Tag Archives: writing

Getting Back to Work – Phase One and Two

PHASE ONE

The official period of recovery is over and I’m back to the day job and wondering where on earth summer has gone. While time is tightly spliced with family and work and trying to batter the garden into some sort of order and failing I feel I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, exchanging the luxury of time spent reading and writing with the need to do things I couldn’t attempt during convalescence. It’s not a bad thing, taking a step back, but being recovered I’m finding it harder to justify. As soon as there’s space in my schedule I notice something else that must be done and recent weeks have flown by without much time for writing.

Anyway I decided to seek inspiration by reading some of my fellow writers’ blogs. Last week the Crimson League (http://crimsonleague.com) had an interesting article about creating successful characters using something called the Myers-Briggs type. This device for assessing character came as a complete revelation but rather than discovering how to improve on writing about people I discovered something fundamental about myself. For those unfamiliar with psychology it basically suggests our character is divided into four dominant forces – sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking – and that only one of these functions can dominate most of the time.

The third continuum reflects the person’s decision preferences. Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers%E2%80%93Briggs_Type_Indicator

Revelation! Now I understand every bad decision I’ve ever made. The very fact I act on feelings renders me incapable of making rational decisions. And for years I’ve been blaming mother! Freud eat your heart out, I should have been looking to Jung.

Mum and me

Mum and me

PHASE TWO

Only recently I’ve come to realise the very practise of creative writing is quite absurd. Putting words into a sequence in which they can be recognised and interpreted by a reader to such an extent they can impose the same images into their imagination is completely illogical when you really think about it. Why not just stick to pictures? Words are a form of code, and the essence of a code is that it requires translation and excludes those who cannot understand. When a writer puts a story into words the anticipation is that whoever reads that story will comprehend what is being described but it’s impossible to know what feeds the imagination.  I believe the real art of writing is explaining enough that the reader is transported to another time and place – every scene must have a setting –while giving no more detail than required. I have to trust that readers (like writers) have very active imaginations but what if they have no personal experience of the time and place involved? What really breathes life into a story is something far beyond words.

Shakespeare's Seal

Shakespeare’s Seal?

I write about the past because I love history. I enjoy unravelling the uncertainties of a time I can never experience. History is mystery but I can become so completely lost in researching my subject that the stories slide further and further from completion. While I prefer to have some semblance of reality I can never describe the past as real, however delicious or detailed the research. So how can I make something that only exists in my imagination come alive through words?

Shakespeare seal ring

Ring found buried in the garden at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon.

I feel like the traveller who, having got lost, asks directions from a local only to be told they are starting their journey in the wrong place. Perhaps I should turn to writing about the future? With the tramlines of the past erased there is total freedom to invent. Actually that’s rather scary and never forget the very first Star Wars movie begins with the words – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – George Lucas framed his tale in history, not science fiction!  Projecting into the future may seem a very good way of escaping the present but I doubt anyone would be interested in my fantasies. Some believe Shakespeare’s Tempest was the first work of science fiction but I’d rather have my stories rooted in actual events because, as they say, truth can be stranger than fiction.

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Filed under Feeling, fiction, Imagination, Understanding, Writing

Life in Songs

I don’t know if you are familiar with this enigmatic song but the lyrics came back to haunt me recently. It’s been recorded many times but my favourite version is by Dusty Springfield.

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth.
I think I’m returning to
Those days when I was young enough to know the truth.

Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more colouring books, no Christmas bells to chime
But thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win.

I can recall the time
When I wasn’t ashamed to reach out to a friend.
And now I think I’ve got
A lot more than a skipping rope to lend.

Now there’s more to do than watch my sailboat glide
And every day can be my magic carpet ride
And I can play hide and seek with my fears
And live my days instead of counting my years.

Let everyone debate the true reality
I’d rather see the world the way it used to be
A little bit of freedom’s all we lack
So catch me if you can I’m goin’ back.

Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King the words seem to describe lost innocence using iconic images like skipping ropes and colouring books and magic-carpet rides – freeze-framed elements of childhood in the sixties.

While visiting my sister in Kent, we decided to take a walk around our childhood. It was a fine spring afternoon and we dabbled in nostalgia as our walk recalled the extraordinary freedoms with which we were blessed ‘in our youth’.

