INTRODUCTION After a varied and totally non-musical career I took up playing guitar in my mid-fifties, and reinvented myself as a singer-songwriter. My first album, Petrol Station Flowers, was produced by Richard Digance and released in 2015, and I am now in the final stages of working on a second. As well as playing in pubs and folk clubs, I have devised some ‘musical talks’ which are proving very popular with WI groups, U3A, etc. I have published a booklet, Late-Flowering Lyricist, containing the words to twenty of my songs.
MEETUPS Long distance Special Guest 2017
PROJECT Lifting the Lid – an album of ten songs, to be recorded in March 2017.
QUOTE “If I ain’t done it, I’m capable of it or I just ain’t got round to doing it yet.” – Dolly Parton
Photo courtesy of Ray Taylor, Great Bardfield Folk Club
13th February 2017
The ten songs for the new album have been written and rehearsed (more or less) to my satisfaction, with just over two weeks to go before the recording session! Between now and then I will post an outline of each one, describing the incident or idea that inspired them, starting with the title track:
#1 Lifting The Lid
Researching family history has become increasingly popular in recent years. Websites such as Ancestry, and resources like online newspaper archives, mean that information which could once only be found by trawling through miles of microfilm in dusty libraries, is now instantly available to anyone with a computer and a credit card. Many of us hope to unearth an ancestor who may have been the product of a royal liaison, but the plebeian fact is that most of us are descended from horny-handed sons of toil.
A forebear deported to Australia for sheep-stealing can, after a couple of hundred years, acquire a certain raffish glamour, but how do you feel if the uncomfortable truth you discover is closer to the present day?
#2 Borrowed Time
A cheeky little song…….I was playing around with financial metaphors applied to the idea of borrowing time rather than money: “It’s just a temporary tenure/And I know you can’t be mine/But you can’t beat the feeling when you’re/On borrowed time.”
#3 Someone’s Shot Of Whisky
I don’t know where this saying originated, but as well as on the back of a camper van it appears on T-shirts, aprons, mugs, posters……and I thought it would make a great song:
#4 Tails You Get Marie
Towards the end of the 19th century, two of my great-grandfather’s brothers, John Henry and William Trewartha James, both mining engineers originally from Cornwall, met two Irish-American sisters, Alice and Marie Massereene Cordner. Family legend has it that the brothers couldn’t decide between them who was to have which sister, so they tossed a coin, and William ended up with Alice, while John Henry got Marie.
Sadly, it seems that neither match was particularly good – the outgoing, party-loving Alice married the studious William, who wrote textbooks on civil engineering, while the more reserved Marie ended up with the domineering philanderer, John Henry.
#5 Power Games
John Henry and Marie married in London in 1889. For a few years they lived in Johannesburg where he was a consulting mining and metallurgical engineer and where their first son was born, but then returned to London where John Henry resumed practice as senior partner with the civil engineering firm of James Brothers.
They had five more children, including Norah – who went on to become the successful popular novelist, Norah C James. Unfortunately, as well as being hot-tempered and domineering, John Henry was a serial womaniser, and Marie became very unhappy and depressed, and turned to drink. Eventually they divorced (quite a shocking occurrence in those days) and in 1920 he married Edith Emily Osman, a much younger woman whom he met on a train.
They lived at a house he had built in Suffolk, called Pinehurst, in Leiston Road, Aldeburgh. Marie still used to visit from London, bringing the younger children to see their father. Understandably, she was jealous of John Henry’s new wife, and made no secret of her dislike. On one occasion their daughter Joan started crying when she saw Edith, and when asked what was the matter, claimed she could see the ghost of her grandmother (Marie’s mother), who was also crying because she was upset that her daughter was divorced and her son-in-law had a new wife. Edith thought it was perfectly obvious that Marie had coached Joan to put on this display.
So when she knew Marie was coming round, she would go out, not returning until she had left. However, when she returned, she would find that Marie had left subtle clues of her presence – such as re-arranging ornaments, or leaving a set of silver-backed hairbrushes on Edith’s dressing-table…….
(Story told to me by Edith’s grand-daughter, Suzette Vernon.)
#6 Who Remembers You Now?
A Tribute to a Forgotten Author
John Henry and Marie’s daughter Norah was born in Hampstead in 1896. Her childhood and young adulthood are described in detail in her memoir I Lived In A Democracy (published in 1939 and now totally unobtainable. Two of my cousins have copies which have been in the family for many years, and I once spent a fascinating afternoon reading it at Cambridge University Library). Its title is an ironic comment both on her family and the political situation at the time.
