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 should 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…

Searching for a Place of Safety?

Gathering to march – People of all ages & generations, expressing their feelings summer 2019

Apparently, large numbers of people attended church this Christmas, not only “the Midnight” (Mass celebrated as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day) but carol services, and special services around the Crib for children and families, were super well attended. It was said that people had become fed up with the instability and the arguments, so having had the election, everyone (well many anyway) elected to celebrate by doing Christmas in all its fullness, and church was included. The number of “Well we can’t change it, but we must all be kind to each other” Facebook posts suggests that this was, indeed, the motivation.

Have the English become, once again, the peace-loving, C of E attending, English?

Now, post election, and post-Christmas, are we all festivaled-out, and have we all forgotten our differences?

Of course, no sooner than Back to Work Day was about to follow New Year’s, we heard that America had acted on “taking out” the most powerful of military Iranian leaders. Not a good sign for 2020. I for one was already appalled by the election results, and by those of us who had hoped that things will settle down to something like they were before the referendum being described as “a small bubble who live in Islington”. (We do not live in Islington but, sadly, we do live in an urban cosmopolitan setting…).

What I’m thinking about is that Why? Just how and why has the peaceful, polite, apparently sensible country, with its mixed economy, its wonderful and fair health service, and its relative lack of unpredictable violence on the streets, in which I grew up, and raised my children, got to how it now is?

I shall leave you with two ideas to think about, and you can say I am wrong, of course.

The aftermath of wars

One is where we came from to arrive here. Two (or more) generations grew up, and began adult life, experiencing not one but two “World Wars”. My grandparents raised their families through World War I, and then as their children were attaining adulthood  and leaving school, going to university, or beginning a career, watched as these were thrust into World War 2. In other words, then, when my generation were growing up, in the 1950s to 1970s, we inherited a country run by people who had possibly experienced quite enough war, disruption, and destruction. The general feeling was for peace. No surprise we joined Europe in 1974, and no surprise people tried to negotiate (yes, there were strikes but there will also negotiations) rather than to clash and to commit “hate crime”. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any racism (there was), poverty (yes there was), discrimination (yes) or despair. But, there was also politeness and an attempt at fairness, and where there wasn’t, people expected that there should be. They expected, and respected, honesty in dealings, and did not publicly admire dishonesty, lies, and cheating on your partner. This kind of set a pattern – even though we knew, of course we knew – that people did these things. Privately of course people broke the rules, that has always been part of human nature.

I am not a Conservative. I am not at all saying that it is being ruled by the Conservatives which we need. The point rather is that after those wars, people were exhausted by division, and willing to do enough give and take, to put up with an “ordinary” life. The gap between rich and poor had been narrowed by various political processes, such as the NHS, and free access to University for all who gained the entry qualifications, with a means tested grant for living expenses.

Our changing social outlook

The second thing is social change. Social change since the 1960s sixties has been pretty fast. We have, in the majority, accepted that legal abortion is better than backstreet, that gay people can formalise their relationships with a faithful partner, and that women are, actually, equal to men in all areas of employment (although pay is still not). There are other areas, freely talked about, I could add. Although we are also well behind in the area of equality, nonetheless many subjects which were in former times kept private and unmentionable can be discussed publicly. The results of these changes, positive to the groups involved, understood by many of us, have however disturbed and worried a large enough section of the population that they feel themselves threatened. The acceptance of workers from not only Europe but other areas of the world worries at their feeling of being “invaded”  by other cultures. The change in attitudes, due to liberalised thinking and knowledge, towards what was once declared “illegal” is hard for them to comprehend. They feel these changes are what has destroyed the old more peaceful society. I have heard people blame the EU for “human rights” and say that there are no rights humans should have…

These changes are not an intended cause of destabilisation. Liberalisation means inclusion and acceptance for alienated groups, but unsettled people who believe in tradition as a powerful social container for what had been seen as aberrant instincts and behaviours. For them, liberalising laws  have changed the “landscape” of Britain. Both groups are easy targets. Fear of the other has become tribal enough for some to indulge in “hate crime”. At the same time, a different kind of change has taken place: impersonal technology-based ways of replacing human interaction. So, if you are doing okay, if you are happy to go with the changes, well and good. Especially if you’re happy to deal with technology rather than a helpful human being behind the counter at the bank, or any doctor over the phone rather than your friendly well-known GP face-to-face.

