My Last Essay And Other Stories

Well, the middle of August is not the best time to pop up in the blogworld after a lengthy absence, but the lovely Numero Cinq online magazine is coming to a close and I have a final essay in it on Doris Lessing. I’ve had a wonderful time writing for my gorgeous editor, Douglas Glover, who is also an excellent writer himself (do check out his story collection, Savage Love, it’s incredible).

And I also promised a catch-up, if there’s anyone out there who would still like to catch up with me. Basically, I haven’t been blogging because I still have recurrent marginal keratitis. I seem to have a genius for developing conditions that can’t be cured but only unreliably managed, and despite my best efforts with every eye gel, drop and lotion on the market, it still flares up, especially when I read. So I hope you’ll understand that I haven’t been around visiting blogs because a) the reading is a bit much for me and b) it’s sort of depressing to hear about the lovely books everyone is reading or looking forward to reading, etc, when I’m so restricted these days.

I got excited a little while back over Manuka honey, after finding an account of a man who’d had my condition for four years, lost his job because of it, and tried everything to fix it. Nothing worked until he bravely attempted an experiment with the honey, putting it directly onto his eyeball. How he managed this, I do not know, as I bought an eye drop with a small percentage of honey and to say the red fire ants are consuming my eyeballs when I use it is an understatement. You should have seen the comments – so many people desperate for a cure who had had marginal keratitis for up to 25  years, all hopeful for the first time. I’ve been using it for six weeks now and maybe it’s helped a bit; it’s hard to tell and there’s certainly no great change or return to stability. But I will persevere.

In more positive news, Mr Litlove launched his furniture-making business at the start of July over the course of two Cambridge Open Studios weekends. He had a terrific response: on the first weekend we had just under a 100 visitors to his workshop and the little gallery we’d set up. The second we roped in our son for reinforcements and had somewhere between 60-70 visitors which was definitely more manageable. Since then he’s done well with orders and enquiries. He’s currently making a desk and chair, with a shelving unit, coffee table, eight chairs and a table and another table lined up, a possible further six chairs in the pipeline. So he’s really happy.

As for my novel, well, it’s been a very odd experience. I did well to begin with in my last submission round at the end of March. Four agents requested the full ms. One backed out almost immediately but that was fine as she was a non-fic person standing in for a colleague on maternity leave, and I wasn’t sure how that would work anyway. But then the next three just went quiet and four months later, I hadn’t heard a thing. One finally turned up about two weeks ago with a no, which I was expecting after all that amount of time. The other two, still not a peep. I mentioned my experience to the online writing group I belong to, and one woman replied to say that her last submission round came up with 10 requests for fulls. Of those, there were seven rejections (that took 6-10 months to arrive), two r & rs (not sure what this is but think it must be rewrite and resubmit), and one whom she had not heard from despite numerous prompts. She had finally saved up enough money to get a professional report on her book and now felt she had a good direction to take it in. Two years after submission.

I admire her grit enormously, because people, the timescale here! I don’t think I have it in me to stick with a novel for the two, three, four years it must take anyone to find a home for it. In the four (almost five) months of agently silence, I have fallen out of love with the old novel, started another that’s now much more interesting to me, resurrected a non-fiction project and have joined in with two friends on an interdisciplinary artwork that should be sheer pleasure. Maybe something will come out of these things and maybe not, really who knows? The system, such as it is, for turning professional with art, seems to me hopelessly overwhelmed to the point of brokenness.

But I don’t want to self-publish novels either. That’s just another way of dropping your work into an ocean of verbiage from which little is ever distinguished. Unless you are some sort of marketing guru, that is, and I am not. So I don’t know. I suppose I keep enjoying a writing life, and try not to worry too much about a writing career. That works better some days than others, of course.

 

 

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Storytelling and Compassion

One of the many wonderful things about books is that they give us a safe space in which to encounter difficult and frightening thoughts. The structure of a book, with its perceptive narrative voice and its promise of an ending, guarantees us at least one of the four great anti-anxieties: meaning, wisdom, truth and resolution. Whatever darkness the story brings, these four are the light.

