After a winter in Brittany – ‘The Darkling Thrush’

56917864_10158516217380031_4875156840125562880_n
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.

57343422_10158516218035031_590890489503285248_n
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

Great War guest post: A Granny’s Legacy – From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords

book coverI wrote, before Christmas, of my concerns that post-Armistice Day centenary commemorations, the wonderful stories that are part of the heritage given to us by the Great War, would cease to interest the media. Despite there being much to learn from 1919 onwards, and the ongoing trauma experienced by soldiers and civilians alike, it does seem I might be right. Media stories of projects ongoing are thinning out and the Brexit horrors have overtaken almost every other subject in the news. So I have been determined to continue to run stories and examine themes from the Great War. 

One of the consequences of writing Shell Shocked Britain (published Pen & Sword in 2014) was that I got to know some really interesting people, with fantastic stories to tell. One such is Amiel Price, who published her own book last year, entitled From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords. 1917 Diary and Letters. She had inherited a store of letters and diaries from her grandmother, also called Amiel and she shared them with me before the book came out. I was fascinated by the stories revealed, the love of the two young people heightened by the war and the wonderful cartoons and photos that illustrated it. I was also keen to hear more of life in the army away from the Western Front, in Egypt, a part of the world many don’t realise was affected. I was thrilled when Amiel asked me to write the Foreword, and I am equally thrilled to welcome her to the blog today. 

A few years ago I inherited various letters and photographs belonging to my maternal Grandmother, Amiel Robins.  Many were dated from 1917.  I had seen some of the photographs before, and I knew about the letters but had never read them.

amiel as burlington bertie
Amiel Snr as Burlington Bertie

Years ago my Mother had shown me a brown and black album containing photographs of Granny and her friends in fancy dress.  They were a stunning collection of professional black and white photo postcards showing the girls in their various costumed sketches.  She explained that Granny had been in a concert party called ‘The Allies’ that had put on many performances to entertain wounded soldiers in Birmingham.  There were photos of Granny dressed as ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and as ‘England’ in a union flag costume.  Indeed we still have this flag costume which I have worn myself for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and for the 2012 Olympics.

I also knew that Granny had had a fiancé called Norman Wells who had been killed during the First World War.  We still have his photograph which was mounted in a silvered frame embossed with the emblem of his Herefordshire Regiment.  As I understood it this large framed photograph had always stood on Grandfather’s dressing table in his memory.

In a small attaché case I found more photographs, some of them quite small and depicting a WW1 soldier in the desert.  Elsewhere there were photo albums of pictures of Norman and Amiel together in her garden or the countryside.  There were also two small notebooks, which turned out to be Granny’s diary for 1917 and her copied out version of Norman’s diary for October to December of the same year.

 

haircut

As the commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War were about to begin I realised that now was the time to sit down and read through the letters.  These were all written by Norman to Amiel from December 1916 when they met, right throughout the year to Christmas 1917.  He wrote almost every other day in a beautiful hand that was easy to read.  He described what he was doing in camp, how he felt about Amiel and about his hopes for their future together.  It was the most poignant and fascinating read.  It was so evocative of that era and gave such an insight into Norman’s war.

As Amiel and Norman lived in Handsworth, Birmingham, I had assumed that there was no connection to Wales and where I lived, but no – I was surprised to find that Norman came to camp in Singleton Park in Swansea.  He described the camp and the seaside and walking to Mumbles and Langland Bay, which is where, as it happens, our family came to live fifty years ago.

musclesSo – what to do with this amazing collection of letters, photographs, and even drawings, as well as the diaries and a costume?  Even now I’m not sure, as I would be sorry to see it all disbanded and ending up in different places.  I started by typing up the letters and diaries in order to share them with my cousins so that they would also know the story from their Grandmother’s early years.

But as I typed and looked up things I didn’t understand, I was telling my friends and colleagues little snippets about Amiel and Norman.  They became intrigued and found it all so interesting that they persuaded me that other people would be interested too, and so I began my work in earnest to produce a book, the publication of which would coincide with the period of the WW1 anniversary.

The other reason I wanted to share this story is that it helps to tell some of the story away from the Western Front.  So much coverage, understandably, has been given to the First Word War in France and of the major battles that we have missed or forgotten about the war in Egypt.  Not only that but even less has been told of the ordinary soldier’s life in training camp or in a desert camp.  The hardships, the boredom, the shortages, the dreadful weather.  All topped by the longing, the desperate longing, for letters from home.

