She stood on the bridge at midnight is, of course, the opening line of that liberal anthem of which the first verse runs:
She stood on the bridge at midnight
Throwing snowballs at the moon
She said, “Jack, I’ve never ‘ad it”
But she spoke too bloomin’ soon.
The chorus that follows sets the tone:
It’s the same the ‘ole world over
It’s the poor wot gets the blame
It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure
Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame?
Common politeness prevents me singing other verses outside a rugby club (which is where I learned many of my choicer ditties; it’s only now that I wonder whether other people know a more wholesome version of this song), although there’s no harm in telling you that the last two lines before the final chorus are:
She is now completely ruined
And it’s all because of ‘im.
I found these lines running through my head after receiving an email telling me why A Just and Upright Man was such rubbish and how pleased my correspondent was that she’d bought it for her Kindle and read it quickly because she’d been able to get her money back from Amazon, the miserable skinflint, and so my trash hadn’t cost her anything other than the few hours of her time I’d stolen.
My offence was to write an historical romance/crime novel from the point of view of the people at the bottom of the social heap—the poor. Lizzie Greener and her family, as well as Tom Laws and his, should be beneath notice. Literature, whatever that is, should concern itself only with the upper classes. If some people of the past are invisible there is, it seems, a reason for that. They are not worthy of notice.
Well, I can’t agree. I suppose I’m influenced by the fact that, if Lizzie Greener and Tom Laws had not lived in the northeast two hundred and fifty years ago then I wouldn’t be here now, but it’s more than self-interest. Those peasants and paupers whose every day was a struggle to survive make for better fiction than some spoilt princess.
In any case, they’re not invisible. You have to look a bit harder—I’ve spent hours in archives around the country, going through original documents, and I’ll spend hours more and after doing that for a while these “invisible” people start to look out at you from the pages. Look at this from a 1765 parish account book:
Three Fox and two Foulmartens heads four and twopence
Who trapped and killed those foxes and martens so that they could claim the bounty? And what did they do with the money? Four shillings and twopence was a fortune at a time when they could also write:
To Hauxley Todd for 2 carts of coals & loading three shillings and eightpence
and when it cost the parish a guinea—one pound and one shilling—to keep Edward Scott in the Poor House for 14 weeks.
In 1745 there were sixteen paupers in Ryton Constablery (sic) and we know their names and how much they were given to get them through the year (it wasn’t much). Turn to the parish registers and there they are lined up for us: the year of their birth; the year they were baptised (not always the same as the birth year and there’s a story there, too, for anyone who cares to look); the names of their parents; who they married (and when); what children they had; and when they died.
What about Richard Evans, imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour for being “a loose disorderly fellow of ill fame”. Evans was convicted on no more than the oath of a churchwarden. Who is going to tell his story if not me? And what would that churchwarden have made of the man I saw sixty years ago trying to get the key into the door of his miserable cottage while concealing from this small boy the fact (actually quite unconcealable) that he was as drunk as a Lord? Why does this woman who abuses me by email and steals the fruits of my labours by reading and then not paying believe that the Lord’s story would be more worth telling than the labourer’s? Those shabby cottages were knocked down years ago—is every trace of the people who lived there to vanish?
Not if I have anything to do with it.
I’m editing Poor Law, the sequel to A Just and Upright Man and second in the five book James Blakiston series. At least, I thought I was. But a couple of days ago a series of strokes of the sort of genius known only to the greatest minds meant I had to accept that I was into a wholesale rewrite and not just an edit. I’ve spent a large part of today in 18th century Durham county, the POV I’ve been writing these scenes in is that of a young woman and I got into that trance-like state that comes—sometimes—when it’s going well, you’re undisturbed and you’ve left your own world behind and moved completely into someone else’s. If you like—though it’s a word I don’t like—I’ve been channelling a sixteen year old girl from the 1760s. A number of things happened and Kate told me each time how she felt, what was in her mind and what the reaction of other people was. Times like that you have to keep going, keep writing because you don’t know when you’re going to have that rock-solid connection to another world again. When I finally came out of it (because I needed to eat) I was reminded of that time I’d been writing a 20th Century criminal and, when I finally stood up, I was patting my pockets, desperate for a cigarette. It took twenty minutes before I remembered that I don’t smoke.
That took me on to Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, where protagonist Billy McErlane stood over me while I was working telling me, “Don’t forget the anger management. Tell them about the psych. Wendy wouldn’t have behaved like that, she’d have done this.” And from there it wasn’t a huge step to When the Darkness Comes and Haile Selassie elbowing his way forward when he caught the scent of Barabbas (who he didn’t care for one little bit) and saying, “If he’s in, I’m in.” The Lion of Judah had no place in my plans but he wasn’t going to be denied. He took control, too. So I suppose the question is fairly obvious. Am I completely round the bend? Is there any hope?
True to Life? Or Photoshopped? March 4, 2013 By sfhopkins
Some of my favourite writers are those who appear to draw their characters from life – warts and all. But I did say “appear”. Because many of the stories that are most true to life are, to a great degree, invention. Jane Austen, for example – you don’t read her books so much as inhabit them. The people are real, the buildings are real, the motivations are entirely believable and I have no doubt that there was a basis of observed reality there but what made her such a consummate artist was what she did with that reality.I started mulling this over when a friend in England sent me this picture of Cartmel Priory. He and his wife had been to a restaurant there to celebrate his birthday and he shot this. His email told me how beautiful the Priory was – and all I could think was, “How could you leave it like that?” I left it, too – not my picture, not my problem – but I was irritated. Irritated enough to come back to
it and remove those horrible, ugly bins. I ended up with this.
Then I sent the pic back to my friend with a message saying, in effect, “I’ve fixed it for you.” And now he was the one to be irritated. He had sent me “an accurate portrayal of how it actually was” and in return he had received “a glossed up olde-worlde picture of how you’d like it to have been. A FAKE.” (Olde worlde? I can see two cars, for Heaven’s sake).
I’d like to say I was hurt but I can’t because I don’t get hurt easily. I did, though, ponder the question of expectations. Then I asked my friend what was the last novel he had read and he said he couldn’t be sure but he thought it was Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad which had been a set book at school several decades ago. He hadn’t enjoyed it and was in no hurry to repeat the novel-reading experience.
And that, I thought, was it. Those of us who like fiction want to see reality, yes; but we want a form of reality that has been processed by the artist. What we want is the reality behind the reality. Which is what I thought I was doing when I removed those dreadful bins.