About hilarycustancegreen

I am a writer with broad interests, having worked until recently in brain science and in the past as a sculptor. Both these subjects and many others creep into the writing. In this blog my hope is to reach the men and women from WWII whose story is in my custody. To digest some of the reading that I consume. To share my publishing experiences with others, perhaps. For the rest this is a new venture, I will see what transpires.

For Cynthia, The delights of poetry – A Spike of Green and 6 Yellow Tulips

Dear all, I gather that the lines of poetry are showing incorrectly in some browsers. I can’t correct them as they are fine in mine – so sorry.

This is a transcript of a speech I made at Toastmasters (where I am learning about public speaking). I don’t know if it will work as a post, but I know many of you will miss Cynthia Jobin as much as I do. The speech was restricted to between 5 and 7 minutes and was about using language clearly, simply and directly. Several members of the audience did not have English as a first language and for some of them poetry was an unknown pleasure.

I was so determined to have 6 tulips in flower, that I slightly overdid it. 

 

Poetry delights me. And for the next few minutes I’d like to show you just a few of the ways in which it does so.

In a poem called The Storm, Walter de la Mare starts

First there were two of us, then there were three of us,                                                 Then there was one bird more,                                                                                     Four of us–wild white sea-birds,                                                                               Treading the ocean floor;                                                                                               And the wind rose, and the sea rose,                                                                           To the angry billows roar

The storm and the birds keeps on growing until there is:

A host of screeching, scolding, scrabbling                                                                   sea-birds on the shore.

And then he brings the birds and the storm gently to rest.

A snowy, silent, sun-washed drift                                                                                   of sea-birds on the shore.

Using words that sound like the story they’re telling, is perhaps the most familiar delight of poetry, but poems can work in a thousand different ways. They can, for instance, simply send a message. Here is one from William Carlos Williams.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten                                                                                                                   the plums                                                                                                                     that were in                                                                                                                   the icebox

and which                                                                                                                     you were probably                                                                                                         saving                                                                                                                           for breakfast

Forgive me                                                                                                                   they were delicious                                                                                                       so sweet                                                                                                                       and so cold

It reads like a post-it note, yet it’s also a tiny, unforgettable love-letter.

***

Lots of poems deal with universal subjects – the trials of love and the anguish of grief – and we can go to them for comfort. But what if you want to convey an experience that will be unknown to most of your readers? The C17th poet, Milton, was going blind, so he used the voice of the blinded biblical figure, Samson, to convey his terror:

Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,                                                         Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse, beyond all hope of light.

You may, I trust, never experience blindness, but I defy you to forget the passion and the beat of that cry – Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.

***

Poets love metaphors. So if I say: ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ you know I don’t mean it literally but you understand me – your imagination stretches and your brain enjoys that! T S Eliot made London fog vivid for us by making it behave like a cat.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,                                         Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…                                                 Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,                                                               And seeing that it was a soft October night                                                             Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

***

A particular delight for me in poetry is the layers of ideas. So you get two, or even three or four, for one. Here are a couple of simple lines by Alun Lewis [from Raider’s Dawn] written in WWII.

Softly the civilised centuries fall,                                                                                     Paper on paper, Peter on Paul

Lewis shows how both individual people and the long-term efforts of humanity are lost through war. Choosing Biblical names, Peter and Paul, reminds us that war is against the principles of Christianity (and most other religions). He points a finger at bureaucracy – paper on paper – because bureaucrats run wars. He has skilfully made one verb – to fall – do the work for all three ideas and at the same time he has seduced our ears with the alliteration – the repeated opening sounds – softly, civilised, centuries; paper, Peter and Paul.

 ***

Another thing poetry can do is make us feel understood. Little story – my brother was out on a walk with fellow ramblers, when the person beside him (a stranger) looked at a green shoot appearing out of the ground and quoted:

When I went out                                                                                                           The sun was hot                                                                                                            It shone upon                                                                                                                My flower pot.

And there I saw                                                                                                             A spike of green                                                                                                           That no one else                                                                                                           Had ever seen! [at this point my brother joined in]

On other days                                                                                                               The things I see                                                                                                             Are mostly old                                                                                                         Except for me.

