Sunday, 16 June 2013

76 Trombones

 I had a terror — since September — I could tell to none — and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid
~ Emily Dickinson

In the final weeks of his life Bernard, to whom I was married, chose the music for his funeral.  He loved music – Mahler, swing jazz, Spanish guitar, Welsh harp – all sorts, really.  He died on the last day of August, a shimmering hot summer, and in those days he lay quietly in his room listening for the last time to the exquisite and the haunting, the peaceful and the glorious – the Lark Ascending, the Laudate Dominum from Mozart’s Vespers, and sometimes just the song of the thrush and the blackbird, the robin and the wren, through the cottage window that stood open all that summer.

This was the piece he chose to have played as we bore his coffin into the chapel.  

And as we blessed him onto his way into new life, my girls sang this spiritual for him.

This evening I went to the summer concert of Battle Town Band – where my daughter Rosie plays trombone and her partner Jon is the band leader and conductor (here's Jon and some band members on the steps of Battle Abbey).   The music was tremendous, as always – such a good sound, such zest and vigour, the rhythms of life.

I arrived at the concert venue with Rosie’s sisters – except Buzzfloyd, who is at home in the evenings doing the Wretched Wretch’s bedtime – and the Badger went to collect my beautiful mama in his car.  He dropped her off and went to park, we having been organising drinks and snacks at the table Rosie had reserved for us.  Looking up I saw my beautiful mama in the doorway, a little old lady, eyesight dim, in her pretty skirt and flowered blouse.  Eighty-five.

It is such a strange thing, to live in the world.  To see my beautiful mama, so determined and decisive, such will power and purpose in life, fading like a flower, not so many years left now.  To see my daughters – I do not think of them as children, but I do still see the child in each one of them – becoming middle-aged women.  To see myself, mind and body, inexplicably and incomprehensibly growing old.  

And then, to see the bewildering contrasts and reversals of the world.  In America, the vile keystone pipeline, pushing ahead with its fracking destruction, the oil-soaked waterbirds, the ruined countryside, the lands seized despite the protests of farmers who loved the woodlands, the rivers, the places where grass and flowers grew wild.   It has been given to Mammon.   And Monsanto . . . the suicides of the Indian farmers . . . And the violence in Syria . . . violence in the Middle East . . . violence in Iraq . . . Afghanistan . . . North Korea . . . what humans do to one another, the horrific bloodshed, bodies torn by the endless tide of weapons . . . the hatred of women, raped, burned . . . the selling of children for sex . . . the persecution of Christians by Muslims . . . the abuse of the helpless and frightened by Christians – beating little children till they hear the broken cry they are listening for, hounding homosexual people as ‘abominations’ until they can find no peace and safety in the world and take refuge in death . . . 

This, all of it, the cruelty and tragedy, the incomprehensible savagery of humanity, bludgeons my mind numb.

But what finds my heart defenceless, enters my heart like a blade, breaks my heart every time, is the crazy bright hope of human faith and courage, the gaiety and humour, the resilient jaunty spirit of life that will not die, will not give up, will never be quenched.  The light that still shines in the darkness and the darkness has never quenched it.  Like the small pennant fluttering high on the mast catching the sunlight near the far horizon, voyaging out on its adventure of brave optimism in its impossible little boat:

Methinks I see them yet again
As they leave this land behind
Casting their nets into the sea
The herring shoals to find
Me thinks I see them yet again
They're all on board all right
With their nets rolled up and their decks cleaned off
And the side lights burning bright.

(from William Delph’s song about the Grimsby fishing disaster, Three Score & Ten)

And this evening, listening to the band play 76 Trombones Led The Big Parade, my Rosie on the trombone, all the skill and practise and musicianship, the spirit poured into making what is beautiful and worthwhile, the joy of life and the dauntless rising hope of man, how amidst all the hideous cacophony and septic smearing of war and corruption somehow the cheery irrepressible melody still goes singing along the sunlit ways, it broke my heart again.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Dear Tim

From time to time someone will get in touch asking me what they have to do to become a professional writer.  I received just such an enquiry this morning.  In case any of you have also been wondering the same thing, I thought I’d post my answer here.

