A Literary Elephant in the room?

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 EnemiesShe 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 Sunsnonetheless 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.

BB: Science, Faith, and Prejudice

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.

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

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. 

 Labels. Connotations. The power of words …

 

The Fun of Writing a Series

Mullins family saga mindful painting

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 fiction here

Getting back to the Writing …

BB new coverTLY new cover

2016 – a ‘Labyrinth Year’ for Fiction writers?

Many writers post only about writing…

Though it’s arguable that we should connect readers to what else matters in our lives, and why it can take well over a year to write a book.

As they say, not only frustrating and sad things are stressful: our first grandchild arrived in August, so last  year we had all the excitement, and the involvement, of the waiting, the arrival, and the getting to know. Otherwise, for me, the stresses of 2016 that were detrimental to writing were political instability and computer problems, occurring enough to disrupt every attempt to live creatively in the imaginary past world of 2007.   image6 (1)

What survived these better was my painting: two pieces for an exhibition in North Wales, as well as a number of others. I’ve been observing the natural world and taking photographs in our local Nature Reserve.

heron
A heron hides in the reed bed

And with others I’ve attempted to found a

lasting ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) local meeting in Oxford. I’ve done two interviews at Oxfordshire Live: (local TV). One, with my friend and fellow ALLi author Debbie Young, successfully went out. The other, with 4 of us ALLi authors, was scuppered by the station, which was a pity, as we were reading stories for Christmas.

I’ve been doing Mindfulness courses and making cakes, (some for the courses …)

 Fiction and Politics …

It was really when one of my ‘friends’ on social media posted a writing-related question that I realised I wasn’t the only fiction writer whose creative imagination had been hit by the political uncertainty, and its resolution. When asked, how or whether the political events of 2016 events had influenced our writing, many others were affected, even knocked sideways, by Brexit and/or the American election. A problem area particularly for contemporary fiction, though a possible encouragement for dystopian fantasy writers. And we contemporary fiction writers were already disturbed, concerned, and generally aware of the mass movement people across the Mediterranean and Europe, and alert to what this might mean. Even, if like me, your novel is set ten years earlier, in 2007, some fairly astonishing facts are now waiting to become future history, so should we take that into account?

In the present WIP (working title LYTM ), part of the Mullins Family Saga, we find Alice and Zoe (daughters of the couple who first met in Baby, Baby in 1984) as teenagers. Concerned for the future, with memories of the London bombings (July 7 2005) and conscious that attitudes towards the Muslim community have been influenced… it’s background, but it’s there…

The how-to of getting back to creative, imaginative, original writing:

Once 2017 began, my first decision was to give Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year new, exciting covers, to appeal to my ‘target readers’ out there. So, (via ALLi) I found a designer, and we got started. It  has become an inspirational project, and we agreed to also re-do the paperback versions. Lots of creative interaction over the details – and of course the blips and bits that need re-thinking … like asterisks … (see below).  These should hopefully be ready for the Hawkesbury LitFest, planned for Saturday 22nd April this year. Hawkesbury 2017 iconBoth Edmund and I will be involved in panel discussions at the “HULF” this time.

Here’s how I’ve made progress:

‘Plotter or Pantser: which are you?’ If you ever write a novel, you may be asked this question.

January and February were all planning. Gathering all the notes and scenes from 2015-2016. Putting them into an order, so the narrative made sense. Then who was doing what when, and what others were doing the same time, was all plotted on a 2007 calendar.

I teased out the development of plot and characters, and the backstory into 3 separate files.

This became a summary, evolving into a scene by scene file of the steps which would carry the story through from beginning to end. Inevitably, an author will be able to see whether there’s a problem at this point: mine was the ‘floppy middle’, well known to fiction writers.

clean lab, fridge cabinetAnd research …  I’ve been busy with all manner of research – science, place, weather, the News, slang … incredibly grateful for the people I know who have experience and knowledge in many diverse areas … neighbours, friends, contacts have been willing to talk about their lives, work, and places they’ve lived.  Some such as Penny, Ant, and Lianne who’ve supplied help and editorial/subject corrections in previous books are contributing again.

