I wanted to write a haiku,
About life and love and you;
But haiku are intense,
And don’t always make sense;
So I wrote this instead, will it do?
Haiku are all very well, but what about the humble limerick? In the hands of an expert, haiku can be hauntingly lovely, but they tend to be so gloomy. And earnest. Which I suppose is a bit rich from somebody who last week posted a very gloomy and earnest poem. So, to celebrate the last day of NaPoWriMo, let’s have a bit of fun.
Limericks are such an easy form a child can write them, and because of this are often dismissed as doggerel, but they can also be very clever. What about:
There was a young lady named Bright
who travelled much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way,
and came back the previous night.
And then there’s:
There was a young lady of Niger
who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
with the lady inside,
and the smile on the face of the tiger.
(attributed to Edward Lear and William Cosmo Monkhouse).
Then of course, there are the smutty ones (close your eyes now):
There was a young man from Savannah
Who died in a curious manner:
He whittled a hole
In a telephone pole
And electrified his banana.
As Titian was mixing rose madder,
His model posed nude up a ladder,
So he nipped up the ladder and had her.
Edward Lear is the man who is most associated with the limerick, according to The Best Limericks of All Time A Brief History of the Limerick compiled and edited by Michael R. Burch. But he didn’t invent the form, he just found it in some old books. In fact even Shakespeare wrote limericks (as drinking songs in The Tempest, and Othello).
American author Ogden Nash was pretty nifty with a limerick:
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “let us flee!”
“Let us fly!” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
Somewhere, in an alternate universe, there is a small town (very small) containing all the characters I’ve ever invented. One of them, I suspect, is wandering around, moaning, ‘She started me off as a librarian; all I wanted to do was drink cocoa and watch Downton Abbey, and then she made me get drunk and go windsurfing.’
Given that character’s unbelievable behaviour, it’s not really surprising that she is still stuck in literary no man’s land. And she’s definitely not the only one I’ve messed up.
When you invent a character you have to be true to them. You can’t just invent a swashbuckling pirate and then have him, for example, becoming a chartered accountant. It wouldn’t work. Unless, of course, he was a very neat pirate with a penchant for double entry book-keeping.
If your characters are true to themselves, your story will hang together. Otherwise it will lurch from plot point to plot point like a train driver on amphetamines. Truthfulness is an odd sort of concept when you are making up a story, but if you just make your characters do things for the sake of your plot, then you are going to get bored and frustrated, and worse, so is your reader.
The trick I have learned with describing characters is to try to be them; really try to get into their skin. I’m not talking about using senses here (I’ll talk about that some other time), but about absolutely nailing the action. If you can visualise a scene, not just as if you are watching a film, but as if you are actually in it, and question each point as to how it would be in real life, then how you write about it should be bang on.
Let me talk you through it with this example:
‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’ shouted Mr Wolf.
The two little pigs leaned against their flimsy front door and waited for Mr Wolf to blow. They could hear him wheezing as he drew breath (so I drew breath there and tried to describe what it sounded like). Then there was silence. (Bit of tension there) The little pigs looked at each other and then ran squealing for the back door. (At first I had them waiting for their end to come. Which was lazy on my part. But then I put myself in their place and immediately wanted to run for the nearest exit). Then Mr Wolf blew. From the shelter of the forest, the little pigs could see that their house was still standing. (Be honest, can anybody really blow a house down? Then don’t shy away from telling the truth) Nobody can blow a house down. Especially not a wolf who smokes 60 cigarettes a day (He’s bad; give him a bad habit). But then, just as the pigs were wondering whether to scamper back inside, Mr Wolf, exhausted from his efforts, and still wheezing, staggered forward and their little house of wood collapsed under him like a stack of Jenga (avoid cliches, try to use something new for any similes).
Pick a well known bedtime story (simply because you will already have a structure to work with) and try the same sort of approach and see what happens. Evaluate each step honestly, and see where it takes you. I guarantee it will be interesting.
