Comfort Literature ~ the new trend for 2017?

I’m probably going to do a proper round-up post in a day or two but having watched a very bleak two-parter on TV (an Agatha Christie adaptation) that left me feeling even lower than before, it occurred to me that what I would like to see trending in the new year is literature that comforts. Not schmaltzy, saccharine candy-fluff books that pretend everything is nice and rosy but books that have a strong core of something special, something strong and real and comforting.

One of the books I read this year was Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree. It’s a comfort book, like all of hers I have read so far. It’s not light and fluffy but quite different. It’s about people coping with things that seem intolerable and finding ways to redeem the unredeemable. That’s what I mean about Comfort Books.

In view of this, for the end of this year and for the start of next, I have reduced the price of Away With The Fairies to £1.99 or equivalent worldwide. I’ve had many emails, reviews, letters and messages from readers about this book, on how it’s helped them cope with some very difficult times in their lives.

I’m hoping to have a new book out by Easter, and that too will be a Comfort Book. More information to follow soon.

If you have suggestions for other books we might all enjoy, please share them in the comments.

 

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Water in a Stone

Water in a Stone

Water in a Stone

I’ve long had a fascination for rocks; indeed, I considered studying geology for A level. I’ve been collecting rocks, fossils, crystals and gemstones for a long time now. I started when I was about nine or ten, becoming entranced by the cat’s-eye effect (chatoyance) of the semi precious stone Tiger’s Eye, and buying several pieces of the polished gem, one to wear as a pendant I still wear occasionally today.

It wasn’t until I was about fifteen and was visiting the Natural History Museum in Frankfurt that I really got hooked. One exhibit was a piece of rock crystal that was about the size of a small car. I remember walking round and round the massive rock, astounded that such a thing existed. The museum gift shop sold cheap gemstone jewellery and I found myself a piece of polished clear quartz set as a pendant. I have it still.

The Greeks thought rock crystal was ice that had frozen so hard it could never be thawed; in a way, they were right. Quartz does start out liquid, deep in the earth, but it’s only over time that it solidifies, growing into fabulous forms that are exquisitely lovely.

For me, any rock is a wonderful mystery: where did it come from, what is it made of, how did it get where it is today? I can walk almost any beach and find you a fossil. I pick up stones everywhere, and it occurred to me that I’m probably looking for the philosopher’s stone. I’ve dreamed about stones doing magical, wonderful things, and I meditate with them, often placing certain crystals on my forehead and holding them in my hands as I contemplate deep and impenetrable matters (I often fall asleep, to put that into perspective!). On one occasion, somehow or other I caused a crystal balanced on my forehead to light up from within, witnessed by one reliable source.

I’ve got boxes of rocks, ones that friends have sent me from special places they have visited, and dozens of crystals of various sorts, sizes and colours. There is something innately pleasing to me, at the very least, in the order and beauty of crystals; the fact that they form, either over aeons or spontaneously in milliseconds (no one is quite sure; some have been seen to grow slowly, others leap into being) regular, geometrically perfect solids is a sort of comfort to me. When I go to Austria, the hotel I usually stay at has a cabinet of fossils and rocks for sale; I’ve bought several, including a trilobite now named Josef after the hotelier. Like any collector, my collection is never going to be complete. There will always be something different to look out for.

I’ve not mentioned much the whole “woo woo” factor, because while I do believe there is something to it, it’s not something I really want to go into here. There is too much room for ridicule. Suffice it to say that I believe that rocks can be a source of healing.

Anyway, on a day trip to Ely a month or two back, I visited a stall on the market there that I’ve known for many years. She usually has unusual things, and isn’t extortionate in terms of prices. I spotted a couple of nice little things and one reasonably sized double terminated* quartz piece ( *it comes to a point at both ends), and liked it. It had a brilliant clarity and beauty that drew me. A few weeks after buying it, I spotted something very unusual indeed.

Inside the crystal was a bubble of liquid that moved when you turned the stone. Enhydros are quartz (and other stones) that contain water (or other liquids) from the time when the stone was forming. Sold as such, they’re fairly pricey; not precisely rare but unusual. A magnifying glass has shown there are other bubbles within the matrix of the rock; imagine the moving bubble of a spirit level and that’s not dissimilar.

