Master’s Right

In Denmark, according to the Servants’ Statutes of 1854, anyone, seeking employment or wanting to leave his or her birthplace, should be able to prove he or she had been confirmed. All servants had to present a servant’s conduct book, which should be authorized by the local clergy or, in Copenhagen, by the police. In this book the employer should chronicle for how long and in what capacity the servant had worked. It was optional whether he would add a testimonial. Should he give a gloving reference that could be proved incorrect, he could be sentenced to pay retribution to a third party, aka the new employer. But, likewise, he was liable to pay retribution for damaging a servant’s losses, should he lie about the quality of the servant’s work. It is notable that it wasn’t allowed to pass a servant to another employer.

So far so good: there isn’t much to say against such a law.

If one reads on, through the 77 clauses certain points stick out. The employer has the right to submit servants to domestic discipline and chastisements can be given until a male servant is eighteen. The female servants get off a bit better: they can only be corporeally punished until they’re sixteen.

It is interesting to read that the master could dismiss any servant that ‘seduced the children of the household to corrupt actions’, ‘if the servant has a contagious or repulsive illness’ or incurs such illness during his or her service. Fornication with a member of the household would lead to instant dismissal. And, last but not least, a pregnant servant out of wedlock would face getting sacked without recommendation.

It stands to reason that a servant, who had a complaint against his or her master, would find it problematic to win a case against the employer. The proprietor would be backed by his status, and a servant would have to prove the case against a skeptical if not prejudiced judge. Should a young woman in such a position become pregnant, she would have nothing left: if her seducer was a part of the household, she could even be punished for corrupting the male who got her pregnant.

I can give an example. August Strindberg was a virile youngster in 1873. He is as discreet about his habits as is usual in that period, but, in The Red Room, he reveals some of his habits. He and his male friends, have an easygoing companionship, they share clothes as well as ‘girls’ — such girls that can be visited late in the evening. Strindberg writes about them in the same way as he’d mention a late-night snack.

In 1873, Strindberg initiated a relationship with a young woman, Ida Charlotta Olsson. She was a servant, but she was known to be available for young men from the upper echelons, without expecting marriage. The relationship lasted for two years but, during this period, Strindberg tried to donate her to a companion. In 1875, she became pregnant, but Strindberg denied responsibility. Later, in The Servant Girl’s Son, he gives his personal version of the matter, claiming that Ida Charlotta was a married woman and seduced him. As his career takes off she tries to blackmail him and, eventually, she’s unfaithful.

It is unclear, whether Strindberg was the father, but Ida Charlotta gave her son one of Strindberg’s Christian names, a clear suggestion of the actual situation. Anyway, Strindberg breaks up the relationship, and begins to court a young girl of the middle classes.

Years later Strindberg’s friend Carl Larsson seeks Strindberg’s assistance. He has been accused of getting a ‘girl’ with child. Strindberg writes Carl Larsson a letter, advising him to ‘give the girl fifty Kroner’: that should last her a year. Also, he adds, ‘that will save you paying for a children’s home, which would cost more. Don’t forget, there is a chance that the child doesn’t survive.’ As Post Scriptum he includes this piece of advice: ‘Next time you want to fuck a girl, don’t forget to put something on!’

To me, this portrays a society that has hardly moved on from the droit du seigneur, the right of the lord, or the medieval Ius Primae Noctis. No wonder that we still struggle against sexual harassment.

© HMH 2017

Equilibrium?

How do you balance your time between writing and the business of being an indie author? Well, today I spent my free time interacting with people on Facebook. It may not sell books directly, although a strong presence on the internet should boost my career. But regarding balance, it is a tricky question. How does one find a balance? If one doesn’t write one can’t publish, and if one doesn’t publish, there isn’t much point in vying for an audience. Without an audience there isn’t much point in writing in the first place, and so the ring closes. One has to promote, or there won’t be any sales. But, most independent authors have no choice but to hold down a job to pay the bills. That reduces writing and promoting time, as does looking after the household, balancing the accounts, filling in the tax returns, being a competent hostess, guide, teacher, and muse, feeding the cat, the baby, or whatever livestock might be dependent on a poor overworked author. Still there must be a balance somewhere in the whirl of tasks.

It is important to have talent for writing, but it is vital to have a talent for organizing big productions. Women are said to be masters at multitasking, but do they hold a candle to authors? They say that female writes of old had to hide their manuscripts under their embroidery, or in the mending basket, and sneak in a few words whenever the head of the family wasn’t looking. Are we that different? We are certainly stretched thin, when we propose to be authors, publishers, parents, workers, teachers, housekeepers, laundry persons, cooks, and still manage to have a reasonable output.

