The Crystal Necklace–a family history piece

A few years ago, I wrote this piece about my paternal great-grandmother, Irma Mazars, starting with a meditation about the lovely rock crystal necklace, which along with a beautiful ebony cicada brooch, is something I inherited from her. I thought it might be interesting to revisit it here, slightly revised. And this time, with photographs..

Du côté de chez Irma ; or, The Crystal Necklace

The rock crystal necklace best shows its sheen and beauty on the skin, glittering in the hollows of the neck like raindrops lace the grass. A hundred years ago when it was new, there were little shards of bright bronze set in between the crystal stones, but these have long since dropped off, leaving patches of moss-green verdigris so subtly worked in that they look as if they were always meant to be there. When I take the necklace off at night, the skin-warmed stones run through my fingers, cooling as they splash into my palm: the lucent streamings of memory.

Once, the necklace had lain against the violet-scented, rice-paper neck of my great-grandmother, Irma Mazars, and I loved it much more than the diamonds she wore on her fingers. She had been given the necklace by my great-grandfather Louis Bos, long ago when she was young and he was her older, married lover. There was something rarer, more precious about the string of crystal than the harshly-sparkling rings: I called it “le collier de pluie”, to myself– “the necklace of rain.”  Unlike the banal diamonds, which had no imprint of time, it seemed to speak of its vanished age, the shining age spoken of so longingly by my haunted father; Irma’s world, the world known as la Belle Époque.

Irma as a young woman

La Belle Époque: the words themselves, in their nostalgic closure, made of that period an era beyond history, somehow: the last beautiful, stifling gasp of the nineteenth century before the dark twentieth had yet made its presence really felt. A luminous bubble, we imagined it as; a time when we could dream that neither national nor personal hatreds marred the steady harmony of people’s lives.

There was never any fighting at Irma’s place, nor any reheating of the high-smelling old quarrels which for several generations had made of my father’s paternal family history a space of both tragedy and comedy. Irma’s family, her space, seemed to me different: neither comedy nor tragedy, but something solid, well-planted, yet not smug or even respectable. There was peace and a kind of predictability, but of the kind that exists in enchanted places. It did not matter if we arrived early or late at her apartment; always, waiting for us on her nests of little tables would be pastel paper-lace boxes of sugared violets, candied roses, tiny icing-gilt cakes and syrupy sweet marrons glacés, crystallised chestnuts; and tin cups for us children, standing by slender-throated bottles filled with grass-green Sirop de Menthe and scarlet Grenadine cordials. For my parents and Irma herself, there would be the indulgences of eternal tipsy summer: either a potently home-made cherry Ratafia, a peach Rinquinquin or her favourite, Confiture de Vieux Garçon, Old Boy’s(or Bachelor’s) Jam: a layered confection so sugar-heavy with summer fruit and fiery brandy that the adults moved like stunned bumblebees after just a whiff of it. But always, something lovely for us: she was wonderful with children–kind but never patronising, full of indulgence but tough when she needed to be. She adored my father, her favourite grandchild, who had lived with her for a couple of years during the war; but she also loved his sisters, and she loved having us visit her. (And as I lived in early childhood with my grandmother, her daughter Zou, she had been quite a presence in my early life too) .

Her Toulouse apartment, bought with her own money and shrewd business sense, was full as a Fabergé egg: deep gold and scarlet curtains, comfortable furniture upholstered in fabric that seemed both old-fashioned and curiously modern; paintings of voluptuous deities and dark pictures of unknown harbours; lampstands shaped like flower-slim dancers,  varnished mahogany beds with naked cupids carved into the bedheads, and naked nymphs of all sizes on every available surface .In fact, there was more nakedness in her apartment than I’d ever seen anywhere, even in the museum: blandly beautiful limbs sculpted in the fine-grained white material Irma called ‘biscuit’. It rang like baked glass when you rapped a knuckle against a bare white thigh or surreptitiously slapped a smooth cold bottom. Our father would frown at us if he saw us lack in such respect; but Irma would smile, and tap his punitive hand with a bejewelled finger: “Georges, they’re children, after all!”

Irma pin-up!

There were more nymphs in the attic, packed away in boxes. Ah, the attic! Home not only of nymphs but troves of vanished splendour: camphor-and-lavender-scented chests full of hobble-skirted muslin dresses and rustling evening gowns, pale pink high-heeled kid shoes, silk stockings and cartwheel hats in round boxes, and we stared and laughed with excited joy as we rummaged through them and tried them all on. They might just as well have been relics from the age of Louis XIV, for all their exotic, strange magnificence; we simply could put no imaginative boundaries to a period when such fancydress was commonplace. In the chests were also menus and dance lists and old letters, done up in bundles with fine lacy ribbons tying them; the others ignored them, finding them dusty and dull, beside the rutilant rivers of rags, but I pored over them, imagining I would find an old ticket for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, or a secret letter from a lovesick prince. Once, we found Louis’ elegant sepia recipes for prize-winning cordials and tonics and punches: his family had made their solid fortune from the making and selling of drinks of all kinds, and in one corner, shrouded in dust, was a collection of engraved soft-drink bottles from the Bos factory. In another chest was a collection of old L’Illustration magazines: the first ones from 1900, the last just before the First World War. I savoured them all: the fashion parades, the travel notes from far flung colonies, the reports of train crashes and automobile shows and aeroplane trials, the excited reports on cinema and phonographs and electric light and forensic detection. L’Illustration was sure that progress was inevitable; it also showed me why Irma loved technology and gadgets, devoured articles on the space race and watched television devotedly.

