Posted in Random Things Tours

These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught

It was only yesterday on the blog that I was welcoming spring by talking about a book of poetry aimed at helping people with their mental health. Nature was one of the main ways we could boost our well-being, so it seems very fitting that I was also reading this beautiful memoir by Anna Vaught where she shares her very personal mental health journey and how nature became her best coping mechanism from a very young age. The book is made up of a series of essays, each one beginning with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature including the book’s title.

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One.

His words bring a sense of wonder to the natural world, and if kept and nurtured, that sense of almost childlike wonder is an amazing antidote to the hurried and stressful way of life we now have. In fact if we still have that ability to stop and be with the natural world around us, it becomes a time out of time. We come out of those moments and back to reality amazed at how much time has passed and how everything else in life receded and allowed us that enjoyment. As some of my bookish friends know, I have recently been struggling with my mood due to the frustration of having a multiple sclerosis relapse. While I am in pain and battling fatigue, my very busy brain is desperate to carry on writing my book. Basically my body can’t keep up with the breadth of my imagination and the desire to put it down on paper. Yesterday, we drove to our local farm shop and on the way home we passed a field that’s had a winter crop harvested and is only just growing a short covering of grass. From a distance away I suddenly saw two young hares – my favourite animal – chasing each other, weaving and winding around each other at speed then every so often stopping to stand on their hind legs and attempt to box. We pulled over and for a short while we lost ourselves watching these mystical creatures performing the rituals of their ancestors. My partner commented on how my face lit up while watching them, possibly because one of my earliest memories involves a leveret found by my dad that I was able to hold in my palm. I remember the softness of it’s fur, the cartilage of it’s ears and the way the light shone through the pink inside of the ear to show blood vessels coursing their way through.

Like Anna Vaught’s family we were rural working class, with my father either a farm labour or working in land drainage – a very important role in Lincolnshire where the 14th Century system of dykes designed by Vermuyden still keeps the county’s land drained for farming. As children, my brother and I would leave the house in the morning and not return till late afternoon. Vaught’s description of her childhood reminded me of those days where we would lie and read in trees, suck the nectar from sweet nettle flowers and watch the wildlife. I was obsessed with the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, so while my brother was fishing I’d do botanical sketches of foxgloves, campions and cow parsley. These countryside hours feel idyllic, but the truth was my mum struggled with untreated depression till I was a teenager. Since then my brother and I have both had our own bouts of depression, but thanks to better treatments and to my training in mental health I had the skills to know what was happening and ask for help. I have also developed my own toolbox for days when my mental health and physical health are having a battle with each other. Like the author, spending time in nature is definitely a large part of that. I truly bonded with this incredible, honest and moving book and was profoundly moved by the author’s decision to share her more painful life experiences. This is partly why my response is also very personal.

The author bases each chapter on a plan, such as Rosebay Willowherb or lichen and moss. She writes about the wonder of each living thing, but it’s also a kicking off point for her own memories and feelings at the time. She writes a deeply moving section in the first chapter where she admits that she was reciting the Latin names of plants in her head to calm herself and try to get to sleep. She told many different adults – the dinner lady, the teacher, the vicar – that she felt compelled to say them out loud ‘so as not to make the dreadful thing happen’ possibly the emergence of OCD. These little glimpses of the child Anna show how lost and unsafe she felt with her parents:

If, as a child you are surrounded by a sort of passionate morbidity, by a frightening psychiatric incident in the family – which is frightening because it is spoken of behind closed doors and euphemism – it may be that you need to latch on to things around you which provide stability and reassurance. Much of this was in the natural world for me.


Vaught is open, raw and deeply moving in the sections where she writes about her childhood experience and it is worth mentioning that the book contains childhood mental illness, emotional abuse, suicide, depression and anxiety. She places her own warning for these subjects at the beginning of the book so I felt they were worth mentioning here. It is emotionally devastating to read someone crying out for help, but receiving nothing from the people expected to care for her most. She describes feeling dissociated, cut off from the world and the people in it as if she was living behind a sheet of glass. She writes quite bluntly that her parents did not talk about it or try to help her. Her mother’s view was the depressed people were indulging themselves. Teenage moods and PMS were imaginary and people who professed to be mentally I’ll had ‘failed to control themselves.’ I felt this in my core. To be so dismissed and gaslighted to this extent in your own family must be devastating to self – esteem and leaves you questioning and testing yourself permanently. She writes that she felt, not just unwanted, but a malevolent creature that might easily do someone harm, an idea that meant making friends and keeping relationships with extended family was quite difficult. It was also instilled in her that it wasn’t just her mum, that other family members and visiting friends had notice she was different too. Her father was distant, but when she was allowed to go out with him she felt chosen and would chatter away to him, probably making up for lost time, until he would snap and tell her to be quiet. On one occasion telling her that they preferred to spend their time with their ‘Number One Son because he listens and likes to be with us, and he never says a word. And you should know you are here under sufferance.’ How crushing must it have been to hear that, especially with her mother so angry with her, something she can only say now after years of therapy.

However, this is far from a misery memoir. I would say it is a story of resilience, of finding the things that boost it and removing from your life those things that crush your spirit. She provides possible mindful exercises that might calm and lists the places she finds most inspiring to visit and experience nature. She signposts the reader to other books that might give you coping mechanisms, while being mindful there is no one size fits all approach because we are all very different. One thing that caught my eye was something I have taught to my groups with chronic ill health and pain; that even in the depths of depression we must be mindful without our bodies and our emotions. We must observe how depression is making us feel both physically and emotionally. What is it about the weeks leading up to this bout of illness that you notice? Were you under stress at work? Were there financial pressures? Were you worried about someone else in your life? Then also make notes on what you did during the worst weeks that made you feel okay? Which strategies brought calm when your mind was spiralling with anxiety? Which people were the best to have around and vice versa? So in this way, a bout of depression or mental ill health has taught us something – what are the best ways to live that might help boost our resilience in the future? As with illnesses like MS, M.E. and various types of chronic pain, stress does worsen symptoms. Using these personal strategies may not totally remove the mental or physical ill health, in fact we may live our lives in seasons ( I always know I will have a short relapse in spring and another in the autumn) but we can be resilient, we can keep in mind that despite being in the depths of winter we can always come out the other side. This is one of the main lessons that the author has always taken from nature, it’s ability to heal itself and come back in the spring. We have faith that at this time of year, plants will start pushing through and now the hellebores and snowdrops of late winter are giving way to tulips, daffodils and bluebells. We plant our brown, unpromising bulbs in the late autumn into cold soil with complete faith they will push through and bring us joy, just when the winter has seemed so long.

