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

For The Eve of St Agnes – John Keats at his very best

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This is just a quick post, as today is St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold:

That, of course, was not me. The words are by John Keats, the poet who has inspired me and saved me in equal measure. The Eve of St Agnes was written approximately 200 years ago, so this is its bicentenary, and just over two years later the author would be dead, aged just 25.
 
There are stanzas in the poem that are filled with, I think, the most beautiful lines ever written. Today, on St Agnes’ Eve (when, if you are a virgin, and really keen, you can eschew the delights of Tinder, go to bed early without eating and lie, looking only ‘heavenwards’, to encourage a vision of the man of your dreams) I just wanted to encourage you to read aloud the following (stanzas 23 and 24), and let the sensuous imagery roll around your mouth and off your tongue…
 
 Out went the taper as she hurried in; 
       Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died: 
       She clos’d the door, she panted, all akin 
       To spirits of the air, and visions wide: 
       No uttered syllable, or, woe betide! 
       But to her heart, her heart was voluble, 
       Paining with eloquence her balmy side; 
       As though a tongueless nightingale should swell 
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell. 
 
       A casement high and triple-arch’d there was, 
       All garlanded with carven imag’ries 
       Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, 
       And diamonded with panes of quaint device, 
       Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes, 
       As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings; 
       And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries, 
       And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings, 
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings. 
 
Read the whole poem HERE. John Keats was a courageous and strong young man, a genius, his life cut short by tuberculosis. For the next two years, until the bicentenary of his death in 2021 (when my own book about the great man comes out) the Keats 200 project will be marking the anniversaries of his best-known work, most of the poems written in 1819. Do take a look and find out more – Keats’s letters and poetry will inspire and warm your soul.
 
(The painting is by pre-raphaelite William Holman Hunt, for whom Keats was the perfect subject – full of luscious colours)
 

And they are gone: ay, ages long ago/ These lovers fled away into the storm.

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.

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

John Keats on his death bed

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

Hoping ‘…it passes smoothly, quietly’ – on the anniversary of John Keats’s birth, his birthday wish ‘To my brothers’

John Keats

Today marks the birthday of the poet John Keats. He was born on 31st October (the day is not absolutely established, but most likely) 1795 in Moorgate, London and he died just 25 years later, in Rome. During that period he developed with astonishing speed, as a poet, letter-writer and as a man and he has written some of the very best poetry (and the most wonderful letters) in the English language.

Today on social media there is much celebration of this day – not least because Keats remains one of the most relevant and admired poets of the 19th century. He speaks to us across the centuries, of matters close to our hearts in this fast-paced and often difficult world. It is a subject I have written about for The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog in ‘Moods of my own Mind: Keats, melancholy and mental health’. 

Tom Keats

However, instead of his most famous lines, I thought I would share a poem that was written very early in his career as a poet and at the end of his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital. It is an early poem to George and Tom, his brothers with whom he had recently set up home. It is to mark Tom’s 17th birthday in 1816 and celebrates their time together, as brothers and housemates, and the joy they can share in this simple, companionable existence. For those that know of Keats’s life, and that of his siblings, it is hard not to feel a sense of sadness –  the brothers were close, not least because they had lost their parents at an early age. The poem foreshadows the death of Tom, of tuberculosis, just two years later, and the loss of his brother George to a new life in America in the same year. Those losses were traumatic, but shaped his development as a poet,  and although he was beset by constant money troubles and the knowledge that the woman he loved could never be his,  he was determined to ‘be among the English poets’ after his death.

To my brothers…

Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fix d, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.
This is your birth-day Tom, and I rejoice
That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.
Many such eves of gently whisp’ring noise
May we together pass, and calmly try
What are this world s true joys, ere the great voice,
From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.

George Keats

Clearly, Keats was not a great one for birthday parties, or nights out to mark the passing of another year. This quiet companionship on an early winter evening is all he wants and hopes for before their life together ends.  It is about fragility, about familial love and support and the knowledge that this happy peace cannot last forever. He is still finding his way with words – searching ‘around the poles’ for rhymes – but he succeeds in bringing that crackling fire to life, as if it is a character in the room with them, whispering them into drowsiness and sleep.

