She wandered lonely as a cloud…

My Point of View is in crisis.

After a year of starting third person novels, over-plotting, over-thinking, losing interest, abandoning them, I was finally revisited by my Muse and began a new book. In first person.

What it says about my ego, I don’t know, but I’m lured by first person voice as a reader and as a writer… and yet we’re told, endlessly, how debut novelists should stick to third. 

So I’m experimenting with shifting this new book into third – now, before I get too far in and such a change would be a pain – and comparing the results of the first 4k words in each POV.

Something is clearly lost – a sense of moodiness, obviously the closeness – and yet I figured there must also be gains. Distance has its own value, moodiness is a matter of word order – there’s more to change than just putting “I” into “she” – and, of course, third person means no restrictions on what the narrator can see. 

But even though I think the gains do outweigh the losses, I can’t switch off that inner first person and am still thinking through story elements in that voice. I’m a Method Writer – need to be firmly in the head of a protagonist to be able to enjoy writing them, even when they’re dark, miserable and being them means teetering on the edge of their abyss…

Oh. Yes. Hang on… I’d forgotten how horrible it got writing The Sky is Not Blue, sat in a dark, windowless shed, smoking a thousand ciggies and drinking way too much wine whilst the rest of the world was outside enjoying the sunshine.

Third person it is then. Let sanity be mine.


Clubs, bills, and partisans!

Last year I discovered Manga Shakespeare and bought a couple for the kids as a little experiment. They absolutely loved them, and we’ve since bought more. I figured it a good way for them to grasp the core Shakespearean plots, and then be able to recognise these where they appear elsewhere in art, other literature, films etc. Plus it seemed a gentle introduction into Shakespearean language prior to secondary school study.

Apparently, when these books first came out in 2007 purists were horrified. The Manga versions do use Shakespeare’s text but are abridged – the purists thought this Wrong and that in taking out chunks of text the plays were reduced to mere plots and this, too, was Wrong. Feedback from the Royal Shakespeare Company and schools has been much more positive.

Yesterday we took the kids to the theatre to see Romeo & Juliet – an adult production, not something re-jigged for youngsters – and they were enthralled for two and a half hours… I don’t think Sam leaned back in her seat once – she was on the edge, silent, not taking her eyes off the stage. They absolutely loved it, understood perfectly what was happening and, where the language did fox them, still didn’t feel lost because they knew the story already (though brilliant acting throughout from the Pilot Theatre group clarified even the more obscure segments of Shakespeare’s banter).

At the interval I asked Jess, who re-read the Manga version for about the tenth time last week, what was going to happen in the second half. And she told me, naming characters and their roles in the mess which follows soppy Romeo’s banishment. I could have forgotten I was talking to an eight year old, in fact, had she not added at the end but I don’t think the actress will really kill herself, she’ll just pretend. 

I would not have sat through two and a half hours of Shakespeare at eight or eleven years old. I would have hated it, even though I did love the theatre… but not to listen to that sort of hard-to-grasp dialogue. The reason my kids loved it (and now want to go and see Hamlet this summer too!) is purely because they’ve read, and enjoyed, those Manga versions that so horrified the purists.

So, Purists, thy heads are as full of quarells as an egg is full of meat… 

(oh, and the Pilot Theatre group is taking Romeo & Juliet to London at the beginning of February – well worth checking out if that’s your neighbourhood)

Certain dark things

So much fluffy, pink, flowery stuff around today. 

I shan’t add to it. But neither shall I bang on and complain about it – nobody likes a killjoy..!

However… I prefer a little darker, less sickly – and perhaps thus more truthful – take on love, myself. 

Like this one:

I Do Not Love You (Pablo Neruda)

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Ships passing

I was married to a man who was often away, and when home was rarely present. If we were ships passing it was on separate seas, in different time-zones, each oblivious for the most part to the other’s existence. He did not have to be elsewhere. He chose it. Things perceived caused an anger that became destructive – he had a need to apportion blame – and I’d grown not only used to my own company but happier with it.

On the occasions he and John met over the summer, he would hover at close distance as John worked hard on some manual task – fixing a fence, digging out rhododendron roots, hauling stones for a rockery I’d thought might be nice near my study window – and he would use his business suit as both excuse and weapon. He made jokes about unpaid labour, about those who command and those who serve. Inappropriate jokes, meanly delivered, which he’d then soften with the promise of a pint later at the pub.

