The Stationmaster’s Garden

The Stationmaster’s Garden

The summer storm seemed the last insult to an already injured spirit, and I ran, tears cascading down my face. Not for home, as that was a good mile away and I didn’t expect either sympathy or understanding there, but rather to one of the hidden places we’d played in some weeks previously.

The stationmaster’s cottage had long been demolished; I’m not sure now it even existed except as a part of the fantasy landscape that the kids I played with constructed around the railway line that ran past the edge of the small town where I grew up. Tales of Victorian train crashes, culled probably from films and books rather than any real events in local history were the basis for various games of ghostly goings on and gory play-acting. Something had been there for sure, for the narrow strip of ground hidden by high hedges and overgrown fencing that collapsed at the slightest kick, contained cultivated plants and feral flowers that we all knew did not grow wild. The belief was that this hideaway had once been the garden belonging to the stationmaster, and screened from the road and the railway by vegetation it was the perfect place to play out of sight of adults. We weren’t sure if we were trespassing or not, but since we were not actually on the railway embankment proper, it felt like this was a safe place.

That day, my friend Tina had decided, out of the blue or so it seemed to me at the time, that she preferred another girl to play with. After a couple of awkward days of three of us playing, I found myself surplus to requirements and was driven away by the other two. Children can be cruel without a thought, and that thoughtless cruelty that sent me running away cut me deeply. I was not wanted, I had been rejected as being… well, there were no reasons given and as an adult I can think now more kindly of the whole thing. Tina simply needed a very different friend for a while. We were growing up fast then and people change.

So I said OK, I’ll go, and I went. I believe I left with dignity and without reproach but my memory may be playing tricks on me. Once gone from sight I began running, and that’s when the rain started. A hot day had brewed a sudden storm, with pelting rain that drenched in seconds. I was soaked to the skin in a few minutes, and with nowhere to go but home, I ran for the stationmaster’s garden. You had to crawl in through a gap in the hedge and then you found yourself in a partial green cave.

It’s long gone now but that long thin strip of lost garden was filled with old fashioned cottage garden plants, fighting valiantly against more robust weeds like bindweed and cleavers. Honeysuckle twined amid the hawthorn and elder and sloe that made up the bulk of the hedging. Bright blue flowers (Canterbury bells I later discovered) straggled here and there. A few aromatics like a leggy lavender and rosemary fought against choking grasses.

I lay doubled over, sobbing, emotions too powerful to contain or articulate spilling over. I had no words to explain how I felt, so there would be little point going home when I could not tell my mum what was wrong. The bare facts did not seem to justify this explosion of pain. I rolled over onto my back and the rain that made it into that dense green shelter pounded on my face. I cried, silently, but wanting to howl and knowing I couldn’t. This was a secret place. I lay there, knowing I’d be in bother for the grass stains on my clothes but not caring. I wept until quite suddenly I could weep no more. Sun touched my face, making me open my eyes. The rain had stopped as abruptly as it had begun and the clouds were gone. Brilliant sunshine was drying out the grass and the flowers and a robin was singing somewhere close by.

Something had changed but not merely the weather. I’d gone in there, feeling as if I might die from the internal pain that I couldn’t even describe, and yet, within twenty minutes it was over. Oh, I felt sad, for sure, and angry too, but the white heat of rejection was gone. I was dimly aware that it didn’t really matter much, not really. The sun and the rain and the robin and the flowers, they were what mattered, because they were there when no one else could be. Being in that hidden place, away from people and with only nature as my companion, had brought that storm in me to its close.

To an adult the stationmaster’s garden might have seemed a poor scrubby remnant deserving of no second glance but to a child that secret garden contained real magic that I can feel to this day.

(This narrative came to me following a meditation called Dreams Come True from by the wonderful Jackie Stewart. It’s a real event from my life that I began to understand after going deeply into my own past)

Touching the taboos ~ an essential part of novel development or jumping on the bandwagon?

Touching the taboos ~ an essential part of novel development or jumping on the bandwagon?

