Mistress Anne Herbert at home in the Tower of London

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Mistress Anne Herbert confidentially addressed a party of school children: she wanted their advice. Her sister Catherine Parr was going to marry the King of England, Henry VIII. Where did his earlier wives go wrong and how could Catherine avoid their mistakes?

Here was teaching outside the classroom, a bit of history coming to life. Catherine of Aragon had been married for about six months to Arthur, Henry’s older brother. When Arthur died, his father, Henry VII, decided to hold on to Catherine (about sixteen) for marriage to Henry (eleven). Some years later, they married. It seems their marriage would have lasted, if there had been a son to succeed Henry. Mistress Anne Herbert told us they had six children—elsewhere I read eight. In any event, only one daughter, Mary, survived.

Henry decided to end the marriage, but the Pope would not agree to an annulment. All the same, Henry divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 established Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.

Catherine’s marriage to Henry lasted twenty four years, Anne’s only three. Henry’s impatience to be rid of her is a little hard to understand. She was found guilty of treason; the charges were believed to be trumped up.  The executioner, poised to decapitate Anne with a swing of his sword, could not bring himself to do it. He heard her commending her soul to God. A witness, understanding his reluctance, created a diversion. Anne, distracted by the noise, turned her head away from the executioner: he was able then to strike the fatal blow.

A number of the children were not interested in Henry’s misdeeds. One boy strolled a little aloof from the group, his hands in his pockets, and seemed oblivious of his surroundings. Other children (mostly boys) drifted to the perimeter of the group and looked around or chatted to each other. One boy spotted a discarded chicken bone and pointed it out to other children. They were more entertained by that remnant of lunch from a nearby fried food place than Mistress Anne Herbert’s talk.

But Mistress Anne Herbert engaged even the most inattentive child when she asked them to warn her if any courtiers were about. If she were caught gossiping about Henry VIII’s wives, things would go badly for her. The children were keen to alert her to the presence of any courtier (any person in medieval clothes) strolling among the tourists. This looking-out for courtiers became an end in itself. The inattentive boys (more boys than girls were inattentive), although keen to play this game, were not keen to listen to another word about Henry’s six wives.

Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife) died shortly after the birth of Edward VI. She appeared, after a few faux pas, to have been happily married to him. She was outspoken but Henry VIII nipped this tendency in the bud with: ‘Remember Anne!’

We heard some not so well-known facts: Anne Boleyn did not have a sixth finger. This was a fabrication of a later time.  Henry VIII  never called Anne of Cleeves, ‘the Mare of Flanders’. We heard how things went wrong between them: Anne of Cleeves, in preparation for her marriage to Henry VIII (sight unseen), had been installed in some royal apartments. She was gazing out one of the windows when a man, unannounced, entered her room. Dressed in Lincoln green, he disported himself, presumably in the manner of Robin Hood. Anne was not alarmed; she gave him a sidelong look and then resumed looking out the window.

The eccentric man was none other than Henry VIII who—we learnt—loved to dress up. How he expected Anne of Cleeves to be familiar with the Merrie Men, we don’t know. Her indifference to his little pantomime put him into a bad mood. It was all off with Anne of Cleeves. But it couldn’t be all off: the wedding preparations were too far advanced. Ostensibly, it was less a bother to marry her, and—six months later—divorce her.

Where did Catherine Howard go wrong? Births of female children were not recorded. Catherine might have been fifteen or seventeen when she married the fifty-year-old Henry. She may have had an affair with the most handsome man in court. She was flighty; she was related to Anne Boleyn. Flighty though she was, the night before her execution she asked for a block. She practised walking blindfold to the block, bending down, and placing her head on it. Was she seventeen? Was she nineteen?

The school children’s advice to Catherine Parr: produce an heir (Catherine of Aragon’s sons had died); don’t be outspoken (as Anne Boleyn had been); enjoy what Henry VIII enjoys (as Anne of Cleeves so evidently had not); don’t have boyfriends (as Catherine Howard may have had).

And indeed Catherine Parr did see that her true love Thomas Seymour (Jane’s brother) was sent from Court.

The children were studying Henry VIII in school; they were primed for their trip to the Tower of London. Did the children benefit from this guided talk? Was education made ‘fun’ for them?  When children turn away, or put up a hood, or fool among themselves, they seem as indifferent to education as they are in the classroom. Do some children just switch off when learning is in the air?

