Tell me the truth about love…

Writing is a process. That’s kind of obvious: but the interesting thing about writing, (or any creative process), is the inevitable interaction between us, the creatives, and the work, as we move through that process.

This blog is based on one I wrote earlier (in 2013). I was moving towards the completion of a first draft, but hadn’t been able to pin down the final pages. How exactly to say au revoir to my characters, and leave my readers with that sense of both satisfaction and longing for more…

Paragraph two began: Yesterday, I completed my second editing of the draft of Baby, Baby’s follow-up: a sequel which takes Max and Jenny into the stormy waters of modern marriage, parenthood, and professional careers. I had one last scene to write, and I knew I’d been putting it off. Well, yesterday was the day after I’d completed the first draft of my latest WIP – the next book in the series… and in taking a break before plunging into first edits, I was doing some desktop tidying-up, and found this – some musings on a word we use and use and abuse daily.

Location location: Oxford, where Max and Jenny move in the second book… the science area from the University Parks

Working through the draft, there’ll be alterations to make, to bring the whole together leading to the revelations which were the goal from the beginning… With The Labyrinth Year, it’s a peaceful resolution, another labyrinth, this time on the beach.  And what got me there as now was a strong desire to have done with shuffling details and a big push towards the pre-planned finale.

But love remains central to the series’s plots, though in another way.

Writing a series, characters move on and grow. The idea was born in Cornwall, where this one ends – and moving from idea to text, early on a character called Max began as a research scientist, a charmer, slightly sinister, very ambitious, and  amoral. He soon morphed, and split. The name attached itself to a very different male protagonist. The character became John Guthrie, mostly-absent father to Jenny, the female lead. Love is at the centre of the plot: but do John and Max love Jenny? Does she love either of them? And why?

I love my family, my garden, my cats, and I love chocolate. Or rather, I love the taste and the feel when I eat chocolate. A piece of chocolate completes a meal: does love complete something?

 Is it that these guys needed/wanted Jenny, to complete themselves?

Max ‘fell’ in love with Jenny: Jenny thinks she loves Max. She was impressed, flattered, and saved from homesickness and the ignominy of doing the heel trick right before her college interview. She could disappear, in ancient, romantic, historic, drily-academic, super-scientific, audacious Cambridge, from damp, dreary, West Cornwall where nothing happens and everything remains traditional, in 1984. She truly loved him.

Sennen Beach, West Cornwall, a sunny day

Max is constrained by his religious background and culture. Taught that love is receptive, open to others, incarnated in service. Jenny begins by perceiving Max (along with Cambridge) as her saviour: she needed him! So do her hormones, her ambitions, her expectations.

But initially, he let her down…

Jenny’s stepsister Daisy meanwhile feels the world owes her: after all, when she was a small child, her mum disappeared at Glastonbury Festival, taking her love along with her. Adopted by Jenny’s middle-class, conventional, GP, mother, expected to appreciate how this women gives ‘love’, Daisy thinks her early deprivation justifies her angry feelings, and kicks against convention.

While Jenny’s dad, John Guthrie, plays with his daughter’s emotions, by giving her academic chances. Is he trying to make up for removing himself from her childhood when he divorced her mother? His clients want a baby, so much they will pay what they can’t afford, and suffer any pain and indignity of treatment. In return, when they get the baby, they love the doctor who made it happen. He receives affirmation.

 Each set of parents claim to ‘love’ their adult children, ‘want the best’ for them… and think they know what’s best. What exactly compels Max and Jenny to continue their relationship, despite parental disapproval? Raging twenty-something hormones? Rebelliousness? Is this love?

Daisy’s rebelliousness, and a gap year job at Guthrie’s research lab lead her into a situation which brings Jenny and Max back together. Though in return for being in relationship, they must both give up something they hold dear, part of themselves, part of their childhood, their upbringing.

So, all of these scenarios, involving wanting, desiring, craving, and getting, are described as driven by love.

