The Writing Place – Rudyard Kipling

I write, you know. Mostly at my desk, often in my head and occasionally out and about. I scribble ideas in notebooks and on my phone and at night I rehearse ideas to commit them to memory. I use lined paper, plain paper, scrap paper and the screen to record plans and research notes, to make drafts and sweat through rewrites and edits. My writing discipline is improving; time then for a new blog series.

I visited a number of places in the past year which were directly associated with famous authors. It really got me thinking. I like my writing space to make sense in my head, though I doubt it comes over as organised to others. I am not comfortable in a noisy space. What about other people though? How much room do you really need to write? What conditions are conducive to penning a good book?

Where do other writers write? 

Towards the end of last year as the light faded into half-days, I found myself at the desk of Rudyard Kipling. If you are interested in seeing it for yourself, Bateman’s now belongs to the National Trust and can be found in East Sussex. Kipling lived there from 1902 until his death in 1936. The grand Jacobean house, set in beautiful gardens was the result of a very healthy income from his writing; a situation most writers today would find unimaginable.

This is his desk, in his rather lovely office:

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The walls are lined with shelves and shelves of books, and the table holds pens, ink, newspapers, books, letters, an hour-glass, sealing equipment and his tiny spectacles. In the waste-paper basket are half a dozen discarded novellas by the looks of it. A globe, rugs, fine furniture and windows on two sides make the room look studious and practical and elegant. I like this room. It has the perfect writing atmosphere of diligence and expectancy. The creative space would be a dream for many writers; I’d love it too, as long as my dodgy copperplate could be brought up to scratch. I wouldn’t need the ash-tray and I’m not that impressed with the ivory elements, but the ambience is wonderful.

Kipling owned terriers, and I imagine him leaning back in his chair at the end of a good paragraph, inhaling a puff of something stale and woody and giving the little black pup sleeping by his desk a playful scratch. He loved his dogs, and wrote a book during his time at Bateman’s called Thy Servant a Dog which was published in 1930 from the point of view of ‘Boots’. I bought an early edition on my visit and was struck at how the dog’s language was just as witty and dog-like as many memes circulating the internet today.

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Outside it was wet and wintry, but we still found time to see a little of the gardens. My son Joe was not impressed with the brassica beds. Perhaps I ought to revisit at a sunnier time of the year. He’s not really a sprout fan.

Visiting Rudyard Kipling’s home and seeing one of his writing spaces was fascinating for me, and I found out lots more about the man and his work. For example:

  • The author’s full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling; he was known as Ruddy or Rud most of his life. (Rudyard is the name of a lake near Leek in Staffordshire, which was a special place for his parents.)
  • Rudyard was born in India at the end of 1865. As a young child he had Indian servants and was spoilt and difficult to control, but he did learn Hindustani.
  • At five and a half, Rudyard and his younger sister were packed off to England to live with foster carers.
  • He took a job in journalism in Lahore (then in India) when he left school.
  • He was short and full of energy and often worked very long hours.
  • Kipling became a freemason in Lahore.
  • His works were first published in India and by 1891 he was a household name in England and America.
  • Rudyard married American Caroline Balestier in 1892. They lived in Vermont for a while and had three children: Josephine, who died in 1899, Elsie and a son John who was killed in WW1.
  • Kipling was extremely well-travelled in his life, visiting Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bermuda, Rhodesia, France, Sweden, Egypt, Brazil and the West Indies.
  • Among various other accolades, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.
  • He worked hard to help the British in the Boer War and visited South Africa a number of times;
  • Kipling owned a 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom I, which can be seen at Bateman’s.
  • His long friendship with Lord Baden-Powell led to his Jungle Book characters’ names being used in the Cub Scouts;
  • Jungle Book was made into a cartoon by Disney in 1967 and a live action adaptation in 2016, but not many people know that Kipling wrote a sequel, The Second Jungle Book.
  • Kipling was overlooked for the role of Poet Laureate in 1913, perhaps because of his independent views and reluctance to write to order.

