Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Z is for Zounds!

Yes, it’s the end of the A to Z.
Zounds! one might say.

But what does it mean? As Shakespearean fans will know, it’s a shortened form of God’s wounds. Common in the 16th and 17th centuries, people would swear on God’s body parts rather than his name, thus avoiding breaking the Third Commandment, ‘Do not take the Lord's name in vain’.(There is some dispute about how it's pronounced, although most agree it probably rhymes with 'rounds' rather than 'wounds', having changed during the Great Vowel Shift. And that's not a euphemism.)

In the same vein, if you’ll forgive the expression, is 'Strewth', God’s truth. 'Gadzooks', originally a dialectal pronunciation of God's hooks, refers to the nails with which Jesus was affixed to the cross.

Late Elizabethan drama contains a profusion of minced oaths, arguably due to Puritan opposition to swearing.

The term for such evasive non-swearing is minced oaths, a delicately understated phrase. I happen to think that not swearing is an art form.

An old phrase from my childhood is Cricky Jings. I can’t find a reference to this anywhere, but to judge by the two first letters, I’m guessing it’s a reverse minced oath, semi-bowdlerised.

Minced oaths come in many forms. Sometimes a euphemistic expression is formed by misspelling. Sometimes it’s a deliberate mispronunciation or jumblification. Examples include ‘gosh’ for God, ‘darn’ for damn, and ‘heck’ for Hell.

Rhyme and alliteration are common. The word bloody (which itself may be an elision of ‘By Our Lady’, referring to the Virgin Mary) can become ‘blooming’ or ‘ruddy’.

Sometimes words borrowed from other languages become minced oaths; for example, poppycock comes from the Low Dutch 'pappe kak', meaning ‘soft dung’.

There are lists upon lists of examples, many of them sounding rather quaint and American to British ears: ‘suffering succotash’, for instance. For readers on the UK side of the pond, succotash is boiled corn kernels, btw.

On occasions, the words were left in, but the censors had their wicked way. The fact these are called ‘fig-leaf’ editions makes me chuckle.

Of course, sometimes the offending word was just replaced by ‘blank’. So that’s where ‘blinking’ comes from!

PG Wodehouse was the master, of course. And I quote: ‘It’s the bally balliness of it all that makes it so bally bally.’

Fiction abounds with great minced oaths as authors struggle to portray anger, frustration or just vulgarity. I like to collect them for stressful occasions so I can let rip without offending the neighbours.

In recent years, my favourite by far is ‘smeg’ from the science-fiction comedy, Red Dwarf. It’s actually much ruder than than I’d realised – I’ll leave you to look up the medical reference. I’d always believed it was simply a satirical dig at the middle-classes epitomised by their desire for designer white goods. However, smēgma is also Greek for detergent. I wonder if the writers came up with the idea after a script was rejected for being too smutty, and the characters told to wash out their mouths with soap?

The variants of ‘smeg’ are even more sniggerlingly funnier: ‘smegging’, ‘smegger’, and ‘smeg-head’.

In fact, science fiction is a rich hunting ground. Think of ‘fracking’ in Battlestar Galactica, or the clever use of ‘blisters!’ in Leviathan.

Screenwriters have to be equally creative when dodging censorship. Now you can perhaps hazard a guess at what the term melon-farmer is all about. Ditto ‘monkey-fighter’ or ‘mussel-shucker’. The tongue-twister aspect adds a delicious risqué element, as you wait for the character to slip up. Blooper reel, anyone?

In real life, people swear rather a lot, especially these days. When you’re writing, it’s fun trying to find a suitable expletive that exemplifies your character, without upsetting too many readers. Minced oaths are perfect. ‘Holy Mackerel!’ is an obvious example, but things can get pretty boring if you stick to the regular minced oaths. A stroppy uncle would become far too predictable if all he said was ‘Great Scott’.

So, I like to get inventing. In The Lost Orchid, the irascible ‘Mac’ suddenly came out with ‘For the love of George and his Tartan Dragon’. Not sure which dark synapse produced that one, but it stayed. In The Cloud Pearl, an evil despot with predatory behaviour suddenly came out with ‘Gizzards!’.  

However, in Tomorrow’s Anecdote, the protagonist simply had to swear. It would have been a wet squib if she’d lost her temper in the office and just said ‘bother’ or 'drat'. This wasn't Anne of Green Gables. The experience of typing the ‘f’ word on my pristine laptop was distinctly odd. A place for everything, I decided. This was an adult novel, so I felt it was justified.

Oh my Stars and Garters. Look at the clock. Time to stop. Unless you have any more minced oaths I've never heard of. Oh, for crying out loud*.

By Pamela Kelt

* No translation required, I trust.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Y is for Yanone Kaffeesatz

Say what?

Yanone Kaffeesatz is just a font. I’m addicted to fonts. Sans serif, sans, calligraphy, old school, Celtic (of course). I collect them.

I can’t help myself. I see a new one and I download it – the free ones, of course.

Being from a family that included a couple of stray journalists, I’d heard about fonts, but I never really got to grips with them until I got my first job in publishing. Our Czech designer was a Bela Lugosi figure called Pavel. He’d done PhD in the philosophy of typesetting in Prague, but had to flee the Russians. His favourite word was: ‘Unbelievable.’ I can still hear him saying it in a voice so deep the walls reverberated. He also had a wide-brimmed hat and a cloak. Although he lived in Cambridge, he refused to cycle. I think he pronounced it ‘sickle’. I suspect his cape got caught in the spokes.