But this green spike                                                                                                       So new and small                                                                                                         Had never yet                                                                                                               Been seen at all!

This poem was written by my grandmother in the 1930s and still appeals to small children today.

***

I want to dedicate this talk to an American poet, Cynthia Jobin, who died just before Christmas. Her writing is moving, scholarly, often funny, and to me utterly delightful. So here are the last three lines of a poem titled, Six Yellow Tulips:

Only being is a tulip’s work. Being                                                                             beauty against gloom. After a long winter                                                                   being the yellowest, gladdest thing in the room.

This is not a book review

[I keep writing posts and then letting them rot as drafts as I know I haven’t time to respond properly – so here is a thought from a few weeks ago.]

I have a modern dilemma. As a writer/reader/blogger I review books I love, but by no means all the books I read. I try to support fellow writers by reading their books, but if they write in a genre I don’t enjoy (horror, thriller, fantasy), although I sometimes buy, I don’t read them. There are some other genres (sci-fi, romance, chick-lit, historical fiction) where I’ll buy and read a few pages and occasionally the whole book, because I like the writer and am interested to see their work. Mostly I read general fiction, and a lot of non-fiction.

Tom Gauld cartoon

Tom Gauld cartoon

I recently read two books by authors I had come across online and expected to enjoy and in many ways I did. Both were fiction, but full of interesting subject matter, well-researched; the writing was fluent and grammatical and the proof reading was exemplary.  The first few chapters were enjoyable and yet as I read I fell into a state of simmering irritation.

The first one needed more editing. Some very strange ‘darlings’ that spoiled the atmosphere should have been cut. Most of the characters, including a very crucial one, were well-drawn and the pace was good. BUT the two protagonists and their whole story arc were straight out of central casting and belonged in a different book. The writing (for these two) was what my husband refers to as the ‘he gazed into her sunburnt eyes’ style. It was repetitive and very soupy.

The second was a very good read in many ways with a fascinating background and story. BUT, once more, the two main characters and their interactions were not credible. In this case the characters were undercooked, their behaviour towards each other age-inappropriate and the whiff of teenage romance in a serious setting was odd.

I really want to review these books and I cannot without hurting the authors.

Now, here’s the embarrassment, is this how my writing comes across to others? I still remember one very irritated reader/relative saying, why do you write like this when you could write like A S Byatt if you wanted to (I couldn’t, but I wouldn’t want to either). Were these books perfect for a different reader? Am I just reading out of my genre comfort-zone? Is this just the curse of the writer as reader?

I see that this post has become an (unintentional) demonstration of how dull writing becomes when you generalise instead of being specific – ah well!

Meanwhile winter has turned to spring – Hooray!

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Time for an Update

Apologies for my absence in January (first month missed since I started in 2013).

Winter aconites

Winter aconites

snowdrops

snowdrops

2016 was almost continuous mayhem. Some of it was wonderful. Surviving the Death Railway: A POW’s Memoir and Letters from Home was published, and has gone down well with the people for whom it was mainly written – relatives of the men who were prisoners with my father. It has pleased my own relatives too as my mother’s work during the war was not known to them.

Phyllis Custance Baker with grandchild

Phyllis Custance Baker with grandchild

I survived the terror of public speaking, giving five full lectures on the story of the book, and there are more lined up for this year.

However, still on the home front, there were family health problems that required a great deal of time and mental energy, but which are happily now mostly resolved.

Segukaku maple in late winter and birch

Segukaku maple in late winter and birch

Moving outwards the national outlook was, and is, depressing. Brexit was a shock and I fear for the future not only of many European friends, but also of those from further afield who feel alienated by the toxic rhetoric of the Brexit campaigners. I also feel desperately sorry for those to voted OUT, genuinely believing this rhetoric and thinking that vast new sums of money would now be available to the NHS, and that stopping Europeans coming to the UK will make Britons better off and having no idea that so many of the schemes in deprived cities round the UK are funded by Europe.

I would never have imagined that all of this would seem insignificant 5 months later. The new president of the USA is a nightmare of such vast proportions that it is difficult to see how the world will recover. Even if he does not cause WWIII or accelerate climate change beyond recovery (and I feel both are highly likely), I still feel diminished as a human being that people not dissimilar to me, voted for this man.

