A tribute by Sandra Horn

One of the most common questions I am asked about writing is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
          Having ideas is not the problem – it’s how to knit them into a story. Writing is a bit like knitting a fairisle pattern; the colours matter, the shape of the components matter, there should be a rhythm to it.  So: my kids’ reactions when they had been up to something and caught out + Odysseus and the Cyclops/a Hob story from Sussex + vague thoughts about thick bullies = a Nobody, Him and Me pattern. 
         Our first child howling except when being driven round in the car + watching the white horses off Portland Bill +  friends’ older children’s reactions to a new baby = a Rory McRory pattern.
         The Law of Conservation of Matter + my Great- grandad’s ‘allotment’ scarecrow + post-natal jimjams about dying = a Tattybogle pattern, etc.
          So, this blog is knitted from Reb’s suggestion about a tribute to my mother – (thank you, Reb – I had the horrors when you mooted it but that has changed of late) + Julia’s brilliant blog about the word-hoard + reading  ‘The Dandelion Wish’ out loud and realizing I hadn’t got the rhythm right AT ALL – and how did I let that happen? I wasn't listening...

I think I’ve said before, I grew up in a word-rich environment: Brummie Dad, Cornish Nan, Sussex Great-grandparents, Grandad, Aunties and Uncles. All of them spun yarns out of the day’s events and bits of gossip. They weren’t ‘educated’ – the language was vernacular; full of colour, humour and grammatical errors. I treasure a postcard  from my lovely Auntie Daisy, the first one in the family to go abroad on holiday. She went to France. The card says’ ‘Can’t understand a word what the people say. Wish you was here.’
          The womenfolk didn’t swear, but the men’s speech was peppered with ‘bugger’ as a form of emphasis – ‘I said to him, bugger, I said, what you want to do that for?’  My mother, blushing, would occasionally mutter, ‘donkey’s grave’ – (arse/ass hole).  She had a repertoire of words and phrases all her own: ‘gelated haspectos’ (frozen bum); hobstropolous (obstreperous) and we joined in. Elasmic is that stretchy stuff; we always read the destructions leaflets that came with appliances, medicines and the like. Words were more than just a way of communicating information. They were a treat.
          The oldest of eight children, and a girl, Mum had to leave school at fourteen and was sent into service at one of the big houses in the area, as an under-the-radar skivvy.  Even though she’d had less chance of an education than her younger siblings, her passion for books meant that her capacity for language was amazing.  She loved poetry and knew chunks of it off by heart.  Among her treasured possessions, which are now mine, were The Complete Works of Rupert Brooke and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  She quoted Kipling, Chesterton, Belloc  at odd moments, and sang around the house, almost under her breath, the romantic songs of the day: Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me… Keep the Home Fires Burning…The Bells of St Mary’s… and also comic and music hall numbers – He shall die! He shall die! He shall die-tiddly –eye die die die! I’ll raise up a bunion on his Spanish onion if I catch him bending tonight!
          Then, in amongst the ordinary, the everyday words, song lyrics and inventions, I was treated to gems such as these:
          From the Rubaiyyat:
Awake! For morning in the bowl of night
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight:
And lo!  The Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.

          From Brooke – everybody knows Grantchester, but what about this comic piece, called Heaven:
Fish (fly-replete in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream or Pond;
But is there anything beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant if it were!

          From Chesterton’s Song of the Quoodle:
They haven’t got no noses,
The fallen sons of Eve;
But even the smell of roses
Is more than mind discloses
And more than men believe.

          And, of course,
Before the Roman came to Rye or over Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

          Then there are her absolute favourites – poems about Sussex:
…I shall gather carefully and make my friends
Of the men of the Sussex Weald;
They watch the stars from silent folds.
They stiffly plough the fields.
By them and the God of the South Country
My poor soul shall be healed.

          And the master of them all, in Mum’s eyes, Kipling, especially when he wrote about Sussex:
‘The dim, blue goodness of the Weald’

‘It’s hop-bine yaller,
It’s woodsmoke blue’

God gave all men all earth to love,
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Beloved over all…

I read part of that last one (Sussex) at her funeral.  I read ‘Four and Twenty Ponies’ out loud to try to recreate my proper accent before recording Tattybogle; to get the feel of the words, to set a rhythm. I owe my mother the gift of words and patterns; a gift she probably did not know she’d given me.  I owe her the fierce support that kept me on at school and university – ‘You are fulfilling my dreams,’ she once said to me, ‘I hope that’s all right…’  It’s a lot more than all right, Mum, thank you.


Bill Kirton said…
A beautiful piece, Sandra. It reinforces the power not just of pretty, well-placed words, but of all words, and your conclusion is so simple yet so powerful. I'm sure it's a sentiment shared by many of us.
Susan Price said…
I was going to say this was a beautiful piece, but Bill beat me to it! I agree with everything he says - but was also struck by the similarities between your childhood and mine. I come from the industrial Black Country, and my parents were from hard backgrounds and uneducated - but loved reading, loved words and telling stories and encouraged us they could.
They also loved music and drawing, painting - in fact they were very creative people, thrown away by our stupid educational/social system.
Lydia Bennet said…
We are lucky to have a love of language as part of our lives and our work, and your tribute to those who instilled it in you is lovely.
Enid Richemont said…
A wonderful blog, Sandra - I think your mum and my mum would have had a lot in common. She was Welsh working class, loved words and music and singing and dancing. Like you, I picked up rude old music hall songs and songs from the first World War - can still sing them. She thought swearing was wicked, though...NB I LOVED yours's word for arsehole!!!

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