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The Original "Getting Real"

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Friday, 26 March 2010


A wonderfully fascinating article in the Times Literary Supplement describes the unhappy life of William Wordsworth's daughter, Dora.

TLS - Dora Wordsworth

Wordsworth never struck me as an attractive man; he always seems so self-absorbed and more obsessed with his reputation as a poet than any genuine brilliance in his poetry. His early works are brimming with wonder and beauty (some of The Prelude and Upon Westminster Bridge are so beautiful to me) but his later writings, once he realised he was part of the poetic 'set' of his age, are so clumsy, verbose, unrefined and read like drivel:

This thorn you on your left espy;
And to the left, three yards beyond,
You see a little muddy pond
Of water, never dry;
I've measured it from side to side:
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

I have an ancient book of William Hazlitt's essays, in which he writes of Wordsworth making some mundane remark about the sunset, and Hazlitt seems in awe of it simply because Wordsworth is a self-professed poet, but it is so trite and and so 'expected' of a poet that it seems rather trivial to me.

What is most attractive about Wordsworth is his surroundings. His homes - Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and Rydal Mount - are stunning for the landscape in which they are set - far more stunning than the rather dull man who inhabited them! Anyone living amid such beauty could not fail to write something beautiful and I would imagine that, as Wordsworth grew older and lost his youthful zeal, it must have been a great trial to him to be forever living up to his ideal of what it meant to be a poet. All the same, at least he aspired to and wrote of beauty.

No wonder Dora went off the rails a bit!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

"At Parting"

As Spring returns, it seems an appropriate time for one of the most beautiful 'garden poems' - Edith Nesbitt's "At Parting" :

And you could leave me now
After the first remembered whispered vow
Which sings for ever and ever in my ears —
The vow which God among His Angels hears —
After the long-drawn years,
The slow hard tears,
Could break new ground, and wake
A new strange garden to blossom for your sake,
And leave me here alone,
In the old garden that was once our own?

How should I learn to bear
Our garden’s pleasant ways and pleasant air,
Her flowers, her fruits, her lily, her rose and thorn,
When only in a picture these appear—
These, once alive, and always over-dear?
Ah—think again: the rose you used to wear
Must still be more than other roses be
The flower of flowers. Ah, pity, pity me!

For in my acres is no plot of ground
Whereon could any garden site be found,
I have but little skill
To water weed and till
And make the desert blossom like the rose;
Yet our old garden knows
If I have loved its ways and walks and kept
The garden watered, and the pleasance swept.

Yet—if you must—go now:
Go, with my blessing filling both your hands,
And, mid the desert sands
Which life drifts deep round every garden wall,
Make your new festival
Of bud and blossom—red rose and green leaf.
No blight born of my grief
Shall touch your garden, love; but my heart’s prayer
Shall draw down blessings on you from the air,
And all we learned of leaf and plant and tree
Shall serve you when you walk no more with me
In garden ways; and when with her you tread
The pleasant ways with blossoms overhead
And when she asks, “How did you come to know
The secrets of the ways these green things grow?”
Then you will answer—and I, please God, hear,
“I had another garden once, my dear”.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Not Shocking But Demeaning and Childish

For six weeks David Dimbleby's wonderful 'The Seven Ages of Britain' took viewers on an artistic journey through the history of the country from the earliest civilizations to the modern age. Without shying away from the harsher aspects of life and belief - the paintings of heaven and hell, used by religious authorities to frighten people into submission; the vivid depictions of the effects of decadence as shown in 'The Rake's Progress'; and the brutality of weaponry and war - the artists and craftsmen managed to reach to the finest aspects of humanity, taking pride in their work and leaving a legacy of beauty for future generations.