Norah had a difficult relationship with her father; he was irritated by her atheism (he was, of course, an upstanding pillar of the community, who attended church regularly) and enraged by her support of women’s suffrage. In 1915 she won a place at the Slade School of Art, but left after only a term because she was frustrated at the seeming irrelevance of art when the country was at war. After working as a Land Girl she joined the Department of Work and Pensions, and became a Trades Union organiser.
In 1926 she began work as a publicity manager for the publisher Jonathan Cape, and in 1928 sat in the public gallery at the trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (which Cape had published) at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court. Norah and Radclyffe were good friends, frequenting an after-hours drinking club called ‘The Cave of Harmony’ which was popular with artists and writers. In the mid-1920’s Norah started writing, selling articles and short stories to magazines. She completed her first novel, Sleeveless Errand, in 1929, but Jonathan Cape declined to publish it, the official reason given that he was afraid of being accused of favouritism as Norah was an employee. However, there are two alternative (and possibly more likely) reasons: a) that after being prosecuted over The Well of Loneliness he didn’t want to risk publishing another contentious book or b) he didn’t think that Sleeveless Errand was any good.
She then submitted it to the Hogarth Press (run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf) but they rejected it, Virginia describing it as “vulgar”. Her third approach, to Eric Partridge of Scholartis Press, was successful, and Norah was sent a £25 advance. Demand was so high from subscribers and booksellers that a second edition had to be printed before the first 500 copies were even issued. Then it all went wrong.
It seems that someone had sent one of the review copies to the Home Office, complaining that it was obscene. On the evening before publication, Scholartis Press was visited by two plain-clothes police officers, who removed every copy they could find, and demanded that Eric Partridge provide them with details of the booksellers who had placed orders. The following morning the police went to every seller on the list and seized all their copies too. The only ones that remained at large were a few review copies and about 30 which had been sent to America.
Eric was summoned to Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. The prosecution’s case was that the book contained “conversations by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part were under the influence of drink, and who not only tolerated but even advocated adultery and promiscuous fornication. Filthy language and indecent situations appear to be the keynote……. It could only have a degrading, immoral influence.” The prosecution also noted that the book took the name of God or Christ in vain over 60 times, as in the line, “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”
The magistrate concluded that the book was obscene and ordered that 785 of the 799 seized copies be destroyed. The remainder were distributed to institutional libraries, and the Metropolitan Police retained one copy, “for reference”.
Sleeveless Errand was never republished in the UK, but it did get taken up by the Obelisk Press in Paris and William Morrow in New York, where attitudes were more liberal. When Norah signed the contract with Obelisk, she arranged for half of everything paid to her to go to Eric Partridge, to compensate for the loss he had sustained as a result of the court case.
She went on to write over 70 books, none of which caused any problems with the censors. Mostly they were popular romances, particularly ‘hospital romances’, and sold extremely well. Some were cookery books, co-written with her lifelong partner, Barbara Beauchamp (to whom she dedicated I Lived in a Democracy). She died in London in 1979, at the age of 83.
When I was young, I remember my grandmother having a collection of Norah’s books; my mother, who was rather prudish, didn’t really approve of them as she thought they were ‘racy’ and when Nan died, they were all disposed of. I also remember there being a whole shelf of them in our local library, although as a pretentious teenager taking A-Level English Literature, I considered them to be trashy and not worth reading.
Now, with a kinder eye and a fascination with this remarkable yet little-known woman, I’m buying them up as and when I can on Amazon and, dare I say, enjoying them! One of the reasons that Norah has been forgotten is that unlike her contemporaries who also ran into problems with the censors – Radclyffe Hall, DH Lawrence, James Joyce – she was not considered a ‘literary’ author.
While not quite agreeing with the writer Neil Pearson’s assertion that Sleeveless Errand is “deeply terrible” I have to admit that in it, Norah breaks most of the rules of fiction writing – and not in a good way. She tells rather than shows, goes into excessive details about events irrelevant to the plot, lets her characters indulge in lengthy conversations that don’t advance the plot, and (my favourite) any time they go into a bar or restaurant (which is often) describes exactly what each orders to eat or drink. There are also far too many named characters who make just one appearance.