I use Times New Roman for writing, mainly because it’s clean and clear for proof-reading. Try starting a sentence with the word ‘ill’ in Arial, and you’ll be forced to agree.

Other fonts I tolerate, others I flirt with. Comic sans? Get out of my life. Rockwell? Lovely, for old times’ sake. Verdana? If you must. At least it’s legible.

I judge people by the fonts they use on their blogs. I keep changing mine. What seems cool and elegant one week seems pretentious the next. For its purpose, Gill sans must be one the best. On my computer it does resemble Yanone, again. Odd.

As it’s still April, just, does anyone recall one of the most brilliant April Fool japes in the Guardian? They did a whole seven-page supplement based on the exotic islands of Sans Serriffe. The capital was Bodoni; the president (ie dictator), a man called Pica, had been victorious in the latest in a string of three coups. See the map for more tyopgraphical references.

Such a journos’ joke. I read the whole thing (thinking about it, it was in the spring of ’78) and then I suddenly got the joke.

Wiki puts it well:
An elaborate description of the nation, using puns and plays on words relating to typography was reported as legitimate news. Because typographic terminology had not yet spread through widespread use of desktop publishing and word processing software, these jokes were easily missed by the general public, and many readers were fooled.

A seven-page hoax supplement appeared in The Guardian on 1 April 1977, published in the style of contemporary reviews of foreign countries, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the island's independence, complete with themed advertisements from major companies.

San Serriffe was one of the most famous and successful hoaxes of recent decades. When registering on the Guardian website it is possible to select San Serriffe as your country of origin.

I must try this. My daughter on Facebook attends the University of Narnia, so why not?

To conclude the lecture for today, Yanone Kaffeesatz is a lovely font. Trouble is, on my blog, you can hardly read it. Ah, the intricacies of the perfect font. It might look super, but if you can’t read it, what’s the point?


By Pamela Kelt

PS What's your favourite font? I think the A to Z challenge letters are in good old-fashioned Cooper Bold, but in green. Bit retro, but it's clear, with attitude. Personally, I'd prefer Rockwell, but that's me.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

X marks the spot

I love old maps and always stop and browse when I see one, online or in a shop.

I was always delighted whenever my daughter had to make one for school. Luckily, this happened quite a few times, thanks to recurring projects on treasure, pirates, seafaring journeys and suchlike. Huzzah.

We’d go to town. First, we needed decent quality paper. Old wallpaper lining paper always worked well.

Then we’d tear out a rough shape, and move to round 2: staining it with teabags to get the old parchment look.

When Lauren was older, we distressed it more, singing the edges with matches. I always had a washing-up bowl filled with cold water to hand, just in case. Let me stress this: we never once set off the fire alarm. Not really.

Then it was old fountain pens, brown ink, squiggly writing, and of course, the outline of the mysterious island with a large X marking the spot.
We were professionals. We didn’t stop there. Blood stains, creasing, thumb prints … all extra details to make it look as this particular map had changed hands many times. Very dirty hands.

Then, the official curling up of the edges, followed by fiddling about with a ribbon. Once, we even added a royal seal. The wax was from an old Babybel cheese in the fridge.

The only maps I like better are those at the front of a book.

The second my gaze lands on one, I just know I’ll love the story. Any author who feels the urge to add a map obviously has the right mindset, in my opinion.

Of course, I applaud the desire to make the locations absolutely clear, but a map in a book is so much more. It’s an insight into the style of the story and, more importantly, a glimpse into the author’s mind.

I fancied adding a map to an adventure story I wrote called Ice Trekker. I can’t draw, but I can Photoshop. Thank goodness there are loads of copyright-free maps to mess about with. It took a while, but after stamp-cloning, skewing, colour matching and all manner of filters and tweaks, I got there.

I was editing the book at the time, swapping from one job to the other, and doing the map helped ensure the mythical journey was consistent. This was much harder than I’d realised. I have to admit I caught myself out on a few occasions, so it was a useful exercise.

Now, I sketch out a map right at the very start and keep it by me as I write. It saves me weeks in the end.

It’s pretty rough and ready, but as long as I can read it, that’s fine. I’m working on a new one at the moment for The Cloud Pearl, first part of Legends of Liria, and I need a map of the mythical land and its six cities. Hmm. What symbol should I use for a hidden cave?

By Pamela Kelt

Friday, 26 April 2013

W is for word-cross

What’s that?

I was busy writing a scene set in early 1919. A character whiled away the time by doing a crossword.

I paused, recalling an early Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie, featuring a crossword. It was so heavy-handed, I’d always assumed crosswords were a novelty in the early 1930s.

Oops. Anachronisms can be a bane.

So, off to the web. There is an astonishing amount of material on crosswords, even blogs. I began with a little history.
The first example of a crossword puzzle appeared on September 14, 1890, in the Italian magazine Il Secolo Illustrato della Domenica. It was designed by Giuseppe Airoldi and titled ‘Per passare il tempo’ (‘To pass the time’). Aha! Airoldi's puzzle was a four-by-four grid with no shaded squares; it included horizontal and vertical clues.

