The Undercover Soundtrack

A month or two back, the lovely Roz Morris asked me if I’d consider doing The Undercover Soundtrack, a series she runs on her blog where writers share the music they write to.

I agreed( I almost bit her hand off!) and this is the result. Hope you enjoy the music and find it revealing too.

http://mymemoriesofafuturelife.com/2012/10/17/the-undercover-soundtrack-vivienne-tufnell/

Tales of the Wellspring (1)~ where is the wellspring?

Tales of the Wellspring

I’ve said that the Wellspring in “Strangers and Pilgrims” is a real place, which it is indeed, and then refused to say where it is. I know this is frustrating, and possibly annoying. I’m not doing this to annoy; the clues to the location are in the text. When you understand this, you will also understand why I can’t tell anyone directly where the Wellspring is. It simply isn’t right. It’d lead you all wrong. It’s like the mystic’s finger pointing at the moon; the fool sees only the finger.

But what I can do is tell you a bit about the background to how I found the Wellspring. Remember this is the mystic’s finger and not the moon itself. You have to see the moon yourself.

I was ten when I first found a holy spring. I had in some ways an idyllic childhood, filled with fields and flowers and streams, and back then in the mid seventies, there was little of the hysteria that makes parents keep their children locked in houses and glued to the TV. Back then my best friend was a girl called Tina. We spent hours after school and during holidays roaming the countryside for miles round, coming home only for meals. One of our favourite locations was a place known as Topham’s field. There’s probably a housing estate there now; I haven’t been back in twenty years. It was a large area of grazing for cattle, on a fairly steeply sloping valley side, and at the bottom, the little River Kym trundled through the countryside, cutting a deep groove through the land. We spent many afternoons fishing and wading and generally messing about in the water. In the spring we used to lie flat in the grass and creep on our elbows and bellies to get close to watch the hares boxing. In the summer we played endless games using the massive felled corpses of elms as spaceships and dens. In the autumn we collected nuts and conkers and hid from rain showers under the trees. Winter time made the mud so thick that even the cattle were taken elsewhere and we’d come along in February, ever hopeful that the wind might have dried the mud enough the make entry possible, but it was usually late March before we could claim our kingdom back.

That summer was the drought year of 1976 and everything was dry and burned by the sun. We drank from cattle troughs when our water bottles were empty. The heat was relentless, and we sought shade beneath anything that stayed still, but then so did the cattle and these areas were peppered with cow-pats. This made sitting anywhere risky, not to mention the smell and the flies. Tina was smaller than me and generally more adventurous and while we were seeking a cool spot away from the cows, she crawled through a rabbit run in some brambles and vanished.

I was a bit alarmed until she crawled back and told me she’d found the perfect place. With more difficulty I followed her back down the rabbit run and when we emerged we found ourselves in another world. That’s what it felt like anyway. We were in a deep bowl of green, the walls of which were mixed bramble and saplings that leaned in and almost cut out the sky. The bowl was almost perfectly circular and the floor was the lushest, greenest grass you can imagine. All the grass in the fields was burned to dry beige so this was amazing. The sound of the summer meadow vanished also; I couldn’t hear the swish of cattle moving through the dry grass, or their contented chewing. I couldn’t even hear the endless song of the million grasshoppers. It was almost silent.

We stood without speaking for a minute or two. A faint sound did begin to register; a soft bubbling noise that came from one side of the dell. The dell was only maybe twenty feet across, and as I went to go and sit on the grass, my sandalled feet discovered it was wet. Not just wet, but boggy. My feet sank into the soft wet grass and into mud below.

That was when I realised we’d found a spring. You’d never know it was there; you couldn’t see into the dell from the outside. We talked for a minute or two about building a proper den here; no other kids would ever be able to find us and we could leave our stuff there all the time.

