The Arsonist’s Demise


National Short Story Week is coming to a close, and with it all my good intentions to do some writing in honour of the event.  Having a house full of builders isn’t conducive to creativity, even when they are charming, careful and considerate, which they are.

I did however make it to Spread the Word’s Genre writing day Guilty Pleasures last Saturday. This was enormous fun, and had I not put my notebook down somewhere I no longer recall, I would now be blogging in more detail about the event… it’s probably under a dust sheet somewhere, so the introduction of my new character, Peggy Marsh will have to wait until the builders go and I unearth her.  (and at some point I might blog about the importance of stationery to the writing process – or not!) Peggy resulted from an excellent workshop on Historical Fiction run by Imogen Robertson.  Imogen supplied us with packs of source material – letters, diaries, pictures from a century we were not already researching, and asked us to come up with a character study.  I didn’t read them very carefully, a flick through was enough – Hogarth’s painting of his servants, Mary Granville recommending boiled snails for a cough, a passing reference to Dr Johnson, a snapshot atmosphere from the lighting of one of the paintings and the cacophony outside the musicians window in one of Hogarth’s prints; my own knowledge of Hogarth’s connections with Captain Coram’s Foundling Hospital (a place chock full of stories) … and it worked, but I can’t find it, so that’s for another day.

John Cooper of Bratton

In the spirit of that exercise however, another genealogy letter. This one stems from a memoir written by my partner’s great-great aunt Sarah, about her grandfather, John Cooper, who was a Baptist preacher in the southwest, and for a time kept a school, which ended in disaster.  Sarah was something of a fantasist (her version of the family tree goes in an unbroken line to William the Conqueror, skipping three generations where she  had nothing to rely on) but Cooper was a genuinely fascinating character who married three times and had nineteen children; more happened in his life than he can possibly have deserved, and one of these days, I will write a doorstop sized family saga about him and his prodigious family.

So this ‘letter’ is written by John Cooper after the second time his school has burnt down, and the culprit has been apprehended.  I image him, sitting at the desk where he later wrote sermons, writing and re-writing this letter, aware that he has very little time, but must  get the tone and the wording absolutely right, to mitigate the shock and distress of his message.

The Arsonist’s Demise

To await R- S- Esq., at the Bear Hotel, Devizes.

For his immediate and private attention.

Bratton, Wilts

23rd Sept. 1789

Sir –

I beg you forgive me, I write in haste, being unable to bring you this terrible news in person, and concerned that you receive it away from the public regard.  I wish I need not add to your already grievous woes, but I fear I must.

Sir, your Son is no more.

Being taken before the magistrate and committed to Devizes Prison upon his confefsion, he begged me to visit him in that dreary spot, with which, as his Friend, and ‘In Loco Parentis’, I complied most willingly, and lent him my kerchief against the chill in that place.  To my great horror and regret I find myself the unwitting instrument of his demise.  The child has strangled himself with the self-same kerchief, lent him, so I believed, as a comforter.

Whilst my distrefs cannot be compared to that of a grieving parent, nor to the anguish of the boy himself, believe me Sir, quite overcome at this dreadful turn of events.  Although through your Son’s actions, I and Mr Williams are now quite without resource, and indeed Mr Williams and family without domicile, the child was dear to us both.  I wish we had understood his wretchednefs sooner.

I pray for you and your wife, and for the poor boy’s unhappy Soul.

Yours, Sir, in any service I may do you.

J o. Cooper

more genealogy letters here The Imposter and One Finger Typing

copyright Cherry Potts 2010

Why Homer?


I do not speak or read Greek, I have never been to Greece, but I have grown up with, and still read retellings of the 2,500 year old story of the Trojan War.

cover image for The Trojan Horse James Reeves & Krystyna Turska
The Trojan Horse by James Reeves, my first introduction to Homer

From a picture book given me for Christmas when I was five, right through the Adele Geras’ excellent Troy, the Iliad has been lurking in my reading background.   I guess the hundreds of writers and their thousands of readers who have been drawn to the complexities of political alliances and blood feuds, Gods and demigods, heroes and slaves and horses can’t all be lemming-like in their shared enthusiasm.

I got round to reading an actual translation of the Iliad in the late 1980’s: the Penguin Classic translation by Martin Hammond.  And I was hooked all over again.

What is the attraction?

The basic story is … I was going to say ‘is fairly straightforward’, but it really isn’t (clears throat) … the basic story is possible to boil down to the essentials:

Goddesses argue, Paris Judges, Aphrodite wins: Paris steals Helen from Menelaus, Menelaus calls in a lot of favours, and most of the rulers of the Greek kingdoms set out to Troy to win her back.  Ten years of war follow, lots of gods interfere, many more people die; Odysseus tricks the Trojans into letting the army in by hiding inside a giant wooden horse, Troy burns to the ground, the end.

