'...Who doesn't think she dances but would rather like to try' by Dennis Hamley

I never thought I would equate myself with the 'lady from the provinces' on the Lord High Executioner's 'little list' in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. But circumstances have conspired to make me.

The last two months have been really rather extraordinary. Up till then, my writing life had proceeded like it has for the last four years. There's been perilously little new writing. Two big projects , the completion of the Ellen trilogy and The Second Man from Porlock, my Coleridge novel, keep being put off partly because other things persist in turning up and partly because I sometimes think that, deep down, I'm a bit afraid of them. Instead I've been preparing, and, twice, almost rewriting, books for Kindle, making selections of short stories from over the years on Createspace and at last publishing new work both on Createspace and for educational publishers. And there are two books nearly ready to go on Createspace, which I blogged about before. Though they aren't quite there yet.

Stop looking at me like that, Sam. I'll get on with it, I will, I will.

So what are these things which persist in turning up? First, there is the Dora project, the story of the Ganev family's escape from communist Bulgaria, about which I also blogged a while ago. This is now coming to a conclusion as I complete the brothers' account of their magnificent and undetected journey across Jugoslavia into Italy, which has provided me with not only an inspiring task but also the most effective piece of avoidance strategy you can imagine. But it is, I think, a labour of love which couldn't possibly be repeated.  Then came two unexpected encounters which have set me off in directions I could never have envisaged.

One day we met in the street a friend of ours, a Chinese jeweller, by name Margaret Quon, with whom Kay has sometimes exhibited during the Oxford Artweeks. She was telling us how she was expanding her online business and developing a very comprehensive new website. But, she said, she had a difficulty. She had to provide descriptions, information and blurbs for the website which would attract attention and perhaps be selling points in themselves.

'And I don't think I  can do that,' she said. 'I need someone who is good with words.'

We sympathised and I muttered something to the effect that doing advertising copy was a specialised skill which I knew nothing about. 'Oh,' she said. 'Well, someone told me that you might be good at it.'

Normally, I think I would have replied, 'Well, that someone can get knotted.' But for some reason I said instead, 'OK, I'll have a go,' even though I knew ABSOLUTELY NOTHING  about gemstones. I had no idea, for example, what colour a sapphire is and had never even either heard or read the word 'Peridot'. I'm still not sure how to pronounce it. When we got home, I muttered, 'What a twerp I am. This will not end well.' I nearly rang to say I couldn't do it.

Ah, now I know what colour a sapphire is.

And then Margaret sent me her first tranche of products to write about, with basic instructions in what was wanted. So I set to work. And it was real fun! I've often quoted Martin Amis: 'the novelist's art is to appear to know a lot more than you actually do' and this project has made me realise again how true that is. From knowing nothing, a quick trawl of the internet meant I suddenly seemed to know quite a lot. Well, not actually know it as a true learning experience but certainly as the sort of temporary Govian apprehension which passes for learning these days, so for just a few moments I was master of the situation. I could use it for my own ends and then let it pass out of my mind. Just like a year 6 pupil doing the SATs, except that I know how to retrieve the information if I need it again.

So I was trying to write copy which might cause the punters to choose Margaret's work above all others. Well, I have to admit that the blurb alone has never, as far as I remember, fired me into buying any particular article (except books, of course). On the other hand, I do believe that if the writer has enjoyed writing something there is a marginally raised chance that the reader will enjoy reading it. And I soon realised I was enjoying writing them.

But  a difficulty  straight away. I had no idea that the supposed therapeutic qualities of particular stones were sometimes used as actual selling points, with little to suggest they might not actually be true. I didn't think anyone would be conned by this, but you never know and since I believe that these qualities are a load of codswallop, what should I do about it? Besides, I didn't want to give anyone the chance to sue Margaret, or me for that matter,  under the Trades Descriptions Act. My first answer was to use phrases such as 'our ancestors believed' or 'It was once said' or 'people thought that...',which let me continue with an easy mind.  But there were soon too many of these disclaimers and I had to lighten it all up a bit.

