Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Tony Collins, publisher extraordinaire

The one and only sales conference I've been invited to attend as a writer was for the very first book I wrote, my novel The Hawk and the Dove.

I didn't know anyone at the publishing house, so I arrived to a room filling up with strangers taking their seats round a big table.

Somebody said to me, "This is Tony Collins," and I turned my head to look into eyes full of kindness and sparkle. I immediately loved this man, my editor.

That was at the end of 1989 — exactly thirty years ago. So began a deeply satisfying professional partnership, from which friendship also grew. 

I have loved and admired Tony's approach to his work. For one thing, he is always willing to go the second mile. In any situation where things have gone wrong or someone is struggling, his first thought, every time, is to ask, "How can I help?" 
The journey of a book from initial idea to publication is often fraught with difficulties; there are many hurdles to get over. I, and his publishing colleagues, and every other writer who has been lucky enough to have Tony as their publisher, discovered that he would always have my back, always do his best, always carry more than his share of the burden. Everywhere I go with Tony, I hear the same opinion expressed — that he is a legend in the world of Christian publishing.

Tony has always taken the rare and blessed view that a book is primarily the author's work. He was clear and firm in advice and direction to ensure the book contained nothing libellous or injurious to success in the marketplace, that all permissions had been sought, that the prose was up to snuff — and his editorial suggestions were every time constructive, resulting in a better book. Tony asked the right questions. But he never, ever made it a vanity project, never tried to "put his own stamp" on someone else's work. His contribution was intelligent and authoritative, but also essentially humble. I have treasured that, not least because it was his input as a publisher over the last thirty years that cleared the way to publication for my writing as I wanted it to be, not turning it into some kind of dog's breakfast by regarding it as "product" or by over-intervention.

In the September of 2005, a year after my husband Bernard died, Tony told me that his marriage of nearly thirty years, to Jane, had sadly come to an end after a decade of the two of them doing their very best to hold it together — though after the deep pain of parting Tony and Jane have remained good friends, and still enjoy each other's company and conversation. 

When I discovered that Tony was therefore once more unexpectedly single, it felt like finding the foot of the rainbow right there in my own back garden. Romance began, escalated swiftly, and we married each other the following September, thirteen years ago.

Tony semi-retired a few years back, and has been working "part-time" and mostly from home since then. "Part-time" means part-time pay. The work mysteriously expands to fill every hour God sends, just as it always did. Tony will be seventy next year, and decided this last summer that the time had at last come to stop working for a publishing house. So he will be retiring from his job at SPCK — which he has immensely enjoyed.  

Tony still has more plans than most people would think it practical to try cramming into one life. His book Taking My God For A Walk, about his pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, was published in 2016, by Monarch books — the imprint Tony started and took with him to Lion Hudson. 

"Monarch", incidentally, is not monarch as in "superior being lording it over everyone else", but as in the epic-traveller Monarch butterfly. Readers love this book, and Tony's plans for 2020 include working on another book he's had in mind for some time.

He will also continue his lifelong work of looking for new authors, or new books from established authors, to help birth new work about the Gospel into the world.

Just today, an email came in from his friend Roger Chouler, a colleague from Tony's Lion Hudson days, one of the cover designers.

Roger says this:
"I thought a visual would sum up my enduring thankful and appreciative thoughts of years spent working in the field with you. I always admired the way you handled people, situations and could always find a way through when things became testy.
You always encouraged me, even when a cover, graphic or design needed to be revisited, and were the first to commend the final result. You never laid blame on anyone. A true man of grace.
I hope this visual tribute brings you happy memories and sense of accomplishment. The Lord has kept His hand on you through the years."

He's called the image file of his picture, "Tony Collins — Friend."

 I am so proud of this man, and so very glad I've had him as my publisher through thirty years of writing. It seems entirely right that as he steps down from his editor's desk, this is the moment for me to put down my pen. Because we always worked together.

I am so glad I married him; not least because he makes me a cup of tea, first thing every single morning. Which is biblical, isn't it? You know — He-brews.


I came across this picture, and I'm really pleased with it because it is exactly my intention for the New Year.

I have been rethinking in depth my relationship with church, family and world in general, figuring out what I can contribute and how I fit in.
The focus of my imagination for the year ahead is the centaur Chariklo. Her name comes from a fusion of love or grace ("chari") with spinning ("klo"), so her work is about incorporating love and grace into the fabric of creation. In mythology she is the wife of the centaur Chiron, the wounded healer, so she speaks of the symbiosis of masculine and feminine energy in the work of healing. Her role is to hold sacred space for others, and be the witness to the infinite ground of being, helping people go through transition as a soul midwife — helping us navigate the way through a time of change. Her characteristics are rock-solid stillness, permanence (so, dependability), steadiness, peace, beauty, healing and caring. These are the aspects I want to hold before my mind's eye going into the new year.
In 2019 I was intensively writing — I wrote three books during the year. Writing is a very solitary occupation, and I've been writing full-time for just over a decade now. At earlier stages in my life I was very connected to people and had many friends whom I loved dearly and treasured very much, but those connections have dissolved.

