Short story

It’s rare that I write about myself. In my novels, characters and situations are imaginary. I rarely bring myself into what I write, although I include what I know and if I don’t, my ideas will be inspired by other people or based on research. Many of my older characters have something of the inspirational men and women I am privileged to know personally, and I rarely allow a character to behave in a certain way without thinking or asking ‘Could *** do that?’ or ‘How would ***** react?’

But here’s a rare thing – a story about an early experience of my own. I wrote it in response to an exercise in a writers’group andf I thought I’d share it. I was about three years old and I remember it vividly.

I hope you enjoy the short story. I haven’t found a title for it yet.

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The damp stink of decay hangs in the air. Trees surround me, the tangle of spreading roots visible above the earth, and I stand close to a tall oak. I look up at a graze of light sky between boughs.

‘Stay there,’ my father says, his hands lost in the huge pockets of his coat.

He walks away and I do as I am told. My feet are firmly planted, but I don’t feel safe. I stare down at little wellingtons, wet mud squelching around them; at a few sodden twigs, skeletons of leaves. Empty acorns are scattered a few feet away. I watch the line of trees stretch as far as I can see and my father blends in: his coat is the same hard grey as the trunks, then he’s gone.

It’s cold, November. I know I have to stay where I am. A few leaves twirl down, dull orange, tumbling in the wind, spanned hands waving. I listen. The silence holds a breath and I wait. I gaze up again; branches interlocked, a canopy of foliage overhead, squeezing away the light.

I take a step forward and murmur ‘Daddy?’

 A twig snaps beneath my boot then there’s no sound. It’s quiet; then from somewhere in the distance, a wood pigeon coos, a low warning. I wonder if Death lives in the woods and if he is a man wrapped inside a tree, if he’s watching me now.

‘Daddy?’

I hunker close to a trunk, gnarled branches twisting up like knotty fingers, and put out my hand to touch the bark. It is rough, scratchy against my soft-pudding hands. There is a smell of rotting leaves, wet mulch, and I try not to breathe in too much.

A noise makes me jerk, a single crack like a whiplash, then there’s a fluttering of something falling from high, through leaves and twigs. I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to think. Another sound splits the air, exactly the same, a snap from a rifle, then the gentle tumbling.

I open my eyes and he’s striding towards me, feet soundless, tall in his grey coat. Then he’s here; he takes my hand.

‘Good girl.’

I notice my father’s coat hangs differently now; something else fills the inside pockets besides the barrel, something softer, still warm.

We walk back through the forest, with no sound but our feet snapping twigs and the sinking squelch of boots in mud.

My mother will be waiting at home: she’ll have everything ready, and then she’ll make supper.

My top five living-life-and-loving-it feel-good films

My novels have often been described as uplifting or feel-good, and I like this epithet very much. While I enjoy a good gothic tale or a thriller as much as anyone else, the idea that my stories entertain and make people feel positive about life is a great compliment.

Recently, I was sent a message on social media from someone who was feeling low: now we’re back in lockdown, the blues had set in and she was searching for films to watch on during the evening to lift her spirit. I recommended something and then wondered what else she might watch.

So I set myself the small task of putting together my top five feel good films to cheer people up. This was much more difficult that I thought it might be: my favourite film in the world, Everything is Illuminated, is uplifting but it also contains scenes of such pathos that I felt the need to re-examine my definition. So, if I mean by ‘feel-good films’ that they will make a person whose mood is low feel more positive about life, then I have to ensure that there is nothing at all in the film that will detract from that fuzzy sensation of warmth, benevolence and uplifting joy.

Let’s be clear: one or two films from the list below wouldn’t necessarily make the list of my top favourite films. I do like a thought-provoking movie, a film that makes me laugh or ones which are cleverly contrived or well-performed, but I’ve made a point of omitting anything that might not be universally perceived to be uplifting, so it’s goodbye for the time being to Inglourious Basterds, Withnail and I and Parasite.

