Landscape and Melody










An Experience of Translating Song to Prose

‘It must live on, and because of its glorious ricketiness’ Umberto Eco[1]

Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is a novel inspired by traditional song. I was attracted to the terse economy of prose that is found in English folk song and the quirky melodic structure that is a characteristic of this tradition. Folk song is idiosyncratic in nature; lines are strung together in another-worldly marriage of tune and verse resulting in a singular power. Strong emotion and drama, and indeed whole epics, can be successfully conveyed in a few lines. And these sparse lyrics, handed down from one voice to another, are a lesson for any would be writer in choosing a few but well considered words over complexity of language. I wanted to produce a story in prose that mirrored the simplicity of these lyrics and yet was a deeper exploration into the lives of the characters that coloured the verses.

Folk song is rich in subtext – the listener fills in the gaps with the help of the tune. Sometimes it is the tune that serves as a cathartic release for the listener more than the story. Yet both are entwined, physically and emotionally. Sound embodies story and story embodies sound. The slides and slurs of the singer’s voice serve as a metonym for the intricacies of emotional disturbance: sorrow, joy, passion.

To begin with I had the idea to create a group of short stories that were linked in time and place, each one inspired from a different song. The protagonists and minor characters of English song make up a panoply of archetypes, some recognisable yet each one possessing their own personality. For example: the jilted pregnant girlfriend, the courageous highwayman, treacherous landlady and ghost lover are tropes that occur again and again. I wanted to create a world where all of these archetypes could interact and their stories woven together.

Umberto Eco described the film classic Casablanca as a ‘hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannered way.’ (CB, p.394) Folk songs often depict a hodgepodge of sometimes implausible events, often due to the slicing and grafting together of lines from other songs. Therefore, to appeal to the listener, the characters must have some archetypical and therefore recognisable appeal.

Yet what kind of place would a folk song world be? A land of transportation, boasting poachers, poisoned lovers and many abandoned pregnant girlfriends. It is also a place of physical beauty, sensual delight, of metaphors sunk deep into everyday tasks and objects, betrayal, passion, revenge…despair. It revels in melancholia, nostalgia and regret yet will hop into a sprightly celebration of the seasons, the raucous, the comical and the downright saucy. The songs reflect reality and yet are never realism or are to be entirely trusted as a true mirror to the world of the singers and their listeners. The folk song world seems to hover slightly above the ground. Like any soap opera that endeavours to portray gritty life events, it dramatizes the tragic and accentuates the joy of its participants. I wished then to create in my novel a subtle, altered reality; an entire folk song world inhabited by these archetypes that allowed me to enter their world with ease yet anchored alongside real historical events.

The song The Blacksmith {Appendices}first caught my attention because of the singer’s cynical and stoical attitude. The story is a universal one: a girl is courted by a young man, a blacksmith in this story, who promises her marriage. She then discovers he is to be married to another but it is too late for as inferred in the first line, she is already pregnant. What interested me about this song was the power of the girl’s words and her sarcastic commentary on the newly-weds. She is someone to be reckoned with and not destined to be another discarded Victorian casualty – ending her days in a workhouse or turning to prostitution.

The narrator, that I decided to call Sue Trindall, uses her words carefully to convey through clear metaphor and sarcasm the events that led to her rejection. Melody and word combined have a strange beauty; emotions are distilled and are all the more powerful. In short, the song describes the momentous in a very few chosen words that strike the listener with its simple profundity.

The song mixes perspective: it begins in 1stperson then ends in a 3rdperson omniscient voice that closes the narrative. It rounds off the tragic events as if we have stepped away from the voice in time – walked several fields and valleys and years later have begun to tell Sue’s story ourselves. We are initially inside her suffering and then are taken outside, witnessing her tragedy which is made all the more powerful by her curse from ‘God Almighty’.

The song is powerful because of Sue’s anger at his rejection, yet also her immense shock that anyone could treat her so callously. And it is shocking as her blacksmith must have known that her pregnancy would destroy all possibility of respectability in the world that they inhabited.

There are some ambiguities: he writes her a letter, what does it say? Who does he decide to marry and why is the other girl so much better? To solve these questions, I knew I had to continue her story. At first, I intended to take the protagonist of the song, who we leave ruminating on her tragedy and tell her story from there. The actual events of the song were just a starting point – her survival and that of the children was of more importance. But then the idea of grafting other songs to complete her story began to appeal. I liked the idea of rooting the entire structure around different songs thus creating a new lyrical ballad.

