Opening of my second novel – Syria- extract – edited version

 

 

Prologue

 

Syria

 

Father Bernardo Argenti was about to die.

He was sitting on his heels on open ground with his knees spread wide. His legs were starting to ache from the unaccustomed posture, as he was no longer young. His head was bowed, almost touching the ground beneath him. He could feel the blades of grass tickling his face, stroking him as if to give comfort. His hands were tied behind his back. There were two men sitting in the same way to his right. He was the first in the line of men.

Bernardo was a tall, thin man: gaunt. His skin stretched over his old bones like parchment in an ancient book. His appearance reflected his ascetic life, his simple foods, his lack of excess. It was late June. The weather was hot but not sunny in spite of the hour, just after ten. The sky was white, overcast, almost as if glowering at what was taking place. He was not cold in his simple priest’s robe. A huge crowd had gathered around the three prone figures. There was talking, muttering, occasional shouts. Father Bernardo knew what was about to happen. He was not afraid.

After all, his entire life in the priesthood had been preparing him for this moment: the moment of death. He had always had faith. He could not remember a time when he doubted. He had known instinctively that there was God, that the Christian way was right for him. It was what he was sent to Earth for. He had felt this as a child in Italy. His mind drifted to those early idyllic days in Puglia, where he had been born. In his memory the sun always shone. They were poor, rural dirt poor but he had felt no lack. They had a garden, where his mother grew vegetables and grapes. He remembered squatting under the vines, searching for creatures in the soil, wondering at them. He remembered his mother’s voice, calling him in for dinner. There had been wonderful food: home-made crusty bread, hearty stews and soups, fruits. His mind summoned his mother’s face, lined and kindly, not quite beautiful, but warm. Here was love, not showy, not gleaming but real. Soon he would see her. This thought warmed him. He missed her with a long, dull ache. She had died long ago shortly after he had entered the seminary. He closed his eyes and prayed.

Dear God, Forgive me my sins.

He prayed this over and over. He had no doubt. Jesus came into Bernardo’s mind just as he always did in times of trouble. He appeared to the priest just as he did in the Italian Renaissance paintings, dressed in a white robe with his arms outstretched. His hair was long and brown and his face was smiling at Bernardo. A feeling of great peace descended upon the priest and a voice in his head seemed to tell him that everything would be all right. It seemed to come from deep within Bernardo.

Everything will be all right.

He was to be a martyr for the Christian faith. He would have riches in Heaven. He would see God. Bernardo thought of all those who had gone before him, all who had died for their faith over the long centuries. The modern world seemed far away. Here was still the ancient conflict between the Christians and those of other faiths. Nothing had really changed for centuries. Somewhere in the distance he could hear birdsong. He was glad about that. He tried to focus on their song and not on the shouts of the men.

One of the rebels stepped forward. He was a Jihadi, originally a Chechen. If you asked him he would say he was fighting for Allah, fighting to see the Caliphate brought into being; an Islamic state stretching across the world. In truth he was fighting for himself. He loved the thrill of war, the glory of violence, the power, the primal urge in him to destroy others, to make himself more while making others less. This was what he understood. This was his element. He was born to rage. He was named Abbas Khasanov, from the northern plains of Chechnya, a rolling land, almost desert: the Nogay Steppe. Dressed in a woollen dark robe he almost looked like a monk himself, yet a wild, debauched monk, grown fat on too much meat and bread. His beard, long, dark, straggling straggled almost to his knees. His narrow eyes glinted with delight at what he was about to do. Indeed, at a glance one would say Abbas had a madness in him, nurtured by too much killing, too much blood. In his hand he held a simple knife with a long blade. It had seen death before, no longer at its sharpest.

