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Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My New Coat Makes Me Happy

New Year is a time for clearing out the old and bringing in the new. While clearing wardrobes and cupboards, it occurred to me how interesting it is that some garments - regardless of their appearance - make you feel great when you're wearing them, and others have associations with sadness or gloom that doesn't come from any specific moment while wearing them. I once had a wonderful pair of 'designer-label' (whatever that really means since everything is designed by someone!) jeans that fitted to perfection but every time I put them on, I felt unhappy. Then there was an old scruffy jumper that I wore till it virtually fell from my shoulders, and I parted with it reluctantly because it had a happy atmosphere about it. Perhaps the jeans were made in some sweat shop by some unhappy person who was being paid a pittance for their efforts and every stitch was sewn in with sadness (I try to find out where things come from to make sure that doesn't happen but you never know). Perhaps the scruffy jumper was made by a happy person somewhere...
They say that happy cooks create meals that bring health and joy; unhappy cooks, whatever their ability, create meals that leave an unhappy taste. I think this is true.
There is an atmosphere about us that we create. We might think that what we do is worthless or meaningless and makes no difference, or that some moments of our lives are unimportant. Standing in a queue in a post office or supermarket, we might feel like we're just killing time, but supposing that every moment we are creating something - adding to, or taking from the loveliness of creation. It makes every moment worthwhile. It makes a difference what we send out in everything we do.
If any of the people who made my new coat - which I love! - chances upon this site, I hope you know that every button you sewed, every seam, and the feel of the wool (thank you, sheep, and farmer and dyer and everyone else involved in its creation) has made someone very happy. Thank you!! How beautiful to create things that bring so much pleasure to others!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Wars of Religion and Divine Love

I realize that these views may be controversial and it isn't my intention to criticise or offend anyone else's beliefs. These are merely my thoughts at Christmas-time, which is always a time of reflection.
"Religion," I was taught as a child, is a 'rule of life' or way of measuring - a religio - or 'right thinking.' The religion in which I was raised, preached a beautiful God of Love; a Father; a God whom we find in each other and who, because we all made such a mess of it, was incarnated in Jesus. I loved my religion - I loved the incense, the sense of it touching my own personal 'tragic hero' (on which many of us, in our youth, love to thrive); I loved the beauty of stained-glass windows and the smell of churches, the beautiful writings of saints, the loveliness of the people within my parish...and I loved how it touched my own sense of martyrdom. But some things didn't make sense. I could accept those which didn't make sense to my intellect (after all, I was told, you're not God so His ways are mysterious to us); I could accept those that didn't make sense to my heart - the age-old question "If God is love, why do people suffer?" - Okay, God's ways are mysterious and we step outside of our immediate surroundings and it all makes sense. But still there was niggle right down in my soul - nothing to do with intellect or emotion...something deeper.
The story of the Garden of Eden, I learned, was the terrible tragedy of our kindly Father, offering us everything that was beautiful, and what did our forebears do? They ungraciously disobeyed him and ate the fruit of the wrong tree. For that, women (since the woman, having been temped by the serpent, tempted the man) were condemned forever to suffer in childbirth and humanity was condemned to sweat and labour and ousted from the garden. Now, it wasn't just the culprits who suffered that, but everyone forever. So...the kind, omnipotent, omniscient God of Love created a beautiful garden with a great big temptation in the middle of it; his children yielded to temptation and ever since then we all crawl on our bellies and are born with original sin. "Ho hum!" I thought as a child, "that seems a bit petty from someone so loving and so great?" and when I questioned this was told, "Everyone who ever lived would have committed the same sin - everyone except Jesus or Mary - and that is why we are who we are. That is the meaning of original sin."
So, basically, we're born 'bad' but we're the children of God? Does sour fruit come from a healthy tree? Do figs bring forth grapes? Does the God of Love bring forth 'bad' children?
Happily, I was told, our loving Father takes pity on us and became Incarnate to show us the extent of His love. The beautiful Christ-child was born; angels sang, wise men and kings worshipped him and all kinds of wonders took place because we were at last saved from the sins of our forebears. Hallelujah! Except, we were so wicked that this beautiful child had to then take upon himself the weight of all of our sins down the ages. He had to go through the sheer horror of the crucifixion - this innocent one - to redeem us. Why? Who asked that of an innocent one? Our loving Father (still holding a grudge because someone ate an apple once)? Satan - then Satan is more powerful than Love?? Some sin it must have been to merit such an excruciating (literally) death of an innocent!
I studied theology to degree level to try to understand this. I read Anselm and Augustine and Aquinas and Abelard - saw all the heretics who were burned to death for being a little off-course (or in disagreement with the establishment), saw the simple witches through the ages (the women who simply returned to what we all know in our blood and bones about the real Loving God - masculine/feminine in One), saw a lot of noise about nothing...and spent much of the time looking out of the window at people walking by as leaves fell, or as children ran in the snow and laughed, or as someone pushed a wheelchair and cared for someone else - I saw God in all of that and it was very different from the message of the theologians and authorities. Nothing I learned of those ancient debates explained it. And I was told it was arrogant to disagree with the knowledge and tradition of ages and of far wiser people than I am. So I studied history and read of the 'Wars of Religion', the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation - the martyrs and murders, the heathen and those baptised at sword point....and I looked out of the window and saw the children play in the snow, the old people chatting amid the fallen leaves, the drunks, the beggars, the beautiful people...
Here, in the midst of the Christmas season, there is a lovely crib, handed down through three generations. The figures are all beautifully coloured and so carefully created in such detail with their gold and frankincense and myrrh, the vivid and tasteful colours of their clothes, their serene faces - it is a truly beautiful work of art. It has nothing to do with original sin or the notions of theologians or the attempts of churches to control, or of ideologies or war lords who adopt a religion in order to amass armies, or those who decide that someone else's way of life, sexuality or beliefs are somehow damned. It has everything to do with the Christ within us all. Everything to do with recognizing once and for all that no loving Father would ever condemn generation after generation with original sin, or even see such an abhorrent notion, still less would demand the death of an innocent, or have to die himself to 'save' us.
To my mind, Jesus' message, the message of Christmas, is that Christ lives in each one of us - not only the baby Jesus in the manger (though I adore him), but in each one of us; we are all the expression of Life, of Love, of Freedom from ideologies, of freedom from having to fight for ideologies, to kill for ideologies, or to spend centuries repenting the 'sins of the fathers' and crawl through our lives as sinful worms in the dust. The reality is, surely, that Love means Love - not sentimental or Jesus-the-anaesthetic but Love that says we are, each of us, God's expression, free, as Christ is free.
I honour and worship the child in the manger. I honour you, as you are reading this as an equally beautiful expression of the beautiful creator of all.
Merry Christmas-tide and a very Happy New Year to you!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Christmas Spirit

I saw the Christmas Spirit
through an image of the past,
in a stable, warm and sheltered
from the night wind's icy blast,
when the shepherds trudged at midnight
through the pasture bleak and wild,
to behold that God is with us
in the clear eyes of a child.

And all the Christmases since then,
and not so long ago,
when we ran together, laughing
through our childhood in the snow,
when we hung our hopeful stockings
and we listened for the sleigh,
and we knew that God is with us
in the joy of Christmas Day.

And I saw the Christmas Spirit
in an image of our time,
when the world grew dark and fearful,
filled with violence and crime,
when the power-seeking despot
sent his soldiers through the town,
set to slay the Christmas Spirit,
to protect his hollow crown.

And I saw the politicians
of all countries and all years,
who would crush the Christmas Spirit,
by instilling us with fear,
taking freedoms, claiming power
till the Christ who lives within,
still finds, when he comes here knocking,
that there's no room in the inn.

But I saw the Christmas Spirit
in a dream of what could be,
when we recognize our beauty
and the Truth will make us free:
when we listen in the silence
and we follow our own call,
from that holy child of Bethlehem
who lives within us all.

O, little child, now sleeping
on the sharp and prickling straw,
come live through us this Christmas,
make us innocent once more,
may our hearts be free and fearless
till, like angels from above,
we'll rejoice that God with us,
and be messengers of love.

(Christina Croft)

Friday, 12 December 2008

Most Beautiful Princess

I recently had the opportunity to discuss Most Beautiful Princess with a group of readers here in America. This gave rise to a number of questions, which we put to Christina in writing (as she is in England). It might be of interest to other readers to read the questions and responses.

Cheryl: Prior to writing this novel, you had written a biography of Ella. What inspired you to do that in the first place?


Christina: The murder of the Russian Imperial Family is, of course, extremely well-known, and yet, though I was familiar with that, I had never heard anything about Ella until about ten years ago when I came across an article about her. I was amazed that this woman, who had once been seen as 'the most beautiful princess in Europe' and who had made such an impact on so many lives, was little more than a footnote in history. It was she who had virtually single-handedly engineered the marriage of her sister, Alix, to the future Tsar Nicholas II; she had - with her own hands! - picked up the remains of her husband when he was blown to pieces by a terrorist's bomb, and then forgiven his assassin; and she had done something totally unheard of in dispensing with her wealth in order to bring beauty to the poorest part of Moscow, personally tending the most abject patients in her hospital, and revealing a completely different side to the Imperial Family than the one which is usually presented of them living in luxury, oblivious of the poor around them. Most people I spoke with had heard of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, but I did not meet anyone who had even heard a word about Ella. Her statue stands above the door or Westminster Abbey and thousands of people pass it each day, knowing nothing about this remarkable life. At that time, there was no biography of the Grand Duchess published in England, and my sole aim in writing it was to make her better known as I feel she is one of the forgotten heroines of history, and a great inspiration to people today.

