‘Scene After the Battle’ – why we cannot let the 11/11/2018 be the end of the story…

British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks at The Battle of Arras. Courtesy of Paul Reed at www.greatwarphotos.comMy book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword Books four years ago, but it was always about the legacy of the Great War, rather than a history of the war itself. I have been talking to groups recently, and to journalists, about how we continue to highlight how, for many, the war did not end in 1918. For thousands, it continued until their life was over. It affected their families and friends, their children and their grandchildren and is, I believe, one of the reasons why the First World War retains its emotional hold on us now. We are all, still, children of the Great War.

The trauma experienced by individuals and the country as a whole left a deep wound that has not yet healed, as in the 21st century we are reminded by the horrors of war in Syria, for example, and still struggle to ensure those affected, including those leaving the armed forces, have the support they need to leave conflict behind and live without fear, guilt and continuing psychological damage.

Despite the misgivings I have about marking this day as the end of the war, it is still a momentous occasion. It offers a focus and the proper recognition of the lives lost, and damaged, by all wars over the past century and gives us the opportunity to think about how our own lives have been affected. Parents, Grandparents, Great Grandparents and on through the generations – family histories have been shaped by conflicts.

For many, poetry is a way into the horrors of the war. We cannot possibly imagine what it was like to be in a trench, on the frontline, being bombarded by shellfire or knowing snipers were ready to shoot you dead the moment your head was raised above the parapet. Neither do we have any real idea of the terrible strain of the silences, the endless waiting for action, or for death. I have written about Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ on here before, both powerfully evoking the senselessness of war. But today I want to share another poem, this time by Christopher Grogan, who writes in the 21st century of 21st-century concerns – both personal and global. In Scene After the Battle, the personal can be interpreted as global – we are in a time of chaos, of uncertainty and of a sense that humanity must be saved, or perish.

Scene after the Battle 

The cavalry never came.
For days that felt like months

I lay in the sodden mud of the field,
scanning through bloodied eyes

the blue-grey horizon, longing to see,
rising up from the ridge of the hills,

the creeping silhouettes of men and horses
against the sallow canvas of winter dusk,

carrying hopes of a game-changing charge
that would scatter the enemy, scythe him down.

But over the field now, only the wind blows
softly, collecting for trophies the final sighs of the slain.

Christopher Grogan

On this memorable 11th November, we must ensure that we do not turn our backs on those still waiting for a game-changing charge, for something to scatter the demons.

100 years on it feels as if the world is once more on the brink. We must work to ensure that humanity can once more step back from division and hostility. We must be our own cavalry.

Shell Shocked Britain is available from all good bookshops and online retailers and is currently on special offer from publishers Pen and Sword Books at £13.00. See https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Shell-Shocked-Britain-Hardback/p/6103. 

 

 

 

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Posted in Family History, First World War, History, Poetry, Shell Shocked Britain, War | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ode to a Chestnut…

blurred background chestnuts close up color

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Back to blogging, and back to writing. Be patient with me – since moving to France my fingers have been slow to get moving across the keyboard or notebook. Things are warming up though, as the days get colder and, hopefully, you will hear a little more from me in the coming weeks. It is about time, to be honest…

How often do you literally feel food fall out of the sky? Hear it dropping yards from you, heavily, making the ground vibrate slightly as it collides with the earth?

Before we moved here to Huelgoat, in Brittany, as an urban dwelling Brit I have to say it didn’t happen to me that often, unless bird poo is in some way edible. It may bring us luck, but nutritional value? I think not.

Today I walked 200 yards up our road to where the trees of the Foret d’Huelgoat take over from the houses, and was, once again, treading on a thick carpet of prickly fruit – the cases surrounding the sweet chestnuts that recent winds have blown to the ground on the edge of the road and over the familiar tracks of the dog walk I regularly take with trusty canine companion Teddy. The forest floor is now more akin to the ocean, covered with sea urchins and I am glad of my chunky soled boots as I venture under the canopy. I need a hard hat too, it turns out. Gusts of wind bring down more tightly clustered cocoons, and even as the world around me stills, I can hear the ‘thunk’ ‘thunk’ as the spiky natural harvest continues.

