Imagine stumbling across an old grave yard. Imagine wandering amongst the dilapidated weather worn grave stones. Imagine a cold chill wrapping around your neck while a black crow squawks from a stone wall. Imagine the iron gate creaking as it swings to and fro on rusty hinges. Now imagine a shadow, small at first, but growing longer as a figure appears below the orange light on the old kirk building. Suddenly, you see a face.
Write a story or poem about the face that appeared in the old cemetery. Who is it, what do they want? How do you feel and do you stay to talk or run as fast as you can? You decide.
Gothic literature was established in the eighteenth century with novels such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s Sicilian Romance. Authors utilised the gothic genre to address contemporary societal fears whilst heightening the reader’s imagination and causing sensation through terror. From themes such as patriarchal tyranny and religious oppression, the gothic genre evolved alongside its society. The Victorian fin de siècle Gothic fiction altered from its original genre because
‘The turn of the twentieth century [saw] the first merging of the Gothic with […] Victorian realism, under the premise of philosophical exploration’.
Maria Beville,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009),p.61.
Many fears arose during this period resulting from advancements in psychological theory as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species. This caused heightened concern about the makeup of the human consciousness and counteracted with anxieties of devolution. Whilst class, sexuality, crime and aesthetics became major themes in late Victorian Gothic fiction, authors exploited the narcissistic obsession in society. Furthermore, by exploring the notion of good and evil as a co-existing entity in the human self, authors were able to rationalise the concept through satire. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the embodiment of the fin de siècle and the novel represents many aspects of late Victorian fears. This paper will discuss the ways that Stevenson successfully portrayed the Victorian fin de siècle through the gothic genre whilst comparing the novella to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Virtue and appropriate behaviour feature prominently in the late Victorian period:
‘Moral uprightness was one of the foundations upon which British society supported itself.’
Dennis Grube, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, immorality and Brittishness in the Nineteenth Century (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013),p.127.
Both Stevenson and Wilde explore the concept of virtue in their novels by examining the human consciousness. By creating the fictional double, the novels exhibit what the Victorian society attempts to supress, which is the binary opposite of appropriateness. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the character of Dr Jekyll is portrayed as an ambitious and friendly man who superficially enjoys his wealth and his friends. However, oppressed by the society in which he lives, and becoming aware of his faltering tolerance, he delves into his inner self to explore the composition of his own consciousness. His alter ego, Mr Hyde, is the primal version of his self who finds delight in the purity of evil he experiences. Written in the form of a case study, Dr Jekyll confesses his experiment in the form of a letter that his friend receives after his death:
It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness,[…] If each,[…] could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994), pp, 70-71.
Stevenson demonstrates the duality of the conscious mind and its struggle to balance good with evil through the narrator’s stream of consciousness. Dr Jekyll suggests that in his original form, he has morality, yet he struggles to accept the ‘unbearable’ aspects of life, which his immoral side exposes. Relief, therefore, could only be experienced if they were to be separated into two individual entities. The primitive self is described as ‘unjust’, which suggests that it does not behave in accordance with what society deems as morally correct behaviour, as a result, this causes ‘remorse’ in the morally good conscience. Freedom from the ‘unjust’ is the only way that Dr Jekyll feels able to follow a morally righteous path. The final sentence in the above quotation satirises late Victorian society as Dr Jekyll describes how immorality exposes disgrace and causes feelings of penitence. The word choice ‘extraneous evil’ suggests that evil is external and therefore, created by the hands of society. By connecting sentences with semi-colons, Stevenson forms a union between good and evil as a natural result of societal expectation and, as Lord Henry Wotton suggests in The Picture of Dorian Gray:
People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself. Of course they are charitable. […] But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. […] The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001), p.18
Wilde establishes the way in which society stifles the self. Lord Wotton suggests that society deflects the primitive nature of man to one that has become morally constructed through fear. Lord Wotton refers to Kant’s philosophy of morality that states,
‘The first principle of duty to oneself lies in the dictum “live in conformity with nature” [and] preserve yourself in the perfection of your nature.’
This suggests that Victorian society oppresses the natural quality of man.
Whilst Stevenson developed the double in Dr Jekyll and My Hyde through Dr Jekyll’s exploration of human consciousness due to his internal dissatisfaction with the world, Wilde developed the double through self-development and a need for sensation. His character Dorian becomes highly influenced by his charismatic friend Lord Henry Wotton who suggests that ‘to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul,’ (Wilde, p.18). This results in Dorian believing that ‘Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him,’ (Wilde, p.125). This clarifies that good and bad influence can pass from person to person resulting in a multiplicity of souls residing within the human body. If this is the reason for a duplicity of the self, it is explored by Dr Jekyll who muses that ‘in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins [are] continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated?’ (Stevenson, p.71). Freud’s structural theory suggests that personality is split into three parts, the id, the superego and the ego.
‘The id is defined as the seat of drives and instincts […] whereas the ego represent[s] the logical reality-orientated part of the mind, and the superego [is] akin to a conscience, or set of moral guidelines and prohibitions.’
Theodore Millon, Melvin J. Lerner and Irving B. Weiner, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2003), p.121.
This theory as suggested by Million, demonstrates that ‘personality is derived from the interplay of these three psychic structures which differ in terms of power and influence. […] When the id predominates, an impulsive, stimulation-seeking personality style results, (Million, p.121). This trait is found in The Picture of Dorian Gray when the young Dorian determines that his:
time ha[s] come for making his choice. Or had his choice already been made? Yes, life had decided that for him – life, and his own infinite curiosity about life. Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he [is] to have all these things. The portrait [is] to bear the burden of his shame: that [is] all, (Wilde, p.85).
Dorian submits to the controlling factor of the id due to the influential personality of Lord Wotton. The balancing aspect of the superego becomes external and represented in the portrait, this allows Dorian to observe a physical depiction of his conscience. Wilde presents the alternating structure of Dorian’s consciousness by presenting his statement followed by a question. This allows Dorian to submit to his id because he believes that he has no choice. The repetition of the word ‘life’ has a destructive function as the dash and comma create fragmentation in the sentence that mirrors Dorian’s thoughts and suggests his lack of control in the world. Moreover, the sentence is long and uneven which creates an imbalance of the consciousness. Following this is a list of Dorians desires, the punctuation creates a punchy and fast rhythm representing the frenzy of its character and his grasping of control and is slowed down with a dash once the control is gained.
Late Victorian society developed an awareness of the self through evolutionary theories such as Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and narcissism compromised by a fear of devolution. According to Bowler,
‘The Darwinian revolution […] and the emergence of cultural evolutionism were parallel developments that coincided in time […] the two ideas were soon linked by the suggestion that the primitive stone-age humans had evolved from ape-like ancestors.’ 
Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990), p.191.
Evolution of culture caused society to fear atavism because degeneration could reverse humanity to its primal state, therefore, disintegrate modern life. Stevenson portrayed these fears in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by illustrating the character of Mr Hyde from a public and private perspective. Mr Utterson gives a good example of the various ways in which the character is perceived:
‘God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? Or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? Or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last I think,’ (Stevenson, p.23).
The beginning of the quotation suggests that Mr Hyde’s inhumanity is because he is prehistoric or primitive. Secondly, Mr Utterson ponders over his perception of the character as a personal dislike because of his rebellious nature. This is suggested through reference to Dr Fell who was openly disliked and mocked by his student Thomas Brown.
This last theory satirises the vanity of the late Victorians and their intolerance of the lower classes. For Utterson ‘The problem he was thus debating as he walked was one of a class that is rarely solved,’ (Stevenson, p.23). His conclusion, however, is that Mr Hyde contains a foul soul that radiates outwardly making his presence unpleasant.
Primitivism in the physicality of Mr Hyde is demonstrated to contrast with the public perception of the character. He is regularly given animalistic form, for example; he took a ‘hissing intake of breath,’ or he ‘snarled aloud into a savage laugh,’ (Stevenson, p.23). Stevenson is illustrating the degeneration of man as not merely a mental but physical phenomenon. The characters of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adopt separate physical appearances that demonstrate a desirable narcissistic presence in Dr Jekyll and a degenerate undesirable looking Mr Hyde. Wilde’s approach is slightly different to Stevenson because the character of Dorian Gray remains beautiful. It is only through the portrait that the reader is able to observe the alteration of the characters appearance:
An exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! it was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty, (Wilde, p.123).
Dorian’s degeneration is unlike the Darwinian Theory, the characters sinful life does affect those around him yet he is still admired for his beautiful looks and status in society. The ugliness of Dorian is preserved in private and away from the public eyes. This demonstrates the importance of beauty for the late Victorians. What Wilde did do however, was establish the problematic elements of physicality. When Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward, Wilde illustrates the beast in his character:
The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything. He glanced wildly around, (Wilde, 125).
Wilde demonstrates that an evil and monstrous soul can live in anyone, even the beautiful can hide a devious or wicked nature. In a time when the notorious Jack the Ripper roamed free, the public had only the criminology reports to refer to for peace of mind. Dr Bond for example, wrote the murder profile of Jack the Ripper:
“The murderer in external appearance is quite likely to be a quite inoffensive looking man, probably middle-aged and neatly and respectably dressed. He will be solitary and eccentric in his habits, also he is most likely to be a man without regular occupation, but with a small income or pension.”
Richard N. Kocsis, Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices (Totowa: Humana Press, 2006), p.4
Wilde utilised the theme of murder to create terror and fear in his readers. According to Emsley,
‘By the middle of the century the term ‘criminal classes’ was used to suggest an incorrigible social group – a class – stuck at the bottom of society.’
The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates that crime can be performed in any class in society and just as easily concealed. Stevenson also used the theme of murder in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but the crime is explored through the reaction of society, ‘London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity, and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim,’ (Stevenson, p.29). The sole witness described the victim as an ‘aged and beautiful gentleman’, (Stevenson, p. 29). Mr Hyde, however is described as ‘other’, to whom she ‘conceived a dislike,’ (Stevenson, p.30). Stevenson demonstrates the late Victorians outdated perception of crime and their dislike of otherness as perceived in the murderer.
Murder was not the only crime portrayed in the novels. Homosexuality is illustrated in both novels but more obviously in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil explains his love for Dorian in his art, ‘I see everything in him. […] I find him in all the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours,’ (Wilde, p.12).The Picture of Dorian Gray was being written in 1885, the year that Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act was enforced. This stated that
‘any act of “gross indecency” between men in “public or private” [is] an offence.
Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.19.
Subsequently, Wilde was arrested and imprisoned in 1895 for homosexuality and The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence at his trial. Stevenson published Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a year later although homosexuality is less obvious in his book. Mr Utterson is, ‘the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.[…] so long as they came to his chamber, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour,’(Stevenson, p.9). Stevenson’s subtle but provocative language is hidden amongst the class related subject to demonstrate also, that homosexuality could be found in all societies and all classes.
To conclude, the paper discussed the Gothic fin de siècle as represented in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Stevenson’s novel is the quintessential late-Gothic Victorian novel, because although both Stevenson and Wilde aimed to satirise late-Gothic Victorian society by preying on societal fears, Stevenson’s attempt was more comprehensive. Wilde covered several aspects such as doubling, crime and vanity. However, Stevenson explored a prominent fear in society at the time, which was devolution. Therefore, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde combined all aspects of the Gothic fin de siècle.
Beville Maria,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009)
Bowler Peter J, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990)
I enjoy reading other blogs, and I happened across this poem. It really is very good.
What was the time in OttawaWhen that boy ran full peltTowards a delapidated pier upon An icy lake to make his shapeWhere conifers colludedAnd memory occluded This day, it once occurred.Plenty (or was it a few) anglersIn lumberjack furs Dangling their linesIn holes through snowAs they blow in their hands And distances blurBetween water and […]
Where does a poem come from? Where does it begin? When does a thought become a creation?
The same applies to prose. Where does that unplanned story strand come from? How, in a split second, can a character fall in love without first consulting it’s creator?
Is it inspiration?
I was walking the dogs yesterday. We went to our usual haunt which is generally the big field down by the river. The weather was average for Scotland in January, dreich, windy with a wee bit mizzle in the air, and damn cold. I was trying (and failing) to stop the dogs eating rabbit shit, while being careful not to step awkwardly on the uneven ground. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, in fact, I was just looking. I was looking at my feet, at the dogs, at the snowy mountains, and the people on the old railway in the distance. Suddenly, a sentence popped into my head.
I miss the sea.
This was followed by:
I miss the sea fi when a wis wee
Fair enough, I hear you say. Don’t we all miss what we can’t have at the moment in time, the pandemic has taken so much. And besides this, I’ve seen and heard references to the sea over he past few days through various mediums, so perhaps this subconsciously inspired me. The thing is, I haven’t written any poetry or prose since the start of December 2020. There is a number of reasons for this, (as discussed in previous posts, and I’m not going to bore you with them now), but I wasn’t looking for inspiration, or magic for that matter. And perhaps you don’t think the above lines could be classed as poetry, I mean, the two lines are statements aren’t they? Perhaps. But then the next line came to me in a rhythm so perfect, that I pulled my phone from my pocket and recorded it. This is written in Midlothian vernacular.
I miss sand stickin to ma broon sauce piece
Is it sounding as epic to you as it is to me? Try saying it out loud, with a pause after sand, and the second line rolling of your tongue.
Or if you understand measuring meter in poetry:
I miss sand (strong, weak, strong)
Sti-ckin to ma broon sauce piece (strong-strong, weak. weak, strong, weak, strong).
Okay, you might not be as excited about the birth of my new poem as I am, but watch this space.
Back to my question though…
Did the poem arrive because of inspiration, or was it magic? My opinion is that it’s a bit of both.
Let me give you another example. Whilst working on my current novel in progress, Little Red Rowing Boat, I have become more and more aware of how often a new thread/strand appears during the writing process. This thread is unplanned, it might be an unexpected character appearing, a childhood flashback, and often a key plot line that materialises from no-where. I often find myself in a trance like state when I’m writing, or deep writing. This is when the magic begins. I generally do plan my writing before I sit down; I pretty much know the direction the story will flow, but regardless of my intention, there’s a genie in my head that sprinkles star dust on my fingers while I write and weird shit happens. Is it just me?
I would like to know your thoughts on this matter. Please leave a comment.
Below is one half of a telephone conversation. The person in the photograph is the person talking. The caller is a mystery.
They found what in my laundry bag?
Who found it?
I can assure you it doesn’t belong to me…
Yes. I’ll hold...
How could I have been so careless? It must have fallen into the bag when Harold was around. If only I’d left him on the doorstep instead of being sucked into party politics again.
Oh shit. What if Harold planted it in the bag.
If the team find out…
No, what if the family discover who I really am.
They’d never believe it.
I am so dead.
I’m still here...
Could you stop shouting…
Look it isn’t mine. You see, this morning, there was a man…
I understand that, but if this was anyone else…
I’m only 34 years old, why on earth would I be interested…
No. No. Please don’t , I can’t…
But if my mother finds out there was a...
I’ve never been on a cruise ship. In fact, I’ve never been on a bloody rowing boat...
Yeah, but that doesn’t count. Does it?
I think you’ll find I normally carry a red one. I usually keep it in the car though...
Is this a sick joke?
Who are you? Put the other bloke back on, I don’t want to deal with someone else…
You’re Kidding. Pat?
Thank God. Can you just pop it into the pocket of my jeans once they are dry? Your a babe...
Thanks. And tell Alan, I’m laughing now, but wait til I see him...
This is a one sided telephone conversation. It is a great way to add mystery to a scene. Perhaps someone is listening in on the conversation and trying to put the pieces together. Perhaps the protagonist is concealing the other half of the conversation. It is a fun way to write. This is also a great writing prompt.
How colourful is this photograph? It was taken in the garden of our old house in Bannockburn. I was trimming the roses when I looked up and saw Buddah, and he looks like he’s sneezing. It made me smile.
I chose to post this photograph today because not only have I been clearing out my writing study/meditation space, but I’ve also been sneezing. To be honest, I think it was the dust from the tumble dryer filter that irritated my nose, but I have done a bit of rearranging so it might be that.
I love having a clear space to work. I find that along with regular meditation, and an uncluttered work area, I can sit down at my desk and write easily. I began writing a novel on 1st April 2020 and am now 63000 word into it. I haven’t written since the beginning of December, my partner had a relapse of her neurological condition, NMO, feel to look it up, then we both thought we had covid but, it turned out not to be, and obviously there was Christmas. Now I’m ready. I have the rest of the novel planned out, I reckon I could complete it in a few weeks then begin the editing process.
But I’m ranting now.
Write a short story or a poem in the form of an email. The email should be an apology for not going on a date and, the excuse should be allergies.
I’ve just finished watching the opening concert of Celtic Connections 2021. What a show it was. I love music. I love hearing it sung in many languages as well as in my own tongue. Music brings people together, joins the dots between this land and that, builds bridges and, forms connections. Tonight’s prompt isn’t entirely a prompt, it’s a: FINISH THIS.
Write a poem, story poem, flash fiction or short story beginning with the line,
Let me sculpt music from this old silhouette
The only thing I ask is that, if you use this line and then post it on your blog, please credit my blog. Plus, I if like your post, I’ll share it.
We were on our first caravan holiday in Arbroath, me, Helen and Kimber (we didn’t have Millie at that point). It had been a hell of a week, Kimber was stung by a jelly fish, then a bee the following day, but was treated to her first ice cream cone by the harbour while we tucked into some greasy chips.
It was our first time on Arbroath. The seaside town looked tired, ramshackled in parts, but with pockets of charm dotted around and we fell on love with the place. The beach was long, and at one end flies buzzed around slimy seaweed, rotten and stinking. But in the opposite direction, it was wide, flat and when the tide slipped away into the distance it left silver mirrors in the golden sand.
Famous for its Arbroath smokies (smoked fish), we expected the harbour to reek, but instead, we were greeted with the smell of the salty sea spray that lashed the rocks and soaked our faces. The smell of garlic from a nearby restaurant hung in the air, and as we passed fishing boats tied to metal cleats, a waft of engine oil. I was struck by how much colour was to be found on the coast, from the lobster crates stacked in piles, to rows of washing flapping in the wind above a small cove, to the pretty white lighthouse, stark against a blue sky. One night, we even saw a supermoon.
There was one place that stood out above the rest though. It was close to the end of our holiday and we were wandering. We’d climbed a hill above the harbour and had a picnic while looking down at the orange roof tops and the grey sea, then we strolled by the abbey, and shortly after, into a hidden garden. It was tucked away, between Arbroath’s high street, a park and a rural area. We wandered through an archway into a beautiful walled garden. The garden was in bloom with red roses, white roses, trees, a manicured lawn and a variety of shrubs. There was a wooden bench where we sat for a while. All around us, birds sung in bushes and trees, butterflies fluttered and insects buzzed, hovered and jumped. It was a lovely day and the garden offered shade and a pocket of quiet and stillness, a rest from the world outside.
I have such fond memories of this trip, and I never intended to write such a big post.
But perhaps a prompt?
Okay. Write of place of tranquility, somewhere hidden amongst the hustle and bustle of busy life. Was it found by surprise, why was it there, what did it look like, smell like, sound like, feel like? Was it surprising and did anything happen that changed you or your character? Now hide something, bury it, hide it in a wall or a tree or amongst shrubbery? What was it and who will find it?
I had the privilege of reading a proof copy of Duck Feet, and I was not disappointed. Duck Feet is a episodic novel, a coming of age novel, a working class novel, and a damn brave novel.
The story follows the life of Kirsty Campbell from the start of high school until she leaves in 6th year. Set in Renfrewshire, and told in the regional tongue, the reader is transported right to Kirsty’s doorstep. The short episodes delve into the trials and tribulations of working class teenage lives, with humour and frustration.
It’s the real mundanity of school life that make this book stand out and Ely has the gift of observation. They have highlighted issues such as ableism, racism, homophobia, bullying, teenage pregnancy and crime, and many more issues, but in a way that doesn’t seem forced They also highlight the little things that would have felt enormous for a teenager such as boy bands breaking up, periods, friendships, and first kisses.
Duck Feet is quite a long book, not one you’ll devour in one sitting, but it is a book that you can pick up and read between hoovering and making the dinner and I promise it’ll make you laugh. The book is quite heavy though, so lying on the couch for a read can be a bit of a work out, but thats one of the few things that I disliked.
The characters are fun, well fleshed out, and everyone had a Charlene in their life. It is a character driven novel, a delve into the ordinary where even the most irritating characters are lovable. Something shocking happens near to the end of the book, I thought it was arresting, well managed and probably the reason I’ll remember this novel for a long time.
Finally, from an Edinburgh lass, the dialect was a slow starter for me, not because it didn’t work or that it was badly written, it was just hard to get the voice in my head. But dialect is the reason that the character are so real, and it was brave to write the full novel in that way.
This is me, my partner Helen and our youngest dog Kimber.
I love this photograph so much, it says a lot about our little family. The photograph was camptured by Helen’s mum while we were camping at Comrie Croft in Perthshire. You can see that is was a happy day, a fun day. I think we were relieved, it rained loads while we were there, but on this day, there was a break from the grey, the cold and the dampness, and it lifted our spirits.
Write a story or poem about a group of people camping, but write it in two parts.
The first should be set inside the tent. The weather is cold, wet and grey. Everyone is a bit damp and miserable. What does the atmosphere feel like? Is there conversation? What can you see, smell, taste, feel?
Now write the second part. The weather has changed, the clouds have shifted and the sun is high in the sky. The tent is suddenly warmer, there are voices outside as people unzip their tents and venture out into the bright open field. How does the mood change inside, and then outside of the tent. What happens? How does it feel? What can you see, smell, taste, feel?
I didn’t need to read the spectacular reviews for Luckenbooth before I ordered it. I didn’t need to. I bought it based on the fantastic writing in Jenni Fagan’s last two novels, The Panopticon and, Sunlight Pilgrims. My plans tonight are to have finish the 65 pages of Duck Feet, (review to follow), and then dive in head first.
Do you ever read a book based on an author’s previous work?
Do you have a favourite author, who is it and why?
Do you ever pre-order a book and wait for the delivery to arrive for the whole day? As I said to my partner last night, I haven’t been this excited since Wham brought out a new single.
There is so much going on in this photograph and that’s why I took it. It was taken outside the 17th century mansion Bannockburn House. Notice the man in his traditional Scottish dress, the wheelchairs – one neatly placed, one abandoned. Then there is the bike propped under a window beside a 1980’s wire bin.
Using the photograph above, write a short story or poem about arriving late to a party and finding yourself back on 1984. When did you realise and how? Who was there that you haven’t thought about in a long time? How was everyone dressed, what music was playing and what was on the buffet?
Can you remember the first time your work was published in print? I don’t, but I have the proof. This is a photograph of a story poem that I wrote in 1984. At the time I appear to be a compassionate twelve year old, it’s good to see that the issues that bothered me then, still concern me today. But, current affairs aside, I wonder how excited I was at seeing my words in print. I wonder if I showed the publication to all of my friends and family. I wonder if I called myself a writer?
I doubt it
I knew when I was twelve year old that I wanted to become a writer. I knew it when I left school and began working in a frozen food shop for £24.50 a week on a YTS, I even knew it when I fell into the role of retail manager and somehow survived the role for twenty years. And throughout that time, even though I spent my happiest hours writing, I was never a writer, not a real one that is. I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and began to see pieces of my writing appeared in magazines and newspapers. Yet when ever I introduced myself to someone, I was Eilidh, the retail manager, writing was just a hobby.
When is a writer a writer?
I began calling myself a writer half way through my undergraduate degree at Stirling University. That’s not to say I was comfortable with it. In fact, I would say it under my breath, quickly, and would try to hide my scarlet face. It felt uncomfortable, I felt like a fraud. By this time though, I had managed my way around an essay or two, I was getting decent grades and my reading had increased ten-fold. And as my confidence grew, I began to publish more. The writing itself was mediocre, the publications were small, but I was being published and more importantly – read.
I published a 42,000 word novella in 2014, (under a different name). It was a piece of work I had written many years before, and that was reflected in the writing style. Never the less, I sold over 1000 copies and made a small, very small amount of money. But I was still embarrassed to tell people that I was a writer, and even more so, published. Online was easier though, I marketed my book like hell. I went full on hard sell, talking to strangers, engaging with people who I couldn’t see, and hiding the fact that deep down inside I was terrified of the person I was becoming, the person I always wanted to be, I just wasn’t sure exactly who she was though.
In 2016, I began a Masters in Creative Writing. The course was okay, but it was the legitimacy I felt while doing the course that finally gave the confidence to say, ‘I am a writer,’ still, however, very quietly.
It was probably the year after graduating from university that I began to discover the answer to my question –When is a writer a writer? I was still working part time in the retail sector, but for a charity, and actually using my managerial skills to do some good. When I wasn’t at work, I was reading or writing, or at least thinking about writing. I began to send more and more of my work off to magazines, zines and competitions. I got plenty of rejections, but a small proportion was published and my confidence grew. I began to really enjoy my craft, I enjoyed putting new skills into practice and writing at my own pace. I felt connected to the work I was producing, passionate and I looked forward to it. I had read so many writing tips about when to write, how long I should spend writing, do I need to write daily, how do I find inspiration? I read articles on how to combat writers block, I was even told writers block doesn’t exist. And although all opinions are legitimate, they are only legitimate to the person writing them. In the end, I decided that the only advice I should listen to, is my own.
When I stopped putting pressure on myself to write a particular way, or at a particular time, or for that matter, act in a way that I thought a writer might act, I found I could just write. For me, and this is my opinion, a writer is a writer when they connect to their work, when they allow the writing to be part of them and them a part of the writing.
When I look back at the The Tramp, I see Eilidh the twelve year old writer, she is the writer I have been striving to become for all these years, connected, compassionate, self determined and confident, it just took me a while to find her again.
What are the first words that spring to mind when you see this image? Danger, security risk, unsafe?
Barbed wire is a barrier, a rusty knotted, a twisted barrier between YOU and IT, or visa versa. But what is IT, why does is IT need to be segregated, and what would happen if the barbed wire was cut and suddenly YOU and IT were confronted with one another?
Write of a character confronted with a barbed wire fence. What is behind the it? Why do they want to get beyond the wire? What are the risks? And what will they do when they get through?
If you are struggling to write about something from a particular point of view and not quite hitting the mark, or if you are stuck in a certain scene – change your perspective.
Example: I stood at the back door and watched the sunset. The orange sky stretched across the horizon, widening the earth. From where I stood, the hills were on fire. I want to put my trainers on and run. I wanted to run into the sun and far away into those glorious orange hills. I looked to Joanna, who sat drawing, her chair turned away from the dazzling light. She smiled.
Now change perspective.
Joanna sat with one foot resting on the table, and a drawing pad balanced on her knee. She’d drawn the framed mirror first, then carefully sketched the lines of the six-foot fence. The plant pots were easy, but those damn lanterns, she just couldn’t get them right. In the mirror she could see that the sun was setting, the colours in the frame changed, adding pinks and purples to the fence, and the silver pot rims were dazzled with orange. She heard Bella at the back door. Wow, she heard her say, and Joanna guessed it was the sun set that caused the reaction. She wondered if the hills looked epic, like that time Bella had taken her to the park at dusk. She smiled, not only at the memory but at how beautiful the garden looked in the mirror. She took the brake of her chair and turned around.
By changing perspectives we now know more about the garden, about Joanna, and about Bella. Now if we were to go back to Bella’s pout of view we could expand the scene:
I stood at the back door and watched the sunset. The orange sky was stretched across the horizon, widening the earth. From where I stood, the hills were on fire. Wow. I said. Joanna sat in the garden. She had one foot rested on the table and a drawing pad balanced on her knee. She’d stopped drawing and I could see how hard she’d worked on the picture, each fence slat was perfectly aligned, the curve of the pots and even the lanterns looked perfect.
How does it look from up there? she asked.
You’ve done a brilliant job. I said.
No silly, the sunset.
Incredible. I said. Turn around.
I can see it from here. she pointed at the mirror.
I felt a familiar gnawing in my stomach as the guilt of what had happened crept in. I wanted to put my my trainers on and run. Run into the sun and far away into those glorious orange hills.
Now the story has a new slant. Changing perspective opens up opportunity. Why not have a go yourself and be sure to let me know how it goes.
I haven’t seen the sea for over a year. Living in Killin, I am close to several lochs and rivers, but there is something special about the sea. For me, it’s a feeling that wraps around my ribs like a hug. It’s that feeling of wonder, the mystery of nature and the universe. The sea is a place for contemplation, for stillness and a place to feel whole.