On old photographs, Irma has a polished glamour: melting gaze, heavy hair, figurehead bosom under sculpted blouses, shapely body under her draped skirts.  Though the photos aren’t in colour, her eyes were blue, her hair as a young woman a rich, deep gold. There are no photos of her childhood; her

Louis Bos, successful businessman

parents, Aveyron dairy farmers, never took to photography, although she was their cherished only child. They had ambitions for her that went well beyond the farm; they ‘bled their four veins’ as the French saying has it, to buy her off-the-peg versions of Illustration models and braved chilly teachers to get her elocution classes. But she still grew up knowing how to milk cows and stuff geese and sell and buy land as well as powdering her face and decorating pretty hats and showing a trim ankle and speaking in a flutingly vulnerable voice. Much later, she was to slightly shock us children by her sharp irony and her readiness to return to peasant skills: I can see her with her soft white arms deep inside the cavity of a chicken, fingers deftly working away, releasing fugitive rumours of violet and lavender fragrance as she moved to and fro between the table and the sink, her rings and jingling bracelets in a glittering pile on the dresser. She never lost ‘le nord’, did Irma; she had no sentimentality and few illusions.

Irma was an eighteen year old apprentice milliner when she met Louis. He was nearly thirty years older than her, very much married, very much a paterfamilias. His social standing was very high, much higher than hers: not only was he a prominent member of a long-established wealthy business family in Decazeville but its Mayor for a while, then regional councillor and aspiring national politician (though he never made it to the national stage in the end, most likely because of his scandalous love life).

On Irma’s wall hung some old tinted photographs of Louis, in large, ornate Second Empire frames, like paintings: as a child, in a velvet suit, by his rocking-horse, his stare imperiously blue, his hair brushed painfully down; and Monsieur Bos, very much the respectable nineteenth century businessman in neat beard and smart suit, but still with that imperious blue gaze. Fashionably freethinking, a member of the Radical Party (which despite its fire-breathing name was more what people might call centre left, these days), he was also agnostic and a Freemason—at least until his deathbed. As well, though, Louis indulged the sentimental Catholicism and highly burnished respectability within his family.

Irma with her and Louis’ daughter, Marie-Louise

For him, Irma must have been both a breath of heady new century’s air–and the continuation of a well-upholstered tradition. He had soon safely installed her as his mistress in a smart new apartment in faraway Toulouse and bought her the lease on a millinery shop so that she could hold her head high and have no-one gossip about her as a ‘kept’ woman.

We may imagine that single motherhood was a heavy cross to bear in such a time; but Irma never showed any bitterness or regrets, and there was certainly nothing of the victim or the statistic about her. Her history was no shameful secret but was openly talked about. And she accepted it with humour and practicality; indeed, she took my mother aside, just before she and my father were married, and said to her(much to Maman’s sardonic indignation), “My dear Gisele, you must remember the nature of men, and not see too much!”

Irma’s and Louis’ only child, my grandmother Marie-Louise, familiarly known as Zou (and Mamizou to us children, later), grew up as the enchantingly pretty blond only child of a union that despite time and Louis’ incorrigibly-roving eye, never faded away. Louis visited his second family frequently, and idolised his pretty daughter. Every time he came, he brought the child and her mother boxes of pretty dresses and jewellery and flowers and comfits, and paid for many expensive studio photographs of Zou at every conceivable age, sometimes alone, sometimes with her mother, exquisite yet robust decorations that he kept with him. He was rewarded with Zou’s letters, written in unsteady curly writing on scented pale paper, which always began: Mon cher petit Papa. . . But all that time, Irma and Louis stayed unmarried to each other; Monsieur Bos had a respectable family and business life to maintain. In fact, some years after Zou’s birth, Louis’ seventh legitimate child was born! It was not until after Zou’s marriage to the glamorous and wealthy Robert-Rene Masson, my grandfather, that Louis’ long-suffering wife finally tired of his doings, threw him out and divorced him, and he was finally forced into dissolving his double life. So finally he became Irma’s lawfully wedded husband.

Louis in old age.

Louis died long before his daughter’s brilliant marriage shattered into a thousand wounding pieces after the traumas of World War Two. The last years of his life were spent held in the sweet protection of Irma. He no longer had any money of his own. So he was dependent on the tidy income Irma had made first from the millinery shop, then, when that was sold, from the cunning real estate investments she made. Louis was proud of Irma, as he was proud of Zou; perhaps he recognised in both of them the sound business sense he lacked himself. But he also considered himself tamed, not broken; and Irma’s final years with him were full of the comfortable irritation of his attempts at further gallant adventures. But he was also a devoted father and grandfather; my father speaks of him very fondly.

