Thursday, 30 June 2011

"Though it's galeforce, let's steer a course for sanity"

This is Edwin.  He’s fine now, but he wasn’t a couple of months ago.  He was larking about with his brother at the top of the stairs one night, when he fell through to the hall and broke the neck of his femur.
Hebe found him and called us – poor little thing, lying quietly against the wall looking confused, his leg useless.  We picked him up and took him to the vet who x-rayed him and gave him painkillers.  In the morning we collected him and took him to our own vet, who operated on him.  We had to confine him to the house for a while – just one room for the first week or two, while he gradually recuperated.  You would hardly know there was anything wrong with him now – he’s just not quite such an aerial cat as he used to be.

Yesterday I’d almost completed my grocery shopping, and had two big baskets of fruit and salad things and bread, when a container of herby olives slid out of the basket and split open on the floor of the shop, spilling olives everywhere.  Just nearby one of the store staff stood sorting out shelves.  She laughed uproariously.  “You didn’t want that to happen, did you!” she said: “Never mind, leave that to me, I’ll clear that up; just get another one.”  What a nice lady.

When I got home with the shopping, I had a quick bite of lunch, then it was time to head off out to a bereavement call for a funeral.  At the home of the deceased person I found his wife and her sister.  Together, they had cared for him at home, supporting and helping and nursing, organising the medical and care support that he needed, keeping him company, talking to him, sitting with him – right to the end.  And now, his widow had her sister there with her, loving and comforting her as she faced the loss of her husband after more than forty years of marriage.

If we help each other – like we helped Edwin, like the store assistant helped me, like that bereaved lady helped her husband and her sister in turn helped her – problems don’t diminish, but they are shared and they become manageable.

I have met no end of people who say they cannot believe in God because of all the world’s problems; but I think most of those problems would not prove a challenge to faith if we helped each other.

The last couple of days, while I’ve been running round the Wii-Fit island, I’ve helped my pace stay steady listening to our Alice’s Fisherman’s Friends album of songs about the sea.  Some of the lyrics are about the transports to Australia – grim voyages.  The songs say things like ‘I wished I could die’ or ‘It made you wish you’d never been born’.  It struck me, as I padded along on our carpet, that these terrible emotions belonged to situations of human heartlessness and cruelty.  It’s not disease, accident or natural disaster that make people wish they’d never been born, but imprisonment, torture, terror, oppression and sadism.   We are designed to cope with even awful illnesses and accidents if others are alongside helping us.  Our Hebe likes to watch the emergency services programmes on the TV; I sat with her one day watching as a rescue team gently and carefully freed from a wrecked car the three injured passengers trapped there.  Obviously the crash victims were not having fun but, with reassurance, pain relief and help, they knew themselves to be in good hands: it was bad, but it was OK.

My husband Bernard died of the most awful illness, and he was certainly scared and in extremis at various points.  But as he approached death, his pain now controlled and with us taking care of him at home, praying for him and loving him, he ceased to be afraid.  His fear gave way to gratitude, faith and peace; and that was how he died.  Such deaths do not stop people believing in God.

What destroys faith is the atrocities people are capable of.  The Bible-believing Christians with hate on their faces waving placards saying “God hates faggots”, for example.   Or the US backed Latin American dictators mowing down the protestors on the steps of the cathedral at El Savador so that their bodies flipped like fish as they fell in their droves.  Or the people of Bhopal* left with a legacy of pervasive sickness when the Western owners of the poisonous chemical plant walked away and never came back to finish clearing up the mess they’d left. 

Or even the small everyday things.  The mother I saw out with her children in Silverhill last week, barking out instructions at them, her face hard and cruel.  One of her children, a little girl maybe three years old, walking alongside the pushchair with the baby in it, crying as she walked.  Her little boy, maybe six years old, who started to cross the road (it was clear of traffic) before he was given the command, roared and screamed at, stopping with fear on his face and hastening back to his place in the terrible procession.

When people see these things, their faith in God dies.  It is poisoned at the root.

To nurture faith, to raise it to life again, we do not need a different world, one with no volcanoes, no diseases, no calamities.  Tears and sorrows are natural, they do not disturb faith.  All we need is to switch the points from hating to helping, from condemnation to kindness.

On that Fisherman’s Friends CD, in the song No-Hopers Jokers and Rogues, there’s a line: “Though it’s gale-force, let’s steer a course for sanity.”  That’s what I mean.

*The video on Bhopal I link to above and here is a good example of the devastation that human indifference and irresponsibility can bring, and the reversal and healing that comes when human brothers and sisters come alongside to help and rescue.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The end of the day

That's our Edwin, falling asleep  :0)

Excuse me if this all seems a bit insular.  It’s late and it’s just what I’m thinking about.

Today our Hebe has been working on a Calvary in the grounds of a church on the hill that goes down to the sea (here's another work of art at the same church).
The monument is made of granite, and has a crucifix on top.  The stone has got cracked and everything is dirty and sad-looking, the lettering hard to see and shabby.  Jesus has been knocked off His cross by a seagull and lost His head on the way. 
Gary from the masonry has pressure-washed the cross and monument, and re-pointed it, making good all the gaps and cracks.  Jesus is going to have His head fixed back onto His body and be fastened back onto His cross (er… I guess that’s good…).  Hebe is re-painting the lettering, a slow careful process that has to be done lying on the ground and using a No 1 paintbrush, very painstaking.

