…This Likewise May…

My blogpost for Authors Electric, January 2021, re-blogged here, and still relevant

‘Happy New Year’ – how many of us stayed up, let off fireworks, made resolutions, or toasted 2021?  Did anyone still think we’d be rid of the Pestilence, which seemed to’ve been celebrating its own capacity for moving into what we call a ‘New Year’? Enthusiastic about its own persistence, and whether human beings would stick to their resolutions?

Tourists, pre-2020…

New Year’s Eve, someone down the road was defying any gloom: fireworks which began at 11.00pm banged and boomed, illuminating the sky until 12.00pm.  Will this be the year we escape into ‘normal’ life, the Year of the Vaccine? I rather think that display was for something else… something a bit divisive… the 21st century looks to continue divisive and conflicted, set with clashing cultures, discontent, instability, and powerful urban myths. In January 2021, looking back on childhood, adolescence, early adult life, there was none of this. Refugees (now officially labelled ‘migrants’) were people we supported by holding ‘Jumble Sales’.  This conveniently denies that nobody would undertake such perilous journeys if peaceful life the home country was possible. Wars took place far away. Conflict in far away Vietnam came through the TV. And protest songs – Dylan, Baez, albums passed around at school – spoke about this to us UK kids and teens. But our dads, brothers, friends, didn’t face a call-up, and we had the comfort of our own homes to cushion us. 

It all depended on who you were and where you’re from. My Palestinian friend’s family had fled, via Lebanon, and were now scattered around, some in the USA, others in England. In Ireland, growing up in Belfast was vastly different from in the outer London suburbs. Though I remember being scared of terrorist attacks – was it safe, through the 1970s and into the 1990s, to take the District Line into London to look at an art exhibition?  Meet a friend? Go shopping?  See a play? Scrolling through the list of bombings, I recall the relief the Good Friday Agreement brought everyone. And there’s an example: peace took a long time coming…And was short lived: 2005, a London bus and a train bombed… different cause, same events. 

So, what am I saying? Something about the irony of an entire world war – not against injustice, or empire-building,  waged indiscriminately against the human population a whole, by an entity we  can’t see.  We can’t splat it like a mosquito, we can’t take up the latest nuclear or conventional weapons and bomb it to bits. We can’t (even!) make peace with it. We’re inside one of our own disaster moves, and we don’t like it. And we, at least we European and American Westerners, are outraged, terrified, taken aback. Some try to deny it. We cannot cope. We didn’t see this coming?

Without ‘banging on’ about climate change, actually we were warned . The world is an organism, each plant, or creature, or indeed each bacteria, virus, mould, even features of landscape or weather, shares in the make up of the world. Though many are pests, many others, seen or unseen, contribute to the well being of others, all up and down the food chain. Steadily removing some, (trees? rain forests? insects?), increasing others (carbon, concrete, petroleum fumes) radically changes things, bit by bit. Maybe science is boring? Maybe scientists who study the natural world are of less worth than financiers, politicians, and movie directors? Maybe. 

The scientific community had been saying, the next big threat to planet Earth isn’t necessarily world war three.  It could be, it is going to be, pandemics. When a tiny report, lurking quietly to one side of the BBC News webpage, with an illustration (photo from an electron microscope?) was headed ‘New virus identified in China’, some governments already had been told. They knew. They were warned. They didn’t prepare. 

The world is a scary place, yet depending on who were are, how un-scary it appeared post World War two.  Looking at the childhood of my grandchildren, and my friends’ grandchildren, I’ve wondered about how they feel – some teenagers, some already University – but others, in primary or secondary school, nursery, or even still inside, waiting to be born.   Anxiety, disruption, an unexpected situation, requires them to grow up fast, cope with the changes, cope with being unable to imagine their own future. They if any will be the generation who could justifiably ‘blame’ their parents. For a range of problems, not just raging wildfires and plastic in the seas.

 What are we doing? At the first lockdown, some us wondered whether, or believed that, this crisis would ‘bring back community’. It’s certainly pointed up individualism, dependence on appliances (they break…), on others providing for us (meals out, cleaners, even teachers, hairdressers, and of course dentists, doctors, vets), socialising (parties, Events, festivals, theatres, concerts, gathering for worship), on freedom movement (trips out to the countryside, driving from home to see friends/family/holidays). The list is endless.  Seems without these things, we get sad and lonely. All, or maybe most, of these are good things. No criticism. But prejudice, intolerance, rejection, and and hatred are all there, between countries and individuals. Even arguments about Who should be prioritised for the vaccine?

What we need most might be to simply learn or remember about thoughtfulness, compassion, give and take? Maybe we could forget tribalism, and cultivate accepting diversity, seeing ‘the other’ as a valid being, be they useful to us or not? Possibly when it’s over, the next step is acceptance, inclusiveness, and peace? Wouldn’t that be healing?

Christmas: how was it for you?

25th December, after tea, has a certain ambiance…

Was it ‘cancelled?’ 

Last year–2019 –it seemed like the world or at least larger part of it than before had begun to take the problem of climate change more seriously.

But, maybe not?  Maybe the publicity given to Greta Thunberg was mere publicity? Journalistic hype based around the appeal of a story? Helped along, even, by a PR company?  The story of a neurodivergent teenager and her solo mission to bring her message to the eyes and ears of the wider world: has great appeal. Whether that is the sad truth, a lot of people believed in her message. It chimed with a growing awareness by younger people that all is not perfect in this world of natural disasters, war, and terrorism.

