100 Novels That Shaped Our World; free travel with a book and One Green Thing

Four women and two men have just chosen 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. The choosers are: Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Syima Aslam, founder of the Bradford Literature Festival, authors Juno Dawson, Kit de Waal and Alexander McCall Smith and journalist Mariella Frostrup. The 100 novels are divided into 10 categories: Identity; Love, Sex & Romance; Adventure; Life, Death & Otherworlds; Politics, Power & Protest; Class & Society; Coming of Age; Family & Friendship; Crime & Conflict and Rule Breakers.

And the thing I love about the way the choosers chose is that they chose novels that’d made a personal impact on them and, as Juno Dawson said in a Guardian article here, they chose books that allowed the

Emotions behind a novel to factor into our choices, not how many copies it’s sold, or if it’s considered a work of great literature.

The full 100 list is here, and in the link in the first line, above. I was so delighted to see Ali Smith’s How to Be Both in Rule Breakers and Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes in Family & Friendship; Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne in Class & Society and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in Politics, Power & Protest. If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have said I was a reader of novels in that category, but clearly I am. The Chronicles of Narnia and Frankenstein both feature in Life, Death & Otherworlds; Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and – how could it not be there? – Pride & Prejudice are in Love, Sex & Romance and Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of the ten in Identity.

I would have loved to have seen John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman on the list: it made a colossal impact on me, for its innovative form but mainly for its story of a woman trapped by her society, and I’m sure there are novels you’ll feel should have been included. You can tweet about what you’d love to have seen on the list using the hashtag #mybooklife … and what the choosers hope is that their choices will spark debate. Whatever you feel about the list, it’s a wonderful endeavour that sets us thinking the thoughts and above all feeling the feelings that our most beloved novels stirred. And there’ll be three BBC TWO programmes about the 100 Novels on 9, 16 & 23 November.

The thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is also book-linked: in The Netherlands, on their National Book Day, you could travel on trains without buying a ticket if you had a book about your person. Glorious idea and thanks to James Sebastian on Facebook for posting.

And, from now on, each month, I’m going to post One Green Thing I’ve done or seen or noticed or one day will do: this month I pledged not to fly (at all!) in 2020 here, because of this:If it’s too small to read, click on the pic to go to the original. But, fundamentally, it shows that one long-haul flight, just one, is the same as a year’s driving in terms of exhausting one person’s annual carbon footprint. And, as discussed here, the single most useful thing we individuals can do to help curb the climate change crisis is to cut out / cut down our fossil fuel consumption.

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Greta Thunberg and climate change; There is No Planet B; Extinction Rebellion and solastalgia

On Friday 20 and Friday 27 September Global Climate Strikes took place across the world, inspired by Greta Thunberg who began her Friday school strikes in August 2018. She sat outside the Swedish Parliament to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. The #FridaysforFuture movement has snowballed, as you must have noticed, into a global protest movement to persuade our politicians to act according to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change enacted in 2016 which states that all signatories will:

Strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Here are some of the thing Thunberg said at a Climate Protest in Hamburg in March and, at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the beginning of the year. But at the UN Climate Summit on 23 September in New York (to which she sailed) she made her strongest speech yet. Listen to her, especially this: ‘You all come to us young people for hope. But we are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?’

How dare we indeed. To stop poisoning our planet and its atmosphere; to stop heading for extinction, we must spend money. A lot of money. We need to invest in green energy and green jobs, put an end to airport expansion and fracking and leave fossil fuels in the earth. We need to spend money to find non-polluting alternatives. In the US, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez estimates the cost at at least $10 trillion. But the alternative is a planet where our children and grandchildren will be unable to live.

Ann Pettifor, one of the founders of the UK’s Green New Deal proposal (11 long years ago – why weren’t we listening?) says, full interview here:

You can’t have a capitalist, carbon-belching economy, or delusions of exponential growth, and believe you can achieve ecological targets within that [my bold]. … Finance, economy, and the environment are integrated … you need a joined-up policy that deals with all three.

and, from the Green New Deal Bill text: Not to invest in a Green New Deal would be, in fact, to inflict great economic, environmental and social self-harm on the nation.

At the Labour Party Conference this September delegates voted for a version of the Green New Deal that would commit a Labour government to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. But Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2017 because he said it would impose unacceptable costs on the US economy and provide unfair advantages to other countries like China and India. What on Earth was he thinking? In a May 2019 article in the UK edition of The Conversation, this statistic was quoted:

The cost to the global economy if the Paris Agreement is not met and the world hits 4˚C warmer … is an estimated US$23 trillion a year over the long-term [my bold]. This has been likened to the world experiencing four to six global financial crises on the scale of 2008 every year. [Click the links in this quote for the economic details.]

