Thursday, November 12, 2015

Merry Exhortations

Now look. I controlled my urge to slap you for posting Happy Hallowe'en messages, didn't I? I do not need passive-aggressive exhortations about the kind of Christmas greetings I should be exchanging. "Merry Christmas" is fine, but as we haven't even reached Stir Up Sunday--Just. Not. Yet.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Blimey, Elijah!

Last month, the Cumbria Rural Choirs presented Mendelssohn's oratorio, "Elijah".

It is a lot of years (better hadn't say how many) since I first sang it, as a soprano in our school choir. We performed it in the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, one of the great Merseyside singing spaces, along with "Paddy's Wigwam", the Catholic cathedral. Yes, we sang there too. Doris Parkinson forced us to be VERY good indeed.

Thinking back, at seventeen I found the story of "Elijah" a confusing one. Having sung it again now, this time as a tenor and a grannie, I realise the music carries it, from the opening curse to Elijah's triumphant gallop into heaven; but my word, the action is nasty.

Here's a run-down:

1 Elijah gets a cob on because the Israelites don't worship his god.
2 He curses Israel, saying his god will stop the rain for three years, and all the children begin to die of hunger and thirst (nice, huh?)
3 He challenges the priests of Israel's other religion (Baal) to a burn-the-bullock contest.
4 He gets lucky, lightning strikes when it's his turn so everybody says his god is the winner. The spectators seize on the priests of Baal and kill them.
5 He prays for rain and a storm comes and produces a flood (this bit probably wouldn't have gone down well in Carlisle 10 years ago).
6 Yay, god is good. Cups of tea in the interval.
7 Ahab and Jezebel are pissed off that Elijah had all their priests killed (did I forget to mention that it was his idea?).
8 They wind up the people into a murderous mood.
9 Elijah legs it into the wilderness (you can see why), tells himself he's a failure, and is comforted by the angels.
10 Then (the ultimate Deus ex Machina) his god takes him to heaven in a Fy-erry Fy-erry Charr-Yot with Fy-erry Fy-erry Horses.
11 Wrap and curtain.

I have no doubt that Mendelssohn's contemporaries thought this was a jolly good story. The oratorio has undoubtedly survived, and is still sung with enthusiasm in both English and German.

I find the whole thing much more thought provoking these days than I did back in the 1960s. Maybe it's due to the extensive TV coverage of current events.

Even if we only look at the first couple of points in the story: "You aren't worshipping the same god as I do, so I'm going to curse and punish you." Disregard the Christian / Abrahamic skin under which Mendelssohn wrote, and just consider the premise. Isn't this the same excuse that's given for war by groups like ISIS and Al-Quaeda?

The second point, a three-year drought and resulting famine, is something we're all familiar with from news coverage. What I can't buy is the idea that a prophet calls down such suffering on his people. I'd accept that he might cash in on existing events and say that the drought is because they have been wicked; there are plenty of precedents for religious fundamentalists claiming that disasters are 'intended' to turn other people towards their own beliefs - and in the case of war, creating merry hell with the same intention.

Back to "Elijah". The music in the oratorio is wonderful, and Andrew Mahon, the young bass-baritone who sang the part of the prophet last month, has a part of my heart forever for his wonderful voice and dramatic interpretation. But I can't put Elijah himself on a heroic pedestal. Yeah, I know, it is just a story. So is Noah's Flood. Biblical hokum at its best. But it has a lot of modern parallels, and for me, Elijah-the-prophet needs to be dropped into the same deep hole as any other religious extremist.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction

On behalf of The M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction

"We are pleased to announce a new annual award for the best in historical fiction. In keeping with the values of our honoree, the late M.M. Bennetts, author of May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, the focus will be on literary quality and historical accuracy. You can read about M.M. and her work HERE.

"Please join our Award Facebook group HERE. It's an easy way to have questions answered and keep up with the news.

"Submissions are accepted immediately through January 31, 2015. Please help us spread the word to authors and publishers. Authors may enter the contest via the Submissions page.

"The award for the winning novel published in 2014 will be announced at the luncheon of the Historical Novel Society Conference on June 27, 2015 and immediately following, it will be posted on [its own] site, various social media, and news outlets.

"Expenses are being met through a $10 Submissions Fee and Donations via Paypal or credit card. Donations of any amount can be made using any currency with or without a Paypal account. We are working toward status as a nonprofit association. Please help us provide this tribute to M.M. Bennetts and our first annual winner. All assistance is greatly appreciated."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Our 'Osses - when did our Fells become "ponies"?