How much darkness we can take, how much light we need is, I think, a very personal ratio. When I was younger, I had a lot more capacity for difficult and demanding novels. I had more stamina for reading about suffering. These days I can endure a great deal less. I’m sure this is in part because I am increasingly interested in what it means to be compassionate in the world. I’ve been reading a book lately that defines compassion as a two-part process. The first part is to look squarely at the pain, but the second, and equally important, is to think how suffering can be eased. This is not to say that bad events and the pain that accompanies them can be avoided. Alas, no. But what it does mean is that whatever pain we – or others – endure, the important part is to seek to minimize the extra and sometimes unnecessary suffering that clusters around it. The news, for instance, only thrusts the pain of the world in front of us – it has nothing to say about what can be done about it – and so it is essentially unkind. But literature is quite different. A well-told story is constantly helping the reader to stay clear-sighted and engaged while conflict takes place, so that we can think about it without being overwhelmed.

These thoughts have been running around my mind lately, after listening to two quite dark tales. The first, Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, was very rapidly dubbed the ‘harrowing book’. Set in World War Two, it follows the fortunes of three young friends – Mary, who skies down to her finishing school the moment she hears war declared and packs her bags, hoping for adventure; Tom, who is in charge of education in a capital soon to be deserted by evacuation; and Alastair, Tom’s friend who has been working at the Tate as an art restorer, but who signs up immediately.

Mary is set to work as a teacher – not at all the sort of adventure she was longing for – and finds it surprisingly fulfilling. In particular, she forms a bond with Zachary, a dyslexic child (though no one understands this in 1939) whose father works in the Black-and-White Minstrels show in the West End. When Zachary returns from the country, having learned that rural prejudice is more dangerous than German bombing, Mary ends up in charge of a class of rejects. Children with learning difficulties or behavioural difficulties for whom the beauty pageant of evacuation has been a disaster. She also begins a love affair with Tom, who cannot help but admire her daring, courageous intentions, even while deploring the trouble she causes by them. People tend to have this mixed reaction to Mary – her well-born, well-bred mother, and her best friend, Hilda, being other examples. There is a long-held tradition of Mary pinching Hilda’s men, and so when the friends go for a double date during Alastair’s leave, the tradition raises its head in especially dangerous ways.

So far, I’ve made this book sound quite appealing, I hope, and mostly about love and friendship. But the majority of the narrative is concerned with the experiences of these characters during the Blitz and – in Alastair’s case – in Malta during its lengthy siege. And oh my lord, Cleave does not hold back with the horror of wartime. In fact, it is fair to say that the characters now undergo a series of traumas that will leave them broken and spent. I found long sections of this book very hard to listen to, and quite often I put my fingers in my ears and sang la la la la a lot. I only listened to a certain amount of it each night, so as to get to sleep. And then, when the horror never abated but seemed to be piled on and on, relentlessly, I found myself starting to laugh because I just couldn’t stay in that engaged place. Sometimes more is just too much.

Why did I stick with it? Well, essentially because of the quality of Chris Cleave’s prose. Here I owe the man an apology, because I seem to have contracted a prejudice about him. I thought he wrote just sensational stuff, all about making an audacious impact. And whilst this is sort of true, he can really, really write. He also keeps the characters’ interactions light. I’m not sure that everyone in wartime was this witty, but it’s nice to think so. There’s a real British spirit operating here (Brits really do whine during good times and then discover a sense of humour in awful crises), with the characters quipping away at one another, refusing to show they are rattled by means of deadpan humour. When a group of men are clinging to a too-small life raft off the coast of Gibraltar, the talk is all of the fish and chips they’ll have when they reach Brighton. The dialogue is very good, sharp and smart and pithy. Does it make up for all the characters go through? No, not really. It’s a bit like glitzy nail varnish on a corpse. But the ending is very gently hopeful, and the story is apparently based on the experiences of Cleave’s grandparents during the war (this bit was missed out of the audio book – shame!) and so you do believe there was the possibility of a happy ending eventually.

The second book I listened to was Salley Vickers’ Cousins. This was a very different beast – still beautifully written, but in a more straightforward way, less consciously literary. It was also very much informed by Vickers’ previous job as a psychotherapist, something that always thrills me in novels as I love a properly astute psychological framework in a story.