I love this photograph , I snapped it while walking on the beach at St Andrews. The photo is of some teenagers huddled together on the sea wall. I couldn’t hear their conversation but I noticed the long pauses where they all looked out into the endless grey water. Perhaps they were thinking about their studies or their future, perhaps they were lost for a moment in a memory. I like to think they were contemplating their place in the world, their responsibility to the earth and her future
Write a story with two characters, each going through individual difficulties in their lives. The characters should not talk out loud to one another, but sit together on a sea wall watching the sea. The story should record their thoughts, perhaps scattered like a stream of consciousness, or like an internal conversation or monologue. Notice the difference between the characters voices. Did the sea calm them or increase the storm within?
Have you ever stepped outside into a cold morning to find that your garden has been spun into a new world of silver threads and pearl droplets? Think about how hard those tiny spiders have worked to create this masterpiece. Look at the photograph above and imagine only one strand of the web. Now imagine that single strand is the first draft of your novel, short story, poem or whichever creative masterpiece you have just finished writing. Now it’s time to build your web. Editing is the job of going around and around, reworking, re-writing, correcting, enhancing, adding and subtracting, developing and enriching. It’s like building a spider’s world.
Can you see the climber? I took this photograph in Bannockburn in Stirling.
Did you climb trees when you were a child? Perhaps you lived in the city and liked to climb drain pipes, lampposts or onto roofs. It goes without saying that human beings like to climb, to look down at the world below and see it from a new perspective. Perhaps we want a broader view of the world, perhaps we want to separate ourselves from our fellow creatures, or perhaps we enjoy the challenge of the climb itself.
Write a childhood memory about climbing. What were you climbing? How high, wide, difficult was it? Why were you climbing? What did it feel like to climb and to reach the top? Where you climbing for a thrill or to get away from something or someone? What did you see, hear, smell, feel?
There’s a house that sits in the corner of our street, except it isn’t actually in our street. It’s across the road and three doors to the left, which means it belongs to the street around the corner. I’m not sure it should be there, or in our scheme, or anywhere that is – well here. It’s not a real house. It’s one of those kit houses that you buy from Ikea that gets delivered flat pack, in a huge cardboard box with plastic ties around it that you have to cut open with a blade. The instruction leaflet must have been massive and I wonder if they had to pin it to one of the huge oak trees in the field behind the house. It must have taken twenty folk to hold up the walls of the kit house while they bashed in all the rawl plugs to hold it together and I can’t even imagine how many packets of wood glue they used to make it stick good and proper. I didn’t notice it when we first moved here. It just appeared one day; all shiny and new with pink coloured pebbles all stuck to the walls and shiny brown roof tiles. I think all of the rain must fall on the kit house and wash it clean because all of the other houses in our street look orange and brown next to it. Since I noticed it there, I can’t stop looking at it. I’ve been watching it for months now. I want to lean against it and see if it rocks to the side. And there’s always the temptation to pick at the pretty pink pebbles that kind of look like the pink woodchip we had in our last house, and after picking that, I got into heaps of trouble – but that’s a whole different story. I think it must have come all the from Ikea in Texas because it has a porch, kind of like the ones you see on the telly where the front door juts right out; like it’s shouting to the postman that this is the door that you need to shove your letters through. I think if I was a kit house, I’d be embarrassed. It’s not polite to be on show like that and it not polite to shout and scream at the postman either.
I’ve started polishing my shoes since I noticed the kit house, and I make sure my socks are pulled right up over my knees so you can’t see the scabs that are starting to peel off from when we played the Grand National along the back gardens in Randolph Crescent. I tripped over an empty booze bottle and my knees got grazed on some plastic grass. Plastic grass, what’s that all about? I bet the kit house has plastic grass in the back garden, it means you don’t have to borrow a lawnmower from one of your neighbours when the council say that they won’t cut it anymore. I saw a program on the telly last week about a woman who was buying a big old house, a real one, and it had a big old back garden, full of weeds and trees and old bricks and stuff. The man on the telly said she should get rid of it all and put some plastic grass down instead. I don’t get it. Why get rid of all the real stuff and replace it with fake?
I’m watching the kit house right now. I’m hiding in the grass in the front garden just behind the bit of the fence that Bert fixed by nailing the gate to it. This is where I always hide. Bert is ninety-one and lives on the top floor of our flat. He doesn’t fix fences anymore. The council cut his side of the grass because he’s proper old. Ours has to grow. We can’t afford a lawnmower and Mum says you can’t be going and asking people for their lawnmower in this day and age, it’s not like the old days when all our front door where open – whatever that means. I bet in the auld days they didn’t have houses that came on the back of an Ikea motor all the way from Texas. I like the grass to be long any way. Long grass means I can hide. I’m the perfect spy you know, best in Hillpark. I can lie in this grass all afternoon and no one can see me. But I see everything. Like the time Peter’s dog ran away, she came into the garden and lay beside me and I tickled her belly then fed her some of my brown sauce sandwich. I told her to stay quiet and she fell asleep curled up beside me. Peter has four dogs so I didn’t think he would be too bothered because he’d be busy doing all the feeding and cuddling with the other dogs. It was only when he started shouting on her that I started to worry. Then some of the neighbours started talking to him and I heard him saying he was worried ‘cause she isn’t well. She looked fine to me except for the big lumps on her leg that made the fur fall off. Anyway, I took her back a wee while later and said I found her down at the stream. I’m good at telling fibs, all spies are. Peter looked well pleased and Elaine – that’s his wife, she cried a little bit. I got fifty pence for bringing her home and that’s not bad for a day’s work. Another time I was peeping out through the grass and I saw Jimmy kissing a woman in the back of a taxi. Jimmy stays over the hall from us and is well old, and he looks like Santa. It was gross really, because old folk can’t have girlfriends or boyfriends because old people aren’t meant to kiss. My mate Benjamin said it’s because they haven’t got teeth and when you kiss without teeth, you could suck someone’s face off. Jimmy must have had his falsers in because the woman still had a face when the taxi went away. But I did see Jimmy looking all around for the Police or something. The kit house is the best thing ever for spying on though. I heard Marion over the road telling my Mum that it used to be a Bookies, which I think means library because that’s where you get books from. They must have built the kit house on top of the library. I’ve been watching the kit house very closely for days now and I’ve got a rash on my knees from all the midge bites. So far, I’ve seen three people leave the kit house with big heavy bags. And the other day, a weird thing happened, I saw someone go in with a brief- case, he was in there for ages, and when he came back out, he was shaking his head and there was a woman at the door crying. Then the next day after that I got out just in time to see an ambulance drive away. Mum had made me sit on the couch for ages while she rubbed nippy stuff into my midge bites so I missed the good stuff. I wonder if a whole pile of books fell off the shelves and onto someone’s head.
I’m glad it’s the weekend again so i can get back to business. The Red Cross van has just parked outside the kit house and there are two men going inside and coming out with boxes and boxes and black bin bags full of stuff and filling up the van. I wonder if the boxes are full of books because the bookies have so many that they keep falling off the shelves and landing on people’s heads or something. Now the woman who was crying the other day is on the porch, she’s looking over at my garden and I’m worried she has seen my orange cagoule through the grass. I bury my head under the hood, lie flat, and wait. It’s raining today and it feels all wet and sticky, even under my hood. My breath is proper loud, and I have to gulp it back because I can hear the clickity click of high heels close by the fence and I’m scared I’ll blow my cover. The clicking stops but I’m in disguise under here. I can hear a rustle in the grass beside me and I hope it’s not Peter’s dog or she’ll give the game away. But then it stops. I hold my breath. The clicking starts again and it’s further away now. I lift the corner of my hood up just in time to see the door of the kit house closing. There’s a box beside me. It’s just a brown box and it has little rain drops all over it. I look all around and even though my cover is still safe, I don’t know how it got there. I leave it on the grass and open the flap, slowly. My belly is all nervous and it makes me want to pee. Inside the box is dark and my fingers touch cold metal, curved and smooth. I’m scared to open the box right up. I put the lid back down and get on my feet. Carefully, very carefully. I pick the box up and hold it in the palms of my hands. I walk through the grass, slowly, letting it brush against my legs. I carry the box up the two steps and into the hall. It feels heavy and dangerous and I can hear my breath, louder that in my cagoule hood. I have prickles in my hair. I walk into my house. Mum is on the big chair watching the telly.
“Mum, someone left thus in the garden.” I lay the box on the coffee table and stand in front of her.
“What?” her mouth is full of muesli and some of it sprays onto the box lid.
We both stare at it. I watch Mum’s fingers as she lifts the lid. Slow as anything and I grab my hood and pull it up and over so my eyes are covered. Mum starts laughing.
“You’re a donut,” she said, “Look.”
Inside the box is a pair of binoculars. Black metal ones with red lenses. Mum takes out a little card and hands it to me.
To the little spy over the road, I hope you enjoy these as much as I did. From the old spy over the road.
Some images evoke the senses without any effort, for me it is logs. Look at all that rich colour, the moss, the darkness of the wet wood compared to the dry wood, see the reds, browns and blacks in the bark and the yellows, oranges and shades of brown in the trunk. What do these colours resemble?
Now imagine what the wood smells like, the just cut smell, the dry wood before it is thrown on the fire, or the wet wood that has been frosted over. Can you taste the smell of the wood on your tongue? What are each of those smells like?
Imagine the noise of the tree being sawn down, or the axe splitting the logs into small pieces. Imagine the sound of the wood being bundled together and then thrown on the fire. What does it sound like?
Finally, what does the wood feel like? Imagine it in its natural form, a tall tree, rooted deep into the earth. Think of the birds and the animals scurrying through its branches, the leaves and buds, fruit and nuts, that it produces each year. Imagine all the insects living in its bark, on the leaves, amongst the roots. Now imagine your fingers on that bark, the roughness, the damp and the moss, the knots and the sap. Now think of the log, the weight of it in your hand, the lines and the grooves of the split trunk, the softness and the hardness, the jaggy and the smooth. What does the log feel like?
As a writer, we rely on the senses to help us to describe an object, a place or a person or an emotion. Transfering your own experience of the senses into language isn’t always as easy as you would think, after all, you might normally use the most beautiful, poetic sentences that drip of your tongue like nectar, but if the reader cannot see it in their own minds eye, the detail will be lost on them, and it might be the most important detail in your work.
Let me give you an example:
I beleive a good way for writers to develope their craft is by allowing themselves the gift of presence and curiosity when researching, or, when looking for inspiration. Remember when you were a child and experienced something or somewhere new? If we allow ourselves to look at the world through the eyes of a child again, with curiosity and without judgement, and then apply all of those wonderful senses available to us, we might widen our knowledge. Then, if we try to describe that experience, with all the fancy, exciting adult words and techniques that we have learned, but with absolute clarity and precision, perhaps we will deliver a win.
In the novel that I’m currently writing, my character is watching Swift’s flying through the air. I described them as being like fighter jets ducking and diving and tearing the twilight into scraps. Now, I personally love that sentence, it fills my heart up with joy because that is what I imagined when I experienced something similar myself. However, the latter part of the sentence doesn’t make sense. The similie of the swifts being like fighter jets is something that can be imagined, but tearing the twilight into scraps doesn’t work, if you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, drop it.
So why not give it a go? You might even do this as part of a mindful walking excersise, or, to really focus on something, someone or somewhere, do it with intention. Take three long deep breaths and allow yourself to arrive into the present moment. Take time to feel your surroundings, the air on your skin, the temperature of the air, is it wet or dry? Then feel you body making contact with the earth, or your hands on the wheels. Check to see if you are holding any tension in your body, and relax. Now it is time to go forth into your present moment, with curiosity and without judgement.
The cork burst from the bottle, hitting the wall and leaving an indent on the yellow wallpaper. Fae poured the champagne into a slender flute, watching the bubbles snap to the surface and dance around the rim. She drained the glass in three gulps, feeling the bubbles gather in her gullet, causing her to hiccough. Replenishing her glass, she sipped slowly this time.
She reached into the ashtray for the half-smoked cigarette. Lighting the tip, she watched the smoked wander into the air before dissolving into nicotine stained cornices. The cigarette made her dizzy, so she closed her eyes.
From a pink paper bag, she pulled out matching underwear; white silk knickers trimmed with lace, and an angel bra. She removed the price tags and slipped the garments onto her soft pale skin. Standing in front of the mirror, she examined her body; tall and lean with curved hips and strong muscular thighs -the result of two months of hunger and anxious floor pacing. From a drawer in her dresser, she pulled out a lace garter, the same garter that her mother had worn when she had married her father. She smiled at she recalled her parent’s recent silver anniversary celebration. From a red and brown gift box, the same one that had arrived in the post two days earlier, she pulled out the silver pendant. She laid the necklace in the palm of her hand and brushed her thumb over the engraving – Evermore. Fastening the thin chain around her neck, she felt a shiver of excitement when the cold metal dipped into the crease between her breasts.
Seated in front of the mirror, she wound her long hair into a fishtail braid and placed a ‘baby’s breath’ flower crown on top. She applied her makeup, bronze shades to her eyes, cheeks, and lips that not only complimented her russet hair but also created a gorgeous monochromatic and glamorous effect. She liked this face. This was a face she had abhorred for many years until it had been touched so tenderly…
The sound of the letterbox roused her, and she heard a pile of letters hit the floor, it was most likely bills or perhaps the Betterware catalogue.
Stepping into the dress was like stepping into a daydream. The rush of excitement and the smell of a new start hugged her. She felt rich, expensive but most of all, worthy. The dress was all over white, with lace trim around the shoulders where the material stopped – allowing for bare-arms. Sequins swirled in waves around the tummy and spread out around the waist before tapering at the thigh. Then stitched neatly in the seam, was the Armani label beside a slim and slender and slightly battered security tag.
Adam paced the floor; the photographer was late. He dialled the saved number on his phone.
‘I’m stuck in traffic.’ The voice said.
‘If you’re not here at two, I’m fucked.’ Adam snapped.
‘I’ll do my best mate. Bank holiday weekend and all that.’
‘Just hurry up or my necks on the line.’ He hung up and put the phone in his pocket. Seconds later it rang.
‘Adam Scott.’ He answered in a professional voice.
‘It’s me, Lucy.’ A panicked voice sounded on the line. ‘Is Patricia there? There’s a security tag still attached to my dress.’
‘Apparently they were all the same.’ Adam said pushing the bar on the fire exit and stepping outside. ‘Just tuck it into something.’
‘But it’s on my hip. Where’s Patricia?’
‘Wear a scarf around your waist.’
‘What? Patricia isn’t here. Why have I got to organise everything?’ He hung up. Taking a pre-rolled joint from his pocket, he held it between his teeth and lit the end.
There was a taxi waiting outside the flat. The driver had his window rolled down and his arm hung out.
‘Bloody hell.’ He said when she stepped out the front door. ‘They never told me you ordered a wedding cab.’
‘I didn’t.’ She replied, gathering her train into a big ball and stuffing it into the taxi before stepping in.
‘Stetford Gardens. 123a.’
He nodded, rolled up the window, straightened the collar of his shirt and started the engine.
‘The bloody cake is melting with the heat.’ Adam was on the phone again. He stared at the four-tier monstrosity with its frills and piping.
‘Can you find a fridge?’ A woman’s voice said.
‘It’s an empty fucking building Patricia.’
‘Put it beside the window then.’ She said. ‘Has Tony arrived?’
‘Stuck in traffic.’
‘Shit. Are you ready though?’
‘You’re a life saver. Thanks for doing this at short notice.’
‘I’m doing it for the money. That’s all.’
She laughed. ‘I’ll be there in an hour, don’t get stoned. Love you.’
Pavel pulled the cab up close to the pavement. He looked in the rear-view mirror. The bride was rummaging in her bag.
‘Should I beep the horn?’ He said.
‘No. I’ll call.’ She replied into her bag. She pulled out a bottle of perfume and sprayed it in a circle around her neck.
The smell wafted into the front of the car and he coughed.
‘It’s me.’ She said into her phone. ‘I’m outside.’
He looked at the flats. Posher at this side of town.
‘Yes. A black cab.’
Her voice sounds nervous, he thought and caught her eye.
‘Of course, I’m wearing the dress.’ She held a mirror to her face and laughed. ‘Come on, I’m dying to see how you look.’
He looked at his watch.
‘What? Twenty minutes?’ She pulled the phone from her ear. ‘There’s been a slight delay.’
‘I have to keep the meter running.’ He said.
‘Fine.’ She slumped in the back seat.
The rattle of the taxi’s engine filled the silence.
Adam felt used. He’d only agreed to her stupid idea because he’d had three lines of coke and the promise of a blow job.
‘It’ll be over before you know it.’ She’d said.
‘But groom…’ he’d sulked. ‘…I’d be a better best man, or an usher… hell, I’d even be a better priest!’
‘For me darling.’ She said and unzipped his fly. And that was that.
Lifting the collar of his white shirt, he clipped the bowtie into place. He was pulling on his trousers when the door buzzer went.
‘Fuck.’ He said and tucked his shirt into his trousers. He was still fiddling with the button when he opened the door.
A woman stood with arms loaded with flowers. ‘I’ve got a carload of these.’ She said thrusting them into his arms. ‘Get a move on.’
He unloaded the flowers onto a trestle table and hurried back.
‘So, which one are you.’ The woman asked in a strong northern accent. She handed over a cardboard box filled with assorted bouquets.
‘Groom.’ He said looking into the box and counting out loud.
‘I was told ten bouquets.’ She said watching him. ‘Is it ten?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘Greedy boy.’ She laughed.
‘Whatever.’ He felt his face flush.
‘If there isn’t enough, they’ll have to share. We only made what the boss lady asked for.’
He helped her carry the remaining flowers into the room then locked the door as she left. He ran back to the toilet, sat down and flicked cold water onto his face. On the back of the door a heavily lined tuxedo jacket hung in a clear plastic wrapper.
She’d had her eyes fixed on the front door of 123a for the last five minutes, and finally out came Clarissa. She was spectacular in a white silk dress that she’d folded perfectly onto her lap. Clarissa waved, blew a kiss towards the taxi and wheeled to the gate. Her long ebony hair was wound into a plait and trailed down her left shoulder, tiny blue flowers were woven through it. She wore a silver tiara and red lipstick.
As she approached, the driver got out of the taxi and opened the back door. ‘I’m sorry I never expected a…’
‘It’s fine, I can transfer.’ Clarissa said. ‘If you wouldn’t mind holding the bottom of my dress though, until I’m …’
‘…And putting my chair in the boot.’
Pavel watched bride number two slip into the back seat. He handed the silken material into the taxi and closed the door. He wheeled the chair to the back of the taxi and opened the boot. Both brides were locked in a passionate kiss.
Adam was terrible at small talk. As far as he could tell, the best man had arrived, an usher and three bridesmaids. There was a Paul and a Stacey, and maybe a Brenda, but he wasn’t sure. He filled some glasses with champagne, smiled and checked his watch.
By the time Patricia arrived, so had Lucy and Grace and someone else in a white dress, but he didn’t catch her name because she was busy chasing two boys and a silver balloon.
‘Thank God.’ Adam said following Patricia into an empty office. ‘Where have you been?’
‘I’m here now.’ She said, putting down her briefcase and stepping back. She eyed Adam from head to toe. ‘You look delicious darling.’
‘You should’ve been here hours ago. I’ve had to organise everyone.’ He put his hands on his hips. ‘That’s what you’re paid to do.’
‘And you’re paid to look beautiful.’ She tugged the lapels of his jacket .
‘It’s as well I love you.’ He stepped forward and kissed her on the mouth.
The taxi pulled up outside the newly built hotel.
‘Are you sure this is the place?’ Pavel asked, having read in the evening Herald that the hotel wasn’t due to open for another four months.
‘It is.’ Both brides said in unison.
Fae wheeled Clarissa up the ramp. They could hear music playing as they approached the double doors. Two boys stood at the entrance, both in black suits and shiny shoes. The one on the left looked up and smiled revealing a missing tooth. Fae paused and Clarissa took her hand.
‘Nervous?’ Clarissa asked.
‘A bit.’ Fae replied. ‘It is my first time.’
The hall was decorated in silver balloons. Sprays of flowers hung on the wall and were stuffed in giant vases. A long navy carpet stretched from the door to a wooden archway.
On each side of the room identical wooden chairs were lined in rows. Some were already filled. Of course, neither bride knew anyone, except Adam. Everybody knew Adam.
Patricia was great at acting cool, but it was an act. She’d taken two Valium on the journey and had just finished a joint with the groom. She strutted into the middle of the hall and stood on a chair. There were two brides in the corner laughing with a half-naked minister, one inhaling helium from a balloon and singing Bohemian Rhapsody, a disabled lesbian bride with her tongue down the throat of a ginger bride, and four brides fighting over bouquets. Patricia clapped her hands together,
‘Can I have everyone’s attention please.’ She began counting. ‘I’m missing a bride.’
Just then a door burst open and out wandered a best man, a partially dressed bridesmaid and a dishevelled bride.
‘Here.’ The bride shouted and the three snorted with laughter.
‘Groom.’ Patricia turned around as Adam strode into the room, finally doing his job.
‘If you could all make your way to the front now.’ She said and jumped off the chair.
‘Okay.’ She said, satisfied that everyone was listening. ‘We are all gathered here today…’
There was a roar of laughter and a round of applause.
She grinned ‘…I’ll start again. We all are gathered here today…’
‘Excuse me.’ A voice echoed from the back of the hall. ‘I’m here for the photoshoot. Is this Wedding Plus magazine?’
One of the best things about living in the Scottish Highlands in the wee detached village of Killin, is the night sky. It’s pretty dark at night, with little light pollution and the brightest moon I’ve ever seen. When there is a scattering of clouds, however, the sky puts on the most spectacular show of patterns and shapes, it’s like art. When the days are clear and the rain is at bay, we have a new exhibition to indulge in every night, and often with twinkling stars dotted in between. That’s not to say it’s not freezing, wrapping up is essential for sky gazing. The picture that accompanies this post was taken in December 2020. It was taken on my phone and zoomed in. I couldn’t help but notice a genie smoking his pipe and pondering what’s to become of this bloody pandemic.
What do you see?
The night sky is a great place to start for writing inspiration. Perhaps on a clear night, get yourself wrapped up and venture out into the dark.
Listen Look Smell Feel
By tuning into the senses, you might be surprised at what the night has to offer. For me, on a night like the one in December, I would hear the hoo-hoo of the owl, the swishing of the trees on the old railway, the creaking of the car port roof, possibly a car in the distance bit mostly not.
The sky can be anything from a yellow oil slick, to a blue fox stretching lazily between the seven sisters and the plough.
There’s usually a smell of a burning wood in the air, the smell of wet grass, sweet frost or mulch. Sometimes even the smell of laundry from someone’s tumble dryer.
I will feel the sharpness of the air as it reaches my lungs, the sting of cold on my cheeks, my feet on the ground, my heart beating, the clothes on my skin.
This is present moment awareness, a moment of mindful contemplation. All of it relevant as I stand completely alive, sharing the sky with those brave enough to be out too.
Twenty minutes later than scheduled, the blinking seat belt signs suggests they are about to leave. Juliette watches silently as bullets of hail bounce on the airplane’s wing. The early morning’s offering of sunshine that she’d been so relieved to wake up to, is now hidden behind scribbles of charcoal clouds and a heavy sky. She grumbles obscenities under her breath, Meanwhile, Isobel sleeps silently.
There are murmurs around the cabin; clicking of belts and rustling of newspapers. Juliette turns her head toward Isobel, whose flickering eyelids border between sleep and awake. She shushes her back to sleep. Isobel shivers, and her pale hand slides from a gap in her tartan shawl and pulls the garment up to her neck; she purses her lips, frowns, then rests her head on the back of seat.
As soon as the airplane is in the sky, the cabin fills with chitter-chatter and the smell of fresh coffee. Juliette sucks on a mint imperial, clattering it around her dentures until her ears pop. The tea trolley rattles past with a chorus of, “Any hot drinks or snacks? Anything from the bar?”
A middle-aged woman in PVC trousers and a pink poncho leans across the aisle toward Juliette. “I think Sleeping Beauty there is needing a wee espresso.”
“I’m sorry?” Juliette says.
“Well, it’s such a short flight. We’re hardly up before we’re back down again.” She flicks her hair over her shoulder. “Besides, the sun’s splitting the trees down there in Dublin. You don’t want your woman there to be missing out on a beautiful landing, now do you?”
“Your friend, your sister, your missus, whatever, I’m just saying, there’s a spectacle to behold down there in the autumn.”
And doesn’t Juliette know it. Autumn, as it happens, is a precious time of year. She rests her head on Isobel’s shoulder and closes her eyes.
She’d met Isobel in autumn of 1989. Juliette was on a return flight from Glasgow following four days at a horticultural course in the botanic gardens. She felt tired and her muscles ached from digging and stretching. Isobel had been sitting across the aisle with a group of friends, some of which were being loud and obnoxious. Juliette had noticed the young woman immediately and thought she must have the celtic blood in her veins to be blessed with hair of the color of fire. She caught Red Head’s eye and gave her an appreciative nod. The woman flashed her a quizzical look and turned back to her group. Juliette picked up her battered copy of Orlando and turned away from the hubbub.
Fifteen minutes before landing, her reading was disturbed by the sound of raised voices. She lowered her book and sat up straight to see what was going on. A man in a pinstriped suit four seats in front her was jabbing a finger toward the group of friends. His face was red and twisted in anger. From among the jumble of words being thrown back and forth across the aisle, she managed to pick out “queer” and “gay boys.” Her shoulders tightened, and she dropped Orlando onto the empty seat. She unclipped her seat belt with trembling fingers and was about to rush to the boy’s defense when two cabin crew swept down the aisle to defuse the situation. Juliette sat back in her seat, closed her eyes, and blew out a breath. Her heart was racing.
“Are you alright?” Red Head tapped Juliette on the shoulder.
“I will be,” Juliette replied.
“Do you mind?” She nodded toward the empty seat.
Juliette lifted her book. “Be my guest.”
The seat belt sign lit up, and both women fiddled with their straps until they were locked in.
“I can’t believe people still act like that,” Juliette said, still stiff with anger.
“I know. I’m so embarrassed,” Red Head said. “I told them not to be so, you know, out there in front of other people.” She shook her head.
“Oh no.” Juliette blushed. “I was referring to him there,” she said in a raised voice, pointing at the man in the suit, who was now arguing with his wife.
Red Head cowered into her seat. “I guess I’m just envious. I wish I had the courage to be so bold.”
They sat in silence for the next ten minutes. Juliette fidgeted in her seat, while Red Head twirled a strand of hair around her finger and whistled under her breath.
“I’m Isobel, by the way.” Red Head turned so that their faces were close; Juliette felt her warm breath.
“Juliette,” she answered; the skin of their arms brushed slightly. “Are you Scottish?”
“Can’t you tell?” Isobel smirked.
“You don’t belong to Glasgow, that’s for sure.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Student accent, I guess.”
“I see. What are you studying, Isobel?”
“I was studying public health. Just finished.”
The airplane dipped its left wing to turn and then begin its descent.
“Have you been to Dublin before?” Juliette asked.
“First time, but I’ve been told if the weather’s clear it’s a beautiful landing.”
“That it is.” She sat back. “Take a look.”
Isobel leaned over Juliette’s lap. A ringlet of red hair fell on Juliette’s bottle-green blouse, and the contrast was striking.
“You’ll be seeing Killiney Bay about now,” Juliette said, “and beyond that, the glorious Wicklow Mountains.”
“Wow. Would you look at the colors of those trees.” Isobel turned to face Juliette with wild blue eyes. “Do you want to see?”
“I’ve seen them a hundred times.”
“It’s like the mountains have captured a rainbow.”
“I like to imagine that every tree and every bush, and all the grass and flowers hold the entire summer inside of them, then in the autumn it all spills out.”
For a second, their eyes locked. Juliette held her breath, and although the blood rushed through her veins, there was a feeling of familiarity, like she’d been reunited with a long-lost lover.
“Thank you for this.” Isobel squeezed Juliette’s hand gently before reaching forward one last time and filling the window with hair the color of fire.
Juliette could see in her mind’s eye the Japanese larch, the pines and the spruce, stretched up to the sky and swaying from side to side, back and forth, sweeping brush strokes in the clouds. From up here, she could almost see the forest breathe.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but can I see you again?” Isobel asked as the airplane bumped to the ground. “I’m here for a week and I just thought, seeing as you’re local . . . ”
“What gave you the impression I’m local?”
“It’s the accent, I just . . . ”
“You’re right, I’m just playing around with you.”
“So, do you fancy . . . ”
“I’m free on Wednesday evening if you are.” Juliette laughed and felt giddy.
“I’ll make myself free.” Isobel grinned.
