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

 

Between Birth and Death

These are troubled days and as it is St Valentine’s Day this week I thought a little escapism into love would do me good. However, for those of us without a significant other, this time of year with the roses and cards can be painful, or seem crass. For me it’s the latter. So I decided to look for the positives.

Trying to establish the facts about St Valentine proved to be more difficult that I thought. Apparently there have been up to five Valentine’s accredited with being the saint but the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic Church’s official list of recognised saints, for February 14 gives only one Saint Valentine; a martyr who died on the Via Flaminia.

So why has Valentine’s feast day has been celebrated as a lovers’ holiday and a day of romance since the 14th century? Some say the date was thought to be the beginning of the mating season for birds. Others say it is because the church wanted to Christianise an ancient Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia, which centred around fertility and purification.Whatever the explanation and whoever is the real Valentine, we have in the western world an annual celebration of romantic love on February 14th.

Some people look to the Bible for inspiration about Love. I look to Khalil Gibran, Paolo Cuelho and Don Miguel Ruiz who each in The Prophet, The Alchemist and The Mastery of Love respectively, use a master talking to and teaching a crowd of people about Love. My favourite is The Prophet, possibly because I discovered it first at a time when I needed it and we always hold our first loves a little more tightly.

Almustafa, the Prophet,  is about to leave the city of Orphalese. He has waited twelve years for a ship and when one arrives the people gather round, desperate for last words of wisdom before he leaves, to tell him “all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.”

He is asked to speak about Love and exhorts the people assembled before him:

“When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to you roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

Not for him the slushy, chocolate box fiction of romantic love. He portrays love’s stark reality of light and shade, pleasure and pain, its catharticism.

When asked about Marriage he says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from the same cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

So many elderly couples I know do everything together and take great pride in this, in never having had a cross word, of thinking and breathing the same way. It may work for them, and each to their own, but for me that kind of relationship seems claustrophobic, lifeless. The merging of two people into one is often written to describe finding one’s ‘soul mate’ but to me a soul mate is one who helps your soul sing its own tune in harmony with theirs, not get it to sing the same notes.

Someone recently commented that none of my characters in fiction are happily married or in successful relationships. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she’s right. I suppose as a writer I’ve brought my own experiences to my work and haven’t seen many examples of what I would say were ‘successful’ relationships. The couples involved might describe their relationships as successful, but seen by me, the outsider, they are too full of compromise, to the point where the individual has vanished. But I guess it’s all down to perceptions and the choices we make.

So whatever your status and views on love this Valentine’s Day, I wish you peace and joy.

“This day has ended. It is closing upon us even as the water-lily upon its own tomorrow. What was given us here we shall keep, And if it suffices not, then again must we come together and together stretch our hands unto the giver”

 

 

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.

Natural Magic

Looking out my window today at the grey skies and rain, my eyes caught sight of raindrops clinging to the branches of a willow tree in the garden. It made me think about transformation and about the beauty and magic that is all around us if we only look. Take water. Living in Scotland it’s something we take for granted because it’s everywhere – in our taps, toilets, lochs, rivers and seas, on the pavements and roads, falling from the sky, and in winter it’s in frost, ice and snowflakes. It’s an inconvenience when we’ve planned a picnic and the heavens open, disastrous when land and homes are flooded, dangerous when the seas gobble up cliffs, sailors, fisherfolk and lifeguard crews. It has moods and melodies, can be friend or foe, but how many people in the course of their bust days think of it as magical? Or think of it at all?

Looking at those raindrops, at their perfect shape, how they hang on the branches in all their fragility and beauty, I don’t care what the scientific explanation about surface tensions is. All I can see is the magic of life, how some things are held in place till something comes crashing into them and destroys them and how some others survive until they gradually fade away. Yet while they exist, their beauty is undeniable and when light shines through them, tiny rainbows appear. What’s that if not magic?

As children we accept nature’s magic without question but as we grow older we reach for explanations, we have to know the why of everything. It becomes harder for us to accept the just because and in our efforts to pin down things and categorize them we miss out so much on sheer enjoyment and wonder. Maybe it’s because I am old enough to be returning to a second childhood that these things are now important to me. Maybe because I’m retired and have more time to reflect, or maybe it’s because I have young grandchildren and can see again the world through young eyes that I find it a much better place to inhabit.

