My Reading Round-Up of 2017

My Reading Round-Up of 2017

According to my notebook that I use instead of Goodreads (which I loathe, more of that later) I read 78 books in 2016. I’m coming in a bit behind that this year. At the time of writing, it’s 73 completed, but as I am close to the end of a number, there’s a real chance the total will go up a bit before midnight strikes and I turn into a pumpkin. Oh, sorry, wrong fairy tale.

Around 30 or so of those titles were non fiction, some of which were poetry, some of which were part of my journey into Jungian thought and some were to do with health and on natural history.

Of the fiction, I’m not going to talk about the books that I read and didn’t enjoy, or the ones I gave up on. It’s too common for disgruntled authors to take umbrage and offence if a reader mentions they didn’t like a book; it’s one reason I avoid Goodreads as a reader. As an author, I avoid it because there are plenty of readers who can be extremely mean and unkind when a book has failed to live up to their expectations; it’s also quite difficult to be thick-skinned about seeing a fellow-author give a low star to one of my own books when they’re someone I’ve chatted with on social media etc and been quite affable with. While almost all writers I know are wonderful and supportive people, I’m sure we have all come across a few who would take your breath away with how nasty they can be to other writers. I heard a tale recently of one author who tweeted a picture to another author, of that other author’s book in a remainder bin at a cut-price book shop.

I stepped out of my comfort zone too, and I read two novels that fit very much into the fantasy genre and one science fiction. Early in the year I read and very much enjoyed https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mountain-Darkling-Chronicles-Sophie-Tallis/dp/1909845973/ White Mountain by Sophie Tallis; it has the unique aspect of a main character being a dragon and a “goodie”. It took me out of myself during a tricky time. The second fantasy novel was https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Ice-Lord-Parallels-Clement-ebook/dp/B00L72RTY0/ Song of the Ice Lord by J.A Clement; I found this a fabulous read, not only because of the beautiful and compelling descriptive writing but also by the sensitive way Ms Clement handled various relationships. Another bonus was the little green bird who became a beacon of hope in the story. Also by the same author is a wonderful seasonal novella/longer short story A Sprig of Holly: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sprig-Holly-J-Clement-ebook/dp/B00AICTQSM/ which is free to enjoy.

The science fiction title was Running Out of Space by S.J Higbee. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Running-Out-Space-Sunblinded-One-ebook/dp/B076BV5LS8/ I found this a refreshing reintroduction to sci-fi, something I used to enjoy very much but abandoned in my twenties when it became too mysogynistic and entirely male-dominated. Depicting a somewhat dystopian future, this fast-paced novel entertained me while slogging away at the gym.

I revisited my old favourites, acquiring a variety of secondhand paperback copies of some classic Agatha Christie mysteries, some of which I had not read for decades. It was good to read them again and understand quite how much she created the genre of cosy mystery.

Not quite cosy, but still very compelling, was another departure from my comfort zone, in the form of Ailsa Abraham’s Attention to Death https://www.amazon.co.uk/Attention-Death-Ailsa-Abraham-ebook/dp/B01MRBTYLX/ . A murder mystery set among military police, with the two main characters trying to conduct a discreet love affair (very much against protocol, in all sorts of ways) this contains one of the grimmest of murders (be warned, not for the faint of stomach) and does not flinch from revealing inherently homophobic attitudes among many of the characters and institutions. A good, if somewhat grim at times, variation on the classic murder mystery. I’m not a fan of romance, gay or otherwise, but I didn’t find that aspect of the story intruded unduly.

On the same sort of genre (but not precisely) I read my way through two box-sets of the Charlie Parker mysteries, by John Connelly. Of the eight books that I raced through, some I found better than others, and more than half were superb. Quirky, veering into the supernatural territory, they’re a real treat if you like detective novels that challenge the norm and subvert the genre. Another novel that comes under that heading was Thea Atkinson’s Grim. Billed as a Young Adult novel, this was another nicely diverting read for my gym torture. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grim-Reapers-Redemption-Thea-Atkinson/dp/1543087876/

One of my Christmas presents last year was Caitlin Matthews Diary of a Soul Doctor https://www.amazon.co.uk/Diary-Soul-Doctor-Ashington-Casebooks-ebook/dp/B01N94TS3M/ . I had to make myself read this slowly, because I wanted to make it last. In the same genre (whatever it might be) as Dion Fortune’s Tales of Dr Taverner, this collection of linked tales is a highly diverting and intriguing exploration of the esoteric using (as Fortune did) fiction as a medium. I also read Matthews’ non-fiction Hundred Steps to the Grail, about the process of researching and writing a book about a book on the search for the Holy Grail https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hundred-Steps-Grail-Writers-Diary-ebook/dp/B01EXKSNDS/ and as a writer, I found the details of the process fascinating and revealing.

