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Sheenagh Pugh
15 November 2014 @ 06:43 pm
Dear AQA

I've just been discussing online, with a student, the incredibly stupid and irrelevant question you set him or her on an "unseen poem", namely my "The Beautiful Lie", see below. You ask "What do you think the poet is saying about parenthood?"

Please read said poem and tell me where in it there is any mention of parenthood, or indeed any parents. It's about a young child discovering, for the first time, how to interpret the world differently, i.e. tell a lie, and how he realises this is the doorway to artistic creativity, the key to telling stories, painting pictures, making up characters. Due to this daft question you have set, the student has supposed that the lie at the centre of the poem must in fact be a Bad Thing and that the poem's "message" (I'm sure you think poems must have a message) is that parents should discourage lying. Admittedly the student has, in order to arrive at this interpretation, had to ignore all the positive vocabulary that builds up around the "lie" from the title on. But that's easily done; he or she has simply assumed that the celebration of the "beautiful lie" and all it leads to must be "ironic".

In the poem there's a grandmother, a grandson and an unnamed narrator who chooses not to reveal his or her relationship to the boy. This narrator spends the whole time undermining what he/she has already said: giving us "facts" and then admitting they may have been misremembered or simply invented. We shall never know, because that's what writers do. Much as I generally agree that the interpretation of a poem is a matter for reader as well as writer, you do need to back up said interpretation from the text, and if you can find me so much as a single phrase in the text that suggests the poem says anything at all about parenthood, I'll be mightily surprised. It's things like this that make me think it would be better if poetry were not taught (and certainly not tested) in schools at all, rather than by those who have no understanding of it.

The Beautiful Lie

He was about four, I think... it was so long ago.
In a garden; he'd done some damage
behind a bright screen of sweet-peas
- snapped a stalk, a stake, I don't recall,
but the grandmother came and saw, and asked him:
"Did you do that?"

Now, if she'd said why did you do that,
he'd never have denied it. She showed him
he had a choice. I could see, in his face,
the new sense, the possible. That word and deed
need not match, that you could say the world
different, to suit you.

When he said "No", I swear it was as moving
as the first time a baby's fist clenches
on a finger, as momentous as the first
taste of fruit. I could feel his eyes looking
through a new window, at a world whose form
and colour weren't fixed

but fluid, that poured like a snake, trembled
around the edges like northern lights, shape-shifted
at the spell of a voice. I could sense him filling
like a glass, hear the unreal sea in his ears.
This is how to make songs, create men, paint pictures,
tell a story

I think I made up the screen of sweet peas.
Maybe they were beans; maybe there was no screen,
it just felt as if there should be, somehow.
And he was my - no, I don't need to tell that.
I know I made up the screen. And I recall very well
what he had done.
Sheenagh Pugh
04 November 2014 @ 09:34 am
Let them enjoy their little day,
Their humble bliss receive.
Oh! do not lightly take away
The life thou canst not give!

Thomas Gisborne, in that verse, was exhorting his reader to avoid treading on a worm. Anyone who takes it on himself to abridge a human life had better have a bloody good reason, ie one very much better than profit, spite or possessiveness. I can just about see a justification, in a case where someone's life does far more harm than good in the world, particularly if it threatens the lives of others.

But Anne Cluysenaar was a witty, warm, cosmopolitan woman and a thought-provoking poet. I met her several times and always had fun in her company. If she'd died in the way of nature; well she was 78; one would boast, with Chaucer's young drunks, "we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth" and then realise ruefully that there's nothing to be done. But she was, apparently, murdered, and that makes me very angry. Do we get so much time here, that we can afford to lose any? She was still writing, she published a book this year and I don't suppose her friends and family were at all ready to lose her. I'd need a lot of convincing that she ever did more harm than good, or that whoever assumed this right was able to give the world anything as worthwhile as "Whatever we're made of, it wants to know/
how it came to be what it is." Here's the rest of that poem of hers:

Hunting the Higgs

No wonder they love a laugh, the physicists.
What ever they find or don't, it's OK.
Symmetries of the world just remnants
of those which, if perfect, would only have led to

no world at all – anti-matter, matter
would have cancelled each other out. Maybe.
Or maybe not, if the theory is at fault.
And if it is? More exciting still.

Whatever we're made of, it wants to know
how it came to be what it is. In us,
for a while at least, the stuff of stars
gets a glimpse of its own precarious life.

Like a single life, that will soon be gone.
Universes before, maybe, or after
our own, we won't ever get to explore.
They make up what is, though. And here we are!
Sheenagh Pugh
21 October 2014 @ 01:39 pm
I have a poem in a new anthology of poems inspired by popular culture, Double Bill, ed. Andy Jackson, pub. Red Squirrel Press. It has poems by a great many different poets, on subjects from Frank Sinatra to Bagpuss - mine, which is called "Oral English", is about Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne and was inspired by an anecdote of Barry Took's about a puzzled letter he once received from a Japanese gentleman who was trying to improve his colloquial English with the aid of The Bona Book of Julian and Sandy.  His letter went as follows: Ichigoro Yuchida to Barry Took: "Dear Sir, I am reading with an teacher, The Bona Book of Julian And Sandy. Mainly for the purposes of picking up slangs and very colloquial expressions. My English teacher is well trained in the job, and quite able in every way as a language teacher. Yet he still has some difficulty handling the queer and funny languages, brimming over the pages. I should be more than happy if you would kindly answer the following questions and let me know what they mean in plainer language. One, naff is it, page 25. Two, he's got the polari off hasn’t he. Three, but did you manage to drag yourself up on deck, page 27. I am sorry but I can't see what Mister Horne meant. Sincerely yours, Ichigoro Yuchida..." Took replied, with urbane courtesy, and a correspondence ensued.

