How Not to Introduce Characters

Don’t introduce characters like this:

Lesbian transsexual Orcadian Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski (KFL for short) swinging single and sole proprietor of Deli Smelly, San Francisco’s waterfront’s latest and tastiest locally sourced organic Wiccan charcuterie – because, hey, meat may be murder but business is business – backflipped her perfect twentysomething bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a bençao capoeira kick that sent the head of her android Sensei, Maximilian 3PO-Boombox, spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede. Where all earthlings and earthcities were now located. Cos of the Pulse.

Readers won’t know whether they’re reading Anna Karenina, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rotary Spokes or a Culture novel. Mostly they’ll just be confused. The author of this kind of fiction is generally the graduate of a creative writing course whose enthusiastic teacher has encouraged the class to ‘create diverse characters’. The result is like one of those toys that switch heads, trunks and legs – and what is supposed to be entertaining ends up as incoherent. Add to this confusion a method of direct exposition from narrator to reader similar in style to the rapid reading of T&Cs on adverts, and enjoying this style of writing takes a lot of hard work.

I admit that the opening scene of the first book of the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries throws a lot at the reader all at once. However the reader is in the mind of the protagonist, and narrators are always unreliable. Tricks of the Mind is driven by a frustrated libido that makes Bruno mad, bad and dangerous to know. So when he enters, to find the object of his affection exercising on the hearthrug, his erudite consciousness is trying to focus on anything but the cheekily handsome face, glistening hard muscle and skimpy shorts of his cocky Cockney flatmate.

Readers hardly ever need to know a character’s surname, and the practice of varying between first name and surname (very common in thrillers) can cause them to lose the plot. Readers also don’t need to know everything at once. Let’s slow that example paragraph down:

Konstantina backflipped her perfect bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a kick that sent the head of her Sensei spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede.

Now it’s recognisably Sci-Fi girlpower chicklit. Let’s add some indirect exposition.

“Nice bençao!” rasped a metallic voice from the corner, “I told you the Terran martial art of capoeira was worth mastering.”

“Max it’s so creepy when you talk with your head off! Reattach!”

“And it’s very disrespectful when a student addresses her Sensei by its first name during training.”

“I mean no disrespect, Sensei 3PO-Boombox, I guess my mind is on the opening of the Deli tonight.”

The android reattached its head before replying. “Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski, your ancestors from far-flung Terra did not colonise this moon for the sole purpose of the provision of charcuterie!”

Etc.

I still don’t want to read it because all it’s giving me is information. When I care (marginally) more about the Yodayadda of a robot than the preoccupations of a lovely young lady, something is clearly wrong. Let’s try another tack:

Konstantina was almost afraid to touch the shimmering green fabric. The fragile tunic, gift of her Orcadian grandmother, was one of the few remaining articles of clothing made on Terra. There were no silkworms on Ganymede. A silk tunic belonged in the Hall of Memory. It should not be worn by the sole proprietor of Deli Smelly on her opening night. Not even if Ivanya would be there. Not even if she would be sure to notice that the colour, exactly, matched Konstantina’s eyes.

She glanced at the chronograph, sighed, and replaced the garment in the alcove at the back of her cave. She just had time to fit in a combat training session with Max. It would clear her head.

Okay, now I care. I want to bomb the deli, for its silly name, I want to know how this tunic is expected to survive (in an alcove, in a cave, on a far-flung moon) and I also want to know what happened to Grannie and if there’s life on Earth. And more about Max. Cos he’s probably dead fit and I’m going to be terribly disappointed if I find out he’s made of silicon and not carbon. Maybe. I’m not that bothered about Ivanya (I mean why does our lovely girl have to work so hard?) but I might be if she’s Max’s fiancée. And he’s secretly planning a sex change but is kidnapped by the besotted Tyrant of Ganymede. I want to know now. I know it’s got silly but, admit it, so do you!

Don’t chuck everything at the reader all at once. You are the creator of this world and of these characters. Take the reader gently by the hand and lead on, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs as you go. Remember, if you write, you’re a writer. Even God put in the best part of an intensive week of practice before creating human characters. Let yourself make mistakes, and above all enjoy it.

I have to sign off, I’ve suddenly developed an interest in Sci-Fi…

writing-hand-1443450529gzn

Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her ‘Re digitized public domain illustration of a black and white human hand writing with a pen’ into the Public Domain.

Writing a Difference

I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.

Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White cisgendered heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.

I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.

When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:

‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’

and

‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.

The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.

I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.

This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.

On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.

Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.

Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.

Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.

And that makes a difference.

colored-pencils

Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.