Among the non-fiction were a couple of excellent natural history books. Peter Wolhlenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Life-Trees-International-Communicate/dp/0008218439/ kept me from my fear of flying when I went to Austria in February, and was a deeply enjoyable and informative book. Fiona Stafford’s The Long Long Life of Trees covered a very different aspect of tree lore but was equally interesting, though I felt at times it tended towards a journalistic skimming of the surface rather than a deeper exploration. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Life-Trees/dp/0300228201/ . I also very much enjoyed Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Places-Robert-Macfarlane/dp/1783784490/, though I did find at times a certain sense of irritation at the apparent assumption that the things the author did and the places he visited are open to all (when they aren’t), regardless of ability or status. But that’s only a slight cavil and speaks more of my own growing frustration at my health challenges.

Roz Morris’s Not Quite Lost (travels without a sense of direction) was a good read, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Not-Quite-Lost-Travels-Direction/dp/1909905925/ There’s a sense of great British-ness about this travel memoir that is infused all through the text like the scent of tea.

One novel I got to read this year I cannot give a link to. Philippa Rees asked me to beta read a novel she entitled Acer and I am not sure quite what genre is falls under. Magical Realism might do, but it veers almost into science fiction. One of the premises of the tale is on human-plant hybrids, which makes it sound clinical but it’s a very tender tale of what makes us human and what parenthood is really about. I hope that she makes a decision to stick by her guns and the original vision of the story, and publishes it (and another novel I read last year). Perhaps the world is ready for the visionary and metaphysical works that Philippa has hidden on her hard drive.

In addition to these I read a number by Marie-Louise von Franz, acolyte, pupil and colleague of Jung’s, and a whole range of books on alchemy, psychology, Arthurian myths and legends and the grail. I’m around a third of the way through Jung’s own book on alchemy, but am unlikely to finish before year’s end, as it is much to think about and digest.

Having read all that, you might think I didn’t have time to write, but you would be wrong. I’ll save that topic for another post.

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Smell You Later

Smell you later

I’m prone to small obsessions. Little excursions into what you might term “side quests”: finding certain things, discovering certain facts. At present, it’s a way of distracting myself from the insoluble problems of life, and it stops me banging my head against any convenient wall. My current side quest has been going on for a good while, travelling down sensory roads by literally following my nose. I’ve explored a plethora of scents in the last two years or more, letting the fragrance go deep and see what it sparked. Some things are just brewing or festering away, and I know I can’t rush whatever alchemy I may have started.

Part of the search has been to find the scent Chloe (from Square Peg, and other books as yet unpublished) uses. I’ve always known it was a jasmine perfume; it’s one of my own favourite notes in perfumery. I’ve felt as if I might come closer to her if I could find the right one. Decades ago now, I used a jasmine eau de parfum from Culpeper the Herbalist. It was a very lovely scent, and I mourn the demise of the company for many reasons, and the loss of their extraordinary perfumes is one of them. Since then, I’ve searched. Oh boy have I searched..! I’ve tried dozens of perfumes that claim to be jasmine based or have it as the predominant note.

Then I found one. L’Occitane en Provence did a range of iconic perfumes, the Wind Rose range, and one was jasmine. Created from Egyptian jasmine, this was something that hit the mark for me; it matched very closely the scent Chloe uses. And then they discontinued the entire range because it was going to become too expensive. They’ve created another one, less pricey, but it’s mixed with bergamot and it’s not the same.

I sulked. I sulked a lot. I explored online, tried a couple of Arabic perfume houses and their jasmine perfumes, which have been good but a little unsubtle, and with a chemical tang that is off-putting. I looked at Jo Malone, who did a jasmine and something else scent. Not quite right. Plus Jo Malone’s perfumes are created entirely within a laboratory, and I prefer perfumes that start with the real essential oil.

