Friday, 29 July 2011

100 word flash fiction for #fridayflash - The Bejewelled Hare

Bejewelled Hare by Charles Avery - inspiration


They called off the dogs in a swirl of hooves and snarls. The hare’s neck and belly were torn. One hound slunk away, gnawing,  from the broken sack of naked leverets that spilled out onto the grass.

Bending over the body to disguise his grimace, the hunter caught a glint of something, bent closer. Around the hare’s foreleg, above the paw, was a ring heavy with diamonds.

He heard the voice call from deep memory. A bejewelled hare, she had said. He had smiled, not believing. Follow the bejewelled hare, and find your fortune there. The hunter sank to his knees.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Folk art for folk tales - paper cutting


This was going to be a post about media ethics. But, what I wrote in my draft was bilious, and critical, and it wasn’t even about News Corporation, the Murdochs or hacking. There is enough nastiness in the atmosphere at the moment, including the rain that is battering my window right now as if it would like to wash us all away. So I thought I’d post about something nice and non-political; a cup-of-tea-and-an-eclair kind of post rather than a pie-in-the-face-and-a-drubbing.
Last week I did an evening workshop at the Make Lounge in Islington on paper cutting. It was led by Suzy Taylor, whose beautiful work you can look at on her blog at http://suzy-taylor.blogspot.com/. Maybe it was the white wine, or the sheer joy of creating something, but it felt like an epiphany when after a couple of hours bent over a knife I turned over my piece of origami paper, laid it on the backing card, and saw a picture that made sense.
I am terrible at drawing, and have always wished I could illustrate my own stories and poems, knowing that by the time I had learned and practised, I could have written several novels instead. I have stories sitting around that are longing for pictures, but I could never quite bring myself to hand them over to an illustrator, knowing they would breathe a wonderful new life into them using their own soul that could well leave the words behind. So I waited, and waited…
Until Suzy came along! Not only did she show me I could actually produce something reasonable despite my wonky sketches on the back of the paper, but I discovered the ideal medium for illustrating folk and fairy influenced tales.

This is not surprising, in retrospect, as paper cutting is often referred to as a ‘folk’ art. But it also has this lovely quality of drawing you in without revealing too much, which is exactly what I hope to achieve in my writing. The reader/viewer should have to do a bit of work themselves to make the picture make sense, and a papercut does this with silhouettes. Your eye drifts about, working out what things are and their relationship to one another, and how they have been represented.
My first few papercuts have all been illustrations for that story I wrote years ago; they are quite simple, but then so is the story. The writing had already been edited down and chopped up to fit into small chunks beside pictures in a standard 16 side picture book, so in a few weeks I may have to go on a book-binding course so I can put the whole thing together…
In the mean time, I have just finished my first papercut commission. It was designed to celebrate a 60th birthday, illustrating the things the person loves, so will have to wait until after the party to be revealed. I will post more of my papercuts here, hopefully showing signs of progress as I get braver with the knife, and all commissions are most welcome!

Friday, 15 July 2011

100 words for Friday Flash Fiction - a greedy potter's fantasy

(I've started learning to do pottery, and have produced my first piece - a wonky, ugly jug. I glazed the inside with a colour called 'wine,' which set this off...)

The first thing I made with the new clay was a jug. When I filled it, to test the pour, more water flowed out than in.
Next I made an eggcup. The hen’s eggs swelled to ostrich proportions. I scooped yolk out with a baguette.
When the garden pot I made turned a tomato plant into a tree, laden with red footballs, I went to find the jug, and that bottle of Monbazillac 1979 I had been saving for a special occasion.
The morning after the party, the jug, and the clay, were gone. I consoled myself with tomato omelettes.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Words, beautiful words - or are they?

I was alerted today by Galleycat to an online list, sources unclear, of the 100 most beautiful words in English. This is different from the British Council’s 2004 list built via suggestions from the public of the world’s favourite words in English.

I read it to see how much I would agree with the selection, and found some interesting features, aside from beauty.

First of all, more than a third of the words were adjectives. Of those, almost all were positive or at least neutral. The only ones that could be used in a negative way were desultory, furtive, surreptitious, untoward (what was that word doing there?) and woebegone, but even those are hardly damning.

The only other negative-leaning words I could find were beleaguer, dissemble, harbinger (only because we associate it with the common phrase ‘harbinger of doom’), languor and lassitude, the latter pair having rather romantic, literary associations along with desultory.

Of the nouns, most were abstract or named categories rather than tangible things (tangible and frangible are favourite words of mine, both missing). I found bungalow (another mysterious entry!), elixir, gossamer, inglenook, palimpsest (which we mostly use metaphorically anyway) ratatouille, ripple, Susquehanna (a proper noun), talisman and umbrella. These, with the exception of bungalow, ratatouille and umbrella, all have quite fantastical, magical, romantic associations, and are hardly the objects of everyday life. What about pebble? Or blancmange? Or bumblebee? Interestingly, there are many more names for concrete objects in the British Council’s list of favourite words, but those did not have to be considered beautiful.

At first I thought, this list has missed a trick. Instead of beautiful-sounding words, it is largely a collection of beautiful concepts – serendipity, summery, dulcet, comely. But of course, a lot is going on when we hear a word, and when we understand the word it is almost impossible to separate the sound from the meaning (try reading aloud a poem in your own language and only hearing the sounds). I doubt anyone’s favourite word is murder, but if I repeat it until it loses meaning, I like the sound.

