Category Archives: words

Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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Filed under Feminism, Podcast, poetry, translation, words

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Do you have this experience? It doesn’t happen very often, but when I finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard I felt that I had been lifted onto a different plane. In part it was the accomplishment of the writing, its elegance, sparseness and the observations of human relationships revealed in the prose. And in part it was the breadth of Shirley Hazzard’s observation and of her imagination of the post-war world.

The Transit of Venus is my choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The novel captures something of the international influences happening in the decades following the Second World War. 

The Transit of Venus

The novel’s narrative stretches over 30 years allowing the characters and their relationships to be played out with the inevitability of the transit that gives the book its title.

Two Australian sisters have come to Britain in the 50s and are staying in a house of an eminent astronomer, Professor Thrale. Grace is the younger, very pretty, engaged to the son, Christian. Caroline is older and with more purpose in life. There is a third sister, a half-sister Dora who is an eternal victim who has cared for Caroline and Grace since their parents died. We follow Grace and Caro through several decades, and mostly Caro because Grace leads a calm and largely unexplored life. 

Ted Tice is a young astronomer come to spend time with Thrale and he falls for Caroline, a love he nurtures beyond the end of novel. Caro however is seduced by a friend of the family, a young playwright, Paul Ivory who in turn is engaged to Tertia who lives in grand style nearby. Paul and Caro begin an affair. The reader is sure that Paul is untrustworthy and that Tertia knows about the affair but has other motives for continuing with her engagement and marrying Paul. 

Paul Ivory is the bad boy, cynical, calculating, enjoying power and influence. He has a secret, known to Tice (and he knows Tice’s secret too). He breaks up with Caro.

She works in an office, subjected to the taken-for-granted sexism of the time. She is very hurt by the end of her affair with Paul but eventually marries an American benefactor and goes to live in NY. Christian Thrale has an affair because he believes he should. Grace falls in love with her son’s doctor, but he refused to compromise her. The marriage is not made better or worse by these episodes. Ted Tice goes on loving Caro from a distance until two important secrets are revealed. 

Themes

Although the transit of Venus across the sun is predictable it is an event that occurs only every 120 years, and then twice in 8 years. Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 was designed to coincide with one transit to help with astrological measurements, specifically the size of the solar system. His measurements were inaccurate. The next transit will be in December 2117.

Shirley Hazzard understands that our lives are influenced by both predictability and chance, by those we meet and the moment we meet them. The important thing is what we do with our experiences: perhaps use them to manipulate others as Dora does. She turns every situation into a story of wrong being done to Dora. She is the saddest of all the characters.

Dora sat on the corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it. […] Dora was not one to lie down under the news that a veranda was called a loggia, or a mural a fresco. Let alone villa for house. (45)

Grace lives a life of conventional comfort, with her husband making steady progress in the Foreign Office, and children and a nice house with beautiful things. A mirror bought in Bath is frequently mentioned, yet towards the end of the book Caro reflects that

It was not clear now, as formerly, that Grace was satisfied with chintz and china – with Christian saying, “A wee bit fibrous,” or hoisting his trousers at evening and announcing, “Must get my eight hours.” It was not quite certain Grace had remained a spectator. Those who had seen her as Caro’s alter ego might have missed the point. (324)

The reader has seen Grace’s thwarted love for her son’s doctor and noted the dignity ascribed to her by Shirley Hazzard.

With these prospects and impressions, Grace Marian Thrale, forty-three years old, stood silent in a hotel doorway, with the roar of existence in her ears. And like any great poet or tragic sovereign of antiquity, cried on her Creator and wondered how long she must remain on such an earth. (289)

Caro’s life has also contained much hurt and loss. She had not remained a spectator, but engaged with the experiences life sent her with dignity, reflection and generosity.

Writing

Reading The Transit of Venus one could not fail to notice the quality of the writing. The novel’s plot is skilfully managed and the tension is held to the final chapter. Some of the sentences are beautifully constructed. Look at what she wrote about Grace’s reaction to the departure of her would-be lover quoted above. And as I typed Caro’s reflections I noted the provisionality of the sentences: ‘not clear now’, ‘not quite certain’, ‘might have missed the point’. 