You can buy Double Bill here or here. And here's the poem:
Oral English

Ichigoro Yuchida, keen to improve
his colloquial English, puzzles over

a text with his (equally baffled) teacher.
They can't seem to find dolly old eek

in the phrasebook.  And why, during a shipwreck,
should Mr Horne laugh when our heroes

drag themselves up on deck?  So many queries…
in the end, they think best to seek wisdom

from the writer, which is how they come,
courtesy of Mr Took, to knowledge

of some comic stereotypes, a secret language,
a national habit of wryness, a way of talking

as if one could make a joke of anything,
of code, of hiding from the law, of love.
Sheenagh Pugh
08 October 2014 @ 01:17 pm
Most Norwegian towns and cities are very tidy, and though that is also true in the English sense, I mean it mostly in the Welsh sense, ie respectable, well to do and with an indefinable sense of everything being right. Bergen, it's true, has a slightly raffish air, like the younger son of a prosperous family who's decided to play at bohemians for a few years before settling down to practise law. (Oslo, from my admittedly limited experience of it, is more like the daughter who went to the Sorbonne and came back thinking herself several cuts above all her relatives). Bergen is less sophisticated and more fun. If you're there in summer, don't miss visiting the former leper hospital, which is one hell of a story.

Going up the coast, Ålesund, like almost all the wooden towns in Norway, was forever burning down; in Ålesund's case it was destroyed in 1904. It was their good luck that Kaiser Bill, of all people, used to go yachting there (it still has a considerable marina and port area) and he put a lot of money into rebuilding it in the art nouveau style. Since there were no more fires of note, it's still very much in one style, and its palette is pastel, rather than the bright primary colours of many Norwegian towns. Ålesund is an older second cousin, pretty and elegant but inclined to hark back to whichever decade saw her heyday.

Trondheim used to burn down a lot too, until after one such conflagration in 1681, the then mayor thought "what a good idea it'd be if all our houses didn't burn down every few years" and hired a Luxemburger called Johan Caspar von Cicignon to make a city plan based on broad streets so that any fires could be contained. The result is that today's centre has a lot of old buildings, wide tree-lined boulevards and no real congestion. And the river Nid, and an austerely lovely cathedral. Trondheim is a beautiful maiden aunt of indeterminate age and independent means, with impeccable taste and manners but a very relaxed outlook on life. As may be obvious, I'm rather besotted by it.

Next up, just inside the Arctic Circle, comes Bodø, tidy, with an aviation museum and, at least to a visitor's eye, very dull. But its inhabitants love it, even taking pride in its frankly undistinguished architecture, so there must be more to it than meets a tourist's eye. (It does have the original maelstrom nearby). I think of it as the male cousin who's essentially friendly and decent, if a bit of a bore.

Tromsø is the big exception to the "Norwegian towns are tidy" rule, and I can only put this down to the big student population. It has many old buildings and some spectacular new ones, but a lot of its streets look run-down, the pavements are a danger to life and limb and the whole place has a frontier-town, unfinished air. It's definitely a student son, and not a bookish one either, more the kind who gets out of bed just in time to watch Bargain Hunt and never remembers when it's bin day.

Very unlike Hammerfest, which is further north but definitely tidy. North of Tromsø you are into the tract where the retreating German forces in WW2 carried out a shocking scorched-earth policy as the Red Army approached. Lothar Rendulic, the Austrian Nazi governor of North Norway, burned entire towns to the ground, with winter coming on; Hammerfest folk were reduced to living in caves. There's a Reconstruction Museum that details it all.  Hammerfest made a conscious decision to rebuild modern, not old-style, and did it well. From the sea, and from above, it is a white triangle among greenery, not unlike the fanciful mediaeval descriptions of Algiers as a diamond set among emeralds. Hammerfest is your bachelor uncle who lives in a penthouse, all glass and wood and the sort of minimalist design you pay a fortune for.

In Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, the people took shelter from Rendulic's burnings in the town's mines, from which they were literally brought back to light by the Red Army. There's a lot of Russian influence, with a Russian market every last Thursday of the month, and Russian street signs. The actual border is in a forest that looks like Narnia, and the Pasvik river valley is very pretty, but the town is plain, cheerful, no-nonsense industrial and maritime; they repair ships and are profiting from increased petroleum-drilling activity in the Barents Sea. Kirkenes is your uncle who's always on his travels, and turns up every so often with exotic presents and even more exotic stories which your mother wishes he wouldn't tell in mixed company.
Sheenagh Pugh
20 September 2014 @ 02:36 pm
In an earlier post, I talked about different things coming together to produce a poem. The poet Bethany W Pope has been discussing sestinas on Facebook lately, and it reminded me of how long I'd wanted to write a sestina before I actually did. Like Bethany, I love the intricacy and playfulness of this form, based around six key words that recur in different places in the verse, ideally not always with the same meaning but using all possible senses, homonyms, even grammatical forms. One issue I had with it, however, was that in a conventional sestina, it's pretty obvious from the start what one is doing; the form is like scaffolding left up on a building and to my eye, dominates the subject matter too much. I didn't see how to get over this one until I read sestinas by people like Paul Muldoon and Paul Henry, who disguised the form by putting line and verse breaks where they aren't expected, so that at first reading it might not strike the reader as a sestina at all.

