A Sad Tale’s Best for Winter

Classical-style statue, probably of an actor, showing comedy/tragedy mask, Anglesey Abbey Gardens, Quy, near Cambridge

Why am I especially drawn to magical realism, ghost tales and fantasy at this time of year? Maybe because of the cold and the long, dark evenings.

This statue, which I photographed at Anglesey Abbey, has provided ideas for recent writing. (I even used it as a prompt for one of my writing groups – more winter’s tales for me to enjoy!)

My first ideas were loosely linked to a favourite narrative poem, My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, published in 1842. In it, the narrator of the monologue (The Duke of Ferrara) shows off the latest painting in his collection, of his late wife – and, in discussing it in courtly and polite company, his violent part in her untimely death becomes apparent. I’m also looking forward to reading Maggie O’Farrell’s novel The Marriage Portrait – inspired by this poem about this (real) painting of a (real) person. In my (micro) version, I imagine a husband showing off a statue of his late wife to potential new brides, whilst she, somehow imprisoned in the statue, is unable to lift the mask to warn them of the horror of the situation.

I’ve also been very immersed in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale which I’m directing for the Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare Company in June 2023. The ‘statue coming to life’ scene at the end is one I always find tremendously moving. (Once she speaks, Hermione says she ‘preserved herself’ to see the oracle come true, and to finally meet her abducted daughter, so we can assume she’s pretending to be a statue – a challenge for any actor!) I’ve been experimenting with writing a magical-realist version of this from the perspective of Perdita, her daughter.

Both pieces of writing are works-in-progress, for now.

The statue in my photo probably dates from the 18th Century when garden statuary became very popular, and is Classical Greek in style. The figure is of a young male actor holding a mask displaying an almost grotesque face. This seems somewhat removed from the traditional happy/sad theatre masks used in Greek theatre, and also as a symbol of theatre nowadays. These masks, ritually-used, enabled audience members to see the ‘correct’ facial expressions, with the added bonus of amplifying the actor’s voice.

What are your winter reading recommendations?

Advertisement

Dazzled by Starlings

With bleary morning eyes, I watched a river flow past our upstairs window. I blinked. It was a squadron: birds flying strong, straight and speedily. Onwards it surged, disappearing past the end of our road. And I’d only glanced out to see what the weather was like.

A week later – Thursday 25th February, 2021 – I cycled off at dusk, seeking a discreet hand-written sign on a back lane. The date was significant – another month before we could meet anyone else outdoors. I hid my bike in a ditch and squeezed through the gap in the hedge, moving well away. I was delighted to find myself alone.

The spring day had been glorious – light and hope returning. The soft evening air reverberated in layers of birdsong and I wished I could identify all of it. The setting sun was reflected in a lake and glowed gold in an ever-changing sky of apricot and amber and coral and peach and rose and plum and periwinkle and sapphire. The sunset-watching raised my spirits; a vaccine was available, and this third lockdown might be the last.

From the most distant silhouetted tree-group rose a smoky plume of birds, merging with other small groups. The largest group constricted then swelled, swooping one way then another, as if controlled by a silent conductor. Hundreds of wingbeats blended into one crashing wave overhead, its intensity drowning the surrounding birdsong. Like italic script with ascenders and descenders, the inky mass scribed thick and thin lines before dispersing in the next sweep. It moved as one creature, re-shaping, re-forming, circling, dizzying and inspiring. The sky darkened and each plunge saw several birds plummet to the trees, like pebbles, until all were down. They chattered and gossiped still, and I listened until they settled, before switching on my torch and retrieving my bike.

It’s thought that starlings (like many birds) roost en masse in winter for warmth and survival. Why they murmurate remains a mystery. Maybe this elegant dance is for sheer joy. I’d never classed starlings as drab or ordinary, despite their overbearing behaviour at my bird table. (I was convinced that Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds were starlings, until I read they were inspired by gulls following the plough.) I love the over-familiarity of starlings, their clicking whistling and cheeky mimicry. I love the beauty of their purple-green, gold-spangled feathers.