Because of the way folk song travels and develops over time stanzas are swapped, discarded, stolen and put to new tunes or grafted onto completely different songs. Singers become magpies, adding and stealing lines how they fancy as there are no rules in folk song and they are not static art forms. There are a number of common lines known as ‘floating stanzas’ that turn up again and again in different songs such as the song, I wish, I wish {Appendices} which is almost entirely made up of these lines. It illustrates my story well and the lines serve as a kind of glue, filling in the gaps that The Blacksmith had left.

I chose another song, Go from my Window {Appendices}. The motif of the persistent lover at a girl’s bedroom window was perfect for my libertine blacksmith. The melody had an inevitable and almost hopeless feel to its repetitive refrain. This song and One night as I lay on my bed {Appendices} are a part of a tradition of night visit songs which are said to have their origins in Greek mythology. I used these songs as my guide, bending and shaping them to my own melody/structure. I wanted to keep the narrative within the confines of this new song structure to give the story a folk authenticity.

However, developing Sue’s voice posed many difficulties. Initially my idea was to keep as close to the voice of the singer’s as possible but when translated, then expanded in to large amounts of prose, the verse sounded ridiculously archaic. I used key phrases from the songs, lines that my protagonist would surely have overheard, sung by others – as we incorporate phrases from adverts and incorporate them into our contemporary lexicon. Some worked, some didn’t and it was evident that if I didn’t want an entire book in cliché I would have to come up with a different approach.

Although folk songs are largely rural, created and sung by people who were intimately connected with the changing seasonal landscape, there is surprisingly little description of the land they inhabited. Flora and fauna are used symbolically or expressed in the use of occasional stock phrases referring to ‘little birds’ or ‘banks full of primroses’. Landscape is often used as a crude and obvious sexual metaphor – a landscape that punished them and denied them as a source of food through enclosure.

Singers prefer to move on swiftly to the events in the song. The emphasis is on people, their actions and their consequences. Characters are thinly described yet magically the lyrics manage to create a strong image in one line. But then they are often an archetype which we are already familiar with. We associate ourselves and our own emotions and experience with the protagonist inside the song because we have already met them subconsciously or literally. My problem was how to express this language in prose while still retaining the qualities of the original and at the same time add the depth and complexity that prose needs if the reader is to be engaged.

Dialogue is often used to illustrate the deciding denouement of a song often with great effect. I lifted whole lines of dialogue which gave me the inspiration for an entire scene. Stealing and embellishing on dialogue was a helpful way in which to retain the spirit of the songs through prose. I imagine the creator of a song may have inserted dialogue that was true to their own speech so that they could engage directly with their listeners. Dialogue slips easily into descriptive passages far more than obvious metaphorical uses of nature that swiftly translate into cliché.

In translating song into prose, I lost the melody which enables the listener to engage on a cathartic level with the drama of the characters. Melody not only fills the spaces left by words but also lifts the story into another realm of understanding. The songs that have been handed down have lasted, perhaps, because of the power of certain melodic structures that profoundly connect with their listeners. Yet lyrics and tune have a unity of purpose and meaning, both strengthening the other. I cannot create a sound on a page – only imagine it.

Although in lyrics landscape is barely commented on and action and character dominate, I had made a mistake in attempting to copy this approach in prose. Landscape became my melody. The soft ambling tunes that occasionally meander into sudden highs and lows, embellished with odd slides and slurs, could be a reflection of the West country with its apparent soft contours which can surprise the eye with odd abrupt shapes and erratic sweeping fields.

In my story landscape serves the same purpose as melody. If landscape in my prose replaces melody, then in a sense Sue is singing and whistling as she describes to the reader the slopes, combes and furrows of the ploughed fields she walks upon. It changes time signature and sharply ascends as Sue climbs hills then treads flat chalky fields. I feel my novel mostly as a ¾, a dancing, swaying tale that swirls through the drama.  The waltz was the rage of the 1830s and it is a waltz that Sue overhears the pregnant Maria play on the piano.  ¾ rhythms are associated with sea shanties and echo the swish and sway of the boat against the waves. Salisbury Plain becomes the sea for Sue:

The cart climbed steadily uphill so that we rode the crest of the wave I could see from our window back at the farm. We were up on high ground, riding across the face of the Plain and I marveled at the grandeur of the scene before us…there was no sign of human existence in any direction and for a moment I imagined the cart was a small boat, traversing the sea as the road before us tilted and dipped and glided along.[2]