But I still had a problem with finding what seemed to me to be suitable subject matter, so that the form would seem natural and organic to the poem, rather than the poem seeming to have been invented for the sake of filling out the form. This happened when I read a biography of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's spymaster. He ran many agents, who naturally used aliases, fake IDs, codes and all the other paraphernalia of their trade, and I could see how this could be mirrored both in the six key words with their shifting shapes and meanings, and by disguising the form itself. For the first time ever, I was looking at a theme - secrecy, personation, encoding and code-breaking - that actually seemed to want this abstruse form. Of course, having taken years, three of them then came along at once, like buses, and became a sequence called "Walsingham's Men", which is in my new collection Short Days, Long Shadows, to be had from Messrs Seren and no doubt very few good booksellers... Here's one.


3. Decoder
Thomas Phelippes, alias John Morice, alias Peter Halins, 1598

When, in the street, he catches foreign words
- Spanish, Italian, French – he can sense
his thought shifting, see the world remade,
but if the language be one he does not know,
he follows, caught, longing for sounds to resolve
into a pattern, to begin to mean
                      This maggot has been the means
of his advance; it is not only words
he has a feel for. He can make sense
of symbols, letters, language unmade
by cipher, a crafted chaos he knows
for a world, for plans that dissolve
in the code's chrysalis, and will resolve
again to damn their authors. All means
of ciphering can be unlocked: the words
run together, the strings of nonsense
that mask how sentences are made,
the nulls, the substitutes.
                                              He seeks to know
what the enemy knows, what they think he knows,
to read their mind's language, to solve
their uncertainties, decode what they mean
to do. When sometimes they put into words
less than he knows they think, he turns the sense
to speak the truth. Their letters remade,
he sends them on their way, having first made
copies for all who need to know.
Some trust to alum ink, that dissolves
and fades on the page; he reads it by means
of fire. Their cipher keys, their passwords
open to him. People see him, and sense
no danger: so small and thin, in no sense
memorable, a null.
                                   His fortune's made,
yet, for all the languages he knows,
figures are the code he can't solve,
the closed book. His debts many, his living mean,
he will get out of jail only with words,
demeaning himself to men who see sense
in his accounts, that wordless hash, who know
how to solve his life, the mess he's made.
Sheenagh Pugh

"I am not an historian, but at 91 I am history and I fear its repetition"

Harry Leslie Smith's father was a miner in the early years of the last century, like my own grandfather, and the only difference between them was that, as Smith observes, a miner in those days was only ever one accident away from destitution. My grandfather was relatively lucky, surviving to his sixties with an impressive collection of lung diseases: Smith's father had the accident that plunged the family into real poverty.

It isn't often I go in for saying "if you liked this, you'll like that", but in this case it is a fair guide: if you found Ken Loach's film "Spirit of 45" both moving and alarming, you will want to read this book. Harry Leslie Smith is another from the same stable as Sam Watts and Ray Davies, interviewed in that film. Born in 1923, he grew up in the Depression years in such poverty that joining the army to fight in World War 2 felt more like an escape than anything else. He then emerged, with so many other young working-class people, into the sunlit uplands of a country that for the first time in its history was actually trying to bring about decent housing, education and a health service for people like him. And naturally he thought it was going to last, so that his own children and grandchildren would never be in danger of repeating the life of his mother, worn down by poverty and so suspicious of authority that she saved as much as she could of her pension in case the government might suddenly change its mind and want it back. Or of his father, whose marriage broke up when he became unable to support his family, or his sister Marion, who died of TB in childhood.

Now in his nineties, seeing the wreck of all he once saw built up, he is naturally puzzled and annoyed: "Sometimes I try and think how I might explain to Marion how we built these beautiful structures in our society – which protected the poor, which kept them safe at work, healthy in their lives, supported them when they were down on their luck - only to watch them be destroyed within a few short generations. But I cannot find the words".

That, though, is just what he did do, by setting down the story he sees the world in danger of forgetting: the narrative of the slum housing in which he grew up, where no amount of cleaning could eradicate damp and vermin, of disease which could not be cured because doctor's fees could not be afforded, of education unavailable to children whose families could not spare the wages they might bring in. (Harry's own education, like so much else, really began in 1945 when he went to adult education classes.) As one of his chapter headings says, "everything old is new again" and he is concerned in this book to warn "we have to take back control, or soon we won't have a social welfare system, we won't have free or affordable health care, we won't have safe neighbourhoods and we won't have decent school. We will have the world of my youth, where people died from poverty and preventable illnesses and lived short, unfulfilled lives".

How this control might be returned is a tricky question, because one thing that has changed about the world is the amount of power in the hands of multinational corporations with no aims or obligations outside the making of money. Harry Leslie Smith is an unusual man, who sees beyond boundaries that restrict the vision of others, as he showed when, in post-war Germany, he overcame his hostility to his former enemies to the extent of marrying a German woman. He has no time for the demonisation of minorities, the fragmenting of those who have a common cause if they could only see it, nor for the fashionable apathy that says "what's the point of voting?". He does have some practical suggestions for making our world better, like going after corporate tax evaders and amending the voting system. But mostly, as I think he himself suspects, it is a matter of spirit, the spirit in which he and his generation not only "voted for the future" in 1945 but were prepared also to work and pay tax for it. It's a question of whether that spirit still exists: when he says "I am history", we must hope this is only true in the sense that he and his kind lived through it, and not in the modern slang sense of the phrase.
Sheenagh Pugh
12 September 2014 @ 04:45 pm
An article in yesterday's Grauniad quoted the Poem We Don't Mention and linked to a page at the Wondering Minstrels site that had printed it. Foolishly I followed to see if they'd at least printed it without any typos, and was soon helpless with mirth. The site had recorded my known views on the poem, so of course there were the usual hurt remarks below, saying for instance "you must try to like it" (no, actually I "must" do nothin' - to quote Barbossa). I'm sure the word "ungrateful" cropped up too; it usually does, to my complete bafflement.