When I was at school, I learnt that the volcano has three phases: active, dormant and moribund. It is certainly hard to know if some children’s interest in learning is dormant or moribund. One might say if the teacher were good enough, she would inspire everyone with a wish to learn. Small children love to learn. That changes when they go to school. Does our system of education stifle their love of learning?

At the end of nearly an hour’s discourse on 23rd October in the year 2012, one child asked Mistress Anne Herbert, if she really was Catherine’s sister. No child cried out to disparage such a notion. It is something for the sense of wonder of nine-year-old children to remain intact. Was this young lady in medieval clothes Mistress Anne Herbert* from 1553?

* I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of Mistress Anne Herbert’s conversation. I found both textbook and online accounts of the Tudors to be at variance with each other.

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A writer’s snag list: Wrestling with the gaze

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Mitch almost felt sorry for her, but he kept his eyes on the table.”

The Firm (John Grisham)

In a box? What he kept on the table was presumably his gaze: Sol Stein in Solutions for Writers* comments.

Manuals for writers warn against statements like, ‘he fixed his eyes to the floor.’  An image of eyes being glued to the floor may appear in the reader’s mind. Writers are warned against autonomous body parts: ‘His eyes moved over the hill.’ What about look? ‘He looked over the hill.’ But looked won’t do: it has probably been worked to death already. It is in avoiding the word look that writers make eye blunders.

The difficulty is compounded by the existence of idiomatic expressions such as: ‘He couldn’t catch the waiter’s eye.’ We are allowed, aren’t we, to catch someone’s eye?

Writers resort to the word gaze. We often read sentences like, ‘He lowered his gaze.’ Even though I have written such sentences, I am never happy with lowered: it suggests a winching mechanism.

In Harlan Coben’s Tell No One, Dr Beck’s gaze seems capable of too much:

‘Our eyes met, but his gaze was locked on something far beyond me.’ (page 107)

‘My gaze got snagged on the clock above the examining table.’ (page 169)

‘It was hard to wrest my gaze from that cold, dark tunnel.’ (page 301)

In the following a glance is skewed and eyes are autonomous:

‘. . . he skewed down his glance to take her in, his eyes sliding over her. . . .’

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

Do the quoted examples make sense? They caused me to stop and muse. Writers do not want readers to ponder their use of English.

* This book may appear under another title

The Apostrophe: deeper waters

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Of the books I consulted—some mentioned already—I found the most complete treatment of the apostrophe in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (R W Burchfield 1998).

Many people, who see at once what is wrong with the childrens’ toys, might feel uncertain when confronted with my aunt and uncle’s place. As indeed I do. According to The New Fowler’s:

Group Possessives. These normally require an apostrophe only after the last element, e.g. the Duke of Edinburgh’s speech, Faber and Faber’s address . . . my aunt and uncle’s place, a quarter of an hour’s chat.”

The example of my aunt and uncle’s place is distinguishable from the others. An aunt and uncle are two distinct people whereas Faber and Faber, being a partnership/business, can be regarded as one entity. If you were to use possessive pronouns, my aunt and uncle’s place would become “her and his place” and Faber and Faber‘s address, “its address”.

See the introduction to The Way to Write by John Fairfax & John Moat: “This book comes direct from John Fairfax’s and my experience of Avron . . .” Is this different to my aunt and uncle’s place? It seems to be much the same sort of thing but “This book comes direct from John Fairfax and my experience of Avron . . .”does not seem correct.

An interesting problem is posed in the following examples taken from The New Fowler’s:

(a) Hannah’s [Jamie Lee Curtis] love interest, in which the heroine Hannah in a TV film is played by an actress called Jamie Lee Curtis. The alternatives are (b) Hannah [Jamie Lee Curtis]’s or (c) Hannah’s [Jamie Lee Curtis’s].

There is no agreed solution: Burchfield favours (b). Perhaps three options are too many. I would recast this sentence. The information that Hannah is played by Jamie Lee Curtis could form part of a separate sentence. Then the writer could follow with,  ‘Hannah’s love interest . . . .’

It always seems to me that a disproportionate amount of time is spent in the final stages of editing a piece of writing. One cannot help but ask whether all the effort is worth the result.