Upchurch, the village where we grew up, lies on the southern shores of the Thames Estuary and is set on a small, low-lying peninsula where the ragged shoreline breaks into a maze of tiny inlets. These muddy, virtually unnavigable rivers, are ruled by the tide and we’d spend most of our summer holidays playing in the ribs of rotting barges, imagining the lives of those who came before. When the tide came in we would go and dig for treasure amongst piles of Victorian rubbish originally shipped as ballast and dumped beside the old jetties in days when boats, not cars, governed local transport. Amongst our best finds were a bronze Roman coin and half a mammoth’s tusk, all donated (unwillingly) to a local museum.

‘Going back’ to our childhood made us realise how little the region where we grew-up had changed. But times have changed and I doubt any mother today could permit such freedom without being accused of negligence. Not that we realised the dangers, we were too busy having fun.

Perhaps this song does sum-up the best things in childhood. Certainly that’s what Carole King captures in her bouncy, up-beat recording of 1966, made at a time when she was still ageless with youth. But listen to Dusty Springfield’s soul-ridden performance and the words resound with sadness, this songstress wants to hold onto the past because she’s terrified by the prospect of growing old.

But the fact that really sparks my interest is how the same words can be performed in such a way they generate very different emotional responses. Like the past, it means different things to different people. And that is the enigma which makes writing about the past so very fascinating. We can only visit the past when we’ve experienced the future.

North Kent Marshes

North Kent Marshes

“CliffeCreekFleet 0312”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG#/media/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG

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Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

FullSizeRender

Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

Mary-Queen-of-Scots

There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Not Writing

I’m writing. I write most days but rarely aim to publish. And it seems to me that’s the problem. I love to write but I baulk at publishing, going public. It’s like exposing your soul, I think. But that’s the point surely, writing must be read. And I agree, but not by someone else, it’s mine, secret and safe. Except I’ve recently lost my work-in-progress notebook, worse I think I left it in a hotel in Kelso…someone, a complete stranger, could be rifling through my notes right at this moment and thinking…well I hate to wonder what they might think.

It seems to me there are many reasons why people write. I’m the worst kind, the writer who locks herself away and reels off page after page of passionate prose, and edits it down to a sentence next day. I’m constantly appraising my work, destroying one set of words and replacing them with another. That’s the trouble with word processors, it’s the literary equivalent of a chalk board, but I do scribble copious notes in my notebooks and, truth be told, that’s where the bones of my stories are placed.

Now anyone looking at my desk at this very moment might think I’m in complete and utter meltdown. Although a larger than average desk (it came from a public library) very little green leather surface can be seen because it’s littered with notebooks. But each of these hand-written tomes are used for a different purpose – I keep notes about the craft of writing in one (all the tips ever received from other writers and writing workshops) which obviously I need to check regularly. The second contains source materials and references to facts, so when necessary (and more than once a day) I can find my original sources of research. And then there’s the largest (and the only one with scribblings on every page) which contains the very first outline of my pending novel, except this recently flowed into a second volume, now inconveniently missing.

I’m reminded of a handbag for all the wrong reasons. What handbag? The one in which poor Earnest was deposited when his nurse misplaced him for her novel. That poor woman went unpublished. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was right; women haven’t the temperament to write novels and remain sane.

This one’s dedicated to you Scott, wherever you might be.

Mess or management?

Mess or management?

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Best Laid Plans

Busy family life

Busy family life

Well both grandsons are off to school (Reuben’s first year, Oscar’s second), summer is drawing to a close and I’m all fired up ready to proceed with my Grand Plan – back to writing that novel again. Seriously!

Eight thirty in the morning I’m sitting at my desk, fingertips at the ready, but almost immediately the phone rings.
‘You’ll have to come to work’ – husband’s voice – ‘there’s a couple of things I need you to look at urgently’.
OK. So I jump into the car and drive straight to our business premises five minutes away.

All the problems are solved quickly but once at work I decide I might as well open the day’s post and sort through some invoices and then I remember I need to pop into town to get some food for dinner. And might as well drop off the ironing – after a houseful of visitors last week it’s all piled up and there’s this wonderful local business where the ladies are better than fairy godmothers.

Lunchtime already? I’m just settling down for a quick snack before starting work on my Grand Plan when the phone rings again.
‘Are you doing anything’ – daughter Sam’s voice – ‘only I need to pop to town for an appointment and Delilah’s asleep?’
No problem, Sam promises she will just be an hour – I grab my tablet, proving I’m trying hard to succeed with the Grand Plan and it makes me seem like an avant-garde gran.