But the laugh-out-loud bits - two priceless quotes:

1. "the fact that you sold it to (sic) a English GCSE exam board" Ha! Dear punter, GCSE exam boards in the UK are exempt from copyright. They can and do take and use anyone's work without paying, asking or even having the courtesy to inform them. Sell them anything? I'd like to see you try!

2. "I bet you still take the buckets of royalties that Sometimes brings in!" Oh, pick me up from the floor, someone! Now, Mr Know-all, please listen carefully. Most people who reprint poems don't bother to ask, and certainly don't offer money. That includes national newspapers; the Telegraph once reprinted this one, without my knowledge. Those that do ask are almost always representing charitable anthologies and don't have money to offer either, not that I wouldn't give them poems free for a charity I approve of; I'd just rather it wasn't this poem). As it happens, I do not accept money for this one because on the rare occasions I let some charity use it, I insist they leave my name off. But I'm not exactly losing much, because those anthologies etc that do offer money for reprints, which in my case happens maybe twice a year, will be offering about £20 if you're lucky. Yeah, rolling in it, us poets are.
Sheenagh Pugh
12 September 2014 @ 09:28 am
Is there a way of disabling LJ messages? I've gone through the FAQ but can't find it. I hardly ever remember to check them and it'd be much better (and less embarrassing) if folks couldn't contact me that way.

ED: dunnit, thanks to Espresso Addict!
Sheenagh Pugh
11 September 2014 @ 12:20 pm
In a recent Facebook post, I mentioned that I'd written a couple of poems after a long fallow period, or more accurately, a long period when I had written, but not thought anything worth keeping. In the comments, someone asked a question, not the old chestnut "where do you get your ideas from", but the far more interesting question of why some of these ideas end up as poems while others prove intractable, and what the process is that sends them one way or t'other.

To start with the two I wrote this week, which came from two very different places and followed different routes to completion. The first derived from a thought I had about my neighbour's trees, and an image I could pretty immediately see them providing. This, for me, is a good place to start, because poems that start from things or images, for me, are a lot more likely to get written than ones that start because I feel like writing a poem on a certain theme. The latter usually end up more like lectures, or at least prose. The core image then meshed with a couple of other things currently going on in my mind and the neighbourhood, all of which I could see were tending the same way. I wrote the poem quite quickly, over a couple of days.

The second was quite different. It derived from something I'd read in a history book about a year or more ago and been, at the time, much moved by. I'd had a perfunctory go at writing about it at the time and got nowhere. I was reminded of it because an email arrived with some proofs to check, of an interview I'd done for a book. In this interview I'd mentioned that I was working on this idea, and when I read the proofs, I thought perhaps I'd better go back and do something about it.

I was into half-rhymed terza rima at the time, and started out trying to work the idea into this form. It fell into it easily enough, but it wasn't exciting me and I could see the thing going the way of so many poems I'd started and abandoned as not being keepers. But I was sure this one had something going for it as an idea, so I persisted, but abandoned the terza rima. The breakthrough was an idle reflection that if Cavafy had happened to know of this particular event, he'd surely have written about it. Light went on in head: okay, thinks I, we'll channel him and see if we can figure out how he'd have handled it. Which I did, and ended up with something I liked. It isn't, I hope, imitation Cavafy; apart from anything else, it doesn't rhyme, which most of his did, but there's definitely an influence there, especially in the way the incident gets seen through the eyes of a character in the poem, which I hadn't been doing when I first read about it. Perhaps because of this, the poem didn't turn out to say quite what I thought it was going to when I began. Once I had this character's viewpoint, the poem took shape quite quickly but it had essentially taken over a year from the first idea.

Now, my notebook is still full of other ideas that didn't make it - or haven't made it yet. It's possible some of them need a nudge, like the one my second poem got when I read those proofs. Or a lucky insight, like the one about Cavafy. It is certainly a fact that the older I get, the less easily satisfied I am with my work and the more I reject. It isn't enough for there to be nothing obviously wrong about the poem - there needs to be something not only right but necessary about it. This may partly be down to my being aware of so many more poems now, of knowing how many poets have handled this or that material and thinking well, there'd better be something different about yours, or there's no point in writing it down. I think I have also become more exacting in the same way about reading. I have read a lot of poetry collections and thought "it's all right, good even, but it isn't essential; I wouldn't grieve unduly if I could never read a collection by that poet again". With the poets I love - Louis MacNeice, Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, Paul Henry, Louise Glück - I do feel they're essential; if one of the ones still living brings out a new book, I know I'll have to buy it.

I don't know if this business of heightened expectations happens to other poets as they age, meaning they complete, and keep, fewer poems the older they get. I think it's true for me. Also that being intrinsically idle, the odd nudge can help. But mainly I think it is things coming together - an image links with an incident, or a phrase wanders into the mind and changes the rhythm of how you were going to clothe an idea. Maybe some writers work like sculptors and chisel a poem out of a single block of marble, as it were. I think I'm more like a jackdaw who has to assemble it from various materials collected in different places and sometimes over a very long time.

Oh, the title of this post - from a poem of Housman's in which he uses the image of gardening for his own creative process:

And some the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars.
Sheenagh Pugh
15 August 2014 @ 11:39 am
Agent 160 is a writer-led theatre company that produces work from its female playwrights, based across the UK. (In 2010, Sphinx Theatre Company hosted a conference where it was revealed just 17 per cent of produced work in the UK is written by women. It seemed like a good idea to do something about that.) I have a huge interest in their work, naturally, because one of their playwrights is my daughter Sam Burns.

Right now, they are involved in a project to create a Fun Palace, a concept first mooted by Joan Littlewood. In 1961 Littlewood had a vision, of a Fun Palace that would be a temporary, moveable “laboratory of fun” that would welcome everyone. It never happened. But now, her vision is being brought to life for the 21st century. On 4th-5th October 2014, hundreds of pop-up local Fun Palaces will appear across the country, open to everybody, and free.

