Friday, 10 July 2015

The three day quote challenge.

Thanking Judith Barrow who nominated me for this. Judith’s brilliant trilogy is about to be completed with the publication of “Living In The Shadows.”
And read her brilliant books "Pattern of Shadows"
      And “Changing Patterns”

The rules of the deal: you share your favourite three quotes that inspire you or will inspire others (even if written by yourself).
You post them, possibly over three days, but Judith did it in one, so I’m doing the same.
You thank the person who tagged you.
You tagged someone else, to carry it on, bearing in mind that they may never speak to you again.

So I’ve been challenged to come up with three meaningful quotes. These aren’t exactly earth-shattering, but they get used an awful lot by me. And I’m not just going to give the quotes, I’m going to include their context, because this is a blog.

1) The first, in praise of artistic liberty and in opposition to international capitalism, is the last line of a poem that has been recited to me since I was ankle-high to a grasshopper. But since the last line probably doesn’t make much sense on its own, here’s the whole last verse of the poem by E B White. The context: Nelson Rockefeller commissioned communist artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural on the wall of the newly built Rockefeller centre. When Rivera included the head of Lenin, Rockefeller objected and destroyed the mural – which was later repainted elsewhere.

'It's not good taste in a man like me,'
Said John D.'s grandson Neslon,
'To question an artist's integrity
'Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
'But I know what I like to a large degree,
'Though art I hate to hamper;
'For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
'You painted a radical. I say shucks,
'I never could rent the offices—
'The capitalistic offices.
'For this, as you know, is a public hall
'And people want doves, or a tree in hall
'And though your art I dislike to hamper,
'I owe a little to God and Gramper,
'And after all,
'It's my wall . . .'
'We'll see if it is,' said Rivera.

‘We’ll see if it is,’ said Rivera is an immensely useful quotation to use in all sorts of situations in which someone is getting overly possessive about something. I recommend it.

2)  For my second quote, I could just put the entire script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I’m choosing this.
 'What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.'
'People kept robbing it.'
'Small price to pay for beauty.'”

This is another quote that can be used in many situations. Particularly in regard to the Severn Bridges. Yes, I know the old one kept falling down but…

3) The third quote I include as a dire warning about quotes. The first line of Jane Eyre.

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

Every day I take a walk after dinner, light or dark, hot or cold, dry or moist, but sometimes it’s a bit too moist even for me, so I say (just to annoy everyone), ‘It was too wet for a walk that day.’
Now I find I’ve been getting it wrong for years. Damn.

Now, on the off chance that they won't kill me,  I challenge fellow Honno writers, Alison Layland (, author of the chilling Someone Else’s Conflict ( and Juliet Greenwood (, author of great novels Eden’s Garden ( and We That Are Left (

But only if they are willing to take up the baton,

Saturday, 6 June 2015

In a dark, dark wood

There’s a wood near my house, very beautiful, once coppiced, now full of gnarled oaks and cow wheat (which is much prettier than it sounds). Pengelli Forest. You can walk in it for hours and get lost, which people frequently do.

Alternatively, you can park at the gate, walk a little way down the road, and turn into a lane that leads down, and down, and up and down, past a farm, along green meadows, and over a very picturesque little footbridge.

Then you come to a cottage. These days, it’s just about impossible to miss it. The public footpath, which was once a morass of mud and brambles is now a super-highway of hardcore, and the trees that totally engulfed the cottage in the past have been cut back, so it stands proud in sunshine.

Totally derelict. The hardcore and cutting back are recent. The dereliction is old. I first came across the cottage about 25 years ago. I climbed over a farm gate at the bottom of my garden, crossed a field of cows,, wriggled under some barbed wire, and slithered down through mysterious woods, losing a boot in the mud in the process. And there was the cottage, lost in gloom, heavy trees crowding round it.
Ruined cottages were still being snapped up back then, and done up as holiday cottages, but this one was probably far beyond saving, even then. The walls were split, the roof was gaping, the upper floor was collapsing as its beams rotted, the detached floorboard handing in mid-air. I could see, peering through the window, the old inglenook fireplace, with a battered pan or two abandoned on the old blackened hearth.

It was full of mystery, full of shadows and secrets, and it settled firmly in my memory. It was the cottage in my mind’s eye, when I wrote A Time For Silence (, about a girl who comes across the old cottage once owned by her grandparents. You can’t see a place like that, without wondering who had once lived there.