Then came the final episode - "The Age of Ambition". After each of the previous episodes, I felt uplifted and inspired. After this episode, I felt only disgust, depression and almost despair at the depths to which the art world (and the world of literature) has sunk. No painstaking works of art, seeking out the best in humanity, but feeble and shoddy attempts to degrade and demean. After seeing the splattering of red wax on a wall and the so-called artist's agreement that it resembled to blood and that it was good for us to consider such taboo subjects, came the bizarre ugliness of men who painted themselves defecating as though this had some meaning in portraying real life. We were then treated to Damian Hirst's collection of dead flies, and watching him squirt paint onto a turntable (which reminded me of five year olds discovering paint for the first time) followed by Tracey Emin's meaningless comparison between women artists and women's sexuality. Claiming that she was liberated by Feminism, she presented a series of scrappy drawings of naked women in various poses (again, I was reminded of sketches drawn by pubescent boys and passed around classrooms to provide titillation) before her latest work which is basically pornography - absolutely demeaning to women and evidently the product of a mind which seems to wallow in all that is base.

As with so much music and the accompanying videos, and with a great deal of literature, art has descended into the mire of the most sordid minds. As today we can still be uplifted by the works of the great artists from the past, what will be handed on from this age to the people of tomorrow? Is this our legacy to posterity? The aim, it appears, is to shock. It isn't shocking. In order to be shocking, something has to be outstanding and 'different'. This, on the contrary, is merely childish and appears to be the work of emotionally stunted people who choose to dwell upon the dark side. It is said that such dross is a reflection of the age. In fact, it is not. It is merely a reflection of those who have the power to decide what is classed as art and what is not. All over the country, there are craftsmen and artists who produce work of real merit. Their work is visible in local galleries and displays originality and great skill. Seeing such work is uplifting and inspiring. Unfortunately these works are nowadays dismissed by the critics who seem bent on observing and promoting only ugliness.

People complain of the effects of violent video games, the amount of available pornography and the impact of such things on young people. What a disservice to young people - as well as to posterity - the art world is doing, if such trash as was seen in Sunday's night's episode is presented as art. If we wish to improve the way we live, it begins in our own minds. Minds filled with darkness produce dark actions. Let us, for heaven's sake, have a return to beauty. Let's be unafraid to state 'the king is wearing no clothes' when we are presented with this ugliness. Let us state that it is not representative of the age, but only representative of the few warped minds who happen to control art and literature at the moment. If we wish to improve our lives, our sense of cohesion and integrity, the way we treat other people and our sense of our own value and dignity, first and foremost we need a return to skill, to devotion to a craft or art, and, above all, to beauty.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Mark Helprin

Surely one of the most outstanding writers of the age is Mark Helprin! What sheer brilliance that reminds me of some of the most amazing passages from Dostoevsky.

"To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already been. And to protect their delicate vision of that other time, madmen will justify their condition with touching loyalty, and surround it with a thousand distractive schemes. These schemes, in turn, drive them deeper and deeper into the darkness and light (which is their mortification and their reward), and confront them with a choice. They may either slacken and fall back, accepting the relief of a rational view and the approval of others, or they may push on, and, by falling, arise. When and if by their unforgivable stubbornness they finally burst through to worlds upon worlds of motionless light, they are no longer called afflicted or insane. They are called saints."


As long as you have life and breath, believe. Believe for those who cannot. Believe even if you have stopped believing. Believe for the sake of the dead, for love, to keep your heart beating, believe. Never give up, never despair, let no mystery confound you into the conclusion that mystery cannot be yours."

These are but the tasters of the wonder of such brilliant writing that really gives you the 'tingle-factor'.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Counting House - Chapter 1 part 3

