Monday, April 20, 2015

Bird of Passage: Writing About Difficult Things

Inmates of an Industrial School 
I'm reblogging this from a recent post for Authors Electric. It seems worthwhile extending the discussion a bit. 

I’ve just revised my novel Bird of Passage – published to Kindle some years ago - before releasing it to various other publishing platforms via Draft 2 Digital – no real changes, just a little bit of much needed editing and reformatting here and there. This was one of my earliest eBook publications and I’ve been aware that it needed attention for some time. I have plans for a paperback later in the year when an engrossing new project allows.

I revamped the blurb as well. And that’s what gave me pause for thought and the idea for this post. The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even supressed. My second major professional stage play was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

Women working in one of the Magdalene Laundries.
A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were ‘committed’ by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

You have to understand that although these were treated as young criminals that isn’t what most of them were. These were vulnerable children. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be ‘out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not exactly free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

But where?

These were often profoundly damaged individuals. The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any known misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came over here and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

Little boys seem to have been most harshly treated.
In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are boys placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Difficult things. Impossible things, really. I wonder what other writers and readers think about this. 


Cover by Alison Bell



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bird of Passage

Cover art by Scottish artist Alison Bell
This is just a small update about Bird of Passage - because I'll be writing some more about the background to the novel next week. I've done some minor revisions - nothing structural or important - just a bit of reformatting and a few edits to punctuation and so on. This was one of my earliest independently published novels and it needed a little care and attention.

At the same time, I've taken the opportunity to publish it to a number of other platforms, so if you don't have a Kindle or Kindle App, you'll find it on Apple, Kobo, Nook etc. I'm planning a paperback edition later on this year, as soon as I've finished the first draft of my Jean Armour novel.

A surprising and gratifying number of readers have taken the time and trouble to tell me how much this novel means to them - and that kind of feedback can't be ignored. I'm very much moved by it and very grateful to them for contacting me or reviewing the novel. It does, I fear, make it all the more surprising that no traditional publisher ever took this one on. A few publishers saw it and turned it down. Successive agents read it, said 'no thanks - you need to come up with something more commercial' and wouldn't even send it out. But I knew that those people who had read it - real readers, not industry insiders - were telling me that it should be published.

Sometimes you can see why a book might be turned down. Even if it's a well written book, you can see that it might not be quite what the market wants. But sometimes, you simply don't understand. And this is one of those books. I self published it with some trepidation - but then various people - strangers as well as friends - told me how much they loved it. So I'm glad that now, other people can read it.

I've also been thinking about the serious and distressing background to this book - the Irish Industrial Schools that were still in existence until the 1970s and that have left a great many damaged individuals behind them, people who are still seeking the redress and closure they so badly need and deserve, but don't seem able to get. I'll be blogging about this a little bit next week. It was distressing to research and heartbreaking to write. It isn't even 'my' story to tell. But I had an Irish grandmother who - for reasons too personal to go into here - could easily have found herself in this kind of situation.

Bird of Passage is a love story - of course it is - and something of a homage to Wuthering Heights, but it's also a story about a damaged individual and how that damage spreads and is inflicted on others. And of course it's set in a landscape that I love very much indeed - a wild Scottish island landscape like this one.



Friday, April 03, 2015

Robert Burns's Magnificent Response to a Critic


I don't know how this had escaped my attention until this week - but it had: Robert Burns's incomparable response to a critic who had complained that his poetry contained 'obscure language' and 'imperfect grammar'.

I mean I've felt like this often enough - haven't we all? But I never had quite these words to express my feelings!


Ellisland, 1791.

Dear Sir:

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

R.B.



Ellisland

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Curiosity Cabinet, Attractive Highlanders, Two Love Stories, a 3 Day Sale - and Luriana Lurilee

From 1st April (and no, this isn't an April Fool's trick, honestly!) The Curiosity Cabinet will be on special offer at a reduced price for three days. (Here in the USA)

Although it's in that category and is undoubtedly Scottish, and seems to attract some of the same readers, it's a novel that isn't really a 'time slip' story like the excellent and popular Outlander, because nobody actually goes back in time.

