I just finished reading the book Ardnish Was Home by Angus MacDonald. We used to holiday in Ardnamurchan, not far from where the story is partly set. I say ‘partly’, because it’s the story of a wounded solider and his nurse in Turkey during the Gallipoli campaign in World War One. Interspersed throughout the story, the injured soldier tells his nurse about life and traditions in his Highland village.
Which got me remembering…
I’m in the process of selling my house, so it’s being kept much tidier and cleaner than normal. Making my bed this morning made me think of my mum. As someone who never owned a tumble dryer, she ironed everything, and I mean everything; socks, hankies, shirts, petticoats (or ‘petties’ as she called them), dishtowels, pillow cases, sheets.
She had a unique technique for the sheets. Naturally, they were always white – and cotton – which had to be folded lengthwise in a particular way after she took them down from the washing line. Then either my sister or myself would take one end while Mum took the other, and we’d ‘pull’ the sheet to get out the worst of the wrinkles. Once that was done, she’d iron them completely smooth before she put them back on the bed. Same with the pillowcases. They were always pristine and smelled of the fresh outdoors.
Nowadays, it’s out of the tumble-dryer for me, onto the bed, and smoothing them as best I can with my hand. But there are always wrinkles left – wrinkles of which I know Mum wouldn’t approve.
Like the memories in the book, the ‘pulling of the sheets’ is a piece of family history that perhaps only I and my sister remember now. And yet, although I would huff and puff about having to help Mum, I remember it fondly. We’d talk, and laugh, and sometimes try to pull each other off balance!
I’m sure Mum learned the technique from her mother, and she, perhaps, from her own mother.
A female tradition, stretching down the generations, to be lost with the introduction of modern technology.
For the generation(s) that don’t know who she was, Lynn was a singer in World War Two, most famous for her song We’ll Meet Again. There were others songs – including White Cliffs of Dover – but We’ll Meet Again became ‘the’ British song of the 40s and she became known as The Forces Sweetheart.
I was never a huge fan. Given I was born a decade after the war ended, she was too old-fashioned for me, and World War Two a piece of ancient history. But my parents loved her. Dad served in the army while Mum remained on the Home Front, caring for my brother. They were apart for six years.
We’ll Meet Again.
No wonder they loved that song, full of poignancy, optimism and hope.
Noel Coward once wrote, ‘Strange how potent cheap music is’. Watching a Youtube compilation of Vera singing it throughout the decades, I found the tears streaming down my face. Mum and Dad were suddenly alive in my head and I miss them so much. Dad has been dead forty years now. Mum almost twenty. I have a very clear memory of Mum standing at the kitchen sink in our house in Glasgow, singing it while she washed the dishes, and of standing on Dad’s toes in the dining room as he tried to teach me to dance.
With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I feel their loss even more keenly.
The Royal Pavilion in Brighton has to be one of the most unique and fascinating palaces in the UK. Built over 200 years ago as a seaside getaway for the then Prince Regent – later George IV – it boasts a stunning Indian exterior and exquisite Chinese interior. Unfortunately, I can’t show you any photos from inside – interior photography is forbidden – but you can find some wonderful images on their website.
One of its more intriguing uses was as a Military Hospital for Indian troops during World War One. According to a booklet available at the Pavilion, At the outbreak of war, Britain’s army was relatively small: in August 1914 it had fewer troops available than Belgium. The allied British and French forces were outnumbered by the advancing Germans, so reinforcements were brought in from Britain’s colonies. The first Indian divisions arrived in October 1914.
The Royal Pavilion ceased to be used as a royal palace during Queen Victoria’s time – she disliked the lack of privacy – and is now open to the public year-round. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. The palace is a feast for the eyes. (And it also hosts a lovely tea room if you’re looking for a feast for something else.)
Brighton makes for a wonderful day trip from London – it’s only a one-hour train journey and trains depart from several London stations.
I’ve dreamed about visiting Israel for almost forty-five years, so when I got the chance to visit there recently, I jumped at it.
