Once I sneaked past ‘O’ level (yes, yes, GCSE then) I liked exams. I also liked researching and writing essays, having written many in my time and, to be honest, achieving pretty decent marks. I am reasonably adept at putting together short reports/factual pieces for my hyperlocal website. When curious about a subject, I can also write a thought-provoking piece. I can spell, I can edit.
What I seriously cannot do is write fiction.
My one attempt at writing fiction was so closely based on real life people and facts as to be potentially libellous.
People tell me I need to write a stonking novel, a blockbuster, the kind that will make me rich. I need to be J.K.Rowling.
I quietly smile and agree that it is indeed a thought. However, I truly know that it will not happen, for while I very much enjoy reading fiction, it does not translate easily to paper. My brain doesn’t seem to work in that way.
I love a good novel. I can also enjoy abstract art and beautifully imaginative paintings. However, when it comes to ‘doing’, I am far better (though certainly not proficient) at life drawing which is based more on measurement, proportion, observation and accuracy. Arguably, since I studied sociology, the attraction of life drawing is merely a different representation of humanity, involving finely tuned observation skills. It does not require imagination, which it something I seem to lack. For, in life drawing, it is easy (and often acceptable) to ignore the details such as hands, feet and even faces.
In writing factually, much of the fine detail is lost. A factual report or writing of biography is not something Hardyesque. Writing about reality does not involve a convoluted plot. Talking to people on trains and recounting their stories does not require a fictional tale because they tell the story for me, and usually, the truth is strange enough.
My current research project (hopefully, for a book; definitely for a book) is about the life of Pamela Colman-Smith. Those who know me are already sick of hearing about it, but those who do not may not even know who she is. Never fear. The important part is what I am enjoying about uncovering the life of this person. The project involves lots of digging, reading, talking to people, gleaning, and surmising, but what it really does not require is too much imagination. Just up my street!
My advice: It’s good to try new things and to get out of your comfort zone, etc. However, it is also good to realise your strengths and play to them. If it isn’t in you, play around with ideas and see what happens, but don’t force it.
He’s been called “punctuation’s answer to Banksy”. A self-styled grammar vigilante who spends his nights surreptitiously correcting apostrophes on shop signs and billboards. The general consensus is that he’s a modern-day hero – a mysterious crusader against the declining standards of English. But his exploits represent an altogether darker reality.
The man himself is not particularly offensive. In a BBC Radio 4 report, he comes across as a reasonable person who simply feels a compulsion to quietly make a difference to what matters to him. He doesn’t ridicule, he doesn’t court publicity, he simply goes out and adds or removes apostrophes as required. And he does it with care, usually.
So what’s the problem? The problem lies in what this kind of behaviour represents and therefore normalises. In championing our vigilante, we are saying that it’s okay to pull people up on their use of language. It gives people the confidence to unleash their own pet peeves onto the world, however linguistically dubious.
The grammar vigilante himself appears to have a specific type of target, and his approach is nothing if not considerate. However, there is another type of pedant who is not so subtle or self aware. Some people think nothing of highlighting inconsistent punctuation wherever they might see it, however innocuous or irrelevant it might be (apostrophes rarely actually disambiguate – after all, we get along fine without them in speech).
Never mind that it’s a handwritten notice in a shop window, written by someone for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) language. Never mind that it’s a leaflet touting for work from someone who didn’t get the chance to complete their education. They need to be corrected and/or posted online for others to see. Otherwise, how will anybody learn?
After all, apostrophes are easy. If people would just take a bit of time to learn the rules, then there wouldn’t be any mistakes. For example, everybody knows that apostrophes are used to indicate possession. So the car belongs to Lynda, the car is Lynda’s. But what about the car belongs to her, the car is her’s? Of course not, we don’t use apostrophes with pronouns (although this was quite common in Shakespeare’s time) as they each have a possessive form of their own. Except for one that is, which still needs one: one does one’s duty. It doesn’t need one though – it’s is something different.
