Beginning to settle on the storytelling for the next book, my idea for the opening page is a girl on a train…
“Are you still writing?” Friends – especially the long lost who reappear, visiting – sometimes ask. The answer– yes – looks untrustworthy, since the third book in the Mullins family saga series, hasn’t yet appeared, and number two, The Labyrinth Year was published in 2014.
My “Mullins Family – book 3″ hasn’t yet appeared for unavoidable reasons: health, computer problems, politics. I’m picking up from there, publishing a selection of poems, ironically perhaps relating to those years 1997-2007.and redesigning (with a designer) the Hodge website. Some writers, either by contract or by their own choice, must aim to turn out a book a year. Their readers expect it. Are these always a good read? Maybe. Or maybe not. Even within a genre, (and genres which follow must-have elements and expectations, such as ChickLit, fast paced thrillers, cosy crime, police procedurals), there’s variation. It takes committed, well informed, professional writers, often with a background in journalism and no “day job” to do a really good job on a yearly basis. My kind of thought provoking books will always take longer, involving research, time to mull this over, and integrate it into a plot with a story arc and satisfying conclusion.
So, I’d thought, ten fictional years forward for each novel. Book two is set in 1997, that’s then a leap forward – to 2007. Enormous social and political change took place in those ten years. Pre-millennium, governed by Tony Blair’s New Labour, life was very different. We were on the edge of the financial crash but most of us didn’t know.
Pre 2000, we were warned to fear the “millennium bug” which could potentially ruin computer systems. Thanks to hard work from techie people this didn’t happen. But instead, terrorism struck in 2001 – 9/11 shocked and rocked the world. And catapulted the world into a different era. Followed by, in 2016, the idea that we should leave the EU in a process called “Brexit”.
Quite how life in 2007 would speak to us today, when our minds are filled with wars, terrorism, paedophile scandals, Brexit negotiations and now knife crime, what would be exciting about the year before 2008? Even post 9/11 and the London bombs of 2005, it was still a time of innocence compared to today’s news. Even adding a dimly growing awareness of Climate Change … Book 3 is now set in 2017.
My heroine is a Millennial, Jenny and Max Mullins’s daughter born in 1992, a five year old in 1997. We find her, Alice aged 25, in tears as she travels by train, her mind full of memories… She has recently opened a box and found items she’d saved back in 2007, aged 15. What these memories are should unfold as the story moves along, and we learn of the personal tragic end to that year for Alice. The climax of the idea for 2007… but not the same book…
It’s going to stretch my imagination, and my research capability, to get inside Alice’s mind, but it is an exciting prospect. Have you a book within you, disrupted by political change?
Live… Lose… Learn… poetry by Mari Howard will be available later this year… look out for it soon on the new Mari Howard Hodge website…
Maybe it is the time of year: after the solstice, a time of hope or after crazy Christmas, a time of space. For whatever reason, the collective spirit has lightened, even though the world still seems to be at war with itself. A friend who was in deep gloom over Christmas and New Year writes that her depression has lifted, another of that how being “stuck” in her writing, composing a silly poem about that has freed her up again, and I’m being weirdly inspired by a chair.
The chair has always been in my family, it was in my room as I grew up. We inherited it from my grandparents, and it just looks like an ordinary upright chair with a rush seat. Apparently it came from artist’s studio, which kind of gave it a romantic feel when I was a teenager, and somehow it seems to have followed me around and is still in our house today. It’s in the room where I paint. A couple of years back, I put the chair in a painting of a child in a strop, an artistic child whose foster mother only understands pink and spangly girls, but this is a denim jeans, creative small girl who hates her pink bedroom. Although she isn’t me, I understand her. The girl is Daisy, known Daze, a character in my Mullins family series, currently two novels Baby Baby, and The Labyrinth Year.
In June 2016 we went on holiday to our favourite place in Cornwall, and the sun shone as we picnicked, on 23rd, with crowds of others at a picturesque typical Cornish cove… When we came home, the painting wasn’t working. I simplified painting the chair, leaving out the essence of the design. I was also really stuck with the third novel, had problems with my computer, had a nasty illness, decided the website needed a make-over, submitted to gloom and pessimism.
And here’s the thing: today I discovered this is actually a ”Sussex Chair”. The spools on the back are central to a design otherwise characterised by simplicity and practicality. It’s a well known William Morris ‘arts and crafts’ design (though ours is a version without the arms). The story – that it came from an artist’s studio – fits with the period it was made.
Strangely that lifted the gloom: knowing I have to make a proper drawing of the chair, do theintricate and worthy task, a work that takes time and care. It’s a kick-start to getting the novel writing going, and it’s come alongside finally having the website and computer problems solved.
This year many writers I know have blogged comments on how they are not, really not, looking forward to Christmas. Often, it’s deeply personal: a tragedy struck them at Christmas, and the season has become one of awakening unbearable memories. And they sound apologetic, or resentful, or both: but to feel that way is reasonable, and sad. And ‘stuff happens …’ So, Christmas has become huge, year on year there seems to be more of everything – food, fun, feasting, drinking, partying, carols and travel and stress … and greater expectation … But there’s other reasons to find ‘Christmas’ a unbearable prospect, and those lie within our grasp …
My book The Labyrinth Year
includes a Carol service scene where I’ve tried to catch the wonder and magic seen though the eyes of a child … but that wonder and magic are on the back burner this year: behind the busyness and the buying, and certainly behind the mood of a society in political uncertainty… Many of us may feel, as Yeats said ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’.
