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 …

Getting back to the Writing …

BB new coverTLY new cover

2016 – a ‘Labyrinth Year’ for Fiction writers?

Many writers post only about writing…

Though it’s arguable that we should connect readers to what else matters in our lives, and why it can take well over a year to write a book.

As they say, not only frustrating and sad things are stressful: our first grandchild arrived in August, so last  year we had all the excitement, and the involvement, of the waiting, the arrival, and the getting to know. Otherwise, for me, the stresses of 2016 that were detrimental to writing were political instability and computer problems, occurring enough to disrupt every attempt to live creatively in the imaginary past world of 2007.   image6 (1)

What survived these better was my painting: two pieces for an exhibition in North Wales, as well as a number of others. I’ve been observing the natural world and taking photographs in our local Nature Reserve.

heron
A heron hides in the reed bed

And with others I’ve attempted to found a

lasting ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) local meeting in Oxford. I’ve done two interviews at Oxfordshire Live: (local TV). One, with my friend and fellow ALLi author Debbie Young, successfully went out. The other, with 4 of us ALLi authors, was scuppered by the station, which was a pity, as we were reading stories for Christmas.

I’ve been doing Mindfulness courses and making cakes, (some for the courses …)

 Fiction and Politics …

It was really when one of my ‘friends’ on social media posted a writing-related question that I realised I wasn’t the only fiction writer whose creative imagination had been hit by the political uncertainty, and its resolution. When asked, how or whether the political events of 2016 events had influenced our writing, many others were affected, even knocked sideways, by Brexit and/or the American election. A problem area particularly for contemporary fiction, though a possible encouragement for dystopian fantasy writers. And we contemporary fiction writers were already disturbed, concerned, and generally aware of the mass movement people across the Mediterranean and Europe, and alert to what this might mean. Even, if like me, your novel is set ten years earlier, in 2007, some fairly astonishing facts are now waiting to become future history, so should we take that into account?

In the present WIP (working title LYTM ), part of the Mullins Family Saga, we find Alice and Zoe (daughters of the couple who first met in Baby, Baby in 1984) as teenagers. Concerned for the future, with memories of the London bombings (July 7 2005) and conscious that attitudes towards the Muslim community have been influenced… it’s background, but it’s there…

The how-to of getting back to creative, imaginative, original writing:

Once 2017 began, my first decision was to give Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year new, exciting covers, to appeal to my ‘target readers’ out there. So, (via ALLi) I found a designer, and we got started. It  has become an inspirational project, and we agreed to also re-do the paperback versions. Lots of creative interaction over the details – and of course the blips and bits that need re-thinking … like asterisks … (see below).  These should hopefully be ready for the Hawkesbury LitFest, planned for Saturday 22nd April this year. Hawkesbury 2017 iconBoth Edmund and I will be involved in panel discussions at the “HULF” this time.

Here’s how I’ve made progress:

‘Plotter or Pantser: which are you?’ If you ever write a novel, you may be asked this question.

January and February were all planning. Gathering all the notes and scenes from 2015-2016. Putting them into an order, so the narrative made sense. Then who was doing what when, and what others were doing the same time, was all plotted on a 2007 calendar.

I teased out the development of plot and characters, and the backstory into 3 separate files.

This became a summary, evolving into a scene by scene file of the steps which would carry the story through from beginning to end. Inevitably, an author will be able to see whether there’s a problem at this point: mine was the ‘floppy middle’, well known to fiction writers.

clean lab, fridge cabinetAnd research …  I’ve been busy with all manner of research – science, place, weather, the News, slang … incredibly grateful for the people I know who have experience and knowledge in many diverse areas … neighbours, friends, contacts have been willing to talk about their lives, work, and places they’ve lived.  Some such as Penny, Ant, and Lianne who’ve supplied help and editorial/subject corrections in previous books are contributing again.

