A quick note to say in November 2017 I was the guest on Hannah’s Bookshelf, on North Manchester FM. We talked about books – mine and other people’s – ballads, biology, time, and what I’d save for a post-apocalyptic library. It was enormous fun; I can talk about books for ages and Hannah is a well read and very perspicacious interviewer. You can listen to the interview here, and find out more about Hannah herself here.
This is the deleted first chapter from a spin-off from the work in progress. I’m posting it here because I doubt it will see the light of day elsewhere.
The Fisher’s Boy
Sometimes in later life the smell of a corrupted wound conjured his mother. He tried, often, to remember more; sometimes a touch, a taste – milk and salt, say, mingled on his tongue – trembled on the edge of memory but, in truth, he lost her before he ever knew her. All he had of her came from his father, a tale of love and loss.
‘How she found the strength to come here, I’ll never know,’ his father said, years later, as they stood at the cairn that marked her grave. ‘Whatever it was had torn out half her shoulder. Shark, maybe, or pied pegtooth. But she did, and brought you safe ashore too. If you’ve half her strength and will when you’re grown you’ll be a finer man than most.’
The night she’d brought him ashore, he’d squirmed and keened, cowering in the piled seagrass of the bedplace and snapping at his father’s hand when he tried to offer comfort. He’d had but his milk teeth but they were sharp enough to leave a mark that lasted. ‘A wild thing you were,’ said his father, laughing, each time he showed the place when he begged to hear again that story, ‘but we had to make the best of it, you and I, she being gone, poor lass.’
They’d made indeed the best of it. By the time he was five he could gut the herring for the drying racks near as fast as his father and, at seven, he was handy in a boat as any man. He had besides the advantage over any man and could dive deep, herding the fish towards the net like a dog driving sheep upon the hillside. Most times he could, of course, he was away with the village boys. He was big for his age and strong with it, easily a match for lads of nine or ten – his mother’s blood, his father said. Rough and tumble ’cross the foreshore. Hide and seek across the hill. Dens and dams and ditches, mud smeared across their faces and their shirts tattered by briars and brambles as they trailed homewards in the twilight to their mothers and their suppers and their beds. That he’d no mother of his own troubled him not at all. His father had lived most of his life alone and could use a needle and a cookpot as well as an oar and fishing net and, from what he saw of his comrades’ dams, fussed far less over a torn shirt or a lost cap.
‘When you’re not in it, you keep that skin safe and you keep it secret.’ His father’s words, spoken when he was first old enough to grasp their meaning, and many times since. ‘Hide it away in a place no one else knows.’
‘Not even you? Not Myn or Ganisùthu or Farel?’
‘Me, maybe, and there’s no harm in those lads. But no one else now, and when you’re grown, only someone you’d trust with your life. That’s what it is, really; grants you a whole life rather than half a one like me.’ His father sighed, and he saw again that soft, sad look in his face, as when they talked about his mother. ‘It’s your mother should be teaching you such things, not me. Years it was before she let me know where she kept her skin. Not ’til we knew you were on the way.’
So, though mostly he still slept in it, he’d hide it here and there close by the house each morning. A strange feeling it was, to be in the boat upon the sea or up in the woods with Ganisùthu and feel the press of stones and earth and see only darkness with his other sight. He didn’t like it, and some days left his skin instead in the seagrass of his bed where the afternoon sun would warm it, but though his father never said a word, the look in his eyes was more than he could bear. Not anger – that, he could have faced – but worry, almost fear.
The lord came by when he was eight. Each year before that it had been the factor. He’d take the rent, and then spend all the hours from noontime ’til the evening poking and prying and making a nuisance of himself whilst they looked on in silence, knowing he had the mastery. But, each year, for all his poking and prying, the factor could find nothing awry or unaccounted for, neither with the cottage nor the boat, and must go away with his master’s due and the dissatisfaction of knowing they were there another year.
They were sat by the netstore wall, his father working over the nets and he playing a game of stalk and pounce with the bold grey kitten. The old cat herself lounged in the sun near his father’s knee, occasionally putting out a paw to pat a dangling netcord to show she’d not forgot she’d been young once and worked all into a tangle.
