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Character sketches: Writers retreat

Character #1

Jono had to lean his head down to engage with the rest of the world. He was a greater feminist than any woman I’ve ever met. During our five days together I and my fellow XX-chromosome guests were regularly put in our place for not thinking well enough of our sex.

Character #2

We called the tanned one with blonde hair Puddles, because we’d all barely met when he lectured us that people from Liverpool are called Liverpudlians. 

Character #3

Kat was always forgetting which floor she was on, and the building had three floors. I was never sure if she was affecting it all.

Character #4

Lucy’s raison d’être was moments in which she could take charge. And with a large group like ours, we needed a fair bit of corralling. Whether it was determining allergies, handing out worksheets, writing lists, taking a group shot, organising lifts, getting coffee orders, or anything else in need of a fractional leader, Lucy was on it. 

Character #5

Patricia  liked to swan about the place, a look of intellectual boredom on her face. She would yawn silently and widely in all settings, never covering her mouth. I liked her a great deal, though wasn’t quite sure why. 

Character #6

Kevin – timid, muscly Kevin – was Patricia’s oversized shadow.

Character #7

Stephen smiled non-stop. He smiled when someone read something aloud, he smiled when food was brought to the table, he smiled when he met you in the corridor. I saw him smile when he stepped in dog poop on our group walk to the village. Within twenty-four hours of meeting my mission was to make him frown.

Character #8

Kenneth was an American, and he was more ‘other’ than the Bulgarian, Swede and Nigerian guests combined, certainly in his own eyes. He liked to bore the group with the differences between British and American food, clothing, TV and spelling. Annoyingly, he turned out to be an amazing writer – the star of the group.

Character #9

Liam was more artist than author, and I wondered if he’d signed up for the wrong retreat. That first session he sat down with twelve coloured pencils and no pen. He lived in a wheelchair, though you’d often forget this. 

Character #10

Shawn was the tutor, and wanted to be part of the gang more than anything. I worried about his emotional stability more than that of Kat, and Kat was scared of doorways.

Character #11

Cindi was the resident ghost. She was pale and quiet, with ash hair, large eyes, and a fondness for cream slacks and loose white shirts. When she spoke your neck grew sore from leaning in. I pegged her age as being between 30 and 60.

Character #12

Lai was a Kevin too, but he lost his name that first day to the other Kevin. Lai wore a camera around his neck all the time It was only the last day when I saw his photos that I realised there wasn’t a single tourist shot, only extreme closeups of different surfaces. It was like looking at a carpet and tile catalogue – only textures and colours.

Character #13

Shane was our guest reader, with us for only one evening. She was distant, hilarious, and wore the loudest clothes conceivable. By the end of the evening all the women had mascara messes. Truthfully, I became a little obsessed with the woman, and decided any daughter I might one day have would be getting the same androgynous name. 

Character #14

Jillian was our ginger-loving cook. I don’t think she’d like knowing her name was being shared in print somewhere. 

Character #15

And then there was me. Clumsy, prone to ill-timed laughing, and universally liked because I always had a stash of cream biscuits I was eager to share.
So what do you think of these characters – would you want to read more about them or not?
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Fremolition

Last week I shared two new words I made up:

Today, based on the words friend and demolition, I present fremolition. It refers to the demolition of a friendship through a particularly ruinous act. Friend says something nasty about your kid? Fremolition. Friend steals from you? Fremolition. Friend betrays a confidence? Fremolition.

Have any of you ever committed or been on the receiving end of a fremolition?

Amazing the turn a day can take

I was part of the small group being sent to the principal’s office. The corridor was quiet but for our buckled shoes on the cement ramp. A head shorter than my peers, I struggled to keep up. 

This was a moment. I knew it, even then. I held my exercise book, full of red ink, firmly against my chest. I’d never entered Mr Sneddon’s office before, not in all my two years and three months at Edgemont Primary School. Sibongile was there all the time, and he led the way. 

Amazing the turn a day can take. Things had begun decently, with Carin and I working on an Afrikaans skit we would present to the class. I was pleased to be paired with her, not just because we were friends, but because she had an Afrikaans mother, so I knew she had the language chops to carry me through. I had, as expected, stuttered my way through the presentation, but I was pleased at the end of it all to note my performance hadn’t been the worst. 

