Ah, what’s this then? Well, If you must know, I’ve been given a helping hand to climb on board the Blog Tour Monday (a sort of blog-bus) by my writing friend, (fellow Arachne Press author and Ilkley Fringe Festival performer) Louise Swingler and her pal, traveller and writer, Jo Nicel, who wrote a very entertaining blog last Monday. Jo described Blog Tour Monday as a sort of relay race. I like to think of it as a way for writers across the land to hold hands, to make connections, to tell each other and their readers a bit more about themselves and about their writing and to generally feel, well, that there’s somebody out there whose hand they can hold. Holding hands before me, apart from Jo and Louise, were novelist and musician Dr Steve Hollyman (‘CreepJoint’ sounds a most crepuscular name for a band, Dr Steve!), Graeme Shimmin (author of ‘A Kill in the Morning’), Sara Jasmon (author of ‘The Summer of Secrets’, to be published by Transworld next year) and writers David Hartley and Emma Yates Badley. If you click on those lovely people’s names you will be linked to their contributions to the Blog Tour and find out much more about them. As for me, it’s good to shake you by the hand. As you might know (where have you been?) I’m the writer of Inspector Bucket and The Beast - Dahliapublishing.co.uk (available also from Amazon) – and various other Inspector Bucket short stories (see my previous blogs). But what I’m supposed to be doing here is answering some questions about my current writing. What am I working on? Well, since you ask, at the moment I’m 80,000 words into a family saga (currently called No Father Was There), very loosely based on the lives of my Australian grandfather and my English grandmother during the First World War. The tale deals with their rather tragic relationship and the effect it had on my father, who was brought up in a children’s home in Sidcup, South London. Pertinently, given the anniversary of World War One about to be upon us, it deals with the war itself, of course, but more so the impact the war had on people’s family and emotional lives. There’s a chapter of the novel (in much adapted form), entitled The Trumpet Calls, already available in Stew and Stinkers from the ‘Stringybark Book shop’ if you want to have a look at it. However, The Blog Tour demands that one should answer the question: How does your writing differ from others in its genre? Of course then you have to pin yourself down (always a difficult job that can cause bruises and fractures) to work out what on earth your genre is! (Sounds like a very nasty complaint to me.) Well, my first book, ‘Inspector Bucket’, sat in the historical-detective novel genre quite comfortably, I suppose – though it has Gothic qualities too – and, I like to think, it might also be seen as a comic-romance. Sort of. ‘No Father Was There’, on the other hand, (the title comes from William Blake’s Little Boy Lost) is clearly a War Time story – and I’m happy with that description – but it’s also about childhood, class and cultural and racial tensions. I hope its multi-narrative structure gives it a different sort of dimension too. I shall now unravel myself from the floor to answer the next question, which is: Why do I write what I do? Ah, that one brings the priest and the doctor running over the fields! ‘Inspector Bucket’ was (though based on Dickens’ character from ‘Bleak House’) a completely imagined story. The new novel is, I confess, very definitely based on some real people. However it’s still complete fiction, a way to imagine lives that were close to me but that I actually know very little about. The imaginative recreation is a kind of emotional analogue of genealogical research for me, a way of exploring lives that I hope are interesting for their own sake but that might be illustrative of certain times and places in the past. Now I need a lie down in a darkened room. The final question I have been asked is: How does my writing process work? Haphazardly must be the answer. I wish I could say I write a disciplined thousand words a day but, in fact, I can go for weeks without writing much at all – but, when an idea hits me (perhaps through something I’ve read or seen or heard about), I get completely engaged and don’t look up again until I have come to the end of it. (Clothes unwashed, hair and beard down to my knees.) But, in between, I love the fiddly process of editing my own mad scribbles. This bit I find very akin to painting – an extra touch of colour here, a change of position for a character or object there, a complete paint-over when it all looks wrong. (Chuck the whole dratted canvas in the bin over there and go up the pub.) Enough, or too much. So now it’s time to hand over to two writers to take the Blog Tour Monday further on its motley way. And they are Christina Longden (who describes herself as a ‘Funny Female Who Gives A Toss’) author of ‘Mind Games and Ministers’, amongst other delights, as well as being a leading light in the ‘Holmfirth Writers’ Group’. And then there is David Ellis who duets with Julienne Victoria in a collection of poetry called Flying from the Heart and, like me, (you fool!) has a story in the ‘What the Dickens?‘ Busker anthology. Click on their names to find their contribution to the Blog Tour next Monday, 17th March, and they will keep you company. I shake your hand.
I went riding on the Write Track alongside my co-driver, Louise Swingler, and wonderful fire-woman (and expert slide-clicker and general ideas-stoker) the Lady Vivienne on the fringe at the Ilkley Lit Festival last night (Tuesday 15 Oct). And after a few shunts and diversions we built up enough steam to arrive safely at our destination.
We arrived for work carrying guitars, Station Master hats and coats, a top hat, books, and lots of nerves to a busy Wildman Studio at the Ilkley Playhouse and were escorted to our dressing room (well of course!)
