Black dogs and Lost Generations – Andy Farr, artist.

Silent+Witness
Silent Witness by Andy Farr

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

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

 

Andy1
The Response – Andy Far

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

100+Summers+Canon+_sml
100 Summers – Andy Farr

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

 

Another+day+at+the+office
Another day at the office – Andy Far

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Sharing Shelley’s moonbeams…

1200px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint
Percy Bysshe Shelley

My poor neglected blog – again. There are no excuses, but there are reasons, this time anyway. My mum died two weeks ago now. The funeral was less than a week ago and frankly, it is all still too raw to write about, and I am not sure you would want to hear it anyway. One day perhaps…

But I felt I had to write something today, about love, about yearning and about the possible joy love can bring. Losing someone is terrible, the pain such a contrast to happier times. The world seems a desperate place at the moment. We are surrounded by terrible images, endless news ‘updates’ that seem almost to glory in the horrors human beings are facing. We long to help, do what little we can and then watch others seeming to do so much more. How tiny and inadequate one can feel at the moment. We live fast-paced lives as if we are immortal, yet death is all around us and frighteningly close.

But we are surrounded by love too if we can but see it.

TR
Tom Riley in Lewis

One of my favourite poems is not, believe it or not, by John Keats. Called Love’s Philosophy it is by his contemporary, however, and fellow Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley. I don’t read much Shelley, to be honest. He wrote ‘Adonais’, an elegy on the death of Keats which, however well meant,  was no small part of the early movement that saw Keats depicted, quite wrongly, as a rather fragile man, incapable of taking the criticism without swooning and dying. However, I was drawn to this poem by an episode of the crime drama Lewis called ‘And the moonbeams kiss the sea’, which featured a rather lovely performance by actor Tom Riley as an autistic artist, innocently forging letters in Shelley’s hand. This poem is quoted in what has turned out to be one of the best episodes of a fantastic series, and turning to my poetry shelves I read it in full and fell in love with it immediately.

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In another’s being mingle
Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother:
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea –
What is all this sweet work worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Full of dreamy innocence, whilst at the same time using the laws of the natural world as a means of seduction, the second stanza strikes me as one of the most captivating expressions of the potential joy of love. Those images of nature as lover are irresistible and lead inexorably to that last line, which charms as it pleads. It is simple and lovely.

It may seem odd to share a poem such as this when I am experiencing a personal loss, and so many others are staring into an abyss. However, it is now that our love for one another is often shown most clearly.

After all, what is the point of all the wonders of the world if we can’t, simply, love one another?

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

Keats and sleep
The Moon & Sleep by Simeon Solomon

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

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

 

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

 

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

On struggling with the writing life – again

writing
writing
My thoughts, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brace yourself…

 

The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness

John Keats on his death bed
John Keats on his death bed
John Keats on his death bed – a sketch by Joseph Severn

Today is the anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821. He was just 25, and suffered from tuberculosis (or consumption as it was then known). His friend, Joseph Severn, who nursed him during his months in Rome, where he had sought relief in the warmer climate, wrote in a letter ‘He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep.’  However, he had actually endured weeks of agony whilst doctors misdiagnosed and mistreated his condition, and the end was a blessed relief to Keats, and to Severn.

Why is Keats’s death so particularly moving? Shelley and Byron and a myriad other well-known poets have died young, or relatively so. Descriptions of and reactions to the deaths of Shelley and Byron, for example,  seem almost theatrical in comparison. Perhaps the way in which Wilfred Owen, himself influenced by the work of Keats, died, just before the Armistice was signed at the end of the Great War, touches us in a similar way. But Keats’s death haunts me, has haunted me for years, and his loss remains, I believe, one of the greatest in British literary history.

I have written many times on this blog of my enduring love for the poetry and letters of Keats. I first read his work after watching a ‘Blue Peter Special Assignment’ about him in the mid-1970s. I was just 12 years old, already a deep-thinking and rather anxious child, and I took Keats, literally, to heart. I read and memorised the poetry, I bought a book of his letters, and struggled, then, with the language and philosophy that make him such a relevant poet today. At 14 I read Robert Gitting’s biography, still one of the best, and over the years since then I have widened and deepened my reading of his life and work. I am not an academic, but an enthusiastic, and I hope knowledgeable, devotee of the man.  His poetry has taken me through some dark times, and his letters,  full of profound wisdom and knowledge of the ways of human hearts, resonate with me in the 21st century as much as they ever did, more so perhaps in these deeply troubled times.

Over the decades, ‘my Keats’ has developed as my understanding has also grown and deepened. Reading about his life, particularly older biographies of him, I began to feel that something was failing to ‘fit’. His letters were full of a vitality at odds with some of the early descriptions, and the sensuality in his poems was suggestive of a strength of character in the face of possible criticism that belied the old belief that critics themselves were so important to his view of himself.

