Bothwell in Brussels

James Hepburn 4th Earl of Bothwell. This miniature painted in 1566
James Hepburn 4th Earl of Boswell.
It’s funny how information leaps out at you when you have been sensitised to it. Although I must have read it more than once, I’ve only just realised that the Earl of Bothwell was in Brussels in August 1565. James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell and Hereditary Admiral of the Scottish Navy is a character I want to use in the fourth book of Elin’s Story, and I’ve been looking for a way to bring him into the novel at least tangentially earlier on so his reappearance won’t be too much of a surprise.

Bothwell, in the title of one of his biographies that I have in front of me, was The Queen’s Man – the Queen being Mary Queen of Scots, whose tragic story of utter incompetence is a foil to the story of her hyper-competent cousin Queen Elizabeth of England. Although Bothwell was nominally a Protestant and Mary a Catholic their mutual interest in a Scotland independent of England overrode religious differences and Bothwell seems to have tried to support the Queen as Scotland’s best hope.

That said, in truth navigating Bothwell’s motives is tricky not least because – as with Mary herself – his biographers tend to be highly partisan. He is the villain who murders Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley, gets away with it, and then forces Mary to marry him as her third husband after having kidnapped and raped her. Alternatively, he is her loyal man of action who rescues her from her loveless marriage and finally sweeps her off her feet.

Neither story ends well, of course. Mary loses Scotland, lives for years under house arrest in England and is eventually beheaded in 1587. Bothwell, fleeing Scotland by sea, washes up in Norway where his first wife (yes, really!) accuses him of adultery among other things and has him incarcerated. Moved to Copenhagen, he eventually dies in the dungeons of Dragshölm, probably insane, in 1578.

The fourth book of the Elin’s Story series is going to be partly a tale of spying and mistrust. It’s set in the middle of the 1570s and one feature of it will be a plot to spring the Earl from prison in Copenhagen in order to have him lead a Scottish army into England to liberate Mary. I want my heroine to have met the Earl beforehand. In August 1565 Elin was a 15-year-old maid in the service of Princess Cecilia Vasa who had just reached Emden in the north east corner of the Netherlands and was staying there as she waited for a formal invitation to visit England.

Fortunately, very little is known about the Earl of Bothwell’s movements in August, beyond the fact that he visited Brussels for a meeting and presumably took a boat from somewhere on the coast of the North Sea, because he made landfall in Scotland on the 17th September 1565. So, plenty of scope to bring him north to Emden.

Meanwhile, the Princess Cecilia and her “family” – as the party are called in the records – were enjoying the hospitality of the Lady of Emden, Katarina Vasa, married to Count Edzard II of East Friesland. That must have been awkward at times. Cecilia and Edzard’s brother Johan had had an affair in Vadstena soon after Katarina and Edzard married and Johan had been caught with his pants down. Literally. He was severely beaten and very possibly castrated by Cecilia’s brother Erik, now (in 1565) King of Sweden. (All this went down in Swedish history as Vadstenabullret – which I think is best translated as “the Vadstena Brouhaha”.)

Of course East Friesland was pretty solidly Protestant – in fact Calvinist – at this time, and unlikely to be an easy place for Bothwell to drum up support for his cause. Also Princess Cecilia was in 1565 still infatuated with Queen Elizabeth and all things English and so not likely to be interested in entertaining Bothwell’s ambitions. On the other hand Cecilia certainly had an eye for handsome men and Bothwell must have had a magnetic personality to go with his good looks. In less than a year, Cecilia had swung around to hatred of England and the English and later in life even converted to Catholicism for political reasons. Could Bothwell have planted a seed? Conviction could be fluid in the 1500s. (As indeed today.)

But I don’t have to take Bothwell all the way to Emden. The capital of the Spanish Netherlands – the political unit that included the modern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1565 – was Antwerp and I know that the Princess and her family, with Elin as one member, passed through Antwerp on their way to Calais at the end of August. They were five days Antwerp, so here is another place where their paths might have crossed with Bothwell’s.

All this research. What a lot of fun! But wouldn’t it be better to get on with the bloody story?

The original of the illustration, a miniature painting on a copper medallion, is held by the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. This jpeg is taken from the collection at the Google Art Project here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Writing Historical Fiction

A review of the book Writing Historical Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion
by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott
published by Bloomsbury

My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
During February, I have been reading Writing Historical Fiction with interest and pleasure. Although it is more of a book for dipping into than for reading from cover to cover, it does repay reading all the way through. However I think most readers will find, as I did, that some parts seem more relevant and useful than others.

