Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cueing up

David W Robinson remarked on his Facebook page yesterday that the BBC's subtitles "aren’t perfect, but every time the commentator mentioned Gabriel Agbonlahor, the subs translated it as "Gabriel upon the whore"."

After considering the possibilities of "Jose Olazabal"--"Josie Holes the Ball" being the cleanest I could come up with--I remembered the utter filth perpetrated for weeks on end by the BBC's snooker commentators. A few years ago I cobbled together (pun intended) this little effort: First published by Lighten up Online, December 2010

Cueing Up

he's going for a colour
got a bit of a kick
after that double kiss
it's a touching ball

waggles lead to
a good wrist cock
and follow through
oh that was a snatch

it's very tight
on the bottom cushion
he's trying one leg on the bed
should play a deep screw

he can't quite keep that foot on the floor
he'll need the extension
and after all that
he'll have to go for a long rest

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Gateau Recipe

Ok - having been asked, here is -ta-da- my family's Christmas Chestnut Gateau recipe. My mum first made it for my grandparents' Golden Wedding in (I think) 1957 - and she got it off a BBC TV cookery programme. We've made it every year since. 

No, it's got nothing to do with Mary Berry or the Hairy Bikers. I *think* it's Austrian. No baking required!

1 tin of plain chestnut puree, about 1lb / 450grams (not the sweetened kind)
8oz butter / 250g
4oz icing sugar / 120g
(The original recipe suggested equal quantities of all three, but I find that too sweet. It also had a raw egg yolk in it, which I don't use.)
2 packs of "boudoir" sponge finger biscuits (ie, 40-50 of them; buy more rather than less because you can always use them up!)
10fl. oz strong black coffee / 0.5 pint, 250g (ish)
1 tablespoon of plain cocoa
1 tablespoon of brandy

1/2 pint of Double cream / 250g (ish)
Warm and whip the butter, beating in the icing sugar, chestnut puree, brandy and cocoa, and a tablespoon of the strong coffee. You should have a stiffish but spreadable mixture.

Line an 8 inch diameter loose based / spring case baking tin with cling-flim, enough to cover the base, come up the sides and lap over to the opposite side.

Pour black coffee into a 6 inch diameter or so shallow dish or plate. Dip the sponge fingers individually, quickly in and out, wetting both sides, and lay them closely side by side
, in the tin, all pointing in the same direction. Set the sugary side upward. If you start with the first ones pointing at the join in the tin you'll have a reference point for the direction of the next layer. When the layer is complete, use 1/3 of the chestnut mix to make a filled layer, level it and turn the tin through 90 degrees so the next layer of sponge fingers runs across the first rather than the same way.

Repeat till you have 3 layers of filling and 4 of sponge fingers, putting the last layer of sponge fingers sugary side down.

Complete wrapping the gateau, using the cling film that's been hanging outside the tin. Put a shallow plate on top and press down gently to consolidate the cake.

At this point you can freeze and store the cake for a month or more; but you can use it after a few hours in the fridge.

To finish:  about 1/2 pint of Double cream, and a little of the icing sugar, strong coffee, and cocoa

Unwrap the top of the cake, set a serving plate on top, upside down, then invert both so the cake ends up on the plate, then remove the cling film entirely. 

Whip the double cream with a spoonful of the coffee and a teaspoonful of icing sugar to soft peaks (not stiff, because the sponge layers will absorb some of the moisture). Coat the cake with it. If you've got sponge fingers left over, halve them and press them against the outer edge of the cake so they stand upright like a fence (they help with measuring serving portions!) Dust the top lightly with sifted cocoa.

Servings -  approx 12 2-finger segments or fewer if you're greedy like us!

*** NOTE 1 - the original recipe used a pound of chestnuts rather than a tin of puree - you boil the chestnuts, peel and skin them, then blitz them and push them through a sieve. The texture is fluffier, dryer and not so solid as the tinned puree.

***NOTE 2 - Boudoir sponge fingers are also, I think, known as ladyfingers. However, I've made this recipe successfully with a couple of home-made fatless sponge cakes, split into half inch thick layers, and with commercial "flan" cases.


Sue's historical/humorous/horsey novels and other books are available on http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/ 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bumble Bees

A queen mistook the dimness of our house,
but rescued with a glass and cardboard
she nested in the kitchen steps
where we passed by a dozen times a day,
and her furry children zigzagged out
to the bean rows in the garden,
the peas and plums and brambles,
the wild strawberry cascading down the wall.
Black sisters, fumbling white clovers in the pasture
or the purple heather on the moor,
they droned home bulked with pollen,
unloaded, flew another mission,
though the cat lay in wait to bat them,
and the swallows swooped on them,
and our grandchild tried to stroke them
when we barged through their busy airways.
They never stung. At the summer’s end
they just fell, all spent, leaving
one queen to autumn, winter, spring.
Yes, we might still have had a harvest
without their peaceful help; but only of a sort.


Sue Millard's poetry collection, Ash Tree, is available from Prole Books and her novels can be found via her web site, Jackdaw E Books.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

On the first day of Advent my true love gave to me

He's been working towards this for the last three weeks.

It started with comments over the small ads in the local paper.

"That big CRT TV's still for sale."

"What make was the one we put in the holiday cottage?"

"He's dropped the price."

"Looks like he hasn't had any offers."

Well, maybe it was four weeks.

Anyway, when I came back from choir rehearsal yesterday the paper was folded inside out to the small ads for TV and Radio, and this morning he pootled off in the car and came back looking rather chuffed.

I know that face.

I started wiping down the cabinet on which our present small flat-screen TV stands.

"You needn't rush," he said. "I'll ask Chris to give me a lift with it when he comes to look the sheep tomorrow." (note: housekeeping is not one of my skills. I just have a nose for jobs that are better done around electronics which I can move by myself, than around those that need two fit men).

OK. Replaced small TV and cables. Returning to kitchen with damp cloth, walked past mother in law's display cabinet. Thought it ooked a bit dusty. Wiped all shelves and objets d' - well, not quite Art, but you know, too shiny to give away to the charity shop. Some tiny toys and coloured pebbles that belonged to Naomi, some vases with nice lines, a couple of ceramic birds, a set of Concordabilia including a model of the plane.

Opened the centre cupboard, just out of curiosity. Who knows what might be inside your mother in law's drawers--no, don't answer that. We inherited the cabinet when she moved to the care home. The centre bit is a booze cupboard, glass shelves, mirror back. Empty. I turned the damp cloth around and gave it a consolatory wipe, just so it didn't feel left out. And I thought: that's a useful space. And more convenient than the sideboard.

G actually keeps his wine in the larder, which is a nice steady temperature, but there are odd bottles of spirits lurking in the sideboard. I thought: I'll shift them to the cabinet--thus perhaps removing the need to lock the sideboard against small grandson's curiosity.

So I found the keys of the sideboard and did some exploring.

Well, I recognised G's trio of unopened Christmas-present malt whiskies, but who knew there were so many bottles of gin in there?  A brand, moreover, that isn't sold locally? Or sherry, that I only buy for the elderly? Or brandy, that G doesn't drink on account of sickening himself with it when he developed a tooth abscess on a Friday and the dentist couldn't see him till Monday?

