The mess that is a writer’s mind
Where does stuff come from? I mean, the stuff we write. I’ve written elsewhere about my puzzlement when I saw the first line of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper; what raised the question this time was a memory from sixty years ago that came back when I met by chance someone I hadn’t seen for almost that long.
In A Just and Upright Man, I wrote this passage:
It was simply the most modern and comfortable house Kate had ever been in. She knew Mistress Wortley to be a widow, and in Kate’s experience widows were always in want of money. There was no sign of that here.
Though the hovels of the poor – hovels like the one Kate lived in – had no floor coverings at all, she was familiar with the floor cloths better off people had. Sheets of canvas drenched in linseed oil and pigment, they gave some pattern and colour but, most of all, they kept the feet clear of the cold stone flags or beaten earth that constituted the floor of most houses. Here, though, were no floor cloths. This floor was smooth surfaced terracotta tiles, swept clean by one of the three servants who looked after this one woman’s every need; and on the tiles lay rugs of woven wool in intricate and brightly coloured designs. Kate stared in wonder.
‘I see you are looking at my rugs, Katherine. You are perhaps wondering why they are not on the wall, as you might have seen in, let us say, the Rectory?’
Kate nodded, though in truth she had never been further into the Rectory than the scullery, and the only hangings there were copper pots and pans.
‘This is the latest fashion, Katherine. Everyone in London is doing it. Hangings are coming off walls and going onto floors. And, see: the blue and yellow wallpaper. I had it delivered by James Wheeley in London. They sent their own men all this way to hang it, for I could not trust the local workmen. It is the newest thing. Would you really cover such a bright and beautiful paper in wall hangings?’
Kate was almost lost for words at such elegance. ‘No, miss.’
‘The people of Ryton do not know what beauty can exist in our world. Beauty is to be found only in Mayfair. And, of course, Paris, Rome, Venice.’
‘Lady Isabella goes every summer to Harrogate. We pray in church for her safe return.’
‘Yes, I can see that a provincial soul might warm to Harrogate. For me, Bath is not entirely without its compensations. And now, tell me. Why do you want to learn to read and write?’
All right, the main object of that scene was the same as the main object of all scenes – to move the story forward. There was something else though; I wanted to show that on the one hand we had Mistress Wortley, a widow of means with a high opinion of her own worldly sophistication and on the other was Kate whose idea of the unattainable would be a visit to Harrogate, 50 miles to the south and a day’s ride in the stagecoaches of the time. (Lady Isabella, by the way, is the rector’s wife). A little later, Mistress Wortley uses the word “provincial” again:
Kate’s reading was progressing well, and the time for her sixth lesson was here.
‘You are glum, child,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘What troubles you?’
‘The Overseers of the Poor came to see me,’ said Kate. ‘They wanted to know why I was learning to read when we are receiving money from the parish because my father is ill. They say this must be my last lesson, and I must be put to work.’
‘They say that, do they? And you? Do you want this to be your last lesson?’
‘No, Miss. I mean Mistress Wortley. But…’
‘Then it shall not be. You may leave the Overseers of the Poor to me. I shall send them about their business. Now take the old vellum sheet you will find on the table and cover it in the first four letters of the alphabet while I work at my sewing.’
Kate could not prevent herself from looking up from her exercise to watch the widow’s fine work with the needle. ‘That is beautiful cloth, Mistress Wortley. What is it you are making?’
‘A frock for my sister’s son. She has not had my good fortune in avoiding the more sordid aspects of matrimony, and she has three children already after only five years of marriage. The boy is three and I promised to make something for him to wear on Sundays when better weather arrives. But attend to your own work and not to mine. You will not form letters a lady would be proud of unless you pay attention to what you are doing.’
Kate bent her head to the vellum.
‘You are right about the stuff, though,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘This is the finest cotton, from Galilee. The French have the Levant trade to themselves. They bribe the merchants in Egypt, and it is the Egyptians who buy and sell the cotton from the Holy Land. The most tiresome thing about being at war was having to buy cotton from the Americas and the Indies. Such coarse stuff.’