At first glance at the literary and creative world it might seem as though there are no taboos left. The recent explosion of literary erotica seems to show that there are few inhibitions left among both writers and readers. Yet it doesn’t seem long ago when the freedom to write about taboo subjects was threatened by certain financial institutions who will remain nameless. That battle was won; literary freedom was maintained.

So what then is a taboo? A quick trawl of the internet will give you a little to go on:

a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing: many taboos have developed around physical exposurethe use of violence must remain a taboo in our society[mass noun]: Freud applies his notion of taboo in three ways

a practice that is prohibited or restricted in this way: speaking about sex is a taboo in his country”

It’s very clear that taboos are a kind of moveable feast, something that shifts and changes according to time and place. Until quite recently in the UK, talking about sex was very much frowned upon, and it’s this that gave us Brits our reputation for being uptight and repressed. This week I sat on a train and listened to a businesswoman on the phone to a chum, talking in some detail about the sex lives of mutual acquaintances. There’s change for you. I squirmed. It wasn’t so much the vague, salacious details that bothered me but the fact that she was sharing them on such a public forum as a very busy train!

The taboos of a country are not fixed and immutable but are slowly fluid. As we change, so do they. Death is possibly one of the most fixed of them in my culture; people seem to feel talking about it will bring the attention of the Grim reaper before their time.

Bookshops often have a whole section of books that are referred rather scathingly as Misery Memoirs, or Mis-Mems, row upon row of heartbreaking covers with emotive titles, each someone’s harrowing tale of abuse. These are big sellers, and I hope that greater awareness of the issues they highlight might be the result of their publication.

When I launched my new novel The Bet a week or two back, a friend on Twitter commented about the timing. That week there had been a case of a school girl running away to France with her teacher. Now one of the central plot themes of The Bet was an incident where a teacher made the moves on a teenage pupil. I wrote the novel some years ago, and I’d set the launch date months before the teacher-pupil affair became headline news. My timing for the release was pure coincidence. My Twitter chum saw it as good timing, in that the subject was topical and powerful.

But the novel was not written with that taboo in mind. I did not think one day, “let’s write a novel about….”. The process was far more nebulous, unplanned, and touching taboos deliberately was the furthest thing from my mind. Put simply, it was how the story revealed itself to me. It’s also not the scenario that you might choose if you were bandwagon-jumping to try to be topical. This was a female teacher making the moves on a vulnerable boy who has somehow caught her eye and piqued her vanity because he’s not interested in her.

It’s far from the only taboo in the book. Death, birth, child abuse, domestic tyranny and violence, suicide and severe mental illness all emerge as the story unfolds. They’re needed by the story itself. They’re not there because I decided to put them there, like ingredients for a cupcake mix. I don’t even cook by recipes; I make it up as I go along, letting myself be inspired by what comes to mind.

When it comes to reading matter, people generally find that stories where the challenges faced by the characters are mundane, everyday ones, the effect is one of blandness. They’re unchallenging. They don’t engage you with any emotional tugs, that frantic willing-on for the main character. Books like that tend to be rather meh! But a book that dares to touch on certain taboos risks being branded as sensationalist, of jumping on a bandwagon to gain more visibility.

Shortly after my book came out, there has also be a very high profile scandal about a now deceased celebrity, accused posthumously of a series of serious sexual crimes against young girls. If someone had used this premise as a plot for a novel, BEFORE this hit the headlines, I suspect it would have been treated as unbelievable, while the truth that unfolds day by day proves horribly believable and sickening. Accounts of this will be appearing for months, if not years, after the initial reports emerged, but to be honest, if a writer later chooses to use this terrible story as a basis for a novel(ie fiction), then to me that would be an attempt to cash in on the misery of others. (I do not include those who write accounts of what happened to them. That’s different)

My thoughts are simply that if a novel demands that you explore taboos, then don your pith helmet and get on with it. But if it’s done to fit in with a Zeitgeist or a movement or a fixation with celebrity misdemeanours, or because it may make the novel saleable, then I believe the effects may be other than expected. A novel that delves into psychologically dark areas can be very different depending on how it developed. One that has deliberately used those dark things as devices will perhaps seem far less real and powerful than one where the dark has bloomed of it’s own volition. And I know which I prefer to read…

One click and you’re history ~ how social media makes us more isolated and intolerant.