Meanwhile … daily life, a line or two from e-mails

I’ve received a strange tax form sent from Amazon, discovered a problem with asterisks in the new files which need adding … was hoping to watch Call the Midwife on iPlayer!  How life goes … Never dull. Some time I will sew a cushion back into its case … not today…

I have been trying to find the correct Foam Floormat for Leo – thickness, size, with or without letters/numbers – as they are hoping to stay next weekend …

I had a chat with our neighbours (who have worked in overseas development, and medicine) about where and how a British GP might be able to do a spot of work in an overseas setting (mid-career) … after some discussion, the idea of  South Africa came up … would be really helpful to have an extended conversation about anything you could add having lived there …(rural area …)

‘Could you please put this notice about the Food Bank into the church news sheet?’

I would … like to chat about the atmosphere in a lab in 2007 … styles of working, whether people use iPods …How might Jenny re-join an Oxford lab after her career break?

Hawkesbury 2017 icon

 PS: Don’t forget – Hawkesbury Litfest on 22nd April!

Wherever next, or “Happy 2017”?

I was a teen in the age of aquarius. An age of love, light, and humanity, unlike the current “Age of Pisces (Remember the song, from ‘Hair’? Maybe not…)

Talk, (not so long ago) ,was of how we have moved into a digital age.

dark days (fog)
Life in the post-truth era …?

But now we are also living in the post truth era.  

On New Year’s day, (a dark, damp day here), a friend posted an article on Facebook: Are we heading for in a post-human rights world? (Well, it was only what I’d been thinking – but here was the detail…)

So, …‘how was your Christmas? Ours was a lovely few days of family togetherness, and

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Family togetherness

suspension of considering the gloomy realities of 2016.  Although as a family we’re all roughly on the same side, at Christmas lunch political talk was banned on pain of having to eat another sprout for each politically driven remark – I (Mum to the instigators) took and ate two before succumbing with humour to the ban!

 It’s probably easier for us parents to ‘accept’ the darkness of the times. Our adult children, midway into careers, have a possibly worse prospect ahead in terms of employment, pensions, raising a family. Food Banks were almost unknown when we were in our mid 30s, and Crisis at Christmas Crisis at Christmas (founded ten years earlier, 1972) a relatively new idea. This year, our younger son was spending part of his Christmas holiday helping out at his local crisis centre.

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-20-18-46
 Written by a fellow ALLi author , and recommended by me (photo, Amazon UK site)

 

Over the holidays, I’ve read a novel which partly draws its central theme from the  Aldermaston Marches. And the terrible events not only of Hiroshima but of nuclear testing which continued – without detailed public knowledge of its consequences  – throughout what appeared to us post-World War II children a safe and peaceful world, (despite the Cold War).

As this New Year arrives, it’s only too evident that decades on, we are living in dark days: 2016 has brought extraordinary changes, uncovered or unleashed hatred, disagreement, bewilderment, and fear. Civil war in Syria since 2011 sends thousands of civilians running for their lives, and the knock-on effect of camps full of refugees has frightened people. We in the western world aren’t used to such movement of peoples. What changes might it mean? Atrocities in major European cities and towns, the bombing of hospitals and schools in war torn countries, clearly ignore the most basic ‘human rights’. ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ are lovely phrases when genuinely meant, but ring with a hollow sound while there is violence, suspicion, and little compassion, and the new age is described as ‘post-truth’. (And did I really see Donald Trump quoted as saying that torture kind of ‘does the job’, intelligence-wise?)

Ironically, 2016 also saw the demise of a huge number of iconic public figures, household names from the arts to politics. Who can replace Victoria Wood, (who got away with such lines as ‘Beat me on the bottom with the Women’s Weekly’ )? Can anyone be the new Prince?  Or Neville Marriner? Or mother and daughter actors Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher?

We face a new year, and with this astonishing concept of ‘post-truth’ to join the digital age, and the post-Christian cultural shift.