Suddenly Tina’s face froze and she went white. Before I could ask her what was wrong, she bolted back up the rabbit run and was gone. I shouted but she didn’t answer me. I was cross. I sat down on the bank where the dell curved upwards and then realised I’d found at least one of the points where water reached the surface. In the friable soil of the bank there was a little hollow that kept filling with water that then trickled over and disappeared in the grass below. It wasn’t enough to form a stream as such; it trickled like it had all the time in the world. I leaned in close and I could see the water fleas dancing in the bubbling water.

I felt very happy and I couldn’t understand why Tina had run away. Then I felt as if a shadow had crossed the sun. But the sunshine was as unrelenting as ever beyond the walls of the dell. I felt very cold and suddenly very scared. I could feel someone watching me. The feelings grew rapidly until I too was scrabbling back up the rabbit run, certain to my bones that I simply must get away and never, NEVER go back.

I caught Tina up at the gate to the field, half a mile away.

What happened?” I asked her.

I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

And we never did.

We drifted apart after that; another friend claimed more and more of Tina’s time and affections, and the year after that we went to secondary school and were in different classes and made different friends. The gap got bigger and from being inseparable, we lost touch steadily. She still lives in my home-town; I last saw her about twenty years ago. My mum sometimes sees her mum. But we never, ever discussed what happened. I wish we had, but too much time has passed now. She probably doesn’t even remember what occurred that hot sunny day during the heat wave of ’76.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I ever began to get to grips with what I experienced that day and even now I’m not certain. When I was reading Latin at university I came across a description of the god Pan terrifying mortals by menacing them or jumping out at them; the feelings were pretty much what I remember. So for a long while I wondered if Pan had been playing silly buggers and having fun scaring the life out of us. But it doesn’t really add up; why would Pan bother with two pre-teen girls? And it does seem presumptuous to imagine such a deity being even remotely interested in us. I might be a Christian but I do believe such entities exist. Usually they’re not much interested in humans; they only tend to interact with us when we enter their territory.

In my late twenties I began to explore a lot of interesting areas and I discovered that there were more beings that I’d sensed but hadn’t until now understood what they were. Nature spirits is a poor name but it maybe conveys enough: non-human entities that are connected deeply with places like springs, special trees, rivers, mountains and so on. Like humans, they are variable in terms of good and bad, but their primary goal is the protection of whatever natural feature they are tied to. So a tree spirit is to help protect the tree and so on. Sadly they don’t have as much power as they need, or this world would not be in the state it is.

With the wisdom of over thirty years passing, I think now we were warned off. We were on holy ground and we were trespassing. The spirit of that sacred spring didn’t want us there, messing about, making a den and using it like any other place. So, since children are still quite psychically receptive, the spirit scared us away. So much so that even as a young adult I never dared go back. I don’t dare go back now either, in case the whole place has been destroyed. I’d rather keep it as a memory.

I encountered another similar experience when I was sixteen, but that was in the centre of a city and that’s another story….

To be continued….

For all links to Strangers and Pilgrims go to my Strangers and Pilgrims page

The grit at the heart of the pearl ~ or the point from which stories grow

The grit at the heart of the pearl ~ or the point from which stories grow

Writers are often asked a question that can be virtually impossible to answer: “Where do you get your ideas?” as if there’s a kind of
supermarket you can shop at. It’s hard to answer because in some ways ideas come from everywhere; too often writers become blocked not because of a lack of inspiration but a surfeit of it and indecision
about how to bind them together cohesively.

For me ideas are the grit that sneaks into an oyster and causes so much irritation that the poor oyster does its best to cushion and coat the sharp grit so it stops hurting. I’ll come back to the pain of the
oyster later.

Strangers and Pilgrims was an odd book for me because some of the grit has been lurking in my personal oyster for a very long time. It’s an odd book for me for other reasons; I’ve never written a novel that had six powerful protagonists whose stories drove me quite so hard. Each of those characters was a lump of grit in my system that had each sneaked in from elsewhere, and stayed, bugging the hell out of me for years because I simply didn’t know what to do with them. They had a story, certainly, but only one that maybe comprised a short story or a novella at best.

