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Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A WELSH TALE









From early times, minstrels, storytellers, tumblers and jugglers sought shelter through the winter by entertaining noble households. In 1176, the most powerful prince in Wales, Rhys ap Gruffydd, summoned bards and poets from all across the land to compete at his court, offering a chair at his table to the winners. This was the first recorded eisteddfod.

The tradition of eisteddfodau flourished in medieval times but then declined. A resurgence of Welsh nationalism in the 19th century led to the founding of the National Eisteddfod of Wales. This is now a week-long competition for works of music and performance poetry in the Welsh language, a festival held in tents in an open space. The much-coveted prize is still known as a chair.

The movement spread and smaller-scale eisteddfodau also held. This year, as part of the West Coast Eisteddfod, http://americymru.net, a website for expatriate Welsh, is running an online short story competition. Read my entry below then, to read others, go to
https://americymru.net/community/forum/west-coast-eisteddfod-online-short-story-competition-2017


MACHINATIONS IN THE MUSEUM

Charlotte scowled at the brightly lit display cabinets. Why had she agreed to this? Replacing the pottery with something made out of torn-up T-shirts was a betrayal of Gramps and all he stood for. Gramps had put his soul into crafting those stumpy little figures, and soul was something a vulgarian like Mavis Chirk would never understand.

The previous night, the trustees and volunteers of the Congar Museum of Local Life had gathered for a meeting to prepare the annual summer opening. The museum shut in winter when few visitors braved the rain-lashed Welsh coast. It soldiered on, from one government grant to the next, its collection of objects increasing as elderly miners and farmers died off, and their heirs donated tools rusty with disuse.

The old farmhouse which housed the museum had never been modernised. To American visitors, that was its charm. They enthused over the uneven brick floors, low ceilings, tiny windows, dark corners and steep staircases. They cooed over the black-leaded range, the washtub, dolly and mangle, the cast-iron fireplaces, the tables draped in hand-embroidered cloths, and the mannequins in period costume.

The meeting of trustees and volunteers was held in the activities room. In contrast to the mock-up of a19th century classroom with scratched desks and wooden-framed slates, the activities room next door was brightly painted, with communal tables offering plentiful supplies of worksheets and felt tip pens. Although the museum encouraged visits by school parties, the volunteer guides always breathed a sigh of relief once bouncy schoolchildren were safely corralled in a room devoid of exhibits. Old tools could be dangerous in careless hands.

The overhead lighting in the activities room was unflattering to the mainly elderly volunteers. Charlotte’s youthful face marked her out.

Item 3 on the agenda, the gift shop,” the chairman announced. Around the table shoulders slumped.

Mavis, self-styled manageress of the gift shop, marshalled her papers. Around the table, people stared at their fingers.

As noted in the treasurer’s report, in our first year of operation, the gift shop exceeded all expectations,” she announced. “If we double our floor space this summer, I expect to quadruple our turnover.”

Hold on a minute, Mavis. We’re a museum, not an emporium. Why do you need extra floor space?”

A failing museum,” Mavis snapped back. “A dismal collection of moth-eaten clothes and antiquated tools. It was my retail skills that kept us going last year.”

Why don’t you open a high street shop then?” Derek Jones countered.

Charlotte hid a smile. With his untidy hair and well-worn anorak, Derek reminded her of Gramps.

A shop lowers the tone of the museum,” Derek continued. “Before you came and turned us all upside down, we offered a selection of books. A hand-picked selection that reflected our ethos and purpose.”

I agree with Derek.” That was Ann Poole. The oldest trustee, she walked with difficulty after two hip replacements, yet insisted on taking responsibility for dusting fragile exhibits. “You’re not interested in our work, Mavis. You never have been. All you want is your name and photo in the paper as often as possible. You’re just using us for publicity. We all know your husband wants to be the next town mayor. And you want to be lady mayoress.”

Ladies, please.”

