What’s Write with Christmas?

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

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

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…

What’s left?

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 of  them 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.

 

Brexit Blues and Advent Hope

(photos: my own)

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 … Extra shopping, 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 …

(photo: my own)

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 …?

(photo: my own)

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 needsFind 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)

 

 

 

 

Being authentic, Writing about Christmas …

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.P1060646.JPG

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, St Margaret's

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 …IMG_2354

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?Crib scene knitted

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, or  to entice people into church with carols, candles, and mince pies… or for getting into debtP1120758

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.xmas choc cake

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, BabyBB & TLY covers photo

 

Why is the writer knitting poppies?

more poppies – Version 2
Poppies in our garden …

It’s that time of year: autumn brings a cluster of strange, dark celebrations: Hallowe’en, Guy Fawkes or Fireworks Night, and Remembrance or Armistice Day. All provoke arguments: perhaps the most controversial today is Remembrance Day.

I have joined a group of knitters who are knitting poppies. In the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars, women used to knit for the soldiers, but forget that, our knitting has nothing whatever to do with it. Or with patriotism, separatism, or nationalism. Or with Brexit (I have been a ‘Remainer’ from the first).

November 11 is a day when the practice and consequences of war are highlighted so that we, as a global community, may not continually repeat its horrors. Yes, the Day is also a memorial to those who have died as a consequence of fighting. Their deaths were a tragic, painful, waste: hardly ‘glorifying’. This further reminds us that war needs to be banned from civilisation.

knittingOur small group plan to hang as many knitted poppies as we can on the hedge which obscures the local war memorial. The poppies will not glorify anything. Hopefully they will remind passers by of what war means: a frightful destruction of lives, terrible suffering, atrocities, the ruining of nature, towns, and villages. The world has not learnt from the 1914-18 war and continues to use increasingly powerful weapons, to kill, maim, and destroy. This needs to stop: how can world leaders consider how the world can behave better towards itself?

We on this planet all belong to one world. Globalisation has many weaknesses, but it underlines this interdependence more than ever. The more individuals become accepting, groups become inclusive communities, communities become cooperative districts, and countries unite in their intention to seek understanding, listen to one another, avoid combat and quarrels, the more likely the planet is to survive. It is a time to express our horror at the arms race, and the terrible wounds inflicted on both civilians and the military and upon all that has had been carefully constructed to make lives more liveable. To use Remembrance Day to repent of any part we have in conflicts large or small.

FullSizeRender (1)Fear of the other is understandable. Greed to possess what the other has, exploitation or anger at how the other thinks, is not. Maybe it is easier to envisage and desire this world of cultural inclusiveness and acceptance for those who, like us, live in a cosmopolitan city, and count within our family and extended family members who, as a group, represent communities from all three ‘Abraham faiths’ (both practising and non practising). But it isn’t impossible. We are all human: we are all destructible.

My knitting poppies to display on Remembrance Day is far from a patriotic, nationalist gesture: it’s ‘installation’ art. I’m knitting poppies to represent the spilt blood of war, in order to help people visually recall that war destroys and divides. To point up that cooperation, acceptance, and understanding may bring a possibility of hope.  IMG_4074

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 …

Happy Christmas from Mari Howard …

So, maybe the writer is ‘feeling Christmassy’ – looking forward to spending family time xmas choc cakeand thinking img_2354about the blessing of Christmas … There’s now a Christmas extract for you to read, from my novel The Labyrinth Year, on the Hodge Publishing website.  And here are a few Christmassy photos from my album … and I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year … in Syria, and for all of us … Continue reading

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

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.