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Bringing Books to the Few – the story of the Pack Horse Library Project.

These days many local libraries across the UK are closing, or being run on reduced hours by volunteers. Little by little, access to free books by the masses is being eroded – a far cry from the pioneering days when libraries, often financed by rich benefactors, were opening up across the suburbs as well as in town centres. There was too, a growing commitment to get books to even the remotest communities via mobile libraries.

I don’t think any mobile library in the UK was quite as adventurous as the Pack Horse Library Project in the US. This was set up by President Franklin D Roosevelt as part of the New Deal and operated between 1935 and 1943, delivering books on horseback to the poor, isolated and often near illiterate households in the Appalachian Mountains who had been badly affected by the Depression. The project employed around 200 people, based in 30 different library centres, and served around 100,000 people in rural Kentucky. Most of the employees were women and they were known variously as the ‘book women,’ ‘book ladies,’ or ‘pack saddle librarians.’

The initiative had in fact been first thought of earlier in the twentieth century by May F Stafford, but when her sponsor – a coal magnate – died, the programme died too through lack of funding. Twenty years later another woman, Elizabeth Fullerton, resurrected the idea and a Presbyterian minister, Leslie Country, offered his community library as a base, providing enough money to support the project could be raised. Money originally came from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and then through the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The WPA paid the salaries of the book women, but they had to provide their own horses, and all the books were donated. Most of the journeys took the women along tracks impassable by any other form of transport and it was reckoned that during each month the women totalled nearly 5,000 miles, either on horseback, or leading their horses across difficult terrain on foot. In addition to handing out books, many of the women provided reading lessons once they reached their destinations.

The project ended in 1943 when the DPA stopped funding it, and it wasn’t till the 1950s that the service was replaced by a motorised travelling library service.

Several books have been written about the Pack Horse Library Project. It is fertile ground for those wanting to examine the lives and deprivations of the rural poor, as well as for those interested in the extraordinary work of a group of strong minded and doughty women. The latest book has been written by Jojo Moyes. In a change from her usual contemporary romantic fiction she has set a rollicking adventure amidst the beauty and rigours of the Appalachians, and peopled it with the type of gutsy women who made the Pack Horse Library project such a success. Her novel, The Giver of Stars, was published this autumn.

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Live Literary Event in Warwick this Thursday.

Warwickshire writer Jenefer Heap, winner of the Good Housekeeping short story competition and author of The Woman Who Never Did and other short stories, regularly hosts a popular literary event in the centre of Warwick. The next one is on Thursday October 10th at the Warwick Arms Hotel, starting at 7.30  and a mere £3.00 a ticket. Local writers, some with established publishers, some self-published, some still scribbling on the backs of envelopes to amuse their family and friends only, will be reading from their work on a selected theme. I was invited to participate a few years ago and now try to attend each one.

This time a nod has been given to the approach of Halloween and the theme for all the poems, sketches, and short stories being read on Thursday is Words That Go BUMP in the Night. So you can expect, as Jenefer says, ‘spectres and the supernatural; witches and warlocks; dark deeds and demons.’  And, if previous events are anything to go by, at least one person standing up and doing something completely different – but very entertaining, nonetheless.

My own contribution will be sticking to the theme chosen for the evening. But, spoiler alert, because I don’t believe in the supernatural (not really, fingers crossed as I touch wood) it will be a pretend ghost – though still frighteningly real to the young couple being ‘haunted’.

Such events are great fun to take part in and good entertainment for those who just come to listen. There is a chance to sell copies of your own books, chat to other readers and writers and, being hosted in a pub, plenty of scope for a drink or two to keep the whistle suitably damp for reading aloud.

More details are in the poster below.

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Is Our Fate in Our Clouds, Not in Our Stars?

  We all know how clouds can have an impact on our day to day lives – from the farmer, anxiously scanning the sky to see if he has time to get the harvest in before it rains, to the commuter pausing at the door to see if she will need her umbrella for the walk to the station, to the family debate about whether getting the BBQ out at the weekend would be tempting fate. We also often use the words cloud / cloudy etc. without any seeming reference to the actual clouds in the sky; His face clouded over with anger, the water was too cloudy to see to the bottom, his reasoning was clouded by his passion. But clouds themselves are fascinating and have inspired many artists, musicians and writers.

David Mitchell wrote the acclaimed Cloud Atlas in 2004. He described the novel as being about the re-incarnation and universality of human nature, the title being inspired by a piece of music with the same name by the Japanese composer Toshsu Ichyanagi. To Mitchell, the word Cloud in the title referred to the changing landscape (skyscape?) compared with the fixed manifestations of human nature – the atlas.

The artist, John Constable, was so obsessed with clouds that he spent the summers of 1821 and 1822 on Hampstead Heath (London) painting the clouds. His sketches were so accurate they were subsequently found to tally exactly with the London meteorological records for those years. He had in effect drawn a pictorial weather diary for those two summers.