Then there’s the question of showing possession with nouns already ending in “s”: Chris’s cat or Chris’ cat? Jess’s decision or Jess’ decision? Or plural nouns ending in “s”: The princesses’s schedule or the princesses’ schedule? I don’t remember it being this difficult in the 1980’s/1980s/’80s/80s/80’s.
We definitely don’t use apostrophes to indicate plurals, something that routinely trips up the fabled greengrocer’s with its potato’s (although it was once seen as correct to use apostrophes with some words ending in a vowel). But what about when we need to refer to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, or someone makes a sign saying CD’S £5.00?
The point is, while some are clear, many of the rules around apostrophes are not as transparent as some people would have us believe. This is largely due to the fact that they are not actually rules after all, but conventions. And conventions change over time (see David Crystal’s excellent book for a detailed history).
When things are open to change, there will inevitably be inconsistencies and contradictions. These inconsistencies surround us every day – just look at the London Underground stations of Earl’s Court and Barons Court, or St James’s Park in London, and St James’ Park in Newcastle. Or business names such as McDonald’s, Lloyds Bank, and Sainsbury’s. Is it any surprise people are confused?
Of course, all of these conventions are learnable or available to be looked up. But if people haven’t had the opportunity to learn them, or do not have the skills or awareness to look them up, what gives other people the right to criticise? Are those who point out mistakes really doing it to educate, or are they doing it to highlight their own superior knowledge? Are they judging the non-standard punctuation or the sub-standard person?
Picking on someone because of their language is always a cowardly attack. Linguist Deborah Cameron makes the point that this is still the case even when highlighting the poor linguistic skills of bigots and racists on social media. Tempting as it is to call out a racist on their inability to spell or punctuate, by doing so we are simply replacing one prejudice with another, and avoiding the actual issue. As Deborah Cameron says: “By all means take issue with bigots – but for their politics, not their punctuation.”
Apostrophes matter, at least in certain contexts. Society deems it important that job applications, essays, notices and the like adhere to the current conventions of apostrophe usage. For this reason, it is right that we teach and learn these conventions.
But fetishising the apostrophe as if its rules are set in stone, and then fostering an environment in which it is acceptable to take pleasure in uncovering other people’s linguistic insecurities is not okay. The grammar (punctuation?) vigilante of Bristol is relatively harmless. But he is the unassuming face of a much less savoury world of pedantry.
Probably not, depending upon how you define love.
Emily Bronte wrote under pseudonym as Ellis Bell to ensure privacy (but probably also because men were taken more seriously).
Despite many poems and stories, it was Wuthering Heights that was her crown jewel. Although I never found it easy reading, given its offbeat style, it resonated with the obsessive love of teenage years. For half a lifetime, I shared the widespread delusion that Wuthering Heights was a love story. Won over by the brooding Laurence Olivier performance in the film, I thought that the darkness permeating the entire novel related to passion/love. I remember having a great debate about it with a late friend.
However, I’m now thinking more along the lines of Paul Miller (2013) who felt depressed by the idea that Wuthering Heights was considered the Guardian readers’ favourite ‘love story’ of 2007, because love barely enters into it.
He claims, and I think he may have a point, that Wuthering Heights is not a love story at all. It is about addiction, revenge, and jealous rage, portraying no redeeming features for Heathcliff, the anti ‘hero’. There is no concern for the other, only the self.
Miller actually described Heathcliff as Gollum (now there’s an image, my precious): “consumed, enslaved and made a tyrant by his obsession“. It is a good description. He calls it “narcissistic eros” for there is a kind of mutually destructive self-love between Heathcliff and Cathy, which renders Heathcliff, especially, incapable of humanity.
Which is what brings me back to what I hated so intensely about it. Before reading it I had a general impression that it was a great story of forbidden love that many people looked to as a stirring tale of how to follow your heart lest we lose our soulmates. That radically misreads the book. Heathcliff does follow his heart, and that is exactly why he destroys himself and everyone around him. Heathcliff and Catherine’s love is not a pattern for us to emulate, but to avoid. This isn’t a story about denied love, but indulged addiction. Holding this book up as a model teaches a ruinously false notion of love, relationships, failure, and our responsibility to rise about our circumstances.