Once on stage (that’s luvvie talk) we performed our odd mixture of songs, brief sketches from ‘Brief Encounters’
and strange ones from ‘Strangers on a Train’, as well as rousing readings from train-related incidents by Richard Yates, Kate Atkinson, Paul Theroux, Angela Carter and Arundhati Roy, before entering the tunnel of our own tales from the ‘Stations’ anthology.
We finished by asking the audience for their own favourite train stories or episodes – and were re-railed along the lines of: The Railway Children, Ghost Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Slum Dog Millionaire, The Night Train, Train to Pakistan, and Thomas the Tank Engine – to name but a few.
(Feel free to add your own!)
It was lovely to get such engagement – and many positive responses to our performance too, including:
“I could hear every word you said!”
(There’s Yorkshire praise for you!)
People hovered on the platform for some while afterwards, chatting, sharing more train anecdotes and even buying a book or two at the station bookshop.
Or was it the free cake from the buffet that kept them there?
We’ll be having bit of fun with train related stories (and a couple of films) as well as reading adapted versions of our stories from the ‘Stations’ anthology. I even sing a chorus or two from a couple of songs. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that!)
We enjoyed preparing it anyway, and hope our pleasure gets across to any audience who might turn up! There’s a link here to an interview we’ve just completed.
Oh, and there’s free cake!
The adapted first chapter of my work-in-progress novel (currently entitled ‘No Father was there’) has been accepted for publication by the ‘Stringybark Awards Past Times’ competition in their ‘Stew and Sinkers’ anthology. The e-book is available now and the paperback edition by 17 October.
Modest stuff, but as the putative novel is partly an Australian based story and ‘Stringybark’ is an Aussie publisher, I’m encouraged that they seem to think I’ve got it right!
Thus far anyway! We’ll see how the rest of the novel goes, shall we?
You can get a discounted copy of the e-book (which includes a version of the first chapter of my novel) by going to the above website (if you’re interested) and on payment putting in this code: TV48F – so that you get a discount! (There are lots of other interesting stories there by other authors as well as me!) With the discount the cost is A$2.80 (A bargain, cobber!)
The story (and the novel) is partly about the life of my Australian grandad. He was in fact a serviceman during the First World War who must, of course, have spent some time in England.
The young Aussie pictured above, is not, unfortunately, my grandad. I have no picture of him and, to my shame, and I know to the shame of my brothers, we know almost nothing about him! All we know is that he was called John Cooper and that he was a soldier. I presume he must have just gone back to Australia after he met my grandma. (Who I also didn’t know!) Perhaps he wasn’t even aware that he’d made her pregnant.
I wonder how they met. Were they actually lovers, or …
Grandma went on, I have always assumed, to ‘marry’ a chap called Dopson. This Mr Dopson clearly didn’t want to take on the child (my dad) and, I suppose, Grandma must have been forced to give him up. I never knew Mr Dopson or Grandma. But I do know her Christian names: Florence Elizabeth.
Rather lovely, I think.
No doubt it was common enough for a young woman to get into trouble during the war years, but, of course, it would have been shameful nonetheless – and people would probably go to great extremes to cover up the misdemeanour. To cover up the pregnancy. In this case, to cover up the existence of my dad!
But the reason for the inverted commas around the word ‘marry’, above, is that on my Aunt Joan’a birth certificate (Joan Dopson was the child Florence Elizabeth had at a later stage with the before mentioned Mr Dopson) Grandma’s name is given as Florence Elizabeth Cooper.
Florence didn’t marry Mr Dopson then. Did she marry John Cooper after all? Or did she estrange herself (or become estranged) from Dopson and simply call herself Cooper. Or …
All very mysterious.
But you must forgive me for dwelling on such vague biographical matter.
You might be wondering why my brothers and I didn’t clear up these matters whilst the principals (or some of them) were still alive.
Well, I ask myself the same question and feel full of guilt that I didn’t.
But, of course, my dad would never talk of such things – it being seen as shameful to be a ‘bastard’ in his day.
Here he is in happier times with my brother.
He was probably ashamed, too, to talk about his childhood in the home.
Here it is.
Only occasionally, when tipsy with drink at Christmas time or at other potentially emotional moments, would he briefly allude to his childhood – and then promptly wave aside any further questioning – whilst mum looked upset.
This is him (and mum) below (looking very happy and proud) with two of their many grandchildren.
It was partly that my parents were such cheerful, happy people that, I suppose, the thought of the “terrible hidden secret” was never worried about by any of us when we were growing up. Or when we were grown.
Here we all are (minus my brother Lew who was already in the services himself) looking the typical picture of a happy family. (I’m the little one.)
But what about our Aunt Joan? (Dad’s half-sister.) Perhaps she would have known something about the mysterious John Cooper and she could certainly have told us something about her own father (Dopson) and her mother, Florence. Perhaps so, but I barely knew her, beyond the occasional visit to what seemed to me at the time a rather posh house where we were served such unheard of delicacies (for a boy from Woolwich) as Twiglets!
