Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

visitmymosqueSunday 5th February 2017 was the third national Visit My Mosque day in the UK.

Visit my Mosque involves ‘over 150 mosques across the UK holding open days and welcoming in their neighbours of all faiths and none.’

Until I read about this on Friday I had no idea there was a mosque just a few minutes walk down the road from where I live. This might seem odd, until you find that it’s a tiny little place, converted from what was once the back room of a pub. No domes, no minarets, no muezzin.

With a participating mosque practically on my doorstep, I had a vague intention to attend. But tbh, in simpler, calmer times I probably would have found a reason not to bother. I’d rather spend my Sunday afternoon going for a long walk, or reading a book, or maybe baking. But these are not calm or simple times, and there are very troubling things happening around the world.

I didn’t manage to go on any of the anti-Trump marches, but this was something I could do – something so simple and easy it would almost be shameful not to do.

But I had concerns. I pictured my partner and I turning up as the only visitors to an embarrassed and disinterested group of strangers who perhaps were merely ticking a box by taking part. Or maybe they’d be like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we’d spend the next hour trying to politely extricate ourselves from an attempted conversion. Or perhaps they’d expect us to have come armed with lots of intelligent questions, and I honestly couldn’t think of any, and we’d go in, say ‘hi,’ turn round, and leave again – like when you go in a gift shop and instantly realise it’s all tat and you’re not interested – but the effusive shop-keeper really wants to talk to you….

As it happens, we turned up half an hour after the start of the open day, and could barely fit in the place. We deposited our shoes behind the front door, and crammed into a game of sardines. The guy at the front was talking about all the areas of overlap between the Bible and Qur’an – things I had no idea about, such as the fact that Muslims believe in Jesus and revere Mary.

We listened to him talk for a little time, about how he set up this mosque originally as somewhere for the local taxi drivers to worship between shifts. There were originally just 5 of them, but it has grown, and is now often full. He invited questions from the many visitors and answered them engagingly, with humour and enthusiasm.

Another guy arrived shortly after us, and introduced himself as a first generation Irish immigrant who arrived in the UK 50-odd years ago, and suffered a great deal of prejudice and racial or religious discrimination. He told the assembled group, ‘I am not religious. I’m an atheist now. But I wanted to come here today because I know what it is to be shunned and treated with distrust. I want to thank you for inviting us here today, and to show you that you’re not alone. We will stand with you.’

This was pretty much exactly what I would have liked to say (apart from the Irish immigrant bit). There was a spontaneous round of applause.

Then there were snacks, mingling, and the opportunity to ask questions, if you wished.

It was very far from the slightly awkward but worthy duty I had thought it might be, and I am so glad we went.

Those who know me know that I don’t have any great opinion of religion generally, and there are certainly aspects of Islam I find particularly problematic. But that’s not what today was about. If I had wanted, no doubt I could have asked some awkward questions, and I think they would have been answered honestly and with respect. But for once, I didn’t want to be the awkward person. I just wanted to accept the hand that was reached out to me, to meet people in my immediate community I normally wouldn’t meet, and experience things I normally wouldn’t experience. To build bridges, not walls.

See also Finding the Familiar.


Thank you so much to everyone who liked and shared this post, which seemed to strike a chord with a lot of you. I ended up featured in The Guardian in their coverage of Visit My Mosque day.

There are many troubling things about Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments on motherhood. In response, I wrote some words, both personal and political.


In a seemingly never-ending series of political storms sweeping the UK this summer, the latest is to do with having ‘a stake in the future.’

Following the surprise referendum vote to take us out of the European Union, our Prime Minister has resigned, handing over responsibility for actually delivering this result to whoever will succeed him. After the initial voting, the remaining contenders for leader of the Conservative party are the more or less equally vile Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom.

So we will soon have a female Prime Minister for only the second time. I take no joy in that fact. When Margaret Thatcher became our first female Prime Minister I was a child, and entirely uninterested in politics, feminism or anything else of that kind. In retrospect, yes it was a significant milestone in gender parity. But that doesn’t alter my opinion of Thatcher or her legacy for this country (clue: I’m not a fan).

So although I had no actual optimism about either of these candidates (both of whom seem about as reasonable, humane and decent as Thatcher herself), it was nevertheless disheartening to find within two days of the race being declared female-only that the big issue is… motherhood.

No, really.

In an interview with the Times, Andrea Leadsom claimed that having children gave her a stronger stake in the future than childless Theresa May.

