Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: Uncategorized

The Legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline

Never, never go anti-clockwise!

I’ll tell you a wee fairy story, if you would like to listen for a few minutes, if you’re not dashing away to watch TV, or play with your computer. It was told to me by someone who we always knew as “Aunt Sheena” when I was a girl on Mull.

You thought I had always lived here in Glasgow? I know I’m old myself – I shall be ninety-one next month – and I seem like I’m Glasgow born and bred, but until I was ten years old I lived on the island of Mull. My dad came here looking for work in the shipyards, and my mum and my two brothers and me followed him.

Aunt Sheena – she was a Gaelic-speaker – wasn’t anyone’s aunt really, that’s just what we called her; and when I knew her she must have been as old as I am now. I mind well how she came to wave me and my brothers goodbye the very last time we got on the bus from Killiechronan, on our way to Craignure for the ferry to Oban, and the train to Glasgow. I mind seeing her getting smaller and smaller in the back window of the bus as it headed down the Salen road. I waved until I couldn’t see her any more. I promised I would try to remember all the stories she had told me.

She was more like everyone’s granny. I suppose she really had been someone’s aunt at some time, but I don’t know whose. And on the occasions when she would come from her cottage to ours, during those long summer holidays when we didn’t have to trek into Salen to school, and when dad was away working and mum was shopping in Tobermory or doing her typing job at the doctor’s surgery, Aunt Sheena would tell us stories, usually about the fairy folk, or spirits, or ghosts.

Och, I knew you would say that fairy stories are for wains. But just hear me a moment. When we lived there in Killiechronan, my brothers and I had no radio –  there wasn’t even electricity, and it was years before television came to Scotland. So we had to live in our imaginations. In the winter time it would be books borrowed from the school library. In the summer we would range around the countryside, playing games of cowboys and Indians, Jacobites and Redcoats, Boers, Zulus, knights of old – even I would wield a stick torn from a tree as a musket or a spear. One of our favourite places was the Mausoleum of an old Major General at Gruline, which would be a fort for us to defend or attack, depending on what game we were playing. We would wage our mock battles there until the ghillies from Gruline House came to chase us off. So tales of fairy castles, elf knights, and wandering ghosts just fed that imagination of ours.

And of course the whole landscape of our part of Scotland is full of fairy rocks, magic trees, and so on, if the place names are to be believed. There are things which must be said at odd times, little rituals such as kissing the tip of your fingers and touching your gatepost each time you left home, to make sure you returned safely. These were all part of our lives, and we imagined that they belonged to that time before people came to Mull, when there were magic folk here instead, who hadn’t really gone away, but who slept, or kept guard over the doorways between our world and another world where magic still ruled, and who had to be kept sweet so that they would not creep in to our world and do us harm. I remember how, on the last day that I left our cottage, I kissed my fingertips and touched the gatepost…

Listen, I’ll tell you how I know there are such things as ghosts. A mile or so down the road from our cottage there is a wee kirk, dedicated to St Columba. I was walking towards it one afternoon, and I was about one hundred yards from it when I saw a man open the door and go in. I don’t know whether he actually looked at me, but I could see that he had turned his face in my direction. I thought he must have been the minister. But when I reached the kirk and tried the door I found it shut fast – locked – and no sign of a light inside, no sounds. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I walked round and round the building, jumping up to look in the windows, but it was deserted. Just then a cloud covered the sun, there were a few spits of rain, and a wee wind sprang up. The leaves on the trees started to rustle and rattle, as though hundreds of tiny hands had started to shake the twigs and branches, and I realised what I had done. I had gone round the kirk anti-clockwise. You must never do that, never go round a kirk, or a stone circle, or an ancient cross anti-clockwise. It is such bad luck! As the rustling and rattling grew louder, I felt I had insulted the spirits or elves that guarded that place, and if I didn’t do something very quickly to put matters right, I would be struck blind, or dumb, or daft.

So I ran back round the kirk, but this time clockwise, like the sun in the sky. I ran round twice, three times, and the rattling stopped, the wind died down, and the sun came out again. Each time I passed the kirk after that, I dropped a curtsey to whoever guarded it.

But that’s my story, not one of Aunt Sheena’s. The trouble is that, despite my promise, I can only remember snips and snaps of her tales, apart from one. I’ll tell you that one. It’s the legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline.

One rainy day when my brothers and I did not want to go out, Aunt Sheena was there, in my dad’s armchair, nodding, and pursing her lips, the way she always did when she was thinking of a story. I was just bringing a cup to her, and I decided to nudge her towards the story.

“Aunt Sheena,” I asked. “Do you know anything about the standing stone by the road to Knock?”