My Aunt Joan always gave the impression that she was a cut (several cuts) above us (above my dad – above her half-brother.)
This impression wasn’t solely due to the Twiglets, or the posh house either.
Mum always put on an embarrassingly ‘la-di-da’ voice when she spoke to Aunt Joan. That was always a sure sign!
And dad would sometimes visit his half-sister and bring back exotic things (or so they seemed to me) like brief cases, expensive looking headed note-paper, fine looking fountain pens and golden nibs. (Perhaps she or her husband – I don’t remember ever meeting him either – ran a stationery shop!)
And then there was the whispered, anguished voice of my mum muttering something like, “Couldn’t your Joan help out?” – which I always supposed was a question about money. (Though, on reflection, my mum would have been too proud to accept that sort of help!)
So what was Aunt Joan to ‘help out’ with that, presumably, she never did?
Anyway, by the time I was an adult, Aunt Joan had moved to Spain (must have been posh then) and by the time I was interested in the answers to these family conundrums she had died there.
Was Mr Dopson (my ‘step-grandad’ I suppose I have to call him) ‘middle class’ then?
Several steps above us, indeed.
But where is all this leading me, you might ask?
Well, there is, of course, the trumpet call to explore the verities about one’s own antecedents. (Must get on to Ancestry.co.uk. Must explore the Australian Forces records. Yes, must.)
But, for me, there is also the trumpet call to make fiction of all of this. To invent the bits in between the vague facts. To investigate in the imagination before I investigate in fact.
Grandad (Johnny Cooper as I call him in my fiction) must have heard the trumpet call to join up in 1914. After all, there was unemployment in the dusty overcrowded suburbs of Sydney (where I imagine him living as a young man.)Joining the Australian Imperial Forces (as I imagine he did) must have seemed a great adventure, as it did to so many young men. (And the AIF paid 6 bob a day! Enough to make the British troops jealous anyway.) Like most in the AIF he would have been posted to Gallipoli and, if he survived that, the Somme too.
Some adventure! At some point, of course, he must have been in England – possibly on leave but more likely hospitalised due to some war wound or other. And Mr Dopson (my step-grandad) – what sort of man was he? A man perhaps with class aspirations, if not middle class as such. And Florence Elizabeth? What kind of young woman was she?
That’s him, my dad, the little fat boy in the middle. (The only picture I have of him as a boy.) And it makes my heart ache every time I look at it.
And how come he was born in Limehouse? Limehouse had a notorious reputation at that time, just before and after the First World War. It was the ‘China Town’ of London, in the days before it was supplanted by Soho. In 1917, Limehouse was an area of docklands inhabited by a colloquy of Malays, Lascars, Chinese, negroes, Jews, boxing bouts, opium dens and brothels. A recipe for a story perhaps.
Actually, it’s very clean on the whole, although there is a complicated dispute going on about a new property tax – which is related in an odd sort of way. Bear with me.
It seems that in Dublin they don’t have the equivalent of our council tax. ‘Rates’, as they called them, were abolished in 1997 (a pre-election pledge given when the economy was still booming.) Theoretically, water supply and sanitation services, in contrast to most countries in the world, are provided free of charge to domestic users, paid for out of general taxation. Apparently, though, with creeping privatisation, it seems some are having to pay private firms to take their rubbish away. You might have thought that the new property tax would have been brought in as a sort of equivalent to our council tax to pay for these vital local services, but no. It seems that the property tax is, well, just a tax on property.That’s it. It doesn’t pay for any services. It just helps to pay off the European loan that Ireland has been forced to take out because of its exploded economy. Brought on by its greedy bankers I suppose. It must seem to some Dubliners that they’re having to pay to get their bins removed in three different ways.
As with us, this sort of thing is leaving rather a bitter taste in the mouth. “The feety savour of green cheese,” as Joyce puts it in Ulysses when describing a gorgonzola sandwich.
But I digress.
I’ve just got back from “dear dirty Dublin,” as I was saying, and am astonished (again) by the institutional veneration of James Augusta Aloysius Joyce. From Bloom’s Bar on the Ulysses ferry (where I enjoyed several pints of Guinness on the way out and back) to the tourist maps full of the ubiquitous double J of the “James Joyce Connection” and the recent striking of a ten euro coin in Joyce’s honour, Dublin is the James Joyce city.
Odd, it seems to me.
Odd because, on the evidence of a re-reading of ‘Dubliners’ at least, James Joyce seems to be generally contemptuous of Dublin’s people, if not the streets that they walk in.