I've also had to carefully re-think my relationship with the church, which has been unsatisfactory for some time. In the last few months I've been looking steadily at the question of whether my lifelong travelling together with the church is actually over. This questioning deepened in the time of the UK election, as I faced and tried to understand why Christian brothers and sisters would work for, speak for and vote for heartless and self-serving régimes, while tossing aside the opportunity to elect a man of peace and compassion as our political leader.

When I got still and focussed and scried as deep as I could into my soul, what kept coming up again and again was a quotation from Charles Péguy that I used in the frontispiece of my novel The Long Fall, back in the early 1990s. He said: "The worst of partialities is to withhold oneself, the worst ignorance is not to act, the worst lie is to steal away." And that's what kept coming back to me as I considered quietly tiptoeing off.

In the end I set my resolve on taking my cue from Chariklo in 2020.

I want to work on what that graphic (above) of the Thich Nhat Hanh quotation expresses, in my personal interactions with people day-to-day. Going slowly enough, including enough silence and solitude and keeping enough of a discipline of simplicity, that my soul can be sufficiently spacious to be a loving presence. That's for the detail of everyday, and the orientation of myself in respect of other people. Apart from blogging and writing my regular magazine column, I'm stopping writing and editing this year, as those occupations are very time and attention hungry. I've also stopped driving, because of the stress of it really — I think we have enough roads and enough cars on them, now.

Part of the loving kindness, that I want to work on flowing through me, is living responsibly towards the Earth. I've stopped driving, and I'm going to try hard to deepen my practice of simplicity, to consume fewer resources and support more careful and responsible decision making. We have such a small window to get carbon emissions down to the 1.5C level, and right now the emissions are rising not falling. This has to be a priority for us all. I'm very interested in the role of money in all this — I think Daniel Suelo is onto something in his insistence that money is problematic. I personally don't aspire to living without any money at all, but I think there is a massive spiritual power in the way we use what money we have — and the less money we individually need, the less others can hold sway over our lives. Jesus wasn't joking when he said you cannot serve God and Mammon, nor was Paul when he said the love of money is a root of all evil, and John Wesley's opinions are also very instructive. So I think my financial habits and choices must be integral to working on a practice of loving kindness.

I want to change the focus and direction of my work in the church. Where I had been concentrating on building up the small chapel community I belong to, and also on creating imaginative all-age worship, I realise that my contributions were only patchily successful, and in some cases actually unhelpful. But I still feel an inescapable call to preach and teach, so that will be my focal contribution this year, mostly in the Methodist Circuit where I live. As the effects of the UK's voting in the general election sink in — the mortality rate is rising, especially among the elderly and disabled, our healthcare system is breaking down, 650,000 vulnerable people had their state benefits cut within five days of the new government being returned, the hard right members of Britain First are flocking in their thousands to join the governmental party, and the rending apart from the European Union will bring suffering in all kinds of ways — I want to incorporate the Chariklo emphases of healing, transition, equilibrium and peace into the way I present the Gospel. This year will, I think, be a time of upheaval and change, when it will be helpful to make the contribution of holding sacred space for people passing through change, to bear witness to the faithfulness of God, and to hold the lantern of Christ's love steady for people to see the way. Jesus came to establish a new and living way for us to walk in, and holding the light for people to find their feet on that way feels important for 2020.

In setting aside writing and editing for the time being, I want to take time to build and nurture personal relationships. People are often frightened in times of transition as the old order decays and dissolves, and what we have always known starts to transform. More than that, managing ourselves as we understand the impact of Western civilisation and growth economics on the created order is going to require skill. The anxiety, survivalism, denial and selfishness already apparent in political trends is only likely to intensify. If we want to be signs of contradiction in the present age, I think we'll do well to stand together. Connectivity will be important, so I want to give time and attention to that. Relationship doesn't just occur; you have to nurture it, and I feel acutely aware that I need to put some work into building a tribe as well as into personal contribution.

In 2019 I did a lot of intensive learning about health and nutrition, also researching sources of high-quality food produced compassionately, ethically and responsibly, with lower food miles and as little packaging as possible. I want to carry through that responsible practice into 2020, building and maintaining my health to the best of my ability, honouring the Earth and working for the wellbeing of creation. Organic, simple wholefood, produced to high ethical standards, from small local producers whose agricultural practice nurtures the land and the many species that share it. Particularly as we part company with EU regulations, I think it would be wise to stick to simple ingredients and avoid packaged or processed food — which for all the usual reasons of less packaging, fresher, lower food miles, represents a better choice anyway.