I know it is difficult, but it is doable. It must be doable. In one of my life periods, I took care of a baby, a teenager, sixteen rabbits, a Shetland pony, three sheep and a ram, a family of goats, twelve hens, a family of dwarf poultry, a cat, and a dog. At the same time, I taught singing at a music academy, toured with a children’s opera, made costumes for three productions, and had a small business writing out sheet music for various composers. If I could do that I should be able to juggle almost anything? I’m still confident that I will develop a method to balance my time between writing and the business of being an indie author. I just haven’t quite got there yet.

© HMH 2017

Triptych

The Casting Couch

Seventy-five and still going strong

Boasting his penchant for rating a thong

Old head on old shoulders wishing for luck

Using his chutzpah to push for a suck:

Elderly pig, wanting firm and young flesh

Romance and lust but with somebody fresh

Offering infamy as his sole bargain

Sure, she won’t dare drawing down the old curtain

That which would sever her last claim for fame

Should she so dare he is willing to maim

 

Second Proposition

Strange how repetitive fortune can be

The first one was never so easy to see

But this time the message was clear and so cold

The bargain was: either comply or be sold

 

Another Variety

Mostly those people with power are subtle

They pull on the strings and thus, making you scuttle,

You never take in what they carry in mind

You must pay for the jobs that you do, but in ‘kind’

Maybe it takes you some time to consider

But make one mistake and the upshot is bitter

Revenge or oblivion always transpires

Don’t wonder at all re the crossing of wires.

If you find you’re trapped with your hair in a mailbox

No reason, my friend, for climbing a soapbox

Divulging the sickness won’t heal any rift

It merely must warn any would-be to drift

Escaping the casting couch is a rare talent

And unwary people slip into abasement

But this doesn’t mean you must give up the fight

Make sure that your bark isn’t worse than your bite

Only so you can surely prevent all that grief

Unaware of the dangers you’ll find this path brief

A career must be nurtured: don’t let in any thief

Take warning, my dear, and turn a new leaf

 

From ‘Wimps and Pimps’

 

© HMH 2015

The Little Old Table

My great grandmother had a sewing table, a real beauty. I remember it from my granny’s flat when I was a child. Later it came to me. It stands in my home now and has followed me from Denmark to England, and later to Bremerhaven. I think I’d bring it with me, wherever I might go.

This table always held a strange attraction to me. Without a doubt, it inspired certain scenes in my debut novel, Snares and Delusions.

What is so special about it? Apart from the high polish and stylish legs, it contains small treasures from long ago. Under the lid that hinges on the back of the table, little compartments, each with a cover, hides old lace, crocheted gloves, a tatting shuttle, and a mysterious photo of a man I don’t recognize. This photo is enclosed in a narrow gold frame. It was probably taken by a professional photographer. The man in the photo looks distinguished, he wears formal clothes of a bygone time. The sepia coloured picture is fading, and would probably have disappeared completely, if it hadn’t been hidden in the table. Underneath the table is a large drawer, which was full of lace-making bobbins. I took them out, when I was trying to learn lace-making. I didn’t get far, but I still remember the basics. I believe it was made by a Danish cabinet-maker around the turn of the century, but there is no manufacturer’s placard to help identify its origin.

Whoever owns it anon, and hears it, will never know what a history hangs upon this creak from long ago. Thomas Hardy

© HMH 2017

Living Abroad

 

I never thought I’d live abroad. But I’ve barely set foot in my homeland for the past twenty-six years.

What made me leave in the first place? I suppose it was a number of factors, spanning from feeling constricted in a small country to falling out with my husband. I was in a dead end job and saw no openings to something better. It is hard to remember exactly what the final straw was. I’m sure my decision fell because of my frustration with life, with feeling caught and longing for adventure.

I felt right in my choice, but I’m certain I didn’t show myself as a caring person, when I cut through my ties. It was brutal, but I thought it was necessary. I booked my flight to London and left.

The first years were hard, but I was exhilarated with the challenge. I was happier than I’d been for years. I felt young and adventurous. I was scared stiff too. It isn’t easy to survive on a pittance, but it didn’t matter: I was living a dream. My dream.

I hadn’t planned anything — I just left — took to my wings and hoped not to crash. I had no connections, except a friend from home, who offered me a place to stay for a while.