“You make an unlikely couple,” John said to me once. I asked him, unnecessarily, to elaborate. But he merely shrugged, shook his head and didn’t mention it again. 

The summer passed in warm routine, despite it all. The garden took on a civility perhaps not known in some two hundred years – perhaps never. Weeds in retreat, the reach of shrubbery checked, a perimeter now clearly enclosing a cropped lawn and the handsome rockery of Alpines marking its centre point. The nights closed in sooner. The tourist season ended. Those fleeing for warmer winter retreat did so. Those left behind eased out of their summer smiles as if casting off tight shoes. By November my husband was home almost constantly. No reason was given. I assumed he and his latest fling had come to grief. Phone calls were made and taken outside in the car and I wondered how stupid he thought me. Yet, still, I hoped they’d patch things up. The new routine was stifling.

The Falconer

It was a time of great unhappiness. Dark clouds occupied more of the sky’s expanse than could be dismissed as a passing mood. The sun seldom broke through long enough to be trusted and the wind’s relentless effort failed to blow away the gloom. I took comfort in long beach walks, the company of angry waves suiting my disposition far more than that of any human.

I lived in the grounds of a castle. In the exit lodge to be precise. A small Victorian addition, its humbleness moderately deflected by the turreted entrance and high-windowed façade. Bats rightly inhabited the turret, their young emerging and learning to fly in summer’s dusk, several falling foul of dark windows as they returned, aiming for the eaves but failing in their novice attempts. Inside was cramped: three original rooms with no corridor, and an ugly rectangle tagged on sometime in the sixties to house a kitchen and bathroom. I worked from a small study which doubled as a guest room, though there were rarely guests. It overlooked the rear where pheasants came to hide from the shoot, to breed in the tangle of unkempt rhododendron bushes. The garden was wild. I liked it that way.

In summer, coachloads of tourists would queue at closing time outside the lodge, waiting to exit the gates onto a perilous bend of the coastal road. They would peer in through the windows as though my home was part of the attraction, as if to get their money’s worth. An American couple on foot once stuck their heads into the open sash and proclaimed the living room cute. The castle was a part-time whore by modern necessity; open for public tours, available to hire for weddings and conferences, its laundry and stables converted into shop and café, grounds used for fêtes, markets and sporting events, its remaining forests harvested and prepared for sale in the on-site sawmill. The family lived in two or three private rooms with a scattering of inherited treasures and the stories of 800 years.

I did some freelance work for the Estate Manager – a bad-tempered man who wore tweed as an imperative and whose manner, as is perhaps often the case, far outstretched that of his employer in its pomposity. The Earl himself was charming, fascinating and never happier than when wandering his estate, mingling with staff and tenants. He saw us as family. We used first names. Once the gates closed in the evening, the castle and grounds were quiet, they were ours. There was a necessary camaraderie. It’s not easy watching strangers nose through your life.

His children were away at school much of the time. His wife was rarely there, a brief flash of silver Mercedes bumping too fast up the drive once or twice a month. She never stayed. Rumour said she’d run off with a female lover and spent most of her time in the city. In a small community this was entertainment. The Earl not only had to contend with a crumbling home invaded by ignorant cultural list-tickers, but also an unwanted public sympathy and mocking whispers behind his back. The dignity of generations and strain of preserving for the future drove and sustained him, I think. He was busy. He was cheerful.

John arrived on the estate the second spring I was there. He was hired as falconer, to perform for the public during open season and undertake labouring jobs in the winter months. He moved, with his unfeasibly large family, into the woodman’s cottage, tucked privately away in the forest out of sight of the visiting public. But though others envied him the location, with five stepchildren of varying ages and one young son there was little room within its walls to move, breathe or be heard and he spent most of his time outside tending to the birds or walking his dog.

We met – fortuitously at first, later by design – on the track up through the forest early evening, or along the pebbled beach in the morning, our dogs becoming friends and forcing a conversation which grew in breadth and depth until we followed suit.

Theoretically I did not live alone either. Yet as we moved beyond those early reluctant conversations – the dog talk, the weather, the tides – came a sense of needing to harness urgency, to temper all that clearly could be said, to adopt a false pace. We were equally starved and this unacknowledged truth enveloped every word.

