It’s a genuine thrill and pleasure to welcome the lovely and talented Kate Long back to the blog. I interviewed her about her previous book ‘The Daughter Game’ here, and today she’s going to talk about how she learned to love words.
Yes. There’s more.
There’s the chance to win a signed copy of her latest novel, ‘A Mother’s Guide to Cheating’.
‘Writers love language, and they love it for itself: that’s a given. But have you thought about exactly how you came to be enchanted by words, by the sounds, shapes, rhythms and cadences of the English around you? Lately I’ve been mulling over my own very early influences, the lines that hooked themselves into my brain as a kid and bothered me for years afterwards.
I’ll tell thee a tale
About a snail
That jumped in t’fire
And burnt its tail
I’ll tell thee another
About its brother—
Silly owd bugger.
Except when my grandma taught it to me, she used a proper Lancashire dialect so she’d have said “brunt”, not burnt. I can still recall the lowered tone with which she finished, her conspiratorial giggle which suggested I’d better not repeat the poem in front of a teacher.
At my church infant school we sang a lot of hymns, and a couple of those had a powerful effect on me. The devil might have all the best tunes, but those Christians can turn out a mean lyric. Favourite was:
Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.
Raindrops are our diamonds
And the morning dew;
While for shining sapphires
We’ve the speedwell blue.
There was something fascinating about the listing of jewels like this, gorgeous as the illustrations in my Ladybird Cinderella, and the idea they could be found just lying about in a field for anyone to pick up. Which is, of course, the point. Then there was the more sinister:
Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, so let shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.
The image I took from this was that we were, in the eyes of God, merely mouse-sized, to be found cowering in the gloom alongside giant skirting boards. That picture for me was as vivid as if I’d seen it in a book (engraved by Tenniel, I shouldn’t wonder). Though it’s supposed to be a cheery, encouraging sort of song, I never sang it without a sense of dread.
The next memory I have comes from when I’m in the juniors: I’m lying in the bath prior to having my long hair washed, and my mother says, ‘You look like the Lady of Shalott.’ ‘Who’s she?’ I ask. So that evening Mum gets out her Collected Tennyson and reads me the sad tale. It’s fair to say I didn’t understand it all, but I was absolutely fascinated by what happens at the end:
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’s to tower’d Camelot.
What kind of a curse is it freezes the blood in your veins? Who’d cursed her in the first place? For what reason? The fact Mum couldn’t answer me made the scene all the more potent. Now I read that verse again, I’m struck by the remorselessness of that rhyme scheme, and the positioning of the commas in the first two lines which make the stages of the heroine’s death feel like a series of hammer blows falling one after another.
Because the Lady of Shalott had gone down so well, Mum introduced me to other Victorian narrative poems: Richard Harris Barham’s The Jackdaw of Rheims, Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market, and Southey’s romping gothic horror, Bishop Hatto , the story of a wicked man who gets eaten by rats:
They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop’s bones:
They gnaw’d the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him!
There’s something particularly creepy about that last tense shift there, as though again his fate’s inescapable.
As I moved into the top classes, I was lucky enough to be given an old anthology from 1946 – I think it must have been passed down from my cousin Mary – called ‘The Children’s Treasury’. Though the cover was a plain dull green, the pages contained some stirring stuff. There was Lars Porsena of Clusium, swearing by the nine gods that the great house of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more (Horatius, by Thomas Babington Macauley). There was Browning’s breathless How we brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he,
I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three
And most morbid of all, the tale of the wrecker who steals the warning buoy and then perishes on the same deadly rock he was using to bring others to grief:
But even in his dying fear
One dreadful sound could the Rover hear,
A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell,
The Devil below was ringing his knell.
(The Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey)
It helped that the poems were accompanied by black and white illustrations of drowning men, stricken horses and people being put to the sword.
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
(G K Chesterton)
O come, thou Branch of Jesse! draw
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From the dread caverns of the grave,
From nether hell thy people save.
(translated by John Neal)
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
(James Russell Lowell)
Lyrics of Old Testament gloom and ire they may be, but every one of those still makes my hair stand on end. I learnt them by heart, and not for their religious content; for the construction of their poetry.
So I started secondary school, where, in my first year, I changed from just “liking stories” to being actively and intensely interested in English as a subject, and writing for myself, and wanting to understand how language worked. But now I look back, the foundations for that interest were definitely laid between the ages of 4 and 10. From suicidal snails to heroic Romans, all were busy shaping my brain to think like a writer.
So my question to you is, what were the earliest language influences you can remember? Was there a poem or lyric or line of a story that really had your neurons sparking? There’s a signed copy of my new novel for the best answer: I look forward to reading them.’
Entries in the comments please, folks. Competition closes this Friday (March 26th).