The large pond at our local Nature Reserve, a photo of the resting and waiting which sums up winter. I’m so glad Christmas and New Year are gone now, and we begin looking up towards the longer days and the creeping up of new shoots and signs of spring!
A few days ago, some writer friends were talking about writing for Christmas in the summer months – I am trying to write about summer as nature is lying low under frost (and hopefully not more snow!) and low cloud. It’s cold, damp, and horrible here: the pond surrounded by thick, dark, mud, the trees bare except for the clinging ivy, the reeds broken, brown and collapsed.
Meanwhile, the volunteers who care for the reserve have (and are) running work parties to cut, prune, and plant … out there in warm clothing, hats, boots, gloves … And their work will encourage birds (already just beginning to practice their mating songs), butterflies (maybe there are crysalis/pupa hiding cosily amongst the apparently dead vegetation, or the piles of lopped-down logs), I know there are eggs of a particular butterfly somewhere in there, safely waiting … It’s all poised, even as we hurry by, nipped by a north wind and frozen by the incredible damp of living between several rivers …
Yesterday afternoon I walked through the sticky mud, under the low, grey sky, along a waterside path … and yes, this swan couple are back to dating, having driven away last year’s teenage brood … signs of spring, fertility, and the return of warmth to the sun, and colour to life!
So glad I am writing about my characters in summer … the long, damp summer of 2007 … when there is mystery, distress, and growing up to be done …
It’s snowing … when it snows here in the UK, we all get very excited … all morning, couples, groups, and families passed our front windows, hurrying towards the nearest green space (it’s fairly near), big smiles on their faces, and pom-pom hats on their heads … It’s kind of sweet and funny … All too soon the snow will melt into a brown slush, the slush will freeze to treacherous ice … but until then, it’s winter wonderland, all set for Christmas.
In my novel, The Labyrinth Year, I wrote two Christmas scenes: a magical carol service, and an up-beat celebration in a church, where the Vicar wore reindeer antlers … At the end of the service, as they leave,Max, (the Dad) remarks how the congregation’s emotions were played on by the music … Although Mum Jenny accuses him of cynicism, he has a point …
Christmas is a difficult time …A couple of weeks back, a Facebook friend and fellow writer posted that she ‘loathes’ Christmas … and she’s right, though loathing is a pretty strong word, it’s good to make us face up to this: Christmas is an utterly problematic time. I mean, it’s silly: in the middle of a dark, cold, depressing, season, everyone is required to shop till they drop, give and attend parties, perform plays, sing carols, travel across country (maybe continents) to be with family members, to send cards, give presents, be happy, and generally expend extra energy. And catch each other’s seasonal illnesses. Street decorations vie with one another for splendiferousness, and multiple decorated trees appear in the stores and on the pavements. Those vast tins of mixed biscuits appear in the supermarkets …
I want to cover my ears and my eyes: I want to escape …
Do you love it all? Or do you feel it makes a mockery of the (various) religious, and even secular, bases for this, by being a time of spend spend spend when people can run up debts, and when the really desperately poor and the homeless are thoughtlessly given the message that they are left out of all this ‘by circumstances’. It’s really (possibly unintentionally?) hammered home. Even if there is a tad more shelter, and with a Christmas lunch at Crisis, it’s not … well … it’s just not.
We are planning a very plain Christmas with moderate ‘feasting’, trying to be happy and friendly without the BIG stuff which obscures the bottom line reason why Christmas is there. Why indeed is it? In a secular society, the reasoning behind the gift-giving has lost its edge, the causes for celebration obscured. Not that we shouldn’t give and celebrate – but, let’s be honest, it’s come adrift from the story in those carols, hasn’t it?
Did you know that the ‘old fashioned Christmas’ was not a big festival as it is today? In Samuel Pepys’ day, 25 December wasn’t a public holiday. And even not so long ago, people (for example my grandfather) worked up to the end of Christmas Eve, or even worked a half day on Christmas Day itself. Families didn’t necessarily give big presents and a Tree wasn’t assumed to be bought every year.A mid-winter festival is a chance for fun, but I truly believe this is not necessarily a time for every school to produce a play, and a carol concert, or for evangelising the population, orto entice people into church with carols, candles, and mince pies… or for getting into debt …
I remain a believer in the Christ who taught compassion, healing, wholeness, inclusiveness, justice for the poor, etc. – and if he was really born into poverty and greeted by angels and shepherds, that is wonderful. But, I feel a lot of empathy with everyone who ‘loathes’ what Christmas has become, and with those who look around and take offence at its public face … This is not a ‘Christian country’ (could such a country ever exist?Faith isn’t about political boundaries – and if it’s about family, and friends, it’s about caring and sharing.