The book is written to inform, to encourage and as a handbook for potential and practising writers of historical fiction and is structured in three parts. The first “Historical fiction”, presents the authors’ perspectives on their subject and a potted history of historical fiction. The second part, “Tips and tales”, is a collection of short essays or extracts by a selection of authors of historical fiction reflecting on the subject or on their own writing. The final part, “Write on” is a combination of practical tips, exercises and encouragement for writing as well as a compendium of possible sources for historical background and detail. Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott are both themselves authors of historical fiction, and in the first part of the book they each present some personal reflections on their subject – what it means to them, how they regard historical fiction.

There is a sense in which all fiction (with the possible exception of science fiction) is historical, that you cannot not write historical fiction. The argument goes: even when you set out to write about your present-day, as soon as you have written it down it is already in the past. Even science fiction is frequently a commentary – conscious or not – on the author’s present day, which is why many works of cutting-edge SF can feel remarkable dated when read a generation later.

“Historical fiction” is a genre, and genre is a product of the market place and the expectations of readers rather than anything that has to do with the core of creative writing. Some authors are comfortable writing in a genre, others are offended to be categorised as “genre writers”. There is a certain chip-on-the-shoulder quality about authors who find it important to establish the breadth, ancient pedigree and/or superiority of their genre. Brayfield and Sprott tackle this issue well, even entertainingly, but I still detect a faint whining sound when I read the section “On being not quite proper” (pp16-18).

To be fair, there is a prejudice against “historical fiction”, so if the authors did not confront it they would open themselves to charges of ignoring the elephant in the room. They take the perspective that historical fiction is as old as story-telling itself and present an outline history of historical fiction that starts with Gilgamesh and Homer and reaches to the very near present.

The middle of the book is given over to “guest contributions” by twenty-eight practising writers from Margaret Attwood and Tracy Chevalier via Philippa Gregory and Hillary Mantel to Rose Tremain and Louisa Young. (And despite the gender range of those examples, ten of the twenty-eight are men.) Each guest is given a page or two to present a few thoughts about historical fiction, meditate on their own process of authorship, or offer tips and encouragement to would-be authors.

I imagine readers will be drawn to the authors whose work they already know, and as most of these pieces seem to have been written specially for this volume they may find something new. Reading them all one after the other, though, I was struck by the amount of repetition. For example, three or four cannot resist referencing LP Hartley’s famous opening to The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (I’ve done this myself.) To be fair, the writers don’t all take the sentence at face value, but seeing it come up again and again made me realise how much of a cliché it has become. Unless I can riff a new slant on it I resolve not to use it any more.

Another observation about the guest authors section: all but two are from the English speaking world. The two exceptions are Orhan Pamuk and Valerio Massimo Manfredi. All the rest are British (most of them), Irish (2), Canadian (1), American (4) or Australian (1). This betrays a tendency in the book. Although Brayfield and Sprott do try to be inclusive, they are writing in the first case for a British audience.

The book’s bias to its anticipated audience is particularly noticeable in the final part, “Write on”, in the compendium sections. Here the authors make an effort to present sources for historical research. They do include some pointers for New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA and Ireland, but the bulk of their suggestions focus on Britain. I count only six out of a couple of hundred references made to sources in other languages than English. I don’t want to beat them up about this. The book does not set out to be comprehensive and it could be a guide to people working with sources in another country, in the sense that it gives a framework of the sources one might find in Britain as an example. One could reasonably attempt to carry it over to a foreign context.

It would also be fair to say that non-British authors who are researching an historical novel set in Britain will find the suggestions valuable.

More generally useful, though, are Duncan Sprott’s sections in the final part (Planning, Beginning, Drafting and Troubleshooting) and Celia Brayfield’s writing exercises in historical fiction. In particular, Brayfield’s suggestions for finding historical voices, settings, objects and seeing the “street view” are excellent and I can definitely see myself using them. The suggestions for working with classes of would-be authors are more aimed at established writers who have the opportunity to run courses for others. As a former teacher I can see how these would also be useful, though they are not for me at present.

Apart from the exercises, the part of the book I most expect to be revisiting is the section of Celia Brayfield’s “Reflections” sub-titled “Heroine addiction: women as protagonists in historical fiction”. My own novel-in-progress has a woman protagonist and a largely female cast, so I find several of her observations valuable and thought-provoking. In this section’s conclusion (p57) she writes “the consensual image of a prominent female figure will almost certainly be at odds with the historical record, and also with contemporary expectations of a woman” (emphasis added). Overcoming those parallel barriers successfully would be a great trick to pull off.

In conclusion, Writing Historical Fiction is a book with a lot to recommend it. It will be most useful and interesting for wannabe authors of historical fiction in Britain and the English speaking world, but has information, advice and encouragement for many people beyond this (after all) not so very narrow audience. I’m happy to have bought it and read it and will certainly keep it handy on my bookshelf so I can dip into it again.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Also published on Good Reads.