This novel begins with teenage Hetta being woken in the night by her parents. They have just received a phone call that changes everything: Hetta’s older brother, Wil, was climbing the tower of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, where he is a student, when he fell. The family make a stricken dash through the night from Northumberland to Cambridge, fearing that Wil may die before they arrive. In fact, what happens to him is worse than that.

What happens next in the story is, essentially, the slow, gradual retelling of a long family saga. We have to understand Wil’s fall as the culmination of all sorts of family tensions and secrets which Hetta is determined to uncover. In the immediate present, the fall seems to be linked to a forbidden relationship between Wil and his cousin, Cele, a young woman who has been much neglected by her mother, and who has sought refuge while growing up in Hetta’s family. Brought up almost as brother and sister, Wil and Cele have been a great deal more to one another than that. And this turns out to be a repetition of an earlier family root. Hetta’s grandparents were also first cousins, but they managed to marry – though not without an indiscretion of Hetta’s grandfather which produces a child, Nat. Nat’s mother is killed during the Blitz, and so Hetta’s grandmother brings him up as if he were her own. In fact, she feels closer to Nat, more loving of him than she does of her other children – Belle, Cele’s selfish mother, and Beetle, Hetta’s timid and sensitive father. Then tragedy strikes Nat, and a long string of family consequences ensue.

This is a novel of two parts. The majority of the narrative is concerned with retelling family history, and it switches between the hands of Hetta, her grandmother, and Belle. But the latter stages are quite different, a courtroom drama of sorts, and I found the change of pace and direction a little disorientating. However, there is much emotional resonance in these events, as it feels as if the unpunished, unseen ‘crimes’ of family life finally reach a sort of fruition in an actual court of law. And what happens here, how the crisis is dealt with by the family, is an outright attempt to make amends for all that has gone before.

Cousins is not a smooth book. The start is rather slow, the end is rather surprising, but I enjoyed it very much. Salley Vickers has a gentle hand with tragedy, allowing the narrative to touch it and then move away. Funnily enough, this was the book that brought me to tears on a couple of occasions, which goes to show that you do not have to put the reader’s heart through the wringer to be assured of creating an effect. In fact, I often think it is kindness and simplicity that are really tear-inducing. And maybe that’s because we weep when we encounter compassion, since we are so sorely in need of it.

 

Good Grief, Life Keeps Happening!

So much for that new blogging leaf, right? But anyhow, lots of catching up to do and we’ll begin as ever with that titan of domestic anecdote, Mr Litlove. Have I ever told you how lucky Mr Litlove is? I promise you, it is quite galling. Let me give you a brief example: one evening a couple of years ago, he was headed down to London for the evening, which meant leaving the office in especially good time. He did not do this, surprise, surprise, texting me from the back of a taxi with a mere ten minutes before his train left the station, still needing to cover a good ten-to-fifteen minute journey and buy his ticket. But did he miss that train? Oh no. He then texted me from it – the train had been delayed by a perfect ten minutes. This is the sort of thing that happens regularly. The other morning he left early to marshal rowing races on the Cam in cold, drizzly weather. But when he came home to change into his kit to take part in his own race, the clouds parted and the sun shone. ‘You have the luck of the devil,’ I told him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I’ve got to stop wasting it on things that benefit everyone when I’m going to have special need of it for my own ventures in the next few years.’

Ah, and never was a truer word spoken, as he’s been pushing that luck of his to the limit lately. He’s certainly been pushing it with me. January was full of little incidents. He handed me my plate of lunch, for instance, not noticing that it was garnished with the plaster that had been holding his blackened nail onto his finger. And then he was forced to admit that the local paper I had been carefully hoarding – it had a great map of all the new housing developments in our area, with average prices, that I thought was perfect for marketing his furniture – had been inadvertently used by him to light the fire in the sitting room.  And then we decided to go to the university library together in my car. My poor old car is rather elderly now and the battery has been dodgy for months. ‘It’ll be fine!’ said Mr Litlove, and I was idiot enough to believe him. So we went to the library, he dropped me at the main doors to return our books and was supposed simply to turn around and wait for me to emerge a minute or two later. But Mr Litlove saw a parking spot, and indeed they are rare at the library. So he parked the car… and turned the engine off. Well, the moment I went through the revolving doors, I knew what would happen. I’ll cut a long story – and a comedy of errors – short by saying that eventually Mr Litlove accosted two students who helped give me a push start. But you can see that he was living on the edge.

So, Mr Litlove attends an upholstery class that is straight out of a Joanna Trollope novel on Thursdays in term time. This means that every week, as Thursday nears, he frets about whether the foam/upholstery fabric/haberdashery supplies are going to arrive in the post in time for class. It’s worth fretting because every week Mr Litlove relies on his sterling luck by ordering his supplies far too late. This week in point was especially time-sensitive because Mr Litlove had decided to make a heart-shaped chair for Valentine’s Day. We’d ordered a lot of fabric samples in pinks and roses and raspberries but when it came to it, Mr Litlove felt that this was a chair crying out for risks to be taken. And so he went for bling, a brilliant copper-red crushed velvet the colour of a flame. Every day he watched the post, anxious for its arrival, and every day his hopes were dashed. The frame of the chair was ready, Mr Litlove was ready, and if his material didn’t arrive, Valentine’s Day would have been and gone by the time the next class rolled around, and the moment would have passed.

On the day of the class, Mr Litlove sat disconsolately on the end of the bed (I was eating my breakfast in it), sending out texts on his phone to his rowing mates, organising some sort of alpha male contest. He was wondering what he could possibly do in class, as there was nothing else in his workshop ready to be upholstered other than his heart-shaped chair. ‘Well, well,’ I said. ‘I can’t quite believe that you are being forced to suffer an inconvenient situation that’s arisen as a direct result of your own foolishness. Welcome to my world!’

And then there was a knock at the door.

Mr Litlove abandoned his text about macho activities and leapt to his feet crying, ‘My fabric! My fabric!’

(I will never get used to this.)

But no, from the sound of his footsteps climbing the stairs as he returned, I could tell that he was not a happy bunny. He entered the bedroom with only one square package in his hand. ‘It’s a book for you,’ he said sourly. Then, just as I was forming a good, pithy moral about planning and efficiency to deliver to him, there was another knock at the door. Mr Litlove ran back downstairs…. and this time his return had a marked skip in the step. ‘She was only playing with me!’ he declared. ‘She missed this package the first time around.’

And so the luck of Mr Litlove held good. Though when he opened his parcel and revealed the fabric, we had to hide our eyes momentarily. ‘What have we done?’ I wondered. Below is the finished article. I think it’s the sort of chair that the Queen of Hearts would sit on in Alice in Wonderland.

heart

‘Darling, this is your Valentine’s Day present from me,’ said Mr Litlove when he’d finished it, and I thought how sweet that was after all those little incidents. ‘Unless I get a really good offer for it,’ he added.

Who says romance is dead?

Well, as ever Mr Litlove takes up far more words than I expect him to and there is no space in this post now for my news. Hopefully I can write a part 2 in not too many days. (Though they may be famous last words.) But be warned – Mr Litlove gets Lewis Carroll, and I get the Brothers Grimm when it comes to recounting tales.

Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

These past few weeks, I’ve made a new friend. It so happened that, in an idle moment in the weeks running up to Christmas, I clicked on one of those advertising links online that offered me a free in-depth tarot card reading. The reading I received surprised me by being more generous and detailed than I had expected. And since that day, the tarot reader has sent me regular emails, once or even twice a day, offering me limited edition fortune-telling goods of dubious nature, and never failing to inform me of challenges and opportunities on the horizon. I get a daily prediction addressed to ‘Dearest Litlove’, and at the end she always reminds me that she wants the very best for me, and will be delighted to help me out with any dilemma I should encounter. All of January, she has been a more than constant fixture in my relatively empty inbox.

‘You do realise you’re talking to a computer, don’t you?’ Mr Litlove asks me.

‘Surely not,’ I say. ‘I think she really likes me.’

Here’s a general rule of the universe: your inbox will never be more of a wasteland than when you are waiting for emails. At the end of last year I embarked on the wearyingly tedious business of finding a literary agent (or making an attempt at it). I have a novel I’m trying to sell, and I’ve got the novel itself with various friends, and the submission materials with various agents and the result is that now, no one  writes to me. I think it’s going to be a pretty quiet year.

Mr Litlove has also had a quiet start to the year, though for slightly different reasons. He took a fortnight off for the festive season which was very pleasant for both of us. The first I knew about it was the week before Christmas when we were in the car together, headed into town after my first time of asking. ‘You’re being unusually amenable,’ I remarked. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ But as with all pleasant episodes, the end is mired in denial and obstinacy. Mr Litlove is supposed to be making a rocking chair (and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have a rocking chair in prospect; I’ve long wanted one). But even with my very limited knowledge I can see that drawing the design is not easy. Much procrastination has followed, with Mr L. succumbing to rocking chair fear, and that’s totally a thing. He came into the study the other day, saying ‘Can we have a meeting? I used to have end-to-end meetings all day when I was at work and didn’t feel like doing anything.’ I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting, and alas, his earlier suggestion of having a works Christmas party for the two of us fell on similarly stony ground. My heart does go out to him. It’s hard to procrastinate with goal-oriented introverts.

Where he can and does get me, though, is in the long-running row debate we are having over the news. For once I have to congratulate President-Elect Trump on providing a story that we can both of us enjoy. Not only an entertaining story, I understand today, but a story so like an old generic spy thriller that the very happy estate of one deceased author has actually brought forth the book with the exact same Russian blackmail plot (cue reprint, I imagine). Anyhow, I digress. Mr Litlove is a news hound. Every day he gets up and reads The Guardian and The Telegraph on his phone for 2-3 hours with Radio 4 playing in the background. In my world, if I did that much reading, it would be called research and it would be intended for a specific project. But the real problem arises between us because I take a very skeptical position in relation to the news. I scarcely believe one partisan word of it. And I am deeply unimpressed with Radio 4’s coverage, especially on the Today programme, which takes a ludicrously adversarial position towards any and every subject, with grumpy, negative, argumentative people intent on making sure all possible arguments are heard regardless of whether those arguments have any value or not. In short, it drives me nuts.

But that doesn’t stop Mr Litlove from inflicting it on me, and so I feel that he should be made aware of the rules in my world. In academia, you can’t put forward an argument unless it is a) fully backed up with evidence, b) grounded by sources whose authority you can prove, c) ready to challenge its own stance because nothing is black or white, it’s always more complex than it first appears, d) ready to show the gaps in its knowledge, or the questions that remain unanswered but eschewing all speculation and unsubstantiated claims and e) acknowledging that stories and arguments are powerfully distorting because they assume shapes that reality does not have, and this must be taken into account. Oh, and there has to be a clear understanding of what’s important and what is not. Doesn’t sound much like the news, does it?

In all fairness, the only decent programme I’ve ever heard on Radio 4 was broadcast last week. It was a meditation on the supposedly post-truth world that we live in. And its conclusion was that we don’t live in a post-truth world, but we do live in a world where the sources of information we trust are deeply polarised. It made the excellent point that to believe anything, it must come from a source – be it person or authority – that we trust, and fit into the framework of knowledge that we accept. So, in other words, if you want to persuade a Christian religious fundamentalist of climate change, throwing more scientists and scientific data at the problem is going to have a counter effect. It’s a bit like saying, if you want to convince Spanish people of something, you can’t go in talking German. So if we apply this thinking to our household problem with the news, the media are going to have to produce arguments more like those I consider to be useful and accurate, if I’m to believe them. But given Mr Litlove is already fully on board with the media, he will resist all criticism (and he does) to the hilt.

As so the individual family mirrors the wider world. We all have radically different sources we trust. But we live in a culture in which all those different voices, all those different opinions are considered to have truth value. How on earth are we going to agree on anything?

Still, if I argue with Mr Litlove for long enough, it does finally make the workshop look more tempting to him….