Writing

Jessica Alba – how little did I know?

One of the things the series of biographic articles I’ve written for The Best You magazine has done for me is make me see famous people in more depth. The most recent article was about Jessica Alba, the actress who plays the Invisible Woman in the dismal Fantastic Four series of movies, and a stripper in Sin City.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed. But it also turns out that she is the founder and brains behind The Honest Company, essentially an American version of The Body Shop, which in under 5 years has risen to a valuation of $1.7 billion from start-up.
She runs the company ethically, has an emphasis on employing the young, often straight out of college, and is involved in numerous charities involved in promoting and lobbying for safe and ethical household chemicals. In the US, the FDA has banned only around 12 chemicals for use in the home, whereas the EU has banned around 1300.

She herself suffered terrible allergies as a child… and when she fell pregnant realised that one of the “child safe” detergents she was recommended by her mother brought her out in a serious rash. That was when the penny dropped. And so she has thrown herself into her role as founder and CEO of a massive ethical business.

These revelations surprise me and make me reassess the woman I see on the screen. As Sue Storm, she is mediocre, in a mediocre movie. But this other side to her makes me realise the limits of my own judgements of people. How little we know.

So, this brief note is in praise of the real Jessica Alba. Thank you for your work.

That Article 50 Letter In Full

That Article 50 Letter In Full.

Dear Europe, I thought I’d write a quick line
to say it was good fun, thanks for the stay,
the visit was lovely, but we’re off, today
so please – no more garlic, snails and fine wine.
About the war. When I said “thanks” are nice
– and you said “the EU is the thank you” –
how come? Strangers telling us what to do
is wrong… though, yes, the Empire was quite nice.
Brexit means Brexit, a red white and blue
one, let’s salute the flag, coz now we’re free
to climb into bed with Uncle Sam. See:
foreigners can’t shaft us! – Britannia rules!
So goodbye, toodle pip, we’ve seen the light,
who needs Puccini when we’ve got Marmite?

Turn The Tides Gently Part 2 – An Opening

Been working on an opening for Turn The Tides Gently part 2. So, here’s something I wrote months ago. What do you think?

MermaidI will call you “Marine” he says as he looks at the child. About nine years old. An urchin, grubby faced, caked with the mud she is sinking in.

Here, have another.

A sixpence arcs through the air, turning over and over head, tail, head, tail, head… it lands with the tail up supported on the unstable black mud for a few seconds before an arm of black water reaches over the top of it.

Her blackened hands scoop it up with a handful of stinking black silt before the boys can get to it. One of them, Ned, a red haired boy with a hare lip groans – “It ain’t fair. And it ain’t lady-like. Go on, taking our loot!”

She rubs the mud from the coin on her far-from-clean dress and drops it in her pocket as the steady psssh psssh of the engine in the station starts up. A whistle echoing around the port mouth.

Ned comes towards her, aggressive, “I’ll have it. Come on,” he holds his hands out. She eyes him narrowly and freezes, watching him closely. Then as he moves in to take hold of her, she darts sideways under his reach, turns and kicks him square in the back so he sprawls on the flat mud.

The onlookers, tourists delighted by this scene of urchin rivalry, laugh; a delicate woman in silver bodice and flowing skirt looking more troubled than amused. Low morals. Ships, shops and low morals. Thus Portsmouth.

Grace, the girl urchin looks up at her benefactor, a tradesman of some sort, in a bowler hat and a neat moustache, bushy and almost comical, like the Walrus and the Carpenter she saw a picture of in a book. A book. Can you imagine. Someone left it behind on a bench by the sea and she’d found it, and there it was – Alice and all her adventures.

“Thank you, mate – Sir,” she shouts up, grinning white teeth from the black slime.

“There’s more where that come from,” he calls back in a deep, playful bass. “Oh plenty more. You come and see me, girl. Yes.”

She thinks, cocking her head on one side for a few seconds, then –

“Yes. Yes, mate. Wait there.” And she grabs a handhold in the side of the dock wall and climbs up to the crowd, which pushes back as she flops on to the deck, a sprawl of black mud and slime.

Later, after she has walked a while with the stranger amongst the naval outfitters and public houses, past the Gunwharf arch, he looks at her and says:

“I know you. I know your face. I’ve seen your eyes.”

