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.

 

“Never without my permission!”~ on consent, copyright and general good manners.

Never without my permission!”~ on consent, copyright and general good manners.

If you have ever seen the film The Fifth Element, you’ll remember the scene when Leelou, the beautiful alien “Supreme Being” is kissed when semi-conscious by Corban Dallas (Bruce Willis) and she responds by uttering a few words in her own language before kicking his ass all over the place. Those words, when translated by the character played by Ian Holme, mean, Never without my permission.

Consent is a big one, you know. Whether it’s for kissing, copulating or other things, it’s important. Most women (and some men) know what it’s like to have your consent ignored and even your right to consent/non consent disputed. But it goes beyond the physical. Intellectual property can be stolen, or misused, and that’s what I’m writing about today. I wanted to put into some context quite why it can be a huge deal for creatives to find their work used without their express consent.

A number of times most years I get an email or a message, asking if such and such a piece from this blog might be used for something. Sometimes it’s for a magazine, sometimes for a website. My answer is generally a positive one, asking only that my full name and my blog details be included, and that the piece is not altered in any way. I don’t ask for a fee; what I tend to hope is that the person asking will have the good will to perhaps buy a book or something of that sort. I don’t ask that they do, but I would have thought that common decency would suggest that there is a gentle quid pro quo involved. After all, they have been allowed to use my work for no money changing hands.

However, having recently discovered that a piece of poetry has been used and set to music, I was concerned. I had not been asked before it was done. I’ve had a poem set to music before; the Celtic Podcast Show asked me if they could do so, and I agreed. The Winter Queen was beautifully performed and the correct credits given, so all was well. But they asked BEFORE they did so, not after. It’s far better to seek permission than ask for forgiveness.

To some this might seem foolishness on my part, to be bothered by this. Perhaps it is. However, I sincerely doubt that anyone would nab a poem by Mary Oliver and do something with it, because the likelihood is they would find themselves in the hottest of waters and be lucky to get away with just a cease and desist notice. Because I am not a big name in the world of poetry does not mean I can be treated like I don’t matter, simply because I would not have the means (financial or emotional) to pursue breaches of copyright. Some would argue that I shouldn’t care because it’s exposure. Yes, sure, if they have included my name, perhaps there is some benefit possible. But it’s actually quite limited. Imagine a hundred people heard a poem performed. How many will actually register the name of the poet, go home, look up that poet and start to follow their work? And what if the poem had been changed to suit the musical needs or the philosophical stance of the performers? It’s a very thin line indeed.

Creative artists have a hard enough time of it anyway; theft on the internet is rife. That’s one reason why I have the No Pinning badge on the side bar. When Pinterest first popped up, I soon found several photos of mine from here had been nabbed, posted on Pinterest (admittedly, there’s a route back to here) and they’d put their own spin on the pictures. I don’t do searches for my name and my work because I’d die of exhaustion sending out cease and desist notices, I suspect. From time to time I know some school somewhere has been setting homework asking for “A poem on X,Y,Z” because that pops up on the search terms section of the blog dashboard. That’s one reason I’ve put up far less of my own original poetry and fiction here, because it’s unprotected.

Too many writers are getting so heavily discouraged by lack of sales, lack of reviews, general lack of interest, being pirated, that they have given up. To get a book out there one needs at some level to consider return of investment, even if, like me, they don’t consider themselves to be business men or women. I’ve had to stall my next collection of poetry because I realised it needed to be reformatted, and the back matter needs rewriting. It needs rewriting because I had included a short quote (well within fair usage policy guidelines) from Mary Oliver; I then realised to use such a quote on the back matter or in the blurb is dishonest. It misleads, implying that she has somehow endorsed the book. In fact, that short quote was a flashpoint that inspired one of the poems in the book, but even so, I cannot use it or her name like that. But because I have little energy to spare, this project is completely stalled. It’s frustrating because the business with the poem set to music suggests that someone (or many) loves my poetry but didn’t have the understanding needed to actually ask me before they did what they did. It’s not as if I am hard to find. There’s a contact me page at the top of the blog header; I have a Facebook author page. It means I have even less incentive to publish poetry or short fiction here, even less incentive to go through the work involved in getting a book together, because it would seem somepeople are happy to read, to “borrow” but are reluctant to support a poet in one of the ways that will keep them writing (buying a book, reviewing, telling others are just a few)

I wrote a poem today, too. But I won’t be sharing it any time soon.

