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…)

In Today’s World, is there a place for ‘Happy Endings’?

Note: this first appeared on the Authors Electric blog (April 2020), time has brought us to another place, Ed & Emma’s story has resolved, Normal People has shown & been discussed – but the question remains – soaps, dramas, novels and happy endings? 

I am a fan of The ArchersThe Archers potters along, but I find myself these days hoping that something might have a successful outcome – why must The Archers mirror society, and more relevantly, does it?  The Rob and Helen storyline was exciting, moving, and telling, a warning about coercive control… now the Emma and Ed one informs about the desperate plight of a rural population struggling to make a home and living… but, if that crash lands in total failure, doesn’t it, somehow, also teach that there can be no escape, none at all, and leave listeners only depressed and hopeless?

I don’t know. I don’t believe in total ‘happy endings’ but I hunt for a bit of balance. I watch Call the Midwife for relaxation, fully realising that the  happiness achieved is not, of course, always an outcome in real life, but at least I am relaxed and entertained. (Some friends can’t watch – they recall labour and birth and don’t want to watch it on screen…)

Back in the day (of the 1950s & 60s) the kids in CTM’s East End could really have no shoes, rats in their homes, desperate mothers did die of back street abortions. And it was the late 1950s. And, I was a middle class small child who as yet didn’t know, except about the shoes.

So, with domestic violence, child poverty, and failing relationships, can we and should we accept “happy” endings now in our secular 21st-century world? What is a “happy ending”? Fairy stories often and with a rather empty, cliched stock phrase “and they lived happily ever after”.

Is compromise a “happy ending”?  Why might we now prefer an ending which is open or even tragic? Why are these endings considered “more realistic” and why do we desire “Realism”? Was Fleabag’s ending what we want: open, but unresolved?

More specifically, is the realism in soaps and TV dramas truly real? Are the characters real? Is it consistent? The “realism” may inhabit the dialogue, but breaks down when characters supposed to be professionals (as in the drama Dr Foster, particularly inept and depressingly focussed on negativism, sex and rows) or running a successful business, behave like street kids at home with their partners. Do so many of us do this that it is realism?  It cuts talk, yes, but what else? Violence isn’t ‘acceptable’ but it’s what we do? Meanwhile total lack of realism reigns in the boring bits such as when medicine or business is being practised. Of course we’d not expect long boring “being at work” scenes, but we do need, if insisting on accuracy and realism, to be shown whether this character or that are competent people or already living a chaotic life of emotional stress, mistakes, snapping at colleagues, on the edge… will it result in mental breakdown and inability to function in a professional capacity? Realism? Rather, these stories require suspension of disbelief! What do they say about relationships but selfishness, misery, and middle class domestic violence?

Is there maybe a “message” contained in these dramas: if so, why? Are they the descendants of the “kitchen sink” plays written by “angry young men” of the 1950s –  Kingsley Amis, Arnold Wesker, Stan Barstow… John Osborne’s Look back in Anger being an iconic example. As Hobbs said, human life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And is unlikely to be anything else?

Perhaps writers feed the public what it wants? Or are we writing out of our frustrations and regrets, sadnesses, disappointments and rage?  The recent memoir phase has covered topics from the life of minorities, whether of ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and other groups who find themselves in what feels like an unfairly negative position in a culture which seems to suggest that everyone can and should “have it all”. Helpful or unhelpful to read, these memoirs aren’t written to entertain, or “lose yourself in a book” but to expose life’s unfairness, or highlight disappointments, tragedies or frustrations. Occasionally there’s a “happy ending”, as with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or  Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns,  where the protagonist ‘obtains their goal’, and thus solves the problem.

And so memoir might deliver the hope, while fiction highlights the grim reality…?

To embed reality into drama or fiction needs care and insight. Diana Evans puts the problems of the black middle-class into novel form, (Ordinary People) and it ends up just that – ordinary… (Evans is great at writing about boredom so that you feel it!)  Tayari Jones does far better in An American Marriage, going deeper into character, developing (and demonstrating through interaction and dialogue) motivations and ambiguities, which demonstrate an empathy with her creations, and creates a page turning story rather than flat complaint. The young African-American author Angie Thomas does superbly with her page-turning THUG (The Hate you Give), chronicling the struggles of escape from the inevitable place class and skin colour has assigned her and her fellow African Americans.

