Friday, 13 May 2016


I am the most unrecognizable person. For one thing I morph easily and quickly – so I can put on or take off stones in weight rapidly, my hair grows like a bramble in summer, and thus common appearance markers tend to change frequently in my case.

So when I go to places I’ve often been – perhaps as a preacher/speaker – I am rarely recognized. In the ensuing embarrassment occasioned in people who’ve known me for years, the usual semi-reproachful/accusatory response, “Your hair’s different.” At least they have the presence of mind not to say “You’re so fat/thin I thought you were someone else.”

But it’s more than just that. I can (reliably) stand in a shop browsing next to someone I’ve know for decades, safe in the knowledge she won’t recognise me. Mostly my children recognise me, but not always – even in our own home. Frequently my husband doesn’t recognise me or even see me if he’s looking for me in a busy shop or the high street. I have to wave both arms wildly.

Likewise, my input is mostly unrecognized. People tell you if you write a book your friends and family will buy it. Now, there are people around the world who have become my friends through reading my books – that’s even how my husband came to marry me – but as for the friends and family I started out with, that’s a different matter. My father lived and died without ever reading a single thing I wrote. My mother looked at the few books I gave her as gifts (I wouldn’t go so far as to say she read them), but never bought or even enquired after my writing. One of our few family heirlooms was Lord Byron’s writing case. My mother had it, and a few years ago decided to pass it on. My nephew, an accountant banker, read English at university. My mother mentioned to me in passing that the time had come to pass along the heirloom. She said she’d decided to give it to my nephew as (she said) he’s the writer in the family. My sister? She kindly typed up my second novel for me, back in the day before we had personal computers. She said it had been an odd experience because she found herself able to finish my sentences before she reached the end of them. And she said “I felt as though I’d read the word ‘nails’ a lot.” That was all she said. She never made any other comment, neither has she read anything else I’ve written, so far as I know.

I had a book launch for The Hardest Thing To Do – disaster! It was great, we had fun, but very few people came and we sold so few books. My mother agreed to attend, but she didn’t buy any of my books – it would have been “ridiculous” to do so, she said. She has never given a book of mine to a friend as a gift, or recommended any; never even mentioned them so far as I know.

I am hardly ever invited to speak anywhere – though Adrian and Bridget have kindly asked me to come to Scargill House at the beginning of June, to speak at their writers’ group - but you notice I remain characteristically invisible in the programme! I’m delighted to be asked of course, even if I do feel a bit nervous and unaccustomed. I have written for the magazine Woman Alive for years. Each year they have a conference where almost everyone who writes for them is invited to speak – except they never ask me. Every year in my husband’s church they have a parish retreat. Every year they are challenged with the task of finding a retreat leader. Though I’ve been leading retreats for decades (always well subscribed and apparently enjoyed) – for clergy and ordination schools, for individuals and groups (like this one in July and this one in September), somehow I never come to mind. I can count on the fingers of one hand the people in the many churches I’ve pastored who have read or bought my books – though in my husband’s church they did study two in their book club.

This June, my husband’s first book is to be published – hooray!! This is it. Do read it – it’s excellent. Funny, insightful, easy to read, interesting - basically everything you want in a book. It's all about his pilgrimage along the Camino.

He has been invited to speak about it at CRE  so exciting! The same month the ninth (and final) volume in my Hawk & Dove series comes out, A Day and A Life. Guess who hasn’t been invited to speak about it anywhere!

In my family of origin, I am comprehensively invisible. My father ignored me almost totally my entire life. When I visit my mother, unless I am alone her habit has been to ask everyone in the room except me what I would like to drink. I have learned from long experience not to try to tell anybody, anywhere what I have been doing or thinking – they usually interrupt or strike up a conversation with someone else or take a phone call or go to attend to another matter while I’m speaking to them. Not because I go on and on, just because I’m not very noticeable. Consequently, the only people in the world who really know what I think and feel, or even what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been, are my daughters and my husband. I remember, in my 40s, my mother and father found out for the first time what my political views were - they thought I must have changed my outlook, since it differed from theirs. I'd voted the same way for 25 years.

