Saturday, 21 January 2017

Giving Author Talks 2: More tips

St Albans Lit Fest 2016
In the last blog, we looked at the mechanics of presenting a good talk. Now lets finesse this a little further. Here are my 'must-do' tips as the event approaches.

1. Make sure you have liaised with the event organiser. I usually email a week before to check they have got the stuff I need sorted. I then email/call 2 days before to say how much I am looking forward to meeting them and doing the event. I tell them when I will be arriving, and check parking arrangements.

2. On the day, arrive in plenty of time. Do not assume the organisers will have people to unload/help you set up. Be as independent as you can. Smile and thank a lot.

3. A few essentials: Wet wipes/hand sanitizer (stuff gets dusty; you will be signing books later). Water. Float for books. Notebook for sales/useful contacts. Two signing pens that work. Business cards.

4. Make sure you thank the organiser, his/her helpers, and the audience for turning up. I usually do this straight after I've been introduced, in case I forget.

5. When giving your talk, SIGNPOST clearly. 'Now let's move on to the second part: how I write the actual books.' 'Finally, let's look at some of my research tools.'

6. NEVER go over time. It's discourteous.

7. Send the organisers a little handwritten note a couple of days after the event thanking them for hosting you and saying how much you are looking forward to doing another event in the future.

I hope these two blogs have helped. I gather from the comments that many people have found the tips useful. I have sat through some pretty dreadful talks, given by top authors, and have learned shedloads. The main thing is: enjoy yourself! Your audience are there for you. They want to find out about you and your books. And on your success, other writers may be invited!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Giving Author Talks: Top Tips

St Albans Literary Festival 2016

Once it comes to public notice that you have published a book, or books, you may well find that you are invited to speak to a group about it. Or you may apply to one of the numerous literary festivals to be a speaker. Either way, it is important to plan and prepare carefully in advance, if for no other reason than it stops you panicking as the day draws closer. I have participated in the Edinburgh, Cheltenham and St Albans Literary Festivals as both visiting author and audience, and over the years I have sat through some pretty dire author talks ( I hope I haven't given any!). 

So for 2017, let's look once again at How To Give a Good Author Talk.

1. Your session should contain 3 elements

* You and your books ~ how you write, why you write, what you write. With readings from your books.
* Audience questions.
* Informal book signing and chat.

I suggest for an hour's session the ratio should split into: 25 mins talk, 15 mins questions, 20 mins chat and signings. Obviously the last two can overlap.

2. Set the Scene - including yourself

There is nothing more boring than a pile of books on a bare table. Or a bare table. People like to look at interesting stuff while you are speaking. THINK about your genre. I bring a Victorian top hat and hatbox, part of a Victorian tea set, I lay the table with a lace tablecloth, I also have opera gloves, a seed pearl bag and some of my original Victorian books, which I stand up so people can see the covers.
I wear a steampunk outfit. I put my books to sell on a separate table away from the talk area.
Start collecting interesting stuff for a table display.

3. Practice makes perfect

If you have never spoken in public before, or feel nervous, WRITE your talk out in full first. Then SAY it ~ speak more slowly than normal and time yourself. Keep practicing ~ how do you think actors learn their lines? Some people perform in front of a mirror, or film themselves so they can eliminate any unnecessary gestures. Once you know your talk pretty well, reduce it to one sheet of paper with key words.

4. Sit or stand?

Stand. Always. You command the room, and can check the back row hasn't dozed off. Also you can walk about and pick up some of the interesting objects as you talk about your books.

5. Q & A

Have some pre-prepared questions to stimulate a debate, in case nobody asks anything. Things like: what do they think about self-publishing ~ is it just an excuse for poor writing? Do they prefer ebooks to print and why? What was the last book they read that they really enjoyed? Do they think some writers get over-hyped?

Be prepared to divulge all sorts of stuff. Some audiences will ask how much you earn, have you ever got a bad review, etc etc. Laugh it up and don't get insulted. I frequently bring some rejection letters along and read them out to much merriment.