“Where then?” she challenges him, putting her hands on her hips like the women do who banter with sailors and soldiers in the backstreets at night.

“A dream,” he says, his eyes suddenly burning. “In a dream.”

She laughs at that. “We got no room for dreamers here,” she says as if she’s said it all her life, an echo of Tope, the landlady at the public house where she lives. “Drunk more like! In at the Duchess, I bet you were, and drunk!”

“No, I’ve seen you. We’ve met. You come to my workshop. North End. I’ll tell you more.”
He holds up another sixpence. “There’s more of this.”

She smiles and laughs.

“At the back of the farm,” he says. “The workshop.”

“All right then. I’ll be there,” she answers with a grin.

Extract from The Snow Witch – description of the town

snow-witch-cover-22a-copyWith this section of The Snow Witch, I decided to write a potted history of the town with a level of dark style. Hope you like it:

*

Sleep.

The city sleeps, contracted in the cold to a singularity of stone. An island city, surrounded by tides flooding from the south, running up its eastern side, swelling the creek that orphans it from the mainland, swirling through its western harbour where it welcomes boats disgorging shivering holidaymakers and businesspeople and soldiers and home-comers and refugees.

A city just 5 miles long, with tight furrows in which were planted, in the last century and a half, rows of terraced housing hunched in lines, braced against the gushing sea gale. Long before they grew, to the south of the island, a few bleak, isolated cottages stood beside a long, muddy beach. Within a few decades, the health-giving sea attracted a rash of tall villas set back from the shore, separated from the ever-moving water by a desolate common. Upon it, from time to time, troops marshalled under white canvas bell tents between furze bushes near a small fortress garrisoned with redcoats. Later, as the salubrious saline’s effects grew fashionable, bathing machines rolled in, a pier, beach huts, ice-cream stands, and, in the by-now obsolete heart of the lonely fortress, a model village. Later too, the great morass where the island’s river waters pooled, was channelled into a manmade lake – and so the plastic swans were trucked in, to move upon the face of the water.

Beyond this southern leisure resort, the real business of the island unfolded in the west. How often had marshalled troops marched from the common in drilled ranks to the dockyard and embarked on ships? To this day, beyond the seaside resort and the old town that stretches along a spit of land to a tiny, hook-shaped harbour, ferries and freighters and warships wallow in giant docks, waiting to transport people, and goods, and death.

All that can be found on the city’s western edge: at the dockyard, at the container quay, at the ferryport.

An opening to a story – would you read on?

snow-witch-cover-22a-copy
This is a revised opening to a novel I wrote some time ago. What do you think?

The Snow Witch

The snow has eased off, and she looks up at the morning light. She’s sucking on a cigarette, her face a delta of narrow chin and wide set eyes, her skin white beneath her black hair and the dirty woollen hat she wears over it.

Well, she says to herself, looking at the shopping precinct buried in snow. Here I am. What now?

She won’t run in this weather. No, not when it’s this bad, she thinks, sniffing the air, as if she can smell more storm, an instinct she learned when she was a kid living on a mountain in a foreign country – her homeland. She hitched in to this English town last night and ran for shelter – the shop doorway offering the best she could find.

So, what will she do?

Stay long enough to buy food, get cash and, finally, a ticket. This is her plan, as far as it goes.

So, she begins.

She selects a pitch beside an empty shop, and with a gentle knock and click, unslings her case and opens it. A violin. The familiar weight and curve of the neck presses her palm as the city wakes around her: pale shopkeepers, fluorescent council men, early-morning shoppers, red-flushed kids excited by snowfall.

Daylight hardens. Now, she thinks. She rests her chin and launches magical sound from age-dark wood.

Fresh, bright, sad – a trill of sensual notes dipping and turning in the winter light. The melody: alien, rich in hidden history, conjuring foreign terrain, snowclad peaks, a stream, the fresh scent of mountain pines.

Two fat boys gawp from the far side of the precinct, their hearts lifting. A young man behind thick glasses stops to look, his mouth agape in the chill air. An elderly lady slides on the ice with a deftness that speaks the green delight she felt before the years embrittled her bones.

No flakes fall near the musician, as her case fills with coins. After a while, she scoops them and wolfs hot pastries and steaming coffee before resuming, playing on through the day. When she rests in the darkening afternoon, snow begins to fall around her, piling whiteness on whiteness, laying a carpet of crystal beneath her feet.

