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.
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)
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
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…
…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.
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 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:
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.
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.
Dark & Stormy
A Halloween piece … Winter, spicy gingerbread, slavery and marriage to an insanely jealous man … another exercise from WOOA, sparked off by not having got around to submitting anything on the Dark & Stormy theme to Liars’ League, and for once I didn’t come up with a story.
I keep dark Muscavado sugar in a supposedly airtight jar. I bought that jar in the mid seventies from the Reject Shop in Tottenham Court Road. The jar is square and has a Victorian engraving of ladies in a teashop on one side, which is what attracted me to it, in a very seventies-Laura-Ashley sort of way, but practical- air-tight unbreakable. On the other side of the jar the picture is of child slaves cutting sugar cane.
I often think about throwing that jar away, I’m not comfortable with that image, and I’m not comfortable with my fourteen-year-old self who bought it. It isn’t that airtight either; when the weather is humid the sugar melds itself into a brick. But it stays on the shelf with equally disturbing coffee and tea caddies and every time I reach it down I am reminded of the true price of sugar.
Every time I make this kind of cake – not often these days, but still, when I do – I think of Demerara and Barbados and plantations, especially if the recipe requires rum.
And while I am trying to hack the gritty dark brown brick into manageable weighable pieces, for some reason I think of pale slender ships scudding across dark green waters, threatened by storm clouds the size of continents. Breaking the sugar-brick requires a heavy knife (though not as heavy as the machete the child-slave wields), a clean cloth, and a rolling pin. The knife is laid edge-to-sugar the cloth goes over, to prevent flying shards ricocheting about the kitchen, and the rolling pin is used to hit the back of the blade.
It makes me think:
Breaking rocks in the hot sun (and sometimes I sing it)
Oscar Wilde in Reading jail
a story from One Thousand and One Nights… in which a jealous sultan believes (wrongly) that his wife is unfaithful, and plans to murder her in her bed. She gets wind of his intentions and when he comes to cut off her head in the night, raising his scimitar and bringing it down on what he believes to be her neck, there is a crack and his mouth is suddenly filled with sweetness. He falls to his knees sobbing in repentance, and she steps from behind a curtain and reveals that the headless body in the bed is a sugar effigy.
I am usually melting sugar and butter and rum and ginger together at this point, and as I stir this thick warm liquid, that looks like tar and smells like Christmas and late summer in the same breath, I think about that woman, watching her husband trying to kill her.
How can she forgive him, how can she trust him? How can he bear to even look at her when she reveals the truth? I wonder if they ate the rest of that sugar wife.
I only make this cake between late September and Twelfth Night. It is a cake for Halloween and inky afternoons where the sky turns from cobalt through Prussian blue and only the blackbirds sing; a cake for eating with the lights on, and the fire lit; and whether the curtains are drawn or not, for rain against the window.
Cakes like this, they take time and thought.
They weigh heavy: occasionally on the stomach, but mostly in the mind. Dark and stormy: the smells of nutmeg and cardamom, cinnamon and mace, cloves and ginger, raise ghosts; but the first bite of still warm crumbling richness is the taste of distance and long journeys, of security, and of home.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2010
This is just a bit of nonsense, based on a writing exercise in which every word in a sentence must start with the same letter. Stops you using ‘the’ and ‘and’ and ‘I’ unless you are very clever, which I’m not… perhaps with a bit of practice!
Many Merry Mermaids
Many merry mermaids making mischief make mariners miserable.
We’ve been walking around the museum for over 2 hours and now, this is the masterpiece: this is IT.
The virgin sits with the child on her knee, and St. Catherine, with her sword and wheel tucked part beneath her skirt, kneels beside her. The child places a ring on Catherine’s finger, not yet past the second knuckle, and there is a look passing between them. The child, serious, loving, concerned, thoughtful; Catherine, wondering what does this mean? And holding her breath with foreknowledge that it is not going to end well.
The same woman has been the model for virgin and Catherine, and St Barbara (who has her head resolutely in her book, like me waiting for a plane- if I do not think about this, it will not happen) and Salome, flinching away from the gift of the Baptist’s head.
But it is the look on Catherine’s face that keeps me gazing, walking backwards to the clear plastic chair because I can’t stand longer, and gaze some more.
So if it is possible to listen to a picture, that is what I am doing, and it is as though I can hear the thoughts of Herr Memling, thinking about the spaces and colours and the directness of one gaze and the furtiveness of another, there is so much going on:
on one side the four horseman of the apocalypse prancing about in a puddly landscape of drying sea that reflects the rainbow of heaven; on the other, the sassy bum of the executioner, who fancies his chances with Salome, who has shown herself to be less than chaste with that dance.