The first challenge was finding a job. I’d imagined that I would be able to earn money singing, but soon realized that it was a no-go situation without contacts. Basically I hadn’t done my homework, and so I fell into a hole. I pulled myself out and started reading the job sections in the newspapers, only to realize that apart from singing I had no work experience that I could build on. Then I saw an advert for a job in a well-known pizza chain. They were opening a new take-away in North-West London. I thought I could do that and went for a job interview. The rest is history.

I got the job and started the induction course. It was fun, and I loved meeting new people. The first training session took place in a pizza outlet nearby. I was put on the phones and, in less than two minutes I panicked. I didn’t get what people asked for — I had no idea how to process the orders. The computer suddenly appeared like a wild animal and I was unable to tame it.

When I’d botched a few orders, the usual staff took over. I stood there looking and listening while failure loomed. Somebody took me to the so-called make-table and told me how to compose a pizza. I was too slow and the friendly pizza-making-person lost her patience with me, pushed me aside and churned out the pizzas at a pace.

I got myself in hand and took a turn in the kitchen. Madness was erupting around me: we were about twenty recruits and perhaps five regular staff. It was a busy evening and everybody was doing something productive. Then I realized that while the front was running like clockwork nothing was happening at the back. The cooking utensils, dirty pizza-pans and empty containers piled up in huge stacks. With a deep sigh I grabbed a cloth and started cleaning up. It wasn’t too difficult to figure out how to operate the dishwasher.

I thought ‘OK I can do this’, but then the supervisor tapped me on the shoulder.

‘Look here, the staff room is flooded. Please follow me.’

I did. He gave me a bucket and a mob.

‘Just mob this up, will you?’

I nodded.

‘Of course.’

A lot of dirty water later, I returned to the dishwasher and started cleaning. Half an hour went by.

‘The staff room is flooded.’

I couldn’t believe my ears and turned to the supervisor. He narrowed his eyes and continued.

‘When you let the water run, the pipes can’t cope. Just mob it up, OK.’

When the shift was over I was exhausted but determined to carry on. I would stop at nothing, learn the ropes and make a success of this job. Strange to say, at the time it didn’t occur to me that something was a bit off.

Today, as I write this story it becomes clear to me that the supervisor knew that the pipes couldn’t cope, but he didn’t tell me anything until I inadvertently flooded the staffroom the second time. Was he incompetent? Or did he do this to ‘teach me a lesson’? I can’t tell. Anyway, what kind of lesson does one get from such behaviour? There was no way I could tell that the pipes didn’t work, unless the fact that nobody did any cleaning was a clue. Actually the outlet was dirty and run down, so I tend to think the problem was bad management.

By the way, two years later I received an invitation to come and work in that selfsame shop. They had a new manager who’d worked with me previously. He wanted me to help cleaning up the place.

 

©HMH, 2017

Valentine’s

In Hammersmith tube station

Roses red,

Larger than cabbage’s heads,

Linger in watery tubs.

Poster sized cards

Sequined with hearts

Fall off the shelves:

Faint from significance.

Drab men carry pink boxes

Hoping to conquer the world

Girls giggle and smirk

Trying out lipsticks

To match

Their satin dessous…

 

But in a faraway place

Star-crossed lovers

Meet and kiss

Enveloped in

Eternity

 

From ‘London Verses’

 

©HMH, 2014

Ireland

Green as Harp tones in the spring

Liquid and soft like water spilling over the rim

Grey cloud castles dissolve in mild vapour

Or shatter drops on the fields

Languor settles as pebbles rush and heave.

Sea and earth meet

As rainbows splitter the iridescence

Tasting salt and sweet but

Enveloping the hills in golden mist.

Fables and fairies thrive

From tiny cobbler to howling banshee.

 

Stone crosses grow on mossy banks

Overlooking abandoned farms

Picturesque, dilapidated

But rich in history and hardships endured

True to destiny, defiant in despair

Never submitting to fate or distress

 

Glorious past and uncertain future

Affect the hearts and strengthen the minds.

Sound the Bodhrán and let the fiddle sing

Fleet feet will dance in the streets

 

From ‘Ireland’

 

©HMH, 2013

Dwarf Cockerel

Plumes of iridescent hues compete with

Shrill cock-a-doodle-doos

Minuscule spurs and tons of attitude

Green tail-feathers raise and fall in perfect arcs

Cockscomb gate-crashing hen nights

With perfect assurance:

Only a male bird can pull off such theatricals

 

From ‘Animal Kingdom’

 

©HMH, 2013