Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Secrets of Autohighography. Introducing the Avant-garde to the Avant-garde :o)

The Secrets of Autohighography. Where to start? What are they?    After writing the first rough draft of the book I soon realized there would have to be many more careful edits, corrections and rewrites before I was happy with it. Maybe some lucky people can write a 500 page novel in one go without blinking but I ,m not one of them and would continuously polish and improve the book with each new read through.Sometimes I would leave it for a few weeks then I would either think of a better line, a new way to express something in a clearer manner or I'd have to make changes in a character, altering them in some way if it was so close to the truth they might be recognized, which was not my intention. I wanted to write a comedy novel about a Scottish hillwalking club and their adventures which would be both totally unique yet universal, that would be different and exotic yet also familiar to any group of people interacting together.

                                                             Corvids dancing together.

The first draft was written in longhand on paper with various rebellious pens that kept disappearing on me in a variety of annoying ways, gradually taking shape over several large notebooks in different coloured ink. It seemed better to sit outside during sunny summer evenings in a deck chair listening to bees buzzing, dragonflies whizzing across the garden path and nature humming all around. This always worked better for writing any outdoor chapters in the book as I was surrounded by inspiration, my treasured sunshine pouring down, giving me extra mojo and the scents and sounds of wild nature slithering past the fourth wall. Spring chapters were mainly written in spring, winter chapters in winter... and so on...following the seasons for a guide.
As the story as a whole started to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle a brainwave arrived as well. I had been thinking around rewrite number four "how can I make this completely different from all the other memoirs, hillwalking, outdoor books or otherwise". Something that would make my book stand out as completely unique and individual. Nothing else like it. For a boy with not much grey matter between the ears it was a mystery how to actually achieve this. But that's exactly what I wanted for my book... layers of deeper meaning, mystery, wonder, warmth, a sense of the history of the human race and of relationships intertwining, breaking up or gliding past through many centuries. A strong feeling of past existence was already part of the book anyway it just needed some extra ingredients. The fast paced world may change around humanity but basic emotions, needs, desires and longings are much the same as they were one thousand years ago.
Apart from the surface tale which was coming along nicely I decided to splice or weave into the fabric an underlying concept. The surface book would be clear and easy to read but the deeper themes would be less obvious but equally important. Low Countries painter Hieronymus Bosch created an elaborate fantasy world in his colour drenched paintings that fascinated me for many years. An idea that also appealed to my imagination was the possibility that he had hidden messages under the surface of his works in full view. Secrets that could be unraveled given a breadcrumb trail of clues. This theory of buried meanings and subversive interpretations within his paintings captivated me. Could I do the same thing in a book perhaps? Hide various themes and messages underneath an easy to read novel. What to put in? 
Two great inspirational reading events occurred when I was still at primary school. Both were "gifts" from young supply teachers sitting in or taking classes for the first time to get them used to interacting and dealing with pupils. To keep us quiet and entertained the first proceeded to read us The Hobbit, a one hour afternoon session each week which certainly did the trick as we were engrossed from the first page. He was only halfway through the book when he disappeared forever... off to a permanent post in another school maybe? Luckily, I had taken a note of the title and soon acquired The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings for myself as I was already an avid reader and book buyer. That elaborate world captivated me for most of my teenage years. So vivid and detailed. Just like Game of Thrones is now to a modern generation. An American writer inspired by medieval Britain. Both far too well known to make any impact in a new novel though. I had my own ace card to play with.
Like these Shield Bugs, who alter their appearance slightly depending on species to match the trees they feed on (Oak, Beech, Ash etc) or the Six Spotted Burnet Moth above, a day flying creature resembling a fantasy creation in its own right as it dances across the summer meadows in a  fiery flutter of unexpectedly bright crimson wings. Two creatures I marveled at when I first spotted them existing in nature. A sense of "Wonder" was the first impression and  I wanted to try and capture a little of that joy, real magic, depth and mystery in my writing as well. How exactly do you capture "sparkle" on a page though?
                                                  The Ballad of Tam Lin. The Glade.
The second teacher we had for lessons provided the major theme running throughout the novel when she sang to her class one wet afternoon. Some sort of school emergency or shortage led to her being left alone for well over her hour long slot, so, as our attention was starting to wander, she sang to us. Not just any old song either. A song so ancient its roots probably predate Christianity as it's filled with meaty ideas like abduction, the concept of "changelings" pagan personification of nature, jealousy and very cruel revenge. It was heady stuff for young children to take in as her version included the concept of a "Geas" a "suggestion", impulse or compulsion to do something or to go off on a quest or a journey that over rides anything else.

