What’s folk got to do with it?

Professor Metamorphosis Potts, author! copyright Cherry Potts 1996

I was brought up on a diet of Beatles, Blues and Ballads.

(I once had a cat who loved to be sung to, and the sadder the song the better: he was very partial to John Dowland, but his favourites were Bruton Town and Waly, Waly .  Morph used to scream in terror on the way to the vet’s, and if I sang either of these he would quieten down… possibly because he thought I was bonkers… anyway I made up a book for him,

From the Borders to the Blues, an anthology of sad songs;
by Professor Metamorphosis Potts.)

Where was I? Beatles Blues and Ballads.  I always liked a song with a story as a child, and make no bones about having no taste whatsoever, and no shame.  My favourite Beatles numbers were She’s leaving home, and Rocky Racoon, and I knew by heart the words of Seasons in the Sun , and Where Do you go to my Lovely, (which I didn’t realise was funny at the time) and many other turgid popular ballads of the sixties and early seventies.  I was saved from the plight of drowning in the syrup by folk music.

My very earliest musical memory is of my mum singing Love is Pleasing (a variant of Waly, Waly) and this memory found its way into my story Tante Rouge, where a busker plays Lord Gregory and sets Hannah thinking….   Mum claims to be tone deaf, but this isn’t true and she sings in tune too, but like me she can’t resist a story and is a lot more interested in the words than the music.

I think my dad must have had an Anne Briggs record because it is her version of Love is Pleasing that I learnt.  Dad also introduced me to Ewan McColl, Alec Glasgow and a great many other politically minded folkies. And to Muddy Waters, BB King, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday… I can remember causing a meltdown at my ‘stuff the ‘O’ levels’ party when I was 16, segueing from Donna Summer’s I Feel Love to Billie singing Willow Weep For Me… what a way to find out how tolerant your friends really are!  I did something similar at a leaving party when the fairly innocuous soundtrack suddenly dived into I’ll be glad when you’re dead you rascal, you… sung by Louis Armstrong, what a line.

My passion for folk continues, and I have threaded my way through generations of singers, The Copper Family, the Watersons, Shirley & Dolly Collins,  June Tabor, Kate Rusby, and I am currently following Jon Boden’s A Folk Song A Day online.

It was Our Captain cried all hands by Shirley and Dolly Collins, and in particular the lines:

“You courted me a while just to deceive me,
Now that you’ve gained my heart you mean to leave me.
For there’s no trust in men, not my own brother,
So girls if you would love, love one each other.”

that sparked my short story ‘The Ballad of Polly and Ann’

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Misty moisty morning

At risk of sounding like a weekending townie, I love the Limpley Stoke Valley. I even love the name.  My best girl, A, was born in Trowbridge and brought up in Bath and the surrounding area. Consequently I have native-by-proxy rights. Whenever A gets what she calls ‘roots problems’ we hie off to Bath or Avoncliff to stay with friends fortunate enough to live there.
There is something very close to perfection about walking before breakfast in receding mist on a frosty morning. The mud has the smallest suggestion of a frost crust, so that there is a faint crunch and rustle as we walk through the well trampled kissing gates alongside the river, and there is a rime like salt on the broad roots of the trees.

You can taste the air, and feel exactly how your lungs work with each breath.

riverside with willows

the rich yellow of new branches on the willows... copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Add in woodland with a haze of new growth all ready to burst into leaf, but waiting still, the first catkins, and the rich yellow of new branches on the willows, by a river which has only reduced marginally from full spate; add in bird song, and the shanty town of all-year-round narrow boats on the sedate curve of the canal aqueduct, high above the river like a nineteenth century version of a flyover; add in almond croissant still warm from the oven in the community shop in Freshford… all right, I do sound like a weekending townie.

Almost spring, almost breakfast; perfect morning.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

How do you do that?

At some point writers will always be asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ If I tried to answer that I would probably never finish, and consequently never write another story.  This post is in response to a different question that I have been asked- about the details that end up in my stories – how do you do that?  It is an attempt to replicate exactly the stream of (un?)consciousness that leads me to pick out the story from the detail, because for me it’s that way round, and the questions I answer for myself as I explore the possibilities.

I wake with an image:

An old woman on a train is thinking about cheese.

So I start thinking about cheese.

The cheese is something obscure, possibly Italian, from the mountains would be good.

So now the old woman might be Italian, and the cheese is in a basket on her knee and she is older than I first thought and her face is very lined and craggy, like the mountains, so that’s probably why.

And she is tiny and thin, but strong and implacable.  I can feel the strength of her arms as she grips the basket, and because I can feel how much effort it takes to keep the basket steady, I now know this about the basket: The basket is large and flat and heavy and covered in a white cloth that contrasts with the black of her apron (so she wears her apron on the train? This is either somewhere backward or it’s a while ago. Or is it a coat? What time of year is it?) It’s not plain black; there is a single-stitch-thick stripe to it in grey and another in dark red. Very good quality, strangely; it must be her best apron.

The sun is bright, reflecting off the cloth to light her face making the lines more obvious (or less?) and the light flickers with the movement of the train through banks of trees. Banks is the wrong word, I must check what I mean.

So, it’s sunny and goat cheese doesn’t happen much in winter (oh, it’s goat cheese, okay…) let’s say September then.  Heavy wool stockings. She’s been trying to keep the cheese cool, but she’s fallen asleep and not noticed the sun directly on the muslin and the cheese’s smell is beginning to rise into the trapped air of the rail carriage.

This is quite an old train, wooden seats. It rattles as it goes round a bend.  That’s the first sound I’ve been conscious of but now I’ve heard it I recognise it: I’ve been on this train, up in the Cevennes going through a plantation of bamboo of all things, but that doesn’t fit, I don’t want bamboo, or the Cevennes.  And who carries quantities of cheese in a basket by train these days? Probably still do in some places, but I really think this is Italy, so this might be pre-war, or during the war?

And if it is during the war, is Granny hiding something under the cheese? Is she allowing her ‘sleep’ to make a stench to discourage the wrong kind of attention? That goaty smell? The train isn’t crowded but there’s a murmur of voices. The other people in the carriage are: young woman, middle-aged woman with a child ten-ish, a boy? 2 soldiers, standing even though they don’t need to, casting a threatening shadow, armed.

Granny is wearing a black straw hat a bit like Mary Poppins, but no bird. Normally she’d wear a scarf, this is her ‘town’ hat it is 40 years out of date.

She must be boiling in all that black. Is the heat keeping her awake or sending her to sleep? I can’t keep calling her granny, she needs a name, something traditional in sense… Constanza maybe, but that’s too operatic.  Matilde.  Matilde sounds like someone who would rear goats and smuggle messages under her muslin cloth.

Where did I start? I woke with an image: an old woman on a train was thinking about cheese.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011