It’s a funny thing about dreams, especially those you’ve held in your heart for almost a lifetime. In their realization they can go spectacularly wrong, but sometimes…. sometimes… they go spectacularly right.
Travelling alone (I will blog about that at a later date) I joined a ‘Holy Land’ tour of Israel which took us to most of the expected sites – Bethlehem, Nazareth, The Dead Sea, The Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, The River Jordan – but the absolute highlight of my trip was our visit to Masada.
My knowledge of ancient history is woefully pitiful. I’d heard of Masada – I knew vaguely that some kind of massacre had taken place there – but I wasn’t prepared for the effect it had on me. It truly touched my soul.
Surrounded by desert, Masada is a mountain fortress built by King Herod the Great. (He’s the King Herod who ordered the slaughter of all infant boys when Jesus was a baby.It was one of his sons, also called Herod, who was king during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.)
Built with luxury in mind, note the double floor on the steam room and the remaining evidence of frescoes on the walls.
Although his family spent time there, Herod himself never actually visited the fortress, which was built with both protection and luxury in mind. Temperatures in the desert can reach 50+C in summer, but one part of his private palace was built in such a way it catches a gentle breeze rippling up from The Dead Sea.
Most people have heard of Masada from the attack on the fort by the Romans in 72AD. Instructed by the emperor to put down the revolt by Jewish Zealots, the army commander, Silva, had a limited time span to take over the fort. He knew his army of 6,000 soldiers and 10,000 slaves would not survive the summer heat of the desert in a long siege. So he first created a supply route from Jericho to Ein Gedi to the eight camps that surrounded the base of the Masada. In the autumn of that year he began his siege, with his slaves building a massive earth ramp up the mountainside. Once it was completed, a battering ram was pushed up the ramp to break down the fortress’ wall.
The remains of one of the Roman forts surrounding the fortress at Masada.
With plentiful food and water to allow the Jews to withstand a siege of several years, how was Silva successful?The slaves building the ramp were Jews who had been captured in Jerusalem. If the Jews in Masada had poured oil, thrown rocks or shot arrows at those slaves, they would be killing their own.So they had to watch day after day as the ramp grew larger and closer.
The earth ramp the slaves built up to Masada.
Silva breached the walls late one afternoon. Fearful his soldiers might be walking into an ambush in the dark, he decided against entering the fort until the next morning.
Knowing his people were facing imminent crucifixion or slavery, the Jewish leader, Elazar Ben-Yair, called his men together and they decided to die at their own hands rather than be captured. The men killed their wives and children, then a lottery was held – 10 men were chosen to be the executioners of the rest, with one man left to commit suicide once everyone else was dead.
When the Romans arrived next morning, it was to find a place of death – except for two women and three children who had hidden to escape the slaughter. The Romans allowed them to go free.
Notes from the workshop given by Diana Cranstoun at When Words Collide, Calgary, August 11th, 2017.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BIOGRAPHY AND A MEMOIR?
Biography/Autobiography: the story OF someone’s life. (Beginning to end, chronological order.)
Memoir: a story FROM someone’s life. (Eg Wartime Memoir)
WHO ARE YOU WRITING THIS STORY ABOUT?
If it is about another person, where are you going to get your research from?
WHO ARE YOU WRITING THIS STORY FOR?
For general publication?
Your answer will affect what you put in your memoir and how you present it.
WHY ARE YOU WRITING THIS STORY?
You have a story to tell that only YOU can tell.
We all have unique experiences in our lives. If you don’t tell your story, who will?
You may have a secret to share.
Big Secret – you may have participated in some major event that you have not been able to tell people about.
Little Secret – something small, but unique experience that people don’t know about you.
You’ve got to love a city that has a museum dedicated to writers. The three celebrated in Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and R.L. Stevenson – remain widely read and revered even today. Sir Walter Scott has been credited with ‘inventing’ the historical novel with tales like Kidnapped and Ivanhoe, we all sing Robert Burns’ most famous song, “Should Auld Aquaintance Be Forgot,” at New Year, and who hasn’t dreamed of finding their own Treasure Island or been frightened by a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character.
