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The Original "Getting Real"

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Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Last Sound

What will be the last sound at the end of the world? Will there be applause, like at the end of a marvellous show, when the curtain comes down and you don't want it to end but go home feeling better for having been there? Will it be someone quietly sobbing, or screams of despair? Will it be birdsong or gunfire; will it be that horrific explosion of a nuclear bomb that was so propagated in the 70s and early 80s? Or will it be laughter? I think the last sound will be either a little bird singing or someone laughing happily.

I hope it will be laughter, because sometimes it seems that laughter brings more genuine tears to the eyes than mountains of grief. It's beautiful that laughter causes us to cry in the same way as sadness does, but sadness leaves one feeling drained and exhausted, when laughter beyond control leaves one feeling equally exhausted but thoroughly alive. It's interesting that when we laugh, we are totally children again. We can't control ourselves; we can't pretend to be serious and grown-up. We just our native state of bliss and harmony. No one ever killed anyone while he was laughing with joy. No one ever caused a war when he was happily laughing.

Maybe the first sound we make on earth is that of a baby cry....I hope to goodness that the last sound we make is of sincere and heartfelt laughter.

Here's a great comic who makes me laugh a lot!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Writing What You Know

An interviewer on a radio programme once asked a writer how she reconciled the maxim "write what you know", with all the horror described in her novels and which she clearly hadn't personally experienced. She replied that she took her own experiences which inspired emotion, magnified the emotion slightly and put it into whatever situation her novel required. I thought that was rather wonderful!
Basically, no matter what the external events, humans run the same gamut of emotions so, perhaps, every novel is to some extent autobiographical of the writers' experience and all humanity's experience.
I would like to include some excerpts from my novels, over the next couple of days, beginning with "The Counting House."
This is autobiographical only in as much as it tries to describe the emotions, fears, joys, anger and love of a child, which I believe are common to everyone's childhood. I have often felt that children, struggling into roles allotted to them by society, go through so much angst because they have not yet learned to voice or understand their deepest feelings and there is often no outlet for them to express these emotions. So often, confined by the mores of the family or school or society, children are compelled to hide their anger, their fears and their love. How many of us grow to adulthood with the unhappy, unexpressed child still lost somewhere inside and acting out childhood fears and anger in grown up bodies.

Georgie, the central character of "The Counting House", thinks in black and white when the novel begins. Everything is good or evil, heroic or weak, brave or cowardly. She feels terrible guilt for having 'stolen', from a cemetery lodge, a candlestick which she believes has led to her being cursed by the devil and condemned by God, When tragedy strikes the family that evening, she believes she is to blame and embarks on a bizarre quest to appease God and rid herself of the devil. As the book progresses she gradually comes to understand the 'shades of grey' in defining the nature of good, evil and accident.

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.
“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"

Saturday, 15 August 2009

This beautiful poem by Charles Tennyson Turner, the younger (and largely overlooked) brother of the more famous Tennyson, was one of the first poems I learned as a child. It delights me today as much as it delighted me then, and sometimes when I have seen children scouring maps and globes, it comes to mind again. It's very lovely and I added the photo of Temple Newsam for no other reason than I happen to like it!:

When Letty had scarce pass'd her third glad year,
And her young, artless words began to flow,
One day we gave the child a colour'd sphere
Of the wide earth, that she might mark and know,
By tint and outline, all its sea and land.
She patted all the world; old empires peep'd
Between her baby fingers; her soft hand
Was welcome at all frontiers. How she leap'd,
And laugh'd and prattled in her world-wide bliss!
But when we turn'd her sweet unlearned eye
On our own isle, she rais'd a joyous cry,
"Oh! yes, I see it! Letty's home is there!"
And, while she hid all England with a kiss,
Bright over Europe fell her golden hair!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Glorious Twelfth

For some strange reason they call the start of the grouse shooting season (today) 'the glorious twelfth.' What can they possibly find glorious about murdering living creatures for sport? The mind of a person who takes pleasure in causing the death of an innocent creature must be very dark indeed. I believe that all life is an emanation of the One Life; how then can someone kill a life without killing part of his own life?

On the theme of birds, here Sri Chinmoy's beautiful poem, "Soul Bird"
O world-ignorance,
You have shackled my feet,
I am free.

