Sunday, 31 December 2017

The sweet sorrow of Christmas Bells

Castle Howard afternoon tea
Castle Howard and Chatsworth
After our visit to Burton Agnes to see the homemade decorations earlier this month we also recently visited Castle Howard for afternoon tea (thank you, Emily!) and then called into Chatsworth to see what efforts they’d made for Christmas. There’s a contradiction in my old-fashioned socialist values that these giant houses exist, but like the monarchy, as long as they’re “paying their way” and generating leisure and historical perspectives I can reconcile my conscience.

Stories past and present
I’m in my element in a stately home or castle. Every room is riddled with ghostly stories, past and present. Some real events, some imagined fantasies.

Every room tells a story
You can imagine as you wander through corridors that all the rooms have been inhabited by individuals with hopes, dreams, griefs, triumphs, sadnesses, loves and loathings. At this time of year every room and staircase in Castle Howard and Chatsworth is also trimmed with creative and colourful Christmas paraphernalia. The Christmas themes are gloriously sparkling and gaudy, and somehow also equally moving and poignant.

High expectations
Yes, Christmas time is a time to gather with loved ones and indulge in excessive food and drink. Yes, it is a time to wish peace and good will to all women and men. Yes, it is a time when it is glorious to give and wonderful to receive. We dream, we aspire, we laugh, we love, we buy into the illusion of it being a special time of year. God bless us, everyone!

Painful memories
But of course it is a series of days just like any other series of days and we might be reminded of souls departed, absent loved ones, victims of homelessness and loneliness, migrants and the dispossessed, the poor and the needy, the bereaved and the traumatised. God bless us, everyone!

The shock and awe of the Nativity
Even the Nativity story is cockeyed with sweet sorrow: on the one hand there is
  • an adorable baby
  • picturesque shepherds and lambs and
  • fairy-godmother-style-ThreeKingsFollowingAStar;
Angels on high at Castle Howard
and on the other hand there are
  • migrants being oppressed by an occupying army’s controlling census
  • a (supernatural?) unexpected pregnancy
  • an accommodation crisis and
  • a jealous king planning to Slaughter all the Innocents throughout the region.
A combination of fairy tale, religion, Myth, Legend, Eastenders and a horror film.

Angels on high
The decorations at Castle Howard were themed “angels on high” and everywhere you looked pairs of wings, cherubs, stylized angels or suggestions of angels peered down. Some were in windows, some in silhouette, some in precarious positions and some were suggested by ribbons or drapes. Some were intimate in nature, some were flamboyant and some seemed shy and half-hidden in Christmas trees.
Chatsworth House: Oh Dickens
Oh Dickens
Chatsworth, following its brilliant Fashion-themed displays earlier in the year, provided a Dickensian treat for Christmas. Books and quotations from Dickens tumbled down from piles of books and threads of fabric. The story of A Christmas Carol featured prominently, as you might expect (including a ghastly trembling animatronic Scrooge) but so did The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit and, near the end a tragically truthful Miss Havisham from Great Expectations haunting her wedding breakfast table, decayed and cobwebby.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
The opening of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities contains that famous paradoxical repetition and Christmas can be like that. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…. Christmas contains all these contrasts.

Christmas contrasts 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired to write the following poem in 1863 during the American Civil War when his son disobeyed his fatherly instructions and went off to fight for the Union. The poem inspired the carol I Heard the bells on Christmas Day and whilst it celebrates many Christamassy ideas, it also captures the contrasts of right and wrong, war and peace, night and day, love and hate.

Christmas Bells
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Miss Havisham from Great Expectations haunts her wedding breakfast....

Stories future
And so Goodbye Christmas for another year. Goodbye to 2017. Goodbye to 2 years of 5 blogs a month. From January I’ll spend less time blogging and more time working on editing my Rhenium Tales. 2018 will be the year in which I send my words to a book agent to see if anyone outside my life might be interested. Will the bells ring for me? Time will tell.
The incredible melting snowman - will this be a symbol of me in 2018? Or will I be the Christmas cake with a chunk ripped out of it? Or the smiling guy at the Thompson's Secret Santa table, full of tidings of comfort and joy....

