After a winter in Brittany – ‘The Darkling Thrush’

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Yesterday…

It snowed again this morning. On the 14th of April. Yesterday was so beautiful – the sky blue with a very few clouds occasionally blurring the warm sunshine – so waking up to the white stuff was a complete surprise. It didn’t last long and didn’t settle, but it was a reminder that our first winter in France has been unpredictable – in weather and in mood.

It is not the fault of Finistere; we knew we weren’t moving to a climate very different from the one we were leaving in the South West of England. It is about two degrees warmer here, and drier in summer, but the winters are wet and the skies leaden for days on end. Living so close to the forest we see both the benefit of this rain, and its disadvantages. The spring greens are just taking over from the brown, bare branches and we know that there will soon be a carpet of shiny green under our feet, and dry firm paths where now there is wet leaf mould and slippery mud. This is a fantastic place to live, and we have no regrets. But we now know why many here head for sunnier climes in January and February – it is a time to ‘tough it out’, rather than feed the soul, for me anyway.

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Our wonderful, primeval, but muddy forest

My mood became very low, and I was unable to work at anything other than routine admin, of which I had plenty. The four books I have now been commissioned to write should have excited me, but instead weighed as heavily on my conscience as the clouds over the treetops, constantly threatening a deluge. I underestimated the difficult transition period needed after the change we had made. I worried about our grown-up children in the UK, was convinced I was physically ill because panic gave me symptoms and I became fearful of leaving the house. Masking depression and anxiety is hard work and that masking feels necessary when you don’t know the people around you very well (even though we have met some really lovely folk here) and are unsure of their response. I was, as the doctor here suggested, depressed about being depressed, furious with myself for not appreciating how lucky I am – always a dangerous place to go. 

A friend from England saved me, in a way, by writing, on paper and sent in a real envelope, long letters two or three times a week, about day to day life, family things, normality (or what passes for it) and wise words. I am hopeless at replying to letters, but I wasn’t required to so I didn’t. What a relief. I can’t thank her enough, or those other friends who write and keep me in touch with the world. I felt a long way away.

There have been some wonderful times, when the sky has cleared for a few days, and the paths have had a chance to dry out sufficiently for me to look at something other than my feet as we walk, enabling me to look into the treetops, spotting long-tailed tit, wagtail, hearing the buzzards mewl and see them wheeling on open wings above the fir trees. There were snowdrops, and other wildflowers I didn’t recognise and days at the coast when the sun was warm on our faces even though it was March, and there was always Teddy the dog, and Peter, just sitting there with me.

220px-Turdus_viscivorus_in_Baikonur-town_001And there is the thrush –  mistle I think, rather than song – who started singing from February dawns (which are late here, an hour ahead of the UK) and who continues now, even as I write this in the early evening. He has favourite phrases, some almost nightingale pure and so loud you can focus on little else but his beauty, sitting proudly, as he does, on the topmost branches of the trees around the house. He may be three birds or more, but for me, it is one solitary companion lifting the heart, and the mood. He is marking his territory, impressing the lady thrushes, living his few short years on this earth to the height of his ability. And he speaks to my soul. I am writing this, and have made decisions about my workload and will now focus on writing and editing, as I have always wanted to do. The sound of the bird song reminds me there is so much more to living than the stuff the 21st-century calls ‘life’, and you can go days without spending more than a few euros here. So my mood is lifting, and once again I can see depression for what it is – an illness that comes and goes, like the weather. Spring is here, and soon we should get a warm settled spell.