Pictures from Mr Wolf, by Elaine Canham, Voyage 1 Short stories, Oxford University Press 2005
You know that bit in Bridget Jones’s Diary, when she has a dinner party and ends up serving her guests blue soup and marmalade? Had a bit of a moment like that last night. I saw this recipe card in a supermarket, for artichoke and avocado salad, and it looked like the kind of thing that laughing, lightly tanned people eat at sunset on a beach somewhere, with a glass of pinot grigio. So, naturally, I thought I’d make it for my family. Because, of course, if you live with people who think egg and chips is halfway to heaven, they are really going to love an artichoke salad.
The ingredients were extraordinary. Powdered sumac, for example. (Isn’t that the stuff that grows in American forests and can kill you with a single touch? Ed). Sumac? Wtf? Still, they sell it in Waitrose (because that’s where the cosmopolitan intelligentsia shop, after all) so I mortgaged one of the children and bought a small pot. I got the rest of the ingredients in discount supermarket Aldi (because I need to save the rest of the children for a rainy day).
I’d just like to say here that I blame everything on WordPress. The trouble with attempting complicated recipes (or anything else) is that you have to think about them, and not what’s happening to your blog stats. So in between nipping to my computer to see if I was getting any comments, and shouted conversations with my teenage son on the lines of, ‘You mean you’ve had the entire holidays to do your homework and you’ve only found out about it now?’, I began.
Of course, I had failed to read the recipe correctly. The first thing it called for was half a ciabatta. Of course it did. So I got out two slices of Hovis, cut them up with a pair of scissors, put them in a bowl with olive oil and the sumac and then put them into the oven to turn into croutons. Then, feeling unusually domestic, I made a quiche and put it in the oven.
Then I went to check on my blog again and forgot where I was. Then I remembered about the croutons. Got them out of the oven just in time. Husband entered kitchen, looked at them, and said, ‘Are we having dog biscuits for tea?’
Got out large knife and chopped up husband other ingredients. Except the most important one, the lettuce, which I forgot. Took out the quiche. The pastry had collapsed, and I realised I had also forgotten to put any cheese in it. It looked like an omelette pond. Put salad on table. Put quiche on table. Called everybody.
Three hours later, the shy inhabitants of the house’s interior begin arriving in kitchen. Son looks at salad and picks up a crouton. ‘What’s this?’
‘Dog biscuit,’ says husband.
Son looks pityingly at him. ‘That’s not a dog biscuit, dad. It’s a futon.’
This is my solitary contribution to National Poetry Writing Month. I have no idea where it came from, apart from the end of my pen:
The feathered shadows of the grass now lie
Against the moon. Its light is falling on
The shivering lake. And soon I shiver too.
I can’t escape the flat and sober calm
Of voices from the news, that follow me
As I run, stumbling, screaming to the stars,
My hand upon my growing, beating belly.
I fall face down upon the sucking mud
And dig my fingers in the slime.
I hold on now as bodies in the streets
Let go of life, and sirens scream among
The bloody shops. I am that empty shoe;
That piece of skirt; that constant lonely phone.
And you were constant once. ‘I like a bit
Of peace,’ you said, and gently touched my hands.
It takes a gentle touch to wire a bomb
And tell it to obey. I know that now.
I loved you then. You made me laugh that day
Beside the lake when I forgot the cups.
You knelt by me and cupped your hands instead.
You stroked my chin, you smiled; my face was wet.
I broke the silent years and stumbled out
My secret hopes to you. But you were blank
And deep inside I knew you would not stay.
Deep in that dark and silent space, the place
I call my soul, I knew what you were doing.
I knew, and kept my knowledge locked.
I knew and did not know. I can’t explain.
I don’t know why I never spoke, except
That night we spent in silence by the fire,
Flames on your glowing skin; our whispering clothes.
Your eyes met mine and then they slid away;
You touched my lips. How silent could I be?
And then last night in bed you sat up stark
And quivered at the quiet note that came
From someone else’s lips. You slipped into
Your clothes and coat and out into the dark.
You made a bomb and planted it – for what?
It took the earth apart. I saw it on TV.
You made a bomb and planted it in me.
© Elaine Canham 2014
There are moments when you are writing a story and you are inside it and everything is falling together in this wonderful symmetry and your fingers aren’t typing fast enough to keep up with what is unfurling on the page. Unfortunately, there are also moments when your characters have disappeared off for a tea break, and you are left alone pawing uselessly at your keyboard. And everything you try just falls flat.
