Six years of randomness – blogging a writing life

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” Flannery O’Connor

sixthSix years ago today I started this blog!! At the time I wondered if I would keep it going more than a week; but here I am older, wrinklier and wider, if not wiser more than 300 posts later.

I chose No Wriggling Out of Writing as the title because, until that moment, wriggling out of doing what I love most had become a habit, and as the blogging boom took off I was encouraged to give it a try. I am not surprised, looking back, that within six months of putting finger to keyboard I had decided to have regular counselling sessions, and the quote from Flannery O’Connor, above, is a feeling I can identify with. Writing on here has helped me to identify those issues that are really important to me, and those that support me when I am struggling to come to terms with my health anxieties, a slow down in book sales, or world events that threaten to overwhelm me. I am more confident in what I hold dear and what I genuinely feel.

So a sincere ‘thank you’ to all those who have read my blog , regularly or just by chance. Looking back, my blogging has changed a lot over the past six years. I started off as part of the ‘mummy’ or ‘parent’ blogging community, becoming less keen as it seemed to morph into something that focused more on freebies and PR than on genuinely held beliefs.

I also realised that to be true to myself I would have to have a blog that went against those ‘blogging bibles’ that suggest you need to find a niche and stick to it; write for an audience and ensure you mop up every possibility to ‘monetise’ your blog. Marina Sofia on the lovely finding time to write blog, recently wrote a piece I could really identify with called Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections , and for me it has been those personal connections I have made – with other writers and readers – that have been most valuable. My blog is random; posts about my favourite poet John Keats sit alongside those written on the subject of my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (a book that would never have been written if not for this blog). Book reviews share space with my love of Cumbria or the occasional rant. I love to have guest posts on my blog, and appreciate the opportunities blogging has given me to write for others. Blog statistics vary wildly from day to day and, still, the post that has had most views (more than 30,000) is the quick one I wrote in 2012 mourning the death of David Barby, the Bargain Hunt expert. All that effort to be literary…..

frostWhen I mentioned my bloggaversary to friends on twitter, and wondered how best to mark it, I had lots of suggestions – many involving cake or alcohol – and one I certainly took up was to look back at my early posts to see how I had progressed over the years. Things have certainly changed, and I found that those I like best, and those still read most regularly, are ones in which I focus on a particular poet, or poem.  When I write those I am often working through my own thoughts or concerns, but I find I connect with a global audience of other poetry lovers. Lots of people seem to recognise the ways in which a poem can take the real essence of a feeling and describe it in a way that can get to the ‘heart of the matter’, express your deepest thoughts, help you feel less lonely or support you through tough times. It is in poetry that I think Flannery O’Connor’s words resonate for me, alongside the Robert Frost quote, above. Those ‘Oh yes, that’s it!’ moments that can also be felt when listening to the lyrics of a favourite song, or hearing a few bars of a familiar piece of music. I have changed through my love of poetry, and my ever wider reading of it; changed as a writer and as a person. The knowledge that others feel as you do is never as well expressed as it is in poetry and it has taught me so much.

So, on a day when I am reviewing what I have achieved in my six years of blogging – things I would never have done had I not written that first, tentative post –  I thought I should end with a poem on the subject of loving poetry by the fabulous Billy Collins.  If nothing else, I hope this blog has shared my enthusiasm for verse and encouraged you to give it the opportunity to work its magic on you. If you are someone who still can’t connect with poetry, take Collins’s advice and drop a mouse into a poem – as with my blogging experience, you never know what he or she will be when he has found his way out….

Introduction to Poetry 

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

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.

How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead

Katie Hopkins
Katie Hopkins

I have tried so hard not to write this post. Don’t get me wrong – it is not through any feelings of shame at admitting my years of battling depression and anxiety (anyone who knows me and this blog will know I am totally open about my mental health issues and have a page devoted to posts on the subject by me, and by others) but because I felt I had nothing to add to the discussion of the Germanwings plane crash tragedy and subsequent media treatment of the story. I shared a couple of posts on Facebook, but quickly realised how wound up I was feeling and made the decision to step back and observe, as people I respect and mental health organisations made statements I heartily endorsed.

