The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain

There is a problem with pain. Other than that it hurts, that is.
The problem is that we each experience pain in a personal and unique way. My pain is not your pain. Pain tolerance and pain thresholds are different for every person.
Not only that, our experiences are different. A man cannot fully understand the pain of a woman in childbirth; a woman cannot fully comprehend the pain of being kicked in the balls. We don’t have comparable parts. Not only that, every birthing experience is different too (for example). I’ve heard of women who have had a pleasurable and even (gasp!) orgasmic birthing experience. I’ve heard of plenty for whom the pain was enough to make them pass out, and scream for days. My own experience of giving birth was one of unimaginable agony. People say you forget the pain when you hold the baby. In my case, this is not true. Perhaps I lack the true maternal spirit.
Pain is the body’s way of communicating that there is something wrong. Whether it is physical or psychological pain, it is a call to change, a call to arms or at the very least a call to investigation. Ignoring pain and carrying on regardless is only ever likely to cause more damage. Those who cannot feel pain continue to damage themselves catastrophically. There are people who declare you must move through pain and that it does not matter. I would imagine few of these have experienced severe, chronic pain. The ability to bear pain is often greater when the pain has a fixed limit (as in childbirth) and one of the hardest things to cope with is not knowing if the pain will have an end at all. While I was coping with severe endometriosis, one thing that kept me sane was knowing that at some point the pain would cease when menopause arrived.
Coping with the extensive pain created by my parathryoid tumour was a tiny bit easier when I knew what was causing the pain, and later, when I had a date to look forward to to get rid of the tumour. It meant I was able to accept the strong pain relief that came in the form of patches for slow release of opiates; had the pain been open-ended and longer term, I could not have risked using the patches.
My Joint Hypermobility Syndrome causes me a lot of pain and fatigue and since it’s not something that can be cured, I now struggle to deal with it. The recent MRI scan has found something else (not something I’m willing to talk about yet) and like the JHS, it too is something that causes pain and weakness. It would seem that pain is something I cannot escape.
One thing that I would ask is that we all start to respect each other’s experiences a bit more. Those who have escaped pain during their lives have a tendency to believe that somehow they are stronger, wiser and more blessed than those suffering pain. Those who exhort others to “move through the pain” or that pain doesn’t matter and we should just ignore it, really need a dose of reality. Pain is one of the constants of life and it’s a mark of our growth as human beings that we can learn to deal with the pain of others in a compassionate way even when it’s not something we have directly experienced.
I’ve not talked about mental or emotional pain at all but to me it goes without saying that mental pain is as debilitating as physical pain. One study I cannot now find did discover that in a significant number of cases a simple dose of paracetamol daily for those suffering depressive illness is more effective than anti-depressants. Mental pain is real; while invisible illnesses can cause horrific pain, it’s still not widely understood how horrific the pain of a mental illness can be. We feel it in the body, too. It’s not “out there” somewhere, but it’s deep inside us.
Pain is a problem. It’s not just my problem. It’s a problem that belongs to us all.