Given the level of frozen-ness of my inner spirit and my life, and the fear that all the bubbling-over of images, ideas and stories might have dried up, finding this tiny reservoir of ancient, forgotten water deep inside a rock, is to me a symbol that perhaps buried so far down that I can’t even feel it, the water of life still shines.

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*Cities that never sleep*

Cities that never sleep

Last week I went to Paris.

Whenever I say that the reaction is almost universally, “Lucky you!” and I concede that I am grateful that I get to go but I’ve never quite figured out why people get so excited by cities, however famous, beautiful or supposedly romantic those cities might be.

Since I was heading out on an early Eurostar train, I’d been billeted in a hotel next to Euston station in London. I got there in plenty of time so I had a little walk down to the British Library and down to St Pancras also, before heading back to wash my hair, eat my dinner and get an early night. I’d hoped to find some ear plugs but failed. I regretted it. The window in my room was defective and wouldn’t shut properly. It wasn’t a cold night, but the noise never abated to anything less than a dull roar all night. I got up at around 4.30, unable to snooze more than an hour at a time. It’s not so much the noise as the continuous low level vibration. Everything shakes ever so slightly, ALL THE TIME. I suspect you get used to it if you live there. But for a visitor it was unsettling. I felt all the time as if I were shaking, and it made me more nervous and uneasy.

When I left the hotel at 6am, London seemed to be already in full motion. The night buses had been replaced by the normal day ones, the pavement shook with the rumble of underground trains and the constant passing of traffic. There were more people visible on the streets at that time than I see normally in the course of a week or more. At no point did the city ever seem to sleep.

Paris comes to life at night too. As the sun sets, the lights come on everywhere, and people head out. Going up the Butte of Montmartre for a meal at the artists’ square, it was still quite quiet. By the time we came out to do some sight seeing, the place was heaving. The steps in front of Sacre Coeur were filled by people sitting enjoying the view, the company and a drink or two. Inside the basilica, an oasis of peace and tranquillity, the nuns were about to sing the office of Compline, the last office of the day before sleep. But Paris too never sleeps. Even in our quiet hotel at the edge of the city, traffic thundered past most of the night.

I’ve lived in a couple of cities in the past, sometimes close to the centre, sometimes in the suburbs, and while the amenities and so on are great, I’ll never forget when we first moved to deep countryside, miles from anywhere. We’d brought sleeping bags and a few bits with us, ahead of the removals van, and that first night, without a plate or fork to our name, we walked through fields to get to the next village and the nearest pub to get our dinner. The sun set as we ate, and when we got back out, full of dinner and a few drinks, we headed out confidently to follow the little paths back through the countryside to our new house. Half a mile on, it dawned on me that it was VERY dark indeed. There were no street lights in our village at that time, and the fields and copses were utterly black. Above us, the stars shone like diamonds on a jeweller’s velvet, and a sliver of moon. We found our way home, cautiously, and when we crawled into sleeping bags, and lay down to sleep, I realised that with the window open, it was almost silent. It was quiet enough to hear the wind blowing the half grown wheat in the field behind our house. The sound of owls, and once or twice the guttural cries of foxes, and very, very faintly, the occasional car passing. and then close to dawn, cockerels, were the soundtrack of almost every night after that.

I learned to walk the woods and fields in almost total darkness, using the glimmer of starlight on the tip of my dog’s tail as a guide, or the bright white glow of moonlight. I learned to tell different sounds apart, so that the call of one owl was different to that of another of the same species. I listened to nightingales singing, and heard the huff of distaste when a deer came upon my scent in the middle of the night as I walked alone but for my dog.

Some people are city people. Some people are country people. I wonder if you can guess which I am.

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Monday Meditation ~ Bluebell for inner strength in hard times

Bluebell Meditation

Bluebells are one of the most quintessentially English of wild-flowers. The sight of a woodland floor carpeted in bluebells as far as the eye can see is a delightful and uplifting one. Curiously, the flower known as bluebell in England is not known by the same name in Scotland, where it is referred to as the wild hyacinth, echoing the French name, jacinth sauvage. This gives clues to the flower’s family connections and also to it’s glorious perfume.

This year, the bluebells have been almost a month late flowering and are now at their peak. I cut a small number from the garden to put in vases round the house so we might enjoy their colour and fragrance indoors since the weather has been cold and rainy.