If you can cope with the internal winter of depression then depression can be your friend’.

P 117

Not that we would wish depression on anyone, but that it can be a learning experience. It can teach us how to manage the next time it recurs and realise that even a life with limits has richness. This is something I’ve taken on board while reading and it started me off writing a short journal piece about what my bouts of MS can teach me and again it’s resilience. That just as it’s sure to happen again, I can also be sure that it will pass. I can use it to rest, to read and scribble notes, perhaps even to read solely for pleasure. My relapses are simply my body’s winter. To finish I loved her reference to Wilson A. Bentley who lived in Vermont and gave a great deal of his life to studying snowflakes, a natural phenomenon that’s so transient, simply melting away as though it never existed. Bentley felt they were a reminder of how transient earthly beauty can be, but that rather than rendering his study of them pointless, it made it more special because:

‘In the ephemeral nature of phenomena, however, he also found comfort, because while the beauty of the snow was evanescent, like the seasons or the stars he saw in the evening sky, it would fade but always come again.’

Introduction, The Envoys of Beauty.

Meet the Author.

Anna Vaught is an English teacher, mentor and author of several books, including 2020’s Saving Lucia. She has also written a short story collection, Famished. She is currently a columnist for MsLexia and has written regularly for The Bookseller. Anna’s second short fiction collection Ravished was published by Reflex Press in 2022 and 2023 will see five books including this one published across Europe. She volunteers with young people and is founder of the Curae prize for writer-carers and edits it’s journal. She works alongside chronic illness and is a passionate campaigner for mental health provision. Anna is published by Reflex Press and is currently working on another novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Marmalade Diaries by Ben Aitken

I was so charmed by this wonderful book about writer Ben and his unusual experiences during the COVID lockdowns. Something I could truly understand as the lockdowns bonded me with my partner and his two girls at a speed and depth that couldn’t have happened at any other time. Ben is looking for a new place to live, when through a charity scheme he sees an apartment in a great part of town. There’s one catch. He will have a housemate. The charity places younger people in homes belonging to the elderly. The aim is to help the homeowner stay independent and in their own homes far longer than normally possible and in houses with way more room than they need. Winnie is 85 years old and a formidable woman with very set opinions about how things are done. Winnie doesn’t suffer fools and isn’t very gentle with her criticism. There’s a gulf between the pair in so many areas: their politics, their class and their ages. How can two people with so many differences live together harmoniously?

This is a book that can be read so quickly. It’s in a diary form so there’s always that temptation to read just one more entry. Ben’s previous work has been travel writing and he brings all of those skills to this book. Physically he’s in the same place, but he’s taking a voyage into this person, seeing her like no one else has and experiencing her in very different types of weather. Winnie is grieving her husband of 65 years. Henry died suddenly, in their marital bed upstairs, less than a year ago so she’s in a very emotionally vulnerable state. Of course Winnie doesn’t seem terribly vulnerable, unless you count ‘busyness’ as a response to grief. I think Winnie has always been a busy person, possibly through anxiety or perhaps a work ethic instilled by her upbringing, but this has been exacerbated by living alone. Her son Stewart and his family tried to move in for a few months over summer, but that didn’t work out and fairly quickly Ben can see why. Imagining that he would largely live upstairs and help when called upon, he’s surprised that as soon as they’re alone Winnie asks him what he’s cooking for tea? The apartment has a small kitchen, but it seems Winnie expects him to cook and eat with her downstairs. Not that these meals are appreciated, with Winnie dishing out critique that would seem harsh on Masterchef.

As soon as the dishes are cleared she lays the table for breakfast and lays it for two – something she says she still does without thinking. Ben gets into the habit of lighting the fire and then having breakfast, although there are rules to be observed here. Winnie makes her own marmalade, but only once a year when the Seville oranges are available, so she puts only the thinnest scraping of marmalade on the toast to make it last. Heaven forbid they run out and have to buy some. That wouldn’t be on at all. Eggs have a language all their own, with certain specimens warranting their own message written on the shell in pen and left in the fridge. One rather philosophically asks whether it is cooked or not? Another has been giving her nightmares because he’s ‘been harbouring it for yonks.’ It was her wry little comments on the newspaper that made me giggle. When she sees a picture of comedian Matt Lucas in the paper, she observes ‘well he won’t survive the pandemic’. She’s also remarkably cunning, willing to pull out the poor little old lady card when its to her advantage and let people think she didn’t hear or understand them. When she asks Ben to let the coal man through the side gate one day, there’s a misunderstanding about the delivery. Ben indicates they need it tipping into the bunker (an extra £10) but Winnie has only paid for it to be dropped at the edge of the property. Ben wonders if she’s forgotten or misunderstood, but the coal man says no, she does this every time. Once the coal is safely in the bunker and an extra invoice issued Winnie miraculously appears and denies all knowledge of the problem.