Much of the mystery is gone now, thanks to the clearance of the trees and hedges. The fireplaces are still there, empty and greening, the metalwork rusting, but the chimneys have gone, probably considered too dangerous to passing hikers. The collapsing upper floor has gone too, although the post holes where the beams had once fitted are still visible. No sign of the stairs. I think I recall it as a mouldering ladder. Someone’s using the place as a workshop, but nothing’s going to patch the cracks in the walls. It will be down soon, I expect – probably bulldozed, now the tracks have been opened up. Alas.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Keep Going, Keep Going

I’ve started writing another book. It’s the same book I started writing about 25 years ago. Must be that long, because I was writing it on an Amstrad word processor and anything I wrote then is no longer accessible. It’s still there, on some strange Amstrad discs, in a cardboard box in my barn, but I no longer have means of reading them. Even if I’ve lost the precise words, I can remember well enough what I wrote, though. 25 years ago, I got so far and I stopped.

About 20 years ago, having upgraded to a second-hand laptop with Windows 3.1, I started it again. Again, I still have the floppy discs. No way to read them, either, but it doesn’t matter because once more, I stopped. And restarted with Windows 98. And Windows XP and Windows 7. Finally, (?) I’m starting again with Windows 8.1.

The computer system actually has nothing to do with why I keep restarting the same book. I keep restarting because I keep stopping. I don’t know why. I’ve had the whole book in my head for quarter of a century. I’m sure it will work and I’m itching to see it finished, polished and ready to go. But for some reason I always get as far as chapter 4 or 5, and then remember there’s something else I really fancied writing, and back it goes onto another floppy disc/CD/memory stick.

Will I make the break-through this time? I hope so, because one thing the different means of storing my book keep reminding me is that we live in an age of galloping technological change. Virtually everything my characters did, 25 years ago, would be done differently now. It’s bad enough juggling characters and plot complications without having to chuck out whole chapters because someone went and invented the internet, mobile phones because ubiquitous and Google became a verb.

Anyway, place your bets now on whether I make it to chapter 6 this time. Watch this space.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Four little words

Four little words that literally drive me mad. Well no, not literally. Figuratively. They annoy me, but that doesn’t mean I have literally been declared insane as a result or have had to seek psychiatric help. The first of them is ‘Literally,’ which does not mean figuratively. It means the opposite of figuratively, and yet it’s almost always used the wrong way. It started seriously annoying me in the early 1970s (I was at university, so I can date the terrible incident), when I heard a politician declare that the price of sugar had literally gone through the roof. I wasted a good half-hour (it was that or geographical statistics) trying to picture how a price could literally go through a roof. There is an excellent shark in Headington that seems to have gone through the roof, but not a price.
I know that now, apparently, the use of literally to mean figuratively has come to be acceptable, but I still choose to be annoyed.
This is an Icon in the Orthodox church, meaning an image so imbued with something sacred, something bigger, that for the worshipper it focuses all thought on that greater thing.
Okay, this is iconic. I know it is, because Hollywood uses it as a useful shorthand image, whenever they want to indicate that action has moved to London. Sorry, London England. One flash of the Statue of Liberty and we know we’re in New York. Eiffel Tower = Paris. Iconic means a brief and brilliant embodiment of something bigger. An ad on TV keeps referring to the Grand Canyon as iconic. ? I could think of many words to describe the Grand Canyon. It’s famous. It’s impressive. It’s definitely big. I wouldn’t call it iconic. The Grand Canyon represents only itself.
I do think though, that since everyone seems to so fond of the word Iconic, that some of our other cities should think about acquiring some iconic symbols. I suppose Newcastle has the Angel of the North, and Bristol has a suspension bridge. Is there anything than instantly conjures up Birmingham or Manchester?
3. Whitewash. This is a sports one and so it doesn’t count, because sports language never makes any sense. There’s always something seriously surreal about commentators’ desperate use of over-flowery poetry to describe a bunch of men in knickers running around after a ball. But nothing poetic about whitewash, which is what is said if a team has just lost 235 to nil. If they called the result a washout, I’d understand. Whitewash is what you put over graffiti if you’re a town council, or over paintings of last judgements if you’re a hell-fire puritan, or on fences if you’re Tom Sawyer’s gullible friends. It implies hiding something. Covering it up so that no one will notice. It doesn’t mean losing a game decisively in front of TV cameras.
No. 4 is a tooth comb. Been around a long time because my mother’s gran used to use the term. I still growl at it though. I have a tooth brush. I can brush my teeth. I really can’t comb them, not even with one of the Afro-combs I’ve still got, hanging around from the 80s. People who go through something with a tooth comb are engaging in behaviour that is deranged. I can understand going through something with a fine-toothed comb, whether in search of evidence, insignificant details or nits, but not with a tooth comb. Stop it.
I know I’m being over-nice. Ah yes, nice…

Friday, 20 March 2015

Swimming with the current.