Meanwhile … daily life, a line or two from e-mails

I’ve received a strange tax form sent from Amazon, discovered a problem with asterisks in the new files which need adding … was hoping to watch Call the Midwife on iPlayer!  How life goes … Never dull. Some time I will sew a cushion back into its case … not today…

I have been trying to find the correct Foam Floormat for Leo – thickness, size, with or without letters/numbers – as they are hoping to stay next weekend …

I had a chat with our neighbours (who have worked in overseas development, and medicine) about where and how a British GP might be able to do a spot of work in an overseas setting (mid-career) … after some discussion, the idea of  South Africa came up … would be really helpful to have an extended conversation about anything you could add having lived there …(rural area …)

‘Could you please put this notice about the Food Bank into the church news sheet?’

I would … like to chat about the atmosphere in a lab in 2007 … styles of working, whether people use iPods …How might Jenny re-join an Oxford lab after her career break?

Hawkesbury 2017 icon

 PS: Don’t forget – Hawkesbury Litfest on 22nd April!

Wearing Pyjamas to Church

Change is always creeping up. Recent change has rushed ahead ….

In the 1980s, now ‘history’ to schoolchildren, we used to go to church every Sunday. Dressed up. Always a skirt not trousers, never jeans. A day for make-up and a navy blazer – navy blazers de rigueur for smart mummies. Sloane Rangers, Preppy clothes. …Children in their tidy best – our daughter made to wear a pretty dress. Dads in suits.

me at Granny's 80th
Me late 1980s style …

There was a neighbourhood babysitting circle (pay by the hour with little plastic tokens). We met monthly for coffee and a chat, taking our small kids along to play together.  We never thought of CRB checks or the danger of our kids being left with a neighbouring parent (‘potential abuser’), in charge… We just didn’t. None us did. CRB hadn’t entered our lives.

The whole family were on the same doctor’s list at the local GP practice, and he (always he) was counted a family friend. There was no email to speak of.  I kept in touch with my best friend from uni by handwritten letters, which passed between my home and hers about twice a month. Fat letters with scribbled family news, reviews of books we were reading, photos… Often using a recycled envelope.

I studied sociology in the 1990s …

… taking a special interest in the NHS. The lecturer said it was in a mess (already) – though he supported the idea of foundation hospitals, begun in 2002 under Tony Blair’s government.  He was enthusiastic about the emerging practice of evidence-based medicine. Change happens … I worked a bit in the NHS: our problem was moving elderly people on into an environment they’d be safe to go home to … (that’s still one of the NHS’s problemsplus ça change?)

The kids grew, and saw a lot more point in practical caring and saving the planet than lining up each week to sing hymns in church (even wearing jeans). The shops changed as the area grew more obviously wealthy. Costa Coffee replaced the newsagents, a French patisserie opened where the butcher and greengrocers used to be. People carriers and ‘Chelsea tractors’ carried children to school, to avoid the dangers of other traffic, strangers, and the weather. Though the streets regularly featured homeless people now, huddled in sleeping bags, sitting or sleeping in doorways. And Big Issue sellers.

Huge societal change was creeping on… Some was good, like inclusiveness. Some was scary, like making sure everyone working with kids is CRB checked, as we learned the truth about Jimmy Saville (as a kid, I’d found him creepy – did anyone else? Yes. The morning the News began the story, my Yoga class all agreed: creepy guy…) And, people began to come to church in jeans and old trainers. Instead of dressing up to meet with awesome God, the idea was to dress down, because it was the weekend, time to ditch the city suit and heels, and reach for old and comfy clothes. God, who accepted us, would of course understand.

Times had changed…

Some change is for the better. CRB rating is wise, especially in a society where neighbours are strangers to one another. Email is fast and efficient. And without social media I wouldn’t be in touch with other writers all over the country—even the world. ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) is a world-wide organisation. As a writer, I have a webpage, and I blog. Internet shopping is preferable to battling around the supermarket and sitting in traffic. And organic vegetables can arrive, weekly, by van, in a box.

No, we are not people who want to turn the clock back. Social and societal change happens, it’s normal… But catastrophic change is unsettling… Nostalgia for how it was is fine… but it won’t be like that again… (leaving the EU won’t bring back how it was!)