Cheryl: You decided to re-write the biography as a novel. Why was that?

Christina: A biography allows little room for interpreting feelings, emotions or spirituality. Biography, I think, is written very much from the head, whereas a novel can be written also from the heart. The more I learned about Ella, and the more I considered her motives and her spiritual experiences, the more I felt I 'knew' her and I wanted to go beyond the contraints of a purely 'factual' biography, wherein everything has to be cited from sources. I believe there are emotions and experiences that are common to all of us, which we never commit to paper or store in archives. I have no written sources for my own experiences of love, fear, awe and so on, yet I know I have experienced these things. When it comes to spiritual experiences - and Ella's, I am sure, were intense - it is even less likely that such things are put down in writing. Nor is it possible in a biography to state what someone was thinking, but it is possible to work backwards, seeing through actions to the motivations behind them, and the thoughts behind that motivation. There is much more freedom in a novel to create a fully-rounded human being, making the subject much more accessible so that readers can empathise more fully. That is what I hoped to achieve by this. I wish there were another term for this genre - something like 'faction' or 'ficto-biography' - as this book names no fictional characters, nor does it include any events which didn't actually happen. It is basically a biography with thoughts, words and interpretation of a heart, rather than simply events.

Cheryl: From the prologue of the book we know of Ella's ultimate fate. Why did you choose to provide that information first?


Christina: The first thing I discovered about Ella was that she was murdered in so horrific a way by the Bolsheviks. It was that fact that led me to want to know more, and so many questions gnawed at me. Why did a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, a woman whom the Muscovites revered as a saint, meet so terrible a fate? Why was she a nun? Why didn't she escape when she still had the chance? How had she come from those glittering ballrooms, stunning every man in the room, to this violent end? The more I thought about this, the more it seemed that knowing the end of the story at the beginning, creates the whole sense of where Ella's whole life was leading. And, although the prologue speaks of her ultimate fate, there is an added epilogue, which contains some information not revealed at the beginning which, I think, adds a whole new perspective on her death...and beyond!

Cheryl: In spite of the tragedy of the story, several people have commented upon feeling much better and more uplifted after reading this novel. Why do you think that is?

Christina: I am very happy if people feel that way. I think that, in spite of the end, Ella's life is not gloomy or depressing because it was a very full life and she achieved so much in those fifty-three years. The images of beautiful malachite ballrooms, the dazzling jewels, the glorious splendour of it all, raises my heart when I think of them, but then, too there is all that Ella did to bring beauty into the ugliest parts of the city. She seemed to experience everything from adulation - for her physical beauty, and later for her spiritual beauty - to being attacked as a 'Hessian witch' or a 'German spy'. She knew the opulence of that fabulous Russian Court, and she knew the absolute squalor of the slums. She knew awe and wonder and she knew despair. Hers was a life lived to the full and I think that is an uplifting thought.

Cheryl: During her lifetime Ella's marriage was the subject of so much rumor and gossip, and the speculation about whether or not the marriage was consummated or whether Serge was homosexual, continues to this day. In Most Beautiful Princess, you present a more sympathetic view of Serge. Why is that?

Christina: I think a lot of very one-sided and superficial descriptions of Serge have been written. In numerous places, I have read glib lines about, "Ella was very unhappily married," "Serge was gay," "Serge treated her badly." It all seems to be a quick - and in my view, mistaken - judgement. No one is that one-dimensional, and I think both Ella and Serge were deeply complex characters. Serge has so often been made into some kind of one-dimensional villain, rather than a very highly-strung man, desperately struggling to keep his frustration in check - and that frustration often resulting in outbursts of temper. Ella loved him and mourned him deeply and, as I see it, gossip and rumour caused her more pain and humiliation than anything she suffered from Serge. That doesn't mean I think he was easy to live with - and I hope that comes across clearly in the book. I believe we can observe a lot in body language and the more photographs you see of Serge, the more obvious it becomes that he had something to hide...

Cheryl: Although you obviously love your characters, you have not shied away from presenting Ella's human flaws. You had no difficulty in doing that?

Christina: Not at all. As a child I read the lives of so many canonised saints who were far too good to be true, or even real. Ella was not a plaster-cast image, but a real person with the same emotions we all have. Characters are far more endearing and we can empathise with them more fully when we know they are no different than we are.

Cheryl: In this midst of this very moving story, there are times when it appears that Queen Victoria provides the light - even comic - relief. Isn't that surprising, considering the general perception of her as a rather dour and unamused woman?

Christina: Queen Victoria never fails to amuse me! A busybody, always wanting to know the latest gossip; viewing her own marriage to Albert as more blissful than anyone else's; viewing her own sorrow as deeper than anyone else's, and yet, at the same time being so genuinely concerned and loving towards her granddaughters. I love Queen Victoria! And she was nothing like the staid old widow that she is often presented as being!

Cheryl: The novel is rich in descriptions that appeal to every sense. We can smell the scents of jasmine in the Holy Land, or the explosives from the bombed carriage in Moscow. We can hear the music in the ballrooms, feel the icy wind, see the sun rising over the Moskva River. How do you go about creating these very sensual images that give us the impression that we are actually there?

Christina: Usually, scenes just come to me in an image and I simply sit and listen to music, look at the window in the night, and the scenes appear before me as though on a cinema screen. I don't know where it comes from, it's just like seeing a film in front of my eyes, and, as it becomes clearer, I just smell the scents and hear the sounds. It's as though I don't have anything to do with it. It just happens.

Cheryl: Are there any other members of Queen Victoria's family about whom you'd like to write a similar style of book?
Christina: Many of them! Prince Albert, whom I love! Vicky (Empress Frederick) and Alice, Ella's mother; Moretta of Prussia...even the Kaiser! But, first I need to complete The Beckford Suite, which is a sequel to an earlier historical novel - The Fields Laid Waste - set at the opposite end of the social ladder.

Most Beautiful Princess

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Palgrave's Golden Treasury

When I was a little child, my Mum used to quote poetry while she bathed us. She washed our hair quoting Charles Kingsley's beautiful poem, "The Sands of Dee" :

"O, is it weed, or fish or floating hair -
A tress of golden hair,
A drowned maiden's hair,
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
Among the stakes of Dee..."


(Yikes, no wonder I had nightmares about drowning!!).

She quoted the beautiful, "Lady of Shalott"

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye
That clothe the wold...


And a hundred more besides. As soon as I was able, I ran to her 'Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Poetry' and devoured all the words which, even when they had no meaning to me, sounded so beautiful.

John Masefield's beautiful Cargoes:

Quinquireme of Ninevah
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory,
Apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood and cedarwood
And sweet white wine...


Or Caroline Sarah Elizabeth Norton's, "I do not love thee"

I do not love thee, no, I do not love thee,
And yet when thou art absent, I am sad
And envy even the quiet blue sky above thee,
Whose silent stars may see thee and be glad.


It concerns me sometimes to think this beauty is not something that is part and parcel of everyday life now. Children have not heard of Masefield or Kingsley or even Longfellow and Tennyson. There are times when we feel things and do not have words to express them and suddenly, in such times, moments of poetry - remembered lines - express them for us so clearly. At times we all lack the vocabulary to express our highest selves, or to express the deepest reaches of our souls, but sometimes lines of poetry - like bars of music - say things for us that just 'get it'.

How has it come about that everything is now taken to its lowest common denominator? So-called poetry writes of joy-riders; so-called art speaks of unmade beds, pickled fish, emptiness. For heaven's sake - we are worth more than this! Isn't it time to return to beautiful language, beautiful art, beautiful imagery? Palgrave's Golden Treasury remains with me always - a real treasury of beauty.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A Song From "Branwell" - Where Wild Geese Fly

Where Wild Geese Fly

Chill falls the winter
and the evening sun descending,
pale as the moon.
An icy November sky.
Frozen the river,
and another day is ending.
Wild poppies wither in the frost
and die.

And wild geese fly
on silver wings over meadows,
far from this land,
this season of sad songs and snow.
Do they know I would go
if I had wings I’d follow,
home to the love I left so long ago?

Well I remember
burning bonfires bright and warming,
firelight and friends,
the glow of an autumn blaze.
On through December,
when the icicles were forming,
sleigh rides and laughter
of my childhood days.

And wild geese fly
on silver wings over meadows,
far from this land,
this season of sad songs and snow.
Do they know I would go
if I had wings I’d follow,
home to the love I left so long ago?

Soon shall the summer
steal across the wide horizon,
melting the ice
as southerly thaw winds blow.
Then shall the petals
shed their scent across the gardens
calling me back to love
I left so long ago.

And wild geese fly
on silver wings
over meadows,
far from this land,
this season of sad songs and snow,
do they know
I shall go!
I’ll find my wings and follow
home to the love I left so long ago.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore

There's a song in "Gigi" called I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore.

We live very much in youth culture - I believe that is truer in America than in England, though I might be mistaken about that - and people go to such extremes to remove any signs of ageing, as though it is shameful to no longer be young.