So here goes with my top five:

Number 5. Rocketman

I didn’t expect to like this film. I’m not a great fan of Elton John’s music; Bohemian Rhapsody was just out and achieving great reviews; the musical theatre style of the film seemed an odd choice and the opening scene where Elton attends counselling in full regalia before the film whooshes back to his early life seemed a too-predictable beginning. However, the film really works: I watched the whole thing with an open mind and I loved it. Taron Egerton’s performance takes it to another level and it is an inspiring and moving film.

 Number 4. Mary and Max

This is a brilliant Australian stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot. It is a beautiful story of the pen-pal relationship between two very different people, Mary Dinkle, a lonely eight-year-old living in Melbourne and Max Horovitz, a Jewish man who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in New York. Their correspondence becomes an emotional lifeline for both characters and reveals the details of their unhappy existences. Superbly performed by Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Number 3.  The Intouchables

 This film is a French comedy-drama with a powerful rapport between the two main characters. Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic who employs Driss, a man who has no interest in the role whatsoever, to be his caregiver and driver. It’s an interesting ‘buddy’ film which is funny and poignant. It has been labelled a heart-warming film; it has also been called condescending, and I can understand both responses: it does rely on some racial, social and cultural stereotypes. But it is watchable and, in its purest form, it shows that friendship, love and respect can be found in many places. It’s definitely a feel-good film.

 Number 2. The Commitments

I adore Roddy Doyle’s novels and Alan Parker’s films. The story is set in working-class Dublin in the 1980s, where young music enthusiast Jimmy Rabbit assembles a soul band called the Commitments. Poignant, well-acted and thought-provoking, this film is funny and heartfelt with some belting tunes, brilliantly performed. It takes the viewer on a musical journey full of laughs and yet it remains authentic and thought-provoking.

Number One. The Birdcage

Robin Williams is, as we know, a superb performer who gave the world so much joy with many roles, from Jakob the Liar to Dead Poets’ Society. In The Birdcage, he plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner who pretends to be a straight cultural attaché when his son brings home his fiancée and her traditional parents. Armand lists the help of various people to change his apartment and act out the deception with truly hilarious and heartwarming effect. Highly recommended – it will make you laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters. That’s perhaps, a true definition of feel-good.

If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

About the Arts…

I have worked in schools where Drama, Music, Art , Dance, Writing, Media and Performance thrived. I used to teach theatre. I taught students between the ages of 11 and 18 usually but sometimes I would be invited into primary schools to help smaller children fall in love with Shakespeare, and once in a while I would lead workshops at universities teaching undergraduates about Brecht or Buchner or Bent. Once I went to Guangzhou to teach Hamlet and I worked with a jali on a performance in the Gambia.. I taught GCSE, A level, PGCE students. I directed plays, I wrote scripts, and most importantly I interacted with musicians, film makers, dancers, actors, writers, designers, artists and photographers as a normal part of my daily life. It made me very happy.

Occasionally, I worked in an environment where the arts were considered ‘less’ in some ways. I detected a feeling in some people that studying theatre (and other Arts subjects) was less important than studying mathematics, language, science; that learning about performance and theatre somehow matters less. I am not one for buying into division. I incorporated writing, language and science into theatre. 

The arrival of Coronavirus hasn’t changed our love of the arts: it hasn’t changed the importance of arts subjects. They are still fundamental to learning, to growth, to developing who we are as people. What has changed is our opportunity to share them together. The biggest change is in public accessibility to the arts and in the loss of jobs of those working in the industry.

I’m not sure everyone appreciates how important the arts are, both to individuals and to our personal growth as people. That’s understandable: we can’t all understand everything.  

But it’s important now that those people who make decisions about the future of the arts don’t simply offer a token sum. While the emergency funding package from the government is very welcome, for the cultural and social survival of the arts, we need to consider the importance of accessibility to anyone and everyone, not just to the select few.

That means that we all should have the opportunity to be surrounded by the arts from birth, to be immersed in the arts in schools. Then, throughout life, having access to the arts becomes something we all have a right to, and creative enjoyment becomes something we can choose for ourselves and experience as part of everyday life. It will make us all happier people.

In praise of libraries everywhere…

Remember the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where she falls down the rabbit hole? Or the wardrobe door that opens to Narnia? Or Platform 9 ¾, leading to the Hogwarts’s Express? Or the Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings? Literature is full of enchanted doors that take us to a secret place, a place full of mystery and magic, suspension of disbelief and wonder.