There’s some beautiful observation around the family, because Ben is in the perfect position to analyse their relationships as an outsider on the inside. Out of her three children, it is Arthur who seems to have her heart and most of her time. Arthur lives in a group home within walking distance for Winnie and even in a pandemic she’s not going to stop taking him the paper, the fruit from the garden or a daily yoghurt. Once a week she spends a good hour cleaning out his electric shaver, which always looks like he’s pruned the garden with it. Arthur had cerebral palsy and had a traumatic birth where Winnie’s pelvis was cut to get him out before he was deprived of any more oxygen. Maybe it’s his vulnerability due to his disability, or that shared traumatic experience right at the start of his life, but Winnie doesn’t seem complete until Arthur is there to look after. The other two children seem to have accepted this arrangement, but there is some underlying resentment, especially when it comes to Winnie forgetting theirs and their children’s birthdays. For Stewart and his family, their far more relaxed way of being clashed with Winnie’s distrust of anyone in bed past 9am, people who have their marmalade more than wafer thin and people who lounge for more than ten minutes without a schedule for their next task.

I guess Winnie is selfish in a lot of ways, she’s not self-aware and really finds it hard to prioritise other people’s way of doing things. Some of her habits would have driven me to distraction, particularly her ability to pick up new tasks just as it’s time to leave the house. Even after making a plan she could leave her housemate waiting for hours because the roses needed deadheading. My other half has a similar ability to be doing one thing, cooking tea for example, then pick up a second job that didn’t need prioritising, such as reprogramming the TV channels or syncing the car with his new phone, often leaving tea to burn to a cinder. So I felt Ben’s pain, but also understood the deep connection he started to form with this formidable woman. I feared what would happen when the arrangement came to an end and I found the ending so poignant. Ben’s feeling that he knows this person better than anyone, that her idiosyncrasies are just that and not a sign of something more sinister is beautiful considering where they started. A deep friendship and respect has formed, despite their difference in age and outlook. The pandemic and it’s lockdowns have bonded them in a way that couldn’t have happened at any other time. We fall in love with the Winnie he sees, without rose-tinted spectacles or sentimentality, and I think that’s the greatest compliment he could have given her.

Published by Icon Books 10th March 2022

Meet The Author

Ben Aitken was born under Thatcher, grew to 6ft then stopped, and is an Aquarius. He followed Bill Bryson around the UK for Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island (2015) then moved to Poland to understand why everyone was leaving. A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland (2019) is the fruit of that unusual migration. For The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders (2020), the author went on six package coach holidays – Scarborough, Llandudno, Lake Como et al – with people twice or thrice his age in order to see what they had to say for themselves and to narrow the generation gap a notch. The Marmalade Diaries (2022) is the story of an unlikely friendship during an unlikely time, and stems from the author’s decision to move in with an 85 year old widow ten days before a national lockdown.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Great Celebrity Memoirs.

I’m not a usual reader of celebrity memoirs. I know there’s a certain snobbery in bookish circles for the celebrity memoir, so I thought I’d get that in there before you click away to another blog. I’m all for whatever gets people reading to be honest, but it’s a rare book that sits above the usual ghost written Christmas fare. These are memoirs that sit above the ordinary, that have touched me emotionally or made me laugh, that have surprised me with the beauty of their writing or their inventiveness, or even revealed incredible stories that kept me gripped to the final page. Some you may have heard of while others are lesser known, but just as compelling.

Patient by Ben Watt.

‘In the summer of 1992, on the eve of a trip to America, I was taken to a London hospital with bad chest pain and stomach pains. They kept me in for two and half months. I fell very ill – about as ill it is possible to be without actually dying – confronting a disease hardly anyone, not even some doctors, had heard of. People ask what was it like, and I say yes, of course it was dramatic and graphic and all that stuff, but at times it was just kind of comic and strange. It was, I suppose, my life-changing story.’

Benn Watt is half of the band Everything But The Girl and his short memoir covers a period when his bandmate Tracey Thorn was also his partner. In 1992, when I was taking my ALevels and listening to his band, Ben contracted a rare life-threatening illness that baffled doctors and required months of hospital treatment and operations. This is the story of his fight for survival and the effect it had on him and those nearest him. I recommend this book because it is beautifully written and captures the feeling of being seriously unwell perfectly. He describes coming institutionalised, so in sync with the day to day running of the ward that he could tell to the second when the newspaper lady was going to enter the ward. I love his play on ‘Patient’ as noun and verb at the same time, the patience it requires to endure the diagnostic process and to cope with what I call ‘hospital time’ – where ‘I’ll be a minute’ means half an hour. Only two years after his book is set, I was going through my own lengthy periods of hospitalisation, enduring unpleasant tests and realising there are limits to medical science. It’s an incredibly scary place to be and Ben conveys that so well, as well as the strange feeling when discharged when the patient goes from totally dependent to alone. I remember after a lengthy hospital stay, sitting in my flat thinking it was getting close to mealtime and that I was hungry, then a second later realising I had to make my own food! What he captures best is the realisation that what he expected to be a short interlude in his life, is actually becoming his life. The narrowing of his horizons from someone who toured the world to a resident of a single ward, or even to an individual bed.

Ben Watt

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett

I became fascinated with Rupert Everett after seeing him on Graham Norton’s chat show and finding him both hilarious and painfully honest, both about himself and others. I loved his wit and comic timing in My Best Friend’s Wedding and especially in the Oscar Wilde films he starred in. I was pleased to find he was a devotee of Wilde, who wanted to make an honest film about his later life. My best friend from university always sends me a book at Christmas and I was lucky enough to receive a signed copy of his second memoir Vanished Years. I made sure I found a copy of his first memoir above so I could read them back to back. They both lived up to my expectations. I seem to remember first noticing him in conjunction with Madonna back in the 80’s and he had come across as a pretty boy in that context, but there is so much more to that rather spoiled exterior. His performance in Another Country was exceptional and his eventual film of Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily moving, but it is the drama of his private life that has attracted more attention than his talent. These memoirs show that he has always been surrounded by interesting and notorious people, becoming friends with Andy Warhol by the time he was 17. He has been friend to some of the most famous women in the world: Donatella Versace, Bianca Jagger, Sharon Stone and Faye Dunaway. This notoriety and films such as Dunstan Checks In overshadow incredible work with the RSC and I finally saw him shine on stage in the West End as Professor Higgins in Pygmalion.