Nature has no such qualms. Nature goes through her seasons so happily and the wise old trees are equally beautiful as the saplings, often more so. The trees and flowers are so refreshing in the spring, but the trees in the winter have a loveliness of their own. It's a wisdom, a certainty, a sense of everything being as it should be. Faces which are stretched and pulled tight by a scalpel are not nearly as beautiful to me as faces that tell a story - misery, selfishness, kindness, laughter - all these things are etched into faces and do we really want to remove those signs of life experience? Those signs of wisdom?

There are elderly people who take great pride in being old - why? It's no great honour to say you lived a long time. Equally there are people who are terrified of being old. Why? It's no great honour to say you are young. Surely, it's how we live that matters. Age is utterly irrelevant.

Having said that, and thinking I'm glad I'm not young anymore - isn't there something wonderful about being beyond the angst and self-consciousness of youth? Isn't there something wonderful about being able to feel deeply and not feel the world is about to collapse because something unpleasant has happened to you? Isn't there something wonderful about having the experience of so many different people coming in and out of your life that you gain a fuller picture? What is really sad to me, is that perhaps many people who want to appear eternally youthful, are really trying to capture a youth they never enjoyed or they live in fear of worse to come.

The most beautiful thing of all is surely to maintain the wonder of children, the excitement of adolescence, the confidence of early adulthood, and combine that with the wisdom of experience. Who cares how many years we've been here? The question really is, are we doing here what we came here to do?

So, if you wake on a Monday morning with a face like an old sack and wonder where the years went, why not think, "Well, this old sack is filled with goodies! I'll bring them out today like a magician brings a rabbit from a hat, with a young and happy heart!"

Saturday, 6 December 2008

An Interview With C.W. Gortner about his latest book: THE LAST QUEEN



We are delighted to have been able to interview C.W. Gortner about his latest book:
THE LAST QUEEN (Ballantine Books 2008), a thoroughly absorbing novel about Juana of Castile, the last Queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne.


H & C: From the moment we heard about THE LAST QUEEN, we were fascinated because, from the few references we had read about Juana, she had seemed a rather sad and insignificant woman, demented by the death of her husband. What inspired you to delve more deeply into her story in the first place?

C.W.Gortner: I was raised in southern Spain, near a ruined Moorish castle that had once been a summer residence of Juana's parents, Isabel and Fernando. Growing up, I was always fascinated by the legend of the Mad Queen, who'd allegedly dragged her husband's coffin with her throughout Spain and whose unwillingness to rule had eventually resulted in the end of an ages-long line of monarchs of Spanish blood. One year, my family took us on a trip to Granada, where Juana and Philip the Fair - her husband - are buried alongside Isabel and Fernando in the Cathedral. The sight of Juana's effigy, half-turned from her husband's, riveted me; and when I later went into the Alhambra and thought of her spending her youth there, I just had to know more. My mother tells me I asked a thousand questions about her: was she really mad? Why did she mourn Philip so? What happened to her? She haunted me; and many years later, after reading several biographies of her that left me with more questions than answers, I decided to investigate her on my own and perhaps find a way to satisfy both my questions and the desire to discover who she might have really been.

H & C: Would you say you approached your research in the manner of a detective, gradually uncovering more clues, or was there an intuitive sense from the start that there was far more to her than met the eye?

C.W. Gortner: I always had this intuitive sense that there was more to Juana's story, secrets and facts that had been distorted. We're talking, after all, about the daughter of one of history's most influential queens. Juana had been chosen by her mother to be the wife of Philip of Habsburg, the heir to a vast and powerful empire. It was a vital dynastic union for Spain, and a dual one, as Juana's brother Juan wed Philip's sister, Margaret. The marriages were strategic, designed to bolster Spain's prestige in European eyes and form an unbreakable alliance against Spain's territorial foe, France. I cannot emphasize enough just how importantly Isabel viewed her Habsburg alliance, how essential it was to strengthening Spain's international reputation and safeguarding Spanish claims in Italy. So many of Juana's biographers claim that she'd always been unbalanced, even in her youth, moody and melancholic, already on the inexorable path to dementia - but this didn't seem to correspond with the very fact that Queen Isabel had chosen Juana to represent Spain in the Hapsburg marriage. That was my first clue. Why choose the most unbalanced of her daughters for this incredible role? As I researched and traveled to the places associated with Juana, I discovered more information that refuted the established interpretation of Juana as an unstable woman unsuited to rule. I became a detective in that I deliberately set out to explore each of the alleged "facts" to see if they stood up to more enlightened ways of looking at history and women in history in particular.

H & C: The era in which THE LAST QUEEN is set, is one of enormously complicated political rivalries and intrigues. How did you tackle making those complexities accessible to readers who know little about the period?

C.W. Gortner: That was definitely my primary challenge. Because so many English-speaking readers have more working knowledge of English history, I had to set Juana's story in the larger context and make her importance as both an international figure and a Spanish queen accessible and understandable. One of the ways I did it was to bring forth the associations Juana had with famous historical figures most historical fiction readers are familiar with, such as Catherine of Aragon. She was Henry VIII's first wife and Juana's youngest sister. We meet Catherine in the book. Readers are also familiar with Charles V, as he was part of drama set in motion by Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine; Charles was also Juana's eldest child. Naturally, there were complexities that had to be simplified for dramatic purpose. For example, the convoluted struggle between Spain and France over the crown of Naples was long-standing and had many factors woven into it, with each side claiming their superior position. Rather than explain all of it and bog the narrative down in unnecessary and complicated details that had, in the end, little to do with the immediate story, I simplified the argument through the eyes of the characters. Juana's father Fernando of Aragon is the one defending his claim to Naples claim against France; and as Juana adores her father in the novel, he explains it to her in ways that she, as a young and reluctant bride - and the reader - can understand. It's a matter of looking at the larger picture, determining as a writer which parts the reader must know, and then figuring out unobtrusive and hopelessly seamless ways to weave these parts into the story If it affected Juana directly, I tackled it. If not, I made conscientious decisions about what to include and what to leave out.

H & C: In commenting on your book, you said that Juana had been denied a voice for centuries and 'the time has come to let her speak.' Was it for this reason that you chose to write the novel in the first person?


C.W. Gortner: Actually, the first draft was in third person. But I hit a wall when I finished the manuscript; Juana proved elusive in third person. And my agent, bless her, told me she felt Juana came across as enigmatic and unreliable. I realized then that I had inadvertently shied away from taking a definitive stance with her, perhaps in the mistaken hope that I could leave it to the reader to decide ultimately who Juana was. My agent thought I had done enough groundwork to embody her fully, so I cautiously revised the first few chapters in the first person. As it turned out, I found this exercise quite liberating and began to see how I could capture her in a deeply personal way that I'd not been able to do before. I ended up re-writing the entire book, ripping out old scenes and creating new ones, so I could discover the woman I'd researched for years but had kept at arm's length. At first, I found it intimidating to write in the first person as a woman; but emotions do not recognize gender. We all know what it feels like to love, to hate, to be betrayed, to long, to laugh, to hope. Once I managed to suppress my ego (I employed an acting technique, in which you subdue your personality in order to inhabit the character you're playing) I found that "becoming" Juana came naturally and far more easily than looking at her through the third-person lens. I also found that some of the knots in the story dissolved, because now she herself could live out the ambiguities of her own life. Rather than bear witness to them in third person, I "lived" them through her.

H & C: Did you find there were drawbacks in approaching the novel from that viewpoint?

C.W. Gortner: There are always drawbacks to any viewpoint. First person narrows the story to one character's point of view; what the character doesn't know, the reader can't know. Foreshadowing pivotal events becomes more difficult, as does bringing to life the thoughts of other characters. However, it is also a marvelous vehicle for focusing on the lead character and staying on course with your story. In third person, I have a tendency to want to digress, to swim into the broader currents of historical events that muddy my central storyline, as well as leap into every one's heads. I first started writing fiction in the third person but for me personally, first person has become more immediate and compelling. That of course might change in the future, depending on the demands of the story I'm telling. For Juana, however, it was the perfect viewpoint for the story I wanted to tell.

H & C: Do you think there are difficulties for a man writing from a woman's perspective - particularly a woman of a different era?

C.W. Gortner: I touched on this earlier, and, yes, of course; not just as a woman but as a person who lived in a different time. For all we think we may know about life in the 16th century - and we know a lot! - the truth is all we can achieve as novelists is a close approximation of the reality of life in those times. I am enamored of the period but I do not share its beliefs; the religious intolerance, misogyny, racism, cruelty towards the impoverished and towards animals are distasteful aspects of the time that I do not admire. But in order to portray them accurately and communicate insightfully with my reader, I must understand why people felt and acted the ways they did. Even a Grand Inquisitor burning heretics had his reasons and they made sense to him. I don't condone his actions but I must comprehend his way of thinking. The same applies to writing as a woman in a different era; I had to dig deep into myself to uncover the commonalities we share, despite our genders; the bias and passion and darkness. And whatever I did not know - such as the act of giving birth - I questioned my women friends about in minute detail. A writer needn't be shackled by our sex: we can research emotion just as we do facts. And I believe our hearts don't recognize the boundaries of our physical exteriors. The hardest part is letting go of our ego and the societal skills we are taught to embody in order to "be" a man or woman. Ultimately, I think I succeeded in portraying a woman's point of view but I must defer to my readers, in the final accounting. It does bear noting that my agent and all my editors are women, and not once did they question my ability. Indeed, they expressed astonishment at how well I captured Juana's perspective.

