A Memory of Burns (from someone who knew him.)

 

Old Mossgiel


When he was farming at Mossgiel, where our milk comes from, Burns employed a herd-boy called Willie Patrick. Many years later, in 1859, another William, a Burns enthusiast called William Jolly, went on a pilgrimage to Burns Country, visiting Mauchline and Mossgiel. While he was wandering about Mauchline, he met Willie Patrick and asked him about his memories of the Burns family. This formed the basis for a little book called Robert Burns at Mossgiel, with Reminiscences of the Poet by his Herd-Boy. You can still find reprints online if you hunt for them. Asked to do a brief Immortal Memory speech and toast at a small local Burns Supper, I dug out my copy and reread it, for inspiration.

Willie Patrick had been born in 1776, so was in his 84th year when Mr Jolly met him. He was short, and very bent, after a life of hard labour. Jolly describes him as being in good health, clear in his mind, shrewd and full of humour. He had a staff, which he leant on, although he could walk without it.
He wrote "When making any statement, he would turn quickly round and earnestly answer me that ‘it was as sure as death’ or ‘as sure as I knock the heid aff that thistle.’"

Willie spent four years at Mossgiel, working for Robert and his brother Gilbert, between March 1784 and April 1788. This meant that he started work as a little lad of eight, and worked there till he was twelve - afterwards becoming a shoemaker, before serving in the army and eventually working for the poet’s friend, Gavin Hamilton.

At Mossgiel, he was herd callant, watching over the herd, or occasionally gaudsman, accompanying Burns when he was ploughing, to help drive the four horses. However, in view of his age, he mostly did odd jobs about the farm. Willie remembered that the Burns family lived chiefly in the kitchen, as most farming households did and probably still do. Robert’s father had died at Lochlea, a rather unhappy place for the family. The two elder boys had actually taken on the Mossgiel tenancy before their father died, without telling him, reluctant to add to his worries. Their mother, Agnes – ‘a wee booed body’ as Willie called her - spent a lot of time sitting close beside the fire. Willie said that the house was largely kept by Isabel, known as Bell, the youngest daughter, although that may have been because she was closer in age, and very much his favourite sister. There were two older sisters, Agnes and Annabella, who were probably involved with dairying, and two younger brothers, William and the youngest son, John, who died aged 16, while Willie Patrick was working at the farm.

Gilbert was a year younger than Robert, but Willie observed that he took more charge of the farm, given that Robert was so taken up with his poetry. The family, especially the women, made Dunlop cheese, a sweet milk cheese, from the rich milk of the Ayrshire cows, no doubt learning from their mother, who already had the skill of cheesemaking .

Besides the sisters, there was a female friend who helped in the kitchen, and Rab’s ‘dear bought Bess’, his little daughter by Elizabeth Paton whom he had welcomed into his house. Latterly, this large household was joined by one of Jean Armour’s first set of twins, Robert, then only a toddler. There were no female servants at all – just friends and family. After a few turbulent years, after the marriage was formalised, Jean would walk up to the farm from her rooms in Castle Street, to learn dairying and cheese making from the Burns sisters. When Jean and Rab moved to Ellisland, Burns was supposedly the first to introduce the handsome brown and white Ayrshire cow to the county. All the household slept in the house, while the male servants, including young Willie Patrick, slept in the stable loft.

Willie did little jobs about the kitchen, as well as feeding and herding cattle, mucking the byre, and running into town on various errands, but most of all carrying letters – more of them than was at all common at that time for a farming family. The poet was a great correspondent and was always sending away for books.



Gavin Hamilton's House, Mauchline


In winter, mindful of Willie’s age, they would sit him down beside the fire, opposite Mistress Burns, peeling potatoes or doing other small domestic jobs, while the women worked and chatted or sang around him. There were far worse jobs for a boy at that time.

The whole household took their meals in the kitchen, and Wille remembered that Rab was ‘aye reading,’ even at mealtimes. Gilbert was a ‘douce and sensible man’ but Willie was more impressed with Rab. He described him as smart, manly and good looking, liked by everyone except a few of the ‘stricter sort’ (including Jean Armour’s father who hated him at that time, although he came round in the end!) – and those who feared his wild reputation. He says he never once saw him the worse for liquor. He over-indulged at times, but was never a drunkard.

Most important of all, he was a ‘good master' good natured and kindly towards all those who worked on the farm, even if he seemed distracted by things that other people never noticed. 'He was aye pickin up things and thinkin ower them for a lang time’ says Willie, adding that he was a special favourite with the lasses ‘He could aye speak up to them’ – a gift, and a charm that never left him throughout his too short life.

Lovely to read the words of somebody who had known the poet and worked with him on a day-to-day basis. Especially since he was remembered so fondly as a good man and a kindly master.

 
Mauchline many years ago


Here we go again ...

 


Can we knock on the head once and for all the belief that Burns was a drunkard and a 'crap father'? This was a view expressed yesterday in a Facebook group devoted - I kid you not - to 'Scottish Literature'! 

The poet was neither, and to label him so is to ignore both the context and the recorded truth of his life. 

He was no saint. He occasionally over-indulged (as which of us has not)  but the drunkard myth was a figment of the imagination of some 18th century idiot writing an obituary in a local rag, and in the process misrepresenting as alcoholism the illness that killed him - most likely chronic endocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle, which, when it turned acute, was a death sentence.

His wife Jean never forgot or forgave the misrepresentation. 

The glib judgments of his character I read last night seem to have one thing in common - a complete ignorance of historical context. Not surprising, really, since our own history is so neglected by our education system. 