Unlike the priest he was about to kill, Abbas did not think about the past. He had always known toughness. As a child he had been a shepherd boy, living in a hut with no running water, no comfort, nothing soft. He didn’t ever think of the rugged terrain of his homeland, of the sheep roaming to look for the rough grass. He didn’t think of his cold mother or his distant father. Abbas had never felt love. As a young man he had joined the Georgian army and things had gone well for him for a time. He learned the art of war, how to kill. He learned stealth and he took pleasure in it. Abbas did not know the love of a woman though he had slept with whores. Women had little interest for him. He had been discharged from the army due to tuberculosis, which he had miraculously survived. That’s when things had fallen apart. There was no job for him, no purpose. So he found a way to Syria, to glorious Jihad. He grew his beard long. His reasons for fighting had little to do with Islam, all to do with the thrill of the fight. Before Syria he had rarely thought of Syria or of his Muslim faith. He was good at what he did.

Abbas Khasanov leaned forward quickly and grasped the back of Father Bernardo’s head with one hand while with the other he started to hack at the back of the priest’s neck. At first the blade went in easily, cutting through the soft skin. Then the work became harder as the knife hit bone and cartilage. It was tough going even for a powerful man like Abbas to work through this. He sawed this way and that for several minutes. Bernardo made no sound. The low hum of the crowd began to be louder as they shouted in unison:

‘Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!’

Over and over again, the same shout. Still nothing came from Father Bernardo. The sawing continued. The blood pooled around the priest. The head finally came loose from the body and was held up by Abbas for the appreciation of the onlookers.

The noise of the people swelled:

‘Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!’

The men of the crowd, and indeed they were all men, raised their mobile phones and clicked photos of the event. There was whirring, beeping and flashing.

The head was laid on the grass.

The face of the priest stared up unseeingly.

The birds were still singing.

Buddhism for Dummies Jonathan Landaw: Book Review

This is an excellent introduction to Buddhism. It is written in a simple style making some complex ideas very accessible. It is packed with information about the life of the Buddha, different styles of Buddhism, basic tenets and historical information. I found it fascinating and enjoyable. It has made me want to delve deeper into the subject and to start to practise more seriously. I feel incorporating Buddhist practices with my pre-existing shaky Christian beliefs could solve a lot of my problems. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in spirituality.51id0U2rgDL._SX394_BO1,204,203,200_

Notes from The Old Chapel – summer – a year in Norfolk

It has been a year since we moved to The Old Chapel in Norfolk. It does not seem like a year. The summer is in full swing, the sun is shining and everything is in bloom. It is an idyllic time of year. The fields are full or ripening barley and the hedgerows are full of birdsong and wild flowers. It is hard to believe that a few months ago I felt like I was freezing to death.

It is wonderfully warm. The birds in the garden, ever hungry, get through a container of bird food a day. It seems like one minute it’s full, the next it’s gone. The garden is growing vigorously in its unruly way and I am battling weeds and overgrown bushes.

My mood has improved with the sunshine as has my sinusitis that has blighted my health this year. I am feeling almost well though I have to guard against my dark moods.

I set up a business this year, LittleBuddha, where I sell handicrafts online from India and Nepal. Business has been very slow and though I love selling Buddhist things I am not sure it has a long term future. It seems pretty hard to get noticed online and I can’t afford heavy advertising. I am deciding if it is worth keeping it going for longer or if I should just jack it. It has taken up a lot of my time for very litte reward.

My novel lies neglected. I have not been very productive with writing so I need to get back to it. I can feel it calling me again.

I have done a lot of work on myself to try to heal my mental health but it often feels like one step forward and two steps back. I have found meditation and the tenets of Buddhism to be helpful. I try to concentrate on the moment and not dwell on the past and future. I think I may still need to seek outside help.

The Chapel is lovely to live in in summer. The conservatory holds the heat and is wonderful to sit in any time of the day or night. I still feel like it isn’t mine, that I am just a visitor renting a holiday home for a time. I need to make my stamp on it. If it could be eternal summer I feel like I could be truly well here.

I am mostly alone as my husband works long hours. I sometimes wish for friends but I would rather have no friends than the wrong ones. This is a mistake I have made many times. It is a year I have shed yet more toxic people from my life and I don’t regret it. It was a necessary clearing out of the past.

My dog Didi is  a constant companion and he is a great friend, funny, mischevious and ever loyal. We heal each other.

