Travel log: scenes and stories

Usually, taking holidays in September we strike lucky with the weather.  This year however, we arrived at Gower in a gale.  The blast coming in off the sea buffeted our stone cottage fiercely.  Upstairs, as I drifted into sleep, I felt as if I was on the top of a bunk-bed with a restless sleeper below.

It was cosy though.  The under-floor heating was generated by a ground-source-heat-pump, so I felt a little virtuous about the luxurious warmth.

wind on rhossiliLike all the best storms, it had pretty much blown out by morning.  Though as Ray, Rusty and I made our way down the cliff path the sky was still overcast, and there was a gusty wind.  It was cool enough that when we reached the sand I didn’t consider taking my wellies off.

shipwreck 7I suspect we did the thing that everyone arriving on Rhossili beach for the first time does, when we headed for the main shipwreck. Yes, I did say shipwreck, and no, not recent.  The Helvetia grounded in November 1887, and is now a partial skeleton deeply embedded in the sand.

No diving necessary to look at this wreck, no pieces of eight either: the vessel’s cargo was timber.  There’s treasure here though.  It’s in the worn oak posts, and the large twisted iron nails and bolts that are slowly being eaten by the weather, the sand and the sea.  shipwreck closeup

The Helvetia was lucky: other ships lost lives as well as cargo, on the long shallow beach or against the rocks below Worms Head.  Don’t be misled by the earthy nature of that ‘worm’, this name derives from Wurm, the Viking word for Dragon.

It makes sense as a visual descriptive, and as a warning.  Imagine the stories to go with that naming.  It’s figurative language. It’s the imagination examining, explaining and dramatizing.  Even when the sun came out I could see how it had earned such a name.

 

rhossili beach.and the worm 2. jpg

 

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The Year 1000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julius calendar July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – research sources for writers.

I have a 1907 copy of the Harmsworth Self-Educator, volume 6.  It’s a battered old thing, that seems to have spent some time in places other than dry, safe, bookshelves. The cover is not so bad as the interior, which is not just stained, it has several damaged pages.

For non-fiction, I do appreciate a straight-forward title.  The Self-Educator is a collection of harmsworth-self-educatoressays exploring ‘life’ in Britain.  I don’t think it should be called an encyclopedia, because apart from not being in alphabetical order, these read like academic papers.  There are 29 groups of topics, dealing with the sciences; commercial activities; arts, crafts, languages and academic ideas and theories.

Who was it for?  I’m not sure.  It doesn’t seem child-friendly to me, but am I a good judge of what Edwardian children did, and liked?  I think of it as a paper forerunner to internet search engines, except that this one is all edited by one man…Arthur Mee (1875 – 1943).

It’s not a book I turn to regularly, but when I do, invariably I find something intriguing.  Do you know, for instance, how an Edwardian child should be dressed?  Dr A. T. Schofield can tell you:

There can be no doubt that a combination flannel undergarment is the most comfortable and healthy arrangement. The legs especially should be protected in this way, and not left bare, or with a single covering of cotton.  Over this, with girls, there should be a stout quilted bodice on which the lower garments can be buttoned, and then a plain dress over all.  The stockings, of course, are suspended.  A sailor costume is a capital one for girls, and very healthy.

unidentified-poss-claptonImagine getting strapped into that lot every morning.  No doubt such padding would have been useful in the winter, but Dr Schofield doesn’t offer a lighter selection for the summer.  Perhaps that’s why there are no smiles in this picture.

Children’s dress…should not leave any vital parts exposed.  Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten, and children are dressed in a fashion that their parents would not endure for a moment if applied to themselves.

photo-from-daily-mail-article-about-slum-childrenI wonder if he’s referring to the families struggling to survive?

It’s worth stating the obvious here, and remembering that in research, we should always find more than one source.  The clue to the Self Educator is in the title and sub-title.  It is an aspirational book, ‘A Golden Key to Success in Life’.  The only reference I’ve been able to track down about the original cost of the volume, was that one bookseller had marked it up for ten shillings and six pennies.

Given that in 1910 the Army and Navy Stores were selling a ‘maids’ dress for four shillings and one penny, and that an average income for a working class family would have been around twenty two shillings per week, it seems likely that only well-to-do households would have owned any of these volumes, let alone all eight.