Scent of a Character ~ unseen dimensions of back story

Scent of a Character ~ unseen dimensions of back story

When authors talk about back story, I’ve very seldom heard them include the nebulous dimensions like smell. Perhaps I’m a bit (lot) strange because often I will know precisely what a character smells like but won’t be able to tell you the precise details of their facial features. I’m quite a primitive person and I react strongly to a person’s scent; meeting a friend for the first time in real life had me inwardly recoil simply because I didn’t like how that friend smelled. I ought to have listened to my instincts but at the time I put it down to my dislike of smoking. On later reflection I know plenty of people who smoke and while I dislike the smell of cigarette smoke in clothes and hair I don’t react so viscerally to it as I did in that case.
The sense of smell is one of our more poorly understood senses, because it’s still little understood how our bodies register smells. The sense is linked closely to that of taste and people who lose their sense of smell also lose their sense of taste (and subsequently their enjoyment of food). It’s one linked to the most primitive parts of our brains, which is perhaps why I ought to have listened more closely to my instincts to stay away from that friend, but we’ve mostly over-ridden such reactions. In the west, where most people wash regularly if not daily, a person’s unique scent is often hidden under layers of fragrance, from soap to cologne. Yet even so, we can often recognise the true scent of our loved ones; tests using tee shirts worn at night show that people can find their partner’s out of dozens of worn clothes. We are also programmed to find the scent of our blood relatives off-putting, and not sexually attractive; this sense seems to be subject to interference by hormonal medicines like the Pill. It’s a mechanism intended to help us avoid in-breeding but like many natural mechanisms it can and often is over-come.
What a place smells like is also the first thing I tend to notice when I enter a place; this is very much reflected in how I write. I know how the homes of my characters smell as well as the people themselves. Antony Ashurst lives in a house built centuries ago and in stages from the core constructed in the middle ages to a kitchen built in Victorian times on top of the remains of an Elizabethan kitchen. The house has its own set of scents: wood that has been cherished and cleaned and polished for hundreds of years, Persian carpets worn but still vibrant and strong, have all absorbed the scents of the centuries. Wood-smoke from fires of different woods burned in a dozen hearths, beeswax candles in the great hall and tallow tapers in the servants quarters, pipe tobacco in the study, and in recent years the furniture polish wielded by Muriel, faithful daily and scourge of dust and dirt. Heavy velvet curtains hold old fragrances from dinner parties and daily life. Along the walls there are so many rows of old books that for Antony they have become like wall-paper, and they add their old vanilla and leather scent to the house. Antony himself has a fragrance though he’s not the kind to use cologne. It’s the scent of clean, fastidious youth, made up of good soap and personal hygiene and a need to remain sensually invisible. He wouldn’t have been one of those teenagers seduced by products like Lynx into suffocating everyone around; he doesn’t want to be noticed. Yet that scent and the metaphysical one it represents combine to make him irresistible to hunters eager for what he appears to offer: fresh meat.
Isobel’s cottage has a scent quite unlike that of her vicarage. The cottage is an old building and it retains some of the same sort of elements as Antony’s home, of wood and stone and walls holding the memories of past occupant’s activities. The absence of soft furnishings means that when she moves in, the cottage acquires the furniture of her childhood home and some of the smells of that linger at the edge of understanding. Yet the place itself has another sensory in-put: the natural world tries to leak its way into the house through every crevice. There is a scent of woodland, of leaves old and new, of spring flowers and of autumn mulch and rain-soaked earth. It’s as unlike her normal home as she could ever wish and here she can leave her paintings to dry without the smell of linseed oil, turps and paint annoying anyone. Here she can be herself without having to censor any of it. Isobel is someone who loves a long hot bath and bath elixirs are one of her great loves and she has a number tucked away from her daughter’s magpie eyes in bathroom cupboards here and at her usual home. Tall elegant bottles filled with deeply-coloured and exotically scented oils are one of her weaknesses. It’s not usual for her to smell of actual perfume but skin and hair will usually be redolent of some potion or other.
Chloe is someone who fights her sensual side and her adoption of jasmine as a perfume is something that is unconscious and linked to an event lost in her conscious memory. I love jasmine myself and have enjoyed many perfumes with this as a central note; alas, all of them have now been discontinued. Her home is one that smells of flowers all year round, which might come as a surprise when she aims to project an aura of no-nonsense practicality. Hyacinths grown in dark cupboards in stages so that the dark winter months will be scented by their heady perfume, are placed in the hall way and hearth. As soon as the first narcissi are in the shops, she will fill vases with them and plant hundreds in whichever garden she is working on. Scented geraniums stand in huge terracotta planters in the porch so that a brush from coats as people enter the house fill the air with scents of oranges, lemons, peppermint, chocolate and even frankincense. The living room has a faint scent of sandalwood from the battered old statue of the Buddha in the hearth. Chloe herself tends to dab a drop of jasmine oil on wrists and through her hair most days; it fills her with a sense of well-being and safety. If she ever found a perfume that was true to pure jasmine oil, she (like me) would be a very happy woman.
I could go on but I am sure you get the picture. How a person and a place smells is to me as vital an ingredient as how they look, both as a reader and as a writer. This sensual element of back story carries more power than you’d imagine as it goes past conscious thought and straight to instinctual reactions. I’m experimenting with visiting department stores and trying perfumes new to me, as a source of inspiration. Sometimes a character could spring to life from a quick sniff. I’ll certainly start writing little pen-portraits of perfume-people when I next get to John Lewis.
(I wrote an earlier post that was about the aspect of synaesthesia and smell in terms of character. You can read that here:

Notes from the Red Book ~ part two

Notes from the Red Book ~ part two ( for part one, see here:

A few mornings ago I woke from a vivid dream that felt significant and puzzling because it was about someone who died a full five years before I was even born: Carl Gustav Jung. In the dream I was asked to do daily visits to the man himself, to give him reflexology (I used to work as a reflexologist) during what was to be his last illness. The place where he was living was a big, old school that was no longer in use as a school for children and the sign at the entrance to the drive had been obscured by the growth of climbers so I didn’t see the name of the place. The sign was a heavy duty block of ornately carved stone but the plants had scrambled all over it, obscuring the lettering. I went into the study where he was sitting waiting for me and I wanted to refresh my memory of what I’d discovered on my first visit (I think this was my second visit) I’d been making lots of notes but when I looked at them, they were all written in the old high German script that was almost dying out when I was a teenager visiting Germany (the old folks still used it but otherwise it was gone from normal life) and the notebook also had some wonderful visionary paintings in it, all done in miniature. I realised I had written and drawn it all but could not make out much of my notes. I have some German but am far from fluent and reading it even in normal modern script is something I struggle with. The odd word popped out because it was in English, like *meridian*. I sat down and I could hear Jung speaking to me, but though it was in English, I didn’t seem to be able to understand, but even so, I gathered that day he didn’t want me to work on his feet but just to sit there and listen. He had such a kind, gentle but passionate voice that I became very still as I tried to understand what was being told to me. He was dressed in the kind of tweed suit that I’d more associate with Tolkien, but it had an unEnglish quality to it that is hard to explain.
I shared the gist of the dream on Facebook and I had some exceptionally perceptive feedback from wise friends, and I did some thinking. Last year I was given my copy of the readers’ edition of the Red Book and after reading a certain way into the text, I stopped. This was around the time when my concentration was becoming compromised and my memory and cognition had become very fuzzy.
So, given that the text and the pictures in the dream clearly were reminders of The Red Book (and also of my own little Grail diary that I have been writing and painting in) I decided to start reading again. My copy bristles with stick in post it notes, and I made notes as I went along. In the Liber Secundus (Second Book) I came across Jung’s conversation with a figure he calls The Red One (who may or may not be the devil) and was struck by Jung’s comment at the end of this passage:

“This I learned in the Mysterium: to take seriously every unknown wanderer who personally inhabits the inner world, since they are real because they are effectual.”

I read on through the passage entitled The Castle in the Forest, where a strange storybook encounter takes place and where Jung debates the nature of fairy-tales and the relationship between outer adventures and inner adventures.
I’d like to transcribe some of the final section after the adventure of the castle has been recounted, because it resonated with me:

“If you remain within arbitrarily and artificially created boundaries, you will walk as between two high walls: you do not see the immensity of the world. But if you break down the walls that confine your view, and if the immensity and its endless uncertainty inspire you with fear, then the ancient sleeper awakens in you, whose messenger is the white bird (the soul). Then you need the message of the old tamer of chaos. There in the whirl of chaos dwells eternal wonder. Your world begins to become wonderful. Man belongs not to an ordered world, he also belongs in the wonder world of his soul. Consequently you must make your ordered world horrible, so that you are put off by being too much outside yourself.
Your soul is in great need, because drought weights in its world. If you look outside yourselves, you see the far-off forests and mountains, and above them your vision climbs to the realms of the stars. And if you look into yourselves, you will see on the other hand the nearby as far-off and infinite, since the world of the inner is as infinite as the world of the outer. Just as you become a part of the manifold essence of the inner world through your soul. The inner world is truly infinite, in no way poorer than the outer one. Man lives in two worlds. A fool lives here or there, but never here and there.”