“Okay. Meet me in John Kavanagh’s on Prospect Square. Is seven o’clock okay?”
Juliette wore a pair of pin tuck trousers and a black polo neck. She waited at the bar, sipping Malibu and pineapple through a straw and tapping her feet to “Never Too Late” by Kylie Minogue. A few minutes later, the young doctor arrived. She looked younger than Juliette remembered and dressed casually in double denim with green Doc Martens and matching earrings. The long red curls that had first caught Juliette’s eye were tied into a ponytail. Juliette immediately felt her age. But later that night, as they stood in an alleyway to avoid the rain, Isobel leaned forward and kissed Juliette. It was the first time she’d been kissed like that.
Juliette pulls the inflight magazine from the seat pocket and flicks through its glossy pages; adverts, adverts, and more of the same.
“Excuse me, dear.” A voice interrupts her thoughts. A heavily made-up face leans toward her with red lips pulled into a smile revealing straight white teeth.
Juliette raises her eyes.
“Would you like a hot beverage? Tea, coffee . . . ”
“Someone was here just ten minutes ago,” Juliette says. “No thank you.”
“And for your daughter?” Juliette feels a stab in her chest.
“Yes. But . . . ”
“Nothing for either of us. Thank you.”
“If you change your mind, dear . . . ” She points at a button above the seat. “Just press this one.”
Juliette nods and raises the magazine to cover her flushed cheeks. If it isn’t bad enough being insulted with the title of “dear,” being mistaken for Isobel’s mother is deplorable.
The age gap hadn’t been so obvious at the start; Juliette had just turned forty and her premenopausal body was still trim with a flicker of youthfulness. Isobel on the other hand was twenty-one and glowed. Since their first encounter, they’d kept in contact with each other by telephone at least once a day, if not twice. Juliette was completely consumed with love, and according to Isobel, the feeling was mutual. Yet Juliette was reluctant to commit to a relationship, never mind that type of relationship. She assumed, as one would, that Isobel was just dipping her toes in the water and would soon get bored with the lifestyle of a middle-aged woman, never mind the gossip. But Isobel didn’t refrain from trying. Nevertheless, Juliette kept her lover at a distance for ten whole years, meaning both women would travel between Glasgow and Dublin at the weekends, birthdays, and holidays.
“Do you remember that first flight?” Isobel asked her on one of those sleepless rainy nights as they lay in bed together.
“Of course, I do,” Juliette said, stretching her tired limbs.
“I think about it every time I fly here,” Isobel said. “I almost kissed you on that flight. I’d never felt so drawn to anyone like that before.”
“I felt like I’d found you after years of looking,” Juliette breathed into her ear.
“You old romantic.” Isobel kissed her. “But isn’t it about time we began making new memories? Besides, I’m exhausted.”
The flights to and from Glasgow stopped in the first autumn of the millennium. And when Isobel moved in, not a word of gossip passed from the lips of the villagers. Assuming that unlucky-in-love Juliette was past her mothering years and was now a spinster, what else could the young Isobel be but the spinster’s lodger. After all, she’d been visiting as a “friend” for ten years. This suited Isobel well, although it irritated Juliette, but Isobel’s new career as a family practitioner and the sole female doctor in the practice meant absolute discretion. They set up separate bedrooms in Juliette’s two-bed bungalow, in case, as Isobel pointed out, of a surprise visitor or people passing by the back window. But Juliette corrected her, saying that whenever they were in bed together, the curtains were firmly closed. And as for the people passing the back window, that would only be the village gardener, Juliette herself.
For most of the time, their fabricated life wasn’t an issue; the back-room door stayed closed, the room gathering dust, and their relationship shone. Then one afternoon, Juliette was pruning Mrs. Candleberry’s Arthur Bell roses, when the lady herself appeared in the garden with a tray carrying two glasses of Pimm’s.
“So, tell me about your young doctor friend,” Mrs. Candleberry said, putting the tray on the table. She pulled out a chair and patted it. “Join me for a refreshment.”
“Isobel.” Juliette took a handkerchief from the pocket of her shirt and mopped her brow. “What about her?”
“Well, what’s she like to live with? Has she got a man-friend?” She put her hand to the side of her mouth and whispered, “I hear she’s friendly with Doctor Luton.”
“He’s new to the practice. A handsome young Australian man.”
“She hasn’t mentioned him.” Juliette dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand, leaving a line of half-moons.
“Well, I’m sure two attractive doctors don’t need any help from us old hens, but it wouldn’t hurt to give your little friend a nudge?”
Juliette almost choked on an ice cube.
“Although,” she continued, “I’m sure you don’t want to lose a good lodger. It must be nice to have the company of a younger woman in the house.”
“And the rent, of course. Such a shame to have to manage on your own without a . . . ”
“I manage just fine, Mrs. Candleberry.”
“I was just saying to Hilda and Betty at the church hall this morning that Isobel could almost be mistaken for your daughter.”
“My . . . ”
“There’s such a likeness, dear,” she went on, “over the mouth and . . . ” Her voice was drowned out by the scraping of Juliette’s chair on the concrete. She marched back to the roses.
“I’ve got to get on, Mrs. Candleberry,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Mr. Dingle is expecting me in half an hour.” But she raced home that afternoon, stripped off her grubby clothes, and stood in front of the mirror. Then she cried, all the feelings of doubt returning to her mind.
Isobel shrugged it off later that evening. “There’s hardly a line on your face,” she said, tucking a stand of brown hair behind Juliette’s ear and brushing her lips over her earlobe. “And besides, I would be lucky to look anything like you. You’re stunning.”
“But one day soon I’m going to be an old lady and you, you’ll be in your prime.” Juliette shrugged. “And then you’ll leave me.”
“Why would I leave you?”
And for the next decade their flights remained grounded, and together they celebrated each new wrinkle, cried over ailments, and watched each other grow. But sometimes, on a dark and rainy night, Juliette would lie awake wondering when it would all end.
The plane judders and the seat belt sign lights up again. Juliette gently lifts Isobel’s shawl and checks that her belt is firmly in place, then checks her own. She looks at her watch; they’ve been in the air for twenty minutes now, which means there are only thirty-seven minutes to go. She listens to Isobel breathe while all around her teacups rattle on saucers and a couple shout at a child. At the back of the airplane someone is crying. The cabin girl that earlier called her dear staggers from left to right as she makes her way to her own seat by the door. Juliette considers pushing the little button above her head, then scolds herself for thinking bad thoughts. Suddenly the airplane dips. There are wide eyes and a collective gasp, and someone screams for God. Juliette swings her arm toward Isobel, searching for her hand, and Isobel wakes. She struggles to free her arms from her shawl but, of course, she’s held tightly by her seat belt.
The airplane settles, followed by an apology over the intercom.
“It’s okay.” Juliette twists to face Isobel, who is thrashing around, red-faced. She puts her two hands on Isobel’s face and turns it toward her own. Isobel stops writhing and looks at Juliette. Their eyes lock. Juliette breathes sharply and holds her breath. She searches those familiar eyes, still as blue as the sky after a storm. Isobel smiles; a dimple that’s grown deeper with age bends as her lips stretch.
“Hey, my love.” Juliette’s heart quickens. “It’s me, Juliette.” She reaches out and takes Isobel’s hands.
Isobel clears her throat. “Do you have an appointment, dear?” She shakes Juliette’s hands away and starts pulling things from the seat pocket and dropping them on the floor. “I can’t seem to find my diary. What did you say your name was?”
Juliette feels a familiar gnawing of disappointment, but she blinks it away. “I’m not here to see a doctor, I’m here to see you.”
Isobel frowns and sits back in her seat. “Are we on a bus?”
Juliette pulls the shade down. “We’re on an airplane to Dublin.”
“Where’s Juliette? What have you done with Juliette?” She begins tugging on her seat belt.
“Stop this bus!” Isobel shouts at the top of her voice.
“Isobel . . . ”
“Help! I’m being held hostage!”
Juliette unclips her seat belt and stands up. She holds Isobel by the shoulders.
“Is everything alright?” A bald head pops up from the seat in front.
“Ma’am.” Juliette’s favorite steward stands in the aisle. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is fine.” Juliette puts her arm out to warn the steward to stay back. “She’s . . . ”
“Are you here for an appointment, dear?” Isobel smiles at the steward.
“She’s radio rental.” A little blonde girl with pretend tattoos drapes her arms over Juliette’s head rest.
“Don’t be so rude,” Juliette snaps, then turns to the steward. “She’s just confused.”
They thought it was fatigue at first, what with the extra shifts she’d been covering due to Dr. O’Brian’s pregnancy.
“You can’t just diagnose yourself with exhaustion, then go in to work on a Saturday,” Juliette snapped after finding an egg bouncing in a dry saucepan on the kitchen hob. “You need to take time off.”
“I can’t. Deloris is as sick as a dog with this wee one, and besides, there’s no one else to cover for her.”
“Fair enough, but remember you’ll have to finish early on Monday, you’ve got a hospital appointment to get that left leg looked at again.”
“My left leg?” Isobel looked puzzled.
“The trapped nerve . . . ”
“Aye, right enough,” she said, limping out of the room.
But Isobel didn’t finish early that Monday, or the following Monday, and as the weeks went by, Juliette lost count of the times she’d canceled and rearranged appointments. But it was six months later when things came to a head.
Juliette was in the kitchen organizing sandwiches onto serving trays. They were expecting a dozen friends over in the evening to celebrate their upcoming twentieth anniversary.
Isobel burst into the kitchen with arms full of shopping bags.
“Is the cake in the car?” Juliette asked.
“Cake?” Isobel dropped the bags at her feet.
“The anniversary . . . ” Juliette began.
A tin of dog food rolled from one of the bags and landed near Juliette’s feet. She picked it up and looked at Isobel. The confusion on her face sent shivers down Juliette’s spine.
“We don’t have a dog, do we?” Isobel said softly.
“We don’t.” Juliette pulled out a kitchen chair and took Isobel’s hand. “Sit down, love.”
Isobel was trembling.
After the diagnosis Isobel took sick leave from work and began reading prolifically. Being a doctor, she had access to the best medical books on early onset dementia. She collected them all and shut herself in the second bedroom and spent weeks poring over them. Then one day, out of the blue, she packed the books into a large cardboard box and took them to the office. Juliette waited in the car.
“Do you want to go on a road trip?” Isobel asked when she returned.
“Today?” Juliette asked.
“Why not. I want to make up for forgetting our . . . ” She held her mouth open, as if waiting for the word to drop out.
“Anniversary?” Juliette lifted her eyebrows.
“Aye, that. I feel so disconnected from everything.” Isobel blushed. “Shall we?”
“Where do you want to go?”
So, approximately three weeks after their twentieth anniversary, they laid their sleeping bags on the ground on top of a thick bed of moss and fallen pine needles at the foot of Wicklow Mountains.
“Who needs a mattress?” Juliette said and breathed deeply. The forest smelled of damp mulch and burning firewood.
Isobel tucked a cushion under her head. “We should have done this years ago,” she said, looking up at the trees swishing in the breeze. “Look”—she pointed—“Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers!”
Juliette looked up to see two Scots pines bent toward one another in a romantic embrace.
Isobel turned to Juliette. “Thank you for twenty years of good memories.”
“And here’s to making new ones,” Juliette replied.
“Memory might not be my strong point though.” Isobel sighed.
“I’m sure it won’t be as bad as you think.”
“Oh, Juliette. We need to talk.”
Isobel sat up and crossed her legs.
“I know you’re worried, my love. I am too.” Juliette brushed the palm of her hand over Isobel’s cheek. “But if things get difficult, I’ll look after you.”
Isobel turned to face Juliette. “Promise me you’ll bring me here every year on our anniversary.”
“Even if I forget you, I think this is the place that will bring it all back.”
Juliette reached over and held her hand. She choked back her tears.
“Will you collect me from Glasgow.” Isobel’s blue eyes were heavy and full.
Juliette sat up. “What?”
“I’m going back to Scotland. Everything’s arranged.”
“No. You can’t.” Juliette felt her body trembling. That familiar feeling that had kept her awake for so many nights. “You’re leaving?”
“I’m setting you free.”
Juliette feels the pressure change in the cabin as the airplane begins its descent. There’s the usual hustle and bustle before landing; bags being stowed in overhead lockers; seats being put back in upright positions; last minute queues at the toilets. Isobel fiddles with the air-conditioning above her head; it blows strands of red hair over her face and she laughs.
“Isobel.” Juliette whispers so as not to alarm her. “Do you want look outside?” She pulls the window blind up fully.
Slowly, Isobel reaches over and looks out. “No, no, no!” she shouts. “I think we’re falling!”
“Oh no, darling, I promise you we’re not.” Juliette takes her hand. “Look, we’re flying over Killiney Bay.”
Isobel edges closer, her eyes widening. Suddenly, she presses her finger on the window. “Aha!” she says. “Can you see that rainbow? That’s where I’ll find my Juliette.”
Juliette smiles and nods.
The forest floor is dappled with sunlight. Long lingering licks of amber coat the leaves and branches. Isobel sits in the car while Juliette unpacks. She tries to ignore the ache in her heart while she sets about re-creating the past. She lays out two sleeping bags on the blanket of thick green moss, and two cushions. Beside each she places a bottle of water and a bag of mixed nuts. Even though they’d returned to this exact spot for the last ten years, she checks for their initials on the bark of the spruce that they’d carved five years ago.
“I’ll never stop trying,” she says, tracing her finger over the rough bark.
Before she fetches Isobel from the car, she stands for a moment and breathes the cool damp air. High above her, Fred and Ginger stand still, like strangers.
Today the temperature has remained below zero, the lowest being -4°, but the sky was the deepest blue I’ve seen in a while, and with only a slither of cloud on the horizon. Me and my two chocolate Labradors walked along the river bank, the river was flowing so slowly that the opposite bank was reflected clearly on its surface, apart from the odd random ripple and patches of grey ice around the bank that is. My dogs love the water, but they also love chasing the ducks, and there are an abundance of ducks on the river at the moment. So they remained safely on lead while I took lovely photographs. Here’s one of them in a little sandy cove.
Once we moved away from the river and into the field, the dogs relaxed a bit and I was able to settle comfortably into my surroundings. The mountains seem to have gathered more snow overnight and looked particularly dramatic. One in particular, Ben Lawers, looks to me like its twisting away from the other. There are parts of Lawers that are so incredibly steep and its a wonder that so many people climb it. And even though I view it with that sense of fear, I can see the draw because it is overwhelmingly stunning. This sensation reminded me of an English Literature lecture about the feeling one gets when confronted with the beauty and the terrifying in nature – I believe it was described at the sublime.
Edmund Burke identified the sublime as the experience of the infinite, which is terrifying and thrilling because it threatens to overpower the perceived importance of human enterprise in the universe.
Where was I? While I was having these wonderful emotions, and keeping one eye on the dogs, who sounded like little piglets sniffle out truffles, except it wasn’t truffles, it was frozen rabbit poo, I wandered into some frozen flood water.
We had an incredible amount of rain in December and the field, which is normally filled with sheep, was flooded. The sheep were replaced by ducks, but with this new cold snap, even the ducks are warming their bums in the river rather than the solid ice.
So, as I stood in this mini ice rink wondering how I’d got there, I realised there was an opportunity to walk mindfully, to bring myself back into the present moment, all because of a crunch…
What does it mean to walk mindfully?
Mindful walking is about intention and paying attention. Let me explain. When I found myself on the ice, the first thing I noticed was the sound, the satisfying crunch as my wellington boot broke through. It was a familiar sound, something that drew me back to my childhood and I found myself smiling. This is when I decided to walk mindfully, in other words, I made an intention. The dogs were sniffing around, eating poo and were in no hurry to move on, so I stopped, and I took three long deep breaths, (this is kind of like the Bell or the Gong in my previous post as the breath allows you to arrive into a moment, to be present). I then took a moment to check in on how my body felt, to relax any muscles that had become tense, to feel my feel on the ground, or in the ice for that matter, and that’s when I noticed, for the first time that day, the cold on my face. In fact, I was so surprised to feel the sting on my cheeks and neck that I raised my hand and touched it. Then I began to move. Mindful walking is walking intentionally, walking slow and feeling the range of motions while experiencing all the sensory pleasures available to us. That’s not to say that this exercise is exclusive to able bodied people, it can be adapted to wheelchair users too, although I wouldn’t recommend wheeling into a frozen flooded field, but the exercise can be adapted on less dangerous terrain. As I began to walk, I concentrated on each movement, the weight of my legs as I lifted my feet, the feeling of my feet landing on the ice, that moment of resistance before my foot broke through the ice and then landed on the sticky earth below. Then there was the sucking sound, and a moment of fear which I noticed landed between my shoulder blades and high in my stomach. It felt like a screech, if a screech were a feeling, and for a moment my breath became tight as I lifted my foot. I suddenly felt my face flush with warmth and my hair filled with prickles, and I breathed a long sigh when I discovered my wellington was still attached to my foot. I continued to walk like this, observing each movement, each emotion, watching the ice crack and crumble as I punctured a path of size fives through the middle. It was the crunch that kept me right there though, the brief squeal before the coosh sound, (I think it sounds more like a coosh than a crack). I could smell the frost, that sharp almost sweet smell, followed by a rush of mulch and sulphuric bog smell. I only walked like this for about two minutes, but managed to collect so much information as well as becoming more aware and feeling relaxed.
How can Mindful Walking help with my writing?
It’s all about the experience.
What did I notice?
How did it feel?
When we walk mindfully, we begin to notice a range of things, such as the temperature of the air, the ground beneath our feel, textures and smells, our surroundings, the soundscape. Have another read at my experience and see if you can identify these things. There is definitely many benefits for a writer to practice mindful walking, although it is easier to plan the mindful walk than to decide halfway through a walk that you are going to do it. By planning a walk, you can pick a place that may resemble a setting in your story, then you can experience the setting in the same way your character will. This will enhance your description. Remember the old phrase,
Write what you know.
It might be relevant to disclose to you at this time that I am writing a novel set in this very village and partly in this very field, so all of this is wonderful research for my book. But I will conclude today by saying, thanks for reading, and also, of you would like any more advice on mindful walking or how this could be adapted to a wheelchair, please comment and we can chat. In the meantime, here’s a photo of my side of the mountain.
Being a writer means also being an observer, how else are we able to describe the world around us but through our senses. I believe we can become better writers by learning the art of deep observation and paying closer attention to the here and now.
So, what is a deep observer? It is someone who actively experiences the world with a strong curiosity, who opens up all the senses available to them in order to examine what’s happening. That might seem obvious, however, for much of the day we actually miss what’s happening in the world around us because we are lost in our own thoughts.
Learning to pause, to be still, and to open up the possibility of becoming an intentional deep observer takes time and practice – it requires the ability to be present. Presence is simply being aware of where you are, in body and in mind, and actively choosing to be fully aware of what is happening in that moment. In mindfulness practice, we would describe this as arriving in the moment.
“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
So, how do we arrive in the moment? In a mindfulness meditation practice, we would arrive in the moment by ringing a bell or a gong. By doing this at the beginning and end of a practice, we are setting an intention to be present during that time period. Being present though, isn’t necessarily about meditation, although we can build a stronger ability for presence when we practice meditation, but we can be present at any time, we just have to do be present intentionally.
Setting an intention to be present is more difficult than you think. Try, for example, setting an intention to be present while washing the dishes.Try to become fully aware of where you are and what you are doing. Perhaps take a moment before you begin to say out loud, ‘right now I am washing the dishes.’ How long was it before your mind began to wander? Perhaps you started thinking of what you would like to be doing instead. Perhaps you were thinking of something that happened last week, or an hour ago. Regardless, it is difficult to stay focused for very long without the mind going of on its own journey and taking us along for the ride. This is particularly prevelant when we are partaking in something mundane or repetitive, and are happy to loose ourselves in thoughts and dreams. But the mundane can be such an important part of our writing and by actively seeking out those mundane experiences ourselves, we can so enrich the quality of our work.
When we practice intentional deep observation, the present moment experience will become richer, and certainly more interesting. Perhaps, before we begin, take a few seconds to arrive in the moment (I’m not suggesting sounding a gong every time you do the washing up). Maybe stand by the sink. Feel your feet on the floor or the area where your body makes contact with the chair or stool, become aware of the temperature in the room, the sounds, then perhaps take three deep breaths. When you begin washing up, try noticing the tactile experience of washing the dishes, the temperature of the water on your hands, the feeling of the detergent, the way the water changes when it starts to become greasy or dirty. All of those experiences, pleasant or unpleasant, are knowledge. Use your other available senses too, such as your sight, what does that blob of tomato sauce look like when it is dissolving in water, look at how the oat milk in the bottom of that glass mug resembles a monkey’s face (see my post image). Try to experience the smell too, the smell of the detergent, other smells in the room, the smell of the sink once the water has washed down the plug hole. All of these observations are knowledge, material.
Setting an intention to be present, to be a deep observer, does not mean that the mind will not wander, of course it will, that’s what minds do. However, noticing the mind wandering is, or can be, part of the observation. Where did the mind wander to? How long did it last, what were you hands doing during this time? By practising these observational skills we can expand our knowledge and awareness which can only enrich our writing.
As we get more practiced, we can begin to use these skills when on the move, while walking in nature, on sitting on train, in a busy supermarket, or climbing a mountain. We can really begin to explore how to intentionally and deeply observe. We can even observe people, body language, quirks, moods, etc. The possibilities are endless.
So, while I hope that this post was helpful, I would like to finish by saying that in no way am i suggesting it is helpful to be intentionally and deeply observant all of the time, in fact I value the ability to disappear into my own head, I like it there too much, after all, that where the magic comes from and the ideas begin.
The apple tree in the garden of the white and yellow rental house was full, but the house was empty. I walked past a dozen times, five times to the shops, four to the play park with the dogs, once to post a parcel at the post office, and twice for a look.
In week two
The apples on the apple tree in the garden of the white and yellow rental house were ripe, but not picked. I walked past the house at the crack of dawn, hovered by the garden gate, pretended to watch the bluetits flit between branches, just to glimpse at the reddest apples I had ever seen.
In week three
The apples on the apple tree in the garden of the white and yellow rental house were falling, and no-one noticed. I wanted to scoop them up, stuff my pockets and hand them out, but the streets were as empty as my pockets, so I just watched another apple, plump and sweet, fall with a thud. A muffled sigh lay stale between my lips and layers of fabric.
In week four
There were six apples left on the apple tree, in the garden of the white and yellow rental house, the rest were rotten, scattered and bruised, pecked, and burrowed. I should have plundered one, bent the branches until the shiniest apple, cold and smooth, dipped into my claw like grip. I could have sunk my teeth into the flesh quicker than the curtains twitched in the window of the house next door.
The apple tree in the garden of the white and yellow rental house is finally empty, and the house is still empty, yet as I pass, a sudden flash of red amongst the green grass. A robin.
I struggled to find the motivation to walk the dogs today. I had a busy morning delivering an emergency package to my partner, Helen, who is currently in hospital, and returned home tired and with a headache. But those pretty brown eyes kept pleading for their walks, and who could resist the eyes of a Labrador (never mind two). So, I got them rigged up and we tottered off to the field at the back of the house. It has been a lovely clear day here in Killin and the sky at 3pm had barely a cloud. We wandered into the farmers field, along by the river and with one of the best views of the mountains. That’s when little patches of red began to appear on the furthest mountain, then slowly, as the light dimmed, it spread right over the mountains in front. Of course, I had to stop and capture the moment on my phone. I even took a video for Helen. But for a moment, the smallest moment, because the dogs can’t stay still for long, I stopped, put my phone on my pocket, and just looked. I felt the cold air in my lungs, the nip of icy wind on my face and my heart filled with the sight before me. I felt alive.
If you want to enrich your story, look at it from a different perspective. For example, if this photo is turned the correct way around, what does the protagonist see? But when it’s turned on its side, the view suddenly changes. Could the protagonist be lying down, or have fallen? Have they been looking for clues to solve a mystery that is revealed from this new perspective? Changing the way wee look at a scene, by either changing where we view it from or, from a different character’s point of view, can bring a whole new perspective to the scene, and perhaps add a new strand to the story.
Amber mist sweeps the woods
and treetops burst like fireworks
red, orange, yellow and green -
against the silhouetted Trossachs,
Leaves plucked from branches -
A leg and a wing, to see the king,
Fall under Wellington boots,
Into a cold casserole of dead summer.
The hill is a graveyard.
Thistle corpses are crispy baskets.
Bramble bushes bow low, and autumn
Shoots jets of freezing air,
I feel them creep into my hair as I descend
Into the valley.
A swirling cloud hovers over the grass
And a snapping twig halts
A tap-dancing gull, it hops sideways
Over a flattened mole hill.
I pause in the shadow of a goal post,
While the ghost of summer wraps around my neck
Like a feather boa.
This year has been such a mixed bag of reading. I’ve enjoyed straying a little from my usual go-to books, mostly for research reasons, but found a couple of gems. So here they are.
Fallow by Daniel Shand I really enjoyed this book and would also recommend his other novel, Crocodile.
The Growing Season by Helen SedgwickIt took me ages to read this book and throughout I wasn’t really sure if I liked it, but i think I was comparing it to Helen’s first novel, The Comet Seekers, which is an outstanding piece of work, and this book was a completely different genre, Overall though, it was worth a read, she’s an excellent writer.
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. FletcherA strange wee book, beautifully written in parts, but not riveting. Worth a read.
Before You Say I DO by Clare LydonThis is a lesbian romance novel and was an okay read but predictable. I would try her other books but wouldn’t put them at the top of my list.
No Strings Attached by Harper Bliss Another Lesbian Romance but I quite liked this one. I‘ve heard of Harper Bliss and I would read more of her books but again, not in a hurry. Nicely written though.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NgThis was my book of the year. Beautifully written, brilliant twist and plot, fantastic characters and it made me cry. What else can you ask for. Read this book if you can, it is incredble.
Not My Type by Michele L. RiveraThis was the last of the lesbian romances and I cringed all the way through it. Maybe I’m getting old, but this wasn’t for me.
The Familiars by Stacey HallsI stepped out of my comfort zone with this book and I’m glad I did. This was nice read and was wrapped up nicely. I would recommend.
Poverty Safari by Darren McGarveyThis is an important novel that everyone should be aware off. Heart breaking and honest. Memoir.
Marram by Leonie CharltonThis is another book I really wanted to enjoy but found slow and dull. There are parts that are beautiful but also parts that seem repetitive. I enjoyed the back story. Memoir.
Little Fires Everywhere By Celeste NgAnother beauty. I can’t wait for more books by this author. Very well written, exciting, fast paced and tragic. I watched the T.V series afterwards, the book is better.
The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-EllisAnother beautifully written book with plenty of tension and a lovely plot. Loved the characters, the setting was also well written, a bit disappointed with theend.
Boy Parts by Eliza ClarkThis is a book that’ll make you gasp. I loved it. It is risky, honest, funny and just brilliant. The characters will blow you away. Second best book of the year.
Conversations With Friends by Sally RooneyI am pretty sure I enjoyed this book but I don’t remember much about it.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-ZinnInformative. Non-fiction.
A Change of Climate by Hilary MantelI have been wanting to read a book by Hilary Mantelfor the longest time, but I think I chose the wrong one. The movement of time wasn’t easy to keep up with and at times, the book was slow. I almost gave up on it, but persisted. The first page is brilliant.
Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story by Rachel ClarkeI loved this. I’ve never read a book with so much death in it, but written so honestly and beautifully. I definitely have a different perspective now. I cried a lot. Highly recommended. Memoir.
Jonathan Pie: Off The Record by Jonathan Pie I do like Jonathan Pie, although I don’t always agree with his point of view. And just like the man says himself, you don’t have to agree, but it’s good to see different perspectives. Recommend. Non-fiction. I listened to the audio book version.
Love In Lockdown by Chloe JamesI bought this book purely for research purposes as I am writing a lock down novel myself. Cheesy, heterosexual, young love. It was okay, mostly annoying, but fit the purpose of what I imagine will be a new pandemic genre, I just feel the author could have blended some of the pandemic tropes into the story, as opposed to listing them. It is unrealistic in many ways, but the characters are nice.
Sightlines by Kathleen JamieIt’s about time I read something from this author seeing as she was my dissertation mentor- twice. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Kathleen once told me that she isn’t a nature writer, she is simply a writer, I kept that in mind when I read this book and I now understand what she meant. Kathleen is an observer, a thinker, someone who stands still long enough to experience the world. She has a good mind and a viewpoint unlike most. I highly recommend. Essays.
I would love to here what your favourite books have been in 2020, and I love a recommendation, but for now, I would like to wish everyone a happy Hogmanay and warm wishes for the new year.