Where does the name “the Fell pony” come from?

There is very scant evidence of British ponies in the 12 centuries between the end of Roman rule and the era of Elizabeth I. Every positive statement that can be made about them has a “but” attached to it.

Harness fittings and small pony-size 3.5” to 4” bits have survived from the Roman period and there are some sculptures which portray horses in Britain as small, eg the Roman tombstone to Flavinus in Hexham Abbey (on display at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, in 2014), but we don’t have evidence of a local Cumbrian type, much less a breed. 

The Bayeux Tapestry shows a pack pony smaller than the fighting cavalry ponies who seem to be about 14 hands, but it is way too far south in its origins to be a reference for Northern England. 

Paintings throughout history show horses in the service of monarchs and generals, but no-one showcased the working ponies of the inhospitable North. 

We may guess that they were around—but who’s going to write about a scruffy pickup truck when there are Ferraris or Rolls Royces to admire?  


Eventually, when printed material becomes more common, evidence of local ponies appears as it does today, in literature and in trivia such as advertisements. The term “Galloway” comes into use in Shakespeare’s time (1597) referring to a small horse in common use.  Daniel Defoe in the early 1700s describes Scotland as having “the best breed of strong low horses in Britain, if not in Europe … from whence we call all small truss-strong riding horses Galloways.”

Small ads

The most specific references to local Cumbrian horses are notices in newspapers seeking information about “missing” saddle horses. “DARK BAY GALLOWAY, Eleven Hands and a Half high…. the Mane and Tail rather inclined to black, and had two or three white Saddle Marks… Reward for information leading to retrieval.”

The word “pony”

An explanation is frequently trotted out that the word “pony” traces to the Celtic horse goddess Epona. Sadly that doesn’t really hold water because her name had disappeared from common English usage by the 6th century AD—a thousand years before the earliest known date for “powny” which is a diary entry in 1659: "Diary 18 June, I caused to bring home the powny..." and 1675 W. Cunningham's Diary, 24 May, "Sent to Glasgow for a gang of shoo's to Cuninghamheid's pownie." Both are cited by the Oxford English Dictionary which adds that “pony” comes from Scottish, apparently from French poulenet “little foal”, and that the Irish pónaí and Scottish Gaelic pònaidh are derived from the English word and not the other way around. 
In 1710  Defoe describes characters riding on “Bastard Turks, half-bred Barbs, and Union Ponies, a Kind of Horses foaled upon the Borders, and occasionally owning either Country”. That might mean he is thinking of Scottish Galloways or predecessors of the English Fell. However, since Defoe was sent to Edinburgh in 1706 to worm his way into the confidence of the Scottish Parliament and help secure the Union of England and Scotland, he may simply be poking fun at himself and at recent political history. In any case, later in the pamphlet he remarks, “it is not my business as a Historian, to be over sollicitous about the Truth of Facts” (unusual honesty on the part of a secret agent and a journalist). Perhaps it’s safest to assume he has his tongue firmly in his cheek, and just to note his use of the word “ponies.”

Small ads again

Spelt “poney” the word appears in 1838 in local advertisements in the Westmorland Gazette where it is linked to the terms “Scotch horse” or “Galloway” but not yet to “Fell”. Through the 19th Century the horses of Cumberland and Westmorland were still referred to as Fell-Galloways, and I have heard farmers even in the late 20th C using the term “Gallower” about Fell ponies. 

The Polo and Riding Pony Society

In 1893 the Polo Pony Society became the Polo and Riding Pony Society and began to register native pony types suitable for breeding light horses for sport and recreation. It registered the ponies by the areas in which they were located, and stipulated that they must be at least three-quarters “native” bred. This is when the names of areas such as Wales and the Scottish Highlands began to be linked to pony registrations, and the idea of a local breed with recorded ancestry emerged in place of a local “type”. 

Agricultural Show reports

In the following year, 1894, the first Cumbrian reference couples the words “ponies” and “Fell.” Before that, the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald reports from agricultural shows only described classes scheduled for Ponies not over 13½ hands, Cobs over 13½ hands and under 14½ hands, and Hackneys over 14½ hands. Hesket-New-Market (1894) and Shap (1895) were the first two shows that offered classes specifically for “Fell ponies.” 
So 1894 is when we have our first recorded, dated used of the name “Fell pony.” Four years later the Polo and Riding Pony Society Stud Book registered the first 2 stallions and 6 mares in its Fell section.