“Do I know about the Grey Lady?” she said. “Of course. I know all about her. Why – do you want me to tell you her story? All right, gather round, just let me take a sip of my tea. Now then…”

And this is the story she told us:

There once was a man from Ulva, called Ewan MacDaid. He was handsome enough, but very quiet, hardly spoke. At the age of fourteen he had taken work at the Ben More Estate, working for the Factor as a labourer He worked hard in all weather, never complained, always smiled but said very little to the other workers on the estate. He loved to be given work that meant he had to wander up Glen Clachaig, or along Glen Cannel to the shielings at Gortenbuie, whether it was to look for stray sheep, mend a wall, or simply take a message. Solitude was his joy, the quiet countryside of Mull was his love, and work was his excuse for enjoying both. Not that he complained when the Factor partnered him with another man, or put him in a team under one of the ghillies. He simply went along with that, pulled his weight in the job at hand with that good-natured smile, but sat apart to eat his midday food. That was always some grey bread – his mother’s own oat bread made in her oven at home – and a can of water from Loch Ba.

When he was old enough to be let a wee cottage of his own, in the row of cottages in Knock where the other estate workers all lived, his mother used to come all the way from Ulva with a basket of grey bread for him. Of course it wasn’t all he ate – he was allowed his share of snared rabbits from the Estate, and fish from Loch na Keal – but his mother’s grey bread made his eyes light up most of all.

It was a shock to his workmates and to the Factor when Ewan, on hearing of the war between Turkey and Russia, announced that he was away to join the army, and would be leaving soon for the Crimea. He left, an unlikely soldier, remembering of course to kiss his fingers and touch them to the gatepost of the cottage.

He was gone for three years. His mother was often heard to say, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread? Do they have grey bread in the army?” She, poor soul, died before he came back. Neighbours found her on the floor of her cottage on Ulva, her hands covered with oat flour, her bowl full of dough.

Ewan did come back, still smiling but with the boy’s look in his eyes changed into a man’s, and a man who has seen things which no one should see. The news that his mother was not there to welcome him made that look softer, sadder, but still he smiled and said very little. His workmates said, half-joking, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread?”

The answer was that he took two days off work, arranging with the Factor to go without pay for those days, took the next boat to Oban, and returned with a wife. The new Mistress MacDaid – Elspeth – was a bonny lass with high cheekbones, dark hair, and a ready tongue. His workmates teased Ewan for keeping her a secret, and though they all found out that he had courted her while he was billeted in Oban, always intending to ask her to marry him, they let him have his own little joke – “I wed her because she makes good grey-bread.”

For a few years the couple were happy enough. But then Elspeth began to notice that the handsome soldier she had first met was content merely to get on with his job in the hills and glens of the estate, to enjoy his luncheon of grey bread, and to come home to her at night for quiet companionship.

“Have you no ambition, Ewan?” she would complain, and Ewan’s workmates on either side of their cottage could hear her plainly enough, because her voice had become shrill. She chivvied him endlessly – why did he not try for the Head Ghillie’s job, and then even for the Factor’s. He would shake his head, saying he was content with things the way they were, much to Elspeth’s anger.

“I’m the man you married, Elspeth,” he would say.

The day came when he said that once too often, and Elspeth seethed. When Ewan’s next remark was to wonder whether she had ready his wee bit of grey bread for next day, she boiled over into the most terrible rage. She chased Ewan out of the house, cursing, and pelting him with the dozen or so wee loaves she had just baked.

“Grey bread? Grey bread? Is that all you care about Ewan MacDaid? Is that all you can offer me – a life of baking your grey bread? The man I married, are you? Well I don’t see him here, I don’t see the soldier who fought at Sevastopol and Balaclava, and faced Russian guns, the man who courted me bravely. All I see is a little baby crying for his grey bread! God knows why I ever married you, I wish I could be rid of you!”

And she chased him round and round the cottages, pelting him with the loaves. When she had run out of loaves she pelted him with clods, stones, anything she could pick up, with his astonished workmates peeping out of their windows.

And she chased him… anti-clockwise.

That night they lay in bed, he on his right side, snoring, and she on her left, weeping. At last, after two hours of tears, she began to slip into that state where images from dreams begin to crowd in on the familiar things of waking. It seemed to her that there was a draught in the room, and that the door had been half-opened letting in a grey light, a little like dawn but somehow harder; it seemed as though the bedclothes were sliding off her, or as though little pairs of hands were pulling them back.

Then there came the sudden shock of these little hands’ being placed over her mouth, and more dragging her from her bed and into a nightmare.

There was a noise of chattering and laughter, dry as old leaves and pine-needles; the tread of dozens of pairs of feet; bumps and bangs as she was carried out of the bedroom. She tried to call out to Ewan, but he just snored more loudly.

Out of the bedroom she was carried, and out of the cottage into the cold moonlight. She could see the dark shadows of the creatures who carried her, as though they were the silhouette of a thorn-thicket. She hoped she was dreaming, but when they clumsily collided with the gatepost and she felt a pain in her foot, she knew she was not. A wind blew as they carried her along, round and round the row of cottages… anti-clockwise… and leaves and twigs from the nearby trees pelted her face.

Then it seemed that a hole had opened up in the ground, and she was carried down a steep slope and out of the moonlight. How long that terrible ride lasted she could not tell, but at last she felt herself being thrown down, and she sprawled on a hard, stone floor.

But at least she could see. There was a glow from a fire, and from many torches round a hall. And her mouth was at last free. She shook her head to clear it and looked up. Instantly she wished that she couldn’t see at all, and that the hands were still over her mouth so she couldn’t cry out. Around her, leering at her, were the Brownie folk.

