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Hobbies, FE, the Five Senses, and Writing - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Hobbies, FE, the Five Senses, and Writing

This began as a reminiscent bit of bloggery and ended by being a disquisition on the writer’s art.  Bloody typical, really.  But it does all join up at the end, if you’re patient with it.




I have said before that Fife, and indeed Scotland herself, I regard, not as the Mother Country, but as the Grandmother Country; and this despite my grandmother’s having been born near Overton – and not the one near Aberdeen, I may add.  For all that her sister, my maiden great-aunt, chose to divide her own life between Morningside and Dallas, for all my own childhood summers that revolved around Turriff, Elgin, and Montrose, for all my grandmother’s occasional turns as being a Scotswoman by profession and temperament, for all her husband’s lunatic acquisition of property, in the midst of the Great Crash of the Thirties, in remote-and-inaccessible-Yell, neither my grandmother nor I could truly be called Scots.  And yet the ancient, raw-boned realm of Alba was in very material ways our grandmother-country, shaping us even from afar.


In the same fashion, Somerset is the Grandfather Country.  As I have noted in past musings, my grandfather was not actually born in Somerset, but this was a mere accident.  He was Somerset through and through. 


I never really knew his childhood’s house, not in the way I knew the house of his adult life: the always cool, slightly dark, icily formal house that my father and my Uncle George and I all knew in our turn, the house and the home farm, the tenants and the little church, the arable and the grazing and the stables; the house of stiff, faded carpets and dim lamplight and Approved Paintings and rather overbearing chairs and tables and things, but the house, as well, of ponies and spaniels, of gunroom and ancient tractor and wrought-iron railings and gate that were at once delicate and perdurable, traceries of vetch and grapevine forever transmuted into eternal metal eternally preserved.  And yet I knew it intimately, his home from the age of six years or so, through my grandfather’s memories and by how it had shaped him.  A house of the Summer Country, truly, on the banks of the nascent river, in memory always at the height of the Summer, hot and cloudless and dusted white with chaff and duff and late pollen, there at the high apex of a very long and narrow triangle, the base of which was and is formed by a line, running from the Southwest to the Northeast, between Wellington and the golf club, some distance to the East.


That was my grandfather’s childhood Elysium.  There, amidst the anything but alien corn, the young Val (no, keep guessing) and his younger brother Wills (no, not for ‘William’, nor even for ‘Trespassers Will’, though that should have been prophecy), ran wild, untrammelled, in their idyllic Summer Country.  Their demi-Eden; their Land of Lost Content.  For of course, there was a Fall, an Expulsion from Eden, a shadow that blocked the sun of the Summer Country: how could there not have been?  Such is the fate of paradise: et in Arcadia ego.  Their parents, my great-grandparents, divorced: a thing then scandalous and expensive.  Their father retained the lads as he retained most of the property, bar a small settlement previously made, and Great-Grandmother Anne went off with the chap she would later marry.


This event, which was more than a nine days’s wonder over ten parishes, shattered irrevocably that sunlit and careless world of their boyhoods: my grandfather began to become what he would be in his maturity, the driest stick in three counties, unbending and austere save on the very rarest and most private of occasions, a man of iron and narrow rectitude, a man who shunned any but the most politely formal contact with his fellows; a man who preferred to speak – and even to jest, when he did jest – with tenants and countrymen in preference to his own set, whom he kept at arm’s length; a man who preferred the company of horses and dogs and grandchildren to that of the rest of the clamant world, and who was happiest in a rural fastness, quite literally cultivating his own garden.  Not for him his daughter in law’s, my mother’s, chosen world, urban, sometimes urbane, and musical-artistic; not for him my mad godmother’s vibrant world of caviar and champers.  (I pause to reflect, with some surprise at my not having really noticed this before, that my grandparents and godmother between them represented, in their birthplaces, Bentley, Overton, and Kings Worthy between them, and yet none of them could be called Hampshire folk in any meaningful sense.)  His brother, by contrast, was affected differently to this, and fell into evil courses; perhaps his was the weaker character of the two, yet I cannot believe that my lost great-uncle should have fallen so far had his childhood not been blighted and stained by the shock and scandal of my great-grandparents’s divorce.


