About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

ACTS & OMISSIONS

It's an exciting day in the life of an author when the new book jacket arrives.  Usually it is accompanied by a letter from the publisher, which says, 'Here's the jacket look for your novel. We hope you like it.  Everyone here is really thrilled with it!'  The author examines the design and bursts into tears, because it totally fails to capture the essence of their book.  This feeling is registered with the publisher, who wrings his or her hands and says, 'Oh dear! That's a shame.  Because we're really thrilled with it.'  I.e. it's what you're getting.  (This is what your contract means when it says you have the right of consultation over the cover.)

Well, happily, the process of finding the right look for Acts and Omissions has been a lot more pleasant and satisfying than that.  For me, anyway.  The design team at SPCK may tell a different tale, quite possibly one which includes phrases like 'high maintenance' and 'control freak'.  But here's what we've decided on:


The painting--called 'Evensong'--is by Ian Scott Massie, and you know what?  I'm really thrilled with it!  I hope it tempts you to buy a copy for yourself, another for your friends and family, and one for every clergy person you know.  Finally (just to be on the safe side so nobody feels left out) twenty more for everybody you can think of.  Published on July 17th 2014.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

POWER AND PASSION

This is the text of my recent BBC Lent talk.  Apologies, a bit of rogue highlighting has crept in for some reason.  You will just have to imagine my Radio 4 voice.


CHRIST’S PASSION
As a novelist, I find it really annoying when other people tell me how to write.  If it’s a copyeditor, I try to rein in my annoyance and address the list of queries I’ve been sent about my latest manuscript.  I try not think, ‘Write your own book, if you’re so clever.’  One thing I am not prepared to tolerate, though, is Word’s grammar check, with its impertinent squiggly green underlining my prose.  Fragment.  Consider revising.  I know it’s a fragment.  I did it on purpose.   For effect.  Because I’m a writer. 

Besides fragments, one of the things grammar check sets its pedantic face against is the use of passive verb forms.  ‘Instead of “Catherine was hit by the ball”, consider “The ball hit Catherine”.  Clearly, the sensible thing is for me to disable grammar check before the laptop is hit by Catherine, or—more properly—Catherine hits the laptop.   

It turns out that no piece of prose, however venerable, escapes the vigilance of grammar check.  Take these words from the Creed: ‘He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate.’   For a livelier and more persuasive sentence, consider rewriting your sentence using an active verb!  ‘The Holy Ghost conceived Jesus.  The Virgin Mary gave birth to him.  Pontius Pilate made him suffer and crucified him.’  But even if we do rewrite the Creed in this livelier and more persuasive style, there’s still no getting round the fact that Christ is passive here.  He is the object of the sentence, not the subject; the one things are done to, not the one doing things. 

This, of course, is what lies behind the church’s use of the word ‘Passiontide’ for the period before Easter.  The church has been using this language for millennia.  These days Christ’s ‘passion’ is taken to be a synonym for his ‘suffering’.  And of course, it is—but only if we understand ‘suffering’ in the right way.  Not pain and misery, so much as suffering in the sense of ‘being on the receiving end of’ something.  Being passive, not active.  The word has shifted meaning in English; as we can tell from that resonant but rather baffling phrase in the King James Bible, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me’.  This means ‘let little children come’, allow it to happen, suffer it to happen.  Rather than ‘little children are suffering’—which is what you might suppose it meant, if you judged by the thriller and song titles which have borrowed this phrase.

So what lies at the heart of Passiontide is not suffering in the current sense of ‘enduring pain’—although there is certainly enough of that—but Christ being on the receiving end of things, being done to.  Christ relinquishing control and ending up in the hands of others, completely at their mercy.  Suffering things to happen to him, not acting.  This makes a surprising contrast to his earlier ministry, which was packed with action and powerful deeds.  He preached, he healed, he worked wonders, he was in control—even of the wind and the waves. 

This kind of Christ is a more straightforward proposition.  The sort of powerful charismatic leader you’d follow to the ends of the earth.  Die for, even.  The disciples were up for that.  They had swords.  Peter even struck a blow and chopped an ear off.  But how can you rally to the cause of a man who won’t fight, won’t stand up for himself, who in fact forbids you to defend him and meekly suffers himself to be led off?  That’s when the disciples abandoned him and ran.

Passivity of this kind is unsettling.  It verges on being a bit victim-y, which goes against the grain.  Even if I do fall victim to something, I can sense a pressure to redefine myself as a survivor, not a victim.  To get closure, and regain control of my own narrative.  Nobody wants to embrace a victim mentality.