Next week, we'll finesse your technique, look at a few more tips and
 pick up on any comments left by you that need attention.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The PINK SOFA welcomes Seumas Gallacher

Having seen out 2016 in a blaze of glory which was almost just a blaze owing to some dodgy Christmas lights and a sparkler, the PINK SOFA welcomes its first guest of 2017. Debonair, urbane wit, writer and man about town, Seumas Gallacher pens the sort of fast-paced crime thrillers that keep you turning the pages from the first to the last. He has graced the PINK SOFA on a couple of occasions in the past, so it is a delight to welcome him back, with some sound advice for writers, to start off the year.

…self-published Authors, be careful what yeez pray for…

…as a scribbler of crime fiction, NUTHIN would please me more than to have one, and preferably more, of my wee literary babies become record-shattering bestsellers… when I began this incredible writing journey over eight years ago, my initial objective was to acquire one of those elusive mystical beings… a large international publishing house to carry my WURK to a grateful, anticipative, universal readership, who in turn would drool over every bon mot I produced… reality wasn’t long in pushing its nose in the way, and rubbing my nose into the mud of unrequited Nobelesque Prize aspirations… in turn, I have been a self-publishing author, then a ‘housed’ member of a good, modest-sized, literary stable, and now reverted to being my original persona, an ‘indie’ pensperson… and along the way, the dawning of a few reality-check-type home truths has settled in my brain… there are millions (yes, Mabel, millions) of titles on offer on Auntie Amazon alone… those whose tomes reach the pinnacles of the New York Bestseller lists et al are a miniscule fragment of the legions who reach for the Kindle skies… I’m told, however reliably or otherwise, that sales amounting to just 500 copies of a title constitutes ‘best seller’… most books don’t sell more than 50 copies… nowt wrong with that, of course, as many, many people write for their own pleasure and the real joy of having ‘written my book’… but back to those of us who do have dreams of ‘one of my books in every household’… allow me to share my experience in this… my sales/downloads (aggregated of all my titles) are somewhere in the region of 100,000… made me a millionaire, right?... wrong!… I’ll break it down for yeez… about half of these are ‘promo’ sales on various Amazon programs over these intervening eight years… Amazon counts free promo downloads as ‘sales’… I’ve no problem in letting freebies into the market, as I believe they generate real cash sales… however, and here’s a point to note… the resultant royalties spread over those years, while contributing somewhat to the rent, doesn’t put a Ferrari in the garage, or anything approaching it… as it is, self-publishing gives me much more than I was able to generate through a publisher, and in the event a major house came calling, I would have to think very carefully before I’d surrender my sales destiny to them… why?...  a few things… first of all, control would disappear… even the checking of my sales figures on a regular daily or weekly basis would be taken from me… the publisher sees them, not the author… regardless of whether or not you have a publisher, the writer still has the lion’s share of the promotional and marketing burden to manage… a publisher is more likely to be on yer case to produce the next blockbuster, and the next, and the next… the artWURK choice passes to sumb’dy other than yerself… more loss of control… payments are done usually semi-annually, and yeez would have the devil’s own job to audit and check if the figures are correct… with self-publishing on Amazon, it’s every-month payments straight to yer account… and oh, yes, the size of royalty per copy is normally peanuts when sold via yer publisher… and yer books can take up to a year and more to be published after yeez give it over to yer publisher… more control loss… one more wee issue before I leave yeez… consider this… when yeez look after yer own ‘business of writing’ only ONE author is being 100% looked after… yerself… with ANY publisher, let’s say with 99 other writers in their stable, the law of averages says yeez’ll receive at best 1% of their focus…  still wanna be ‘house-published’?... self-published Authors, be careful what yeez pray for, yeez might get it… meantime, I’m off to Guest Speak to another gathering of potential loyal readers of my books… see yeez later… LUV YEEZ!