But all the same, it slides between two tales, one past and one present, within the same setting, two parallel love stories both set mostly on the same small (fictional) Hebridean island and both involving attractive highlanders. (Or islandmen, if we're being strictly accurate here!)

There are subtle connections between the two stories and between the characters. In some ways, the problems and challenges of the past are being worked out in the present. And yet that isn't the end of the story either. Things may come full circle. But they may also change in unexpected ways.

I think the point I was trying to make, or one of them at any rate - apart from telling two intertwined love stories - was that in small places like this island, the barrier between natural and supernatural is somehow thin. And, moreover, you are sometimes aware of the multiple layers of existence of all the people who have lived and loved and died there down all the years.

Way back when I was at school (and that's a woefully long time ago!) I read Virginia Woolf's 'To The Lighthouse.' And in that novel she quotes a poem that has stayed with me down all the years as well.


I wonder if it seems to you
Luriana Lurilee
That all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be,
Are full of trees and waving leaves,
Luriana Lurilee.


Strangely, I've only just found out that it was written by a relatively unknown poet called Charles Isac Elton, circulated to a small number of people and transcribed by Leonard Woolf in 1902.

Who was Luriana Lurilee? What was Luriana Lurilee?

If anything, the last verses of the poem are even stranger:

How long since you and I went out,
Luriana Lurilee
To see the kings go riding by
Over lawn and daisylea,
With their palm-sheaves and cedar-leaves
Luriana Lurilee.


Swing, swing on the cedar bough!
Luriana Lurilee
Till you sleep in a bramble-heap
Or under the gloomy churchyard-tree,
And then fly back to swing on a bough,
Luriana Lurilee.




Those words kept coming back to me - or the version in To The Lighthouse, which as far as I remember seems to be 'changing leaves' - when I was writing the Curiosity Cabinet and they still do. They even came back to me when I was writing another island set novel - Bird of Passage - for which they are even more appropriate, albeit for an entirely different set of reasons.

But even now, when I write or speak about the Curiosity Cabinet - which I first wrote some years ago as a trilogy of plays for radio and then rewrote as a novel - these strange words about trees and leaves, about lives we lived and lives to be, come drifting through my mind.

There's a magic in them - and for me, there was a kind of magic in the landscape and people and lives of the novel too.





Monday, March 23, 2015

Downloading Rab - or - yet another post about Jean Armour!

I'm reblogging this from my recent Authors Electric contribution since I got a kick from writing it - and I hope you might enjoy reading it.

I wrote this play about Burns for Glasgow's Oran Mor venue
As everyone who knows me, and quite a few people who don’t, will know by now, I’m working on a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour. Never heard of her, somebody said to me only the other day. Which is one of the reasons why I’m writing it. Even when I wrote my play Burns on the Solway for one of the Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor, I found myself writing about Jean as much as Rab.

Anyway, as usual in mid-project, especially mid historical project, I’m doing a lot of research. Some of it is necessary but some of it is just for fun, meandering down some strange highways and byways of history and occasionally (like last week) coming up with one or two electrifying possibilities about certain – I hesitate to use the words ‘sacred cows’ but they just popped into my head – of Burns lore.

Also popping into my head in the early hours of the morning with uncomfortable regularity is the desperate need to look something or other up just to see if it fits with my far-fetched but fascinating thesis about somebody who isn’t central to the story – but the theory is perfectly possible and much too good, not to say controversial, to leave out.

Anyway, there I was, all cosied up in bed on a wild, wet and windy morning, 5 am and I was wondering if I could really be bothered to get out of bed before the central heating had come on and pad through to the study and rummage through my great heap of research books old and new until I found the poem I was looking for to see if it really did seem to say what I thought it said, and if it really did seem to date from when I thought it did.
Jean, in her late forties, John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council


No, I couldn’t, was the answer to that one.