Those are the thoughts and intentions I am holding in place as we go into the new year.

And you — please do come and share in the comments what intention you are holding as we go into 2020 — may you be blessed in the year ahead; may you be at peace, may you be well, may you be contented and provided for. May you be happy.

As John Wesley said, "The best of all is God is with us."

Monday, 30 December 2019

The shadow

Something is puzzling me.

On a Facebook page I follow, I came across this picture and quotation. By the way, I do like Carl Jung's face — full of intelligence and vitality.

Underneath the picture, the organisation (Tao and Zen) posting had added, along with a link to this website about the Shadow, the following words:
"Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western [thinking], but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." ~ Carl Jung
"The shadow is simply the dark side of someone's personality. And what is dark is always known only indirectly through projection. That is, one discovers his dark side as something belonging to others: friends, relatives, fictitious characters, etc."

I don't know who the second paragraph italicised there is quoting — if it's Jung again or someone commenting on Jung, but I've kept  it in here because it says the thing that snagged my attention.

Now, I try to be cautious about what I write on this blog about my personal relationships, but the best examples of what's puzzling me come from that sphere, so I'm going to tell you about just one — my apologies if what follows is a bit cryptic, I want to be  circumspect about what I say in public regarding other people.

I have a difficult relationship with a member of my family of origin; not a bad person — a passionate, intelligent, intensely loving and protective soul with a tender heart and a keen sense of justice, who can be very kind, and there are many ways I think highly of this person. Nonetheless our relationship is fraught with problems that I won't go into here.

About a year ago, something happened in my family of origin that was unacceptable to me and weighed so heavily on my mind that it began to make me ill, to the extent that withdrawal from certain relationships seemed to me the most prudent way forward. Yet I don't like to leave any situation with a flavour of acrimony or antagonism; I just didn't want to participate in what I was being asked to do, and some choices had been made that I considered unwise and unjust, and I felt very upset.

So, in withdrawing from the situation I wrote a letter copied to each of two people involved, explaining that I felt the need to do this, setting out what my concerns were (without hostility or discourtesy), and ending with a paragraph assuring the people concerned that I loved them very much, thanking them for all they were and had done for me, saying sorry for any way I had personally contributed to the difficulties, and asking their forgiveness for that. The letters reached them through my husband, and the responses came back to me through him.

The responses did not surprise me, being consistent with our journey together through life to date. One, having read the letter, simply set it aside with no comment, changed the subject and never mentioned it again. The other sent a note in return, describing me as having all my life seen myself as the heroine of my own histrionic drama, and dismissing the contents of my letter in this terms.

Now, what's puzzling me is this; who's projecting the Shadow?

Surely, in any given interaction there is an objective reality to be reached — not everything is subjective, is it? But look, if one's Shadow is apparent to oneself only in what one observes in others, how is it possible to tell what's them and what's oneself?

I mean, do I see myself as the heroine of my own histrionic drama, and am blithely unaware of this and projecting it on to the other family members — or is the person who said this to me the one with that exact characteristic (which observation tells me may be the case) and projecting it on to me? Or are we both people who think we are the main protagonist in our respective histrionic dramas, projecting our Shadows on to each other? How could you possibly tell? How can you learn and grow? 

Further to that, if I accept the other person's definition and dismissal of what I wrote in my letter, surely it would follow that my concerns were merely me acting out, and (as the response strongly suggested) were without foundation and not to be taken seriously. And yet, to my mind, my concerns were valid — I had actually, I think, been asked to do something both wrong and unwise, and declining to do so was what made that particular conflict arise in the first place. I had been asked to acquiesce to a fait accompli, in a situation where it would have been appropriate to consult me first and where I strongly disapproved the proposed course of action, and I would not comply. 

In all honesty, I do not see how this is me projecting my Shadow onto the other person — but then I wouldn't, would I? That's the whole point about projection; you think the problem is in fact the other person when all along it's really yourself. So how is it possible to get an objective perspective on the scenario, and so get enough illumination to make progress?

Saturday, 28 December 2019


There is so much beauty in the world.

On Christmas Eve, there's that moment beginning the Kings College Cambridge radio-broadcast carol service, when into the silence one of the choristers sings the first verse of Once In Royal David's City.

There's the winter landscape, the sere brown of bare trees silhouetted against a silver sky, the gentle curves of farmland in shades of buff and cocoa.

There are the harmonies and descants of carols, the mellow grandeur of brass instruments, the ethereal magic of the harp, the strum of a guitar for Silent Night.

There's firelight as night falls, and the clear, cool air outside, the stars showing one by one, vivid against the navy blue sky.

There's the bright eye of the crow on the fence, come down for his meaty scraps.

Already in the grass, the sturdy spears of spring flowers are showing through, and a primrose is blooming amid the moss in our front garden.

