Writing the Past: The Bog Mermaid

Video from the Arachne Press Writing the Past event for Hither Green Festival 2019 at Manor House Library.

An extract from the 1926 thread of this as yet unfinished novel(la) – first draft almost done.


The Historical Birthday-Tea Party 7th January

No-one is owning up to being born on 7th January, so another ‘who knows?’ And because it’s wild weather I thought we’d go for a pirate.

Mary Read, PirateMary Read. Cross-dressing lover of Anne Bonny, and several men, a proper swashbuckler, served in the King’s army, ran a pub and later became a pirate, but no one really knows when she was born, around 1690 is a best guess. She died of a fever in prison in April 1721.

Most of what is written about her is hokum, although she is unquestionably a real person. Since there is so much hokum, you may as well have mine – this is how she appears in my Rotherhithe based short story ‘A Place of Departures’, in Stations – and it’s as true as the next version.

Mary Read dresses as a man, smokes and swears. She used to call herself by her dead brother’s name, used to fight for ‘Kinge and Countrie’ all round Europe.  But peace and boredom intervene, and at last the death of her man nags her into returning to sea.
The relief of britches and a salt wind, she confides to her shipmate, as they rest between battles, no longer on the side of the King.  And the shipmate plants a kiss on her lips, and pulls Mary’s hand within his jerkin to feel the soft curve of a womanly breast. Ann Bonney claims that she had no idea Mary was a woman the first time she kissed her.
My eye, Mary declares, lighting her long clay pipe.
But despite that kiss and fumble and perhaps more that neither will admit to, Mary escapes the hangman’s noose by dying of a child-bed fever before they have a chance to string her up.

So happy un-birthday, Mary, and I’ll raise a glass of rum, if that’s not too predictable.

Early Music part 2

Early music is a passion I share with my partner A, and a chance discovery led to the inspiration for an historical novel, The Cold Time.

Sometime in 1993 , arriving early for a film at the Odeon at Marble Arch, we headed into HMV to browse, and I picked up a new release in the early music section:  Sinfonye’s the sweet look and loving manner.

Dire title, I thought, lovely cover– a medieval painting of two women in a garden. Look like lesbians I thought, turning over the CD to discover that what I had was recordings of very rare songs, written by women in 12th and 13th century Languedoc.  I couldn’t resist, I bought it, loved it, confirmed that one of the songs was indeed written by a woman for a woman; and I was off- research, research, research!

I found The Women Troubadours a book of transcripts of the songs with English translations and brief biographies by Meg Bogin. There was sufficiently little real information to leave plenty for my imagination to fill in.  I found all the songs interesting and full of personality, and apart from the song that started it all of, Domna Maria written by Beiris de Romans, I found my title in a song by Azalais de Porcaraiges (Portiragnes 5m east of Béziers) which follows the traditional troubadour motif of using the seasons and weather as a metaphor for her love life:

Ar em al freg temps vengut
quel gels el neus e la faingna
e.l aucellet estan mut
c’us de chantar non s’afraingna
-e son sec li ram pels plais-
que flors ni foilla noi nais
ni rossignols noi crida
que l’am e mai me reissida.

Now we are come to the cold time
of ice and snow and mud
and all the birds are mute
for not one inclines to sing;
and the hedge-branches are dry
no leaf nor bud springs up,
nor calls the nightingale
who woke me once in May.

before going into a strange litany of (apparently) places she’s saying goodbye to because she will never see her lover any more.

To God I commend Bel Esgar
and the City of Orange
and Gloriet’ and the Caslar
and the lord of all Provence
and all those who wish me well
and the arch where the attacks are shown.
I’ve lost the man who owns my life,
and I shall never be consoled.

Roman triumphal arch, Orange, Provence

The references are obscure, but I think, from having visited Orange, and researched (oh the research) architectural terms, that it is her lover, Raimbault d’Aurenga’s home she is referring to: Gloriet is a term used for a tower, and the arch with the attacks is a Roman triumphal arch which at the time she was writing was effectively Raimbaut’s front door.  These days it is marooned on a traffic island on the ring road with heavy trucks pounding past.  I love this vignette of loneliness,  it is all the more challenging to realise that what seems to be a complaint against the medieval equivalent of not returning her calls, may actually be in response to Raimbaut’s death.

As I researched further I discovered there was overlap with the Cathars in terms of time and territory, and loosely at least in politics and got some interesting responses when I discussed my research with friends and family.

