A Story About Charlotte Sometimes

I’ve copied in their entirety two posts from 2007 by Penelope Farmer simply because they are wonderful and I don’t want to lose them in some future internet wipe. (Thanks to Mark Coker via Theresa Weir for finding this.)

This is a story about how we often touch each other without knowing we’ve done it, and how sometimes the connection comes back to us in surprising ways.
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SATURDAY, JUNE 09, 2007

The Cure(d)

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Granny seems to remember promising the story of The Cure and Charlotte Sometimes - the song -a long while back. She is about to start posting more, much heavier stuff, about the care home for people with mental problems. But she thought she’d post this first as light relief. Yet again, though, she’ll be writing in the first person.
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Years and years ago, in the late sixties, I wrote a book called  Charlotte Sometimes , a book set in the kind of English boarding-school my twin sister and I attended/were incarcerated in – take your pick – for part of the fifties. The main character – Charlotte – finds herself switching back and forth between the year 1918 and her own time, taking the place of another girl in 1918, while that same girl takes her place in the 50′s. The whole book turned – though I didn’t see that when I wrote it – on identity; how do people identify you as you? How could they accept one person as quite another (assuming the two people look reasonably similar to start with as Charlotte and her 1918 equivalent did)? This happens to be a particularly relevant question for twins in general, and still more so for two not identical but similar looking twins like my sister and me, quite different in character and ability – even opposites in many respects, she right-handed, me left – but always taken together not singly. This was another connection I did not make at the time I was writing. The book would probably have worked less well if I had.

But other people made connections; the book struck chords; became my most successful by far. Just how successful I didn’t realise till more than twelve or thirteen years later when one of my children came home from school and said ‘Did you know, mum, there’s a song called ‘Charlotte Sometimes’?

No, Mum did not. Nor did her agent, whom she alerted immediately. Neither listened to rock much, neither had heard of the group called  The Cure  that performed this song. ‘Get a copy’ ordered the agent, so Granny went out and bought the single. The lyric to the song was on the record sleeve. Not only was it about confused identity, much of it consisted of quotes from the book. The title of the instrumental track on the B side, what’s more, was another quote from the book.

Now copyright law at the time was a very crude instrument. ‘Moral’ and ‘intellectual’ rights, acknowledging an author’s ownership of themes and ideas, as well as the actual text which incorporated them did not exist. The sole criteria for judging whether copyright had been breached was the proportion of a text used. Taking a mere two lines, from a poem, from a song lyric, in any book of mine would have constituted a breach of copyright unless permission was given for it, and, often, a hefty fee paid. On the other hand the amount of text used in a song lyric, even a longish one like this, was such a relatively small part of an entire novel that it would not count as breach of copyright. Nor did an author have any right to a title. Nor do they still. Googling Charlotte Sometimes for this piece I discovered a relatively recent film of the same name, not related to my book in any way. Such a title is unlikely to be pure coincidence. I suppose it’s a kind of flattery really- even though I’m sure the inspiration here was the Cure song not my book – perhaps I shouldn’t mind; but I do; a bit. I thought up that title first.

The blatant use of the text in the song was another matter; even then, it was, possibly, contentious, despite the limitations of the copyright law. Letters, faxes, were exchanged between my agent and the Cure’s management. The Society of Authors took the matter up and went to consult counsel; counsel’s advice was that yes there might be a case for breach of copyright in this case, but if the matter went to court they couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The Society of Authors, a fairly timid organisation on the one hand, and a fairly poor one on the other, decided to take it no further. As I couldn’t afford to follow it up myself, as the company were threatening to delete the song, and it was already clear it was doing wonders for my sales – and adding somewhat to my fan mail – we decided to back down.