Now think of your local library, a simple door that opens and leads into a space loaded with books. There might be a staircase; shelves everywhere, all sections carefully labelled: mystery, crime, thrillers, romance, historical, classical.

It may be a huge library in a university or a city, a medium library in a school or a town or a small provincial library in a village, but each place is special. It holds the key to may secrets, many stories, many adventures.

In these days where our physical journeys may be limited, the wandering of our minds is still unrestricted. With a library card, we can set imagination free. A library has something – so many things – for everyone: stories in all sorts of genres, books we’ll hold and breathe in and love for ever and never forget.

A library is stacked with audio books, large print books, even my novels which are available in all formats: books that I hope are uplifting, funny, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophical, but always my stories insist that, whatever your years, life is there to be lived to the full.

So, why not call into your local library (I have several in Somerset) and push open the enchanted door?

I can promise you, there will be something magical behind it….

So, who is the best actor to play Lemmy in a biopic?

I often cast films in my imagination. If I read about a character in a book, an actor will come to mind and I think ‘he or she would be perfect for that role.’ Many times, I’ve considered actors who might be in films of my own novels: Brendan Gleeson and Julie Walters feature a lot when I’m hypothetically casting one of my books in my head, as do Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton. So, when I heard there was going to be a film about the late, great Lemmy Kilminster’s life, I immediately started wondering about who’d be the best actor to play the role of that incredible man.

I saw Lemmy performing with Motörhead in London not long before he passed away; he was quite static on stage but his indomitable spirit, his energy, his love of music that was so loud it made your eardrums buzz and his devil-may-care attitude were tangible. The actor who would play Lemmy on screen would need to do him justice; it would need to be someone who could embody his intelligence, his iconoclasm, his mischief and his rebellious streak. He would need to be magnetic, full of charisma.

I’m quite open-minded about actors who are cast as rock stars: they are actors first, so imitation and interpretation are everything – they don’t need to look exactly like the character they are playing.  Val Kilmer embodied Jim Morrison so well in The Doors. Rami Malek looked nothing like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody but he managed to portray him with such panache and skill that the character was utterly credible. Taron Egerton was inspired in his performance in Rocket Man: I even conceded that I liked the music, although I’m no Elton John fan. So, for me, the actor who plays Lemmy doesn’t necessarily have to be a look-alike or a predictable choice as their talent comes first. So, here are some of my choices for the role of Lemmy.

The obvious ones:

Johnny Depp is a reasonably good choice to play Lemmy. He’s a musician, a rock star, an experienced actor; by his own admission, he understands the ravaging effects of an alcohol and drug-fuelled lifestyle. He’s a middle-aged sex symbol who can act. He could probably use a good role right now at this point in his career. It seems he ticks all the boxes to play Lemmy.

Robert Downey Junior. As above, probably.

Tom Hardy. He is possibly one of the most gifted actors on screen. He pulled off the roles of both Kray twins in one film; he rescued Venom from the depths of banality and he took the role of Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders to such heights that he managed to get away with a character that, in other circumstances, might have been perceived as a bit risky to say the least. He played Heathcliff with such passion that he achieved empathy where the character deserved no sympathy. He is a genius. Just imagine how he’d play Lemmy.

The less-obvious ones.

Benedict Cumberbatch. Not remotely like Lemmy, not in your wildest dreams. But he’s played everything from Hamlet to Dominic Cummings, so I wonder what he’d make of Motörhead’s front man? He could do it, certainly.

Russell Brand. Russell may be some people’s choice; he has the patter, the charisma, the confidence, the bravado to play Lemmy but he lacks Lemmy’s rawness and natural charm. Not for me.

Orlando Bloom. I was really surprised that, as the initial idea of Orlando Bloom as Lemmy made me burst out laughing, the choice really grew on me. Orlando has served his time playing undemanding roles of young, well-meaning fresh-faced heroes such as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, Paris in Troy and Will in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It would be a challenge for him to take on the gritty role of Lemmy and I think he’d do it justice. I can imagine Mr. Kilminster chuckling over his bottle of Jack Daniels to think that he’d been portrayed by a man who once played the love interest of Keira Knightley, and an elf.

