The ‘fear’ of the blank page is a common problem for writers. I guess perhaps less so now we can fill our screens with formatting and editing marks. But still, for some it’s an excruciating obstacle, for others a brief gulp and pause before pushing onward. It’s useful to have a coping mechanism if this is something you can relate to. I write my first draft longhand, and that’s where the blank page seems to become an in surmountable fence between me and my creativity. So I always write my ongoing word count in the margin at the top and bottom of each page, and I write dates, titles, or chapter headings as required at the top of each new page. These small scrawlings help to break up the expanse of white paper and make the page seem already ‘inhabited’, thereby solving my problem. If I’m going through a dry patch, having trouble getting down to writing, I might even make notes in pencil on the ext page for the following days work. So if you sometimes struggle, maybe give these a try and see if they work for you too. Drop me a line if they do!
The spiraea shoot had taken, Henry knew it from the little green buds, emerging here and there up the length of the cut cane and now just beginning to unfurl. This would change his life.
Five years later
Henry Jenkins stood in the dock of the court. He answered the clerk’s questions as to his name and date of birth and his abode. His voice quavered a little and he cleared his throat to continue. He had never been in a court before. He’d never been accused of anything before.
The clerk of the court told him to remain standing as everyone else took their seats. He felt overtall, naked as all eyes turned on him. His cheeks burned with shame as the judge read out the charge.
“The plaintiff, his lordship the Lord Branchley, states that you have built an independent and thriving concern upon the theft of plants from his lordship’s grounds, where you worked as an under-gardener until five years ago when you began working on your own account. How do you plead?”
Henry licked his lips. He pleated and unpleated the hem of his old tweed jacket as he stammered his response. The grandeur of the setting was overwhelming and he was finding it difficult to think straight, to take in what was being said to him. Then he had to repeat himself in order that everyone could hear him.
“Not – not guilty, your worship – um – your – um, sir.”
“Hmm.” Responded the judge somewhat doubtfully. He peered over his glasses at Henry and fixed him with a hard look. “So noted.” And he made a mark on the paper in front of him with his fountain-pen.
And so it began. Henry was permitted to take his seat and he was glad to do so, his head was swimming with nerves. At erudite length the prosecution set forth their case, that the accused had stolen plants from the eminent philanthropist Lord Branchley, and had thus set himself as a market-gardener. That he had traded on knowledge he had gained during his employment by his lordship and turned it to his advantage. There was more but these were the key points upon which their case hinged. His lordship himself was in court and stood with his attorney before the judge to outline his hurts once again and demand such full redress as the law permitted.
Henry felt as though it was all washing over him, covering his head, leaching away his confidence, his pride, everything he knew. When at last the judge declared a break for lunch, Henry was already wondering if it was too late to change his plea.
Relief filled him as he reached the cool solitude of his cell. Lunch was a pot of small beer and some bread and cheese. But Henry didn’t feel much like eating. He took a little of the cheese, and perhaps half of the beer. He thought about his case.
If he changed his plea to guilty, he would lose everything – his business, his new-found livelihood, his little home and in all probability, his family. Hetty had married him, very much against her parents’ advice, on the understanding that he was finally in a position to support a family.
But what would happen if that was no longer the case? What if he lost everything and had to return to his old room at Mrs Clark’s? Hetty would not go with him, he was certain of that, and why should she bring the two babes to live in such a crowd? No, she would go home to her mother, and if that happened he would never see her again. And with his lordship like to win the action, henry thought it was not likely he’d get a good job again even if he, by some marvel, escaped a gaol sentence.
Henry dashed away a tear with an angry hand.
At that moment, his defence attorney arrived. The man was beaming. Henry repressed an urge to punch him on the nose.
