Give me facts, not fiction…

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.

 

Difficult Decisions at the end of life

Big bro on the right and cowgirl me in the middle, in our entry!

Big bro on the right and cowgirl me in the middle, in our entry!

Not too long ago, a very courageous man, Noel Conway, sought but was not granted, a law change over assisted suicide. He says: “I’m on a slow, slippery road to hell” and who are we to disagree? Everyone’s idea of hell probably varies, and some people may make very different decisions to others when it comes to the point at which life becomes insufferable. Now, another man is seeking help to challenge the law on assisted death. Omid has Multiple System Atrophy (MSA). Please look at his story, and please don’t stop reading at this point.

On my birthday 2015, April 7th, my big brother wrote to me: “I am just a nightmare living within a nightmare”. He, too, had MSA, this same progressive disease with no cure.

 

In October 2015, as many of you will know, he, my one and only sibling, died. He was taken way too soon, at 61, but at the right time in terms of his condition which would deteriorate drastically. I’d known him for 56 years, which is a long time in anyone’s book.

This blog post gives a good indication of how much worse things would have become for my brother had his heart not given up the struggle sooner. I’m now obviously still sad he passed but glad he did not have to go through the worst of this condition. He was already choking when eating and struggling with so many aspects of normal life. He had been a successful man, hard working and devoted to his family. His slow demise was not fitting. He wasn’t happy with what was to come.

Steve’s little-known condition called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), developed in his mid-50s. I know most people don’t have a clue what it is. It was a new one on me, too, so I thought I’d explain because it is another one of those cruel neurological diseases one hears about, which has no hopeful prognosis.

Fortunately for me, it is random, which means I may not get it. Unfortunately for the world at large, it is random, which means any of us could get it. Scary. The NHS describes it factually as follows:

Multiple system atrophy is a disease of the nervous system that leads to premature death. It results in parts of the brain and spinal cord gradually becoming more damaged over time.

It also causes a gradual loss of brain cells from the autonomic nervous system – the nervous system in charge of automatic functions we don’t have to think about, like breathing and bladder control. 

My brother was spared some indignity, but it was hard for his family (luckily, he had an extremely caring one) to watch his increasing mobility problems and loss of speech. Breathing also became difficult until, one day, it was obviously too difficult. Basically, the autonomic nervous system is shot to pieces, so things like huge drops in blood pressure on standing up would mean continual falls and daily struggles.

The brain cells of a person with multiple system atrophy contain misfolded alpha-synuclein protein (of which there is lots of in the brain). It’s thought that a build-up of abnormal alpha-synuclein is responsible for the loss of brain cells. Multiple system atrophy is estimated to affect around 5 in every 100,000 people worldwide. There are almost 3,000 people in the UK living with the disease.

The MSA Trust adds: Parkinson’s disease is about 45 times more common, affecting about 200 per 100,000 in the UK. MSA does not appear to be hereditary although current research is examining whether or not there is a genetic predisposition to develop the disease. The importance of environmental factors is not clear and there is still much to understand about the condition. We do know it is not infectious or contagio

Bro and I during his illness - me supporting him to stand

Bro and I during his illness

us and has no connection with the much more common neurological disease, multiple sclerosis (MS).

2014-04-23-17-56-17

My bro in his prime

You can see that my brother, who had previously seemed to lead a relatively charmed life (largely, it must be said, due to his own efforts) was extremely unlucky.

My brother did not have a rip-roaring rock and roll lifestyle, but he went out as often as he could, celebrated every moment, enjoyed every opportunity. I remember his occasional bursts of honesty in the later days when we mainly communicated via Whatsapp as ‘phone was so difficult for him, and to be honest, I struggled to understand him. His cognitive function was fine, but he could no longer verbally articulate his thoughts to communicate to others.  We used to chat football via Whatsapp, so obviously, that was the topic of our last conversation the day before he ended up in the hospital.

We discussed Jurgen Klopp, and how he would be good for Liverpool. Every time Liverpool F.C. does well under Klopp’s management, I think of my brother.

Less than a week later, after lots of medical interventions throughout which he never regained consciousness, he was gone.  I’m glad I was able to be at his side during that week and when life support was finally removed. He had a lovely send off, but to extend a footballing metaphor, people shouldn’t have to wait to be ‘sent off’ unless they wish to.

Anyway, back to the disease. MSA is a progressive neurological disorder affecting men and women, caused by the degeneration (atrophy) of nerve cells in several parts of the brain. Researchers are trying to find a cause and one day, a cure, rather as with dementia, something with which my family is also terribly familiar.  It used to be called Shy-Drager syndrome. The MSA Trust works to raise awareness of this rare condition, as I am hoping to do here.

Bro keeping an eye on me - with weird hair - at the front

Bro keeping an eye on me – with weird hair – at the front

In reality, if anyone you love sadly develops this condition, it is a death sentence. It will also probably take a good deal of time to be diagnosed (about two years in my brother’s case) because of the gamut of tests needed. It isn’t hereditary, it isn’t dementia. The person remains fully aware of their deteriorating condition. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but when nothing else is left, it seemed positive that my brother still had clarity of thought and could plan ahead. We expected to get another couple of years from him, although knew the condition was progressing fast and that deterioration was accelerating.