Find Seumas :
Twitter: @seumasgallacher

Saturday, 17 December 2016

In The Bleak Midwinter: Christina Rossetti, Victorian poet & feminist

'In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.'

Even if you aren't a christian, chances are you will have heard this carol being sung or played around this time of year. It was written by Christina Rossetti, sister of the far more famous Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a leading light in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Christina Rossetti was born in 1830, and died in 1894. Her life spanned the mid-Victorian and late Victorian period. She was the youngest child in an incredibly talented family. Her father, the Italian poet and political exile Gabriele Rossetti, immigrated to England in 1824 and established a career as a Dante scholar and teacher of Italian in London.

Of the two 'famous' Victorian poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti, I find Rossetti the more fascinating. At a time when women were expected to marry and limit their sphere of influence to hearth and home, she never married, although one of the Pre-Raphaelite brethren, James Collinson, proposed marriage in 1848. She turned him down, citing her conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.

Rossetti was on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. She witnessed the chopping and changing of partners, the artistic compositions and radical lifestyles of the set. Yet she never acted as a model, nor was included fully in the activities of the group. Her poems often convey a sense of the 'outsider', the unnamed and unnoticed woman standing in the doorway observing, but not intruding.

Much of Rossetti's poetry is strong and strident and passionate, which makes her unusual given that her sex was supposed to be self-effacing and emotionally docile. Her verse is very female-located. In her poems 'Maude Claire', 'Cousin Kate' and 'Jessie Cameron' none of the men are ever named. All the women are named or given a voice.

Over the centuries poetry has been considered the highest form of literature, and thus up until the late Victorian period, consigned to the 'male' domain. Its anti-woman critics have always pointed out the 'public' nature of the poet and how that sat at odds with the domestic nature of women. Rossetti subverts the traditional gendered expectation, firstly by being a woman poet, then by asserting female emotions, identity and superiority over and over again in her verses.

Rossetti's own life frequently filters into her work. For ten years she worked at St Mary Magdalene house of charity in Highgate. It was a refuge for 'fallen women', the 'soiled doves' of Victorian society. This experience colours such poems as 'Goblin Market', her finest poem, where the goblins (men) are seen offering luscious fruits to seduce innocent young women. Rossetti makes clear her disgust of the commoditization of sex, but also subtly shows how 'tempting' temptation really was.

'Goblin Market' is often mistakenly seen a children's poem. It goes deeper than that. Apart from a radiant depiction of sisterhood and the importance of female friendship in a dangerous and predatory male world, I think Rossetti is subconsciously exploring the radical idea of a 'woman Redeemer' in Lizzie, the 'golden haired/white dove' who saves her sister by offering money to the goblins, but refusing to taste their evil fruits. Instead, in a copy of Christ's last supper, she invites her fallen sister, who succumbed to temptation and is now dying, to 'taste' the juices she carries, and so be healed through her. (I am not sure Rossetti would have agreed with my feminist critique, but to me, the meaning is clear.)

Like her Victorian counterpart Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rossetti suffered from a variety of illnesses all her life. She was variously diagnosed with angina, TB, neuralgia and once with 'religious mania'. It is a moot point whether these were actual complaints, or part and parcel of being a very gifted, sensitive and intelligent woman poet at a time when such an occupation was still not totally accepted. It was only a few years on from the 'shocking' unmasking of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell as being women novelists (the Bronte sisters).

Many times during her life, Rossetti had to learn to control and subdue her nature. It was not always easy. As she wrote in later life to her niece “You must not imagine, my dear girl, that your Aunt was always the calm and sedate person you now behold. I, too, had a very passionate temper; but I learnt to control it. On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear Mother for some fault, I seized upon a pair of scissors, and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath.''

 In 1893 Rossetti was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy that was performed in her own home. The cancer recurred the following year, and after months of acute suffering she died on 29 December 1894. She left behind a body of verse that is largely unread and unknown today, apart from the carol In the Bleak Midwinter, Goblin Market and the plangent Remember Me which is often recited at funerals. If you get a chance over the Christmas period, she is well worth seeking out.