A lot of nonsense is talked about the Cathars, and as an atheist I have to make a bit of effort to relate to it all, but I was quite shocked by how ruthlessly the Cathars were treated; I remember mentioning this to my mum, whose response was ‘they’d all be dead by now anyway’ and a friend, who got cross and seemed to think that being distressed by people being tortured and burnt alive put me in some ‘anti catholic’ bracket, which hadn’t even occurred to me:  I had been thinking of the crusade as a land grab by the French, rather than anything motivated by genuine religious feeling of any kind. Once she had raised it, of course, the whole religious angle became more of a motif in my research.

So, more research; too much research. I have an entire bookcase of ‘essential’ reading that I shall probably never finish, obscure books about Jewish ghettos in Provence in the thirteenth century, articles on littoral erosion …  books on attitudes to death, building techniques, farming practices, the position of women and the persecution of heretics, more than half of them are in French.

I had lessons to refresh my French (not a lot of use with a medieval vocabulary- you would not credit how long it took me to cotton on to Terre Sante meaning the Holy Land and Outremer overseas, nor the likelihood of coming across témoin (witness) and blessé (wounded) during your average French class) I now own an enormous French dictionary which is too heavy to lift, as well as smaller Provençal, Latin and Spanish dictionaries, just in case!

We spent a total of five weeks over a two-year period touring Cathar castles and hilltop villages, abbeys, rivers, pilgrim spots, mountains, graveyards, springs and ruins. The biggest realisation I made (apart from how much further apart everything was than I had expected) was that part of the reason the Albigensian Crusade was successful  must be that most of the castles they were attacking were effectively facing the wrong way- expecting attack to come from the south.

I met Stevie Wishart, director of Sinfonye a while back, at an early music festival at the South Bank, and thanked her for setting me off on what sometimes feels like a wild goose chase, but has widened my horizons considerably, in terms of musical taste, philosophical and architectural understanding, to say nothing of languages and travel!

Quick update, follow this link for the Radio 4 Early Music Show special on Trobairitz, not sure how long it’s up for but while it’s there, an hour’s music that’s spot on.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Early Music

Music I found early, and Early Music I found…

My passion for words nearly got in the way of my interest in music, and I was almost oblivious to tunes until I introduced myself to a wide variety of music via the library I worked in when I was nineteen. I think I took music for granted until then- I didn’t understand the work and skill involved in a beautiful melody, or even more so a harmony; bizarre given I had learned to play piano, recorder, clarinet and oboe by then (all staggeringly badly- maybe that was the problem!)

Phil Oakey of the Human League- a sweaty night at the marquee @ 1979 copyright Cherry Potts

I’m not sure that there might not be a connection to being into Punk music – The do-it-yourself-garage-thrash approach deconstructed the whole process for me and stopped it being something to be in awe of.  I was briefly in a punk band, playing one finger piano and shout-along-a-backing-vocals. This was when I took to live music and it struck me when I started converting my vinyl collection to digital, that I have almost no records from this period: I spent my money on gigs, it was all in the now.

The ‘Indie’ scene was just getting going and the few records I did buy were Rough Trade or Stiff Records output.  I quickly bored of ‘traditional’ Punk’s nihilist approach and sought out artists that were more difficult to categorise. I went for

The Raincoats somewhere in Brixton 1980 copyright Cherry Potts

the quirky and down right bonkers back then, John Cooper Clarke (words again), Spizz Energy, The Revillos, The Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Jam, Dead Kennedies, Human League, Skids, Penetration, Pere Ubu, the Edge, Lena Lovitch, Dalek I, UB40, Poison Girls, The Specials, the Slits and the Raincoats: I spent a lot of time in sweaty dives like the Marquee (great atmosphere), student unions and at Rock Against Racism gigs with my head ringing from being too close to the speakers, sometimes leaning on them to steady my camera- daft idea, its a wonder I didn’t do permanent damage to my ears!

Amazulu at the Deptford Albany 1983 copyright Cherry Potts

Later, I settled into a liking for women’s bands, the Guest Stars, Lydia d’Ustebyn Orchestra, Amazulu, PMT, Friggin’ Little Bits, the Bright Girls, Jam Today, Alex Dobkin; the Albany in Deptford became home from home, – just as the Marquee had been for a while.