I didn’t repeat my dusk visit. Despite being sworn to secrecy, word slipped out, and I heard of the arrival of noisy hordes who failed to distance from each other, who talked through the event and who came by car bringing children and dogs.

But I did return once at sunrise. Murmurations occur at dawn, too. As the sky lightened, I heard the starlings, wide awake and gossiping, hidden amongst the trees. A Marsh Harrier circled high above. Suddenly, as if choreographed, five separate rivers of ‘little stars’ burst their banks simultaneously. The Marsh Harrier drifted away, confounded and confused, and I’d discovered the source of my river.

Views from the train

I love train travel. I particularly love the East Coast line from London up to Edinburgh – famous route of steam trains such as The Flying Scotsman and The Mallard – and think it’s the best way to travel from London to Scotland. The line north of York is especially scenic, the length of the journey still gives a feel of the distance involved, and train travel of course permits relaxation, reading and scenery-watching – easily making the journey part of the holiday. We’ve just returned from a super trip to Edinburgh. Sadly, I’ve brought Covid home from this trip, but everyone, everywhere seemed to be coughing, so it may not have been contracted on the journey! Here are a selection of wobbly photos, taken from the moving train during the early (and undoubtedly prettiest part) of the southward return journey:

The volcanic plug of The Bass Rock seen across the fields from near Dunbar. The whiteness of it means the amazing gannets are still in residence!
Barns Ness Lighthouse at Dunbar (now used as holiday rental accommodation) with ghostly train window reflections!
Gorgeous Borders coastline
Beautiful Berwick-upon-Tweed. The rail line crosses over the river on an immense, brick viaduct, visible briefly as the line curves in to the station.
Looking back across Berwick Bay. The painter Lowry came here on holiday!

Crossing the River Tyne
Durham Cathedral and Castle

… and of course, from the train you can also: view Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, catch stunning views of the Firth of Forth, enjoy the wonderful Northumberland coastline and pretty Alnmouth, spot the Angel of the North if you look the right way at the right time, see the distant North York Moors (and Kilburn White Horse, which reminds me of a daily commute from York to Harrogate for a student placement way back when!) and The Dales. For obvious reasons, the route is also sometimes known as the cathedral line – York Minster, Doncaster Minster, Peterborough Cathedral… We headed east on the cross-country line from Peterborough to avoid travelling through London at an especially busy time, and if it hadn’t been dark we’d also have seen Ely and Bury St Edmund’s Cathedrals.

A stunner of a main-line journey (map).

Pushing the Boat Out

The wonderful beach at North Berwick, Scotland, looking towards the Bass Rock

Pushing the Boat Out

I’m drawn to the sea, and I love walking by the river. For a non-sailor, a remarkably high number of my stories feature boats and water. My experience (apart from a few attempts at ‘real’ sailing with kind and enthusiastic friends) is mainly limited to rowing boats, canoes and (car) ferries. I love being on the water, so long as I’m not in imminent danger of falling in. I like being in water, swimming, so long as I planned to get wet and go in. Last time I tried proper sailing, I was more worried about losing my glasses overboard and not being able to see properly. I love the little canoeing I’ve tried, on calm stretches of river, but wasn’t a natural at waterfalls, weirs and white water (outdoor pursuits course back in college days).

Here’s a 94-word micro (longlisted for the Blinkpot 2021 Award) inspired by a picture of laundry drying on a line, which uses sailing metaphors:

Our bedsheets billow and snap like boat-sails, bleached by the sun, white as bones. To- day’s wind carries spring on its wings: sweet pollen, unfurling fresh leaves and reassuring warmth.

You insisted that washing was women’s work, but never permitted me the ease of mod- cons.

I’ve set a new course. My prerogative now I’m at the helm. The insurance money is paying for a washer-dryer.

And who’d have thought you’d be launched down the stairs on a cruise of your own, when I shook out the bed-sheets over the banister?

Links to some water-related stories:

Sink or Swim (Spillwords),Line in the Sand (Ellipsis Zine), The Devil’s in the Detail (The Woolf), Old Bird (50 word stories) and Martha Turns the Tide are all beach-based stories.