I haven’t stopped reading poetry of course, and although I would love to find a reason to include some lines from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here, (rightfully one of the most famous love songs to nature, and a treatise on life, and death, and feeling and  – well read it…), that would be to cheat Mr Thrush and the joy he has brought me recently. So instead here is Thomas Hardy, who could often reflect, gloomily, on the human condition and in this poem of the winter, of the turn of the year and a century (it was written in 1900) he meditates on what feels like a dark time, for him, for the world.  Even as the song of the thrush intrudes upon such thoughts, he can’t be sure why the bird is so cheerful, or whether it is truly a sign of hope. The poem is more complex than I make it sound and reflects the scientific and religious developments of the 19th century and the conflict this caused many, but for me, at this moment, it is simply a tribute to the power of the smallest things to bring the greatest hope.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

On post-Christmas blues and the possibilities for a Happy New Year

 

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Oh dear – it is our first New Year’s Eve in France and I feel all wrong. Isn’t Christmas peculiar? I commented on a friend’s Facebook post yesterday, one in which they asked how many others were feeling like ‘two peas in a drum’ after the visitors had left. Responses, including mine, suggested they were far from alone. The intensity and joy of a happy Christmas (and I recognise that many find it a deeply lonely and distressing day), all the preparations, the presents, the anticipation and the sparkle can leave a very hollow feeling in their wake. I know from social media that many fall ill with viruses even before the celebrations get going, so I feel especially peevish complaining after four lovely days with our grown-up children, but I feel really low now they have returned home. Suffering as I do from anxiety and depression I have to note how vulnerable I feel, and take steps to recognise the triggers. So uneaten food remains in the fridge and their beds aren’t going to be stripped for a while yet…

My husband has a very sensible view of the celebrations – he could hold them at any time of year, he says. It is just a matter of getting the right people around you and focusing your attention on them, instead of on work, phone or laptop. We played lots of board games over Christmas and talked. In fact, the kids talked so much they squabbled just like the old days and I really felt like ‘Mum’ again. In the real world, on the remaining 364 days of the year, I am whatever passes for ‘myself’ so it came as a nasty shock to feel so bereft and lacking in purpose when they went home. I have always loved the Pam Ayres poem ‘A September Song’, in which she describes the feelings of a mum watching her son packing up for University. Lines such as:

a ghastly leaden feeling like the ending of it all

or

I am fearful of the emptiness when you depart the room,

And a silence settles round us like the stillness of a tomb

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The fledgelings

describe perfectly the emptiness in our house now the liveliness of our two twenty-somethings, with their endless iPhone notifications and the dust of London on their feet, are back living their own lives. They are fledged and building futures in the real world. Peter and I will continue our French escape, knowing that they both loved our new home. They’ll be back and we’ll be over, so it isn’t the end of anything. But Christmas, the party side of it anyway, does that to us every year – it expects something of us, asks us to get excited and then whips the sparkle out from under us without so much as a by your leave.  It’s a wonder we fall for it  – but we do (and I love it while it lasts!). It is at times like this that I envy people of faith (any faith). The Christmas Nativity offers so much to look forward to and hope for, with possibilities for happiness that most of us find hard to relate to in the 21st Century.

So it is the end of another year. We will wake up tomorrow morning and it will be 2019. I have lots to look forward to – more books to write, a first spring in Brittany, the challenges of learning French (very slowly) – and must try and relax and just let it all be. I’ve never managed to do that before, so my hopes are not high on that one, but it is worth giving it a go.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I know, as the first fireworks light up the wintry skies, that apart from good health and happiness, I am wishing for a Trump resignation, a People’s Vote on Brexit (and a change of mind), a flicker of acknowledgement that the world is heading in a direction, towards hatred and intolerance and perhaps even war, and a drawing back from that and from the push for more and more ‘stuff’ that inevitably damages our planet.

I am sure I will be called a hopeless dreamer but hey ho, I can’t be any other way.

So a very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, and thank you for your support in 2018. Hopefully, I will blog more regularly in the coming months so I hope you will stay with me as I try to stop wriggling out of writing…

 

 

The importance of woodland in a worrying world…

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin Birth
(Greg Lake ‘I believe in Father Christmas’)

unnamedIt is raining again, a fine misty rain that curls my hair and dampens everything, including my mood. I started this blog post before the additional chaos of a leadership challenge and more Brexit shenanigans, but also before the shooting in Strasbourg, a beautiful city in France, where we have recently settled. I realised this morning, as I sat gazing out into the forest, watching the slow tears of a wet Wednesday that it is harder than ever to see a real meaning in the Christmas holidays this year. In the UK, and in France, extremists on all sides are using politics as a vehicle to undermine fellow feeling, kindness and recognition that we are all inhabitants of one, enormous and very fragile planet. Nationalism rears up, obviously in riots and insidiously in parliament. We must take care of ourselves, and hold on to our values. Unless it seems, you are a Tory politician or a leading Labour member where the lines are blurred and everything is up for grabs. And as for Greg lake, well it was always an anti-Christmas song, and this year it seems we are definitely getting the Christmas we deserve.

