Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: Scotland

The Two Magicians (Child 44)

12I have returned, once again, to the Child Ballads. This is my reworking of the song we know in Scotland as ‘The Twa Magicians’; it concerns a woman whose virginity is tried by a persistent suitor, the magical lengths to which she will go to preserve it, and the magical lengths to which he will go to take it. It exists in many versions, but in most the woman is a high-born lady and the suitor is a blacksmith. With this one I can ‘hear’ a tune not dissimilar to Ralph Stanley’s version of ‘Matty Groves’, but paced up and with a picked banjo accompaniment. I love the phrasing of folk songs, I love the patterning and balance, I love the peculiar syntax and the way that narrative connections often get lost in the transmission from singer to singer, and this is what I try to capture in my adaptations.

It’s of a lady highly born
and silken soft her skin,
And to her door a blacksmith came
to beg her let him in.

You lusty, dusty, coal-black smith,
sing me no lying song.
You’ll never have my maidenhead
that I have kept so long
.
No lusty, dusty, coal-black smith
will share my marriage bed,
I’d rather lose my young life
than lose my maidenhead.

It’s she with skin as white as silk,
and he with coal-black hair
Says marry me my darling one
and be my lady fair.

It’s she’s become an old oak tree
all standing in the wood,
And he’s become a woodman bold
to fell her where she stood.

It’s she’s become a salmon grey
all swimming in the book,
And he’s become a fisherman
to catch her with his hook.

It’s she’s become a silver star
all shining in the night,
And he’s become a thundercloud
to hide her out of sight.

It’s she’s become a tiny fly
all buzzing in the air,
And he’s become a spider bug
to catch her to his lair.

It’s she’s become a corpse so grey
all in her coffin bound,
And he’s become the cold, cold clay
to cover her around.

It’s she’s become a hare so swift
all running on the plain,
And he’s become a greyhound tall
to fetch her back again.

It’s she’s become a praying nun
all dressed in grey and white,
And he’s become a canting priest
to preach to her all night.

It’s she’s become a barquentine
all mizzen, main, and fore,
And he’s become a captain bold
to steer her back to shore.

It’s every step that she has took
there’s he took two as well,
And where they both have vanished to
no tongue can ever tell.

You lusty, dusty, coal-black smith,
sing me no lying song.
You’ll never have my maidenhead
that I have kept so long
.
No lusty, dusty, coal-black smith
will share my marriage bed,
I’d rather lose my young life
than lose my maidenhead.

‘Westward’

In 1924, at Port an Eilean Mhoir on Ardnamurchan, the remains of a Viking ship burial were found.
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We buried Hoskuld, our captain, on the north coast of that ness the Gaels call Àird nam Murchan – the Ness of the Great Seas – on a day when axe-blades of sunlight cleaved the heavy clouds, and arrowheads of rain spattered us as though shot by the defenders of some dark and forbidding broch. We sacrificed the smaller skiff for his funeral, being fewer than when our expedition set oar to water in the little fjord where the River Stjør licks the lips of the sea. We used our axes and ship-mending tools to scratch a narrow trench in which to sink it, and we placed Hoskuld’s corpse in it, with his spear, sword, and axe laid beside him, and a shield over him, all as befits a Jarl; for although our little home-village and the outlying farms nestling at the foot of the tall, steep mountains that narrow the arms of the sea was a poor one, Hoskuld, our leader and captain-adventurer could fairly be called its Jarl.

As well as his weaponry we left him a knife and a whetstone from our native Norway, a drinking horn, some meagre dishes of porridge, and the bronze cloak-pin he had seized from a slain Ulsterman during a raid on Donegal. Then we filled the bows and stern with stones as is our custom, and piled the earth in a mound over him. Thorvald, our singer with the high voice, chanted of Baldr, the god slain by a spear of mistletoe, and we stood for a while, all trying to remember Hoskuld’s face as it used to be, before it had become little more than a bleached skull with a mouth set in a grin – a mouth from which few recognisable words had come, but much keening – and with eyes that stared past us to some horror only he could see.

Hoskuld’s dog, whom he called ‘Hopp’, would not come back to the longship with us, but stayed ranging round the mound, whining, occasionally scratching at the raw, brown earth. I tried whistling to him, slapping my thigh, and calling “Come on, Hopp! Good dog, come on!” but he only yelped at me and went back to his ranging and whining.