Mrs Leadsom is very angry at the article, claiming to have been misrepresented – but her words speak for themselves. At best, she has shown naivety in not anticipating how her comments would be received.

You can read a transcript via the BBC.

Mrs Leadsom said:

I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.

But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.

Wow.

The obvious first objection is that these same ‘arguments’ are never used when discussing and comparing the merits of men. When was the last time a male politician was judged on his parental status? When was it even suggested that a father would make a better Prime Minister than a man without children?

That underlying double standard is central to this whole debacle, but there are two specific points in Mrs Leadsom’s statement I would like to explore in more detail:

  1. Women who don’t have children are sad.
  2. Women who don’t have children have no interest in building a strong, successful future.

Mrs Leadsom’s first point is a thorny one – because some of the time it’s true. I speak from experience. I have failed to have children, and I’m sad about it.

I chose my words with care just then. I have failed. You can’t fail unless you tried. Hell, I tried. I only recently admitted defeat and stopped trying.

I am sadder than I can tell you. Sad every day. Sad every time I see someone else’s joy or pride or even frustration in their children. Which, of course, is many times every single day.

But not everyone tries. Many people, for many and various reasons, don’t want to have children. They are not sad about it. They made a decision. Their lives are happy and fulfilled just as they are. Projecting your own values and opinions on those people is arrogant and ignorant.

Like Andrea Leadsom, I know little about Theresa May. I don’t know whether she ever tried to have children. I don’t know whether she’s sad that she didn’t. If she ever was sad, I don’t know whether she still is. Theresa May is 59. Her potentially child-bearing years are long behind her. By the time I’m her age I certainly hope to be over the worst of my disappointment.

Mrs Leadsom’s sympathy (if that’s what it was) is inappropriate and patronising.

But what about that second point? Having children gives Mrs Leadsom a greater stake in the future.

Does it really?

In the immediate sadness of accepting you will never have children there is hopelessness; there is despair. There can be depression, a skewed world view that sees everything going to hell. At the same time a lethargy, because nothing matters. There is a greyness, a blandness, an emptiness lurking behind every ostensible joy.

I’ve been battling with that for the better part of two years now. But it is lifting, slowly, gradually. There are still days I don’t know why I continue getting up in the morning, getting in my car, driving to work, going through the same motions… When all I feel like doing is lying in bed and staring at the wall. But I do keep doing it. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, and moving forwards – and maybe there is some light up ahead. Maybe.

When that darkness recedes, when the light feels attainable, do you know what is my strongest emotion? Determination. Determination that I have to make my life matter some other way. I can’t rely on my genes marching forward into the future, providing a link in an unbroken chain stretching back millions of years and potentially reaching forward for millions more; to determine the fate of our planet, to travel the stars, to colonise new worlds…

I have failed to be a part of that great enterprise.

But what can I do? I can try to influence those who are taking part in that march. I can try to affect the world around me during my lifetime. I can try to leave the world a better place than I found it.

I am acutely aware that any legacy I leave is entirely up to me and my actions and how I influence the world. I have to strive. I have to achieve. I still have something to prove.

If you think I have no stake in the future, you are very wrong.

Theresa May might or might not be anything like me, but my point is broader than that. Being childless can mean many things. It can mean different things to the same person over the course of their lifetime. There is no valid label you can slap on a childless person, male or female, due to that single trait.

In my view, Andrea Leadsom has already failed a test of leadership potential. In a historic contest between two women to be the leader of the UK, almost her first action was to bring the argument down to reproduction, to traditional women’s roles, traditional values – undermining the progress in feminism that has allowed her to achieve the position she has.

Get a proper argument. Compare real achievements, not a thing so personal, so emotive, so dogged by unfair judgement – and so irrelevant.

You can read more (and from more incisive political minds than mine) on the Leadsom/May contest here.

In the summer I attended celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of my old school, Anthony Gell, in Wirksworth. As part of the celebrations, they aim to gather 50 short pieces of writing from people who worked or studied at Gell during its 50 years of community comprehensive education.

I was asked to contribute, and considered it an honour. But all the work it has taken to bring Kikimora to publication meant that I had not yet found the time. Last week I was gently reminded that the deadline is the end of November, and today I finally sat down to write my piece. It ended up going somewhere I hadn’t anticipated.


“Why bother to learn a dead language?” people typically ask after hearing I have a GCSE in Latin. “It’s useless.”