So, back to the wonderful woods…

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The Ladybird Book of Trees

We have had two weeks of wet and windy weather here in Brittany and it has turned our wonderful forest into something of an obstacle course. Paths I walked in early summer are now lost under a thick carpet of leaves, once burnished bronze and gold but now slimy and brown, and I turn disorientated along a track leading me into clearings I don’t recognise and trees that, until spring clothes them in green again, all look quite similar. I know my ash from my oak and my beech from my horse chestnut, but that is about the extent of my memory, An endless reference to the Ladybird Book of Trees in my youth has taken me little further than a love of the artist who illustrated it, S.R. Badmin.

Yesterday it was dry, so I ventured out to enjoy the breeze in my hair and the fresh air in my lungs. I found, however, branches strewn across the path and the leaves hiding a multitude of trip hazards. Within metres, I went up to my poor sore ankle in a puddle of water after treading, as I thought, on firm ground. Sadly a thick layer of leaves was disguising said puddle and my mistrust of the carpeted forest floor was deepened ten minutes later, as I skidded on a hidden, huge pile of dog poo. I have become closer to the natural world here than ever before, but no longer am I gazing romantically at the treetops, listening and looking out for wildlife (we still haven’t seen a squirrel…) and instead am looking only downwards at my boring, brown walking boots, fearful of going base over apex, cracking ankle or skull.

I rarely venture off the beaten track on my own now, even with my trusty hound Teddy to keep me company. The shallow streams of summer are gushing torrents marking ridges in the paths as they overflow and take all before them. What passed for bridges just weeks ago are now slippery exercises in tightrope walking and the grasping fingers of fine branches whip across my face and the knobbly toes of the tree roots are eager to snare the unwary and unwatching.

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A korrigan

In the summer, when I wandered into darker places, the primaeval nature of the dense mixed woodland sent a shiver down my spine – it became quieter, less understood and full of the magical folk Breton culture has populated this area with. A rustle, a creak, a flash of colour – nuthatch or a korrigan (a Breton goblin)? That whispering around the stream and the pool amongst the rocks? Was it the wind or a water sprite?

Now the rustle of the leaves has diminished to the soft swish of the firs, and light has poured in, illuminating some of the dark corners and opening up views across the hills. It struck me today that we talk of trees being ‘bare’ and of their ‘naked’ branches’, like arms desperately reaching out to capture those weak rays of sunlight. It is as if by anthropomorphising them, we express our own fear of being abandoned there.

Commonly, a wood in winter is perceived as a cold, hypothermic environment, as wildlife hunkers down to hibernate, or to scrabble for the last energy-filled foods on the forest floor. We ‘trample’ and scrabble over the dying remnants of summer and autumn, and life feels suspended.

It can feel a little random, but I do like to pop a poem into my posts, just to catch you unawares, and perhaps introduce you to work you mightn’t otherwise see. This is a famous one but I always like to re-read it, less for the snowy scene it sets and more for the warmth it exudes. It is by Robert Frost, and I can now, even though we have no snow, appreciate the line ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’ and a sense of the benign nature of the woods and weather the poet is observing – ‘easy wind and downy flake’. The woods, even on these dark evenings,   are rather more lovely than the world outside them at the moment.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