Pepper tree

Pepper tree

If I can see how to make a difference, I hope I will stand up and be counted. In the meantime it will contribute at the micro-level – supporting and caring for those closest and treating all humans as I would wish to be treated myself. We give to the men and women working at charities’ coal faces and we try and care for the environment at home. This all feels like bailing out the boat with a leaky bucket.

So, I am cultivating my garden, or rather starting work on clearing the next bit of fence for replacement; looking after the hedgehog (who reappeared yesterday); growing my garlic; publishing my husband’s book and re-starting my next novel. Life goes on. dscn0205dscn0204dscn0201-version-2

I wish you all courage in facing this even more less than perfect world.

Some trees for Christmas or an alternative Christmas tree

As autumn approached this year I was looking forward to splashing photos of my beloved Japanese maples all over the blog. Then there was too much going on at home and in the world; they seemed out of place and the moment passed. So I will send all of you – the happy, the sad, the politically bruised, the new parents, the newly bereaved, the travellers and the homebodies, the ordinary and extraordinary people who drop into my blog – some maples for Christmas.

dscn0019 dscn9945-version-2dscn0017 dscn0026 dscn0018 dscn0020 Below one of the nine maples that have seeded over the years beginning to grow in beauty.dscn9985-version-2

And the alternative Christmas tree…   screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-17-06-24

Have a wonderful holiday season, and see you next year.

Being Mortal, a message for writers, remembering Paris

Is mortality a subject you avoid?

Atul Gawande, the influential and clear-thinking American surgeon, wrote Being Mortal to think through those difficult decisions we all face if we are lucky to live a long life or unlucky and face an early but prolonged death. So yes, this might be a book some of us would instinctively avoid, yet I want to shout at everyone, young and old, READ THIS, because he shows you how to retake control.

If, as most of us do, we fear pain or prolonged weakness at time of our death, this book is a revelation. Gawande, with a curious and open mind, investigates current and historical end-of-life care and discusses what matters most and how it can be achieved. He learns from those quiet experts at the coal face, the dying, the relatives, the nurses and the carers, what questions to ask yourself and what questions to ask those you love. He emphasises the deep importance of asking those questions while in good health as well as when they need answering in extreme circumstances.

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This book is not difficult to read because it is so well written and full of real examples. It does, however, need courage if these are questions you always avoid or if you find clearly-discussed medical matters uncomfortable to read. The magic is that facing fear makes you feel better. This book gives you tools to cope with that fear and a sense of control over your mortality.

So, what does it do for writers along the way? Gawande looks at research into the differences between our experience during events and our memory of that experience. Being human, these are often contradictory – at the time we experience ‘the peaks of joys and the valleys of misery’, but when we remember it is ‘how the stories works out as a whole’. So a really entertaining football match in which your team performs blissfully for hours can be ruined by some bad football at the end. Why? ‘Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.’ [my italics] The Peak-End moment is what matters to memory.

Last Tuesday night I read two poems from Paul Stephenson’s recent pamphlet, The Days That Followed Paris, at the Cambridge Speaker’s Club – our Toastmaster’s venue. Listener’s found these as moving as I did; they convey the mood – strangeness, fear, pain and warmth – of those days. I read Safety Feature and Blindfold [about that brave muslim in the Place de la République].   dscn0101-version-2

Shiny red shoes

There are still small joys to be had in this time when disappointments are on a scale too large to comprehend. In my twenties I used to run around at Art College in bare feet and once got hauled into a room where there was a Karate class, because the teacher wanted to show the class an ‘ideal’ karate foot – an ageing foot that was once ideal for Karate does not fit comfortably into 99% of women’s shoes. After wearing the same two pairs for the last few years, I have at last found, and bought (two very separate actions), a pair of comfortable, respectable shoes. As I sat on a sofa looking at my feet last night I felt for a moment that toddler-like wonder at the sight of my splendidly shod feet.

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I send my deep commiserations to my shocked American friends. We are equally shaken on the other side of the ocean.