But that doesn’t apply to ME!

One of our local Squirrels eating seeds put out for birds…

(Re-blogged from my July contribution to the July Authors Electric blog)

“As writers, as a group, readers of this blog take words and their meanings seriously.”

Life in the world beyond books, blogs, and articles however tells us that large numbers of people don’t. Take the heading ‘NATURE RESERVE’ on a notice: is this a place set aside to provide a safe and suitable habitat for wildlife, native plants, trees, maybe a wetland area?   A location where a handful of rare species have been seen to hang out? Even the slow worms in our 7-hectare local nature reserve are counted to make sure they are doing okay. 

Or is it, as a runner recently put it, ‘just a place for everyone, and dog-walking…’

As fiction writers, we’re in the business of creating both environment and inhabitants, which will include inhabitants who don’t think like ourselves, and environments we’d find strange, hostile, uncanny, as well as beautiful, welcoming, or exciting. Possibly more often than not these environments will indeed be in the negative, at least for a fair part of, say, a crime or mystery novel. Even a cosy crime or mystery may need to lead the reader into a place they’d rather not go… and characters dubious and devious. But today I’m thinking about those people who are simply ‘unlike us’. The ones who while seeing themselves as ‘nice people’ simply, maybe thoughtlessly, make words ‘not apply to me.’

Let’s enter our nature reserve. On a day of dazzling sunshine and promised heat, passing the notice, ‘nature reserve’, plus a few more details and requests, we enter a small wooded area, and follow a path which opens out to reveal a large reed-bordered pond. Young moorhens, their beaks not yet characteristically brightly coloured, are paddling across. Further on are the flower meadows, now parched by drought. Numbers of butterflies and damselflies flutter among the mainly purple or yellow flowers, occasionally flying upwards into the surrounding trees. In the wood, which borders the railway line, there are small, brown, woodland loving butterflies.

There was, on Sunday, also me, watching a pair of these ‘Speckled Woods’. Preparing to take a photo, I squatted down on the path, to focus on one which had perched on the leaf of a low-growing plant. The creature opened its wings wide, displaying the speckled pattern and its furry body and long, quivering antennae. As I extended the lens to get in close, feet pounded up behind me. It only took a second, but a shadow passed over us both, the butterfly fled up into the trees, and a bulky male jogger panted and grunted past at speed, feet flying. I’m left wondering yet again about the brains of joggers, with no interest in nature, so intent on their own heart’s health (or not, who knows what they think, or if they think?) 

At least the Speckled Wood isn’t rare – yet. We do have some. None the less, I am furious, ‘discombobulated’ you might even say. Because it’s not just me, it’s not just a first time, and worse can happen. We had foxes in here: one day, a visitor discovered one, killed by a dog. The owner had, as many do, ignored the request to keep their dog on a lead, and obviously sneaked away after a very nasty scene. ‘Lucky’ that nobody else had been around to witness. How do these characters think? A small detail, perhaps, in a novel: maybe leading towards, surely s/he wasn’t the forger – or the murderer?

Thanks, guys, for giving me an insight into your world: ‘Me, myself, and I, not making trouble for anyone…Gotta complete this circuit in one, not stopping for woke nonsense, notice needn’t apply to me…Preserving the balance of the planet?  Piece of rough ground, a challenge to my running skills…’

Mmm – shall I put you in my novel?

What’s in a Name – at this time?

Llangelynin Church, North Wales – possibly this ancient church was built on the site
of previously existing “pagan” site

Recently, I asked some other writers whether they felt (as I do) that at this political time, we need a word to replace ‘Christians’. 

The name has a long history. It first appeared in the first century in Syria: ‘…it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians’ . This was a minor event, the naming of a group that broke away from Judaism under the Roman empire. At that time the growing group of ‘Christians’ seemed, to the ruling authorities, potential rebels against the Empire: ‘they were first called Christians’ suggests disapprobation and suspicion; think ‘..in late 19th century France, they were first called Marxists.’A couple of centuries later, in 312, the Emperor Constantine, as a good political move, declares that the Roman Empire must convert to Christianity, abandoning compulsory Emperor worship and the cults of local gods. All shrines become churches, official persecution of Christians ends, baptising all infants and teaching the basic tenets of the faith becomes the new normal.  Christianity is the culture, the Empire ‘Christian’. A united Church is headed up (from Rome) by the Popes. Even after the Empire crumbles, though Western Europe is a collection of states ruled by their own leaders, it remains, as regards faith, a single cultural entity under the Pope. (And though the Eastern Orthodox break away, theirs is a Christian monoculture too.)

