One suit attends mass four times on a Sunday morning: Mass-going in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s

March 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

When my mother was a child in the 1940s, she knew of four Sheehan brothers. The brothers were spoken of as coming from a family that ‘could not be straightened’: I take it this to mean that they were not susceptible to good influences.

The Sheehan brothers studied agriculture in Dublin. By the time Sunday came round, they had spent all their money, backing horses amongst other things, and pawned all their suits except one.

As it was necessary to go to mass, and go there dressed in a suit, only one brother was able to go to mass at a time. The first went, hurried home, took off the suit and gave it to the next brother who put it on and then went to mass. And so it went until the four of them had been to mass. It would be possible for a brother to attend mass at eight, at nine, at ten, and at eleven.

If present times are anything to go by, the Sheehans’ quick change would not have worked in England. The celebration of the mass takes about an hour in England, and about three quarters of one in Ireland.

Even up to the 1960s, my mother recalls being asked, Where did you go to mass, I didn’t see you at [such and such a church] ?

Today we, Catholics, are still obliged to attend mass on Sundays and certain holy days. However, the societal pressure to go to mass has gone. Even some respectable people do not go to mass today, never mind wild men like the Sheehans.

Parents, I believe, no longer insist that their teenage children ‘get’ mass. Nor do they quiz them about the priest’s sermon (homily ) to ascertain if they have ‘got’ mass.

That is not to say that the behaviour of mass-goers in the thirties and later, was such that became them. Some smoked during the celebration. Yet Jonathan Swift would have shown more leniency towards the smokers than the sleepers:

But of all misbehaviour, none is comparable to that of those whom come here to sleep Opium is not so stupefying to many persons as an afternoon sermon. Perpetual custom hath so brought it about that the words of whatever preacher become only a sort of uniform sound at a distance, than which nothing is more effectual to lull the senses. For that it is the very sound of the sermon which bindeth up their faculties is manifest from hence, because they all awake so very regularly as soon as it ceaseth, and with much devotion receive the blessing, dozed and besotted with indecencies I am ashamed to repeat.  ‘ On Sleeping in Church ’

The attitude to mass-going has changed. Mass-going in Ireland is not unquestionable as it once was. If you looked the length and breath of Ireland, you would find no equivalent today of the four Sheehan brothers.


‘Beside the Sea’ by Veronique Olmi

March 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

This account may give away too much of the plot.

A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from a cold and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys. From the blurb of Peirene’s first translation Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi.

‘Beside the sea’ has cheerful connotations for most but cheerfulness (though there is humour) is not part of this story. It is a sad and terrible story.

Don’t we sympathise with all of the main characters, the two little boys who could have done with a different kind of mother, and the mother herself who is not coping and who has come to the attention of the social services?

We don’t, I think, learn what went wrong in the mother’s life. And despite her personal weaknesses she can provoke us to reappraise the world we live in. Where do we belong in this mother’s world? Would we be grouped, to our detriment, with any of those transient characters that appear in the book? Are our lives empty? Where are those people when they aren’t at the funfair? Maybe the girls sold shoes and the men were mechanics or delivered pizzas? Maybe they only laughed at the fair and the rest of the time they were just getting ready for it? (page 89)

When I put this book down, I could not say that I had caught all its meaning or understood all its implications but the book made sense, as many books do not.

Let us writers be confronted with a problem Veronique Olmi had to solve: she wanted to show the real affection between the two brothers, and to show it economically and movingly. She had to avoid ‘telling’: “The two brothers were very fond of each other.” So she wrote this:

His first word came one morning when he was lying on the floor with loads of cushions round him because he couldn’t sit up very well, he was blowing bubbles of spit, Stan was lying on the lino laughing, his head on his hands, really close to Kevin, and the littl’un leant forwards, he took a handful of his hair and said Stan. That was his first word. That evening in the kitchen Stan told me he wasn’t his half-brother, he was his whole brother now, I said okay. (page 101-102)

I wonder how long Veronique spent getting that right. Did it come to her out of the blue? Had she many failures? Other writers’ processes intrigue me. I imagine they are much more organised about writing than I am, and don’t waste as much time blundering about.