“Leave him, Skorri,” said someone. “We can’t stay here. Ours are not the only ships in the Minches – Mac Somerled is Lord of these waters, and no doubt the Gaels will already be sending word from clachan to clachan that we are in their sea, and he’ll be readying his galleys.”

So leave him we did. Even so he came for us as we pulled away from the shore, barking, howling, skipping round in mad circles with foam flecking his jaw. Mad he must have become, and none of us would now risk taking him in the longship. Even when we had pulled so far out that we could no longer see him, we could hear his howls, until one was cut short and we heard no more. We shivered and looked at one another. I do not know how many of us were thinking that it would be a clean and honourable end for us if Mac Somerled’s galleys did catch us, for there was a doom upon us, perhaps as great a one there than had been on the dead, buried Hoskuld.

When we had set out – a larger boat and a smaller skiff – from the Stjør village, Hoskuld had insisted on taking Hopp. One or two men grumbled that there was little enough in the way of provisions for our crews, but Hoskuld silenced them with a glance. Indeed we had had two years when harvests had been bad, and salmon and herring scarce. It is only such things that drive us out to range the seas around the kingdoms of the English, the Gaels, and the Irish, looking for food to carry home, or gold, or a couple of Gaelic slaves to barter at the river-mouths of the Baltic. Once or twice we have come looking for better land to farm, maybe thinking of sending back for our wives and children; but these lands are spoken for, being by-and-large claimed by this king or that, and the clans and tribes seemingly owing allegiance now to something greater than themselves. Some of those clans have names that are as Norse as ours – Thirkell, Gunnr, even Somerled – though their Jarls now speak the outlandish Gaelic and have forgotten their old kin from the fjords. The land they call Alba, though it is still wild, is changing – and with it, our own lives.

2.pngAs Hopp’s howling and barking died, so suddenly died the daylight. Someone struck a flint to his axe-head and kindled the iron-banded torches fore and aft. They guttered in the wind. I had been chosen as Captain in Hoskuld’s place, though I could tell that the others thought there was little to choose between myself and anyone else. I am no Jarl, and all wished Hoskuld had lived, or if not Hoskuld then his younger brother Solmund who had died in the Donegal raid, or one of the wheat-haired sons of Eyvind lost to great ocean rollers when one dived overboard to save the other, or even one of our axe-brothers who fell during the last day of slaughter at that Gaelic clachan. How long ago was that now? Any of those would have made a better captain than I for such a desperate band as we now were. We had stood out a little to westward from Port an Eilean Mhòir – the harbor of Mikill-Ey as we called it – where Hoskuld’s corpse now lay. No light from any Gaelish peat-fire could be seen through the gloom, but we needed to be at sea, as though we now feared the land.

“What orders, Captain Skorri?” asked Thorvald eventually, as the strengthening easterly wind drove us aimlessly away from the ness. I could almost hear resentment in the way he had said ‘Captain’, and gladly would have cursed him and said “I do not care – let us drift, choose another captain, let us sink – I do not care!” But instead I gave us a heading.

“Set the sail,” I said. “Haul it as close as you can and keep the wind to our steer-board. We’ll round the great Winged Island these Gaels call Eilean a Cheo, then North-East to Hvarf-ness. There, if the wind veers, we’ll sail for home, by the Orkneys.”

“If it’s against us?” queried Thorvald.

“We have oars. We row.” I said. “For now, let’s set that sail as I have ordered.”

On board a Viking longship, a captain, even a Jarl, does not simply give out orders and stand back to watch. I seized a halyard with the others and did my share of the hauling, and that seemed to settle their mood a little. It was either that – my establishing myself again as one of them – or the thought of home. We had left our fjord in mist and drizzle, and our village in poverty and hunger, but as my own thoughts turned to my wife Gudrid, and to the barefooted, noisy children who ran in and out of the bustling boatyard, I saw them only in sunshine, their cheeks fat and pink with good health. I wondered whether the others shared this vision, each seeing his woman and his children, happy under a blue sky.

We were foolish of course to be out at sea on a night like this and I had been foolish to order it – we should have been safe in some inlet until morning – but there was that fear. Where had it come from?