Looking outward, it has been a year of many disasters: Brexit, the election, terrorism attacks, the London Tower fire. All these events weigh on the mind. I struggle to find a way to deal with their impact.

I feel like there has been a lot of reflection but not enough action. I need to move forward to find my place in the world. I feel a great restlessness, a need to do something meaningful, to make some mark.

I need to write… and maybe something else…

Thoughts on the British Election 2017

So things get weirder and weirder. We wake up to find a hung parliament and the Prime Minister Theresa May seeking coalition with the DUP of Northern Ireland. We are in a strange no-man’s land like the day after a party.

As a life long leftie the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party almost felt like a victory. I have grown used to defeat. The British Left usually shambles along, edging further and further away from socialism into the  over-crowded centre ground. We are all resigned to it. Politics is as dull as ditch water presided over by men in identical suits who all look like estate agents. Then suddenly along comes Jerermy Corbyn to lead the Party. He is that rarest of things – a real socialist. He has principles and everything. He doesn’t believe in nuclear war; he thinks dialogue is the way to solve problems; he believes in decent housing and a living wage; he wants to save the NHS from oblivion.  He is Gandalf leading us out of Mordor back to the shire and the 1970’s or the 1950’s. The press said he was unelectable and would consign Labour to the wilderness. The pundits attacked him at every opportunity. He didn’t quite get elected but he nearly did. He was just a few seats short. He was brilliant on the campaign trail, making rousing speeches and connecting with people. It was glorious. I woke up to the news and felt almost elated. After all I had been expecting total defeat, such is the lot of the long suffering Leftie.

People have had enough. They want something different. The young were actually roused from their slumbers and went out and voted. This alone is an incredible achievement.

Theresa May is limping on but for how long? I almost feel sorry for her. She proved on the campaign trail not to be a very nice person, hiding from the voters, making personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, refusing to debate the opposition. She cut a bizarre figure scurrying from one rented hall to another addressing the party faithful almost in secret. It was like Marie Antoinette avoiding the baying, unwashed mob. She was as a Headmistress of an ever so nice girls’ school, pretending to be lovely but underneath all scrawny hatred and frustration and bile. This is middle-England in all its vileness. I have met so many of the type.

So here we are. Not quite entering the socialist utopia with equality for all but almost. Aslan is on the move at last. Be afraid arrogant Tories.

Be humbled.

Book Review: The English Girl Katherine Webb

This was an unul248843sual book someone bought for me as a present.  Set in the 1950’s a young Joan Seabrook gets the chance to leave dreary England and have an adventure in Oman, fulfilling a dream of visiting mysterious, romantic Arabia. While there she gets to meet a childhood hero, the female explorer Maude Vickery. Strange events unfold as Joan is caught up in the local politics of the region and has her own journey into the desert with some unexpected twists and turns along the way.

There is a dual narrative jumping back and forth between Joan’s story and Maude’s earlier Edwardian adventure which keeps the novel interesting.

I quite enjoyed the book and it is very well written with beautiful descriptions of the desert, a landscape I have long struggled to see the appeal of. It was interesting to see it through the eyes of someone who loved it. At points the pace of  the novel is very slow and it could have benefited from being a good deal shorter. It is a thoughtful book dealing with feminist issues, women torn between love and domesticity and a longing for adventure and excitement and those themes touched me. I would be interested to read more from this author.

 

Thoughts on the Manchester Attacks

It has taken me a while to be able to write about the recent terrorist attack in Manchester and just as I was about to do so another one happened in London. I want to just concentrate on the Manchester one in this piece.

I heard it first on the morning news as I had gone to bed early. It seemed the most despicable thing you could think of: going to a concert full of little girls and teens to blow them up in the name of Islamic Jihad. It takes some getting your head around. Indeed you can’t get your head around it, not ever.