“Let’s see your book,” James said.
“Suit yourself.”
“Come on,” I galloped back to the shed, “let’s capture Saladin.”
Jessica sat on the grass, “I’m bored with Crusades. It would have taken ages for you to rescue me.”
James leaned over her, “You were very brave. You deserve a medal for courage,” and, putting his hand into his pocket, he pulled out a bottle top tied to a string.
I stared in disbelief, “You said you….”
“Sorry about that, Georgie. I forgot I had this one.”
I didn’t argue. I drew a pattern in the soil with the tip of my sword and wondered why he loved her. She wasn’t brave or daring. I ran with him, dug trenches, built castles and slew enemies while she made her perfumes in jam jars and tied ribbons to his lance.
I swung on her shoulders, “Come on, it’ll be teatime soon. Let’s play something.”
I shook her and the book slipped from my shorts. I jumped to pick it up but Alan had snatched it and threw it to his brother.
“It’s mine!” I leaped up at them as they held it over their heads.
They ran about the grass passing it between them like a rugby ball until they came to the wall of the extension where they huddled in a scrum and fingered my poems:
‘A song for James’, ‘The Hero’ and ‘I love the Lionheart’ Line after heartfelt line of my most secret sacred dreams: his eyes, his hair, his smile, and my undying love.
They laughed at my spelling, my joined-up writing and forced rhyme. Alan shrieked with delight and read the lines aloud until I felt hot tears burn my eyes. I fidgeted desperately with the elastic in my socks and pretended to laugh.
“Listen to this!” Alan yelled.
“I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean any of it! It’s all just things that Jessica says. It’s Jessica! She’s in love with James. That’s why she cries all the time.”
James stopped laughing and glared at me with anger in his eyes, “That’s a nasty thing to say.”
“She does! She writes everything you say in her diary and she cries all the time so you’ll put your arm round her.”
He shook his head and turned away, “I didn’t think you could be so cruel.”
Alan flung the book into the bushes and I scrambled after it, trying to straighten the pages.
“It’s nearly tea time,” James said. “We’d better be going.”
He and Alan disappeared up the drive and Jessica followed Peter into the kitchen. I hoped I’d never see any of them again.
I lay down on the grass and rolled over and over until I reached a trench where I curled up and cried. I hated James; I hated his silly hair and sissy voice. I mouthed his words scornfully, “I didn’t think you could be so cruel.”
I picked up my sword and considered playing the Roman and plunging it through my heart. Then they’d be sorry. Jessica would cry at my funeral and James would kneel by my grave whispering that he had always loved me best of all.
The soft soil where Dad had filled in my moat trickled into my shoes and gathered between my toes. I climbed into the shed where woodlice crawled across the beams, and sat among the insects, wiping my tears on my T-shirt.
I saw my dirty shorts, my sand-scuffed shoes, my silly sackcloth tunic, “I hate me. I hate me! I’m horrid and cruel! Bloody poems, bloody silly girl who looks like a boy, bloody James, bloody Alan, bloody Jessica…BLOODY BLOODY BLOODY!”
The shed door opened.
“What are you doing?” Peter said.
“Are you crying?”
“I’ve got soil in my eyes.”
“It’s tea time,” he sounded sorry. “Mum told me to come and get you.”
“I don’t want any tea.”
“We can play out again later. You can have the castle and I’ll…”
“It’s not a castle, it’s a shed. It doesn’t even look like a castle,” I kicked the wall, “and they’re not swords, they’re sticks.” I snapped the cane across my knee, scratching the skin but concealed the wince. “You couldn’t kill anyone with them. You couldn’t really kill anyone.”
“It’s a game,” he said quietly, “you’re not meant to kill for real.”
“One day I’ll get a real sword and chop off their heads.”
“My head?”
“No,” I followed him to the house, “not yours. James’s and Jessica’s and Alan’s.”

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Counting House - Chapter 1 part 2

It was an amber afternoon; the leaves were waving from the apple tree like a washing line of green socks above the chatter of children gulping blackberries on the grass.
“Guess what I did!” I dumped my bike and flew across the lawn with my arms outstretched in triumph.
“We know what you did,” Jessica flicked her curls with dainty fingers. “You dug a hole round the shed and you’re not allowed to play out.”
James, sprawling beside her, began to smile.
“A moat!” I said, “It was a moat, not a hole.”
“A moat without water? A moat around a shed!”
James’ brown eyes met Jessica’s and they sparkled. I stepped between them and stared into his face.
“I went into a Maximum Red Alert Zone on my own.”
He didn’t look at me. He reached to trap a butterfly floating to the purple-pink buddleia.
“I went into the haunted lodge.”
Alan grunted and Peter raised his head.
“I saw the devil!”
Peter’s eyes were wide with interest now.
“I’ve brought the candlestick to prove it.”
He stared, “You got the candlestick?”
“Look,” I lifted my T-shirt and pulled out the trophy, “and when I got it the devil saw me and chased me out of the house.”
Alan drilled his finger into a worn patch on the apple tree and prised off a piece of bark, “Liar!”
“Look!” I waved the candlestick in his face.
“That’s a different candlestick. The one in the lodge was gold. That’s just brass.”
I tugged my brother’s arm, “Tell him, Peter. It’s true!”
Peter took the candlestick from me and turned it around in his hand, “Yes, this is the one we saw through the window.”
“Can I have a medal?”
The sunlight shone on James’ jet-black hair and, shielding his eyes with his hand, he looked up at me, “Did you really do it?”
“Cross my heart.”
My ribs throbbed in anticipation of glory and the feel of his fingers as they placed the medal around my neck.
“Okay, you can have a medal but you’ll have to wait. I’ve not brought any with me today.”
Jessica looked at him and flicked her curls, as I flicked a greenfly from my leg, pretending not to care. He shuffled closer to her and his fingers crawled towards her like an insect through the grass. I looked away and wondered why he loved her.
He had loved her all my life. He loved her before I was born. He loved her since the day he and his brother, Alan, moved into the big house next door to my Great Auntie Lucy’s. And she told me he would love her until the day he died.
The sand inside my shorts prickled my bottom. I fidgeted with the elastic and waited for something to happen.
Suddenly James stood up, “Let’s play Crusades. I’ll be Richard the Lionheart.”
We ran to the shed for swords and arrows while Jessica leaned against the apple tree waiting for James to tie her hands, “I’ll be the hostage. You’ll have to rescue me.”
He couldn’t help but love her; she was so pretty and so dainty with red ribbons in her hair. In spring she made perfumes from pink blossom in a jam jar and their scent filled our bedroom. She dabbed it on her wrists and, carrying her little parasol, walked among the primroses humming songs she’d learned in school.
Peter threw out a pile of brown sacking from the underside of an old bed and we donned it as knightly tunics before scrambling in a box for shields and weapons. Jessica didn’t need a sword or costume; she already had the ribbons of a lady.
“Can I be a king?” I said, but James commissioned me as Captain of his bowmen.
“Follow me and I’ll tell you when to shoot.”
I pulled back the string of my bow and sent an arrow flying into the hawthorn, “For England and Saint George!”
“Help! Help!” cried the hostage in Hollywood tones.
I ran towards her; this time she wasn’t going to fall into his arms and burst into tears when the Lionheart saved her.
“Go away!” she huffed as I started to untie the rope.
The Saracens seized our castle and every man was needed to sustain our defence. I abandoned the hostage and fired my last arrow into the rhododendron bush before decapitating a few flowers with my sword.
“Come on,” the Lionheart cried, “let’s storm their drawbridge!”
“I’ll get my arrows,” I said and felt the wound of his angry glance.
“I said I’d tell you when to shoot.”
We pierced the air around Alan who stood motionless by the shed.
“Do something! There are enemies in the moat.”
“Shut up!” he flicked a woodlouse at me.
“Save me! Save me!” the hostage wailed.
King Richard abandoned his command and galloped towards her. I watched him go and, waving my sword, plunged the heathen horde into the moat.
The gate opened and the sudden intrusion of an Infidel wrecked the whole enchanted world. There were no more castles and knights, only children on the grass.
Peter ripped off his tunic and threw his sword behind the hedge.
“Hi, Uncle Max,” he walked across the garden, pretending he was too old to play, “are you looking for Dad?”
“No,” Uncle Max stuffed his hand into an inside pocket, “I’m looking for Georgie.”
“I found something of yours.” He crouched to my height and a gold tooth flashed from his smile, “I found it in our garden while I was cutting the grass.”
“She’s so hopeless,” Jessica said, slipping her hands from the rope, “she leaves her things all over the place.”
Jessica took care of her belongings; she was so neat and tidy that she drew an imaginary line across the middle of our bedroom to separate her neatness from my mess.
“You’re lucky it didn’t go in the motor mower.” Uncle Max said.
My heart sank when he pulled out my secret notebook. I hoped he hadn’t read it:
“I’m fond of poetry;” he said, wiping his hand over his bald head, “we learned them all by heart when I was at school, ‘Half a league, half a league, half a league and on…’” He smiled to himself then at me, “You want to keep it up! A bit hard to read your writing in places, but the bits I could make out were smashing.”
“She’s always in trouble at school for her untidy writing,” Jessica said, “she doesn’t take enough care over it.”
“There you go then,” Uncle Max handed me the book, “I’ll call in and see your mother. I’ve brought her some eggs.”
I lifted my tunic and stuffed the book into the elastic of my shorts.
“What’s in it?” Alan said.
“He said poems.”
“She tries to make up songs,” Jessica laughed, “but they all sound the same.”
At night when we took turns to sing ourselves to sleep, Jessica always chose a song she learned in school.
“You can join in the chorus,” she said.
She sang The Ash Grove slowly, pronouncing every word syllable by syllable to make her turn last longer. When she reached the line ‘streamlets meander’ she pretended to have forgotten what came next so she could sing it again: ‘stre…ee…am…lets mee…aa...ander.”
“If you forget it again, you’ll have to stop.”
“Don’t interrupt,” she snapped. “I’ll have to start from the beginning again.”
There was no chorus and I thought I’d fall asleep before my turn came.
“My song,” I said, “is a very sad song about the war.”
“Not Keep The Home Fires Burning again.”
“It’s a song they used to sing when Auntie Lucy was a little girl during the Wars of the Roses.”
Mum’s Auntie Lucy sang with a Lancashire accent which so impressed me I tried to imitate it,
“Keep the yome fyrres burrning.”
Jessica laughed.
“It’s not funny. It’s sad. There was a lady called Mary Ellen and she was in love with a handsome soldier called…James. He went to war in a place called Roses and was shot with three arrows. Mary Ellen was so sad that she died of a broken heart and as she was dying she sang this song. ‘While yerr ‘arts arrre yurrrning…’”
A snuffle came from Jessica’s bed. She was crying; my singing was beautiful.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Counting House

This novel was the result of some decades of half-hearted re-working. I began it when I was 18, trying to recapture the experiences of childhood and, although this is not my childhood and all the characters are fictional, the intention was to capture the intensity of the feelings and notions of a child. Children fear, love and hate to extremes, as people in the raw. It took so long to write this book because, I think, we grow so far from that as we are forbidden by mores to express emotion or to think honestly.

Georgie, the central character of this story, is a particularly 'religious' child but not in the usual pious way. The story begins with a sense of mere childhood happenings, but by the end of chapter one something will happen to change her life completely and lead her into the understanding of the nature of good, evil and accident. I would like to say a big thank you to the lovely people who have bought my other books so in return, over the next few weeks, the book will appear in full on this blog...

Chapter 1

By day the churchyard was safe and free from ghosts but the lodge by the gate was a Maximum Red Alert Zone. It was old and dilapidated, waiting to be pulled down and the builders’ sign on the door warned trespassers to KEEP OUT. No one ever came or went and the grey net curtain in the upstairs window never moved.
I leaned my bike against a headstone and crept through the knee-high ferns, then throwing myself onto my belly to avoid being seen from the church, crawled like a commando through the builders’ gritty sand until I reached the window ledge. Brown paint had chipped away from the wood revealing traces of blue. It might have been a bright house once - a happy, children’s house - but now it held only ghosts and spiders weaving webs down the window pane.
I stood upright and on tiptoes pressed my face to the glass; torn newspapers littered the naked floorboards and a broken stool lay in pieces near the wall. Flakes of paint prickled the skin beneath my fingers as I raised myself onto the ledge and gazed at the candlestick on the hearth. This was the Holy Grail that would win me the prize of a bottle top tied to a string. It was a matter of honour: the glory of a medal and the treasure of James’ smile.
The door didn’t creak as it opened but a musty, dusty smell caught the back of my throat as I scurried into the room where the candlestick stood. Shaking, I dared myself to go forward and knelt to wrap my fingers around the cold metal.
Then I saw him.
I saw him and he was watching me. From the farthest corner of the room an ugly image in a wrought gold frame caught me in an evil stare. Dark demonic eyes bored through my body and followed me when I tried to move away. Drops of deep black blood dripped from his fingers where he held a splattered heart in an outstretched hand. Every muscle stiffened to a tight uneasy pain across my shoulders as I read the gold lettering at the bottom of the frame:
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in Thee.
It wasn’t Jesus. It was Satan from the Children’s Bible.
“The devil is a master of disguises,” Auntie Philomena had said, “He comes like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We must always be on our guard.”
Clutching the candlestick, I flew through the hall leaving the front door wide open and a trail of sand trickling from me like blood. I jumped onto my bike ploughing tracks through the unmarked graves, and sped out of the churchyard, praying in each gasp of breath,
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, save me from the devil. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, save me from the devil.”
But the devil had seen me and now he would follow me home.

“The devil is a roaring lion,” Auntie Philomena had said when she came to baby-sit.
She stood by the door and waited for us to undress.
“Come on! Come on!” She clapped her hands teacher-fashion and hurried us into bed, “That’s right. In you get and then we’ll say our prayers.”
“We say them in our heads,” Jessica said.
“The family that prays together stays together.”
Auntie Philomena stood in the lamplight with her right arm outstretched, her left hand pressed to her flat stomach. “In the name of the Father and of the Son….”
I hated it. It was embarrassing. Jessica wouldn’t say the words and I glared at her when Auntie Philomena closed her eyes.
“Angel of God my Guardian dear,” I said it louder and bared my teeth at my sister. “Ever this night be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide, AMEN.” I shouted the ‘amen’ as a definite full stop and Auntie Philomena opened her prayerful eyes. I closed mine and smiled piously.
“That’s better,” she sat down on the edge of Jessica’s bed, “always remember your night prayers. The devil is a roaring lion; you never know when he will strike. The greater the saint, the greater the temptations the devil throws in his way. Why should he bother to trap sinners when he already has their souls? But to watch a saint fall! That would be his triumph.”
Jessica sighed and rolled over, pushing her head beneath the blankets until all I could see was a mesh of golden curls.
“Like nits,” I said, “they only go on clean hair.”
“Like a roaring lion!” Auntie Philomena growled.
I thought of the devil’s horns in the Children’s Bible and fumbled beneath the pillow for my rosary beads, “If he comes in disguise, how do you know it’s the devil?”
“By his feet,” she said with infallible conviction, “he can’t disguise his feet! That’s why Our Lady always appears with her tiny feet showing beneath her dress. Now you go to sleep like good little girls while I check on Peter.”
She switched off the lamp and closed the door, shrouding the room in darkness. The devil, like a roaring lion, prowled under my bed. I trembled and tied the rosary beads round my hand.
“Jess,” I whispered, “I’m scared of the devil.”
“Don’t be daft,” she said, “go to sleep.”
If I were a sinner the devil wouldn’t want me. I hung out of bed and whispered through the darkness, “Bloody, bloody, buttocks and bosoms.”
He wouldn’t bother me now.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Swan by Mary Oliver

Rather like going for a walk in a wood and coming across a most unexpected treasure is the feeling of discovering a new poem from a great poet. I am almost ashamed to write that 26 years after Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize, I only heard of her yesterday - and what a stunning writer she is! There is so much beauty in all of her poetry that it is impossible to say which is a favourite, and 'The Swan' is but a small example of her genius.

Perhaps it's appropriate after such a bleak winter that now, as we step into the overture of spring with the beginning of March, some new loveliness appears!

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

(I took this poem from the wonder 'Poet Seers' site - I trust that is alright by the creators of that lovely site)

Mary Oliver - Poet Seers