Saturday, 29 February 2020

Notes from a reformed perfectionist: N M Browne

Once upon a time I was a perfectionist. This will come as a surprise to anyone who has known me over the last thirty years. I am untidy, careless, a last minute by the skin of my teeth kind of person, an optimistic, ‘it’ll be all right on the night’ under-preparer.
 Long ago, in the days when my hair was long and brown and I’d never heard of anti wrinkle night cream,  I was conscientious, disciplined, ambitious and er teetotal.
God, I miss that girl. She would have a clean, well-organised office, a full work schedule and would probably be far too busy doing something important to write a rambling self-indulgent blog.  However,  I can’t entirely regret her demise because, though a small number of brilliant perfectionists publish incredible books, I suspect that most perfectionists don’t publish anything at all – lost in an eternal editing loop: nothing is ever perfect.
 I was made very aware of what I’d lost when I was chatting to a friend last night. She is still a perfectionist and  I, very unfairly, rely on her to do all the work in our choir so that I merely follow where she leads. I don’t think she could believe that this lazy, red wine toper with such a cavalier attitude to tuning, timing and indeed singing had a perfectionist hair on her unbrushed head. When she asked, a little dubiously, how I had eradicated this tendency so completely, she really made me think.
   It probably began at university when I decided not to live in the library or indeed go to lectures. By the time I did an MBA I was half cured and there the workload was so heavy ‘satisficing’ – ie just getting through, was the main aim. Then there were the children and a whole twenty years or so when getting to the end of a day with everyone more or less in one piece was enough. I stopped setting myself ridiculous goals and berating myself for never achieving them, I learned to live in the moment, enjoy the now, wake up and smell the coffee. ( I may have overdone that last)  Along the way I also lost my competitiveness, my desire to be the best, which only now re-emerges when I play my husband at Scrabble.
   Losing my perfectionist streak has been a kind of slow accommodation with failure, or at least with limited success – accepting that a book is not necessarily going to rock the literary world, but is at least finished, that my writing may not be brilliant but is  good enough. Perhaps though, in this last act, now is the time when my life and my writing would be improved by a rediscovery of this long lost personality trait?
I don’t think it will be easy. As I write on my laptop in an armchair thinking about lunch,  I am trying to persuade myself to clean my office, arrange my pens in size and colour order and reinstate some serious self-discipline.( And to learn my music.)
  Writers can  be too exacting but we can definitely also be too relaxed, too accepting. Maybe  all creative artists need a healthy fear of failure to do their best work even as we accept its inevitability.
OK. I’m walking away from the armchair now. I may be some little time…

Friday, 28 February 2020

Pipeline Theatre London, Stories, Lies and Fake News by Enid Richemont

I'm opening this post with a little publicity for a Pipeline Theatre production, currently on tour. It's called "DRIP DRIP DRIP, and it toured the South-West of the UK last year. Now it has its first London booking, at The Pleasance Theatre, Islington, so I'm hoping London-based followers of our blog will come.

 My daughter is an active founder member of the very successful Pipeline collective which has already showcased work in the Edinburgh Festival. It specialises in bringing our attention to difficult and often challenging subjects, and "DRIP DRIP DRIP" is no exception, taking a very hard look at racism in our NHS medical system, especially now, when the UK has split from the European Union, and following every performance there's a discussion panel if you feel like taking part. Pipeline routinely gets excellent reviews, so if you can, please go. Oh, and there's a discount on the ticket for anyone working in the NHS.

I was given books for Christmas, among them two very different novels which I'm now reading (had other stuff on the menu before.) The first to be finished was Salley Vickers' THE LIBRARIAN, a book so 'quiet' (to use a current and awful publishers' rejection excuse) that I almost gave up on it, but so glad I didn't. Set in the late 1950s, not a period I'm especially fond of, and in a very English small town (likewise), I became slowly seduced, as was the main character, Sylvia, by both the setting and the people (in Sylvia's case, one person in particular), but eventually by Sylvia's passion for children's books. It's her job to ignite a passion for reading in the town's kids, but with a run-down and neglected children's library, this wasn't easy. So many wonderful children's books are mentioned in the text that there's a recommended reading list at the end of the novel. Anyone remember Philippa Pearce's "Tom's Midnight Garden"? Or the adventures of Professor Branestawm with his multiple spectacles? T H White's "The Once and Future King"? And for me, the most intriguing "My Friend Mr Leakey", by Professor Haldane, which I shall now have to order. If you love children's books, if you have children or grandchildren, do, do read "The Librarian" and you will be richly rewarded.