But this morning, having read a great post from The Blurt Foundation and more of the marvellous Matt Haig (whose book about his own experiences of depression Reasons to Stay Alive was published last week), and seeing the vitriol being poured forth by Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan on twitter, I can resist comment no longer.

What are people like Hopkins and Morgan FOR? Who do they think they are representing? Why should they be allowed to berate those with mental health issues on a public forum in the most hateful and bullying terms and be allowed to get away with it? I am not going to give any more publicity than is absolutely necessary to the comments Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made – if you are interested you can go on their twitter accounts – but the general gist is that those of us with depression are self-absorbed, malingering, attention seeking hysterics who are only after a sick note. In addition, we are a danger to the public and, as a consequence of the Germanwings crash ought not to be allowed to use anything resembling machinery. Continue reading “How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead”

Happiness is SO yesterday – On World Poetry Day, who else but John Keats?

keats19Today is World Poetry Day, following swiftly on the heels of the International Day of Happiness. I have to say that this is the day more likely to see me full of passion for life. I downloaded the Happiness Pack yesterday, out of interest, and the air was filled with the smell of pie in the sky. I am sure it is well-intentioned but happiness is not a switch that you can turn on and off at will. Life doesn’t read pretty .pdf documents, or care much whether you have smiled at a stranger this morning.

Please don’t get me wrong – I long for happiness and contentment but have come to accept that life is rather more complex than I would like. That is why I love poetry so much. Poetry, and the good poet, can distil an emotion into so few words that you can hear or read two or three lines and think ‘YES!!’, and know that however you are feeling, someone is or has been with you there.

I have written about my love for the life, letters and of course poetry, of John Keats on here many times. There is a whole page dedicated to links to posts about him, and how people interpret his work. His poetry and letters helped me through some tough times, and I continue to read him widely simply for the pure pleasure of it. So for World Poetry Day I have chosen a poem in which he offers us all (as a celebrity and appearance obsessed society) and anyone tempted to enter a TV talent competition, a proper wake up call. At the same time he writes with such sensuousness, and sexual reference, that much erotic fiction could learn a thing or three….

On Fame

You cannot eat your cake and have it too.”–Proverb.

How fever’d is the man, who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
On the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom:
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

John Keats 1819

The comparative ugliness of the first lines, compared to the relative purity of the final six, shows us how far a drive for fame for fame’s sake can despoil a man’s life. It is a subject Keats wrote about more than once, also comparing fame to a ‘wayward’ girl, who teases the man who would chase after her and who reserves her affections for those more circumspect. We need to leave our roses on the briar, step back and enjoy that crystal space….

Happy World Poetry Day!!

 

On St Valentine’s Day – Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #4 – UA Fanthorpe

love_poem_400x400So we come to the ‘big day’ itself. The 14th of February, St Valentine’s Day and apparently the most romantic day of the year. Of course, for many it is nothing like that, by circumstance or choice.  There is something rather uncomfortable (and occasionally nauseating) about seeing rows and rows of red cards of various design (and taste) in the shops as soon as Christmas cards are swept into the stock room once more.

However, the sentiment is a fine one and when I called for requests this year, asking my readers and friends on social media to suggest love poems for this short series, one stood out as distilling my feelings for my own Valentine – my lovely husband Peter. And it isn’t by John Keats (though I was sorely tempted of course!)

fanthorpe180U (Ursula) A Fanthorpe was a British poet who died in 2009 and I have to admit that I didn’t know much about her poetry at all, until prompted by Jessamy Carlson  (‏@rjc_archives ) on twitter. Her obituaries describe her as ‘a great role model for all of us who could do with a bit of ‘late flowering’ ‘ and I am determined to read more of her work in the future. I think this poem sums up that kind of love that, whilst ‘everyday’, is vital for the maintenance of another’s happiness and which inspires devotion, understanding and acceptance. I have a very ‘suspect edifice’ at times, and regularly require a metaphorical re-wiring and re-pointing. This is quite different from Donne, Auden or Yeats, but utterly believable and real.