Throughout the period of the Crusades and the Reformation, Christianity was the European cultural norm. The label ‘Christian’ was taken for granted; it was only ever needed to separate off people outside Christendom with other religions, of which there were mainly three sorts, all ‘erroneous’: Judaism, Islam, and heathenism.   The Crusades appear to us un-Christian, but those who went to fight claimed they were ‘taking back the Holy Land for Christ’. I don’t think it was at all what Christ wanted, but he wasn’t there to ask.

‘Christian’ also in England became a personal name. You can find it in the Census (from 1841 onwards) or earlier in church records of birth, marriage and death, you can find it on headstones. These all show it as a woman’s name. (Now, it’s popular as a name for men: I wondered when 50 Shades of Grey was in the news whether, ironically,  that writer decided this deliberately.)

Maybe even up to and including the Second World War, almost everyone in Britain self-identified as ‘Christians’, or at least regarded Britain as ‘a Christian country’, whether they believed, attended church, or not. It was the norm. You were born one. People who didn’t conform to a ‘Christian’ lifestyle were ‘bad Christians’, not ‘non-Christians’. You could be converted to a different denomination, but all were different flavours of ‘Christian’. 

It was only with the rise of evangelicalism,  Protestant missions, and revivals, that this began to change. People who had ‘gone forward’ or otherwise ‘committed their life to Christ’ were, and could claim they had become a Christian’ on that date, through ‘being saved’, rather than through baptism as an infant. To a Catholic or High Church Anglican, this made no sense, but to the early Methodists, to Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, or Pentecostals, conversion is vital, and only after that can one be rightly called a Christian. Hence ‘Christian’ became the distinguishing label of a certain type of highly assertive believer, in contrast to culturally defined Christians who, in their view, were not Christians at all.

Today, that label has been re-shaped again. The label ‘Christian’ has effectively been hijacked by a particular Protestant fanaticism. A set of people whose knowledge (let alone practice) of essential Christian beliefs appears scant. With their adoption of the extreme Right-wing politics and support for Trump, and with opposition to abortion for any reason set to become firmly established in the USA through their advocacy, what does the label ‘Christians’ mean to the average  ordinary, non-believing person? A hectoring crowd of white extremists, determined to turn the clock back!

Believers in the actual teaching of Christ (justice, mercy, compassion, love of neighbour, repentance, forgiveness, etc., the list is long) ought to be able to convince the mind of the public or their neighbours that they are not part of this movement — a movement whose whole strategy is based on division, whose beliefs incorporate conspiracy theories, who are deliberately tearing the churches of their country apart — oughtn’t they?

So I asked one of these writers (those I mentioned above) how she felt about sharing this label with people like them. Sadly, she responded: Yes, she was still proud of the label ‘Christian’, since it had survived the Crusades… But has it? Haven’t wars continued to be fought to keep a nominally ‘Christian’ political culture alive? How many actually think about its true origins?  How many white westerners realize that they profess a religion with deep Middle Eastern roots, whose early followers spoke Greek, or Aramaic, or even Syriac? And whose founder chose to die by crucifixion, forgiving those who had totally misunderstood his purposes, rather than to lead an army into battle and become king? 