Dear Tim,

How nice to hear from you.   Yes, thank you for asking, I am well.  And yes, I can certainly give some pointers about writing.

It is important to be clear about why you want to write, as this will help to decide what you write, which avenues you take.
If you want to be famous and make a lot of money through writing you will have to ask someone else, because I don't have that skill! 

If you like writing itself, as a craft, and do it well, and are choosing it for that reason, then there are lots of options for a jobbing writer.  You might be taken on to write regularly for a magazine or newspaper, or do editing for famous people who are going to have a book out but, as writing isn't their primary vocation, a jobbing writer is needed behind the scenes to turn their book into the best possible version of the story they have to tell.  I do this to augment my income.  I am paid about £400-£500 to turn around a book needing more than a publishing house editor has time for, and I have to be fast and accurate.  I have just been working on an 85,000-word book that is of itself brilliant but needed substantial help with the prose, and this had to be done in a fortnight.  It's hard work and, if you want to be someone a publisher comes back to again and again, it helps to be able to drop everything at a moment's notice and get them out of a hole so they can keep to their often near-impossible schedules.   
I find writing articles easy and enjoyable.  In my case the publications for which I write approached me, because they knew of my books - but you can also submit articles in your interest area to any papers/magazines of your choice in the hope of being taken on, whether on a regular or occasional basis.

The reason I write is neither to be rich and famous (fortunately) nor just as an occupation because I enjoy the craft (though I do), but because I have something to say.  If you are thinking of writing books rather than just patching up other people's output or working as a jobbing writer, I personally believe it helps a lot if you have something to say.   The day I have nothing more to say is the day I will lay down my pen.  Many people who have nothing to say do write books, some of them very successfully.  They meet with their editor who feeds them ideas, and they use their professional expertise and experience to research it and write it up.  They analyse the market and find a niche, identify a target audience and a trending idea, and create a product that will sell, to the word length that is popular and expressing the views that fit their publishing house.  This is an intelligent approach for a professional writer; competent, effective and sustainable.  Personally I would die of boredom if I did that, though.

My own way of doing things is to live as simply and quietly as possible, thinking and dreaming, watching and listening, wondering and being.  As I do this, stories and thoughts about life and humanity and God stir and shape within me.  Ideas that captivate and intrigue me fill my mind.  Human experience that I have observed or shared fills me with compassion or anger or delight or admiration or a sense of injustice.  I overhear people talking to each other and am enthralled.  I glimpse and eavesdrop on things that make me laugh - or sometimes cry.  And I write it all down and offer it to a publisher.  So far I have never been unable to publish anything I have written.

If you have something to say, but you have trouble getting it published, there are several routes to self-publishing nowadays and many people are choosing that option.  It's quicker and the writer earns a higher percentage of the income.  The pitfalls are created by people not knowing what they do not know.  They don't know what makes a good cover and think theirs is brilliant but it's bad.  They can't spell and their grammar is poor so their final draft appears to them perfect when in fact it's full of laughable errors.  They don't know enough about copyright law and permissions and are horrified when someone sues them for £20,000 because they quoted ONE LINE from a pop song.  They don't know how to format text for publication.  So, if you decide to write and self-publish, get help.  We can advise you.

If you work as a writer, you need publicity.  If you want to be a jobbing writer people have to hear about you to offer you work.  If you write books you won't sell any unless people hear about them.   One of the easiest and best ways to start is to write a blog.  I started mine several years ago, and at the time I was just talking to myself.  Now, depending on how frequently I've posted, my blog gets between 10,000 and 14,000 hits a month and has considerably boosted my book sales.  As with my books, so with my blog, however - I started it because I have something to say, and unless I have something to say I don't post.  I do know writers who offer only blatant self-promotion, and I think people do not await their posts with bated breath.