Atlas

UA Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses (Peterloo Poets, 1995)

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

What do you think? Do you still find it romantic, as I do, despite the imagery being more practical than poetic?

Sadly, I could not find a reading on YouTube and there is no recording of Fanthorpe reading Atlas on The Poetry Archive, although she reads three other poems, including ‘Earthed’.

So this week of love poetry has been fun for me, and asking for requests took the pressure off a little as I struggled to sift through the many, many poetry books that fill my shelves. There were other poems suggested, including Because I liked you, a sombre piece by A E Houseman, How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, La Vita Nuova by Dante and a number of poems by Carol Ann Duffy, two of which were included on a companion post by the lovely Dad Poet. My thanks to everyone who got in touch.

So on Valentine’s Day love and be loved, or take heart in the thought that somewhere out there is the person for whom, one day, you can find a just the right poem. I hope the past few days, and my previous posts on poetry (just search in the box above or find ‘poetry’ in the word count to the right) have given you a few ideas.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Post-book blues? On losing the will to write…

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockWriter’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman

That is us told then…those of us who think ourselves writers.  I found another contemporary writer willing to pass on their advice, Barbara Kingsolver, a woman whose work I admire as a rule:

It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.

Oh dear – she isn’t willing to collude with me either. Help……

At the risk of worrying my publishers, I can’t write at the moment. Well, to be more accurate I can’t write books at the moment. Clearly I am writing this blog post, and I have written another post for wonderful The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on new ways of interpreting John Keats’s poetry. But nothing else seems to make sense as it leaves my brain and reaches the screen. Even my love of writing with a pencil in my favourite notebook seems to produce nothing of any meaning. It is a tough time, and worrying about it seems to make it worse.

Shell Shocked Britain, a book that took two years of research and writing, was published by Pen & Sword Books in October. Since then I have done lots of talks and have been marketing it madly on blogs, in magazines and via twitter and Facebook. It has gone well, but I feel as if it has been sucking inspiration and motivation out of me. I am not sure if other writers feel this way, although I suspect it is more than likely, but for me I know this feeling is a route into a more general depression. Scary.

I was of course anxious about the success of Shell Shocked Britain– all writers want to be read. It is a book about mental health  – looking at the shell shocked men and families who lived through the Great War 100 years ago and examining how the trauma still resonates with us today. It has sold well (I was well aware it was a niche subject, albeit an important one) so why are my anxiety levels so high that it is hard to work? Why am I railing at myself for my seeming inability to engage with the world in a healthy way?

Telling myself to ‘just write’ is not really working, unless a post like this is in some way building up to a wonderful bill-paying opportunity. I write because I enjoy it; I also write because there are bills to be paid and I have found sharing my thoughts and knowledge in articles, on blogs and in talks offers an opportunity to make an albeit meagre monthly income. Asked recently whether I would, as it were, ‘sell out’ and write commercially rather than for love then the answer had to be ‘yes’. Just because I don’t adore it doesn’t mean others won’t, and there is always the chance that an idea that really grabs my imagination will materialise from the most unexpected of places.

X2GFS_H1T1My mood is low, my anxiety high and my inspiration flown. I have two more books to write over the next two years and must start making sense of my notes. It feels terrifying. As always, my ability to procrastinate remains stubbornly expert. Perhaps I should take Neil Gaiman’s advice:

Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”

Certainly, thinking ‘Oh my goodness I have to write 200,000 words before the end of 2016’ is giving me palpitations and preventing me from writing even 200.