For a man of his time, Rab was a good, loving and patient father, in verse and in action too. By all accounts he was content to work away with the children playing around him. There is evidence of his devastation at the death of his little daughter Elizabeth Riddell Burns at the age of three, as he and Jean desperately sought a cure for the unknown illness that caused her to waste away. Compared to the more aristocratic writers of the time who preferred to pretend that their children weren't there at all, he was a model parent.

He was a serially unfaithful husband, it's true. His wife, as one later biographer observed, was 'better than he deserved' but then she has been largely ignored by his other biographers. She was likened to an 'unfeeling heifer' by one female commentator, as though only a heifer would put up with him. 

In fact he loved women not wisely but too well and was just as likely to enjoy the company of older women as young women, something that is a rarity even today, when older women become largely invisible. He was a fantasist, like many writers, but had the sense to distinguish between the romance that inspired his poetry, and the real, abiding love he felt for his wife, a love that is present in so many of his poems and songs, if only we look for it.

Finally, when his first illegitimate daughter was born in 1785 he wrote a defiant poem in her honour. This, at a time when the Minister and the Kirk Session in every parish in Scotland would spend much of their time trying to get men to own up to the children they had fathered!

Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee dochter!
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin I hae fought for
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for --
That I shall swear!

If you want to know more, look for my novel The Jewel, all about Jean and her husband, their life and times.

Chilling and Spine Tingling


 

I'm never in the business of denigrating my fellow writers, so I don't usually give negative reviews. But it's depressing how many times these days I find myself downloading onto my Kindle a sample of a new novel with vast numbers of glowing reviews and recommendations. I read it, and think 'aargh no' and delete it. The last one was punted as 'the most chilling and spine tingling ghost story you'll read this year.' In this case, I did actually soldier on through the whole thing.

It wasn't (the most spine tingling etc)  and I'll tell you why. Because as I laboured on through a long novel that really wanted to be a novella or a short story, in a Scottish setting about which the author seemed largely ignorant, I suddenly realised that it was heavily inspired by one of the best ghost stories ever written: Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

And that really is chilling and spine tingling.

I've read this classic novella several times, including at university, but this time I decided that I would read it ultra closely, paying attention to every nuance, to every word. In fact, I read it as a writer, trying to decide how the author had done it. 

It was still chilling and spine tingling in every way. It haunted my dreams. But most of all (and if you haven't read it, this isn't really a spoiler) I still, after all these years, couldn't make up my mind whether the ghosts were real or not. And which of those two possibilities was the most horrific. Which was obviously James's intention. Genius. 

There is just too much hype out there. I know, because as a published author myself, the pressure to find glowing cover quotes is intense. We treasure positive reviews, knowing that we can quote them. I've done it all too often! 

But when those cover quotes don't seem to reflect the quality of the work, as a reader, you can feel cheated. For the last few weeks, I've felt very very cheated.

Sometimes, a good entertaining story well told should be enough, shouldn't it? Is that why so many crime stories are so popular? Because that's what so many of them unashamedly are? Good, entertaining stories, well told.





Mr Bates, the Post Office and Issue Based Drama

 

Anne Marie Timoney and Liam Brennan in Wormwood


If you haven't yet seen it, and you'd like to watch a perfect piece of 'issue based drama', seek out ITV's recent Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Written by the excellent Gwyneth Hughes, with a very fine cast, it tackles an injustice so colossal, so disturbing, so enraging that you'll be fuming quietly (or perhaps loudly) about it long after you've switched off your TV.

Here's the interesting thing though. I've been following this issue for years. There have been a number of hard-hitting programmes and articles about it, but this drama is the one that has 'cut through', the pebble (albeit a very fine pebble indeed) that started the landslide. 

Ever since it was broadcast, I've been mildly irritated by a string of social media posts wondering why 'they' - that perennial they, who ought to do all kinds of things - don't do a drama about a string of other issues. Everything from Brexit to migration. All of them disturbing issues with which we must sooner or later grapple.

Dear reader - and even dear writer, because some of my friends are aspiring dramatists and some are already fine playwrights  - that isn't how  issue based drama works. That isn't how you set about writing it. You don't look at a sort of pick and mix of current issues, and say to yourself 'I fancy that one' and then jam a set of characters into it.

Well, you can, of course, and people frequently do. Especially when they're starting out. The results are almost always dire. Boring diatribes about issues, with the characters purely incidental vehicles for the playwright's preoccupations or obsessions.

Back when I was writing plays, I spent a long time - years, in fact - with the idea of a play about Chernobyl nagging away at me. I'd been pregnant when the cloud drifted towards the UK so it had loomed large for me as for so many others. But it wasn't until the accounts from the people who had been most involved with it came filtering out from Ukraine that I suddenly saw the play I wanted and needed to write. The firemen and their families, the people living in Pripyat, the schoolteachers, the children, those who experienced it at first hand - those were the people whose voices and experiences mattered, and suddenly any 'issues' became secondary to those experiences. They mattered, of course, but they could only spring from characters whose lives were interrupted by that 'safety experiment' gone so disastrously wrong. 

The result was a play called Wormwood, written for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and staged there in  May 1997. It was a well reviewed but disturbing production. People cried at it. Occasionally, they fainted. If you want to read it, you'll find it online or in an anthology called Scotland Plays, published by Nick Hern Books. 

Many years later, the superb US TV series titled Chernobyl was equally focused on character.  It's hard to watch, and yes, many issues arise out of it. But first and foremost, we are captivated and horrified by what happens to the people most closely involved, from the 'party man' whose whole ethos is gradually thrown into question and destroyed, to the firemen buried in lead lined coffins. We watch and we identify with these people. Just as we identify with all these innocent postmasters and mistresses whose lives were destroyed in order to - well - to preserve a brand. We watch and we know that it could happen to us. And then, if we're honest, we also wonder if we too had been on the other side of that divide, with our livelihoods dependent on toeing the Post Office line- what we would have done differently. Would we have been brave enough to say thus far and no further? 