In the last few months, I have seen a restoration of my inner world that had felt stripped bare and left flat and empty of all life. Dreams have begun to flow, hesitantly at times but Jung’s words remind me that figures who appear to me in dreams and in waking dreams of imagination are real and that they do not appear by simple chance. The continued and unsolved issues of health that have left me still in significant pain and weakness have curtailed my exploration of the exterior world; trips I had hoped to make have again been put on hold until the source of the weakness and pain has been located. Yet to be reminded that if my body becomes frail, I can still access the infinite and very real worlds of the inner, of what Jung calls the Mysterium, is a huge boost. I spent years exploring ways of accessing this realm for myself and the demands of the outer life meant that I used those methods less and less. But that knowledge and experience remain, a little dusty maybe, but still valid and still vital.
I’ll end with some more words that have popped off the page for me. My feeling of stagnation, of no progress have irked me and caused me much pain and frustration so reading these words may help you as they are helping me:

To be that which you are is the bath of rebirth. In the depths, being is not an unconditional persistence but an endlessly slow growth. You think you are standing still like swamp water, but slowly you flow into the sea that covers the earth’s greatest deeps, and is so vast that firm land seems only an island imbedded (sic) in the womb of an immeasurable sea.
As a drop in the ocean you take part in the current, ebb and flow. You swell slowly on the land and slowly sink back again in interminably slow breaths. You wander vast distances in blurred currents and wash up on strange shores, not knowing how you got there. You mount the billows of huge storms and are swept back into the depths. And you do not know how this happens to you. You had thought that your movement came from you and that it needed your decisions and efforts, so that you could get going and make progress. But with every conceivable effort you would never have achieved that movement and reached those areas to which the sea and the great wind of the world brought you.”

Accidental Emeralds ~ a first foray into publishing poetry


Accidental Emeralds ~ a first foray into publishing poetry


When I first began blogging, I used to post poems fairly often and on a number of occasions I have been asked by readers if I have a poetry book available to buy.

Well, now I do.

In some ways, it’s been a harder decision to do this than to publish the novels and stories because poetry is an even smaller market and I’ve had such limited energy due to illness, committing to producing a book of poems was something I wasn’t keen on. There’s a large file of poetry on my hard drive and collating and deciding which to choose and what order to put them in was daunting.

Then I remembered that in the dim and distant past where I was still half-heartedly trying to achieve some sort of success a more traditional route, I had entered a poetry competition that required a small themed collection. I entered and the collection didn’t win. It was the last time I entered anything; it cost £18 to enter and though all entrants were sent a little collection of the previous year’s winner, it really didn’t feel much like value for money. But the collection of twenty poems was still sitting there, untouched and unused and I decided that it would be a valuable experiment.

Accidental Emeralds is a book of poems with the theme of longing. Longing for love, longing for seasons that have passed us by, longing even for tolerance for the wild creatures we share our world and sometimes even our homes with. The title comes from a poem about spring time in an urban setting, where smashed green bottles lie like “accidental emeralds” amid fallen candy-floss coloured cherry blossom. There are only twenty poems, but for a first volume this was enough.

It’s available as a rather lovely little pamphlet/chapbook and also as a Kindle version. I shall be entering it into the Matchbook scheme so that if you buy the paperback, you will get the Kindle version either free or for a greatly reduced price. I apologise for the fact that the sample on Kindle does not show any poems; it only shows the cover, and a table of contents. Since the book is quite short, there’s no way of making a single poem show, but if you have any concerns, then do go into the poetry archive on this blog and sample my style there.

I have begun work putting together a longer collection that I hope to have ready before too long but in the meantime, I do hope a few poetry lovers might choose to buy Accidental Emeralds.

