Friday, August 18, 2017

America the Beautiful

18th August 2017

Like everyone else, I am reeling in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville last weekend. And not to kick a thing when it is down, but just saying that the white supremacy march didn't come out of nowhere. This country has a healthy contingent of reptiles, and when given the opportunity they scurry out from under their rocks. American rocks. This country, despite its renound friendly citizens with whiter than white grins, hides a  lot of dirty laundry. Last weekend, in Charlottesville, some of it was hung out on the washing line to dry.


Perhaps the problem is that when you hold yourself up as a shining city upon a hill, you are inevitably going to fall over yourself.
When my daughter was small, her teacher would have the kids stand up, place their seven-year-old hands on their sweet hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

I tried to reason with the teacher that this was mindless twaddle, but she argued that it was wholly appropriate because America was in fact the greatest country on the face of the earth. And this was at a ritzy private school in Aspen (we were on a scholarship!)  I lost the argument, because you can't use reason against an emotional position. I am slowly learning this. It's too engrained, and for reasons that have little to do with rational argument.
So, every morning in her classroom, my little daughter had to sit while the rest of the class stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I hope it didn't scar her too much. These days she's out in the world making movies about the things she believes in, so perhaps it was a valuable lesson in taking stock.
Now might be a good time for America to take a seat and do the same. On the verge of an authoritarian coup, the  destruction of the middle class, and unbound racism, it's time to get real about what America really holds to be self evident.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Great Escape

11th August 2017

If you ask me in person, I'd be loathe to admit this, but I have spent the summer catching up on four seasons of the Great British Bake-Off. It's the most watched show in Britain and its recent season final was watched on half of all TV's, more than the Oscars and the Olympics. The show is also hugely popular in America. So, what gives?
I am not a great baker. I have yet to make a successful Great British scone. I don't watch cookery shows in general, and if you gave me vouchers to eat out for every meal remaining to me on this planet, I would snap them up. I suspect I am not alone in this. So why this show is so popular remains something of a mystery. After all, there's no prize - an SNL parody had two competitors walking off the set cursing, when they found out there would be no cash for their troubles. The prize is just the  honour of winning (and the satisfaction of being British.)
The answer must lie in our current state of mayhem: political, cultural, moral. It's the day-to-dayness of the relentless injury and erosion of our souls (for want of a better term.) It's just all so wearing: the collusions and the corruption and the idiot blind chief-in-office leading the blind. It's enough to make you bolt your doors, go off the grid and commit to home-schooling.
Or you can just tune it all out by switching on the telly and watching a group of nice polite Brits crumble butter into flour and drink tea on the sly.
So, forgive me my superficiality, my need to engage in The Great British Zone-Out. (Even though I have to swallow the fact that the few token Scots in the show don't really stand a chance: Good God, Man! This is the British Bake-Off: Victoria sponges and cucumber sandwiches, what?)
Nane o' your bannocks and haggis pies here.
What's a Scottish girl to do? Could we please have The Great Scottish Bake-Off? Scots can be polite, too. Sometimes.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Escaped Cock

4th August 2017

D H Lawrence's novella The Man Who Died (originally titled The Escaped Cock) opens with a feisty rooster in the yard of a peasant, crowing as he tries to free himself from his tether. Lawrence describes the cock so minutely, his red and bronze feathers and his special fiery crow that you know he is onto much more than a random rooster. For this is the cock that has crowed three times on the day of Christ's execution. Only we don't quite know how Lawrence is going to weave that in, so we are intrigued.
And we keep on reading, because Lawrence has a way of plumbing depths with his words. Any writing instructor trying to teach the difference between merely telling and showing in writing should use Lawrence as an example. He takes you with him:
...The queer, beaky motion of the creature as it gobbled into itself the scraps of food: its glancing of the eye of life, ever alert and watchful, overweening and cautious, and the voice of its life, crowing triumph and assertion, yet strangled by a cord of circumstance. 
And you want to go with him. That is the genius of the poet.