And another sign of the times, Extinction Rebellion, disrupted town centres with lively demonstrations. They dressed up in scary costumes. They glued themselves to things. They were like a 21st century version of the Suffragettes. Several retired ladies from my art class travelled to London to take part, hoping that they might get arrested for the cause. 

We even wondered if the uncertain future of our planet could be moving up the agenda of world leaders?

But significantly and sadly, (and remember, we’re thinking about whether Christmas was cancelled), scientists in relevant areas had already warned about a worldwide pestilence – indeed pandemics, not one but many. These would become very likely unless the world’s lifestyle changed. Back in January this year I noticed a very small article to one side of the BBC News website: a new virus had emerged in China. Immediately my mind presented me a memory: those warnings. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that world leaders and politicians had chosen to ignore the warnings rather than prepare for such a worldwide natural disaster? Even as crazy Australian wildfires, beginning in June 2019, were still raging – and continued until May 2020 – demonstrating again that something isn’t quite right on the planet?

At least one politician even tried, as the virus struck our island nation (we hadn’t been ready, so we hadn’t made sure to close borders) tried to suggest that the plague would be gone “by Christmas”. Possibly he was experimenting with the idea that if you say something won’t interfere with something else, it won’t?  After all, nobody wants their traditional Christmas cancelled…  

But can Christmas be cancelled? Applying logic, family visits, roast turkey, Christmas Specials, Christmas trees, carols (from King’s /the school/the parish church), jumpers, puddings, Christingles, cribs, cards, and presents – these can be cancelled. We’d miss them – or many of them – at least one or two of them… We might be glad to miss the jumpers, or the puddings or the Specials. We wouldn’t miss spending an evening writing the cards. We might or mightn’t miss seeing family members (some seem less see-able than others…)  We’d miss the dream. We need it. We play it over in our minds. It’s perfect. It’s reassuring. It breaks up the dark, cold, winter. We’d even miss stress, frantic shopping, checking everything’s perfect, and the let-down when it’s not… Christmas, the annual family get-together,  has become a must-have.

As expected pleasures were potentially ‘snatched away’, not doing things exactly as usual threw many of us into disappointment and confusion. The idea that it mightn’t, this year, be wise to do all the traditional things, including crowded travelling from one place to another, getting squashed together at the todders’ Crib Service, and all that shopping, wasn’t just anathema, it was devastation.

So, if family meet-up can’t happen as usual, is our investment only in acting out the traditions?  What necessity have we bought into?  We’ve learned to expect predictability, but for many species life is fragile and unpredictable, and for many people survival is fragile and unpredictable. Evolution suggests a solution: adaptation to surrounding circumstances. Survival, the emotional survival of Christmas as we know it, may mean giving up ‘as we know it’, and defying ‘cancelled’ by embracing our own creative solutions… This can prove tremendously positive, once accepted, since untied from the traditional must-haves we’re free to do something with December 25th which suits us far better. 

What suits you? Given the weather, your circumstances, your tastes, chose something relaxing and restorative to do, to eat, to achieve… ‘Christmas’ is based on celebrating the birth of Christ, ‘the light (that) shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.’  That is, the darkness of the present time. Neither will it be altered by not being celebrated in the traditional way, on the traditional day. Christmas itself can’t be ‘cancelled’ any more than our birth-days can be (even though 25/12 isn’t a known date, only a church tradition)!

We could say the devastation this year wasn’t about losing Christmas: it was fear about losing the traditions of celebrating on 25/12. Maybe we need to loosen their hold on us? We don’t need to abandon them: the fun and the family stuff – just to know that whenever and wherever, we can gather and celebrate, the day and the specific traditions are moveable or adaptable when necessary.

Maybe we need to make sure we don’t allow another pandemic to overtake us? Maybe we need to make more effort  not to lose the planet? Because that would cancel everything…

Just a thought.

Traditional Crib

For a little Christmas story, go to the Hodge (Mari Howard) website, where you can read about Alice’s first carol service at https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/extract/the-labyrinth-year-christmas-carols-with-alice/

To read more about Alice and her family, try the books: Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year – find them at https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/books/

Writing that Inspires

(re-blogging my November piece for Authors Electric)

Writers need to keep reading – possibly a meme – but also, wise words. What better way to learn the art of good writing than to read much, and widely, from childhood onwards? Though whether that list on an Amazon page, ‘people who bought this also bought’, (or however it’s phrased) give much guidance that the books mentioned there will also please and entertain the reader of the main book featured is much guidance, I doubt. Because inspiration is a strange thing. In answer to a question (on Facebook, some years ago) ‘Waterstones Invite Readers To Share Books That Changed Their Lives’, I have a record that I responded, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’.