It had come, of course, as a consequence of the clachan raid. None of us had expected resistance at the little settlement. Each village we had come across had been poorer than the last, and this one was the poorest. In each place the Gaels had fled, giving us the freedom to take what little they had. We didn’t even bother to pursue and take as slaves the handful we saw scrambling up the hillsides. This time, however, it seemed as though desperation had bred a madness in this particular flock of ragged Gaels; farmers had found wicked little swords somewhere, boys and old men had armed themselves with hoes and reaping-hooks, women had taken up flails or kitchen-knives, and perhaps there were even a couple of wild and well-armed warriors there who had stopped on the way to some Gaelic chief’s hall. For whatever reason, they flew at us, and though we hacked many down they did not back away. Even little children buzzed around us like wasps, throwing stones, jabbing with sticks.

Then a strange figure came out of one of the hovels, and as it did so the sound of the fighting muted, sword- and axe-blows seemed to cease, our eyes as well as the Gaels’ seemed drawn to it. Bent at first, the figure straightened. Long, grey-white hair, as long and as grey-white as Langfoss, fell from its head, over its face, over its shoulders, over its earth-brown clothes. It leaned on a staff, as wandering Odin does, and its face was lean and pale, almost the same colour as its hair. I paused in belabouring a villager – and he paused also – to watch her. Her? To me the figure looked like a woman but more, I thought, more like a Dark-Elf from Alfheim, or a corpse from Hel, the land of the dead, nothing that could be called ‘him’ or ‘her’. A breeze sprang up from nowhere, and the sweat on my body grew cold, I couldn’t tell whether that was from fear or from the chill of the wind, but I saw others shiver as I now did. The breeze blew back some of the hair from the figure’s face, and we saw the eyes. They were milk-white and blind.

And yet they saw! How else could the figure have moved slowly and deliberately, through those locked in combat but now pausing as it passed, unerringly towards Jarl Hoskuld? How else could the figure have stopped a blade-length from the Jarl and turned its face directly to his? But this it did. More, it raised its right arm. From the loose, falling sleeve a slender, white forearm rose, scarce more than skin on bone it seemed. The fingers spread wide, seemed to direct themselves at Hoskuld’s forehead. The figure opened its mouth, said a few words in the Gaelic tongue. Everyone – everything – else was silent.

Then it spoke again, very clearly, but only a handful of strangely-accented words in our own language.

“No home,” it said. “Never home.”

For a few long seconds Hoskuld stared. Then, breaking free of his immobility, he swung back his axe, and brought it in an arc as wide as the rainbow bridge to Asgard must be, up and then down in a killing blow. It struck the figure upon its skull. The figure fell. It crumpled, rather, or dissolved, so that its form on the ground was little more than a mound of earth over which rainwater flowed. Hoskuld stared at it, then around him, and filled his lungs with air.

“Blood!” he cried in a great voice. “Blood!”

And the fighting continued, but with each of us Vikings suddenly berserk. My pulse thundering in my ears like Thor’s hammer on its mountain-anvil, I clubbed down the villager in front of me with the back of my axe-head, then hacked at his neck with the blade, until his head rolled away. All around me, my axe-brothers and shipmates were swinging and jabbing with sword, and shield-edge, and fist, and knife, and heavy blade. The villagers were giving way, throwing aside their weapons, beginning to run. We took up Hoskuld’s cry of “Blood!” and cut them all down, every single one, every man, every woman, every child. We spared no one. Even then, even when that slaughter was over, Hoskuld, his helmet, face, and mail sark the bloodied colour of the sunset, still gave his terrible cry, and we set about butchering every beast in the clachan. That was not enough for our Jarl, as he – then we at his example – began to cut and tear down every hovel, every byre, every beast-pen. It was as though the simple curse laid upon Hoskuld by the brown-clad, white-haired figure was so terrible to him, that he had to obliterate every trace of anything connected to it.

Afterwards we stood around. I think we were shocked at the utter devastation we had made in laying waste to this little, poor, community. We took nothing from it. There was nothing to take. But when we looked at Jarl Hoskuld, already we saw the stare and grimace of a cursed man, a mask instead of the face of the captain-adventurer we knew and had followed. To a Viking, a curse is a serious thing, often working unseen; this was the first time I had ever seen the evidence of a man’s doom with my own eyes. If the Norns truly twine the thread of a man’s fate, then Hoskuld’s was severed, sheered apart from his life, its ends fraying in the wind.