So, how do we live in these times? It’s hit my writing right in the centre – my ‘work in progress’ being a contemporary family saga which examines our Western values …

It would be easy to make a clarion call, saying with the Queen by doing many small acts of kindness. She, as we know, had a bad cold, so missed her usual trips to church this Christmas. Many others will have attended traditional Carol Services or Midnight Mass. How much the emphasis on the baby Jesus is relevant, among the general celebratory, festive, wintery, activities is hard to tell: carols like Away in a Manger or See amid the Winter’s Snow can miss the point. ‘Peace on earth’ sang the angel choir in the Christmas story…

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Annunciation 2017: Gabriel shows Mary her surprising future …

The Magnificat, (Mary’s song, from the earliest part of the ‘Christmas story’ ) is very ‘political’.  This baby’s mother, Mary, is hardly the ‘Mother mild’ of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. Her song praises God for promising to shake up society. The baby Jesus grew up as a predictable son of Mary, who understood about equality, and human rights. His story of the care, and tolerance, which a traveller (the original “Good Samaritan”) showed towards a stranger from another culture and religion, demonstrate the type of attitudes communities and nations need to express towards one another. ‘Peace on earth’ wasn’t simply a beautiful choral display by angels: it was a hope, or wish, or even a prayer or a resolution, for a better future.

One small act of kindness – yes. Mary’s song is about provision for the poor. It questions the power of the rich, it welcomes and celebrates an ending of oppression. It’s also why my painting of the Annunciation features Mary as a student activist …

2017 could be a challenge to us all. What are ‘traditional English/Western values’? How do we mend the rifts in our own society? How can the global community turn from destroying itself to achieve co-operation and harmony? How can the benefits of health care, science, and technology be used fairly and for peace?

Human Rights are really only a beginning – how can the world think to step aside?

 … and, how can anyone be a fiction writer, when there are so many wrongs to right …? It’s my commitment … I just hope it goes some way to convince some readers something worthwhile …

Crime and Punishment in Life and Lit: as featured in The Archers

Happy Families: who sees?
Happy Families: who sees?
Excuse me, if you don’t live in the UK, for talking about a British soap opera, one which probably won’t appear, like Downton, on your TV screens.
I’ve always used The Archers as nice quiet lunch break entertainment.

But for the past 2 years it’s become instead a nail biting tension-raiser.  I’m not about to rant about that. I’m thinking about how we writers draw in our readers.

If you read crime novels, why do you love them? 

Most people seem to enjoy crime fiction for what offers in terms of ‘who (and how) dunnit?’ The crafty patterning. The pleasure of trying to beat the author in uncovering the answers to the detective’s questions. The skill in writing crime is similar to the skill of composing/solving a crossword puzzle. A classic crime story usually doesn’t spend time on deeply developing the characters, since the pleasure of reading, and the essence of page-turning, isn’t primarily rooted in, well, rooting for them. Though of course it can, if there is an element of  adventure, or if rather than focusing on the solving the crime the story involves ‘woman’ (or child, or even man) ‘in jeopardy’.

So what’s interesting and why?

 Here we have a quiet, jogging-along sort of serial story. The Archers suddenly builds up and pursues a storyline where there is a vile villain, a woman jeopardy, and a very real social situation.  Contrast readers’/hearers’ emotional involvement with typical crime stories and this tale’s use of already-developed, well-known characters.

Maybe you (follower or casual reader of the blog) don’t listen to The Archers. Or maybe you do. Maybe you liked Helen, Henry, and Helen’s parents and other relatives already. Or maybe you found Helen boring and slightly neurotic, and Henry a sickeningly drippy kid: the received wisdom has tended towards ‘the awful Henry’. Whichever, we who listen have been taken through the stages of domestic abuse over time with these characters, and far from standing back and studying the patterning of the storyline, we’ve been sucked right in. I found myself caring about Helen as if she was a friend. Willing her to wake up and smell the coffee – or rather, taste the the deception, savour the distastefulness, and perceive the whole false flattery and fantasy that horrible Rob has been throwing over her from the very start of his wooing.