Talking aloud

Elin's Outline
Scrivener pinboard outline of the first part of Elin’s Story.
Once upon a time I started studying for a PhD. I never completed it because I couldn’t finance myself. (That’s one reason. Life is complicated; there were other reasons, but let that one suffice.) The PhD was supposed to focus on a form of school education called Content and Language Integrated Learning and drew on my experiences and research I carried out in the classroom. Part of the preparation for the PhD involved studying aspects of qualitative research and trying out techniques. One technique which my tutor was keen for me to experiment with was called “vocalised internal monologuing” or “intra-personal communication” – basically, talking aloud to yourself.

Apparently, in an effort to find out what people are thinking when they are doing things some researchers have wired up their subjects and got them to talk aloud. The assumption is that recording what the subject says gives an insight into the subject’s semiconscious or even subconscious choices. I don’t want to reject this technique out of hand – I can even imagine that it might work successfully with people who are able to express themselves at the same time as they are physically doing something that does not require thought – something repetitive. I could certainly see myself talking aloud about what I’m doing whilst washing the dishes for example. In my case, though, my tutor was asking me to talk aloud about the process of writing and analysing written documents while I was actually writing and analysing. It just didn’t work.

It’s hard enough, I find, to dictate into word recognition software (as I’m doing the moment) simply creating a text. If I have to create a text at the keyboard while at the same time talking about what I’m doing, the two processes conflict to such a degree that nothing gets done. For me at least, the creative act of writing and the act of reflecting on the creative act of writing must happen one after the other and not concurrently.

I started thinking about this now because I wanted to say something about my creative process, but putting on the microphone-headphones and starting up DragonDictate tripped me back 14 years into my memories of working on the PhD.

To get back to what I meant to write about when I started…

After expressing my wish last week for a more settled life that might allow me to focus on my writing, I decided to try and do something about it. On weekdays now I am setting myself the task of writing in 45 minute blocks throughout the morning from about 9.30 until about 1 o’clock. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to keep this up – the everyday does still intrude – but at least I can make the effort. The 45 minute rule is intended to keep me from sitting for hours in front of the computer. I’m using the timer in my telephone and when the alarm rings I get up, stretch, walk around, go and make myself a cup of tea. As I have a desk which I can raise or lower, when I come back I make sure I change from sitting to standing or vice versa.

Under the new regime I have created a document in Scrivener for the whole of Elin’s Story, all of the four (or it may be eight) books I’m currently planning. I have written a description of the whole story as a very abbreviated summary, and I’ve started breaking the summary down into chapters.

I’ve lived with this story for getting on for six years now, so I have a lot of it in outline either in my head or in various electronic documents and physical notebooks. The summary is not by any means complete. I fully intend to add to – and probably subtract from – what I have written now, but it feels good to have created this outline structure and to have at least an idea of where I’m going. The full summary is about 3500 words long and the projected novel (all the books together) is 480,000 words, so I have a way to go yet.

My next task is to build up my cast of characters and assign them to different chapters in the first part of the first book so that I know when I am introducing them and can focus on bringing them in appropriately. To help me I am creating family trees, character sets and timelines using Scapple, software that was recommended by my fellow Blogg 52er Lars Billbäck. (Thanks Lars!)

I brought a mass of material with me on memory sticks (I have used two or three different computers to write Elin’s Story over the last five years) and I find that I’m also going out on the Internet to track down other information so I’m not sure how fast the story will advance, but I’ve got things to keep me busy at least. And that takes me to the end of my second 45 minute session dictating this blog entry so I’ll close now and promise to keep you posted on future developments.

The illustration is a screen-capture image from my desktop.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Habits of Successful Authors

Thinking about writing
Thinking about writing.
I did not make a resolution, but I was rather hoping that this year I would be writing frequent blog entries At the Quill – and at least one a week for the #Blogg52 challenge — but I haven’t managed it. The ordinary, the everyday (which has not been either ordinary or everyday as we moved to Brussels on 5th January) has intruded and distracted and I’ve barely managed to keep up appearances on the social networks.

A few days ago, out of the blue, I received a mail offering me a ready-written blog article. For just a moment there I thought: Here’s someone who’s been reading me and is fed up of waiting for the next blog entry so they’ve written one for me! Not a bit of it, of course, but I was taken in for a moment. The blog article purported to be an info-graphic. The person offering it — let’s call him Steve — said he had just produced it and he thought it might suit my blog. Of course what he was really after was for me to accept his article without looking too carefully at it and not spotting that it was designed to take readers away from my blog to the article’s home website. I went and looked and found the home website was offering writing services (at a price) for bloggers and school students.