As we walked by the corpses, pulling turf roofs and stone walls down upon them, or throwing them along with their meagre possessions into the midden-pit, or piling logs upon them and setting fire to the pile, no one could swear that there wasn’t one corpse with long, grey-white hair. But equally, no one could swear that there was. Perhaps that’s why, later, as we sat around our camp fire, no one dared to look up, for fear of seeing an extra person in our number, next to the muttering, keening Jarl Hoskuld, its hand on his shoulder. And perhaps that’s why no one stared into the darkness for too long, for fear of seeing an eldritch walker stride into the firelight. And perhaps that’s why no one spoke during daylight, if they thought they saw, out of the corner of their eye, the shape of someone sitting on a rock, or walking across the narrows of one of Alba’s fjords without either disturbing the waters or sinking. And perhaps that’s why no one mentioned a still shadow that turned into a tree, or a running shadow that turned into a fox, or a mist that swirled, gathered, and faded. At least… I never spoke of such things. Hardly anyone else spoke at all, except of everyday necessity – hauling a rope, foraging for food, digging a grave.

So, all the night after we had buried Hoskuld and abandoned mad Hopp, we fought the wind. When dawn came – grey, cold, dull – we found ourselves no further north, simply stuck there in the Minches, going nowhere, making no headway, no matter how close-hauled we were, no matter how we pulled on the oars. I heard several of our crew groan, and one curse. I saw little light in anyone’s eye, as I looked from one man to the next. When I spoke to them it was with a kind of mildness.

“Come on, friends, brothers,” I said. “One more try, eh?”

And they gave one more try, but with only half a heart, and we slipped, drifted, looked desperately at the shapes of the islands and the mainland never seeming to vary. Hope died in us. Doom came over us. By the end of the day, when sunlight died, a thin rain soaked us, and the fore and aft torches barely gave any illumination at all. I was glad that they didn’t, because I now hated to see my shipmates’ faces. I scarcely recognised them now. There was no more Thorvald, no Ottar, no Frodi Hard-head, no Frodi the Small, no Ulf, no Magnus, no Isleif. There were only bare, white skulls, hair wisping back from them in the wind, to reveal mirthless grins and staring eyes. There was only doom. There was only madness. And I was glad there was nothing shiny to see my own face in, because I knew that if I had looked, I would have seen the same thing. So, when one man took his knife and slit his own throat where he sat, and another clasped his axe and sword to him and stepped overboard, I could not have named either of them.

The Gaels tell of one of their Dark Elves – they call her the Bean Sith, the Fairy Woman – and they say she walks amongst the dead, the dying, and the soon-to-die, lamenting. Others say that she can be seen washing the bloody clothes and armour of slain warriors, like one of the Valkyrja. Others still that she is a bringer of curses, and it is not she who keens, but those she has doomed. On our longship now, that is the only voice that can be heard. I do not dare open my own mouth, for if I were to hear my own voice, I would lose the last fingerhold I have on life, and fall into madness. I long to call my wife’s name, but I dare not even try that.

I know madness will come, nonetheless, or maybe death before it – much better death before than after. My last actions while in my right mind have been gestures of surrender to the East wind. I have lashed the steering-blade amidships, I have set the sail square, I have headed the ship between the outer islands of Uist and Barra. We shall sail westward. We shall go into the black ocean where the waters boil and there is no daylight, from which no ship returns. We shall go to death, to the cold of Hel or Niflheim – for us there shall be no Valhöll – we shall go to where dead Hoskuld waits for us, but without cheer or greeting. Westward, westward, driven by the merciless, murdering wind. Wordless, wordless and keening, men doomed and nameless. And we shall never go home. Never, never home.

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© Marie Marshall

2016… 2017…

Wow, what a year for the world 2016 has been, with all the good guys checking out. Even the arguably worst person to die in 2016 was passionate about public health, public education, and anti-colonialism. I keep trying to stop myself hoping that if the carnage continues into 2017 we lose some of the bad guys too, but – hey! – I don’t like to indulge in that kind of Schadenfreude.