I have always known, from his interview with Graham Norton, that Everett is a raconteur, but these memoirs show he can write a great story too. He has an uncanny ability to be at the centre of dramatic events: he was in Berlin when the wall came down, in Moscow at the end of Communism and in Manhattan on September 11th. The celebrity stories are deliciously gossipy and terribly honest. It seems Everett doesn’t hold anything back, whether he’s lampooning someone else or himself. His second memoir is again mischievous, but also touching with stories from childhood and early life. He takes the reader on an amazing journey around the world and from within the celebrity circus from LA to London. I loved the addition of family stories, such as a pilgrimage to Lourdes with his father that is both hilarious and moving. There’s a misguided step into reality TV that goes horribly wrong. A lot of celebrity authors are easy on themselves, writing solely from their own perspective rather than presenting life objectively. Everett is unfailingly honest, presenting his flaws and tragedies with the same scrutiny and irreverence he gives to others. Both books are incredibly enjoyable, a journey with the best and most disreputable storyteller you will ever meet.

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde

The Storyteller by Dave Grohl.

One of my favourite video clips recently was of the Westboro’ Baptist Church protesting outside a Foo Fighter’s gig. Then with perfect timing around the corner came a couple of majorettes, followed by a flat bed truck with a band playing The Beatle’s ‘All You Need Is Love’. On the back stood Dave Grohl with a microphone, shouting out their love for the protestors. I’ve always known that Grohl was a good guy and despite only enjoying some of the Foo Fighter’s music I’ve always thought he was an interesting and enlightened person. I’ve also wondered how he recovered following the suicide of Nirvana front man and personal friend Kurt Cobain, an event that stood out in my mind in the same way the death of John Lennon did for my parents. I loved Grohl’s humour and willingness to make an idiot of himself. My best friend and I rewatched the Tenacious D video for Tribute where Grohl is painted red and given an amazing pair of horns as Lucifer. I was bought this book last Christmas by my stepdaughters. However, it was only recently, after the death of another bandmate and friend Taylor Hawkins, that I picked it up and read a few pages every night in bed.

Grohl addresses my reservations about about celebrity memories straight away, stating that he’s even been offered a few questionable opportunities: ‘It’s a piece of cake! Just do four hours of interviews, find someone else to write it, put your face on the cover, and voila!’. Grohl writes his early experiences with fondness and an obvious nostalgia. He found the writing process much the same as writing songs, with the same eagerness to share the stories with the world. He has clearly linked back to old memories and emotions, feeling as if he was recounting ‘a primitive journal entry from a stained notebook’. He has definitely embraced the opportunity to show us what it was like to be a kid from Springfield, Virginia with all the crazy dreams of a young musician. He takes us from gigging with Scream at 18 years old, through his time in Nirvana to the Foo Fighters. What’s lovely is that same childlike enthusiasm while jamming with Iggy Pop, playing at the Academy Awards, dancing with AC/DC and the Preservation drumming for Tom Petty or meeting Sir Paul McCartney at Royal Albert Hall, hearing bedtime stories with Joan Jett or a chance meeting with Little Richard, to flying halfway around the world for one epic night with his daughters…the list goes on. We may know some of these stories, but what he promises is to help us reimagine these stories, focused through his eyes. I’ve seen reviews that claim he has glossed over or withheld some of the truth of his experiences, particularly around Kurt Cobain with Courtney Love absent from proceedings. I don’t think this is being disingenuous, I think this is what Dave Grohl is like – generous, humble and honest with regard to his own take on events. Perhaps he feels other people’s stories are their own and not his to tell. I was so impressed with how grounded he is and how aware of the most important things in his life: his family; his daughters; his friends; those who remind him of where he’s come from; and lastly, his music.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.

Stephen King begins this memoir with the accident that he says has made the last twenty years of his life an incredible gift. With some humour he recounts being on his four mile daily walk and taking a break to relive himself in the woods. As he was returning to the road, a van driver was simultaneously trying to prevent one of his dogs rummaging in a beer cooler. This unlucky coincidence meant King was in a position to be struck as the van swerved off the road. A man who witnessed the crash watched as the impact threw King up and over the van, smashing the windscreen with his head and propelling him into a ditch 14 feet away. Local man, Donald Baker, found King ‘in a tangled-up mess, lying crooked, and had a heck of gash in his head. He kept asking what had happened.’ The van driver seemed devoid of emotion or panic, claiming he thought he’d hit a deer until he noticed King’s bloody glasses on his front seat. In a strange parody of his bestselling novel Misery King was left hospitalised with a shattered hip and pelvis, broken ribs, a punctured lung and fractured femur. The driver died only one year after the accident, from unrelated causes. It took King months to recover, with some limitations remaining to this day.

This strange hybrid book comes out of that time, from that trauma which affected him mentally as well as physically, back to his childhood, his early adult life, his marriage and the drinking that nearly cost him his relationship. If people read this hoping to read a masterclass or a shortcut to writing a bestseller, they’ll be disappointed. You don’t need a fancy masterclass to be a writer, you simply need to write. However, he does explore his own process and influences. There’s some practical advice on character building and plotting, showing how a spark of an idea was turned into Carrie. He also talks about pace, plots and presentation of a manuscript. He talks about he origins and development of certain books and uses examples of other writer’s work to illustrate what he’s advising. What he can’t do is identify that magic or spark that made him a No 1 bestseller for almost half a century. I enjoyed his stories about his early adult years when he was struggling financially, but was so persistent. The jobs he had to take to support his family, when the writing simply wasn’t paying. He was teaching by day and writing in the evenings. He also talks about the perceptions of him in the industry, perceptions I have always thought unfair, that despite incredible economic success and prolific output, he will never be considered a good writer. I loved his advice to write in a room with blinds and a closed door, if you’re not distracted by a view it is easy to disappear into a vista of your own making. He also plays loud rock music, but that wouldn’t be for me, I need silence or calm background music, no TV and no talking. It’s true that every writer needs their own best conditions for writing – although a closed door with no interruptions seems universal – you will need to find your own process. However, I do think he hits upon something important about life, like Dave Grohl, and that is the importance of family to ground us and stand by us while we create and especially when economic success does come.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Memoirs and Other Non-Fiction Lifesavers

I’ve been struggling over the last couple of weeks, probably since the procedure on my back and short term increase of medication, I’ve struggled to connect fully with a book and to remember all the plot points in those twisty – turny thrillers I usually love. Often when I’m like this I find the best thing to read is non-fiction, which in my case usually means history or memoirs. So for the next few Sundays I’m going to feature some of the non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed and those that have changed my life.