A book which inspired me, a book whose title intrigued me as a child…

I had recently consumed A Thousand Splendid Suns hungrily, page after page. Hosseini grips his reader with a powerful range of questions, emotions, attitudes, not only with page-turning plot. He lets you see a person in a certain light: then turns on another, and your view is totally different. Both are ‘true’, even though both are ‘opposite’. And the end, in a satisfying way, is actually fairy-tale in its simplicity and happiness, a final feel-good factor after all the angst. That works: the reader is left on a high, rather than ‘and that was a sad book’ or ‘well he  couldn’t decide so left it open…’ Hosseini is a master. In his next novel, And the Mountains Echoed we are shown, sympathetically, a sensitive, thoughtful Afghan-born doctor’s reaction to a wounded child in a Kabul hospital. She had been horrifically wounded in body and emotions: not by war, but by her jealous uncle’s violent attack on her family. We agree with the guy’s feelings, thoughts, and actions… at the same time, we are turned off by his cousin the wideboy’s behaviour.

Hosseini then tells the story of when the two guys returned to their homes in California. And the situation and future of the child are skilfully revealed in, at the last, a couple of sentences, maybe a short paragraph and in very telling words.

As a reader, you find yourself carrying this ending around with you, until you realise, yes: that is being human. That is how people are. Action, however crass the actor is, gets things done…Here is a writer who has his finger on the pulse of who and what we are, all of us, rattling around this world. Trying or meaning to do good. Or the opposite. Or being indifferent. Unfaithful. Caught up in a life too busy.

A Thousand Splendid Suns didn’t only grab me because it’s feminist, and written by a guy,  although the way he manages this is pretty insightful. It isn’t solely because it informs me about a culture very different to my own. Which is, it seems, always in and out of the News, having a long history of being a football kicked around by the surrounding countries and cultures, and some very far away. It’s these and more: Hosseini never ever uses clichés: whether of thought, situation, metaphor or phrase.

Also, and incidentally, when I was a small kid, there was a book in the family bookcase which had grabbed my attention by its title: *Conflict Angora to Afghanistan. For a moment, imagine a six year old: I knew what angora was, because I had a cherished angora bolero (there’s two lovely, non-English words held together by description, and belonging to two very different cultures!).  I wore this proudly birthday parties. It was the softest woolly garment imaginable.  It was angora… but what was Afghanistan? And how did that title all fit together to make sense?  And to add another couple of long-ago lurking child thoughts, I’ve always felt a kind of a pull towards the exotic, since I’ve a small, Greek-island, heritage, and a love of Oriental carpets.

But to return to the grown-up world: reading A Thousand Splendid Suns changed my life because the experience underlined my determination that it is possible to write about parts of your own, possibly obscure, culture in a way that challenges readers with the universal, every-culture, questions. And appeals, because of that, to the universal reader. It gave me faith that I don’t have to write what’s in vogue if I want to be read. Hosseini writes powerfully, insightfully, and gets inside the problems of being a human being: I am challenged to do that too.

Inspired to explore my culture

Above all, his writing skill challenged me to aim the highest I can, in whatever I write. To scatter the big questions across the page within the context of a story. To talk to the people out there, reading, about their own humanity while entertaining them with the questions, anxieties, and events through the lives these particular weird characters. That’s what the best traditional stories do, what Hosseini does, and what I try to do.

* https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/1931-07-01/conflict-angora-afghanistan  https://www.buddenbrooks.com/pages/books/28214/rosita-forbes/conflict-angora-to-afghanistan

Described as ‘the… adventures of a well-known traveller’, Conflict Angora to Afghanistan by Rosita Forbes (note, a woman), is a book, published 1931, which traces and comments on events sadly similar to an area of the ‘Middle Eastern’ world which continues to be troubled by war and conflict. I’ve no clear idea why we had it but there could be several reasons for the interest.

(Note: I believe he’s now gone back to practicing medicine, since he feels he has no more to say to say through fiction: now there’s something to consider. If we are ‘stuck’ or have no further burning ideas – then is it maybe time to stop, rather than to force oneself onwards, and write lesser books?)

Who’s left holding the Baby? – Class & Contraception in the 1920s

By Fiona Veitch Smith, author of The Art Fiasco and other books, (see bottom of this page for more details)

In The Art Fiasco, the fifth in my 1920s murder mysteries, Poppy Denby encounters a number of women who have varying experiences of motherhood, sexual exploitation and sexual freedom. If readers look beyond the fun, fashion and mystery they will find an exploration of how access to contraception and dealing with the consequences of conception outside (and inside) marriage, impacted upon career opportunities for working and middle class women in the early 20th Century.

For thousands of years women have inserted fruit acids, jellies, pastes and various mixtures into their vagina in an attempt to prevent conception. Environments that are either sharply acidic or alkaline are hostile to sperm and therefore these methods may have had some effect.

In 1885 the first commercial vaginal suppository using cocoa butter and quinine sulphate was developed by Walter Rendell, an English pharmacist. This was later replaced by hydroquinine, a more potent spermicide, and sponges soaked in quinine sulphate. In 1906 Friedrich Merz developed the first known commercially produced spermicidal jelly, called Patentex. Female barrier methods became from the 1880s with the diaphragm and later the Dutch cap coming onto the market, and later in the early 1900s, female condoms became available. The male condom, in its various forms, had been around for millenia, but for the first time contraceptive choice was given to the female partner, leading, in no small way, to the increased emancipation of women by allowing them to control their own fertility.