I know Manchester well. I lived there for years right in the heart of the inner city and I taught in schools. As the police raided areas where the terrorists had lived it was like a roll call of my old stamping grounds. Inner city Manchester is very mixed. There are traditional white working class among third generation Asians, Carribeans, Africans, Chinese and newer waves of immigrants who are often refugees from war zones. The schools have ever changing populations. I thought of the terrorist who turned out to be the British born son of Libyan immigrants living in Fallowfield. This was a typical Manchester boy, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary. There are so many like him.

I taught a lot of Muslim boys in my time in Manchester. Some from Pakistan, some from Somali, and no doubt lots of other places. Usually, they were quite easy to teach. They could be cheeky and mildly mischievous but usually buckled down quickly enough. They didn’t mind my discipline. Maybe they were used to it from the mosque or from home. They were certainly usually more amenable than the Carribean boys who I always struggled with. It is hard to think that one of these harmless boys might grow up to be a suicide bomber.

Inner city Manchester is multi-cultural. At school they all rubbed along together but the communities really kept themselves separate from each other. There wasn’t much mixing of friendships. I was aware of some racial slurring between the groups. It was a harsh place with lots of poverty and little green space. It seemed to kind of work. I met some good people and though I have mixed memories I did have some very good times in the clubs, bars and restaurants of such a varied city.  A Rusholme curry was my favourite go to comfort food. It is a long way from the coddled Home Counties upbringing of much of the London chattering classes who decide things about our country.

How could it happen? A boy who has grown up in the city, gone to school, attended the mosque in the evening, watched TV, played football in the street…then decides to go and kill some of the people of this very same city.

I have no answers. Nobody seems to have any answers. Those of us on the Left can point to British foreign policy, bombings and invasions which have stirred up resentment and anger. This isn’t enough though to explain such brutal act freely chosen. We could point to the fractured nature of our society where so many feel alienated. Still not enough.

We have no answers.

As a spiritual person I always struggle with the problem of evil in the world. It seems to be there in the warp and weft of nature and in people. How can God let this be? I don’t know.

As we learn more it seems that the signs were all there. Trips back and forth to Libya, reports from the mosque goers of support for Jihad from the perpetrator, a possible ISIS flag draped from the bedroom window, reciting verses from the Koran in the street. We imagine he was on some kind of watch list.

I always come back to the possibility of mental illness. It seems the only way to explain such actions yet the media virtually dismiss this and concentrate on ISIS as the explanation.

It does not seem within the spirit of any religion to commit senseless acts of violence like this. I have read the Koran and nowhere does Mohammed condone such actions but it is full of violent actions but usually in the context of war. The Old Testament also has such stories. There are no Christian suicide bombers I know of.

ISIS seemed to have perverted Islam into some kind of death cult whose brutality reminds one of the Nazis. It is impossible to understand in any rational way. But then people are not rational.

I wonder what was going through his mind as he walked to the Manchester Arena with the intention to kill and be killed. Did he really believe he would be welcomed into Heaven as an Islamic martyr? Maybe he does.

Old as I am I can remember the IRA bombings. I did think there would never be an end to them but then somehow through dialogue and compromise there was a ceasing.

How do we deal with ISIS? Is it possible to negotiate with an organisation like this who want an Islamic caliphate across the world? Or is the answer to destroy them, wipe them from the face of the earth?

I have no answers but we pay our taxes to those who tell us that they know better than us, that they will protect us and our way of life. They have failed to do this. They seem to have no answers either. Their platitudes do not help. The well meaning vigils and candles are lovely expressions of humanity but they are not an answer. We are told to keep calm and carry on. We are British after all. The Blitz is referenced often. Yes we will do that but while the bombs were raining down on London in the War there were men doing the same to the enemy, doing the unpleasant things we don’t want to think about but which need to be done to keep us safe.

We need to listen, we need to learn, we need to understand but we must also act.

We need an answer.

Walk in Norfolk – Creake Abbey and Burnham Thorpe

On Sunday along with husband and dog I set out for a walk. The rain of recent days gave way to sunshine and mild temperatures. We went to north Norfolk as we often do as it’s prettier than the bit of Norfolk we live in.