As a teacher (former teacher) I have no interest in promoting websites that help students cheat. And as a blogger — albeit an irregular and sometimes reluctant one — who writes about the process of writing, I really have little interest in publishing other people’s work. So, thank you for the offer Steve, but no thank you.

Of course, I read through Steve’s info-graphic — I’m nosey as well.

I wasn’t overly impressed. First of all because Steve hadn’t really managed very well. True there were six or seven images, but then several paragraphs of text. In my book an info-graphic ought to manage to compress all its information into graphical form, otherwise it’s just an illustration.

Secondly, I’m afraid Steve did not quite come up to my standards of literacy. (Modest cough.) Not to say he was illiterate, no, but there were misused prepositions, odd combinations of pronouns, some dodgy punctuation and I wasn’t terribly impressed by the logic of some of his sentences. Now, these are all the sort of slips I might make myself (hopefully not all of them in the same article) but then they’re my slips. I would either catch them before publishing, or publish and then spot them — or get called out by a reader — and hang my head in shame before correcting them and hoping no one (else) had seen them. Why would I be interested in publishing Steve’s uncorrected drafts?

As for the subject: The Habits of Successful Authors. Hrmmph.

Steve had gutted a book and a couple of Internet articles for authors’ writing habits, collected a bunch of author photographs and then composed a dubious analysis. Some of his authors started writing early in the morning, others late in the afternoon. Some wrote stone cold sober, others wrote under the influence of various forms of narcotics from the mild — tea, coffee and cigarettes — to the less so — alcohol, hash, opium and so forth. Some had to write in the presence of certain smells (Schiller), others (Victor Hugo) wrote naked. There wasn’t anything particularly new to me in the list (except for that about Schiller and his rotten apples) and after reading I wasn’t anywhere closer to an understanding of what Steve meant by “success”.

Is success as an author defined by the ability to produce texts? Or is it defined by the ability to get published? Or the ability to attract and hold an audience? I would say all three, but an author’s writing habits are only able to ensure success in the first of these.

Beyond this, the paragraphs of text that followed the pictures basically backtracked on every recommendation they made and ended up saying nothing much at all: Getting up early worked for A, B and C, but starting late worked for X, Y and Z. Writing drunk worked for D and E, but V and W only wrote sober.

The truth is, “the habits of successful authors” are the writing habits that the authors themselves found worked for them personally. That doesn’t mean they’re going to work for anyone else. Of course you can try out different strategies in the search for what works for you, but setting out to copy other people’s strategies because you believe that therein lies the secret of success could also be a distraction from finding how to write yourself.

(Another way to avoid actually learning how to write yourself, Steve, is to borrow — or buy — someone else’s work to present as your own. Just saying.)

What habits work for me? I know from experience that what I need is a regular schedule. I have to get into the habit of sitting down in front of the computer at a fixed time daily and writing – either producing a minimum number of words or staying at the keyboard for a specific period. Once I’ve established my rhythm and can carry on doing it, day in, day out, the occasional short interruption is not a problem. Longer breaks are. Getting started in the first place (and getting started again after a longer interruption) is really difficult.

All my plans for writing success once we moved to Belgium were predicated on being quickly able to get into a regular writing rhythm. I just haven’t been able to do that yet. The mundane, the quotidian, keeps intruding.

I keep trying though.

The medieval woodcut that illustrates this article comes from the collection at ClipArt Etc. I am happy to thank and acknowledge them.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

In the laundry

In the window of the washing machine
In the window of the washing machine
I’m sitting in the launderette waiting for the washing machine to finish its cycle and holding a book of poetry in my hand. I’ve just been reading some poems by John Donne and George Herbert. There’s a small mirror set in the wall above the mangle and it snags the corner of my eye. I have a sudden feeling of déjà vu. My 21-year-old student self looks out of the mirror at my 56-year-old self looking in.

Obviously, I wrote that paragraph in the present tense for dramatic effect. I’m actually remembering something that happened yesterday. That’s what we authors are like, untrustworthy, playing around with space and time, looking for a higher truth – a truth beyond truth – in fiction.

“We authors.” How it trips off the tongue; how it slips off the keyboard.

But to get back to my original point, 35 years on I find myself still reading 16th century poetry and still washing my clothes in a coin-operated laundry. Of course, this time around I had first to work out how to get change to buy the jetton – the token I need to operate the machine. The jetton dispenser refuses to accept my euro coins one after the other, spitting them back out at me with a derisive Francophone clatter in the little metal bowl at the bottom of the dispenser. (“I reject your proffered coins, English pig-dog! I blow my nose in your general direction, you son of a silly person.”) It’s not until I remember the old student trick of putting a little spit on the coins to make them “sticky” that it finally gives in and issues me a token.

Then I put the token in the wrong machine and have to start the whole process over again. This was an expensive wash.

Wasn’t it Marx who said that history repeats itself, the second time as farce?

I’m rather hoping that we will receive our new washing machine next week – and that the people who deliver it will actually be able to plumb it in for us – so I won’t have to spend much more time trying to wash clothes in what are, frankly, quite disgusting looking washing machines. The soap compartments at any rate look as if they have very advanced, even mature, mould cultures growing in them.

Why am I reading 16th century poetry? I’m glad you asked that!

It’s for Elin’s Story, my historical novel. I’ve decided to try and find one or more poem for each of my characters. The idea is that it will help me give another dimension or a greater depth to my characters if I can associate them with a poem (or poems) from the period. I’m looking for things which tell me what people might have thought about, what stories they might have been interested in, how they might have been aware of nature – perhaps even phrases they might use. Just as with modern pop songs an awful lot of the poetry is about love and sex, but in amongst all that there are also celebrations of the natural world, philosophical meditations, children’s rhymes and traders’ street cries, prayers, charms and spells.

One of the books I’m looking at (obviously not the one I took with me to the launderette) is the Penguin Book of Women Poets which includes poems from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries from different countries of the world in modern translation. There is a wonderful series of short, acerbic aphorisms written by a Greek Orthodox nun in Constantinople the generation before the city fell to the Turks. Her verse will add something to the character of Ingeborg, Elin’s aunt. There is also an angry poem by a Venetian woman (who also happens to be “an honest courtesan”) who has been jilted in love. Some of the things she threatens to do to her two-faced lover give me ideas for Johanna, one of the Princess Cecilia’s maids.

Anyhow, that’s what I’m doing with myself nowadays. Looking for some sort of order in my daily life. struggling with Francophone machinery and looking for character hints in old poems.

In the lauderette
And doing the washing – obviously!

For a larger version of the illustrations, go to this post on Ello.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Brand New Computational Device

My new Fujitsu
My new Fujitsu
I read recently that Microsoft is discontinuing sales of Windows 7. Not all versions of Windows 7, they’ll continue selling the business version for a while it seems, but they’re trying to steer people over to Windows 8. Horrible! My experience of Windows 8 has been so negative that I had already decided to stick with Windows 7 until Microsoft realise the idiocy of their new operative system and make something which is not actively user-hostile. If I have to learn to use a new operative system then I’ll switch to Apple. It’s just that MacBooks are so expensive.

Anyway, the Microsoft news helped fertilise a growing idea that now was a good time to buy a brand new computational device – a new (cheapish) laptop. I’m away to Brussels soon, I’m going to have time to write (that’s the plan), so why not celebrate with a new, dedicated workhorse? I’ve bought myself a Fujitsu, with an i5 Intel chip and a four core processor and I’ve splashed out on 16 GB of RAM. (And the OS is, yes, Windows 7.) So now I need to fill it.

I’ve bought a copy of Dragon 13 – the latest upgrade to the dictation programme that I use. It’s “15% more reliable than Dragon 12” – whatever that may mean. Perhaps it means it’s more likely to print a full stop than to write the words well stop every fifth time I say it. Hope lives eternal.

I’m also going to install the latest edition of Scrivener from Literature and Latte, the software I find most useful when I’m writing. It’s a minor irritation that I can’t dictate directly into Scrivener with Dragon, but I’m going to have to install either Word or Open Office anyway and Dragon plays fairly nicely with them. (I’m dictating this with Dragon 12 into MS Word.)

So, those are the core programmes I need. The next question is, what else?

What do you think I ought to try?

A nice programme for mind mapping would be useful. Has anyone tried using Free Mind? What about Scapple?

A basic programme for sketching would also come in handy – I own a sketch tablet from Wacom and I’m going to take that with me. The new computer is not great on photo processing – it doesn’t have a separate graphic card – but I like to doodle sometimes so does anyone know of a programme they can recommend?

What about photo processing? Obviously I won’t need anything as advanced as Photoshop, but it would be nice to be able to crop and adjust photos in a basic way. What’s the photo processing software you swear by?

What else? What other software do you like to use? For what purpose? Do share!

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The state of the art

Soap bubbles outside the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square

For 30 years my sister lived in London and for me a visit to Britain was synonymous with a visit to London. Two years ago she and her husband moved to a little village in Northamptonshire to be closer to our mother and suddenly it was no longer so easy to visit London. Suddenly I found myself in the same predicament as most tourists – looking for hotel rooms, comparing prices, trading comfort for convenience. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

In September I had a three-week break from work and spent part of the first two weeks on my annual trip to Britain. I visited Northampton and Northamptonshire, various points in London, and Oxford. Here are some of the literary-related highlights.