Delilah wakes after less than half an hour. As soon as I pop my head around the door she takes my hand and leads me on a route march around her house, a guided tour, discharged in a language of her own making which she assumes I comprehend. As we enter the kitchen she waves a finger at the tap – time for a drink of water? Already, at one year old, her nature leaves me in no doubt she had a previous existence as a headmistress.

Sam arrives home. Relieved of duty I can shoot off home but as I leave she hands me a bag of freshly picked damsons surplus to requirements…if I don’t want them perhaps great-gran would?
It seems sensible to take the damsons straight to mum’s, it’s not very far, almost en route, and they’ll only go rotten if I take them home. Having had a spectacular harvest this year we’ve got piles of ripe fruit gently going rotten in assorted bowls and we can only eat so much jam and chutney and the freezer is full.

Dad’s mowing the lawn. As soon as I appear he stops work and leads me to the garage, a look of smug triumph on his face. Ever since my parents moved here two years ago the garage has been full to bursting with household goods and furniture deemed no longer useful. We suggested they give all the stuff they no longer want or need to charity shops but old furniture is bulky and unfashionable and even local auction houses aren’t interested in taking it. However dad has discovered a man with a van (a community charity) and he is coming to take everything away later today, so last chance if I want anything.

I’d been meaning to grab their emergency fridge –newer and smarter than the one we have at work and doesn’t need defrosting. And then there’s the brass coffee table – can’t let that go because I have its twin. But it’s hardly fair not to take them away immediately. Dad’s been waiting long enough to park his car inside the garage – it’s so untidy cluttering up the drive.
Husband isn’t too pleased but comes immediately. Another essential job done and dusted.

Now where was I? Better make the dinner…..best laid plans and all that. I’ll just have to start on my big plan tomorrow.

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A Sense of Belonging

When I was a child going to stay with my Nan was sublime. She lived three hundred miles away, in Northumberland, not four miles from the best beach in the whole wide world. Staying at Nan’s meant freedom. My younger sister and I would go exploring the boundless sand-dunes and rock-pools on what we thought of as ‘our’ beach, because more often than not we were the only souls there. An infinity of childhood memories survive in Druridge Bay.

 

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Nan’s house was tiny; a miner’s cottage in a remote and rural village where the mines had long since closed. Our visits were cramped, my sister and I shared a bed in the box-room, but to a child who lived most of the year in a faceless, frenzied city it felt safe and comforting as a big, warm hug. Nan’s village had a tight-knitted community and everyone seemed to know we ‘belonged’ to Nan. It didn’t matter if family had migrated to Newcastle or the Blue Mountains of Australia (like great-aunty Jean) if they had roots in the village they would always belong.  

 

I realise that living a whole lifetime in just one place is extremely rare. Over time most people get ‘displaced’, work and relationships drive them to search for a better life. Yet that intrinsic sense of belonging seems to beat at the heart of humanity and too much suffering is rooted in the sense of not belonging or in not being able to belong. Staying at Nan’s was one place I felt I belonged as a child because it was where I was accepted unconditionally, and unconditionally loved.  

 Grannie Wright's cottage

It’s not surprising the sense of belonging spurs many writers. Shakespeare often referred to his roots in Warwickshire and unlike contemporaries wasn’t embarrassed to set some of his plays in rural England. It is likely he never thought of London as anything more than a bachelor pad because he didn’t invest any of his hard-earned money into buying a home there. There is a rumour that young Shakespeare had to leave Stratford abruptly after being accused of poaching (fish?) from Charlecote, an estate belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy, a prominent squire. The story bares more than a ring of truth because William’s family were near destitute at the time but the case never came to court so there is little in the way of evidence. Early in his career as an actor/playwright William uses a scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor to suggest that ‘luce’ (a type of fish which famously appear on the Lucy coat of arms), might actually be ‘lice’. No doubt Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed the pun at Lucy’s expense but the very fact William chose to point his pen at the family’s emblem seems to indicate a deep and lasting hurt.  

 

A writer’s job is to synthesise facets of life through the medium of words. And the sense of belonging is something most people experience at some point in their lives, pining for a particular time and place where the future is never in question, where the living is easy, the fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.     

 

I’m sitting in the railway station.

Got a ticket to my destination,

On a tour of one night stands my suitcase and guitar at hand.

And ev’ry stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band.

Home-ward bound.

I wish I was,

Home-ward bound.

Home where my thought’s escaping,

Home where my music’s playing,

Home where my love lies waiting

Silently for me.

