Please don’t be Political!

As a writer, I know others who avoid what they’d brand as ‘political’, and that is fine for them. But, I came into writing to be political – being political, having awareness of ‘stuff’ is why I write – not crime (cosy or violent), not romance, not whimsy, not fantasy – I began writing my first novel prompted by some thoughts about what drives social change. How can a person not be themselves?  Above all I want to be objective, (even if the concept of objectivity is denied to be possible today, I believe it is possible): and especially not to “preach”. 

Change has complexity. Initially good and compassionate attitudes and changes have this way of slipping towards something less than perfect. How does this come about? New possibilities can look wonderful, progressive… they’re also open to manipulation for profit. To exploitation. These interact… some people fear change, or have special reasons to resist…

How do we stop that happening? Would we want to? Is cracking down on society and forcing traditional values and behaviour – often longed for, in a nostalgic terms, by some people – a solution? Can the clock be turned back?

Social change can never be turned back. We may be able – or think we are able – to change the future. But we can never return to the past. Not because nobody wants to, but because too much has changed, and  become different, over time.

For example, we can’t easily reverse climate change by “cracking down”. That won’t bring back the lost species. The ruined rainforests. I say we can’t easily, as with care, international cooperation, and willingness to do without the comfortable ways we’ve learned to live with, we might. But that’s unlikely to occur, given that most countries will have special interests. Fast air travel, foreign holidays, cheap food, clothing outsourced to be made in poor countries, are what we have come to expect. It would take an enormous commitment in the face of huge opposition from those who benefit and profit to change. And the beneficiaries include all of us – you and me in our small ways, our governments and multinational companies in their powerful ones. 

Progressive, beneficial medical advance can’t help driving social change. Some will disagree, but reliable *contraception and safe clinical abortion were introduced by idealists passionate to improve the lives of women, particularly those caught in poverty, the ‘less well off’ majority. Not to offer easy recreational sex to both genders without consequences. Its opposers argued on both moral and religious grounds that ‘misuse’ was inevitable. It has indeed resulted in huge shifts in public attitudes. Personally I detest the phrase ‘sexual revolution’, since there’s so much more than ‘sex’ going on…also has removing ‘sex’ from ‘relationship’ been helpful and without consequences for women? (Think #MeToo, for example.) Genetic research, combined with legal abortion, has also changed public attitudes, in a way which could be seen as sinister. Introducing safe legal abortion opened up new possibilities in eugenics. Moral and ethical questions shift about. Few people now would consider it better to carry a dysmorphic foetus to term. (And this future may be applied to female foetuses, and to what other groups among the ‘inconvenient’?) Is this murder? The furore surrounding ‘pro-life’ can influence voters.

But back to my writing.  My first novel tended towards a scifi mystery, its roots in the story of Dolly the sheep, successfully produced by cloning at the Roslin research centre near Edinburgh, in 1996. As I read up the historical background, and learned more about the scientific process, the story changed, evolved, and became domesticated. Where it works better. Hopefully the mystery concerning a shockingly dysmorphic baby, investigated (illegally as it would be now) by two Cambridge students, from very different family backgrounds, highlights several moral and ethical questions, not wholly confined to the field of science and medical advance.

A follow-up story goes on to look at an on-going everyday problem: ever since women gained equality in education and opportunity, we expect to be able to successfully combine career and family.  However, who then cares for the kids? When career opportunities and family crises clash, what and whose ambitions, talents, and goals take precedence? 

My prompts have always come from the effects of social change and the pushback from traditionalists. An ever present ‘dialectic’. History is increasingly driven by a combination of invention, its usage, and most significantly our desires. Our desires may be to eliminate suffering and improve life. But equally they may be hijacked by ambitions for profit or pleasure. Leading to destruction.

 Objectivity, though it ‘doesn’t sell newspapers’, can be useful. I may be political, but I also try to simply lay out life as it is, not what ‘my’ Utopia might be. Asking the awkward questions does tend to look political.