2017 is, as yet, an unwritten page. I do know that the Winter Words festival in Scotland has been shortened, so presumably the ‘Fearie Tales’ competition will be tougher. I have a story ready to go, as it happens.

In 2016, I suppose my major writing project was, in response to a request, to come up with a text for the ‘history’ of I Tamburisti di FIREnze for this year’s Burning Man (see previous news items here). I thought you would like to see how some of that turned out, so there follows some images of the Renaissance section of the book. Enjoy.

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Images are ©

‘Pitlochry, as the dread hour approaches.’

I don’t appear to have a ‘reblog’ function, so I can’t re-post my agent’s report on the reading of my short story ‘The Ice-House’ here. So, please click the photo of Pitlochry Festival Theatre at dusk to be taken there.

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Hear ‘The Ice-House’ at Pitlochry!

Ice House

A stretch of the Scottish coastline, though deceptively close to the port of Dundee in one direction, and the ancient city of St Andrews in the other, was a lonely expanse of sand dunes little more than a hundred years ago. Nowadays there is a pinewood and a car park near one end of it, and tracks to walk, but back then it was a solitary, almost inaccessible area. Somewhere, hidden in the dunes and pines, is an old ice-house, once used for storing salmon. A young woman, out for a day’s hike in the summer of 1919, stumbles across it, and awakens an old, dark mystery…

That is the premise for my eerie short story ‘The Ice-House’, and if you come along to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre on Friday 12th February, you will hear the whole tale unfold, as it is read out to the audience there by actor Helen Logan. Yes, once again one of my stories will feature as a winner in the Winter Words Festival‘s competition – ‘Fearie Tales’.

The time, 9.30pm. The venue, the River Room at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. I dare you to be there!

 

 

It doesn’t hurt to ask, but don’t build your hopes up.

watchOver six months ago several things came to a head seemingly all at once. Firstly the flying of the Confederate flag – or rather its lowering – became an issue all over the southern states of the USA. Secondly a prominent activist was outed as trans-racial. Thirdly, Harper Lee’s publishers released Go Set A Watchman.

The latter was significant to me. Harper Lee had always been a heroine of mine, for writing one of the monuments of American Literature – To Kill a Mockingbird – and then retiring. I wanted to do the Scottish equivalent, but as soon as I published my second novel that was out of the question anyway – that fact always makes me smile.

With the near-coincidence of these three things, it occurred to me to write a short story, set in 2015, in which a young female couple, one of whom is of mixed racial heritage, have a rendezvous in the Alabama town where one of them has her roots. Together they see how the town has coped with the realities of the twenty-first century. The central event in the story is the lowering of the Confederate flag at the town’s courthouse; but also the couple visit, in passing, an elderly lady who can remember her childhood in the town, during the Depression. My story remained unfinished. I had planned it as a tribute to Harper Lee, and it only really made sense if I could call the elderly woman ‘Jean Louise Finch’. This was, as I say, to be a serious story and a tribute, not ‘fanfic’. So I did the polite thing and got in touch with Ms Lee’s publishers to ask permission, leaving the story unfinished.

Well, seven months later, long after I had forgotten about the project, I got my answer. No. Not only could I not call the elderly character ‘Jean Louise Finch’, I could not use any character names out of To Kill A Mockingbird or Go Set A Watchman. That’s fair enough, I guess. Not only that, but I could not call the town ‘Maycomb’. Okay, I can see the logic in that, given the interdict on character names. But apparently I could call the town ‘Monroeville’ if I wanted. Well thanks, I know I could – any writer is free to set a story in a real place – but the point would be lost. In any case, seven months after the event(s), the moment for the story has passed. It remains unfinished.

But I thought I would share a passage with you, just for the heck of it. Very little else of the story has been written, and now probably won’t be; so what you have here is a little insight. The accompanying pictures are of the old and new courthouses in Monroeville – and just to be clear, the new courthouse can be seen to be flying the Stars-and-Stripes and the Alabama State Flag, not the Confederate flag, which was another reason why fictionalisation was necessary. By the way, the story was to be called The Standard of the Camp, which is a reference to Numbers 1:52 and Numbers 2:2 in the Bible.