If novels can entertain, inform, and open our minds to the lives of others while supplying at the same time as satisfying read, is this impossible for drama, especially soaps and TV drama?  Conclusions with ambivalent, open endings, even happy ones, usually involve growth and change. Soaps and TV dramas are the sources of quickfire entertainment. Characterisation can slip in order to pace or literally “sex up” a story. They’re a preferred relaxation for most people. Novels may speak more constructively, memoirs less so. But memoirs, possibly, are informing the lack of if not happy then satisfying endings in the threads of soaps and the themes of dramas. People are made aware of the sufferings of others, maybe even find pleasure in the satisfaction or schadenfreude which appeals, and maybe also reassures them, that the lives of others are not necessarily better than their own: the grass is not greener, and happily ever after can be dismissed as a myth.

Of course, I would still like Ed and Emma Grundy to reconcile, but I suspect a Thomas Hardy influence at work on the ending…

 

 

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 should 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.

Searching for a Place of Safety?

Gathering to march – People of all ages & generations, expressing their feelings summer 2019

Apparently, large numbers of people attended church this Christmas, not only “the Midnight” (Mass celebrated as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day) but carol services, and special services around the Crib for children and families, were super well attended. It was said that people had become fed up with the instability and the arguments, so having had the election, everyone (well many anyway) elected to celebrate by doing Christmas in all its fullness, and church was included. The number of “Well we can’t change it, but we must all be kind to each other” Facebook posts suggests that this was, indeed, the motivation.

Have the English become, once again, the peace-loving, C of E attending, English?

Now, post election, and post-Christmas, are we all festivaled-out, and have we all forgotten our differences?

Of course, no sooner than Back to Work Day was about to follow New Year’s, we heard that America had acted on “taking out” the most powerful of military Iranian leaders. Not a good sign for 2020. I for one was already appalled by the election results, and by those of us who had hoped that things will settle down to something like they were before the referendum being described as “a small bubble who live in Islington”. (We do not live in Islington but, sadly, we do live in an urban cosmopolitan setting…).

What I’m thinking about is that Why? Just how and why has the peaceful, polite, apparently sensible country, with its mixed economy, its wonderful and fair health service, and its relative lack of unpredictable violence on the streets, in which I grew up, and raised my children, got to how it now is?

I shall leave you with two ideas to think about, and you can say I am wrong, of course.

The aftermath of wars

One is where we came from to arrive here. Two (or more) generations grew up, and began adult life, experiencing not one but two “World Wars”. My grandparents raised their families through World War I, and then as their children were attaining adulthood  and leaving school, going to university, or beginning a career, watched as these were thrust into World War 2. In other words, then, when my generation were growing up, in the 1950s to 1970s, we inherited a country run by people who had possibly experienced quite enough war, disruption, and destruction. The general feeling was for peace. No surprise we joined Europe in 1974, and no surprise people tried to negotiate (yes, there were strikes but there will also negotiations) rather than to clash and to commit “hate crime”. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any racism (there was), poverty (yes there was), discrimination (yes) or despair. But, there was also politeness and an attempt at fairness, and where there wasn’t, people expected that there should be. They expected, and respected, honesty in dealings, and did not publicly admire dishonesty, lies, and cheating on your partner. This kind of set a pattern – even though we knew, of course we knew – that people did these things. Privately of course people broke the rules, that has always been part of human nature.

I am not a Conservative. I am not at all saying that it is being ruled by the Conservatives which we need. The point rather is that after those wars, people were exhausted by division, and willing to do enough give and take, to put up with an “ordinary” life. The gap between rich and poor had been narrowed by various political processes, such as the NHS, and free access to University for all who gained the entry qualifications, with a means tested grant for living expenses.