In art class my flowers had turned out well. Mrs Swart said she loved the “intensity” of my colours. Whatever that meant. But she said it with a smile. And then, when I was digging in my desk looking for my maths book, I found a pocket-size Chomp I’d forgotten about in the back left corner. Keeping the desk’s lid resting on my head, I was able to scoff it right in the middle of class! And at Big Break I’d run up to the area near the foyer clutching my R5 note and managed to get the very last hot dog. I’d wanted two, but you really have to hustle on tuck shop day. 

So things were going respectably well for me. But a shift in gear was now taking place.

We entered the reception area, three girls in simple blue smocks and two boys with white shirts tucked into grey shorts. Mrs Brink led us into the principal’s office. It smelt the way old people smell. “Students from Std 1R. For you to see their spelling,” she said, her hand bending in our direction. 

She exited.

“Sibongile, young chap,” Mr Sneddon said, stretching out his hand for the exercise book. The two managed a deft exchange of the book so that it fell open to the page where my classmate had kept his finger. I quickly tried to find the right page in my own book and adjust how I held it so I could perform a similar feat.

Mr Sneddon glanced at the page, reached without looking for his stamp, and bashed it onto the ink pad then the book. He closed it and handed it to Sibongile, saying, “Twenty out of twenty. Again! Excellent work, Sibongile.”

I stood there, statuesque in my self-containment, full of the glory to come my way. I also had 20 out of 20! This was indeed a moment.

Happiness is an awkward mackintosh

Happiness is an awkward mackintosh on me, lopsided, with the front sliding up to my neck. I wear it experimentally, stretching my arms out often to see how it looks. I wonder if passersby see that it’s new.

Red traffic light

He’s unstable on his feet. I watch him retrieve something from the ground and struggle to straighten up, two metres away from me and existing in another world. 

The traffic light has just turned red, so I must idle. My window is open a crack, and I press the button to close it. He’ll come to my window, of course, and I’ll take no action, just as I’ve been told by those in the know – who’ve visited the shelters. I tighten my core, yet outwardly I’m another bored commuter hidden behind large shades.

The ground is purple with crushed jacaranda blooms, and I worry he could slip. I’ve been mincing my own way through mushed flowers the past few weeks. 

Following rejection at the side of the blue Peugeot in front of me, he approaches my window, and holds up his good hand, cupped. I give my tight smile and head shake, then look ahead. He usually doesn’t persist, but today he lingers. I suck in my lips and don’t respond.  

I watch his progress to the next car in my rearview mirror, relieved and depressed, the banter of the Drive Time team tugging ineffectually at my thoughts. The sun highlights the cavity in the right of his head, and I look at it a while. In a bid at comfort I once conjectured that it was the result of a fight – that his was a violent life. In the end, I felt sunk regardless. 

As he reaches the fifth car, the Peugeot is off in a burst of exhaust, and a moment later the light turns green. African time doesn’t exist on the roads. I’m not in gear yet, and the car behind me hoots – loudly. I climb up and around the corner, eager to reach the highway, eager to think of other things, eager to put the windows down and have the wind dry my face.

querious

querious

I’ve combined the two words curious and query to form an entirely new word: querious. It refers to those times when someone tells you about something new or strange that is so interesting you can’t stop asking them questions to learn more.

Please feel free to go ahead and add querious to your vocabulary 🙂

Postcards and office cubicles

From the archives, but rewritten …

~

Carin stared at the wall of her office cubicle, and the pinned up postcards from Mongolia and Bhutan jeered back at her. She could have been there right now, with muddied boots and a backpack, or developing her horse-riding skills on an empty plain. But since she’d said no, Derek had said farewell to her as well as to everyone else and gone alone. Meanwhile she sat where she had sat for the past nine years, possessing a comprehensive insurance plan, and ready to scream.

Carin sat up straight in her chair so she could peer over the divide and see the rest of the room. Her desk was one of five and was positioned in the corner furthest from the entryway, so she had a clear view of everything. When bored, which was often, she would survey the small week-based world she shared with four female colleagues.