Then things went quiet, until on December 21, 1913, Arthur Wynne, a journalist formerly from Liverpool published a ‘word-cross’ puzzle in the New York World that embodied most of the features of the genre as we know it. This puzzle is frequently cited as the first crossword puzzle, and Wynne as the inventor.

Although Wynne's invention was based on earlier puzzle forms, such as the word ‘diamond’, he introduced a number of innovations (such as the use of horizontal and vertical lines to create boxes for solvers to enter letters). He subsequently pioneered the use of black squares in a symmetrical arrangement to separate words in rows and columns.

A few weeks after the first ‘Word-Cross’appeared, the name of the puzzle was changed to ‘Cross-Word’ as a result of a typesetting error.

Crossword puzzles became a regular weekly feature in the World, and spread to other newspapers; the Boston Globe, for example was publishing them at least as early as 1917. They were called a craze in 1921, when the New York Public Library complained that when ‘the puzzle “fans” swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work, can there be any doubt of the Library's duty to protect its legitimate readers?’

Opinions vary as to the first crossword in the UK. Some say it was on November 2, 1924, in the Sunday Express. Some argue it was in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922. The first Times crossword appeared on February 1 1930.

What I never realised was how different UK and US crosswords are. British puzzles quickly developed their own style, being considerably more difficult than the American variety. In particular the cryptic crossword became established and rapidly gained popularity. The generally considered governing rules for cryptic puzzles were laid down by A. F. Ritchie and D. S. Macnutt.

Of course, some people were alarmed. Crosswords were considered a sinful waste of time, not a game, certainly not a sport, even ‘the mark of a childish mentality’.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that the British cryptic crossword was imported to the US in 1968 by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in New York magazine.

And that in 1944 Allied security officers were disturbed by the appearance, in a series of crosswords in The Daily Telegraph, of words that were secret code names for military operations planned as part of Operation Overlord. ‘Utah’ (the code name for one of the landing sites) appeared in a puzzle on May 2, 1944. Subsequent puzzles included the landing site ‘Omaha’ and ‘Mulberry’; the secret artificial harbours.

On June 2, four days before the invasion, the puzzle included both ‘Neptune’ (the naval operations plan) and ‘Overlord’. The author of the puzzles, a schoolteacher named Leonard Dawe, was interviewed. The investigators concluded that the appearance of the words was not an attempt to pass messages. According to a former crossword editor of The Daily Telegraph, in 1984 a former student of Dawe's claimed that he had picked up the words from soldiers’ conversations around the army camps, and included them when helping Dawe to choose words to fill crossword grids.

Some cryptologists for Bletchley Park were selected after doing well in a crossword-solving competition.

I’m a bit of an addict. I’ve been wondering why. Partly, I think, it’s because when I was at school, my father and I would tackle the crossword together at the weekend. My grandmother, however, always used to get to the newspaper first, tick off all the ones she’d got (usually all of them) in pencil, then leave the paper out to impress us. Even today, I never tick off the clues I get. So crosswords can be viewed as sociable as well as an exercise in IQ oneupmanship.

Personally, I do them to wind down after a hard day at the screen. Recently, I’ve been getting back into the cryptic style, for I was sorely out of practice, and they are witty. It’s a real feeling of achievement to pierce the meaning, whether it’s a full-on cryptic, a jumbo general knowledge, a quiptic or a quickie. It doesn’t do your spelling any harm, either, and reminds you of words you once knew but had let slide.

But there’s another element that is strangely relaxing. It’s the randomness of it all. The perfect way to distract oneself from a day’s issues or problems.

If you’re into some trivia, check out this lovely article on the top ten crosswords in fiction. I'm delighted to see that the new/old Morse Endeavour is back into crossword mode.

Can you think of any more? I know what my favourite cryptic clue is. Do you?

By Pamela Kelt

Tomorrow’s Anecdote TODAY

Time for the launch party!

Hi, everyone. It’s now Friday 26 April – lift-off for Tomorrow’s Anecdote. Hope you can join me in celebrating the online launch.

Tomorrow's Anecdote is a newsroom mystery, with macabre undertones, set in the turbulent 1980s when Margaret Thatcher had just secured a third term on office. It's available in ebook and paperback at Crooked Cat Publishing and Amazon.

I’ll be around to say hi and chat about the book as well as recalling those crazy days. There’ll also a few fun competitions with a chance to win a signed copy of the book and a printed retro T-shirt among other prizes.

Test out an original cocktail designed for the occasion (I'll be putting the recipe up on the FB launch page), listen to some Tears for Fears and join us for a bit of retro nonsense.

To fnd out more about the book, the characters and the background, do please visit the Tomorrow’s Anecdote blog. There’s a scrapbook and video to check out, too.

Thanks to all who helped this book see the light of day. I’ve never had so much fun.

If you fancy a taster, read the first part of chapter one here.


PS I have photos of how we all looked in those days. I might even post them if I'm feeling dangerous. Be afraid.

By Pamela Kelt

Thursday, 25 April 2013

V is for villains

I have a dark secret. I love villains. Any villains.

When I started to write books properly (and by that I mean finish them), I started to check the story from the point of view of the hero or heroine. I’d go right through the whole story in the mindset of the villain(s).

It changes everything – and it’s quite addictive. They have a way of taking over your mind, the plot, the whole book, and completely distorting the whole blinking series if you let them.