Before she hurries away, she glances once more over her shoulder. No-one is following her, she notes with relief.

Conan Doyle and his belief in ghosts – a talk

Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light, 1887 - 1920, by Matt Wingett

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is renowned primarily for one thing: the creation of the world’s first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Yet, there was far more to the man, including his prominence in later life as a leading Spiritualist.

For many who regard Holmes’s rational take on the world as a wonderful example of applied logic and empiricism, his belief in ghosts can be something of an unfortunate fact that doesn’t fit in with their view. Many rationalise that after the death of his son, Kingsley, in World War I, Sir Arthur turned to Spiritualism for comfort, and became increasingly obsessed with the belief.

This view is wrong. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle first announced himself to be a Spiritualist in 1887 in a letter to the occult magazine “Light”. It was the very same year that his first novel starring Sherlock Holmes “A Study In Scarlet” was published.

Both of these events happened during a deeply influential period of his life in Southsea, where he was working as a GP at Bush Villas on Elm Grove.

How he came to be a devout Spiritualist, the twists and turns of his faith, and how he regarded his Spiritualism as for more important than his ficitional detective is a fascinating story. It involves ghost stories, poltergeist investigations, approaches from secret societies and a belief that science would one day prove the existence of the soul.

It’s this world that I explore in my book Conan Doyle and The Mysterious World of Light, 1887-1920, and which I elucidate in my talks on the matter.

I’m delighted when an audience finds out new things about this fascinating person. After all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very, very much more than a teller of tall tales, as my talk on the matter reveals!

A Talk at The Temple of Spiritualism, Southsea 5th Aug 2016

02 Arthur_Conan_DoyleA lovely email from Sue Hayes at the Southsea Temple of Spiritualism, where I gave a talk about Conan Doyle’s faith on 5th August 2016:
 
Dear Matt
Thank you so much for your talk, knowledge and enthusiasm that you displayed in the Temple on Friday evening. As you were aware from the response, your talk was very much appreciated. I think you are a brilliant speaker – most engaging and inclusive. Thank you.
 
Richard was absolutely amazed that someone who is not a Spiritualist has such a knowledge of Spiritualism. There are very few people at present in SNU Spiritualism who would know as much as you do, and have such an objective and informed attitude. Thank you for that.
 
We would love you to come and speak again in the future, for you to share more of your knowledge and wisdom with us.
 
With very good wishes to you and Jackie
Sue Hayes
General Secretary/Officiant
Portsmouth Temple of Spiritualism

Henry Vaughan’s “World of Light” and Conan Doyle’s Ghosts

9780957241381I was looking at some poetry a few days ago and I found this wonderful poem by Welsh 17th Century poet Henry Vaughan, about life after death.

I was struck by the phrase “the world of light” – which is how he describes the afterlife.

I found it an interesting coincidence that I had come up with the same phrase for my book, “Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light“.

 

 

THEY ARE ALL GONE INTO THE WORLD OF LIGHT
by Henry Vaughan

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove.

I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.

O holy Hope! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love.

Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
Could man outlook that mark!

He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.

And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into glory peep.

If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
She’ll shine through all the sphere.

O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.

Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.

Real Writer’s Block – What it is, and what it is not.

DespairAdele Parks gave a great talk last night at Portsmouth Central Library as part of Portsmouth Bookfest 2016, talking about her writing life, and how she became one of the top sellers of chick lit over the last 16 years. From an effervescent and ebullient childhood in which her grandfather persuaded her to write comics for 10 pence each, through globe-trotting as an advertising executive, to her decision “not to go to my grave wishing I had written that book”, it was quite a journey, and heartening, too.

With her joyous smile, lightning-fast brain and keen intellect, Adele is one of those people one can’t help liking. Blessed with good quality hardware, you can’t help thinking she would have made it, whatever she did. I’ve seen the same in other writers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was similar – proud owner of a ferocious intellect coupled with a joyous imagination, he revelled in storytelling and much more besides. Like Doyle, Adele has energy. And lots of it.

Such traits make Adele supremely fitted to talk about the business of writing. But there is one thing she announced during that evening with which I disagreed profoundly, and it came when someone in the audience asked about writer’s block. This is one subject about which I have a brimful of firsthand experience. It is also something of which Adele clearly has none.