Within her sentences the choice of words, especially adverbs and adjectives, add complexity, depth and nuance to the novel. She writes on a wide canvas: across several decades and across the globe: Australia, Britain and New York as well as parts of Europe and South America. It has been described as an unbearably sad book, but I felt moved by it, as if the experience of reading it had added to my own life. In part this is because of her ‘huge charity towards the people’ (Kirkus Review 1980). 

Perhaps you have felt uplifted by this novel and are only surprised that I mention it. Or perhaps you have yet to experience one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, in which case you have a great treat in store for you.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia and died in 2016 in New York. She had spent time in the Far East after the war, before being employed by the UN from 1951. She was posted for a while to Naples, and developed a love of Italy. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that she published her next and final novel, The Great Fire, which was also much acclaimed by the critics. I am currently reading some of her essays in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published in 1980) and reissued by Virago in 1995. 337pp The novel also won the National Book Critics Award.

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent choices for the project are

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

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Refugee Tales III

It’s Refugee Week 15th – 21st June 2020 and I am launching my Crossing 25 Bridges challenge to highlight the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) who since 2015 have been making an annual walk

in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees.

In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, as they walk they tell stories, which are collected and published. Some refugees tell their own stories, and some are retold by accomplished writers. 

Human Rights?

The UK is the only country in Europe  that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. For all kinds of reasons this is wrong. One reason is that it is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrart arrest, detention or exile.
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Refugee Tales III 

In the third volume of Refugee Tales, six stories are told by individual refugees in their own voice and 13 more are presented ‘as told to’ some notable authors such as Monica Ali, Roma Tearne, Patrick Gale, Ian Samson, Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo.

Tales are told by the stateless person, the orphan, the foster child, the father and the son and more. The people are identified by activities that we can all understand. 

A terrible picture emerges. Each person’s story has a brutal start in their country of origin. These stories are individual, often violent and involving betrayal, torture and always fear.

Once the refugees have arrived in the UK the themes coalesce into a horrific story of the obstacles to being granted asylum. They all involve indefinite detention.

For a moment pause and consider what it might mean to have left your country, often your family, your identity, your language, culture, food and history. There is likely to be trauma in that story. You arrive, looking for safety and find yourself met with a wall of disbelief, distrust, cruel and labyrinthine administrative and legal processes, and ever-changing personnel. And imprisonment, without apparent reason, often removed when signing on as required, and often released again with as little apparent cause. 

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or detention?

But more significant perhaps than the transgression of the UN Declaration is the inhumane aspects of this policy. Most people are aware of the Hostile Environment initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, in 2012. Fewer people are aware that it involves indefinite detention. More people need to be aware that refugees have few rights to benefits, or a job, and only to meagre accommodation and, until very recently only £5 a day to live off. The current Home Secretary raised it to £5.26p in early June.

Responding to Refugee Tales

I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something.

Here are some things to do:

• Buy and read one of the three collections of the Refugee Tales.

• Listen to what refugees have to say

You are not really going to listen. No one listens
You’re not really going to hear. No one hears.
But I will tell you my story anyway. I will tell you my story because you have asked to hear my story.
But that is all. You want my story from me. I do not want anything from you. […]
Now you have my story. And I still have nothing.
[From The Fisherman’s Tale as told to Ian Sansom]

  • Hear what refugees have to say, be a witness, enter the community that acknowledges these stories and these lives.

So I ask him, why does he want me or anyone else, to tell his story? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming directly from him? His response is that he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience, to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he heard and saw. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing itself; because it signifies that in a world that so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.
[From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Be a vigilant witness against evil and heartlessness and stand up for solidarity, beyond all seeming borders or nationality and creed. Jonathan Wittenberg knows the importance of this from researching the history of his own parents who were refugees from Nazism.