How to survive Christmas

(Contains blatant advertising, sage advice, bleeding hearts, stereotypes, humbug, nuts)

I don’t have the stats, but I imagine the number of Americans shooting family members goes up during the festive season. We can hardly blame them. This post focuses on that annual family horror called Christmas but some parts may be applicable to other feasts involving relentless and compulsory goodwill; the forced proximity of adult siblings, in-laws and outlaws; sleet; treacherous pavements; overindulgence in stodge, sugar and alcohol; and the worst TV.

So how can you survive Christmas?

  • Get the good food in first. That’s the basic advice of Body-Logic, so you don’t need to buy it now (but if you do, it’s available as an eBook). You’re less likely to nibble if you’ve feasted first. And let’s face it, it’s the one and only time of the year where anything as sickeningly nutritious as Brussels sprouts makes you feel sentimental.
  • Plan your TV/DVD/online watching. It can actually be enjoyable to watch a film all the way through with selected family or friends. It is even possible to do so without addictively checking your phone for such urgent texts as: wotcha doin am wachtin fillum sborin? This countercultural practice may even increase the attention span of your hyperactive progeny to a length marginally greater than that of goldfish.
  • Retreat to your room/ broom cupboard with a good book. Some discerning readers have decided to catch up on the Bruno Benedetti inclusive mystery series (in print or eBook). And who am I to stop them? The benefits of reading an up-and-coming author is that it’s dead cool and you can shame your friends who have never even imagined that a mystery series could be inclusive. This will then activate FOMO. So you can be quietly smug.
  • Announce to the festive fiends frequenting your living-room and drinking all your sherry that, unfortunately, you have a paper/report on [anything but try Education, Philosophy, Alchemy, Sports Science, Social Work, Renaissance Studies, Quantum Mechanics, Music, Art, Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen] to hand in at the start of the new year. So you just have to read Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality from cover to cover (in print or eBook). In the airing cupboard, the only place that’s warm.
  • Dance. Seriously. Relocate the coffee table, push back the chairs, forcibly remove all the headphones from all the teenyboppers under 50 and elect yourself DJ Dictator. Command the stereo/ space-age musical docking device and get the tunes on. Jumping up and down, even gently, is THE BEST THING for lymphatic drainage. It’s the new blood pressure. It sorts everything. Google it. Ask your doctor. Get with the programme.
  • Walk. Take the dog. Take the neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have one. Believe me, this is a very welcome gesture. Yes I know old Mrs Biddy next door has taken the trouble to clear the pavement outside her prefab and hasn’t put down salt so it’s now a popular neighbourhood slide. But (hu/wo)man up [told you I was inclusive] and cross the road where the pavement’s less treacherous. That’s sidewalk for our North American readers. You can even seasonally greet your neighbours. This is compulsory all over Scotland after midnight (AND NOT BEFORE!) on New Year’s Eve and voluntary during the year. It provides a nice alternative to shooting them.
  • Limit the time you spend together. Less is far, far more. Don’t say “come for Xmas”, say “come for Xmas dinner, we’re at church in the morning and out in the evening so we have the whole afternoon to spend with you”. Relief on the other end of the phone. Even the most trigger-happy relation should be able to keep it together for four hours. That includes time taken to unwrap presents and visitors and bundle them back into the car. God will forgive you for lying about church-going. She’s like that. And if you do do church, do one that preaches love, not hate.
  • Watch White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life if you must. Once you realise that one’s US military recruitment propaganda and the other a hymn to that oxymoron ‘compassionate capitalism’ it rather takes the sheen off the screen. I much prefer The Muppets’ Christmas Carol or The Bishop’s Wife for nostalgia. If anyone suggests The Grinch ask them, seriously, whether they would like to be trapped in a lift (elevator) with Jim Carrey. The correct answer is “no”. Don’t, whatever you do, make snow angels. This unbearably middleclass act of kinderkitsch is only allowable under coercion of a loaded firearm – and even then needs a careful weighing up of the pros and cons.
  • Act out your own murder mystery. Use one of those DVD & flashcard boxes if you wish, or use this wee festive freebie HERE. It may serve to sublimate those homicidal tendencies.
  • Give thanks. Use it as an alternative grace, sat round the table eyeing the fair-trade veggie feast (no harm to no fowl). Introduce it with “let’s all mention just one thing we’re grateful for this year. 10 seconds each. Clockwise. I’ll start”. If there’s 10 of you that’s already more than a minute and a half.
  • It’s only once a year.
  • Put these numbers on speed dial: 999/ 911; Childline; RSPCA; The Samaritans.