Irma’s parents had been heartbroken at first by their daughter’s state of sin. This was not what they had intended for their golden girl. But they were peasants, not vaporously respectable bourgeois; continuity, whether legitimate or not, was the important thing. So they welcomed first Zou, then Zou’s children. My father, escaping from the painful ambiguities of his parents’ later history, for ever after saw the holidays he had spent on the little Aveyron farm as not only his personal golden age, but a glimpse into a vanished national golden age. They were representatives of the true France, for him, eternally patient, enduring France. But Irma herself never spoke of them; she did not contradict her beloved grandson Georges when he waxed lyrical about the feeling of fresh pump water on his head in the morning, and the warm smell of milking cows, but tilted her head just like in the photos, that look I had thought of as showing the peasant toughness under the sculpted polish.

Now, I wonder if it was not that; but a kind of crystalline tenderness that lived à fleur de peau in my great-grandmother: just under the hollows where her raindrop necklace lay.

 

Postscript: Some years ago, after I wrote this piece, my father was contacted by an unexpected family member, whom he had never met before: a cousin on the Bos side who was the grand-daughter of Louis and his first wife! Curious about her grandfather’s double life, Françoise had done some research and found my father–and so he, and we, began to know something about Louis’ ‘other’ family.  As did she, in her turn. Old wounds had healed, and now it was time for the two sides of the family to get to know each other. 

Interview with Therese Walsh, editor of Author in Progress

12803300_10207051919154843_5638323324479667397_nSome years ago–I think it was back in 2008–I was invited to become a regular contributor to the international writing blog, Writer Unboxed, founded by US writers Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton two years previously. Their idea was to create a community of writers who would find guidance, support and encouragement in WU, as well as great advice and tips. That’s certainly proven to be the case, and Writer Unboxed is one of the most popular and respected writing blogs in the world today, garnering several awards as well as an ever-increasing list of followers, a very active Facebook and Twitter presence, and the hosting of a unique conference–or Unconference, as it’s titled!

And now comes the next step: a book which gathers together a great deal of individual and collective wisdom and advice from Writer Unboxed contributors and community. Author in Progress: A No-Holds Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published (Writers’ Digest Books), is being released today, November 1 and will be available from online booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, as well as the Writers’ Digest shop. Edited by Therese Walsh, and with an introduction by respected author James Scott Bell, it features over 50 essays from novelists, editors, agents and contributors from the WU community. The book goes well beyond the usual run of how-to-get-published books: from discussing reasons why people want to write right up to post-publication issues, and much more in between. I’m delighted to say by the way that I have an essay in the book, which is called ‘Writer as Phoenix’, and is in the final section of the book.

And today, I’m delighted to celebrate the publication day of Author in Progress by featuring an interview with its initiator: writer and editor extraordinaire, Therese Walsh.

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Welcome to my blog, Therese! How did the idea for Author in Progress come about? What was your vision for the book, and how did that evolve as time went on?

Thanks for having me, Sophie, and for the opportunity to talk about Author in Progress.

The book came about after I met with Phil Sexton at the Writer’s Digest conference last summer (2015). He mentioned the idea of doing a book with them, and that took root with me over a month or so. I had a follow-up phone call with Phil, and he mentioned the freedom we’d have to do the type of book we wanted to do. After that, the idea for Author in Progress fell into place rather quickly, as I considered what I knew to be true about writing a book – because there are some things I always say when someone who is not yet published asks, ‘How did you get published? What did you do?’

The book is broken into parts, following the stages a writer will likely go through on the road to publication: Pre-writing considerations, the writing itself, critique-related topics, educational considerations, rewriting, perseverance, and releasing the project once you’ve served the work.

Author in Progress is a very different kind of how-to writing book, as it doesn’t assume that the journey ends when your book is published. And it offers the advice and experience of many different contributors. How did you go about gathering and editing contributions from so many people?

Assigning essays was much easier than it might have been, in part because Writer Unboxed contributors are exceptional to work with (I’m not at all biased!). I think the other reason it was relatively easy was because of the adaptability of the contributors, in that many could write to several stages of the book. That said, there was a certain magic to the match-ups and I’m particularly pleased with how that went; everyone delivered something about an issue that resonated with them personally.

In terms of gathering and editing, I created a deadline for essayists to turn in their work and that deadline was met almost without exception. I then read over each essay, and suggested revisions when I thought they might make the book stronger. I then did a final edit for clarity—adding headers—and correcting for typos. This is what was then submitted to Writer’s Digest and our in-house editor there, who took everything to the next level in terms of polish and readiness for publication.

Author in Progress is aimed not only at aspiring authors, but also authors who have already been published. What do you think authors at different stages of their careers could get from this book?

One of the things authors will be able to see is that the stages of story creation are cyclical, repeating with every book. Sure, you learn things early on that you apply to each book thereafter, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hit each stage in some way. We’ve included some articles under a header called ‘Eye on the Prize,’ which addresses how a topic (e.g. critique) becomes important in a different way when you’re a published author (e.g. accepting notes from an agent, editor, even readers). We also have boxes throughout the book marked as ‘Pro Tips,’ which, again, help to root the reader in the reality of why something is important if you’re to make a career of writing.

All that said, I think the larger reason published novelists might want a copy of Author in Progress is because when we’re in the middle of a project—or at the start of one—we sometimes forget that all of this is normal. The anxiety, the doubt, the block, the research pitfalls, the need to go deep with character (and how to do that), the need to continue to learn and grow (and what steps you might take to push to the next level). I think even published authors need to remember that we’re not alone, and that the angst is part of the process, too.

Is there any particular tip or bit of advice that you would offer an author starting out on the journey–and those a bit further along?