Now, put out of your mind the wee lasses who dance around at the kirk hall; and put out of your mind the pretty fairies in story books. These folk, these creatures that surrounded Elspeth McDaid, mocking her, scorning her, were the real Brownie folk. They are not really of our world, they don’t think the way we do, they don’t have the laws of God, much less the laws of science, to rule them. They have no sense of justice or fairness. Oh they can be kind to those folk who respect them, but they can be wilful and wicked too, to good and bad folk alike, especially those who show them no politeness at all.

In the hall where Elspeth grovelled on the floor, there were imps and elves and trolls of all shapes and sizes. There were goat-footed, goat-horned demons; there were tall tree-spirits with skin as white as birch-bark; there were tiny mayfly-fairies like dancing points of light that flittered up to her and pricked her with needles; there were misshapen gnomes and fierce elf-knights; there were nut-brown bauchles who laughed and threw things at her. Worse than all those was the one who sat on a throne in the middle of the hall – the Brownie Queen. She was terrible, beautiful, she shone like polished brass, and her eyes flashed with burning, red anger!

“Who do you think you are, Elspeth MacDaid?” she said, in a voice like the roar of the water that falls from Eas Fors. “Who do you think you are to rage and rage, and chase a man widdershins round your croft? Who are you to throw good food away in your anger? Who are you to shout aloud against the joining of you to your man according to the magic of your land? Give me one good reason why I should not dash your brains out, open the trap door in the floor of my hall, and throw you into hell!”

If Elspeth could have grovelled any more than she was doing, then she would have.

The Queen spoke again. “What have you to be angry about, you who can spend her life in the sunlight as we once did?”

“My man…” stammered Elspeth. “My man… he wanted his… grey bread.”

The Brownie folk laughed, but the Queen silenced them all with a voice like a rainstorm.

“Is that all? Is that all? A man asks for his food and you throw it at him? Very well, your punishment shall be that you will work forever, in MY kitchen, baking oat-bread for me and for all my courtiers here. It is the next worst thing to hell, Elspeth MacDaid, and you will never see daylight again.”

“Pity… some pity…don’t forbid me the daylight,” cried Elspeth.

The hall went quiet. The Queen seemed to think for a long time.

“I will have mercy,” she said. “You may have daylight.”

“Oh thank you, thank you,” cried Elspeth, now upon her knees.

But the queen walked over to her, and whispered an enchantment in her ear. She would indeed have daylight, she would have sun and moon, rain and stars. She would stand forever, her back hunched against the cold and heat, in the cow-field by the Knock road. And in that instant Elspeth was transformed into a grey, dour, lonely standing-stone, the one we all know to this day as the Grey Lady.

Of course all Ewan MacDaid knew was that she had gone. He was sad for a while, but his workmates’ wives baked grey-bread for him, and took much solace in the beauty of the lands around the Ben More Estate. And that is the end of Aunt Sheena’s story.

Och I know what you’re going to say. But let me just tell you something else. My own grandson took his wains to Mull last summer for their holidays. One day they parked their car outside St Columba’s kirk, and took a walk down the road. They spotted the standing stone – the Grey Lady – in the field, and my grandson took his new digital camera as far as the barbed-wire fence, steadied his foot awkwardly against a squelchy tussock, and tried five or six times to take a photograph. None of them seemed to come out better than a blur, and the stone seemed to become more and more hunched, as though offended to be disturbed in that way. As he continued to try, he tells me that the sky clouded over and he felt a few drops of rain on him, and the leaves on the trees began to rustle as though hundreds of little hands were shaking each twig and branch. He says that his wains pulled him away, back to the car, wanting him to find a café where they could have chips, and that as they walked away the sun came out again and the wind that had stirred the trees died down again.

But that was just a coincidence, and Aunt Sheena’s story about the Grey Lady is just an old fairy tale. Isn’t it?

__________

©Marie Marshall 2011-2020

The photograph of the ‘Grey Lady’ is indeed from Mull, but from Quinish, not Gruline. Naturally enough, I couldn’t find one from Gruline!

Chagrin

Most of you will not know this story. My first tale of a haunting… well, it may have been a haunting… was written in 2007, and was one of the first winners of the Fearie Tales contest at Pitlochry. It has undergone several revisions and rewrites since then, but it is now here for you to read, in the run-up to Halloween. An old man in Edinburgh walks between dreams, memories, and the fleeting presence in his life of a woman with red-gold hair. Enjoy.

__________

I have moved from waking to sleeping, and from sleeping to waking so many times, it is now difficult to tell the difference, and one is as familiar to me as the other, and as strange. I understand this is to do with becoming old, and I am surely that, and have been for a long time. For instance, it might have been last night I woke up to hear my late wife calling out, in her rising, questioning tone, “Charles?” I wanted to answer her but my mouth was dry, as mouths often are in dreams, but not in waking; also it was not her name, Eleanor, which was on my lips, but another’s, and even that was caught away, as though seized by a passing zephyr and lost somewhere. I know I lay awake, or maybe still asleep, and sought to recall it in the dark. Names, memories, all haunt me as ghosts would; I live in a haunted world, old age, peopled by such things, and find it difficult to imagine that there was ever a time when I did not.