Good Luck.

christmas-crackers-13551354239vo

Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Christmas Crackers‘ into the Public Domain.

Murder at the Manor

 Murder at the Manor

A Festive Murder Mystery in 1 Act

By Alan McManus

Murder at the Manor was first produced by my friends and family, at home in Paisley, on Mother’s Day, 2012. These several pages containing the play, Murder at the Manor, and list of publications may be distributed online or in print form, together but not separately. The play may be edited. No charge or voluntary donation may be requested for any copy or performance of this play – unless the whole sum is donated to the Dr Hadwen Trust (drhadwentrust.org)

COPYRIGHT Alan McManus 2012

Dramatis Personae

Miss Marple          Acute Observer                       Older lady

Olga Volgavitch    International Jewel Thief      Younger lady

Brigitte                   Movie Star                                Younger lady

Hank                       Film Producer                          Younger gentleman

Mrs Bantry            Lady of the Manor                   Middle-aged lady

Col Bantry             Lord of the Manor                   Middle-aged gentleman

Buttons                  Butler                                         Younger gentleman

Andrea                   Police Photographer               Younger lady

Inspector Japp     CID                                              Middle-aged gentleman

Revd Green           Vicar                                            Middle-aged gentleman

(roles may be doubled)

The action of the play takes place over 24 hours, in Bantry Manor.

Time: The Present

 

Scene 1 – Diningroom. Dawn.

Everyone (apart from Inspector Japp, Buttons and Andrea) sits round the table, at breakfast.

Buttons                (knocks on door, comes in) Excuse me, Sir.

Col Bantry            (surprised) Well speak up Buttons, my breakfast kippers are getting cold!

Buttons                (coughs) There’s some body in the Library, ma’am.

Mrs Bantry          (annoyed) Well bring them in, Buttons!

Buttons                (grimaces) Can’t, Ma’am. She’s been murdered.

Brigitte                 (screams) Murdered!

Hank                     (pats Brigitte’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!

Miss Marple        (looks at Mrs Bantry) Perhaps, Dolly, we should call the police.

Mrs Bantry          (sighs) Oh, very well. Murder! At breakfast! With guests!

Revd Green          (hopefully) Is there any more tea?

Olga Volgavitch   (frozen in the act of getting more food) I vosss here all ze time, eatink ze kipper, niet?

Everyone looks at Olga Volgavitch, suspiciously.

 

Scene 2 – Lounge. That Morning.

Everyone is present, having tea. Miss Marple is knitting. Andrea snaps snaps, snappily.

Japp                        (stands at fireplace, hands behind back) The name of the deceased is…

Miss Marple         Inspector, I don’t think we should say the name of the body in the Library just yet, you know.

Japp                        Miss Marple, who is in charge of this investigation?

Miss Marple         You are, Inspector, naturally. I just wondered if you had considered the begonias.

Japp                       (shakes head, ignores Miss Marple) The name of the body in the Library is… (chokes, falls to ground)

Andrea                  (screams, snaps a snap of the Inspector) Someone do something!

Miss Marple        (looks up) Has he turned blue, dear? (Andrea nods) Well I expect it’s cyanide. He’ll have about three minutes.

Col Bantry           (looking round wildly) The police photographer’s right! Someone do something! He’s only got three minutes!

Buttons                (helpfully) I could boil him an egg?

Brigitte                (screams) Murdered!

Hank                    (pats Brigitte’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!

Olga Volgavitch   Izz too late! Heez goose is cooked!

Brigitte                (stops screaming) Goose? I thought it was an egg!

Buttons               (to Mrs Bantry) What, eggactly, would you like me to do with this one, Ma’am?

Mrs Bantry         Oh shove it in the library with the other one. Honestly! What will we do now?

Revd Green        (clearing throat) We could always have more tea?

Hank                   There’s more tea in that pot.

Miss Marple      (looks up from her knitting) How do you know that, dear? Who was the last to touch that teapot?

Everyone looks at Hank, suspiciously.

 

Scene 3 – Diningroom. That afternoon.

Everyone (except for Inspector Japp, Andrea, and Buttons) is present.

Brigitte                 So we’re all trapped here in this haunted house with a maniac running round murdering people in their beds till the police get here!

Hank                     (pats Brigitte’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!

Col Bantry           No one has ever been murdered in Bantry beds! That unknown woman who had the cheek to turn up uninvited and get murdered has nothing to do with any of us!

Miss Marple        Are you sure, Colonel? Are you forgetting that incident in India?

Mrs Bantry           Not Bombay Lil, Arthur, surely! I thought all that was in your dim and distant youth!

