“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/

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“It’s the quiet ones you need to watch…”

It’s the quiet ones you need to watch…”

When I wrote Little Gidding Girl, the world was a different place. We’d only just got broadband internet, and compared to dial-up (remember that and shudder) it was lightning fast. Each member of my family owned a mobile phone but smartphones were not yet on the market. We all had a computer but mine was deliberately not connected to the internet; if I wished to go online I had to wait till the computer in my husband’s study downstairs was free. Looking back, I can see how many hours I spend a day just noodling around online and not being productive at all. I wrote six novels like that, without being distracted by googling goats or otters or weird symptoms.

Another thing that has changed is the way that female main characters are portrayed. There’s been a significant rise in the feisty, fiery, sassy, outspoken and kick-ass heroine; they existed before, obviously, but it would seem that writing women has become a problematic matter if they are anything less than the template that various tropes and memes depict. Isobel from Away With The Fairies and Chloe from Square Peg both have qualities of that template; they’re women who are generally confident of who they are and of their own value. It’s the shaking of that confidence that provides some of the tension and the driving force behind their stories. Jenny from The Bet falls fairly and squarely into the strong woman camp but she is also venial and exploitative and selfish; she qualifies more as a villain than a heroine, but it’s not these qualities of self-belief and self confidence that make her so. Rather it’s her lack of ability to see others (especially the hero Antony Ashurst who definitely qualifies as a quiet one…) as people rather than things, that twists her into an outwardly attractive character whose heart is pretty nasty all round.

I wrote Little Gidding Girl immediately after all three books mentioned and Verity, the main character, could not be more different. She has little confidence and her self-esteem has all but vanished, but to my mind, she more than qualifies as strong. She endures without crumbling a variety of life situations her adult life brings to her: a dead-end job with a bullying boss, a set of parents who abrogate their responsibilities to run away from debt and failure, an unplanned pregnancy that scuppers her and her husband’s plans for joint careers in teaching, and the passing of a grandfather who was mentor and rock to her during a critical phase in her younger life. But though she does not crumble, she does not thrive either. She goes inward, thinking the things that Isobel or Chloe would have said, loudly and with utter confidence. Her rebellion towards her hectoring boss Juliet is silent and unspoken; her acquiescence to her old school friend Carla is only nominal and superficial.

Yet for all this passivity, she’s not actually passive at all. Under the surface, deep currents are stirring and rising, becoming steadily more inexorable as a better equilibrium is sought for her life. I can’t help thinking that many of us will find this both restful and exciting, because we’re constantly exhorted that if we don’t grasp our futures with both hands, nothing will ever come to us. It’s exhausting, that sort of philosophy, and it’s infiltrated everything in the years since I wrote the book. It’s the complete opposite of the idea that what is meant to happen will happen without us needing to lift a finger. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle, but at the moment, the pendulum has swung so far in one direction that many of us feel worn out and defeated by the demands on our time, intelligence and interests. It’s no longer enough to simply enjoy a hobby like knitting, or jam making or even writing or painting; we are badgered to make it pay, make it into a business or high art. Sometimes I think this may be the dark root of why I have found writing so hard in recent years, this constant internal and external pressure to be the best, to sell the most, to be (I have begun to hate both word and concept) professional about it all.

It’s when the quiet ones rise up and stand firm that the world will quake, because in my estimation, there are more of the quiet ones than there are of the other sort. The quiet ones are the ones who conform to every request from employers who have leaped into the gap made by the Dunning-Kruger effect, until one day, enough is enough and they say NO, and walk away or resist. When the quiet ones find their voices, the mouse will roar and the lions will cower.

Ringing Some Changes

Ringing Some Changes

Sometimes I hate trying to think of titles for blog posts. After more than a thousand, it gets hard not to repeat myself, and to be honest, this one is just a sort of round up of my own news. Possibly a tad tedious, but maybe not.

