Tyne Cot Cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Blood-red the berries the yew trees bear,

Flesh-soft amid the shining dark, yet the fruit falls

Uneaten and ignored, for few birds feed here.

Bone-white the headstones, rank-on-rank,

Shoulder-to-shoulder, some named, some not,

Yet all cared for tenderly, with offerings

Of flowers, crosses, letters and the like.

I did not weep; I could not.

For to begin, one could never make an end.

Instead, I tuned it out, I numbed my soul,

Silenced the internal howls of horror,of grief

For a generation wiped carelessly from the earth,

All hopes and dreams and loves gone, lost,

In a sea of endless mud and politicians’ lies.

October 6th 2017,

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

This poem appeared in The New European last week.

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Ringing Some Changes

Ringing Some Changes

Sometimes I hate trying to think of titles for blog posts. After more than a thousand, it gets hard not to repeat myself, and to be honest, this one is just a sort of round up of my own news. Possibly a tad tedious, but maybe not.

First bit of news is good(ish). After over six years of some pretty extreme symptoms, finally it feels as if there might be an end in sight for my hideous menopause. One of the worst was something that for many women is a mere inconvenience: hot flushes. For me, they became life-threatening. Not in themselves, though at times I did wonder whether spontaneous human combustion might be more than a myth, but rather because they were so extreme and so frequent life became almost unendurable. Drama queen you might think. I wish. At their very worst, they came at a frequency of up to 20 PER HOUR. You read that right. They were of an intensity that made my skin feel as if it were burning; the moment before it happened, it made me feel sick, as if I had stepped off a precipice. That feeling you get when you bite into a proper chilli pepper? Imagine that over every inch of your body. It meant that for about a year, I slept in perhaps 20 minute bursts if I were lucky. To say it was hell is an understatement. Given the way my GP surgery has treated me, I did not seek medical help; the idea of even speaking to one of the doctors here reduced me to a shaking, weeping wreck. So I endured. I tried many, many things to no real effect. I considered filling my pockets with rocks and walking into a river or the sea; lack of local rocks, lack of a shoreline or a river deep enough and close enough for me to get to are probably the only things that stopped me. But slowly the situation began to improve. I still get hot flushes you could power a small town from; I still get woken two or three times a night. But the intensity has reduced and the frequency too. Recently I experienced three or four days in a row where no flushes occurred during the hours of daylight. I have hope that I might have survived.

For anyone reading and thinking, “pshaw, what a fuss she makes!” and feeling smug that because they do yoga/sports/are vegan/insert reason it won’t or didn’t affect them, let me say this: it’s luck of the draw, not virtue, that means some women have a bad time and others don’t. I may write more on the topic another time.

Second bit of good news: I did a new edition of Away With The Fairies in paperback. The original edition was done via Lulu who don’t offer a matte option for covers; I’ve not been happy with their services for some time, for other reasons. One is the sheer glacial slowness of their reporting of sales. So I’d redone Strangers and Pilgrims a couple of years ago, and now Fairies. I’m pleased with the new edition; I wish I’d had the energy to do it sooner.

Third bit of good news: I sent the latest short story collection to some beta readers, and those who have had a chance to read and report back have been not only very helpful but also very encouraging. It would seem that contrary to how I feel about my abilities, I can still write. I’m waiting on the feedback of the others, then I’ll set about some edits and on with the process of getting them out. Unlikely to be before Christmas but given how small fry like me get drowned out in the big noise of promotions for key periods for sales, trying to launch a book for Christmas or summer holidays is folly.

Fourth bit of good news: for the period that begins at Samhain (Halloween/All Saints/All Souls) both Away With The Fairies and Strangers and Pilgrims will be on offer at £1.99 or local equivalent, and my short novella The Hedgeway will be on flash sale for 99p for the three days of Samhain itself. Billed as “a chilling tale for Samhain” it’s the perfect read as the nights draw in and the clocks go back (it’s a spooky story but it’s more unsettling than terrifying). For a scarier read, perhaps try The Moth’s Kiss (a collection of ten short stories, perfect for the season). I’m considering whether to also make that 99p for the Kindle version for the same period.