So, who were the women using contraception in the 1910s and 20s, and where did they obtain it? Well, as they could only be purchased from certain pharmacies or prescribed at private clinics, they were primarily available to the middle and upper class. Free sexual health services were still a thing of the future. In The Cairo Brief,Poppy notes that her sexually free friend Delilah Marconi might very well have ended up at the home for unwed mothers that they visit in the course of their investigation, if it hadn’t have been for her contraceptive know-how and wealth. Of course, the barrier method still sometimes failed, but even then women with more wealth were able to make arrangements to travel away out of public view to disguise their pregnancy. Assuming they did not have an abortion. That was an option, with varying degrees of safety, illegally available to both middle-class and working-class women. But the more an abortionist could be paid, the better the chance of survival.

Issues of childcare were also class dependent. In the 1920s, career opportunities were opening for women, but many of them – even if they were educated well enough to qualify – were unable to pursue these paths due to childcare constraints. Who was going to look after the baby? Wealthier women could afford nannies. In The Cairo Brief we see a miner’s wife worrying how she is going to look after yet another baby. And then we see Yasmin Reece-Lansdale, a wealthy barrister (now married to Poppy’s editor Rollo), blithely managing to have twins and return to work.

The law, too, was also a barrier to career advancement with The Marriage Bar in place in certain professions, such as teaching, that legally required women to resign if they were to get married.

Societal convention, religious belief, social and domestic conservatism, unequal educational opportunities, male opposition and political legislation all had a role to play in limiting women’s career advancement, but access to contraception was pivotally important. The 1920s saw a rise in demands for better access to birth control and the first free clinics were opened by Marie Stopes. Stopes is more usually remembered as a provider of safe abortion (and her eugenicist views) but her main thrust at the beginning of her career was the provision of contraception to married women. In the next book in the series, as Poppy is contemplating the possibility of marriage and what it might mean to her career, these issues become vitally important. But that’s another story…

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s (Lion Fiction). The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, while subsequent books have been shortlisted for the Foreword Review Mystery Novel of the Year and the People’s Book Prize. Book 5, The Art Fiasco, is out now. www.poppydenby.com

Please don’t be Political!

As a writer, I know others who avoid what they’d brand as ‘political’, and that is fine for them. But, I came into writing to be political – being political, having awareness of ‘stuff’ is why I write – not crime (cosy or violent), not romance, not whimsy, not fantasy – I began writing my first novel prompted by some thoughts about what drives social change. How can a person not be themselves?  Above all I want to be objective, (even if the concept of objectivity is denied to be possible today, I believe it is possible): and especially not to “preach”. 

Change has complexity. Initially good and compassionate attitudes and changes have this way of slipping towards something less than perfect. How does this come about? New possibilities can look wonderful, progressive… they’re also open to manipulation for profit. To exploitation. These interact… some people fear change, or have special reasons to resist…

How do we stop that happening? Would we want to? Is cracking down on society and forcing traditional values and behaviour – often longed for, in a nostalgic terms, by some people – a solution? Can the clock be turned back?

Social change can never be turned back. We may be able – or think we are able – to change the future. But we can never return to the past. Not because nobody wants to, but because too much has changed, and  become different, over time.

For example, we can’t easily reverse climate change by “cracking down”. That won’t bring back the lost species. The ruined rainforests. I say we can’t easily, as with care, international cooperation, and willingness to do without the comfortable ways we’ve learned to live with, we might. But that’s unlikely to occur, given that most countries will have special interests. Fast air travel, foreign holidays, cheap food, clothing outsourced to be made in poor countries, are what we have come to expect. It would take an enormous commitment in the face of huge opposition from those who benefit and profit to change. And the beneficiaries include all of us – you and me in our small ways, our governments and multinational companies in their powerful ones. 

Progressive, beneficial medical advance can’t help driving social change. Some will disagree, but reliable *contraception and safe clinical abortion were introduced by idealists passionate to improve the lives of women, particularly those caught in poverty, the ‘less well off’ majority. Not to offer easy recreational sex to both genders without consequences. Its opposers argued on both moral and religious grounds that ‘misuse’ was inevitable. It has indeed resulted in huge shifts in public attitudes. Personally I detest the phrase ‘sexual revolution’, since there’s so much more than ‘sex’ going on…also has removing ‘sex’ from ‘relationship’ been helpful and without consequences for women? (Think #MeToo, for example.) Genetic research, combined with legal abortion, has also changed public attitudes, in a way which could be seen as sinister. Introducing safe legal abortion opened up new possibilities in eugenics. Moral and ethical questions shift about. Few people now would consider it better to carry a dysmorphic foetus to term. (And this future may be applied to female foetuses, and to what other groups among the ‘inconvenient’?) Is this murder? The furore surrounding ‘pro-life’ can influence voters.

But back to my writing.  My first novel tended towards a scifi mystery, its roots in the story of Dolly the sheep, successfully produced by cloning at the Roslin research centre near Edinburgh, in 1996. As I read up the historical background, and learned more about the scientific process, the story changed, evolved, and became domesticated. Where it works better. Hopefully the mystery concerning a shockingly dysmorphic baby, investigated (illegally as it would be now) by two Cambridge students, from very different family backgrounds, highlights several moral and ethical questions, not wholly confined to the field of science and medical advance.

A follow-up story goes on to look at an on-going everyday problem: ever since women gained equality in education and opportunity, we expect to be able to successfully combine career and family.  However, who then cares for the kids? When career opportunities and family crises clash, what and whose ambitions, talents, and goals take precedence? 