Ann and Mavis took no notice. Miss Roberts, in charge of taking the minutes, put down her pen for the duration of hostilities.

Puce with fury, Mavis delivered her parting shot. “I will not resign, Mrs Poole, I will not give you that pleasure. And, in case any of you have forgotten, it was my Arthur who secured the grant money from Europe.” She glared round the table. “You don’t get money just for being a worthy cause. You need to know the right people as well. You should all be grateful to my Arthur.”

The mention of money silenced the dissenters. It was true the European Union had awarded the museum a substantial sum under its coastal communities programme. The chairman suggested placing on record the trustees’ appreciation of Mrs Chirk’s diligence. Reluctantly, Charlotte raised her hand along with the others present. Miss Roberts made a note on her shorthand pad.

Now that we are agreed on the extra floor space, I can show you two new lines we will be introducing this summer.” Mavis bent to extricate items from her shopping bag. Coming up, she breathed heavily and Charlotte had the irreverent thought that chains of office were designed for ample bosoms. Mavis would carry hers well but, standing beside her, Arthur would be weighed down by Congar’s municipal regalia.

Coming from a family of self-employed farmers, Charlotte had been out of sync with the clamorous left-wing views of her fellow students. At the same time, she scorned the Arthurs and Mavises of this world, festooned with chains of office and frothy Tory hats. Soft-living incomers such as the Chirks had never known the precarious life of the hill farmers or the slate miners. She, Charlotte Davies, was a shining example of social progress, having attended art college in Liverpool, but her ancestors’ existential struggle was bred into her bones.

After handing round an example of the new line of love spoons featuring the fire-breathing Welsh dragon, Mavis unrolled a bundle.

What on earth is that?” someone asked.

Mavis smoothed the bright colours flat. “A rag rug.”

No way, Mavis,” Derek Jones said “My grandma had rag rugs and they never looked like that. She didn’t waste money cutting up clothes until they were worn to threads.”

Aye, Derek’s right.”

Charlotte’s only knowledge of rag rugs was seeing grimy rectangles set in front of the fireplaces in the various rooms. She rarely had occasion to step over the ropes that cordoned off the tableaux of village life, and could not recall having handled one.

Mavis bridled. “These are a modern version. Designed and made in Wales. Well, the originals are. Felicity Williams is reviving the ancient Welsh art of rag-rugging. I placed an order for a hundred.”

Without consulting us?”

I used my discretion. Made in China, they’ll cost £5 each, and we can sell them for £25 each in the shop.

Around the table, heads jerked up. Even Charlotte did the mental calculation of £20 profit on a hundred rugs.

Of course, if we want to encourage people to buy them, we’ll have to find a place for Felicity’s originals. I suggest we move the Duckfeathers Pottery pieces into one display case, instead of two.”

But Duckfeathers was Gramps’ business,” Charlotte almost wailed. Heads turned to look. “His pottery is part of Congar’s history.”

Quite, dear. And you inherited his artistic talent, as we all know. I nominate you as the best person to make a selection of his pottery pieces.” Mavis smiled at the table, not at Charlotte.

Agreed,” the chairman said, and Miss Roberts made a note. “And Charlotte, can you write something about it on our Facebook page? Those bright colours will make a good picture.”

Charlotte scowled. There was no way she could refuse. Her degree in fine art had not led to a job, even at dogsbody level, and voluntary work at the museum was something to put on her CV. She also updated the museum’s Facebook page, which allowed her to claim excellent social media skills in her numerous job applications.

"Item 4, any other business,” the chairman intoned. “No? Well, it’s 8.30 and we all want to get home. I declare the meeting closed.”

Derek Jones left with Charlotte, chuntering discontent. “That woman is a cultural vandal. I swear I’ll kill her if she pulls another trick like that. Plastic love spoons made in China! Time was a young man carved a spoon for his sweetheart with his own knife and only the two of them knew what the carvings meant.” His throaty cackle embarrassed Charlotte.

