Beltane is the Gaelic name for the month of May and the festival that takes place at the beginning of the month. Etymologically, the original Celtic word meant ‘bright fire’. It is the opposite of Samhain, which is in October, and the Celtic year was divided into the half that ends with Beltane and the half that ends with Samhain.

It is also the cross-quarter day marking half way between spring equinox and summer solstice, so to my mind, it’s the first day of summer. In the olden days it was the festival which marked the droving of cattle and sheep to pasture, bringing them out of their winter folds and barns.

Beltane was revived in Edinburgh in 1988 and now each year a great bonfire is lit on Carlton Hill on 30th April, i.e. tonight. (

In Celtic culture, and surviving into historical times in Ireland, the Beltane festival features the lighting of bonfires, often on high places. It would have been quite a sight in Iron Age Britain to stand in your hillfort and  see the bonfires leaping skyward from all the others in view on the horizon, a unifying thing, perhaps, in an age of tribal division and conflict.

Two great fires were lit, to which were added fragrant woods such as juniper, and the cattle were driven between them in a rite of purification.

No doubt other folk survivals, such as decorating barns with May boughs and blossoming hawthorn, are rooted in the Iron Age. I was brought up under a prohibition never to bring ‘May’ (hawthorn) into the house because it was unlucky. This must have been the law of signatures still operating in the twentieth century, coming through from the fourteenth, being passed mother to daughter in unbroken continuity, for apparently the (rather wonderful, almondy) smell of May blossom was the odour of the plague.

Here in Oxford, May Day was revived in the nineteenth century, I believe. On May morning, we’ll all be up beforetimes and shall meet on the High at 6am for hymns sung from Magdalen College tower, after which students in formal suits and ballgowns will risk paraplegia by jumping from Magdalen bridge into the very shallow Cherwell. And then the fun begins with  Jack o’ the Green – a walking bush – lurching up the High Street, followed by Morris dancers.

I love May Day. The evangelical Christians of our city hate it and have been known to blast out amplified metalhead music to drown out the bells of the Morris men.

The pubs and cafes are open and the aim is to get drunk by 9am. I usually pass on this, but never say no to a Full Works breakfast (anything fry-able piled high on your plate).

Actually, I haven’t been to a May Morning for some years, but I may do so tomorrow. There’s an alternative to the rather rowdy stuff going on in the city, and it features the papier mache bull that trundled past here yesterday, and all the middle-aged academics of North Oxford come out to have a pint of beer at the Anchor and to sing pagan hymns.

On the vast meadow opposite where we live, which has had continuous grazing for four thousand years, the young bullocks returned to their summer pasture a few weeks ago, arriving in big animal transporters that for once, mercifully, were not destined for the abattoir. The young bullocks spent all morning clattering down ramps and bellowing in the wide open space before them. Now they are roaming about in the far distance like bison. Happy Beltane, guys.

Cherry tree, Stanton St John, May 1st 2010. This year, on my own tree, the blossom has gone and the fruit is set. Amazing!

The Marriage of Heaven and Earth

I’ve been planning a series of posts on editing,and one on Beltane, but all that has been interrupted by the vision that came to us today via our television sets of the wedding of Prince William to Miss Middleton. I only turned on because I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t, and besides, I’d invited two guests just to make sure I did watch it. It would have been very easy to keep writing as usual and enjoy some quality time without the phone going.

So I turned on just as the Queen arrived at the Abbey and almost at once I began to feel strange; then, as Kate came out of her hotel and into the car, the tears welled up.

Why? I’m not the kind to go soft at weddings, honestly I’m not. It did happen at the last we attended, I grant you, but that was because the groom had no family and I felt sorry for him. But here I was going softer and softer until by the time she stepped out on to the red carpet I was runny butter. It was Beauty undoing me. I’d already figured out that she had been designed by Botticelli in the souls department prior to birth, but this was going beyond mere Renaissance surfaces. It was the veil…

My friend the geometer Tom Bree wrote a beautiful article on the symbolism of the veil just before he married his Helen. To see that Kate not only had the veil but was wearing it over her face put my symbol-antennae on full alert. Alas I did not see her lift it, or William’s expression when he saw the divinity of his wife for the first time. Perhaps I was still recovering from the trees. Or the floor.

The nave of Westminster Abbey was lined by maple trees in spring leaf. To see living trees in a gothic cathedral, the architecture of which is modelled on trees, was extraordinarily powerful. Plant and stone. Nature and Man. May Queen and May Lord. This was a mystic union, hinting at the meaning of what was going on. And then the floor.