Yesterday at a party, I sat gazing in delight at our friends' Christmas tree all lit with real candles —

— in their riotously sumptuous living room, the fruit of years of constant work and imagination —

And I wore the earrings Alice and Hebe made me for Christmas, from Kazumi pearls and opals and gold! Glorious. Such finery. Such expense, even to make. And it's not because they are rich — they are not — but because they love me. They made the box, too.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh. So much beauty.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Christmas loveliness

I wanted to show you a most beautiful Christmas gift, made for me by Hebe, who knew I had been searching ages for just the right Our Lady to go on my little altar shelf.

 She's standing in front of the card Hebe designed and made for her Christmas card this year.

Perfect. Our Lady, full of grace.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

May you be blessed this Christmas

My prayer for you, in this holy season and as 2019 comes to a close, is that you will find and trace the Christmas story in your hearts and in the ordinary circumstances of your everyday life.

Where — here, today — the vulnerable Christ is found, asking to be held, to be loved, to be fed, may your eyes be open to see him and your ears be open to hear him when he cries.

At the present time, just coming out of the UK general election in which our people, like the American people, have voted in those who use power not even selfishly, but (more than that) disastrously for everyone including themselves, I am so heartsick I hardly know how to live from day to day. What we have put in place spells destruction for all that as Christian people we are called to protect and defend — creation, the poor, the sick and disabled, the stranger, the orphan and widow. As inequality widens and deepens, our mortality rate rises and the power of Mammon bites deeper, the grief and sorrow in my heart feels like more than I can bear. But this is where we are.

Here, in this time and place, and no other, we are called to lived the gospel, to gather up the fragments that remain so that nothing may be lost.

May your home, your conduct towards others, your daily choices, your personal relationships, be the warm handmade bricks to build the kingdom. May the love of Christ be realised in your life, and set you free from every clinging sin. May you be happy, may you be at peace, and may you be made whole.

Blessed feast of the nativity to you, dear friends; may Christ be born in your heart this holy night.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Thomas Becket icon made by Alice Wilcock

The feast of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury falls on the day of his death, which was 29th December 1170. 

But today, December 21st, was his birthday — and he was born in 1119, so nine hundred years ago today — which is why we chose this day rather than his feast day to bless the icon of Thomas Becket our Alice has made.

It's not a traditionally made Orthodox icon, but is made according to her own design and methods, but it is of sacred making and she is a person of faith. In the same way, our blessing ceremony did not use the form of words from the Orthodox Church, but was a liturgy of our own household.

This is the icon Alice made:

His attire is based on vestments from Sens Cathedral, that belonged to Thomas Becket. His orphrey is depicted in white gold (in icon vernacular, gold carries the same meaning as white). Red robes are traditional in depicting Thomas, because the manner of his martyrdom was so bloody. Green is also the colour of martyrs, so Alice has used green in the stone in the sword and in the design on his chasuble.

The sword through Thomas's head represents the way he was murdered; the staff and episcopal cross he carries are because he was an archbishop.

The icon, painted in egg tempura on a water gilded gold background, is intended to be highly decorative, because Thomas loved exquisite craftsmanship and had a taste for opulence and luxury, which, incorporated with his shrewd management skills, led to a substantial accumulation of wealth.

His appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was politically motivated out of personal interest by King Henry, but this backfired spectacularly when Thomas's attitude underwent a dramatic transformation. In our icon, the pall — a woollen cloth made by nuns, to remind bishops of the Christian imperative of humility — is shown very prominently, as Alice believes he took seriously this aspect of his calling as an archbishop.

The description of Thomas that Alice worked with, in designing the icon, came from an Icelandic saga, probably deriving from Robert of Cricklade's Vita, and ran as follows:
Slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and loveable in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.

He wore hair cloth next to his skin, then stamin (coarse wool) over a black cowl, then the white cowl in which he was consecrated. He also wore his tunic and dalmatic, his chasuble, pall and mitre. The design on the mitre and the chasuble in Alice's icon are based on those in the mitre and chasuble actually belonging to Thomas.

Below the waist, Thomas wore drawers of sackcloth and, over those, others of linen. His socks were made of wool and he wore sandals on his feet.

This is the first icon Alice has made starting from scratch with her own design and concept (as distinct from following someone else's design under tuition), and she says she hopes next time to get the gilding more perfectly even.

We blessed the icon in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with living water from the spring at the bottom of the hill, and marked it with the sign of the cross with Boswellia sacra oil, both of which (water and oil) we blessed in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

On the cover of our blessing ceremony, you can see his halo was not yet painted in. As is the custom, Alice left that to be the last thing she painted before we blessed it.

Here is the form of words we used for our ceremony of blessing:

All things are connected.

