The Bottle, the Tin, and Five Small Books

Bottle and booksRummage is a satisfying word. I like its nautical origins, its debt to the Old French arrumage and Middle Dutch ruim. I love the connotations of “the arranging of casks in the hold of a vessel” or “miscellaneous articles, lumber, rubbish etc.”, and not least “bustle, commotion, turmoil” or “fish out or dig up by searching”.

In my study I have an old bureau, inherited from my Grandparents. The top section is compartmentalized, an ideal place for small books, for the ordering of miscellaneous articles; no lumber or rubbish here. When I write at the down-turned leaf, all polished oak and rich warm patina, I scan the spines and fish out recollections and more intimate significances. Here stands The Dairyman’s Daughter, no taller than my thumb, bound in black calf, a wedding gift from my In-Laws, dairy farmers in Somerset. And here A History of Primrose Prettyface adorned with Bewick’s charmingly naive wood engravings, an early discovery from my York rummaging days.

As time went by more old volumes displaced the little books of my childhood and youth, and so the modest collection of Observer’s books were relegated to some other bookcase, some other hold. Reluctant evictees of the now-crowded bureau; all bookish bustle, commotion and turmoil.

Last week, for no other reason than to rummage, I opened the top drawer of the bureau. In a strangely Carter-esque way I peered in at a moment of myself, at a selective though rich layer of a previous me. I held the small bottle in my hand. Swan Last Drop Ink read the label; the base of the bottle ingeniously forked to ease the retrieval of the “last drop”. Beneath it, in the lower strata, from an earlier timeline, a slim flat Kensitas cigarette tin. I opened the lid and found inside a collection of Brooke Bond Tea cards on The History of the Motor Car – No. 36 the 1934 Lagonda 4 ½ litre saloon, No. 24 the 1924 Morris Cowley Bullnose. I closed the lid.

TinAn image of a waiter is printed on the lid, resplendent in white tie and tails, holding out a tray on which rests the tin of cigarettes “Your Kensitas Cigarettes Sir” he says benevolently. And then the connection was forged, from bottle to tin to books. A long-repressed spike from my past compelled me to reunite the three. I ran to my daughter’s bedroom, retrieved from her bookcase five small volumes, and placed them alongside the bottle and tin.

I remember the act distinctly, though not the trigger. I remember that day (was it day?), when youthful rage got the better of me. The bottle, it would seem, was the innocent partner, a receptacle for the ink, a dependable filling station for the fountain pen. Then it struck, that long forgotten impulse to harm, to destroy, to mindlessly scar even the fondest belongings. The pen dealt the first blow. In a moment of uncontrollable frustration it splattered those undeserving spines. And shame the hand that took the coin from my pocket and obliterated the waiter’s face upon the tin. In a witheringly disgraceful act of self-pitying pique I indelibly marked both, and regretted it bitterly within the second.

The sun has been kind to the Observer’s Books. Over the years it has faded the ink splatters on the spines, though the vestigial traces remain. No such mercy for the tin. It rests, scarred to this day, a lasting victim of youthful iconoclastic rage. And what was that rage; that yin to the yang of my usual calm self? To this day I have no recollection, no understanding of what she, he or it stirred me to this senseless act. But I stare though the thick lens of the ink bottle, and wish I could turn back time.

Belonging, the Waistcoat and the Working Man

Scan_Pic0013Great Grandpa Butler was a farming man. Here he is in his working clothes with my Great Grandma. The little girl in the foreground is my Grandma.

When I was around seventeen I shunned the loons and starry T-shirts (yes, I’m of a certain age) for a more eclectic style. My sister’s Levis were suitably faded and worn and, bless her, she let me borrow them. Topped-off with an old denim shirt, or a collarless cotton pull-on shirt, the whole ensemble was completed by a dark-grey waistcoat of impeccable vintage. It had come from my Grandfather (the little girl’s future husband), a coal miner and member of the colliery rescue team. I wore that waistcoat with a certain pride. I thought I looked the part (cool in that sense had yet to enter the vernacular), and treasured it, even sporting his old watch-chain from time to time. In time his old brogues came my way too.

Looking back I now recognise the true value of that grand old weskit. It wasn’t the simple cut of the cloth, or the somewhat bohemian air it lent me. No, it was the honesty of the thing, the blood connection to a proud line of working men, an unrecognised badge of belonging. Wearing it forged the link, that final link in the chain that binds me to these men. It eventually went the way of much from that time; I dearly wish I had it still.

Such belonging stays with you though; it seeps into your consciousness as sure as your awakening awareness of mortality. The need to re-connect assumes a more urgent necessity, subconsciously though inevitably. And as I trudge the highway from young to old fogey I retain a fond weakness for the honest clothes of the working man.

I placed an order this week, an order for a charcoal-grey waistcoat and a navy drill shirt from Old Town in Holt. Though my ancestors may dispute the fact, I reckon a writer’s some sort of working man.