In the present chaos, and with a background of rapid social change, those who haven’t already put up with the experience of living through two world wars, are desperate, despairing, and ready to act out. We have an angry population who wants what others have got (the wealth to buy luxury goods, or goods at all, or maybe simply a peaceful existence with a social mores reflecting what might be called old-fashioned values) but who want, above all, to feel safe again.

Does this possibly explain the increased enthusiasm for attending church at Christmas 2019?

A reassuring symbol of Englishness? Warmth, peace, and togetherness celebrating the birth of a baby into an ‘ordinary family’? Or the story of a refugee and social reformer born in poverty?  Getting together, whichever way we see it…

A most inconvenient lying…?

Beautiful day for a picnic, lovely sunny cove…?

When the Brexit vote result was announced, 24 June 2016 became a deeply depressing day. It wasn’t just a shock. My feeling has continued, a sense of foreboding. The central government figures had disappeared – then almost immediately we heard reports of “hate crime” (a phrase I don’t recall from before – though I won’t claim that both the phrase and the actions didn’t exist, of course).  But after that, racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of Trans and Gay or Lesbian people, or people with easily discernible disabilities, really anyone considered “other” by the perpetrator could be targeted. And suddenly they were.

How did this happen?

Was something, some lurching, ugly thing, released and given permission to act out and speak its mind?

A disturbing idea has been around for a while, something fewer people than those who are aware of “hate crime” have probably heard of. After the idea of a “post-modern” phase of culture, some thinkers came up with the concept of a “post-truth” era.

Once our children grew and the “nest” was “emptying”, we began to take lodgers, mostly young people who had arrived in our city to work and needed a home base while they settled down and found friends and a place to live. I recall having a conversation at that time with one of them, a young woman studying for a further degree at the University here, who, in response to something I said, declared with confidence “There is no such thing as a truth. Truth does not exist.”

So who decided this?

Disturbing though it may seem, there is a certain “truth” in her comment: the idea of an era when the truth becomes no longer a category is both philosophical and political, and can be traced back to the philosopher Nietzsche (writing in 1873)* and to Max Weber in 1917**. But these are scholarly essays by teachers of philosophy and it has taken  a while for the ideas to fully escape from their ivory towers.

Using academic arguments in real situations

These academic musings would have been best left in the university departments where they began. Having escaped in the form of “post-truth” however, they’ve been grasped by politicians, and we now find ourselves forced into a strange and extremely worrying world. Lying is naccepted as “done by most people more often than you think” apparently. “Fake news” is a well known problem.

Living in the real world

Feet on the ground, not heads in the sand…

It is all very well for theorists to thrive on theoretical argument, but the business of good government doesn’t, I think, consist in the following of intriguing debate but in facing the day-to-day problems of running a country in such a way that it benefits the inhabitants, providing for their needs and staying financially afloat. Needs are many, varied, and interdependent. Needs, unhappily for the practitioners of post-truth politics, are factual, and there is still no more obvious truth than a fact (regardless of those people who use engaging the emotions to drive their appeal to the public) – the fact of earthquakes, floods and fires for example. Destructive of homes, businesses, and infrastructure. National disasters demand factual, or in another word, real, responses. Responses cost time, compassion, money, and workers to implement. Climate change will bring more of these. Yet most of our leaders pay scant attention to these self evident facts, preferring to make empty promises, talk about “doing deals”, and allowing this proliferating “fake news”.