The mystery passes through us
that is also in the movement of rivers,
in murmurations of birds,
in the shaping of snowflakes
and the course of the stars.
It is also found in the work of human hands,
Touching the mystery of clay and wood, of pigment and precious metal.

The mystery has its own power and its own wisdom.
When we find our true nature,
when we connect with each other
and with who were were born to be,
then meaning flows, healing,
and things become beautiful.

Everything that is becomes an icon of mystery,
shines like burnished gold with the beauty of light,
communicates the wisdom and power
of mystery often hidden, always there.

Now we step into the circle of power and wisdom;
we claim our place in the web of being,
the matrix of blessing,
the flow of making and mending.

We give thanks for Thomas Becket:
his courage,
his willingness to speak truth to power,
his shrewd and capable management skills.
May these qualities become ours too;
But with that give us diplomacy, and kindness, and discretion.
May we learn from Thomas
what to choose and what to avoid.

We bring our icon to God
And place it reverently in our gathered circle.

In the name of the Maker,
May it be holy and blessed;
May our lives also be holy and blessed.

In the name of the Mender,
May it be a source of healing;
May our lives also be a source of healing.

In the name of the Mystery,
May it quietly tell a story of wisdom;
May our lives also quietly tell the story of wisdom.


Thomas is now in residence on the shelf in our living room from his birthday today until his Feast on December 29th, at which point he returns to his regular home in Alice's room.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

New thing

Hi friends

Just to let you know

I've added a new link list in the side-bar (the column on the right hand side of my blog), called "To join in with prayer online".

The links there all take you out to sites offering opportunities to join in worship. It's worth having a look through to see what you like, because they aren't all the same thing. 

A couple of the monastic ones have a permanent live webcam in their chapel, so even if there isn't a service on you can see whoever comes through — like a monk finding the page in the breviary, for instance — or just the darkness if its the middle of the night and they've turned the lights off.

The Thomas Merton ones are YouTube videos, and when you get to the page you select the video you want to watch.

The New Pilgrim Path site has lots of links to other sites, rather than itself being a place to pray.

Canon Williams prays the office is him in his study doing exactly that live-streamed on Facebook, twice a day for Morning and Evening Prayer — but it's on US time, so I haven't managed to connect with it yet because I'm always doing something else by the time he thinks it must be the morning.

The Pope has his own daily prayer site, called Click To Pray, and the equally catchily named Pray As You Go is one friends have recommended.

Anyway, see what you think. Let me know if you especially like or don't like any, or if you can recommend some I've missed — I'll add them in.

To find the list, scroll down past the pics of my book covers and the list of my published work, and the new link list is the first thing you get to after those. 

I am real

A friend of mine has recently made a move away from social media. This is a decision I understand, and I sympathise with her choice. 

The world of social media leaves a person feeling battered at times, and I think it has a tendency to intensify feelings of helplessness and anxiety as we face the rising problems and sense of threat in the modern world.

I spent some months away from social media myself, and noticed on returning to it to reconnect with friends I missed, how quickly I felt swamped by the dismay and, in many quarters, outright fear, at the deepening horrors of climate change and the steady rise of ruthless élites voted into power by gullible traditionalists.

In shaping and developing a life without the social media where she was once very present, my friend sometimes feels lonely. In writing about it, she speaks about remedying the situation by spending time with a "real friend", in contrast to a friend online. She reflects on the transition from online relationships to "real" ones.

I would like, if you will permit it, to encourage you in the direction of contrasting "offline" (rather than "real") with "online".

Many of you who read here have never sat in the same room with me. Even so, our exchanges and the friendship that has grown between us is real. Though you may have only ever communicated with me here, on Facebook, and by email, I do assure you — I am real.

The things I say, I really believe, and I think the connections we make online may be among the most strengthening aspects of our lives in these times of fragmentation, as pockets of despair deepen and fester.

Social media isn't a helpful environment for everyone, and certainly some people interact there more constructively than others. But the re-allocation of something you no longer engage with as not "real" rings an alarm bell for me. It is the tendency of thinking other people are in some way not human, not real, that permits and encourages social cruelty. It begins with thinking they don't matter because they are not fully human. This one mistake is very evident in racism, sexism and homophobia.

It is true that if you don't like what I write you can unfriend me on Facebook, unsubscribe from my blog, shut down the page, turn off the device. But even then, I am still here and I am still real, just as you are; only, disconnected and no longer in conversation.

We are physical as well as imaginative beings, and I think it is healthy for us to be physically in one another's presence — a hug, a handshake, a cup of tea together; these contribute vitally to our wellbeing.

We do also have the opportunity to make the effort to meet up physically with friends we've met online — and doing so can broaden our horizons considerably. Many people whose interactions centre on social media are either poor or disabled, so that travel or participation in clubs and societies and other traditional gatherings is limited for them. It is for me. I live well and contentedly, but that's partly because I accept these limits.