Hams closeup copy
Family photo, 1907 – so much change on the way … World turned upside down, 1914-18 …

Change is part of life. It was for the Victorians, and it is for us… but recent change has been sudden, worrying, and revealing. 2016 was like the world turned upside down. Is there a choice, or do we have to accept we are living in a “post-truth era” and whatever consequences that brings? Must the lessons of history be abandoned? Has the present generation in power decided to ignore the past, draw a line, and run headlong into the unknown? Prompted possibly by a combination of fear and ambition? As refugees flee war-torn areas, and apprehensive populations resort to nationalistic solutions?

And while schools are complaining that parents are wearing pyjamas when they drop off their children in the morning?

We still go to church. Most people usually arrive late. Possibly this problem could be fixed if the new dress code for Sunday best was to be pyjamas.

Shall we vote?

Wherever next, or “Happy 2017”?

I was a teen in the age of aquarius. An age of love, light, and humanity, unlike the current “Age of Pisces (Remember the song, from ‘Hair’? Maybe not…)

Talk, (not so long ago) ,was of how we have moved into a digital age.

dark days (fog)
Life in the post-truth era …?

But now we are also living in the post truth era.  

On New Year’s day, (a dark, damp day here), a friend posted an article on Facebook: Are we heading for in a post-human rights world? (Well, it was only what I’d been thinking – but here was the detail…)

So, …‘how was your Christmas? Ours was a lovely few days of family togetherness, and

img_2385
Family togetherness

suspension of considering the gloomy realities of 2016.  Although as a family we’re all roughly on the same side, at Christmas lunch political talk was banned on pain of having to eat another sprout for each politically driven remark – I (Mum to the instigators) took and ate two before succumbing with humour to the ban!

 It’s probably easier for us parents to ‘accept’ the darkness of the times. Our adult children, midway into careers, have a possibly worse prospect ahead in terms of employment, pensions, raising a family. Food Banks were almost unknown when we were in our mid 30s, and Crisis at Christmas Crisis at Christmas (founded ten years earlier, 1972) a relatively new idea. This year, our younger son was spending part of his Christmas holiday helping out at his local crisis centre.

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-20-18-46
 Written by a fellow ALLi author , and recommended by me (photo, Amazon UK site)

 

Over the holidays, I’ve read a novel which partly draws its central theme from the  Aldermaston Marches. And the terrible events not only of Hiroshima but of nuclear testing which continued – without detailed public knowledge of its consequences  – throughout what appeared to us post-World War II children a safe and peaceful world, (despite the Cold War).

As this New Year arrives, it’s only too evident that decades on, we are living in dark days: 2016 has brought extraordinary changes, uncovered or unleashed hatred, disagreement, bewilderment, and fear. Civil war in Syria since 2011 sends thousands of civilians running for their lives, and the knock-on effect of camps full of refugees has frightened people. We in the western world aren’t used to such movement of peoples. What changes might it mean? Atrocities in major European cities and towns, the bombing of hospitals and schools in war torn countries, clearly ignore the most basic ‘human rights’. ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ are lovely phrases when genuinely meant, but ring with a hollow sound while there is violence, suspicion, and little compassion, and the new age is described as ‘post-truth’. (And did I really see Donald Trump quoted as saying that torture kind of ‘does the job’, intelligence-wise?)

Ironically, 2016 also saw the demise of a huge number of iconic public figures, household names from the arts to politics. Who can replace Victoria Wood, (who got away with such lines as ‘Beat me on the bottom with the Women’s Weekly’ )? Can anyone be the new Prince?  Or Neville Marriner? Or mother and daughter actors Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher?

We face a new year, and with this astonishing concept of ‘post-truth’ to join the digital age, and the post-Christian cultural shift.

So, how do we live in these times? It’s hit my writing right in the centre – my ‘work in progress’ being a contemporary family saga which examines our Western values …

It would be easy to make a clarion call, saying with the Queen by doing many small acts of kindness. She, as we know, had a bad cold, so missed her usual trips to church this Christmas. Many others will have attended traditional Carol Services or Midnight Mass. How much the emphasis on the baby Jesus is relevant, among the general celebratory, festive, wintery, activities is hard to tell: carols like Away in a Manger or See amid the Winter’s Snow can miss the point. ‘Peace on earth’ sang the angel choir in the Christmas story…

img_2347-1
Annunciation 2017: Gabriel shows Mary her surprising future …

The Magnificat, (Mary’s song, from the earliest part of the ‘Christmas story’ ) is very ‘political’.  This baby’s mother, Mary, is hardly the ‘Mother mild’ of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. Her song praises God for promising to shake up society. The baby Jesus grew up as a predictable son of Mary, who understood about equality, and human rights. His story of the care, and tolerance, which a traveller (the original “Good Samaritan”) showed towards a stranger from another culture and religion, demonstrate the type of attitudes communities and nations need to express towards one another. ‘Peace on earth’ wasn’t simply a beautiful choral display by angels: it was a hope, or wish, or even a prayer or a resolution, for a better future.