Derek, the author of two self-published books on the lost railways of Snowdonia, had particular reason to dislike Mavis, who had moved books to the back of the gift shop.

*

The next morning, Charlotte still seethed. Instead of kicking something, she scuffed the soles of her trainers across the wooden floorboards, producing an unpleasant sound in the small room. She did it again.

You’d hate it, wouldn’t you, Gramps, Charlotte muttered under her breath. Fake Welsh culture. Another part of her brain snorted in contradiction, for Gramps had never turned up his nose at making money. Charlotte turned her back on the display cabinet and stared out of the window.

The anger she had felt since last night’s meeting had intensified when Mavis arrived and suggested she remove the sheep and ducks. “Leave the cups and saucers, dear, the colours are quite pleasant. But you must agree those 1950s ornaments are beyond kitsch. I’m not saying anything against your ancestor, he did well for a self-taught man, but I’m sure your art degree has given you a sense of perspective.”

Shrouding the despised ducks in layers of bubble wrap, Charlotte dreamed of being in a position of power in the art world and refusing to renew the museum’s grant. As a revenge fantasy, that lacked substance. It was as puerile as the various Facebook posts she had composed but not posted following last night’s meeting, aware that mordant comments on Facebook were open to misinterpretation.

Her fists clenched. She’ll pay for this, Gramps.

Objectively, she conceded that Gramps’ sheep and ducks lacked taste. Holding one of the pottery figures to the light, she scrutinised its unnatural blue plumage. The duck stood upright, in a defiant pose, an object so hideous you had to smile. Yet Charlotte recalled Gramps explaining the nineteen forties and fifties to her, when she was a child and Gramps was unimaginably old, for Gramps was Grandpa Tom’s dad. “It was a grim time, lovey. We’d won the war, but conditions were hardly better than before. Our homes were always cold, and food was rationed.” He ruffled Charlotte’s hair. “You and your little friends wouldn’t recognise it for the same country. So when the good times came back and people got a bit of money in their hands, they wanted things that were bright, and shiny and new. Think on it. If you’d been brought up in a cold, damp home, with a fireplace that smoked, you’d have wanted something new to put on the mantelpiece and cheer the place up. That’s what I gave them, lovey, little ornaments that put a smile on people’s faces.”

Throughout art school, Charlotte had defended Gramps’ homely philosophy of giving people what they wanted. Now she was complicit in sweeping him aside. Rage seethed and roiled as she packed the ornaments.

There was nothing she could do. Words uttered the previous night swilled through her brain, underlining her spineless complicity.

She'll pay for this.

The museum was almost empty. Out in the courtyard, a portable radio was set to a local station as Andy Perkins sawed and hammered, working on a new bench for the garden. A jingle cut across the radio chit chat to announce the traffic news. Somewhere Ann Poole progressed from room to room, feather duster in hand, removing every speck of winter’s dust from the jumble of display items before opening day. Mavis was in the small office on the top floor.

Charlotte made a quick foray upstairs to inspect one of the genuine rag rugs, noting with satisfaction that it was almost invisible against the black-painted floorboards. Then she headed for the alcove where the electric kettle was kept. “Are you ready for a cup of tea, Andy?” she called on the way.

*

The trustees and volunteers agreed that the grand summer opening should go ahead, in tribute to Mavis’s sterling work. Councillor Arthur Chirk was invited to perform the opening ceremony. “It’s what she would have wanted,” they told each other. The plastic love spoons and mass-produced rag rugs arrived from China, and were stored in the gift shop cupboard, thus offering further opportunity to dissect Mavis’s conduct.

Mavis had tripped and fallen down the unlit back stairs when Charlotte called her to come and share the morning tea break. The tragic accident was blamed on her high heels. “Quite unsuitable for a woman of her age,” was Ann Poole’s verdict, and her cronies agreed.

