The Hu and cry for hu-manity through Mongolian music

I recently went to see The Hu perform in Brighton and I can’t praise them enough. It is a wonderful experience to go and see a live band play and come away not only having enjoyed the music but also having being filled with respect for the performers.

The Hu are a Mongolian rock band who have been playing together since 2016. There are eight musicians in all, and they play a wide range of instruments. The Morin khuur – there are two of them played in the band – is held like a guitar, played with a bow and is fashioned with an ornate handle such as a spearhead or a horse’s head. The tsuur is a kind of flute. There are drums and bass as well. Several members of the band sing in a deep resonant style called Mongolian throat singing, which is an integral part in the ancient pastoral animism that is still practised today.

The band calls their style of music hunnu rock, hu being a Mongolian root word for human. As well as being musically brilliant, they were exceptional live performers. Their rapport with the audience was one of boundless generosity. There was none of the egocentricity in the encore concept of most rock bands, where the band walk offstage and wait for ten minutes while the audience clap and cheer until the band come back, feigning modesty, and play two of their best known songs. The Hu just played and played, as if it was what they enjoyed doing most in the world. And ninety minutes later, they were still playing and as soon as they’d finished, the ‘encore’ thing happened so they came straight back and did another half an hour.

Their music is very powerful and rhythmic, ranging from rocking tunes like Yuve Yuve Yu to songs that are meditative and hypnotic. The audience loved them, although a woman next to me said that she thought it was a pity that she didn’t know what they were singing about. But it’s not difficult to find out. Their YouTube videos contain translations of the songs line by line as they are performed, and it is wonderful to understand the respect for their ancestors through their lyrics and musical heritage. For me, there was no language problem: the band invited us to join in with choruses and we could all emulate phonetically what they were singing. It was a privilege to embrace their culture.

The singer, Jaya, repeatedly thanked the audience in four English words. Another musician, Gala, had no English and the audience as far as I know had none of his language, but we applauded and cheered and he communicated his appreciation by thumping his heart with his fist. It was a perfect example of multicultural communication.

The Hu are currently on tour and I rank them among the best live bands I’ve seen, the criteria being that you leave the gig feeling like you’ve been to a party and danced and been included in a celebration and enjoyed every second. Gogol Bordello, Steel Pulse, Manu Chao, The Dropkick Murphys, The Hu, Motorhead (RIP Lemmy!), Greta Van Fleet – all these bands create the same atmosphere of rejoicing in music and a coming together of humanity. It’s what we need now as much as at any other time, the sense that music is shared together: it’s party time, an experience which connects us all and that we are basically humans, all the same, a one-world community who wish the best for others and for themselves.

The Hu are magnificent. They are on my list of bands I’d travel to watch again and again. They are seriously very good. Do go and watch them if you get the chance. Their music is hypnotic, celebratory and a damn good rocking night out.

 

 

The Winter Blues and Self-Care

Many years ago, I qualified as a Reiki healer and although I practise a lot it tends to be mostly on family and friends. Oh, and on animals, who are often the best recipients. On many occasions a dog or a cat will sidle over for a spot of Reiki and only the two of us know what’s happening.  I’ve had some interesting experiences practising Reiki, but that’s for another blog. This one is about how I seldom practise healing on myself.

My kids often describe me as a ‘milk-shake’; they tell me that I invite everyone to stick their straws into my full glass and watch as they empty the contents. I think many of us are that way: we are used to being in caring professions, givers of love and nourishment and warmth and free dispensers of our time. Often in doing so, we forget about giving time to ourselves.

I am a real offender in terms of self-care, to the extent that I don’t put heating on in the house because I’m on my own; I don’t cook a proper meal because there’s no-one to share it with. I need to do better.

I often wonder, if I were my own parent or my own best friend, what advice would I give myself about self-care? I’d certainly tell myself that I could do a lot better. I’d never neglect anyone I know as much as I neglect myself. And, of course, the long-term consequences of self-neglect are low self-worth and self- esteem. That’s not a road I want to go down, so it’s time to change.

I’ve just had the virus that many people have had to put up with over the winter. It stuck with me throughout January. I dragged myself to a kinesiologist who said I’d had influenza and gave me some ionic silver to take. Step one in self-care. But I need to adopt a regular behaviour pattern, giving myself more consideration than I currently do.

So here are several things I’m including in my package of self-care to beat the winter blues. They are only little things, but it’s a way of telling myself that I have value. I’m not one to splurge on myself but these little things will count.

Firstly, I’m going to light fires in the hearth more often, even if I’m by myself. The cats will benefit too, so I needn’t feel guilty. I’m going to invest in ‘personal warmth’: a heated throw for when I’m at the computer. Who cares that I’ll be wrapped from head to toe with just a nose and two blue hands poking through? And then there is the nightly hot water bottle or, even better, a heated pad foot thing in the bed. Who wants to snuggle between cold sheets with icy feet?