Then I noticed that my Kindle was lying beside the bed. It’s a Paperwhite, so I didn’t even need to switch it on. I just opened up its girly pink cover and woke it up. Unlike my husband, it never seems to object. It had just occurred to me that although I have many volumes of Burns’s poetry and letters, some of them quite old and rare, I don’t have any of his poems on my Kindle. I touched the shopping cart symbol, put Robert Burns into the search box, and up popped lots of available editions including one that had everything, and I mean everything, with all kinds of interesting old annotations and notes. 99p. I gently touched Buy It Now and within about three seconds it was on my Kindle, and I was reading it. Some blessed soul has digitised this out of the goodness of his or her heart, and although the formatting isn’t perfect (Well have you ever tried formatting poetry or even plays for an eBook?) the readability is spot on and the notes are fascinating.

I spent the next couple of hours until I could justifiably get up and make the tea, reading through a series of poems written particularly at the time I had been speculating about. Another thing struck me forcibly. I found it easier, much, much easier, to read the longer poems on the Kindle than on the pages of a book. I have no idea why that should be, but it was true. I’ve ploughed my way through The Holy Fair before today and found it difficult, even with a good working knowledge of the Scots language of Burns’s time. No longer. It was like a lightbulb coming on in my head. The Holy Fair, if you don’t know it, is a blissfully satirical account of one of the huge festivals of preaching, prayers and communion held in late eighteenth century Scotland. 

Fabulous old photo of Mauchline's Cowgate,
courtesy of http://www.ayrshirehistory.com/mauchline.html
This one was in Mauchline about a mile away from Rab’s farm at Mossgiel. But the fact of the matter was that they were also festivals of eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and subsequent fornication. Even those who disapproved of the raw satire couldn’t actually say that the poet was lying or even exaggerating. In fact the Holy Fair seems to have borne a strong resemblance to those days of misrule you find in Mediaeval times when all the gravity of the church would be turned topsy turvy and I suspect the origins of them are pretty much the same – a sort of communal letting off steam. 

Reading it on my Kindle, I find myself appreciating the poem from the ‘batch o’ wabster lads, blackguarding frae Kilmarnock ...’ (Kilmarnock weaver lads coming into town – probably with money burning a hole in their pockets - and definitely up to no good, certainly nothing holy) to the lovely lines: Oh happy is the man and blest, nae wonder that it pride him, whas ain dear lass that he likes best, comes clinkin’ down beside him. Wi’ arm reposed on the chair back, he sweetly does compose him, which by degrees slips round her neck and’s loof upon her bosom, unkenn’d that day. I do like the idea of the happy man copping a wee feel of his ain dear lass’s ‘bosom’ while the oblivious minister is preaching hell fire and damnation. You get the feeling that the poet is writing what he knows all about, don’t you? 

The last lines of the poems are probably the best known:

There’s some are fu’ of love divine
And some are fu’ of brandy
And many jobs this day begun
Will end in houghmagandie
Some ither day. 


Houghmagandie. If you don’t know what it is – I’ll bet you can guess.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean
Anyway. Amid all this, it struck me how very privileged I am to be able to access this with so much ease. The ancient volumes in my possession are engaging and - yes – they smell good to me. I quite like that old, dusty, library smell. But on a wild, wet and very cold March night give me a warm bed and a Kindle. And for most other practical purposes too, if I'm honest.

The internet has revolutionised this kind of research. Too much, sometimes. The temptation to pursue white rabbits (or sacred cows) down enticing holes in the fabric of the world wide web is overwhelming and the research can expand to ridiculous proportions. On the other hand, there’s something extraordinarily satisfying in piecing together a complicated tissue of known facts, rampant speculation and distinct possibilities based on a hundred subtle hints. It’s one of the things I love about writing historical fiction: that combination of the actual and the possible facilitated by the countless pieces of the puzzle that are now available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen. 