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan

I wouldn’t have read this amazing piece of writing, had it not been set for my Autobiography class at university. It is an absolutely stunning book, for it’s story, it’s language and how Keenan tries to hold on to his sense of self when everything that normally defines us is stripped away. The Irish writer was teaching in Beirut in the 1980’s, when he was taken hostage by Shi’ite Militia Men, he was held for four years, much of his time with the British writer John McCarthy. What Keenan manages to do is convey the fear, the indignities, the atrocities and the endless hours of waiting. He muses on what it is that makes us ‘us’. Usually when we are asked what makes us who we are we tend to list the foods, music, sport or pastimes we love. I might feel defined as a rock music fan, who loves Italian food, Woody Allen films and reading novels. However, if we imagine all those things taken away, who do we become? While keeping us abreast of day to day events, Keenan goes inside himself to ask who he is when he isn’t observed or compared to another. He has to consider whether it is easier to let his psyche split into many different pieces that may be impossible to assemble should he survive? Or should he try to keep his sense of a cohesive self, if indeed there is one, and if he reminds himself daily of who he is will it help him survive. It’s hard to imagine the situation Keenan is in and how deprived he is of sensory information, so much so that just seeing an orange inspires this passage:

‘I want to bow before it. Loving that blazing, roaring, orange colour … Everything meeting in a moment of colour and form, my rapture no longer abstract euphoria. It is there in that tiny bowl, the world recreated in that broken bowl. I feel the smell of each fruit leaping into me and lifting me and carrying me away. I am drunk with something that I understand but cannot explain. I am filled with a sense of love. I am filled and satiated by it. What I have waited and longed for has without my knowing come to me, and taken all of me.’

Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets by Jessica A Fox

This was one of those books I simply fell upon while on holiday in Northumberland as I was browsing in Cogito Books at Hexham. For some reason this appealed to me as a holiday read because it felt light and had an escapist quality. Fox is living a life I can’t imagine, in a sublet house that has a lovely garden for meditation and she has a job working as a story teller, at NASA of all places. When she’s hit with redundancy she feels a need for a change of direction and Googles ‘second hand bookshops in Scotland’, dreaming of a quiet bookish retreat. She finds a bookshop in Wigtown where there is a book festival in the summer and they want voluntary help, with accommodation included. She fires off an email which starts an incredible journey geographically and emotionally.

She arrives in Scotland and is welcomed into the home and shop of Euan, where she’s due to spend a month. It’s not long before it’s clear there are feelings between these two book lovers, but they are very different people. Jessica’s is enthusiastic and wears her heart on her sleeve whereas Euan is all reserve and doesn’t want to define or commit to the relationship. When she returns to Scotland for a second time, she makes it clear that she needs to know he is as committed to this as she is and sets an ultimatum. She will return to the US and if he wants a relationship with her he must come out to get her before a certain date. Heartbroken, she returns to her parents house and tries to put her life back together again, thinking that she must move forward in case he doesn’t come. This isn’t soppy or sentimental, as Jessica relates a good amount of personal growth too. She learns to slow down, after living in a city where everything is available at any time of day, and has to accept that in Wigtown going for a walk or seeing some Highland Cattle is quite enough incident in one day. I truly enjoyed this and look forward to reading Euan’s story, under his real name Shaun Bythell.

Small Dogs Can Save Your Life by Bel Mooney

Although this is now packaged in a cutesy pink way, it’s quite a powerful memoir about loss and finding one’s identity against, written by journalist Bel Mooney and relating some of the most painful times in her life. Married for thirty-five years, Bel recounts the life shattering experience of her husband coming home and telling her he was in love with someone else. He had met an opera singer through his work and it had been an instant understanding between them. Through her pain, Bel could recognise this as love and he left the family home. While still in shock and starting to negotiate the terms of their divorce, Mooney rescued a small Maltese dog called Bonnie. Her story recounts the growth of her bond with this little rescue dog and how the simple act of looking after an animal can aid the process of recovery. The small steps it required to look after her small dog were the first tentative steps towards finding a new life, when she couldn’t even imagine what it might look like. When her husband’s new partner was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer, she even finds the strength to be loving and compassionate despite her own pain.

I know the power of a dog to heal. After the death of my husband I’d managed to do no more than put one foot in front of the other for about six months, when I bought a tiny cockapoo puppy. I collected him on New Year’s Eve and we settled in to a night in front of the fire with the TV on. I was watching the film Finding Neverland and the sequence where the boy’s mother slowly slips away while they perform a play for her really hit a nerve with me. The weight of the past six months seemed to suddenly become unbearable and for the first time in my life I actually considered what a relief it might be to not be here anymore. I knew I had enough medication in the house to do the job. The thing that stopped me was the bundle of fur I’d brought home that afternoon. In the battle going on inside my head I kept coming back to how scared and bewildered he would be. His first night away from his litter I couldn’t do that to him. Rafferty has been by my side ever since and on those days where I couldn’t face coming out from under the duvet, having to get up and let him out in the morning forced me to keep going. He’s now fifteen and his health is failing, but I’m still there each day supporting him like he’s supported me. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. So it seems that books and small dogs can save your life.

Posted in Throwback Thursday, Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday! Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters.

Hardback with Masters’s original drawings.

