Walrus Boy

O walrus boy, o walrus boy!

Alack, and wae is me –

If I hadna wed a walrus

My strange son widna be.

 

It fell about the Martinmas

When mists lie on the land

I stumbled on a walrus

Was lyin on the strand

 

It didna look tae left nor richt

But fixed me wi its e’e

An said “My man, ere it is nicht

I doot ye’ll lie wi me!”

 

O it isna for your rare moustache

Or tusks sae fine tae see

But cause ye spak me soft an fair

That I will lie wi thee.

 

Then aff he did his blue blue coat

An on the sand he sat

An aff he did his velvet trews

But ay kep on his hat.

 

O it will na be in winter time

When fields are white wi snow

Nor will it be in springtime

When the green shoots do grow

 

Nor yet in shining summer

When the leaves are on the tree

But just about the harvest time

I’ll bear a son to thee.

 

He’s drawn his boat upon the shore

An tied her tae a tree

Wi half the summer gone, an more

He hasna pit tae sea

 

Wi half the summer gone an mair

His boat lay on the loam;

But when the sheaves were in the barn

He wat her keel wi foam

 

He hadna sailed a league, a league

A league but barely twa

When in amang the green green wave

A mighty shape he saw

 

He hadna sailed a league, a league

A league but barely nine

When he has speared that mighty shape

An held it wi his line.

 

O wae tae ye, ma bonny man!

What is this deed ye’ve done?

Your cruel spear has slaughtered

The mother o your son

 

O walrus boy, come hame wi me

Together we must bide

For I have slain my own true love

Wi’ a harpoon in her side.

This is a ballad I wrote some time ago, during a fine weekend in Cromarty, under the auspices of Hi-Arts: for a brief note on it, see here.

Walrus Boy and the Ballad Form

Walrus Boy‘ was written during a writers’ weekend at Cromarty, some years ago. One of the talks we had was on the Ballad form and its characteristics.

Ballads are an ancient and popular form yet they have a freshness and directness about them that never seems to wane: they may appear naive and unsophisticated on first reading, but there is an economy and urgency about them that I find very pleasing. In particular, there are sudden unheralded transitions of time, place and speaker which have much in common with good film editing – in one of my favourites, The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, we start with the King’s court in Dunfermline then cut rapidly to Sir Patrick walking on the beach and he speaks directly to us; and in the next verse, they’re off across the sea:

They hoysed their sails on Monenday morn

Wi’ a’ the speed they may;

They hae landed in Noroway

Upon a Wodensday.

No time wasted there!

Though my own ‘walrus boy’ has a touch of parody about it, I hope it is a fond mocking.

My Bicycles

I am a man of many bicycles: too many, some might say. Here are some:

there’s the c1924 Royal Sunbeam:

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On which I once rode from Inverness to Dunkeld in a day, a feat alluded to here (where I see I have dated it 1923), and its younger brother, the 1934 Royal Sunbeam:

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and of course that extraordinary machine, The c.1905 Dursley Pedersen (though it, too, has a touch of the Sunbeam about it at the moment, running as it does a 1910 Sunbeam ‘stepped’ 3-speed hub) :

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(seen here framed by the old bridge over the Tay).

And just to show that I am not entirely in thrall to the past, there’s the little Dawes Tartan Tourist, currently running a fixed gear, which is certainly post-war:

And just while we’re at it, the Pedersen ran as a fixed gear for a while, and was featured here, in Dennis Bean-Larson’s Fixed Gear Gallery, though it never shows up in searches because the name in the link is mis-spelt (Dursley Pederson).

If you like this kind of thing, there’s lots more on my Flickr page.

Accommodating monsters: Books as Doorways

An important property of any doorway is that you can close it, and the same goes for a book. I was prompted to this thought by some interesting observations on Balaclava, the forum of the SAS (no, not the special forces, the Scattered Authors’ Society) regarding the misguided urge some people have (publishers among them) to sanitise children’s literature and make it ‘nice’.

‘Anodyne’ as applied to literature is something I have discussed elsewhere. What I want to do here is examine the misunderstanding that leads some people to think that children’s literature should be soft, cosy, reassuring and only that – with no place in it for anything even remotely frightening or disturbing.

They mean well, of course (though we know where good intentions lead). The loss of innocence is a grievous thing and the desire to preserve it as long as possible (in an increasingly hostile world) is perfectly understandable, but there is an analogy to be made here with disease: the best way to preserve your children against the physical ills of this world is not to keep them from any exposure to germs but rather to fortify their constitution and build up their resistance.

‘Ignorance is bliss,’ they say; ‘what you don’t know can’t harm you’ – but that is dangerous counsel. For one thing, it overlooks the fact that you can only control a small part of what gets into a child’s head; and besides, children being human, there is some there already that is strange and dark. Better to fortify them with good books that allow them to make their own excursions into the Dark Wood – because though the power of books is undeniable, we should not overlook the fact that the reader remains in charge.