I’m good at nutrition but bad at self-love, so the bowl of plain miso, vegetable, and lentil stew I have for lunch will be nicely flavoured with paprika and accompanied with a hunk of wholemeal bread from now on. It will be workers’ food rather than workhouse food. Someone whose opinions I respect reminded me that ‘Lucullus dines with Lucullus;’ the Roman emperor enjoyed food even when eating alone. I will consider the 80:20 rule more often: 20% of the time, a bit of indulgence is fine, so that’s a glass of red wine for me tonight.

Treats are a very low priority on my list. I have a voice in my head from my past that regularly tells me ‘You don’t need this…’ and ‘You can do without that…’ While there is sense in not overindulging, I need to look for positive treats and that includes taking myself out more. I’d happily treat a friend to a cup of chai latte in town or a nice cooked breakfast in a café, so I can do that for myself. I know dragging myself away from the desk will be difficult, but I’m capable of cajoling myself into the car and out for a coffee break. Indulgent, yes, but I don’t have to freeze my toes off at the computer all day. I’ll work much better and much happier after a creamy cinnamon chai.

And the final treat has health benefits. Going out more into the countryside is a must from now on. I can enjoy walking in the woods whatever the weather, splashing in the mud, crossing boggy fields, hiking up hills and coming home warm and dirty, then leaping in a steaming shower. Nature is out there to be enjoyed. There is a colourful pheasant with a long tail who calls into my garden daily looking for food, much to the delight of my cats. I have called him Phileas and I will go out and feed him each day. And there are places I can go to at night to spot deer and badgers, then come home for a brandy by the fire. Talking delight in small things is part of self-care.

It’s easy at this time of year to become stuck in old habits, not giving ourselves enough care and love. I’m amazed by one of my neighbours who I’ve seen out regularly, running up hills with her Labrador: I know she’ll go home and have a slice of cake and a glass of red wine afterwards. That’s self-care, an inspiration: self-love is what it’s all about. In the absence of parents and family and friends, we have to be our own parent. We have to treat ourselves with the same love and generosity as we would our own children. I’ve been exceedingly bad at it. It’s time to change and I’ll start now, by throwing away the cold green tea I’ve had sitting next to me for the last half hour and making myself a fresh hot cuppa.

 

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What I’m writing at the moment and the 30,000-word test

Each novel I write seems to follow a pattern at the beginning up to the point where I decide I’ll definitely write it. If it doesn’t pass this stage, then it doesn’t happen. First of all, I have an initial idea and, for the idea to take shape, it has to grab my interest really strongly. I write a brief synopsis, leaving the idea fairly loose, and let it sit for a while: I’ll be writing something else at the same time, editing something else and have another idea in the planning.

Then the time will come round to turn the idea into a new novel. So I make a start, not rushing it, having planned the beginning and the ending, and I’ll start to create my character. But at 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 words in, I expect to be well-hooked into characters and action and plot and I’ll stop and check: if I’m not completely engrossed, my reader certainly won’t be and I’ll rethink the whole thing.

So, at the moment, I’m writing a novel for 2021 in which a character and a companion leave one place to stay in another. They have a few adventures there, then the protagonist takes off again, this time to somewhere completely different. I’ve allowed 20,000 words to embed the first section before the journey, 20,000 more in order to explore the second place and then the character can have 50,000 words in the final glorious location.

Once I’ve written the beginning, created the protagonist(s), given them something they need to find by the end of the novel – which might be an opportunity to develop or change, ior it may be something personal, something they don’t know that they want yet – I know I’m off and running. At that point, I can get down to detailed planning of the rest of the novel and organise the highs and lows, more fun parts and the episodes of conflict and development.

So, currently I’m 35,000 words into a new novel and I’m quite happy. I have my main character fairly well developed; she has flaws, energy and a great deal of positive points and she’s already shown her true colours. But the journey she’s on, which is not just physical but also self-discovery, has to be considered in detail if she is to be the person I want her to become, to have the experiences I want her to have and to become happier with life. There are people she’ll need to meet, some of them barely sketched in my head yet. So, at this point in the novel, I always stop and ask myself a big question:

Now I’m a third of the way through, do I love this novel enough to want to write it all?

Because if I don’t feel a real attachment and real commitment at this stage, it won’t work and I’ll drop it like a stone.

Loving a novel enough to write it goes a long way beyond commitment and stickability; there will be characters I’ll need to live alongside for months, take them into my life and to help them to grow. Obsession may be too strong a word, but I have to want them to move in with me and talk to me incessantly for a long time if I’m going to write them. They will wake me up in the early hours, fill my head during social occasions and frequently interrupt conversations.

So once I’ve written the opening chapters,  I read the first 30,000 words back out loud to myself to check it is effective and coherent and then I read it to other people I can trust and persuade to listen, and  monitor their reaction. I want them to be entertained, engaged, immersed, to like the character, to laugh, to be captivated, to care about what happens in the rest of the story. It’s one of the many points in the writing stage where I have to be tough. If the story-so-far doesn’t have the impact I want it to have, I’ll shelve it and keep some of the ideas for another novel.

As it turns out, the feedback on this one is positive; I’m very happy and I’m going to keep writing. I have to know I’ll enjoy writing it; that the journey will fascinate me and, despite careful planning, new ideas will jump in as I progress that are usually better than the ones I’ve already written down, which are more likely to surprise my readers.

