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Several things recently got me thinking about the difficulty of creating solid, flesh and blood and sympathetic characters, even when those characters do things that you can never imagine yourself doing.
The first was an interview with John Boyne who has done it time and again in his novels. The next was starting to read Milkman, this year’s Man Booker prize winning book. I have so far only read the first 50 pages, but already it is teaching me things about our recent history and about the craft of writing from deep inside the head of a character. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s it appears to be an indictment of the stifling masculinity and the paranoia that drove the violence on both sides of the sectarian divide.
The second thing was this article by a woman film maker about the way men portray women and her admiration for two movies in which women have, in her opinion, successfully portrayed men.
When I think about my own writing I can’t escape the conclusion that too many of my characters are merely poor reflections of aspects of myself. But I also think that the problem of men portraying women, and vice-versa, is just one facet of a much more complex problem: can a heterosexual accurately portray a homosexual? A white middle class person a poor immigrant? Any of us any other person’s deep inner personality and thought processes?
It is important because the narrative arts – theatre, film and literature – are the windows through which the rest of us are enabled to experience the lives of others. If those lives are miss-represented then it creates the cultural attitudes that drive some men to behave inappropriately toward women or certain politicians to spread fear of migrants seeking a better life. And, conversely, it is the way that better life is portrayed in the media that attracts those migrants in the first place.
I’ll say no more, but hand you over to Joey at:
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.
Younger people may be surprised to learn that as recently as the 1960s one did not become an adult under English law until one reached the age of 21. I passed that milestone in November 1962. It meant a second pay rise in 3 months. Prior to that my wage had increased each year on the anniversary of my starting my apprenticeship – 8th August. I treated myself to a block of driving lessons and took my test in January. The main advantage of having a car, and a license to drive it, was that my girl friend and I would no longer have to rely on public transport, our bikes, or lifts with friends, to get to town for work and entertainment or to the dances in village halls which we enjoyed.
The first 3 months of 1963 turned out to be one of the coldest for a very long time with snow that hung around until well into March. And local authorities did not salt the roads back then, either. They applied grit which was meant to provide a degree of adhesion on compacted snow. It’s not surprising that I failed a driving test in such conditions. I booked a second test for some time in March. Meanwhile I was looking for a car. For the equivalent of two weeks earnings I purchased a prewar Morris 8. I came to an arrangement with the farmer who owned a shed near our house and stored the car there. I took additional lessons with a friend in his van. Nevertheless, I failed again at my second attempt.
Whilst waiting for my third test, scheduled for early June, I took the engine apart and ‘decoked’ it. This involved removing the accumulation of carbon on the cylinders and cylinder head, cleaning and adjusting the spark plugs and the carburetor and then putting it all back together again. With my test passed we were able to take full advantage of our new mobility through the summer. Except that one part of the car I’d not expected to let me down, did.
The lever that operates the clutch when one depresses the clutch pedal on these old cars pushes the clutch disks apart via a carbon pad which, over time, wears out. If not attended to promptly the matching surface quickly becomes rough. This roughness then causes the new carbon pad to wear out very quickly. Without a clutch it’s not possible to change gear. As a result we had several embarrassing incidents wherein we had to push the car into the kerb in order to carry out running repairs.
By the last weekend in August the engine was starting to make worrying noises, over-heating, and generally becoming a cause for concern. I knew the agricultural engineer who maintained the tractors and other machinery at a big farm where I had often worked at weekends and during holidays from my main employment.
I asked his advice
“Your big-ends have gone,” was the verdict.
“Can it be repaired?”
“Needs to be stripped down, the cam shaft ground and new shell bearings fitted.”
“Can you do that – and how much will it cost?”
“I can, but a less costly alternative would be to purchase a re-conditioned engine. Cost you around forty quid.”
At double what I’d paid for the car that seemed to be beyond affordability. How were we supposed to save up to get married with expenses like that?
By then I’d had another raise in pay – a surprisingly big one. At the end of my apprenticeship my employer was not obliged to offer me a job, but he had, and on terms that exceeded the rate agreed between the Employers’ Federation and the Trade Unions. Even so, £40 was a big expense. I conceived a plan which I put to my girl friend later that Saturday.
But before I explain that I need to backtrack to 1962. I had ‘popped the question’ (“How do you fancy being Mrs Parker?”) around 1:30 on the morning of December 27th 1961, as I wished her goodnight outside her home after the boxing night dance. I’d explained that she should have an engagement ring for her 17th birthday present the following June and that for now it would be our secret. We would not be able to get married until a year or two after I’d finished my apprenticeship as it would take a while to save up enough money to set up home together.
Courting during that long cold spell at the beginning of 1963 was not something either of us wanted to repeat. Being alone together inside somewhere warm cost money. Outside, we froze. And negotiating the road between my home and hers on my bike on frozen snow was extremely hazardous. Now the failure of the car to offer a solution made it seem imperative that we tie the knot as soon as possible. We had agreed to each take one of our statutory weeks’ holiday in mid-September. The plan I put to my fiancee that Saturday at the end of August was that we get married the weekend before that ‘holiday’ (we were not planning to go away) and use the week as our honeymoon.
I’d looked at advertisements in the local paper for flats and apartments in town and it seemed that we should be able to get somewhere to live quite cheaply. The notion was financially viable when one took account of the cost of daily travel to work and the amounts we each contributed to our family budgets. And we would not need to spend money on ‘going out’ in order to spend time together.
She accepted the idea and we swung into action, making appointments to view various flats after work on Monday and to talk to the vicar about booking the church. That’s where we came up against the only snag – the banns (formal announcement of the marriage) had to be published on 3 consecutive Sundays. There were only two before the date (Saturday 14th) we had chosen. So we decided to hold the ceremony in the middle of our holiday week.
It was a frugal affair, arranged, as it was, in such a hurry. The young man who had allowed me to get driving practice in his van and who frequently accompanied us to dances agreed to be my ‘best man’. We each have two sisters who took on the roles of bride’s maid although there was neither time nor money to dress them in anything other than their usual ‘Sunday Best’. The bride wore a navy blue suit and a pill box hat. I wore the same suit I wore to dances. The reception was held in the bride’s home – booze in the garage, sandwiches in the kitchen.
Before that, of course, there was the ‘stag night’. Equally unusual, this requires me to backtrack briefly to the summer of 1958 and my attempts to re-integrate into the village community after 6 years at boarding school. Among other things, I joined the bell ringers at the village church. We practiced once a week and rang on Sundays for evensong which was held fortnightly at 6pm.
On weeks when evensong was not held there was matins, a 10 o’clock service for which it proved impossible to muster a team of ringers. Fortunately the tower was equipped with something called an Ellacombe apparatus. This enabled each bell to be rung from a single array of ropes by a single operator – usually me. It was possible to ring some hymn tunes on this apparatus and I did, as well as a few ‘changes’.
We would ring for any weddings that took place in our church, usually on a Saturday morning or afternoon. When it came to my wedding, however, that was held in a different church, the one in my fiancee’s parish which did not have a ring of bells. So it was agreed we would celebrate our wedding, and my leaving the team after 5 years service, by ringing a quarter peel. This was, of course, followed by an adjournment to the village pub for a small libation.
More than a few of our friends and relatives assumed a very different reason for our haste to get married – after all some of them had been forced into marriage in order to avoid giving birth outside of wedlock. How times have changed!
Footnote: the subject of ‘change ringing’ and the definition of a ‘quarter peel’ are dealt with here.