And yet there is at the least one thing that my grandfather gratefully took from his father, and perhaps, as it has its sensory, if not indeed sensual, applications, from his mother as well: took without regret, valued, and passed on to his sons and grandchildren, to whom – especially to me – it has been most valuable.


My grandfather was born on the 28th July, 1904; his father, in 1870.  Now, I imagine many people with great-grandsires of that vintage could state, casually and truthfully, that their great-grandfathers were Freemasons.  My great-grandfather had no particular interest in that bit of foolery; instead, he chose, at the age of 40 years, to interest himself as an amateur in masonry – and thence, through the romance of stone, in geology, and thence in hydrology, geomorphology, palaeontology, and archaeology.  (Perhaps it was his distant Sedgwick connexion at work.)  Similarly, he saw to it that my grandfather should have some understanding of mining and quarrying as well as of banking, if he was to manage the family interests, and, perhaps surprisingly, my grandfather did not rebel against this, but embraced it.  Certainly, what time I knew him, and during my father’s and my Uncle George’s lives before me, he was never happier than when he shed his ‘gent’s suiting’ and even his shabby tweeds in favour of corduroy and twill: he could frame a cottage, train a horse, breed spaniels, plough a field, deliver a calf or a lamb, ditch, hedge, thatch, and landscape.  And those who worked for him – ‘with him’, he always insisted – respected him the more and worked the better.  But he revelled in these things and never ceased to investigate new and better means of effecting these tasks, not for any material gain, but for the sheer joy of learning.  Simply put, he followed his intellectual interests, be it in looking into new strains of corn (not maize, damn it) or in investigating the pedigrees at a sale of bulls or rams or in studying the best way to build a water well. 


It was the same sort of un-mercenary intellectual impulse that led his wife, my grandmother, to take up painting in her sixties – and to indulge the younger me when I wanted to learn from experience if tinned kippers really were as ghastly as one had heard, or what the Tibetan tea served to Younghusband and the players of the Great Game (Darjeeling with grains of cooked plain rice and a small dollop of ghee in it) actually tasted like.


In turn, my father – who, as I have noted before, did not in the event go on to a university education (you will recall that, despite his having matriculated, he went on to spend those years, instead, square-bashing and shouting commands, as penance for having pranged the new motorcar my grandfather had given him … dead into the boot of the Chief Constable’s ’bus: my father’s next driving lessons, for that reason, involved a tank) – my father, having an interest in arms and armour, and a fascination with blacksmithing and farriery that began in his horsy youth, decided in his late twenties and early thirties to gain a certificate in steels metallurgy.  In his forties, he elected to do a bit of FE in various newly-changing aspects of estate management, including forestry; in his fifties, he pursued studies in horticulture.


I may add, by way of encouraging the others, that anyone could do as much: between the City & Guilds schools, the short Rural Studies courses (or the long course) at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and the courses offered by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, anyone who wishes might follow the same path.


In the same way, I in my own limited sphere have been a seeker-out of impractical knowledge, and have dabbled in all sorts of things in my forty-five years.  Rare breeds and old mills, narrowboats and heraldry: my interests are catholic and, in the main, wholly useless for getting a living (thank God).


And what of it?  Simply this.  I do not, and cannot possibly, claim to be anyone’s ideal of a fan-fiction writer.  There are reasons why I am not and shall never be a celebrated writer of fan-fiction.  But there are a few things that I do rather think I do rather well, and that I see remarkably little of. 