Lawrence was never one to shy away from weighty topics, and in The Escaped Cock he is having a go at the ascetic ideals of Christianity. He takes the crucified Christ who became the icon of monasticism and has him wake up in the tomb, not quite dead.  He wanders out and eventually comes to a pagan temple overseen by a young druidess. She is yearning for the mythical lover, and he is waiting to live again. He asks his Heavenly Father, "Why did you keep this from me?" Because for Lawrence, all else falls at the alter of sex, not in a trivial way, certainly not in a pornographic way, but in so far as it is a sacred link for humanity to the spirit. That was his message.

His paintings were decried an outrage upon decency by critics "holding up hands of pious horror." The Escaped Cock created quite a ruckus when it was published in 1928, not long before he died. I imagine he was pleased. "Anything that makes 'em wriggle," he wrote, "becomes at last indispensable."
But where are the Lawrences of today? Modern literature has no message. The best lacks all conviction and the worst is filled with sentimental intensity.  There's no soul. No compass. Art these days does no deep sea diving, just sort of sits on the surface with its fishing hooks, entertaining.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Seasons of the Heart

28th July 2017

My astrological chart tells me that Jupiter, ruler of luck and abundance, is set to move into my scorpio sign, a once in a twelve year appearance that will last just over a year. I don't read a daily horoscope or anything, but I do believe our lives are effected by the pushes and pulls of the cosmos.
Perhaps this is a good time to take a backwards glance at the road behind, examining each twelve-year rotation when Jupiter stepped over the threshold of my chart.
The first time, of course, was the year I was born. Edinburgh, Scotland, was a beautiful and historic place to make my first appearance. Can't argue with that. Twelve years on, I was on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. Puberty was hovering and therewith a brewing conflict with my evangelical upbringing. There was Jesus on the one hand, and Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky) on the other.

These two icons of manhood were not really reconcilable, at least not with the way Glaser looked in his worn jeans. In the twelfth year of my existence, things were not looking good for Jesus.
At twenty-four years of age, I was more or less on the other side of that split, writing a thesis on Nietzsche and Christianity at Oxford and getting married, not to Paul Michael Glaser, but to another Paul.
By the time I reached thirty-six, I had lived in Aspen for eight years. I had given birth to two kids and a plethora of manuscripts. I was sending out samples to agents and publishers and collecting in return a mound of thin white envelopes: Dear Claire, thank you for sending us your novel, but I think we are going to pass.
Another twelve years and many more manuscripts, I finally got my agent. Jupiter was back in my sign and beating his drum. Perhaps this is the distant drummer they say you hear if you are out of step with your friends.
So, Jupiter is set to make another appearance. It may be an arbitrary division of time, but it's as good a way as any for making sense of the kaleidoscope of life. And now would be a good time for a whole new cycle. I have a hankering at this juncture to get back to the place that was my origin.

Maybe after another twelve years when Jupiter comes round to Scorpio, I will be looking back on this time in my life as a circling back. Maybe the young woman who wrote poems about kneeling in daffodils will come again to a field of Scottish bluebells and know the place for the first time.

Friday, July 21, 2017


21st July 2017

Earlier in my writing career, I had this stolid notion that writing from a third person perspective was the only true literary mode, and that all else was cheating. So, I stuck to it. Every book I wrote was from a she/he perspective. Writing from an "I" perspective seemed little more than journal writing, I would say, and was a trick to draw the reader in without having to do any real writing. It's tougher, was my argument, so it must be better. I have about five unpublished novels written this way. I wrote my first novel in the third person, but it wasn't until I changed it to two first person voices, that it really seemed to gel, and I got my agent shortly after.
I think the reason first person perspective works (for me, anyway) is not so much how it reads as how it stops the author (me) from standing back emotionally from the writing. It's more uncomfortable, but more accessible, too.