I would tell that author starting out and an author a bit further along something similar. Writing a book is tough at times. Many of us might say, ‘If I knew how long it would take, what it would ask of me, maybe I wouldn’t have finished… But I’m glad that I did.” Perseverance is one of the key ingredients for any author in progress, and so I’d tell both of those writers to keep going, and remind them that they are not on that road alone. Truly, they are not.

The book is closely associated with Writer Unboxed, the writing blog you founded some years ago with Kathleen Bolton, which has become prominent and respected in both the author community and the publishing industry. Can you tell us about the blog, and about the insights into authorship it has given you?

Writer Unboxed  is my writing family, and it’s my hope that we are other writers’ online family as well. We are dedicated to producing content daily about the craft and business of fiction on our website, but it goes beyond that with our Facebook community (5,000+ writers strong in a promo-free zone) and our Twitter feed (@WriterUnboxed). Our ultimate goal is to provide positive and empowering support for writers of any genre.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about writing simply by being present for the day-to-day business of the site, but I think the most crucial lesson is that it is truly a cyclical process. You envision. You create. You revise. You learn the lessons the book is there to teach you. You serve the work. You release. Repeat. As someone who hasn’t always had an easy road myself, there’s a lot of power for me personally in seeing that this process is what it is. It’s the job of being an author. It’s not always easy. In fact, it can be grueling and draining and crazy making at times. But it is a wonderful and gratifying thing to be able to do this job—build stories, reach readers. Writer Unboxed has helped me persevere to do just that.

Thank you again, Sophie. Write on!

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Harry Ashton-Wolfe, true-crime writer of ‘the Golden Age’

ashton-wolfe-3For a bit of fun today I’m republishing a piece of mine that was first published some years ago, about Harry Ashton-Wolfe, an absolutely wonderful–and unintentionally hilarious!–true-crime writer of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the detective craze, in the 1920’s and 30’s. He inspired one of my own characters in The Case of the Diamond Shadow-and to all crime writers out there, he’s really worth rediscovering!

So here’s the article, below. Enjoy!

Harry Ashton-Wolfe

Some of my favourite book finds have come into my hands not by word of mouth or reviews or prior knowledge but by sheer chance: the eccentric jewel suddenly spotted amongst the lucky-dip gimcrack of  junk shop and school fete, car boot sale and charity shop shelf. And these days, very often in that virtual combination of all those venues, the Internet.

It was thus I made the serendiptous discovery of the priceless but sadly forgotten works of celebrity criminologist and true-crime writer of the 1920’s and early ’30’s, Harry Ashton-Wolfe. Browsing on the Net one day, looking up Conan Doyle sites with the vague notion of Sherlock Holmes appearing in a detective novel for young readers I was planning, I stumbled across a casual reference to a H.Ashton-Wolfe, writer of true-crime adventure bestsellers, who claimed to know not only Holmes’ creator, as well as the leading lights of the French Surete and Scotland Yard, but also just about every famous criminal and outlaw of the day!

Several hurried orders from second-hand bookshops later, I had built up a mini-library of Ashton-Wolfe’s books, with their gorgeously pulpy titles, such as Crimes of Love and Hate, The Thrill of Evil, Outlaws of Modern Days, and The Forgotten Clue. And I plunged into the addictive joys not only of the melodramatic and exotic cases recounted in racy prose, but the vain and boastful character of Ashton-Wolfe himself, which infused the stories with unintentional hilarity. So immediately engaging was this combination that I immediately dropped Sherlock in favour of a certain Philip Woodley-Foxe, whose adventures are legendary, not least to himself. No prizes for guessing who he was based on!

A marvellous combination of Action Man, cheerleader for ‘modern’ scientific detection, adventurous ashton-wolfemaster of disguise and shameless name-dropper, Harry Ashton-Wolfe doesn’t just recount the cases, he inhabits them. He’s an important part of investigating teams in Paris tracking down fiendishly cunning criminals, such as the Eurasian Hanoi Shan; he gets locked up and threatened with death by vicious gangsters; he is at the elbow of the greatest forensic scientists of the day, such as Edmond Locard of the Surete, and earlier, the legendary Alphonse Bertillon; he is allowed to peruse the ”secret archives” of the Paris Prefecture; by chance, he recognises a famous anarchist bandit, Jules Bonnot, as having once been his chauffeur; he dons disguises such as that of a Parisian apache or a Corsican bandit to infiltrate criminal rings(delightfully, his books sometimes include photographs of him in disguise, complete with picturesque hats and moustaches!)

Airily, he recognises that ‘It is rather strange, when I look back, to think how often I have found myself involved in events that later passed into history,’ (The Underworld—a Series of Reminiscences and Adventures in Many Lands), but he doesn’t let that slight improbability deter him in the least. Time after time, he’s in at the kill—helping to nail a vicious poisoner or uncovering a sensational tranvestite murder or catching a crook who’s passing off fake diamonds. He describes the most sensational murder methods—such as kittens whose claws have been tipped with deadly tetanus baccili; centipedes used as murder weapons; and in an echo of Edgar Allan Poe, an ape trained to kill! Rather scathing about most detective fiction—aside from Conan Doyle’s, to whom he dedicated Outlaws of Modern Days—he nevertheless uses every trick of sensational fiction, including catchy titles, breathless first-person narration, cheesy dialogue and moralising asides. He offers titillating portraits of famous murderers, gangsters and outlaws, and lovingly sketched examples of criminal wickedness. But there’s always a moral: not only are these bad people bad, but they will inevitably be brought to book by the superior methods of modern scientific crime-fighting. His touching faith in these methods—which he describes in detail in The Forgotten Clue– is such that he is convinced they will shortly put ashton-wolfe-2an end to all crime.