‘…on some secluded branch in a forest far and wide sits perched an owl, who, full of self-conceit and self-created wisdom, explains, comments, condemns, ordains and orders things not understood, yet full of importance still holds forth to stocks and stones around.’ Michael Faraday.
The room was dark and reeked of damp. Ailith lit a candle on the mantelpiece and watched as the light cast her shadow onto the wall. She didn’t dare open the curtains, for fear of letting the heat out; plus, she didn’t want the neighbours knowing she was awake. They still thought she was the bloody community councillor. Fat lot of good she’d be if she was. She couldn’t deal with her own shit let alone anybody else’s. And it wasn’t that she didn’t like the neighbours, it was just the noise of them that riled her up, the noise and the desperation on their faces, like rabbits-staring-into-fucking-headlights, chapping on her door at all hours and pleading, ‘For Christ’s sake Ailith, what are we going to do?’ And she’d just stand there, shrugging her shoulders and thinking “Christ? What’s Christ got to do with it? Our so-called Lord and Savour has fucked off, shut up shop, and handed the keys to our new friend – drum roll – the OWL – Our One World Leader. It was only half six in the morning and her guts were heaving already.
She sat on the sofa and peeled the lid off a plastic container. She couldn’t eat this crap for much longer. She poked the spoon into the cream jelly; it squelched when she broke the surface and it let out a fart when she pulled it out. What exactly was she eating? She sucked the jelly through her teeth. It wasn’t food. It didn’t even smell like food. It didn’t even smell. The label said ‘nutritious’ but she didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe anything they had forced on her. No. None of their lies sat well in her stomach. A muffled tune disturbed her thoughts. Recognising the OWL Corp. ringtone, she sat up straight and tidied her hair from her face.
‘Answer call.’ She said lifting the chat box from beneath a cushion. A balding man wearing a black suit stared poker-faced at her from behind the glass.
‘Ms McDonald? Is this correct?’
‘Can you confirm your date of birth?’
‘Twenty-fourth of May 2008.’
‘Please scan your identification into your box device.’
Ailith took her ID card from her wallet and placed it on the scanner. She waited for the beep.
‘Thank you, Ms McDonald. I am calling to remind you that you have not yet voted.’
‘And you are also aware Ms McDonald, that this is day three?’
‘Like I could forget.’ She bit a thread of skin from the side of her fingernail.
‘I’m sorry, Ms McDonald, can you clarify your last answer. Are you aware that this is day three?’
‘And do you understand that you are required by your One World Leader to vote by midnight tomorrow?’
‘Obviously.’ And the One World Leader could kiss her arse.
‘And do you know the actions that will be taken should you fail to fulfil your requirement to vote?’
To be or not to be, that really was the fucking question. And she didn’t have an answer. She stood naked in the bathroom and shivered. Day three she didn’t have the balls to do what half the country had already had the balls to do. Filling the sink to the allocated water level, she dropped in two soap pellets. The clock was ticking, and if she did have balls, they’d be shrunk to the size of peanuts. The soap pellets fizzed for a couple of seconds then disappeared. Like the food, the soap didn’t smell of anything. If only her Mum was here to help with the big decision. But Ailith knew what she’d say. ‘Self-Elect. Human beings shouldn’t have the power to decide the fate of others.’ Or maybe that’s what Ailith wanted to believe. But her Mum didn’t have to make that choice, she’d died a year before they announced their plans. She plunged the sponge into the water and braced herself for the cold.
The door intercom buzzed then, Attention, Imogen A L Ahmed requires your attention. She wanted to ignore it but the buzzing set her nerves on edge, so she pulled her dressing gown around her and went to the door.
‘Oh Ailith, thank God you’re up.’ It was Imogen from next door. She squeezed past Ailith and walked into the living room.
‘Imogen, I haven’t even opened my curtains yet.’ Ailith said following her.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve walked past four times, I couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s Raza. He’s…’ Imogen sat on the couch and dropped her head into her hands.
‘Talk to me.’ Ailith sat beside her and put an arm over her shoulder.
‘He’s going to self-elect.’ She let out a roar.
Fuck!’ Ailith took a deep breath, held it for five then slowly released, five, four, three, two, one.
‘He. Told. Me. This. Morning.’ She said in little breaths.
‘What about you and the kids?’
‘He’s doing it for our future. That’s what he told me’
‘What the hell?’
Imogen blew her nose into a tissue. ‘He’s been reading those stupid e-flyers again.’
‘The deep ecology stuff?’
‘Fucks sake. It’s all brain washing, they don’t even stand by their principles.’
‘So why does he read it? Raza’s not easily sucked in.’
Ailith shrugged her shoulders. She couldn’t understand why anyone would believe the shit they sent out. Or anything on the news. It was all bullshit. It was all – fake.
‘I’m so angry at him. And this self-elect bullshit has gone too far.’
‘You’re right, and we can’t do a bloody thing about it. The protesters are getting five years in prison now, did you know that?’
‘I heard.’ She looked up at Ailith. ‘What am I going to do?’
‘I’ll talk to him, okay?’
‘You can try, but I doubt he’ll listen. He not been the same since the deportation program took his Mum.’
Ailith took her friend’s hand. ‘It must be difficult for him.’
‘It is. He misses her so much. And now he thinks that Pakistan is going to vote for the elderly. That would pretty much wipe out his whole family. It’s not right Ailith. It’s just not right.’
After Imogen left, Ailith blew out the candle and opened the curtains. It was grey and damp outside and drops of moisture ran down the windows. She looked across the street tried to remember the sound of the big old Scots Pine’s that used to swish back and forth in the gap between Peter and Elaine’s house. Or how pretty the pink cherry blossom tree would look in Marion’s front garden in the spring. But it seemed like all the colour in the world had been wrung out. And amongst all the grey – was nothing but empty space. Empty or decayed. Decayed and silent. Ailith wrapped her arms around herself to stop the trembling. She was cold to the touch.
‘Come in Jimmy, you just missed Imogen. Poor buggers at her wit’s end.’
Jimmy lived two doors away. He nodded his head and shuffled past her. He stopped half way down the hall and groaned. ‘My bloody knees are killing me.’
Ailith followed him into the living room and helped him into the armchair. She took his stick and balanced it against the wall.
‘Have you eaten Jimmy?’
‘I had something, not that bloody Nutri-what’s-it-called stuff that they gave us. I can’t swallow it without gagging. I had something though, best leave it that, you don’t know who’s listening.’
‘Fair enough. Just remember to keep your strength up.’ Ailith knelt on the floor beside him. ‘I’ve got the leaflet on the tablet if you’re ready to go through it.’
She opened the OWL web page and felt instantly tense. The screen was filled with children wearing yellow sweatshirts reading, ‘Vote for our future.’
‘Are you ready for this?’
‘Hold on.’ He flipped the switch on the side of his glasses. ‘Okay, ready.’
‘Do you want me to read the jargon at the beginning? It’s just a lot of bollocks about how they are going to end world poverty and provide housing for everyone, and yadda, yadda, yadda.’
‘Are they going to sort out the food? It’s not right. I need meat in my diet. Or fish. Did I tell you I was a fisherman when I was a lad?’
‘Yeah, many times.’
‘I miss fish. Not as much as I miss meat, but God. I miss proper hot food, don’t you? You can’t even get a bag of chips anymore. Do you remember the chippy?’
‘I try not to think about it. They’ve said that once they’ve controlled the population, meat might be re- introduced.’
‘I should think so too.’ Jimmy scratched his beard. ‘And what about the heating? One hour a day isn’t enough, and I’d kill for a hot shower.’
‘Is that a bad joke Jimmy?’
‘Sorry, I never meant it like that.’
Ailith swiped the screen. ‘Right, here we go,’ she flicked past the introduction, ‘Population control is imperative for our survival, not only as a species but for all living creatures. Our ecosystem is depleting rapidly, the extinction of bees sped up this process far more rapidly than originally predicted.
‘The bees, who’d have thought.’
‘To protect the existence of our planet,’ she continued, ‘we must now realise our place on this earth, and that is as equals to our fellow creatures and to our land. Therefore, we must all play our role in the reduction of humans.’ Ailith gripped her hair in her hand. ‘Each country is required by OWL to reduce its population significantly. Your One World Leader has YOUR future in mind. After much consideration, we have decided that the groups nominated for the cull in your country are as follows.’ She looked to Jimmy who was biting his thumbnail.
‘Right.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Number one, All citizens above pensionable age as of October 2028. Number two, all prisoners with a sentence of five years or more. Number three, all citizens with a disability that prevents them from partaking in paid employment. Number four, all citizens who have been unemployed for five years or more and who have been proven to not be actively seeking work.’
‘Harsh,’ Jimmy said after the last one.
‘And obviously, there is the box for self-election.’
‘That’s a tough one eh lass?’ he shook his head, ‘And if we don’t vote?’
‘Enforced termination of life.’
‘World pollution is now being deemed as critical. In a not so distant future, the situation will become increasingly intolerable. It can be controlled, and perhaps even reversed; but we, at OWL, demand cooperation on a scale and intensity beyond anything achieved so far.’
Ailith turned off the T.V and gulped the last of her cup of tea. Such a waste. She preferred her tea ration in the morning, it kept the headaches at bay, especially on work days. Grabbing her coat and hat, she ran out the house.
The bus was full, and she had to stand. Her eyes were streaming from the cold and she felt a hand on her shoulder.
‘We’re all feeling it today dear.’
She turned around to see an elderly woman gripping onto the side of an empty seat.
‘Sit down lass; you look like you need it more than I do.’
‘No,’ she felt her face redden, ‘Honestly, I’m fine.’
‘Are you sure?’ she was already lowering herself back into the chair.
‘Check out the old dear trying to play the sympathy card.’ A voice shouted from the rear of the bus.
‘Fucking pensioners, I know who I’ll be voting for.’
‘Keep your opinions to yourself, idiot.’ Ailith took the woman’s hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay dear,’ she squeezed Ailith’s hand, ‘I’ve had a lovely life. Five Grandchildren you know. I’ve voted already, you know, for the old ones.’
The car park at the front of her work was full. Fucking customers, she thought, they never stop, they’re relentless. She stood outside the Amazon Superstore and watched the cars circling the car park. Customers were rushing to the front displays like flies on shit, for a special multi-pack of Nutri-fill with beef flavour, and this season’s plastic flowers. Ailith despised them all and their acceptance of everything fake. She shook her head and walked over to a small crowd, mostly men, gathered in front of the gazebo she had seen being erected a few days ago. Soldiers were handing out leaflets and chatting to the attentive audience. The gazebo was plastered in posters like, Be the Best. Self-Elect and Your Country Needs YOU. Self-Elect.
‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ she stared at a picture of a man in a wheelchair wearing a big smile and two thumbs up.
‘Are you going to do it?’ It was Taylor, one of her work colleagues.
‘I… I don’t know, I haven’t voted yet.’
‘I just did. I did it Ailith,’ he actually looks pleased. ‘They’re going to put my name in the book man. I’ll be a fucking hero.’
‘Too right. Look at me, I’ve done absolutely fuck all with my life. I’m thirty-five years old and I’m nothing. I arrange plastic flowers for a living. At least this way I’ll be remembered. Taylor Smith. My name’s going down in history in that Big Red Book. I’ll be fucking celebrated. Taylor Smith saved the world.’
**** The lines at the checkouts were long. Ailith kept her head down and concentrated on the beep, beep of the scanner. It was hard to ignore the conversations at her checkout line though.
Broccoli flavoured curd. Beep.
‘Where are all these people coming from? You’d think it was the end of the world.’
Soap fizzers. Beep.
‘Probably dole scroungers. Gas the lot of them I say. I’m sick of paying for those lazy bastards.’
‘I wish we could vote for two. Get rid of the scroungers and the rapists.’
‘Yeah, and put the old folk into the jails. They’ll get three meals a day, 3D T.V, top quality health care, they’ll be better looked after than they are in those old folk’s homes.’
Plastic roses. Beep.
Really? She looked up at a teenage lad who smiled and raised his eyebrows. She placed the items into the bag. Ribbed for her pleasure, bloody hell, how can he even get it up at a time like this?
‘Thirty-two credits please.’
He handed Ailith his ID card. She scanned it. Beep.
‘Thank you, Mr Douglas. Have a nice day and thank you for shopping at Amazon.’
Jessica was sitting on the doorstep when Ailith arrived home. She felt a lightness in her step, seeing her best friend. Jessica stood up and pulled Ailith in for a hug. They rocked back and forth.
Ailith held her at arm’s length, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ Although she did look tired.
‘Same. Sorry, I haven’t been around for a while, Mum’s not been keeping too well.’
‘Is it getting worse?’
‘Yeah, doctors have told her she’ll need a wheelchair soon.’
‘I’m sorry, Jessica.’
‘I’m glad you came around though, come on, let’s get inside, it’s freezing out here.’
‘Couldn’t let my bestie make the big decision on her own, could I?’
They went indoors and Ailith lit all the candles. Why not? Jessica kept her coat and hat on.
‘It’s cold in here,’ she breathed into her gloves, ‘I’m shaking.’
‘It’ll heat up soon. I saved the hours heating for tonight. Have you eaten?’
‘Yeah, before I left. Go ahead and have yours though.’
‘I’m not hungry.’ Ailith said but her stomach groaned. ‘I’d rather just get this over and done with.’
‘How was work?’
‘Busy. People are buying in bulk.’
‘Pretty normal under the circumstances, don’t you think?’
‘Absolutely not! This is the problem. Everybody’s going about like this shit is normal. It’s not. It’s fucking lunacy. But somehow they’ve managed to dumb down even the most rational of folk.’
‘People aren’t stupid Ailith, they’re scared.’
‘Yeah but rather than turning against the suits, they’re turning on each other. You want to have heard the shit an old wife had to take on the bus this morning.’
‘Yeah, it’s going on all over the place. There’s an autistic lass in our street. Got a brick through her window two nights ago.’
‘Tensions are high. Probably something to do with all the Population Control Centre’s that have sprung up in the last year.’
‘But don’t you think it’s all a big fucking lie, Jessica? I mean, why not spend more money educating folk? Like, teach people how to live responsibly?’
‘They tried that though, then the bees happened.’
‘I reckon someone’s gaining from this shit.’
‘And these population control centres though. It’s sick. It’s like the Nazis all over again. At least the self-elects get the dignity of euthanasia.’
‘Did you hear about Ronnie Coldwell?’ Jessica asked, taking her tablet from her bag.
Ailith noticed her hands trembling. ‘The actor?’
She nodded. ‘Self-elected, it was all over the news today.’
‘But he’s safe surely. He’s got enough credit to feed a small country.’
‘As safe as the fucking Royals, but said he can’t live in a world where people choose to murder other people.’
‘Jesus.’ Ailith felt like she was going to vomit. She turned on her tablet and felt like she was hovering just outside of her own consciousness. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Hold on.’ Jessica loaded the web page. ‘Yes.’ She held Ailith’s hand and tears run down her cheeks.
Ailith closed her eyes for a moment and just breathed. She let go of Jessica’s hand. ‘I’m scared.’
They both loaded the voting page.
‘Please scan your identification card into your device.’
Please scan your left index finger on the box provided. If you are unable to do so, please scan your left eye.
‘Please enter your passcode and answer the five security questions.’
‘Thank you. Please enter your vote now.’
Ailith let out a roar. ‘FUCKERS!’
‘Welcome to One World Tonight, my name is Shannon McCallaghan, it’s the 30th of October 2041. Later in the show, we’ll be live at the opening of Cornton Vale Care – previously Cornton Vale prison – as 76 elderly residents move into the 50th G4S facility of its kind. This follows the outcome of the 2036 population control vote, that saw our population reduced by 15%. The One World Leader has today announced that the next stage of voting will commence early next year. How will you vote?’
She breathed deep, Jaggy at first,And at her feet a pigeon pecked at pickingsWhile a bus shuddered close by -Its doors folded open to the street.She breathed out.Her second breath was smoother,And as people sped by Hunkered under raincoats, rain tap tappingIn stereo around their ears,The walking school busMarched hand in hand in high vis vests,And she sat with cold bus-stop-feet.She blew out an shivering ‘oh.’Her third breath was quietAs still as the gapBetween the ‘Caw’ of the rookAnd the flap of a pigeon’s wings. Behind her a shop bell tinkled,And the smell of baked bread Hung as heavy as coffee in the air, Warm and steady Like her out breath.She paused a while longer.Watching a line of charcoal cloud Make a bridge between two tenements blocksWhile a buddleia swayed left and rightIn an unused chimney pot.
I was delighted to wake up to an email this morning telling me that Capsule Stories has nominated my short story, ‘Mother of Pearl,’ for the Pushcart prize. It is a wonderful feeling to have your hard work recognised by editors, it certainly takes the edge of those feelings of doubt.
Thank you to those who continue to support me in my journey.
To My Inner Bountiful Beast, It’s been a while since we spoke, since I stroked the tips of my fingers over the waxy wires that poked through a hole in my ankle socks. Remember that time I accidentally paraded you around town, all frizzy and brown like twisted hazel on plump pink toes. Nobody saw my toe-nails, newly manicured and emerald green, or the obscene diamante studs that gleamed in the sunshine. No, my friend, they saw you, my bountiful beast. Oh, and how they laughed at you, they pointed and jeered, and I realised, I had become the woman I’d feared, half blind through middle age and apparently unkempt. Oh, how I wish I could have saved you, but (with my newly purchased reading glasses perched on the end of my nose) I chose the shave you as I bathed in the embarrassment of my day. Well, as it turns out you’d been a follicle bursting bonanza, and not just in my socks, I found you creeping into crevice’s beneath my frock where even a yoga master might suggest that ‘before you rock into such places, consult a GP’. And little did I know, that the more I looked, the more I’d see. I found you in clumps on my knees, tiny little trees growing wild and free, I worried about overthrowing an entire eco system when you fell. And my beast, you did fall. But I’m writing to say I’m sorry. I knew you’d be upset, and I didn’t bet on the permeance of the bald love heart shaved accidentally into my pubic parts. I didn’t bet on red raw arm pits, or the purple zits where a chin hair should be, I didn’t bet on the shame of fingers pointing at toes, or the woes of being caught wearing you, my bountiful beast. You see, it isn’t you, it’s me. Everything was fine when I couldn’t see, when you were free to be part of me. And you are part of me. My inner bountiful beast. I wrote to tell you, I miss you. Yours E
Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.
Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”
“Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.
The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died. Margo sipped her tea from trembling fingers. She heard the sound of a door opening, closing, and then footsteps. In the darkness, she could see the silhouette of a tall slim man walking down the pavement. It was Billy, her friend’s Grandson.
“Evening Mrs Galloway,” he waved, “Starting to get a bit nippy out eh?”
“Aye Son, it is.”
He continued walking. She watched as he stopped at the far end of her fence and lit a cigarette. The flash of orange light glowed for a moment, then he disappeared into the night. All that remained was the sound of his footsteps and a dancing orange dot. The smell of tobacco drifted through the air, lingered for a few seconds and she felt a flutter in her chest. She inhaled deeply. Margo had never smoked, never even tried it, but she had grown used to the smell of a newly lit cigarette. It reminded her of the first day that she had met Shug.
It was a warm afternoon in the spring of 1964. She was working from home at the time, a seamstress by all accounts, though a self-trained one. She had even built herself quite a reputation in the village where she lived. A craftswoman, the locals called her, “with an eye as sharp as a needle and fingers that can turn a tattie sack into a gown.” When Shug turned up at the foot of her steps, a handsome young man with a pair of trousers draped over his left arm and a cigarette paper balancing between two fingers, she stood in the doorway and watched him. He knew she was watching, but his eyes were focused on his fingers while he tore the wiry brown tobacco, spread it into a line then folded the paper, rolling and licking and rolling again. When he was done, he put the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and looked up.
“Are you Margo McNabb?” he cocked his head to one side.
“Aye.” She blushed and looked at the trousers over his arm.
“Great, my Maw said you could maybe take up the hem of my trousers,” he held them out. “Can you do it for me?”
Margo looked at the trousers and then at her visitor. He was short and stocky and the trousers would have been a good two inches too long. She sniggered.
“Aye okay,” she turned her back, leaving the door ajar, “Come on in.”
He followed her and closed the door.
“Who’s your Maw?” Margo asked taking the trousers and nodding her head to an empty seat.
“Betty, Betty Galloway. She said you two were pals during the war. Do you mind if I…?” he pointed to his cigarette and raised his eyebrows.
“Aye go ahead, but you’ll need to take it into the scullery. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Go on then.”
He got up from the seat and followed her through. Margo filled the kettle and put it on to boil.
“So you’re Betty’s laddie. Stanley is it?” she asked dropping two teabags into the teapot.
“Aye, but call me Shug, hardly anyone calls me Stanley anymore.”
“Alright Shug,” she leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. Shug lit his cigarette. He took a long draw and blew the smoke up to the ceiling.
“Nice place you have, Mrs McNabb.”
“Not Mrs,” she felt her face burning, so she turned to the cooker and fidgeted with the kettle, “Just Margo will do.”
“Just Margo eh? Interesting.”
She turned back around and watched as he blew little hoops of smoke into the room.
“Me and your Maw, we had some good times together, she used to wash and iron the clothes that I fixed, she was always singing, kept us all going so she did.”
“I bet you could hold a tune yourself,” he winked.
“Well I tried.” She twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. “Anyway, those were hard times back then, nae money for luxuries and all that.”
“Make do and mend,” he said, “Aye, she still goes on about it.”
A car engine rattled, snapping Margo out of her memory, and abruptly back to 2010. She jumped, and looked out into the street. It was normally so quiet at this time of the night. The car drove past. Lifting her mug, she took a gulp of tea but it was almost cold. She put the mug back on the table. Television lights flickered in the window opposite and an upstairs light in the house on the left, turned on. A curtain twitched. She watched for a moment then stretched her legs out in front of her. Flopping her head back, she looked up at the darkening sky. She closed her eyes and sighed, letting her thoughts drift off again. ‘Make do and mend’, she thought, ‘just like our wedding.’ In the space of a year, they had gone from talking in the scullery to walking down the aisle. It was a shame it had been such a small ceremony. Not many people approved of the twenty-seven year age gap. Shug had looked so charming in his taken-up trousers and suit jacket, while she had worn a dress she made herself. Oh and how wonderful she had felt in that beautiful dress, satin and lace that expertly skimmed her three-month baby bump.
Pearl was born in the back of an ambulance, eight days late, and after seventeen hours of labour. She was a scrawny little pink bundle – with a temper as fierce as her fiery hair. And those eyes, those little blue eyes that looked up at her Mother and filled her joy. They had fallen in love instantly. Margo remembered bringing her home, swaddled in a crocheted shawl. It took Shug a few days to hold his daughter on his own though.
“She’s not a bomb for goodness sake,” she took the baby from him and told him how to position his arms. He sat back in the rocking chair, and she placed the little bundle back into his arms. He stared down at her, a new twinkle in his eyes.
“She’s a gem.”
“Aye,” Margo smiled, “She really is. Are we giving her a name?”
“Pearl,” Shug replied, “Her name is Pearl.”
“Pearl.” Margo whispered her daughter’s name into the night. “I’ve missed you all these years.”
A cold breeze ruffled her hair and tickled her face. It felt like tiny ghost fingers touching her playfully. With her eyes still closed, she held on to the lingering chill. She touched the pendant that hung on a silver chain around her neck. Shug had bought it for her birthday in 1968, the year that Pearl died. She could still remember him dropping the pendant into her hand and closing her fingers around it. The stone had felt as heavy as the ache in her chest.
“I don’t want it.” She threw the pendant back at Shug. She hadn’t even remembered it was her birthday. After all, she had only buried her daughter three weeks earlier.
“But it’s Mother of Pearl,” he placed it on the bed side table, “Like you, the Mother of Pearl. It’s to remember our little girl.”
“What? You think a stupid necklace is a replacement for my baby? Really?” her body convulsed and tears fell from her swollen eyes.
“You’ll always be her Mum, Margo. You will.”
“Her Mum? But it was my job to look after her, not to dilly dally at some stupid ladies group. She was only three, for Christ’s sake, my only child. I should have been with her.”
“It’s not your fault,” he sobbed, “I should have been watching.”
Margo looked away from him and clenched her teeth.
“I only took my eyes off her for a second to roll my fag. I didn’t see her run. I didn’t see the car.”
“Come on Margo, you have to believe I’d never have let anything happen to our wee girl, not on purpose.”
“Too late. Where is she now Shug, eh? Where is my bairn?”
Shug bent down to touch her face. She swiped his hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” She shouted and pulled the covers up to her neck. “Just don’t”
“I’m so sorry,” he fell no his knees and wept into his hands, “I’m so sorry. Oh God. Oh God!”
Margo could still remember his cries, even now – forty-two years later. She shook her head, dropped the pendant onto her chest, and stared out into the darkness. Poor Shug. He’d never been the same after the accident. It hadn’t been easy for either of them to – just get on. But they did – get on – or at least they did their best. The television had stopped flickering in the window across the road. All the other windows were dark. She was alone.
Margo had always imagined that she would die first. Shug had joked about how he would go off and travel the world with all of their money when she was gone. After all, the success of her sewing business had allowed her to save for many years; so much so that she had comfortably retired at sixty. She remembered asking Shug to consider early retirement from his job in the carpet factory.
“I’ve plenty years in me yet.”
“But we can afford it, and you’ve worked so hard for all these years, don’t you want to spend more time at the dancing? You love the dancing.”
“We can dance anytime. Look,” he took her hand and pulled her into an embrace, then spun her around, catching her and kissing her on the nose.
“But we could do other things. You know. Together.”
“Get on a train and go somewhere new. My goodness, we could travel the world.”
“I already told you,” he slapped her bottom, “I’m going to travel the world when you’re dead and gone. What else am I going to do with all that money you’ve got stashed.”
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you are a bad man.”
But alas, it wasn’t to be. Shug was forced to retire in 2004 due to ill health. He was diagnosed with emphysema and heart problems. It had begun as a cough that had lasted for three months.
“Is it no about time you gave up on the cigarettes?” she’d asked him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t.
“How am I supposed to give up the fags now,” he said, “I’ve been smoking since I was eight.”
Shug had often recalled his early childhood memories to her. He had worked in his uncle’s cigarette factory when he was just a boy. He told her how he would sweep under the machines, collecting the loose tobacco in a paper bag so him and his pals could meet in the hay field after school and smoke the scraps. Margo had laughed about it, and people didn’t know the risks back in the fifties, and most of the boys did it.
Margo worried. Shug had lost his appetite and had grown thin, adding years to his face. His bottom lip was tinged in blue. He spent much of the day asleep or sitting up in his armchair reading the paper. Margo began to sleep in a chair beside his bed. One night, at the beginning of 2005, his heart stopped.
“I saw her Margo. I saw her standing there, waiting for me,” he gripped her hand through the bars of the hospital bed.
“She’s waiting, I saw her, and she was smiling.” Shug tried to sit up, but she put her hand on his shoulder and bent over him. Her back ached and her eyes filled with tears.
“She forgives me, my little girl.” He closed his eyes.
“It’s not time yet.” She said and kissed his finger then held them to her lips. “I’m taking you home.”
“Oh Margo, I’m ready to go now,” he turned his head towards her but never opened his eyes, “Don’t let them bring me back next time. Promise me?”
“I, I don’t know.” She whispered.
“Don’t let them bring me back.”
Margo looked up at the sky. It had turned black. She was glad that Shug had managed another six years after that, and although he began to fade away, his love never faltered. And he learned to laugh again. “You better get spending that money, Mrs Galloway.”
She reached for her mug; it was as cold as stone. Pouring the remaining tea into the wilting fuchsia in the flower box, she sighed deeply. She pushed her arms against the plastic chair and steadied herself. Her legs trembled and she shivered. The night had sunk into her dressing gown. She had waited long enough. Straightening her back, she walked slowly into the house. It was just as she had left it. The armchair, the ashtray filled with cigarette ends, and Shug. She kissed his cheek, closed his eyes, and watched another white eyelash fall to his purple blanket.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
Tears rolled down her face. She picked up the phone.
Alexander Pope wrote the first edition of Rape of the Lock in 1711, after persuasion from his friend John Caryll. Caryll, who was once guardian to Lord Petre, discovered that the Lord had cut a lock of hair from the head of Arabella Fermor, thus causing a rift between the two families.  Pope wrote the poem in a humorous attempt to mend the rift. In 1714 Pope expanded the original poem which became a five-canto mock epic (Gurr, p.5). In predicting the hostility that he may have encountered from Miss Fermor over the content of the newly extended version, Pope explained to her in a letter that, ‘The ancient poets are in some respects like many modern ladies; let an action be never so trivial in itself. They always make it appear of utmost importance.’  The purpose of the letter was to clarify to Miss Fermor that the newly adapted version of Rape of the lock was an exaggeration of the earlier incident. Considering this, I would suggest that Pope purposely refuted the customary disciplines of feminine behaviour in the early eighteenth century, within Rape of the lock, in order to restore Miss Fermor’s pride.