fungiIn the older and less frequented parts of the forest here in Huelgoat the seasonal hover between life and death seems less evident. Despite the loss of leaves, there is an unexpected depth of green and a darkness that can still envelop the late walker (after 3 O’Clock in the afternoon). The tree trunks are covered to their tops with lichen, a mossy coat that gives them a warm-blooded appearance, at odds with the decay going on around them as winter progresses. Pressing a hand on the trunk fills one with a sense of the animal vitality of trees – borne out by their ability to communicate and their ceaseless chatter amongst themselves. Fir trees swell the ranks of the ancient deciduous woodland, clamouring together, often planted as quick growing timber, shutting light from the forest floor and knitting their branches into dark passages. There is still so much to see, hear and to smell, that rich scent of leaf mould, of decaying bracken and wet moss. Later varieties of fungi are still poking their caps out above the top layer of leaves, to enjoy their brief moment of youth before a rapid evolution and reproductive cycle turns them into shrivelled and warty masses.

We are approaching Christmas which is, to my romantic mind, always an imagined scene of frost and mittens, mulled wine and a low sun casting long shadows across a winter walk. Sadly, long-term weather forecasts are ever more accurate and I am not sure when we last enjoyed a crisp Christmas. Living in the South West of England and now Brittany, it is always far more likely to be mild and damp.

The forest here thrives in the damp, warm climate though and I am learning to love it, death-traps and all.

Black dogs and Lost Generations – Andy Farr, artist.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On death, dying and being afraid of life…

fear_slideshowMy blog has been sorely neglected over the past 4 months. A couple of posts have made it here, the last in July, but for much of the time, there have been no words.

Bear with me for a little while…In the past four months I have lost my lovely old mum, and two months later, just as the greatest pain of that traumatic time had seemingly passed, we had to have our wonderful dog, Barnaby, put to sleep, quite without preparation. It seemed that I would never stop crying, huge tears, like those of childhood – unrestrained. Press FF >> and another two months have passed. Now my husband’s father has died. His children weren’t close to him, he was a difficult man and he never liked me much, but nonetheless, it is a final link lost with that generation above. Peter and I are now top of the tree.

I feel besieged by death, lost in melancholy thoughts of my own demise, or that of my husband. My own brush with mortality 11 years ago haunts me still and resurfaces in health anxiety to remind me that one day, it will be my turn. Death is always there, yet we fail to acknowledge or accept it, except perhaps when dealing with the death of others.

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress

Philip Larkin, for the full poem, see Ambulances

Why are we, in Western culture anyway, so afraid of the inevitable? My lifelong battle with debilitating anxiety and bouts of depression leads me to think it is perhaps life I am afraid of, not death. I am afraid of enjoying it too much, in case it brings on disaster. I am afraid of the terminal diagnosis, (though in truth we have all had one, from birth) the potential suffering leading up to my final breath, and the leaving behind of those I love. There is also a little bit of me, I must admit, that resents the fact that the machinations of the world will all go on without me. I am curious to know what happens when I am gone, and cannot bear to think I can no longer intervene in events.

Why do we seemingly wish to live forever? Is it because we are so materialistic and self-obsessed we can’t bear to think it is impossible to continue to enjoy our possessions? Can that really override the realities of old age and the society those in their later years have to inhabit?

Joyous headlines suggesting it is possible for the babies born today to have a life expectancy of 100 years or more belie the distressing scenes I witnessed as mum and her contemporaries struggled with failing bodies and the loss of mental faculties. There were the endless little indignities and that depressingly regular occurrence – the loss of a friend or relation. That constant thought – ‘me next?’.

download (11)In a wonderful article on this subject for The Guardian last year, Margaret Drabble quoted the description of Jonathan Swift’s ‘struldbrugs’ on the island of Luggnagg, in Gulliver’s Travels.  Struldbrugs are immortal, but they live to extreme old age with ever-diminishing capacity…

“[Struldbrugs] had not only the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand-children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions … they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end …”

Drabble goes on to echo my own thoughts as she later describes the horrors perpetrated on the elderly person without a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ label on their notes. One sees CPR used for upwards of an hour on a body essentially at the end of its natural lifespan. Broken ribs, a faint pulse, and any remaining time left to them stuck in a bed totally dependent on medical services for what is still termed ‘life’. It is hard to imagine anything more fear-inducing. Yet people with more money than they know what to do with are having their bodies frozen in the hope of a cure for old age and infirmity, without any real thought to the quality of life they can hope for should they be defrosted.

