From the outset of this project, I knew I’d somehow write a Gravesend tale. It’s slightly off the original London Canterbury route but quite close. I still need to research the exact path but recently read that the route is unclear between Dartford and Strood which suits me fine. From my very first poem based on The Parson’s Tale, I became aware how much film was influencing me. Rewatching Seven really fuelled my writing; the same with Night on Earth. So it comes as no surprise that the Gravesend ideas are already fired by the BBC adaptation of the Shipman’s Tale, which presented an Asian film noir complete with godfather and femme fatale, lots of moody shots around the river and backstreets. It was fabulous, even better watching it the second time around. Then a couple of months ago I watched The Long Memory with John Mills, an early 50s noir filmed in and outside Gravesend. It seems that Gravesend and film noir go hand in hand.
The Canterbury Tales consist of various fragments and one of these includes Chaucer’s own tales, The Tale of Sir Thopas, a dreadful parody of popular contemporary ballads, The Tale of Melibee, an overly long dialogue cum lecture on the virtues of patience. How fitting that the latter should fall just before the Monk’s Prologue and Tale where the host says, Loo, Rouchestre stant heer fast by! It would make complete sense that The Tale of Melibee would be told passing through Gravesend, Higham and Strood. (Also, the word ‘patience’ could provide some interesting double meanings! It has to be my tale, even though I intend to create a new persona for the biog at the back of the book.) What’s also interesting about Melibee (like the Parson’s Tale) is that it’s in prose. The two most moral tales are in prose, the implication being that they’re not for entertainment but for moral edification. I’m not yet sure whether I’m going to take the prose route: I’ve toyed with the idea of a Momento type narrative, i.e. telling the story backwards, or a mirror poem playing also on the idea of the river. It might take place inside someone’s head down by the Thames. It’s very exciting looking at all these possibilities. I’ve almost finished ploughing through Melibee (in translation, reading the original was soul destroying). It’s full of ideas and suggestions from Melibee’s wife as to why he mustn’t seek revenge on his enemies, those who attacked his wife and left his daughter with five mortal wounds. So perfectly noir. Of course, in noir he’d eventually go out and fire five bullets killing the five villains who did it. I’m not sure whether I’m going to frame a narrative or keep it all inside his head. I’m currently veering towards the latter.
The idea of genre was raised by John Prebble at the Chaucer Tales round table discussion during the Canterbury Festival. It was timely because I’d started viewing the text in that way rather than my usual poetic formalist approach: I know, why don’t I write another corona. This is stretching me far more. I’m often not sure which way it’s going to go. This can be frustrating and exhilirating at the same time. It was easy for my version of The Miller’s Tale because the in yer face fabliaux, the dirty story, translated perfectly into the punk poet ranting style of the late 70s and beyond. It was harder to find a tone for the chivalric Knight’s Tale. I’m rewriting it from scratch because I’ve had some invaluable feedback saying that I need to work on the voice. The third person narrative isn’t working. The story doesn’t ring true. I need to work on the character driving the voice but also the form. I became too attached to a particular form too early and although I interspersed it with bingo calls and mock bingo calls it didn’t really work. I’m toying with the idea of making it all a bit more trochaic, even Anglo Saxon. I’ve spent an evening at Palace Bingo at Elephant and Castle to properly research it. Should have done that first, you can’t take any short cuts on this pilgrimage. It was absolutely fascinating seeing a room of at least 500 people all concentrating so intently. The atmosphere was palpable. And this fabulous caribbean granny showed us the ropes. Just as well, we hadn’t a clue what was happening. Afterwards, I walked with my mate up Newington Causeway to Borough High Street to guess where? My current favourite pub, the George, as close to the original site of the Tabard Inn as you can get.
In modern genre, the Knight’s Tale is of course a romance though I’m more interested in it as a tragedy even though it appears to end happily. So what have I done to take on board my penchant towards noir (not to mention horror and thrillers)? Booked myself onto a Genre writing day with Spread the Word. I’m incredibly excited because it’s all prose. Not a poet or a poem in sight. So I can completely focus on content for the first time in ages. Most people there will be into the novel and at a push, the short story. I’ll be the new girl, well out of my comfort zone. I may have heard of but I’ve barely read a contemporary novel for ages. I’m not proud of this: I tell myself if I’m writing poetry I should prioritise reading poetry. Which has been fair enough until now. What I’m working with is the original short (and in the case of the Knight’s Tale long short) story. But character, plot etc are of prime importance and I’m not used to thinking about such things. I do, however, try to marry form and content and create a mood. And I feel at home when I think film rather than novel. I really got into writing the Manciple’s Tale when I thought gothic. Whilst trying to avoid the Eastern European cliche, the Dracula stuff, I wanted my hero to be Eastern European. I knew that at a very early stage. A different kind of writer would have gone for magic realism which would work beautifully for that story. Perhaps a genre to try for the future…