The female role was a performance taken very seriously in the early Eighteenth century. Women were encouraged to follow codes of conduct. ‘Codes of civility and courtesy were a matter of active practice, generating their own concepts, values and behaviours which could then be deployed as a set of power relations.’  These behaviours included modesty, sociability and humbleness. Silence and obedience were also essential during this period, unless stimulated by a man. Chastity was a value which was not only desirable to men, but a marital attraction.  Rousseau suggested that, ‘One no longer dares to appear what one is.’  Furthermore, women were encouraged to conduct themselves with virtue and an ability to talk knowledgably.  Knowledge may have been problematic for women, as education for many females was not encouraged. As a result, a female’s only profession was that of wife and mother. Women were described as a tender and weaker sex and trusted that men should be their stronger counterpart. 
The above illustration of female behaviour was ridiculed by Pope in Rape of the Lock, whose portrayal of Belinda, both mimicked the correct behaviour in which society deemed suitable yet, at the same time, furnished her with opposing qualities such as, strength, power, and intelligence, this often resulted in rebellious behaviour. Pope began to represent these characteristics through his metaphoric use of the sun.
Sol thro’ white curtains shot a tim’rous ray; And ope’d those eyes that must eclipse the day; (1.13-14)
The rhyming couplet not only exemplified the beauty of Belinda’s eyes but suggested that, she was in fact bigger, or more powerful that the sun. The metaphor continues,
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike, And, like the sun, they shine on those alike. (2.13-14)
Along with the theme of beauty and power, Pope created a sense of irony at the end of the couplet when he wrote that Belinda’s eyes ‘shine on those alike’, these words demonstrate that it was Pope’s illusion to describe Belinda as a goddess yet he demonstrated a humbler side to the lady, who believes herself as an equal to those persons around her. Many critics fail to see the irony in Rape of the lock such as Cleanth Brooks, ‘is Belinda is a goddess, or is she merely a frivolous tease?  Pope created the illusion within the poem to generate such controversy. However, Brooks does go on to suggest that the sun metaphor may be interpreted in many ways, one of which suggests, that Belinda gives her generosity ‘like a great prince’. (Brooks, p.140). This ironic comment clarifies the opposing feminine qualities in which Pope demonstrated.
The poet continued to exemplify Belinda’s strength of character in canto one, when her maid Betty and the sylphs (Mystical beings) prepared their ‘goddess’ for her day ahead.
And now unveil’d, the toilette stand display’d, Each Silver vase in mystic order laid. (1.121-148)
Although it may be argued that the presentation of the items on Belinda’s toilet were a representation of consumerism, these items would have been common in the period in which the poem was written. In the early 18th century the rapid growth of the British economy, resulted in an increase in consumerism.  Watkins suggested, that the elaborate beautification of Belinda only served to tempt the Baron to cut off the lock of hair,’ (Watkins, p.257). However, on closer inspection of this scene, Belinda’s transformation was in fact a mask that gave her strength in the outside world.
Now awful beauty puts on all its arms (1.139)
Pope deliberately wrote this line to be interpreted in several ways. Firstly, the word awful could be understood as creating awe; however, the actual meaning of the word signifies that Belinda saw her mask as a disguise from her real identity. The second part of the sentence, ‘put on all its arms’, suggests that Pope was arming Belinda for battle. The mere proposal of a fight, in which Belinda was willing to confront, allowed great strength and character.
Canto two set the scene for Belinda’s voyage along the Thames. Pope took the opportunity within this scene to enchant his readers with clear descriptions of Belinda’s beauty. However, his narrative of the silver cross in which she wore around her neck, served several purposes;
On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore (Canto 2.7-8)
The cross, from Pope’s perspective, was a symbol of worship which, in the early 18th century was highly contentious. Pope himself was a Roman catholic and was raised during a time in which a Protestant monarchy held the throne. Catholics at this time were disadvantaged and treated at foreigners and, as a result, were forbidden from public schools and universities and could not live within the city of London.  Pope adorned Belinda with the silver cross to expose her rebellious nature as well as mock the political doctrines in which his religion had been compelled. (Hernandez, p.580) suggested that ‘Pope, on the contrary, looks on the ‘Goddess’ with uncharacteristic sympathy for the period.’ Hernandez was denoting that the cross was merely a commodity for Belinda. However, the cross bared such significance that the very use of it suggests power in its beholder.
Strength and rebellion were only a few of the characteristics that Pope displayed in Belinda’s role within the poem. He also portrayed her as an intelligent woman by displaying, in her possession, items of literature.
Payne proposed that the two items (Bible and love letter) should ‘give us cause for hesitation, but the diction Pope uses in describing the objects, as well as the lady in question, makes them without a doubt subversively charming indeed.’  Payne recognised that Pope was using these items to enhance the character of Belinda. Pope intended to have his audience take into consideration that Belinda could read, which as discussed at the beginning of this essay was unlikely for a female in this era.
Moreover, Belinda was also a skilful card player. Pope wrote this scene at Hampton court to introduce Belinda and the Baron.
Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites, Burns to encounter two adventurous knights (3.26-27)
In the first line of the couplet, Pope addressed Belinda’s ambition to win. This also gave Pope the opportunity to put Belinda into direct competition with the Baron. Not only did Pope introduce a battle of sexes, but Belinda was playing against two ‘Adventurous Knights.’ She dominated the game with her skill and intelligence, overthrowing the knights. Wimsatt, who reconstructed the card game Ombre in his essay, said that ‘appearance or probability, is what has a bearing on the elements of skill and fate in this game of Ombre and hence on its dramatic and poetic interpretation.  Wimsatt was implying that Ombre is not a difficult game, yet for an eighteenth-century female who had little or no education, Belinda proved to be a highly competent player and she dominated the game with her skill and intelligence, overthrowing the knights.
The pinnacle of the Popes exploration of Female sexuality occurred when the Baron, cut the lock of hair from Belinda’s head. Belinda’s first reaction was to shriek in horror, which would have been an improper response for a lady in the eighteenth century. It was at this point in the poem that Pope introduced the caves of spleen. The fictional representation of the underworld, explained how Pope believed Miss Fermor to have felt when her lock of hair was stolen. According to Lillian Feder, the caves of spleen are ‘often cited as evidence of Popes interest in libidinous drives and blind compulsions.’  Although this may be an alternative perception of the poem, the main purpose of Spleen was to arm Belinda with the necessary courage to fight back against the Baron. Pope also wanted to invite his audience to accept that the incident had caused Miss Fermor a great deal of sorrow and pain. This scene allowed Pope to give Belinda a voice;
For ever curs’d be this detested day (4.147)
Her speech continued to describe how she wished that she had stayed at home, for she knew in her heart that something bad was going to happen. It was not Pope’s intention to address Belinda as a weak character during this speech, but rather a conscientious woman who made great effort to fulfil her female role. Yet the final canto in Rape of the Lock defined Belinda as the strong, powerful and rebellious character that Pope designed in order to maintain Miss Fermor’s reputation. Belinda fought back against the Baron and threw snuff in his face, at which point the Baron sneezed and lost the lock of hair. Pope ended the poem in a ceremonial style by celebrating the lock of hair and sending it to the stars. This ending, for the benefit of Miss Fermor, was to assure her that she would become as well known as the poem, therefore, the poem had served its purpose in reinstating her reputation. Throughout the poem, Pope protected the reputation of Belinda’s Chastity. Critics such as Reichard believed that the plot of the poem was ‘a contest of wiles between commanding personalities – an uninhibited philanderer and an invincible flirt,’  this opinion does not demote Belinda’s character for she was merely representing an eighteenth-century woman by flirting with a gentleman. Her virtue and chastity remained intact.
The evidence of Pope’s desire to reinstate Miss Fermor’s reputation may have resided in the original title of the poem ‘Rape of the Locke’. For Pope, the word ‘Locke’ was a pun to describe the philosopher John Locke, who opposed the practice of Catholicism. This contained not only mockery but is a parody of John Locke’s theory of the state of nature. In his Two Treaties of Government 1689, Locke wrote,
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state of nature hath provided, and left in it, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. 
This ironic evidence clarifies that the lock of hair was in fact the property of Belinda, yet when the Baron put his labour into the cutting of the lock; it therefore became his property, thus, justifying that Lord Petre’s actions were merely a misunderstanding which, once again reinstates the reputation of Miss Fermor.
It is evident throughout Rape of the Lock that Pope alternated the characteristics of Belinda to complement Arabella Fermor. His depiction of feminine conduct was inconsistent within the context of its period, yet he allowed the ill-fitting gender stereotype to form the foundation of his poem. Pope hoped that the reader of his time would therefor see the illusion that he created. Although the construction of the poem and the remaining characters may have produced alternative criticisms and interpretations of Pope’s intention, this essay provided an explanation of why the character of Belinda was written at such a contradictory way in comparison to eighteenth century femininity, concluding that its purpose was simply to console Miss Fermor.
Brooks, C, ‘The case of Miss Arabella Fermor’, in Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, A selection of Critical essays, ed. By John Dixon Hunt (London: Macmillan and Company Limited, 1969) 
Dutton, R, ed., Alexander Pope A Literary Life (London: The Macmillan Press, 1990) 
Erickson, A.L, ‘Women and Property: In Early Modern England (Routledge: London, 1993) 
Feder, L, Madness in Literature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980) 
Hernandez, E, ‘Commodity and Religion in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock’, Studies in English Literature – 1500-1900, 48 (2008) 
Jones, R.W, ‘Gender and the Formation of Taste in the Eighteenth Century Britain (Cambridge: The Press Sydicate of the University of Cambridge, 1998) 
Locke, J, ‘Two Treaties of Government’, ed., P.Laslett; (Cambridge University Press,1988) , in Political Ideologies, ed., Mathew Festenstein and, Michael Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 
Payne, D.C ‘Pope and the War against Coquettes: or Feminism and ‘The Rape of the Lock’ Reconsidered- Yet Again, The Eighteenth Century, 32 (1991) 
Reichard, H. M ‘The Love Affair in Pope’s The Rape Of The Lock’ in Alexander Pope The Rape of the Lock, A selection of critical essays, ed., John Dixon Hunt (London: Macmillan and Company Limited, 1969) 
Rogers,P, ed., Alexander Pope The major works, (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2006) 
Rousseau, J.J, ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, or first discourse’ (1750) in) in L.Brace, ‘Improving the Inside: Gender, property and the 18th century self’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12 (2010) 
Ward,A.W, ed., M.A, Litt.D, The Poetical works of Alexander Pope, (London:Macmillan and Co, Limited, 1930) 
Williams,C.D.’The Luxury of Doing Good: Benevolence, Sensibility and the Royal Humane Society (1996) in L.Brace, ‘Improving the Inside: Gender, property and the 18th century self’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12 (2010) 
Wimsatt, W.K and Source, J.R ‘The Game of Ombre in Rape of the Lock,’ The Review of English Studies, New Series, 1 (1950) 
Wipprecht, C, ‘The Representation of Women in Early 18th Century England’ (Druck Und Binding :Norderstedt, 2006) 
Please feel free to use this essay for academic purposes but please reference accordingly. This is an academic essay and failing to reference this paper accordingly may result in plagerism.
I said some time ago that I would post some of my academic essays on my website. Please feel free to quote from any of my essays, but do remember to reference them accordingly. Also, please bare in mind that the point of view in the following essay is, like all critical analysis, subjective, meaning it is neither right nor wrong.
The number of female lunatics in Victorian asylums outnumbered males toward the end of the Nineteenth century. According to Showalter, ‘the rise of the Victorian madwoman may have been linked to the rise of the psychiatric profession, with its attitudes toward women and its monopoly by men.’  Psychiatrists suspected that female madness was a result of biological problems due to the ‘instability of their reproductive systems [which] interfered with sexual, emotional, and rational control,’ (Showalter, p.55). The subservient female in the late Victorian period was therefore, incapacitated due her male dominated society. Moreover, a woman’s ‘longing for independence [was] socially unacceptable at every phase of the female life-cycle,’ (Showalter, p.132). As a result, the oppression of women within the standardised role of femininity not only maintained patriarchal dominance but reinforced it. This paper will discuss the way that madness and hysteria was represented from both a male and female author’s perspective in late Victorian literature.
Written in 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a multiple first-person point of view consisting of letters, diary entries, memos, and newspaper articles. This allows Stoker to present a comparative representation of hysteria in both masculine and feminine form. The character of Jonathan Harker experiences a ‘violent brain fever’  because of his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle:
Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for: that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already […] feeling as though my brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end its undoing (Dracula, p.32).
Harker’s breakdown is a response to his experience of the supernatural. Stoker portrays the characters madness as a form of post-traumatic stress rather than cowardice. This does not undermine Harker’s masculinity but rather reinforces it due to his intelligence and his bravery. In his journals, for example ‘When […] the conviction had come over me that I was helpless I sat quietly – as quietly as I have ever done anything in my life – and began to think over what was best to be done,’ (Dracula, p.24). The em-dashes in this quotation represent pauses that create a feeling of calm steady contemplation. Stoker was reacting to late Victorian fears of masculine decline, for example ‘In the fin de siècle […] men’s identities were destabilized by the appearance of the assertive new woman.’ Whilst Harker’s masculinity falls into decline due to his breakdown and his temporary removal as a narrator, it is reinforced when his supernatural experiences […] are
verified by a third party, masculinisation and writing; [therefore] Harker can be sure that he was not simply hallucinating [and] he can be confident of his manhood. 
Stoker’s assertion of masculinity in Harker re-established the male superiority in the late Victorian period. The author justified Harker’s madness as a temporary reaction toward the supernatural, therefore acceptable. Nordau suggested that madness was a symptom of modern times and quoted that, ‘We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria.’  For Stoker, hysteria is a female illness, he demonstrates this by comparing the character of Harker to his partner Mina Murray. Mina is an intelligent woman who works hard as a schoolmistress in order to ‘be […] useful to Jonathan,’ (Dracula, p.46), which is a typical representation of the late Victorian woman with ‘her innate qualities of mind [which] complement rather [than] equal [her man],’ (Showalter, p.123). Furthermore, the character appears to be more masculine than her partner Harker and is described as having a ‘man’s brain […] and a woman’s heart, (Dracula, p.195). Mina is, therefore, a threat to the masculine patriarchy of the Victorian period. Although her intellectual skills and courage become invaluable in the investigation of Dracula’s whereabouts, it is suggested by the psychiatrist Dr Seward that, ‘Mrs Harker is better out of it […] it is no place for a woman, and if she […] remain[s] in touch with the affair, it would in time infallibly [wreck] her, (Dracula, p.213). Dr Seward’s suggestion corresponds to Victorian psychiatric thought
that women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because the instability of their reproductive system interfered with their sexual, emotional and rational control, (Showalter, p.55).
Stoker uses this theory of female vulnerability not only demonstrate that women are the weaker sex but also to destabilise the new woman’s desire for feminine independence. For example, when Mina is dismissed from the group, she records her feelings in her journal, ‘And now I am crying like a silly fool,’ (Dracula, p.213). This demonstration of emotional weakness in addition to Mina’s ‘strangely sad and low spirit,’ (Dracula, p.213) are signs of what was known as neurasthenia, ‘a more prestigious and attractive form of female nervousness than hysteria’, (Showalter, p.134). It is therefore unsurprising that Mina should fall victim to Dracula.
Stoker represents an eroticised representation of madness from the perspective of Mina when she first encounters Dracula. Mina uses highly sexualised language in her journal such as, ‘my feet and my hands […] were weighted [and] leaden lethargy seemed to chain my limbs,’ (Dracula, p.215). This language has connotations of sadomasochism, a term used to denote both dominance and submission. In the case of Mina, Dracula is dominating her. Whilst being aware of these emotions she recalls them at a subconscious level as she ‘must be careful of such dreams, for they would unseat one’s reason if there was too much of them,’ (Dracula, p.215). Whilst Mina’s first-person narrative makes her recollections unreliable, her sexual undertones are carefully documented. Stoker is demonstrating Freudian psychoanalytic theory of female madness:
For Freud, hysteria had to do with disavowed sexuality, primarily female sexuality, in the context of the Oedipus complex and its derivatives (unconscious incestuous wishes and penis envy). 
Although Mina’s desires are presented as subliminal, Stoker illustrates how women are susceptible to madness due to their sexual repression. Consciously the character shows visible signs of madness as Dr Seward diarises, ‘Mrs Harker […] had drawn her breath and with it had given a scream so wild, so ear piercing,’ (Dracula, p.235). Furthermore, he stated that ‘Her eyes were mad with terror’, (Dracula, p.235). Seward’s analysis of Mina is typical of the male psychiatrist of the Victorian period.
Feminine weakness and madness are also explored in the character of Lucy Westenra. Lucy is Dracula’s first conquest in England. Whilst her symptoms appear to Mina as signs of madness, such as shortness of breath, loss of appetite and lethargy, Dr Seward suggests that ‘there is not any functional disturbance or any malady that I know of’, (Dracula, p.92). Whilst Lucy displays hysterical symptoms, Val Helsing and his colleagues are powerless to help her. After four blood transfusions from four different men, Lucy’s deterioration continues. These transfusions represent masculine power over the female whose unconscious form renders her submissive. However, the men’s control over Lucy is in vain and therefore they attempt to ward off Dracula by giving Lucy a wreath of garlic to wear around her neck while she sleeps. She describes this in her diary as ‘lying like Ophelia in a play, with ‘virgin crants and maiden strewments,’ (Dracula, p.110). According to Showalter, ‘Ophelia was a compelling figure for many Victorian […] doctors seeking to represent the madwoman’, (Showalter, p.90). Madness in Lucy prior to her death is represented as weakness, however, as a vampire ‘The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness,’ (Dracula, p.175). Lucy is not only sexualised but also powerful and dangerous. Stoker is demonstrating the negative effects of powerful women in the character of Lucy who is found to have taken several children to feed upon. Lucy’s vampirism defies woman’s nature and is therefore, presented as madness.
The Darwinian theory of madness suggests that, ‘mental disorder might be passed on to the next female generation, [however] these theories were convenient ramifications of existing social relations between the sexes,’ (Showalter, p.123). It is for this reason that the vampire Lucy is destroyed whilst Mina, still in her human form is protected. Stoker opposes the new woman who attempted to redefine gender roles and ‘overcome masculine supremacy’,  thus by comparing Harker’s madness to the character of Mina Murray, Stoker reinforces the traditional societal views of masculine power.
Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper written in 1892 is a semi-autobiographical short story narrated in first person. This allows an intimate perspective of the character’s thoughts and feelings through her writing. Gilman demonstrates the ineffective use of the rest cure that the narrator is prescribed by her husband, who is also her physician, as a treatment for her nervous disposition. The portrayal of the rest cure in the narrative is similar to the Silas Weir Mitchell rest cure of ‘entire rest […] excessive feeding […] confin[ment] to bed,’ and being ‘forbidden to […] read, write or do any intellectual work,’ (Showalter, p.138). Neurasthenia according to Dr. Margaret Cleaves is a result of ‘women’s ambitions for intellectual, social, and financial success, ambitions that could not be accommodated within the structures of late-nineteenth-century society,’ (Showalter, p.136). The narrator admits that her intention was to conform to the role of the stereotypical Victorian wife, and she writes that, ‘I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already.’  The word ‘comparative’ suggests that she is atypical to societal expectations of the wife. In addition, the word ‘already’ suggests that the couple are newly married. Nervousness, therefore, derives from the narrator’s inability to conform to the role of the typical Victorian wife. She explains ‘Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and order things,’ (TYW, p.34). Furthermore, she struggles to cope with motherhood, ‘It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. […] And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’, (TYW, p.34). The narrator’s neurasthenia is represented as post-natal depression that is clarified by the italicised ‘cannot’. Moreover, according to Victorian psychiatrists, ‘after childbirth a woman’s mind was abnormally weak, her constitution depleted, and her control over her behaviour diminished,’ (Showalter, p.58-59). Whilst the narrator is fully aware of her depressive state, her husband refuses to believe it:
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do? (TYW, p.31).
In the above quotation, Gilman is demonstrating how mental illness was misunderstood in Victorian psychiatry. The narrator’s husband John, to cure his wife, asserts full patriarchal control over her, he ‘hardly lets [her] stir without special direction,’ (TYW, p.32). Oppression causes the narrator to get angry with her husband and he tells her that she will ‘neglect proper self-control,’ (TYW, p.32). Fear of her husband’s dominance causes her to ‘take pains to control [her]self – before him,’ (TYW, p.32). The em-dash in this quotation suggests that the narrator is allowing her self- control to dwindle whilst her husband is out if sight. This retaliation is due to her husband’s ignorance, ‘John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him,’ (TYW, p.33). The italicised ‘reason’ demonstrates the narrator’s frustration in John’s dismissiveness of her nervous disposition.
Female repression due to male dominance in psychiatry is addressed in The Yellow Wallpaper. Not only does John mistreat the narrator’s madness, but her needs and solutions for recovery are ignored. As a writer, she is ‘forbidden to ‘work’ [until she] is well again,’ (TYW, p.31), moreover she suggests that, ‘Personally, I believe that congenial work […] will do me good,’ (TYW, p.31). The depravity of writing as a form of work and mental stimulation causes the narrator to use imagination in the confinement of her room. Allowing herself to lose her self-control, the reader begins to observe the narrator going insane. Whilst allowing the madness to consume her, the narrator begins to hallucinate. Enclosed in a room with bright yellow patterned wallpaper she slowly begins to see a woman behind the pattern, which introduces Gilman’s use of the literary double. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the narrative double in their book The Madwoman in the Attic.
She is usually the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage. […] fiction written by women conjures up this mad creature so that female authors can come to terms with their own uniquely female feelings of fragmentation, their own keen sense of the discrepancies between what they are and what they are supposed to be. 
The above quotation highlights the technique used by many female writers in the Victorian period and can be found most certainly in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman uses the double to represent what women really are, whilst the narrator is represented as what women are supposed to be. The narrator studies the wallpaper vigorously to discover that in the moonlight the pattern appears to be bars. Furthermore, she continues to discover that ‘By daylight [the woman] is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still, (TYW, p.41). What Gilman sees as the repressed woman. She is a prisoner in her own society, which pacifies her through societal expectation and law. Over time the narrator begins to experience a realisation of her situation and writes, ‘I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out,’ (TYW, p.42). At this point, in the narration, there becomes a transition and the narrator begins to be consumed by the wallpaper. Over time, she becomes the woman behind the bars, ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?’ (TYW, p.46). By surrendering to her madness and metaphorically becoming the woman in the wallpaper, she is free from her husband’s dominance ‘I’ve got out at last […] in spite of you’, (TYW, p.47). For Gilman hysteria is represented as a misunderstood illness that is wrongly treated, causing madness in women who have no voice. Moreover, the author is demonstrating that because women are so repressed, madness can be an escape from it.
To conclude, at the end of the 19th century, hysteria and madness were represented in literature as a predominantly female malady. This was due to the Victorian patriarchal society that repressed women. For Stoker, male madness was represented as reactionary and could be justified, whilst female madness was represented as typical biological feminine problem. Moreover, Stoker demonstrated how the new woman threatened the patriarchy. Gilman however, represented female madness from a woman’s perspective, showing how it was misunderstood and misdiagnosed, leading to further madness. Gilman portrayed how ironically; this could become a woman’s escape from repression.
Chapman, James, and Matthew Hilton, ‘From Sherlock Holmes to James Bond: Masculinity and National Identity in British Popular Fiction’ in Relocating Britishness ed. Stephen Caunce (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004) 
Diniejko,Andrzej, ‘The New Woman Fiction’, The Victorian Web, (2011) ≤http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/diniejko1.html 
Gilbert, Sandra.M, and Susan Guber, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (London, Yale University Press, 1979) 
Gillman, Charlotte Perkins, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, in Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women, 1890- 1914 ed. Angelique Richardson (London: Penguin books, 2002) 
Nordau, Max, ‘Degeneration’, in Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C. 1848-1918, ed. Daniel Pick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 
Pedlar, Valerie, ‘The Most Dreadful Visitation’: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) 
Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987) 
This poem ‘A Moment,’ was been selected to be part of the Renfrewshire Mental Health Arts Festival, ‘Passing Time.’ This is an exhibition of Poetry on the station platforms of Renfrewshire. This particular poem was displayed in Johnstone station. For more information about the exhibition, click here.
Alistair stands in a doorway on the corner of Admiralty Lane. The streets are quiet today. A cold air has swept up from the Forth keeping the locals indoors. He shivers and pulls his scarf up over his nose and his woollen hat over his ears. It’s four o’clock and there’s Claire sneaking out of the office again, that’ll be the third time this week. She walks briskly on the opposite side of the road. Alistair follows, keeping close to the old sandstone buildings. He ducks behind parked cars and stops briefly behind a white Winnebago when she slows. The wind whips her coat tails and they splay out behind her, allowing him the briefest moment to catch the slender silhouette of her body. She continues past the Ship Inn. He imagines, just for a second, that she’ll go in, sit by the log fire, order a glass of red, then call him to join her. But the thought passes as quickly as she does, and she doesn’t give the place where they first met a second glance. He falls back, watching her hurry along the coastal path then up toward the cliffs that overlook Ruby Bay. She crests the hill and disappears. He runs to the beach. The boat is still banked in the sand where he left it. Untying the rope from the cleat, he steps in. The sea is calm, and his oars cut through the water leaving a trail of ripples. Bowing his head, he rows beyond the bay. He sees a fisherman cast his line, but it’s unlikely that anyone will know him out here. He sees her standing on the cliff high above the sea. Her face, though partly shadowed, looks void of emotion. He feels a sickness in his stomach. There she is, one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed. He hates her, hates what she’s trying to do to them. Just then, she pulls a bottle from the inside pocket of her coat and throws it over the cliff. His eyes follow the bottle until it hits the water with a short splash. He waits until she’s gone, then rows towards it.
She stands in the shadow of an old oak tree. Over the cliff the grey sky has melted and spread like oil over the sea, with no end and no beginning. She watches his boat glide quickly through the water and feels pleased, she’s played him well. He’s a fast rower though. She’d only found out recently that he could row. He’d spun her a yarn one day about almost drowning in a river when he was a boy, right after her best friend Craig and his husband Terry suggested they all go on a weekend cruise together. ‘But you’ll be safe on a cruise ship.’ She’d told him. ‘I don’t like boats.’ He snapped. ‘No, you mean you don’t like Craig.’ She’d always known it, but they’d never actually spoken about it. ‘You’re right. I don’t like the way he touches your arm when you’re having a conversation,’ Alistair told her, ‘and all the “in” jokes that you have with him. He should have married you.’ She tried to reason with her husband. ‘Craig’s gay,’ she laughed, ‘and we’ve been best friends since we were five.’ But Alistair shook his head. ‘I don’t like him, and I don’t like how close you are to him.’ So, she’d declined Craig’s offer, telling him that she’d catch up with him soon. She hasn’t seen Craig since, he won’t come to the house when Alistair is there, and Alistair is always there. That was eight months ago.
She steps closer to the edge of the cliff to watch. Alistair reaches the bottle quickly. He pulls it from the water, holds it under his arm and pulls out the cork. The sky is darkening. He’ll struggle to read the gibberish she’d written anyway, besides, he isn’t wearing his glasses. He hadn’t worn them in over a year. ‘I can’t see a thing when I wear them, so what’s the point.’ He’d said and thrown them across the floor. It was a month after he’d been sacked from the gas board following an accusation of an affair between himself and a customer’s wife. Of course, he denied it. ‘I can’t afford a new pair, so I’ll do without.’ He folded his arms like a child. She offered to save to get him a new prescription, but he shook his head. ‘Keep your money,’ he said, ‘Besides, you’ll need it to pay the bills. Personally, with the lack of money coming in, I’d make cut backs. But seeing as you can’t live without your beloved Facebook, you’ll have to pay for the internet too.’ She ignored his snide comments for as long as she could. Then one day after work, she’d come home to find Alistair on her laptop looking through her online messages. ‘How dare you.’ She pulled the laptop from him. ‘Those are private messages between me and my friends.’ Alistair stood up and walked out of the room, not uttering a word. She’d spent the rest of the evening looking through all her messages to see if there was anything that he might misconstrue. About a week later, he called the phoneline provider and had the line cut off. ‘Because it’s a luxury we can’t afford.’
