Kate Long: How I Learned To Love Words

It’s a genuine thrill and pleasure to welcome the lovely and talented Kate Long back to the blog. I interviewed her about her previous book ‘The Daughter Game’ here, and today she’s going to talk about how she learned to love words.


Yes. There’s more.

There’s the chance to win a signed copy of her latest novel, ‘A Mother’s Guide to Cheating’.


‘Writers love language, and they love it for itself: that’s a given. But have you thought about exactly how you came to be enchanted by words, by the sounds, shapes,  rhythms and cadences of the English around you? Lately I’ve been mulling over my own very early influences, the lines that hooked themselves into my brain as a kid and bothered me for years afterwards.
The very first rhyme I can remember learning is the one quoted at the beginning of my novel The Bad Mother’s Handbook:

I’ll tell thee a tale
About a snail
That jumped in t’fire
And burnt its tail

I’ll tell thee another
About its brother—
Did t’same
Silly owd bugger.

Except when my grandma taught it to me, she used a proper Lancashire dialect so she’d have said “brunt”, not burnt. I can still recall the lowered tone with which she finished, her conspiratorial giggle which suggested I’d better not repeat the poem in front of a teacher.
At my church infant school we sang a lot of hymns, and a couple of those had a powerful effect on me. The devil might have all the best tunes, but those Christians can turn out a mean lyric. Favourite was:

Daisies are our silver,
   Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
   We can have or hold.
Raindrops are our diamonds
   And the morning dew;
While for shining sapphires
   We’ve the speedwell blue.

There was something fascinating about the listing of jewels like this, gorgeous as the illustrations in my Ladybird Cinderella, and the idea they could be found just lying about in a field for anyone to pick up. Which is, of course, the point. Then there was the more sinister:

Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, so let shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

The image I took from this was that we were, in the eyes of God, merely mouse-sized, to be found cowering in the gloom alongside giant skirting boards. That picture for me was as vivid as if I’d seen it in a book (engraved by Tenniel, I shouldn’t wonder). Though it’s supposed to be a cheery, encouraging sort of song, I never sang it without a sense of dread.

The next memory I have comes from when I’m in the juniors: I’m lying in the bath prior to having my long hair washed, and my mother says, ‘You look like the Lady of Shalott.’ ‘Who’s she?’ I ask. So that evening Mum gets out her Collected Tennyson and reads me the sad tale. It’s fair to say I didn’t understand it all, but I was absolutely fascinated by what happens at the end:

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’s to tower’d Camelot.
What kind of a curse is it freezes the blood in your veins? Who’d cursed her in the first place? For what reason? The fact Mum couldn’t answer me made the scene all the more potent. Now I read that verse again, I’m struck by the remorselessness of that rhyme scheme, and the positioning of the commas in the first two lines which make the stages of the heroine’s death feel like a series of hammer blows falling one after another.
Because the Lady of Shalott had gone down so well, Mum introduced me to other Victorian narrative poems: Richard Harris Barham’s The Jackdaw of Rheims, Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market, and Southey’s romping gothic horror,  Bishop Hatto , the story of a wicked man who gets eaten by rats:
They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop’s bones:
They gnaw’d the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him!
There’s something particularly creepy about that last tense shift there, as though again his fate’s inescapable.
As I moved into the top classes, I was lucky enough to be given an old anthology from 1946 – I think it must have been passed down from my cousin Mary – called ‘The Children’s Treasury’. Though the cover was a plain dull green, the pages contained some stirring stuff. There was Lars Porsena of Clusium, swearing by the nine gods that the great house of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more (Horatius, by Thomas Babington Macauley). There was Browning’s breathless How we brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he,
I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three

And most morbid of all, the tale of the wrecker who steals the warning buoy and then perishes on the same deadly rock he was using to bring others to grief:

But even in his dying fear
One dreadful sound could the Rover hear,
A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell,
The Devil below was ringing his knell.
(The Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey)

It helped that the poems were accompanied by black and white illustrations of drowning men, stricken horses and people being put to the sword.
Meanwhile the hymns were getting grimmer, and, like Carol’s mum in A Mother’s Guide to Cheating, that was how I preferred them:

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
(G K Chesterton)
O come, thou Branch of Jesse! draw
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From the dread
caverns of the grave,
nether hell thy people save.
(translated by John Neal)
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
(James Russell Lowell)

Lyrics of Old Testament gloom and ire they may be, but every one of those still makes my hair stand on end. I learnt them by heart, and not for their religious content; for the construction of their poetry.
So I started secondary school, where, in my first year, I changed from just “liking stories” to being actively and intensely interested in English as a subject, and writing for myself, and wanting to understand how language worked. But now I look back, the foundations for that interest were definitely laid between the ages of 4 and 10. From suicidal snails to heroic Romans, all were busy shaping my brain to think like a writer.
So my question to you is, what were the earliest language influences you can remember? Was there a poem or lyric or line of a story that really had your neurons sparking? There’s a signed copy of my new novel for the best answer: I look forward to reading them.’