For a small city of less than half-a-million people, Edinburgh has produced (or been the home to) an amazing number of writers. Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Irvine Welsh, J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Robert Fergusson, Muriel Spark, Kenneth Grahame.
Outwith Edinburgh, the list of Scottish writers includes J.M. Barrie, Val McDermid, Louis Welsh, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Nigel Tranter, Alistair MacLean, A.J. Cronin, Dorothy Dunnett, George MacKay Brown… it goes on and on. and on…
For a wee country, Scotland delivers a ‘muckle’ literary punch.
A bit of back story. In 2009, I visited France with my friend Anna to retrace my father’s desperate journey from the small village, Vis-en-Artois – where he was stationed with the British Army 1940 – to the spot on the bloody beaches of Dunkirk where he was plucked to safety by one of the ‘little boats’.
I had written to the mayor asking if anyone remembered Dad. The mayor passed my letter on to Madame B, who had been a child during the war.We visited her and had a lovely day. She didn’t remember my dad, but just as we were about to leave, she said, ‘Come back on Monday. My friend Noel knew your father.’
Monday, we return to Vis-en-Artois. We’re the first to arrive at Madame B’s. My husband has e-mailed a picture of my Mum and Dad taken in 1936. It’s one of my favourites. They look so young. So Happy. So in love.
I’m expecting Noel to be a woman, but of course that would be Noelle. Noel is accompanied by his wife. Like Madame B, they are both friendly, alert, white-haired, fresh-faced, on the ball.
We’re introduced, I show him the photo of Mum and Dad. ‘Ahh.’ He smacks the picture in that Gallic way. “Jacques Cranstoon.’
But I’m not totally sold. After all, I wrote Dad’s name in my letter to the mayor and perhaps Noel wants this connection to the past as much as I do.
And then he says something that sends a shiver up my spine. ‘Et votre mere, Marie.’
Nowhere – nowhere – had I written my mother’s name. This is very, very, real.
We talk, Anna interpreting as I catch only every fourth or fifth word. My dad was billeted next door to Noel’s family. Throughout that bitter winter of 39/40, with no heat or lighting in their accommodation, Dad and another married soldier visited Noel’s family’s warm house every Friday evening to write letters home to their wives.
Noel reaches into his pocket, pulls out a small, rather battered brown leather diary, and offers it to me. ‘Your dad gave it to him for Christmas 1939,” Anna translates.
The hairs on my arms stand on end. It’s as though, to borrow a quote from Alan Bennett’s History Boys, a hand has reached out of the past and taken mine.
My Dad, dead for 30 years, is in the room with us.
Look at any diagram of three-act-structure and you’ll find two main turning/plot points (Act One into Act Two/ Act Two into Act Three) and a midpoint.
Michael Hauge calls the midpoint, the Point of No Return (PONR). In aviation terms, the Point of No Return is that point in a flight where the aircraft does not have enough fuel to return to its point of departure, and must make it to its destination safely or crash and burn.
At the PONR in a story, something happens in the ‘plot’ that will turn the story around and take it fractionally closer to the end than the beginning. There is no going back. For example, in a mystery novel, it might be a clue that finally puts the detective on the right path to solving the crime.
When it comes to character development, something will happen here that allows the character to become closer to the person he will be at the end of the story than he was in the beginning.
James Scott Bell calls this the ‘Mirror Moment’. He says: ‘What I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.’ It’s a moment, not a whole scene. He also says, the midpoint of your story is where your character faces some kind of death.
Physical – where there is a real threat to his life.
Professional – where his reputation is on the line.
Psychological – where something inside the character changes.
JK Rowling says, ‘It is our choices that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities,’ and it will be at this point in the story where a character makes a choice – or understands the ramifications of past choices – that gives them a glimpse of who they truly are, or want to be. It is the moment of transformation from who the character was, to who they will become. It’s when they get the chance to look in a metaphorical mirror and see themselves in a new light.
