Is it selfish to go on holiday?

Book review:  Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

This is another ‘spell for refreshment of the spirit’.  The story is set in the 1920s and is about two married and subdued women who suddenly decide to run away from their husbands and the dreary English environment, and rent a castle on the Italian coast, along with two other complete strangers.  The mismatched women spend a life-changing month in the midst of perfumed flowers, clear sunshine, expansive sea views and perplexed Italian servants.  Written with insight, a passionate love of Italy and deft humour (I particularly loved the subtle manoeuvres between Rose and Mrs Fisher about who will be the ‘hostess’), the plot unfolds to a satisfying ending as their families and husbands and friends are also drawn into the magic of the enchantment.

italian castle 1

Lotty dives into the beauty and is instantly transformed, but her co-conspirator Rose struggles with guilt. She has tried so hard to be good and to find her joy and purpose in helping the poor.  Can it be right to walk away, to spend money on oneself and to simply enjoy beauty?  Can scenery and setting be redemptive?  Is it selfish to go on holiday? If you’ve ever struggled with these questions, if you’ve ever asked what heaven might be like, if you’ve ever wondered could it be possible to become a person who can effortlessly and blissfully give love, you may find some answers in this book. Or you may feel that the redemption offered is too glib and simple. Or you may be inspired to visit the Italian coast yourself and try to find your own enchantment.

As I write this, we are on holiday in Sorrento, in a stunning villa overlooking the bay of Naples.  The venue was chosen because of this book. I have not yet found the scented flowers and the beautiful sea, but I hope to. My family will tell you if I am transformed….



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What if you don’t like your writing?

This blog is a follow-on from my blog last month about writing for pleasure or profit.

At the moment I am struggling with a short story.  It had a lot of flak about it being ‘weak’ and there being a lack of conflict. Over the past ten years or so of writing, I’ve improved and I’ve learnt– so I knew what to do.  I’ve added much more conflict, the resolution is punchier, the dialogue and characterisation better. It is fixed (as much as I can make it.)

But it is a story that I don’t want to read. Unlike almost everything else that I have written. I can’t figure out why. Is it because it is a contrived hybrid – a character taken from one short story, a scene from another, and both combined into a classic 8 point story arc? Whatever, now I am stuck – I can’t imagine anything I’ll do that will make me like it.

Other things I write get flak from others, but I don’t care because I love reading them. The compulsion, the emotional involvement, the passion that I felt when I wrote them (because I had to write them) linger in every word.

But which ones are publishable?  The ones that I loved writing and love reading, or the ones that I have written to a formula with my potential readers in mind?

I have to believe that if I don’t want to read it, then others won’t.  So this story was merely good practise and is heading for the bin.

The other thing that has happened is that my writer’s group had a challenge – to write a detective story as flash fiction:  500 words. That was tricky but I managed to think of a ‘perfect’ murder and then have someone solve it (a vicar!) This story also got lots of flak. (Undeserved – I don’t think it is feasible to do a murder mystery in 500 words and explain everything. Have a go and prove me wrong!) It was a little worrying that someone in the group had such a comprehensive knowledge about what murdered people look like, what police procedure was, and that smothering victims would have haemorrhaging around their eyes…

But now I have an idea. I could mix them all up. I’ve got a jazz-playing genial funeral director, an embezzling business woman, a sassy vicar who sniffs out murders….  Maybe I’ll think of a story to tie them all together and will experience that delightful excitement again!


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Scargill, onions and Russian dolls

I’m just back from a writer’s weekend at Scargill House, buried deep in the glory of the Yorkshire dales.  The weekend was a get-together for an organisation that I have joined, called the Association of Christian Writers.  Even though I was a newcomer, everyone was friendly and encouraging, right from the first evening when I took my seat – a little nervously – on a table of strangers. Within ten minutes we were chatting about where we were from and what sort of stuff we wrote, and what we’d had published. I was a little awed that so many of them had published books and articles and short stories. My usual bleat about ‘two stories in People’s Friend’ didn’t sound that impressive. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t there to impress people, but to write, to meet people and to relax.