As I listen and record, I become a companion in defiance against the silence in which vicious regimes try to bury the knowledge of the crimes they have committed against the dead and disavow the living trauma of those who manage to survive them.
S needs me, us, to be allies. [From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Support my lockdown walk over 25 bridges in support of retelling the stories of flight and detention and the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
  • Join in the weekend of online events with Refugee Tales –  3rd – 5th July – details on their website.

My Lockdown Walk with Refugee Tales

Staverton Bridge, Devon.

My walk this month will, as far as possible, cross 25 bridges. Some may be crossed twice. I hope to walk with friends and family, including remotely. The bridges will be photographed and I’ll put them on Twitter, Facebook and my Just Giving page.

You can donate to the Just Giving page  and the  here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp

Other connected pages

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, short stories, words, Writing

Mind your sexist language!

A few years ago I became involved with someone and when it became serious I decided to tell my mother about it. ‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘Don’t be rash!’ To which I could only reply ‘I‘m in my 50s, for goodness sake. If I can’t be rash now, when can I be?’ It made me realise that in my childhood I was often accused of being headstrong. Now there’s a word. I don’t believe that in my childhood boys were called headstrong. I was also known as a tomboy. These are all things that go against what society expects of its girls: being rash, headstrong and tomboys. Oh no, I should have been patient, pensive and feminine. Quiet and unnoticed, in other words. We still use words to indicate deviation from expected norms, especially for women and girls. (And there is a whole other vocabulary for older women, but that’s for another day).

In this post I’m going to look at a few sexist words that have evaded my attention until now, and say something about how to detect them and what to do about it.

Girls reading: Photo credit: USAID Africa on VisualHunt.com

The reversibility test

In the ‘70s I belonged to a women’s group. Today I would be described as participating in the Second Wave of feminism, but at the time we mostly called it raising awareness. I recall that at one meeting we watched a film. I don’t remember a huge amount about it except that it was in B&W and made in a Scandinavian country. The language was no barrier for there was none. The film made its points through the shock of reversing the roles of men and women.

For me the most powerful scene was in the office, where women sat behind huge desks and summoned the men to take notes, or bring them cups of tea or to have their bottoms pinched. The men worked in cramped rows typing away (it was the ‘70s). For lunch the women were provided with a lavish meal in a special dining rooms while the men went off to do their shopping which they then placed in lumpy bags at their feet under their desks. At the end of the working day the women got into their huge cars and drove home. The men picked up their awkward shopping bags and went to queue for the bus. 

From this film I learned to use the reversibility test for any situation where there may be sexism in play: would it look the same if the men and women swapped places? If not then it is usually to the detriment of women. Would a particular word mean the same thing about men and women? 

Mea culpa!

Gossips: deti_leta on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

So it was with some shame that a dawning realisation came over me that I had not been applying this test in the language I used in my reviews on Bookword. I came across a long twitter thread about all the words used about women which are not commonly applied to men. Here are some examples: 

  • Gossip
  • Feisty
  • Frumpy
  • Bubbly
  • Curvy

The originator of the twitter thread had posted some that she thought were common and invited further contributions. The thread went on way beyond my patience, listing word after word. Sadly I have not been able to rediscover this thread. (Please send it to me if you noted it and can find it again.)

It was the second word on the list that drew my attention: feisty. Quite close, people noted, in meaning to spirited and I know that I have used both these words approvingly of the authors of, for example My Brilliant Career and Mary Olivier: A Life

In my own time, as well as the above, I have been called:

  • Bossy
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • A career woman

The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called

  • Bitchy
  • Hormonal
  • Emotional
  • Catty
  • A nag

And I might even have been described as a working mother.

Applying the reversibility test you can see that some of these words indicated that I was transgressing in some way. Women were not supposed to be or do these things: but whoever refers to working fathers, or a career man? Being bossy is another way of describing a leadership role (I was a headteacher); ambitious suggests that women should not seek to advance themselves in work; and aggressive (also known as abrasive) is another term for being direct. And so on …

Devant l’affiche de “j’accuse” : Jeanne Menjoulet on VisualHunt/ CC BY

So where a word suggests that the user divides the world by gender, two categories only of course, it can be identified as sexist. 