“Well, Jenkins, I feel it’s going very well, very well indeed, young sir. We’ll soon have you out of here, don’t you worry about that.” He paused, clearly waiting for Henry to thank him. On receiving nothing from him, the attorney continued with a slight frown. “Now, now, young fellow, chin up. No cause to be down in the dumps, you know.“
“They seem to have all the right with them.” Henry said. The attorney inclined his head. “I thought there would be a jury?”
“No indeed, it isn’t that kind of trial. It will be his honour who will make the judgment based on the evidence.”
“Just that one judge? We may as well give up now. I have no chance of success.”
“Well it may seem so now, but we will not give in! No, we must cling to our beliefs and hope for the best. Now once we resume after luncheon, I will have the opportunity to put your side of the story, and then we shall see, eh? What do you think to that?”
Henry said, “I think I shall go to prison. I shall never see my children again.”
The attorney frowned at him again. He chucked him on the shoulder.
“Come, come, man, there’s no need for such talk. We’ll have you back with your family in no time. Right! Now, I’m just off for a bit of lunch and I will see you in court!”
The cell seemed emptier after the attorney left, but all the same Henry was glad he was gone.
After lunch the prosecution called two witnesses, the head-gardener and another under-gardener. It was established by each that they had each seen the defendant remove plant material from the compost heap for unknown purposes and without the authorisation of the head-gardener or his lordship himself. That seemed to satisfy the prosecutor, and he resumed his seat with a grave look and pursed lips.
Henry’s defence attorney stood to pose a couple of questions. “Have you ever seen the defendant removing plants or any other items from anywhere other than the compost heap?”
The head-gardener, an aged gentleman with weak eyes, sat turning his hat round and round in his hand and avoiding Henry’s eye, and finally he said he had not.
“And can you elucidate for the officers of this court, the function of this compost heap?”
“Er, beg pardon?” The head-gardener leaned forward, looking puzzled.
“Yes, of course.” Said the defence attorney with a broad smile for the court. He turned back to the witness with a matey grin. “Er – what’s it for?”
“The compost heap? Well, it’s a kind of rubbish tip for all unwanted bits and bobs and it mulches it all down to make compost you can put back on the garden. Very good stuff it makes. Very good for roses and …”
“That is sufficient information, thank you, Mr Duffy.” Said the judge.
“Sir, sorry sir.” Said Duffy and he seemed surprised by the laughter that filled the court. The judge rapped his gavel and the amusement was silenced.
“And was it his lordship who asked you to create this compost heap?”
“Well no, not as such. His lordship leaves the day to day running of the grounds to me, and I always has a compost heap, it makes very good …”
“Quite so.” Said the defence attorney hastily. “So really the creation of a compost heap is part of your normal gardening practice, which experience has taught you is beneficial?”
“Er, yes, it has, it is, I mean. Yes.”
Again a ripple of laughter was heard but quickly died away under the judge’s frowning looks. The defence attorney gathered his papers. He directed a nod to the judge.
“No more questions, your honour.”
The prosecution attorney immediately leap to his feet and asked to put a further question.
“Is it true to say the accused has learned all his skills from the employment his lordship has granted?”
The head-gardener was struggling to fathom the sentence, his old forehead even more crinkled than usual with the effort. The prosecution attorney obligingly clarified his meaning.
“The job of under-gardener gives many opportunities to learn new skills and to gain experience?”
The head-gardener wavered. “Well it does and it doesn’t.”
The prosecution attorney hid his annoyance at the man’s density. His chance to prove the case based on this witnesses testimony would dwindle if he couldn’t get him to say the right things.
“I see. But I imagine that when Mr Jenkins left his lordship’s employ, he knew a lot more than he did when he first started?”
“It’s possible,” conceded the old man. “He had such an enquiring nature. He was always bringing in books and such and telling me all his high-falutin’ ideas about this and that. Never one to be content with doing things the way them’d always been done. Always wanting to try summat new. He fair drove me wild at times.”
Seeing that continuing with the witness was likely to actually harm his case, the prosecutor decided to take his seat with a crisp, “no further questions, your honour.”
