Monday, 14 January 2019

The Spiritual Work of Memory

Over the last two years I've spent hundreds of hours scanning my paternal grandfather's extensive photography collection. My aunts and father have shared with memories they had forgotten, jarred loose from some mind crevice after seeing an old photograph.

Gathering family stories together is about more than names and dates. Much more, in fact.

For me the work also carries with it certain spiritual dimension. Through discussions with living family members combined with my own memories, I am able to extend the lives of my relatives beyond the grave.

All of us called to do this work are a kind of ghost whisperer, conjuring our dearly departed ones from the edges of our minds and bringing them to life again through the beauty of the internet.

My great grandmother, Martha "Petee" Lapin, was born in Rush Center, Kansas in 1883. She was married at 16 and buried a baby daughter within a year. ⠀
Of her remaining three children, one boy was dead at 3 and a second son died by 28. Only my grandmother survived. She lived to be almost a hundred.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Color photo of Petee Lapin with her two younger sisters.
My great grandmother with her sisters. circa mid-1950s.

Life was extraordinarily hard for Petee in other ways, too. She grew up in rural poverty before the spread of automobiles and never created a career for herself. But like so many western women, she made the very best of it, planting and canning with each new season; moving to find work, including leaving her adolescent daughter with friends to work the oil fields of Texas; celebrating her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

She was one of the shortest people I've ever known. In this photo I am probably 7 and almost as tall as she is. Were she to step off the back porch, we would probably be the same height.
Petee with me on the back porch of her home. Taken in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
I remember this back porch very well. In our time together she had already lived in this tiny house for probably thirty years. When I was a kid and visiting her and my grandparents and my two aunts, I stayed in the tiny house opposite the one in the picture below. My grandparents and aunts lived in the second house for a few years.
Martha Lapin with two unknown adults and my father. Idaho Springs, Colorado

She is probably in her mid to late 40s in this picture. My father thinks the two unknown adults might be the couple who "opened their home in Denver to mother when she was attending East high school and Petee was in the oil camps."

The outhouse I used as a kid is behind her, the tiny house-like structure sitting in front of the mountain.⠀
Our time together was compressed. In all my memories she had lost her eyesight and most of her hearing. In 1975 Montgomery Wards, the old catalogue department store, transferred my father and us to Hong Kong.

Sometime between the photo of me and Petee on the back porch and 1975 Petee moved in with my grandmother and grandfather and succumbed to the ravages of dementia.

Like so many children, my grandmother cared for her until her death, washing and feeding her, and distracting me and others when Petee would follow whatever haunted her mind and scream her lungs out. Sometimes she yelled for what seemed like hours at a time. By 1976 she was dead.⠀⠀
If anything, I grew up not with Petee the person, but with Petee the legend: tiny western woman, a single mom, working odd jobs, doing what had to be done, before indoor electricity, before indoor plumbing and before indoor heating. ⠀

The legend grew out of the truth of her life. But we never had opportunities to discuss her life, her choices or her interpretation of all of what happened to her. Even so, she seemed bad ass to me.⠀
Her life always reminded me of the Hank Williams, Jr. lines from "A Country Boy Can Survive"⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I can plow a field all day long /⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I can catch catfish from dusk 'til dawn/ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke, too.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Our family line will end when my brother and I pass on. When I go there won't be anyone to remember Petee, or me, quite frankly. The work I am called to do with my grandfather's photography archives is a spiritual one.

These memories and reflections, are, for the time I am alive, a kind of life after death for Petee and my grandmother and grandfather.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The brave new world of cli-fi? By Alex Marchant

In 2006, I started writing seriously again (‘seriously’ in the sense of aiming for some sort of goal; ‘again’ in the sense that I used to write in my teens and early 20s, but was sidetracked by that annoying thing called ‘life’). Little did I know at the time that I was embarking on an example of what was then a newly coined genre of fiction. Or in fact, not yet quite coined, as I discovered this week.

That newish genre is ‘climate fiction’, or ‘cli-fi’ for short – an abbreviation that is rather apt as often cli-fi appears as a theme within science fiction, although it can be found within many other genres. The term was apparently coined in 2007 by journalist Dan Bloom, although it didn’t take off in the literary mainstream until 2013. Climate change was a theme within fiction for many years before either date (for example, Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole (1889) and Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971) – it was just that by 2013 it was recognized as a rapidly growing literary trend, in poetry and drama as well as prose.