Like I said, who knows what's in your mother in law's--whatnot. To be fair, his brother and brother's partner were big gin drinkers.

I moved the spirits to the display cabinet. There still seemed to be a lot of room to spare, including a glass shelf.

I attacked the sideboard again and clinked out all the glasses. A majority of MiL's collection have gone already to charity shops and there are possibly a few out in the shed, their future role as yet unassigned, but in the sideboard there was one heavy glass decanter I'd never seen before and another beautifully engraved with the west front of Westminster Abbey.  And then--who ever drank anything from glasses two inches tall that you can't get your nose into? Apart from medicine? I found five of those, smoky brown thimbles, very 1970s. And two titchy Cristal d'Arques pots that I'm sure were designed for hairgrips and stuff on your dressing table rather than for drinking out of.

I should add that I reached a count of eight before I found a pair among anything that belonged to us. I discarded the cheap, the unmatched and the impractical (the smoky brown thimbles). I was going to chuck the solo brandy balloon too but when I flicked it with a fingernail it sang such a beautiful note that I instantly re-adopted it. Thereafter I also got rid of the glasses that didn't try to sing.

Hot water with vinegar, and a glass-cloth, reduced the remainder to roughly the same variety of clean.

Among other things (as above) I've kept:

...seven half-pint highballs,
six vine-etched glasses, 
five tumbler things, 
four Jennings mugs,
three crystals,
two pint pots,
and a shot-glass for Famous Grouse.

The display cabinet is clean. The sideboard, sort of (it's still locked--not all the malt whisky boxes fitted in the cabinet.)

The TV is still outside. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?


Sue Millard's books wander around humour, history and horses. They can be found on her web site, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dear Diary - Confessions of an old student

A friend recently put me in touch with an alumna of the college from which we graduated, who was asking for reminiscences of student life. Well, I still have four large hardbacked notebooks dating from 1 January 1972 to October 1973, so in reaction to her prompt I’ve been sitting here plumbing the depths of late adolescence.

I was still working out the dynamics of living cheek by jowl with other people, and particularly with BOYS. The sexual revolution of the 1960s may well have been fresh in everyone’s minds, but I’d spent the previous 8 years at an all girls’ school and I really didn’t know how to deal with flirtation, dating and all that jazz. Of course I learned rapidly… but the diary reveals that there were a lot of inward cries of pain. I think now that the diary’s cast of thousands probably spent a good deal of time rolling their eyes and throwing their hands heavenward and muttering, “What is this girl DOING?” At least one of them said frankly, “I have pity for you, but no sympathy!”

I noted rumours in the diary about which of the lecturers (or lecherers) were said to be having affairs with other lecturers' wives, or with students. For some reason, although both female and male friends mentioned lecturers making passes at them, I don’t recall any homophobia, nor any scandal being publicised, or any disciplinary action being taken. Maybe if it was taken, it was taken discreetly and the student body didn’t get to know about it. There was far more fuss when the Students’ Guild proposed that there should be a machine on campus to sell condoms. That didn’t go down well with the authorities at all!

One of the delights of student life was talking – unravelling the world and rebuilding it to our own preferences. Students, including me, commonly used to drop in on lecturers in their studies or in their lodgings on campus;  on occasion I even became a confidante, being told far too much by lecturers about their home lives and extra-marital affairs. I remember one of these extra-marital lecturers asserting that "all really passionate music is a series of climaxes" and I blithely said, "Of course!" - not having a clue what he was on about. 

Instead, my diary records the giggles as we struggled to straighten an iron bed frame after seven people had been sitting on it; or when we had been rehearsing dance moves on an upper floor of a male student hostel, having to placate the people on the floor below whose lights had been dancing along with us.

The nearest I got to scandal was this: “I sat with the Opera Group secretary watching other principals and chorus rehearsing act 1 of  “The Sorcerer”, with Emlyn Roberts playing the piano and Alan Bownas directing. In one of the pauses for stage work Emlyn came over and looking very worried, touched my arm and said, “You haven’t got a safety pin, have you? It’s not for me, it’s for a friend.” I said, “I can go back to the hostel and get one if you’re desperate.” He put a hand on his jacket above his trouser waistband and admitted, “Yes, I am!” So I got him a pin, and saved, if not his life, at least his reputation.”

On far more occasions there were long gossipy mini-rehearsals of dramatic productions, and appreciations of vintage recordings of same. I remember us sweeping line-abreast with linked arms down into the city (and back) laughing and talking and singing and dancing to the dismay of other pedestrians, but we really liked to have LP players and tape recorders available, to play music, or performances by famous singers or actors, on which to base our arguments.

Whether we met in hostel rooms or in lecturers’ lodgings, the discussions of music, literature, history and philosophy went on into the small hours. Yes, there was an official lock-up time at which females were supposed to depart from male accommodation, and vice versa, but in practice so long as you didn’t annoy the neighbours, and you let the “offenders” out quietly, nobody really made any fuss. Those of us in off-campus accommodation would have missed the last bus and faced a long walk “home”, and my diary reminds me how my male friends gallantly offered to walk girls back to their lodgings when these late nights broke up; it also records my disappointment that the offers were all platonic.   

I sat up late into the night with coffee and sympathy when friends, male or female, were suffering from rejected love; I knew that the girl in the next room had gone away quietly to have an abortion; I knew that one of my mates was panicking because his girlfriend’s period was late. But none of it seemed to happen to me. Not till I started my summer job up here in the Lake District. 

And that's a whole other story!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Castles, Customs and Kings

I'm delighted to introduce M.M. Bennetts on the subject of ...

History. It seems to be everywhere these days.  (And I'm not being facetious...)

There are history programmes on all channels as well as the ever popular costume dramas--covering every period of our past from the Wars of the Roses to World War I.  But what I love about the history as it's being examined today is that it's not just a dry-as-the-dust-in-the-attic recitation of names and dates.  It's putting the people back into the story.

And, because I'm biased obviously, I believe that the authors of historical fiction excel at this kind of thing, chiefly because it's not enough for them to write that General Jelly-Belly Fustylugs walloped Marshall Buckteeth-Warthog at the Battle of Molehill Valley, they want to take you there, make you a part of the story, allow you to smell the cordite, hear the clash of steel, and invite you to feel and to live in the period for the duration of their book...

All of which requires a different kind of research than perhaps has been done before.   It demands not just a knowledge of historical personages, but also a fascination with and a tenacious determination to understand what they ate, how things smelled, what the modes of transport were likely to be and how uncomfortable were they, how did they heat or light their houses, what did they read in their newsheets, ...everything in fact that contributes to what I'd call 'the fabric of daily life.'

But I'll be honest--quite often it's a case of reading 10,000 words or even an entire history book to write one paragraph of description in the novel.  Which might seem a bit of a waste...until now.

The English Historical Fiction Authors blog was the brainchild of one Debra Brown, who conceived of the idea of having a number of contributing historical authors writing a daily blog or essay covering some small aspect of their research--the bits which fascinated them, which they uncovered, all those tasty crumbs of history that get left out, maybe swept aside as historical trivia, but absolutely fascinating and delicious nonetheless.

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales from English Historical Fiction Authors is a compilation of the 'best of' all these essays from the first year's worth of English Historical Fiction Authors blogs.