Rose Quartz

I soon had a test case to get it right with the Rose Quartz necklace. In the website photograph, it looks stunning on  the model and, of course, Rose Quartz inevitably has a 'mystic power'. The final sentence of my blurb illustrates the problem.

As a "Love Stone', Rose Quartz, it is said, will teach you
how to give love and how to receive it from others.

'It is said.' By now, these are weasel words. The necklace has a single strand of stones. The next item is a Rose Quartz necklace with two strands of stones. Oh dear. What to do? I can't just repeat the earlier rigmarole, so I made the shortest blurb I could.

Two strands of  quartz means twice the love, so don't hesitate!

This probably won't sell a single extra necklace but I'm quite pleased with it. However, soon the problem rose even more starkly. Margaret is starting a birthstone project in July. No, of course I don't need to tell you what a birthstone is, even though six weeks ago I had no idea there were such things.

But finding out about them was fascinating, from their first appearance on Aaron's Shield to the intricate cross-culture of today. To write separate descriptive pieces for each stone is interesting enough but I was surprised when Margaret herself suggested I write stories about them because I thought that might be a suggestion too far for me to make

But how to do it? The first requirement, I thought, was to introduce all the supposed mystical qualities in the stones and weave the stories round them. But once again the 'Our ancestors believed...' and 'It is said that...' formulae raised their ugly heads. And that wasn't what I wanted at all. So I made the big decision. These stories would be sheer fantasy, set at times and in places where the mystic overtones would be regarded as obvious truth, where gods walked with humans, sometimes as themselves, sometimes as shapeshifters, and the world itself, though dangerous, was nevertheless a numinous, liminal place. I realised I'd never tried anything quite like this but there's always a first time and old dogs - and cats - can learn new tricks.

So I invented a Round Table in another dimension. Thirteen women sit there. One is the Guardian of the Birthstones. The other twelve, one for each month, are the Bearers of the Birthstones. Their task is to seek out those who need the birthstones most. So they look down from their other-worldly eyrie through mythologies, legends, prehistoric societies, for women in trouble. I have finished the first story, for July the month of the ruby. Simha, who is Bearer of the Birthstone for July - who I describe as Indian because many rubies are mined in India and so she can claim a sort of ownership - spies Sorcha, an Irish girl in the days of Cuchulain, who has fled war in her own city and has been visited by the Morrigan, Celtic goddess of war, in the guise of a crow. The Morrigan tells her that her city is destroyed and her husband and sons are dead. Simha sees this, seeks Sorcha out, gives her the ruby and guides her back home. There, Sorcha realises that the Morrigan had lied to her. The story comes to 913 words and I aim to write eleven more stories, aiming for under 1000 words for each one. Each story will be a variation on this theme. I am enjoying this! It's a good writing challenge. Who knows, when they're all done, they might make a complete book.

August next. Two stones, Peridot and Sardonyx. How to deal with two in one story?        



No sooner had I started work for Margaret's website than another freak happening came my way. My first ever full-time job was teaching English at Stockport Grammar School, from 1960 to 1964, with a strangely larger-than-life, eccentrically-inclined staff and students. Many happy memories. But I'd never been back to Stockport, though oddly, ex-students seem to keep turning up at intervals throughout my life. Even now I get unexpected emails from pupils I dimly remember, but who are now well into their sixties and seventies.

One such is my good friend John Cannon, to whom I taught English when he was in 3a. It was he and his new wife who put the idea into our minds to elope to Gretna, because he reported that they'd just eloped to Iceland. He told me that a mutual friend, another ex-pupil, had died and that there was to be a memorial concert in Stockport at the end of May. Would we like to go? Well, yes, I answered. So off we all went.