Her version also had a nasty sting in the tail as the queen at the end rips out the eyes and heart of the changeling hero, replacing them with wooden discs in revenge at being spurned so that he can stay with his true love yet never see or love her equally in return. A changeling creature and a Pyrrhic victory it was explained to us. She had a warm accomplished singing voice and was surprisingly theatrical and flamboyant in her movements ( probably sang in folk clubs or amateur theater events as it was a polished and practiced performance in hindsight  with no hesitation involved) so it made a big impression on the class sitting so close to her as a captive and captivated audience. I lived every extravagant word and I learned more in that one hour than in years of boring history lessons remembering a long dry list of dates and battles. Suddenly, she made ancient history come alive. She made folk songs come alive as well. She made me come alive. This young teacher did stay around and I would see her many times over the years. Thank you. Why? She introduced me to the wonders of the Child Collection.

These are story songs and many of the best have every layer of human emotion, fear, love, passion, despair, romance, reaction to circumstance, personality trait and unexpected outcome that humans can muster. They are the lesser known Celtic or UK equivalent of Grimm's Fairy Tales, well known stories which have inspired writers, filmmakers and artists for generations. Clues?  "How is Snow White?" and "Too far gone to decipher this."
Outside of folk, art, and academic circles however The Child Ballads are not so well known to the general public yet equally magical. Hands up how many reading this have heard of them? 
Tam Lin was always my favourite story song and this is the nearest I can find to that original tale unfolding in the classroom so long ago. This one is from 1970 and now a rare LP. Equally theatrical but not so grim in its ending.

As it's an ancient song (1500s or even earlier) there are many different versions around. Here's a truly beautiful one,below, stripped of all its pagan imagery and symbolism, presumably for a North American audience less inclined to tolerate any hint of witchcraft in its midst, even in a ballad. Great harmonies and guitar playing throughout. The reason for listening to both versions is that they are woven carefully and deliberately throughout the book, underneath the surface story. The character of Tam, (Tam Lin or Tambling in the version I first heard ) required very little alteration to weave into the mix. Wolves, daggers, snake tattoos, beltane image on his back etc... Sarah with her early drug problems and personality disorder (which is never clearly stated what that is by the way :o) is a perfect match for the Elf Queen in the song. She exists in the known world by day but at night she descends (through various drugs) into a dream underworld, separated from the real one above. All the clues are in there folks. Tapestry and embroidery were often the only way in the medieval world to cast a small portion of yourself into the future. The internet of its day in some ways as it was a kind of immortality if you were lucky enough to be in the right place or your work was good enough to survive beyond its own era and live on for future generations to enjoy. For childless individuals this might be a way of being remembered. Or in a song... hundreds of years old and still highly relevant today

With this template relationship of Tam Lin and modern setting Elf Queen/Witch to act as a guide as the central underlying theme throughout the book I sought further inspiration from certain other classic story songs in this collection for the various chapters, updating then weaving them into my paper tapestry of words as well. The Cruel Mother, ( Eulogy, End Game) Mad Tom of Bedlam (certain mental issues caused by traumatic occurrence in the past are a large part of the story) and The Selkie of Sule Skerry all had a part to play. Many of the characters are simply reversed gender. The character of Beth who loves water, beaches and coastal walks soon became entangled with mermaids, kayaks, boats and seals via subtle hints and clues in a gender reversal of this song from male to female. "A little female seal head" "Skirt that seals you in."(i.e. skin you can also take off at will.) Big clues there. A role reversal technique I used with many chapters.

 Lacking brains but not lacking ambition I also worked in a new concept for the "Eternal Feminine" throughout history. A linage of women stretching from Isis (Sun Queen and ace magician. a force of Nature) (hypnotism, sensual dancer, friend to slaves and sinners, ring any bells?) Eos and Usha, (Goddess of the Dawn ) Demeter and Persephone, (annual rebirth of nature and harvest) down to the Celtic enchantress Morrigan, Goddess of War and of Battle and she in turn may have been the inspiration for the dark side in Morgan le Fay of King Arthur legend. (The first sword of Obsidian) Later, Isis evolved into the image of the virgin Mary with the baby Jesus on her breast suitable for Christian tastes as all religions borrow heavily from the past. Think of the two different versions of Tam Lin here. One Pagan... one Christian... yet the same song.

 Modern equivalent icons today seem to come from the cult of celebrity however... a Marilyn Munro or an Audrey Hepburn perhaps. Female figures from the recent past whose impression on society as a lasting and somehow still relevant picture image seems to be outliving their body of work or artistic abilities when many other fine actresses or actors with a larger CV of films and fame in their own era are forgotten and consigned to the past.

A beautiful and haunting story song. First heard by my ears on a Scottish folk record in the 1980s. Good folk songs can live forever. No music, no frills, just the power of the words and the lilt of the tune. This was the way our teacher sang Tam Lin to us and such a simple delivery held greater meaning. None of us had experienced singing like this before. It was almost a "Geas" in its own right. Connie Dover is a well established American folk singer, specializing in Celtic and traditional songs. Arguably, the best in her field in the US since Joan Baez who also covered this song many decades ago.