 Before I began writing around The Blacksmith I wrote a story based on the song Salisbury Plain {Appendices} that tells the story of a highwayman who persuades a woman to join him in his vagabond lifestyle. He is finally captured holding up the mail coach on the Plain. The song is unusual because it is sung from her point of view which gives it an authenticity of emotion that other songs on the same subject made up of stock phrases, rarely do. Today Salisbury Plain is a vast tract of empty grassland, only farmed on its fringes as the army keeps the rest within its grasp. My research soon led me to the ruined village of Imber, that lies in the middle of the eastern half of the Plain. It was evacuated in 1943 for army preparation of D-day yet never returned to the people who had for generations farmed, lived and loved there. There are stories of the village blacksmith weeping on his anvil the day he had to leave. This anecdote, and the legendary Wayland’s Smithy, a prehistoric site that lies just beyond the western edge of the Plain, influenced the choice of location for my story.

The idea to recreate Imber as a place of solace and hope in opposition to its present state as a casualty of war, its former residents tricked and ignored by post-war politics, seemed a just decision. I chose to set the story 100 years before the evacuation as I had also discovered the Andover workhouse scandal of 1845. [3]My narrative was neatly constructed and my motivation clear – although I then discovered that Wiltshire in the years preceding the Andover scandal were far more eventful than I had previously imagined.

My first reason for choosing the 1840s was due to an apparent change in melodic structure. Traditionally, English tunes were squarer in feel and had a solid rhythmic structure that neatly rounds each phrase. An uncertainty began to creep in at the beginning of the 19thcentury. Verses end in question marks, melodies jump from sharps to flats that unexpectedly catch the listener’s attention. This creates a more questioning and perhaps melancholic effect. A.L. Lloyd suggests that this development in melodic structure is due to the dramatic changes taking place in the industrial centres:

‘Nor need we be surprised that, at a later date, with great change overtaking the life of many country workers towards the end of the 18thcentury, the folk tradition took one of those famous qualitative leaps and, within a dramatically short time [it seems] the songs presented a new face in which some of the old features were recognizable but the expression was much altered.’ [4]

Established tunes changed with the times:

‘In general, the earlier melodies are more vigorous, squarer, franker in cast, their harmonic structure dominated by the common chord. The newer versions tend rather to be dominated by the common chord…dominated by the 4th, their formal structure is well-enough defined but their intonations may be so surprising as to baffle the unaccustomed listener. True, some of the later melodies will be seen to carry on the bluff earlier tradition, but others are distinct in form and spirit, more mysterious and searching, less sure and outward-looking than the songs of the older world.’ (FSE, p.170)

Unbeknownst to me, I had set my story close in date to the Swing riots of 1830. The Swing riots were an agricultural uprising that swept the southern counties and East Anglia. An agricultural labourer at the beginning of the 1700s had a far better lot than in the 1800s. There was a greater chance that he and his family would be a live in labourer associated with one farm, working and often eating alongside the farm owner. He had security of employment and the farmer was not separated from his servants and so felt an obligation to look after their welfare. Enclosure and new advancements in farming encouraged a system of contract labour over short periods of time with no security. The separation between landowner and labourer widened as the rich became richer as new systems of exploitation were explored and the poor became more desperate and dispossessed. These new mysterious and irregular melodies reflect the increasing insecurity of the singer’s world – thus the great age of transportation and poaching songs began.

Yet a surge of protest rose in the winter of 1830 – a culmination of poor harvests, enclosure and starvation wages. Recently discharged soldiers from the end of the Napoleonic wars increased the number of unemployed. The usually patriotic countrymen were pushed to the very edge of toleration with the invention of the threshing machine. Traditionally, agricultural workers found winter employment by threshing the wheat by hand. The winter of 1829 was particularly harsh. Deep resentment set in as the spoils of the forest which had always provided extra food for their grandfathers in lean times was denied them. The protestors would send a threatening note before committing arson on a landowner’s property. These notes were signed by a ‘Captain Swing’. Initially the authorities thought this was a real leader. It was already an established tradition to name the leader of uprisings a Captain, or occasionally General, [5]but this was the first time a fictitious leader was used by many protestors up and down the country. ‘Captain Swing’ was far too exciting to ignore and this ambiguous character earned his place in my title.