*women’s lives in the 1920s? Follow this up! COMING SOON: This Thursday, 29 October, Who’s left holding the baby? – class & contraception in the 1920s, a guest blog by writer Fiona Veitch Smith, author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series... to celebrate the publication of Poppy’s latest investigation, The Art Fiasco, set in 1924…

Reading, Writing, and Always being Kind…

(My July contribution to the ‘Authors Electric’ blog, reproduced here) “Be kind” 

A few weeks before lockdown, a well-known celebrity took her own life, leaving a note advising others to “be kind”. This may or may not have been the source of advice which circulated, as we began to live shut away from crowds, and thus places of business and pleasure, that we should now do “Small acts of kindness” to neighbours. An effort to create some coping mechanism, some feeling of community, and hope, and to take us out of ourselves.

Well-meaning but in danger, as the words became a meme, of joining with those BBC News tropes of “unprecedented”, “uncharted waters” and “strange times” which, while describing something, also managed to describe nothing. How, exactly, do we perform “little acts of kindness” when all are separated and not to get together? Of course, we do find ways… What I’m saying is, stand back and think — is it worrying that we need to be told? Is it sobering that normally we don’t do these?

Lockdown has become a meme – a subject overdone – yet lockdown is different for everyone, and has provided the chance for reflection to a society which doesn’t reflect very much. On to the next thing, and let’s hope for excitement — as was said of Millennials, “they don’t want material goods like their parents do — they want experiences”.

A Change of Reading

One small change I found myself led into was reading matter. As an avid fiction fan, my habitual reading has being in the area of long, moderately challenging novels.

Not the popular Hilary Mantel ones (though many began lockdown with reading her latest). My taste has been a tour of novels by non-British, non-white writers whose cultures I don’t know with the histories and religious bases which formed them. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Leila Aboulela’s Bird Summons. I returned to reading Barbara Kingsolver, her latest two novels, (Unsheltered and Flight Behaviour) exploring in fictional form the effects of climate change. My lockdown change was a desire to turn to lighter novels, and to actually enjoy a “cosy mystery” set on a Greek island, (Murder your Darlings) and a diary-style account of teaching in a secondary school, tragi-comic and firmly set in today’s Middle England (Miss, What does Incomprehensible Mean?) . Challenged by having the time, I watched TV’s adaptation of Normal People, and the sociologist in me kicked in to consider its meaning. Another contemporary romance, Mix Tape, had also caught my attention, and I thought that these two stories, both published as books in the past five years, demonstrate the truth of the “plus ça change” nature of human beings and what they expect from a romance novel…, and this between couples from opposed cultures, although all Western and all-white.

A Challenge on Content

Interestingly, in both stories attraction is strong and physical, taking place initially at school, cultural differences are of class, both “girls” have difficult abusive homes, both “boys” loving and nurturing ones. Both girls “escape” to a new life where they blossom. Both boys have not known the extent of the abuse the girls had suffered. Both couples keep their relationship a secret from the abusive home. Are these the present day memes of romance novels, I wondered? Mix Tape — taking place in the late 1970s — ends with reuniting the couple, whereas Normal People, a millennial tale, ends with parting for career reasons.

But then, I read the book. Memes they may be, but Sally Rooney’s story tells more than can be conveyed by the dimly-lit, meaningful looks of the TV adaptation convey. The inner lives of her protagonists, troubled by doubt around issues of identity and worth, weave in and out of this on-off relationship and give, albeit in unrelenting flat prose, what is not there in the dialogue. The tragedy of the romance between two school misfits is that each has been unknowingly the other’s tutor in adolescent development. And the ending, a disappointment to many reviewers, is indicated (though not overtly stated): as adults they — or certainly Marianne has — achieved the ability to do without the other.  Whereas in Mix Tape (set in the late 20th century) the protagonists are all set, at the end, to elope together, leaving marriage partners and grown children behind.