Everyone knows that you learn Latin by sitting in a classroom reciting en masse, “Amo amas amat…” – the conjugations of the verb to love. I’m afraid I didn’t do much of that in my class of one, sitting in the office of my Headmaster, Mr Pearce. Latin was not on the curriculum of this small, rural comprehensive, but Mr Pearce was more than happy to teach anyone who showed interest.

Why did I want to learn it? I’m not even sure. Something to do with a general interest in ancient history, with mythology and magic – those were the things I associated with Latin. Though if my interests had lain elsewhere I suppose I might have associated it with medicine, with biology or with the church.

What I didn’t realise I was signing up for was something which would alter the way I perceive language, the way I learn, and even the way I think.

Almost the first thing I was taught after amo amas amat, was to examine my existing vocabulary for associated words: amorous, paramour.

When I learnt puer (boy) I found: puerile.
Agricola (farmer): agriculture, agrarian.
Mare (sea): marine, maritime.
Nauta (sailor): nautical… and so on.

Latin words form the roots of countless other words, not just in English, but in many European languages (all of the so-called Romance languages – Romance as in Romans, not as in love).

Now whenever I encounter a word I don’t know I break it down into its constituent parts. What does it sound like? What root might it be formed from? It’s surprising how often this proves a useful technique – allowing you to at least get close to the word’s true meaning, even if not quite all the way.

What I learned in my Latin lessons was not a dead, useless language, but the ability to think around a problem, to analyse and dissect, to look past the unfamiliar and try and find something recognisable.

That is a valuable skill – particularly if you apply it to more than language. For instance, to culture, to creed, to lifestyle.

We live in dangerous times. There are many people who, for their own selfish reasons, want to foster a culture of us and them, to instil fear, distrust, suspicion, hatred. But most people – ordinary people who don’t have vested interests in arms, in land grabs, in oil, in religious fanaticism – aren’t so different from each other. Most people just want to feed their children, to love whomever they love, and go about their lives peacefully and without fear.

I’m writing this on Saturday 14 November 2015 as the world reels from the latest terrorist attacks in Paris, as the inevitable backlash against Islam rises again in the West, as the thousands of refugees remain mired in border camps throughout Europe, alternately vilified and beatified by a press pushed one way by public outcry and another way by their corporate paymasters.

I can’t help feeling that the world could be a better place if people everywhere learned to look beyond the unknown, the different, the perceived-to-be-threatening, and instead look for the familiar – people just like themselves, with the same desire to love, to nurture, to live in peace. Stop seeing them and see more kinds of us. After all, it is harder to gun down us, than to gun down them. Harder to blow up us than to blow up them. Harder to deny food and shelter to us, than to them.

Four years ago today my dad died after a brief struggle with chemotherapy. He had received a diagnosis of prostate cancer a few months earlier, but wasn’t noticeably unwell before beginning treatment. After one chemotherapy session he went into hospital, and died within the week. But this is not a post about the pros, cons and issues surrounding cancer treatments. Perhaps I’ll return to that another time.

Dad had always wanted to write stories, but work and family commitments meant that he didn’t get very far. After retiring, he began to write up some anecdotes and reminiscences from his childhood. Like him, these little stories are characterised by humour and self-deprecation. One of these days I would like to publish something for him, though it is a task I find many reasons to put off. Working through it all will be hard and emotionally draining.

I had published Darklands, my first novel, just a couple of months earlier, and am grateful that he got to read it, and see that I had finally achieved something we had talked about so often.

I have dedicated Kikimora to him, although I hesitated over it – since it concerns some very poor parenting, and I didn’t want to imply any association with his own parenting skills!

All of these are strands I could explore in more detail, but all I really want to do today is read you a poem.

My family are not religious. I am an atheist. Other members of the family fall on a spectrum from atheist to agnostic. I have always felt uncomfortable about religious funerals for non-religious people. Bereavement is a tough time, and maybe organising the funeral doesn’t seem like the most important thing when there are so many other important, difficult, upsetting things to do. Maybe people aren’t even aware that there are alternatives. But to me it did seem important that we get it right – and amongst all the sorting out of bank accounts, subscriptions, paperwork, and more paperwork, notifying people, crying each time we did – planning a fitting send off for my dad was the only uplifting and comforting part of the process.

My had a Humanist funeral, and it was just right. We listened to Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending, and Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World. The speaker read a eulogy my sisters and I had prepared, and this poem by RF Delderfield.

My sister remembered reading the poem in the novel, Diana. We searched for it online, and were surprised that it seemed very little known. At the time we couldn’t even find the poem online (although you can now, if you search). Instead we had to dig out the battered old paperback (no mean feat in a house filled with thousands of books!), and copy it out for the speaker.