And because it's the combined efforts of 55 different authors (including some of the best-selling novelists in the field), all engaged in studying and writing about different eras and from different angles, it's an anthology literally with something for everyone.  Whether you're entranced by mediaeval knighthood during the Wars of the Roses or a night at the theatre in Jane Austen's day, from Boadicea to Brummell, Druidic slaughter to silk dancing breeches, this lovely volume has it covered.

It's possible I'm biased when I say that I think it's a cornucopia of fascinating facts.  I am, after all, one of the editors and a contributing author.

But, I have to say, even after all the editing, all the re-reading and re-reading and re-reading, I'm still fired up by the essays about the mediaeval bestiary, about when envelopes were invented and why, what a mediaeval field looked like (they ploughed in circles--how cool is that?), what happened to all those nuns dispossessed by Henry VIII's seizure of monastic lands and coffers, what it was like to be one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting...the list goes on.

These authors--including Anne O'Brien, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau and Barbara Kyle--all love their subjects.  And it's contagious.  It lights each and every page.

Castles, Customs, and Kings. 
To my mind, the perfect compendium for anyone who's missing The White Queen (or who didn't like it and wants to know more about the period), longing for Cranford or wondering what were the turnpike roads like when Jane Austen was writing Pride & Prejudice...a book that puts the people and how they lived and who they were front and centre, and all in bite-size, easily digestible essays.  And which, I believe, often give a greater sense of an age than the name-and-date version of history that's too frequently trotted out as our island story.

Any questions?  Oh, yes, it's available in paperback (and it's really nice quality--it weighs well in the hand, which is what I like) or for Kindle from Amazon.

Slainte!  And happy reading!


M.M. Bennetts



Friday, October 18, 2013

Heads up!

Tomorrow I host M.M. Bennetts who's going to offer us something equestrian and historical while reminding us to seek out info on many other topics in "Castles, Customs & Kings". Watch this space!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Maggie May and collective memory

I've had an example of the failure of collective memory this weekend. Someone mentioned the song "Maggie May" and quoted a short extract, saying it was by Rod Stewart.

Oh dirty Maggie Mae they have taken her away
And she never walk down Lime Street any more
Oh the judge he guilty found her
For robbing a homeward bounder
That dirty no good robbin` Maggie Mae

To the port of Liverpool
They returned me to
Two pounds ten a week, that was my pay  (that's the whole song)

Now I know this is not the case. I think this short version is from the Beatles album, Let It Be. I copied down this song in the late 1960s when the folk revival was in full swing, following the skiffle era of the 1950s. I think I learned it from the Spinners (the Liverpool ones, not the pop group of the same name) but I certainly sang it with the folk group I belonged to, and these are the words we sang:

Maggie May - As sung by Eggshelz in 1970

Come all you sailors bold, and when me tale is told
I know you all will sadly pity me;
for I was a bloomin' fool in the port of Liverpool
on the voyage when I first paid off from sea.

Oh Maggie Maggie May, they have taken you away
for to slave upon Van Diemen's cruel shore
For you robbed many a whaler, and many a drunken sailor
but you'll never cruise down Paradise Street no more.

I paid off at the Home, just back from Sierra Leone (Canning Place was the location of the Sailors' Home in Liverpool, see next verse)
Two pound ten a month it was my pay.
As I jingled all me tin I was sadly taken in
by a lady by the name of Maggie May.


When I steered into her, I hadn't got a care, (in Scouse, this rhymes)
I was cruising up and down old Canning Place;
she wore a gown so fine (or "crin-o-line"), like a frigate of the line,
and I being a sailor, I gave chase.


She gave a saucy nod, and like a farmer's clod
I let her take me line abreast in tow;
and under all plain sail, we ran before the gale
and to the Crow's Nest Tavern we did go.


Next morning when I woke, I found that I was broke,
I hadn't got a penny to me name;
I had to pop me suit, me long johns and me boots
down in the pawnshop, number nine Park Lane.


She was chained and sent away from Liverpool one day;
the lads they cheered as she sailed down the Bay,
and every sailor lad had never been so glad
as when they sent her out to Botany Bay.

Oh Maggie Maggie May, they have taken you away
for to slave upon Van Diemen's cruel shore
For you robbed many a whaler, and many a drunken sailor
but you'll never cruise down Paradise Street no more.

Other "red light" streets are also named in the chorus, including Peter Street and Lime Street.

Some history

Here's the link to the information available on Wikipedia about Maggie May (or as the Beatles' truncated version spelled it, "Maggie Mae".) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggie_May_%28traditional_song%29
"Maggie May" (or "Maggie Mae") is a traditional Liverpool folk song (Roud #1757) about a prostitute who robbed a "homeward bounder": a sailor coming home from a round trip.
John Manifold, in his Penguin Australian Song Book, described it as "A foc'sle song of Liverpool origin apparently, but immensely popular among seamen all over the world".[2] It became widely circulated in a skiffle version from the late 1950s.
In 1964, the composer and lyricist Lionel Bart (the creator of the musical Oliver!), used the song and its backstory as the basis of a musical set around the Liverpool Docks. The show, also called Maggie May, ran for two years in London. In 1970 a truncated version of the song performed by the Beatles was included on their album Let It Be.

Stan Hugill writes of an early reference to the song in the diary of Charles Picknell, a sailor on the female-convict ship Kains that sailed to Van Diemen's Land in 1830. This indicates that versions of the song date back to the actual period of penal transportation mentioned in the lyrics as Maggie's fate. In the earliest known version the protagonist is "charming Nellie Ray", who may have been a real transported prostitute and thief.[1] 


This fogging up of memory happens all the time, I know. It's why hoax assertions and downright lies continue to circulate on social media - it seems to fit with what we remember and so we go along with it as "truth".

However, while this is a downside of the collective memory and one reinforced every day by our use of the World Wide Web, the upside is that we can use a search engine and check the truth of these "facts" before we decide to pass them on to inform - or usually MISinform - our circle of acquaintances. Snopes.com, Hoaxslayer etc are our friends in these cases.

It also behoves us as historians, researchers and writers to check any blithe assertions we may make - because it's so easy for the critical reader to check whether we've been diligent or lazy.

And it would make social media a lot less confusing.

Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hacking through FaceOff (sorry, -Book)

There are lots of Like-Fests happening on Facebook and Twitter this autumn, so I'm having to develop a strategy for getting the most out of their potential - and also to stave off potential irritations.

The negatives

First, I've decided I won't Friend people from one of these virtual Facebook love-ins. I'm not that promiscuous. So, you need to make an author page or a business page that I can Like. Occasionally if people send a private message and I find their interests are similar to mine I will Friend them or Follow on Twitter. Otherwise, no.

Second, when I read your page profile -- or whatever you like to call the text that will appear automatically next to the URL link to your Facebook page -- I will filter you out if any of the following conditions are true:

  •     You can't spell, or you deliberately spell in an arbitrary or Txt Spk manner.
  •     Your sentences don't make sense or you have written typos such as "which" for "while" and not bothered to correct them.
  •     You start with the words "I was born..." and continue with personal, family and geographical history that should be on your personal page. 
  •     Your chosen writing themes are erotica, same-sex romance/erotica, paranormal, vampire/werewolf fantasy, politics, religion, gossip/celebrities, personal angst (including some poetry), horror or sci fi. 
  •     Your writing reveals you to be a sloppy-thinking, careless, inexpert or poor storyteller. 
Any of these things mean that I will not Like your page.