The UK was the first country to declare an Environment & Climate Emergency in response to Thunberg’s speech to Parliament in April 2019, and in September a Green New Deal Bill was tabled (not for the first time). But, so far, it hasn’t become law.

In There is no Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee suggests the things individuals (as well as governments) can do to help stop climate change.

Image result for there is no planet b

So please do something. Because we all need to act. Now. Here’s what Extinction Rebellion will be doing between 7 & 20 October where I live. And here, in the rest of the world.

In Robert Macfarlane’s majestic Underland, in chapters called The Edge and The Blue of Time, he writes about how what we excrete comes back to consume us; about a nuclear base that’s re-emerging from the ice when those who buried it thought it would remain buried forever; about unweder or unweather, weather so extreme that it seems to have come from another climate or time altogether, and about solastalgia a word coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 which means distress caused by environmental change. I’m solastalgic and I’ll remain solastalgic until we collectively start behaving as if, as Greta Thunberg put it, ‘The house is on fire.’ Before it really is.Underland

And the thing I wish I could make, in an alternative universe where time is unlimited and all things are possible, is a world where we all pull together to make sure that our planet continues to exist sustainably for our children and our grandchildren and all their children’s children. Just the way we were so sure it would, when we were young.

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City Tales, and Hive

Since 2004, Oxford University Press has been publishing volumes of City Tales, collections of short stories set in European cities translated into English. The guiding idea is to give the English-speaking reading traveller (I paraphrase):

Stories expertly translated by writers with an intimate knowledge of the city in question. The collections have black-and-white photographs to illustrate each story and a map to show their location.

This, to me, is the best kind of guidebook: fiction set in a city I’m visiting which means the streets and squares I go to are filled not only with themselves, but with images from the stories I’ve just read. The collections include bibliographies of the writers, lists of further reading and viewing for each city, informative general introductions and more specific introductions to the writers. The one I’ve begun reading, Rome Tales, includes stories from fourteenth-century authors (Boccaccio and an Anonymous Roman) to the twenty-first century Melania Mazzucco by way of Casanova and Pasolini to name just six of the fourteen.

Clearly it’s time I went back to Rome.

And the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is HIVE. It’s a way of buying music, DVDs and, especially, books online, but at the same time making a donation to your local independent book shop so they won’t go under. What they say, here, is:

We don’t want any more independent bookshops to close. That’s why we give them a cut from every single order on Hive.

It’s still better by far to go to your local indy, but if you can’t, or if there’s no longer one near you, this seems to be the next best thing. My local bookshop didn’t appear on HIVE’s list but any bookshop can apply to join (and I’ve just sent mine the info). The only rule appears to be that they have an account with Gardners (who distribute books, DVDs and music wholesale).

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Janet Clare on getting published later on, and Vice’s Broadly.

I’ve been meaning to read this article by an older writer about starting to write later in life and how, after a very long writing journey and the discovery that every writer makes at some point, that all writing is rewriting, her novel was published. It’s only taken me eight months to get round to reading her article, but it took Janet Clare (at a guess, from her article) twenty+ years to find a publisher, via an agent who did nothing, a life-threatening illness, a course at UCLA, a beloved mentor who died (but whose advice lived on in Clare) and, naturally, a lot of what my mother used to call sticktoitiveness. Clare’s journey to publication is a wonderfully uplifting and properly positive story for any writer, especially an older female one.

Time Is the Longest Distance

I’ve just ordered a copy of her novel from my local indie bookshop, but you can also find it here and I’m seriously looking forward to reading it. By the way, I’ve just discovered (courtesy of the internet) that the title comes from The Glass Menagerie, a play about a son and brother’s memory of his mother and sister. It was Tennessee Williams first big success:

I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further, for time is the longest distance between two places.

The complete speech is here. But the title feels very fitting for a novel set in the harsh, dry, hot Australian outback about a middle-aged woman’s discovery of herself and the ‘power and destruction of [family] secrets’.

***

Vice’s Broadly, ‘A digital platform for women’ (isn’t there just so much of the digital world that people like me – older and a reader of print books and a listener to the radio for news – don’t even know exists)? But the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe (this really is one) where time is infinite and everything is possible is Vice’s Broadly. Just one example:

This is Fine

Our Sunday newsletter tracks the specific ways we go about improving our days. Every week, a new contributor shares an essay about a strategy they employ to feel better, alongside annotations from members of Sad Girls Club, a community that focuses on mental health.This is Fine
Click on the image to find out more or Get it in your inbox here

I found Broadly while reading the book I wrote about last month, Comfort Zones, and when you surf the net (do we still say that?) to discover more after a new discovery, you find all kinds of things you never knew existed. The future belongs to the curious. Anon.