She sees him strike a match, can almost hear the hiss of the flame. He lights the corner of the paper and lets it float into the air. She winces at the sight of it burning and looks down at the scar on her right hand. She’d been out for a drink with Kelly and Omar from work one Saturday afternoon. It was Omar’s fortieth birthday. Alistair had been invited along but he said he’d rather watch paint dry than go out with a bunch of accountants. An hour after she’d left, the texting began. ‘Is Omar your new best friend?’ and worse, ‘Will you be giving him a ‘SPECIAL’ present for his birthday.’ She tried to ignore the messages, but they kept coming. Embarrassed, she excused herself and went home. Music was blaring from the stereo when she arrived, and she could smell burning. Panicked, she ran into the living-room. The rug under her desk was on fire. An ashtray had fallen from the arm of the sofa and scattered on the floor. ‘Alistair. Fire!’ She screamed then ran into the kitchen and filled a basin of water. When she returned, her desk was on fire. Flames ripped through the wood, catching books and paper and all sorts. She threw the water. It barely touched the flames. She reached out to grab her precious memory box, but it was so hot it burned her hand and she dropped it. Suddenly, Alistair ran into the living-room. ‘Give me your phone,’ he yelled and grabbed it from her coat pocket. He dialled 999. The fire brigade saved most of the house, but she never saw her phone again. ‘Lost in the fire,’ Alistair said. ‘But you’ll have a note of your contacts anyway.’ Yes, in her diary, on her desk! She watches him throw the empty bottle into the sea, then slips back into the shadows. She takes the quick route home. She’d discovered it about a month ago. That was the first time she’d realised that Alistair was following her. In her panic, she’d ran down the cliff and climbed a fence that lead into someone’s back garden. Luckily, when she reached the other side, she realised she was just a street away from her own. Since then she’d purposefully let him follow her to the cliff, just long enough to be one-hundred percent sure that it took him twelve minutes to get home. It only took her three. And with that certainty, she planned her escape. She hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten at home, until one morning about three months ago. Alistair had begun insisting that she went home for lunch, and that morning was no exception. But he was in a particularly foul mood and she did something out of character, she lied. ‘The secretary is sick, so I’ll have to cover the phones.’ She needed space. So, that afternoon, she left the office, picked up a sandwich, and walked toward Ruby Bay. She used to come here with Alistair when they first started dating, when life was happy, when life wasn’t suffocating. She climbed the gravel slope to the cliff and sat. In the distance, the beach was busy with dog walkers and joggers. Seagulls swooped to the sand hoping for scraps. She sat on the grass, unwrapped her sandwich and opened her mouth to take a bite when she realised that she was crying. She put the sandwich back in its wrapper and went into her bag for a tissue. She pulled out a notebook too. That’s when she saw the empty bottle lying in the grass. I’m lonely. She wrote.
She pulls the backpack from the corner of her wardrobe, it was tucked under some winter clothes.
It was two weeks after she’d written the first note, rolled it into a tube and stuffed it into a bottle that she received her first letter at work. She really hadn’t expected it, and at first, she felt panicked. The sender, however, turned out to be a six-year-old girl who had found the bottle on the beach in Burnt Island. She’d drawn a picture of the beach with a big yellow sun in the sky and a red boat on the water. Attached to the picture was a note. You’re not alone, keep reaching, scrawled in adult handwriting. So, she did. She wrote note after note, rolled them up and tied pretty ribbon around them and popped each one into a glass bottle and sealed it with a cork. Then at lunch time, or if she could slip away early from work, she’d head to Ruby Bay to throw the bottles from the cliff. She felt free in those moments.
She checks her watch, Sheila should be here in fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven. Shelia was the fifth person to reply to her message in a bottle. Up until then, she’d received some encouraging words, not to mention a fridge magnet, a leaflet for the Samaritans, and a postcard, but there was never a return address. Still, it was wonderful to feel connected. But with Sheila, it was different. I can help. She wrote in a letter. Please write back. It turned out Sheila was an elderly widow who ran a small B&B in Broughty Ferry. Her dog Millie had found the bottle on the beach one morning and dropped it at Sheila’s feet. They began writing to each other regularly and soon became friends. Then one day, during work hours, they met face to face. That’s when they began to make plans.
She pulls back the blinds. Two car headlights flash. From her rucksack, she takes out a glass bottle and places it on the coffee table. Then she pulls on her backpack and walks out the door. She only looks back once at the house that was once her home.
‘She’s slipped away again.’ Alistair moans. The last three times he’d rowed the boat as fast as he could, then ran all the way home, but he never caught up with her. By the time he’d reached home, she’d be in a change of clothes and with a mug of tea in her hand. ‘Were you at the library again?’ She’d ask. He would nod then go into the bathroom to calm down. But tonight, the sofa’s empty, the kettle’s cold and although the lights are on, she isn’t home. Then he notices it. He pulls the cork out and tips the bottle. A thin roll of paper, held together by a gold wedding band, drops onto his lap. He unrolls the note. ‘Disconnected.’
It’s been a few days since I was awarded 2nd place at the SMHAF writing awards and I’ve received so many kind words since. I promised you a link to my prize winning story, but I have something better, a link to all of the short listed pieces here.
I think you will agree that the judges must have had a difficult time deciding the three winning pieces because all twelve entries were excellent. I feel proud to have my work showcased with such talent and diversity.
There has been some excellent write up’s about the event, as well as photographs and even live streaming. If you are interested in any of the above, please visit SMHAF and BipolarScotland and like their pages, both organisations do fantastic work.
Thank you if you were able to come along and hear us read from our work, and thank you for your lovely comments about my story.
Finally, thank you to SMHAF and Bipolar Scotland for an amazing event, to Emma Pollock for performing on the night, to Ian Rankin for hosting the event and being an inspiration to us all, to the judges whose job it was to read through hundreds of pieces of work, to those brave enough to submit their work, to the short listed writers who were brave enough to have their work heard by an audience -regardless of who was reading -and finally to the readers who make the job of writing worthwhile.
My short story ‘Message in a Bottle’ was awarded second place in the SMHAF writing awards tonight. Congratulations to Shirley Gillian for coming first with her short story ‘Outside In’, and Benny Allen for winning third prize with his short story ‘Twenty-Five, Vanilla Milkshake.’ The evening was hosted by Ian Rankin and there was music by Emma Pollock and overall it was great. All the the twelve short-listed writers were fantastic and I’m sure will go on to do some brilliant things.
Some of you will know that I struggle with anxiety, especially social anxiety so getting up and reading at a sold out event was tough. I am lucky to have help and support from my partner Helen, my rock.
When I think of food, I think of full bellies, and clean plates. I think of empty pots with sticky ladles, and big belly burps. I think laughter. I think love. But I haven’t always thought of food in this way. I was a hungry bairn you see, not starving by any means, but never quite satisfied. My wee Ma’ did her best though, and with a lack of money and a cooking education that barely stretched further than tin opener – you could count her recipes on one hand. But she did make a mean cheese and potato pie, and on a good week, she was a dab hand at a savoury flan – although my wee Ma’s definition of savoury is another story.
Being a hungry bairn meant that wherever I went, food was always on my mind. So, it’s no wonder that when I think of it now, my thoughts take me back to my hometown of Bonnyrigg. It’s the late 1970’s, we are off school for the summer, and its market day. The sun is unusually yellow, the pavements are packed, and my jelly bean sandals are stuck to the tar that’s melting like treacle beneath my feet. And I Am Ravenous. The air is thick and warm with a mishmash of flavours; sweet and salty, sticky and burnt, the kind of smells that clings to your soft pallet. I imagine it’s like dusting your tongue with icing sugar then dipping it into beef dripping. But for a hungry bairn, that wasn’t quite starving, but never quite full, market day was like a disco on my taste buds.
‘You could spread a piece wae yon smell,’ I can imagine my wee Ma’ saying, ‘thick as the potted meat you get o’er the counter in Campbell’s.’
Reaching the high street was always a thrill for me, the thrum of the sidewalks, the rhythm of the market trader’s, ‘Twenty-four eggs for-a-pound. Get your eggs here.’ And it was hard to miss the beatboxing butcher with his ‘Back bacon, shoulder bacon, any bacon here.’ My feet would skip, passing the gathering crowd, who were anxious to ‘pick two packs for-a-pound,’ and with my nose to the sky, I’d suck the smells of the market, deep into my belly. That was nourishment! Whenever my wee Ma’ stopped to talk, I would look up and see arms in the air, waving and reaching, bidding for shoulders, legs, thighs. In a decade when ‘what was on the dinner table that night’ was of such high importance, it was no wonder that the butchers had to auction their meat.
But the market wasn’t just a place to buy and sell, it was a meeting place for grownups, filled with chittering and chattering. It was the weekly news update in a pre-Facebook era; the who married who, and the who got who pregnant; and the biggest scandal on everybody’s lips, was the waiting times at the doctor’s surgery. I loved seeing my wee Ma’, surrounded by friends, super animated and smiling; this, I guess, was how she nourished her mind.
My Nana has a jewelry stall right in the back corner of the market – she used to make her own costume jewelry, and because I didn’t see her very often, I’d get a free bracelet or a beaded necklace. On a good day though, I’d get shiny fifty pence pressed firmly into the palm of my hand.
“Buy yourself a wee sweetie hen, but dinnae be greedy. Share them with your brother and sister.”
I would nod and trot off with my riches, the unlikelihood of sibling generosity dwindling, the louder my belly growled.
There were several sweetie stalls at the market, but I preferred Cathy’s sweetie shop on the high street. Cathy was oldest looking person I had ever seen. She had short purple curly hair and a face as soft as pudding. She would sit on a wooden chair behind the counter and read the local newspaper over the top of her half-moon glasses. I remember leaving my wee Ma’ outside the shop while, like a big girl, I went in on my own. The doorbell chimed as I entered, and Cathy stood up straight. She coughed, smoothed down her gingham pinny and smiled. The sweetie shop smelled glorious, like even the air was tinged with sugar. It’s neither wonder the customers often left with a smile and a bounce in their step.
“What’ll it be the day hen?” Cathy clicked her falsers together while she waited for an answer. My eyes trailed over the wall of plastic tubs, filled with multi coloured shapes resting on a thick sugary layer. There were cola cubes, sour plooms, sweet peanuts, jazzies, pear drops, lucky tatties, Chelsea whoppers, pineapple cubes, bubblies, and sherbet.
“Sour Plooms please.” I pointed to the tub filled with dark green balls.
“I’ve got fifty pence,” I held out my hand, “is that enough for Chelsea whoppers tae?”
“Aye, plooms and whoppers.” I held out two paper pokes, one in each hand. “Dae ye want one?”
On the corner of the counter was a huge silver weighing scale. Cathy poured my sweeties into the dish, added an extra two, then popped one in her mouth. She rolled it around then held it in her cheek. I could see it there, like a massive pluke ready to pop. She poured my sweeties into a brown paper poke and folded my whoppers into another. Then she took my fifty pence. I don’t think she thanked me for the stolen ploom, but I must have let her off for being nice.
“Did you buy something guid?” Ma was sitting on the wall waiting for me.
“No hen. I’m saving myself for soup.”
I stuffed my sweeties deep into my cardigan pockets ‘cause it was a sure thing I’d need them later on if it was soup day.
We walked up the coal road hand in hand. I turned, just once to sniff the air, but market day had been packed up, loaded into vans, and driven off to somewhere new.
I mentioned some time ago (2017), that one of my poems was selected to appear at two railway stations as part of the Renfrewshire metal health festival Scotland. A few days ago, I got along to see it displayed. I hope it moved some people, or just passed a minute while they waited at the station. A fresh batch of poems will go up in May.
I was alright in mid-June apart from the weather which was typically Scottish. Charcoal clouds were scribbled over the only green hill that formed part of our view. The air was thick. A warm breeze swayed the vertical blinds and they clattered together.
“I can’t concentrate.” I said, saving the document I was working on. I put my lap-top on the couch and got up to close the window, but Helen began coughing. She sat forward, red faced and I thumped the top of her back, careful to avoid the line where the nerve pain started. “Are you alright?” She shook her head. “Not…” “What can I do?” I asked. She pointed to the window and wagged her finger. “You want it left open?” She nodded. I hurried to the kitchen and edged a glass between last night’s dinner dishes and the cold tap. I filled the glass with water. “I need to clean the kitchen,” I said when I returned. “You said you’d do it later.” “I know, but it stinks.” “It’s just last night’s dishes.” “It’s disgusting.” “I’ll do it then.” She sighed. “You try to do too much, and you need to work on your dissertation.” “It can wait. Besides, I can’t have you struggling to stand at the sink.” I kissed her cheek. “You worry too much.” “You’d be better going up to the university to write. There’d be less distraction.” I shrugged my shoulders, sat down and I lifted my lap-top onto my knee. The blinds rattled.
I was in the kitchen a couple of hours later when I heard the letterbox snap shut. The mail flopped on the floor. It was mostly junk, a Farmfoods leaflet, money off coupons for Domino’s, you know the likes, when I heard the Post woman’s footsteps echo down the stairs in the communal hallway. I considered opening the door and pointing at the sign above our letterbox: NO JUNK MAIL. But I didn’t. I realised for the first time, I couldn’t. “Anything for me?” Helen called from the Living-room. “Something from the council.” I took it through to her. “Maybe it’s about the wood-worm.” “It’s too soon.” I said. “Although it would be my luck to have the council ripping up floors while I’m trying to write a dissertation.” Helen opened the letter. She raised her eyebrows. “They’re coming to lift the floor, aren’t they?” She nodded. “When?” “In a fortnight, and they want the house empty.” “What about us?” “They’re putting us up in a hotel. Guess we have some packing to do. Should I ask some friends around to help?” “No!” I said too quickly. I even surprised myself.
At the beginning of July, the weather was still drab but there had been the odd rumble of thunder in the distance. I couldn’t help wishing it would hurry up, if only to clear the air. “Could you pop over to Peter’s and ask him if he’ll run us to the hotel on Monday?” Helen asked. “I’ll just finish packing this box.” I said laying an ornament on a piece of newspaper and triple wrapping it. “I’ll finish that.” Helen said. “It’s okay, I’m nearly done.” I snapped. “Sorry.” She backed away and I felt a pang of guilt. “I’ll go in a minute.” “I’d go myself, but I can’t do the steps.” “I know that.” I threw the wrapped ornament into the box and turned away from her. “What’s wrong.” Helen sat on the floor beside me. “Are you crying?” I hid my face from her. “I can’t go.” “Go where? The hotel?” I let out a sob. “Kirsty?” “I can’t go to Peter’s.”
By the time we got to the hotel the following week we could barely see a foot in front of us. The fog was thick and white, and our world shrank to the size of the cave we were temporary living in. “What time are you meeting you tutor?” Helen shouted from the other room. “In ten minutes, at the bar.” I sat on the toilet and my stomach cramped. I emptied my bowel. Again.
“Sorry I’m late.” My tutor said and ordered us a pot of tea. “How are you?” “I’m well,” I lied but I wanted to run back to Helen and hide. “How’s the dissertation coming along?” “Fine.” I said a little too loudly and I felt everyone in the bar look at me. I waited for them to laugh. In my mind they did. “Are you in touch with your classmates?” “I’ve been too busy.” I lied because I felt too stupid to say that some of my friends hated me now because I was apparently the teacher’s pet. I felt stupid saying that they were horrible to me – and now I was lost.
It was January 2018 before I realised, I had social anxiety. I was standing in the back garden of our new home, inappropriately dressed for a blizzard but poised, perfectly still with a camera in my hand. Through the lens, I watched a robin on the fence have his breast feathers whipped up by the wind as flurry of snow danced around him. I clicked.
“What time is everyone arriving?” Helen sticks a tahini dip covered finger to my mouth. “That’s amazing.” I lick it from my lips. “Two o’clock I think.” I finish breading the cauliflower and pop it into the oven. “Are you feeling okay?” She asks. “With, you know, people coming around?” “I will be.” I tell her. I lift my purple headphones from the table. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” I go into the spare room and close the door. Before I press play on the app, I check to see how many people will be joining me. 12,351.
Find a quiet space where you feel comfortable. Sit on a straight back chair or on a meditation cushion. When you hear the gentle chimes of the singing bowl, close your eyes. Breathe in to the count of five. Hold. Breathe out to the count of five. Hold.
I hadn’t seen her in a decade,Not since that time we …Now she’s lying before me, tucked-up warmIn hospital sheets.Her face is older now, saggy in parts -And sallow. Her mouth puckers intoA tight circle when I arrive, an ‘Oh!’ Like that time we…She touches my arm, cold fingersThat leave cold circles for minutes after.‘How have you been? How time flies,Tell me, what have you done since… You know.’Her shoulders hunch, eyebrows rise.She reads my face, faster Than the note I left by her bed…‘Tell me,' she insists, 'did you sail to that island,Where the wind whips the wavesOnto the lighthouse by the edgeOf the sea. Did you?‘Did you climb the thousand stone stepsTo the castle in the sky,Where the world ends And life unfolds like a paper chain?'‘Did you finally find that missing moment, Capture it in a photograph,A half-truth bent into a scrapOf happiness? Or did you leave it behind?’Her chestnut eyes leave mine,Trail the cracks on the ceilingAnd rest in the corner of room.The sound of my footsteps echoAfter I leave.
It was dawn when they arrived.
Two orange beams of light
Cutting tight between the lines of furrows,
And illuminating trees.
Her baby stirred.
It was dawn when they arrived.
Gravel crumbling under tyres.
A slither of sun crowning the hill,
And puffs of cloud lay as still
As her sleeping calf.
It was dawn when they arrived.
Two brown rubber boots crunching
On grass, still tipped with frozen dew.
A banging gate. A magpie flew.
The baby shook.
It was dawn when they arrived.
Two white hands and a noose.
A gate held ajar by a damp lump of wood
Four white walls, a nest of hay,
A trembling baby stood.
It was dawn when they arrived.
Two blue eyes trailing the floor,
Stealing her crying calf out of the door
White walls, empty bed, empty floor
Her mother stood - alone.
It was dawn they left.
Sir Walter Scott recalls in his book Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border that ‘The Twa Corbies’ was ‘communicated to [him] by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, esq. jun. of Hoddom, as written down, from tradition, by a lady.’  The use of the word ‘Tradition’ suggests that ‘The Twa Corbies’ ballad survived orally. According to Buchan
The nonliterate person does not possess […] visual imagination, words for him cannot be translated into pictorial symbols, they exist in sound groups; his facility for imaginative retention is largely auditory. 
The traditional methods of ballad structure such as form, convention, uncomplicated language, and rhyme create the sound groups that Buchan is suggesting. Whilst assisting the performer and the audience in memorising the ballad, the construction of the ballad ensures that its bones remain intact regardless of time and place. This allows the longevity of the story.
The anonymous ballad, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has a chivalric theme. Morgan suggests that in the chivalric ballad ‘Neither historical figures nor legendary idols escape criticism, [in] the ballads of chivalry [they] serve to strip the façade of honor from their social betters.’  Within a particular genre, the use of common tropes assists in memorising the narrative through fixed characters and themes. This also allows a performer to make a ballad contemporary whilst retaining the familiar narrative. Like most medieval ballads, ‘The Twa Corbies’ begins in Media Res, keeping the narrative brief whilst allowing the audience to quickly interpret the ballad’s intended meaning. The commonality of ballad themes means that multiplicity may occur, for example, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has great similarities to the English ballad ‘The Three Ravens’. Although the narrative of these ballads is similar, the tone sets them apart. ‘The Three Ravens’ conveys an optimistic tone which Morgan suggests ‘upholds the chivalric tradition of romance, complete with references to knightly behaviour, courtly love, and Christian piety’, (Morgan, p.119-120). The sombre tone of ‘The Twa Corbies’ however, implies a negative interpretation of chivalry with a realistic view of a social situation in which the importance of survival is crucial. This is found in the following three lines:
‘His hound is to the hunting gane, His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame, His lady’s ta’en another mate, 
The abandonment and disregard for the dead knight’s body offers the audience a natural and realistic account of life and death and the nature of survival. These three characters resume living in the most natural way. The theme of survival is clarified in the final line of the stanza:
So we may mak our dinner sweet. (TTC, 12)
This line highlights not only that compassion is essential for survival but also that all creatures are equal, a direct criticism of chivalric hierarchy. The tone of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, is similar to ‘The Twa Corbies,’ in that it demonstrates the danger of the hierarchal structure, for example
‘O wha is this has duin this deed An tauld the king o me 
The phrase ‘duin this deed’, suggests that the speaker has already accepted his deadly fate which, predetermines the remainder of the ballad. In addition, these lines not only demonstrate danger of royal hierarchy but also of the Kings right to assume the role of God. The ballad audience however, are already aware that the elderly knight is responsible:
O up and sat an eldern knight (SPS, 5)
The use of ‘O’ at the beginning of the line mimics the form of the traditional hymn. As a result, this technique elevates the position of the knight to God. This allows the audience to question not only the idealism of royalty, but also the hierarchal structure of the royal court and it’s danger of improper decision-making. The effect of tone in both ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’, in addition to theme, structure and word choice directs the reader to the underlying meaning and intention of the ballad. The generic ballad form allows the performer to navigate his way through the ballad by creating self-contained narrative frames, or stanzas. Each frame consists of a variety of stylistic conventions that create auditory symbols, instructions, and prompts, essential for the performer and the audience in memorising the song. For example, the opening couplet in ‘The Twa Corbies’ acts as an essential idea, setting the scene of the narrative. The first person speaker recalls an incident in past tense:
As I was walking all alane, I heard twa corbies making a mane; (TTC, 1.2)
The use the of verbs ‘Walking’ and ‘makin’ rather than ‘walked’ and ‘make’ are coded words which have a dual purpose, firstly to fulfil the rhythm of iambic tetrameter and also to describe movement, firstly from the speaker then followed by the corbies. The progressive verb choices, in addition to the past tense narration demonstrate the continuity of life and the underlying theme of the narrative, which is survival. Performed in thin Scots, the mixed dialect gives the audience a sense of place, whilst acting as a comparison to the English dialect – the dialect of the hierarchal chivalry. In addition, the refrain of the rhyming couplets assist the performer in memorising the sound units whilst allowing the narrative to be adapted and developed within a set structure. In the first couplet ‘all alane’ (TTC, 1) is a triad of assonance, with the ‘a’ sound at the start of the three syllables. This acts as a sound group, important for memorising. In line two, ‘making a mane’ (TTC, 2) is a refrain of consonance. The ‘m’ sound lands at the beginning of a two-syllable word followed by a one-syllable word. This elongates the sentence making the ‘mane’ onomatopoeia. It is therefore the manipulation of sounds and beats that aid the speakers memory rather than the words themselves. The symbolism of the corbies – a Scottish word for ravens, has various mythological connotations, one of which is that ‘Ravens as birds of knowledge appear throughout myth, especially in Odin’s two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory)’.  This tale will have been familiar to audiences in medieval times, therefore informing the audience of the role of the corbies within in this ballad to represent thought and memory, crucial for the survival of the narrative. There is a tense change in the final line of the first stanza when the narrative changes into dialogue:
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’(TTC, 4)
This change indicates a scene break that allows the oral storyteller to move on to a different frame with different conventions. The leaping between scenes or frames requires the audience to read between the lines and flesh out the narrative themselves. This closing line in stanza one is the last line in a long sentence, moving from past to present. This demonstrates movement in time, also survival and tradition – which is the link between past and present. The introduction of ‘we’ prompts audience participation, a further mode of memorising. In stanza two, the speaker uses ironic juxtaposition in a couplet. The ‘auld fail dyke’ (TTC, 4) conceals ‘a new slain knight’ (TTC, 5). ‘Auld’ is the primary word, situated before ‘new’ in the stanza. This gives the former superiority. Not only does this romanticise an older way of life but also demonstrates the strength of the old through the symbolism of the wall and its survival. These conventions are important to allow the framing and unfolding of each stanza, important for prompting memory, and continuity. The generic form found in ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is the most commonly found traditional ballad form; a four foot line followed by a three foot line. The consistent rhyming scheme, ABCB allows the framing of each stanza, which, like ‘The Twa Corbies’ is an arrangement of quatrains. Whilst this ballad is greater in length, the techniques are consistent of the ballad tradition. The sound refrains such as ‘whare will’ (SPS, 3) creates a sound like the wind, whilst ‘skeely skipper’ (SPS, 3) makes a storm like sound. These techniques not only create an ambiance, but also are sound symbols. Due to the length of this ballad, the refrain is demonstrated on a wider scale, such as ‘To Norway’ is repeated three times in stanza four. Using a variety of different conventions within each frame, aids the memory of the oral storyteller through the use of sound, symbols and prompts. Whilst ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is a much larger poem in length than ‘The Twa Corbies’ the techniques of style and convention are similar. The overall effect of the style and convention in both ballads is to aid the memory of the performer whilst guiding and prompting himself and the audience. The purpose of this is to deliver a story within the bones of a well-known narrative theme, which, through auditory symbols and sound groups, makes it adaptable as it is re-told and reworked over time. Moreover, whilst many medieval ballads adopt a familiar theme, resulting in multiplicity, the tone and dialect set them apart.
Anonymous, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)
Anonymous, ‘The Twa Corbies’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)
Buchan, David, The Ballad and the Folk (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1997)
Frankel, Valerie Estelle, The Symbolism and Sources of Outlander: The Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meanings that Inspired the Series (North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2015)
Morgan, Gwendolyn A., Medieval Ballads: Chivalry, Romance, and Everyday Life. A Critical Anthology (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1996)
Scott, Sir Walter, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1803)
I decided that once I had graduated from university I would post my English Literature essay’s on my site as a reference point for English Literature students. This essay and other’s on this site are my own work and have been referenced accordingly. Please feel free to use my essay’s but remember to reference my work to avoid plagiarism.
Henry V is the concluding episode in Shakespeare’s tetralogy of history plays. It was estimated to be written in 1599 during the reign of Elizabeth 1. Critics have found the play to be puzzling and Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Henry unclear. Rabkin suggested that Shakespeare intentionally created Henry V as a play with two interpretations which resulted in the audience making up their own mind.  Shakespeare’s depiction of King Henry was influenced by Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ as well as being integrated with the Tudor philosophy of The Kings Two Bodies. By using these approaches Shakespeare created a plot where Henry was able to weave between the private and public spheres. The audience may have perceived Henry V as either a well-rounded king or a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. The paper will discuss the relationship between the private and public in Henry V and will examine the theory of the Kings Two Bodies as well as relate some extracts from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ to the Kings behaviours and actions. Furthermore, the essay will explore the key scenes in which the king adopts his role as a politician both publicly and privately which creates the illusion of the perfect monarch and argue that whilst he was aware of the sacrifices he had to endure, his actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.
The Kings Two Bodies derived from the English jurists of the Tudor and defined the King as having both the body politic and the body natural. According to the theory, the body politic describes the king as an eternal entity; his body will not age or weaken. The king cannot do wrong or even think wrongly, therefore, the king has no weaknesses. In addition, the king is described as superhuman and invisible therefore sees and hears everything. The body natural is polar opposite of this and is subject to all the flaws of the average person such as old age, weakness, corruption and fallibility. Shakespeare used both aspects of this theory in Henry V in order to create the impression of the perfect king. Katrotowicz explains that the kings ‘capacity to take in the body natural is not confounded by the body politic, but remains still.’ (p.12). The evidence in this essay will display how Henry V was fully aware of his body natural yet his actions were purely that of the body politic; maintaining that his relationship between the public and private was merely an act which fulfilled his role as the monarch.
Salamon suggested that ‘the private/ public polarity is somewhat less obvious, taking the form by and large, of a unifying structural concept.’ This was an intentional tactic by Shakespeare who chose to exemplify the King as a compassionate leader. Henry underplayed his ceremonial role when it was beneficial to blend in with his public and he was able to exaggerate the spectacular when he needed to exude the body politic.
The Shakespearian audience would have known the former king as Prince Hal from the tetralogy. He was unruly, his friends were thieves, he gambled and drank with commoners. It would, therefore, have shocked the audience that Price Hal could adopt his kingship so completely. For this reason, when Henry V flits from public to private, the audience is not surprised. Rabkin poses the question, ‘Can political resourcefulness be combined with qualities more like those of an audience as it sees itself?’ (p.281). Shakespeare’s effective transformation of Prince Hal to Henry V leaves no doubt that this is possible.
The transformation of Henry V is glorified by Canterbury who, in a conversation with Ely, establishes that the new king has fully adopted the body politic;
The breath no sooner left his father’s body
But his wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too; yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th’offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T’envelop and contain celestial spirits.