Another advantage of blogging is that it assists you in creating and maintaining a discipline of writing.  Because in the end, there is only one thing you need to do if you want to be a writer: write.

Write every day.  Create a target - one sentence if you like; my target is 1,000 words.  Write that every day.  In writing you are coaxing your subconscious mind - your dreaming, quirky, wild, vivid, childlike mind - to give up its wonders that lie below your boring, prosaic, every-day, pass-the-butter mind.  Your subconscious mind will do this if it knows it has an appointment.  If you are erratic it is less likely to deliver the goods.  It is (I'm sorry to lower the tone) not dissimilar to opening one's bowels: a regular domestic routine is your friend.

Writing is usually a solitary occupation.  Not in every case.  Some comedy writers and TV script-writers work in pairs or groups, but most writers work alone.  Setting and maintaining boundaries is essential to working as a writer.  If you cannot do this you will fail.   The writer is, actually, you.  You will be writing every day. Writing is a solitary occupation. Ergo, you will become a solitary person.  If you cannot endure solitude, you are not cut out to be a writer.  You will be selfish, lonely and socially difficult.   If you are already these three things, you are well on your way to being a writer!

Then there is the question of money.  Very, very few writers, even professionals who find it easy to get their work published, make enough to live on.   My income from writing is tiny.  I rarely pay tax.  I live in shared accommodation with equally poor artists and thus we reduce our domestic overheads to the bare minimum - by which I mean, for example, £18 per head per week to spend on food and all household commodities, and woollies and hot water bottles when the weather is cold.   I joint-own a cottage let to tenants, and my share of the rent from this covers my basic outgoings.  I create and officiate at funerals - oh, when I say I create them I don't mean I kill people, I mean I write them specially for people who have died with no intervention from me.  I have solar panels on the roof which generate electricity I can sell to the National Grid, earning about £1,000 tax-free per year.  I depend on these extra sources of income: without them I could not survive on the kind of writing I do, and I would wither and perish if I had to make a living by writing what I cruelly and scornfully describe as ‘product’.

When I publish a book, I am paid about £1,800 in royalty advances.  Very rarely do I go on to earn any further royalties from it.  A magazine article earns me between £25 and £55.  When I edit a book I earn £400 or £500.   The most books I have ever written in any one year is four.  I usually edit about four books a year.  I write one magazine article a month for money.  At the moment I am also writing for a church paper which pays me nothing - but that's not to be sniffed at, it's all good publicity and helps my profile as a writer.  Because I have an actual aim and ambition to live in the greatest simplicity possible as I believe simplicity is the best tool in any life-kit, this arrestingly diminutive income does not trouble me; I have all I want and quite a lot to give away.  I am not thin.   But it wouldn't suit everyone.

I have one final piece of advice.

I am often asked what is the knack of getting published - what's the trick - what do you have to do?  Hearing that my husband is a publisher causes a particular crafty look (not unlike  a sneer) to slant sideways into the eyes of enquirers.  "Aha!" they cry with the air of one who has rumbled a great secret; "so that's how you get published!"  Not so.  My husband had been my editor for twenty years before I married him.   The only difference marrying my publisher has made is that it is now a darn sight more difficult to get a manuscript through, because he can no longer sign off on my work - it has to go through extra committee surveillance in case he's smuggling in some duff crap because he loves me.

No.  The only way I know of getting published, getting your manuscripts accepted every time even if you are not a celebrity and have no platform to speak of at all, is to write well.  In spite of all their hard-boiled cynicism and product mentality and understandable obsession with marketing, publishers do love a good book.  Write one and you're in.  Probably.

That's all I know.  I hope it helps.

You may be interested in coming to this event for writers of Christian fiction, which I and my husband and a fellow writer are offering this November.  Even if you are not writing Christian fiction, but general fiction or any other work for publication, you might find it helpful.  We are keeping the costs low by charging no fees for ourselves. And the food is good and the house cheerful and cosy.

