Thursday, 25 September 2014

An Interrogation of... Susan Price



1 What’s the daftest thing you’ve ever done? – Come on, admit it.
      My mother always took great delight in telling people that I once made a jelly in the tea-kettle.
      I came home from school one day to find the house empty. It was one of those bitterly cold winter days, and we didn't have central heating, or any heat in the house at all except a fire in the living-room.
     I wasn't allowed to do much in the kitchen - I was only about 9. But I was allowed to boil a kettle - in fact, it was my regular chore to make the pots of tea. So I decided to make a jelly to cheer everyone up.
     I boiled the kettle and poured the boiling water on the bright orange cubes in the pyrex bowl.
     But it was so cold in the kitchen that the boiling water cooled before the cubes were half-melted.
     What to do? I took the lid off the kettle, poured the cold water and jelly cubes inside, and boiled the kettle again. It worked a treat. I poured the jelly from the kettle into the bowl, and all the cubes had melted. The jelly soon set in the cold.
      When everyone came home, they were quite pleased to find there was jelly for pudding. It was a nice crunchy jelly too - full of little bits of lime-scale from the kettle.
      Later, when I did my usual job of making a pot of tea, it was found the tea had an odd flavour. My parents kept sipping it, trying to identify what, exactly, it tasted of. Eventually one of them ventured that it tasted much the same as the jelly. 'Oh, yes,' I said. I hadn't thought to mention it before.  'The jelly went cold, so I heated it up in the kettle.' Days passed before the tea was tea-flavoured again.
     I've probably done a lot of dafter things, but that was the one my mother always remembered.

2 What do you know about your great-grandparents?
     On  my father's side, my great-grandfather was a coal-miner named Little Jody Price. On Saturdays, merry on beer, he used to tap-dance, at the top of Oldbury town, to the Salvation Army Band. He'd sing, "These are the feet that tap so neat!" Catching sight of his wife and daughters passing by, he'd shout, 'Look at me, Shuck!' His wife and daughters pretended they didn't know him.
     His answer, I'm told, to every disagreement with a man was to pull off his jacket while saying, "Outside!" But the stories that have come down to me about him are affectionate. He had six children (that I know of) and though they laughed at him, they seemed to have been fond of him.
     His wife, I'm told, greeted every visitor with, 'Hast had yer fittle?' - Have you had your food? And every Friday night she made everyone in the family line up to have a spoonful of foul 'Fennings Fever Cure.' The only one who escaped was her little dog, a corgi named Pedro.
      The rationale for swallowing the awful stuff was that it would save you from the ever-present danger of  'catching a fever from a drain.' The familyargued that, since Pedro was closer to the ground than anybody else, he was closer to the fearful drains, and more in danger of catching a fever. It cut no ice. Pedro ate his dinner from a plate set at the table, and drank tea from a china-cup, but he didn't get a spoonful of Fennings.
      My Great Grandfather Savage was a highly intelligent, brutal man, a blacksmith, who lived up to his name. He once threw a conductor off the top of a tram. I was told that all his six surviving children (his 'common-law' wife had borne 18) hated him with a real and sincere hatred. Not one of them would have him in their house when he was dying - and when he was dead they got him the cheapest funeral possible, grudging every penny spent on the old horror - 'Hearse, two carriages, coffin, the lot, nine quid.' And after the funeral was done, his youngest son, Frank - who he'd kicked insensible once - went back to the grave and pissed on the coffin's name-plate.
          On my mother's side there was a great-grandmother, Catherine, who was 'a seamstress from County Cork.' She came to England as a widow with teenage children, and would never marry my great-grandfather, the 'red-headed Welsh milkman named Jones,' (that was his full title: I never heard him called anything else) because, if she married, she would lose the pension paid to her by her late husband's employers - whoever they were. 
          But she got it on with the red-headed Welsh milkman, anyway, because my grandfather was his red-headed son, and took his mother's surname, not Jones. He passed his red hair onto my mother and one of her brothers - though the others were dark, like my grandmother.
       Great Gran Catherine, I'm told, earned her living by doing 'beautiful white-on-white embroidery.'

       So there you are - English, Irish, Welsh. My family were only lacking a Scot to complete the set, so I went out and legged one up: my partner, Davy. He was a red-head too, in his younger days.
 
Peter Dinklage
3 Stark or Lannister?
           Well, Stark, of course. I've always leaned to the North. I hanker for a heart-tree.
          But I do think that the best character in the books is probably Tyrion Lannister. And Peter Dinklage plays him so well in the TV series. I look forward to any scene he's in.