Olga Volgavitch   But Bombay Lil was hunged by ze mob in Zaint Peterzburg!

Miss Marple         Really? That was certainly the official story, but according to that nice Orthodox bishop down the road, she was rescued by her anarchist sister and died a sainted hermit in Siberia. And, according to Somerset House, you were that sister.

Hank                     (laughs) I’m not buying that! You haven’t had time to take do a roundtrip by train to London.

Miss Marple        No dear. But I did have time to check online.

Revd Green          Russians make great tea. They boil it up in a, whatssit…

Hank                    Samovar.

Everyone looks at Hank, suspiciously.

Hank                    Darn.

Brigitte                 (pats Hank’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!

Miss Marple        (looks at Brigitte) The way you handled the begonias, my dear?

Everyone looks at Brigitte, suspiciously.

Buttons                 (knocks on door, comes in) Excuse me, Ma’am.

Mrs Bantry           Not more bodies, Buttons!

Buttons                 No, Ma’am. Not more. Less! It’s the Inspector’s body. It’s gone!

 

Scene 4 – Lounge. Early that evening.

Everyone (except for Inspector Japp) is present, having drinks.

Col Bantry            Well this is preposterous! One of us must have murdered both Bombay Lil and the Inspector and moved his body! And when I say ‘one of us’ I mean ‘one of you’! It’s definitely not either myself or Dolly!

Revd Green           The bridge across the river is down. We won’t get out of here till morning!

Hank                      And the telephone wires have been cut.

Miss Marple         Hank, dear, you really must get a mobile. How do you know the bridge across the river is down, vicar?

Olga Volgavitch   Because he vent out ziss mornink, early, before brekfasst.

Brigitte                 And how do you know that? Spying on people, eh?

Mrs Bantry           Actually I think she was stealing the silver. I was going to mention it but with all the murders I found I really didn’t care!

Olga Volgavitch   Ok, I giff eet bak. Da?

Mrs Bantry           Oh don’t worry. It was a wedding present and I never liked it. It’s all insured, naturally.

Buttons                Good. Now I don’t have to polish it.

Mrs Bantry          That will do, Buttons. Haven’t you got chores to do?

Andrea                  Chores! Silver! How can you, when my secret love the Inspector’s gone and been and got murdered and been and gone!

Miss Marple         (puts down knitting, slowly) Well. ‘The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things.’ Many things that people wanted to talk about but were afraid to air. There never was a body in the library, but now Dolly has found out who’s pinching her silver, and that Arthur’s past is really past. Brigitte and Hank know they can rely on each   other through thick and thin (as long as he gets a mobile). Olga realises that – apart from her dodgy accent and kleptomania – people are quite fond of her really. Buttons has discovered he’s a very good actor. The vicar now knows that he might be vegetarian but he’s a terrible old ham… and the Inspector…

Inspector Japp     (comes in the door) … has discovered that it’s in the midst of all the drama that you discover the constancy of love! (gives Andrea a wee peck on the cheek). And what better day to discover that, than today!

FINIS

 

Also by Alan McManus

FICTION

Plays

Mrs Atkins remembers

Redemption (Scots and English versions)

Novels

The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries

Tricks of the Mind

The Lovers

Shades of the Sun

Qismet

Tìr nam Bàn (forthcoming)

NON-FICTION

Ethnography

Dreaming Anarchy: a shut-eye view of a utopia

Inclusive Theology

Only Say the Word: Affirming Gay and Lesbian Love

Nutrition

Body-Logic: the little book that makes a BIG difference!

Philosophy of Education

Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality

Religious and Inclusive Education

Masculum et Feminam: ‘Time for Inclusive Education’ and the conservative Catholic

(All sold on various Amazon country sites, in print and Kindle formats. Most in other formats on Smashwords and distributers: Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Nook etc.)

dr-hadwen-trust

Wave After Wave: Immigrants Both Sides The Wall

Walking along the Forth & Clyde Canal the other day, I was twice passed by a young man of Levantine appearance happily cycling up and down the towpath. The Canal often follows the line of the Antonine Wall (the Roman Wall built before Hadrian’s) and a small post-industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow shares the prestige of this piece of World Heritage with other sites of Roman forts. The town’s museum records:

After the wall was built the legionaries returned to their headquarters in the south of Britain. Those left to man the forts were called auxiliary troops. They were soldiers who came from the occupied countries in the Roman Empire such as Syria, Germany, Spain and Gaul (part of France).