In the library the music was more staid, and I worked my way systematically through everything that was unfamiliar.  I tried and discarded Gilbert & Sullivan and a great many musicals, quite fun, but not for me; and Country & Western, as it was known then (although I’ve gone back to it … those stories again). I discovered African tribal music, Flamenco (which I should have picked up sooner, Dad’s collection is stuffed with it) and most importantly  Early (medieval and baroque) Music: musicians like Emma Kirkby the Deller Consort, Phil Pickett, David Munrow and …counter tenors… an acquired taste, which didn’t stick with me at first, so I found myself skipping the tracks with words (mostly not English anyway) and becoming a great fan of Dowland, Tallis, Handel, Purcell, Gluck, Monteverdi, Susato and Machaut, and many others, and  divorced music from words for long enough for me to really get to grips with the patterns and shifts.  I was struck by the really early tunes- earthy, rhythmic and somehow contemporary; and by the sheer unearthly beauty of some of the church music – If you’ve never heard a perfect ‘dying fall’ (I was going to say you haven’t lived, but that’s plain silly: you will have missed out on one of the most swooningly gorgeous things your ears will ever encounter.)  Early music was also my route into Opera.  I really found opera tedious until I heard Purcell.  I still think it’s daft, but enjoyably so, although a lot of Puccini et al leaves me cold.

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

Stone Carving for Beginners

Sometimes talking to an expert isn’t enough, I have to try something out for myself.  I started writing a novel about thirteenth century musicians and masons over ten years ago.  I know what is going to happen in The Cold Time but I struggle with making it convincing.  I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve learnt a new language, I’ve travelled (in total) for five weeks all round the area I’m writing about, so I now know the smells and sounds and I know some little surprising details that please me, but despite having spoken to a stone sculptor I don’t know how my main character Aymar thinks about his craft, how long it takes, which muscles it uses, what are the pleasures, what gets tedious.  Until yesterday.

When you’ve been in a relationship for nearly thirty years buying presents can get a bit ‘ho-hum’ the book-CD-DVD-jumper is routine and rarely surprises except occasionally negatively; so, when buried in the arts news email I found a one day stone carving course, I printed off the details, placed it nonchalantly on A’s desk and said, ‘that would make a good Yule gift’.

And yesterday I spent seven hours carving stone under the tuition of Marcia Bennet-Male at Arts Express in Walworth.

So I now know that stone carving makes more dust than milling flour, and I understand why medieval masons worked outside in ‘lodges’.  The dust gets up your nose, in your eyes and hair and you hands are coated in minutes.  This changes several of the scenes I’ve already written, it changes how Aymar moves, what his habitual tics are, what he does first when he gets home, how people interact with him… I understand better which muscles he uses (I had some idea, but it’s different, even so) I understand the level of attention needed and how, when you concentrate on what you are doing, you don’t hear three other people’s hammers hitting their chisels, and the chisels the stone, even though your ears are ringing with it.

Stone face

my Changeling carving copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I hadn’t given much thought to what I was going to produce, or even if I would produce anything worth taking home, but it turns out that in a day it’s possible to produce something quite respectable, and certainly my fellow learners turned out some stunning work (I particularly liked a paw print caught in stone like a fossil).  I’m quietly pleased with my carving, having produced what could be a corbel decoration in one of Aymar’s churches.  I found it fascinating working out what to leave and what to take away, what angle to approach a curve, how hard to hit the chisel, how far up the haft of the hammer my hand needed to be.

medieval stone face

the face of the Master of Cabestany's 'angel'

I took along a reproduction of what I have always thought of as being an angel by the Master of Cabestany, an unknown but distinctive thirteenth century mason, who worked all over the border between Languedoc and what is now Spain. Looking at it closely while comparing my approximation to it, I noticed how the hands are gripping something rather aggressively and I found myself less convinced.  the Master tended to carve elongated pointed faces with elongated sloping eyes and over large pointy ears- his angels could be aliens, or monsters, I think my reproduction may actually be a sphinx.  It has a lop-sided but fascinating face and it was intriguing trying to replicate it.  I ended up over-exaggerating the lopsided thinness, because my urge was to correct it and make it rounder, more even, and I  resisted the temptation. What I have now is quite human from one side and very alien from the other, I’m thinking of it as a changeling.

At the time I am writing about, it was the political fashion to make a great deal of meaning from the carvings that cover the churches and abbeys and cathedrals.  The Cathars had been crushed by the ‘Crusaders’ from the north, and the west front of the abbey church at St Giles in particular was intended as a message to a subjugated people.  I’m not sure anyone told the masons that was what they were meant to be doing or if they did the masons just shrugged and got on with what they wanted to portray- as a result it is full of jokes.

So thanks to A for a first class present!  My next gift request is a Rebec, and some lessons in how to play it, so that I can get a feel for that…

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

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