So the current book, which is scheduled for 2021, is underway and I have two more new novel ideas that excite me waiting in the wings: one is likely to be a hoot, allowing me to push boundaries and create fun situations and characters, and the other will be a learning journey for me, based on the subject matter I need to research. But it’s all exciting.

I recently read an article by a writer saying how difficult the job was – that our lives are always full – we’re always writing a new novel, editing the last one, publicising the previousone, planning the next one and reading for inspiration and research all at the same time! But what a lovely position to be in. All writers strive for exactly this: it’s a great life. I couldn’t be happier.

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Now about some of these old rock song lyrics…

I work at my computer most days and listen to rock music on the radio on my smart speaker. I love a lot of the songs and I enjoy the DJs’ banter, the cheery voices and the sense of company as a happy voice rattles away in the background while I type. Most of the music is pacy and energetic, ideal when you’re writing a novel.

Of course, I am aware that there’s a down side of the radio station. The presenters are, reflecting the rock-music world, (bar one woman on the early slot on a Saturday and Sunday morning,) white and male. They seem nice enough guys but there isn’t much in the way of diversity, and that clearly needs to be addressed. The same is true when it comes to the music they play. But maybe other fans of the radio station would tell me that rock bands are mostly male and mostly white. I think that needs to change.

Of course there are the exceptions. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t white and he was one of the best rock guitarists ever. Janis Joplin wasn’t a man and she was one of the best vocalists, although her songs, influenced from a blues background, are chiefly about men doing her wrong: just listen to the heart-breaking Ball and Chain and Piece of My Heart.

Old rock classics are being played all the time on the rock radio station I listen to and some of the older songs bring with them the problem of their social history, specifically misogyny: some of the lyrical content is  extremely outdated. The 1980s wasn’t a great time for women being perceived as equal to men: anyone who has watched an episode of The Professionals on TV or seen Legs and Co dancing on Top of the Pops , their faces stretched in an everlasting grin of pseudo-enjoyment, will know exactly what I mean. There was a time when a modicum of racism and sexism were tolerated by some people more than they should have been. And a lot of songs on the rock station come from this era and reflect this problem. But we can’t tolerate all that silliness now.

Rock isn’t the only musical genre not to cover itself in glory when it comes to misogynistic lyrics. But the station I listen to every day, that I enjoy listening to, will occasionally play something that makes me shake my head with disbelief. I tolerate Hendrix’s Hey Joe, even though ‘he shoots his woman down’ for ‘messing round.’ I put up with ZZ Top’s reductive Legs and the Rolling Stones’ inappropriate Brown Sugar and Under My Thumb, simply because they have been around for so long, but I remain unimpressed with the absurd lyrics.

I can even tolerate Neil Young’s A Man Needs a Maid if I ignore the lyrics and just listen to the tinkly tune: apparently, Neil meant ‘maid’ as in ‘Maid Marian’ and claimed that it was a genuine love song. That’s fair enough if you know the context.

I actually like Dire Strait’s song Lady Writer despite the subliminal inference that being a writer is normally a male profession and Marina Warner, whom I’m guessing the song is written about, breaks the norm by actually having a brain and writing about history. But some rock songs are lyrically off-the-scale-silly.

For example, listen to Jack and Diane by John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp. This one beggars belief. It’s about two sixteen year-olds sitting in Jackie’s car. He dreams of being a football star while she gapes vacuously at his suggestion of running off behind a tree and letting him ‘do what he pleases.’ Really? I know this is an old-fashioned 1982 song but the lyrics convey an archaic message about choices for young girls and submissiveness shouldn’t be a choice. Try reversing the genders in the lyrics and see how farcical it all sounds.

Then there’s Bryan Adams’ Run To You. According to the song, he has found a hotter woman to two-time his cold partner with but it won’t hurt her if she doesn’t know. Bryan should have spoken to Jimi’s Hey Joe about the rock-consequences of ‘messin’ around’. Hilarious!

Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer is another of those songs about the passive, compliant woman with nothing better to do and, the most laughable yet perhaps, is Rainbow’s All Night Long. Just check those lyrics! It’s the same deal as Rod Stewart’s Stay With Me: women as a one-night sex-toy. Was it ever acceptable? I didn’t think so when I heard the songs at the time – it struck me as being misogynistic nonsense and nothing’s changed. As for the suggestion that AC/DCs Whole Lotta Rosie is about celebrating the larger woman! I don’t think so. We’ll just leave it there.

Clearly, my beloved radio station needs to clean up its act, embrace the spirit of the new decade and employ more presenters who reflect the diversity of the world. They need to insist on a playlist that doesn’t denigrate women and encourage some poor men to think that unless they conform to an unpleasantly outmoded mindless priapic male-stereotype, they fail to live up to the presupposed potency of their guitar-grinding gods.

There are plenty of brilliant male guitar heroes out there playing professionally who think differently, who value women for their brains and their personalities and who wouldn’t be seen dead popularising versions of  the well-worn  ‘shag them and leave them and treat them mean’ story. I know several rock musicians personally and they are great guys, feminists even!