However, Mr Mee does provide the kind of detail that makes me think that in a post-apocalyptic, google-less situation, these volumes might be useful.  In this copy alone are instructions on how to farm, build houses, make cheese, manufacture hats, weave cloth, lay out a sewerage system, run a bank, speak Esperanto, play a flute, sell postcards…  Is there anything else necessary to keep us safe, dry and entertained?

Actually, looking again at some of those stained pages, I wonder if this copy was kept in a workshop.  The worst damage does seem to be in some of the applied chemistry sections.

I feel a story forming.

 

Writing what you know.

Sunday: after a session of research for some sense-of-place classes, I turned on the radio and found Poetry Please.  I’m not a regular follower of the show.  Usually at that time I’m busy working or enjoying myself.

Yesterday though, having decided that the season is shifting from salad to soup temperatures, midway through the afternoon I dragged myself back from the fifth century, and set about chopping veg.

Housework, huh? I loathe it.  Despite the end results of having a tasty dish, or even a comfortably clean house, I can’t see the processes for getting there as anything other than tedious.  Consequently, I’ve perfected a variety of self-fooling strategies to contend with my resistance, (multi-tasking for the sake of my sanity?) via BBC radio 4.

My wireless rarely lets me down, and sometimes gives me a shiver of synchronicity.

bee hive 3Yesterday’s theme was Bees, which chimed because it soon became clear that the chosen poets, and the producer of the show, had also done some detailed research.  If I’d needed reminding about why it’s important to gather background material, listening to this did the trick.

Writing is not just about the words you write, it’s about the way you’ve seen or experienced things, and the world view you provide.  Here’s one of the poems that caught my attention.

                       The Hive

                       By Jo Shapcott.

The colony grew in my body all that summer.
The gaps between my bones filled
with honeycomb and my chest
vibrated and hummed. I knew
the brood was healthy, because
the pheromones sang through the hive
and the queen laid a good
two thousand eggs a day.
I smelled of bee bread and royal jelly,
my nails shone with propolis.
I spent my days freeing bees from my hair,
and planting clover and bee sage and
woundwort and teasel and borage.
I was a queendom unto myself.

Look at the way Shapcott has used technical detail.  Here aren’t dry facts, and she doesn’t give the impression of a glancing gathering of scientific terms.  Here is an imaginative involvement between nature and self.   And what happens when I hear it?  Well one outcome is I’m intrigued.  I look it up and read it, again and again, and think about that tingle I’m getting.  Could it be that I too feel the beginnings of a colony growing inside my body?

bee 7

Writing what we know

I’ve been looking for Arthur this week. King Arthur, that is.  At the moment, there are five books about him on my desk, and another four about Celtic myths.  I’ve also got some web-pages bookmarked and a lot of notes – paper and electronic, to work from, that I’ve been putting together over the summer.

I like research.  I’m not sure what that says about my personality, and if you know, please don’t tell me.  I’d rather not have my suspicions confirmed.  Besides, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re suffering from the same condition anyway.

The trNellieick with gathering background information is discipline.  The Arthur stuff is easy, because I’ve a course starting in November, so I’ve a deadline.  Take away the deadline and it’s a different story.

Two years ago I offered to put together a family history for my father.  Two of my uncles had already traced the family tree as far back as was feasible, but I was interested in combining that with a family photo album that dated from the 1870s onwards.  I gathered up materials, interviewed aunts, uncles and second cousins, then settled down to sort it out.

Six months later I had become a regular visitor to the local archives.  I learned how to use the micro-fiche, computer records and filing systems.

I added branches to the family tree.  I visited places where our ancestors lived and read between the lines of the records of their births, deaths, marriages and census forms.  Some of their lives became more than just patterns on paper, I got a feel for who they were and began to imagine what their lives were like.

But out of the alphabet of files and folders on my hard-drive I needed to create the book I had promised.  It was to be a small, family thing: a factual book of pictures with words rather that vice versa.  One day, I thought, I might write this saga.  Meanwhile, I visited a printer who set me my deadline.Frederick

It was hard cutting my trips to the archive, letting go of the stories I had glimpsed in the parish registers and workhouse records.  I knew that left to my own inclinations, I could have lost myself there, chasing names and following links.  The labyrinth of facts would have drawn me on to ever more obscure connections until I had forgotten where I started.

Often, when I’m starting to write fiction, I find myself needing to look things up, to check details.   There is a saying that we should write what we know, and I suppose in that case, the issue of research might not arise.  Except that somehow, even when I start out from a place I do know, I all too often find myself writing about places and things I don’t know, but can imagine, so for me, at any rate, research will always be an issue.