You may connect with lots of other people who will Like your page for the above points, but these, specifically, are not my bag. Probably the people who enjoy my writing won't follow you, and I suspect the reverse may also be true, so why should we exchange Likes in a pointless manner?

The positives

I will usually Like or Follow authors of non-fiction, because they have to do their homework thoroughly before they get going and they can't rely on glitz to carry them through. I do like an expert.

In fiction, I will Like or Follow writers of novels, short stories,  historical fiction (and I don't exclude romance unless it is modern chick lit in petticoats and breeches), literary fiction, most (but not all) equine, canine, feline or wildlife topics, adventure, humour, well crafted crime / thrillers and well crafted thought-provoking poetry. I also Like or Follow artists, if I like the images they supply of their work. Oh, and editing and proofing services.

Did I mention that I like an expert?

This discrimination is only meant to preserve my sanity. It's nothing personal.

Now, please excuse me while I go and do some writing.

Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Spicy Pickle Jam

In honour of our 38th wedding anniversary...

The autumnal pickling continues. Gooseberries, wild plums and some onions have gone into a sort of gooey vinegary sweet mess. Didn't quite know what to call it on the labels, as it isn't chutney... so I've called it Fruity Pickle Jam. And it's yummy.

Gilly Fraser asked for the recipe and something silly went Pop in my head, so here it is.

What ya need

Three big jars (really big coffee jars) of slightly burnt gooseberries (must have been cooked by other half, who cooks and eats all wild fruit without sugar); one big jar of wild plums, sort of made into jam, with sugar; a pound of small, flower-shot onions, cleaned of woody stalks and peeled, and chopped finely while holding your breath and crying; half a pound of demerara sugar, preferably rescued from the back of mother in law's cupboards. Half a pound of elderly currants. Three big teaspoonfuls of ground ginger. A pint of spiced pickling vinegar (6%) and a bravado grinding of black pepper.

What ya do (can't dignify this with the term "method")

Boil the onions in water for five minutes to soften them. Drag the gooseberries kicking and screaming out of their jars and force them into marriage with the wild plums in a large preserving pan. Drain and add the onions, which by now are past caring about relationships. Add the sugar, currants, vinegar, ginger and black pepper.

Stir and heat very gently to simmering point, and put up with the fruity, spicy smell for the next twelve hours while you pick out plum stones from the murky depths. This will reduce the pan-ful to something like a chutney consistency; either that or jam. Mine veered towards jam, probably because of the sugar in the wild plum jar. I got seven standard jam jars out of this.

Some of them even have chutney in them.

I know you are all crying at the impossibility of copying this virtuosity.

Sue's books can be found at her web site, Jackdaw E Books, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Performance and the audience

We're sometimes told when writing: "Consider your audience."

I'm sure we should do so, to the extent of being aware of the kind of vocabulary our readers may appreciate and also how far we can push the limits of their understanding - you can't write for young children in the same terms you would use for an audience of critical PhDs - but from a creator's point of view there are other things to consider.

I found this illustrated rather oddly via music at a recent scratch "concert" performance. Our local choir was giving its first public renditions of various songs: old-time music-hall songs and a couple from stage musicals. We weren't so much giving a performance as leading the audience. This worked all right for "Pack Up Your Troubles" sung against "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", as well as for "Daisy Bell" where in the little-known second verse the ladies got to sing "damned" with considerable force.

The trouble came when we started in on Lionel Bart's "Food, Glorious Food!" It's well known as a big set-piece in "Oliver!" where the workhouse boys vigorously express their desire for something interesting to eat. The time signature is therefore a march-time 4/4, but often with triplets on the second beat ("Food - GLO-RI-OUS - food"). It's by no means a predictable, disciplined march! So we had rehearsed it a few times and got it about right. But this is a novice choir, as yet unconfident in its skills. We marched all right through the intro, complaining about "groooo-ell", and swung with some relief into the famous tune.

So far, so (moderately) good.

Our mistake lay in giving the audience the words and expecting them to sing along. Oh, they did, don't get me wrong; they joined in with gusto. But the audience was much larger than the choir, and the audience didn't want to know about those unsettling and difficult triplets. They wanted a jolly good sing, nice and easy. Before we were halfway through the first verse, conductor, accompanist and choir had been railroaded out of the threatening march-time and into a nice cosy slow waltz.

I've been niggling over this phenomenon all weekend.

I'm sure that more than half the choir didn't actually know we had shifted from one rhythm to another, and if they did, like the audience they found it much easier to sing. Someone made the excuse, when I mentioned the shift, "Well, they were having fun singing." Yes, they were, and it was appropriate enough for a Methodist Harvest Festival supper, but it was certainly not the edgy message bellowed by Bart's hungry workhouse boys.

What I'm trying to work out is, did it matter?

This morning I remembered another famous musical, "Cabaret" where in the movie version a lyrical young tenor sings, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". The swaying waltz time of the original Landler-style solo is gradually changed by Fascist soldiers joining in, until by the end of the song the phrase "tomorrow belongs to me" has become an aggressive march, threatening the sunshine with the dark days of the Third Reich. The majority of the audience takes over, to terrifying effect.

All of which should give food for thought to a creator, whether of music or of words. 

Connolly is quoted as having said: "Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self."

Despite being a selfish git, I would rather like to fall somewhere between those two.

Sue's books can be found at her web site, Jackdaw E Books, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sammy the Philosopher

Yesterday our sheepdog, Sammy, aged 11 years and 6 months, was put to sleep. In his honour I'm reposting a piece I wrote about him when he was in the full vigour of his youth.


Sammy the Philosopher

Sammy is a red and white, longhaired sheepdog. Surprisingly for a dog, he is also a hero, a philosopher and a teacher.

He is ostensibly a purebred Border Collie, though he can’t claim all the lengths of a pedigree. I know  (though he doesn’t) that he only exists as an accident, due to a half day hiatus between his mother Molly arriving at the Collie Rescue Centre farm and his father Bob being taken to the vet’s for neutering. The moment Molly arrived on the farm, they got together and a litter of five was the result.

Both Molly and Bob were non-workers, which was why they were at Collie Rescue in the first place. They had been sent to find new homes where no sheep demanded responsible attention. Both found, happily, in due course and Bob is now doing agility tests and taking owners for walks, while Molly is generally being a rural but non-farming angel.

We intended Sammy to be the farm’s guard dog. Shep our previous sheepdog had died, after a long and effective existence. 

I am not sure that I really picked Sammy out of the litter. In the goat pens where his family lived at the time, there were two red girls and himself, and I am fairly certain it was one of the girls who came forward and introduced herself to me. But we’d had girls for twelve years along with all that “taking to the vet” stuff when they were molested by the local Romeos. We wanted a boy again, so Sammy it had to be.

He loved the car ride home, sitting on my husband’s knee and behaving with perfect decorum while I drove. Periodically he licked Graham’s face and ears with great enthusiasm. For weeks before he arrived the various animals of the farm had been admonished by my husband that they would have to behave “when my puppy dog comes.” He is still emphatically Graham’s dog, except when he misbehaves, when he becomes mine.