The medieval cosmati floor is so symbolic it takes a whole book to unpick it (see the one by Richard Foster). It is very rare to see it uncovered, but there we were, graced with an aerial view of two beautiful young people being married on it.

I have long and fervently admired Prince Charles and the main reason I watched today was because the otherwise-unknown-to-me Prince William is his son. So I was supporting Charles (I hope he realised that). I’m currently half way through his magnificent book called Harmony, about which more anon. Anyone who knows him, or has read the book, will know how alive he is to symbolism. (A quick run to the window to see what the noise is and I find it’s the May Day ‘bull’ being towed along the street in prep for Sunday’s dawn festivities – goodness, what a spring this is). I imagine Charles’s role as adviser in these proceedings was a large one, and that William is receptive to his father’s ideas (I hope, I hope). But the trees, apparently, were Kate’s idea.

Symbolism is always at the heart of pageantry. It’s what makes pageants work. Think back to all those Elizabethan masques and the Baconian and Shakespearean messages they contained. I’ve done a lot of research into Medici pageants and know that they were also conceived by philosophers.

Charles is a philosopher, for sure.

And then, just in case we’d missed the symbolism thus far, the Bishop of London gave an extraordinary sermon, pointing out that everyone who marries is a king and a queen for a day and he spoke about the need to find and reveal our true selves. The Bishop of London – Richard Chartres (what a name) is a philosopher.

The symbolism of marriage begins with the union of Heaven and Earth, with the Sky God and the Earth Mother. Temples were built to make a sacred space for this union, and the priest and the priestess enacted the roles. Kings and queens came later, building palaces to look like temples, and their union gave birth to nations. Then came Mr and Mrs, with their houses built to look like palaces, and their union gave birth to families. This is a fundamental cosmic principle of making two into one. As above, so below.

A good book on all this is The Temple and the House by Lord Raglan (the anthropologist, not the leader of a cavalry charge).

And while my geometer’s head was being strummed like a lute by all this symbolism, I kept seeing flashing images of people wearing union jack hats waving flags and screaming. They know nothing of the subtle structure behind the event. They’re just having a great time and put it down to gold braid, gilded carriages and the jingle of harness. We look at flowers and breathe their scent without any clue to the Fibonacci series of number that is growth.

If the British Royal Family gets the whole world interested in its events, it’s because it not only knows how to put on a great show, but how to give it depth and meaning.

Two people were married, and for a moment there was nothing wrong in our lives. All was well. Heaven and Earth were one.

Here be Dragons

This is a highly symbolic week inviting Christians to reflect on the personal significance of riding on a donkey, sharing food, being scourged at the pillar, whipped and derided and finally crucified. Today, Saturday, is a limbo day, a pause in the story while everyone mourns Jesus before tomorrow and the resurrection, the springing back to life of the man, the story, the year.

Albrecht Durer, Paumgartner altarpiece

So I was surprised to hear from a friend who is a vicar that St George’s Day, traditionally 23rd April, has been ‘displaced’ by Holy Saturday. Displaced? To where? Or when? ‘But it’s still Shakespeare’s birthday,’ he tells me cheerfully. And by my reckoning it’s still St George’s Day.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get into the flag of England stuff, and the pubs filled with those to whom being English means being white, thick and violent. I want to get at the archetypal George – and his Dragon.

The historical saint was a Roman soldier of the 3rd century AD during the time of Diocletian. When the emperor issued an edict ordering the arrest of every Christian in the Roman army, he tried to save his favourite, George, by persuading him to pay lip service to the pagan gods, but George refused. He was lacerated by the wheel of swords and revived three times before being decapitated. This early Christian martyr was a great inspiration to other Christians living under the Romans.

But there are no dragons in his story. Our St George came to us from the Near East, carried west by returning Crusaders, and is more symbolic than real, tied up with Templar Knights, chivalry, the Order of the Garter.

As the story goes, in a village a dragon built its nest near a spring and the villagers, needing to distract it to be able to draw water, gave it a sheep every day. When they ran out of sheep, they offered it a maiden. Enter the knight on his horse.

Arnold Bocklin, Roger and Angelica

The archetype of dragon-slayer is ancient, surviving in the myth of Perseus, and in the figure of the Archangel Michael. The story of Ruggiero and Angelica in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso retells the Perseus myth.

According to G K Chesterton, ‘Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell them that dragons may be killed.’

There is an enduring debate as to whether we should include ‘dark stuff’ in the literature we give children, such as Grimm’s Tales. I’m of the opinion that we should, otherwise children grow up not knowing dragons may be killed, and get completely overawed when they meet one.

