When we lived on the island of Tristan da Cunha, the ‘loneliest inhabited island in the world’, the settlement there is called the Settlement of Edinburgh, after a previous Duke. So it was with great excitement that we all prepared for a visit by Prince Philip in 1957. I was there, the daughter of the chaplain of the time, the Rev Philip Bell. These memories are culled from my parents’ letters to their parents, as well as what I remember myself of that auspicious day. You’ll find this and other stories from our five years on Tristan in my memoir, available as an ebook and as a paperback, Between the Mountain and the Sea
A ROYAL VISIT
Dad was standing in the kitchen looking at the telegram in his hand. I’d heard the radio officer come and I ran to the front door, but Dad was there first.
‘What does it say?’ Mummy asked. She had just taken some tins of bread out of the oven and she turned them out, upside down on a board, knocking them on the bottom with her knuckle to see if they were baked through.
Dad said ‘it’s dated 1 January 1957, and it says ‘21756 best thanks dukeedinburgh what needed maximum twohundred words pressrated preparations programmes descriptive scene landing 1500 gmt 16/1 upfollowed maximum threehundred pressrated 17/1 dukes activities reception ethighlights generally capturing picture and atmosphere fullstop collect facilities arranged fullstop photos not needed thanks’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked inquisitively.
‘There’s a big international news organisation called Reuters,’ he explained. ‘They want me to report the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh and this is how they want me to do it.’
I knew of his visit, of course. The whole island was talking about it all the time. ‘But why is he coming?’ I asked.
‘Because this settlement is called the settlement of Edinburgh, after a previous royal visitor who came about a hundred years ago, which is why the Duke wants to come, I expect.’
‘Oh! Two Dukes of Edinburgh!’
Mikey came in, holding a boat he’d been making in Dad’s workshop.
‘Daddy, I want to paint this boat.’
‘That’s all right, son. What colour do you want?’
‘White, like the island boats. I saw Fardy Sidney painting his boat the other day. And I want stripes round the top.’
‘Let’s go and see what I’ve got.’
Preparations for the Duke had been going on for months. The island men had indeed been repainting their wood and canvas longboats, white with red and blue stripes under the gunwales. Then they had started on their houses. Made of island stone and thatched with New Zealand flax which grew in great hedges everywhere on the settlement, the cottages were lined inside with wood. The islanders painted them in reds, greens and blues. Mum didn’t like it much. She had chosen pea-green and white for our sitting room, and then she and Dad decided on red and white for the outside of the bungalow.
After a few minutes Dad came back into the house.
‘I found some white paint for Michael, and we’ve got a bit of green left from when we painted the sitting room and red from the outside. He seems well satisfied with those. I’ll see you later, Dil. I’m off to the village hall site.’
Mum and Dad were fully involved in all the preparations. Gangs of men had been working on the foundations of the new village hall, including Dad, who loved physical work and took his share in mixing and pouring concrete. The Duke would lay the foundation stone and name the building ‘Prince Philip Hall’.
Dad also organised the cleaning of the little church of St Mary, while Mum, recovered from her morning sickness, spring-cleaned our house with the help of three island girls. She would host some of the Britannia’s crew to tea, and everything had to be spotless.
I watched her cut the crust off one of the fresh loaves. My mouth watered. She always had the first crust.
‘Can I have some?’
‘No,’ she said, covering it with butter and sinking her teeth into it.
‘Why not? It’s not fair – you always have the crust!’
‘That’s because I’m the one who makes the bread.’
We tucked into slices of her fresh loaf for tea, and then went to bed at six o’clock as usual. As the big day drew nearer there was more for our parents to do, and they said they wanted quiet evenings to Get On With Things. One such evening Mum said ‘we’re going out after supper to the administrator’s, children. We won’t be far away. You can shout through one of the windows and somebody will hear you if you need us.’
Mikey, Ba and I were used to Mum and Dad going off sometimes in the evening, leaving us on our own, secure in the knowledge that we were perfectly safe. The administrator’s house was just above ours on a path which ran the length of the ‘station’. We children were in and out of each other’s houses all the time and there were no fears when we were left on our own. Ba was usually asleep by the time they went out anyway, and Mikey and I had our comics to read.
My mother’s letter tells her parents that this meeting went well. Between them they produced a seating plan for lunch with the Duke, which Pat the administrator and his wife Joy were hosting. This had my mother seated between the Duke on her left and his equerry on her right. Being such a shy person, she was very apprehensive about this. ‘I quake when I think of poor little me sitting eating my lunch with the Duke on my left and Michael Parker on my right!!!’ says her letter; but then a practical problem claimed her attention.
Joy, the administrator’s wife, had ordered special crockery, silver and glassware for the Duke’s visit. As happened so often, the ship bringing the supplies had cabled to say that it would no longer be calling at the island, so Joy was in despair. My mother came to the rescue, humorously writing home ‘Our new cruet will be used at luncheon, the Duke will stand on our bedroom rugs when he changes his uniform, and he will use one of my small hand-painted tea serviettes when tea is served from the lovely hand-painted tea cloth that the people of St Barnabas gave me when I left!’
She dined out on this story for the rest of her life, amusing herself by selecting various acquaintances known for being somewhat snobbish. ‘I shall tell her that Prince Philip wiped his royal lips on this serviette of mine,’ she would decide gleefully. ‘And then I shall tell her “and do you know, I haven’t washed it since…”’
She was also exercised over us, her children, about what we would wear and how we should behave, as well as her own outfit. Although she was nearly four months pregnant, her constant sickness had meant that she had lost weight. To her delight the new pink dress she had bought in Cape Town still fitted her. She added a little pink head-hugging hat that was fashionable in the fifties.
‘What shall I wear?’ I asked her. I always took a great interest in clothes.
‘Oh, I should think your bridesmaid’s dress again. If it still fits you.’
Although I had grown in height I was thin, and so the dress, with its huge hem, did still fit me. Ba had an identical dress, and we were to wear them with white berets crotcheted by the island women, white gloves and red sandals.
‘I hope it’ll be hot,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to wear a cardigan over the top – it spoils it.’
‘I hope it will be cold,’ Mikey said.
‘So I can wear my Tristan ganzey.’
‘Well, January is summer here,’ Mum said. ‘It will probably be too warm.’
Mikey started looking mutinous, so she said ‘but you can wear your braces instead if you like.’
He beamed. He didn’t care much about clothes, but he did want to be like the island boys as much as possible.
I took Ba into the sitting room.
‘When you’re presented to the Duke, you have to curtsey,’ I told her.
‘My tarn’t turtsey,’ she said dubiously.
‘I’ll show you,’ I decided. ‘Look, you take your skirt in your hands like this. No! Don’t lift it up as high as that! You don’t want the Duke to see your pants!’
Ba dropped her skirt. ‘My tarn’t do it,’ she pouted.
‘Of course you can!’
She thrust out her head, glared at me and said in a belligerent voice ‘My – tarn’t – do – it, Gee. So dere!’
