Inspirations – The Archetypal Good Wife


The first story I ever got published, Penelope is no Longer Waiting ( A Very, Very long time ago) came from my finally reading Homer (not in the original Greek, comprehensive schooling isn’t that kind of comprehensive) as opposed to interpretations of… and I found that what I thought I knew about the Odyssey was not all there was to know.  I found myself thinking Really? Really? Ten years of war, ten years to get home? Someone as clever as Odysseus? Would Penelope really have waited?

I think not.

You can hear me reading Penelope is no Longer Waiting LIVE this Saturday 5th October at Misty Moon Gallery SE13 7HS as part of the ongoing celebrations for the launch of Mosaic of Air and Weird Lies more info here.

© Cherry Potts 2013

ancient greek painting of 2 women

I find myself wondering what it would be like …

Writing from a Lesbian Perspective


Its LGBT History Month. Whether you know this may depend on whether you or any of your friends is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender. It certainly doesn’t get the kind of coverage Black History month gets. With my Arachne Press hat on, I’m doing a reading tonight at Ealing and on Monday at Deptford, with others, and will be reading one of the first stories I ever wrote – Leaving, which is about leaving a job, not a lover, in case you are wondering. I wrote it around 1986 so it’s practically an historical document itself.

There has been some concern voiced by the Judges of the Polari prize about the dearth of new UK Lesbian writers. I do wonder – is it that lesbians are no longer identifying themselves? No longer writing about Lesbian experience? And do we have to write about lesbian experience to bring that experience to bear? I don’t think so – I remember a long conversation with Rosemary Manning  (a dear friend and a magnificent Lesbian) about how one of her (straight, male) characters were written as  if he were a lesbian, not from the perspective of sexuality, but from the perspective of outsider-ness.

An aside, will being able to get married – if it gets all the way through the legislative process – intrinsically change that outsider status? Time will tell, and frankly there are still places it’s illegal and/ or dangerous to be a Lesbian, so unless we all sit smugly feeling we’re all right where we are, – I bet Weimar Republic Lesbians thought that, briefly – it’s kind of hard to shake.

I use this perspective when I rewrite myths. I’ve never been a fan of Freud’s use of myth to explain his own neuroses but he did keep the (Greek) myths in the forefront of the western mind.

If we lose the assumption that love between the hero and heroine is automatic, inevitable, ordained, there is room to take a look at what other motivation there is for their (re)actions.

So for example, if Helen does not love her husband (a dynastic match, so why should she?), and if she doesn’t love Paris (and how could she?) we can remember that Homeric women are parcelled out like a loaf of bread (or an apple) between hungry feasters, and ask:

What did she think, who, if anyone, did she love? What might it be like to be the catalyst of a ten-year war and the destruction of a dynasty?  And why didn’t Priam chuck her off the walls of Troy at first sight of the black ships?

Once you remove the most basic presumption of sexuality and stop being snared and beguiled by the obvious story of girl meets boy etc, etc, you are free to turn your head away from the glitzy main text and explore the why behind many other ‘obvious’ becauses and champion the minor character, the underdog, or perhaps the slave in the corner: seeing, thinking, feeling, but unseen.

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

My Life in Fairytales


photo of Cherry Potts aged about seven

Cherry at about the time of writing "the Prince the Princess and the Goatherd" copyright RR Potts

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.

being read to at a very early age

Being read to at a very early age - I'm the baby. Copyright R R Potts

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?

copyright Cherry Potts 2010