The second novel, which I'm about halfway through, is Zadie Smith's "N-W", set in Brent, North London - Willesdon. Her ear for dialogue is amazing, but her obviously accomplished writing skills are getting in the way of the story for me. With writing this good, it can happen, and the fault lies probably with me, the reader - drifting seamlessly into a story is so much easier.

And on the subject of stories, whenever my mum thought I was fibbing, which I probably did with great frequency, she'd say I was telling stories. In fact, my mum's word for a 'lie' was a 'story', so how this fitted in with the stories she read to me I don't really know, but wait! I do! Stories printed between the covers of books are respectable, and made up by authors, so that's OK, then.

Casting its ugly shadow over this argument, though, is current "fake news" and its ilk, where the basic fact that it's 'published', and so out there and available, automatically makes it 'true' (or at least worth our consideration.) Freedom of speech is a hard one ethically. A racist children's book published during the time of Nazi Germany has, apparently, been recently made available by Amazon, in spite of complaints, and vicious trolling on Twitter continues unabated. On humanity - when it is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is UNSPEAKABLY horrid!

Zadie Smith N-W/The Librarian by Salley Vickers

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Are Authors Skilled Enough for Little Britain? - Andrew Crofts

The British Government is currently working out who they plan to allow into the UK to work, following their triumphant disposal of “freedom of movement” after Brexit, and it has made me question whether I am actually of any use whatsoever to my fellow man.

If I were to decide to venture out of Britain for any reason, would I automatically be allowed back in? I mean, I guess I would because I was born here and that apparently qualifies me as the sort of desirable person the government wants to protect from foreigners, but do I actually pass any of their other criteria?

It is confusing because they say they don’t want any “unskilled” folk. I have to admit that I am entirely unskilled for every practically useful job available in the modern workforce. I have no idea how to work a till, let alone a credit card machine. When I make a bed on my own it immediately looks unmade. I am lamentably ignorant on the best cleaning products for a variety of tasks and I have no idea how to help anyone suffering from either physical or mental health problems – beyond the bleeding obvious. Nothing I have ever cooked would be something that anyone else would pay money for. I am incapable of remembering more than one instruction at a time and cannot simultaneously carry more than two plates of food.

Fortunately for me, however, none of the above are considered to be “skills” in the desirable sense by the lawmakers, although most sane people would think that they were considerably more useful than, say, a law or classics degree.

More worrying for writers is the fact that they don’t want anyone who is self employed or who earns less than £25,000 a year. More by luck than judgement I am on the right side of that latter stipulation, but since the average professional writer in this country is self-employed and makes something like £10,000 a year I can only assume that puts us all in the “low-skilled” and therefore “undesirable” category.

These ruminations on my dismal potential as a desirable employee have led me to realise that it is jolly lucky that I have been able to earn a living from putting pen to paper because I have absolutely no other professional skill that I can fall back on, and never have had.       

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

When I Have Fears... Rituparna Roy

My writing is born of fear, the fear of failure – always palpable, always present.

From 2005-2020, these have been my fears:

From May 2005 - Nov 2019:
- Will I be able to write fiction?
- Will I be able to flesh out the sketches waiting in my desk-drawers for 2 years?
- Will I be able to do justice to the lives of the women I’m writing about?
- Will I get a publisher for a collection of short stories?
- Will my book ever come out?

From Jan 2020:
- Will my book (Gariahat Junction) reach enough people if it’s not available in bookstores?
- Will it get reviews?
- Will it vanish from the face of the earth in a few months?