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monroeville1

Judith parked the car a few blocks away, and we walked hand in hand, joining one of the little streams of people approaching from every direction to swell the small crowd in front of the building. It was indeed a small crowd as a proportion of the population – only a few hundred – but unless a person had a reason to wish to be there for what was, after all, only a minor piece of history when taken with the bigger picture, why make a fuss and stir yourself? To Judith and me, with our own union being also a small part of a bigger picture, there was a reason to come. There was to be no ceremony. Simply, at six o’clock, the Confederate flag was to be lowered from the flagpole outside the courthouse, never to be raised there again. It was to be an occurrence, that’s all.

“Has that flag always flown here?” I asked Judith.

“Not sure,” she said. “The way I heard it, it wasn’t raised anywhere at all until the nineteen-twenties. There’s a picture somewhere of the old courthouse during World War Two, and it had the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole, and another picture taken during the Cold War that shows the same. Someone told me that a group of local politicians pushed through some measure when Obama got elected President. But hell, I’ve hardly ever been down this part of town before, so I wouldn’t know.”

“I guess people didn’t really notice until it became an issue.”

“You got that right!” said someone near me.

I get that. When something is just part of the scenery you don’t notice it. Then one day it’s gone, maybe a tree is cut down or a building demolished or something new built, and the best you can do is wonder what’s wrong with this picture. The Stars and Bars on a biker’s jacket or tacked up in the back of a neighbor’s garage can just be scenery. Until someone decides to become a semiotician, and – bam! Just how important to us all was disposing of this symbol? Apparently it was important to APT and WSFA as they had cameras there, so it was potentially news.

The clock at the old courthouse began to strike the hour. A side door of the newer building opened, two uniformed court bailiffs came out and began to walk diagonally across the lawn towards the flagpole. The buzz in our little crowd died down. I could see that a reporter from one of the TV stations had stationed herself between the cameras and the flagpole and was talking into a microphone. There were no salutes, there was no fuss, one of the bailiffs untied the hoist from its cleat, and began to hand-over-hand it. The flag began to descend, slowly. As it did, a knot of men nearer the front began to chant.

“USA, USA, USA…”

I could see a veteran’s cap, I could see a biker’s bandana, I could see a couple of hand-held Stars and Bars being waved.

“God, they say we Americans have no sense of irony, and they’re right,” said Judith.

“Look at another way, honey,” I said. “The way these guys see it, the ideal of the United States is that the whole is not greater than its parts, there is no over-riding principle that can impose itself on a constituent state, and indeed upon the right of an individual’s expression. In some way that’s what they believe in. In their view of history, that’s what the Confederacy was fighting to establish and the Union was trying to crush.”

“That’s an extraordinary opinion to come from an African-American,” said a voice behind me. I looked over my shoulder at the woman who had spoken. I hadn’t heard any hostility in her voice and I couldn’t see any in her face.

“I guess I’m repeating something I heard from someone here in town,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. To me that flag is just what they say it is – the symbol of white supremacy – and although I’m not from these parts myself, I’m glad to see it taken down. It’s just that the person who gave me that idea also told me that something like nine out of every ten Confederate soldiers had never seen a black person, let alone owned one. They didn’t decide what the flag meant. Somebody else did.”

“Hmm.”

Judith nudged me, and I turned back. People had their iPhones out, taking pictures of the lowering. Some were taking selfies.

“You want a picture?”

“Nuh-uh. No thanks.” For many reasons I did not.

The flag came to the end of its journey. The guys chanting fell silent. I stood on tiptoes to watch the two court bailiffs detach it from the hoist and fold it without any flourish. One of them tucked it under his arm and they began to walk back towards the courthouse. What would happen to it now? As long as it never flew again, did I actually care? Judith and I turned to go.

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I recall a similar thing happened when I had an idea for a full-length adventure novel featuring a character created by a fellow-Scot. Her creation was not a pleasant character, he was in fact the arch-rival of her protagonist. But I saw in him the potential lead in a story about a cynical adult wizard. So I wrote to her publishers and asked for permission. And of course the answer came back in the negative. Now, I am all for authors protecting their intellectual copyright, given current social and commercial circumstances. I feel no rancor to either Harper Lee or to JKR because their people said no. Indeed, my cynical adult wizard – Agent Delta of the Chthonic Intelligence Agency© – still exists on my virtual drawing-board, is not named as anyone in any other work of fiction, inhabits a milieu nowhere near any boarding-school, and may come to life in a way that infringes no copyright.