There is much else that is quotable:

Will you write a note? the littl’un asked as he zipped up his flies. That’s right, I said, I’ll write a note. It reassured him. There are magic sentences like that. I’ll write a note.  (page 53)

Apparently there are these priests, no, not priests, monks. Apparently there are these monks who pray for the sorrows of the world, day and night, never stopping, taking it in shifts so there’s never a break. Me, I don’t know how to pray. I’d rather not believe in God, it’s too frightening and, anyway, how can I understand God when I don’t understand his representative, the Pope, that rich, crumbly old man? God must be like a bunch of popes put together, thousands of popes in one single person, terrifyingly powerful. . . yes, but knowing there are these monks thinking of me night and day, that’s reassuring.  (page 61)

Keep an eye on your brother, such simple sentences, they belong to everyone and we say them all the time so they never go out of circulation. Our parents used to say them. And our parents’ parents. They’re sacred, compulsory, make you feel alive.  (page 62)

Kevin and Stanley were clean, they were ready for the night, as they said, yes, they often said, I’m getting ready for the night, it’s nice, getting yourself all sorted for the night, they never say I’m getting ready for the day, because daytime doesn’t really warrant it, you’ve go[t] to do it so you do, that’s all, but at night there’s a sort of preparation, like before a journey.  (page 95)

I remembered the day Kevin wrote a word on the wall, his first word, it was me, it was mummy in stick letters, he was proud and so was I, that’s who I was, he’d recognised it straight away, I was mummy, no more or less than the others, mummy that’s what I did, what I knew how to do, mummy, and I left it there, I’d never covered it with white paint so all the pictures had to be done round that word MUMY, like the little stick men he drew, maybe I even saw their hands behind their backs while the red aliens spiralled round me, and I showed it to the social worker, my name on the wall in stick letters, how could she compete with that?  (page 101)

What can we say to this French novelisat and dramatist but Encore! Encore! Encore!

Jane Austen’s advice, applied to ‘Untimely Death’ by Cyril Hare: 3 to 4 families in the Country the very thing to work on

March 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Francis Pettigrew travels to Exmoor for a holiday with his wife – an area in which as a young boy he was traumatised by coming across a dead body on the moor. In an attempt to exorcise this trauma, Pettigrew walks across the moor to the place where the incident occurred – only to find another dead body.

Moreover, when he returns to the scene with the police, the body is gone. Did he really see a body – or is it a hallucination conjured up by his return to the scene of the crime that has haunted him since childhood? (Faber & Faber’s blurb for Untimely Death by Cyril Hare)

Some years ago I read Cyril Hare’s With a Bare Bodkin: it was not at all as good as Tragedy at Law. Having recently reread Tragedy at Law, and read within a few days Untimely Death, I feel there is about the same gap in excellence between them as between Tragedy at Law and With a Bare Bodkin.

Tragedy at Law gained so much from its rich legal setting that we feel the thinness of the setting of Untimely Death. Exmoor is not to Untimely Death as the circuit was to Tragedy at Law.

Why did Cyril Hare bother to marry Pettigrew? He was well into middle age. His marriage has not done much for him except give him a wife. Faber & Faber don’t name her (Eleanor) in the blurb. She is not significant enough. She may be very busy in the background, tending to Pettigrew’s meals and laundry and making beds: doing all those very thankless things that a wife might do in real life but they are to little purpose in the story. The story might have gone on well enough without her; her contributions to the plot could have been taken over by someone else.

If Cyril Hare gave Francis a wife, would it not have been useful to have given him a child as well: a boy of about ten who could have been the one to find the body? And the boy could have enriched the story with his own problems. If the Pettigrews were unable to have children, perhaps the boy could have been the child of deceased relatives and they, his newly-appointed guardians.

Hester Greenway, does wonder (aloud) why Eleanor didn’t have children, but Eleanor no more satisfies our curiosity on this point than Hilda does about why she married Barber in Tragedy at Law.

When Jane Austen talked about 3 or 4 families in the country as a good amount of people to write about, she was on to something. Many modern novels are more likely to be spoilt for having too few than too many people in them. Think of the number of people in Tragedy at Law. There are not only more characters but they are more particularised too. We learn a bit about the clerk, the servants, Derek and his romance, the Barbers etc. The characters in Untimely Death are less memorable than those of Tragedy at Law. Once read about, they fade quickly from the mind: Joliffe (he’s mean) Jack (the irresistible male, a type so often met with in fiction, so little in real life) and Hester Greenway (the forthright friend). This book would have benefited from two more characters that could have been to Untimely Death as the Barbers were to Tragedy at Law.