(Auld Kirk Museum display)

Having grown up in the vicinity of the Wall, reading the urgent prose of George R.R. Martin (“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildings are dead.” – is the magnificent start of A Game of Thrones) I immediately associate his Wall with ours. Which makes me one of the wildings. I assure you we are not dead but alive and well and living in Kirkintilloch – and all over the globe.

Although I may have some ancestors among the aboriginal Picts north of the Wall (who themselves migrated here in the wake of our Neolithic ancestors) most of my paternal and maternal ancestors can be traced back to the Scots who at that time were across the Irish Sea and so more of a threat as occasional raiders than as native people resisting foreign occupation.

Which means that, in all probability, there were Syrians in Caer Pen Tulloch (the fort on the hill in Brythonic Celtic – yes the ‘Welsh’ were here before we were) before there were Scots. The name change, from ‘fort’ to ‘church’ on the hill, did not occur with the centuries’ later migration of the (Irish) Scots, who spoke Goidelic Celtic – or Gaelic – but with the migration of the Angles from the south centuries still later. ‘Kirk’, and its variants, means ‘church’ in many branches of Germanic language, including Scots.

Take out the dragons, suspend disbelief on the magic, and the bloody and beautiful world that Martin describes reads remarkably like ours. An anachronistic mixture of High Middle Ages and Renaissance to be sure, but still more like than not. Refreshingly free of Tolkein’s tendency to treat all women as embodiments of the Eternal Feminine, Martin depicts a spectrum of agency for good and ill irrespective of gender. He also shows up the tragic irony of wave after wave of incomers claiming sovereignty and aboriginal rights.

There were Syrians in Kirkintilloch before there were Scots. There were Syrians and other Levantine, European and North African people living south of the Antonine Wall all the way to the Channel, before there were English people here.

20 centuries later, the English and the Scots, and those colonised by our descendents, brought the doom of modern dragonfire to the cradle of civilisation in the Near and Middle East, for oil.

Syrians have returned to Kirkintilloch and may be seen cycling happily along the canal following the path of the Wall their ancestors built and manned so many centuries ago.

Fàilte gu Alba a-rithist: welcome back.

hadrians-wall

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing “Hadrian’s Wall” into the Public Domain.

 

Want to stop ‘Brexit’? Send this letter.

 

[ ADDRESS OF YOUR MP – FIND HERE ]

[ YOUR ADDRESS ]
29 June 2016

Dear [NAME OF YOUR MP],

As my representative at Westminster, I ask you to vote against Britain leaving the European Union when PMs are called upon to decide whether to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. I realise that a very narrow majority of the British public voted for ‘Brexit’ in the recent referendum however Britian is not a participative but a representative democracy and it is now evident that both the leaders of that campaign and those they swayed are dismayed at the chaos which this process seems likely to cause – and has already begun to cause.

For the sake of our children, our health service, our ease of working and travelling in Europe (as well as for our continuing health insurance cover), for the quality of our education and for the sake of the rich cultural heritage we enjoy through our close links with our fellow European Union member states, heed this request and encourage your fellow MPs at Westminster to do the job we elected you to do: govern us.

 

Yours sincerely,

…………………………………………. [ YOUR NAME]

britain-eu-remain-1466272565PBEThanks to Petr Kratochvil for releasing ‘Britain EU Remain’ into the Public Domain

What do the Iona Community do?

“What do the Iona Community do?” asked a friend, who should know better. I didn’t know, then. Now I’d say that this dispersed community does a lot of good in a lot of places but though the good they do is always embodied, it’s not always corporate. Am I just playing with words? Is the work and worship – at the Abbey and the MacLeod Centres on Iona, in the Community central office in Glasgow and in all the various locations in the UK and around the globe where members, associates, friends and staff live – just words?

Words are very important. Over Christmas someone pointed out that “In the beginning…” is better translated as “When…” – Genesis is not a chronicle; it’s a narrative. Standing back from media soundbites and ‘human interest’ servings of infotainment about the plight of refugees, over that week guests at Iona Abbey reflected on refuge: what it means to people as individuals, in scripture, in our households and places of worship. So that, by the time there was the opportunity to commit to one particular strategy of sustainable provision of refuge, people were not simply reacting to an agenda set by party politics and politicised multinational interests but deeply aware that refuge has always been central to the traditions started by Abraham – inspired to wander but never lost.

This is the rooted awareness that leads to engagement. I see Iona as a holding place. A place where people, embraced by and participating in community life, can finally face those things that are most challenging. Looking at the 2016 brochure, the themed weeks focus on particular aspects of the core values of the Iona Community: working for justice, healing and peace in our localities and the whole of creation; the gathering spaces (formerly ‘open weeks’) focus on the experience of community itself, permeated by these values.

