Sunday, 9 July 2017

Barbara Cartland, Queen of Romance, Born Today 9 July 1901

Dame Barbara Cartland in 1987 by Allan Warren

I remember her well, batting her enormous black eyelashes on TV, swathed in glorious frothy frills and furs and lace and hats. Oh, and enormous hair! There was no one like her and never will be again. Of course, she was madly non-pc, especially by today's terms. But, for all that, she had a certain, rather terrifying, panache.  She wrote over 700 romantic novels - heaven knows where she managed to find 700 different romantic plots. (Is that possible?  I really couldn't say.)

She was born in Birmingham Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland.

Her writing career was not confined to the romance novels.  She was a reporter for The Daily Express in 1920, specialising in writing society material. Some time ago I read one of her biographies, the one about Napoleon's Josephine, and I remember being impressed with the quality of her writing, having had it drummed into me that everything she wrote was formulaic, predictable and trivial. Not entirely true!

Her romances may not have been literature, but they were extraordinarily successful for all that and gave immense pleasure to many women during difficult times, although they may not have furthered the causes of feminism! The main charges against them was they were always about "ideal" upper class women who always did the right thing, beat the bad girl to get their man through their virtuous sweetness, and were rewarded with long and lasting happiness for their rightness and their commitment to the greater good of the male sex.

Cartland married two McCorquodales, cousins Alexander and Hugh (although not at the same time, of course.) Her daughter, Raine, was the result of her marriage to Alexander McCorquodale, and Raine, as we know, married the 8th Earl Spencer, and became the step-grandmother of Princess Diana.

Barbara Cartland also concerned herself vigorously with human rights and achieved some fine results. According to the website

"She also campaigned for better condition and salaries for midwives and nurses. For her contribution in this field, she received Dame of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem."

This multi-faceted woman died of cancer in the year 2000 aged 98.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Ernest Hemingway Remembered on the Anniversary of his Death, 2nd July 1961

Ernest Hemingway, Image: Open Culture

This Sunday, 2nd July, is the anniversary of the death of the novelist, Ernest Hemingway, in 1961. A prolific writer and storyteller, Hemingway was not religious but he was a great moral thinker, using biblical concepts to inform his writing.

Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American writer of novels and short stories, although he is more highly regarded for his short stories. He was the son of a doctor from Illinois and began his writing career as a Kansas City reporter. In 1918 during the First World War, Hemingway volunteered to serve on an ambulance unit on the Italian front, where he was wounded.
Later, he became a reporter for the Toronto Star. In time he was mixing with such icons as Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein. He became a war correspondent during the Second World War, and in his later years, spent his life in Cuba, which, together with his liking for deep-sea fishing, provided him with the background for his fine, philosophical novella, The Old Man and the Sea.
Hemingway - Much Married
Hemingway was married four times. His first wife was Hadley Richardson whom he married in 1921 and divorced in 1927. Hemingway and his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer were divorced in 1940, and then he was married for the third time to Martha Gellhorn. They divorced in December 1945 and the following March, Hemingway married his fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh.
A Novella and a Parable - One of Hemingway's Finest Novels
In simple prose, The Old Man and the Sea explores what is most meaningful and painful about the human spiritual journey. Its central character, the fisherman Santiago, develops a relationship with another creature, an enormous marlin, which he holds in great respect for its courage, endurance and beauty – while trying to hunt it down and destroy it. Eventually, Santiago's central purpose shifts and the great fish's destruction is more about Santiago's pride than his hunger.
Hemingway said, "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough, they would mean many things."
Certainly, they are good and true. The fish represents religion, while the struggle between man and marlin is symbolic of the struggle for faith and meaning as the two central protagonists become strangely attracted. Although Santiago, metaphorically speaking, reels in his prize, by then it is no more than a carcass since the sea, representing life, has sent sharks to consume the beautiful fish. Santiago's greed has been punished, although his courage and spirit remain triumphant.
It is hard to believe after reading the novel that its author was not a religious man since his writing is steeped in biblical allusions. Interesting as the allegorical levels of his novella are, it is the simplicity of Hemingway's prose that makes the characters, man and fish, especially real. He received a Pullitzer Prize in 1952 and two years later, the Nobel Prize.
Some of Hemingway's Major Works
In Our Time (1925) ~ The Torrents of Spring (1926) ~ The Sun Also Rises (called Fiesta in Britain, 1926) ~ Men without Women (1927) ~ A Farewell to Arms (1929) ~ Death in the Afternoon (1932) ~ Winner Take Nothing (1933) ~ Green Hills of Africa (1935) ~ To Have and Have Not (1937) ~ The Fifth Column (1938) ~ For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) ~ The Old Man and the Sea (1952.) There were two novel published posthumously: Islands in the Stream (1970) and The Garden of Eden (1986.) The Dangerous Summer tells of Hemingway's trip to Spain in 1959 and A Moveable Feast was a memoir of his time in Paris after World War One.
He committed suicide by shooting himself in July, 1961, after a long illness.
·      The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Editor: Ian Ousby, (1988) The Cambridge University Press.
·      Hemingway, Ernest, The Old Man and the Sea, (1952) Scribner.

