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

 

animal bulldog candy cane christmas balls
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

49001972_10158224415620031_7663499812561485824_n
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.

explosion-firework-new-year-s-eve-december-31.jpg
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…

 

 

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.

Poetry for Christmas #4 – Christmas Sparrow by Billy Collins

Christmas sparrowI don’t mind if you have not read my Christmas poetry posts. I would rather you had, of course, as it keeps the stats looking healthy, and I honestly think you might have missed the opportunity to escape for a moment. Poetry offers an alternative vision to a consumer society seemingly possessed by some December demon requiring the emptying of bank accounts and the bringing on of breakdowns. So many seem to be going down with one ‘lurgy’ or another, forced as we are into crowds of the germ-ridden desperate to get the last of one toy or the first of some new gadget…

Billy Collins
Billy Collins

So I persist in forcing these moments of respite into your inbox, or onto your social media streams and just hope that perhaps this is THE moment you get a quiet time to sit and reflect on the shortness of the days, the sentiment of the season and the world outside the scramble of the queues and the swiping of the bank cards. Today’s poem (#4) is by one of my favourite contemporary poets – American, Billy Collins –  who has featured on this blog before. His writing seems so natural and effortless, and although he himself apparently dislikes the word ‘accessible’ he is for me one of the poets I would recommend to those who call themselves confirmed poetry-haters, in an effort to convince them that they simply haven’t found the right poet for them.

This poem is called Christmas Sparrow and I think I love it most because it reminds me of a Ladybird book I read to my children when they were small, called The Christmas Robin. It is that interaction of the animal and the human that affects us as little else can – a genuinely natural response to counteract all the unnatural goings-on of the festive season. The line ‘I could feel its wild thrumming/against my palms…’ as a contrast to the stark artificiality of the  ‘decorated tree’ where the  sparrow is ‘breathing there/ among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn…’ creates a vivid image of a terrified little bird, caught among the branches of something that should be its natural habitat. Anyway, I love it, and hope you enjoy it too..

Christmas Sparrow

The first thing I heard this morning
was a soft, insistent rustle,
the rapid flapping of wings
against glass as it turned out,

a small bird rioting
in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

A noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft clench of teeth.

Up on a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a small towel and carried it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, it burst
from my uncupped hands into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
and disappearing over a tall row of hemlocks.

Still, for the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms whenever I thought
about the hours the bird must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie here tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

Billy Collins

Do let me know what you think, and share here any of your own festive favourites.

 

Poetry for Christmas #3 – Ogden Nash -The boy who laughed at Santa Claus…

Father ChristmasMy illustrations for this, the third in my series of ‘Poetry for Christmas’ posts (see the previous two posts for #1 and #2) are deliberately used to pose a question that confuses many of us. Is it Santa Claus, closer in name to the model for the great man, St Nicholas, or Father Christmas?  Does the name affect the image, or are they all inter-changeable? I have been told that Father Christmas wears a long red robe belted in the middle, rather than the jacket and trousers favoured by coca cola, and indeed Raymond Briggs. But then of course we go back to the ‘did he wear red, or should he be in green?’. We in Britain associate him with red apparel, and in the end, does it really matter? One day, he might decide on an anorak and jeans, after all, he is real, isn’t he…?

Jabez Dawes, in this fabulous cautionary tale by Ogden Nash is keen to spoil the magic andSanta Claus poke fun at the great man, and even suggest that he may not exist! Quite rightly, he get his come-uppance and Santa gets his revenge. It clearly isn’t all about the festive season – Jabez is a beastly child, even before the obvious trauma of losing his parents, but for some reason, all is always forgiven or excused until he messes with Santa…

Ogden Nash was an American poet who, with his light verse, has left some witty and memorable lines to posterity. To find out more, take a look at the poets.org page, or find a book of comic verse and you are sure to find at least one of  his gems.

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus
by Ogden Nash

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn’t anybody’s joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.
In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies’ reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn’t any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying ‘Boo’ at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
‘There isn’t any Santa Claus!’