I enjoy reading memoirs, especially when they’re innovative and try to show life in a different way. This fantastic biography does both. It’s unique in it’s subject – a homeless man the author meets while volunteering at a charity. It’s also unique because it’s told backwards- a device that has a massive emotional impact. Despite it’s subject, this isn’t a misery memoir. I’m not a fan of them myself, although I accept their therapeutic value, both as catharsis for the writer and as a powerful shared experience for the reader who’s survived similar experiences. I always feel prurient reading such personal and traumatic testimony. Although Stuart’s life is undeniably traumatic I never get that uncomfortable feeling when reading.

Stuart Shorter is a homeless, ex- junkie and possible psychopath. Alexander Masters first met Stuart out begging, then continues to spend time with him after securing a role as a fundraiser for Wintercomfort. His job is to make funding applications to different benefactors to keep the charity providing a day centre for homeless people in Cambridge. Set up in 1989 the charity worked with some of the worst cases living rough, giving them somewhere with supportive staff to spend time in. The founder was hoping to help individuals and reduce anti social behaviour in the city. However, when the main staff members, Ruth and John, were arrested for allowing drugs to change hands on the premises, Masters found himself at the centre of a protest movement. He also had to be more ‘hands on’ with the centre’s many users. This was when he met and formed a tentative friendship with Stuart Shorter. They were paired up to give talks around the country about the values of the charity and the campaign to free Ruth and John. They were the only people who had the time and Masters becomes intrigued with Stuart, who more often than not received a standing ovation after speaking – even if he did let out a stray ‘fuck’ from time to time. Stuart is intrigued to spend time with middle class people. ‘I thought middle class people had something wrong with them’, he says ‘but they’re just ordinary.’

This I think is the key to Master’s tale. Stuart, and some of the situations he finds himself in are genuinely funny. I also felt as if Stuart was looking at me as much as I was looking at him. The jarring contrast of Stuart’s everyday life to that of Masters, or to the reader really does hit hard. He’s a person whose life would be described as chaotic by social services or a mental health team. One or the other have been a constant in Stuart’s life, an amorphous mass of middle class do-gooders he calls ‘The System’. He’s had one service or another observing or judging his life since he was twelve years old. Like most homeless people he despises the system, because agencies that are supposed to support and help those who are struggling, are actually duplicitous. Using their observations to record and relay information to other agencies in a carrot and stick approach. Most people would assume the system is there to help, but it patronises, damages and blames too. There are welfare benefits and back to work schemes, but if the person doesn’t cooperate in come the police and prison. We learn that Stuart has been bounced round the care system, has been placed in a group home run by paedophiles, then placed into a brutal juvenile detention centre when he strays from their control. It’s easy to see why homeless people even become suspicious of things that are supposed to help, because once one part of the system comes in, everything else follows. He knows he was placed with paedophiles unwittingly, but as he points out, that doesn’t really matter when you’re 14 years old with a ‘grown man’s dick in your throat.’

It’s a brutal read in parts, but it has to be. I didn’t realise how dysfunctional the lives of my clients were, until I tried to describe to someone what my job entailed while at a ball. I was starting my career as a mental health support worker and my everyday was working with people like Stuart. I would help them with day to day tasks like shopping and budgeting, cleaning the house, and even just getting out of bed if they were struggling. People at my table couldn’t believe there was a job that entailed these things. It’s when I realised that there was a class of people more successful than me, who never learned about these incredible people and their difficult lives and I was proud to be someone who did know. The book is honest about what it was like to be a friend and supporter of Stuart. Sometimes it was frustrating, moving, devastating and other times it felt incredible. Yet we really hear Stuart’s voice too. Really the book is written by both of them. Masters never takes over or forgets that this is a collaborative effort. It’s not sugar-coated and at the beginning it’s Stuart who first reads Master’s manuscript and says he could do better. He needs to make it more readable, Stuart says, because people should want to read it, like a Tom Clancy novel.

‘Do it the other way round’ he tells Masters, ‘make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards’.

The BBC film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy
Posted in Publisher Proof

Diamonds at the Lost and Found by Sarah Aspinall.

This memoir sounded so intriguing and had such a great write up from other authors who I love, so I was very keen to read it. This is the story of a woman who didn’t live life by society’s rules. Even with a child in tow, she lived life on a knife edge in the hope of fulfilling the childhood belief she was destined for greater things than the poverty she was born into in 1930s Liverpool. My mum’s side of our family are from Liverpool and this was my grandmother’s era so I had a real sense of the sort of poverty the author’s mother might have experienced. As one of five in an Irish Catholic family with a father who was a miner, it can’t have been an easy life. I had thought my Great-Aunt Connie must have lived an interesting life having become pregnant as a teenager, yet managing to keep her daughter and bring her up as single mum. It would have been brave of my great-grandfather and ‘Mother’ (as she was known) to accept the stigma from neighbours and their church community. Connie had earrings that looked like mint imperials and was incredibly glamorous, always ready with a laugh or a joke and always had an admiring gentleman in tow, right up into her seventies. I thought she was fabulous. However, this author’s mother was in another league altogether and I loved hearing these incredible and mysterious escapades.

The best word I can think of to describe Sarah Aspinall’s mother Audrey is incorrigible. Our opening chapter takes us to a Hong Kong hotel bar in 1965 when Sally (now Sarah) is eight years old. The opening conversation between mother and daughter really sets the tone for the type of woman Audrey is. A piano player is softly running through his repertoire of Frank Sinatra tunes. Sally knows them all, she’s heard them in every piano bar she’s been to, but something about this song makes her ask her mother:

‘Why is she a tramp? I ask.

‘ She wants to be free to do her own thing’ she says, ‘you know’, then she croons about having the wind in our hair and being without a care’.