Jason Momoa. He’d be ‘superhero Lemmy’ in the animated version. A hilarious thought!

Joaquin Phoenix. After an incredible physical performance in Joker, Joaquin can do anything in my opinion. He’d make Lemmy leap from the screen.

Jared Leto. He is possibly my first choice to play Lemmy. Jared Leto is an incredibly versatile actor who would be able to show Lemmy’s progress from his early days in Hawkwind where he became a member because the bass player didn’t show up for a gig to his arrest for drug possession on the Canadian border, creating an empathic staging of Lemmy’s final days as Motörhead’s anarchist bassist and well-loved antihero.

Of course, it depends on the demands of the screenplay: will the film be a linear story of Lemmy’s life, or a glossy romanticised depiction of his early days as a young man whose youthful experiences were steeped in sex and drugs and rock and roll, or will we see the wistful older Lemmy reminiscing on his life as the speakers blast out the strains of such famous songs as No Remorse and Built for Speed.

Whoever is chosen for the role, I’d certainly watch the film. It will be very interesting to see how the director portrays Lemmy and I hope the film goes some way to do justice to a fascinating and unique musician who remains widely admired by so many people.

This leads me to reflect on similar films to come. We’ve had biopics about Freddie Mercury, Sid Vicious, Ray Charles, Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf. Now I’ve heard there will be a film about David Bowie’s life: I wonder who they’ll pick to play that role. And who would be a good choice to play Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain or Dolores O’Riordan? Are there roles here for established actors or could someone new cut their teeth on such a huge part? It is fascinating to speculate on casting and to look beyond the obvious choices.

Time to watch a series on TV?

I’m not someone who watches much television. I’m quite boring in that respect: whenever friends enthuse about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I’ve no idea what they are talking about. Watching a popular series on TV is a great opening to conversation and I’m aware that sometimes I’m missing out on it. I tend to be too busy to sit in front of the gogglebox as I spend a lot of time by myself working in the evenings: besides, the cats and I have quickly realised the danger of tuning into programmes like Luther when we are by ourselves. How many nights have I checked under the bed and hoped no-one will pop down from the attic via a hole in  the ceiling?

But since my son arrived back from South America and came to stay with me during lockdown, (and since there has been no football to watch for several months,) we have spent more time in front of the TV beside a warm fire with a glass of something nice. Firstly, we binge-watched all five series of Peaky Blinders, which I really thought were excellent. I enjoyed it for so many reasons that I’d have to write a blog about it separately, but one of the greatest highlights was Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Alfie Solomons. Absolutely inspired timing and characterisation- no-one else could have got away with it!

Then we sat through a whole series of Life on Mars, which was ok. Conceptually, it wasn’t for me but my theatre background has made it quite easy for me to separate a programme into the various compartments to analyse, and although I wasn’t keen on the story line or crazy about some of the characters, I enjoyed the acting, particularly the hilarious role of Philip Glenister. 

Then my son suggested that we watch all three series of  Hannibal and I agreed we’d try that. Of course, I should’ve known – as a vegan, I’m hardly a prime target audience to enjoy a suspenseful bloodthirsty cookery programme in which human flesh is prepared with elegance and relish. But I thought I’d give it a go. The cast was impressive and the series came recommended by someone whose opinion I value.

I love the opportunity to watch something and be surprised by my own reaction. Of course, I need to qualify what I mean by ‘watch something’: I spent most of the first two series on the floor with my hands over my eyes calling out ‘Can I look yet?’ While I enjoyed the powerful acting, the brilliant script, the clever photography, the symbolism, I couldn’t watch most of the gore, and there was a lot of it. It was too shocking for someone as easily horrified as I am.

The third series was a little less gory and more psychologically-tense and I preferred it, but only for that reason. Hannibal is not a series I’d naturally gravitate towards, and that’s why I’m so keen to blog about it. As a group performance, the acting is sensational, particularly Mads Mikklesen as Hannibal. The photography is excellent, the scripting is incredible and the way the characters develop and blend in a tense unfolding of a complex and well-contrived story is really good. 