It was a beautiful concert and at it I met several old students and also the organiser, John Turner, Recorderist - by which I mean he is a professional recorder player and seems to make a good living out of it. He asked me if I'd consider writing words to be set to music, because many years ago a music teacher at the school, Douglas Steele, who I always regarded as an unsung genius, had set  a verse rather beautifully from my first book, which was a modern rendering of plays from the Wakefield mystery cycle. John told me that he had a singer in mind. Of course, I said I'd have a go and sent a few more medieval texts in modern versions, largely developed from snatches I'd done for The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay.

I don't, by the way, regard these versions as translations. Middle English doesn't need too much effort to understand. It's the rhythm and, often, the alliteration which matters. In A Devil's Judgement I give to a minstrel, who suffers a nasty end a few pages after he sings it, a snatch from a 14th century poem The Blacksmiths. You'll find it in Kenneth Sisam's Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (OUP).

It's energetic, highly alliterative but doesn't rhyme. There are also two lines near the beginning which sound almost like a chorus. Though the poem has tongue-twisting elements in it, I think it could be sung, though actual singers might disagree. I'm waiting now to hear what the verdict is. I decided that I would use those two lines as a real chorus throughout, though modified for the last line. I would also construct a strict rhyme scheme, keep the alliteration as far as I could and accentuate the rhythm to make it more of a formal piece while trying to keep that essential energy.  Another writing challenge which I loved taking up.

Well, I've wondered about this all the while I've been writing and now I've decided. You're going to get the lot whether you like it or not! So here we are.


Sooty, sweaty blacksmiths, spattered all with smoke,
Such a racket every night, it never stops, never.
They drive me to death with their desperate din,
It just goes on, for ever and for ever.

‘Huff! Puff!’ goes one, ‘Haff! Paff!’ goes the other.
‘Pick! Pack! Hick! Hack! Tick! Tack!’ goes his brother.

What knavish shouts, like the curses, screams and oaths
Of misshapen changelings who were damned at their birth.
What battering blows, like deadly thunderbolts
Flung by foul demons at our cowering Earth!

‘Huff! Puff!’ goes one, ‘Haff! Paff!’ goes the other.
‘Pick! Pack! Hick! Hack! Tick! Tack!’ goes his brother.

They gnaw and they gnash and they groan all together,
They spit and they sprawl and they shriek shocking spells,
They blow up their bellows until their brains burst
And their filthy leather aprons spew out horrible smells.

‘Huff! Puff!’ goes one, ‘Haff! Paff!’ goes the other.
‘Pick! Pack! Hick! Hack! Tick! Tack!’ goes his brother.

Their shanks are shackled from the ravening furnace.
They hold their hammers high and they strike cruel blows
Till their job is done. Oh, Christ, give them sorrow.
These armourers aren’t paid to worsen good men’s woes.

‘Huff! Puff!’ goes one, ‘Haff! Paff!’ goes the other.
Oh God, make it stop. Let me never hear another!

Original text: 14th century, British Library, Arundel MS
Text used: 14th century Verse and Prose (Ed. Kenneth Sisam) OUP 1921.

Oh how I love doing this sort of thing.  Sorry, Coleridge. You'll have to wait a bit longer.

Here are Margaret's details.

Margaret's website: www.mbymargaretquon.etsy.com

 Margaret's Facebook Page:  www.facebook.com/mbymargaretquon


Jan Needle said…
Hamley, you never cease to amaze me! But what's this about being in Stockport? Why wasn't we told? Love to you both
Bill Kirton said…
What a great post. A distillation of so much of the fun and enjoyment of being a writer - from the commercial head scratchings and determination to raise the genre's profile to the sheer pleasure of harnessing technicalities such as alliteration and rhythm to create effects beyond simple meanings. I know that mastering both must be highly satisfying but I hope it proves profitable, too, for you and Margaret.

(And for me there was an extra bonus - the discovery that one of my birthstones is Sardonyx. Unless there's one called miserableoldgityx, that'll do nicely.)
Susan Price said…
I'm cheering for you, Dennis! - but can't believe you didn't know what colour a sapphire was.
Dennis Hamley said…
Sue, you would be amazed at the number of things I don't know. Or perhaps you wouldn't.

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