This uncertainty and fear of an unknown future perhaps mirrors our own rapidly changing society. Religion and politics have been turned on their heads. A yearning for an imagined pastoral existence – the very pastures that we are rapidly destroying – brings a temporary peace. A renewed interest in folk music is a reflection of this anxiety as these songs were created in an era, arguably, of similar viciousness and instability. A story about an abandoned pregnant girlfriend became so much more. Sue’s determination to survive became a metaphor for a greater struggle; the dogged resistance against greed and exploitation that is continually needed in order to maintain a humane society. Captain Swing and the Blacksmithis not a historical document. It is a work of historical fiction that has taken its primary source material from traditional song lyrics. There is precious little left behind from the people who toiled the hardest. The songs that they sang are perhaps the closest we have to their voices, if we wish their voices to be remembered.


Song lyrics mentioned in the text

The Blacksmith

A blacksmith courted me, nine months and better.

He fairly won my heart, wrote me a letter.

With his hammer in his hand, he looked so clever,

And if I was with my love, I’d live forever.


And where is my love gone, with his cheeks like roses,

And with his big black billycock on, decked with primroses?

I’m afraid the scorching sun will shine and burn his beauty,

And if I was with my love, I’d do my duty.


Strange news is come to town, strange news is carried,

Strange news flies up and down that my love is married.

I wish them both much joy, though they don’t hear me,

And may God reward him well for slighting of me.


‘What did you promise when you sat beside me?

You said you would marry me, and not deny me.’

‘If I said I’d marry you, it was only for to try you,

So, bring your witness, love, and I’ll never deny you.’


‘Oh, witness have I none save God Almighty.

And he’ll reward you well for the slighting of me.’

Her lips grew pale and white, it made her poor heart tremble

To think she loved one, and he proved deceitful


I Wish, I Wish

 I wish, I wish, but it’s all in vain,

I wish I were a maid again;

But a maid again I never shall be

Till apples grow on an orange tree.


I wish my baby it was born,

And smiling on its papa’s knee,

And I to be in yon churchyard,

With long green grass growing over me.


When my apron-strings hung low,

He followed me through frost and snow,

But now my apron’s to my chin,

He passes by and says nothing.


Oh grief, oh grief, I’ll tell you why –

That girl has more gold than I;

More gold than I and beauty and fame,

But she will come like me again.


Go from my Window

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The wind is in the West and the cuckoo’s in his nest
And you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The weather it is warm, it will never do thee harm
But you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The wind is blowing high and the ship is lying by
And you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The wind and the rain have brought him back again
But you can’t have a harbouring here

 Go from my window my love, my dove
Go from my window my dear
The devil’s in the man that he will not understand
He can’t have a harbouring her


One Night as I lay on My bed


One night as I lay on my bed,

I dreamed about a pretty maid.

I was so distressed, I could take no rest;

Love did torment me so.

So away to my true love I did go.


But when I came to my love’s window,

I boldly called her by her name,

Saying; ‘It was for your sake I’m come here so late,

Through this bitter frost and snow.

So it’s open the window, my love, do.’


‘My mum and dad they are both awake,

And they will sure for to hear us speak.

There’ll be no excuse then but sore abuse,

Many a bitter word and blow.

So begone from my window, my love, do.’


‘Your mum and dad they are both asleep,

And they are sure not to hear us speak,

For they’re sleeping sound on their bed of down,

And they draw their breath so low.

So, open the window, my love, do.’


My love arose and she opened the door,

And just like an angel she stood on the floor.

Her eyes shone bright like the stars at night,

And no diamonds could shine so.

So in with my true love I did go.


Salisbury Plain

 As I walked over Salisbury Plain,

Oh, there I met a scamping young blade.

He kissed me and enticed me so

Till along with him I was forced for to go.


We came unto a public house at last,

And there for man and wife we did pass.

He called for ale and wine and strong beer,

Till at length we both to bed did repair.


‘Undress yourself, my darling,’ says he.

‘Undress yourself, and come to bed with me.’

‘Oh yes, that I will,’ then says she,

‘If you’ll keep all those flash girls away.’



‘Those flash girls you need not fear,

For you’ll be safe-guarded, my dear.

I’ll maintain you as some lady so gay,

For I’ll go a-robbing on the highway.’


Early next morning my love he arose,

And so nimbly he put on his clothes.

Straight to the highway he set sail,

And t’was there he robbed the coaches of the mail.


Oh, it’s now my love in Newgate Jail do lie,

Expecting every moment to die.