The reader/listener as helpless friend

Why the hell, we think, didn’t she realise what marital rape was? Face up to that sex on the sofa which wasn’t romance, it was a deliberate attack. To ‘get her pregnant’. How can she not hate and long to be rid of the foetus she realises was planted by that act of rape? What makes her willingly/unwillingly submissive? Can she be feeling anything but fear of this man in her life, her house, her bed?

Evidently, yes. She does. Why else did she swear her brother and her friend to secrecy: and so land herself with no witnesses to the true awfulness of her life?

And why do we care – she’s only a voice on the radio, an actress in a studio, expertly using a script.

Writing and acting to a high standard – even though it’s a soap

But, we do care. Or we can. I have. Could feel my  heart beating, my blood pressure rising, as I listened this past few weeks. When Rob derided her. When he lured Henry increasingly into his foul net of lies and promises and deceits. When he separated Helen from her family and brought in his mother as replacement. And finally, when he mocked and derided her and bawled at Henry, after handing Helen a weapon to do the deed (did he hope she would wound him, and thus prove herself psychotic?). What were his plans for poor Henry, long term?

Helen, predictably, protectively, snapped and hit back when he began to abuse her child, and now she’s been arrested. I am caught. I care as if she were real. I am also horrified that a woman so abused and traumatised is being put through arrest and interrogation by the police. Does she deserve punishment? Doesn’t he?

Because I know this is being written as true to life as possible?

Not only that. 

Because I know what they don’t know: the  background to everything. I was there. They were not. I was a fly on the wall throughout.

A practical lesson in writing

 The characters have been carefully built up so we care. Each scene of Helen’s torture by Rob has been carefully crafted. Each declaration of his ‘love and caring’ with expensive presents. Each odd occurrence, for example that secret wedding replacing Helen’s plans. The time frame has been real, and the situations well researched.

The impact of  characterisation well done grips the listener/reader. As I wrote before, writing a series involves getting to really know your characters … and their developing over time…

May Love You to the Moon (the work in progress) grip like this!

It is also a warning

This is the face of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse. The stuff of taunting, and control. It is also (to my mind) the reason why the whole idea of women’s being expected to be ‘submissive’ in a relationship is, and has always been, so wrong. The reason why ‘obey’ is now so rightly out of the Church of England marriage service, and hopefully all marriage ceremonies. In my opinion, anyway. Control has no place in intimate relationships.

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Happy Families: who sees?
AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second  Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all dayat Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold Village setting 

 

 

 

Writerly myths: ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

I’ll put you in my novel!

It’s a classic myth: along with the writerly notebook carried at all times. Once you let it out, you’re a writer, the first question from family and close friends, ‘Oh, are you  going to put us in your novel?’ (Groan)

If you are a writer, the tease, ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

working in the SHLet’s look at the myth…

So writers always carry notebooks, and have this habit of seizing the moment, and noting down anything which can later appear in their writing? Writers are people who sew patchwork quilts from scraps on real life…articles, novels , etc.? Maybe.

There is after all great skill in choosing colours, and maybe following the old American quilt designs. And in all those tiny, tiny stitches (unless you cheat and use your machine …)

But using lives …Is it kind, is it honourable, is it ethical, do we have the right?

Of course, we may’ve spread the word tongue in cheek

… hard to tell how far into cheek. Just a little bit sideways (like a crooked smile?) or tucked safely away, as if to avoid the dentist’s drill?   

It might seem a bit disingenuous, but, my reaction to the mythical ‘Will you be putting us in your novel?’ is a genuine No.

Not only because I’d so hate it myself. ‘Put’ into a novel, like a china ornament placed on a shelf? The outside of me: the way I dress; my (oh too loud, a friend said recently) voice, booming across a room; my love of cats; or my circumstances as the mum of twins, who though living in the midst of sophisticated intellectuals and academics, does not drink wine?  Not the essential me. And, how stupid would I feel if, had I ‘put’ a friend or family person into a novel, when they read it, were upset, disgusted, or never spoke to me again? They’d have the right: we can’t know the inner selves of others, and a novelist, in essence, deals not in outsides but inner selves. And selves that fit.