My prompts have always come from the effects of social change and the pushback from traditionalists. An ever present ‘dialectic’. History is increasingly driven by a combination of invention, its usage, and most significantly our desires. Our desires may be to eliminate suffering and improve life. But equally they may be hijacked by ambitions for profit or pleasure. Leading to destruction.

 Objectivity, though it ‘doesn’t sell newspapers’, can be useful. I may be political, but I also try to simply lay out life as it is, not what ‘my’ Utopia might be. Asking the awkward questions does tend to look political.

*women’s lives in the 1920s? Follow this up! COMING SOON: This Thursday, 29 October, Who’s left holding the baby? – class & contraception in the 1920s, a guest blog by writer Fiona Veitch Smith, author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series... to celebrate the publication of Poppy’s latest investigation, The Art Fiasco, set in 1924…

Reading, Writing, and Always being Kind…

(My July contribution to the ‘Authors Electric’ blog, reproduced here) “Be kind” 

A few weeks before lockdown, a well-known celebrity took her own life, leaving a note advising others to “be kind”. This may or may not have been the source of advice which circulated, as we began to live shut away from crowds, and thus places of business and pleasure, that we should now do “Small acts of kindness” to neighbours. An effort to create some coping mechanism, some feeling of community, and hope, and to take us out of ourselves.

Well-meaning but in danger, as the words became a meme, of joining with those BBC News tropes of “unprecedented”, “uncharted waters” and “strange times” which, while describing something, also managed to describe nothing. How, exactly, do we perform “little acts of kindness” when all are separated and not to get together? Of course, we do find ways… What I’m saying is, stand back and think — is it worrying that we need to be told? Is it sobering that normally we don’t do these?

Lockdown has become a meme – a subject overdone – yet lockdown is different for everyone, and has provided the chance for reflection to a society which doesn’t reflect very much. On to the next thing, and let’s hope for excitement — as was said of Millennials, “they don’t want material goods like their parents do — they want experiences”.

A Change of Reading

One small change I found myself led into was reading matter. As an avid fiction fan, my habitual reading has being in the area of long, moderately challenging novels.

Not the popular Hilary Mantel ones (though many began lockdown with reading her latest). My taste has been a tour of novels by non-British, non-white writers whose cultures I don’t know with the histories and religious bases which formed them. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Leila Aboulela’s Bird Summons. I returned to reading Barbara Kingsolver, her latest two novels, (Unsheltered and Flight Behaviour) exploring in fictional form the effects of climate change. My lockdown change was a desire to turn to lighter novels, and to actually enjoy a “cosy mystery” set on a Greek island, (Murder your Darlings) and a diary-style account of teaching in a secondary school, tragi-comic and firmly set in today’s Middle England (Miss, What does Incomprehensible Mean?) . Challenged by having the time, I watched TV’s adaptation of Normal People, and the sociologist in me kicked in to consider its meaning. Another contemporary romance, Mix Tape, had also caught my attention, and I thought that these two stories, both published as books in the past five years, demonstrate the truth of the “plus ça change” nature of human beings and what they expect from a romance novel…, and this between couples from opposed cultures, although all Western and all-white.

A Challenge on Content

Interestingly, in both stories attraction is strong and physical, taking place initially at school, cultural differences are of class, both “girls” have difficult abusive homes, both “boys” loving and nurturing ones. Both girls “escape” to a new life where they blossom. Both boys have not known the extent of the abuse the girls had suffered. Both couples keep their relationship a secret from the abusive home. Are these the present day memes of romance novels, I wondered? Mix Tape — taking place in the late 1970s — ends with reuniting the couple, whereas Normal People, a millennial tale, ends with parting for career reasons.

But then, I read the book. Memes they may be, but Sally Rooney’s story tells more than can be conveyed by the dimly-lit, meaningful looks of the TV adaptation convey. The inner lives of her protagonists, troubled by doubt around issues of identity and worth, weave in and out of this on-off relationship and give, albeit in unrelenting flat prose, what is not there in the dialogue. The tragedy of the romance between two school misfits is that each has been unknowingly the other’s tutor in adolescent development. And the ending, a disappointment to many reviewers, is indicated (though not overtly stated): as adults they — or certainly Marianne has — achieved the ability to do without the other.  Whereas in Mix Tape (set in the late 20th century) the protagonists are all set, at the end, to elope together, leaving marriage partners and grown children behind.

An indication that the meme has moved on from romance to a reality where the individual’s own career trumps caring about a person close to themselves, and self dominates over all human relationships? Or have they merely matured, rather than “using each other”? A point to consider for my review, on my website.

Reading romance novels, albeit serious ones, makes me wonder about how much the romance genre meme is an indicator of the health, or not, of a society. And put my own work under the spotlight: does my work (novels Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year) fall into “unshelvable” due to a low ratio of sex to other issues of the couples’ daily lives?

Is this because it shows too much of how they carry out the scientific interests and work which holds them together as much as physical attraction, how they work on a mystery together, and raises ethical and religious questions?It had seemed at the time of writing these weregiving the reader some stronger food than simply the sugar of the sex drive. And it was all part of the learning curve of my two young protagonists. Or, is my story-telling simply outdated as we move onwards?