Mostly, he writes about modern cases(at least, from the 1890’s onwards) but in Tales of Terror—True Stories of Immortal Crimes, he looks at older real-life mysteries fictionalised by writers such as Alexandre Dumas: the Man in the Iron Mask, the Count of Monte-Cristo, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace…You get the distinct impression that he thinks modern scientific methods would surely have made short work of elucidating them!

So who was H.Ashton-Wolfe, this tireless go-getter chronicler of crime? In The Underworld he offers something of an  autobiography, and colourful it is too (sample chapter titles: The Episode of the Clairvoyant Countess’, ‘La Glu—Apache and Gentleman’; ‘The Motor Bandits’; The Blue Anchor Mystery’). He was born in 1881, of a Scottish father who had emigrated to New Mexico and who as a US soldier had participated in the historic final stand of the Sioux under Sitting Bull. His mother was an American, of half-Scottish, half-Spanish blood(Ashton-Wolfe makes much of this ”gipsy strain” which made him a ”wanderer, restless and ever seeking after excitement and novelty.”) Young Harry was born in London whilst his parents were on a visit there but he spent his childhood on the ‘prairies of Arizona and Colorado’—in The Forgotten Clue he also writes about how he was taught to ride and shoot there by “the red-skinned Sioux warriors, who, strangely enough, enjoyed showing a white boy their tricks”–then sent to school in Denver till the age of 14. He was then packed off to a boarding-school in Cannes, and thence to university in Heidelberg—giving him, as he points out, an unrivalled facility in three languages, and the love of travel, not to speak of European glamour to add to American derring-do.

But it’s a youthful holiday in Monte-Carlo that introduces him to his future career when, on nightly visits to the Casino, he befriends a ”dapper little Frenchman” , Monsieur Blanchard, who enlists his help in watching another gambler—an American named Big Jim Cowley. Of course, M. Blanchard turns out to be from the Surete, Big Jim is soon unmasked as a crook of the first order, and the adventure not only whets Ashton-Wolfe’s appetite for more excitement, but sees him eventually accepted as assistant to Dr Alphonse Bertillon, in Paris, working with him on many extraordinary cases. In this capacity, he also collaborates on occasion with detectives from Scotland Yard and the US. Later, due to his familiarity with foreign languages, he acts as ”interpreter to the civil and criminal courts” in Britain–in which capacity he appears to have written many of his books.

Perhaps he might have been able to retire though, for his books were best-sellers in the genre, going through many editions worldwide, and garnering glowing reviews: ‘Out-thrilling the thrillers’–‘Exciting studies in international crime’–‘Unsurpassed as a narrator of authentic crime stories’. The public’s appetite for true as well as fictional crime in the Golden Age of the detective novel was huge, and as well as his books, Ashton-Wolfe wrote articles for magazines such as The Strand as well as the true-crime magazines which flourished in the Golden Age of the detective novel. And his stories influenced other contemporary writers. For instance, ‘Sapper’, the creator of the Bulldog Drummond adventure series, was inspired by two of Ashton-Wolfe’s cases: the diabolical Hanoi Shan, and the anarchist bandits Jules Bonnot and Octave Garnier, for his 1929 novel,  The Temple Tower(as well as basing a character, Victor Matthews, on Ashton-Wolfe himself). And in a nice touch, Conan Doyle himself used a story recounted in Crimes of Love and Hate, about an Italian swindler who claimed to have created a death ray, as the basis for one of his Professor Challenger stories, The Disintegration Machine.

Ashton-Wolfe’s work was also the basis for a popular pot-boiler film, Secrets of the French Police(1932), where he is credited as writer. Other films may have been planned; but questions as to the authenticity of his recitals began to surface, and no others were produced. As well, with his style beginning to seem old-fashioned, his books started to fall out of favour, and eventually were forgotten so completely that not a single one remains in print.

Just how much—or how little–of his biography, let alone his claimed exploits, is authentic, I have no idea. Much of it, I suspect, needs to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. Trying to find information that isn’t part of the persona Ashton-Wolfe built for himself is like trying to write on water. But it doesn’t really matter. For the books are truly wonderful period pieces, some of which  deserve to be reprinted in their full glory, cheesy photographs and all.

Speaking in Tongues: a guest post by Sophie Constable

Sophie Constable greyThe pleasure and challenge of not being restricted to just one language is a subject dear to my heart (and close to my experience!) so today I am delighted to publish on my blog a wonderful article by writer Sophie Constable about the situation for multilingualism in Australia.

Sophie Constable has worked as an Antarctic researcher and veterinarian, been an expat trophy wife in the Middle East and did her PhD on health education with remote Australian Indigenous communities.  Throughout, writing has remained her passion.