She started off this section by make a provocative point:

“There’s no such thing. You don’t get doctor’s block, or accountant’s block. So there’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

I’ve always wondered what people who dismiss writer’s block actually think it is. Today, at last, I heard it from someone at the top of her profession.

Adele equated writer’s block to lack of direction, or disorganisation. “If you sit down and you’re not able to write, it’s because you haven’t planned what you’re going to write,” she breezed. The solution was to plan your novel better, or perhaps have a change of scene. Go on holiday, go and write somewhere else. Meet new people. Go to an Elvis convention in Blackpool.

So there it was, writer’s block was a functional problem to do with not being properly directed. It was straightforward. It didn’t exist.

During a stay on the Isle of Arran in the 1990s, during Gulf War I, I spoke with the local female GP, an ex-military doctor, and mentioned PTSD to her. She furrowed her brow and said forcefully: “There is no such thing as PTSD”. She was adamant about it.

Everyone has a blindspot for something.

Here is what writer’s block is not. It is not sitting down to write one morning and finding that it takes 20 minutes to get in the mood. That is drinking a cup of tea. It is not worrying because your cat has taken ill and thus being put off for a day or two. That is anticipating a vet’s bill. It is not having a pile of papers that are out of order. That is bad filing.

How can I say this with such certainty? Because I lost the ability to write for thirteen years. Not being able to sit down and write during that period was not a matter of tea, cats or files. I had arranged my life so that I had all the time I needed. My despair, my utter, black despair came from something far deeper and far darker. If you’ve ever wondered what real writer’s block, is as opposed to feeling a bit uninspired or not quite knowing what to write about, let me tell you about my experience. Of course, others will have different experiences, but if you have no idea at all, perhaps this will shed a little bit of light – and explain to you why if you dismiss it out of hand you might get a furious response.

Writer’s block was the moment I realised the one thing I knew I could do really well had deserted me. It left me the day I had the final argument with a lover in which she criticised my work mercilessly, then walked out on me. Her criticism combined with that deeper emotional shock so that grief became the flavour of writing.

After her departure I limped on, writing scripts for The Bill. Her stinging criticisms came back as I wrestled plot lines, rang in my ears over and over again as I tried, stomach churning with panic, to string together stories and character motives. I criticised what I wrote, using her voice to do it. Not good enough, poor quality writing. Ugly writing. And so on.

There came a point at which I found myself unable to put one word after the other because I questioned if those two words worked together on the page. I couldn’t put together a satisfactory sentence, let alone a story. I wasn’t “feeling a bit uninspired of a morning”. I didn’t need to sit down and have a cup of tea to make it right. I had a central crisis of confidence in which I felt myself whirling into a blacker and blacker swirl of helplessness. I loved that woman. I wanted to impress her with my writing. She was gone. My writing was shit.

That was the sort of equation that was going on in my head. It usurped my emotions and took over my body. I wept at nights. month after month. The grief took control of my creative life. A deep, cold sense of bleakness. The blank page became unbearable. The stories I started to write and never finished were all tales of pain and suicide, of loss of faith in people, in God, in life itself. Sitting at my desk staring at the page, in the wordless spaces between each and every second, I sat and ruminated on how best I could die.

And still I was contracted to write 4 episodes of The Bill. A job that should have lasted six months took four grinding years to complete, until finally I was free of the show. Being trapped in a contract had compounded matters further. I was going through an existential crisis, whilst simultaneously being forced to turn out episodes of a cop show. I look back now, and that is darkly funny. At the time it was hell.

I eked out a living working in bars while the 6 months money I had been paid in advance dwindled out over 4 years, failing to fund my meagre existence. I began to associate poverty with writing. I hated myself, I hated the page, I hated everyone else – and most of all I hated the act of writing.

Sitting down to write meant pain. It meant loss of dignity. It meant humiliation. It meant having daily to inhabit that dark, lost spirit in the Hades of my soul who so wanted to come out into the light again but who was trapped.

I considered suicide.

In the end, I gave up trying to write, completely. I set up a series of businesses. I got into computer repairs, teaching English and bookdealing – the last of which gave me a steady income and such a rigid regime of work that for years I had no time to think about myself or my writing.

I did, eventually start to write again, but only after I got professional psychiatric help. I had a full thirteen years of writer’s block. Being told last night that, actually, that could have been solved with a trip to the local coffee bar (as if I didn’t try so many things) – that, I have to say, did not sit well in my soul.