My historical ‘witch retellings’ My Mother Helen and Mary Johnson of Wivenhoe (Snapping the Stiletto) take place beside river estuaries.

Ebb and Flow (Spillwords), Mermaid’s Curse, Hair Apparent, all take place beside, on, or – The Dare (Retreat West) – in water whilst Simon and Brigitta (Meniscus) features a bridge over the River Aire.

Tending the Light (Retreat West micro) and The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife (Retreat West 2021 Short Story Prize) are based around – surprise – lighthouses, and The Tale of the Ship’s Cat (Wivenhoe News) features a shipwreck.

Not bad for a confirmed land-lubber!

Swift

Swift photo courtesy Glyn Evans

I love watching swifts. I look for them eagerly during spring, listen for them every evening during early summer, and miss them once they’ve gone. Their visits here are all too short. When I visited Harwich Redoubt Fort in June 2021, dreaming up a story about a Conscientious Objector imprisoned there during WW1, swifts were screaming and diving in the skies above. How must it have felt to be stuck inside the Redoubt, gazing up at them, free? I knew they’d feature in my story (reprinted below) Call and Response, which was placed as a Runner Up in the 2021 Essex Book Festival Flash Fiction Competition:

Call and Response
‘You worthless Conchie cowards,’ yells the Sergeant. ‘You duds’ll wish you were dead.’ Swifts
scream overhead, scimitar wings flickering, and I watch over his shoulder.


‘What you staring at, bird-brain?’ he shouts, and sends me to solitary for insubordination.
Water trickles down the wall of the punishment cell. It’s too dark to read, too cold to sleep.


Later, when I’m digging latrines, he asks about the swifts. ‘Devil-birds,’ he says.
I explain: annual migration from Africa, eating, sleeping, life on the wing. He listens, stares
up. ‘You’re a square peg in a round hole, alright.’


It’s the Army who drill, turn right-angles, judge everything right or wrong. They miss the
dizzying beauty of this circular fort. They even shaved off the arcs to form regimented rooms.


Hiding in a cut-off curve, I’m deep in my book when I hear my name.
‘Sergeant’s brought you a casualty.’


It’s a fledgling swift, glossy brown and black, white-flecked, grounded on its first flight.
‘Take it up high, let it fly over the top,’ I say.


‘Permission granted.’
I cradle the frantic bird, stroke its long, crossed wings, see terror in its deep-set eyes. Placing
it on the highest parapet, we wait.


The flock call to it from overhead.


It blinks, shuffles forwards, flexes its wings. Nose-diving, it beats rapidly then soars, banking round, spiralling up to the others, wheeling and chasing together.

Definition of a Witch

Pool at Manningtree from the Hopping Bridge, where, according to rumour, ‘witches’ were ducked.

Witch: some definitions and lists

= old woman, beauty (as in ‘bewitching’), hell-hag, fairy, crone, sorceress, sage, seer, healer, wise-woman, Jezebel.

= misogynistic insult directed at powerful women (often politicians/company directors). Designed to intimidate, undermine achievements and intimate success only due to magical help (dealings with devil). Increasingly used more recently following the success of the #metoo campaign, itself created to expose and highlight examples of everyday sexism and physical/verbal/sexual abuse of women.

= amusing children’s book character wearing stripy socks, flying on broomstick with black cat companion – possibly elderly, forgetful, but ultimately kind and helpful. OR a terrifying trope (usually ugly, often elderly) in a fairy tale with strange and evil powers who needs defeating.

= someone (usually female) on the margins of society: poor, elderly, disabled, vulnerable, ill; someone who speaks out of line, someone well-read and intelligent.

*USUALLY FEMALE* 

Witch-hunt

= campaign against people suspected of having unorthodox/unpopular views and opinions. 

= sadly, still happens in some African countries, some Indian states and elsewhere. Also (see You-Tube) in some American ultra-evangelistic congregations.

= historical religious mania and hysteria throughout Europe, combined with ignorance, superstition and misogyny leading to the persecution and murder of thousands of innocent people, largely during a period of political unrest and change after The Reformation. 