Untimely Death seems inferior to Tragedy at Law in all respects: the story is not as dramatic, the setting as significant, the characters as well-developed, the humour as evident, the writing as good, nor the plot as intricate.

If the writer has devised a good story, is it likely that the rest will follow? Or is the number of characters critical, more people, more stories and ultimately a more satisfying novel? Julian Symons writes of Cyril Hare’s gifts coalescing in Tragedy at Law, and I agree with him. What is it that makes them coalesce?

Why do few writers produce one good novel after another? Great ones do, but the novels of lesser writers can astonish in their disparity.

Writing is not typing

March 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

One of my own rules is to quote only from the original source: I am going to break it now:  “That’s not writing, it’s typing”. (Truman Capote, I believe, of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road ).

People who don’t write may indeed think that writing is typing. Last summer when I was talking to a friend who I had not seen for many years about the difficulty of getting published, the advice given was that I should write a bestseller and fill it with sensational material. Sometimes you are amused at this sort of advice, at others, depressed.

Do people suppose because I am trying to write serious fiction that all I have to do is just drop a gear or two, and then I could whack out a bestseller? I only have to sit down at the word processor and type until I reach a target of 70,000 words. Then the words THE END could be added and I could bundle a copy into a envelope and sent it to publishers. On receipt, they would publish my novel with scant regard for my obscurity. And within a few weeks, my novel would be a New York Times bestseller.

Then, I could feel pleased that I had put the bestseller, I had tucked up my sleeve, all that time, into circulation. How silly of me to have been aiming so high for nothing when I could have been earning a great deal of money from my bestseller.

Now I must explain to people the following:

1. Writing any book requires a great deal of effort and time.

2. If you are ‘insincere’ about the book you are writing, your readers will sense that.

3. Many people attempt to write bestsellers but they do not succeed.

People have suggested other things to me besides writing a bestseller. Someone suggested I write a screenplay or perhaps a play. I haven’t an idea how to do either. Wouldn’t it be better for me to stick to writing novels ? After all, I have some idea how to write those.

Last November, a published writer, to inspire me, told me of a friend of hers who had written a children’s book, about a hamster with some connection to Hampstead Heath. The writer lived in Hampstead. The local bookshop sold it. I should mention also that he had a very well paying job in the BBC, and had no wish to be a serious writer. She suggested I might set a story in Finsbury Park, the largest park near me.

People do mean to be encouraging but I would almost prefer if they were being malicious. At least, you could write the malicious remarks off. There are some differences between that writer and me:

1. I do not have a well paying job in the BBC.

2. I do not have a whim to write a story about a hamster and be quite content to see it sell a few copies in the local bookshop.

3. I am not dabbling in writing.

I have ambitions, not whims. I want to be a published writer of stories that have suggested themselves to me. Stories of finned creatures in Finsbury Park are for somebody else.

Please be careful what you say to the unpublished writer. She is a very sensitive creature. And, at all times, but particularly before suggesting some years’ long project she undertake, understand this: writing is not typing.

Have Myriad Editions, Peirene and Persephone a place in the world of publishing?

March 15, 2013 § 2 Comments

In recent years, many independent publishers have become incorporated into large ones. Yet, against all the odds, small publishers still emerge: Myriad Editions, Persephone and Peirene Press.

On Wednesday night (13th March), I attended a Salon devoted to these small presses. At first glance, Persephone and Peirene have much in common. Their names derive from greek mythology, their books are somehow more than books, and their authors come from a limited class: Persephone reissues the work of  mainly women writers, often of the inter-war period, and Peirene publishes its own English translations of contemporary European novellas.

When Meike Ziervogel was embarking on Peirene, she passed in review other small publishers. Persephone, with its strong brand, was the one that caught her attention.

Brand out from the crowd. I believe, Tom Peters says: Persephone and Peirene have done just that. Each press produces a distinctive cover for its books. You need see only one or two Persephone and Peirene covers to recognise the brand. Inside Persephone’s covers, endpapers echo the period in which the book was written. Some people, Nicola Beauman told us, buy the books for the endpapers.