Agent 160 is working with the Wales Millennium Centre to make one in Cardiff this October; the idea is for lots of short plays to be performed and for the audience to join in a massive, group-written play, and see it performed. However, as is so often the case, they need a bit more money and are raising it via a Kickstarter. It's already got to well within £1000 of its target, but momentum is all in these things, so here I am promoting it. It's here, and well worth supporting especially if you live close enough to go down and have a look at some of the brilliant young women writers' work. Here's the list of playwrights:

Sandra Bendelow
Sam Burns
Vittoria Cafolla
Poppy Corbett
Branwen Davies
Abigail Docherty
Clare Duffy
Samantha Ellis
Sarah Grochala
Katie McCullough
Sharon Morgan
Kaite O'Reilly
Lisa Parry
Marged Parry
Lindsay Rodden
Shannon Yee
Sheenagh Pugh
12 July 2014 @ 06:37 pm
I'm the Saturday Poem in the Guardian! One from the new book, Short Days, Long Shadows. Nobody told me that was happening, just came across it while faffing about on the net doing serious research. Of course it's one about being terrified of mortality; I don't really do much else...

Sheenagh Pugh
09 July 2014 @ 07:37 pm
Confusingly, I now have two websites. This came about because, which had been very easy to edit, got "improved", and of course you can guess with what result. It became very hard to edit, so I set up a new site at

I moved all the poetry-related stuff across, including the pages of resources for exam students. When it came to the stuff relating to novels and fan fiction articles though, I wondered if that was necessary. I don't really write either any more, so the pages at the old site were not going to need editing, which was the problem. Plus I don't trust any site builder not to go offline or just "upgrade" and make itself unusable. So I decided to keep the old site at as an archive site for the translations and prose-related stuff, and just in case I ever needed it again....

It's weird, because last time I moved house in real life, we kept the old house up for some years, because there was a very old cat living there who couldn't be moved...
Sheenagh Pugh

Dr Blair's cook is outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen, while his assistant Gilbert Orum, who is to make sketches and engravings of the beast, finds his mind turning to mortality:

Never mind, Miss Gloag!" shouted the doctor […] "Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical Experiment!"
Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that Philosophical Experiment would rot slowly from its **** upwards, die painfully and be ****** by Satan forever. […]

All I can think of is Death: the age of an Elephant; the age of Man; the age of Woman. Three-score and ten is considered the usual allotted span of our years. But it seems to me that the age of Man is either grossly exaggerated or that it has diminished considerably since the days of the Patriarchs, for the common age of death among the people of Dundee is perhaps thirty or forty, by which time the trials and burdens of the world have taken their toll; a fresh-faced young woman of eighteen may turn, in a matter of three years of marriage, to a woman of middle years, haggard, bitter, bowed, lined, grey; a man of thirty will pass, within a twelve-month, to a white-haired cripple if he suffers one of many possible accidents in his labour

Florentia the elephant died at Dundee in 1706, and remained there in a stuffed condition, having been dissected by Dr Patrick Blair. It will be noted that another death was imminent, that of independent Scotland, for the Act of Union would be signed the following year and the negotiations leading up to it were going on while Dr Blair (an anti-unionist, who would later join the uprising of 1715) was busy on his elephant; indeed Blair explicitly compares his own dissections to those of the Commissioners "cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland".

Of the real Gilbert Orum, engraver, not much is known, but here his imagined journal forms the basis of the novel. It is rediscovered in 1828 by a man using the pseudonym "Senex" and published, with Senex's footnotes, in tribute to Dr Blair. Senex, however, is both an ardent pro-unionist, which means he has constantly to blind himself to the views of his hero Blair, and a prig who disapproves vehemently of the caustic, independent-minded Orum without ever understanding him. His indignant footnotes to Orum's MS provide a rich comic seam running through the novel.

Orum is, in fact, a thoughtful, fallible, likeable narrator who comes to have his own agenda with regard to the elephant. Blair, dissecting and reassembling the skeleton, sees it purely in a scientific light, but Orum has a sense of it as a living creature – indeed he ends up being visited by its spirit – and wants, through his engravings, "to ensure that the world knew what the Elephant had looked like, how it moved, how it lived". Meanwhile though, he also has his family's pressing financial problems to consider, and frequently staves them off by selling various bits of elephant to interested parties.

What is the elephant? We should never forget that she was real; she lived, and died alone and in exile (as will Orum's descendant who inherits the journal and hands it on before departing for Canada, only to die almost as soon as he gets there). But what does she connote, apart from herself? Scotland? Knowledge? A cause; something to live for? All are possible; the novel's sub-title, "A Huge Misunderstanding", rather suggests that no one sees everything about her, like the six blind men in the Hindu proverb who feel different parts of the beast and come to six different conclusions about its appearance.

A final irony: this book about a huge beast is easily his shortest and sparest so far. But that doesn't mean there's any lack of the usual wit, fascinating detail and thought-provoking strangeness that characterises his writing. I've read my way through all his four novels now, more's the pity, and cannot wait for number 5.
Sheenagh Pugh

Innkeeper Voronov regrets losing touch with his sons:

        "What have they done," he concluded nervously, "but run off with the maids?  What young man would not do the same, if he was kept in the same house with them […]?"
       Mrs Voronova saw the justice of this observation and dried her eyes. "It is only natural," she admitted.
       Her husband continued on this romantic vein of thought: "Until that night when, all being quiet, he slips on his boots and coat and-"
       "A young man will always follow his-" judged the wife.
       "-breeches," finished her husband, continuing to paint a simple picture of elopement, "and set off into the world with nothing but a knife in his-"
       "-heart," she concluded.
       "-pocket and a girl on his arm," Voronov sighed.