1On the other hand, when I got in touch with Irvine Welsh and asked if I could use his name as the central character in an epic poem – Welshday – in which he journeys through the city of Edinburgh in the company of an inebriate detective and a living statue, in a tribute to James Joyce’s celebration of ‘Bloomsday’, he replied “Why not! Go for it!”. All of which leads me to the point of this post: it doesn’t hurt to ask. Countless authors have based novels and stories on pre-existing characters – the Flashman novels, James Bond novels by Kingsley Amis and William Boyd, and so on. Sometimes a living author will hand on the baton willingly to a successor, and the worst that can happen is that they’ll say no.

As it happens, Welshday was never finished either. I know the concept of unfinished writings seem strange, almost like the idea of failure. But I draw the analogy with a painter’s studio – no one finds it strange to find drawings, sketches, studies, and unfinished works there, so I have no qualms about admitting to countless novels, stories, and poems that never made it (yet!) to completion. In fact Welshday gave rise to some good stand-alone poems, so here’s one of them for you. Our journeying hero and his inebriate companion visit a bar in Leith, where they are accosted by a Russian seafarer who claims to be the only survivor from the sinking of the submarine Kursk. It’s a sestina:

 

Old Rimbaud said, “Let’s go and take a glass
of whiskey in a jostling pub I know.”
I, like a sodding numpty, dogged his steps,
And tracked him to a clapped-out, frowsy dive,
Where half the clientele were missing ears –
the other half were shouting to be heard!

We’d been there half an hour when I heard
a Russian sailor tap the falling glass;
he grabbed my sleeve, said “This is for your ears
alone, no other bugger has to know.
I heard my skipper calling dive-dive-dive,
as I slid down the conning-tower steps…”

Old Rimbaud, blootered, sunk down on the steps;
the Russian bellowed at me, to be heard.
“The air inside gets hotter when you dive,
the sea is slagged and dark as bottle-glass.
The ghost of every bugger that you know
floats by, and there’s a pounding in your ears!”

His sliding, slootered accent hurt my ears.
I thumbed my belt and slipped some salsa steps;
I said, “Now tell me something I don’t know,
no half-arsed, half-cocked tale already heard,
no shite enigma darkly in a glass,
no bonny buck-and-wing, no duck-and-dive!”

He scowled at me and, miming a crash-dive,
resumed the tale that battered at my ears,
while I, to ease my pain, sucked at my glass.
“Kolesnikov took all the proper steps,
and we went aft – perhaps you might have heard –

but when you’re frigging shark-bait, boy, you know!”
I shut him up, and said, “Here’s what I know –
no fucker made it home from that last dive –
They all asphyxiated, so I heard!”
He laughed, he jeered, I stopped my ringing ears,
and sat down with old Rimbaud on the steps,
to spit at all the demons in my glass.

When ghosts well from a glass you always know,
You’re sitting on the steps of some sad dive,
and though you stop your ears you’ll still have heard!

So, what are you doing if you’re not writing?

Apart from feeling guilty, you mean? No, seriously, that is an issue.

authoressWhen I think about it, my output over the past few years has been quite something. I have to remind myself that, since about 2005, apart from having finished four novels (three of which have been published and the other is with my publisher awaiting publication), having had at least two-hundred-and-fifty poems published in collections, anthologies, magazines, and e-zines, having written enough short stories to fill over two volumes, I have taken part for five years in a poem-a-day project. So why stop? Why stop that poem-a-day, and why halt progress on my latest novel after 20,000 words? Well, let me be clear about this – I needed a break, and believe me I’m feeling the benefit. Output had taken over from quality, and I was exhausted and frustrated.

So where does the guilt come from? I don’t know. Maybe from the little imp on my shoulder who keeps whispering to me, “You’re an ex-writer, that’s what you are! Now you’ve stopped, you’ll never start again.”