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

Tales of the Wellspring 5 ~ the White Spring of Glastonbury

The first time I visited the White Spring, the truth is I didn’t know its significance or meaning but I think I might have sensed something, for the place made a huge impression in my memory. Set at the foot of the Tor in Glastonbury, the building itself was once a reservoir for water for the town, filling from one of the two springs that well up from the earth there. The Red Spring, on the other side of the road, is now surrounded by the beautiful gardens of the Chalice Well trust, though an outlet in the lane means anyone can collect the water at any time of day or night. The Chalice Well is where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have concealed the cup of Christ and the waters run red to this day. The water is high in iron and has long been drunk as a health cure; miracles have been ascribed to it. (it appears briefly at the end of Strangers and Pilgrims too) 

But the White Spring has been the poor relation of this famous wellspring. When I first visited, the building had been converted into a cafe, with a few tiny shops selling themed gifts. Water ran through the stone floor in a channel and on a hot day, such as the one we first went, not far off twenty years ago, dangling your feet in the cool refreshing water was a treat as you ate and drank. A couple of small shrines peppered the edges of the cafe, and candles and incense burned, but it was still only a cafe.

When I visited again in future years, it was shut. I found out the cafe had closed down, and the building was locked up and deserted, though people did still congregate in the tiny garden, where the water ran from a pipe outlet from the spring. On our first visit, there had been a man in this garden, who had with him wild creatures who stayed with him for love of him: an owl, a fox and a stoat, I believe. I never saw him; someone on the camp-site said he was there but by the time I got there, he was gone.

Each time I’ve been back, I’ve gone to look, a feeling of longing and sadness tugging my heart as I find it locked and silent.

But this time, it was not.

I’d known from reading their website that the spring was now open again, though the hours depended entirely on volunteers. I’d forgotten to check when it would be open before we headed to Glastonbury for a four day silent retreat. Serendipity was on my side that day, though. We’d been up to the top of the Tor, where the wind made me giddy and dizzy, and we took the shortly route down and found ourselves in Well House Lane, to find the White Spring was open.

There’s a notice as you go in, informing you of the no photos or filming rule, and various other guidelines. I’m glad you can’t take pictures because it would be intrusive and it might well undermine the breath-taking atmosphere of the place.

And I do mean breath-taking. When I came out, I had to remind myself that the building was just an old reservoir tank, built for nothing more than holding clean fresh spring water. You walk in, down some steps, and are transported to…somewhere else. It feels like an ancient temple or cave, the air filled with the scent of water, incense, candles and damp stones, echoing to the murmur of whispers and of water trickling. Candles burn on every surface, the reflections of the flames twinkling in the water of the pools. For there are several pools, including one huge deep one that (I believe) is about four feet six inches deep. You are allowed to bathe but you must inform the guardian first. If you bathe naked, you must be considerate of other visitors. One woman went in fully clothed, and with great dignity; I lacked the courage to do so. Shrines abound, to various deities, but mostly to the Mother, in her many guises.

A woman sobbed next to me as she made an offering in front of of a small shrine to a goddess figure I was sure was for child-bearing. Her partner comforted her silently, with a hand on her shoulder. People spoke, but in hushed respectful voices, and did not linger. You could not linger. The power was too overwhelming, emanating from the flow of the waters and the voices just below the threshold of hearing.

I emerged, blinking hard, into the bright sunlight of the lane, my face wet from my scanty baptism of hands splashed over face and head and heart, and took a long drink from the water spilling endlessly from the pipe on the outside of the well-house. There was refreshment and a tiny restoration; that I could sense a something here, though I could not easily name or quantify it, is a step forward, even if only a tiny one.

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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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“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” ~ sexism and the strong female character

When Jane Austen wrote Emma, she could not have predicted how popular the book would still be two hundred years later, or that she was quite wrong about Emma herself being unlikeable. Critics of the character complain of her meddling and her lack of true self awareness, but the reality beyond this is that in Emma, Austen created a female character that many of her readers envied. Wealthy, attractive, and with sufficient leisure to pursue her own interests, Emma was a woman of substance and relative independence. I say relative, because at that time, truly independent women in Georgian/Regency Britain were few, far between and entirely demonised. Emma was a safe compromise in many respects; Lady Susan, in the incomplete novel of the same name, was much more of the kick-ass who would suit more modern tastes, and was considered entirely a rotter.

Since the 1970s, there have been great strides made for equality, yet in the last few years, I’ve seen indications of backwards movement. In the USA, a worrying number of states have legislated in ways that affect women: some have now not only made abortion illegal, but have given parental rights to men whose victims of rape have carried their babies to term. Birth control, miscarriage, abortion, all seem subject to legislation that very much reduces women to incubator status. Leaving aside employment issues, it feels as if much of the hard work of feminists for the last century is being eroded at such a fast rate.

In literature and in film, the need for strong role models for young women and girls, could not be stronger, yet we get Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the original books, surely neither of these is remotely the kind of role model I’d want for a daughter of mine? Thank goodness for Hermione Grainger, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Black Widow, and a host of other kick-ass women who didn’t wait for anyone else to save them!