The language is often ritualistic and repetitive, the detail ruthless and frequently cold; But every character has a name, and sometimes we are told the names of their father and mother too, as though this was actually history; and in each death told (in forensic detail), a minor character has their moment in the spotlight.  It really ought to be tedious, it really ought to disgust, but I find it hypnotic, and having had the story interpreted so many different ways by so many different people over the years it was interesting to read something approximating the original (and I do not generally like translations.)

Putting aside the literary merit of the translation (and this one suited me, unlike a translation of the Odyssey which was not at all to my taste) I liked that sides are not taken by Homer (whoever he was/they were).  Although simplistically I could take the Greeks as the ‘heroes’ because they win, the Trojans get equal billing in both sympathy and praise.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much the women have to say, and found myself wondering what it would be like to be Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world (Behind the Mask), or Cassandra, the Prophet no one will listen to (The Horses of Troy), or Briseïs, the slave who is the cause of the fatal rift between Achilles and Agamemnon (The Owl’s Handmaiden); and, moving on to The Odyssey, Penelope, waiting twenty years for her husband to come home (Penelope Is No Longer Waiting)

 

ancient greek painting of 2 women
I find myself wondering what it would be like ...

Recently I discovered Christopher Logue’s War Music and its sequels, All Day Permanent Red and Cold Calls, an interpretation of most (sadly, not yet all) of the Iliad, and got re-enthused all over again by his cool clean incisive poetry.  This is when I remember what poetry can do in a few lines, which would take a paragraph in prose.

‘Fast as you are,’ Achilles says,

When twilight makes the armistice,

Take care you don’t leave me behind

As you left my Patroclus.’

And as it ran the white horse turned its tall face back

And said:

‘Prince,

This time we will, this time we can, but this time cannot last.

And when we leave you, not for dead, but dead,

God will not call us negligent as you have done.’

And Achilles, shaken, says:

‘I know I will not make old bones.’

And laid his scourge against the racing flanks.

Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.

The beauty of this writing brings on a fit of dissatisfaction with my own work…

And, shaken,

…I go back to my story of the slave girl, and re-write it, paring away explanation and observation, until little remains but her voice as she whispers her fears to her gods.

This is perhaps why Homer allows for so many reinterpretations, there is so much space to fill; so many characters just glanced at in passing, who can be fleshed out.

The story has such strong bones that it is safe to embroider and imagine whatever you please, without denting it or pulling it out of true.

copyright Cherry Potts 2010

One Finger Typing


Family history has a bit of a geeky image, and I won’t pretend it doesn’t have its fair share of anoraks, but it is also a deep and rich mine for good stories.  I first got interested when my partner’s father died and we came across his genealogy research, which infuriated me because it only followed the male line, and had no dates on it.  The family tree was kept in a heavy metal cash box, known in the family as the ‘broody box’, because Tim was very proud of his family, an enthusiasm not shared by his wife Jane.  Also in the box were lots of documents and photographs all carefully annotated, which captured my attention, and I have spent an awful lot of time exploring various family lines, in Both A’s family and mine.  Hers are easier as they had a tendency to use the mother’s maiden name as a middle name, and to have more unusual surnames.  There have been numerous fascinating true stories, and intriguing dead ends that lead us to develop complex fantasies, which I have developed into a series of imagined letters.

This one, One Finger Typing, is absolutely true.

My Grandfather

My Grandfather served in the Royal Artillery in Egypt during the war, and my grandmother got the war office telegram, swiftly followed by a typed letter, this is what I imagine it said:

dearest girl

they may tell you i am dead. im not. i got  roughed up in an accident and ive been out of it for a few days. live but not exactly kicking. don’t worry i will be ok.  borrowed this typewriter from a nurse. sorry for not writing properly but only one finger works. who would think with shells going up all round me id cop it from a loose electric cable. hope they didnt scare you love. hospital here is v good so wont be shipped home worse luck. doc says i was v lucky ken had his head screwed on and knew what to do. i say unlucky ken left the damn thing like that in the first place. nurse wants her typewriter back. ill write when i can.

kisses all round for my girls especially you.

len

More Genealogy letters here The Arsonist’s Demise and The Imposter

Copyright Cherry Potts 2010

Five Films in Eight Days


Okay, I admit it, I’m a Cinema Enthusiast, a Film Buff, a Movie Geek … choose your epiphet; I’m one of those people who stay to watch the credits and not just for the Pixar ‘out-takes’.

And if you are wondering why I’m going on about films skip to the final paragraph and find out.

Until recently there’s been a bit of a film famine, nothing I wanted to see, no time to see it, or a lack of energy/determination to get to the cinema- unless we take the car, our nearest cinema is two bus journeys away.

Then we hit on the wheeze of combining our weekly trip to our local farmer’s market  with our cinema fix.  We can park for free, then take a virtuous mile and a bit walk across the heath and Greenwich Park clutching something to eat bought from the market or Handmade Foods, then go to the lunchtime showing at the Picturehouse which is cheap and somehow magnificently decadent, especially on a sunny day.

