Be More Snail – snail medicine for self-preservation
No, you will be relieved to know I am not touting the skin cream that uses snail slime as its main ingredient. Continue reading
Be More Snail – snail medicine for self-preservation
No, you will be relieved to know I am not touting the skin cream that uses snail slime as its main ingredient. Continue reading
A Story of Snow
It snowed yesterday, the first time this winter; I could smell it coming for days. I’ve always found snow magical, a transformational thing, but this snow before Christmas reminded me of other times of snow that have been transformational.
As a young mum, back in the 90s, I managed to wear out my hyperactive toddler at a mum and baby group, sufficient that both she and I could take a nap. It was February, in the north east of England and there was heavy snow that had laid, and I lived in a little street house with no central heating, so I huddled under the duvet and fell asleep. I woke with a pounding heart and tears streaming down my face after a dream that was so vivid it even included a soundtrack: Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The dream was a short story that I then wrote down, entranced by its power and its vision. Later that year we moved to the Midlands where my husband began his theological training, and still so haunted by the dream and by that story that I realised it was not a stand-alone short but the first chapter of a novel. Writing in the evenings and when my daughter was at playgroup, I scribbled it down, longhand and when it was finished, I began querying publishers. The novel (entitled Winterborn) garnered plenty of interest, and a good number of publishers asked for the whole thing, but ultimately, it all came to nothing but tears and tantrums from me. I still have it somewhere, in both manuscript and typescript.
But that dream and that story, of snow and fear and heartbreak, stayed with me, and eventually came back to me in a newer, more powerful form, and with a complete tale (which Winterborn had been a shadow of) that gripped me and forced me to write it down, word for word as an inner voice dictated it to me. It took seventeen days of frantic, manic, painful (I got blisters) writing that I still count as some of the best days of my whole life. I discovered later that the process itself was called hypergraphia, and later still understood that it had not come out of nowhere but rather out of undiagnosed bi-polar disorder (bi-polar II for exactitude) that I now manage (more or less) without either drugs or medical support.
That novel, too, went round the publishers, with a significant degree of interest, and then failed to find someone who would take it on. Eventually, I published it myself five or so years ago, and while it has garnered almost exclusively wow reviews, it has never sold as well as other novels of mine. Despite that, it’s the novel that I most believe in, as having something extraordinary about it. I still believe that it ought to have been a huge success. But it hasn’t and that may be why the two sequels (both written, one needing only minimal editing before I could think of starting the process of bringing it to publication) still remain unreleased. Dr Johnson once said that no-one but a blockhead ever wrote a book without being asked to, and I am surely a blockhead for writing those sequels.
But it snowed yesterday and the smell of the air and the look of the sky reminded me of the book that still holds my heart. At this time of year, the virtual (and real) bookshops are jam-packed with happy, feel-good, heart-warming tales, usually romances, set in snowy locations and cosy corners of cafes, all written to enhance the festive season and give busy, stressed people a holiday from gritty reality. This is emphatically not such a book. I make no apology for that; the Christmas books I’ve mentioned are generally not books that appeal to me. But this nonetheless is a book about overcoming adversity and tragedy, though it’s almost the antithesis of a romance, and it might suit others who share my predilection for gritty reality and will take you on a journey that has stayed with almost everyone who has read it.
I’m going to share the first few paragraphs here:
He woke with no memory of the recent past, just a cold blank tiredness and a vague sense of disorientation. Lying still in the shadowy vestiges of sleep he tried to place himself in time and space, and as returning sleep rose to drown him again he noticed the blue-white clarity of sound in the cold room, the near fluorescent glow of the light through the partially shut curtains and the muffling of traffic sound on the distant road which all told him that the promise of those few tentative flakes the previous evening had been fulfilled. With the recognition that it had, unbelievably, snowed so heavily before Christmas, came the flood of memory that made a return to sleep impossible, and he sat up, eyes wide, in a room that was only partially familiar, with his heart thumping uncomfortably.
Outside, a layer of snow inches thick reduced a familiar landscape to a white featureless expanse, the leafless trees black against a dirty white sky that promised more snow on top of the already frozen layer. He touched the radiator by the window. It was having a negligible effect, despite being almost too hot to touch. The house felt icy cold when he went downstairs; he kept checking radiators just to reassure himself that the heating was on, that the boiler had not gone out in the night. High ceilings and large rooms took a lot of heating to achieve anything like modern standards of comfort, and much of the house had been built for people who would have lit large fires and worn heavy clothing of wool and fur at this time of year. He had lit no fires yesterday; the drawing room felt so icy he expected to see his breath in wreaths of mist.