Peirene, like Persephone, came into being because there was a gap in the market that no other publisher was catering for. Meike Ziervogel preferred German translations of European writers to the English ones. She saw a need for good English translations: to this end, Peirene was formed. Meike Ziervogel believes there are two ways of tackling translating: Either a literal translation which keeps the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the original in the English or an approach that aims for a translation that safeguards the soul and the essence of the original but finds a way of recreating the text in English so that it reads well. Meike Ziervogel opts for the second one. She aims to reach a wider audience. Peirene’s process of translation is involved. Does it amount to rewriting a book? (Meike Ziervogel’s own book, Magda, published by Salt, will be released in April.)

Meike Ziervogel does much more than publish. As her authors live abroad, she is the one who must bring them to readers’ notice. It isn’t just about books. You can sample the literary life in her Salons, and coffee mornings. Or on a Saturday, you could go to Peirene’s roaming store, outside Budgens (Crouch End). On the way to the tube, perhaps you will be handed Peirene’s newspaper (Your Journey Starts Here). Meike Ziervogel could give many novice writers a lesson in how to market their books. A lesson they need because Publishing houses aren’t keen to spend money marketing unknown writers. If only they had a Meike Ziervogel to do it for them.

Which are large publishing houses less keen on, marketing or editing unknown writers?

Myriad Editions was not so much the brainchild of one person as Persephone and Peirene were but an evolution. Myriad (publishers) evolved from Myriad (packagers). Unlike Persephone, whose authors are not living, and Peirene, whose authors live abroad, Myriad’s authors are alive and living both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. (Myriad represents some US authors.)

Myriad Editions is based in Brighton. Myriad became publishers because, Candida Lacey told us, there were many talented writers who needed help to achieve publication. Therefore, Myriad, unlike many large publishing houses, does a great deal of in-house editing.

Corinne Pearlman who oversees the design of Myriad’s acclaimed ‘state of the world’ infographic atlases is establishing an impressive list of graphic novels. Ten of Myriad’s twenty six titles have won or been nominated for prizes.

Nowadays, very few publishing houses welcome unsolicited submissions: Myriad is an exception. You can approach Myriad directly; you do not need to go via an agent. For some unpublished writers who can’t interest literary agents, Myriad will be their salvation.

Myriad published Elizabeth Haynes’ first two novels. Her first novel Into the Darkest Corner was initially a word of mouth discovery, later a New York Times bestseller.

Myriad is competing with the ‘big boys’ (the large publishers) but without their resources. However, Candida Lacey is philosophical about Myriad’s working with authors that may later sign with a big publishing firm. Apart from nurturing its authors, one of Myriad’s primary aims is to look for new talent and to launch writers’ careers.

Small presses like, Persephone, and Peirene, and Myriad make the future of publishing look bright.

What might Jane Austen have said to Elizabeth Bowen about ‘The Heat of the Day’: A writer must be wary of introducing circumstances of apparent consequence which lead to nothing

March 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

A new intimacy evolves among those who have not fled, and the carelessness of people with no future flows through the evening air. Stella is part of this society. Living in strange rooms, she holds on to the past and weaves the present around Robert, her lover, and Roderick, her son.

Then she discovers that Robert is suspected of selling information to the enemy and that Harrison, who is trailing Robert, wants to bargain, the price for his silence being Stella herself. Slowly, the flimsy structures of Stella’s life begin to break into pieces around her. Extract from Vintage Classics blurb of The Heat of the Day.

Elizabeth Bowen is excellent at scene setting and making interesting relations between characters. One such scene is Louie’s encounter with Harrison in the park. Yet the full significance of the various characters and how they relate to each other is not made clear to me. Various scenes in the book appeared portentous. Of what did they portend? What did the hints and implications amount to? Here is a list of some things that puzzled me:

1. Why have the two disparate stories of Louie and Stella been put together?

2. Nettie, wife of the deceased Francis, is apparently mad and is confined to a home. What form did her madness take? Something dark seems to be hinted at, but it is never elucidated.

3. Why does Robert a grown man address his unmotherly mother as ‘Muttikins’?

4. We are to understand that the Kelways are an odd family: is their oddness responsible for Robert’s supposed treachery? The Kelways don’t seem at all like real people. And as novel people, I don’t understand their function.