 

In 1965 an unknown singer-songwriter came to England to perform in pubs and clubs and fell in love with a young lady who was to become his muse. Paul Simon wrote down the words to this song while waiting to catch the ‘milk’ train from either Liverpool or Widnes Station (Paul says Liverpool but Widnes claim the glory). Travelling alone between gigs this New Yorker thought of home as the place where Kathy was waiting for him, Brentwood in Essex.

 

 

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Katherine Mansfield – Child of the Sun

The last time I visited New Zealand in 2011 I caught up with an old friend from college days. Remembering my intense passion for Katherine Mansfield he suggested we visit the house where she grew up. I didn’t like to admit I’d long forgotten Katherine. Forgotten she came from Wellington, forgotten the woman who once inspired me so profoundly. But I’m forever grateful to that friend for rekindling my passion. And subsequently re-reading KM’s ‘Letters and Journals’ took me back thirty years, to the time when I was young and eager and ambitious and totally convinced that one day, I too would fulfil my ambitions and become a writer.

 

‘How to be a writer – is everything……People have never explored the lovely medium of prose. It is a hidden country still – I feel that so profoundly.’ (July 1919)

 

 

Open to the public, Katherine's home in Wellington.

Open to the public, Katherine’s home in Wellington.

Born in October 1888 Kate was a disquieting and precocious child. Her parents decided to send her away, to the other side of the world, to study at Queen’s College, London. It was 1903. She was 14 years old. They probably expected the experience would tame her wild spirit, however, by the time she was ordered home following reports of ‘difficult’ behaviour, she had formulated a lifelong plan to ‘gain experience at all costs’.

 

I am full of a restless wonder but I have none of that glorious expectancy that I used to have so much. They are draining it out of me.’  (Nov 1906, returning home on board the SS Corinthic)

 

When I first discovered KM I was researching ‘Bohemian’ artists of the early 20th century for my final (graduation) project at Art College. Her writing sparkled with open-eyed honesty. Her letters and journals illustrated the minutiae of her life with sensual and acute observations. More particularly she described her emotional experiences; her passions and insecurities, her disappointments and fears. I was eighteen years old and found we had much in common. Her descriptive prose seemed to mirror the creative ideals of artists such as Matisse and Picasso but despite my enthusiasm for her work the tutor in charge of my course didn’t think she caused enough ‘creative impact’ to warrant further study. Yet I’d fallen under the spell of Kathleen, the rebel. Not merely did I sympathize with her rejection of middle-class conservatism I felt she knew what it was like to be me.

 

‘Damn my family! Oh heavens, what bores they are! ….I shall certainly not be here much longer.’ (Oct. 21, 1907)

 

Katherine’s letters and journals inspired me to explore my own talents and gave me the courage not to grasp at conformity. She grew up in a colonial villa in a street full of like-minded buildings set upon the only piece of flat land between Government House and the harbour. It was the heartland of colonial respectability. Wellington sprawls awkwardly over craggy outcrops and mountains, a scenic yet impractical city. Flat land remains at a premium; an airport was only possible after new land surfaced during an earthquake (it sits precariously across a major fault line). But whatever your social standing New Zealand was remote and plebeian, at least for a girl like Kate, who always dreamed of better things.

 

Botanic Gardens in summer, full of colour.

Wellington Botanic Gardens in summer, with plants imported from Europe.

Also lying between the Mansfield home and the harbour are large botanic gardens founded during the late Victorian era boasting elegant cast-iron conservatories and technicolour flower beds. In modern New Zealand they represent an unchanging past, cream teas and archways bowed with roses, but in Mansfield’s time it was a tangible reminder of England. She begged to be allowed to return to London and left New Zealand finally in 1908.

 

‘I feel that I do now realise, dimly, what women in the future will be capable of… They truly as yet have never had their chance…..we are firmly held with the same self-fashioned chains of slavery. Yes, now I see they are self-fashioned, and must be self-removed….Here then is a little summary of what I need – power, wealth and freedom.’ (May 1908)

 

I understand KM in a very different light since visiting her homeland. I believe that once she left New Zealand she never really belonged anywhere and what she had absorbed of her country, and its native peoples, inspired every single word she wrote. She arrived back in London just as expressionism was becoming fashionable amongst the rich and avant-garde. It must have seemed perfect timing for a woman who thrived on emotion. But life was never that easy, or that simple, for Kate. Her father finally settled her with an annual allowance that allowed her to exist without the need to work. She adopted a Bohemian life-style and wrote fitfully, her writerly ambitions constantly thwarted by her restless soul and a driving need to attain perfection.

