Philomena Plott was happily accepting a Pimms at the village fete when saw Cousin Dolores bearing down on her like a large, highly coloured barge torn free of its moorings. She glanced around frantically but realized that unless she took a dive over the ha-ha there was no escape.
“Ah, Philomena,” Dolores Plott-Muggins said. “So, that piece of mine, what did you think?”
“Um…well…” Philomena took a fortifying gulp of Pimms and nearly choked on an intrusive mint-leaf.
“I wasn’t quite sure what you were trying to do, to be honest,” she said, once she could breathe. “But perhaps that was me.”
“Not sure what I was trying to do?” Dolores leaned closer. “How do you mean?”
“Ah, well, perhaps…” Philomena said, “just a matter of taste, probably. You know, different genres and all that…Lissy! Over here!”
Ulysses Plott’s ears were attuned to danger, and he heard the raw panic in his wife’s voice even through the roars of outrage from the beer tent, where the cricket was on, and the happy babbling of small children beating each other over the head with toys from the lucky dip. He strode to the rescue.
“Ah, Dolores,” he said. “What’s up, old girl?”
“Just asking Philomena what she thought of my piece. Not her genre, apparently.” Dolores huffed. “Did you read it, Ulysses?”
“Sorry, old thing, on deadline. No time,” Ulysses lied without a moment’s hesitation.
“Oh, well, I don’t suppose it matters, I’ve already sent it off,” Dolores said. “Ooh, there’s the Vicar. I have something for the parish magazine. Not their usual thing but I’m sure they need material…” She strode determinedly in the direction of the Vicar, whose unsuspecting rear view the Plotts regarded with guilty relief.
“Was it ghastly, the piece?” Ulysses said.
“I hardly know, I was trying so hard to find something to say about it – she’s gone all experimental and I really had no idea what she was doing. Oh, dear.”
“You worry too much, Philly. And she’s already sent it off, so I’m not sure why she wanted your opinion anyway.”
“Well, I gave it. Sort of. In so far as I had one.”
“You told her what you thought? Honestly? Gave her some tips on what might improve it?”
“Well, I would have done, yes, but they’ll only improve it if she’s trying to do what I’d do.”
“Trying to tell a story, wasn’t she?”
“She was trying to tell her story, though, not one of mine.” Philomena took a despairing slug of Pimms. “Honestly, Lissy, I give all this advice and I never know if I’m getting it right.”
“Hmm. Remember when I was asked to judge the vegetables at that show?”
“Oh, yes.” She rolled her eyes. It had been something of a scandal at the time.
“Judged them the way I thought you were supposed to judge vegetables. By taste! Still think it’s perfectly sensible.” He had gone properly prepared too, with his campaign primus stove, salt, pepper, oil….his moustaches quivered at the memory. “Never heard such a fuss. If I’d known they just wanted me to judge on size and glossiness, I’d have done it – winners would have been bloody inedible, though.”
“But some people want to grow them just for size.”
“And if they want to, they should. Ought to tell a chap first, though.”
“Remember when Bertie gave us that blank verse kitchen-sink comedy of his?”
“Oh, lordy, yes.”
“Couldn’t make head or tail of it. Told him so. Thing is, Bertie actually wants criticism. Doesn’t get a fit of the vapours the minute you tell him something’s not working.”
Philomena snorted, and glanced over to where the Vicar was being slowly backed into the rhododendrons by her determined cousin. “Like Dolores when you told her that character was so wet you wanted to drown her but it would have been redundant.”
Ulysses flushed. “Hmm. Yes, well, probably shouldn’t have said that. Not there to make jokes. Not that she’d take a blind bit of notice anyway.”
“But she might, that’s the thing. What if I’m too harsh and put someone off completely?”
“If someone’s a writer they’ll carry on whatever you say, and they might learn something. If they asked you why their carrots weren’t flourishing, you’d tell them. Wouldn’t worry about putting them off gardening.”
“You worried about making that joke to Dolores.”
“Wasn’t relevant, that’s why.”
“I just want to get it right, that’s all,” Philomena said. “I wonder if there are any books on how to critique…”
“Philomena. You already have 53 books on writing. I counted. Twice.”
“But this is different. Writing and critiquing aren’t the same thing! Besides, I’m sure some of those books are yours.”
Ulysses gave this the ignoring he felt it deserved. “Can’t ensure you’ll always be perfect at something by buying a ton of books on the subject. Whether you’re critiquing a story or a flower bed, it’s simple. Just be clear, honest, helpful and polite. And prepared to kick people’s bottoms if they need it.”
Philomena smiled. “Not a bad philosophy for life, when you think about it,” she said.