One click and you’re history ~ how social media makes us more isolated and intolerant.

You know the drill.

Someone has hurt you. These days it’s just as likely to be someone on a social media network as it is to be someone in real life whom you see face to face. There’s a reason for this.

I love social media. There’s a better chance of finding your tribe than simple geography allows. There’s quite simply MILLIONS of people out there. You can refine your basic parameters and hey presto, instant social circle.

Except for one thing. Most of them will be hundreds if not thousands of miles away. You see them only by the words they write. Or by the statuses they post on Facebook. Or by their blogs. A few you progress to chatting with on messaging facilities. Even fewer, on Skype. Some you talk to on the phone. A very small number you end up meeting face to face. My goodness, but this is a wonderful feeling. I have had coffee with some chums, stayed with a few others, chinked glasses in cocktail bars with one or two, given city tours to others. It’s a good feeling.

But there is a downside. People are not cardboard cut-outs, acting out my fantasies (steady, the Buffs!) but real people with lives, thoughts, feelings of their own. They think, live and believe things that are quite different to the way I do. Sometimes I see what friends post on Facebook and Twitter and I recoil in shock. Truly. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting atrocity, I saw things that made me shake. People I believe to be decent, good folks airing their views on gun ownership that were quite at odds with my own beliefs about guns. I saw fights break out over it.

Every time something powerful happens, I see the same thing. People fighting over their right to believe what they do, whether it’s in a political stance, a religious one or over music. It rapidly gets nasty, and what usually follows is a blazing row followed by a silence. The silence is usually because one or other of the parties involved has deleted or blocked the other.

In an instant, years of internet friendship is gone. Every Christmas present posted, every jovial exchange, every key moment shared in their mutual lives, all lost.

Don’t agree with my political stance? Deleted!

Dislike my religious faith? Unfollowed!

Hate my liking for cats and of posting pictures of kittens? Unfriended!

Object to sharing of youtube links? Blocked!

It’s too easy.

Imagine the person you have taken umbrage at is standing in front of you, helpless. You have a gun. You can put it to their head and without fear of consequence, you can pull the trigger, and that will be it. Would you do it? No, of course you wouldn’t. But in many cases, that’s what’s really in the minds of people when they remove another from their virtual life. Getting rid of a problem permanently and without mess or apparent consequence.

It diminishes all of us. It dismisses the very real value of learning to get on with people we don’t agree with all the time. It stops us learning to live and let live.

Each time a person cuts out someone they find they’re come to loggerheads with, something happens they don’t see. They lose the mirror others hold up to us and to our own behaviour and attitudes. We need others to disagree with us sometimes, because it helps us reassess our core values and beliefs. It stops us feeling as if we are paragons. Believe me, I hate anyone criticising me, having a pop at me for something. But like anyone else I need it. I need to see the other side of a story, the side I don’t want to see because it makes me uncomfortable and angry.

Someone had me hovering over the unfriend button because they were posting some pretty disturbing things about abortion, but I stopped. I spent time thinking about something that upsets me and it was good for me to do that. It reminded me of why I feel what I do about that subject but it also taught me that people always have reasons for their feelings. I’d dug a little deeper, just by reading their posts and comments, to see that there had been severe suffering that had brought them to this viewpoint. I felt compassion and I was able to step back and disagree, but allow him to hold his view as a valid one. That’s the key, you see:

You are not me and I am not you. You have been places I have not been and never will. I have done and seen things you have not. You have reasons for your beliefs and so do I. I may not agree with them but I would defend your right to hold them.

But the more a person hacks away at those who don’t quite fit their world view, the smaller their world becomes. Each time a layer of others is pruned away, the remainder become more and more closely scutinised for any signs of heresy.

I’d like to end by sharing some words by Anthony de Mello, from his book, The Song of the Bird:

The Old Woman’s Religion

A very religious-minded old woman was dissatisfied with all existing religions, so she founded one of her own.