Does our Christmas need a centre?
An article I read recently, advertising a fundraising carol service, quoted one of the organisers explaining that it’s necessary to reassure people who might buy tickets that, although this is a kind of Carol service, it’ll be “kind of festive” but “not particularly religious”.
And here’s the thing: ‘Christmas’, historically, has always been a season feasting and fun, though its origins come from the Bible story of the birth of Jesus. It celebrated something: it was the champagne and congratulation cards for a birth. Throughout history in the West, the story has probably strayed far from how the event actually was – adding in the Innkeeper, his wife, the donkey, and other elements (those tea towel head-dresses for example), familiar to anyone who’s had to do with a school ‘Nativity Play’. This ‘religious bit’, once central, continued to give it ‘meaning’, a reason to exist, a reason to celebrate, a birthday – makes sense …
What’s wrong with the story?
So what is the threat in keeping up awareness of the origins of Christmas by telling the story which lies behind the Festival? It’s a wonderful and mysterious story, full of the nearest thing to magic, with its angel choir and a moving Star leading that camel train of astronomers across the desert. To describe the story as ‘religious’, as a contrast to being “light-hearted,” and assure them that there will be “nothing from the Bible” in this carol concert (held in a Cathedral) seems to clearly demonstrate that there is a terrible fear of the Bible, and its ability to take the shine out of Christmas, and make us miserable. Heaven forbid, we may find that book attractive, full of amazing stories of the ancient Middle East as it is. And then where will we be? In chapel, on our knees, ignoring the feast?
I’d suggest that celebrating the basis of a faith is not the same as being ‘religious’: and I’d agree that in today’s parlance, the word drips with gloomy and negative connotations, and with disapproval of fun and celebration. But what the Puritans did to ban Christmas was long ago. The whole idea of feasting and fun at Christmas implies the opposite: celebrations and joy in keeping the feast along with telling the story is perfectly fine. However, apologies have been made, and assurances that there won’t be any religion.
So Christmas is okay without the story?
The well known carols usually find their inspiration and context in the story – or myth – or fact – of the birth of Jesus. In the start of a life on which the so-called religion of Christianity is based. And there is no real way around this – however much the desired audience dislike the awkward origins of our midwinter celebrations… Having dismissed the very grounds of Christmas, we still want a celebration of carols?
Would it not be more honest to restrict all the readings by the celebrity readers (invited to “make it interesting”) entirely to secular writing, and the singers to well-known popular songs? This way the event would neither offend the secular attendees, nor create a need to ensure that anything ‘serious’ is counterbalanced, with an ending that is upbeat, flippant and not religious (in other words nothing to do with the Bible. So that everyone is sent home happy.
A festival without a centre, then?
The message of the article promoting the Macmillan fundraiser carol service is tragically interesting. It tells us by implication that “religion” – believing in the central Christmas message of God becoming ‘incarnate’ as a human being in order to live out the pattern of a generous and unselfish life, to ‘bring light in darkness’ – is sad, downbeat and best avoided. ‘Happiness’ is evidently found by rejecting the Christmas message, and embracing instead the satisfaction of our own appetites and emotional excitement. If this is so, then why Christmas in the first place, and certainly why now? What can be ‘rescued’ by the many people who are for one reason or another, not in the mood for, not in the state of health for, just ‘not feeling Christmassy’? What makes this so sad is that in times of suffering, loss, or loneliness there is actually nowhere to turn at Christmas. Christmas underlines what, materially, we don’t have. What, materially, we’re expected to have. Even non-materially – the expected mythical ‘family’ or ‘love’ … Christmas without the religious bits becomes merely a time to do more than we have energy for in the darkest, dampest, coldest time of year, to travel in terrible weather, to overeat and to overspend – and not much else. A time maybe to be unwillingly alone. As, on the last day – ‘Christmas Day’ – everyone (seemingly) is to shut themselves away in tight little family groups, keeping out the neighbours, the world at large, and the many people who ‘have to work’ so that the infrastructure and the emergency services keep going…
The outside … No surprise that many people have reasons to feel ‘unChristmassy’: rough sleepers, sick people, anyone who doesn’t have a partner, or a family, or is a ‘migrant’ awaiting deportation … And what’s important seems to be that it’s necessary to become a celebrity in order to be interesting – think of those carol service readers, who must be celebrities to help pull in an audience…
No surprise really that many people have a reason to feel left out of all this …
Strange thing is that the so-called religious people would say that they are celebrating the greatest celebrity ofthem all. In a dark world and political uncertainty the message of light coming where there is darkness is amazing. The “religious side” is a message of hope – for anyone and everyone, which doesn’t depend on wealth, status, state of mind, or unending pleasure … while it’s still about The true light, which gives light to everyone, … coming into the world.