In Northampton I continued the series of interviews with my mother that I started two years ago. An independent and very clear minded 92-year-old, my mum is telling me and my digital recorder the story of her life in hourly instalments. On previous visits we’ve covered the first 20 years of her life; on this occasion we took the story from 1941 – when she joined the WAAF during the war – up to 1957 and her meeting with my father when they were both 35.

(“What did you see in him,” I ask. “Oh,” she says, “he was a Greek god!” So – I didn’t get those genes then.)

I don’t know what I’m going to do with this ultimately, but the current plan is to transcribe mum’s memories and return them to her for corrections and additions. Although she’s eager to talk and remember, she says occasionally (I have the recording) “I don’t know why we’re doing this. Who would be interested?” But I’m interested and my sister is interested and I think other people would be too, though whether the recordings simply take a place in an archive for future historians, or whether they’ll feed into a biography or a novel I can’t yet say.

My sister is still trying to find her feet in village society. She is torn between no less than two book circles, though she doesn’t seem terribly enthusiastic about either of them. In the one, she joined first the books they’ve had to read are not to her taste. She showed me: Hunger Games. I know the Swedish translators, I boasted, but she wasn’t impressed. Young adult science-fiction. Not her thing. On the other hand, the alternative circle seems mostly enthusiastic about life-style books: gardens, home-decorating, cooking. These are all subjects she enjoys, but she doesn’t really want to read books about them. Jane Austin, she sighs, George Elliot. Virginia Wolfe!

King James presents books to the University of Oxford.
King James presents books to the University of Oxford.

Despite all the hype I really don’t see any sign that printed books are going out of fashion. I visited the Waterstone’s shop at Trafalgar Square. There’s a small – relatively small – shop at street level, but you go down some steps to a basement that stretches away to far distant corners. At Oxford I visited Blackwell’s flagship store where again you go down some stairs from the interior of a narrow shop to find yourself in a sculptured space, terraced on different levels, buried beneath one of the College quads. Books not only lined up on shelves but piled in the aisles. The start of term and time to buy course literature – and all of it in print on paper.

Back in London, the massive, new Foyles bookshop at 107 Charing Cross Road also testifies to a confidence in the continuing value of the printed word.

To be sure, on the underground I saw more people reading in their Kindles and surf pads than I saw reading books, but I saw a lot of people reading books. George RR Martin continues popular.

Printed or not, stories and storytelling seem to still be an important part of everyday life. How else to explain the newly opened Story Museum in Oxford? There was an article about the museum on the BBC’s website earlier in the year and I decided I would go and see it if I got the opportunity. It’s not that easy to find, and having got lost once I had to ask at the tourist information centre.

“Oh,” said the woman I spoke with, “you’ll love that! Look out for my old teacher Philip Pullman dressed up as Long John Silver!” That’s something that can only happen in Oxford.

The museum had launched with an exhibition of photos of children’s authors dressed as their favourite fictional characters. Hence Philip Pullman as Long John Silver and Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West, whose pictures I saw. However I missed Neil Gaiman as Badger from The Wind in the Willows. Actually I seem to have missed most of the museum. What happened was that I wondered through a doorway into a courtyard and then into an exhibition hall where a class of very enthusiastic five-year-olds and their teachers seemed to be on a guided tour. Not wanting to disturb them I took a quick look around and sneaked out again. It was quite attractive, but it didn’t seem to be very big.

Telling people after that I’d visited The Story Museum, I realised from their reactions that I hadn’t seen anything.

“Did you see in the Lord of the Rings section how if you look to one side you suddenly see a the wardrobe from Narnia?”

“What did you think of Badger’s home? All the things that you can look at and inside and touch?”

I’m clearly going to have to go back.

And finally I must again mention the interview I had with Michelle Thomas at Crystal Palace railway station on the last day of my visit. Next week – I’m putting my head on the line here but – next week this blog entry will be devoted to that.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The stories we tell

An Englishman went into a bar in Edinburgh and said “Can you tell me the quickest way to Glasgow?”
The barman said “Are you walking or are you driving?”
“Driving.” said the Englishman.
“Aye,” said the barman. “That’s the quickest way.”

When I was about 10 or 11 I discovered a way to hide from my mother things that I’d done at school that I knew she wouldn’t like. The technique was to give her a well-edited account of my day. If I concentrated on one or two innocuous events, and my account of them was sufficiently full, then the fact they occupied only about an hour of my school day would go unnoticed and I wouldn’t get grilled about the rest of the time.

Humans are storytellers. You can define us as a species in other ways I know, but I like this one and no one has yet identified storytelling among any other species, so why not? We share with stories: share our experiences, our dreams, our ideas and histories, our perceptions and values. Stories are the things that bind us together socially, both at the level of friends and families, and as groups, societies, religious or political believers. Nations.