They are so much more fun. No rules apply. Actually, that’s not true. There has to be a motive, a psychological quirk, or whatever, but they break the social rules. And perhaps that’s the point.

I ponder literary villains from time to time for inspiration. Shakespearean villains are interesting. There are several PhDs in that alone. I say Iago, you say potato. Personally, I think Othello was a naughty boy, too.

Moriarty is cool in his demonic Victorian way and female villains can be terrific, too: Lady de Winter and Irene Adler to name a couple. Personally, I have a penchant for the nouveau ‘period’ literature, such as A Critique of Criminal Reason, where new villains turn up, darker, more demented and infinitely more dangerous than anything from the actual 19th century, in my view.

Agatha Christie's villains can be made more chilling with the support of a great costume unit and David Suchet’s dark imploring eyes, but I realised a little while ago which villains I prefer. Forget Sir Jasper, or the butler, I find the Ripleys of this world the most dangerous and exciting. He (and it’s usually he) is a chameleon-like charmer who adapts to surroundings. And he/she has to win.

It’s not new, of course. I’ve come to realise that a modest little book from 16th-century Spain featured the best villain I’ve ever come across. Lazarillo de Tormes was a quaint little episodic chapter book about a poor boy making his way in the world. Aah.

The trick is, you think he’s reasonable, this poor starving orphan in need of a new master. As he works his way up the system, dumping each new boss (without actually murdering them, as far as I can tell), he acquires all their sins. It’s picaresque, creating a rogue as a hero. But he’s not heroic. He’s a survivor, and has no moral conscience at all. Booo. It’s also in the first person, which is clever, because it’s persuasive, yet leaves out some incriminating details.

When I was scouting around for a new book idea, I suddenly decided to try things from this type of perspective. Not an out-and-out dark-souled demon, mwah-ha-ha, but a child who has to make do. And Viktor Radislav was born. ‘Dexter meets the Borgias’ is the tagline in my head.

I don’t have nightmares at all about how he has to bump off his rivals. Not a qualm do I feel when deciding which poison to use, or which stiletto. Getting rid of the bodies is intellectually taxing, but not disturbing.

I should be unsettled, but I’ve written so many stories about so many do-gooders, saving various worlds (past, present, future and imagined) from evil, I feel it’s time to exercise some alternative emotional muscles.

Viktor ‘I’m a murdering bastard. Literally’ Radislav. Machiavelli’s Acolyte.* Well, I’m hooked. What will he do next?

*Shameless plug. Normally I wouldn’t, but a villain would.

By Pamela Kelt

Oh, go on. Who's your favourite bad guy or gal? 

Edwin Booth as Iago  
Patricia Cutts as Milady de Winter with Maximilian Schell as D'Artagnan from a 1960 television presentation of The Three Musketeers

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

U is for unfinished

Manuscripts, that is: my hidden shame

You know the old joke about journalists. They have the answer to the great British/American novel, unfinished in a drawer.

Well, in my case, it’s patently untrue. I have dozens of unfinished manuscripts, and none of them are even close to being a novel of any kind.

Still, I had to start somewhere. 

The ‘Chained books’ murder took place in a Cambridge college where the victim is strangled in a locked library by a medieval chain securing a priceless volume to a lectern. I know who did it, and how, but I never quite made it to the dénouement. I never quite sussed the title. The Chained Books Murder isn't quite right.

‘Pantomania’ is a jolly little romp behind the scenes of an am-dram production in Yorkshire where sabotage is afoot. I’ve even written all the lyrics to the songs. The assistant stage manager Hugh Calyptus has to take over the role of the dame and does a stirring jazz number, Dame Doo-Lally’s Little Shambling Blues. It has designed to be sung in a thick Yorkshire accent. You have to imagine the bluesy ‘duh-duhhh duh-duh’ after each line.

Woke up this morning.
Feeling blue.
Cow had gone. 
Daft chickens, too.
Now I ain’t even got a goose to say boo to.

I got them … Little Shambling
Them deep down Little Shambling Blues. (Oh aye.)
From my itchy wig, right down to my size 12 shoes.

I tried my hand at a comedy thriller script. ‘Chalk and Cheese’ is a cheeky little half-hour episode featuring a grumpy female reporter and some laid-back for a series that was going to make my fortune. Right.

Let us not forget the gazillion, and that’s the correct collective noun I believe, of short stories. Myrtle and Turtle (my daughter loved those) were favourites.

My daughter loved hearing the sequel to the Musicians of Bremen in the autumn storm where the wind makes the windows rattle? [Bangety bang. Bangety bang. I can still make her jump.] And what about Aldo the bookworm? Dudley the dragon? When did I have the time to write all this stuff?

But, then, a strange moment. I found a bunch of floppy disks with the label Evil Magi of Scrunge. Then, oh, joy, I came across the whole manuscript. I had even written an ending! I’d completely forgotten about that. It’s all there in that old, squashed yet hauntingly familiar Amstrad script. 

I leafed through browsing some old friends and enemies – for Scrunge is riddled with miscreants. There’s the Procurator Fiendish, the treacherous Xerxes, the Lupadelans en masse, the cut-throat Doggabraccio. My favourite good guy is the hapless Gumnut. I’m warming to this once again, despite myself.
Well, it’s not unfinished ... Hmm. Now, we have a scanner, perhaps I should give it a go.