Our changing social outlook

The second thing is social change. Social change since the 1960s sixties has been pretty fast. We have, in the majority, accepted that legal abortion is better than backstreet, that gay people can formalise their relationships with a faithful partner, and that women are, actually, equal to men in all areas of employment (although pay is still not). There are other areas, freely talked about, I could add. Although we are also well behind in the area of equality, nonetheless many subjects which were in former times kept private and unmentionable can be discussed publicly. The results of these changes, positive to the groups involved, understood by many of us, have however disturbed and worried a large enough section of the population that they feel themselves threatened. The acceptance of workers from not only Europe but other areas of the world worries at their feeling of being “invaded”  by other cultures. The change in attitudes, due to liberalised thinking and knowledge, towards what was once declared “illegal” is hard for them to comprehend. They feel these changes are what has destroyed the old more peaceful society. I have heard people blame the EU for “human rights” and say that there are no rights humans should have…

These changes are not an intended cause of destabilisation. Liberalisation means inclusion and acceptance for alienated groups, but unsettled people who believe in tradition as a powerful social container for what had been seen as aberrant instincts and behaviours. For them, liberalising laws  have changed the “landscape” of Britain. Both groups are easy targets. Fear of the other has become tribal enough for some to indulge in “hate crime”. At the same time, a different kind of change has taken place: impersonal technology-based ways of replacing human interaction. So, if you are doing okay, if you are happy to go with the changes, well and good. Especially if you’re happy to deal with technology rather than a helpful human being behind the counter at the bank, or any doctor over the phone rather than your friendly well-known GP face-to-face.

In the present chaos, and with a background of rapid social change, those who haven’t already put up with the experience of living through two world wars, are desperate, despairing, and ready to act out. We have an angry population who wants what others have got (the wealth to buy luxury goods, or goods at all, or maybe simply a peaceful existence with a social mores reflecting what might be called old-fashioned values) but who want, above all, to feel safe again.

Does this possibly explain the increased enthusiasm for attending church at Christmas 2019?

A reassuring symbol of Englishness? Warmth, peace, and togetherness celebrating the birth of a baby into an ‘ordinary family’? Or the story of a refugee and social reformer born in poverty?  Getting together, whichever way we see it…

A most inconvenient lying…?

Beautiful day for a picnic, lovely sunny cove…?

When the Brexit vote result was announced, 24 June 2016 became a deeply depressing day. It wasn’t just a shock. My feeling has continued, a sense of foreboding. The central government figures had disappeared – then almost immediately we heard reports of “hate crime” (a phrase I don’t recall from before – though I won’t claim that both the phrase and the actions didn’t exist, of course).  But after that, racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of Trans and Gay or Lesbian people, or people with easily discernible disabilities, really anyone considered “other” by the perpetrator could be targeted. And suddenly they were.

How did this happen?

Was something, some lurching, ugly thing, released and given permission to act out and speak its mind?

A disturbing idea has been around for a while, something fewer people than those who are aware of “hate crime” have probably heard of. After the idea of a “post-modern” phase of culture, some thinkers came up with the concept of a “post-truth” era.

Once our children grew and the “nest” was “emptying”, we began to take lodgers, mostly young people who had arrived in our city to work and needed a home base while they settled down and found friends and a place to live. I recall having a conversation at that time with one of them, a young woman studying for a further degree at the University here, who, in response to something I said, declared with confidence “There is no such thing as a truth. Truth does not exist.”

So who decided this?

Disturbing though it may seem, there is a certain “truth” in her comment: the idea of an era when the truth becomes no longer a category is both philosophical and political, and can be traced back to the philosopher Nietzsche (writing in 1873)* and to Max Weber in 1917**. But these are scholarly essays by teachers of philosophy and it has taken  a while for the ideas to fully escape from their ivory towers.

Using academic arguments in real situations

These academic musings would have been best left in the university departments where they began. Having escaped in the form of “post-truth” however, they’ve been grasped by politicians, and we now find ourselves forced into a strange and extremely worrying world. Lying is naccepted as “done by most people more often than you think” apparently. “Fake news” is a well known problem.