We knew that my dad favoured cremation over burial, although some people struggle with the idea. I think perhaps reading this poem might change their minds. In its deep connectedness with nature, with ongoing life and the passing of time, it seemed then and still does now, a perfect tribute to him.

On Foxhayes edge go scatter my ashes
above the ground in sunlit splashes,
Where all about my powdered bones
the trefoil weaves between the stones.
Where what I was feeds foxglove roots
and robust April parsley shoots
Five miles or more from a churchyard drab
where underneath a lettered slab,
the body that has served me well
would bloat in clay, pathetic shell.
At Foxhayes edge atop the grass
I’ll sense successive seasons pass
I’ll see the beeches overhead
turn tangerine and rusty red
I’ll hear the sky-seen of their leaves
wind gossiping to younger trees.
Then, with the fall of blue-smoke dusk
I’ll settle in the rustling husk
of brittle, sun-dried bracken stalk
to hear the spruce and larches talk
And see the lovers come and go;
or later, when the New Years snow
builds up in drifts below the hedge
crisping the blades of dock and sedge
I’ll wait content, to stir in sleep
the hour the earliest violets peep
for with them all the wood will rustle
under the west wind’s old maid’s bustle
lifting perhaps a speck of me
and bearing it due south to sea

RF Delderfield

We found a peaceful spot on a wooded ridge overlooking the village where he had lived for 40 years, and we laid his ashes there.

Tonight I’ll be raising a glass to his memory. Good ‘ealth.

mum and dad, hiking

Mum and dad, quite a long time ago

Further to last week’s moorland misadventure, I have to admit that the incident is still preying on my mind.

Each night as I go to bed my thoughts are filled with deep mud pools and fruitless flailing. As my mind replays the incident the bog is always deeper and more sucking, solid ground further away. The helplessness and lack of mobility recall those common childhood nightmares of trying to run through air that feels as thick and unyielding as treacle*.

I have tried to persuade myself that I was really not in as much danger as I thought. I have researched the subject a little. I even found a video of Bear Grylls purposefully wading into quicksand in order to demonstrate how to escape it. He made it look easy, of course. I struggled to visualise accomplishing the same manoeuvre in my situation last weekend – even if I had known or dared to lie horizontally on the surface.

When I mentioned the incident to a guy in my pilates class he said that he’d had a similar experience – sinking up to his chest in a bog (in the same location). A friend had to haul him out by his rucksack.

None of this reassures me.

But last night a new thing occured to me. If help had immediately come, if strangers had turned up and pulled me out of the mud, I am sure I would feel twice as troubled as I do. Although the memory of helplessness is what frightens me, I was not helpless. I did rescue myself. If someone had immediately pulled me out I wouldn’t know whether I had the power to do it myself. I wouldn’t know if I could keep calm and behave sensibly. The What ifs would be all the more powerful and insistent.

This has led me to wonder about the psychology of the rescued.

Orlando Furioso by Gustave Dore

Orlando Furioso by Gustave Dore, Angelica rescued from the Gryphon

It is of course a common trope in all kinds of fiction that a (young and beautiful) lady is in some terrible danger, but is rescued in the nick of time by a sword-wielding, wise-cracking, solid-jawed hero.

I have never before really considered what the victim/heroine’s feelings on that would be. Relief, of course. Gratitude, probably. But what about later? In the deepest, quietest hours of the night? Would she see again the dragon’s powerful teeth, smell its fetid breath? Would she struggle against the memory of those binding ropes, flinch from the licking flames?

Rather than marrying the hero and living happily ever after, I now wonder if she would go mad with post-traumatic anxiety? If she would become clingy and neurotic, never allowing her rescuing hero to leave her side for fear of some further calamity befalling her – a calamity she had no power to escape herself. Or, at least, no power that she knew of.

Surprisingly few fictional characters ever do suffer post-traumatic stress – despite the heroic amounts of trauma we subject them to. If they do, we quickly become impatient with their self-indulgent whining and moping.

As authors we want to retain the flavour of realism, while filtering out the tiresomeness. After all, our primary objective is to be entertaining; to tell a good story.

With hindsight, it seems I have something to be grateful for. I may have felt alone and forsaken as I stood dripping mud on the edge of that bog. But I have come to the conclusion that self-rescuing is far more satisfying and reassuring than being rescued. I just hope I don’t need to do it again any time soon.

* That wasn’t just me, right?