For book two, the stage was set, the continuing the story of love. In book three (hopefully moving towards its adulthood in publication) there’s love in friendship, as their daughter Alice recalls her teenage year of first public exams and personal formation… Writing is a process, and as the song says, Tell me the truth about love…

Words and language in the land of heightened emotions

Awaiting publication of her second book, a friend expressed her fear that readers might ‘hate’ it. Not that they mightn’t like or agree with how she had continued the protagonist’s story (or ‘journey’, see below), but hate it

‘Buzz off – we swans hate you geese… ‘

It’s not unusual. Extremes jump easily to mind, in the land of heightened emotions — or L H E. Take the story of what were once called ‘displaced persons’ or ‘refugees’, people seeking a refuge from oppression, torture, or war. Only a few weeks ago these people were renamed ‘migrants’ and the ‘powers that be’ discussed whether it was unwise or even unnecessary to launch the lifeboats if a shaky boat crowded with them capsized in the English Channel. Then, Afghanistan: and thousands of those opposed to the new regime were under threat, and our Government promises to rescue 20,000 women and girls. The public leaps to be behind this, and its Government. We then hear some reality stories — the reluctant Foreign Secretary, the proposal to ‘keep some waiting’ so that ‘they can be more easily settled…’.

I tell this story to underline how the news orchestrates, the government vacillates, the truth is ambiguous, and the public are invited to swing back and forth. In the LHE, our emotions are constantly played upon by overexcited media.

Reacting to such constant stimuli, our way of communicating creates and uses memes and tropes to strongly convey our feelings. These tend towards the use of metaphors or similes, which, once universally recognised, can rapidly convert our messages or responses in popularised, universalised, phraseology. And as it is interesting to look at what the themes of the year — week — day — hour might be, I’ve been tempted to collect some.

Here I give you a few:

When the pandemic hit, we soon saw, heard everywhere, and used: unprecedented, these strange times, stuck at home, bored/boring, the new normal and later I can’t wait to sing again, affects my mental health, jabbed, joined them.

Already existing self-care saw increasing popularity, underlying how looking after our own selves is important to us, and took over from from the first popularised phrase, be kind.  When affects my mental health expanded — exponentially — and was usedto cover boredom, frustration and sadness about having the fun part of life taken away, this rightly annoyed and upset the community of those who had pre-existing, medically diagnosed, serious mental health issues. They argued that their condition was being trivialised by those who felt restructed and annoyed by lockdowns.

Has this all emerged due to social media use? I’m not totally convinced that social media is completely to blame, but I find it can both emotionalise and dramatise by ‘upping the feelings angle’. Haven’t you ever regretted mentioning something which gets the reply ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ when the responder hardly knew you, let alone the friend who (they assume) had passed away and had maybe even simply moved away? Or ‘I admire your honesty’, when you would be unlikely to lie about whatever the subject is—and which implies that they probably might! It’s also quite fashionable to discuss, or desire, to be authentic — isn’t it a bit worrying that so many of us (or them) seem to be admitting that they are not? And does the louder we admit to emotions (‘it made me cry’) imply we are feeling them at greater depth? Do we? 

Once a phrase has become a meme – and this underlies my attempt to bring this style of communication to our notice – a stock phrase almost becomes word – take ‘spiralling out of control’, ‘weeping uncontrollably’, or even, ‘sorry for your loss’. Words have become close partners, gathering together almost as if there’s a key to press when writing them. ‘Upping the ante’ as they go. Listen to the blithe assumption in that phrase ‘We’re not meeting in August – when everyone’s away’. It can strike at the heart of anyone (especially mothers of young children, and those who live alone) who is not imminently off on a happy holiday, but remaining where they are, without the usual standby of groups and social interaction. Both phrases demonstrate a collective thoughtlessness. The authentic and honest among us writers need to do better than to use them.

Arts page reviewers, including of books, often reach too often for powerful, award-winning, and a selection of ‘-ality’ words: physicality, musicality, spirituality, duality, and others, when more varied and descriptive adjectives might at the least vary the writing—such generalities! Don’t you agree?

To end with: it has become a meme to include a piece of serious classical music in any programme where you, the Celebrity, have chosen a selection of favourite recordings. As, for example, your choice of piece, say from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, is introduced, the phrase ‘I’m not religious but…’ must precede the recording… Are the nonbelievers afraid to be wrongly labelled? Is their secularism a guilty secret, when listening to Bach? Why apologise?