One small act of kindness – yes. Mary’s song is about provision for the poor. It questions the power of the rich, it welcomes and celebrates an ending of oppression. It’s also why my painting of the Annunciation features Mary as a student activist …

2017 could be a challenge to us all. What are ‘traditional English/Western values’? How do we mend the rifts in our own society? How can the global community turn from destroying itself to achieve co-operation and harmony? How can the benefits of health care, science, and technology be used fairly and for peace?

Human Rights are really only a beginning – how can the world think to step aside?

 … and, how can anyone be a fiction writer, when there are so many wrongs to right …? It’s my commitment … I just hope it goes some way to convince some readers something worthwhile …

Is the writer feeling Christmassy?

So, is the writer feeling Christmassy? 

Tree of Christmassy words, (made with Tagul software)
Tree of Christmassy words, (made with Tagul software)

You know that Christmassy feeling …?

A few days ago, four of us ALLi writers went along to the local TV studio to record Christmas stories. We did the festive thing properly in Santa hats, and dressed suitably in red and green… Happy Christmas! we exclaimed to the camera which acted as our audience.

Were we feeling Christmassy?  

The Four of us writers, in Christmas mood on the sofa!
The Four of us writers, in Christmas mood on the sofa!

Wide-eyed, breathless, excited?  Our stories had a lot of real life in them, plenty of the downside of Christmas amongst the twinkling lights and candles of promise. The uppity clever child in Santa’s grotto, the kind pregnant young woman visiting her lonely elderly neighbour, the young mum and dad taking their five-year-old to her first Carol service, the first-time mother with depression re-bonding with her baby. Each wobbly scenario came to a happy ending. And the whole was brought together with a reading of The Night before Christmas.

Today, a performance poet I know on Facebook put up a piece he wrote recently for Doctors under Fire Doctors under Fire. This captures the mood of Christmas 2016 for me. (See end of the blog for the poem …) Writing Happy Christmas in 80+ cards, while the mess our world is in occupies my mind several times a day, seemed both vapid and pointless – yet I did it. We can’t do otherwise – activities with our friends and family, even sending and receiving cards, provide happy intervals in the crazy busy lives we have to lead.

But what are we up to celebrating the festival? Raised in the few decades of relative peace, at least in our corner of the world, childhood Christmas was magical. Lucky enough to have an integrated traditional/religious Christmas, I relished all of it: the carols, the magic of the Nativity and the magic of the lighted tree, (traditionally bought with my father on Christmas eve and decorated to the music of the carols from King’s, Cambridge). The traditional food back then included treats we never ate at any other time of year. I wonder about today’s kids, sophisticated by ‘sexting’ and social media, exposed to explicit news stories of child abuse and terrible wars.

It’s basically a very dark world as we approach Christmas. The dark of the season, and the more sinister dark of modern warfare, killing and maiming civilians in body, mind, and spirit. The terrible irony that we are ‘taxpayers’, whose taxes help fund the weaponry and whose gift aided contributions are necessary to support aid workers. Brave and compassionate, these people from MSF, Doctors under Fire, and more, toil in dangerous circumstances to make some difference to the meaningless suffering. Whether they believe it or not, their lives follow the life and spirit of that baby whose birth Christmas celebrates. Christmas carols, cake, turkey, presents and Santa flag up the irony.

The writer has no answers. Except to make Christmas celebration as simple and enjoyable time as we can, a haven in the contentious noise. And to hopefully witness to the light which shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it.

Horrified by events in Aleppo – barbarity and complicity on a major scale. Here’s that poem, by performance poet Paul Canon Harris who was asked to write something last week to publicise the People’s Convoy that sets off on Saturday with paediatric medical supplies for Aleppo. “Wonderful bunch of doctors and intrepid explorers of all faiths and none.”  The People’s Convoy leaves from Chelsea & Westminster hospital 11am Saturday.