It’s an intelligently written and directed series that invites the viewer to think, to work things out: nothing is quite as it seems; the use of symbolism and semiotic or suggestion is impressive and, all together, I really enjoyed it. Well, not enjoyed. It’s not enjoyable because it is distasteful, uncomfortable and often simply revolting. But it’s clever, well put together and thoroughly satisfying intellectually and aesthetically.

I can’t quite believe how much I did enjoy it while, at the same time, I regularly almost stopped watching it because the violence was unbearable. But I persisted. Both compulsive and horrific, Hannibal wouldn’t be suitable for anyone unless they were sure they weren’t prone to nightmares. I had plenty of awful dreams as a result, but the programme was utterly powerful, and I (almost) watched it all. A great series for all the right reasons. Dreadful for one reason alone – it is really nauseating. But I’m so glad I sat through it to the end. I wish there had been a series four.

Now what’s next on my list of things I don’t usually watch?CSC_0561

Appreciating ‘Dappl’d Things’ during lockdown

During the difficult lockdown moments when the sun isn’t shining and the world looks quite bleak, when people no longer have a reliable source of income and they can’t buy some foods or they have to queue at a distance to get them; when we all miss the simple things like going out for a coffee with a friend or watching the sport on TV, I find one of the best answers is to try to engage in some positive thinking.

I’ve always thought it was a good thing to make a list of positives when we feel a bit low, and there are some definite positives at the moment, one of which has to be the glorious weather we have been enjoying these past few weeks. I’m also enjoying reading wonderful books and watching a serial on TV I’ve never had time for in the past. I’m getting lots of writing done and there is time to tend to the garden, to listen to music, to go for long walks and to stop and think about and discuss the fascinating issues our communities are faced with right now.

Two of the many things I love and am most grateful for are words and nature. I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages and I enjoy reading and writing poems, blogs, songs and articles where I try to choose the right words for the right effect. Being able to walk outdoors in nearby woodlands gives me time to think and often words and ideas come to me and start to gel into some sort of plan. 

Yesterday, I was walking in my favourite stretch of woodland when I came across a dappled area, where the trees were filtering the sunlight on the grass and I began to think about how much I love dappled things. It’s the idea that something isn’t just one colour: everything is marked with darker spots or rounded patches, dark against light. I began to think of other dappled things that are beautiful: horses, cows, cats. Shakespeare uses the word ‘brinded’ to mean dappled, patterned or tabby, as in the witch’s line ‘thrice the brinded cat hath mewed’ in Macbeth. It’s that shade again, light on darker brown, a mottled effect.

Then as I trudged through the dappled glade, I thought of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote Pied Beauty, a lyric poem or curtal sonnet praising God for creating beautiful variegated things. His poem implies that the world is transitory; he suggests that  everything in the universe is destined to end or alter apart from the unchangeable beauty of God. It struck me that, whatever our religious beliefs, the poem is apt. We live in uncertain times and yet nature is always there for us and, of course, we need to take good care of it in return.

What I love most about Hopkins is his striking choice of language and the ‘sprung rhythm’ he uses when he writes, a clever use of stressed and unstressed syllables. For great examples of this, look at the poems The Windhover and God’s Grandeur by Hopkins. I love the way he uses powerful words that have visual impact; he uses language cleverly, selecting evocative words and choosing effective repetition such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme. 

A Victorian poet, Hopkins’ life was tragic. He went to Balliol, Oxford, a promising academic. He became a Jesuit priest; he was probably bipolar and never published his poems in order to subdue any feelings of egotism. He was forty four years old when he died of typhoid in Dublin. Despite bouts of severe loneliness and melancholy throughout his life, his reported last words were: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy, I loved my life.’

Against this background of sadness and self-denial, Hopkins’ love of nature and his religious fervour, which is often written so powerfully that it seen akin to physical or erotic love, is astonishing. The Windhover, for example, parallels the flight of a bird of prey and the glory of Jesus’ life and crucifixion: it is a poem rich in symbolism: the bird buffeted in the wind is a metaphor for Christ’s divine revelation to mankind.