From Halloween to Thanksgiving, Black Friday to cyber Monday, and the new one, giving Tuesday, we have journeyed to the beginning of Advent. Advent is now of course the season of chocolate calendars, shopping, glitter, parties, multiple Christmas trees, eating and drinking, and maybe the great trek to see the in-laws. It’s also where we’ve now met the real debates of Brexit … The pressure is on …
And as pressure is the run-up to Christmas, so confusion is the run-up to Brexit. Let’s see how Advent and Brexit mix and match:
Stress – stressed out for 2 years now, we Brits are faced with our second Brexit-season run-up to Christmas, paralleling arguments and debates in Parliament with … Extrashopping, extra catering, extra excitement, extra parties, extra alcohol—to buy, to make, to plan, to consume … wasn’t running up to Xmas bad enough already …?
Brexit was sold to the public as if it would improve our lives, freeing us from being in thrall to something called the EU, which was supposed to be making our lives harder.
Christmas is sold to the public as a glorious extended holiday time, filled with fun and pleasure, freeing us from the daily grind of work, which is supposed to make our lives more exciting …
Are both Brexit and Christmas actually fantasies, ideas, maybe nostalgia for ‘what it was like when we were very young’?
Brexit tells a story about ‘taking back control’ from a dominating power…
Christmas tells a story about the birth of a baby who was meant to ‘take back’ his nation from a dominating power (or so they first imagined …)
Brexit may involve us in ‘stockpiling’ essential medicines and food …
Christmas always involves stocking up on essential food—not to mention luxury food—and possibly medicines …
The thought of Brexit is exciting (for some people …) because it is meant to bring about change …
Christmas is exciting because … because it eats up all your change …
You get the point: stress, anxiety, and worry. Battling through more than one adrenaline-ladened period of time, made more difficult by darkness, dreary damp weather, the season of coughs and colds, the school holidays … then add the demand to be cheerful because of all those glittery trees, the red and green Christmas jumpers (too warm for the late December mild spell), and that jangling upbeat music in the stores…
Are either of these worth the hassle?
Advent is meant to be a time of watching, and waiting … the idea is to live frugally, to be ‘awake’ to the signs of the times, to notice what needs doing and to prepare ourselves … Advent’s hope includes what we can do to make the future better …
The Christmas cards may show Santa with a sleigh of presents – or they may show a refugee-type scene of a couple, the man leading a donkey, the woman seated on it (she’s heavily pregnant, but we don’t usually see that). The Brexit scenario covers both … ‘taking back control’ can mean riches or poverty and rejection, which for whom, depends who you are…
Against the Brexit backdrop, this year the circus of the run-up to Christmas appears to be wilder, more glittery, more demanding,centred more than ever on partying and fun, as the big stores reveal their Christmas videos, and the on-line outlets rain down advertising emails designed to tempt – with money-off to help us spend …. which makes you think they must be desperate …How much does it take to drive a person away, I wonder, what is the tipping point, when shall we all begin to believe in cancelling Christmas? How many of us are already responding by scaling down, giving smaller gifts, donating meals to Crisis?
So, if all the hassle is giving you the Brexit Blues …How many of us wouldn’t mind if, as Liam Fox said, ‘Brexit is stolen from us’ (BBC Website News 5/12/2018) – just as the wonderful magic of Christmas seems to have been …?
Advent is the ‘not yet’ for celebrations, but it is time of hope …for an end to poverty, and violence, and a beginning for climate justice … the characteristics of real freedom … Advent, as we open our calendars or light our Advent candles, is for watching, waiting, being awake, reading the signs… and making positive, non-commercial, changes …
Maybe even for Taking Christmas Back …
A couple of relevant Christmas sites:
Useful blog post for parents of kids with additional needs: Find help for Going shopping, surviving Christmas here
Giving to Crisis – buy a meal for rough sleepers here
And a spot of on-line Christmas present solutions: how about one of these books?
‘Enjoyed this story about science, research and issues, but mostly about families and how they work. It’s a love story too. I learned a lot, and rooted for the characters to get it together. It’s a good book when you care about what happens …’ (‘Lynn’ Amazon review)
‘The novel is structured around the shifting perspectives of three people – Oxford fertility researcher, Jenny; her doctor husband Max; and Jenny’s step-sister Daisy. ….The descriptions of Oxford and Cornwall are breathtaking. It felt like being there. Whether a homey pub, a Church, a research lab, a doctor’s office, a country fair or a beach – it all rang wonderfully true.’ (Francis Guenette, fellow author, Amazon review)
Do we really know words as well as we think we do?
I have often heard aspiring writers saying how they ‘love words’ or referring to themselves ‘wordsmiths’. What are words, static material we beat into shape to form what we mean to say, or are they rather less like metal, and more like wild natural creatures, slippery as eels? Shape changers even? Researching their ‘meanings’ over time certainly reveals words as living things, capable of evolving and changing beyond recognition. Take the words ‘worry’, ‘why worry’, ‘don’t worry’, ‘no worries’… how many of us today would use ‘worry’ where ‘strangle’ would do? A dog ‘worrying’ sheep isn’t just increasing their anxiety. If a dog worried sheep, our ancestors were finding dead, mangled, sheep among their flock – a very different threat.