One of the oldest pieces of grit was the origin of Sara, the character
whose story starts the novel. I’d long loved Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott and especially the song version by Loreena McKennitt.
I’d got this image in my head of a woman staring at a computer screen, rather than a mirror, and being cut off from the world by something and only able to see the world from that “mirror” of a computer. Then I had a hideous nightmare about how she came to be imprisoned and woke shaking, because in these dreams, I am the person being tormented. Of course, I could do nothing with it, so it got noted down and left for later.

A little later came Gareth’s story, again through a nightmare. I found myself in police uniform, male and quite self-assured, smiling at people as I walked through a crowded shopping centre. I was totally unprepared for being shot, or lying in the arms of one of the
bystanders while she pleaded with me to stay awake, to live. I woke
from that dream, certain there was a story, but not sure what to do.

Ginny’s story is older yet, mixed in with real experiences of sleeping at the foot of Glastonbury Tor and finding myself lost in an eerie mist that swept in and divided me from my tent, and of uneasy dreams of being thought mad and kept locked up against my will. It’s a real fear, if you’ve ever suffered from mental illness.

Elizabeth came out of a long train of thought, based on the fact that at nineteen, I almost became a nun. Needless to say, I didn’t, but I
often have speculated what my life might have been had I taken those steps back then. Her faith, shattered but not destroyed mirrors my own.

A long and complex dream of archaeology began Alex’s story. As him, I crawled down the long stone tunnel to a horde of treasures left from when the dark ages began with the departure of the Romans from Britain. My heart pounded as his as I saw the possible fruition of my own dreams that Arthur had been real and that I had found conclusive proof of it. The later discrediting of this discovery was another nightmare. I had a very distinct mental picture of Alex, sandy haired and slightly fussy fledgling academic at the start of a promising career, older than his years but still somehow a dreamy boy at heart, believing in chivalry and honour.

The character whose story ends the first section of the novel is probably inspired by a famous faith healer in Britain, Matthew Manning, but only by a very dim thread. Mark’s story for me began with a curious dream of being a healer who has lost his gift and who is found out as a fake. It was a very strange dream indeed.

The unifying thread (apart from a river they all live somewhere near
to)for all six characters was the focus upon typing a phrase into a
search engine while at the peak of despair: my heart is broken and I
am dying inside. Each character does this and finds the same answer.

Another piece of grit was the title. I stumbled upon the phrase strangers and pilgrims many years ago, embedded in the post-communion sentence for All Saints in the Church of England liturgy “may we who have shared at this table as strangers and pilgrims-”  and I had an image of people sitting quietly round a table after a meal, and reflecting on their journey to this point. 

So I had all these people who wanted me to tell their story and yet, I couldn’t begin. There was something missing. Several things missing in fact, the largest of which was an actual story.

It bothered me for years, as this crew of diverse and damaged people rooted around in my unconscious mind and niggled at me constantly to somehow or other bind them together. Then I had another series of dreams, that had me and a companion searching for something that changed when we found it. These were numinous dreams, full of symbolism and gradually, I found myself aware that what I was seeking in these dreams was a spring. More: a Wellspring. And then it started to fall into place.

The concept of a spring that heals is an ancient one and one I’d long been fascinated by. The Wellspring in Strangers and Pilgrims is real, and not a fantasy. It’s somewhere I’ve visited. Wellsprings exist,
hidden and secret throughout the whole world and the whole of
history. Their waters heal.

Which brings me back to the pearl. For writers like me, writing is about a form of exploration and of seeking to understand both the inner and the outer worlds. But more than that, writing is a means of coming to terms with conflicts and pain and of finding healing. Each of the characters in Strangers and Pilgrims is in some strange way a
fragment of my own psyche, each screaming a very different pain and demanding relief from the agony. While each of those fragments was grit in my soul and in my consciousness, it was hard to rest. In
allowing those stories to bloom and become luminescent, I allowed
some of my own pain to flow and be healed by the process of creating a story around it. Coated in shining words, it became something beautiful and oddly transparent: those who had experienced similar pain were soothed by those stories. Each of my readers who has commented, either in a review or privately has identified with certain characters more than others: some have identified with all of them. I’ve had requests for a sequel and people have very different ideas of whose story they wish to follow next. Not sure yet if I can provide this but I can work on it. 

