Shepherds sorted, Wise Men plotted

Done – my Shepherds story for my new Angels & Other Occurrences sequence, which I’m scheduling to start on  1st December. The Shepherds should come in on the 7th.

Also – in the bath – along with driving, my best place for plotting – I suddenly ‘received’ the plot for my version of the Three Wise Men. Typed it out quick, before it disappeared. I looked at this plot outline thinking – that’s bizarre. That’s really weird. Can I really write something that weird? Yes, I think. If anyone can write something weird it’s probably me, and it’ll take my mind off the endless merry-go-round of upsets and complications that seem to breed in my family around Christmas.

Sometimes it pays to procrastinate, I’ve found. If you resist the temptation to start writing at once, often – it’s that Synchronicity thing again – see previous post: Synchronicity in Writing – a tiny new bit of information comes along and it’s that tiny new bit of information that the whole plot ought to have hinged on. Then of course you have to rewrite the plot but that’s all part of the fun.

This morning I was watching Countryfile and Adam Whatsisname, the handsome red-headed farmer chappie, was doing a piece to camera. He was telling us that, sadly, his father had passed away a few weeks earlier and this had reminded him of the Lock of Wool superstition. Once upon a time, he said, a Shepherd would be buried with a Lock of Wool clasped in his right hand; when he arrived at the Pearly Gates the angels, seeing the Lock of Wool, would let him in. They would know that a shepherd couldn’t get to church of a Sunday. He said he had done this for his Dad.

I was thinking, what a lovely story, and then I thought – I see – now I see how my Shepherds post is going to work, and how the Lock of Wool will be central. I see the characters, I see how many of them there are, I know their characters and their tragedies and why they are out on that hillside; I see who or what it is who will tell them…

That’s the joy of writing – sudden inspirations. More of a battle when the time comes to get them down on paper!

Underwater fireworks

In my last-but-one post I managed – finally – by accident to embed a YouTube video – I mean the actual video not just a naff old link. And couldn’t for the life of me work out how I did it. Sigh!

So I’ve been mining the WordPress Codex – whatever that might be – to discover the secret of embedding videos, and might just have cracked it.

So, if this works, it will be Spem in Alium, 40 voice motet by Thomas Tallis.

Underwater fireworks.

Heaven on earth.

Yay!!  Turn up the volume.

AND SHEPHERDS STILL TO DO

No, I don’t know why I’ve got a picture of a meerkat in a blog that’s mostly about cat-cats, and under the title And Shepherds Still To Do. My normal approach is to look for a picture that matches the story, a picture that tells a little story in itself, a picture that inspires a hitherto unthought-of post or a picture that contains some oblique little jokey reference for the connoisseur of visual obliquities. Occasionally, I can’t find a picture to fill any of those categories and if in doubt, I always say, insert a cat. What’s not to enjoy about a picture of a cat?

But this little meerkat has been jumping out at me for some time. Probably he reminds me of the eight (or so) month struggle I had to persuade my free Aleksandr Orlov toy to cease his endless travels and turn up at my house. As you may know, there is a particular comparison website (I will include a link in case you’re interested – not being paid to advertise them, honest) which has been running a long and successful advertising campaign featuring eccentric meerkat characters, and the meerkat of all meerkats is Aleksandr Orlov.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compare_the_Meerkat

The idea is if you use their comparison website and actually change – I can’t remember what it was – electricity providers, say – you can apply for a free fluffy meerkat. I’m not a great one for soft toys – since my mother broke my twenty-one year old heart by giving my teddy to Oxfam without my permission I have never felt quite the same about them. The only other one I have is a tiger called Kevin. He has been with me for years and is getting rather dog-eared and dusty, up on the top shelf.

Aleksandr sent me one charming email after another, all in his colourful Eastern European version of the English language, explaining that PostKat was in fact on his way with my free meerkat toy, but had currently made a detour to ski in St Moritz, or was touring Rome. There was even a map, upon which you could track his meandering progress around Europe. What really got my goat was when the map revealed that PostKat had got as far as Calais but had chosen to veer off to view the spring bulbs in Holland then peruse noir detective novels at some Scandinavian bookfest or other instead of just nipping across on Eurostar to deliver my Aleksandr.