The Duckfeathers Pottery items had been reinstated. The rag rug was also back in its place, for Charlotte was tidy by nature.

*
Lovespoon photo: Museum of Wales






Saturday, 15 April 2017

ALIENS AND WINE


Writers find themselves led down interesting pathways. Wine Tourism Spain is currently running a competition for stories based on aliens' encounters with wine. To give my aliens a true taste of Spain, I sent them on a detour via the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela. Pour yourself a glass and read my entry below:

 
THE COMPOSTELA TRAIL





The rip in the fabric of time and space repaired itself behind them.

   The aliens took stock. A few hesitant movements assured them the human forms they had assumed were in working order, and they stepped forward with more confidence.

   They were on a narrow path that wound uphill. To each side stretched arid scrubland. Ahead the path vanished into a belt of dark trees. Their advance information had been that Spain was one of the lands of Earth that produced a mysterious product known as wine. Throughout Earth's history, men alluded to the charms of wine. The aliens were to investigate and report back.

   “We continue until we find a village, and then decide what to do,” Ekert told Bilic.

   Unaccustomed to walking, they soon panted with effort. Footsteps sounded behind them, and a human was upon them with a shouted “Hola!” He dropped his pack on the ground and drank noisily from a plastic water bottle.

   “Hola,” Bilic responded with caution.

   “Are you guys walking the trail? Where's your badge?” He wore a white scallop shell emblem on a cord round his neck. “Gotta let people know we're the real thing.”

   “We started only this morning, and would benefit from your advice.” Ekert's voice sounded human, even to Bilic.

   The earthling, whose name was Dave, needed no encouragement. “Back home, I was a teacher. Then I got burn-out, so I decided to get away from it all, get close to nature, and discover the meaning of life.” He waved a hand at the stony scrubland. “Like rivers to the sea, all roads lead to Compostela, so the Spanish say.”

   Bilic managed a grunt of assent.

   By the time the night's refuge came into view, the aliens were weary. Their companion's incessant chatter irritated them, and his spiritual pilgrimage afforded no useful information.

   The communal dining room was a welcome surprise, its depths cool against the afternoon heat. “Hola!” the landlord greeted the pilgrims, setting olives and wine in front of them. Dave emptied his glass in a few gulps, and belched before demanding a refill. “I'm more a beer man myself, but this ain't bad. Fourteen days down, five to go. Compostela, here we come.”

   Ekert noticed the landlord's tightened lips. He took a cautious sip and rolled the wine across his tongue, feeling the fresh tingle as it slid down his throat. The golden liquid condensed the flavours of the sun. It also reminded him of the bursts of fragrance they had encountered along the path, wherever straggly herbs had taken hold. He no longer felt his sore feet. A sense of peace took hold as he recalled images of the day. A hilltop village, dusty in the heat. A wide-winged bird hanging in the sky. He took another sip, set the glass down and turned to Bilic, who cradled his own elixir. “Now I understand. We have indeed discovered the meaning of life.”

***

Learn more about Spain's robust reds and aromatic whites at www.winetourismspain.com






Monday, 7 November 2016

Using the n-word in historical fiction







A reader commented that she was shocked I used the n-word in A Shackled Inheritance. I agree, the word is shocking. But historical fiction cannot airbrush the truth. If we want to understand the present, we have accept the realities of the past, even if those realities upset or offend modern readers.

I put the word into the mouths of my island-dwelling, slave-owning characters, who include free persons of colour, because I wanted to show how slave-owners used language to justify the gulf between themselves and the slaves they treated as goods to be bought and sold. From Babylonian and Egyptian times onwards, people in a position of wealth and privilege have justified their privilege by denying the humanity of others. I suspect a schizoid mentality of 'them and us', underpinned by wilful blindness, is easily triggered in human brains. English slang may have progressed from calling the poor 'the great unwashed' to dismissing them as 'chavs' but the negative intention remains the same.  