·      The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Editor: Margaret Drabble, (1987) Book Club Associates, Guild Publishing.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Linked Short Stories - the Best of Both Worlds

I love linked short stories.

People who prefer novels often say it's because they have become attached to the characters - a short story doesn't fulfil that sense of "I'm going to be with this narrative for a while and, yes, I really care about what happens next."  So, if you want to get to know a character and make him or her part of your precious inner fictive reality, then maybe a short story isn't going to work for you.

I understand this completely, although I truly love the short story as a particular literary form that is spare, concise and self-contained and sometimes poetic or lyrical.


Inspired by an excellent TV series based on Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," I picked up a book from the shelf, one I've had for some time. It's a linked series of stories by Margaret Atwood entitled "Moral Disorder" and was published in 2006. I have read a lot of her work in the past, but I'd forgotten just how much I enjoyed it. 

As with most short story collections, the title is that of one of her stories. 

I love Nell and Tig. Margaret Atwood explores their lives, in Nell's first-person narrative, in eleven delightful, self-contained stories, which seem commonplace (although commonplace in gorgeous language.)  Yet the depths of her incredible insights may only dawn on you after you have read for a little while.

People are, by definition, so irritating and so adorable and there is nothing ordinary about them, ever! The characters are beautifully dissected as Atwood's sharp analytical dagger of perception stabs into the most private and awkward places. Yet she is always kind and not judgemental.

Her first short story is "The Bad News" and wow! is it easy to make analogies with what is going on today? Tig wants to get "The Bad News" off his chest the moment he opens the newspaper, but Nell needs time before she is ready to face being able to "absorb, to cushion, to turn the calories of bad news - and it does have calories, it raises your blood pressure." It's impossible not to identify with her characters, to understand yourself more fully as a consequence of reading her.

Yes, bad news is definitely very high in calories and we can all do with less of it.

If I ever write another fiction book, it's going to be a book of linked short stories. They won't be a patch on Margaret Atwood's, but maybe I will come up with something worth reading, some new insights, a neat turn of phrase, a memorable metaphor!  Who knows?

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Frank Parker - Interview with an Author of Great Historical Fiction

You were an engineer before you retired, but when did you actually start writing, and why?  

I wrote on and off throughout my adult life. I started doing it seriously – as my main occupation – after retirement at an online magazine called Suite101 (I think that's where we first encountered each other!) This was 2010 and about the same time I heard of a local writers' group and joined them. It was all good experience and encouragement.

Was it something you always wanted to do from childhood?

Absolutely. When I left school I thought I might join the local weekly newpaper as a junior reporter. I was told that only a handful of those who became reporters actually made it as professional writers. “Get a trade: you can always try writing later, then if you don't succeed you'll have the trade to fall back on”. So I took up an apprenticeship as a Mechanical Engineer.

Your blog says you "retired" to Ireland. Are you actually Irish?  

