Saturday, 21 December 2013

A salute

I have a friend, and I imagine many of you do as well, who has had a long, fruitful and interesting life. Maisie (not her name, but I shall protect her privacy) was a friend of my late mother's, and the same age - 95. She and my mum didn't get to see each other very often, because they were dependent on others for transport, but they phoned each other almost every day, to check on the other's well-being, and to have a chat and a chuckle. A large photo of my mum hangs on the wall over Maisie's television and she talks to her every day, including telling her off for what seems to Maisie her friend's untimely departure. Maisie can't see that photo at all well, because she is more or less blind. Over the last few years she has had a number of unpleasant interventions aimed at improving her sight, but nothing has really worked and now there is no more that can be done. She also suffers from an extremely painful arthritic knee, which of course impairs her mobility. So she hobbles round her little house on a pair of crutches, and when she goes to someone else's house, as she will soon do over Christmas, she has to acquaint herself with the layout of their furniture and other obstacles, and worries about nocturnal visits to the bathroom.
Maisie has down days, inevitably, but over all she is remarkably positive and philosophical. Her hearing is good, her mental faculties sharp as ever, and her sense of humour (which can be salty!) is never far away, so a conversation with Maisie is a delight. Above all she is thankful to God for the good things in her life, she takes an interest in other people, and she hangs on to her pleasures, chief among which is going out for lunch with her friends. One thing she said when I visited her the other day pretty much sums up her attitude: 'Oh well, at least I can still get out of the car and into the pub!'
There have been many peaks and troughs in Maisie's life - few of us can hope for plain sailing for 95 years, I guess! - and some of her troughs have been excruciating, including the loss of a son. Now (although she has younger friends) many of her contemporaries have died, which brings its own loneliness. But Maisie makes the best of the things that remain to her: a hairdresser comes to her house regularly, she has someone who cleans her house and someone who keeps her garden tidy, so people are visiting often. When we go to our house in France she sometimes asks me to bring her back some wine, and I know that most of those bottles are given away.
Maisie, I salute you : for your fortitude and your humanity. I hope my aging is as gracious. (But I doubt it!)

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Truth in fiction

I hadn't planned to post here again so soon - one can have too much of a good thing (if it is, indeed, a good thing!) Nor would I normally talk about books here, either my own or other people's. The place for that is the review, which is easy enough to find on, for example, Amazon author pages. But sometimes a book suggests a train of thought which might be interesting to share, and if I have enjoyed the book it does no harm to recommend it. At least one person - the author - is usually pleased.
How far does fiction contain truth at all? It doesn't, if truth is equated with fact, clearly. Fiction is about things that don't exist, although there may be elements of things that do, so for example the characters may go about their business in London or Uzbekistan. I'm not thinking, either, about accurate research, important though that may be as a bedrock for the story. Some solecism, an anachronism perhaps, can destroy a story's credibility, and be sure there are many eagle-eyed readers out there. (Quite right too.)
I'm thinking more of emotional or experiential truth, and this is something that fiction can express as hardly anything else can. Fiction also provides a unique medium through which a reader can gain access to this kind of truth. It doesn't even have to be particularly profound, as long as it resonates authentically with the reader at some level.
The books that have stimulated these thoughts are Penelope Wilcock's trilogy 'The Hawk and the Dove', which has been in print for some years. (Happily Ms Wilcock has recently written four more volumes in this admirable series, and I hope to read them all.) This is Christian fiction, which I write myself in a different way, so I had a prima facie affinity for it. But, as well as authentic spiritual insight, there is so much truth here: human, relational, true-for-all-time. This fiction draws on experiences that are common to people of all kinds,whatever their gender, background, history or geography:  relationship, self-image, guilt, suffering, love, death - laced with a sense of the ridiculous. It is uncomfortable, at times raw, it turns you inside out, it takes you back to experiences of your own, you laugh and cry. What can I have in common with a community of monks in the 14th century? As it turns out, pretty much everything.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

At home in France

It's November in Normandy, north western France. We have had a home here for almost twelve years, and it really is a second home: we come perhaps nine or ten times a year, sometimes for just a week, as now, and longer in the summer when there is so much to do. We have land of a little more than an acre, most of it a rough, steeply-sloping orchard of old cider-apple trees. Every year, as the westerly wind whips across the garden, another tree will be damaged, eventually to fall altogether, and every year the mistletoe encroaches, a sure sign of the tree weakening. When the apple tree comes down, we chop it up for firewood: apple burns well. While the remaining trees keep fruiting, our friend and local farmer gathers the apples for us in October and takes them away to be made into cider.
As we travelled down from Calais a few days ago we saw the advancing of the year: some trees already bare, others in their autumn dress of red and brown and gold. In the garden the coarse, tussocky grass is wet all day, so the mowing that keeps us busy in the summer won't happen. There's still outside work to do: clearing weeds, cutting wood, sweeping leaves; but in the winter we have more of a rest, more time to read, to see friends, and the hardest work is keeping warm. The house is old, parts of it more than 350 years. Over the fireplace is a massive piece of granite which bears an inscription, telling us that it was taken from a priest's house in a nearby village in 1653. The walls are a meter thick, slow to warm up, but retaining heat.
'Off on holiday again!' some folk marvel as we prepare to come to France. In November it is, perhaps, more of a holiday, compared to the spring and summer when we battle with rampant growth, when the grass can be knee-high or higher, the brambles encroach, the nettles thrive, the weeds choke smaller plants and sprout from between the stones on the terrace; but even though we aren't doing much this week, except visiting supermarkets to fulfil the commissions of our UK friends (wine, mostly!) I don't think of our times here as a holiday. It's our home in France, where we know people, where we have a church family, where we take an interest in the developments in the town, where we have favourite eating places.
I'm thinking of posting from France each time we are here. There's usually something to report, sometimes dramatic: a big conifer fallen across the drive, or our dog Rosie chasing four hares in our garden and the farmer's adjacent field when I let her out first thing one morning. Meanwhile I am thinking I will visit our local market on Friday. Things tend to be very seasonal here, and I don't know if it will be the right time, but I want to buy a plum tree to plant where we had to chop a cider-apple down. For now our little trees are very small and vulnerable, but year by year we are planting our own orchard for the future - most of which we will not see.
Here's photo of our French bolt-hole, taken in the summer.The tree on the right is a magnolia, three feet tall when we planted it, now well over our heads.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

My dog

I'm afraid my dog has been posting again. Anyone of a frivolous turn of mind, even if only in moments of weakness, is invited to see what she has to say at
Is this my best side?

Monday, 18 November 2013

A day in the life

A few years ago our parish church - Norman, 900-something years old - suffered thefts of lead from its roof. There was a spate of such thefts in the area at that time. Eventually, with the help of insurance money, the roof was repaired with materials unlikely to be stolen, we hope, and an array of deterrents installed. Unfortunately the Victorian pipe organ was badly water-damaged, such that less than half of it was operational. Estimates were sought for its repair, but we soon realised that our tiny congregation would never be able to raise the sums needed. However, the insurers had allocated a modest payout for internal damage and with that we purchased a digital organ which now sits to one side of the nave between the main body of the church and the choir.
On Remembrance Sunday, a solemn occasion when people unlikely to be in church  at any other time (except perhaps for Christmas) are traditionally present, complete sometimes with medals, the sound system in the church was making unusual - and very loud - noises. Four or five times came a sound like a heavy bookcase crashing onto a tiled floor from a great height, and it was both startling and unpredictable. Nobody seemed to know how to stop it.
The service over, I launched into my closing voluntary. One and a half bars in, the organ died. Consternation!
On a day of a major service in the year, we were not looking good: rackety speakers and truncated music. After some fiddling with switches we got the organ back, to my relief. And later that morning I took a phone call from a friend who until recently was our highly effective churchwarden. Full of apologies, but also chuckles, he confessed that he had inadvertently switched off the organ in an attempt to silence the hair-raising crashes.
Musical disasters in church are not infrequently my fault - but not this time.
Here's a photo of me playing a wheezy harmonium in a chapel on a recent visit to Melbourne, Australia.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Who reads?

A conversation with my husband the other morning (perhaps, if I am honest, it was more me talking and him grunting sleepily at intervals) has inspired me to float this question to a wider audience. It's a genuine question, not an implied criticism; everyone's different and people are entitled to their preferences, private obsessions and priorities.  Here's the question: how can you not read? How do you live your necessarily limited life without the enrichment of the experience of others, in other eras and places, with different outlooks, expectations, limitations? Or is there another way I haven't discovered?
No one has the choice of when, where, or to whom they are born; within preset parameters we have some choices, but they are finite. Books, and for me predominantly fiction, are the way I taste the lives of people I have never met, or can never meet if they are imaginary, mediated through the mind of someone else - the author - whom I am equally unlikely to get to know. Recently I have submerged my imagination into the world of the short-lived republic of Biafra, and the effects of the Nigerian war on a number of fictional individuals, and I feel my mental life has been illuminated and made richer by it ('Half of a Yellow Sun'  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.) That's just one quite small example.
My life is rich in incident, many-layered, full of people, places, events, thoughts; no doubt yours is too. In this respect it is like the lives of other people, but beyond that their lives and experiences differ wildly. Without books, without the organised setting down of their stories, there is so much I would never know. One life is too short, too narrow, too small! Isn't it? If it isn't for you, how do you endure the circularity of your own thoughts? How do you bear the prison of your own mental processes? Don't you feel a need to escape from yourself from time to time? And if you do, is there another way? I would very much like to know.

Friday, 5 April 2013

My web site

If you would like to take a closer look at my books you are very welcome to visit my web site at You can also read excerpts there of each of the volumes of my trilogy.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

No more shopping with mother

A couple of months ago I reported an adventure while in a shopping centre with my mother. Now, I must report that my wonderful, maddening mother has died. Recovering from an unexpected operation, her tired heart gave out. She was tiny in body, but big in impact, and to the very last she was making her presence felt: in order to be at her bedside I had to return in haste from Barcelona to the UK having been there barely 12 hours! And the day before she died she was pressing doctors into service to get chairs for her visitors. Always polite, if not always tactful, I remember an occasion when my late father was taken ill and she responded without hesitation. 'I'd have rung the Queen if I thought she could have helped,' she said. This fearless habit of going straight to the top once caused me much embarrassment, when she came to my school and asked the Headmistress to deliver my forgotten lunch. But then I was 13, an age when the least thing makes you cringe.
Her sudden passing has released a huge flood of love and support towards me and my family. 'She always made you welcome.' 'She always wanted to give you something.' 'I'll miss that cackling laugh when she rang me.' 'She never forgot your birthday.'  'She was a one-off, an inspiration.'
I will miss her very much, of course; especially in the last three years since my dad died, she has been in my thoughts a lot of the time, and even after she died I caught myself thinking one bitterly cold day, 'I hope mother is warm enough.' But I am not sad for her. She lived independently, with a bit of help, right to the end, and that end was mercifully swift, with her beloved granddaughters by her side, and me too in the last few hours. I don't know if she knew we were there; people say that hearing is the last sense to go, but she'd mysteriously managed to break her hearing-aid - the bane of my life - so it's anybody's guess. Like the funeral, these necessary rituals and assurances are for the living.
As she grew older and less mobile, her fund-raising activities were curtailed, but she continued to knit blanket-squares for a  local charity, and in  few weeks' time her last blanket will be draped on her coffin. Flowers will be few, because she hated to see cut flowers die. Instead, we will raise donations for that same charity, and I feel sure she would approve. Her funeral will be as much of a joyful celebration as we can make it. She was a woman of faith, and I have no doubt that she has gone to her great reward. If the angels have pocket-money, she's probably got it from them by now for some good cause.
Sad, yes, sometimes. Clearing her house, with all her things still there, will not be fun. But mostly I am thankful: for a long life well lived, for all the love she gave and received, and for the many hilarious things she said which are her most appropriate memorial. Go forth upon your journey, Christian soul.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A fine new review

My first book 'Leviathan with a Fish-hook' has recently been blessed with a wonderful review, posted on Amazon (.com and and on Goodreads. The best thing is knowing that there's been a contact between  minds and imaginations. Finding that your writing has had a positive impact on someone you will probably never meet is a great encouragement. Thank you, Elaine! (If you have a moment why not go over to one of these sites and take a look?)

Saturday, 2 March 2013

An illuminating book

I've just posted a review on Amazon (uk and .com) of 'The Mystery of Spiritual Sensitivity' by Carol A. Brown. I've never met Carol, and chances are, sadly, that I never will, but I have got to know her via the internet and read some of her work. She is a remarkable person who has achieved a great deal and continues to forge ahead in her calling despite considerable problems of her own. I recommend a look at this and other books of Carol's, especially if you are in some kind of Christian ministry, (which means all of us who are Christians, of course!) Carol has also written some great books for children.

Friday, 22 February 2013

A new interview

I've been interviewed today by Rebeccah Giltrow about my life as a writer. Here's the link:

Monday, 14 January 2013

Shopping with mother

At the weekend I happened to mention to my mother - who was, as usual, having Sunday lunch with us - that I was hoping to buy a new coat with money received at Christmas. 'I could do with a new coat too,' she said. So today, having some spare hours, I took her to a local shopping centre. We decided to take her wheelchair because, although she can walk perfectly well with a stick, it would be tiring and progress would be slow. Fairly soon we found something suitable in the sales, but it was too small. So I pushed her to the other end of the shops, but we found nothing: too big, too dull, too bright. 'There was another coat like the one you tried on,' I said. 'Only two sizes bigger. How about you try that one, then we'll know your size for certain, and if necessary I can order it on the internet.' She agreed, and back we went. I turned away from her for a few seconds, trying to find the coat on the rail. There came a strangled squeak. I turned back and saw her almost on the floor, hanging on to the wheelchair's arm-rest, having somehow slithered off the seat.  'What are you doing down there?' I said. 'I don't know.' I hauled her back onto the seat and she said she was unhurt. The story ends well: the bigger coat fitted, and we bought it, at sale price. My mother is the most generous of souls, but she was raised in a frugal generation and likes a bargain, so she was happy. In a few weeks' time we are having a party to celebrate her birthday. She will be 95. Every outing's an unknown quantity. Oh yes, and she managed to lose a glove.
Talking of losing things, I also had to telephone an old people's home where mother thought she might have left her glasses while visiting an old friend before Christmas. They weren't there; where they are, nobody knows. In her friend's car? In the street? In the sock drawer where she once came across her missing hearing-aid? But the loss of her spectacles is not a problem. 'I found some others around the house,' she said blithely. 'I don't know whose they are, but they'll do.'
Could it be her attitude to life that has given her such longevity?