I feel very proud of the work of artists and craftsmen.  People who sneer at the church and also at the royal family, saying they cost way too much money and that all the money should be given to the poor for food and the necessities of life, often don’t realise that the church and the royal family keep legions of poor artists in work, fostering the development of excellence and allowing craftsmen to live vocationally.  A lady came to take a photo of Hebe painting the lettering on the monument, so that the church people who have put up the funds can see where their money goes – and realise that it’s not just paint slapped on over a stencil but is a slow, skilled job for a real artisan.  I feel proud of Hebe, that her letter-cutting and calligraphy are fine and lovely to the eye.

At lunchtime, I went to a concert in one of the churches in Hastings town centre.  It’s a beautiful Anglo-Catholic church with statues and an intricately carved wooden rood screen and wonderful murals.  Every Wednesday they have a lunchtime concert to raise funds for the ongoing work on the fabric of the church.  Today Bones 4 U came to play for us, four young trombonists, all undergraduates at the Royal College of Music.  They were brilliant!  I felt so proud of their achievement.  They played this trombone arrangement of the William Tell Overture.  Fab!
Travelling down from London to play in Hastings, they encountered every possible kind of setback. Their tube train broke down in the London Underground, their train got delayed by a vehicle hitting a bridge; so, when they reached Tunbridge Wells in a last desperate attempt to make it to Holy Trinity in time for the concert, they leapt into a cab and drove hell-for-leather down the A21.  The hour arrived for the concert to begin, and the organisers received a text to say the trombonists were at that moment only a couple of miles away, driving along Bohemia, and would be with us any minute.  So while we waited, five members of the audience kept us entertained, singing and playing Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.  I felt so proud of Hastings that, in all its shambolic poverty, it is still the kind of place where an average lunchtime audience on a normal midweek afternoon can, with no notice at all, produce a group to sing in beautiful four-part harmony, with a note-perfect piano accompaniment.

Then, at the end of the day, the Badger being on holiday, he cooked supper so I watered the garden.  Outside among the flowers and trees and vegetables, looking at the paradise we have made in really quite a short time, watering the courgettes and peas, strawberries and raspberries we have already had many meals from, and the beans and onions that are almost ready now, I felt so proud of my husband for all the hard work digging and fertilising and weeding and sowing – and for the work he has put in all this day in his workshop, making a cabinet to store all the pieces of glass for the stained glass windows our Alice makes.

Well done, family… well done, Hastings… what are those words from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata? “…let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals… With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”

And so it is.  Thank you, Lord, for your good and faithful servants.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

To set the record straight

This week on Facebook I have in more than place come across a sister of the faith making an assertion that I feel needs correcting: that the NIV translation of the Bible was edited by Virginia Mollenkott who, because of her liberal feminist views and lesbian orientation, has caused the NIV translation to incorrectly represent the meaning of the text.

This lady is calling Virginia Mollenkott a ‘liberal sodomite feminist’, and saying she has taken out of the NIV the references to sodomy found in the King James version of the Bible, thus perverting the translation away from the interests of accuracy. 

My concern today is not to challenge anyone’s personal morality – neither Virginia Mollenkott’s nor my friend's on Facebook.  Both these ladies are Christian, and their morality and the expression of it is between them and their Lord, it is not mine to criticise or judge - so my Bible tells me.  I do have strong moral views about sexual relationships, and I believe that the right place for me to express those views is in my own life and behaviour.  I believe in the necessity of challenging or preventing sexual activity that is oppressive or abusive – rape, sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults, that kind of thing – and it makes no odds to me whether that abuse is gay or straight.  But I do not see gossip in a public place about the private and intimate personal relationships of others as appropriate conduct for a Christian woman.

But I am writing to correct two misconceptions/inaccuracies being spread by this gossip.

The first is the description of Virginia Mollenkott as a sodomite.  If she is indeed lesbian, then it is overwhelmingly unlikely that she is a sodomite.  Sodomy is a sexual act involving anal penetration, usually between two men, sometimes perpetrated by a man upon an animal.   I have no personal experience of lesbian sex, but I should be acutely surprised to discover that it involved such an act.

The second inaccuracy is the suggestion that Virginia Mollenkott is personally responsible for the editing of the NIV.  Here is a quotation from its preface:

“The translation of each book was assigned to a team of scholars.  Next, one of the Intermediate Editorial Committees revised the initial translation, with constant reference to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek.  Their work then went to one of the General Editorial Committees, which checked it in detail and made another thorough revision.  This revision in turn was carefully reviewed by the Committee on Bible Translation, which made further changes and then released the final version for publication.   In this way the entire Bible underwent three revisions, during each of which the translation was examined for its faithfulness to the original languages and for its original style.  All this involved many thousands of hours of research and discussion concerning the meaning of the texts and the precise way of putting them into English.  It may well be that no other translation has been made by a more thorough process of review and revision from committee to committee than this one.”

My husband (who, you will be relieved to hear, does not participate in anal sex) was heavily involved in the production of the UK edition of the NIV, and tells me that the process is accurately described in the preface, the translation being the product of editorial input from hundreds of scholars – not the work of one woman.

Could it be that this thorough, careful and accurate translation of the Bible resulted in a text that has disappointed some of the cherished and hardened prejudices of some of the faithful?  Even if that is not so, and even if the word sodomy had been introduced to every other page, it still would offer no comment on the lifestyle of Virginia Mollenkott as a lesbian – though a few heterosexual men looking virtuous at the side of their wives on a Sunday morning might have cause to be feeling a little shifty.  We would never know, would we?

The preface to the NIV ends:
"We offer this version of the Bible to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made.  We pray that it will lead many into a better understanding of the Holy Scriptures and a fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ the incarnate Word, of whom the Scriptures so faithfully testify."
To that I say, "Amen!" 