Posted in Creativity, Cyberspace, Fiction, Internet, Psychology, reading, Rewriting, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Women, Writers, Writing, Writing Courses | Comments Off on Janet Clare on getting published later on, and Vice’s Broadly.

Comfort Zones, and Client Earth

The other day, in Chichester, I found and bought a book. This is a (very) common thing in my life (although it usually happens in London) but I bought this book in Jigsaw which isn’t a bookshop. Copies were sitting on the counter when I went to pay (yes, I did buy a dress) and a friend of mine and I bought one each. The book’s called Comfort Zones and you can buy it here. This is how it’s described on its website:

A collection of essays and stories written by 28 women writers, Comfort Zones has been published by Jigsaw and edited by Sonder & Tell in aid of Women for Women International. We asked writers to think about their usual subject matter, and then work against it. You’ll find journalists tackling their first works of fiction, reflective essays that take an unflinching look at past failures as well as big ideas for creating a kinder world. All proceeds go to the incredible work of the charity, Women for Women International.

Women for Women International helps women survivors of war to rebuild their lives. And the essays I’ve read so far are inspiring. I recommend it. And here’s a little aside: because Jigsaw sells clothes and not books, usually, when you click on the link to buy Comfort Zones you’ll see a description of the book’s dimensions and appearance under Fit and Features … .


And the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Client Earth. A friend of mine told me that David Gilmour recently put his guitars into an auction at Christie’s, New York, where they sold for an astonishing £17 million. But far more importantly, Gilmour donated all that money to Client Earth. Here he is talking about it. And the thing is, Client Earth is a collection of lawyers who:

Use the power of the law to protect the planet and the people who live on it.

Roll on the day when there are laws that make it illegal for us to destroy our home in any way. And when that day comes, it will be a very very good day.

Posted in Bookshops, Climate Change, Design, Fiction, Things that don't fit anywhere else, Women, Writers, Writing | 1 Comment

The Benefits of Reading the Old-Fashioned Way; and Splosh!

I found this article about the benefits of reading to children at a young age on Mental Floss a little while ago: April, I think. Anyway I’ve just refound it and it delights me to know that a 2018 study has discovered that:

The simple act of reading to your kids can influence their behavior in surprising ways.

As The New York Times reports, researchers looked at young children from 675 low-income families. Of that group, 225 families were enrolled in a parent-education program called the Video Interaction Project, or VIP, with the remaining families serving as the control.

They found that 3-year-olds taking part in the study had a much lower chance of being aggressive or hyperactive than children in the control group of the same age. The researchers wondered if these same effects would still be visible after the program ended, so they revisited the children 18 months later when the kids were approaching grade-school age. Sure enough, the study subjects showed fewer behavioral problems and better focus than their peers who didn’t receive the same intervention.

Parents reading to their two young children.Reading to kids isn’t just a way to get them excited about books at a young age — it’s also a positive form of social interaction, which is crucial at the early stages of social and emotional development.

Also, new research suggests that:

Not every type of book has the same impact. Reading out loud from physical print books, as opposed to reading words off a screen, leads to richer interactions between parents and children The New York Times reports.

And this 2018 report suggests that ebook sales are no longer greater than the sales of print books. A statistic that makes my heart sing (and it’s a rare statistic that does that).

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite so all things are possible is Splosh! They supply cleaning products, but they do it in the most eco-friendly, non-plastic-proliferating, single-use plastic way. Here’s what they say:

Plastic waste is messing up our oceans and littering our land. Every plastic bottle you buy in a supermarket makes the problem worse. We have a fix.

Their fix is that you only ever use one plastic bottle per product: Splosh sells refills that fit through your letterbox so you don’t have to be in when they come, and they recycle the refill pouches. Read more here.

Splosh!

Brilliant.

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Anne Lamott’s Twelve True Things; and Human Libraries

Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird helped me immeasurably when I was writing my first novel, Speaking of Love (I was stuck, didn’t know what to write or how, but Lamott’s Bird by Bird dispelled my despair, took my hand and led me step by step through the possibilities and the process, restored my confidence and gave me back my sense of humour, thank you, Anne ) … Anne Lamott decided to write down ‘Every single true thing I know’ a few years ago. Here are Four (of Twelve).