Well, life is as they say, a journey. Moving from a childhood enthusiasm for swimming, say, to representing your country in the Olympic Pool, is a journey

This blog is a kind of journey – through the way we use and fail to use language creatively and is in no way criticism of anyone falling into this. We are all potential sinners in the Land of Heightened Emotions. Mostly I admire everyone’s chatilarity on here, and am only taking an authentic, honest, and amused sideways glancing look at the dance of words and language. Whatever it takes to float our boats, may we never capsize…

Taking off my Hat to my Younger Self

Dot Matrix printer: remember them?

(This was first published as my contribution to the Authors Electric blog for the month of June 2021)

Yesterday our usually human-oriented, friendly cat spent eight hours lurking under the sofa bed in my ‘den’ (or writing space), which doubles, with the sofa in its bed pose, as a guest bedroom.  For him, ‘lockdown’ was most definitely over: a small fast-moving human creature, whom he had forgotten about, was again whooping and shouting around the house…

         I could agree with the cat. Lockdown provided a quiet routine life, when writing could be fitted into the daily round of on-line shopping, exercise classes, meetings and chat. Ever since my husband’s office sent everyone off to work from home (16 March 2020) this routine has given our cat ‘sit-on time’ around 10.00am, as we three met up for our tea and biscuits morning break, and again around 4.45pm for tea and a slice of toast (the cat of course had cat kibble, if hungry, but the specialness of these times isn’t food (forhim), it’s that he can sit on a lap, one of his very favourite things). 

In fact, lockdown has given our cat a new interest: observing and researching human life. He finds all of it extremely diverting, if mysterious. He’s an eager participant (or tries to be) at Zoom/Teams meetings (along with other cats), watches a cultural television programme with deep concentration and puzzlement, and always turns up hoping to join my weekly on-line Yoga sessions… but enough of cats, except to say that having hunted all over the house for him, I discovered him under the sofa bed, having squashed himself flat, and beaten the record of the Lakeland cat which Beatrix Potter observed as having sat on the lid of a basket for five hours. After such a feat, he was extremely hungry, and ate two suppers while I began preparing ours.

That cat who sat on the basket for 5 hours (from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, one of my favourites as a 4-year-old)

My observation meanwhile was to feel like taking off my hat to my younger self: during this last lockdown, we’d discovered, lurking in some box in the attic, a collection of about ten short stories written by that younger self. Some printed by our first, dot-matrix, printer, on recycled paper bought from one of the then-new ‘fair trade’ catalogues, now yellowed with age. These were from that now-taught-as-history-in-schools date of 1989 — remember what you were doing then? Although I know women who write now while raising a family, as Mum to three children, then aged 12, 8, and 8 (twins), I wondered where they find the time? Making supper for two, I recalled cooking meals for 6 (including my mother who was living with us) back in the 1980s.  

Whatever, the discovery has kicked off a lockdown project: to edit and publish my stories from 1989 to just the very beginning of the 2000s as a collection, a historical looking-back through the last 20 years of the 20th century, when life was simpler.

All the elements which drive my present writing and interests are strongly present in those stories, but with a different, more innocent slant. Back then, I’d had a few articles published but hadn’t even thought of writing a novel, or had any ambition about ‘writing’. The articles concerned, at a non-specialist level, socio-political attitudes. But in the stories, characters swirl through a world of their own personal discovery based around their relationships, mostly heterosexual, mostly concerned with a spot of romance, dreams broken or dreams achieved — mostly lessons learned, sometimes strangely magical. They chronicle the background of the world of my University years, dotted all over with the friends I moved among: artists (I’d hang around their studios, envying them the apparent freedom studying Fine Art), or medics (how on earth had they known to apply for this so-adult subject, what was it like to be on the wards discovering the realities and responsibilities of clinical medicine? Like me, they were barely into their 20s). One story at least points forwards to my first novel Baby, Baby, which takes look at the ethics of artificial reproduction. 