The sky was blue above them, blue with that improbability of blueness that seems almost unnatural, artificial, too good to be true: a blueness that belongs rather to Constable’s palette than to the light of common day.  The narrowboat glided upon the waters, calling up all the bell-mouthed associations that that mage of rhetoricians, old Will the glover’s boy, had bestowed upon narrowboats and barges, Nilotic, Cleopatran; calling up, also, the wealth of associations long accreted to lighters, barges, and narrowcraft in England: Mr Toad heading for home after a misunderstanding involving a motorcar, fat London aldermen full of ale and turtle soup, Bluff King Hal at Hampton Court, the pomp of merchantry in the days when the wool towns thrived, three men in a boat – to say nothing of the dog Montmorency – giving way to the traffic of an Empire, guilds and livery companies on the feast days of their patron saints, the mediæval wool clip and the sherris-sack from Bristol; John Taylor, Gloucester-born, plying the Thames in Shakespeare’s own time, the Water Poet, and Thomas Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, still maintained by the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen; Severn trows and West Country barges….


Town and bridge, field and meadow and wood, church and churchyard under the yew, farm and pasture, sheep safely grazing and sweet-breathed, doe-eyed milch-cows beneath the oak, bowls on the green and cricket on the pitch, the click of the bowl upon the jack for a toucher and the snick of the bails when a batsman was clean-bowled, treble-arched town bridge and packhorse bridge, swan and heron, angler and rambler, and always the pollarded willows on the bank.  The towns turned their best faces to the water, warmly-coloured Chilmark stone crisp in the lambency of morning’s light, Georgian and placid, mediævally assertive with all the pomp of burgess’s chain and guild-master’s rich fur tippet, unshakeably secure in imperial Victorian brick or ashlar.


The towpath in the country reaches was the colour of asters or champagne, and walkers and the occasional tow-horse kicked up dust as fine as meal.


The water was cool, and suggested a greater coolth still: smooth and glassy as a bowl of dripping awaiting the Sunday joint, it seemed almost gelid, as if it were as chilled and bracing as the long drinks of summer, the Pimm’s Cup and pink gin, the Buck’s fizz and the gin and tonic, that they sipped as all the world slid slowly past the fixed point of the narrowboat upon the still waters.




The Brigadier tramped down the lane, away from the pub, bound homewards in the placid night.  He reflected that men had died and worms had eaten them for less cause than just such a peaceful stroll in their own, intimately-known country.  Vast wilderness had its grandeurs, and its charms, and its sweeping brutalities, as well.  But it is in such still, peaceable nights, nightingale nights amidst the hedgerows, with the sexual reek of may pouring from every haw and thorn, that a peculiarly nameless and numinous terror lurks: the sudden horror in the country lane.




After, the Victors had settled down to enjoy the fruits of peace, secure in the certainty that nothing alarming would happen again for many a long year.  The years stretched before them in prospect, as smooth and seductive as Ogden’s best single-malt firewhisky (‘Smoky and complex, long in the finish, with notes of brandy-mint, bergamot, cinnamon, and Keillor’s Ginger Preserve’ – The Arbiter, Wine & Food Section, 12 June 2007).


To which the Fates replied, scoffing, ‘Not ’arf.’


Well, enough of that.  My point is a simple one.  A remarkable number of writers in this fandom – excellent writers, writers who are by common consent better writers than am I – would seem, if one read only their fiction, to live lives of sensory deprivation.  When sensory description does appear in their writings, it is almost always in the context of the sensual, and of the sexually sensual at that: other sensual appetites, aural and culinary and tactile, go to the wall.  One would think that they – and their characters – had never watched a cricket match, breathed in the scents and heard the sounds of haymaking, savored a dram on a dreich day, felt the salt spray on the sunset strand, touched the leather of a saddle, listened to the murmuring somnolence of doves….


The American conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, ‘When Kipling smelled the supper-smokes of Amritsar, he should have elaborated.  Most poets seem to have subsisted on anthracite.’


