Category Archives: Storytelling

Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback


Why you should never throw away receipts.

No, I’m not talking about taking stuff back or “just in case” scenarios connected with everyday life. I’m thinking of future immortality in the historical record. As a novelist and social historian the receipts and printed debris of the past are like magic carpets. And for someone else today’s petrol station receipt or fast food flier will act the same way. Think before you throw it away.

If you do throw it away perhaps consider not throwing it away very well. Don’t carefully recycle it but perhaps sweep it away into a drawer in order to get the surface cleared. Chances are it may get lost under the drawer liner (hopefully made from old newspaper) and only be rediscovered when someone buys your old chest of drawers and clears it out for restoration. They might be amused or even touched by what they found.

We bought a Scotch Chest for £35 in Jedburgh about 20 years ago. A Scotch chest is a particular style of everyday furniture of the 19th century, characterised by the big deep drawer in the centre, used for keeping hats. (I keep A4 files in mine).

Now our chest is very similar to this one and you will note that there is a broad strip above where the drawers start. This turns out to be a long, shallow drawer, not immediately obvious to the eye. Certainly we didn’t realise it was there until we got it home and found it.  In our case it was still full of stuff. There were photographs, a fake pearl necklace, a ration book and postcards. All completely overlooked and forgotten about.The impression they made on us was rather emotional – surely these things would be missed by someone? We asked the shop if they knew where the chest had come from but they had no idea so we could not send them back to the family. So we kept them, most of them still in the drawer where a slick of our own stuff has been added to them for the future to discover.  One day someone will be quite confused.

I was entranced to read a piece about the restoration of an old house where children had apparently pushed all sorts of interesting things through the gaps in the floorboards, playing cards and ribbons and so forth. I was delighted then when  the floorboards came up for renovation in our flat and the electrician found a very old cigarette packet and a copy of a 1888 evangelical tract, addressed to the working man. I can imagine our long vanished workman had having that pressed into his hands by some earnest urban missionary in Victorian Edinburgh, only for him to abandon it under the boards of the house he was working on. It was obviously not worth taking home…

So don’t throw away your receipts. They are the ghosts of the future.

Anyone else found anything accidentally like this? I’d love to know.


Jane Austen and the long gap

I could not resist beginning a post about Jane Austen with this wonderful early illustration from Pride and Prejudice, which shows Lizzy telling Mr Bennet how Mr Darcy had helped Lydia and Whickham.

File:Pickering - Greatbatch - Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice - She then told him what Mr. Darcy had voluntarily done for Lydia.jpg

Cleary in the 1830′s the idea of a contemporary novel being a thing that could only ever be rooted in the period it was written or published did not apply. Hollywood did not have this problem either which gives us Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in a similar high romantic mode in the movie of 1940.

Given our period accuracy fetishism it is quite interesting to  consider whether period inaccuracy has something to be said for it. Certainly an author as resonant as Jane Austen can survive the dress shapes being wrong, the furniture being wrong and the hair even more wrong. In that she is like Shakespeare – the stories are big enough to be played out in any world at any time. Pride and Prejudice in space perhaps? Emma in austerity Britain? (I do like that idea actually.)

I digress. What I wanted to consider in this piece was the long gap in Jane Austen’s writing career when she seems to have written nothing. Her father retired as a parson and they moved to Bath, which according to one biographer provoked a deep depression in Austen at being exiled from the only home she had ever known. According to another the period was a long one of revision of existing manuscripts and private writing.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two – a mixture of block and mid career reflection.

By this stage Jane Austen knew what she was doing as a writer. She had mastered her craft. She knew she could write. She had also been very productive and may have been feeling a little burnt out. She may have needed the time to grow her new ideas. Is  this what was happening in this long period of apparent silence? We can bet her mind was not silent, nor without new ideas forming.

I think we in the writing world have become a little hung up on the idea of visible productivity. There is a lot of be said for writing everyday – it keeps that side of you alive and creates a habit, but for a writer already as skilled as Jane Austen, it may not have been necessary. She had the necessary focus through long previous practice and instead of writing feverishly, she could allow ideas to gestate. This is such an important part of the process. Writing fiction is not just about writing stuff down. It is about story development and world building and deep characterization. Now, you can write all that down, but you can also hold it in your head and your heart and work it over and over again there. For a woman like Jane Austen this would have been a very real possibility and perhaps a necessity. Although there is some evidence she was excused some household duties to allow her to write, there were still daily obligations to be met – a certain amount of sewing for example. She was also a diligent pianist. From my experience both these activities are perfect for ‘writing in the head’ as we might call it.

When the Austens did return to the country, to Chawton, Austen began to produce again in earnest. What she did produce was a succession of masterpieces. Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion rank as some of the finest novels ever written in English. So the long gap, which may have been painful for her and frustrating at times, was also fertile. Novels as perfect as Emma do not arrive fully formed. They have to grow and evolve in the mind of the writer. This is what I think must have happened with Jane Austen.

The comfort we can draw from this is we should not always be afraid that we have not filled the blank page with words. Sometimes the words are not ready to come. Sometimes we do not have the space or the time in our lives to let them come. But we always have our minds and we can write in our heads no matter where we are or what we are doing.  The long gap can be turned to our advantage.


Sensitivity or sensationalism? The dilemmas of storytelling.