We arrived at Creake Abbey. This is a ruin left in the Middle Ages due to plague. It’s peaceful. I like ruined things. There isn’t a great deal of it left, just two arches and part of a wall. There is a smart tea room with tables outside where you can have light bites. I had fish cakes. It was very pleasant.

We set out with our trusty guide book which turned out to be very untrusty. There was a large sign saying keep out where we were supposed to start and a handy map telling us that the walk was wrongly marked in the guide book and we had to go a different way. Very get off my land. You get a lot of this in Norfolk as in the rest of England. It is all owned and it seems like in a lot of it ramblers are not welcome. We found the “permissive path” and set off. Our walk was now two miles shorter than it should have been. We wound our way across fields and farm tracks. The countryside is full of life at this time of year. There is cow parsley along side the hedgerows, mallow flowers, butterflies, buttercups, all manner of wild flowers bursting into life. The farmers’ fields are full of yellow rape. I felt totally at peace.

The walk went through Burnham Thorpe which, to my surprise, is the birth place of Nelson. We stumbled across a plaque saying the rectory he had been born in was on this spot. Sadly it has been torn down. There is a smart holiday let barn built in its place. I felt a fascination to learn more about Nelson and read about him when I got home. He certainly had an eventful life and went to sea at the age of twelve. All a contrast to the quiet of his birth place.  The village is small and sleepy and very pretty. There are lots of intriguing cottages which would be idyllic to live in.

More farm tracks along the walls of the Holkham estate until we finally got back to Creake Abbey where we started. At one point we had to navigate through a field of llamas who looked at us inquisitively. It was an easy, flat walk through gentle countryside and I felt good when I finished. I think it was about two and a half hours walk at a slow pace.

North Norfolk is always a delight with a variety of countryside – green pasture, crops, small copses of woodland and a glimpse of sea in the distance.

A good day.

Emmanuel Macron and Brigitte and why they couldn’t be British

I have been the thinking all week about the French president elect and his wife Brigitte. Their relationship has caused quite a stir in the world’s media. I am no expert on their relationship after having read a few newspaper articles but I find it gladdens my soul, which does not seem to be the reaction of most British people.

Macron met Brigitte when he was fifteen at school in a drama class. She was twenty-four years his senior and his teacher. They formed a bond. Macron’s parents became worried about the relationship and sent him away to Paris to finish his education. The relationship endured this and they became a couple when he was seventeen. They later married and their relationship continues successfully to this day. They lived in Paris where Macron pursued a career in the civil service and then in banking until finally he entered politics.

Comments in the media and social media seem full of the usual bitter vitriol to such a woman. It is paedophilia to some, to others inappropriate because of the teacher-pupil relationship. All this may be factually true but the fact remains they have an enduring, loving relationship that has stood the test of time and disapproval of others. This is no mean feat for any of us. It seems to me to be true love, a meeting of soul mates rather than just a tacky sexual attraction which is short lived. How lovely. How rare.

I knew what  the reaction of the British public would be to the relationship because my novel Pearlcasting which dealt with a similar subject got a very luke warm welcome. It makes people feel icky apparently.

I can’t help feeling that if Macron and Brigitte had been modern day Brits their story would not have ended so happily. Brigitte would have been placed on the sex offendors register and probably imprisoned. Public office would not have been possible. Puritanism would have won the day. The French have draconian privacy laws and indeed their age of consent is only fifteen. They seem to take a much more relaxed view of such things.

I don’t know too much detail about their relationship and in a way I don’t want to know as it might spoil the love story for me. It gives me hope that somewhere somehow real love can actually exist beyond the conventions of society.

What is it with the British and our ever more draconian laws about sex and other aspects of people’s private lives? Indeed it is not just the British. The USA has even more stringent laws on this subject and Canada, Australia and New Zealand seem much the same. There is something about Anglo-Saxon culture that just can’t stand the fact that someone some place might actually be happy. Paedophiles, the definition of which is cast ever wider, should be jabbed with pitchforks seems to be the widely held view. Falling in love with a fifteen year old is not paedophilia to me or to some experts on the subject but this is where we are as a society. Of course young children need protecting but the hysteria surrounding this  reveals something very dark about Anglo-Saxon Judeao-Christian societies. The thriving nature of teen porn in the darker reaches of the internet tells us all something. Something we don’t want to think about.