As is always the case, in life as on this blog, I turn to John Keats to put me right. In Endymion, a patchily brilliant poem he wrote before his most stunning work was penned, he says:

But this is human life: the war, the deeds,
The disappointment, the anxiety,
Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh,
All human; bearing in themselves this good,
That they are still the air, the subtle food,
To make us feel existence, and to shew
How quiet death is.
from Endymion, Book II, l.153-159.

Maybe this period of post book blues is all part of the plan then, and I am simply ‘feeling’ my existence as a newly published writer.

Whatever. I just want it to stop.

What shapes us ~ nature, nurture or experience? A novelist’s view

square peg

Today on No Wriggling I am lucky enough to host a guest post from author Vivienne Tuffnell. Vivienne, who wrote for (and inspired the title of) my book, Dandelions & Bad Hair Days, talks here of family history in the broadest sense, and of the process of writing via the characters in her latest novel Square Peg, which offers the wonderful line ‘She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her….’ 

It’s a great debate, nature or nurture, when it comes to who we think we are. While we may think we are our own person, that person is shaped both by upbringing and genetics and the experiences we go through in life. As a novelist, the shaping of characters is a curious process, half unconscious and half deliberate and I’d like to think that the fusion of the two has meant I’ve created some memorable folks amid the pages of my novels.

I was asked recently (several times) if Chloe’s grandmother in Square Peg is based on my own grandmother. My answer is that she’s not based on anyone(as such) but she’s probably how I’d like to be seen when I am granny-aged. I’ve also been asked how much of Chloe is me (just as I was asked how much of Isobel in Away With The Fairies is me) and I’d answer that question in the same way: a good deal of me is in her.

Yet Chloe’s Gran and her unconventional upbringing shaped her and brought her to the uncomfortable place she’s in at the start of the novel. Gran was one of those free-spirited women who blazed trails through history yet get almost no acknowledgements for the work they did. Trained as a doctor, she chose to spend her working life amid the poor, oppressed and marginalised people around the world, travelling and finding new challenges in a risky life. At some stage, she met and fell in love with someone whose child she came back to England with. She never saw him again, and returning to her home town and parents, people assumed she’d married while abroad but kept her maiden name for professional reasons. A generation before it would have been a massive scandal and a generation later, something fairly unremarkable, yet at the time the birth of a son out of wedlock was something she needed to keep private. As soon as her son was independent, she left to return to the work she loved, only returning when her son lost his wife in an accident.

In the intervening years, she visited her family and sent presents home, usually gifts that reflected the community she was living in. Chloe and her sister are sent a colourful Pendleton blanket, packed with white sage, suggesting that Gran was living among Native Americans, perhaps acting as doctor on a reservation. The battered sandalwood Buddha that sits on the hearth is another such fixture in Chloe’s home.

Like so many women called upon to care for those who need it, Chloe’s grandmother reluctantly returned but never fully settled into a life of a suburban general practitioner and her restlessness was only assuaged by working with the fringe communities, like Romanies and other travellers. Chloe spent enough time as a child among these communities that she grew to identify unconsciously with the marginalised and the outcasts and not with respectable middle class values of those more expected to be her peer group. She also learned a lot of very dubious skills, like how to fight and use a shotgun. Combined with her plain-speaking grandmother’s influence, who taught tolerance for differences of faith, ideology and race but resistance to blind convention and mealy-mouthed maintenance of a status quo of injustice, Chloe arrives in a place where she’ll be tested to her limits simply to survive without going under or losing integrity by acquiescing to the kind of hypocrisy that would make her grandmother spin in her too-recent grave.

It’s not only her grandmother’s influence that has brought her to this turning point in her life. Her childhood and her student days shaped a woman who is combative and uncompromising, yet her choice of husband has also changed her. Clifford has not tamed her, but rather has seen her wildness as something to cherish. He sees her plain speaking as a virtue; not as the college wives do, as rudeness and a lack of community spirit. He’s not the kind of ordinand who wants or expects his wife to be a stereotypical help-meet, organising prayer groups and baking scones; it would bore him senseless and the spark he has with Chloe would gutter and die if she became meek and conventional.