“I come down here sometimes at night,” he said, kicking pebbles with a dusty working boot as we walked along the beach. “Sit in the dark over there on the wall, listen to the waves. Try to guess where the waterline is, whether it’s coming or going. You can tell, it sounds different. Retreating tides are best.”

He was strong and adaptable. He fixed things, made things, his hands scarred by capability. He worked hard in all weathers, whistling unrecognisable tunes and never once did I hear him complain about cold, wet or heat. I liked arriving unseen when he was busy with the birds, or erecting yet another section of aviary, or digging up belligerent weeds to create a patch of ground for low perches. I’d watch until he sensed I was there, or his wife came out of the house with a cup of tea and called a cheery greeting, breaking the silent contemplation.

She became less enamoured of my visits over time. Stopped sitting outside with us on summer evenings, drinking wine or beer, smoking and talking. She found the conversation too speculative, thought we talked too much, that any talking was too much. She went inside to watch television with the kids and eventually I stopped calling round. Eventually I moved away.

I’m forever drawn to the poets. Those who present a front of strength but who harbour inside a melancholy will; a wistful philosophy; an ability to dream. These moments are the paths seen but not taken. They are the unexplored chances, the ‘what-ifs’ upon which our present is judged, our future formed. These moments become the basis of most regret.

The poetry of pastry…

I attract old men. Specifically, I attract vagrants and those for whom vagrancy is but one misplaced step away. I don’t know why this is so, but can guarantee if I am alone and within 20 feet of such a man he will soon gravitate in my direction and strike up a conversation.

I’ve never yet met one of these disparate souls who didn’t fascinate and bring something to my day – my life even – that would otherwise not have existed.

This morning I’m sitting outside my favourite café in The Square. It’s market day – the usual stalls selling interesting cheeses, organic meat, cakes, local honey and the delicious smell of Gloucester Old Spot hog roast. It’s wonderfully busy, a perfect people-watching day and I, with coffee and pastry to hand, am observing the crowd and penning a poem.

The rough-looking chap in the picture shuffles into my line of vision. He watches me for a few seconds and I just know he’s going to talk. He points to one of the market stalls, have you tried any of those cheeses?

I tell him no, I haven’t, but am sure they’re lovely.

I know food, he says, I’m a chef.

I don’t believe he’s a chef, of course. He’s grubby, unshaven, smells strongly of whiskey and is carrying a small bag in which I assume there’s a bottle. But I smile and pass comment on how much I also love cheese and we chat for a minute or two about port with stilton and suchlike.

What are you doing? He asks, pointing at my notepad.

I tell him I’m writing a poem.

Ah, a writer, eh? What do you think I do? He grins. He has few teeth.

You’re a chef, I tell him.

How did you know that?

He’s genuinely amazed. I laugh and tell him I’m observant. I tell him it’s obvious.

Shift your bag, he says, pointing towards the neighbouring chair, I want to sit, have a chat.

And so we sit and he talks. He’s an absolute gentleman, quietly spoken and full of charm. He tells me specifically he’s a pastry chef and, as he describes the skill of creating light filo pastry, how to raise the perfect pork pie, and runs briefly through the various hotels in which he trained and worked, his conversation scattered with beautifully pronounced French, I realise how wrong I was. Tony is, indeed, a pastry chef.

Periodically he lifts his little bag and takes a not-so-surreptitious mouthful of whiskey from the bottle. He gives me a recipe for parsnip wine and insists I write it down. He moves onto his life situation – his dead son, his absent wife and daughter, the collusion of life events that led this Swiss-trained pastry chef to a dead-beat hotel kitchen and dubious but comfortable relationship with its landlady. 

He tells me he writes poems to his dead son.

He pauses. We sit quietly smoking for a few minutes.

Well, that’s it. That’s my life story.

And then he cheers up and tells me he has some racing tips. No, no, I say, I have to keep away from the horses, I have an inner gambler who must be constrained. But he insists. Good tips, he tells me, I’ll win a lot of money.

And when you do, he says with a wink as I get up to leave, we’ll elope.

Can’t say I’ve had a better offer this week. 

Clucking Mad…

My kids’ school currently has an initiative running to encourage children to arrive on time.

This involves a giant chicken parading the playground and shaking the hand of the early-bird kids.

