The writer’s craft

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


It has to be said there are many manifestations of the literary arts, and in all candour, most of them pay better than poetry. I suppose I could claim that this shows the superiority of poetry over lesser forms, as our branch of literature is less corrupted by gross commercialism, and thus is purer and less compromised. Cynics would merely comment that our very lack of money makes us easy meat for anybody who jingles a pocket full of loose change in our direction.
That being said there is one form of literature which pays well and yet is not well regarded.

I remember listening with half an ear to a discussion that was underway in the Sattir’s Drop. Five men were sitting round a table near me, arguing about the state of affairs in Partann, and whether Port Naain should send an expeditionary force to restore order. I was waiting to perform and was listening to them because I feared that they might turn violent. As it happened one of the disputants slapped a piece of paper down on the table and exclaimed,

“It’s all in here, read it, see the truth.”

I was surprised. Admittedly not as surprised as I was when his drinking companions appeared to comply with his request. To say that I hadn’t marked them down as reading men was an understatement. In truth I had marked them down as illiterate.

But still they read it, after a fashion. Admittedly they read it aloud, with a grubby forefinger marking off each word as it was enunciated. It must also be admitted that the document lacked words like ‘enunciate,’ ‘disingenuous’, or ‘facilitate.’ It was written in short words, arranged into comfortingly brief sentences. They were reading a document that appeared to have been written by one of their peers.

After they left, ostentatiously announcing their intention to avoid the poetry reading, I retrieved the piece of paper. It was not badly printed given the cheapness of the paper. It claimed to be an analysis of the current situation in Partann and if correct showed that the city was best served by avoiding entanglements.

I would have thought little of it, had I not started noticing similar fliers appearing in unlikely places. Some of them appeared to be well thumbed. What they had in common was their enthusiastic partisanship of whatever cause they espoused, and of course the cheapness of the paper. Indeed my thought was that the ink was no better than it needed to be, so I collected a number of the less grubby leaflets on the assumption that the ink would soon fade and I could use the paper myself for notes.

It has to be said that I began to find these documents fascinating. They were obviously written by a number of ordinary working men who had had an adequate education. Thus the spelling was excellent, the grammar tolerable, and the vocabulary limited. I did wonder whether we had an anonymous author or authors who sensibly limited themselves to words they could spell. They all came across as well informed and perceptive. They never argued directly with points made in other leaflets and certainly didn’t engage in the usual knockabout abuse and derision that is common amongst those who partake in politics at the lowest level. It was as if these writers were not going to grant those who held differing opinions the honour of recognising their existence.

Now in Port Naain, we lesser folk have little formal political clout. Decisions are made by those wealthy enough to purchase a Sinecure and so serve the city. But it should be remembered that law and order are guaranteed by the City Watch, and (in extremis) by the men-at-arms of the Condottieri hired by the city. Neither of these two groups regards themselves as linked to any particular coterie amongst the Sinecurists. Hence any Sinecurist acting in a way that a majority of the mob regard as inimical to their interests is, at the very least, going to be jostled in the street. In the city we have a very robust attitude to political discussion and those who attempt to rule us have learned with time to allow themselves to be guided by us. It’s either that or put up the shutters to stop the stones breaking their windows.

This explains why some people considered it worth their while to circulate these documents for ordinary folk to read. It seems that there was a genuine debate amongst the great and the good, and both sides were trying to win the discussion in the streets.

As I pondered these texts I had the feeling I was missing something. You’ll be aware of the feeling. It’s the feeling you experience when you walk out of the house and start patting yourself down. You know you’ve forgotten something and you’re running through the mental checklist to see what it is.

Then I spotted it. As convention demands, these documents all started with a dropped cap. On those where the first word began with a letter T, the piece of type had obviously been knocked at some point and the crossbar of the T curved up noticeably to the right. Obviously not every document used the large font dropped cap T, but those that did all used the same piece of type.

I recognised that T. When my work Lambent Dreams was published, that particular letter T had been used to start my name.

So I knew the printer. I’d had the work done by Silac Glicken of Glicken’s Printers. I thought briefly and then acted. After all, it could be that there was work here for a jobbing poet. At the very least I had no doubts but that I could churn out political diatribe by the ream as well as the next starving writer. Later that day I arrived at the printers and quietly asked Silac about the curving letter T. Silac thought briefly and then announced that they’d sold that particular set of type when they bought a new set.

I tried not to show my eagerness. “So who did you sell it to?”

He paused and then said, “Merket Weelby.”

“Do I know him?”

“Cannot see why you should, he’s a coachman.”

“What on earth would a coachman want with printer’s type?”

Silac shrugged. “For all I know he melted it down and used the metal for casting toy soldiers or fishing weights.”

Well I knew better than that. “So whose coachman is he?”

“Haven’t a clue to be honest.”

With that our interview petered out.

Over the next couple of weeks, whenever I had occasion, I asked folk who might know about a coachman called Merket Weelby. Eventually I tracked him down. He worked for a young widow, Lady Alisian Tarbangle. I decided I’d watch master Weelby for a while until I had the measure of him, before discussing type with him. Thus one evening, as I left the house of one patron, I chanced to spot Weelby leaving the Tarbangle mansion with a woman on his arm. I followed them as they made their way, somewhat covertly, to a series of disreputable ale houses. I followed them, mingling with the crowd. I was intrigued by Weelby’s female companion. Whilst she was dressed like a downstairs maid on an evening out with her swain, her actions seemed to belie this. She seemed rather to be observing her surroundings. They both spoke little and drank less. She listened intently, following the conversations. Eventually the pair made their way back to the Tarbangle Mansion.