On International Women’s Day, Nicola Sturgeon, first Minister for Scotland, issued a “long-overdue” apology from the state to those in Scotland who, over a long historical period, had been arrested, imprisoned, starved, tortured and put to death on the basis of vague ‘evidence’ from jealous neighbours, ignorance, malicious gossip, a need for control, scapegoating and for simply being the wrong sex in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t the only huge miscarriage of justice perpetrated on innocent women in those times throughout Europe. Hear more here: The Witches’ Pardon, BBC Radio 4, 16 March 2022.

Much closer to home, 36 women in the Tendring area were accused of witchcraft in the 1640s, and most were put to death. If you were: a little different, lived alone, widowed and owned property, if you kept to yourself, kept pets, grew herbs for healing or if anyone was jealous of you, you probably lived life in fear.

I recently took part in a Snapping the Stiletto project: Revisiting the Tendring Witch Trials. Follow the walking tour around Manningtree, or read the stories and poems on the website. They are about women and what happens when superstition, scapegoating, fear and intolerance spin out of control.

After learning fascinating background information from brilliant academic Alison Rowlands, and following creative writing input from wonderful novelist Syd Moore, I researched the individual lives of Mary Johnson, widow of Wivenhoe, and Helen Bretton of Kirby-le-Soken. Did you know, for example, that Wivenhoe was considered a ‘godless and lawless’ place in the 1640s? Or that there was a causeway across the River Colne, between Wivenhoe and Fingringhoe? Me neither – but I wove some of this information into Mary’s story, and aimed for accuracy wherever possible. As for the rest, I used my imagination. 

In historical fiction, vast amounts of research is often condensed radically – but that’s material for another blog post. Bringing detail of atrocities from the past into a modern spotlight can – hopefully – prevent their repetition, and promote greater understanding and tolerance nowadays, still sorely needed.

Recommended fiction based on real-life ‘witch-hunting’ events:

The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Manningtree Witches – AK Blakemore

Witch Hunt – Syd Moore

The Witchfinder’s Sister – Beth Underdown

Ekphrastic Writing

Les Raboteurs by Gustave Caillebotte, 1875

Ekphrasis: the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device.

Usually, ekphrastic poems or stories are written about a painting, but they can also be based on a sculpture, an object, or even architecture. One of the earliest examples is in the Iliad, when Homer describes Achilles’ shield. Another famous example is John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

I’m not sure if I should admit to having favourites, but I do! I regard Against the Grain (click to read it) with great affection as it was one of my earliest stories and I spent a long time with it. Published by Ekphrastic Review in December 2019 (and again in July 2021), it was inspired by the painting Les RaboteursThe Floor Scrapers – by Gustave Caillebotte. The online journal Ekphrastic Review regularly provides picture prompts for poetry and prose submissions, and many other competitions make use of an unusual photograph or image as a starting point.

The first draft of Against the Grain was written in 2015 during my MA course on Radio Drama, at the University of Essex, taught by Professor Elizabeth Kuti, and written in the form of a monologue for radio. I chose one of the workmen as narrator, giving him an imagined name and home life, weaving a story around him and the artist Gustave Caillebotte. I used known facts where possible and invented what else I felt the story needed. In 2019, I revisited it, rewriting it in story form while keeping it as monologue, as I felt that first person narrator suited the intimacy I wanted to convey.

I was intrigued by Caillebotte’s wealthy background (unusual in an artist) and also admired the realism in his painting, one of the first artists to depict the urban working class – considered a ‘vulgar’ subject choice by the French Academy of the day, who turned it down. The rejection propelled Caillebotte to join the Impressionist group (and, being wealthy, he became their patron). Unsurprisingly, given his detailed and precise brushwork, he also had a deep interest in early photography, and his work became much admired in time.