Entries in the comments please, folks. Competition closes this Friday (March 26th).

30 Comments on “Kate Long: How I Learned To Love Words

  1.  by  Anonymous

    Hello Kate! I really enjoyed reading your quotations, especially the Browning one – that really took me back. I think it may have been in the Walter de la Mare anthology Come Hither, which I used to love. However, I was perhaps even more influenced by a Joan Baez record my parents had, which included Barbara Allen, The Silkie, All my Trials and the very long ballad Mary Hamilton – Last night there were four Maries,Tonight there'll be but three.There was Mary Beaton and Mary Setonand Mary Carmichael – and me.The plain sadness of that verse moved me as a child and does still.

  2.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks anon – any chance you could give us a name (doesn't have to be your real one) so we know who's entered what.Loved your quotation!Nik

  3.  by  Kate

    Hi again, Frances! Nice to hear from you. Folk song lyrics had a big impact on me, too, though it was all northern stuff in our house (The Oldham Tinkers, Fivepenny Piece, Jake Thackray).

  4.  by  Miriam Drori

    Thanks for that, Kate. I enjoyed reading your quotations and also welcomed the opportunity to remember another bit of my past. I think the first poem I read and enjoyed was My Shadow by Robert Louis Stevenson:I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, And what can be the use of him is more than I can see. He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head; And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed. The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow– Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow; For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball, And he sometimes goes so little that there's none of him at all. He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play, And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way. He stays so close behind me, he's a coward you can see; I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me! One morning, very early, before the sun was up, I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup; But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head, Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

  5.  by  Joanna

    I think immediately of Jerusalem. I remember singing it for the first time when I started at junior school. I wondered how everyone else seemed to know the words. Someone sensitive to my bewilderment nudged me and pointed up to the huge, blown-up hymn sheets hanging from the ceiling. I was so short-sighted (undiagnosed at the time) that I hadn't spotted them. My eyes were, sadly, unable to focus on the words. It was all a blur.However, I listened hard to the lyrics and loved them. Every time we sang it, I was moved by the way it began with 'And did those feet…'. We were told not to start sentences with 'and', so I was amazed that this was allowed. The fact that it used this device and also referred to 'those' feet, suggested that something had gone before. Something had already happened before the hymn began. It was a sort of mystery that I was being drawn into.It also made me feel patriotic in a way that brought tears to my myopic eyes, both then and now.I loved the way it built up, line upon line, and stirred emotions. My favourite line was 'I will not cease from mental fight'. It made me think I could accomplish anything. Despite the myopia.

  6.  by  Sally Quilford

    Excellent blog post! Well done, Nik and Kate.Like Frances, it's lyrics that I remember mostly from my childhood. My parents weren't well-read in the sense of having read a lot of classics (though my dad read voraciously from genre) and they weren't big churchgoers. But there was always music playing. The song that sticks most in my mind is In The Year 2525 by Zager and Evans. It gave me nightmares as a child, and a recent rediscovery of it on Youtube by a friend shows me that it's still a haunting song. Not least because a few of their predictions have come true already.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izQB2-Kmiic(don't put me in for the comp, Nik. I'm already reading and enjoying Kate's novel.)

  7.  by  Gina

    I've always loved the little verse by Christina Rossetti:'What are heavy? sea sand and sorrow: What are brief? today and tomorrow:What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth:What are deep? the ocean and truth.'And most of Robert Louis Stevenson's children's poems esp 'From a Railway Carriage' – you ride that train every time you read the poem. Oh and 'The Armourers House' by Rosemary Sutcliffe. I wished with all my 10year old might that I had written that book! I love it still.

  8.  by  Gemma Noon

    Setting aside the silly nonsense poems that my dad used to make up when I was little (a trait I seem to have inherited with regards to my own son) there are two examples of poetry that have stuck with me since childhood. Actually if I think about it, there are three. As you can tell from the last two, I've never had much of a bent for poetry, but I've always appreciated comic genius :-)Thomas Campbell – Lord Ullin's daughterhttp://www.bartleby.com/106/181.htmlThe end of the poem, line 45 onwards, always seemed so terribly sad to me. It is one of the few poems I can recite.2: Brian Patten, "I've never heard the Queen Sneeze"The final line "or failing that, why can't I / Be made the queen, instead?" probably sums up my attitude to life!3: Roald Dahl, Revolting Rhymes – Snow White."Which proves that gambling's not a sin / provided that you always win!"And that line just about sums up life!

