A Suggestion of Bones

Last week saw the launch of my new poetry pamphlet A Suggestion of Bones. It mainly comprises of individual poems published in small press magazines, anthologies or online and the over-riding theme is of things hidden, not being what they seem or lurking just beneath the surface.

The title comes from the last line of one of the poems At Birdoswald, a ruined Roman fort three miles from where I used to live in Gilsland, Northumberland, which is a village on the Roman Wall that stretches from Wallsend in Tyne and Wear across Northumberland and ends at the other side of the country in Carlisle in Cumbria. When I lived there I used to walk a great deal in the surrounding countryside with its spectacular views, craggy hills, deep valleys where clear ice-cold water gurgled and splashed, and Roman ruins hunkered down in the grass. At those times, I used to imagine what it would be like being an Italian soldier banished to these outposts in Britain, living in inhospitable weather and keeping the marauding hordes of Picts and Scots at bay.

A few years later I went back to visit my old stopming grounds. I needed to touch something familiar in my soul, to resolve some of my indecisions, and this poem came out of the visit.

At Birdoswald

There’s iron on the wind.

Sunset gasps from the horizon,

dusk circles like a cloak of feathers,

light flees the amassing darkness

and each breath hangs

like a ghostly membrane

 

promising a night of stars and stories.

 

After days of disquiet

I feel surrounded by tinder, fear

the burst of a match on shavings

of my soul and embers fanned

by the darkling wind. But here,

amongst the squatting ruins,

 

my crowded mind stills its chatter,

 

descends deeper into the landscape,

transcends time. I feel the scratch

of memory, smell the woodsmoke

of regret, touch the bruise of fear caught

between cracks of then and now,

hidden in the hillocks around me

 

like the suggestion of bones beneath skin.

A Suggestion of Bones is available from Amazon ttps://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_2_13?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=a+suggestion+of+bones&sprefix=A+suggestion+%2Caps%2C268&crid=2CW

 

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Perfection

It’s been a busy (and fraught) couple of weeks so apologies this blog comes a little late. My personal disposition has not been helped by world events unfolding in the media but I have to say, it does provide rich material for novels. The Trump administration trying to deflect attention from their involvement with Russia by accusing Obama of wire taps and, not content that Michael Flynn fell on his sword for them, they’re now labelling him a ‘foreign agent’. The new travel ban, the erosion of human rights, the lies…in the past a publisher might have said that it’s too much for one novel, that all those things happening more or less simultaneously is completely unbelievable. Not now.

We here in the UK fare no better: Brexit, the deportation of non-nationals who’ve lived here for years, the new rules regarding asylum seekers brought in (and effective immediately) when attention was on the Budget. We also have a new re-introduction of selective schools and schools who don’t enter some students for exams for fear of lowering the school’s overall ratings in the league tables. The world as I know it is going mad. So it got me thinking about a perfect world, what that would look like and who it is perfect for.

I can’t remember ever being called perfect before by anyone – family, partners, friends, colleagues – until Monday. I was having my monthly foot MOT (a luxury, I know) when  from nowhere my practitioner said, ‘I love working on your feet – your toes are still very flexible, the skin nice and soft, and there’s no damage from shoes. They’re perfect.’ I suppose at my age after standing for most of my working life, dancing away a good part of it and the rest spent hiking or running half marathons, that’s quite an achievement. But are my feet really where I want the perfection to be in my life?

I have succumbed, as so many women do, to notions of imperfection because my body was not the right shape, tone, strength. Even though I know it has nothing to do with my identity and it doesn’t define me, I still catch myself checking my image in the mirror and eat less when my waistbands start getting tight. One weekend, during a bout of depression, I decided to treat myself to a beauty therapy. I chose an organic mud wrap. I was first measured then slathered from chin to toes in mud before being wrapped in clingfilm and left in a darkened room for about an hour to relax.

The treatment was ‘guaranteed’ to help you lose 3 inches or your money back, but the 3 inches were accumulative from different parts of the body. When my treatment was finished I was measured again. I hadn’t lost the 3 inches, only 2, and the area where I’d lost most was 1 inch from my neck, which could least do with losing anything. Not quite the result I expected (or wanted). I didn’t get my money back, despite their ‘guarantee’, but it did make me laugh. Eventually.

In my perfect world everyone would be nice to each other, there would be no poverty, wars, abuse, discrimination, huge corporations owning half the planet and no-one would do anything to damage the climate, over-fish the seas, pollute the earth and her water, abandon children or mistreat animals. But if the world really was like that I’d soon become bored. There’d be no drama, nothing to write about, nothing to fight about or defend, nothing to strive for, no need to do inner work to self-improve. Life would be monochrome and what feels perfect to me wouldn’t necessarily be perfect for anyone else. Yet the perfection I seek is not found in the world behaving in a way I want it to, but in the small random moments that may not go according to plan but teach me something.