After Wormwood was staged, I ran a short course on issue based drama for young writers at the Traverse. So many years later, the central truth remains. The only way to 'cut through' is to focus on those most closely involved, people with whom we can identify. 

Last night, I watched a heartrending documentary about the 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in a container, before they could ever set foot in England. What made it so tragic was the recognition that these were people like us, human beings, many of them young people, with hopes and fears and dreams. The last messages they sent to their families, from within the hell of that container, were mostly apologetic. 'I'm sorry' they said. Sorry for wanting to improve their lives, for taking a leap of faith for themselves and their families. 

Now there's an issue that somebody could tackle. An issue obscured by the daily rantings of our politicians. But to do that would involve immersing yourself - as the detective who investigated the case clearly did, and has never got over it - in the ordinary, mundane, precious lives of those 'people like us'. Then, I reckon, the issue would take care of itself. 


Opening scene of Wormwood at the Traverse





Belated New Year Greetings!

 


The above picture is titled 'spring clutter' on my PC. Not quite there yet, but this week, I bought a couple of bunches of daffodils so we're getting there. This is the time of year when I try to buy a bunch of tulips or daffs, or sometimes both, every week, just to prolong my favourite time of year - spring. 

This year, too, I remembered to plant some bulbs back in the autumn, and they're all emerging. For the first time ever, I managed to persuade a couple of blue hyacinth bulbs to grow and - more to the point - flower, in a pair of lovely old glass hyacinth vases. Every year to date I've put them in these vases full of water, in hope, and every year I've been disappointed. Last year, I forked out for big expensive bulbs and hey presto - this year they're flowering! You obviously get what you pay for in this instance.

I've had a ridiculously busy, albeit happy, Christmas. Missing our son who works in Stockholm very much, now that he's gone back. 

But I'll also have some rather big news about my writing. Coming very soon. I've been gearing myself up to writing about this on here, but putting it off till I felt as though I had got 'all my ducks in a row.' Now, if not in a row, then at least they are swimming about where I can see them. 

Watch this space.

PS, the daffodil plate, my favourite, belonged to my mum who bought it in our local auction house back in the sixties. It looks like Moorcroft, but it isn't. Don't know what it is, but I love it.



Bringing Christmas Into This Old House


 I very seldom post pictures of the inside of this cottage, except for the kitchen, occasionally - and the conservatory, which is where we put the Christmas tree. It's so cold there at night that it hardly sheds a needle.

Today, though, since we've just about finished trimming up - always traditional decorations, some of which we've had for years - I took a photograph of the hallway. Our hall and staircase in this two hundred year old house is bigger than it should be. We've sometimes wondered why it's so palatial in what is, after all, a stone-built terraced cottage. 

It was built back in the very early 1800s, by a retired gardener from Cloncaird Castle, who had been given a piece of land by his employer. Somewhere among the deeds are details of the plot of land and the 'house new built thereon'. He sold it very soon after, so I suppose it was his pension fund. Some of the stones of which it's constructed are huge  - boulders more than stones. You wonder how they lifted them into place. In the sitting room, there's an original lintel, still soot marked, over what was once a vast fireplace - the main fireplace in the house back then but reduced to manageable proportions over the years. 

The wooden floor in the hallway is pitch pine and comes - allegedly - from the deck of a wrecked ship - installed well before we moved here. The beautiful wrought iron balustrade and elegant banister rail are probably Victorian although again they seem rather grand - so this was no ordinary cottage. Previous owners included a sea captain and a doctor, so presumably it became a desirable residence over the years after  the gardener built it. I don't think it was ever a weaver's cottage, although the village was full of them. 

I keep planning to try to find out more about the man who owned the land and built the house but work tends to intervene. I remember that at one point in its history it was sold by 'candle auction' in the pub over the road - the winning bid being the last one placed when the candle went out. 

Not long ago, as he galloped about the house, trying to fix something, a frustrated tradesman exclaimed 'This is a difficult house!'  We know, we know! The thing about old houses - genuinely old houses - is that they really hate being disturbed, even when you're trying to do essential work. And boy, do they let you know about it. 

But we've been here a long time now.  It's a welcoming house. You get the feeling that it always has been. And we love it.  




A Sad Goodbye to a Very Fine Poet

 I was very sad this week to learn of the death of Sheila Templeton. Ours had been one of those friendships where you stay in touch online and meet up only very occasionally - but it was nice to know that she was there.  I've lost a couple of other friends and colleagues this year, and sometimes have to stop and remind myself that they're no longer in this world - but it's still hard to believe. Sheila was such a fine poet, such a wonderful talent. It was always a privilege to hear her read her own brilliant work. And she was an inspirational older woman who simply could not be ignored! 

But since whenever I think about her she's smiling, I have a couple of stories about her that I want to tell here. 

The first was when we found ourselves at the same gig, in a quirky Glasgow tea house (alas no longer with us either) organised by a mutual friend, both reading our work, along with various other writers, most of them Very Young Men. We were allocated ten minutes each, and Sheila and I stuck scrupulously to that, although to be honest, I could have listened to Sheila for hours. All the young men, without exception, mounted the stage with sheaves of paper, and proceeded to read for at least twenty minutes, sometimes even longer. Some way through the evening, Sheila leaned over and whispered in my ear, 'Do you think any of them can count?'