Or do they?  Do we ever voluntarily hand ourselves over to others, and relinquish all control of our destiny?  Well, if you’ve ever undergone surgery which required a general anaesthetic, the answer is yes.  If you have ever waddled, vastly pregnant into a labour ward, the answer is yes.  You might think you’re in control when you’re having a baby, but sorry, you’re really not.  Ask any midwife and she’s likely to tell you that when she sees a detailed birth plan, all intervention- and medication-free she thinks ‘Uh-oh.  Here comes trouble.’

I remember the moment when the midwife rolled an empty cot into the labour room the night my first son was born—five weeks early, not part of the plan.  For a second I thought, ‘What’s that for?  Oh!  She really thinks I’m going to have an actual baby to put in there by the end of this night.’  It was probably at that point that I realised there was now no way out, no choice, no power left for me to exercise.  There was no option of saying ‘Right, I’ve had enough, I’m off home.’  Though plenty of women do say that, ask any midwife.  No—one way or another, this baby was about to be born.


We agree to hand ourselves over to the care of others, to put ourselves at the mercy of events, to relinquish control for a mixture of reasons.  Because we no longer have much choice, maybe, and for the sake of what lies beyond.  We go through labour and childbirth because there will be something to put in the cot when it’s all over.  A new life.  There is no other way.  We have the pacemaker fitted or the gall bladder taken out, in order to gain a new life.  There is no other way. 

This resonates for me when I think about Christ’s passion, his passivity, his allowing himself to be handed over.  Was it for the sake of new life, because there was no other way?  Why was there no other way?  Maybe ‘suffering the cross to happen to him’ was an antidote to something?  Not a homoeopathic cure, treating like with like, but a cancelling out, a neutralising, an undoing of something.  What might that something be?  What is the polar opposite to Christ’s passion? 

There’s a hint in one of the very earliest Christian hymns written.  It’s found in a letter to the church at Philippi:  ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

It is this ‘grasping at equality with God’ that offers a way in, I think.  The word suggests a kind of robber-like grabbing.  Plundering.  Think back to that summer of looting, when people seemed to lose the plot in a fever of aggravated shopping.  Or else consider that little kink in our nature that makes us go, Pah! when a friend is promoted.  The child in us that protests ‘How come SHE gets the big piece?’  Or experimentally stomps on ants for no good reason, other than because we can, to see what happens, to check what it feels like to exercise that kind of power.  That doesn’t really want the house, the lover, the children, so much as not want the other person to have them.  The urge that ends up, writ large, right across human history: the Scramble for Africa, Lebensraum, genocide, the blithe ransacking of the planet for short term profit.

The opposite to this kind of Me first! snatch-and-grabbiness—the antidote to this, according to the hymn in Philippians, is a self-emptying.  Abandoning godhead with its phenomenal cosmic power, in favour of—to quote Disney’s genie—the itty-bitty living space of the human body.  I sometimes wonder how that must have felt.  For all our sense of the human body’s potency, its powerful agency, and capacity to do things and act upon the world, surely for Christ it was the first step on that downward path to utter powerlessness.  It began with him divested of godhead, utterly dependent, a babe in arms, totally entrusted to flawed and finite human hands.  And it ended the same way: with him putting himself back in our hands, suffering death, even death on the cross.


Behind this talk of ‘grasping at equality with God’ lurk our great fore-father and mother in Eden.  Adam and Eve, taking a long look at the fruit of the forbidden tree, checking nobody was about in the garden, and making a grab for it.  The chance to be like God.  The shortcut to omnipotence.  To godhead.

It still has the power to provoke panic, this finiteness.  This creatureliness.  Humans begin helpless in this life, and rage, rage against the dying of the light. Fighting that descent back into helplessness again.  Doesn’t it feel a bit like an affront, to retire, to age, to become dependent on others, at the mercy of public transport and the NHS?  Nobody wants to become a nuisance, a burden, reliant on the good will of friends and relatives, fitting in with their schedules, in need of hand-outs, trapped in a culture of dependency. No, I will not go gentle into that good night if I can help it.  I’ll be obliged to die one day, but on my own terms, I’ll be in control to the very last if possible, thank you very much.

Easy to forget that you’re only mortal.  Especially when you’re young.  Crash helmets, seat belts, speed limits—who need them?  I see the youngsters tear past me, their laughter and shouts trailing after them—pretty much as I did when I was twenty—not believing in my own mortality, expect as a vague concept. The way I believed in Russia, without ever expecting to go there. 