Lament for Aleppo (my thanks to the writer for permission)

O children of Aleppo how still we see thee lie
Chilled by fear, laid out in death as bombs rain from the sky.

Omran sits motionless, caked with blood and dust,
shocked to his core,
haunted eyes obscene on a little boy
who’s known nothing in his life but war.

Bana aged seven smiles for the camera,
she tweets for peace,
bizarrely connected by social media
yet beyond her rescuers’ reach.

Mothers of Aleppo, no dreamless sleep for you
as your hearts shake before buildings quake.
You see through shattered windows
the eerie glow of phosphorous and worse.

Nowhere’s safe nor sound;
you hide your children underground,
in basements hoping this will save
them from a place in an unmarked grave.

O children of Aleppo how still we see thee lie
Chilled by fear, laid out in death as bombs rain from the sky.

Once a place of culture and wealth for those of noble birth
now a gigantic graveyard, least inhabitable place on earth.
Silk Road city you no longer count your dead,
existence hanging by a fragile slender thread.

Battered and besieged, mosques and markets
reduced to rubble, stained with blood.
Your ring of hills and ancient citadel
look down upon a living hell.

Doctors working under fire do the best they can
lacking basics, operate without anaesthetics,
risking death to care for their fellow “man”,
irrespective of class, creed or clan.

The watching world ignores your desperate cry:
“For long we dreamed that people would come to help us.
No-one is coming is the harsh reality,
we will die here, bereft of humanity.”

O children of Aleppo how still we see thee lie
Chilled by fear, laid out in death as bombs rain from the sky.

Paul Canon Harris Dec.2016 Copyright: Doctors Under Fire

Straight from the Lexicographer’s Mouth: An Enjoyable Talk about the OED (Oxford English Dictionary)

A delightful review of our recent local ALLi group meeting by friend and fellow ALLi member Debbie Young. Debbie introduced me to ALLi at the writers’ day where I first met her, ‘and the rest is history’ … ALLi brings Indie writers together …

Debbie Young

A  report about a fascinating talk about the Oxford English Dictionary by Edmund Weiner

Cover of OED The paperback edition is just the tip of the iceberg with a mere 120K words and 1k pages

Anyone who loves words would have been as rapt as we were at the Oxford Authors’ Alliance last night, when Edmund Weiner, Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, came to talk to us about his work preparing version 2.0 of the OED. This mammoth task employs sixty people, and though it began in 1993, they’re still only 30% of the way through the task. They are effectively detectives, examining everything ever written in English to come up with comprehensive definitions of how every word has been used through the ages.

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Altruism and the British way of Life?

I have been thinking about Jo Cox: what if anything will be her legacy?

Jo Cox – the Labour MP who was brutally murdered on 16th June this year – I hadn’t heard of her until her death by murder in the street was announced on the BBC one o’clock News. The media went all of a flutter. We learned many remarkable facts about this woman, emphasising how much she had a heart for the poor and underprivileged of the world.

As one of her friends wrote (Change.UK website) ‘Jo’s life was one of service. Not lip-service, but true service. She was a humanitarian who campaigned for human rights in Darfur and Syria and a strategist who rethought child protection, world trade and education.’

Her mistake seems to’ve been her universalism, her inclusiveness.  A quote from her maiden speech in the House of Commons included these words: While we celebrate our diversity … we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” 

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Remember this? Where can we go from war, violence, rape, persecution?

The motivation for her killing appears to have been that fear which takes hold of a person, or people, or a country, when threatened, or rather when they think they are threatened. When it appears to them, or they are persuaded, that their livelihood, familiar culture, homes, will be stolen by aliens, their familiar culture smothered, they will become increasingly ignored and deprived.

Isn’t this just what is motivating refugees and migrants who are fleeing from homelands where they face persecution, rape, death by war or terrorism? Or at the least, starvation and poverty?

Ironies of June 2016

Just a week after Jo Cox’s violent death, our country voted whether or not to leave the European Union. I checked the dates: June 16th – June 23rd, 7 days. Her family had behaved with a quiet dignity towards the media hype. Various of our politicians meanwhile continued behaving with arrogance and extreme unpleasantness as they fought their media campaigns.