Most of the fears in the first set were productive. It pushed me into writing fiction – first of all. And then doing all that needed to be done. Write, submit my work to a group, re-submit, edit, revise, submit to journals, get rejected, sometimes get accepted, seek representation over years, get the MS accepted, & finally go through the process of being published (entailing another set of edits).

The fears in the second set are counter-productive. They have nothing to do with writing, but rather with the immense desire to find an audience – in the accomplishment of which one has little power, individually. As there are many variables involved, apart from the quality of the writing.

The fears prior to publication had long phases (some of which were longer than others); the fears post publication, are, however, only a few weeks old now. And I have no idea how long they will stay. But that I have them is undeniable.

Other fears:
No sooner has the first book been out, that I’m assailed by new fears:
- Will I be able to get back to my shelved novel… just pick up from where I left off almost 3 years back? Or will I have to painfully re-establish my relationship with an alternate world that I was trying to create?
- Will I ever find the time for serious, sustained writing while teaching full-time in a private institution?
- Do I have new things to say, or am I redundant?

Ultimately, I know, writing is a routine. And one needs to be disciplined in order to be able to write at all. Over the years, I’ve created my own rules & negotiated with the varying time & space at my disposal at different points in my life to figure out a working formula that suits me best - to write.

But the fears don’t leave me….

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Come to the Sterkarm Wedding -- by Susan Price

A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price
'...There had been a lot more dancing, and drinking and eating, and the evening light that came through the door... had flickered into dusk before the fiddlers and the pipers began to play, once more, the tune called 'Come to the Wedding.' As they played, they bore down on Per and Joan, and people cheered and clapped and stamped. It was time that the wedded pair were put to bed...

          Mistress Crosar put her mouth so close to Joan’s ear that it tickled, and shouted, “Undo thine garters!”

          Joan froze. They were at the back of the dancing hall, near the benches. People were everywhere. How could she pull up her skirts and undo her garters?..

          "Oh, come here, lass!” her aunt said, and turned her round, tutting at how slow and clumsy Joan was in moving. Other women gathered round her... The women spread their skirts, blocking the view of other people, while her aunt pulled up Joan’s magnificent scarlet dress of Elf-Cloth with a flurrying and rustling, and reached underneath to undo the garter strings. It was necessary to undo them because, very soon, the newly-wed couple would be put to bed and the brides’ men would demand their right to take off her garters. It was better to have the garters already undone, and the strings dangling down where they could be easily reached...
          "She didn't want them undone, that's what it was," said Isobel Sterkarm. "She wanted the men to reach right up her skirt."
February, the last month of winter and the month of St Valentine's Day when, it's said, 'The birds do choose their make.' Certainly the robins and blackbirds in my garden seem already to have chosen their makes. That, and seeing all the bright red cards splattered with hearts all over the shops earlier this month reminded me of the 16th-century wedding I perpetrated in A Sterkarm Kiss, between Per Sterkarm and Joan Grannam.

It's anything but a love-match, since the Sterkarms and  Grannams are at blood-feud and have hated each other for generations. The marriage is engineered by the 'Elves': the time-travelling representatives of a 21st Century company. They want to make money from the land that the Sterkarms and Grannams continually fight over, to drill for oil and mine for coal and gold. Blood feuds make that harder and more expensive, so the Elves want peace. They pay the feuding families to stop fighting and as a symbol of that peace, they pay the Grannam laird to marry his daughter, Joan, to the Sterkarm laird's son, Per.

At least, that's the part of their plan that the Elves admit to. There's a bit more that they keep to themselves. (The bit about provoking an outbreak of feud so they can back one side against the other, wipe out the opposition and install a puppet laird.)

'Signing the Register' by Leighton
While writing A Sterkarm Kiss, it quickly became obvious that I was going to have to describe something of the wedding. What was a 16th-century wedding like?

Initially, I supposed that it would be much the same as a modern wedding, with the bride in white and 'Something old, something new...' I imagined the traditional wedding was traditional because those traditions had been carried on for centuries.