 

My brother was spared the indignities of incontinence and tube-feeding, but those are the only positives, to be honest. He had a fantastic sense of humour which only dropped occasionally. After his memorable comment, he went on to last another six months

My big and only brother was an absolute pain when I was younger; he tormented me half to death as big brothers do, but I miss him. I really feel for Omid and anyone else with this awful condition, and hope his fight for help is successful because none of us can know what kind of hell he is going through.

Meanwhile, keep going, Klopp, because when Liverpool do well, I feel my big bro might just be watching and smiling.

 

 

Who do you think you’re apostrophising? The dark side of grammar pedantry

Image 20170405 20472 16dpspa
Sign outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.
William Murphy, CC BY-SA

Rob Drummond, Manchester Metropolitan University

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 Conversation

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?

Clever clogs

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?

As in, belonging to the Earl?
Dirk Ingo Franke, CC BY

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?

As in: more than one Baron?
asands, CC BY

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.

Rob Drummond, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is Wuthering Heights a love story?

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.

He states:

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.

Gender Guesser

Natunika / Pixabay

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).

Genre: Informal
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!

 

When life is too short to finish a book…

Curiously, even the photo is refusing to turn the way I want on this one! A protest…!

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.

Handsworth Library

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.

Effie the Extraordinary

Peonies by Charles Edward Perugini

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.

Sibylla Palmifera by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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. 

Making the room better…

Natunika / Pixabay

fancycrave1 / Pixabay

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.

A Little Hartland History

As you know, local history is rather becoming my thing…

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.

For starters,  I discovered that Hartland Parish, despite being one of the largest in Devon, amounting to 17,000 acres in size, is too hilly for a cricket ground, is bounded by the Atlantic (already knew that bit) and is separated from other parishes by steep valleys. It is a place with its own very real characteristics. As someone once said to me: “you live in Hartland, do you? That’s God’s own country up there”. That said, it’s only just an hour and a half away from the M5, so civilisation is really not SO far away……which especially attracts visitors from the M4/M5 corridor.
Vis-a-vis railways, the place Chope is talking about is, of course, Hartland Point, site of the lighthouse which has become something of a symbol for the area:
 
“When you have sought all England round
Farthest from railways this will be found”.
Of course, in Chope’s pre-Beeching days, we had railways stations at the equidistant, but very different towns of Bude in Cornwall and Bideford in Devon, which were both closed when the unfortunate axe fell.
What a legacy Beeching left. I once interviewed the late Bryan Dudley Stamp in Bude. He told me with great relish of the wonderful journeys he used to have travelling by train from Bude to London, complete with fabulously civilised dining facilities. It may be considered progress but having no trains nearby strikes me as a backward move and one which should be reversed! To pop to Bude and catch a train to Paddington would be a delight. Driving to Tiverton Parkway is somewhat less enticing. Meanwhile, it’s car, bus or cycle to Hartland unless you walk it.
Yet, it is the geographical distance from the main conurbations that give the Hartland Peninsula its undoubted charm, a chance to step away from the stresses of everyday life, a sense of peace and tranquility securely nestled between those high North Devon hedges.
Whale at Hartland Point, 1908

Whale at Hartland Point, 1908

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…

I must accede that Hartland is a small place which is largely cut off from other areas but it is that splendid isolation which provides its unique character. People visit the area for many reasons. Some come for a family holiday, others for total rest and relaxation, some because it is romantic, many for reasons of tranquility, and yet others recovering from illness, in need of peace and quiet, or escaping busy lives (the erratic mobile signal around these parts is a great help at such times.) Some even come here to work, to start that novel, learn a new skill, to have a family get-together or simply to see some spectacular sights and to reflect. And of course, Prince William came here for his stag party, a new tradition which many ‘hens’ and ‘stags’, especially those more mature in age/nature, have since followed.

Another whale!! 2017

The Genuki website, perhaps unfairly, describes Hartland as “a small, decayed market town” and writes of “this bleak parish….bounded on the south by some boggy heights”. A place is what you make of it, and how much you enjoy the area partly depends on whether you are a glass half full or half empty person. Yes, it gets muddy and yes, it struggles economically but it also has some wonderful vistas.
Chope also mentions Lundy, as he really must because of its omnipresence from the Peninsula. It is readily seen from Hartland’s coastline and higher ground, with its own famous weather forecast:
“Lundy high, sign of dry;
Lundy plain, sign of rain; 
Lundy low, sign of snow.”
Blackchurch Rock, Brownsham, Hartland

Blackchurch Rock, Brownsham, Hartland

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.