In the end, writing a novel like this one took a great deal of emotional energy that left me drained and empty but with a feeling of having accomplished something: a story that healed in both the writing of it and in the reading of it. Anyway, I hope I have given some insight into how one book came into being and how both writing and reading can heal and comfort the soul of the troubled, which is pretty much most people!  

The future? Well, there is plenty more grit within me, to be worked with. Each of my novels comes to me in this uncomfortable way. I chose to publish Strangers and Pilgrims first for a host of reasons but I have a back catalogue of novels to be released. The next novel to come out will probably be Fish Out of Water (which title may well be changed to Away With The Faeries; still thinking about that), but I’m planning a collection of short stories in the meantime, which is to contain a teaser or two about Fish. Fish Out of Water is about Isobel, artist, mother of two small children and wife to a minister, who starts to lose both her sense of identity and her grip on what she thinks of as reality after the double suicide of her parents. Dividing her life between the humdrum grind of being a mum and the visionary life of an artist is tearing her psyche apart, and the weird and unexplained activity in the family’s isolated holiday cottage makes her question her own sanity. As events unfold with increasing speed and strangeness, Isobel struggles to stay her usual sensible and cheerful self, being dragged rapidly to breaking point. Look out for news of Isobel here or on Facebook or Twitter.

(This article first appeared at Thea Atkinson’s blog) 

Strangers and Pilgrims now available on Kindle and at the iStore

It’s been a long delay but I have finally managed to get Strangers and Pilgrims up on Kindle.

So for those who have been delaying till this deed was done, the wait is now over.

It’s available from Amazon US  and also from Amazon UK  and I guess also Amazon Germany but I haven’t checked that one out yet.

I am quietly chuffed to bits about this, and now I’ve figured this one out, it’ll be a shorter wait till the next ones come out.

Thank you.

And also now at the iStore: http://itunes.apple.com/us/book/strangers-pilgrims/id438492308?mt=11

Literary Post-Partum Blues ~ when the book is done, what then?

  The Flow Form pool, at the Chalice well gardens, in Glastonbury. I thought it looked womb-like.

Literary Post-Partum Blues ~ when the book is done, what then?

 

 I finally completed a novel yesterday. You’d imagine that’d make me deliriously happy, wouldn’t you? However, I think most experienced writers make few assumptions about how it might feel, because it varies so much. With some books you feel like having a party; others you feel like getting hammered quietly somewhere alone, curled up in a corner with a bottle of Scotch. And yet others you sit there and think, OK, what now.

I don’t mean the obvious side of things, like editing or proofreading, or if you are intending to submit to a publisher, query letters or the rest of that side of things. Nor do I mean leaving it alone for a month or two and then ripping it up and starting again.

It’s the emptiness.

I’ve said goodbye to people who have been intimately close to me for however long it’s taken. People, not characters. I’ve said goodbye to friends who mean a lot to me and I need to let them go. I mustn’t obsessively spy on them as they make their way.

And the emptiness feels a lot like a condition that affects a surprising number of women each year: Empty Womb Syndrome. You’ve carried this baby for nine months, under your heart and now it’s out. But the baby inside is gone forever. That tiny being with only potential to protect it no longer exists: the sleeping bundle in the crib cannot be the passenger who kicked and squirmed inside you for so long. I felt the same when I had my only child, and for a few days, the solution was obvious.

The solution for this ache is obvious and yet, just as it is for Empty Womb syndrome, so wrong.

I can’t just start another novel immediately. Just as my body needed time to recover from birthing a child, so my psyche needs time to recover from birthing a book.