No. Back in the early nineties my son, who is a psychiatric nurse, was working in Frimley. He met a nurse there who happened to be Irish. They settled in London after marriage but when their child was approaching school age they couldn't afford housing near a good school so decided to come to Ireland where the 'Celtic Tiger' had just taken off. When I retired it was a natural choice to go and live near them.

Do you read any particular Irish writers to help inspire your own writing?

I do read a lot of Irish writers. Colm Toibin, Colum MacCann, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, John Boyne – to name just a few! But I also read many English, American and “New World” writers also.

What was your first real success? 

I'm stll waiting for that! Although I have self-published four novels and two collections of short stories, none of them sell in significant numbers. It's a good month if I get a couple of sales via Amazon. I've recently started selling print copies of Strongbow's Wife via visitor centres in Irish heritage sites. I'm waiting to see how that turns out.

Do all your novels have a historical background? 

Yes. The exception would be Transgression which is set in the present day but has a back story covering the whole of the period since WWII. So not really an exception at all!

Do you have a "muse"? 

I'm not even sure what that is. The nearest thing would be the Writers' Group, especially its leader. She and they are very supportive.

How much do you edit before you are satisfied/ Can a writer "over-edit" do you think?

I probably don't do enough editing. Strongbow's Wife went through 7 drafts before I was satisfied. Transgression had about the same number of drafts plus a professional edit. As for “over-editiing”, I think you know when your WIP is the best it can be. It's striking a balance between having the patience to keep polishing and believing it's good enough to release to the world.

Does your mood make a difference to your writing?  Some writers are most productive when they are under stress.. Others try to achieve a real distance from their characters before they can write about them. What works best for you? 

I'm a great one for indulging in diisplacement activity. I'm not sure if that is something to do with mood. More to do with having the self discipline to grapple with difficult scenes. I find that I have to work scenes out in my head before I start writing – not that the scene always ends the way I originally expected!

Any tips you can share to help other writers? 

I'm wary of giving tips as I still regard myself as a beginner. The only thing I would say, and it's a cliche, is never give up.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about myself and my “practice”.

(Interviewer's footnote: Frank Parker is far too modest!) 

Useful Links:

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Transformed by the Light - a Study of Near-Death Experience

Photo Copyright Janet Cameron
Dr. Melvin Morse's Transformed by the Light challenges the inability of the scientific method to explain near-death experience. Prepare to be enlightened.