I have never really eaten chestnuts – they are more popular here than in the UK – and always associate them with stalls at Christmas markets, adding to the atmosphere with smell rather than taste. But the nuts are so beautiful; dark brown, shiny and firm and impossible to resist. I fill my pockets from the open cases, even venturing to prise apart the teeth of the unopened ones. As I type this I realise those tiny spines have left their mark; the tips of my fingers sore over the ‘d’ and the ‘a’… and the touch ID on my phone doesn’t seem to recognise me any more.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I have been offered lots of advice about the best way to cook and use the nuts. You can boil, roast or microwave with slightly different results in terms of appearance and flavour. However, whichever method you use they are terribly fiddly to peel and my first attempts filled me with guilt as a tender kernel fell apart or stayed firmly welded to the shell. It feels an offence against nature to throw away the remnants in frustration at their unyielding character and my ineptitude, but they are unusable. I have tried again as I can’t help but think skill comes with practice and a discussion with my friend Cornelia revealed a method that seems to suit me. Soaking for an hour, then scoring just under the paler coloured ‘top’ before roasting for about 20 minutes results in a far greater ratio of success. Burned fingers crossed then.

Pablo Neruda 0011_oleo 004.jpgAs is usually the case when I get to writing, I hunt down a poem I enjoy with at least a link to the subject I am working on. It is a strategy that has introduced me to work I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered, and today that is definitely the case. Pablo Neruda was once a great favourite of mine, but he and I have been strangers for a while and this is one I had forgotten, or hadn’t read.

Ode To a Chestnut on the Ground by Pablo Neruda

From bristly foliage
you fell
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as perfect
as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
that falling
offers its sealed-in gifts,
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose.
In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
birds
bursting with syllables,
starry
dew
below,
the heads of boys
and girls,
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.
You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.
You fell,
you struck
the ground,
but
nothing happened,
the grass
still stirred, the old
chestnut sighed with the mouths
of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.
Because you are
only
a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.

As a vegetarian, that ‘floury density’ and sweet chestnut nut roast is calling to me, and I have read lovely recipes for cakes and soups that I can use my now frozen foraged forest feast in. Here is a particularly good link to the BBC GoodFood website and an article simply entitled ‘What to do with chestnuts’.  Keep it clean now my friends.

Posted in Food, Health, Poetry, Random musings on family life, walking | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Suzie Grogan’s French Escape

I have been meaning to update my own blog for weeks now, but I have made some big life changes in recent months and the blog has taken a bit of a back seat. Thanks to all those who have continued to find and read me – I am very grateful. Normal service is about to be resumed, and I was intending to make my first post about our most significant news – we have moved to France – Finistere in Brittany to be precise – and are currently settling in, getting our businesses set up (we are still working) and making sure we are part of the French system before the dreaded Brexit arrives.

But, thanks to author Suzie Tullett, whose novel The French Escape will be out soon, I was prompted to put fingers to laptop and actually get something done, and today I am on her blog, explaining our reasons for leaving the UK and our hopes for the future. Looking at it, I think the only thing I didn’t mention as I should was how much I miss friends and family. Luckily we already have people willing to travel to see us and will welcome them soon, including our lovely children, but on the day I found out that one of my very loveliest friends has suffered a horrible riding accident and will be laid up for weeks I feel I need to mention what seems obvious. Fingers crossed we will get some quality time to spend with people who we often catch for just a couple of hours at a time.

And this is an important part of this move- finding some time, space and a place to breathe. I’ll be posting again soon – thank you all for your patience x

Suzie Tullett

Hi, everyone

With only two weeks until the release of my latest novel, the French escape series continues. Today’s feature comes from fellow author Suzie Grogan, who left the UK for French pastures new a couple of months ago.

Welcome to France and to my blog, Suzie. Now it’s over to you.

My French Escape by Suzie Grogan

We started to make tentative plans for a new life in a new country about three years ago. Our two children had left home and were making plans for a future in London. We lived in a small town in Somerset in a terraced house on a rat run and were fed up with being bullied in our own road by impatient drivers trying to save about 5 seconds on their journey.  Life was speeding past with them and we wanted a change. It was a medium to long-term ambition as I would…

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Marking the ending of John Keats’s life, and the beginning of a new project…

 

side-of-house

Keats-Shelley House, Rome.

