Dylan Thomas Day

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Today, Sunday, May 14th is International Dylan Thomas Day. I grew up in Swansea, the birthplace of Dylan Thomas, and naturally I grew up with his poetry. Fern Hill is my favourite poem, lyrical and full of mortality. My grandmother, Dilys Davis, was an actress who worked in both Welsh and English. She was in the first radio production of Under Milk Wood  for the BBC in 1954, starring Richard Burton. She played Mrs Ogmore Pritchard who runs a guesthouse where nobody stays – she is fastidious in her need for order –  and she spends her time scolding her dead husbands.

‘Mr Ogmore. Mr Pritchard.’

‘It is time to inhale your balsam.’

 

How to Read a Fairytale

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For anyone wishing to delve deeper into fairytales, Angela Carter’s book is a good place to start.

The fairytale is a strange sort of story. It belongs to everyone and it belongs to no one and there are rarely any fairies to be had for love, money or even a handful of magic beans. It thrives on paradox.  It occupies at once a realistic and contradictory world where crushing poverty and immense riches sit side by side. It embraces a narrative of  misfortune, magical events, charms and curses, where strange and often grotesque and unreasonable characters intervene. Relationships are difficult. Death looms large. Nothing is what it seems.  Motivations are not always obvious and are more often than not ambiguous. Different versions of the same stories emerge in all sorts of different cultures. And for those raised on the sanitised Ladybird versions of  Cinderella, Snow White and Goldilocks with their clear boundaries and happy-ever-afters, the older tellings can be hair-raising in their breaking of taboo and exploration of difficult subject matter. For anyone who wants to delve deeper,  Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales published by Virago is a good place to start.

​The story of The White Cat is taken from the Blue Book of Fairytales, edited by Andrew Lang, a nineteenth century Scottish writer who collected myths and fairytales. As a story of transformation, it seemed a good choice for the relaunched Feminist Times and retelling it as La Chatte Blanche or the Tail of the Innocent Pussy was irresistible. For me, the renaming of the story follows a long established tradition of mischievous duality picked up by Angela Carter amongst others, and there is a nod and a wink to her bold and vivid storytelling within it. The teller of the tale, Madame d’Aulnoy was a French writer who inhabited the seventeenth- century Parisian salons. Her stories, like those of the other conteuses of the time were complicated things, stories within stories. The White Cat is the story for which she is best-known.

I like to think that Madame D’Aulnoy, with her habit for slyly critiquing society through her stories, would have approved.

La Chatte Blanche or The Tale of the Clever Pussy was a prelaunch edition of the Feminist Times.

Owls and Omens

“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.” 
Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
Owls don’t generally get a good write up in literature. I cite the owls of The Tower of Flint in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy  devouring Lord Sepulchre, who mistakenly believed himself to be a Death Owl. Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin also got short shrift from his local owl. Readers will recall that Old Brown abducted him in a terrifying episode on Lake Derwentwater. He escaped Old Brown’s house through the attic window, but lost part of his tail  and a great deal of his charm and  chutzpar in the process.

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 Old Brown teaches cheeky Squirrel Nutkin a lesson he won’t forget. 

 

It isn’t surprising then, when I was not only woken but kept awake for some hours last night by an owl hooting in textbook fashion that I immediately wondered if it was some kind of bad omen, possibly a harbinger of death. The Romans thought this, considering the hooting of an owl to indicate someone’s imminent demise. I comforted myself with the thought that I am not Roman and therefore not obliged to invest in their belief systems…

​But why it was so loud and furthermore why it had picked the tree at the bottom of our garden to perch for the night? This morning following extensive online research – reader, I googled it – I discovered it was in fact a tawny owl, that gives a distinctive kweek hoo hoo hoo call. It’s one of the most common owl species in the UK. 50,000 breeding pairs in the UK at the time of writing, since you ask. It was probably a mating call, which explains the volume and the persistence. And if you live at the edge of a nature reserve I suppose these things are to be expected.

In the owl’s defence, there is of course Owl from Winnie the Pooh who was wise, if a little impatient and also Edward Lear’s romantic seafaring owl, who was married to a cat in a service presided over by a turkey on a hill. Go figure.

​Can anyone think of any more owls in literature?


The Reader and the Story

‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’
― Ursula K. Le Guin

Stories are many things to many people. They are whispered to us from the moment we are born, we are encouraged to read them for ourselves as soon as we are able and we die with them lingering on our lips. Stories drive us through our days and carry us through our nights. They can forge identities, define our relationships and explain the world to us in ways we might never have imagined. The reader’s job is a rich and varied one and in the kingdom of the story the reader is queen.

Without the reader, as Le Guin points out, the story cannot live. Angela Carter knew this. She said reading a book was like re-writing it for yourself’. This resonates for me, given the sense of ownership a good story can instil in a faithful reader, and the protective anxiety any loose talk of a film, television adaptation or a reworking of any kind can invoke. I’m thinking about The Great Gatsby myself, although you doubtless have your own titles to protect and I could list you ten more right here but that is a discussion we can always have later down the line.

Readers take stories away with them and make them their own. Readers are a law unto themselves and there is nothing the writer can do about that. Readers are playful rogues, sometimes misremembering stories and retelling them in a different way, sometimes drawing themes out of the words that the writer had no conscious intention of putting in there so at last it becomes a sister story to the one first set down, sometimes forgetting the story altogether only to rediscover it anew at a later date.

Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature considered that a good reader should have imagination, a good memory, a dictionary and some artistic sense. Virginia Woolf in her essay How Should One Read A Book suggested the reader’s attitude should be ‘to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions’.

Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose identity, for years a guarded secret, was recently revealed by a journalist, has said that a book, once written, has no need of its author at all and leaves the reader to make their own way through the words.

It might seem strange or contrary then that I will be writing a commentary on this blog around the themes of each story that appears in the Feminist Times. However, I promise to offer no advice and I will definitely leave the reader to their own conclusions. For once a writer has finished she must give the story away and hope the readers will do a good job of their side of the bargain. It is hard work, this reading life, but somebody has to do it and let the stories come alive.

Starting Over

Hello! I’ve just migrated this blog from another hosting site that was, well, a little isolated. I realised quite early on that I should have chosen WordPress – I was really looking for a blogging community to get involved with – but I was seduced by another hosting site that promised easy setup, click and drop page composition but didn’t mention the lack of connectivity with other bloggers.

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My former hosting site was a little lonely for this blogger.

Hmmm. I know what you’re thinking. I should have done my research.  It’s true.

Reader, I blogged in haste and  fretted through the winter and procrastinated through the early days of spring, but this week I finally took the plunge and moved here. And I’m glad. Even if there have been a few technical hitches along the way – jumbled entries, lost content, missing images…

This blog is a writing journal. I discuss the writing process, writers I’m interested in, books and other things that catch my interest from stuffed crocodiles to Matroyska dolls. I’ve archived some posts from the old site that are seasonal – the ghost story I wrote for the Feminist Times for example,  A Merry Christmas Mr Dickens is here if you like your festive spine tinglers in May, that is.

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A Merry Christmas Mr Dickens : a ghost story for every season.

We had a murmuration of starlings over the winter and I wrote about them and their incredible formations here. Whilst sitting by the fire  I  compiled a list of ten of the best ghost stories  for a winter’s evening. I responded to the U.S. election by suggesting some comfort reads, subsequently reminding myself of the Aesop fable The Wolf and The Lamb.

You can just scroll back through the postings from the winter if you prefer.

Feel free to leave comments – I’ll definitely respond. I’m looking forward to getting in touch with other bloggers.

Rebecca

Writing about Writing

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When you write, you lay out a line in words. the line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. It is a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.’
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

In moments of writing doubt – and there are many moments that would qualify – then there are several books on my shelf I reach for. I have slowly amassed and continue to collect books by other writers on writing. Some are practical books of writing exercises, others intellectual reflections on the structure and nature of the novel or short story and then there are books on what it is to write, essays of hope and encouragement such as Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Of these three The Writing Life  is the one I return to most and it is more likely, seeing as we’re on the subject, to be in my bag amongst  papers, pens, exercise books and my laptop, than to be left on the shelf.

It is a short book – 100 pages or so – given to me by a friend when the moments of doubt had rolled over into a longer period of writing anxiety, when technical difficulties seemed as insurmountable as an annual tax return. I was quite stuck and I just couldn’t budge. This was the right book to give me. It pulled me out of the rut.

Annie Dillard is a thoughtful, reflective writer. Her book is at once a comfort, a commiseration and a call to arms, at least if a pen or a keyboard are your weapons of choice. It’s a book to be read and reread. My copy is tatty. There is a coffee stain on page 36. I’ve underlined passages in pen on pages 3, 5, 27, 58. Page 13, amongst others, is dog-eared because it contains a particularly important passage about how long you might expect to spend writing a novel. I read that part over and over. I tell everyone to read this book.  I don’t lend my copy to anyone.

​Dog-ear.
I decide to look it up in the dictionaryI do this when I use a word or phrase that I haven’t often used before, or that I’m suddenly and unexpectedly experiencing some kind of doubt over. A kind of word-blindness. It’s a hangover from my sub-editing shifts at magazines, a sudden doubting of the provenance and suitability of a word whose use I have, until that point, taken for granted. I look these words up in the large two volume version of the OED that sits on my bookcase. I trust it more than the online version. I find the dictionary reassuring.  I  flick through the pages of the dictionary, easily distracted. I land prematurely a page or two away from my word and browse through the entries: divertimento, divertive, divest…

For any writer words are currency. This is not wasted time. I am sifting words, a lexical speculator.  Twenty five words later and I flick to the correct page but I am waylaid by other words now: dog-cart, a small cart drawn by dogs, dog-cheap, meaning very inexpensive and dog-legged, which apparently refers to a set of stairs without a well-hole.

The OED states that dog-ear is a variation of dog’s-ear (v) to disfigure a book by turning down the corners of the leafs.

According to the OED the word’s first documented use is 1659. I imagine learned gentlemen in 17th century  coffee houses sipping the devil’s brew, taking a pipe and dog’s-earing important passages in their books before going off to witness a public hanging, disembowelling or other pleasing 17th century diversion such as burning witches  at the stake (see below).


dog’s ear  (v) to disfigure a book by turning down the corners of the leafs

The Writing Life is a personal and at times profound reflection on what it is to write. Annie Dillard explores her writing practice. She shares small epiphanies, defeats, set-backs and victories. I seek out the same passages again and again. Writing is a solitary business. On these pages I find empathy and reassurance and an acknowledgement that what I am doing is at once a privilege and  an obscure pursuit. People would miss you putting a shift in at the shoe store more than they would miss any notional novel manuscript you might be writing, she reminds me. Quite true. She also reminds me it takes between two and ten years to write a book.

​It’s taken me five years so far, but I’m closing in on the final chapters, if I can put the dictionary down for long enough, that is.