Whether or not you attend the Carols by Candlelight, the Panto, the parties, the Midnight Mass, and watch the Queen’s Speech … whether or not you eat turkey and drink Prosecco, wearing a funny hat … whether or not it snows…
To read about Christmas, New Year, and a whole 1996-7 family experience, go to our website to find more about The Labyrinth Year …and the prequel,Baby, Baby
It’s that time of year: autumn brings a cluster of strange, dark celebrations: Hallowe’en, Guy Fawkes or Fireworks Night, and Remembrance or Armistice Day. All provoke arguments: perhaps the most controversial today is Remembrance Day.
I have joined a group of knitters who are knitting poppies. In the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars, women used to knit for the soldiers, but forget that, our knitting has nothing whatever to do with it. Or with patriotism, separatism, or nationalism. Or with Brexit (I have been a ‘Remainer’ from the first).
November 11 is a day when the practice and consequences of war are highlighted so that we, as a global community, may not continually repeat its horrors. Yes, the Day is also a memorial to those who have died as a consequence of fighting. Their deaths were a tragic, painful, waste: hardly ‘glorifying’. This further reminds us that war needs to be banned from civilisation.
Our small group plan to hang as many knitted poppies as we can on the hedge which obscures the local war memorial. The poppies will not glorify anything. Hopefully they will remind passers by of what war means: a frightful destruction of lives, terrible suffering, atrocities, the ruining of nature, towns, and villages. The world has not learnt from the 1914-18 war and continues to use increasingly powerful weapons, to kill, maim, and destroy. This needs to stop: how can world leaders consider how the world can behave better towards itself?
We on this planet all belong to one world. Globalisation has many weaknesses, but it underlines this interdependence more than ever. The more individuals become accepting, groups become inclusive communities, communities become cooperative districts, and countries unite in their intention to seek understanding, listen to one another, avoid combat and quarrels, the more likely the planet is to survive. It is a time to express our horror at the arms race, and the terrible wounds inflicted on both civilians and the military and upon all that has had been carefully constructed to make lives more liveable. To use Remembrance Day to repent of any part we have in conflicts large or small.
Fear of the other is understandable. Greed to possess what the other has, exploitation or anger at how the other thinks, is not. Maybe it is easier to envisage and desire this world of cultural inclusiveness and acceptance for those who, like us, live in a cosmopolitan city, and count within our family and extended family members who, as a group, represent communities from all three ‘Abraham faiths’ (both practising and non practising). But it isn’t impossible. We are all human: we are all destructible.
My knitting poppies to display on Remembrance Day is far from a patriotic, nationalist gesture: it’s ‘installation’ art. I’m knitting poppies to represent the spilt blood of war, in order to help people visually recall that war destroys and divides. To point up that cooperation, acceptance, and understanding may bring a possibility of hope.
One of those conversations appeared on Facebook today: the ones between writers wheresomeone suggests (or puts up someone else’s blog suggesting) that we must ‘write something every day, in order to keep up/improve your writing skills.’ …’
Another version is ‘morning pages’: upon waking, or as soon as possible after (take the kids to school, feed the cat, walk the dog …etc, but do not forget you’re a writer) seize your notebook and write solidly for ten to twenty minutes. Not stopping, and even if what you write is rubbish. This will improve your skills, keep you writing …
There was some disagreement: is this helpful, or even wise? One person puts a new poem on her blog everyday. Another swears by deadlines, rather than daily practice. You get idea.
In practice, I don’t write every day, but I’m living in the gaps in between. Between my physical life and the life in my creative brain, where a scene can rest for days before there is space (between the realities) to write. And when that arrives, the scene may improve (vastly) on its sketchy beginnings.