Storms have been brewing in the world of BBC serial drama over the festive period. Firstly to mark 60 years of rural radio 4 soap, The Archers, the decision was taken to have one of the show’s most popular characters fall off a roof to his death. The untimely demise of Nigel, an aimiable toff, and wife of Elizabeth Archer provoked a howl of protest from the Twittersphere to the broadsheets. Only this morning in the Telegraph Alison Pearson accused the show’s producers of political correctness in piece called Ambridge and its putsch of the posh while complaints and laments continue to pile up on the BBC website when the actor who plays Nigel, Graham Seed explained how and why the decision had been made for him to leave the series.

However this fades in comparison to the fuss about Eastenders, which celebrated Christmas day with two birth scenes and then proceeded with a plot line over the next few days to extinguish one baby in a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and then send the bereaved mother to kidnap the other newborn child. This story has received at time of writing at least 6000 complaints from the BBC, not least from Anne Diamond, who lost a baby in the same tragic circumstances and has campained ever since for research and understanding of such deaths.

According to a piece in the Guardian she

branded the plot “tacky sensationalism”. “I think it’s crass what they’ve done,” she told ITV1′s Daybreak.”I find it amazing that a cot death isn’t awful enough for any drama.” That they’ve had to actually make the cot death mother go slightly mad and then do a baby swap, is frankly offensive.”

The Guardian continues,

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), which worked with EastEnders ahead of the story, has also spoken out about the storyline, stressing its involvement “was limited to advice on SIDS risk factors, bereavement and the involvement of health professionals and the police”.

The charity added in a statement: “FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific ‘baby-swap’ plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way ‘endorsed’ by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent.””

The BBC have apparently now been forced to cut short the storyline due to these complaints.

For a writer and storyteller it has been interesting to observe the arguments and emotions that these two dramatic story lines have evoked. It is in fact a powerful and heartening reminder of the meaning and value that people attach to their stories. These programmes, which are fictions, are significant parts of their lives. They love and hate the characters that the writers and actors create. They are enthralled and involved by the events portrayed. They care about those fictional worlds and their inhabitants and draw solace, distraction and amusent from them. In the case of the death of Nigel Pargetter there is a real sense of loss and indignation that someone that they have allowed into their lives has been disposed of so callously by the powers that be. To many listeners it is a betrayal.

As a result, as storytellers, we have to remember that our task is a delicate one. A shocking storyline is always a great temptation. I have done horrible things to my own characters in my time and been berated by readers for it. There is always a danger of going too far and forgetting the impression that such events cause, or worse still, thinking gleefully “that’ll make ‘em cry.” Of course there must be drama, there must be heartache, there must be shock and awe, despair and triumph. We have to make things happen. We do not want anodyne fiction where tea cups clink together and passion is banished. But there are lines which we cross at our peril. The great trouble is that those lines are very often invisible.


Writer or Storyteller?

It is socially awkward being a writer at parties. “What do you do?” you will, of course, be asked. Do you tell the truth?

“Well, I sit around all day, drink too much coffee and sometimes write a few paragraphs. I procrastinate a lot, but mostly I fantasise about imaginary people at great length.” No, of course not. Instead you mumble something about “being a writer” and then move on swiftly to asking “and you?” to avoid all the laborious explanations of why your books are not for sale in WH Smith.Inevitably you discover that your questioner does something worthy or high profile or well paid (or all three at once) and the next ten minutes can be happily spent getting the inside information on that. You call it research and yet again you resign yourself to never being able to sound so admirable or successful.

But with the Christmas cocktail party season approaching I am wondering about taking a different tack. It is about time I had a rebrand. I might try saying I am storyteller and see what sort of reaction that gets.

Why? To me saying you are a storyteller sounds so much more life affirming than saying your are a writer. It stresses entertainment and performance. It is a word that implies communication. Writer is a sad old sounding word, with built in angst in it.It makes you think of dragging a scratchy nib laboriously across a page in an unheated garret. Storyteller sounds bouncy and fun. It conjures up the fireside and the mead cup. I think that’s what you need at a Christmas party.

There are other reasons. When you read the reviews on Amazon, reviews by ordinary folk, it becomes clear that, nine times out of ten, what they are after when they pick up a novel is a great story. This is an ancient, primitive desire. The story is what helps makes us make sense of everything. There has been research done to show that there is an evolutionary advantage to storytelling. Now that is a profession to which I’d like to belong.

Another problem for me it that the word “writer” stresses the means of communication rather that the contents of the message. I love words and I love good writing, of course I do. I strive to write as well as I can but I know I am clumsy and slipshod and lazy with my tools. I am frequently deeply frustrated by them. It is the effect of words that interests me, not the words for their own sake. Often I wish I could send my ideas straight to a movie screen or into paintings. Words often seem unequal to the task I want them to perform. I want soundtrack, I want texture, I want the smell of things and the taste. I want my readers to experience everything. Oh heavens, I think I want to create a holodeck for them, just like the one they had on Star Trek, the Next Generation.

To say “I am writing” vastly understates the task I am setting myself. I am not just stringing symbols together on a piece of paper. I am striving to make an imaginary world credible and tangible to the reader. There are characters to create and develop; there are settings to realise and convey and all of this must be then carefully crafted to produce a logical, satisfying narrative in which the events pile up and up, each building on the other in order to create something that is both emtionally and intellectually satisfying. I write so that I can tell stories. Heck, I’d use a box of wax crayons if that did the job more efficiently than words!