‘Da! Look there!’ He pointed to the sea. His father spat ill luck aside but he stared open-mouthed in wonder at the sight: a dragonship in miniature, eight oarports a side and a sail green as the sunlit depths, bright bronze capping her mast-top and the horns of the dragon at her prow. She cut the water smoothly as a hawk the sky, her square sail bellied full of air, a lovely, deadly thing. His father sucked in his breath beside him and wound up his nets.
‘Is it the lord?’
‘Aye, lad, like enough. None else can command a craft like that.’
He watched in wonder, and wonder grew when the ship turned to shore. Then the sail was furled and the oars slipped out, dipping and rising, to drive her towards the land. Hard to believe it was not one creature wielding them, so perfect their rhythm, so precise their motion. She beached easily as a seal and came to rest straddling the tideline.
His father’s hand was firm upon his shoulder, his father’s face stern as he’d ever seen it. ‘You bide here, Thorinah. Let me see what’s about. Whatever it is, it’s nothing to do with you. Understand?’
He nodded, longing to go and look the dragon in the face. Instead he watched his father walk away, watched him hold out his empty hands and bow his head to the tall man in the sea-green cloak who stood beside the dragon’s neck, watched as the man spoke and his father answered, wished he could catch their words across the distance. The cat lay purring in a patch of sun, her kittens kneading and suckling, small heads pressed into the white fur of her belly.
Other men jumped from the ship, tethering her in place against the retreating tide, setting props to stop her listing. Unless they meant to stay until it rose again they’d have to roll her back into the sea when they were done. Two, boys from their size, stood apart from the rest and looked themselves about. The smaller pointed, tugging at the bigger by his sleeve. With a lurch, he realised it was to him he pointed; the next moment the boys had left the men behind and were running up the shore. He looked to his father but he was still with the man in the green cloak. He could hide himself within the bracken but what be the point in that? And so he stood up, ready, trembling, half-way between fear and excitement.
The cat started up at their approach, scattering kittens left and right. The boys stopped just out of reach. Brothers, by their faces. The younger was about his size but likely older by a year or more. The bigger, blonder of the two picked up the grey kitten and tucked it in the crook of his arm, stroking its head to soothe it when it struggled. He must have passed manhood for his hair was knotted up behind his head with sea-green silk. Not a boy, then, but a clansman of the Black Rocks.
‘You look just like any fisher’s boy,’ the younger brother said. The disappointment in his voice was enough to make him smile. ‘Where’s your skin?’
He told him, just as he would have done Myn or Farel, ‘It’s a secret.’
‘Do you know who I am?’
He shook his head. The boy took a step towards him and punched him hard. He doubled up upon the ground, pain screaming through every part of him from the focus in his belly. Sight slowly cleared and he looked up into blue eyes that were in no part like Myn’s or Farel’s. The boy said, ‘I am Elùthai mor Tascu and I’ll ask again: where is your skin?’
A pause. An unfilled silence. And then another blow, to his head this time. His mouth filled with blood from his bitten tongue.
‘Enough, Elùthai.’ The young man set a hand on his brother’s shoulder. ‘Leave it to me.’
He looked up and saw the kitten tucked between his arm and side. The clansman cupped its head, carefully, quite gently, forefinger and thumb circling its neck. Their eyes met and he saw at once what he would do. The silence stretched between them, filled by the rasp of unpractised purring.
‘Do you think it true,’ the young man asked, ‘that cats have nine lives? Shall I test it?’ he asked. ‘Here and now?’
Never had he thought a smile could be so terrible. He shook his head.
Fingers tightened, tilted, stretched. The kitten squirmed, struggling against an iron grip, its claws blocked and baffled by the leather of the young man’s jerkin.
‘I can’t hear you,’ the clansman remarked.
A frantic mewing. ‘Then where –’
‘There! There!’ He pointed to the pile of stones beneath the rowan. The younger brother laughed and, crouched on his knees, began to scrabble them aside. As each stone was moved the weight lessened at the edge of feeling. The boy drew out his skin and ran his hands over it, against the nap of the stiff fur. He cringed as the unwanted touch dragged across his back, his breast, his belly. The clansman watched him squirm, squatting on his heels, the kitten still prisoned on his arm. ‘Well now,’ he said, ‘there’s a thing I did not know.’