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death…

Roger McGough – for the whole marvellous, humorous, insightful poem, Let me die a young man’s death see HERE 

My father in law was buried on Saturday, with a full Catholic mass, which to me was clearly the work of authors other than a benign spirit. I have never been to a burial, only cremations, and in my imagination, it took on all the trappings of a gothic horror story. That built it up into more than it actually was – a group of people, remembering two entirely different versions of the same man, crowded around a rather cramped little corner of a cemetery. Graves are dug not by a wizened old man with a large shovel, but by a mini-digger, which sat with gaping mouth just close by, ready to drop bucketloads of soil on the coffin. Floral tributes have partly given way to Chelsea flags, teddies and other items that clearly meant something to the deceased, but which assault the senses of the mourning. It seemed less like a place for all God’s children – despite the holy water sprinkled on the coffin – than the last remnants of a car boot sale.

The fear of death is a suffocating one that can override all others, and prevent us from enjoying our lives before ‘ashes to ashes’ and the final sods of earth are cast over our sightless eyes and breathless lips. The death of others brings this home to us like nothing else.

This blog post is my way of trying to work through some of these thoughts and as you can tell, and I appreciate, it is in no way a cohesive philosophy. I don’t want to die. I have too many books to read; too much research to do and articles to write. I have a lovely husband and two fine children I want to see into middle age.

So perhaps my philosophy should mirror that of Woody Allen:

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens…

I’d love to know your thoughts…

 

 

 

Passchendaele and the management of shell shock

It is 100 years since the notorious battle of Passchendaele. We now know much more about the trauma experienced by thousands of troops during the Great War and we recognise that, even into the 21st-century, service personnel can be affected by combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder on the battlefield, and for many years after their involvement. Sadly, there is still insufficient support for those affected, and it is still difficult for men and women to come forward and talk about their symptoms, admitting fragility in such a tough environment.

Just before the battle we now refer to as Passchendaele (or the Third battle of Ypres) – fought between July and November 2017 and perhaps the most bloody and futile of the First World War – the War Office was becoming concerned at the sheer number of men breaking down with what was commonly known as ‘shell shock’. So General Haig’s adjutant, Lt Gen. Fowke, issued  ‘General Routine Order 2384’, stating that diagnoses of mental disorder were not to be made on the battlefield, instead requiring several days of observation by doctors close to the Front.

So during the Battle of Passchendaele, a tougher approach was taken. It was thought then that ‘suggestion’ could reinforce symptoms and that evacuation to a specialist hospital, or back to Britain should be a very last resort. The aim was to get a man back to the trenches – using what was referred to as ‘discipline and forceful encouragement’, and there was more prolific use of alcohol, which, they believed, made mental collapse less likely and prevent the retention of traumatic memories.

Clearing station

Men who showed symptoms of shell shock were offered time away from the battlefield. Evacuation to a specialist hospital was not to be considered until a man had spent a number of weeks under observation, in (slightly greater) comfort with the opportunity for sleep and better food rations, at a Clearing Station within ear-shot of the trenches. Their duty to their fellows in the trenches and their love of their country was reinforced and the majority did return to the front line, encouraging doctors to consider this tougher approach a success. The 1922 Committee on Shell Shock heard evidence that only 16% of cases had to be referred to specialist hospitals, and 10% were returned to England.  Just 10% of men returned to active duty, it was claimed, relapsed once and 3% more than once.

Post war there was little written on this subject by the doctors involved, and younger, more progressive doctors and psychiatrists (who were not involved in the strategy and who would undoubtedly have questioned the methods) were horrified at any suggestion that leaving a fragile man amongst his peers could lead to some form of ‘infection’ with shell shock.

But during that terrible battle, and until the end of the war, the most important factor in the treatment of shell shock was to deal with the numbers – there was an acute shortage of trained men and every available chap was needed to fight for his country. Their post-war suffering was not the first concern. In fact, it was a real worry, as politicians struggled with the amount they feared would need to be paid out in pensions for those most seriously affected.