Deep Harmony was my Grandfather’s favourite tune. I shall hum it when I slip the weskit on.

The Old Print Shop

Norman Blackburn's Print ShopI love old prints. I buy them though I have nowhere left to hang them. I buy them because they possess a beguiling narrative, an enlightening vernacular lacking in many other forms of art. I buy them for their beautiful naivety, for their satiric bite, for their celebration of the mundane and the magnificent. I buy them because I have no option. And the downside of this curious addiction? There is none. And so I marvel every day at the mementos of Georgian bridge openings, the celebratory fireworks for long since forgotten victories; for the seductive charm of curious fashions, the unfathomable delight of cats with human faces. Yes, dear Paul (for that’s the cat’s name, clearly) sitting on the shoreline, waiting to welcome his master home from sea. Faithful feline with his curiously Hogarthian face.

As ever though, the days of the Old Print Shop are waning. And so I wander around the country towns of Britain and mourn their loss. Book shop, print shop, and pub, where are you now?

Norman Blackburn’s magnificent shop (pictured here, but sadly now gone) offered a welcome chair, scintillating and hilarious conversation, and an open-hearted celebration of the old print in all its marvellous guises. A visit here was one steeped in the generous gift of erudite knowledge and playful delight. Norman, the doyen of print sellers, with an ever present twinkle in his eye. Think naughty schoolboy, think Betjeman humour, think generosity and contagious spirit. Think prints.

And the legacy? Unfathomable, intriguing. Vital and alive. And so The Lanese Print was born. Gifted into life by those long conversations, those rare moments of browsing and savouring. A tale of the power of the print to seduce and persuade. A tale caught striding, part-formed, through the doors of the Old Print Shop.

Challenging the Critique

There is no right way. I’m convinced of that. There is no prescribed method, no fail-safe route through to literary correctness, no “tick the boxes” path of certainty to guide your hand and lead your way. If you love writing, for its own sake, for the joyous release it affords your mind, then write from the heart. Invest your words with that private passion which reveals your spirit – your spirit – that which gives your writing its unique and personal voice. Write for yourself, first and last.

Few of us choose to speak with another’s voice, so why should we write with one? Few of us live our lives governed by the strict regimen of prescribed behaviour, but allow ourselves the liberating experience of personal taste and style. And why not so when we write?

And when the critic or critique says “you can’t do that” or “you shouldn’t do that”, why not? Why not, when what you do invests your writing with rhythm and cadence, with passion and belief? Why condense the sentence to its basic essence, when in so doing the beauty of the language is lost? Why replace the visionary with the mundane, in vain expectation of a more universal understanding? Why compromise to please the many, when you can persevere and delight the few?

Why not?

Charles Ricketts Mourns the Death of Mabel Beardsley

RickettsSome time before October 1912 Mabel Beardsley, sister of Aubrey, entered a Hampstead nursing home, suffering from cancer of the uterus. One of her closest and most touching friendships at the time was with the artist and designer Charles Ricketts, surprisingly perhaps given Ricketts had felt, rightly or wrongly, that her brother Aubrey’s work had ruined any hope of his own success in the field of book illustration. Ricketts was to be one of Mabel’s most constant visitors during her stay.

At some stage Ricketts makes clear to Robert Ross (Wilde’s executor) his intentions to make Mabel a Beardsley doll, based upon Aubrey’s design for Mademoiselle de Maupin. This unlikely venture is confirmed by W. B. Yeats in a letter to his Irish patron telling of his visit to Mabel, and of the “four dolls dressed like people out of her brother’s drawings,” which “Ricketts had made….modelling the faces and sewing the clothes.”

In the last stage of her illness (Ricketts talks of a “very black” five months) Mabel was taken to live at 75 Lansdowne Road, the home of her mother-in-law, from where she was watched over by her friends, including Ricketts and Shannon who lived in Lansdowne House close by. Mabel died on May 8th 1916.

In a deeply touching letter to Ellen Beardsley, Mabel and Aubrey’s mother, Ricketts writes from Lansdowne House:

Dear Mrs Beardsley

Both Shannon and I are greatly moved by the death of your dear and sweet daughter. We had been told by Lady Scott that the end was near, but the loss is not less, and we shall ever remember her as a friend of rare and delicate charm and of her courage during the long trial of her illness. We sympathise in you and your great grief and understand the share you have had to bear in her long trial. I believe that memory with you will count as a reality, and that with time, when the first blackness of sorrow has passed away, that you will remember her brightness and wayward charm as of a pale ray of sun in the greyness of a life to which too little has been granted, and that you will find consolation in the affectionate remembrance of her friends.

Ever sincerely yours

C Ricketts

For a more detailed study of these events read Aubrey and the Dying Lady: A Beardsley Riddle, by Malcolm Easton. Secker & Warburg, London, 1972.