And there’s more

I have drawn attention to 20 words. Here’s a link to an article where the writer had a list of 122 words with subtle sexist overtones. It appeared in Sacraparental in May 2016: EVERYDAY MISOGYNY: 122 SUBTLY SEXIST WORDS ABOUT WOMEN (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM). Read it here.  

So what can we do?

Use the reversibility test and then if necessary …

Call out the user of such terms when you hear them, name the practice as sexist. 

Call out and name the practice when anyone does it about you.

And another thing …

And in case you think that writers of books use gender-free terms, here is the link to an article that revealed in August last year that a robot read 3.5 million books to find women were overwhelmingly described by appearance, and men by virtue. Read it here

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

And while we are about it, I would love you to read Ursula Le Guin’s debunking of the use of he to include to all humankind, I am a man, which you can find on this link. As you might expect she is funny and to the point. 

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Let’s have more older women writers

In 2016 I had been looking at discrimination against female writers for three years on this blog and trying to make older women in particular more visible in fiction. At the time it also made sense to look at the barriers, if there were any, to older women authors. And anyway, Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: 

You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

So back then I enlisted the support of another female writer, Anne Goodwin, and asked her to think about possible discrimination against older women writers. Her answers provided the material for a post which I posted on my blog. The comments that followed it are also interesting. You can see all that here: Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

Older woman writing: Literacy in Oaxaca by Pilarportela in 2005 via WikiCommons

Since then …

Some evidence would suggest that some older women are being supported more to get their writing published. Here is some of the evidence together with some questions and answers that I put to Anne:

Anne Goodwin herself has published and self-published more books. She now has four to her name.

  • Sugar and Snails
  • Underneath
  • Becoming Someone
  • Somebody’s Daughter 

Do you think the major publishing groups are still looking mostly for youth in the writers they support? What about the independents?

They’re looking for what will sell, which might be about the book or it might be about the person who wrote it. Naïvely, until I was published I didn’t appreciate just how commercial the whole enterprise is! Independent publishers, more motivated by the love of books than the money, are able to be more flexible, but they still need to put food on the table.

I think if the publisher can build an interesting story about the author it doesn’t matter how old she is: extreme age can be as fascinating as youth, especially if there’s a rags to riches element.

Another factor is that, if they’re thinking long term and investing in the author’s entire career, a younger author might have more years – and perhaps more books – ahead of her. On the other hand, since very few can earn their living through writing, an older author, especially if she has a pension, might be able to commit more time to publicity – and writing the next book.

2019 saw the inauguration of the Paul Torday Prize for writers of fiction who publish their first novel over the age of 60. It was won by Anne Youngson for Meet Me at the Museum. All the semi-finalists in the first year were women. I wrote about the prize and the winner here. Do you have any reactions to this prize? 

I think it’s great, although 60 is starting to feel rather youthful!

Gransnet commissioned some research into older women readers and their preferences in reading. You can find a summary here. https://www.gransnet.com/online-surveys-product-tests/ageism-in-fiction The readers wanted to see characters of all ages and less stereotyping of older women. They were furious that so many older women were portrayed as fumbling with new technology and digital devices. Any thoughts about the evidence that readers want to see characters of all ages? And less stereotyping. 

I had seen this and wondered what to make of a survey that lumps together all women over 40! And Gransnet as an umbrella term feeds into another stereotype. Otherwise, all I can say is “of course”.

The so-called grey pound might be a factor here too. More women have reached 60+, many of them have income to spend on their leisure, including on their reading. They expect to see more older women characters and writers. Do you think this will have an impact on publishing older women writers?

I hope so, although I meet a lot of older women in bookshops who don’t like the sound of my fiction. They either want something cosier or much darker – I can never get my head around the popularity of violent crime. On the other hand, U3A groups have been very supportive.