There are plenty of other good rock songs, plenty of good tracks from the long-forgotten past that admire women without demeaning them: I like Natural Born Bugie from Humble Pie which came out in 1969 as it’s a great song and not disparaging in its glorification of female beauty. There’s Hendrix’s melodic Little Wing which is a romantic song with great guitar and vocals. I have no problem with songs about sex; Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and Lemon Song imply that the female in question has a modicum of choice in the arrangement and isn’t duped into a brief night of passion and then quickly discarded.

There are wonderful rockers who are great musicians and vocalists who happen to be women too, from Joan Jett to Joanne Shaw Taylor, Samantha Fish, Beth Hart, Joanna Connor. There are also very promising modern male rock bands: Greta Van Fleet’s Highway Tune is a nice example of a raunchy song that is inoffensive to women, as all songs should be.

And for real diversity, let’s have more of The Hu, a Mongolian heavy metal band formed in 1996, whose song Yuve Yuve is about the respected ethics of their ancestors. All these are much more appealing lyrically than the outdated topic of how many schoolgirls a rock singer can line up to have sex with in one night as he ogles them from his vantage point on the stage.

Although I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, there’s a letter to be written to someone who makes decisions about playlists on my favourite radio station. Gone are the times when this laughable stuff was acceptable. We’re in the twenties now. So I’ll continue to listen to rock radio but I’m not putting up with inequality or lyrical offence. The days when that sort of stuff was grudgingly accepted as being part of a male-orientated genre have well gone.

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Happy New Year. 2020, a new year, a new decade and new beginnings…

I love the moment when a new year begins: it comes with a feeling of optimism, new opportunities, out with the old: we start anew with a clean slate. And there’s a new calendar, a new diary, clean pages with nothing written on them yet. But oh, I wonder what will we write on these blank pages in 2020?

The last year and the last decade mean different things to different people. My heart went out to a friend of mine on Facebook who ended the year with a post that said 2019 CAN JUST F*CK OFF! I sent messages of positivity. I know my friend has had a life-changing bad year and I hope that everything will improve and happiness will return.

We don’t always have control over what will happen to us in the future and we have no crystal balls (mostly…), which is why it’s both exciting and a little bit scary. But we do have choices and we can take things into our own hands, to choose what we do based on the hand of cards life deals us.

The last decade has been wonderful for me: I left a job I love for the excitement of doing an MA in order to become a published author. I was determined that’s what I would do and I was lucky; I wouldn’t have it any other way now. I love writing novels and writing occupies a great deal of my time, giving me the opportunity to be creative, which is so important to me.

In the last ten years, my kids grew up, left home, embarked on their own lives and now, at the beginning of the new decade, I am attempting to reconcile the empty nest with the thrill of independence and having a great relationship with two adults whom I truly admire, not to mention their wonderful partners. But I still miss them like crazy at times and I’ve decided that is my right as a parent: I won’t feel guilty about those terrible moments when out of nowhere I suddenly want to mourn their absence. It has very little to do with feeling pleased about the great humans I’ve raised: it’s a natural process of coming to terms with change.

There were a few down times in the last ten years: I lost my dad and that’s been tough. My mum died in the previous decade and I still haven’t got over that. I’m not sure we ever do recover from the loss of loved ones.

I moved from the place where I’d lived for 20 years and brought up a family. I’m now in a house I actually like for the first time in my life although putting down roots is still hard and I keep wondering if I should move again. I suppose some things will never change.

But I have an incredible family, great friends, wonderful neighbours and a job I adore. Simply being healthy, happy and loved means that I am truly blessed and long may it continue.

So during the next decade, although I may not know exactly what will happen and there may be changes I can’t readily predict, I hope I’ll still be writing novels. Two books have already been finished and there are others waiting in the wings. I hope to travel, to continue to grow and learn, to be healthy, to spend time with those I love and to have fun, a sense of mischief, laughter and interesting conversation.

The world out there is beautiful; if we can ignore for a moment the savage injustices and inequalities, the waste, the greed and the cruelty, it is indeed a wonderful place to be. Many of us hope and strive for things to get better for everyone. Working together towards poositive change is the only way to be alive.

So 2020 begins and with it the new decade, the roaring or rocking twenties. Let’s be positive; let’s hope for healthy, happy, exciting times. That doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand and ignoring threats and dangers: quite the opposite. Solidarity brings all sorts of rewards and it is time to stand strong. But we also have to keep ourselves and others safe, and that means being cheerful, positive and reaching out.

We don’t know what will happen, but we will make it the best that we can. So I’m starting the decade by sending good wishes to all who read my books, check out my blog or who just want to receive my best hopes for the twenties. I wish for happiness, health, laughter and love for you all. May you be blessed. Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa.

 

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My Christmas past, present and future…

I always look forward to Christmas. I’ve been doing it for a long time, pressing my nose against shop windows, gazing at the twinkling lights in town, anticipating the fun and excitement of 25th December. Arguably, anticipation is a huge part of the whole Christmas package, putting up sparkly decorations, buying presents, going to carol services, listening to that Slade song you haven’t heard for a whole eleven months and watching Love Actually again on TV.

