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Friday 30 November 2007

Temple Newsam

Temple Newsam House, birthplace of Lord Darnley, is a Tudor-Jacobean mansion set in the most glorious grounds. Long before the present house was built, the land - as the name suggests - was the property of the Knights Templar. Local street names: Knight's Hill, Baronsway etc. still bear witness to this. Being a law unto themselves, before they were banished from England, the properties they owned were marked with a Templar Cross and the inhabitants of houses with this mark were exempt from taxes, since they owed allegiance only to the pope not the king. It's interesting that several 18th century houses in the area of Temple Newsam still bear that cross and I wonder if - despite the banishment of the Templars - that right still holds (unbeknown to the residents) today.

"Beckford House" in "The Fields Laid Waste" and subsequent novels in the trilogy, is loosely based upon Temple Newsam House. The gardens, the rare breeds farm and the beautiful lakes and landscapes provide such a perfect background. The woods, even now, have a mystical feel about them...does this come, I wonder, from the ancient rites of the Templars...

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Poetry and Dross

How well film makers understand the power of music to arouse emotions! Would 'Psycho' or 'Jaws' have terrified audiences or built up such suspense without music? Would a tragedy be half so tragic without the heart-rending score? Shakespeare knew it, centuries ago, 'if music be the food of love' and isn't music still necessary to create the ambience of parties, restaurants or socials gatherings. A supermarket manager once told me that when the shop is empty, slow music is played to encourage customers to browse the shelves more carefully. When they want to hurry people through the check-out, a faster tune is played. (It's fun to try to walk against that music...to go slow to the fast tunes and vice versa!). Music can communicate so much, so quickly like a scent or facial expression.

Perhaps the closest that words can come to music, is through poetry. T.S. Eliot wrote that "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." Children learning the beautiful rhythmic echoes of The Lady of Shalott grasp the essence of the poem long before they understand all the vocabulary; Lear's "The Courtship of the Yongy-Bongy Bo" or Lewis Carrolls Jabberwocky make no sense at all, yet the sound of the words is like a kind of memorable music and there is beauty in the language which natural appeals to the deepest, finest feelings within us, in much the same way as beautiful music. As Coleridge wrote, "poetry is the best words in the best order". Isn't the purpose of poetry to express in the most beautiful way possible, the most beautiful and deepest emotions, or to capture the most beautiful moments, scenes or experiences - to put music and art into words, and in this way to elevate the thoughts to the aesthetic and profound.

Why is it, then, that many a school syllabus compels students to study so-called 'poetry' of violence, of ugly language creating ugly impressions? It has been said that some of these poems -describing family disputes, crime, joyriding (what joy??), unpleasant relationships - are supposed to be more accessible to children and because they reflect real life experience they are easier for students to understand and empathise with. What arrogance it is to assume that children lack the ability to appreciate beauty or to understand the meaning of a poem because the language is unfamiliar; or to assume that ugliness is more appealing to young minds than the aesthetic and profound. What even greater arrogance it is to suppose that if someone grows up among violence, hearing only ugly language he/she is incapable appreciating beauty! When poetry, like music, can raise us to our highest self, our best thoughts, and our deepest feelings and our sense of empathy with, rather than separation from, the rest of humanity, and when there is such a wealth of beautiful literature available to us, it seems a sacrilege to feed young minds on dross.

Sunday 25 November 2007

A Nation of Shopkeepers?