The few ‘successful’ characters in the collection are self-aggrandising, self-serving and shallow. Take Gallagher, a character in ‘A Little Cloud’, with his nasty way of equating women (or marriage) and money – “I’ve only to say the word and tomorrow I can have the woman and the cash” – or, Lenehan, from ‘Two Gallants’, holding out the “small gold coin in his hand” (parodying Judas) after his ‘business’ with the “blunt” featured woman. These characters are just nasty but the majority of Dubliners are seemingly trapped in lives which stultify them or turn them into helpless monsters, like Little Chandler (in ‘A Little Cloud’) shouting at the baby because its crying stops him from reading his poetry, feeling himself a “prisoner for life”. Or there is the repulsive bullying boss in ‘Counterpart’, Mr Alleyne, who employs the hideous Farrington who in his turn bullies and strikes his own child, ignoring him as he cries out, “Don’t beat me pa! Don’t beat me!” Other Dubliners are just trapped by dubiously pragmatic manipulators, as Jimmy is in ‘After the Race’, his head in a “dark stupor” and out of his depth after his night of gambling with his more ‘knowing’ friends. Or there’s poor Mr Doran who is tricked into marriage by the coldly calculating Mrs Mooney (in ‘The Boarding House’) who “deals with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat”.
The word that springs to my mind to describe this gallery of failed, frustrated and trapped people is the word ‘pitiful’.
At times the experience of reading ‘Dubliners’ does give rise to genuine pathos, as in ‘The Dead’ when Gabrielle becomes painfully, “shamefully” aware of how ludicrous he is, misunderstanding, as he does, his wife’s feelings about a previous lover. And this pathos is often strengthened by the beauty of Joyce’s deceptively simple prose, as in the “reflections of candles on darkened blinds” (‘Sisters’), or the “branches of tall trees (lining) the mall with gay little light leaves .. the sun slanting through them onto the water (‘The Encounter’) or as in ‘The Dead’ with “the snow falling faintly through the universe, falling faintly … Upon all the living and the dead”.
Perhaps, though, the key to Joyce’s purposes is in that word “universe” from ‘The Dead’.
Joyce reportedly said (as recorded in Ellmann’s biography) that “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
So there we have it.
Joyce wasn’t writing just about Dubliners but about all mankind. Similarly, ‘Ulysses’ is not just about Bloom’s and Stephen’s one day in one city but all men’s (and women’s) experiences in all places and times.
But I still can’t help thinking that Joyce didn’t actually like Dubliners very much.
He exiled himself after 1904, at the age of 22, returning only intermittently till 1912 and hardly at all, as far as I can see, after that. When he died he was buried in Zurich, not Dublin.
Even today his descendants recall what they consider to be bad treatment by the Irish state – although I am unclear what this treatment actually amounts to. He had difficulty getting his work published, sure enough, and Dublin was nervous about some of his views, true. And Joyce felt, it seems, that he couldn’t write the sort of books he wanted to write whilst still in Dublin, and nor could he go on living in Dublin in his unmarried state with Nora Barnacle (whom he didn’t actually marry until 1931 after leaving Dublin with her in 1904).
But why else was Joyce so upset by Ireland? I’m sure someone will enlighten me.
Recently the Irish state, clearly with the intention of cementing still further the connection with Joyce and drawing in more gullible literary tourists like myself, have struck a 10 euro coin in honour of the writer, adorned with his face and a quotation from ‘Ulysses’ no less. Unfortunately, it is a misquotation, or rather they have put in an extra word. The word is “that”. This is clearly a stupid mistake but the Joyce Estate sees it as more than ‘that’. It is, instead, a deliberate insult to Joyce’s memory.
They don’t much like the look of the likeness on the coin either.
“He entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once… Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.”
I (like thousands of tourists before me) entered Davy Byrne’s myself recently. I had a very enjoyable Gorgonzola sandwich along with a delicious pint of Guinness (rather than the glass of Burgundy that Bloom has.)
Dublin and Joyce, a relish of mutual disgust and the savour of love.
A bizarre sandwich.
Pechakutcha is basically an intense powerpoint presentation where you talk about anything you want to whilst showing 20 (obviously relevent) slides and talking for a maximum of 20 seconds per image. Quite a challenge actually. The theme for the night was, being a literary festival, books. (Come on, keep up!)
I talked, breathlessly, about some of the background ideas in Inspector Bucket and the Beast. This image is of me talking about how easy it was in Mid-Victorian England for husbands and fathers to get wives and daughters committed to mental institutions – something one of the characters in my novel does to his daughter. The slide is actually of a wax work from Madame Tussauds from towards the end of the Victorian period. I’m the one on the right just in case you’re confused!
As you can, just about, see I attempted to dress up for the part, as Bucket – not a mad woman.
This is actually how I was dresssed. I don’t know who I think I’m trying to be here, but I look like I’m chewing a wasp.It was quite a well attended event (about 50 people) and I managed to sell some more books! The slide is of Inspector Bucket from Dickens’ Bleak House, an image you could find on a 1930’s cigarette card.
Despite my nerves, I must have gone down quite well because I was invited to deliver the same presentation for BettaKultcha (another version of Pechakutcha – mad isn’t it?) in Leeds on the 24th April. (I think it was my topper that the chap who invited me liked the best!)
There’ll be a link to the presentations on here as soon as Brent at the Media Centre in Huddersfield sends it to me.
More fun was had on Sunday, 17th March, at Two Valleys Radio where I was recording a radio drama adaptation of one of my other Bucket Stories, Inspector Bucket and the March Hare. (You can find that in What the Dickens? magazine, issue 3, online or on Kindle.)