By Pamela Kelt 

PS Go on, how many of you have unseen manuscripts you need to get out there? Too busy? Too embarrassed? Surely the Scrunge factor should help? If I can come clean, then so can you. I long to hear from you and all those hidden documents.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

T is for Tulipomania

Or is it?

Tulips. Sign of spring. Lovely. But dangerous.

Tulip mania was a phenomenon from the Dutch Golden Age when Netherlanders apparently spent and lost fortunes acquiring the exotic bloom.

It's one of those historical themes that raises its head from time to time and is something of a controversy. Ripe for investigation, but the paperwork is sparse.

It seems that contract prices for bulbs reached extraordinarily high levels and then suddenly collapsed.At its peak, in February 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. It has been written about as the first recorded speculative bubble. Historians thrill to stories of workers abandoning their looms in pursuit of a new specimen, or ruined businessmen flinging themselves into a canal.

It’s heady stuff, partly because it was popularised in 1841 by book with quite a racy title itself: ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’. Written by British journalist Charles Mackay, it’s jammed with craziness brought on by craving for tulips.

Of course, these days, the account is coming into question. Research is hampered by the lack of sensible economic data from the 1630s.

Anyone researching this period will be quick to agree.Why tulips, you may ask? (As an orchidmaniac it's my first question, but orchids hadn't really arrived in the west yet.)

The introduction of the tulip to Europe is usually attributed to the magnificently named Ogier de Busbecq, the ambassador of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor to the Sultan of Turkey, who sent the first tulip bulbs and seeds to Vienna in 1554 from the Ottoman Empire. Tulip bulbs were soon distributed from Vienna to Augsburg, Antwerp and Amsterdam.

Its cultivation in the United Provinces (now the Netherlands) is thought to have begun in earnest around 1593 after the Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius had taken up a post at the University of Leiden and  planted his collection of tulip bulbs. To his delight, he found they were able to tolerate the harsher conditions of the Low Countries and shortly thereafter the tulip began to grow in popularity.

The luscious tulip was different from every other flower known to Europe at that time, with a saturated, intense petal colours. It soon became a status symbol at this time coincides with the rise of the newly independent country’s trade fortunes. Now separated at last from Spain, the Netherlands embarked on its own Golden Age.

Amsterdam merchants controlled the lucrative East Indies trade, where a single voyage could yield huge profits and a new merchant class flourished. To prove their status, they built grand estates surrounded by flower gardens, with the tulip centre stage, a coveted luxury item. People became gripped by new classifications and colours.

But the difficulty was that tulips took years to bulb from seed; and ‘mother’ bulbs on lasted only a few years. There were difficulties with viruses, although these were the very things that produced the more exotic-looking specimens.

There was a price index for tulip bulb contracts, but figures were missing from the spring of that infamous year of 1637, but the market is said to have collapsed abruptly in February.

As the flowers grew in popularity, professional growers paid higher and higher prices for bulbs with the virus, and prices rose steadily. By 1634, in part as a result of demand from the French, speculators began to enter the market. By 1636, the price of common, any tulip bulb was fetching hundreds of guilders, although often the bulbs didn’t actually exchange hands. The entire business was accomplished on the margins of Dutch economic life, not in the Exchange itself.

Ring any bells?

After gin, herring and cheese, the tulip bulb became the fourth leading export product of the Netherlands. The price of tulips soon skyrocketed because of speculation among people who never saw the bulbs. People made and lost fortunes overnight.

By the winter of 1636-37, some bulbs reportedly changed hands ten times in a day. No deliveries were ever made to fulfill any of these contracts because in February 1637, tulip bulb contract prices collapsed abruptly and the trade of tulips ground to a halt. The collapse began in Haarlem, when, for the first time, buyers apparently refused to show up at a routine bulb auction. Only sellers existed, as there were no buyers, at all. Could this have been due to an outbreak of bubonic plague? No-one knows, but within days panic had spread. Flowers that had commanded 5,000 guilders a few weeks before now fetched one-hundredth that amount.
People have puzzled over the phenomenon. Satirists and historians have speculated. In this century, journalists have compared it to failure of the speculative dot-com bubble in 2000 and the most recently, to the subprime mortgage crisis.

A recent book takes a more measured approach. In ‘Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age’, Anne Goldgar avoids seeing tulip mania as an example of the gullibility of crowds and the dangers of financial speculation, and calmly asserts that not one of these stories is true. After much digging around the archives, she believes that while the 1630s did see a speculative bubble in tulip prices, neither the height of the bubble nor its bursting were anywhere near as dramatic as we tend to think. In fact, the passion for tulips ‘reflected deep anxieties about the transformation of Dutch society in the Golden Age’. She also highlights how so many writers have simply regurgitated the existing, and in her view, exaggerated and often totally inaccurate literature, full of stereotypes and wild assumptions.

So, did it exist at all? Yes, she concludes, and it was a crisis, but not simply a financial one: it was a social and cultural one.And a warning to us all.

By Pamela Kelt

PS Does botany reflect social values? Discuss.Or at least let's hear from you if you think the tulip boom was real or not.

PPS And I thought orchidmania was crazy. So crazy I wrote a book about it - The Lost Orchid, out soon (Bluewood Publishing).