4 Is it immoral to spend £10,000 on a handbag?
          This is a crafty question, isn't it? It comes from one of the deliberately difficult questions set to Oxbridge candidates.
          I think we're all meant to say, yes, of course it is! - And yes, it is. Nobody needs a handbag that costs £10,000. (How do you even make a handbag that costs £10,000? My friend has a bag made from hand-woven strips of old carrier bags. Unique, but the materials probably cost less than 80p.)
          If you can afford to spend £10,000 on a handbag, you have seriously too much money. And if you can't afford it, but spend it anyway, you have seriously too little brain.
          But why does it cost that much? Materials? The wages of highly-skilled men and women? Is the £10,000 handbag industry keeping craftsmen and women in employment? Tanners, smiths, silk-weavers and designers?
          If you don't have a trade in stupidly expensive luxury items, then they don't have jobs.
         But when they do have jobs, they spend the money they earn making stupidly expensive handbags on more sensible and necessary things  - and so it goes into the pay-packets of many others - who spend it in their turn. Money's only any use when it's moving - and I suppose that spending ten thousand quids on one handbag liberates a large amount of cash to freely roam.
          Did the Pharoahs spend huge sums and centuries of effort on building pyramids merely because they were self-aggrandising meglomaniacs - or did the custom become so firmly established because it kept employment high and kept trade circulating? - Maybe £10,000 handbags fall into the same class as pyramids - or immense stone-circles. They boost the economy in a more peaceful way than warfare.
          I still think £10,000 handbags are stupid. Buy one for £30 from M&S and spend the rest on books.

5 Would your 16 year old self like you?
          I hope this doesn't sound smug, but I think my 16-year old self would be amazed by me - I've made a living by writing books! Which was an ambition dearly held by that 16-year old.
          I stand up and give talks to people who pay me for it. My 16-year old self would be staggered that I could do something so terrifying, and disbelieving that I could possibly earn money from it.
          The house I live in, I own it; the car I'm driving, I own it. I've been in a settled and happy, if unconventional, relationship for 17 years (with that erstwhile red-headed Scot.) None of this seemed remotely achievable to my 16-year old self, even though I signed my first publishing contract at that age.
          But 'liking'? I'm not sure either of us would like the other. I think she'd think me big-headed, smug and fake. I think I'd find her a sad sack. It's hard to say which one of us would be more in the right.


6 If you could change one historical event, in any period, what would it be?
          Harald Godwinson would win the Battle of Hastings - which he came very close to doing anyway.

          I once tried to work out what today would be like if Christianity had never become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Paganism had persisted to the present day. I came to the conclusion that not very much would have changed - because, I think, history is driven by economics and technology, not by philosophy and religion. Morality would have a different gloss, but that's all.
          So, I don't really think things would be much better, or fairer, if Harald had won. But hey... It's perhaps fractionally less annoying to spend a thousand years being swindled and stabbed in the back by your own kin than by foreigners.

7  “I don't care if anyone reads my books; I write for myself.” Is there anything wrong with this as a theory of art?
       I think there is. Others will disagree.
       For me, art is communication. As Sting put it, it's 'a message in a bottle.' You set out how you feel, and cast the bottle out there, in the hope that it bumps into someone who can understand the message.
       One of the great values of literature, in whatever form, is the message it contains: 'This is how it feels for another person. This is how the world looks from inside another human being.'
        The writer, sitting alone, making up stories, is scribbling the note for the bottle. The job isn't complete until it's put inside the bottle and cast adrift.
        Certainly, the writer will learn about themselves. There's a lot of truth in, 'How do I know what I think until I read what I've written?' - But if they then keep that knowledge to themselves, and don't allow anyone else to comment on it - well, to use another metaphor, that's a short-circuit. The power isn't doing any useful work. It's a waste of energy.

Susan Price has won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award
Her website is here
Her own blog is here

19 comments:

madwippitt said...

:-)
I never had you down as a handbag person ... but if you MUST have one, then might I suggest buying one from a charity shop (where it might very well turn out to be an M&S model - or possibly something much nicer)and which will help support a cause other than a hefty, fat chainstore? :-)

Lee said...

I feel that literature is closer to miscommunication than communication: the illusion -- indeed, often the very deliberate illusion -- of how it feels for another person. Like the best actors, when we read we aren't imagining/entering into/becoming another person, but accessing another part of ourselves.

@madwippet: YES to charity shops! I get almost all our stuff from them, and you'd be amazed at the quality you can turn up.

Nick Green said...

Thank you so much for that particular message in a bottle. My father said never open a bottle before 11 in the morning but that was a fantastic start to my day. The stories of your forebears were my favourite bit... and your insightful analysis of the Great Handbag of Cheops dilemma. Oh, all of it. Where can I get a refill?

Nick Green said...

And yes, you have to admire Harald G. Lots of people remember him as a loser, forgetting his epic dash northwards to defeat Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, covering the distance in a time that still boggles the mind. And then doing it all again to get back to Hastings. His men must have been shattered by then, and yet they still put up a decent scrap.

Saxons would have been better than Normans, certainly. Most of what became the British upper classes were predominantly of Norman extraction, while Saxons formed much of the lower classes and still do to this day, apparently.

Bill Kirton said...

Loved it, Susan. Ancestors to be proud of (mostly).

Susan Price said...

Thank you all!

