2015- A Christmas for thinking, thanking and loving

50928-40681Followers of my blog might know that this has been a strange old year for me. It has flown past in a whirl of various worries, some real, some imagined.  I have been promoting Shell Shocked Britain around the country and have been negotiating the next book with the publishers, whilst at the same time worrying about whether the writing bug has abandoned me to chew the heart out of some other poor soul.

But I love Christmas, and genuinely want to send everyone reading this best wishes for a fabulous festive season and a happy and healthy new year. It is not an easy time of year for many – especially those who are alone, or without enough of anything to make the end of the year (with all its consumer-driven hyped up happiness) seem a little more bearable.

Reports suggest we are largely a secular society now, but many of us still cling to cosy Anglicanism at Christmas time – the traditional  story of Mary and Joseph, the stable, the shepherds and the three wise men – and listen to carols when they nudge their way into our consciousness above the strains of Slade, Wizzard or Wham. Any faith or none, Christmas is always played out as a time of peace and goodwill to all; a moment for friends and family to get together and a short period in which to take stock and reflect on the year just passed, giving thanks for the good things, and express hope for better times to come. It is a time when each and every one of us (even those who say Bah! Humbug!) really wants to love and be loved.

As always I try to find a poem that expresses something of how I feel each Christmas. Having just spent a year promoting a book that highlights the lasting effects of war trauma on both soldiers and civilians, and when we are facing a refugee crisis and violence that few seem to know how to address, Thomas Hardy comes to mind.

A Christmas ghost-story by Thomas Hardy

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies–your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: “I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?

And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking ‘Anno Domini’ to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died

In this poem, the ghost of a bemused soldier, twisted in pain, asks us who decided that peace should once again be broken? He cannot understand how we can worship Christ who died to bring us peace, whilst allowing soldiers (this one anonymous man standing for all soldiers) to go into battle once more. All that was supposed to be achieved by the crucified Jesus has been ‘set aside’. He stares at the starry sky, on far away shores, emphasising the distance between himself and those he has left, who mourn  him. Why have those in government made laws to send him to his death?

This poem is most definitely anti-war. It was written at the time of the second Boer War at the end of the 19th century but is relevant to all wars in all time. We are still asking the same questions. This year we feel even further away from peace on earth. The crisis in the Middle East has reverberated into the heart of Europe to the point where we cannot afford to ignore the thousands of refugees desperately seeking safety within our borders.  We are at war again, and once again troops of many nations are placing themselves in the way of danger. What is significant about Hardy’s poem is that this soldier is any soldier of any nationality. He is ‘your countryman’. Whoever you are.

Borders have been much in the news in 2015. As we end the year there are still thousands trying to cross them to safety and many employed to stop them doing just that. Here in the UK we have much to be thankful for, but as Hardy  asks, why do we put ‘AD ‘ after our years, when actions of governments are at odds with the message of the season? The message of peace.

The meaning of this ‘Christmas ghost-story’ still echoes through the decades…….

 

 

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Reading Classic Christmas Crime – a review

1bdbc562f8c14c622a64e9bd2c2272b0For a number of reasons, this lead up to Christmas is quite stressful, and my own writing is not going so very well. My mother is poorly, my son moving into his first flat and December is racing away with me at such speed that I am afraid to blink in case I miss the big day.

However, that does mean that I can indulge in a very relaxing hobby, pursued from mid November onward. My usually fairly eclectic list of books to read becomes skewed towards those books with a Christmas setting. Those first bells and snowflakes. Amongst books as diverse as The Xmas Files  – The Philosophy of Christmas (full of interesting philosophical questions to annoy your family with as they settle down to their turkey…) and Anne Perry’s A Christmas Hope (formulaic but gently entertaining) I also re-read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and A Child’d Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. I can’t read these books at any other time of year so eat the pages up greedily to make the most of every festive moment.

This year, things are slightly different as I have caught a reading bug that began going round last year, when British Library Crime Classics brought out crime and mystery fiction from the Golden Age of crime – from the 1920s to 50s – by authors well known and new to discover.

I have now indulged to the point where I feel the need to share some of these delicious stories, and give you a chance to get hold of them in the last few days before Christmas and the New Year and find out for yourselves why one or two of them have become surprise best sellers.

download (3)The first is Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (British Library Crime Classics) by J. Jefferson Farjeon. (1883 – 1955)  Farjeon wrote more than 60 crime and thriller novel s popular with other great writers of the time such as Dorothy L Sayers.who said ‘Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures’. His work has been out of fashion for many years before British Library Crime Classics rediscovered it, and it became something of a sensation in 2014.