Maybe this explains the urge to grasp at youth, as though that were the fruit of the tree?  Youth, with all its connotations of power, of being in control of our destiny?  Fight those signs of ageing!  But who am I kidding?  Things are only going in one direction.  The choice is between wrinkles and being already dead.  This is the stark message of Ash Wednesday and the ceremony of the imposition of ashes.  That cold smear of ash placed on your forehead, and the words: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’  Remember you are dust.  Remember.  Remember.

Those are the words spoken to Adam and Eve, when they were driven out of the garden, snarled up and out of kilter their creator and the creation and with themselves.  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’  Sometimes it still feels like that: panicking, endlessly looking for the road home, the way back in, grasping, grasping for power, for answers, for control, raging, fighting against the dying of the light.  Still homesick for the garden.  And another chance.  Another life.

There was another garden.  Gethsemane.  And another Adam.  The choice was still there: to seize earthly power, muster the zealot freedom fighters—weren’t they ready with their swords?  Palm Sunday was still ringing in their ears.  Here comes the king!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  A word from Jesus—that’s all they were waiting for!  Then call down heavenly reinforcements—let God reveal his power, his mighty arm, and put this mess right. 

The agony, the blood, sweat and tears of that decision in Gethsemane.  There was another way, but that doorway was so small, so low, that the only path through meant the stripping away of everything, it meant being utterly crushed, destroyed.  And all the time, the possibility of cosmic power still hung there, like the fruit of the tree, ripe for the picking—was he not entitled to it?  If the son of God is not entitled to exercise power, then who is? 

That early hymn suggests an answer: Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!’ the passers by taunted Christ.  Prove it.  Prove you are who you claim to be.  Prove your power.  Act.  Do something.  Don’t just hang there, don’t just take it. But the temptation to treat like with like, to trump power with still more power, that temptation was seen off in those forty days in the Wilderness. And renounced once again in Gethsemane.  It was going to take more than a spectacular coming down from the cross backed by twelve legions of angels to put this one right.  There was no shortcut.  No other way to unkink that bias towards power-grabbing that undid—and still undoes—our race.  No other way to mend it all and put us right.  Fix the broken juddering heart, take out all that gall.  And give us new life.  No other way, than by just hanging there and taking it.  Every last bit of it. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

My younger son wandered in to pester me the other day, while I was working.  
        'What are you doing?'
        'I'm proofreading a novel I wrote before you were born.'

My son is 20.  Yes, it really is that long since I was working on Angels and Men. The novel is set in the early 80s and it reads like a period piece now.  All those students smoking in their bedrooms!  No student loans; very little binge drinking; no concept that one might simply 'get over' some people being gay.  

The reason I've had to revisit the hallowed corridors of Jesus College and Coverdale Hall is because SPCK are reissuing Angels and Men this July.  Here's the new cover:


Isn't that wonderful?  It's a watercolour by Ian Scott Massie and I see that I am quite right to like it: "At last - someone in the North who can paint!" Brian Sewell    http://www.ianscottmassie.com/

The temptation, while proofreading, was to start editing as well.  I resisted, because it would seem churlish to tinker with the novel of what is, essentially, a different and much younger woman.  All I've done is correct a few minor errors that have always bugged me.  But if that younger me were now in my MA workshop, I'd have some advice to give, believe me.  This ought to be encouraging, though.  It suggests I'm now better at my craft than I was two decades back.  

With hindsight, I'm now profoundly grateful that my editor suggested cuts to the original typescript.  She felt its length might be 'a little daunting to readers and reviewers'.  This was an example of exquisite tact.  I can see now that she was saving me from myself.  I reckon between 10% and 15% ended up on the cutting room floor.  Most first novels need to be taken firmly in hand.  Be prepared for this, if you are currently writing one yourself.  It's counter-intuitive to the sensitive soul, but the best way to improve your writing is to take stuff out, not put more stuff in.

On a happier note, I find that on re-reading Angels and Men, I still have a soft spot for my characters.  Although that Andrew Jacks is a right nob, isn't he?



Monday, 17 February 2014

AUTHOR CRUSH

Just as royalty are alleged to believe that the world smells of fresh paint, famous authors are surely under the impression the world is made up of tongue-tied blurters.  I am basing this on my own world class blurting display last Wednesday in Manchester, when I stood in the queue to get my copy of The Days of Anna Madrigal signed by Armistead Maupin.