Here’s what Joanne Harris said recently (reported in Bookseller) about publishers promoting debuts:

Regardless of what it is that they write, as men get older they become veteran writers. As women get older, they get invisible and I think part of this is to do with the fact that women’s writing has always been seen as lesser in one way or another. If a man writes about relationships, he is writing about the universal condition and needs to be praised. If women write about relationships they are writing chick lit and everything they do is slightly diminished because of that. The idea is that women are there to please women, whereas men are there to enlighten posterity.

1 Sadly, because it’s ubiquitous in our culture, women can be as dismissive of other women’s contributions as men

2. I was shocked to learn last year that publishers push debuts because an author without a track record can be more attractive – at whatever age – to the book world because they haven’t yet failed to produce a bestseller. It means new authors have to hit the ground running and there’s little interest in learning on the job. Mid-list writers – who might also be older women – get pushed out.

3. Rubbish books do get published; some by men, some by women.

Bluemoose publishers are dedicating their efforts in 2020 to publishing women authors over 45. Is this kind of action useful?

I think so. Publishers can get so swamped with submissions it’s helpful to have some way of narrowing down their options, especially if that means supporting marginalised groups. Others are trying to prioritise submissions from people of colour.

Vanessa Gebbie ran a retreat to encourage writers, Never too late to do it, in February 2019. Are these kinds of courses likely to help? 

Anything that challenges the notion that we stop growing, learning and developing as we get older seems good to me.

So the answer is …

Any thoughts about any of this? 

Overall, I think how the individual writer feels about this is a function of internal and external factors. Since we exist in a patriarchal culture, where women’s power is feared and denigrated, there’s bound to be some prejudice in some quarters against female writers. And, as we don’t like reminders that we’ll all die eventually, youth is going to be celebrated and age ignored as much as possible. So, although I don’t think I’ve experienced age and gender discrimination, if an older woman writer tells me she has, I’m likely to believe her.

But how we feel about this personally must also depend on our own psychology and circumstances. When ageing is accompanied by multiple losses – bereavement, poverty, physical health – as it often is for women, discrimination is going to be harder to fight and/or to bear. I’m lucky that isn’t my situation – yet – and, although I have my share of grumbles like anyone else, I’m loving this stage of my life.

A final point: my writing depends on voice recognition software, which continually thwarts me with multiple errors. But I know it’s on my side as it persists in writing the word women as winning!

I must thank Anne Goodwin, the winning woman writer, for taking the time to think about my questions. You can find more about her books at her website Annethology: here

Silly old Martin Amis.

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A writer’s anthology of words and other writerly things

Collecting words

Some time ago I wrote a post about collecting words, creating word hoards, and what a good activity it is for writers. Recently I haven’t been very disciplined about recording them, but here are a few from my collection:

  • Tincture
  • Manciple
  • A murder of rooks
  • Smoocher
  • Swingle 
  • Sontagsleere  (from the German, Sunday emptiness or melancholy)

I like the sound or the feel in the mouth of these words, or in the case of the German word, how it captures a particular feeling.

I love being introduced to derivations and connections of words and that’s why  on train journeys I often listen to  the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple in which Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth talk about words and language.

And here is a book in which the stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, the author’s inventiveness, her creativity with individual words. 

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith (2015) published by Hamish Hamilton

Here is another book which will delight lovers of words. Robert Macfarlane has burrowed into the languages of the natural world to give us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin. The 2016 edition has the additional glossary.

And I hope you have not missed the wonder that is The Lost Words. This collection aims to reinstate words that are being lost from children’s lives and dictionaries. And the illustrations make real the preciousness of the things and their words.

The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. Hamish Hamilton (2017).

Collecting titles

Here are titles of five unwritten short stories I have collected. 

  • Singing without knowing the words
  • Hunted by Cows
  • Don’t Poke the Bear
  • Stumbling
  • A Plain, Motherly kind of Woman

I have no story in mind for any of these titles, I just like the possibilities created by them.

Collecting phrases

And from rock music I note these:

‘I gave up my life of crime. 

I gave it to a friend of mine.’