The apostrophe

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

The apostrophe

G V Carey in Mind The Stop (1958), “I have now dealt with all the stops except the APOSTROPHE, which I mention merely in order that it may not feel neglected.” He gives about half a page to its elucidation and ends up, “Would that all stops gave so little trouble!”

R L Trask who devotes a chapter to the apostrophe in The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (1997) takes a different view, “The apostrophe (’) is the most troublesome punctuation mark in English, and perhaps also the least useful. No other punctuation mark causes so much bewilderment, or is so often misused . . . and it is a blunt fact that the incorrect use of apostrophes will make your writing look illiterate more quickly than almost any other kind of mistake.”

Kingsley Amis in The King’s English (1997), “The rules governing the use of this vexing little mark are obviously hard to master, and if you have any trouble with them or it after the age of fourteen or so, the chances are that you will always be liable to error in the matter.”

Perhaps Kingsley Amis is right about people who were taught the rules but failed to learn them. However, it is more likely that many of those who do not know the rules were never taught them. In the seventies, the teaching of punctuation went out of favour in some schools.

Familiarity with the three numbered paragraphs below (from The King’s English) will make a person’s knowledge of the apostrophe exceed the national average:

2. With singular words in the possessive case add ’s even when the word itself sends in S, as Jack’s bike, the water’s edge, Gus’s buttonhole. (A plain apostrophe is added to some words, as in for Jesus’ sake, Keats’ poems, but when in doubt always write the fuller version.)

3. With plural words that end in S just add an apostrophe, as ladies’ room, the Smiths’ car.

4. With plural words that do not end in S, add ’s as the men’s room, the people’s candidate.

Many people do know how to use the apostrophe at this level because these rules are quite easy to apply. Therefore when other people fail to apply them, they may be perceived to be illiterate. But the misuse of the comma, semicolon, colon and full stop is less likely to attract the same opprobrium because the rules governing these marks are harder to grasp, and also leave more scope for personal taste:

“I should define punctuation as being governed two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste.” (G V Carey)

The durability of ‘I don’t do’

October 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

The one phrase that is more durable than any is, ‘I don’t do…’ I can go back to 1996 when an American girl said, ‘I don’t do pudgy.’ She did not date pudgy men.  Usually when people state ‘I don’t do…’ it is suggestive of an attitude or a policy they have adopted.

‘I don’t do show houses.’ An actor replied, when I remarked on the homeliness (an ordered homeliness) of her house. A few weeks later, autumn 2011, a teacher told me, ‘I don’t do dairy.’  In February 2012 one Saturday issue of the Guardian’s magazine, such part as I read, contained two examples. A celebrity’s daughter didn’t ‘do pink’. (Her daughter did not wear pink.) As the child was a baby, it seemed unlikely that she exhibited a distaste for the colour: the attitude was her mother’s not hers. Another woman (Blind Date section) was asked  whether she would bring her date to meet her parents, she replied: ‘I don’t do parents.’

The phrase is elastic. But perhaps it is in danger of snapping when someone says, ‘I don’t do dairy’ when she has an allergy to dairy products. The fact is she cannot ‘do dairy’ unless she wants to feel sick.  She had no ‘attitude’ about dairy; for example, she is not a vegan.

Is people’s vanity flattered when they say, ‘I don’t do…’ ? Do they feel they are asserting themselves, taking a stand against something, or distinguishing themselves from others?  Is ‘I don’t do…’ going to fall out of favour soon? Or is it too useful a phrase to discard?

What sort of English does George Orwell liken to prefabricated Hen-House?

October 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Certain phrases enjoy great currency for a time. We cannot escape them: they are in newspapers, on radios and in everyday conversation. ‘Stop I want to get off.’, does that mean anything to you now?

We heard it repeatedly in the eighties. It was both a successor and an opposite to, ‘Roll on [any stimulating time or event]’. Life was so dull that we wanted to rush it forward until something more interesting were happening.

The phrase was well enough established to appear in Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (1977)—‘Roll on retirement.’ But a few years later the phrase gave way to: ‘Stop I want to get off.’ Life was so ‘hectic’ that people wanted to put it on hold.