The early stories point to a then-unrevealed future: soon after (1992) I went back to academic study, and took a certificate course in Social and Political Science, ending up specialising a bit in medical sociology, widening and probably liberalising my knowledge. Through that time, more stories evolved. Where did the time come from?  We had reading, and essays, and there were now pre-teens and teens in the household! 

Now this discovery has spawned a new project: edit and publish them. Western Europe was still moving through days before urban terrorism, “Brexit” and the pandemic. What considerations governed decision-making in ‘normal life’? The news has uncovered sex abuse and corruption, campaigning has brought to light so many diverse communities and issues purposely hidden away by past generations — LGBTQ+, same-sex weddings, Black Lives Matter, anti-Colonialism, the Windrush scandal, the climate crisis, the Grenfell Tower… the list is far longer. For readers, novels as well as non-fiction abound to devour, and to inform. For writers, such rich seams of information, discussion and opinions offer an invitation to juggle (seriously) with the controversial, to inform or appeal to the public imagination. Normal life — without a pandemic — isn’t normal any more (if ever it was).

If the cat could understand, what would he choose? I’ll take my hat off to all today’s fiction writers who try and achieve writing seriously while raising a family. Today it is exhausting to be a Granny and to attempt to write a novel.

The perceptive feline himself… figuring out what’s on the TV…

Signs for Lost Children: Respectability is all in this an Untidy World… Mari Howard

Living room at my maternal grandparent’s first home…

**Last month my blog post for Authors Electric partly looked back at couple of interesting facts about my own family ancestry, including two studio photographs showing middle class women smartly dressed in the fashion of the time. In this post I want to talk about Sarah Moss’s follow-up novel, Signs for Lost Children, which continues the story of Alethea, (once ‘poor baby’), begun in Bodies of Light, the book which brought to mind for me the strange fact that the two families who would be later joined by my parents’ marriage both had connections to the Pre-Raphaelites.

One thing which has really struck me reading these novels, and was brought to the fore of all our minds in the past week or so, is that the position of male and female has not changed since Victorian times. What do I mean by this? Surely today’s woman is an independent person, capable of earning her own living in any field she chooses, spending her own money without necessary reference to any male relative?  Of course she has the vote, won by the hard campaigning of the suffragettes, and we hope should she be walking alone at night, she would not be taken for a prostitute, picked up by the police, and subjected to an ignominious,  degrading, painful (and ultimately meaningless) “virginity test”.  (The intrusive tests are considered a violation of human rights by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations, which want to see them banned. e.g.https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-55078634)

I say we hope – this lawful abuse of women was a common occurrence at the time Signs for Lost Children is set. The streets were dangerous, made even more dangerous for a woman on her own, (for what decent woman would be out alone in the dark? it was argued). Obviously, only one who is a sex worker, seeking clients. Such was male thinking of the time, at least where the law and the police were concerned.  Does your memory resonate here with events of the past week? Is this not a hideous irony? 

In this sequel to Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss has written how her protagonist of that story, newly qualified as a medical doctor among  the very few women so qualified at the time, and also newly married, begins work in the Truro asylum. I will not spoil the story of Signs for Lost Children for you, but her conclusion, after six months working in the terrible conditions and reflecting on the treatment of the assumed mentally ill, is this: “It is not that some people’s minds are so fragile that they require the permanent protection of an institution but that some people’s homes are crazier than institutions for the mad.” * 

As anyone who has read Bodies of Light will know, Alethea – known as Ally – was raised by a kind and ineffectual father more concerned with his art than his children’s welfare, and a mother fanatically obsessed with the plight of the poor, especially of poor women. This wasn’t bad in itself, but it was carried out as an all-engaging duty, accompanied by contempt for all those who weren’t concerned. She also skimped on any comfort both for herself and for her family, denying warmth (physical and emotional), interesting  food, and more. Whether her motivation came from religion or not, her attitude towards her children and all other middle-class people amounted to hatred for soft and easy lives. Ally, already rejected as an infant due to her mother’s post-natal depression, suffered terribly from her mother’s cruelty. It is surely this which gave her adult self insight and compassion into how asylums were being used, and the (convenient?) medical assumption that all unconventional behaviour must be the result of madness. One example from the inmates whom she had to treat is of a teenage girl who constantly attempts to take her own life: clearly this poor girl had suffered rape, (possibly within her family?).  Totally traumatised, she had been committed to the asylum as mentally ill. After all, this tided life up, didn’t it?