There are some negative words I can think of with sounds I enjoy: ghastly, frantic, turgid, flabby. One comment I saw on one of these lists suggested that, if you can forget the meaning, gonorrhoea actually sounds lovely, but I can’t seem to make the leap…

Of course, it is more likely that we will give something we like a nice-sounding moniker than something that provokes disgust, but this rule doesn’t hold fast. When we mention striking or stroking someone, we use the same hard consonants but only flinch at the former.

Associations with similar-sounding words, or negative ideas, or experiences, can also lessen the supposed beauty of a word. Bucolic was on the beautiful word list, for the notion I suppose, but to me it also sounds like disease – colic and bubonic plague.

The last interesting feature of the 100 beautiful words was the distinctly small proportion of English words deriving from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic or German, which can be some of the most pleasingly onomatopoeic and also delightful in their blunt simplicity. I love the word jug, and dumpy, dinky words like stout, clout, gob, crunch, frisk. Long, Latinate words may roll off the tongue, but the more base, simple words can be just as evocative, if not more so.

Lists of most hated words are also fascinating and great fun to analyse. One that often tops the voting amongst writers is moist, probably because of associations with its use in pieces of bad romance writing. My hairs stand on end when I start thinking about words I hate; titbit, or tidbit, for example, makes me want to wash out my mouth with soap. I will be collecting favourite and hated words this week, so if you have any to share, please tell me!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley on Edgelands



The first thing I noticed about Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts as they were introduced from the podium at the Southbank was their footwear. The former in grey suede of pointed toe, the latter brogues as richly shining as new conkers, both pairs looked new enough that the wearers might be self-conscious about them, wriggling their toes secretly to find comfort. Perhaps I only entertained this idea because they were together to talk about edgelands, and their new book of the same name, and I associate edgelands with walking – particularly walking that requires shoes you don’t much care about.

Both writers are poets (as well as novelists, librettists, teachers) and it showed in the excerpt they read and in their deft turn of phrase when it came to answering the questions posed by their chair, Richard Mabey, who was just as twinkly as I had hoped. While they didn’t grow up together, they did both grow up exploring and playing in edgelands, the bits and bobs of landscape that aren’t quite town or city, but aren’t countryside either. Living as I do a pigeon’s commute from the Lea valley, and the marshlands wedged between Leyton and Clapton in East London, this is a subject close to my heart.


I had not heard the term edgelands before, and the pair attribute it to Marion Shoard, citing her ‘call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them,’ as the seed that grew – nourished by pub pints and nostalgic forays – into their book. Now that I have heard the word, I have a new category for my own not-quite-country landscape, a new frame in which to place it. Paul Farley admitted that this might not be a good thing. These edgeland places, unlike ‘loved landscapes, lived-in landscapes,’ tend to be nameless, like Wainwright’s ‘Inominate Tarn’ – ‘its wilderness quality evoked by the namelessness of its name.’ Once we give them a name, or at least a category, this creates a new kind of attention, of a kind that Paul admitted made him wish the book half existed but half did not.

The section they chose to read from Edgelands, which is divided into 26 sections such as ‘paths, dens, containers, landfills,’ was on standing water, and in amongst their evocation of plaintive places and the activities they attract were some wonderful descriptions. Local estate kids, destroying the peace at an angler’s pond, do so by ‘detonating the depthcharge of a half brick in the pond’s centre.’ In a tangent on declining sea fish populations, they imagine fish markets instead filled with species from the edgelands’ waters, ‘silver and gunmetal’ bodies replaced with ‘the loose-change colours of roach, minnows, rudd.’


These two writers are avowedly following in the footsteps of romantic poets like John Clare, setting out to praise the edgelands in their book, which, whilst not poetry, is certainly poetic. They don’t shy away though from the seedier side of edgelands life; one path, ‘judging by the amount of used condoms festooning the hedgerow and cigarette butts in the camber, is a well-used dogging spot.’ But the condoms are ‘festooning’ that hedgerow, like a kind of unexpected bunting; the writers are not passing judgement on this landscape and its inhabitants, rather observing and quietly celebrating. They explicitly distance themselves from the new crew of self-appointed psychogeographers, or ‘deep topologists,’ who often use edgelands as a backdrop for depressing analyses of the state of life in and around cities.

In the end, and to my delight, Paul nudged his foot up against Michael’s, and exhorted readers of the book to look closely at their shoes. If you want clues to which of us wrote each section, he smiled, think of these shoes and you’ll figure it out. So I am setting out through their edgelands exploration with grey suede and chestnut leather in mind, imagining those well-turned toes poking into elder bushes, dangling down canal sides, treading the paths that lead to places with no name.


Friday, 1 July 2011

100 words Friday flash fiction - A surprise proposal

It’s perfect. One rose petal has dropped onto the white linen. The candle burns a sunset flame of passion. When Paul glances at the bow-tied waiter, Miranda surreptitiously tugs her dress down and crosses her arms, for maximum effect. She waits for his gaze to return, and holds it, wide-eyed.
When he starts to speak, she reaches out her hand and swells with joy when instead of taking it Paul reaches into his jacket pocket. The velvet box sits in his palm.
“I got the promotion. I’m going to Singapore,” he grins. Miranda stares at the pair of diamond cufflinks.