The Lord have mercy on his poor soul,

For I think I hear the death-bell for to toll.



Hobsbawm, E.J. and Rude, G, Captain Swing (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970)

Ed. Lodge, D and Wood, N, Modern Criticism and Theory: Umberto, E, ‘Casablanca: Cult movie and Intertextual Collage’(London: Pearson Education Limited 2000)

Ed. Lloyd, A.L. and Williams, R.V., The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, (London: Penguin, 1959)

Lloyd, A.L, Folk Song in England, (London: Faber and Faber 1967)

Young, J, The Pentrich Revolution, (Derbyshire: Eebygum books 2016) 

[1]Umberto Eco, Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2000) p393, hereafter CB

[2]Beatrice Parvin, Captain Swing and the Blacksmith p.151

[3]In 1845 Andover Workhouse was investigated for the abuse towards its inmates. They suffered from severe malnutrition and neglect. It was discovered that they crushed bones to make fertiliser which was sold for the profit of the corrupt and vicious master, Colin McDougal. It was also found that the men fought over bones to suck in order to get any bone marrow for extra nutrition.

[4]A.L Lloyd, Folk Song in England (London: Faber and Faber, 1967) p169, hereafterFSE

[5]Arguably General Ludd, served a similar purpose for the Luddites. Yet this name has its origins in the real Ned Ludd, a youth who smashed two stocking frames. The name became emblematic of machine destroyers and evolved into an imaginary General, sometimes known as King Ludd. In 1817 Jeremiah Brandreth known as the ‘Nottingham Captain’, lead the ‘Pentrich revolution’ inspired by the words of Tom Paine.




The Chalk and the Cheese

The month of May brought myself and the band to Wiltshire. Our first stop being Avebury which lies on high chalk grassland.

I first spent an hour in The Henge Shop for a book signing, an emporium of esoteric ephemera: crop circles, crystals, tarot and books on everything from barrow mounds to green men. I challenge any cynic to dismiss wanderings into mysteries and wonder, for beneath the goddess knick-knacks and swaying dream catchers are far greater and more complex questions. After sitting for an hour in this world of spiritual exploration I felt more open to creative endeavour – even if I still believe that crop circles are a marketing strategy organised by the Wiltshire Tourist Board …

Remaining open to possibility is a great human quality. The pedestrian and authoritarian world of certainty stunts creative development. Surely it doesn’t matter that we don’t understand?

The next day Captain Swing and the Blacksmith roamed the stones and stumbled across a spinney of ancient hornbeams. Votive offerings had been left by visitors which swayed above extraordinary tangled roots – a wild maze of searching lines that sit on a raised hillock above the mysterious stones.


Great Somerford, that lies on a clay vale, the traditional northern cheese making area of Wiltshire, was the destination of our next performance.  The addition of Downton Chamber Voices who bravely wandered north of the M4 was a beautiful addition. We had one group rehearsal before the show and all went well and beyond expectations. Their voices lifted and emphasised the drama of the songs giving a tantalising taste of the possibilities of what could be achieved in a full folk song musical.




When Songs Collide 2…

More plots from vengeful sweethearts and moonlight shenanigans…this is a first draft from student Georgia Lewis…who has caught the rhythm and pulse of ‘Rockley Firs’ – a fantastic song that I can’t wait to sing in May.

‘The air was crisp and cold in Rockley Firs, awash with the bright light from moon and stars. That was the night, when they came to search for me. Catching sight of their bright uniforms, I held my breath and ran. Crouched over, doubled, silently creeping from bush to tree, till finally I was free from the thicket and took refuge in the tavern that lay at the foot of the gully.  I hid amongst the loud cheers and jeers from locals drinking that Saturday night and called for a bottle to quaff and to add to my disguise a pipe to smoke. But alas, I had not noticed that they’d seen me all along and with a warrant from the parish they brought me in to be confined in Cole’s Kitchen.

The day tired as empty threats were flung from Hanks the gamekeeper, “but I saw you there, with my own eyes!”

“It’s not me you saw but a shadow passing by,”  I returned triumphantly.

The jury, clearly grappling in their irksome way to pin the blame, were unable to find fault with me. Defeated in their hungry ploy to transport another they sentenced me with a caution and a quarter dozen months confinement.

Elated at the pleasant news, I skipped past the defeated Hanks and sighed “Maybe next time, dear old chap!” And with that I donned my cap – “No ship nor boat nor sailing vessel shall take these boots to far off lands”. I marched off down the darkened tunnel to where the swinging gates and scraping doors, coughs and cries dimmed the spirits of every new arrival.’