Friday, 9 December 2016

How Not To Plan A Novel (Some Tips)

Whatever we write, be it short story, play, novel or poem, we all go through the same initial process: Planning. There are more ways of planning a piece of writing than there are pieces of writing - please read on quickly as I'm not sure this analogy works.

It is said you are either a ''planner'' or a ''pantster''. As the world's weirdest combination of the two (more anon) I don't think I am in the slightest degree qualified to lay down the law on the Hows and How Nots. Nevertheless, given that my lack of expertise has never stopped me piling in and sharing my ignorance, and several people who've read my three Victorian crime novels have asked me how I went about it, here's what I do:

Thinking: Every book I've ever written has started in the same place. Inside my head. I spend an inordinate amount of time before starting, and during the writing process just mulling over ideas for story development, or characters. Many of them will be discarded. Sometimes I do this lying on my bed, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I carry the story around whatever I'm doing. But however it happens, nothing begins without a lot of thinking taking place. No notes are made at this stage. The thinking will recur regularly right throughout the writing process.

After a lot of cogitation, I progress on to:

Sketching: This is where I might make a few notes on paper. More likely I will write up small sections of the book, or small pieces of dialogue that I quite like. I know the names of the main characters (secondary ones get named as they appear). At this stage I usually have a couple of ''pages'' at the end of a file named ''new book'' with phrases or descriptions that I think I might incorporate.

When I think I know, very roughly, what I might want to say, I progress to

Researching: For Diamonds & Dust, Honour & Obey, Death & Dominion and now Rack & Ruin I visited London and took pictures of the areas I thought I wanted to use. I went online and searched for original documents (there are loads on various Victorian sites). I transferred the entire contents of 3 local libraries' Victorian history section to my TBR pile (rotating as necessary). And I read every novel written in the period that I could -- frequently skimming to get a sense of it.

At this stage, I have a couple of random pages of notes, some online, a pile of downloaded articles, and books with bits of paper and bus tickets poking out of them. Again, researching is not a finite process and will change as I write and need to find out different things.

And now finally, I start:

Writing: I always do this the same way. I write the end. Then I write the opening section. Then I write a bit more of the opening ... a bit more of the end. Then I kind of join them up. Yup. Weird. And AT NO STAGE do I ever have a clear idea of the overall structure of the book or what is going to happen next. It's like fast downhill skiing in the dark.

No serious pre-plotting is ever done. None. No story arcs. No narrative graphs. No cards files. Nothing. The story evolves as I write it. And I write in short episodic sections, rather than chapters, tracking the story through a host of different characters. It's a spirally way of doing it rather than a linear one. I think it makes the story far more pacy and exciting - certainly for me as the writer, although it is sometimes like herding cats as bits of plot wander off into the long grass and have to be rescued.

As I write, I also revise in the light of the direction the story is taking. The whole thing takes about eight months. And then I have to go back and edit. So that's me. Chaos and madness.

How do you plan ....?

Monday, 5 December 2016

Three Reasons to Self-Publish

With publication of the fourth Victorian Stride & Cully detective novel (Rack & Ruin), I have now firmly moved into the entirely self-published category. And I been asked once again by several people why I decided not to go with a commercial publisher. 

Here are my reasons: 

1. Control: As a self-published author, I  have a lot of autonomy. I can do whatever I like, publicity-wise, and if you follow me on Twitter (@carolJhedges) you will know that I do. I had very little autonomy with Usborne and OUP and I gather that some big publishing houses like to keep a close eye on their writers so they don't run amok on social media, which could rebound back on them. Also I gather that many houses prefer writers to promote other writers on their list (possibly why I rarely get promoted by Choc Lit writers, lovely though they are).