A little reading in social history showed me that, for centuries, people had wandered about in dark confusion, uncertain -- if it concerned them at all -- of whether they were married or not. There was no single agreed form of marriage. It all depended on the customs in the area where you lived, your social class, how religious you were and what form your religion took.

It was in part to clear up this confusion that the 1836 Marriage Act was passed, bringing in licences and registers for all. After that, if you had a licence, you were married; if you didn't, you weren't. But before that, you could consider yourself 'properly married' while your neighbours and in-laws considered you to be sinful fornicators. Or even vice-versa. Imagine the horror of out-and-out bohemians discovering that they were, unsuspectingly, properly and legally married

Go right back to Anglo-Saxon and Viking law, before paperwork existed and communal memory was everything. The 'Things' or meetings held in every district four times a year were a mixture of law-court, fair and market. All that was needed for a legal marriage (or, indeed, divorce) was a declaration before witnesses. Your own household would do, initially. You then repeated your declaration at the next Thing. The fact of your marriage or divorce entered the collective memory of every busy-body and gossip in the area. After that, there was no pretending otherwise.

(It's worth mentioning that under this early law, women were just as free to declare themselves divorced as men. It's been said that women had more rights and freedom under Saxon and Viking law than for a thousand years after the Norman Conquest. But, just  to be clear, I don't hold that against the EU.)

This belief that a declaration before witnesses was all that was needed to make a legal marriage lingered on. If you had property to leave, this could cause problems because common law only recognised marriage as legal if there had been a public ceremony, in church. But as Maureen Waller points out in her '1700, Scenes From London Life,' the vast majority of people didn't have enough property for that to make any difference. The cost of a church wedding did.

This is what made Gretna Green's name. In 1754, the Marriage Act made it illegal in England for those under the age of 21 to marry without parental consent. However, in Scotland it remained legal for people of 16 to marry without that consent. Moreover, marriage by declaration before witnesses was lawful in Scotland, so if you could get yourself across the border before being caught, you only had to rustle up a couple of witnesses to hear your declaration and you were legally married under Scots law, with no doubt about it. And blacksmith's shops had always been places that attracted small crowds of people who had time to kill...

Back in England, another persistent belief was that if a couple exchanged vows and tokens -- rings, or broken coins or any kind of keep-sake -- then they were married, even without witnesses. This led to a great many 'misunderstandings' where the women believed they were married and the men were emphatically certain that they weren't. And, occasionally, where the man believed they were married and the woman (having recieved a better offer or, at least, thought better of this one) was absolutely sure they were not.

In some parts of the country this exchange of vows and keep-sakes had to be followed by consumation for the marriage to be considered 'made,' hence the witnessing of the couple being put to bed. In other traditions, the mere giving of a 'love-token' such as a pair of gloves or a carved wooden 'love-spoon' by a man to a woman was considered to be a solemn promise of marriage -- which led to a great many 'breach of promise' law-suits.

Alongside this 'folk law' and adding greatly to the general confusion was the common law of the law courts and the church's ecclesiastical law, which often contradicted each other. But since making any sense of that makes my head ache now just as much as it made heads ache then, what about the actual wedding day, the bun-fight, the vows? What was that like in the 16th century?

'C16 Hanseatic patrician in her wedding dress.'
Well, no diamond rings were in evidence. The idea that 'diamonds are forever' dates only from the 1940s, as a result of one of the most successful ad campaigns ever, by De Beer's diamond company.

Diamonds were considered 'precious stones' in the 16th century but second-rank if not third-rank ones. The Bible says a good woman's worth is 'above rubies' and also talks about pearls being cast before swine. For centuries, rubies, pearls, emeralds and sapphires were considered far more valuable than diamonds -- and, indeed, geologically, they are rarer.

The bride never wore white either. That was a much later tradition, which most historians trace to the nineteenth century. Before then, bright colours were favoured. In A Sterkarm Kiss, Joan Grannam marries in a dress of shining, scarlet, Elvish cloth. Rich women wore rich materials: silk, velvet, lace. They also made sure they had showy garters tied just below their knees.