We know we’re really lucky to be able to enjoy Christmas as we tuck into that special dinner with our families, as we invariably remember of those who can’t share the joy: there are people in war-torn countries, others living in shop doorways. People have such high expectations of how perfect Christmas time should be that disappointment, loneliness and depression may go unnoticed and unsupported. Charity and kindness to others have always been an integral part of Christmas; in many ways we’re still living in the times of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim Cratchit.

This year could be my first empty nest Christmas and, after years of the festive season being mainly about the kids, planning for twelve months to make the celebrations great for them, the prospect of a silent house can be a strange thing to come to terms with.

If I think about it, Christmas has always been a full-pelt, manic time. I was reminiscing with my brother just the other day about how Christmases used to be when we were kids and it was one of those ‘if you told people nowadays they’d never believe you’ moments. Read on:

When I was about seven, the council moved us into a house. We had a bath, a toilet. Unprecedented luxury. Previously we’d had a moveable tin bath and a shared khazi in a field. Now we had a proper house with three bedrooms and a garden. No heating, no double glazing, no fridge, no phone, no carpets, but it was Buckingham Palace. We slept under coats – no blankets or sheets or duvets – and woke with huge icicles hanging inside the windows but we thought we were in paradise. We lived in the kitchen all year but on Christmas day our Dad bought a precarious paraffin heater and we were allowed to go into the front room to sit on the sofa. A real privilege.

We had very little money. Dad sold his Vincent Black Shadow one year, a motorbike that he should have hung onto, to buy us presents. But we had vegetables in the garden. My brother and I used to be sent out to pick Brussel sprouts in a wind so fiercely cold that our little fingers were numb and frozen to the sprout plant, which we hung onto to stop ourselves from blowing over in the icy blasts. Good times.

Christmas fare was about Mum plucking and gutting the pheasant our father had shot in the nearby woods while Dad uncorked a bottle of Bourbon he’d procured from some fella and drank the lot. We’d sit down to a cooked meal, everyone digging in except me,  experiencing early vegan tendencies, refusing to eat something dead and full of lead shot, expecting a slap for being ungrateful or ‘mouthy.’ Then we had to have Christmas pudding although nobody really liked it, and those orange and lemon segment jelly fruits that were still unopened in the wrapper well into January. It was tradition. It’s what people did, and we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Christmas, once I’d become a parent, was about having a fun family time. I’d cook and bake for days before, take a hamper of goodies (and a bottle of Bourbon) and dinner down to my dad who’d refused to set foot in my house, then go back and start the festivities. My son and I would cook while the others watched the TV; we’d throw all sorts of creative things at the meal: crème de cassis in the gravy, vodka and chestnuts in the sprouts, and have a great time making vegan Yorkshire puddings, hoping they’d rise. Then four of us would sit at the table, pull home-made crackers full of gifts, eat too much and drink a bottle of sparkling wine. Happy memories.

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This year my son is in México for Christmas. He’ll have a great time and we’ll catch up on Christmas day for a chat on Skype. It won’t be the same but we can’t hang onto the same for ever. My daughter may come home if she can escape from the excessive workload she has and find a train on Christmas Eve. The offer is on the table: we could prepare food early in the morning, drive down in the campervan, pick her up and have Christmas dinner on the beach. An empty nest means you can do things differently, and I’m learning to relish change.

Next year, we’ve talked about spending Christmas in France. Choices open out like the pages of a new book. One day, I’d love to spend Christmas somewhere warm, although I can’t imagine how it would feel: I’ve been cold in December since year one. But it’s about grasping opportunity. Imagine spending a week in a log cabin with friends, surrounded by snow, fir trees, bears!

It’s difficult, of course, at first, to come to terms with change: Christmas usually means family, tradition, being together, sharing, the same-old. But there’s a nettle to be grasped that might just be a twig on the tree of life. It’s the chance to reinvent. Christmas could become all sorts of things now: camping on the beach, helping out in food kitchens, inviting new people to share hospitality and a log fire, sitting at the top of a mountain with a baked tofu sandwich.

Being privileged is something I’m strongly aware of in this age of food banks and cardboard box homes. This time of year reminds us that we should put something back, and not just at Christmas. But with the opportunity to rethink Christmas and not expect it to be routine and humdrum comes the chance to find a different way of having fun and coming together, to avoid the expense, the narrow expectation and the commerciality.

So perhaps it’s time to dispense with the eye-rolling ‘Oh not this old song again’ and the ‘Oh no: I’ve got the family coming to Christmas and I’ll have to peel all those sprouts’ and start again with the celebration of life, enjoying each day for its sheer pleasure. Christmas can be just that, simple delight, whether you are five or fifty five.

So bring it on, with my very best wishes. Merry Christmas everyone, however you choose to spend it: have a wonderful day and may your 2020 be filled with good health, love and your heart’s desires.