Kate smiled. She revered Mistress Wortley as a woman of great kindness and she loved hearing her talk about Society, fashion and the world beyond Ryton, but Kate was a girl of common sense and she knew that, sometimes, Mistress Wortley spoke the most complete tripe. Kate loved to tease. But how would her benefactress respond to being teased? Casually, she said, ‘Lady Isabella has fine cotton petticoats. I believe the cloth comes from Manchester, though I do not rightly know where Manchester is. But Rosina told our mam…’
‘Mistress Wortley, I am sorry. Rosina told my mother…’
‘Rosina told Mother that the cotton was from the Indies. Though I don’t rightly know where the Indies are, either.’
‘They are far from here,’ said Mistress Wortley, folding her sewing and putting it aside. ‘And I can see that colonial cotton spun by some Manchester jade as she sings to keep her six starving children quiet might be very fitting for ladies who holiday in Harrogate. One would not wish to see such provincials challenged by anything of excessive quality. Show me the vellum. You are doing well, Kate. I shall not let the Overseers of the Poor come between you and your wish to read. Take this book in your hand. Now. Let us see what you can make of the first sentence.’
Kate “doesn’t rightly know where the Indies are” and it’s clear that Mistress Wortley is no better informed, but she isn’t going to admit it. She is very conscious of the way Kate looks up to her for her broader knowledge of the world. And that brings me back to the question: where does this come from?
In 1954 I was in my first year at grammar school. I went into a shop to buy a chocolate bar (it would have been about three pence at the time, and by that I mean old pence which were worth less than half of the present coin, and you’d need about thirty of those to buy the same piece of confectionery). The mother of one of my schoolfriends from the year before (he had not passed the 11+ and was therefore not with me at grammar school) was explaining to the two women behind the counter (one of whom was my mother) that the behaviour of Italian men – their whistling after women and groping of female behinds – was something that anyone who had been to Italy would expect and think nothing of. “If it becomes too much, you simply give them an earful in Italian and they back away immediately. Mamma’s boys, the lot of them.”
My mother said nothing but I knew from the look on her face that she was not impressed. I hadn’t thought of that incident until the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, for the man I met after a gap of almost 60 years was the son of the woman in the shop who could tell Italian men off in their own tongue. The scene came back to me and I said, ‘What had your mother been doing in Italy?’
‘Italy? I don’t think she was ever there.’
‘But she spoke Italian.’
‘Is this the beginning of dementia? Or are you confusing my mother with someone else? She didn’t speak a word of anything but English. She might say “Pardon my French” when she swore, but that was about the extent of it.
I laughed it off and turned the conversation to other things but I had the answer to my question. Mistress Wortley got her snobbery from Terry Malin’s mother. A writer’s mind is a fermenting hodgepodge of memories (some of which are false), quotations, sudden insights, old fights and old friendships, and things we may have read so many years ago that we have forgotten them. If we are lucky, they come together to form the soil in which something new can grow.
I’ll leave with one last extract from A Just and Upright Man. It comes immediately after the first one I quoted, which ended when Mistress Wortley asked Kate why she wanted to read and write and I think it shows very well the widow’s view of the correctness of the social order as it existed in north-east England in the seventeen sixties. And I know exactly where her ideas of what constitutes correct speech came from – they came from my primary school teachers, more than 200 years later:
‘Miss, I want to better myself. I want to read the bible for myself, instead of hearing only what someone else thinks is important. And I’d like to know what’s going on in the world.’
‘Very well. Estimable wishes, so long as you do not think to rise above your station. But reading and writing are not enough. You must also learn to speak.’
‘Speak, Miss? But, Miss, I speak every day. I am speaking to you now.’
‘That is not speaking. You have much to learn. For now, let us content ourselves with but a few simple rules. You must not say us when you mean me. You must not say our Mam, but my mother. Or, better still, simply Mother. You will not call people Man, whatever sex they may be. And never, ever, shall you address someone as pet. Is that clear? There will be more to learn, when you have mastered this. I shall call you Katherine. You will call me Mistress Wortley, or Ma’am. And now, let us begin.’
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