I thoroughly enjoyed this mysterious and unusual ‘whodunnit’, which overtones of another theme popular at the time – spiritualism.

It is described thus: ‘The horror on the train, great though it may turn out to be, will not compare with the horror that exists here, in this house.’ On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home. Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

It is fun to read, when the language becomes familiar (and anyone loving Christie, Sayers et al won’t find it takes long) and there are sufficient red herrings and false (and real) trails to give the reader a chance of working out what is going on. Or simply go along for the ride – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

download (1)Secondly, why not try Crime at Christmas by C H B Kitchen, published by Faber & Faber. To set the mood:

‘There we were, all gathered together for a Christmas party, and plunged suddenly into gloom.’

It’s Christmas at Hampstead’s Beresford Lodge. A group of relatives and intimate friends gather to celebrate the festive season, but their party is rudely interrupted by a violent death. It isn’t long before a second body is discovered. Can the murderer be one of those in the great house? The stockbroker sleuth Malcolm Warren investigates, in this brilliantly witty mystery.

I think Kitchen was a tad ahead of his time. A fairly typical country house death becomes something far more sinister and stockbroker Malcolm Warren (who has appeared in a previous Kitchen detective story) is left to work it out, initially sidestepping the curious Inspector  – a lovely character- and then finding teamwork solved the twisted little mystery far more satisfactorily. Again, the language is early to mid 20th century and with Warren a rather introspective and thoughtful man, who offers the reader the opportunity to ask all those questions not covered in the text in a fictional discussion at the end, you find yourself transported into the minds of criminal and policeman. Great stuff.

51SFasQJ6xL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_Another British Library Crime Classic , The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay is decidedly odd, although on the face of it the standard device is properly in place – a country house, a curmudgeonly old patriarch and Christmas. But we hear the story through the eyes of a number of the characters before we hear from the Chief Constable who has to unpick a mystery cast with a troupe of characters he thought he knew well, but who make it clear they all have their secrets. …..

Aunt Mildred declared that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gatherings at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered – by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus – with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos. Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, and the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, who begins his investigations by saying that he knows the family too well and that is his difficulty, wishes before long that he understood them better.

This one was slightly harder to get in to, and many of the characters were less than likeable. However, it is a good example of the genre and if you love a good whodunnit there are ample clues to help you reach the identity of the murderer before the end. Just go with it, and I think by the end you feel will feel satisfied at the conclusion (very important in my view!)

514y46avEGL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_I have just finished another British Library Classic – Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries which was edited by one of my favourite modern crime writers, Martin Edwards ,author of the Lake District mysteries. It is a collection of short stories, written by a wide range of ‘Golden Age’ crime writers. Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers and Marjery Allingham are all there, sharing the space with writers famous in their day but long forgotten by most of us. I particularly enjoyed Waxworks, by Ethel Lina White and Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen. One review states:

Like an assortment of presents under a Christmas tree, there’s something for everyone in this Yule-themed anthology … Classic tales of murder and jewel thievery with a light dusting of snow.

I agree- I gobbled these stories up. Often an anthology is patchy, but I enjoyed each story for a different reason and have learnt much about how to drive a good plot forward with a limited word count. Of course, dip in and skip at will – that is the joy of the Christmas season. One minute one is reading, chilling with a glass of something and a mince pie and the next everyone has to thrill to Pictionary and fractious children. A short read may be just what you need to get back in a mellow mood.

download (2)At this point I feel it necessary to mention one book I was really disappointed in, mostly because it has been renamed and rebranded in a jacket similar to those designed by the British Library. Now called Murder at the Old Vicarage: A Christmas Mystery, it is  by Jill McGown and now has a different cover and title (it was first published as ‘Redemption’ in the UK, and marketed to the US with an homage to Agatha Christie.) It is set in the 1980s or 1990s, feels dated and although the murder is baffling, it is only so because there were not enough suspects and the whole plot felt incestuous and hard to picture. It is out of place with the other books it is being marketed with and dare I say, feels like a ‘jumping on the bandwagon’.

51hkOIVokkL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_So I have now got one more to read – Murder for Christmas (Vintage Murder Mystery)  by Francis Duncan. Duncan is apparently due a relaunch; there are some 20 other crime stories in his back catalogue  Apparently:

Mordecai Tremaine, former tobacconist and perennial lover of romance novels, has been invited to spend Christmas in the sleepy village of Sherbroome at the country retreat of one Benedict Grame.