So if it is not his youth, I wonder why his death touches so many? Perhaps it is because of the tragedy of his love for Fanny Brawne, left back in England. He knew as he sailed to Italy that he would never see her again, and could not bear to look at her letters in his final months. Is it because he had spent months nursing his mother and then his younger brother through the final stages of what was a ‘family disease’, only to succumb to it himself?

Is it with knowledge of the moving way he had written of death in his poetry? For example, the sixth stanza of Ode to a Nightingale:

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

Or in the sonnet  ‘When I have fears..’ which begins, prophetically, with the words:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Then in his letter to Fanny Brawne, written in July 1819, less than two years before his death:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.

Or is it, perhaps, the epitaph he wrote for himself – ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’? Those enigmatic words – are they hinting at either a bitterness at the lack of time to make a permanent mark on the literary world, or at a belief that all life lacks permanence, that we are all but brief impressions, impermanent in the face of the overwhelming beauty of life? Or something else?

Keats death mask
Keats – death mask, showing the ravages of his final days

For me, the real poignancy of his death is in the legacy his friends sought for his ‘posthumous life’, adding to and turning that brief and unexplained epitaph into something expressing real bitterness at his lot; the idea that he died in a fury, a sensitive young man railing at his critics, unforgiving in the face of a fate he didn’t think he deserved. It feels SO WRONG, I think, when the wonderful poetry and letters he left behind suggest something quite different. As Michelle Stacey wrote in her terrific tribute to Keats written for The Paris Review on this date last year:

Aside from requesting the “writ in water” epitaph, Keats did not lament his coming end or curse his enemies on his deathbed. If anything, he lamented his continued life. He wrote to a friend of “leading a posthumous existence,” and complained in the same terms to Severn, who wrote that Keats would sometimes weep when he awoke and found himself still living.

There were, of course, moments of deep despair, of disappointment and of loss. Joseph Severn had nursed him, terrified that Keats would attempt suicide when in his darkest moods. But there was calm too. As Stacey points out, Severn reports quieter moment, when Keats looked forward to the ‘quiet grave’ and like Stacey I was struck by the daisies, still there on the ceiling of the room in which he died in Rome. Severn reported that the poet could almost feel them growing over him as he lay there. It was an image to comfort friends, but also one that suggests acceptance and reflection.

The grave of John KeatsIn adding to the tombstone words suggesting that it was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘Malicious Power of his Enemies’ (the critics) that hastened Keats’s death, and then promulgating the myth of the over-sensitive, weakling poet in work such as Adonais by Shelley, the friends who loved the man and admired what we know now to be some of the greatest poetry ever written did him a gross disservice. Before his final months he was physically strong, short and stocky and people were forcibly struck by the energy and yes, the vitality of the man. By changing the epitaph I think that vital spark was diminished, and it took decades for a truer picture to become established. Even now, many think of him as the archetypal ‘Romantic’ poet, laying in a faint over the back of a chaise longue…

The myth endured, and only in the last fifty years have we properly understood the strength of Keats, from his work on the wards of Guy’s Hospital during his medical training, to his political beliefs, the support he gave friends and family, and in the courage he showed in the face of death. Now we can acknowledge the fiery temper, the jealousy exhibited in his love for Fanny, the possible over-reliance on laudanum, alongside the generosity of spirit, loyalty and wisdom beyond his years. The latest biography of Keats, by Nicholas Roe, offers a particularly comprehensive and complex analysis of the man and his influences. He was so much more than the innocent young poet abroad, and I think only now does his biography sit comfortably with his poetry and letters.

I have written for a long time of the relevance of Keats’s poetry to life in the 21st century – his philosophy is timeless; always energetic and fresh with passages that still make one cry out ‘Yes! That’s it!’. And the manner of his death, so young, allows him to remain timeless as a physical figure in our minds. His death deserves to be a moment treasured, not simply as that of a talented man dying tragically young, but as one which brings us to his life, and the stunning vitality of it.

 

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.

 

5 ways to make the most of precious writing time…

Time Flies2016 has been one of those years that has seemed to offer very little  in the way of peace of mind, space for contemplation or periods of calm. The horrors of the world, along with political upheavals, have absorbed our attention and created an environment many of us feel uncomfortable with. I have certainly found it hard to concentrate on my writing, which not only helps us pay the bills but would normally keep me just on the right side of sanity. Even afternoons in a local coffee shop didn’t help me focus, as they did when I wrote Shell Shocked Britain.

However, I have recently been lucky enough to spend a week away, staying with friends in Liechtenstein. It was great to see them, but it wasn’t exactly a holiday. I was going to write, and if I didn’t, not only would it have been a waste of the £100 it cost me to get there (about the same as the travel costs for a weekend in London, from here in the SW…) but I would, in all probability, miss the deadline for my next book – Death, Disease & Dissection (to be published by Pen and Sword books in October 2017).

How often does anyone get the luxury of five free days to concentrate on their writing? Or on anything that means a lot, but which gets put to one side as day to day concerns and worries fill our time, and make the weeks fly past in a blur?