Tamryn, who was just 22, was at that moment rifling through papers in a cabinet drawer in an important fashion, so Carin knew she had no clue what she was doing. Janette was standing by the fax machine, wearing a blank stare and fiddling with her nose ring. Faith was not at her desk, but then Faith was never at her desk. Carin had great admiration for Faith. Finally, if she looked left, Carin could see Sonya in the opposite corner. Sonya had turned 50 yesterday but had the joie de vivre of a five year old. She was presently punching away at the keyboard with her two index fingers and humming to herself.

Carin slid back down into her chair. She put her feet up on the windowsill and considered the sky.

She had ended up staying with the company longer than anyone expected. She would have had her own office years ago if she hadn’t kept moving departments. But changing around within Sutton Ink was her way of shaking things up in life, without ever actually shaking anything up. Right now she was in logistics.

It was 11:50am and Carin had a busy schedule of nothing much to do.

She decided she may as well make her way to see Sean on the ground floor. One of the more tolerable tasks of her new position was that twice a day she had to go down to deliveries to hand over and then later collect paperwork from hairy-armed Sean. She appreciated the legitimate break from not only her desk but also her landing. If anyone whinged about having come to speak with her and not finding her at her desk, she could say, “Oh really? What time abouts was that? Ah, I was probably downstairs at that moment doing paperwork with Sean. So sorry about that.”

The logistics department was on the third and top floor at the back of the building. Carin could see out the window down onto the trucks in the loading zone directly below. There was a stairwell just twenty feet away that would lead her straight down to Sean’s office, so she could be there and back in a minute flat.

She walked towards the stairwell but at the last second swung left, having recollected that she had a question to ask Shona Hartley in marketing (a department on the second floor at the front of the building). It was an urgent question, able to make or break the company, both locally and internationally. But by the time she reached Shona’s door she’d forgotten the question. So she went in, sat down, and said, “How did Molly’s vaccinations go yesterday?”

Ten minutes later Carin meandered through the second floor back towards the stairwell leading to Sean. If you’d asked her how, she couldn’t have explained it, but her route somehow took her past Khosi, who worked in the call centre. Right then Khosi sat with the phone lodged between her ear and shoulder, hands gripping her armrests. Carin slowed down enough for them to exchange a sisters-in-arms fist bump as she passed. The air was thick with Fire and Ice, and Carin caught sight of the slender red and black canister on Khosi’s desk. She knew the deodorant was there to freshen the air after phonecalls with odious customers. The air frequently contained toxic levels of freshness.

While paper-towelling her hands in the second-floor bathroom and checking in the mirror for any wrinkles around her eyes, Carin realised she hadn’t actually brought the papers for Sean with her. She went and fetched them, then walked down to see Sean, stopping by the first floor on the way to steal milk and sugar from the bigwigs’ kitchenette.

Sean was standing outside his office. He smiled when he saw her, bumped her arm with his elbow, took the papers, and said, “All good.”

Twenty minutes after she had first stood up, Carin shambled back to logistics. She deposited her stolen edibles in the little logistics kitchenette and made herself a plain black coffee, then went and dropped into her chair. She proceeded to stare sourly at the postcards on her cubicle wall. Last she had heard he was living in some small Bhutanese village with a name nobody could pronounce. He didn’t write much on those postcards; his scrawl was hurried and loose. He was clearly doing well. He was doing very well, the handsome, saintly scumbag.

Carin turned her head to look out the window at the massive 70s-era block building that pushed down on the earth on the other side of the parking lot. She knew it was the twin of the building in which she presently sat, and had been sitting in for a third of her life. She tried to erase the thought, since counting up years and fractionalising her life only ever led to a tray of lasagne and a large bag of chocolate-covered mints while watching cheap reality shows. But that afternoon her inbox was empty, her desk was all perpendiculars, and there wasn’t any work worthy of a sentient being, so the thought of all her joyless years in that brick mausoleum wouldn’t go away.

Carin looked longer than usual at the wild open spaces portrayed on the postcards in front of her, the number 1/3 like a watermark across her vision. “First-rate baboon,” Carin said to herself. Blinking a long blink, she saw herself wearing muddied boots, a walking stick in hand, and Derek’s sun-ripened face a part of each new scene. There were no open windows in the office, but Carin could feel her fears of the unknown being tugged at by a cold and determined Himalayan wind.