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. Eugene Kennedy
https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/perfection.html

 

Who Knows Where The Time Goes

It’s the last day of the month. It snowed yesterday, large, fat flakes covering dying snowdrops and new shoots of crocuses and daffodils, death and birth co-existing just as we sit on the cusp of a new month, the old one falling away from us. In six weeks I will celebrate my sixty-seventh birthday.

Last week I looked after my grandson here during the school holidays as I have done since he was small. He’ll be twelve soon and old enough to stay at home on his own, so my time with him is so precious. I doubt I’ll be able to compete with the pull of spending time with his friends, with him wanting to be on his own, independent, able to do what he wants in his own time. But a new generation are growing up and hopefully my twin grandsons will be comfortable enough to spend the school holidays with me. For a while at least. Until they, too, grow up.

Life is an ever-constant state of forward motion and sometimes as we get older we want to hang onto things the way they are, not give in to changes, keep things exactly the same. So when changes do occur we are filled with nostalgia, howl at the moon and want the old ways back. Our bodies age, we’re less able to bend physically (and also metaphorically) to the different circumstances in our lives. And if we’re not careful, if we don’t learn how to accommodate the changes in our bodies, to sit and breathe quietly, to accept that we’re just small pieces in Nature’s jigsaw, then our last days will be filled with anger and not lived to the full.

I have been so angry for a long time. At my weakening body , at politics and the world I knew that seems to be disintegrating around me, at world leaders who cause immeasurable suffering to people and the planet, at my own ineffectiveness. But looking at the snow this morning as it melts, revealing the new growth of spring flowers and the remains of the snowdrops, I feel more at peace, more reflective. That’s not to say I don’t still feel concerned or intend to stop campaigning against those things that are happening. It just means that I’m seeing it in a wider perspective and know that this too will pass.

I came across Nina Simone’s recording of Who Knows Where The Time Goes on YouTube yesterday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXeh742_jak. Her introduction and the song has resonated with me since then.

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”

I’ll leave you with the lyrics but please check the recording out and enjoy the beauty of Nina Simone, 21 February  1933–21 April  2003.

Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

The Power of Words

Why Diary of an Invisible Woman?

I’ve been asked that question a few times and there’s a couple of answers I give:

  • I’ve reached that age when I’ve become sexually invisible to men and can’t remember the last time I was asked out on a date
  • I drive the invisible car that everyone cuts in front of, disregards when it comes to road safety, and doesn’t see at crossings or traffic lights

But the real reason is:

  • I’m rendered invisible by generic language

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when terms like ‘man’, ‘he’, ‘mankind’, ‘chairman’ etc knew nothing about gender scrutiny. When I married at 19 I was earning twice as much as a civil servant than my husband who was still an apprentice. We had to wait till he finished his apprenticeship before we were able to get a mortgage because only 10% of my wages were taken into consideration.

He worked away from home and I managed the house, our finances and then the children when they came along. Yet when the boiler broke down the plumber wanted my husband present because I was obviously too thick to understand what he was telling me. When I wanted to buy a new settee on HP the salesman wanted the ‘head of the house’ to sign the contract, and that, according to him, wasn’t me. If my husband wasn’t available, didn’t I have a dad who could sign for me?

When we got divorced I didn’t revert to my ‘maiden’ (yuk!) name, I kept the marital name because I didn’t want to have a different surname to my children. It was the norm for the woman to have to change her name to her husband’s and in those days there was no way to officially keep your own name. Unlike today. Resentment and emergent feminism made me take the title ‘Ms’ because I wanted to be known as a woman, (like Mr denotes a man) not as someone whose status was dependent upon whether or not she was tied to a man in marriage. However, to work colleagues, new acquaintances, older family members, the title meant ‘divorced’ and someone not to be touched with a barge pole.

I’ve recently started to learn Italian. The word for ‘son’ is figlio, for daughter ‘figlia’ , the plurals being figli and figlie respectively but the word for ‘children’ (rather than ‘babies’)is figli, whether that’s all boys or a mix of boys and girls. And it’s not only Italian that does this. All over the world, in lots of small, seemingly inconsequential ways, girls and women are eroded, rendered invisible by their language.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is something my mother tried to get me to say to myself when I was in trouble for fighting. My family moved a lot because of my dad’s job and I attended nine different schools in total. I was bullied mercilessly and punished viciously by teachers for fighting back, (corporal punishment rules OK) thereby gaining a reputation that followed me to each school. The words they used as they punished me were, ‘GIRLS do NOT behave like THAT!’ as if the word ‘girl’ held some sort of code of behaviour that I had to ascribe to. I can still feel the stick on my fingers.