This worked very well for a few weeks, and then half term rolled up and all these lovely films…

It really takes discipline and planning to see a lot of films in the same week.

1st Sunday Lunchtime: The Social Network *

The True Story of the founding of Facebook.

Oh dear.  When I saw the trailer for this I thought that looks boring, but then I discovered it was scripted by Aaron Sorkin, whose work on West Wing I adore, so we gave it a go.

NO, no, no!  This was more Studio 60 than West Wing and even Mr S. could do very little with the basic premise, or make me care one bit for any of the characters. Possibly the fear of lawsuits stopped them from the flights of fancy this needed to raise it from its yesterday’s-cold-pizza-for-breakfast mentality.  It was at times funny, but I was really resenting not being out in the sun for this one.

Tuesday evening: Mary and Max ***

The True Story of the long-distance friendship between a lonely child and an autistic man.

Give me animation and I’m happy ferret.  M&M is clay-mation in near monochrome and looked lovely, the story was excellent (if a little long winded) and the vocal acting terrific.  I did however find the narration (by Barry Humphries) a little annoying.  It wouldn’t have hurt to have less of it, the pictures were doing fine, although I did enjoy “Max had no desire to kill the mime artist … unlike most other people” the timing was spot on.

Wednesday evening: Africa United ****

A group of children set out to get to the World Cup and end up walking across half of Africa.

This was the highlight of the week.  I have no interest in football, and I don’t like to be harrowed, (I go to the movies for entertainment), so this tale of child soldiers, Aids and sexual exploitation wasn’t  going to be an obvious hit with me.  However, the child actors are charming and engaging without straying into saccharine(and they can ACT, not something you’d hold against every child that ends up on screen) the script is by turns dramatic and hilarious, and the characterisation convincing.  And there was some unexpected animation for fantasy sequences, which sounds as though its weird or trite, but actually held the story together.  It doesn’t get 5 stars because it managed to be short on tension – there was never any question they’d get there – and the would-be twist at the end wasn’t quite convincing.

Thursday evening: Despicable Me ***1/2

Dastardly villain teetering on the brink of being a has-been plans daring heist but is foiled by a group of cute orphans… yes… sounds a bit Scooby-doo doesn’t it?

More animation, happy, happy me.  A close runner for hit of the week.  The visual jokes were wonderful and I really liked the idea of villains behaving like small businesses, going cap in hand to the Bank of Evil “formerly Lehmann Brothers” for a loan to get the equipment to steal… well if you haven’t seen it, I won’t tell you what Grue wants to steal.

The little yellow hench…men? henchies?  are cute, and I deeply enjoyed Grue knowing every single one of them by name, like some earnest boss of an international uber-firm doing his absolute best to be down with the workers.  The way the children foil Grue’s plans is not what I had anticipated from the trailers, but the plot is rather obvious so only 4 stars, and saccharine creeps in, so it loses another half a point there.

Oh, but a big plus was Julie Andrews voicing Grue’s mother, deeply unimpressed by her son’s attempts at skulduggery.  She’s brilliant.

2nd Sunday lunchtime: The Kids are Alright ***

Yea!  A Lesbian Movie!  Julianne Moore and Annette Bening!  Women on screen not wearing makeup!  Hurrah!!

Um, no, I’m afraid not.

Whilst this is a thoughtful study of how a relationship can crumble under the pressure of an interloper; and it did, eventually, claw its way back from being ‘what lesbians need is to be screwed by the right man’, it’s a pity it felt the need to go there in the first place.

Both Moore and Bening are terrific, but Ruffalo’s blurry greeny-come-lately was so abundantly unattractive (oh I know, I would say that) that the idea of Moore’s character getting further than that initial embarrassing kiss (a kiss which was completely plausible) drew loud snorts of derision from me.

So despite the healthy matter-of-fact-ness of a realistic lesbian couple (at last! Although what was all that with the gay male porn?), and a realistic lesbian relationship (although don’t these women have any friends? And any lesbian friends even? Talk about isolated!) – if you haven’t seen it yet, wait for the video, so you can fast forward through the boring hetero-sex: the story loses nothing for missing it out.

Ok, why is there all this stuff about film on a blog that’s meant to be about writing?  Well, as with children, so stories.  It’s the old nature/ nurture thing.  I can’t help but be influenced by what I watch, be it in terms of cinematic editing style, particular visuals that stay with me, or sometimes speech patterns.   I find things surfacing in the oddest way, and I have to stay alert!  I have to check… is this just an influence or is it pastiche, cliché, or worse, plagiarism?  but I can’t write in a vacuum, so what’s next- Ah, Mike Leigh’s Another Year. That’s this week’s fix sorted then.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2010