The last scene I wrote, I’d only imagined in advance that Jenny (a research scientist and a mum two teenage girls) would at some point, at home, be discussing with her daughters what the family would all do at half term. When the scene arrived on the laptop, it brought along its own vivid details: (here’s an edited extract…)
‘How about,’ Zoe says, as she sidles into our study, bringing a tray with two mugs of mug of hot chocolate laced with vanilla, and the cinnamon biscuits she’s been making, ‘How about – it’s very boring for anyone who’s in a single parent family. When their Mum has to go to work. And they’ve just been told that if they bring a book along, they can read quietly in the St Hildie’s library…’
I shut down the rather peculiar e-mail I’ve been reading, and slide my arm around Zoe. ‘Zo-zo, this smells like heaven, darling. Have seat.’
‘Shall I move these?’
‘Careful. Can you dump those files on the window seat? I’ll need them tomorrow.’
… Then, head on one side, ‘Mummy, I thought, maybe we could ask Annalise to come with us to Granny’s house at Sennen?’
Mmm, I think. Daze will be there, with Rothko. Rothko, aged eight, is hardly a companion for a thirteen year old, slightly geeky, girl. Where would we all sleep? ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘For how long? Will you think?’
‘As long as it takes?’We could, I realise, take a tent and pitch it in the garden. We have a family-sized tent, in the attic. Annalise and Stacey are, however, not really my kind of person. What is it with children, when they make friends with people you’d never hang out with? ……
‘Yes, Zo-zo.’ (She’s been reading one of the undergraduate scripts, something I shouldn’t let her do.) ‘Okay, … I’m wondering if Granny and Des would be okay with us pitching our tent in their garden, and some of us – maybe you and Annalise – could use it to sleep in? Because it’s hardly an elastic house, and Daze will be staying, with Rothko.’
‘Yes!’ Zoe punches the air. ‘And that’ll keep Rothko out of our things. I’ll take a padlock, zip up the tent and padlock it: during the day of course.’
‘I hope that’s just an idea, not something you’re planning?’
‘Rothko can be a pain…Shall I phone Annalise?’
Hot choc with vanilla, cinnamon biscuits, undergraduate examination papers, and Zoe’s sudden request to bring a particular friend whom Jenny isn’t keen on … that all arrived and the scene came alive – and did I add,it takes place in a twilight room with Jenny;s desk illuminated by just a small lamp? I had better …
Today a further scene forms in my mind: they have arrived at Jenny’s old home in West Cornwall, the holiday venue. Jenny’s partner (Max, a GP) is putting up the tent in the garden for Zoe and Annalise to sleep in. Possibly, it is raining or there is a sea mist: I don’t yet know which will arrive. Or, maybe, a wonderful golden Cornish seascape sunset… Max hears Jenny and stepsister Daze arguing inside the house… Where and when will he ask Daze to ‘lay off Jenny, she’s got a lot on her mind. A rather upsetting thing happened at work…’ and Daze counters with ‘You’re assuming I’ve got not problems in my life right now?’ (And will she, as she used to in a previous book, add a few choice bits of colourful language, or has she left that behind? Does she still smoke? Where are the kids? Who’s listening?)
It will reveal itself as I type – but the essence is stored already. It cooks gently in small gaps between the realities of the day.Both cats had routine health checks. The jasmine (fastest growing fragrant shrub I know!) got pruned so the plants living its shade could see the sky. We went blackberry picking: the warmer drier weather earlier means fruits are ripening earlier. The bramble blushes were covered with more berries than I’ve ever seen, shiny black ripe ones, red ones coming on, a few still tightly green.
There were rabbits bounding about, bees on the late thistle flowers, and a huge gorse bush covered in yellow blooms. A kestrel watching in the sky.
The berries (several kilos of them) will become jam.
Seems to me we fiction writers live two lives in tandem: words and events, words and events. Keeping the writing flowing along may not rely only on writing every day but on living creatively in the gaps in between.