As a professionally qualified woman herself, Ally, at a low point, thinks about public attitudes: she was, in their eyes, ‘An unnatural, undomesticated being, very probably subject to mental instability herself, , for what woman would declare herself unsatisfied by her own family life and seek to usurp the feminine role?’

It is not really the place here to continue with descriptions of the treatments –  to discuss whether the attitude comes from the practice of religion (no doubt we have often seen its misuse across the centuries and across the world). The salient point for us today is that we have been woken up to the continuing existence, hardly camouflaged by talk about equality, of institutionalised misogyny, and this is supported by some of those very women who have benefited from the chance to appear to compete and succeed in what continues to be a man’s world. Signs for Lost Children is certainly a significant book.

* apologies for no page numbers, as reading on an old Kindle

**This piece was first published on Authors Electric March 2021

Bodies of Light, and Reflections of Ancestors

Re-blogged from my monthly contribution to the Authors Electric blog

Women’s Fashion c. 1870

My maternal grandfather was a civil servant at the Treasury, but his hobbies (possibly ‘real self’) were Astronomy and Pottery. Evidence suggests he was rather good at both — but here we’re concerned with pottery, taking place at Putney School of Art, around World War 1. Here he made friends with a number of artists, one of whom was the elderly William Shakespeare Burton, who worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style and occasionally had paintings displayed at the Royal Academy. My mother’s sister was named Violet Christina, after one of Burton’s daughters, and rumour added that the latter’s godmother had been Christina Rossetti…

 This, and another piece of family history (wait for that one), drew my eye to Sarah Moss’s novel Bodies of Light, featuring fictional artist and designer Alfred Moberly, working in the mid-19th century, and influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

 The novel opens to the world of industrial Manchester in the 1870s.  Alfred Moberly is about to marry Elizabeth Sanderson. What draws these two young people together? Alfred Moberly, artist and designer of elegant wallpaper and furniture, and Elizabeth Sanderson, committed to the rescue of poor and abused women? Contrast the male artists’ world with what we could call ‘the real world’ of women — poverty, hard work, and short, bitter lives. Particularly those left without income and forced into prostitution — not only the mothers but the teenage daughters. Alfred’s painting featuring his fiancée sets the scene: he considers the idea of using Elizabeth as the model for an Annunciation, but this then morphs into a portrait, as the angel Gabriel is removed. 

 Whatever basis this marriage has, it produces two children: the older daughter destined for a miserable childhood, victim of her mother’s feelings of loss of self and purpose on producing a child. Clearly this is postnatal depression, which, contextualised into a Victorian set of moral values combined with a fear of moral weakness, sets Elizabeth on a path of self-pity, blaming “baby” for her plight, and as far as possible ignoring the child’s needs. As she pushes the pram obsessively around the streets of Manchester, ignoring the crying of the baby, a ragged woman, obviously a victim of domestic abuse, looks inside and exclaims, “Poor baby!”      

It is a sad encounter: “Nobody says, poor Elizabeth, tired and thirsty and bored beyond despair,” thinks Elizabeth. Mired in exhaustion and depression, she cannot act Lady Bountiful, her accustomed presentation of self, giving her the only power she can have.

Later in the book there’s a brilliant description of Alfred changing and dressing the ignored baby. Followed closely by his (supposed) adultery, contrasted with Elizabeth bringing home fifteen-year-old Jenny, forced into prostitution and abused, apparently to be cared for and to remain as their ‘maid of all work’. Elizabeth shows kindness of a sort, day in day out, dutifully, but without compassion. If inspired by a belief in God and religious duty, then respectability and ‘knowing your place’ has sadly prevailed over inclusiveness, compassion, and acceptance — which indeed it has. A home is a house, not a home.