H & C: You comment, too, on the way in which women have been badly treated throughout history. Did this influence your decision to write of Juana's life?

C.W. Gortner: It influences everything I write. I'm an innate feminist. I think women have suffered from historical oppression because history, by and large, is told from the male point of view. This was certainly at the forefront of my mind as I embarked on the novel. I could almost see the distortions in the biographies and contemporary accounts, the ways in which Juana's struggle for power had been degraded to serve the perspective of the men who had wronged her. Almost nowhere in these accounts do you hear her voice, do you see her as anything other than a stereotype: she's the besotted princess enraged by jealousy, the bereft widow so disconsolate she can think of nothing else, the mad crone worshipping a corpse as her kingdom crumbles around her. She's the ultimate victim, helpless before her own emotional turmoil. And that, for me, was the biggest red flag of all. No woman I've ever met is that one-dimensional!

H & C: Your extensive research involved being in the places where Juana lived, and walking the roads she had travelled. Did that help you to gain a fuller understanding of Juana? In what ways did the landscape of Castile help shape her character?

C.W. Gortner: Absolutely. Juana was a quintessentially Spanish woman. She cannot have existed as she was in any other country than Spain. Being half Spanish myself and having lived in Spain helped a lot, but seeing the places she lived, walking the paths she took - it alchemized my understanding of her. The aridity and desolation of Castile in winter, the verdant abundance of spring and scorching heat of summer; these are all part of Juana's soul and symbolize her contradictions and pride, her strength and her despair. I believe she loved Spain with an intensity that surpassed her love for Philip, and in order to understand how she became the woman she was you have to understand the passion of being a Spaniard. For me, this is perhaps the most challenging and defining aspect of writing a historical character. Today, we have globalization; cell phones, blue jeans and fast food are part of the lexicon of almost every culture. In Juana's era, being a princess of Castile signified a way of thinking, of acting, of seeing the world that was very different from being a princess of France or England. You have to pull back the veil between the past and the present and reveal the country as it was when your character lived in it. If you succeed, then you can visualize how the landscape around her shaped her personality. And by landscape, I mean both the physical and emotional. We are all shaped by our surroundings; the trick is to understand how this occurs and apply it to a time when life was more brutal, shorter in length, and more intense in its quest for survival.

H & C: Why, do you think, the information about Juana remained classified even in the 20th century? Was the truth you uncovered so devastating that it meant history had to be completely rewritten?

C.W. Gortner: I think the information remained classified as a holdover from the embargo first set on it by her son Charles V. After the Comuneros revolt and his private meeting with his mother -events I do not cover in the novel as they took place years after my story ends - Charles ordered a new set of custodians to guard Juana and had her access to the outside world severely curtailed. These custodians were expected to answer only to him, and their voluminous letters detailing Juana's life in confinement for the next twenty-odd years are part of the documents that ended up in the classified file. Why? What happened between Chares and Juana at that meeting that made him enforce her imprisonment to such an extreme? And what did the custodians' letters say that Charles didn't want anyone else to see? I think they said his mother was sane, and from what I was able to read - as many of the documents are no longer extant - I think Charles had determined that this fact could never be made public, as it would have essentially signified that he, the Habsburg emperor, held his mother, the rightful queen of Spain, under duress. Hundreds of years later, after the Spanish Civil War, Franco threw out the monarchy and established his fascist regime. Anything relating to the monarchist rule was suppressed during his regime and by default, the papers concerning Juana fell under his dragnet.

I think the devastating truth that was kept hidden was that Juana was driven to madness years after her initial imprisonment and subsequent rulers of Spain conspired to keep this fact a secret. Even Francesco Borja, Father General of the Jesuit Order who was sent to question Juana late in her life over rumors that she had embraced heresy, came away from several in-depth meetings with her shaken by her conviction and confused over her alleged insanity. He saw evidence of instability - who wouldn't after spending years in confinement in a castle? - but his letters to Charles V, which can still be read today, are almost chastising in their imploration of Charles to treat Juana with the dignity and decorum her station demanded. Borja must have seen that an injustice had been perpetuated and he did what he could to alleviate her suffering.

H & C: Why did you choose to write of Juana's life in the genre of a novel, rather than a biography?

C.W. Gortner: I'm a novelist by nature, not a biographer. Though I enjoy reading biography, it's not what I am personally compelled to write. As a writer, I'm motivated by the challenge of bringing history to life in a novelized form. Biographers can remain neutral; they can state: "She attacked Philip's mistress in a jealous rage." But a novelist must get inside the character and find his or her motivation. I also love the craft of interpreting history through the eyes of the characters. These characters often become both the historical figure that inspired them and something more; they transform in unique ways that reflect both the writer's inner world and the worlds of the readers he or she seeks to reach.

H & C: You must have had a great sense of satisfaction in bringing to light so many of the inaccuracies that had been taken as fact for centuries. Would you say that historical novelists have a responsibility to correct many misconceptions about people of the past?

C.W. Gortner: No. I don't see myself as having brought to light inaccuracies so much as I sought to portray Juana of Castile from another perspective. While I endeavored to remain historically accurate, I freely admit that I altered certain events and timelines to make the novel more accessible. Historical novelists are, in the final say, storytellers. We seek to entertain and transport readers to another place; we want them to experience the worlds we create on an emotional level. While accuracy is important - and if you have the chance to clear up misconceptions along the way, well, that's fine, too - ultimately I don't think it's the novelist's responsibility to "set the record straight." This has become a bone of contention at times, I know, between readers and certain books, particularly concerning inaccuracies or disagreements about a character or event. While gross inaccuracies should be avoided whenever possible, novelists are human and mistakes do happen. Sometimes, in order to facilitate a story's dramatic arc, a novelist will make certain choices to enhance this event beyond its actual historical significance, or set that event later in time to ease the narrative flow, etc. Such choices are usually undertaken with care and consideration, as historical novels cannot, by their very nature, capture all the intricacies and the mendacities of history; they capture a moment, a slice. They're life with the boring parts taken out (hopefully!) To me, historical novels are just that: fictional recreations of the past for a modern-day audience, not mechanisms for debunking historical record. What I do think historical novels can do is stimulate interest in a subject and present diverse ways of interpreting history. After all, there are always different sides to every story and historical novels are the perfect vehicle for telling them.

H & C: Quite often, when one begins to research one subject or character, many other amazing truths come to light. Was this so in the case of your research into Juana's life, and has it given rise to ideas for further books?

C.W. Gortner: Yes. I've grown excited about writing more about Juana's mother, Isabel, and hope to do so at a later date. But I must say, that once I've finished a novel I tend to want to go somewhere else for my next project. I just finished my novel about Catherine de Medici, set in 16th century France, and am now starting research on my next book, which will be set in early 15th century Italy. After that, I hope to return to Spain and the court of Philip II. I like to travel as a writer, both physically and artistically.

H & C: Thank you so much for telling us more about the background to this fascinating story!

C.W. Gortner: I really appreciate this opportunity to visit this blog. If readers want to learn more about me or my work, please visit www.cwgortner.com where you can take a tour of Juana's world and, if you lead or are part of a book group, sign up for an author chat with me. I love talking to readers and am always available for book group chats either via speaker phone or in person. I hope your readers enjoy discovering THE LAST QUEEN as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Money Talks

In a lovely wooden box, engraved with the initials of someone I never knew and have no idea where the box came from - I just always had it since childhood - there is a stash of old coins from the pre-decimalisation era of my earliest years. Some of them I put there, as a child, others were given to me later from ancient relatives. There are worn pennies from as far back as 1864; silver thre'penny bits and the other hexagonal sixpenny pieces, farthings and ha'pennies, and some half crowns and crowns. On some, Queen Victoria - in various eras - is depicted on one side and Britannia on the other. On others there is George V, George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II, also in various eras. They are all quite worthless now but, holding them in my hand, there is such a sense of history about them and they say a lot.

Firstly, I wish they had not compelled us to remove Britannia from our coinage. Secondly, I pray that they will not deprive us of our history by switching us to the Euro, because coins - like stamps or like letter boxes and telephone boxes - hold history and tell us where we came from. It's not a question of economics; it's a question of identity. Thirdly - the overriding thought - I touch these coins and wonder how many hands they passed through. Were they dropped into charity boxes from the pockets of philanthropists? Were they fought over? Were they used to pay for child labour, or for crimes? Were they dropped on the ground and trodden on by people in clogs, making their way home from the mills and eagerly gathered up by someone thinking they had made a great find? Did they pay for a gill of gin or did they pay for a gift for a child? Did they exchange hands gladly or were they handed over grudgingly? Who held them? What kinds of kindly or grasping hands? Where have they been and how were they used? A million stories flow from every one of them...Money does talk. It talks of history and identity and tells its own tale.

