What’s in a Name?

Pensive me 2

Malgosia 

We all know that a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet”. It is, after all, a flower and you can’t change its appearance, or its scent by giving it a different name. Call the same blossom bogstink, however, and our perception of the flower might change.

Names are powerful. They carry with them a resonance and depth of meaning that work on many levels, some buried so deeply in the sub-conscious that we are not even aware of them.

This is why a great deal of time and money is spent trying to find the right name for a new product. The right name will spark a desire to own, or eat, or drink whatever it is that is on sale. A Jaguar, with its connotation of speed and glamour is for more desirable, than the now defunct Datsun Cherry.

It is also why finding your characters matters. Find the right one and so much can be implied, age, status, gender. No reader will empathise with Cruella de Ville, or Draco Malfoy, while Harry Potter is Every Boy, as opposed to Every Man.

House of ShadowsSometimes, as with Jo Docherty, in “House of Shadows” name and character simultaneously at once. It is almost as if I had already known her from somewhere in my past. I could see and hear her, I know all about her family and how and she ended up living with her grandparents.

I also knew exactly what Ann, the girl in the blue dress, looked like. It took me a time to find the portrait of her, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, but it was there in the museum Art Gallery, just as I had remembered.

Names play an important part in “Shadows on the Grass”. Cover 1The Dzierzanowski’s Polish surname sets them apart from post-war British society, in which they have to find their place.

The father, Gregor, suffers the indignity of having his name Anglicised at   work, because his work mates cannot cope with an unfamiliar juxtaposition of consonants.

Today, in a much more multi-cultural world, we make an effort to get our tongues around other people’s languages. When I was growing up, however, it was an accepted fact that no one would try.

The little girl in the picture was Christened, Malgorzata, Anna, Maria Chmielinska. Her first language was Polish and her parents, who did not have much money, sent her to a private nursery school when she was three years old, to make sure that she would be fluent in English, before she started full-time education at five.

Once at La Retraite, the nuns decided that my surname was impossible, my first name even worse and I became Margaret Anne.

Unless this has happened to you, it is difficult to understand what a huge impact this forcible re-naming can have.

For decades afterwards I struggled with this other persona. This English girl who wasn’t me.

What was worse, was that I wasn’t Polish either. At that time Poland was behind the Iron Curtain and was impossible to visit. Even communication with the rest of the family was difficult and possibly dangerous for them. I didn’t see any of my relatives who lived in Poland, until I was seventeen. By which time the political situation had changed and travel between the Eastern Bloc countries and the west was easier, though still not without its difficulties.

I still have vivid memories of the stone-faced East German guards going through our papers on the train and the way in which our possessions were searched on the way out Poland, in case we were smuggling any forbidden currency.

My sister, Anuk Naumann, she too has a story behind her name, but that is for another time, are both known not by the names we were given at birth, but by ones we either found, or grew into.

I suspect this search for identity is crucial to the way we see the world and to our art. Being uncertain of your own story is surely the greatest spur to constructing a narrative, where you, as the writer, or the artist, are more or less in control.

 

Advertisements

Memories: True, or False

.

Cover 1“Shadows on the Grass” is partly a novel about memory. About what is remembered and what is forgotten, what matters, when it is recalled, and what does not.

At the present moment, this is a topic very much to the forefront of the news and, while I do not intend to comment on current events, it is interesting to speculate how many of our memories are what we actually remember and how many are triggered by something else.

One of my most vivid “memories” is of a bright summer day, playing in the meadow on  the hill above our house and being caught by my dad to have a photo taken.

Me aged 2Looking back, I would ask whether I truly remember this, or is it the photograph and the story I was told that sparks this “recollection.” What is even more interesting, is that when I was looking for the picture I had in mind, I could not find it in my album, so have posted this one, which I think is from the same day, in its place.

Mike would say the same about one of his earliest memories. When he was a very little boy, he’s not sure exactly how old he was, but it was certainly under three, his family lived in Kenya. His father was an officer in the King’s African Rifles and it was a time of great unrest. White settlers and their homes were often under attack and as part of their security, Mike’s family had some Rhodesian RidgebackRhodesian Ridgeback dogs and a python that slept curled up on the veranda.

He remembers sleeping on top of this snake. Apparently the reptile had been fed and it was perfectly safe to let a toddler nap on its coils.