More recently, the artist Tacita Dean created a picture of stormy looking clouds as her contribution to the theme of Foreign Policy. The picture is now displayed in the Foreign Office. As a Brit living abroad she was, she said, worried about the implications of Brexit whilst she painted it. Ever the diplomat, Simon McDonald, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office on whose wall it hangs, is quick to point out the light breaking through the clouds.

Poets too have drawn inspiration from clouds, The German poet, Goethe, was inspired by the work of Luke Howard who classified cloud shapes in 1802 (Cirrus – high wispy clouds, Cumulus – puff ball/ cauliflower shaped clouds, Cumulonimbus – thundercloud etc.) He consequently wrote a series of poems about clouds, not very poetically titled In Honour of Mr Howard.

In a more light-hearted vein, Shelley wrote a poem simply entitled The Cloud.  I particularly like the last verse:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And the nursling of the Sky;

I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;

I change, but I cannot die.

For after the rain when with never a stain

The pavilion of Heaven is bare,

And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams

Build up the blue dome of air,

I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,

And out of the caverns of rain,

Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,

I arise and unbuild it again.

(If you have enjoyed this extract, you can read the whole poem at the end of this blog)

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The Cloud


I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,

From the seas and the streams;

I bear light shade for the leaves when laid

In their noonday dreams.

From my wings are shaken the dews that waken

The sweet buds every one,

When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,

As she dances about the sun.

I wield the flail of the lashing hail,

And whiten the green plains under,

And then again I dissolve it in rain,

And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,

And their great pines groan aghast;

And all the night ’tis my pillow white,

While I sleep in the arms of the blast.

Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,

Lightning my pilot sits;

In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,

It struggles and howls at fits;

Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,

This pilot is guiding me,

Lured by the love of the genii that move

In the depths of the purple sea;

Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,

Over the lakes and the plains,

Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,

The Spirit he loves remains;

And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,

Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,

And his burning plumes outspread,

Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,

When the morning star shines dead;

As on the jag of a mountain crag,

Which an earthquake rocks and swings,

An eagle alit one moment may sit

In the light of its golden wings.

And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,

Its ardours of rest and of love,

And the crimson pall of eve may fall

From the depth of Heaven above,

With wings folded I rest, on mine aëry nest,

As still as a brooding dove.

That orbèd maiden with white fire laden,

Whom mortals call the Moon,

Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,

By the midnight breezes strewn;

And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,

Which only the angels hear,

May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,

The stars peep behind her and peer;

And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,

Like a swarm of golden bees,

When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,

Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas,

Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,

Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,

And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;

The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,

When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.

From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,

Over a torrent sea,

Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,

The mountains its columns be.

The triumphal arch through which I march

With hurricane, fire, and snow,

When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,

Is the million-coloured bow;

The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove,

While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And the nursling of the Sky;

I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;

I change, but I cannot die.

For after the rain when with never a stain

The pavilion of Heaven is bare,

And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams

Build up the blue dome of air,

I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,

And out of the caverns of rain,

Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,

I arise and unbuild it again

Define me a Woman!

I have written before about language being a living, and constantly evolving, entity. New words come into common usage, old ones fall out of favour. If they didn’t we would still be talking like Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or the chap who wrote Beowulf, or simply sitting round the camp-fire going ‘ugg’ to each other and gesticulating.

That said, however evolved the language we currently use is, it is still important to know what words meant in the past if we want to understand past writers, and the historical context of their work. Not all past use of words seems appropriate to the modern ear, and we may not choose to use them. But to deny they exist is to deny the simple truth of my opening statement. I also find the original meanings of words, and their evolution, fascinating.

Which brings me to a recent furore about the definition of the word woman. In most dictionaries a woman is defined as an ‘adult female human.’ Some dictionaries go further and give examples of how the word is used, and list known synonyms. Recently a petition was raised to get the Oxford University Press to remove some of the synonyms for woman from its dictionary of English, because many of the terms were derogatory, or sexist, or both – well it’s hard to argue that wench, bitch, mare, bird, et al, portray the twenty-first century woman in a positive light!

The OUP’s head of lexical content (a woman) hit back, saying that the role of a dictionary is to reflect rather than dictate language, so changes are only made on that basis. She added, “If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning … it will not be excluded solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory. Part of the descriptive process is to make a word’s offensive status clear.”

After all, as well as words that seemed acceptable at one time and now don’t, other words, like gay, have travelled in the opposite direction recently.