This conversation, its two tracks occasionally crossing, more often running alongside each other, is typical of a novel in which communication is constantly hampered by the fact that people are better at talking than listening. Even Horatio, infatuated with Ksenia, finds it hard, when she is telling him her story, to stop his mind wandering to inconsequential mental arithmetic. Most people in this novel have a story to tell, and since each is more interested in his or her own story than in any other, there are several of these two-track dialogues. Indeed there are two tracks to the novel itself; one concerning Horatio, who may be a merchant, and Ksenia, who may be a widow, who spend a night together in 1833 at the bedside of a dying man in Novgorod, and the other concerning the adventures of the Cochrane family, one of whom, the traveller John Dundas Cochrane, had been married to Ksenia, while his father Andrew had been a friend of the dying man, Major Sinclair.  The novel's two strands, therefore, cross and interact from time to time; indeed Andrew's ghost occasionally turns up at Sinclair's bedside, along with a bookseller who appears to be a werewolf and a soldier who is an imerach (a human mirror, forced to reflect everything others say or do). The structure of the novel itself is reminiscent of the imerach:  John Cochrane's fascination with arcane facts and measurements reflects Horatio's, while the way in which Ksenia mirrors the Major's dead love Amélie causes another conversation to go off at cross-purposes.

It will be seen, then, that as in Drummond's two earlier books An Abridged History (reviewed here) and A Hand-Book of Volapük (reviewed here), this one contains rich potential for comedy, and this does exist, not least in chapter headings such as "He took the only course open to an honourable man  and fled to Europe" and "Degeneracy, rhubarb and millions of squirrels". But this strikes me as his most serious novel so far: its leitmotiv is a rhetorical question that keeps being asked, and variously answered, "What is Love but…."  There are as many answers as there are questioners, and I don't think any one is meant to be definitive: the implication is more that the question needs to be constantly asked and considered. 

Most of the main characters are historical personages, but while there is much in print by and about the Cochranes, far less has been written about Ksenia and Horatio. Strangely enough, it does seem to me that they and their strand of the novel come more alive than the Cochranes do, perhaps because their creator felt he had a freer hand with them.

Drummond has been quoted as saying that he writes novels because nobody else writes the kind of novel he wants to read. I can believe that, because he doesn't really write or sound quite like anyone else. I found his first novel in a cut-price Aberdeen bookshop and have been hunting down others ever since.  I'm off now to read the one novel by him that I haven't caught up with yet.
Sheenagh Pugh
08 June 2014 @ 09:25 am

So I haz a new collection of poems out. They were written, mostly, while I still had a base in both Cardiff and Shetland, and are very much about leaving one place and becoming at home in another. Sort of Cardiff to Shetland with occasional stops-off in Norway (holidays) and the sixteenth century (Francis Walsingham's spy operation rendered in sestinas). From Seren, here. As you would gather from the title, they're a bit mortality-haunted. Here's one:

Come and Go

He has chosen, far nearer the end
than the beginning, to live
where, every day, he can watch the land

come and go, each time gleaming as if
it were new made. Sandbars shoulder
into the sun, their whereabouts too brief

to map, never drying out. Under
its pulsing skin the sea echoes
sunlight, shadows the clouds, goes undercover

in mist. What it is to be bodiless,
boneless, to reshape, to fill
with yourself the moulds of coves and bays,

take yourself back. He walks mile
after mile, blanking aches, stays up late
in the blue half-light, resists the pull

of sleep while he can, while his sight
still serves him, before that jerry-build,
his body, can no longer house a spirit
still nowhere near done with the world.
Sheenagh Pugh
31 May 2014 @ 09:29 am
I'm a writer with a book on a WJEC Eng Lit AS-Level syllabus. When I lived on the mainland, therefore, I used to get asked to do a lot of school visits, and did, when I could, ie when the place concerned was accessible by train from Cardiff, where I lived (I don't have good enough eyesight to drive).

Even then, I did sometimes wonder if we weren't making a lot of unnecessary trouble for ourselves, the writers and schools alike, by not using modern technology. Within Wales, the Wales Arts Council would help with funding school visits; outside it, the school had to find fees and expenses. But Skype didn't really happen much then, and of course there was always the faint chance of selling a book or two, so I kept at it.

Now, though, I live in the Shetland Islands, which means (a) that travel is more of an effort, and sometimes unreliable due to weather conditions, and (b) that expenses are a damn sight higher. This doesn't deter some schools from still wanting visits, even when they realise the exes would be in 3 figures. It deters me though; there's a limit to the amount of time I want to spend on the road. So I always suggest doing a "visit" via Skype. I've got the facility at home; it works well and I could both read and do Q & A sessions with it.

At this point the teacher at the other end of the email generally says s/he'll look into it and that's the last I ever hear. They run a mile at the idea. I can credit that maybe some English teachers are uneasy with even this simplest of technology, but they've got a classful of teenagers who could sort it for them! It would be cheaper for them, less hassle for the writer and just the same as being there (easy enough to use a projector so that everyone can see the computer screen), but they won't have it. So the visit doesn't happen, either in person or electronically.

At least, being a poet, I don't have an agent. I gather life is even more complicated for those who do. A playwright who has just had a play produced is told she should be promoting herself by turning up on theatre doorsteps in London, where she doesn't live and can't afford to travel, to push her work. Theatres and agents, all of course London-based, invite writers to come for meetings in London. When the impoverished writers shell out for the enormous train fare and take time off any work they're lucky enough to have, it turns out that what is being discussed at the meeting could equally well have been done via email. The excuse, on the other side, is always "but I want to meet face to face". The playwright has offered Skype meetings, but gets the same "it's better face to face" line. What do they think Skype is? IT'S TWO PEOPLE FACE TO FACE, folks!