I am glad Macron and Brigitte found love and I hope it continues for many years to come.

Vive la France!

Book Review: A Street Cat Named Bob James Bowen

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This book was bought for me as a Christmas present and I left it lying around for a while. When finally I opened it up I had a pleasant surprise. It is the story of a young Australian guy living in London. It opens with him leaving his sheltered accommodation for recovering drug addicts in Tottenham.  The protaganist is down on his luck. He has been homeless and a heroin addict after his failure to succeed in the music business. Into this dark world steps Bob, a cat he discovers hanging around at the bottom of  the stairs. They srike up a friendship and a close bond develops. We share their adventures as James gets his life together and comes off methadone. Busking in Covent Garden as a source of income Bob is a lucky charm. Everyone stops to pet him and the money rolls in enabling the pair to recover from street life. The book is simply written and hopeful. The mood is not black in spite of the  inauspicious start and we see the goodness in so many people. This is a story of redemption and love. It was quite lovely.

Becoming Henry Moore – Finding Inspiration

On Easter Monday my husband and I set off to The Henry Moore Foundation which is in the tiny village of Perry Green in rural Hertfordshire. There is a new exhibition being staged there called Becoming Henry Moore explaining how he became to be a sculptor.

The village is down tiny lanes and didn’t appear to be on our old, erratic sat nav but we found it through the signs and common sense. They must be making money at the Henry Moore Foundation as there was a flashy purpose built visitor centre with cafe. It was tastefully done and fitted into the landscape. It snugged next to the old farmhouse where Henry Moore spent the last decades of his life.

There is a permanent exhibition and then a vast array of huge sculptures dotted around the grounds. They are treated with indifference by the many straggly sheep grazing all around them.  The outdoor exhibits are solid and impressive. There is a common theme of reclining woman. They suggest other sculptor’s work of the same era. They all went for that huge scale and bold shape. I am no expert in art but I love them. I love art. I love the way there is no need for words. You just feel the work. I was told at school I was no good at art, my efforts usually laughed at by friends and family so I never attempt any now but I am so interested in it and how it makes me feel. I like modern work, work that unsettles or suggests. I like art that plays with form and texture. Henry Moore certainly does it for me. I like his sturdy buxom women. Angelina Jolie they ain’t.

There are other exhibitions in barns dotted around the huge grounds. He must have made some serious money in his day to buy this pile which surprises me as I always think of sculptors beavering away in garrets, living in messy poverty with cheap red wine and cheaper whores. Not so Henry Moore who passed his time in this ever so respectable part of Hertfordshire in married bliss. The tranquility is slightly marred by planes from Standstead Airport but you can’t have everything.

Becoming Henry Moore is a temporary exhibition about Moore’s early life and how he was inspired. I was thrilled to learn he was a Northern boy, a miner’s son from Castleton. He had great talent from an early age of course. He was entwined with the landscape of the north, the rock, evident in the work. He went to art college but became a teacher in line with the wishes of his father who thought being an artist was not really a career. This is an attitude I am familiar with in the working class where proper jobs are always the thing. Bravely, he gave up teaching pretty soon and pursued his art career being lucky enough and talented enough to attract scholarships and funding to pursue courses and get started. He was influenced by the other modern artists of the day like Picasso but also by ethnic and tribal art. There are plenty of examples of these in the exhibition. Later he became one of Britain’s best known sculptures and received commissions from all over the world which made him pretty wealthy. Overall a success story!

I felt inspired by his life. I am also a northern girl and also became a teacher. Of course I don’t have Moore’s talent but I do have a hankering to be a good writer. I stayed in teaching too long and I should have been like Moore and followed my heart to write. Now weary and battle scarred I think I could still devote myself to my writing as he did to his art and stop worrying about jobs, work, money and all that rubbish our heads are stuffed with.

I felt uplifted. Thanks Henry!

PS The cafe does good cakes.