Canterbury described the transformation of Henry as a death of his former private self, this allowed his body to become a paradise in order to become god’s representative on earth. However, unknown to his council, the sudden change in Henry was always planned. According to Paris, Prince Hal’s behaviour in Henry 1V part two may have been a moral education for him. By associating himself with commoners he was able to increase his skills in dealing with a range of different people and by stooping so slow, he was able to achieve the grand effect of transformation he was looking for. Shakespeare’s depiction of Prince Hal made his illusion of the perfect King in Henry V more accessible by exposing him as a private citizen. However; Prince Hal openly admits that his persona as a drunken thief and gambler is a deliberate and calculated act;
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
This admittance from Prince Hal suggests that he is less comfortable with the body natural and will become himself when he adopts the body politic. For Rabkin, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Prince Hal is deceptive, ‘the day has had to come when Hal, no longer able to live in two worlds, would be required to make his choice, and the Prince has had to expel from his life the very qualities that made him better than his father.’ (p.285) Prince Hal however, made his decision long before his kingship; his qualities were fabricated in order to assume a private persona which died the instant his father did.
When Henry V decided to invade France it is unclear whether the King believed he had a legitimate claim to the throne. Henry’s decision, however, may have been personally motivated due to his dying father’s suggestion that Henry should busy the minds of his public with foreign wars in order for them to forget the way in which he stole the crown from the former King Richard. It could be said that he did it to confirm his tyranny over his subjects. Machiavelli states that it is ‘necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.’  Shakespeare hoped that by presenting the morality in Henry in his previous plays that the audience would be convinced that he is torn between his public job and his duty to protect his citizens.
If Shakespeare succeeded in convincing his audience of the Kings morality, there must have been an element of doubt when the chorus asked the audience to imagine the grand spectacle of the ship at Hampton pier. The elaborate spectacle served to overshadow the England that was left behind ‘Guarded with grandsires, babies and old women.’, (King Henry V, iii.0.20) It is obvious in this instance that Henry V has little regard for his countries weaker civilians and is motivated by his own agenda. Debord described the value and importance of spectacle as ‘something enormously positive […] the attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance. Shakespeare was able to display the disparity between the King’s private and public figures by involving the citizens in ceremony in order to motivate and distract them from the his true intentions. Later, the King declines the use of spectacle when after defeating the French, he has the opportunity upon his return to England to meet his public with a grand ceremony, yet he chooses not to do so. This action was an effective way of making the commoners feel that there was no public and private divide between themselves and the monarch.
Spectacle was also presented in Henry V in the form of speech. Henry V was able to use his skills as a public speaker to ensure his army felt equal to himself;
And you good yeomen,
Whose limbs are made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding which I doubt
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. (King Henry V, iii.i.25-30)
It is this intertwining of the public and the private that made Henry V such a good politician and increased his power as a monarch.
Shakespeare exemplifies the morality in Henry V prior to the final battle, when he has to muster a masterful speech to prevent his army from being defeated;
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It earns me not if men my garments wear:
Such outward things dwell not in my desires. (King Henry V iv.3.24-27)
Henry dismisses his position of monarch in this scene and the triviality of his royal garments; it is a cunning speech which deceives his soldiers into assuming that he is the body natural and that he sees no difference between himself and his subjects. Henry goes further than this by announcing, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he, today that sheds blood with me Shall be my brother.’(King Henry V, vi.3.61-62) Henry V is aware at this point that he has to combine the private and the public in order to gain loyalty from his soldiers and by treating them as brothers he gains their respect. Machiavelli wrote, ‘a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty’ (p.2). Shakespeare used this approach to demonstrate the effectiveness of personal persuasion for political necessity.
On the eve of the final battle, Henry delves into the private world and disguises himself as a commoner. In discussion with soldiers Williams and Bates, he tells them, ‘I think the king is but a man, as am I […] all his senses have human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man […] his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are. […] by showing it, should dishearten his army.’ (King Henry V iv.i.102-112) The response from the soldiers is that of doubt, they mistrust his reasons for going to war and describe the implications that the King will have to face from his people if they are defeated. It is at this point that Henry diverts any blame or wrongdoing, ‘Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own’ (King Henry V, iv.i.176-177) It should be noted that when Henry is speaking as a commoner his dialect changes from his usual verse to prose, the style of language used by the common citizens. This highlights the variation of private and public within Henry.
What Shakespeare has produced in this scene is the body politic trying to convince his soldiers that beneath the spectacle of the king is a person merely doing a job. This scene, although mischievous, displays the King as his true self. Henry V is aware that in order to effectively perform his role as monarch he must supress the body natural yet display it to his advantage. According to Machiavelli, ‘it is necessary to know how to disguise this characteristic and to be a great pretender’ (p.4).
It is only when the King is alone that he fully allows his personal thoughts to be presented;
What infinite heart’s ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony? (King Henry V, iv.i.233-237)
Are though aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men,
Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing? (King Henry V, iv.i.243-246)
By allowing the audience to indulge in Henry’s soliloquy, Shakespeare hoped to provoke a sense of empathy towards the King. This enabled him to fulfil his aspiration of presenting Henry V as the perfect monarch. Henry is, however, aware of the sacrifices he has had to make and this private moment is reserved only for himself and the audience.
Shakespeare’s ability to humanise the King enabled his acts of cruelty towards his friends to be digested more easily. In order for Henry to fulfil his public duty, he was forced to sacrifice his private inclinations and banish those he loved. At the end of Henry 1V, Henry publicly banished and humiliated his friend Falstaff in order to display his body politic. Furthermore, in Henry V the King ordered the death of his friend Scrope, who conspired to kill him. In addition, his friend Bardolph was sentenced to death for stealing from a church. These acts display Henry’s ability to uphold the law and disregard his former private life in order to be a sincere monarch.
In this paper I discussed The Kings Two Bodies and how Shakespeare used this theory to explore the relationship between the private and public in Henry V. In doing so he was able to create an illusion that allowed the audience to view the King with two different interpretations, one as a well-rounded king and the other as a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. In addition, I incorporated some extracts from The Prince which Shakespeare used as a comparison to King Henry. In order to explore the relationship between the private and public, I described the character of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s previous plays which allowed the audience to feel empathy for King Henry’s actions. Furthermore, I discussed Henry V’s transformation from a private citizen to a public monarch and the challenges he faced when motivating his people to fight the war in France with him. As a result, I confirmed that Shakespeare integrated the private and public within Henry V which revealed that Henry’s actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.
 Norman Rabkin, ‘Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V: Shakespeare’s Quarterly, 28 (1977) ,279296 (p. 280)  Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957) Brownell Salomon, ‘Thematic Contraries and theDramaturgy of Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly,31 (1980), 343356 (p.345)  William Shakespeare, King Henry V, ed T.W. Craik (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995) i.i.25-30  Bernard J. Paris, Character as a subversive force in Shakespeare: The history and Roman Plays (USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), p.80  William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset, 2001), i.2.201-221  Erasmus, The ‘Adages’ of Erumus, ed, Margaret Mann Philips (Cambridge: CUP, 1964), p.349 Nicolo Macheavelli, Extracts from The Prince, (1513) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/machiavelli-prince.asp [accessed 03 December 2013] p.1  Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel Libre, 1967), p.3
Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, My Name is Leon (2016) by Kit De Waal is a heart tugging, sad yet hopeful book. Set in England the late 1970’s – early 1980’s, Leon and his baby brother Jake are living with single mother Carol. Leon’s father is in prison and Jakes father is married and wants nothing to do with Carol or the child. Carol is terribly lonely and desperately unhappy. Struggling with deep depression, the mother’s fragile state leaves her unable to care for her children :
Leon has begun to notice things what make his mum cry: when Jake makes a lot of noise; when she hasn’t got any money; when she comes back from the phone box; when Leon asks too many questions; and when she’s staring at Jake, (p.12).
After Carol takes to her bed, Leon, at just nine years old, takes on the role of carer and parent. Through the eyes of this young boy, the reader watches his world fall apart, fragment by fragment.
Eventually the boys are taken into care and find solace in the home of Maureen, an experienced foster carer with a deep love for both cakes and children. Maureen is a lovable character who feels a deep affinity for Leon, even though Leon is highly suspicious of anyone in the care system, but when Jake is adopted, it is Maureen who picks up the pieces. It is perhaps her honesty rather than her role as parent that soothes Leon in his most difficult times:
‘Now listen carefully because I want you to understand something and I don’t say this to all the children because it’s not always true but with you it’s true so you have to believe it. And when you believe it you will stop grinding your teeth […] You will be all right, Leon.’ (p.55-56).
But when Maureen is taken into hospital, Leon is left with Maureen’s sister Sylvia, a less motherly role model than Maureen but with a desire to please her sister none the less. Their relationship is strained and often uncomfortable, but soon enough Leon finds comfort in a new friend, Tufty. Tufty is a young man who looks after a plot in his father’s allotment. The man and the boy form a friendship that grows alongside the seeds that they plant in the garden, so when they both find themselves in the midst of the Birmingham riots, they naturally come together to save each other.
This is a coming of age story unlike any other, it is not a happy ever after but hope for a child and his future.
I love this novel, it is clearly written with believable characters and honest emotions. At the start of the novel I was concerned about the character’s point of view – a third person limited perspective from the child’s perspective – but it is cleverly done. While the reader gathers glimpses of emotions from inside Leon’s head, there is still enough distance to feel the tug of the story from the outside. It is as if the reader is holding the child’s hand and experiencing his life with him as it unfolds. Brilliantly done and brilliantly written. Go Leon.
Winner of the Saltire Society first book of the year award 2017, Goblin, by Ever Dundas is a brilliant and brave first novel. Set in both London during WW2 and in Edinburgh in 2011, the story is told in flashback. For me, the first half of the novel is the best, we meet Goblin as a nine-year-old tomboy with a love for animals and a passion for storytelling – both of which the protagonist collects.
Goblin has a difficult family life; a mother who doesn’t want her, ‘Goblin-runt born blue. Nothing can kill you. […] You’re like a cockroach,’ (p.5) a father who mends radio’s and barely talks and a brother (David) who spends most of his time in his bedroom. Left to her own devices, the protagonist, her dog Devil, and her two friends Mac and Stevie roam the neighbourhood and hang around in an abandoned worksite. As a collector of stories, Goblin enthusiastically attends the local church with Mac, ‘I loved the stories, turning them over in my head, weaving my own.‘ (p.24) before meeting The Crazy Pigeon Lady who tells her tales of Lizards people from the realm below. The childhood innocence in these chapters, mixed with magic realism, break down the walls of adult reasoning and creates a wonderful suspension of disbelief.
But without giving away the story plot, the suspension of disbelief serves another purpose; to divert the reader (as well as the adult protagonist) from the truth. So, while the adult Goblin searches amongst her tangled past, she takes the reader along for the ride. We meet multiple parents, live life on the road, come alive on the streets and in the circus, explore love, death, desire, and hate – and somewhere in the middle we meet an impressive collection of animals – Goblin has it all. And as far as strong female protagonists go, she’s right up there with Anais Hendricks from Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon, to Janie Ryan in Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, characters who are so real you might just walk by them on the street. The only teeny tiny criticism about the novel is that the second half spans over a lengthy period of time and it felt a little rushed. However, there is so much to say about this novel, so many angles to discuss, from Queer Theory to Religion, from Myth to Realism, and as a graduate of English Literature I could have a field day studying this book but for now, as a lover of good books, I’ll give it a big thumbs up and a huge recommendation, it’ll be finding a space on my ‘keep’ book shelve.
Kelman’s novel Dirt Road is story that takes both characters and reader on a journey right from the outset, but the journey is more than it seems. The novel begins in the West coast of Scotland where we learn that Murdo – a sixteen-year-old boy – and his father Tom are mourning the death of their mother/wife and sister/daughter. Searching for solace, they embark on a journey to Alabama, U.S.A to spend time with Uncle John and Aunt Maureen. For Murdo, family is just a happy memory, a moment in time captured in a photograph, ‘The family was four and not just him and Dad’, whilst for Tom, family is the bond that holds them together. Throughout their journey, Tom strives to guide his son and keep him on ‘the right path’, yet Murdo, as we will learn, has a path of his own to find. Stifled by the fathers influence, the boy has a tendency to stray, thus when they reach Allentown Mississippi, Murdo stumbles upon a family of musicians led by Zydeco performer Queen Monzee-ay. Murdo is as drawn to music as his father is to family, the boy himself is an accomplished accordion player, and when he is offered an opportunity to play a set with Queen Monzee-ay in two weeks’ time, we watch as the road between father and son diverges and choice and risk becomes the key plot in the story.
While this may appear a simple story line, Kelman’s exploration into the fragmented relationship between father and son gives the reader an honest analysis of family and grief. The third person narrator, with bursts of free indirect discourse from Murdo, allows the reader both an internal and external insight into the constraints of family. This parallel leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable, yet with a conflicting heart. This is Kelman’s unique writing style at its best.
Dirt Road is more than a novel of grief and family relationships though; it is a novel of risk, of following new paths with uncertainties, about leaving behind the familiarities and safety of the past and following the heart. It is about deep connections; for Murdo this is through music and the feeling of freedom that he associates with music, whilst for the other characters it is about cultural connections and Scottish ancestry. Kelman’s clever use of parallels shows the reader the intensity of human connections whilst suggesting that change and progression is possible. This great novel will linger in your thoughts for weeks after you put it down, and it brings to mind a poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Nasty Women, published by 404 ink, is a collection of essays about what it is, and how it feels to be a woman in the 21st century. When I first picked up the book, I assumed, like I think most readers would, that it would be an easy book to just pick up and put down whenever I had a spare ten minutes. Wrong, I was sucked into this book right from the beginning, and read it all in a day. That doesn’t mean it was an easy read, or perhaps easy is the wrong word – it isn’t a comfortable read – and it isn’t meant to be. Nasty women is hard-hitting, eye-opening, and unashamedly honest.
The book opens with ‘Independence Day’ by Katie Muriel. A story of mixed race and identity in Trump’s America, Muriel discusses her experience of inter-family racism, heightened by political differences, ‘This is not the first, nor is it the last family divide Trump will leave in his wake, but I refuse to think of him as some deity who stands around shifting pieces on a board in his golden war room.’ The anger in this piece is clear, but it is the rationalism and clarity of the writer that speaks volumes. Race, racism and xenophobia, is a prominent feature in these stories. Claire L. Heuchan, for example, talks about ‘Othering’ a term that readers will see repeatedly in this book, ‘Scotland,’ she writes, ‘is a fairly isolating place to be a black woman.’
Survival is a key trope in Nasty Women. Mel Reeve, in ‘The Nastiness of Survival,’ talks about being a survivor of rape and emotional abuse, ‘I do not fit the ‘right’ definition of someone who has been raped.’ This statement alone is filled with irony.
I was particularly drawn to Laura Waddell’s essay, ‘Against Stereotypes: Working Class Girls and Working Class Art.’ Laura talks about the difficulty of both gender and class inequality, and, in particular, the lack of working class writers and working class fiction being published, ‘I have read a lot of fiction’ she says, ‘I have read almost none from housing estates such as the one I grew up on. These stories are missing, from shelves, and from the record.’ As a Scottish fiction writer from a working-class background myself, these words resonate deeply.
Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-Witchcraft in the 21st Century’, is almost fun to read in a deeply devastating way. There is a desperate tone in this piece, and a desperate need to escape society. ‘There is beauty and bounty around us if we look for it, and perhaps that is all the magic we need. Or perhaps, what we need is real magic, whether that comes in the form of resistance and community or the form of blackthorn charms and skullcap tinctures, and howling to the moon.
I loved this book. This book gives women a voice. And it is loud! Well done 404 Ink, and all the contributors, for bravely breaking the silence.
The role of the cross-dressing male in literature for children serves to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. In order for the genre of cross-dressing to exist, however, the implied reader must already live in a society where dress plays a significant part in gender recognition and is generally practised as a social norm. Transsexual activist Nancy Nangeroni quoted that ‘It is not gender which causes problems; rather it is the imposition of gender on an individual by another.’ Due to the socialisation of gender in Western societies, the cross-dressing male in literature for children is treated as the ‘other’. By discussing David Walliams’s novel The Boy in the Dress in comparison to Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will identify the key issues surrounding the cross-dressing male in literature for children such as masculine reinforcement, sexuality, humour, and gender performance.
Written in 2008, Walliams offers an original critique of the male child cross-dresser in his novel The Boy in the Dress by addressing the way that clothing can create ‘otherness’. The opening statement of the novel is ambiguous, ‘Dennis was different.’ This statement not only poses the question of what or who is Dennis different from but also puts Dennis into the category of ‘other’. The narrator proceeds by telling the reader that ‘When [Dennis] looked in the mirror he saw an ordinary twelve-year-old boy,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). This implies that Dennis is not ‘different’ because of his appearance but rather because ‘he felt different- his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). In this quotation, the italicised ‘felt’ in addition to his thoughts of colour and poetry not only demonstrate Dennis’s aesthetic view of the world but also an unconventional representation of the traditional masculine expression. Social theorist Victor J. Seidler suggests that ‘expressing emotions allows men to connect to an aspect of their subjectivity that traditional forms of masculinity have denied them.’  Walliams is demonstrating that Dennis is aware that he deviates from the stereotypical Westernised idea of masculinity and therefore, feels different.
Masculinity in The Boy in the Dress, suppresses the protagonist’s subjective self. Walliams demonstrates this by exploring masculine reinforcement within the child’s family. When Dennis’s mother leaves home, his father makes a rule of ‘No crying. And worst of all- no hugging, (The Boy in the Dress, p.16). For Dennis, his father’s lack of emotion is a result of depression, (The boy in the Dress, p15). Fischer suggests that
men hardly disclose their personal feelings, and tend to conceal the expression of emotions like fear, sadness, shame, and guilt. This can be understood as a strategy to boost conventional masculinity.
By repressing his feelings, Dennis’s father reinforces his masculinity to the detriment of his sons. The repercussions of his behaviour are installed in Dennis’s brother who tells that protagonist that, ‘Only girls cry,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.17). Walliams demonstrates the effects that masculine reinforcement has on Dennis’s freedom of choice. When the protagonist is encouraged to try on Lisa’s dress, ‘he imagines for a moment what he would look like wearing it, but then told himself to stop being silly, (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). Identifying his discomfort, Lisa reassures him by saying she ‘love[s] putting on pretty dresses. I bet some boys would like it too. It’s no big deal,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). This contemporary reaction to cross-dressing is a result of the ‘differences [that] have been found in the perceptions of men and women towards transgender behaviours and people. In general, women are more tolerant.’  Dennis however, is torn between what he desires and how he has been taught to behave, ‘Dennis’s heart was beating really fast- he wanted to say “yes” but he couldn’t,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83-84). Walliams criticises the Western construction of masculinity by showing Dennis’s oppression due to the masculine reinforcement he receives at home.
Unlike Walliams’s criticism of masculinity, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 promotes masculinity in order to reinforce Western gender norms. The character of Toad is represented as a carefree independent and wealthy animal with a disregard for societal rules. Following his imprisonment for joyriding, Toad’s female prison guard suggests that he dresses as a washerwoman to escape, explaining that ‘You’re very alike in many respects – particularly about the figure,’  The character’s genderless shape allows him the ability to disguise himself. Dress for Toad is one of the ways that he can outwardly expose his masculinity in addition to gender performance and reputation. It is for this reason that he is delighted when the original washerwoman suggests she should be tied and up and gagged before he escapes as she wants to keep her employment, ‘It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished, (The Wind in the Willows, p.80). The word desperate in conjunction with dangerous reasserts Toads masculinity as he is proving not only that his cross-dressing is a necessary deviance but one that enhances his power. Moreover, whilst the cross-dressing incident is presented as humorous, ‘Toad’s behaviour simply reinforces the normative gender binary rather than engaging with the subversive function of the carnivalesque.’ For Toad, cross-dressing is a way for him to misbehave and divert attention from his true masculine self and as a result, gender binary is reinforced.
Gender performance is a key trope in male cross-dressing literature and highlights preconceived assumptions of gender roles. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the United Kingdom in 1884, the protagonist is encouraged to wear women’s clothing in order to obtain information. Huckleberry’s friend Jim suggests that Huckleberry ‘put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl?’ In this instance, the act of cross-dressing is a fun experience and supplemented by an illustration by E. W. Kemble. This shows Jim kneeling down behind Huckleberry and laughing, whilst Huckleberry looks over his shoulder grinning and posing in a feminine manner. Flannigan suggests that
male cross-dressing is used for comedic purposes. The male cross-dresser, adored in feminine apparel worn in such an inexpert manner that his true sex remains no secret is a well-established comedic strategy,’ (Flannigan, p.135).
Flannigan’s suggestion demonstrates the reaction that the cross-dressing male has on its audience but fails to address the problematic response. In order for the act of cross-dressing to be deemed as comedic, the implied reader must already assume that the male character is acting incorrectly according to his perceived gender role. Walliams identifies this problem in The Boy in the Dress, by raising the issue of female inequality and the difficulty of femininity. Lisa suggests to Dennis that it’s ‘Not easy being a girl is it?’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.124). Furthermore, cross-dressing Dennis discovers the difficulty of being a girl:
Remember to cross your legs when you are wearing a dress, and most importantly, Don’t catch the boys’ eyes as you may be more attractive than you thought! (The Boy in the Dress, p.138).
In the above quotation, Walliams explores some of the rules of femininity. Not only is he discussing the female etiquette of ‘cross[ing] your legs’ but also the ways in which girls are sexualised by boys. The exclamation at the close of the quote illustrates male dominance, as it is the female who must divert her eyes from the male. Moreover, when Dennis’s father asks his son if he enjoys wearing a dress, Dennis replies, ‘Well, yes, Dad. It’s just…fun,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.167). The pause before ‘fun’ suggests that the protagonist is searching for the correct word that will console his father. Walliams is, however, criticising the way in which cross-dressing in literature for children is perceived as humorous. For Dennis, cross-dressing allows him the happiness that he normally suppresses whilst in his conventional male role, ‘He felt so happy he wanted to dance,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.100). This then raises the question ‘why are girls allowed to wear dresses and boys aren’t? It doesn’t make sense,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.175). Dennis can see how illogical the typical Westernised view of cross-dressing is.
Sexual orientation is often explored in literature for children when a cross-dressing male is a main character. In Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, written in 2004, Sam Lopez, is persuaded to cross-dress as part of an initiation into the Shed gang. The gang decide that Sam should go to his new school wearing girl’s clothes for five days. The novel is written with first person multiple narrators with the exclusion of the protagonist. This immediately demonstrates Sam’s lack of individuality. His first reaction demonstrates a common reaction to male cross-dressing, “You want me to be some kind of fruit?” Fruit or fruitcake is a common slang word that refers to a homosexual.  This association derives from the Victorian fin de siècle when ‘widespread contemporary fear[s] that perversion and deviation [from gender norms were] agents of degeneration.’
This notion is also identified by Walliams in The Boy in the Dress when Dennis is caught by his Head Teacher wearing the orange sequined dress in school. The Head Master expels the boy and tells him ‘I am not having a degenerate like you in my school’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.163). Cross-dressing is often thought of as sexually motivated. ‘Male cross-dressing is perceived as inherently sexual in nature (either in a fetishistic sense or in a homosexual context),’ (Flannigan, p.49). Sam’s reaction to cross-dressing in Boy2Girl demonstrates that the remnants of Victorian fear still remain. Similarly, in The Boy in the Dress, Dennis’s brother suggests that boys who read girls magazines are ‘Woofters!’(The Boy in the Dress, p.56), which is another popular term to describe the homosexual man. Whilst cross-dressing is identified as deviant behaviour in Walliams’s novel, Harrison suggests that cross-dressing can be referred to as:
“Gender Deviance” [which] simply refers to an individual who falls outside of our ordinary everyday understanding of male/masculine and female/feminine.’
This critique raises the question of how the male child cross-dresser can be legitimately deemed as deviant when he is still in the early learning stages of his life and may not be fully aware of the Western gender ideology.
Walliams addresses gender ideology in childhood as problematic. In The Boy in the Dress, Dennis becomes bored due to his confinement within a socially constructed gender role. The word boring is mentioned eleven times throughout the novel and cross-dressing allows him to ‘feel like he [doesn’t] have to be boring Dennis living his boring life anymore’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107). This quotation illustrates the stifling effect that conformity has over the protagonist. Cross-dressing gives him a feeling of liberty. Walliams demonstrates this freedom through a change in narrative voice, from the third person to first, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107). The ‘I’, allows the character independent thought, whilst the repetition of ‘be’ gives him freedom of choice and finally ‘whoever’ is gender neutral. The action of cross-dressing gives Dennis insight into life without gender conformity and he tells ‘Lisa I want to thank you for opening my eyes’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.207). Walliams is teaching the reader that gender should not be defined by what one wears.
The idea of gender neutrality is found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author demonstrates Huckleberry’s non-conformity due to his preference of wearing no clothes and his inability to accept and conform to civilisation:
We was always naked, day and night,[…] the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow, (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Para.3 of Chapter 19).
In the above quotation, Twain demonstrates Huckleberry’s relaxed nature and how he is comfortable in himself without the stifling effects of clothing. In addition, the author points out that adults are a child’s source of clothing, therefore limiting their independence. Huckleberry’s nakedness makes him gender neutral as opposed to conforming to socially constructed masculinity.
Cross-dressing in literature for children is often used to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. Walliams, however, demonstrates that cross-dressing simply means a person who does not conform to Western dress codes. Dennis identifies this in his Sikh friend because he is ‘the only one who [wears] a patka,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Dennis asks, ‘Do you feel different Darvesh?’(The boy in the Dress, p.63). The emphasis on the italicised ‘you’ alters the tone of the question suggesting that Dennis is aware of segregation due social conformity of dress. Darvesh’s reply allows Walliams to highlight how otherness is socially constructed; ‘When mum took me to India at Christmas to visit Grandma I didn’t at all. All the Sikh boys are wearing them,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Walliams is demonstrating how alienating clothing can be for children, not only in gender but also within a cultural context.
Walliams, at the end of The Boy in the Dress, addresses exclusion or ‘othering’ due to societal control over children’s dress. In order to include Dennis in the football match after his exclusion from school, the full football team dress in women’s clothing. Suddenly ‘There was a huge cheer from the crowd’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.192). Walliams normalises the act of cross-dressing to demonstrate that exclusion due to gender or cultural dress is unnecessary. The final message in the novel serves to convince the reader that clothes are irrelevant to gender; Dennis notices a red jacket coming towards him ‘And then the red jacket turned into a man,’(The Boy in the Dress, p.196).This defies the contemporary Western ideology of gender binary through dress.
I found that many of the authors wanted to demonstrate the effects of socially constructed gender. In The Boy in the Dress, this meant that the protagonist felt alienated through his family’s masculine reinforcement. Both Walliams’s novel and Blacker’s Boy2Girl, highlight the discrimination towards the cross-dressing male, which illustrates an out of date notion of homosexuality being linked to dress. Twain aimed to deconstruct the gender binary by presenting a character that was not affected by gendered clothing, whilst Grahame used the act of cross-dressing to reinforce gender binaries. Humour was a trope in all of the novels which was a result of inadequate gender performance, however, this highlighted that gender is socially constructed and therefore, unnatural. Not only did Walliams attempt to deconstruct the notion of the gender binary and demonstrate how emotions are similarly gendered, he also encouraged his reader to believe that clothing is irrelevant to gender. The originality of Walliam’s novel arises from his exploration of feelings surrounding gender and gendered dress and how these restrict individual freedom and result in segregation.
Adams James Eli and Millar Andrew H, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996)
Bolich, G.G, PhD. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007)
Fischer, Agneta, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Flanagan, Victoria, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)
Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908)
Harrison, Kelby, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013)
Nangeroni, Nancy, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)
Sedler, Victor J. in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)
Steen, Edwin B. and Price, James. H, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Constable and Company, 1988)
Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company)
Walliams, David, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008)
 Nancy Nangeroni, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film , ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.258.  Davis Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008), p.11.  Victor J. Sedler in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), p.111.  Agneta Fischer, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.173.  G.G. Bolich, Ph.D. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007), p.271.  Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908), p.79-80.  Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.143.  Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company), para. 9 of Chapter 10.  Terence Blacker Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004), p.44.  Edwin B. Steen and James H.Price, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Costable and Company, 1988), p.297.  James Eli Adams and Andrew H. Millar, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.97.  Kelby Harrison, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.9.