I recognised where she got that look and that voice from. It was from Mikey and me when we were arguing. I countered with my mother’s don’t-make-a-fuss tone.
‘Now look at me,’ I said persuasively. ‘You put one foot behind the other, like this – and then you just bend your knees, like this.’
Eventually she managed to get her feet, her knees, her hands and her skirt all working in the right order. At two-and-a-half she was still a tiny child, pretty with her gold-brown curls and almond-shaped eyes, and she dropped a graceful curtsey. I was satisfied.
‘If you do it like that everyone will think how clever you are.’
‘My am c’ever,’ she said earnestly.
‘And the Duke,’ I said, following up this positive attitude, ‘will go home and tell Princess Anne about how little Ba Bell on Tristan da Cunha did the best curtsey he had ever, ever seen in the whole world.’
She beamed, and skipped a bit, and rushed off to show Mummy her turtsey.
Another telegram arrived on 26th January, the day before the Duke’s visit. ‘31552 further 21756 of 31/12 if duke speaks village hall and school as programme welcome extra twohundred words pressrated direct quotes if possible thanks – reuter’
Dad was going to have plenty to write.
The days prior to the visit had been very wet, but the seventeenth of January was cloudy and dry. Dad donned his suit and clerical collar and Mum her pink dress and hat. I watched her as she patted her hair into place and picked up her gloves.
‘Can we come and see the Duke landing too?’
‘No. Children aren’t allowed. You’ll get your chance at the garden party,’ and pulling on her gloves she and Dad went down the wooden steps of the house, across the garden, out of the gate and up the side of our valley towards the beach.
Mikey looked at me. We were still in our old clothes: we would not be presented to the Duke until later.
‘We can go and watch him land from the cliff top,’ he said. ‘Nobody will see us.’
I hesitated. We’d been told to stay at home. ‘Don’t be silly. Everyone will see us.’
‘Mummy and Daddy won’t. Then we can run really fast back home and get here before them, and they won’t know we’ve been out.’
Sometimes grownups made unreasonable rules. We left Ba with Harriet, and ran out through the gate.
When we arrived at the cliff top it seemed like the whole island was there. Five of the newly-painted longboats had gone out to meet the ship, and we all stood and watched on the clifftop overlooking the sweep of black sand with the canning factory that was Big Beach. The sun appeared from behind the clouds, setting the sea sparkling, flickering on the bright colours of the women’s best clothes. Their headscarves tugged in the breeze.
Mikey was very good at sliding through crowds to the front. I followed rapidly in his wake, anxious not to be left behind, and saw below us at the foot of the cliff a very odd sight: the island men, normally dressed in old clothes for fishing and factory work, were all in their dark Sunday suits and ties. Prince Philip was in clear sight in his longboat coming to shore and somebody exclaimed ‘the Duke has the tiller!’ One of the station men nearby said ‘well, what do you expect – he is an Admiral of the Fleet. He served on destroyers in the navy before his wife became queen. This must be easy for him.’
We listened, and I looked at the Duke’s face, and I said to Mikey quietly ‘He’s doing it because he likes it.’
‘Wish I could steer a boat,’ he said longingly. We watched on.
As the boat rode the breakers to the beach, the island men grasped the sides to steady it and then hauled it up the beach. The Duke was young, tall and slim with fair hair and beard, and when he jumped easily out of the boat everyone cheered.
I dug Mikey in the ribs. We could see Mum and Dad, with the administrator and his wife, and headwoman Martha Rogers with her husband Arthur whom everyone called Arfa and Marfa. I watched Mum curtsey and shake hands, and then she followed the Duke and his welcome party into the canning factory.
‘Why is he going into the factory?’ Mike asked, sitting down on the grass while there was nothing to watch.
I shrugged. ‘Dunno. I suppose he wants to see everything. And the factory is important.’
‘Because,’ I said, rehearsing what I’d been told, ‘it’s the only way the islanders have of making money. They put the crawfish into tins and send them to South Africa and they get sold there, and the money must come back here.’
Mikey grunted. ‘What do they need money for? They have everything they need for free – fish and meat and taters to eat. And they have sheep and spin the wool to make socks and ganzeys. So why do they need money too?’
I knew this. ‘Mummy said the diet isn’t good enough to keep everyone healthy. We need fruit too, and butter – things like that. And clothes,’ I added, mindful that one of my best treats was a new dress from the island canteen or shop.
‘They’re coming out from the factory,’ Mikey said suddenly. ‘Quick. Run.’
We raced over the grass, passing the huge wooden arch made for the Duke by the headmaster. It was white, painted with a picture of Tristan with a crown over the top and the words ‘Welcome to the Settlement of Edinburgh.’
We were home well before our parents arrived, because they went round the village with the Duke. He only had the one day on Tristan; as a result, his programme was full and carefully recorded by Dad, mindful of his Reuters article. He followed the Duke in to Johnnie and Sophie Green’s house to see the women sitting in a row carding wool, their carders with the wire teeth briskly brushing the raw wool into cylinders or rolags. Prince Philip took much more than a cursory interest in the house, Dad wrote later. He asked to see the other rooms (there was only one, their bedroom), then sat in the kitchen to take a stone out of his shoe, chatting easily about their domestic life and how it differed from the past. In Big Herbie and Rachel’s house the women were spinning, and then at Fred and Big Mary’s the wool was being twisted in preparation for knitting.
The Duke of Edinburgh emerges from an island house, followed by the administrator, Pat Forsyth-Thompson. My father on the right
He examined the display of crafts which had occupied the islanders for months. The main room in Chief Willie Repetto’s house hosted a display of model boats and spinning wheels, bullock carts and yokes, polished horns and moccasins. Penguin tassels, from the rockhopper penguins that frequented the seas around the island, had been made into mats. There were also sheepskin mats, baby cradles, a fishing-line made of flax thread and much more. The island women, expert knitters, had produced stockings and pullovers from the wool of the island sheep.
On a separate table were the handmade toys: goose feather boats and whistles, balls and boats made from kelp, and hard marbles made from the dried eyes of the bluefish which were so plentiful in Tristan waters. The royal visitor was to take home a model longboat for the Queen, a cardigan made of undyed brown wool for himself, a model boat and fish-eye marbles for Prince Charles and for Anne, a working model spinning wheel. They all also were to have a pair of island stockings, the sort everyone wore – including us, when the days were chilly. They needed holding up with elastic garters under the knee. Did they end up inside the royal wellingtons as they tramped round their Sandringham estate?
Then it was Dad’s big moment. He accompanied the Prince into the church and showed him the organ which had been given to the island by Queen Mary, the white ensign laid up from HMS Magpie on which the Duke had been Commander, and the stone font which had been shipwrecked. He signed the church register, where his signature with the big looping P is proudly preserved to this day.
After visiting old Tom Rogers, who was bed-bound, Prince Philip was taken from the village to the station to meet the expatriates and to have lunch with the Administrator. Mum had left the royal party and come home to supervise scrubbing and dressing us to get us ready to be presented.
‘For goodness’ sake, stand still, Michael. I’ll never get your hair tidy if you don’t.’
