Monday, August 26, 2013


On Euterpe’s voyage of 1879 the ship had to carry all the food for nearly 200 passengers and crew for many months at sea. Aside from the dry goods, which were stored in tins, sacks and barrels, they carried their meat live, on the hoof or claw, to be slaughtered on the way. Animals and poultry were housed on the deck in crates and pens and would have endured conditions which were uncomfortable and crowded.  They were not always safe even there, not even the pets – one family in the saloon cabin lost their “fine Russian cat” overboard and their prize cock died during the voyage and was eaten by the occupants of No. 1 Mess – "a most beastly piece of business" said diarist Joshua Charlesworth with a shudder.

Three pigs that died unexpectedly six weeks after the ship left London were also eaten, apparently without anybody worrying unduly about the cause of death. They may simply have found shipboard life not to their liking. Two of the three pigs were dressed for the first-class passengers and the first edition of the ship's newspaper The Euterpe Times contained a poem about the tragedy entitled “The First to Fall”.  The poet, who called himself “Euterpian” and was a frequent contributor of verse to the ship’s newspaper, made what he could of the phrase “latter end”, used in various ways to mean different things. 

(Thanks to Mike Wood for the picture.)


Weep Euterpians, rent your grief
For Porker's dead, his life was brief
And sad was his latter end.

While in the dock his health seemed good
He grunted loud in cage of wood
Not knowing his latter end. 

But fiends had marked him for their own
One fell disease soon brought him down
And nearer his latter end.

Another for fear he'd loose his prey
His tail did grip at close of day
And pulled at his latter end.

Stuck with the blade both sharp & keen
Porker gave up the ghost I ween
And meat was his latter end.
The pork would not have gained the prize
At Smithfield show for fat or size
For thin was his latter end.

That's all, for each Euterpian sinner
Knows how the Firsts had pork for dinner
And ate his latter end.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Editors – who needs them? Writers do. They really, really do. But – only after the writing is done.

We can self-edit of course, and we do it all the time. Writers have built-in editors who can get maddeningly bossy and too big for their boots. They muscle in when they’re not wanted and in fact can stop us writing altogether by being too critical too soon.  Striving for literary perfection, especially in the early stages, is confidence-sapping and can be the end of a good story before it’s properly begun - smothered to death. 

There is a time for an internal editor to sharpen the red pencils, and it’s not while the work is being created. That’s when writers need the freedom to make mistakes, dart off in unexpected directions, change characters’ names in mid-dialogue, transform a cosy English village murder mystery into a vampire thriller, toss in a couple of bombshells or move the setting from Amsterdam to Zanzibar – by spaceship. No editor, whether in-built or helpful friend, would tolerate such rampant slap-dashery.

For fiction at least, and to some extent non-fiction too, slap-dashery is close to essential. It’s one of the best ways to get any writing done. It’s afterwards, when the mess has been sorted out and tidied up, that the editorial self – the one in our heads – can be cut loose to start polishing. After that, most of us depend on an eagle-eyed, reasonably patient friend to catch the misplaced commas, the spelling mistakes, the lapses of taste and sometimes even the glaring holes in the plot, because we are too close to our own work to see it properly.

Only a few will ask for help from professional editors. The work is time-consuming and can be fiddly, and therefore too expensive for most writers.  An editor is a kind of literary whistle-blowing policeman who blocks the way, scrutinises the work, pats it down in search of concealed pitfalls, warns against going down this ill-advised road or that. The scope is spelling, punctuation and grammar at one end, right through to re-shaping whole books at the other. 

It’s an editor’s job to keep writers out of literary trouble. It is not, however, to mess with an individual writer’s style or tone. Those writing in language born out of texting, tweeting and Twilight-talk, extravagant and spiky with !!! and apostrophes in the wrong places but oh so alive, have a right to do their own thing and be safe from that disapproving red pencil when it comes to style. It follows that writer and editor should be sympathetically paired and work together, otherwise advice from one will be ignored by the other. Result: a waste of time, and hissy fits all round.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013


What’s the Spanish for “what do you think I am?”  And why do some people in Spain again think that I could be conned?

A few years ago I received a letter from the El Gordo Spanish Sweepstake Lottery S.A., whatever that was, telling me that I had won a share of $960,000 in a lottery for which I hadn’t actually bought a ticket. (See the blogpost “Million Dollars – Maybe” of 10 November, 2010.)

Today I have received a letter from a Luis Davis, of Calle Polo Medina, No4, 3B, CQ 304 Murcia, Espana, tel. 00-34-631126213. He describes himself as an attorney with EDL LEGAL, representing Mrs Rosemary Curry, a business magnate, who died “along with her family in a car accident along Madrid express road” in December 2004. Before this tragic event she had fortuitously deposited $9.5 million with a finance company in Spain. (Now wouldn’t you think that a business woman with $9.5 million would a) have the sense to make a proper Will including contingencies and b) have a lot of eager heirs? But never mind, let’s move on.)