And it may have been yesterday (except I knew it could not have been) that I walked past the hoarding at the end of my street, the hoarding saying “Persil 62 – as new as 1962”, and boarded a bus bound for Corstophine. On the hill by Craigcrook Castle I kicked up leaves as though I was a child. The leaves rose and fell like a mane of red-gold hair, the autumn sky reflected blue-as-eyes in the far-away Forth, and I was stopped by the miracle of a memory. A love, long in the past, forgotten, recalled… and a snatch of song.

Lord knows why, the other day as it might have been, I came back to Corstophine instead of being, once again, the only visitor to Eleanor’s grave. I have tended that grave, and have neglected it in favour of visits to the hill, in memory of the tenderness that Eleanor and I once shared, and of the fruitlessness of that tenderness. And now, that folding-over of time, that trick of memory in which I thumb idly through my mental journal and flick it open at random pages. But on each page is a clear image, an image of burning immediacy, clearer than yesterday, clearer than today’s own, dim morning.

Such as riding home on the tram, and having my eyes drawn to a woman on the pavement; a woman pale and tired from the burden she carried in her womb, but nonetheless serene, her head held high, a cascade of red-gold falling on her shoulders almost wantonly, her clear, blue eyes purposefully on some horizon not encompassed by the urban landscape, her sage-green coat open, her white, strong hands laid tenderly upon her fullness. Or so it seemed to me. Surely it could not have been yesterday that I pressed through the crowded tram, leapt off at the next stop, and followed her? I am not capable of pressing and leaping these days, but this pursuit of her is so bright a picture in my mind. The sudden, torrential rain, the thunder, the hurrying folk with umbrellas raised or collars hastily turned up; but still ahead of me, as I dodged this way and that around the cursing fellow-pedestrians, a sunlit patch of red-gold, lank in the rain but gleaming like a precious nugget or like a vision of the Holy Grail, pulling me through the streets. There is a moment in this picture-show of recollection in which the high, iron railings to my right were struck by a lightning bolt, blinding me, hiding even the blessed, golden mane from my sight, a divine warning that I am too close to something I should not touch. Only afterwards, when I found myself before a black door which, I was convinced, she had opened to gain entry to a particular house in a Georgian terrace, did I reflect that I had come so very close to death. That realisation did not stop the scene rolling on, did not stop my pushing against the unlocked door, and going in. An Etoile marble hallway, a winding staircase, echoes of footfalls above. I know I climbed the stairs, and that part way up a burly, female figure barred my way, and a firm but gentle voice, with a hint of Irish in it, said, “Mannie, she needs her rest.”

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un instant,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie
.”

What relation all this bears to the memory of sitting at a kitchen table, sharing a cup of tea with this Irishwoman, I do not know. Very clear now is the recollection of her little pastries – she plied me with them, eager for me to taste them, to eat my fill – crescent-shaped, tasting of almonds and honey, while upstairs, or maybe in the next room, I thought I caught the sound of footsteps, a snatch of song, or sometimes a high voice calling out for me. But that is all, and the memory shifts and shifts. I stood by a public bench by the Water of Leith. It was and is familiar, it was and is empty, and I am sad.

Where does this come from? The memory of standing before a row of houses, which may well have been the same Georgian terrace, looking at them in ruins, blackened fingers of brick and stone, pointing obscenely to the sky, terrible as sea-stacks. I seem to recall, as I stood there uncomprehending, hearing a passer-by saying, “Zeppelin raid, Mister.” And again seeing a smart, new hotel in what could have been the same spot. Then a later visit, when the instruction “Somewhere this side of Corstophine” failed to impress an otherwise helpful cabbie.

Into the flow of these memories sharper than today, suddenly others are flung, inapposite, startling. Eleanor, returned from an outing with a bereaved friend – a visit to a spiritualist medium – frowning. “She calls herself ‘Dona Andalu’. It was all a waste of time. Told us nothing about Margaret’s poor Geordie. All she would do was look at me and say, ‘She is of the Djinn and bore him a son’!”  Why did I flinch at that, and why is some kind of guilt now making the memory even sharper than most others? Why did I search my mind for some recollection of my tour of duty in Palestine, trying to remember whether I had opened any ancient bottles or rubbed any lamps, broken Solomon’s seal somehow and let a genie escape? And why did the fact that there was no such recollection seem to stoke more shame in me than the fact that my love for Eleanor had, at some undefined moment, become commonplace and banal, though far from incomplete?

There have been so many times, I now recall, that I have seen children, and even adults, with red-gold hair and with eyes as blue as the sky. I had not realised until today how my gaze has always been drawn to them, unless this is a false memory illuminated in retrospect – but if so, no such memories can be relied upon – and how I searched every face to see if I recognised it. Did that young Gordon Highlander officer, in the times of austerity and sandbags, really tip his Glengarry to show curls of burnished brass? Did he really wink a blue eye at me as he strolled along with a pretty girl?

