“We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

These words, written on a postcard thrown from a cattle transport on its way out of Holland to Poland and its ultimate destination, Auschwitz, were some of the very last words written by Dr Etty (Esther) Hillesum. The postcard had been found on the 7th of September 1943 and posted by the farmers who found it a few days later. Dr Hillesum died on the 30th of November 1943. She was 29 years of age. Between 1941 and 1943, she kept a diary of her life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, detailing the privations, the fears, the joys, the hopes and her extraordinary inner life.

I’ve been reading it in chunks, often during those frequent occasions when insomnia and pain and worry have driven me from my bed to read downstairs on the sofa. It’s been a true companion to me. Her voice, silenced for many, many years, rings out, true and clear and full of life. Her love of life, her resilience have been an inspiration and not a reproach to me in my own troubles (and believe me, virtually every self-help book I have come across, every nugget of a meme from some guru or other, has left me with nothing but guilt and self-reproach for my own lack of strength and guts) and I finally read the last section of the book today. It’s a collection of the letters she wrote from Westerbork, the camp Dutch Jews were held at before being loaded onto cattle trucks and sent off to Auschwitz. The voice in these letters differs only very little from that of the diaries; her integrity and pure honesty shine out, unmistakably amid the events of those terrible days. Humour, love, gentleness and a lack of bitterness that is almost shocking.

I’d put off reading this book, because the core of the book is something I cannot look at square in the face without feeling the abyss opening. Yet the abyss IS indeed opening. Concentration camps exist again in the so-called civilised world, and the fact that many dispute the use of the word is proof that they have become inured to the concept. But the book brought me some comfort that a voice of sense, reason, justice and love can still ring out across the years since its owner died. It reminded me that we have lessons from the past that can and should be learned from.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interrupted-Life-Diaries-Letters-Hillesum/dp/095347805X/

An Epiphany, of sorts

An Epiphany, of sorts

Today marks Epiphany, the festival that for most marks the end of all things Christmas. It commemorates the arrival of the Magi, coming to pay their respects to the infant Jesus, though much of what people think they know about the Magi is a much later medieval addition. The bible does not give names to the visitors, nor does it state that there were three. That aside, it’s a charming addition; it personalises these shadowy visitors and gives them flesh and human attributes, as well as the gifts they brought, which were largely symbolic ones. I am sure that the holy family valued the gold; it probably got them through lean and difficult times. Frankincense was at one time worth the same ounce for ounce as gold and myrrh not far behind. I burn both during the Christmas period and I usually burn some beautiful incense called Three Kings after I take down the Christmas decorations (though the crib scenes remain until Candlemas).

But that’s not the epiphany I am talking about. The word has come to mean a sudden, dramatic and powerful revelation. During a recent episode of extra-nasty depression (that general base line for me is just fairly nasty and the extra-specially nasty was paralysing and unbelievably destructive) I had an insight I have had to sit with to see if it may be true, and that insight is the epiphany I’d like to explain.  Continue reading

An Unmerry Christmas Book.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Actually, for many, it absolutely ISN’T. I’m not a fan of Christmas; I don’t get starry-eyed and enthusiastic about getting the tree up. I get quite morose about it all. And if life is distinctly unwonderful anyway, the whole Christmas thing is often a way to just rub it in.

Anyway, if you feel anything like I do, you may need an antidote to the sugary, sentimental side to the festive season. I’ve dropped a quid off the price of my own favourite novel, The Bet. Here’s a nicely gloomy extract to whet your appetite.

“In the days after the funerals, Greville worried endlessly about his assistant. The Christmas season seemed indecent with its tinselly colour and insincerity, and the old man’s heart contracted with pity watching the boy decorating the foyer, and to see him arrive every morning on time and go through each day like a man sleepwalking. He watched him working with school children on educational visits, wanted to applaud him for sheer determination when he saw him speaking with a shadow of his old energy. He found him asleep in the midst of the basement chaos, or head pillowed on arms on his desk, or once, sitting on the stairs, resting his head on his knees. Greville touched his shoulder to wake him.

Sorry,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “I just sat down for a moment because I couldn’t remember what I was going downstairs for.” He stopped a few steps down. “I still can’t.”

Doesn’t matter, whatever it was. Go and make us some coffee, boy.”

Ashurst turned on the stairs and headed back up to the tiny kitchen, Greville following. He stood behind him while he filled the kettle, washed out the cafetière and mugs.

Not sleeping, eh?”

Not much, no. I usually get to sleep around three, if I’m lucky.” He didn’t sound as if he were complaining. “I’m sorry I’ve been dropping off here. I do try not to.”

