I was fascinated to see this Maori meeting house in the grounds of Clandon Park, Surrey. It immediately attracted me as I loved learning about the Maori culture in New Zealand during my November 2019 visit.
I discovered that the original meeting house, Hinemihi, had been sited in an area of New Zealand’s North Island which suffered a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Several people were killed, and the meeting house was damaged and abandoned.
The Earl of Onslow, then Governor of New Zealand, rescued a number of precious Maori carvings and had the damaged meeting house dismantled then transported back to his house and parkland at Clandon Park, Surrey.
Clandon Park itself has suffered disaster – major fire damage had nearly destroyed it but its structure remained intact and it is now the centre of a massive renewal project by the National Trust.
So here at Clandon Park our minds and imaginations are strongly focused on rescue, renewal and new life. An uplifting and inspiring visit.
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This is a book which will probably arouse many different emotional reactions in the reader: fascination, inspiration, astonishment, disgust, anger, depression… you name the life situation the reader is in, and that will determine his or her response to On This Day She by Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland.
Many different women, across all periods of history and many nations, continents and cultures, are represented in this book. Their lives and achievements encompass the full range of human endeavour, and the vast majority you may never have heard of, because history chose not to include them in its pages. But the cumulative effect of reading their biographies, all arranged under days of the calendar, is disturbing and uplifting by turns.
Some of these women were enormously successful and influential in their own individual spheres; others were treated with gross injustice and / or met untimely and tragic deaths. Some of them are indeed now acknowledged and recognised for their achievements – for example, the woman who invented the game of Monopoly (Lizzy Magie) but who never received either the credit or the income from her invention, which instead went to Charles Darrow.
I do believe there are signs of encouragement. In our world today, we all know about Greta, Malala, An Sang Su Chi, Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel. Looking at history, we all know the names of such women as Elizabeth I, or Agatha Christie, or Florence Nightingale, or Jane Austen, or Mother Teresa. We do have a number of prominent women in the world today, whom we need to support and honour. This book reminds us that there have been many, many gifted women throughout history who have not been so honoured; in fact, far from that, they have been crushed and denigrated and marginalised. There is still a very long way to go before all members of the human race are treated equally, regardless of gender, and the many other factors which divide us.
Whilst reading this book, one of the many thoughts that came to my mind was this: JK Rowling, whom many admire, is strongly opinionated. She expresses her opinions fearlessly in the public arena, which she has every right to do. But would her opinions receive the same response if she was a man?
This book makes you see history differently and through a new lens. Hard-hitting, discerning and sharp, the authors show us the way exceptional female movers and shakers have been rendered invisible by history. Much of this, the authors claim, is the consequence of a lazy use of “generic” language, and sentences framed to denigrate women and represent their role and purpose negatively. They give an example of this in the way in which Catherine of Aragon is summarised by history books as having “failed to provide Henry VIII with a male heir”. This can be rephrased as “Catherine and Henry had no surviving sons.” It’s still accurate, but the balance has been changed. Language needs to evolve to redress this false view of human life.
One astonishing quote in the book, from a man, explains that by ‘person’ he did not of course mean ‘woman’ – he only meant ‘man.’ This is certainly a step further from the assertion that of course the term ‘man’ is always taken by us all to mean ‘human beings.’ Personally I try to use the term ‘humankind’ as much as possible or ‘we’ or ‘human beings’. I do believe language has power; it determines our unconscious presumptions. The words we use do matter; they condition our attitude to the world, and lie behind all our prejudices and false judgements of others.
Among the entries in this books you will find archaeologists, nuclear physicists, mountaineers, peace activists, poets, novelists, artists, anti-slavery campaigners, environmentalists, human rights lawyers, anthropologists, fighter pilots, Viking warriors, nuclear scientist and many more. This book doesn’t presume that women have always been good. Tyrannical rulers are also included. The thesis of the book does not include moral judgements on that level; simply the invisibility of women in our histories.
You will find a woman who completed a course of undergraduate study at Cambridge University but were told she could not be awarded a degree because of being a woman; a female artist who created a famous self-portrait which was by default attributed to her husband; and numerous women who have been defined as ‘muses’ or ‘assistants’ to the more famous men in their lives, when they were in fact equal creators in their own right.
I highly recommend this book to all.
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Today, I’m pleased to be able to bring you my reviews of a collection of poetry books written by local Leamington Spa poet Phil Hill, which will be of interest not only to all those who love cutting edge contemporary poetry, but also to those who wish to gain a deeper insight into mental health issues in our society.