So, try Story Magic! One teaspoon a day and in 28 days you are guaranteed to write like a Nobel prizewinner. Available in Hemingway, Steinbeck and Greene flavours.
No. Really. I made that last bit up. But there are lots of ways you can kick start your imagination. I’ve already talked about creating characters through their possessions. But you can also create them by thinking of opposites. For example, start with a handsome man. Then think of an opposite. Maybe he wears scruffy clothes. Then think of a trait. He’s very kind to his mother. But then, maybe he beats up his wife. It’s quite an absorbing technique and it very quickly gives you a believable character, because most humans are a bundle of contradictions. Once you think you know your new character, you can supply more contrast by introducing another character.
Of course, you can’t write an entire story by introducing contrasts. You have to eventually flesh your characters out. But I’ve found that, after a paragraph, that you are so intrigued by this new person, that your words start flowing again.
Here’s an example I wrote:
Everything about him was a contradiction. He was fat and he walked with ridiculously light steps, as if he were twinkling along, his hands held up slightly, his fingers splayed. He minced along the street like a caricature of a Soho queen, and yet in the boot of his car he had a stack of dog eared porn mags. His car, too, was a contradiction. He was a detective, a private detective, mind, but whereas the other lads had cars that could pass for skips, his was clean, almost obsessively pine fresh. He hated the way the others kept their cars. Rab, would you believe it, even had a slice of bacon under the front passenger seat.
Not the most brilliant prose, but I hope you see what I mean.
They lived in a house in the Midlands. They were all single, of course, except for the Argylls who had separated in the bathroom and had never noticed each other again in the crowd. Most didn’t know what had happened to their significant other. There were stories; there were always stories about why their partners had left. But no one really knew. Four members of the Green family thought their other halves had simply gone in search of adventure, maybe with that one-legged pirate who had come to visit. They mourned them silently. They would never now go places together, and the desertion made them look limp and lifeless. Maybe being single meant they didn’t age so fast. But still, where was the fun in having to stay home all the time?
Sometimes one or two came back. There were quick, unsettling rumours of dusty adventures behind radiators and of suffocating in the dark grittiness of armchairs. But there was never any chance to talk properly because the pairs always left to live somewhere else.
And then, of course, there was the horror of what happened under the bed. Not all the partners had just disappeared without trace. Some of them were taken by the giant dog, and they were never seen whole again. Weeks, sometimes days, went by before the soggy remains of some bright traveller were salvaged from the darkness and thrown away without ceremony.
There were compensations. Sometimes they lay on the carpet, all 56 of them, and just touched each other. It was called the Day of the Counting. But always afterwards, many went away and were never seen again. The young Stripes said that this was because they too had gone on a great adventure. But the savvy Woollens knew better; the socks, who had been loneliest longest, had at last gone to meet their maker.
Remember I told you about my grandad, the one who went to New York and fell off the Mauretania? Now I want to tell you what happened to him when he joined the army in 1914. Partly because it’s interesting, and partly because there is no memorial to the regiment that he served with; which when you think of what they went through, is nothing short of shameful.
James had four brothers and two sisters. His brothers Bob, Alexander (Sandy) and Arthur all signed up. I’m not sure what the youngest son George did, but their parents must have found life hard with four sons on the Western Front. Bob was 30 and married. His wife Peg gave birth to their third child in November 1914, and he joined the Scots Guards in January 1915. At first everything went pretty well, the army kept him in England and trained him to shoe horses. But in 1917 he was posted to the Somme and in March 1918, when the Germans mounted a counter attack he was shot in the shoulder and died the next day. Here is the list of personal effects that were sent back to Peg, on August 3, 1918: photographs, cards, a poem, two discs, letters, religious book, a handkerchief, 11 buttons, a purse, scissors, a French dictionary, two badges, a wallet and a broken brooch.