Madwippet - I'm not really a handbag person, no. I'm forced into carrying one, sometimes, when I have to dress up, by women's clothes without pockets. But my favourite is one like a small rucksack, which I can sling on my back. - But I like the question because it gets people arguing.

Charity shops - my partner is a great lover of charity shops and boot sales, and he's found some remarkable bargains. But whenever I go to one, they seem to have sold all the good stuff just minutes before. I usually end up having to go to one of those pesky stores which actually stock something approximating to what I need/want.

Lee - I rather agree with you about the miscommunication! - I'd go further and agree with the definition of language as a system which enables us to misunderstand each other. But it, and literature, remains the best way of communicating that we've got, for all its faults. Maybe, in the future, when we can directly experience someone else's thoughts and emotions via a sort of biological wi-fi (and they're working on it) we won't need language or literature ever again. But for now, I think, we do, for all its faults.

Susan Price said...

Thanks, Nick and Bill. Yes, I like Godwinson for a lot of reasons. He was part Danish and supposedly had Elf-ancestors. He wasn't King by any kind of hereditary 'right' but at least partly elected (and quite a lot because he would have probably killed anybody who said he couldn't be King.)
And, as you say, he qualified as heroic by anybody's standards. As far as I'm concerned, he was the last rightful King of England. I don't recognise any monarch after him.

You're right, Bill, it's hard to be proud of my Great Grandfather Savage - though I always enjoyed the many stories I was told about him. I am rather proud of his daughter, Mary. When she was about 17, she was about to go out. Her father told her, threatening violence in his usual manner, that she couldn't.
The story goes that she quite calmly picked up a stone bottle from the table, hit him on the head with it and laid him out cold on the kitchen floor. She then went out - and, so says the story, 'he never spoke to her, or bothered her again.' A role model.

Reb MacRath said...

Wonderful postt, Susan. And, as a hater of bullies, I love the story of Mary. A role model, indeed.

Chris Longmuir said...

I loved this post Susan, and I liked the jelly in the kettle bit. That shows initiative. I'm afraid my daftest thing on the cooking front was very mundane in comparison. I managed to burn boiled eggs because I went back to my computer after I put them on to boil. a couple of hours later neither the eggs nor the pot were worth saving!

Lydia Bennet said...

Great post Susan as usual, I love your family stories - you should write your family memoir! Such characters. Good for Mary! As a crime writer and keen local history author I'm wondering how many of the 12 children who died were killed by being 'kicked insensible' once too often... Such brutality was common at one time and let's not forget, sanctioned by the church and state. I too am a fan of Harald G. I think his achievement was almost incredible, his men too - to fight a battle, win it, and march up the entire country to fight another one, amazing and not surprising they lost. Worth remembering too, the only French to conquer us were 'Normans' i.e. 'Norsemen' who'd settled that area of France from Scandinavia. I do have some sneaking sympathy for William the conk, he was known as 'William the Bastard' and I think the driving force of his conquest was to get a cooler nickname. (seriously he had a massive chip on his shoulder).

Nick Green said...

Newsflash, William: you're still a bastard.

Bill Kirton said...

The saga gets better with every telling, Susan. What a great lot they were.

Susan Price said...

Thanks Chris - I rather think my innovative use of the kettle showed initiative, but I could never get my parents to see it that way. - But I've burned a lot of stuff after being distracted by the computer too!

Thanks for the compliment, Valerie. I've wondered, too, how many of the Savage children deceased through ill treatment, but the stories don't let on. It was pointed out to me that the Price family was unusual for the time and place in that Little Jody didn't beat his wife or children.

I can't share your enthusiasm for William the Bastard, though - I agree with Nick. He was an invader, and he brutally razed the North of England. And although the feudal system existed before him, he brought in the Forest Laws, I believe, and generally hardened the class system.

I once heard said about a remote Welsh village: 'They haven't come to terms with the Romans yet.' Seems true of much of England too. And the Scots.

Lee said...

Dear me, what a nation of cowed children you must have once raised if you think boiling up jelly in a kettle shows all that much initiative. No aspersion meant on you or your solution, Susan, but it's the sort of lateral thinking, as it was once termed, that I consider normal to encourage in child-rearing.

Dennis Hamley said...

Great post, Sue. Yes, Harald G was a great man and William the B is responsible for most of today's society's woes (pork -pig? mutton - lamb?) The Normans weren't really all that French even though they made it temporarily the toffs' language. I wish my family was so close-knit that I could go back in such marvellous detail several generations. But then, I might find things I don't like and wouldn't dare talk about, let alone commit to paper.

Lydia Bennet said...

I only said I had a sneaking sympathy for William, not enthusiasm for! and of course violent conquest was not unusual among all the gangs and nations around at the time.

Sandra Horn said...

Great post, Sue - especially the ancestors. Kelly in the Jettle - isn't that a Northumbrian folk song? If it isn't, it should be.

Pauline Chandler said...

I love the stories about your great grandad. Wonderful post, Sue!

Kathleen Jones said...

It's a lovely post Sue - thoroughly enjoyed it! ESpecially the jelly in the kettle. :-)