Mikey stopped fidgeting and did as he was told. He loathed his blonde curls and wanted Mum to flatten his hair as much as possible.
When we were ready to her satisfaction, I grabbed Ba’s hand and we climbed our steps to the path above the house which took us to the administrator’s garden. We arrived to find it crowded with the station people and their families, but at last it was our turn as we queued up with the other station children to be presented to him.
I curtseyed, and shook him by the hand. Mikey bowed low and did the same. The Duke said ‘And how old are you, Michael?’
‘Five and three quarters,’ said Mikey proudly.
‘Good gracious, you are a big chap. I thought you were about seven.’
I could tell Mikey was thrilled. He stayed as near the Duke as he could from then on.
I watched Ba to see what she would do. She managed a little bob curtsey but when the Duke held out his hand to shake hers, she backed off, saying ‘no tank-you vewy much!’ I shot a glance at our mother. Poor Mummy. I could tell she was hugely embarrassed, but I wasn’t sure why, when she knew he had children of about the same age, so he must be used to children being like that. He just seemed to think it was funny and spoke to one of Ba’s friends, three-year-old Jane. ‘See my Duke’s ribbon?’ she said, pointing to the one in her hair.
‘Your Duke’s ribbon! How splendid,’ he said, looking at my mother for an explanation.
‘Anything the children have saved for your visit is known as ‘the Duke’s’,’ she explained. ‘Duke’s dresses, duke’s shirts, Duke’s shoes ….’
He turned to five-year-old Richard, who was hobbling about in new shoes.
‘Are those your Duke’s shoes?’
‘Yes,’ said Richard shyly.
‘Well, they don’t look very comfortable to me,’ was the rejoinder.
Mrs Meyer, who had recently had twins, had brought them both, one on each arm. She offered one to the Duke and when he declined everyone laughed. I didn’t know why that was funny. There must be certain things a royal visitor just didn’t do.
- We children with the Duke: my sister Ba in the middle, with the beret.
- My mother in the foreground, as on a recent stamp.
When it was over, we children went home for something to eat with Harriet, and it was time for the lunch my mother was dreading. Instead, ‘lunch was not a bit the ordeal I had expected,’ she wrote to her parents. ‘Prince Philip chatted gaily throughout the meal and Michael Parker, on my right, had one long stream of questions he wanted to ask. He had heard from the doctor that several babies were expected shortly on the station and wanted to know who were the lucky mothers’ … followed by six exclamation marks, as my mother then had to make up her mind whether to confess that she was one of them.
After lunch the Prince went to the school to admire a display of our work, and to watch some of us dance. Then it was off to the foundations of the new village hall, where he put a shilling under the foundation stone he laid, and donated his royal standard for the hall. He was taken to see almost everything else: the hospital, the canteen shop, the display of pedigree cattle that the administrative officer had brought out to improve the Tristan breed. Afterwards there was a football match between the island men and the Britannia crew. Honour was satisfied with a two-all draw.
Tea, and a dance for the adults. I had turned eight the previous month and so was allowed to go. Still garbed in my Duke’s dress and beret, I followed my parents up to the village and into the half-built hall. The music had already started and I watched as the Duke was given a cushion for the traditional island pillow dance. Normally a girl took a cushion and walked around the hall with it while the music played: she then had to choose a man, and the two would kneel on the cushion and kiss. He would rise from his knees, take the cushion, and then choose a girl. We danced it in children’s dances too and I knew what terrible teasing would follow.
I felt the atmosphere of expectancy as everyone waited for the Duke to choose one of the women. Everyone assumed it would be one of the younger ones. The question was, who? I knew this would never be forgotten by the community and so I watched avidly. When he dropped the pillow in front of Pamela Glass, who, with her wavy brown hair and dark eyes was, in my view, the prettiest girl on the island. She went very red but she allowed herself a royal kiss. Then, smiling self-consciously, she walked around the room with the cushion, followed in a line by the Duke and everyone else who had taken part.
The Duke must have enjoyed himself because he gave a six-volt amplifier and three-speed record player to the islanders for their future dances in the new Prince Philip Hall.
Afterwards my mother scurried home with me, to get tea ready for her posh visitors. She had been baking for days. The best china had come out with the best linen, and Harriet and I had arranged the cakes on plates and helped make sandwiches. Mum had ensured everything was immaculate, but she was so put-about that afterwards she couldn’t remember anybody’s name. Admiral Sir Somebody-or-other, she says vaguely in the letter to her parents. And an Air Force officer. And an elderly man … they were all very nice indeed, she adds, and the children handed round the food. Very nicely.
I don’t remember this event, but we often acted as waiters when my parents had people for meals. It was my mother who taught me how to lay a table, where to put the mats, how to order the cutlery and make sure the glasses were shining. Her best tablecloth was damask, in red and white, with matching napkins, and everything was always carefully laundered.
By 7pm it was pouring with rain, and time for the royal party to go back to the Britannia. Prince Philip borrowed a raincoat, but there weren’t enough to go round his party. His equerry ended up wearing Dad’s clerical cloak, which caused some royal guffaws. The duke was so taken with it that at one point he stopped everyone and took a photo with a miniature camera: ‘that is one we shall never see, I expect’ laments my mother in the letter. I’d love to know if it ended up in a royal photo album.
The day ended in reverse to its beginning. The duke climbed into a longboat, the island men pushed the boat into the sea, everyone cheered and watched until the boats reached the Britannia. Then they all hurried home out of the rain and my mother, exhausted but pleased and relieved, had an early night.
My father was still awake and up when, later that evening, the radio officer came round with another radio message, this one sent from the Britannia.
‘I AM MOST GRATEFUL FOR A PERFECTLY WONDERFUL DAY. NONE OF US WILL EVER FORGET TRISTAN CHEERFULNESS AND HOSPITALITY. WE SEND YOU ALL OUR BEST WISHES FOR A VERY HAPPY FUTURE. PHILIP.
I still have this telegram, and there was a coda for my father. Post Office Telegraphs on the 18th January, the day after the Prince’s visit, sent him another:
41802 thanks duke curtainraiser right lines – reuter
Reuters must have been particularly pleased, because my father kept a letter from them dated 21 January, 1957:
‘Thank you very much for your reports of the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Tristan. In content and length these were just what we wanted and our Accounts will be sending you a remittance of £10 which we hope you will accept for this work on our behalf … ‘
That’s £204 at today’s prices. They go on formally to offer him the job of corresponding for them from Tristan in the future, and they enclose three newspaper cuttings made up from his reports. It’s signed by their Chief News Editor. It was only later that I discovered that Dad, despite the fact that we had little money, had given all this largesse away to charity.
What a brilliant way to start a book!
To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock: the holly whistles as it battles with itself: the ash hisses amid its quiverings: the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.
And this in the last chapter:
The point in Yalbury Wood which abutted on the end of Geoffrey Day’s premises was closed with an ancient tree, horizontally of enormous extent, though having no great pretensions to height. Many hundreds of birds had been born amidst the boughs of this single tree, tribes of rabbits and hares had nibbled at its bark from year to year, quaint tufts of fungi had sprung from the cavities of its forks, and countless families of moles and earthworms had crept about its roots.
