A Curate’s Egg ~ 2015 That was the year that was

A Curate’s Egg ~ 2015 That was the year that was

You probably know the term a curate’s egg and if you know its origins in a very old cartoon of a much-downtrodden young curate attempting to eat a boiled egg that is clearly so far past its sell-by (if they had such things when the cartoon was drawn) and saying in response to his employer sternly querying whether the egg was bad, “No, sir, it is excellent in parts!”, then you’ll also know that it’s about making the best of a bad job. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curate%27s_egg 

Personally, 2015 wasn’t a bad year, though. It was excellent in parts. The trouble is that the excellent bits don’t quite make up for the bad bits. The other trouble is that being honest about the bad parts tends to make people switch off. The whole positivity bull has become so engrained that a bit of plain speaking is dismissed as negativity and is demonised. So I’m in a quandary: if I write of the good things without mentioning the bad ones, I’m being dishonest to myself, and if I do mention the less than stellar bits, people dismiss it as moaning. I’m going to try to have a brief run through of some of both.

Good bits:

Books: I managed to get Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking (first in a series of themed collections from his blog) out. It took far longer because I’ve been in the grip of depression this year. It’s got some wonderful reviews and feedback but so far hasn’t reached as many readers as I believe it needs to. Other books have garnered more reviews, though sales have been fewer than previous years. But I am still selling, if slowly.

Travel. I rarely blog much about my travelling job, for a variety of reasons. While most trips go very smoothly and the people I work with are smashing, sometimes things don’t go as well; personality clashes happen, though it’s extremely rare. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and on extremely rare occasions things can go wrong. It would be unprofessional of me to talk about this type of thing. I often chuckle to myself that no-one would believe some of the things I’ve experienced and seen on trips, anyway. It truly is a job of absurd extremes. Needless to say, I make mental notes of it all and perhaps things might filter through in fictionalised form one day. This year I have done a goodly number of miles for the day job. Admittedly, it’s stressful and exhausting but it can also be fun. I go to interesting places and I meet interesting people. Some are absurdly demanding but charming. Some are kind, lovely people I’ve made friends with, like the lovely lady in the small Austrian town who gave me her finger-less gloves when I admired them. There are some truly fabulous people in this world.

Home. In the wake of losing Tiko the Magnificent, tiny tyrant of the kitchen (our guinea pig who loved watching costume dramas on the TV with us. Poldark will never be the same again) we adopted first Blackberry (a year old female guinea, an unwanted pet) and then babies Rosehip, Cinnamon and Anise. They have become possibly the best of mood enhancers, just as Tiko was.

Writing. I have managed to write at least 70 thousand words of fiction this year. Thirty thousand longhand for a sequel to Square Peg, about another thirty thousand for another work in progress, and perhaps ten thousand in short stories. I’ve done perhaps another five to ten thousand on another piece but since that requires me to be in a state of trance, I haven’t done that much. I’ve also published over 70 blog posts this year, according to the WordPress stats monkeys.

Bad bits

Health: despite my best efforts, I’ve been gripped by low mood virtually all year, sometimes paralysed by depression so entirely that simply staying alive has been a huge struggle. I’ve also been in a lot of pain, and fatigue has been crippling. I’ve done my best to stay fit and active, attending the gym several times each week, and having a weekly class of Tai Chi and doing as much walking as I can manage. There is no sense of improving fitness despite doing all this (as well as daily physio exercises) which is frustrating. I have replaced the core muscles I lost because of the parathyroid tumour (removed in 2014) which has been helpful, but I’ve had four quite bad injuries this year because of my wonky joints. I did my ankle on New Year’s Day, wrist in March, shoulder on April Fool’s Day (of course) and I damaged my hip doing the splits on a slippery floor (by accident I should add). Each injury took a long time to recover and caused a lot of pain. Fibromyalgia pain is debilitating at the best of times, and injury adds to it.

Writing: yes, I know I put this in my good bits. I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I feel I have lost faith with myself, lost the ability to just trust my own inner processes that had served me so well in the past. I have lost connection with the me that basically says, “let’s see where this goes, shall we?” and charges off on an adventure, and is rewarded by a flood of narrative that sweeps me away. Part of the reason for this is I am no longer naïve about the publishing side of things; I’ve seen what sells and what doesn’t and it has seeped into my consciousness and has nibbled at my confidence in my own talent to the extent that I now doubt it entirely. There is an immense ocean of books out there that grows daily so why, oh why, does the world need more? I should add (to pre-empt comments about writing for myself etc) that I have never regarded writing as a hobby, a pass-time, or even a career, but as a kind of vocation, a raison d’etre, something that comes from beyond me as well as from within me. I harbour the probable delusion that my stories matter, that they are more than simple entertainment or diversion, and in this sea of books, what hope is there that mine might find homes? I might add also that my faith in there being a purpose, a destiny, in all this, has also taken a battering. My faith generally has never been at a lower ebb.

