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.

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“The Lantern Bearers” by Rosemary Sutcliff

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.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lantern-Bearers-EAGLE-NINTH/dp/0192755064/

T is for Triggered

T is for Triggered

Triggered

I’d expected the land to be silent,

For willows to weep and doves to mourn.

Yet larks sang, rising over acres

Of emerald green winter wheat

And bare fields sown with a million flints

Shattered by behemoth harrow and plough.

I’d expected rain, at the very least;

Tempestuous clouds letting rip

With a deluge to drown us all.

Yet the sky is merely grey and dull,

The usual March dampness to the air,

And the temperature hovering at mild.

I’d expected signs and portents

Speaking of grim days to come,

Harbingers of doom,warning us.

But only a confused owl hooted in a copse,

Awoken by smaller birds, squabbling,

Fighting for territory and for mates.

I’d expected the little river to be

Cloudy with mud and debris

From passing storms upstream,

Yet it flowed clear and fresh,

And I found myself expecting the kingfisher,

Sticklebacks and the elusive dipper.

When we go, nature will not mourn or miss us.

She will sigh with relief like a hurricane.

A few generations of cats and dogs

May remember us vaguely,

Fondly even, and with regret,

Before going from feral to truly wild.

I will seize that ice-cold comfort,

Clutch it to me as a child might,

That life and the land go on,

Even when the world, for me,

Has shattered irreparably and forever;

I am bereft but I still stand.

© Vivienne Tuffnell March 29th 2017

(this poem appeared in The New European newspaper a few weeks ago)

R is for Response

R is for Response

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

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

The game goes on.

And on.

And on.

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

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

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

Q is for Quitting

Q is for Quitting

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with writing most of my life and I have explored the process of quitting several (many) times. It’s curious to note the etymology of the word http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=quit in that it encompasses meanings that are deep within the word, but the origin that touches me most is that it comes from quietus (Latin quietus “free” (in Medieval Latin “free from war, debts, etc.”), also “calm, resting” ) from which we also derive our word quiet.

In my struggles, on many occasions, people have said, “Oh just take a break. Write for fun! Give the whole publishing side a rest. Don’t worry about it.” It’s well-meaning advice, but it won’t do. I cannot write for fun, because writing is not fun for me. It’s many things, but it’s very seldom fun. The whole shebang has been tied up with a wider picture since almost before I could read and though I have tried, I cannot disentangle it.

At the weekend, a friend told me a very interesting fact about tortoises that I had not known. Their shell is part of their skeleton, linked to their spine. You cannot remove a tortoise from its shell without killing it. http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=17+1797&aid=2700 . It’s the perfect analogy. Writing is my shell. It is not an outfit I can change at whim, or at need. It is part of me, grown from my core being from my inception. I cannot quit being a writer, or I will die. Yet the whole mess of the world of books is destroying me too.

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

O is for Ordinary

When I taught English as a foreign language, one of the lessons I did covered the subject of Love. Inevitably it had to touch on romantic love ( and Romeo and Juliet: yuck!) but there was a short poem I used too. I can’t recall the poet offhand, as I’d seen the poem only in a collection of poems from Penhaligan’s (they did a range of scented books, of which I had three) that had a theme of LOVE. The poem was these few lines:

Same old slippers

Same old rice

Same old glimpse

Of Paradise*.

I wanted to get across the power of the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, in a relationship. Too much emphasis is put on the initial stages, on falling in love and that heady experience that too often leads to heartache and not to real, deep love. People talk about the glow going out of a relationship when in fact, they are settling into the deep reality that does not rely on romantic gestures to be truly nourishing to each partner.

In much of life, novelty and unfamiliarity are seen as the epitome of what we must seek, whether it’s in relationships, experiences or in what we look for in our entertainment. And in the pursuit of the new, the exciting, the different, the exotic, we lose sight of the ordinary beauty and wonder around us. Simple things like sparrows become invisible. Yet a sparrow is intensely wonderful. We just don’t seem to see them, and flock instead to see the fire-crest, blown off course and lost.

Same with plants. A spring time verge in this country is golden and glorious with dandelions, as lovely as if they were planted, yet we overlook their beauty (and use, too) for things we have to nurture and protect to get them to bloom.

Seek the wonder in the ordinary. Enjoy a cup of coffee in your own garden, back yard or balcony, breathing in the scent and wonder at how such a brew came to be in your hands. Take a peep at the wild flowers and birds around you, and see them with new eyes. Embrace the ordinary, and it will hug you back.

*I looked it up: William James Lampton.

G is for Grief

G is for Grief

Many of us have heard or are subliminally aware of the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as postulated in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross‘s famous book On Death and Dying. The book was published in 1969 and was the result of her work with the terminally ill.

Kübler-Ross noted later in life that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression and that she regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood. Rather, they are a collation of five common experiences for the bereaved that can occur in any order, if at all. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model)

As a result of this misunderstanding, people seem to feel that grief is both a linear and a limited process that can be “got through” in a set amount of time; it then seems to legitimise the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people encourage those grieving to move on, to put it behind them, and to cease grieving.

There is no hierarchy of grief. Some will grieve for losses that others consider negligible. The loss of a beloved companion animal is as painful for some as the loss of a parent; it all depends on the relationship and on the circumstances. Having seen others say, “It was only a dog/cat/guinea pig; get over it!” I can testify to the cruelty of such speech. We all feel grief in different ways and for different things.

Every one of my novels is about grief and grieving in very different ways and for different people. Antony in The Bet is buried under a heap of grief, so unable to process it that he has become numb and detached and so lost and vulnerable in his need for comfort that he mistakes the attentions of the predatory Jenny for affection and love, and so descends into a further hell. His journey back out of that hell is the story of one journey through multiple griefs. Strangers and Pilgrims focuses on the journeys of six people through loss, grief and unhealed hurts. Square Peg starts with a funeral and the loss of the only stable, loving person in much of Chloe’s life, just at a time when the loss of her previous way of life and the start of a new and very alien one has destablised her and left her at risk from loneliness, grief and confusion. Away With The Fairies is primarily Isobel’s exploration of the loss of both parents.

Yet grief has a single unspoken component that Kübler-Ross’s work points to, that all grief returns to a single point, that of our own mortality, best summed up by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant poem Spring and Fall, which I tend to remember as Goldengrove (another G)

Spring and Fall

(to a young child)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

( I blogged on this poem before:  https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/endings-and-beginnings-why-you-need-to-grieve-for-the-past-before-you-can-begin-anew/ )