Beyond the Wilderness by PM Hill pub 2018 chipmunkapublishing
Love/Resistance/Rebellion by PM Hill pub 2020 chipmunkapublishing
The End of A Rainbow by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications
Hero by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications
The Heroine by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications
This is a very touching, insightful and vivid collection of poems commemorating the life of Geraldine, the author’s wife, who suffered much from mental illness, and from whose struggles we can all learn, described in spare, unsentimental lines of poetry by Phil Hill.
The poems chart Geraldine’s life from the time she and Phil met through their growing relationship, through some of the challenges of their twenty year marriage and Geraldine’s eventual tragic death, too young.
I found many of the poems very touching and poignant, often giving real insight into how it feels to go through the ill health that Geraldine suffered, with such distressing experiences as panic attacks and obsessive eating binges.
Yet within the poems there are flashes of humour, in the poet’s sharp observations of daily life. His admiration and love for Geraldine shines through. Highly recommended to all those who like the Own Voice genre of literature and who value poems which shine a light on areas of life many may fear to contemplate or would prefer to avoid. If we have never suffered as Geraldine did, we can count ourselves blessed and we can learn from reading of her brave life.
Phil Hill is a poet whose observations of contemporary society are both sharp and discerning. He covers major themes such as loss, regret, integrity, conformity and commercial manipulation.
His voice is sensitive, emotionally stirring and both raw and vulnerable. In these poems we see our society reflected back to us, with all its irony, its disposable values, social conditioning and its shaky hold on truth. With touches of humour and flashes of anger, this poet’s voice is one to listen to, and he offers a testimony from which we may leamany orn much.
In many of Phil’s poems, his own voice shines through: strong, powerful and challenging: often showing us how the judgement and labels of others is the very worst thing of all.
Greater education and communication and knowledge and understanding are still desperately needed, although mental health issues are becoming much more prominent on the public agenda. There is a long way to go, for this to infiltrate people’s minds throughout society, but the more people learn about it and gain new understanding and share imaginative and engaging media about it, the more things will improve: ignorance is our greatest enemy.
Phil’s poems are often very emotionally stirring: sharp, and relevant to the emotional and psychological landscape of the times we are living through.
His poem about lockdown conveys the feeling of insecurity, fear, disconnection, uncertainty, with very few words. It opens our eyes to the profound psychological effect this will have on so many, long after we have got R down to zero (if we ever do). I look forward to Phil’s first poem when he clearly sees light at the end of the tunnel!
Other poems are sad and yet touching, written with Phil’s characteristic simplicity and economy of words. These are dangerous and uncertain times for all of us.
That was the first appearance of Isabella M Smugge, under that name, out in the world.
I was one of those who left a comment on the post, and many of us were intrigued by the idea of Isabella; I mentioned that I felt I knew her: “Isabella M Smugge turns up at conferences and also moonlights as what I call ‘an internet siren’ – someone who is addicted to telling everyone else online how successful they are and how they did it and how if you exactly follow their own prescription of how they achieved it you too can be enormously successful and make millions.“
On 19th February 2021 a novel is published, with Isabella as its main character, which hadn’t been consciously planned at the time its author Ruth Leigh wrote that blog post. And today I’m part of the blog tour telling you about that novel.
In May Ruth published another post about her despair at the false picture people give about their lives online. The truth, she said, is always in brackets. Then Isabella re-appeared.
Among those who read the post was a literary agent who got in touch with Ruth and invited her to work up two opening chapters of a proposed book about Isabella, and he would see if he could find a publisher for her. The outcome is now clear; the book will be published by Instant Apostle on 19th February 2021.
Now I’ve read the book I realise Isabella reminds me of so many people: Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous; Margot Leadbetter in The Good Life; the “awful aristos” in Ghosts; Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.
Here’s my own review of the book:
This book is very much a surprise. We can begin to read it thinking it will be a waspish comic satire on the internet phenomenon of aspirational lifestyle influencers, who pretend their lives are perfect, and make everyone else feel they have to live up to it.
In fact the book is a very poignant and touching story about contemporary family life and relationships, the control of social media over our lives, our emotional wounds from the past, our lack of self-knowledge, and our deep need for non-judgemental friendship. To me, the style and atmosphere of the story brings it into the same realm as novels such as ‘The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment’ by Isobel Losada, and The Handbag and Wellies Yoga Club’ by Lucy Edge, although this book has more of a Christian flavour.