CASINO ROYALE: There are stories where the character doesn’t change/arc – James Bond. Hercule Poirot. Indiana Jones. Miss Marple – but every rule comes with an exception. Casino Royale – the version with Daniel Craig – tells the story of how James Bond becomes ‘James Bond’, so the character does arc in this story. Check out this ‘mirror moment’ in Casino Royale – halfway through the movie – which actually uses a mirror!
Look at the dress Bond brings for Vesper Lynd to wear. It’s on a plastic hanger and looks like it’s just come from the dry cleaner’s. Compare that with the tuxedo she has for him. And that moment, when he wears a tailored suit for the first time ever, watch his reaction when he looks at himself in the mirror. He’s seeing himself a little differently. Interestingly enough, this is the first time you will hear the strains of the Bond theme in this movie.
Contrast that with the last scene in the movie where he is fully revealed as ‘James Bond’ and we hear to whole theme for the first time.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: Open Pride and Prejudice half way through the book and you will find a couple of scenes: 1) Where Darcy visits Elizabeth and offers her a horrible proposal of marriage. 2) Where Elizabeth reads the letter Darcy writes to her following her refusal of his offer.
The title Pride and Prejudice tells you what the book is about. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are proud people – he of his wealth and position, she of her ‘discernment’. For them to end up together at the end of the book, they’ll both have to find a bit of humility and get rid of their prejudices.
And the first stirrings of that happens in the middle of the story. Darcy is so shocked by Elizabeth’s refusal – ‘And this,’ cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, ‘is your opinion of me!’ – that he goes home and writes Elizabeth a letter explaining the truth about Wickham. After she finishes reading it, Elizabeth says, ‘ How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. ‘I who prided myself on my discernment…. Till this moment, I never knew myself.’
(Ironically, there is a mirror in this scene!)
Elizabeth and Darcy still have a long way to go before that second – successful – proposal at the end of the book, but at the midpoint of the story, they cross that line from being who they were, and how they saw themselves and each other, to who they will be by the end.
THE HUNGER GAMES: Set in a dystopian future, Katniss Evergreen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the murderous Hunger Games, where out of 24 participants, only one victor will be left alive at the end.
Midway through the book/film, Katniss finds herself facing physical death. She has no weapons – except for a knife – is trapped up a tree, and is literally waiting to die when daylight comes. Then something happens which can change her fortune, but only if she decides to go for it. Watch carefully for that ‘moment’ when Katniss realizes she has a chance to live. By the end of the scene, she has a weapon she is skilled in using, has killed some of her deadliest opponents, and has allies in Rue and Peeta.
DANTE’S PEAK: A perfect example of when the midpoint of action and character development meets beautifully. (Unfortunately there is no Youtube link for this.)
A mountain is threatening to erupt, but the scientists won’t know for sure until sulphur gets into the water supply. Hero and heroine have been badly hurt in previous relationships and wary of becoming involved with anyone again.
Midpoint of the story is when hero and heroine come back from enjoying an evening at the bar. She sends the babysitter home and invites him in for coffee. Both are nervous – ‘I haven’t been with anyone in a long time.’ – and are leaning in for their first kiss when her daughter calls down from upstairs. She’s thirsty. Can she have a glass of water? The heroine turns on the tap. It’s contaminated with sulphur.
The mountain is now going to blow – not right this minute – but there is no doubt it’s going to go.
Hero and heroine have taken the joint risk to open up their hearts again. (In a love story, the midpoint is often where the hero and heroine will kiss or make love.)
It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes things ‘connect’?
Although I wasn’t born until long after The Evacuation of Dunkirk, it’s always hung there, over me, throughout my life. My dad was one of the 350,000 men rescued from its beaches in May 1940 by one of the ‘Little Boats’, and I have come to believe it was, perhaps, the defining moment in his life.
My dad was a good, honest, hardworking, honourable man, and I sometimes think any illusions he had about mankind were, literally, shot to hell on the beaches of Dunkirk. He didn’t speak about Dunkirk very often, but when he did, one of his memories was of watching Nazi pilots bomb a hospital ship clearly marked with the Red Cross.