Seriously, this attitude on the part of agents, publishers, facilitators in general discriminates against any writer who lives outside London, who's on a low income, who's working and can't readily take time off (and most young writers need a proper job to live) and against any writer who's disabled and for whom travel is thus more onerous. Do you really want to be doing that? And in an age when we actually have perfectly good alternatives? When I worked in the civil service, and in higher education, it soon became clear that meetings, by and large, were not a way of working; they were a way of interrupting work and inconveniencing the maximum number of people for small return. I've no reason to believe they are any more productive in the arts. Get over this face to face fetish and find out how Skype, email and videoconferencing work, for heaven's sake.
Sheenagh Pugh
25 May 2014 @ 11:30 pm
Just thought I had better post to apologise to anyone who might have sent me an LJ private message in the past few years.... I did vaguely know they existed but hadn't found out how to read them and never remembered to look. Have just accidentally done so and found messages dating back years... not much point replying now, but sorry, it wasn't intentional. There really is no point in trying to contact me that way, but Facebook is one place I do check, and my email's on my website. Sorry again!
Sheenagh Pugh
There are some cloths, said Mr Jones (snipping), where this difference is manifest, as satin where one face shines and the other is plain, or a twilled cloth like worsted where the weave shows and feels differently in the two faces, but there are others where the front and the back are identical in warp and woof and pattern and colour, in all their properties, and yet, Arise, to you as a tailor they can never be the same. For the front of the cloth is that which will appear to the world; it will be fair and smooth, or else embellished and embroidered, but the back will hold the raw workings of your stitches or a lining, and the moment the cloth lies upon your lap you must and will know which is which, for unless they are first different in your own mind they will never be so in reality. Such doubleness is a property of everything in the world, and of every person. We are not meant to see the threads and thrums of another’s soul, nor the plainness of their lining, but our own we feel familiarly rubbing against us whenever we move. In this a garment is like a man or a woman; how should it not be, made as it is in our image? Therefore when I teach you to sew, I am teaching you to ape your creator…

For all Mr Jones’s best efforts, young Arise Evans, his apprentice some time in the 1620s, never did become a master tailor. What he did learn from his master was this concept of “doubleness”. It appears in his fascination with etymology, with what Mr Jones used to call the words behind and beneath other words (Mr Jones was the master of false etymology, until his pupil surpassed him, and mistakenly seeing the word “Arise” behind his own given name of Rhys has a huge effect on Arise’s life). It appears also in Arise’s way of seeing the potential for imagery in everything around him, very much in the manner of his time, so that he cannot sew a seam nor consummate his marriage without reflecting on the cosmic significance of his actions. Above all, it is what underlies his practice as an author.

During the hectic period of the Civil War and Commonwealth, Arise had been a successful author of books of prophecy. Rather ungratefully, given that it was the upside-down nature of society at that time which had enabled a tailor to become respected as an author, Arise is an ardent royalist who foretells doom to the nation unless the monarchy is restored. When this comes about, of course, he finds himself at a loose end for what to write next – the future has happened and there is nothing left to prophesy. Hence The Book of The Needle, which starts out to be a tailoring manual but soon digresses into Arise’s personal memoirs.

What makes Arise's story engaging is partly the intrinsic fascination of the times and partly his own personality, reflected in his writing style. He can be very funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not - though very much a man of his own time, he also comes very close to us in his tendency to hapless incompetence in the face of minor but irritating tasks like threading a needle or re-folding a map. There is endless amusement to be had from the domestic by-play between Arise, his amateur herbalist wife Maud and their son Owen (a Puritan version of Lupin Pooter). But Arise’s life also has a serious side; he met the mighty of his day, including two kings and a Lord Protector, and there is nothing funny about his second encounter with the Earl of Essex, a man who once craved glory but is now haunted by his experiences of battle:

The bowels, he said, belong in the body, do they not? They were never intended by God to be seen. But I have seen them many times, at Newbury and other places. […] Several of the men fall over; they always look as if they are doing it on purpose. And only then do you notice that some of the other men are wearing the bowels of these fallen ones across their faces. They look like pieces of rag, Evans, bloody and befouled pieces of rag.

In one of the most powerful chapters, ”Remember”, Arise recalls the execution of the Presbyterian Christopher Love, which he witnessed, and, in the margins, reflects on that of Charles I, which he did not see. His son Owen, who also has ambitions to be an author, objects to this method and is discovered cutting the page:

You see, father, where I was cutting. I was trying to cut the narrative of the King away from that of Mr Love, and keep them separate.
    Why, Owen, they are intertwined.
    He frowns at the page in front of him, and his fingers move as if they were still wielding the scissors.
    They are intertwined, Owen, because the one story makes me think of the other, for thoughts do not pass through the mind singly but grow round each other like ivy round the trunk of an oak, and thus I wrote it as I thought it, interconnectedly. […]
    When I am an author, Owen says, looking with longing at the scissors lying on the desk next to his hand, I shall write only one thing at a time.

Owen is wrong, of course. Arise can no more tell a story in a straight line than Tristram Shandy can, but then neither life nor narrative goes in uncomplicated straight lines, and the interconnectedness, the doubleness, which Owen fails to appreciate is what gives this narrative its depth and lasting interest. The one thing I wish is that my paperback had rather stiffer covers, because I foresee that they will very soon be bent with much reading….
Sheenagh Pugh
six pounds
If the teachers liked teaching once, they definitely don’t any more. […] They trip up, we laugh. They cry, and it’s even funnier. […] We make fun of their twitches and the way they speak, that’s if we let them speak at all. […] Because this is war. […] Although when I say we, I don’t actually mean me and Jess. We always wear the right uniform and do our ties up properly. We bring our homework in on time and only ever talk in class with a teacher we’re not afraid of.

