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

Don’t admit weakness to Marie Stopes: Eugenicist, not Feminist

Marie Stopes
Marie Stopes

I have spent many happy hours researching my book Shell Shocked Britain, and have learned many things that turned my long-held beliefs about the war and inter-war period on their head. Not only has this made BBC Drama The Crimson Field impossible to watch without the desire to throw things at the screen and shout ‘it wasn’t like that!’, but it has required me to reassess my views about certain important 20th century historical figures, some of whom I had previously thought admirable.

The greatest surprise came during my work on post war attitudes to those men who came back from the war with psychiatric, rather than physical, wounds. Eugenics, and the discussions about the impact of the war on the ‘breeding’ of the next generation, threw up incidents in the life of Marie Stopes that have changed my views on the woman I had previously thought of as one of the great pioneers for women’s rights in the 20th century.

I was recommended to read a book called Dear Dr Stopes, edited 170px-Married_Love_Coverby Ruth Hall. It is a collection of letters to, and from, Stopes during the 1920s, when many of the questions referred to her from readers of her book Married Love, published in 1918. It is a fascinating look at attitudes to sex and contraception that is by turns quaint, funny and deeply disturbing.

After the war ended and it was clear that many men had returned from the Front traumatised by their experiences, there was a concern expressed – quite openly in high office – that the British Empire would be placed at risked should the ‘C3’ population be allowed to procreate at a reckless rate. What was described for the first time as the ‘A1’ class of man (the officer class) has been disproportionately devastated by the conflict so what could be done, at a time when contraceptive advice was not to be widely available for another decade?  Stopes was one of a number of intellectuals of the period to support a eugenicist view of the future – Havelock Ellis, John Maynard Keynes, Cyril Burt and George Bernard Shaw were expounding similar views, and army psychiatrists readily discussed the possible, negative, impact of allowing many of the traumatised men in their care to reproduce.

But it was Marie Stopes, as a pioneer of birth control, who adopted a high profile campaign. She supported compulsory sterilisation of parents who were “totally unfit for parenthood” and in 1921 she advocated “Joyful and Deliberate Motherhood, A Safe Light in our Racial Darkness.” and criticized a society that “allows the diseased, the racially negligent, the thriftless, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of stunted, warped and inferior infants”.

Just before the 1922 general election,  Stopes circulated a questionnaire to every parliamentary candidate to be returned to ‘The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress’, which she founded. The statement candidates were required to sign up to said:

I agree that the present position of breeding chiefly from the C3 populations and burdening and discouraging the A1 is nationally deplorable, and if I am elected to Parliament I will press the Ministry of Health to give such scientific information through the Ante-natal clinics, Welfare centres and other institutions in its control as will curtail the C3 and increase the A1.

Ruth Hall offers some of the replies she received, including those that took issue with the implications of her proposal:

...how any institution is going to tell millions of people that they must not breed, or how you are going to get physical or mental deficients, who are sometimes returned to Parliament, to vote for the extinction of their rights, and to reflect on their parents by passing an Act of Parliament I do not know…’

What is striking in many of the replies – positive and negative – is the acceptance of the term ‘deficients’, amongst whom were included many of the men who had but recently been fighting for their country. Such language had been included in the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 and an awareness of the importance of terminology would be many years coming.

eugenicsMarie Stopes was a woman who fought to get birth control on the political agenda, and wanted it available to women of all classes. She was always happy to answer questions, very warmly, from any woman who wrote to her. But why she was so forceful in her argument is not as altruistic as I had previously thought. She even disapproved of her only son’s choice of partner and tried to dissuade him from marrying her on the basis of her short-sightedness. When her son refused to bow to her pressure, she cut him from her will. She wanted a world where only the physical and mentally perfect survived and at the end of my researches I was not surprised to learn that she had sent a book of poetry to Hitler, and wrote anti-Semititic poems, including the lines “Catholics, Prussians, the Jews and the Russians, all are a curse, or something worse.”

Shell Shocked Britain looks at the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health. With leading figures of the day regularly making eugenicist arguments in the national press, and army psychiatrists giving evidence to committees in terms that were eugenicist in nature, why would anyone feel confident that a plea for support at a time of fragility would be met with a positive response?