Steven Pressfield has a new book out this week called Do the Work. It’s a follow-up to his War of Art. As before, he’s dragon-bashing. Steve calls the dragon ‘Resistance’. It has curled itself round our creative spring and snarls and snaps its jaws when we wish to draw water. ‘Call yourself a writer? How presumptuous! What’s the point of writing anyway? You’ll never be published (again). It’s just self-indulgence. Get yourself a proper job. Dragon massage, for instance. Or cosmetic de-scaling. Pamper me, for I am your dragon!’

Over the past year or so I keep getting ideas for ‘the book after next’. Now that I’m finishing A Gift for the Magus (regular readers will know that I usually take longer finishing a book than it took to write it), the ideas keep coming. These are my sheep and each one has been devoured by the dragon. But recently I got another, and, coinciding as it did with the publication of Steve’s book, it could well turn out to be the maiden. I want this one to live. With Steve’s book by my side, I’m busy at least dodging the dragon. I have yet to rise up and pierce it through the throat.

(Perleeeeze – no ‘be kind to your dragon’ sentiments, no sieges by the Dragon Liberation people – dragon-slayers need dragons, and it’s only a story.)

So that’s my Easter message: slay the dragon of negativity and let at least one idea live.

Happy St George’s Day. And, oh yes, happy birthday, Shakespeare.

Angels at work

After two attempts I’ve failed to get the embedded YouTube clip to show, which tells me I shouldn’t have tried in the first place since it would defile my blog. If you’re really curious now, go to YouTube and search for Funny EDL Interview.

My life with Editor – corrected

My apologies for the long silence. The weather has been (still is) glorious and in the few hours I’ve been able to pin my restless self to the desk, I’ve been Editing with Editor. My trial period ended at the weekend and I immediately bought the programme because it’s my comforter, my security blanket. Was it Linus who used to suck on a piece of rag? Well, I would wail very loudly if someone took Editor off me now.

Yes, it’s mechanical and cannot replace a human being. It cannot spot a plot hole or an inconsistency. It’s not even infallible in what it can do. During the work I noticed that I had ‘sites’ for ‘sights’ and even in its list of homonyms Editor had missed that. At Godstow Press we use one proofreader who is convinced he’s infallible and we have not had the heart to disabuse him. Fact is, no one is infallible, not even a machine. In our experience, a book needs at least four proofreaders but I think Editor will cut that down to one human and one software programme, working together.

I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about editing. One of the worst was from a friend who had his book ‘edited’ by the publisher running it through Word’s spellchecker and accepting all changes. Eighty errors were introduced into what the author considered to be clean text. Worse, the publisher wouldn’t do anything about it other than argue in defence of his ‘editor’. If nothing else, this programme could be used for purposes of arbitration.

Editor’s style sources are the Modern Language Association, the Chicago Manual of Style and, lately, the (London) Times Style Guide. There is much to learn in using the programme, how to create your own dictionaries, how to turn off certain features (‘gender specific’ notices are of no use to any historical novelist!), how to make a list of exclusions. For instance, I do not need to be told that ‘olive branch’ is trite or a cliche when my story is set in Italy on Palm Sunday, so I can exclude that phrase. I look forward to becoming an adept. It may take some time.

I am learning new stuff every day and loving it. Having been taught when I was a child to spell hiccupped as hiccoughed, I now find that the latter is a 16th century mistake. Hiccupped it is! A small triumph of reason over English spelling.

Every now and again I pick up the scent of personal history. I’m beginning to wonder if our true biography doesn’t lie in the words we use, and when we first picked them up and learned to use them. When, for instance, did I acquire ‘in lieu of’ as a phrase, understand what it meant and use it? It’s like being visited by a ghost of my own childhood, a blonde kid in a brown and yellow uniform the colour of banana toffee. There she is, her mind a sponge to all these linguistic expressions which, a great many decades later, are being checked by a software programme and mostly, thank God, approved.

Sometimes I learn things in passing. Editor told me that ‘gifted’ – which I’d used in the sense of having artistic aptitude – is a jargon term or buzzword when used as a verb. Well, I exulted at that, because Editor is American and ‘gifted’ as a verb is, I thought, a prime example of how Americans are ruining English (pace all my good American friends! – you are no more linguistic barbarians than English people are either criminals or servants). So it was both jolting and piquant to be ticked off by Editor for a misuse of the preposition ‘with’, and for Editor to be right. If nothing else, it reminded me that all national stereotypes are false. (See below if you want a truly horrible illustration of the speech ‘pattern’ of a young English person, and some frightening preconceptions of others – not for the faint hearted).

