Climbing the Sterkarm Tower

Goodrich Castle - knocked about a bit by Cromwell
          Since my brother was on holiday, and at a loose end, we decided to take a day out together, and revisit one of the castles that we stormed on a regular basis as children, when our Dad did the driving.
          I was in the driving seat this time, and we went to Goodrich Castle, near Ross-on-Wye. It's an impressive castle, but smaller than we remembered it.
          Its defences are formidable, and yet it only had to be defended against the Welsh once. I imagine the Welsh took a long, thoughtful look at the cunningly arranged towers, the barbican, moat and all, and moved on to somewhere easier.
          But it was the keep that made the lasting impression on us, the oldest part of the castle, of grey stone, while the rest is of red sandstone. It was built in the mid to late 12th century, and was done on the cheap. Richard De Clare wasn't a favourite with Henry II, it seems, on account of his having sided with Stephen against Henry's Mum, so he was a bit short on funding.
The grey keep rising above the red towers
          When I first visited Goodrich, as a child, I'd never heard of a Pele tower. But this keep exactly matched the usual design of a Border Pele tower: three storeys, with the ground floor used for storage, and the two floors above used for living, with a watch-tower on the roof. A single stair in the thickness of the wall was the only way in and out.
          So then we climbed the keep, as you do. Well, it was there. And, good lord, I realised that when I'd imagined the Sterkarms climbing their tower stairs, I'd been thinking of bigger castles, and had given them far too much elbow room.
          But the Sterkarm tower would have been quite small and built on the cheap too, because the Sterkarms are only farmers, who have to scrabble about for enough money to build their towers, for protection.
The Gatehouse
          It shows something of how isolated and backward the debateable lands were, that Goodrich Keep was outmoded by 1300, and used only to host second-rate guests, but the Pele towers were still very similar so much later.
          I've climbed the stairs in plenty of other towers. I knew they were narrow and twisty. I knew that there wouldn't be room to pass another person on the stairs - well, that was partly the point.
          But those stairs at Goodrich! Even in daylight, a section was almost completely dark, and the steps were so narrow that they were more like ledges than steps - and worn ledges at that.
          They didn't just twist - they corkscrewed in a tight spiral. It was like turning yourself round on the spot, but climbing up at the same time. And you were touching the walls on either side all time.
          And steep! It was like climbing a corkscrewing ladder in the dark - but a corkscrewing ladder with a tight box built round it.
Thank goodness for the stout rope, with large knots, that had been fastened to the central pillar for you to hang on to.
          We got to the top, and enjoyed the views over the Wye Valley - but hanging over us was the knowledge that we had to go back down those steps sooner or later.
          We wondered how people felt about climbing them on some cold winter's night in 11-umpty-plonk, with nobutt a guttering candle. "I bet they had that rope on the stairs then," I said, "to help them get up."
          "They'd have done better," said the bro, "hanging the rope out the window and shinning up and down that way. In fact," he said, warming to his theme, "I can see why Rapunzel was such a popular girl. Abseiling up and down her plaits would have been a sight easier than climbing those stairs."
          We did get down - you'll be glad to know that I'm not writing this blog from the top of Goodrich keep. First we put all cameras, sunglasses and other hand-occupying things away in pockets and belt-pouches to have both hands free. We clutched that rope and, in the pitch-dark section, groped about with toes to make sure we found those stone ledges.
          "How easy it is to imagine..."  You're always hearing this in programmes about anything historical, and it always makes me want to throw things. No! It is not easy at all to imagine what life was like in the past, even when you try hard. We were startled by the claustrophobic narrowness, steepness and darkness of the stairs - but would someone in 1148 have been? Or would they have simply been awed that the keep had stairs at all? - And was built of stone and had three storeys? Or is that making them too unsophisticated?
          It's the same when looking at the castle from outside. Today, we look at impressive ruins, and they're romantic, picturesque, historic... But even if we could see the castle restored to exactly how it would have looked in, say, 1300, we would still be seeing it through modern eyes, within the framework of a modern, democratic, secular understanding.
          It's not easy at all to understand how a fisherman on the Wye, or a farmer in the fields around the castle, would have understood it. Would it have been the stronghold of his oppressors? The home of his employer? The impressive show-home of the local celebrity? The dwelling-place of the God-appointed ruler of that place?
          Maybe they saw the castle as a bit of all of the above. Or maybe it was just the everyday and largely ignored background to their lives, as most of the buildings we pass every day are to ours.
          But I'm hoping I get a chance to rewrite those Sterkarm staircases. 