First bit of news is good(ish). After over six years of some pretty extreme symptoms, finally it feels as if there might be an end in sight for my hideous menopause. One of the worst was something that for many women is a mere inconvenience: hot flushes. For me, they became life-threatening. Not in themselves, though at times I did wonder whether spontaneous human combustion might be more than a myth, but rather because they were so extreme and so frequent life became almost unendurable. Drama queen you might think. I wish. At their very worst, they came at a frequency of up to 20 PER HOUR. You read that right. They were of an intensity that made my skin feel as if it were burning; the moment before it happened, it made me feel sick, as if I had stepped off a precipice. That feeling you get when you bite into a proper chilli pepper? Imagine that over every inch of your body. It meant that for about a year, I slept in perhaps 20 minute bursts if I were lucky. To say it was hell is an understatement. Given the way my GP surgery has treated me, I did not seek medical help; the idea of even speaking to one of the doctors here reduced me to a shaking, weeping wreck. So I endured. I tried many, many things to no real effect. I considered filling my pockets with rocks and walking into a river or the sea; lack of local rocks, lack of a shoreline or a river deep enough and close enough for me to get to are probably the only things that stopped me. But slowly the situation began to improve. I still get hot flushes you could power a small town from; I still get woken two or three times a night. But the intensity has reduced and the frequency too. Recently I experienced three or four days in a row where no flushes occurred during the hours of daylight. I have hope that I might have survived.

For anyone reading and thinking, “pshaw, what a fuss she makes!” and feeling smug that because they do yoga/sports/are vegan/insert reason it won’t or didn’t affect them, let me say this: it’s luck of the draw, not virtue, that means some women have a bad time and others don’t. I may write more on the topic another time.

Second bit of good news: I did a new edition of Away With The Fairies in paperback. The original edition was done via Lulu who don’t offer a matte option for covers; I’ve not been happy with their services for some time, for other reasons. One is the sheer glacial slowness of their reporting of sales. So I’d redone Strangers and Pilgrims a couple of years ago, and now Fairies. I’m pleased with the new edition; I wish I’d had the energy to do it sooner.

Third bit of good news: I sent the latest short story collection to some beta readers, and those who have had a chance to read and report back have been not only very helpful but also very encouraging. It would seem that contrary to how I feel about my abilities, I can still write. I’m waiting on the feedback of the others, then I’ll set about some edits and on with the process of getting them out. Unlikely to be before Christmas but given how small fry like me get drowned out in the big noise of promotions for key periods for sales, trying to launch a book for Christmas or summer holidays is folly.

Fourth bit of good news: for the period that begins at Samhain (Halloween/All Saints/All Souls) both Away With The Fairies and Strangers and Pilgrims will be on offer at £1.99 or local equivalent, and my short novella The Hedgeway will be on flash sale for 99p for the three days of Samhain itself. Billed as “a chilling tale for Samhain” it’s the perfect read as the nights draw in and the clocks go back (it’s a spooky story but it’s more unsettling than terrifying). For a scarier read, perhaps try The Moth’s Kiss (a collection of ten short stories, perfect for the season). I’m considering whether to also make that 99p for the Kindle version for the same period.

Which brings me to point five, which is the not so good stuff. If you are an author, especially an independent author, you’ll have spotted that it’s much harder to sell books now than it was a few years ago; virtually all the indy authors I know have seen a steady slide of lower and lower sales, with the occasional blip when a new book is launched. It’s depressing as hell. Lowering prices seems to be a way of potentially enticing a reader to take a punt on a book, but how low can you go before you are not meeting even basic costs? Lots of authors still tout the route of give a book away free (especially in a series) but there’s evidence that this tactic that worked a few years ago, is now bringing in very diminished returns. Readers have quite literally MILLIONS of books to choose from, and many pride themselves on never actually buying one. Again, depressing. Some respond by writing and publishing much faster, so that there’s always something new to tempt readers with; the risk is that you can potentially rush things and lose both quality and originality in the process. This year I have published one novel and two collections of poetry; I’ve finished writing a novel that I’m sitting on for a while. My mental health in particular means that even getting books out from my extensive “back catalogue” of books on my hard drive has become the equivalent of climbing Snowden or Scafell Pike (not Everest or K2): difficult, dangerous, and while not impossible, will take much preparation and training.