In the centre Catherine, her heart in disarray, one cuff down and one up, wilting slightly at the enormity of it all, the pulse in her throat almost visible.
Glorious… The museum is closing.…
Next day we come back as soon as the museum opens, and sit and gaze some more. The museum guard keeps a watchful eye on us, wondering if we are planning a heist. We sit for two hours almost speechless, pointing out details to each other with upraised hand and incoherent sub-vocal murmur, feeling as the medieval viewer of this picture must have felt, awed and silenced.
This is the silence of wonder, mine at Memling’s art, his at his creator, Catherine’s at fate.
I told stories before I could write. I mean proper stories, not fibs. My Mum is a writer and she told us stories every night to get us to go to sleep, she usually had characters who were a bit grumpy, I have vivid memories of lying in the lower bunk aged 3 or 4, staring up at the slump made by my older sister as Mum told us ‘The VERY Cross King’ which was a particular favourite; another was ‘The Old Woman From Friuli’ and I think her style rubbed off on me.
By the time I was six I was telling my younger sister stories, heavily influenced by Cinderella and ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ and ‘Flashing Blades’ which were on television at the time. I recall having very rigid and Teutonic ideas of beauty: (very) long blonde hair, blue eyes, and red lips. It didn’t bother me in the slightest that I didn’t conform to this stereotype, although I can remember thinking a friend’s mother the picture of perfection… it is only now I recall the immense height of her peroxide beehive – which she covered with a chiffon scarf that barely met under her chin – Marge Simpson would have been proud of that barnet.
The tales I told were pretty blood bolted and full of danger; I was always more in favour of the Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Andersen, who (once I could read) I rejected as prissy.
And once I could read, I was a happy devourer of re-tellings of the Thousand and One Nights, Greek and Norse myth, and all kinds of British and European folk tales, especially the French and Russian ones.
Our local library had a good collection in the literature studies section, it might even have been a series, and I got these out again and again, although they were from the adult shelves and my junior ticket didn’t entitle me to them. The Librarians indulged me, and so did my primary school teacher, Miss Woodward, who lent me her own books to feed my voracious appetite.
I have affectionate memories of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Greek and Egyptian re-tellings, William Mayne’s Book of Heroes and Andrew Lang’s Blue, Yellow etc. fairy books, one of which I recall colouring in the illustrations without realising it was a library book. In my defence I had mumps at the time and wasn’t thinking very straight.
But … so many of these books I remember reading with a kind of transfixed horror, not for the gore (I’m a sucker for a werewolf) but for the matter-of-fact-ness and inevitability of the way things go wrong. I read the Mabinogion when I was ten, and had nightmares for weeks. There are an awful lot of severed heads that go on talking in folk tales if you stop to count them, and some of them aren’t even people.
I suspect that if I were to read them again now I would find these stories tedious or disturbing, but they were a great grounding in story telling.
I wrote my first fairy story when I was six or seven, I think. It was called ‘The Prince, the Princess and the Goatherd.’ I don’t know why the Prince got top billing as he had very little to do or say but the rhythm of the title wouldn’t be nearly so good if it was a different order.
It went (minus the grammar) something like this.
Once upon a time there was a very pretty Princess (by which I meant blond blue-eyed and red-lipped of course) who lived in a castle with the Queen and the King.
The King was very cross all the time, (homage to Mum’s V.C.K) and didn’t like the Princess.
The Princess had a friend who was a Prince and she wanted to marry him (actually I’m not sure she did, but there was something going on with them, and she was a bossy young madam who liked to get her way.)
So the Princess told the Queen. And the Queen said
“Oh dear! The King isn’t going to like that at all. I think you two had better run away.” So the Princess packed her suitcase (it was a small brown cardboard one, with a lovely striped paper lining and a plastic handle, and I kept my doll’s clothes in it) and said to the Prince
“Come on, we are running away.”
And they did.
Not long after they had started to run away they met a goatherd.
“Hello goatherd,” said the Princess.
“Hello you two, where are you running off to?” Said the goatherd
“We are running away,” said the Princess.
“Quite right too,” said the goatherd.
So the Prince and Prince went on their way and soon they came to a river without a bridge. (Not a big river, they could probably have jumped it but they were much too genteelly brought up for that to occur to them.)
“Oh dear” said the Princess (although it might have been the Prince, I’m sure he had an opportunity to speak once in a while) “how will we get across?”
“I will help you,” said the goatherd.
“Where did you come from?” Said the Princess.
“I was following you, I knew you would need help.” Said the goatherd. And (got them over the river somehow. Can’t remember, maybe the goats carried them, or he just ‘Magicked’ them over, my memory fails me).
“Thank you goatherd,” said the Prince and Princess and went on their way.