Have you read my books? Why not take a look, over on the ‘books’ page of the Mari Howard Author & Publisher blog… https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/books/

Something for Everyone who loves History or Strange Tales and Traditions

Today I’m hosting a new book by fellow author S.C.SkillmanIllustrated Tales of Warwickshire:  published on 22nd April this year, by Amberley Publishing, £15.99

I enjoyed reading this book, and I hope you will too!**

In her latest book, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire, S.C. Skillman has done meticulous and painstaking research to bring all the rich detail of this county to life. Warwickshire has long been a centre of pilgrimage for tourists with an interest in its most famous historical figure, the writer William Shakespeare. I remember visiting as a child to explore Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the various houses and other buildings and locations he would have known. The book is illustrated on every page with photos taken by the author or members of her family. These reminded me how thrilled I was, on that visit, by the numbers of timbered Medieval-style buildings, to be found in other Warwickshire towns in addition to Stratford on Avon. I’d recently discovered historical novels, in addition to enjoying Shakespeare’s mysterious plays

To set Warwickshire in context, before I began reading I first looked at a counties map of England, and discovered the borders are touched by nine others (counting Derbyshire which the border just touches!). It is indeed in the centre of England and for famous writer from a sea-faring nation, Shakespeare was born and raised in possibly the furthest county from the coast, and in a town surrounded by lush countryside with a nearby ancient Forest which he incorporated into his writing. 

A quick look through the pages of Illustrated Tales tells the reader (possibly a tourist from overseas) that this county is absolutely illustrative of that picture of England which associates us with history, and with a quiet traditional life, surrounded by peaceful views of countryside, set with old churches, harking back to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. And although that is of course only part of the tale – modern life indeed came to Warwickshire in the form of industries (now consigned to the small county of ‘West Midlands’, home to Coventry and the large conurbation of Birmingham), the southern part remains mostly rural. Along with counties such as Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire suggests the perceived ‘Englishness’ of England.

Under each chapter’s title, there’s a relevant quotation from one of Shakespeare’s Plays – excepting one. Chapter 13 has no quotation, and tells of an old and grisly local practice, ‘the gallows healing’, a somewhat unpleasant old tradition. Having said that, many interesting quaint, or creepy, or peculiar traditional tales are associated with houses another buildings both in Stratford , (Shakespeare’s birthplace and childhood home) and surrounding towns and villages. This offers further insight into how our ancestors living in those timber framed houses thought, what drove their decisions, how they made sense (or not) of the world. There may’ve been churches everywhere, but folk felt there was much unexplained and revered it. ‘Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost’ (from Henry V part II) begins the first chapter. The next few chapters include ‘spooky tales’, ‘extraordinary true-life stories’ and ‘tales of witchcraft’, giving a picture of eccentricity and fear, while photos (for example on pages 22-3, (chapter 4, ‘Rural Crimes’), show apparent peace and plenty quietly existing in the villages of Eathorpe and Weston-under-Wetherley. A curious ritual associated with paying dues to the Lord of the Manor, (the ‘Wroth Silver ceremony’, in Chapter 12) ) remains to this day –  with a candlelit ceremony at dawn, in the open air, and a hearty breakfast at the local Inn (now the Queen’s Head at Broughton, but traditionally at the Dun Cow at Stretton-on-Dunsmore) to conclude proceedings. It is said this ceremony has roots in Anglo-Saxon times.

Along with Shakespeare are other literary figures associated with Warwickshire: J.R.R. Tolkien (whose creation, The Shire, seems to echo a feel of the county), Malory who wrote the original Morte d’Arthur’,  and the actress Sarah Siddens, who began her working life not on the stage but as a Lady’s Maid  at Guy’s Cliffe, a large house in Warwick itself. Another is Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice books, along with a number of other writers including Rupert Brooke, Arthur Ransome, and Salman Rushdie, all commemorated by curious and interesting sculptures, The Writers’ Rest, located in various parts of Rugby in honour of writers connected by having been pupils at Rugby school or lived in Rugby.

And we discover the Forest of Arden has a chapter to itself, (chapter11 p.73): it was not an invention but a real Forest. Though by now only some ancient traditional hedgerows and a few small woodlands remain, as a memory of the Forest in As You Like It  which held dangers such as bears and wolves. However, two very old churches exist in what was Arden, one of which built before the Norman conquest. This remains without modern conveniences of any kind and is lit by candles in winter. The author has attended a service there! Shakespeare’s mother was from the Arden family, and various relatives were living in several villages located in the ancient forest. I really appreciated that Skillman has gone as far as to find out those relatives, giving extra interest to what could just have been a convenient invented woodland, part of the plot of a play.

If there’s one thing I missed in this excellent book, it was a sketch map of Warwickshire showing the locations of the various towns and villages, as this would give an idea of where and approximately how far each is from another. It would be helpful for the visitor on holiday when planning a route between sights of interest. No matter, a small thing.