Oh, but I did write yesterday, didn’t I? I hand wrote a long letter, to a friend I keep up with now she’s moved away… The pleasure to scribble away by hand, not typing a keyboard …
Today I happened to read a survey for writers. “How much time do you spend outdoors and not sitting down?” It asked. Interesting? Writing has in the past few years sent me back into the outdoors, to walk and observe the natural world. Writing also sent me back to painting a few years ago. Writing, engaging the brain while sitting at a computer, seems to almost demand that human beings return to the practical, the hands on, and use the old skills. The open air calls to be breathed. Many people who work in an office all day are taking up crafts such as knitting, baking, cake decorating as well as painting and drawing in order to satisfy the need to create in three dimensions, and to use their hands rather than simply their “digits” or fingers.
So why those pigs, huh?
We have been away recently to West Cornwall, the inspiration for my novel Baby Baby. Cornwall is a county of contrasts – you wake to sea mist, then in a few hours there is a blue sky and the hot sunny day. See mists wraps the place in the chilly gloom making Midsummer look very much like November, (see photo above, taken 6th July this year!) Contrast the craggy cliffs and deep ” zawns” with the flat of the moors, or the poverty of tumbledown abandoned cottages and Pound Shops on the high Street with the sleek cars bringing surfers to the coast. Or the life of the Newlyn artists’ colony with the lives of their models, the fishing community, vulnerable to whatever the weather threw at them. The villages are dotted with chapels from revival times, a witness perhaps to reliance thrown upon God in an uncertain world.
Ah, the bit about writing … and the paintings …
This year’s holiday in Pendeen village, in far West Cornwall, was a timely reminder, as following on to The Labyrinth Year I am writing the third story in the Mullins family sagaseries. Part of the story will involve how Jenny and Daze face the possible end of Des and Caro’s marriage and selling of Chapel house, their childhood home. Will Jenny decide that she has grown away from her Cornish roots or will her return to confront her mother and stepfather reactivate the pull of memories and landscape? Meanwhile another more serious question hovers in the background of Jenny and Max’s life, as friends from their past reappear, but will they see what is coming? A tragedy involving Jenny’s workplace engages her mind as she tries to help Shaz through a difficult time. While Daze and her story escape notice.
All this is planned, and now the writer in me must reluctantly be seated at the computer, while the call of the wild remains as memories of time spent walking in the Cornish landscape, or at the beach.
Oh, and Pigs to Paintings was the day when we began by walking up onto the moorland, in the mist, and came upon the allotments and the pigs, and ended it by viewing Stanhope Forbes’s wonderful paintings at the Penlee Gallery, with sunshine, blue sky, and tea outdoors at the gallery cafe. Cornish holidays …
So, maybe the writer is ‘feeling Christmassy’ – looking forward to spending family time and thinking about the blessing of Christmas … There’s now a Christmas extract for you to read, from my novel The Labyrinth Year, on the Hodge Publishing website. And here are a few Christmassy photos from my album … and I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year … in Syria, and for all of us …Continue reading →
This year’s Hawkesbury Literature Festival (the second, and expanded, version) has spawned a whole host of author blogs: so where to begin? As we drove West to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, rain lashed down from a uniformly grey-ed over sky. It didn’t look promising. It continued raining steadily as some us gathered at the Methodist Hall to help lay out the pop-up cafe and display our books. Outside the Fox Inn the marquee, put up for the children’s art and writing activities, stood in the downpour.
But the weather’s total turn-round overnight meant Saturday promised a wonderful day. Moving between the Fox, the tent, the Methodist Chapel and the Hall, authors, visitors, and volunteers enjoyedblue skies, bright sunshine, and attractive gardens full of spring flowers.
If there was anything wrong with Hawkesbury this time it was there was so much to do and to see. The Tent buzzed with children doing art or writing sessions, and adults viewing the illustrators’ work and the colouring books, the cafe buzzed with Tea-and-Coffee drinking, cake-eating, cheese-tasting the Cornish Yarg, chatting and book-browsing. (That’s the Yarg, in the bowl at the front of the photo, and William Fairney’s book title? Fifty Shades of Yarg … you get it?)
And there were sessions on poetry, (one beginning ‘I stubbed my toe on a hedgehog ...‘) and on ‘Writing with or from Difference’, besides last year’s Fiction category, divided into several sections, and all featuring in both Readings and Panel discussion categories.
As a participating author, this year I enjoyed my first experience of being on a discussion panel (two: ‘Contemporary Fiction: Write What You Know – or Not?’, and ‘What’s the Point of Poetry?’).