So things went on for ten years or more. The extra income fromCharlotte was useful; it was less than a pittance compared to what the Cure would have earned on their song, but at least it kept the book in print – it is the only one of my books that has always stayed in print, going through 3 or 4 separate editions. I enjoyed some of the other fallout too; the letters from people I wouldn’t normally have expected to hear from; the reports in music journals like New Musical Express about girls deciding they were schizophrenic and renaming themselves ‘Charlotte’ because of the song – and directly or indirectly – because of my book; the naming of a yacht, ‘Charlotte Sometime’ – one year it came second in the round-the-Isle-of -Wight race. I ceased to be annoyed, even enjoyed the whole thing. It’s good to be remembered for something as a writer, if only for one book. Many other writers disappear altogether but I didn’t, entirely.

The Cure themselves went quiet for a while, They issued some new albums from time to time but did not tour. But in 1996 I think it was, I saw that they were going to tour again, starting with a huge gig at Earl’s Court just up the road from Hammersmith where I was living. I decided to try and get tickets; to get myself backstage if possible, to meet the Cure themselves; in particular to meet the group’s lead singer and song writer, Robert Smith. It wasn’t easy getting in touch with them; even when my agent and I managed it between us – discovering in the course of this that The Cure’s base was in a building they’d named ‘Charlotte House’ – the management was deeply suspicious. The law had changed by now, moral ownership was acknowledged, they appeared to suspect I was going after them again. Finally my agent and I convinced them this wasn’t so. They agreed: yes, there would be tickets for me at the Box Office. And yes if I came early and went back stage, I would be allowed to meet Robert Smith himself.

And so it was I offered the second promised ticket to my twin sister’s daughter, my niece, born a year after the book came out and named, appropriately for the evening, ‘Charlotte’ (if I so much as hinted that she might have been called after the fictional Charlotte, my sister would rise up out of her grave to clobber me, so I won’t). On a June evening – or was it July?- we set off together for Earl’s Court for my – if not Charlotte’s – very first – and probably last – rock concert. To be continued.

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  The Cure(d): Robert Smith for ever…

Earl’s Court is ENORMOUS. And noisy – or so it seemed to me. But then the only times I’d been there before was for the Royal Tournament – an entertainment now, thankfully, defunct – either as a child or, later, with a wargame-mad son. There were a lot of bangs in that. But rock concerts, I suspected, come much louder.Charlotte and I had been told to present ourselves an hour before the show was due to start. We picked up our tickets, and were led out of the entrance area and through into a cavernous space, the wide but not very tall screens separating one section from another making it appear still higher, still vaster. It was so much beyond any human scale that the group waiting in the same space as us looked dwarfed, like as yet unconnected cogs in some industrial metropolis. There was nothing to sit on, or lean against. It was dusty, I think. If not it looked it. Various other people came in and out. Someone who seemed to be in charge of the group admonished them from time to time, bossily but cheerfully.We waited a long time. More people came, more people went. Apart from us, only the group stayed put. We were told that the people were American Cure fans from the mid-west, winners of some competition for which the prize was a trip to London, tickets for the Earl’s Court gig and a meeting beforehand with The Cure themselves. All of them were clutching record sleeves, photographs, all of them were looking awed and excited, chattering among themselves in rather frantic American voicesTime went on. It was not until almost time for the sold-out concert to start that the whole of the Cure sloped in between two of the screens; sloped really is the right word, I promise you – slouch might have been near too; but ‘slope’ is better. Some of them clutched instruments; they had quite a lot of hair between them. They looked pretty much as you’d expect a pop group to look, not that I’d had much experience. The American group converged on them giving little shrieks. Pens came out, record sleeves and pictures were signed, the group smiled in a bored kind of way: clearly this wasn’t their favourite aspect of the job. Why should it be?Even so it took up a lot of time. The time the gig had been advertised to start was well past already.I’d given up hope of anyone coming near us. Charlotte, shifting from foot to foot, was looking at me and shrugging. I was looking at my watch again, ruefully, and shrugging back. But then quite suddenly, everyone disappeared – the group of fans, the Cure, the watchful functionaries, the security guards, everyone; everyone but Robert Smith that is, who was sloping towards us (yes, ‘sloping’ once again will do it) hair on end, lipstick smudged, a beer can in one hand, and in the other a very tatty copy of the first paperback edition of Charlotte Sometimes. It was a Puffin book and the picture on the front was of two little girls: the only girly-looking edition of the book ever, and the very last one I would have expected him to be holding.