Back home on our yard Sammy attached himself to our ankles and waddled anxiously after us wherever we went. Unfortunately, because his destined role as guard dog meant he would have to spend his nights outside the house, he had to become accustomed to sleeping on his own; so we made up a bed, with straw and boxes, in the stable normally occupied by Mr T the Fell pony. We gave him water, and a meal mixed with ewe’s-milk-replacer powder just like at Collie Rescue; and we went about our business. Sammy howled and cried. And then stopped. Suddenly there he was, out on the yard again, investigating the midden and delightedly waddling after us once more. We blocked the gap in the door with a straw bale.

When we went indoors for the evening and left him in the stable, Sammy howled and cried again. We felt like child-murderers, even though he was a big well grown pup of ten weeks old and we were pretty certain he wasn’t going to fade away overnight. It was still a relief to go in early the next morning and find him bouncing with delight at seeing us again.

His first coat was rich brown with the classic sheepdog white collar, chest, muzzle, tail tip and socks. The short dense puppy coat turned into a long dense adult coat, fine and silky and remarkable for keeping itself clean in the dirtiest of weather; his long feathery socks are hardly ever anything other than pure white.

He wasn’t quite brave enough at first to clamber down the steps to the back door, so we have a lot of early photographs of him sitting wistfully on the top step, gazing down into the kitchen. We also pounced on him in passing and carried him indoors quite a lot. This was supposed to be so he could socialise with us and learn our commands. In reality it was just such fun having a pup around the place that we were quite unable to resist the temptation to play with him.

He learned very quickly that “Fetch” was a good game, and within a week of his arrival he was reliably bringing back all the toys that the family offered to throw for him. Lacking any hens to practise herding, and sternly told off for being too keen on sheep, he took to herding the family. He still does. He knows, now, that when people go out they will come back again, but nevertheless he sighs deeply when presented with the jingle of car keys, accepts very reluctantly that his group is divided, and goes to lie down somewhere and wait for our return to make the pack complete once more. This is all very well, but when we come home his insistence on trouser-browsing to find out the news from abroad can get a little wearing, especially on a wet winter day when he’d be better off snuggled down in the cart shed with the blackbirds and we’d be better off indoors with a hot coffee.

In his second summer, the brown shades in his coat bleached to foxy reds and blond highlights. In winter its density enables him to sleep out in the open, which he evidently prefers to sleeping in a building or a dog bed, though he retreats there to shelter from the rain. Whether due to the influence of ewe’s-milk-replacer powder, or just being a naturally vigorous young creature, Sammy has outgrown both his Mum and Dad and become what our farming friends call “a strong dog” with seemingly boundless energy.

Both his ears, at first, flopped over. In time, one stood up like a huntaway’s, but the other never managed to match it. This clownish lopsided appearance has set the character of most of Sammy’s escapades. When he began to grow his adult teeth, the chewing started. Sammy has adopted many strange toys in his life so far and one of his favourites is a worn-out rubber horse feed skip that had endured some fifteen or twenty years of being snuffled, chewed, picked up and stamped on by various ponies. Having eventually developed a split down one side, it was replaced, whereupon Sammy took it over as his chewing toy. Unfortunately this also developed in him a firm conviction that rubber was a good thing to chew. It led to us losing “the electrics” once from the car towbar, twice from the horsebox towbar, once from the tipper wagon, and twice from the trailer lighting board; from the horsebox brake lines, only once, thank God, after which I think he must have reasoned that brake fluid tasted really nasty and perhaps rubber was not such a good thing after all. Still, by persistence he has gradually removed both handles and all the sloping sides from the feed skip, and it is now a twelve-inch pancake that he will fetch, and throw at you, and demand that you throw, for him to fetch endlessly and throw at you again.

However, it was and is Sammy’s deeply held belief that the world is a sad place. Winter is the worst time; it preys on his philosophical mind. If nothing is happening outside, he sits sighing in the rain at the top of the kitchen steps. Stopping occasionally to shiver and whine, he observes us all dimly through the frosted glass of the kitchen door and is thrown into transports of delight when we reach for our boots and bend to put them on. Occasionally, when he thinks we have all gone out, I have heard him wind up from a whine to a howl, as he used to when a puppy. Solitude is his bane; attention his only goal. He cannot believe that he and you exist in the same dimension unless he has a minimum of one foot on you, or around your leg, and to ask him to exercise self control in this is equivalent to asking him not to breathe. Yet, if you advance on him for the ultimate in attention, a good grooming, he turns into a hedgehog, rolling on his back and paddling his long white-socked paws at you to keep you at a distance. Brushing with the pin-brush (the only implement that can get through his six-inch pelt) is an activity that, he tells us, was invented by the Devil. In Spring, the fine fawn-coloured piles that I rake out of his moulting winter coat could fill several cushions.

He is a most handsome animal now, silkily feathered and in the prime of his strength; a vital young dog, sleek of muscle, deep through the heart, with tremendous speed and agility. He has a jaunty bounce to his stride as he trots round the yard flashing his white socks. Yet despite his vigour and power he is still deeply worried that his pack will vanish if he does not keep it under tense surveillance, and Graham’s frequent remarks to him that he is “a hero” have a distinctly ironic flavour. True, if he were arrogant and haughty, the term would fit his appearance well, but his tendency to stick out the tip of his tongue and cock those lopsided ears would give him away. In fact, he is determined to put a brave face on his knowledge of the infinite sadness of the world. He is convinced that no human being can have, or has ever had, enough Fun, and inevitably that turns our Philosopher into Chief Clown. Because he is (of course) the only dog who knows the sad facts of life, it is his Heroic Mission to add Fun to everybody’s existence who comes within sniffing distance.

For example: most people who have dogs, throw balls or sticks for them. It must be a rare family that has, as we have, a dog who throws balls or sticks for us. When you go to feed in a morning, Sammy is there with a toy of some sort; he cares nothing for his breakfast and will allow the blackbirds to steal most of it while he attends to giving you the first of the day’s doses of Fun. He stands up against the feed chest, plonking his big white-feathered feet on the lid until you give him a morning cuddle; then when you lift the lid and reach in for food he will be there, dropping the toy inside, licking your face with his huge tongue, then looking keenly into the depths among the sacks and scoops, waiting for you to retrieve the toy for him. Take it out and tell him to go away? it just doesn’t work – he’ll  be right there dropping that toy in again. When on occasion you just don’t have time to retrieve such a slimy item, his disappointment is palpable. Put down the lid and walk away leaving the toy within, and he’ll sit down and stare at the chest in disbelief, as though a law of Nature had been suspended. Come in from work and cross the yard from the car, bearing a box full of groceries, and Sammy will be at, around or in front of your feet, uttering muffled greetings through his Santa Claus playball; and as you start down the kitchen steps he will throw the ball merrily to coincide with your descent. He can’t believe your curses are not friendly, and he doesn’t accept your refusal to throw it back; he will sit there looking intelligently down the steps at it until you give in and throw it back up to him. You see, he KNOWS you need to do it. He only has to wait till your Fun level drops to the point at which it needs a top-up. The game ends when you throw the ball far enough that by the time he’s retrieved it, you have mastered your hysterics and shut yourself indoors.

