house, from its mean walls, worn chairs, and ugly curtains.  All these things, of which other women of her class would not even have been aware, tormented and insulted her.

When her husband gets tickets for an influential party, she sees the possibility of a triumph. All she needs to complete the new outfit she buys is to borrow a diamond necklace from her rich friend.

This reminds me of an Elizabeth Taylor story, I Live in a World of Make-believe. Mrs Miller is ‘absorbed and entranced‘ by the ‘grandeur‘ of the big house across the road from her. ‘Symbols of all that seemed worth while in life passed and crossed on that gravelled courtyard...’

It is Mrs Miller’s small son who creates the connection, in innocence. After that you’d think she’d be contented, wouldn’t you?

‘I wish we had more books…’

‘Books?’ [Mr Miller] echoed, looking worried at once. ‘What for?’

‘For all those built-in shelves. I’d like to call that room the library.’

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Discontent is beautiful story material. In Jumping into Bed with Luis Fortuna, the fourth story in my chain, Dilys Rose also explores it.

She’d got herself anchored: house, job, man, kids. The backpack was long gone, she was well and truly stuck.

Like the Maupassant story, our protagonist remains a ‘she’ throughout. This ‘she’ has become focused on a novelist called Luis Fortuna.

She didn’t believe in heroes but still, in spare moments down town, she’d nip into bookshops in search of his latest novel.

The story charts her attempt to compose a letter to Luis, in between her family commitments.

Her husband was put off Luis Fortuna by the trashy titles and lurid covers and she was glad. She had him to herself.

Deborah Moggach’s story, A Real Countrywoman, opens with letters and Christmas cards. The one in the brown envelope comes from the County Council.

‘A two-lane dual carriageway!’ said Edwin. ‘Right past our front door. Thundering pantechnicons!’ This exploded from him like an oath.

While Edwin is horrified, his wife, our nameless narrator, doesn’t quite seem to be on the same page.

When you live in the country you spend your whole time in the car. This was our first Christmas in the country, the first of our new pure life, and I was trying to work up a festive spirit unaided by the crass high-street commercialism that Edwin was so relieved to escape. Me too, of course.

One of the solutions Edwin offers is an underpass. Elsewhere, the local council are putting them in to save colonies of great crested newts, that’s just the kind of ammunition an anti-road campaign needs. Or is it?

That road takes me to my sixth story, Rana Dasgupta’s, The Flyover. Marlboro, a young man who lives, with his mother, ‘on Lagos Island near to the hustle and bustle of Balogun Market‘, has grown next to the arches of a flyover. His oldest brother is in university in India, the second oldest has gone into business with a friend.

Marlboro has no job, and no idea about what he might do, and seems to have no interest in that.

‘Why don’t you tell me who my father was? Marlboro would ask late at night as his mother put up her cerise-toenailed feet that perfectly matched her cerise lipstick and flicked between soap operas, turned up to full volume to cover the scream of the flyover outside.

Instead, she leaves, and he is enticed into working for a protection racket. It’s a very long way away from Somerset Maugham’s dinner party… or is it?

Balogun Market, by Yellowcrunchy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63542539

Dreaming of dinner parties.

Is your social life suffering? Are you looking for a solution to Covid lockdown blues? Put aside the commercial and political arguments about the rights and wrongs of the situation; forget Zoom, for a moment, and follow me.

I’ve been inspired by a BBC Radio 4 programme called My Dream Dinner Party. In each episode a host invites a selection of their long-time dead heroes to join them for dinner. The menus have been varied, and occasionally worrying.

Here’s a tip though, in case you are ever invited to feast with Jack Whitehall: stick to liquids and avoid the solids. As a barman, he sounds spot on, but the malfunctions in his kitchen included a cavalier attitude to mould on food.

All of the hosts are skilled conversation starters. This week Shappi Khorsandi invited Maya Angelou, Kenny Everett, Richard Burton, Dr Edith Summerskill and Amy Winehouse to a Persian feast.

‘I’d love to do that,’ I thought. I could create a virtual feast. The technicalities of cutting and splicing sound clips, however, is far beyond my technical abilities.

It only took a little lateral thinking to connect this series to Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, Top Girls, where Marlene’s dinner guests are real and fictional women from history. No technology necessary.

But, there are so many fascinating historical characters I’d like to meet. Churchill had a purpose, an agenda. I needed to find mine. It didn’t take long, though narrowing that down needed a lot more thought.

I’ve sent my invitations into some fictional worlds. There really are so many characters I’d like to spend time with, but eventually I came up with a theme that helped me to narrow my list down.

Tristram Shandy’s reply arrived first.

Madam, it would be a delight to partake of the fine company and good victuals you describe.

Permit me, as a humble guest, to supplement your table with some choice delicacies that I happen to have at hand. In short, I can supply a fine keg of claret, and several prodigious pies garnished with a ponderous mass of judicious trimmings, richly baked this last sennight.

Madam’s most obedient,

and most devoted,

and most humble servant,

Tristram Shandy.

Dora Chance sent back a very old postcard of Big Ben, with an out of date stamp on it. I paid the extra postage, though she seemed to have written it in khol, and a lot of the words were smudged. In between some of the smeared hieroglyphics I thought I could just make out, ‘Got bubbly, ducky?’ I presume that means she will be appearing, but it’s possible she’s sent me the wrong reply. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed that she hasn’t received a better offer.