Next morning I started working gently through my patrons. Within a week I had got an invitation to attend a soiree at Lady Tarbangle’s and I presented myself in good time to be properly instructed as to what was wanted. It was obvious that Lady Alisian Tarbangle was indeed Weelby’s female companion from the previous evening. Not only that but half an hour loitering in the back courtyard waiting to be called to play my part proved useful. There was a small manual printing press set up in the old granary next to the stable.

Here I decided to push my luck. There were at least three to perform before me, so I would not be wanted for an hour. Looking round I could see nobody about, so I slipped in through the half open granary door. I found myself in a small print shop. Obviously nothing was being printed, as the forms were empty. Still in a bin I found half a dozen hand-written sheets which I slipped inside my shirt. At this point I decided I had taken enough risks and as inconspicuously as possible slipped out of the door and continued my apparently aimless pacing of the courtyard.

That night I had chance to examine the sheets I had acquired. They were the drafts for various leaflets, written in a firm clear hand. Intriguingly the leaflets promoted differing, even conflicting, opinions, but all in the same hand. What is more, that hand was the same one which had penned my brief invitation to perform at Tarbangle Mansion.

I sat and looked at the papers. When Shena arrived home I discussed the matter with her. As far as we could tell the majority of the pamphlets circulating were penned by the same author, Lady Alisian Tarbangle. This was an interesting discovery but we remained unsure how to proceed.

Working separately we discovered that Lady Alisian was a young widow with two small children. Her husband had died tragically young, leaving her with a large house, a wide circle of acquaintance, and very little money.

Certainly my own experience gelled with these findings. When I was summoned to perform a second time, I noted that there was a very small staff. One cook in the kitchen, a housekeeper, known as Mistress Weelby and evidently the wife of the coachman; plus a maid who’d obviously been the family for years and a ‘boy’ who was older than me. There was no coach, although Lady Alisian still kept one riding horse. I also noted that whilst she was the hostess, her friends would arrive with plates of ‘something special cook had just prepared.’

It was on my fourth visit to the Tarbangle abode that I finally came across some of Lady Alisian’s paymasters. A small party of worthies from Prae Ducis and their wives were present.

I was acting as Master of Ceremonies, given that it was either me or Merket Weelby. He is doubtless an excellent coachman and loyal family retainer, but he has his limits. I announced the three couples from Prae Ducis and Lady Alisian swept down on them.

Rather than the usual small talk, one of her guest, a typical florid faced small town burgomaster tried to get straight down to business.

His wife started well enough, “Lady Alisian, we are glad you could see us at such short notice.”
Her husband added, “Because we feel our case is in danger of going by default and we will need to commission more….”
At this point he yelped as his wife stood heavily on his toe, and then he lapsed into silence.

Lady Alisian winked in my direction and whisked her guests away to introduce them to others. It was later that evening as she paid me off that Lady Alisian raised the matter.

“Tallis, I felt I’d better explain about my guests from Prae Ducis.”

I nodded wisely as if I was in someway entitled to an explanation.

“As you may or may not know there is some discussion within the city as to what we should do about the current situation in Partann.”

I nodded wisely again. “Yes mam, I’ve read a number of the leaflets. If you’d permit me to comment I thought they were remarkably skilfully written.”

“You think so?”

“Certainly, everybody seems to assume they’re written by ordinary working men. Certainly I cannot imagine many know the true author.”

She was silent for a little while. “Indeed, and your opinion of their effectiveness?”

“To be honest, I felt they were written to appeal to the prejudices already present, rather than to change minds. People tend to be swayed by people, not by anonymous leaflets.” I smiled at her, “But they allow those commissioning them to feel they are contributing to the debate. Personally I feel it is far better for the city if these people continue to fund writers, rather than deciding to hire some rabble-rousers to stir up the mob.”

She looked a little surprised by this. “You really think so?”

“I do indeed. Indeed I hope that the writer in question is demanding suitably large payments for their work.” I allowed myself to smile a little. “On the highly moral grounds that it ensures that as much money as possible is extracted from the purses of these people, leaving them less to spend on policies which might cause trouble.”

“As much money as possible?” She smiled back. “I think I can guarantee that the unknown writer is doing their best to achieve this.”


You may want to know a little more about life in Port Naain

Life for a jobbing poet is difficult. You have to be flexible with regard to your art. One day you’re organising an elegant soiree, the next a pie eating contest. Yet all the while you are striving to raise the tone and to ensure that decency, dignity, and an appreciation of the fine arts prevails.
And sadly it appears that the more honest your attempts, the more noble your endeavours, the more likely it is that you end up making enemies. Tallis helps out the family of an old friend, obliges a patron, and does his best to aid the authorities in the administration of justice. Each time he merely manages to upset the powerful, the petty, and the vindictive.

As a reviewer commented, “Any story that contains immortal sayings like “I will merely point out that whilst the little ship did not lack ambience, it was an ambience that clung, and it took three washings before I could get it out of my shirts.” Is well worth reading.
Additionally, this tale refers to maps, missing gems, pie eating contests and even a marimba – what more could a reader want?”

18 thoughts on “The writer’s craft

    1. I keep forgetting to mention, there’s a series of these stories where Tallis and his younger friend Benor do quite a lot of sleuthing, somewhere in the comments there’s a link to one of them 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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