Monday, 27 June 2011

Kind Men and Time Passing

Yesterday I went to church three times.

In the evening, I went to St Peters, Bexhill, because I had stumbled on the news that they have choral evensong from the Book of Common Prayer every Sunday.  I love evensong, and I am a total Thomas Cranmer junkie, so this was a real hang-out-the-flags discovery for me.  One by one all the churches round about have dropped off their evening worship – this was the only church I could find that opened its doors on a Sunday evening at all.  My discovery happily coincided with their patronal festival (ie Petertide), in celebration of which (joy upon joy) they were singing Parry’s I was glad.  I went along braced to be disappointed (natural pessimist), and was not.  It felt quite extraordinary, a real Tardis journey, as I found myself transported back forty years to what ‘church’, when I was a teenager, meant.  Such a beautiful and happy experience, and for sure I will go again often.    

Earlier in the day I went with my daughters Grace and Alice and the Wretched Wretch to worship at Pett Methodist Chapel, the loving and creative little fellowship out in the English countryside where Grace and the Wretched Wretch worship every Sunday.  This chapel is very special for our family.  My second marriage, to Bernard, was consecrated there by the then minister the Revd Derek Brice – scholarly, gentle, wise, funny, kind and much loved.  A cross of Bernard’s making hangs on the wall (he was an artist blacksmith), expressing the holy Trinity at the heart of creation and the cross that stands while the earth turns.  The east window was designed and made by my daughter Alice.  Pett was the chapel that welcomed us, nurtured us and loved us when our lives fell apart.  And I was for a while their pastor.  So our roots grow deep there, and I love to worship with them.

Pett Chapel – especially last Sunday when Derek Brice, now retired, was the visiting preacher – is a place of kind men. 

Keith Miller, their organist, manages the website, puts together the worship power-point, writes hymns and blesses the church family with the unfailing generosity of his love and his smile.  He is the kind of man who picks up the fallen and notices the ones who have been left out and forgotten.  A peaceable spirit, he is able without confrontation to work for what is good regardless of any adversity, and to stand up for and support the Kingdom things that should be happening even if they fall into disfavour or simply drop off the agenda.

Ken Hatch, with Wendy his wife, came to the rescue of Pett chapel back in the days when its congregation had dwindled away to almost nothing and closure began to look inevitable.  Against every kind of discouragement they have kept going, keeping the flame of witness alive in the heart of that village.  When the villagers couldn’t be bothered to bring their children, Wendy went to the school instead – there ‘Sunday School’ became ‘Tuesday Club’, so the children could still learn about Jesus and His Gospel of love. 
Ken has been a much appreciated friend to our family.  He visited Bernard in hospital and at home when Bernard was dying – and Pett chapel was the only church Bernard ever felt really at home.  Ken drives the fourteen mile round trip every Sunday to pick Grace and the Wretched Wretch up for chapel and then does it all over again to take them home.  Ken was waiting on the first Sunday the Wretched Wretch came to chapel as a tiny baby, the first to take him in his arms and welcome him.  On the Sundays we make it up there to worship, Ken’s quiet and loving welcome is assured.

And this last Sunday, as the time came for worship to begin and the the preacher (Derek Brice) walked from the back room, where preparatory prayers had been said with the steward, up to the front of the sanctuary, his route took him past me standing with the Wretched Wretch in my arms pointing out Jesus in the picture hanging up on the wall.  And Derek paused as he went by, put his hands on my shoulders to give them a little squeeze, saying ‘It’s so good to see you here’.  To explain why this was so very special and so very kind, perhaps I can go so far as to hint that sometimes, since the devastation that befell our family and my eventual withdrawal from ministry as everything within me unravelled, most Methodist ministers have been lukewarm at best in the proffering of fellowship.   But not Derek – because he remembers whose minister he is.

And when we came to the sharing of bread and ‘wine’ in the eucharist, not only did he understand that the Wretched Wretch would appreciate being permitted to join in the sharing of the bread, but he had the imagination to let him choose which bit of bread he would like to take from the plate.  Saint Derek.  God bless him!  By such means is the love of a grandmother permanently won.

Before that, I went to the 8.00am eucharist at our own parish, St Johns.  Our rector there, Andrew Perry, is one of the kindest human beings I have ever met.  When he greets his congregation one by one as they leave the church, they take his hand and hold on to it as if they would never let it go.  His attention fully on them, he really listens, really looks at them.  As if each one were the only person in the world.  He preaches a Gospel of forgiveness, inclusion and grace.  He is Christ’s man.

So I have good memories of yesterday – it is this kindness that arises like incense into the nostrils of a God of love.  Nostrils.  God.  What do you think?  REALLY big?  Hair growing from them?  I bet there is.

And then today, the promised heat wave that showed up on cue yesterday is still with us.
Time is so very precious, it is our treasure, our wealth.

I know the months of dark and cold will be here all too soon – and not without their own austere beauty, too.  So, while the sun shines, I will sit in the garden and walk by the sea, open the window for the sea breezes to lift the curtain and waft in the freshness of the garden.

I watch the old people making their way to the post office or the grocery store, bent and slow and feeble.  While I am strong and can walk swiftly, while my joints are smooth and easy and my muscles and balance are good, let me run and dance and walk and work in the garden.

I listen to the Wretched Wretch’s first adorable beginnings of putting sentences together, hear him call with such joy, “Hello Mumble!!!” when he sees me coming or hears my voice.  While these fleeting days are here, for they will be gone before we know it, let me take time to hold him, listen to him, play with him, love him.