Here I need to seize another word and carefully lead it along—beating it with a smith’s hammer and anvil won’t do. Originally used simply to mean ‘relating to the Gospel or Good News’ the word ‘evangelical’ was adopted to describe a particular type of Protestant Christian belief, often including fervent practice and emphasising that faith should always stem from a personal ‘conversion experience’. Here we then have another way words ‘change their meaning’: the ‘meaning’ slithers by contextualisation, by usage, by connotation… The ‘gospel’ has been hijacked: as Evan Maloney (Where did all the Christian writers go? Guardian, 31 March 2010) says, ‘The central commandment of Jesus was “Love one another”—it’s not an idea that leverages power for religious brokers. With social power church needs to divide society into good and evil, and to have these divisions recognised as gospel.’ And so instead of ‘bringer of good news’ the word ‘Evangelical’ has become associated in a majority of minds with not bringing good news at all. ‘Evangelical has morphed in common usage from being a reference to a set of primary theological commitments into something akin to a passionately defended, theo-political brand’ says Mark Labberton, president of Fuller seminary, and editor of Still Evangelicals? (2018). And, ‘It is now painfully clear that the evangelical world was strategically and politically co-opted—not by more conservative evangelical leaders, but by political operatives from the Republican Party who saw a real opportunity to take over the evangelical world by making particular appeals to “conservative social issues”’ say Jim Wallis and Adam Taylor in Towards a more authentic Evangelicalism (Sojo website 10 March 2018).
So much for words, slipperiness, and hijacking.
Identity, and Getting inside another pair of shoes
My previous blog, on Authenticity, talked about identity books, the kinds of books which explore in memoir or in fiction the world of a particular culture, and how reading can open up our imagination to understanding people different to us, by culture, life experience, sexual orientation, etc. And how much I have valued several I read recently. The world of Damien La Bas, from a Gypsy background; the world of Vicky Beeching, raised evangelical, working as a singer/songwriter in ‘mega churches’, and battling with how and whether it was safe to ‘come out’ and be her lesbian self; the world of Afua Hirsch, being ‘mixed race’ where neither Britain where you were born and educated, or Ghana, feels like ‘home’. I feel a bit ‘mixed race’ myself sometimes—more of that later on…
In that blogpost I’ve also pointed out that ‘labels’ can define us: ‘Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity…’ (Three Seek Identity (August 2018)). Our common humanity, sharing our crowded planet, is an important concept: possibly one which might stop the tribalism which threatens to lead us into mutual destruction. If we can all hang on to that. That’s one reason why I value books by writers who belong to different cultures from the one I was raised in.
My reading from other cultures began with Jewish novels, but more recently, and against the backdrop of fear created by this century’s wars and terrorism, I’ve read Sudanese Lela Aboulela’s deep thinking stories, particularly The Translator, Minaret, and The Kindness of Enemies. She paints a picture of Islam as the Western media don’t know it: sensitive, thoughtful. While Afghan Khalid Hosseini shows us another side, in A Thousand Shimmering Suns, nonetheless bringing the novel to a peaceful and happy conclusion, after much suffering. Damian La Bas finds suspicion and rejection from fellow Gypsy Travellers as well as kindness. Kamila Shamsie sums up today’s power hungry politicians and confused young men, and the misunderstanding and the misuse of ‘love’ in Home Fire…
Are there ‘shoes’ we don’t find in the bookshops?
In all this, where are the serious novels which examine any of this from the viewpoint of the major religion which has become associated with the West over thousands of years, Christianity? English Vicky Beeching, raised in an Evangelical family, growing up surrounded by positive family love, writes in Undivided about the heartbreaking cruelty of Megachurch (and other) leaders and members, who are convinced that being gay is seriously evil, and incompatible with her faith. Despite the fact that Jesus’s teaching omits to pronounce on LBGTQ+ and centres on generosity and acceptance for our neighbour whoever they are: ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave or free…’ writes Paul to the Early Church. Vicky’s book is a memoir, not a novel. The antagonism isn’t a story, it’s real.
Serious, thoughtful fiction, examining our present lives, the faith or absence of faith which drives us, underpins decision making, defines our culture, unites or divides us, is hard or impossible to find. In my intended third story in the Mullins Family Saga, Alice, in her mid teens, is going to spend the long, wet, summer of 2007 observing the antics of the adults in her life, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately a tragedy which might have been avoided. It’s a bit like updating I Capture the Castle to early twentyfirst century North Oxford and it should be exciting to write. The ‘saga’ began with what was then a stand-alone novel, Baby, Baby, an attempt to look as objectively as I could at the relationship between two graduate students, powerfully attracted but from entirely hostile family backgrounds. The genre was partially inspired by the works of Shamsie, Aboulela and Hosseini, exploring family, generational, and community relationships in the context of Islam. And by being inside a family which is its extended form includes two ‘world religions’ and none, while also watching and accepting my own children and their friends turning away from following a path of faith, while maintaining a strong, but sometimes different, moral code.
In Baby, Baby, Jenny’s secular family, her father a prominent fertility expert, and her mother, a GP, have no use for religion. Max’s father pastors the nearest thing to a ‘megachurch’ in Northumbria, preaching a narrow, patriarchal faith. Here’s my ‘mixed race’ feeling: raised in a birth family very much underpinned by Christian faith (though not at all Evangelical), I grew up very aware that ‘our’ family culture was not shared by, most probably, the majority of those around us. I happily read children’s science fact books alongside the Bible, but was kind of unable to ‘get’ Narnia.