But we still call them ’osses, even now.

Defoe, (1724–1727) A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies
Cumberland Chronicle or Whitehaven Intelligencer, April and May 1777
Defoe, 1710, The True Account of the Last Distemper and Death of Tom Whigg (Part ii. p. 19) 

Sue Millard's book web site, Jackdaw E Books, now does gift vouchers 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

How to Make a Small Fortune from Writing

Let me spin you a yarn about my day. Today, for instance.

I rose at 7 am, and fed our animals. Just before 8 am, I hoisted a rucksack-cum-shopping-trolley of books into the car and set off on a 40 mile journey to a "pop up book shop" as part of a brand-new local Literary Festival. Nota bene - the experienced, a.k.a. knackered, indie author will always choose to transport books on wheels rather than directly by hand. Thus, I was instantly able to identify same, and distinguish them from the unpractised bag-and-box brigade, when we converged at 9am on the library which was our destination.

After a short round of greetings to those whom I knew in the PUBS (sighs... this does not mean the Rose and Crown. It is an acronym for Pop Up Book Shop) I left my stout plastic butcher's-tray of books in what I trusted were capable hands, and drove home again to get a few things done. Recycling was high on the list: for instance, plastic bags, and dog-food tins.

Just after 2:30 pm I set off with another load of recycling and the empty shopping trolley. The library at 3:45 pm was full of people behind and around the book tables, but it was pretty clear from their behaviour that they were writers, not buyers. Still, I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow historical novelist sitting in the "Ask the Author Anything" area, who was kind enough to say she didn't consider this "work" and also told me that the stall holding writers had laughed a lot while reading my Dragon Bait. I was relieved to find that was because it was funny, rather than peculiar.

Dragon Bait was my star of the day - one sale to a MOTP (work it out) and one to a fellow writer. I bought a collection of short stories, and intend to study them to learn about modern SS style. Well, they were written by a chap who teaches SS writing as a specialism at the University. I also bought a historical novel by the lady in the AAA area, and very nearly doubled my day's takings when she offered me change from my £20 in the form of.... wait for it... a £20 note and a couple of £1 coins. Being honest (or stupid) I suggested she reconsidered this.  I really should have offered, as part payment for her book, a copy of Dragon Bait, which she had said she intended to buy - but there we are, I too can be a bit slow after an earlier-than-usual start.

When I was re-packing I couldn't locate some of the books I had taken to the PUBS (stop it!). The slim poetry pamphlet, it seemed, had too closely resembled the kids' activity books - they were printed by the same firm - and the two activity books had not been displayed individually because they were the same thickness. The three items all spent the day in the same stack, and registered no sales at all. Moral - if taking several books which are similar, pack them in widely separated batches so that even those who are unfamiliar with your stuff will realise they are not all the same thing.

The accounts for today look like this:

Car mileage: 160 miles (40 miles there and back, morning and afternoon)
Parking fees: £1 x 2 (very reasonable and handy for the venue)
Donation per sale to the PUBS (stop sniggering at the back please): £1 per book, ie £2

Costs: £4 outgoings, car fuel discounted as part of recycling run... which is frankly bloody optimistic)

Book Sale: £6 x 2

Income: £12

Net income: £8 (see remark on Costs)

Purchases: errrrm... *coughs*

See, this is why writers are rubbish at business. Having "made" a few quid at the expense of 4 hours of driving, I blew it all and more by buying 2 books that cost (together) more than I had actually taken, which in any case I can't dignify by the term "profit" (see remark on Costs!)

All in all, a very typical writer's "sales" day. Lots of batting around, lots of jawing, a bit of networking, a bit of positive feedback, and one or two lessons learned.

Oh, and how to make a small fortune from writing?

Start with a large one.

Dragon Bait is available from Sue's web site,  and on Amazon Kindle, UK or Amazon Kindle, USA.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New Songs to Old Tunes 2

I love the Northumbrian pipe melody of "Kielder Hunt". I've been trying to write a song about Orton Farmer's Market, but it just refuses to go with the haunting tune.

But passing Lune's Bridge on the way to choir the other night I remembered the morning of Sunday 15th February 2004: when our little local road became busy with traffic diverted off the A685, which was closed while emergency services dealt with 4 dead and 5 injured men from the Tebay railway accident.

Here's a fragment of the tune, sung by Willie Scott, which is more or less as it's sung by the hunters in Cumbria.

