OK, I have to face facts. There's no avoiding it. Christmas is coming.
That brings with it a certain temptation to mutter 'Bah, Humbug', in accordance with tradition. This year I'm resisting that, but it can be hard work!
Not that I mind Christmas as such. I'm all for kids getting excited, for a sense of wonder in the air, for the stupendous miracle at the heart of it all - that God is with us, in the most profound way he could be. By being one of us.
I'm not so keen on the pressure to get cards and presents, to plan visits, and to try and keep focused on the reality in the midst of all the commercialised hype. I'm tired of all the old arguments and objections, people pointing out every year that this is really a pagan celebration which the Church has hijacked - as if that's somehow new and shocking and is going to destroy everyone's faith when they hear it.
To keep the Christ Child clear in the centre of it all, that's the aim, but it can be hard work. (I've got a poem on the subject - 'The Sound of Christmas'). True Christmas is a reality I want to find, not escape from.
However, while we're on the subject of escaping from reality, my friends and fellow writers at ACW (Association of Christian Writers) have a marvelous and eclectic range of escape routes, and some more have been added to their blog. Including one of mine, but don't let that put you off! Here's the link..
More Than Writers
While you go off and look at that, I've got more Christmas Preparations to do. The Family Letter is way overdue, and I want to put together an E-card to go with it. Bah, Hum...
How is it that Christmas comes at the same time every year and always catches me by surprise? Yesterday someone told me that there were just five weeks left till December the 25th!
Surely that's a mistake. I mean - Christmas is way off in the distance, isn't it?
No. It really has sneaked up on me again...
Which is all a long-winded way of working my way round to the main point. Which is, if you're looking for some ideas for presents - yours or other peoples - you might try checking this list of books from ACW authors. ACW (Association of Christmas Writers? No, that's Association of CHRISTIAN Writers) is an eclectic bunch of authors, and that's reflected in the range of books here. And apparently, there's more to come! Watch this space...
(or better yet, follow the link!).
Recently, I did something that for me was unprecedented. I’m still slightly in shock.
I joined a political party, which is something I thought I’d never do. I’ve always been pretty cynical about politics, and have always doubted if expending any time or effort on it was worth the trouble. Who’s going to listen to me anyway? Politicians don’t seem to listen to anyone, except (sometimes) each other.
But I’ve gone ahead and joined a party. And that’s not the most remarkable thing.
I joined Labour. That’s the thing that’s really got me in shock!
I grew up in a fairly conservative house - big and small ‘C’. I grew up in a time when Communist Russia was The Enemy, and Labour was seen (by some at least) as the left wing dupes who would allow the Communists and the Marxists to sneak into the country and take control. Trade Unions were hotbeds of left-wing militancy, and were out to bring the country down. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, the Iron Lady was the symbol of freedom, democracy and national pride.
I started off ambivalent about Blair. I was impressed by the energy which which his government tackled things when they came to power, but suspicious of their policies. When Iraq was invaded, I started off as a reluctant supporter of the war (though I respected Robin Cooke’s principled stand against it).
However, when it became obvious that the entire thing had been a huge mistake, based on dodgy intelligence, and the well organised war had led to a chaotic peace, then I felt that Blair and Labour had to be punished. His refusal to acknowledge the error infuriated me (still does!) and I wanted Labour to know that they couldn’t make mistakes of this magnitude and simply carry on as if nothing had happened.
Plus which, the Conservative message of Austerity made sense to me. It was clear that we were in trouble, and tightening the national belt, being frugal, taking a step back from excess - that made sense. I voted Tory.
Over the next five years, though, I changed completely – and it was the Tory government that did the most to change me.
The good idea of Austerity turned out to be a very bad idea for some people, and mostly it appeared that the hardest hit were the poorest. Of course, there were a lot of statistics tossed around to prove that we were all collectively doing better, but what really did it for me were the little things. The attack by Edwina Curry on food banks and those who use them, for example. It was not so much what was said, but the attitude it revealed – and the total lack of response from the Government indicated that the attitude was shared.
There were more such incidents. Not enormously significant in themselves, perhaps, but giving me an increasing sense that these were not the sort of people who should be put in charge of other people.
It was all about attitude. May's attitude to the Police, Gove's attitude to the Schools, Osbourne's attitude to – apparently – everybody who he might be able to get money out of.
Come the General Election again, and I was looking forward to all this being challenged. Labour would, I was sure, speak out strongly against the worst excesses of Austerity. They would, for example, point out the human costs involved – for example, the terrible treatment of people on benefits, the way the most vulnerable have been sanctioned and had payments stopped at the slightest excuse.