The good news is that I did get out of that pit, and I want to tell you – if any of this seems remotely familiar – if you are another writer suffering in this way, and you’re sick of people who tell you to “buck yourself up” and “pull yourself together”, it’s okay to be sick of it. That person may be wise, they may be actually be bloody fantastic, but if that’s what they’re saying, then of the subject of writer’s block they know nothing.

Do know, however, that you are not alone and that there are ways back to the surface, to the sunlight. There are means of escape. There will come a time when you are no longer groping around in the dark and you will no longer feel destroyed. You will see yourself in a new way. You will be made afresh.

If you’ve got real writer’s block, most likely it won’t be a walk or a holiday that does it for you. If it does, then good luck to you. What you are feeling may be, in many ways, akin to PTSD. And just like with PTSD, seek help. There are professionals who understand the workings of the inside of your head.

Writer’s block is so much more than not feeling inspired. Writer’s block is feeling that your life is reaching its end because it is devoid of meaning. Be assured, however, it will go on. Writing, that little bright bird, she will fly back to you.

If you recognise any of this description and it makes sense to you, then seek help – and do it now. Don’t – like I did – take thirteen years to act. That’s thirteen years you won’t get back.

A Long Journey Left – an experiment in political awakening

(Below is the first time I have ever written autobiographically about the political beliefs instilled in me from early on. Not deliberately instilled, just taken for granted that they were right. It is part of a larger programme. But that whole story is a long way off.)

nelson_full_size

Picture the scene. A young boy of perhaps four years old standing in a grand old house in the Hampshire Downs, an elegant double staircase shining in the sunlight. Something is going on outside to do with sailors, the milling of people and the buzz of excitement. The day is magnificent.

Near the base of the stairs on the wall is a portrait that has drawn the young boy’s fascination. A man with white curly hair, pale, unsmiling and with pale blue eyes. The boy has an impression of golds and red and a dark background.

A man comes up behind the boy and puts his hand on his shoulder.

“Daddy, who is this?”

“That’s Nelson,” he says.

The boy is confused. Using one word for a name like that means you know him. But the boy doesn’t know him.

“Who is Nelson?”

“He was a great man,” says the man. “A sailor. A very great man.”

The boy considers for a moment. “He looks very small,” he says, unable to work out the scale of the portrait, which is not quite life size. He looks at it for a while longer then turns away.

Later, he sees his father shouting orders to a company of sailors marching up and down a parade ground, and there is a man with a lot of gold on his sleeves that his brother takes a photograph of with his new Polaroid camera. People speak about this man with his gold sleeves with reverence, and the boy hears with mild interest that this is the uncle to the Queen. The adults approve of this. All is right with the world. Far, far right.

Thus I was born into the fagbutt of empire. When I was a boy, I used to marvel at how many countries at the Olympic games would parade around the stadium with a Union Flag (dad was always clear about this, “it is only a Union Jack when flown from the Jack staff of a ship,” and I still can’t shake off the usage despite that not being the case), and swell with pride. Some time in our past, we had “won the war” (my schoolfriends would chant this sentiment inaccurately, controlled by the rhyme scheme: we won the war, in nineteen forty-four). We had also won the world. Great Britain did indeed live up to the adjective. Foreign countries and their people were owned by us.

Later in life, one of the habits I had to get out of was asking people with a brown skin where they were from. My dad and his generation did it all the time, and it wasn’t meant to be offensive. It was genuinely, I guess (what with him having stayed at various old colonial bases around the world), a question of “Oh, I might know your country”. It was friendly.

I kept up with the whole “where are you from” thing until the 1990s when I was in my 20s, when I began to notice how often people shrugged almost with desparation and said: “London,” curtly. This, in my enthusiasm, was not enough. “Oh, where are you parents from?” – this question followed on from my parents’ example. This follow-up question would get a more curt response. It was only after some reflection that I began to see that this was not necessarily friendly, in the way I intended, but equally could be deemed as: “You are not British. What are you really?”

After a while, I stopped asking that question. But it took some time. And that, I suppose is true of many another ingrained response from a period that is now history, and yet which still manages to make itself felt with its dead hand on the present by the many people who lived through it and didn’t question what it meant.