I hate this book’s reputation and the way this book is read and perceived by others. I can’t read this book as moving or inspiring or think that Catherine and Heathcliff were unjustly parted lovers, victims of fate or the world or an uncaring world. They are only victims of their own folly and poor decisions.
Meanwhile, Jacqueline Parkinson (2013) writes, from a psychological perspective, of codependency and narcissism among the two leading characters. They feed off each other, wish to control, fear abandonment and are utterly dysfunctional. Heathcliff is dark and cruel, a misogynist. And here is just a taste of it.
As Cathy stresses, there is no pleasure in her relationship with Heathcliff. That obsession is not love, it is extreme, pathological.
As Cathy says: My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
There is no joy in it.
The idea of gender guessing intrigued me enough to give it a go, so I tried a sample of yesterday’s blog post on Gender Guesser website.
The website says: “In 2003, a team of researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology and Bar-Ilan University in Israel (Shlomo Argamon, Moshe Koppel, Jonathan Fine, and Anat Rachel Shimoni) developed a method to estimate gender from word usage. Their paper described a Bayesian network where weighted word frequencies and parts of speech could be used to estimate the gender of an author. Their approach made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction writing styles”.
Here was my result for the first one. The second one was similar (based on my last 2 blog posts).
Female = 677
Male = 825
Difference = 148; 54.92%
Verdict: Weak MALE
It seems women use more pronouns, with men using more identifiers and quantifiers. Women talk more about relationships, and men more about objects. It appears I write more like a ‘weak’ (european) male!
In my youth, I was a voracious reader. I would walk up the long hill of Ninevah Road, to Handsworth Library on Soho Road, with a string bag full of books to return. I always enjoyed the rewarding downhill walk back with my bag of swag, to sit and devour a few more. The smell of books was delicious; I felt so privileged and thrilled to be able to borrow them for free. I read everything from historical fiction to ‘Teach Yourself Spanish’ and The Art of Pig Farming. You name it, I read it. I’d long since run out of titles at my primary school.
My desire for knowledge was untameable. It was a real hunger. My parents would also buy me 2/6d Dean’s children’s classics. I entered so many worlds through reading, it was like my own personal Narnia. I was lost in the realms of my imagination. Reading was the best activity in the world, closely followed by writing.
Fast forward to 2017. I do enjoy a good read in the bath. The bath, I learned as a mother of 5, is a place of peace and solitude, a place that instructs people not to disturb.
This morning, as I tackled page 98 of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, I gave up (as I’d considered doing a few times already) and decided my life was too short to read any further. This is a really good book. On the cover, The Financial Times calls it ‘rich, touching, hilarious’. The Sunday Times says the author is ‘a glorious new talent’. Glamour says ‘your next must-read is here’. The Daily Telegraph says it is ‘a spectacular debut…Tough and tender, gothic and lyrical, it is a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart’, and it has won two prizes. The author is lauded on social media. You can see this book is totally amazing.
I really wanted to enjoy it. But I didn’t.
So, who am I not to like it?
Well, I’m no one, but I still didn’t.
I tried to work out why. The Guardian review says: You can’t fault McInerney for lack of exuberance, though she has a tendency to treat paragraphs like pinball machines, firing off bold, extended metaphors and letting them ricochet down the page: “Karine looked back at him with one hand on the draining board, rearranging the kitchen by way of chemical reaction, bleak snapshots fizzling against her butter-blonde hair and popping like soap bubbles against the hem of her grey school skirt.” It certainly captures the giddy rush of teenage infatuation – I’m just not entirely sure what it means.
Maybe that’s my problem. It simply doesn’t call to me. It has no meaning for me, despite normally being a big follower of social realism.
I’m just not entirely sure what it means.