By now they were quite hungry, but it was all right because they were just coming up to the Princess’ uncle’s house. (I remember this house vividly, it was a lighthouse keeper’s cottage with whitewashed walls and a thick waist height whitewashed wall around the garden, with wallflowers and aubrietia growing in the top. It was set on a low cliff and surrounded by neat green turf. I can’t think where I had seen this house or a picture of it, but that’s what it was. Interestingly there was no lighthouse. My partner says this is a ‘Topsy & Tim’ house, she may be right.)
The Princess’ nasty uncle was in his garden pruning his roses (I think he must have been based on a neighbour)
“Well hello, you two,” said P.N.U, “where are you two running off to?”
“We’re running away,” said the Princess.
“Well you must stop for tea,” said the P.N.U.
“Thank you,” said the Princess “we are very hungry,” and they went in and sat down for buns and squash. (I’m sure I thought about poisoning them at this point, but I restrained myself).
As soon as they were inside the P.N.U slammed the door and locked them in. Then he rushed off to tell the King where the Princess was. He was a very nasty uncle.
As soon as the P.N.U. had gone, there was a knock on the door.
“I’m very sorry,” said the Princess, “I can’t let you in, the door is locked.”
“That’s alright,” said the goatherd, “I have the key,” and he let them out.
“How lucky you came along,” said the Prince.
“Just passing,” said the goatherd.
Just then they saw the P.N.U. and the King running along towards them.
“You two had better run off,” said the goatherd so they did.
By now they were very tired.
“I’m tired,” said the Princess.
“So am I” said the Prince “Shall we go home?”
“Yes let’s,” said the Princess, “but the King will be very cross.”
But they went home anyway.
“Hello you two,” said the Queen, “where did you two run off to?”
So the Princess told her all about the goatherd and the river and the nasty uncle.
“Oh, the goatherd isn’t really a goatherd,” said the Queen, “that was your other uncle, he’s a very clever magician. I sent him to keep an eye on you. Well, I think you should go to bed very quickly, and by the time the King wakes up in the morning I’m sure he will have forgotten all about it.”
So the Princess went to bed, and in the morning, the King was very cross, but not with her.
(Some poetic licence here, I can’t remember how it ended!)
There were many other fairy tales, but I don’t recall them. My mum uncovered the original manuscript of this one shortly after my first collection was published and sent a typed up version to me as my Christmas card. I have since lost it and I don’t know if she still has the manuscript. I recall she said the final sentence was unintelligible, my handwriting has never been good, something to do with the effort of keeping up with the speed of thought.
So reflecting on this first effort, what I notice is that I have picked up on the plot twist of the mysterious and apparently humble stranger who is actually someone entirely different from whom they seem to be, the antagonism between the family members, the journey, and the use of repetition both in words and homonyms, much loved by the traditional story tellers. There’s even an overlay of The Billy Goats Gruff with the (lack of) bridge and the goats, although they are invisible throughout.
And I didn’t stop there.
My partner mishearing me sparked my first ‘adult’ story, I was talking about an author Sheila Ortiz Taylor, and she heard this as ‘The She-lord and her Tailor.’ A couple of hours later I had the beginnings of a retelling of the emperor’s new clothes, with a murderous cat as the She-lord in the Emperor role.
My first published story (In ‘In and Out of Time’ Onlywomen Press 1986) was a retelling of the end of the Odyssey, called ‘Penelope is no longer waiting’, in which Odysseus does not get the welcome he expects.
Twenty years later The She-lord finally got published in ‘Tales Told Before Cockcrow – fairytales for adults’ (Onlywomen Press 2008) my collection of stories inspired by the fairytale tradition. Each story is a retelling of a traditional tale or is told in the style of a fairy tale.
I draw on Eurydice, Tithonos, Pandora, Sleeping Beauty, Rip Van Winkle, Snow White, The Red Shoes, the emperors new clothes, Arthurian Myth, the Mabinogion, Homer, the bible and many other folk tales and indeed folk songs of eerie landscapes, cold clay and strange destinies that I took in with my mother’s milk, almost literally.
So have I done with fairytales? Well, no, I think probably not.
Being a precocious reader meant that I was exploring my parent’s bookshelves at a very early age, and initially got the impression that all adult fiction was crime and thrillers. Then I read Peter S Beagle’s‘The Last Unicorn’, and with relief discovered that I was going to be able to read fairy tales for the rest of my life. Twelve was undoubtedly too young for this book, I didn’t realise it was funny until I re-read it at about the age of thirty.
So I’ve just finished writing a Lesbian Fantasy Epic in which that impassable river re-occurs, this time with tragic consequences, unlike that little trickle that a goat could jump.
So is this the magic of fairy tales? That they grow with you and can be turned to any use you care to put them?
Or are they the apparently humble stranger who turns up when they are needed, and is not who they seem to be?