Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Papers on the Staffordshire Hoard

Here are some fabulous papers on the Staffordshire Hoard Synposium, that was held in March 2010.

It's also the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle in English history, that ended the War of the Roses. A massive 28,000 men died in the battle, and there's a new mass grave about to be opened.

A previous one furnished the material for Blood Red Roses: which was shocking, surprising and illuminating evidence just how men met their ends in battle, as well as what kind of wounds they suffered in earlier battles, and survived.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


There are some thoughts, or lines, or things that people say that distract you. That keep nagging away. Like sand, they get under the waistband, or in the shoe, or appear on the bathroom floor, where the children climb into the bath.

And I'm chaffing. It's a mysterious series of poems in an anglo saxon reader, named Maxims II.

Maxims II.

If there is Maxims II then there must be a Maxims I. And the subtitle didn't do some much as inform as mystify. Maxims II: Gnomic poetry.

Gnomes write poems?!

Sheesh. Except that gnomes were - like dwarves - seen as not just smiths, but also as depositories of arcane knowledge.

The maxims in question are an old english form of poems that state - the sometimes obvious - at other times religious, or the aspirational. The're a little like the Havamal, where gods answer questions and the answers are the stepping stones of wisdom.

But there's poetry in the chinks, and a sense of a world view that is quite intruiging. I'm hooked. And I've got an odd sense that the opening of my books lies somewhere within the opening.

Here's the opening of Maxims I
Frige mec frodum wordum. Ne læt þinne ferð onhælne
degol þæt þu deopost cunne. Nelle ic þe min dyrne gesecgan,
gif þu me þinne hygecræft hylest ond þine heortan geþohtas.
Gleawe men sceolan gieddum wrixlan.

Which Tom Shippey translates as:
Question with wise words. But do not let your opinion remain hidden, or what you know most profoundly stay obselete. I will not tell you my secret knowledge if you hide the strength of your mind from me, and the thoughts of your heart. Men of perception ought to exchange their sayings....

(Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English 1976)

You can hear a recording of these, from a little later along, read by Professor Drout here
So. I'm going to sit down with these, and wait for the muse - in the form of a short and hood-dark and bearded figure, with a jerkin of singed leather, and well-muscled forearms, to come and whisper in my ear.

Monday, March 7, 2011

It's that time of year again....!

Not reading, but you can catch me talking to some great authors, here.

And generally hanging around in the bar as well.

And I'm on the radio! Catch me Thursday on RTHK with Xu Xi and Sarah Lazarus talking about Serious Men, shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Award Shortlist.

Opening lines


I've done the research, gone through my notebooks, filled out piles of index cards, read the first page of Marquez's General in his Labyrinth, (an odd habit I have of reading the opening page before beginning any book - an authorial version of a lucky rabbit's foot) and today I sat down to start my next novel.

I even opened the word document, and saved it into the file that I had created.

But I didn't have that opening line. Which has got me thinking of where opening lines come from.

The last one, for Shieldwall, which wont be out until May, begins: Christ did not come again that year.

I had that, and the second line fixed in my head long before the beginning.

Christ did not come again that year. The Lord kept to His churches and the pages of his book, and Wulfnoth sat in the half timbered hall as the peat fire smoked and rain dripped from the roof-thatch.

Passing Under Heaven begins,

On the day Minister Li retired from office, he lay on his bed and felt a great sense of release, as if the values and morals that had controlled him through his life were as frail as the morning dew.

And it's hard to say where that came from. It might have, at one time, begun the book, but I know that that particular section was only moved to the beginning of the book a week or so before the deadline.

It was a case of jigsaw pieces finally making a new and more brilliant pattern.

Ciao Asmara, i think was more of a process than a flash of inspiration, and A Bend in the Yellow River began the same was as the one thousand word article I had published in the Guardian Weekly, because I did not want to change something that someone had paid me money for, and because getting published there was a token to myself that perhaps I could be a writer.

The Drink and Dream Teahouse. I sat down with my toshiba satellite, and began to type.

I never changed a word of that opening paragraph, and in a strange way I seemed to predict the themes that would tie up the lives of the characters in the novel.

For two weeks exploding firecrackers shredded the winter gloom at Shaoyang’s Number Two Space Rocket Factory. The fourteenth and last night was the Lantern Festival: hopeful lovers carried their hearts in moth-skin lanterns, bobbing like hooked fish on the ends of long canes. A river of stars flowed through the night, the candles burned steadily down, and after midnight solitary spirits wandered the streets with increasing desperation - searching for their perfect match, who might never come.

So what should a opening line do? Well, after all this, there's something of an over emphasis on opening lines. Not that it shouldn't grab the reader, but that the next line, the first paragraph and so on should grab and surprise the reader as well. Some of the best openings have their knock out line at the end of the first paragraph

Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and the charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

Or this one from Penelope Lively in Perfect Happiness

The fifth Brandenburg. Somewhere, some place, every moment, an orchestra is playing the fifth Brandenburg concerto. Violins are tucked under chins, bows rise and fall; in recording studios and concert rooms, and here in the dining-hall of a Cambridge college where a hundred and fifty people are gathered together for no reason except circumstance which is perhaps the reason for everything. They are together for one hour fifty minutes and for the most part will never see one another again.
Some, of course, will.