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Rudyard Kipling was certainly a fascinating man, and a very popular writer. His writing space had many of its own stories to tell. I’m not likely ever to get my own Nobel Prize certificate adorning the walls of my home, but seeing around Kipling’s was exceedingly satisfying.

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Umpteen

Tdragons cursehe children asked what ‘umpteenth’ meant. They asked because the word appeared in How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, page 118.

I told them about how it doesn’t mean a particular number, just rather a large one. Rather like a gazillion. I told them that Umpteen is made up (and therefore a lot more useful than many real numbers). I played to my strengths and looked up the history of umpteenth and we learned that the original word was umpty, which probably came from the word used for dash in Morse Code (the dot was iddy; these may have been derived from the sounds the clicks make).

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I couldn’t help thinking about how convenient it is to be able to refer to large numbers abstractly. Today is my umpteenth birthday, for example. Or, if I wanted to refer to it in ancient Israelite terms for ‘large unspecified number’ I could have told you I am 40 today. You may even want to believe that. Both can be true. (If you want to know more about indefinite and fictitious numbers Wikipedia is a good place to start).

I study the Old Testament and found umpteen references to the number forty. A lot of people take these to mean literally forty, but I don’t. Forty is just a convenient large number. For really large numbers, a thousand could be used, and for small indefinite periods of time three was just as convenient.

40So we’ve got the usual suspects: Moses on Sinai for 40 days and nights, the 40 years in the wilderness, peace in the land for 40 year intervals, various 40 year reigns (David, Solomon, Joash) and there are quite a few others. It is all just too convenient for me. I’m much happier with the New Testament accounts of Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the desert and the 40 days from the resurrection until the ascension because they are written in a different context (although I’m happy to be shown to be wrong on these too).

Where the biblical writers didn’t know the numbers, they put in forty to mean ‘an unspecified long period of time’. They could have put ‘umpteen’, but there is no word for that in ancient Hebrew.

So next time you have a birthday and you aren’t inclined to reveal your age, you could just say you are ‘umpty’. Especially if you have good balance.

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The view from up here isn’t too bad, actually

 

Blooming Rhubarb

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I love rhubarb. The plants are deliciously odd in their shape and size in the garden, glorious in colour and just sour enough to make the perfect crumble. You can force rhubarb and grow it in the dark and the leaves have enough sass oxalic acid to be poisonous. The stalks are fine for human consumption, of course.

When we moved to our home in Cambridgeshire nearly three years ago we inherited one in the garden which has quietly got on with its job rhubarbing very efficiently. I love it when we harvest some of the stalks and my husband makes a rhubarb clafoutis (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe here). I am always impressed at how quickly rhubarb leaves grow, stretching out over their territory like umbrellas, greedy to catch the light and protect the family.

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Rhubarb has many health benefits too. As this diagram indicates, the fibre eases digestion, Vitamin K helps strengthens bones, it can help stave off brain disorders, fight free radical damage, relieve constipation and diarrhoea and it even acts to inhibit inflammation (click on image for larger view). Regardless of the details, sometimes I just crave rhubarb and my body seems to understand why. Marvellous.

Now, I am not a natural gardener. I do enjoy taking plants out (if I know which ones, and for the right reasons) and putting plants in (because often that involves shopping and creativity). I have also learned a certain amount about pruning, mowing and trimming, but Latin names escape me and remembering whether something is perennial, annual, about to do something interesting or already dead can throw me. I don’t mind too much; gardening is an ongoing process and half the fun is in the surprises.

Our rhubarb surprised us this year. It flowered.

So we cut the flower off.

It flowered again.

This time we googled it, cut the flowers off and put them in a bottle, to enjoy:

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Why did the rhubarb flower? According to the experts, rhubarbs can flower when they are stressed. Allowing the plant to go to seed means that much of its energy is then taken up with reproduction instead of growing stalks. So the accepted wisdom is to cut off the flower and allow the plant to produce a better harvest.

Sometimes I feel a lot like a rhubarb. Somewhat leggy, crazy and colourful, with a side helping of sass acid. I do my best to seek the light, protect and be a good influence for others and serve them well. I also have my limits. When I am under the most stress, I also flower. The bitterness is replaced by an urge to create.