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon called England 'a nation of shopkeepers'. If he saw us today, I think he might call us 'a nation of museum curators/theme-park operators'. Where once there were thriving manufacturing industries, there are now theme parks and museums - exciting, interactive, educational, museums, but museums all the same: the railway museum, mining museum, mills museums, whole villages turned into museums. What is it about the past that attracts so much interest? Is all this simply a way of making money from a defunct manufacturing industry, or is it that, in the throw-away age where so many of our goods are imported and when they stop working we don't have them mended but buy another, we look back to a time when people took pride in their creations and things were made to last? Strange how, in the days before bulldozers, steam rollers, cranes and petrol/diesel driven vehicles etc. such care was taken in building beautiful edifices with mosaic tiles, giant arches, columns and carvings. Stranger still how, what might have been an opportunity to create something as memorable and lasting as Marble Arch, the Tower of London, the countless castles and abbeys of England, the best we could do to mark the millennium was the ugly and ridiculous dome! Wasn't that just the epitome of the throw-away age?
Of course, it is easy to look back through rose-coloured spectacles and to forget that so much of what we see around us today was built on the back of the countless child and adult workers, whose bodies now lie now in the unmarked pauper graves of Victorian cemeteries (which, incidentally, are also tourist attractions). I like to think when I look at some of the beautiful architecture in the city of Leeds, that somehow these things are a monument to all those forgotten people, and especially to the children whose names are lost in oblivion. Sometimes, when I pass the old mill buildings (now luxury apartments) along the banks of the River Aire, or see the fronts of the most exclusive shops in the Victoria Quarter and Briggate, I think back to all those forgotten children and workers who first brought wealth to Leeds. Beneath these flag stones there are probably relics of the old slum dwelling, a dropped penny, a clay pipe, an empty bottle dropped by a real person from another era, and it might be my imagination but I almost hear their clogs on cobbles, the boom of the looms and cries from the squalid tenements and I want to say, "Thank you. I remember you so you're not forgotten."

"The Fields Laid Waste" - both a love story and, I hope, a tribute to all those children - follows the effects of enclosure on a rural village and the migration of one particular family into the town at the height of the Leeds cholera epidemic. In this scene, Will Harding, an engineer, has been invited by mill owner, Mr. Brandwith, to visit his factory with a view to designing more powerful looms:

"Will...followed him into another yard that echoed with the regular beat and clatter of the looms.
“If there’s owt you want to know, you’ll have to ask me after. I’ll not be able to hear you in here,” Proctor warned.
He opened a door and it seemed to Will that a thousand horses had been let loose to gallop across a wooden plateau. Hammering, rattling, clicking and pounding! Shuttles flew from one side of the vast hall to the other as the inexorable looms churned out their cloth. Along the rows between the machines, other foremen paced, their hands like Proctor’s fixed to their straps, their eyes like eagles in search of slackers. As the heavy frames relentlessly chugged to and fro, small children, crouching on the floor, hurried in and out between the shuttles, brushing the fluff from the looms. Despite their adroitness, Will could hardly bear to watch as the great weights swung so close to their tiny bodies that should one of them fall or take a fraction of a second too long, the results would be too horrific to imagine. The rumours he had heard in the village ran through his head: children dead of exhaustion, starvation or gangrene from mutilated limbs; eight-year-olds skinnier than the runt of an old sow’s litter; and the factory fever that wiped them out by the dozen.
The noise was so deafening that he thought his head might explode and he hurried back to the door and the relative peace of the yard, where he stood with his hands pressed to his ears until his guide reappeared.
“Engine house is this way, sir.”
Proctor began to walk away expecting Will to follow but he didn’t move.
“Wait,” he called, “there’s more I want to see here.”
“Mr. Brandwith said you were familiar with the looms and it were just a matter of showing you the size of the place.”
“I want to speak with some of the workers.”
“I don’t know about that. Mr. Brandwith didn’t say owt about that.”
“If we wants me to design new looms, I need to discover the disadvantages of the old ones. The only people who can tell me that, are the ones who work on them.”
Proctor ran a long finger over his lips, pensively sucking in his cheeks before replying, “I’ll fetch one of the foremen.”
“No, not a foreman. One of the women, or better yet, one of the children. A child, yes, I want to speak with a child.”
Proctor vacillated, “It i’n’t good for them to be brought from their work. They lose their momentum, see? They’ve to be kept going or they grow sleepy and start slacking.”
“Are you going to do as I ask, or do I have to find Mr. Brandwith? I don’t think he’ll be too pleased at being brought from his business for something so trivial.”
Proctor’s thin lips twitched and, with no hint of having surrendered, he said, “Wait here, sir, if you please. I’ll fetch a child.”
The child whom he brought was a thin, wasted girl whose age Will couldn’t determine. Her pale skin and pink eyes gave her the appearance of a mouse, and when Proctor pushed her forward with the end of his strap, she cowered and stared at the ground.
Will crouched to her height, “What’s your name?”
“Lily, sir.”
“Lily, do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
Clearly at a loss as to how to respond, she looked up at the foreman who hovered behind her, twirling the strap between his fingers and staring over her head.
“She’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“How old are you, Lily?”
“I’m not rightly sure. I think I’m eight, sir.”
“Ten,” Proctor said, “we have no one here under ten.”
“Ten,” Will nodded, certain she was younger. Her frame was so slight that her ragged dress hung loosely from her shoulders as though made for someone twice her age.
“How long have you worked for Mr. Brandwith?”
“I came last spring to the apprentice house.”
Will looked up at Proctor, “Apprentice house?”
“In his kindness, Mr. Brandwith takes the little bastards from the workhouse and sees they’re taught a good and useful trade. Isn’t that so, child?”
“Yes, Mr. Proctor.”
“And how should you repay him for his kindness?”
“I should work very hard, Mr. Proctor, and be grateful to my betters for all they’ve done for me.”
“That’s right, because they’ve done a great deal for you, haven’t they? If it weren’t for Mr. Brandwith providing you with food and clothes and a bed to sleep in, where would you be?”
“I should probably have starved to death in the gutter by now.”
Every line she spoke, she spoke without hesitation as though reciting a chant she’d recited a thousand times before. Will, still crouching before her, tried to look into her eyes, but she kept her head down as though too frightened to look at him.
“What time did you start work this morning?”
“Six o’clock this morning, sir.”
“And what time will you finish?”
“Seven o’clock tonight.”
The sound of the loomshed rattled across the yard and Will thought how his head might have exploded after only two minutes indoors.
“Thirteen hours,” he whispered, “thirteen hours every day!”
“With a break of twenty minutes for breakfast and forty minutes for lunch,” Proctor said.
Will reached for the little girl’s hand but she flinched from his touch, “Do you like your work, Lily?”
She looked up at the foreman again, “Yes, sir. It’s very good of Mr. Brandwith to give me work.”
Will stood up, folded his arms, and walked around her in a circle, “How many children work here, Proctor?”
“Eighty-eight pauper apprentices and about a hundred more come with their families.”
Will looked at the child, silently shivering in the cold yard, “I want to talk to her alone.”
“Beg your pardon, sir?”
“Leave us, please.”
Proctor started in shock but Will met his eyes and stared at him determinedly until, after a moment’s hesitation, he yielded. He turned to the child, placed the handle of his strap beneath her chin, and jerked her head to look at him, “You answer the gentleman’s questions good and proper, do you hear?”
“Yes, Mr. Proctor.”
“Right then. I’ll wait in the loomshed.”
When he’d gone, Lily stood as he’d left her; her hands clasped in front of her waist, her eyes staring straight ahead and her shoulders trembling with cold. Will smiled at her but she didn’t respond.
“Is there somewhere warm we could talk?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
He stooped to her height, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Lily. Look,” he opened his arms, “I don’t have a strap. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She seemed no less afraid.
“I don’t work for Mr. Brandwith or Mr. Proctor so you can speak to me honestly, Lily. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.”
He looked around, “Where’s the apprentice house?”
She pointed to a high black building in the shadow of the giant mill tower.
“Is it warm in there?”
“No, sir.”
“It must be warmer than out here. Come on,” he took her by the hand, “show me.”
Through a series of passages, alleys and yards she led him to the dismal building. In the windowless entrance, the only light came through the door revealing bare brickwork and a rickety staircase leading up to a landing.
“Do you have a dining room?”
“No, sir. We generally eat at the loom or in the yard except on Sundays after church, then they give us our dinner in the main hall.”
“So what’s down here then?” Will said, moving along the passage and trying handles, but each door was locked.
“Overseers’ rooms and offices. We don’t go in there.”
Without being asked she set off up the rickety staircase, leading Will to a landing where she pushed open one of the doors.
“I sleep in here, sir,” she whispered.
Will looked through the crack. On two beds with a thin piece of sacking for a blanket, he counted twelve children huddled together for warmth, their thin, wan limbs piled on top of one another like bones in charnel house. He stepped back in shock, “Who are they?”
“Night shift, sir. We take it in turns. We get up and they have the beds, then they get up and we have the beds. We change over each week.”
“So the factory never stops working?”
“No, sir.”
He peeped into the room again. Most slept, though one or two coughed and stirred but all seemed too weary to open their eyes. He stepped back onto the landing, closing the door on their dreams. He sat down on the stairs and looked at the child who stood patiently at his side.
“Do you ever have lessons? Can you read or write?”
She shook her head.
“But you’re apprentices, so what have they taught you?”
“To clean the looms, sir. I think the older ones learn weaving and dyeing.”
“How do you clean the looms?”
“With a brush. When the shuttle flies back we run in for the fluff.”
“And if you’re not quick enough?”
She didn’t answer.
“Are there many accidents?”
“There was a boy last week, he got his arm fast in the threads and the ladies that were weaving told the foreman to stop the loom but he wouldn’t and when the frame came back along…well his arm came off, right off. They had to stop it then. Foreman was angry because he’d ruined all the cloth with his blood.”
Will leaned back against the walls and half-closed his eyes against the bare bricks, “What did Mr. Brandwith say?”
“I don’t know, sir. I think he sent for the surgeon but it didn’t do any good. He bled to death before he got here.”