I’m still involved in campaigns for justice and appreciate the dark side of life for many people people living on the fringes of existence. My travels have shown me poverty and abuse, open sewers and pollution, the worst in human nature. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by news reports and feel frustrated, that life is futile, people irredeemable. But take a child in your arms, show them a spider’s web, how early morning moisture sparkles on them like jewels, how intricate the pattern is, how the spider will work away to repair the web time after time, never giving up, and you begin to see for yourself how precious life is and your world picture is transformed by the magic of nature. And that, for me, is real magic.

Books

Alain de Botton wrote in The Consolations of Philosophy:

“Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to”.

This comment follows a quote from French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who wrote “Many things that I would not care to tell any individual man I tell to the public, and for knowledge of my most secret thoughts, I refer my most loyal friends to a bookseller’s stall.”

I know exactly what he means. Writing for me is a form of self-expression and whilst to many people it may seem self-absorbed and of no interest to them, to me it is a means of stating who I am and my realtionship with the world. This is easy to see in my non-fiction and poetry but even in fiction, where I may assume various personae through my characters, imagining myself into their lives, their heads and hearts, everything I write has a piece of me, a portion of my understanding, my prejudices, my history. If I can make that interesting for other people to read, that’s fantastic.

Let’s face it, success as a writer is measured by how many books we sell, how many good reviews we get, how many personal recommendations. But for me it is more than that; I write because I have to, because I cannot not write. I feel success when I’ve accurately captured in words a smell, a feeling, a sound, or conveyed an imaginary world or character that can be seen and breathes. The outer trappings of book sales are important, but having something to say and saying it well, to be able to talk to people through the written word and express myself without censure, that’s what I find really important.

It’s not that I don’t have anyone to talk to, it’s that in writing I can fully be who I am, say what I want to say without contradiction, and maybe share a little of myself with someone else. Books certainly enable me to do that but as the social media has to a certain extent replaced more traditional forms of communication I’ve found an outlet for my outpourings in my blogs. Hopefully those who read them will enjoy them.

Alter ego

I’m currently re-reading Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For those unfamiliar with the work, Persig is driving across America on a motorbike with his son, Chris, and a couple of friends, calling in at places that hold resonances for him. He is accompanied by a ghost, Phaedrus, who turns out to be his alter ego. As the story unfolds fragments from Phaedrus’ memory and writings surface. Phaedrus was Persig as a young man who strove to align what he called “classical” and “romantic” methods of thought and tried to define ‘Quality’. The struggle drove him to depression, a nervous breakdown, hospitalization and electric shock treatment.

He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come to it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way.

This journey is not just a physical and metaphorical one, it is also a journey into the heart of philosophy and rational thought, and into the mind of the man who struggled to make sense of it.

To the Persig riding the motorcycle, Phaedrus is a ghost, someone who haunts his thoughts and dreams, someone he wants to bury forever. But in order to do so he has to return to the places where it all happened, to look at things with new eyes and to understand where it all went wrong. It’s a compelling read, even for someone like me who’s one of the “romantic” school, who sees things emotionally rather than rationally. It is also beautifully written.

The gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semi-sleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitos and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken… And then it reappears.

When I picked this book up again last week all I could remember about it was that it was a story of a journey and parts of it looked at why you need to understand and keep the workings of machines well serviced. Nothing about philosophy. I remembered I’d loved the writing style and that he had explained things that made sense at the time but my brain hadn’t retained any. Inside the front cover is a note from the writer that includes this:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’.

It was time to read it again.

Like Persig, I have a Phaedrus. My alter ego doesn’t have a name but she pops up at times to undermine me, telling me I’m not good enough, of course I’ll never be a success and why do I think anyone is remotely interested in anything I have to say? She’s been my companion for years, a shadow dogging my steps. Peter Pan lost his shadow and was searching for it to stitch back on, but I’m trying to find a way to do the opposite, to cut her off and leave her in a drawer. Permanently. Yet I have tremendous compassion for her and therein lies a problem. How do you eliminate something that has been part of who you are? She’s born of other people’s qualitative judgements so perhaps Persig’s book will help peel away any acceptance of those judgements because they are just someone else’s ideas and the quality or worth of a person doesn’t adhere to any agreed universal definition. We’ll see.

Phaedrus had once called metaphysics “the high country of the mind”–an analogy to the high country of mountain climbing. It takes a lot of effort to get there and more effort when you arrive, but unless you can make the journey you are confined to one valley of thought all your life.