And here are my lyrics to it, about the railway accident.

Lune's Bridge

The night is cold in Tebay Gorge, the wind is keening sore
in the February darkness of the year two thousand-four.
The railway lads are set to work between mid-night and morn,
from Saturday the fourteenth to the Sunday's frozen dawn.
Gone away, gone away,
out of Scout Green down to Tebay, gone away.

The scrappers' gang is working up the trackside at Scout Green,
unloading sixteen tons of steel from a flat-bed truck by crane.
And down at Lunesbridge level there's a cutting gang as well
who work by floodlight through the night, at the south end of Loups Fell.Gone away, gone away,
out of Scout Green down to Tebay, gone away.

The Scout Green truck has got no brake, she’s stayed on wooden blocks;
the crane unloading jerks her from her feeble wooden chocks.
With sixteen tons of rusty rail she runs from where she parked
and down the one in seventy-five goes rumbling through the dark.Gone away, gone away,
out of Scout Green down to Tebay, gone away.

She'll clear the cut at Scotchman's Bridge, the bank above Low Scales,
Low Greenholme's airy viaduct and Loups Fell's trembling rails.
Get out your phone and make the call to warn the Lunesbridge crew -
Tell Tindall, Buckley, Burgess, Jump and go, she's bound for you.
Gone away, gone away,
out of Scout Green down to Tebay, gone away.

All sixteen tons down seventy-five is killing weight indeed;
that minute while you try to call builds up her deadly speed.
The cutters of the Lunesbridge gang they fall without a cry;
she throws five men from out her path and sends four more to die.
Gone away, gone away,
out of Scout Green down to Tebay, gone away.

In vain the phones are ringing now; an answer cannot come,
for Waters', Buckley's, Burgess, Tindall's time on earth is done.
No monument can bring them back, no killer's years in jail.
Remember, when you pass Lune's Bridge, the men who mend the rail.
Gone away, gone away,
out of Scout Green down to Tebay, gone away.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

New Songs to Old Tunes

Now I'll give you a toast, lads, to all the fell packs,
To masters, to huntsmen and whips of aw macks,
You can have your athletics and games of all sorts,
But this hunting is surely the greatest of sports.
    Tally Ho! Tally Ho! Tally Ho!
    Hark For'ard good hounds, Tally Ho!

A perfectly good tune whose words have become non-PC through no fault of their own. Look at all the hunting songs we Cumbrians have, that are just being wasted... well what does a writer do? She writes some new words. And if Maddy Prior can sing about the Uppies and Downies at Workington, then I can sing about an agricultural show.

This one goes to the tune of "The Six Fell Packs": here's the original on Ron Black's site,

Crosby Ravensworth Show

The heather is bright on the top of the Scar.
The family packs in the seats of the car.
There's Granddad and Grannie, the kids and the hound
and we're all on the road, Crosby-Ravensworth-bound.
Let it rain, let it shine, let it blow -
we're going to Ravensworth Show.

Now Granddad and Grannie they go every year
to catch up with crack and to share some good cheer;
they've got to the age where they're thin in the thatch
and the most of their talk is hatch, match and dispatch.
Let it rain, let it shine, let it blow -
we're all at the Ravensworth Show.

The Industry tent is where mother is bound
which leaves me out here with the kids and the hound.
I’d bet on the ferrets, which pipe they would run -
but they sleep in their burrow and hide from the sun!
Let it rain, let it shine, let it blow -
we're all at the Ravensworth Show.

The ponies are trotting to show at their best,
where beauty and manners are part of the test;
the cattle lie dozing, the sheep stand in pens,
there's a tent for the rabbits, the ducks and the hens.
Let it rain, let it shine, let it blow -
they're all at the Ravensworth Show.

We sit on the benches to eat an ice cream
or hot dogs that give off a savoury steam
with onions and ketchup. The hound licks his lips
so we give him the crusts and the last of the chips.
Let it rain, let it shine, let it blow -
pig-out at the Ravensworth Show.

The big bouncy castle is where the kids play;
they take off their shoes and go bounding away;
the dog wants to join them and leaps like a clown,
but Granddad and Grannie just want a sit-down.
Let it rain, let it shine, let it blow -
we're tired at the Ravensworth Show.

The sunshine has fled and it's going to shower;
if you don't like the weather just wait half an hour.
It was fun in the sun through the sideshows to roam,
but now we're wet through so I think we'll go home.
Let it rain, let it shine, let it blow -
we've been to the Ravensworth Show.