Sixth point: mental health. The current deep dark valley sometimes feels like the valley of death itself. Everything is such an effort and I find most things are not worth the effort involved. If you’ve never felt the tentacles of depression, you probably might find it hard to believe quite how debilitating depression is. You cant just cheer up, make an effort to focus only on the good things (and every other cliché people suggest). I feel paralysed by it. So the projects I would like to work on gather dust (real or virtual) and I stand in danger of slipping away as an author and poet because I cannot compete in the bright, immediate, throwaway world out there that is the world of books.

So, a mixed bag, really. I’ve put the good stuff first and in the spirit of making a proper shit sandwich (a fabulous term, that you can probably work out) I’m going to end on a good bit too. I’ve always found that autumn is the best time for my own creativity; I’ve never felt much like joining the whole NaNoWriMo that goes on in November. But what I am going to try to do is to focus on short fiction; I began a collection of short stories, each based on a famous perfume. They’re good fun to write and it indulges my love of fragrance. I have also several sets of Storyworld Cards as story prompts and I’ve got plenty of journals to dedicate to them. So even if I can’t come up with a new novel that grabs me by the throat, I can spend time honing my skills in short fiction.

I might even share some here…

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

You’d have to have been under a rock not to have noticed the recent focus on sexual harassment, especially with a high-profile perpetrator (not giving names because I don’t want to give air time to someone like that by name) being finally outed. What I have spotted too is that virtually every woman I know has been on the receiving end of horrible harassment at some point. For those of the generation I belong to, and the one before (and before that too) it was so common in the workplace that there was a culture of silent acceptance. You didn’t rock the boat because you’d find yourself out of a job if you made a fuss about what was dismissed often as “That’s just what men are like.” I’ve also realised that probably almost every woman has lived in fear of harassment, and not just the verbal kind. I’m not detailing my own experiences (there are many) because it seems futile.

For me, not speaking up is also out of fear, and out of a kind of cultural conditioning that leaves me often feeling like I need to apologise for existing, for taking up space. In the back of my psyche is a version of my mother than constantly undermines attempts to be anything other than subservient, to know my place as a woman. It’s very, very hard to break free of conditioning like that even when you have become aware of it; everything is against it being challenged, even your own psyche. But I am trying, so very, very hard. We owe it to ourselves and to the girls growing up now not to keep silent any more, because it will never be addressed and changed if the sheer prevalence of it is not revealed.

I think I channelled my inner warrior woman who does fight back against harassment into Chloe from Square Peg. I’ve thought about her a lot lately as I started writing a sequel over a year ago, and the more I have analysed her, the more I realise she’s a powerful aspect of myself. She’s polarised readers; some have decided they don’t like her, dismissing her as rude (because she’s forthright and doesn’t take fools gladly) and others see her for her vulnerability. I also think she may well be an Aspie… In the novel she finds herself in conflict with her own profession, when a project she’s meant to be working on is very much against her own conscience. I’m sharing this extract because I really wish I were this tough, this able to handle myself under harassment.

She glanced up as a number of colleagues came into the canteen. There was a certain gung-ho attitude about some of them that irritated her hugely, so she wasn’t pleased when they came over to her table, all loud voices and bravado.

Hello, Red,” said Dave, who was the loudest of them all. “Hugged any good trees lately?”

She looked at him evenly, actually feeling her fists bunching with instinctive aggression.

He turned to his companions.

Red here is turning into a hippy, you know that, lads. She went off into the woods yesterday for hours, communing with nature and having a fumble with that other red haired bitch,” he said, and they all sniggered like over-grown schoolboys.

Chloe felt her face flushing.

Have you not got anything better to do than bother me?” she asked.

No, we haven’t, since all you hippy-dippy sorts have put a hex on this project,” he said. “Mind you, what else can we expect, employing a woman when we could have had a man. No point expecting anything from a girl.” He said the last word almost as a curse.