Meditation:

If you have access to garden bluebells, cut a few stems to place in water; native English bluebells, like all wild-flowers, should not be picked or dug up. You may also use hyacinths for this meditation or essential oil of hyacinth (which is expensive but heady and almost hypnotic) Find somewhere to sit where you will be undisturbed and calm and centre yourself. If you have a recording of woodland birdsong for an English spring, that may also aid the deepening of the meditative experience.

If you have some bluebells with you, gaze at them for a few moments, drinking in their colour, form and scent. Then, when you have fixed them in your mind, close your eyes and begin to relax.

You are standing at a woodland edge. It’s spring, early in the morning but well past dawn. The birds have finished their hymn to the new day and everything is settling into its daily pattern. The sun is out, and it’s occasionally lost behind fluffy white clouds that meander slowly across a sky that is a beautiful shade of blue. There’s a freshness to the air that tells you that spring has a long way to go before it becomes summer. The trees at the woodland edge are tall old oaks, and their new leaves are still small, not fully opened, and a pale luminous green that is transparent and moist. The path into the wood is no more than a thread of beaten earth, made by passing feet and followed also by deer and rabbits and other creatures. Here and there, in patches of mud you can see their tracks where a single fleeting hoof has splashed through a shallow puddle.

As you enter the woodland, the light changes and so too does the sound. Both become muted by the canopy of trees. You can see the blueness of the sky above through gaps in the canopy, and the newly opened leaves are still allowing light to shine through them. The air seems to shimmer with this light green light and you find this very soothing as you stroll along the path as it winds among the trees. There are some giant old oaks here, some struck by lightning and others just huge shells with tufts of new leaves. It feels safe and friendly here so you continue onwards.

The path becomes less muddy, and you can see that it’s streaked with pale sand now where the rain has drawn particles to the surface. It weaves through the trees, as the woodland rolls gently up and down. Sometimes the path seems to take a steeper route and you sense you are being led higher, though the way seems to wind and double back on itself. It feels leisurely and you are not in a hurry so are content to follow the path. Here and there birds sing as you pass, but there is no sign of other people around. It’s supremely peaceful here and you feel happy and at ease with yourself.

As the path leads steeply upwards you feel a sense of excitement building, and as the slope becomes sharper and your breath comes in gasps, you feel sure this is leading to something amazing. After a few minutes of hard climbing, you reach the top quite suddenly and you stop in your tracks in wonder.

The top of the hill is flat, covered in a grove of the most lovely trees, but the earth is lost beneath an expanse of the most heavenly of blues. Bluebells in great profusion cover the forest floor. The scent that washes off them in the gentle breeze almost overwhelms your senses and you take a deep breath, drawing the fragrant air far down into your lungs, holding it there so you can almost taste the bluebells.

You stand at the edge of the grove, wanting to go further in but afraid to trample on this profusion of beauty, till you see that the path continues to wind on, just wide enough for you to walk on it. The shining leaves of the bluebells caress your ankles as you walk, and the scent rises, smoky and sweet, at every step. The path takes you to the middle of the grove where a single young oak tree waits. No more than perhaps thirty of forty years old, this tree is still small compared with the giants around but it has a special look to it, and when you get to it, you see that beneath it is a large flat boulder, with has a kind of basin in it. The basin is filled with water and a single floret of bluebell. Around the boulder is soft white sand, and so you sit down on it. Looking upwards the new green leaves of the trees make a pattern of great loveliness with the blue sky beyond them. All around the deep blue of the flowers, the glossy dark green of their leaves, and the verdant oak leaves fill you with the powerful peace that can be found in woodlands.

Touch the water. See the ripples and the changing reflections shatter and reform. Touch the flower head. It feels fleshy and cool, and for something so ephemeral and fleeting it feels stronger than you would expect. This is the power of bluebells. Each year they bloom for a few short weeks, then disappear back under the earth. Yet even while they are invisible, they are growing, spreading and colonising new lands. Left alone, they will return year after year to raise their heads to the blue sky above.

Gaze at the bluebells. Feel the calmness their colour and scent bring to any troubles you may have. Stay as long as you wish. This is a safe, nurturing environment and you will know when it is time to leave.