Isabella has moved with her husband and three children from London to a Georgian rectory in Suffolk. She is judgemental, disdainful, and her diary entries often include bitchy remarks at the end of paragraphs. She looks down on others and considers herself “a cut above”. She reminds me of Margot Leadbetter in ‘The Good Life’, and Patsy in ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. In fact I can even hear her superior, cut-glass tones. She also reminds me of Meryl Streep’s character in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. In waspish, top journalist style, she fills her account with brand names and scatters her prose with knowing references.
As the story progresses, the author inserts little tell-tale holes in Isabella’s flawless, polished and assured account of her perfect life – the fact that she’s moved to a place where no-one has even heard of her; her painful memories of warring parents and a broken home; her controlling, social-climbing husband; her memories of hateful boarding school; her awareness that the children clearly prefer Sofiya, the Latvian au pair, to their own mother; and her grumpiness as she works so hard to get them to pose for her social media posts.
As we read on, through Isabella’s diary, we hear a clear warning to take care who we get inspired by. Ruth Leigh has perfectly caught the phraseology of internet sirens like Isabella; all the snooty superior buzzwords and phrases. Isabella is in fact a flawed narrator, with nil self-knowledge and is often delusional.
We learn that because of her own wounded upbringing Isabella is setting herself impossible standards in a futile attempt to “prove” herself. And in the process she is eroding her own spirit, and has lost touch with her humanity.
In the end a moving and very thought-provoking book which looks set to be the first of a series.
A short while before reading and commenting on Ruth’s blog post, I had met her for the first time in real life – at a writers’ conference in St Luke’s Church, Great Colmore Street in Birmingham in March 2020. I now look back on that event fondly, as it was one of the very last real life events we were all able to attend before the Covid pandemic took a grip and the government enforced lockdown. A few months later, Ruth shared with us her exciting news. Following the publication of that blog post she had won the interest of a publisher for her proposed novel based upon Isabella, and she had begun to write the book.
I’m now delighted to be part of Ruth’s blog tour for her new book and I invited her to answer a few questions.
Ruth, first, I’d love to know a little about your background and family and about other things you do besides writing.
I’m originally from Epping Forest; I met my husband in the Sixth Form at school, which was a glorified dating agency. When we finally got round to going out, I was living in Exeter while he resided at the family home in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. We managed that for eight years until we got married and I returned to the county of my birth, which I had always sworn I’d never do. After my marriage, we moved to Suffolk, where we live with three children aged 17, 14 and 12, plus chicken, quail and a kitten, in the middle of nowhere in a draughty Victorian semi. My favourite thing in the world is reading (anything except sci-fi) and I like walking, playing board games (to win) and chilling out with friends.
When did the germ of the idea for this book come to you? Was it in your mind long before you wrote that blog post? When in your life, and in what situations, did you first start to come across the ‘role models’ who, we might say, inspired the character of Isabella?
I hadn’t thought of writing a novel until the afternoon of 7th May 2020. I invented my frightful snobbish influencer for an April blog post, and thought no more of her until literary agent Tony Collins messaged me to say he thought there was a book in her. It was only then that I switched from freelance writer to first-time novelist. I’d assumed I’d made every aspect of Isabella up until one day I was chatting to an old friend from ante natal classes, and she said, “Ruth, this woman is a mix of all those people we used to see at toddlers who turned up on time, perfectly made up, beautifully dressed and confident while we slumped in the corner wearing stained clothing and paper pants.” I realised that that was exactly who she was, along with a good dash of all the people who post on social media about their perfect lives and make normal folks feel massively inadequate.
What made you want to write about this sphere of life? What in your own background and experience led you to this?
I can honestly say that I’d never planned to write fiction and certainly not fiction about a posh, rich woman who makes a living by being an Instagram influencer. I made Isabella up for a funny blog and then, weirdly, when Tony asked for two sample chapters, I discovered that I knew all about her private life. A husband, children, a Latvian au pair, a hideous mother, a terrifying agent and a mysterious past all came pouring out.Isabella is brilliant at what she does, and considerably younger than me so I found myself researching what it is that lifestyle bloggers actually do. I followed a few on Instagram and found some great hashtags and ideas. As far as my own background and experience go, Isabella is the opposite of me in many ways. She’s come from money, went to private school, is incredibly confident (at least on the surface) and has no shame about showing off constantly on all her platforms. The sad, deeply-buried memories have elements of me in them, and her move from metropolitan life (London in her case, Essex in mine) to a small rural village is my experience too. However, she marches into the playground expecting everyone to be terribly impressed that she’s there, while I slowly made friends and built up a life in a much less glamorous way. From my wide reading, a vast repository of facts and half-remembered stories have played into this novel. Possibly that’s why I enjoyed inventing this woman and her life so much.