Which brings me to point five, which is the not so good stuff. If you are an author, especially an independent author, you’ll have spotted that it’s much harder to sell books now than it was a few years ago; virtually all the indy authors I know have seen a steady slide of lower and lower sales, with the occasional blip when a new book is launched. It’s depressing as hell. Lowering prices seems to be a way of potentially enticing a reader to take a punt on a book, but how low can you go before you are not meeting even basic costs? Lots of authors still tout the route of give a book away free (especially in a series) but there’s evidence that this tactic that worked a few years ago, is now bringing in very diminished returns. Readers have quite literally MILLIONS of books to choose from, and many pride themselves on never actually buying one. Again, depressing. Some respond by writing and publishing much faster, so that there’s always something new to tempt readers with; the risk is that you can potentially rush things and lose both quality and originality in the process. This year I have published one novel and two collections of poetry; I’ve finished writing a novel that I’m sitting on for a while. My mental health in particular means that even getting books out from my extensive “back catalogue” of books on my hard drive has become the equivalent of climbing Snowden or Scafell Pike (not Everest or K2): difficult, dangerous, and while not impossible, will take much preparation and training.

Sixth point: mental health. The current deep dark valley sometimes feels like the valley of death itself. Everything is such an effort and I find most things are not worth the effort involved. If you’ve never felt the tentacles of depression, you probably might find it hard to believe quite how debilitating depression is. You cant just cheer up, make an effort to focus only on the good things (and every other cliché people suggest). I feel paralysed by it. So the projects I would like to work on gather dust (real or virtual) and I stand in danger of slipping away as an author and poet because I cannot compete in the bright, immediate, throwaway world out there that is the world of books.

So, a mixed bag, really. I’ve put the good stuff first and in the spirit of making a proper shit sandwich (a fabulous term, that you can probably work out) I’m going to end on a good bit too. I’ve always found that autumn is the best time for my own creativity; I’ve never felt much like joining the whole NaNoWriMo that goes on in November. But what I am going to try to do is to focus on short fiction; I began a collection of short stories, each based on a famous perfume. They’re good fun to write and it indulges my love of fragrance. I have also several sets of Storyworld Cards as story prompts and I’ve got plenty of journals to dedicate to them. So even if I can’t come up with a new novel that grabs me by the throat, I can spend time honing my skills in short fiction.

I might even share some here…

No-one Should Be Left Behind

No-one Should Be Left Behind

August is now behind us and with it, my summer holiday. We managed to get away for a while (a big achievement, actually) and one of our destinations was Glastonbury. I’ve always loved the place, with its mix of spirituality, history, woo-woo and the best selection of metaphysical and alternative shops almost anywhere. We stayed in a tiny, quirky and rather fabulous B&B with the tiniest upstairs bathroom I’ve ever seen. Converted (I think) from a linen cupboard, I felt there was a danger of me getting jammed between sink and door if I had second helpings at dinner. The place had very comfy beds, superb breakfasts and interesting hosts, one of whom runs tours of various Avalonian locations. They also had a wonderful dog who reminded me of our long-gone Holly.

I digress a little, but it’s important you know (for context) that it was very much a place of alternative everything and despite being tiny (only two bedrooms for guests) it drew those guests from a self-selecting set of customers. When we got there, there was another guest who was staying, and she was there for two of the four mornings we were there for. It’s the conversations at breakfast that I’ve been thinking about since we got back.

You see, Morag (not her real name) was firmly of the opinion that as the cosmic energies (not sure how those are defined) forge ahead and the world changes and spirituality changes, those not willing to change and move on and leave behind “out-moded” beliefs, will be left behind or swept away, and forgotten. It got under my skin. I’m not someone who is able to hold an in-depth conversation before my second mug of coffee, and I’m also not someone who likes to argue or even fight, any time, let alone at breakfast. So at the time, I merely made some anodyne comments and continued to munch my very excellent breakfast. But I’ve stewed on it since then.

The human population is broadly divided into two camps: the risk-takers and the consolidators. In early human history, the need for both types is much more obvious. The risk-takers were the explorers, the people who leapt in and tried new things (sometimes with fatal consequences), found new places and so on. The consolidators kept the home-fires burning, kept the tribal histories and lore and taught the children. Both types are essential for a healthy society; various aspects of neuro-diversity also mirror this divide. Just as introversion and extroversion are hard-wired neurological aspects of self, this risk-averse/risk-taking tendency is also innate, though almost everyone becomes more risk-averse as they get older. It is possible and sometimes desirable to challenge one’s self to step beyond one’s comfort zone, but in essence, it is beyond the control of 99.9% of us to change that polarity.

So, in the eyes of people like Morag, those who do not gladly meet the changes are to be swept away and lost. Yeah, ta very much, Morag. How kind of you.