If I could hope to give any single word of advice to writers, and have it heeded, it would be this: Stop.  Disconnect from the Internet.  Leave the four blank walls of your study, a study that has become a gaol to which you have thoughtlessly sentenced yourself.  Walk.  Ramble.  Get rained upon.  Spend an hour with a dog.  Ride.  Eat.  Drink.  Go aimlessly abroad upon a rural bus and listen, surreptitiously, to the speech of strangers.  Be, like Lear and Cordelia in prison, God’s spy.  Get, in short, a life: a life well-rounded, with a background other than four white walls and a monitor: a life you can then give to your characters.  If you must write a Quidditch match, write it as a Test Match Special: give us the crowd and the wind, the scent of the turf on the pitch below, the odour of leather and polished wood and broom-straw.  The old saw is ‘show, don’t tell’, surely: then show us, make us to taste the butterscotch in butterbeer, conjure for us what makes us to distinguish between the Full English Breakfast, its odours and its associations, and the old ICS man’s chota hazri.  If you take us to the Wizarding seaside, give us ‘the redolence of butterbeer and firewhisky, fish and chips and mushy peas, Fizzing Whizzbees, Scotch eggs and bangers-and-mash, bubble-and-squeak, toad-in-the-hole, gallons of tea, buns, strawberries, ices, curries, candyfloss, ice mice, Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans, cakes, and – gladdening Harry’s heart and weighting his purse – a quite acceptable trade in cider and perry alongside the pumpkin juice. Over all and underpinning all, the ozone and the tar, the sand and the sea, the turf and the banked heaviness of over-spilt plantings of flowers, and the jostle of humanity. Over all and behind all, the thump of the brass bands, the occasional boom of an Exploding Tuba, and the squeals and shouts and laughter and occasional screaming fit of innumerable children.’


If the rubric of ‘write what you know’ has condemned your characters to polybrick student digs and cheap takeaways, go ye forth and know more before you write more.  ‘Everything that is in the intellect,’ writes Aquinas, ‘has been, first, in the senses.’


Live, damn it, live, in this world of clover and bluebell woods, of stone curlew and pipistrelle bat, of mutton and real ale, so that your characters in turn may come to life.


Here endeth the lesson.

ETA: Discussion continues here.

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25 comments or Leave a comment
ellie_nor From: ellie_nor Date: June 10th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Bravo! ::goes off to edit fic with this advice in mind::
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 01:49 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you, m'dear.

Always glad to be of service.
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

I'm honoured.

Welcome to Bedlam.
azdak From: azdak Date: June 10th, 2007 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Perhaps Kipling was wise... and I have, myself, always preferred Austen to Dickens.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 02:18 pm (UTC) (Link)


dbassassin From: dbassassin Date: June 10th, 2007 09:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
A remarkable number of writers in this fandom – excellent writers, writers who are by common consent better writers than am I – would seem, if one read only their fiction, to live lives of sensory deprivation.

Yes. Yes, they do. They live in suburbs, drive SUVs, and worry about getting the kids to their swimming/dance/music lessons. The majority are middle class, suburban, middle aged (or younger) middle Americans. In other words, the people most disconnected to the natural world.

Of course, sensation is not restricted to nature; it is perfectly feasible to write of sounds, smells, sensations acquired indoors. But as you've noted here, indoor sport in fanfic tends to be of one particular kind.

If you must write a Quidditch match, write it as a Test Match Special

I agree. I have only once attempted the tricksiness of the Quidditch scene. The only way I could get my head around it was to write it as hockey game (real hockey, not that turfy abomination called hockey on your side of the world). I think it's the closest Muggle equivalent in terms of play and audience experience, and it's one I'm very familiar with.

Sound, especially crowd sound, is vital to the experience of sporting events and I'm continually dismayed that most action scenes in fanfic devolve into simple play-by-play commentary.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 02:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

In reply to which ...