So if you find yourself praying in the laundry room on the evening of 25th March, learning about the Quakers in Kenya from 9th-15th April, finding out that having your fabulous 50th birthday is just the start, with counsellor Susan Dale, or participating in one of the livelier sessions from the Wild Goose Resources Group (yes they really did bring a king-sized bed with red satin sheets into the sanctuary to celebrate the Song of Songs), with Greenbelt on Iona, Those Dangerous Women or environmentalist Bob in July, the Youth Festival or being rejuvenated by Playing for Change in September, at the core of all the fun and oddness and hurly-burly is a deep commitment to (in order) face our fears; be peacemakers; live abundantly and confront ageism; celebrate the diversity of sexuality; worship exuberantly; rage against and heal the hatred unleashed against women and nature; question authority joyfully; and be wise enough to be foolish enough to let go of our inner censors to creativity.

There are many words at the Abbey and MacLeod Centre, just words, words of justice; there is also silence and stillness, movement and music. People come with all the cares of the world and leave re-energised, reconnected. The blear of shouting media voices turned down (there’s no radio, no TV, no WiFi) there is the opportunity to be more attentive to the small still voice hidden in the thundercloud. Encountering fellow travellers from all the walks and tracks and songlines of our planet, marriages are made, partnerships struck, friendships sealed and conflicts healed. That’s what they, we, you, do.

Iona Community

wild goose image from www.welcometoiona.com

Facing Pain; Seeing Beauty

A fox came to die in my mother’s garden. I looked out on a frosty morning and saw his russet limbs, neat head and brush tail lying still and silent beside the hedgerow. My first thought was of Ben my dog barking and chasing some denizen of the night before bedtime. I examined Ben and I examined the fox and found them both unblemished. But in my mind Ben stood accused until that evening when I again let him out and again heard his bark and the hurried flight of the same smooth beast who must have been bereaved of her mate.
On the afternoon when my mother returned home for a brief visit, time out of hospital after a major operation to remove cancer, a new neighbour enquired about the fox she’d seen limping. The SSPCA officer she’d called drove up at that moment and concluded that the fox must have been hit by a car. I replied to her suggestion that “the cleansing would take it away” by saying I would bury him. The neighbour nodded and seemed relieved.
That week I was hosting three of the Iona Community staff down for the Glasgow component of training and they agreed to help me. So the first of my three guests gave thanks and blessings, the second raised and lowered the other two corners of the sheet and the third placed a sprig of dark green holly on the broken clumps of clay soil before I replaced the now ill-fitting jigsaw pieces of grassy turf – and stamped them down at our minister’s direction.
We all have to die. No other thing is certain, except for suffering. People react so differently to suffering and pain, my friends and family no exception and some have spectacularly avoided the associated unpleasantness.
In a culture that increasingly insists on a sterile environment in which sentient beings (at least those we feel sentiment for) are totally anaesthetised against pain – or killed to ensure that neither they nor we feel it – I am glad that a fox came to die in my mother’s garden. And I am glad that the three relatives I have just now who are, or were, gravely ill are lucid – that their consciousness has not been drowned in a rising tide of medication.
If the neighbour had made that phone call sooner, I am quite sure our fox would have been painlessly killed by lethal injection – his body then disposed of hygienically. But I do not believe that death is preferable to pain. Not for humans and not for animals. I do not believe that it is sane or even human to expect life to be sanitised. Suffering and conflict compose the human condition as much as creativity and beauty. “Fred’s flowerbed” now is sown with sunflowers, roses, peonies and shamrock. As in biblical times, my hospitality has borne unexpected fruit. All of us in the family have a new appreciation of the gift and challenge of the present moment. Facing pain, accepting suffering, a latent beauty is revealed.

20160304_112012Fred’s flowerbed

Shame and Sighing on Iona

Living on a remote island for the past few months, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I already have a reputation. Apparently I have two: driving people off the road, and sighing. In fairness, only one person has complained of the former and if I did as charged (on the one occasion when I drove further than a few yards) I didn’t notice and neither did my passenger, as we were too busy talking. The latter reputation has been noted by several individuals here and a cloud of witnesses throughout my life. So it’s a New Year’s resolution to stop sighing.

As I sigh meditatively, to mark transitions, rather than resignedly, I feel I need a less weary-sounding sound. I know I just can’t quit cold turkey. Fortunately, I do have a ready mentor: my dog. When Ben is pondering some change of situation, and doesn’t know if he’s best pleased, he makes a sound like ‘hmmm’. Sharing this fact with others here has led to a communal outbreak of hmmms – during otherwise solemn moments of silence – so I’m not sure all concerned will be best pleased at this attempted change.