Sule Skerry is a remote flat uninhabited island to the west of Orkney. There was a belief in the northern islands around Orkney years ago that certain seals could shed their skins and turn into humans once on land for a short period of time. Sule Skerry was a perfect location for them as a race and as a sea faring folk who were well used to losing loved ones at sea, the idea of a drowned husband or son, (that they might return some day), may have been a powerful factor in this belief as seals do seem to take a real interest in human activity at times. They appear to be as curious and interested in us as we are to learn about them.
Beth's personality fitted the role nicely. She was my playful little Selkie therefore throughout the book. Another theme added.
 Bossons Glacier descent. Mont Blanc

As the book evolved with this new hidden level weaved into place beneath the surface story I decided to make certain chapters themed in some way. It occurred to me I could reference certain films, books, art works, changes in society or new ideas. Have fun with it. Certain real life characters met by chance in dark bothies took on the mantle of goblins, or ogres in a nod towards Hansel and Gretel but in a plausible real life setting instead of a fairy tale. It's just the way my mind works.
Bossons Glacier crossing. Mont Blanc.

At the opposite end of the spectrum faint echoes of Oor Wullie, The Broons, Para Handy, Famous Five, Swallows and Amazons,Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows, and Rupert Bear had to be stitched into the fabric as well as they all had an equal claim in shaping the imagination and outlook I have today. Beautiful discoveries all and a large part of the magic sparkle that made my heart and mind beat faster during my own, more innocent, but no less violent childhood. I,m still a greedy sponge for wondrous input of all kinds even now. The human condition...

There is a good reason for my book title.  It is very different from a normal memoir but can be read and hopefully enjoyed as such without understanding or working out its hidden levels of meaning at all. Unlike the modern take on Hieronymus Bosch and his amazing paintings (maybe no hidden agenda or secret messages after all, sniff sniff...) the hidden themes are definitely there in my book.

Over 30 painfully slow re-edits from beginning to end and many, many false starts and hair pulling moments of  "Shit... it doesn't fit in" or "Damn, its altered the surface storyline too much " or even, at times "Why did I ever think this mad concept of a hidden layer in a book was a good idea! "
Eventually though it was finished and I stood on the summit of my magnum opus and looked down from a great height.   I have just finished re- editing it yet again... one final time.
The view from the summit of Gran Paradiso. 13.323 feet. The highest mountain to lie inside Italy.
I,m not claiming its a great work as there are probably loads of grammatical errors or literary faux pas I've failed to notice within its pages...just that it's slightly more complex than you might imagine. I,m not the brightest as I've said before ("a boy of very little brain") but I have poured a great deal of time, devotion, love, thought, energy, imagination... midnight to the early hours bursts of manic inspiration... plus the many thousands of hours creative effort and polish squeezed into one single novel about the great outdoors. It might not be a great or important original work ( it certainly isn't :o) but it's the best I can make it with my meagre intellect so I,ll settle for that.
Hopefully it's all been worthwhile in some way. My very own complete elaborate tapestry. I,m only committing this on record now in case someone else has a similar idea or I kick the bucket suddenly and readers think it's just another outdoor book.       24/02/2015
The End.

Book link.



SuperLux said...

The colors are so vivid it looks alive. :)

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers SuperLux,
A collection of my favourite nature photos and a trip up Mont Blanc.

The Glebe Blog said...

Well, I managed to decipher some of your secrets Bob, but sadly not being very knowledgeable on the classics as you obviously are, I got a bit lost.

I do remember reading about Tam Lin at school.
The name Hieronymus Bosch I also remember, but nowadays I associate it with Detective Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly.

Love all your pictures in this post, they really come to life in full screen.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Jim,
I,m more knowledgeable when it comes to children's classics than Greek and Roman ones. Like the magpies in the photos, I just nick what I fancy here and there to build a nest.
You have probably visited the site of Carterhaugh(or Hall? Place name in Tam Lin) on one of your Borders walks.

Carol said...

I'm not usually into folk but I enjoyed the Folk Alley one. I didn't know anything about Tam Lin though - is it a Scottish thing? It's a familiar sort of tale of course though.

I'm afraid I still can't make the connections with the underlying themes for your book and still read it as a straightforward 'outdoor tales' book - and enjoyed it as such. I'm not that deep-thinking really and probably just read things which remind me of my times outdoors. Particularly enjoyed the boating chapters and tales of the wonderful Beth :-)

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Carol,
As long as you enjoyed it that was the main idea. I didn't want to write a book that would only appeal to hill walkers or mountaineers so I concentrated on relationships and characters set against various outdoor landscapes. I miss my kayak trips in spring and summer. An excellent way to explore the west coast and its islands. Tam Lin- Carterhaugh is a wood in the Scottish Borders region near Selkirk according to perceived wisdom relating to that song.