One thing that always strikes us about those who survived the war is their silence, their reluctance to talk about their experiences. For many years, this was seen as bravery, the stiff upper lip of the British Tommy and many of the men returning to their families coped well. But we now know that not to speak of trauma, to repress it, can be deeply harmful. Levels of alcoholism, criminal activity, domestic violence and family breakdown are still higher amongst veterans even 100 years later. Giving men a break from the horror, a stiff drink and the opportunity to sleep may have helped a few, but it left many scarred for life, whether or not they ever ‘relapsed’ in the sense expressed to the committee in 1922.

The treatment of shell shock during the Great War, and the consequences for men and their families, for society as a whole and those affected in subsequent conflicts are something I researched at length for Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, and as we move into the last eighteen months of the commemorative period I believe it is desperately important that this legacy is not lost as 100 years since the Armistice approaches.

“The door we never opened”- how poetry heals past and present for a better future. by Vivienne Tuffnell

LGGToday on Nowriggling I am thrilled to have a guest post by Vivienne Tuffnell. Viv has written for me before, not least as part of Dandelions & Bad Hair Days (I have to thank her for that title) and more recently blogging on Words are tools of healing when she published a collection of her essays as Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking. 

Here she writes on a subject very close to her (and my own) heart – poetry. Readers of my blog will know that just six weeks ago I lost my much loved Mum, and I gained solace reading Viv’s recently published novel Little Gidding Girl. I have reviewed it on both Amazon and Goodreads now, with 5* both times and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes a book to challenge and move them and at the same time be a rollicking good readHere she describes how important the reading, and writing, of poetry, is to her and how it inspires her work.

I’d like to thank Suzie for hosting this post on her fabulous blog. It’s a great treat to have a friend who loves poetry as much as I do. Though our tastes in poetry differ a little, they overlap in quite considerable ways and we both believe that poetry is important, vital even, to the development and well-being of us poor naked apes.

You might know of German poet Goethe’s smash-hit book “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a melodramatic tale of a poetically-inclined young man and his sad fate. But did you know that this wildly-popular book spawned so many copycat suicides that it was actually banned? It was seen as the ultimate in romance and despite the ban, sold in numbers equivalent to today’s bestsellers written by Dan Brown and E.L. James.

The power of the written word has never waned, but the acceptance of pure poetry as its primary form has been lost. Young people are made to study poetry for exams and it’s rare for them to continue to read and explore poetry after those exams are over. Those same young people will devote the energy instead to the music that they love because it speaks to them.

Many people see poetry as an irrelevance, a luxury of the few folks able to get to grips with it, but poetry has gone underground and has become lodged in popular music rather than the pages of dusty old books. Song lyrics ARE poetry and like the poetry found on the page, they are as subject to as many variations. From the profound to the banal, from the lyrical to the grating, popular songs get into the consciousness of youth today the way poetry did a hundred years ago.

Yet there’s always a few for whom pure poetry becomes an essential part of their psyche and self-expression. Growing up, I was one of them. Geeky would be the word used now but when I was 17, the word didn’t exist (as far as I know) and we’d be called swots and weirdos instead. For me, poetry said the things that I didn’t know how to express. Not being in the slightest bit musical, I was baffled by the popular music at the time, and when I sought to deconstruct lyrics to better understand the music, I was called strange. I wrote a bit of poetry and a lot of fiction, but it was crowded out by exam pressure, and the last piece of fiction I wrote in my teens was the first version of The Hedgeway, completed not long before I turned 18.

I studied English and Latin at university and I was overwhelmed with the sheer weight of brilliant poetry and literature to such an extent that it was years before I began writing again. I was a new mum with a small baby when I returned to fiction, and I was in my late thirties when I began to explore poetry again. I only got into my stride again then because poetry became the only way I could express the tumult of emotions and experiences and visions I’d become subject to. The terrible mixture of dreams, imaginings, mental wanderings I experienced at that time coalesced around a single volume of poetry, one I’d come to many years after university. Four Quartets seemed to contain everything, hinted at and referred to obliquely, that my restless mind was trying to get at, and up popped a title: Little Gidding Girl. I had no idea what it meant.