So, my ‘mixed-race’, discomforted sense of not belonging to either culture: the ‘religious’ one, or the secular.’God is irrelevant, we don’t need one…’ ‘Are you religious?’ Well, actually, no. I belong to and follow a faith. I can’t identify as ‘religious’, that word which now carries a lot of ‘stuff’ including all those ‘don’ts and ‘do’s’ hedging a person around with a fence that has no door to open and let in compassion, integrity, and inclusiveness. My answer to this question is summed up here: ‘Writers are generally independent thinkers who dislike having their thoughts roped by doctrine’ (Evan Maloney, as above). Maloney’s article was asking ‘Where did all the Christian writers go?’, and he references many who lived, well, a very long time ago, pointing out that there aren’t many, if any, writing today.
“‘By the time Lewis and Elliott converted to faith in the late 1920s, Christianity was a bete noire of the literary world. Virginia Woolf wrote about Elliott to a friend in 1928 “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Elliott, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”’ (In Evan Maloney, as above).
This about sums it up. Though we can cite Marilynne Robinson and J.R.R. Tolkien, their books are quite hard to read and not perhaps in line with popular taste. In children’s writing, Narnia though loved in the 1960s and 1970s, is now inadequate through much dated language and culture, reflecting the era when Lewis was writing. Most novels from the twentieth century dealing with faith have been critical exposures of the woeful inadequacy of Christianity in various ways—John Updike, Graham Greene. And those whose unhappy brush with it has led to their atheism: Philip Pullman comes to mind—possibly also Patrick Gale (it seems possible, as he attended a Cathedral choir boarding school, and tells the story of the secret life of a priest in his novel A Perfectly Good Man). And I’m not unsympathetic to those who end up rejecting the God they were taught about by words or actions. ‘Modernist and post-modernist literature vivisected the body of Christian orthodoxy,’ (Malone, as above). Maybe that orthodoxy had already wandered far enough from its roots to deserve a radical removal?
Where then are the ‘Christian’ writers – and what does ‘Christian’ imply?
So, is ‘society today prejudiced against Christian writers? Or is Christianity rightly viewed as a faith that deters the freethinking that great literature demands?’ (Maloney, as above). Probably. Are we as a society afraid to discuss the relevance of Christianity, unbelief, ‘the Church’ with its positive and negative sides, its part in colonialism, as a state religion, does it have a future, and other controversial areas? Is that really boring and passé? Or is it so woven into our past that to banish it entirely threatens our understanding of our history, and our present?
I’d never claim to write anything approaching ‘great’ literature, but aiming for a serious literary handling of faith, in today’s English language milieu, it’s pretty much impossible to be published.
I decided on gong Indie (and joined the Alliance of Independent Authors,link here). There’s otherwise a choice between publishing ‘mainstream’ (do not even hint at spiritual or moral content) or approaching a ‘Christian’ publishing house (though these, even before the ‘Republican’ makeover, definitely debarred the more liberal faithful investigating risky areas, included a list of what not to say (for example, no dialogue with the f-word,) and preferred a happy ending, possibly with conversion though redemption could do.) This makes it hard to enter even a toenail into the water of agents or trade publishers. Authors are resorting, if they can, to writing fantasy, or historical novels set in times when (they claim) ‘everyone believed and it could be talked about’. But has that ever been true? I very much doubt it. In a hierarchical society, it was simply wise to go along with what everyone did, and keep your doubts or disbeliefs to yourself.
Fear, prejudice, or whatever makes a book unacceptable to either side if it discusses the definitely off-topic subject of faith or unbelief, without advocating or demonising one or the other, has now made ‘Christian’ literature an ‘elephant in the room’ best avoided. Like ‘evangelical’, discussed above, the label ‘Christian’ has now been shape-shifted, by usage, association, and connotation, into something aggressively opposed to the radical teaching of its founder, a man of integrity, inclusive of women, foreigners, outcasts, and passionate for the poor and dispossessed.
Summer reading: mine has been ‘serious books’ so far: all very recently published, each has a very 2018 feel. The only novel is Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fires, a sobering take on today’s culture and politics. But here I’m concerned with three non-fictions on the theme of being authentic: not ‘who do we think we are?’ but ‘who do we know we are – and will our society allow us to be this?’
Afua Hirsch has written an extensively, carefully researched book on the hows and whys of being Black and a Brit. Significantly, it’s called Brit (-ish). Damien Le Bas decided to take to the road in a Ford Transit van (visiting all the places where his Gypsy ancestors probably stopped in their travelling days). His book, The Stopping Places, is an account of his physical and emotional journey, packed with reflections on the Gypsy lifestyle. Vicky Beeching’s book, Undivided, a memoir, tells of the pain of growing up and becoming. All three have been students at Oxford University: Hirsch and Le Bas among the few of ‘minority’ background, Beeching outwardly ‘mainstream’.
The problem of ‘labels’
A quest for ‘authenticity’, alongside the chaotic state of our world, is a defining aspect of life in the 21st-century. Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, gave some cultural stability, each culture led by generally acknowledged and imposed beliefs. But in reality, to think that it created a happier, more stable life is to ignore history and the contributions of those often intelligent and thoughtful individuals whom traditional ways have set outside the boundaries of the culture’s rules, labelling them as less than ‘us’.
Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity – Black people can be seen as slave material, Travellers and Gypsies as trash. Traditional societies can lull anyone into accepting that the ‘other’ is harmful, not truly human, worthy only of servant status, marginalisation or evendeath.
Afua Hirsch’s book carefully traces the history of Black people in Britain, revealing that their position worsened once this country was involved in the slave trade. And that in the 1920s ‘mixed race’ children were regarded by official bodies as less intelligent by nature and unable to benefit from education. ‘Liverpool’s “half-castes”…were pronounced to be…intellectually inferior, with intelligence “below the average”’, (Hirsch, page 148). Labelling the children of parents with different skin colours as morally inferior perhaps reflected an idea that a Black person ‘having sex with’ a white person was wrong and disgusting. This idea was repeated in a report on East London children in 1944. And Apartheid was alive and well in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s (see Enoch Powell’s speech 1968, Hirsch page 149).
What is true of Black Britons is in its own way true of Gypsies. Le Bas’s book includes research into his people’s history alongside reminiscences from his amazing Nan and his own experiences both growing up and on the road. Like Hirsch, Le Bas studied at Oxford (after first gaining one at an independent school, at the instigation of his parents, the Romany artists Damien and Delaine Le Bas). And like Hirsch he has become an outsider both to his own community and to the surrounding culture.
Knowledge and inheritance from two communities carries both useful understanding and painful awareness. It is far more difficult to bridge two cultures than to entrench yourself in the tradition of one. Hirsch, well aware of her Black heritage as she went through first a highly academic independent girls’ school, and then her university life, felt that she belonged more to Africa than to Britain. She tried emigration to Ghana, her maternal grandparents’ country, but found that as a ‘mixed race Brit’ there was as much ‘you don’t fit’ in the attitude of West Africans as there had been in the white culture of Wimbledon. Before, as a teenager, she had learned that African hair cannot be straightened with the products which her European friends used; now, that her skin was too pale in Africa just as it was too dark in Britain, and her accent was wrong. But the experience of the inner person was neither African nor European. She now lives and works in London, which is of course a cosmopolitan city.
Vicky Beeching’s Undivided, tells of how, while appearing to be just another white woman from the mainstream, she ‘wore a mask’ for the first 35 years of her life. Vicky is neither Black British nor Gypsy British, but Evangelical Christian British. Yes, it’s another tribe – a tribe in the white, ‘respectable’ community, and a tribe with firm traditions, beliefs, and rules. They mightn’t like it, but Le Bas’s comments on his people, apply equally to Vicky’s birth and faith families. He says (page 265) ‘Gypsy culture can be stifling in its demands for living in line with its hidden rules’.
And Evangelical rules are not hidden. They are taught in church, in families, and in the very air they breathe.
As a young child, Vicky became aware of her attraction to girls. Becoming a teenager she was being taught that this was a sinful lifestyle choice. From then onwards she donned a ‘mask’, denying herself any close romantic relationships, terrified that to be gay and remain Christian was impossible. Didn’t God hate gay people? She believed that this ‘choice’ (or ‘demon’) could be ‘cured’ by ‘prayer ministry’. When this did not work she continued with her studies and the songwriting she had begun as a pre-teen, took a degree at Oxford, and became a very popular and successful singer-songwriter on the Evangelical church circuit. Until, while working in the USA, singing in mega churches, the stress of hiding her true self caused a breakdown in her health. She wrote Undivided in the strong conviction, and after much thoughtful research, that the Bible does not teach that being born gay is incompatible with being a Christian (unless you can be cured or remain celibate). Like Hirsch studying racial history, Vicky carefully studied the evangelical ‘proof texts’ and became convinced that their interpretation of these Scriptures is flawed.
Where ‘tradition’ comes in
Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, may have given cultural stability in the past, but looking into the sources we can see that these are based on fear of otherness rather than ‘God’s commands for living’. All three books speak of the writer’s longing to fit into the surrounding society, to have a place of acceptance rather than to be treated as a misfit and an outsider.
Is outsider status perhaps one reason why both Le Bas and Beeching chose to study Theology? A search for meaning? Would Social and Political Science or Philosophy have served them better? Both used the resources of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, as did Hirsch, searching for answers.
Whatever, there appears to be a human need to keep our cultures safe by shutting out minorities and those who pose questions by their very existence. In its extreme form we see this need functioning within nations, causing wars, genocide, and suffering. Opening our minds to look at the world through the eyes of the outsider is discouraged. Those of us who do this are likely to join them.
An elderly Traveller man whom La Bas met on the borders of Wales said, ‘The thing is, you say the border…But let me tell you something. I’m living here now, and I’ve lived over there, and my people is all here and there. And let me tell you something about that border. That ain’t no border to us, boy. And never has been. I am a Travelling man, that’s what I am. And ain’t no border stopped my people making their way.’ As the writer thinks in response ‘whether he knows it or not, he’s just struck a heavy blow against my lifelong need to know if I’m one thing or another’(page 220).
And knowing who we are, accepting who we are, and being accepted as who we are is what we humans want and need …
The large pond at our local Nature Reserve, a photo of the resting and waiting which sums up winter. I’m so glad Christmas and New Year are gone now, and we begin looking up towards the longer days and the creeping up of new shoots and signs of spring!