Jigsaw People

It’s like a jigsaw: does this piece go there?  Or are we forcing it in, to hurry up and get the picture done? ‘Putting’ a person (name disguised) into a novel, means fitting them into the plot. Each character has a shape contributing to the whole. No good trying to force Aunt Jane, with her lugubrious hats, her high-Tory opinions, her little Westie terrier, into your romance set in Cairo… though maybe your best friend, the academic historian with the banker husband, might fit your international crime story … but would your Australian cousin suit that cosy mystery set in Elsfield, Oxfordshire, in 1946?  Like all misplaced jigsaw pieces, your real person who had that funny incident in the cafe will protest, by bulging, wobbling, becoming stuck at an awkward angle.  Nothing else will go right until you take it out again…

Making a cake

Do you like to eat cake? If you’re putting me  in your novel, (please don’t), you need to know that I enjoy baking, and eating, cake.  

cake for mondfulnessThe creative process is like baking: the ingredients, the raw materials, are the real people we know and meet, the strangers on buses and trains, the acquaintances from the exercise class … then all this needs processing in our brains, maybe over years, decades. After mixing, the raw cake is subjected to terrific heat inside the oven. By the time it is cooked and ready  to eat, who can tell which bit is flour, sugar, fat, egg … baking powder, a teaspoon of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon? Or where those characters, busy interacting and unfolding their story, began?

Every novel is a mystery

So, whether a novel is crime, romance, sci-fi, adventure, it is always also a mystery.

As is the idea that your writer friend will put you in her novel (indeed, why you?)

Don’t be disappointed to discover you are not there. Or delighted that you are.  Whatever has been ‘done’ to turn a gallimaufry of people into a set of characters was probably done unawares … and that one’s not you at all! Maybe all of us fancy a little adventure, a romance, or to solve a crime mystery? Are people maybe asking for a slot, when they act scared they’ll be put in a novel?

The key to how it’s done …

is observation. What goes in the notebook or sticks in the mind is observation of the how, not the what, of human beings as a species.

Just my point of view …

Two Writers whose observation of the species ‘human’ I admire: 

Debbie Young, (an ALLi indie writer, and founder of the independent, Cotswold village based, Hawkesbury LitFest) for her wonderful ‘flash fiction’ books on twenty-first century living – try Marry in Haste for a humorous look at dating, deciding, and tying the knot.

Joanna Trollope, (well-established mainstream published, ‘She likes to tackle the apparently easy, but really very difficult subjects – how parents get on with their children, and vice versa – which many a lesser writer prefers to avoid.’ (Guardian Books, 11/02/16)). Whatever you think of  her subject matter (upper-ish middle class …) admire her acute observations of  small but telling physical actions … for example, a husband is behind his  newspaper. The wife taps on the newspaper with a teaspoon to get his attention… not a ‘classic trope’ but a small action typical of that kind of couple.

(Photos: my copyright, please request permission before using)

A Writer’s Christmas: Perspective of 2015

So, the writer is about to write the Christmas Letter.

The quite awful letter where parents kvell (I think that’s the word?) about the kids and what’ s

What the kids are doing ...
What the kids are doing …

been achieved in terms of music lessons, exams, and riding a bicycle.

Only, as the kids are grown, thankfully we don’t need to join the party with that kind of stuff …

DO I FEEL ‘CHRISTMASSY’ AS CHRISTMAS APPROACHES?

No. Advent maybe: the time of watching and waiting.

 

Once, we waited through Advent, we kids, trembling, almost, with expectation. Gradually the seasons drew nearer and nearer, until on truly magical Christmas Eve, the tree was bought and decorated. We looked up to see the Star of Bethlehem shining once more in the navy-blue sky, over a frosty city, smelling of coldness and slightly of petrol.