My friends, David Jones and Vince and Lewis Duffy helped me out with the acting (for an exorbitant fee in pints of beer and red smarties) and we were steered through all the techy stuff by the wonderful Matt and Paddy from Two Valleys.
It should be aired some time on Wednesday, 27th March at around 3pm (I think) but if you miss it you can catch up by clicking on their Listen Again facility.
Finally, Bucket and the Beast itself is out in its Kindle incarnation from the 20th March. A snip at £2.49!
I think that’s enough self promotion (ed)
Well, I’m in Florida (very nice, thank you, since you asked) and this is the hotel (The Don Cesar) where Scott Fitzgerald stayed during the late twenties and early thirties. (I didn’t stay there at any time). Zelda Fitzgerald had one of her many breakdowns here too. Al Capone used it as one of his regular get aways.
But Charles Dickens (who I’m currently obsessed with) didn’t get quite this far. He did famously visit America, of course, (and didn’t like it much) travelling as far south as Louisville, Kentucky, but he didn’t get as far as St. Pete beach in Florida where I am lucky enough to be right now – though he was only 908 miles away. (That’s only a few miles further than from Lands End to John O’ Groats, actually, so what was wrong with him?)
Apparently he didn’t like the way the Americans always seemed to be spitting (I haven’t noticed that yet) but he was more annoyed by the way they were producing pirated copies of his books and paying him no royalties! He was extremely popular with them (at least until they read his ‘American Notes’) and he (also at first) loved all the attention they gave him (as if he didn’t get enough at home), boasting about himself that:
“.. there never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by admiring crowds.”
Apparently, when he died, just three years after his second reading tour to the United States (Dickens and America had forgiven each other for their fall out by then), we blamed the Americans for making him work too hard and hastening his demise.
The American public still love him now of course (quite rightly) though it may have something more to do with what Dickens represents – old-worlde England and ‘Christmas Pasts’ – rather than simply a love of his works.
Here for example is an advert for “Celebrate Florida” I found on the web:
“Now Snowing, Central Florida’s original and premier “Snowing” event, offers an all new ice rink and a schedule filled with surprises. Now Snowing is a month long Winter Wonderland Spectacular featuring strolling Charles Dickens Carolers, photos with Santa, horse drawn carriage rides, the Celebration Express train, and nightly snowfall at 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 and 9:00 PM.”
They don’t get much snow in Florida, apparently.
I particularly like this advert for a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ which nicely fuses Dickens with “Florida’s Space Coast”: Then there’s this Christmas advert for Westfield Malls (a shopping centre in Sarasota – a city I skirted on my way to Siesta Key Beach for more non-snow.)
“Black Friday at Westfield Malls – Shop First! Remember that guy Oliver, from the Charles Dickens story? He asked for more, and Westfield shoppers are also clamoring for more. But they’re not looking for food… this holiday season they’re looking for more time to shop!”
But I’m being unfair. I also found a reference to this extraordinary event:
“Beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Florida State will kick off its second annual Read-A-Thon, featuring “Bleak House” as this year’s book of choice. President Eric J. Barron, as well as a roster of enthusiastic students — including members of Florida State men’s basketball team, and the women’s volleyball and soccer teams — will take turns reading aloud from the novel. So will readers from the FSU School of Theatre.”
A great choice of novel, Which brings me round to wondering if Inspector Field (Dickens’ model for Inspector Bucket in ‘Bleak House’ and, in turn the model for Bucket in my novel, ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’ – Dahliapublishing.co.uk) had ever been to Florida or anywhere in the infant United States.
In my novel I do have Bucket nipping across the channel to have a word with Eugène François Vidocq, the real French criminologist, but the answer to my question about whether Field crossed the Atlantic is, of course, no.
But in a (very) obscure sort of way, Inspector Bucket did meet a fellow detective in the United States, the fictional detective Auguste Dupin, the enigmatic private investigator in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. Dickens met Poe on two occasions in fact, both times in Philadelphia, and it’s likely that Dickens might have read ‘Murders’. (Poe was supporting Dickens’ anti-piracy campaign and was trying to persuade the great man to help him get his newly written mystery stories published in England.) Poe was, anyway, interested in Dickens’ pet raven, Grip. Dickens hadn’t brought his raven to America, of course, but he had included him as a minor character in ‘Barnaby Rudge’, which Poe had reviewed and wherein he wondered why Dickens hadn’t made more use of the bird. Poe himself made up for the deficit, famously, in his ‘Raven’ with its “nevermore” refrain.
But, anyway, between the two of them they managed to establish the detective genre for evermore.
And, by the way, there was a thunderstorm in St Petersburg, Florida, last night.
The rain was warm.
“That stinking child! Look what she did to me. Look!” He began to rub at his cheek where he had been perspiring, and, as the cakes of paste seemed to fall away, he slowly uncovered a face terribly lined and pocked with smallpox scars. “Look at me! Look at me!” he shouted. Everyone in the whole room looked at him with fresh distaste.