‘Hi,’ he said, thrusting it towards me. ‘Could you sign it for me, please?’

He opened it up: from the first page onward, line after line had been underlined in pencil. ‘You see how inspired I was,’ he said, adding behind his hand, looking at me sideways, ‘how I nicked it.’

I laughed, I couldn’t help it. Then I signed, as requested, with more than the usual flourish. ‘To Robert,’ I wrote, ‘love from Penelope.’ And added my whole name to the title page, the way writers do.

Robert Smith apologised for the beer can. ‘I have to keep my throat in good shape,’ he said. Then he apologised for not being able to play the song in the main part of the concert, ‘We’ve got to publicise the new album, you know. We’ll play it as encore,’ he said. ‘I promise.’ Underneath the lipstick, the standing on end hair, the Gothic everything, I can promise you, wombats, that Robert Smith really was just a nice, not to say very nice, very well brought-up boy from Sussex who not only loved his long-term wife but also probably loves -or loved – his mother.

Even eleven years older, he probably still is a very nice boy at heart. Why shouldn’t he be?

Then he told me the story of how he’d come across the book in the first place.

‘My elder brother used to read to us at bedtime,’ he said, ‘I was about twelve or so and he was still reading books to us. Your book was one of them, it never got out of my head. Once I got into music I wanted to make a song about it. That’s how it happened.’

We didn’t mention copyright. I admitted I liked his having written the song, and we agreed it might be nice to be in touch again, in slightly less rushed circumstances. ‘Have to go. I’m running late’ he said and sloped off, still clutching his beer can, still clutching his tatty copy of Charlotte, now with my signature inside. And ‘Love from Penelope.’

I can’t quite say the concert was an anti-climax. Unlike some later Cure concerts that year it got lousy reviews in various places; among other things there was a lot of trouble with the sound system. Yet it still seemed amazing to me, from my innocent standpoint, much more noisy even than Royal Tournament, and much more spectacular, lighting-wise, though I wasn’t so sure about the music (I gathered afterwards it was far from their best album). I suppose it would have seemed tame to anyone who’s ever seen Madonna, which I hadn’t and still haven’t except on television, briefly. But it didn’t seem tame to me. The way the sound, the light, took me over, thrummed through me, physically, was outside anything I’d had experienced before. It was thrilling, as opera can be thrilling, though in an entirely different way. (Still, probably, I prefer opera. Sorry about that.)

The band went out and came back before the encores. And then it happened. A few familiar chords sounded; everyone started cheering. Robert held up a hand – stilled them – ‘you all know the song’, he said – more cheers, but stifled – ‘this evening,’ he went on, ‘the writer of the original book is here in the hall with us.’ The cheers rose again and he didn’t stop them this time as the lights swung round to where Charlotte and I were sitting and picked us out. People craning round to see, I got up, put up my arms, waved my hands about and acknowledged them; the first and – certainly – the last time I’d get that kind of buzz, the kind rock stars are used to, but writers most certainly aren’t, even the best known ones. Then the chords swelled up again, the cheers faded and I sat back and listened with everyone else to what was by now, even to me, something deeply familiar, even effecting in its way. My tune you could say; yes, really.

Robert Smith and I never did get round to communicating. I don’t know we’d have had much to say to each other if we had. I seemed to remember sending him a Christmas card that year, but that was it. If he was grateful to me for the book – I think he was – I suppose I have to say – through slightly clenched teeth, being, among other things so very much poorer than he is – I have to be grateful to him too for that brief moment of pop glory, and for all the rest. Charlotte after all is still in print, has even gone into a new American edition. Cheers, Robert, wherever you are; though wine rather than beer is my tipple, I’m raising my glass to you.

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One Response to A Story About Charlotte Sometimes

  1. LK Rigel LK Rigel says:

    in “their” entirety … for the people who read this in the unedited email.

    grrr….

    (note to self: do not hit “publish” so quickly!)

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