This small conversation opens a window onto a life that is far from conventional and often, shocking, like what transpires next. Audrey calmly identifies a lone man at the bar to her little apprentice who lets her Mum know she’s going to the bar for a Coke. Sally then wedges herself onto a bar stool next to the man and calmly asks him if he will ‘look after’ her Mummy when she goes to bed. When she’s pointed out, Audrey pretends to be bemused, but in a heartbeat turns herself into a fascinating femme fatale. She apologises for her bothersome daughter and says she must get her settled in bed. The man is hooked – could they possibly have a nightcap? Back in their room, Sally watches her mother refresh her smokey eye make-up and step into a mist of perfume, then she departs. Sally knows she won’t be back till morning, so settles to read herself a book, wondering what scent she will wear when she is older. Books are Sally’s only education and she is fascinated with love, currently studying the love story in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

I didn’t want to ask my mother, as she didn’t like to talk about things in books, but […] why didn’t one of those men who my mother met ever love her, when she was so beautiful and could sing and dance and tell funny stories and make the room light up? It must have been a run of terrible luck.

The author is brilliant at occupying the mind of a child, who is by turns naïve and innocent, but also knowing and wise beyond her years. Often she can see when an ‘opportunity’ is going sour before her mother. She is definitely a willing accomplice, but is that down to her mother’s training or simply a family trait? The pair flee from one country (and prospect) to another, via luxury travel and the best hotels if lucky, or on a wing and a prayer if not. It is glamorous, exciting and full of adventure, as Sally mostly presents it. However, it must have been destabilising and possibly even scary at times, especially in her youngest years. For me there was something touching about this little girl, taking herself to bed in a strange hotel while her mother works on their chosen ‘mark’ down in the bar. Sally treads a very careful line; this is no misery memoir, as she makes clear in the afterword. She writes truthfully, but stops short of outright criticism of her mother. Nevertheless, I sensed loneliness in a little girl who only has adults to converse with and is reading books she manages to find left in hotels, some of which are way beyond her years and understanding. This is how she gets an education of sorts. Although the book really does celebrate the glamorous and irrepressible Audrey, there is a hint of anger and resentment too.

Even back in Southport, Audrey isn’t the settling down, cosy type of woman at first. She’s something of a local celebrity. What she doesn’t seem to recognise is the void opening up in her daughter – that need to know who you are and where you’re from – coming from the lack of knowledge around her father and his death. She doesn’t remember him, but has enough skill at reading people to know that just under the surface of her mother’s party personality, is a deep sadness and even perhaps, depression that surfaces from time to time. This keen sense of perception is what drives Sally forward, into completing the jigsaw puzzle that is her mother’s life, for herself and for the reader. I was deeply engaged at this point, eager to understand both of these incredible women. When, finally, Audrey does find some contentment in life and Sarah has the settled family she has always craved, the anger and resentment does start to surface. Audrey appears none the worse for her escapades, but Sarah has paid a heavy price including her lack of education and structure. Now she rebels against rules that are being imposed for the first time. Yet, this is such a generous book. Although she tells the story honestly, Aspinall never judges and shows incredible compassion towards her mother. Yes, this is a very unorthodox mother and daughter relationship, but she didn’t want her memoir to be a grenade lobbed backwards, detonating the past. She allows Audrey to shine out of the pages as the beautiful, dazzling and vivacious woman she was. Meanwhile she shows herself at peace with the past and her mother, by becoming a smart, capable woman with a beguiling set of storytelling skills.

Meet The Author

Sarah Aspinall is a producer and documentary maker. She has four children and lives with her partner in London and on the South coast.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy.

Fuck the Patriarchy!

This incredible book is a battle cry. So I thought I’d start with one. The one Mona uses whenever she is asked to speak at a podium on feminism. I started reading this morning, thinking I would sample a couple of chapters each day over the weekend, but before I knew it, the clock said 3pm and I’d read the whole thing. Once finished, I felt a renewed anger about things that had happened in my life, some of which chimed with the author’s experience. She shows that the patriarchy isn’t just ‘over there’ in the restrictions women live with in Saudi Arabia or in conflicts like the Balkan War or the massacre in Rwanda where rape was used as a weapon. It isn’t just with the celebrities and actors who accused Harvey Weinstein, it’s just that their voices were heard louder than the young black teenagers who accused R.Kelly. Every woman, regardless of race, colour, religion, class, sexuality or the gender they were assigned at birth, are ruled by a global patriarchy. It’s here, with a 47 year old middle class, disabled woman living in the rural wilds of Lincolnshire. You can shop at Waitrose and still be fucked by the patriarchy.

In case you wondered about the profanity, it’s one of the seven necessary sins the author would like women to reclaim and use to fight for equality. So I’m reclaiming it, because this book roused me and made me angry (another necessary sin).

‘Patriarchy is universal. Feminism must be just as universal. I want patriarchy and all who benefit from it to have the same look of terror, as that man in a Montreal club who, before he ran away, took a look at me so he could see the woman who dared strike back. I want patriarchy to know that feminism is rage unleashed against its centuries of crimes against women and girls around the world, crimes that are justified by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ and ‘it’s just the way things are’, all of which are euphemisms for ‘this world is run by men, for the benefit of men’. We must declare a feminism that is robust, aggressive and unapologetic. It is the only way to combat a patriarchy that is systemic.’

Every woman who reads this book must be roused by these words and understand that unless we all fight this, unless we all fight dirty and loud, nothing will change.

I could tell you about the author’s arguments, the incredible and eloquent rage that comes through in her writing, and the journey that brought her to who she is today, but I want you to discover this for yourself. I want you to read it and find your own connections to the arguments, the events she describes and have your own awakening. I can tell you about two ways I felt a personal connection with the author’s story and as I was reading how a righteous anger started to awaken within me.

I had a late awakening, about ten years ago really. That sounds terribly late, but there are reasons for that. I believe my mother was a feminist. Until I was around ten years old, she subscribed to Spare Rib magazine and read feminist books. However, our parents then discovered a new church – an offshoot of the American Evangelicals that the author talks about in her book – and everything changed. Despite having been in the Roman Catholic Church previously I hadn’t been old enough to feel it’s restrictions and I had always felt the ability to argue with it’s teachings, encouraged by the visits of our priest to school every week for question and answer sessions. So unfortunately, just as I was becoming a teenager, I came up against one of the most fanatical and restrictive forms of Christianity we could find. I was taught I should be quiet, demure, pure, and ruled by my father. I was taught a shame I’d never felt before, an awkwardness about a body that was growing, sprouting, forming curves too obvious to fit into their rigid boxes. I had to cover up, be modest, but still dress like a girl. Then as I grew older, I was taught the most important rule of all; I should not share my body with anyone else. The author describes this from the Islamic perspective:

‘My upbringing and faith taught me that I should abstain until I married. I obeyed this until I could not find anyone I wanted to marry and grew impatient. I have come to regret that it took my younger self so long to rebel and experience something that gives me so much pleasure.’