Dr. Melvin Morse,MD, in the book written with Paul Perry, Transformed by the Light, says that the near-death experience does not resemble drug-induced hallucinations, transient psychosis, schizophrenia, psychotic breaks, anaesthetic reactions or dreams. Nor is it like any medically-described hallucinations. He says:
 "The near-death experience is a logical and orderly event that involves floating out of the body, entering into darkness and experiencing a wonderful and indescribable light." 
Dr. Morse explains that, unlike people who hallucinate or experience episodes of mental illness, those who encounter a near-death experience feel in control of their situation and are not detached from their being.
Transformed by the Light is a powerful and convincing book, although Dr. Morse admits that the results were not widely accepted by the medical community. One of the problems is that we still do not yet know enough about these experiences. 
"The irony of science," says Dr. Morse, "is that the scientific method sometimes destroys our ability to study a phenomenon." 
To back-up his statement, Dr. Morse cites the now well-known phenomenon of how, by observing an experiment, its outcome can actually be changed.
Dr. Morse has worked extensively with children, including at the Seattle Children's Hospital.
NDE Case Studies
This is an account of Dr. Morse's first encounter with an NDE child. In 1982, while working at an Idaho clinic, Dr. Morse helped to revive a young girl who had got into difficulties in a community swimming people. After she recovered, she gave a joyful description of her encounter with death, finally telling the doctor not to worry, because heaven was fun.
The following is an independent case, and not taken from Dr. Morse's book. An Eastbourne nurse, Jeanette Atkinson, was eighteen-years-old when she had her near-death experience. 
Jeanette had suffered a blood clot in her leg and the main vessels to her arteries became clogged, preventing her body from receiving oxygen. The doctors were not hopeful and did not expect the young woman to recover. But she did and here is her experience in her own words:
"The first thing I noticed was that the world changed. The light became softer but clearer. Suddenly there was no pain. All I could see was my body from the chest downwards, and I noticed that the time was 9.00pm. In an instant I found myself looking at the ceiling. It was only a few inches away. I remember thinking it was about time they cleaned the dust from the striplights."
Common Factors in Near-Death Experience
NDE's do vary from one person to another, but there are factors that are repeated in a number of cases. Many people lose their fear of death. They say they value themselves and others far more and that they feel a need to help out wherever they can. Like Jeanette, many people hear themselves pronounced dead, leave their body with a sense of great peace and then begin to move through a dark tunnel towards a bright and inviting light. Some even report meeting up with their long-lost friends and relatives.
One of the most inspiring quotations from Dr. Morse's book is the following: "When I died I felt free of all things that had bothered me on earth. But when the doctors brought me back I felt free of them, too."
The following statement appears in the medical journal The Lancet:
"One study found that 8 to 12 percent of 344 patients resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest had NDEs (near-death experiences) and about 18% remembered some part of what happened when they were clinically dead."
A Natural Process
Dr. Morse's main aim in working with NDE patients is to help them, but he refuses to write these experiences off as particularly "New Age" or spiritual experiences. Instead, he insists that they are "...a natural and normal part of the dying process and have profound implications for those of us who work with death and dying." Also, they happen to perfectly ordinary people - ordinary people who manage to survive an extraordinary experience.
Dr. Morse is working on localising the area of the brain that is responsible for spiritual visions and he believes it may be something to do with the right temporal lobe. His latest book is entitled: Where God Lives.
·      Transformed by the Light, Dr. Melvin Morse, with Paul Perry, Pitakus, 2001.
·      The Lancet, 15 December 2001.
·      Partly adapted from Paranormal Eastbourne, Janet Cameron, Amberley Publishing, 2010.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Can Humans Be Good Without God?

Is belief in the supernatural an illusion, or is it the science we
do not yet understand? Image Copyright Janet Cameron

In her important book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch suggests that in these time of change, it might be prudent to discard the old word "God" as it suggests an omniscient spectator and a responsive "superthou". 
She continues by asserting the obvious truth that religion can and does exist without the western concept of a personal God. It certainly does so already, in the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. As she explains: 
"...religion involving supernatural belief (as in a literal after-life, etc.) was always partly a kind of illusion... we are now being forced by an inevitable sophistication to have a demythologised religion or none at all."

So what will happen to human morality if religion is demythologised?

The Connection Between the Good and the Moral

Murdoch favours Platonic ideas about the good and the moral:
·    Good is something distant, ideal and abstract, but it is not the function of, or the outcome of, desire or human will.

·    Human beings are naturally drawn to good merely by apprehending it.
     The degree to which we are attracted by the good depends on our own personal morality - we need to be virtuous in order to apprehend it.

Murdoch also recognises the bind we are in, our reluctance to lose elements of our culture should we move away from theology and metaphysics in order to embrace scientific thought.

In "The Philosophy of Logical Analysis" which is the final chapter in History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell confirms that there is, nowadays, a school of philosophy which works to 
"...combine empiricism with an interest in the deductive parts of human knowledge."

This philosophy supports the achievements of mathematicians, those who strive to discard fallacies and slipshod reasoning. Russell believes in making logical analysis the main point of philosophy. Although humans cannot always find answers, some of these modern philosophers do not believe there is a higher way of knowing or of discovering hidden truths that are above and separate from the intellect or personal observation..

Russell and his fellow philosophers who favour logical analysis uphold the following criteria:
·    An acceptance of the unifying force of scientific truthfulness, ie basing belief on impersonal and unbiased observations and inferences.

      Careful veracity extended to the whole of human activity, with less fanaticism and increasing sympathy and mutual understanding.

     Abandonment of dogmatic pretensions.

Changing Religion into Philosophy

Murdoch describes the ways in which Protestants and Catholics view each others' rituals and procedures with dismay. Instead, she argues for 
"...a moral philosophy which accommodates the unconditional element in the structure of reason and reality." 
Murdoch wants moral philosophy to include political philosophy and the morality of political thinking and she believes that art and philosophy "enliven the concept of reality."