A Chance of a Future

Well that is what I’ve learned, and shall we keep up the “little acts of kindness”? Many of us have learned, as the roads quietened and there was nowhere to go except our own gardens and the nearest walkable park or common, to slow down and appreciate the natural world. My hope is that we’ll continue to and live with an eye on the survival of more birds in our gardens, more wildflowers on the verges, and more insects to pollinate them. And of course the range of readers, like the range of books, is infinite, and the human psyche does actually often return to what’s easiest. Maybe I’ll write the action next, and leave out the romance?

And so, shall we all continue to be kind?

(…and by the way, what am I reading now? Another ‘cosy, light’ book, Stranger at St Brides, by my friend Debbie Young, and  Sally Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends... plus ca change…)

In Today’s World, is there a place for ‘Happy Endings’?

Note: this first appeared on the Authors Electric blog (April 2020), time has brought us to another place, Ed & Emma’s story has resolved, Normal People has shown & been discussed – but the question remains – soaps, dramas, novels and happy endings? 

I am a fan of The ArchersThe Archers potters along, but I find myself these days hoping that something might have a successful outcome – why must The Archers mirror society, and more relevantly, does it?  The Rob and Helen storyline was exciting, moving, and telling, a warning about coercive control… now the Emma and Ed one informs about the desperate plight of a rural population struggling to make a home and living… but, if that crash lands in total failure, doesn’t it, somehow, also teach that there can be no escape, none at all, and leave listeners only depressed and hopeless?

I don’t know. I don’t believe in total ‘happy endings’ but I hunt for a bit of balance. I watch Call the Midwife for relaxation, fully realising that the  happiness achieved is not, of course, always an outcome in real life, but at least I am relaxed and entertained. (Some friends can’t watch – they recall labour and birth and don’t want to watch it on screen…)

Back in the day (of the 1950s & 60s) the kids in CTM’s East End could really have no shoes, rats in their homes, desperate mothers did die of back street abortions. And it was the late 1950s. And, I was a middle class small child who as yet didn’t know, except about the shoes.

So, with domestic violence, child poverty, and failing relationships, can we and should we accept “happy” endings now in our secular 21st-century world? What is a “happy ending”? Fairy stories often and with a rather empty, cliched stock phrase “and they lived happily ever after”.

Is compromise a “happy ending”?  Why might we now prefer an ending which is open or even tragic? Why are these endings considered “more realistic” and why do we desire “Realism”? Was Fleabag’s ending what we want: open, but unresolved?

More specifically, is the realism in soaps and TV dramas truly real? Are the characters real? Is it consistent? The “realism” may inhabit the dialogue, but breaks down when characters supposed to be professionals (as in the drama Dr Foster, particularly inept and depressingly focussed on negativism, sex and rows) or running a successful business, behave like street kids at home with their partners. Do so many of us do this that it is realism?  It cuts talk, yes, but what else? Violence isn’t ‘acceptable’ but it’s what we do? Meanwhile total lack of realism reigns in the boring bits such as when medicine or business is being practised. Of course we’d not expect long boring “being at work” scenes, but we do need, if insisting on accuracy and realism, to be shown whether this character or that are competent people or already living a chaotic life of emotional stress, mistakes, snapping at colleagues, on the edge… will it result in mental breakdown and inability to function in a professional capacity? Realism? Rather, these stories require suspension of disbelief! What do they say about relationships but selfishness, misery, and middle class domestic violence?

Is there maybe a “message” contained in these dramas: if so, why? Are they the descendants of the “kitchen sink” plays written by “angry young men” of the 1950s –  Kingsley Amis, Arnold Wesker, Stan Barstow… John Osborne’s Look back in Anger being an iconic example. As Hobbs said, human life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And is unlikely to be anything else?

Perhaps writers feed the public what it wants? Or are we writing out of our frustrations and regrets, sadnesses, disappointments and rage?  The recent memoir phase has covered topics from the life of minorities, whether of ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and other groups who find themselves in what feels like an unfairly negative position in a culture which seems to suggest that everyone can and should “have it all”. Helpful or unhelpful to read, these memoirs aren’t written to entertain, or “lose yourself in a book” but to expose life’s unfairness, or highlight disappointments, tragedies or frustrations. Occasionally there’s a “happy ending”, as with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or  Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns,  where the protagonist ‘obtains their goal’, and thus solves the problem.

And so memoir might deliver the hope, while fiction highlights the grim reality…?

To embed reality into drama or fiction needs care and insight. Diana Evans puts the problems of the black middle-class into novel form, (Ordinary People) and it ends up just that – ordinary… (Evans is great at writing about boredom so that you feel it!)  Tayari Jones does far better in An American Marriage, going deeper into character, developing (and demonstrating through interaction and dialogue) motivations and ambiguities, which demonstrate an empathy with her creations, and creates a page turning story rather than flat complaint. The young African-American author Angie Thomas does superbly with her page-turning THUG (The Hate you Give), chronicling the struggles of escape from the inevitable place class and skin colour has assigned her and her fellow African Americans.