Maybe you know this feeling too?

I am setting myself a hefty writing target this term, and have decided that I will blog here when I can, but not to do it when I need to flower in my writing elsewhere. I will still put up the occasional 500 words, sometimes even on Fridays.

Now is the time to flower.

Friday 500 – I drew a line

Today I drew lines.

I drew up a list of jobs and hoped to cross out many of the tasks with lines. In biro perhaps. Call the boy’s nurse. Get the guinea pig outdoors. Bring in the neighbours’ bins. Find props for a youth group session. Plan the weekend science festival activities. Decorate. Do the washing. Make sure the children get to two locations in the right colour non-uniform attire with their noses, jokes, water bottles, reading books and brains in gear. Make sense of numerous tasks for the coming weeks and upcoming trips. Take a delivery between 12:17 and 13:17. Choose not to be as obsessed with timings as the rest of the world. Be spiritually present and engaged. Listen to others and encourage them. Be kind.

In the car as we set off a little late for school I drew up to a line of standing traffic at the end of our street and wished I had insisted on scooting to school. The children had started the day tired and Fridayed out. My boy needed to be at a different site from usual and I wanted to be back to start painting. I had thought driving would be clever.

We shuffled along the line. My girl did not panic as much as she usually does when she’s delayed. I chalked that up as a success. We took a short cut through back streets; a different line from A to B. My girl is reliable enough to get out of the car at a junction and walk herself halfway to school (she arrived on time). My boy and I parked up and raced on foot to his infant school site (he arrived on time too). I got back home well after nine and decided No More Driving When In A Hurry. Felt like a parenting Rubicon had been crossed: a line drawn in the sand, if you like.

I drew a blank while trying to call the boy’s nurse. She’d left a message with the wrong number to call her back. I’ll have to find it another day.

montacute meadowMy husband and I painted the study. I was cutting in, drawing lines smoothly at the edges, poking brushes around radiators, wiping drips, finding the space redefined as the lines became walls and walls became a new room. The room took on a new weight: dark away from the window for a new reading nook, light at the front where I can work at my desk. We chose Montacute Meadow. The colour makes me happy. I don’t know why certain colours do that, but I have decided it is good to choose colours that make you happy. The room needs at least one more coat, but you can already see what it will be like now and it is good. I was glad we had already painted the ceiling a few days ago and done lots of preparation work; today my husband opted to take a morning off to make good progress. It was very good spending time together painting. It is also the first room that we have worked on in this house, so we have crossed a line there, taking real ownership of how we want the space to look. We finished in time for some fish and chips. I drew the line at my husband cycling there in his painting gear as his trousers were more ripped than he had realised.

My delivery arrived in the allotted time, and I squiggled some kind of line on the device. I am not certain what this proved.

In the afternoon I crossed out more of my tasks as I completed them and then took the children’s scooters and walked to both their schools to collect them. I stood in a line of parents and grandparents while my boy took his time finding his wellies, his bag, his wobbly junk modelling, his fruit boat craft, his cap, his unnamed hoody, his unnecessary coat. Then he needed to buy a bun at the cake sale (the lines were long), choose another one for his sister (she didn’t want it when we offered it) and took his time trying to get all his gear on to his scooter. He thought carrying it all would be clever. It didn’t work.

We wobbled down the street and were last in line to collect my girl. Her school had a cake sale too. She did not like the lines, and decided not to buy one. It upset her and she hid. We handed in her money for charity anyway and I took her to a shop and she chose some unhealthy things to eat to make it better. The lines in the shop were quite long too. We bumped into our minister and his wife, with armsful of unhealthy snacks. I made excuses. They smiled and told me I was not a bad mum.

The children have decided to have a sleepover in the boy’s room. They are camped in sleeping bags, squeezed in at funny angles with his lamps on and her radio playing. I love the fact that they get on, but I doubt they will both last the night in there.

I did not cross out all the tasks on my list. I did not even keep to my official 500 words. But I made progress and good things happened. So that makes a successful day.