I digress: this blog post is about a walk in the woods, thinking about words and looking at pretty colours from the sun as it filters through the trees to the shadows on the grass. Dappled things are wonderful to look at and, during these times when pasta and rye flour may be in short supply, you will find me down in the woodlands walking in a glade where the sunlight falls onto the ground in attractive blotches. 

The poem below will explain it much better than I can and I hope you will enjoy Hopkins’ choice of language as much as I do. Whether the reader is religious or whether he or she just likes a good walk outdoors and enjoys the feeling of being immersed in nature, it is a poem that might bring inspiration or even comfort in these troubled times.  

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things 

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced –

fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

Dappled 2

The one about the tortured wife, the chicken and the empathy muscle

Recently, a soap opera storyline focusing on domestic abuse had me cringing with horror. The husband threw his dinner in the bin because the wife did not put any meat in the dish. The reason for this was because he controls how much she spends on food and she didn’t have enough money; he holds her bank card and allows her limited time to be out of the house to shop for groceries. In a fit of pique he sent her upstairs to the bedroom while he made a better dinner. Much later, he called her down to share a roast chicken meal with all the trimmings and the wife, placatory and submissive, tucked in and complimented him on the cooking. Watching her enjoy her meal, he told her she was eating Charlotte Brontë, her beloved pet chicken, because the old bird no longer produced eggs. She spat out her food and burst into tears.

I felt very sorry for the poor wife. As a vegan, I felt very sorry for the chicken although I would imagine plenty of non-vegans felt the same way: we all love out pets and it’s not easy to eat a creature with a name, albeit that of an expired author. An episode later, we see the husband in a panic because he thinks his wife has left him; he is weak and damaged and he can only relate to the ones he loves with deceit, control and spite. Of course, I felt sorry for them all but the wife’s situation is paramount in this instance. A soap opera, well-written and well-performed, can inspire empathy in the audience. To me, the episode with the slaughtered chicken was a modern-day Titus Andronicus.

I’ve just edited my next novel and one proof othat a story will stand up is that, having  picked through it a dozen and more times, I still feel empathy for the characters. I’m writing a new novel: having reached 75,000 words, I stayed awake at night wondering how the characters must feel in their current situations, feeling sorry for their plight. That’s silly: I’ve already plotted the ending: I know how it works out. But empathy is an unavoidable emotion and it’s good to practise these feelings by becoming involved in literature and drama.

We need to apply empathy to real life situations too. It’s very easy to feel compassion for made-up characters that we don’t really know and then become negative and critical about those we do. And real people we’ve never met are often obvious targets for Schadenfreude and envy: famous faces are sometimes objectified and condemned without empathy in the press and the public are invited to copy their example. Phrases such as ‘body-shaming’ and ‘trolling’ are relatively new terms and are linked to negative actions, words and thoughts.

The plight of the abused wife on the soap opera is not fantasy; the reason such dramas can move an audience to feel compassion is that they reflect the real world from a safer place. They are, as Bertolt Brecht might have said, Lehrstücke, learning plays devised to inform the audience about an opinion and to initiate understanding through acting. In short, if we feel for the plight of the wife, we can apply the same empathy elsewhere, to other people and their situations. For example, if we’re in a café and the waiter is bad -tempered or if we’re on a bus and the driver is grumpy, they might have all sorts of personal problems they have hidden below the surface. Maybe it’s better to smile and wish them a nice day than to report them or leave a bad review.

I watched my team play football the other evening on television: no-one played brilliantly but one player in particular wasn’t on his game. A later player rating in a newspaper would give him 3/10. The commentator said how bad he was; how he was completely reprehensible when an opposition player scored. I cheered pundit Jermaine Jenas when he spoke up in defence of the player, explaining that he’d recently returned from injury and it would take a few games before he returned to normal fitness. How refreshing to be empathic rather than critical.

It’s not always easy to reach out to the bad-tempered, the diffident or the distant people we meet. But it seems important to think beyond what we’re presented with. Because we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, perhaps it’s important not to judge or to criticise. And there are a whole lot of people out there who are lonely, anxious, stressed. There are people bulk-buying hand wash to save them from viruses; people losing their rights to live and work in this country; people who have health worries, money worries, relationship worries, even imaginary worries. Often people don’t show their anxiety; they make jokes, they shrug their troubles off and then go home and weep alone. We’ve all been in that position at some time, so we all know how it feels.