Two lines from a song by Josh Ritter I think.

My current favourite is from Terry Allen, from a song called I Left Myself Today

There is a wonderful rhyme: smear/mirror. And a great list of things he didn’t do (float, fly, transcend). And then comes the punchline: ‘I just walked out on me, again’.

Sentiment resonates and word play delights. Great combination.

Related post

In praise of … word hoards (December 2016)

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A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

So what is a writing festival? And why would you put one on? Who would come? And, again, why do it?

Last Saturday, after months of preparation, nearly 100 people visited the Mansion in Totnes for a writing festival. They wrote in workshops, viewed an exhibition, heard or presented their work at performances, and joined in the great poetry slam. 

So what was all that for?

My writing group, the Totnes Library Writers Group which organised the event, had three clear aims for the festival:

1. To promote participation in writing activities  by writers of any experience

2. To increase confidence  in writing by participants

3. To develop skills  of disseminating and sharing writing within the Writers Group

The group has been quite active in exploring aspects of writing, having published an anthology called Gallimaufry in 2015 (see below). In 2017 we held a performance event to celebrate our fourth birthday. We wanted to do something different after these two experiments. 

We know the excitement of writing and of sharing our work within a community of writers. A festival was an attractive and compelling project at the start. Pretty soon we will have to ask – and what will be next?

So what was there to do at the festival?

We are proud of our programme, its scope, its quality and its appeal. There was so much to do. You could choose up to four from the 12 workshops on offer:

  • Researching your local history
  • Finding your inner storyteller
  • Storytelling (a workshop for children)
  • Music and poetry
  • Journaling – Creating your Morning Pages
  • Writing for magazines
  • Podcasts – writing for radio
  • Turning your ideas into stories – writing fiction
  • Chinese takeaway – inspiration from ancient Chinese poets
  • Blogging is citizen publishing
  • Writing for children
  • Finding your voice 

All the workshops were designed to get people writing and to include people who had not written before, or who were trying a new genre. There were performance events by members of the writers group, and for any participants and by our nonagenarian writer of totally tasteless verse.

Children from the local secondary school had produced and displayed some impressive writing in the same hall as another of our poets offered to write poems in three minutes, and one of our artist-poets sold items that she had created: bookmarks, ex libris labels and greetings cards.

The climax was the poetry Slam, won by Richie Green, organised by Jackie Juno, herself a successful slam contestant at Glastonbury and a Bard of Exeter. I particularly enjoyed this event because it was full of dynamism and excitement, which I had not previously associated with poetry.

Who came and what did they say about it?

From 9.30, when we opened the doors, people arrived to join in. Our audience were aged from 4 to 95 years old. About 73% were female. The feedback indicated that we had reached many people and that our group will enjoy new active writers in the future.

We were pleased that the local MP joined us in the afternoon. She was able to hear some of the performances by members of the writers group and she commissioned a poem from our 3-minute poet. 

And here is a word cloud from the comments made by participants asked to say what was the best thing about the workshops.

Who organised it?

It was a huge amount of work and learning and the planning absorbed us from March to September – six months. I wonder whether we would have set out to organise it if we had known quite how much work it would entail. We were a group of six people from the Writers Group, with help from other members. We were determined to keep it manageable and local. 

The proof of the first intention, manageability, is found in the fact that we were all still standing on Saturday. 

And we fulfilled our intention to put on a local festival: every workshop leader came from the town or near it, and it demonstrated that there is a great deal of local talent. Most of the participants were local as well. And we were able to use a very central location, a space made available for community use by the Totnes Community Development Society: the Mansion. The building needs attention, but we prettied it up with loads of bunting made from books.

Who funded it?

From the earliest stages of the planning we agreed that we wanted to pay the workshop leaders the going rate of £150 for a 90-minute workshop. We believe that writers should be paid for their work. With 12 workshops that would mean quite a lot of money: £1800 for that aspect of the festival alone. We planned to charge no more than £5 per session to ensure the event was accessible to all, and had less than £50 in the kitty at that time, so we had to set about getting funds. I will own up to missing a deadline for a grant from one potential funder. It was a bad moment. But we did persuade enough organisations that it was worth investing in and in the end we found enough money to do what we wanted. Our funders included

Totnes Town Council

South Hams District Council

Network of Wellbeing, Totnes

Arts Council Lottery Fund

Devon County Council

And some generous donations by local people and organisations.