There was a deafening silence on the issue. On all the issues that I thought mattered, the things that I was concerned about. Of course, a great deal was said – but not about anything important.
The Greens did talk about some of these things, but they don't have the strength to form an opposition. The SNP talked about it, but they're the wrong side of the border for me.
In the end, I voted Labour, and hoped that in some sort of Labour coalition these issues would be addressed. But on the night, it all went pear-shaped, and so now we've got a Tory government who, secure in their majority, are already displaying their basic attitude problem even more strongly. (Refugees fleeing from horrific situations in their home countries are dismissed as 'swarms', and only the most extreme of public and political pressure moves Cameron to do something about it).
And then there's the election for a new Labour leader, and a line up of those who said nothing meaningful at the General Election, but who all assure us that they are the ones who can win the next one. Apart from Corbyn, who's the rank outsider, the wildly impractical left-wing extremist who's victory in this contest would apparently spell disaster for Labour. And five years ago, probably the last person I would ever have voted for.
But disaster has already been spelt for Labour. It was spelt out with a policy of 'Let's do the same as the Tory party, but do it nicer'. It was spelt out with the failure to attack the real weakness of the Government, their lack of basic human empathy.
So, somewhat to my own bemusement, I've joined Labour and have voted for Jeremy Corbyn. It is quite possibly a sign of my political naivete that I think this is a good idea. But it's a sign of my total disillusionment with the alternatives that I can't see that there's a better one.
Nowadays I review nearly everything I read. Usually its just a paragraph or two, posted on Shelfari and perhaps Amazon. But this book needed something more than that.
This is a story about two funerals, one at each end of the book, and about how one tragedy initiated the chain of events that led remorselessly to another. Along the way the lives of those involved - their dreams, their fears, their desires and prejudices - are exposed.
It's not a pretty sight. They aren't nice people, on the whole. From complacent middle-class arrogance to squalid, foul-mouthed and criminal lower classes, it's hard to find a character you can like. This is so pervasive, especially in the earlier chapters, that I found myself wondering if these were intended as caricatures, with the unpleasantness deliberately exaggerated for effect. I wondered how I was supposed to care about any of these obnoxious people, about their petty politics and spite filled relationships, about their shallow lives in the picture book village or the run-down estate.
The best person in the place seems to be Barry Fairbrother, and its his death at the beginning of the book that sets everything in motion. Almost as if it was only his presence that had kept the worst excesses of the others in check. And even he had his faults; we come to see how his commitment to the community left his family feeling neglected.
What kept me reading about these depressing people was the sheer quality of the writing. Rowling blends descriptions and characters and dialogue together with such smoothness that it required an effort on my part not to keep reading. Even while I was wondering how any group of people could be so consistently unpleasant, I was still involved, drawn in by the flow of words, delighted by some wonderful phrases, amused by the subtle thread of humour, and absorbed by the developing story.
And it was well worth it.
For one thing, 'The Casual Vacancy' is a master class in how to write character-driven plots. Everything that happens in the story (with the exception of the aneurysm which kills Barry Fairbrother) is a direct result of the characters and of their interactions. This is no easy thing to achieve. Many writers struggle to create one or two fully developed and believable people. Rowling not only creates multiple characters with this depth, she weaves them together so that we see how each person's weaknesses and foibles influence every other person. Her plot is not simply driven by character, or even characters, but by the relationships between the characters.
To achieve this, to make it effective and believable, requires not only skilful writing but also a keen observation and a deep understanding of people. Rowling knows how people respond to people, how the insecurity of one can stoke the anger in another, leading to fear, to intolerance, to hatred, to grief. A community of human beings is an immensely complex thing; in 'A Casual Vacancy' Rowling goes a long way to unravelling that complexity and showing how things work between people.
And of course, that means how things work between us. Pagford is a fictional place, (though there is considerable speculation about where it might be based on) and the characters are fictional people, but their lives and situations are all too real. If they are caricatures, it is to bring out and emphasise some of those qualities with which we may be familiar. All too familiar. And the results of these qualities may be familiar as well. Child abuse that leads to wrecked lives. Prejudice that justifies neglect. Hidden agendas, concealed emotions, simmering hatreds. It's all there in Pagford, but it's out there in the real world as well. Our world.
(Sometimes fiction is about 'escaping from reality'. But at other times it's about understanding reality better!)
The difference is that in Pagford, Rowling shows us the mechanisms that drive such things.
It seems to me that what this book is about, underneath everything else, is failing to really see other people. In Pagford, everyone's view of other people is coloured and distorted by their own hopes, dreams, fears and expectations. Which is exactly as it is in the real world, of course, but here we can see how destructive that is. Very few of the characters even try to see beyond their own prejudices and preconceptions. Most of them don't even consider that there is anything more to see. The result of these colliding misconceptions is tragedy.
At the end, for some of the characters at least, there is a redemption of a sort. The tragedy opens some eyes. Some relationships are healed, some people understand themselves or others better. It gives a measure of hope. But it left me wondering if this was always going to be the price.
This is a book that will stay with me for a while. The characters are unpleasant, but not easy to forget; and as I came to understand them better, I came to sympathise with them more. Which is the point, of course. And as a Christian, it led me to consider that the God I believe in understands us all fully, as no other being can. A thought with considerable implications, though whether or not Rowling had that in mind in her writing I have no idea. Certainly, God gets very little mention in the story; to the residents of Pagford, he is a very distant figure.
J. K. Rowling will be forever most closely associated with Harry Potter – and that's no bad thing. But good though those books were (and I certainly enjoyed them) they don't begin to show the full extent of her abilities as a writer – not in the same way as 'A Casual Vacancy' does. If I read a better book this year, I'll be surprised!
I love quotes.
I like the funny ones:
“A modest man, who has much to be modest about.” (Winston Churchill on Clement Atlee).
I like the thoughtful ones:
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” (G. K. Chesterton).
The Bible is, of course, a huge resource of quotations – this, for example, is well known (though not always well understood):
“The truth will set you free.” (Jesus Christ: John 8:32).
People's last words are sometimes profound and often poignant:
“Friends applaud, the comedy is over.” (Ludwig van Beethoven).
It seems that there's a quote for every situation, a pithy phrase to express every mood. Whatever we're doing or feeling, someone's been there first and summed it up neatly.
I came across a particularly good one recently:
“Justice and mercy are the cornerstones of a correct life; justice because it is demanded by nature; and mercy because justice erodes the soul." (Tulisofala).
I don't know if you've heard of Tulisofala. She was an ancient philosopher. But it got me thinking, how important is the source of the quote? Does it matter who said it?
Of course, in some cases the quote is given extra power by the person who spoke it. Words from people who lived great lives carry special weight. As in this from Mother Teresa:
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Because of the commitment she showed to loving people throughout her life, her warning against judging them have more power. She could speak with authority on the subject.
Or what about Albert Einstein’s words:
“The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.”
Einstein can talk about genius, since he is generally acknowledged to have been one!
But what I wondered about was this – could someone else had said these things? Suppose Einstein had talked of love and judgement, or Mother Teresa about genius and stupidity? Would these things be more or less true? Or what if some nobody (like me, for example) had said it?
Which brings me back to Tulisofala. It's likely that you haven't heard of her – but do you agree with what she said? Does it sound like something true, something important even?
And does it make any difference if I tell you that actually Tulisofala was an alien, a member of the Ashiyyur race, and that that she was invented by the Science Fiction writer Jack McDevitt? If she is not real, does that mean that those words are meaningless?
Or is wisdom an absolute thing, something that carries meaning and deserves respect no matter what its source is?
On a practical level, of course we must consider the source of our information. It would be daft to believe everything that adverts or politicians tell us, and we have to keep in mind that everyone trying to sell us something has their own agenda. But perhaps the cynicism of our culture can extend too far. Do we sometimes reject an argument because the person making it is from the wrong group, of the wrong sexual orientation, or wearing the wrong colours?
The truth sets us free, but do we filter it at source? Are we willing to consider that other people, other cultures, other races might have some truth to offer?
As Tulisofala might have said: “It is better to consider a lie than to refuse a truth.”
(She didn't. I said it. You can quote me).
Last Christmas, one of my best presents was a pair of underpants with the word ‘Grumpy’ on them. They also had an appropriate picture: a cartoon dwarf, wearing an expression that, with it’s perfectly judged combination of gloom and irritation, epitomised the term ‘grumpy’.
Now it may seem that this is a complaint, that my intention is to highlight the inadequacy of the seasonal gifts I received. But this is not at all the case. Far from it. I was not upset or insulted by my Grumpy underwear. Instead I felt affirmed.
To be grumpy is no more than the natural right of anyone who has lived life. To be grumpy is the inevitable result of living life. To be given a pair of Grumpy nicks is to have one’s life experience acknowledged and to told ‘You, sir, understand life!’.
Here I just a few reasons why I am grumpy:
Long telephone conversations with recorded messages.
Especially the ones that repeatedly tell you ‘Your call is important to us’ before leaving you hanging on for another ten minutes. And another. And another. Very often they will fill those minutes by playing happy music, apparently in the expectation that this will make you feel better about wasting a significant portion of your remaining life waiting for their understaffed call centre to get round to answering you with a real person. They are wrong.
The big ones for double beds. Huge entangling, enveloping, fabric monsters. When washing them they fill up the machine, when drying them they never hang properly on the line, and when trying to put them back on, they resist to the last button, leaving you sweating and gasping and having to explain to your wife that the reason it doesn’t fit properly is that it turned itself round, not that you put it on wrong in the first place.
Now, I know I’m on controversial ground here. Many people are bicycle enthusiasts, including some people I count as friends. I respect their life style choice, but I do not understand their attitude in this, and will never agree with them.
I have always hated and feared bicycles. When I was young, and people tried to make me get on them, I flatly refused. It was clear to me that the contraption was inherently unstable and fundamentally dangerous, and I was having none of it. What I hadn’t realised was that bicycles, as a species, are spiteful and vindictive. What is more, they have long memories, and never miss the chance to repay me for my rejection of them.
When I’m driving, they bunch up in front of me, reducing my progress to their crawl. If I manage to get past them, then they wait until I’m held up at traffic lights then sneak past (often illegally, on the pavement) and get in front again. Even at rest they are dangerous. Come too close to one that appears to be quiescent and it will lash out with its handlebars, seeking to poke you in the ribs or the stomach. And never get caught in a confined space with a bicycle! It will hack at your ankles with its pedals, trying to trip you up. If it succeeds and gets you on the floor then you’re doomed.
These are the lessons life has taught me, some of the many reasons to be grumpy. In their gift to me, my family have recognised my superior experience! They have acknowledged that I am, and have every right to be, Grumpy.
I will therefore wear my grumpy boxers with pride. Pity the things are so uncomfortable - they seem to have been made with a built-in wedgy - but that’s life.
From the moving window
Watching worlds go by
I see the forgotten corners,
Hiding in plain view
Behind the backs of factories
Beyond the boarded doors
Walled around by busy lives
Enclosed within the crumbling bricks
Their purposes forgotten.
Just over that wall
Is hustle and bustle,
Manufacturing and retail,
Orders given, jokes told, human activity in full flow.
Here is a sort of peace
For these corners are inaccessible, unreachable,
guarded by solid walls and wire fences and by their own unimportance
Overlooked, passed by, unthought of, uncared for.
Life springs up here,
In various quiet ways.
A bush, a tree, some blades of grass
Growing through cracked asphalt,
Past the cans and plastic bags.
Entire little universes
Where unknown lives of birds and beetles,
Rats and cats and little burrowing things
Have their own existence,
Quite apart from ours.
Other worlds exist,
In our forgotten corners
Other kingdoms, other lives,
And we have our own forgotten corners
The little parts of life
Walled off, half forgotten,
Thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears and failed plans,
Left to pursue their own existence,
Whilst we go on with ours.
I see the forgotten corners of the world
From my moving window.
And I wonder if anyone knows
The forgotten corners in me.
This has to be one of the most iconic phrases to come out of an iconic TV series! How many times have you heard it quoted or used in various awkward situations? (The best I've heard is the man in court who'd just been sentenced, when the judge asked if he had anything to say...).
And how many times have we wished it could be true! I have a fifty mile commute to work – fifty miles each way, that is – fifty miles of the same stretch of road every working day. Fifty miles which takes between an hour and an hour and a half to drive (except when roadworks or accidents push it up to two hours or more). An hour and a half that I could better use in all sorts of ways (such as sleeping).
Yes, I'd love to call up Scottie and have him beam me directly there.
Of course, it's a great device for SF writers to use. Saves having to make room in the plot for travel time from starship to planet (accept on those occasions when you want some travel time, in which case it's easy enough to invent a reason why the matter transmitter won't work, and they have to use the shuttlecraft). But there could be practical benefits as well.
If we had matter transmitters, we would save so much time in travelling, we'd save so much money on cars and on all the infrastructure that they require. Too bad that it's not technically possible yet – it's one technology that would be all upside and no downside.
Or then again, is that true?
It occurs to me that the big problem with matter transmission might not be technical, but spiritual. Because with that sort of technology, there would be no journey.
Departure and arrival would take place simultaneously. You would say goodbye and hello in the same breath. Is that a good thing?
It's true, I don't enjoy journey's as much as I used to, even apart from the daily commute. Journeys can be tedious, uncomfortable, even dangerous. But they can also be valuable. They give time for thinking, time for seeing, time for making the adjustment between here and there. The journey marks the difference between leaving and arriving, between goodbye and hello.
And that difference, that gap, is important. Abrupt transitions can be painful, leaving us dislocated and struggling to adjust. Our identity, our sense of self and of who we are needs a sense of where we are, a place to ground ourselves in, a place to be. If that sense of place is eroded by the lack of a journey, our sense of self might be likewise eroded.
It has often been said that 'life is a journey'. So often that it's a cliché, but like most clichés, true. We do not become who we are all at once. We grow into ourselves, we change in the process, in the journey.
An artist does not produce their best work on the first attempt. However good they are, however great their talent, there is more to learn. They must grow in their craft, their art must develop in them and change them as it does so. They have to journey. It would be sad if it were otherwise, if once they had done one thing, that was all there was to do. If they had no journey to undertake, they would have no time or opportunity to grow. They would never become more.
Our lives need journeys. Voyages of discovery, adventures, opportunities to see and hear and experience not only what is here and what is there, but what is between them. Even the drudgery of the daily commute can give opportunity for thought and reflection. We become who we are in the journey.
Don't beam me up, Scottie. I'll take the scenic route.
(And yes, the title is chosen as a small remembrance and tribute to the late, great, Terry Pratchet)
Last week, on Easter Sunday morning, the church was filled with daffodils. Lovely, brilliant yellow flowers, distributed amongst the pews, ready to decorate the cross as part of our Easter celebration.
But instead of thinking about the occasion, and the symbolism of the flowers, I found myself diverted by the colour. The incredible, beautiful pure yellow of it. And I began to wonder what colour really is.
Of course, I know the science of it. Sort of. I know that it's about how things either absorb or reflect different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. And how specialised parts of our eyes pick up on these reflected wavelengths, and convert them into signals that are transmitted along the optic nerves into our brain which then codes them and interprets them and presents them to our conscious mind as colour.
That, of course, is bound to be a simplified and probably muddled pseudo-scientific explanation, but even this is enough to make my head spin. Such an incredibly complex process involved just so that I can see the bright yellow daff.
But perhaps the really important question isn't 'how do we see colour?' but 'why do we care?' What difference does it make to be able to differentiate between minor variations in electromagnetic radiation?
There are practical benefits to being able to see colour, of course. Like being able to detect rotten fruit more easily, or perhaps being better equipped to see lurking predators. The sort of things that our distant ancestors (having missed out on superior hearing or an excellent sense of smell) really needed for survival. And of course, even nowadays, being able to tell the difference between red lights and green lights can be of some value in the suburban jungle.
However, that's not the whole story about colour. We don't just value it for its utility. We value it because it adds a whole extra dimension of beauty to our lives. As someone old enough to remember black & white TV (yes, kids, there are still people alive who actually had such things!) I can say for sure that the world is a better place in colour. A sunset just doesn't cut it in greyscale.
So maybe the real question is why does 'beautiful' matter? Why do we care about the vividness of a sunset, the deep blue of a seascape, the yellow of a daffodil? And, while we're on the subject, what about the other senses? Why do certain combinations of pressure waves, picked up by a delicate construction of skin and bones in our head and processed by our mind, come to us as music? Music which can then stir our emotions and effect our entire being? Or - thinking as a writer now - why do certain combinations of words have the power to evoke feelings of excitement or wonder or anger or...?
Now we're into deep philosophical waters here. I don't know about you, but I'm starting to splash around a bit desperately, looking for a bit of solid ground to stand on while I catch my breath.
For me, as a Christian, I do have a metaphorical lifebelt. If we are the creations of a God who loves us and wants to give us good things, then beauty - and the ability to appreciate it - is simply another of his gifts to us. He gives us flowers, that form an integral part of our ecosystem, and makes them visually stunning, and enables us to recognise that, so that he can say 'Look at this!' and we can say 'Wow!'
I know that that explanation doesn't work for everyone. There are a lot of people out there, some whom I count as friends, who don't believe in God (or not the same God I believe in) but who still value the beauty of colour. There are other ways of understanding it, other explanations.
But we have this common ground, this starting point. Colour is beautiful, and wonderful, and our ability to detect it and enjoy it is awesome.
Perhaps we shouldn't over-think it. Sometimes it's sufficient just to enjoy it.
Here's some colour for you all. Hope it was a happy Easter!
Husband, father, dog & chicken owner, Christian, writer, and incurable daydreamer. In no particular order of importance - they are all me.