Discussion of cli-fi came to my notice in a book I’m copyediting as part of my day job (I don’t generally keep up with trends in the literary world, rarely even reading the review section of my preferred newspaper). It’s a fascinating volume of essays on the relationship between climate and literature, from the earliest historical writings to the present day, covering subjects as diverse as classical attempts to explain weather patterns, the influence of climate on the Romantics and the rise of the Anthropocene. I’d not appreciated before just how important climate is in Shakespeare – despite long ago studying both Macbeth with its ‘hurly-burly’ and The Winter’s Tale with ... well, I guess that’s fairly obvious now I think about it... (And as for other authors discussed, I will just mention at this point how much wuthering there is going on outside as I write this, here in the depths – or I should say, rather, the heights – of the Bronte moors.)

Top Withens, thought perhaps to be the model for Wuthering Heights

I love the variety that my day job brings. I work on non-fiction books for academic publishers, tackling a range of subjects, from archaeology and anthropology to history and international relations. And every so often something crops up that feeds into my writing - maybe an idea for a new piece of work or a tidbit that provides background colour for a work in progress. This is the first time, though, that I’ve discovered I may have been ahead of the curve in terms of contemporary literature.

Well, maybe I wasn’t, if I’m being totally honest. Although I began writing my ‘cli-fi’ novel, Time out of Time, in 2006, and even finished a draft with which I was mostly happy about six years later, it’s still sitting on a shelf waiting for me to do something more with it. I submitted it to a few agents and publishers, but then was sidetracked (again) by the idea for the books that I have now actually published. My aim for this year is to return to and polish the earlier novel in order to self-publish – when (or if) I complete a first draft of the third book in my ongoing sequence, The Order of the White Boar. So it might be next year... or the year after.

When I began Time out of Time, I chose to work on that idea rather than another I’d had because the theme appeared more timely. A children’s adventure book about human influence on the environment and climate over several centuries – exactly what was needed to encourage kids to become eco-warriors, I thought. But here I am, thirteen years later... Is there a phrase to denote ‘after the curve’? Maybe it’s ‘missing the boat’.

Having said that, the academic essay laments the non-realistic nature of much cli-fi. Whether it takes the form of ‘climate thrillers, science fiction, disaster novels, crime and conspiracy novels, cyberpunk, horror, or fantasy’, the authors reckon that ‘the extreme scale of climate change has all too often led writers and film-makers to opt for implausible tipping-point scenarios [and] engage in an almost comic telescoping of the time taken for climatic change to unfold’. One genre that is not mentioned anywhere in the essay is ‘time-slip’ fiction. Given that Time out of Time is just such a novel, perhaps it’s not too late for me to be a groundbreaker with it. A child protagonist slipping through time and witnessing the gradual destruction wreaked by human beings on their own planet over eight hundred years perhaps doesn’t represent either ‘implausible tipping point scenarios’ or ‘comic telescoping of time’. But then again, maybe the term ‘realism’ doesn’t quite apply either. Nor is a realistic solution to the problems necessarily offered. (Alternative/splitting universes may not actually be a plausible answer to our current climate issues....) 

Still, perhaps I’ll give it a go. If nothing else, it might keep me out of the twenty-first century for a while longer – which at the moment might not be a bad thing.

(c) Ellie Foreman-Peck

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Learning from the Moomin Stories - Bronwen Griffiths