5. Mrs Kelway gives a parcel (containing socks, I think) to Stella. She is insistent that it be posted from London as there is no Sunday evening collection where they live. Stella gives this parcel to Harrison to post. A lot of attention is drawn to this parcel: are we supposed to draw some deduction?

6. Roderick is uncomfortable about inheriting Mount Morris in which Nettie (the deceased’s wife) is given no share. He visits Nettie to appease his conscience and to discover if she is as mad as it suits people to think. Their meeting doesn’t throw enough light on anything but seems only to present more unanswered questions. Have bad things been done to Nettie?

7. Louie’s thinking is too involved for someone who often behaves in a perversely stupid manner.

8. Why did Elizabeth Bowen give Stella the married name of Rodney.  Her son’s name is Roderick, so he is Roderick Rodney. Her lover is called Robert. ‘Rodney’ and ‘Robert’ and ‘Roderick’ is a confusing list. Harrison’s name is also Robert. But as we only discover the duplication towards the end of the book, it does not matter.

Elizabeth Bowen, no doubt, worked much into The Heat of the Day in the time (1944-1949) she wrote it which the casual reader does not perceive. Elizabeth Bowen was not a casual writer who wrote words for the sake of filling up her pages. The following two quotations from her ‘Notes on Writing a Novel’ indicate the purposefulness of what she intended to write:

The weak novelist is always, compensatorily, scene-minded. (Jane Austen’s economy of scene-painting, and her abstentions from it in what might be expected contexts, could in itself be proof of her mastery of the novel.)

What must novel dialogue . . .  really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot.

I accept that as a reader I am often deficient. I may read carelessly, and not take in the literal words never mind their meaning. But even allowing for my deficiency, it seems there is some deficiency in The Heat of the Day. I supposed everything mentioned had significance but I did not know what the significance of some characters’ actions were. There seemed to be a foreshadowing of some revelations about the shady doings of cousin Francis.  Our appetite was whet for disclosures that never materialised.

Elizabeth Bowen could hardly have be unaware of introducing circumstances “of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing.”* So what was going on in The Heat of the Day?

Jane Austen to Anna, 1814: Jane Austen Selected Letters 1796-1817 edited by Chapman

Please respect that this is a Barbie-free zone: Does the world need any more plastic?

March 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some years ago a woman I know received an invitation to a party for her very young daughter. Words to this effect appeared on the invitation: Please respect that this is a Barbie-free zone

These words caused a frisson among those that had been invited. These things do. Most of us, I presume, wish to pass as normal: normal in the sense of not being odd or peculiar. At the same time, the wish to be normal is opposed by a wish to think one’s life out for oneself and not mindlessly follow what others do.

We have impulses which we fear are ‘peculiar’, and to which we do not have the self-confidence to succumb. Yet we wonder when we resist such impulses, if we are denying the true expression of ourselves. Do you, as I do, envisage (Fowler or Gowers did not like the word) a tribunal, composed perhaps of family, friends and acquaintances, judging your actions and finding them wanting?

To me, the Barbie-free zone message is not at all offensive, provided the doll was excluded on grounds similar to these:

1. A sweat shop toy ( I imagine so, perhaps Barbies are made in America)

2. Made of plastic, which like the poor, will always be with us

3. Limits a child’s notion of female beauty

4. Does not truly aid the child’s creative imagination

5. Does not develop a child’s aesthetic

6. The child does not really want the doll but feels bound to want it, to be like other children, or the child has been too strongly influenced by advertisers

There are messages I would like to put on invitations about acceptable gifts:

1. Gifts made in England out of natural materials

2. Gifts made by small communities that are paid enough, and treated well (fairtrade/ethical)

3 Well made second-hand gifts. (A thing of beauty is a joy forever.)

In this way, I would receive no plastic, or things made in China (by exploited workers?), few logo-bearing goods of international companies, and few product lines from supermarkets. (Why give more custom to supermarkets?)

I don’t put messages, on invitations, that indicate my prejudices and preferences but I do try to get such messages across. I give only European-made* gifts or fair trade gifts. But I am not at all sure that actions speak louder than words: an invitation bearing the message, Please respect that this is a Barbie-free zone will not be so quickly forgotten.

*There is, of course, legal truth. Made in [a European country] might mean that a few final touches were put to a product which had been, by and large, made in China.

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