Now social media is a wonderful thing that can bring extraordinary meetings and so, by means of the alchemical serendipity I adore, I came across a blogger who writes entirely about perfume. I got into a couple of conversations and she pointed me to the Fragonard perfume house. Marks and Spencers stock their range and on my birthday (a big birthday) a few weeks ago, I tiptoed into the store to try it.

Fragonard‘s jasmine is all I could hope for. Alas, that day they were out of stock but for the tester, but I came back a few days later and bought my bottle.

It’s as if I have established a telepathic connection to Chloe. She’s never been a girly girl, and the perfume has been one that she adopted for very emotive and powerful reasons. A year ago I began writing a sequel to Square Peg; I wrote perhaps a third of the story and then, defeated by depression, despondency and lack of meaning (and sales) it’s petered out into yet another Moleskine filled with scribble. Now I am hoping that if I spritz myself with jasmine from time to time, Chloe is going to grab me by the arm, and start whispering to me again.

We can but hope.

Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.

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They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.

Tales of the Wellspring 4 ~ life, spirit and the land

Tales of the Wellspring 4 ~ life, spirit and the land

It’s been a considerable time since I wrote one of these posts; my interest in wellsprings has not waned but I have not felt led to write about them for a while. I’ve been a part of a couple of groups on Facebook which post photographs and articles on holy wells, springs and related phenomena, and it’s shown me how widespread and current a belief in the healing powers of wellsprings still is. In the UK and across the world, springs are revered and protected and visited by pilgrims seeking healing.

Such places usually have a powerful and numinous atmosphere, whether they are in towns or cities, or out in the wilds, or in corners of ancient sites of worship. Some are mere trickles that feed streams, sometimes drying up for months on end like the Swallowhead Spring that feeds the Kennet river near Avebury. Some have been channelled into stone troughs or even large pools (like Bath and St Winifred’s Well). Some are surrounded by fabulous gardens like the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. And some are hidden away, known to very few, like the one in Strangers and Pilgrims, only to be found by those who truly need their healing waters.

Human beings are composed largely of water. A recent humorous meme suggested that as we are 70% water (or thereabouts), humans are basically cucumbers with anxiety. Mild dehydration accounts for quite a number of health issues, from headaches to tiredness and foggy thinking, and without water there can be no life. Is it any wonder then that we have become entranced by the magic of water, especially water that bubbles up from the ground or comes out of rocks? We who are used to turning on a tap can take for granted the water we drink, yet in these days where our water supplies in many places are threatened by fracking, is it time to value water more?

In my recent visit to Austria, a friend took me to visit the immense 76m high waterfall at Golling

Golling Waterfall, looking down from the path

Golling Waterfall, looking down from the path

which was breathtaking and beautiful, and a little later, to St Bartholomew’s Well, a mile of so away, in the fringes of the forests where Franz Ferdinand once hunted and killed the White Chamois (more of that in another post). The little chapel was locked but the spring was accessible. It sang as the water bubbled out of the rocks and spilled over and streamed down the hill. I cupped my hands and drank of the water and it was pure and sweet and very cold. The local people still come and collect the water and it is said to have healing powers. For me, the chance to reconnect with nature and with the spirits of the land was healing in itself and a reminder that wellsprings are not only part of my own land’s traditions, but of the world’s. And in these dark days of separation and selfishness, where my country is about to go to referendum and vote to stay within the EU or to leave it, it’s a timely reminder that none of us should live for ourselves alone but always remember the greater world beyond our doors and shores.

St Bartholomew's Well, Golling, Austria

St Bartholomew’s Well, Golling, Austria

Without water, we all die, no matter how rich we are. Without spirit, there is no real life anyway. Wellsprings unite life and spirit through the medium of water and the marvel of water from the living rock is a thing that inspires us and heals our battered psyches.

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Synchronicity and going off the map.

Synchronicity and going off the map.

Synchronicity and going off the map.