And I did! I wrote a bit, I met encouraging and interesting people, and I wandered around in the lush, flower-filled gardens enjoying the sunshine. Scargill House was founded on the model of Lee Abbey and, like that place, seemed to me to be another Rivendell – a last, homely, house.  Shame it wasn’t by the sea, but the dales made up for that.

small scargill

The weekend was hosted by Adrian and Bridget Plass – funny and encouraging and as nice as apple pie – and also by Revd. Andy Knowles, author of the Bible Guide, who has a wicked and very dry sense of humour. There were meetings, meals, workshops, writing sessions. We were asked to write about one of a selection of objects:  a multi-coloured cat, a plush rhinocerous, a set of Russian dolls, an onion, a baseball glove, a petrol can. During the final sessions people read out what they had written. I was astounded by the talent, variety, subtlety and perceptiveness of the pieces.  Three different people wrote about the cat and they all brought out three different ideas, feelings and concepts.  I read out one of mine – I felt out of my depth but also totally included, and it didn’t matter if what it was utter rubbish, as long as I ‘had a go.’

I will go again – just to re-encounter those brave, creative, welcoming and encouraging people. And to experience again the unnerving and close fly-pasts put on by the screeching and zooming swifts during the evening!

Here are two pieces that I wrote. The first one was produced by thinking about the Russian dolls, but a bit of the onion crept in.  The second might be the start of something…

Inspired by the Russian Dolls (and the onion)

Layer one:  good cheekbones, elegant dress, highlighted hair, arty silver jewellery

Layer two: educated, high-powered job, well-read

Layer three: handsome husband, three bright, successful children

Layer four:  Christian – now that’s a surprise

Layer five: sincere, friendly, remembers names – is there nothing this woman does wrong?

Layer six:  volunteers with the Street Pastors, hosts refugees

Layer seven:  it gets worse – ran the London marathon and raised four thousand for charity

Layer eight: is always apologising

Layer nine: takes sleeping pills every night

Layer ten:  can never escape her father’s disapproving frown



Sandra the surprising vicar

Sandra, the surprising vicar, dyes her hair grass green, smokes cigarillos, flaunts her dog collar in the raucous clubs, knows what a mosh pit is. Gives drunken girls lifts home on her Harley Davidson.  Skilled in the use of the Word – stopped a fight by smashing a bible onto a tattooed heavy’s head. Takes communion to the druggies and rough sleepers. Shouts about sub-standard housing. Rocks the boat. Charges through PCCs, committees and protocol like a stampeding rhinocerous. “I give her a year,” says her bishop. “Then she’ll have to buck her ideas up.”


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Writing for pleasure or profit?

I recently reposted a blog from Sarah Menary, a fellow member of the Rugby Association of Fictioneers.  Her quote “A great teacher once told me that there are two types of writers: those that tell themselves a story, and have a great time doing it, and those that write for an audience, and don’t always enjoy it so much” and her question, “Ask yourself what kind of writer you are? Are you fighting to tell a great story? Or are you really telling your own story?” made me realise that most of the fun I get from writing is when I am not writing for an audience, but I am telling myself a story. Some of my difficulties recently have been because I’ve been wrenching apart and rewriting short stories to make them ‘suitable for publication’, and feeling that the stories have lost something – passion? heart? – as a result. But when I have an idea and it develops until I have an intense desire to put it onto paper and then read it back to myself – then it is (almost) the best feeling in the world! And it doesn’t matter if no-one else reads it, when I have it for myself.

Why are you writing?  Are you struggling to produce something wonderful for others to read or are you happily telling yourself good stories?