Although the story is a very personal one about a young couple’s love for each other, it is set in a time of great upset and upheaval that affected so many people at the time and so many others in the generations to follow.  The story has resonance with us all.

If you would like to buy a copy of From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords the price is £9.99. For further information and to order the book contact Amiel Price on 01792 369121 or email: fronheulogbooks@gmail.com

Thank you so much for sharing your story Amiel.

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

 

animal bulldog candy cane christmas balls
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Oh dear – it is our first New Year’s Eve in France and I feel all wrong. Isn’t Christmas peculiar? I commented on a friend’s Facebook post yesterday, one in which they asked how many others were feeling like ‘two peas in a drum’ after the visitors had left. Responses, including mine, suggested they were far from alone. The intensity and joy of a happy Christmas (and I recognise that many find it a deeply lonely and distressing day), all the preparations, the presents, the anticipation and the sparkle can leave a very hollow feeling in their wake. I know from social media that many fall ill with viruses even before the celebrations get going, so I feel especially peevish complaining after four lovely days with our grown-up children, but I feel really low now they have returned home. Suffering as I do from anxiety and depression I have to note how vulnerable I feel, and take steps to recognise the triggers. So uneaten food remains in the fridge and their beds aren’t going to be stripped for a while yet…

My husband has a very sensible view of the celebrations – he could hold them at any time of year, he says. It is just a matter of getting the right people around you and focusing your attention on them, instead of on work, phone or laptop. We played lots of board games over Christmas and talked. In fact, the kids talked so much they squabbled just like the old days and I really felt like ‘Mum’ again. In the real world, on the remaining 364 days of the year, I am whatever passes for ‘myself’ so it came as a nasty shock to feel so bereft and lacking in purpose when they went home. I have always loved the Pam Ayres poem ‘A September Song’, in which she describes the feelings of a mum watching her son packing up for University. Lines such as:

a ghastly leaden feeling like the ending of it all

or

I am fearful of the emptiness when you depart the room,

And a silence settles round us like the stillness of a tomb

49001972_10158224415620031_7663499812561485824_n
The fledgelings

describe perfectly the emptiness in our house now the liveliness of our two twenty-somethings, with their endless iPhone notifications and the dust of London on their feet, are back living their own lives. They are fledged and building futures in the real world. Peter and I will continue our French escape, knowing that they both loved our new home. They’ll be back and we’ll be over, so it isn’t the end of anything. But Christmas, the party side of it anyway, does that to us every year – it expects something of us, asks us to get excited and then whips the sparkle out from under us without so much as a by your leave.  It’s a wonder we fall for it  – but we do (and I love it while it lasts!). It is at times like this that I envy people of faith (any faith). The Christmas Nativity offers so much to look forward to and hope for, with possibilities for happiness that most of us find hard to relate to in the 21st Century.

So it is the end of another year. We will wake up tomorrow morning and it will be 2019. I have lots to look forward to – more books to write, a first spring in Brittany, the challenges of learning French (very slowly) – and must try and relax and just let it all be. I’ve never managed to do that before, so my hopes are not high on that one, but it is worth giving it a go.

explosion-firework-new-year-s-eve-december-31.jpg
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I know, as the first fireworks light up the wintry skies, that apart from good health and happiness, I am wishing for a Trump resignation, a People’s Vote on Brexit (and a change of mind), a flicker of acknowledgement that the world is heading in a direction, towards hatred and intolerance and perhaps even war, and a drawing back from that and from the push for more and more ‘stuff’ that inevitably damages our planet.

I am sure I will be called a hopeless dreamer but hey ho, I can’t be any other way.

So a very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, and thank you for your support in 2018. Hopefully, I will blog more regularly in the coming months so I hope you will stay with me as I try to stop wriggling out of writing…

 

 

Death, Disease & Dissection: Keats, Quacks & Bodysnatchers – what’s not to like?

Death Disease & DissectionAt last, I can catch my breath and report back on the launch of my second book with Pen and Sword, Death, Disease & Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has been a part of my life for so long I can’t believe I am only really now telling people about it. As many of you who read my blog regularly know, this has been a difficult year for me and for my family so that vital marketing has been left a little behind. I am just hoping it doesn’t affect sales too much. These things matter so much now, especially with Christmas coming up.