It is the most curious state of affairs. It intrigues me, amuses me, isolates me, humbles me, fascinates me. I walk through the world like a beetle along the top of a wall, inconsequential and almost entirely alone. My friends are almost all online. Most of the meat-space people I know (with a few treasured exceptions) turn to me if they have a problem or need me to do something for them and otherwise generally ignore me. And if I do see people, I don’t know what to say. Even in the Theology Group I ran, my inputs occasioned more silence and puzzlement than the hoped for discussion (oh dear!) 

My life is so poor and quiet and small, it has nothing in it worth mentioning. Do you know who I mean if I say Anne Elliot? Her. And I do have my own Captain Wentworth, who is much admired and highly sought after.

I’m not unhappy – merely invisible. Only yesterday in the street I walked past a cottage we have recently let to a new tenant. There outside stood the tenant. In the last fortnight I have interviewed her, talked at length with her - been intimately connected in the process of finding her a home (not unimportant to her). Did she recognise me? Of course not. 

Somehow my work manages to progress and keep selling at the same time as receiving no recognition whatsoever – an odd state of affairs. Let me hasten to say, I’m not upset about any of this or in need of reassurance, and I certainly do not seek to change it. I was once quite a sociable person, but by degrees I’ve become increasingly withdrawn and reclusive. I like peace and solitude, even at these rather weird levels. Besides, from all around the world I receive letters that encourage me and delight my heart, telling me what difference my writing has made in the lives of complete strangers. It moves me and fills me with gratitude that people take the trouble to write to me, find me online, read my blog. And surprisingly strong friendships have emerged from these connections. How happy if we all lived close together! 

I can think of two occupations for which such invisibility would be tremendously useful: spy, or novelist. I am a cautious person, chronically anxious, and do not like danger. That leaves only one.

Yet, you know, here's another curious thing (given all the above). When I went to New Jersey to stay with my dearly loved friend Rebecca, whom I'd never met but online, the flight and connections went all awry and my phone wouldn't work, so I made my way in her direction and called her from a kind stranger's friend in a car park. She drove through the snow to find me. And we recognised each other at once.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Declining to serve tea

We walk our tracks over mountains, through vast plains that extend to far horizons; in pastures green and beside still waters, through the rubble of valleys of Baca where we twist our ankles on loose stones and get scratched by the many thistles. The landscape varies, the journey continues; it’s all one, it’s all the way home, we take our way together.

This particular stretch of the journey is proving to be one of the more challenging miles to go. I am having to use all my strategies to calm anxiety, talk myself out of resentment and bitterness, disarm frustration and just darned well keep on going. A journey of a thousand miles is accomplished one step at a time. Peace is every step.

Sometimes in a particular prayer ritual I find a way through to the still small voice, and so I did this morning. I took into my prayer what the psalmist calls “the voice of my complaining”, and laid out my difficulties before almighty God.

Swift as an arrow came the response (as is so often the case, when I bother to ask).

“Let it be where it is,” he said. And I understood what he meant. The things that bother me – let them start where they start, stop where they stop, just don’t take them home, invite them in, feed them up and encourage them to bring their friends home too.

As Suzuki put it, “Let your thoughts come and let them go; just don’t serve them tea.”

This was the beginning to a new constructive strategy. Let’s see how it goes.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Those of you who know and love Brother Conradus – who became the abbey cook in the course of my Hawk and the Dove series – may remember that he took the trouble to go out into the woods and gather ramsons for the abbey kitchens.

Some of you will know all about ramsons, others will not; so, as they are growing abundantly and in glorious bloom just now, I thought a few ramsons thoughts might interest you.

Otherwise known as Wild Garlic, ramsons emanate a wonderful aroma of garlic in the air all around. For flavor, they taste of garlic, but a far more delicate flavor than regular garlic.