Hartland is separated from its neighbouring parishes of Clovelly and Welcombe and is thus, as Chope suggests “on the road to nowhere” which reminds me of an old Talking Heads song. In some ways, the A39 Atlantic Highway from the North Devon Link Road to Bude and beyond does Hartland a disservice by helping people to drive straight past it, despite the brown tourism signs highlighting the local attractions like Hartland Abbey, and the artisans’ activities.
Chope also complained that “on all sides, tourists are told that there is nothing to be seen there,” a comment I have heard made by tourists looking for something more along the lines of what Newquay has to offer. Certainly, it is not the place for clubbers!  This is why the volunteer-led Hartland Peninsula Association originated, to promote tourism in this little-known jewel, but in a sustainable way which would not detract from its astonishingly rare beauty. To those who say there is nothing to see here, I say: “try looking up” for Hartland has the most amazing sunsets and sunrises, plus regular blankets of stars to light the way, and that’s without even veering near to the stunning coast.
However, there are still people to whom the area is largely unknown, distant and a little mystical. For walkers, however, it embraces the at times strenuous South West Coast Path, in itself a magnificent attraction, and offers some beautiful sights, such as carpets of spring bluebells, snowdrops, and daffodils at Hartland Abbey. We used to visit Cornwall and Devon regularly, even before we had children; our first holiday with our eldest daughter was in fact in a cottage at nearby Eastcott, just over the Cornish border near Morwenstow, from where we visited Hartland Quay and Hartland Point  (when you could actually reach the lighthouse) among other places.
There is a dark side to such rugged beauty, of course, which is, historically, the number of wrecks  found in the area, the remains of the Johanna still haunting Hartland Point. It has not been called the ‘Wreckers Coast’ for nothing, for the coast here, lashing against the rocks, takes no prisoners. The lighthouse reduced the number of these (and satnav will presumably continue to do so) but the local proverb still rings true when you see the sea lashing against the rocks at the Quay during a storm:
“From Padstow Port to Lundy Light
Is a watery grave by day or night”.
MS Oldenburg ferry sailing to Lundy by Jo Stewart-Smith, used in previous Boat Stories reports.

MS Oldenburg ferry sailing to Lundy by Jo Stewart-Smith, used in Boat Stories reports.

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:

Will you hear of Cruel Coppinger
He came from a foreign land;
He was brought to us by the salt water,
He was carried away by the wind!
which refers to Coppinger’s disappearing act when chased by the Revenue men.
The coast is indeed spectacularly dangerous, but conversely, hauntingly beautiful, inspirational to writers, artists, and photographers alike. The coastal waterfall at Spekes (Spekes Mill is a series of coastal waterfalls, with the first fall nearly 54ft high) and the awesome rock formations framing the Quay were even mentioned by Charles Kingsley, writer of The Water Babies and Westward Ho!:
 
“There must have been strange work here, when all these strata were being pressed and squeezed together like a ream of wet paper between the rival granite pincers of Dartmoor and Lundy”.
They are absolutely breathtaking or, as Chope says, they “baffle description completely”. Sadly, the iconic Hartland Point lighthouse was put on the market and received offers over and above the asking price, so its future is uncertain. It was erected in 1874 as a remarkable piece of engineering (for, Chope tells us, the surveyor couldn’t get anywhere near the site and had to make observations and measurements from a ship at sea) and will hopefully be allowed to maintain its character, which is so vital to the Hartland Peninsula identity. My own favoured rumour was that Damien Hirst would open it as an art gallery, but I think it is but a dream.
Hartland, Middle of Nowhere?

Hartland, Middle of Nowhere

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.

Chope writes at length about St Nectan and the church at Stoke hamlet, 2 miles from Hartland, itself a fascinating building with a huge history, but he also mentions the town of Hartland itself. Formerly a borough, it held weekly markets and two annual fairs, from about 1280 onwards. A granite cross was built as a war memorial in the square, as close as possible to the site of the old market cross. The old town clock was made into a pendulum clock by John Morcombe of Barnstaple in 1657- 8 at a cost of £1. The space beneath the hall was used as a market-house with shambles for butchers and stands for hatters, glovers, and tanners. Malting, cheesemaking, brewing, and cider-making were also locally produced. You can imagine a veritable hive of activity here in its heyday. Now, it is a sleepy village, still seasidey with its coloured houses, and a hive of activity in the workshops, though these are all behind the scenes.
The town also had stocks, plus a cucking-stool for punishing women with a dunking and the associated ritual humiliation. This was especially used for offences which were sexual in nature or involved scolding/gossiping. Not sure the men were ever treated equally badly.  Bull-baiting was also provided as a bit of entertainment once or twice a year, with cock-fighting more regularly and maypole games, all community-based activities even if some of them are to 21st-century eyes barbaric. A bit of den of iniquity was old Hartland, or Harton, and you can read more about the history as you try a historic walk.
Hartland also enjoys a military history, for it was assumed by many that the French would land at Blackpool Mill during the Napoleonic Wars, a place which has been used more recently for the filming of Sense and Sensibility. An effigy of the hated Napoleon was said to have been chained to one of the devil and set up on Hartland Point. It is said that “on the very day Napoleon escaped from Elba, a great storm arose and swept his effigy into the sea”. 
Well, Chope was a mine of information. Who knew?

Fact and fiction…

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!