A wiser and braver soul than I is conducting a series of seminars on Shame (in Scotland, in January) focusing specifically on shame induced by certain brands of religion. The kind that makes you feel rather run down and wearily resigned. It’s a theme I’ve explored obliquely in drama and prose. If the first play I produced could be described as Barchester Towers meets Greenham Common, the first novel I published was more Graham Greene meets Armistead Maupin – in Glasgow – at the instigation of Mystic Meg.

Although I’m quite convinced that the sole complainer of my driving was exaggerating in fun, it’s an image of the religious that is as disturbing as often true: too busy with our own discourse to notice who’s being forced to change speed or direction – to avoid the juggernaut bearing down on them, on a one track road. Church synods may be such vehicles with such unmindful momentum.

There are, however, passing places. Sometimes in unexpected locations. In rural areas they are often places of conversation and in urban situations unexpected exchanges may also occur – especially in contested space. Shock Doctrine staged a ménage-à-trois apparently composed of a vicar, a tart and an activist. Stereotypes were shoved in the face of the ‘spect-actors’ (using immersion and promenade theatre to encourage participation) then subverted. Tricks of the Mind (first and worst of the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries) plotted the internal and perhaps external conflict between monsters from the protagonist’s Id and his conscience – in locations as diverse as the bourgeois serenity of a rabbi’s parental home and the strained camaraderie of the waiting room of an STD clinic.

The island of Iona has certainly been contested space over the centuries and continues to be a place of unexpected encounters. Though famously a ‘thin place’ steeped in mysticism of various sorts, the mentality of the island community is extremely practical. Yet, still, the wisdom seeps through. Trudging back from Columba’s Bay the other day, it struck me that the main resolution of the feisty forty-two year old exile (who had caused bloody battle in his native Ireland – over a copy of the Psalter) would surely have been ‘don’t mess this up!’

Not all invocations of his name have proved as peaceful as its translation, ‘Dove of the Church’, but his cheerfulness and mindfulness are legendary. Despite shame, despite (or even because of) being in Scotland in bleak midwinter, Columba kept his resolution. That’s something to ponder. Hmmm.

Ben Hmmm

 

Both Sides, Now: Scotland and England

Reading Pádraig Ó Tuama’s In the Shelter: finding a home in the world, about telling stories in the shelter of the Corrymeela community, in the place he problematises in a poem’s title as ‘[the] north[ern] [of] ireland’, I think of an undergraduate essay I wrote for a course of Practical Theology, in St Andrews University in the late 1980s (a decade or so before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998). In it, I identified the phenomenon of what is now commonly known in critical theory (and may have been then, but not to me) as ‘multiple selves’.

I wrote of categories of identity, of Us and Them, which were problematic because historically, culturally, linguistically and/ or ecclesiastically, they included the identity of the Other they attempted to exclude:

‘Protestant’ being rooted in the Pre-Reformation Church, which ‘(Roman) Catholic’ claims also to be in unbroken continuity with and which also, at Vatican II, accepted much of the protest of Martin Luther, 400 years on; ‘Scot’ coming from and returning to ‘Ulster’, territory which does (not) include Donegal and which is (not) ‘Irish’ and is also (not) ‘British’ – another humdinger of a category that can designate anything from ‘Brythonic Celt’, through a successful ‘Welsh’ (Tudor) exercise in propaganda, to ‘English’ and ‘Commonwealth’ and ‘United Kingdom’.

Each phrase that I have written in the above paragraph is so problematic that it would be quite reasonable to argue that it is a downright lie. And yet it tells a truth. I have not attempted to draw out all instances of contradiction and connection, overlap and oversight that are possibilities among all these categories of identity.

My point in the essay was that the only way to peace is to accept the reality of this blurring of identities and to tell our stories. Argument of the ‘you’re wrong so I’m right’ variety can’t do that. Mostly because it depends on asserting and maintaining rigid categories of ‘you’ and ‘I’, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. (Of course I’m thinking of David Hare’s wonderful play, Us and Them, and if you haven’t in your life yet seen a youth theatre group perform it then do so.)

The pain of the Referendum on Scottish Independence this year, before, during and after, was one which is not supposed to exist. We don’t have a word for that which, ‘over there’, (another quote from Hare) has been called Trioblóid/ Troubles, which Ó Tuama explains means ‘Bereavements’. Of course it really has meant that in both languages.