If you want to write, there are rules you have to follow. Apparently. What I want to know is, who set these rules? And what will happen to me if I disobey them? I would really like to disobey them, on principle.

First of all, she demanded, who was it who said you should never use any verb but ‘said’ when attributing dialogue? It’s not as if the English language lacks alternatives, she complained. In fact, she confided, it probably has more words for ‘said’ than Eskimos have for snow (allegedly). To be honest, she whispered, she finds it rather depressing. A whole chunk of the English language consigned to the bin, she whined, because someone has decided it’s not allowed. Stupid, she snarled.

Secondly, it’s fervently demanded that most adverbs should not be excessively used. In fact, according to some, any adverbs should never freely be used. Anyone who tentatively tries to insert adverbs thoughtfully will be thoroughly hanged, drawn and precisely quartered. Oh. Well, there goes another massive chunk of the English language. What’s wrong with adverbs? she asked plaintively.

And of course (glossing over the rule that says a sentence should never start with And), there’s the rule that the writer should never switch the dread POV. Point of View for those who don’t obsess about it. If we are following the thoughts and feelings of one character, we shouldn’t be allowed a sneak glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of another. Well, okay, I can see that if a piece is written in the first person, it might be a bit much for the narrator to claim to know what someone else is thinking or intending – unless the first person protagonist is a mind-reader, of course. But if the author is narrating in the third person, why be so restrictive? The great joy of being a writer is that you get to play God. You are the creator, breathing life into all your characters on your very own sixth day (after plot, synopsis, snappy strap line, cover image and that incredibly good line of dialogue you came up with after a glass of wine that really needs to be included in a book somewhere). As creator, you know their innermost thoughts, dictating their every move – at least in theory. In reality, of course, the moment you create your characters, they develop free will and start eating the fruit whereof you distinctly told them, saying 'thou shalt not eat.' But if you, the writer, can hear the thoughts of every character on the page, why not share that with your readers? It’s fun!

Oh, and don’t forget the rule that’s shouted at you, every time you break it. Show, don’t tell. Okay, there’s a lot to be said for showing characters’ personality through their words and action, rather than spelling it out. Can you beat the first chapter of “Pride and Prejudice” where, apart from one of the best opening lines in the English language, and a brief summary at the end, the whole Bennet family is turned inside out through a few short pages of dialogue? On the other hand, what about “Emma”, or any of Jane Austen’s other books, that start with chapters of detailed telling. Once a year, at least, I read Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell.”  From the opening sentence, I am treated to 18 pages (on my Kindle) of unrelenting telling, before we get to action and dialogue – and I love every word of it. Is this horror of telling to do with the notion that readers, these days, have an attention span of 2 seconds? It seems sad that nearly all literature from Austen to Murdoch should be rubbished for not enough ‘showing.’

As a writer, I really itch to break all the rules, because I can’t see what gave the style Stasi the right to dictate how everything should be written. But I won’t. Because I want to published, she sighed.

Friday, 6 March 2015

the very being or legal existence of a woman

In India, one of the rapists who brutalised and murdered a young woman on a bus, has offered an excuse for his crime. "A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. A decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes."

In Britain we are tempted to give smug thanks that we live in a country where women are not treated with such utter contempt. We are and always have been so thoroughly civilised here.

Except, of course, that we haven’t.

1982 a motorist raped a teenage hitchhiker. I remember the case very well, because the judge at Ipswich crown court, Bertrand Richards, merely fined the rapist, since the victim was obviously just asking for it. ''I am not saying that a girl hitching home late at night should not be protected by the law, but she was guilty of a great deal of contributory negligence.'' It’s one of a vast ocean of cases where rape victims have been let down by the courts or the police, and the belief is still widespread that in many cases, the women victims are responsible for the crime committed against them.

Not so long ago, some women could be raped repeatedly without the law even recognising it as a crime. They were called ‘wives.’

1736 Judge Matthew Hale established that as marriage was a legal contract, the wife ‘hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.’ Refusal was not permitted.

1991 R.v R: The House of Lords finally declares Hale’s ruling to be a legal myth. 1991.

But still, we think, Britain is a better place for women than many other countries and cultures. Yes, there are still glass ceilings to break through, and a great many theoretical equalities that amount to squat in real life, but we’re not generally treated as possessions, as second-class citizens, as sex-slaves, oppressed, covered up, despised, subjected to forced marriage, mutilated…
Not now. But we haven’t been where we are for very long.