My best friends were all boys, and possibly the reason why I was bullied so much by the girls in secondary school. One of the things we did was to look up all the ‘dirty’ words in a dictionary. But when it came to a word I didn’t understand, I carried on and looked that up, found another and looked that up, and so on in a word chase that lead me to strange places and stranger-sounding names.

Which I suppose is why I became a writer. I love words. I love the feel of them in my mouth, the sound they make when mixed with my breath, the meanings they have. And as a writer I get to choose the words I want, control my literary situations, manipulate the emphasis and meaning of texts. And avoid using generic language.

Fifty Shades of Power – the responsibility of the writer.

I read 50 Shades of Grey a while ago to see what all the hype was about. As a writer I was disappointed, finding it very poorly written, but what I did find interesting was how popular the subject matter was. Listening to all the debates about it on television and radio, reading about it in newspapers and magazines, what they seemed to be saying was that the book was most popular with financially successful, upwardly mobile, unmarried 30-somethings. Apparently, being successful and having complete control of your life seems to generate fantasies of relinquishing control of your body over to a man who then has carte-blanche to abuse you. Nothing wrong in that, we all have fantasies. The problem starts to occur when we put them into reality.

I’m old enough to have grown up during a time when women had no power or at best it was limited. When women had to give up work when they got married, when marital- and date-rapes weren’t offences, when all boys were given extra marks before they started the 11+ so that more of them were ensured a place at grammar school, when wives couldn’t buy anything on HP without their husband’s signature, or borrow money from the bank, or sometimes even have their own bank accounts. The freedoms that women enjoy today were hard-won and over a long period of time. So how can young people really understand the value of what they have and take for granted, because they’ve had it so relatively easy?

It is hard work being responsible for yourself, for every decision you make, for every aspect of your life. I know, I’ve done for the last 40+ years and being a single parent I also had the responsibility of three other lives as well. But the last thing I would fantasize about is giving away my power to anyone because I’ve had to fight every step of the way to get it and keep it. Even now, when I thought all the battles had been fought and won. Because the pendulum swings back and apathy and fantasies today let power slip out the door tomorrow when no-one’s looking. Already we have a judge blaming young girls for their own rapes because they drank too much. Sound familiar to anyone over 30?

So what do writers have to do with all this? Do they have the responsibility of being the mouthpiece of society? Of a generation? I suppose that depends on what kind of writer you are/want to be, but then that kind of responsibility is assumed by the individual; it’s not God-given. I believe that as writers our responsibility is to the truth of what we’re writing, however uncomfortable that might be for some readers. After all, they still have the power to close the book if they don’t like it. It’s not our job to police society’s morals, it’s our job to hold a mirror up to them and present their truth even when writing about how much we dislike them. Despite all my personal views and fears about women today, as a writer I have to put them aside if I am to portray contemporary society because I believe the only responsibility the writer has beyond her/himself is to the reader.

E L James has tapped into a lucrative market and the publicity machine is doing the rest. The fact so many people want to ban the film, or persuade people not to go to see it, is only fuelling the hype. However, I don’t believe in censorship unless it involves unwilling and/or illegal participation, like child pornography, and looking back through history I see that it only does society ill when you start banning ideas.

Writers are by nature and inclination creative creatures so by definition anything and everything is possible. I may not like 50 Shades of Grey, I may be envious of its success and deplore standards readers are willing to accept, I may despair of young women dreaming that being abused is erotic, but I defend everyone’s right to think, read, watch and believe what they want as long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s rights to do the same and all actions undertaken are within the law and between consenting adults.

With all the wonders of social media writers can reach millions more people than they ever envisaged possible twenty or thirty years ago. Never have we had so much power but with all power comes responsibility and I mourn the fact that today that seems to be eroding, that subject matter and celebrity seems to over-ride good writing and it is as much an indictment of our society as the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey.

Identity and Truth

Seneca writes:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long by Maria Popova

I recently embarked on a memoir writing course and have been trawling through the various stages of my life, the events that took place and the hold they have over me. On paper my life looks rich in source material—plenty of births, deaths, significant changes, angst, loss etc—but what does it all add up to in terms of Seneca’s definition? Have all the failed relationships, mistakes, disruptions, lack of control, blind alleys, nervous breakdowns and self-sabotaging been a waste? I don’t think so. They have forged me into who I am and the writer in me uses these experiences to inform my work, create ‘real’ characters and situations, empathize with them and hopefully enable readers to understand their motivations and flaws.

David Foster Wallace puts it perfectly in: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write:

“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

So what is my Truth? And what does it have to do with identity?

When we create characters we need them to be identifiably different from the others and use various techniques to do this—‘voice’, what they say, what they do, what is said about them, what they wear, what they carry and so on. We create a back story for them, invent life events, family members, mannerisms, education, likes and dislikes, music preferences etc, anything that will fix them in our minds so that we can psychologically motivate them. Most of that stuff never appears in our stories but we need it to create a ‘truth’ for the character. By providing an identity and personality for them they become real to us. We know them intimately, they speak to us, take us in directions we didn’t think we’d go, fall in love with unsuitable people and start to have a life of their beyond the pages.