Living in the real world

Feet on the ground, not heads in the sand…

It is all very well for theorists to thrive on theoretical argument, but the business of good government doesn’t, I think, consist in the following of intriguing debate but in facing the day-to-day problems of running a country in such a way that it benefits the inhabitants, providing for their needs and staying financially afloat. Needs are many, varied, and interdependent. Needs, unhappily for the practitioners of post-truth politics, are factual, and there is still no more obvious truth than a fact (regardless of those people who use engaging the emotions to drive their appeal to the public) – the fact of earthquakes, floods and fires for example. Destructive of homes, businesses, and infrastructure. National disasters demand factual, or in another word, real, responses. Responses cost time, compassion, money, and workers to implement. Climate change will bring more of these. Yet most of our leaders pay scant attention to these self evident facts, preferring to make empty promises, talk about “doing deals”, and allowing this proliferating “fake news”.

Why “Brexit” can’t stop the real crisis

It is a sad situation indeed when a selection of wealthy countries are led by people who apparently lack a moral compass, and regard politics as playing an exciting power game in which no holds are barred and lying is accepted as a normal everyday escape from dealing with facts.  And with the reality of basic survival, not only of the human beings in their care and charge but of the environment as a whole, plants, insects, birds and animals, in other words the necessary food chain and atmosphere which supports life. No “deals”, and no millions or billions of pounds, given to the NHS, education, or crime fighting, will made a scrap of difference. Leaving the European Union isn’t what we should be doing. Some of the answer lies in noticing what really needs fixing, and in disallowing lies, spin, and power games.

* Essay on Truth and Lying in an extra-moral sense

** Essay on Science as Vocation, considering the difference between Facts and Values

For something lighter, set in the late 20th century world, at least twenty years  before 2016, why not try the Mullins Family Saga books 1 and 2?

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Grandparents – value-added relatives?

(My blog on The enduring importance of Grandparents from 2015, re-visited and edited now I’m hoping to move into the third of my ‘Mullins Family Saga’ which will see the three generations all growing older. And now that ‘Grandparent Duty’ has come to us!) 

We’ve just (again) been on a writing weekend at Scargill in the Yorkshire Dales, where we  re-met many friends. Our hosts and leaders,  Adrian and Bridget, are brilliant, full of fun, and steeped in wisdom. In fact, they seem like  everyone’s favourite wise, funny, positive, uncle and auntie – or, … like grandparents. Listening. Encouraging. Moving in the group sessions through the laughs to the sadnesses and back – giving out warm feelings.

An experience which, if we are blessed, we get from grandparents – who are there to care and who, when we have tired them out with caring, ‘give us back’ to our sterner, always more harassed, parents.

This got me thinking: Grandparents have homes are full of  ‘old fashioned’ objects:  the year we lived with my paternal grandparents, Grandma was still using a flat-iron, heating it on the coal-fired boiler. (Okay, it was still the 1950s!) They have time, skills, and interesting stories of ‘long ago’.  Ideas to stimulate an interest in social history. Their childhoods, in another age, are intriguing. Milk coming round in a churn, on a cart? (Goes back a long way, that one: to my ‘other Granny’!)  One of my grandfathers kept prisms on the windowsill in his study: I remember  him showing me how the prisms divided light into rainbow colours.  An introduction to science.

From Grandma’s photo album: long ago grandparents with granddaughter

RAISED BY GRANDPARENTS

I can count many friends who’ve been almost or totally raised by grandparents: some whose Mum has been unable to mother for some reason, and Grandma has lived in and been the main carer. Others whose grandparents have lived until the grandchildren are grown and gone from home: the grief of these adult friends when the grandparents die is a poignant reminder of the enormous emotional importance of the grandparent/grandchild bond.

Worldwide, grandparents, especially grandmothers, are carers. Tradition seems to dictate that those who can no longer bear babies care for babies … and for older children. In many places,  grandmothers care full-time, while mothers work.

And since HIV/AIDS has orphaned thousands of children, grandparents in many countries must care full-time, often for the children of more than one family.