 Tove Jansson is the well-known author of the Moomin books, although she also wrote stories for adults.  Commendable as these stories are I have to admit it’s the Moomins I return to, over and over.  Not only are they wonderful stories, populated by a mix of weird and wondrous characters, but Jansson’s atmospheric black and white line illustrations also add an extra dimension.
     Jansson’s characters may be small creatures who don’t exist in the real world but their attributes are all too human. They are certainly not one-dimensional characters – and some are really quite odd and eccentric. There’s the lonely Groke who turns everything around her to ice, the pompous and bossy Hemulen, the fiercely independent Snufkin, the courageous and reckless Little My, the ever-curious Moomin, the shy and tremulous Sniff, and then there’s the ever present earth-mother Moominmamma, always available to comfort those in distress. But even the soothing Moominmama has another side to her personality. One day, feeling homesick, she paints a mural of Moominvalley on the lighthouse wall (Moominpappa at Sea) and vanishes inside the painting for hours.
            On the surface the Moomin stories appear to be about a family, and its friends and hangers-on, but Jansson writes about serious issues - our human need for love and acceptance. Loneliness. Anxiety. Loss. Uncertainty. Mortality.
Toft began thinking about himself again. His dream about meeting the family had become so enormous it made him feel tired…the whole of Moominvalley had somehow become unreal, the house, the garden and the river were nothing more but a play of shadows on the screen…He had been made to wait too long and now he was angry. (Moominvalley in November)
Toft is mad because the Moomin family aren’t home. Now, at the end of the book, as he wanders lonely and angry in the forest, he begins to understand that his view of the Moomin family and of Momminamma in particular, is idealised and unrealistic. He has grown-up.
Jansson writes so beautifully about our human foibles - our need to be loved and accepted, and to love in return. In Finn Family Moomintroll, after Moomintroll tries on the Hobgoblin’s hat, he becomes unrecognisable to his friends. ‘Your eyes are like soup-plates,’ said Sniff – ‘Moomintroll’s are small and kind.’ ‘Yes, exactly,’ Snufkin agreed. You are an imposter,’ cried the Hemulen. But Moominmamma recognises Moomintroll, and the moment she does, Moomintroll returns to his normal form.
            In Moominpappa at Sea Jansson writes about our need to be needed and to matter in the world. One afternoon at the end of August, Moominpappa was walking about in his garden feeling at a loss. He had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done or was being done by somebody else.  He decides to take the family off on a trip to an isolated island, which gives him purpose.
            While the family are away a number of other creatures visit Moominvalley (including Toft mentioned above) hoping to spend time with the Moomins. But they are disappointed. The Moomins do not reappear and an assortment of odd and rather obsessive creatures have to find a way of living together in the Moomin house without the family. Moominvalley in November – the last of the Moomin series – is about loneliness and disappointment and how to cope with it.
            Jansson also writes about what it is like to be an outsider. In fact most of the characters, with the exception of the Moomin family themselves are outsiders but the Moomins accept anyone with grace and kindness – except perhaps for the Groke who seems to be beyond saving. When the Muskrat appears at the door one night Moominpappa not only lets him in and offers a bed for the night but also offers him a glass of wine.
Jansson’s books tell us something about our place within the universe. In Comet in Moominland the earth is about to be swallowed up by the comet. Luckily, at the last moment the comet veers off course. If it had come a tiny bit nearer to the earth I am quite sure that none of us would be here now. But it just gave a whisk of its tail and swept off to another solar system far away, and it has never been seen since.
Jansson was originally a political cartoonist and her first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, written at the end of the war, is a reminder that life can be both unpredictable and frightening.
             The Moomins live far away from cities – theirs is the world of the forest, the mountains and the sea. The natural world is a place of great beauty but sometimes great terror. Here is Toft again. The forest began to thin out and huge grey mountains lay in front of him. They were covered with depressions full of boggy ground right up to their peaks…up there was nothing, just the wind. The sky was vast…everything was enormous. Toft looked behind him and the valley was just an insignificant shadow below.
            What we can learn from Jansson is how to write about the complexity of human relations. There is humour, pathos, fear and love in her work, as well as beautiful descriptions of the natural world.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels, A Bird in the House (2014) and Here Casts No Shadow (2018), and a book of flash fiction, Not Here, Not Us – stories of Syria (2016). Her flash fiction has been widely published – one of her latest pieces appears in the Bath Flash Fiction anthology of 2018. She lives on the East Sussex/Kent border.
Follow her on Twitter

Friday, 11 January 2019

365 Objects by Misha Herwin

The year in 365 objects

January 2018: Oppressed by bulging wardrobes, drawers that refused to shut and surfaces on which piles of papers teetered precariously, I resolved that I would begin a life laundry− a clear out of all superfluous objects. 

I had watched the programmes where chronic hoarders were helped to rid themselves of their stuff by professional de-clutterers; I’d read the articles that told you that unless an object filled you with delight then it had no place in your life. Neither, apparently, did garments that had not been worn for over a year. All these things should be moved on, rehomed to clear your house and so give you space that would work on both a physical and psychological level.

On one level, all this resonated with me. I knew I had too much stuff. The trouble was I did not have the mental, or emotional energy for the sort of clear out recommended by the professionals. Faced by the prospect of all my clothes being laid out for me to decide which were to be kept, which recycled and which binned was too much to contemplate. The very idea of taking them all out of the cupboard drained me of energy and enthusiasm for the project.

The only way for me, was to start small. Very small. So I decided that every day for a whole year I would get rid of, throw away, recycle or rehome one thing. It could be as big as a pair of shoes I had never worn, or as tiny as a pencil sharpner, but each day something would go and to make sure I kept to my resolution (and that what had been relegated to the throwing out pile could not sneak its way back) I would note down what I was decluttering in my diary. 

A year on and my dairy is full of headings such as, white bowl, old notebook, grey socks, china frog.
My experiment had been successful. The house was minus 365 unwanted, unused, un-loved or superfluous objects.

The frightening thing is that in spite of having shifted so much, there is no visible sign that anything has been removed, which shows how much of what I owned was neither necessary, nor life-enhancing. Most of it, I held on to simply because it was there. Among the last objects of 2018 were six soup bowls that had not been used in over twenty years. 