In the eighties too, there was much of the, ‘Been there, done that.’ This phrase later extended to, ‘Been there, done that and bought the tee-shirt.’ Ultimately, it contracted. It sufficed to say, ‘Bought the tee-shirt.’ In 1999 a woman—a generation older than I was—had ‘bought the tee-shirt’ in relation to Holy Communions: she had attended her fill of Holy Communion celebrations. The phrase was then well past its vogue.

In the early nineties things were apt to be ‘in your face’. So much was obtrusive. ‘Get a life!’, was the remedy for anyone whose life was deficient. Maybe their life was so deficient that they had the leisure and energy to interfere with yours. Or perhaps, they simply had such an unspeakably dull life that they needed to enrich it somehow.

A few years ago—and sometimes today—people were ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’. Not everyone was capable of ‘getting it’. The phrase has the flavour of ‘getting a joke’ with additional nuances. People might ‘not be getting’: art, styles of dressing or a performance (comedy, drama, music). Those who did not get something were lacking that idiosyncratic je ne sais quoi which the perpetrator (of what was not being got) possessed.

People were once ‘really into’ something, then they were ‘passionate about’ something, and today they are ‘obsessed with’ something. Matters which were once ‘delicate’ are now ‘sensitive’.

People do not talk of wanting life ‘rolled on’ or ‘stopped’ in 2012. Are people now satisfied with the tempo of their lives? They neither want to hurry it on nor to slow it down. Are things less obtrusive than they were in the nineties? People needed to ‘get their acts together’ in the early nineties. Is everything ‘sorted’ now?

When certain phrases are no longer current, do people feel their loss?

Or are such phrases* no more than the equivalent of what George Orwell (“Politics and the English Language” ) describes as: ‘prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.’

* I only mention a few of these phrases: there are many more.

Literary Agents

October 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Literary agents have plenty of advice to give writers who seek representation from them. We are advised not to say in our introductory letter that ‘My aunt loved my book.’ We are advised not to fix, glue, or staple a few pages of our work together, as proof to ourselves (when it is returned—should the fixings still be in place) that the agent never read through it. We are advised not to make demands about advances.

Is it to be inferred that most writers have no idea how to behave?

In my experience, you don’t have to do anything lunatic to be excluded from consideration. Exclusion, after sending a standard submission of the opening three chapters and a synopsis, seems to be inevitable. I sent submissions to about thirty five agents and usually received, a month or so later, a standard refusal. Some quite simply did not reply, although they were equipped with my stamped addressed envelope: so critical an enclosure.

This year, a woman I met once, had a book published. Her experience, as related in a blog, was very different to mine. She was choosy about who she sent her initial query email. Of the four she emailed, two requested, within twenty four hours, a full manuscript. One of them took the manuscript with her to a three day conference. The Monday following the conference was Yom Kippur. On Tuesday, the writer picked up a voice mail from the agent saying she loved her book….

Is this the full story? It seems to be the stuff of fantasy. Is the fault entirely mine? Who—but I— has failed in sample chapters to send agents into paroxysms of excitement?

Anthony Harwood, literary agent (pay: six figures plus) receives more than 100 novels for his consideration every week. He was interviewed in the Guardian (7 February 2009): ‘Surely most of them must enter the bin unread? “No, we look at everything,” he [Anthony Harwood] insists, stubbing his finger hard into the desk. And how many of them are any good? “None of them! he cries. “None of them are any good! But you still look just in case.” And though most of Harwood’s 50 or so clients came to his attention through some other route, his conscientiousness in dredging through the slush pile does occasionally pay off.’

Never have so many people enrolled on so many writing courses…yet the upshot of it all is that they cannot write, and what they send to literary agents deserves the obscurity of the slush pile. Are graduates of MA courses in creative writing so hopeless? Unless, of course, they too are amongst those who land an agent through SOME OTHER ROUTE.

Wouldn’t it be better if agents, instead of giving unhelpful advice, stated their practice? A statement might go something like this: ‘I would never act on my own taste and judgement alone. Unpublished writers, soliciting my representation, should be famous already or have won a celebrated short story or novel competition or been recommended to me by another agent or established writer.’

Perhaps agents could list how many clients they have found—if ever they found one—on the slush pile. This is the sort of information that unpublished, unpaid writers would value.

Where Am I?

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