It’s the writing of someone who loves nature, and spends a lot of time observing and absorbing its diversity and nuances. Thomas Hardy, no less: who is often a miserable old so’n’so with most of his other books, but ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ is a celebration of village life and culture, captured with minute and loving accuracy at a particular point of change.
I’ve re-read it just now, and love it more than ever.
The Welsh priest R S Thomas is a wonderful poet, but my goodness, he can be miserable. So when he isn’t, it’s a bit like sun breaking through the clouds. Or, in the case of this poem, a rainbow.
The archer with time
as his arrow — has he broken
his strings that the rainbow
is so quiet over our village?
Let us stand, then, in the interval
of our wounding, till the silence
turn golden and love is
a moment eternally overflowing.
I was talking to someone I often discuss spiritual themes with, and she was saying that we are always in such a rush to get away from pain, and unpleasantness, and grief. It’s only human. But sometimes, she said, the best way to deal with it is simply to sit both in the presence of the grief and also in the presence of God, and wait. We can be surprised at the insights that may come.
This is what Thomas is encouraging us to do in this poem. ‘Let us stand, then, in the interval
of our wounding’ …
just stay with it, uncomfortable and painful though it may be. If we stand in this difficult interval, he says, after a while the silence surrounding us ‘turns golden’ and we can become, even just for a moment, aware of eternity.
(image from SportTechie)
Our brother and sister nature
– For nature is both –
Have entered their winter lockdown.
The leaves that garlanded their marriage
Lie drily on the ground
Fit only for bonfires
Bare branches reach black against the sky
In unblanketed cold.
Yet our brother and sister
Are wise. Seeming to sleep
Their roots drive deep into laden earth
Storing a banquet alongside the squirrel
Stowing their rich life in places of rest
Knowing that this is not the end
But a necessary time
I’ve recently finished J K Rowling’s latest Cormoran Strike book, under her pseudonym as Robert Galbraith. Hub and I are Strike and Robin fans, and we both enjoyed the book, and look forward to it coming out as a TV drama. Tom Burke is perfectly-cast as Cormoran Strike.
It’s a long book, but Rowling is a master storyteller, and I’m in awe of her ability to keep us turning the pages. That said, I don’t think it’s one of her best: the story is very convoluted, unless you are interested in astronomy. Charts are included in the text and I admit that my reading energy quailed at the thought of trying to understand them.
Also, I noticed moments when Rowling seems to relapse into prose which just tells you information and gets you to the next incident. I haven’t noticed this before, and I wonder if her editor has changed. She is so good at getting her characters to live and breathe on the page, and drawing you in to their inner world, that I wondered what was behind these uncharacteristic (and infrequent) lapses.
More recently, I’ve just completed reading A N Wilson’s book ‘The Vicar of Sorrows’ (1993). An odd book. He seems to hit every cliche going: the Anglican vicar who loses his faith, has an affair, ends up on the streets, yet retains a very tenuous link to his high-church background. The unhappy wife, taken over by the village lesbian. The teenage daughter, confused and angry, who runs away. Cardboard-cutout parish characters. A long swipe at bishops and archdeacons who don’t really know ordinary people and whose faith has become tenuous. There is a sort-of redemption theme towards the end. Sort-of. All very predictable.
Then there’s the style. Although Wilson tells us at length what is going on in his characters’ minds, it is always ‘tell not show’. This is OK if it’s done really well, but not, alas, in this case. One of the things that irritated me was the intrusion into the text of the author. Of course the writer as character, observer, commentator is a well-known and well-accepted literary convention. But that normally entails the author taking on such a character for himself, so that he becomes part of the action. Strangely, Wilson comments as himself: rather snobby, learned, very well-versed in high-church ritual and history.
And that’s another thing. He quotes in Latin, he refers to high Anglicanism as if the reader is familiar with it : the Prayer Book, the robes, Archbishop Laud – and I’m left wondering how many people would make head or tail of it? In fact, given the predictability of the book, the rather wooden characters created with an auctioneer’s hammer rather than a pen, the vanishingly small readership who would be familiar with his churchmanship, I also wonder whether anyone who wrote such a book nowadays would even find a publisher. I guess that his being Literary Editor of the Evening Standard, with some of his other books attracting prizes, can’t but help. Although styles and public taste have changed out of all recognition in the past 27 years.
No – nothing to do with another visit from Santa. I’ve had problems with Amazon running out of copies of my book, Deacon by Design. So I’m very relieved that VeriteCM, who published it, are now stocking it themselves and hopefully, that will be an end to the out-of-stock issue. Hurray! https://veritecm.com/product/deacon-by-design
A Facebook friend of mine, Carol Kingston-Smith, has recently written and posted this truly beautiful, and very challenging reflection on the turn of the year. It has stayed in my mind, and I have her permission to share it.
The year of the deer: Those who mourn will be comfortedAs 2020 draws to a close and 2021 emerges I reflect on the year gone by and ponder what lies ahead. I stand in the stillness of the fractal seam between the two and allow myself the time to fully experience the feelings evoked by both without judgement.I am wracked.Primal emotion giving strange and discomfiting voice to my sense of failure, incompetence, vulnerability and powerlessness, finding endless echo chambers in the outer worlds of sufferings past, present and future-its not a place I can stand for long at a time!Later, I climb a hill in the snow reaching out for Divine Love to comfort me. As the light and beauty of the last day of 2020 ebbs away, dragging its light into the seam of a New Year, I make my way back down the rapidly darkening hillside; the snow glistening and sparkling.I am startled to find myself being watched; a herd of deer motionless, contemplative and silent meet me in the seam, and for a moment we coinhere, exchanging breath before the noisy agitation of other walkers shreds the moment and they leap noiselessly into the shadowy line of trees bordering the field.Divine Love has spoken through their gentle gaze:As the deer pants for streams of water,so my soul longs after You, O God.My soul thirsts for God, the living God.When shall I come and appear in God’s presence?My tears have been my foodboth day and night,Why are you downcast, O my soul?Why the unease within me?Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Himfor the salvation of His presence.Deep calls to deepin the roar of Your waterfalls;all Your breakers and waveshave rolled over me.The LORD decrees His loving devotion by day,and at night His song is with meas a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42 excerpts)Peace and comfort to you all for 2021.