          No Blott this week, I'm afraid. Illness and OU study have combined to keep Blott at home.

Spooky Stories for Switzerland

Walter Crane's 'Mr Fox'
          So, now I haven't got the Sterkarms to keep me occupied, what have I been doing?
          I should have tidied the house, but, of course, I haven't.
          I was at the CWIG conference on Sunday, and since then I've been doing admin. I also started my work as an RLF (Royal Literary Fund) Advisor, which so far has meant writing an email to the four new RLF Fellows that I have in my pastoral care, so to speak. The poor unfortunates. It was an email to wish them luck in the year ahead, but also passing on all the tips I picked up while doing the job. So it took a long time to write, and to sort out all the things I wanted to attach.
          And I've been revising the 'spooky' stories which I intend to tell to my cousin's classes in Switzerland, via webcam.
          Choosing the stories was fairly simple. I've decided on 'Mr. Fox' - usually a show-stopper - and 'The Haunted Room.'
          I've had to bear in mind that the children's first language is German - well, Platt-Deutsch, or Swiss German. So I've tried to keep the language quite simple without losing the story's power.
The famous rhyme gives me problems:

'Be Bold, Be Bold,,
 Yet not so Bold, 
Lest Thy Heart's Blood Should Run Cold.'
          It's a bit archaic - but will it work as well if modernised?
          'In case your heart's blood' sounds lame. But 'For fear your heart's blood' is still quite old-fashioned. I shall have to consult with my cousin, Alan Hess. He's the one who knows about teaching languages.
          The other story, 'The Haunted Room' I've given a modern setting, though it's an old story. The only problem with it is that I don't know if German children will understand a 'pub'. A pub in which you can 'put up' for the night, too.
          Besides revising the stories - which I've enjoyed - I've also been trying to learn to use my new web-cam, which isn't as straight forward as I thought it would be.
          The camera itself is fine, though I can see I'm going to have to go to some trouble to get the lighting right.
          The problem was the sound. Couldn't get it to record sound at all. There I was, mouthing 'Mr. Fox' like a goldfish that wants to make your flesh creep.
          I looked up 'help' - I searched on the internet and followed instructions. Still nothing but silent movies.
          While Davy watched the television beside me, I fiddled and fiddled with the webcam until I found yet another drop-down menu. The thing seems to have dozens of menus hidden in unexpected places - you can use some to put moustaches and silly hats on yourself, or make lighting flash behind you. Don't think I'll be using any of them.
          But I found this new menu, ticked an hitherto unsuspected box - and success! My bronchial, nasal, hoarse Black Country muttering could be heard.
          Davy read that over my shoulder, and said, "You don't sound at all like that, not at all, not at all." King o' De Nile. It's all right for him, with his purring Fife accent, which everybody loves. Nobody loves a Black Country accent, especially if it sounds like you need an inhaler.
          I suppose one advantage of telling stories to people who don't speak English very well, is that they won't understand, either, that 'as soon as an Englishman opens his mouth, another Englishman despises him,' as Shaw said.
          I spoke to a class of German children once, who were baffled that I hadn't met the Queen. They obviously thought that she dropped in on her subjects every few days.
           I don't know if the Swiss children think the same; but at least they'll learn that we don't all  talk like her.