Chloe got up very slowly, and faced him. She was actually a little taller than he was but she didn’t feel it.

If you think I shouldn’t have this job, just go ahead and say it plainly,” she said. “I don’t like this sort of insinuation, and I’m not putting up with it.”

He glanced at his companions and then began leering at her.

Red’s got PMS, lads, or else she hasn’t had her leg over lately,” he said.

Grow up,” Chloe said. “You must have some sort of brain or you wouldn’t be here at all; try using it for a change.”

It’s a scientific fact that men’s brains are bigger than women’s,” he said, still in that jeering tone.

Yes, well size isn’t everything, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know,” Chloe said. “It’s what you do with it that counts.”

I know just what to do with it, love,” he said.

I doubt it.”

Want to try?”

Drop dead, moron. I’m not here to entertain the troops.”

That isn’t what I’ve heard.”

Then you should get your ears washed out as well as your foul mouth,” Chloe said. “If you’re the best example of the gene pool, then I’d hate to look in the shallow end.”

He went red, then, largely because his friends were listening avidly.

If you were a man,” he started to say. But Chloe cut him off.

If I were a man, you’d be on the floor begging for mercy by now,” she said. “You’d never dare to talk to a man the way you’ve just talked to me; and believe me, it’s not lack of brawn that stops me breaking your nose.”

Yeah? Go on then, try it, Red.”

No,” Chloe said. “That isn’t exactly fair; after all, you’d not hit a mere woman would you? Even scum like you usually have standards.”

Retrospectively, calling him scum was not the brightest thing to have done, because he swung for her then, palm open in token acknowledgement of her gender, and would have knocked her down even so had she not managed to get her own punch in first, burying her fist deep in his paunchy midriff and doubling him over as he gasped for breath. She put out her foot, and with a sharp kick on the bum, toppled him right over.

Right,” she said to the others standing behind him, open-mouthed. “Anyone else care to suggest that I’m not up to my job? No? Good.”

Her knees were shaking as she exited the canteen, but they couldn’t see that. As she passed the counter where the dinner ladies were still serving up, there was a ripple of applause, and Chloe grinned at them, and went back to her desk to try and think what she could do.

No-one Should Be Left Behind

No-one Should Be Left Behind

August is now behind us and with it, my summer holiday. We managed to get away for a while (a big achievement, actually) and one of our destinations was Glastonbury. I’ve always loved the place, with its mix of spirituality, history, woo-woo and the best selection of metaphysical and alternative shops almost anywhere. We stayed in a tiny, quirky and rather fabulous B&B with the tiniest upstairs bathroom I’ve ever seen. Converted (I think) from a linen cupboard, I felt there was a danger of me getting jammed between sink and door if I had second helpings at dinner. The place had very comfy beds, superb breakfasts and interesting hosts, one of whom runs tours of various Avalonian locations. They also had a wonderful dog who reminded me of our long-gone Holly.

I digress a little, but it’s important you know (for context) that it was very much a place of alternative everything and despite being tiny (only two bedrooms for guests) it drew those guests from a self-selecting set of customers. When we got there, there was another guest who was staying, and she was there for two of the four mornings we were there for. It’s the conversations at breakfast that I’ve been thinking about since we got back.

You see, Morag (not her real name) was firmly of the opinion that as the cosmic energies (not sure how those are defined) forge ahead and the world changes and spirituality changes, those not willing to change and move on and leave behind “out-moded” beliefs, will be left behind or swept away, and forgotten. It got under my skin. I’m not someone who is able to hold an in-depth conversation before my second mug of coffee, and I’m also not someone who likes to argue or even fight, any time, let alone at breakfast. So at the time, I merely made some anodyne comments and continued to munch my very excellent breakfast. But I’ve stewed on it since then.