Again, ‘free coloured’ is offensive to modern ears, but it was the term used in the British colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, in censuses and legal documents, to refer to mixed-race or black people who were free citizens.

It is not surprising that mixed-race slave owners and overseers aligned themselves with the white community and also treated slaves with cruelty and contempt. To admit any sort of kinship with people who were treated like animals, or to champion their cause, might have jeopardised their own comfortable situation. . .  

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

FOR SIX CUPS OF COFFEE



DIPPING A TOE INTO ACADEMIC CRITICISM

From childhood, I was a voracious reader. I read for pleasure, for the sheer joy of rolling undiscovered words round my tongue before inflicting them on my surprised family or shoehorning them into homework. Words were like stained glass windows, tiny fragments strung together in a sentence to form an entrancing whole.

For my younger self, writers were a breed apart, people born with the talent to string words together. It never occurred to me that what I read might be a fourth or fifth version of their initial attempts. In later years, having served my own apprenticeship as a writer, I began to analyse what I read. Why had I enjoyed the book? Was it plot or language? I appreciated the hard work behind the finished product.

However, academic criticism was something to avoid. Until I discovered the “I recommend” section of Chichester University’s Thresholds website. This regular feature allows contributors to recommend a short story, or collection of stories, by a favourite author. I chose For Six Cups of Coffee, a collection of vignettes and short stories by the Swiss author Rainer Brambach. To see why I enjoyed his work, and to take a walk round Basel in his company, go to  




   

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Five star crowned heart review for A Shackled Inheritance



InD'tale magazine, a romance site which reviews over one hundred new releases each month, awarded A Shackled Inheritance a coveted 5-stars with crowned heart in its June issue. The reviewer wrote:

   "Upon the death of her father in Scotland, spinster Abigail Carrick discovers that she has a second family in the West Indies, with two grown daughters of colour - her sisters! Along with lawyer Euan Sinclair, she embarks on a journey to meet her new family across the ocean. Abigail's inheritance involves a slave plantation and Euan is against slavery, which drives a wedge between them. Once they arrive on shore however they both begin the understand the true cruelty of slavery. As Abigail's feelings for Euan grow, he is attracted to her half-sister, who has a very different attitude towards slavery than Abigail does.
   The author did an excellent job researching the era of slavery, the history of plantation houses, even the manner in which people spoke back then. The characters, in particular Euan and Abigail, are fleshed out and three dimensional, acting like real people would and struggling with real issues. The injustice and cruelty of slavery, and the narrow-minded ways people tried to rationalize this, are the red threads running throughout the book, and provide an interesting backdrop for the characters' relationships. 
   A Shackled Inheritance is not only entertaining, but provides the reader with a lot of new information and research while keeping a fast pace without the dreaded "info dump". A heart-wrenching love story, Abigail and Euan's story is one for the ages!" 



Monday, 4 April 2016

Mary Wollstonecraft, a thinker in advance of her time



   A character who plays an important role in my book A Shackled Inheritance was a real person. For the long voyage across the Atlantic, my heroine Abigail takes a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. Reading and re-reading this slim volume, a meek, conventional young woman acquires more backbone as she absorbs its radical ideas.

   Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1791, when she was only 31. It was a follow-up to her republican tract A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published in 1790. Despite the groundswell of radical ideas in the late 18th century, the so-called Age of Reason, the simple idea that the rights of man could be extended to the female sex provoked alarm and ridicule in the literary and political establishment of the day. Walpole referred to the author as a"hyena in petticoats". Wollstonecraft argued that girls should be properly educated, either to turn them into wives and mothers who would be intellectually equal to their menfolk, or to give single and widowed women the means of earning an honest living:
   "Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is based on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all."

   Yet her sensible suggestion that girls and boys be educated together was dismissed as the ravings of a deranged woman.

   By coincidence, the British Library in London currently displays an annotated copy of the book. See:
http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/mary-wollstonecraft-a-vindication-of-the-rights-of-woman