Worcester 1795 – City of Ice, Flood and Quake

IMG_0668The year 1795 was a memorable one for the city of Worcester, and one that helped inspire some of the events in Stone Ties. In January of that year the River Severn froze over, and a local printer did indeed set up a press on the ice, to print mementos for the local populace. The wording of the memento Mary reads in Stone Ties is a faithful transcription from Valentine Green’s The History and Antiquities of the City and Suburbs of Worcester, published in London in 1796.

The following month, on the 12th February, following the Great Freeze, a great accumulation of melted ice contributed to the momentous flood. The ice stacked up against the New Bridge, blocking the river’s flow, and at one point threatened its destruction.

Then on the night of Wednesday 18th November, a few minutes before 11:00 o’clock, a slight earthquake was felt throughout the city and the adjacent country. Providentially it did no damage.

As Valentine Green so beautifully summed up, “Such have been the sufferings of Worcester, which, phoenix-like, hath risen from her ashes with added lustre.”

Fall Into Autumn


Laurence Housman

The passing of summer both gladdens and saddens my heart. I yearn to welcome autumn, to embrace its sensuous enfolding of decay, its glorious descent into ochres, reds and ambers. I long to relax into the essential me; the me of wool and tweed, of scarves and boots; the me that celebrates the seasonal shift of the air and the robin’s song, with the annual custom of the turning page.

Two books, one title; Shelley waits patiently for his autumnal release. And so, as each year before, I take them down from the cabinet, and read once more The Sensitive Plant. Though the words are the same, each book elicits a unique response.


Charles Robinson

Laurence Houseman’s illustrations leave me uneasy; his Pan a troubling pagan presence amidst the inevitable decay. His garden is unnerving, but strangely exhilarating; I want to walk that path but secretly know my hand would tremble on the gate’s latch.

Charles Robinson’s watercolour palette is benign, though steeped in pathos. His garden is one of melancholy and deep longing. The scent of decay is tangible. Here sorrow borders every path. I tread these walks untroubled; the damp leaves clinging to my boots.

Then the rain came down, and the broken stalks

Were bent and tangled across the walks;

And the leafless network of parasite bowers

Massed into ruin; and all sweet flowers.

The Great Picture Hunt

And here we are – a new novel. So what’s the greatest challenge likely to be, researching, writing? You’d think; but not so, in my experience.

Research is a joy to be embraced, any excuse and you’ll find me in the library or trawling the Internet, divining for those drops of certainty that help me span the gap between fantasy and credibility. And along the way the glorious thrill of serendipity, the unsought gems that present themselves, unexpected but greatly welcome; inspirational, perhaps not now, but for the next book maybe.

Then comes the writing; an intangible product of the sub, semi, and fully conscious mind. A flow, or stutter, of words and rhythms, constructions and cadences. By the strangest alchemy the words come good, eventually, and the book takes form.

But all these, the dialogues and dilemmas of the raw writing process, pale in deference to the great picture hunt.

It’s done; crafted, polished and prepared. This work requires but one small thing to send it out into the uncertain world; presentation. The word has a power to diminish, to subjugate, to intimidate. Without its wrapping of allure it’s nothing, this book. Without the arresting image, the seductive conceit, then all is naught. And so the hunt begins. The galleries, the image libraries, the pale and wasted lands of the layman’s imagination; all are searched for that one compelling image. Finally the picture forms, persuades you of its power to entice.

I want, no, MUST have that one. And then…..

Copyright, clearances, fees and assurances; each strives to bar the way; each opens a door to compromise.

Perhaps if I design it myself? Oh please…..make it stop.


procrăs’tin  āte, v.i. & t. Defer action, be dilatory; (rare) postpone (action).

It could be, though I’m sure others would lay similar claim, the author’s malaise. That unwelcome guest at the writer’s desk, procrastination. Down the ages the pen has tarried, the keys have fallen silent, and so often the cause has arrived unannounced, unfathomed, and unwelcome.

And so I think, I stare, I listen, I e-mail, I blog, I tweet. I turn the music up, and put the kettle on. I stroke the cat, and pull the weeds. I plan, I research, I prepare. I write….but not nearly so much as I should, or could.

So until they find a cure, I struggle endlessly with the “P” word as best I can.

The Indie Author’s Baedeker

Writing on a budget can be a challenging and frustrating process, not least when your dearest wish is to fly off to that exotic location to complete your research (let’s face it, why else would you want to go?). I think you know where I’m going with this.

Just now, a few weeks in Italy would make a world of difference. I need to walk the streets, savour the ambiance, connect with the history. It’s a professional necessity I tell myself, not an indulgence. How else can I write this part of the book? How else indeed?

Well “bless the internet” I say. For weeks now I’ve been strolling down the virtual streets, hovering above cities in high-definition splendour, orienting myself with unerring precision around squares and alleyways I’ve never trod. And bless the evangelistic amateurs too. Where would I be without their meticulously researched guides to churches and monuments, histories and traditions; without their passion? With their help, and a little imagination, I’ve come to know something of these places, albeit from a distance. But heavens, how those distances have reduced.