The other tale is even more characteristic of Sheila. Some years ago, we were asked to judge a competition for a writing organisation - she was judging the poetry and I was judging the short stories. There were many entries and it was a big task, but one that Sheila undertook with her usual enthusiasm. We decided that, although we had the final say about our respective tasks, we should each look at the other's entries, and compare notes, just to make sure that we weren't overlooking anything. We spent a long afternoon in a quiet corner of a cafe, going through the entries together, giving each its due. There was some excellent work, but what was both fascinating and reassuring was that - independently - we had reached the same conclusions about the various winners and 'highly commendeds'. 

Cue forward some weeks to the award ceremony. The organisation had kindly given us accommodation in a lovely little inn, not too far away from the venue. Arriving after the event, we had a drink in the bar but soon retired to our respective adjoining rooms. This was a small inn, with a single row of  bedrooms above the main bar and restaurant, with a door to the carpark at the bottom of the stairs.

At about 2am, on a chilly night, somewhere outside Edinburgh, the fire alarm went off.

 Deafeningly. 

I threw on shoes and a warm coat, grabbed my handbag, and met Sheila heading for the stairs. We were soon joined by a middle aged man in a dressing gown. We three were the only occupants. The bar and restaurant area were deserted, and the door into the body of the hotel was firmly locked. We stood outside for a while, shivering. The wind whistled around the car park. That was deserted too. There was no smell of smoke, which was probably just as well. 

'Where are we?' yelled the man, above the deafening racket. He explained that he had been attending a business meeting and had been dropped off at the hotel quite late in the evening. Nobody had told him where he was. 

My phone had no signal. Sheila's phone had no signal. Nobody came. The man, wandering about the car park with his dressing gown blowing in the wind, did finally manage to pick up a signal, and dialled 999. All the while, the fire alarm rang on. 

Sheila and I agreed that we were very glad we were together. 

Some minutes later Lothian's Finest appeared. They couldn't get into the body of the hotel either but suggested that we at least take shelter in the little lobby at the foot of the stairs, since it seemed that nothing was actually burning and we were freezing. A little while after that, somebody from the hotel turned up with the key. The brigade checked everything out. There was no fire. Something had tripped off in the kitchen.

Just before we were allowed to go back to our rooms and our sadly disturbed sleep, Sheila nudged me. There we were, two middle aged/elderly females in our nighties and coats. She nodded at the fire chief. 'Would you look at him!' she said. 'I wouldn't mind being rescued by him, Catherine. Would you?'

She was, of course, right. He was as tall and handsome as a firefighter in a movie. At breakfast, we agreed that it had definitely been worth the sleepless night. 

I could say rest in peace, dear Sheila - but after you've had that wee rest, do keep an eye on us. And send us some of your inspiration and your brilliant creativity and your remarkable positivity.



In Which Eeyore Has a Complaint.

                    

 

The Old Grey Donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, ‘Why?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Inasmuch as which?’ – and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about. So when Winnie-the-Pooh came stumping along, Eeyore was very glad to be able to stop thinking for a little, in order to say ‘How do you do?’ in a gloomy manner to him.

‘And how are you?’ said Winnie-the-Pooh.

Eeyore shook his head from side to side.

‘Not very how,’ he said. ‘I don’t seem to have felt at all how for a long time.’

‘Dear, dear,’ said Pooh. ‘I’m sorry about that. Why?’

‘Because, said Eeyore, ‘Somebody keeps rewriting me. I didn’t think it was allowed.’

‘Bother,’ said Pooh. ‘But it’s all because of something called outofcopyright. Christopher Robin told me. It’s happening to everyone in the Hundred Acre Wood.’

‘And what is this outofcopyright?’

‘It means people can steal our words and add other words like ok and there-for-you and long words that even Owl doesn’t know, like imperceptibly.’

‘Impercepti-what?’ said Eeyore.

‘I know,’ said Pooh. ‘It’s Terrible and Sad. For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain and long words Bother me.’

‘Why don’t they make up their own words?’ said Eeyore.

‘Christopher Robin says they are in a Very Sad Condition because nobody has taken any notice of their words. So they steal ours and spoil them.’

‘That accounts for a Good Deal’ said Eeyore. ‘Not that it matters. But How Like Them.’


(With profound and heartfelt apologies to A A Milne and Ernest Shepherd.) 




My Favourite Books of 2023

 



I've been picking my favourite reads of 2023 for a great new book recommendation site: Shepherd.com  You'll  find them here.  I read a lot of books in any one year - usually on my Kindle, far into the night - so it's always hard for me to choose. There were plenty of contenders, but here are the ones I picked, with great difficulty, I might add!

Also, if you would like to see what other people have recommended on this excellent new site, you'll find lots more 'best books' here


Real People?


 I've been watching the television version of  Uncanny, having listened to the excellent podcast of the same name. As you'll know, if you're a follower of this blog, I'm fond of a spooky story. The success of Uncanny proves I'm not alone, and reminds me of the occasion, some years ago, when I was asked to attend a meeting with people from a big Scottish media company. I'd had several successful stage plays as well as vast amounts of radio drama produced by that stage, so they wanted to find out if I might have any ideas that I could propose for TV.

Two things happened at that meeting. 

One was that I politely made it clear that - other than the basic proposal of course - I wouldn't be doing too much work without at least a modicum of development money. I'd been bitten by this kind of thing before, wasting a whole year of my writing life working on a detailed proposal that included many meetings and some sample episodes only to have it knocked on the head without even a 'kill fee' as the compensatory payment is called. This isn't unusual, incidentally. But jam tomorrow is a poor diet. 