My published book Veil Of Time is written in the first person. My protagonist, Maggie Livingston, gets to tell her own story. But there still lurks a sneaking suspicion, a voice that comes in the night and whispers that I was right in the first place, that real writing is done from out there and not up close in the squeaky personal voice. Writing the second book in the series, Druid Hill,  I opted for third person narrative. It allowed me to get into more than one head. But for the final book, I climbed one more time into the skin of Maggie Livingston and told her story from the inside out. It is Maggie's Swan Song, after all, so it seemed she ought to get to sing it herself.

Still, the doubts persist: my literary heroes, for the most part, never stooped to this. Steinbeck, Emily Bronte, Lewis Grassic Gibbon. But, then, I am not without good company either: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, Ken Kesey, Irvine Welsh, and not forgetting Emily's sister, Charlotte.
It's just that when I write my Opus Magnum, I will probably write it in the third person.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Beam Me Up!

21st July 2017

I have pointed out before the strange correlation between Gene Roddenberry's creations in Star Trek during the 1960's and 70's and real technology as it has unfolded in the interim: flip phones, medical hand-held devices, video conferencing, Blue Tooth ear pieces, to name a few.
This week in the news, we found that the Chinese have just successfully teleported photons to a satellite using a phenomenon known in physics as entanglement.

Physics, especially its theoretical branch, is slowly turning the solid world we have come to know and love on its head. Just as Gene Roddenberry foresaw.
I know people, friends even, who won't touch a book involving any such zany notions. They prefer literature that sticks with the nuts and bolts of human experience. But what if it turns out in the not-too-distant future that reality isn't what we thought it was at all, and that time isn't something moving along a solid line, but is something infinitely more flexible. What if we ourselves, as a mass of particles, could actually move backwards along that line?
Stephen Hawking doesn't like this idea. A few years ago he gathered a team to show that movement along that line was one-directional: forward, ever forward. But this meeting of the greatest minds in physics failed to prove anything of the sort. All the rules of physics, it turns out, work equally well in a backward motion as they do forwards.

We are already on the threshold of objects being beamed up to space stations through a process of what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance." As a novelist, I'll go with "spooky" physics. As a Scot, I will go with the idea that the character of Scottie can facilitate such a process. Perhaps in the end we'll discover that "spooky" is all there is. Perhaps in the end, real live Scots will discover that Scotland, and not the United Kingdom, is all there is. Perhaps then, a trilogy about a Scottish woman who manages to teleport herself through time won't seem fantastical at all.
After all, they already did it on Star Trek!

Friday, July 7, 2017

All Shall Be Well

7th July 2017

Evening wafted a cool breeze over the Colorado Rockies, as I sat outside at a picnic table with some friends discussing the debacle that is our present and what it could possibly lead to for our future. It was getting dark, the remaining light a paint brush stroke of yellow brilliance across the upper hills, a certain permutation of light you see only in Colorado. Even after so many years here, it still melts me. Its as though the day had just one more thought before it left, one more dash of wisdom. Like a rainbow in a dark sky, it says, All Shall Be well.

The English 14th C mystic Julian of Norwich is credited with this little catch-all of a chant: All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

This is what we were discussing at a table on a Colorado evening. Would all be well? Is humanity on a crash course with the worst in its nature or is the arc of our history bending ultimately upward and beyond.

One thing is for sure, human history is not progressing like a car along a straight flat road. Desperation and its twin, populism, run rife in our world. In this country we had Obama. Record numbers showed up for his inauguration, because, who could have guessed? A black president in America? A classy, educated, black man with no skeletons in the closet? And now we have a clown, a tacky, ignorant showman with the mind of a criminal. So, no, there is no straight line from the black man to the buffoon. But progress doesn't seem to walk that line anyway. Because it is a spiral, every so often it feels as though it is going backwards, and seems that we have been here before. We have Trump. We had Nixon. Surely there can be no progress there.

But ultimately, history will step in and assess this little segment on the great wheel of time. My sense is that it will not shine favourably upon these poor players who operate by fear. There is a quality to the universe which veers more towards love than fear, and the fear-mongers will ultimately be judged in terms of that quality. In the meantime, our hope hangs on a certain cast of light that bids us: fear not. All shall be well.