I have been toying with the idea of a social media down day ever since a tutor at university spoke of his own positive experience. Sunday past seemed like the perfect day to give it a go, not only because I already associate Sunday as a kind of down day, but also because I have just completed my first week studying mindfulness. I began the online mindfulness course because I often struggle with anxiety. Anxiety, for those who have experienced it, can be debilitating; exhausting on the mind and the body. For myself, I experience social anxiety, dread and an inability to rest; my thoughts go into overdrive and I feel them crashing together. My usual “go to” is social media where I can loose myself amongst everyone else’s lives – in other words I detach myself from myself. I knew something had to change; there had to be another way of dealing with my anxiety. Then right on time, along came an e-mail telling me about a free course with Future Learn – Mindfulness.
Mindfulness (and remember I am still learning) is learning how to be present in our experiences, an, in our lives. Even on my non anxious days I am constantly distracted by social media, not because it is a riveting alternative to real life, but because it is a filler. For me, Facebook more so than any other social media platform, fills the time between breakfast and walking the dogs or when the dinner is cooking, or basically whenever I have a spare moment. E-mail is another source of distraction, as a writer, I find myself falling into the trap of checking my e-mail whenever I have a spare minute; I send between five and fifteen pieces of writing to magazines and competitions every quarter so am always waiting on reply. So, when I sat down and really thought about it, it seemed that I had forgotten how to just sit and do nothing. Thus, the idea to go ahead with the social media down day was decided.
Sunday 11th February
It is amazing how your hand automatically reaches for your phone in the morning. I decided to turn my internet off so that I wouldn’t receive any notifications tempting me to pick it up. Once that was done, I put my phone on my writing bureau (it usually sits on the arm of the sofa) and got on with my day. I found myself enjoying really quite mundane things such as putting the clean washing away – not only did I tidy my wardrobe; I re-arranged it. Then I decided on a few items that were ready for the charity shop. It was nice to take time to look at my clothes properly, to see the nice items that I have purchased over the winter (mostly from charity shops or from sales), and appreciate what I have..
Lunchtime was interesting; I found myself looking at my lunch rather that looking at my phone while eating lunch – it is amazing how much better food tastes when you look at it and pay attention to what you are eating.
By mid afternoon I had forgotten about my phone and about E-mails and Facebook and all of the other internet distractions that usually filled my time and I sat and looked out the window. We have recently moved into a new house and the living-room window faces onto a private garden with lots of trees and sky and birds. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue and I just sat, and looked. It reminded me of my teenage self, eighteen years old, no internet, and looking out the bedroom window of our family home. There was fields and hills, trees – and a castle nestled behind some Scots pine’s. I was taken to a place where I felt like my old self again, (although I am sure if you asked my eighteen year old self how I felt, I would have declared my utter boredom) but at forty-five, letting myself be still, just looking and experiencing how that felt, I’ve never felt less bored in my life.
My phone vibrated mid afternoon and I got my other half to take a look. Somehow, without any internet, a notification had got through. I ignored it although I am still baffled by how that could happened.
All in all, my day trotted along at a much slower pace. I had the odd moment when I wondered about what was happening in the land of Facebook or if some magazine had sent me an e-mail, but apart from the weird sensation of not picking my phone up every twenty minutes, it was a pleasant experience. Now I know that it isn’t for everyone, and I am certainly not trying to encourage anyone to follow my example, but for me – someone who grew up in the days before internet – it was like opening my eyes after a long daydream. I do enjoy social media and I would be lost today without the wonder of internet, but I will continue to have my Sunday down days, where I can see the week through wider eyes.
All of the content on my site is free but i do accept doations.
Using a limited amount of words can result in something quite meaningful.
I wrote this poem using a magnetic poetry set that I picked up from a charity (thrift) shop. I found the process of scattering random words across my writing bureau, and then carefully selecting the words that sparked my imagination both fun and challenging. Magnetic poetry is a great way to think about words, to explore theme and to construct something meaningful out of word chaos. You could also do this by collecting interesting words from newspapers and magazines, or writing inspiring words on scraps of paper that you hear someone use on a bus, or in the supermarket line. Pop your words into a jar, adding sticky words such as and, it, or, as etc. and have fun.
I wrote this poem during my MLitt year at the University of Stirling. The plan was to select one of the many sculptures in and around the campus and write a creative piece based on that sculpture. This was aimed at children between the ages of 9-12.
Growing Form is an acrostic poem; a visually pleasing as well as challenging form for younger students. I also increased the word count on each line of the poem to incorporate the theme.
Gargantuan, Rising up Out of Shangri-la. Waking the whispering world, In melancholy maddening moans that Night cannot conceal; his silhouette unravels. Gathering height, he reaches, cutting sky with
Fork like antlers until the stars collide – like Orion. He awakens the hunter. Down the cosmic fire Rains upon the earth, blazing scorn and fury, and the Mighty beast bellows. He gathers up the river and runs.
When attempting to evoke a sympathetic reader response in narrative fiction or creative non-fiction, it would be foolish for an author to assume that the reader will feel sympathy through theme, setting, or plot alone. Novels sought purely on theme may simply evoke an empathetic response, especially if the reader has an association with the theme. In this instance, evoking sympathy rather than empathy is more challenging. Moreover, if a reader does not relate to the subject or plot, evoking a sympathetic response relies on positioning the reader within the story in order for them to react. Segal suggests that ‘When reading fictional text, most readers feel that they are in the middle of a story…The reader often takes a cognitive stance within the world of the narrative and interprets the text from that perspective.’ This highlights the importance of deciding where the reader is placed in relation to the narrator in order to evoke a sympathetic response. Emotional response however, is a purely subjective experience. It is unlikely that all readers will have the same emotional reaction to a narrative, no matter how skilful the author. Yet, tailoring the way that the narrative is told, and choosing which character narrates, can enhance the probability of a sympathetic reader response. Narrative sympathy therefore, is possible, but it is not always guaranteed. This then raises the question, how do authors attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response in fiction and creative non-fiction? In this paper I will examine the various ways that David Vann in Legend of a Suicide, 2008, and A.L. Kennedy in Serious Sweet, 2016, use narrative point of view in an attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response. In addition, the essay will analyse the role of the unreliable narrator as a tool, which enables these authors to alter the reader’s perception. As a result, I will argue that narrative sympathy can be evoked in a reader through both first-person and third-person point of view.
Narrative sympathy is difficult to define. This is because of its closeness to empathy. Sklar argues that ‘empathy operates at what I call a “chameleon emotion,” in the sense that, when we experience it, we take on the emotional experience of another as our own.’ This would suggest then that for an empathetic reader response, they must ‘experience’ what the character is experiencing, thus seeing through the eyes of the first person narrator. Furthermore, he suggests that
Our immersion in that experience, […] may impede […] our capacity to form judgements about that character, since we may, […] become too close to view the characters reality objectively. (Sklar, p.48).
Sympathy on the other hand ‘involves a greater distance between the individual who feels and the person, towards whom it is directed,’ (Sklar, p.26). Sklar’s argument sets clear boundaries between how empathy and sympathy are evoked through narrative point of view. Therefore, novels in which the author attempts to evoke sympathy,
anticipate response on the part of the reader, either authorial, or actual. […] sympathy by nature is a responsive emotion, and therefore texts that elicit it provide structures that enable readers to intuit and interpret the appropriateness of sympathy at particular moments within the progression of a narrative. (Sklar, p.53).
If Sklar’s theory were correct, then it would appear that sympathy could only be evoked when the author uses a third person narrator, meaning that the reader has enough distance to make a judgement. Kellog and Scholes suggest that ‘In any examples of narrative art there are […] three points of view – those of the character, the narrator and the audience.’ In order for these three points of view to unite to evoke a sympathetic response, do they need to be independent of one another? Sklar’s theory would suggest so, yet David Vann illustrates that this theory is flawed in his novel Legend of a Suicide.
In the American version of Legend of a Suicide, the book cover reveals that the contents are ‘stories’. For the reader, this determines the way that the novel is read, and therefore, their reaction to the work. Moreover, in the acknowledgements at the rear of the book, in both American and English versions of the novel, Vann states that his stories are fictional, ‘L
but based on a lot that’s true.’ With all of these factors in mind, it is clear that this novel can be read in a variety of ways. In ‘Ichthyology’ for example, the first person narrator tells the story of his father’s suicide:
He took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy, gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon. He may have paused for a moment to reflect, but I doubt it. […]. He spattered himself amid the entrails of salmon, his remains picked at by gulls for several hours. (, p.10).
Notice the lack of emotion in the above quotation from the first person character. The memory itself is written with intricate detail, yet whilst the subject is shocking, the only clue that the reader is given to Roy’s feelings is when he says that he doubts his father paused to reflect. Thus, we have a close first person narrative with regards to action, and a very distant first person narrative with regards to emotion. In the American version of the novel, this chapter would be read as a short story; therefore, the reader might assume that the narrator is hiding his emotions, thus unreliable. As a result, the response is likely to be one of shock rather than sympathy or empathy as the reader is only glimpsing over the character’s life, thus not invested in the novel as a complete entity. Alternatively, if the reader is aware that the story is based on real life events, and with the narration being in past tense, this then creates a distance between the author, reader, and character – this allows the reader enough room to form a judgement. Hildick, suggests that narratives written in first-person-past-tense demonstrate, ‘the effect of an incident on a certain kind of personality.’ By concealing the character’s emotions, Vann is revealing that the memory is too painful to express, thus sympathy may be evoked in the reader. There are flickers of emotion in this chapter though. Vann indirectly demonstrates Roy’s feelings by projecting them onto something less significant, such as the fly and the fish: ‘so little movement that it seemed not to have happened at all, and yet there was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.’ (LOAS, p.10). This technique reveals Roy’s feelings whilst creating a distance between himself and the reader, thus heightening sympathy for him. While these examples demonstrate how sympathy may be evoked through the first person narrator, it is not guaranteed, feelings of empathy may be more prevalent in readers who have experienced the death of a loved one. Thus, the reader response is unpredictable.
Reading the U.K version of Legend of a Suicide as a self-contained fictional novel, and without prior knowledge that the work is part autobiographical, can evoke sympathy in a more dramatic way. In chapter two, the author continues the technique of juxtaposing facts with emotion as the narrative steps back in time. This allows the reader to observe the other characters in the novel and also, and more importantly, it brings Roy’s father Jim back to life. Vann does this through retrospect but also free indirect discourse from Jim:
Rhoda in the walnut orchard that afternoon piecing together her thousand-piece puzzle […], never looked back to where my father sat utterly lost on the porch steps. He didn’t understand her. He had no idea how to comfort her. (LOAS, p.19).
The final line in this quotation could be read from either Roy’s first person thoughts, or through Jim’s third person point of view. It is clear here that Vann is juxtaposing the father and son to allow the reader to make a judgement. Roy’s interpretation of the scene for example, is to assume that his father is ‘lost’, suggesting that he is not there, or cannot be found. Then the third-person interruption from Jim, suggests that his father is very much alive. This desperation to bring his father back to life may evoke sympathy for Roy but it also sets up Jim’s narrative voice for chapter five.
The first-person-past-tense perspective in Legend of a Suicide, allows the character of Roy to speculate why his father killed himself, Hildick argues that
the method’s ‘distancing possibilities’: that is, the way it can be used to give the impression that the dust has cleared, that the action took place some time ago – possibly many years – [shows] that the narrator has had ample opportunity to see everything in perspective, (Hildick, pp35-36).
The first–person perspective allows the narrator and the reader valuable insight into Jim’s personal relationships, but through Roy’s point of view. In chapter one, for example, the reader experiences Roy’s parent’s marital break down closely, through Roy. Whilst Roy’s mother Ruth is kept at a distance in this chapter, allowing the suicide to be the prominent feature, the following chapter focuses closer on her character after the break up. On his return from visiting his father and stepmother Rhoda, Ruth question’s the boy about his father’s new wife, “Is she pretty?” My mother’s voice quietened on this.’ (LOAS, p.17). The quiet voice suggests an emotional fragility, as well as Ruth’s own reflection on herself. “No, she’s deformed,” I said, and my mother laughed again.’ (LOAS, p.17). Roy is clearly protecting his mother’s feelings in this scene. Yet in order to evoke the reader’s sympathy for Ruth, Vann has to juxtapose her character with Rhoda:
My new stepmother, Rhoda, untied the ring for my father with thin white fingers. I looked up again at that blank eye, drawn to it[…] I realized too late that she was watching me […] She laughed out loud, right there in the middle of service in front of everyone, at the same moment that she was slipping my father’s ring onto his finger. Her laughter startled all of us, but especially my father […]. His mouth opened slightly as he looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw him frightened. (LOAS, p.11).
The description of Rhoda in the above quotation seems almost sinister. Moreover, this is described from Roy’s viewpoint, thus steering the reader towards negative feelings for Rhoda. This is further heightened by Roy’s observation of his frightened father. This juxtaposition of characters allows Vann to not only creates a sympathetic response for Ruth, but it is also allows Roy to divert blame from his mother. It is clear then that Vann is deviating from the traditional form of first person narration where ‘we are inside the characters head, so our experiencing of his sensations […] feel natural and plausible. […] It feels as if it’s happening to the reader.’ If Vann had chosen to use this type of narration, where the reader got full access to Roy’s emotions, the reader would feel only empathy for Roy. Furthermore, there would be no freedom for judgement, the novel would lack sympathy, and the response would be different to what Vann is hoping to achieve.
In her novel Serious Sweet, A.L. Kennedy uses third-person-limited narration interspersed with the first-person point of view presented as italicised monologue. Kennedy uses this technique to demonstrate the internal conflict of her main characters John and Meg. An example of this occurs when Meg visits the hospital for an internal examination:
Meg bent to remove her shoes, blood distantly roaring in her ears at the unexpected upset. Her body had decided to be nervy and easily unbalanced. This wasn’t her fault. […] there was this sensation of childishness in her fingers which, because she was in an adult situation, made her stomach tick and become wary. 
In the above quotation, the third-person-limited narrator begins by using the character’s name ‘Meg’ to create a distance. Furthermore, rather than describing her sensations, such as ‘her body felt’, the narrator separates Meg by saying ‘her body decided’. This separation between Meg and her body allows the reader to respond to the uncomfortable feelings of the character. The character of ‘Meg’, however, intervenes with free indirect discourse by saying, ‘This wasn’t her fault,’ thus indicating that something bad has happened to her. The gap between actions told at a distance and the immediacy of the characters thoughts evokes a sympathetic reader response. In, Consciousness and the Novel, Lodge describes this as ‘the realism of assessment that belongs to third-person narration [and] the realism of presentation that comes from the first-person narration,’ by combining the two, Kennedy creates a juxtaposition between seeing and feeling thus provoking a judgement. Furthermore, Meg’s ‘sensation of childishness’, in the above quotation, juxtaposed with her ‘adult situation’ creates a feeling of sympathy due to her adult vulnerability. Moreover, as Meg’s examination draws closer, the distance between Meg and her own bodily self becomes more distant:
And when this is suggested, you loosen the sheet until it’s opened and simply resting across your outspread lap as a rug might if you were reading at some fireside in some cosy evening on some other day.
It’s good to imagine that. (Serious Sweet, p.75).
Notice how the third person narrator changes the ‘she’ to ‘you’. Whilst it may seem that Kennedy is asking the reader to feel what Meg is feeling in order to evoke empathy, the ‘you’ in this instance is Meg. The character is creating distance, as if she is looking down on herself and her situation. In using the ‘you’, Kennedy provokes the reader to make a judgement based on how they might feel or react in a similar situation. The third-person distance, however, remains between reader and character, thus the reader is not feeling with Meg, yet is forced to feel for her. The italicised line at the end of the quotation is a direct intrusion into Meg’s thoughts; therefore, Kennedy is able to redirect the ‘you’ to the ‘I’ allowing the reader to direct their sympathy towards Meg. Whilst structurally Serious Sweet and Legend of a Suicide differ, the realism of assessment and realism of presentation is very much prominent in both novels.
Vann provides subtle clues throughout each chapter of his novel that something bigger is going to happen. At the close of chapter three, Roy realises he is unable is unable to bring his father back, and instead, his mother’s ex-partner John is ‘practically delivered to [his] doorstep,’ (LOAS, p. 34). This is the point in the novel where the point of view changes to third-person-limited and the reader questions the reliability of the narrator. Booth argues that ‘If he is discovered to be untrustworthy, then the total effect of the work he relays to us is transformed.’ Vann deliberately shows the reader that Roy is unreliable, not only through the change in point of view, but also through obvious changes in the plot. On page thirty-nine for instance, Roy speaks of a sister who is never mentioned before this point, thus indicating that what they are about to read is merely Roy’s fantasy. Furthermore, the change in point of view allows the reader to compare what they have learned about Roy at the beginning of the novel, with what they are about to read. By this stage, the reader has formed a relationship with the character of Roy from his first person point of view, and therefore, has gained his trust. Any alteration to his original narrative can therefore, be viewed sympathetically. Booth suggests that
By the simplest expedient of creating a character who experiences the rhetoric in his own person, it has been made less objectionable. Every adjective and detail intended to set our mood is part of the growing mood and experience of the central character; the rhetoric now seems functional.’ (Booth, p.202).
Vann is following this exact structure, which evokes sympathy for the reader by creating distance from the original narrative, thus allowing the reader to compare. On Sukkwan Island for example, ‘A place like Ketchikan, where Roy had lived until age five, but wilder, and fearsome now that he was unaccustomed.’ (LOAS, p.37), notice how Vann is juxtaposing Roy’s place of upbringing, as seen in the beginning of the novel, with this unfamiliar place, which causes a reaction in Roy. Yet what Vann is really doing is telling the reader that Roy’s journey into this fantasy is frightening for him. Throughout the chapter, the reader is immersed in this huge outdoor space, cold and unfamiliar with a heightened sense of monotony. Roy’s imaginary relationship with his father becomes one of perseverance rather than warmth, so when his father says,
I don’t know how I got this way. I just feel so bad. I feel okay during the day, but it hits at night. And then I don’t know what to do […] I’m really trying. I just don’t know if I can hold on. (LOAS, p.71)
the reader wonders just whose account this really is. Bearing in mind this is a fantasy chapter, the above quotation is in fact the voice of Roy, told through the voice of his father. Vann is indirectly demonstrating Roy’s desperation in this scene, and therefore, creating distance in order to evoke sympathy in the reader. As the chapter draws to a close, the reader begins to see that the real Roy has begun to figure out that his fantasy world has brought him no closer to his father:
Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as if this were what he has felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before him and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there. (LOAS, p.116).
The reader can easily see that Jim in fading away in the above quotation, yet by presenting the narrative through Roy’s point of view, and with a lack of emotion, the reader has ample room to judge. This technique allows the reader to feel sympathy for the character, so when ‘Roy became more and more afraid, and tired, with a sense that he could not continue on, and he began to feel sorry for himself.’ (LOAS, p.116), Vann is telling the reader that Roy’s fantasy narrative is too upsetting for him. Therefore, when on page 128, Roy puts a gun to his head and shoots himself; the reader sees this is a shocking act of desperation. This evokes not only sympathy for Roy, but also for Jim because the reader will have a deeper understanding, through Roy, of his father’s emotional state at the point he actually took his own life.
Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator in a more immediate form. Take for example the character of John Sigurdsson, rushing to his office in Westminster, ‘He was very breathless, which was not a good sign,’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). The beginning of this quotation is a distant third-person narrator; yet following the comma, the third-person-limited narrator brings the reader closer to how John feels. This is followed by his immediate thoughts, ‘But all is well. More than. Everything is fine,’ and then later, ‘And he wasn’t too hot. Not flustered. He did have these small red prickles of something on his skin – despair, unease, panic.’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). This type of alternation between distance, closeness, and immediacy, demonstrates how the juxtaposition between points of view can reveal to the reader that the character is trying to conceal his emotions. Thus, the italicised first person monologue is unreliable or untrustworthy. Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator to build tension in her narrative. John’s unreliability is a key tool in the plot as the reader discovers he is disclosing government information to the press. Without this, and without the third-person narrator, the reader would only see through John’s eyes, thus his actions might be seen us unprofessional. Furthermore, it would not reveal the difficulty that these actions cause his character, thus would not evoke sympathy. Therefore, when the plot unravels as it does the reader’s sympathy is heightened. In Legend of a Suicide, the plot begins to unravel with a surprising shift in chapter five, when the third-person-limited point of view changes from Roy to Jim. Whilst Vann continues to ensure that the reader knows that these chapters are a fantasy; ‘[Jim] pushed himself back further away from Roy but this was phony, another act, […] And though it couldn’t be his son there, it kept being his son there.’ (LOAS, p.130), the last line in this quotation hints to the reader that Roy is still very much narrating. This is achieved through the use of free indirect discourse. The narrative is shown though the eyes of Jim yet Roy’s voice consistently intrudes:
If Roy were still alive, and Jim could take him somewhere now, he would take him sailing around the world. That was something Roy had actually wanted to do. He had said so himself. And it was something Jim could have arranged just as easily as homesteading. He had the money for a boat, he knew how to sail, he had the time. But for that to have been possible, he would have had to listen to Roy. He would have had to notice him while he was still alive. (LOAS, p.152).
With exception of the first line, the remainder of the above quotation is the voice of Roy. This can be identified in the tone. The first line is Jim fantasising, it seems light-hearted, dream-like, yet the remainder has an angry tone and is intensified by the use of ‘actually’ and the repetition of ‘had’. These lines correspond to Roy’s version of his life in chapter one, thus confirming that this is in fact Roy speaking. Vann’s use of free indirect discourse here is to allow Roy to express his anger, because if he had expressed these feelings in the previous chapter in third-person-limited, the reader would have been too close to Roy’s thoughts to feel sympathy. It is important to remember that chapter four and five are fantasy stories, and although Jim is the primary character in chapter five, it is Roy’s fantasy. Thus, the narrator that we hear in both chapters is Roy. The juxtaposition between Roy and his father allows Vann to evoke reader sympathy for Roy by indirectly revealing Roy in his purest form; therefore, the free indirect discourse is essential in maintaining a distance in order to allow the reader to judge. On discussing Jane Austin’s Emma, Booth suggests that
The solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was primarily to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, through third person, reporting on her own experience,’ (Booth, p.245).
It is clear that Vann is using this same technique, and by diverting Roy’s thought and faults onto his father, he is creating sympathy for Roy at a distance. It is through the examples such as the one above that Vann proves that sympathy can be evoked in the reader when they are close to Roy’s thoughts. Yet for the overall effect to be plausible, the unreliable narrator is an important, if not necessary, device.
In chapter five and six of the novel, the point of view returns to first-person, thus confirming that the chapters written in third person were fantasy. There is however, a final twist in Vann’s novel. In the final chapter, Roy is referred to as the boy: ‘I like to think that the boy is helpful,’ (LOAS, p.221). For the reader, this change identifies that the narrator is in fact Vann himself. This creates a distance between the author and his own childhood self, thus creating a sympathetic response. Furthermore, the reader can at this stage, feel a greater amount of sympathy for Vann due to the entire structure of the novel. The reader will be aware that Vann has brought his father back to life over and over again.
In this paper I have demonstrated the various ways in which narrative point of view can be used to evoke a sympathetic response in readers by looking at David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet. Whilst traditionally first-person point of view was believed to be more likely to evoke empathy, the essay has demonstrated that by using emotional distance, in conjunction with close observation, the author can create a sympathetic response; this is due to the reader having the accessibility to make an emotional judgement. Furthermore, the essay has looked at how the unreliable narrator can be an effective tool in concealing emotions, setting up the plot and diverting readers from the truth in order to create character sympathy. Overall, however, I demonstrated that in order for sympathy to be evoked, there must be a juxtaposition, whether it is between first and third person viewpoint, between characters, or between what is revealed, and what is not. This juxtaposition is essential in order to evoke sympathy in the reader.
Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961)
David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (London: Random House, 2012)
Hildick Wallace, Thirteen Types of Narrative (London: McMillan and Co Ltd, 1968)
Kennedy, A.L., Serious Sweet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016)
I wrote this poem in response to finding out an old friend and work colleague had died. While I never actually found out the cause of his death, I do know that in the months, maybe years leading up to his death, he was lonely. I spoke to him on social media on rare occasions, but never allowed myself to get close enough to ask the simple questions- are you okay, or, do you need help. I guess over the years we had drifted apart as friends, and for that reason I felt that it wasn’t up to me to respond to his very obvious cries for help. Now I wish I could turn back time and not scroll by his social media posts. Now I wish I could talk to him and remind him that he is loved and that he has brought happiness to so many people in his life time. Perhaps those words might have saved him. Perhaps those words would have given him peace in his final moments.
R.I.P my friend. A fragment of your life is imprinted on mine.
They dressed you up like Christmas day. A faux Silk blouse with ruffled trim – garnet red. Black Pressed polyester trousers with an elastic waist, The comfy yins. But the shoes, the shoes were wrong.
Unworn kitten heels – black. The yins ye bought Fi Marks and Sparks that rubbed yer bunions.
They dressed you up like Christmas day and put you on display. Painted Your face back to life, with tinted rouge and peach lipstick that puckered Like melted wax, concealing your smile, Your tea stained teeth. They put you on display – Dead Cold.
Jon brought you a school picture of your grandson Jack; slipped it under your pillow Then squeezed a private letter into your clenched right hand. I Gave you a card. A pink one with a rose. I placed it beside your left hand – sealed Happy Mother’s Day Mum
They put you on display, dressed you up like it was Christmas day but without Your love heart locket, your gold embossed wishbone ring. Those damn sentimental things that might hold tiny particles of skin, Fragments of last week – lingering in the grooves.
Since writing this poem, I have begun writing a novel titled ‘Cheese Scones & Valium’, which is biographical fiction of part of my mothers life, and is embedded in memoir. This has a direct link to my poem.
I published Funeral Parlour with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017. The poem was originally written for an assessment at university and was difficult to write. This poem describes my own experience of seeing my own mother for the last time.
Window Pain Not a paper bag Or a terracotta mask Can erase this face, Or misplace The dug-out lines, The outlines, the valleys sketched Like map markings, marking my skin. Or the thin Unconventional smile, forced from A gully of pain That rises to the tip Of a pin like nerve
To my lip. Does this body deserve To mask these aging bones
With leather skin Smoothed out, Like putty on a window pane With pain.
Or will night, When dusk coughs The light from the sky – celebrate, and wait until the moon is a silver eyelash on a violet sheet and the self – erased.
The Curtains twitch.An ambulance passes. No siren. No need.There’s a hush -A breath Held harder than a hiccupAs silence swellsInto the four corners of o’clock.Through the letterboxA whiff of kippers;Of soup and salty socks, sinkLike a stain into embossed
Net curtains and settle. Settle.A beat -A tick of life – A wave from a crackling stereo;and the Corries pinch the spaceBefore the light-bulbs blinkAnd press the night like putty-Into the lips of the gardenBehind the disinfected wheelie bin
And the whittled bird boxTomorrow waits.For news and for open blinds,For fresh pheasant, hung dead
On a hook by the washing line,And footsteps – And an old manCarrying a loaf of bread
In a crumpled up carrier bag.The curtains twitch.
We whaur raking for treasure this efternuin, Doun the back of the bing, The bit where ma Ma kin see us, Frae ower the kitchen sink. And well–
Buried doun beneath some foosty plastic bags- Fou of someone else’s ‘sexy’ Tennent’s Extra cans, We fund four wheels of a Silvercross pram.
We brought them hame and dunked them in a puddle by the kerb, The drain gunk cleaned the rust up, they whaur looking quite superb. Then Willie,
Willie wis having a muck aroond – Spinning the wheels, and ripping them Roond and roond and roond, Until the cauld muck spat Intae the plumes That our laughing made.
Oh, and then!
Willie chored a fence post frae oot the back eh Mr Bain’s While I was shottie.
‘But it was Ian that made the bogie!’
And it was the best boggie the Fruit-and-Nut scheme had ever seen. A pure dr-eeam. He made the seat frae a scullery chair, And drilled it tae a widden frame- Remember? The fence post that Willie chored frae the back eh Mr Bain’s?
Then Willie – he bagged first go.
So he pulled the boggie up the hill. Right oot the top of the street – and wow! There I wis, racing him doun the hill like Seb Co Aboot to cross the line – And claim ma gold,
When Willies orange helmet slipped – or so am told And the next thing I kent- Am lying On the kerb – Oot cold And wi a skint knee.
And Willie – Well – He wis flying oor ma heed and As you ken I was lying there – half deid But the blooming bogie – Well It didnae even ken tae stop, It smashed into the back Of Mr Law’s New – fancy – Ford –
‘But is no oor fault officer – Ian never put any breaks on it. ‘
This poem is featured in the Lies, Dreaming Podcast #11 named Treasure. Click here to hear me read this poem.