LitFest3On Thursday 16th November I spoke to a sell-out crowd at Taunton Literary Festival, presenting some gruesome pictures of horrible procedures to much groaning and squirming (and laughter) in the audience.  Nothing like the quack doctor and failed boot polish salesman Dr Solomon and his Cordial of Gilead to tickle a few ribs, and descriptions of a lithotomy (removal of a bladder stone in men) to get a few chaps crossing their legs too…

We then celebrated with wine and cake (by the fabulous Charlie of Charlotte Jane Cakes) and a book signing that went really well. Lionel and Jo Ward of Brendon Books are so supportive (Lionel founded the festival) that is was an evening I will remember for a long time, and feedback has been fabulous. If you are in the Taunton area do take a look at the bookshop in Bath Place that can often get a book to you faster than Amazon…

Anyway, what is the book about? The premise of the book is summarised up quite well by the blurb the publisher printed on the back:

Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from a toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon-apothecary vividly to life.

wax head
Wax anatomical model of human head c1800

I examine the class structure of the medical profession, the training a young man had to go through and the sort of life he would have enjoyed (or otherwise) when he was qualified. The medicines available to treat the most common illnesses and the operations undertaken at great risk to the patient (and sometimes to the surgeon) are detailed, as is the vital work of the anatomist, dissecting bodies (often obtained by body-snatchers) to understand the workings of the human body. It was a time of great change and is populated by some wonderful characters – good and bad – who occasionally sound like something out of a gothic-horror novel.

Keats
John Keats

I was inspired to write the book when I was keen to find out more about the life John Keats, my favourite poet, would have lived had he not given up medicine (after nearly 7 years of training) to pursue one in poetry. He was so far from the frail romantic image many still have of him that I was determined to highlight how hard he had worked in what desperate conditions to become a man filled with empathy and knowledge of the harsh realities of life. The publisher wouldn’t let me indulge my passion for the man with a chapter to himself, but they have commissioned me to write a separate book about him which is a thrill.

I have also found out that this subject is on the GCSE curriculum and it has already got a 5* review from someone working in the NHS with a teenager using it to mug up on coursework, which is gratifying. It was also an era covered by the fabulous BBC2 comedy Quacks earlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.

Quacks
BBC2’s Quacks

So please do consider buying a copy for the history lover in your life, especially if they have an interest in the Georgian period or a bit of Victorian gothic. It also details many issues affecting the poor specifically and there is little doubt that many of the deeply committed men ( women were excluded from medical training as a doctor during this time) I offer short biographies of are the forerunners of today’s general practitioners, facing many of the same problems.

Death Disease & Dissection (ISBN: 9781473823532) is available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good online and high street retailers.

 

What makes a good ghost story?

Ghost-Stories-The-Woman-In-White-Who-Stands-In-The-GraveyardI write ghost stories. I don’t know if they are any good (although I did publish three, in a short collection called The Marrow Scoop, just to test the water) but it is a genre I enjoy reading and that is always a positive start when one wants the words to flow.

I have been a little disillusioned lately though, as my favourite spooky stories are nearer those of M R James, Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton than the paranormal psychological and positively erotic supernatural fiction that has become so popular. I wonder if we, as a species, are becoming harder to frighten? So many stories and video replays of real-life horrors are available via social media 24/7 that the rustle of a curtain or the scratch on a skirting board might seem too tame.

What can be more frightening than one man driving a car deliberately to kill a random group of strangers he knows nothing about or setting a bomb filled with nails to kill and maim for life? Except perhaps the knowledge that our children might be at risk of harm whilst in the care of those we thought we could trust implicitly?

Perhaps this surge in the popularity of the mythical beasts of horror – the vampires, the werewolves, the zombies – is part if the desire to control a new reality. Down the centuries there have always been people who commit the most wicked crimes against their own, or against strangers, but now it is exposed to daylight and refuses to crumble to dust.

download (12)So I am reevaluating my own spooky tales as I continue to write them for a modern audience. I am reading as many of the ‘greats’ as I can, shorter and longer stories, spooky or less so, classic or contemporary.  However, even Susan Hill, the author of one of the best ghost stories of recent years The Woman in Black seems to be finding it hard to compete with the out and out gore fest of the horror genre, and with psychological thrillers and crime novels, which increasingly seem to delve deep into our innermost fears – of being hunted perhaps, or stalked. Her most recent stories, such as The Small Hand and The Travelling Bag have garnered less favourable reviews. Choking mists and a gothic backdrop can only achieve so much it seems. The chills must come from elsewhere, and the piece be deemed a good short story as well as simply a frightening one.