If novels can entertain, inform, and open our minds to the lives of others while supplying at the same time as satisfying read, is this impossible for drama, especially soaps and TV drama?  Conclusions with ambivalent, open endings, even happy ones, usually involve growth and change. Soaps and TV dramas are the sources of quickfire entertainment. Characterisation can slip in order to pace or literally “sex up” a story. They’re a preferred relaxation for most people. Novels may speak more constructively, memoirs less so. But memoirs, possibly, are informing the lack of if not happy then satisfying endings in the threads of soaps and the themes of dramas. People are made aware of the sufferings of others, maybe even find pleasure in the satisfaction or schadenfreude which appeals, and maybe also reassures them, that the lives of others are not necessarily better than their own: the grass is not greener, and happily ever after can be dismissed as a myth.

Of course, I would still like Ed and Emma Grundy to reconcile, but I suspect a Thomas Hardy influence at work on the ending…

 

 

A Future World?

I now have my first Moleskine sketch and notebooks: I have never indulged in Moleskine, but last month, buying a new sketchbook, notebook, tube of basic white paint and some medium at our local art shop, I learned that that craft materials of all kinds had been flying off the shelves. And as the basic sketchbooks and notebooks were all gone, they charged me the basic price for superior goods, their suggestion.

So, “lockdown” is not a holiday. But faced with having their offices or other business closed, a considerable number of people saw the chance for creativity would reign in their lives, whether  embroidery, knitting, papercraft or any other activity they’d “always meant to try”. Others rushed to buy jigsaws to relieve the boredom  they feared would attack due to acres of free time. Or piles of books to escape into. Or vegetable plants, and packets of seeds to dig for victory.  All nostalgic occupations of a bygone age, which we’d abandoned as not exciting enough for today.

And while all the creativity, combating boredom, and escaping happens in one place, in another, possibly quite close by, others are overworked, helping yet others to combat infectious illness, in danger of their own lives. Or harnessing their creativity to produce a test, or a vaccine. Tied firmly to daily toil, exhausting and dangerous. No escape.

It’s not just odd, it has actually divided us. It’s a bit like – if the world survives, children will ask parents or grandparents, ‘What did you do in the great pandemic?’ And some of us will have lurked at home, and some will have been on the frontline, and if we aren’t careful the two sides could clash horribly… Maybe nobody says it yet, but the “middle-class” workers-from-home,  and the people doing jigsaws and crafts, are having a relatively comfortable time,

The slow-worm has a secret life, we seldom see them…

while “key workers” – everyone who keeps all the basics going – those employed in supermarkets,  lorry drivers, binmen and railway workers, bus drivers, firefighters, police – as well as doctors, nurses, cleaners, hospital administrators – remain at work and at risk. Maybe nobody’s saying it yet, but should the key workers be better rewarded, in the future, when the utter necessity of their work is acknowledged?

Bluetits quarrel on telegraph wire

I wonder if, as another blogger hoped and suggested, we’ll continue to be kind, generous, thoughtful and neighbourly. The world would change, the needs of the poor be met, the wealthy countries distribute their wealth more equally. The emphasis would be on a decent life for all. Temptation being what it is, this is definitely a dream. Could it become a reality? Could the world admit that we have a climate crisis, that we have been exploiting and destroying nature long enough, and could we unite to care about this and accept a “lower standard of living” so all may live?  Remember the continuous rain and floods of the past winter. The Australian wildfires. The suffering and death of human beings (and animals). Would governments and companies change their priorities?

I wrote this in Holy Week, the lead up to Easter. I have spent very peculiar Lents in the past three years, in 2018 being seriously ill in the ICU for a week and then five weeks on the ward. And the time was exactly, almost to the day, Lent, Holy week, and Easter. I escaped the hospital on the evening of Easter Monday, thrown out with at least nine others, making room for a new intake.

Lent is a peculiar time, supposedly for fasting. This year I decided to “give up” political involvement for Lent. Enough signing petitions and ranting along with others of similar views who thought “Brexit” would be a disaster for our country. The reality of this Lent is that I’ve spent most of the time “isolating” in “lockdown”. And as the various measures and lack of measures to contain and defeat the march of the virus are or are not put in place, it’s been impossible to “give up politics”, and it’s been back to sharing our views, responding to the sufferings of others, whether from working without proper protective equipment or from loss of jobs or earnings.

Frogs party in the pond

 Lent has been very peculiar. Meanwhile nature struggles on – frogs mate in the ditch at the nature reserve, the garden is bright with spring flowers, bees are buzzing about, birds are busy and filled with song. The weather has brought sunshine.

Along with others, I have felt we shall all be changed by this present situation. Many experts hope, and see positive change. Whether the world will move into greater awareness and more generosity is a big question. It’s unlikely we’ll learn to be content with holidays at home with jigsaws or embroidery. But will we have become aware of the necessity to combat climate change together, will we have accepted that “key workers”, previously given low pay, should be honoured with the recognition of decent wages? Is a bin man’s contribution going to now be seen as worth as much as a banker’s? Or shall we continue to live as divided nations, hostile to one another, competitive in our pursuit of personal and national wealth? That is the question.

On the Thingness of Things

This comes to you — but might well not have done – since we have these several past weeks been beset by the rebellious nature of our Internet connection.  Was this a curse from beyond or within the house? Was it some malfunctioning of the line, the router, or some other source?

Whatever it was, came the day when the whole thing packed up, and we found ourselves without connection to the outside – the online grocery shop, the Bank to pay for services purchased, the connection to my husband’s office (he works from home), and our various family and friends. Never mind Facebook, Twitter, and the BBC iPlayer… Or that vital thing, the weather forecast.