We were given a task when we met, to write 500 to 1000 words ‘flash fiction’ purely for our own pleasure.  Which reminded me of the first novel I started writing which is intensely personal, totally unpublishable, will probably never be finished and, if so, will only be published over my dead and lifeless corpse because no-one is allowed to read the whole story except me! So I had a fun time writing a bit of it.

You probably won’t enjoy it.

All you need to know is it is set in the 1500s, that the protagonist is trying to get to Rome to find the man she loves, that she has been helped by a strange lady called Madame Cantonne and a horse called Orlando, and that she has a talisman called a ‘heartstone’ in a pouch round her neck….


The climb over the pass into Italy was far higher, far steeper and had taken far longer than I expected. Dark shadowy bars stretched over the setting sun. A wind was rising and sweeping heavy black clouds across the sky. I shivered, and pulled my cloak around me. The narrowing path had crested a shoulder of rock between two soaring, craggy peaks, still white with the remains of winter snow. I peered through the deepening gloom down the long desolate valley, trying to see the inn that Madame Cantonne had described. Below me sheets of hail whitened the path and the boulder-strewn valley sides. I could see no people, no trees, no walled fields or even cow-byres, just rocks and patches of snow and frost-scorched grass. The hail was moving towards me. I turned, but the steep path behind me had had no shelter and it would take me several hours to scramble down it to the tree line. It would be night soon, and I would risk falling, losing the path, perhaps worse. I cursed the smirking villager at the crossroads who must have thought it amusing to send a young, lonely traveller up the wrong pass.

A gust of fierce wind crashed into me. I staggered, swivelled round to face into it, and saw, through breaks in the hail, a glimpse of a low solid-looking building almost a mile down the valley. It was grey stone, wide, tiled, and as I peered and squinted through the torrents of hail and snow to see it, I could make out dark, shuttered windows. Thank God, I breathed, hoisted my pack higher, pulled my hood as far over my head as I could, and fought my way, face down, against the gale and stinging hailstones towards it.

By the time I reached the building the wind was bitter, howling and lashing at me. The hail had turned into gusts of heavy snowflakes that swirled into my face and blinded my eyes. It was cold; deep, harsh cold; that ran icy fingers under my cloak and through my clothes, tracing sharp pangs along my skin. The sky was a furious blue-black heap of cloud and shadow. In the gathering gloom I staggered towards shelter. My hands and feet were numb, my breath came in shuddering gasps that drew freezing air into my heart and thickened the ice around it. I shook with hunger, exhaustion, cold, and as I drew nearer, with fear. The shutters were dark, the door closed. No gleams of light, no smoke gusting from the chimney and being hurled sideways by the gale. In the furious howls and skirls of the wind I did not expect to hear many voices from inside, but there was nothing. It was not a friendly, rescuing inn but merely a small, empty farmhouse or perhaps a shepherd’s hut. I fell on my knees. I wanted to sob and wail, but I forced myself to crawl to the door then forced my unfeeling, stiff fingers to open the latch. Thank God it was not locked.

Inside was empty. I pushed the door closed and lay on the stone floor, shivering, gasping, weeping. There was nothing. No fire, no people, no food, no warmth. Only rough stone walls, crude wooden shutters, a vacant grate, a bare table, a bench, a faint smell of dung and damp stone, and outside the relentless howling of the storm.

The remains of the light faded. It became utterly dark. I crept to a corner, huddled against the walls, pulled the sodden cloak around me and gnawed at my last piece of bread. Warmth was leaching away and I trembled so much I could barely get the bread to my mouth. Exhaustion overwhelmed me. My eyes closed for a moment, then I jerked them open. “Don’t sleep,” I muttered. “Don’t go to sleep. You will never wake up. The cold will kill you and you will never see Joshua again.” Tears like icicles scored furrows down my cheeks. I rose unsteadily to my feet and slowly paced around the room, running my hands along the gritty stone walls. Even though I had my flint and tinder, there was no firewood. Not even a few straws on the floor that I could burn. I walked as long as I could, then sank to my knees.  Just a moment’s rest, my body pleaded. Despite the icy air, the throbbing weariness, the aching chill in my blood and bones, I could not fight against the urge to shut my eyes, let my head fall forward, let the last vestiges of warmth be pulled from me. As all feeling drained away my thoughts shrank to a single yearning for sleep. The last thing I remembered before the freezing dark enveloped me was taking the heartstone from the pouch around my neck and wrapping my hand around it.