The human population is broadly divided into two camps: the risk-takers and the consolidators. In early human history, the need for both types is much more obvious. The risk-takers were the explorers, the people who leapt in and tried new things (sometimes with fatal consequences), found new places and so on. The consolidators kept the home-fires burning, kept the tribal histories and lore and taught the children. Both types are essential for a healthy society; various aspects of neuro-diversity also mirror this divide. Just as introversion and extroversion are hard-wired neurological aspects of self, this risk-averse/risk-taking tendency is also innate, though almost everyone becomes more risk-averse as they get older. It is possible and sometimes desirable to challenge one’s self to step beyond one’s comfort zone, but in essence, it is beyond the control of 99.9% of us to change that polarity.

So, in the eyes of people like Morag, those who do not gladly meet the changes are to be swept away and lost. Yeah, ta very much, Morag. How kind of you.

Sarcasm aside, it disturbed me massively. You see, in many ways, I’m risk-averse. I’ve explored a great deal into the metaphysical world for sure, but with a foot firmly in the camp of common sense and critical thinking and I’ve avoided swallowing whole the bovine excrement that’s on sale in the New Age market place. I’ve found myself returning to old truths and ancient, well-tried wisdoms from faith systems that are unfashionable now. You may or may not know that for the last 20 or so years I’ve been a Quaker Attender and the Quaker faith is one that very much believes in the idea of no one left behind. All Meetings for Business work on the model that unless there is complete consensus, then nothing is done. If just one person disagrees with the direction being proposed, no decision will be made. Surprisingly, this does not result in total stagnation; because Quakers are the people they are, it’s not unusual for someone to decide to agree to the will of the meeting, withdrawing their objection on the basis that the greater majority may be right and they themselves may be wrong.

There is a strange kind of snobbery about embracing new things; those who rush to grab the latest gadgets, systems, clothes, can be very disparaging about those who do not. Among the spirituality and alternative health movements, Morag’s attitudes seem ubiquitous; I’ve read tweets from advocates of “Juicing” that would not be out-of-place in a tract for certain brands of evangelical Christianity!

Life is not a race. Nor is our inner journey of spiritual discovery. We’re all on our own unique path; it’s not a snakes and ladders board and we’re not competing with others. It’s also impossible to gauge how far one person has already come on that journey because what might be a tiny step for one is a mighty leap for another. Those of us who are risk-averse should not be discarded as useless by those who are risk-takers, nor regarded as holding everyone back by our cautious natures. We are doing our best to follow our path, at our own pace. And that’s how it needs to be: no one left behind.

Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

Some years ago, I read a book by a big name famous author and was fairly unimpressed by it. I’d read pretty much everything else by this author and enjoyed most of it but this one fell short of even the least enjoyable of their books. I mentioned this sense of meh (there’s no other word for it) on Twitter. Now, bear in mind I don’t follow this author, nor the author follow me, but within an hour or two, they tweeted back rather aggressively. This suggests that said author has various alerts set up for mentions of their name and their books and may well do searches randomly on Twitter to see what’s being said. You can tell by my use of a neutral pronoun that I am keeping the identity of this author very quiet because I really don’t want to have them come after me again. Subsequent observations have shown that I am not alone in being targeted by this author on social media, and that it’s surprisingly common behaviour, even among the big names.

I get it: it’s never nice to get unpleasant, negative reviews. But I didn’t review the book; a quick scan on Amazon showed I was far from alone in my opinion of that book. It’s a rare occasion when a book by a hugely popular and almost iconic author has almost as many 1 star reviews as 5 star ones. To go searching for the people who didn’t like your book seems to reveal a vast insecurity that is shocking considering the numbers who did like it.

This post isn’t intended to be solely about this sort of behaviour but a wider issue instead. How much can you separate an author’s character and behaviour from their books? Having recently published Little Gidding Girl, which is partly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I am acutely aware of Eliot’s feet of clay. His treatment of his wife (who shares my name, oddly enough) is not edifying (in brief, when her mental illness became too much for him, and he declared their marriage over, her brother apparently had her shut away in an asylum and Eliot never saw her again https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivienne_Haigh-Wood_Eliot ). There are many criticisms that can be made of Eliot, for certain, but I still revere his poetry. Yet the dissonance makes me uncomfortable at times.