Women allow themselves to be ‘given away’ by their fathers at their weddings, and, okay, it’s on a par with wearing something borrowed, something blue: cute and meaningless. But for centuries, it had plenty of meaning. Parents arranged marriages, and girls were the property of their father until the moment they became the property of their husband.

1870 – 145 years ago Married Women’s Property Act: a wife was allowed to keep her own earnings. Before that, any wealth she earned or owned became her husband’s property. She couldn’t draw up a will or dispose of anything without her husband’s consent.

1882 Married Women’s Property Act: wives were granted the legal status of ‘Feme Sole.’ They existed in their own right. Previously, a wife was legally defined as a ‘feme covert.’ In the words of 18th century lawyer, William Blackstone, "By marriage, the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended, or at least incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, or cover she performs everything."
 Mind you, when my mother’s cousin writes to her, she still addresses her as Mrs. Peter Moore.

1990 – just 25 years agoShe’s finally taxed separately.

Which is okay if she’s allowed to work. My grandmother, a seamstress, marrying in 1921, had to make do with a quiet civil ceremony, in order to keep the marriage secret from her employer. Once he found out, she was unemployed. Married women couldn’t work and be economically independent.
Not that they had much of an income to give up, because women could expect to be paid pin money, while men were entitled to a proper wage. As wage slaves, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, they were in demand, as a source of very cheap labour.

1842 Mines and Collieries Act: women were excluded from working in mines, not because the work was too hard or dangerous, but because it involved them wearing trousers and working bare-breasted: it “made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers.”

Women proved themselves capable of any job, in times of war, when the men were needed for cannon fodder, but they were pushed back to the kitchen as soon as the surviving men wanted their jobs back.

The marriage bar on women in most professions, including the civil service, lasted until the 1950s.

1970  Equal Pay Act: at least employers were required to pay lip service to equal pay for equal work. Amazing how tiny distinctions in job descriptions could get round it.

1975 Sex Discrimination Act. You’d think it was simple, wouldn’t you? No more discrimination in jobs, services, etc on grounds of gender. But…

2015: first women members of the Royal and Ancient Golf club, first woman bishop…

Equality in employment requires equality in eduction of course.
Women have struggled for it for centuries, from Margaret Cavendish in the 17th century and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th. Tudor royal women were educated as well as their brothers, but it was downhill after that. Young gentlemen learned Latin and how to run the Empire. Young ladies learned deportment. When education began to be regarded as a good thing for the lower orders, in the 19th Century, the girls had their share, but the 11 Plus, in operation after World War II was still deliberately skewed in order to prevent girls consistently out-doing boys. At my Comprehensive school, in the late 1960s, no argument: girls did housecraft and biology (fluffy bunnies and how to cook them) and boys did metalwork and physics (how to get to the moon).  There’s still a struggle to get girls to study STEM subjects.

12th Century: Oxford university already up and running, for boys, followed by Cambridge in 1209.

1869: a mere 660 years later – Girton, Cambridge, first college for women. The founding of a women’s college in Oxford was condemned by theologian Henry Liddon as “an educational development that runs counter to the wisdom and experience of all the centuries of Christendom.”

1948: Cambridge finally awards degrees to women. 1948

1865 Elizabeth Garrett became first woman qualified to practice medicine, courtesy of the Society of Apothecaries, which promptly changed its rules, to stop other women getting uppity ideas.
Of course, women had always been concerned with medicine, and probably did less damage than the official male doctors. But then if they did too much and were suspected of being a little too wise, they always ran the risk of being condemned as witches.

1727: Janet Horne was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Britain. Being Scottish, she was burned. England hanged its witches.

Women’s function was not to be educated and employed, but obedient wives and mothers. .  In the 1940s, The Queen Mother explained why a proper education wasn’t necessary for her younger daughter Margaret: “After all, I and my sisters only had governesses and we all married well—one of us very well.”

Their role was ordained, by law and by God. The Book of Common Prayer recommended this reading for marriage services: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the Saviour of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. And again he saith, Let the wife see that she reverence her husband.”

1928; The bride’s vow to obey became optional in the Prayer book. Optional.

1837: civil registration removed the church’s monopoly on marriage – but not on divorce, which was virtually impossible for anyone not called King Henry.

1857 Matrimonial Causes Act: men could divorce their wives for adultery. A woman could divorce her husband if adultery were accompanied by cruelty, incest, bigamy or desertion.