I see the gut-wrenching warnings of climate change and environmental degradation, I watch as the forests and the beautiful bays of the sea are sold to the highest bidder, so that concrete can cover everything until we fry in our own stupidity.  While there is sunshine and rain, while green steals over the dun landscape at the coming of spring, while stately trees shade our summer gardens, let me love this beautiful England, and drink deep of the sweetness of the living earth.

I count the friends and family members who have passed on, the sands of time run out for them, no more than a memory now.  And I wonder about Heaven.  What is Heaven like?  I don’t know.  You don’t know either, not even if you think you do.  But whatever are the glories of Heaven, lit by the fair beauty of the Lord, while there is time let me gaze on the dappling of light and shade in the greenwood, marvel at the fragility of the speedwell flower and the flavour of wholewheat bread and the fragrance of oranges and of woodsmoke and the cool pure breath of the rose.

For kind men, and for the time You have given me here on earth, Oh, I thank You, Lord.

Friday, 10 June 2011

A Gem of a Yarn - a publisher describes the development of a Christian fiction list

Tony Collins of Monarch Books is creating a Christian fiction list, despite the discouraging history of Christian fiction in the UK (Monarch's website is here and Facebook page here).  Here’s his progress to date, as described in his article "A Gem of a Yarn", originally written for the magazine of the Association of Christian writers, whose website homepage is here and magazine page here.

For many years I have been convinced that well-conceived and well-executed Christian fiction has a part to play, not only in entertaining the faithful but in creating an imaginative and spiritual milieu in which our faith can take its natural place.  Christian truth is real – true truth – and should enrich every part of life, the arts included. 

Yet the British Christian community, generally, has been lukewarm.  Bookshops are leery, because customers are thin on the ground. British believers tend to the mainstream in choice of entertainment. Not an easy context in which to pioneer new Christian fiction.

Nevertheless, over the years Monarch has had some successes – This Present Darkness, Redeeming Love (both bought from American houses). We have also had our full share of failures, and for some years abandoned the enterprise.

In 2006 we cautiously decided to have another go.  Lion Hudson (our parent company) had taken on UK distribution of the Baker list, and this gave our sales team experience in selling fiction. We agreed to focus on just two areas, crime and romance.  Bonnet fiction and prairie romances were really too American; science fiction and thrillers would be more limited in appeal; ‘literary’ fiction too specialised. Crime and romance both afford admirable scope for tension, awkward moral choices, personal growth, real darkness and authentic light.

We also resolved to seek only novels that would appeal to world markets. Success in the US was critical to the venture.  But what could we bring to the party, faced with the might of Baker, Tyndale, Zondervan, Harvest House and David C Cook?  We couldn’t buy the big names, so we had to start from scratch.  We told several agents that there was a new kid on the block, and started looking.

A friend in the States, who taught a writing course, recommended that I review the first novel by a pupil of his, a retired history teacher, Mel Starr. Mel had visited Britain – specifically, the village of Bampton near Oxford – after he had quit work, and there had discovered the novels of the delightful Ellis Peters, creator of the Cadfael series.  Mel had simultaneously fallen under Bampton’s medieval spell, and had devised a whodunit, The Unquiet Bones, set in the Bampton of Chaucer’s England and featuring a young surgeon, Hugh de Singleton.  Master Hugh was called upon to identify the former owner of some bones found in the castle cesspit.  It was a good story, blending skulduggery, murky motivations and a helping of honest reverence.  But a first novel, by an unknown American? We gulped, shut our eyes and signed.

Sometimes the angels are with us. The third chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, A Trail of Ink, appeared last autumn, and the fourth, Unhallowed Ground, is released in October.  A fifth is in view. UK sales are respectable and American sales quite gratifying.  Several translations are in progress.

Mel has got important basics right: a really good storyline, an attractive central character, a tinge of humour,  a strong sense of place and period, an eye for compelling  detail - medieval medicine is not for the queasy.  There are knotty moral dilemmas, and an abiding awareness of the spiritual.

So far we have published a dozen or more novels. About half have met or exceeded our commercial criteria, and only one or two have flopped utterly. We are quite pleased with this strike rate, and have decided to increase output.

If there were a formula we could all follow it and get rich.  In the absence of a silver bullet, here are some reflections on what can work:

  • -         It’s Christian fiction.  There needs to be some element of a spiritual journey, of spiritual growth and challenge. Not dragged in, but integral.
  • -         It’s Christian fiction. Graphic ugly detail, sex scenes, bad language, casual New Age thinking will all get you barred.
  • -         It’s fiction. It requires character, plot, ideas, fresh crisp writing, accurate detail, an agreeable authorial voice. Get these right.
  • -         It’s entertainment. Command the reader’s attention and don’t let go.
  • -         Good fiction informs. Write about what you know.
  • -         It’s an immersive experience, and many fiction readers consume at a gallop.  One-off novels are less likely to succeed than series, where you have space to develop and befriend characters.

A plug to finish. A recent discovery has been Martha Ockley, whose novel The Reluctant Detective features policewoman-turned-priest Faith Morgan.  It’s an excellent book.  Buy it. There’s a sequel in the wings.

Find and download Monarch's catalogue online here.
Monarch Books is an imprint of Lion Hudson, who can be found online here.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

"The Perfect Proposal" - heads-up for wanna-be writers

The one and only Tony Collins of Monarch Books (an imprint of Lion Hudson) has given his permission for me to post here two articles he has written to help writers find their way through to seeing their work published. Tony (if his face looks familiar to readers of this blog, the name 'Badger' may jog your memory) is an experienced and respected figure in the world of Christian publishing.  Back in the last century, at the end of  the 1980s, I first met him when he invited me to speak about my first novel at the Kingsway trade sales meeting - Monarch was in those days the imprint that Tony had developed at Kingsway publishing house, and my first novel was an unsolicited manuscript that a friend working at Kingsway put on Tony's desk.  He read it, loved it, and accepted it.  We first met in person at that trade sales meeting.