Life as a journey is a bit of a cliché, really. I said once, “If life is a journey, then any short-cut is a death trap,” and I stand by it. My own journey has been an odd one. A long time ago, I looked at the metaphysical map and I saw that at the margins, around the edges, away from the established paths and well-known routes, there were areas marked “Here be dragons,” and I thought, I’d like see dragons. Ever since then, I’ve made forays into those areas of the maps that the map-makers couldn’t fill in properly because too few people had been out and explored them and come back with useful information. Most came back babbling about strange things they didn’t quite have the language for, and travellers’ tales that defy belief and rational understanding.

About ten years ago, I really set off in earnest, leaving behind any adherence to defined paths. You cannot step off a path without stepping off it, if you know what I mean. Real adventures do not come with a guarantee of ever coming home, or of safety or security. It’s hard to explain why I did it; I imagine that you’ll either understand or you won’t. I could talk about calling, vocation, daemon, destiny until the cows come home. Initially there were constant signs and hints and hunches and intuitions. I’ve long had an affinity for the phenomenon known as synchronicity. A week or so ago I finished a book on it, which irritated me. Synchronicity by Chris Mackie was heavily hyped as being a guide to synchronous living, but the author had become bogged down by a fascination with the phenomenon itself (despite being warned in no uncertain terms in a synchronous meeting with someone who really understood the matter) and lost his grip on the purpose of synchronicity for him. It’s absurdly easy to become fixated on the method of delivery rather than on the message itself, because it’s one of the things that can be mind-blowing when you first encounter it. There’s a saying that when a wise man points at the moon, a fool looks at the finger.

As my exploration took me further and further from known landmarks, I have been obliged to rely on my own inner compass. I have a decent sense of direction, not infallible, but solid enough for most things. But like any explorer, you need to get your bearings, take soundings and check from time to time that you’re not going the wrong way. Once you leave the beaten path, finding signposts is unlikely. You have to start relying on other senses, and other knowings. Sometimes you see traces of someone who’s gone ahead of you, a bent twig, Indian-fashion, a note left in a tree-hollow, cairns of stones carried up mountains by other pilgrims who’ve gone this way. On occasion, you see the bones of those who have died en route.

The further you go, the fewer the signs are until you can find, as I did, you are in a wilderness, a barren, mountainous land and there is no evidence that anyone else has ever come this way. There’s no obvious way to proceed, and when you stop to rest, you lose all sense of direction.

This is what happened to me. It began about five years ago, this nagging sense of unease and of disquiet. The questions began, and so did the doubts and then the fears. It’s reached desperation point, painful and unpleasant. What if I’ve gone the wrong way? What if all I have been exploring is a waste of time and energy? What if all my cherished beliefs and principles are all moonshine and bullshit? Should I go back? Should I give up and die, here, amid the empty lands, the wastelands?

Round and round the questions fly, never letting up, never letting me just move on. I read last year of Jung’s descent into his own personal hell, of a breakdown that became his breakthrough, and his insight that he had to do something and it didn’t matter what. His explorations using active imaginations started from mundane things, and no matter how humble the starting point, each led him deeper into the matters of true importance. I did a fair bit of active imagination work last year and yet, I have still found myself asking, am I doing the right thing, am I going the right way?

The problem is there is no one to ask, who is able to give me a clear subjective answer from a point of understanding, of having been to the same places I’ve been. Jung recommended working closely with someone who has been through the same sort of journey, and while I have good friends in the same line of exploration, they’re all folks who live half a world away, and whose kindness I could not presume upon, except as an occasional event.

So I am alone in the wasteland, unable to proceed because of fear that I am going the wrong way (which then brings with it the whole host of agonising extras, like has my entire life been a waste, and other such delights). I’ve recorded and worked with dreams, journaled, painted, drawn, meditated, played, sat in nature, done everything from the mundane to the ridiculous and yet, I am so bogged down by doubts and fears that I cannot move.

Then yesterday I went somewhere. It’s a place I’ve never been to, despite growing up not far away, and driving through the dank winter fields of Cambridgeshire, with the vast skies and the tiny winding roads hemmed in by hedges, past tiny stone built churches that date back eight hundred years and more, amid villages that have dwindled to almost nothing.

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There was a pair of buzzards calling when we got out of the car, and bird song that held the first notes of spring, though it was still early January. The ground was wet as an old bath sponge, rich with moss and algae, and the unprepossessing facade of the church did not hold much promise.