Family: seeing family (and close friends) with health issues that are crippling and horrible to live with.

The World: what can I say? There have been many, many terrible things this year that will never mend, never heal.

That’s enough to be going on with, though.

A Reading Round-up of 2015

A Reading Round-up of 2015

During the course of 2015 I’ve managed to complete around sixty or so books, though there are a good number (like possibly another 30) that are partly read. I’d guess from my list that almost half have been non fiction. I’ve read some crackers, and some damp squibs. I’ll start with a damp squib I read in January.

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstein) was very popular and a lot of people raved about it; when I finally found a second-hand copy I read it quite quickly. You could even say I gobbled it up. The actual writing is sensual and rich, but oddly unsatisfying and sometimes troubling; for example, a character’s skin is said to smell of ginger and cream, which sounds initially rather wonderful until you start analysing what cream smells like and how off-putting that would be, something I don’t think was the intention! The book as a whole is like candy-floss – fluffy, delicious, attractive but has no substance or nutritional value whatsoever. I read to the end and felt disappointed.

A cracker of a book was Paul Trembling’s Can of Worms. I don’t really like police procedurals but I read three or four this year and of them, this was by far the best. Realistic, human, well written and well plotted. Unlike the two by Graham Masterton I also read, Trembling managed to write a female lead who is both believable and kick-ass. For another twist on police-but-not-really-police, do check out the Borders series of detective novels by Janet O’Kane; the main character is a GP whose involvement in the cases is well-woven, clever and well written.

I read quite a few books by C.G Jung himself but I also found some real treasures in the writings of Jungian Robert A Johnson, having read eight of his books this year. I hope to write more about what his book, We – The Psychology of Romantic Love, provided I can do so without basically incurring the wrath of everyone who reads or writes romantic fiction!

I’ve probably waxed lyrical many times about Philippa Rees’ Involution, but I also read her unpublished novel which is about the background to how Involution came to be written. I hope that in 2016, more people will find Involution and also that the novel will appear in some form.

A pair of solidly satisfying but not superb novels are the first two detective stories written by J.K Rowling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The first, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was somewhat clunkier than the second, The Silkworm, and without undermining my respect for the author herself, neither book is brilliant enough to justify the incredible sales that happened once the identity of the author leaked out. A better class of holiday read with excellent character development and plots that were not unduly convoluted, both made for agreeable page turners.

A slight disappointment was Anne Rice’s Prince Lestat. It lacked the bite of the earlier novels, though it did keep me flipping the pages. In other horror reads, I also read James Herbert’s Others, and three by Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley wrote rattling good yarns that have dated quite badly in some ways but are now old enough to be vintage rather than just out-of-date. The Haunting of Toby Jugg was the best of the three I read, and The Devil Rides Out, and To the Devil a Daughter were fun reads that reminded me of Ian Fleming’s early Bond books, but with black magic thrown in.

I read through six books by Dion Fortune and have two more partially read and a new one for Christmas. They’re of their era but still excellent reads, especially if you are doing research about the topics covered. Five of these were gifts from Jane Alexander, and I thank her once again for them.

Two books from Gev Sweeney found their way onto my Kindle and were read with great enjoyment; Beethoven’s Wife is a gentle and well-evoked imaginary exploration of a relationship between the great man and a damaged woman. The Prodigal’s Psalm treads on the delicate ground of the lost years between Jesus’s birth and the start of his ministry as the Messiah. Beautifully written, both books stayed with me long after I finished reading.

A Johnny-come-lately, read on Christmas Eve is Destiny and Dynasty by Nick White. This is quite an odd book, but I raced through it, and its exploration of the seamy under-belly of mega churches was very satisfying. There are some truly memorable characters, and some pretty nasty ones. The style of writing comes across as slightly naif, which mirrors the nature of the main character who reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide. Having read a short story by the author that uses an entirely different style, for me this enhanced the telling of the tale, but someone else might find the style off-putting. Think Elmer Gantry antics but in the English midlands.

The To-be-read lists and piles remain undiminished but that’s a good thing; if there’s always more to read, there’s always more to enjoy. I’ve mentioned only a very few of both the stinkers and the diamonds of the books I’ve read this year but I think that’s enough for now.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Christmas Eve (day twenty four)

Day Twenty Four

Christmas Eve

There is a feeling that sometimes arrives on this day, usually after the sun has set and the shops are all shut, and all that can be done has been done. It’s hard to describe and I am unsure of its origin, but it arrives like a benison from heaven and is like a sweet balm on sore skin, easing away pain and anxiety and suffering.

The best I have ever been able to do is to put some of my responses into poetry.