Why “Brexit” can’t stop the real crisis

It is a sad situation indeed when a selection of wealthy countries are led by people who apparently lack a moral compass, and regard politics as playing an exciting power game in which no holds are barred and lying is accepted as a normal everyday escape from dealing with facts.  And with the reality of basic survival, not only of the human beings in their care and charge but of the environment as a whole, plants, insects, birds and animals, in other words the necessary food chain and atmosphere which supports life. No “deals”, and no millions or billions of pounds, given to the NHS, education, or crime fighting, will made a scrap of difference. Leaving the European Union isn’t what we should be doing. Some of the answer lies in noticing what really needs fixing, and in disallowing lies, spin, and power games.

* Essay on Truth and Lying in an extra-moral sense

** Essay on Science as Vocation, considering the difference between Facts and Values

For something lighter, set in the late 20th century world, at least twenty years  before 2016, why not try the Mullins Family Saga books 1 and 2?

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Hallowe’en?


So what’s it all about? Why is Hallowe’en suitable for children?

Our ancient ancestors tamed scary things using myth and ritual. Hallowe’en, with witches, ghosts, and the undead, is the festival of fear: of the unknown, of the different, as the long dark nights begin. Coming before the festival of light, which anticipates the promise of the return of life  – Christmas. Both have moved far from their roots…

Could Hallowe’en have become again a necessary festival, to let off the head of steam created by not believing in an ‘Other’? Or (since the enormous popularity of this autumn festival grew as my kids were in junior school) was its establishment helping to give teachers a way to hold back the autumn term’s anticipation of Christmas? Stories and craft activities around Hallowe’en abound, witches are creepily popular, orange paint is fun to use and masks can be made and worn…

And back then, some parents definitely and strongly disapproved. Though I have this feeling that the religious groups don’t really need to fear that evil will be let lose in a big way by Hallowe’en… but, stop there, I believe it can be.

So, is it ‘really evil?’

 – Hallowe’en is a marketing opportunity. Like Christmas, it functions around stories, and even more around dressing up, games and decorations, with costumes  for sale weeks before.

– And Hallowe’en costumes aren’t necessarily all ghouls and ghosts, there’s been a move towards exploiting prejudice, or rather, stigma. Not only death, but disfigurement, deformity, mental illness, criminality, and other ‘nasties’ are being marketed. That, I think, is very scary, as well as being retrogressively evil. Stigma’s as old as society: in our scientific, techno-driven, politically correct age, there’s officially no magic and no witches (at least in black raggedly garments and tall hats). But when ‘monsters’ can be explained away by faulty of DNA, and we know perfectly well that there are no ‘undead’, it seems some of us need them. So Hallowe’en industry says it’s okay to mock, and to stigmatise, and encourage fear.

But it’s not just about celebrating creepy things…  How to see in the Dark

 – One explanation of the origins of Hallowe’en is the ‘Eve’ of All Hallows, the day before the church celebrated the lives of all the ordinary people we have loved and lost. It can become a celebration of love, not fear. One young mum I know is baking love heart cookies for her children to take around their neighbours as gifts on Hallowe’en. For her family, these are ‘to illustrate God’s love’: but even if you don’t believe in God, a heart cookie to remember the people you loved, and who loved you, is a  heartwarming idea.

– The festival falls at the time when darkness really sets in. To live through the darkness, we all need light: we can symbolically turn away from the coming cold and dreary weather, and celebrate thankfully that we have both light and heat in our homes, and in our world.

 – We could also remember that without sunshine, we lack Vitamin D, and buy supplements/choose foods to help us through the long dark days. And anything else, like books, DVDs and getting together with friends that makes us laugh or feel joyful – and drives away depression.

And what about all things orange?