Money is an odd thing, isn't it? It was a piece of metal or pieces of paper. It's something that changes in value. It used to be measured in coinage and now is measured by a click on the screen or a piece of plastic stuck in the hole in the wall. Yet people kill for it, people create wars for it, people die for it. Strange how civilised we consider ourselves compared to animals - at least they fight over something concrete like something to eat or a mate. Only humanity could be bizarre enough to cause wars over something that is only a concept...Ho hum!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Nature and Cycles and Seasons

I don't remember the first time I heard about death. You would think that something so alarming would be a major trauma of childhood realizations, but I have never met anyone who remembers when their mortality first became apparent. At the changing of the seasons, at the stillness of the year, when the trees are like skeletons, the flowers have gone and the sky is starkly bright, that thought comes home.
Everything moves in cycles and, though we live now in a semi-seasonless, hourless world, where we are governed not by Nature but by technology, it is interesting to think sometimes how far we have come from our roots and who we really are.
Nature is so much wiser. Nature doesn't go against the grain and force summer flowers to bloom in winter or the sun to shine in the middle of the night. Nature allows things to move at their natural pace; Nature has no targets; Nature doesn't expect everything and everyone to be the same or to fit the same pattern; Nature is filled with diversity and yet everything has its place and moves in perfect syncopation.
Nowadays, it seems, we think we are more powerful than Nature. Because we can create light in the middle of the night and can create heat in the middle of winter; and because we can create and then combat disease, we think we are overcoming Nature. We even have the audacity to think we are so powerful that our little footprints and meddling have altered Her course.
Nature, to me, is like a wise Mother who sits silently in the middle of chatter - the chatter where children argue and struggle for supremacy in a game and believe for an hour or two that they are Richard the Lionheart, Spiderman, or any superhero and things seems to be of huge importance - and all the while, the wise Mother just goes about her business calmly, listens and shakes her head and then says, "It's time for bed children." The games are over and reality dawns.
Powers, dominations, kingdoms rise and fall. Nature, and the gentle hearts who listen to her wisdom, go on - as Robert Louis Stevenson so brilliantly wrote - 'at their own private pace, like a clock in a thunderstorm.'
I don't remember the first time I heard about death. Still less, do I remember anyone ever teaching me what it really means to be alive. Perhaps that is a lesson we learn for ourselves; and perhaps that is the only lesson worth learning.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Windy Moors

The snow continues and, apart from the images it evokes of Imperial Russia - the winter balls, the opulent carriages, the wilderness of Siberia, and the snowflakes on the lamps of Grand Duke Serge's carriage, as he and Ella (Grand Duchess Elizabeth) emerge from the theatre only days before his assassination; Ella, kneeling over his remains in the snow...It also brings to mind the 'wily windy Moors' of Emily Bronte's beautiful experience (and Kate Bush's fabulous interpretation of it!).

Today, according to the local news, Haworth was deep in snow. The silence and bleakness of snow seems so apt for the fascinating soul of Emily Bronte! Seemingly sheltered, the daughter of a parson, cut off from the world, despising having to be in company - to the extent that she was ill if she were compelled to be away from the freedom of the Moors and her own inner world for any length of time - she lived within herself with so mystical and imaginative an inner life that she seemed barely capable of surviving in the day-to-day world. The contrast of appearances and what is really so, is so striking in Emily Bronte!

At the top of a hill, the parsonage overlooks a graveyard where many of the headstones were originally laid flat on the earth so that wolves didn't dig up the bodies, or so that - which is more macabre? - the undertakers could turn the stones over and engrave names on the other side to fit more bodies into the graves! This was the view from Emily's windows. All around was the great expanse of the Moors. She never married. She never did very much at all. A brief spell in Brussels, where she was viewed as unfriendly; working as a teacher and hating every moment that kept her away from the freedom to walk and think and be with her beautiful animal friends...And yet, what an inner life that came out in such writing as 'Wuthering Heights' with its darkness and shadow side, with its passion and sheer, raw, untamed emotion and 'violence' - truly Nature in the raw. No wonder she is seen as such a 'Pagan soul'!

To me, Emily Bronte is a true mystic. Her soul was forever 'in another place' and unfettered. If only she had found a way to live on earth what her soul was reaching for! Her brilliant poem The Prisoner speaks so clearly of that anguish of disparity between 'what the soul knows' and physical life; the sense of being enchained in a body:

...Mute music soothes my breast - unutter'd harmony
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.

Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels;
Its wings are almost free--its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulf, it stoops, and dares the final bound.

O dreadful is the check - intense the agony -
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb - the brain to think again -
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.


I wish she could have found a way for her Spirit to be free, without having to leave at such an early age. But she loved the inner worlds, and the beautiful snow creates that sense of
stillness, wherein the inner and the outer merge.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Birds Singing In the Snow


December and there was snow - how perfect is that? It wasn't the beautiful depths of snow as on André's lovely photograph but perhaps it will come and go and, for the first time in years, we will have a proper white Christmas.
Once all the traffic rush and bothers about transport are over, there is something so calming about the snow; a sort of stillness when all the sounds are muffled, as though Nature is saying, "It's time to be still and reflective." Seeing the frozen grass and fallen leaves, like the white hair of the earth, it seemed as though it was the part of the year's cycle when Nature is old and wise and still. It brings a quietness inside.
Strange how the birds seem to rejoice in the snow! On the damp, grey days, the birds seem so silent but in the icy sunshine, they all start singing again. There is something so beautiful about the sound of winter birds singing in the snow.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Dear, dear Osborne

Some years ago, one glorious summer day, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I had the good fortune to be at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The previous evening, I had - in the afterglow of an immense lightning storm - taken a boat to Ryde. The sun was glistening on the Solent and, as I walked up the hill to the hotel, everything was quite misty in the early evening sunlight as the rain evaporated. Never in my life had I had such a sense of coming home.
The following morning, I arrived at Osborne House before the official opening time. I sat on a bench by the old cottages - once inhabited by various members of Queen Victoria's family and entourage - and imagined the day when Princess Alice and her new husband, Louis of Hesse, rode out of those gates on their way to their honeymoon.
At length, the gates opened and it was possible to walk through the morning sunshine among those hallowed trees. My heart was pounding with every step - the loveliness of the place, the sense of times long gone, the sense of the whole atmosphere of Prince Albert's beautiful dream.
Every room, every creak of a floorboard, every portrait, every view from a window played on my heart in a way that I cannot begin to describe. I loved that place with every fibre of my being. I was just so happy to be there.
If ever an atmosphere were embroidered into the fabric of a building, I think it is true of 'dear Osborne.'
There was something so poignant, being in the room where Queen Victoria died on the arm of her grandson, Willy - Kaiser Wilhelm II - on that anniversary. Something so tragic about the way that dream ended with the family so divided and destroyed by war.

At the little Swiss Cottage, a rather strange moment occurred. There, where so many of Queen Victoria's children and grandchildren had played, I was walking along the balcony that surrounds the place. Below, out of view but within earshot, some German children were running and I heard them call, "Schnell...schnell...." and something indecipherable to me (I haven't learned German) but understood it to mean their parents were calling for them. In that moment, in those little children's voices, I thought it could be any time...any era...the era of the little Prussian or little Hessian grandchildren of Queen Victoria. When I descended the staircase, there was no sign of any children, German or otherwise. All I knew was that I had never felt such an overwhelming sense of the timelessness of everything. Such a nostalgia for something that, in this life, I had never known. Nor had I ever known such a sense of utter completion.

I must add, too, that the curators of Osborne were the most accommodating and lovely people. Osborne is more than well worth a visit.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Silently

Silently,
You comfort me;
No sound,
No wise replies.
No eyes too filled with sympathy;
No condescending words.
But silently,
You come to me,
Your hand across my brow,
Evaportating tears to smile,
The storm has passed somehow.

Shall we arise,
Still silently,
To journey
Through our world?
No angry revolutions
And no surfeit
Of false zeal?
But we should go
Transparently,
Our eyes upon the stars
That flow across a world of wounds,
To soothe the raging scars.

So silently,
You came to me
Across my shadowed room,
Across the pits of bitterness,
And endless thoughts of gloom.
Illuminate
The road once more,
My feet have left no track,
But, softly as you came to me,
Still gently, lead me back

Silently,
You smile to me,
Your hand beneath my chin,
To raise my head
To see the sun
And know we must begin,
To cross creation
Honestly,
In innocence and youth,
To whisper through a noisy world,
Restoring silent Truth.

(Christina Croft)

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Why I Chose To Write Ella's Life As A Novel

If you were asked to write your autobiography, where would you begin? "I was born...I did this, I did that...I went to school, college, university....met so & so etc. etc."? Or would you write: "The first thing I felt was...." or "I hurt..." or "I was happy...."? Which would be closer to your essence and to who you really are? Which would be more real?

If you were asked to write someone else's biography, where would you begin? With the same questions? Or, because we feel such a sense of separation from each other, would you feel like Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times, when he says:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

In a biography or factual account of any life, these things are necessary, otherwise real historical people become distorted projections of the writer. But how can I prove in my own life - how can you prove in yours - that you once felt humiliated, destroyed, elated, ecstatic? Do you have sources for that? Did you write it down? Did you make sure it was stored in archives? How did you feel when you first fell in love? Can you prove it? I can't. I have no sources for my heart's experiences...how much less anyone else's.However, there are times when (to quote Dickens again):
"Some persons hold," he pursued, still hesitating, "that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart. . ."