Who have you written this book for? What do you see as your target audience?
That’s an excellent question and quite a difficult one too. I suppose the answer would be just about everyone. I love writing that makes me laugh and creates a world I can inhabit, and I hope that Isabella will prove to be someone that people can pick up and enjoy. The cover is pink, many of the main characters are female, but I’d hope that male readers would enjoy it too. There’s nothing wet about Isabella. She’s handy with her fists, doesn’t take anything lying down and tells her husband where to go when he annoys her.
Tell me about your daily routine – if you have one!! What part does creative writing play in your day? Are you highly disciplined?
The alarm goes off at 8.15 and I ignore it. I roll out of bed at 8.30, make breakfast and a hot drink for the two younger children and deliver it to their bedsides, along with gentle encouragement to sit up and log into school. Then I make a pot of tea and breakfast (unless I’ve got an early Zoom call) and take it upstairs to the bedroom where my husband and I consume it, chat and sometimes do the crossword. At this point, the cat joins us and sticks her head into my husband’s pint of water on the bedside table. Back in the summer, bed was where I did all my writing. Now I head downstairs to the dining room and sit down at my desk (a Christmas present), fire up the laptop, go through my emails and work out what I need to start writing first. I’ve got lots of freelance clients, so I will generally have some interviews to conduct, transcribe and then write up. I’ve got my own blog, Big Words and Made Up Stories plus two others I contribute to and for me, that’s creative writing. I love trawling in the header tank of ideas in my brain and seeing what I can fish out. About twice a week I walk the mile and a half into the village to the market and that’s my thinking and planning time for the next Isabella book. I tend to finish working around 6.00, then we have dinner (my husband cooks it) and watch television or play a board game together. Add in plenty of dishwasher loading and unloading, washing, drying and putting away clothes, seeing my elderly parents and picking up random items scattered around various rooms and you have my life. Highly disciplined? Exactly the opposite.
What other things do you love besides writing?
Reading has to be the thing I love most. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be. I really like playing games but I am so highly competitive that the children have banned me from playing Monopoly with them. I love wandering around and gazing at the architecture and spotting little quirky things that fire off ideas in my brain. I enjoy going round museums and wandering along a pebbly beach on a cold windy day. I love chatting, to anyone, but particularly close friends.
Thank you Ruth for those fascinating and detailed answers which I hope will whet the appetite of my blog-readers to lay their hands on your book!
Meet Isabella Smugge – as in ‘Br-uge-s’, naturally! Instagram influencer, consummate show-off and endearingly self-unaware. With a palatial home, charming husband and three well-mannered children, she is living the County Life dream.
Newly arrived in the country, Isabella is ready to bring a dash of London glamour to the school gate and gain a whole new set of followers – though getting past the instant coffee, terrible hair and own-brand sausage rolls may be a challenge!
But as her Latvian au pair’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and a national gossip columnist nurses a grudge, Isabella finds herself in need of true friends and begins to wonder if her life really is as picture-perfect as she thought…
I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.
One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.
Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.
But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:
“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”
This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.
Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.
Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.
“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
So many of us have reacted in different ways in the UK lockdown, some being energized and leaping into action in house and garden, others relapsing into lethargy, feeling flat and down and disorientated and bewildered by what’s going on in the world. Others may have taken up a new activity or found themselves behaving differently.
I’ve taken up art. An artist friend Jane lent me her artist’s supplies before the lockdown and then of course I had no chance to call on her to give them back. She urged me to use them, though I hadn’t painted for years.
The sumptuous thick squidgy texture and the brilliant colours of the acrylic paint called me, and the full set of artist’s brushes invited me to engage with them.
So I ordered a Strathmore art pad online and began painting.
At first I laid on blocks of colour in an abstract design…
Then I seized a chance to lavish cobalt blue onto the paper…
Then I thought I’d try a tree of life…
The next one was in freestyle, and ended up looking like a fabric design:
A beautiful blue borage flower caught my eye in a friend’s photo on Facebook. Some see it as a weed. I loved the colour and the symmetry.