It’s a reminder that the ‘cult of virginity’ isn’t restricted to just one religion or culture.

For me, weird youth group sessions ensued where we were taught about which sexual activities were ‘acceptable’ -kissing – and that everything else should be saved for marriage. I was told about the ‘Silver Ring Thing’ phenomenon sweeping America, where a teenage girl would go through a ceremony where she pledged to her father that she would remain a virgin until she married. A silver pledge ring was then placed on her wedding finger, until it was removed for her wedding ring; one symbol of ownership replaced by another. I remember feeling that this was beyond creepy. My sexuality had nothing to do with my father. He didn’t own my body. Eventually I made the decision for myself that what I did with my body was my own business. I couldn’t imagine that God would truly be that interested in what a young woman did with her body. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the actual word of God, but the truth was the Bible was written by men, edited by men, for the benefit of men. I reasoned that a supreme being had better things to do than police my vagina! So I did what I wanted and lied about it for a quiet life. Once old enough to decide I stopped going to church. This was the 90s, and I would sometimes drive to pick up Mum from church playing Rage Against the Machine and wearing my Hello Boys T-shirt and Wonderbra. We thought we had it sussed, that our mothers had sorted out this feminist lark. We were ladettes. We thought we could drink like men, have sex like men, and do any job we liked. The Spice Girls told us we had girl power and we believed it, but it was all surface and no substance. The patriarchy remained.

Years later, now a 35 year old widow with a disability, and in a very vulnerable place, I met up with my old youth pastor from the church. He didn’t attend any more and assured me he didn’t hold any of the beliefs he’d been trying to in-still us with as teenagers. I realise now that my world had turned upside down and I was looking for safety, but I mistook control for security. As we embarked on a relationship I felt happy and I really needed something positive in my life, not realising that given time, I could find my own happy. I thought the church was the origin of his patriarchal ideas, but really he’d been searching for a community that thought like he did. A place he could find a good, quiet, chaste girl who wouldn’t question walking three steps behind. The abuse started as soon as we were engaged, phases of total withdrawal of attention, time, and sex. Followed by rages if I questioned his behaviour, kicking furniture, throwing things and threats to leave. He was master of this house, he made the decisions, just like at work where he employed seven workers – all women. He isolated me from family and friends and made it quite clear that I was fat, ugly and nobody else would want me if he left me. If I’d had a bad spell with my multiple sclerosis he said I was lazy, needed to try a bit harder and did I realise how hard it was to find me attractive when I was ill? He flaunted cards and Facebook contact from other women and raged if I dared to complain. Luckily my family are persistent, so to get rid of them he took a huge gamble. Behind my back he made sexual advances to my Mum who was ‘more his type and age’ he admitted he liked her ‘quiet nature’ and had ‘fancied her for some time’. When I found out, a huge rage took hold of me so I drove home and asked ‘why haven’t you packed your bags yet?’ I ran round like a whirlwind, packing his bags and I threw them and him out onto the drive. I told him that I knew about his antics and that he had been psychologically abusive for the past three years. I told him I was done. That I wasn’t scared of him leaving any more. I’d rather be alone.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the letter he sent me afterwards, still controlling the situation by telling me he didn’t want to be with me any more, as if I hadn’t thrown his arse out on the driveway. He wrote that he found me ‘too much’. He wanted a Madonna and had found a whore. That he’d tried and tried but he simply couldn’t control me. Everything he wanted in a wife, was described by Mona in her chapter on profanity.

‘Women are supposed to be ‘less than’ and not ‘too much’. Women are meant to be quiet, modest, humble, polite, nice, well-behaved, aware of the red-lines. They are supposed to tread softly and within their limits. I am proud to be described as ‘too loud, swears too much, and goes too far’. When a woman is ‘too much’ she is essentially uncontrollable and unashamed. That makes her dangerous’.

At first his letter made me cry, I was hurt and vulnerable. Then that anger was roused again as I realised I liked the woman he described in that letter. She sounded fun, ballsy and exciting. She was intelligent and didn’t take any shit. She was formidable. So I made a pact with myself that I would always be that formidable woman and teach other women to do the same. Now I have two stepdaughters and I encourage them to speak up, to get angry, to be feisty and loud. This is the passage I read to them this weekend:

‘What would the world look like if girls were taught they were volcanoes, whose eruptions were a thing of beauty, a power to behold and a force not to be trifled with’.

I want my girls to know this. To go out into the world unashamed, uncontrollable and ready to smash the patriarchy for themselves and their sisters around the world. This book reignited my fervour. It may challenge you and your beliefs, but you must read it. Mona Eltahawy is a force to be reckoned with and I applaud her for this manifesto. It is moving and comes from a deeply felt sense of injustice. It is necessary. It’s impolite, brave, forthright and packs a mighty punch. Read it, then give it to your daughters, your nieces and your friends, because every woman should read this.

Meet The Author.

Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author and award-winning commentator and public speaker. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications around the world. She is a frequent commentator on current affairs on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera and other media outlets, where her goal is always to disrupt patriarchy. She is the author of Headscarves and Hymens and recently launched her feminist newsletter Feminist Giant. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @monaeltahawy

About Tramp Press

Tramp Press was launched in 2014 to find, nurture and publish exceptional literary talent. Based in Dublin and Glasgow, they publish internationally. Tramp Press Authors have won, been shortlisted and nominated for many prizes including the Irish Post Book of the Year, the Booker Prize, the Costa, the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Guardian First Book Award.

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