(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 15th, 2007 02:05 pm (UTC) (Link)


At my age, I didn’t even experience television until about age 7 or so (by which time many of my “mental circuits” were already formed around books, artwork, storytelling, etc.) In some ways, people who are middle-aged today are often relatively “late adaptors” when it comes to internet technology.

Also, those of us who are “old hippies” went through a “phase” where sensual awareness was the sine qua non of experience. In some ways I find that the younger people I meet (who are more “plugged in” to electronic diversions) have more problems with sensual “in-touchedness.” But that’s just my own experience; perhaps I shouldn’t generalize.

I think that is very true and very important, and I don’t see that it fails when generalised. (If you’re not very careful, you may yet bear the heavy responsibility of provoking me to yet another essay.) This is very much worth thinking upon.
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 16th, 2007 11:19 am (UTC) (Link)

A very good thing indeed, I assure you.

And should you ever be in want of such resources for any Brit-canon fic, I must advert you to britpickery, were you will be most welcome indeed.
tekalynn From: tekalynn Date: June 10th, 2007 10:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it was Poul Anderssen who said that he always tried to work at least two types of sensory experience into each description, and I think he was quite right.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

Je suis de votre avis.

Not a bad rule at all.
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 02:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank YOU. And to your excellent points...

wren_chan From: wren_chan Date: June 11th, 2007 12:09 am (UTC) (Link)
Having in only the last week been driven through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, seeing on the way Carlsbad Caverns, sunset in the desert, mesas, Pike's Peak and the Garden of the Gods, I feel terribly accomplished. ^^ I also once took a bus to Quebec from Texas. XD As for the rest, well, one has to do something with one's life.
penhaligonblue From: penhaligonblue Date: June 11th, 2007 03:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I was just in the Garden of the Gods this afternoon! I work at the living history site there during the summer, and I was picking up my Edwardian clothes for the season.
wren_chan From: wren_chan Date: June 11th, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oooh, neat. <3 We were there on Saturday after a nice long ramble in Manitou Springs. The Garden is scary close to the neighborhood I'm stopping in--I could probably walk there in a pinch.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 01:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

You peripatetic darling, you.

Most accomplished indeed.
wren_chan From: wren_chan Date: June 11th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: You peripatetic darling, you.

*giggles and bows* Thankee. Later in the summer we plan to fly to Oklahoma and drive down to Louisiana, and later still I'll be renewing acquaintances with Rochester, NY. There will also be day trips to Denver and Boulder.
penhaligonblue From: penhaligonblue Date: June 11th, 2007 03:50 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, very well said. While there are few things that irk me so much as poorly written description (of which there is much in the world of fanfiction), an author who can pull it off will gain my heart irrevocably. I will certainly keep your advice in mind for future stories.

The thing about having a standard lifestyle, as much of the Western world does, is that we tend to value, consciously or otherwise, what connects us and makes us similar - that is, broadcast television, the Internet, blockbuster films, and mass-produced clothing, furniture, food, music, etc. - or so it seems to me. This provides an easy and sometimes worthwhile distraction from life's other pleasures, and it's often difficult to pull oneself away from all that and find different ways to enjoy oneself. I've only recently been getting out of this habit myself. The fact that walks around lakes, rambles through churchyards, and hikes up mountainsides are a disappearing form of entertainment enhances my pleasure in them.

Forgive the probably failed attempt to rationalize the phenomenon of widespread electronic addiction.

Also, I may as well note that my great-grandfather was a (real) mason, too. As a matter of fact, his expertise was put to use by the Old IRA in the Irish War of Independence, during which he pulled keystones from railway bridges that were vital to the British forces.

And finally, like schemingreader, I can no longer resist friending you. :)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you, and welcome aboard.

And I think that mass techno-culture is also in play as a force depressing or suppressing sensory description precisely because it is so ubiquitous as to cease to be noticed.