Today – the 23rd February – marks the 197th anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in an apartment (now the Keats-Shelley House & Museum) looking over the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Anyone who has read my blog will know of my passion for his poetry and letters, his philosophy and the way he lived his life. Not simply a brilliant poet, he was brave in the face of tragedy, loyal to his friends – who treasured his memory – and a man of great intellect. He remains popular today, globally,  because he is relevant today and has much to say about the world and its workings that still make us say ‘Yes! That’s just what I think!’

 

death-largerI have written two posts on this blog marking Keats’s death. The first was ‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats’ back in 2012, in which I quoted the letter from Severn – who had nursed Keats to his last breath – announcing his death to Charles Brown, the great friend with whom Keats had lived in Wentworth Place in Hampstead. The description of Keats’s last moments is heartrending, and the deathbed picture sketched by Severn, a talented young artist at the beginning of a long career, is one of the most iconic images of Keats we have.

The second post, entitled ‘The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness’ I wrote just last year. I wanted to highlight the long-standing, mistaken, representation of Keats as the frail young romantic hounded to his death by cruel critics of his work. He was actually physically strong, quick-tempered, energetic, courageous and philosophical in the face of criticism – he was his own greatest critic after all. In this post, I wanted to illustrate how, more recently, the recognition that his friends sought to promote his life and work by promoting the image of doomed youth was, although done with the greatest love, a source of much mythologising and misrepresentation.

Today though, I want to celebrate his life and celebrate the opportunity I now have to add to the work devoted to the great man. I am thrilled to announce that I have been commissioned (yes, a publisher is actually paying me!!) to write a book about John Keats, an ‘In the footsteps of…’ following him to places that influenced his life and work. It will place Keats in cities, towns and villages, in parts of the country he visited, stayed in and, ultimately died in. It will be, in some senses, a social history (I will include the historical context; Keats was influenced by the realities of the world around him as well as the classical texts he read so avidly) and will add to the research I did for Death Disease and Dissection on his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London. I want it to be accessible, well researched and eminently readable. I have always hoped my posts on here, and on The Romanticism Blog for The Wordsworth Trust, have shown that poetry is for everyone and a strictly academic knowledge and approach unnecessary to the enjoyment of Keats poetry and letters.

It will be published, along with many other studies I am sure, in 2021, to mark the bicentenary of his death. My challenge is to make it stand out in some way – something I know will be very difficult. But after 40 years of influence, I am sure Keats can still help me bring him to the page and once again be part of the celebration of his life and the marking of his death.

Posted in Book, Books, History, Keats, Literature, Poetry, Romanticism, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Black dogs and Lost Generations – Andy Farr, artist.

Silent+Witness

Silent Witness by Andy Farr

Towards the end of last year my book, Shell Shocked Britain, prompted one of those serendipitous conversations that link creative projects together and potentially enhance them both. I was contacted by Andy Farr, an artist based in Coventry. His recent work has focused on ‘conflict’, most particularly as a result of war but also including the trauma caused by terrorism,  domestic abuse and the inner conflict that can lead to serious mental ill health.

I went to meet Andy in the glorious surroundings of Gloucester Services (which are actually quite plush). It was good to talk about how the personal stories of men and their families in Shell Shocked Britain might influence art.  He is collecting stories to inspire his latest project –   a body of work that will express the pain exhibited by those narratives of war; from the “shell shock” of the Great War through to the combat stress experienced by service personnel in the 21st century. An exhibition is planned for Nottingham in September and then, all being well, his work will ‘tour’ a number of other venues.

 

Andy1

The Response – Andy Far

This new work will extend the fabulous images Andy produced for the Lost Generations project, funded by Arts Council England and the Grimmitt Trust. During Lost Generations, he collaborated with young people across the UK to make the reality of WW1 relevant to today, something I have always been keen to do. My greatest fear at the moment is that the commemorative period will stop, suddenly, in November as we remember the Armistice; the legacy of the war and the importance of continued work to ensure members of the armed forces are supported if the trauma of 21st-century engagements becomes overwhelming, might once more fade away, as it did after 1918.