This week I’ve been exposed to a number of different stories about nationhood. I am travelling in Britain and I flew here from Sweden a week ago. Last Sunday a Swedish general election took place in which several different stories of Swedish nationhood were being told and voted upon. And on Thursday – tomorrow at the time of writing – Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

All stories are always simplifications. Even the most intricately planned and delicately balanced novel – James Joyce’s Ulysses for example – is a simplification. Real life is untidy, incoherent, complex and glorious. When we tell stories we deliberately set out to take from real life, to hone, shave and organise so that the story contains enough reality to be believable, but no more. The day-to-day mess of reality gets in the way of storytelling. Stories always try to focus on one or a few essential details and aim to convey as simply as possible the message we want to share.

This is true whether you are a kid telling your parent about something that happened at school, or a comic telling a story to an audience, or a politician projecting a vision of a country. Your story always and ever only reflects a part of reality.

The trick, of course, is how much reality you include. My schools stories included just enough to make my day sound boring so as not to invite closer inspection. In a novel it’s often necessary to include much more reality to convince your reader. Ulysses infamously includes so much reality some original reviewers thought it was unplanned. (It is in fact ferociously well-planned and based on the structure of Homer’s Odysseus.)

The joke that starts this entry is about as empty of reality as you can go. You are not supposed to ask: Why was the Englishman asking direction? Why did he go into a bar to do so? You are not supposed to ask why the barman replied the way he did. You are supposed to know.

The format: “X goes into a bar” is a standard way to start a joke. The naming of a nationality sets you up for a prejudice. The barman is Scots (he is resident in Edinburgh and says “Aye” instead of “Yes”) and he has the last word, so he’s the hero. The Englishman is the butt of the joke for asking a stupid question.

The nation-stories I’ve been hearing recently are almost as divorced from reality as the joke. Not quite – there has to be a flake more of truth in them – but they depend just as much on prejudice, and encourage the listener just as much not to question but to accept. They aim at once to promote and confirm an established prejudice. Scotland is unjustly deprived of her freedom by the leeches of Westminster and the evil English. The Swedish nation (one people, one culture) is being undermined by an evil and unholy conspiracy of communists, capitalists feminists and foreigners. The United Kingdom is mystically united by ties of blood, Scots and English, spilled in defence of the nation on the battlefields of two world wars. And so on.

I can’t help feeling that if we all read more real fiction – and discussed how it works – we might be in a better position to question the paltry efforts of politicians and propagandists.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Adventures in Crowd Funding

I sat up till after midnight on Friday sketching out a front cover for another putative book. This is one I’ve only been thinking about for a couple or three weeks. (A tip of the hat to my fellow #Blogg52-er Eva Ullerud.) But Adventures in Crowd Funding seems like a good idea.

Adventures in Crowd Fundingfront cover essay
Adventures in Crowd Funding front cover essay

At the moment it seems like a good idea.

(In three months, I’m sure I’ll be wondering whatever possessed me to start a second self-publishing project while still working on my first.)

The logic is this. In the process of crowd funding My Gothenburg Days/Dagar I mitt Göteborg I am learning a great deal about crowd funding and the campaigning that goes with it. I am, in effect, marketing my book before it has been printed and published. Quite a lot of people have expressed an interest in knowing more about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. There doesn’t seem to be a road-map (though having said that, I’m now expecting people to bombard me with titles of other books on the subject). Howsomever, this is my journey and my adventure and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to document it.

I’m now going to be launching the campaign to fund My Gothenburg Days at the Gothenburg Book Fair. I’m going to be displaying my wares at the stall run by Egenutgivarna, the Swedish Indie Authors’ Association. For this occasion, I was preparing a text about myself and My Gothenburg Days to be included in a brochure and to loop as two slides in a longer slideshow on screen at their stand. No matter how I worked on it, I couldn’t cut down sufficiently the number of words I felt I needed. Then I realised I was trying to say something both about the projected photo book and about the crowd funding process.

The solution, I decided was to include a third slide, but that would mean a second book. Thus was Adventures in Crowd Funding born. I’m not quite sure what it will have in it yet, but I’m thinking a combination of little stories about what I’m doing and discovering (hopefully amusing) and some useful checklists and “things to think about”. (That is to say – things I wish I’d thought about for longer than I did before I got myself into this.) Perhaps also some interviews. I’m thinking to make it only as an e-book – and at the moment I think it’ll only be in English. Because trying to write in Swedish would guarantee 1) that it never gets written or 2) that – if written – it never gets read.

Ah! Swedish, my Achilles heel!

My short Swedish language texts for the Egenutgivarna’s brochure and slideshow have been passed by my Swedish editor (as in these contexts I call my wife). The first version, produced with the help of Herr Google, caused her first to hide her face in her hands and then to slowly lower her head onto the kitchen table where it lay for a while cradled in her palms. It wasn’t quite the reaction I’d been hoping for.