Now that these are gone, there is more room in the cupboard, but only marginally. There is still more crockery than I will ever need and no good reason for keeping it, except for a residual fear that one day it might come in handy.

This is the classic hoarder’s reasoning and totally spurious. It won’t ever be needed and if on the million to one chance it is, you can always buy or borrow another one.

I thought when I started this, that I would find it difficult and there were times when it was hard to decide what must go, but in general I found the whole experience liberating. Alghough as I said before, the house doesn’t look any different, it feels it. There is something very constraining about too much stuff. It presses down and hems you in; a cluttered workspace makes it more difficult to make decisions, let along wastes time that has to be spent in searching for that piece of official paper, which should have been filed, but which you didn’t get round to doing and is now buried deep in the in-box basket.

For some people not filing a document immediately is anathema, for others discarding one is impossible. I fit somewhere between those two extremes, but I now know that when everything is where it should be, I feel better, lighter, more relaxed. 

A year on, I crave more of that feeling of liberation. I have learned that very few things are irreplaceable and that the fewer things you have the easier life becomes.  No more staring blankly at six pairs of trousers deciding which one you will wear today, or scrabbling through the scarf drawer to find the one you thought you remembered from five years ago which would go perfectly with that particular outfit. 

Another thing I discovered was that while some things have so much emotional baggage attached to them, by taking a picture and filing that away, it is possible to move those on too. 

All in all 2018 was a de-cluttering success. So much so that I’m repeating the exercise in 2019.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

At Water's Edge | Karen Kao

Abandon the shoes that had brought you here right at water’s edge
This line comes from a magnificent poem called Finisterre. It was written by David Whyte, a poet, speaker, and healer of souls. I met him not long after I had abandoned my own shoes.

Finisterre is about pilgrimage: the ancient road to Santiago de Compostelo and the village that lies beyond, perched at the end of the world. It’s a poem about journeys, impossibilities and redemption. You, too, can come to the end of the earth and walk on water.

on the road

All writers start out on the same road. For some, the writing alone is enough. Writing is good. It cleans the blood and opens the pores. You can feel more when you write.

For years, I wrote and then I stopped. I felt too much. The moth emerges from its chrysalis to become a butterfly; I only wanted to crawl back inside and hide.

It’s easy to do. You fill your calendar with things to do, right away, more and more and more. Doing is easier than feeling. Doing makes you tired at night. It makes you tumble into bed and fall into a black sleep. No dreams. No writing.

None of us can live for long like that. You have to break out of that chrysalis or it will crush you. It almost happened to me. But I was lucky to escape the golden bonds that I had woven around myself. I began to write once more.


Silence is the theme that haunts me. The inability to speak, the shame of being heard. It’s a theme that crops up in all my writing, consciously or not. And still I struggle every day to speak, to say something meaningful, words that could only come from my heart.

I have an out-sized bulletin board that serves as my mind map. It’s an actual map of Shanghai, blown up many times over. I use it to follow my characters through the streets of Shanghai for the interlocking novels I hope will someday comprise The Shanghai Quartet. My mind map bristles with photos, old and new, newspaper clippings and bits of artwork. Anything that sparked my imagination when I first saw the city of my dreams and might again.

There's also a copy of Finisterre on my bulletin board. It's there to remind me to let go. To dare to walk on water.
not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread
Finisterre is from the collection Pilgrim by David Whyte.

Kurashiki, Japan. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This blog post originally appeared 2 November 2016 at Shanghai Noir. It was one of the first I ever wrote. Since this piece is about beginnings, it seems like the right time to share it here. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

‘He thought of the noise of the wind in the shrouds…’ by Julia Jones

And old Peter Duck looked down at her from the top of the quay and wished he was going too. 'Going foreign she is, to blue water,’ he said to himself. And he thought of other little schooners he had known, on the Newfoundland Banks and in the South Seas. He thought of flying fish and porpoises racing each other and turning over in the waves. He thought of the noise of the wind in the shrouds, and the glow of the lamp on a moving compass card, and tall winds swaying across the stars at night. And he wished he could go to sea once more and make another voyage before it was too late.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this passage (from chapter one of Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck) without a sense of longing. I’d like you to read it at my funeral, should you happen to be there. We printed it as the frontispiece for my mother’s service sheet, together with a photo of her climbing up the jetty at Eversons in Woodbridge in about 1947. 