Books, as I have said elsewhere, are doorways into other worlds – but it is essential to grasp that, like doorways, they can be shut. If a story is frightening you can escape and shut the door behind you (there is a family legend of my brother, when very young, switching off the wireless (as it was then) just as a reading of The Speckled Band reached its climax). Of course, if the book takes a hold on your imagination, you can remain vividly aware of the world that lies beyond the door and the memory can haunt you, in dreams and waking – I remember the same brother giving me an account of an adventure/horror story called (I think) Lonegan and the Ants, about an army of soldier ants eating everything in their path (including a man and a horse if I recall correctly). This so seized my mind that for a time I feared to pass the door of my sister’s room (vacant, as she was at university) lest a column of ants (originating, of course, from under the bed) should come streaming across the hallway.

Curiously, but importantly, I only ever allowed these imagined ants to stream across the hall into the bathroom; there was no question of their taking a right turn and coming down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my brothers. As long as I leapt or dashed past the door, I could make it to the living-room.  It may have been that I was impressed by the fact that the ants in the story relentlessly pursued a straight line – that was part of their menace – but I also think that I was exercising a measure of control: I could not keep the monsters out completely, but I could work out an accommodation with them.

And that, in short, is what good children’s books – and, perhaps, all stories – teach us to do: they allow us to come to an accommodation with the monsters, acknowledging their presence but giving us ways of dodging them – the first heroic act we learn, perhaps, is the dark dash across the cold linoleum from the lightswitch, culminating in a flying leap onto the bed to evade the clutches of the creatures that we know are underneath it, but are not allowed to transgress the bounds that have been set for them.

Anodyne

Anodyne: it’s an interesting word. Strictly, it means a medicine that allays pain, as its etymology suggests, being from the Greek for ‘painless’, or ‘without pain’. A good thing, then, you would think; so it is interesting to consider how it has come to have a pejorative sense, particularly as applied to literature.

Pain and suffering are at the heart of human existence, an inescapable part of life, a puzzle and a mystery: we do not like to suffer pain ourselves, and still less can we bear the thought of pain inflicted on those we love – so how can ‘anodyne’ be a disparagement when applied to literature (or indeed to any art)?

I think I have stated the reason already: pain and suffering are not only part of life, they are bound up with the central mystery of existence – what is Man that is born to die? Why must people suffer? when Midas (he of the golden touch) asked the satyr Silenus what was the best a man could wish for, he got the chilling reply ‘not to be born at all – and the next best is to die young.’

You cannot leave pain out of books, suffering out of Art, because you cannot take it out of life, and Art (in its broadest sense) is our response to being alive.

It is of particular interest to me, as a writer of ‘fantasy’ literature, to consider how Art – music, painting, poetry, literature – reconciles us to suffering. It is not by providing an escape or turning away; it does not pretend the pain is not there, it puts it in its wider context, which is Life itself: and Life (though we often forget this and fail to see) is amazing, marvellous, wonderful.

The Hobbit as adult literature

No, not that kind of ‘adult’ – please!

I have been trying to pin down the source of my conviction that The Hobbit is, essentially, a book more for adults than children – a conviction that I formed on re-reading it after many years.

I think it is because it is about a grand scheme miscarrying and everything going wrong in a way that is all too familiar to the adult mind, but beyond the experience (I think and hope) of a child.

It is at heart a melancholy tale of failed dreams, unintended consequences and ‘collateral damage’, injustice, stubborn folly and greed. Good people are set against one another. Thorin has the best of intentions: he means to recover his ancestral treasure and slay the dragon that took it, so restoring the fortunes of his people. But it all goes wrong: it is not the dwarves who kill Smaug, but Bard the Bowman, and only after the dragon has devastated the Laketown. Nor does the recovery of the treasure make things better: instead it draws a swarm of parties each determined to have what it regards as its rightful share.

There is some justice in their claims – particularly those of the Lakemen whose town has been destroyed as a direct result of the Dwarves’ actions and who have themselves defeated the enemy the Dwarves roused. But Thorin will not heed them and holes up in his ancestral fastness under the mountain, awaiting the support of his cousin, marching with an army from the north. The men and elves besiege them. War threatens; Bilbo tries to avert it by an act which he knows will be seen as the basest treachery – he takes the most valuable jewel of the Dwarves’ treasure, the Arkenstone of Thrain, and hands it over to the besieging forces. The stand-off is only resolved by the arrival of a common enemy, against whom the warring parties unite in a desperate battle.

It sets out as a fairy tale, but at almost every point it runs counter to the conventions of the genre: slaying the dragon, recovering one’s ancestral treasure and restoring the fortunes of one’s house turn out not to be the unmitigated goods they are supposed to be. A lot of people end up dead and homes and livelihoods are destroyed. It reminds me more than a little of the recent history of Iraq.

