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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

How Many Books Do You Read in a Year?

Recently I thought it would be fun and interesting to ask this question of fellow-writers on our own dedicated Facebook group, having just learned from Goodreads that I’d reviewed or  rated 28 books this year. a-reader

I made a fascinating discovery.  Annual reading achievement varied enormously. I thought I was doing quite well at approximately 30 – and I learned via an online search that a “voracious” reader may get through 30-50 books a year but across the general population it is a very different picture: “According to a YouGov survey, the mean number of books read for pleasure by adults in the UK is around 10 each year, and the median is around 4.”

The answers I received from fellow-writers  took me by surprise: and not least, because I was humbled and impressed by how the majority of these individuals managed to fit in so much reading alongside writing their own books!

“78 – less than two books a week, which doesn’t seem very much at all to me.”

“No more than 5”.

“In 2016 I read 69 – years ago I might read up to 100 a year. One month I notched up 19 books.”

“About 36.”

“About 12.”

“49 and some other started but not finished.”

“Over 100.”

“120 last year – as at 8 January this year I’ve already read 7.”

“55 from the library alone so probably nearer 70 or 80.”

“Going back through my Kindle orders, 54 not including ones I gave up on or old books I re-read.”

“32 according to Goodreads.”

“Between 15 and 30.”

“Probably about 12-15.”

“175 last year and above 150 for each year since 2011 when I started tracking on Goodreads.”

“55.”

I love to read a book which is a totally absorbing page-turner, a book which you can’t wait to get back to. It’s one of life’s greatest joys. I’ve just finished reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and I found it a real struggle to read, it’s so slow-paced and (I think) self-consciously literary. I bought it in Waterstones, attracted by the beautiful cover and the interesting blurb. I was determined to persist with it to the end because I’d spent good money on it but felt cheated of that wonderful “must get back to it as soon as possible” feeling with a good book.
When I mentioned this on Facebook, I liked this response:
Books like that become loo books, read a page or two at a time. A friend sent me a non-
fiction title I’d expressed interest in and I can only stomach it a few pages at a time. I’m only persisting because it was a gift and because there is some useful info amid the dross but it’ll get a scant two stars and the fact that I’m only reviewing as a warning to others taken in by the blurb.”
What do you think? Do you know how many books you read in a year? And what’s your view of “fast” and “slow” readers? Does it matter? and does it impact upon the quality of your response to the story, or your reviews, if you do review books (or discuss them at a book club). I’d love to have your comments!

Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

A Passionate Spirit and The Cult That Stole Children

A couple of years after I left university, whilst on a spiritual search, I went to a lecture at the Royal Overseas League in London, met, chatted to and  became captivated by an inspirational speaker: a Physics professor who wrote spiritual books. His name was Dr Raynor Johnson.

a-pool-of-reflections-by-dr-raynor-johnsonSubsequently I read and loved all his books, beginning with his latest: “A Pool of Reflection”. I later wrote him a letter, to which he responded with a very kind and encouraging reply from his home at Santiniketan, Ferny Creek, Melbourne Australia.

Santiniketan later became notorious as the first premises Raynor Johnson made available for the use of the then beautiful and charismatic  Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the cult leader, and where she gave her spiritual talks, and started to gather her followers.  At the time, of course, I had no knowledge of this.

I wrote about him and about the cult with which his name has now become ineradicably linked in this blog post: The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader. I also used the story of the cult in my novel  A Passionate Spirit (pub. Matador 2015).

This cult is particularly relevant to my interests in writing A Passionate Spirit, because of the way in which the cult leader uses beauty and charisma to win devoted followers, whom she then indoctrinates with her teachings; and the cult preys upon the young and the vulnerable.  In addition the cult won the support of many intellectuals and people occupying high professional positions. It is a case which is of vital fascination to a writer of psychological thrillers and suspense.

Later I was contacted by journalist Chris Johnston, who has published articles about the cult in  The Age, Melbourne and in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wanted to make reference to my experiences, and to quote from my blog post, in a book he was writing about the cult.

You can watch the story of this cult on BBC TV tonight Tuesday 29 November 2016 in a documentary called:  “Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children.” It is being broadcast at 9pm.

M paranormal thriller novel A Passionate Spirit inspired these remarks from a Net Galley reviewer, CE Gray:  “as Natasha and James started to take hold of both the centre, and the people within it, the story picked up pace and for me became a page turner. I needed to know, were there supernatural forces at work? Was Zoe imagining it? Were Natasha and James just fraudsters? Was this a story about a cult?

I was pulled in, hook, line and sinker, picking up my kindle at every opportunity to find out what happened next and the end was not disappointing.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in cults, the supernatural and thrillers in general.

What I especially loved were the author’s notes at the end, talking about her inspirations for the novel, including the Australian cult, The Family, which sent me scurrying off to the google for an hour after I’d finished the book. A great read.

A Passionate Spirit is available to buy online and in bookshops.

A Poet’s View of Life – Shakespeare, the Jesuit Priest and the ex-Archbishop

What did Shakespeare believe?  20161107_092917-1He lived and created his work during a period of religious turmoil; and scholars are left to guess at his true spiritual worldview, despite his association with Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fact that he was baptized and buried there.

And so it was appropriate that Holy Trinity Church, the location of Shakespeare’s grave, should be the venue for the first performance in England of the play Shakeshafte by Rowan Williams which I went to see a few days ago. During the course of the play, a teenage Shakespeare debates with the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and I found this portrayal by the Trinity Players thought-provoking, poignant and inspiring.

The only reason why we think Shakeshafte may be our William Shakespeare is because a young man of that name is referred to as an in-house entertainer in the will of Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1581. And it is known  that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, John Cottam, an ardent Catholic, recommended his pupil Will Shakeshafte and another boy, Fulk Gillom, to Alexander, for employment as tutors in his house and to provide entertainment. Alexander and his family were strong Catholics in Lancashire, a county renowned for being faithful to the “old religion” in a dangerous time of persecution against Catholics (and a county which was to see the infamous Pendle Witch trials in 1612, just 4 years before Shakespeare’s death).

So former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams works with the theory that this young Shakeshafte was indeed our William Shakespeare, during what scholars call one of the two “lost periods” of Shakespeare’s life. And that he met, talked and maybe even argued with Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who returned to England in 1580, spent time undercover at Hoghton Hall, was eventually betrayed, tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581.

Scholars cannot tell what Shakespeare truly believed. Some think he was a closet Catholic and others that he was an atheist. The latter can cite quotes like:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.

And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

and

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

So in this play, the young poet – who is portrayed by actor Louis Osborne as wild, passionate and unruly – and the devout priest, played by Tim Raistrick, come face to face, and swap their views of life. And the poet’s view of life is clearly one that Rowan Williams shares, despite having been Archbishop of Canterbury: he as a poet wants to experience life in all its richness and diversity. He ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, listening to  a variety of voices in his head and heart, unable to reduce them all to just one interpretation of the truth. And the play asks the question: Should we understand the truth as one grand central narrative to be imposed on life, or something that emerges in the dialogue between tradition and experience?(programme note by Anthony Woollard). 

I think that Rowan Williams himself holds that view of life in tension with ‘the grand narrative’ of evangelical Christian belief. And this to me is a beautiful expression of what Shakespeare himself would have believed; a world view with which I too can empathise.  And Shakespeare the poet would have held this view in amongst the dangerous religious turmoil of Elizabethan England, and it would be one that could only be hinted at in his poetry and plays, but never explicitly stated.

Which is probably the reason for the veiled remark to Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 

Book Review: The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

The story of Alice Liddell and the real Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) is one that has inspired so much speculation and analysis since the  creation of Alice in Wonderland in 1862; cover-image-of-looking-glass-house-by-vanessa-taitand here is another book on the subject, The Looking Glass House, this time a novel told by Alice’s great granddaughter Vanessa, which draws on family treasures and stories of the ‘original’ Alice. I found it a convincing picture of a stifled Victorian society with characters suffering from Victorian angst (especially Mrs Liddell and Mary Prickett the governess)  along with a very pert, outspoken Alice and an enigmatic but compelling Mr Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll).

For me, this novel built up a picture of an intense, brilliant young man with a great love for children which never quite tipped over “the edge” (as we would define it today with our 21st century sensibilities), but could easily have done if Victorian restraint had not had such a strong hold on his character. Vanessa Tait’s book depicts the scene in which Mrs Liddell banished Mr Dodgson from the house, thus precipitating the rift between him and the Dean’s family.

Having considered it all I believe that if I had been in Mrs Liddell’s position, I may well have done the same. Alice herself is shown very much as an instigator and provocateur in her relationship with Mr Dodgson. The adult Alice’s silence on the subject throughout the rest of her life is something I could well understand –  as the two Alice books quickly became hugely popular she would have been afraid to tarnish anybody’s vision of the stories by telling the truth about the circumstances in which they were created, which may have been misinterpreted.  Mr Dodgson’s family, too, clearly felt the same, in tearing out of his diary the very pages which cover the time he created the first Alice story.

I was intrigued by the number of Amazon reviewers who gave The Looking Glass House low star ratings and said the book disappointed them, because it was not what they expected. I think they hoped the biographical reality behind it all would fully match up to the enchantment of the stories.  As a writer myself I feel that knowing the biographical reality behind the creation of a story is interesting but in no way defines or encompasses the created story itself. The curious fact is that I identified at different times in the book with Mrs Liddell, Alice, and Mr Dodgson. I admired and enjoyed the pert outspokenness  in Alice which other readers described as brattishness; and felt I could understand Mr Dodgson’s obsessive love for the company of children, and also Mrs Liddell’s fear of allowing the relationship to develop into Alice’s adolescence, and her sudden urge to banish him from the scene.

Above all the book made me feel that as I child I would love to have had a friend like Mr Dodgson because he was the sort of person children love – quirky, entertaining teasing, quixotic, fun, enigmatic.

Fun, Tranquility and Happiness on My Third Visit to Highgrove Garden

Last week I visited HRH the Prince of Wales’ garden at Highgrove for the third time.highgrove-garden-the-thyme-walk

Each time I’ve visited – the first time in pouring rain in August 2015, the second time near the end of the wildflower season in June 2016, and now in October 2016, we’ve been led by a different guide and each has chosen a different slant. On this occasion our guide (a gentleman in his eighties) told us that HRH the Prince of Wales takes his guides round the garden and tells them all the stories and points out the things he wants them to mention to the visitors. Inevitably, however, each individual will have his or her own angle onto the garden.

So this time I was able to notice not only those aspects of the garden this particular guide was focusing on, but those which carried stories told on my previous two visits. One of the tales told by today’s guide (tongue-in-cheek) portrayed the Prince as an unexpected visitor to Highgrove whose favourite occupation, having turned up without prior warning, is to hide behind the hedge and listen in on what visitors say about his garden.  In fact most of the time the visitors are silent with either admiration, delight, puzzlement, bemusement or even, dare I suggest, indignation, when they realise that they are not in the Land of the Immaculate, and that weeds are not treated like public enemy number one in this garden, highgrove-garden-moss-on-stonemoss is allowed to multiply to its fullest extent on stone, and different principles apply, other than those we might expect, perhaps from National Trust gardens, or those associated with Capability Brown.

This time I felt able to say which are most definitely my favourite aspects of the gardens at Highgrove. For those who have visited, this list will be meaningful, but for those who haven’t, then I suggest either reading this book on the subject, or just letting your imagination play with the images the list suggests:

I love the stumpery, and the little gnome that is to be found inside one of the stumps there;highgrove-garden-walk-through-the-stumpery the temple garden, with its two statues to ward off evil spirits, and the network of dry sticks and twigs in the temple pediments, that manage to look like intricate wood carvings;  highgrove-garden-pediments-of-the-temples-in-the-temple-gardenthe goddess of the wood; highgrove-garden-the-temple-garden-with-goddess-of-the-woodthe wall of gifts; the four daughters of Odessa; highgrove-garden-view-of-the-pond-and-gunnerathe pond with redundant stonework and limestone topped by gunnera, the topiary frog and snail.

To me, this is a garden that is playful, quirky, eccentric; a fantasy made real by someone who has the means, the time, patience and heart to achieve it. As I wander through the garden, I can’t help expecting trick fountains – such as those which King Ludwig of Bavaria incorporated into his own garden, in the gardens of his dreamlike palace.

(more…)

Beatles Shine with Passion and Energy in New Documentary “8 Days a Week: the Touring Years”

How young, innocent, and naive they were, aged in their early twenties: cheeky and endearing. As Paul McCartney puts it, “At the beginning it was all very simple. By the end it had become very complicated.”the-beatles-8-days-a-week-poster-bb23-2016-billboard-1240

And in the Beatles new documentary “8 Days a Week: The Touring Years” we saw a transformation rather similar to the one which we witnessed in Diana, Princess of Wales – a transition from youth and innocence to another state of being harder, more cynical and worldly-wise, more knowing and more guarded, more self-protective. It is an inevitable transition in many ways, one we all make, and yet we never see our own transition writ large upon the screen, projected before the public gaze, as with those who become famous.

In this respect it is their story, but our story too. There were many moments when the whole cinema audience burst out laughing at John’s humour. There was a wonderful little scene when John told a US reporter that his name was Eric, and the reporter took him seriously, and then kept calling him Eric, and John said, “No, John” and the reporter said, “I thought you were Eric,” and John said to him in a low voice, “I was joking”, as if he’d finally taken pity on the reporter.

The one thing that shines out of the new Beatles documentary 8 Days a Week is the fact that with the creative partnership that was the Beatles, we didn’t get just 100% passion and energy; instead, we got 400%. Their love of what they were doing was paramount; at the beginning they were just a “great little band who loved writing songs and playing music, and having a laugh.” The documentary was inspirational, joyous, funny, moving, thought-provoking, emotional, touching, heart-warming.

There are so many different wonderful things about this documentary. As a former Beatles fan myself (who was never, alas, allowed to go to a live Beatles concert, and so was never one of those screaming fans), I watched it with a big smile on my face, laughing often, delighted in being reminded how funny John was, touched by the poignant moments, and the way each corroborated the others in superbly-cut-in interviews which were recorded individually and at different times. George’s interview was particularly moving; there was so much depth to him.  He made the most thought-provoking remark when he said, “We were torn out of our youth, and force-grown like rhubarb.”

The other thing that struck me was how vulnerable they were at their live concerts – no effective protection at all.  At the end of the concert at Shea Stadium they ran to a limo and sped off. But if they’d had to run from the stage to the dressing room area, they would have been torn to pieces by fans breaking through the barriers, and being chased by fleet-footed policemen (who must have got the most exercise in their career, being on guard at a Beatles concert).

As we watched the footage of the Shea Stadium concert, digitally remastered, so we could hear the music the Beatles made (which they never heard at the time, as the music was drowned out by the screams), we saw many wonderful cameos of audience behaviour.  There were girl screaming in hysterics, overwhelmed by emotion, to a point where they seemed to be in distress; others screaming just as loud, but in ecstacy; every so often there was an indifferent looking male, standing there  with immobile face in the midst of mass fervour ; other men just smiling quietly; there was a mother handing out tissues to her overwhelmed daughters; girls just listening with smiles of joy on their faces; others gazing in rapture, in a state of absolute bliss. And standing at the side, quiet, restrained, appraising, watchful: Brian Epstein, of whom Paul said, “The thing about Brian was – he was Class. Liverpool Class. That was what Brian was. Well-spoken, well dressed.”

And in the middle of this, John’s humour into the microphone: “oooh, look at her.” And Paul’s charm, ever-present then, exactly as it is now 50 years later, when he performs to mass audiences: “I want everybody over there, and everybody over there – yes, you, all of you, and all of you over there, to clap along.”  When we saw him at Cardiff Millennium Stadium a few years ago, he said, “How are you all getting along up there at the back?”

And the fabulous cheeky, innocent humour at press conferences. When the boys were asked, “Why do you think you are so popular and successful?” John replied, “we really haven’t got the slightest idea. If we knew, we’d start another group, and become managers.”

And then there was the bizarre period when John caused an international incident by saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. At the press conference where he knew he would have to apologise, we listened to what he said, and had that terrible feeling that John was trying to dig himself out of a hole by digging himself further into it. As Paul said, “You could tell he wanted to finish with a joke but knew he couldn’t… we were all scared, and we all knew it was very serious. We had all been bought up with a religious background.”

When the boys were asked to account for their fans’ reaction to them, and the screaming, they appeared bemused. They observed that the screams grew louder when they shook their heads. In fact, body language was how Ringo managed to know whereabouts in a song they were, in the huge concerts: he couldn’t hear the music at all. He said, “I watched Paul’s arse, and John’s arse, and when they shook their heads and when they tapped their feet,” and that was how I worked out whereabouts in the song we were.” And astonishingly, when listening to the digitally remastered recording, we can see that despite not being able to hear each other, they were all in tune, and together. Paul observed how instinctive they were with each other, musically, because of their close relationships, and the fact that they knew each other so well. They were good at what they did he said, simply because they did it so much.

There was such a poignant contrast between the first concerts the Beatles did, and the concert at Shea Stadium, and the very last public performance ever on the rooftop of the Apple offices in Savile Row.  As people gathered in the street down below and watched, curious, bemused, and silent, it was sobering to reflect that they had no idea they were witnessing the very last pubic performance ever, of what history would judge to be the best pop group ever, and the most astonishing social phenomenon of the twentieth century. What a huge historical moment that was – and all were unconscious of it at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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