Quite why children should be motivated by the chance of being accosted by an unconvincing oversized Sunday lunch is beyond me.

And it’s beyond my kids too.

In fact, it falls into some mysterious spot between ludicrous and sinister to see a grown man, shivering in a chicken costume as he struts around a primary school playground, shaking hand/wing and posing for photoshoots.

And it’s had the reverse effect for us. We live directly across the road from the school and so my girls have the advantage of being able to look out of the window, wait until the chicken is otherwise occupied, and then quickly – just before school bell – rush over and slip in the school gates without it seeing them.

“I think it’s only going to be here another couple of weeks,” Jess said this morning. “Thank goodness…”

The Seven Selves

In the stillest hour of the night, as I lay half asleep, my seven selves sat together and thus conversed in whisper:

First Self: Here, in this madman, I have dwelt all these years, with naught to do but renew his pain by day and recreate his sorrow by night. I can bear my fate no longer, and now I rebel.

Second Self: Yours is a better lot than mine, brother, for it is given to me to be this madman’s joyous self. I laugh his laughter and sing his happy hours, and with thrice winged feet I dance his brighter thoughts. It is I that would rebel against my weary existence.

Third Self: And what of me, the love-ridden self, the flaming brand of wild passion and fantastic desires? It is I the love-sick self who would rebel against this madman.

Fourth Self: I, amongst you all, am the most miserable, for naught was given me but odious hatred and destructive loathing. It is I, the tempest-like self, the one born in the black caves of Hell, who would protest against serving this madman.

Fifth Self: Nay, it is I, the thinking self, the fanciful self, the self of hunger and thirst, the one doomed to wander without rest in search of unknown things and things not yet created; it is I, not you, who would rebel. 

Sixth Self: And I, the working self, the pitiful labourer, who, with patient hands, and longing eyes, fashion the days into images and give the formless elements new and eternal forms–it is I, the solitary one, who would rebel against this restless madman.

Seventh Self: How strange that you all would rebel against this man, because each and every one of you has a preordained fate to fulfill. Ah! could I but be like one of you, a self with a determined lot! But I have none, I am the do-nothing self, the one who sits in the dumb, empty nowhere and nowhen, while you are busy re-creating life. Is it you or I, neighbours, who should rebel?

When the seventh self thus spake the other six selves looked with pity upon him but said nothing more; and as the night grew deeper one after the other went to sleep enfolded with a new and happy submission.

But the seventh self remained watching and gazing at nothingness, which is behind all things.

~ Kahlil Gibran, The Seven Selves, from The Madman

My Friend

My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear – a care-woven garment that protects me from thy questionings and thee from my negligence.

The “I” in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, and therein it shall remain for ever more, unperceived, unapproachable.

I would not have thee believe in what I say nor trust in what I do – for my words are naught but thy own thoughts in sound and my deeds thy own hopes in action.

When thou sayest, “The wind bloweth eastward”, I say, “Aye it doth blow eastward”; for I would not have thee know that my mind doth not dwell upon the wind but upon the sea.

Thou canst not understand my seafaring thoughts, nor would I have thee understand. I would be at sea alone.

When it is day with thee, my friend, it is night with me; yet even then I speak of the noontide that dances upon the hills and of the purple shadow that steals its way across the valley; for thou canst not hear the songs of my darkness nor see my wings beating against the stars – and I fain would not have thee hear or see. I would be with night alone.

When thou ascendest to thy Heaven I descend to my Hell – even then thou callest to me across the unbridgeable gulf, “My companion, my comrade”, and I call back to thee, “My comrade, my companion” – for I would not have thee see my Hell. The flame would burn thy eyesight and the smoke would crowd thy nostrils. And I love my Hell too well to have thee visit it. I would be in Hell alone.

Thou lovest Truth and Beauty and Righteousness; and I for thy sake say it is well and seemly to love these things. But in my heart I laugh at thy love. Yet I would not have thee see my laughter. I would laugh alone.

My friend, thou art good and cautious and wise; nay, thou art perfect – and I, too, speak with thee wisely and cautiously. And yet I am mad. But I mask my madness. I would be mad alone.

My friend, thou art not my friend, but how shall I make thee understand? My path is not thy path, yet together we walk, hand in hand.

~ Kahlil Gibran, My Friend, from The Madman