A few days ago, some writer friends were talking about writing for Christmas in the summer months – I am trying to write about summer as nature is lying low under frost (and hopefully not more snow!) and low cloud. It’s cold, damp, and horrible here: the pond surrounded by thick, dark, mud, the trees bare except for the clinging ivy, the reeds broken, brown and collapsed.
Meanwhile, the volunteers who care for the reserve have (and are) running work parties to cut, prune, and plant … out there in warm clothing, hats, boots, gloves … And their work will encourage birds (already just beginning to practice their mating songs), butterflies (maybe there are crysalis/pupa hiding cosily amongst the apparently dead vegetation, or the piles of lopped-down logs), I know there are eggs of a particular butterfly somewhere in there, safely waiting … It’s all poised, even as we hurry by, nipped by a north wind and frozen by the incredible damp of living between several rivers …
Yesterday afternoon I walked through the sticky mud, under the low, grey sky, along a waterside path … and yes, this swan couple are back to dating, having driven away last year’s teenage brood … signs of spring, fertility, and the return of warmth to the sun, and colour to life!
So glad I am writing about my characters in summer … the long, damp summer of 2007 … when there is mystery, distress, and growing up to be done …
It’s snowing … when it snows here in the UK, we all get very excited … all morning, couples, groups, and families passed our front windows, hurrying towards the nearest green space (it’s fairly near), big smiles on their faces, and pom-pom hats on their heads … It’s kind of sweet and funny … All too soon the snow will melt into a brown slush, the slush will freeze to treacherous ice … but until then, it’s winter wonderland, all set for Christmas.
In my novel, The Labyrinth Year, I wrote two Christmas scenes: a magical carol service, and an up-beat celebration in a church, where the Vicar wore reindeer antlers … At the end of the service, as they leave,Max, (the Dad) remarks how the congregation’s emotions were played on by the music … Although Mum Jenny accuses him of cynicism, he has a point …
Christmas is a difficult time …A couple of weeks back, a Facebook friend and fellow writer posted that she ‘loathes’ Christmas … and she’s right, though loathing is a pretty strong word, it’s good to make us face up to this: Christmas is an utterly problematic time. I mean, it’s silly: in the middle of a dark, cold, depressing, season, everyone is required to shop till they drop, give and attend parties, perform plays, sing carols, travel across country (maybe continents) to be with family members, to send cards, give presents, be happy, and generally expend extra energy. And catch each other’s seasonal illnesses. Street decorations vie with one another for splendiferousness, and multiple decorated trees appear in the stores and on the pavements. Those vast tins of mixed biscuits appear in the supermarkets …
I want to cover my ears and my eyes: I want to escape …
Do you love it all? Or do you feel it makes a mockery of the (various) religious, and even secular, bases for this, by being a time of spend spend spend when people can run up debts, and when the really desperately poor and the homeless are thoughtlessly given the message that they are left out of all this ‘by circumstances’. It’s really (possibly unintentionally?) hammered home. Even if there is a tad more shelter, and with a Christmas lunch at Crisis, it’s not … well … it’s just not.
We are planning a very plain Christmas with moderate ‘feasting’, trying to be happy and friendly without the BIG stuff which obscures the bottom line reason why Christmas is there. Why indeed is it? In a secular society, the reasoning behind the gift-giving has lost its edge, the causes for celebration obscured. Not that we shouldn’t give and celebrate – but, let’s be honest, it’s come adrift from the story in those carols, hasn’t it?
Did you know that the ‘old fashioned Christmas’ was not a big festival as it is today? In Samuel Pepys’ day, 25 December wasn’t a public holiday. And even not so long ago, people (for example my grandfather) worked up to the end of Christmas Eve, or even worked a half day on Christmas Day itself. Families didn’t necessarily give big presents and a Tree wasn’t assumed to be bought every year.A mid-winter festival is a chance for fun, but I truly believe this is not necessarily a time for every school to produce a play, and a carol concert, or for evangelising the population, orto entice people into church with carols, candles, and mince pies… or for getting into debt …
I remain a believer in the Christ who taught compassion, healing, wholeness, inclusiveness, justice for the poor, etc. – and if he was really born into poverty and greeted by angels and shepherds, that is wonderful. But, I feel a lot of empathy with everyone who ‘loathes’ what Christmas has become, and with those who look around and take offence at its public face … This is not a ‘Christian country’ (could such a country ever exist?Faith isn’t about political boundaries – and if it’s about family, and friends, it’s about caring and sharing.
Whether or not you attend the Carols by Candlelight, the Panto, the parties, the Midnight Mass, and watch the Queen’s Speech … whether or not you eat turkey and drink Prosecco, wearing a funny hat … whether or not it snows…
To read about Christmas, New Year, and a whole 1996-7 family experience, go to our website to find more about The Labyrinth Year …and the prequel,Baby, Baby
A friend pointed out that we should not remember war, as that glorifies it … but there’s another way to ‘remember’ it, and that’s what I wrote about on my earlier Knitted Poppies blogpost (Why is the Writer Knitting Poppies?) Well, we knitted 350 between us ….