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1,000,000 men killed or wounded

Then the next irony: just a week later (July 1st), we held public memorials to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (July to November, 1916), which killed many thousands of young British men. And churned up miles of the French countryside, and was one of the worst occurrences of Europe being at war with itself. Indeed the numbers of soldiers killed and wounded, on both sides, is around a million. There surely should be a lesson here.

And, if the EU needs revising – which it does – and if the refugees streaming into the Eastern corners of it are going to survive with lives worth living – then this country will have no say.

Foden relatives
Ancestors … we can’t ‘turn the clock back’ and find security …

You can’t walk out of the family and then expect to influence its decisions.

They are, maybe, people like  us …

After the 1939-45 War, Europe was awash with refugees. Britain’s positive aid response was brought into being and organised by new charities Oxfam and Christian Aid. Both still exist, today working in countries such as South Sudan and Syria, often in partnership with the country’s own help agencies. It’s the kind of work Jo Cox was involved with. Today people are on the move in huge numbers … it has happened before … An article I read today, (by Paul Valentin, International director of Christian Aid) gave these figures about refugees within settled populations:

In Jordan, 1 in 3 people is a refugee

In Lebanon, it is 1 in 4

In Britain, it is 1 in 525

Fear and media hype make people fear being over-run. Fear of otherness may make people unable to accept those whose culture is not their own.

Expressing my thoughts about the motivation of Jo’s murderer, a violent acting out of his fears, another member of our family pointed out that ‘Maybe it did make some people think, maybe it made the vote closer. We shall never know, but maybe some people regret …’

Maybe it did.

But with the divisions of our country clearly delineated, the pound down, the hate crimes up, the government in turmoil … this is a sad, ironic, summer … in which we now hunt for hope … I hope for generosity to develop as the whole country looks back on ‘Brexit’ and the other events of June 2016 … and remembers Jo Cox and what she believed in …

Books and boots .. the next Mullins story willcentre on the teenagers ..

And I go on writing … trying to bring to life life the challenges of living today …   

Upcoming Event:

Monday 25th July 2.00pm (NOTE: this our recording time – I suspect it may be going out later in the day, after 5.00pm and will post on here to confirm)

I’m talking about my books and Indie Publishing, with Debbie Young of the Alliance of Independent Authors and presenter Eve Ahmed, on

That’s Oxfordshire

our local TV station … if you are in the UK – even as far away at Cumbria – try to catch us!

Mari’s reading Life: Four Books from my Kindle

Wrote this in the Summer House office: beautiful sunny day!

Are you a Kindle or a paperback fan? I admit to preferring paperback (easier to underline, and flip back or even forwards …). But, the Kindle’s useful: to buy and read books which aren’t stocked in our local Independent Bookstore (tiny, and very exclusive) or our large but tourist-oriented emporia – Waterstones and Blackwell’s.

So, Four books from my Kindle…

My books featured on postcards - a touch of publicity
My books featured on postcards – a touch of me-publicity

I write books about women’s lives … (Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year …)

I read books about women’s lives (though not exclusively – I just read one (by a man) about Mindfulness …)

But it’s a paperback, back to the Kindle…

Two are Austen re-writes: the Austen Project rolls on …

I read Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (updated Pride and Prejudice) with interest. Northanger Abbey was a set text at school. (Ever noticed that name – North Anger Abbey?)  We were set to read, alongside Jane’s ‘spoof’, The Mysteries of Udolpho (published 1794) by Ann Radcliffe, to appreciate the irony of her take on women’s popular literature of her time. Girls back then were in a Gothic Novel phase: sound familiar?

McDermid moves further into ironic observations of teenage girls obsessed with boys, and with reading scary tales of vampires and mysterious discoveries, in this amusing story. Reviews on Amazon vary, some even in the ‘I threw the book across the room’  style. Some reviewers had not read Austen’s original.  Unless you have read Austen’s novel, how can anyone fully appreciate this clever update? McDermid exploits both the Austen writing style and the recent teenage/YA fascination with Gothic themes. Moving the action from fashionable 18th century Bath to the contemporary Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story is a silly riot just as it should be. A fun read, well written and well observed.