But, thinking of what my friend had to say, let me reassure you, I am real — and if you would like to meet up for a cup of coffee, you might feel brave enough to get in touch and say so. 

I am as real as you are. It's just that you are there and I am here. The nice thing about the internet is that it connects us. 

I think my own most powerful experience of social media was the night Troy Davis was executed — September 21st, 2011. 

From what I have read, this was a terrible miscarriage of justice. As frantic last-minute attempts to save his life, by stay of execution or by clemency, were deliberated, Troy Davis lay strapped to the gurney awaiting the outcome. As the hours drew out into the night, gradually the news channels shut down. Only Amy Goodman of Democracy Now kept her channel open, acknowledging how much this mattered. Around the jail, waiting, a quiet crowd kept a candlelit vigil. All round the world, people like me were praying, were gathered; and our link was, primarily, Twitter.

I was in Hastings, UK. Troy Davis was in the US state of Georgia. But I have always been grateful to Amy Goodman, always remembered her, because she kept her channel open through the night. I never knew the individuals who tweeted as the hours dragged on, informing our prayer, keeping watch together, but I have to say it was one of the most profoundly real experiences of my life, and in truth it was a great deal more real than quite a range of social encounters that have happened to me offline.

It can feel frustrating at times, to make these links and connections that may never be physically fulfilled. I'd love to visit Bean in Indiana, meet up for prayer and conversation with Julie in Minnesota, sit down for a coffee with San in Lancashire, but it may be I never will. 

I met my friend Deb Sokell online. She'd read my books and got in touch through this blog. We corresponded by email, and one by one as my books came out she read them and enthusiastically reviewed them on Amazon, God bless her. Deb was a crafter, working textiles. She never had much money, so from time to time we used to send her fabrics and trims and such things, and she loved getting a parcel through the mail. 

At the end of Deb's life, we had a few last brief exchanges. When she went into the hospital, desperately ill, she emailed me to say the last thing she'd done was buy all nine of my Hawk & Dove series for her Kindle. She wanted to read them in the hospital, and she wanted me to have some money (from the sale of them) she said. I cannot tell you how deeply that touched me. She needed some crafting things (colouring and card-making), so I rushed out to the shops and got her some bits, packed them up quick and sent them by the fastest postal service available, so she had the joy of making some cards in the hospital.

Her mother let me know, at Deb's wish, by addition to the long thread of email correspondence between Deb and me, that they'd moved her into the hospice for end of life care. And then communication went dead. I enquired by email, and begged that they let me know, but I heard nothing more. I suppose, for Deb's relatives, I was not a real person. I searched and searched online for any news, again and again, but never found any. But I keep her in my email contacts, and still have her address in my Amazon address book — I used to send her my books one by one as they came out, because she couldn't afford to buy them. She said she sat excitedly under the letter box (mail slot) waiting for her parcel to arrive. I still have her as a favourite seller on my Etsy account. These online traces are the echoes of her life, and I treasure them. We never met face to face, and I don't even know what Deb looked like. But was she not a real friend?

Really here, this quiet and chilly December day, in Hastings, England.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

I love living with artists

An artist's Christmas is a bit like a builder's Christmas, in that people emerge out of the woodwork with only days to spare, hoping their ambitious project can be completed and returned to them in time for Christmas Eve.

So this last week in our house has seen the arrival of an absolutely mahoosive screen which, yes, is wanted back in time for Christmas, complete with a design of stars and a whole lot of lettering, all drawn and gilded.

Thus came about the following remark in our kitchen this evening:
"I've finished cutting out the stars, so when we've had our tea we can arrange them and then take some photographs."

It's like an alternative version of the Book of Genesis, isn't it?

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

The glorious balancing act of living simply at Christmastime

Among friends online I've seen a resurgence of this excellent  piece from 2012 by George Monbiot.

I'm grateful for it coming round again — it made me revisit and reconsider some of my own choices and habits. 

Oscillations, vacillations, hypocrisy and half-baked principles are regular features of my life, as they are for most people. When I review it all from time to time, I can come up with some useful observations, and notice some strengthening patterns, evaluating them in deciding a wise way forward.

Tentatively, because your life is different from mine and you won't want the same modus operandi, I offer you some of my thoughts on living simply through the Christmas season.

1. Decorations. 
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, because it is indeed the season to be jolly. Trying to ignore it completely and refusing to join in doesn't cheer up anyone, including yourself.

In our house, we have two approaches, and I'm not ever so much for or against either. Hebe and Alice do buy baubles for the tree — and a tree to put them on; but they choose these with immense care. They have one small artificial tree, and buy one real tree. The decorations are unpacked with great care, and are often beautiful, handmade items. They (and the artificial tree) are stored with great care too — so each item lasts, and is appreciated for, decades. When Christmas is over, the real tree is taken down the garden and  allowed to die. Once it's dried out, Tony cuts it up into small bits for kindling, not for the next year but for the year after that. So, no waste there, and I'm happy with that approach.