(What would happen to that young Nazi’s thoughts if he learnt to speak properly?)

Until I learn Editor’s exclusion tricks, I have to wade through pages of suggested errors, ninety percent of which are irrelevant. But the remain ten percent are helpful, and within that, a one percent of pure gold. Having sorted out which and that at last, I’m now working on whether and if (rule: if ‘whether’ fits, use it).

Here is an example of sloppiness improved, not by Editor, but by Editor drawing my attention to a fault. The original sentence ran, It was not possible for him to enter the mosque. Editor did not like a sentence beginning ‘It was’, and suggested ‘not possible’ should be ‘impossible’. When I looked at it, however, I realised my mistake. It would be wrong to say that it was impossible for him to enter the mosque. He could scale the walls and take it by storm if necessary. So what had I meant? I rewrote the sentence: He was forbidden from entering the mosque. Much more precise and true.

I think it’s the function of good prose to keep the reader awake and, in John Gardner’s phrase, ‘maintain the fictional dream’, that is, there should be no snags to remind the reader that this is a story. Last night I returned to Level One editing, which is reading out loud to David after supper. He stayed awake. As I read, I noticed that my sentences were flowing like a stream rather than struggling from one stagnant pool to the next. As I read, I was free to agonise about the story, not how it was being written. At the end I expected to be told about my plot holes and absolute lack of pace but all I got was approval.

Editor works.

Now it’s far too lovely to be sitting here and I’m off to the garden to do some watering. The blossom here this past week has been jaw-droppingly beautiful. We are completely bucking the trend of Holy Week, which is usually wet and cold and ends with planting potatoes in freezing mud on Good Friday. Our potatoes are in and David is with them right now, doing his early morning watering stint.

Never too Old to Learn

Commenting on a recent post, Celia Hayes spoke of an editing programme called Serenity. I’m over half way on my ten day free trial and it’s the main reason I’ve not blogged all week.

We all need editors. I’m currently reading and thoroughly enjoying Harmony by HRH The Prince of Wales. It is published by Blue Door, the prestigious new imprint from HarperCollins, about as mainstream as you can get. There are no typos that I can see, no gaps between words that shouldn’t be there, none of those things commonly called ‘errors’, so it has almost certainly been edited. However, the editor did not know that it is Bad Form to begin a sentence with a number in figures (should be spelt out ); nor did he/she gently rebuke His Royal Highness for capitalising words such as Winter and Spring. Or perhaps he/she did and was rebuffed for his/her temerity (as happened to me once on this very issue, resulting in a book looking like it had been written by a German capitalising Every Important Word).

There are different levels of editing, and this programme deals with six of them, each one done separately as a list, which shows how incredible the human brain is, because a human editor would read all six levels at once and produce just one edited copy.

1. FIX – finds many mechanical errors and lists words and phrases that are often incorrect in novice writers’ work.

2. SPELL1 – finds many spelling mistakes that other spelling checkers miss.

3. SPELL2 – finds many sound-alike words that poor spellers mix up.

4. TIGHTEN – looks for wordiness and for unnecessary repetitions.

5. POLISH – looks for cliches, vagueness and overused expressions.

6. CONSIDER – finds many words and phrases that, while not always wrong, often cause problems for novice writers.

And those six levels are only in the category called ‘copy editing’. The Serenity programme is good, if ill-named (it would have been better called Humility), but it shows the limits of machines and software programmes. It does not do, cannot do, what only a human editor can do and show you where your plot has a hole or the pace has slackened. It is, by its very nature, mechanical.

There is a joke about a novelist writing a story set in Florence and using all the facilities Word has to offer, including ‘Find and Replace’ when he decided to change his hero’s name. His editor says he enjoyed the book but he was a bit puzzled by references to ‘Michelangelo’s Kevin.’

Machines have their limits.

That said, Serenity’s Editor programme is pretty bloomin’ amazing. I shall almost definitely be buying a copy once my trial time is up. I must say it is one of the most difficult programmes I’ve encountered and I’m still not using it properly, I’m sure. It is designed to make things difficult so that we don’t just use it like an editing slave, clicking the mouse whenever we accept the suggested change. Until I did what I was told and printed out the draft copy (it numbers every sentence in your text) I found it maddening going from ‘draft’ to ‘usage’, as I was meant to. Do what you are told! For Editor is here to teach you, not to do the work.