You may think that this comedy is all due to us being a load of softies: that the whole family is daft to humour a fool of a dog, and spoil him rotten. Not so. Let a stranger appear on the yard and Sammy will be there, proving his worth in his originally intended role of guard dog. There is not a shred of aggression in this. He is genuinely interested in the unusual and will take considerable pains to investigate it, and therein lies the uncertainty for newcomers. I have seen three big delivery-men sit doubtfully in their wagon cab, staring out at the red-blond dog who waved his tail at them and stared right back. His perfect white teeth were bared in a cheerful grin and his sheepdog-keen amber eyes gleamed with what I knew to be a desire to share Fun. They just didn’t dare to put it to the test.

He is in charge of the yard. He’s probably the only dog in the world who does it by teaching the poor sad humans how to play. Bringing with him the immensely long rope on which he is tethered while we’re away, he will bounce and sniff and dance around the stranger. Uttering muffled wuffs through a mouthful of whatever toy he finds within reach, he almost always trips up the intruder in the friendliest fashion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses call him and his rope “The Reaper”. If I’m indoors, it isn’t Sammy’s bark that warns me of visitors; no, they announce themselves, with cries of, “Gerroff, dog! Giddoot, man!”

Sammy has no need to bark at strangers. He trains them instead to do what he requires. He is an excellent teacher, too; roofers, plumbers, children and postmen are usually trained in less than half a day to throw whatever toy he presents to them. Electricians and builders, so far, have been slower to respond. Busier? Or less intelligent?

Sammy’s out there now, panting in the summer sunshine, watching Graham move building materials around the yard; two red haired, fit animals filling the place with an atmosphere of health and vigour. Let him into the kitchen and he immediately occupies Graham’s bentwood chair, sitting up very straight and quivering with pride at being allowed to fill the Pack Leader’s place. Take him round the fields and he is a streak of lithe muscle, golden-red against the green grass, his white socks flying; he can gallop and leap and turn with dizzying speed and yet drop into statuesque stillness when told “Down” in the face of sheep. Give him company, let him be in on the act, and he is happy.

His one remaining ambition is to master the third dimension: the air. The red dog’s deepest wish is to be a Red Arrow, to rival the swooping swallows. April to September is spent in total concentration, attempting to match the grace and speed of the birds who dive-bomb him in defence of their family’s air space. It doesn’t matter that in this he singularly fails, and makes a complete fool of himself, because during those summer months our loveable philosopher, teacher and clown is honestly too busy to remember that the Life of Man is Sorrow.


Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fell ponies on the Fells

The farm trailer clangs and rattles behind the quad bike as it growls up the fellside, and we ride its movement with our knees bent, like skiers.

The late Chris Thompson’s hill farm, Drybarrows, is farmed by his son David and daughter in law Gail. Drybarrows is a typical Cumbrian holding, with a long winding track up through the fields to the house and buildings. Whereas on a lowland farm it would be very odd to have the house at one side of the fenced land, up here it’s right where it needs to be, looking down over the ‘in-bye’ from a position tight against the fell wall. The farmstead lies central to all the work because once you’ve gone beyond the buildings and through the fell gate you’re out onto the open common with the sheep and the ponies.

It’s a fine morning in early August, with wisps of cloud and a breeze thinning the sunshine on the tops. There is grass and sedge underfoot with sheep trods winding across black turfy soil and granite boulders poking up where they were left by the last Ice Age. A silver-grey tarn lying in a hollow reflects a darting dragonfly. Pinpricks of purple show where the heather is just coming into bloom. On the lower ground a neighbour is mowing-off encroaching bracken, and up here, when our wheels crush the fronds overhanging our path, we’re assailed by the same sour green smell.

Hills and valleys unfold steeply, grey, fawn and green, and the higher we climb the more stupendous the views appear, fading paler and paler into distance, from sage and blue to an ethereal lavender. From the steep slopes above Haweswater we can see Cross Fell, the Pennines, and Wild Boar Fell above Mallerstang. If we were to climb still higher we could spot Blackpool Tower, the sands of the Solway and the hills of southern Scotland.

“On a good day,” says David, “it’s the finest office in the world. On a bad day, the worst!”

We are up here looking for Fell ponies. We’ve found and photographed most of them lower down the fell, but there are another six who have gone off as a separate band. David isn’t worried, however. The ponies travel widely, finding their own shelter in bad weather, seeking fresh grass.

“They move about a lot,” says Gail. “You’ll see them in one place one day and the next they’ve moved on. They seem to have half a dozen favourite areas to graze and as the grass freshens up they visit them all in turn.”

We don’t see anything remotely like a pony, however, only a variety of bracken, sedge, grass, rock and heather, and one or two sheep.

Instead we go back down to the farm and sit chatting over tea and biscuits.

Chris Thompson had come over to my house for an interview while I was preparing “Hoofprints in Eden” in 2004. Here he is, explaining how his family began keeping Fell ponies:

“My father had them all his life; and his father before him. I think they started, there was a farm sale at Town End at Helton, Mr Hunter, and that would be very early on before the First World War. Before the Society was founded. He bought 3 ponies there and he farmed at Scales where Dougie Braithwaite is now, you see. And he just left them on their own ground where they’d been taken from and that’s where they originated from.

“My father gave me one when I left Askhamgate and went to Drybarrows. I only had the one from home and I bought one or two from Sarge [Noble], which were local ponies round about Drybarrows; and I bought a one off Alan Kirkpatrick. His ponies were in the Society but it was his daughter who had them. He had them at Hullock Howe. And I also bought a one – the breed would originate from Sarge – off Anthony Barker at Patterdale; he was huntsman, once over.

“There’s quite a range of Fell ponies and I always think there are two types; there’s a Fell pony, and a field pony! Fell pony will ‘do’ on the fell, whereas if I bought one that had never been on the fell – they haven’t the same instinct when they get to the fell, haven’t the field ponies. I know I sold  a Fell pony mare and she was in foal and I took the yearling back off her; the man said would I take the foal and I said, “Yes I will do,” and it wasn’t turned out until it was a yearling. And about Easter Sunday, some people who’d been walking on the fell came and said there was this pony;  and there just was the head there when we got there. It had gone to where there was some nice green grass round the bog and it had gone too far and couldn’t get out. We were lucky; it could have been buried and we’d have known nowt about it.

“They’re really knowledgeable. They wouldn’t take you into a soft place if you were riding a one. I have been out on the fell on a pony and the mist’s come in, and I haven’t had a clue which way I wanted to be. So I give it its head and it’s landed up at home. (But I’ve never had t’experience of riding another horse at fell to find it out whether it could take us home! Not when there’s been any mist!) I think I more or less gave it its head and let it find its own way. We might have gone quite a long way round by but I just couldn’t say that; it was mist down to home. I thought well, it’s a better knowledge of the fell than I have!

“They were quite good weather merchants. They knew when it was going to change and they came to the lower ground. I won’t say they come right home but you would see them heading down the fell and probably the next morning we’d three or four inches of snow. It’s instinct again isn’t it; but your older ponies quite often came and you’d probably got to go and look for the younger ones. Maybe if they’d missed the older ones coming away, they were to bring down.”