 

 

International Poetry Day

I felt compelled today to edit and republish a poem I first put out three years ago on my personal blog jamandgiraffes, in honour of International Poetry Day and because Easter is coming. Spring is now here and while flowers smell of hope and joy, Easter tells a more humbling story and I had been looking back at the gospels and wondering what it all smelt like. Feel free to use this, although if you do, please do credit me.

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Smelly Week

It all started when the jar of nard parted
Jarred, barred, open-hearted, broken-hearted,
What a strange smell, filling the house from roof to foot,
Smell of treasure, smell of death (tarted up).

Then branches waving in the king, palms up, palms down
Crunching under simple hooves, hay, swaying fresh and fuzzy.

Smelly feet, incomplete, bread and the vineyard and olives and torches –
Feast or final meal, more blood, more fire and the plaintive crow crow crowing.

Unknowing. Smell of fear, of sweat, of thorns and wood,
Smell of your trade, made rough, tough nails rusty, musty dust.
Smell of pain, again, again, again, sweat, blood, vinegar and hyssop.
Hyssop? Cleanse me too – blood rolling like tears, metallic, organic to the ground.

Bound, in myrrh, in aloe, from head to toe, so so dead. No!

No.

And then you said ‘why are you crying?’

And my world of tears and mud and blood split open and I breathed a different air. It smelt of life.

And it smelt good.

Mrs Zebedee’s Fish Stall

Today I was really excited to see my name in print in the Association of Christian Writers’ magazine, with my winning story from a competition last year. Now that it is in print, here it is in full for readers who won’t have accessed it through the ACW magazine.

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“Fish!” muttered Mrs Zebedee, wiping her hands on her apron. “Don’t talk to me about fish!” she hissed, shaking her head and slopping the big white box on to a table. She grabbed her knife and glared at her boys. “It’s practically mid-morning; how am I supposed to sell these now?”

She sliced her anger through the fish-heads. Chop, slide, chop.

“John, get that other knife, I can’t do all this,” she ordered, “it’s full and you’ve not put enough ice on. Have you forgotten how to fish, boys?”

Her sons looked at each other. Big men in their late twenties, broad and bronzed, their tiny mother could silence them with a face like a burnt thundercloud. She got stuck in to the gutting, wincing as she cut.

“The chefs have been round. The early customers have gone elsewhere. Even the cats have given up waiting. Why didn’t you call?”

“I’m sorry mother. We didn’t mean to be this late,” John said, strapping on his own apron.

“It was an awful night,” added James. “Not a thing before dawn. I’m getting back to the van. You tell her.”

Mrs Zebedee looked up. Her eyes were red with fatigue and confusion. She had returned reluctantly to her old job, summoning her sons back from the capital to work on the night fishing boats when no one else would. John and James had arrived in town the previous night and got straight on the trawler with Thomas and Pete and a few of the others. John could see her frustrations. He smiled.

“Come here, mother,” said the big man, opening his wide arms and ignoring the fish guts and eyes as he pulled her close. “We had to stop. We’d had an exhausting night. And – well, have you eaten? I saved you a bit of breakfast-”

She pulled away, tightened her eyes and glared at him again.

“Jonathan Theodore Zebedee – are you telling me that you deliberately delayed getting here with my catch?”

“Mother, listen,” he replied, his eyes still grinning, digging in his pocket for a crusty roll with a barbecued fillet inside. “It was him.”

Mrs Zebedee stared at the roll in John’s weathered hand and remembered another one just like it. On a grassy hill. In a large crowd. Not too far away, a year or two before; everyone had had one. They’d said the same thing that day too: ‘It was him!

James swung round the corner with another large case of fish and plonked it next to the first. John slapped his back.

“I told you we saw him last week in the city. And the week before. We’re not making this up. Ask James. Even ask Tom – he wouldn’t joke about this.”

Mrs Zebedee took a cautious bite. The bread was soft inside, and something in her wanted to harden, but she kept listening and James headed back to the van again.

“I didn’t believe you the first time John, because I was there. I saw him when he…” and she turned her head away and wiped her face with her sleeve.