Then I suggested something with a supernatural theme. They pulled a sort of collective face and chorused 'nobody is interested in the supernatural.' This was just before Buffy hit our screens. As William Goldman put it in his wonderful Adventures in the Screen Trade,  'Nobody knows anything.'

Anyway - good on Danny Robins for his success with the excellent Uncanny. Although the explanations of the sceptics seem to me to be much more far fetched than the accounts of the believers. The third episode of the TV version included an 'experiment' in the way infrasound can induce feelings of unease and physical discomfort in humans. I'm sure it does. But if you tell the subjects of your experiment beforehand that the place where you are going to hit them with infrasound is 'haunted' you have instantly invalidated any results! I find the sceptics irritating for more than one reason though. They just seem to be so closed minded. 

I believe that in Tibetan Buddhism, there is the concept of the Tulpa, a thought form. The Tulpa is said to be a manifestation of the unconscious mind and can assume a physical shape, even interacting with the real world. Sometimes inconveniently so. It's obvious that this is not something to be treated lightly. I find myself wondering how many of the experiences related on Uncanny might be explained by this theory. Especially those manifestations that persist and seem to pursue those who have conjured them. 

More relevant to creative writing though - when you, as a writer, create characters, they become very real to you. Or they should do. If they don't, you're doing it wrong! They persist. You can't suddenly change them, or not without difficulty. Even when a book is finished and published and you've moved on, you can, if you think about it, switch back to the world of that book, and see those characters as vividly as though they were real people - friends you've known and haven't spoken to for a while. 

They are just as real as anyone else you might meet in person or online. Perhaps more real than the people you know only online. Because you know them intimately. You can see them and hear them. And there they are - carrying on with their lives - even when you're not actually writing about them any more.

Which is a strange little thought for Hallowe'en, isn't it? 

If you want to read another strange little story, here's one I wrote earlier: Rewilding.   You can download it free from 30th October till 3rd November. 

My Favourite Folk Tale

 


My Postgraduate Masters degree was in something called Folk Life Studies. I studied at Leeds University, with folklorists Stewart Sanderson and Tony Green. Among the many books we read on that course was one called Folk Tales of England edited by Katharine Briggs and Ruth L Tongue. It was first published in 1966 and I think I bought it second hand, because I note a little 60p in the corner. There are many tales that, back then, were 'newly collected'. I too was one of that generation of folklorists who went about with tape or in my case cassette recorders, persuading people to tell their stories. In my case it was the fishing traditions of South Ayrshire. 

This little book, however, contains my very favourite folk tale  - one of those stories that has stayed with me down all these years. I think about it periodically and laugh - because it's a funny story.  But with Hallowe'en fast approaching, appropriate for the time of year as well.

It's called Summat Queer on Batch, and it was recorded by Ruth L Tongue, on September 27th, 1963. She remembers this as a favourite story of an old North Somerset groom from about 1907. It is, however, a much older 'motif' to be found in many other stories right across the world. A 'batch' is a piece of open common land or moorland.

Here it is, transcribed verbatim from Ruth's recording.

There were a old widow body 'oo 'ad a little cottage up to Batch and 'er come to market with 'er bits to sell, and she wouldn't go 'ome no how. Well, they axed 'en and all she'd say was, "There's Summat Queer on Batch!" and not a word more. Well, Job Ash, 'e say to 'er, 'Never 'e mind, my dear, I'll go up Batch for 'ee. No fear!' And 'e up and went.

'Twere a bit of a unket wind up to Batch, road was lonely and wind did blow whist. 'E got to cottage, t'were a little cottage like, with a front door and back door opposite each other and kitchen were on side o' passage, sitting room were t'other side o' passage and stairs was in cupboard. In 'e goes, front door were wide open, and 'e swing the bar acrost, and 'e go to back door, and 'e swing the bar acrost there. Then 'e take a look-see to sitting-room. Weren't no one there. Then 'e gave a look-see to kitchen. No-one there neither. Then 'e rub 'is hands together and 'e think o' the drubbing they lads was going to 'ave.

'E opens door - cupboard door - upstairs to bedroom. When he got up to bedroom, wasn't no-one there neither. 'Where be they tew?' said Job and 'e come down and front door were open - back door were open tew. Bar were set back. Well, Job 'e took a quick look-see outside back door and it slammed tew be'ind him and bar slid acrost.

Well, Job, 'e took off round corner o' that 'ouse and 'e didn't stop to look - gets round by front door, as fast as 'e could, and just as 'e got to front door, that slam in 'is face tew, and bar come down acrost. Well, Job, 'e took a deep breath, 'e did, and then 'e takes a look over 'is shoulder, and there were Summat Queer standing right be'ind him. 

At that, Job 'e took off down that road, like 'e were at Shepton Mallet races. 'E were a girt fleshly feller and when 'e'd got about a mile or so, 'e sat down on a 'eap of stones, and 'e puff like a pair of bellowses, and 'e got out is neck-ankercher, and 'e rub is face, thankful.

And then 'e look down and there's a girt flat foot aside o' 'isn. Then 'e look up a little further and there's a girt airy 'and by 'is knee. And then 'e look up a little further still and there's a girt wide grin.

'That were a good race, weren't it?' sez it.

'Ar!' sez Job. 'And when I've got my breath back, us'll ave another!' 


Not Your Friends


Charlie Brown and Lucy, by Schulz

If I had to give one piece of advice to writers who are just starting out, or to those travelling hopefully in the early stages of the journey, it would be this: many of the people you encounter along the way, agents, publishers, managers, interns, editors, producers, directors, even those who work for agencies charged with funding the arts - remember that they are not your friends.