So when I saw the trailer for Christopher Nolan‘s movie Dunkirkthis week, and saw a clip of a Red Cross ship being bombed… well it brought all those memories back.
The second ‘connection’… ? A friend and I were talking about our favourite Christmas movies. Mine is The Bishop’s Wife, made in 1947, starring Loretta Young (who looked like my Mum) and Cary Grant. What has that to do with Dunkirk? Well it turns out, the original book of The Bishop’s Wife was written by American writer Robert Nathan who also wrote a poem about Dunkirk.
There weren’t just men on the beach at Dunkirk. British army nurses were rescued from those beaches too. And I love the idea – as in this poem – that at least one of those Little Boats had a girl on board too.
Will came back from school that day,
And he had little to say.
But he stood a long time looking down
To where the gray-green Channel water
Slapped at the foot of the little town,
And to where his boat, the Sarah P,
Bobbed at the tide on an even keel,
With her one old sail, patched at the leech,
Furled like a slattern down at heel.
He stood for a while above the beach,
He saw how the wind and current caught her;
He looked a long time out to sea.
There was steady wind, and the sky was pale,
And a daze in the east that looked like smoke.
Will went back to the house to dress.
He was half way through, when his sister Bess
Who was near fourteen, and younger than he
By just two years, came home from play.
She asked him, “Where are you going, Will?”
He said, “For a good long sail.”
“Can I come along?”
“No, Bess,” he spoke.
“I may be gone for a night and a day.”
Bess looked at him. She kept very still.
She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,
How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,
And the fleet had gone to get them out
But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.
There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.
She looked at him, and he looked at her.
They were English children, born and bred.
He frowned her down, but she wouldn’t stir.
She shook her proud young head.
“You’ll need a crew,” she said.
They raised the sail on the Sarah p,
Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance,
And headed the Sarah out to sea,
To bring their soldiers home from France.
There was no command, there was no set plan,
But six hundred boats went out with them
On the gray-green waters, sailing fast,
River excursion and fisherman,
Tug and schooner and racing M,
And the little boats came following last.
From every harbor and town they went
Who had sailed their craft in the sun and rain,
From the South Downs, from the cliffs of Kent,
From the village street, from the country lane.
There are twenty miles of rolling sea
From coast to coast, by the seagull’s flight,
But the tides were fair and the wind was free,
And they raised Dunkirk by fall of night.
They raised Dunkirk with its harbor torn
By the blasted stern and the sunken prow;
They had reached for fun on an English tide,
They were English children bred and born,
And whether they lived, or whether they died,
They raced for England now.
Bess was as white as the Sarah’s sail,
She set her teeth and smiled at Will.
He held his course for the smoky veil
Where the harbor narrowed thin and long.
The British ships were firing strong.
He took the Sarah into his hands,
He drove her in through fire and death
To the wet men waiting on the sands.
He got his load and he got his breath,
And she came about, and the wind fought her.
He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.
He saw his England were she lay,
The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,
Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,
The English cliffs and the English loam
He had fourteen men to get away,
And the moon was clear, and the night like day
For planes to see where the white sails creep
Over the black water.
He closed his eyes and prayed for her;
He prayed to the men who had made her great,
Who had built her land of forest and park,
Who had made the seas an English lake;
He prayed for a fog to bring the dark;
He prayed to get home for England’s sake.
And the fog came down on the rolling sea,
And covered the ships with English mist.
The diving planes were baffled and blind.
For Nelson was there in the Victory,
With his one good eye, and his sullen twist,
And guns were out on The Golden Hind,
Their shot flashed over the Sarah P.
He could hear them cheer as he came about.
By burning wharves, by battered slips,
Galleon, frigate, and brigantine,
The old dead Captains fought their ships,
And the great dead Admirals led the line.
it was England’s night, it was England’s sea.
The fog rolled over the harbor key.
Bess held to the stays, and conned him out.
And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake
Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,
There at his side sat Francis Drake,
And held him true, and steered him home.