 – Orange not only about sitting at the fireside. The American festival of Thanksgiving (the last Thursday in November) is a bit too late for a Harvest Festival, some areas are already expecting or experiencing snow: so instead they chose All Hallows Eve, the end of October, to give thanks for the harvest. Huge bright orange pumpkins make wonderful decorations…some can be lanterns, with funny faces, a candle illuminating the inside. candle. In North America, some of these squash grow so huge that small children can actually get inside…

I hope your Hallowe’en will be a fun, thankful, and joyful welcoming of the change of the seasons, while the natural world rests ready for the spring, and looking forward to the cosy things we can do indoors (especially reading good stories!)

 

Crashing out – is our language reflecting a more violent and impatient world?

Language is definitely a living, lively thing. But living and lively suggest the dance of words and meanings across the centuries, gathering as they go, changes of usage, suitability, and popularity, and welcoming and including immigrant words from our near neighbours and from across the globe. What is shaping English in the 21st century though? It’s a society which desperately needs to slow down, breathe deeply, and consider opening its heart and mind to seeing the good in others rather than the excitement of indulging prejudice and extremes. But instead violent catch-all metaphorical phrases have barged in, replacing relatively informative, longer, adjectival phrases.

photo by  vanveenjf-mS2ngGq6VO4-unsplash

As a writer, I don’t welcome this trend. Excuse me if I’m over-reacting, but don’t  these over-used examples demonstrate the genre, masculine, clearly the stuff of male-directed fiction? Turbocharged, a car crash, skyrocketing, spiralling out of control, crashing out of Europe.  And the latest, horribly shocking, and abhorant, as I heard on the radio recently, used like this: ‘we can’t throw Ireland under a bus’.

Based in technology, these phrases recall the sound of clashing metal, the stench of spilling petrol and burning oil, an attack on our fragile human bodies, total destruction. It’s all about large machines destroying things, and is often, even usually, applied inappropriately. For example, we might call Boris Johnson “Turbocharged”, or the economy “Spiralling out of control” but these phrases tell us nothing about the real character of the person who has become our Prime Minister, or about a situation except that it is urgent, exciting, and destructive. As for a car crash, is  this really necessary to  describe, for example, a teenager’s GCSE results? Or losing that house you so wanted to buy? And it is surely devastating to those who have experienced the real thing to use such a terrible scene of injury and suffering as a mere metaphor to bump up the drama of a business disaster?  As for crashing out of the EU, isn’t there perhaps something  frivolous in using ‘crashing out’ to describe what should (if it happens) be a serious, world-changing, political move?

Nouns have recently begun to replace phrases: physicality, positivity, viscerality, musicality. Yes, you can make one word do here – just add ‘ality’. But much more pleasant to keep physical, visceral, and musical, and place them in a phrase or sentence which harmonises (has harmonality?) with your description of the writing which you are describing? There’s a noun we use now, commonality, meaning that two (or more) things have something in common. One word is easily missed by anyone who has a problem with hearing.  Conflating a short adjectival phrase, (here “have in common”),  into a single noun could even be understood as a form of discrimination.

I wonder if these language changes have happened because we want to hurry up and get the talking over? We can’t be bothered to put together a longer sentence, it’s easier to seize upon a noun. This new 21st-century style is widespread, used verbally by broadcasters and written in newspapers and other journalism. I’m happy with the historic and inevitable shifting of language and ways in which we express things, and am no “grammar Nazi,” but I’m sad that the combination of these violent metaphors and the new adjective-to-noun formation is adding hurry and thoughtlessness to a society which already can’t even sit down to drink its coffee, but must carry a hot drink in a paper cup as it rushes towards the office, careering towards marketing more goods, growing the economy, and meanwhile destroying the planet.

Perhaps we could make the move to slow down by using language more gently and thoughtfully, and actually turning daily verbal and written interactions into a more pleasant read. Who else would join me in cutting out the petrol, and reducing the CO2 emissions in our speech?

For a quieter, more thoughtful, entertaining read, try my poetry… Available from my website: https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/

 

Christianity is Changing… (a tad controversial?)