My own approach is different. I like Christmas music, and I enjoy the Carols at Kings that comes on the BBC every year. I send a (very) few cards. I like fires, and I like candles. Candles, however,  generate waste and make the walls sooty. I way prefer beeswax as it purifies the air and is healthy, unlike paraffin wax, but it costs a lot. I use tea lights in jam jars, as that minimises wax and mess, but you do end up with all those little aluminium cups at the end. I experimented with an LED candle, and was shocked by how short was the battery life. Then I found online a 12-tealight charger base with candles. I can plug it in so the candles charge from the power supply (we have solar panels), and they last absolutely ages. 

I hesitated ages, asking myself if this is yet one more mass-produced plastic gimmick  But, honestly? I'm glad I got it, and use it all the time. So rechargeable candles, fires, Christmas music, carols and church, and greeting friends — that's my basic approach to Christmas. I like wandering round the streets and looking at the lights; but I wouldn't be heartbroken if they weren't there, so don't run away with the notion I'm importing trash-consumerism into other people's lives.

2. Homemade things
I'm going to put my head above the parapet now and say I have deep reservations about the unqualified enthusiasm for all things handmade.

Take, for instance, the burgeoning trend for yarn-bombing, and for knitting more twee acrylic angels than the hosts of heaven, to scatter throughout the world's public spaces as unsolicited gifts. My advice to you? Don't do it. It's nothing more than arduous littering.

In the same way, think carefully before you re-direct your consumerism in support of artisans on Etsy. Our children's grandmother (not my mother — she just did ten quid each and do what you want with it) used to go to the church bazaar and patronise all the stall-holders, to support the fundraising efforts of TearFund and TraidCraft and the Boys Brigade and whatnot. She'd trawl home all this hideous loot and palm it off on her unappreciative children and grandchildren at Christmas. It's not a good move to buy what people want to sell you instead of what you actually want, just to support a women's co-operative in Bangalore.

This year I briefly considered buying some traditional wooden Nordic bowls at eye-watering prices from a craftsperson living in rural Sweden who has health issues. I still experience regret at withdrawing from making the purchase. It's just that I haven't got enough money and nobody wants them.

I'm not saying you should abandon the idea of home-made presents. I darn and darn and darn again the beautiful blue socks Alice knitted me a few years ago. I wear all winter the hat she knitted me a year or two back. I look forward with slavering jaws to the Christmas cake Tony's daughter Carrie makes us every year. 

We've sometimes made each other little books of poems and quotations, and when I'm asked to take responsibility for the Christingle at the chapel along the road from us, I make them a carol booklet with lovely pictures so the children have it to take home at the end (as well as the Christingle candle they made).

Home made lemon curd or fudge or cookies can go down a storm. What's important is to start the imaginative journey with what will please the recipient, and think how to source it; not start with who wants to make and sell things, then try and figure out who you can dump them on.

Of course, if you have the money to spend, the work of an artist or craftsman is true heirloom material. Like these Keith Brymer Jones cups to which I treated myself this autumn (but the plates are all from charity shops):

3. Packaging
This is surely a big issue. We watched an episode of the BBC programme, The Christmas Factory the other night. It took us through the journey of making a Marks and Spencer Christmas cake. The ingredients were of very good quality — actual food, as you might say — but we were shocked by the plastic waste generated in the act of mass-production. The factory workers had to wear polyester hair nets. The icing sugar came in large bags which were emptied then thrown out. Then the icing sugar had to be bagged up again in its new form as fondant icing, for transport to a different area of the factory. Things were packaged and re-packed, wrapped in cling film, bagged up, numerous time before the final packaging of the final product. It had never occurred to me before that the packaging in which you buy store-bought food is just the tip of the iceberg. They must have used enough clingfilm to throw twice round the moon wrapping up the different ingredients as the cakes travelled through the production process. And that's before getting on to the lorries and all the food miles to get them in to the stores. So, when it comes to food, I think home-made is definitely the way to go. Unless you personally wear polyester hairnets every time you set foot in the kitchen, and swathe each stage in cling film. If you do that, go ahead and get your cake in Marks, it doesn't matter.

4. Second hand
I confess to ambivalence on this one. I'm a huge fan of buying second-hand from private sellers on eBay. It's making life work for all kinds of people with hidden/not-hidden disabilities, people struggling with poverty for all kinds of reasons. It re-uses items already produced, and reduces waste immensely. It makes the money go further, so either you need less (and so are less tied in to the System) or if you like your job and have loads of money, well, it leaves you more spare to give away. There are plenty of good causes.