Nellie Dean’s reply covered two pages of fullscap, and she’d crossed it. It took me a couple of hours to decipher all of the content. A lot of it was domestic, and seemed to be concerned with Joseph’s refusal to wipe his boots before entering the back kitchen. Though there were also two sides about Cathy and Hareton. It seems they are still billing and cooing like a pair of doves. She finished, ‘You’d never think that they are about to become grandparents. But I believe they can now safely be left in charge, so I’ll be glad to repair to another region for a short time.’

Rebecca de Winter’s reply came in a thick cream-coloured envelope. Inside was a single heavy sheet of mono-graphed notepaper. Her handwriting would have brought a smile to a calligrapher’s face. It said, ‘I should be delighted to accept your kind invitation. With kind regards, R. dW.’

Piscine Molitor Patel phoned me to get directions. “Could you name me a few notable landmarks? I don’t have much faith in technology.”

I promised to meet him at the railway station.

“How will we know each other?”

I told him the station was not so very big that we could make a mistake, but he said he’d learned to take precautions when travelling. “We’ll both wear carnations, and I’ll carry a rolled up beach mat. Who else will be there?”

I told him.

He said, “You don’t expect anyone to believe this, do you?”

“I know,” I said. “Brilliant, isn’t it?”

Piscine Molitor by Getfunky Paris – Flickr: Plongée urbex, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Thoughts on the enduring power of Sherlock.

Conan Doyle had his first Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. According to the Wikipedia page, neither the public nor publishers were bowled over by it.

For writers with aspirations, such snippets are reassuring. Publication success can take time, and certainly needs patience. For readers, it demonstrates something of the drive behind the pages we readers consume. I don’t need to point out that Conan Doyle didn’t abandon his characters.

Ward, Lock & Co published that first story as a hardback book in July 1888. It sold well enough to deserve a second edition the following year. This did not mean that the ‘cult’ of Sherlock and Watson had properly begun at that point.

It wasn’t until 1891 that the duo began to build a following. That was after they began to appear as a Strand Magazine series.

In Britain, Strand Magazine was one of THE places to be published. The Wikipedia entry for the magazine says that that first issue, of January 1891, sold nearly 300,000 copies.

There’s an interesting fact filled essay about the magazine on The Strand Magazine website. In, The Story of The Strand, Chris Willis explains that:

…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership. The content was a mixture of factual articles, short stories and serials most of which were illustrated to some extent. Despite expense and production difficulties, Newnes aimed at having a picture on every page — a valuable selling point at a time when the arts of photography and process engraving were in their infancy. “A monthly magazine costing sixpence but worth a shilling” was the slogan the publicity-conscious Newnes used to advertise the Strand – which was half the price of most monthlies of the period.

Did you note that fragment of a sentence I started the Willis quote with? ‘…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership.

In this period, books often came into households as communal items. We should count those 300,000 copies as being read by at least two, rather than one reader, even if we’re just looking at married couples. However, if we assume children, and perhaps a servant or two, the readership for the magazine rises significantly, and we’ve only considered the first few issues.

So popular was this magazine that circulation soon rose to almost 500,000 copies a month, and continued at that rate until well into the 1930s. That’s a lot of audience for stories. I wonder if there’s an equivalent opportunity for new writing today?

Conan Doyle was not the first, and is far from the last, writer to have demonstrated that persistence needs to be a feature of the fiction author’s character. Beyond the necessary dedication to putting time into practicing your craft, is the effort needed to find a way to access an audience.

Marketing may change, but the principles remain the same. It can be useful to think about how much of the fiction that we now see as part of our literary heritage went unrecognised, in the first steps towards publication.

Take heart, writers. Keep crafting: keep grafting.

Incidentally, should you happen to have a copy of that 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual on your shelves, you might like to dust it off and treat it with especial care. There are only eleven known copies, up to now.

Fear of The Maddening Crowds: a classic, re-imagined for our situation.

A continuation of my glimpse into modern-day Wessex.

Chapter 2 Where is that Maddening Crowd? by Thomas Hiding

It was Frannie, who had been barmaid at The Malthouse through the reign of three previous landlords, who figured out the practicalities of re-opening as a take-away. William stood back and watched her carry a table into the doorway, set out the blackboard on the deserted pavement and write in huge letters, Beer, bring your own container.

‘If it doesn’t work, you needn’t pay me,’ she’d said, as if she’d no idea that William had already decided that she wouldn’t fit with his plans for the refurbishment. She’d seen what his Sheffield pub was like when she Googled him, and had gone out to shop for a plain white shirt in the New Year sales. That was three weeks before he arrived for the takeover.

She’d tried it out in the privacy of her bedroom, in the flat above the saloon bar, with the grumble of tv news reports seeping up through the floor boards.

‘Hey, I can rock this,’ she’d thought, as she zipped up the black skirt from the back of the wardrobe. It had to be four or five years since she’d bought it, and she’d worn it only once, for a Halloween fancy dress night. But it was okay, it still fitted.

It was okay, wasn’t it? She’d turned, and turned, before her mirror, knowing that this was a low wattage-bulb illusion. She opened the door to let the light in from the hall, then fetched a lamp, plugged it in by the mirror and took the shade off it.

The stranger in the mirror remained even when she hunted through her makeup box for colours she’d never worn, stuff that should have been thrown away years before. She’d worry about consequences tomorrow. Who knew if it was even true, about the bacteria and infections? She patted and shaded, blended and outlined, then rubbed it off and started again, and again.

Who was she kidding?

The shirt was stained. She’d washed it before taking it, and the skirt, to the charity shop, but there were still smudges of foundation on the collar. Frannie had felt like a reverse shop-lifter as she handed the bagged clothes over.