BB: Science, Faith, and Prejudice

Christianity is changing–or is it? Well, the label has certainly changed, now it has become  attached to something which has nothing to do with the message of the Gospels, the present United States Republican politics. Many of us believers, who are appalled by this, wonder what we can do in order to prevent ourselves from being labelled as racist, fascist, haters of the LBGT + community, and generally committed to outdated paternalistic prejudices.

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

As a writer, I am aware that publishing houses don’t want any ‘spiritual’ content in fiction today, (especially not ‘Christian’) yet I hesitate to ban from my stories the strange and informative interplay of strict and liberal ‘religious’ characters, rounded and believable, not caricatures or always the villains.  (And so am happy to be committed to the Alliance of Independent Authors. As an Indie, I’m freer to include a range of odd-balls and explore their worlds… ) And, it’s no surprise that the latest British Social Attitudes survey shows a graph of decline in the practice of Anglicanism (Church of England).  Only 12% of those surveyed responded that they currently worship as Anglicans. Of course, the Church of England isn’t the only church in Britain but membership has plummeted since the first Survey in 1983.

Apart from the hijacking of the definition Christian by a political right-wing group, why might a majority now identify as atheist or ‘no religion’? It seems that there is now a strong attraction for doing without a spiritual side to life, and accepting that Humanism is getting on nicely, despite the amount of violence, crime, drug addiction, poverty, racism, and other miseries.

The Church of England is the State Church and for many in the past membership and regular or occasional worship was part of being English. People continued to be married, buried, or have their children baptised in the local church, it was what you did. Even so there are three distinct forms of Anglicanism. The ‘High Church’, which emphasises the ritual of liturgy, robed choir, organ music, and Gothic architecture. Allied to this are some who practice an English, non-religious, ‘Christianity’, finding peace and some kind of spiritual strength by being in the atmosphere of our ancient cathedrals, appreciating the amazing building, and the harmonies and cadences of church music. Then there are the Evangelicals who reject ritual, favouring lively worship songs to a band, less formal prayer, and an emphasis on Bible teaching, which tends towards strict, and what today we would call patriarchal, interpretation. A third group choose an emphasis on social action and inclusiveness, in opposition to the Evangelicals who find the LGBT+ community difficult to accept on equal terms. So, today, What actually is Anglican anyway?

Society has always responded to the changing world about us. Science, technology, but also how we view ourselves, whether we live as a feudal hierarchy ‘obeying our betters’, whether we have a concern for social justice and how we understand what that is, and where do human rights fit in? Upcoming generations respond negatively to anything not fit for purpose, yet not necessarily rejecting belief outright. Is there a need to move from a backward looking and hierarchical church which offers answers to questions we don’t ask and none to those we do? If this is the end of ‘religion’ in its old form, is it also the end of the importance of the teaching of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago? Much of this teaching I would argue forms part of what we call Humanism – a code of ethics which at its best respects all living beings, has been pivotal in the concept of human rights, and emphasises compassion, social justice, equality, and concern for neighbour. Just what Liberal Anglicans want – but with God!

So why might many people, particularly from the middle-aged down to and including  Millennials, be leaving or have left the Church of England, or indeed any religion? Writing in 2015, the American author Rachel Held Evans, a Millennial, talks about what and how she and her generation are seeking and thinking outside the box of a straight ‘God or no God’ outlook.

She says “… we are tired of… Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we are for… not just what we are against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion, or between our intellectual integrity and our faith… we long for our churches to be a safe place to doubt, to ask questions, and tell the truth… to bring our whole selves through church doors, without leaving our hearts behind, without wearing a mask… when our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends aren’t welcome… then we don’t feel welcome either…(we’re not) looking for a hipper Christianity…(but) for a truer Christianity… we are looking for Jesus…

Anglicanism has over the years lost touch with Jesus, and a crucial thing to do is to return to what we know about him, his message and who he is.