The kitchen was better, the Rayburn still warming the large room. He drank water so cold it hurt when it hit his stomach, and then filled the kettle, craving heat. It wasn’t fully light, the reflective surface of the snow making a false dawn, and the bright strip light just seemed to make the shadows sharper. He made coffee, holding the mug with both hands, but while his skin warmed from the contact, it hardly touched the deeper chill. There was a gnawing emptiness his head recognised as hunger, but the thought of food made him feel slightly sick, so the hunger was ignored. He left the mug in the sink and went round to the front of the house where the car stood parked at an angle, marks in the snowy gravel showing hasty braking, and realised with horror that he had not shut the door properly, that the courtesy light was still on and in all probability the battery was flat. It was. A minute of turning the key in the ignition produced sad noises from the car and silent swearing from him.
He locked the car and went inside again, hands now numb from the cold. He could phone for Home Start, he supposed, but decided he couldn’t face it, couldn’t face waiting, so he fetched coat and boots, stuffed a few essentials into his pockets and set out for the bus-stop where the early bus took people from the villages into town. It was inevitably late, driving slowly over impacted snow that the gritters rarely reached on these back roads. Round and round the winding slippery roads, barely faster than a brisk walk, till the main road was reached, startlingly black after the white packed snow of the country roads. Then a few minutes till his stop; the hospital almost picturesque with its domes and humps of snow on insulated roofs, flowerbeds like plump white eiderdowns between salted paths.
To celebrate the start of Advent, The Bet is on offer at £1.99 (or worldwide equivalent) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bet-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/
“The Lantern Bearers” by Rosemary Sutcliff
Sometimes a book comes back to you, decades after you first read it, and you find there was far more to it than you grasped at the time. I first read “The Lantern Bearers” in my teens, but it didn’t grab me the way the first of the series (“The Eagle of the Ninth”) did. It’s a much subtler, more nuanced and more ambiguous book that to my mind surpasses the Young Adult category it’s been pigeon-holed in. Even the blurb does not do it justice:
The last of the Roman army have set sail and left Britain for ever, abandoning it to civil war and the threat of a Saxon invasion. Aquila deserts his regiment to return to his family, but his home and all that he loves are destroyed. Years of hardship and fighting follow and in the end there is only one thing left in Aquila’s life – his thirst for revenge . . .
The novel sounds… schlocky, and it’s not. It explores the relationship between love for native land and family, and more abstract concepts such as honour and mercy. There’s plenty of action but compared to “The Eagle” the action feels very different. In “The Eagle”, Marcus (who is Aquila’s ancestor) is invalided out of the army (he’s a very young officer, almost fatally injured in his first conflict) and later sets out on a quest to discover what became of his father’s legion, the famed Ninth Legion that vanished. Aquila’s quest is a very different one, and one that is not fully defined to him; he grasps at vengeance as a reason to stay alive and to fight his way through the truly terrible things that happen to him. Yet long before the novel is over, he grows to understand that there is more needed of him than exacting a private vendetta.
Aquila is not the attractive, charismatic figure that commands instant liking from a reader; he’s a very damaged man, and he’s not much liked by his fellows, or even by his wife or son. But I found myself warming to him much more than I did when I first read the book; he seems a more complex, more REAL figure than Marcus did.
The last few years I have felt very strongly that we are on the cusp of some very dark times ahead. During my lifetime, there has been a greater level of peace and prosperity than there’s been in the world, pretty much ever. You may know that I studied Latin at university, and also have long had an interest in the long history of the Roman Empire. I cannot help but see powerful parallels between the last days of Rome in Britain and what I see now. Reading “The Lantern Bearers,” brought this back to me quite forcibly.
I’d like to share some lines from the last few pages of the book. Aquila is talking with an old friend, the surgeon attached to Ambrosius’s army.
“I sometimes think we stand at sunset,” Eugenus said after a pause. “It may be that the night will close over us in the end but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”
Aquila was silent a moment; and then he said and odd thing. “I wonder if they will remember us at all, those people on the other side of the darkness.”
Eugenus was looking back towards the main colonnade, where a knot of young warriors, Flavian among them, had parted a little, and the light of a nearby lantern fell flush on the mouse-fair head of a tall man who stood in their midst, flushed and laughing, with a great hound against his knee.
“You and I and all our kind they will forget utterly, though they live and die in our debt,” he said. “Ambrosius they will remember a little, but he is the kind that men make songs about to sing for a thousand years.”
The “he” that Eugenus refers to is, of course, Arthur, called here Artos. The Once and Future King of so many of our legends, novels, songs and films. The darkness may sweep over us, and that scares me. I don’t want to be lost, but Eugenus’s words haunt me. History does not tend to remember the little people, even though it could not be made without the participation, and often the sacrifice of ordinary people.
This time of year, as the nights become colder and longer, and sunshine less brilliant and far less frequent, it feels as if we are going into the night and being lost. There’s a lot of psychic debris around, a kind of dark, malign stickiness, not quite sentient but almost, that lurks in the corners like supernatural cockroaches that you see from the corner of your eye but when you look straight at them, they’re gone. There’s a lot of stress and angst around, and people try to lose their unease by focusing way ahead of time on festivals such as Christmas, but that can just make things worse as midwinter feasts have become overwhelmed by materialism that just drains people of joy and finances.