The cruellest thing I ever did to Mum was to bring her inland. For many good reasons of course, just as Arthur Ransome’s character ‘Peter Duck’ has settled, apparently contentedly, on the inland waters of the Norfolk Broads, visiting his three daughters whenever the breeze sets fair in their direction, but privately compelled to come and sit on a bollard in Lowestoft Inner Harbour 'to look at the boats and the fishermen and to smell the fresh wind blowing in from the sea’.

Carl Herman Sehmel, Arthur Ransome's original 'Peter Duck'
Once Mum was stranded in agricultural Essex I had to stop reading her John Masefield’s Sea Fever -- it was too painful. We cheered ourselves with Wordsworth's daffodils and shivered at Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners which she loved both for the traveller’s horse and the reliability of the traveller himself, ‘“Tell them I came and no one answered / That I kept my word,” he said’.
As music lasts longer than speech so poetry outlives prose. Try this with scansion and line endings and the secret of its power becomes clearer:

And old Peter Duck looked down at her from the top of the quay
And wished he was going too.
‘Going foreign she is, to blue water,’ he said to himself.
And he thought of other little schooners he had known,
On the Newfoundland Banks and in the South Seas.
He thought of flying fish and porpoises
Racing each other and turning over in the waves.
He thought of the noise of the wind in the shrouds,
And the glow of the lamp on a moving compass card,
And tall winds swaying across the stars at night.
And he wished he could go to sea once more
And make another voyage before it was too late.

On the morning of Mum's death my brother, Nick, who insists (believably) that he never opens a book from one year’s end to the next and scarcely looks at a newspaper, went immediately to her bookshelf and turned to a poem. 

Iken Church
From the river’s edge
The sunlit tower invites you
To a pilgrimage.

Larks rise to meet you.
Round the tower in flint and stone
Saints wait to greet you.

 His single poem became two more when he looked a little longer in the slim, privately published book Wave Watch written by a family friend, Dr Ian Tait. 

The Need to Let Go
Today the waves are leaden,
Surprised by their own weight.
They lift themselves
For one last time
And collapse on the beach.

After so much travel, for ever
Holding themselves in shape
In all kinds of weather,
Their only thought
The need to let go. 

The Gulls
Orford disappears.
The sky sits down on the river’s edge
And sheens the tide-laid mud.
Sheep graze the river wall,
And little terns catch the eye
As they plummet into water.
I am sailing down river
On the last of the ebb
And the sea is waiting.

So, Nick and his children read Ian Tait's poems in the service and Claudia Myatt followed them with her lovely ‘June’sSong’. Francis recited a psalm, from memory, confirming it as poetry (or song). There were more words and hymns: a solitary flautist and the ever-evocative organ.

But when Nick and I took Mum’s body to the crematorium – just the two of us (our other brother Ned was unavoidably away) – we had no music, only poems and a prayer. The final poem I read to her before the curtains closed across the catafalque, the poem that had lasted longest in her life, almost to the end, was Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat 

The voyage was over, the wind in the shrouds had stilled

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, 
   They danced by the light of the moon, 
             The moon, 
             The moon, 
They danced by the light of the moon.

Peter Duck off Everson's jetty

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

PLS clear - a website to bookmark • Lynne Garner

Several years ago I was working on a story where I had a character reading aloud from a well-known book to an older relative. I wanted to include a few of the lines that were being read out. However I wasn't sure how much of it I could include, if any. I also had no idea how to get the permission I might need. So, when I rewrote it I still had my character reading aloud I just didn't include the words being read.      

How many of you have been in a similar position? Wanting to include a quote from someones else's book, feature, article etc. and not knowing how to get consent for that use. Thankfully there's now an easy way to gain the permission you require, PLS Clear.

Visit to quickly and easily request
permission for use of copyrighted material

PLSclear is designed and operated by the PLS (Publishers' Licensing Services) who collect revenue generated by people/companies paying to use a publishers copyright  (similar to the ALCS, who collect monies on behalf of an author every time their work is photocopied or used by someone anywhere in the world). 

For authors/writers seeking permission to use copyrighted material PLSclear is free to use. It allows you to secure the permission you need via an online account. It has a simple five step process, which allows an author/writer to search over 50 million titles. All you need is an online account and either the title of the book/magazine or the ISBN or ISSN. Once you've completed the online form the request is sent to the correct publisher and if your request is successful you can also pay any fee due via their service as well.   

I've not tried the service yet but I've bookmarked it just in case I write a similar scene. Perhaps it's a website you might want to bookmark as well.



Blatant plug time

Love a short story? Then why not check out my various collections of short stories (available as ebooks and paperback)?

Fox of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Brer Rabbit (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Coyote  (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Anansi The Trickster Spider (ebook £1.49/$1.49 - 16 stories)