In fact, it’s not necessary to have any knowledge of either artist or subject in order to use images as prompts. Knowledge can be a distraction from story-making. Using a historical picture as a starting point does not necessitate writing historical fiction. The image doesn’t need to be high art either – I’ve used personal photos, newspaper and magazine pictures, abstract art – anything which can prompt a memory or stimulate an idea is fair game. I very much enjoyed writing the microfiction Pushing the Boat Out (longlisted in the Blinkpot 2021 Award) set in modern times, but inspired by the 1912 painting A Woman’s Work, by John Sloan. It was the idea of sheets billowing on a washing line which gave me a starting point rather than the specific painting.

An image involving people gives us the opportunity to ask: Who are they? How are they connected? Do they know each other? What are they saying? Is one of them keeping a secret? How did they get here? Where would they rather be?

An image of a place can provide an unusual setting where something is about to happen, or has just happened…

But enough talk – browsing through my photos for this post has given me an idea to play around with…

Fairies at the Bottom of my Garden

During April and May this year, I directed a version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Lockdown for the Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare Company. As the title of the group suggests, we usually perform outdoors. As the (extended) title of the play also suggests, Covid prevented us from doing so in summer 2020. To ensure that a 2021 production went ahead, we had our performance filmed by one of our incredibly talented members. We rehearsed outdoors in small groups in private gardens, adhering to all social distancing and ‘rule of 6’ number restriction laws in place during that time. We met and rehearsed in snow, hail, the bitter cold and then a mini-heatwave – the cast were amazing and the support we gave each other at a difficult time made the whole thing very special and extremely memorable.

Read (or listen to) my piece written for Snapping the Stiletto‘s ‘Diary of a Pandemic’ here.

Visit the WOAS website for the link to the free film, to read blogs by the actors and to see photos of the cast and read the downloadable programme.

Read my piece How to Make a Film: An Idiot’s Guide (first published in the Autumn 2021 ‘Wivenhoe News’) here.

Pigeon Post

Me on the right, apparently enjoying the attention of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Sometime in the 1970s…

How Pigeon Post came about:

Next door, where I grew up, there was a pigeon loft. The owner (a frightening old man, at least, to eight-year old me) raced pigeons. He would exercise them twice a day in a series of loops and figures of eight in the skies above our house. I should clarify at this point that he is not Alfie from the story, nor is the garden my garden.

As an adult, I have since understood that our neighbour and his pigeons won medals for their war service, as did many in the area. Apparently, one road nearby even had a ‘joint’ loft running across the ends of two gardens, though I do wonder what the ‘respectable’ suburban neighbours made of it.

I became interested enough to read about pigeons in both Word Wars. Their intelligence is such that they can be trained, and, combined with their little-understood homing instinct, they became formidable message-carriers.

Watching the wood pigeons in my own garden recently, I’ve come to admire the way they power upwards in flight then glide down – they’re strong, impressive fliers. I love to hear the clap of their wingbeats, the scratch of their feet on our roof, and I enjoy their cooing and billing presence around the garden. It’s comical to watch them strutting around at the foot of the bird feeders, hoovering up the spillage from the messy eaters above.

In short, I’m fond of pigeons.

This story is an attempt to portray them in a positive light.

A Shed of my Own

Virginia Woolf famously wrote: A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

Well, I’ve spent my money on a summerhouse: my shed – and I couldn’t agree more with the ‘room of my own’ sentiment. I’ve written in many borrowed rooms – my husband’s office, the children’s bedrooms, in libraries, in cafes, on trains, in the car and I’m very fond of writing at my kitchen table – that is, until someone comes in to chat…

So I’ve splurged and now wish I’d done it years ago. Just over one week in, and my shed doesn’t (and won’t) have heating, electricity or internet, but it does have natural light, a view over the garden into the sky, and it’s mine. So far, I have a rug on the floor made from recycled plastic bottles, a flat-pack desk, a ‘saddle stool’ which is good for my posture (and a borrowed wooden garden chair for when that’s all too much) a bookcase which I might paint next summer, and a pile of cushions and blankets. Oh, and a growing collection of pretty lights.

Even in this cold December weather, I’ve been out most days with a mug of tea to keep my hands warm and I’ve written, day-dreamed, listened to the birds, gazed into the sky. It’s brilliant! When I’m there, I forget about my ‘to-do’ list, I’m out of reach and I feel myself unwind.