“One day I accidentally learned about Tristan da Cunha, called the loneliest island in the world, and I immediately wanted to know more about it. I read its history and articles about how people arrived and lived there but still felt like I needed to know more from someone who actually was there. Since I will most likely not have enough time to go there myself anytime soon, I looked for a book and couldn’t have been happier as I stumbled upon Gill Kimber’s Between The Mountain And The Sea.Gill Kimber accomplishes three tasks at a time: to inform you about Tristanians’ way of living in the 1950s, to entertain you with short stories about her and her family as they were there and to reflect about life in general at the end of each chapter. Not only does she answer main questions such as how to get there or what they work on, but also tackles issues such as their vocabulary, their idea of social interaction and their spirituality. She conveys all these subjects with the help of short stories narrated from the point of view of herself as a child and using dialogues, which makes it very easy to read.I think she did a great job reproducing the views of a much younger version of herself. The way she laughed, the way she cried, the way she played, the way she tried to understand the world around her really reminded me of my own younger self. She looks at the world with a great deal of curiosity and innocence, just like children do, and I think that’s something difficult to remember and to write about once you become an adult. Through the book you can really imagine very well what it would have been like to be a child during that time on the island, which was exactly what I was looking for.I particularly liked the bits at the end of each chapter, in which she comments on the narrated events with her brother, who often has a different perception of the same stories. These dialogues are a reflection not only on the story itself and how it has influenced their own lives, but also a kind of moral in which the reader can also think about the world, society and nature back then and nowadays.To sum up, we’re talking about a book that manages to both inform and entertain the reader, leaving him/her with a good feeling at the end. I am really happy to have found it and I’m sure I’ll reread it in the future. About the delivery and the quality of the physical book: it was delivered promptly, as promised, and the book was in a very good condition. The font is quite large, which makes it easy to read, and the material is comfortable to hold.”
I have spent hours, over the past few weeks, struggling to understand the publishing process on Amazon Kindle, and learning from my rookie mistakes. I’ve at last managed to produce an updated version of my childhood memoir, ‘Between the Mountain and the Sea‘, which I am partially serialising on my writing group’s blog.
This is the paperback version: I’ve not (yet) touched the Kindle ebook version. It’s still not perfect, but I’ve learned a great deal, and there’s a big improvement. When I bring out my next book, I will know better what to do!
This edition is better-edited, has a new cover, and includes photos from my parents’ personal scrap books of that time. We went to Tristan da Cunha in 1956, and shortly afterwards the Duke of Edinburgh arrived for a day. My parents wrote extensively of his visit, so I have been able to use their letters and cables to recreate the story accurately.
Later, there is the story of the Lost Boats – only a community which depends on the sea and on fishing will know how it feels when some of the boats don’t come back. To this day, the islanders consider that a miracle occurred. Again, I have used my parents’ archive.
If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you will enjoy it!
Well, I decided to finish ‘Perfect’: not because of the unpromising prose, but because I got interested in the story and wanted to know how it ended – no bad thing for a novel!
I decided next to re-read Graham Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory’. Wow, what a book. It packs such a punch. Apparently Greene decided that he would write ‘unemotional prose’: the result is a very powerful story and vivid characters. In a muddled and self-doubting way, the priest in the story finds himself led time and again not by his own personal inclinations, but by his irresistible commitment to priesthood which rules his decision- making and goes against his personal safety. A book to read and read again.
How to follow that, I asked myself, especially now the charity shops are closed? Hub has been stacking up on John Le Carres. I’ve read quite a few, but not this one: Absolute Friends. Another writer who ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’, in a deeply absorbing way. Another reason to chuck some of the current creative writing rule books out of the window.
Since finishing reading ‘The Good Companions’, I’ve poddled through another Georgette Heyer, which is always good recreation for the mind, and now I’ve started on ‘Perfect’ by Rachel Joyce.
Rachel’s previous book, ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize a few years ago. I read it at the time but retain very little of the story. However, when I came across her second book in the charity shop I decided to give it a go.
Perhaps it’s unfair to read it almost immediately after Priestley’s book. Where his prose is rich and full and paints vivid pictures, hers reminds me of an army. Her words seem to wear the same uniform, and march along the pages all at the same pace, as if they are socially-distanced.
And where Priestley evokes a whole society as it was just before the second world war, when Joyce uses details you get the strong impression that what she’s saying is ‘see, I’ve done my research, and I know what sort of cards schoolchildren in those days (the book is set in the 1970s) were swapping.’ It doesn’t evoke. It simply informs.
Because her prose strikes me as samey and superficial, I find I’m getting bored already. I’ll persevere for a while and see if I can prove myself wrong.
Writing gurus are constantly telling us to ‘show’, not ‘tell’. In other words, we are expected to write in such a way that we don’t simply describe things, but work out how to evoke the same information through the thoughts and words of one of the protagonists.
I can see why we’re told to do this, but I don’t agree with it fully. There’s a very strong case to be made out for ‘tell’, and we should be encouraged, if we’re learning how to write, also to learn how to ‘tell’ in a way that engages the reader’s attention and enjoyment.
After all, most of our English classic novelists ‘tell’, not ‘show’! I’m rereading JB Priestley’s immensely enjoyable picaresque novel The Good Companions, published in the 1920s. Here’s a fabulous piece of ‘tell not show’ – hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
“It’s getting quite warm in here,” Mr Mitcham observed, and began taking off his overcoat.
“Exit the Silver King,” murmured Susie. This was the name they had given Mr Mitcham’s overcoat, which was no ordinary garment. It had first made its appearance in Haxby …. and immediately it had seemed as if another person had joined the party. Mr Mitcham was now described as “travelling an overcoat,” just as some players are said to “travel” a mother or other relative. It was a gigantic plaid ulster and its collar was decorated with a few inches of fur from some mysterious and long extinct species. It had the air of having been round the world far more times than Mr Mitcham himself, and of having seen places that its owner would never be permitted to see. At any moment … you felt that this astounding overcoat might begin to supplement Mr Mitcham’s travel reminiscences or set him right in a loud voice. And Jimmy Nunn swore that he had to take out an extra railway ticket for it and that every time it was taken into a third-class carriage its fur stood on end. Such was the Silver King, which Mr Mitcham now folded and, after some difficulty, found a place for on the rack.
I love the humour of it! Doing ‘tell’ well depends entirely on where the author wants to stand in relation to the story. This example is so satisfying because the writer presents himself as a jovial, kindly observer who is telling us what he sees. This ‘psychic distancing’ is crucial, especially in ‘tell not show’.
Of course, not all of us have the awesome talent and command of his craft of Mr J B Priestley.
(image from Canongate)
Leave, leave your well-loved nest,
Late swallow, and fly away.
Here is no rest
For hollowing heart and wearying wing.
Your comrades all have flown
To seek their southern paradise
Across the great earth’s downward sloping side,
And you are alone.
Why should you cling
Still to the swiftly ageing narrowing day?
Shake your pinions long untried
That now must bear you there where you would be
Through all the heavens of ice;
Till falling down the homing air
You light and perch upon the radiant tree.
John Keats – 1795-1821
The beautiful images in this classic poem lift my spirits every autumn.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
I have just finished the 832 pages of ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton. I watched the dramatisation on TV and was thoroughly confused, and hoped that by reading it I’d fathom it better.
No, I couldn’t. If anything, the story in the book is even more confusing. And it doesn’t help that the dramatisation started in the middle of the book, and pulled out of the story aspects which are only hinted at in the narrative.