It was night time, I was a woman alone, and I went to investigate the unknown noise in my aubergine flannel jumpsuit

I was drifting off, then my leg jerked upwards and I was awake. Why was I awake? I lay static, trying to figure it out. Then I heard a prolonged scrape, and I knew it was a repeat sound.

I shimmied out of bed and mashed my feet into the loose piles of thread I call slippers. I went out to the landing, put an arm across my chest, and trotted quietly down the staircase.

Rr-eei-k.

There it was again. Coming from the kitchen. A shaft of light from the front door transom bisected the central living area. I zigzagged between the closely packed furniture to reach the arch leading into the kitchen.

I flattened myself against the wall alongside the arch, then poked my head around the edge. It struck me as a Charlie’s Angels sort of move, and if I hadn’t been wearing aubergine and starting to sweat I would have rather enjoyed the moment. I saw nothing.

There it went again. Rr-eei-k.

I dropped onto all fours and crawled into the kitchen. As I passed the sink I stretched an arm upwards and felt gently for the peanut butter-smeared knife I knew to be resting on the edge. Whiffy weapon in hand, I edged forward to the far window,  my knees bruising as they pressed against the unforgiving tiles.

I reached the window. It started two feet above the ground. I looked up at the thick yellowed netting that served as a curtain. It was there when I bought the place, and I hadn’t got round to changing it. Sliding my head under the netting, which hung a few inches below the window’s lip, I inched up to peer outside. A pair of eyes stared straight back into mine and I choked on air, my eyes welling up from the reaction.

I stood up and yanked the window open. Samuel – at least that’s the name I used for him – barely blinked. There was a complete composure to him, as always, and I thought about shoving him off the ledge.

We stared at each other a moment longer, then finally I said, “If you want to live here – fine. But for this, you’re getting neutered.”

Running to lose yourself, or is it to find yourself?

Nothing was to be heard, only the steady plea of the wind across the moor and the susurrus of the grasses closest to me. I knelt down on one knee, intent on listening to this raw environment but also needing refuge from the wind. My fleece was zipped up to my chin, and I could feel cold sweat sliding down my neck.

I had left the sheep farms well behind me to follow a path of heavy slabs that led across the crown of the mountain, past a line of lambing shelters and then on towards what appeared to be nothing but past-prime heather and dirt blending into mud. Tiny raindrops started to settle themselves onto my face as I knelt, but I didn’t turn back. This place – this rough expansive place that belonged entirely to me in that moment – was a place I wanted to store within me. I couldn’t rush it.

So I hovered there for insensible minutes, knowing it would all have to last me a very long time.

~

Megan’s UK diary: Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, Lumb Bank, West Yorkshire. The art of life writing.

Life writing is simply what it suggests – writing that is rooted in the experiences of real life, whether biography or memoir, or something akin to that. One of the best things I discovered through my week-long residential course at Lumb Bank was the clarity and authenticity that life writing afforded me in the story-telling process.

Photo by Phil Champion

Photo by Phil Champion

Lumb Bank was originally built by a mill owner in the C18th. Eventually Ted Hughes bought it, and his wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in Heptonstall, the hilltop village less than a mile away.

This area of West Yorkshire is full of hills and dales, tight lanes, moors and forests, sheep farms, abandoned mills and steep villages.

The view from my attic bedroom

The view from my attic bedroom

During an Arvon residence course, which takes in about 17 writers per course, you take part in morning writing workshops, cook one meal (in team), attend evening readings, have one-on-one tutorials with the two published authors leading the course, and still have free time in the afternoons to write, gaze at the abandoned mill, chat in the garden, concoct plum-based mulled wine, and, in my case, hop up and down over every bunny spotted on the lawn and then go get lost on the moors.

We were an eclectic bunch, ranging in age from 20 to 84, coming from England, Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria and South Africa, and presenting a mix of personalities and perspectives. As a group, I imagine it could easily not have worked, and yet it did. It really did. The success of it had something to do with all the hours spent around the diningroom-cum-workshop table where we got to know each other through conversations as well as through each other’s writing. We laughed hugely (sometimes we downright crowed), occasionally we gasped, and also occasionally we cried, because, well, this was a life writing course, and life isn’t always neat or pretty.

Here are the lovely and talented writers that now make up the group Subtext:

All the lovely people that now make up the writers' group Subtext.