If we forget the World War(s) which brought 11.00 O’clock on11th November into our national calendar, and those who died, horribly, and ‘meaninglessly’, shedding the blood those poppies represent, we’re in danger of forgetting that war is terrible, horrible, and solves nothing … And, we forget that for each human being killed by war, there is a family, friends, a break in community … suffering beyond the killings … and we add in all who have died in wars ever since … and wonder why human beings and their governments never learn …
Another friend wrote, earlier today, about how it is the younger generations who remember and support Remembrance, certainly in her village all ages come to the community events … interesting … Here’s my response to her blog … How our parents and grandparents reacted – hardly glorifying war by remembering, more by sorrowing over it … that is what I was raised on, that is why we have Remembrance Day…
‘You are possibly right that our parents and grandparents (some had lived through 2 ‘world wars’) did not want to ‘remember’ in local group activities, but I remember that the Cenotaph service was always heard on the radio, with a very reverent and subdued attitude. They did not talk about their experiences … it was too raw and too complicated.
My youngest Uncle had been bombing Germany on his 21st birthday. Not something you want to think about – and he only told his children during his last illness, and they told us a few years later.
My Dad was obviously very proud of his ‘men’: he was in the Royal Artillary with an anti-aircraft crew on the south coast, but again, there was nothing else said about his war, just the odd remark if a photo appeared during family de-cluttering. And that he’d had a wonderful Old English Sheepdog at the time …
I think the Wars changed people and brought to end the lovely freedom and fun they were having as young adults. Someleaving University and straight into military training, and if they survived, into ‘re-building the country’ work instead of, for example, becoming a professional musician (my youngest uncle had a music degree, but went back and trained as an architect, building and re-building in the North East.)
So … it is up to us to ‘remember’ and maybe to keep on working to make the world a more peaceful and generous place (which it certainly still resists being …) …
As for World War One, I had never even heard of anyone who was killed in our family, until I did Family History research, and discovered 2 families shattered by the loss of eldest sons … In both these families of 3 boys, the eldest was killed and the two younger brothers seem to’ve been deeply affected in life changing ways … So today I shall be thinking of Bryant Yorke Lodge and Louis Feaveryear … nephew and cousin to my 2 grandmothers. And writing this has made me cry (a rare thing) … the echoes of war … Debbie, I’m going to post this – I was going to write about it later but seems I’ve written the basics of it now …thank you for eloquently raising the subject here …’
I knitted myself a poppy to wear … and found several of us poppy knitters had all thought of the same idea … Now back to the writing … not sure if I can squeeze any Remembrance Day events into it, we’ll see …
With thanks for Debbie for her post, and to my cousin Alex Wheeler for showing us some mementos from his dad’s flying days …
The fun of writing a series – my fellow author and member of Alliance of Independent Authors Francis Guenette’s blog post a few weeks ago inspired me to write about fun of writing a series. Francis had asked whether we as readers were ‘fans of serialised fiction’ – did we enjoy reading or watching a series or prefer one-off, ‘stand-alone’, stories? My response was that I love reading a series and I am enjoying writing one, (the Mullins Family Saga – if I’d known it was to become a series, though, I would have given Max Mullins a more noble, memorable, surname perhaps! Dashwood? Or Mac-something?)
Examining the subject, it is fun, but it also creates its own drawbacks.
For example, November is Nano-month: many writers will use ‘NaNoWriMo’ ( National Novel Writing Month) to scribble down the basics of a novel, in the form of chunks of unedited script, on a daily basis throughout November. Why November? Well in the northern hemisphere November can be the dreariest of all months. After the beauty of October days, with bright sunshine and the trees in their autumn colours, November brings the true end of the year in our gardens and countryside, shorter days, long dark nights, increasing cold. And it is not yet Christmas, so, how to keep going? For writers, hunker down with storytelling.
For a first-time attempt at the long haul of a novel, Nano offers a solution to the question ‘how do I get the first 50,000 words down?’ But for the long-distance series writer, the attraction of ‘just keep going’ will never work. Once you have novel number one published, you have your characters in situ, and they must now develop in believable ways, following up the first story with what they really might do next.You have family history, you have disputes to carry through or to resolve. You have consequences and memories.
And, that’s also the reason to move into a series. Exploration, and taking things further within established constraints. Seeing if they learn from experience, if they cope with new circumstances … That is the fun of it. And, therein lie the restraints.
After Baby, Baby, will Max and Jenny stay married, given the vast differences in their childhoods? And if so, how and why? How will their kids turn out? How do their careers and ambitions develop? What will crazy Daisy do next?
Even though I don’t subscribe to the rather romantic idea ‘the characters tell me what they will do next’, I have found, working on story number three, that there are some threads leading from past events into a future which I had not exactly planned, or planned at all. In The Labyrinth Year, two of the characters are growing closer as the book progresses, and now 10 years on from there, they are still in touch.
This was ‘never meant to happen’. It is enormously exciting to follow and see where it may go. And, it demands a whole lot of research …in unexpected areas.
On the other hand, they look to be making a bid for the centre stage, not where these two were planned to be in this story. Do some characters ‘come to life’ without the author’s orchestrations? Romantic whimsey, or psychologically predictable? What do you think?
Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year (The Mullins Family Saga, books 1 and 2), published by Hodge Publishing, are available in paperback (or on Kindle). Find more about them on the Hodge website: http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/
Read Francis Guenette’s blogpost on being fans of serialised fictionhere