I mean, it started off amusing, but one did begin to wonder – does Aleksandr actually exist? Might Postkat be a figment of some cynical ad-person’s imagination? Was it possible that these emails were coming from a warehouse in Milton Keynes or Blackburn, Lancashire as opposed to the Russian village of Meerkovo?

That aside – Shepherds Still To Do. What’s that all about then?

Well, I’ve been working on a sequence of Christmas short stories for this blog – kind of nativity re-tellings set in London, East Anglia and – well, they could end up anywhere in the UK, I haven’t yet finished the sequence. They won’t appeal to everyone – and please don’t think I’m trying make everyone a Christian and that every future post will be full of earnest debates as to how many angels might fit on the head of a pin. I’m not at all sure that I’m a Christian. I don’t know what I am, if anything. I went, or rather was despatched, to “the Methodist” every Sunday morning as a child. After that was Sunday Dinner with Nan and Grandad, which I looked forward to rather more. My parents were professed agnostics (they were always everything together, no separate opinions). I expect they just needed a few hours of peace and quiet. I expect I was terminally annoying as a child, or maybe they were just looking forward to manufacturing a couple of sisters for me.

So I went; I got stars for regular attendance in my little blue book; I got a copy of the Bible, now falling to bits and replaced with a Hagrid-sized paperback version, complete with Apocrypha, which I have not tried out yet. I don’t think the Methodists approved of the Apocrypha – at any rate it wasn’t in my old Bible. I relished the stories – as I would come to relish all stories, read, told or for the telling – and loved being able to sing great old hymns and carols somewhat out of tune at the top of my voice. I stopped going at the age sixteen because it clashed with strawberry-picking and a rather handsome farm manager, and never went back (well, I did go back with my sister, on one memorable occasion, but that’s a previous post and I can’t remember what I called it, off the top of my head).

Subsequently I got into Buddhism, and Mysticism, Philosophy, Particle Physics (please don’t test that out – I’m not pretending to have understood it, mostly) Neuroscience (ditto) and New Age timey-wimey stuff generally. I read and I thought and I wondered and I tried to fit it all together, tried to make sense of it all. (Still failing at that.) But just recently those Bible stories have come back to me. I just need them again. Maybe they’re comfort food for my declining years adrift in this chill, dank decade – the literary equivalent of tomato soup.

Which I loathe with a passion.

The first of the new story sequence is scheduled to come in on 1st December, so next – whatever – Tuesday? They’re all based on the gospel of Luke, by the way. Luke was my favourite as a child. If I’d been a boy I was convinced that would have been my name. So far I’ve completed my versions the annunciations – to Zacharias and to Mary, and the nativity itself, which covers three posts. Still to come – the Shepherds – oh no – and the Three Wise Men. And unfortunately (for me) the Wise Men are holding out for a post each – and time is catching up with me. I’d like to finish the sequence before the scheduled posts run out, thus effecting a seamless segue (I love that word, whatever it means). I said to them – couldn’t you all squeeze in together? It’d be much tidier and then I could get on with something else. A bit of non-fiction, perhaps? No way, they say.

PS: I should warn sensitive readers – there will be an ice-cream van. It’s the equivalent of the donkey. I didn’t ask for an ice-cream van – it just arrived in the plot, thankfully not playing Popeye the Sailor Man. And I mean, there aren’t so many donkeys wandering free in East Anglia nowadays.

I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am

  • I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am,
  • ‘Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
  • I got married to the widow next door,
  • She’s been married seven times before
  • And every one was an ‘Enery
  • She wouldn’t have a Willie nor a Sam
  • I’m her eighth old man named ‘Enery
  • ‘Enery the Eighth, I am!

I remember this song being rattled out over the radio when I was a child. For non-British readers I should mention – though it’s probably fairly obvious – that the lyrics are slightly saucy, and would definitely have been so in 1910 when the song was written, since Willie is the common term for a gentleman’s naughty-bits.

(My Polish vet accidentally managed to amuse me by enquiring of William, one of my many ginger moggies “And how’s my Leetle Willy?” I kept a straight face – inherited from Grandad, see below.)

It was written in 1910 and originally sung by music hall star Harry Champion. He must have made a record of it since even I am not old enough to have been to the music hall, although my Grandfather did. My Grandfather was a silent, dour sort of chap. You had to know him well to tell when he was being humorous. No twinkle appeared in his eye. He never smiled, or particularly looked in your direction. There might have been no one in the room with him. He just went on, puffing at his pipe, staring into space and suddenly you’d find yourself thinking – that was funny!