An indication that the meme has moved on from romance to a reality where the individual’s own career trumps caring about a person close to themselves, and self dominates over all human relationships? Or have they merely matured, rather than “using each other”? A point to consider for my review, on my website.

Reading romance novels, albeit serious ones, makes me wonder about how much the romance genre meme is an indicator of the health, or not, of a society. And put my own work under the spotlight: does my work (novels Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year) fall into “unshelvable” due to a low ratio of sex to other issues of the couples’ daily lives?

Is this because it shows too much of how they carry out the scientific interests and work which holds them together as much as physical attraction, how they work on a mystery together, and raises ethical and religious questions?It had seemed at the time of writing these weregiving the reader some stronger food than simply the sugar of the sex drive. And it was all part of the learning curve of my two young protagonists. Or, is my story-telling simply outdated as we move onwards?

A Chance of a Future

Well that is what I’ve learned, and shall we keep up the “little acts of kindness”? Many of us have learned, as the roads quietened and there was nowhere to go except our own gardens and the nearest walkable park or common, to slow down and appreciate the natural world. My hope is that we’ll continue to and live with an eye on the survival of more birds in our gardens, more wildflowers on the verges, and more insects to pollinate them. And of course the range of readers, like the range of books, is infinite, and the human psyche does actually often return to what’s easiest. Maybe I’ll write the action next, and leave out the romance?

And so, shall we all continue to be kind?

(…and by the way, what am I reading now? Another ‘cosy, light’ book, Stranger at St Brides, by my friend Debbie Young, and  Sally Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends... plus ca change…)

A Future World?

I now have my first Moleskine sketch and notebooks: I have never indulged in Moleskine, but last month, buying a new sketchbook, notebook, tube of basic white paint and some medium at our local art shop, I learned that that craft materials of all kinds had been flying off the shelves. And as the basic sketchbooks and notebooks were all gone, they charged me the basic price for superior goods, their suggestion.

So, “lockdown” is not a holiday. But faced with having their offices or other business closed, a considerable number of people saw the chance for creativity would reign in their lives, whether  embroidery, knitting, papercraft or any other activity they’d “always meant to try”. Others rushed to buy jigsaws to relieve the boredom  they feared would attack due to acres of free time. Or piles of books to escape into. Or vegetable plants, and packets of seeds to dig for victory.  All nostalgic occupations of a bygone age, which we’d abandoned as not exciting enough for today.

And while all the creativity, combating boredom, and escaping happens in one place, in another, possibly quite close by, others are overworked, helping yet others to combat infectious illness, in danger of their own lives. Or harnessing their creativity to produce a test, or a vaccine. Tied firmly to daily toil, exhausting and dangerous. No escape.

It’s not just odd, it has actually divided us. It’s a bit like – if the world survives, children will ask parents or grandparents, ‘What did you do in the great pandemic?’ And some of us will have lurked at home, and some will have been on the frontline, and if we aren’t careful the two sides could clash horribly… Maybe nobody says it yet, but the “middle-class” workers-from-home,  and the people doing jigsaws and crafts, are having a relatively comfortable time,

The slow-worm has a secret life, we seldom see them…

while “key workers” – everyone who keeps all the basics going – those employed in supermarkets,  lorry drivers, binmen and railway workers, bus drivers, firefighters, police – as well as doctors, nurses, cleaners, hospital administrators – remain at work and at risk. Maybe nobody’s saying it yet, but should the key workers be better rewarded, in the future, when the utter necessity of their work is acknowledged?

Bluetits quarrel on telegraph wire

I wonder if, as another blogger hoped and suggested, we’ll continue to be kind, generous, thoughtful and neighbourly. The world would change, the needs of the poor be met, the wealthy countries distribute their wealth more equally. The emphasis would be on a decent life for all. Temptation being what it is, this is definitely a dream. Could it become a reality? Could the world admit that we have a climate crisis, that we have been exploiting and destroying nature long enough, and could we unite to care about this and accept a “lower standard of living” so all may live?  Remember the continuous rain and floods of the past winter. The Australian wildfires. The suffering and death of human beings (and animals). Would governments and companies change their priorities?