High spots

For me there were two very different but special moments: the slam and the day we heard we had Arts Council Lottery Funding. 

What I didn’t do

And while I was involved in all that I failed to pick any blackberries and I found no time to write. Irony, thy name is organising a writing festival.

And now … ?

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

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My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

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Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

This novel, Harriet Hume, has a subtitle, and the reader should note it: a London fantasy. Both the elements of fantasy and the passages relating to London are significant in this novel. In addition Rebecca West added a quotation from John Dryden to the title page:

… And like white witches, mischievously good …

This mischievous novel contrasts two attitudes to life and relates how they play out over five meetings across two decades or more between two lovers.

Harriet Hume

Harriet Hume is beautiful, rather strange and unorthodox, a concert pianist with strong ideas about beauty. We first meet her with Arnold Condorex, her lover, as they emerge from an afternoon of lovemaking in her Kensington home. They are deliciously happy together, but Harriet perceives that he intends to get on in the world. She has the ability to read his thoughts. Arnold Condorex is ambitious. While happy to love Harriet, he does not wish to sacrifice his ambitions for her, and she discovers that he will cast her aside for a more advantageous connection. They quarrel and separate.

They meet four more times, always in a part of London, Hyde Park and Portland Place where he has bought a magnificent house, and after an interval of some years. Each time Condorex has achieved more of his ambition to become someone important in politics. Harriet perceives he has achieved this through chicanery, a loveless marriage and conspiracy. He calls this last negotiation. He is in politics to win, not to ameliorate the lot of the people. Each time they meet they are drawn to each other, but also find it impossible to be together.

There are some moments of humour, such as the confusion between Pondh and Mondh. They might as well be the same place as far as Condorex is concerned, and he does indeed achieve a peerage as Lord Mondh.

And there is some engaging whimsy, such as the story Harriet tells her lover about the trees in her garden, who were once three society young ladies. And then there are two very sympathetic and tactful policemen who appear in the final scene, who are from a different era.

The couple are doomed to oppose each other, indeed they agree that they are opposites, and although he hates her for knowing the truth about him and blames her for his downfall when it comes, there is a sense in which they are better when they balance each other.

Yet they could not have been together. For one thing there is his sexism. He thinks of his wife Lady Ginevra in this way:

There was no occasion in life when she was not limp; no, not one. (158)

And a few pages later

… he saw the Lady Ginevra as she would be at this hour, dancing at the Embassy, limp in the limp arms of one of her own kind, like two anchovies side by side in a bottle. (177)

The terms he uses when he thinks of Harriet reveal his patriarchal attitude: slut, witch, poor lass, little wench, girl and so on. And when he thinks she has been having an affair with a man called Karinthy he is disapproving and xenophobic.

… it would be against nature if such loveliness were not enjoyed. Still, I could have wished it had not been a foreigner. (140) 

Karinthy is in fact a notable violinist of great age, and this reaction reveals much about Condorex.

The content of the novel is clearly not meant to be seen as realism. Harriet’s ability to read Condorex’s thoughts, her conjuring of fantastic stories, and above all the fanciful language used by Rebecca West remind the reader that this is a fantasy, a fable. I collected some examples of the vocabulary: infrangible, multitudinous, avow, perturbation, obdurate, orgulous (which means haughty or proud my dictionary tells me), languishment, complaisance … These are not words in everyday use and are a little affected even.

But the intent of the author is to set the values of the two characters against each other, and to reveal something of post war life in London. I don’t think that people write in this way or on these kinds of topics these days.

All of which makes it an interesting read, but does not hold the reader in the way, for example, her first novel The Return of the Soldier  does. 