Couldn’t sleep for weeks and weeks after my wife died,” Greville said awkwardly. “It does stop in the end, the insomnia.”

The boy didn’t say anything; he’d been very economical with his speech lately, none of the impertinence that Greville had been used to and had grown to enjoy. He made the coffee with almost exaggerated care; Greville had noticed his hands shaking any time he’d actually got him to talk, even a bit. He was stirring the coffee now, slowly, as if he were counting how many times the spoon went round.

I keep remembering,” he said softly.

That’s good. That’s important. We all need to remember,” Greville said, putting an awkward arm around him briefly.

You don’t know what I’m remembering,” Ashurst said, and walked out.

It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

(Warning: serious gloom ahead. Just letting you know.)

Just like Christmas, World Mental Health Day takes me by surprise each year and leaves me just as disappointed (I’m not a big fan of Christmas either) as previous years. More celebrities opening up about their struggles, more empty rhetoric, more pleas for ending stigma. And what changes? I can see few changes since last year. In my own country, provision for serious mental illness has declined still further; what is offered to people coming in with mental and emotional distress is extremely limited and chances are, you’ll be on a long waiting list just to be assessed. I’ve heard whispers that the government is appointing a minister for suicide prevention.

Continue reading

The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The sands of time are trickling to the bottom bulb of the egg-timer of 2017. I’m not sure if it’s hard-boiled or burned-out, yet, so I am trying to do a review of the year. It’s worth remarking that this will be a rambling sort of post as I have a nasty chest infection, the kind that’s meant my ribs hurt from coughing and I’ve pulled some muscles trying to clear my lungs. I’ve also got a slight temperature, but that said, at university, one of my best ever essays was written trying to stay warm and stave off a similar illness, by drinking ginger wine. I was three sheets to the wind by the end but it earned me an A-. I can only conclude my professor was equally drunk when he marked it.

During the latter part of the year, we lost first a much-beloved guinea pig, and then, heartbreakingly, our ancient but mostly spry cat. He was eighteen and a half. I’m still so numb I cannot manage to articulate much on this; I still look for him on the Ikea chair we bought specially for him. The losses seemed to cap what has been for me quite a tough year. There have been some amazing things (family stuff that I don’t share here) but overall, the word, difficult seems to sum it all up. My day job has been affected (like most of the travel industry) by the continuing instability caused first by ongoing concerns about terrorism and second and more pervasively, by the insanity of the Leave vote. I can barely bring myself to mention this, because I rapidly become mute with anger and frustration.

In terms of writing, it’s a mixed bag. I managed to release three books this year. Two volumes of poetry and a novel. The poetry was a matter of collecting thematically poems I’ve written over a considerable period, and arranging them in an order that seemed pleasing. Hallowed Hollow has garnered 5 excellent reviews but sadly, A Box of Darkness hasn’t a single review to its name. It took a LOT of effort to get Little Gidding Girl out. I made daft mistakes with the formatting that I fought to correct, but I did eventually manage to get the book launched for midsummer. It was launched with what’s called a “puff quote”, from Caitlin Matthews, an author I had admired for (literally) decades before social media brought us into contact. Like any author, I hoped it would soar but it has not. It has, however, got 20 reviews since its launch, all but one of which were glowing. I sometimes feel that either my work is crap or it has such limited appeal that reaching the few folks who is would suit is a monumental task I no longer have the energy to attempt.

In terms of actual writing, apart from blog posts and some poetry, I completed a novel for the first time in over 4 years. This was such an achievement, I marked it by buying a perfume I’d been craving for several years. After sitting on it for a while, I sent it to a few beta readers. I’ve had little or no feedback and can only conclude one of several things: first, no one has had time or inclination to read it (which is fine, as we’re all busy) or have and have either forgotten to give feedback. Or they’ve read it and hated it, but didn’t like to knock me back by saying anything. Whichever it is, I cannot disguise my sadness. But as Locke would say, it is what it is. The novel will probably now sit on my hard drive and gather dust.