And boy, I have a few things to learn. For those aficionados of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, this programme goes a long way to helping you eliminate all unnecessary words. It’s already shown me that when it comes to the difference between that and which, I consistently opt for the wrong one (and no, I’m not going to tell you which is which).

I quickly learnt to work with Editor rather than be cowed by it, and by no means do I accept all suggestions. My sentence may be ‘wordy’ but I have cadence to consider as well as economy. Nevertheless, I feel chastened to learn how often I use ’empty intensifiers’ such as ‘very’ and ‘great’ and how much more effective a sentence is without such words.

For example, consider the difference between these two:

Alberti would say you are very ignorant.’

‘Alberti would say you are ignorant.’

The first is what I would say in the circumstances, but the second carries more force; in fact, the absence of  ‘very’ does the intensification that the word, overused, no longer does.

You get six lists from Editor, which means you have to comb through your draft text six times. This is intense and you cannot do this work without both the text and its author changing. What I have learned is how often I use ‘vague terms’ such as ‘somewhat’, ‘rather’ and ‘quite’. I know why I use them: these are middle class understatements often used to humorous effect, but it suddenly occurred to me that I may just have picked up this trick from Wind in the Willows when I was a child. I haven’t checked, but I’m wondering if I don’t seem somewhat Mole-ish at times, or, as Editor would have me say it, deleting ‘seem’ and ‘somewhat’: ‘I am Mole-ish’. For what the programme is pointing out to me is the English habit of avoiding saying exactly what I mean. I sit in my burrow, make tea and try not to offend anybody. As a result, my text is woolly and verbose with empty intensifiers and dead metaphors.

But I have also learned my strengths and it is only lists 4 and 5 which are throwing up changes and improvements, the rest I could ignore, but I read them all through just in case, because Linda Humility is my new name.

As I said, it’s a programme designed to teach as well as advise. You have to sit and think of an alternative to your ‘cliche or dead metaphor’. I find this very useful – oops! I find this useful and hope it rubs off. But is ‘origin’ really a pretentious way of saying ‘beginning’? Should ‘not possible’ always become ‘impossible’? No! You must keep your wits and overrule where necessary. Starting sentences with ‘there was’ may be sloppy but it is sometimes unavoidable and rhythm must always be considered. Nevertheless I appreciate the work which changed ‘ill-gotten gains’ to ‘profits from usury’, and learning what the difference is between ‘ship’ and ‘boat’, ‘gaol’ and ‘prison’.

Editor is not infallible. It’s American for a start, and has to be forgiven for its inappropriate spelling suggestions. ‘Spelt’ it tells me, is the name of a fish and I should use ‘spelled’ – well, not in the UK, as it happens, but I appreciate having to go to the dictionary to find this out – indeed I’ve never gone to the dictionary so often as I have done these past few days. (There is a way to switch to British English but I haven’t found it yet.) Editor’s list of ‘homonyms’ designed to spot possible errors failed to see that I had written ‘sites’ for ‘sights’ – but I would never have spotted this myself if I had not been in the process of the intense work which Editor encourages.

Yes, a human editor is best, but one always needs at least three – one to spot holes and inconsistencies in the story; one to edit copy as Editor does; one to proof read at the end – and to have all three is expensive whoever is paying for it. Serenity’s Editor is a good alternative to the copy editor. My husband does the first job; Godstow employs someone to do the proof reading. I’ve always done the second kind but now, I realise, not perfectly. Hence the lesson in Humility.

But there is a law which states that some mistakes are only visible once a book is bound, and no amount of editors will help bypass that. One always has to steel one’s self against the helpful correctors, those readers who write to you so much more quickly than those who want to praise your work. Forget the humiliation, be grateful and designate an ‘Author’s copy’ of your book to keep a record of all changes for the next edition.

In The Rebirth of Venus I poked a little fun at all this. My hero is working in one of the earliest Italian printing houses and meets the Printer’s Devil, the sprite responsible for all the mistakes. And then I deliberately misspelt a word to demonstrate how hard it is to spot such things. My proof reader and typesetter did spot it, so I had to keep correcting their corrections to keep the mistake intact.

I’d heard from nobody about it until this week when I received an email from Argentina:

In case you are collecting lists of errors for future editions, we had a good chuckle today because on page 265 of the third book of your trilogy, when Tommaso is complaining that it’s somehow and inexplicably impossible for the human brain to spot all the mistakes in the proofreading of printed texts, the end of that paragraph (the last word in the chapter – “understanding”) is misspelt!! 🙂
Tee hee!