100+Summers+Canon+_sml

100 Summers – Andy Farr

Young people have so many challenges to face today, and competition for their attention becomes ever more difficult, even when the subject is as important as this one. Working collaboratively with students of music, art and drama in this way has clearly worked for Andy. I hope his new project will have a similar impact and continue to ensure that the legacy of war is highlighted. I am currently studying the long-term impact of evacuation on the children of WW2 and it is clear that the horrors of the continuing wars in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the future mental health of those involved.

 

Another+day+at+the+office

Another day at the office – Andy Far

Mental health is also something important to Andy, who left a well-paid job, requiring an exhausting commute in order to pursue a career as an artist. His series of paintings entitled ‘Black Dog’ vividly depict modern mundanity, the stresses of a deskbound job, and the journies we make to get there. How far away is humanity from that tipping point when our connection to the world around us becomes totally reliant upon interactivity with some sort of screen? How much pressure is it possible to place on themind and brain (surely amounting to much the same thing) before we simply fall off the edge of the precipice, as so many men did in the trenches of the First World War? That endless merry go round? The black dog is waiting for us, all of us. Even those who think themselves immune…

 

CarouselSo do take a look at Andy’s work on his website – www.andyfarr.com – where you can see a moving video detailing more of the work undertaken for the Lost Generations project and find out more about what inspires Andy to choose the subject matter of his work.

Andy is a storyteller in art. His work takes the static memorial and brings it vividly to life and forces us to make the links between the past and the present that are the very best way to ensure future conflicts are avoided. For myself, as a parent, the images of the young people transposed onto the well-known images of the Great War have had as much, if not more, impact than the originals.

My thanks to Andy for allowing me to use these images on my blog. Do go to his website www.andyfarr.com and see them enlarged and further explained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art, Family History, First World War, Mental health, World War Two, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gratitude or hope? A poem for #Christmas 2017 – ‘Ring out wild bells’ In memorium 106 by Tennyson

3bellsI have been going over my old Christmas posts on my blog. It seems the right time of year to begin a review of the things I have written this year and the issues that have mattered to me. In fact, this has been a very quiet year on my blog – endless excuses for not having written anything or vows to start anew, apologies for neglect etc.

The overall sense is one of melancholy, and so, when we reach a point in the year when melancholy affects millions and overwhelms many, I think I have to end with a plea for change. Can we really cope with another year like 2017? Full of hostility and strife?

There have been both for me this year – personally and as part of that thing we call humanity. I lost my lovely mum, and have been deeply affected by the strains it brought to the surface. We lost our wonderful old dog under traumatic circumstances, and then felt pulled by the stress surrounding the death of my father-in-law and the pain it brought to the surface for my husband, and for his siblings. Loss has been the word I will most associate with 2017.

All this compounded by a sense that what ‘being human’ means to me is not the same as the meaning attached to it by millions of others around the world, who pursue a way forward seemingly learning nothing from (or, more horrible, by embracing) the mistakes and terrors of the past.

I was reminded by my wonderful friend  – poet and author Vivienne Tuffnell – about the current fondness for pursuing gratitude as a way to dispel depression, anxiety and the trauma of the past. It is an age-old concept and undeniably a good thing. I am deeply grateful for all I have – my beautiful children, my lovely husband and family that supports me in what I do. But as Viv points out,  expressing gratitude can’t, of itself,  make a bad year good. Someone in a clinical depression cannot heal themselves merely by recalling a few good things. And to express gratitude has to be to genuinely mean it, or like all the other recent suggestions for self-care in mental health, it simply becomes another annexation of a peaceful principle by the powers that be. Our governments want to sedate us and prevent us being angry at injustice and aggression and all the horrors of right-wing hate-mongering that has become part of our daily global conversation.

I don’t know what to say to wish you all a happy Christmas and a joyful festive season. Like gratitude, a couple of days of eating, drinking and making merry a do not make a ‘good year’. My little pleas for kindness and peace sounds like so much pissing in the wind to be brutally honest.

Alfred-Lord-Tennyson-1809-010So as always I head for poetry. This year I can’t find a better expression of a manifesto for truth and light that that offered by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He is a poet I have read, but not studied, other than to know the basics, and to understand that In memoriam is a requiem to lost friendship and love and a way of working through Tennyson’s anger and pain following the loss of someone dear to him.