Sarcasm aside, it disturbed me massively. You see, in many ways, I’m risk-averse. I’ve explored a great deal into the metaphysical world for sure, but with a foot firmly in the camp of common sense and critical thinking and I’ve avoided swallowing whole the bovine excrement that’s on sale in the New Age market place. I’ve found myself returning to old truths and ancient, well-tried wisdoms from faith systems that are unfashionable now. You may or may not know that for the last 20 or so years I’ve been a Quaker Attender and the Quaker faith is one that very much believes in the idea of no one left behind. All Meetings for Business work on the model that unless there is complete consensus, then nothing is done. If just one person disagrees with the direction being proposed, no decision will be made. Surprisingly, this does not result in total stagnation; because Quakers are the people they are, it’s not unusual for someone to decide to agree to the will of the meeting, withdrawing their objection on the basis that the greater majority may be right and they themselves may be wrong.

There is a strange kind of snobbery about embracing new things; those who rush to grab the latest gadgets, systems, clothes, can be very disparaging about those who do not. Among the spirituality and alternative health movements, Morag’s attitudes seem ubiquitous; I’ve read tweets from advocates of “Juicing” that would not be out-of-place in a tract for certain brands of evangelical Christianity!

Life is not a race. Nor is our inner journey of spiritual discovery. We’re all on our own unique path; it’s not a snakes and ladders board and we’re not competing with others. It’s also impossible to gauge how far one person has already come on that journey because what might be a tiny step for one is a mighty leap for another. Those of us who are risk-averse should not be discarded as useless by those who are risk-takers, nor regarded as holding everyone back by our cautious natures. We are doing our best to follow our path, at our own pace. And that’s how it needs to be: no one left behind.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

No, I’m not reviewing the latest offering in the Fast & Furious franchise (incidentally, they are quite good escapist fun that pay no attention to either geography, the laws of physics and a variety of other things; if you can cope with that, go for it)

I’m at that point of complete overwhelm with life where I fear not only breakdown but total burn-out. The entire world seems to be intent on going to hell in a handy hand basket, singing all the way about such guff as sovereignty, taking back control and how experts are stupid and don’t know anything. In the mean time, they’re kicking the underdog, and demonising anyone who disagrees with them, and all the while economic turmoil & political strife create further unrest and disorder.

It’s not a nice time to be alive, quite frankly. I grew up during the Cold War, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland which spilled over into mainland Britain, during the Three Day week with strikes, power cuts, shortages and so on. I used to have nightmares on a regular basis about nuclear war. Despite being a child during much of this, I read the newspapers and I watched the news. There were bomb threats made against schools and public buildings of all sorts; there was even an actual bomb in my school when I was 18.

The information overload is such that unless you completely unplug and detach from the world (no internet, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, not even talking to people) it pours into your psyche in an unending torrent of awfulness. And as our entire culture is now rooted in the use of the internet, even those of us who don’t have a smartphone, cannot escape the 24/7 exposure to literally EVERYTHING all at once. I regularly take days off internet use; since I only use my main computer for internet, this is relatively easy. But my work is online. To completely drop all my online connections and obligations would mean that I would vanish very, very quickly. I have had online friends say, “Stuff this for a game of soldiers!” and deactivate all their social media profiles and disappear. Some have explained beforehand but many don’t. They just stop being there; and it can take a while to notice, because everything cascades past you at such a rate that it can take weeks or longer to think, oh whatever happened to old so-and-so. I try to care about my friends beyond my computer screen but I know I have been dropping the ball of late.