This is the clearest scene of all, and it has just come back to me in its entirety. I approached a public bench, on it there sat the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her ensemble was sage green, her hair red-gold, her eyes sky-in-the-lake blue. She wore no hat, neither was her hair up; it simply hung loose, rich, glorious, fast, wanton… Her glance was friendly, but there was an innocence there in her eyes which gave the lie to the wantonness of her display. I raised my hat, and asked her if the seat next to her was taken. She motioned towards it with a delicate hand gesture, and I sat by her. We talked. I told her my name. She told me hers, in an accent which could have been French. “Chagrin”.

“It means sorrow. I know that is strange, but it goes back a long way in my family.” She said. And then she sang, quietly, for me.

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
J’ai toute quitt
é pour l’ingrate Sylvie.
Elle me quitte et prend un autre amant.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
Tant que cette eau coulera doucement
Vers ce ruisseau qui borde la prairie,
Je t’aimerai, me r
épétait Sylvie,
L’eau coule encore, elle a chang
é pourtant.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.

She sang with her own name on her lips, as though the great sadness of the song was in her heart, and I listened, holding my breath and with my pulse seemingly stilled, for as long as it took for the last laissez vibrer of her singing to fade. But at me she smiled, and her eyes smiled too with shades of cerulean that defied my gaze and my powers of description; but I knew at once that I loved her, and desired her, in a way I had never known before and would never know again. When no one was looking, we kissed, daringly for the time, and I unbuttoned her sage jacket, seeing the gold pentacle at the neck of her blouse. I felt entirely safe, completely loved, detached from the world. I cannot – for the life of me – remember making love, there or anywhere else. I do remember a tremendous sense of loss, of bereavement, and I remember standing, looking at that same park bench, empty. I also remember reaching behind myself, at the next bath night, and running the back of my hand awkwardly over deep scratches or weals on my back. Images of harpies, or strange, crying birds came into my mind then – grey images of broken gravestones in the Dean Cemetery, and my dodging of rain-soaked people on the city streets flowed into a near-nightmare of running, hawking for breath, between obelisks, weeping angels, frowning busts, stoneworks in mockery of classical elegance and gothic piety. And always ahead of me, but never close enough to see clearly let alone catch, the spilling red-gold that could have been her glorious hair or a trick of the queer Edinburgh light at the time of year when the sun scarcely rises above the brim of my hat. I was running after escaping love, my soul possessed by longing, and behind me, overtaking me, always the panting and the hoofbeats of fear and loss…

All that having been exhausted as soon as it was recalled, my last vision does indeed belong to today, to as recently as five minutes ago, or less. Or I am entirely demented in my old age. I have been walking, as I so often do now, by the Water of Leith, lost in thought. I hardly noticed a nanny with a child in a push-chair, hardly noticed her burly figure, his red-gold hair. Only when they had passed did it occur to me that I had heard an Irish voice say, “There goes your grand-daddy!” When I looked around they had gone, as surely as my dreadful nightmare images had disappeared, all those years before.

But… but… on the far side of the water, just now, I saw them, and a saw a whole family of children, running to a woman who had her arms outstretched to greet them. Even at that distance, they called up an intense pang of recognition in me. Their hair… their eyes…

It could have been though – most likely was – the leaves I had just kicked up, as red-gold as a young woman’s hair, and the sky-blue, eye-blue water.

__________

©Marie Marshall 2007

Lock-down

I’m currently working from home. That’s a necessity, not a luxury. I’ve been pretty inactive as a writer for some time, I confess and for reasons I won’t bore you with, but I’m afraid the covid-19 lock-down won’t give me any extra opportunity. Setting up working from home, and managing my work from here rather than from a convenient office, will actually take up at least as much time as a ‘normal’ day of commuting and office time. The only advantage is I get to put on my playlist.

Seriously everyone, stay at home, stay safe.

R.I.P Les Noble

Les edited all my published and scheduled-for-publication novels. No typo or grammatical error ever got past him – he would even query vernacular grammar just in case. His passing is a great loss.

the red ant

durbslaunchLes

It is with shock and grief that I heard last night that on the 13th of March, our friend, and chief editor, and long-term associate of P’kaboo, Leslie Noble, lost his fight against cancer.

He fought this illness like a champion, keeping spirits high, taking care of his granddaughters, tackling new projects and looking after his friendships.  He was one of the most vivacious people I’ve ever come across.  P’kaboo lost an amazing author and editor; for me personally, a close friend crossed over to the other side.  My children lost one of their favourite authors.

Les, your fight is over and it is good that you are no longer in pain.  May you rest in peace.  May your family find comfort.  Our deepest condolences.

I know, as you believed too, that you are around, still looking out for your loved ones and your friends.  We shall meet again beyond…

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The Spring 2019 Showcase is now published

Go there, and like what you find…

the zen space

oreum landscape annotated 900

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A sort-of-review of Marie Marshall’s T.S.Eliot Prize nominated ‘I am not a fish’

Featured Image -- 2877

If you thought reviews were as dull as ditch-water, then you never read one by Daniel Paul Marshall (no relation, honest!).