Seeing some of the work of Victorian artist, John Everett Millais, at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool recently, reminded me of a blog post I wrote about Effie Gray, his wife, after visiting Ruskin’s house at Brantwood. It’s gives a wonderful sense of continuity when threads come together. While it was Millais and Ruskin who achieved artistic status, Effie was also rather extraordinary in a different way, in challenging the patriarchal marriage system.
The story of Effie (Euphemia) Gray is an extraordinary one. Her first marriage was a disaster. Even agony aunts would struggle to find a solution to her problems with Ruskin. We tend to think of marital issues of this magnitude as being a contemporary phenomenon, but it shows that the Victorians, too, had their difficulties. Of course. Their issues probably felt insurmountable because the legal system at the time gave women few rights. Divorce was difficult, as was annulment which was very uncommon, but the latter is exactly what happened in the case of Effie Gray, who had to undertake a virginity test (to prove her marriage was celibate) to achieve it.
Euphemia Gray, a Scottish beauty of little fortune, married renowned art critic, John Ruskin, at the tender and idealistic age of 19, only to find herself trapped in a cold, unconsummated loveless union. She later fell in love with his protege, John Everett Millais, artist, his work strongly influenced by Ruskin. Well, I’m not sure how ‘in love’ she fell but she certainly lost her admiration and respect for her husband, John Ruskin, so sought an alternative, which makes a great deal of sense but was not really the done thing at that time. Suffering in silence was more likely a scenario. Escape pretty much had to be via another man.
Now, the understanding is that Effie was not bad looking, but also had a certain attraction, charm. Men liked her. She had energy and passion, an eagerness to learn, in the days when women were both educationally and socially constrained. Her relationship with John Ruskin seemed to begin with her admiration of his intellect, and desire to go through the doors he might open. So, a bit of social climbing, maybe, on her part.
John Ruskin, was something of a social philanthropist; however, he is also often painted as being overly attached to his parents, who were very forthcoming in their views. He also seemed to like women on the cusp of adulthood, i.e., young. Now, we might say his predilections were a little suspect. Put in the context of the time, it seems that Victorian artists were fascinated by adolescent girls, so it is hard to know whether it is a historical/cultural phenomenon, or just deviant.
Either way, Ruskin and Effie married during Lent, which was his first (and a common) excuse for not starting conjugal relations. When Effie eventually questioned his lack of activity, he excused it through religion, mentioned a dislike of small babies, felt that having children would interfere with his working life, and that her pregnancy would destroy their travel plans and Effie’s girlish beauty. He may well have been right on all counts but it was not a fruitful start to their married life.
There seems to be no indication that he was gay, or even asexual, but apparently told Effie that he had been ‘disgusted with her person’ when he saw her on her wedding night. Additionally, he seemed a chilly character, proffering little warmth in terms of even affection, preferring to spend his time with others, especially his parents.
Questions are raised whether this ‘disgust’ referred to her under-arm hair, removed in paintings of classical nudes, yet the pornography he apparently saw at Oxford acquainted him well with real women with body hair. Or her bleeding, for a popular suggestion is that Effie married at the wrong time of the month; she was menstruating. John could not cope with flesh – and especially, blood. Basically, the marriage was over before it began, though it lasted for six years, and left Effie understandably scarred.
She did fall for Millais, and went on to have eight children by him. However, by the time they came to marry, it was suggested that Effie did so in order to regain some respectability, for annulment was a damned state for a woman to be in (think earlier, Katharine of Aragon). For example, Queen Victoria would have nothing to do with her. One gets the impression that while Effie was a loyal wife, her love for Millais seemed at times lukewarm, not the great passion we are sometimes led to believe. That said, marriage was largely an economic union, not a romantic one.
Ruskin later fell in love again with an even younger beauty but her parents were not happy with the idea that this ‘impotent’ man should ruin the life of their daughter. Meanwhile, despite having eight children, Effie didn’t seem to like them that much. While Millais became an artist of some repute, she seemed destined to frustration in many areas of life. All in all, her life was quite a sad one, though she rejoined society, became involved in the art world and generally got on with sorting out life’s – and especially her family’s – problems.