Bliss

Deep bliss, a feeling of velvet inside

An inarticulate rightness of being,

brightness of being right

And I cannot tell why or how

This feeling comes:

A simple certainty that all shall be well,

Now and always.

I cannot capture this feeling, pin down

And dissect it, tear its secrets apart

To reveal the truth I already know.

An image of bright butterflies,

The lark rising with its song,

A moment of purest knowing

Beyond that of intellect

And I sit here now,

Passive

Creative

Alive.

Christmas Eve 2003

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Three

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Three

Day Twenty Three

Traditional music

I’d be the first to admit I have a poor singing voice and don’t enjoy singing very much but at this time of the year, neither fact matters. Winter songs, carols and other music are so much a part of this season that even those who usually sing out of tune find, almost miraculously, find themselves able to carry a tune. The tunes of our most popular carols are probably quite ancient, and the words embedded (to some extent) in the brains of a lot of people. Most of us who grew up in this country went to schools where assemblies included a small (often quite nominal) religious content, but during the run up to Christmas, the nativity play is ubiquitous along with about ten carols that almost everyone knows.

I have about ten or fifteen CDs that I can play only at this time of year. Some are by my favourite singer, Canadian Lorena McKennit, and include less well know carols like the Coventry Carol. Another favourite is Maddy Prior (and her Carnival Band), who sings some of the most ancient of carols like The Boar’s Head. Another is flute music played by a good friend of mine, Jane de Silva, and sent instead of a Christmas card. I have also a CD of Latin chants for the season, sung medieval style. I cherish the few weeks a year when I can legitimately play these CDs.

I sometimes even sing along…

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Two

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Two

Day Twenty Two

Christmas food traditions

Every country has its seasonal specialities for food and drink. We’re tending to lose some of them because almost everything can be grown somewhere and shipped to us (at significant costs) so the seasonal food traditions are becoming blurred now. When you can have crisp, fresh apples any day of the year (often shipped from Chile) people don’t get excited about the arrival of the first Coxes from our own orchards.

Traditional foods for this country have changed, and not so subtly, over the centuries. At one time, the standard Christmas dinner was a big haunch of beef; later, goose, and now it tends to be turkey. Turkey is high in tryptophan, which is a good reason why people fall asleep after Christmas dinner as this is used in health supplements for insomnia and sleep problems.

Certain delicacies are only on sale in the shops at this time of year; our local deli has already run out of marzipan stollen. My late father-in-law loved mince pies so much that my mother-in-law used to make them all year round, from scratch. She made the best mince pies I’ve ever tasted, serving them hot, the pastry lids flipped up to insert a dollop of brandy butter before sticking the lid down and putting them in the oven for a few minutes to melt the butter and crisp up the pastry.

I’m not a huge fan of mince pies myself; I can take them or leave them, but I like the history of them. It’s a myth that they were once banned by law (during the Commonwealth, while this country was a republic under Cromwell) but they were seen as idolatrous and frivolous by the Puritans. All the more reason in my mind to keep the tradition going! If you follow the two links, you can find out more of the history of the humble mince pie, and an original recipe for the savoury type that my ancestors enjoyed.

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/sweet-delight-a-brief-history-of-the-mince-pie-6270572.html

http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/recipe-for-real-mince-pies/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=Blog_Mince_Pies1812&utm_campaign=Christmas     

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty One

Day Twenty One

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice this year falls tomorrow (22nd of December), and is the shortest day of the year. The date on which the Solstice falls is slightly variable, from the 20th to the 23rd though it is rare for it to fall on the 20th or the 23rd (there’s complicated reasons why it varies and I’m scared of getting the explanation wrong and looking stupid, so do look it up). The word solstice comes from Latin, meaning the sun stands still, and that is what happens. For a few days, everything is held in this strange holding pattern before the days begin lengthening again. For me, there is a huge relief in this.

Sunrise on the winter solstice is a powerfully moving moment; the reality of watching it can be cold, wet and somewhat of a damp squib if you expect magical rays and invisible choirs.

I wrote the following poem last year and it sums up the feeling of expectancy and emptiness that I experience at this time of year:

Hallowed hollow

I will hold a space

A dark space

An empty place

A hallowed hollow,

Cupped between hands

Hidden between breaths

Lost between heartbeats

Harrowed from soul-falls.

I will hold a space

Without prayer

Without hope

Without desire.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty

DSCI0082 DSCI0079Day Twenty

Angel lights and angel chimes

The putting up of the Christmas decorations is my cue to get out my collection of angel lights, and also the angel chimes. Angel lights are little metal whirligigs that hold a candle; the heat from the flame rises and sets the thing spinning. I have five or six, all with slightly different pendant themes; some have angels, some have deer, some have stars. When they spin they create patterns of light and swirling shadows in a darkened room. It’s a simple, magical thing that brings me great pleasure.

I wrote a short Christmas tale about an angel light that you can read here.