 And all manner of interesting details emerge along the way to enhance the locations the tourist might visit during holiday spent in this county, perhaps using Stratford as a centre and culminating with attending a Shakespeare play, with or without delving into the witchcraft and haunting associated with many houses, towns and villages. And to conclude the visit, if there is a fair or similar happening nearby, watch another English institution, a performance by the Morris Men (and women). I would highly recommend this informative and well produced book to anyone who is thinking about a stay-at-home British holiday, or has friends  relatives visiting from overseas, much more than a ‘guide book’ it is an interesting read, well illustrated and meticulously researched but also very accessible!

** I received a copy of the book from the Publisher, in order to write a review as part of a Blog Tour.

My own books, which you can access on my website (https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/), are all fiction, plus one poetry book, and I write at the intersection of sociology and family stories, the events taking place between the late 1980s and the present day, featuring a combination of moral questioning, decision-making, the importance or not of faith, and romance.

What do writers do all day (when they’ve just published a book)? 

A writing den…

Well, I shall disclose what I do — and you can imagine that others may do similar.  For example, today about 20 snails were removed from the garden wall, where they had been hibernating… 

But, I digress…As an Indie* writer, like others I’ve not only scribbled and tapped my way to completing writing another book, I’ve dialogued with my designer and approved her gorgeous cover design. I’ve been involved with lots of editing, and checking, and then, there’s the publication stuff. I’ve carefully filled in the Ingram Spark requirements on their on-line form, which will include adding the ISBN(International Standard Book Number, which identifies it as itself and no other book), and a Book Description which will go out to everywhere the book might be sold (Amazon of course, and also catalogues and other outlets), to help with shelving and inform marketing. Also an author bio, and a suggested category (one or more) of target readers… and some other admin… Really, simply all the things trade publishers do. Only we do it ourselves!

From this – old ‘dot matrix’ files to this – a book of short stories…

And after that…we go into recovery mode. Or, we hope to. We flop, we make an effort to pick up life where we left it, before writing the book — or more like, before we had to really tidy up the original idea with re-writes, maybe send it out to beta readers, do a bit more thinking, creating, editing, typing, and begin to think about the publication pilgrimage. So, we then pick up life, and rediscover all the lovely hobby-type things, and fun type things, and relax type things, that we’d being doing. Before. 

We also maybe pay some attention to our second string.

Mine is oil painting. Painting on the whole doesn’t feel like work, even though it’s also a creative task. I also enjoy drawing, and I need to draw, to sharpen my observational skills. Which can feel like study or learning or practice — but is enormously satisfying. (At present it’s bit sad to be missing those life classes!) I’m constantly discovering how many writers are also artists, or artists are writers. Although oddly, it’s not like that for musicians — musicians’ second strings seem to be playing other kinds of strings (violinists who play the ‘cello, viola players who occasionally pick up the double bass…) or a flute, a  bassoon, a harp — sometimes more than one other instrument, or other music (jazz, blues…) or they sing… And of course for me gardening comes to the fore again, pottering among the plants. And photography — almost an addiction on any walk remotely featuring nature. I wake up and realise I could actually do more yoga between my scheduled classes, and make more contact with my friends, and have less resentment about the the passing of time, and not getting things done. I could even enjoy doing the ironing!

Recovery mode is necessary for slowing down! Do writers read?  Yes!  we all need to read widely — and that shouldn’t be a chore, even reading for ‘research’ is fun to do, if like me you’re curious. I love reading books by fellow writers whom I know, as well as poking about in a bookshop seeking out who is new and being promoted, to uncover current trends. As a slow reader, I take a while reading a long book. And notably I find myself reading with pencil in hand, underlining clever sentences, or slants on the story, ready to write a review. 

Reader, you may think we writers are a lazy bunch, and self-absorbed. You mayn’t realise quite how many hours it takes to write a book, let alone the publishing, and the marketing… Rather than self-absorbed, we mostly have over-active brains, brimming with ideas, surging with excitement over ideas, in the thrall of the creative urge/addiction/problem. Reader, I’d have preferred to be a non-creative: but as a supportive kind of friend used to reply whenever I complained about this, ‘So you think you’d rather be a pig, happy, than Socrates, unhappy?’, and then add, ‘I don’t think you would!’ (But who’d want to be Socrates, happy or not?)