The Sittenfeld, (which I read second) is set in Middle America, Cincinnati, Sittenfeld’s family home. I noticed, after I’d read it, that Amazon advertises the book as ‘humour’. Humour it may be, but satire is more like it. With far too much about specific Cincinnati eating places, roads, neighbourhoods. Sittenfeld’s Prep I enjoyed, but in her Sisters I found a sleazy and uninteresting slightly satirical take on the foibles of humanity. So how does Eligible do Pride and Prejudice?

The updated characters – Elizabeth is a thirty-something magazine journalist with a selfish married boyfriend, who on fancying Darcy indulges with him in ‘hate sex’ left a nasty taste, because it didn’t capture and update Austen.  Sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy in P and P expresses itself cleverly in witty dialogue, not in simple lust. The fact that this is how a 30-something might behave today doesn’t justify substituting foreplay for that Austen’s stylish sharp amusing verbal interplay. Which credits her Elizabeth with a self-confident intelligence and ability not usually allowed a woman of her time. And Austen’s subtle irony doesn’t imply contempt for those she depicts as ridiculous (Mr Collins in P and P). Darcy is attractive, yes, but in Eligible we have the updated Colin Firth in wet shirt, not the Darcy of Jane’s novel. Sittenfeld’s writing lacks stylishness. And she’s lost the plot, updating with no more reference to Austen than writing a loosely based ‘comedy of manners’ which picks out social types and holds them up for our prejudice and amusement. Austen uses wit: Sittenfeld relies on curled lip contempt.

That said, some of it is indeed quite funny, especially the lampoon of a wedding (Jane Bennett the pregnant bride) on reality TV, which brings the story pretty much to a close. But no, I wouldn’t call this, as it is advertised, The Summer Book’. Plenty more out there to choose from for beach reading. Or is it simply that I don’t go for this writer’s work?

Two by One

My other two latest reads in the ‘women’s novels’ genre are delightful books by an unknown, compared to McDermid and Sittenfeld: Vivienne Tufnell’s Square Peg and Strangers and Pilgrims. Tufnell is a fellow member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors).

These are straight novels, placed in unusual settings and displaying a deep observation of nature (as in human) and nature (as in the wilderness around us). They are pleasure to read, as Tufnell writes well about what she knows, displaying a real eye for compassion and acute observation/insight.

Square Peg tells the story of a young woman whose husband is studying to be a Vicar. Without satire or lampooning, but with incredible insight, she accurately captivates the culture of a residential College. The men study, while wives languish producing endless babies or darting into the outside world to work in the real world of contrasting environment. It didn’t have to be a Vicar-factory of course: any residential College would do, but an extra spin comes from the religious angle.  Group hysteria among the wives with their inward looking lives, deprived of a wider community or a job, creates the crisis, for the main character, Chloe, (a civil engineer by training, but raised by a sensible, but hippy-type, Gran) is so ‘different’ in so many ways that they spook themselves she’s some kind witch. Okay, today such colleges are mixed: but it totally captures when they weren’t…

Strangers and Pilgrims explores another assorted group, who gather at a remote venue in hope of healing from emotional pain. Cleverly Tufnell weaves her story to demonstrate of how the healing takes place: not by the miracle workings of the mysterious Warden or the holy Well, but by the relating, co-operating, living together, of the six lonely and hurt individuals, over about a week. It is realistic, and down to earth, and the surprise at the end gathers up the meaning: who is this Warden, who nobody has seen?  Does s/he exist? (And it is not a predictable solution, nor is it a spirit or God …)

Tufnell deserves a wider audience. Her books are delightful: great reading on the beach, or anywhere that a person can curl up, undisturbed, with a glass of wine or a mug of tea.

And the Mindfulness book?   That’s for another time!

Hawkesbury Literature Festival Two!

The First Venue: The Fox Inn

This year’s Hawkesbury Literature Festival (the second, and expanded, version) has spawned a whole host of author blogs: so where to begin? As we drove West to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, rain lashed down from a uniformly grey-ed over sky. It didn’t look promising. It continued raining steadily as some us gathered at the Methodist Hall to help lay out the pop-up cafe and display our books. Outside the Fox Inn the marquee, put up for the children’s art and writing activities, stood in the downpour.