Chloe isn’t someone who needs a horde of friends, but she does need kindred spirits to keep her from sliding into despair, and she’s lucky to find one in her first year of college who keeps her from the darkness of total isolation. But it’s not until their final year when the anarchic Isobel arrived with her ordinand husband Mickey, and a bond is formed between two square pegs that will endure some terrible times. Isobel is someone better able to walk the line between being outrageous and acceptable. She’s had a bit more practise, swapping from a degree chosen to placate her father to a degree in art to please herself, and somehow keeping it secret long enough to produce work her father can see is potentially a career builder. She’s also able to accept some compromise, cutting off her dreadlocks and removing her piercings before she and Mickey start at college. She sees them as peripherals and not really that important to her identity; she can go ‘plain clothes’ for the duration and not see it as infringing on her core identity. She makes the perfect mole.

Authors sometimes talk about back story, of knowing who your characters are, and how vital that is even if little of the background appears directly on the page. It’s about knowing marrow-deep precisely who they are and how they came to be that way. Chloe inherits her grandmother’s not-inconsiderable intelligence, her red hair and her questioning nature, but perhaps not her tough and resilient hide, impervious to the opinions of most other people. Her time growing up with such a role model taught her not to suffer fools gladly but it’s only experience that teaches how to spot rogues and frauds, and only experience that can teach self preservation in impossible situations.

There’s a saying that the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go, and that’s the one secret that Chloe’s Gran really needed to have taught her.

Vivienne Tuffnell
Vivienne Tuffnell

My sincere thanks to Viv for this post. To read more of her wonderful writing, go to her blog, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. Square Peg, as well as her other novels The Bet, Away with the Fairies and Strangers & Pilgrims, and short story collections The Moth’s Kiss and The Wild Hunt are available from Amazon by following the link.

Speaking to the dead: spiritualism, secularism & seeing the ghosts of the Great War

 

Mina Crandon  known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s
Mina Crandon known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s

Do you believe in ghosts? Can you trust in mediums who claim to commune with the dead? In Shell Shocked Britain I look at the rise of spiritualism during and after the First World War, examining why it experienced an explosion in interest and what it offered a nation traumatised by loss and grief. It is a fascinating subject that encompasses not just the supernatural, but issues of gender, the role of religion and the psychological need for both certainty and succour.

Even before 1914 church attendance was declining. As now, the majority of the population would classify themselves as Christian, but religious observance was increasingly confined to traditional holidays such as Christmas, Easter, harvest festivals and rites of passage – births, marriages and deaths. Demographic changes had led to the breaking up of small and close knit communities and young people were finding the strictures of the scriptures less relevant to their lives.

The Great War thrust the established church back into the limelight as clergy were called upon to rally people to the cause and offer hope and comfort to combatants and civilians alike. However, many found the support of their local priest wanting.  The church was sometimes viewed as too ready to promote an aggressive patriotism, focusing on fighting the good fight, rather than offering the necessary emotional support to those grieving. Yet if an individual priest were seen to be questioning the war, he would be vilified in local and national press. The church lost its way and a grieving nation sought meaning elsewhere.

Spiritualism as we would recognise it today began in mid-Victorian North America and by the 1870s there were numerous Spiritualist societies and churches throughout Britain and the United States, which in 1891 joined together to form the National Federation of Spiritualists. In 1902 the organisation became the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), which still exists today.  Spiritualist mediums, whose influence had declined following the the heyday of the séance in the late nineteenth century, became, for thousands of people during the First World War,  a focal point for grief and hope. Great crowds would attend spiritualist meetings across the country and enthusiasm for the gatherings went across all classes.

espiritus‘Celebrity’ endorsement furthered the cause. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge were great advocates for the movement, affected as they both were by the loss of sons to the war. In Shell Shocked I look at some of the key reasons why such eminent intellectuals were ‘taken in’, and at Mrs Osborne Leonard, one of the mediums who made such an impression on them. It makes disturbing reading, but in the 21st century there are equally audacious ‘cons’ that draw us in. Many sought to prove spiritualism was a fraud, including illusionist Harry Houdini, but that interest only heightened the public interest.