And, you do see why we’re so utterly overjoyed when you buy — and read — and maybe even review — our productions! ***

  • ‘Indie authors’ are those of us who undertake to do all the usual editing etc work of a publisher independently – so we shall indeed be finding and using a cover/interior designer, editor(s) to provide copy, continuity and other editing, printer, etc – maybe Ingram Spark, or possibly use Amazon via KDP… The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) keeps lists of competent professionals, and advice can be found via their website, their blog, and by webinars.

* *Suggested reading (!) : “My Friend has Self-Published her Book. (Does that mean it isn’t very good?)” – a short blogpost by ‘Joy V’ the writer Joy Velykorodnyy, where she explains why and how Indie writers publish their own works, and why these books are worth buying and reading.

** *My books can be bought from the Hodge Publishing website, at: https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/    (Or, of course, on Amazon, or via your local Indie Bookshop, Bookshop UK etc…)

Is Hope all there is? What can it do for us?*

The problem of ‘Happy’

In the weeks before Christmas just past, when I was writing greetings cards to the many friends we haven’t seen or communicated with regularly or recently,  it felt more appropriate to wish them hope than happiness…. Indeed is it ever right to  assume happiness is uppermost in the minds of far-flung friends? After such a year, who knows what might have happened in their lives? Floods, fires, and hurricanes are commoner, Covid and its consequences lurks throughout the world.

Hope fitted better. Even though, or possibly because, I found myself dragged down by the dark damp weather, and the short days, into a feeling of hopelessness. I’ve  travelled to South Africa and the USA, and several European countries, but never to any that were politically dangerous or thoroughly disorganised.  I’ve lived in this country, where I was born, all my life, (except for a few months in Canada). It was a good place to grow up and a good place to raise children – or it appeared to be. What is happening here now, when peaceful protest might become criminalised? When desperate people might be sent back into the sea if they arrive alive on our beaches in fragile rubber boats? Is this exaggerated reporting? It is not.

And adding that Covid shows no signs of disappearing any time soon, how could we simply wish each other ‘Happy’ Christmas or New Year, as if this ill-defined feeling of ‘happiness’ should rest upon them, no matter what? Christmas and New Year, increasingly tied into expectation, festivities on a grand scale, sumptuous food, flowing drink, presents, treats, socialising, the works, supposedly creating happiness?  Without these, wouldn’t most people feel resentful, without reason to be ‘happy’? Maybe they ‘shouldn’t’ but it’s hard to have your pleasures taken away – two years running – (or so the media say). What was that song, long ago? ‘Wishing and hoping’?

So, our cards wished our far-flung friends ‘All best for a hopeful New Year’.  

 Can Hope replace Happiness? Might Hope even put Happiness back in our hearts?

Hope implies looking forwards towards a better time, rather than backwards to an imagined expectation.

Hope involves setting achievable ‘goals’, available and achievable to all, not only to those who already have the resources.

Hope is realised when we all work towards creating a more liveable world for everyone

Hope includes adopting a mindset which accepts the ‘other’ whoever they are, whatever ‘minority’, religion, ethnicity, and listening to opposing viewpoints, and responding with personal restraint to ideas we personally may not agree with.

Hope must use facts, in another word, truth, rather than fudges and lies – or it is not hope but a sop or a fantasy.

Whatever else, Hope can’t be used as a trope or a meme. It is a word of action, or it is meaningless.  Hope creates travelling companions such as compassion, kindness, or joy, each of these relying on hope to initiate the effort involved.  Hope works collaboratively, and brings light into a situation.  

With hope, real life may be calling us to make good things happen. 

(By the way, a happy peaceful Christmas & New Year was held here, somewhat scaled down & using Zoom… and I am hoping to publish a selection of short stories soon…watch the News page…)

*A couple of thoughts about ‘hope’, from writers long ago:

Psalm 119:116

Sustain me as You promised, that I may live; let me not be ashamed of my hope…

Romans 5 v 5

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

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