A horn sounded, brash and brazen. The boy sat back, cursing fluently. The young man set down the kitten, which streaked away to the nest beneath the netstore. Then both brothers rose up and walked away, down to the shore where men were rolling the ship into the sea. He watched them go, clutching his skin close to his breast while tears and blood dripped beside him on the grass.
‘What happened, lad?’ his father asked. He couldn’t tell and so he lied, passing the blame to Myn by inventing a fight beneath the rowan. His father listened, grim-faced as ever he had seen him, but if he had a question over why firm friends should come to blows he did not ask it. Nor did he speak of what the lord had said down by the water. Instead his father washed his face and poulticed it to soothe the swelling and that night each had a dollop on honey on his porage. He went to bed with its sweetness still on his tongue but could not sleep. Across the room his father sat waking at the table, arranging and rearranging the little pile of tally-sticks that marked his takings and his dealings. He dragged himself across the floor and his father reached down and gathered him into his arms. He pressed his face into his shoulder and felt a hand stroking the fur of his head and back, as soothing now as when he’d been very small. ‘No need for fear.’ A comfort and a promise. ‘You’re safe with me.’
There and then, as his father’s touch wiped away the stranger’s, he could believe it. He fell asleep upon his arm, the click-clicking of tally-sticks counted over and again across the table running like water through his dreams.
The rent fell due and the factor came by. After the paying and the counting and the poking and the prying, the man stood fullsquare in the doorway and explained to his father that, what with this good cottage and the sound boat lying cross the shoreline and the seas so full of mackerel and herring and him being a strong man in the prime of life with a fine son to help him and no need for favours or for charity, the next year’s rent would be a full third higher. ‘Unless…’
The word hung a moment in the air between them. ‘I’ll make the rent,’ his father answered calmly, looking the man straight in the face. The factor smiled and turned away. His father closed the door behind him and, for a moment, slumped against it as if he were, quite suddenly, as weary as after a night upon the sea.
‘Da?’ His father looked down, and ruffled his hair. ‘Way of the world, Thorinah. No need to fret, the sea’s full of fish and there’s none to beat the pair of us for catching them.’
It was not long, of course, before he found out what the lord had wanted, there being no secrets in so small a village. ‘He asked for you,’ Ganisùthu told him. He and Farel had the story from their mother, who’d had it from their father, who’d had it straight out of the factor’s mouth. ‘Wanted you to serve him at the Black Rocks. Offered your da the cottage and the boat and ten acres of the hillside if he’d let him have you.’
‘And your da said no,’ Farel put in. ‘So the lord went away again. Brave man, your da, so the factor told our da, daring to cross the lord in such a way.’
‘Why’d he want you, anyway?’ Ganisùthu asked, but he did not stay to answer. He ran away into the bracken. Later, when his friends had given up their shouting and gone home, he slipped into the sea and stayed there until the light at the open door told him his father was home.
Knowing gave him a sick feeling in his belly. He himself had not been brave. Nor had he shown his mother’s strength. Instead he’d cowered and blubbered and given up his secret. That night he pushed his food about his bowl and left the most of it. So too the next day, and the next. He couldn’t say why he would not eat. Nor could he tell why he hated the grey kitten so, why he drove it away with sticks and stones next morning when it tried to play. His father frowned and cuffed his ear when he caught him. ‘Not like you. Not what I’ve taught you. What’s the matter, Thorinah?’
But he could not tell. That day of the lord’s coming had become a rent in the net holding them together. He pulled his misery about him and lay in bed with his face turned to the wall, closing his ears when Myn and Farel came a-calling. After that, his father called the hedge-witch in. ‘I’m not ill,’ he protested, but his father stood firm, and firmer still the hedge-witch’s bony hands pressing and probing beneath his father’s watchful, worried eye. Since he had no choice he swallowed what she gave him, and found it so foul he ate rather than risk another dose. He let the kitten be until, on a day when his father was away, he trapped it in a basket and left it near the hedge-witch’s cot to take its chances best it could. Out of sight was out of mind. He buried his skin deep ’neath soil and stone and walked a fisher’s boy upon the land.