I can’t do much to help. I’m fighting deep depression, and world events (mad leaders of world powers for example) and national ones, local ones and personal ones, are getting on top of me. But what I can do, I do.
And I light a candle as dusk falls, to remind me of my duty as a lantern bearer to kindle a flame and guard it as long as I may, in the hopes that on the other side of the darkness, those who live there may bless the unnamed hosts who kept hope and light alive for them.
“There’s gold in them there hills…oh, no, now wait a minute…!”
A couple of years ago now we worked our way through a dvd box set of the hit series Deadwood. Set in the town of Deadwood (a real place) and following the fortunes of various people (many of whom have the names if not the actual characters of real, historical and sometimes famous people), during the Gold Rush period.
At the time, it rang a lot of bells about the way the self-publishing world was going and since then, I’ve thought about it a lot.
I first began publishing my own books in 2011 (though Strangers and Pilgrims was first published by someone else for me, it was a false start about eighteen months before I finally took it back and began again). It was a time somewhat akin to the early years of the Gold Rush. A new, exciting and potentially extremely lucrative adventure awaited those who were willing to just get their work out there, battling the new tech and avenues the way the prospectors battled weather and mountains and so on.
But gold is buried deep, is hard to find and seams run out unexpectedly and anyone who made plans based on a first lucrative lucky strike were fools if they thought the gold would just keep on coming. I’ve seen it said that the entire amount of gold in the world would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool and no more than that. Gold is finite but hope is eternal. The cannier inhabitants of Deadwood became the suppliers instead of prospectors. They opened saloon bars, shops and brothels; they sold food and drink, shovels and pans, flesh and promises and treasure maps to the folks who flocked there believing they’d make their fortune.
You really can’t blame them. They’d been lured there themselves by the dangling carrot of unlimited wealth if you just dug long enough in the right places, and when they’d got enough to start a business of some sort, the wise ones quit prospecting. As long as people continued to flock or even trickle there, hope in their hearts and enough dollars to buy equipment and whisky, the legends would keep being retold. It only took the occasional lucky strike to keep hope fresh and new legends to be forged.
It’s the same with self publishing and probably publishing generally. We all hear tales of people whose work suddenly went viral and they sold millions; we all probably secretly still believe it could be us, if we just stay out there. But few of us are making any money any more. There’s a whole other debate about whether writing for money is a fool’s game anyway, and another about whether ethically and faith-motivated folks are allowed to ever admit that some of their motivation for writing is in the hopes of making a living or even a decent paying hobby or second job. I’m not going there today.
The people who have a chance of making a living are those who now run businesses selling to the writers. Whether it’s editing services, formatting, cover design or one of a plethora of services deemed needful for authors, aspiring or otherwise, there’s a LOT of canny people out there, offering it. Organisations like Book Bub offer dreams of success through their advertising services (which cost, and dearly and they’re choosy who they will take on for a campaign) bringing your book in front of an audience that matches the demographic your book is aimed at.
For me, I’ve realised that I’m a gold panner. I’m someone who goes out weekends and evenings, with makeshift equipment and warmly-padded waders, and stands bent over a fast-flowing mountain stream, sifting gravel and occasionally finding grains of gold. Once in a while, a nugget comes my way. Sometimes, the dynamite someone has used higher up the mountain has loosened more rocks that bear gold, and I find that the tiny specks come to me more often. But it’s the process of being out there, looking at the fish and the sparkling water and the occasional gleams of precious metal, and knowing that while I could have boxed smarter and found another way to garner my gold, at least I am still doing what I set out to do, and still have a tiny bit of hope in my heart.
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?
(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.
U is for Utopia
I’m coming rapidly to the end of this run-through the alphabet and some of the last letters are somewhat problematic. I considered Useless (that’s how I feel a lot of the time) and also Unknowing (the older I get, the more I know I don’t know) but settled on Utopia, because there’s so much Dystopia-stuff around.
The person who coined the term (it actually means No Place) was Sir Thomas More in his fictional piece of the same name. Curiously enough, he was inspired by Plato’s writings on Atlantis. I’d urge you to read more about both works, because More’s ideas of Utopian society included such things as slavery, severe punishments for pre-marital sex, and communal living. The book addressed issues of its day and the blue-print for a utopian society he depicts is anathema to what I consider a perfect world.
We use the word Utopia to mean a perfect society but when it comes down to it, the origin of the name tells us everything. It is No Place. It cannot be. To be the ideal living conditions for one segment of society, it does so at the expense of others. For many, our current society is Utopia as it stands; this is why, in the run up to a General Election in the UK, those at the top of the ladder will fight tooth and bloody nail to keep things as they are, because that suits them very well indeed, thank you very much. To create a society where every member is valued and has a basic and decent standard of living is impossible in a culture that is essentially venial and selfish, where the rich wish to get richer and richer at the expense of the poor, where luxuries beyond imagining become common-place for the lucky few, and people starve and freeze on the streets.