“I think you’ll go a long way before you’ll find anything that’s as hard and as tough and versatile as a Fell pony.”


Interview extract (c) Sue Millard 2004 and published in 2005 as part of "Hoofprints in Eden" by Hayloft Publishing £17.00 plus P&P.

Sue Millard's other books almost all have an equestrian background and can be found on her web site, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" is published this month by Prole Books.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ash Tree

"Missing", one of the poems from my pamphlet "Ash Tree", is expected to feature as part of Eden Arts' "Lost Tree" project at Brough Castle, Cumbria in August/September 2013.

I plan to remember my grand-daughter by visiting this installation on the afternoon of 31st August, which would have been her 8th birthday. I will have copies of "Ash Tree" with me. I would be very happy to see you there - though I suspect there won't be many from this group who will be able to!

However, I am very grateful to fellow poet and novelist, Janni Howker, who read many of these poems with me for a poetry project last year (2012) and I thank her for giving me permission to use two of the audio files on my web site, http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/ashtree.htm so you can at least hear a couple of them.

The pamphlet/paperback will be available from Prole Books, http://www.prolebooks.co.uk/ from the middle of next week (9 August 2013). It will cost £5 plus postage. (We may do a digital version later.)


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bit by bit

Horses, history and humour - well, I'm afraid if you're after humour this post probably isn't going to cut it. Horses, and a bit of implied history, yes.


Just seen these ridiculous descriptions on a couple of saddlery sites:

"Filet Bouche

"Filet Baucher

“The Filet Baucher uses pressure on the poll as the cheek piece has an extra ring above the snaffle ring where the bridle cheek pieces are attached to, this poll pressure encourages the horse to lower the head and come on to the bit especially useful for horses that have a high head carriage.”

“Stainless steel. With hollow jointed swivel mouthpiece and Increases poll flexion by adding leverage. Enables to keep horses from putting too much weight on their shoulders”.

Seriously? If I ever meet the person who wrote this rubbish I will hit him with a dictionary and then choke him with a gag snaffle.


The horse world must not only have a short memory, it must also be gullible and totally illiterate.

The Baucher snaffle is named after FRANCOIS BAUCHER, radical dressage exponent, (1796–1873). He was a French riding master who took great pride in his ability to produce a horse quickly. His insistence on training for straightness by “flexing”the forehand and hindquarters sideways, very early in training, sounds extremely forceful. (Disengaging, anybody?)

The Fillis snaffle is named after JAMES FILLIS, Victorian horse trainer (1834-1913) who was an English-born French riding master who trained with Baucher in France, and introduced his methods to England. He taught for 12 years as Ecuyer en chef of the St. Petersburg Cavalry Riding School. He trained horses in a German circus in 1892.

Alois Podhajsky and other dressage masters wrote of these men, but if you can’t get their books, both JAMES FILLIS and FRANCOIS BAUCHER are discussed by Wikipedia.

"Fillis Snaffle £67.60"

“This is an excellent bit for horses who have a dislike for bits in their mouths as the square link is severe--"

Really? Gotta love that logic.

"-- but the action from the cheeks on the poll is very gentle. The horse prefer the gentle poll action to the severity of the mouthpiece This bit offers a nutcracker action combined with pressure being exerted on the poll. The normal pattern has a small cheek, ideal for use with small ponies.”

I would never put anything across MY tongue that had studs projecting under its mouthpiece, let alone the Fillis snaffle they want you to shell out almost 70 quid for. And there is no poll action with a snaffle bit. Not even if you were to write grammatically.


Only cynical marketing hype would make claims that five minutes’ straightforward observation can refute. It’s plainly ignorant to combine the names of two controversial riding masters FILLIS and his mentor BAUCHER, produce the mangled cod-French name of FILET BOUCHE and slap it onto a simple and unpretentious bit.

The hanging cheek snaffle (to give it its accurate description) has NOTHING to do with a cut of beef. Except, perhaps, the expectation that if it bears a pseudo-French name you will spend a lot of money to purchase it.
Look for a simple hanging cheek snaffle, it will set you back £20 at most.


You may have gathered that I've been studying bit design and action--not with a loriner (that's a bit maker) but with my own Fell pony's mouth. Ruby was very patient with her nosey owner and let me take a lot of photos. She only objected to me testing the most severe curb-rein effect of my Liverpool bit - so I only took a couple of pics and then let her off that one.

I've looked at single-jointed snaffle bits and the two curb bits I use for driving. They are both LONG documents so you may prefer to read them separately rather than in this post.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Writer's block - or what?

I'm anticipating a busy weekend. The Orton Scribblers meet here on Monday evening; I have to attend a Fell Pony Society meeting on Tuesday; my daughter, grandson and I are going to Cheshire to visit my mother on Sunday, and tomorrow I shall be in Keswick talking to the Cumbrian Literary Guild about "Researching and Writing a Historical Novel".

I hope you appreciated the jumbled chronology there.

It's symptomatic of my writing approach at present. Although I have some fairly good ideas in my head, and one of them tapped me on the skull yesterday and suggested that it could rejuvenate an MS I have rewritten without satisfaction over the last few years, I seem to be putting off writing. I've even got to the stage of ratching out old blogs and articles to print off as my reading contribution for the Scribblers. And we only meet once a month.

This is serious inertia.

One excuse is that the car, which I need, to get me to two of the impending appointments (and to stock up on staples like bread, milk, and cream crackers), is currently at Tebay in the garage. It's having its electric boot lock "looked at" because it won't open; according to various web forums, the internals of Vauxhall boot design on this model are shite. Bits have been ordered for it, and they have arrived but they have also been pronounced Wrong. So Chris the garage man is returning the car to me "this afternoon" - which will probably mean 6-15 pm, but might be earlier... or not.

Another is the impending arrival of printed copies of my poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree", due out next month from Prole Books. It's highly personal stuff and the idea of doing readings from it is pushing me to find alternatives that are linked, but not so emotionally charged.

I've written a lot in the past week on horsey web-sites.

I've researched and produced an article about bits (The Single Jointed Snaffle).

I've updated my Fell Pony Museum web site with a bit more information about Galloways.

I've read more than I probably should have done about academic research into the DNA sequences of the horse and and how to read genetic diagrams. But I am still twiddling my thumbs today about whether to start doing anything worthwhile like Exercising the Mare or Doing Some Writing.

Maybe it's just the warm weather.

And maybe I am just making excuses.

I can't decide.


PS - the car has just been returned. Grocery shopping will now occur at great speed.

I suppose that answers the question. See you all later.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Twisted Stair

Freebie week here!

The Twisted Stair is free to download for Kindle, until Friday this week.

or https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00C8SCTJM

Three uneasy tales.

The dark side of human emotions may not always lead to murder...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Getting My Eye Back In

I've spent the past week mostly writing specialised non fiction about horsey subjects. Single jointed snaffle bits, to be precise; not really on topic here, but if you are interested in an equestrian rant, try The Single Jointed Snaffle, and the effect of rein angles, auxiliary reins and nosebands. Yes, I did say it was specialised.