I’m back from FantasyCon, and have had enough time now to catch up on sleep. It was a wonderful weekend – I’d had my doubts ahead of time as last year’s had felt a bit cliquey – but this year it was great fun. Being on a couple of panels helped enormously; it gave me a focus and raised my profile a bit. As a result I spent a lot more time talking with other authors between sessions, which is surely the real reason to go to these events. So thank you, Toby Venables, Anna Smith Spark, John Garland, G.V. Anderson, Eliza Chan… It was lovely to meet you all, and I hope I see you all again next year, if not before.
The Grimdark panel, chaired by Susan Bartholomew, was my highlight. Well, it was my first panel and one always remembers the first time. I was a bit surprised to be on it – After the Ruin is full of terrible things happening to innocent people but I’d not call it grimdark: it lacks the nihilism I associate with that (sub)genre of fantasy – but it was a group of well-read people talking about books to a room full of people interested in books, and that’s about as good as it gets. Oh, and Watership Down is the grimdark writer’s grimdark. Who’d thunk it!
And conversations late into the night with Eric Steele, and John Garland, and – of course – Irene Soldatos, about epic poetry, and heroes, and mythology, and Superman… So much fun and so inspiring to talk so much and listen.
It’s in Chester next year. I’ll be there.
One of my favourite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reread or simply revisited her detective novels, even though I’ve known whodunit in each of them for years. Her best known books feature Lord Peter Wimsey, shell-shock survivor, man about town, bibliophile, and sometime copywriter for an advertising agency.
Now, I encountered Lord Peter at an early age and he is still, for me, the sine qua non for detective fiction. Poirot, Rebus, Grant, Wexford, even Holmes… All have their merits and their notable successes but none to my mind can, quite, match Lord Peter (let us not consider too closely the follow-up books penned by Jill Paton Walsh, other than to say that Wimsey without Sayers is like a fine wine, corked). He might begin as a set of characteristics and catch-phrases, a caricature of the English upper classes, but over the course of his investigations the layers of mannerisms are stripped away to reveal the man. It’s a powerful examination of the aftermath of conflict.
So why am I wittering on about Lord Peter? Well now, this started up as a blog about folk songs. And – lo and behold – there’s an easy link between Lord Peter and folk song: Strong Poison (1930) takes both its name and its epigraph from Child Ballad no. 12, Lord Randal (sung here by Alasdair Roberts).
The ballad comes under the general heading of murder ballads. It’s a broad category; many (most?) of the Child Ballads deal with unnatural death of one sort or another. It’s slightly unusual in that it gives the victim’s account: Lord Randal makes his accusations of who poisoned him and how and when, and instructions as to how to deal with his murderer. It was his sweetheart, of course, with the poison, in the stewed eels. Love seldom goes well in ballads, as I may have mentioned this once or twice before.
Strong Poison opens with Harriet Vane on trial for her life for the murder of her erstwhile sweetheart, Philip Boyes. It is alleged she used poison, although stewed eel does not feature in the dinner the dead man ate on his last evening. And, like Lord Randal, Boyes accused his lover on his deathbed. So far book and ballad run in parallel.
But, whether or not Strong Poison was inspired by the ballad, their courses diverge from that point. It needs to be so – there’s not a lot of plot in Lord Randal; it’s a snapshot of a moment and doesn’t concern itself with what happened before or after. Ballads are like that. Detective fiction, on the other hand, requires rather a lot of plot and a linear progression from problem to solution. Fortunately for Harriet, Lord Peter is around to ask a few questions about that last dinner. His taste in reading is also useful; familiarity with late 19th Century poetry provides the reader with a last, late clue.
It’d be stretching interpretation far beyond breaking point to call Strong Poison a retelling of a ballad. Oh, the supernatural is invoked in Lord Peter’s cause but there’s a rational explanation. You can, if you try hard, find touches here and there evoking balladry; there are, for example, red roses like splashes of blood – a folk song image if ever there was one – in the first line of the book. At best one can conclude that Sayers borrowed an idea or image and ran with it. Literature is like that: the more one reads, the more connections between different forms and stories become apparent.
We never find out if Lord Randal’s sweetheart did, in fact, poison him. It’s not a spoiler to say that Harriet Vane didn’t poison Philip Boyes. Nor to say that, in detective fiction, wronged women can end up living happily ever after. Not quite yet – there’s another couple of books to go before that happens. I don’t think folk songs or ballads feature in them at all.
In an amusing coincidence, as I was writing this post, The Guardian published an article on the likelihood of the murder strategy used in Strong Poison.