Saturday 24 November 2007

Writing What You Know.

An interviewer on a radio programme once asked a writer how she reconciled the maxim "write what you know", with all the horror described in her novels and which she clearly hadn't personally experienced. She replied that she took her own experiences which inspired emotion, magnified the emotion slightly and put it into whatever situation her novel required. I thought that was rather wonderful!
Basically, no matter what the external events, humans run the same gamut of emotions so, perhaps, every novel is to some extent autobiographical of the writers' experience and all humanity's experience.
I would like to include some excerpts from my novels, over the next couple of days, beginning with "The Counting House."
This is autobiographical only in as much as it tries to describe the emotions, fears, joys, anger and love of a child, which I believe are common to everyone's childhood. I have often felt that children, struggling into roles allotted to them by society, go through so much angst because they have not yet learned to voice or understand their deepest feelings and there is often no outlet for them to express these emotions. So often, confined by the mores of the family or school or society, children are compelled to hide their anger, their fears and their love. How many of us grow to adulthood with the unhappy, unexpressed child still lost somewhere inside and acting out childhood fears and anger in grown up bodies.

Georgie, the central character of "The Counting House", thinks in black and white when the novel begins. Everything is good or evil, heroic or weak, brave or cowardly. She feels terrible guilt for having 'stolen', from a cemetery lodge, a candlestick which she believes has led to her being cursed by the devil and condemned by God, When tragedy strikes the family that evening, she believes she is to blame and embarks on a bizarre quest to appease God and rid herself of the devil. As the book progresses she gradually comes to understand the 'shades of grey' in defining the nature of good, evil and accident.

This excerpt from the beginning of the third chapter, describes her fear not only of retribution from God, but also of her terrifying teacher, Miss Keppel:

"I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage.”
While the boys made Plasticine models with plastic knives on small square boards, we sat like ladies-in-waiting around Miss Keppel’s desk, clicking our needles and quietly chanting the steady rhythm,
“In, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off. In, wrap it round, pull it through slip it off.”
Miss Keppel moved among us uttering words of wisdom, “The devil finds work for idle hands. Always keep your hands and your minds busy!”
Her huge nostrils quivered as she surveyed the class, “Gerard Taylor, what is the first commandment?”
He answered without hesitation, “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.”
“Go on,” she said.
We carried on knitting, “In, wrap it round, pull it through slip it off, in, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off.”
“Nor any fish or,” he looked down and stuck his thumb into the squashy pink snail, “bird or graven image or any insect or anything.”
Miss Keppel’s great nose came down above him until his neck shrank into his shoulders. A swift hand clipped the top of his head, “For I, the Lord am a jealous God and I punish the father’s guilt in his sons!”
She spun around like a whirlwind, “Catherine Gould, the second commandment?”
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
“In, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off. In, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off,” faster and faster, building up speed like a train.
I said the words but my hands were out of time. I said, ‘Slip it off,’ when I was wrapping it round and I knitted a hole where there should have been wool. Catherine Gould’s scarf grew longer and longer in a rainbow of bright colours. I wriggled the wool through my fingers, tying the loose ends in knots on the needles. The two rows that Miss Keppel had knitted to start me off grew greyer and greyer but the scarf never grew any longer.
Miss Keppel moved on, calling names at random, “Michael Donnelly, the fifth commandment.”
This week she was bound to come to me; I guessed that she would reach me with the seventh. She always omitted the sixth and the ninth and Gerard Taylor said they were rude. I looked them up in the Bible.
“Jessica,” I said, “what’s adultery?”
“Being cheeky to grown ups.”
“That’s not rude.”
“Being rude to grown ups then.”
Miss Keppel’s shoes squeaked over the wooden floor and her flowing skirt made a breeze as she passed. My fingers were damp and slipped over the huge plastic needles. I gathered the grubby grey wool on my lap and buried the scarf in my hands.
“Georgina Meadows, the seventh commandment?”
I felt the blood rush out of my face and my hand began to shake. I opened my mouth but no words would come.
“The seventh commandment, Georgina?”
She was standing in front of me, her long bony fingers entwined before my eyes. Her knuckles were red and inflamed and brown spots covered the skin.
I screwed the wool into a ball, “Thou shalt not steal.”
One by one her fingers untwined and stretched themselves like an eagle about to swoop on its prey. Her hand was cold when her skin touched mine, pulling the woollen ball from my knee. When she lifted it up her nostrils flared and her thin lips sank into her mouth.
“What,” she said, pausing between each word, “is this?”
I didn’t know if she wanted an answer so I bent down and pulled up my socks.
“Please may I do Plasticine next week?”
“Plasticine?” the word burst out like an oath.
“I can’t knit. My Mum can’t knit either. None of us knits in our family.”
Her dull eyes widened and her lips disappeared. She took the end of a thread in her finger tips as though it were an insect she could hardly bear to hold and with one sudden movement of her wrist, unravelled the whole creation and dropped it in a heap on my knee.
“You can’t knit? Then it’s time you learned. You’ll stay in at playtime this afternoon and every afternoon until you can.”

Friday 23 November 2007


Congratulations on the the launch of the Blog. I hope it helps to bring pre-eminence to your excellent work.

"The Past Is Another Country...."

What's the correct answer to the greeting, "Alright?" ? I don't know if this is a Yorkshire colloquialism or in worldwide usage, but far from the genteel, "Good morning, Lady Harley-Farley, how are you?" of another era, it seems that in the age of speed in all things, we do not like to waste time with words and reduce the greeting to "Alright?" You walk along the road, pass an acquaintance and he/she nods, "Alright?" What do you say? "I am very well, thank you, how are you?" sounds too verbose. A simple, "Hi!" or "Morning!" (omitting the 'good', of course)? Or perhaps just a nod and a smile?

When L.P. Hartley wrote, "The past is another country, they do things differently there..." he might have warned that they speak another language there, too, and what a challenge this presents in writing historical fiction. In order to find the authentic voice of a particular era, is it necessary to check every word for its usage at the time? For example, 'naughty', in Shakespeare's time, was far more derogatory than it is nowadays. The word 'sick' - I believe - came to England from America some time in the mid-19th century, and I recently discovered (from Stephen Fry's brilliant book), that 'Hello' only came into usage as a greeting after the invention of the telephone. So do I check every word that the characters speak, or is better to capture the essence of the age by using language which is more familiar today? After all, some local phrases of 'old speak' would make no sense whatsoever to anyone born outside of Yorkshire or after 1970. I never understood my grandmother's greeting, "Why don't you come like yourself?" Things didn't break, they 'went west', angry people, 'played Hamlet', to 'make love' was a mild flutter of eyelashes and 'to screw' meant to look or watch and spices were sweets, and sweets were meat. Combine that with all the Yorkshire grammar of nowt, sommat and replacing 'our' with 'us' ('we're having us dinner'), changing 'the' to 't' followed by a sort of guttural 'er' (going t'er shops) and local vocabulary of ginnels and snickets for alleyways, the 'coarser edge' for the kerb...
Perhaps it would be much easier to set the novel in a community that had taken a vow of silence...