So, having had my week away, and finding it really helpful, I thought I would share those things which gave the 14,000 words I wrote the chance to flow:

  1. Have nothing beside you that is not helpful, or necessary – I cannot believe I managed with my laptop, just two reference books and two printed articles. I was constrained by my one, cabin, bag but since returning home I have kept the amount spread about my desk and floor to a minimum. I was nervous about this new approach, as I am a messy writer, flicking through books and articles and referencing websites to the point where the information becomes overwhelming and I lose heart or go off at an unhelpful tangent. Minimalism kept me focused, and the prep time required before I  set off was well spent.
  2. Set yourself a target…and stick to it – I wanted to write 12,500 words in the five clear days I had, alone in the house. That was 2,500 a day. I write non-fiction, so I was rarely able to follow that helpful maxim ‘just write’. I had to have some idea of the facts to include in the chapter I was focusing on, and that made the process more difficult, for me anyway. But I realised early on that what I was lacking was confidence – I knew more than I thought, and had absorbed more from my reading than I realised.  In the end, I exceeded my target and came home with a little more confidence in my memory…
  3. 15129415_1316465248384782_8424600699653398176_oGo for a walk! – Even if you don’t know where you are going. I didn’t, and I can’t speak German so if I had got lost, I may have stayed that way until I could get in touch with  my friends. The town they live in is quiet, with steep hills and wide grassy stretches to tempt you to get a good lungful of the very fresh air. There was a dusting of snow on the highest peaks, so even if I were fit enough I wasn’t going to risk a climb, but a wonderful network of paths and quiet residential streets offered enough exercise to keep the blood flowing and the fingers tapping at the keys. I couldn’t survive on caffeine alone.
  4. Don’t worry about the time – I didn’t. It was November, and the days were short enough, but in the mountains where I was staying the cloud came down occasionally, leaving the house shrouded in mist that never seemed to clear. My friends did not have fixed working hours so I could not be sure when they would return, or whether they would want their dining room table back! I quickly realised that I just had to get on with it, and ignored the clock on my computer, especially as it was still suggesting I was back in the UK.
  5. And on a similar subject – listen to your body – I have known for some time that I am an ‘owl’ rather than a ‘lark’. Getting up an hour earlier every morning to get more writing done simply isn’t a useful option for me, but I can still write on into the wee small hours if left to my own devices. My body might wake to an early alarm but only feels ready to go from about 8.45.  Whilst I was away I could let my body work like this, as I wasn’t under pressure to go to bed at the same time as my husband, and risk waking him at 2am by crawling under the duvet and pushing him back to his own side. I let everyone go to bed and wrote on. Bliss.

I know I was lucky to get this time away. I can’t afford an Arvon or other formal writing retreat, and I had to accept that time and funds did not allow me another week away in the Lake District. I was nervous about the journey, but I can’t believe how easy it was,  the Swiss bus and rail system being so much more efficient than the British experience.  I have also got the lovely Cornelia Marock and her family to thank for having me to stay, and looking after me so well. My only disappointment was how expensive the chocolate now is, owing largely to the way the pound has plummeted against the Euro, and the Swiss Franc in recent months.

Of course, I have tried to bring as many of these habits home with me as possible, although other work and family commitments impose their presence. The walk is happening, but I still find it hard to carry on after Peter, and the house, are asleep. I have reached the word count for the book and now have the editing to do, which is another challenge entirely, but one I now feel better able to face.

So if you can take some time out, do. If you can’t, then I heartily recommend adopting a more managed routine, and a little more time to write might just appear somewhere in our crowded days.

 

A day in which I solve a murder and learn how NOT to interest children in history…

Apparently there has been a floral feud in my home town of Wellington in Somerset, and a senior horticulturalist has met a sticky end. I have two hours and two miles in which to discover who committed this dastardly crime and what weapon was used in the attack. Along the way I should find out more about the history of the area, note some historic buildings and uncover some local historical ‘celebrities’. A fun and educational morning for all the family. Apparently.

Now I am going to write a proper review of this Treasure Trail for Have a Lovely Time, in which I will discuss this particular day out, with honesty, and I will be sure to mention how many similar trails from the same company we have undertaken over the years which were entertaining and informative. This post is more about how yesterday my initial suspicions that our small town would struggle to find fifteen minutes of fame let alone two hours seemed to be realised; and how unfair that judgment actually is.

How many of us take any notice of our immediate surroundings? The house, street, town, county even in which we spend much of our time? I have a long-term interest in the social history of my family and of London where I was born and spent 25 years of my life, but I must admit that other places have failed to ignite my interest. In Brighton, like many others living and working in the city, we would go days without even noticing the sea, and in Somerset I feel quite the outsider. It has been a few years now, but I still feel a little as if we are on holiday down here.

Continue reading “A day in which I solve a murder and learn how NOT to interest children in history…”