It’s the same with a lot of authors and poets whose work I have been enthralled by; some have held opinions and beliefs that I shudder at, yet which I can ignore or not even notice within their works. It’s quite rare that an author is a completely nice guy or gal; I wonder also if the tension of personality flaws, weird beliefs and a history of trauma and difficulties may be a large part of what drives creative endeavours? Of Eliot, it was said that Vivienne ruined him as a man but made him as a poet.

In these days of instant access to authors via social media and the ‘net generally, it’s pretty hard to hide from your readers. Authors are required to have a public presence and a public persona; it’s part of the deal, especially with traditional publishing contracts. You are encouraged to find your USP (Unique Selling Point, for those, like me, who don’t speak Marketese) of things that will draw an audience to you, whether that’s an interest in shoes, cupcakes, animal welfare or whatever. Potential authors who cringe at the concept of putting yourself out there will usually remain just that: potential authors. Refusal to accept this side of things is almost always the end of your career before it even starts. It’s intrusive to the author and it can create intolerable pressures and tensions. You cannot be a completely private person and an author, unless you have created a completely “other” identity that is used for your author profile. This is far harder than you would imagine; if you interact with fans, your real nature will eventually slip out because lies are harder to maintain than truths.

My own author persona has been cobbled together from useful scraps, rather like the way a caddis-fly constructs a shell of bits and bobs to protect itself from being eaten. I’m definitely a soft-shelled sort of person, easily hurt, but the bits and bobs are true reflections of the nature within the armour. When I first began to get my books out there, I was naïve but thankfully I was also intellectually aware that one should not take things personally. A 1 star review is, after all, solely the opinion of one person, and cannot outweigh the dozens and dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews. I’ve cried at negative reviews. I’ve raged, but I’ve (mostly) done it privately and unlike many authors, I’ve never gone after the reviewer. They, like anyone, are entitled to their reaction to a book, but I do sometimes wonder if they realise that authors do read reviews (even though some would suggest we ought not, even the good ones) and have feelings and can be gravely wounded by the personal attacks that some reviews employ.

Some authors refer to their works as their book babies, and the analogy is quite an accurate one. They are the products of our hearts, minds and imaginations and our aspirations, as well as of long hours of hard labour. But once those book babies are out in the world, they can and almost always do take on a life of their own, and while we may own the copyright, in subtle ways we no long own the soul of that book. People who read find their own understanding of the story, of the characters. We as authors cannot control that or dictate what readers can and can’t do or feel. Some books take on a life that is distinct from that of the creator, so distinct that on reading them you can’t help wonder how someone like that could create something like this. It cuts both ways: unpleasant or even evil people writing inspiring, powerful, poetic and life changing books, and deeply good, kind, decent and caring people writing books that are disturbing, frightening and altogether horrible books.

One can never entirely predict how one’s off-spring, whether flesh or mere words, will turn out. This makes the process of creation so much more chancy and ultimately more exciting, because you cannot tell how something will develop, both in the writing and in the reading.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

No, I’m not reviewing the latest offering in the Fast & Furious franchise (incidentally, they are quite good escapist fun that pay no attention to either geography, the laws of physics and a variety of other things; if you can cope with that, go for it)

I’m at that point of complete overwhelm with life where I fear not only breakdown but total burn-out. The entire world seems to be intent on going to hell in a handy hand basket, singing all the way about such guff as sovereignty, taking back control and how experts are stupid and don’t know anything. In the mean time, they’re kicking the underdog, and demonising anyone who disagrees with them, and all the while economic turmoil & political strife create further unrest and disorder.

It’s not a nice time to be alive, quite frankly. I grew up during the Cold War, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland which spilled over into mainland Britain, during the Three Day week with strikes, power cuts, shortages and so on. I used to have nightmares on a regular basis about nuclear war. Despite being a child during much of this, I read the newspapers and I watched the news. There were bomb threats made against schools and public buildings of all sorts; there was even an actual bomb in my school when I was 18.