Speaking in tongues

by Sophie Constable

Exploring Australia’s language skills crisis

Rejoice!  Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff has just been published in English for the first time in over 100 years.  I loved this book and I love that new generations of English speakers are getting the chance to follow the fabulously intrepid Mikhail through the Wild West of Russia’s Far East.

But the fact remains that translation of foreign language books – be they new masterpieces or old classics – is a tiny proportion of the English literary scene, as Strogoff’s translator Stephanie Smee has discussed.  And globally, native English speakers are rarely able to enjoy literary works in the original language.  Nowhere is this more true than Australia, where multilingualism, already the minority, is in steady decline.

If language, at its heart, is about humanity, as author Elizabeth Little writes, then Australians are losing their ability to understand the world.

Being bilingual, I sometimes forget multilingualism, the norm for much of the globe, isn’t the experience of most Australians.  Though we’re a multicultural nation, most people consider English to be enough for our needs and even within bilingual families, bilingualism is declining across the generations.

Are Australians just not interested in languages?  Is it too hard in a geographically isolated, monolingual society?  What’s the point in learning languages anyway, apart from an exponential increase in the to-read pile?

Imogen Weafer, a retail assistant in Darwin’s Casuarina Square shopping centre who uses Japanese in her work, certainly wasn’t interested in languages when she younger, despite her grandmother and mother being bilingual in Latvian and English.

‘My grandma taught my mother, but I wasn’t interested.  I regret that now,’ she says.

Miss Weafer considered that she grew up in a society that didn’t value foreign languages.

‘I lived among generation after generation of farmers who all speak English and nothing else, and think Sydney is overseas,’ she said.

She didn’t consider learning another language until going to Japan after year 11.  She chose to stay in Japan rather than study Japanese at school:  ‘In school, my Japanese teacher was a French teacher,’ she said, unimpressed.  It’s a common problem: more than 100 schools discontinued their languages program between 2003 and 2006, specifically due to a lack of qualified staff.

But English isn’t Australia’s only local language.  Growing up on the edge of the Barossa Valley, Ingkerreke Commercial project manager Daryl Thompson didn’t consider German a foreign language.  He grew up with it, going to a high school where many students had German heritage.  Though all students had to learn to German, by the end of high school he’d learnt more from his classmates than from the teacher.

‘I could swear at people’ he said, ‘and they can understand.’

Darryl Thompson

Darryl Thompson

Despite only speaking English at home and never having taken a language course, Mr. Thompson has since learnt parts of nine other languages.  He learned these on building sites around Australia by talking with co-workers.  ‘The Australian construction industry is a multinational industry,’ he says.  ‘Italians and Greeks do concrete, Vietnamese do the tiling, Croats and Russians do the gyprocking.  Knowing a bit of their languages shows that you are interested in them as a person; they are more amenable to do what you want them to do.  People that don’t make an effort won’t get as far.’

Sure, many find the idea of learning a language confronting.  CSC Adult Night Classes Japanese teacher Mikiko Kawano explains, ‘just like losing weight, you have to do it for a long time to see a result.’ This largely explains why those who beginning learning at a young age become more proficient.  However the idea that it’s too hard to learn other languages doesn’t hold with Mr. Thompson.  ‘That’s just excuses,’ he says.  ‘In today’s era of technology, of internet, easily purchasable online media, audio and video, there’s no reason why people can’t learn.’  CDU Indonesian lecturer Nathan Franklin agrees, finding that the opportunities to learn languages are all around us.  ‘They are walking past us in the streets,’ Dr. Franklin says, ‘they are working in the shops.’

The latest census counted almost 400 languages spoken in Australia, including over a hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.  Most of Australia’s language skills come from recent immigrants: 87% of Australian secondary school students will have dropped out of language courses after two years or less.  For those who are studying languages, Australian students spend less time learning than any other OECD country.

I don’t come from a bilingual family.  Nor did I learn my second language overseas.  The reason I speak French is that my school went against the trend.  Telopea Park Public School in the A.C.T. has an agreement with the French government to import French national teachers to teach in a bilingual system from primary school onwards.  And it is one of the only schools in Australia producing entire classes of fluently bilingual students every year.

O.K., so maintaining the bi-national relationship was difficult at times.  I’ll never forget the expression on my French teacher’s face when a quarter of the secondary student body protested the testing of nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll by refusing to stand for the French national anthem during assembly.  We experienced first-hand the impact of international relations at the personal level.  But isn’t that, after all, what language learning is all about?

Against the trend of declining bilingualism elsewhere, my new home in the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of multilinguists in Australia, and it’s rising.  I’ve come to the right place, then!

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae-Williams, Senior Researcher with Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, finds exposure motivates others.  She says, ‘In Darwin you hear five different languages in the supermarket.  Warlpiri, French, Thai, Yolngu, Sudanese.’   These languages are economically important as tourism and remote community work are some of the biggest employers in the Territory.

Motivation is notoriously lacking in native English-speakers.  In French there is a saying: a man who speaks three languages is trilingual, a man who speaks two languages is bilingual, a man who speaks only one language is English.  Though English is the language which unites us, it’s also isolating us, Dr Franklin finds, because it reduces the compulsion to learn other languages.  ‘The Western mentality is that everyone needs to learn English, as English is the lingua franca of the world,’ Dr Franklin states.  Whereas ‘[English-speakers] don’t need to learn another language to get a job’, here, as well as overseas, ‘students and business-owners know they need to speak English and they learn out of necessity’.

