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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
If there's one generalisation about genre writers that really annoys me, it's the one that says "people who write historical fiction are escapists, not facing up to problems in the contemporary world". In fact they are frequently addressing the contemporary a lot more adroitly than those who actually set their novels there and have less distance from their material. Hilary Mantel's "A Place of Greater Safety" was published in 1992, quite a while before a post-9/11 world started getting twitchy about whether the ordinary forms of law were appropriate for fighting "terrorism". Here's Danton and Robespierre discussing the matter:

Danton: How do you tell a conspirator?
Robespierre: Put them on trial.
Danton: What if you know they’re conspirators, but you haven’t enough evidence to convict them? What if you as a patriot just know?
Robespierre: You ought to be able to make it stand up in court.
Danton: Suppose you can’t? You might not be able to use your strongest evidence. It might be state secrets.
Robespierre: You’d have to let them go, in that case. But it would be unfortunate.
Danton: It would, wouldn’t it? If the Austrians were at the gates? And you were delivering the city over to them out of respect for the judicial process?
Robespierre: Well, I suppose you’d…you’d have to alter the standard of proof in court. Or widen the definition of conspiracy.
Danton: You would, would you?
Robespierre: Would that be an example of a lesser evil averting a greater one? I am not usually taken in by this simple, very comforting very infantile notion—but I know that a successful conspiracy against the French people could lead to genocide.
Danton: Perverting justice is a very great evil in itself. It leaves no hope of amendment.
Robespierre: Look, Danton, I don’t know, I’m not a theorist.
Sheenagh Pugh
Actually the title is "An Abridged History of the Construction of the RAILWAY LINE Between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver; And other pertinent matters: Being the Professional JOURNAL and Regular Chronicle of ALEXANDER AUCHMUTY SETH KININMONTH". Apparently some bookshops mis-shelved it under History, which says little for their acumen, as the words "A novel by Andrew Drummond" also appear on the front cover. But he may well have intended them to be misled, for a major theme of this book is the divide between truth and fiction, and how far we can be sure that what we think fact actually is so.

The story indeed is a melange of "real" history, fictionalised history and downright invention which is near-impossible to disentangle. There really was a projected Garve-Ullapool railway, which was partly built but abandoned for lack of funds. And there was a Melchior Rinck, a German Anabaptist, though he lived some three centuries before the events in which he is here concerned. The Kerguelen islands exist, but were never home to a colony of Scots abandoned there by a heartless captain – though, of course, plenty of Scots during the clearances were duped into sailing for promised lands that turned out to be places of desolation. The revolutionary events of 1897 in Ullapool are pure invention… probably, for as our narrator observes, "it seems likely to be in the interests of Government not to report such events as I believe took place in Ullapool, for fear that similar sedition might be sown in other parts of the land […] This would not be the first time that historical events have been concealed from an en-thralled Nation."

This narrator of ours, Kininmonth, is a railway engineer, a rationalist who ends up embroiled in a religious revival in which he never believes, and a basically conventional, respectable man whose politics, by the end of the book, are on the revolutionary side of socialist. He's a loner with a great curiosity, a certain primness and a dry wit, and he can be, both intentionally and unintentionally, very funny. His story begins in the reality of constructing the line from Garve, hampered by weather, midges and a fancy for one of the navvies' wives: "Wicked thoughts cross my mind, which I can attribute only to the increasing temperature and the scents on the breezes of April". But with the advent of the hedge-preacher Rinck and his friends the Irvines, refugees from the community on Kerguelen, events begin to take a surreal turn. The Kerguelen Scots had stayed two generations on their desolate island, because passing whalers, who stopped to revictual there, constantly told them of dire events in the outside world- the Great Whaling War between Finland and Paraguay, tidal waves in Paris and Rome, plague in Spain. To Kininmonth, hearing their narrative, the truth seems plain: "it was to the advantage of the Norwegians that the poor emigrants stayed on Kerguelen, to stock the whaling ships [..] and for this reason alone, the Norwegians had fabricated such sagas and tales. My spirit grew heavy with thoughts of the wickedness of men against men."