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Vivienne

In the grip of a flood of creative energy that I’ve never come close to again, during those three years I wrote more than I’ve ever written since. Novel after novel just poured out of me, the words long dammed up. In Little Gidding Girl  I tried to explore the painful, poignant memories of being 17 and the frustrations and triumphs of being 37, and the world between the two ages, with all its losses and gains, destroyed dreams and false starts and betrayals. To create a novel that somehow married the two people I had been and was now, needed something that transcended my own experiences and psyche and it was Four Quartets that offered the link between those two eras of my life.

 

To find out more go to the Amazon page for Little Gidding Girl HERE. 

Caitlín Matthews, author of Singing the Soul Back Home, and Diary of a Soul Doctor has said of Little Gidding Girl:

From the unknown spaces between what is, was, and will be, messages and sendings break through into Verity’s life: are they nightmares of a parallel reality or projections from a love that has flown? Vivienne Tuffnell keeps us guessing with utmost artistry as we trace the interweaving way-marks in pursuit of the truth. Little Gidding Girl kept me enthralled until the very end.’ –

 

 

‘Delicious drowsiness’ – John Keats on the importance of sleep…

Keats and sleep
The Moon & Sleep by Simeon Solomon

I have often written of the relevance of the poet John Keats to readers in the 21st century – in fact, I am publishing a collection of pieces on that theme (mainly drawn from this blog and those posts written for The Wordsworth Trust) shortly. So when I was sitting ruminating on my rather odd sleep patterns of late, who should I once again turn to? You’ve guessed it…

‘Delicious drowsiness’ is a comment made by Andrew Motion in his fabulous biography, Keats, where he discusses a sonnet – To Sleep –  written by the poet in April 1819 (a year in which his genius developed rapidly). It has always been a favourite of mine, as the language is, I think, delicious. Read it aloud, or under your breath and feel the words in your mouth, and on your lips…

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

 

Technically Keats was working with, but not adhering strictly to, the Shakespearean sonnet form and the language used is gentle and the vowels long, creating that ‘delicious drowsiness’ Motion refers to. There is some debate about the meaning, and whether it refers to death, as well as or instead of, sleep. Certainly, the words ’embalmed’ and ‘casket’ can be suggestive of finality, as can the shutting of the eyes in the early lines;  the still recent death of his brother Tom was on Keats’s mind throughout that great year of poetry.  This sonnet can also be seen as reminiscent of some of the lines in Keats’s Ode to a Nightingaleparticularly  the sixth stanza:

 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

 

Melancholy, but accepting of death; longing for a painless end, drifting off to the sound of the nightingale. Such is the end he would have wanted for his brother.
However, since my early teenage years and discovery of Keats as ‘my’ poet, I have always thought of this poem as a hymn to sleep as relief from anxiety and worry.  My lifelong struggles with anxiety (well documented on this blog) continue, so I cling to lines such as ‘Then save me, or the passed day will shine/Upon my pillow, breeding many woes’  and ‘Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole’ as indicative of Keats’s ability to describe an eternal truth. How many of us have not experienced at least one night when sleep won’t come, and all the worries of our world come marching in, magnified and determined to disrupt our rest still further? We thump our pillow in frustration, toss and turn and long for something that will help us nod off – whether it be a book, hot drink or a sleeping tablet (that poppy with its ‘lulling charities’).

Sleep and Keats
Sleeping in Poppy Field, E. J. HARRINGTON
The beginning of the poem, rather than a reference to death, makes me think of that wonderful sleep of childhood, when a story is told, the light is turned out, and some magic makes our eyelids heavy and ensures any worries disappear.
Sleep is a time for healing. Physically it is vital to our health and well-being. It can also offer us a brief respite from the concerns of everyday life. It can be a joyful feeling, shared in the arms of someone we love. Observing it in our children can be, outside that natural sense of relief at the peace we craved after a long day, a deeply moving experience, highlighting the innocence of the young, and their (hopefully) carefree existence.