The defence called Matthew Styles, under-gardener.
Matthew Styles took the stand, saying his oath loudly with relish and looking around smiling. He was going to enjoy this unique experience to the utmost. After a few background questions as to his age and experience and his employment, the defence attorney asked, “have you ever seen anyone else removing items from the compost heap or anywhere else?”
“Including me?” Styles asked, eagerly.
The defence attorney, a little surprised, nodded. “Yes, Mr Styles, including yourself.”
“We all ‘ave.”
“Yes, indeed. And even his lordship’s butler, he’s very fond of sweet peas, you know, so even he, when they’re there, he comes down and cops ‘em off Mr Duffy. Then there’s …”
“Excuse me, Mr Styles. I’m sorry to interrupt you. Am I correct in thinking that other servants than those who work in the gardens also avail themselves …?”
“Oh yes, Mr Stephens, now as I says, he likes his sweet peas, so at the end of the season, when they is dug out and on the heap, he comes down for the pods to get the seeds, so then he has his own sweet peas in his own garden. Won a prize, he did, last year at the village show. Very good he is with sweet peas, Mr Stephens. And then there’s Clarice. She works in the kitchen. She takes the flowers from the summer pruning for her mother’s grave. They’re not actually dead. The flowers I mean,” Styles explained to the tittering audience, provoking a further outburst with, “her mother’s dead right enough, God rest her, but the flowers is just a bit past their best, still quite nice looking.”
The judge banged his gavel six times and stunned everyone to silence. “I think we’ve heard quite enough to consider the question answered.”
The defence attorney inclined himself in a stiff bow. “Of course your honour.” He turned back to the witness. “And so, it seems acceptable and indeed common for employees to remove items from the compost heap, as it is clear that anything placed thereupon is unwanted, is that the case?”
“It is.” Styles agreed. The defence attorney resumed his seat. The prosecution attorney stood and said,
“It appears as though there is wholesale theft going on within his lordship’s premises. It almost sounds as though every servant is cheating his lordship. No questions for this witness, your honour.”
Styles was dismissed. The prosecution rested, but with an acute sense of his hands having been tied by his client and of having failed to produce sufficient evidence to enable a favourable outcome. With a lowering sense in his stomach, the prosecution heard the defence attorney call the accused to the stand.
“How long had you been employed by his lordship as an undergardener before you left to pursue your own business?”
“A little over six months, sir. I think it was about eight months.”
“Really?” The defence attorney infused his voice with surprise. “From the testimony we have heard today, I had thought it had been a much longer period than that.”
“No sir. I worked for my father from the age of fourteen until he passed away when I was twenty three.”
“And then you went to work for Lord Branchley?”
“What line of work was your father in?”
“He was a market-gardener, sir.”
“Indeed. How interesting. But one imagines that you had far greater opportunity to learn your trade in your employment at Lord Branchley’s?”
“I learned a great deal about digging, sir. And about cutting grass. That was about all Mr Duffy would allow me to do.”
“I see. And I make no doubt these skills were useful to you when you set up your own market garden?”
The judge silenced the few sniggers around the courtroom with a single look. Henry Jenkins hesitated then said, “well sir, I don’t cut grass in my market garden, you see I don’t have a lot of room for grass. But I do occasionally dig.”
“Thank you, Mr Jenkins. And what was the reason you did not continue in your father’s market garden but instead came to take a position with Lord Branchley?”
Henry bowed his head. Those in the court could see him biting his lip. The judge spoke.
“Mr Jenkins, I must urge you to answer the question.”
Henry’s head came up. “Yes sir, your – um. It was just – I hadn’t wanted to say, but it was because of his business being sold to pay for my brother’s debts. There was no money left and so I was forced to find myself a position with the family livelihood gone.”
“Thank you, Mr Jenkins, I do appreciate that this is not easy for you. And is your brother still in debt?”