The next day a photo of a quarry garden inspired me. My husband looked at my painting and identified the ‘path’ as a river, and that’s when I realised the photo is just a guide, and at a certain point lack of technical skill tips you over the edge into fantasy.
I love the combination of trees and parkland and rich verdant landscapes with man-made features such as a bridge and a carefully designed lake and a temple. Capability Brown, step forward.
My sister sent me her photo of rich rainforest on the Queensland/New South Wales border. I loved the perspective. Standing on the edge of a cliff, the viewer gazes down to the waterfall far below.
Following a week in Cornwall visiting some vibrant tropical gardens, I felt like capturing one of the many vistas at Trebah:
Each time I paint a picture there’s always a point when I think, ‘This is going to be a mess. This feels so random’.
Later I take a photograph of the picture, and when I look at the photo I think, ‘oh it’s not so bad after all’.
Viewing a photo of art enables me to see it more objectively. It also changes the colour slightly and makes it appear more muted and subtle, and even gives the image a different feeling.
Something happens in that moment, something liminal, which makes me feel happy.
I later shared the photos of the paintings on social media, and people responded to them. Each time I felt a sense of surprise. They feel naive to me, and yet it is thrilling to evoke a response from a simple image.
I’m a writer but I never forget how people will often respond to an image first.
Have you taken up anything new or creative in lockdown?
Perhaps feeling flat and dispirited and down has led to something unexpected, which has given you a sense of fresh possibilities?
This is an example of an encounter we might relate to.
For both people in the encounter, the moment was right. They were the right people in the right place at the right time.
When the student was ready, the teacher appeared
When the lesson was over, the teacher mysteriously disappeared.
At the end of the encounter, “the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. And the Eunuch did not see him again but went on his way rejoicing.”
Here the bible makes no attempt to say that the stranger the Eunuch met was anything other than a human being. Not God, not an angel, but a person. But for the Eunuch you might say Philip occupied the same role as an angel, in many similar encounters people might experience, religious or non-religious, in the past, or right up to the present day.
I think all the modern day angel encounters I describe in this series are and will be ones where the people experiencing the encounter went on their way rejoicing. The same happened in the story of the road to Emmaus. In that story the stranger turned out to be the resurrected Jesus.
Many of these encounters are powerful in direct proportion to their brevity.
What makes them special, even divine, is the element of grace.
Human beings tend to need a motivation to do things, and they tend to expect something for it: some kind of reward. Gratitude, a response, some kind of material or emotional or psychological payback for the action.
God-incidences and divine or supernatural or angelic encounters are characterised by grace. They just happen. The stranger offering the help requires nothing. If the recipient of their help offers thanks, that is somehow a separate issue. They appear and disappear.
God can use a choice word, a routine appointment, or a brief conversation to change a life
In this series I describe a number of occasions where somebody today, in our contemporary world, believed they experienced a supernatural event, an angelic encounter, or a God-incident…. And in every case they went on their way rejoicing.
I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:
In the days before we all had mobile phones and satnavs, I drove north along the M40, heading home to Warwick, having visited my elderly father near Sevenoaks in Kent.
Dusk had fallen. I looked at my petrol gauge; the marker hovered on red.
I had no hope of reaching the next services before running out of petrol. I visualised an overnight vigil on the hard shoulder.
In a panic I turned off the M40 just before Oxford. I reached a hotel, pulled into the car park and went into reception to ask for directions to the nearest filling station. Memorising the instructions, I headed away again, praying I’d arrive before it was too late.
On a dark road I realised I was lost; and then the petrol ran out. I now know what it feels like for your car to quietly die on you, and whisper to a halt.
I sat there in the silence for minutes I feared would turn into hours, my mind numb, but dimly realising the futility of getting out and walking off in the dark to find a non-existent filling station. I had turned off my lights. I was afraid to attract attention.
Headlights swam into my vision; a car approached and stopped. I feared the worst.
A young couple emerged from the car. No threat, no judgement, just sympathy. They listened to my story, gave me a lift to the nearest filling station to buy petrol, returned me to my car, so I could replenish the tank, then waited to see me safely off on my journey. I must have thanked them several times over.
Throughout the whole incident they were gentle, gracious, wholly accepting and totally non-judgemental. No “shame you didn’t check your gauge before getting onto the motorway” or “bet you won’t let yourself run out of petrol again after this.”
As I drove away, I noticed their car was a Mercedes Benz.
Ever since then, whenever I remember that young couple who helped me, I think of them as angels.
What do you think? Angels? Or “just” nice people? (And should there be a “just” in there?)