You have chained my hands,
I am free.

You have enslaved my body,
I am free.

I am free because I am not of the body.
I am free because I am not the body,
I am free because I am the soul-bird
That flies in Infinity- Sky.
I am the soul-child that dreams
On the Lap of the immortal King Supreme.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Air Brushed

Every year, during the 'silly season' - which is really less silly than most of the rest of the year - while politicians happily go on holiday and newsmen can only follow real stories instead of what the politicians want us to believe, we return to the question of whether skinny models cause anorexia in young girls, and how we are swayed by media photos and air-brushed adverts into thinking we're all too plain, too short, too rounded, too old, too much ourselves to be among the beautiful people.

But really we all know it doesn't matter. We think it matters but we know it doesn't really. More significant, and never mentioned, than the superficial appearance is the idea that everyone else's life is more fascinating, more brilliant, more fabulous than our own. Other people's lives, portrayed in films and fairy tales, are filled with adventure and excitement, with glamour or tragedy. In films they feel what we feel but have the background in which to express those depths of emotion. When they're joyful, they don't just leap for joy as we do, they have orchestras playing the right music; they have perfect Nature behind them; they move in slow-motion and they capture for a few seconds moments that live with us for a life time...air-brushed out. When they're sad, their noses don't run, they don't snuffle off somewhere or have a headache from crying....they weep buckets, beautifully (the runny nose air-brushed out!) and their grief is somehow superior to ours. The lives of others are tragic and joyful and beautiful and magical....and we live ours.

But the stuff of dreams, the stuff of symphonies and ballets and operas and great art, is only a presentation of what we all feel, too. Our joys, our tragedies, our daily overcoming of difficulties is as dramatic as the most poignant Shakespearean drama. That's why I believe that great music, powerful words, art and magnificent cinematography honours all of us. We know when we feel deeply that the depths of our feelings can only be expressed in magnificent themes.

it is an insult to humanity to have so many so-called reality TV shows of people snuffling about nothing, or showing people who feel deeply about something sobbing and the camera holds the pose for too long. In order to express ourselves in all our grandeur, we need to acknowledge that our own emotions are enormous and enormously powerful, and we need great art to help us express the depths of it. When we hear the beauty of Callas singing, or bathe in the wonder of Delaroche's paintings, or throw ourselves into Tennyson, Eliot, Brooke or Shakespeare, we're not air-brushed, we're real, but the outcome expressed in the works of art is the air-brushed version; the refinement of the depths of how magnificent we all are.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The War To End Wars

August 4th 1914 was a Bank Holiday in England - unlike 2009 it was a very warm summer and people had crowded to the beaches to enjoy the sunshine when the news came through that Britain had entered the war. You would think such news would lead to a sombre feeling but, after the initial shock, it seems a kind of euphoria erupted. After decades of sabre-rattling and propaganda, there was finally the chance for some action! All kinds of young men who lived humdrum lives could march off to see the world and return as heroes. Their cause was noble - the war to end wars - and they would all be home by Christmas.
Those who rushed to enlist were hastily supplied with uniforms and guns. Mothers, wives, sisters, fathers, younger siblings were so proud to see them march through the streets. Whole workforces enlisted. Little towns across the country saw their young men march off in step and they hailed their courage, as though it was all a great game.
Then, gradually, the telegrams trickled in until hardly a family in Europe had not suffered a bereavement. How quickly that cheering turned to mourning, and that great dream of seeing the world turned to being knee-deep in mud in the trenches...and the war went on and on and on.
Almost a hundred years since the outbreak of the war to end wars, we still see planes bringing home the coffins, draped in the Union Jack, and people standing silently in the streets as yet another and another and another young man has his life cut short in the name of a righteous cause. There has even been, recently, such a call to support what the soldiers are doing, that there have been more military parades through the streets. The courage of those young men in not in question, nor is the grief of their families. What is questionable is the way that the same politicians, safe in their council chambers, continue to send out messages of another 'war to end wars'. How long will it be before we understand that no war will end wars...wars only end lives.

The wonderful Eric Bogle song, "The Green Fields of France" is so moving and beautiful. Having rested by the gravestone of a soldier, Willie McBride, in a French cemetery, and wondering about his life, the songwriter concludes:
And I can't help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you "The Cause?"
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.