 

‘I begin to wish to God I could destroy all that I have written and start again: it all seems like so many ‘false starts’. (July 1918)

 

It was the fact that this week marked the centenary of the beginning of the First World War that made me think of KM today. It should be noted that not one of her male friends returned from fighting in the Great War. Her young brother was amongst the first casualties. Her spirit declined and yet she became more restless. After being diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis she went to live in France, hoping the climate would offer a means of remission. She died at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau. It was January 1923. Katherine was 34 years old.

 

What is this about the novel? Tell me, thou little eye among the blind……the more I read the more I feel all these novels will not do. ….And yet I feel one can lay down no rules. It’s not in the least a question of material or style or plot. ….I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up the old threads as though it had never been. Speaking to you I’d say we have died and live again. How can that be the same life?…..Now we know ourselves for what we are.’ (16 Nov 1919)

 

 

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

 

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The Country Diary of an Elizabethan Lady

We are experiencing what is likely to be one of the hottest summers ever here in rural Cumbria. Having lived in our little stone cottage on the edge of the northern fells since 1982 we’ve survived a variety of severe weather systems but during the bulk of those thirty-two years the outlook has been generally, if not persistently, wet. Locals will tell you that if you can see the hills it’s just about to rain and if you can’t see the hills it’s already raining. But apart from an occasional shower we haven’t had real rain for weeks and this dry hot weather is proving uplifting not merely because we are all sporting the kind of suntan usually got by forking out good money to catch the sun.

Complimenting this sultry season is the best display of wild flowers I remember. The scenery around our cottage is a pastoral landscape of undulating fields ringed by ancient hedges and mature trees which generally radiate every hue of green until the fields ripen to golden yellow, usually around the time July turns to August. But this year the pastures have already ripened and the harvest of grain ripples like an ocean in the breeze whilst the surrounding hedges look on, shaggy and dishevelled. Yet underneath their shelter lies a hidden and beautiful phenomenon.

In this part of Cumbria most fields are surrounded by hedges rather than stone walls, or fences, and the roads which criss-cross through our village are old droving roads with wide, grassy verges so the cattle or sheep could graze whilst being driven to market. Of course nowadays most beasts travel by wheels but thankfully the layout of the roads remain, and the modern lines of black tarmac are bordered either side with an amazing variety of wild grasses and flowers which spill with a bounty equalling the most carefully planted gardens. These wild borders are speckled in frothy whites, smouldering purples, beaming yellows and cerulean blues, as though nature is trying to show all her diversity. And I can almost forgive the abundance of weeds that have migrated into my garden, because who’d want to miss sunning themselves in this unusually hot weather?

I’ve tried to list those flowers I recognise. Drooping from the shadows is a froth of nettles surrounding the umbrella-like heads of meadow-sweet clustering behind. I can’t name the diversity of grasses heavy with seeds, but they are dotted with white and purple clover, yellow celandines and dandelions whose chrysanthemum-like flowers seem dull beneath the taller swathes of ox-eye daisies. Weaving between this undergrowth are purple-blue beads of vetch and golden lady’s slippers, hanging like jewels, and above them are trumpets of white bindweed and yellow honeysuckle poking their heads through the dark green hedge whilst tumbling through the very top falls a tangle of white and pink dog roses. Butterflies hover amongst the flower heads and if I stand and stare long enough I may even spy a field mouse, or catch sight of a red squirrel sidling up a tree.

As a teenager one of my favourite books was The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. A facsimile of Edith Holden’s personal notebook it’s a charming and intimate study of the British countryside during 1906 and her sketches describe the incredible abundance of wild flowers. But the countryside surrounding the tiny village where I grew up, in North Kent, seemed devoid of any native vegetation, something I later realised was due, at least in part, to farmers blanket-spraying with chemical weed-killers and DDT in order to kill anything that might harm the fruit crops that kept the Kentish economy afloat. Thankfully Cumbria’s agriculture has a completely different axis, and the fact farmers here are less willing to expend good ‘brass’ on chemicals helped give our beautiful and well-endowed landscape a reprieve. And the first thing I noticed when I moved here was the beauty of the hedgerows, just at Edith promised. It’s taken time for me to appreciate it’s true wealth but with this exemplary weather the summer of 2014 will be noted as fondly as that of 1906.