“No sir.” Henry said. He looked down at the floor. Only the few people at the front of the court heard his voice as he said, “my brother was hung last year on account of killing a man in a brawl.”
The judge tsked and shook his head. He made another note on his paper. Henry felt a sense of despair but on glancing up, met sympathy in the judge’s eyes.
The defence attorney continued. “I am very sorry to hear of your troubles. We will turn away from all that. Perhaps I could ask you to explain just how you came to provide yourself with the means to set yourself up in your business?”
This was easier ground for Henry after the previous question. He relaxed a little and his voice was clear.
“Well sir, I took a few things form the compost heap, as you know. There was a few canes from his lordship’s spiraea in the shrubbery. Now, my father used to grow spiraea and the cuttings, like long canes they are, they root really easy. So I took a couple of them and I rooted them. When his lordship was in the grounds, sir, taking a bit of a look around with the head-gardener, I approached him and said to him, would he like to have more of the spiraea in the shrubbery as it was dead easy to root and it would make a nice display of pinky red flowers when it came out.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said, ‘who is the ridiculous oik, Duffy?’ And Mr Duffy, he looked daggers at me and said to his lordship as I was one of the under-gardeners. ‘Not any more’, said his lordship, ‘give him a week’s notice and get rid of the young upstart, I’ll not be so addressed in my own demesnes’. ”
“He sacked you?”
“He sacked me, sir, yes.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then his lordship, he turned to Mr Duffy, and asked him what I was on about. So Mr Duffy showed him the spiraea and said as I was suggesting having more of them.”
“And did his lordship comment at all on this?”
“He said, ‘I hate the bloody things,’ begging your pardon but that is the very words his lordship used. ‘Rip them all out. Can’t stand them. Get rid of them all.’ That’s what he said.”
“So now, you found yourself out of work and you had the spiraea canes. What happened next?”
“Well sir, I had me week’s notice to work. And there were a lot of nice bits on the compost heap. Strawberry creepers and whatnot. I came away with no reference but with a tidy sum of little plants and cuttings and things. And I was walking out with Hetty Miller, maid from the Dower House. But I couldn’t marry as I didn’t have no job. But Hetty she says, you can sell them when they’re rooted up. She said I could earn enough to rent a nice little cottage, that way I could start my market garden up gradual. So that’s what I done. And then me and Hetty got married, and now there’s the two babes too.” At this point Henry turned to the judge, “Sir, begging your pardon, but if I goes to prison I will never see Hetty nor my children again as her mother took against me. My Hetty means everything to me. If I’d have known how his lordship felt, I’d have willingly paid for the stuff I took, but I thought it would be all right because all of us was doing it and in any case his lordship said to get rid of them.”
There was a half-formed protest from the prosecution, but the judge waved it away with a weary hand.
“Mr Jenkins, what would you say the original items you took were worth? If one had to purchase them from a market garden, for example.”
“You don’t buy things like that, sir, your worship, they are just …”
“Just thrown away on a compost heap? Quite so. Very well, you may stand down.”
The judge made some more notes. He sat back and addressed the court.
“I have made my decision. The defendant will rise.”
Henry stood, trembling, to hear the words that would decide his future.
“I find in favour of the plaintiff. I order that the defendant shall pay damages in the amount of one penny for the – er – spiraea – and the same amount for the strawberry creepers.”
For a moment Henry couldn’t understand what was happening. The prosecution attorney and his client Lord Branchley were outraged and already demanding that his honour should review the evidence. The defence attorney was pumping Henry’s arm up and down and slapping him on the shoulder.
“A triumph, my boy, a triumph!”
The judge, ignoring the commotion, said to Henry, “you are to be commended for your ingenuity and your skilful grasp of your own trade. The court commiserates with you over the difficulties that have beset you in the past, and hopes that your market garden will continue to thrive. And if you will leave your particulars with my clerk, I believe my good lady will be interested in what you have in the line of roses, as she is contemplating some improvements to our grounds at home. Court is adjourned.”