2. Choice: I  chose the covers of my books, which remind me of contemporary newspaper headings, or theatrical posters. They are designed by a local graphic artist, who is also a friend. I have been told they are reminiscent of very early Penguin covers. They are certainly quirky and different ... just like the stories .. and, dare I say it, like the author of the stories herself! I can also choose and change the key words that help readers locate my books, and I can fiddle around with Amazon's book categories, if I want to. As I am an inveterate fiddler, I do.

3. Cash:  As a commercially published writer of adult fiction I was getting 40% of all ebook sales, less on printed books. As a published children's writer that dropped to 12% of all book sales. As an Indie, I can command 70% of sales. The difference in my monthly figures has been remarkable.

Ok, I know it is all too easy nowadays to write a book, cobble together a cover and upload the finished product to Amazon (actually, it damn well isn't, as you can read here:). Advances in technology have opened up enormous opportunities for self-publishing that were never there when I started writing books, and that is a good thing.

I also acknowledge that inevitably, there is a lot of dross out there and it lets the side down. Poorly written and produced books with typos, badly designed covers, sold at rock bottom prices or given away for free, which is not the way I want to go.

Despite the many ''Hey, I produced a book for virtually nothing'' blogs, the writers of the best self-published books have usually used beta readers, then payed out for professional editing, proofreading and cover designing. It is hard work and not easy and having done it five times now, I can attest to the pain.

But in a world where celebs are sneaking all the good publishing deals, and agents are less and less able to place books (and take 10% of your meagre earnings when they do), I still think that going solo, if you can, is the best and most lucrative way of presenting your work to the reading public. 

So what's your publishing experience? And as a reader, do you ''prefer'' a book that has a 'proper publisher' behind it? Do share ....

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Conspiracy of Inanimate Objects

It is now just over four years since I started this blog, also four years since I joined Twitter and I can't remember the date when I set up my Facebook page. All of which is NO EXCUSE whatsoever for revisiting some of the more popular blog posts. But then, when have I ever needed an excuse.
Remember this one?

A vexing week at Hedges Towers. I think I am developing Copenhagen Syndrome. Every time something goes wrong, I find myself putting on a different jumper and thinking: 'What would Sara Lund do?' The new mobile phone is a case in point. I decided to upgrade to a new phone when the B H  E and U keys died on my ancient one, and the predictive text stuck on 'I am in the bar' rather than 'I am in the car'. Wrong impressions were being conveyed, I was having to think sideways every time I sent a text and my street cred was rapidly descending into the clown zone.

What I had failed to grasp however, was that mobile phone technology has moved on considerably since I bought my little silver 'mum-phone' many moons ago, which means that currently, if you chose for so many reasons, most of them associated with sheer terror and no money, to lurk down the shallow end of the technology pool, your choices are few. Basically it was either the black Nokia one that looked almost but not exactly the same as my previous mobile, or the Hello Kitty phone with free pencil set. I chose the Nokia; I chose wrong.

Getting it out of the box was, in hindsight, the easy part. It then took me ages to unlock the keypad - simply couldn't get the 'Press *' key to align with the 'Press Unlock' key. By the time I'd mastered that, my faith in the ability to absorb new skills had melted away like snow in summer. Two days later tentative progress has been made, despite the instruction booklet not being aimed at someone with technological skills so low you couldn't limbo under them. I still haven't worked out how to switch it off, though. (Am I the only person on the planet who turns off their mobile phone to save the battery? Apparently so.)

It's all part of what I see as the Conspiracy of Inanimate Objects, something I've observed is becoming worse as I grow older. Although the truth of that sentence could lie in the reverse premise. Whatever. Everything just seems to be getting proactively more annoying. For example, I'm fully expecting Sainsburys to post a notice any day banning me from the store, because I always end up rowing with the invisible purple gremlin inside the self-checkout till in a 'That's not an unidentified object in the bagging area - it's my SHOPPING, you stupid woman!' sort of way. I've noticed that assistants now seem to hover apprehensively whenever I approach.