This year I wanted new warm PJs. I got two sets. One cost me £3, the other cost me £8, both were brushed cotton (flannelette, winceyette, you know the stuff), second-hand on eBay. Apart from anything else, this meant the first owner had endured the fabric shrinkage; the size they came to me is the size they will stay, which is helpful.

So when it comes to clothes shopping, second-hand from a private seller on eBay is my unhesitating first choice. I do sometimes buy new, but only when I can't find what I'm looking for second-hand.

But gifts . . . hmmm. I wanted to give my mother a lovely soft wrap in cashmere and silk for Christmas, but I didn't want to pay what they cost. So in her case, as her eyesight is fading and the stakes are lower, I bought second-hand on eBay. 

For my grandson, I will buy transformer toys on eBay, because he wants specific models and some have gone out of production.

I will occasionally buy second-hand books on eBay or Amazon. And when it comes to clothing and other gifty things, I will look for unwanted gifts sold on, or ends of lines, factory outlet stock etc. And I wait for the sales. 

It all keeps costs down, allowing me to live as I wish and still source what I need. It minimises waste. eBay is also good for small sellers of all kinds — eg UK makers of socks from their alpaca herds, or home knitters. 

5. But wait — should we be buying gifts at all?
A couple of years ago, I gave up the whole Christmas gift scenario. And I personally don't mind if people give me presents or not. 

I found it a huge relief and financially very helpful to stop the Christmas gifts. I still got something for my very old mother and for my grandchildren, but left it at that.

But this year, things are different. Two family members who were part of our household last year now live elsewhere — but they live alone. It can be dispiriting just doing Christmas all by yourself. It's nice to get a box from your family at Christmas. Then, one of my daughters is a wife and mother — husbands and kids aren't always great and knowing just what mama wants, are they? So we started up presents again. I'm pleased we have, and at the same time I wish we hadn't. And overall I don't think it matters much either way. The Lord provides, and the important component is the love.

6. And the food
We've gone back to Abel and Cole. They bring the boxes of groceries and leave them in our porch, which is massively helpful, reducing car dependancy (okay, I know they have a van, but then all the customers use it). They allocate you a delivery day and time, to reduce food miles.

The food is completely unpackaged where possible, or comes in recycled paper. The mushroom boxes look like some kind of paper maché. Where packaging is used, it's compostable. Our delivery driver, Steve, picks up last week's boxes, and the string. He also takes away the insulation, which is sheep wool wadding encased in recycled and recyclable covers. All their products are organic, high welfare, mostly British.

We do also shop at Trinity Wholefoods (a local co-op, also has a re-fill shop), Marks and Spencer (high welfare, British, good ethics), Sainsburys (lots of organic groceries, good ethics, local produce) and Asda (cheap, and gradually experimenting with organic food).

However dedicated you may be to simple living, I expect you feel you've read enough now.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

José Feliciano and Oliver Sacks

I wonder if you know Oliver Sacks's book A Leg To Stand On.

It's an interesting and illuminating exploration of neurological functioning, like all his work.

In this book, he explores how proprioception works, traced through his own experience of breaking his leg in a hill-walking accident.

He was in hospital for a while, then had to convalesce; during the recovery and rehabilitation, he lost the proprioception of his leg.

Proprioception is where your body recognises one of its parts as integral to the whole organism. When proprioception is lost, the nervous system rejects that body part as something that doesn't belong to you — a horrifically disconcerting experience. Sacks describes occasions where patients have discovered what they perceived as the leg of a cadaver in the bed with them, and tried to throw it out in disgust — only to find themselves inexplicably on the floor with it (since it was their own leg).

He describes how some people lose their body memory in this way, and can only do simple actions like drinking a cup of tea by conscious focus and effort. It really is a book that opens your eyes.

Sacks had a miserable time recovering from his accident; the physio sessions were challenging and his progress slow.

Then one day a friend came to visit him, bringing the gift of some recorded music (back then, a cassette tape for a Walkman, I imagine). It was a favourite — Mendelssohn, I think he said. gratefully and appreciatively, he listened to it. Then it was time to go for a physio session, where t his astonishment he found he progressed much better than usual.

The music continued to play in his consciousness during the physio session, facilitating the integration and healing of his nervous system. He began to get better.

He discovered by these means that the nervous system operates, as he put it, like a kinetic melody. Playing music supports it.

After I read that (some decades ago) I began to hum tunes to myself when I had to go into environments that tend to stress and fragment my nervous system — supermarkets, for example, or urban driving — by overwhelming levels of stimuli.

I found that some tunes and types of music particularly help and support my functioning in such environments. Schubert's Trout Quintet does the trick, and some rock and roll music — I think it's the strong rhythmic beat, that I experience as cheerfulness.

I've just discovered a new song to add to my Neurological Proprioception Playlist — José Feliciano's Feliz Navidad. As it's also seasonal, for your enjoyment — here it is.