Daniel Paul Marshall

You’ll never believe me…I was waiting to Skype God. You can imagine the anxiety! I mean…the Almighty, the Alpha & the Omega, Tetragrammaton—YHWH. It was buffering his end, ringing out. There was a lot of eeking & blare. The postman dropped his delivery. I was gripped on what God was going to look like. I suspected a primate for some reason. Nothing ichthyic I thought, nor feline, leonine or arachnid. I was going primate. Still buffering I opened my mail. It was Marie Marshall’s T.S. Eliot Prize nominated I am not a Fish. I forgot all about my natter with God—what had he to do with me, now?

This
book is unlike anything. A mellifluous mash of hilarious, playful poems,
evading the reader whilst prodding with long boney digits of joy. There is
alchemy between word & imagination, infused with hallucinatory &
hypnotic substance, which sounds painful, but actually manifests…

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Well, actually…

The Winter 2018 Showcase at the zen space is now published. Please visit.

the zen space

200 BunnymanI did manage to get the Winter 2018 Showcase published today! Callooh! Callay! So come and join the Bunnyman and his friends over there, and celebrate Hogmanay.

Actually, I don’t think we actually mention Hogmanay, but there’s a goodly amount of other stuff for your delight. So either hover your pointer over the ‘Experience’ tab and scroll down until a link for the Winter 2018 Showcase appears, then click on it. Alternatively, please feel free to click here.

By the way, I check out how the site looks using Google Chrome. If it looks at all odd in your browser, please let me know. I’m not sure there’ll be much I can do about it, but it would be useful to know. Thanks.

M.

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My hopes for 2018

From my (occasional) other site.

Marie Marshall - Lady wot writes

1MY HOPES FOR 2018 are very simple: That we will end privilege, not by cutting down but by raising up; not by deprivation but by sharing; not by leaving people bereft of purpose but by allowing and encouraging them to see new purpose.

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Coming down the road I saw an elephant

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure in my pain, –
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain, –
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain.
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Sir Philip Sidney
Sonnet 1, Astrophil and Stella

When a friend, having read my piece on rearward prepositions and double no-nos, asked me if I actually did stick to any of the ‘rules’ of English, I stopped to consider the matter. I came to the conclusion that I probably did, but largely without knowing it, having absorbed many of them in the course of everyday communication, as well as having them handed down to me in education. After all, I speak French, so I’m aware of the grammatical construction of a different language. Also I did two or three years Latin at school, so I know well enough where men like Dryden and Lowth are coming from. But the main thing is that it doesn’t matter much where I got my own usage from, because now I have had a lifetime of just letting it flow – latterly as a writer and poet – and finding out that every word we speak, write, or type is a work of creation. We are beings of expression, not simply of information.

ps2Still, however, my friend pressed me. “Notwithstanding your refreshingly anarchic view of your native language, is there a line you will not cross? Is there one of these fussy rules that you yourself would not dream of transgressing?”

Well, to be honest, there is one that always hits me right in the eye, makes me turn up my nose, purse my lips, grind my teeth, set my jaw, and wiggle my ears – the misrelated participle, or a clause containing one. Much though today’s liberal linguists tell me not to worry, the damn thing still bugs me. That’s why I started this article with a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney. What a poet! Although he did not, strictly speaking, introduce the sonnet form into English poetry, it was his work that gave it currency in the late 16c. The lines of the sonnet above are ‘alexandrines’, having twelve syllables each, and many of them defy the reader’s expectation of strictly iambic metre. Thus, here in the childhood of the English sonnet, before Shakespeare’s pentameter had become the norm, we have a form with a remarkable amount of freedom and expressiveness. But right there at the end in the lines…

Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

… can be seen a monumental grammatical misrelation. It is the poet who is great with child, helpless, biting his pen, and beating himself, but in apposition to that we find his Muse related grammatically to all that helplessness and beating.

Do I care that much? Well, in this context, in the context of this marvelously free-running poetry, no I don’t. if anything, the grammatical misrelation, deliberate or not, seems to fit the voice of the poem – the poet and lover, distracted and frustrated, groping for the right words and being surprised by some simple advice from his Muse, which breaks in on his mood. It’s almost as if the misrelation signals that sudden but refreshing intrusion. But consider the following:

Sitting on some iron railings, the Royal Family were easy to see.

Yes, I suppose they would be, perched up there, but it hardly fits with the ideal of regal dignity! Of course we know that it’s not the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, et al, who are perched on the railings, but the onlooker, and the context of that statement would make that clear. However, what strikes me about that sentence is that the misrelation and the picture it conjures up makes it ugly, awkward, and breaks my own rule of euphony. I simply wouldn’t say it, because saying it would make me feel uncomfortable, would make me feel that I was saying something ugly, and that’s a good enough reason not to say it.

Consider another sentence:

Born in Russia, his operas are considered his finest work.

The misrelation in this sentence is much less startling, because although the opening phrase ‘Born in Russia’ is in apposition to the grammatical subject of the second phrase, ‘his operas’, it’s pretty obvious we’re talking about the composer himself. It’s a relatively harmless example, and not excessively ugly.