What I find fascinating is that Eleanor Catton has abandoned so many of the things which we writers are regularly told we ‘must’ do. This is particularly interesting in the light of the fact that this book won the Booker Prize in 2013. For instance, we’re usually told by teachers of creative writing that it’s much better to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, ie to seek to draw the reader into the story by exposing what the characters are thinking and feeling.
However, Catton does the opposite. She’s written her book in the style of a nineteenth century novel, which is – well – novel: the story is almost entirely ‘tell’, and not ‘show’. She stands back from her narrative and invites us to stand with her and observe what’s going on, rather than leading us to enter into it. It made me wonder why today’s would-be writers are taught how not to do this.
The other thing that really strikes me is that modern writers are normally encouraged to make everything clearer than clear. The other day I read out to my writing group the prologue from my Tristan memoir, and I was told that I should make it obvious from the start that ‘Mike’ is my brother and not ‘a servant’, although I consider I made it clear a few paragraphs further on.
Catton does the opposite. She explains nothing. Throughout the book are drawings of astrological tables, yet there is no explanation of this at all. I have no idea what they mean, or why they are there. I think there is one paragraph in the whole book which mentions the way that the stars and planets are understood to have influence. By contrast, the TV dramatisation made quite a big thing of it. In addition, she has two of her characters speak in Chinese and Maori, but no translation is offered, which I found annoying, as it was wasted on the reader when it might well be offering something valuable.
There’s also a complex cast of characters, and I never really got on top of them all, nor their attitudes and motivations, despite the detailed and deep observations that Catton gives us. And she never explains why the book is called ‘The Luminaries’ – I had to look it up.
What the film did make clear, which the book only hints at, is that Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines were born at the same time on the same day, and were therefore psychically connected, so that what happens to one is manifested in the body and mind of the other, even when they are not together and don’t know where each other is. I think this could have been made a much more fruitful development of the story.
Altogether intriguing! Now I’m off to look for a book which doesn’t make so many demands on me …
(image from Online Accessibility Toolkit) (image of phases of moon from New Zealand Film Commission)
Some time ago I had a couple of fantasy stories published in a book of science fiction called Cyber Pathways, published by AudioArcadia, which you can buy for a mere £1.99 as an ebook on Lulu, or as a paperback at various prices on Amazon.
It was fun doing this! – a new genre for me, and not one I ordinarily read. If you’ve been busy, make yourself a cuppa, find a comfy chair and read this extract in case it should tempt you to read more!
THE SEA CHILDREN
The children of the sea are restless. They climb up the walls of the nursery with their strange, prehensile feet and hands, and they push at the transparent ceiling where the sky sometimes filters through in winding columns of blue light. They converse in chirrups, shushing to each other sibilantly, their pale bodies chubby and dimpled like putti.
Presently the white nursery door opens and closes again soundlessly. The children hover from the roof, looking down at her, their prodding of the ceiling forgotten. It is their nursemaid. She pours into the room in a long, fluid train and stabs each one with her aquamarine eyes. She hisses. They slide down the walls and scamper to their white cots, lying down immediately, their eyelids drifting shut. She glances sharply from one to the other until they are motionless, as if tacked to their golden blankets by the needles of her stare. She catches up her long white tresses and sweeps them around the room, each tendril hovering momentarily over their cots.
There is no sound. The ceiling ripples, and is still. The children are silent. Satisfied, she leaves. The nursery door opens for her without a push and swings back in one gliding motion.
High above them and unaware of their presence, the human children play on the beach wearing swimsuits of pink and yellow and turquoise. They build sandcastles with moats, paddling into the shallows and filling their purple and green buckets with sea water. They bury each other in the red sand, squealing with delight and sitting on their siblings. They get out bats and knock the balls to each other or into the sea. Parents, half-clad, sun-blistered scarlet, throw orange Frisbees and shout. Sandwiches are produced and half-eaten, while gulls dive-bomb the picnickers with aeronautical precision and snatch the food from sandy hands. Little ones bawl, frightened. Tiny ones sleep in prams under navy parasols. Adults stretch out on beach towels patterned with tropical scenes. Old ones settle into red striped deckchairs, dozing in the shade.
Julie undoes her long brown hair from its band, smooths it out , twists it and replaces the band quickly. She fishes around in her beach bag and finds her sunglasses, but when she puts them on she discovers they are smeared. She takes them off, licks her finger and rubs it over the lenses, then polishes them with a corner of her leopard-print kaftan. She puts them on again and looks at the little girl kneeling nearby, upending her bucket on the sand. Her mother’s eyes caress every part of her, from the blonde hair tied into a top-knot like her own, to the little feet that bustle to and fro. She fills her yellow bucket methodically with sea water and returns to her chosen spot to add another sand pie to the ring she is creating.
I’ve discovered something rather weird.
For a long time I thought I had lost the ability to imagine a story. I used to be able to do it at the drop of a hat, up to and including my thirties: but once I was ordained and started in ministry, all my creativity went into the job. I had no stories starting unbidden in my head, and that has been the situation for decades.
Then a few years ago, after we had retired, I took two online courses on writing memoir with Exeter university. Out of this, the rusty muscle in my imagination started to work again – painfully slowly, and needing lots of encouragement, but it produced two fantasy sea stories which were published by AudioArcadia in a book called Cyber Pathways.
The diocese then dumped in my retired lap a very time-consuming job which also siphons off a great deal of imagination. Whereas a long time ago I could start off half a dozen stories inside my head, once again I could discover nothing.
The opportunities created by lockdown brought about a rush of activity: I published three books, learning a great many new skills in the process. They were memoirs: imagination is needed, but the story does not depend on it.
Then recently I found I had an idea for a novel. Don’t hold me to this – I’m not promising anything, least of all to myself, especially as I found my imagination stalling once more at an apparently closed door. The lifting of lockdown has meant that once-quiet walks are now crowded with summer holidaymakers, and instead of a peaceful environment, my mind was busy dodging people on narrow paths, and adjusting my mask.
Except. In order to get away from the holidaymakers, and also to stay out of the sun as I have had surgery for melanoma, Hub and I decided we would go for green, leafy, shady walks to some Iron Age forts. As I climbed the narrow paths, listened to the birdsong and looked up at what Keats called the ‘green-robed senators’ of the woods, something odd began to happen. The door of my imagination creaked open. By the time we had reached the top of the hill, I’d seen my heroine, and what she had thought, and what had happened to her.
I think I should have a writer’s shed in the middle of a forest. In order to bypass the writer’s blocks I’ve collected over the years, it’s clearly the place I need to be.
It’s all quite exciting!
Today I had a zoom coaching session with author Wendy H Jones, on the subject of publishing through Amazon.
It’s been really useful. She was able to confirm things I was beginning to suspect through my limited experience. For example, do not use Amazon templates for a book cover. They are invariably awful! This is something I’ve found, and so I must bite the bullet and get covers done professionally.
Then all the other things: the ugly fonts, the wrong margin sizes, the inconsistent spacing between paragraphs, etc. Wendy discovered that I had simply turned my ebook into a paperback, as Amazon invites you to do. This is something else I should never ever do, apparently. Any manuscript must be immaculate and in pdf before it is uploaded to the kindle site. We had a good discussion about how to do this, without my paying through the nose.