Maybe, in fact, it has to do with the continuing output of fellow-writers I respect. There they go, merrily taking part in NaNoWriMo and suchlike, galloping though the creation of a novel in a single month, filling their blogs with poetry, writing columns of advice for colleague-authors, posting their goals and how they have achieved them… I could go on line now and find, with ease, confident articles on the discipline and routine of writing, and below each I would find an almost endless roll of comments thanking the writer for his or her sage advice. And I would know that, try as I might, I couldn’t stick to anything like such a routine. I might manage it for a week… ten days…

And yet, there’s all my output. I must have had some impetus and discipline somewhere. You would think so. A colleague said my writing was ‘visceral’, meeting that it sprang from emotion, from feelings rather than thoughts. When I consider that such movements in art and writing as modernism, expressionism, and imagism have influenced me, I guess she could be right. Certainly when I set out to write something, with certain exceptions, I do not start out with the goal of reaching a goal. By that I mean that my work is seldom driven by the end, I do not start my novels, for example, with the resolution of the narrative already in my mind*. I describe such a practice a ‘male’ writing, by which I mean it is driven along by the desire to reach a single climax, to use a sexual analogy. It’s the authorial equivalent of ‘getting your end away’. And it is something that is so ingrained in our culture, that it is hard to counter, hard to offer any other way of doing things. As we say in Scotland, ‘it’s aye been’, or at least its ingrainedness gives that impression. Writers like Virginia Woolf showed us that it simply didn’t have to be so, it didn’t have to be the unwritten rule that we all revered like Holy Writ. Yet it lurches along still, like some kind of zombie. There, that’s today’s thought – ‘Zombie male writing’.

To me, there was so much left undone in modernism, as though they picked up the ball, ran with it, passed it to the next author, who just stood there and let it drop. I know, I know, my mixed metaphors are murder today…

Where was I? Oh yes – what have I been doing if not writing. Well, same as ever. Holding down a job, editing, playing my part in family routine, coping with physical and psychological conditions (my own and others’), reading, in fact all the things I was doing while I was writing. Y’know, I wonder where I found the time to write so much! So will I let all these mundane necessities fill the available time, will I become used to them, so used to them that I will one day forget to write, forget that I ever wrote? Well, let’s face it, one day we will all close our eyes on daylight and not simply forget what we were but lose the forgetting too. Life is about letting go. So it is, of course, possible that I will never write again, ever.

Possible, but improbable.

Despite the imp on my shoulder, I’m not an ex-writer. Hell, what am I doing right now if not writing? I haven’t stepped away from my work entirely. I jot stuff down, the odd word, the odd phrase, the odd idea. I go through my unpublished corpus to see if there is anything worth submitting to a poetry magazine**. Ideas on how to progress my novel – the one I’m half way through, the one I always wanted to write – keep circulating in my head. And anyway, competing with the guilt-imp is the wee wight on my other shoulder, telling me that if I don’t go back to writing someday soon, I’ll end up in that charming little beauty spot located, I’m told, near Harrisburg PA.

Near Harrisburg PA

Gonnae no dae that! Gonnae no!

__________

*Many writers claim not to do this, but frankly it’s what most of ‘em do!

**I haven’t submitted anything since about 2013, at which time I devoted all my energy to writing a collection specially for a publisher. The result was my prize-nominated I am not a fish.

Gang time.

gg

Today’s task is reading through the screen-writer’s work so far. Slowly but surely, he has been turning my short story Axe into a screenplay – we’re looking at small or large screen! I have expanded the plot beyond that of the short story, giving a back-story to a couple of the characters, suggesting an overall resolution, and the writer has been working on that, giving it precedence over the main narrative. Some marvellous work has been done so far, the script is actional and attention-grabbing, there’s so much movement to it, and I think the finished product will be great. Watch this space.

M

A Wave of Scottish Monarchs

David I, King of Scots

I wrote this piece of nonsense doggerel in 2010 especially for Visit Scotland (formerly the Scottish Tourist Board). I have no idea whether they ever used it at all. I had a mind to do it when I recalled the famous old jingle that listed the Kings and Queens of England. It began in 1066 with

Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry 3

and continued till the end of the 19c with

Willie and Mary, Anna Gloria,
Four Georges, Willie, and Victoria.

Well, we had nothing like it for the Kings and Queens of Scots, so I just piled in. It’s all in fun, so enjoy!

© 2010 Marie Marshall

© 2010 Marie Marshall