Most obliged to you for yr kind words - and honoured to have you as a friend.
serriadh From: serriadh Date: June 11th, 2007 02:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
At the risk of gushing, that is one of the things I like about your writing (though that's perhaps because I enjoy description for it's own sake - I read fiction (fan- or not) because I'm a diehard escapist, and so to be caught up completely in another world is one of the joys of it. I can see that if you're more plot- or character-driven, too much description becomes a bore. See, for instance, some of the interminable descriptions in Hardy, which are (I find) boring and utterly pointless except to hit one over the head with pathetic fallacy or something).

A lot of people (and I know I do this too, a bit, when I write) seem to think writing a story is more like describing a film; I've heard people refer to the 'movie in their head' that they want to capture on paper (or computer screen, I suppose). This causes problems for me, because I really don't have a visual imagination. I don't see things as I read them. Indeed, I'm hard-pressed to conjure up a mental picture of (for instance) my sister's face, let alone something I've never seen. (Those memes that used to go round about 'what does your Draco look like' flummoxed me - I don't have a picture of him in my mind's eye.

Instead I imagine the texture, the air, the sounds, the atmosphere of something. If I want to see things, I'll watch TV or go to the cinema, or go for a walk.

Sorry, I've rambled a bit, but you touched on something that I've long been interested in!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC) (Link)


And I did suggest rambling as a positive good....

Rem acu tetigisti: you have precisely set out the difference between literature and cinema. There are thousands of books at WH Smith that fail as books for the very reason that the authors were subconsciously writing a screenplay.

Well spotted.

And thank you for your kind words, as well.
themolesmother From: themolesmother Date: June 11th, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC) (Link)

Late to the party, I'm afraid, but

Just have to put my twopennorth in anyway.

You've got me thinking here. I love reading your writing partly because of the pictures it conjours up. My own, on the other hand, tends to be rather minimalist when it comes to description. Perhaps it's because I started my writing career with stage plays. You can quite happily leave all the descriptive stuff to the director and the actors there and concentrate on the dialogue. I see the pictures in my head but am I actually conveying them to my audience? Hmmm. I shall have to bear that in mind in future.

Very interesting and challenging piece.

wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 04:49 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well, you're in good company.

Didn't Solzhenitsyn format one of his fictions as a screenplay?

And description can be minimalist and yet serve.

Thank you - for the kind words, and for the incisive contribution.
mystery_sock From: mystery_sock Date: June 13th, 2007 11:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Then again, when I began, I wrote about things I experienced only in my mind. Going back and reading them now, it's freaky how right I got a lot of things, just by imagining them.

And trying to truly describe an experience I've actually had always falls so wretchedly short. I've been trying to write about the 3 days I spent in the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn in 2000 for years now, and it's never quite good enough. I keep trying, though, because that part of DUMBO is now gone forever and neither I, nor anyone else, can ever have that experience again. I have to write about it to keep it alive, and the fact that I can't quite do it is one of those painful, poignant truths about life that I... totally hate. :)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 15th, 2007 02:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

Between the fact and the memoir falls the shadow, Mr Eliot.

Then again, when I began, I wrote about things I experienced only in my mind. Going back and reading them now, it’s freaky how right I got a lot of things, just by imagining them.

Without signalling my own answer (too late, I know), why would you say it is that you were able to get these things right by imaging what they might be? I’ve an idea, but I’m much more interested in hearing yours.

And trying to truly describe an experience I’ve actually had always falls so wretchedly short. I’ve been trying to write about the 3 days I spent in the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn in 2000 for years now, and it’s never quite good enough. I keep trying, though, because that part of DUMBO is now gone forever and neither I, nor anyone else, can ever have that experience again. I have to write about it to keep it alive, and the fact that I can’t quite do it is one of those painful, poignant truths about life that I... totally hate.

Curse of the writer, that. Yet also, as you say, of immense importance. (You do realise I had to look up ‘DUMBO’, mind you.)
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