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.

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.

 

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)

 

 

 

 

Writing, creativity, and cliché

Writers and readers: how often have you read or even written something like this: ‘Where a divan bed (substitute tea pot, table, pile of books …etc) served as sofa (dormouse’s house, desk, support for a pot plant …etc)’? Or given your protagonist, male of female, a ‘stiff white shirt’?

Cliché abounds in the world of writing …

How about the inevitable ‘procrastinating …’ which all writers must admit to?  How about ‘and should I have heard of you?’ as the (dreary, hopefully positive) response to admitting you actually write to earn your daily crust? (Or not, as the case may be – because you procrastinate?) (And the turning away …) Do you spend your life in pyjamas, no time to dress properly , the Muse awaits … You surely don’t wear that stiff white shirt – how does one move the arms when wearing one of those? Won’t it crackle when the hero embraces the heroine (in her stiff white shirt)?

To be serious,

this is meant to be about that first cliché – the divan/teapot/table/pile of books which serve … Never mind it’s cliché (a thing can’t serve – can’t it?)  The thing was being used as whether it chose or not. Let’s get creative: what other ways to say that someone hadn’t a sofa/dormouse’s house/desk/pot plant stand, and grabbed the only substitute to hand …

Meanwhile – I guess when someone is needed to do something, ‘will you serve as …’ is more reasonable. We serve on committees, we serve (if in the military) our country, we serve (if a shop worker) our customers. We can serve a meal …

Now, here’s the thing:

writing in the SH
Writing and gardening: creative stuff!

serving relies on, well, reliability. As a ‘creative’, as a person who writes, I know that I am not reliable. In a fallow phase, I may serve (in a toddler group, for example, or making cakes to sell at a fete) but, in full flight with a deadline, writing a novel, I can’t promise to serve reliably. Or should I? Which takes precedence: the writing or the service to others?

Good question. Some people would say, ‘You must be faithful to yourself, and achieve your goals’.

Personally, I’m not sure about that one. It feels isolationist … and a bit self-important. Solipsistic, in fact.

However, as ‘a creative’, I know I am not reliable. I know my novel, and my paintings,

Daze 11 /04
Even a creative kid has the problem! 

are important, they are who I am … They will die without my help to bring them to birth …When there’s a call to serve – on the charity stall, the committee, putting out chairs for the concert, counting the traffic so we residents can complain to the council … Or, in more serious, long-term ways, Is that a good excuse? Can creatives make good volunteers?

Over to you …

‘Reading and writing: what do writers do all day?’

Good question. From a series, asking ‘What do Artists do all day?

In my writing – well, what do I do all day? 

Is it ‘writing’?  Actually, unwinding the story thread onto the page/screen? In reality: it’s housework, on-line-admin (dreary but dreary!), keep the fridge stocked, keep the garden from becoming a wilderness, keep in touch on-line to maintain a ‘platform’ (!), research for writing, planning for writing, thinking for writing, actual writing …

Trying to reach the point where you can enter the zone and work … without interruptions from real life, on-line life, or the cats … While lots of writing happens in my head, where it queues for the opportunity to hit the keys …

Reading is absolutely essential for writing.

Writers don’t only write reviews of other writers’ books,  and whiter about sales, marketing, and the Amazon algorithms (we do all of that): they exchange gossipy stuff like ‘what are you reading?’ (we’re hoping the others will respond ‘Your book, of course!’)

Today I found this note (to one of my on-line groups), sitting on my desktop:

“You asked the group what we’re reading. I’m reading Jessica Bell’s memoir ‘I Didn’t Mean to be a Rebel’ and Jodi Picoult’s ‘Great Small Things’. In tandem. Alternately. Together. And when I have time! Both insightful and both recommended. I’ve just finished Francis Guenette’s ‘No Compass to Right’ and am writing up a review of this lovely compassionate character-driven fourth novel in her Crater Lake series. (Yes, it’s all the heavy brigade story-wise: thoughtful, thought-provoking, and somewhat sociological … but never ever boring …) Well, you did ask …!”

Reading, like writing, is time-consuming.

But is the way you learn to write. (I happen to think it is one of the very best ways, and am grateful after nearly 50 years (gosh, it really is!) that we read Dickens at school. I never thought I’d be a writer … but looking back, reading Dickens wasn’t a waste of time in a past era where people thought differently, but a wonderful example of how to create and keep up dramatic tension! (Yes, I’d read them straight through, to find out what happened, not chapter by chapter as homework…)

books read June-August 2017
Books I’ve read over the summer …

Have you, reading this, read any of these?

(You can find reviews of some the books I’ve recently read, here on the Hodgepublishing website … shall be adding more reviews, including of the Picoult and Jessica Bell’s, soon… You can also read about, or purchase my books Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, on the website …)

Hearing or seeing

Do you hear or see words on a page? Does it make a difference to your reading? In my family, the creative arts are represented by music and visual arts: people don’t write, or at least, they don’t write for a living, or write fiction. Very interesting. I realise that I hear what I read, and when I write, I see it like a movie, and I hear the words as the file out onto the page. There’s the musical ear, then. Despite I don’t play an instrument or sing.

As a writer, it’s almost impossible not to read ‘critically’, studying the style without really wanting to. Cliches can’t not jump out, and slow passages beg to be edited. Authors divide into two groups: let’s call them ‘raconteurs’] and ‘experiencers’. Raconteurs take the reader to a cafe, and having ordered two coffees (let’s say), and palate of delicious cakes, proceed to tell the tale. Or maybe it’s the pub, a pint, and sandwich.

Experiencers take the reader by the hand, and draw them right inside the story. ‘Here we are, step into my book: we’ll share the lives of the characters, we’ll feel what they feel as they feel it, see what they see when they see it, run from it if it’s scary, be embraced by it if it’s friendly, scent it, taste it, live it …’ You are inside, not noticing the story arc, not stopping long enough for a character to ‘tell herself …’ anything, because she has thought it, in the instant it took:  ‘Courage! Take care! Trembling at the roaring of the dragon in the mouth of the cave, I seize my magic sword. Excalibur! I’m charging towards the beast, lungs painfully gulping breaths, legs shaking, as the sweat rolls down my back..’

I love those writers who draw you into the book. I learn from them. A good story, with a great plot, can always be a page-turner as it unfolds. But when are you inside one which gives you the all-round experience … you stop reading, to study how this works … It’s one of the things which writers do – work to improve our writing. Edit and re-write, edit and re-write…

For this of course it’s preferable to be a person who loves solitude, which I am not. To write, I must climb inside my own work in progress, meet my characters once again, and fully engage …

You can find a good article on the process of writing here: (I agree with a lot of it, but not all (for example, I definitely don’t go for the arse on your chair whatever bit (unhealthy, and battering the  brain when it’s empty and needs to relax a while doesn’t work for all of us!… but, it’s comprehensive, lively and entertaining …)

Writing: Living in the Gaps in between … cats, blackberries, and pruning the jasmine … an overview …

blackberries
Distractions or necessary reality? 

One of those conversations appeared on Facebook today: the ones between writers where someone 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? ……

  ……. ‘Mummy?’

‘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.

bee on thistle
Busy on its daily tasks …

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 …