Never mind vital background research when writing!

It is in such circumstances that the Thingness of Things raises the question – How sentient are the non-sentient Beings which (or who) surround and control our lives? Makes you stop and think – What if this whole system were to collapse – to be collapsed? Well, how often have you tried to book a ticket, an appointment with the doctor or dentist, hairdresser or vet, and been told “We can’t do anything at present, the system’s down”?

So – this Thingness – it isn’t, don’t imagine it is – new. Things have always tried to demonstrate their Thingness, which is determined, assertive, and contrary. Far from being dumb articles of usefulness to Human Beings, Things are above all that hierarchical thinking.

  For example, Christmas. Who hasn’t had their oven, fridge, freezer or dishwasher decide that 24th December is a great day to pack up, or at least to temporarily break down? Immediately they hear of one’s plight, friends and neighbours share their own experiences. We, for example, have had (severally) oven, fridge, and tumble dryer all take unpaid leave over Christmas. The oven spectacularly dared to totally conk out one year. And the replacement proved itself cleverer than the two John Lewis employees who were supposed to install it…

Then there was the boiler, thankfully a different year.  And, the electric cable the road – that left a whole group of us in cold and darkness…

And there are the small things. My kitchen food mixer suddenly began, with no warning, an unheard-till-then loud grating noise, in the midst of mixing biscuits… it was kaput… If towels are hung on a hook on the bathroom door, they will often drop (or jump) to the floor with a particular satisfying (to them) thud as you leave… Futon sofa beds  prefer to stolidly cling to the couch pose than to change to the bed pose when an unexpected guest arrives late. Very small things (take the elastic which holds my rolled-up Yoga mat together when not in use) delight in hiding in plain sight – this thing disguised itself within the pattern of an Oriental-style rug. Hairpins, rubber bands, even pens and pencils also play this kind of hide-and-seek.

Just an innocent sofa-bed?

And a friendly oriental-style rug?

Doorhandles stick or fall off. Drawers stick or fall out, throwing their contents to the floor. Talking of drawers, I had a friend at Uni who was so fearful her knicker elastic would snap that she always wore two pairs, one on top of the other… (I know, pretty extreme but… it had apparently once happened… never would it catch her out again…!) Leaves co-operate with the railway line in autumn, as snow does in winter, to make sure trains don’t run.

And, for us writers, our computers or printers find many ways to thwart and hold back our Work in Progress. There is, very definitely, a Thingness of Things. Whether I have thwarted such ambitions will be seen when I attempt to post this on the Authors Electric site… (dictated from  my draft, and entitled, by the dictation programme, “Playing gnarls”: now how did that translate from The Thingness of Things? What are ‘gnarls”?)

Then, the internet connection failed…again…

Further reading… Paul Jennings, ‘Report on Resistentialism’ in The Jenguin Pennings, pp. 196–206. The French philosophy of Resistentialism has as its basic concept Les choses sont contre nous.

(This piece first appeared on Authors Electric on 22 Febraury this year)

Ignoring Brexit… or Why be Political when you could be Normal?

‘After Brexit’ and the English weather is as it ever was – nostalgically these two look out across the Thames towards Parliament… (photo BBC News Getty images)

Indeed, why? As I (mis) quoted Janette Winterson’s autobiography title (‘Why be Happy when you could be Normal?’)  on my January Authors Electric blogpost. (An Amateur looks at the Art of Poetry, scroll down to find it, the group publish a blog every day on there).

So, ‘all work and no play…’ My blogging has gone a bit that way… you, the Reader, may think ‘far too political’ and give up – you, a follower, may stop in your tracks, and vow never to come here again… But wait, here is the real(er) me… with the things I enjoy!   And ‘after Brexit’ I intend to continue enjoying them… whatever the weather (and at present the local water meadows are under water…) 

Robin singing to defend his territory – or simply enjoying a spot of sun on an otherwise grey, damp, morning with

One of my favourite walks is a visit to our local nature reserve, trying to catch on camera the plants and wildlife… Robins are the commonest birds there, and several have become friends with regular visitors… Just before I met the Robin, this Jay swooped down to ground level and  began turning over the left-over autumn leaves, and  pecking up any insects it could find…

Crowds gather to view the flooded water meadows

And now for the ‘lake’ which develops every winter, and this year has surpassed itself… rather sad for us observers, the Teal who often migrate over and inhabit the lake in the winter months have been put off by a huge invasion of seagulls – and also, possibly, by the number of lively  dogs being walked on the water meadows, who leap joyfully into the water regardless of the cold!

 

And of course, back in the nature reserve plant life is stirring, snowdrops just coming out, just a promise of spring, and many varieties of fungi – these (below) are Elf Cups, (measure them against the ivy leaves and see how tiny they mostly are) pointed out to me by a very sharp eyed friend on a wonderful sunny morning… 

and over on another blog, a writer friend has just reminded us all that we should build much more play into our lives, lest we become world-weary women… when life escalates into being  too political, it’s all too easy to forget that! More nature walks, fewer earnest discussions… so I’m drawing this to a close and going for a cup of tea and a biscuit… then more thoughts about the follow-up to The Labyrinth Year…