Was this true? Although he “remembers” doing so, he suspects that it was a story that he had been told as a child and which had been embellished over the years.

This is always the problem with our pasts. Or memories make us who we are, how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to other people. Because we always want to put out the most attractive, or sympathetic view of ourselves, we edit what we want to present and as we tell our stories, we make them more significant and dramatic with each telling.

To lose one’s memories is to lose one’s identity, which  must be one of the most harrowing things that can happen to a human being.

None of my characters in “Shadows on the Grass” suffer this fate, although there a number of family secrets that are kept well hidden and only revealed at the end of the book.

 

Who Do You Think You Are

Mum in VeniceDad
Growing up in Bristol in the sixties, I was always conscious of being different. First of all there was my name. Malgorzata Anna Maria Chmielinksa, Polish and unprounceable once I went to school it was decided that I was to be Margaret, the closest equivalent in English.

I never felt like a Margaret and what was worse the nuns refused to even attempt my surname, so to distinguish me from the other Margarets in the class, I become known as Margaret Anne.

Stripped of my name, I soon realized that unlike the other girls, I had not extended family in the city, or even in the country. There were Mum and Dad, my sister, Anuk, and much younger brother, Peter and me. My grandmother died when I was twelve and apart from one uncle and aunt, the rest of my relatives lived in Poland.

Poland at that time was behind the Iron Curtain, part of the Soviet Bloc that was impossible to visit.

To add to the mix, the language we spoke at home was Polish as were the customs and expectations in the family. There was a great respect for education. It was taken for granted that we three children would all go to university, which we duly did.

Christmas was celebrated on Christmas Eve, with the traditional fish based food and presents under the tree, though unlike my mother, when she was young, we did not have to eat in silence, waiting for the moment when we would be allowed to go into the next room to see what Santa Claus had left for us.

My parents had come to England after the war. Both had been in the British Army and since their stories were not the sort you would tell young children, it took many years before we had even an inkling of how they arrived in this country.

Mum would talk, if asked. Dad never did and to this day I still don’t know how he escaped from Warsaw when the Nazis invaded in 1939. The only story he ever told us, was that when he was in the 8th Army, he met his brother in the street in Edinburgh. Neither of them had known that the other had left Poland.

With this background it is perhaps not surprising that I became a writer, or that later on in my life, I began to research the history, if not of my family, but that of my the country they came from.

“Shadows on the Grass” is the result of this research. The novel is not my family history. There are things in it that happened to family members, but the details have been changed and the characters and how they react are my own invention. I am not related in any way, shape, or form to a Russian princess and much as I would like to say I did, my teenage years were far from rebellious.

What my background did give me was the sense of being an outsider, someone who stands apart, watching, listening and analysing, all useful habits for a writer.

 

Will be publisheCover 1d as an e book on January 11th 2018

The Pleasure of Small Things

 

Acer in pot

I’m in the middle of a big project. My new novel “Shadows on the Grass” is going through its final edit and I’m writing a spin off story about some of the characters, who make a brief appearance in the book.

The story is only in first draft and though I’m enjoying writing it, there is also the sensation that nothing is finished, which is quite frustrating. It’s as if, in spite of all the hours I’ve spent on my computer, nothing has been achieved.

Frustration leads of a feeling of pointlessness and my way of dealing with this is to concentrate on the small things in life that give me pleasure.

White geraniumThe white geranium, on the bathroom, windowsill, that has blossomed unexpectedly, the show of periwinkleperiwinkle

 

that shines against the dark green of its leaves, a hot cup of tea, kicking through fallen leaves, the burst of colour from an acer, a glass of wine and so much more.

Writing down five good things that have happened during the day helps too. My “Good Things Book” is another of my pleasures.Feel good book A Laura Ashley Notebook, I love the texture of the paper, the print and feel of the colour.

Even writing about my small pleasures makes me smile. “Shadows on the Grass” is on its way, but while I’m waiting, I’ll keep noting down all the good stuff.

Why Wedding Dresses?

Wedding Koi SamuiIn my previous blogs, I’ve talked about how what my characters wear is a vital to the way I portray them. The clothes are determined by the people, not the other way around, but, sometimes, my stories begin with the clothes themselves.