In my dreams, Madame Cantonne stood on an ice-floe, surrounded by sleek black seals, and her words to me as I left, echoed across the green seas, “You will not be safe from pain or disgrace or injury. I promise you no safety. Only hope.” A pale shape moved across meadows of waving flowers. “Orlando?” I whispered. It neighed, and knelt by me, but it was not Orlando. It bore a great spike of twisted, glimmering silver on its forehead. “No…” I said. I knew the legends. “I’m not – not pure. I’m not. You should leave me.” But it pushed its warm, velvet-soft nuzzle against my hand. Damp, warm, as soft as my green velvet cloak back in England, as comforting as a mother’s arms.

I opened my eyes. Shards of light sliced the edges of the shutters and cast bright bars along the flagstones. The storm had stopped. In the silence I heard rooks and eagles calling. I drew in a deep breath. I was alive. Strange heat flooded me from my hand, as if the unicorn was breathing fiery air through me. But it was the heartstone. It was in my hand, radiating heat into my skin, my fingers, my blood. I stroked its faintly glistening surface and held it to my cheeks.  It did not seem as rough to the touch as at first, and the tiny gleams of silver were bigger. Strange, I thought.

Suddenly I realised I was wrapped in a seal fur mantle and was lying on the thick pelt of some great bear or deer. I ran my fingers in wonder through the coarse hair under me, and over the fine, smooth fur of the heavy mantle. They must have kept me alive, that and the heartstone’s warmth. I looked around and saw, by the fireplace, a pile of logs and kindling, a jar, a bowl of apples, a large loaf and a hunk of yellow cheese.  Had Madame Cantonne or Orlando come in the night?  I opened the door. The empty valley was filled with sparkling snow and pale early morning sunlight like a glass of champagne, but the snow around the house was unmarked by footprints or hoof prints and no-one was in sight.

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Writer’s Block: What Kind of Writer are You?

Interesting blog from a fellow member of the Rugby Association of Fictioneers. Read and enjoy – and think? What sort of writer are you and who are you writing for?

S J Menary


So, I know a bit about writer’s block. More than a bit. After struggling with it for almost 5 years, you might say I am somewhat of a self-taught expert. I’ve tried every trick in the book: the elevator technique (where you put your characters in an elevator and ask them random questions), the perspective technique (where you re-examine your text from an alternative perspective or viewpoint), the distance technique (where you put your text down for a week and return with supposedly fresh eyes). I’ve read every article, every book, tried all the exercises – even meditated on the damn thing!

You see, I have been writing and tinkering with my first novel, on and off for almost 17 years now (I KNOW!!). And I have always felt that it wasn’t finished. Like the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, I was the proverbial artist that couldn’t leave. It. Alone.


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How to create the society that we deserve.

Thoughts from a Minimalist Christian

As a society, we decide what we value. Where do we want our work to generate value?  Do we value our transport infrastructure, do we value our children’s education, do we value our police force, our armed forces, caring for the elderly, the weak and the sick?  If we do, then our work has to be generating value in those areas.

Every hour we work generates more value than we receive as pay.  But who decides where the value that we create goes?  Clearly we can decide where we spend the value that we earn, but the extra value is retained by our employer, often private sector companies.

Businesses are responsible to their owners (shareholders) and have the responsibility to maximise income for the owners.  Their goal is to channel the value that we create to the owners.  Businesses do not have souls. Businesses are only interested in caring for…

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How to approach the General Election campaign.

Source: How to approach the General Election campaign.

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