It’s always interesting to learn how other people ‘work’, their motivations and their approach to creative activity. A number of us on the Fiction panel go for the ‘get the story all down, then edit’ method, and one at least said she doesn’t usually know how the book will end when she is at the beginning. I’m actually not usually that kind of writer: I’m apt to begin a writing session with a bit of editing on the last bit I wrote, it seems to get the creativity going. We all agreed that whether or not you set out to ‘write what you know’, research will enter you life as you turn your well-known environment (Jackie Kabler’s is working as a TV journalist/presenter) into the settings your plot.Lynne Pardoe’s stories come straight from her experiences as a social worker – and have happy endings. Ali Bacon continues to experiment with how far or not she writes what she knows, and enjoys producing short stories. Jackie set her story within the TV Newsroom but someone had murdered her boss … which she certainly hasn’t witnessed … and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynntold us how her editor had suggested that although she had researched Venice and knew it well, the enthusiasticdescriptions needed editing down. Nikki Owen’s story features a woman with high-functioning Aspergers Syndrome, which she doesn’t have but obviously found fascinating enough to enter into and create a story. Thomas Shepherd does have Asperger’s, but his story, a fantasy, doesn’t feature this. Some find the research time a necessary evil: others really enjoy digging into what they don’t know. And we seized the chance to enlighten our audience about how much writing what we know is autobiography: no, it pretty much always isn’t.
So with sessions on contemporary, historical, sci-fi and fantasy, and writing fiction from a point of ‘being different’, what was the most popular with the audience? It was this one: the skill of writing about your or another’s difference or disability: making the ‘difference’ work for your writing, overcomingby yourwriting, sharing what it is like to be inside what counts as difference. Read Thomas Shepherd’s blog about participating in this discussion here.
At the same time, learning more about other authors, how they work, why they write, is tremendously unifying: books are the bottom line, and within that, a huge diversity of interests, styles, attitudes, and lifestyles.
Recently, we’ve hosted, as a City, the huge Blackwell’s Oxford Literary Festival – a chance for celebs and well known authors to be gathered into one place and for audiences to hear them speak and have them sign copies of their books.
A small Festival like Hawkesbury has a totally different feel: a chance to interact with readers, and fellow participants. Hawkesbury aims to be inclusive: we were a mixture of Indie and ‘trade published’ writers, of amateur and professional poets. None of us could claim ‘celebrity’ status, and this makes for a truly festive and for-the-people feel, offering a ‘platform’ to everybody and aiming to give exposure to new names in the writing business. And so back home, and to writing Love You to the Moon …
Photos of Hawkesbury Literature Festival with thanks to Joanna Penn, author and very active member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors), photo of Blackwell’s marquee and the Baby, Baby/The Labyrinth Year publicity card my own.
Here’s a very brief post on the blog! Here’s wondering if any of you nice followers have discovered my Author Page … or investigated what I wrote when I’m not writing the blog or doing one of a hundred thousand other things?
For example, this weekend, promoting my work (and hopefully entertaining an audience) at a book festival along with other authors, many of them, like me, members of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
On Saturday (23rd, Shakespeare’s Birthday …) the Hawkesbury LitFest will be taking place – all day from 10.00am to 5.30pm … a great gathering of authors in the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton. H.U. is a friendly place – especially friendly to Books and Reading … (Also to Italian food at the Fox restaurant, and to cakes, coffee and tea at the festival Cafe). It’s friendly to authors and a crowd of us will be going along to read, discuss, promote, hopefully sell our work, and to meet other authors and our readers …
You may live far away, in South Africa, Canada, or the USA – but have a look at the Mari Howard Author Page on Facebook anyway … have a look at the LitFest adverts to see what we’re (I’m) doing this weekend, and let me know, via blog comments (if you have an opinion: should Facebook ask authors to pay to promote their pages? I am undecided – this is not a rant either way – I am just wondering, would the promotion be worth the cost? At $10 a day?)
And thanks for following .. welcome to several new readers …
Anyone who’s read my books, Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year
will know they feature families and several different kinds of mothers. Professional women struggling to juggle the work and the family; a pastor’s wife expected to mother the congregation as well as her five growing children; a mother who has escaped a violent teenage marriage, been forced to abandon her child, and worked in a women’s refuge … Though all are western mothers, and only one has suffered the trauma of the stillbirth of a malformed baby.