Sandy, two years younger, was a driver in the Royal Artillery. This meant riding a horse in a team of six pulling a gun carriage, and making sure that they got to the front line without stampeding or turning the gun over. Bit like his farm job, I suppose, except that nobody shoots at you in Fife. Amazingly, he survived and went to Canada, where he had a rather extraordinary and ultimately tragic end (but more about that another time). Arthur was 21. He too was in the Scots Guards, and was shot in the knee and invalided out.
And now we come to James. He was 26, and, as I said, he joined the Army Service Corps. He might have been assigned to the regiment because he was one of the very few people at that time who could drive. This was probably because of his apprenticeship to a grocer, but I don’t know. He signed up on November 17, 1914 and was sent to France on December 23. When his daughter asked him what he did, he simply said he delivered stores to the front line. As was quite common in those days, he gave no descriptions at all. We do know that he was promoted to corporal and based at No 2 GHQ Reserve Motor Company in Calais.
The Army Service Corps wasn’t a glamorous regiment. It didn’t get its Royal prefix until after the war was over, and the men in it called themselves Ally Sloper’s Cavalry (after a cartoon drunk and rent dodger). There were only a few hundred motor vehicles worldwide in the regiment in 1914, but there were 105,000 at the time of the Armistice. What I found strange was that there were also 650 former civilian buses on the Western Front, used to transport troops and stores. It must have seemed like the blackest of humour to be sent up to the front line at say, Ypres or Arras or Paschaendale, on a Number 32. (I think my granddad drove one of these; he was certainly a bus driver for a time after the war.)
Historians have paid so little attention to this regiment and the part that its men played in the war, that it is extremely difficult to get any details about specific units and what they did. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how terrifying his job must have been. You can’t drive and shoot at the same time. You just have to keep driving. When James was demobbed on May 27, 1919, his discharge papers noted that he was a ‘very good driver, thoroughly reliable’.
The German artillery definitely liked to target the supply trucks and depots. And when casualties mounted among front line troops, the soldiers of the ASC were routinely given a gun and sent to the front. According to the Western Front Association it is rare to find a British War Memorial without the name of a soldier in the ASC. Two members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross. Some of the bravest men in the war, those who drove the field ambulances, were in the ASC. This year marks the centennial of the start of the First War, and yet, according to Army history site The Long, Long Trail, the regiment, so vital to the army, merits just four mentions in the Official History of the war. There is no memorial to it.
As I said. Shameful.
This is my granddad, James Scott, in a photo taken at his village school nearly 120 years ago. He’s aged about ten or 11 here, I think, and he’s staring into the camera with a good deal of scepticism. Of course, he’s been done up like a dog’s dinner by his mother with an outsize bow-tie but there is also the fact that, at this time (about 1900), photography, especially in the wilds of Fife, where he lived, must have been a pretty rare thing. Photographers in those days had a camera on a tripod and they disappeared under a big black cloth to change the plate. Then, when everything was ready, they held up a big tray of magnesium and applied a match. Flash bang wallop, what a picture. I like the way the teachers are all dressed up, too, in their tailcoats. God knows how they kept order with that lot.
James’s father, and his father’s father, in fact all his ancestors back to 1620 were ploughmen in Fife, and none of them ever did anything different. Until James came along. After he left school, probably not long after this picture was taken, he was apprenticed to a grocer in his home town of Newburgh. Nothing really exciting. But then, out of the blue, when he is about 19, he packs everything in and travels 500 miles to Southampton to sign on as a ship’s steward, bound for New York.
He doesn’t sign on with just any old ship, mark you, he gets a job on the Mauretania, (sister ship of Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915). It is the most prestigious ship on the Atlantic, packed with the kind of people you’d never normally see from behind a horse’s arse in Fife. On a voyage during December 1910 Prince Albert and Prince Radziwell (who he? ed) were amongst the passengers.
So there he is, on the Mauretania, the fastest ship on the Atlantic steaming into New York past the Statue of Liberty, and what happens?
Aye, weel, as my relatives would say that is a moot point. My mother says he fell off. My auntie says he did no such thing. The only record we have is his Board of Trade employment book and that has had all its pages torn out. He certainly survived, and when he came back he signed up in 1914 for a new, rather more terrible adventure, as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was driving a grocer’s van once more, but this time he was taking supplies to the trenches on the Western Front.