But the weather’s total turn-round overnight meant Saturday promised a wonderful day. Moving between the Fox, the tent, the Methodist Chapel and the Hall, authors, visitors, and volunteers enjoyed  blue skies, bright sunshine, and attractive gardens full of spring flowers.

My home-made Lemon Drizzle Cake: already a quarter gone!
My home-made Lemon Drizzle Cake: already a quarter gone!

If there was anything wrong with Hawkesbury this time it was there was so much to do and to see. The Tent buzzed with children doing art or writing sessions, and adults viewing the illustrators’ work and the colouring books, the cafe buzzed with Tea-and-Coffee drinking, cake-eating, cheese-tasting the Cornish Yarg, chatting and book-browsing. (That’s the Yarg, in the bowl at the front of the photo, and William Fairney’s book title? Fifty Shades of Yarg … you get it?)

Performance poet Dan Holloway kicks off the poetry reading session

And there were sessions on poetry, (one beginning ‘I stubbed my toe on a  hedgehog ...) and on ‘Writing with or from Difference’, besides last year’s Fiction category, divided into several sections, and all featuring in both Readings and Panel discussion categories.

As a participating author, this year I enjoyed my first experience of being on a discussion panel (two: ‘Contemporary Fiction: Write What You Know – or Not?’, and ‘What’s the Point of Poetry?’).

It’s always interesting to learn how other people ‘work’, their motivations and their approach to creative activity. A number of us on the Fiction panel go for the ‘get the story all down, then edit’ method, and one at least said she doesn’t usually know how the book will end when she is at the beginning. I’m actually not usually that kind of writer: I’m apt to begin a writing session with a bit of editing on the last bit I wrote, it seems to get the creativity going. We all agreed that whether or not you set out to ‘write what you know’, research will enter you life as you turn your well-known environment (Jackie Kabler’s is working as a TV journalist/presenter) into the settings your plot.   Lynne Pardoe’s stories come straight from her experiences as a social worker – and have happy endings. Ali Bacon continues to experiment with how far or not she writes what she knows, and enjoys producing short stories. Jackie set her story within the TV Newsroom but someone had murdered her boss … which she certainly hasn’t witnessed … and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn told us how her editor had suggested that although she had researched Venice and knew it well, the enthusiastic  descriptions needed editing down. Nikki Owen’s story features a woman with high-functioning Aspergers Syndrome, which she doesn’t have but obviously found fascinating enough to enter into and create a story. Thomas Shepherd does have Asperger’s, but his story, a fantasy, doesn’t feature this. Some find the research time a necessary evil: others really enjoy digging into what they don’t know. And we seized the chance to enlighten our audience about how much writing what we know is autobiography: no, it pretty much always isn’t.

So with sessions on contemporary, historical, sci-fi and fantasy, and writing fiction from a point of ‘being different’, what was the most popular with the audience? It was this one: the skill of writing about your or another’s difference or disability: making the ‘difference’ work for your writing, overcoming  by your  writing, sharing what it is like to be inside what counts as difference. Read Thomas Shepherd’s blog about participating in this discussion here.

Debbie Young, Festival Organiser, with Dan Holloway and ShIrley Wright, poets

At the same time, learning more about other authors, how they work, why they write, is tremendously unifying: books are the bottom line, and within that, a huge diversity of interests, styles, attitudes, and lifestyles.

Recently, we’ve hosted, as a City, the huge Blackwell’s Oxford Literary Festival – a chance for celebs and well known authors to be gathered into one place and for audiences to hear them speak and have them sign copies of their books.

Blackwells Oxford LitFest Festival Marquee … parked near the Sheldonian Theatre

A small Festival like Hawkesbury has a totally different feel: a chance to interact with readers, and fellow participants. Hawkesbury aims to be inclusive: we were a mixture of Indie and ‘trade published’ writers, of amateur and professional poets. None of us could claim ‘celebrity’ status, and this makes for a truly festive and for-the-people feel, offering a ‘platform’ to everybody and aiming to give exposure to new names in the writing business. And so back home, and to writing Love You to the Moon …

Find my books at Hodge website, or on Amazon here and here …

Photos of Hawkesbury Literature Festival with thanks to Joanna Penn, author and very active member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors), photo of Blackwell’s marquee and the Baby, Baby/The Labyrinth Year publicity card my own.