Story inspired from ‘Georgie Barnell’ …

‘When I was a little girl, not much over the age of sweet 16, all on a summers day I was caught by the fairest man my eyes had ever seen – his name was Blacky-Grey. He had strong arms and thick set thighs, and when he caught my gaze, I saw such passion in his eyes. We lay amongst the golden grain, till the last rays of sun cast shadows from the pines. But what happened in the weeks to come I could never forgive what Mr Triles had done.

The local lads went out to hunt the roving hare and dum pheasant. Why Blacky-Grey thought I’d be impressed, well it makes my bleeding heart pain. All I can say is the very next day, they caught and charged all six lads for illegally poaching on Mr Triles’ land.

I was sick with anger and rage to hear of their outlandish sentence to be transported to Australia never to be seen again. I was powerless. I was helpless. But little did I know that I was not yet finished and would yet serve my own sentence all for the charges made by Mr Triles.

Months passed on, and I grew sick, my stomach ached and no food was kept. It was painful to see that I, without a husband present to marry, had fallen. I was heavy with child and faced a now bleak and destitute life ahead. So angered was I that a woman could be cast and left aside by her community that my idle mind turned to plot revenge…’




When Songs Collide…

When songs collide anything can happen…I think ‘The Housemaid’s Revenge’ is a ballad in the making – several students saw this as the inevitable denouement after slicing and grafting, ‘The Blacksmith,’ with ‘Georgie Barnell,’ and ‘Rockley Firs.’

Here’s a lovely first draft contribution from Chris Lethbridge:

‘The place where I was born is a place of woodland. A place of soft dark moss underfoot. A place where the wind whips the tree tops scattering the crows and rooks into the sky like charred remnants of old paper, caught in the updraft of an autumn bonfire. I was a maid of just sixteen, when the village blacksmith wooed me. A fine man, so I thought, ten years my senior by the name of Adam Triles – ‘Brown Adam’ they called him. One fine night, we lay together on those mossy banks at Rockley Firs, Adam and I, the moon and the stars winking between the swaying branches. And after he wrote me a letter – a contract of betrothal surely binding us as husband and wife.

Ah but false Adam, his heart may have been mine, but his head lay elsewhere – with a girl of higher station. And so nine months on with winter across the land and the last beech leaves falling, the time of feasting upon us, I bore to him a child. So much for goodwill for a shamed young woman such as I. Every door slammed shut, no friend would own us. And so I gathered my few belongings, took my child in my arms and made for London where if I could not support us both by honest means, I would live by my wits. I recalled Adam had told me of a nephew apprenticed to a merchant in Cheapside. I determined to seek him out and so my plan took shape. Oh Brown Adam, God shall indeed reward you well for slighting me. And I shall be his instrument.’

Enervating Wiles…


There is nothing like a good folk song rhyme… poor old Georgie Barnwell is beguiled by the ‘enervating wiles’ of a certain lady to murder his ‘Uncle Triles.’

This six verse song is the sparse remnant of a 49 verse ballad dating from the early 18th century.

A young apprentice is seduced into a life of crime by a ‘gallant dainty dame, and sumptuous in attire’ – named as a certain Sarah Milwood, who further encourages him to return to the country and murder his uncle for more money. It was adapted into a play by George Lillo in 1730. Dickens referenced the play in Great Expectations – poor Pip, when apprentice, is teasingly called Georgie Barnwell, and the play foreshadows the criminal activities of Magwitch.

I strongly suspect that Sarah Milwood has more to say…is she a cold, calculating narcissist? Is she working for someone else? What circumstances drew her into a life of deception? Is Georgie quite as innocent as he makes out? After all he committed the murder, allegedly under her command. Excited to hear this ‘naughty woman with a vigorous eye’ tell her own story.



Spadgewhistles and Goozegogs

Creating a Historical Voice with Dialect

It is impossible to accurately replicate the voices of the distant past as we cannot hear them. The way we speak is constantly developing, vowel pronunciation being the most open to change. We can, perhaps, attempt an echo of that voice which gives the reader an invitation to step temporarily into another time and place. Yet, that time and place is only ever an interpretation of a reality created in the present. The historical novelist acts as a translator of the past – a go between, making language palatable for the modern age and choosing judiciously which echoes make sense in our contemporary lexicon.