Gladys Osborne Leonard was born in 1882 and would later say that she had first had commune with spirits whilst still a child. Thwarted in her ambition to become a professional singer by illness, she turned to spiritualism and was giving professional sittings by 1915.  It was when she came into contact with scientist Sir Oliver Lodge that her fame spread. Lodge’s experiences of working with her to communicate with his son, killed in action in 1915, were written up in his book Raymond or Life and Death – a paean to the afterlife and ultimately to his desperate grief at the loss of his son.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge
Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Leonard worked with the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation established to prevent fraud, which offered a veil of respectability.  However, many later suggested Leonard was a clever charlatan who used auto-suggestion in a similar way to many of the doctors treating shell shocked soldiers, tapping into her client’s unconscious until they believed what she wanted them to believe. Her work may seem feeble by today’s standards, but in the days of early wireless technology it was not difficult for Sir Oliver Lodge to believe that invisible radio waves were acting as a conduit to his dead son’s existence on the other side.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a firm believer and said of Leonard: “The greatest trance medium with whom the author is acquainted is Mrs. Osborne Leonard. The outstanding merit of her gift is that it is, as a rule, continuous. It is not broken up by long pauses or irrelevant intervals, but it flows on exactly as if the person alleged to be speaking were actually present. The usual procedure is that Mrs. Leonard, a pleasant, gentle, middle-aged, ladylike woman, sinks into slumber, upon which her voice changes entirely, and what comes through purports to be from her little control, Feda”

It is little wonder that so many were attracted to this contact, and with the ‘Happy Valley’ in which Leonard said dead soldiers lived a comfortable life. They smoked pipes, drank whisky and took springtime walks.

As worrying as the fraud on the recently bereaved was the exploitation within spritualism itself. In the 19th century, the formal spiritualist movement had been dominated by female mediums, such as the Fox sisters. It was closely allied to women’s suffrage and offered an opportunity for women to make their views known. However,  some of these women were preyed upon by male confidence tricksters who, to all intents and purposes, ‘pimped’ them around meetings and informal gatherings. A movement that had originally given women subject to the restrictive social mores of Victorian and Edwardian society a ‘voice’ now became another way to subjugate them.

In the inter-war years spiritualism was the only way many could make sense of loss and cling to the belief that their loved ones were in a ‘better place’. It stepped in where the Anglican church, along with other denominations, seemed muddled and without a lead, unable even to agree on what was meant by an ‘afterlife’.

In Shell Shocked Britain I look at this subject in  more detail, to assess how hundreds of thousands came to rely on the voices of the dead to keep them in the land of the living. It is a fascinating aspect of the emotional turmoil the whole country experienced during and after the Great War, and one that is rarely discussed.

Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain’: how war trauma casts a shadow across a century

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegI can hardly believe that Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health has been out and available for almost a year. The time has passed so quickly and I am still talking about the book to various groups and being asked to answer questions about shell shock and the lasting trauma of war. The book has 5* reviews and universally praised for its compassionate approach, which is very gratifying. I thought I should just update this post, and of course offer a link to purchase the book – available in hardback or on eReader from Amazon or from the publisher Pen & Sword. Thanks to all who have bought it so far; it is much appreciated and I would love to know what you think.

I know that some readers of my blog (and thanks for that!) already know that throughout 2013 I was writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain commissioned by Pen & Sword History. We are now in the final edit stage, with proof-reading to come before it is finally published in October of this year, marking both the Centenary of the start of the First World War but also the month in which World Mental Health Day falls.