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*

The sun has risen high in the sky now and you feel the warmth reaching you here on the forest floor. The duties and joys of the day ahead await you. You can retrace your path to the woodland edge or you can follow the path onward. Once it dips over the other side of the grove, it takes a shorter route back to your world. It’s up to you which you take. If you want a longer walk to think about what you have experienced, take the original path back. If you are ready now to return, take the quicker path back.

Once you reach the woodland’s edge, stop for a moment and look back at the trees and remember how good it felt to be at peace in such a wood. Now let the forest melt away and let yourself return fully to your normal world.

Take a few minutes to record your experiences and also make sure you have a drink of water to help you ground fully. 

Is escapism harmless?

Is escapism harmless?

Can you can tell when times have got tougher by the kind of books and entertainment people choose?

I’d love to see a proper study done with graphs and spreadsheets and percentages. Ones that show the rise of the feel-good-factor musicals proportionate to the plummeting of pay packets, or the popularity of happy-ever-after romances to the surge in divorces.

I have a theory. One of those that is completely unsubstantiated and without any evidence but my own musings. But as I said, I don’t think anyone has done a definitive study yet.

My theory is that when life becomes tougher for us here in the West, we turn more to entertainment that is pure escapism. People seek something that will block out their reality for a few hours, and leave them with a lingering glow of hopefulness. Books that transport you to another life, or even another world, and make you forget about your own issues.

On this level, virtually all literature aims to be escapist in some fashion, to lift you out of your life and into that of the text. It’s the sign of success for a novelist if you make people miss buses, be late for things or stay up half the night to finish.

That’s only half the story, though. Like a good holiday, a good book or film also returns you to your reality better able and prepared to cope with new challenges. This, to me, is the problem with escapism. You don’t want to go back, you remain with half of your self still locked in that world. I’m not talking about a book or film that haunts you but rather something more visceral. Something that gets deep inside and makes you constantly hanker back, wishing you were ‘there’, wishing that your life was as romantic or exciting and never doing more than wishing and hankering. Romantic novels rarely give a blueprint for reproducing better relationships. High-octane musicals seldom offer any realistic view of working towards goals: for every Billy Eliot who makes it, there are a thousand who never do. None of us want to imagine ourselves as the ones who didn’t make the grade. Yet we are encouraged to ‘believe in ourselves’, to believe that we are the ones, the magic ones, who are the stars of the show.

Coming back to ordinary life after this sort of experience is inevitably going to be a downer. So. What do you do? Do you sit down, analyse what you need to do to achieve any of the things you’d like in your life, swallow hard at how long, hard and tough the road will be and then get on with it? In all probability, no. You’re going to reach for another sweetie in the form of whatever it was gave you the buzz in the first place. It’s human nature. It’s the pleasure principle; we do again and again the things that gave us our jollies. And that’s fine if all you want to do is dream.

But while I enjoy the odd moment of escapism (bear in mind I’m working my way through various DVD box-sets at present including the X Files) I’ve never liked either romantic fiction or musicals. In fact, with a few exceptions (notably Fiddler on the Roof and a couple of others) I’d rather sit in a bath of cold custard than watch a musical I haven’t got the option to stop when I find my ability to suspend disbelief has vanished. There are lots of reasons why I loathe romance (and those are for another post, perhaps) but I seem to be in a very small minority in my dislike. Most people love it. There are conventions used when writing romance. A HEA is in most cases considered obligatory (happy ever after) or at the least a Happy For Now, because (note italics) this is what people want to read. They don’t want to read about relationships that remotely resemble the ones they experience in real life because this is not why they are reading.

There’s a saying (used extensively as a kind of catchphrase in several novels of Susan Howatch): when the going gets tough, the tough get going. It speaks for itself. The world will not fix itself. If we all retreat into escapism where one distraction from suffering merges seamlessly into another, there will be no change, either in our own lives or in that of the world. Escapism is only harmless when it is a holiday from ordinary reality, a time out for refreshing and recovering and not somewhere where in essence we start living because it’s so much nicer in Cloud Cuckoo Land than it is right here. 

The Wise Mice

The wise mice

The wise mice hold words

between tender paws

and twining tails

Guardians of quiet wisdom

Sentinels of gentle encouragement

and whisperers of hope.wise mice

I’m prone to whimsy. I’m prone to an incorrigible belief in synchronicity and the tools of the oracle. I’m prone to a need for distraction, for heading off the dark paths my mind will wander down, seeing a distant twinkling light that lures me away from the black pit I’m heading towards.