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
‘Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn’t any Santa Claus!’
Slunk like a weasel of a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
‘There isn’t any, no there’s not!’

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez’ ribald mocking.
He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp-a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of ‘Don’t,’ and ‘Pretty Please.’
He howled, ‘I don’t know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!’
‘Jabez’ replied the angry saint,
‘It isn’t I, it’s you that ain’t.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn’t any Jabez Dawes!’

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,
‘Oh, yes there is, and I am him!
Your magic don’t scare me, it doesn’t’
And suddenly he found he wasn’t!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

father-c1Take heed all ye who scoff. or perhaps you feel the boy hard done by? I know for many the ‘joys’ of Christmas are a myth, and I accept there is far too much pressure on us to be happy on this one day a year, above all others. But I do think that sometimes the only way to get through this time of year is to believe that if we hold on tight, the days will get lighter, both in reality and metaphorically. And for me, the magic of the Christmas saint is one I cling to…

Poetry for Christmas #2 – e.e. cummings – little tree

christmas treeWe have just spent a happy  weekend decorating the house for the festive season, so it seemed appropriate that the second in my ‘Poetry for Christmas‘ series is the lovely ‘little tree‘ by the innovative poet e.e. cummings, first published in 1920. Written in a child’s voice, it is a tender poem, expressing the love of children for everything relating to the festive season. The poet seeks to reassure the tree that although it has lost its forest companions, it will still be surrounded by love and warmth, and will be decorated when that magical box, coming out of the loft for just a short period each year, is opened. ‘every finger shall have its ring/and there won’t be a single place dark and unhappy’. Isn’t that an expression of love and hope for all of humanity? I would like to think so.

little tree by e.e.cummings

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

e e cummings
e e cummings

What do you think? I think there is a touch of sentimentality about it in the last two verses, but the simplicity of the language Cummings (should it be a capital? I am never sure…) uses gives it a sense of reality to compensate. The voice is authentically childlike in its expression of the magic and beauty the tree represents.

As always, I would love to know your favourite poems, in this case the seasonal ones that stay with you, perhaps all year round…

Poetry for Christmas #1 Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare

mistletoe2016 has flown by. It has been a strange, and horrible, twelve months in many ways and I feel barely ready for winter. However, the Advent calendar is up, and nine doors are opened already, so in order to make sure December does not fly past in a haze I have determined to do something Christmassy every day. I can’t control what is going on in a world which seems ever more determined to implode, consumed by hate and denying our humanity, and I am well aware that there is an unhappy side to the festive period based on a different kind of consumption. But there is magic too, and poetry can express some of that feeling of love, anticipation, joy and sparkle that is the best of the season.

So I thought I would share some of my Christmas favourites on my blog. I love talking and writing about poetry and I hope , even if you don’t consider yourself a poetry lover, you can find some lines that resonate with you.

So the first poem is Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956).

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

I suppose one could think this poem a little sinister – the author has no idea who has kissed him, and there is no confirmation that the ghostly kiss is welcomed. de la Mare is well-known for his ghost stories, some of them horror-filled.

Walter-de la Mare
Walter de la Mare

However, loneliness is expressed; the poet is on his own, the party-goers have left and he is under the mistletoe in that misty place between sleep and wakefulness, nodding off as the candle burns low. The colour of the mistletoe is still fresh, however, and it has that fairy quality that suggests the seasonal magic is at work. Walter de la Mare expressed his view that there are two types of imagination; one childlike and visionary, and the other (present when the childlike quality is lost) more intellectual. At Christmas I feel I return to childhood, with perhaps unrealistic hopes for the perfect holiday.

So I am with the magic, and the romance and the gentle, sleepy love that this poem expresses. What do you think? What are your favourite Christmas poems?

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…….

 

 

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!