Rebecca West 

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She was born in 1892 and Harriet Hume  was her third novel. She did not live as a young woman of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing. She wrote and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism and died in 1983 aged 90.

Harriet Hume: a London Fantasy by Rebecca West first published in 1929. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics, published in 1980 with an introduction by Victoria Glendinning. 288pp I found it at Second Shelf in Soho.

Some relevant links

The Return of the Soldier  by Rebecca West in December 2018

Thoughts from Simon Lavery on Rebecca West, Harriet Humeon his blog Tredynas Days. 

The cover of the Virago edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’ by Vanessa Bell.

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth  as a child for the simple reasons that I missed its publication and was soon too old. So when I read Lucy Mangan’s enthusiastic comments in Bookworm I decided to see what I had missed. She described her delight when it was read to the class by her primary teacher and how she longed for the daily readings. From this experience she found that …

… words weren’t just markings on a page to be passively absorbed and enjoyed but could be tools, treasures and toys all in one. (219 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

What a gift from Norton Juster! She recalled Milo ‘the first unlikeable central character’ she had ever come across. But recalled also the pace, wit, invention, action and wordplay which fell from the pages ‘like sweets tumbling from a bag.’ This, I thought, I should read.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo is introduced as follows.

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. (13)

Milo is clever and has lots of books and toys but he has no friends and does not settle to anything, is not interested in what he learns at school and sees ‘the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time at all’. Until one day he finds a package containing a tollbooth in his room and in his toy car he pays his toll and sets out on a journey to Dictionopolis, which is marked on the map that was supplied with the booth.

He arrives in Expectations where he meets the Whether Man and soon finds himself in the Doldrums. He is rescued by the Watchdog called Tock, who will not let him kill or waste time and joins him on his adventures. Later they meet Humbug. They find problems in the land that arise from the banishment of the princesses Rhyme and Reason by two warring brothers. The princesses were banished for refusing to adjudicate between the relative importance of numbers and words.

Our three heroes set off to rescue the princesses, [it is the early ‘60s and the second wave of feminism had not yet broken] meeting on the way such characters as the Spelling Bee, Officer (Short) Shrift, Faintly Macabre the Official Which, Dischord and Dynne and musicians who play colours, the .58 of a child from the average family which had 2.58 children, the Senses Taker and so on. They visited both Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and when they return with the princesses harmony is restored, although squabbling breaks out as soon as Milo makes his farewells.

When the three friends meet the princesses Reason explains the importance of learning, from experience, from mistakes, and for its own sake. When Milo complains about what he has to learn in school having so little significance now she explains,

‘…for whatever you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.’ (234)

And when he returns home and finds that the tollbooth has disappeared, he realises that his books will open doors to other worlds, and there is so much to do.

Here’s Lucy Mangan’s assessment:

It remains a masterfully wrought, glorious, hilarious, life affirming read – a celebration of words, ideas, sense, nonsense, cleverness and silliness but also a love of learning for its own sake. I suspect, in a world in which education is increasingly being reduced to futile box-ticking and forcible rendering into measurable quantities that which can never be made tangible, this is a message that will only become more revelatory and valuable to those lucky enough to hear it. (221 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

Norton Juster

Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929. When he wrote this book he was trying to write one for children about cities, having trained as an architect. Apparently he had not, at that point, read Lewis Carroll, which is surprising because Alice in Wonderland is precisely what came to mind when I read it.

Famously he also shared an apartment building with Jules Feiffer, who was just making his name as a draughtsman. Jules Feiffer’s illustrations are an integral part of The Phantom Tollbooth.He captures Milo’s innocence and pre-adolescent energy perfectly.

Norton Juster went on to make a career as an architect and an academic, and he also published more books, some of them for children. None seem to have met with the acclaim of this one. It is, with justification, known as a classic. It is also great fun.

Bookwormby Lucy Mangan reviewed on Bookword in July 2018.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton JusterFirst published in the US in 1961. I used the Harper Collins 50thAnniversary Edition (Essential Modern Classics). 256pp. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

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