In the same category is the Orange phone lady who tops up my pay-as-you-go account, and will not allow me to deviate from answering either 'yes' or 'no' to her questions. But my life is full of uncertainty, I wail, how can I possibly commit myself to only two possibilities? Is there no room for 'maybe'? At which point, she cuts me off and I have to restart the whole process from scratch. See what I mean?

 Before writing this post, I had to restore and reload Chrome, as it had decided to stroll off somewhere and commune with itself. Oh ~ and the printer is currently not working, despite kicking it, feeding it with paper and pressing all the buttons. Stuff that is supposed to make my life easier is by default managing to make it far more complicated. I am careening towards a farcical cliff.
Time to break out another jumper?

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Serial Offender

As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my former agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but to be up for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and score 83+ reviews on Amazon, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel Honour & Obey, which was published November 2014, Death & Dominion which came out last October. Rack & Ruin is the fourth outing for Stride & Cully and  I am currently putting the final touches to a fifth book.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out''; after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The *Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book one that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

I have never got further than book 5 (and Usborne turned it down) so I cannot speak from experience, but I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't and the result is a series of  flat readalike stories with little variety at best, or downright daftness at worst, (bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's hamster has survived longer than any hamster should or ought!)

The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ...

* These books will be re-published in 2017 by Accent Press

So what's your experience: Do you prefer a series? Or a one off novel. If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts ....

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Remembrance Day

'No shelter from the kniving wind
No solace from the driving snow.
No warmth, no comfort or bright cheer
In heav'n above or earth below'
from 'Trench Winter. November 1916' by Noel Clark 

If you read my stuff, you'll know that lines from this poem feature in Jigsaw Pieces , my YA ebook . Noel Clark is a character from the book and his short life as a soldier poet in the first world war makes up one of the story strands. In a few days, we will mark the anniversary of the end of  that so called 'War to End all Wars', and there must be very few UK people who don't have some link back to the 1914-18 conflict. My link comes via my late father-in-law, the wonderfully named Herbert Inkerman Hedges.

My father-in-law was the youngest of twelve brothers. The eleven older ones joined the East Riding of Yorkshire Regiment and marched away to fight the Hun. They were all killed at the Battle of the Somme. He recalls his parents telling him how the telegraph lad kept cycling up to their house day after day, until the news of the last son's death was delivered.

I'm always intrigued by the way wars throw up poets. It's not just World War One, though that cohort are probably the best known. Poetry was also being written during World War Two, on both sides, in the Iraq War and is still being produced in Afghanistan today. I think the proliferation of soldier poets during times of conflict is directly related to the situation they find themselves in.

Poetry demands an inner ordering, a precise selection of vocabulary and structure - it's the verbal equivalent of piecing together a complex jigsaw - the picture only emerges when all the pieces are correctly placed. The control needed to make a poem is in direct contrast to the chaos that soldiers live in daily. Poetry is a way of containing their world and making sense of the senseless. It is therefore both therapy, and a psychological outlet for feelings and emotions too horrific to be dealt with in 'normal' prose.

Those who have read Jigsaw Pieces know the story of Noel Clark an imaginary World War One poet who died tragically at the age of nineteen, is closely linked to another soldier from that time: Billy Donne. What you do not know is that Billy was an actual person. I came across him quite by accident in a small article in the Times in 1997. It was headlined 'A happy 100th for man with mysterious past'. I used his story almost to the letter: Billy Dunne (the correct spelling of his surname) couldn't speak, and drew pictures of battlefields, just like his fictional counterpart. He was placed in a mental hospital in 1923 for unknown reasons, and no family had ever claimed him. His story touched me so much that I felt I had to write about him. The link with Noel Clark is where fact and fiction elide.