Wallpaper, by May Morris (daughter of WilliamMorris) 1883

From this conflict of mid-Victorian values — the public practice of politeness, self-restraint and middle-class elegance, dependent on exploitation of the industrial poor — Sarah Moss has constructed a captivating book. She often chooses fashions in dress or furnishings, or little incidents, to highlight the contrasts, giving a believable picture of life in mid to late Victorian England, with its empire and successful, growing industrialisation supporting the newly well-off and comfortable middle class, who embrace “consumerism” and respectability. While conveniently ignoring those who have moved to the cities through necessity and whose support is necessary for their lifestyle. And as Alfred employs his creative talents on Pre-Raphaelite inspired waterlily —or intertwined roses — wallpaper, his two daughters attend an early girls’ school, delightfully described. Here the “poor baby” — Alethea, known as Ally — discovers how she might please her mother. She acquiesces in her mother’s ambition, and having been introduced at an early age to the suffering of ‘rescued’ women, and indeed women in general, she applies her considerable intellect and application to a prestigious career, aiming to qualify in a new area for women and become a doctor. 

We follow Ally into medical studies in London, where she lodges with her Aunt Mary (Elizabeth’s sister) and begins at last to find the unbelievable: a happy, supportive home, and friends. The “poor baby” begins to learn that self-respect, and the love of others, is normal. Through various encounters with patients, we see a capable young woman, putting behind her the wounds inflicted by her mother’s tongue and regime.

Where her father was — despite the rule of patriarchy at the time — is significant: there’s far more in the book than space to tell here, but Alfred continues with art and design, and with his inability to mitigate his wife’s treatment of their older daughter. This uselessness speaks volumes about the Pre-Raphaelite mentality — those pale knights and even paler, emaciated, red-haired ladies with the pouting lips: decadence, dalliance, dilatoriness. Indeed, faerie, or fey. It would take the power of determined, intelligent women to break it… We see the very first stirrings, perhaps, in some of Ally’s supporters in her studies — women like Miss Johnson, her head teacher at school, Mrs Lewis, married to one of the academic doctors, Dr. Garrett Anderson (a real person), who combined her career with raising a family.  Even Aunt Mary, and Ally’s fellow student Annie’s mother, at least unshocked by their boisterous children.

 Back to family history, book-ended by Pre-Raphaelite connections. As a child I knew my father’s father was half Greek. What I didn’t know was that his mother, Maria Sakilariou, had been, before her marriage, lady’s maid to Euphrosyne Cassavetti, the wealthy widow of Greek/Italian merchant Dimitrius Cassavetti, and mother of artist Maria Zambaco. Maria Z, back home after fleeing a broken marriage, was introduced by her mother to Edward Burne-Jones, one of many artists who attended her salons. He and Zambaco, who was both his model and his pupil, began a passionate affair. This was just around the time my great-grandmother was employed by the Cassavettis: she must have been privy to the whole thing. Euphrosyne obviously kept up with her ex-personal maid, for daughter Maria and son Alexander were witnesses at my great-grandparents’ wedding. Their three children, Dimitrius, Alexander (my grandfather) and Euphrosyne (my Great Aunt “Effie”), were all named after various Cassavettis, and baptised Greek Orthodox. Several Cassavettis were Godparents, along with Euphrosyne Spartali (mother of another Pre-Raphaelite artist, Maria Spartali Stillman, who with Maria Zambaco was one of a group known as the ‘Three Graces’).

 How interesting… I wonder if my two grandfathers knew or discussed all this? Alexander and Euphrosyne must’ve known the Cassavettis quite well, and heard stories of those salons, and the visiting painters, from their mother.

Maria Sakilariou and daughter Euphrosyne, about 1884, (smartly dressed for the photographer)

How much I’d love to know more. And how I admired the gaudy, sentimental, Pre-Raphaelite paintings as a child, and look so differently at them today. There is something very Pre-Raphaelite about that novel.

*Photos, Victorian studio studies, from my own family collection. ‘Woman’s fashion’ modelled by Ellen Reeve Barnett, another Great-Grandmother. 

Wallpaper, 20th century reproduction,  from May Morris, 1883

…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…