As an eminent Victorian, adjusting to the inexorable march of industrialisation at the cost of all that he thought beautiful, his concerns are at once different and the same as ours. His love of an idyllic rural England will chime with anyone who watched the recent BBC 1 series Blue Planet II and was horrified by the amount of damage we are doing to our planet. Climate change deniers beware – you can’t claim the disgusting amount of plastic in our oceans is anything other than man-made.

On a personal level, the lines Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes/ But ring the fuller minstrel in even offers my plea for a fruitful year of writing, as I get to fulfil my dream and am paid to write a book about John Keats.

This is a poem that asks us to set aside nationalism, hate and war, and embrace a world not driven by money and power. Let us hope 2018 is a year when, instead of feeling loss, we regain some things – hope at least being something we all need, whatever our faith, or belief system.

In Memoriam  106 -Ring out, wild bells
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

A very happy Christmas to you all. Thanks for reading.

Posted in Books, Christmas, Current affairs, Family, New Year, Poetry, Reading, Religion, Victorians, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Death, Disease & Dissection: Keats, Quacks & Bodysnatchers – what’s not to like?

Death Disease & DissectionAt last, I can catch my breath and report back on the launch of my second book with Pen and Sword, Death, Disease & Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has been a part of my life for so long I can’t believe I am only really now telling people about it. As many of you who read my blog regularly know, this has been a difficult year for me and for my family so that vital marketing has been left a little behind. I am just hoping it doesn’t affect sales too much. These things matter so much now, especially with Christmas coming up.

LitFest3On Thursday 16th November I spoke to a sell-out crowd at Taunton Literary Festival, presenting some gruesome pictures of horrible procedures to much groaning and squirming (and laughter) in the audience.  Nothing like the quack doctor and failed boot polish salesman Dr Solomon and his Cordial of Gilead to tickle a few ribs, and descriptions of a lithotomy (removal of a bladder stone in men) to get a few chaps crossing their legs too…

We then celebrated with wine and cake (by the fabulous Charlie of Charlotte Jane Cakes) and a book signing that went really well. Lionel and Jo Ward of Brendon Books are so supportive (Lionel founded the festival) that is was an evening I will remember for a long time, and feedback has been fabulous. If you are in the Taunton area do take a look at the bookshop in Bath Place that can often get a book to you faster than Amazon…

Anyway, what is the book about? The premise of the book is summarised up quite well by the blurb the publisher printed on the back:

Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from a toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon-apothecary vividly to life.

wax head

Wax anatomical model of human head c1800

I examine the class structure of the medical profession, the training a young man had to go through and the sort of life he would have enjoyed (or otherwise) when he was qualified. The medicines available to treat the most common illnesses and the operations undertaken at great risk to the patient (and sometimes to the surgeon) are detailed, as is the vital work of the anatomist, dissecting bodies (often obtained by body-snatchers) to understand the workings of the human body. It was a time of great change and is populated by some wonderful characters – good and bad – who occasionally sound like something out of a gothic-horror novel.

Keats

John Keats

I was inspired to write the book when I was keen to find out more about the life John Keats, my favourite poet, would have lived had he not given up medicine (after nearly 7 years of training) to pursue one in poetry. He was so far from the frail romantic image many still have of him that I was determined to highlight how hard he had worked in what desperate conditions to become a man filled with empathy and knowledge of the harsh realities of life. The publisher wouldn’t let me indulge my passion for the man with a chapter to himself, but they have commissioned me to write a separate book about him which is a thrill.

I have also found out that this subject is on the GCSE curriculum and it has already got a 5* review from someone working in the NHS with a teenager using it to mug up on coursework, which is gratifying. It was also an era covered by the fabulous BBC2 comedy Quacks earlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.

Quacks

BBC2’s Quacks

So please do consider buying a copy for the history lover in your life, especially if they have an interest in the Georgian period or a bit of Victorian gothic. It also details many issues affecting the poor specifically and there is little doubt that many of the deeply committed men ( women were excluded from medical training as a doctor during this time) I offer short biographies of are the forerunners of today’s general practitioners, facing many of the same problems.

Death Disease & Dissection (ISBN: 9781473823532) is available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good online and high street retailers.

 

Posted in Book, Death, Disease and Dissection, History, Keats, Literature, Medicine, Romanticism, Victorian History, Victorians, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments