After a winter in Brittany – ‘The Darkling Thrush’

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Yesterday…

It snowed again this morning. On the 14th of April. Yesterday was so beautiful – the sky blue with a very few clouds occasionally blurring the warm sunshine – so waking up to the white stuff was a complete surprise. It didn’t last long and didn’t settle, but it was a reminder that our first winter in France has been unpredictable – in weather and in mood.

It is not the fault of Finistere; we knew we weren’t moving to a climate very different from the one we were leaving in the South West of England. It is about two degrees warmer here, and drier in summer, but the winters are wet and the skies leaden for days on end. Living so close to the forest we see both the benefit of this rain, and its disadvantages. The spring greens are just taking over from the brown, bare branches and we know that there will soon be a carpet of shiny green under our feet, and dry firm paths where now there is wet leaf mould and slippery mud. This is a fantastic place to live, and we have no regrets. But we now know why many here head for sunnier climes in January and February – it is a time to ‘tough it out’, rather than feed the soul, for me anyway.

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Our wonderful, primeval, but muddy forest

My mood became very low, and I was unable to work at anything other than routine admin, of which I had plenty. The four books I have now been commissioned to write should have excited me, but instead weighed as heavily on my conscience as the clouds over the treetops, constantly threatening a deluge. I underestimated the difficult transition period needed after the change we had made. I worried about our grown-up children in the UK, was convinced I was physically ill because panic gave me symptoms and I became fearful of leaving the house. Masking depression and anxiety is hard work and that masking feels necessary when you don’t know the people around you very well (even though we have met some really lovely folk here) and are unsure of their response. I was, as the doctor here suggested, depressed about being depressed, furious with myself for not appreciating how lucky I am – always a dangerous place to go. 

A friend from England saved me, in a way, by writing, on paper and sent in a real envelope, long letters two or three times a week, about day to day life, family things, normality (or what passes for it) and wise words. I am hopeless at replying to letters, but I wasn’t required to so I didn’t. What a relief. I can’t thank her enough, or those other friends who write and keep me in touch with the world. I felt a long way away.

There have been some wonderful times, when the sky has cleared for a few days, and the paths have had a chance to dry out sufficiently for me to look at something other than my feet as we walk, enabling me to look into the treetops, spotting long-tailed tit, wagtail, hearing the buzzards mewl and see them wheeling on open wings above the fir trees. There were snowdrops, and other wildflowers I didn’t recognise and days at the coast when the sun was warm on our faces even though it was March, and there was always Teddy the dog, and Peter, just sitting there with me.

220px-Turdus_viscivorus_in_Baikonur-town_001And there is the thrush –  mistle I think, rather than song – who started singing from February dawns (which are late here, an hour ahead of the UK) and who continues now, even as I write this in the early evening. He has favourite phrases, some almost nightingale pure and so loud you can focus on little else but his beauty, sitting proudly, as he does, on the topmost branches of the trees around the house. He may be three birds or more, but for me, it is one solitary companion lifting the heart, and the mood. He is marking his territory, impressing the lady thrushes, living his few short years on this earth to the height of his ability. And he speaks to my soul. I am writing this, and have made decisions about my workload and will now focus on writing and editing, as I have always wanted to do. The sound of the bird song reminds me there is so much more to living than the stuff the 21st-century calls ‘life’, and you can go days without spending more than a few euros here. So my mood is lifting, and once again I can see depression for what it is – an illness that comes and goes, like the weather. Spring is here, and soon we should get a warm settled spell.

I haven’t stopped reading poetry of course, and although I would love to find a reason to include some lines from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here, (rightfully one of the most famous love songs to nature, and a treatise on life, and death, and feeling and  – well read it…), that would be to cheat Mr Thrush and the joy he has brought me recently. So instead here is Thomas Hardy, who could often reflect, gloomily, on the human condition and in this poem of the winter, of the turn of the year and a century (it was written in 1900) he meditates on what feels like a dark time, for him, for the world.  Even as the song of the thrush intrudes upon such thoughts, he can’t be sure why the bird is so cheerful, or whether it is truly a sign of hope. The poem is more complex than I make it sound and reflects the scientific and religious developments of the 19th century and the conflict this caused many, but for me, at this moment, it is simply a tribute to the power of the smallest things to bring the greatest hope.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

For The Eve of St Agnes – John Keats at his very best

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This is just a quick post, as today is St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold:

That, of course, was not me. The words are by John Keats, the poet who has inspired me and saved me in equal measure. The Eve of St Agnes was written approximately 200 years ago, so this is its bicentenary, and just over two years later the author would be dead, aged just 25.
 
There are stanzas in the poem that are filled with, I think, the most beautiful lines ever written. Today, on St Agnes’ Eve (when, if you are a virgin, and really keen, you can eschew the delights of Tinder, go to bed early without eating and lie, looking only ‘heavenwards’, to encourage a vision of the man of your dreams) I just wanted to encourage you to read aloud the following (stanzas 23 and 24), and let the sensuous imagery roll around your mouth and off your tongue…
 
 Out went the taper as she hurried in; 
       Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died: 
       She clos’d the door, she panted, all akin 
       To spirits of the air, and visions wide: 
       No uttered syllable, or, woe betide! 
       But to her heart, her heart was voluble, 
       Paining with eloquence her balmy side; 
       As though a tongueless nightingale should swell 
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell. 
 
       A casement high and triple-arch’d there was, 
       All garlanded with carven imag’ries 
       Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, 
       And diamonded with panes of quaint device, 
       Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes, 
       As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings; 
       And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries, 
       And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings, 
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings. 
 
Read the whole poem HERE. John Keats was a courageous and strong young man, a genius, his life cut short by tuberculosis. For the next two years, until the bicentenary of his death in 2021 (when my own book about the great man comes out) the Keats 200 project will be marking the anniversaries of his best-known work, most of the poems written in 1819. Do take a look and find out more – Keats’s letters and poetry will inspire and warm your soul.
 
(The painting is by pre-raphaelite William Holman Hunt, for whom Keats was the perfect subject – full of luscious colours)
 

And they are gone: ay, ages long ago/ These lovers fled away into the storm.

The importance of woodland in a worrying world…

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin Birth
(Greg Lake ‘I believe in Father Christmas’)

unnamedIt is raining again, a fine misty rain that curls my hair and dampens everything, including my mood. I started this blog post before the additional chaos of a leadership challenge and more Brexit shenanigans, but also before the shooting in Strasbourg, a beautiful city in France, where we have recently settled. I realised this morning, as I sat gazing out into the forest, watching the slow tears of a wet Wednesday that it is harder than ever to see a real meaning in the Christmas holidays this year. In the UK, and in France, extremists on all sides are using politics as a vehicle to undermine fellow feeling, kindness and recognition that we are all inhabitants of one, enormous and very fragile planet. Nationalism rears up, obviously in riots and insidiously in parliament. We must take care of ourselves, and hold on to our values. Unless it seems, you are a Tory politician or a leading Labour member where the lines are blurred and everything is up for grabs. And as for Greg lake, well it was always an anti-Christmas song, and this year it seems we are definitely getting the Christmas we deserve.

So, back to the wonderful woods…

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The Ladybird Book of Trees

We have had two weeks of wet and windy weather here in Brittany and it has turned our wonderful forest into something of an obstacle course. Paths I walked in early summer are now lost under a thick carpet of leaves, once burnished bronze and gold but now slimy and brown, and I turn disorientated along a track leading me into clearings I don’t recognise and trees that, until spring clothes them in green again, all look quite similar. I know my ash from my oak and my beech from my horse chestnut, but that is about the extent of my memory, An endless reference to the Ladybird Book of Trees in my youth has taken me little further than a love of the artist who illustrated it, S.R. Badmin.

Yesterday it was dry, so I ventured out to enjoy the breeze in my hair and the fresh air in my lungs. I found, however, branches strewn across the path and the leaves hiding a multitude of trip hazards. Within metres, I went up to my poor sore ankle in a puddle of water after treading, as I thought, on firm ground. Sadly a thick layer of leaves was disguising said puddle and my mistrust of the carpeted forest floor was deepened ten minutes later, as I skidded on a hidden, huge pile of dog poo. I have become closer to the natural world here than ever before, but no longer am I gazing romantically at the treetops, listening and looking out for wildlife (we still haven’t seen a squirrel…) and instead am looking only downwards at my boring, brown walking boots, fearful of going base over apex, cracking ankle or skull.

I rarely venture off the beaten track on my own now, even with my trusty hound Teddy to keep me company. The shallow streams of summer are gushing torrents marking ridges in the paths as they overflow and take all before them. What passed for bridges just weeks ago are now slippery exercises in tightrope walking and the grasping fingers of fine branches whip across my face and the knobbly toes of the tree roots are eager to snare the unwary and unwatching.

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A korrigan

In the summer, when I wandered into darker places, the primaeval nature of the dense mixed woodland sent a shiver down my spine – it became quieter, less understood and full of the magical folk Breton culture has populated this area with. A rustle, a creak, a flash of colour – nuthatch or a korrigan (a Breton goblin)? That whispering around the stream and the pool amongst the rocks? Was it the wind or a water sprite?

Now the rustle of the leaves has diminished to the soft swish of the firs, and light has poured in, illuminating some of the dark corners and opening up views across the hills. It struck me today that we talk of trees being ‘bare’ and of their ‘naked’ branches’, like arms desperately reaching out to capture those weak rays of sunlight. It is as if by anthropomorphising them, we express our own fear of being abandoned there.

Commonly, a wood in winter is perceived as a cold, hypothermic environment, as wildlife hunkers down to hibernate, or to scrabble for the last energy-filled foods on the forest floor. We ‘trample’ and scrabble over the dying remnants of summer and autumn, and life feels suspended.

It can feel a little random, but I do like to pop a poem into my posts, just to catch you unawares, and perhaps introduce you to work you mightn’t otherwise see. This is a famous one but I always like to re-read it, less for the snowy scene it sets and more for the warmth it exudes. It is by Robert Frost, and I can now, even though we have no snow, appreciate the line ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’ and a sense of the benign nature of the woods and weather the poet is observing – ‘easy wind and downy flake’. The woods, even on these dark evenings,   are rather more lovely than the world outside them at the moment.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

fungiIn the older and less frequented parts of the forest here in Huelgoat the seasonal hover between life and death seems less evident. Despite the loss of leaves, there is an unexpected depth of green and a darkness that can still envelop the late walker (after 3 O’Clock in the afternoon). The tree trunks are covered to their tops with lichen, a mossy coat that gives them a warm-blooded appearance, at odds with the decay going on around them as winter progresses. Pressing a hand on the trunk fills one with a sense of the animal vitality of trees – borne out by their ability to communicate and their ceaseless chatter amongst themselves. Fir trees swell the ranks of the ancient deciduous woodland, clamouring together, often planted as quick growing timber, shutting light from the forest floor and knitting their branches into dark passages. There is still so much to see, hear and to smell, that rich scent of leaf mould, of decaying bracken and wet moss. Later varieties of fungi are still poking their caps out above the top layer of leaves, to enjoy their brief moment of youth before a rapid evolution and reproductive cycle turns them into shrivelled and warty masses.

We are approaching Christmas which is, to my romantic mind, always an imagined scene of frost and mittens, mulled wine and a low sun casting long shadows across a winter walk. Sadly, long-term weather forecasts are ever more accurate and I am not sure when we last enjoyed a crisp Christmas. Living in the South West of England and now Brittany, it is always far more likely to be mild and damp.

The forest here thrives in the damp, warm climate though and I am learning to love it, death-traps and all.

‘Scene After the Battle’ – why we cannot let the 11/11/2018 be the end of the story…

British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks at The Battle of Arras. Courtesy of Paul Reed at www.greatwarphotos.comMy book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword Books four years ago, but it was always about the legacy of the Great War, rather than a history of the war itself. I have been talking to groups recently, and to journalists, about how we continue to highlight how, for many, the war did not end in 1918. For thousands, it continued until their life was over. It affected their families and friends, their children and their grandchildren and is, I believe, one of the reasons why the First World War retains its emotional hold on us now. We are all, still, children of the Great War.

The trauma experienced by individuals and the country as a whole left a deep wound that has not yet healed, as in the 21st century we are reminded by the horrors of war in Syria, for example, and still struggle to ensure those affected, including those leaving the armed forces, have the support they need to leave conflict behind and live without fear, guilt and continuing psychological damage.

Despite the misgivings I have about marking this day as the end of the war, it is still a momentous occasion. It offers a focus and the proper recognition of the lives lost, and damaged, by all wars over the past century and gives us the opportunity to think about how our own lives have been affected. Parents, Grandparents, Great Grandparents and on through the generations – family histories have been shaped by conflicts.

For many, poetry is a way into the horrors of the war. We cannot possibly imagine what it was like to be in a trench, on the frontline, being bombarded by shellfire or knowing snipers were ready to shoot you dead the moment your head was raised above the parapet. Neither do we have any real idea of the terrible strain of the silences, the endless waiting for action, or for death. I have written about Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ on here before, both powerfully evoking the senselessness of war. But today I want to share another poem, this time by Christopher Grogan, who writes in the 21st century of 21st-century concerns – both personal and global. In Scene After the Battle, the personal can be interpreted as global – we are in a time of chaos, of uncertainty and of a sense that humanity must be saved, or perish.

Scene after the Battle 

The cavalry never came.
For days that felt like months

I lay in the sodden mud of the field,
scanning through bloodied eyes

the blue-grey horizon, longing to see,
rising up from the ridge of the hills,

the creeping silhouettes of men and horses
against the sallow canvas of winter dusk,

carrying hopes of a game-changing charge
that would scatter the enemy, scythe him down.

But over the field now, only the wind blows
softly, collecting for trophies the final sighs of the slain.

Christopher Grogan

On this memorable 11th November, we must ensure that we do not turn our backs on those still waiting for a game-changing charge, for something to scatter the demons.

100 years on it feels as if the world is once more on the brink. We must work to ensure that humanity can once more step back from division and hostility. We must be our own cavalry.

Shell Shocked Britain is available from all good bookshops and online retailers and is currently on special offer from publishers Pen and Sword Books at £13.00. See https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Shell-Shocked-Britain-Hardback/p/6103. 

 

 

 

Ode to a Chestnut…

blurred background chestnuts close up color
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Back to blogging, and back to writing. Be patient with me – since moving to France my fingers have been slow to get moving across the keyboard or notebook. Things are warming up though, as the days get colder and, hopefully, you will hear a little more from me in the coming weeks. It is about time, to be honest…

How often do you literally feel food fall out of the sky? Hear it dropping yards from you, heavily, making the ground vibrate slightly as it collides with the earth?

Before we moved here to Huelgoat, in Brittany, as an urban dwelling Brit I have to say it didn’t happen to me that often, unless bird poo is in some way edible. It may bring us luck, but nutritional value? I think not.

Today I walked 200 yards up our road to where the trees of the Foret d’Huelgoat take over from the houses, and was, once again, treading on a thick carpet of prickly fruit – the cases surrounding the sweet chestnuts that recent winds have blown to the ground on the edge of the road and over the familiar tracks of the dog walk I regularly take with trusty canine companion Teddy. The forest floor is now more akin to the ocean, covered with sea urchins and I am glad of my chunky soled boots as I venture under the canopy. I need a hard hat too, it turns out. Gusts of wind bring down more tightly clustered cocoons, and even as the world around me stills, I can hear the ‘thunk’ ‘thunk’ as the spiky natural harvest continues.

I have never really eaten chestnuts – they are more popular here than in the UK – and always associate them with stalls at Christmas markets, adding to the atmosphere with smell rather than taste. But the nuts are so beautiful; dark brown, shiny and firm and impossible to resist. I fill my pockets from the open cases, even venturing to prise apart the teeth of the unopened ones. As I type this I realise those tiny spines have left their mark; the tips of my fingers sore over the ‘d’ and the ‘a’… and the touch ID on my phone doesn’t seem to recognise me any more.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I have been offered lots of advice about the best way to cook and use the nuts. You can boil, roast or microwave with slightly different results in terms of appearance and flavour. However, whichever method you use they are terribly fiddly to peel and my first attempts filled me with guilt as a tender kernel fell apart or stayed firmly welded to the shell. It feels an offence against nature to throw away the remnants in frustration at their unyielding character and my ineptitude, but they are unusable. I have tried again as I can’t help but think skill comes with practice and a discussion with my friend Cornelia revealed a method that seems to suit me. Soaking for an hour, then scoring just under the paler coloured ‘top’ before roasting for about 20 minutes results in a far greater ratio of success. Burned fingers crossed then.

Pablo Neruda 0011_oleo 004.jpgAs is usually the case when I get to writing, I hunt down a poem I enjoy with at least a link to the subject I am working on. It is a strategy that has introduced me to work I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered, and today that is definitely the case. Pablo Neruda was once a great favourite of mine, but he and I have been strangers for a while and this is one I had forgotten, or hadn’t read.

Ode To a Chestnut on the Ground by Pablo Neruda

From bristly foliage
you fell
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as perfect
as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
that falling
offers its sealed-in gifts,
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose.
In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
birds
bursting with syllables,
starry
dew
below,
the heads of boys
and girls,
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.
You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.
You fell,
you struck
the ground,
but
nothing happened,
the grass
still stirred, the old
chestnut sighed with the mouths
of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.
Because you are
only
a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.

As a vegetarian, that ‘floury density’ and sweet chestnut nut roast is calling to me, and I have read lovely recipes for cakes and soups that I can use my now frozen foraged forest feast in. Here is a particularly good link to the BBC GoodFood website and an article simply entitled ‘What to do with chestnuts’.  Keep it clean now my friends.

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.

Hoping ‘…it passes smoothly, quietly’ – on the anniversary of John Keats’s birth, his birthday wish ‘To my brothers’

John Keats

Today marks the birthday of the poet John Keats. He was born on 31st October (the day is not absolutely established, but most likely) 1795 in Moorgate, London and he died just 25 years later, in Rome. During that period he developed with astonishing speed, as a poet, letter-writer and as a man and he has written some of the very best poetry (and the most wonderful letters) in the English language.

Today on social media there is much celebration of this day – not least because Keats remains one of the most relevant and admired poets of the 19th century. He speaks to us across the centuries, of matters close to our hearts in this fast-paced and often difficult world. It is a subject I have written about for The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog in ‘Moods of my own Mind: Keats, melancholy and mental health’. 

Tom Keats

However, instead of his most famous lines, I thought I would share a poem that was written very early in his career as a poet and at the end of his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital. It is an early poem to George and Tom, his brothers with whom he had recently set up home. It is to mark Tom’s 17th birthday in 1816 and celebrates their time together, as brothers and housemates, and the joy they can share in this simple, companionable existence. For those that know of Keats’s life, and that of his siblings, it is hard not to feel a sense of sadness –  the brothers were close, not least because they had lost their parents at an early age. The poem foreshadows the death of Tom, of tuberculosis, just two years later, and the loss of his brother George to a new life in America in the same year. Those losses were traumatic, but shaped his development as a poet,  and although he was beset by constant money troubles and the knowledge that the woman he loved could never be his,  he was determined to ‘be among the English poets’ after his death.

To my brothers…

Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,
And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep
Like whispers of the household gods that keep
A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.
And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,
Your eyes are fix d, as in poetic sleep,
Upon the lore so voluble and deep,
That aye at fall of night our care condoles.
This is your birth-day Tom, and I rejoice
That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.
Many such eves of gently whisp’ring noise
May we together pass, and calmly try
What are this world s true joys, ere the great voice,
From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.

George Keats

Clearly, Keats was not a great one for birthday parties, or nights out to mark the passing of another year. This quiet companionship on an early winter evening is all he wants and hopes for before their life together ends.  It is about fragility, about familial love and support and the knowledge that this happy peace cannot last forever. He is still finding his way with words – searching ‘around the poles’ for rhymes – but he succeeds in bringing that crackling fire to life, as if it is a character in the room with them, whispering them into drowsiness and sleep.

So happy birthday my friend (and he has been that to me, in difficult times.) There are many of us who would benefit from the quieter existence described in this sonnet.

 

On death, dying and being afraid of life…

fear_slideshowMy blog has been sorely neglected over the past 4 months. A couple of posts have made it here, the last in July, but for much of the time, there have been no words.

Bear with me for a little while…In the past four months I have lost my lovely old mum, and two months later, just as the greatest pain of that traumatic time had seemingly passed, we had to have our wonderful dog, Barnaby, put to sleep, quite without preparation. It seemed that I would never stop crying, huge tears, like those of childhood – unrestrained. Press FF >> and another two months have passed. Now my husband’s father has died. His children weren’t close to him, he was a difficult man and he never liked me much, but nonetheless, it is a final link lost with that generation above. Peter and I are now top of the tree.

I feel besieged by death, lost in melancholy thoughts of my own demise, or that of my husband. My own brush with mortality 11 years ago haunts me still and resurfaces in health anxiety to remind me that one day, it will be my turn. Death is always there, yet we fail to acknowledge or accept it, except perhaps when dealing with the death of others.

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress

Philip Larkin, for the full poem, see Ambulances

Why are we, in Western culture anyway, so afraid of the inevitable? My lifelong battle with debilitating anxiety and bouts of depression leads me to think it is perhaps life I am afraid of, not death. I am afraid of enjoying it too much, in case it brings on disaster. I am afraid of the terminal diagnosis, (though in truth we have all had one, from birth) the potential suffering leading up to my final breath, and the leaving behind of those I love. There is also a little bit of me, I must admit, that resents the fact that the machinations of the world will all go on without me. I am curious to know what happens when I am gone, and cannot bear to think I can no longer intervene in events.

Why do we seemingly wish to live forever? Is it because we are so materialistic and self-obsessed we can’t bear to think it is impossible to continue to enjoy our possessions? Can that really override the realities of old age and the society those in their later years have to inhabit?

Joyous headlines suggesting it is possible for the babies born today to have a life expectancy of 100 years or more belie the distressing scenes I witnessed as mum and her contemporaries struggled with failing bodies and the loss of mental faculties. There were the endless little indignities and that depressingly regular occurrence – the loss of a friend or relation. That constant thought – ‘me next?’.

download (11)In a wonderful article on this subject for The Guardian last year, Margaret Drabble quoted the description of Jonathan Swift’s ‘struldbrugs’ on the island of Luggnagg, in Gulliver’s Travels.  Struldbrugs are immortal, but they live to extreme old age with ever-diminishing capacity…

“[Struldbrugs] had not only the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand-children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions … they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end …”

Drabble goes on to echo my own thoughts as she later describes the horrors perpetrated on the elderly person without a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ label on their notes. One sees CPR used for upwards of an hour on a body essentially at the end of its natural lifespan. Broken ribs, a faint pulse, and any remaining time left to them stuck in a bed totally dependent on medical services for what is still termed ‘life’. It is hard to imagine anything more fear-inducing. Yet people with more money than they know what to do with are having their bodies frozen in the hope of a cure for old age and infirmity, without any real thought to the quality of life they can hope for should they be defrosted.

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death…

Roger McGough – for the whole marvellous, humorous, insightful poem, Let me die a young man’s death see HERE 

My father in law was buried on Saturday, with a full Catholic mass, which to me was clearly the work of authors other than a benign spirit. I have never been to a burial, only cremations, and in my imagination, it took on all the trappings of a gothic horror story. That built it up into more than it actually was – a group of people, remembering two entirely different versions of the same man, crowded around a rather cramped little corner of a cemetery. Graves are dug not by a wizened old man with a large shovel, but by a mini-digger, which sat with gaping mouth just close by, ready to drop bucketloads of soil on the coffin. Floral tributes have partly given way to Chelsea flags, teddies and other items that clearly meant something to the deceased, but which assault the senses of the mourning. It seemed less like a place for all God’s children – despite the holy water sprinkled on the coffin – than the last remnants of a car boot sale.

The fear of death is a suffocating one that can override all others, and prevent us from enjoying our lives before ‘ashes to ashes’ and the final sods of earth are cast over our sightless eyes and breathless lips. The death of others brings this home to us like nothing else.

This blog post is my way of trying to work through some of these thoughts and as you can tell, and I appreciate, it is in no way a cohesive philosophy. I don’t want to die. I have too many books to read; too much research to do and articles to write. I have a lovely husband and two fine children I want to see into middle age.

So perhaps my philosophy should mirror that of Woody Allen:

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens…

I’d love to know your thoughts…

 

 

 

“The door we never opened”- how poetry heals past and present for a better future. by Vivienne Tuffnell

LGGToday on Nowriggling I am thrilled to have a guest post by Vivienne Tuffnell. Viv has written for me before, not least as part of Dandelions & Bad Hair Days (I have to thank her for that title) and more recently blogging on Words are tools of healing when she published a collection of her essays as Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking. 

Here she writes on a subject very close to her (and my own) heart – poetry. Readers of my blog will know that just six weeks ago I lost my much loved Mum, and I gained solace reading Viv’s recently published novel Little Gidding Girl. I have reviewed it on both Amazon and Goodreads now, with 5* both times and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes a book to challenge and move them and at the same time be a rollicking good readHere she describes how important the reading, and writing, of poetry, is to her and how it inspires her work.

I’d like to thank Suzie for hosting this post on her fabulous blog. It’s a great treat to have a friend who loves poetry as much as I do. Though our tastes in poetry differ a little, they overlap in quite considerable ways and we both believe that poetry is important, vital even, to the development and well-being of us poor naked apes.

You might know of German poet Goethe’s smash-hit book “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a melodramatic tale of a poetically-inclined young man and his sad fate. But did you know that this wildly-popular book spawned so many copycat suicides that it was actually banned? It was seen as the ultimate in romance and despite the ban, sold in numbers equivalent to today’s bestsellers written by Dan Brown and E.L. James.

The power of the written word has never waned, but the acceptance of pure poetry as its primary form has been lost. Young people are made to study poetry for exams and it’s rare for them to continue to read and explore poetry after those exams are over. Those same young people will devote the energy instead to the music that they love because it speaks to them.

Many people see poetry as an irrelevance, a luxury of the few folks able to get to grips with it, but poetry has gone underground and has become lodged in popular music rather than the pages of dusty old books. Song lyrics ARE poetry and like the poetry found on the page, they are as subject to as many variations. From the profound to the banal, from the lyrical to the grating, popular songs get into the consciousness of youth today the way poetry did a hundred years ago.

Yet there’s always a few for whom pure poetry becomes an essential part of their psyche and self-expression. Growing up, I was one of them. Geeky would be the word used now but when I was 17, the word didn’t exist (as far as I know) and we’d be called swots and weirdos instead. For me, poetry said the things that I didn’t know how to express. Not being in the slightest bit musical, I was baffled by the popular music at the time, and when I sought to deconstruct lyrics to better understand the music, I was called strange. I wrote a bit of poetry and a lot of fiction, but it was crowded out by exam pressure, and the last piece of fiction I wrote in my teens was the first version of The Hedgeway, completed not long before I turned 18.

I studied English and Latin at university and I was overwhelmed with the sheer weight of brilliant poetry and literature to such an extent that it was years before I began writing again. I was a new mum with a small baby when I returned to fiction, and I was in my late thirties when I began to explore poetry again. I only got into my stride again then because poetry became the only way I could express the tumult of emotions and experiences and visions I’d become subject to. The terrible mixture of dreams, imaginings, mental wanderings I experienced at that time coalesced around a single volume of poetry, one I’d come to many years after university. Four Quartets seemed to contain everything, hinted at and referred to obliquely, that my restless mind was trying to get at, and up popped a title: Little Gidding Girl. I had no idea what it meant.

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Vivienne

In the grip of a flood of creative energy that I’ve never come close to again, during those three years I wrote more than I’ve ever written since. Novel after novel just poured out of me, the words long dammed up. In Little Gidding Girl  I tried to explore the painful, poignant memories of being 17 and the frustrations and triumphs of being 37, and the world between the two ages, with all its losses and gains, destroyed dreams and false starts and betrayals. To create a novel that somehow married the two people I had been and was now, needed something that transcended my own experiences and psyche and it was Four Quartets that offered the link between those two eras of my life.

 

To find out more go to the Amazon page for Little Gidding Girl HERE. 

Caitlín Matthews, author of Singing the Soul Back Home, and Diary of a Soul Doctor has said of Little Gidding Girl:

From the unknown spaces between what is, was, and will be, messages and sendings break through into Verity’s life: are they nightmares of a parallel reality or projections from a love that has flown? Vivienne Tuffnell keeps us guessing with utmost artistry as we trace the interweaving way-marks in pursuit of the truth. Little Gidding Girl kept me enthralled until the very end.’ –

 

 

‘After great pain’…On loss and grief and working my way through it…

IMG_0544
My mum, Stella, in a typical pose…

Some of those who read my blog will remember that about 18 months ago I wrote a piece about my dear old Mum,  and my feelings at being left a middle-aged orphan as mum kept saying she had ‘had enough’ and was beginning to seem truly ‘old’. She began to appear frail, a word you would never have previously used of Mum and regular infections were bringing her low – physically and mentally. In the last 18 months we have had some good times, and some very bad ones, but mum always seemed to pull through. Five weeks ago she was struck down once again, and this time there was no pulling through. She died, peacefully, on the 30th May.

Peacefully at the end maybe, but the previous three days over the Whitsun Bank Holiday had been very distressing for Mum and left my brother, sister and I traumatised by an experience that saw us grieving and exhausted, having stayed with her for 3 days and nights, sleeping when and where we could. There was nothing noble in any of this. It was horrible and we had no kindness to share with each other as we focused all our efforts on being there for mum.

We did, of course, realise she was not going to be with us forever, and indeed there have been times in the past year when we wished Mum could have slipped away without suffering. But instead of that gentle acceptance of the inevitable, the quiet grieving, we were left in shock.

DickinsonSo as always, I have turned to poetry to help me feel I am not alone, and there isn’t anyone better than Emily Dickinson to express that numbness I have been left with – the funeral has been and gone, we have said our goodbyes, and ‘did her proud’ and I for one now feel utterly lost.

After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes

By Emily Dickinson

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Dickinson describes how I am ‘going through the motions’ perfectly in the second verse. The third I am a little ambivalent about, as it suggests there is the possibility of being so overwhelmed by one’s grief that outliving it might not be possible. The last two lines might even describe how final that grief could be – as exposure overwhelms the person trapped, perhaps in the freezing wilderness of their loss.

I am sure that I will outlive this. I know this is all a natural process, and I know from my own experience of depression that this grieving is something quite different, but it is a struggle to keep anxiety levels under control as emotions are so near the surface and I am relying on reserves built up through a successful final year of therapy. I need that reserve to be like Mary Poppins’s carpet bag – bottomless.

My wonderful husband and friends have listened as it all comes out in a splurge – all the horror and unhappiness and frustration and deep, deep grief at the loss of someone who was such an important figure in my life. Sleep has been difficult and dreams have been horrible; not all related directly to Mum they leave me waking with a sense of dread that stays with me for some time afterwards.

And there is also a sense of grief at the knowledge that, in the order of things, it is my turn next, I am ‘top of the tree’. Of course, I hope it is many years until that is a worry, but a long life like my Mum’s isn’t a given. This would be the moment to say ‘treasure every minute’ ‘live in the moment’ and tens of other inspirational phrases. But I can’t say very much at all. There is a lot written about the stages of grief, but I don’t know where I am, let alone what stage I am at. Basically it seems you just have to crack on until, as Emily Dickinson suggests,  survival is possible.

So that is what I will do.