Mere English

'You may very well think that...'

I have always loved Queen Elizabeth’s description of herself as ‘mere English’. Never was a character less mere! Since last week’s invitation to thumbnail a portrait from two names failed to bring any volunteer out of the shadows, or put down his/her pint for long enough, I have decided to reverse the process. If this poem evokes a person (and it did describe one, originally) why not give him/her a name? If not, I hope you just enjoy this very un-Elizabethan character, who could well find a place in Trollope or Austen, or Henry James, but would be un-noticed by George Eliot!

Mere English                                    You want to watch those oars

You would not care for Africa, you say;
the narrowness of mind that travel brings…
No persuasion had you venture forth
from Dorset and her soft enclosing hills.

‘Why precipitate adventure when instead
monotony so benignly passes time?
Why think, when thought pricks restlessness
or worse, provokes an impulse to the day?’

The winds of soft-stirred longing which arose             No doubt the vulgar has its place
were raiment of an English tempered muse.
Metered music and the symmetry of stone…
The dim glimmer of a chancel, summoning…

Were all the pulse allowed the dying risk of age.

No oceans all engraved with serpent coils…
Terror incognita, (I know it well…)
The map but not the diction: Heavens, names and foreign foods!
the spaces better blank to seed with certain platitudes.

The Naming of Parts

The Naming of Parts

Last Friday I promised to introduce some characters (and I will) but something intervened which seemed a worthwhile detour; the question of names. What intervened was reading a guest blog from Linda Gillard on Roz Morris’s ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ (my unvarying Wednesday habit of the week). In amongst all the music featured by other writers this one was inspired by Philip Glass.

I realised that my belief that I disliked of the music of Philip Glass probably stemmed entirely from his name. Brittle, transparent, unyielding, surface, glitter, glass harmonica, self reflective, sharp, wintry, the voice that shatters…. All come to the mind in that small single word (even though we share a Christian name it does not ameliorate the power of ‘glass’.) I realised I hardly knew the music of Philip Glass and that was the likely reason. John Cage was not much better: imprisoned, restricted, stale, cruel, limed, in need of cleaning. Perhaps it is a poet’s mind, with unending echoes of association. We weave webs from words and find ourselves caught by them. Now that I have really listened to the Glass violin concerto as related and focussed by another’s response to it, I found it incredibly poignant and mesmerising.

So prejudice kept a mind closed.

How relevant might this be to the naming of character parts? How acute an attention ought we to give it?

Did anyone see ‘Enchanted April’ and resonate with Mrs Wilkins saying she hated ‘Wilkins’ with its ‘kins’, its diminutive piggy tail? I so did!

I have always liked my name, Philippa, (Philos, Hippos…a lover of horses) and wonder whether my absorption with horses all my life was caused by it? Of did my mother have prescience? It was very uncommon back then. I only ever met one other. If so, she did not know how many would massacre its ancient Greek beauty by spelling it incorrectly. How many people spell Philosopher with two ‘Ls’? Yet I could never give a character an over familiar name, it would imprison any freedom they might need, and once envisioned characters take on their own life.

The rushing power of names and the harness of them are, for me, almost un-brookable. Does any one else feel this way? When I read a book in which a place name is contrived, unlikely to be in the County in which it is set I immediately distrust the writer’s sensitivity to history or place. J.K. Rowling, a genius with names in Harry Potter, now chooses ‘Pagford’ (slag, hag, tinker, all overwhelm the ‘ford’) for a ‘pretty village’ It does not quite ring true and certainly does not (for me) convey a ‘pretty village’. Too plausible however (like ‘Midsomer’ Murders), becomes merely dull. How to strike the balance between what you as author ‘feel’ in the name and what your readers’ references to it may be? It may be quite the opposite of what we expect.

One of the reasons I love Trollope is because his names are creatively uncompromising, nothing is left unstated: Obadiah Slope is both revengeful Old Testament and yet slippery as an eel, his hypocrisy and self importance all in the name. Mrs Proudie all chins and heaving indignation. Dickens’s Bob Cratchit, scratches on his high stool forever. We can then get on to the nuances of their situation. One could not get away with it now …although I did once try with ‘Geoffrey Mentwell’ ( a benevolent but bumbling retired schoolmaster- managing always to step in it) in a rural TV comedy.

A Christmas Carol
Bent with Service
Conceit personified

I feel that names carry with them all the qualities of those who gave them life before. So much so that naming my daughters was an exercise in bequeathing them conscious associations, hoping their lives would be shaped by their names…all Shakespearean (I wanted them deep-rooted) but with modulated second names to correct extremes. ‘Juliet’ was destined to inspire passion, and retain delightful innocence but I did not want passion lethal so she needed ‘Emma’ (Woodhouse) to correct the balance. In a general way there is something in each that does resonate with their literary forbears. I still wonder how I allocated them and in the right order? Re-incarnation decided and I was just the mouthpiece?

I would be interested to hear the views of others on this, and how they arrive at the names for characters, and what goes into making their choices?

Last week I mentioned a character called Vernon. He is a major character in a novel and has a hot/cold platonic relationship with Claudia. Would anyone start the ball rolling by describing what those names convey to them? Before I flesh them out in interaction? Flash portraits would be great! It would be interesting to discover what degree of congruence there is, and whether the importance I give to it, is justified. I doubt it is a habit I could shed, whatever we might discover.