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What a difference a play makes…

I’m open to going to see all sorts of theatre but I’ve never been much of a Noel Coward fan. His plays have never particularly struck a chord with me, perhaps due to the archetypical Englishness, the veneer of sophistication, the stylised repartee with just a hint of misogyny unsurprising in a play written in 1943. But I’m always prepared to take another look, so I went to see Present Laughter when it was streamed to cinemas. It was a breath of fresh air.

The director Matthew Warchus brought the play up to date by making the central character, flamboyant actor Garry Essendine, played by Andrew Scott, bisexual and by swapping a few the genders of the original characters. The original predatory female, Joanna, becomes Joe, an incorrigible cad whose presence threatens Garry’s little clique of chums.

The performance of each character is spectacular, as is the timing and rapport: there wasn’t a weak link in a very accomplished production, but Andrew Scott is central to the success. His dynamic performance of contrasts, pouting and peacocking and throwing tantrums is directed in order to amuse and entertain. As a successful actor, Garry Essendine is adored by clamouring fans on all sides and subsequently he is vain, charismatic and extremely lonely. But it is a play that makes an audience laugh out loud and then stop to consider moments of tenderness and poignancy. Beneath the comic surface is a play that deals with an individual who feels lost and alone despite being surrounded by sycophantic acolytes.

The result is hilarious comedy and powerful commentary. Indira Varma is excellent as Garry’s separated wife Liz, the one who watches from a distance, understands and deals with any crisis. Similarly, as Garry’s secretary Monica, Sophie Thompson creates an impactful character on stage, as does Joshua Hill as his overconfident valet Fred. Garry employs and exploits these characters, he abuses them verbally and he is lost without their support.

Andrew Scott is energetic and inspired. I saw him last as Hamlet and, on that occasion, I was bowled over by the intelligence, subtlety and depth of emotion. His role in Present Laughter is an equally impressive virtuoso performance. For me, the directing was exactly right. We have to laugh with the hilarious frenzy of Garry’s cavorting histrionics; we celebrate his highs in order to understand his lows. As a successful actor, Garry is incapable of doing anything other than acting constantly and, when we glimpse the man behind the superficial show, he is exposed and fragile.

Present Laughter is an entertaining play and stands up well as a memorable evening at the theatre; it is well-worth visiting. But it leaves the viewer with more than a just a smile. The characters are superficial stereotypes but there are also poignant moments that hit home, as we consider the fragility behind the charm. A brilliant production.

How I fell in love with Scotland.

It’s ridiculous, really, that I hadn’t been to Scotland. I love travelling. I love the excitement of exploring new places, of filling my senses with new sights and scents and experiencing new cultures. I’ve been to some fascinating places: India, Israel, China, Africa, Mexico. And there are lots of places I want to go to, places I’ve never visited: Peru, Thailand, New Zealand. But somehow, in all the fun I’ve had travelling, I forgot about Scotland.

Some places you visit fill you with a sense of belonging there, even if you’ve never been before: there’s some kind of connection you can’t explain. I remember visiting Africa and the scent of the sun warming the land as I stepped from the plane was incredibly familiar. When I visit Dublin or the west coast of Ireland or Liverpool, there’s always a welcoming feeling, like I’ve come home. When I go to Europe, I’m always conscious that I’m European. But for some reason I can’t explain, I never really thought about Scotland that way, although it’s really only just up the road.

Scotland Loch Ness

I suppose first of all that I never thought of going there because I have no real connection to Scotland. There are no Scots in my family history that I know of; I have few Scottish friends and, if I’m honest, it’s the warm weather that often attracts me to a place and I know Scotland has a reputation for being cold.

But last week, all that changed forever.

I flew to Inverness. It took an hour: the same amount of time that it took me to travel to the airport. So, of course, the Highlands are on my doorstep. Why did it take so long for me to realise that?

The people were welcoming and friendly. I hired a car and took off towards Loch Ness. That was when it all fell into place. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. As I drove towards the place I was staying, mist was rolling on the loch and the surface of the water was calm, a sheet of glass. I slept in a bed that was so big I needed a ferry to cross it. The view from my window was of fog shifting around pine trees in a palette of so many colours that I couldn’t find words to describe most of them. Then there was the water merging with the sky, the mist and the mountains.

I drove to the Isle of Skye the next day and just kept catching my breath as I rounded each corner. Snow-capped mountains, stretches of water, trees and hills and a landscape any artist would be challenged to paint and represent the sheer beauty. Skye even has a beach and a walk to the top of hills so high you can see the Hebrides.

Scotland skye beach.jpg

The next day, as I took off to the west coast I was greeted by a wild boar trotting cheerfully down the road on my side. Of course, I slowed down to let him continue. The sun shone and the frost glittered on the grass and in the hedgerows. Again, the views were stunning.

I decided I had to write a novel set in Scotland and, because the air is so pure and the ambiance so calm, ideas were flowing faster than the whisky in the lodge where I was staying.

So I went out for a night ramble to take in the local stories and places. Castles, circles of stones, waterfalls, everything still and spectacular under a star-crammed sky and a low-hanging moon: ideas came thick and fast. And then I drove into a glen filled with deer, their eyes shining diamonds in the headlights, their antlers raised and their faces calm in contemplation. The serenity was overwhelming.