Friday, 14 June 2013


You know how there are some books that if you got it when you read the title, you probably don’t really need to read the whole book?  I’ve had some in that category sit on my shelves for decades, finally moved on to the Oxfam bookshop when I faced up to the reality that I only really needed the title.

For example ~

The Courage to Be (Paul Tillich)

Becoming Who I Am (Harry Williams)

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Thomas Merton)

Well, that last title is almost a book by itself!  Such a big idea – the guilty bystander!  Something that so needed saying!  In a world that speaks meaninglessly of innocent bystanders, a recognition of the reality that (as Edmund Burke put it) all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.  Guilty bystanders. 

But I did read a bit of that book by accident the other day, when I came across this quotation from it online:

"To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace."

Merton, you said it!!
Yes, yes, and a million times yes.

On reflection today, I decided he was recommending serenity.

But – O worlds within worlds – there is more than mere happenstance in my thus connecting the words REFLECTION and SERENITY.

I recommend Serenity too.

Because at eleven o’clock this morning, as I sat on the gold baroque sofa under the sumptuous gathered fabric ceiling with its ruby chandelier (life’s like that in Hastings), in Serenity Hair  & Beauty Salon waiting for Luke – whom I’d never met – to make his critical inspection of what a year’s rough hacking with blunt kitchen scissors had done to my hair, I heard the following conversation:

Small boy: Flexion!  Flexion!  Flexionflexionflexion!
Mother: Reflection.
Small boy: Flexion!
Mother: Reflection.
Small boy: Flexion!
Mother: Re
Small boy: Flexion!
Mother: Re
Small boy: Flexion!
Mother: Re
Small boy: Flexion!
Mother: Re
Small boy: Flexion! Flexion!

Small boy one, mother nil.

I thought this could go on for some time.  In Hastings the interior d├ęcor may be unsurpassed, but at times the conversation lacks sparkle.

But Luke – who, it transpired, worked in the WEST END (of London, US and Aussies – that’s special!) before his feet brought him back to the edge of the ocean in Sussex where his life really belongs – then appeared.  What a relief!  He likes messy hair too!  No blow-drying into a smooth busby!  No wax!  Wax?  I know.  Funny, isn’t it.  What next?   He said he’d put serum on my hair when he was done, and in a quiet murmur echoed my ‘Whatever’ in mock despair.

He did well, I think, Luke.   Opinions?

Thursday, 13 June 2013


Waking early in the wild dawn, twenty past four, gazing up at the great stormy cloudbank of the sky, wind-tossed birds, all the house peaceful.

Going downstairs to fetch a bottle of delicious spring water from the fridge – Hildon water, I love it – and an orange juice popsicle from the freezer.  And the last handful of sweet Spanish cherries (our Kent cherries are still shivering, small and green, the summer has been so cold and wet).

This week in our house we have feverish colds – a Godsend, worth the price; it’s left the Badger to ill to drive up to Oxford, so he’s worked from home this whole week.  Where he should be.  And I, burning up and pouring snot, have been obliged to cancel all my people duties, which has allowed me to get on with editing this book – thank God, thank God, it needs all the time I have.  It will be a fine book once the prose is tamed.

That picture at the top is our house, but not this one.  It's a picture of the dawn Hebe took through the window at Gezellig, the tiny apartment we lived in long ago, before the Badger and I got married.  Outside the window a bush grew called Rupert - we knew that was his name, because it's what he used to say in his scratchy little voice, twigs against the windowpane, in the wind.  You can see the shadows of his leaves in the morning light.  After we left no-one trimmed him any more, and he's grown into a massive tree now, right up beyond the ridge tiles.  Some kind of hazel or willow, I'm not sure what.

But this sunrise from this window is different.  Look:

Why does getting up in the quiet dawn always feel like Christmas?

Wednesday, 12 June 2013


I’ve probably written it here before – excuse me if I’m getting old and tedious – but it captured my imagination when, twenty years or so back, our ordination college principal (the dear and beloved Martin Baddeley) said of the encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman:

"Jesus walked, and He stopped. 
What is the speed of love?"