Senor Davis tells me that he has been searching for any relatives to whom he could give the money, without success. So he has trawled through public records to find someone with the same last name and would like me to stand as next of kin to the unfortunate Mrs Curry. Wow - how lucky am I! (But - questions: how many other people with the same last name have received letters from Senor Davis? Do I have to share with all of them?) If I agree, Senor Davis will “prepare every legal document that will assist [my] claim, and facilitate the release of the fund to [me].” He adds that the transaction is 100% risk-free and legal, because he has kindly “worked out all the modalities to complete the transaction successfully” so would I please reply to his private email address or telephone him for more information.

Oh double wow! I can’t see any problems with any of that, can you? Senor Davis clearly has everything covered. My goodness, I’m about to become rich! But I see there’s a small catch. Once the fund is released to me, he proposes that we share it, 50/50.  But still, half of $9.5 million isn’t bad, I could scrape along on that, for a while anyway. It’s a lot better than what the measly El Gordo lot offered.

No thanks, Senor. You must think I’m a halfwit if you think I might believe that load of codswallop, and an idiot and a crook if you think I might go along with what would clearly be fraud on a grand scale if I agreed to your stupid proposal.

Friday, August 9, 2013


On the voyage of 1879, London to Lyttelton, New Zealand, the sailing ship Euterpe’s emigrant passengers had to endure many weeks at sea with not a great deal to do. True, they had to wash their own clothes, prepare and cook their own meals and keep their sleeping accommodation clean and habitable. The ship was small even by the standards of the time, and there was not much space, but they managed to amuse themselves in a variety of ways. They danced on the hatch covers, raced each other around the deck, played music, ran Sunday school classes in the lifeboats, and – proof that buying and selling is embedded in the human DNA – held sales, auctions and raffles at the drop of a dice.

On Tuesday 16th September passenger Mr Middleton played auctioneer at the first session of the Euterpe Auction Mart. Diarist George Lister noted that “the articles were of a miscellaneous character consisting of potted meats, salmon, lobsters, sardines, preserved milk, tobacco, candles, dishes, tins, woollen and linen jackets, hats and caps, cheese, lemons, marmalade, sugar and leather laces.” The bidders were keen, especially for the milk and potted fish which went for four times their value.  Some passengers wanting cash to buy the very expensive liquor available on board even sold some of their clothes – a good suit went for a few shillings. Others parted with their bread ration and a piece the size of a hand could fetch sixpence.

Sales and raffles also took place on deck as the voyage proceeded. James Martin bought a bottle of lime juice, a tin kettle and knife, fork and spoons at one sale, and his sister-in-law Annie won a ring in a raffle. These were conducted by charging an entry fee of perhaps a shilling, and the contestants then threw dice against each other until the winner was found. On one occasion Mr Skinner’s watch was raffled, Mr Hopkins won the contest, and immediately sold the watch back to Mr Skinner for £1. Everyone enjoyed the occasion, Mr Hopkins made a profit and Mr Skinner got his watch back.

NB: This may be one of the last Euterpe blogposts because the voyage is nearly over and the documentary sources are all but exhausted. Some of the passengers and crew have become familiar, others remain just names. For me it’s personal. The captain was my great-grandfather. On board on that voyage was his son, my great-uncle, whom I met just once in his old age without, of course, knowing or caring about his history. I wish – oh how I wish! – that I could talk to them both now.
Photo courtesy Mike Wood Photography - with thanks as always

Thursday, August 1, 2013


With the rebuild of my house due to happen in a year or two, (D.V., weather permitting, builders and associated tradesmen being free, the gods smiling, the stars in favourable alignment, temporary accommodation available, and assuming I live that long) I am taking stock. Should I think about a new (old) car? Will the washing machine see me out? Shall I take a course in teddy-bear stuffing?  Is it time to wear purple?

For those unfamiliar with the reference to wearing purple, I should tell you that Jenny Joseph’s famous poem starts “When I am an old woman / I shall wear purple …”  It is a defiant, quirky poem listing the things she is going to do when she’s old enough to please herself instead of behaving as she ought. With purple she proposes to wear “… a red hat which doesn’t go / and doesn’t suit me.” But hold on a second, Jenny, red goes magnificently with purple, just think of fuchsias. If I should wear purple, red would be my first choice for shoes. But I digress.

Ms Joseph goes on: “I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired / and gobble up samples in shops / and press alarm bells …”  No, none of that appeals.  Nor does running with a stick along public railings, or picking flowers from other people’s gardens – although I’ve been doing that for years. Doesn’t everybody? A geranium with its easily snapped stalk pushing its way out through a fence is fair game and grows oh-so cheerfully wherever it’s poked into the ground.

Pressing on, Joseph says “I shall go out in my slippers in the rain …”  Yep, I’m with you there, already do that, when I don’t go out barefoot. “Wear terrible shirts…”  I don’t have any, but I do have a collection of AJ’s old skivvies which are beginning to look suitably terrible. “Hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes…” Pens and pencils, yes loads, beermats no, and my hoarded boxes are empty except when I can fit one box into another. Memo to self: stop it at once, it’s insane, what are those men going to say when they arrive to deal with my belongings for storage and have to pack my boxes full of boxes into their boxes?

Oh well, plenty of time. They aren’t coming for ages. There’s time, as Joseph concludes, to “… practise a little now / So people who know me / are not too shocked and surprised / when suddenly I am old / and start to wear purple.”