The Tree in today’s front room … (2014)

My earliest Christmas memory is of  standing in the doorway of our front room, and there was this amazing sight: the Tree, covered in glittery ornaments.  They turn, slowly,  reflecting the many-coloured lights. The room’s suffused with a gentle warmth. I am stunned, totally. Later, at my grandparents’ house, aged six, I  feel no disappointment or surprise on waking briefly, the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to see a parental hand placing presents in my stocking.

After all, presents are presents, and secrets kept on both sides so as not to disappoint have a thrill of their own … We all kept up the myth, and Father Christmas/Santa continued to get his sherry and mince pie for many more years.

But oh how deep the disappointment of not having a ‘part’ in the nativity play, aged 7.  Oh how much I wasn’t deceived by the sop of being ‘in the choir’! Of course, we were obviously a group of left-overs … (was that really true? Probably.)

Everything was one: cards, tree, F.Christmas/Santa, crib and carols
Tree Decorating

With the King’s Carols on the radio, as time went by, I got to decorate that tree and create the magic. Cards were displayed on every flat surface: bookshelves, windowsill, mantlepiece. Mostly of the famous mother, father, and baby-in-the-manger. Simplicity, profoundity, replicated in many styles and colours. Delicate Medieval drawings from Books of Hours, High Renaissance paintings, bright sketches by contemporary graphic artists.

The Magi travelled on camels towards a stylised Middle Eastern town, pictured against a pink dawn (or sunset).

The shepherds on their hillside were staggered to witness an angel choir.

Christmas past, the years of security.
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Star Cookies

This year the cards we’re sending will be secular: winter scenes, robins, holly, nothing ‘religious’. Not the crib, the stable, the angels, or the little family far from their home: even though that’s horribly relevant this year. It’s all come apart: not personally, but societally. The base-line story, from the food, presents, parties, and Santa (secret or otherwise). Yes, I enjoy the annual get-together of neighbours, and the once–a-year catch-up with far-flung friends and relatives. But  the excess, and expectation to indulge, first communally and then, in the sudden silence of the most magical day, as a nuclear family. It’s no self-indulgent sadness, that today (having avoided the BBC News today) my priorities have been to get some work time, and some peace (to study the MSF website as it happened).

 It’s  more about the watch and wait of Advent
Knitted Nativity
Knitted Nativity

Whatever will be happening on 25th December this year, a pretty picture of the Holy Family isn’t going to solve anything. Realistically viewing the world in December 2015, Christmas pictured  in those cards is a reassuring myth. Maybe I should’ve designed my own cards: ruined apartment blocks, broken lives … under the Star of Bethlehem. That was the reality for Mary (a terrified teenager) and Joseph and their baby – blessed to be born alive, and grow up healthy, despite soon to be running away from a hostile government. The Middle East isn’t a pretty town against the sunset … most of the world isn’t – some of us live in a little corner where some of it is, sometimes.

Flying Angel with Tinsel

Which is an eternal (or at least historical) truth. As a group, humanity hasn’t yet solved the problem of living together under one sky as one global family. Card-wise, there’s the problem: the traditional Nativity scenes belie what we see on the News, turning religious Christmas into a false promise.

As a fiction writer, I engage with this as I work on the third story of the Mullins family. Love You to the Moon attempts at exploring what we mean by love … and what love gone wrong looks like … as in the wider world, everything moves nearer and nearer towards what feels like a worse chaos, rather than a new beginning.

Watch, and wait …

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it …

(This was written during the Commons debate 2/12/15:  #prayforSyria)

 

 

 

 

Standing with Parisians, under the tricolour

Soon after ‘Remembrance Day’ I find myself symbolically dressed

It wasn’t until I added a beret (because it was howling a gale outdoors and I didn’t want my hair blowing across my face) that I glanced in the mirror and saw I was dressed in the colours of the Tricolour. Freudian, you say? Hardly: a navy and white striped skirt demanded a plain jumper, and the cherry-coloured one, bought recently, went perfectly: red and navy, a traditional match.