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Buy My Time?

The best intentions sometimes flounder through lack of time. The trouble is I’ve come to realise the only person who values my time is me. Perhaps that seems a silly conclusion to reach at my age but I don’t think it’s been quite so invasive until recently.

 

To give an example, last Monday I was working on a short story I wanted to enter into a competition. Time, always short, seemed to disappear like a black hole before I reached that critical point when the story appears (at least to me) ‘finished’. I’d just put the editing aside to make dinner when a member of the family rang needing my help, urgently. That was a week ago. I haven’t returned to the editing since. A calamity of minor disasters compounded all my writerly ambitions.

 

Now there are some things impossible to counter, such as members of staff being sick while others are taking their holidays. I have to cover their time at work, which might be unexpected but remains essentially unavoidable (after all it’s a family business and money pays the bills, not my writing). However, what really makes me mad is someone asking me to go somewhere, or to help with something, then not turning up at the allocated time. I hang around ‘in waiting’ but if I attempt do anything constructive, such as writing, it’s hard to concentrate because I’m expecting to break off at every minute. It isn’t that the time is lost but the quality is cheated.

 

Anyway this seems to be happening far more frequently of late so I decided to work out just how much time I spend ‘in waiting’ and was horrified to discover it amounted to almost eight hours last week – that’s a full day wasted. And I didn’t count everything, like that gap between putting the dinner on to cook and waiting for it to finish….or any of the other mindless jobs that the routine of life requires of us.

 

Time is an asset that can’t be replaced. Once spent it’s gone. And choosing how I spend my time seems to be down to me – except I’ve never learnt to say ‘no’ when someone needs me. And I’ve missed the closing date for that short story.

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Boy Made Good

Did you know Master William Shakespeare was an astute businessman?

 

Only recently has light been thrown on the playwright’s business activities. And it seems William was a bit of a spendthrift; court records show his readiness to chase any debt owed, but also illustrate he was adept at moving out of digs just as his tax became due. Unlike fellow playwrights and actors he never bought a house in London but rather invested his hard-earned cash into land and property around Stratford-upon-Avon, his home town. There are even records showing he was active as a kind of Elizabethan commodities broker, buying grain during harvest-time and storing it so he could sell when the price was high.

 

So why haven’t we heard of Shakespeare & Co Ltd? Well the academics who recently unearthed this information say it was deliberately ‘buried’ in order to enhance his literary achievements. It seems certain academic snobs wanted to conceal the fact that our creative genius got his hands dirty with ‘trade’.

 

We English have a rather two-faced attitude towards ‘trade’. Napoleon Bonaparte called us a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ because he knew how deeply the insult cut. But we inherited the notion that business, the profitable act of buying and selling, is somehow less worthy (than merely pillaging?) from the Norman conquerors who invaded our shores in 1066. Once they became overlords they put their military prowess into coercing us natives, stealing local assets and sharing out the land gratis. Apparently it wasn’t their custom to pay the going rate for goods or services either. Thus, eventually, we had the Magna Carta.

 

When the Tudors took power (1485) they totally mistrusted the old nobility (particularly those with cherished Norman bloodlines) and actively promoted able men from any class to run the country. Henry VIII’s court was the first to appoint more ‘ordinary’ citizens than knights, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, never doubted the sense of engaging self-made men. And the new regime didn’t spurn trade, it absolutely embraced it.

 

So William Shakespeare was born at a time when England was a dynamic melting pot of change. And that change was fundamental to the creation of a new form of entertainment called theatre. London was thriving, a place where anyone willing to embrace opportunities could, and did, make a profit. And in contrast to other playwrights Shakespeare didn’t aim his work solely at the educated elite; his plays mirrored life; each multi-layered drama resonates with the full strata of society. And being a shareholder in this new venture was crucial to his creative acumen. He quickly realised that weaving stories which appealed to rich and poor (and just about everyone between) meant he couldn’t fail to fill his theatre, and thereby earn greater profits.

 

And like many budding entrepreneurs, as soon as he’d earned enough money he purchased a fine coat of arms (a fist shaking a spear) because it put his name firmly on the map of respectability. William didn’t anticipate fame; he just wanted his family to have better status. No doubt his father’s failings meant William never risked putting all his eggs into one basket. Shrewd, canny, ambitious, he understood the value of money because he worked hard for every penny. It was an asset, never a gift.  

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