The publisher has given a sub-title to the book –  ‘The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health‘. I cannot argue, as it is exactly what the book is about.

I was thrilled when I was commissioned to write Shell Shocked; not simply because I got my first ever advance and felt truly ‘professional’ as a writer, but because I would have the opportunity to take the Great War and offer up an alternative view of the bloodshed and horror. There have been, and will be, many television programmes, books and academic papers released this year and rightly so, but my book examines the wider, emotional implications of the war, not just for the shell shocked troops but for the civilian population and for the nation as a whole in the inter-war period and takes a fresh look at why we may engage emotionally with WW1 over and above other conflicts. Jeremy Paxman addressed some of the same issues in his recent four-part documentary Britain’s Great War, but in a superficial, and dare I say it of the great man, rather bombastic way. Those he interviewed  must have been shocked at questions such as that asked of a relative of a conscientious objector – ‘If I suggested he was just awkward…?’ I hope I have been a little more sensitive, whilst remaining objective and accepting of realities.

Myths about the war abound and by the end of this first year of commemorative events there is a danger that arguments by politicians and media opinion will sully what should be a sombre time of reflection.  Dan Snow published a wonderful list called ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked that highlights how far we have strayed from what may be called ‘a truth’ about that war. It is important we recognise what was universal about WW1 as well as what was unique and for me, having just ‘completed’ Shell Shocked Britain it was a relief to see him write

By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.

Having read widely and having spoken to those who have had a role in the modern-day Armed Forces as well as the Army of the 1940s and 1950s, it seems to me that the response to the horrors of armed combat are as difficult to comprehend today as they were for those first soldiers faced with mechanised and trench warfare. As civilians we simply cannot understand the bonds between men and women in war zones; we can’t imagine what it is like to see one’s friends blown to pieces before our eyes, or sit to eat our meals with the numbers around the table dwindling as injuries and fatalities increase. We see the names but we don’t know the people, or understand what took them to that front line in the first place.

netley-shell-shock-1917Combat stress and PTSD  are the descendants  of  shell shock. Many (though not all), of the responses to the trauma of battle are the same now as they were then – anxiety and depression, anger expressed as aggressive and impulsively dangerous behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and nightmares and flashbacks. Currently the national charity Combat Stress is helping 5,000 veterans deal with their symptoms. By the end of the Great War some 80,000 men had been diagnosed with shell shock but there were thousands more affected, to some extent by the trauma of war.

In addition, they came home to a nation where almost everyone knew a bereaved family, even if they had been lucky to welcome their own sons home. Many felt guilty; many were themselves scarred by anxiety as they waited for the dreaded telegram, ran for cover as Zeppelins or Gotha aircraft flew over their homes bringing death behind the Front Line, or welcomed young men home only to find them taken from them by Spanish Influenza, or later manifestations of shell shock that drove them to suicide. Relationships had changed in a fundamental way and many found it hard to adapt. It can be argued (as well as challenged of course) that there was a sense of collective trauma, as the prelapsarian world of the Edwardian era was shattered

But as Dan Snow rightly points out, many young men actually found the war offered them a way out of grinding poverty and unemployment and offered them opportunities to enjoy freedoms denied to them at home. Now, we still find young men and women signing up to find a career, to gain respect and take themselves away from a damaging home situation. These young people live 100 years apart but (despite the caveat that we cannot attach 21st century mores to 20th century lives), they are not so different.

And this is what I wanted to express something of in Shell Shocked Britain; that we are a world apart now, as the last veterans pass on and the numbers who lived through that time dwindle, but we are in many ways the same people. We talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the stoical way many veterans dealt with their experiences, but for many this was not simply the British way. There were simply no words to express the experience to a world that seemed desperate to get on with living.  And it is still that way today for veteran and civilian alike – the trauma has no words and if unaffected it is hard to comprehend.