I’ve also noticed that alongside the paring away to virtually nothing of the mental health support system, has come a rise and rise of a culture of shallow, one-size-fits-all organised “self help”, often using the label of mindfulness, CBT etc. I bought a magazine the other day (for research) called Breathe. It’s new, and deliberately not glossy, but its tag-line is WELLBEING MINDFULNESS CREATIVITY ESCAPING. I’ve flipped through and skim-read the articles, punctuated by lovely pictures and it scares me. It’s the escaping part of the remit that worries me most. That’s because I want to escape. I want out. I want to retreat into a comfortable haze of nice things around me. When I started using colouring as a means of removing some stress, a friend commented disparagingly that she felt it was infantilising people. At the time, I filed the comment away for future thought, and since then, as colouring books became ubiquitous, they also became simpler, more focused on prettiness and light, sweet, NICE things (like cupcakes, fancy shoes and flowers), I realised the movement has been towards an infantilising rather than a form of creativity that allows the mind to engage with quiet while the body works on something gently absorbing but not terribly challening. It was the arrival of dot-to-dot colouring books for adults that I freaked and began to feel very uncomfortable. We all need R&R to step out of the fray and recuperate, but the very juvenile nature of some of the R&R that’s thrust constantly under our noses bothers me. There’s a massive and growing industry that keeps churning stuff out to keep us happy, and quiet and submissive to everything. So many people are saying “Oh I’m bored with politics now; let’s just ignore it all!” and retreating into whatever comfortable corner that they feel safest in. And I understand that; I really do. I’m so uncomfortable with life that my whole being aches with it, aches to walk away and completely and permanently tune out the dark, the dangerous, and the difficult things that are going on around me. I’m not living with war, but there’s a lot of things happening in my land that are secret wars that have real victims, and the insane decision to leave the EU is going to create a lot more as prices rise and poverty and shortages increase and this country isolates itself from her European allies and friends.

Every day I wake up, and within a short time, EVEN WHEN I DON’T LOG ON, I am hit by a wave of fear, of despair, of confusion and I think, Stop the world, I want to get off. But I can’t. There is no Planet B and as we systematically trash this one, we’re shitting in our own wells and pissing on our own food. I can and I do take a variety of actions towards conservation, helping the poor, creating havens for wild-life in my own garden and a lot of other things. But my mind is close to cracking and my body close to shutting down. I’m pulled in two opposing directions at once: to retreat, give up on being a responsible adult citizen, or to stand up for what I believe in (but where to start? There’s so much I want to defend) and be that solitary figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (that’s what it feels like, frankly, but then perhaps we are all standing in front of a tank)

I’d like to end with something cheerful but beyond a plea to buy my books (go on go on go on) I can’t think of anything I can say that isn’t also me trying to be falsely cheerful and horribly fake. I’m doing my level best every day to do that thing of lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. So, sorry for being a miserable, pessimistic moaner (a remoaner, even. Don’t get me started on THAT little insult) and perhaps soon I can be a tad more cheery.

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

(This is going to be one of those posts that might get on the nerves of the optimists among you, so perhaps bear with me rather than tutting. I could do with a bit of compassion and understanding right now.)

On Monday I completed a book I began more than four years ago. Coming in at a fairly slender 73k words, it’s provisionally entitled Belle Dame, and it’s the first full length work I’ve managed to finish in a whisker over six years. Someone said the other day that it’s the dream of many people to actually write a book and that finishing one is a cause for celebration, but I’m ambivalent about it these days.

But finishing this book is a bigger deal than that. Around six years ago, a variety of connected events pretty much ended me as a writer. They almost ended me as a person, and while I’m not going to go into details, they’ve left scars. Compounded with the insidious effects of Dexter my parathyroid tumour (now removed) and the effects of joint hypermobility syndrome (which is much more than being a bit bendy), I lost the flow and the joy of writing books. Belle Dame was a project that tied into my exploration of finding some healing for the original events and the knock-on effects, as well as more prosaically being able to say, “Yes, I am still a writer. I’m working on X book.” I’m actually working on about five other books too, but none anywhere close to completion.

Belle Dame was also a way of trying to find a kind of closure denied me in real life, and that function of the book meant that I could not think how to end the story that honoured my beliefs and philosophies, as well as being a satisfying ending to the tale itself. It was, to put it bluntly, a real conundrum. I set myself a final deadline of Monday, saying to myself if I did it, I would use birthday money to buy a special treat I’d been coveting for over a year. When I did type THE END on Monday afternoon, I felt flat. I’d seen over the last few years other writers on social media waxing lyrical about what a terrific feeling it is to type those epic words, and how fabulous it it. Yet I felt nothing more than a sense of relief, and a sense also of mild dread. No one has read it yet (except me of course and I don’t count) and I’m not sure I want anyone to. I can’t face even the well-chosen critiques of people who love me and love my writing. I certainly can’t face the idea of publishing it. To put it out there for anyone to read and rip apart, horrifies me. Equally, I’m not sure I can face the more likely reality of publishing it and having an echoing, deafening silence because no one buys it and no one reads it, because no one really cares (out there in the big bad world of books) how long a book took an author to write or what it cost them in terms of emotional angst and agony. The bottom line at present seems to be this: if it’s free, people might grab it but not read it, if it costs a few quid, a few might take a punt on it, and if it’s priced the same as a posh coffee, your friends might buy it to support you. There are too many books out there these days to have much of a chance of gaining attention if you don’t write in the really popular genres and if you’re not also an entrepreneur.