Sometimes, reading the spoken words and letters of people of the past, one has such a feel for what that person is saying, that it goes beyond what can be proved or cited to sources. Any novel is a projection of the author but so, too, is any biography in that the author places some kind of interpretation on the 'facts'. It is my belief that if a novel is clearly labelled as a 'novel' the author's intention is clear - it is an interpretation of truth. That is no less valid than something that is labelled 'biography'. Perhaps, in some ways, the former is closer to truth than the latter because the former is patently the author's interpretation.There are many ways to approach a person's life and none of them is as true as the person him/herself, but when it comes to presenting a life in any particular genre, I firmly believe that the bottom line is respect for the person. Many people have written from accurate sources and have written without love or empathy. Many people have written inaccuracies and novels, without love. Many more people have written with great feeling for their characters - faults, foibles and all. When one writes from the heart and the head, I honestly don't think it matters which genre one chooses.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Song Of Songs

The "Song of Songs" is, to me, the most beautiful ancient poetry that speaks directly to the heart! Amid all the patriarchal distortions of the Divinity in the Old Testament, there appears a book which is utter poetry and speaks directly both to the soul and to the aesthetic physical. I think so many interpretations have been placed upon it - theological clap-trap sometimes about how it represents Christ and the Church - when really, as far as I can see, it is so simply sheer beauty and an expression of all that is Lovely and Sacred - the simple expression of the soul at one with its Source. We don't need an authority to tell us how to make sense of it. It speaks directly to us and does away with the need for intermediaries:

My beloved went down into his garden to pasture his flock in the gardens and to gather spices. I am my Beloved's and he is mine. He pastures his flock among the lilies.
...I am the Rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys...
The maidens saw her and proclaimed her blessed:
"Who is this arising like the dawn,
fair as the moon, resplendent as the sun?..."

And, on a cold winter's night, what could be more lovely than the thoughts of Spring - on every level!

Come, my love, my lovely one, come,
For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone,
The cooing of the turtle dove is heard in our land;
The flowers appear on the earth,
The fig tree is forming its first fruits
And the blossoming vines give out their fragrance.
Come then, my love, my lovely one, come...

A lovely thought on a very cold night!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

"Tsaritsa"

From the musical Tsaritsa

(Sung By Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna to her haemophiliac son, Tsarevich Alexei)

Close your eyes and let me paint a picture:
The landscape of a season long ago,
Starlit skies, the trees aglow with winter,
St. Petersburg beneath a veil of snow.
From high cathedral spires the bells are ringing,
Chiming through the country near and far,
A thousand voices eloquently singing,
Echoing their prayer: "God bless the Tsar...God bless the Tsar..."

(Sung by Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna to her husband, Tsar Nicholas, following his abdication in the middle of the Russian Revolution)

Close your eyes and let me paint a picture,
A moment that we shared in years gone by,
An April dawn, the breaking of the winter,
A gentle rain falls from the Coburg sky.
With all my heart I promised my tomorrows,
The day I pledged my word to be your wife,
To share with you your happiness and sorrows,
And with all my soul I gave my life,
(You are my life, you are my life...)

Close your eyes and let me soothe the sadness,
The pain that brings your gentle eyes to tears,
Love prevails in spite of all this madness;
The love that we have shared through all these years.
And though the battles rage and hope is dying,
Remember who you were and who you are,
Listen close, you'll hear my spirit sighing:
God bless the Tsar...you're still the Tsar...God bless the Tsar...

(Christina Croft)

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Excerpt from "The Counting House"

In this extract, seven-year-old Georgie - the central character of "The Counting House" - already convinced that she is cursed by God for having stolen a candlestick from a cemetery lodge, is trying to come to terms with an accident which left her brother confined to a wheelchair, and for which she believes she is responsible. This excerpt from the beginning of the third chapter, describes her fear not only of retribution from God, but also of her terrifying teacher, Miss Keppel:

"I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage.”
While the boys made Plasticine models with plastic knives on small square boards, we sat like ladies-in-waiting around Miss Keppel’s desk, clicking our needles and quietly chanting the steady rhythm,“In, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off. In, wrap it round, pull it through slip it off.”
Miss Keppel moved among us uttering words of wisdom, “The devil finds work for idle hands. Always keep your hands and your minds busy!”
Her huge nostrils quivered as she surveyed the class, “Gerard Taylor, what is the first commandment?”
He answered without hesitation, “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.”
“Go on,” she said.
We carried on knitting, “In, wrap it round, pull it through slip it off, in, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off.”
“Nor any fish or,” he looked down and stuck his thumb into the squashy pink snail, “bird or graven image or any insect or anything.”
Miss Keppel’s great nose came down above him until his neck shrank into his shoulders. A swift hand clipped the top of his head, “For I, the Lord am a jealous God and I punish the father’s guilt in his sons!”
She spun around like a whirlwind, “Catherine Gould, the second commandment?”
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
“In, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off. In, wrap it round, pull it through, slip it off,” faster and faster, building up speed like a train.
I said the words but my hands were out of time. I said, ‘Slip it off,’ when I was wrapping it round and I knitted a hole where there should have been wool. Catherine Gould’s scarf grew longer and longer in a rainbow of bright colours. I wriggled the wool through my fingers, tying the loose ends in knots on the needles. The two rows that Miss Keppel had knitted to start me off grew greyer and greyer but the scarf never grew any longer.
Miss Keppel moved on, calling names at random, “Michael Donnelly, the fifth commandment.”
This week she was bound to come to me; I guessed that she would reach me with the seventh. She always omitted the sixth and the ninth and Gerard Taylor said they were rude. I looked them up in the Bible.
“Jessica,” I said, “what’s adultery?”
“Being cheeky to grown ups.”
“That’s not rude.”
“Being rude to grown ups then.”
Miss Keppel’s shoes squeaked over the wooden floor and her flowing skirt made a breeze as she passed. My fingers were damp and slipped over the huge plastic needles. I gathered the grubby grey wool on my lap and buried the scarf in my hands.
“Georgina Meadows, the seventh commandment?”
I felt the blood rush out of my face and my hand began to shake. I opened my mouth but no words would come.
“The seventh commandment, Georgina?”
She was standing in front of me, her long bony fingers entwined before my eyes. Her knuckles were red and inflamed and brown spots covered the skin.
I screwed the wool into a ball, “Thou shalt not steal.”
One by one her fingers untwined and stretched themselves like an eagle about to swoop on its prey. Her hand was cold when her skin touched mine, pulling the woollen ball from my knee. When she lifted it up her nostrils flared and her thin lips sank into her mouth.
“What,” she said, pausing between each word, “is this?”
I didn’t know if she wanted an answer so I bent down and pulled up my socks.
“Well?”
“Please may I do Plasticine next week?”
“Plasticine?” the word burst out like an oath.
“I can’t knit. My Mum can’t knit either. None of us knits in our family.”
Her dull eyes widened and her lips disappeared. She took the end of a thread in her finger tips as though it were an insect she could hardly bear to hold and with one sudden movement of her wrist, unravelled the whole creation and dropped it in a heap on my knee.
“You can’t knit? Then it’s time you learned. You’ll stay in at playtime this afternoon and every afternoon until you can.”

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Music and Words

"Music," wrote Beethoven, "is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”

Often it seems that there are emotions and experiences beyond emotions, for which we have not yet found sufficient vocabulary. Music, like the sense of smell, is instant. Before words, before reading and letters, we experience directly through our more immediate senses of hearing and touch and smell. Words require another step...and, in some ways, a step away from that initial understanding and empathy.

Words divide and words bring together. It often seems that the greatest possible gift would be the ability to translate, immediately, into words those experiences/senses that we all share and so rarely find the means to express. What quest! What an adventure!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Boaz

Boaz

Softly,
In the twilight's growing shadows
May I lie,
As Ruth at Boaz' feet lay until dawn;
Bathing in the darkness
Till the flowing of his breath
Blew through her hair
Like breezes through the corn.

Weary
With the world I long to lose myself
In innocence;
To hold you like a chalice through my madness
And your calm.
Speak to me of lily flowers
More beautiful than Solomon,
And sparrows in the hand of God,
Secure and free from harm.

And where you go
I'll follow every step till sunrise
Startles me,
And cleanses me from memories
Entangled in my mind.
Reach beyond my restlessness
To touch the stillness of my soul,
And if sometimes I stumble,
Please be kind.

(Christina Croft)

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Sea Has Many Voices


"On either side the river lie,
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold...."

One of the most breath-taking views in the world for me is the view from Bamburgh Castle to the Farne Islands. Puffins and seaguls soaring and the smell of the ocean! The Northumbrian coast sometimes seems as though it has remained untouched for centuries and, if ever Camelot existed, I would have placed it there.

Looking across the sea, when there are no boats or ships in sight, time becomes so irrelevant. It could be any time, any era, simply the 'eternal now'. The waves roll, carelessly or wildly, the sea really does, as T.S. Eliot wrote, 'have many voices'. Perhaps, coming from a maritime country (and sadly, living as far from the sea as it is possible to live on this island!) there is something in us English folk that just can't escape it.

Bamburgh is so beautiful that I couldn't resist borrowing this photo from http://www.northumbria-byways.com/coastal_region1.htm I hope they don't mind!