The way this passage subverts and undermines its original premise is typical of Rhian Elizabeth’s debut novel. Hannah, its narrator and protagonist, announces herself from the start as an unreliable narrator: a potential author of fiction, indeed. Having done so, she then proceeds to speak, for the most part, very openly and honestly, so you forget for long stretches that, apart from being a child, she also sees herself as a writer who embroiders and riffs on reality. She pulls this trick several times in the narrative, recounting something as if it had actually happened, before making it clear that this was in fact only one of several possible outcomes and not the one that actually came to pass.

“The truth”, whatever that may be, is a key theme of the novel; most of Hannah’s problems with adults are caused by their elastic definition of truth. They cannot tell childish fantasies from lies, yet themselves distort or ignore the truth when it does not suit them, like the grandmother evading a question about someone’s terminal illness by pretending her hearing aid is on the blink.

Hannah’s first-person narrative begins when she is aged five and ends when she is sixteen. First person in a very young voice is hard to pull off, especially when, as seems to be all but compulsory these days, the novel is in the present tense. If you write first person in past tense, you can have it both ways: write from the perspective of the child that was, but with the vocabulary of the adult you now are, and no reader thinks it odd – it is, after all, how most of the greatest child voices in literature were created. But with the present tense, we can only suppose it is All Happening as we read, and that is more problematic. When I came across the first age marker that told me Hannah was five, I was downright surprised; I had already been listening to her voice for two chapters and it wasn’t the voice of a five-year-old, even a clever one. She could think like that, but she couldn’t possibly formulate her thoughts in some of the ways this voice does.

This did cause me some problems near the start, though fewer than it might have done because the writing is extremely assured, quite unusually so for a first novel, and tends to carry you along with it. By the next time marker – going to comprehensive school at 11 - Hannah’s age has caught up with her voice and the problem disappears. The teenage argot and behaviour of Hannah and her best friend Jess are observed with forensic and often very funny accuracy; young readers (and this novel should appeal to both an adult and young-adult readership) will be cackling, while readers with teenagers of their own will be tearing their hair and longing, at intervals, to slap the pair of them. Though often infuriating, they are so basically bright and harmless that one cannot be indifferent to what happens to them, particularly when self-destructive urges seem to have taken them over. The downward spiral they get into is, again, very subtly observed, so that, for instance, the decline in their standards of personal hygiene hits us as forcibly as it does the young narrator in one of her more lucid moments.

Another instance of this subtlety in the writing struck me in the account of the school outing to a play in Cardiff. I know that this event, though not, thank heaven, its riotous outcome, is based on fact, because I saw that very production there myself. At first, it seemed odd that Hannah is not sorry to see the play interrupted; at this point she is very keen on English and, unlike most of her classmates, has read it. Only later did it occur to me that the play bears on her life and contains a character she might well wish to see silenced. There is absolutely no mention of this in the account of the incident; the reader is left to figure it out in a way many writers would not have had the confidence to do, especially at such an early stage of their career.

Here, the author has taken a real event and transmuted it into the material of fiction. As the novel ends, Hannah in unreliable-narrator mode challenges us to wonder if she will do so, or is already doing so:
It took me a while but I know now that words are nasty little things and I’m done with them. And it’s funny, isn’t it? I did warn you. I told you right from the start that I’m the girl who lies, so, really, you probably shouldn’t believe a single word I’ve said.
I think this novel’s title does it less than justice. There is a reason for the clear reference to a birth weight, but as an attention-grabber, an incentive to pick up the book, I should say it was a non-starter – indeed to some it may signal “mum-lit”, which could not be less accurate (mother’s place, in this book, is firmly in the wrong). It deserved a more memorable, unusual title, perhaps with a dash of the humour that never deserts Hannah. The writing is confident, assured and doesn’t sound like anyone else I can think of offhand.
Sheenagh Pugh
26 March 2014 @ 08:02 pm
I could never do this with poems; there are too many and I change my mind too much. But stories... yes. Here they are, with links where possible.

1, Anton Chekhov: Easter Eve. Not an unaware narrator, but what you might call an unaware protagonist, who tells more than he means to, or even knows himself, with every word.

2. Anton Chekhov: Home. Look, Chekhov is the guvnor, right? Of course he gets more than one! This is a story about the difference between truth, lies and fiction.

3. Rudyard Kipling: They. I didn't know the real-life background to this story when I first read it. It didn't matter.

4. Tove Jansson: Taking Leave (from A Winter Book). A story about letting go of things. Immensely spare and moving.

5. George Eliot: Brother Jacob. Is it a long short story? A short novella? Whatever: it's laugh-out-loud funny and the only story I know about the evils of convenience food.

6. Marcel Aymé: Legend of Poldevia. It's an odd thing; most French writers aren't notable for humour but just now and then you get one like Tristan Corbière or Marcel Aymé who's a whizz at it. And humorists say the most profound things...

7. Ilse Aichinger: Spielgelgeschichte. First piece of prose I ever read that was written backwards; from the protagonist's death to her birth. A long time before Amis, too.

8. Rudyard Kipling: The Wish House. So Kipling's the deputy guvnor. Staggering ventriloquism, amongst other things.

9. Saki: Birds on the Western Front. What happens when a highly observant, sensitive, cynical funny-man goes to war.

10. Petronius: The Tale of the Widow of Ephesus. OK,. it's part of a novel but also a short story in its own right, and a lovely example of structure and the difference between writer and narrator.