Pictures: An image from Verzameling Van Een Meenigte Tulipaanen, the 1637 tulip book of P. Cos, the source document for much of what is accepted fact about tulip mania

‘The Tulip trade, painting of an unknown artist of the Dutch school, ca. 1650

A satirical pamphlet from 16737


Monday, 22 April 2013

S is for sleep

Or sleeplessness, in my case

I’m not grumbling. It’s just a fact of life that I work around.

When I was a primary school, I found books helped. I’d read, often until midnight. Sometimes I used a torch, just as they do in the movies. When the batteries ran out, I opened my curtains and read by the light of the streetlamp until I felt drowsy.

Perhaps I didn’t need as much sleep as the other children, and the habit persisted. I'm a night owl. I may as well admit it.

When I went to university, it wasn’t such a problem, but then again, I did tend to stay up playing cards with boys in the flat next door until three in the morning, and had to be up by nine to get to the newspaper first. I caught up with my sleep during the vacations.

When I spent two years in Western Australia, my sleep patterns ran amok. This type of sleeplessness was caused by the daft daylight savings system they operate. It gets light in summer around 3.30am, I kid you not, and the damned parrots start wittering. It didn’t help matters that I was doing shift work, finishing some nights at midnight. Yawn is all I can say.

A different version of sleeplessness kicked in when I returned to the UK, fuelled by newspaper-room anxiety and stress. Actually, I turned this to my advantage, for this is when I started to think up mystery plots to keep my mind busy while I brainwashed myself into believing that rest was as good as sleep. It almost is, in fact.

What added to the stress was knowing I had to get up at 7am to be in the office, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by 8am. Let’s just say, without copious tea and bacon butties, all those creaking cylinders would never have fired. I scribbled down some of the ideas, but never got round to finishing a manuscript. I was too knackered.

Becoming a parent was rather chaotic, too, but our daughter was a perfect babe, and soon slept for 12 hours at a go. She still can, lucky creature. Doesn’t take after me.

I plodded on. The strict regime of GCSEs and A-levels helped, bizarrely, for we instigated a ruthless regime of mealtimes, bedtimes, time to leave for the bus … or else.

Now she’s at uni, my patterns have reverted to the uni years. I can stay up until 2am, no problem. I feel dire in the mornings anyway. At least now I don’t have to get up for the wretched bus.

My current sleeplessness is quite different. It's the lightbulb factor kind. Surely, everyone knows that moment when your brain goes ping at 2.30am and there’s absolutely no way to switch it off?

A lot of it is do with the excitement of actually getting some books out there. But even if I weren’t involved in all the editing and hoo-ha, I’d still be lying awake, plot-wrangling.

Around 3.30am is the time when it often occurs to me that someone is in two places at once, or that I’ve left someone dangling. Running through the different scenarios from the point of view of each character is useful, and gives the brain a bit of a workout. I’m not saying I get back to sleep soon, but I do drift off before dawn.

Oddly enough, I tend to remember most of the crucial details and even manage to scribble down a few notes.

And in England there are no chuffing parrots, for which I am eternally grateful.

By Pamela Kelt

PS I nearly did S is for stress, but knew I’d just get cross. I had the idea after I saw an unintentionally hilarious item about stress. It was a photo of a glass half-full of water, used in a stress management session. Aha, you think. Here we go again. Glass half-full or half-empty. Nope. She inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?” Answers varied. She replied: “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I'll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralysed.” So, the longer you hold it, the heavier it get, So, the analogy is that the stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. If you think about them all day long, you end up feeling paralysed – incapable of doing anything.

Not convincing to a Worrier Queen like myself. The solution was hysterical. Just let go of your stresses. Put the glass down.

What! Just like that! Come and spend 24 hours in my fevered sleep-starved cerebellum, why don’t you?

Sorry, I wasn’t supposed to be getting cross. Maybe I should go and have a nap. Do you have sleep issues? I'm wide awake, so tell me about them.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

R is for rant

The healthy option?

Anyone who knows me also knows I love to rant. Ranting is good. It’s catharsis for the soul and should not be denied.

I was brought up to be a good girl and be nice. Don’t shout. Don’t protest. Much good it did me. I now realise I was angry for years. But it’s all sorted now. I have the tablets. Read on.

Grammar school didn’t help my inner seethings. It certainly taught me when to fight the battle and when to hide in the cloakroom doing my Latin homework.

Doing a Spanish degree was something of a protest against the system, but it was so much I didn’t need to rant.

I think I started imploding after that when I got my first job. Job. Hah. A few quid in an envelope on a Thursday lunchtime from uncaring individual in accounts didn’t make it seem like a respectable job. I worked as a trainee reporter on the local paper and it was fun to play the embittered journalist for a while, but it was a poor excuse for a career. See? I can be polite when I try. The original of that sentence was so much ruder.

I escaped from Stalag Journalism and headed to Oxford, where I made many, many mistakes but had such a good time that I never felt the need to rant.

Life intervened and I ended up back in journalism. Still, as a slightly older grown-up, I was allowed to be sardonic and clever, as long as I finished the page layouts in time and didn’t whinge about the shifts.

But, like some ancient volcano (pictured - ha), the rant was building.