Monday, 25 December 2017

2017 Secret Santa

A long-standing tradition with the Thompsons in Badby is to meet for an early Christmas dinner and swap secret Santa presents. And so it was again and so it was (again) marvellous. Capped by a David Edgar-penned Royal Shakespeare Company production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, spectacularly beautiful but also capturing the hard-nosed original message about child and family poverty. Truly a production for our times (pictures courtesty of the RSC website and Manuel Harlan. I’ve riffed on Christmas in the past (here and here and here.) What do I feel this year?
RSC production of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, photos from RSC website by Manuel Harlan 
There are plenty of personal highlights in 2017 but I feel that the world has been a crueller place with a pernicious abuse of social media, catastrophic fake news and volatile (often bullying) political decisions. I can only hope that 2017 will be a kinder, more compassionate, more intelligent period for humanity. The next generations coming along deserve a better world. Can we not achieve that? Let’s see…. the readiness is all.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Building a ship

Fiction and non-fiction
Coming out of my novel into the real world is sometimes a discombobulating experience. What’s happening on the planet Rhenium is often more real to me than what’s happening in Europe and America. Rhenium makes more sense to me. I can control it after all. Perhaps that’s why some writers are drawn to create new worlds – because current affairs in the real world are too disheartening.

Out-of-body experiences
As an English teacher I encouraged students to write freely, unself-consciously, without thinking too much – get words down and then edit into shape. I know I believed it when I taught it but now, as a writer myself, I’m discovering the supernatural truth of it. So much has happened to my characters that I didn’t expect – some characters have become more important than others, some have changed genders, some have changed jobs, and some have been amalgamated. These things just happen in the creative splurge. Coming up for air, out of the writing into the real world, is a vital step. Looking back now at the whole thing – trying to see the wood rather than the individual trees – there are some obvious things that I couldn’t see before. How could I have been so clumsy? stupid? stubborn? inept? crass? And the questions that First Reader Emily asked me (and ask me and will continue to ask me) suddenly hit home…. and the insights provided by my medical consultants, my sailing consultants, my energy consultants…. these are of course friends and family, not paid consultants!.... and their comments trigger other thoughts and paths to explore. So 15 chapters have become 21 chapters, my main character Raydan has now gained a step-brother and step-sister as well as a batch of cousins that live in his House. His hair remains red, he still plays the mandolin, he still wants a girlfriend. I’m finding it comforting that he has stayed constant among all the changes.

Yearning for the endless sea
French writer of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a short book I love very much wrote the following and it somehow reflects the creative process to me:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The revised reveal....

So, Reader, I went on that course about how to get an agent….
And feel very encouraged. And thank you to any of you who’ve conveyed to me thoughts about my First Reveal…. (click here for ideas and mood-visuals in The first reveal….)

And so here is the new (I think improved) blurb
Raydan Wakes
On New Year’s Eve, Raydan Brain wants two things. He wants to be Branded into The Academy. He also wants a girlfriend. Raydan is on the brink of romantic success with Vera Valente, when they discover that both their parents belong to a secret organisation plotting dangerous missions. Can Raydan and Vera learn to trust their parents? Everyone is catapulted into chaos by society’s escalating addiction to the drug Zip, a series of random knife attacks, and the appearance of a murderous hybrid monster.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Burton Agnes Hall and Gardens

December, so I’m prepared to think about Christmas
A few things let me know that the season of peace and goodwill is approaching….
Lists, festive plans, preparing prezzies
Morning frost, slipping and sliding on pavements, visible breath in the colder air. And December is on the calendar. And my big bro has said White Rabbits on Facebook….