This Sunday is Mothers’ Day
or as it used to be known, Mothering Sunday. The middle Sunday in Lent, when (as you may already know), domestic servants had a day off to go and visit Mother.
Many of them would be just kids, really: girls the age we now count legally as children, girls who’d now be in school, girls too young to marry, and who we count as being too young to be seduced into sex. Sent out to earn a living as young teens, some as young as twelve, living in a servants’ attic, eating in the servants’ kitchen surrounded by adults. A visit home to Mother and the sisters and brothers was a real treat. They might take Mother a bunch of flowers, picked from a hedgerow along the way …
In fact, it’s a day about showing love.
So, here we are on Mothers’ Day
with cards, shop windows and catalogues of possible gifts, and for churchgoers a service where littlebunches of flowers are given out to the mums.
The churches have also, so as not to leave out the childless, so as to be inclusive, led the way to this becoming an all-women’s day.
It’s a good intention: but is there actually a reasonable argument for keeping this day to specially celebrate and be thankful for mothers? For what they do, for what they go through to produce, nurture, and protect, children? Hoping not to hurt anyone’s feelings, I think there is.
We might up-date celebrating mothers by being aware of mothers world-wide.
Well off, well educated, mothers in Western countries, aren’t in the majority of women on the planet. And we have health care to ensure that (usually) pregnancy, birth, and the post-natal days are safer than ever before. Clean water, a warm home, an income, maternity leave, all work towards happy motherhood. Postnatal depression can be treated.
Most young girls here have not gone through FGM, with all that does to intercourse and giving birth.
Most have not, at puberty, had an arranged marriage, which nicely puts an end to education, can lead to pregnancybefore they are fully grown and developed, can lead to dangerous childbirth, or at worst to death.
Most western women do not develop a fistula from going through complicated, protracted labour and delivery in a poverty stricken area without enough doctors, nurses, or trained midwives: for us, the minority, there are maternity units with skilled staff who can perform a safe caesarean.
But all these events give a very realistic picture of being a mother in, say, somewhere like Afghanistan, or many African countries..
Mums in the refugee camps in Europe
Having fled war, mothers living in makeshift shelters are having keep an eye on their young girls. Living in a tent, or substandard group housing, girls are vulnerable to abduction, presumably to be used for sex. It isn’t nice: it’s a terrible worry for parents. Especially for mothers, who know what sex with an older, maybe roughly forceful, man would be like for their young girls.
So, it’s a day about love?
I would really love to see Mothers’ Day become a day when we think about the reality of being mothers. While being thankful to our mothers, and for our own safe birth, let’s do more than that.
That’s not to say we need to deny ourselves giving and receiving flowers, chocs and hugs … But whether or not we are mothers, inclusivity might mean showing empathy to mothers less fortunate: giving to an organisation which cares for women as mothers.Let’s make Mothers Day about love and generous inclusivity
Find out about fistula, FGM, and other related topics:
We’re almost there – Christmas – but for 2 more days we’re in Advent, the time of waiting …
Advent aching, towards the light
When the darkness is thickest
Then we await the light
The light becomes unimaginable
And the light must come
Penetrating the veil
Seeking out our gasping brains
Darting, but staying,
Blazing, not burning,
Now we have had the Solstice, the light should slowly increase, posting towards spring, summer, and affirming life …
TodayI have seen another promise: the Starof Bethlehem shining in the sky.
How unencumbered it is to be a child at Christmas, implicitly believing all the miracles: the Star, the God-designed birth, the angel choir. And that the Star returned each year, shining even from our Northern sky, visible over our Northern land.
And here it is, the Star, huge, bright, shining alone up there, towards the south, no small ordinary stars surrounding it.
No matter a star is just another Sun, a ball of flaming gasses. Though this looks more likely to be a planet, so bright and large.
Hold these two together, it can be both …Whatever, it hangs there like a sign, a promise …
Because it is simply part of the Universe, because it is just another planet, or a bundle of flaming gasses, can it not also be a sign, can it not also play its annual role?
What is truth? And must reductionism always follow as we grow…?