Megan’s UK diary: Edinburgh’s New Town & old maps

Edinburgh’s New Town, which was built between 1765 and 1850ish, is a very orderly, Georgian part of the city, with a grid road system completely at odds with the organically higgledy-piggledy nature of the Old Town. Up until the C18th almost everyone lived squished into the tenements up in the Old Town, as that was the place considered safe from outside attack because it was within the city walls. (Safety from germs, disease and foul smells, however, was not to be found within the walls.)

Only in the second half of the C18th was it finally felt to be safe enough to expand outside the city walls. So the New Town began to be built, and it has since been hailed as a masterpiece of city planning. The wealthier accordingly moved out of the Old Town en masse, helping to thin out that overly populated area.

The Edinburgh Book Festival is a contained festival within the broader Edinburgh Festival, and all talks and discussions are held within Charlotte Square, which is located in the heart of the New Town.

During the Festival Charlotte Square is given over to various tents and these tents house the talks, a coffee shop, and 2 bookshops. A covered walkway surrounds a central grass area filled with umbrellas and deck chairs that each boast a bookish quote, like “Don’t pay attention to her. She reads a lot” and “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read”.

11_-On-the-Map

I think I enjoyed my first talk the most of the three I attended. It was a presentation by Simon Garfield on “How Maps Define our World” (and I love maps). Coincidentally, the map I know better than any other is the one of Scotland, as when I lived in digs my one roommate (a McGregor) posted a map of Scotland on the back of the toilet room door, so for 5 years my time in there was spent memorising various firths, lochs and Hebridean islands!

One point Garfield made was that maps used to have a more personal edge, revealing conjecture, belief, and worldview. Nowadays they’re about science and accuracy, and as such are rather homogenous. The only ‘personal’ aspect I can find in modern world maps is the placing of one’s own continent at the centre of the map.

In days of yore, however, elephants and ostriches could be drawn to fill in spaces in Africa where nothing else was known, and heaven and hell could be inserted above a parcel of land, showcasing the theology of the cartographer.

Incidentally, California was drawn as an island for two centuries. It is still rather a world to itself at times.

I really enjoyed this modern (but less scientific) map that Garfield showed of London:

~

For other travel posts, go to Lindisfarne: A Holy Island, Wanderlust and the Amalfi Coast, and How to ruin a pleasant morning jog in the bush.

A picture worthy of a story. The day Shelley became brave

3cbf3490be49ffe066e98ab15fcd7550Shelley wasn’t the bravest seabird that had ever lived. Far from it. In fact, she was the only storm petrel she knew who lived on the mainland, preferring the stability of her life in the big horse chestnut in Mrs Kowalski’s sprawling garden – with its view of the ocean and the sturdy fence that kept out mammals – to a life at sea, roaming up and down the Atlantic. She had visited her cousins’ rocky, summertime home just once as a fledgling; she had found it desolate and inhospitable, and, after one particularly fearsome night of hunkering down as the small islet was buffeted by winds strong enough to pluck the feathers off any little petrel girl, had vowed to never return.

It was lonely, to be sure, living the years by herself in that big old chestnut on a quiet stretch of Ireland’s coast, and when the colony was far away she had to do her trawling on her own, but Shelley’s parents had raised her with the injunction to be true to her nature, and she had always determined to do just that, even if her nature made the other storm petrels call her names like “deviant”, “landlubber” and, possibly most hurtful of all, “weirdo”.

Feeling shunned by her own, Shelley made an effort to converse with the other genera in the surrounding trees, as well as with diverse and seasonal passers-by. Some would give her strange looks, but others were friendly and the hen two trees over always made a fuss of her when she visited.

It was this mothering friend, called Helga, that Shelley visited the day of her fifth birthday. Helga knew a thing or two about standing out from the crowd; she had once told Shelley that she believed her family to be the only Fea’s petrels in the land.

Shelley had cleaned herself particularly well in mark of her birthday; the backs of her wings glistened jet black in the weak sun and her square tail fanned out neatly as she made the short trip. A moment later she hopped onto the branch leading directly to Helga’s home. “Happy birthday, Elskan,” Helga said when she spotted Shelley, making use of the Nordic endearment she’d adopted for her young neighbour. She fluttered her wings in Shelley’s direction, inviting her to come further in.