The Holy Fair - Robert Bryden

Making sense - or credible fiction - of them all is where the fun starts.

www.wordarts.co.uk

Monday, March 16, 2015

Is this the real Jean Armour?

Jean by John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council
It happened a few months ago and it came quite out of the blue. I had never seen this picture on the left before. Then it popped up online, on the BBC's 'Your Paintings' site, under the name of Scottish portrait painter, John Moir. I'm assuming this is because the BBC, in conjunction with museums and councils, are now digitising public collections - which is excellent news for historical novelists everywhere!

For the past year or so, as anyone who follows this and the Authors Electric Blog will know, I've been researching - and now I'm in the middle of writing - a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, his 'bonnie Jean'. But of course, the research never ends. You find yourself pursuing strange little byways of history, enticing and fascinating, speculating endlessly about what might have happened,  and eventually you have to tell yourself firmly to get on with the story. But just occasionally something amazing happens.

Like this picture that quite suddenly appeared on my computer screen - a bolt from the blue.

If you know anything at all about Robert Burns, if you have been to any of the excellent museums where his life story is explored and celebrated, you will have been told that we don't really know what Jean looked like. We have her husband's word for it that she was 'clean limbed, handsome and bewitching.' Clean limbed, incidentally was a great compliment, albeit hard to translate. Slim and well formed, I suppose is as near as we can get. She had the 'handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution and the kindest heart in the country.' Certainly she was a tolerant and sweet natured woman but she doesn't ever come across as a doormat. So presumably, she was a woman of great character. And she could sing. Beautifully.

But most accounts of her life refer to the portrait on the right, with her grand-daughter, which is of an older lady in every way, the lines of pain etched onto her face. And although it's a strong face, it doesn't stand up well when compared with the pretty silhouette of Nancy McLehose (Clarinda) or the romantic depictions of Highland Mary who died young and tragically.

Jean lived on, of course, surviving her husband by many years, brought up her children (and another one of his), kept fresh flowers in the windows of her house in Dumfries and patiently welcomed in the pilgrims and the souvenir hunters, although she must have wished them far enough from time to time. I've learned one thing from all my research. If your dearest wish is to be immortalised as a romantic heroine, don't, for God's sake, outlive the love of your life. Die young, preferably of some fatal disease. Poisoning is a good alternative. But you could also consider leaping to your dramatic death. Male writers will love you for it. If you must live on, die in penury lamenting your lost love.

Jean did none of these things and look where that got her?

Anyway, you can imagine my excitement at suddenly seeing the much more youthful image at the top of this post - and tracing it back to South Ayrshire Council. It's currently in storage, but they are very kindly going to let me see it. If it is by John Moir, then it makes sense that it might have been painted in 1812 or 13 - which would put Jean in her late forties, still youthful, very smartly dressed, carrying a bit of weight after all those children - but an indisputably pretty woman, with those lovely candid eyes staring straight at you!

I've been able to discover a little more about Moir. He was born in Aberdeen, he went to Italy to study for a while, and then he set up his studio in Edinburgh where he produced some excellent portraits of the great and the good, including a splendid image of Willie Marshall the 'King of the Strathspey' whom Burns knew all about and called the 'first composer of Strathspeys of the age.'

Willie Marshall, National Galleries of Scotland
 I suspect he may have wanted to paint Burns, but by the time he was returning from Italy as a fully fledged artist in the 1790s, the poet was either ill or dying. In 1812, Moir was certainly exhibiting successfully in Edinburgh. Reviews speak of his great facility for painting children, but I haven't been able to find any examples online, although his work seems to crop up at country auctions from time to time. He didn't always sign his work either which complicates things. Examples seem to be largely in the possession of various councils.