During the upcoming commemorations for the anniversary of World War One, we shall no doubt re-read many times the 'big' soldier poets: Owen, Sassoon and Brooke. But actually I find just as much pity and pathos in the work of the women poets of that time, who did not share in the fighting at the Front, but shared in the suffering, and the changed lives. It is their sense of loss, their attempt to learn to survive survival, that makes their verse so poignant. One of the best is Margaret Postgate Cole. This is her poem Praematuri:
When men are old, and their friends die 
They are not sad,
Because their love is running slow, 
And cannot spring from the wound with so sharp a pain;
And they are happy with many memories,
And only a little while to be alone.
But we are young, and our friends are dead
Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;
So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
- But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Stolen Childhoods

William Blake published his 'Songs of Experience' in 1794. Holy Thursday is one of the most poignant. The reference is to Ascension Day, when a service was regularly held at St Paul's Cathedral for the poor children of London's Charity Schools. Blake's verses are a bitter outcry against the hypocrisy of church and state (then closely linked), that doled out charity with 'a cold and usurous hand' and then paraded the recipients through the streets in a humiliating public spectacle.

These 'Babes', he says, do not enjoy 'sun' nor 'fields', instead their young lives are marked by 'misery', 'poverty' and 'eternal Winter'. The lexical polarity is quite deliberate. It is a bleak picture of a cruel and harsh time. Not that the Babes' lives got any better in the 19th century. Poor children were expected to contribute in some way to the family earnings from birth onwards. Small girls sold watercresses, strawberries or sulphur matches, depending upon the season. Boys risked life and limb sweeping the muck off the streets for people to cross. Babies were frequently 'lent' to elderly beggar women to make them look even more pathetic. Others sold flowers or matches on street corners, standing in the open in all weathers. Still more risked life and limb darting between carriages to sweep a path. Some children spent long lonely hours minding smaller siblings.

Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of London life recorded in his London Labour & the London Poor (1852-4), the words of  a coster-lad. His father died when he was 3 years old, leaving his mother to cope. He told Mayhew:

''Mother used to be up and out very early washing in families ~ anything for a living. We was left at home with some bread and butter for dinner. Afore she got into work, we was shocking hard up. Sometimes when we had no grub at all our stomachs used to ache with the hunger, and we would cry when we was werry far gone. She used to be at work from six in the morning till ten at night which was a long time for a child's belly to hold out again, and when it was dark we would go and lie down on the bed and try to sleep until she came home with the food. I was eight years old then.''

1889 poverty map of London's East End . The blackest streets mark areas of complete destitution

Sadly over two hundred years later, we still see the lives and life-chances of poor 'Babes' being trampled in the dust as their parents are treated with scorn and contempt by a government that regards them as idle wastrels. We see benefits cut, sanctions applied, help denied, whilst all the time millions of pounds are being doled out to football stadiums, Japanese car firms and infrastructure vanity projects.

Daily there are stories of parents denying themselves food so that their kids can eat. Children arrive at school too hungry to concentrate; sometimes they don't arrive at all because they have no shoes, or uniform, or a warm coat. We see the rise of foodbanks: an utter disgrace in a 'rich & fruitful land' like ours. We read tragic reports of families being made homeless because private landlords raise their rent, and greedy profit-focused developers are reluctant to build 'social' housing.

Now, to add insult to injury, a cap on housing benefit is to be imposed, potentially throwing numerous families onto the streets and depriving their 'Babes' of the right to stability, education and a decent family life. Thousands of children will have their hopes and dreams of a happy future kicked into the nearest gutter though no fault of their own.

Someone on Twitter recently asked: How can any Government do this to innocent children? My reply: Because they aren't their children so they don't care. Blake cared. His poems, of which only seven copies were printed, were radical critiques of the rich landed fat cats in Parliament and the Church who lorded it over society and inflicted terrible damage to the lives of ordinary human beings by their selfish, greedy policies and attitudes.

The Songs of Experience were considered deeply 'seditious' and could have led to Blake's imprisonment if they'd ever been read by government officials. Nowadays, I guess he'd just be roundly mocked in the tabloid press and trolled on social media.