“I’m five today, Helga,” Shelley said without any to-do, shuffling along unsteadily on her thin little legs. An unexpected wobble had entered into her voice when she spoke, and she had to swallow hard to repress it, hurting her throat. “I’m getting old.”

“Not so, Elskan,” Helga insisted. “Still lots of time to find a mate and have a chick.” At this juncture she nudged her own hatchling further back into the nest with her beak.

“You really think so? Even for a ‘weirdo’ storm petrel like myself who doesn’t get out much?”

Algerlega – absolutely.”

Shelley smiled gratefully at the firmness in Helga’s voice. Knowing her to be a forbearing friend, Shelley added forlornly, “But I never meet any other storm petrels, not now my parents are gone. I eat with them, but none ever talk to me. So how am I supposed to meet a good-looking young petrel who isn’t already partnered, or even just a girlfriend of my own age?” She suspected she already knew what Helga’s answer would be.

“By being brave, Elskan, by being brave.”

Shelley started to tear up. “But I’m not brave. I’m the opposite of brave – I’m, I’m … a chicken.” There was a short pause, then they smiled at one another over the little joke.

“Thankfully you are far too pretty and dainty to be a chicken. Look at you – you’re a sweet little catch. And maybe you haven’t been especially brave up till now – but you will be. You can be.” Helga batted a moment with the naughty hatchling. Then she faced Shelley again and said, “You’ve spoken to so many of the other birds around here – some of them big, rough types. Other storm petrels really shouldn’t be so terrible after all that. I even saw you talking with a big, testy Northern Fulmar last autumn!”

“It’s not the same,” Shelley pouted. “They – you – only expect me to be whatever it is I am – you don’t know what a storm petrel is supposed to be and do. Other storm petrels do, and I don’t fit in.” She sighed. “At least almost none of them remember me now and I can go feeding near them without having to endure the insults and knowing looks.”

“You don’t think I get looks, a Fea’s petrel in Ireland? Lots of birds are a bit different, a bit … unanticipated. Interesting birds, like us,” Helga said with a brisk devil-may-care shake of her head feathers. She then settled back down and gave her young friend a long searching look, before finally saying, “Why not stay on the waters a little longer tonight? Don’t just fly home as soon as you’ve eaten. Stay. Chat. Mingle.” Shelley nodded dolefully in response. “You don’t have to do much more than that. The right storm petrel will see you with time and he’ll take it from there. You must just let yourself be seen. Baby steps, Elskan, baby steps – tonight, just stay on the water for a little bit longer. Agreed?”

Shelley sat still, her face down, thinking, then she looked up and nodded decisively, a tiny spark in her stomach making her realise she could actually do it – if she decided to do it. There was nothing stopping her, she told herself. She was tired of being alone. Yes, she was living on her own terms, in her own way, but it was lonely. She wanted something more.

“Tonight I will be brave, Helga. I will make you proud of me.” She shuffled away, back along the branch. Just before she leapt off, she looked over her shoulder to smile at her friend and say, “Thanks, Helga.”

“Any time, Elskan, any time. You just hang in there. And Helga will be here to cheer you along all the way.”

~

That evening Shelley flew out to sea with a light in her eyes. The sky was dark with clouds, and a fresh north-westerly breeze carried her easily along her way. A short while later she dropped down onto the surface of the ocean, cold as always but with waves that were relatively gentle. No excuses, she told herself, and proceeded to nibble on the first piece of plankton that floated her way.

When her hunger started to abate, she slowed down her feeding and looked about furtively in between mouthfuls at the group of nearby storm petrels, all chattering with each other as they ate. They made it look so easy, and Shelley felt the recognisable anxiety wrap itself around her like seaweed around one’s feet. She contemplated abandoning her plan and just flying home. Her stomach was full enough. But then she remembered what she had promised Helga about being brave. The flicker of determination in her belly was still there, and she focused on it, urging it to grow bigger and help her.

Expelling saltwater through her nostrils, she lifted herself up and resolutely pattered across the water towards two youngish-looking birds on the fringe of the group. Having reached their spot, she plopped down into the water next to them, clearly taking them by surprise.

“Hi,” she said. “We’ve never met before. I’m Shelley.”