There's some evidence that Jean was in Edinburgh around 1812 - James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd who seems to have had a bit of a crush on her, met her there. Her clothes in the portrait are intriguing - smart and fashionable, especially the bonnet and the beautiful shawl, which looks expensive. But then we know that she was a woman who liked nice things, and had once been married to a man who loved his wife to dress well, who bought lutestring silk for her dresses and ordered a very fine printed shawl for her from his friend who had set up business in Linlithgow. Her hair is still dark and curls around her face. Her skin is soft and clear. She looks both thoughtful and kindly. She is, it seems to me, a very attractive middle-aged woman - and it's easy to see the 'handsome and bewitching hussy' the 'delicious armful' lurking just below the surface. That, coupled with her obvious intelligence, certainly gives the lie to all those commentators who have seen fit to damn Jean with faint praise as 'not quite worthy' of her husband.

So what do you think?

If I can find out more about this portrait I'll certainly let you know.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Bear Necessities.

Family of very elderly bears
Some people reading this might not know that, wearing my other hat, I buy and sell antique textiles - partly because the contribution to our family income is essential when it comes to buying more writing time, and partly because I'm daft about them and have been since I was in my teens.

But just occasionally, I'm tempted by teddies as well. And last week, it happened again. I managed to acquire the sad little family of bears you see on the left. Mostly, I don't keep them - I rehome them and these will be no exception. I'd quite like to keep them and add them to my own collection but I can't afford to. Mind you, I did buy a couple of elderly Chad Valley teds a few years ago and they are still sitting in my living room just because one of them is so cuddly, even more cuddly than my own old bears, Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson, that I can't 'bear' to let them go.

Anyway, this quartet of teds came together in the same auction lot and obviously belonged together and I'm not planning to split them up. Like rescue dogs that have been brought up together, I'll try to find some sympathetic arctophile to take all of them. The biggest ted is the most valuable. This isn't always the case, but he isn't just any old bear, he's a pretty rare antique bear. He has no labels and no, he isn't a Steiff, but with his triangular face, his long arms and longish humped body, his quite chubby legs with definite ankles, his stitched nose, his boot button eyes and low set ears and most of all because of his slightly pointed pads on his feet, I think he's probably a very very early Ideal bear all the way from the USA - pre WW1 - which is a long time to survive. He's a bit threadbare, he's a bit wobbly, and he has some trouble about the feet where you can see some of his wood wool stuffing - but he's so smiley and engaging that I'm sure somebody somewhere will love him as much as I do and - more importantly - as much as somebody so clearly did in his long, long past.

Smiley and engaging.
He was very dirty and I have a feeling he had been kept with his companions in an attic - or at least that's what he looked like. The only thing I've done is given him a very gentle, very cautious clean up to remove the worst of the grime and show him up in his true honey colours. With him there's a much smaller blue bear - not half so old, I'm sure, but jointed and with nice eyes. There's a chubby little Japanese bear - much faded pink wool - with a working squeak (like Piglet!) which surprised me when I was brushing him very gently with a soft brush and touched his tummy. And finally there is a very strange creature with upright arms, no eyes, a terribly threadbare knitted jumper and feet that look as though they were intended to be booted at one point. He has clearly been loved almost to bits and only rescued by a grubby canvas covering, crudely stitched. Where it is coming apart, you can just see that there might once have been mohair or similar beneath - but if you touched him too much, he would fall apart!

Woppit? Loved almost to bits.
Looking at him, the shape and size of him, I think he was once a Merrythought Woppit Bear - issued in 1956 from the Story of Woppit cartoon strip. Almost unrecognisable, for sure, but I think that's what he was! His better known (and better preserved) cousin is, of course, Donald Campbell's Mr Whoppit. This one could do with some eyes, and possibly a whole knitted suit, to keep him together. But I find him touching beyond belief - somebody has clearly loved him very, very much.  

That's the problem with dealing in something you love - it's always so difficult to let them go! Meanwhile, if you think you too might like to try your hand at buying and selling antique and vintage items to add to the household income, I've written an eBook about it. It's called Precious Vintage and it's available across all platforms, but I'll give you the Amazon Kindle link, here in the UK and here in the USA.