I wrote the following about eighteen months ago in reaction to a lot of the advice to writers I’d seen posted here and there about the internet. It started as a rant but I managed to tone it down by the point of posting. As I keep bumping up against my pet hates, I’m reposting it in an attempt to achieve equilibrium.
l. Grant yourself unfettered access to the entire English language. Do not fret unduly about using words or parts of speech others have misused or overused or put on a list of ‘things to avoid’. All you need consider is whether you are using the right word in the right place for your work.
2. ‘To be’ is a very strong verb. If you don’t believe me, reread the first ten verses of the KJB translation of The Gospel according to John or else the first sentences of 1984 or The Bell Jar or Bring up the Bodies or More Than This. You may decide to use it sparingly but few verbs are more powerful in declarative statements.
3. Don’t rush to judgement when a sentence is written using the passive. No crime or sin is being committed.
4. The presence of ‘was’ does not automatically render a sentence passive. Your writing life will be easier if you can distinguish the grammatical passive voice from the past continuous (otherwise known as the past progressive or past imperfect) form of a verb.
5. Feel free to make use of dialogue tags other than ‘said’; people do indeed ‘whisper’, ‘shout’, ‘hiss’, ‘scold’, ‘murmur’ or ‘dictate’ upon occasion. That said, unless you’re writing a very particular sort of fiction, ‘ejaculated’ is probably best avoided these days.
6. Fiction isn’t Latin or academic prose, so it’s fine to use contractions, to split infinitives and to end sentences with prepositions if you wish to.
7. Too much showing is as tedious to read as too much telling. Assume intelligence in your reader: there’s no need to show, tell or explain everything.
8. A little description can go a long way. The well-placed detail is the key to world building, whatever genre of book you’re writing.
9. Sweat the small stuff! Anachronisms, factual errors and unwarranted assumptions will play havoc with a reader’s ability to suspend disbelief so do your research and get the details right. Pay attention too to internal consistency. That matters, as much if not more than external consistency.
10. Be open when people offer their opinions on your work, consider carefully what they say, but do not feel obliged to follow their advice if it goes against your grain (and, yes, this goes for everything I’ve written here, except point 4).
I feel better now.
I know this blog has wandered a long way from folk songs and from fantasy. I’m still listening to the former and blocked on the latter. Now, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be posting the odd (very odd?) poem here, when I can manage them.
I read somewhere that villanelles started off as a comic form. This one isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but I did intend it to have a black humour about it. The refrain, As I am, so shall you be, is a fairly common momento mori on old gravestones, though my narrator isn’t yet quite in her tomb.
As I am, so shall you be
‘Smile,’ you say, ‘and look at me!
I’ll take a picture of this time.’
As I am, so shall you be.
You do not care for what you see –
I’ve heard you – Sadly past her prime!
‘Smile,’ you say, and look at me,
Seeing a second infancy,
Foolish, withered, hoared with rime.
As I am, so shall you be,
And, once, you looked quite differently:
‘Again!’ you’d beg. ‘Please! One more time!’
Smile? you say. And? Look at me,
Child, who once sat on my knee
Gumming and babbling an old rhyme:
As I am, so shall you be.
‘Here’s the picture – can you see?
A lovely record of our time.
Smile,’ you say, and look at me.
As I am, so shall you be.
The prompt for this was a composite photo of many different clock faces. I can’t find the picture now (note to self: save things!) but you all know what a clock looks like!
All the time there is
All the time there is, is here.
Each moment ticked, exactly, off.
Dead time, never quickening
To the beat of a racing heart.
Each moment ticked exactly off.
Each gives the measure of the rest.
To the beat of a racing heart
Such constraint cannot be borne;
Each gives the measure of the rest
In substance only, not in time.
Such constraint cannot be borne:
Some leap while others murmur.
In substance, only not in time,
Hearts beat together ’gainst the clock.
Some leap while others murmur,
And all the time there is, is there.
Both say much the same thing because I wrote the first and then turned it into the second to fit the character limit for twitter.
Ill winds are blowing
Out of the west
Ill winds are blowing
Cold hatreds sowing
This is the test
Ill winds are blowing
Out of the west
Truth lies bleeding
Cold winds blow
Truth lies bleeding
Truth lies bleeding
Cold winds blow