Later, however, he has a surprise. He and James Irvine meet an Icelandic widow in the wilds of Scotland and Irvine condoles with her on the "war" between her country and Turkey. Kininmonth, naturally taking this for another tall tale told by the whalers, is astonished when the woman confirms its truth. This is in fact a reference to the raid on Heimaey in 1627 by Barbary pirates, who kidnapped and enslaved 234 Icelanders. All the Barbary pirates were known in the West as "Turks", and to this day the Icelandic liturgy includes a prayer for protection against the wrath of the Turk. The whalers, presumably, had based some of their tales loosely on real events, but it leaves Kininmonth disoriented: "what if all the other stories told to the people of Kerguelen also had some basis in truth? What if there were wars and campaigns indeed between the most unlikely opponents […] What if the stories we read in newspapers were undiluted invention, as much a fiction as this History is fact?" From this point on, Kininmonth is never entirely sure if any person is speaking the truth, and nor can we be.

This sets up an ending with a device whose use in any novel is very daring, because it has been much discredited. In this case I think it works, because of the kind of novel this is. Even after the end, the writer has not done playing with our sense of what is real, for there are pages of the kind of publishers' advertisements that books of Kininmonth's era used to include. Some are straight spoofs on the improving and juvenile books of the day – "Dick and His Donkey: by the author of Hugh and His Husky", but some are allegedly by characters in the book and would, if real, necessarily subvert the facts as we now think we know them. Some have reviewers' endorsements, like this, allegedly from The Midlothian Advertiser; "A Most Interesting and Clever Book. I was startled at how little I understood".

That made me laugh, as this novel often did, but I suspect Drummond may mean it seriously and indeed it would serve to describe this book – not at all in the sense that it is a difficult read; it's anything but that, never forgetting its entertainment function, but in the sense that having read it, we realise that it may be saying far more than first appeared, and that we shall need to read it again to be sure. Luckily, this is no hardship. I found this in a cut-price Aberdeen bookshop; if you have to look in AbeBooks, be assured it'll be worth the trouble.
Sheenagh Pugh
23 September 2013 @ 08:43 am
"…He will come out of the grave
His clothes thrown around him;
worms shall not have done their work.
His face shall beam the radiance of many suns.
His gait the bearing of a victor,
On his forehead shall shine a thousand stars"

- Kofi Awoonor, Ghanaian poet, murdered in Nairobi shopping mall by the usual pointless bigots.
Sheenagh Pugh
This book is both the most information, and the most fun, I have had all year. I missed the BBC radio series on which it was based, so it was all new to me. Basically, it takes 20 objects that were current in Shakespeare's time and place, from a fork dropped in the theatre, through plague proclamations, Henry V's armour and a model ship, to the hapless designs for a union flag commissioned by King James, and uses these objects to illuminate the plays. All the way through, I was muttering "why did I never think of that before?" Reading or seeing the plays in isolation from their context, one can easily forget that, for instance, Shakespeare was 16 when Francis Drake circumnavigated the world and that this had caused a shift in the way people saw their world comparable to what happened when we saw the first pictures of earth from space. It had also generated a fashion for maps and globes that makes the name of his most famous theatre seem a lot more topical and relevant than we might have thought.

The book is full of fascinating and useful information (eg the price of admission to the theatre, one penny, which was the same as the price of admission to see Henry V's armour in Westminster Abbey). And the fact that theatre performances and afternoon church services both began at 2pm, which explains a lot of church hostility to the theatre. It is also, having been co-produced by BBC Radio and the British Museum as well as the publisher, Allen Lane, full of fascinating and beautifully produced illustrations of the objects in question. Strangely enough, I didn't find the human eye in a reliquary anywhere near as moving as Henry's battered, shabby shield or the fancy fork engraved with its careless owner's initials, A.N.

Paradoxically, the firmness with which the book locates Shakespeare in his own time and place merely emphasises his universal, timeless relevance, with which the last chapter is rather movingly concerned. This book is beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated (the 20 objects are only the start of it) but above all, the text is intelligent, thoughtful and penetrating, giving a genuinely novel and informative angle on the plays. Let's never forget that it came about as a result of a radio series by one of the very few broadcasters that would have undertaken such a project. The BBC is as much of a cultural asset to our time as Shakespeare was to his; we'd surely miss this kind of enterprise if we didn't have Auntie.

Sheenagh Pugh
08 May 2012 @ 09:56 am
This is the website of a campaign trying to get a dedicated Russian Arctic Convoys Museum set up near Loch Ewe in the North West Highlands of Scotland, where many of them sailed from. They're currently running a week of fund-raising events. There's also a link to the e-petition for a medal to be issued to the few veterans of the convoys left alive. Yes, you'd think there would already have been one, for one of the most arduous and dangerous theatres of WW2, and there is, but President Gorbachev, bless him, issued it; the UK government has always been averse.