Arriving on Christmas Eve, he finds that the revelries are in full flow – but so too are tensions amongst the assortment of guests.

Midnight strikes and the party-goers discover that it’s not just presents nestling under the tree…there’s a dead body too. A dead body that bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas.

Can’t wait to get started. Do give some of these a try if you are into crime, or into Christmas or, best still, both. I found two via our local library and others are available via all good bookshops (and Amazon).

Let me know what you think, and I would love to know of any books you have read in the lead up to the big day that have thrilled, thwarted or frustrated you. And do you have a favourite Christmas read of any genre?

A very Happy Christmas from No Wriggling Out of Writing, and all good wishes for a fabulous new year of reading!

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Healing the Addiction to War, Part 1

A very interesting and thought provoking piece by Moira Lake, who writes here of our relationship with war, and our seeming need to become involved in the lives of others, supposedly to ‘improve’ them…..

Moira Lake

So we in Britain are at war again. Not that we weren’t at war already, of course. We always seem to be at war. And if we’re not officially at war, we’re threatening war, warning each other about the likelihood of war, debating the advantages of war, cringing in fear of war or looking forward to the prizes of war. The greatest of these prizes is invariably claimed to be peace. What a joke.

Pitt cartoon

And why are we always at war? Well, needless to say, it’s always someone else’s fault. It’s for their own good, after all. Hmmm.

A few years ago the historian Stuart Laycock did some interesting research. He found that of the 193 UN member states in the world today, the British have made war in 171. To put it even more simply, Britain has at some point invaded 90% of the countries of the world

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You only have one mother…..

1597122_10152669845145031_1421512996_oMy mum isn’t well. She is unwell in that way we refer to those who are, officially, really old; ‘well she is 86 dear’; ‘things are just wearing out’; ‘well none of us go on forever’. Diagnosis? Why bother with one? It is ‘old age’ and if we are lucky, perhaps, it comes to us all. So let’s just watch her legs swell up, sense she can’t quite catch her breath, and listen whilst she tells us of something that worries her – over and over again so that very worry is reinforced, and dwelt upon until conspiracy theories take over from reality and there is the inexorable descent into an anxiety state that takes more of her breath, more of herself.

Perhaps she will rally, again. But she has started those sad little conversations that begin ‘don’t be upset when I go dear, I’ve had enough’, and at some point, in the natural order of things, we will lose her, my sister, brother and I.

But I have to admit I am struggling, desperately hoping she will once more be her ‘old self’, flashes of whom we still glimpse as we watch her wolf down dark chocolate, then complain of indigestion, or hear as she describes the behaviour of a friend who is ‘lovely, but…’

My mum dedicated her life to bringing up her family and caring for her husband, our dad, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinsons before any of us,his children, had left primary school. She has been a widow almost as long as she was a wife and has had to deal with what she would describe as a ‘basin full’. She has a strength of character that can be both tender and downright scary, and of her three children I am the one whose ‘buttons’ have been pressed for maximum effect, with emotional consequences for us both. But recently, as her short term memory has deteriorated and her longer term recall become more selective, we have enjoyed some great laughs, and hours of simple fun playing games on the iPad, discussing who are our favourites on Strictly Come Dancing (‘I can’t bear that Katie Derham, with that smile…’) and talking about her family history. No competition, no manipulation, just love.

10862706_10153454611380031_6347351552373342626_oI know in my heart that I am hoping she stays with us not for her sake, but for mine. I am scared – of being ‘top of the tree’, of no longer being, physically,  someone’s daughter, of being cast adrift from that last link with all those memories, of feeling alone (despite having my own lovely family).

We are a lucky human being if we get to our eighties as fit as a flea. Our society desperately denies death whilst worshipping youth, and the elderly are seen as a demographic time bomb, a problem to be solved, a drain on our national finances. Why are we so keen to stay alive, when at the same time we are casting age and experience aside?

Perhaps I am affected by national as well as personal events. The world seems a scary place at the moment. Am I alone in thinking someone has taken the brakes off and our lives and events are spinning out of our control? Mum has been ever present, a safety blanket, the tap root from which much of my life has taken strength. Too much? Possibly. Perhaps I am just afraid to acknowledge myself as an adult…

At some point I have to acknowledge myself as a root from which my own children have branched out and become the lovely folk they are.

I am no longer a child, but I will always be the child of my mother.

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Support Writers and Booksellers – Alternatives to Amazon

Great piece here by Chella, a recent guest on my Talking Books Radio Show, for the Writers Anon writing group blog. She is right to suggest that alternatives to Amazon are out there, and as ‘Small Business Saturday’ approaches (5th December) there are even more reasons to shop locally, ethically and efficiently!