  9.  by  womagwriter

    Great post! When I was very little I had an orange jumper knitted out of variegated wool. Whenever my Nan saw me in it, she would quote 'Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…' But the first poems I remember loving were in, I think, the Penguin book of Children's Verse. It was full of Hilaire Belloc poems and the like. Augustus was a chubby ladFat ruddy cheeks Augustus had…and the poor lad dies after 7 days of refusing to eat his porridge. Used to worry me because I never ate porridge then!

  10.  by  Kate

    Oh, I loved those Belloc poems! And isn't it funny how many of us are drawn to RL Stevenson? When, as a teacher, I used to set homeworks to write out a favourite poem, there would always be at least one child per class who'd choose work by him. Very often, too, the choices would be classics, despite the wonderful contemporary poetry there is for children today. Obviously there's some resonance in great poetry that touches us, even where we don't fully understand the meaning, as Joanna says.

  11.  by  MiriamDrori

    Forgot to say why I liked My Shadow. It's because it's written as if the narrator doesn't understand what shadows are. To this day, I like stories in which the reader (even if that's me) understands more than the narrator.

  12.  by  womagwriter

    Oh, another!This is the Night Mail crossing the borderbringing the cheques and the postal ordersLetters of thanks, letters from banksLetters of joy from girl to boyLetters with faces scrawled in the marginLetters with holiday snaps to enlarge inWritten on paper of every huethe pink, the violet the white and blue…I could almost quote the lot, I think, though I might get some couplets the wrong way round. We learned this in year 5 I think and had to write it out and illustrate it. Best thing about this one is how the rhythm of the poem echoes the rhythm of a train clattering along the tracks. I had never realised you could do THAT with words before.

  13.  by  Kate

    That's interesting, Miriam. It's nice to be able to pin-point a moment of understanding like that.Isn't it wonderful to know poetry or lyrics by heart?

  14.  by  insidethewritersstudio

    I always appreciated story more than I did the words until I read T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," specifically this line:"For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."That was my first introduction to the lyrical quality of words when they're put together in just the right way.

  15.  by  womagwriter

    It was soup Augustus wouldn't eat (and neither would I). I remember now.O take the nasty soup away!I won't have any soup today.I guess it scans better than porridge.

  16.  by  Kate

    I love Eliot's line about 'a pair of ragged claws' and the one about measuring out time in coffee spoons. I've felt both at different times in my life!

  17.  by  SpiralSkies

    What a fabulous post… My granny instilled in me a love of actually *thinking* about how words worked with the rather grim (and to be read in a Yorkshire accent)'Twasn't the cough that carried 'im offBut the coffin they carried 'im off in'It makes me smile that my own children say this now… words are quite possibly the best hand-me-downs you can get.

  18.  by  Kate

    Yes, I love that link between the generations, the creation of a family idiolect.

  19.  by  Old Kitty

    HiI've come over from womagwriter's blog!What a great post – it's amazing how the most potent of hymns are the scariest as the ones quoted here! Guess they really were trying to put the fear of God into you!:-)My earliest love of rhyme and poetry was through reading "The Owl and the Pussycat". I know all of it by heart still after all these decades! Why? Well, it rhymed, it had rhythm, it had music, it had an Owl and a Pussycat who had to get to the "Land where the Bong Tree" grew where "there in the woods a piggy wig stood with a ring at the end of his nose, his nose, his nose. With a ring at the end of his nose".:-)Take carex

  20.  by  Nik Perring

    Another vote for the Owl and the Pussy cat from me too.Must say too that I also really loved nursery rhymes (the cat and the fiddle is the first that came to mind) and also tongue twisters; selling sea shells on the sea shore and Peter picking his pecks of pepper) – I think I loved the challenge of remembering them, their rhythm and that they told stories.Must say also how brilliant reading these comments has been. Thanks to all for sharing and, of course, to Kate for getting us all thinking.Nik

  21.  by  LM118

    Being Scottish the words that spring to mind for me are not great classic lines by worthy authors but a simple rhyme that goes-wee chookie birdie tow low low,laid an egg on the windae sow,the windae sow began tae crack,wee chookie birdie quack quack quack.I think in common with most children it was the illiteration and for babies and toddlers the anticipation of the "quack quack quack"

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