Talking Books on why we should all want ‘Little Creative Days’ for our children

What are seasons but children’s soft dreams, and
Sunrise, their opening eyes?
Seeing at a glance
The days and years open…waiting,
Fringed with softness, or
Laced with abandon…

(From Children’s Eyes and Children’s Toys by Elysabeth Faslund)

The incredible Pojo
The incredible Pojo

This is SO late going up but I thought it important to make sure you got the opportunity to listen to my Talking Books show on 10Radio.org from February 14th. It wasn’t a ‘Valentine’s Day’ themed show – I have featured poetry and prose that expresses our romantic yearnings on past shows – but it was one that should be of interest to anyone with children, or who is involved with children’s education. I started this post with an excerpt from a poem that sums up for me how important it is to see the world through a child’s eyes and to give them the tools to make the most of a time when their imagination should be allowed to fly.

Tonya Meers kindly came in to the studio to talk about the business she has established with her sister, Natasha Dennis. Little Creative Days started with the provision of craft kits for children, but when Tonya decided she would like to write children’s stories the sisters decided to combine the two. Between them I think they have come up with something that can really bring out the creative side of all children and perhaps inspire them to be the writers, dramatists, artists and even theatre impresarios (well let’s think big!) of the future. Working with and in schools they have developed kits that work across the curriculum; Pojo and the Chest of Dreams for example can support work in geography and Pojo Saves the Rainforest uses puppets to tell children about the impact of deforestation.

This isn’t a sponsored post, or a review of the products Tonya and Natasha offer but it is something of a plug for anything that fires a child’s imagination and after this show you will be in little doubt that Tonya’s stories, and the opportunities the kits offer to children as part of their primary school education, are exactly the sort of thing to engage children across ages and abilities.

When my children were much younger they both had issues with certain aspects of their school day. My son would daydream and lose concentration; my daughter is dyslexic and found phonics a real challenge. They both found an outlet in performance – my son in drama and my daughter in sport – and finding a way to express their true selves, away from the challenge of tests and league tables proved invaluable.

Creative storytelling uses ‘creative group activities to bring stories alive’ and in our interview Tonya describes how puppet making for example can  enable all children to explore a story and become engaged with the story and its message. The drama activities can build confidence and offer children a way to express themselves in their own stories. Do take a listen; I am sure you will be as inspired as I was by Tonya’s enthusiasm and by the Little Creative Days ethos.

Find out more by going to the Little Creative Days website at www.littlecreativedays.co.uk

University as a ‘rite of passage’: On becoming an empty-nester

institution_full_545__winchester_CENTRE_hero (1)On Saturday my lovely daughter Evie is starting her first term at the University of Winchester. She only made her mind up to go to Uni at all at the beginning of August, having had a year out to focus on her athletics and train with the GB high jump coach Fuzz Ahmed in Birmingham. Her friends came home after their first years of study, extolling the virtues of the Student Union and her determination to avoid the debt of a student loan went out the window.

Evie & James in 2000
Evie & James in 2000

Both children (and won’t they always be our children?) will now be at University. James lives with his partner is London and all being well is fully fledged and on his way. Now Evie follows – promising to come back in the holidays, but only until she graduates and can find a job ‘anywhere but Taunton’. I don’t blame her, frankly. But I am sorry, and sad. I actually feel, for a little while anyway, that I will be bereft.

Don’t misunderstand me – I am full of pride, along with the usual parental fears about safety and concerns that they both have enough money (because to be honest we haven’t enough to help them much and it is SO expensive). But not only is it a real rite of passage for Evie, it is a significant one for Peter and I too. We are now on our own for the first time in more than 22 years. We can do as we please; we can swing from the chandelier (if our old bones would let us and we had one); we needn’t buy Oreos and Coco Pops any more or smell endless pepperoni pizza on the go. James isn’t here to play World of Warcraft and Evie won’t have ‘Sex and the City’ DVDs on repeat. Neither will now be here to leave towels all over the floor of the bathroom or underwear festering under their beds, at least not in our home. Oh dear….

Winchester student accommodation
Winchester student accommodation

We have never sought to influence either child in their decision, but we are really pleased Evie is following her brother to higher education. I don’t think it is for everyone and I loathe the idea that anyone would value a degree ‘for the sake of it’ over a valuable vocational course. But when you have a son for whom Philosophy is an obsession and a daughter who can jump higher than the top of her mother’s head, the life skills they will learn and opportunities they will have away from home will be invaluable. Winchester Uni has great athletics facilities and a good Law faculty (who would have thought Evie would ever follow my example in anything...)  We have visited the city with her and although I knew it of old, as one of those places forever associated with the poet John Keats and ‘Ode to Autumn’, (there is a wonderful ‘Keats Walk you can do now) I saw it through new eyes – imagining what it would be like to be a student there. Put it this way – I was green with envy and I continue to be so. How different the experience is from ‘my day’. The Polytechnic of Central London was great (it is now the University of Westminster and maybe not so great) but there was no central campus and no ‘student village’.

Lots of parents are packing their offspring off for the first time at the moment. The lists of what to take are so long we know we will forget something. At least we know Evie can cook and do her own washing and is ok-ish with money, but it must be a huge step to take for any young person. The accommodation seems to be lockable rooms in small flats with a shared kitchen – at Winchester all very new and very nice (and apparently compared to Manhattan…) – but surely a challenge if you are shy, have concerns about privacy and personal space or an aversion to washing up. Evie is very gregarious, but is already worried she won’t be ‘clever enough’. She will be, but the workload will be unlike any study she has done before and to be certain you come out with a degree worth its name you can’t just do ‘enough’ any more. You have to stand out. It truly is a stress-filled time, but hugely exciting and full of promise and opportunity. No wonder so many parents ask if they can enrol when they turn up with their offspring to Open Days.

James 2013
James 2013
Evie 2013
Evie 2013

So Saturday will be a day of mixed emotions for us, as for so many other parents this autumn. We have gone through all those ‘first days at nursery’,  ‘first days at primary school’, ‘first days at secondary school’ and would like to encourage all those parents in the blogging community to cling on to those memories and have a thought for those of us who have no more ‘back to school’ shopping trips to negotiate, or assemblies to attend. It will be graduation next – and then they really will be on their way,

Bless them.

‘Parenting is such sweet sorrow…’

I am feeling drained at the moment. Sleeping badly; feeling physically creaky; eating all the wrong food again after five weeks on a healthy eating blitz: it is no wonder that my emotional reserves are in the human equivalent of the little red part of our vehicle’s fuel gauge. Every stop at the lights, traffic hold up, or emergency brake to avoid an idiot feels as if breakdown is imminent.

I have the most beautiful kids. To be honest they are young adults; but we are always our mother’s children aren’t we, however old we are? At the moment, and in their different ways, they are testing my emotional strength. Neither has an insurmountable problem in their life, they love me and both are happy. But whereas they live through their pain and recover quickly, I have absorbed their recent hurt and frustration and it affects me long after they have, as horrible modern parlance would have it, ‘moved on’.

As I get older it seems to become harder to ‘let it go’, to recover. This may be because as adulthood looms (for them, not me – although that is open to debate) I can sense that the least stressful years of their life are behind them and my role as protector is now a redundant one. They have to go it alone. I have to watch them fledge and just be there if they ever need tips on nestbuilding. I need to be ready.

I was in this mood at my reading group last night. We read a short story by J.G. Ballard – ‘Having a Wonderful Time’ – and then turned to two poems. One, ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath, was wonderful, but lost me for two verses and required the reader to work hard to appreciate complex images. The other was thus allotted just five minutes. We read it and left; but in it’s simplicity it stayed with me in a way that Sylvia did not.

For a Five-Year-Old – Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there;
it might crawl to the floor, we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then that a kind of faith prevails;
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are. I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Fleur Adcock was born in New Zealand in 1934 but has lived in England for many years. Her poems are conversational and witty. However, familiar themes – family, childhood, identity – are approached with irony and such accurate psychological insight that the stab of recognition is almost a physical one. However harsh we know the world to be and however brutish we consider some of the things we have done in our lives, our instinct is to protect our children. We know though, that in that moment we have created a very fragile truth.

Continue reading “‘Parenting is such sweet sorrow…’”

The mystery of the missing grandmother – or ‘O Bessie. Where Art Thou?’

Bessie Addison nee Hardiman at my parent’s wedding 1960

I wrote this post last year and although I have recently discovered a little more about the strange dynamic of the Hardiman family I still cannot trace my Grandma. There are hints that as ‘Bessie’ she might be the daughter of her much older half-sister Jessie who was only about 21 in 1897 and who remained unmarried for at least another 15 years. But it is all conjecture and as I seek to write up and publish the family story I wanted to send this out there one more time in the hope that someone might have another line of enquiry to suggest….

I have been inspired to write this post by Debra, a great person to chat to on twitter and the author of a new blog at A Pocket Full of Family Memories. She has dedicated her first blog posts to her grandmothers, bringing them to life through biographical detail and, movingly, by listing memories that spark emotions often pushed to the back of our minds as we move from our initial grieving at the loss of someone close. It got me thinking about the only grandmother I knew (my father’s mother had died long before I was born) – a woman who was not only the keeper of family secrets, but something of a mystery herself.