It turned out the two petrels she had chosen were brother and sister – Bonnie and Ioan – and they had just been discussing their next trip to Malta. Shelley asked them about it, and instead of making her feel embarrassed because she hadn’t been herself, they began to tell her about it. Bonnie described the warmth of the waters and the colours of the flowers on the trees, and Ioan told her about the taste of the food there, and the gentleness of the air. They asked her about her life, and then listened interestedly as she told them about her horse chestnut and the garden. Before she knew it, all the other birds had left and it was just the three of them that remained, talking. She had outstayed them all!

As she said goodbye to Bonnie and Ioan, having promised to meet them the next evening, Shelley felt lighter. She didn’t know if she was any closer to finding a partner – Ioan was a little young at just three years old – but she had been brave, and she knew it. Shelley-level brave, at least. And her future started to open up in her mind’s eye at the prospect of the other brave things she might surprise herself by doing.

A ditty was promised, so a ditty must be written! Also, a love poem, an old railway advert & Gibson Girls

One of my readers – Sean Smithson – spotted an error in my “About” page; the underlined “as” had been accidentally omitted: “If you read my posts you’ll inadvertently learn probably as much as you would like to know about how this mind of mine works.”

Well spotted, I say! I promised the reader who found a mistake a ditty, and so the below is what I devised.

But first, in case some of you don’t know what a ditty is, it’s simply a short, simple song or poem (from Old French ditie – poem).

Here’s mine:

A ditty (that embraces the silly)

Oh, run away word,
where have you gone?
Your home is right here,
are you going to be long?

Sean S., the word catcher,
caught the thing in its haste;
that word was sent packing,
and now sits in its right place.

Perhaps after that I should share a ditty or two as penned by the pros, so as to highlight all that they can be!

A Ditty (by Sir Philip Sidney)

My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one to the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven:
   My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
   My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.

Now, for an example from the early C20th, the image below is one of a series of advertisements used by the Lackawanna Railroad in the eastern US to capitalise on its use of anthracite, a kind of hard coal that burns cleanly, not creating the soot and cinders that normal coal does.

The advertisers came up with the fictional character of Phoebe Snow, whom they used to promote the line they accordingly dubbed The Road of Anthracite.

1024px-Phoebe-Snow-ditty

The quote below, from Steamtown: Special History Study, explains how the railroad developed this advertising strategy:

Early in 1899, […] Mark Twain, wrote the company after a trip to Elmira that he had worn a white duck suit and it was still white when he reached his destination. [The company] seized upon the idea of taking advantage of the line’s clean-burning coal in advertising for passenger traffic and adopted the slogan for the Lackawanna Road as “The Road of Anthracite.” As a symbol, probably for the first time in 1901, the railroad seized upon the image of a demure “Gibson girl” dressed head to toe in sparkling white, and published a seemingly endless series of jingles or poems.

Three more of the Phoebe ditties go like this:

Here Phoebe may
By night or day
Enjoy her book
Upon the way
Electric light
Dispels the night
Upon the Road
Of Anthracite

Says Phoebe Snow, About to go
Upon a trip
To Buffalo:
"My gown stays white from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite.

A coach or sleigh 
Was once the way 
Of reaching home 
On Christmas day 
Now - Phoebe's right - 
You'll expedite 
The trip by Road Of Anthracite

To read more, you can click here.

During WWI, anthracite was needed for the war effort, so trains couldn’t use it anymore and Phoebe Snow disappeared.

220px-Gibson_Girl_by_Charles_Dana_Gibson

An archetypal Gibson Girl

Phoebe was drawn as a Gibson Girl, and Gibson Girls, I’ve just learned with interest, were designed to be the epitome of supposed feminine beauty at the time: gracious, curvy, fashionable, independent, at ease with themselves, and possessing a fragile outer beauty.

300px-Gibson_Girls_seaside_-cropped-_by_Charles_Dana_Gibson

More Gibson Girls, who were popular images in the late C19th and early C20th

The Gibson Girls creator, Charles Dana Gibson, had this to say about his drawings: “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores […] There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.”

– Quote from Marshall, E. (1910-11-20). “The Gibson Girl Analyzed By Her Originator”. The New York Times.

Camille Clifford, a Belgian-born American actress who was the most famous model for the Gibson Girl drawings

Camille Clifford, a Belgian-born American actress who was the most famous model for the Gibson Girl drawings

~~~

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