This was in preparation for the noisy game of putting the bride and groom to bed. (Modern marriages seem to retain the garters but shrink from the full ceremony.)

First, the groom's men crowded round the bride, pulling up her skirts and trying to grab her garters. Modest brides loosened the garters beforehand, so that the strings hung down, well within reach of groping hands. Once they had possession, the men waved the garters in the air and fastened them to their hats (which were worn indoors).

While the men partied on, the bride was escorted to bed by her mother, new mother-in-law and other women friends, who finished undressing her. This was quite a task, since 16th-century clothes weren't so much stitched together as laced and pinned together: sleeves laced or pinned to bodices, bodices laced or pinned closed, skirts laced or pinned bodices. Accessories such as gems and posies were pinned on. This sounds extremely uncomfortable to me. It must have been like wearing hedgehogs -- but my sources assure me it was done.

This meant that scores of pins in the bride's clothing had to be discovered, removed  and placed in a pin-cushion. Pins were in constant use, were probably always being bent out of shape or lost and were quite expensive, hence the expression 'pin-money' for an allowance made to a dependant. Obviously a lot of pins disappeared at weddings, because it was said that to keep a pin removed from a bride's costume brought very bad luck and the pin-nicker would herself not marry for at least another year. (At a time of arranged marriages, this may have inspired many pin-thefts.)

When the bride was in bed, word was sent to the groom's men, who stripped the groom of everything except his shirt and stockings. He was escorted or dragged to the wedding chamber, no doubt with a lot of noise. The groom was put into bed with his bride and then the stocking game was played.

The bride's maids used the groom's stockings and the groom's men used the bride's. Each player sat on the end of the bed, facing away from its occupants, and threw a stocking behind them. If a woman managed to land one of the groom's stockings on his head, it was said she would be married herself within the year -- and if a man landed a stocking on the bride's head, then he too, would soon be married.

This performance had to include as many bawdy jokes as possible from players and on-lookers. No doubt the women tried hard to land a stocking on the right head while the men tried hard to miss and hilarity ensued. It ended when a big cup of posset was brought in, for the bride and groom to share, to 'keep up their strength' for the strenuous night ahead. Having seen them drink it, the crowd finally went away.

The bride and groom probably then played cards or I-Spy, having been quite put off the idea of sex. Unfortunately, the crowd would be back the next morning, demanding up-dates. (Because the word of witnesses was all-important.)

Per Sterkarm and his bride avoid this, though. A traditional part of the wedding ceremony has always been the punch-up between the families. As the Sterkarm-Grannam marriage is between feuding border reivers, the night ends with a traditional armed skirmish and blood-shed.

Mum and Dad cutting the cake
 It turns out that all our 'age-old wedding traditions' barely date back a hundred years, if that. My parents married in 1950 and -- in a genuinely age-old tradition -- they each wore the best clothes they happened to have. My mother had a 'New-Look' green suit which she wore for years afterwards. My Dad wore his best suit, and ditto.

They didn't go away for a 'honey-moon' but went back to work, as most people did. (The phrase 'honey-moon' is 500 years old but originally meant only the month after the wedding, when everything was sweet, before reality set in. It was only in the 19th century and initially only among the well-off, that it came to mean a holiday taken by the newly-weds.)

Mum and Dad had a wedding feast, in my grandmother's front room. You can see the clock on the mantle and the sumptuous spread seems to include a sauce bottle. This is much more what a 'traditional' wedding has always looked like.

Feel the need to keep up your strength in these post-Brexit days? Here's the recipe for that strengthening posset. (You don't have to get married in order to drink it. Or need it.)


Take a quart (1 litre) of white wine, likewise the same measure of water and boil whole spice in them. Then take twelve eggs and put away half the whites. Beat them very well.
Take the wine from the fire and put to it your eggs, stir them very well, then set it on a slow fire and stir until it be thick. Sweeten it with sugar and strew beaten spice thereon, then serve it forth.
You may put in Ambergreece, if liked.