Reaching out and showing acts of kindness and empathy are not always easy. Often we all have so much to absorb us in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. But the recent soap opera episode reminded me that some people’s experiences, though their lives may seem normal on the outside, are anything but ordinary in reality. I was glad I watched the episode of the soap opera, even though I was horrified by the husband’s cruel behaviour and the death of the chicken: the programme gave me an opportunity to flex my empathy muscle. It’s important to keep it well-toned.

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Huge thanks to Toni Morrison for my torchlight tremors

It is always sad to read that a longstanding heroine has passed away. For years, when asked ‘Who’s your favourite author?’ I’d answer ‘Toni Morrison’, seconds before I wondered if I should have said ‘Jeanette Winterson’ or ‘Cormac McCarthy’. But Toni Morrison was always the first name on my lips. So when I heard that she had died, it made me feel sad: even though eighty eight is not a bad age to go, there is still a sense of loss when someone who was so huge in the world of literature and so important to my own literary education dies. She developed and extended the black American literary canon and she championed black writers for more than ten years as an editor at Random House. She was my favourite writer for years. I loved her stories.

I’d read so many of her novels: The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Tar Baby, The Song of Solomon, Sula, and The Origin of Others. My goodness, that woman could write! She could transport you to incredible places with her words; she could evoke characters you could believe were real and she could certainly mangle your emotions. For me, this was evident in all her novels, but nowhere were my emotions mangled more than in her book, Beloved.

 Beloved is a book about slavery, about grief and trying to forget the horrors of the past. Beloved is the baby daughter who was murdered by her mother, Sethe, desperately trying to prevent her child from being snatched into a life of slavery. Years later, she turns up at her mother’s home, a grown woman. Her name, Beloved, comes from the unfinished etching on her tombstone. As a concept, the idea is a spine tingle in itself.

I was drawn in from the first chapter, where Morrison explains that Sethe’s house is haunted by a ‘haint’; the spirit of the murdered child is not at rest and she is angry. Sethe’s sons run away in fear. Only Sethe seems to accept the presence of Beloved’s ‘lively spite.’ So when her daughter returns home in the flesh, Sethe wants to make amends and to love her daughter above herself. Of course, Beloved does not make life easy for Sethe or her younger sister, Denver, or Sethe’s man, Paul D. Beloved is charming, angry, needy, spiteful and vengeful.

I read Beloved while in Israel many years ago on a semi-professional trip, travelling and meeting people by day and reading avidly at night. I’d be tucked up in a tiny bed in Jerusalem, under the covers with a torch, reading the pages while my roommates snuffled softly in the bed opposite. I couldn’t put the book down. Morrison’s incredible writing, at times economic, at times heartbreakingly beautiful, had me hooked. The plot took my breath away; I understood the dilemma. A mother’s boundless love, a mother’s guilt and the desire to put her child first, combined with a spirit-made-flesh who will suck her parent dry. It was chilling, thrilling and all-engrossing.

Then, in the middle section of the novel, Toni Morrison did something truly amazing. Beloved starts to talk. In a language which is jumbled, poetic and terrifying, the character who could not speak when she first arrives at Sethe’s house tries her voice and we begin to understand what she is, why she is. I have never trembled so much under blankets at the end of a torch’s beam. It was truly powerful.

Beloved is a novel with many themes: mother’s love, the psychological impact of slavery, regret, pain and guilt; it is about what it means to be a mother and it is also about the conflict between manhood and motherhood. It is probably the most impactful book I have ever read. In some ways, it is the most important. It unveils horrors and it is traumatic, disturbing and beautifully written.

Toni Morrison is believed to have said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I wonder if Beloved was that book for her? For me, it was a life-changer, a novel in another class above most other novels I had read. And now Toni Morison has died, I want to express how much I loved her writing, and how especially I adored Beloved. It was a tale for which I felt the most respect, the most admiration; it was my favourite novel for which I felt the fattest love.

For, as Morrison says in Beloved, ‘Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.’