Discovering the historical facts is not the only task for a writer, but the way people spoke is just as important if your characters are to become credible. The view point of the servant, or working-class voice has become ever more popular in our inclusive age. Silent bystanders to the shenanigans of their betters, these characters are perfect narrators as they follow their employers into intimate domestic spaces. Yet, their voices remain the most unrecorded. Thus, folk song lyrics became a huge resource for phrasing and word choice while writing ‘Captain Swing and the Blacksmith’. Court records are another possible source, but unreliable because of the prejudice towards those who spoke in dialect. The condemned presumably would have changed their voice to mimic ‘their betters’ and probably used every lie under the sun to escape transportation or the noose.

Dialect can define character and separates class. The balance of your inclusion of dialect is tricky as it is very easy for it to sound hammy – especially West Country which is easy to use in jest. My story deals with serious social and political issues, yet, it is good to keep humour as people laugh and use language to laugh at themselves. Within my character Ginny Scammell’s ‘nanny-fudging’ [tall-tales] there are bitter truths.

Finding the right balance is integral in presenting dialect. I wanted to use every day words in dialect throughout the text to give a thin skim of difference to the language. After much procrastination and reading, I rested on, ‘nuthin’ and ‘sommat’. Deciding how to spell these two words took hours of my time. ‘summat’, ‘nothin’ ‘nut’in’? In speech, this word is almost reduced to a glottal stop or mere jerk of the neck, but too many speech marks can look clumsy and awkward on the page – nuthin it is.

My protagonist, Sue Trindall, was born in Wiltshire, 1822. No doubt, she would have had, to modern ears, a thick West Country accent which she would have attempted to alter if speaking to a ‘person of quality’. The book is written in 1stperson which gives another issue. In order for the story to be at all readable her voice had to be educated to some degree – when I did this my narrative changed and a whole new dimension to my research began. The beauty of writing itself, the act of shaping letters, and the power of words to manipulate and control became a theme. Her father became a far more important character, insisting that his two daughters could read and write in a county with 56% male literacy and 44% female literacy [1838].[1]He steals phrases from famous poets to write love letters for a fee and then turns his skill to writing the threatening notes sent to landowners, used during the Swing Riots before the destruction of their property.

Using dialect to colour my writing was an enjoyable task and there are many words, I feel, we should bring back in to regular usage. I tried to make subtle differences between characters. Sue comes from a small town, with some influence from bigger cities. Their voices were more likely to have incorporated slight vowel differences from Salisbury or London. The characters in the remote village of Imber, have precious little contact with outsiders, or, like the elderly Mother Buxton, don’t ever go anywhere at all. I gave her voice idioms and colloquialisms, peculiar to herself. In this way dialect is a great tool for characterisation as long as not too thickly spread.

I found the word ‘prinit’ from a Wiltshire dialect online source. This apparently meant, ‘take it’. It was assumed that this derived from the French ‘prenez’, to take, which came back from WW1. I created a back story for Mother Buxton, whose husband had returned from the Napoleonic wars with the word, and it became indigenous to the village of Imber.

Many Wiltshire colloquialisms have found themselves into the general everyday lexicon as the flow of population from rural to urban areas has been constant for over 200 years. I made good use of these as it helped the tone of voice and everyone understands them: ‘belly-button’, ‘cack-handed’ [to describe left-handedness], ‘dribs and drabs’. Wiltshire phrases charmed their way into my pages: ‘up-along’- a little way up the road, and its opposite, ‘down-along’. ‘Somewhen’ [its opposite is back-along] is a favourite and I think should definitely become more popular. It lies somewhere between sometime and in my dreams…

Nouns or adjectives in dialect had to flow with the narrative and not sound too alien. Readers need to be able to interpret meaning from the context. Some words seemed to fit easily into her speech:

‘shrammed’- exhausted, cold and finished.

‘caddle’ – confusion

‘finnikee’- fussy.

I have not created a true early 19thcentury working-class voice, but hopefully with a smattering of words and subtle turns of phrase an impression of rural poetic voices of the past. There was one word I couldn’t find room for: ‘spadgewhistle’ – apparently a toothbrush? Hopefully I won’t forget to put this in another Wiltshire tale…

Some other favourite words:

addled – gone off [as in a bad egg]

arse over tip – to fall headlong

blather – fuss, uproar

bone shave – sciatica

chucky pig – woodlouse

crousty – bad tempered

diddiky – rotten, crumbling

dimpsey – half lit, dusk

dollop – large lump

fair t’middlin – so, so

fuddled – confused

gallivantin’ – straying from home

glory-hole – place/cupboard for rubbish and odds and ends

goozegogs – gooseberries

half-baked – dim-witted

loppity – to feel out of sorts

main – good, excellent

narration – fuss, commotion

ninny hammer – foolish minded person

pelt – in a passion or a rage

slammock – slatternly woman

zammy – simpleton


E.J.Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain Swing, pub.1970, Lawrence and Wishart, London.