The Cartography of Childhood 2: a recanting

‘Blog in haste, repent at leisure.’ (old proverb, probably attributed to Albert Einstein/Dr Seuss/Abraham Lincoln)

When I said ‘the fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ I felt I had pinned down an idea that I have been moving towards for some time – years, in fact, though it has been in the forefront of my mind again these past two months. (Since reading Alan Garner’s Boneland, as it happens, a subject I shall deal with separately) However, now I come to explain it, I find it is not quite what I meant to say (a familiar feeling, I may add).

The gist of it was going to be this: a child’s world is like a mediaeval map, with a small known portion surrounded by vast spaces filled in from the imagination; hence, for children, the resonance of literature that is similarly structured, involving people they can identify with crossing from the security of their known world into a mysterious Beyond at once exciting and daunting.

The problem arises when we consider the nature of that Beyond – what the writer chooses to put in it, and why that, too, resonates with children. My original thought was this: what the writer generally puts into it is (first and foremost) something marvellous – it is a world of powerful and dangerous beings with remarkable powers, who are generally engaged in some sort of struggle, for a high and noble purpose, against an implacable (and wicked) foe. (Cf. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Elidor, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, and of course Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (though not, I think, The Hobbit, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere – for all its more overtly childish clothing, The Hobbit strikes me as being in many ways an adult book))

Now we come to the crucial point: the reason why such a vision of high and noble strife resonates with children, I was going to say, is because that is their expectation of what grown-up life must be like – something big and important, something grand, in a word. And I wanted that to be a rebuke to all those adults who would pile in at once, saying ‘but adult life isn’t like that! it is mean and petty and squalid and ignoble and dull, for the most part.’

And it was at this point that I realised that what I had said originally was not accurate: I had spoken of the ‘child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ when what I should have said (I think) is that the fantasy element in children’s literature offers them a vision of life – or, indeed, Life.

Here is where I think I was going wrong: the child’s expectation of the grown-up world is a fantasy formed from privation – the standard adult formula for thwarting children’s desires is ‘when you’re grown-up, you can do what you like, but for now you have to do what you’re told’ – so that the world of the grown-up is imagined as one where you don’t have to do what anyone tells you: you can wear your pyjamas all day, eat ice-cream for breakfast and never go to bed. (And I have to say that for many of us, this model remains alive in adulthood – look how we spend our leisure time).

On the other hand, a child’s expectation of Life is something quite different. For a start, the very word ‘expectation’ is wrong, and its wrongness goes to the heart of what we are talking about here. Life is, precisely, what you experience at every moment: living is what you do, what you cannot help doing; it is not a matter of expectation, of waiting for it to happen, it is now. Children, generally speaking – especially young children – are very good at living, just as birds and beasts are: it is a matter of instinct, not reflection; in that respect, they are better at it than most adults. The problems arise when it comes to living in a particular world, by which I mean not the one actual world that we all share but rather the myriad constructs that we have made to inhabit, which often overlap and have labels such as ‘the Western World’ ‘the modern world’ ‘European civilisation’ ‘the British way of life’ ‘middle-class-life’ ‘working-class-life’ ‘Scotland’ and so on. These are the worlds for which one must learn rules, conventions of behaviour, ways of speaking and thinking. (For instance, here in Scotland, with the impending independence referendum, we can expect much ink to be spilled on the subject of ‘what it means to be Scottish.’)

So now I feel the need to change my metaphor: it is not maps and map-making I want, it is the image of the book as a doorway (and its covers as doors, which they much resemble). Books are doors that open into other worlds, parallel universes, if you like. These worlds are imaginary, not just in the sense that they are ‘made up’ as opposed to ‘real’, but in the sense that they are products of the human imagination, which is always (whether it is conscious of it or not) engaging with the same material, namely Life itself.

[I have been careful to avoid saying ‘engaging with the same problem’ or referring to ‘the meaning of life’ because that is to take the viewpoint of the philosopher rather than the artist – though it is interesting to recall what one of the greatest philosophers has said on the matter:

‘The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

(Is this not the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)’

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.521)]

I use the term ‘artist’ in its broadest sense, to include the painter, the musician, the writer, the poet – all who engage in that kind of activity which is neither a means to an end nor even an end in itself, because it cannot be analysed in those terms – it is at once the highest form of human activity (because it is the most characteristically human) and the most pointless (in the best sense, as it is not subordinated to any aim or goal, it is not even its own justification because it does not seek to justify itself).

( Another philosopher, Benedetto Croce, said that ‘art is intuition’ – and if we take intuition to mean, as the Chambers dictionary defines it, ‘the power of the mind by which it immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis’ then I think that is not wide of the mark, though to be sure ‘the truth of things’ is still a phrase to trouble the mind.)

So (draws deep breath, returns to the original path) what the fantasy element of children’s literature offers is not, as I said before, ‘an embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ but rather a vision of Life couched in terms that the child can understand and engage with – it is, on the one hand, saying ‘think of it like this’ and on the other, stripping away the top layer to reveal the working mechanism underneath.

But this is a subject to which I will return.