My father was in the convoys; he was on HMS Scorpion during the battle of North Cape when the Scharnhorst was sunk,and after he died I wrote a sequence of poems about his war medals (which was published in Poetry Wales). This is the one about the convoys:

Russian Convoys Medal (North Cape)

             no daylight left,

the Arctic Ocean
             a monotone

far below
             the edge of Europe.

Warm rooms cut
             deep in the rock,

café, souvenir shop
             and a plaque burnished

for all the young men
             sick as dogs

who could not come in
             out of the storm.

"Hell of a place
             to spend Christmas"

- though, he'd always add,
             worse for the prey,

the shapely Scharnhorst,
             her radar blinded,

pack closing in
             and no way home.
Sheenagh Pugh
29 January 2012 @ 08:42 pm

O laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
To wat their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang or ere the play was played,
They wat their hats abune.

(Sir Patrick Spens, Anon)

At quarter to six the old cook came on deck,
Saying: fellows, it's too rough to feed you.
At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in,
He said: fellows, it's been good to know you.

(The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot)

Moral? Not sure really - if it worked once it'll work again in a new setting? Or maybe: however contemporary you are, the more you read, and are aware of what's been done in the past, the more resonance you can create by using its echoes?

Great song, anyway.
Sheenagh Pugh
12 April 2010 @ 01:40 pm
Review of Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood

I thought I had enough pirate books, till I saw this one specifically dealing with the Barbary pirates of Algiers, Tripoli etc. It's well researched and scholarly but also written in a delightfully lively style - see this sardonic little piece on everyone's dream job - not...:

"The governorship of Tangier was not a passport to success. The Earl of Peterborough was recalled to England after 11 months, amidst allegations of corruption and incompetence. His successor, the Earl of Teviot, managed a year in office before being killed in a Moorish ambush. During a bout of diarrhoea the Earl of Middleton, who took up office in 1668, got up in the middle of the night, fell over his sleeping manservant and broke his arm; he died two days later. The Earl of Inchiquin was recalled in disgrace after allowing the Moors to overrun the outer defences, though he managed to calm the King's anger by giving him a pair of ostriches. The Earl of Ossory fell into a fit of depression on hearing of his appointment as governor and succumbed to a fever before he could even leave England."

Always keep a pair of ostriches handy for awkward moments. This book is full of unforgettable characters, rich historical ironies, absorbing personal stories and just sheer style, both Tinniswood's and that of his (anti-)heroes. Did you know Samuel Pepys, at very short notice, was ordered to go to Tangier to help supervise its evacuation and destruction? Or that the French mortar-bombed Algiers, in the teeth of a threat, which was carried out, to blow an elderly French priest from a cannon? And don't forget Sir Robert Mansell, to whom no modern mortgage-flipping, duck-house-building MP could hold a candle...

"Sir Robert Mansell stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries in his relentless pursuit of public funds which were not his to spend. In 1604 he obtained the post of treasurer to the navy and clung on to it for all it was worth. He fitted out his own ship at the crown's expense, then hired it to the crown at an inflated rate, while simultaneously using it to carry private cargo. He routinely demanded bribes from naval suppliers as a condition of paying their bills. He ran a lucrative business buying timber and supplies, selling them to the navy at a handsome profit and, as treasurer, authorising the purchases himself. And when, in spite of his best efforts to stop it, the 1618 commission enquiring into abuses in the navy began to examine his dealings, he resigned, mislaid his accounts and handed the commissioners a £10,000 bill for his travelling expenses, which they could not pay. Instead they quietly dropped the investigation."

My own favourite is the harassed Thomas Baker, neglected but kindly English consul in Tripoli, but he's only one in a bewildering tapestry, at a time and cosmopolitan place where people called Hassan Rais, who made a living by importing Christian slaves, frequently turned out to be someone called Rowley from Bristol. You can never have too many pirate books.
Sheenagh Pugh
03 February 2008 @ 11:46 am
I'm simultaneously diverted and annoyed by the book I'm reading, Necropolis: London and its Dead by Catharine Arnold. Diverted, because it's the sort of subject I love and who wouldn't be fascinated to find out that "occasionally, scholars from St Paul's and other grammar schools would meet in St Bartholomew's churchyard for learned debates, but these inevitably degenerated into street fights and had to be discontinued" or that the Chelsea pensioners' graveyard contains Christina Davies, veteran of Blenheim and Ramillies, who had a volley of three shots fired at her funeral?

Annoyed, because I keep seeing how it could be better written.
rant commencesCollapse )