The judge stood and left the court, his gown billowing.
Henry turned to look across the courtroom. There was Hetty, making her way towards him, dashing away tears and smiling.
“We won!” He said. He still couldn’t believe it. She laughed.
Philip Larkin once said “I think we got much better poetry when it was all regarded as sinful and subversive, and you had to hide it under a cushion when someone came in.”
Is it easier to read or write poetry in secret? Is it just that with no one looking over your shoulder or asking if you’ve written the next stanza yet, or pointing out that your poem doesn’t rhyme, it’s easier to be free and expressive? if so, then following on from my remarks a few days ago, it’s easier for all writers to write ‘in secret’, behind closed doors or in my case, in the middle of the night when everyone else has been in bed for hours.
I have not ventured far into the forest of poetry. I once stood under the first tree and ‘had a go’. It was not a good outcome for either me or the world of poetry. I don’t mind admitting this is not my genre. but occasionally, very occasionally prose will not cut it, usually when I am in a terrible rage (“she’s in one of her black moods again”) and IN SECRET I write a poem. The first line of one went like this:
B*gger B*gger Sh@t F?ck.
I was pleased with it – it said what I was feeling, did what I wanted it to do, which was to make me feel better. Sorry to all the real poets out there. It’s a bit of a mysterious world, this poetry-writing thing.
I’ve often asked myself why. Why do I do this? Why do you do this? Why do we spend hours every day – or most days – engaging with the blank screen or blank page and labouring to produce words – words with meaning, emotion, information? Words.
And why words? Why not knit, draw, bake, garden, make model planes, breed dogs, or even just do a nine to five Monday to Friday job with a salary you KNOW is going into the bank on a set date, then go home each day and barbecue some steaks or sit in front of the TV or go to a nice restaurant with your family?
I used to think it was just because I was screwed up. Or because I was an only child and not used to company or because I had to make my own entertainment, or because putting my thought-words into actual vocalised words was hard. Part of me still thinks this might be true. Even though I have a family, I’m still a very solitary person. I don’t mean to be, I don’t even like to be alone that much, but it’s a kind of a habit, I’m used to it.
But that isn’t the whole reason. And I suspect (haven’t actually checked!) that there are a number of sociable writers out there from large, boisterous families, writers who enjoy engaging with others. So why do they write?
When asked why as a mother of a growing family, she had stopped writing, Winifred Watson, author of the wonderful ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’, said “you can’t write if you’re never alone.” Watson was a hugely popular author in the 1930s and very successful, but now she is almost unknown. If she wrote purely for personal fulfilment, then once she was married and raising a family, I can understand that the need to write may have gone, or been satisfied in domesticity. But for myself and for many writers, I still don’t think this is the whole story.
There is something about creating another world, something about purging myself of all those words that need to be put onto paper. But it’s not just about escaping reality, not just about unburdening oneself. Yes, it is often – but not always – a compulsion. There is an urge to create in an abstract way sometimes, a need to make something with your mind, your hands and then be able to step back and think, ‘yes, I did that’.
There is also a desire to communicate with others. Often as writers we wonder if other people – our readers – will see and understand the message we are seeking to bring to them, and if they will see it in the same way that we see it. Often they do not, and they find something new in our words. Literary Criticism shows that reading is an active process as is perception, and that there are many ‘truths’ hidden in a text.
One well-known writer whose name escapes me at the moment said, when asked why she wrote, said that the question should really be, “why doesn’t everyone?”
The jury is still out on this question. I think it may be one of those how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type questions. So I will close with a quote from a book that has been the most influential on my writing career: Dorothea Brande, whose book ‘Becoming A Writer’ was published in 1924, said this: “A Writer writes”.
I’m thrilled to announce that Criss Cross is now available in a variety of formats, including ebook for Nook, Kobo, PDF for PCs, ePub for mobiles etc and now also as a PAPERBACK book from Amazon! Yes an ACTUAL book!