Altogether, she was a very helpful, practical, down to earth and highly experienced coach. When I’ve followed up on all I learned this morning, I shall be going to her again with my next batch of questions.
My memoir about my childhood on Tristan da Cunha, the world’s loneliest inhabited island, is leading to all sorts of unexpected contacts. I’ve just been sent some DVDs with ancient films on them. One is of the island, just a couple of years before we arrived in the 1950s; and another, an eyewitness record of the volcano as it erupted, completely unexpectedly, at one side of the plateau where everyone lived.
(image from Devastating Disasters)
The film, plainly taken on an expat’s cine camera, is jerky, but it captures the utter devastation of the islanders as they pack up a few belongings and are evacuated onto a ship. I recognise all those faces, and feel very moved.
They spent a couple of years in England, but on the whole they hated it, and most returned to the island as soon as it was deemed safe to do so. As Basil says at the beginning of one film, living on Tristan is like a bird living wild in its native habitat. Living in England was like cageing the bird. As soon as that bird gets the chance, he says, it will fly back to its nest where it can be free again.
I was interested to read a post by a fellow writer on the way her neck, head and shoulders ache when she’s writing. Recently she had a week away, and all these aches and pains disappeared. It’s well-known that looking down at our screens so often is bad for our posture and our muscles.
Image from Jacky Dahlhaus
It got me thinking about the precautions I take. As I’m prone to regular bouts of fibromyalgia which always settles in my head, neck and shoulders, I realised some time ago that I was going to have to take ‘desk health’ more seriously.
Consequently, I bought a proper office chair, with a high back and good support for my head and neck. I also have a small, but proper desk so that I’m not trying to write on my lap, which exacerbates the problem with aches. It’s not a grand job with tooled leather … there isn’t room in the tiny bedroom which doubles as my den. It’s shiny and red from IKEA with removable legs, which is very handy when the grandchildren arrive and need the room to sleep in! Our small spaces have to work hard.
Then, more recently and on advice from my IT guru brother, I invested in a 48cm monitor which sets itself automatically to relieve eye strain. This means that I’m looking straight ahead at my monitor, instead of down at my laptop screen, and makes a huge difference.
I also used to get aching in my wrist. This disappeared when I bought a mouse mat with a wrist rest (say that quickly three times!)
And of course the other thing, which is common sense but which I don’t do enough, is to take regular breaks from your work and do some physical work, or some exercise, to give your body a break.
Hope it’s helpful!
I’ve just finished this book, about a slave boy who is semi-adopted by an abolitionist white man, who helps him escape and takes him to the Arctic. And dumps him there. Washington has to negotiate his own life from then on, learn independence, survive, always in fear of his life, build friendships and relationships, and wrestle with feelings of loss, abandonment, and identity. It’s an interesting read.
I realise more and more that I need to like at least one of the characters in order to like a book. I liked several of them in this book, luckily! What I liked most, though, is Edugyan’s lovely, flowing prose and her vivid, crackling use of image. This section stays in my mind: Wash is deep-sea diving, to collect live specimens for the Ocean House exhibition that he and the Goff family are setting up.
The octopus arranged itself in a smatter of algae, its body hanging blackly before me. When I came forward to touch it, it sent out a surge of dark ink. We paused, watching each other, the grey rag of ink hanging between us. Then it shot off through the water, stopping short to radiate like a cloth set afire, its arms unfurling and vibrating. There was something playful in the pause, as if it expected me to ink it back. I held my hands out towards it, gently; the creature hovered in the dark waters, almost totally still. Then, shyly, it began to pulse towards me, stopping just inches away, its small, gelatinous eyes taking me in. Then it swam directly into my hands.
What an enchanting piece of writing.
I was enchanted to get some royalties from Amazon! How exciting. It’s not enough to buy me a villa in Italy … but I could buy an extra bar of chocolate.
Today I received a remittance for the sale of Deacon by Design books too! Life is looking up.
image from Knowles Warwick
Well, I went and amended the manuscript for ‘Redemptive Healing‘, and worked my way through the process of filling in all the questions that Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) asks you when you’re about to publish a book with them. This time I pressed ‘Publish’ with a sense of relief.
Only to have an email from them 24 hours later, telling me that I had two ISBNs and I had to delete one and use the other.
So I went back to the manuscript and obediently changed the ISBN. But every time I uploaded it, it failed to register.
So I got in touch with them. I must say, they are very good, I always get a response within about 24 hours. They explained that I had to choose one of them. So I did. And uploaded again.
24 hours, the same generic email as before. Again I got in touch, and this time had a rather complicated explanation. However, I was also told exactly how to do it this time. I went, I changed, I conquered.
And three cheers! Grandpa’s book ‘Redemptive Healing’ is now available for purchase. Especially interesting for those who want to know more about Christian healing, and for church people involved in the ministry of healing.
I’m learning new skills all the time, and currently I’m discovering how to publish a book through Amazon.
I’ve already brought out my childhood memoir, ‘Between the Mountain and the Sea: memories of a childhood on the world’s loneliest inhabited island’ on this platform, both as an ebook and as a paperback. I’m not entirely satisfied with it, and decided to do better next time. Thus armed with my mistakes, I turned my attention to the little booklet my grandfather had published in 1953.
I’d already uploaded this, and opted for a proof copy. When it arrived I went through it with a fine toothcomb. The problems were mainly of layout rather than the text, which was pretty well accurate, apart from the odd comma.
So I went back to the Kindle platform to see if I could rectify these. I found that I could edit quite easily, although what you see on the kindle platform is what it would look like on an ereader, not in a paperback. But it’s a useful tool for uploading your text and licking it into shape, using all the templates provided.
Having made the changes, I went to ‘upload as paperback’ on the Amazon author site. Although there were about three drafts there, I have no idea where they have come from as I have only uploaded it once previously, and I didn’t trust them, so I started the upload process all over again. This involves deciding whether you will let Amazon give you a free ISBN (which you can’t use if you want to publish it elsewhere) or paying £80 for the privilege of having your own. As I’d settled on going with Amazon, I might as well commit, so I went for their free one.
You can then choose the size of your book, the colour and style of the pages, where you want to put the page numbers etc.
Then you are urged to select a cover. Again, these are templates: there are about 9 options, where you decide what font you want, how you want the layout to be, and what colours you prefer. I liked the pink and black until Hub turned up his nose at it and informed me loftily that, if he came across a book in those colours he wouldn’t want to read it. Sigh. And this from a man who enjoys Georgette Heyer. I ask you.
You can now go straight to ‘save and publish’ if you wish. The temptation to just go ahead and do that was great, but I have opted for another proof copy, so that I can be sure. So, more waiting. *impatient tap of toe*
As I was wending my way through the labyrinth of details, I discovered that there was a different way of uploading a manuscript other than through Kindle. I might try that next time, for my fictional African short stories…
I follow writer Emma Darwin’s wonderful blog, This Itch of Writing, full of encouragement and the most practical of practical help.