As well as the novel, I have managed to write some short stories, most of which are longhand in various notebooks. My levels of confidence in my writing is now so low that it seems better to go back to basics and write a first draft where no one but me will ever see it. I’ve done four or five in my proto-collection of fragrant fiction, short tales inspired by famous perfumes, and a few others. I did get as far as collecting and fiddling with an array of short stories that are basically modern fables for grown ups; I asked for a few volunteers from friends (largely on Facebook) to have a scan. About half of those who offered to read got back to me, and overall the collection passed muster, with some very helpful and uplifting feedback. My next task is to implement some small editorial changes before proofreading and the rest of the process of getting them published. It’s reminded me that I’m very good at the short form, even if short stories are not what people (apparently) want to read in collections from one author. Like poetry, like the literary-ish fiction I specialise in, it seems that another of my skills is in something hardly anyone wants. In a market that is totally saturated, getting noticed is now pretty much impossible unless you have a lot of money, time and energy to throw at it, as well as luck. My best plan is to continue to write what comes to me and therefore, one person is happy. The wonderful folk who read and enjoy and even review my books, may also be happy.

I often sit in awe at the people who write numerous books each year, and get them out there. I’m more than aware of the hard work and discipline involved. Bum in chair, social media disconnected, are but two of the steps needed. I’ve tried. Oh believe me I have tried, this year, to be more productive. Ideas flare, like matches in the darkness, and splutter out in the wake of “oh what’s the point?” It feels as if everything’s already been done, and done to death; I know that each author approaches an idea with their own voice. But I cannot overcome the inertia of the terrible feeling of pointlessness, when my own voice seems to die on the wind. Ill health (both mental and physical) and the invisibility, the sense of irrelevance of self, that seem to accompany middle age, have taken all the oomph out of me. I doubt that I have anything to offer the world, and increasingly, that there’s nothing the world can offer me, any more. Forgive me if this sounds depressing, but this is my reality at present.

I watch the world around me, and find that the microcosm of my back garden has brought me more joy than the wider world. I can barely watch the news any more. Yet seeing a charm of goldfinches bathing in the pond, or hearing the love songs of frogs on a spring night, or smelling the sweet fresh scent of hyacinths blooming in a forgotten corner, remind me that while wars and rumours of war go on, nature battles on, with beauty and sorrow balanced in an eternal cycle. When I go out, last thing at night, to put out food for errant hedgehogs and for the feral cat who lives at the bottom of the garden, I look up at the white stars twinkling in a frosty sky, and the vastness of the universe presses down on me, yet I can still say, “I endure. I am here, for a little while.”

I cannot make predictions for 2018. Or promises or hopes or ambitions. It will be whatever it is, whether I hope or don’t hope. But I wish that for you and for me, it may bring joy and meaning, healing and fulfilment, and understanding and forgiveness. All the rest is fluff that blows away on the winds of time like dandelion clocks when the seeds have been eaten.

A Story of Snow

A Story of Snow

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/

Pirates for Halloween?

I had intended to share a short story here, one called The Salmon’s Leap. It would have been a perfect tale for the time of year; poignant, spooky and unsettling.

But then I read this post this morning: http://maggie-stiefvater.tumblr.com/post/166952028861/ive-decided-to-tell-you-guys-a-story-about 

The Too-Long-Didn’t-Read is that this author saw her sales diminishing as a series progressed, her publisher started to reduce the number of copies printed. For the next book in the series, she asked that pdf copies for advanced review copies not be sent out, because she felt that the swathe of pirated copies of the last one came from those ARCs. Setting a cunning trap (do read, it really is cunning) it became quite clear that huge numbers of her readers were grabbing pirated copies as soon as they appeared, rather than shell out for a legitimate copy.

Now the usual wisdom regarding book piracy is that those who nab pirated copies would not buy the real version. This gives the lie to that and my goodness, I feel angry and bitterly sad for this author. I feel sad for all of us. The levels of entitlement exhibited on the various forums was breathtaking; some said they even had to *SHOCK* *HORROR* actually go to Amazon and buy a copy.

I’ve never had the courage to check if mine are on pirate sites but the likelihood is they are. I know of authors who spend much time sending cease and desist notices but this issue is hydra-headed: cut off one pirate source and more will spring up. I am also sure that many of my poems have been nicked and used for school homework, for church magazines, for competitions and so on.

I am sure most of my readers are nodding in fervent agreement, here, and agree that this is barefaced theft, no more and no less. Not only does it steal the words of an author, it can steal their future. The author in the article was facing the very real chance that her publisher would cancel the series because of diminishing sales. It also steals our hopes.

I don’t have a lot of heart left, or hope. I am going to save The Salmon’s Leap and add it to the collection of short stories I am working on getting out there. In the mean time, for Halloween/ Samhain, both The Hedgeway and The Moth’s Kiss are both just 99p for worldwid equivalent for a couple of days. Not free; I don’t do free. But about the same price as a packet of sweeties.

(Away With The Fairies as well as Strangers & Pilgrims are also on sale at a mere £1.99 each. I did consider a 99p flash sale for those but decided not to)