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.

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.

En français

Amidst the intensity of organising our move to Brussels, and various family matters that don’t have anything to do with the move but impinge on it, one thought has been hovering at the back of my mind. The thought is French. Le français.

jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
Like most English children I was exposed to French at school for all of seven years, but I would hesitate to say I know French. I can read it (usually with a great deal of effort and the help of a dictionary – and even then I sometimes get it startlingly wrong). I can’t write it and I certainly can’t speak it.

Brussels is, by and large, a French speaking city. When we were there flat hunting in November I managed quite a few Bonjours, but whenever I was supposed to say Au revoir, what came out of my mouth? Hej då!

I begin to fear my brain is geared up for two languages: “English” and “Foreign”. At present the “Foreign” space is occupied by Swedish – but what will happen if I have to learn French? Will the French drive out the Swedish?

No, I know it won’t, but it might seem that way for a while.

Into this confusion my mother has delivered a copy of The AA Phrasebook French, with a note “Any good, mon enfant?” The AA is the Automobile Association (of which my 92-year-old mother is still a paid up member). To be sure the section called “On the road” is not likely to be of much use, but some of the rest might help – at least to begin with and for those automatic phrases: Bonjour – Ça va? – Comment allez-vous? – Ça va bien – Au revoir – Bonsoir – Bonne nuit – Dors bien – Merci, de meme – Mon aéroglisseur est plein d’anguilles…

(OK, that last one isn’t in the book.)

Leafing through the phrase book I was reminded of a very funny piece by American humorist James Thurber. He uses a French phrase book to tell a story of drama and horror. It was the last section of The AA Phrasebook French that reminded me of Thurber’s piece. The last section is called “The police”.

Dispensing with the French bit – that would just slow us down – this is what we find. It is the police officer who gets to speak first.

Your registration papers, please.
You were speeding.
Your lights aren’t working.
That’s a … euro fine.
Do you want to pay on the spot?
You’ll have to pay on the spot.

OK, our travellers have got into a bit of a fix, but perhaps they can talk their way out.

I didn’t see the sign.
I don’t understand what it says.
I was only doing … kilometres an hour.
I’ll have my car checked.
I was blinded by oncoming lights.

Well, you can see this isn’t going to do them any good. They are avoiding the whole money issue. So it’s off to the police station with them. At the police station, the police take over again.

Where did it happen?
What’s missing?
Do you have some identification?
What time did it happen?
Who are the others?
Are there any other witnesses?
Fill this out, please.
Sign here, please.

There is at least a semblance of courtesy, but a threat underlies this barrage of questions and directions, a threat our traveller now reacts to.

I want to report a collision/missing person/rape.
Could you make out a report please?
Could I have a copy for the insurance?
I’ve lost everything.
I’d like an interpreter.
I am innocent!

The full Kafkaesque horror of the situation has dawned at last.

I don’t know anything about it.
I want to speak to someone from the British Consulate.
I need to see someone from the British Embassy.

And a final desperate appeal.

I want a lawyer who speaks English!

jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh
In an attempt to help the unwary traveller, the phrase book also provides a “phonetic” guide.

If you have ever wondered at the English and their ability to make simple foreign language phrases sound both English and completely incomprehensible, the phonetic guide gives an indication of how they do this. An English speaker trying to say the word Bonjour, for example, is encouraged to say bawnjhoor.

Take the last phrase in the book – the cri du cœur: I want a lawyer who speaks English! The traveller is recommended to say:
jhuh vuh uhn nahvokah kee pahrl ohngleh.

Yeah. That’ll work.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Half full or half empty?

Wine glasses
A good measure – but not full

“Are you a half full or half empty kinda guy,” she asks.

I never know how to answer questions like this. I know the polite response is to choose the one or the other and let the questioner make pseudo-psychological assumptions about you, but I think slowly. She takes my hesitation for misunderstanding.

“I mean,” she says, “do you think the glass is half full or half empty?”

It must be exasperating for people to have to explain a clichéd metaphor. I don’t go out of my way to be a nuisance, but I’m a pedant as well as a slow thinker. And, okay, sometimes I take pleasure in being annoying.