So happy birthday my friend (and he has been that to me, in difficult times.) There are many of us who would benefit from the quieter existence described in this sonnet.

 

What makes a good ghost story?

Ghost-Stories-The-Woman-In-White-Who-Stands-In-The-GraveyardI write ghost stories. I don’t know if they are any good (although I did publish three, in a short collection called The Marrow Scoop, just to test the water) but it is a genre I enjoy reading and that is always a positive start when one wants the words to flow.

I have been a little disillusioned lately though, as my favourite spooky stories are nearer those of M R James, Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton than the paranormal psychological and positively erotic supernatural fiction that has become so popular. I wonder if we, as a species, are becoming harder to frighten? So many stories and video replays of real-life horrors are available via social media 24/7 that the rustle of a curtain or the scratch on a skirting board might seem too tame.

What can be more frightening than one man driving a car deliberately to kill a random group of strangers he knows nothing about or setting a bomb filled with nails to kill and maim for life? Except perhaps the knowledge that our children might be at risk of harm whilst in the care of those we thought we could trust implicitly?

Perhaps this surge in the popularity of the mythical beasts of horror – the vampires, the werewolves, the zombies – is part if the desire to control a new reality. Down the centuries there have always been people who commit the most wicked crimes against their own, or against strangers, but now it is exposed to daylight and refuses to crumble to dust.

download (12)So I am reevaluating my own spooky tales as I continue to write them for a modern audience. I am reading as many of the ‘greats’ as I can, shorter and longer stories, spooky or less so, classic or contemporary.  However, even Susan Hill, the author of one of the best ghost stories of recent years The Woman in Black seems to be finding it hard to compete with the out and out gore fest of the horror genre, and with psychological thrillers and crime novels, which increasingly seem to delve deep into our innermost fears – of being hunted perhaps, or stalked. Her most recent stories, such as The Small Hand and The Travelling Bag have garnered less favourable reviews. Choking mists and a gothic backdrop can only achieve so much it seems. The chills must come from elsewhere, and the piece be deemed a good short story as well as simply a frightening one.

My best stories (I think) have been inspired by antique pieces with something of the grotesque about them –  a marrow scoop or spoon, for example, was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to scoop the marrow from cooked bones, as something of a delicacy. Another tale of mine, The Ponyskin Trunk, was again triggered by the sight of a travelling case covered in the hide of a piebald pony. But one can only use that device so often before the ‘game’ is given away too early on.

As a child, I remember television programmes that left me genuinely too scared to go up the stairs for fear of what might be lurking. Even my favourite poet, John Keats, has conjured a phrase, in a fragment, that sends shivers down my spine…

This living hand, now warm and capable 
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold 
And in the icy silence of the tomb, 
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights 
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood 
So in my veins red life might stream again, 
And thou be conscience-calm’dsee here it is– 
I hold it towards you…

But how does a modern writer capture that feeling and express it on the page to create an equally terrified response?

RatsnovelI recently read some James Herbert to better understand the creeping horror that can build to a crescendo, sending you hurtling under the bedclothes, seeing a potential killer in even the smallest creature. The Rats certainly sickened me and occasionally left my fingers feeling contaminated by something as I turned the page on yet another gruesome scene of rodent carnage. I did hear scuttling and caught shadows flicking quickly at the corner of my eye, but I finished it feeling sick rather than truly scared. I also read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, but found I was imagining the horrors of the film version rather than conjuring my own scenes from the author’s prose.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson,  did grip me, having seen the film too long ago to really remember the stand-out images, but I think that is more than a ghost or horror story. There is an examination of psychological issues layered within the plot that could almost make one believe one’s very sanity is at stake.

So I am really interested to find out what my readers find truly terrifying in a story. Is it still possible for a classic ghost story to create the proverbial ‘shiver down the spine’ on first reading? Which books or stories have stood the test of time and which modern authors have truly ‘creeped you out’?

Or do you think, as I am beginning to, that we are faced with so much that is ‘wonder full’, so many things possible that were, just a few years ago, unthinkable, that it is almost impossible to be surprised? Will the next stop be the book with an image that suddenly comes to life before your eyes, snarling on the page?

Do let me know what you think!