And by the way, I have also never run out of petrol again.
I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:
Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I am currently finding inspiration from artist Grayson Perry as he showcases “Covid-19 lockdown art” in his TV show “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4.
Grayson makes use of our contemporary culture which he transforms into art – tapestries, lithographs, glazed vases. One of my favourite items in a Grayson Perry exhibition in London was his “career advancement vase” upon which he had painted lots of different cliché words and phrases job seeker use on CVs. These words are so evocative. They carry within them all sorts of pretensions, eagerness to impress, compulsion to present a false picture of oneself to the world.
In Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones’ book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, co-author Wendy Jones writes: “During the interviews Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a mediaeval minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing – I hadn’t come across that before and I doubt I shall see it often again.”
This capacity to morph strikes a chord in me as I watch Grayson’s Art Club, listen to his raucous laugh, and observe the change in his hairstyle between scenes. I also find myself imagining him as a young girl, in one of his many other personnas, I love the idea of a “fluid and flexible ego”, something I believe Grayson Perry has; and I used this idea myself in my novel “Mystical Circles” where it is eventually understood as part of the shapeshifting gifts of a shaman. Wendy Jones’ description was fascinating to me as I have known of those who morph in this fashion and have witnessed it myself and worked it into my own fiction.
Grayson Perry suggests that we “sit lightly to our beliefs”, and “let go of a compulsion to seek meaning – we will enjoy life in this world much more.” His art bears this out; everything is referred back to his childhood teddy Alan Measles, his “guiding spirit”; everything is set against that barometer of his childlike perceptions, even to the extent of dressing as a little girl.
Grayson Perry has important things to say, strong challenges to make to me. I cannot ignore these challenges as a creative writer.
During the Covid19 lockdown, the Society of Authors are presenting a number of webinars with notable authors, and the other day I attended “Afternoon Tea with Philip Pullman”.
I was keen to hear from the author of a fantasy trilogy that captivated me, “His Dark Materials“. 500 of us attended, all waiting with drinks and snacks to hear what the President of the Society of Authors might have to say to us from his Oxford study. When he came on, he showed us his working space; untidy, spilling over with miscellaneous items such as his jacket slung over an open box of labels, files and paper and books. I was greatly encouraged to see this; no compulsion to tidy up his workspace there!
He was asked what the Society of Authors means to him, and he said, “It simply means that I am part of a body of people who have experienced some of the disappointments and hopes and occasional successes that I have.“
On his wall is a giant map of the world and it seems this is a major inspiration for him. He says he doesn’t plan his novels. As he starts his thoughts might be as vague as, “I think she should go north” or “It would be rather nice if she went to Central Asia.”
He loves maps, and for one of his earlier novels, “The Ruby and the Smoke” (another novel I love) he sourced ordnance survey maps of London in 1872.
I myself have a giant map of Warwickshire which I plan to put up on the wall near my working area. It helped me for my book “Paranormal Warwickshire” (due to be published by Amberley 15 November 2020) and I hope it will be useful for my next book too (more of that later).
Philip Pullman came over as a genial, laidback, engaging schoolmaster-like character – after all, he was an English teacher in an Oxford school for several years – and his approach was helpful and encouraging.
I enjoyed his reply to the question: “Do you have a particular age group in mind as a target audience when you begin to write?”
His answer was:
“No. I don’t. When you write a book you should do what you want to do; ignore everybody’s advice. It’s none of their business. When your book’s out, it becomes democratic. Then, everybody’s totally entitled to think exactly what they want to about the book.”
He told us that, before starting “His Dark Materials”, the concept of the daimons (which may be defined as ‘the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self, that takes the form of an animal’) was in his mind for a while but he had no idea what to do with it.
Then one day he was wandering in the garden and near a rock when he thought, “Children’s daemons change, adult’s daemons don’t.”
“That was the most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced as a storyteller.”
It was (just like the idea about the boy wizard that came to J K Rowling on that train journey), the key to unlock his unconscious – and, for him, all the characters and actions and events of Lyra’s alternative world followed.
There is a powerful lesson for authors here: we must listen to that first instinctive prompt, hold onto it, and follow through, even if other voices try to break in and interrupt it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel it’s wise to seek other people’s opinions on a work-in-progress. Finally, his most practical answer came in reply to the perennial question posed to authors:
“Where do your ideas come from?”
“I don’t know where they come from but I know they come to my desk, and if I’m not there they go away.”