One day a reporter who genuinely wanted to understand her point of view, said to her, “Do you really believe, as people say you do, that no one will go to heaven except you and your housemaid Mary?”

The old woman pondered the question and then replied, “Well, I’m not so sure of Mary.”

The hot mess ~ or why damaged goods garner more interest

The hot mess ~ or why damaged goods garner more interest

When Jane Austen wrote that she was going to create a heroine for a novel whom nobody would much like but her, she showed a surprising lack of insight into human nature. That said, she never lived to see how wildly popular her novel Emma would become or how beloved its eponymous heroine was later to be. Within the confines of the story, Emma herself is a disaster area, meddling in the affairs of others and nearly costing them (and herself) lasting happiness. In strict contrast to her imperfections, her peer Jane Fairfax is held up by all and sundry as being the pinnacle of young womanhood, but Emma herself finds Jane distinctly boring and has never sought her out as a friend, despite being the same age. It’s only later, when circumstances show that Jane has a secret that Emma feels any sort of real interest in her.

I came across the term hot mess on Twitter, I think in relation to a photograph of actor Gabriel Byrne. The term basically means someone whose appearance is far from smart and well turned out but who somehow contrives to convey heavy duty sexiness. Think bed-hair and smudged eye make up, think Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. But a hot mess goes far beyond mere animal sexuality and appeal; it links in with some very complex psychology.

I believe we have an inbuilt sense of proportion and beauty. The golden mean, that measure of perfection in proportions is quite deeply ingrained, though often unconscious. One house I lived in years ago had a very large living room. It seated twenty people quite comfortably. But sitting in there for any length of time made me uneasy. It took me a long time to figure out why; it was the proportions of the room. Despite it being a huge room, it had a disproportionately low ceiling that created a feeling of oppression. I ended up feeling squashed.

It’s the same with people. In physical terms we are drawn to symmetry and research has shown that the closer a face is to symmetrical the higher it rates in the beauty stakes. Yet perfection often repels. There is something god-like and untouchable about perfection. We end up confusing beauty with goodness.

Both beauty and goodness are hard to be around because they show up our imperfections. Drawn and repelled, we circulate, dipping in and out of orbit. There is no place for us to anchor ourselves alongside perfection; we cannot connect.

But the hot mess has something special. There IS beauty, and lots of it, but it’s a damaged kind of beauty. There may be room for us to stand alongside, without looking so conspicuously imperfect. There is perhaps room for us in their life, their mess. Just as we are drawn to admire perfection, we may also be drawn to try and create it. The hot mess just begs to be fixed.

I’m not merely talking about external physical appearance but also about the interior. People with problems, damaged souls, sometimes can be more compelling, singing that siren song of need. Many of us need to be needed and the more damaged a person seems to be, the more scope for us to be useful. It’s a heady mix, though, and you’re probably thinking already of relationships you’ve witnessed where this strange co-dependency has developed.

In literary terms, the hot mess is vital to a good story. Reading about someone whose life is perfect but which then unravels in spectacular fashion is enthralling; we live vicariously through their troubles. On the other end, a story where the main character starts out a mess and travels towards recovery, we find ourselves rooting for them to succeed. And yet, if they do succeed, do we lose interest? Some of the best novels I’ve read that address this are those by Susan Howatch; they take the reader on a rip-roaring journey where the main characters implode, explode, fall to pieces, and recover. But they never recover completely. There’s always a sense of there being a hiatus in the experience, of reaching a safe haven but only for the moment.

I wrote once “If life is a journey, then any short-cut is a death trap” (I was very amused and slightly humbled to find this quoted on Facebook by a stranger) and I have to stand by that. Recovery from the damage life does to us is only ever partial, and we become walking wounded. I think we become fascinated by the hot mess of literature because there is a sense of fellowship, of kinship with the characters whose lives are in ruins, internally or externally. They help us feel less alone when we are unable to show our damage to those around us for fear they will reject us as weak, imperfect and ugly.

Who is your favourite literary hot mess?