I collect oracle sets of one sort and another, from traditional tarot to angel cards. They’re just printed card, and yet they each show me a door I may try. Beautiful art work, or finely crafted words provoking thought and raising spirits.

The wise mice sit upon one such set, and their furry faces reassure me that they guard nothing that will lead me deeper into despair. Some oracle sets I will never touch when I’m low, knowing that the challenging concepts some cards illustrate are ones I don’t have the strength to face that day. But the ones the wise mice guard may lead me to brighter thoughts, and so they are the ones I will reach for in dark times.

Lightness card

You gotta search for the hero inside yourself ~ why I write what I do.

You gotta search for the hero inside yourself ~ why I write what I do.

A long time ago now, or so it seems, I wrote a paragraph in my walking notebook. I carry a notebook everywhere, even to hospital. I recommend the practice to every writer or thinker. You can lose so much by not recording those apparently passing or random thoughts. This is what I wrote, sitting on a winter beach under grey skies in a town that I felt would never welcome me:

I look for you in every stranger’s face I see. Sometimes I think I see your eyes, your hair, your mouth. I wait to hear your voice when the phone rings, or see you across a crowded café. Hopeless. You’re not real. You don’t exist. I created you, your world.

And yet. And yet I feel you out there, alive and real as the stones, the shingle that crunches beneath my feet, or the waves that roar and sigh as they hit the shore. I made you up, and yet you haunt me. Yours is not a tale told by an idiot. It’s real. Somewhere, somehow, both you and your world are real. I’m looking for the door so I can step in and join you. So far the only door is my computer screen.

What are these insane longings for things that can never be?”

At the time I was in the process of incubating a third book in the series that began with The Bet. During this incubation time, I feel often as if I am on the very brink of dying. Melodramatic, I know, but that’s how it feels. It feels as if I need to commit some huge act of personal violence, some vast enactment of the turmoil inside that shows no sign of ever coalescing into anything more orderly. There’s a sequence of internal combustions inside that resemble more closely than anything a probable rapid descent into madness.

I don’t like myself very much; I think that much is clear from how I often wish to negate my own existence. I’m not who I think I am, not really. At some deep level I feel myself someone utterly other than who I appear to be. It’s this conflict of self that may drive a good deal of my depressive illness, this inability to square these images and blueprints of myself and be at peace with them all.

So I write.

Every character in every novel I’ve written faces the same dilemma, this same insoluble puzzle. All six of the main characters in Strangers and Pilgrims  tries to square who they think they are at core with who they manifest as in real life. Their distress at the apparent impossibility of this task is what drives the opening chapters of the novel. Isobel in Away With The Fairies  feels that her real identity is being swept away, subsumed and even wiped away by the life that has come to her; her distress when the two worlds she’s trying to live become impossible to maintain drives her inwards to seek her answers.

The most heartbreaking of them all (so far) is Antony Ashurst, the main character of The Bet, whose attempt to reconcile his distress ends in tragedy and a complete destruction of who he believed himself to be. Isolated by circumstances and by misunderstandings, he reaches breaking point and yet does not quite break.

You gotta search for the hero inside yourself

Search for the secrets you hide

Search for the hero inside yourself

Until you find the key to your life

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGTe-zbj3Bo

I’ve written before about heroes  ,  the bond between heroes and the writer  and villains, / and I even used to teach a TEFL lesson on the subject. (though alas the students always leaped first to the idea of the superhero!) but I suspect that it may cause some controversy if I suggest that many writers (I cannot say all) do indeed put a lot of their selves into the heroes they write. My old blogging friend Barb used to ask in her author interviews whether the writer had put themselves into their stories. While I cannot speak for anyone except myself, I believe that I do put a considerable amount of myself into the characters of my novels.

It’s not escapism that makes me do so, though for the duration of the writing I do escape from some of the pain. Rather it’s a part of my own search for a key to my life, as the song suggests. Searching the hero inside myself may sound like a somewhat grandiloquent statement but I believe it’s true and it may be what gives me courage to carry on when I’m ready to give up and die inside.