When I flew back from Inverness, I was changed somehow. My head was full of thoughts like ‘  When can I go back?’ and ‘Why don’t I live in Scotland?’ and ‘I want to go again with family and friends so that they can share the experience too.’

scotland castle.jpg

I can only imagine how fresh Scotland will look in the spring, or how exhilaratingly cold the Highlands are in the depths of winter under snow. The autumn is a stunning time to visit Scotland and, like most addictions, I suppose, it starts with an overwhelming first experience quickly followed by the desire for more. And I could easily become addicted to Scotland.

I am currently thinking about an imaginary trip somewhere, soon, but my destination is now fraught with confusion. I might go to Majorca or Scotland, or Portugal, or Scotland. I am possibly going to France in the summer but I may go to Scotland before then, or afterwards, or both. I plan to go to South America some time but I will definitely go to Scotland before then, at least once. You see the problem?

It’s a place I can’t imagine ever having too much of. I have no idea why I left it so long to visit. But I loved it, everything about it, and it won’t be long before I go back to visit the Highlands again. I think I left a little bit of my heart there…

scotland snow.jpg

Seven stages of writing a novel

When I first began writing A Grand Old Time, I was a master’s student. A 30,000-word opening to a novel plus a 20,000-word analytical document wasn’t a great ordeal. I’ve never been troubled by a word count. However, despite researching a range of novelists and considering their advice about writing, I was a novice and so the process of planning and writing a novel of between eighty-five and ninety thousand words was a learning curve.

Now I am about to have my third novel published, with a couple more novels written and waiting in the wings, and another two in a slightly different genre pre-edited, I have more experience of the process of writing a novel. It has to be said that the important place to start is to know yourself as a writer: we are not all the same in terms of our preference of planning, writing, editing, researching, being inspired and we do not all share the same work ethos. Once we know our foibles, fallibilities and strengths, we can steel ourselves against the rocky moments that might happen during the novel writing process, promise ourselves that we’ll be gentle with ourselves, and make a start.

Here is my seven stage guide to novel writing. It has to be said, not everyone will share the same experience, but if my guidelines help anyone else, I’m delighted.

Stage 1: Thinking. The idea of what to write, stotyline, themes and characters come first for me, and inventing them is not something I have ever worried about. Ideas come from all around us and the hard part is turning an experience, a headline, a conversation, a place, a moment into an inspiring story. I know other authors have asked friends and family for ideas about what they should write; some people draw inspiration from photographs, travel, from reading: whatever works for the individual is fine. Once you have an idea, it may be best to let it sit for a bit. Stir it around and let it ferment. At this stage, I usually ask myself to think outside the box. Do I want to start from this point? Is there another way the story might be more impactful, surprising, unusual? So not rushing stage one is important.

 

Stage Two: Scribbling first thoughts down. I usually work with a wheel, or a ‘clock’ shape. Twelve o’clock is the start and the finish, and I plot events around it. I assume that six o’clock will be around forty five thousand words. Then I look at my scribbles as a tension graph. Is there a good mixture of ‘up and down’, comedy and pathos, action and reaction? My ideas are tentative at this point and not ever fixed, not until a novel is published. I find it useful to know how my story will begin, how it will end, and to plot a few important points of tension or change as the novel progresses. Flexibility is important, the opportunity to change my mind as I write. But I start with a plan and, because I like to invent as I go, I keep it loose. This allows me to respond to the needs of the novel, the characters, the action and to change direction and surprise myself as I write. This isn’t a perfect plan: people who like every detail on paper before they start will not work this way: it will feel far too much like flying by the seat of your pants.

 

Stage Three: Making a start. I try to start somewhere interesting, at a point where the reader will want to find out what will happen next and I write the first thirty thousand words. How much I write can vary but it isn’t hard to write two thousand words a day; I have written six thousand on some days when I have the ‘bug’ and I can’t leave the novel alone. At this point, I don’t know if the novel will ‘grab’ me: there may be some exposition at the beginning, a lot of getting to know the characters myself, but I want to make the story’s development as interesting as I can. So the first ten chapters are written to make the storyline and characters as good as I can make them on the first writing, then I stop and read it back. If I’m not motivated at this point, I won’t write any more. It’s shelved for another day, one that may never come, or I may just steal an idea from it another time. It has to be said, it’s rare now that I abandon something at this stage: I’m getting better at knowing what I can work with.

 

Stage Four: Doubts and fears. This is the point where doubts creep in and you have to be quite resilient and follow your instinct. Writers are human and they are creative sensitive beings, so it’s natural to doubt the novel’s appeal and potential when you’re only forty or fifty thousand words through writing it. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’ve got a character ‘right’, whether the story ‘sings’ enough, whether it will work as a whole novel. I find it helps to have a friend or a colleague who will read it as you progress: it’s a fair indicator, as long as you trust the person, of the story’s power to intrigue and absorb. Choosing the right person is important: not everyone will like your novels, so you need someone  who understands you and who likes the genre. And you need to trust yourself, your skills, your ability to create something worthwhile and you need to believe that you can see it through to the end because, if there is a point where you doubt yourself, this is often it. You are too far in to stop, too far from the end to believe you can make it to the finish. But you can.