The new version has been passed as “still a bit odd, but it’ll do”.

Once I’d got the text the next thing was to find a picture to stand in for a front cover. A slide with just text is a guaranteed turnoff. Almost any picture is better than none, but of course a picture that is actually relevant to the text is even better. (A picture that conveys everything in the text in an impactful and memorable way is best of all – but I am trying teach the perfectionist in me to cultivate an acceptance of the good-enough.)

I tried three times, and the result (which you find illustrating this blog entry) is the best I could come up with. It’s not perfect, but there’s a crowd (of sorts), there’s money (kind of), and the title and author text has a (more or less) effective contrast with the background. Good enough – for a late night effort anyway.

So, after last week’s dip, here I am sitting back up and feeling hopeful again. (Do you think I’m going to keep it up?)

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Besides words

I love words. Words are at the core of what I do, both as an English teacher and as a writer, and words endure. But words have their limitations. So, besides words, what? I think about this frequently as I work with my photography, but it is something that is refreshed from another perspective when I am brought to think about dance.

Koffi Kôkô
Koffi Kôkô directly after dancing the part of le Baron in the ballet “Un tango avec le baron”

There are two things that attract me about dance. The first is the way dance can make a magic that words cannot match, the second is the fragile, ephemeral nature of dance.

Writing is one of the most permanent of art forms. There are buildings and cave paintings that are older, but The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from about 2000 BC. Four thousand years is a good long time for an art form to endure. However, dance – dance takes place and is gone.

Almost my whole experience of dance is from the perspective of an audience. I don’t really suppose the dancer’s concept of his or her dance is nearly as ephemeral as the audience’s experience of it. Dancers build on years of training and focused preparation, and – I’m told – can reproduce their performances (with minor variations depending on the situation) for many years. But it still comes down to a physical memory encompassed by an individual or a group of individuals, and when those individuals pass, so passes the memory of the performance.

These thoughts are sparked by having been to see two modern dance performances as part of the recent Gothenburg Dance and Theatre Festival (GDTF), but they are ideas I have been turning over for many years. Dance, as I say, is an art form I know mostly as a spectator. A natural clumsiness coupled with a poor sense of balance and a sad tendency to try to think things through gets in the way of dancing for me.

Although, not always. There was a time in Finland when my wife and I took part in a regular ring-dance class run by a friend. Karelian, Russian and Balkan dances taught in Finnish. I quickly gave up on the instructions and tried instead to follow the movements of the people either side of me and listen to the music, and I managed creditably. My wife, who was studying Finnish, concentrated on the instructions and kept getting out of step or turning the wrong way.

This experience reinforces my feeling that dance and language walk beside one another but are not alternatives. You can’t dance a thesis!

Well, actually you can. There’s an annual challenge called “Dance your PhD”, and there have been some striking interpretations of the most abstruse subjects.

However, generally speaking, dance is a means by which something is communicated that is other than whatever we do with words.

Coming back to the GDTF, the two dance performances I enjoyed were Un tango avec le Baron and tauberbach. And now I’m going to try to do what I really don’t think is possible and tell you in words what they were about.

Kettly Nöel
Ketty Nöel who danced the part of le Baron’s consort in the ballet “Un tango avec le baron”.

In Un tango avec le Baron, two dancers (Koffi Kôkô and Kettly Noël) presented a surreal performance that seemed based on a mix of voodoo ritual, dances from around the Caribbean (and there was a tango in there too), spirit possession and West African dance. There wasn’t a narrative and I don’t think there was a resolution, though there was a kind of conclusion. I think anyone looking for a story would have been disappointed, but anyone open to the beauty and power of physical movement and rhythm would, like me, have come away with a head full of images and ideas that they would then spend hours trying, and failing, to put into words.

The second dance, tauberbach, was performed by Les Ballet C de la B. This one had a story – at least, the programme described it as based on a documentary film about a woman who lives on a rubbish tip. The music of Bach was also relevant – in some cases performed by choirs of deaf singers. On a stage completely covered with second-hand clothes the performers danced out a representation of schizophrenia in a world obsessed and possessed by things. There was great humour too, pain, desire, violence, joy. But once again the performance went to a place I have great difficulty believing words could describe – or at least could describe as well, as economically, as powerfully.

I don’t know. Maybe modern dance is not your thing. Most of the audience gave tauberbach a standing ovation but one man a couple of seats from me stayed grimly seated, arms folded and as we were leaving said something about “an hour and a half of crap”. But you can’t reach all the people all the time.

Dance can go where words cannot, and though I love words, I love too that there are other art forms beside words. Not least because, however clumsily I do it, they give me subjects to write about.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.