I wrote this in Holy Week, the lead up to Easter. I have spent very peculiar Lents in the past three years, in 2018 being seriously ill in the ICU for a week and then five weeks on the ward. And the time was exactly, almost to the day, Lent, Holy week, and Easter. I escaped the hospital on the evening of Easter Monday, thrown out with at least nine others, making room for a new intake.

Lent is a peculiar time, supposedly for fasting. This year I decided to “give up” political involvement for Lent. Enough signing petitions and ranting along with others of similar views who thought “Brexit” would be a disaster for our country. The reality of this Lent is that I’ve spent most of the time “isolating” in “lockdown”. And as the various measures and lack of measures to contain and defeat the march of the virus are or are not put in place, it’s been impossible to “give up politics”, and it’s been back to sharing our views, responding to the sufferings of others, whether from working without proper protective equipment or from loss of jobs or earnings.

Frogs party in the pond

 Lent has been very peculiar. Meanwhile nature struggles on – frogs mate in the ditch at the nature reserve, the garden is bright with spring flowers, bees are buzzing about, birds are busy and filled with song. The weather has brought sunshine.

Along with others, I have felt we shall all be changed by this present situation. Many experts hope, and see positive change. Whether the world will move into greater awareness and more generosity is a big question. It’s unlikely we’ll learn to be content with holidays at home with jigsaws or embroidery. But will we have become aware of the necessity to combat climate change together, will we have accepted that “key workers”, previously given low pay, should be honoured with the recognition of decent wages? Is a bin man’s contribution going to now be seen as worth as much as a banker’s? Or shall we continue to live as divided nations, hostile to one another, competitive in our pursuit of personal and national wealth? That is the question.

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

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

photo by  vanveenjf-mS2ngGq6VO4-unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christianity is Changing… (a tad controversial?)

BB: Science, Faith, and Prejudice

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

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Three seek Identity

identity books 1
My pile of recently read books 

Summer reading: mine has been ‘serious books’ so far: all very recently published, each has a very 2018 feel.  The only novel is Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fires, a sobering take on today’s culture and politics. But here I’m concerned with three non-fictions on the theme of being authentic: not ‘who do we think we are?’ but ‘who do we know we are – and will our society allow us to be this?’

Afua Hirsch has written an extensively, carefully researched book on the hows and whys of being Black and a Brit. Significantly, it’s called Brit (-ish). Damien Le Bas decided to take to the road in a Ford Transit van (visiting all the places where his Gypsy ancestors probably stopped in their travelling days). His book, The Stopping Places, is an account of his physical and emotional journey, packed with reflections on the Gypsy lifestyle. Vicky Beeching’s book, Undivided, a memoir, tells of the pain of growing up and becoming. All three have been students at Oxford University: Hirsch and Le Bas among the few of ‘minority’ background, Beeching outwardly ‘mainstream’.

The problem of ‘labels’

A quest for ‘authenticity’, alongside the chaotic state of our world, is a defining aspect of life in the 21st-century. Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, gave some cultural stability, each culture led by generally acknowledged and imposed beliefs. But in reality, to think that it created a happier, more stable life is to ignore history and the contributions of those often intelligent and thoughtful individuals whom traditional ways have set outside the boundaries of the culture’s rules, labelling them as less than ‘us’.

Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity – Black people can be seen as slave material, Travellers and Gypsies as trash. Traditional societies can lull anyone into accepting that the ‘other’ is harmful, not truly human, worthy only of servant status, marginalisation or even  death.