 

Stage Four:  The second half of the novel. Writing the rest of the novel, based on your initial plan, is not too hard now from about fifty thousand words, especially if you have organised your story plan in the earlier stages and allowed it to change as it needed to. Once you arrive at seventy and eighty thousand words, you are usually clear about what will happen at the end. At this stage, writing profusely and eagerly is part of the impetus that carries the characters and the action to its conclusion, whatever that may be. I enjoy this stage a lot.

 

Stage Five: Writing the ending. The last few chapters should not be predictable unless you have made that decision for a good reason. All loose ends need to be tied up, and it’s always nice to finish a novel in a place where the reader feels satisfied that they have had a good deal from the story and the characters: they haven’t been cheated of whatever they invested in from page one. Conclusions are important and although less may be more in terms of the final few paragraphs, and a writer may want to leave an opportunity for a book two, the ending should always enable the reader to stop at a point where their quest, the quest they have shared with the main protagonist, has been in some way fulfilled. There has to be a sense of fairness that the writer has held the reader in safe hands throughout the story. It usually takes me ten to twelve weeks to write the whole novel, even more if the sun is shining and there’s a beach nearby.

 

Stage Six. Edit like mad. I like to leave the novel for a day or two if not more, and then go through it and edit it several times. I’m looking first of all for howlers, big mistakes, things that don’t work in the story or the characters. Then I’m looking for expression, phrases, readability, making sure that the novel flows well. I want to weed out any inaccuracies of place, time, person, or any factual inaccuracies. At this point, I will ask others to read through and I will consult technical experts. It’s useful to have an editor or reader with a keen eye who will say ‘that won’t work because…’ (My agent is a genuis and a huge asset at this stage.) Then of course there are the typing errors, stupid things you can’t believe you wrote, flying commas and apostrophes, ridiculous repetition and the senseless sentence that occurred when the cat put his backside on the keyboard.

 

Stage Seven. Let go of the reins. The minute your novel is accepted for publication, a team of experts will work alongside the author and it’s important to go with the flow. In my experience, if an editor says ‘I think you should change that…?’ she or he is probably right and you should change it. There will perhaps be an odd occasion where something is really important to the writer and you can have a discussion about it but my general belief is that an experienced editor knows the market, the genre and the industry, so I tend to trust her judgement. The editing process is remarkable and I find it a real opportunity and a privilege to learn from people with vast amounts of skill and experience. I really enjoy the editing process, and my interaction with professionals influences for the better the way I will work. Copy editors and proof readers are invaluable: they pick up all sorts of embarrassing mistakes, calm down the excessive hyphens and they always know exactly whether everything is all right or alright. They do fascinating work, and theirs is a job I certainly couldn’t do, not having their infinite patience and great eyesight.

 

At this point, your novel has been on a long journey and it may be ready to go onto the shelves. So, you might think about starting another novel and then the seven stages begin again, but that is a blog for another time perhaps.

Cover Reveal: Five French Hens

I’m excited to reveal the cover for my next novel, Five French Hens, which is available from December 10th. It’s a story about people seeking fulfilment and it shows that sometimes life’s routine appears fine until you move away from it and take a look from a different angle.It is a novel about celebrating life, having fun, being resilient and unafraid of embracing change.

The plot concerns Jen, who is a widow. She meets Eddie, a widower, when walking alone on Exmouth beach on Boxing Day and they strike up a conversation. A friendship develops; they meet regularly and find they have much in common. In many ways, they are the ideal couple; they look good together, they enjoy each other’s company and they both know that living with each other would fill a hole in their lives so, when Eddie proposes to Jen on Valentines’ Day, she accepts and a date is set for an early spring wedding.

Her four friends from aqua aerobics are surprised at the news of Jen’s sudden engagement but they are all delighted for her and so, when Eddie announces that he will go to Las Vegas with his son for his stag party, the friends convince Jen to have her ‘hen do’ in Paris.

Jen’s four friends have very different lives. Tess is full of fun, but unhappily married. Della is happily married, wise and caring but with a mischievous streak. Pam is independent and happy living alone, although she has her adorable spaniel Elvis for company. Rose is a lonely and somewhat under-confident widow who teaches piano lessons to uninspired children and hates it. The unlikely group of friends embark on the hen party to Paris with the intention of enjoying themselves, but they have no idea how the trip will develop or how it will affect the rest of their lives.

Paris brings glamour, mischief and excitement: galleries, casinos, clubs, restaurants, shopping, and the five friends have a whale of a time. The women hit Paris and they are outrageous, romantic, funny and the events that occur make them rethink the course of their lives. But it is a very different group of women who return home several days later and, of course, when they arrive back in England, much has changed for each of them.

I hope readers will find Five French Hens hilarious, poignant, but with a strong sense that life is out there for the taking and, no matter what your age, you can try to find another chance at happiness.

 

For more information, go to https://www.boldwoodbooks.com/contributor/judy-leigh/