Sitting under Walter de la Mare’s ‘Mistletoe’: Happy Christmas from an exhausted writer…

merry-christmas2014 has passed in a blur. As did 2013. Does writing a book shorten your life? Now there is a question. I have put on two stone and done little exercise, sitting as I have done in coffee shops, or at my PC scribbling or tapping away to get Shell Shocked Britain completed and ‘out there’. Certainly the Grogan bum is now spreading indelicately over the edges of the chair as I write this. New year resolutions include better planning and more exercise -new ways of working that I tried to stick to early in 2014. So we shall see…

So this is Christmas…. I did one of those Facebook ‘review’ things that use the photos you have posted to create an overview of the past 12 months. Mine was so boring in comparison to those my friends were posting that I didn’t bother. Now I have two more to write for Pen & Sword over the next two years and at present my batteries are drained to the dregs. Even rubbing them between my hands, blowing on them and putting them back can’t get the words flowing again. Fingers crossed for 2015.

Anyway, I am whining. I have had a great year, challenging myself in ways I never imagined (talks on Shell Shocked Britain have gone really well despite my nerves), so I wanted to write this as a THANK YOU to everyone who has read this blog and taken an interest in my work. If you have bought a book, that is great but a re-tweet or Facebook share is also greatly appreciated.

images (4)As always, poetry is something I read avidly at Christmas. A poem can distil the essence of the season and strike an emotional chord worthy of a ding dong merrily on high. This year I have chosen Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare. It reminds me of the late evening Christmas Day, when I relax in the sitting room, with just the Christmas tree lights to cast shadows around the room. It is a moment of sadness in a way, but I try to ignore the fact that all that mad spending and celebration is drawing to a close for another year and just enjoy that moment of peace, looking forward to the new year.

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

Have a lovely Christmas everyone, take care of yourselves and each other and let us hope the new year is a happy and healthy one for us all.

A Very Poetic Happy Christmas from No Wriggling & Talking Books!

Merry-Christmas-EveWell – just two more sleeps till Christmas Day – why does the time pass so quickly when you are an adult, yet Christmas seems to take forever to arrive when you are a child? Even though our children are now at University there is still an Advent Calendar pinned to the door and it seems barely a week since I opened the first door – yet here we are – on the Eve of Christmas Eve….

My final Talking Books show for 2013 was on 10Radio on Friday and it was a very festive edition, with other presenters chiming in with a reading. There was music too, and I got a request in, at last (I usually offer my guest the opportunity to choose the track we play out with). I chose ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ by Jon and Vangelis, which was a Christmas record back in 1981, although it is rarely played as one. It certainly makes me feel wonderfully Christmassy, as does ‘Gaudate’ by Steeleye Span and ‘Stop the Cavalry’ by Jona Lewie, which we also played. With poems by Carol Ann Duffy and John Betjemen and readings from A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens we linked through the music to the last reading. I chose a piece by Elizabeth Bowen, from Home for Christmas, and read it just before we played the Jon and Vangelis. Home is somewhere we all seek at Christmas, whether physically or metaphorically and the reading offered a wonderful (a word I use too often on my show, I realise – I must get the thesaurus out…) message.

We also got a little bit political when the piece from A Christmas Carol – where Scrooge is approached for money for the poor at the start of the book – was resonant of recent Government policies and the proliferation of food banks. Alongside the Carol Ann Duffy poem about war it became clear that the very nature of our humanity can be reflected upon at this time of year, and should be.

As a celebration of the season I would also like to add a lovely poem, called ‘little tree’ by E.E. Cummings, a poet who could be controversial – in both style and subject matter. Even the printing of his name is the subject of scholarly discussion. However, here he writes so precisely that one can almost hear the child’s conversation with the tree about to grace the house and we can feel, with him, a solace in the loss of it’s natural habitat as it takes on a new role at the heart of the home. Simple and real.

LITTLE tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

I love it. It is my Christmas message to all those of you good enough to read my blog (which I admit has had less of my attention this year as I concentrated on writing Shell Shocked Britain) and to all my friends on social media. Thank you for your friendship – it means such a lot to me.