(Inspector Bucket and the Beast, Dahliapublishing.co.uk)
In life, as well as in literature, the idea of being struck down by disease always seems to have had a moral implication. Here, in this quotation from my ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’, once the malevolent Beast is unveiled it is clear that his ugly character is matched by his true ugly and “distasteful” appearance – in this instance caused by smallpox. I confess, now that I have read some of it, that I am perpetrating the wrong described by Susan Sontag (in her essay ‘Illness as Metaphor‘) of using disease as a metaphor for character. The correlation is clear: if you are wicked you will be punished with an affliction. I am not, of course, alone in doing this sort of thing. We can see this attitude to disease, for example, in the earliest reactions to AIDS, which was widely seen, I remember, as the ‘gay disease’ – in other words AIDS was considered by some to be some sort of moral judgement on and punishment for the ‘sin’ of being homosexual.
Disease as moral punishment starts as long ago as (and no doubt before) the Old Testament. For example, because the pharaoh wouldn’t let The Israelites go free, therefore disobeying God’s will, Egypt was punished with ten plagues, the sixth of which was “boils”
“And the LORD said unto Moses and unto Aaron, Take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 9:8)
I’ve always wondered why God didn’t just spring the Israelites himself, rather than forcing Egypt to undergo all the unnecessary horror of dispensing TEN Plagues. But let’s leave that to one side for a moment. God seems to have had a thing about boils and sores and tumours. Skin complaints of all kind actually:
“The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.” (Revelations 16:2)
“But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.”(1 Samuel 5:9)
It’s clear already that disease is to be seen as the direct result of disobeying the Lord’s strictures.
And as it is in theology so it will be in history.
“…. there came the death-dealing pestilence, which through our own iniquitous doings, (was) sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God …”—Giovanni Boccaccio
According to William Blake, it was “boils” that Satan smites Job with, not the pox (neither the grand – syphilus – nor the small version) and not the plague. But it seems, in actuality, that the Hebrew term used in the Bible at this point in Job’s seemingly interminable sufferings was (apparently) non-specific. Satan, theoretically I suppose, had every disease in the universe available to him (past, present and future). He could have applied any chronic disease that took his fancy. Chief culprit as far as biblical scholars is concerned, it seems, is leprosy. (1)
But in the 17th and 18th centuries physicians and pamphleteers wondered(2) if it mightn’t have been smallpox after all that Job had been afflicted with, for surely (they thought) there must be some biblical precedent for such a terrible scourge. It is no wonder that they saw smallpox as something that surely must have had cosmic antecedents for it was the cause of such epic and widespread carnage. According to one calculation made in 1760, smallpox is said to have accounted for one-tenth of all mortality during that period. It affected approximately three quarters of all living people in the 18th century. If true, this is a remarkable statistic. (it was still killing vast numbers of people a year worldwide in the early 1950s(3) and though eradicated by 1977 is still rumoured to be extant and possibly obtainable by terrorists.)
By the latter part of the 17th Century, data from the Bills of Mortality (2) indicated (according to the statisticians) that smallpox had supplanted the plague as Great Britain’s biggest killer, as well as the biggest scourge on those who survived it – for its consequence, if not death, was blindness and disfigurement. As Ben Jonson(3)said smallpox could “nullify a face.”
Despite the beginnings of vaccination, Smallpox was an ever-present feature of life in the 19th century too, as I try to show in my own novel. In the following quotation the child killer, finally tracked down by Inspector Bucket, wonders aloud if Bucket’s own child, like the Beast himself, might not have suffered from the dread disease:
“I believe the one child you and your wife … spawn(ed) died of some disease,” he taunted. “What was it, Inspector, what was it? Influenza? Cholera? Or was it the smallpox?” He paused, pondering. “I might have died of that too.”
The literature of the 19th century generally, it might seem, treated smallpox as so much part of the fabric of life that, as in George Elliot’s ‘Daniel Daronda’, its consequences might be used as a commonplace comparison with feelings of rejected love. For one character (Alex) we are told, “… the disappointment of a youthful passion has effects as incalculable as those of small-pox …” Similarly In ‘The Sad History of the Reverend Amos Barton’ (‘Clerical Lives’) Amos has, “a narrow face of no particular complexion – even the smallpox that has attacked it seems to have been of a mongrel, indefinite kind.” So prevalent were smallpox scars throughout this period that Wilkie Collins too, like Elliot, refers to smallpox almost casually in his depiction of characters’ features. In two of his sensationalist novels, for example, (‘Poor Miss Finch’ and ‘No Name’ ) several characters are described as having faces “pitted” or “deeply pitted with the smallpox.” The implication is often that the smallpox sufferer is at heart a wicked person or, as in the case of Amos Burton, judged by others to be so.