I did not sign the petition, although I was asked to. I agree with the OUP defence. Many others who refused to sign, and who went further and wrote to the OUP with their objections, also wrote to object to the follow up demand in the petition. This was that the entry for woman should be expanded to include new definitions, such as lesbian woman and transwoman. The point of those who objected was that lesbians ARE women, not a subset of the sex. Lesbian is a separate word – the commonly understood noun for a woman attracted to members of her own sex. The word should (and does) appear under ‘L’ in the dictionary. Trans, on the other hand, is a prefix, meaning on the other side. Attached to the noun woman it denotes a man who identifies as a woman (as opposed to transman – a woman who identifies as a man). These two, relatively new, word coinages have a growing traction that warrants their inclusion in a dictionary. Though maybe best listed in the ‘T’ section to avoid arguments over which, if either, is the additional definition of an adult female human.

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Bellwether – A Sign 0f Things to come?

There has been a dispute in my daily paper about the use of the word bellwether. A reader complained that the word was regularly being used as a synonym for barometer, an indicator of change so to speak. For example, the way a particular town votes in a bye-election is seen as an indication – a bellwether – of how the whole country would vote in a general election. But this was not what he understood the word to mean.

The original meaning of bellwether was a lead sheep, usually a castrated ram with a bell round its neck, that other sheep would follow, making the shepherd’s life a bit easier. The word comes from middle English belle (bell) and wether (castrated ram). Even by the thirteenth century, though, the word was being used to denote a leader, initiative taker, trendsetter etc. and not just a special member of the flock. Hundreds of years later, my city, Coventry, was seen as the bellwether for pedestrianised shopping centres. Other towns and cities soon followed (learning from the mistakes the Coventry town planners made as they did so). You could describe Mary Quant, the fashion icon, as the bellwether for the popularity of the miniskirt in the 60s.

My Collins dictionary, bought in the 1980s, supports the newspaper reader’s assertion. It has just two definitions of bellwether: a lead sheep wearing a bell, or a leader. However, a more modern edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary includes the definition of the bellwether as an indicator of the way a situation is about to change. These days I rarely see the word used in any other context. It just shows that language is a living entity that constantly adapts and evolves in meaning. All of us, including the newspaper reader who complained about wrong usage, need to try and keep up. It’s probably also time I bought myself a more up to date Collins dictionary.

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Reading Yourself to Good Health

It is now generally agreed that doctors prescribe too many drugs. They genuinely want to help their patients, but don’t have much time to listen. So a quickly written prescription, and another, and another … leaves both patient and doctor feeling ‘job done’ – if only briefly. But other interventions are felt to be as good as, or better than, pills: cognitive behaviour, trips to the gym, walking (or just stroking) a dog, deep breathing, massages, and many others. The only problem is they take more time to sort, and require more motivation from the patient.

There are also people who advocate reading as a cure for many ills, including depression. Take Laura Freeman, for example, the author of The Reading Cure. Among the books she recommends are A Cat, A Man and Two Women, by Junchiro Tanizaki, about a marriage break-up; Milkman, by Anna Burns, about living with a constant sense of dread; Heartburn, by Nora Ephron, about trying to be perfect whilst your life, and hormones, are going haywire; and Grief is a Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter, about dealing with the death of a loved one.

Some people come at their reading cures more tangentially. An uncle of mine, with a stressful job in academia, found Westerns helped him relax, and many swear by P.G. Wodehouse as a good pick-me-up. I have found a well written, but not too gory, ‘who-dunnit’ helps me wind down at the end of the day if I have had to deal with something rather demanding earlier. My prescription? Anything by Ian Rankin, Val MacDiarmid, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and the author* whose name briefly escapes me, who has worked her way through the alphabet in the titles of her crime novels. (The actual plot, author, and title aren’t part of the cure, it’s the author’s ability to take my mind of the real world, if only for half an hour, that’s important). And, so far, has helped to keep me out of the doctor’s surgery.

[* Just remembered, it’s Sue Grafton]

I’m not sure I should recommend you buy one of my books as a therapeutic alternative to medicine, but I for one would feel a lot better if you did!

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No Such Thing as an Irish Leprechaun?!

Leprechauns are quintessentially Irish. Those impish little fellows, clad in green, creating mischief and hiding pots of gold at the end of rainbows pop up throughout Irish folklore. There is even a derivation of the word in the dictionary of medieval Irish that was first compiled in 1913. The word was originally spelt lupracan, which itself was derived from the old Irish for small – lu, and body – corp. This all seemed to make perfect sense.

Unfortunately for Irish sensitivities, recent research by linguists from Cambridge and Queens (Belfast) universities, have found a different derivation. Worse, the leprechaun isn’t even Irish in origin! Luprecan, they have discovered, comes from the Latin luperci, the term given to the priests who oversaw the Lupercalia. This was a festival in which scantily clad Roman youths ran along whipping women with goat-leather thongs. The festival has died out, which sounds like a good thing, but the leprechaun myth, minus any roman associations, remains alive and well in Ireland. You can still find plenty of Irish men who have engaged in conversation with one or more of the little fellows on the way home from the pub.

However, the revised etymology for the word is now in the latest version of the dictionary of medieval Irish. How the irish feel about the leprechaun’s change of nationality is not recorded.

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