After a bit of this and that, we ended up in Bath. I wangled a job on the local paper. To be fair, it was a blast at first. The other chaps were brilliant. Funny, sarcastic, quick. I did all right and got promoted. Then came the management course. ‘Man management and motivation’ it was called, and it was only on the way home that I realised it was all about to do orchestrate constructive dismissal without being sued. I wasn’t sure if I was on the list for dismissal or the dismissing. I didn’t care. I quit. Well, after a very large vodka and lime.

I took a different path. Had a daughter, frankly against the odds. Huzzah. I encouraged her to rant and she’s jolly good at it. She phones me just about every day and some of those days she needs to rant. This is a good thing and I am pleased at this achievement. We all need to rant at somebody about something.

A couple of years ago, I had a glacially polite rejection of a book. I can’t recall the details, but I suspect it was something to do with adjectives or POV (point of view). I was SO angry that I just banged out a chapter of a book that I hadn’t even thought about. I used the first person (dodgy), said what I thought (ouch) and even used the occasional grown-up naughty word (no!).

My husband maintains that the first few pages were the only thing I’ve ever written where he laughed out loud. He’s a tough audience. I persevered.

So, happy ending, or more of a beginning. Tomorrow’s Anecdote is out from Crooked Cat on 26 April. I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t care if nobody ever reads it. I really don’t. If I hadn’t written the damned thing, I would have gone up in a puff smoke.

At home, we called it ‘the rant’. It did so much good to vent all that anger that had been building up for YEARS.

Ranting is good. You should try it. Or have you already?

By Pamela Kelt

PS Admit it. You rant. But what about? And why wait?

Friday, 19 April 2013

Q is for Quiñones de Benavente

The first page of the M. Litt.
A rare dramatist with a flair for brevity

This is such a memorable name, it’s astonishing he isn’t more famous. Señor Q was the original comedy sketch artist in my book and one funny guy.

Here’s how I found this out. After school, I trundled off to Manchester University and got hooked on 17th-century Spanish literature. I particularly loved the drama. The language was clever, the plots astonishing, ranging from myth to sneaky satire, and they would have been so much fun to watch.

With some help, I pursued this interest and landed a place at Oxford to do a Masters, some fancy schmancy M.Litt – three years of funding. Yo.

This is where Quiñones de Benavente popped up. Thanks to Captain Alatriste and his mentor, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, 17th-century Spanish literature isn’t as obscure now as it was then. Of course, people have heard of Cervantes. Calderón, perhaps? Lope de Vega? I sense your interest waning.

In Spain, these chaps vie with Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson.
Lope de Vega

There’s an interesting diversion about how nobody understood how clever their stuff was until neoplatonism was decoded, but, hey, this is a blog. Who cares? Let’s just say, their stuff is full of imagery, wit, timing, great dialogue, politic diatribe, religious debate and stonking good stories.

Now, Q, if you recall my shorthand, showed his skill in developing a different kind of drama.I ended up studying the theory of comedy, and in particular, aspects of comedy in his works, from satire to farce.

Illustration from Benavente's Entremés de los Gigantones
A bit of context? Think of Shakespeare's plays. Five acts, right? Spanish plays? Three. They needed to keep the peeps busy, so that added a prologue, a dance, a little skit, a final big dance. Each of these interludes had different names (loas, entremeses, jácaras), different historical sources and were as distinctly different as appetisers. Food is a theme in all of this, for the first ‘interlude’ in drama was a servant lugging in a stuffed swan for the delight of the wealthy patrons.

Q was funny. He had great timing and he knew his actors, so he wrote them great parts. Small parts, obviously, for these were the kind of scenes you’d see in front of the curtain – just like pantomime. They were separate from the main drama,  not like Pyramus and Thisbe, in case you were wondering.

However Q was sophisticated. His characters had a lot to say about the state of the economy, lack of resources from the New World, the plight of slaves, the role of downtrodden women … It’s all there, if you know how to decipher his witty code. I had help, of course. To my supervisors, thank you. At first, these interludes just seemed like farce, but then I learned that farce isn’t farce. It’s basic ‘turn the world upside-down I want to get off’ humour – catharsis.

(It's not just in Spanish drama. I found this volume of 18th-century chapbooks recently on the wonderful Project Gutenberg: a series of woodcuts on the theme, plus a poem. '... Art than nature wiser grown, turns every object upside down.')

History tells us Q mingled with best: Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega. He entered into poetic contests. Well, we know this because I found his entries! Well, not without help from a very smart PhD student from Durham whose name I’ve forgotten. He suggested I rummage this particular cabinet of hand-written record cards. Blow me down. There they were.

Only 150 short plays survive. Interludes tended not to be written or printed, but Q’s short dramas played between the acts of the most popular dramas of the seventeenth century. They are collected in the Jocoseria of 1645, notable for being the first collection of interludes in Spanish by a single author.

I like Q because he teased everyone, not cruelly, but especially those with social aspirations, such as those faking nobility. He loved the ‘play within a play’ device to engage the audience – who were all aspiring to be middle class if only they could afford it. (Spain was poor, coffers stripped by Philip II desire to rule the world.)

Q often joked about women tricking on men, the inversion of the sexes or faking one’s own death. This is the crazy carnivalesque fun side of Romeo and Juliet, which really should have been a comedy.

I liked him so much I even worked him into a book. It’s not set in the 17th century, although I considered that. No, I devised a story whereby an archivist would come across a censored interlude. The symbols on the cover would lead back to the Battle of Lepanto, when the Ottoman Empire first took a hit. The book, Dark Interlude, is set in 1918-19, and definitely deals with the world upside-down theme, but in a rather more sinister fashion. If I’ve piqued your interest, good! Check out Muse in June. 

The Spanish manuscript in the background is actually a Lope de Vega comedia, but it's authentic.

So, Quiñones de Benavente. An entertainer but not a moralist. Satire lives. If you’re gripped, check this link. And when they mention Constable, that’s me in a former life. Oddly enough, the members of the local constabulary were most often at the receiving end of his barbs.

By Pamela Kelt 

Does anyone else out there remember their student research? And what did you do with it?

Thursday, 18 April 2013

I'm on Amazon

Now that Tomorrow's Anecdote has made its appearance on Amazon, I've been able to set up an author page.

Do visit me here - http://www.amazon.com/Pamela-Kelt/e/B00CE9G6GM - and tell me what you think.

By Pamela Kelt

P is for Pteridomania

For the Victorians it was all just fern, fern, fern

The term Pteridomania, meaning fern madness, was coined in 1855 by author Charles Kingsley. He was rather patronising how it distracted gentlemen’s daughters even more than crochet.

The hard core fans were known as Pteridologists and could be said to be members of a fern cult as they pursued odd variants of the wild species – unkindly named ‘monstrosities’ by the botanists of the time.

In fact, the interest in ferns arguably began in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted increasing numbers of amateur and professional botanists.

The periodicals were full of depictions of new discoveries were published, especially ‘The Phytologist’ which first appeared in 1841.

Ferns proved to be a particularly fruitful group of plants for new records because they had been studied less than flowering plants. They were joyfully diverse and abundant in the wilder, wetter, western and northern parts of Britain which were becoming more accessible through the development of better roads and the railway.

Some even argue that they were more suitable for the ‘ladies’ as they reproduced by spores, rather than any funny business, and they certainly didn’t look rude like orchids.

Botanical historians reckong that the half-century between 1841 and 1891 saw the British Fern cult pass through four phases with changes of emphasis:

  • collecting British fern species
  • collecting new varieties of those species in the wild
  • raising new varieties from spores of sowings of those varieties already discovered
  • raising crosses between varieties by sowing mixtures of spores.

 The public flocked to see new varieties exhibited at local, regional and national horticultural shows. By the end of the century, any country house worth its salt had its own fernery, and some delightful examples are being renovated.

But it wasn’t just real ferns that had people hooked. Ferns were just as, or even more, popular as a decorative motif, from the 1850s until the 1890s. While many ferny objects were manufactured in England, Scotland specialised in the production of certain types of item.

Glass engravings were particularly sought-after, such as those by the John Ford Holyrood Glassworks, Edinburgh, with Bohemian inspiration. A more rustic style used pressed and dried fern fronds, glued to a box or screen and varnished. In others, the fronds were used as ‘stencils’ with ink, paint or dye spattered or sponged over the fronds onto paper, textiles or wood. There was pottery decorated using fronds in the ‘leaf resist’ technique and a variety of objects could be decorated by ‘inking’ a frond and using it to produce ‘nature prints’ on paper, cloth or other materials.
It was quite a democratic pastime, for people of many different social backgrounds sought out the species and varieties described in the identification books to press the fronds in albums or to collect fern plants to grow in their gardens or homes.

For many, fern hunting was a pleasant pastime but for others it became a serious scientific pursuit or even a commercial enterprise.

Another reason why ferns were so successful is down to fact they like damp, shaded woodland conditions – so they thrived in poorly lit Victorian homes, as long as their owners remembered to water them.
It can be argued that no other single craze affected so many Victorians or such a cross-section of society. Orchids were expensive, capricious, inaccessible, but even a worker could have a collection of British ferns collected from the wild.

Sadly, though, it transpires these collectors were over-zealous, and the Victorian fern collectors did is still being felt to this day, rendering some species almost extinct as a result of their depredation.

One example is the Killarney fern, now being cultivated at Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens. It has been cultivated there for over 150 years, but it’s a demanding tenant, requiring a cool, shady moist environment.

Hundreds of thousands of the plants were collected. Torc Waterfall in Kerry once had an acre of these filmy ferns, but now there are just three.

In another encouraging story, a hidden fern grotto, Dewstow Hidden Gardens and Grottoes, was refurbished to its former glory, after being lost for half a century. In 1893, Dewstow was owned by eccentric recluse Henry Keane Oakley. He was a true Pteridomaniac and created his own personal ferny wonderland. 

It became a 25-year project, using rock gardens, ferneries and grottoes and the invention of a special cement to create artificial, but very natural looking ‘volcanic’ rock, underground tunnels, caves and stalactites. It fell into disuse when Oakley died, but is now there in all its pteriodmaniacal glory.

If you’re not already pulling on your boots to go off fern-hunting, here is a fun fact. In Finnish folklore, one who finds and acquires the ‘seed’ of a fern in bloom on Midsummer night will be guided and be able to travel invisibly to the locations where eternally blazing Will o’ the wisps called aarnivalkea mark the spot of hidden treasure.

By Pamela Kelt

PS Do you have any ferny anecdotes?