We don’t have a word in English, or in Scots, or in Scots Gaelic, or in any of the other indigenous languages of these islands for the Troubles between ‘English’ and ‘Scot’. We have had no way to express this pain – and because we can’t express it, the pain has nowhere to go. The attempts of ‘No’ voters to come to reconciliation have met with inchoate rage from those who are ‘Still Yes’, a rage that cannot find adequate words to express itself as there is no common ground to argue over; the decision to vote ‘Yes’ in the first place was met with some of the same feeling, mostly on the internet and over the border, but here in Scotland this decision, when not shared, was met with much sorrow, with hurt and with incomprehension.

A good friend of mine, a good friend and a good man, said to me, in a pub on Great Western Road, in Glasgow, at the height of it all, when I was full of the disenfranchised of Maryhill waving banners and having the hope of making a difference, and frustrated with him for not getting it: ‘it really pains me when you talk about Scottishness as a club, of which I am not a member’.

I was simultaneously ashamed, and annoyed with him for being awkward. He’s like Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, Big Mary of the Song, who was banned by her dour minister from singing inside the house and outside the house. Màiri Mhòr stood in the doorway of her house and sang. My friend is like that, awkward, and I want to trace his genealogy and add up the years he’s spent ‘here’ or ‘there’ and come to a decision: is he or is he not Scottish? But then I’d have to do that for myself, and that would be unnerving.

During the year I spent in California 1990-1991, while not marching with banners proclaiming NO BLOOD FOR OIL! (if the protestors kept them, they’ll have been well used since) I participated in groupwork on prejudice and liberation. Focussing especially on the negative media portrayal of Islamic/ Middle Eastern men (watch Sex in the City 2 for an instance) I discovered my deepest racial prejudice. I was anti-English. Which was awkward, since my mother grew up (when not evacuated to her mother’s people in the West Highlands) in a village that Miss Marple would have felt at home in, my grandfather was born within sound of Bow Bells and – though his father came from Germany and, perhaps, generation upon generation, from Israel – his mother was from East Anglia and her surname means ‘home’.

We need to listen to each other, both sides, now, in Scotland. Not rush to hug each other in a false reconciliation which only continues to ignore the pain which is unspoken since officially it doesn’t exist.

‘(Still) Yes’ voters need to hear how it feels to have the door of this exclusive club called ‘Scottish’ shut in your face, the shock and hurt of your dearest friends and neighbours and indeed family wanting you and yours politically over the border like Jock O’Hazeldean and the lady that was(n’t) his. Sometimes very aggressively. Sometimes violently. Sometimes thoughtlessly. I was shocked, then ashamed, when an old friend from Barbados was chipping in with his hopes and fears (for ‘No’) over the internet. ‘What’s it got to do with you?’ I asked him. He told me. I’m middle-aged, with more degrees than sense, and had ignored the fact (fiction) that Barbados is ‘British’.

‘No’ voters need to hear how it feels to constantly correct not just ‘foreigners’ but our southern neighbours, even living amongst us, when they conflate ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, again and again and again. Still. How it feels to be tongue-tied in yer ain tongue, which no teacher, correcting you, again, ever told you contained words footnoted in Shakespeare (for monoglot English speakers) incomprehensible in Oxford but instantly recognisable from Friesland to Scandinavia. How our myth of oppressed national identity that draws a clear line from the Clearances by anglicised lairds to the closure of the steelworks at Ravenscraig in the wake of the Thatcher years is so problematic that it would be quite reasonable to argue that it is a downright lie. And yet it tells a truth.

In Hare’s play, it gradually becomes reasonable to draw a line of separation, to mark it with a string, a fence, ever higher, finally, of course, with a wall. In Ó Tuama’s book, he quotes the Irish saying: Ar scáth a cheile a mhaireas na daoine/ It is in the shelter (shadow) of each other that the people live. He draws out the ambiguities of scáth among which, in English, are the idea of living in someone’s shadow, and of the shadow self. Embracing, accepting and celebrating my Englishness, overlapping and intermingling with my Scottishness, has been a great joy, a great challenge and a great liberation. I feel more whole, I also feel far more confident in asserting the Scots language. One does not preclude the other. I don’t assert the English language as there’s been too much of that already.

If we are to heal, if we are to live together in 2016 and beyond, in harmony, in whatever political constellation we democratically decide on, we need to come out from under each other’s shadow, and enter into our own. We need to shelter each other’s stories because even if they contain lies they tell truths. We need to stop arguing, stop denying our troubles and start sharing our heartfelt pain through telling our stories. Both sides, now.  uk-splat-flag

Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her image ‘UK Splat Flag’ into the Public Domain.