Writers Anon - Taunton's Writing Group

If you hadn’t heard, Amazon, the online bookseller, has become a bit of a monster, in more ways than one. It dominates the online market and it does so by using a

Godzilla Slaying the Amazon monster and supporting indie booksellers img. (aka GOJIRA), Godzilla, 1954

business model that depends on paying its warehouse staff low wages and effective tax avoidance. Added to that, its success at undercutting the high street, at the expense of its workers and government tax earnings, means traditional book shops are struggling.

Last year, I finally had enough, when I heard that Amazon deliberately puts its warehouses in areas with chronic unemployment, allowing it to dictate the lowest wages and zero hours contracts. Not paying tax is one thing, but basing your business on exploiting the most vulnerable is just despicable. I used to do all my Christmas shopping at Amazon. It was easy, convenient and…

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Guest post: Cholera’s Lasting Legacy by Amanda Thomas

Amanda Thomas with her latest book Cholera: The Victorian Plague

Amanda Thomas with her latest book Cholera: The Victorian Plague

Today I am lucky enough to have a guest on my blog – author and historian Amanda Thomas, whose latest book Cholera – The Victorian Plague has just been published by Pen & Sword History. Here she offers a fascinating, and tragic, overview of this terrible disease, which still ravages communities in many parts of the world. My sincere thanks to Amanda and full details of how you can purchase her book are given at the end of the piece. If you have any questions or comments we would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

I have been interested in cholera for many years and my second book on the subject, Cholera: The Victorian Plague has recently been published by Pen and Sword.  I first became aware of the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century when a distant cousin, Susan, asked me why some members of our family had disappeared in Lambeth in the late 1840s, specifically James and Anne Osmotherly, who originated from the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.  James is my second cousin five times removed and Anne was the niece of Susan’s great grandmother.  Susan and I visited Lambeth Archives in London and discovered that James and Anne had both died of cholera, an often fatal disease which causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea, and which is commonly thought to be caught by ingesting water tainted with sewage.

It was at Lambeth Archives that I opened for the first time a box of documents entitled The Lambeth District Sanitary Reports.  These pristine papers, virtually untouched since the day they had been written, were to form the basis of many articles about the 1848 to 1849 cholera outbreak and eventually my first book on the disease, The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849 (McFarland, 2010).  The District Sanitary Reports were written in two or three phases in January and February 1848 and give a vivid insight into the deplorable living conditions of Lambeth’s working poor.  They were produced in response to the 1847 Metropolitan Sanitary Commission to investigate whether better drainage and sanitation might improve the health of Londoners.

London Slums  Wellcome Library, London

London Slums
Wellcome Library, London

In the nineteenth century thousands died from cholera in Britain during the four major epidemics of 1831-2, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866, and in the years between when the disease was still prevalent but not so virulent.  In Lambeth alone in 1848 and 1849 around 2,000 died, perhaps more, but many deaths were attributed to dysentery and, despite the introduction of civil registration in 1837, some went unrecorded.  At a time when disease was little understood and the government was fearful of uprisings like those which had taken place in France and America, it was important to keep the working poor in check.  Deaths from cholera in the early stages of an outbreak were kept as quiet as possible by the medical elite so as not to cause widespread panic; those most at risk of the disease were the poorest members of society and also most likely to cause unrest.  The working population was concentrated in the densely populated riverside communities of conurbations which had grown up and rapidly expanded in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  Epidemic diseases such as cholera are opportunistic and will spread easily and fast in environments like these where there is a lack of sanitation and little understanding of basic hygiene.

Death from cholera is swift, painful and unpleasant, as the dehydrating effect of the disease causes the blood to thicken, affecting circulation and respiration.  In a densely populated community cholera will spread voraciously once it has taken hold, killing vast numbers throughout the warm weather of summer and early autumn.  During the worst epidemics gravediggers were unable to keep up with the number of burials, and the merciless nature of cholera, together with the sight of coffins piled high at cemetery gates, had a profound and lasting effect.  In the nineteenth century cholera was as feared as the plague, or Black Death.  Local authorities and the government knew something had to be done but the challenge was enormous and also extremely costly.  In the new urban industrial areas such as Lambeth’s waterfront, houses for the working population had been erected hastily and without care.  A lack of sanitation, filth, damp and poor ventilation were all factors in the spread of other potentially fatal diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles and diphtheria.