However, in a global market place, sharing a language can markedly increase bilateral trade and reduces tariffs, according to research.  While historically this has been a boon for trade with the UK and the US, seven of the Australia’s top ten two-way trading partners are now countries where English is a second language, including China and Japan, as well as the vast majority of our fastest growing markets, including Indonesia and India.  That can put English monolinguals at a disadvantage at the negotiating table.  The rise of Asia may threaten English’s dominant economic position – and that’s a problem for many Australian businesses.

For Dr. Chie Adachi, speaking as Linguistics Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education, the value of language learning is broader than its purely economic context.   ‘If you aren’t learning a language because you don’t see a purpose in it, you are missing the point,’ she says.  ‘It’s about changing the way you think.’

New research by a team at the Stanford University is finding more evidence supporting the idea that languages affect how we think.  Lera Boroditsky’s team has found that which language you use affects concepts as varied as colour differentiation, spatial orientation, direction of time and causality.  Dr. Boroditsky’s findings make sense for Jack Wang, a Chinese-born administrative assistant.  ‘Being able to speak another language gives you a different perspective on the world around you,’ he said.   Growing up in censorship-rich China, that was ‘mind-blowing’.   Dr. Adachi agrees, ‘it allows you to think more broadly and in different ways, which can be a rare experience.’

Ms. McRae-Williams found being a minority English speaker in spaces shaped by Aboriginal languages a transformative experience, saying ‘it opened up another world for me.’ Like 80% of

 

Australians, Ms. McRae-Williams spoke only English at home before going to Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, where Ngukurr Kriol  is the local language.  ‘Kriol seems to have a smaller vocabulary of words but there are important subtleties when you use those words and who to,’ she says.  ‘Even though there are many English sounding words, they can be used differently, with different

Pitjantjatjara country

Pitjantjatjara country

connotations and meanings.  English speakers might think they are understanding what the Kriol speaker is saying but they are not understanding them, really.’  For example, she found  ‘that unlike English language it is rare for people speaking in Kriol to use the word “I” or “myself”, rather “mela” is used which means “we” or “us”. Her experience of how cultural perspectives and knowledge are embedded in language gave her a new insight into centuries of intercultural misunderstanding.

The misunderstandings over land are a prime example.  In Pitjanjatjara, you don’t say ‘what is that place?’ but rather ‘who is that place?’  Land is related to people like a grandfather or aunty is: land is a “person” in the Pitjanjatara world view.  The idea of “owning” your grandfather becomes nonsensical; the idea of abandoning it, impossible.

Given the historic and ongoing lack of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the national and international consequences of wider intercultural misunderstanding, the question ought not be why learn a language, but why not?

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Hunting Papa in the Hills, by Alan Wilson, Pitjantjatjara elder

The power of fairy tales: an interview with Katherine Langrish

katherine langrishToday I have the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Langrish, author of a number of wonderful fantasy novels for older children, who has just released her new book–a collection of essays on fairy tale.

Your new book, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, has just been published by Greystones Press, and unlike your other books, it’s a work of non-fiction: but like your other books, it shares a common element–a fascination with fairy tale and folklore. Why are you so interested in them?

Quite simply, I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore ever since I was a child.  I’ve never understood why some people feel it’s a taste adults ought to grow out of, unless perhaps the only fairy tales they’ve encountered have been the simplest versions retold for very little children.  Fairy tales can be profound and as inexplicable as poetry. As I discuss in the book, a story like the Grimms’ tale ‘The Juniper Tree’ deals with enormous themes – murder, jealousy and abuse as well as birth, resurrection, and joyful communion with the natural world.  It will ‘mean’ something slightly different to everyone who reads or hears it, because it elicits from each person their own emotional and spiritual response.  In fact, this story was probably rewritten by a German romantic poet, but that’s the other fascination of fairy tales.  They don’t ‘belong’ to anyone, they’re anonymous, so they adapt to the voice of whoever’s telling the story. And they’re so old!  People have been telling stories like these for centuries.

It’s such a large topic–did you try to pursue a particular line of inquiry or reflection in the book, or is it more organic? And what challenges and pleasures did you find in putting together the collection?

Many of the essays in the book began life on my blog (see below), although for this collection they were massively rewritten and extended. I did not think I had chosen any specific line of enquiry, but to my own fascination I found as I went through the rewrites that a theme was in fact emerging: that of ‘authenticity’. What does, what can that mean in terms of traditional tales?  Is the ‘earliest’ version of a Seven Miles of Steel Thistlesparticular tale ‘more authentic’ than a later one?  My conclusion was, repeatedly, that while it can be fascinating to trace the history and analogues of a tale, it renews itself on the lips of the latest storyteller.

Did any particular fairy tale or folklore scholars influence you in terms of interpretation and reflection?

There are so many wonderful fairy tale and folklore scholars, an embarrassment of riches, but I have to mention the great Katherine Briggs, whose four volume ‘Dictionary of British Folk-Tales’ is a Bible in the field, and whose other books of fairy lore I love – such as ‘The Anatomy of Puck’ and ‘The Vanishing People’. I like her insistence on the primacy of narrative.  I also love Max Lüthi’s ‘The European Folk Tale’ which so clearly illuminates the form and content of the classic European fairy tale.  Most of the interpretations and reflections in ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ are my own, however – if only because I read the stories long before I read any of the scholars.