Their Latin name is Allium Ursinum. The Ursinum part of course refers to bears, and that came about because brown bears like ramsons and dig up the bulbs to eat.

Ramsons are nice lightly steamed, added to salad – basically anywhere you might include chives or scallions, ramsons are a good alternative, with a garlic rather than onion flavor. Apparently cases of poisoning happen when people are looking for ramsons to add to their recipes – but I find this puzzling. I’ve read that it’s because people gather lily of the valley by mistake – but it would be a sadly impaired nose that could confuse lily of the valley with garlic, would it not? They are also sometimes confused with Autumn Crocus and Lords-and-Ladies. The crucial clue is – do they smell of garlic? If so, they are ramsons; if not, they aren’t.

You can also feed them to cows (and it’s said that makes the milk garlicky) or substitute them for basil in pesto (completely different taste results, obviously). Cornish Yarg cheese is sometimes made wrapped in ramsons rather than nettles, and in Turkey they chop it into the curds in cheese production.

There’s evidence that people have been eating ramsons as far back as the stone age – though the ones who ate lily of the valley by mistake expired.

Just now the woods are full of them. Our Hebe took these pictures on her walk today.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016


At the end of the eighteenth century, an Italian rake by the name of Giacomo Casanova wrote his book Histoire de ma Vie. I have no idea why he wrote it in French if he was Italian, but apparently this is so.

Incarcerated for five years in a Venetian gaol on a charge of “foul atheism” and fornication, Casanova spends his time either dwelling upon his memories of past seductions or reminiscing about the same with a cell-mate. Eventually he escapes.

The English playwright Dennis Potter wrote a television drama series based on this story. Entitled Casanova, the BBC ran it in the November and December of 1971 with Frank Finlay in the title role.

I was fourteen years old at the time and my mother was forty-four. We are talking about the days when there were three channels on the telly, if you turned it on during the day you got the test card, and the night’s viewing ended by midnight with the National Anthem and then the moving pictures closed down into a white dot vanishing into blackness. The End.

My father was almost never there, but I remember he did come home for a brief interval from his global ramblings during the broadcasting of Dennis Potter’s Casanova series. I found this intensely frustrating. I was not close to my father in any respect. He was a nervous man, full of tics and twitches, and more likely than my mother to judge what was basically a well-written bodice-ripper unsuitable. Even if he had not, I’d have found it profoundly embarrassing to watch it with him in the room. Back in those days I was very close to my mother, and we had been enjoying watching the series together. The subject matter was not our usual choice of viewing, but Dennis Potter’s work is of the highest quality – ground-breaking, and unmissable given the lack of alternatives at the time.

Each episode opened with the chosen musical theme, played by a chamber orchestra in the appropriate eighteenth century costume.

The music in question was not widely played. Though we'd had a conscientious introduction to classical music at my junior school, I had never heard it before and my mother hadn’t either. Indeed until this point I think it would be fair to say it had escaped the attention of the (modern) general public. But it was captivating, haunting, lyrical, beautiful. Even though an LP (Long Play vinyl disc) cost ten shillings back then, we just had to have it. So it came about that my mother and I went 50-5o on the purchase from the music shop in Bishops Stortford of a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The movement called Autumn was the theme for Dennis Potter’s Casanova.

I think the BBC’s airing of that theme tune was like the casual and na├»ve act of a man who plants one small Japanese knotweed in his garden because it is so beautiful. Little does he know what it will lead to.

Now, I am fifty-eight and my mother is eighty-eight.  I have just come off the phone having made a call to the Department of Work and Pensions, whom I had to inform of her recent hospital stay. As is the case with many large organisations, it took the most interminable time for anybody to answer the call. As I waited, piped through to my patient ear, in between the robotic voice announcements about call volumes etc etc, came the by now all too familiar strains of Autumn from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s the music of choice for almost every answering service in the UK. And I think Dennis Potter’s responsible for that.