This train of thought was set off by the publication of my short story “Something Old, Something New,” in Authors Electric Anthology, “One More Flash in the Pen.” The story is set in a shop that sells wedding dresses and it occurred to me that the wedding dress is a recurring image in my work.

It is the trigger for that particular story, it appears again in “Shadows on the Grass,” my current WIP and in “Number Three Belvedere Terrace” the novel, whose first draft is awaiting attention on my hard drive.

There is something very powerful in the idea of a dress, which has to be so special and yet will be worn only once. The style of the dress is very specific, overtaking cultural and traditional norms,Wedding in Kerela

so that on holiday in Vietnam and Thailand we have seen brides dressed in a big white dress. WEdding in Hian

This concept is relatively new. Throughout history, brides wore their best for their wedding, but the dress would go on to be worn on other occasions.

The white wedding, as we know it, began when the young Queen Victoria married Prince Albert and wore a white dress. At first, it was merely a fashionable colour, then it appears to have taken on a symbolic significance, white being seen as the colour of virginity.

I remember, in the fifties, when a girl at our church “had to get married” ie was pregnant, her mother refused to let her wear the traditional white dress and she had to be married in pink. Exactly what this was supposed to say to the congregation I am not sure. It also seemed rather cruel to be pointing out that this was a girl who had obviously sinned.

This symbolism was so deeply engrained in my consciousness that for years I found it difficult when mothers with children walked down the aisle in white. Nowadays, however, the link between the white dress and purity has long gone and anyone can dress in white for their wedding. Whether they should spend so much money on a dress that will have only one outing is another issue.

My daughter Posy Miller used to say that the big white wedding, plus of course the expensive dress, was the one opportunity for many girls to be the centre of attention for the whole of one special day. It wasn’t the dress itself, but the occasion that mattered and that any girl who didn’t get married should still have a “wedding” celebration, where she could be “Queen for the Day.” In her opinion there would be fewer divorces too, as so often the wedding, rather than the marriage, is the aim.

“Reader I married him.” Is, of course, where many romantic novels end, because the depiction of the marriage, although there is, to be fair, a hint of that in “Jane Eyre,” is far more mundane and fraught with difficulties.

Besides, do we really want to know what Elizabeth and Darcy said to each other over the breakfast table? Whether he snores, or she picks her nose?

Enough that our heroine walks down the aisle in a fluff of white. A bouquet of flowers in her hand and her future as misty as her view of the world through her veil.

 

Food for Thought: Tea at The Grand

Tea at Avon Gorge

On Saturday, I joined my mum, my daughter, my sister, niece and sister-in-law for afternoon tea at the Avon Gorge Hotel in Bristol. We were there to celebrate two big family birthdays, but one of the reasons I chose that hotel from all the others in Bristol is that the Avon Gorge is the model for The Grand in “Picking up the Pieces.”

Being brought up in Bristol and going to school just down the road, this hotel had always intrigued me. Clinging to the side of the Gorge it looks out on the Suspension Bridge and the river far below. I imagined it as a romantic place and conjured up an Art Deco Interior with a large Victorian conservatory, where my characters would meet and Elsa would break the devastating news that sets off the action of the novel.

In real life, however, it was very different. There was no glass Palm Court with a small orchestra playing tunes from the shows, or supercilious Maitre d’ and the customers were a greater cross section of people than I had imagined.

None of this distracted from the day. We had a lovely time, chatting and laughing and eating. It did, however, give me food for thought.

As a writer, I find that my ideas often come from places I know. So far my novels, “House of Shadows”, “Picking up the Pieces,” and the forthcoming “Shadows on the Grass” are all set in Bristol.

Although in most of the books, I am fairly accurate there are times, as in “Picking up the Pieces” when it is either not possible, or I don’t want to be accurate about what I am describing. After all, this is a work of imagination not a travelogue and I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to find my way around the city from my descriptions.

Places are a starting point, then the imagination takes over as do the needs of the story. At least this is how I work.

The first chapter of “Picking up the Pieces” won’t tell you much about the Avon Gorge. It will, however, introduce you to Liz, Elsa and Bernie, three women in their fifties who have to face the total collapse of their lives with the help of each other and much cake.

The novel is currently on offer on kindle for 99p and makes a good summer read. Enjoy.

PUTP picatAvonGorgeHotel1