Here in Britain,  many grandparents are daily carers of children, often chosen in preference to child-minders, or nurseries. An Age UK report gives figures: Two-fifths (40%) of the nation’s grandparents over the age of 50 – five million – have provided regular childcare for their grandchildren… The survey revealed that the vast majority (89%) of the five million grandparents who provided regular care do so at least once a week…*

If  families break up, or parents can’t cope, grandparents may find themselves starting over again as full-time, possibly legal, parents.

‘PENSIONERS’ OR VITAL RESOURCES?

In our area, all houses were delivered booklets on resources for the elderly: from ‘Over-50’s Yoga’ to (a particularly unpleasant thought) a ‘Dementia Cafe’ for Alzheimers sufferers and their carers …These leaflets though useful to some residents were a little scary …

Clearly the concept of ‘pensioners’ needs updating: some are making a contribution as worthwhile and lively (and vital to the ‘economy’) than any other workers.

A FINAL THOUGHT

Grandparents may belong to a ‘bygone age’ – but strangely, their ideas, attitudes and behaviour seems to appeal and endear them to kids! They  are not mere spent grey-heads …Perhaps we should begin to take their views on society more seriously? Fun, and wisdom, garnered as a harvest from many years’ experience.

*Source: Age UK (2017)

Are you still writing??

Beginning to settle on the storytelling for the next book, my idea for the opening page is a girl on a train…

“Are you still writing?” Friends – especially the long lost who reappear, visiting – sometimes ask. The answer– yes – looks untrustworthy, since the third book in the Mullins family saga series, hasn’t yet appeared, and number two, The Labyrinth Year was published in 2014.

‘So – are you?’

My “Mullins Family – book 3″ hasn’t yet appeared for unavoidable reasons: health, computer problems, politics. I’m picking up from there, publishing a selection of poems, ironically perhaps relating to those years 1997-2007. and redesigning (with a designer) the Hodge website. Some writers, either by contract or by their own choice, must aim to turn out a book a year. Their readers expect it. Are these always a good read?  Maybe. Or maybe not. Even within a genre, (and genres which follow must-have elements and expectations, such as ChickLit, fast paced thrillers, cosy crime, police procedurals), there’s variation. It takes committed, well informed, professional writers, often with a background in journalism and no “day job” to do a really good job on a yearly basis. My kind of thought provoking books will always take longer, involving research, time to mull this over, and integrate it into a plot with a story arc and satisfying conclusion.

So, I’d thought, ten fictional years forward for each novel. Book two is set in 1997, that’s then a leap forward – to 2007.  Enormous social and political change took place in those ten years. Pre-millennium, governed by Tony Blair’s New Labour, life was very different. We were on the edge of the financial crash but most of us didn’t know.

Pre 2000, we were warned to fear the “millennium bug” which could potentially ruin computer systems. Thanks to hard work from techie people this didn’t happen. But instead, terrorism struck in 2001 –  9/11 shocked and rocked the world. And catapulted the world into a different era. Followed by, in 2016, the idea that we should leave the EU in a process called “Brexit”.

Pre-2000… post Brexit…????

Quite how life in 2007 would speak to us today, when our minds are filled with wars, terrorism, paedophile scandals, Brexit negotiations and now knife crime, what would be exciting about the year before 2008?  Even post 9/11 and the London bombs of 2005, it was still a time of innocence compared to today’s news. Even adding a dimly growing awareness of Climate Change … Book 3 is now set in 2017.

My heroine is a Millennial, Jenny and Max Mullins’s daughter born in 1992, a five year old in 1997. We find her, Alice aged 25, in tears as she travels by train, her mind full of memories… She has recently opened a box and found items she’d saved back in 2007, aged 15. What these memories are should unfold as the story moves along, and we learn of the personal tragic end to that year for Alice. The climax of the idea for 2007… but not the same book…

It’s going to stretch my imagination, and my research capability, to get inside Alice’s mind, but it is an exciting prospect. Have you a book within you, disrupted by political change?

Live… Lose… Learn… poetry by Mari Howard will be available later this year… look out for it soon on the new Mari Howard Hodge website…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.