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Native Innocence

"Know you what it is to be a child?" wrote Francis Thompson. "It is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness and nothing into every everything, for ever child has its fairy godmother in its soul."
So much literature and so many films today concentrate on the dark side of life. They call it 'realism' - but whose reality is it?
I firmly believe that the aim of all literature, art, music and film is to raise people to their highest and to bring more beauty into the world.
What we take in through our eyes and ears becomes a part of us, as surely as the food we eat rebuilds our bodies' cells. If we take in a constant diet of the macabre, of murder, of darkness, what are we doing to our minds? Do we not, simply by asbsorbing these things, contribute to the violence and sorrow in the world?
Reading Francis Thompson's quotation, suggests a way that we can transform our imaginations, our thoughts, ourselves - and the world! - by returning to our native innocence.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Paul Gallico

I love Paul Gallico's writing and have been searching for months for a quotation from his lovely story, "Ludmilla" about beauty...It begins with something like, "There is no sin in wanting to be beautiful...for God loves beauty and created so much of it..."

I can't find that quotation and would be so grateful if anyone else can!!

In the meantime...Paul Gallico also wrote this piece of loveliness...

"A prayer may be a wordless inner longing, a sudden outpouring of love, a yearning within the soul to be for a moment united with the infinite and the good, an humbleness that needs no abasement or speech to express, a cry in the darkness for help when all seems lost, a song, a poem, a kind deed, a reaching for beauty or the strong, quiet inner raffirmation of faith. A prayer in fact can be anything that is created of God that turns to God."

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

"Love Every Leaf, Love Every Ray of Light...."


"Love every leaf, love every ray of light, love the animals and plants, each separate thing," wrote Dostoevsky. "If thou lovest each thing thou wilt begin to see the mystery of God in all, and grow everyday to a fuller understanding of it."
I have just been kicking through the autumn leaves that are like a golden carpet through the woods of Temple Newsam. The sunlight, shining through the copper leaves that are still clinging to the branches, was glimmering on the lake, so dazzlingly bright, and sparkling on the water and the velvety-green of the ducks' heads. I knew what Dosteovsky meant!
Isn't it interesting to look 'into' things rather than simply 'at' them? To feel so much a part of it all - to see there truly is only one life animating everything and nothing is really separate. I am sure we learn more by simply being amid such beauty, than we can learn in a thousand hours of study.
The image is not of Temple Newsam but another of André's beautiful photographs of Virginia - http://andrehilliard.com/ - Autumn is equally beautiful here.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Well It Just Goes To Show...

It is great fun reading through some of the rejection letters sent by publishers, or words spoken by critics to authors and performers 'before they were famous' and it just goes to show....what it just goes to show!!

My favourite is the curt message to John Keats, "Stick to medicine, Mr. Keats, as you will never succeed as a poet."

Then there's the message of Simon Cowell to the multi-million-disc-selling Will Young, "Just average."

Going back further, George Orwell's "Animal Farm" was rejected because: "animal stories don't sell in the USA."

Sylvia Plath didn't have 'enough genuine talent for us to take notice."

Beatrix Potter's work was given to a junior partner with the idea that it would keep him busy - with little hope of success.

Stephen King was told, "“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

Didn't they say Fred Astaire could 'dance a bit' but was too unattractive to get anyway?

Dr. Seuss' book was described as: “…too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”

And of the Diary of Anne Frank, a publisher wrote: "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level."

Well...it just goes to show....

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Beware - Hedgehogs!

On the evening before Bonfire Night - when already many people are beginning their fires - please, before lighting it, remember to check that no hedgehogs have snuggled up in your firewood.This year there are more helpless baby hedgehogs than ever - the hedgehog sanctuaries are taking more in all the time - because the cold spring meant many hedgehogs did not give birth to the babies until later in the year, giving them little time to store up enough fat for hibernation. The little ones (and the older ones too) often snuggle into the wood stacks that people have been preparing for tomorrow night. Please take a peek, first, to make sure a hedgehog hasn't hidden in yours.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Doe


When we walked out the door on Sunday that beautiful doe was standing very close to the house. We stood quietly while my son went back for his camera. After getting two pictures of her eating grass, I stepped backwards onto some leaves that crackled, which startled her and off she went.

The same doe came up behind my father down by the pond and stood looking at him and grazing for about half an hour. He finally came in and she remained standing there. Those moments are pure magic. and it’s even gotten to Joe, who has a hunters mindset. My father said she is so friendly, she almost acts like a pet. I know she is wild and needs to remain wild and we don’t try to touch her or be too friendly and the thought of the hunters in the fall getting anywhere near her...In the hunting season you can hear the shots reverberating throughout the days.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Samhain/Halloween

For Hallowe'en, an extract from our forthcoming book, Beckford - set in Yorkshire in the early 19th century.

“Here!” Dorcas said suddenly, holding a lantern to survey the bank, “This is perfect.”
She placed the lantern on a rock and bade the others dig the handles of their torches into the mud, creating a circle of light.
“Gather some sticks and twigs,” she said, “and light a small fire in the middle of the circle.”
As Christopher obeyed, she turned to Alice, "Now then, lass, you have the other things?"
Alice nodded and, taking the cover from her basket, pulled out a pot which Dorcas set beside the lantern on the rock.
“Rosemary,” she told Olivia, “in remembrance of all the ones who’ve gone before and come back to help us tonight.”
Again a shiver of fear ran down her spine but Christopher smiled reassuringly.
“Apples, bread and herbs for an offering,” Dorcas set them beside the lantern, “and this for the weaving of dreams.”
She brought from the basket, straw and string and handed a hank and a thread to each of them.
“Make a figure like this,” she said, nimbly bending the straw and tying it at the base. “Here’s the head, then weave the body, the arms and the legs…” In no time at all a perfect straw doll was formed.
“Take as long as you need and while you weave it, put into it everything you want to loose from your life. Any bothers, any upsets, any memories that need to be cleansed. Weave them all into your figure.”
Olivia glanced at Christopher, who raised his eyebrows in reply.
“Start now,” Dorcas commanded and, while they twisted and plaited, she began a strange chant, raising her arms and turning one way and another, invoking the protection of spirits of the north, the south, the east and the west.
For a moment, Olivia wanted to laugh. There was something amusing not only about Dorcas’ superstitious gestures and chants but also in the thought of what her aristocratic friends would think if they knew that the she was standing here weaving a doll by a stream in the middle of the night. How different it all was from what she would have been doing had she accompanied her husband to Monkburn! An image of Sir Edmund and the guests came to mind and brought with it the memory of hours of small-talk and the same conversations about bushels and boars repeated season after season, year after year; so tedious, so stifling, so suffocating…duty and duty and duty and duty…
The urge to laugh had gone, replaced by a far more powerful emotion and as her fingers deftly plaited the straw, she felt herself frantically weaving duty, suffocating duty, duty, stifling, asphyxiating duty into the torso and limbs.
“Spirits of the trees….spirits of the waters…” Dorcas’ voice hummed hypnotically. Faster and faster she plaited the straw and with each thread came random images of the past twenty years: the silence when she had wanted to scream; the resigned acquiescence when she had longed to disagree; the dignified walk when she wanted to dance; the refined smile when she could have laughed aloud; the whispered, eternally-binding ‘I do’ when she longed to shout, “No!” and the tedium, the hour upon hour of silence and duty while her soul burned for music, for passion, for love.
By the time the doll was complete, Olivia’s hand was trembling with the force of two decades of unexpressed emotion. Was it anger, she wondered. Yes, there was anger and more than anger - a great rage swelling from some previously unplumbed depths. And there was power in the rage, a power so violent and unfamiliar that it seemed as though a fury inside her had been unleashed with an intensity so overwhelming that her head began to spin and her whole body swayed to the rapid beat of her heart. Her breath came in short gasps and as she struggled to catch it, she saw, through the corner of her eye, that Christopher was staring at her with an expression of alarm. He stepped closer and held out his hand as though to hold her, when suddenly Dorcas’ voice boomed with authority,
“No, Christopher, no, don’t touch her!” He stopped dead, and Dorcas’ turned urgently to Olivia, “Now, m’lady! Now, throw the doll into the fire!”
She gripped the straw figure and hurled violently it into the flames. It spat and crackled and, as sparks sputtered through the darkness like shooting stars, such a sense of elation overcame her that her eyes flooded with tears and she wept uncontrollably. She knew that Christopher was standing beside her and could feel his eyes upon her but he seemed too astonished to move.
“Alice,” Dorcas’ voice sounded distant, “it’s your turn. Cast the doll!”
A further sputtering and spitting of sparks and then a thud as Alice slumped to the ground. This time Christopher moved. He crouched beside her and would have taken her in his arms had Dorcas not uttered another command, “Now yours, Christopher.”
With far less vehemence than either of the women, he dropped the doll into the flames and as it smouldered among the cinders and twigs, Dorcas stepped forward and placed her own creation beside it.
“That’s it,” she smiled with a deep sigh of contentment, “we’re done.”