Over the years Tony has published (and edited) several books for me.  Five years ago this September we got married.  Though we have continued to work together professionally, my fiction is nowadays published by Crossway, a US publishing house whose books are distributed in the UK by IVP.

The only thing I don't like about being married to Tony is that is has necessitated a greater distance between us professionally, and I have never come across so fine an editor. 

This guest article by Tony was originally written for the magazine of The Association of Christian Writers.  Find them on Facebook here 

                          THE PERFECT PROPOSAL

I love books, and have been publishing them for over 30 years.  A particular joy is to discover new authors.

Yet I turn down most of the proposals I receive.  My equivalents at other publishing houses do the same. Why?

I received a submission when a rookie editor at Hodders.  The author, a kind lady, knew that Anglican ordinands need a healthy devotional life. Accordingly she had written a 300-page collection of thoughts and prayers for this highly specific readership. There were at most a thousand or so ordinands each year in Britain: not a bustling marketplace, yet this lady had spent years on her project. Every week I receive enthusiastic proposals which are equally heartbreaking.

Many readers will be impatient with the basics, but they are so often ignored that they bear repetition.  You are planning a Really Good Book.  Ask yourself:
  • What is your subject? (Where would you find it in a shop? If it is fiction, what is the genre?)
  • What is the function of your book?  (Is it designed to resource, to teach, to entertain, to encourage, to provoke? Is it necessary, restorative, corrective or fun? What is its point?)
  • Which readers do you have in mind? (Be specific: ‘adult Christian’ does not help much – ‘adult Christian leaders in evangelical and charismatic churches, particularly in tough urban settings’ is more useful).
  • Who are you? (Why should a reader pay attention to your words? Do you know your subject? What qualifications do you have?  What position do you hold? What networks do you belong to? Do you have a speaking profile?)
  • What are the main alternatives? (Indicate why yours differs. What is original about your book? How is it superior?)
  • Would your book fit our list?  (Which section? Have you approached the right publisher, the right imprint?)
  • How would you support the marketing of your book? (Budgets are always tight, and paid advertising is frequently ignored.   How could you help our marketing team to get your book into the public eye?)
  • Who could endorse your book? 

It is possible to tick all of the above, and still fail to catch the attention of a busy editor.  Publishing is quite an individual business, and editors vary.  
For myself, I am looking for energy, focus, courtesy and spiritual authenticity.

Energy – is the reader compelled to turn the page?  Is the writing spare, articulate, stimulating to read?  Are the ideas crisp?  

Focus – Has the author got a grip on both subject and readership?  What they are trying to achieve?  Could they write a mission statement for their book? If fiction, has the author done their research?

Courtesy – You, the author, are a guest in your reader’s brain.  Imagine yourself seated at your host’s supper table, and set out to entertain, to charm, to inform, to be agreeable.  Remember that your ‘host’ need not invite you back, nor finish your book, nor recommend you to friends.

Spiritual authenticity – this is the hardest quality to discern, but probably the most important.  I pray daily for the wisdom to spot true gold, and it is never easy, since I am as spiritually myopic as most. Whatever the genre, I am looking for that particular quality that tells me: here is a book by a man or woman who walks in the company of the Almighty.

There is one further constraint. Publishing, when it works, is a joy. But authors and publishers of Christian books must always be able to answer the question: would your book not be a greater tribute to the Creator if left as a tree?

Tony Collins is publisher of Monarch Books, an imprint of Lion Hudson plc,  Find Monarch on Facebook here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

For Thou art with me

There’s a contentious programme coming up on UK BBC TV, about assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Our Alice was telling me about it this morning – she’d been reading about it online.  Apparently views are expressed to the effect that it adds to a person’s suffering to oblige them to go all the way to Switzerland for assisted suicide, putting them in a position where they have to make the journey at an earlier stage of illness than they would really have liked, as late enough to die would be too late to travel.  She said that the article she had read made mention of a lethal dose, said to be available in the US, that a patient could have on hand in case of need, and that views had been expressed in favour of such a thing being available in the UK.

I have quite a bit of first-hand experience of death and dying . . . er . . . well – technically, second-hand, I guess, but you know what I mean!  I was for several years a hospice chaplain and I’ve worked as a care assistant in a palliative care unit for terminally ill people.  I’ve pastored congregations with many elderly members, and am familiar with the struggles of their journeys, and sat at their bedsides as they made their Great Journey out of this physical realm.  I nursed my husband at home to the end of his life, still continuing to share the same bed with him, administering his medicines, caring for his tracheostomy paraphernalia and all his needs, and staying right there beside him up to the end.  So death is quite familiar to me, and I would like to make some observations about this TV programme to add into the mix of your thoughts if you plan to watch it.

When I was a younger woman – in my twenties and thirties – I was in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia.  I no longer am.  I am not in favour either of excessive intervention to prolong life.  I am in favour of good palliative care, informed and educated pain management, and good social care for families who may be put under serious financial strain by taking time and energy to support a dying person.

With regard to assisted suicide and euthanasia in Great Britain, I do believe that once this genie is out of the bottle it won’t go back, and I think that many people who are vociferous in expressing their opinions are clearly unaware of the opportunities that exist at the present time.  You don’t need to go to Switzerland.  My husband died of a particularly cruel and horrific illness – he described himself at one point as feeling like a man trapped in a maze with a pack of mad dogs after him. When my husband was dying, he had a number of medical attendants in two different hospitals, so I want to make it clear that you will not be able to establish an identity from what I am about to say.  One of his doctors, in the last weeks of his life, said to me very seriously that the prescription medications we had at home (a quantity of diamorphine and other powerful meds) were now our property; they belonged to us, what we did with them was up to us and our responsibility.  The doctor said that if I inadvertently gave my husband more than I meant to do, that would be all right and I mustn’t worry. 

I saw what the doctor meant.  It was the same as when a policeman came to address my Religious Education class, at a school where I taught, on the subject of safety and self-defence.  He explained to them in a read-my-lips kind of way that he could not advise them to carry in their handbags (purses US) when they went out on the town a bodyspray for the purposes of spraying it in the eyes of anyone who tried to attack them, as that would be an offensive weapon, and so against the law.  But if they happened to have the body spray in their bags for the purpose for which it was intended, and happened in a moment of panic accidentally to get it into somebody’s eyes, that would be understandable and okay.

I never did give my husband – by mistake or on purpose – any overdose of his medications.  It wasn’t necessary.  The love and support I and my daughters (especially Hebe) gave him took away his fear and distress.  The dying part was easier than the part that came before.  In his last few weeks, sitting in his room, every day he would say how lucky he felt, how peaceful and how blessed.  I ensured he had palliative care support from the Hospice At Home team and the district nurses, and that he was never alone except when he wished to be.  One of the things that strengthened and soothed him almost more than anything else in his last days was music.  He listened to music most of the time.  Sacred music was playing when he died.

In the churches of our Methodist Circuit (I was a Methodist pastor then) everyone was praying for him.  Praying is powerful and it helps if the prayers of the people are following the flow of the way things are, God’s will.  So I made specific prayer requests, asking them not to pray that he be healed, but that he die swiftly, peacefully and painlessly.  People coming to our cottage to visit remarked that it was almost pulsing with love and light, and one way and another with all that prayer and Holy Spirit power, so it was.

At an earlier stage in my life I had wished it were possible to have handy at home some lethal medicine, so that if something unthinkable happened – a terrible accident where someone was screaming in agony and too mangled to live, or a nuclear war or something, I would have  the means to offer them a way out.  But when my husband died, I had the opportunity to hang onto those powerful and lethal drugs – as the doctor had pointed out, they were mine.  I didn’t, though.  I tend to depression and am sometimes suicidal, and one of the symptoms of depression is a (mistaken) sense of lucidity in the depressed person – that you are the only one who really sees and understands just what a terrible place the world is or what a terrible person you are.  I wanted to put out of my reach any possibility of acting on such times of apparent ‘lucidity’ when they visited me.  So, I do not think it’s a good idea to have lethal medicine on hand in the ordinary home.  Besides which, imagine if a dying person had their lethal dose ready in the drawer, and decided in the last stretch of life to have a farewell gathering for their family and all the tribe came round.  I can easily picture a scenario in which a couple of kids wandered off from the melee and got their hands on those controlled drugs and the wrong person died.  Can’t you?

If euthanasia became legal here, as many others before me have pointed out, before too long there would be economic pressure brought to bear – old people lingering on in expensive hospital beds, that kind of thing.

Many people who advocate euthanasia do so because they imagine that in a terminal illness things get worse and worse and worse until eventually you die, but it isn’t like that.  By the time the Dignitas-clinic-in-Switzerland stage is reached, you are almost through the wood.  It’s the same as having a baby – it’s the first stage of labour that’s the tough call, not the second stage.  I have travelled right up to the door of death with many many people, and I can assure you that in my experience the last bit is not usually too bad.  It is peaceful, calm, natural and easy.  The struggle is done.  Very often friends from the other side of the barrier between life and death come to meet them, to collect them.

And often the last weeks and days of life are rich and wonderful.  It was so with my husband.  At an earlier stage in his illness he was begging to die, and distraught when on the hospital nurse’s advice I wouldn’t give my permission for him to be denied all food and water – she said it would be a horrible death and an inadvisable course of action for him.  He went through some terrible things, but not in the stretch of time in which euthanasia would have been applicable.  By the time he reached the stage where euthanasia advocates imagine the assisted suicide taking place, he was at peace, his pain was under control – and he was dying anyway.  The way out was opening.    When people say we should have euthanasia clinics here so terminally ill people can wait to the last minute to go to them, they’re missing the point.  It’s over by then, there’s only the peaceful bit to go through.

I once accompanied a church member toward death who had a terribly aggressive oral cancer.  She could feel it growing every day.   The diagnosis told her it was terminal, and that death would come quickly.  She was terrified of dying of the cancer and of its progression.  During the winter she had cancer, life offered her a way out – she got pleurisy and this was expected to develop into pneumonia.  I was intrigued and surprised that instead of saying “Good!  Here we go!  Ticket home!” she was eager to take antibiotics to clear it.  When she reached the final stage of her illness, the cancer reached the point where it would breach the wall of the blood vessel in her throat, and death would be swift and spectacular.  She was afraid of that, and asked to be spared the last events of her life by being kept sedated, which she was.  She remained in her own home under sedation administered automatically by a syringe driver, and slept through the final days of her life.  My husband also, once oral pain relief was no longer holding back his pain, was fitted with a syringe driver and spent his last few days under sedation.

The people I have known who have been in pain and misery have not yet reached the category for which assisted suicide and euthanasia is advocated, which suggests to me that if this became law then we would see the category of suitability widen very quickly.  The people I have known in real distress have been in earlier stages of AIDS or cancer, or suffering from depression associated with illness – post-stroke depression, for example.   And surely we are not suggesting that anyone who feels life is unbearable should be given carte blanche to end it all?  We’d be short of a great many teenagers who could have made it through turmoil to adult happiness.

Please do not be taken in by the advocates for euthanasia.  Many of them do not have broad experience of impending death, and many are motivated by personal experience of fear, dread or grief rather than having had the opportunity to observe and consider death.

All the opportunity to manage necessary ending of life is already available for those who desire it, offered discreetly and advisedly.  It cannot be discussed because of legal implications, but it is there.  Clinics for euthanasia and suicide would not improve the profile of care provision, and in fact would likely undermine the palliative care provision we now have.

I want to leave you with one last story.  In a church where I was pastor, I went with a church member to the bedside of her dying mother.  The mother had been suffering from Alzheimers Disease for a decade, and had for some time been in effect lost to this world, a small withered body in a bed, unresponsive and incapable of anything.  Any advocate of euthanasia would have marked her as a prime candidate. 

The dying woman and her daughter were both faithful Methodist believers, and arriving at her bedside I read to her Psalm 23, prayed the Lords Prayer, and then said this prayer.
Go forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul,
in the peace of Him in whom thou hast believed,
in the Name of God the Father, who created thee,
in the Name of Jesus Christ, who suffered for thee,
in the Name of the Holy Spirit, who strengthened thee.
May angels and archangels
and all the armies of the heavenly host
come to meet thee,
may Christ be thy Pilot and give thee safe crossing,
may all the saints of God welcome thee,
may thy portion this day be in gladness and peace,
thy dwelling in Paradise.
Go forth upon thy journey, O Christian soul.

As we closed the prayer with ‘Amen’, a change came over the dying woman.  It was as though her whole being flooded with light.  Her face lit up with ineffable joy, wonder and an expression of absolute triumph.  And then she gave up her spirit to God, and she was gone.  I’m glad we saw that, her daughter and me.  It was her last, and probably greatest, Christian witness; and I do not believe that anyone would have had the right to subtract such a thing from her life.  It was also evidence to me that whatever is happening to the mind or the body, the soul shines steadily on until God in His mercy calls us home.

"The Lost Sheep" by Alfred Soord (1868-1915)

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Quiet Time


How's your day going?

Mine's busy busy busy.

Started early with taking our two 6-month-old cats to the vet for their neutering operation.  I hate this.  It feels so wrong and so arrogant to interfere with an animal's body and life just for the convenience of achieving the kind of pet I want to have.  On the other hand, they are rescue cats, so would have maybe had a miserably, mangy, feral, hungry life without us.  One of them broke his leg when he was very young, falling from a high place.  Without us and the £750.00 op to mend it, he would have been vulnerable, in pain, deformed and probably died.  We feed them and love them - even so, taking them for that op causes me such turmoil.  That was how the day began.

Later, I have to write up the minutes from last night's church meeting - and I have to make a good job of it because it's the executive body of the church, so that feels like a big responsibility.

I want to write a long and complicated blog post in response to a question a dear friend raised with me yesterday.

I have to do some more work on reading through a book for which the author has requested an endorsement.  It's an excellent book but, as I know the territory it covers rather well, I can also see a number of little things that need tweaking, so it requires careful comment as well as reading.

This afternoon the vet will ring and we pick the cats up and bring them home.

This evening my family are going to choir and I'm going to worship at the Crowhurst Home of Healing.

Just now the beloved Wretched Wretch is out in the garden playing in his sandpit with his mummy (UK version of mommy, okay? Nothing Egyptian), waiting patiently for me to come down from my garret and play too, and look at the wonderful MamAmor doll that came in the mail this weekend (hooray) to help Buzzfloyd with her gentle parenting group. 

Somewhere in among all that lot I guess we get to cook and eat etc.

But what about a quiet time?  

My mind is buzzing with so many things - thoughts for the blog post, the book I'm reading, the church meeting last night so I  don't look at my notes and think 'what?' but hold it in mind until it's written up, the cats - are they OK?

When it's like this I find it so hard to settle and focus and centre.  It's times like this when a song really helps.  So if your day is busy busy busy too, and you could do with
to catch your breath and give your day perspective, I offer you to join me in loving this song, which in both word and music expresses exactly what I feel about my beloved Jesus.

It seems they can't spell 'instrumental'.  But, hey.  Enjoy.  May your day be blessed.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Libraries, frugality and alternative futures

My daughter Alice works in Bexhill library.  Quite often she takes out a DVD and we all enjoy watching a film together in the evening.  She finds all kind of books, too (obviously).  Some of the texts on mediaeval background information she has brought home for me to see have been brilliant source material for the novels I’ve been writing this last year – set in fourteenth century northern England.

When I was a child, we lived in a village out in the country.  My father travelled abroad, away for home for months at a time; and for several years, before my mother could afford a car, we relied on the bus to go for our grocery shopping in a nearby market town.  On Tuesday nights the fish-and-chip van came to the village, and we’d wait patiently for it to arrive – a scruffy old green vehicle – to order our cod and chips (chips are US French fries) wrapped in old newspapers.   And once a week the mobile library came to our village.  I remember standing in that big van choosing a book from the shelves – I can recall the smell of the books, just thinking about it now.  I discovered Gerald Durrell’s writing for the first time in our mobile library.  We had very little money, and books were an occasional luxury purchase.  Borrowing from the mobile library, the school library and friends was the only way to get my hands on new books, until I started to earn my own money working in the evenings after school and at weekends, when I was fifteen.  Then I could buy my own books.  I remember buying St Francis’ Fioretti, Face Up With A Miracle by Don Basham, Free To Be Faithful by Anthony Padovano, and John Powell’s Fully Human Fully Alive, among others.  Those books changed my lives.  They shaped who I became.  I was never the same after I read them.

Now of course they would have moved me and changed me and shaped me just as much if I’d borrowed them from a friend or from the library, or bought them new or from a second-hand bookshop.  I think I got Face Up With A Miracle at the Bible bookshop in Frinton-on-Sea, where I was working in a residential care home for elderly blind people during the school summer holidays.

Later on in life, as I got my nose to the trail of simplicity, both frugality and environmental responsibility became very important to me, and I started to buy my books second-hand whenever I could.  On Amazon, I could buy a book for just a penny, plus postage – brilliant!  So I did that for a long while; but it isn’t what I do any more.

Here’s why.

Who’s your favourite author?  One of mine is Alexander McCall Smith.  He wrote The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series.  Some of his titles are fab just by themselves, before even opening the book: The Full Cupboard of Life, for example; or Morality For Beautiful Girls.   Alexander McCall Smith is a Christian, and his faith resonates through the kind and gentle wisdom of his writing.  I’m so glad his books are in the world.  I love C.S.Lewis too – always have.  Love his Chronicles of Narnia.

Imagine now that C.S.Lewis had written The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alexander McCall Smith had written The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, and each had been submitted to a publisher and the writers had waited impatiently to hear if their manuscripts had been accepted, and at last came the letter from the commissioning editor saying (hooray!) they were going through to publication!  Result!!  Celebration!  And the books were duly published and went on public release, and people loved them.  Wonderful! 

But suppose those people who loved them never actually bought their own copies, but only took them out from the library.  Suppose, as good Christians practising frugality often do, they waited patiently for their turn to borrow the one copy that someone in their church had bought to lend all her friends.  Suppose, in the world as it is now with everything available on Amazon, they looked out for the copies being sold for just a penny and the postage.  That would be brilliant: they would have their own copy, devour the wonderful stories, staying up half the night because they simply couldn’t put the book down.  Long after they had finished the book it would be at work in their imagination, changing them, shaping them, lingering in their memory.

But there would be one thing different from the way things are, which is this: that would be the only Narnia story, or the only Precious Ramotswe story, they ever got to read.  However excellent and powerful an author’s writing may be, a publisher cannot afford to take on a second book if the first one doesn’t sell.

Everywhere in the UK Christian bookshops are going out of business.  There is no literary agent for Christian writers in the UK.   There are almost no writers of Christian fiction in the UK – and those there are have started flocking to the one UK Christian publisher who has revived a Christian fiction list.

Why?  Because UK Christians don’t buy Christian books – most of all, they don’t buy Christian fiction. 

Would it surprise you to know that (though my novels have sold thousands and thousands of copies) as far as I am aware, not a single person in my family has ever bought a single copy of a single one of my books?  With the blessed exception, that is, of my daughter’s American mother-in-law.  Would it surprise you to know that in most of the churches I pastored, in most cases the only copies of my books the members of the congregation bought were those I gave them as gifts to raise money for church funds?  And would it surprise you to know that every time I have a book published, my friends (with one or two precious exceptions) do not buy copies but ask me to give them a copy?

If it were not for the American market, and the Australian market (thank you Elvira!!!), my Hawk and the Dove series, originally published in the UK, would have been long dead and forgotten.  As it is, they have gone on steadily selling for 20 years.

The three new books in that series will be released this summer . . . this winter . . . and next summer.  These three new ones are books I am really proud of.  I have dug down to the depths of my soul for where the Word speaks in me of goodness, gentleness, truth, and the power of the Gospel, to craft those stories. 

At the present time I am writing another.  Again I have gone out into the stars and down into the earth and deep into my own heart to find and touch the reality I have tried to capture for that novel.  It’s been prayed into birth and it’s nearly finished.  I know without a shadow of doubt that my publisher will love it, and that it is as good as it should be.  And it won’t leave my hands – I will draft and re-draft – until it’s as good as it could be.  But whether it is ever published won’t depend on me, or even on my publisher.  It will depend on how readers choose to access the three that go before it – how many wait to borrow them from a friend, or take them out of the library, or look out for them coming up for a penny on Amazon, or on a giveaway on a friend’s blog, or in a competition in a magazine; and how many buy copies in the straightforward way – whether online or in a bookshop, whether in paper or electronic format.

I am so grateful for all the other readers who, with me, bought The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; because without them The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Kalahari Typing School For Men could never have been published.

Now I think libraries and second-hand bookshops and lending to friends and swap-shops are a really good thing.  Some people truly cannot afford to buy the books they long to read; and I say, by all means get the stories that bring the Gospel to life into their hands. 

I don’t want you to feel guilty if you only borrow and buy second-hand; and I don’t want you to feel coerced into buying books that don’t interest you.  I borrow too, and I also buy second hand.  And I buy only those Christian books that, on a flick through, genuinely interest me.   But I do buy some new; it’s part of my commitment as a Christian to do that.  And it’s also (in a good way) kind of selfish: I don’t want to wake up one day to find that all the books in the store celebrate adultery and power games and cynicism, and immerse me in a world of twistedness and corruption – what critics call ‘dark’ as though that were a good thing.  I want there to be more and more stories by those writers who know how to tell the story of the beautiful, the good and the kind – stories that shape the person I am into something better by filling my imagination with a world view that is worthwhile.  So I buy Book 1; and that way I cast a vote of faith in Book 2.  That’s the economics of the Gospel.