But obviously he couldn’t always have been like that, since he once told a story about sitting up in the balcony with his mates at the music hall –a rather risqué place to go in those days – peeling oranges and aiming the peel down the collars of the people in the seats below. I suppose he may have had his pipe clenched between his teeth like Popeye even then, since he told he started on the old St Bruno Flake at nine. Or was that also a joke?

Anyway, that was the sort of song he would have heard, and probably enjoyed singing along to. And some of the songs lived on, long after music hall itself had faded out, overtaken by the new cinemas of the 1920s. My father used to come out with a scattering of semi-nonsensical verses to amuse us. Most of them required a cockney accent, but then most of us in the C1 to E demographic can do a fairish cockney accent, if encouraged and in cheery mood. (Unlike Dick Van Dyke who in the 1964 musical film Mary Poppins perpetrated absolutely the worst cockney accent of all time):

  • Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
  • And ‘Endon to the westward could be seen
  • And by clinging to the chimbley
  • You could see across to Wembley
  • If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

and

  •  My old man said “Foller the van,
  • And don’t dilly dally on the way”.
  • Off went the van wiv me ‘ome packed in it,
  • I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
  • But I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied
  • Lost me way and don’t know where to roam.
  • Well you can’t trust a special like the old time coppers.
  • When you can’t find your way ‘ome.

and

  •  Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
  • I want to go to Birmingham
  • And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
  • Take me back to London, as quickly as you can,
  • Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

It’s difficult to explain how very comforting these silly old tunes and daft words can be if you’re British, especially in beleaguered times when disgusting diseases, criss-crossing warplanes, random shootings and chemical weapons feel as if they’re coming out of the woodwork at us. They act as a kind of charm and a litany – akin to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 every night. The announcer starts: And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at [time of issue] today – then embarks on his measured, methodical progress, clockwise around the waters around the British Isles.

And somehow you feel… it’s OK. We’re still an island, safely surrounded by tracts of water we can’t imagine and which the majority wouldn’t recognise if we saw them, and over which it might currently be hailing or snowing, blowing a gale, threatening rain. There they all are: Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber…

Nothing bad can have happened –Radio 4 is still talking to us and we’re still wrapped in our blanket of sea. It’s not the words themselves it’s the sound and the rhythm, like poetry. In a world of nuclear weapons, random shootings and dire diseases, they are a charm and a litany. They comfort us greatly.

As, of course, do a few special pieces of music. And this is one of them:

 

South Korean violinist Julia Hwang, then aged 15

The Lark Ascending: Ralph Vaughan Williams

 It was inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith (1828–1909) which begins:

  • HE rises and begins to round,
  • He drops the silver chain of sound
  • Of many links without a break,
  • In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
  • All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
  • Like water-dimples down a tide
  • Where ripple ripple overcurls
  • And eddy into eddy whirls….

I have to say I’m not convinced this picture, which was listed as ‘lark’, is actually a lark, or a sky-lark. I thought they were plain brown and speckled. No doubt bird-watchers the world over have been muttering to themselves throughout this piece either ‘That’s not a lark!’ (if it actually isn’t) or ‘What a pretty lark’ (if it actually is). Whatever – it’s meant to be a lark. It symbolises lark… It represents lark…

VISITING THE CASTLE

In this courtyard, overborne and

Cramped by shuttered rooms,

The leaded panes grown cataracts of light,

Moss grows between the stones

And a marble fountain plays.

It is small, unremarkable,

Nobody in here to view it, just a sparrow

Thirsting in the furnace of July;

Nobody in here and yet

The bowl is full of coins.

 

Maybe each of us comes alone

And again discovers what queens and princes knew;

Maybe they too, in their moments of distraction,

Trailed their finger-ends beneath the water

And, feeling it cool and simple,

Sighed and threw silver, leaving behind

Battered portraits of their ancestors,

Distorted by refraction

And by motion.

 

I will not throw a coin.

For all their praying, those who threw before

Are no less saved or lost. I would rather just

Recall them, these unknown dreamers, feeling

The benediction in the sun, the wish in the stone,

Their lives and mine

In the sound of

Water falling.