You’ve maintained a blog with the same name as the book, over several years. It’s a wonderful title. Where does it come from, and was the blog a bit of a testing-ground for the book?

The title of both the book and the blog comes from an old Irish fairy tale, ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. In it, the hero has to ride ‘over seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea’.  I love it as a metaphor for overcoming life’s difficulties, including the sometimes endless-seeming struggle to write well.  I suppose the blog has become a testing-ground for the book, though I never expected a book to come of it. I began the blog simply as a place where I could write about the things I love – children’s literature, fantasy, fairy tales and folk-lore – and where I could talk with others who love them too.  Does it sound too fey a comparison, if I say that the blog turned into a fairy garden and the book has grown up out of it like a tree?

Do you have particular favourites in terms of fairy tales? If so, which–and why?

I do – and I’ve written about some of them in the book.  I’ve already mentioned ‘The Juniper Tree’, and I also love ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘Jorinda and Joringel’.  But the story I love best to tell aloud is the English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’, a very old version of Bluebeard with a far more intelligent and courageous heroine.

What are your favourite folkloric creatures?

My absolute favourites are the household fairies – the brownies, nisses, tomtes and domovoys which live with human beings and help (and sometimes hinder) them. I’ve written about then in several of my books for children: they’re an independent, mischievous, yet devoted race. They offer their services freely and will stay for so long as they are treated with respect and a dish of cream or oatmeal is left out for them on the hearth.  I love the way stories about them mingle Otherness with domesticity.  And I think they’re very, very old – as old as the story of Rachel in Genesis, who steals the household gods from her father Laban.

Your novels and short stories borrow from several different cultural traditions–can you tell us a little about that?

I began with Scandinavian folk-tales about trolls.  I’d been trying to write a story about a young Viking boy which involved him encountering some of the Norse gods. The story just went completely dead on me – I couldn’t find the way forward at all.  If a god befriends your character, why shouldn’t everything go smoothly for him or her? It seemed to me I was having to find complicated explanations for my hero’s predicaments. Then I began reading folk tales about trolls, and realised the book ought to be about them.  I got rid of the gods entirely as an unwanted extra supernatural level, and the book – ‘Troll Fell’ – worked much better as a fairy tale rather than a fantasy.troll fell

When I came to write the third book in the trilogy, I wanted to take my characters over the sea to ‘Vinland’ – North America – something we know Norse men, and probably Norse women too, actually did.  And there my characters would inevitably encounter Native American people, just as the Greenlanders’ Saga describes. It seemed to me legitimate to introduce Native American characters into the book: it was that or pretend North America was unpopulated, a clear impossibility. What may not have been so legitimate – yet it seemed to me important – was to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls my Norse characters cohabited with. I thought long and hard about it and spent months of research, trying my best to respect and faithfully represent the culture I described. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say. The one thing I was sure about was that there would be no ‘white saviour’ in the book.  My Norse hero owes his life to the Native American characters he meets, not the other way around.  I wrote at length about this issue in an essay called ‘Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour’, and though the discussion has moved on over the last few years, I still cautiously hold to what I said there.  Here’s the link:

http://steelthistles.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/cultural-appropriation-and-white.html

In books such as Dark Angels and the Troll trilogy you explore the worlds of what might be called ‘the hidden people’ and their interactions with humans. The idea of a ‘hidden people’ with a wide range of magical powers (from large to small) and alien intelligence but with many similarities to humans and who appear to be drawn to us–if only to exploit us at times–is part of the traditional folklore and stories of many cultures right across the world. Why do you think this is such a universal notion?

Wow, that’s a huge question… and yet maybe it’s a small one too.  Haven’t we all had the experience of laying something down and then minutes later not being able to find it?  It’s so, so frustrating: ‘It has to be there! I know perfectly well I put it there, just before the phone rang!  And now I’ve looked everywhere – and it’s gone!’  The temptation is to blame borrowers, or gremlins, which we know is a joke – but it still makes us feel better to be able to focus the frustration on some invisible, tricksy thing that’s sitting there laughing at us. Maybe it’s a human trait to imagine the universe as personal rather than impersonal. We can deal with the personal, we can understand it and negotiate with it – we humans are very good at that.  Such feelings must have been far, far stronger in the past, before science began coming up with ‘rational’ explanations for everything.dark angels

Incidentally, just where have I put my keys?

You have been a storyteller as well as a writer. How does that influence your fiction?

I began story-telling years ago when I lived in France and our children were small.  I joined a a weekly English-language story session at the Bibliotheque de Fontainebleau for children aged three years and up. It can be quite hard to keep the attention of a group of fifteen to twenty little ones when reading from a picture book: you’re facing them, and you have to keep stopping and turning the book around so they can see the pictures, and that interrupts the flow.  An inspirational friend suggested that we all tried telling stories ‘from the heart’ instead of reading aloud. I loved it. I found you could keep the children’s attention better and they make the pictures in their heads. I continued to tell stories to older groups of children for many years, and learned a lot about pacing a story, about narrative structure, and about the kinds of things children enjoyed – what got them excited, what made them laugh. So yes, I think it really did help my writing, which loosened up and at the same time became more confident. I just – love telling stories.