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Inside, it felt more like a college chapel, with pews face to face rather than facing the altar. I walked round, feeling the stillness, the moment of time that seems held like a drop of amber that holds millennia within its shining core. I took photos, I read the embroidered banners. There is a small room just off the sanctuary, a vestry originally but now a sort of inner room. I went in and looked up in shock at the window. Vivid stained glass, quite old, but simple and striking. One side held a quartered circle, a cross made of ears of wheat, in coloured glass; the other side, in another roundel of glass, some words:

It is the right, good old way you are in. Keep in it.”

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Gidding

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Seventeen

Day Seventeen

The Glastonbury Thorn

Glastonbury is one of my favourite places on earth for all sorts of reasons but one such reason is the existence of the Glastonbury Thorn. According to legend, tin merchant Joseph of Arimathea, uncle of Jesus, came to England bringing with him the boy Jesus. He returned years later to the place, and hid the holy grail somewhere close to where the Chalice Well is now, and walking up Wearyall Hill, he put his staff in the ground and as he leaned on it, the stick took root and burst into leaf and flower. The tree became known as the Glastonbury Thorn tree, and cuttings of it were taken and a specimen of the tree lives in the churchyard of St John’s church in the town to this day. One of the most remarkable things about the tree is that it blooms twice a year; once in May like any normal hawthorn and once in December. A sprig from the tree complete with blooms is sent each year to grace the Queen’s breakfast table.

For a more detailed account of the thorn please read here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glastonbury_Thorn

Autumn Equinox ~ beauty from the Cave

Equinox ~ beauty from the Cave

There is a soft, damp quality to the air as I emerge from the cave, and wisps of mist obscure the whole area in front of my home. Closer to the edge of the wide, shallow bowl that is this mountain ledge, I see that the forests below are almost invisible because of the mist that lies more thickly further down the mountain. Only the tips of the tallest pines are visible. Lower down, I know that the broad leaf trees are changing their coats but I cannot see them.

The fire has been set ready the night before, and I use flint and steel to make sparks to kindle a handful of dry leaves and resinous pine needles and twigs I have brought from the store deep in the cave. Long practice means it takes only half a dozen strikes before a cascade of white-hot sparkling dots falls into the mass of kindling. Flowers of fire spring up and before long, the bonfire is crackling.

Along with the smell of the smoke, the air is filled with the rich, spicy scents of autumn. Dying leaves, ripe fruit, the peppery aroma of edible fungi, and the comforting smell of resin from my woodpile, all the fragrances I love and associate with the time of preparation.

I sit down, on one of the low benches I have fashioned from logs, and warm my hands at the rising flames. I eat an apple, slowly and thoughtfully. Its perfect skin is unblemished and the flesh is tart yet sweet. Birdsong fills the air, and the sound also of the mountain spring that supplies my water, bubbling up and falling away into a streamlet that rushes down the mountainside, gathering momentum and rainfall as it goes. Somewhere deep in the forest it becomes a river, swelling and growing and wearing a path through rock and earth alike.

The sun has risen and is hanging like a golden globe above the white mass of fog, its face veiled still as if the finest of silks had been draped over its radiant visage. The mist will burn off soon; indeed, I can see the forms of the taller broad-leaves emerging now from the swirling whiteness. Their colours are poised between the green of summer and the buffs, golds and crimsons of autumn. Before too long even those brilliant colours will be swept away by the winds of winter. For winter is coming, make no mistake. This day is a day of inventory, of assessing my stores and perhaps deciding I have more time to gather in more food for thought as well as food for my body. Fuel of varying kinds have been stacked up, from the elaborately constructed pyramids of fire wood to the rendered fats for lamps and tapers, and the precious beeswax, scented with honey and propolis, and the pages of a hundred books, stored close to the fire for dryness, to fuel my mind during the days and nights of raging blizzards. Winter is a time to nurture the deep thought that comes with the immobility that ice and cold and snow and wildness bring me.

The sun has revealed the forest now, so I stand and go to the edge of my little domain, and look down upon it. A thousand shades of green are giving way to other shades now, but for the moment they are about equal, as are day and night. Soon night will overcome and long dark days will follow.

Yet I know that however long the winter may be, spring always comes, sooner or later, and I throw my apple core as far as I can, with a silent prayer that its pips may become more apple trees to feed and beautify the denizens of this forest I love so much.