My best stories (I think) have been inspired by antique pieces with something of the grotesque about them –  a marrow scoop or spoon, for example, was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to scoop the marrow from cooked bones, as something of a delicacy. Another tale of mine, The Ponyskin Trunk, was again triggered by the sight of a travelling case covered in the hide of a piebald pony. But one can only use that device so often before the ‘game’ is given away too early on.

As a child, I remember television programmes that left me genuinely too scared to go up the stairs for fear of what might be lurking. Even my favourite poet, John Keats, has conjured a phrase, in a fragment, that sends shivers down my spine…

This living hand, now warm and capable 
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold 
And in the icy silence of the tomb, 
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights 
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood 
So in my veins red life might stream again, 
And thou be conscience-calm’dsee here it is– 
I hold it towards you…

But how does a modern writer capture that feeling and express it on the page to create an equally terrified response?

RatsnovelI recently read some James Herbert to better understand the creeping horror that can build to a crescendo, sending you hurtling under the bedclothes, seeing a potential killer in even the smallest creature. The Rats certainly sickened me and occasionally left my fingers feeling contaminated by something as I turned the page on yet another gruesome scene of rodent carnage. I did hear scuttling and caught shadows flicking quickly at the corner of my eye, but I finished it feeling sick rather than truly scared. I also read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, but found I was imagining the horrors of the film version rather than conjuring my own scenes from the author’s prose.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson,  did grip me, having seen the film too long ago to really remember the stand-out images, but I think that is more than a ghost or horror story. There is an examination of psychological issues layered within the plot that could almost make one believe one’s very sanity is at stake.

So I am really interested to find out what my readers find truly terrifying in a story. Is it still possible for a classic ghost story to create the proverbial ‘shiver down the spine’ on first reading? Which books or stories have stood the test of time and which modern authors have truly ‘creeped you out’?

Or do you think, as I am beginning to, that we are faced with so much that is ‘wonder full’, so many things possible that were, just a few years ago, unthinkable, that it is almost impossible to be surprised? Will the next stop be the book with an image that suddenly comes to life before your eyes, snarling on the page?

Do let me know what you think!

 

 

On struggling with the writing life – again

writing
writing
My thoughts, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brace yourself…

 

In trying times: Heberto Padilla on continuing to speak out…

Heberto Padilla
Heberto Padilla

I read this poem today, for the first time. As you may guess from the title, I was looking for poetry to support me through a period when world events seem to be spiralling out of control, when real news is more shocking than any ‘fake news’ the government is trying to counter.

It is a poem about revolution, specifically the revolution in Cuba. I think it is about the suppression of poetry, literature and the curtailment of freedoms. It resonated with me today when a terribly dangerous, but apparently charismatic world leader is ‘revolutionising’ US politics, when our own government are once again appeasing a fascist, even at a time when we commemorate the Holocaust, and when those that would challenge or speak out against the President are derided and persecuted, silenced and expelled. They are called liars – and eventually who will be left knowing the truth?

Sign petitions, march in protest, write and read poetry, show random acts of kindness in a world that has, hopefully temporarily, become much less kind.

In Trying Times

by Heberto Padilla

They asked that man for his time
so that he could link it to History.
They asked him for his hands,
because for trying times
nothing is better than a good pair of hands.
They asked him for his eyes
that once had tears
so that he should see the bright side
(the bright side of life, especially)
because to see horror one startled eye is enough.
They asked him for his lips,
parched and split, to affirm,
to belch up, with each affirmation, a dream
(the great dream)
they asked him for his legs
hard and knotted
(his wandering legs)
because in trying times
is there anything better than a pair of legs
for building or digging ditches?
They asked him for the grove that fed him as a child,
with it’s obedient tree.
They asked him for his breast, heart, his shoulders.
They told him
that that was absolutely necessary.
they explained to him later
that all this gift would be useless
unless he turned his tongue over to them,
because in trying times
nothing is so useful in checking hatred or lies.
and finally they begged him,
please, to go take a walk.
Because in trying times
that is, without a doubt, the decisive test.

What do you think? Does it feel relevant to you too? I would love to know what you think, and in the meantime I am going to read this a few more times and explore the world of Heberto Padillo in more detail.

Poetry for Christmas #4 – Christmas Sparrow by Billy Collins

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

Billy Collins
Billy Collins

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

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

Christmas Sparrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Collins

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus
by Ogden Nash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry for Christmas #1 Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare

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

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

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

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

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

Walter-de la Mare
Walter de la Mare

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

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