I have plenty of fellow writers and actors I've worked with, and I would count almost all of them as my friends. We share experiences in common, we sympathise with each other, we may well compete from time to time, but we also look out for each other when the chips are down. And even when we don't see each other for a while, we pick up where we left off when we do meet. That's real friendship.

When I look back over a long career in writing and publishing, I can see that most of the mistakes I've made - and I've made plenty - have involved me misinterpreting a warm professional relationship as genuine friendship. 

It never was. 

This is not a bad thing. We don't, for example, expect our doctors or dentists to be personal friends, as long as the relationship is polite and 'friendly' and mutually beneficial. Ditto our solicitors, accountants, and whatever other professionals we work with. There may be exceptions, but that's usually because the friendship predates the profession, or the professional relationship runs parallel to the personal friendship and has lasted for many years. I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the situations where that was the case and, alas, the people in question are dead. 

Writers are often to be found extolling the 'friendship' they have with their 'wonderful' agent or director  or publisher. I've done it myself more than once. It's hard not to see it as friendship, when there are so many similarities with the real thing: the long, mutually supportive conversations, the praise, the positivity, the helpful suggestions, the promises. 

Unfortunately, and unlike real friendships that can persist through thick and thin, over many years, professional relationships may not. Sometimes they end suddenly and unexpectedly, with a letter or email. Occasionally, just when you thought things were coasting along nicely, you feel the chill wind of disapproval, followed by silence. Sometimes you realise that the person who was once so responsive - the person who made you think 'this time, it will be different!' -  hardly responds at all. You make a hundred excuses for them. To yourself and to other people. I've done this countless times with different people, giving them the benefit of the doubt, shrinking away from the obvious conclusion. Like Schulz's Charlie Brown, you can't resist one more try at kicking that ball. Afterwards, you liken it to those love affairs where you make excuses until no more excuses will do. 

It isn't a love affair at all. It's a professional relationship, no more, no less. 

The cut off is invariably a commercial decision. Mostly, it's that you simply aren't making them enough money. For professionals, the business always comes first. And you know what? That's exactly the way it should be. As long as it cuts both ways. 

It can't be said too often. A professional relationship is not a friendship, no matter how much it might masquerade as one. This is not to say that it can't be polite, congenial, supportive and very good while it lasts. All of that. But when push comes to shove, they are not your friends, and if you begin to believe that they are, you are, I'm afraid, doomed to disappointment. 

The corollary of this should be that you are free to do the same thing. Your career comes first. Look out for yourself.  Don't hang on to a failing business relationship, however cordial, because of misplaced feelings of loyalty. Save that for your real, personal friends. They're the ones who deserve it. Where business is concerned, and writing is a business as well as a vocation, speak softly and carry a big stick. Be nice, be polite, but always be aware of what suits you and your work best. They won't mourn the loss of you at all, if you walk away. Because they really are not your friends.


The Last Lancer at Tidelines

 

My dad, his father and mother, in Dziedzilow c1928

I'll be at the lovely Tidelines book festival this coming Saturday, 23rd September, chatting about my new book, The Last Lancer, with Eleanor Thom and David Manderson. There are still some tickets available, so do come along if you can. 

If I'm honest, this book hasn't had nearly as much publicity as I expected - because although I researched it over a number of years, and mostly wrote it during Covid, it became all too horribly relevant, when Russia invaded Ukraine. 

I suspect some of this may be down to the sheer lack of perception of just how complicated borders are in that part of the world. Although my late dad was Polish, he was actually born and spent much of his childhood in what is now Western Ukraine, before successive occupations changed everything. That fact - and what happens under occupation - seems to be beyond the comprehension of most people in the UK where borders haven't changed for many years! 

I thought - and still think - that some understanding of what those shifting borders and allegiances might mean for a family caught up in the middle of it all would make interesting reading.

So if you can, why not come along and ask me some questions about it yourself! You can browse the Tidelines site here.

And if you would like a copy of The Last Lancer, you can buy it in paperback or as an eBook. 

Invisible Fictions (And Non-Fictions Too)



‘Many women complain the moment they turned 50, people stopped seeing them. People push past them in queues, men look through them, and shop assistants ignore them.’ 

I came across this excellent post only the other day. It’s well worth reading in full. 

I’ve blogged about this phenomenon before – you can read my most recent post here – but at that time, I concluded that I wasn’t (yet) invisible. Just able to be ignored, like a piece of furniture. Now, I’ve changed my mind, bowed to the inevitable. I am invisible.

50 was certainly when the process started. A bit like that wonderful Tove Jansson story, the Invisible Child, except in reverse. In Jansson’s story the child starts off invisible and gradually becomes visible when she is treated kindly.

For older women, it works the other way. You just grow ever fainter, until people ignore you altogether. Men certainly notice you when they want to tell you that you’re wrong, but in the publishing industry, many young women also tend to ignore older female writers as far as possible. I sometimes feel that there's a weird sense of embarrassment on their part, as though they have no idea what to make of you and would rather you didn’t exist at all.

Writers are so afraid of repercussions that we tend to keep quiet about our experiences. But since, professionally at least, I have now achieved almost complete invisibility, I may as well shout into the void.

Here’s what happened just this year.

In February, I had a new book published. It’s called The Last Lancer and it was very close to my heart, a companion to my previous book about a murder in the poverty stricken Leeds Irish side of my family: A Proper Person to be Detained. 

This one is about my grandfather’s eccentric and tragic family history in Poland and Ukraine. I’d researched most of it throughout lockdown although my late father had also written down some of his memories. The story would – I hoped – be entertaining, harrowing and informative. But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it suddenly became all too horribly relevant as well. Or so I thought.