In defining her stance, she says: 
"Nothing is more important for theology and philosophy than the truth it contains."

·                                 Graham, Gordon, Spiritual Morality and Traditional Religions, Blackwell Publishers, UK and USA, 1996.
·                                 Murdoch, Iris, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Penguin Books, 1993.

·                                 Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge Classics, 2004. First published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1946.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Anniversary of Adrienne Rich's Death in Santa Cruz

Copyright K. Kendall, Wiki

Adrienne Rich, poet, activist, thinker, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, died 27 March 2012 aged 82.
“There is no writer of comparable influence and achievement in so many areas of the contemporary women’s movement,”says the Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. The British newspaper, i, quotes Rich’s own description of herself as “…a white woman, a Jew, a lesbian and a United States citizen.”
Rich married economist Alfred Conrad but eventually she began to reject conventional family life and heterosexual relationships. The couple separated in 1970 and Conrad committed suicide a few months later. 
Her collection Diving into the Wreck in 1973, was committed to “…breaking down the artificial barriers between the private and the public” and it won her the National Book Award, an honour she shared with fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. In 1976 she settled down into her lifelong partnership with the novelist Michelle Cliff.
Adrienne Rich's Achievements:
·      Yale Younger Poets competition (age 22) ~ 1951.
·      A Change of World (published as part of the award) ~ 1951.
·      Diving into the Wreck, ~ 1973
·      National Book Award (for the above) ~ 1976.
·      National Medal of Arts ~ 1997. Rich refused this award, stating, “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. It means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
In his preface to A Change of World, W.H. Auden, a judge on the panel, said that Rich’s poems were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.”
Criticism - A Representative Fable
Jan Montefiore, in her book Feminism and Poetry, says: "The tendency to privilege the notion of female experience... can make for a too easy and uncritical assumption of identity between all women." The flaw in this process and its effect on Rich's poetic language is that most of Rich's best poems do not experience directly. The poem "Diving into the Wreck" does not describe a real experience but an imaginary one. It is a lyrical "I" speaking, which results in the production of the representative fable. 
The fable fails to take into account individual experience, for example, black experience and working-class experience. Judgement should be made in terms of gender, colour and class, which are central to the experience of individual women, for, in truth, the "typical" woman poet does not exist.
Addressing the Issues - Unfair Criticism of Adrienne Rich?
I am not sure any of this criticism is entirely justified, especially when considering the range of Rich's poetry. It is worth mentioning that Rich demonstrates considerable concern in her political poem, "Culture and Anarchy" for individual women, both black and white, middle-class and poor working-class. Clearly and naturally, in Diving into the Wreck she began from her own experience, but as her knowledge and awareness developed, so her sensibilities were increasingly involved, and her poetry embraced these vital concerns.
It is, of course, a valid concern for feminists that individual experience should be acknowledged and that a white, middle-class feminism would be unjust. To be fair, Montefiore qualifies her criticism by stating:
"The gap between experience and language is, after all, a philosophical problem that applies to all speakers whether they know it or not."
Adrienne Rich Challenged the Political and the Personal
What is without doubt is that Rich’s work pushed the boundaries of militant lesbianism. As Tom Payne in “Adrienne Rich, a woman outside the law,” quotes from a 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience”: 
“… women should allow “the search for love and tenderness … to lead toward women”.
“If that has come to define her,” says Tom Payne, “she hasn’t shrunk from the definition: 'The split in our language between ‘political’ and ‘personal’ has, I think, been a trap,' she said as late as last year, in a clear refusal to mellow.”
Her son, Pablo Conrad, stated that his mother had died from complications from long-term rheumatoid arthritis.
·      Williamson, Marcus, “Life in Brief, Adrienne Rich Poet,” “i” newspaper, 30 March 2012.
·      Rich, Adrienne, The Fact of a Doorframe, W.W. Norton, N.Y. London, 1975.
·      Montefiore, Jan, Feminism and Poetry, Pandora Press, London, 1987.