What worries me, however, is that if we don’t make a point of avoiding, as far as we can, this kind of misrelation, we are going to find ourselves, from time to time, stumped. Consider the following scenario: I’m sitting at my computer right now, and a friend rushes in to my room. “Guess what,” she says, “coming down the road I saw an elephant!” She says no more than that, but waits for my reaction. My grammatical brain tells me instantly that it was she who was coming down the road. 12But wait! Because we’re so used to misrelation, how can I be sure about that? Three pictures form in my mind. Firstly, based on grammar, I see my friend walking down the road, and spotting an elephant in a fenced paddock. Secondly I see the elephant coming down the road, and my friend seeing it from the relative safety of an upstairs window. Thirdly – oh what the hell! – I see my friend coming down the road from one direction and the elephant coming down the road from the other. I have to ask her for clarification.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“What do you mean what do I mean?” she asks with a frown. “I mean coming down the road I saw an elephant!”

And we’re back to square one.

I wonder, actually, whether inserting a comma into her sentence would help? Is there any difference between…

Coming down the road I saw an elephant.

… and

Coming down the road, I saw an elephant.

The trouble is, you can’t actually hear a comma. Isn’t English absolutely wonderful! That, by the way, was a rhetorical question.

I’m in a subjunctive mood…

I wasted a lot of time recently arguing with a blogger who had ‘learned the rules’ of English at school. My use of English was, according to him, ‘lazy’ because I broke some of these rules. No use my telling him I’m university-educated, that I have spent a lot of time examining historical texts and their linguistic usage, that I’m aware of every rule and rubric that the English language has been saddled with, and that I know full well which ones come from the natural eloquence of everyday speech and which ones were foisted on us despite that natural eloquence. No matter that I have followed and marvelled at the development of modern English from its Medieval roots to its present position as a vibrant, living World Language, with a host of attendant lects and sub-lects that handle every discourse, every social and ethnic specialness, every creative need. No, his schoolmarm knew better, and now so did he!

Aye, right.

Let me examine two of these rules and see how they stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, the question of ending a phrase or sentence with a preposition.

1“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the euphony of that phrase of feminine-ended tetrameter shines out of the dark of four centuries, reminding the audience of the essentially ephemeral existence of that redemptive fantasy and its characters.* Shakespeare was a genius of language; it was all he had to hold his audience with, in the days when CGI effects were not even dreamt of. And this phrase, shining like a candle, ends with a preposition.

Likewise the roll-call of drowned sailors making this wonderful piece of iambic pentameter:

‘Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon.’ (Richard III, 1.4.25)

But I over-egg the pudding, friends. Shakespeare ended sentences this way simply because that’s exactly how everyday English – the English of Kings and commoners alike – was spoken. So when King Henry V, wandering in disguise around the camp of the English army before the battle of Agincourt, is challenged to answer the question ‘Who servest thou under?’ he does not ‘correct’ his challenger’s question. And when, in As You Like It Rosalind asks Orlando ‘Who do you speak to?’ it raises no eyebrows, because it flows off the tongue of a native-speaker like water down a country rill. Moreover, as a king may not quibble at a question, and a well-bred lady may use a preposition as she pleases, a prince may speak of ‘the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to’ in his most famous soliloquy (Hamlet, 3.1.61-62).

2So, where did the rule to the contrary come from? Many consider that the attribution of Shakespeare’s usages not to one-part-observation one-part-inventiveness, but to ignorance and lack of education, started with John Dryden in the late 17c. Dryden was a scholar of Latin, and since in Latin it was impossible to end a sentence with a preposition, he decided it should be improper in English, usage or no usage.** Influential amongst his own circle though Dryden might have been, ‘Dryden’s Rule’ was not codified until the second half of the 18c, when Bishop Robert Lowth produced his A Short Introduction to English Grammar. 3But even he acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition was dominant ‘in common conversation’ and suited ‘very well the familiar style of writing.’ So not even Lowth would go as far as saying it should never be done!

Nevertheless, by the early 20c it became the norm amongst teachers of English in schools to preach up the banishment of prepositions from their natural place in colloquial speech. Notwithstanding that, the preposition knew its place better than the teachers did, and kept to it in every discourse except in the speech and writings of pedants. Even Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage referred to the preposition’s banishment as a ‘superstition’!

4At this point in the discussion of prepositions it is usual to cite Winston Spencer Churchill who, it is supposed, replied to a torturous memo from a civil servant, in which prepositions had been engineered away from the end of phrases to the extent that the prose resembled crazy-paving, ‘This is something up with which I will not put!’ However, nice though this piece of ridicule is, the story is apocryphal.

So, is it actually wrong to take prepositions away from the end of sentences? Well, no it isn’t. It is no more wrong than to banish them. As in all things to do with English usage the principle guidelines*** are: clarity, i.e. there should be no confusion, no ambiguity about what is meant; euphony, i.e. it should not sound ugly; emphasis, i.e. the placing of any word depends on how the phrase or sentence is nuanced, thus to say “Where are you going from?” can be used not only because of its colloquial currency, but because it may draw attention to the most important component of the question. 5Equally, when Abraham Lincoln drew the preposition away from the end of a sentence in his address at Gettysburg – ‘increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion’ – he knew precisely where the emphasis should fall in his rhetoric. Thus both are correct, in their own way, according to the context.

Clarity. Euphony, and emphasis are only guidelines, however, and I can think of many reasons why, for the sake of artistic effect, even they can be (carefully) discarded.

