Wednesday, June 26, 2013

MANNERS FROM MY LADY


 
A recent post from fellow blogger Joan Druett (World of the Written Word, http://joan-druett.blogspot.com/) questioned whether “thank you” was disappearing from the lexicon. Sad, but it’s probably true.

Once upon a time, when someone gave a child a present, that child was expected to say thank you. If she didn’t, her mother or father prompted her with “what do you say?” and the child would know at once what she had forgotten. It is good manners to say thank you when someone gives you something, or does something for you.

And once upon a time, children were taught good manners. Not any more, judging by the rising tide of stories going around. For example I recently heard of a grandmother who asked whether a parcel had arrived as she hadn’t heard from the birthday boy. Yes, it had. So why no text or phone call? The answer was scornful: what does it matter, no one says thank you any more, kids are too busy these days. Grandma retreated hurt and sad, wondering whether to bother next time.

What does it matter? Actually, a lot. Good manners are more than just please and thank you. They are the social graces that smooth our way through life, make people more comfortable with each other, and are essentially based on kindness and thoughtfulness. Good manners are not dependent on trends, or on learning some artificial set of rules, and they never go out of fashion. There is no excuse for neglecting them.

Ill-mannered children are brats, and they become adults who aren’t great to have around. They aren’t likely to be successful in business, which is based on sound relations with clients, customers and colleagues. They are lousy employers because they think that paying wages absolves them from being pleasant and appreciative. They are disagreeable work-mates because they are inconsiderate and haven’t learned how to co-operate. At home they are terrible partners because they are selfish, insensitive and probably messy eaters. As French novelist Colette observed, shoddy table manners have broken up many a happy home.

To Jonathan Swift, good manners was the art of making people feel at ease. He added that good sense was the principal foundation of good manners, but thought few people had that quality innately. So, manners have to be taught. By parents. At home. As the great Dr Johnson declared, young women [and young men] should “learn about pastry and such things from the housekeeper and manners from my lady”.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

MAKING DO AND MENDING


My goodness, we have it easy these days.  The shops are full of ready-made clothes, our food is packaged, our appliances are automatic – does anyone remember the old agitator washing machines? We didn't need a degree to operate them and believe it or not you could, and people did, boil the raw Christmas ham in them. 
 
We did everything by hand, from scratch. We made our own clothes, sewed and knitted for the children, grew vegetables, walked everywhere. Cars, for those lucky enough to own one, still had starting handles in case of emergency. We put up fences and laid concrete paths. We cut up adult clothes to make children’s clothes.  We darned socks. Old bath towels were made into hand towels and then face cloths. We made jam and bottled peaches. We glowed with achievement.

I remember one Saturday morning when AJ got up and mowed the lawn (with a hand mower) while I saw to the children and the laundry. This was done in an agitator washing machine, load by load in the same water – whites first, then coloureds, then the heavier items – and could take an hour or more, depending on how long you let the machine chug away. Neighbourhoods throbbed to the sound.

(Digression: The machines weren’t automatic, you manually changed the progress. You filled the machine from the tap, piled in the whites, set it to agitate.  When you judged it had done enough you started the wringer attached to the top of the machine and fed the clothes into the rinsing sink while the machine attended to the next batch of laundry. After rinsing – by hand – you fed the clothes back through the wringer and hung them on the line to dry.)

Back to that Saturday morning. AJ finished mowing the lawn in time to put his sweaty shirt into the washing machine with the coloured things. It was hung on the line in the brisk wind, and as it flapped I saw that it was getting a bit shabby and would do to make the toddler a pair of shorts. As soon as it was dry I cut the shirt up and ran up a pair of shorts – poof, just like that – and put them on the toddler, who scampered off to play. It wasn’t long before he got them filthy, so I popped them into the washing machine, still agitating patiently. That shirt was on the line as a pair of baby shorts within an hour of AJ taking it off.

Those were the days! Would I have them back? Not bleeping likely. A boiling ham makes a helluva mess of a washing machine.

 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

THE RISE, FALL AND RISE OF A LITTLE STORY THAT TRIED


 
Here is a cautionary tale for writers.  It is a lesson, first, in not taking one person’s judgement of your work as definitive, and second, about how not to run a magazine. 

In 1997 a story of mine called “Matters Arising” was placed second in the South Island Writers’ Association’s Dame Ngaio Marsh competition. Three years later, trawling through the bottom drawer, I found it and thought it might find a wider readership in the real world and I sent it to a modest little quarterly magazine.  I was a subscriber to the magazine to indicate support for its efforts to showcase New Zealand writing, even though the short fiction it published was not particularly to my taste. Also, I was sometimes disturbed by the tone of the editorial content, which was couched in language that was routinely brusque and sometimes offensive. 

The story came back to me. The title page had the following scrawled over it:  

“Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately we cannot use it. Joan, we scan stories. Your leaving 2 double space lines between every paragraph means we have to spend time adjusting every page. We DON’T have the time and WON’T do it. The Editorial Board felt your story lacked ‘bite’, tension & a main character. It also needed a good edit & cutting. A decent sized envelope for the return of your script – or a disposable script – would save you time & money.” 

In January 2001 Takahe magazine (issue 41) published “Matters Arising” without changing or cutting a word. The story attracted considerable attention and in the years since has become almost viral, having been copied and distributed many times. [Feel free, everybody, spread the word.] 

The cautionary tale doesn’t end there.  In February 2001 I received a plea from the editorial team of the little magazine asking me, as a subscriber, to renew my subscription as times were tough and the magazine was in danger of folding. They wanted an “instant response” plus $24 for four issues. 

I was really, really calm and polite when replying. I said that I wouldn’t be renewing my subscription because I thought the magazine was “mumsie” and the stories rather tired. I considered the editorial taste unsophisticated. And I objected to the tone in which readers, subscribers and potential contributors were addressed by editorial staff, and that offending just about everybody on whom they depended for support was probably not the best way forward. 

Judge the story for yourself. The link is up there on the left, on the story page.

 

 

Friday, June 7, 2013

THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT


 
My old friend Gladys wrote some pretty good stories. She, like most writers, used real life as a starting point, and she had a lifetime’s experiences to draw on.  She could weave stories out of the flimsiest material, the tiniest hint, the most tantalising of thoughts. Gladys could ask “what if…?” about anything.

One day she became involved in a real-life drama. The bare bones were that she unlocked her front door, walked into the living room, and found a rough looking young man cowering behind the sofa.  She was of course startled. The young man was even more startled, and the pair gazed at each other for a long, tense moment. Gladys collected her wits, spoke softly, offered tea and a biscuit, and bustled around wondering what the dickens to do. She finally managed to persuade the fellow that she should call the police, because no good could possibly come of the situation. They arrived, took him away, with Gladys promising to follow up with visits and support, a promise she kept.

What a rich source of material for a story! Gladys made the most of it. In fact she wrote it several times, and each time she entered it in one competition or another, without success.  Those of us who read it – and there were many – complained that there was something missing. It was a “cat sat on the mat” story. Gladys defended herself: it was true!

That was the trouble. It was true, the elements were potentially dramatic but there was no story.  Gladys was stuck with material that could have been exciting and meaningful but she found herself unable to invent anything that would make it so, simply because she couldn’t leave the truth out of the picture. And the truth was that nothing meaningful happened except a bit of a fright, tea and a biscuit, and the low key arrival of the police.

And the cat on the mat? John Le CarrĂ© said that “the cat sat on the mat” was not a story. However, “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” was the beginning of a story. Gladys didn’t make sure that the cat was sitting on the dog’s mat and that the dog had noticed.