Epstein's St. Michael, Coventry Cathedral
         September. A great time of year. I was out walking today, in the sun, but seeing  dead seed-heads, and blackberries, and the leaves turning colour. I enjoyed the mad whippets' account of rambling and brambling (I didn't know whippets were so fond of blackberries.)

       September's big day is the 29th, which is Michaelmas, the feast of Heaven's Captain, Saint Michael, the warrior Archangel, who doesn't mess about with turning the other cheek, but adopts a more robust approach to defending us from Darkness and Evil, with a spear. Somebody's got to do it. You can imagine him tapping his fingers and sighing a lot through those long meetings in Heaven.
          I've always had a fondness for St Michael, probably because I suspect Him of being someone pagan, thinly disguised.
          His feast day is one of the four quarter days, which mark the turnings of the year, and which were always celebrated with feasts and fairs. And there was never any pretence that Michael had ever been human, as there was with, say, Saint Christopher or Saint Bridget. Michael was always supernatural, an Archangel, no less.
St Michael by Raphael
          He is the patron saint of horses and horsemen.  Hmm.  Horses were sacred to the Norse God Freyr (who was also a young warrior, often identified with Christ in the early years of Northern Christianity. 'Freyr' is a title, not a name: it means 'Lord', and there was some confusion about which Lord the Christians were talking about.) Horses also seem to have been venerated by the people we loosely call 'the Celts'.
         Michael is usually represented with a lance or spear - often with the Devil stuck on the other end of it. Again, hmm. A spear was the symbol of the Norse God Odin, but a better match is probably the God who survives in the old Irish stories, Lugh of the Spear.
          Did Michael find a welcome and lasting place in British tradition because there was an empty niche - very suitable for a Saint - waiting for Him?  The Church might say there was only one God, but was there a collective sigh of relief when Michael turned up? Oh, there He is. Been wondering where He'd got to.
Michael's daisies
         And then, He has Michaelmas Daisies. I've always loved them.

    But Old Michaelmas Day - before the calendar was changed - was October 10th. I hope the whippets avoid blackberrying on that day and after because - so I was told - the Devil will come and hold the branches down for them to reach. No good ever comes of accepting help from Old Nick.
          Another version is that He makes it His personal mission to spit on each and every blackberry left on the bushes on October 10th. A doddle, I suppose, when you are the great Lord of Evil. And being poked with a spear every September must make you crotchety.
Icon of St. Michael, patron of horses
          As a child, I was never told why Old Nick had such a spite against blackberries - I assumed it was all part of his general grudge against the world - but it seems that when He was thrown out of Heaven, He fell into a blackberry patch. I can see how that would put you off them.
         Happy Michaelmas! And I hope you have a jug of michaelmas daisies.
          And here's a suitably supernatural Blott... Cover Brother Andrew dropped by my house today, just as I downloaded this week's Blott, but fought off all attempts to show it to him, because he wanted to see it for the first time, in its proper place, at the end of this blog in the early hours of Saturday morning.
          I love this Blott - but I want to see Demon Lord Ashteroth again!

I Did It!

Friday 7th September 2012 

     I did it, I did it!
          Three years to the month since I started, I've finished Sterkarm 3 and sent it to my agent just one hour ago.
          Now what do I do?
          Whatever, it has to be do-able one-handed. The doc's anti-inflammatories have done wonders for all my other joints - I am bounding up stairs and hills with lightsome foot - but left the tendonitis in my right hand and arm untouched.  When I finished the Sterkarm book last night,  my right wrist was visibly swollen.
          Still, it's forced me to remember many tricks, such as:
Cntrl + C = Copy
Cntrl + V = Paste
Cntrl + X = Delete
Cntrl + S = Save
          A double click on a word selects it for copying or deletion.
          All these enabled me to do a lot left-handed - quite suitable for writing about the Sterkarms! - in one corner of the key-board.
          So I'm afraid that's all for this post - 
          But good wishes to all and any struggling with finishing a book! Be of good cheer! It does, eventually, end.