On to the next issue, the use of the double negative.

The blogger I was discussing my usage with seemed to be too busy reading his own prejudices to read what I was actually saying about this. It all came about because I deliberately used a negative word to negate a negative phrase I had lifted from him. I was in fact using two negatives to resolve to a positive. He couldn’t get his head round that, he couldn’t cope with any idea except that two negatives together were ‘wrong’. Yet the concept of two negatives resolving to a positive is actually straight-down-the-line schoolmarm English! I’ll leave that point there, as it needs no embellishment.

6There is, of course the question of using a double negative as an intensifier. Now, do I need to quote Shakespeare and Milton to anyone? It is usual for anyone who hears a usage in English that they think is ugly, ‘lazy’, or just new, to shake their head, wring their hands, and lament “Oh, the language of Shakespeare and Milton!” The thing is, both of these writers sometimes used double negatives as intensifiers. Oh yes they did!

Viola says of her heart, ‘And that no woman has, nor never none shall mistress be of it,’ (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 3.1.156-157) and actually I counted four in there!

‘Nor did they not perceive the evil plight in which they were,’ (Milton, Paradise Lost). This is an interesting example, as it has the common use of ‘nor’ as an intensifier at the beginning of a phrase. And by the way, yes, I spotted where Milton had placed his preposition. As I said, both are correct usage.

The difficulty that some readers have with such intensifiers is that, post-18c and the introduction of books like Lowth’s, their use has been identified with a lack of schooling. Whether that identification is a fair criterion to judge them is another matter. In my discussion with the blogger, I cited ‘African-American Vernacular English’ (AAVE), which is recognised by academic linguists as being a legitimate lect of English. Its usage is so ingrained, that it is not simply current but widely influential. Its origins are unclear, but it is probable that it drew its strongest characteristics not only from African speech-patterns but also from the speech-patterns of early English-American settlers. Certainly a very clear factor in its development was the generations-long deprivation of the African-American societal layer from formal education. However, in no way does that invalidate its legitimacy as a lect, in no way are its users inherently ‘lazy’ for using it. I find it highly ironic that ‘laziness’ should be an attribute so often applied to a people who for generations had to suffer slavery!

6In AAVE, as I said, the use of a double negative as an intensifier is very common. So, for example, when Ray Charles sang “I don’t need no doctor…” it was perfectly clear what he meant. Again – clarity. But my stubborn blogger again could not get his head round the fact that to use or not to use a double negative depended entirely on context, not on a supposed laziness or lack of education. Certainly not on my part.

So, is my own English usage ‘perfect’? Well, should I even be aiming for that? In this essay I have deliberately used colloquial forms which have been frowned at by generations of schoolmarms. I have used the singular they/their, I have ended sentences with prepositions, I have started sentences with conjunctions, I have mixed British and American criteria for double and single quotes, I have sprinkled this essay with all kinds of things that some readers may find questionable. But did you, at any time, not understand what I was saying? I doubt it. That’s because I know my English, I know what it does, I know how it’s used, and I know how to use it.

But no, my English has never been ‘perfect’. I headed this article ‘I’m in a subjunctive mood’. That’s because I have to confess that I wrestled with a particular grammatical issue for many years – the subjunctive.

In the English language, strictly speaking, verbs no longer have a subjunctive mood. English does, however, retain a few zombie elements of it, and for a long time I had a big, big blind spot about these elements. Were I to illustrate this by saying that, if I was you, I would read no further, then you would see what I was driving at. I said ‘Were I to illustrate this…’ and that is pure subjunctive, expressing something conditional. I said ‘if I was you’, which was pointed out to me by someone editing my work as being ‘wrong’. To my mind, the word ‘if’ was enough to carry the conditional sense, and the phrase ‘if I was you’ required no subjunctive form of the verb. However, I had never been pulled up on this issue until that editorial process. I checked up on the matter, and I found that ‘if I were you’ was generally regarded as being ‘correct’. Was this another of these arbitrary ‘rules’ that had been foisted on us in the 18c? That didn’t matter to me. What did matter was the question of register and discourse – for whom I wrote generally, and in what context. In that respect ‘if I were you’ would be better received, and actually I had to admit it sounded better to my ear when I spoke each over. It sounded right. It sounded right. It had the benefit of euphony, this use of a double – ha! – conditional.

Wonder of wonders, there’s a grammatical construction that you must double.

Interestingly, though, the way it had been put to me was that ‘if I was you’ was the way the idea was commonly expressed amongst users of English as a second language, in a particular country, and was regarded by many users of English as a first language in that country as the speech of the ill-educated. And there I think we have come full-circle!

__________

7* Humphrey Bogart’s final words in The Maltese Falcon – “The stuff that dreams are made of” – is in fact a misquotation. But that isn’t a problem, because there are many, many misquotes from Shakespeare, from the Bible, from other sources, floating freely out there. The English language is not poorer for them, it is probably richer.

** This is precisely why splitting an infinitive used to be considered incorrect – it was impossible in Latin, so it should be improper in English. See? Modern linguists consider that to be a silly, unnecessary rule, and I’m with them!

*** Inasmuch as rules are for the blind obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise.