Monday, 28 February 2011

Poetic Aunt

In 'The Englishwoman' I mentioned my writer-aunt Annabelle. She has a book of poems coming out on 12 March. It is called Dressed in Water and is published by Dionysia Press, Edinburgh. Her surname is Despard. She also has a poem of hers called 'Should you die first' included in a new anthology edited by Neil Astley called Being Human (published by Bloodaxe). This poem was displayed on the London Underground and is also included in the anthology of Underground poems.
    Although I write the occasional poem myself, I'm not a great reader of poetry. Perhaps I don't have the patience; I prefer a story. But I have read some of Annabelle's poems and I liked them a lot. They are direct enough for anyone to understand them (even me) and they are moving.


I first met Cheryl fourteen years ago, in 1997. It was a hot sunny day in August and I was browsing round our village's annual street market when a friend called me from her cottage on the High Street.
    'Would you like your aura read?'
    I followed my friend into her front room. I knew roughly what auras were - some sort of energy field around the body - but I wasn't sure that I wanted to know too much about mine. I was a little nervous about what might be there.
    Cheryl was sitting at a table in shadow under the stairs. She was blonde, slight, in her twenties. She took up a piece of paper with an outline of the human body printed on it and began colouring it with crayons. She seemed to be looking through me or behind me and listening to information from another place. Then she started to tell me about myself.
    I was transfixed. It wasn't so much what she was saying. It was her certainty. She was speaking the truth and she knew it.
    That night I couldn't sleep and the next morning at nine o'clock I raced back down to the village and hammered on my friend's door. After about five minutes the door opened. My friend was in her dressing-gown. I'd woken her up. When she invited me in for a coffee I couldn't stop crying.
    'Would you like to see Cheryl again?' she said.
    Would I ever.
    Over the next few months I went back and forth between Cheryl's house and mine. Each time I saw her, she taught me something new: how to trust my intuition, meditation, visualisation, affirmations. Finally, after about a year, she taught me to read tarot cards.
    There's only one thing certain about tarot cards - that nothing is certain, that no one knows anything about them, where they come from, what they really mean. The first known pack surfaced in Italy in 1415. They are of course related to playing cards but they differ in having twenty-two picture cards or 'major arcana' as well as cards in four suits.
    These days there are innumerable designs of tarot packs but the picture above comes from the first and best-known modern pack. It is called the Rider-Waite tarot after the publisher, Rider, and Arthur Waite who 'supervised' the artist, and it came out in 1910.
    At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth there was a revival of interest in the West in pre-Christian and non-Christian religions and spirituality - such as alchemy, astrology, magic, Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, it was the people responsible for this revival who first coined the term 'new age' and who (among others) predicted Big Changes for humans at the start of the twenty-first century. They saw in the tarot a repository of ancient wisdom and in the major arcana a portrayal of human spiritual development, hidden on cards to stop it being suppressed by the Christian Church.
    I'd always been fascinated by the pictures on tarot cards and I'd read some of the theory too but they'd never really come alive for me - until Cheryl. She used a modern pack called the Cosmic Tarot (still in copyright so I can't show you any of the cards) and I was startled by the faces of my friends and of famous people staring at me out of the pictures. She told me briefly what the cards were each supposed to mean but then she told me to use my own instincts. What did I see in a card? What was I feeling? Could I put the cards together and make a story? Each time I looked at a card I saw something different.
    The major arcana are in a sequence one to twenty-one. The Fool, who has no number, comes at both the beginning and the end of the sequence. He is us at both the beginning and the end of our spiritual journey.
    We set out, full of enthusiasm. We think we have shaken off all our cares and found happiness at last - a rose, the view, the fresh air, the sun - but there is a precipice at our feet. The dog is barking a warning but we are not listening.
    When The Fool comes at the end of the sequence he is quite different. He has authority now. He deserves his freedom. He knows there is a precipice at his feet but that doesn't stop him being happy. The dog shares in his joy.
    I don't like the concept of animals as 'pets'. I don't like animals being farmed. Call me foolish if you like, but I have a vision. One day, not only will humans be free, but animals will too.

Friday, 25 February 2011

The Englishwoman

I'm not really English at all. (Is anyone?) My mother's mother was Norwegian. My mother's father came from a family of Huguenots who fled persecution in France and settled in Ireland. My father, on his father's side, is descended from Bohemian immigrants - probably Jewish although nothing is said in the family.
    I never used to care about families - it was all based on the male line anyway and I wanted to be me, not someone descended from someone else. While writing my autobiography however I began to think about family stories and what we inherit from our forebears, emotionally and character-wise, as well as in terms of money and status and security (or not).
    I only met my mother's father once. He was called Max and worked as a British spy in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. My aunt Annabelle, my mother's sister, has recently written his biography. She scarcely knew him either. Their mother died of cancer when Annabelle was six (and my mother 22) and the family broke up. Max was by all accounts a huge character. On the one hand, typically upper-class British, writing to London for reinforcements, 'I want a perfectly ruthless thug whom I can like and trust, and if he talks the King's English so much the better. PS For Christ's sake don't send me a bloody pansy!' On the other, leading his staff in flight across occupied Europe by car when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia. He signed his memos 'M', like James Bond's boss, and may be part of the inspiration for that character (or even Bond).
    My father's great-uncle Leo came to England at the turn of the nineteenth century and started a commodity-broking business in the City of London. Commodity broking involves buying raw materials and then selling them on to manufacturers. There is much skill - and gambling - in buying and selling at the right price and the right time. Leo was the first (or one of the first) to go out to the Pacific islands and buy up their copra (coconut flesh) for soap manufacture. My father joined his father in the business, and when he used to go out to the South Seas with my mother (it was a hard life) the islanders still talked of 'Mr Leo'.
    My maternal grandmother's parents were in business too in Norway but two of her three brothers went into the arts. One became a sculptor and the other a music critic, said to take musical scores to bed and read them like novels.
    My father's sister could have been a professional pianist but her nerves got the better of her. My father could play the piano too and although completely untrained could play a song for us children complete with harmonies in the left hand even if we only sang it to him once.
    My aunt Annabelle is an academic and published poet in both Norwegian and English. She is bilingual and able to write in both languages and translate her own work.
    So I have quite a lot to live up to.


This is only going to be a short blog as I've had a migraine for the last 36 hours. I have a horrible feeling that migraines, for me, are the downside of writing. In order to write I have to work myself into a frenzied state and the only way my poor brain can come down from that state is via a migraine. Oh dear. There must be a better way.
    I have lots of ideas for blogs for next week however. Some of the subjects rattling around my weary brain are: tarot cards, dog-training, auras, wild nature. So, watch this space.
    And I didn't mention in my last blog my wonderful, kind and inspiring writing teacher, Roselle Angwin. Check out her fascinating blog 'qualia and other wildlife' ( ) and her website ( ). She has written several books of poetry, several books about writing and myth, and has a novel coming out on 1 March called Imago. I haven't read it yet but I know that it starts in modern-day Devon and then goes back to thirteenth-century France and a persecuted religious sect called the Cathars. She talks about the novel's extraordinary genesis in her blog. (The book's published by Indigo Dreams.)

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Writing is sort of what I do

I have this waking nightmare. I'm on 'The Weakest Link' and I have to tell Anne Robinson what I do for a living. When I say that I'm a writer, she collapses with derisive laughter.
    Once upon a time I was a book editor. People understood that. That was a proper job. It was almost normal. It was a bit like being a journalist, or a pop-record producer, wasn't it? The fact that I was freelance however provoked some confusion.
    'But how do you discipline yourself? How do you stop wasting time or doing housework?'
    The honest answer would have been, 'I've never been one for either wasting time, or doing housework. I'd rather be editing,' but that might have provoked further confusion, so what I usually said was, 'Money.' That was the right answer. That, people understood.
    Then I moved on to writing non-fiction books (New Age Encyclopaedia, Gothick Devon, The Natural Way: Infertility, A Glimpse of Dartmoor: Folklore). Sometimes I told people, sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I pretended I was still a book editor. The trouble was, while I earned some money from the books, I never made a proper living from them. I always had to supplement my income. It was hard for me to believe that I was a writer, let alone anyone else.
    Then the situation got even worse. I became bored with non-fiction. I wanted to write a novel. (Yuk. Grody. Finger down throat.) I tried to legitimise it by doing a nine-month novel-writing course at the local arts centre. I was having a 'sabbatical'. I was a 'mature student'.
    'Ooh, you'll be the next J K Rowling,' people would say to me.
    I don't think so. I found the process excruciatingly difficult. Either I sat in bed and cried because I had no ideas or I sat in bed and wrote rubbish. At the end of the course I did have a novel, yes, but I wouldn't have dreamt of inflicting it on the public.
    You'd think I would have learnt my lesson, wouldn't you. But no. I wanted to try again. This time the novel turned out to be an autobiography. At least I didn't have any problem with the plot or the characters or the setting or the dialogue - or any of it in fact. It poured out of me in two weeks flat. But who wants to read the autobiography of a nobody? And I had my friends and family to think of. I probably would have been left with neither.
    So now I'm trying again again - with another novel.
    I must be mad.
    I've tried sticking post-it notes around the house on all my favourite places - the mirror, the fridge, above the bed, on my computer screen - with the words 'I am a writer' on them, or even 'I am a fabulous writer'. But it doesn't work. I'm not convinced. I can still hear Anne Robinson slaughtering me with a few well-chosen put-downs.
    So now I don't tell people anything. I let them think I'm a lady of leisure. It's less shameful than being a penniless would-be writer.
    So why the heck do I do it?
    The answer is, I don't know. I don't seem to have any choice in the matter. And it's better than the alternative.
    A bit like marriage, some might say. But that's another story.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Dog

Ellie's favourite activity at the moment is sticking the front half of her body down rabbit and badger holes. Sometimes she barks down the hole as if to say, 'Anyone there? Why won't you come out and play? the scent of you is driving me mad.' Luckily her tail is white - muddy white usually - so if she isn't barking and I've lost her I can scan the area for its gently waving crescent, so bright against the browns and greens of the undergrowth. She carries her tail high and the long hair hangs down and flutters in the breeze like the hair on the monster in the 'Monsters Inc' film (have I got the right one?).
    She has quite a large bottom in comparison with her head - her spaniel inheritance perhaps - even though she's not a greedy dog and sometimes, when I try to bribe her with food to keep quiet at home so that I can do some work, she drops it on the kitchen floor and looks at me. I know what she's thinking. 'You're going to leave me, aren't you? And I'd much rather have your company than some silly old bone.'

My sister Emma loves windy days but I love stillness. And I prefer overcast days to sunny ones. When the sun is out you have to be cheerful and busy and rush outside to 'make the most of it'. On cloudy days you can be quiet and meditative.

Today was perfect - cloudy, grey and soft. I sat by a stream with Ellie and listened to the birds and the water and the silence.

So often we hear the motorway, ten miles to the east, but today it was silent. I could feel my brain relaxing without the constant drone to contend with.

The signs of spring were everywhere. As we walked home I stepped in a puddle full of frogspawn. A yaffle was calling. I saw a rosette of bright yellow celandines in the hedge, and around the edge of the garden primroses were appearing.