So you see, the question What now, is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

Last night I made a decision that whatever comes later, I would go through the process of marking this event with a small celebration. So we had a Thai takeaway, a bottle of fizzy wine (I’m not a big fan of champagne, but bubbles of some sort are obligatory celebration aides) and I also had a large Scotch. (Highland Park single malt, if anyone’s interested. I really like good whisky and I have a collection of them.)

Today, I am waking up to face the emptiness and to sit at the side of that void and wait.

At least I don’t have to face nappies as well.

Baker Street Blues- a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes

 

Baker Street Blues- a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and to Sherlock Holmes

 

I confess. I’d never been to Baker Street in all my long years as a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I’d travelled along it in a bus, or in a taxi but never set foot there until this Sunday.

As I stood on the escalator coming up from the Tube, a tune began in my head. It was almost involuntary and a bit of a surprise to me. Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street is a total classic and has bitter-sweet significance to me, which is a story I shall keep secret for the moment. As I reached the station exit, the soaring guitar was being overtaken by the saxophone solo and as I stepped finally onto Baker Street, the lyrics began….

Winding your way down Baker Street, Light in your head and dead on your feet…”

Pretty much summed up how I was feeling. I’d had a thirteen and a half hour working day the day before and had the same that day, though in effect I was free to do what I felt like, while remaining on call. Tiredness notwithstanding, a massive grin spread across my face, the first spontaneous smile I have had for a long while, or so it feels. I joined the queue at the museum and continued to grin for the next hour.

 Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous creation of the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but its easy to forget that Doyle was responsible for another fabulous creation too, Professor Challenger, the hero of the novel The Lost World, that has been made into many films since. Sir Arthur was a medical doctor, graduating from Edinburgh, and had a questing mind that took him to many places that were unusual for a man of his class. He did a tour as a ships’ doctor on a voyage to the West African coast, which probably opened the mind of the young Arthur greatly. His lack of success as a medical doctor gave him time to write; he had written as a medical student and his long hours waiting for patients when he first set up practise in Southsea gave rise to the first appearance of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. Later, set up as an ophthalmologist and recorded he had not a single patient! In total, Doyle wrote four Holmes novels and 56 short stories. Many have been made into films and TV shows, and writers have produced endless tributes and pastiches to the great detective.

Visiting the Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker Street was for me akin to a tongue-in-cheek pilgrimage as I fell in love with the great detective when I was nine years old. I passed on this love to my daughter who had the stories read to her as bedtime stories. What makes me love him so?

 It’s hard to explain but there was such hope for me in the discovery of a truly clever hero to look up to and aspire to be like. Holmes is thought to be based on Professor Joseph Bell, Doyle’s old university professor, and the fact that while the man himself is fictional, there was a real person behind the stories, gave me a lot of hope that somewhere intelligence is valued above other attributes.

Holmes is a perennial favourite for film and TV and a recent BBC mini series Sherlock relaunched the iconic Holmes to a new public, updating the tales to be set in the present day with huge success. I can only hope that the next series is as excellent as the previous one.

Anyway, if you are not already a fan of Holmes, then what are you waiting for? It’s elementary, my dears!

 

Susan Howatch- a writer to get addicted to

 

You don’t hear much about Susan Howatch   these last few years and I think it’s a shame. If you love a book or a series of books to really get your teeth into, you can’t do better than discover this author.

I first came across her books when I was an undergraduate and my flatmate loaned me The Rich are Different, Sins of the Fathers and a few others. I enjoyed them a great deal, even though I am not especially fond of historical or period fiction.

The next time I crossed paths with Ms Howatch was when my husband was at theological college and I was undergoing something of a protracted breakdown of sorts. Her Starbridge series of novels gave me some relief from the emotional anguish I was in, partly due to the novels being about the very structure(the Church of England) I was battling to survive, but mainly due to the strength of the characters and the power of the stories: 

The action of all six books centers around the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge, which corresponds to the real life dicoese of Bath and Wells with the city of Salisbury(Starbridge) at its centre supposedly in the west of England, and also features the Fordite monks, an Anglican monastic order that has no direct paralell in real life. They remind me a little of the Franciscans, though.