Dad was born into the szlachta – the Polish nobility, more Mitford than Downton, I always think. After an idyllic country childhood in what was then Polish Galicia, but which is now Western Ukraine, he lost everything in the war (although he was luckier than his father who lost his life as well.) My father arrived in England as an unwelcome ‘refugee alien’ at the end of WW2, with nothing but a handful of photographs, a tiny silver mirror that had belonged to his mother, and his army identity papers, on which, under ‘next of kin’ he had written the Polish phrase meaning ‘closest family to nobody.’ He literally had nobody and nothing.

You would think, given Ukraine's current fight for existence, alongside our preoccupation with migrants, that the book might have received a modicum of attention. It was praised by no less a person than Neal Ascherson, who has forgotten more than most of us will ever know about Poland and Ukraine and the complex, troubled history of that region.

Well, you’d be wrong.

On publication day, back in February, nothing happened. No reviews, not so much as a postcard to mark the day.

In fact, if a couple of Polish friends hadn’t turned up with chocolates and flowers, whereupon we opened a bottle of cava and ‘wetted the book’s head’, there would have been nothing to make the day special at all.

I had launched a number of previous books in our local Waterstones, so I was hoping for another launch there, because lots of friends and acquaintances always turn out and buy books, but no word came from my publisher, who had organised previous launches. To be fair, if I’d known, I would have organised my own launch party - almost certainly in this village. But I didn’t know, because I had made assumptions based on past experience. Silly me.

Meanwhile, I was doing my best to promote the Last Lancer online. I did a long interview for one of Emma Cox's excellent genealogy podcasts, which you can listen to here. The book is only tangentially about genealogy, although the podcast is certainly interesting for anyone researching their Eastern European family history. I wrote blog posts and shared them. I posted photographs and links on social media.

Spring and the brilliant Boswell Festival came along. Like Brigadoon, I became happily visible. I spoke about my father’s experience, sharing the stage with a young Ukrainian woman, a refugee as my father had been. She related her heartrending escape from her home, under Russian bombardment, with her five year old daughter. The event was well attended, well received and very moving indeed. Afterwards, somebody said to me ‘I could listen to you speak all day.’ Which was a relief, because I had begun to wonder if I had become boring as well as old. But I think we could have listened to the Ukrainian woman all day too. And wept with her.

After that came silence except for another all too brief period of visibility on stage at the excellent Tidelines festival in Irvine.

I tried contacting my local libraries, offering to do talks. No response. Not one. I sent out a great many copies of the book, at my own expense, including some that should have gone as advance copies to people who would have reviewed it. So much so that I’ve almost run out of my own copies, and now – hilariously, if it wasn’t so irritating – my book orders have been ignored as well. Emails and phone-calls remain unanswered.

I had high hopes when my publisher went to the London Book Fair, but when she reported that the focus there was all on Ukraine, I wondered if anyone had pointed out what the book is actually about: the terrible, troubled history of - you know - Ukraine, as experienced through the eyes of one family.

I’m told it’s a ‘niche market’ but a Polish diaspora of 20 million people worldwide is a pretty big niche. You'd think somebody might want to publish a Polish language version, but apparently not. 

This is just the tip of the invisibility iceberg. There are so many examples of my current invisibility that it would become monotonous to continue to relate them. So I won’t. Like a passing comet, or a blue supermoon, I may become briefly visible again at some point in the future, but I can't say when. 

Most people in the book trade will tell scathing tales about ‘needy writers’. Very few will admit that there are invisible writers. Well reviewed writers. Older female writers. Angry writers. But it’s OK to be angry when you’re invisible, because nobody at all will notice. 




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Some Book Recommendation - Books about European History

 


A little while ago, I wrote this piece for a fairly new site called Shepherd.com 

It was a great pleasure - and certainly related to the massive amount of research I had undertaken, both for my new book, The Last Lancer, about the Polish side of my family, and a previous 'companion' volume, A Proper Person to be Detained, about the Leeds Irish side.

But in considering which books to pick, I was also taken back to the research I had done for my novel The Jewel, about Jean Armour, Robert Burns's longsuffering but largely unsung (except by the poet himself!) wife - and back even further to my radio dramatisation of Stevenson's great adventure story. 

Most writers are very fond of reading so it's good to be able to write about the books that we've loved enough to want to recommend them to other people. 


Listening and Watching - The Price of a Fish Supper


 A couple of weeks ago, MAD Productions staged another handful of performances of my play The Price of a Fish Supper, originally produced at Glasgow's Oran Mor as one of their A Play, A Pie and a Pint series. It's a single hander, i.e. a long monologue and consequently a very 'big learn' for the actor involved, but Ken O'Hara (above) has made the part uniquely his own. 

For me, once he is on stage, he is Rab, the troubled but essentially decent ex-fisherman who hangs about the harbour and tells his tragic (but often very funny) story to whoever will listen. 

It's a play about the long, sad demise of the traditional Scottish fishing industry, a play about friendship and family, about where and how people fit into the world in which they find themselves, and the possibility, or otherwise, of redemption. It's a play that tackles adult themes and pulls no punches. 

Thanks to Ken O'Hara and to Isi Nimmo, who directs, the play has had a long life beyond that first well reviewed production. I've done the occasional after-show Q & A session. Every single time, somebody has asked me or Ken if he ad-libs it. And every time, he points out that, with the exception of the very occasional phrase, it was all written down. Carefully constructed by me. Even down to the way it's written on the page, orchestrated, almost like a long poem. (If you want to see for yourself, it's available here, published by Nick Hern Books.) 

I always wonder if they would ask the same question if I were young and male. I suspect not!

All the same, it's Ken who brings Rab vividly to life. Plays are meant to be experienced in performance. Not as words on a page.