When I was creating the character of Grace in my first novel I was drawing on an event that had stuck in my mind when my children were small. A two-year-old boy was abducted on the island of Kos when in the care of his grandmother and I wondered how the child’s mother could ever forgive her own mother. This ‘what if’ became the starting point for the story and the character of Grace was created through my own experiences; she was about the same age as me, had a difficult relationship with her daughter and had mental health problems. The similarities ended there but were a springboard for other ideas until Grace lived with me and even slept with me at night. Drawing on deeply personal experiences I can vouch for the ‘truth’ of her, but she isn’t me; I am me.

Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897) says:

 “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”

Looking at my life experiences it may seem as if I have lived a life of wasted opportunities but in Seneca’s terms, writing is a way of me having a long life because I now know “how to use it”.

Home is where the heart is?

I’ve been away for the Xmas break staying with my family in the NE of England. I lived there for most of my life before moving to Scotland 10 years ago, so Newcastle has been “home” for a very long time. I holds memories that are the threads of my life, stitches that have held me together through adversities, cloth that has kept me warm and offered protection from harsh winter nights. Whenever I travelled south on the train my pulse would quicken as soon as I saw the Tyne Bridge, or if I travelled by car, when I passed the Angel of the North. But things are changing. Or maybe I’m just getting older.

When I was young we moved around a lot and I went to 8 different schools. At first leaving friends was like having my heart torn open but gradually I perfected growing a leather sheath over it that could be repaired. “Home” became a ghost, a concept that lived in the realm of consciousness but had no definite substance. Later it became something I carried around inside me. Then everything changed. I had children.

Determined my kids would never have to leave their friends and familiar surroundings, I stubbornly stayed on in the house we bought just after we were married. But I yearned for freedom, to travel, to experience. It was only when my babes were all grown up and had left to make their own way in life that I went off to work in Nepal. I had such grand ideas of career changes, working in developing countries and “making a difference”. But like a lot of my grand ideas this one didn’t work out either.

The illness that had dogged me for years reared up again and I was sent back to the UK for treatment. Unfortunately I got a diagnosis that would not allow me to continue working in developing countries. I was bereft. But at the same time, all the things I’d taken for granted before going away suddenly had their colour volume turned up. The streets were clean, traffic didn’t have foul black smoke belching out of exhaust pipes, and there was an order to driving on roads. And of course, some of those roads led me back to the Tyne Bridge and the Angel.

In Nepal I had contemplated on rooftops waiting for the Himals to appear, back in England I sat in parks. In Nepal the breath-taking beauty of snow-peaked Himalayas spoke to me in air that was fresh and soft and stupas expanded my appreciation of the spirit. In Northumberland I looked at castles and churches with different eyes, seeing in them people from the past, my people, whose lives were just as hard as modern-day Nepalis and Tibetans. The grass and forests and rivers or Northumbria became sacred to me, places that nourished my soul and where I found temporary peace from my fears that I would die never being good enough or do anything that made a difference to anyone. I was wrong about that as well.

Shortly after I moved to Scotland a former teaching colleague invited me to the Sixth Form Reunion at one of the schools where I used to work. I wasn’t well enough to travel so sent my apologies and thought that was then end of it. However, after the reunion she got back in touch with me to say that several students had been disappointed I hadn’t been able to go but one lad in particular wanted me to know what a difference I’d made to his life.

David had been in my A level literature group and was someone who had been bullied a lot. He had  a wandering eye, was very quiet and overweight. We were studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I’d asked the group if they’d like to do a Geordie version of the Mechanicals play for assembly and perform to the rest of the school. They were a bit dubious but once we got underway they started to be excited. I asked David to play Bottom, the lead part. He kept suggesting other students for the role so I told him that if he didn’t want to do it, that was fine but I thought he’d do a good job of it. He did. When he came to the reunion it was let me know he’d played Hamlet at university and had just appeared at one of the theatres in Newcastle as part of a nationwide tour with a theatre company. Coming back ‘home’ to perform had been one of his greatest pleasures and seeing me would have been another. There was a write-up in one of the local evening newspapers of the play David had been in and he was quoted as saying “It was all down to my English teacher. She was the only one who believed in me”.

I left teaching for a lot of reasons but other than the pleasure I have derived from my own children it was the next best. I miss the freedom I had to explore texts in whatever way I saw fit, to take the ‘bottom set’ students to the theatre and see their eyes shine, to take them on outings and socialize them, to make assignments real and not just fabricated exercises with no cause or effect. But most of all I miss their youth and their honesty –

“Poetry? What the fuck use is that?”