Most of us who aspire to write know too well that imp living in our heads, our Inner Critic, and how it conspires with other imps to shut down our efforts as not being ‘worthy’. Emma picks it up, turns it over, dissects it, puts it back together again, and returns it to us as Helpful Imp instead. Have a read!
I know so many aspiring writers who would say that their problem is not getting going: good ideas come along often, and for a while they find it easy and exciting to devote lots of their available time to the project. But “for a while” is the problem: their past is littered with brave beginnings that petered out, half-filled notebooks, unfinished drafts, and finished first drafts that they never revised “for their reader”. So I thought I’d pause the Write Your First Novel course, for a moment – I promise I’ll get back to it – and have a quick think about this.
The “Divine Spark” – or not
The first problem is the way our culture conceives of creative practice, from interviews and events to the self-help, feel-good rhetoric and movies sloshing around in public space. It’s so often a version of the “divine spark” stuff: the Romantics’ idea that you are visited by passion which demands to be fulfilled. To be fair, that is almost certainly what drove you to start writing, but the consequence is that when the passion fades, we assume it’s a message that this is the wrong project, or we are the wrong writer for it.
So it may simply be that you need to internalise what all professional authors know: that some days writing is boring, some days it’s difficult, some days it’s baffling, some days you do it incredibly badly and slowly and stupidly, some days you cut far more than you add, some days you are seized with terror or fury at your own inadequacy to the task – and almost all days you’d be earning more working in a supermarket. When Hilary Mantel was asked if with all her success and experience and prizes, she felt more confident starting a new project, she said no: that with every book you are right back at the foot of the mountain with absolutely no confidence that you will be able to climb it. That is just business as usual, so things being difficult is not a sign that you should give up.
If the reason you tend to abandon projects is that another, more promising one comes along then, like much adultery, it’s very likely that it’s chiefly about the problems back home with your original relationship. I blogged about the allure of The Other Novel a while back, so I won’t go on here.
The Thirty-Thousand Doldrums
This is a more practical form of running out of steam, which seems to be incredibly common in writers of all kinds. I think that many of us, starting on a project, have the story-fuel – the larder full of imagined, remembered and researched material – to last for 25-30,000 words of a story: the first third, say. After that you have to refuel, and I’ve blogged more about this, too.
The Inner Critic
But if the reason you give up is those voices whispering that this project’s no good, you’ll never do it, it’s a waste of your time, you’re stupid to persevere, it’ll never be published, then we’re on slightly different territory. These are Anne Lamott’s Chattering White Mice: the voices of what Jay Earley calls your Inner Critic. I like that link because it makes clear that these voices are trying to help you and keep you safe . They are just very out-of-date about what you need.
The thing is, writing makes you vulnerable. You may not have the least intention of baring your soul, but here you are, working hard, for a long time, at something difficult, with the intention of sending it out to discover if anyone likes it. You are risking exposure, disappointment, rejection, disapproval, scorn, and humiliation – and the more you’ve put into the project, the worse those will feel. So to keep you safe, the Inner Critic gets in first, by saying whatever comes to hand which will get you to give up. If “You’re bad at writing and you’ll never be any good” doesn’t work, it says all the other things it can think of that will get you to come back to safety.
Much out there on Inner Critics is quite shouty-fighty: shut them down, beat them, ignore them. It’s all very exhausting. The rather amazing Internal Family Systems paradigm, which Earley is working with, is far more gentle. It begins by acknowledging that the Inner Critic is trying to protect you from all these horrible things: its intentions are good, it wants to help. But what if, instead, it knew that you could look after yourself? What if you could show it that they can trust you to cope, to be OK in the end? Then they could stand down, and finally have a rest – and wouldn’t that be nice!
A potentially gifted writer and I were talking about all this, yesterday, because they’d just felt the energy of several weeks’ blast at a new project suddenly sucked out by those inner voices. And I had a revelation.
The Stakes are Getting Higher
We all know from plotting that our stake in a game is made up of two things: what we stand to gain if we win, and how we stand to suffer if we lose. When what you might gain gets bigger and richer then the potential suffering of losing gets bigger, and therefore scarier.
So if the Anti-Writing Demon’s job is to protect you from the dangers of writing, then when it smells danger it will start to murmur, and as the stakes rise, the murmurs get louder and more insistent. There’s “danger” here, they believe: this project is turning into a Good Thing, you are more and more committed to it, you will finish it, you will it send out, people with power over it and your writing life will read it – and who knows what agonies will follow?
As my friend the thriller-writer R N Morris says, “The longer you go on, the more you have invested in it, so the more you stand to lose. Walk away from it early on and you haven’t lost so much.” Your Inner Critic and the Anti-Writing Demon therefore team up and work hard to make sure you do walk away.
But what they don’t realise is that by this very token, they’re showing you that this is a project you shouldn’t walk away from: that it has legs, mileage, potential, excitement, value – if you only keep going.
Inside and Outside the Writer’s Bubble
In the same conversation children’s writer Sarah J Dodd said: “I have realised that my inner critic often prevents me finishing a first draft or going on to do a second. BUT if I wait long enough (3 years in the case of current WIP), I find it has gone away, replaced with Inner Cheerleader who also happens to be sensibly critical but also wildly enthusiastic.”
I think this is fascinating, because we usually think of drawer-time giving us distance to be less wildly enthusiastic, less “in the bubble”, and more able to stand outside the story and see objectively how it’s (not) working. Inside the bubble, to keep what Rose Tremain calls the “anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the writer’s mind” working freely, we have to shut of the “knowing” part, the premature “editor”, the judging-too-soon part of our minds.
But Sarah’s experience suggests that Inner Critic voices – which sound so like our teachers, twitterers, workshop mates and industry gurus – are not real, objective voices carried into the bubble, but produced inside it by our own subjective selves. Maybe it’s our more “knowing”, “editing”, “judging” parts which would know the Inner Critic’s judgement for the untrue or unhelpful thing it is – except that being in the bubble requires us to shut out those useful, knowing parts.
So what does this all mean?
- The fact that your Inner Critic is chattering is not a sign that you and/or your writing are pointless.
- The core creative process may, by definition, make it difficult to police inner, critical voices, and discern whether what they’re saying is good sense, or simply a protective spasm designed to stop all movement.
- It’s tiring and unhelpful to keep having to overcome or shout down your Inner Critic, and it’s certainly unhelpful to scorn yourself (i.e. let your Inner Critic scorn you) for failing to cope with it. It’s actually doing its best to protect you, as with a protective muscle spasm. Acknowledging its efforts and good intentions, while reassuring it that it can trust you to cope if anything bad happens, may be enough to get it to calm down.
- The shoutier your Inner Critic becomes, the stronger the sign that this project is not only not pointless, it’s all beginning to get very pointful: that it has legs, that it’s substantial, it has potential, the work is worth it: that it’s better, not worse, than you’ve done before.
So maybe you’d better get on with it.