It also makes me think about how Rab first came into my mind, telling me his tale before he told anyone else. Which is what it feels like to write in a single voice like this - you listen and your character speaks.

In the 1970s, I did a postgraduate Masters in Folk Life Studies. My dissertation was on the fishing traditions of the Carrick district of South Ayrshire. I interviewed many elderly fishermen over a period of a year. and their vivid descriptions of the herring fishing have stayed with me ever since. Even more to the point, my husband was once a trawler skipper here in Ayrshire. Eventually, he moved on to skipper charter yachts and then came ashore to work as a woodcarver and artist, but he too had stories to tell. We had and still have friends who worked at the fishing. So there was a certain amount of immersion going on for me - and many of the tales told in the play are certainly based on truth.

After the most recent production of Fish Supper, it struck me that one of the most valuable pieces of writing advice I can give anyone - whether you're aiming to write plays or fiction - is to watch and listen. Watch how people behave. Listen to how they speak.

You have to be fascinated by people. All kinds of people. What they do, what they say and how they say it. 



The Scent of Blue

 



I wrote this poem about perfumes, and one scent in particular, a number of years ago. It has been published in a pamphlet and elsewhere online, but given the subject of my two previous posts, it seems like a good time to resurrect it. 

THE SCENT OF BLUE

 

A concert in Edinburgh, years ago.

She manages to find a single seat.

Two people sweep past, ushered by the

front of house manager in his dark suit.

She sees a famous conductor,

silver haired, sharp featured like some

bird of prey, but smaller than you would

expect, in evening dress.

On his arm a thin woman,

taller than he is, strides with

striking face and hair, a cloud of

grey blonde curls around her head.

Not a young woman but a

diva surely, inhabiting her clothes,

inhabiting her skin with such confidence.

She wants to be like that some day,

longs for self possession.

And she remembers the scent of her,

musky, mysterious, a heavy, night time

scent, like flowers after dark.

The scent of passion.

The scent of money.

The scent of blue.

 

She searches for the scent for years. 

Her mother wore Tweed.

Now she wishes she could

open a wardrobe door, and

smell her mother’s plain sweet scent,

almost as much as she

wishes she could tell her mother so.

 

As a girl, she wears Bluebell,

fresh and full of hope, or

Diorissimo, like the lilac she once

carried through the streets,

on her way from meeting a man

she desired and admired, thinking

Girl with Lilac, still so young,

self conscious, not possessed.

 

Later, she tries l’Air du Temps and

Je Reviens and Fleurs de Rocaille

but they are none of them the scent of blue.

She wears Chanel, briefly, with dreams of Marilyn,

loves to watch her, loves to hear her voice,

satisfying as chocolate or olives but

Number Five is not her scent, never suits her, never will.

 

She discovers Mitsouko.

Some tester in some chemist’s shop somewhere.

An old, old fashioned scent,

syncopated, unexpected, not to every taste.

When she wears it,

women ask her what it is,

I love your scent they say.

How strange the way scent lingers in the mind. 

How strange the way scent

changes on warm skin.

On her it ripens to something

peachy, mossy, rich and rare.

But it is not the scent of blue.

She loses her heart.

It is an affair of  telephone lines,

more profound, more sweet and

bitter than Mitsouko,

a sad song in the dark,

and the colour of that time is blue.

 

Afterwards, she searches through

Bellodgia, Apres L’Ondee, Nuit de Noel, Apercu

Until drawn by nostalgia

She finds Joy,

dearly bought  roses and jasmine,

a summer garden in one small bottle.

She loves Joy.

She marries in Joy.

She wears Mitsouko

and she forgets the scent of blue.

 

Older, she glances in her mirror and only

sometimes likes what she sees.

She finds Arpege,

not just  rose and jasmine but

 bergamot, orange blossom, peach, vanilla, ylang ylang,

one essence piled on another like the notes on the piano she

used to, sometimes still does, play.

Oh this is not a scent for the very young.

It is too dark for that,

a memory of something  lost,

an unfinished story.

This scent has a past.

 

She sees him across a room.

Another woman ushers him,

this way and that, makes introductions,

a little charmed the way women

always were charmed by this man.

It used to make her smile the way

women flocked around this

man who belonged to

nobody but himself.

 

She is wearing Arp├Ęge.

Not a scent for the very young,

vertiginous as the layers of time between.

With age comes wisdom,

but like mud stirred at the bottom of a  pool,

memories bubble to the surface.

Not wisely but too well they loved.

Now, they are waving across a

chasm of years.

They speak in measured tones,

they speak and walk away,

they speak again in careful words, that

every now and then

recall the scent of

 

No.

It will not do.

Only innocently in dreams

can one recapture that

first fine careless

 

So much more is forgotten

Than is ever remembered.

And the clock insists

let it be let it be.

 

1911

One summer evening

a young man observes the way twilight closes the flowers,

whose scent lingers on the last heat of the day,

the way the light goes out of the sky,

painting it dark blue, how

soon the war will tear this place apart.

How soon all things resort to sadness.

 

In a new century,

She finds among jasmine and rose,

vanilla and violet,

a dark twist of anise, like the

twist of a knife.

First last always.

The scent of the diva.

The scent of passion.

Fine beyond imagining.

She sees it is essentially

sad, sad, sad, a

sad scent:

L’Heure Bleue.

All things come to sadness in the end.

The beautiful bitter foolish scent of blue.


Catherine Czerkawska

 

 PS All my content is free, but if you like what I write, then maybe you would enjoy one of my books. There are links to most of them on here. You are welcome to share content but only if you attribute it to me, and link to my blog. Thank-you!