Between driving my Fell mare Ruby, and visiting the Old Git pony Mr T down at Millom, and attending the monthly harpers' workshop, and watching a game or two of Wimbledonnis, I've struggled to get any Proper Writing done. God, it's a hard life.

I've also been trying to get my eye back in for poetry, ready for Prole Books' launch of my poetry pamphlet, "Ash Tree", next month. I admit I'm being a bit lazy about this, so I've been teasing myself by writing little poems - probably the smallest there are, the Japanese Haiku. Haiku are primarily nature poems, and Cumbria is looking/sounding/smelling/feeling terrific just now. For now I'm simply lumping them under the title of Cumbrian Haiku, but if something better pops up I'll use it!

Here are a few haiku to be going on with.

black mares and foals drift
through a sun gold sea, eating
grass, not buttercups

smoothed by glaciers
boulders that crouch in the sedge
become moss gardens

rounded grey-lined stones
asleep on the ragged fellside
stand and graze as sheep

quick blue-black crescents
skim through the farmyard midges
swallowing beakfuls 

Arigatou gozaimasu.

I also have to polish my talk for next Saturday at Keswick, to the Cumbrian Literary Group: "Writing a Historical Novel." I hope it will go OK!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pianist, horsewoman, poet and historical novelist

Spotlight on: M M Bennetts

Pianist, horsewoman, poet and historical novelist

I'm delighted to introduce M M Bennetts, whose wonderful blog is always well worth reading.

You have had an interesting career prior to setting fingers to keyboard to produce your historical novels Of Honest Fame and May 1812 . Would you like to share some of it with us?

Interesting, ha ha ha.

I think my life possibly follows the course set out by poet Theodore Roethke when he wrote, "I learn by going where I have to go..." I had always assumed I would be a concert pianist--it's what I'd been training for since childhood, when I wasn't reading. And possibly that last bit is the important bit, because when I went on to the University of St Andrews to pursue my masters work, I decided not to live in town or in the halls of residence, but found myself a tied workers' cottage on a nearby estate to renovate and live in.

And I think it may have been the combination of living in this ancient place--the big house had been the Archibishop of St. Andrews' residence before the Covenanters ended that (about 500 feet from my front door--and no, I never saw the ghost carriage) and it subsequently was remodeled by Robert Adam--and studying there, spending my spare time reading on the little stool at the local bookstore where I discovered Dorothy Dunnett's work, that I strayed from my musical intentions into an immersion in the past that just grows ever deeper.

So then, a few years later, there I was not knowing what to do with myself, and a chap I knew encouraged me to go in and talk to the book editor of this major newspaper because as he put it I'd read everything, I read faster than anyone could contemplate and the money was okay. So I did.

And he was rude to me. So I was rude back. Which showed him, I guess, that I was no one's patsy and so he took me on. And to my shock, he published my work all the time, preferring me it would seem to many others who might have had seniority, but in my favour I always wrote exactly to the wordcount he required, I didn't fuss over what he gave me to review, and I never missed a deadline. Plus, I saved his bacon on a number of occasions when someone else had let him down and he'd ring and say could I file by the next morning and I always said, "Yes."

Later I was a French translator for a bit, specialising in Francophone West Africa...

But all the time, I was always reading about some facet of the early 19th century, so eventually all the ideas and research melded together, the stories unfolded and the end result was the books.

What triggered you to begin writing?

Well, to be quite honest, it was a writing assignment when I was about 13. I didn't do work voluntarily, you understand. Not ever.

Later, at St Andrews, that's when I started thinking out my own stories as I sat by the fire in my little stone cottage...It was perishing cold, I was on my own and procrastinating, of course, and NOT reading my tomes on Quattrocento art and architecture...I lived in this rural heaven and I loved everything about it...in fact, I wrote about the place when I described the front drive of the house I called "Britwell Park" in the novel, May 1812.

What fascinates you about economic and military history of this period?

I've always been drawn to periods of upheaval and change and progress. It's why I was specialising in the Italian Renaissance to begin with. Because there's this electrifying vibrancy, this excitement, this willingness to experiment, this challenge to the old ways of thinking and doing.

And the early 19th century is another of these eras of change and challenge.

In literature, you've got all of these different forms of the novel taking shape. There's Austen pioneering the domestic novel, while in Scotland you've to Scott writing historical fiction, and the poetry is just tremendous too; you've got Beethoven changing the face of the orchestra as well as stretching the limits of sound and expression for the fortepiano of the time. You've got this collection of amateurs running Great Britain as she stands alone against the greatest and most successful military empire the world had ever seen, standing alone against France's might, and here's the shocker--they win! They've all had to learn to think in a new way, they've thrown the might and ingenuity of the industrial revolution into their weapons and their technological advances, they're all flying by the seat of their pants, and they win! And I just admire them all so very, very much. I admire their daring, their courage, their intelligence, their drive, their tenacity...

How much of your previous career training do you find carrying over into your writing? I’m thinking of techniques, approaches, discipline.

Well, for a start, I'm very susceptible to music. You have only to play a bit of Beethoven or Schubert and I'm in a 19th century place in my head. Which is a help, I fancy.

The self-disciplined hard work though, that's what is the most important. As a pianist and particularly as an accompanist, one practices a great deal every day. And one learns very early on to practice the same bit of music over and over again so that it's not just perfect but so that there's this rising standard of perfection, so that no matter how difficult it may be, eventually it's executed with ease and even brilliance. Those long runny bits that Chopin was so fond of writing, one practices those until they roll off the fingers, until they sound like running water--easy, effervescent, delicious. It doesn't matter how long it takes as long as it's right in the performance. And that's how I write too.

But also, there's the rhythm of music which finds its way into my prose--and I'm very aware as I write of the rhythm and cadences of the language, the metre (I'm quite fond of iambics), language isn't just a means of transmitting an idea on the page, it has a sound, a sensation in the mouth even, and it evokes visceral reactions, and I like to use to the music of language as much as I can.

What advice would you give to an aspiring historical novelist?

I don't know that I have any. I think for historical fiction to be successful it's important to listen to "their" voices, no matter what era one is writing about, not to carry forward one's own prejudices and/or views, but to reflect their concept of their world and themselves as much as possible, rather using the history as a vehicle for one's own views...
And the old chestnut: What are you working on now?

Well, surprisingly two things. One, a collection of sonnets.

Two, I'd love to say it's the next book, but it's probably the next two books. If I may explain?

Of Honest Fame didn't end the way I imagined it was going to, instead, it was left hanging. So I had thought that the next book was one thing, but have felt my way to understanding that the next book must be more of a follow-on.

The only problem with that was I didn't know nearly enough about the 1813-14 phase of the Napoleonic conflict in Germany to write with any credibility whatsoever. I'm a bit picky--I like to know things like what the weather was doing every day, and what the interiors of the peasants' houses were like, and all sorts of bizarre details like that, so it's taken longer than I would have liked to get all this under my belt...So now I'm writing the next book, which is called Or Fear of Peace.

Though in my head, I'm also working out the details of the plot for the next book, since I don't reckon I can squeeze in all the war and the Congress of Vienna too, not if I wish to write a book that people can actually lift...

And may I just say, thank you so much for this interview and asking me such thoughtful questions. It's been such a pleasure...

M.M. Bennetts