This is the paperback link for UK:

Buying the paperback means you are entitled to a digital copy free using the Amazon Matchbook programme but the Kindle version is available here for £1.74



A Plea for Poetry

A Plea for Poetry

The first piece of creative writing that I can recall anything about which had a memorable effect on others was a poem I wrote aged around six or seven. It was about the colour blue, then my favourite colour, and it ended with the immortal stanza, “Blue, blue, beautiful blue. Blue, blue, wonderful blue.” Hardly Wordsworth, I know, but it caused a fairly large stir in my infants’ school among the teachers. I was a bit shocked at the effect but I guess that while teachers wanted their students to have a try at poetry, at that age, they weren’t expecting terribly much. The poem is long gone but I recall that I used imagery and metaphors, about which I knew nothing consciously.
There is a hesitation, a fear and a loathing around poetry that has long puzzled me. People say they can’t see the point of poetry or that it bores them, or it’s all insufferable navel gazing and narcissism. I know relatively few people who read poetry who are not themselves also poets, and I pick up a general feeling that to most, poetry is an irrelevance.
This saddens me. I studied poetry to an almost industrial level at university, in two languages. Shakespeare is the most widely known poet in the English speaking world, and his language infuses modern English to such an extent that it’s hard to find idioms and expressions without roots in old Will’s works and we use his words usually without knowing what we owe to him for enriching our native tongue. I studied Anglo-Saxon verse, and Beowulf, and then everything from then on up until the twentieth century. I have my favourites, that speak to me, that have become my go-to poets and poems for all sorts of emotional needs. Sometimes a poet expresses a personal truth so well that it becomes almost a universal truth.
A poem can encompass in a few short lines a vast story, yet that story is dependent on our interpreting it (unless it’s a narrative poem or an epic saga in which case it’s a bit more straight forward). A few short words can be enough to convey directly to the heart what it might otherwise take a long novel. For example, in a Wilfred Owen poem from the First World War, he uses the phrase “blood-shod” and in that, he tells a powerful tale of shortages, political incompetencies that delay vital supplies, of the pain of boots disintegrating in foul mud, of feet so sore they lose feeling, coated in blood and filth, that has taken me four lines to explain in merely in passing. (
The effects of such a poem are immediate, and stunning. You can read it out and see the faces of those listening become lost in thought. You don’t even need to be good at reading aloud for it to have a dramatic effect.
It’s not just for the difficult things, either. Love poetry has been a staple for thousands of years; you can say things in poetry you can say no other way. Lovers from Sappho to Shakespeare and onwards have been extolling the virtues, vices and beauty of their beloveds. Catullus wrote some of the wickedest, wittiest and most humorous of ditties to his beloved; they still hold the power to amuse, shock and entertain. (Do look him up in translation and be prepared for some smut and some laughs and some shocks.)
Words are things endued with power. I’ve read of research where subjects being viewed via an MRI machine have had words flashed in front of them and their brains have lit up in the same places that experiencing that event would provoke. So reading about love makes the brain experience the same feelings as being in love, or experiencing pleasure. We can enjoy vicariously the experiences of others, and thereby become more empathetic. This is one of the uses of poetry(and of story, too, but poetry to me is a form of story telling that bypasses acres of words)
And don’t forget that poetry is also FUN. Who has not giggled over the odd limerick? Who has not sung nursery rhymes to their children? Who has not at some stage felt the words surge through them when a poem set to music sets off a moment of nostalgia?
I write this both as a poet and as a lover of poetry. Give it a chance. No one demands any more that you learn a long poem, stanza by stanza, threatening detention or a rap on the knuckles if you fail. You have the option to choose what to read, what to enjoy. There ought be no snobbery in poetry. Pam Ayres’ light, entertaining (but thoughtful) verses have as much value as T.S. Eliot’s labyrinthine and often impenetrable poetry. I’m at the very brink of releasing a first book of my own poems, just a slim volume of twenty poems. I don’t expect it to sell well, to be honest, but nonetheless I am going ahead and publishing because put simply: poetry is important. It’s important to me and whether we recognise it or not, it is vital to civilisation and human development.

Limited time offer for The Bet ~ US only

From today, The Bet will be on special offer on for a princely sum of 99 cents for 3 days, before going up to $1.99 for another 3 and then returning to its very reasonable normal price of $3.

Because I can’t see the price in the US (Amazon won’t show me!) please keep checking until it does show the reduced price and the Countdown box.

Get it while you can, as I probably won’t be doing this again.