Politics and religion divided opinion and played a part in delaying social reform; ignorance and prejudice impeded scientific progress.  Most believed disease was spread by miasma, or foul air, which did not help the argument for improving sanitation.  Yet whilst the poor were the worst affected by cholera, the better off were not immune, and the repetitive severity of successive cholera outbreaks highlighted an urgent need to improve Britain’s sanitary infrastructure for everyone.  Outbreaks of influenza and typhus in the late 1830s also had an effect, but by the middle of the century the putrid stench emanating from rivers and open sewers, scientific observation and the gathering of statistics were all catalysts for change.

The stories of Dr John Snow and the removal of the pump handle in Soho, and Joseph Bazalgette’s new system for London’s sanitation are well known.  They reinforce the common understanding that cholera is not transmitted through the air in miasma, but rather, it is a waterborne micro organism, a vibrio, which spreads through water tainted by sewage.  Today cholera remains a serious threat to public health but current research and the recent outbreaks, such as those in Haiti and Bangladesh, have shown that contaminated drinking water is not the whole story, which the historic record confirms.

In Bristol during the 1866 cholera outbreak Dr William Budd realised that the working population was at risk of contracting the disease not just from a contaminated water supply but because of their poor hygiene.  Budd and his colleagues made local people aware of the need for cleanliness and also put in place a system for disinfecting affected houses.  As a result only 29 people died in Bristol during that outbreak.

Amanda with the heritage plaque she wrote for Lambeth Council  Credit: Alexander Thomas

Amanda with the heritage plaque she wrote for Lambeth Council
Credit: Alexander Thomas

There is no doubt that the cholera epidemics during the Victorian era played a part in speeding up social reform, including effective sanitation.  However, as the recent Ebola outbreak has highlighted, deadly infectious diseases are still a threat to public health in Britain.  The good sanitation which we all enjoy – and the efficacy of antibiotics until recently – have created a dangerous complacency.  Today most diarrheal disease in Britain is caused by an ignorance of good hygiene, particularly the importance of hand washing and careful food preparation.  In the Victorian period the rapid spread of cholera through densely packed communities was not because of tainted water, but rather by hand-to-mouth (oral-faecal) contamination.  At the peak of successive outbreaks, cholera spread most rapidly through the female population, the women caring for the sick and washing the garments and bedding of the dead.  Cholera is a resilient bacterium and can remain dormant for long periods of time, including within dried vomit and excrement.  Those handling such materials who neglected to wash their hands with soap and water afterwards caused the spread of cholera just as effectively as the tainted water supply in John Snow’s Soho.  Bacteria are cunning and opportunistic and our ignorance of the importance of basic preventative measures – such as simple hand washing – means that we will always be vulnerable to diseases like cholera.

AMANDA THOMAS is an author, historian and linguist; she has previously worked in journalism, and public relations. Her books include ‘The Non-Conformist Revolution’ (Pen & Sword History, 2018), ‘Cholera – The Victorian Plague’ (Pen & Sword History, 2015), and ‘The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849’ (McFarland, 2010). She has advised on the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ (Series 10, 2013), ‘The One Show’ (2016) and, in collaboration with English Heritage, on ‘The Flying Archaeologist’ (2013) 

www.ajthomas.com

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Cholera-Hardback/p/10951

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Keats, melancholy & mental health – I blog again for The Wordsworth Trust

KeatsblogIt is hard to keep my blog up to date at the moment, with lots to write and things to think about, but I can never resist the opportunity to write about John Keats for the lovely Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog. In the past two years I have written about how a particular Keats poem speaks to me, about his time at Guy’s Hospital undertaking medical training and a piece on the work of two young film makers taking ‘La belle dame sans merci‘ to new audiences.

This week I am on there again, looking at the ways in which the letters written by Keats offer inspiration and solace in difficult times, and how much of his work can be seen as ahead of its time in its relation to current psychotherapy practice. In his letters you can find expressions of what it means to be ‘mindful’, being accepted for who you really are, learning to cope with anxiety and depression, and finding inner strength. You find empathy and a willingness to walk in another person’s shoes before judging. To really understand how wonderful his poetry is, read his letters and get to know the man. His philosophy is at once melancholy and heartening.

Anyway, you all know how much I love his work and how appealing is his character. Take a trip over to The Wordsworth Trust blog and see how he wrote those inspirational quotes so much better than all those you find on your Facebook news feed.

I would also recommend you take a look at the other posts on Romantic subjects, posted regularly on the blog. They are fascinating and offer a terrific picture of the Romantic period. I am proud to be on there.

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