Reflections on a poem

At the Writers’ group we each chose a Poem. Godwill chose this one by Wilfred Owen:

Anthem for Doomed Youth.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
and bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wifred Owen


Can Godwill move me with a poem?
Will words excite the passion in my breast?
A quiet voice, a slow slip and splash among
The clatter of the rest.
Deep thoughts reflecting doom
Imagery of a man long dead
Delivered in this tumultuous room.
Give space to hear, the words are read
Bringing home the fear, the relentlessness of fate
I picture scenes long gone
Young men so far from home.
Grieve for the past, but is it now too late.
Godwill has chosen well, in me it strikes a chord
Opens my eyes and heart to know what was abroad.

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Cockle Fishers, 1800

A cockle fisherman in Leigh-on-sea lived in a cottage in the High Street. The same cottage he was born in and the one where his children were born and raised. Next door friends who mingled, became family in-laws aunts, uncles. Fishing, fishing. Whitebait, cockles, cockles whitebait. To the sea in a wooden hulled sailing boat. Wet and dirty, hard work. Home, the catch to clean, the women do that. Nets to mend, sails to fix. Ale to drink and, on Sundays, church. The churchyard is a family too, generations buried, mother, father, grandparents, uncles aunts, children. poor children, not surviving the harshness of a workman’s life. Too cold, too weak, succumbing to illness and accident. Every thread is embedded in this town.

Two hundred years down the line no-one will know the fabric that was, no-one will care. The remaining cottages will be ‘quaint’ and gentrified.  No more stink of fish waste and shells, just chintz and silk flowers, with a few cork floats for atmosphere. The thin walls lined and the windows weather proofed.

But in the creak of a winter night can you hear the fishermen, the children, the wives chattering, laughing, crying making the sounds of living? This was a happy place, the work was hard but the love was there. No loneliness, a sense of belonging. No disappointment fisherman was and fisherman is what would be. Contentment at a hearty harvest and safe return.

I am rich. These, my forebears have left me an inheritance beyond wealth, their happiness seasons my life. We are a hard-working, comfortable family, we have respect for one another and for the sea – our master and source of our well-being. We are at one with our world  Who could ask for more?

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Cascading voices.

Silence is rare, there is always sound be it the extrinsic tinkle of life or the internal ticking of your mind. I set out to write about Will and John, but I could not continue with their story. There was a nagging voice insisting that I complete the final part of the arc to which they belong,  Sheenah had to have her day, then the Talisman niggled me. When the arc is revealed all will come clear, it is already clear to me but in a nebulous way. As in life, today hangs on what happened yesterday. Each story hands something on to the one that must follow, but as each transition occur it is transformed like a Chinese whisper .

I have the leisure to let the cascading voices of the stories from the arc, jostling one another to be told, decide which will be uncovered next.  It is a strange process. I start to write, research the detail, then write something completely different. I don’t mind this because eventually I return to the researched story and it is richer for having the added mass of the usurper in place. I do like the unexpectedness of the outcome. Slowly my characters are becoming my people, they decide how it will work and then I decide if I am ready to write about them yet. When the muse hits it is one of the nicest experiences I have, absorbing, fulfilling and spontaneous.

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Where does history end?

Historical fiction is where a story is based upon real facts from the past interpreted in a dramatic way, but where does the past end? My current project is loosely based on a real time and real place. There are characters that are genuine and others not. So far so good, it is historical fiction. But the latest twist is that these characters are seen retrospectively from the perspective on someone not yet born. That bit is not historical, but is certainly fiction.

So back to my premise and is this project historical? Well the past is exactly that, it happened and is over. Of course even starting to write this blog is done and in the past, does that qualify as historical fiction? In all reasonable minds, no it doesn’t it is too recent and not yet finished. However, the beauty of fictional writing is that the writer creates their own world, their own rules and as long as it works in context, that is good. My decision, concerning my writing is that the blog is not HF but the project is. Without the HF elements the project could not exist.

When it is complete I will post it as another page of this blog and if anyone ever reads the blog they would be able to make up their own mind about its genre.

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How far back in time?

Next week I should start a 5k in one month challenge and I have been considering very carefully what it might be. I have a number of projects in hand many of which are connected to a family epic spanning three hundred years and many generations. Structurally there are layers to the saga and a device that is intended to tie these layers and the many stories together.