Burton Agnes Hall and Gardens
Earlier in the year we discovered the Elizabethan manor between Hull and Scarborough and went in particular to see the Gardens (blog link here.) Last weekend we had a day enjoying the Christmas trimmings.
Cosy and family-oriented
The Great Hall has a beautifully decorated tree dominating the space and a roaring fire with a piano available for punters to tinkle. Each room and space seems to have its own “theme” with quirky effects and hidden surprises.
Own personal favourites
I particularly appreciated the effects in the White Room and the Chinese Room. Garden-lover Sally especially enjoyed that materials from the Hall’s Gardens were used as base materials in many of the designs. Emily, who prompted us to go, loved the whole experience, particularly since it acted as a spur to launch this year’s Christmas season.

Home-made, personalised experience
Sometimes in grand houses it’s easy to feel venomously resentful about the disparity of life opportunities for different people in different places. But Burton Agnes, in my opinion, has an atmosphere of generosity and homeliness. Many members of staff had contributed to the decorations which, I understand, were coordinated by Olivia Cunliffe-Lister.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on your troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on your troubles will be miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The first reveal....

"Mood board" for Raydan and his family and friends
First draft blurb for my (first) YA novel
I’ve (so far) dumped 4,020 words of my first novel, Raydan Wakes, in the ruthless edit I begun at the beginning of November. To help me not feel so bereft, I’ve written the rough cut of the first three chapters of Book Two, Raydan Seeks, and mapped out the main strands of Book Three. (It’s a trilogy aimed at fans of dystopian fiction.) Up until this day First Reader Emily is the only person who has any inkling of what my efforts are about, but I’ll be attending a course soon about trying to get an agent, so I need to start

  • putting my head above the parapet
  • testing the waters
  • dipping my toe in….
  • and any number of other metaphors….

so here below is what I might offer to entice readers to begin turning the pages. Any thoughts or reactions are welcome, but be gentle: I’m a grown up but an easily-bruised one.
"Mood board" for aspects of the planet Rhenium

Raydan Wakes
Mysterious events catapult Raydan and Vera into a dangerous crisis. Who’s being smuggled into The Academy at midnight? Who’s orchestrating the murders of unconnected people? Where are the missing parents of Raydan’s best friend? And how are medical supplies becoming contaminated? The leaders of the planet Rhenium urge everyone to Keep The Balance but unknown forces are tipping The Balance into a civil war.
Ideas for the population of Rhenium

The Twelve Orders of Rhenium....

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Bridge over troubled waters

Humber Bridge (Yorkshire), Forth Bridge (Scotland)
Bridges are awe-inspiring objects. I am happily married to someone who, if anything, loves bridges more than I do. One of mine and Sally’s favourite spots in Yorkshire is the elegant (and seemingly impossible) Humber Bridge. A recent trip to Anglesey provided sights of two bridges near each other: the Menai Bridge and the Britannia Bridge. Who isn’t impressed with Tower Bridge in London? (though I have a personal fetish for Blackfriars Bridge.) Even those who haven’t visited know from advertisements, films and TV what the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fancisco looks like. Sally and I hope one day to visit the Øresund Bridge between Malmö and Copenhagen and I have a fantasy that one day we’ll sail under the Sydney Harbour Bridge down under.
Clockwise from top right: Menai Bridge (Anglesey), Moon Gate (Beijing), Golden Gate (San Francisco), Clifton Suspension (Bristol), Allahverdi Khan (Iran), Tower Bridge (London), Millau Viaduct (France)

Bridges in culture
Wordsworth wrote a famous poem Composed Upon Westminster Bridge and Longfellow’s The Bridge was always an accessible and attractive poem to use when teaching younger pupils (both easily found online.) If war films shiver your timbers you will be familiar with The Bridge Over The River Kwai or A Bridge Too Far (bridges at Tha Ma Kham and Arnhem respectively.) A far gentler bridge experience is explored in The Bridges of Madison County but recently the Swedish/Danish TV thriller, The Bridge (Bron/Broen) has been a favourite watch in my house when the main characters are desperate to bridge gaps of understanding in multiple ways as they cross backwards and forwards from Sweden to Denmark and in and out of each other’s lives.
Øresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark

Westminster Bridge (London), Mackinac Bridge (Michigan)
Bridges as symbols
For our subconsciousness and in our dreams a bridge can mean many things:
  • a bridge can most obviously represent a journey….
  • whether it crosses to the other side or falls short is said to be connected to transitions in our life that are difficult….
  • whether it falls down or has gaps in it or is wobbly can indicate great anxiety….
  • a bridge can represent a crossing from one state to another, from one phase of life to another, a bridging of a gap….
  • in Tarot The Bridge represents stability, progress, directions or connections….
  • we talk about “pulling up the drawbridge” to mean hunkering down and hiding away….
  • we talk about “crossing over to the other side” meaning to die, to reach heaven….
  • we advise against “burning our bridges” for obvious reasons, highlighting the inability to turn back on a decision….
  • a bridge can symbolise birth, the penis (in Freudian analysis apparently), the meeting between men and women, young and old, ancient and new….
  • in a dream a bridge can represent both safety or danger depending on context, an obstacle that needs to be confronted and crossed….
  • a very useful and fruitful symbol, a bridge is….
Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge in Zhangjiajie National Park (China) and Clopton Bridge (Stratford-upon-Avon)
Potentially tragic, potentially hopeful
Crossing a bridge can feel like an act of sadness if you’re leaving somewhere precious; but equally it can be an uplifting and exciting arrival to a new way of life. Bridges are phenomenal feats of engineering, a real tribute to the human capacity for determination and imagination. Bridges can be associated, tragically, with suicide spots; but equally couples regularly propose on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. (Current, only-for-now US President Trump, could do well to pay heed to his fellow American, Joseph Fort Newton, who said People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.)

Raydan at the Watchtower overlooking Grayton Bridge
The main character in my book, Raydan Wakes, starts his story overlooking a bridge. Raydan is on Bridge Duty, keeping an eye on the comings and goings over a particular bridge in a remote spot. His watch partner is throwing up in the bathroom so Raydan is left on his own feeling jittery when a small group arrives unexpectedly in the minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve….
Blue Bridge (Wakefield), Brooklyn Bridge (New York), Clifton Suspension (again, in Bristol), Garabit Viaduct (France), Eshina Ohashi (Japan, nicknamed the rollercoaster bridge)

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Not necessarily in the right order

Andrew Preview with Eric and Ernie

The late great Eric Morecambe
In the celebrated sketch with Andrew Preview (André Previn), Morecambe and Wise trick the great composer and conductor into raising his baton to steer Eric Morecambe through a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Of course Ernie is insanely wound up trying to make things go smoothly and Eric is full of advice for the orchestra (“not too heavy on the banjos”!) But the line that is quoted most often (by me anyway) is when Mr Preview (as he is still addressed by taxi drivers apparently) roars at Eric that he is playing “all the wrong notes” and Eric grabs André Previn (the epitome of a good sport) by the frock coat lapels and exasperatedly growls at him “I am playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order!”

Stephen King
In his superb On Writing Stephen King recounts the story of a friend of James Joyce who visited to find the genius Irish author sprawled in agony over his desk at the end of his writing day. The conversation went something like this:
Friend: James, what’s wrong? Is it the work?
James Joyce: (nods in despair)
Friend: How many words did you get today?
James Joyce: Seven.
Friend: But James…. that’s good, at least for you.
James Joyce: Yes, I suppose it is…. but I don’t know what order they go in!

60 to 36
I’m not equating myself with either Eric Morecambe or James Joyce, but I know how they feel…. sometimes I think I’ve got the right words in my writing but they’re not in the right order, and sometimes I think what's drafted and redrafted could be better. Oh, the agonies of composition. What I have realised (something I taught to teenagers but now I know it’s true in reality because of my experience as a retirement-hobby writer) is another insight from Stephen King:
To write is human, to edit is divine
One decision I’ve made (since I’ve now embarked on writing Book 2 (and editing Book 1) of my Rhenium Tales trilogy) is that to stand any chance of finishing my magnum opus, the frequency of my blog posts needs to reduce. So from next year, instead of 5 posts a month, I’m going to aim for 3 posts a month (36 a year instead of 60 a year.) I started my blog in August 2014 as way of disciplining myself to “publish” something regularly whether I wanted to or not and I’ve mostly managed that but I have to acknowledge that Raydan’s story is tugging at my mind more insistently than ever and I have to manage time more efficiently.