However, failing to deal with the issues the war raised stored up health problems that reverberate even today. Work has been undertaken by psychologists that shows how far the memory of war can cause mental health issues not only in first generation, but second and third generations of a family. A grandchild may remember an angry grandparent, perhaps reliant on alcohol, aggressive and unkind. Or there were men in the family, like my great uncle Alfred Hardiman, whose acts changed the lives of sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. Some of them are alive today. Ask them.

If all the work over the next four years of commemoration is to mean anything, we must try to understand, and I hope Shell Shocked Britain may help, just a little bit.

Editing as the ‘last act’ of writing: Louise Bogan on taking words to heart

editingPoetry, for me, offers an opportunity to live within another’s thoughts as if they were my own. On this blog I have, from time to time, shared a poem that I have come across as I sit at my PC attempting to work at my own writing. Procrastination has led me along paths to poems I might never have experienced if it wasn’t for that moment of ennui – and the internet, of course.

I have no idea what took me to Louise Bogan last night. A visit to one of my favourite sites, the Poetry Archive, always offers a new poem or poet to explore alongside a recording of the poet reading their own work. It is a strange experience sometimes as not all poets read in a way one might expect and the musical tones conjured up in the mind are rarely replicated in the often scratchy audio. But it is still a website of the very best kind – one that takes you on an adventure in words and lives.

Anyway, tonight one poem spoke to me, stuck as I am in my chair in front of the computer editing my book Shell Shocked Britain before it goes into the proof reading stage (when I will visit the Poetry Archive even more regularly I suspect). I have read the three stanzas through a few times, and although I haven’t yet grasped the full meaning (if I ever do) the poem struck me as appropriate to my mood.

My book is written, yet not complete. As I read and re-read the words I have written over the past year the familiarity is such that the work becomes comfortable, yet tedious. The first excitement of the work is over and whilst I can now recognise it as good enough, at the same time the power of the words I know almost by heart is fading. I know that to ensure it is really successful (in the sense that it is as I intended it to be) I have to look at it again and really see it. Having pulled it apart, discarded, re-written and re-built I am, at last beginning to understand it as a whole – a physical book that will, I hope, be read for the first time, fresh, by as many people as can be convinced to buy it.

This poem, with its strange and contrasting images of beauty and decay, of fear and darkness and of journey’s end reflects my current mood. A scythe hangs, harmlessly now, in the apple trees, as the cursor sweeps across the document in front of me and as I sit, as leaden as the statues in Bogan’s garden, watching the book take shape. The words ‘shake and bleed’ before my eyes and it is beginning to feel like ‘a voyage done’. But it is a voyage during which I have fallen even more deeply in love with writing and at times have had to come to terms with some truths about my self as I go on to start a new commission and involve myself in a new subject.

Song for the Last Act

Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

I will read more about this poem, but it seems to me that it has at its heart the story of a love affair – an unsettled and difficult one, perhaps coming to its natural end. The poet is troubled and darkness is never far away; beauty is brief and images and words ink-black.

lbogan
Louise Bogan

Lousie Bogan was an American poet, born in 1897. In the 1930s she suffered her first serious depressive illness and was then vulnerable to depression until the end of her life, in 1970. She was reclusive and disliked confessional and overtly political poetry but was admired as both poet and critic of other’s work. I want to learn much more about her now and read more of her poetry. Poetry can do that – inspire you to a little more detective work and a whole realm of new experiences.

So as I continue with my edits, then undertake the first, second and maybe third proof-read of a book I know so intimately,  I will recall Louis Bogan’s words

Now that I have your face by heart, I look. Now that I have your voice by heart, I read. Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

This may be the beginning of the ‘Last Act’ in the writing of Shell Shocked Britain, but it marks the beginning of a whole new performance as I begin on fresh pages for the next book….