Peace in my time


Glastonbury Tor – for N
Taken by Lynne Newton (see link)

“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
(Ophelia – Hamlet)

Last night I took out my recycling without gloves, and very briefly experienced what it was like to be in the siege of Leningrad. (Really briefly). My hands were so cold they hurt, and I gave a yelp like a dog when you’ve stepped on its tail. (Then I ran back into my flat, sat next to the radiator and put on my Uggs. So – incredibly briefly.)

All of a sudden winter is upon us; the hot, syrupy days of summer are forgotten in blasts of icy air, trees spangled with frost and early morning fog winding its way over the hill. In my new flat I can look out over my neighbours’ gardens and watch as Jack Frost ices their allotments with sugar. I enjoy winter; I do think one ought to make an effort to, seeing as it will come whether you like it or not. So rather than moan about night coming early, look up at the stars which you can often see more clearly at this time of year. You don’t need to turn on all your lights, put on a couple of candles and scry, if you fancy it. No you can’t pop down the shops in your shorts, but surely that’s a great excuse to invest in something warm and snuggly – a chunky cardigan, a onesie if you must, or a maybe a cat. For me the first pleasure of autumn is filling a hot water bottle and curling it around my feet like a little animal. (Yes, I am easily satisfied.)

I am thinking about, and looking for, peace. Two weekends ago I was at my grandparents’ house (I can’t ever just reduce it to the singular) curled up reading after a day walking at Dunwich and visiting the fascinating, and aptly named, Visitors’ Centre at RSPB Minsmere. The TV was off. We were all reading to the gentle pace of the grandfather clock which has ticked since the 1920s. That was peace.

Peace, too, in my attempt to have early(ish) nights; in the evening I listened to a radio re-enactment of JFK’s assassination for three hours with the lights down low and a blanket over my knees; peace in putting aside time to do nothing (or almost nothing), which I don’t tend to do, as I race through life with my foot on the accelerator and my face distorted into a rictus grin by G-forces.

Peace for myself, when others lack it. A close friend died last week after many years of difficulty and depression. Dogged I might be by my own immature demons (who isn’t?) but I am fortunate enough never to have reached that level of despair; to be able to confess to anyone who asks that (touch wood) I have a pretty fantastic life. The cold winter sun burns a little dimmer today because one less good person is underneath it. I’m tongue-tied and dry-eyed, but my hands and mind have bypassed the rest of me and I’ve written a poem for N which the family have asked me to read at the funeral. A huge honour and one I hope I will be worthy of. When I’m ‘presenting’ or ‘performing’ I am not myself but someone quite different, someone who is capable of doing all the things the normal wouldbegood would not dream of.

You can pretend to be someone else or imagine being someone else, but you are never really someone else.

This brings me very neatly to The Woman in Black: Angel of Death which based on an idea by Susan Hill, but written by someone quite entirely, Martyn Waites. Unfortunately, it really shows. There’s none of Hill’s gentle menace, although the concept – children evacuated to Eel Marsh House during the war – is a clever one. As the sequel to the Woman in Black film comes up I think this book was written after the film, rather than before, as it reads clunkily like a film tie-in. I was looking forward to reading it the way one picks the last Revel out of the bag, salivating, and it turns out to be one of the sodding coffee ones.

(By the way, any links on here I will put to, the little independent trader trying to battle against Amazon. If they don’t have what I write about, I’ll leave it to you to get it out of the library.)

Not so with Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining. King did not let us down – the dialogue he does so well, the wild and yet so familiar imagination, the well-drawn characters and tight plot were all there. But the ending was not expected, and I mean this positively. I shall say no more, beyond anyone who wondered how Daniel Torrance of RedRum fame grew up will not regret it. (And for those who loved The Shining but hated Kubrick’s film – which owed very little to the novel – I suggest you rent The Shining mini-series which was written and produced by King and is basically the story of the book. I loved both equally, as can only one who enjoys being scared.)

I also read The Great Gatsby. Which was not bad, and rather sad but I didn’t really get what was “great” about Gatsby. I won’t ruin the end for Gatsby-virgins, but I thought he could have shown a bit more backbone.

Sandcastle Girls by Christopher Bohjalian, about the genocide of the Armenians. Like all his books, it’s beautifully and delicately written, and suddenly he pops in a detail which makes your stomach tighten and your throat close. Which is why his writing is so addictive.

Unseen by Karin Slaughter. Another story from one of my favourite crime writers, and another with an unexpected ending. That’s all I’m saying!

Burning Air by Erin Kelly. Oof, it says quite a bit that when I wrote those words I couldn’t remember what it was about – but when I did it reminded me it was actually a bloody good story. Hell hath no fury like a teenager scorned, and this particular teenager wreaks havoc on a family culminating in the disappearance of a baby. I enjoy Kelly’s stories; she has a streak of original unpleasantness running through her writing (and by that I mean original unpleasant characters, I’m sure she’s ever such a good sort) which I like to bite into.

The Hive – Gill Hornsby. Not my kind of thing at all. Sorry. It felt rather full of forced jollity and two-dimensional characters.

Squatting by my pillow like the toad in Paradise Lost (but a nicer version than, er, Satan) is the new Phil Rickman, The Magus of Hay. I intend to settle down with this this weekend and if someone tries to make me be sociable or do something else I will be very cross. I missed NaNoWriMo because I got swept up in my reading but I am determined to do at least half an hour a day writing something. Like my knee exercises, which I always find time to do even if I am knackered. The same should be with my brain. I’ve recently joined the Shakespeare Society which has been running in my town since the 1920s. I am the youngest there by approx. 30 years, but I love it. We sit around drinking tea, reading the plays aloud and discussing them. Tonight was Hamlet; its text twists and torments like a frantic snake, something you don’t get when you just read it to yourself in the bath, or even when you see it performed as you’re distracted by the action. Good old Shakespeare. That play is anything but peaceful, but I think I’ll sleep well tonight.


Feel the fear and do it anyway?

backflipOof. It’s National Novel Writing Month, a month which fills me with excitement and terror simultaneously – like Halloween, my third favourite night of the year. I want to take part in it (Nanowrimo I mean, as it is known by Those in the Know).  I think about it all day, I flex my fingers, I close my eyes to tease out the thoughts sparkling in my imagination, and I shut down. Find something else to do, something else to distract me.

I’m frightened I won’t be able to do it anymore.

When I was younger, I thought that my life would be complete if only I could backflip. The popular girls at school could backflip. It seemed the Be All and End All. I worked for months – well, years, to be honest – to accomplish it. Finally, aged 15 (and already far too old), on one spring-smeling sun-splashed early evening, I sprang from my heels, flung my arms back over my head and landed on my feet having executed the perfect backflip. My gym teacher, knowing I was able to do it but hadn’t got the guts, simply put out her hands to support me, and then took them away. She trusted my skills far more than I did.

I could turn strings of cartwheels. I loved walking on my hands. Going forwards I was fearless – flipping, walkovers, somersaults – but going backwards something just “stuck”. After that day I never did another backflip, and stupid as it is it makes me really sad that I never again had the courage to do something I’d always wanted to do. Nanomowri is the same really. I want to do it and I know I probably can, but I might land on my head, and the fear is crippling. (As is landing on your head, obviously.)

The backflip is just one element in a long gymnastic sequence. Like the Arab Spring, you use it to gain momentum and speed so that you can spring into a twisting double-back somersault rather than because it’s impressive in its own right. The backflip is just the beginning. But if you don’t even have the courage to do that, then you won’t ever somersault.

Bit deep, sorry.

What have I been doing. Moving house, nesting. Buying little odds and sods to make the place more ‘mine’. Throws from Matalan (in your FACE £60 Laura Ashley rubbish!), geckos nailed to every door (metal ones obviously), a beautiful dark wood dining table from a charity shop complete with little brass feet. I have had peeks into How The Other Two Thirds Live by collecting sofas thanks to Freecycle and made myself faint by replacing seventeen spotlight bulbs in the ceiling. It’s coming together, but I am so happy I am frightened I’m going to be kicked out for some spurious reason or another. I find it hard to believe that I am lucky enough to live here and that it’s not all going to be pulled away from me.

I did a massive ghost story/book post last Halloween, so if you want to get some ideas on how to share the evening with the spirits check that out. I will say that one could not start ones spooky season better than a night watching M R James stories read aloud by Robert Lloyd Parry . The show was absolutely flawless, beautifully presented and very creepy. M R James is one of the greatest writers of creepy tales ever to live and Lloyd Parry brings him to life. I felt the skin on my spine shrivel when he said how the figure in “The Mezzotint” was ‘crawling towards the house’. It really put me in the mood. Please don’t stop doing the M R James stories around Halloween, Mr LP, they are a real joy! I encourage anyone in the area to go and see him.

I’ve been forcing myself to go to bed a little earlier to catch up on my reading which has been in danger of being neglected. This evening I want to settle down with The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories but I need to finish The Fault in Our Stars first. I’m not going to say a single word about it until I’ve read the last page. In the meantime, here is what else has been occupying me:

After The Fire, a Small Still Voice – Evie Wyld. Sparsely written, with good characterisation, but ultimately missing something. I wasn’t sure what. It didn’t stop me enjoying the book, I just thought it could have worked that bit harder for my attention.

Dear Life – Alice Monro.  Another (and apparently her last) collection of short stories. By turns amusing, heart-breaking and disturbing.

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway. Something I’ve always meant to read. It was quite good, but I don’t think I focused on it enough to enjoy it as much as I should. I do feel like I’m missing something by not thinkiung it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.

The Missing – Andrew O’Hagan. I wasn’t sure what this book was, though knowing it was by O’Hagan was a draw. Part-autobiography, part-journalistic research into people who disappeared and never came home. I googled some of the cases he writes about, and one of the cases was reopened as recently as August 2013.

Levels of Life– Julian Barnes. A study of bereavement, written after the death of his wife. Poignant and heartbreaking while always gentle and dignified.

Cold Comfort Farm  – Stella Gibbons. I enjoyed it, but perhaps not as much as everyone else who’s ever read it. Oh dear, that’s two books everyone else gets and I don’t, I fear my intellect is atrophying.

And The Mountains Echoed by Khalid Hosseini (The Kite Runner). As always superbly written, but excruciatingly painful to read in parts.

I really ought to go and limber up. Perhaps see if I can just bend backwards until my fingertips brush the floor. I don’t need to do anything more tonight. Just that. Let’s just give it a go.