“I was there too,” said John gently. “I was there – I saw him die. I saw the blood and the water come from his body.” He picked up a cloth and wiped the table. “But I also saw him since then. You have to believe me. Who else makes breakfast like this? And where do you think all these fish came from?”

“Three boxes?”

“Three? No, more than that! Come and see!” he said, and led her round to the van. She blinked. It was absolutely full of large, white boxes. For once, Mrs Zebedee was lost for words.

“We’ve never caught that much before in one night,” John said, leaning against the wall and rubbing his hands. “And all at the last minute too; it was bizarre. We were on the boat, the sky was glowing red, we were cold, tired and hungry. We’d caught nothing. Mother, I felt I’d forgotten the one thing I know how to do well.”

He straightened up.

“Then there was this voice from the shore, and we saw a man crouching, then standing up, waving over to us. He shouted to keep going and to try fishing from the wrong side of the boat. In the shallows. You know what Pete’s like, he got straight on it. When the nets hit the water – wow – the boat just rocked with the weight of fish; I thought we’d tip over! Some of us jumped out and we gripped the ropes and pulled so hard. It was crazy, there was no way we could lift the nets up into the boat, they were so full.”

John grinned and his mother softened. He touched her arm as James carried another box past them.

“I looked at the man on the shore and he started laughing at us! That’s when I realised it was him. That laugh…you know what I mean.”

Mrs Zebedee knew that laugh. She took another bite of the flaky, charred fish.

“Pete didn’t hang around. He just jumped out and waded over there. He forgot the rest of us still had to tow the boat and the net. The fish were wriggling and jumping and kicking about. Took forever; look, my hands are raw! But they did wade in and help after they’d finished laughing at us. And even though we’d got such a large catch, he’d already caught a few himself and prepared us breakfast. Best breakfast ever. It’s good, isn’t it?”

Mrs Zebedee wiped her mouth.

“Yes,” she admitted. “It is good. But boys, what are we going to do with all these fish? We’ll be giving these away at this rate.”

Friday 500 – Who We Are

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I’ve been trying to find out who I am. It is now a year since my granny died, and three months since my grandpa followed. Numb now to the grief and keen to heal harms I want to listen to the past in a new way.

I want to know more about where I came from. 

The deaths of my last two grandparents extends the narrative of those who can no longer answer questions about the past directly, but there are still records to be found, names to discover and places to visit. The paraphernalia that filled their garage, desks and cupboards now partly fills mine. Thousands of photos documenting dozens of people (many we do not recognise). Letters, patents and diaries. Recipes from many years ago, along with remedies and reminders. Music written by my great-great-grandfather. Music rolls chosen by my great-grandfather and played on a special piano. Boxes of school memorabilia going back over seventy years. Books with curious inscriptions and addresses. Notebooks over a hundred years old in Victorian handwriting. Coins from around the world. Locks of hair, packed in tiny boxes. Posters from the family cinema and meticulous listings of every film they ever showed.

My family really did not like to throw things away.

I have space here and because I am curious I have gathered many of these things to examine and make some sense of. I now I have a heightened sense of curiosity about my past. What do those of us still alive share with those that went before?

Maybe it is because I want to belong or to find reasons for the unreasonable and the irrational. Now only my great-uncle remains from his generation. Time is slipping for finding answers for my many questions.

I like to work in bursts, and so I used a lot of a weekend recently when family records were available to me for free to look into several lines on my mum’s side of the family. It is only a beginning, but I was astonished at how much I could find quickly.

My granny never knew her father. We have one photo and a name, and not a lot more. However, it is possible to begin to piece the evidence together and we are learning a little about where she came from.

I looked my granny’s maternal line and found that there were records on her mother, whose first husband was killed in World War 2 and whose second husband was a surgeon, originally from India. There is plenty about her (estranged?) grandfather and his work around the world as an electrical and mechanical engineer. There is a little on her grandmother and her many siblings, including a brother killed in the Somme.

My grandpa’s paternal line is composed of Cornish musicians, and possibly a line of bankers. Some of the stories resonate; some seem very remote.

Perhaps I will dig deeper and write about these discoveries. If I’m curious, I probably won’t be the only one.