Of course the righteous, or the noble and the beautiful, are, on the whole, content (at least philosophically) to see disease as a judgement on the wicked and the irresponsible poor, but smallpox was different in that it was egalitarian in its attacks. That is, the wealthy and the noble were as likely to be smitten by it as the poor and disreputable.This was very unlike the plague, which seemed to deliberatly select the poor and spare (certainly in terms of numbers affected) the rich because (presumably) they could retreat to their country estates and generally they had a standard of living which (relative to the state of the poor) protected them from the sources of infection. Nobody, it was felt, could suspect a lady to die of the plague(!) But, apparently, smallpox wasn’t quite so class-conscious as its sister scourge.
Queen Anne, for instance, suffered a severe attack from smallpox (and her son died of it, putting paid to the future hopes of the Stuarts).The son and daughter of Charles 1st died of it too, as did Queen Mary. The plague was seen very much as a judgement of God for wickedness. But when the victims of smallpox seemed to be everybody, the pure and the angelic as well as the wicked and the ugly, the simplistic notion of divine punishment for sin perhaps needed to be modified (that is if the well off wanted to continue to maintain their faith in a benign Creator.)
Job’s afflictions are not, of course, the consequence of his wicked behaviour either (though his friends and relatives, like the parishoners of Amos Barton, quickly jump to this conclusion). Job’s sufferings are, it seems, rather a test of his faith – of his inner beauty and steadfastness, rather than merely (!) an attack on his outward appearance.
My inspiration for ‘Inspector Bucket and The Beast’ is, of course, from Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ and it is in this novel that we see the character of Esther Summerson famously afflicted by smallpox. Esther is clearly a ‘good’ even an ‘heroic’ person, if often (it must be said) overwhelmingly sentimentalised. And yet she too, falls prey (by common critical agreement) to smallpox (though like Job the illness is never actually specified). She survives but is (temporarily) made blind by it. Dickens is clearly using smallpox, as well as the other ‘infections’ in the novel such as cholera and money and the law and legal system) as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of society. Lady Dedlock’s love affair with ‘Nemo’, now an impoverished document copier, links her with the poor classes and the likes of Jo the crossing sweeper – from whom Esther, by way of Charley, contracts her smallpox (because of her many acts of selfless care.) In turn she could have infected the wards of Jarndyce, Ada and Richard, but, selflessly again, shuts herself off from them. The upper, the middle and the poor classes are connected by a chain. Esther’s ultimate reward is that Allan Woodcourt, the stalwart surgeon, who, like her, is connected to and cares for people in all classes, marries her and sees only beauty in her. Dickens is here showing (unlike my poor effort in ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’) that the uglness of smallpox (and by extension any disease) may reveal the beauty and moral strength of the person within.
Just as it did in the end with Job.
(1) J. E Hartley,’‘Book of Job’.
(2) R.A. Anselment ‘Smallpox in Seventeenth Century English Literature
(3) According to the W.H.O. factsheet, 50000 worldwide a year
(4) An Epigram to the Smallpox
I’ve been tagged in The Next Big Thing by fellow writer Leela Soma (www.leelasoma.com Blog http://leelasoma.blogspot.com). Leela has written two novels Twice Born (2007) and Bombay Baby (2011) and has had short stories in various publications.
What is the title of your current book?
It’s called Inspector Bucket and the Beast, a murder mystery and romance set in Victorian England.
Where did the ideas come from for the book?
From my love of Charles Dickens’ work. I was fascinated with his character Inspector Bucket, from ‘Bleak House’ and wanted to explore his character in my own ways and in new contexts.
What genre does your book fall under?
Well, historical fiction certainly, but it is essentially a melodramatic, even gothic, crime novel – lightened, I hope, by comedy and romance.
Which actors would you choose to play your character in a movie rendition?
Well, of course Alan Armstrong played the role in the BBC’s production of ‘Bleak House’ but I’ll go for Michael Gambon!
What would be a one sentence synopsis of your book?
A child killer is loose in London, terrorising both the rich and the poor, and only Inspector Bucket can track him down.
Is your book self published or represented by an agency?
Like Leela I have been published by a small indie press, Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester. The book is available from www.dahliapublishing.co.uk as well as from www.waterstones.com. Waterstones at Kingsgate, Huddersfield still have some copies in store as I write.
What else about your book might interest the reader?
I hope that I’ve been able to conjure up something of the atmosphere of the mid-Victorian era but I hope, too, that I have been able to deal successfully with a few issues that are, unfortunately, still relevant today – in particular child abuse and the hypocrisy that is still too often found in ‘high’ places.
Now, enough about me. Here are a couple of fine authors that I’ve tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing!
Vivienne Cooper (Vivienne’s site will be up and running by this time next week.)
I’m waiting for a couple of other writers to respond and I will update my blog as they do.
My thanks to Leela Soma for tagging me and allowing me to take part in The Next Big Thing!
It would be nice to say I’ve been walking on water but enjoyable as the Stations book launch has been I (nor we) didn’t quite do that (well nearly)! No, but the Stations Book Express has certainly been steaming through the London Overground at a great pace and to be honest I’ve barely been holding on, Cherry Potts (editor at http://arachnepress.com/) stokes the engine so! But I have done my bit to get up a head of steam at Clapham, at Shoreditch (http://shoreditchradio.co.uk/) and at Rotherhithe, shovelling extracts from my story Inspector Bucket Takes the Train with all the energy I could muster. Now, though, I must climb out of the carriage and catch the train back to the frozen north.