Omit needless words
In his second forward to On Writing Stephen King quotes from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (published in 1918.) King absolutely believes in the Rule 17 in the chapter entitled Principles of Composition. Rule 17 reads: “Omit needless words.” Therefore….

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Sally, me, Harriet, Emily, Chris at Bolton Abbey bonfire 2017 - all pictures from the night by Emily, Harriet or Chris
Chariots of Fire
Fireworks to make the brain gasp…. food, drink and a mighty bonfire…. 2017 November 5th at Bolton Abbey. Mulled wine and stodgy snacks…. a treat of a night after a sunset walk along to the Strid and through the spooky woods.

No Flaming Guy
Happily there was no guy on top of the bonfire so Guido Fawkes (and my Primary School teachers) can rest easy. No “Let’s burn the Catholic” sentiments…. I assume Fawkes’s school in York, St Peter’s, continues to refrain from burning their former student. And there were no bones either, as far as I could tell, on the Bolton Abbey bonfire, even though that’s where the word comes from: bone-fire, the fire that burnt all the dug-up bones when medieval priests needed to make more room in the cemetery…. ah, the lovely traditions of the UK…. we’ll stop burning human bones after the Gunpowder Plot and instead celebrate the incineration of a particular Catholic who was caught red-handed in a London cellar on November 5th 1606.

36 barrels
The conspirators positioned 36 barrels underneath the House of Lords. Robert Catesby’s plot may well have succeeded had (probably) one member not warned off his brother-in-law. It’s possible the gunpowder might have been degraded so far as to be useless since the event kept getting postponed. But if Guy Fawkes (aka John Johnson – an excellent secret agent name!) had indeed lit the fuse and the explosion succeeded it would have taken out an area with a radius of 500m from the impact, certainly enough to kill the king and a great number of peers of the realm gathered for the State Opening of Parliament. Although the original cellar was destroyed in a fire during the Victorian period, the Yeoman of the Guard still parade through the cellars of Westminster, looking for explosive devices, in the hours before the State Opening of Parliament today.

Pope Day
Why don’t we commemorate Robert Catesby, the ringleader, rather than Guy Fawkes? The recent BBC dramatisation of events suggested Catesby was fuelled by personal revenge as much as political and religious belief. The design of the production certainly caught the tensions and paranoia throughout the land following the end of Elizabeth I’s long reign. And captured accurately the arbitrary and often violent punishments given to recusant Catholics. In America Bonfire Night was called “Pope Day” throughout the 17th Century.

Broken neck
Do we remember Guy Fawkes because James I apparently admired the guy for surviving two days of torture before finally (supposedly) making a confession? The Attorney General ordered that each of the (surviving) conspirators would be drawn backwards to his punishment, by a horse, with his head nearest the ground. They were then to be be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both" by cutting off their genitalia which would be “burnt before their eyes.” Their bowels would then be removed in full view and, if the condemned were still alive, their hearts would be removed. They would then be decapitated and their dismembered bodies displayed in “different corners of the land so that they might become prey for the fowls of the air and the instruction of all.” Guy Fawkes, refusing to have his bollocks removed whilst alive, jumped from the dismemberment platform to break his own neck.
Josh's Screaming Skull pumpkins and creations by neighbours

The U certificate rhyme
Remember, remember, the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot?
Impressive pumpkins by Harriet and friends

The (now-forgotten?) verses (note the later ones!)
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow

By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match
So, holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King!

A stick and a stake for King James’ sake
If you won’t give me one, I’ll take two
The better for me and the worse for you

A rope, a rope to hang the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him

What shall we do with him?
Burn him!
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.

Hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah!
Terrorists or freedom fighters?