Story of many women’s lives even now, perhaps.
Talking to a lady today, she explained how to tell if a person is good/right for you (useful stuff for writers). She had been married once before, for 10 years (though says she knew after 6 months it wasn’t good). Her second marriage has so far lasted for over 30 years. “They said it wouldn’t last”, she said. Her words were wise and are applicable to any life situation, involving relationships, be they familial, friendships or even at work.
Of her husband, she simply said: “He makes a room better when he is in it”.
It’s true that there are some people who light up your life (not always in a massive way) and others who drain. Some people’s company you look forward to, some you dread; many have no impact at all, positive or negative – they are just there.
Surround yourself with those who make your room better. Simple.
Having spent £14.95 some time ago on a slender pamphlet called “Farthest From Railways: An Unknown Corner of Devon”by R. Pearse Chope (originally written in 1934) I hoped to find out more about the isolated North Devon parish to which I moved from the more urbanised north. It did not disappoint.
Chope perhaps waxed rather more lyrically than we would today, but the upshot of his pamphlet is that Hartland is off the beaten track, it “is still an almost unknown country, although its scenery is more beautiful and its history more interesting than any other place in North Devon”. Praise indeed, for Chope even claims that Hartland is superior to the very popular Clovelly and Lynmouth areas, because of the wonderful variety of its scenery, ranging from wooded cliffs and wild rocks to wind-swept moorland and secluded vales…
The view towards Lundy from Bursdon Moor is one I found breathtakingly beautiful when I first moved here and, even now, seven years on, it still makes me stop and wonder. Every day Lundy looks different depending upon the weather. Sometimes, it disappears altogether. There’s something magical about the island, especially when shrouded in sea mist. It could almost be Arthurian Avalon. On other days, it looks close and clear enough to swim to, which, of course, it isn’t, unless you happen to be David Walliams or someone.
There were 35 wrecks off the coast here between 1862 and 1904, the largest of which was an Italian steamship, the Rosalia, totally wrecked in very thick fog at Hartland Quay on 27th May, 1904. Local people used to loot the wrecks, understandably, but the most notorious wrecker of legend has been claimed by both Devon and Cornwall, seemingly a Danish sailor known as Cruel Coppinger. In 1866, the Reverend Stephen Hawker of nearby Morwenstow wrote of him:
Hartland has existed for a long time if one accepts Chope’s interpretation of history. Apparently, the Hercules Promontory identified by Ptolemy has been identified as Hartland Point. The names around here are interesting, too. Heard is one such well-established local name. It is likely to have come from the Heort clan, derived from the Saxon settlement of Heortings, which led to the names Harton and later Hartland. You won’t go anywhere without encountering a Heard.
I’m undertaking a Future Learn course called Start Writing Fiction. It actually started in January, but I’ve only just found it. The course involves some exercises, so I thought it would be useful to try them out and share my attempts here.
Write a paragraph (50 to 100 words) containing one fact and three fictitious elements.
You can write about yourself, about your interests, about history – about anything you like. Then try the reverse – write a paragraph containing three facts and one fictitious element. Red denotes fiction, blue fact.
Anne always felt she was beguiling, bewitching and intensely beautiful. It seeped through to her being from her innermost soul, this alarmingly distracting self-belief in her own intelligence at playing this game. If she had faults, she hid them well beneath a veil of talents and skills, crafts learned methodically and with purpose. She was born to be a queen. Whether she would become one was anyone’s guess.
What’s interesting about the fiction elements is that they could be true. Using a historical character (Anne Boleyn) we cannot be sure. We do/can not know what she always felt, nor about any self-belief.
She was the daughter of a powerful and ambitious nobleman, with much of her fate probably sealed from birth. Her older sister was already in great favour, as the yielding, soft, beautiful, compliant mistress of her king, conventionally pretty, beautiful even, lovely though lacking style and wit. Mary was always deeply envious of Anne.
As you can see, I’ve already hit my first problem in creative writing. I’m wishing to write about fact, not fiction. Struggling on…first hurdle!