The moon’s on a biscuit

This is apparently the only statement of note uttered by me during my infancy. As far as I recall I was walking down our street after dark with Mum – no idea why – and happened to look up at the moon. Observing it surrounded by a circular, brownish haze I exclaimed Oh look, the moon’s on a biscuit. It is not a clever statement. It is not even a poetic statement. I have since written poetry, some of it rather good if I say so myself, but that night I was being drearily literal. I had never seen the moon surrounded by brownish haze before and a biscuit was the only half-suitable circular object I could think of to liken it to.

I think what depresses me is that so much was made of it. Did I never say anything else, that anyone can remember? I believe my niece’s first words were something to do with the stock market having declined by three points. Or maybe that was somebody else’s niece… no, I think it was mine. Now that was spectacular, though I doubt if she actually understood the risings and fallings of the stock market. Who does?

I can also remember my mother confessing to mistakes she had made in parenting which had resulted in my ‘turning out the way I did’. Apparently as a young first-time Mum she had been very much under the influence of Dr Benjamin Spock’s book Parenting and Child Care which had advocated not picking a child up when it cried – ever, according to my mother. So when I was a baby she had stood outside my door crying because I was crying, not daring to open the door and pick me up for fear of incurring the Wrath of Dr Spock. This is a particularly stupid idea and I wouldn’t be surprised if its implementation did cause a great deal of damage, but that wasn’t what bothered me. It was her saying that I had ‘turned out the way I did’. Until that moment I had assumed I was more or less normal and that it was my parents who had ‘turned out the way they did’. After that I felt like a mug with a missing handle or a toy soldier with only one arm.

Anyway, moons. This post was going to be about full moons. It is early evening as I write this and I keep going to the back window to look out, since tonight is the night of the November full moon known as Moon Before Yule according to Old English almanacs. It is the last full moon before Christmas. The dates vary from year to year.

Full moon names have also varied over time and from one hemisphere to another, since seasonal changes take place during ‘opposite’ months in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The sequence for this particular calendar for 2015 has been running:

  • Moon After Yule (January 5th)
  • Wolf Moon (February 3rd)
  • Lenten Moon (March 5th)
  • Egg Moon (April 4th)
  • Milk Moon (May 4th)
  • Flower Moon (June 2nd)
  • Hay Moon (July 2nd)
  • Grain Moon (July 31st)
  • Fruit Moon (August 29th)
  • Harvest Moon (September 28th)
  • Hunter’s Moon (October 27th)
  • Moon Before Yule (November 25th)

and 2016 goes on:

  • Moon After Yule (December 25th)
  • Wolf Moon (January 24th)
  • Lenten Moon (February 22nd)

I found Wolf Moon in a Witches’ Date Book earlier this evening – which is what started me off on the moon-post thing. I bought the Date Book for a friend of mine, who is a witch. I try not to read people’s Christmas present books, but never succeed. As least this one is spiral-bound, so it won’t be all creased around the spine when she gets it. If she gets it. At the moment I’m too fascinated to wrap it up.

Naming full moons was a good way of recalling the passage of time and important events in a time before clocks and calendars. The Algonquin tribes of New England and westward to Lake Superior, had their own names. For example January was their Wolf Moon, February the Snow Moon, March the Worm Moon, April the Pink Moon, March the Flower Moon, June the Strawberry Moon, July the Buck Moon, August the Sturgeon Moon, September the Harvest Moon, October the Hunter’s Moon, November the Beaver Moon and December the Cold Moon.

Most seasons have three full moons but occasionally a season will have four full moons, and the ‘spare’ one is known as a Blue Moon.

And, apropos of nothing, the Matala Moon referred to in Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song ‘Carey’ refers to a place called Matala on the Isle of Crete, where hippies hung out in Neolithic caves for a while, in the 60s.

A few days later, Penelope and I were on a ferry to see what Matala was all about … Most of the hippies who had traveled there slept in small caves carved into the cliff on one side of the beach.

After we arrived, Penelope and I rented a cinder-block hut in a nearby poppy field and walked down to the beach. As we stood staring out, an explosion went off behind us. I turned around just in time to see this guy with a red beard blowing through the door of a cafe. He was wearing a white turban, white Nehru shirt and white cotton pants. I said to Penelope, ‘What an entrance—I have to meet this guy.’ … He was American and a cook at one of the cafes. Apparently, when he had lit the stove, it blew him out the door. That’s how Cary [Raditz] entered my life—ka-boom.