The first three books of the Starbridge series (Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes) start during the 1930s, and continue through the  war. The second three (Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, Absolute Truths) take place in the 1960s.

Glittering Images is narrated by the Reverend Dr. Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent as a sort of spy, under the guise of interviewing  the Bishop of Starbridge. The Archbishop of Canterbury suspects that there is a steamy menage a trois going on in the Bishop’s household.After a very public meltdown, Ashworth is helped to recover, and to realize the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.

Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow himself as he leaves the Fordite Order at age sixty following a powerful vision of a new future for him.. He then must deal with his adult children’s problems, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings”. This is the hardest book for people with no experience of such things to take on board.

Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, Archdeacon of Starbridge. From a working class background in the north of England Aysgrath has had a meteoric rise to power. After being widowed from his childhood sweetheart and remarried to an eccentric but fascinating society woman from way outside his class , he too undergoes something of a meltdown but also rescued by Jonathan Darrow.

Scandalous Risks follows Aysgarth to a Canonry of Westminster Abbey and back to Starbridge, where he becomes Dean of the Cathedral and Ashworth becomes Bishop.  Unlike the other stories, this is the first one to be narrated by an outsider to the church, Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a strange relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend. Venetia falls obsessively in love with Aysgarth and is faced at the end with some terrible choices.

Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, in his quest to stay away from dangerous paths. It’s the only story so far with a muder mystery theme, which takes a different tack to all the others so far. It also deals with Nick’s difficult relationship to his now elderly father.     

Absolute Truths brings the cycle full circle and is narrated by a much more elderly but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we  encounter him in the first of the books. Charles’ life is far from what he wanted it to be and his search for peace nearly costs him everything.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Howatch

Well I was blown away. I read them cover-to-cover and hungered after the next release in paperback. I understand she managed to upset quite a few people in Salisbury which is the town Starbridge is based upon, but the stories were so very powerful indeed…..

Then after a hiatus of a few years came the St. Benet’s trilogy:

The St. Benet’s trilogy takes place in London of the 1980s and 1990s. Again, the changes which took place in the Anglican Church in those years are startling and the stories brings back some of  the characters in the Starbridge series.There is an increased emphasis on characters who are not members of the clergy though to be honest, the Churh looms large constantly.

A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), continues the story of Nicholas Darrow fifteen years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London where he runs a center for the ministry of healing. Alice Fletcher, a young woman in turmoil happens upon the healing centre Nick runs and becomes a volunteer there. Nick’s own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the center, he is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result. Much of the story is told in the words of Alice, but the narrators takes turns. It makes for an interesting change every so often in the book.

The High Flyer narrates the story of a female City lawyer, Carter Graham(changed from Catriona to make it more masculine). Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after strange occult tinged events begin to occur, which show that all is not well in her life.

Finally, The Heartbreaker follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic male prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds his world spiralling out of control when he realises he is himself at the center of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Graham and Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin. This is by far the raciest and most shocking of the books, and strangely one of the most touching.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Howatch

Hooked yet? I was.

Susan Howatch is one of the very tiny number of authors whom I have actually written to; like the lady she is, she replied to all my letters with thoughtful, handwritten replies that I keep and treasure. I’m not a reader who has a great tendancy to worship or set on a pedestal the authors whose work I enjoy. I am quite happy for them to be almost anonymous, really.   In her last reply to me, she said she wanted to give up writing and indeed, there hasn’t been a new book from her in some years. I understand that, though it makes me sad. I understand because the scope and complexity and sheer range of subject and emotional exploration she has covered in her many books is so immense that surely it would have to be something entirely out of the usual to get her to start the whole process again.

Anyway, go and get addicted!