In setting the scene I have decided that I need to know about the Roman occupation especially of the West Country in the 2-3 century BCE. I spent a merry hour or two earlier on learning about the organisation of a Roman Legion.  I  am sure that among the many snippets I have noted there is a story to blend in with my project but I do like to get details as proper as I can, hence the research.

Tonight I will try to dream of my centurion, or maybe tribune, perhaps a volone. He needs a name and a backstory – did he fight in Gaul? Build Hadrian’s wall? Was he ensnared by the black magic of Morgan Le Fay?……   who knows! But by tomorrow I hope I will be onto a hot thread of interest.

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Point Of View and Memory

Last year I was talking with my sister about our childhood. An observer would not have known that we had been in the same places at the same times, our recollections were so very different. She, the first grandchild and three years older than me, had the ear of the adults, she was privy to the background of events. I, the fifth grandchild among twenty odd was just another child, old enough to mind the youngers, but not old enough to be informed. Generally I am good at recalling the character of people I have met but her description of grandparents, who were very close to me too, did not reveal the same people I remember. This difference of point of view will always colour the individual’s memory. The absolute truth of what happened or what someone was like will always be a sum of the many different perspectives from which they are observed and it is likely that no-one will see this absolute because we all look through the kaleidoscope that is our own point of view.

Does it matter that an individual has a skewed memory? I think not.  We are the combination of the things we perceive. Each experience we have colours our development. If I remember one version of the past that is OK. I am remembering my past and what I remember is what has shaped me. Someone else will take different impressions of the same time or people, and their impressions will colour their development, they will be different to me. These variations in understanding are what give life and a story colour and interest.

I have a story in which a character, let’s call him Will, presents to the world as a fair and just man, but  his brother John sees only  the malicious and dominating side of his character. John’s disability means he cannot communicate this aspect of Will’s character with anyone else. This dichotomy is what drives the story  forward. The tale is not yet complete and I cannot decide whether to imitate life and leave John in a bad place and my reader uncomfortable or to resolve the conflict and have a happy ending. Life rarely has happy endings but why would I read something that upsets me?

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As one door closes another opens

SWG have another challenge at 5k in February and I would like to continue finding out about the people who have been associated with the Dun Cow, on Letchmore Green hence there has been a lot of pouring through public records. It is so easy to get distracted by interesting titbits on the same page. I was rather taken by an entry for the child of a shepherd whose place of abode was given as ‘ Bell Plash in this parish‘  in the church baptism records for 1829.

Bell Plash is now the Town Centre Gardens, very neat with an attractive fountain in the large spring fed pond.  The grass is short and it is frequented by lots of people.  Across Fairlands Way there are the sports pitches of King George Playing field with Aldi  and the car park to the West- this was Ditchmore Common before the playing field was laid out.  Where the Aldi car park is  was a row of houses that was demolished in 1969 – there is a picture in Hugh Madgin’s ‘Stevenage through time’. These had two bedrooms, but the partition between the bedrooms was not full height. Although they were old and dilapidated when they were demolished the style looks much newer that 1829.  Maybe the shepherd lived in something like that, or maybe in a little one-and-a-half cottage with a single bedroom upstairs, the sort of thing that was common in the eighteenth century.

Bell Plash is also referred to as ‘Bell Mire‘ or ‘Bedwell mire’.  It is lower than the main area of Stevenage to the north and has the spring that I think feeds ‘Roaring Meg’ brook.   The shepherd lived there as far as I know. What kind of building did he inhabit? When I read the entry I imagined how it may have been in 1826.

Picture a small cottage nestled in among the boggy ground of the mire, perhaps on a slight hummock. Surrounded by reeds and sedges, with areas of standing water, but mostly squelchy long grass and occasional willows, alders and poplars. The sheep grazing on the growth in the mire  and across to Ditchmore common and maybe even to the higher ground of Haycroft Common on the east of Letchmore Green.  If they followed the line of the stream northwards they would come to Trinity Farm at the southern end of Fore Street in Stevenage, if they followed the stream southwards through the boggy river valley over to the west they would see the Six Hills which have been part of the landscape since the Romans were here and  that mark the route of the rutted and bumpy road to the south and  London, yet to be turn-piked. A mile or two in any direction were small groups of cottages, not enough to be hamlets but small communities, Pin Green, Fisher’s Green,  Symonds Green, Wilmore Common, Letchmore Green to name just a few.  In this setting there must be many stories that could be written, and in different genres too.

But I have set myself a target so should look at my relevant research.  That too is leading me towards a mystery, if I can find enough clues James Kebble might be my man for the February challenge.

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