The information overload is such that unless you completely unplug and detach from the world (no internet, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, not even talking to people) it pours into your psyche in an unending torrent of awfulness. And as our entire culture is now rooted in the use of the internet, even those of us who don’t have a smartphone, cannot escape the 24/7 exposure to literally EVERYTHING all at once. I regularly take days off internet use; since I only use my main computer for internet, this is relatively easy. But my work is online. To completely drop all my online connections and obligations would mean that I would vanish very, very quickly. I have had online friends say, “Stuff this for a game of soldiers!” and deactivate all their social media profiles and disappear. Some have explained beforehand but many don’t. They just stop being there; and it can take a while to notice, because everything cascades past you at such a rate that it can take weeks or longer to think, oh whatever happened to old so-and-so. I try to care about my friends beyond my computer screen but I know I have been dropping the ball of late.

I’ve also noticed that alongside the paring away to virtually nothing of the mental health support system, has come a rise and rise of a culture of shallow, one-size-fits-all organised “self help”, often using the label of mindfulness, CBT etc. I bought a magazine the other day (for research) called Breathe. It’s new, and deliberately not glossy, but its tag-line is WELLBEING MINDFULNESS CREATIVITY ESCAPING. I’ve flipped through and skim-read the articles, punctuated by lovely pictures and it scares me. It’s the escaping part of the remit that worries me most. That’s because I want to escape. I want out. I want to retreat into a comfortable haze of nice things around me. When I started using colouring as a means of removing some stress, a friend commented disparagingly that she felt it was infantilising people. At the time, I filed the comment away for future thought, and since then, as colouring books became ubiquitous, they also became simpler, more focused on prettiness and light, sweet, NICE things (like cupcakes, fancy shoes and flowers), I realised the movement has been towards an infantilising rather than a form of creativity that allows the mind to engage with quiet while the body works on something gently absorbing but not terribly challening. It was the arrival of dot-to-dot colouring books for adults that I freaked and began to feel very uncomfortable. We all need R&R to step out of the fray and recuperate, but the very juvenile nature of some of the R&R that’s thrust constantly under our noses bothers me. There’s a massive and growing industry that keeps churning stuff out to keep us happy, and quiet and submissive to everything. So many people are saying “Oh I’m bored with politics now; let’s just ignore it all!” and retreating into whatever comfortable corner that they feel safest in. And I understand that; I really do. I’m so uncomfortable with life that my whole being aches with it, aches to walk away and completely and permanently tune out the dark, the dangerous, and the difficult things that are going on around me. I’m not living with war, but there’s a lot of things happening in my land that are secret wars that have real victims, and the insane decision to leave the EU is going to create a lot more as prices rise and poverty and shortages increase and this country isolates itself from her European allies and friends.

Every day I wake up, and within a short time, EVEN WHEN I DON’T LOG ON, I am hit by a wave of fear, of despair, of confusion and I think, Stop the world, I want to get off. But I can’t. There is no Planet B and as we systematically trash this one, we’re shitting in our own wells and pissing on our own food. I can and I do take a variety of actions towards conservation, helping the poor, creating havens for wild-life in my own garden and a lot of other things. But my mind is close to cracking and my body close to shutting down. I’m pulled in two opposing directions at once: to retreat, give up on being a responsible adult citizen, or to stand up for what I believe in (but where to start? There’s so much I want to defend) and be that solitary figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (that’s what it feels like, frankly, but then perhaps we are all standing in front of a tank)

I’d like to end with something cheerful but beyond a plea to buy my books (go on go on go on) I can’t think of anything I can say that isn’t also me trying to be falsely cheerful and horribly fake. I’m doing my level best every day to do that thing of lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. So, sorry for being a miserable, pessimistic moaner (a remoaner, even. Don’t get me started on THAT little insult) and perhaps soon I can be a tad more cheery.