My mother is alive and well, aged 82. She has all her proverbial marbles and enjoys chatting through the history of her family. As I am a very amateur genealogist and a social historian in training I was initially just a willing listener, fascinated by what she could tell me of her mother, Bessie Addison, née Hardiman and the Hardiman clan in general. If you have read my family history and mental health blog posts before, you will know that from listener I became detective and uncovered some family secrets that in turn my mother listened to with astonishment and not a little disbelief.

Continue reading “The mystery of the missing grandmother – or ‘O Bessie. Where Art Thou?’”

The Grand National: or When is it time to end a family tradition?

This is an unplanned post, one of those I am prone to put out in response to an event that causes me to think deeply about an issue of importance to me.

As I write, the BBC are once again reporting on the result of the Grand National. ‘A glorious day’ apparently. Hot and sunny certainly, but glorious? Two horses died and most, including the winner, were so dehydrated and exhausted at the end of the race that they couldn’t even make an appearance in the winners enclosure. A recap of the race, explaining why two fences had to be avoided second time round, referred to the dead animals as ‘obstacles’. Twitter is filling up with comments showing various degrees of disgust at the BBC, which is accused of supporting the animal cruelty on display. Suddenly I feel a little sick. Continue reading “The Grand National: or When is it time to end a family tradition?”

How does depression look to you? – Emma’s story

Editors note: This is the seventh in a monthly series of guest posts on the subject of mental health.  For April we hear from Emma, a full-time mum, part-time volunteer, part-time career advisor and a Licensed Lay Minister. She talks of her lifelong issues with depression and post-natal depression and her words will I am sure strike a chord with many of us. She has her own blogs at http://llmcalling.blogspot.com/ and http://majorloveoffilm.blogspot.com/.

I agreed to write this guest post about my experience of depression, but being faced with an empty screen was daunting and left me wondering where to start.  Then I realised that when I thought about my depression I saw images, so here goes.

How does depression look to you?

Is it far away, something that happens to others, just a shadow in the background?

Is it black and all-encompassing and around you every day?

Is it blinding white?

Or panic red?

For me depression has looked different each time I have been struck by it, I guess that’s why I never spot the very early stages, although I’m getting better.  So with the aid of images and the questions I have asked each time I’ve been engulfed, come through my life and it’s ups and downs. Continue reading “How does depression look to you? – Emma’s story”

A little tooth shows us a big, big truth….

Thomas Lux by Dorothy Alexander

This is something of a random, impulsive post; but I just had to share with you a wonderful poem that was introduced at the reading group I attend. We are lucky to have the poet Julia Copus running our group and last night she was able to spend just a few moments on three short verses by American Poet Thomas Lux. However, they made a deep impression.

The poem speaks to me of all those things that I feel are important at the moment; growing up, growing older and learning not to regret anything. Understanding the natural progression of things and learning not to fear them. It reinforces the value of life at the same time as summarising it in one fabulous sentence: ‘You did, you loved, your feet are sore’. And it highlights the importance of noting these things – in poetry, prose, a diary to make sure our precious thoughts aren’t lost.

It is also a call to parents to seize the day: children speed to adulthood and suddenly they are forging their own path.

Continue reading “A little tooth shows us a big, big truth….”

The reason ‘why?’: a first hand experience of depression – Rin’s story

Editors note: This is the fifth in a monthly series of guest posts on the subject of mental health. Rin Simpson is a Bristol-based writer of fact and fiction. As a journalist she specializes in crafts, home interiors and lifestyle subjects; she has had a short story published in Honno’s anthology Cut on the Bias, and is currently writing her first novel. She has experienced depression on a number of levels: her father committed suicide when she was a child, her sister is currently on medication for depression, and Rin herself – whilst loath to adopt a label and preferring to take action rather than anti-depressants – acknowledges that she needs to guard against those dark times that can so easily overwhelm. You can read her blog at www.nowiamthirty.journoblog.net.

Have you ever had a day where you feel so angry or sad or otherwise negative that you feel like your head might explode, but you just can’t quite figure out why?

As the hours go by the anger or the sadness are joined by other feelings – guilt at having snapped at your children, shame at having burst into tears on your boss, fear that you’re going crazy.

And then you have a light bulb moment: of course, you’re due on in a couple of days, you’ve just got PMT!

The relief is immediate. Sure you might still be snappy and weepy and all sorts of other things, but at least now you know what you’re dealing with, even if it is still meddling with your emotional wellbeing.

Continue reading “The reason ‘why?’: a first hand experience of depression – Rin’s story”