We have exchanged the red poppies of peace in Europe, produced originally as reminders never to go to war again, for the Tricolour, which arose from the French Revolution. We stand united with the people of Paris, traumatised since Friday’s terrorism. What our leaders decide to do about this may  look like retaliation, or ‘revenge’.

Young adults visiting Paris in the 1930s: hardly a more peaceful time to come? (Source: family history album)
Young adults visiting Paris in the 1930s: hardly a more peaceful time to come? (Source: family history album)

For days I’ve wished the rhetoric would stop, sadness at the consequences of all our clashing histories would sink in, and be admitted, and  recognised in as many ways as possible. Busy deciding on whether to write about ‘Christmas, what does it mean to you?’ or ‘Why I write what I write’ for my next blog, I’ve ‘procrastinated’ by working on my novel.

Novel number 3 in the Mullins Family Saga: Love You to the Moon is themed around the vexed question of  what we mean by ‘love’. Constructed to include a variety of expressions of love, the plot should lead towards a catastrophic gesture in which the love (obvious to its perpetrator but not to anyone else) is certainly debatable.

So what do we mean by ‘Love’?

On Saturday, a quote from Martin Luther King was circulating on Facebook. The message, basically, was love can conquer hate. Meant as a message hope, this carries within it the sad fact that hope is so crushable, so disposable, and so easily forgotten.

Martin Luther King was a preacher, and knew his Bible: in the words he chose, he had adapted a phrase, well known and read at most Carol Services. Soon it will be Christmas, and all over Britain crowds, whether normally churchgoers or not, will hear it read: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Sometimes the original Greek phrase is translated as ‘the darkness has not comprehended (understood) it.’ Here’s something so significant for our time. Light shining into darkness illuminates, penetrates, and makes everything clear to see. When we further translate, using love for light, then love being shown to those who do not understand love, and whom we believe to have acted through hate (translated darkness) should be a powerful weapon, or rather, a powerful overcomer, for love doesn’t seek, in overcoming, to destroy.

However … were it that easy!

My motivation for looking at ‘love’ in the next Mullins family series is to try and tease out, in story,  the meanings, and the interpretations, of this so widely and over-used word.  ‘Altruism’ or unselfish acts, given freely beyond duty or  expectation of ‘payback’ has been dismissed, debunked, or denied existence  by thinkers like Richard Dawkins: we all know about The Selfish Gene or we think we do. Every unselfish act is really me-directed. (Really …?)

Alongside that belief, ‘love’ is used when ‘desire’,  ‘instinct’ or ‘desire to control’ would fit the context better. Literature is filled with such uses and excuses. A  banner at a demonstration against domestic violence, especially rape, reads ‘Love shouldn’t Hurt’, but  the obviously contextual meaning  was ‘Sex shouldn’t hurt’. Which was somehow also sad since love, as in generosity, does quite often hurt,  but in a very different way.

The bothersome questions

So, back to Paris, Friday 13th, and the sudden atrocities in the city perhaps most associated with Love (equals sex/romance)?  Emotions poured out, candles and flowers, expressing sorrow, horror, fear: immediate reactions.

A few days on,  if we collectively self-identify with the light/love quote expressed in that and, adopt a Tricolour solidarity as our Facebook profile, what does this mean to us, to  those who were caught up in the events, or to on-lookers?  We need to ask ourselves this question.  Long term, what is this solidarity? And to answer with honesty and integrity. Would we agree to do everything in our power to seek revenge, or to see that the collective reaction of Europe is not one of hatred, and if so, what actually does getting involved mean?  Are our collective hands clean anyway, in historical terms, are we white as pure light, or have we, as  nations, thrown elements into the international pot which is now boiling over?