There’s a whole other post involved in analysing those famous strong female characters, not least discussing why it is that they’re all pretty women and those who don’t fall into that category are disparaged for it, like Brienne of Tarth   (who is described as being pig-like.) But what is also interesting is the reactions of others TO strong female characters; it’s not uncommon for readers to intensely dislike such a female (as Austen expected people to loathe Emma) because the character somehow flies in the face of what is expected of a woman in their society.

Chloe from Square Peg (and to a smaller extent, Isobel from Fairies) has divided readers. The majority see her as fiery, take-no-nonsense (I’d use kick-ass for the third time this post) and strong. But on occasions a number of people have said they don’t like her; they see her bluntness as rudeness. Women of my generation in particular have been brought up to somehow sugar-coat things, to be polite when rage is the only sane reaction, and to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Chloe’s grandmother (whom I hope to write more about in the sequel, provisionally entitled Rough Edges) grew up in harder times, lived through war and loss and being a single parent when that marked her as a fallen woman; her upbringing (plus some probable Asberger’s) meant Chloe doesn’t mince her words. But put Chloe’s words and actions into the mouth and hands of a man, and you get a very different feeling. It comes down to this: people often see a strong female character as one who highlights and calls attention to the basic inequality that underpins much of our so-called modern society. If a man can say or do it, people still have a problem with a woman saying or doing the same thing.

Joss Whedon, creator of many famous strong female characters, was asked why he still writes strong female characters. His answer? “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

http://genius.com/Joss-whedon-on-strong-women-characters-annotated 

( Square Peg is on a Countdown offer this week; for three days it will be just 99p, then for another three £1.99)

Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.

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They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.

A Thinking Place

A Thinking Place

Do you have a place you find yourself drawn to when you need to have a good old think? I suspect most of us do. Over the years there have been many, some close to hand and others a good distance away from home.

When we lived in Nottingham in the early 90s I had a thinking place almost on my doorstep, which is just as well as I had a toddler at home at the time. The house was the first we’d had which had a proper garden and it was quite a decent size for us; room for a swing and plenty of space to run around but also nice for us adults. My thinking place was half way up the garden path, where the garden sloped upwards and there were a few steps. I’d sit there, summer or winter, with a mug of coffee, and think.

In the years that followed there were many more. When we lived in north Yorkshire, there was a place up in the forest above where we lived, about a half hour’s brisk walk. The mountain stream that meandered down from the moors passed close to the path and down a cascade of waterfalls over rock formations left behind after the last ice age. There were four stages to the waterfall, and the sound of running water and bird song was intensely calming and conducive to deep contemplation. I’d walk up here with the dog, sit down for twenty minutes and let it all sink in, and the knots in my head slowly untangled.

In Norfolk, there were several close enough to my home that a walk often took a couple of hours as I spent time in each. One was a huge tree trunk that had been dragged off the path and left. Here I would sit, among the woodland, and listen to nightingales and watch for wildlife and the fae. Further on, deeper in the woodland, was a vast black poplar, larger than any I’ve ever seen before or since. It was clearly the queen of the wood, twin- trunked and massive. In the gap between the two huge trunks I would stand and think; I remember being there with my friend Claire, singing native American chants together, in tune with the spirit of the forest. There was a small clearing further along, on the edge of the common, where I could sit unseen and be at one with the trees.

In the Midlands, I had several areas along the river Soar where I would stop for a while and watch the river, one close to the lock gates, another further along the tow path. When we lived in Suffolk (until about 3 years back) I had a few along the beach, sitting on a particular groyne, or among woodland clearings. Here I have one or two, by the giant old oak or on the bridge over the stream in Starston.

Despite the changes in landscape, all these thinking places had a lot in common. Each was a place where wildlife came, even in the city, though there was nothing visible that would obviously attract birds or animals. My waterfall place was the first and only place I’ve seen a merlin (the smallest of our raptors). It had not come to drink or really to hunt; it just appeared on the other side of the stream, watched me for a while and flew off. My thinking spot on the Soar brought me into contact with a weasel I lifted from the river; for example, and the further one brought me face to face with a mink. My thinking spot on the bridge brings me close contact with kingfishers, dippers, waterbirds, rodents, owls, egrets and many others. The fallen tree and the black poplar was also places where the usually invisible beings of the countryside allowed themselves to be seen. At night time, the wood was alive with the fae.

The characteristics of my own thinking spots mark them as places a shaman would call power spots, a seer would call them nexus points where earth energies peak. You can dowse for them, even, or just sense how a place feels. Often your body just knows (just as it can know when a place is somewhere you need to steer clear of!) It’s this convergence of power that seems to call wild things close, and which keeps them there when a human is present (when all their instincts are to high-tail it out of there). I’ve had a young seal virtually sitting on my lap, on a winter beach, unafraid and almost affectionate; deer, and hares, and many other creatures have come absurdly, marvellously close to me, looking me in the eye and coming so close I could have touched them.

Places like this are truly magical and to be treasured.