[1]Captain Swing, E.J.Hobsbawm and George Rude, p64

Message in a Bottle



It was a real pleasure to be interviewed by two fellow travellers from the Creative Writing MFA Kingston. Sinead Keegan and Lisa Davison now run an online literary magazine open to submissions – this time based on themes from ‘Captain Swing and the Blacksmith’, which inspired them to call this edition ‘Message in a Bottle’.

Click here to read full interview:

Messages in bottles

Folk song lyrics say so much and so little as does a message found in a bottle. There are some incredibly touching stories of 1st World War soldiers sending love notes to their wives on the way to France, friendships spanning cultures and tragedies thought never to be told. I like this story below as it twists the assumption that messages in bottles are thrown into the ocean by desperate survivors of shipwrecks. In this case the finder is desperate and needs saving…

Escaping a regime

FOUND BY: Hoa Van Nguyen off the coast of Thailand, 1983
SENT BY: Dorothy and John Peckham from a cruise to Hawaii, 1979
TIME AT SEA: Four years

In 1979, during a cruise to Hawaii, Dorothy and John Peckham wrote notes and placed them inside empty champagne bottles, then threw them overboard.

They wrote asking anyone who found the message to get in contact with them, and they included a $1 bill in each to cover postage of the reply.

In 1983, the Peckhams got a response. Hoa Van Nguyen, a former soldier in the Vietnamese Army, had written them a letter saying he and his younger brother found one of the bottles while floating off the coast of Songkhla Province in Thailand in an attempt to escape the communist regime in Vietnam.

The Peckhams exchanged letters with Van Nguyen, and when Van Nguyen asked whether the couple could help his family move to the United States, they worked with US immigration to make it happen.

The families finally met in 1985 when Van Nguyen flew into Los Angeles from Thailand.



Our Secret History in Song

I’m very happy that this Creative Writing workshop at Wiltshire and Swindon History centre has been rescheduled to 16th March. I spent time exploring the Alfred Williams folk song collection – specific to Wiltshire – for material. So many songs to choose from! Poaching, as ever, a strong theme but I had trouble finding a good female character… ‘The Gamekeeper’ came close but I couldn’t stomach another murdered girlfriend song. Instead I will be working with ‘Georgie Barnell’, alongside tales of successful and unsuccessful poachers. The ‘naughty woman’ with her ‘vigorous eye’ caught my attention – but what is exactly going on? Why does she want his Uncle Triles [sometimes Tripes] murdered?

This is in fact a shortened version of a much older and longer ballad where all is, sort of, explained. But I like William’s version that leaves us wondering who these people are and leaves us with a vivid image of cawing rooks amongst a lonely spinney.


Near Cheapside there lived a merchant

And he was a man of very great fame

A youth was bound apprentice to him

And Georgie Barnell was his name.

Now Georgie was a very good servant

And a dutiful, beyond all doubt

He always kept within the door, sir,

Because his master would not let him go out

A naughty woman of the town, sir,

Upon him cast a vigorous eye,

She came into the shop one morning

A flannel petticoat to buy.

When that she paid down the money

She gave his hand a very hard squeeze

So that pleased poor Georgie Barnell,

And together he knocked his knees.

And soon this woman did persuade him

With her enervating wiles

To go down into the country

And there let loose his Uncle Triles

He saw his uncle in the grove, sir,

Studying over his good books,

And Georgie Barnell went and shot him

All among the crows and rooks.

Avebury blizzard forced new date!

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Poor Avebury was without power and roads were cut off from the outside world on Friday 1st February…I arrived in Swindon in a snow storm, beautiful chaos. All buses were suspended and when I asked for a taxi they told me, ‘there’s no-one going into Avebury and no one coming out.’ This didn’t look good for our performance. Unbelievably, accordionist Pete Watson made it through in his Honda Jazz. This is his pic. of the stones as he heads out home. Very frustrating as we were sold out! But all is well as we have a new date already: Friday May 17th. See you there!