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Excerpt from "Most Beautiful Princess"

As the train drew into Varshavskiy Station, Konstantin Konstantinovich gazed through the steam in awe. The deafening cheer of the crowd almost drowned out the welcome of the military band as Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine stepped from the carriage and, shyly holding her father’s arm, floated like an apparition of light across the platform. Whether dazzled by the glare of the sunlight on the swords and medals of the Imperial Guard, or overwhelmed by the radiance of her features, Konstantin could hardly tell but, raising his hand to shield his eyes, he murmured, “My God, Serge! She is…”
“Now, you believe me, Kostia,” Serge smiled, his grey eyes shining with pride. “The most beautiful princess in Europe.”
Smiling timidly, she moved towards the waiting dignitaries and, with the grace of a dancer, curtseyed before the imposing figure of Alexander III, Tsar of all the Russias. Huge, bearded and slightly balding, his firm features softened to a welcoming smile.
“Your Highness, we are honoured to welcome you to Russia!”
The formality complete, he took both her hands in his and laughed loudly, “Ella, we’re delighted to see you! My brother’s a fortunate man.”
“No, Sasha,” she said softly, “I am the fortunate one.”
He turned and gesticulated, “Come on, Serge, welcome your bride!”
Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, tall and erect in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, strode across the platform and, though his smile was as nervous as hers, the flicker of his lips revealed his pride in the impression she had made on the crowd. He greeted her with a brief, courteous embrace and, with one hand clutching the hilt of his sword, formally introduced her to the rest of the family.
“Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress Marie Feodorovna.”
Konstantin’s eyes followed her every step of the way and, as the beautiful and bejewelled Empress embraced her warmly, he couldn’t help but think that until now he had never seen any woman whose radiance could compete with Marie Feodorovna’s sparkle and vivacity.
“His Imperial Highness, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich. His Imperial Highness, Grand Duke…”
The nearer she came, the more clearly Konstantin observed the perfect symmetry of her features: her blue, naïve eyes, her soft, tender smile, the faint blush on her fair complexion. It seemed that every line, every curve had been sculptured by some divine hand intent on bringing beauty into creation.
“His Imperial Highness, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich.”
He bowed and his lips brushed her fingers, “Your Highness, we had heard that we were to welcome the most beautiful princess in Europe but, as you can see from the adulation of the crowd, your beauty far exceeds our expectations.”
She smiled coyly and Serge, laughing, slapped him heartily on the back, “Ella, you must make allowance for my cousin. He’s an aesthete and a poet, constantly overwhelmed in the presence of beauty.”
Her eyes widened with interest, “A poet?”
“A very poor one, I’m afraid,” Konstantin said. “My words seldom capture what my heart really feels or my eyes truly see.”
She smiled pensively, “Sometimes we feel things so deeply and cannot find words to express them. For that we’re grateful to the poets who express them for us.”
Serge mused for a moment, gazing at her with a wonder that Konstantin had never seen in his eyes before.
“I trust,” Konstantin said, “that you will be very happy in Russia.”
“I’m sure, I shall.”
Serge guided her further along the line and when she had faded into the distance like the amber glow of the fading beams at sunset, Konstantin turned to Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich.
“Well, Sandro, I have to admit I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. In spite of all the descriptions, I never believed that a German princess could be so beautiful. Of course, she’s half-English but even so I…”
“Damn it, Kostia!” Sandro turned abruptly, stamping like an angry child against the platform, “How can they let this happen?”
Konstantin shook his head, confused as much by the vehemence of his tone, as the question.
“How can they let her marry him? Didn’t you see the way he looked at her with that haughty expression, showing her off like some prize trophy?”
“Wouldn’t you be proud if she were your bride?”
“Yes, I’d be proud but not in the way that he is!”
Konstantin laughed, “There are different forms of pride?”
“I would be proud to serve her, love her, take care of her. But him? He’s proud like a Philistine with a work of art, proud to possess it as a show of his wealth with no idea of its value or beauty.”
“You don’t think Serge appreciates her beauty? You don’t think he knows what a treasure he has found?”
“Oh yes, he knows but he values her like a miser values his money. You must have seen how his hand rested on her shoulder? That wasn’t love or passion, Kostia. That was possession. That’s all she is to him - a possession. Something he owns and can show off to the boys in his precious regiment!”
Konstantin looked up at the sky in sham contemplation, “How old are you, Sandro? Sixteen, seventeen?”
“Eighteen.”
“Eighteen,” he nodded sagely. “That’s very young to claim such an insight into men’s hearts.”
“Hearts?” Sandro’s lip curled in disgust, “Serge has a stone in place of a heart. I tell you, Kostia, he’ll destroy her. I’d give ten years of my life to stop her walking down the aisle on his arm.”
Konstantin frowned, vaguely discomfited by rumours he had tried to ignore, and, as he shrugged to shake away the unwelcome thoughts, he was deeply aware that Sandro was not the only one who would like to prevent this marriage.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Queen Marie of Roumania's Love of Beauty

Queen Marie of Roumania - herself one of the most beautiful princesses of her age - was cousin to Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: "The most beautiful princess in Europe". She wrote of her:

"...This faculty of enjoying beauty as a whole and in detail has followed me all through life. Line, color, form, and the sounds and scents belonging to each picture, have made life extraordinarily rich, and with every one of those unforgettable impressions comes always that feeling of gratitude for each new beauty revealed to my soul.
Today I still feel grateful to beloved Queen Alexandra for the vision of beauty she was to me...This other beautiful woman had a tragic and terrible fate. She was the Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Russia, my cousin, sister of the late Czarina. She had married one of my mother's younger brothers, the Grand Duke Serge. He was blown up by Nihilists, long, long before the revolution, whilst governor of Moscow. She then entered holy orders, building a convent in which she lived; but her holy life brought her no mercy from the Bolsheviks. She was abominably slaughtered in Siberia, but, curiously enough, her body was found and later on transported to Jerusalem, where it now lies in the Holy Land.
She was quite newly married when her beauty burst upon me as a marvelous revelation. Her loveliness was of what used to be called the "angelic" kind. Her eyes, her lips, her smile, her hands, the way she looked at you, the way she talked, the way she moved, all was exquisite beyond words; it almost brought tears to your eyes."

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Blackbirds

The garden is filled with birds. There are many seagulls, and a thrush and, interestingly, yesterday there were two male blackbirds, and this morning there are two female ones. I read that quite often at this time of year, male blackbirds’ feathers change color and become lighter so they are not always recognizable from the females, but the males that were here yesterday were still very black and their eyes and beaks very striking. It is odd that there were two pairs because I had read that they are quite solitary creatures and do not live in groups as some other birds do. When a cat comes they make a chattering sort of noise, and I have noticed that they do the same sometimes when I walk in the woods - it is a very different kind of song from the one they sing in the spring and it must be their warning sound. In the winter, there seem to be more blackbirds here (even though it’s not always possible to spot them because of the changed color of their feathers) because many migrate from Scandinavia to spend the winter here. It would be interesting to know if they speak the same language as English blackbirds!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Notes on Sex, Love and Music. Excerpt from "Getting Real" by Cheryl Hilliard

The lowest levels of the so-called sexy saturate our lives. Advertising promotes all manner of products - music videos, clothing, perfume, cars and movies - with themes of sexuality or the promise of it. What an interminable crock of manure it all is.
In Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn does two things that are far more sexy than all the butts in the breeze of a film like Basic Instinct. Watch her as she puts her hand on William Holden’s neck and cheek while dancing. In the movie’s final scene, she takes Humphrey Bogart’s hat in her hand and adjusts the brim. These two gestures have the weight of true sensuality behind them.
Where do we go from all the crotch-grabbing, look-at-me, behindless-swimsuited mindlessness of it all? What about the restoration of common sense? What about a return to beauty? Become the partner you would like to be with. Embody the character traits that you respect and admire. Not only will you be in more joy, you will then attract people who share those qualities with you. You really need to understand what a difference you make as an individual. Your life is created in beauty, and beauty has great effect on others.
Who cares if everybody notices your body or not? Do you know how to give to yourself and others or only to receive? It is your loving acceptance of yourself (all of you) that counts. There is nothing to be proven and nothing real to be gained in the false sexiness that currently predominates.

"Notes on Sex, Love and Music" Excerpt from "Getting Real" by Cheryl Hilliard

We seem to be so afraid of silence. We are always rushing to fill up gaps in conversations, bombarding ourselves in elevators, office buildings, and on phone lines with the noise that passes for music today. On a vibratory level, I feel that much of this so-called “music” can be damaging. It also has lyrics that are senseless and add nothing to the quality of life.
Much of today’s music is the vomitous by-product of bodies, hearts and minds fed on food that isn’t real. It produces chaotic thinking and attraction to the ugly and superficial in life. No matter how many minds agree to this garbage, it is garbage. The emperor has no clothes.
Because these sounds are so pervasive, most children grow up never hearing the beauty that music can be. How sad not to know that sounds that have moved people through time.

Beauty - An Excerpt from "Getting Real" by Cheryl Hilliard


In all the years that I have worked with men and women on self-acceptance and physical enhancement, I have not met one person who could make an accurate assessment of their physical appearance or had an appreciation of his or her true self-worth. Rarely do I see a person who truly sees their uniqueness and represents that uniqueness in their clothing, makeup, scent, hair, eyeglasses, accessories and body care.
Many of the world’s ills relate directly to individual lack of true self-esteem. If I don’t feel okay about me, it affects the way I relate to you. There is so much information available on food, health, clothing, make-up, and spiritual development. People often feel as if they are caught in a maze. Having experienced that maze, I know it can be confusing. I believe in handling everyday things beautifully and simply. Getting out of the maze frees your energy for other, perhaps deeper, pursuits.
...A male client once told me that he found it hard to give himself permission to look good. How often and in how many areas of your life do you deny yourself permission? This chapter is about clearing up long-held misperceptions about yourself and removing the costumes you have worn so long to survive. Move to the place where you can lovingly let go of a false self-image and stand in the light that is within.