Afua Hirsch’s book carefully traces the history of Black people in Britain, revealing that their position worsened once this country was involved in the slave trade. And that in the 1920s ‘mixed race’ children were regarded by official bodies as less intelligent by nature and unable to benefit from education. ‘Liverpool’s “half-castes”…were pronounced to be…intellectually inferior, with intelligence “below the average”’, (Hirsch, page 148). Labelling the children of parents with different skin colours as morally inferior perhaps reflected an idea that a Black person ‘having sex with’ a white person was wrong and disgusting. This idea was repeated in a report on East London children in 1944. And Apartheid was alive and well in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s (see Enoch Powell’s speech 1968, Hirsch page 149).

Crossing boundaries

What is true of Black Britons is in its own way true of Gypsies. Le Bas’s book includes research into his people’s history alongside reminiscences from his amazing Nan and his own experiences both growing up and on the road. Like Hirsch, Le Bas studied at Oxford (after first gaining one at an independent school, at the instigation of his parents, the Romany artists Damien and Delaine Le Bas). And like Hirsch he has become an outsider both to his own community and to the surrounding culture.

Knowledge and inheritance from two communities carries both useful understanding and painful awareness. It is far more difficult to bridge two cultures than to entrench yourself in the tradition of one. Hirsch, well aware of her Black heritage as she went through first a highly academic independent girls’ school, and then her university life, felt that she belonged more to Africa than to Britain. She tried emigration to Ghana, her maternal grandparents’ country, but found that as a ‘mixed race Brit’ there was as much ‘you don’t fit’ in the attitude of West Africans as there had been in the white culture of Wimbledon. Before, as a teenager, she had learned that African hair cannot be straightened with the products which her European friends used; now, that her skin was too pale in Africa just as it was too dark in Britain, and her accent was wrong. But the experience of the inner person was neither African nor European. She now lives and works in London, which is of course a cosmopolitan city.

Hidden ‘Difference’

Vicky Beeching’s Undivided, tells of how, while appearing to be just another white woman from the mainstream, she ‘wore a mask’ for the first 35 years of her life. Vicky is neither Black British nor Gypsy British, but Evangelical Christian British. Yes, it’s another tribe – a tribe in the white, ‘respectable’ community, and a tribe with firm traditions, beliefs, and rules. They mightn’t like it, but Le Bas’s comments on his people, apply equally to Vicky’s birth and faith families. He says (page 265) ‘Gypsy culture can be stifling in its demands for living in line with its hidden rules’.

And Evangelical rules are not hidden. They are taught in church, in families, and in the very air they breathe.

As a young child, Vicky became aware of her attraction to girls. Becoming a teenager she was being taught that this was a sinful lifestyle choice. From then onwards she donned a ‘mask’, denying herself any close romantic relationships, terrified that to be gay and remain Christian was impossible. Didn’t God hate gay people? She believed that this ‘choice’ (or ‘demon’) could be ‘cured’ by ‘prayer ministry’. When this did not work she continued with her studies and the songwriting she had begun as a pre-teen, took a degree at Oxford, and became a very popular and successful singer-songwriter on the Evangelical church circuit. Until, while working in the USA, singing in mega churches, the stress of hiding her true self caused a breakdown in her health. She wrote Undivided in the strong conviction, and after much thoughtful research, that the Bible does not teach that being born gay is incompatible with being a Christian (unless you can be cured or remain celibate). Like Hirsch studying racial history, Vicky carefully studied the evangelical ‘proof texts’ and became convinced that their interpretation of these Scriptures is flawed.

Where ‘tradition’ comes in

Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, may have given cultural stability in the past, but looking into the sources we can see that these are based on fear of otherness rather than ‘God’s commands for living’. All three books speak of the writer’s longing to fit into the surrounding society, to have a place of acceptance rather than to be treated as a misfit and an outsider.

Is outsider status perhaps one reason why both Le Bas and Beeching chose to study Theology? A search for meaning? Would Social and Political Science or Philosophy have served them better? Both used the resources of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, as did Hirsch, searching for answers.