 

But in To Sleep, it is the last line that has always sent a shiver down my spine – of pleasure rather than fear. Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards/And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul rival those other great lines in the second stanza of Nightingale…

 

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
        And purple-stained mouth
and those in The Eve of St Agnes:

 

  And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
       In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
       While he forth from the closet brought a heap
       Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
       With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
       And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

 

… for their sheer sensuousness, and the pleasure they offer the reader willing to speak them aloud (in private if you must!). Don’t you agree? Have you others to rival these?
There are a number of memorable descriptions of sleep, or the longing for it, in Keats’s poetry and it is, I think, something we would all do well to turn to at times when our own conscience ‘burrows’, like that mole, under our mattresses and denies us that longed for unconsciousness.
      

On struggling with the writing life – again

writing
writing
My thoughts, indeed.

I still seem to get a fair few hits on this, my blog. Not that I deserve them. No wriggling out of writing has been sorely neglected of late as I struggled with the first edits of my forthcoming book, (Death, Disease & Dissection to be published by Pen and Sword Books in October). My mum has been poorly too, and my sister and I have been spending more time with her in the hope that she can find at least a little joy in her life.

I have to be honest though. I have been endlessly wriggling out of writing, procrastinating at every opportunity and finding any excuse not to write. I have watched social media carefully, comparing myself to others and finding solace in their dilemmas, or berating myself for my lack of productivity. Author after author seems to have celebrated the release of yet another book or highlighted an article they have written. My pitching arm – the one that writes down the ideas that should be winging their way to commissioning editors has been, of late, disabled by the mental equivalent of a frozen shoulder.

I am an author and a published one, but it is hard to call myself a ‘writer’ unless I am writing so I need to get the word count up again. My imagination feels stifled, the door into the part of my mind I use as the boiler room for my creative work is firmly locked. Writing is an expression of myself, and has been used as therapy more than once, when I have really needed to speak to the world about something that is important to me. The love of it must come back.

The world has been, and still is, an emotionally exhausting place to live in recent months, but with little hope of improvement in the near future I can no longer use the horror in Syria, the abject misery of Brexit or the hideous injustices perpetrated by Trump as a reason not to write.  But writing about those things seems too scary.  I sit with fingers on the keyboard ready to respond to the most recent news item and have literally to stop myself from exposing the raw edges of grief I feel to the whole world.

I have, as always, turned to poetry when feeling most frustrated. John Keats , in Endymion, wrote ”In spite of all/ Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits.’ and I have to hang on to the thought that this fallow period will end. Only I can end it after all. I am, at least, reading a lot across different genres and still booking new writers onto my Talking Books radio show.  Other authors inspire as well make me feel, quite without intending to, like I need a good kick in the pants…

So, if there is still anybody out there reading this, rather self-indulgent post, here is my attempt at a plan. Some parts, driven by my publisher and the looming of deadlines, will be easier to bring to fruition. Others are all down to me, and I am hoping writing them down will help:

  1. Death, Disease & Dissection WILL be out in October of this year.
  2. My anthology of blog posts relating to John Keats(with a foreword by Lynn Shepherd who has published some of them on The Wordsworth Trust blog) will be completed by the autumn.
  3. I will post at least once a fortnight here on No wriggling out of writing, even if it is just to share a favourite poem or poet, or review a book.
  4. I will enter two competitions (short story or poetry) by the end of this year.
  5. I will update my website and get that newsletter OUT.

Does that sound a lot? Or not enough? How can I possibly know? I have to get proofreading work in, articles pitched and written and blogs for business done to earn at least something to pay the bills, but as someone who describes herself as a writer, I know the first step is to WRITE.

Brace yourself…

 

Shell Shock on the Somme: keeping the stress of war in the news

The Somme

sommeWhilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen and Sword Books October 2014),  I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July  1st to November 2016.

They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.

Featured Image -- 5439Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.

The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.

It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not  changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war,  leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.

So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy  left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.

So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.

Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.