Holed up in my room editing, the sound of a child wailing dismally carries in from the street.  And I think, ‘Stop.  Just stop.  Why don’t you stop and find out what the matter is?  Why not stop walking, bend down to hear what the trouble is, do what you can to sort it out?’

About a week ago I was very bad-tempered with my husband – unreasonably difficult.  What in Hastings we call ‘arsey’.  I upset him.   Afterwards, I explained to him that completely unrelated issues had been stressing me, to the point where I felt locked in, felt like an animal at bay, pursued high onto a crag with no way of escape, and I’d turned round snarling at the first human being who came near me.  I gave him a pass-key.  I said, if I behave like that again you can ask me, ‘Are you locked in?  Are you stuck on a crag?’ – and I will hear you and be able to say, ‘Yes,’ and you’ll know it’s not really you I’m snarling at.  A pass-key that will unlock the situation, allow what is escalating into something nasty to stop.

Sometimes if I am about to say something unkind or unhelpful, about to pass on some information about a person that will set others against them, create dislike, I might choose instead to just STOP.

Then there is the Quaker STOP – so valuable – the ‘Uh-oh!’ breathed by the still small voice, counselling caution, applying the brakes.

Going too fast causes many situations to get out of hand. 

Jesus walked, and He stopped.  What is the speed of love?

Before you cross over, in any human encounter: 


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

William Penn

I love this letter written to his wife and children by Quaker William Penn, when he left his family in England to travel to the New World and see the land he had been given by King Charles II in recognition of what the monarch owed Penn’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn, who at one time had fed the entire Navy from his own resources while the Crown sorted out its finances.   Because Quakers were persecuted in England and America alike, the acquisition of this land was crucial in creating a refuge for freedom of thought and worship.  Penn called it at first “New Wales”, then amended that to Sylvania – presumably because of its wooded landscape – but the King insisted it be named Pennsylvania to honour the Admiral for whom the gift had been made.  

William Penn’s crossing from England took seven weeks under sail; he did not know what he would find or if he would ever come home.  But he took this chance to realise his dream of a place where government would be ethical and just, and Friends would be free to meet in silent waiting on the movement of the Spirit of God.

His first treaties, signed with the native Indians of the country he had been given, were based on an acceptance of Indian equality, and the beginning of the peaceable civilisation he planned.

In his territory, the two hundred crimes punishable by death in his native England reduced to two – treason and murder, and the prisons Penn built were for reform and correction, not the hellholes he had left in England.  Penn had himself been incarcerated for his allegiance to the Society of Friends, in Newgate Prison near London’s Old Bailey, where in due course Oscar Wilde also served time for his homosexuality.

Despite his wisdom and integrity, and his hopes and dreams for the life human beings could build together, William Penn was cheated right and left, and harrowed by political turmoil and worldly ambition in the realm of freedom and brotherly love he tried to create.

Two strokes ruined his health and cheating acquaintances ruined him financially.  He died penniless back in England in 1718, and his body was laid to rest alongside his first wife, in an unmarked grave in the burial ground of Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire, a place of remarkable peace.

I love his letter's humble moderation and level-headed good sense.  Its aspirations are attainable.   The world was a better place for having had William Penn travel through:

“I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”  ~  William Penn

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Late night music

Sitting here in the summer midnight, listening to the music of John Martyn, whose work I learned to love the year I turned twenty.  He died in 2009.  A man who did not find life easy.

And then because I can feel the acute sensitivity, almost raw, in John Martyn, and I know it must have been painful, to cheer myself up I listen to this, which always makes me happy.

And once I’m happy again, I can face listening to this:

Oh heck, Leonard Cohen . . . how has that man managed to cope, strung out like a violin string for life to play all its grief and beauty on . . . "the garbage and the flowers" . . . tell me about it . . . okay I need cheering up again . . .