Are we also fundamentalists, our current fundamentalism being free speech, strangely coupled with a strong cultural preference for secular values? Historically the religious cultural background of Europe, brought over from the Middle East itself, are not control, empire-building or capitalism. Ironically, they are based on a teaching of ‘love towards enemies’ with a bias towards the poor and the disadvantaged. It was for our founder to be the basis for condemnation and execution.

The shadow of revenge

While realising that in pragmatic, realistic terms, air strikes and retaliation may be forced upon the international community, it is horrifying to hear the rhetoric from some international leaders. At the same time, standing back we wonder at our own reactions, hope these are more than ‘knee-jerk’ and whether our love is real enough to stand testing. What do candlelight vigils and bouquets really mean, once the candles burnout and the flowers wither and fade? When the street cleaners clear it all up – which they will inevitably  have to.

How ironic that the attack took place only 2 days after the anniversary of the Armistice: is anyone left alive who can recall that day, and how felt? ‘Remembering’ was instituted so that there would ‘be no more war’, and not to ‘glorify the military’. SInce then, weapons and devices have increased in power and in use.

I return to writing my novel themed around what is love, using that phrase which, analysed for meaning would be found to be meaningless: Love You to the Moon.

Related Articles (which I’ve read in the past few days) you may find interesting:

From The Guardian’s Middle East Editor, Sunday 15th November  (The information here is referred to in Arab Digest, a blog which collects together articles from journalists and experts on the Middle East from around the world)

SheridanVoysey’s blog on Turning the other cheek in an age of terrorism

The Tale of a Sofa: one saw tat, the other saw trophy

When Granny moved into her sheltered flat, the three-piece suite was too large for her sitting room. She passed it to her daughter and ordered a smaller version, custom-made. The custom-made sofa, very good quality, was covered in a discreet, pale rose and grey, abstract patterned brocade, had 2 cushions and covers for the ends of the arms, to keep them clean.sofa - 1

When Granny went into a Home, she took the arm chair, and passed the sofa to her son’s family, who kept it in the family room where the teenagers and their friends hung out. It stayed clean. But around the back, unknown until it was too late, the cats had used the nice, good-quality brocade-covered back to sharpen their claws.

Time passed, the teens and their friends grew older and moved out. The sofa moved up to the attic, where the lodger used it to lie on and watch TV. He kept it clean, and didn’t mind about the cats’ claw marks: after all, it was a comfy sofa.

The sun smiled in through his window, and the brocade became a little faded. The sofa was a tad large for the room, what with the double-sized bed, the big modern desk, the cupboard and the upright chair. Perhaps Freecycle could re-locate the sofa somewhere better? Maybe the lodger would prefer a nice new Ikea ‘Poang’ armchair, covered in Glose Leather? With a footstool to match?

Poang Armchair & Footstool in situ
Poang Armchair & Footstool in situ

Offer: two-seater sofa: sound condition, great for upholstery project!

Woman One called by: an arty-looking type. She looked at the house owner, and she shrugged. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take your sofa. You see, It’s rather grubby, isn’t it? And I can’t cover it straight away…’

Grubby? Faded, yes. Cat-scratched, yes. But by no means dirty!  (Granny would’ve been insulted and given that woman a piece of her mind …)

Woman Two called by next day. ‘Hum: it’s not a sofa-bed. I’d wanted a sofa-bed…but … ‘ She lifted the cushions, and spied the maker’s name. She smiled happily. ‘Oh, it’s Wesley-Barrell! I don’t mind about the cat-scratches, I’m going to re-cover it. Not straight away, but I don’t mind. It won’t show. It’s round the back. And I can plump up the cushions: I’ll see if Wesley-Barrell will re-upholster them!’  http://www.wesley-barrell.co.uk/

sofa Woman Two, delighted with the free, good-quality W-B sofa, loaded it into the back of her car, and drove away into the sunset. Granny  would’ve been delighted: she always loved to find a good-quality bargain.