Whatever, there appears to be a human need to keep our cultures safe by shutting out minorities and those who pose questions by their very existence. In its extreme form we see this need functioning within nations, causing wars, genocide, and suffering. Opening our minds to look at the world through the eyes of the outsider is discouraged. Those of us who do this are likely to join them.

An elderly Traveller man whom La Bas met on the borders of Wales said, ‘The thing is, you say the border…But let me tell you something. I’m living here now, and I’ve lived over there, and my people is all here and there. And let me tell you something about that border. That ain’t no border to us, boy. And never has been. I am a Travelling man, that’s what I am. And ain’t no border stopped my people making their way.’ As the writer thinks in response ‘whether he knows it or not, he’s just struck a heavy blow against my lifelong need to know if I’m one thing or another’  (page 220).

And knowing who we are, accepting who we are, and being accepted as who we are is what we humans  want and need …

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

 

So, we have 350 knitted poppies … before we say goodbye to ‘Poppy Day’ …

A friend pointed out that we should not remember war, as that glorifies it … but there’s another way to ‘remember’ it, and that’s what I wrote about on my earlier Knitted Poppies blogpost (Why is the Writer Knitting Poppies?) Well, we knitted 350 between us ….

If we forget the World War(s) which brought 11.00 O’clock on11th November into our national calendar, and those who died, horribly, and ‘meaninglessly’, shedding the blood those poppies represent, we’re in danger of forgetting that war is terrible, horrible, and solves nothing … And, we forget that for each human being killed by war, there is a family, friends, a break in community … suffering beyond the killings … and we add in all who have died in wars ever since … and wonder why human beings and their governments never learn …

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At least one white poppy for peace …

Another  friend wrote, earlier today, about how it is the younger generations who remember and support Remembrance, certainly in her village all ages come to the community events … interesting … Here’s my response to her blog … How our parents and grandparents reacted – hardly glorifying war by remembering, more by sorrowing over it … that is what I was  raised on, that is why we have Remembrance Day

‘You are possibly right that our parents and grandparents (some had lived through 2 ‘world wars’) did not want to ‘remember’ in local group activities, but I remember that the Cenotaph service was always heard on the radio, with a very reverent and subdued attitude. They did not talk about their experiences … it was too raw and too complicated.

My youngest Uncle had been bombing Germany on his 21st birthday. Not something you want to think about – and he only told his children during his last illness, and they told us a few years later.P1100440

My Dad was obviously very proud of his ‘men’: he was in the Royal Artillary with an anti-aircraft crew on the south coast, but again, there was nothing else said about his war, just the odd remark if a photo appeared during family de-cluttering. And that he’d had a wonderful Old English Sheepdog at the time …

I think the Wars changed people and brought to end the lovely freedom and fun they were having as young adults. Some  leaving University and straight into military training, and if they survived, into ‘re-building the country’  work instead of, for example, becoming a professional musician (my youngest uncle had a music degree, but went back and trained as an architect, building and re-building in the North East.) P1260008

So … it is up to us to ‘remember’ and maybe to keep on working to make the world a more peaceful and generous place (which it certainly still resists being …) …

As for World War One, I had never even heard of anyone who was killed in our family, until I did Family History research, and discovered 2 families shattered by the loss of eldest sons … In both these families of 3 boys, the eldest was killed and the two younger brothers seem to’ve  been deeply affected in  life changing ways … So today I shall be thinking of Bryant Yorke Lodge and Louis Feaveryear … nephew and cousin to my 2 grandmothers. And writing this has made me cry (a rare thing) … the echoes of war … Debbie, I’m going to post this – I was going to write about it later but seems I’ve written the basics of it now …thank you for eloquently raising the subject here …’IMG_4164

I knitted myself a poppy to wear … and found several of us poppy knitters had all thought of the same idea … Now back to the writing … not sure if I can squeeze any Remembrance Day events into it, we’ll see …

With thanks for Debbie for her post, and to my cousin Alex Wheeler for showing us some mementos from his dad’s flying days … 

more poppies – Version 2