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The mark of the divine

Sometimes I frequent the Christian cloister 
And sometimes the mosque,
But it is Thou whom I search for from temple to temple.
Thine elect have no dealings with heresy or orthodoxy,
For neither of these stands beside the screen of Thy truth.
Speculation to the heretic, theology to the orthodox,
But the dust of the rose petal belongs to the heart of the perfume-seller.
(Abu ’l-Fazl)

I have worshipped in many different contexts and faith communities – with Baptists, Sikhs, Anglicans, Hindus, Methodists, Catholics, Pentecostals, United Reformed Church congregations, Quakers and Anglo-Catholics.  I have sat in meditation with Buddhists and people of New Age spirituality and Reiki Masters, and listened in mosques, gurdwaras and synagogues to the perspectives of those communities of faith.   I have travelled along with monks and nuns, and heard the wisdom of teachers of different traditions. 

In every place where I go, listening to wisdom, to the story these people in this place can tell of the tracks of the divine discerned along the ways of humankind, there is something I am looking for, listening for, sniffing for. 

Hebe told the other day of passing a man in the street and stopping, arrested by the smell distinctive in his aftershave, of oak moss.  Right there in the street she stopped – “Oak moss!”   She loves it.  We collect it to burn on our fire or place on the hot surface of our woodstove.  We pick up those fallen twigs it clings to in abundance and bring them home.

I love also the smell of frankincense . . . of lavender . . . of roses . . . of patchouli . . . of black spruce.  

A man said to me once – “I can always tell when you’re in the building; I can smell you!”  It was the patchouli oil I often dabbed on my skin.

In the same way I scan the world, read it, watch it, for the sign of the thing I am looking for, the whiff of the divine, the mark of salvation, the thing that opens a human heart to the purposes of God.


Nowhere have I seen kindness more consistently anywhere than in the faces of Orthodox monks.

The church I go to now, I attend because it is drenched in kindness “like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;  as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded blessing, even life for evermore.”

In the face of our parish priest is the beautiful sign of kindness.  Our church is a place for binding up the broken-hearted. 

The Buddhists cherish wisdom and kindness; but kindness is wisdom all by itself.

When my father died, I stood and looked down on his face, searching for signs of his state of mind when he died.  Had he been anxious or afraid?  I looked for the peace that so often rests on the faces of the dead.

He had been an anxious and uneasy man who fled human company, restless and solitary.  But in his dead face I saw only the deepest and most abiding characteristic of his life; kindness.   It was, I think, in my father’s face that I learned as a child to recognise the look of kindness.  He was allowed to keep it when he died.  It went with him to Heaven.  I am not kind as he was; but I know what it looks like because of his face.

God is not tame.  He cannot be secured by doctrine.  Burning and beating and shunning to secure acquiescence to church doctrine will not snare Him.  To cut off the hand of a thief, the nose of an adulteress is only dull stupidity, the mark of a leaden religion that has misused its imagination to work life into a twisted filigree after its own gnarled and knotted image.  You cannot punish people into goodness.  And there is no net of righteousness, no creed in which human rectitude and dogma can catch God.  But here and there in a gesture, in the look on someone’s face, in an action or word, you see pure kindness.  Look well, for that is the presence of God.

This is my simple religion.
There is no need for temples;
No need for complicated philosophy.
Our own brain, our own heart, is our temple.
The philosophy is kindness. 
                                                     The Dalai Lama

Monday, 3 June 2013

Birthday cake

Oh I am busy busy busy with my editing, but you so have to see this!

One of us had a birthday at the weekend, and my next door neighbour, Sylvia, has recently begun her own business, The Art of Cake, making celebration cakes; so we asked her to make one for the birthday – only brief; as pretty and flowery as can be.

And look what she made – just look!

Isn’t that the prettiest cake you ever did see?  And it tasted as good as it looked!   The flowers are all sugar crafted, but they looked real!  And you can even eat the pink and green patterned bit like flock wallpaper on the base!  Isn't that one talented lady?   It's like the kind of cake other people who live in London have to eat, not us.  So very, very pretty.