A friend made the suggestion that perhaps I should return to seeking traditional publishing deals, because getting attention and sales for my kind of books now is perhaps beyond the remit of self-publishing and my skills therein. That too I cannot face. I’ve been through that mill twice, with all the pain that entails. I’m also pretty anti publisher. I am, to quote the friend, between a rock and a hard place.

Little Gidding Girl is also stuck. I’ve decided that the only way of avoiding a whole world of trouble with permissions and copyright issues without basically supping with the devil, is to rewrite the last fifty pages so that they work without the quotes I’d originally used (believing at the time that a publisher would deal with that side of things for me. How naïve I was.) This will take more courage and energy I have right now. I suspect I’ll wake up one morning and think, today’s the day and just do it, but at the moment I cannot get my brain around it. Again, the feeling of dread persists. I don’t want to publish the book and after half a dozen kind friends buy a copy, for it to sink into the swamp of forgotten books. It boils down to this: people read for very different reasons from the ones I write for (if that makes sense). I’ve never written solely to entertain and while my books are entertaining, there’s more than that to them.

I bought my treat with some glee, but I don’t feel I have achieved any sort of inner celebration for this book and that’s dreadfully sad. This may be connected to the very persistent low mood aka depression I’ve begun to realise is probably my lot for life now; the inability to feel anything is a classic symptom of depression.

But all that not withstanding, I did it. I finished the book and next time you have a nice glass of wine, whiskey or whatever your tipple is, tip that glass to me and wink, and silently whisper, “Congratulations!” and maybe I’ll feel it too.

R is for Response

R is for Response

The more depressed I get, the harder it is to respond to anything. Words dry up. I might be able to say or write something but it can take so much effort that when someone replies, I cannot find more words or thoughts with which to respond.

Imagine a game of tennis played by two people, one of whom is extremely good at tennis and the other who has gone on court only because they think they should or hope it might do them good or because someone has talked them into it. The reluctant player serves; it takes all their skill and energy to hit the ball over the net successfully. Often it hits the net, or goes screaming over the head of the opponent and gets lost in the bushes behind the tennis court. Or they miss. When the ball does finally reach the other side, the other player leaps gleefully forward and lobs it back neatly. They know their opponent is not a keen player and they’re kindly trying to give a nice easy shot so they can start a satisfying volley. Or they don’t know or care what their opponent’s level is, and they return the ball with a fast, skilful slam that only a veritable athlete has a chance of returning. So the reluctant player has barely a chance to see the ball whacked back before they realise they cannot get to it. They stand there, feeling like a failure, while the keen player makes noises about, oh bad luck old girl, let’s try that again.

The game goes on.

And on.

And on.

By the time it’s game set and match to the keen player, the reluctant player has been annihilated, and when their opponent leaps the net in a mock victory parade, they slink off, humiliated and defeated.

Some days, when I try to speak of things close to my heart and soul, my throat closes up. It’s like the aftermath of a throat punch. It’s painful and quite frightening. I find writing things down less painful, but even then, it can take a lot of energy to get the words out. It seems to take forever. Then when someone responds, (either face to face, or via the comments or a tweet or a thread on Facebook), I’m often unable to reply. The original statement has taken all the energy.

So I apologise for the times when I don’t reply to comments here, in particular. I read them and I ponder on them but sometimes, and it’s been almost all the time lately, I cannot manage to respond, not in any meaningful way. I reply in my head. But something stops it going any further. I am sorry. Must do better, eh?

J is for Jerusalem

J is for Jerusalem

I will never see Jerusalem

Or walk its ancient streets

Thronged with crowds

Shouting “Hosanna, Hosanna”

Flinging down palm leaves

And following the donkey

Plodding unconcerned by

The weight of the world

And the coming of changes

Borne upon her back.

I will never see Jerusalem,

Or hear the maddened crowds

Whipped to a frenzy by hysteria

Shouting, “Crucify, crucify!”

Spitting and cursing

And following the man

Bowed down by the weight

Of the rough unpolished wood

Stumbling and falling

As he walks out to his death.

I will never see Jerusalem

Lit by flickering candles

Placed in windows along the way

To light our progress home.

Heads down, spirits broken

Hopes destroyed and gone,

Trudging through the city streets

It’s over,” we say,“What now?”

We run or hide. We weep.”

No. Now we wait.