1937 Matrimonial Causes Act: the situation was equalised.

Why would any woman possibly want a divorce? Marriage was a state of bliss – at least, she’d better find it so, or else. A man was allowed to lock up and beat his wife, without restraint.

1853 Aggravated Assaults Act: a wife was granted the same legal protection from assault as a poodle.

1895 The City of London prohibited wife-beating at night, because it kept people awake.

1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act: wives could take out injunctions against violent partners. We’re still struggling to convince the police to treat domestic violence as a crime and not a private matter.

1351 Treason Act. Husbands were never actually permitted to kill their wives. A husband who did so would be guilty of murder, and might even be hanged. On the other hand, a wife who killed her husband was guilty of petty treason against her rightful lord. The penalty for treason for women was burning at the stake (hanging drawing and quartering involved stripping and was therefore indecent for women. Burning was okay).

1784. John Wesley was busy saving the world. Jane Austen was 9. The Prince Regent was just about to start building the Brighton Pavilion. And Mary Bailey was the last woman to be burned at the stake for murdering her husband

1828 the crime of petty treason was downgraded to murder.

Wives existed to have babies and had no legitimate business preventing conception, even though they’ve been trying to for millennia. Moderately reliable methods have only been available from the 1870s, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that the likes of Mary Stopes ensured they were publicly advocated (for married women). Real control only dates from the 1960s, with the pill and the Abortion Act.

When a couple with children split up, it’s usually the mother who gets custody, much to the resentment of many fathers. Their resentment is nothing to that felt by women in earlier times. Children were the property of the father, who not only gained automatic custody but could deny the mother any access.

1839 Custody of Infants Act: a non-adulterous wife could have custody of any children under 7, if the Lord Chancellor agreed she was of good character.

1873 Custody of Infants Act: a good wife could have custody of children under 16.

1886 Guardianship of Infants Act: a widowed mother was permitted to be sole guardian of her children, without being monitored by a sensible man.

All these laws, concerned with the welfare of women. Passed mostly by men.

1832. Reform Act. Started the redistribution of the franchise. Sounds good, except that it actually withdrew the franchise from women who might previously have been permitted to vote on property grounds.

1838 The great Charter. The radical revolutionary chartists demanded votes for all men. Not women.

1869 Municipal Franchise Act: women ratepayers could vote in local elections! BUT

1872 a court ruling limited it to single and widowed women.

1918 Representation of the People Act: all men over 21 could now vote, and, be still my beating heart, all staid and matronly women over 30. But girl, did we have to fight for it, against not merely ridicule, but torture. It certainly put paid to the notion of chivalrous English gentlemen who treated women with respect. Force-feeding for jailed suffragettes, not always through the obvious orifices, was a form of violence not far removed from the way rape is used as a weapon of war.

1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. We hadn’t all turned up at the ballot box, simpering, giggling and asking for help to hold the pencil, so finally – equality.

1929 Margaret Bondfield first woman Cabinet Minister.

1958 Life Peerages Act: women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords. Phew.

1979 – oh, let’s pass over that one.

2015 – Harriet Harman’s Pink Bus. Hang on. Are we going backwards here?

So here we are. Still woefully under-represented in Parliament/government, which remains a public-school boy’s club, but we’re getting there. We’ve broken into all the professions, if only by our finger tips. If we’re brave enough, or well-enough funded, we can take employers to court when they treat us unfairly as women, as entire city councils have discovered. We can marry who we like, even if we make a complete pig’s ear of it and make ridiculous choices for all the wrong reasons. Or we can choose sex without marriage, or complete and utter independence, and we will not be hauled before the village elders and flogged or stoned.

We can dress how we want, let the world see our faces and our hair. We can believe and think what we want, and voice our thoughts, loudly, without permission. We are not usually gang-raped if we’re suspected of being lesbian. We don’t have to live in shuttered quarters and avoid the sight of the opposite sex. We can walk and drive, unaccompanied. Our small daughters are not subjected to genital mutilation or sold off in marriage to dirty old men. We are free to use contraception, to have many babies, or just one, or none at all. If we conceive outside marriage, we are not sent to Magdalen laundries, to have our babies stolen from us by nuns from Hell. We are not shot in the head if we dare to demand education.

We’re lucky. We don’t live in that nasty, patriarchal, misogynist, Mediaeval world out there, full of fear and hatred of women. But it wasn’t so long ago that we did, so smugness really isn’t called for. We have what we have because we’ve struggled for it, and sisters, we need to be sober, be vigilant, because our adversary, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking to drag us back into the dark.