Number One:

The first and truest thing is that all truth is a paradox. Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it’s impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It’s been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It’s so hard and weird that we sometimes wonder if we’re being punked [tricked, on this side of the pond]. It’s filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together. I don’t think it’s an ideal system.

Number Two:

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes — including you.

Number Five:

Chocolate with 75% cacao is not actually a food.

Number Ten:

Grace. Grace is spiritual WD-40, or water-wings … . The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, HELP, and then buckle up.

That last sentence is fixed to my keyboard tray so I see it and attempt to do it, every day. And when I asked Lamott for permission to quote from these truths she replied:

Yes, help yourself—everyone, to anything I’ve written.

Generosity personified.

Her Sixth Truth is about writing and about Bird by Bird: it’s full of wonderful words for writers (and for life). All Twelve of Lamott’s True Things are here: they’re human and thoughtful and funny and reassuring and wise. And the last one, about death, is very very moving. I highly recommend reading them, often. And this, for writing and for life:Image result for lamott bird by bird images

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel world where time is infinite and all things are possible is a Human Library. Imagine this: instead of books on shelves, human beings sit at tables ready to tell their life stories to anyone who comes to listen. As they say on their website:

The Human Library is a place where real people are on loan to readers. A place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered.Image result for human librariesThe Human Library was developed in Denmark and is, as they say, A Worldwide Movement for Social Change: Real People have Real Conversations. To find a Human Library event near you go to their Facebook page, here.

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A hug a day keeps the doctor away, and Brooklyn’s new Center for Fiction

I read here, the other day, in an article by a South Korean Zen Buddhist monk called Haemin Sunim, that hugs have health benefits. Here he is and here’s part of what he wrote:

Haemin Sunim

Anthony Grant, a professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, presented research results showing that, in addition to reducing anxiety and loneliness, hugs lower our levels of the hormone cortisol, which gets secreted as a response to stress; this, in turn, strengthens immunity to pathogens and lowers blood pressure.

A brief, warm morning hug with someone we love provides us with a protective layer, insulating us from the stress of the day.

And according to Karen Grewen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, if a couple holds hands and hugs for 20 seconds before leaving the house in the morning, their stress index will be only half that of couples who do not do this. In other words, a brief, warm morning hug with someone we love provides us with a protective layer, insulating us from the stress of the day.

So, what’s stopping you?

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Brooklyn’s new Center for Fiction:Here readers, writers and curious folk can read, write, discuss and debate all things fiction. Wish I lived in New York.

Posted in Bookshops, Creativity, Mental Health, Psychology, Things I'd Love to Have Made | 1 Comment

Diana Athill, and The Astrology Book Club

Diana Athill (1917-2019 – she died on 23 January) was an editor extraordinary, a novelist and a memoirist. She was also one very wise woman. In her book, Somewhere Towards the End, she wrote:

What dies is not a life’s value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self-awareness of itself: away that goes into nothingness, with everyone else’s … . The difference between being and non-being is both so abrupt and so vast that it remains shocking even though it happens to every living thing that is, was, or ever will be.

and

No doubt one likes the idea of ‘last words’ because they soften the shock. Given the physical nature of the act of dying, one has to suppose that most of the pithy ones are apocryphal, but still one likes to imagine oneself signing off in a memorable way, and a reason why I have sometimes been sorry that I don’t believe in God is that I shan’t, in fairness, be able to quote ‘Dieu me pardonnerai, c’est son metier’ [God will forgive me, it’s his job], words which have always made me laugh, and which, besides, are wonderfully sensible. As it is, what I would like to say is: ‘It’s all right. Don’t mind not knowing.’ And foolish though it may be, I have to confess that I still hope the occasion on which I have to say it does not come very soon.

I found the extracts from Somewhere Towards the End (which was published in 2008) here.

I hope, when my time comes, I possess Athill’s sanguinity, her humour and her not minding not knowing. Although Arthur Miller’s: ‘The thing that’s so difficult [or words to that effect] is the loss of consciousness’ still haunts me so much … but who knows how either Miller or Athill actually were at the end?

And the thing I’d like to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is The Astrology Book Club: it’s – as it suggests on the tin – a club that recommends books each month by astrological sign. Mine this month is Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower because, apparently, it’s multi-layered, razor-sharp epic fantasy, which is extremely well-written and working with the highest stakes imaginable. Which should appeal to me (and one-twelfth of the world .. .) See if you think yours fits your astrological self … . I somehow doubt Diana Athill would have approved, but you never know.

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Valentine’s presents; and Pen Heaven

If you haven’t yet bought a present for your Valentine who might, of course, be yourself,  you could indulge in this for your toast. You’ll find it here.

Heart Shaped Toast Rack, Unique Valentines Gift

Or this, for your wine:

Mens Society 4 in 1 Bar Tool

from here.

But if neither of these appeal, then perhaps something from the thing I would love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible will appeal. Pen Heaven, apart from selling the most heavenly pens, also have the most useful pen refill finder guide. Not so long ago, after an aunt of mine died, I inherited two of her pens but I thought I’d never be able to use them because I couldn’t find any refills for them … until I stumbled across Pen Heaven where I found myself in, well, pen heaven. There are handy measurement scales on the refills page so even if the refill on the page doesn’t look quite like the old one you’ve got, you can work out if it will fit your pen from the length and width measurements (even the nib lengths are shown). The two refills I bought, even though they don’t look exactly the same as the ones they’ve replaced, work perfectly.

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Make Good Art, a resolution for the new year

In January 2016, I quoted Neil Gaiman’s wonderful advice which is, essentially, whatever you’re doing, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

This new year I recommend you buy, borrow or steal Gaiman’s Art Matters. If you write, find a copy of Art Matters immediately. If you paint, find a copy of Art Matters immediately. If you compose, find a copy of Art Matters immediately. If you sing, find a copy of Art Matters immediately. If you make anything of any kind anywhere at all, find a copy of Art Matters immediately. It’s medicine. It’s inspirational. It’s comforting. It’s essential. Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

The moment you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.

Art Matters

Happy new creative year!

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Jericho Writers’ Self-Editing Your Novel Course, and the wonders of Atlas Obscura: destinations, food and drink

I’m in the final week of Jericho Writers’ Self-Editing your novel course run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin and all I can say is if you’ve written a first (or even a twenty-first) draft of a novel and you know something’s wrong but you can’t put your finger on it, or you’ve had agent(s) ask for a full manuscript but they’ve decided against taking your work on at the final fence, then this is the course for you. (Jericho Writers run lots of other writing courses, but this one is the biz.)

I’ve done an MA in Writing and many shorter courses in writing fiction but never ever have I done a course with such practical application. It’s (relatively) easy to write a novel by instinct when it’s all going swimmingly, but when it goes wrong you need to know the questions to ask yourself. Now I know the structural, vocal, point of view, psychic distance (do the course and you’ll discover), character-in-action and many other questions to ask and in the new year, by the end of March I hope, I’ll have a final redraft I’m finally proud of.

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible this month is Atlas Obscura. It’s a travel-guide website, but it’s much much more than that. As they say:

Our mission is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share.

Click on Random Place to be taken to destinations you’d never thought of travelling to. Or try Gastro Obscura to discover wondrous food to explore and enjoy from anywhere in the world. Why not give it a go this Christmas?

Coffee in White Coffee Cup

Posted in Drink, Fiction, Food, Places, Rewriting, Storytelling, Third Novel, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Courses | Comments Off on Jericho Writers’ Self-Editing Your Novel Course, and the wonders of Atlas Obscura: destinations, food and drink

How Doctors use Poetry, and a blue-green stone

Recently I spent a night in hospital and the thing that struck me about the nursing staff, as I watched them admit new patients to the ward, was their infinite kindness; their ability to explain exactly the same things to each new, slightly-groggy patient as she was wheeled in, as if she was the only person they’d ever admitted, as if she was the only one who mattered. Nursing staff aren’t paid to be kind but, in my short experience on the Isabella Ward at Kingston Hospital, the kindness of the nursing staff was as important as their expertise. It helped me take in what they were telling me, made me feel they knew what I was going through and so I had complete faith that they’d do the right thing for me.

The Hippocratic Oath has been modified since it was written somewhere between the fifth and the third centuries BCE. The version most commonly used today, when physicians graduate, is the one Louis Lasagna rewrote in 1964. It includes this sentence:

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug,

I stumbled across this article the other day. It was written in September for the American magazine Nautilus by a newly-qualified doctor who, when he recited the Oath, felt more attached to the scientific nature of medicine than to its art. [Alteration since posting: a newly-qualified doctor should read a second-year medical student. I qualified him too soon!] But, about a year later, he changed his mind. He’d begun to realise the difficulties patients experience when trying to make sense of medical language. He discovered research studies that showed:

That both types of art therapy [music and poetry] produced similar improvements in pain intensity and depression scores. Only poetry, however, increased hope scores.

Patients, including children, were encouraged to listen to poetry and to write their own. To express they way they felt about their illness and treatment and to listen to poems that addressed these things. Contrary to what you might expect, the researchers found that:

Poetry … is a way to both embrace the hospital encounter, and escape from it.

As a result this young doctor, Danny W. Linggonegoro by name, has decided to:

Learn how to meet my patients beyond the chart documents; [to] encourage them to write their own empowering stories; [to] heal as well as treat. In other words, that I’ll honor each and every word in the oath I took last year.

The kindness of the nursing staff on the Isabella Ward also heals as well as treats.

And the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is this jewel …

… for its depth, for its colour, for the way it catches the light and for its mystery. It hangs on the simplest silver necklace and I wear it often. But sometimes I just gaze at it.

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Happiness & Rights balanced by Meaning & Responsibility; and William Golding on Women

Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life: an antidote to chaos said, in an interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Radio 4 recently (these words come from the beginning and the end of the programme):

We’ve been fed a diet of happiness and rights for two or three generations [but] it’s thin gruel … . If you think the purpose of your life is to be happy then, during those times that you’re not happy, you’re bereft and that’s not helpful … . Life is very difficult. It’s much better to let people know that it’s meaning that sustains life and not happiness. And that meaning is to be found in large part as a consequence of responsibility.

The world has lots of problems and they’re deep and worse than you think. But you’re more than you think you are. If you put your own house in order, if you take the trouble to find out who you are, then you will discover what you can do globally, locally and for your family … . You’ll be able to help other people avoid terrible things.

That’s your destiny. Not happiness … but shouldering as much responsibility as you can, without breaking.

Responsibility bestows meaning and meaning brings happiness, fulfilment and purpose. Meaning is the right counterpoint to happiness; responsibility is the right counterpoint to rights. And importantly for us, particularly the young among us who may feel aimless, depressed, anxious or prematurely cynical, the thing to say is, ‘Yes, our world is a troubled and difficult place, but each one of us has enormous potential’. If you can find compassion and empathy within yourself, and if you can resist nonsense whenever and however it appears; if you can be true to yourself and above all speak out against the prevailing attitude or opinion, especially if you think it nonsensical (often groupthink, whether racial, religious, political, gender or any other group makes it difficult to say, ‘Yes I am this, but I’m also that,’) that’s the most useful thing you can do (and the thing that will mean the most).

Young people from all walks of life who marched for saner gun control resisted nonsense in America earlier this year. Some corporations responded by promising to curb gun sales and the gun control movement is mobilising for America’s midterm elections, this November.

Separately, and in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite, this is the thing I’d like to have said. But, being a woman, I couldn’t. So here’s William Golding, one of my all-time favourite writers (The Inheritors is a favourite and of course Lord of the Flies) saying it:

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Creativity and Patience; and walks with Mental Health Mates

Being an artist means … ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms … summer [will] come. But it comes only to the patient … patience is everything!
from Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to Franz Xaver Kappus from Letters to a  Young Poet. Quotation found here.

Patience. Now there’s a thing to cultivate.

And the thing I’d love to have invented this month, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Mental Health Mates. I heard the extraordinary and courageously honest Bryony Gordon talking about it at this years Hay Festival in June. She set up Mental Health Mates because, when suffering her own mental troubles, she feels (felt) entirely alone. She wants each of us to find our We. Because we are not alone (even if we think we are):

Gordon has written several books. In MAD GIRL she writes:

Your parents warn you about the monsters you might encounter in dark alleyways, but they never warn you about the monsters you might find in your own mind, the ones that taunt and trouble you, and make you question yourself to your very core.

Wise wise words. Look up Mental Health Mates if you feel like going for a walk (or setting up a walk) and talking to people who know that to think the way you think and feel is NOT unlike the way a lot of people think and feel.

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Literary Villains, Literary Summer Reads and an idyllic treehouse in East Sussex (where you can stay)

Forty of the Best Villains in Literature appear in this article at The Literary Hub (where you’ll find many literary goodies). The villains include the obvious: Mr Hyde, Mrs Danvers, Uriah Heep, Mr Rochester, Dr Frankenstein, Hannibal Lecter and many more. But also the not-so-obvious: Infertility, Vanity, Suburban Ennui and Slavery to name but ten from the forty.

If you’d rather not read about villains (or you’ve read them all already), here are some of The Literary Hub’s recommended literary summer reads. They include: The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, Patrick Melrose by Edward St Aubyn and The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl – none of which I’ve read but all of which I plan to read, particularly the last. You can order any of the books from The Book Depository with free worldwide delivery.

The perfect place to read a book or seven in, and the thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is The Buzzardry.

Isn’t it beautiful? The rooves alone are things of wonder. It sleeps two couples, it’s in the most gloriously secluded location, it’s – I think – entirely idyllic and, look, you can even read in the bath and still see the view. Find me something better for a romantic weekend in the woods and I’ll eat my hat.

The photographs were taken by Adam Scott, but so recently they’re not yet on his website. And you can find out more about (and book to stay in) The Buzzardry here.

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Women writers, and children; and Retro Peepers

I’ve never had children and the reason (apart from meeting the man whose children I’d love to have had well beyond my fertile years) is that I was always afraid that looking after children would eat so far into my writing time that there’d be no time to read or be out in the world (to fuel my writing), let alone to write. And / or that I’d be a neglectful  / bad / cross and resentful (because no time for anything else) mother.

A 2013 article in The Atlantic claimed that the only way to write, as a woman, was to have only one child. It also claimed that (some) female writers made bad mothers. But the counter-argument, in an article in The Telegraph, showed that many women make good writers and good mothers. And it said there was absolutely no need to limit your offspring to one. I read somewhere recently that Maggie O’Farrell said that now she had children she was tougher about her writing (implying, I think, that because she had less time she had to make that time work). But, as Jane Smiley wrote, in the Telegraph article:

The key is not having one child, it is living in a place where there is excellent daycare and a social world that allows fathers to have the time and the motivation to fully share in raising kids.

And therein lies the problem. In my childbearing days such attitudes were much rarer than they are now and such facilities thin on the ground. But I am in exceedingly good company: Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës (to name but six) didn’t have children (although Charlotte died tragically in childbirth). So perhaps I wasn’t so much ahead of my time, as out of my time.

And the thing I’d love to have invented in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is Retro Peepers. They do exactly what they say on the tin. Their frames are handmade vintage- or retro-style classic and designer so, if your glasses have begun to feel ordinary and you’re in need of a change, become Marilyn or Frida or Betty or Amelie; Cooper or Groucho or Woody or Hemingway (and many many more). Make a different framework (see what I did there?). I’ve just ordered these two …

… and I can’t wait for them to arrive.

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John Clare, gardener and writer; and Bloom & Wild

In this strange spring and early summer of ours, where March’s snow, frost and ice stopped all plant growth and May’s hot days and tropical rainstorms encouraged it wildly, I’ve been wondering how many writers worked as gardeners. I only found one: John Clare.

John Clare.jpgJohn Clare, 13 July 1793-20 May 1864 (aged 70)
by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

Countless writers’ work has been influenced and informed by plants, flowers, trees and the glory and gore of the natural world, and George Orwell did grow vegetables at Barnhill on Jura where he finished 1984 but, as Robin Lane Fox writes in a 2014 article for the FT:

Great writers write powerfully about gardens that they visit, see or, above all, recall [but] … the very idea of James Joyce hoeing is hilarious.

But the young John Clare did work as a gardener at Burghley House in 1807 and again between 1816-1817 and, in his cottage garden at Helpston, he grew some of the plants he discovered there. To this day, every summer, children from the John Clare primary school put Midsummer Cushions on Clare’s grave. As Clare wrote:

A very old custom among villagers in summer time [was to] stock a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer Cushions.

He gave the name to a collection of poems he tried to publish in 1832 which were eventually published 150 years later. He also documented the natural world near his village, Helpston, in Northamptonshire. In 1824 he wrote a group of letters which became known as an unfinished Natural History of Helpston. They too weren’t published until 1983.

I wonder what Clare would have made of the thing I would love to have made this month, in a world where time is infinite and all things are possible? Bloom & Wild deliver flowers. So do thousands of florists, of course they do. But Bloom & Wild pack many of their arrangements so they’ll fit through your letterbox thus solving the difficulty of delivering flowers to busy people who are out at work, out with children, or just plain out. Clever, aren’t they?

Posted in Artists, Fiction, Gardening, Mental Health in Fiction, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing | Comments Off on John Clare, gardener and writer; and Bloom & Wild

Writers on writing, and an exquisitely beautiful tea

When our writers’ group met this week one of our number described how the rise of the ‘plotting and typing’ approach to writing was driving her demented. How all the work is done before you’ve typed a word and then you just carry on thwacking through, typing typing typing … .But how, however much is planned ahead (even though planning is necessary), in the end the story will just be what it will be. How a story is quite subversive in the way it will just suggest things. How getting it right is a very mysterious experience.

Needless to say I entirely agree. And then I found an essay by Patricia Lockwood at The Tin House, called How Do We Write Now? Lockwood is a poet so her prose is particularly lyrical. The full article is here but she said she was happy for me to quote a few of her suggestions for what to do (and what not to do) first thing in the morning, if you write:

The first necessity is to claim the morning … if I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day.

The single best way to give the morning back to myself is to open a real book as I drink my first cup of coffee. I’m not sure why real books are best. I think the pages remind me that I have fingerprints.

It sometimes helps to let someone else tell you what to do, so listen: … Read the most minute descriptions you can find about other artistic processes: Moss Hart writing plays with George S. Kaufman, his teeth glued together with terrible fudge; Maya Angelou on the road in Europe with the company of Porgy and Bess.

If you have an afternoon, cook something that takes a long time, it will think along with you.

Keep a physical notebook. Remember how to use the kind of pen that runs out … . Learn the names of trees.

The best advice. All of it.

And the thing I would love to have made in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is a glass of tea I was given the other night after dinner. I had no idea how it would look or taste, I just asked for what Frantoio – a restaurant in London we’d never been to before – described as lily and jasmine tea. The first thing that happened was a waiter brought a large wine glass and set it beside me. Then he put something that looked like a nutmeg into the glass. Then he poured boiling water onto the nutmeg lookalike and told me to wait. So I did. And this is what happened.

And it was entirely delicious. And, if you’re my kind of vintage, it might remind you of those magical paper flowers you dropped into a glass of water and watched bloom.

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RMS Titanic: on this day 106 years ago … & Samira Addo, Portrait Artist of the Year

It’s 106 years ago today that the ‘unsinkable’ passenger liner, RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank in just two hours and forty minutes. For years the tragedy was a matter of private internal horror: people didn’t talk about trauma then and only two years later the First World War broke out, eclipsing Titanic’s tragedy with its own tremendous tragedies. Then came the influenza epidemic, bringing tragedy upon tragedy, then there was a brief respite before the Second World War brought more terrible tragedy … so it wasn’t until the release of A Night to Remember in 1958 (a film based on a book by Walter Lord and starring Kenneth More) that public consciousness of the Titanic tragedy surfaced.

My great-grandmother, Noël Rothes, helped pilot Lifeboat No 8 which was commanded by Able Seaman Thomas Jones, but although her family knew she’d sailed on Titanic and had survived, no details were known until after she died in 1956 (she never talked about the tragedy). But when my grandfather and my aunt were sorting through Noël’s papers they found letters, newspaper cuttings, her evidence to the enquiries into the disaster and a plaque that Able Seaman Thomas Jones had made for her to thank her for her:

courage under so heartrending and terrifying circumstances

Bronze 8 from Lifeboat No 8, RMS Titanic

We make much of the Titanic tragedy these days (I include myself, I give a talk about my great-grandmother and the able seaman and how they worked together in Lifeboat No 8) but it is salutary to think that, at the time, many of the survivors never talked about it.

On a happier note, the things I would love to have made this month – in an alternate universe where time is infinite and skills multifarious – are Samira Addo’s portraits, particularly her Portrait Artist of the Year winning paintings. Here they are:

Emeli Sande by Samira Addo

Zandra Rhodes by Samira Addo

Aren’t they stunning – even in these small reproductions? Here’s how Addo talks about herself and her work and you can see all her portraits here and here. Before Addo’s work was chosen to win, one of the judges, Tai Shan Schierenberg, the only portrait artist among them, said:

What we want to see is not only the ability to capture likeness but to make art, to make something that tells us about what it is like to be alive today.

I wanted Samira Addo to win from the beginning of the final. Her work stood out for its brave originality. Hers aren’t conventional portraits: her approach seems to me to be to paint a likeness with a vision that shows the person clearly, but her unconventional colours and the way – sketch-like, apparently rough but actually not rough all when seen finished – she captures the nature, the very essence of a person as well as what that person ‘looks’ like is, I think astonishing. Tai Shan Shierenberg was in tears as he tried to describe that ‘extra something’ that Addo’s work has. When he found his voice he said:

Portraits are about the specifics of a person at the same time as being about shared human experience and I like that to come across in the paintings being made during the competition. Portraiture has a long tradition, of course, but I always hope to see artists who have found a way to reinvigorate it or reinvent it with their unique artistic language. 

Addo’s work undoubtedly does that. But when Tai Shan Shierenberg was momentarily lost for words I thought he illustrated perfectly the point of great art: it doesn’t need words, it speaks for itself.

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