But what a delight the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe was: the readings, of course, with the lovely Stations authors, and the quaint (and unexpected) Turkish cafe with its charming hostess, and then the plunge into the shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel itself, the entrance to what was once seen as the eighth wonder of the world (at least according to the museum guide, Robert Hulse). And we were amongst the first visitors the place had had for over 140 years! (To the air shaft I mean, not the museum!)
Of course all we can see right now is the doomy shaft itself, its echoing walls covered with the soot of thousands of steam train journeys, some in solid flakes like black crustaceans, its drab concrete floor (stopping us from tumbling onto the railway lines underneath us), huge bolted pipes and the outline of the wooden staircase that would have once led the Victorian visitor down to what essentially became an underwater shopping mall. in 1843 the idea of walking under the water, with who knows how many tonnes of the Thames only a few feet above the ceiling, must have been, as our guide pointed out, “like walking on the moon”.
The Brunels, father and son, were the first to successfully tunnel underneath a navigable river and developed the technique for all river and, I presume, channel tunneling that followed – and that we take so much for granted as we nip under the water on the Eurostar. Robert Hulse, the museum guide, pointed out, with almost ghoulish delight, that we were standing on the spot where six men died as the tunnel flooded and the men drowned in river sewage. One man who did survive was Marc Brunel’s son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (How the history of engineering might have turned on that event. No Leviathan, Great Western Railway or Clifton Suspension Bridge then!)
‘But what has all this to do with the contexts of writing?’ I hear myself ask. Well, Charles Dickens must surely have passed through the same shaft that I stood in for one thing! In ‘Household Words‘, one of the many periodicals that Dickens founded and edited, the writer (perhaps Dickens himself) describes his sense of awe when:
“crossing the Thames by means of The Rotherhithe Tunnel… gasping for a breath of vital air… (feeling) a cold shudder run through (him) as (he) heard the drip of oozing water.”
Dickens, like Brunel the younger, was born in Portsmouth and admired the work of his contemporary, citing the “great works of Brunel, Babbage and Stephenson” (again in ‘Household Words’) and telling us that “Mr Brunel is not a man whom we can afford to lose.” (We nearly did!) It is perhaps Dickens too who describes Brunel’s Leviathan as “the floating marvel of the age”.
The tunnel was originally designed as a commercial proposition to create revenue by offering a route across the congested Thames for cargo traffic – but after the tunnel was dug there was no money left to build the shafts with the spiral ramps that horses and carts would use to ascend and descend. Instead the tunnels became a tourist attraction, a place where you walked under the water to the shops located in each of the cross-tunnel arches (as seen in the picture at the head of this blog) to buy and to be entertained. Apparently on the opening day 50,000 people walked through paying a penny each and bought souvenirs from the shops in the arches to show how brave they were for shopping under water. Soon, however, it became a favoured haunt for prostitutes, and visitors found they could buy rather more than a souvenir.
As it happens, I have Polly Meakin, a character from my novel ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’ visiting Rotherhithe (though not, unfortunately, the tunnel.) (Available from dahliapublishing.co.uk, Amazon, via this provider, & Waterstones.com)
Bucket thinks that she may have been an accomplice of the Beast in his attempts to entrap young girls, but she insists she didn’t know who or what the Beast was and only helped him because she was desperate.
“The Bobbies shifted us on from Hyde Park as soon as they saw us. It’s always, ‘Move on! Move on!’, they said, but they never tells you where to move on to, does they? We went to Rotherhithe in the end, to try to get some factory work, soap boiling or candle making or some such. No hands wanted, we was told.”
If I had known about the Rotherhithe shaft and tunnel then (and of course I should have done!) I would certainly have used it in my novel, if not for Polly Meakin than perhaps the Beast himself. In another scene from the book I show Inspector Bucket searching the secret areas of a so-called Gentlemen’s club where prostitution and all manner of nefarious activities are going on. Perhaps I might have had the Beast frequenting the alcoves of the Rotherhithe tunnel as well as this ‘Hell Club’.
“There were alcoves, and in each one a lascivious act was framed. In front of this series of alcoves the voyeurs promenaded, sometimes pausing to view their favourite scene. No one accorded us attention as we passed along; nobody seemed to mind us nor be ashamed to be seen. Indeed, it was as if they were out for their Sunday stroll! Some of the voyeurs were serious in demeanour, as if they were connoisseurs of some fine art or sculpture, pointing out some special feature of the action displayed for them or commenting, without lewdness, on some item of physique. Some were laughing. Some sights were almost pretty. But most were cruel.”
Although there are plans afoot to reopen the shaft itself as a major entertainment attraction (there are already concerts and other entertainments held there) for the moment the only glimpse we can get of the tunnel is at the weekend when the tunnel’s lights are on, and if you alight at Wapping you can look back and see the lit panoply of what was once one of the marvels of the age.