At one of the schools where I used to teach, one of my science teacher colleagues had a couple of trick wine glasses. From a distance they looked exactly the same. He would put them out in front of his class and carefully fill one of them with coloured water. Then he would ask the students to tell him how much liquid was in the glass. After he’d collected in several different answers he would take the full glass and poor its contents into the other glass. The water only filled the second glass about half way.

The point, of course, was that the quantity of liquid was the same but the different glasses distorted how it looked.

Having had his little trick played on me once I’ve never since been able to take the half full/half empty question seriously.

The question isn’t about the actual quantity of what’s in the glass – in your life – it’s about your attitude, your perception. But my perception of my life, and my attitude towards what I perceive, both change depending on – what? On my mood. On where I focus. On how much sleep I had last night. On the time of year. On who’s asking.

Here’s another observation to do with quantity and perception. Have you noticed how, in a bar or a restaurant, the glass of wine you’re served is never full? It’s always more than half full – you can’t play half full/half empty with a bar-bought glass of wine (unless you have a trick glass) – but it’s never full.

Once though, when we lived in Bulgaria, my wife and I were in a restaurant where the waiter filled our glasses to the brim. We would drink, carefully, put the glasses back on the table and then the waiter would come by and top them up, right to the brim and above, so that only surface tension was holding the wine in the glass. Between us this is known as “Bulgarian measures” and has become a family expression.

My life recently has resembled a glass filled with a Bulgarian measure of wine. I’ve not written here for a couple of weeks partly because of this – so much has been going on. At the same time, not all of it has been positive. It seems that it is possible for me to be a “half empty kind of guy” even when my glass is full to the brim.

Well, I suppose I knew that all along.

It’s like this.

Empty glasses
Empty glasses – pretty shadows

First, I’ve been working for more than a year in a school that teaches by distance over the Internet. I started working there largely in order to be able to work with a particular colleague and partly in order to help create teaching material for distance education. Getting a regular pay cheque was also attractive. I have helped create teaching material, the money has been welcome and I’ve really enjoyed working with my colleagues (and when I remember all that the glass is definitely half full).

But for the last few months the job has boiled down to marking essays – and marking essays is soul destroying. When I think of that the glass looks pretty empty.

Second, as readers of At the Quill will know, I am in the middle of a crowd funding campaign to finance the publication of a photo book, My Gothenburg Days. That got off to a great start at the Gothenburg Book Fair (glass more than half full).

However, for the last three weeks instead of spending all my (limited) free time promoting the campaign I have been engaged in a dispute with the crowd funding website I’m using – FundedByMe – over a bug in their software that means people logging in to my campaign site see all money as fractions of Euros instead of round numbers in Swedish kronor (glass half empty). (I think this might be fixed now.)

Third, I try to find time to do something creative every day. Whether it is writing, or going out with the camera, or finding teaching solutions, or translating, or making illustrations, or cooking, or working on my websites doesn’t really matter – the important thing is to be creative. When I am creative I’m happy and my glass has a waiter’s measure of wine.

But recently I can only find the time for this with difficulty, fitting it around work and the campaign – around marking and disputing – and my glass only holds dregs.

One glass of red
Cheers!
Finally, we recently heard that our life is about to change dramatically – or at least geographically. My wife will be seconded from her current job to a new post in Brussels for at least two years and I’ll be moving with her. This has been in the air for a couple of months, but she had it finally confirmed some ten days ago. Since when we have been picking through all our worldly possessions deciding what to take, what to leave… and what to throw or give away.

On the one hand the coming move is like a sharp sword through the Gordian knot – a release from all the old entanglements (and my glass is half full again).

On the other hand, it means I have even less free time for the campaign, even less time for being creative, and I get stressed out whenever I have to throw things away. (And we’re back to half empty.)

So here we are, back in the crowded bar on Sunday evening and making conversation with the people around the table and in Swedish-accented American English my neighbour asks: “Are you a half full or half empty kinda guy?”

And I hesitate.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.