Putting aside these criticisms, Sleeveless Errand is still an interesting novel, capturing a time, a place, and attitudes in a way that had not been done before. I think she wanted to portray ‘real life’ as she saw it, and she certainly succeeded.
It’s time that Norah C James was remembered.
The book’s central character, Paula Cranford, has just been jilted by her lover and decides she no longer wishes to live. In a Lyon’s teashop she meets Bill Cheland, whose wife has been having an affair, and the couple spend the next 48 hours together, wandering around London with some of Paula’s dissolute friends and acquaintances. Paula and Bill form a suicide pact and decide to kill themselves by driving a car over a cliff. However, Paula saves Bill’s life by persuading him to return to his wife, but carries out her own suicide plan.
A ‘sleeveless errand’ is a pointless task.
My own copy is a 1929 third edition, published by William Morrow in New York. I have compared it with one of the Obelisk Press editions and interestingly, the Paris version has more explicit language, so it seems that it was slightly sanitised for an American readership.
I Lived in a Democracy – Norah C James, 1939
A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press – Neil Pearson, 2007
Censors, Critics, and the Suppression of Norah James’s ‘Sleeveless Errand’ – Bill Harrison, State University of New York, 2013
#7 Writing on the Wall
When I was a child I had piano lessons with an elderly lady who lived round the corner, Miss Olive Johnson. I was not a good pupil as I didn’t practice enough, and after failing Grade II twice, my parents and Miss Johnson agreed that I was not cut out for a musical career. We stayed in touch, however, and some years later I did house cleaning for her in the school holidays.
One day Miss Johnson mentioned that the wallpaper in her bedroom (rose-patterned trellis) was really shabby and getting on her nerves but thought that having it redone would be too much of an expense. My boyfriend was a dab hand at decorating, as he helped his dad do theirs, so we came to an agreement where Pete and I would do the work, and charge her half as much as a professional decorator. We did a damn fine job, Miss Johnson was delighted, and Pete and I were quids in, so we were all happy.
What she didn’t know was that before the new paper went up, Pete and I had covered the plaster with rude drawings and rhymes. It was hysterically funny to think of the spinsterish Miss Johnson going to sleep in her freshly-decorated bedroom, blissfully unaware of the obscenity going on beneath the roses. We were confident that she’d never find out, as after the work was done, she kept saying things like, “Well, that’ll see me out” and “It won’t need doing again in my lifetime”.
The years went past, I went to university, got married (to someone else), moved away, and more or less forgot about the whole thing – except for an occasional twinge of remorse. As I matured, it didn’t seem half so funny. Then one day when I was in my early thirties I was visiting my parents, and my mother mentioned that she had seen Miss Johnson out shopping, and she had asked to be remembered to me. I was amazed that she was still alive, as she had seemed ancient when I had piano lessons with her.
“Yes,” my mum went on, “She remembers what a wonderful job you and Pete did with that decorating. She always thought she’d never have to have it redone, but she says it’s looking really shabby again and is getting on her nerves.”
I was horrified. What if Miss Johnson did decide to splash out and get the paper replaced? All the rude drawings and rhymes would be laid bare…..the decorators would be bound to tell her…..she’d be bound to tell my mum……..and how on earth would I face that? It was just too, too awful. I had wild ideas of taking a few days off work and doing the wretched decorating myself, just to make sure that my teenage misdemeanours remained concealed, but had to discard that as impractical.
In the event, nothing came of it. Miss Johnson (sadly? fortunately?) died before the room could be redecorated, and her house was sold. Presumably the new owners found the defacements, but they wouldn’t have known or cared who was responsible, so again, for many years, I forgot about it.
Until last year, when we had the decorators in. I was sitting having a cup of tea with them when the Miss Johnson story popped into my head and I told them, and we all had a good laugh. They said that it was standard practice for decorators to write obscenities on bare walls, so Pete and I had in fact been following an ancient and noble tradition. They knew I wrote humorous songs, and one of them said it would make a good song.
I thought about this, but decided that the narrative was too complicated; there was too much information to make it work. But the line “We left our writing on the wall” came into my mind complete with a melody, and I thought it was too good to discard. So then I thought what if, instead of scrawling obscene rubbish, the young couple had written love poems to each other…… And then I thought it would be even better if, instead of doing decorating as a holiday job, they were working on their own first home……that’s how a rather smutty story has developed into a sweet love ballad.