I know.  Scream.  I waited for an hour, and judging by the length of the queue, there were people waiting as long again.  The trouble with waiting that long is that you have time to craft your tiny introductory speech to perfection, turning your exquisite gems of wit on the lathe of your intellect until they gleam.  And then you butter-finger them and scatter them across the floor.  Metaphorically.  Which is a really poncy way of saying you blurt out the first thing that comes to your lips, bypassing the cerebral cortex entirely.

Here's what I heard myself say: 'Hello.  I'm the one who's been stalking you from Liverpool.'  And here is the photograph capturing the moment when Mr Maupin realises it's now too late to get away.


Meanwhile, outside a storm was busy trashing the north of England, ripping stations roofs off, and making it impossible for me to get home to Liverpool.  I was rescued by a colleague with a spare room, and what I now realise is an infinite capacity to put up with me ranting about how I've met Armistead Maupin.

This, then, is just one fan's account of the power of fiction--the power of a completely made up world to move, entertain, instruct and open new horizons to the reader.  My experience has been replicated thousands of times over across the UK during the last week.  A good novel is a hospitable space.  It invites you in and says welcome to my world.  And it was clear that for many there braving the storm in Manchester, entering the world of Tales of the City was like being welcomed home for the first time.  I'm sorry that The Days of Anna Madrigal is going to be the last in the series.  But I'd have to tell you, the view of the queue was 'I'll believe that when I see it.'




Saturday, 21 December 2013

SPCK to publish Acts and Omissions


And right before Christmas, some lovely news: SPCK will be publishing Acts and Omissions next August.  They will also be reissuing Angels and Men at the same time.  This cheers the heart of a novelist.  We don’t like our books to be out of print and only available second-hand for 1p on Amazon.  SPCK will be publishing the sequel to Acts and Omissions as well, which I plan to blog between Easter and Advent of next year, in slightly longer weekly instalments.  Look out for a new blog called UNSEEN THINGS ABOVE.

But why SPCK, you might be wondering?  Don’t they publish Bible commentaries, important scholarly works by retired archbishops, and the complete works of Tom Wright?  This is true.  But they are launching a new Fiction List.  I didn’t know this in August of this year, when I was on stage at the Greenbelt Festival with my colleague Gregory Norminton from Manchester Metropolitan University (where we both teach), moaning about the state of publishing.  Sorry, we were ‘in dialogue’ about the state of publishing.  We both read from our most recent books; Gregory from a collection of short stories about climate change, Beacons (available here: http://www.gregorynorminton.co.uk/beacons/) and me from Acts and Omissions.  The full version of what was said and read on that occasion is available here: http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/media/talks/21534-catherine-fox-gregory-norminton/

In the question time at the end I explained that I wasn’t making any money from blogging Acts and Omissions.  Anyone could read it for free.  ‘It’s an act of love,’ I said (or something like that), ‘but if there are any publishers out there…’  And we all laughed.  But afterwards I was approached by SPCK’s senior editor, Alison Barr.  And we took it from there.

I just looked back to the post I wrote on this blog a year ago, talking about my New Year’s resolution to blog a novel in weekly instalments during 2013.  You may refresh your memory here if you like: http://catherine-fox.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/new-years-resolution.html  What I didn’t say was that right up to the point of writing that post, I was dithering.  Was this a good idea?  Was I squandering good novel material and wasting my chance of writing my Big Important Novel about the C of E?  I can remember sitting in Liverpool cathedral and looking up at the sunlight coming through the big east window.  I must be mad.  I’ll just be giving this away for nothing.  Oh well.

But then I found myself thinking, Wouldn't it be funny if this turns out to be the breakthrough?



Monday, 2 December 2013

WOLF TIDE

Huge excitement!  I've got a new novel out.  Please admire the cover:


Is that big enough?  Yes, I think that will do.  This is my first venture into Young Adult fantasy, and I have to tell you, after years of breaking my heart trying to write a Big Important Novel about the state of the Church of England, I had a blast with this.  I suspect that at one remove I was still writing about the Church of England.  You can take the gal out of the cathedral...

Now, you might think you don't like fantasy, but I bet you'll like this.  G'wan, g'wan, g'wan.  Give it a go.  If you read it carefully and manage not to drop it in the bath, you can always wrap it up after you've finished it and give it to a godchild for Christmas.  It has flying girl detectives, sinister fairies and horsemen in thigh boots.  Something for everyone, really.  Here's where to get a copy (real book or Kindle):
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1490904581

And for more background on teh book itself, visit my new Wolf Tide blog here: http://wolftide.blogspot.co.uk/

Monday, 14 October 2013

Cliché Watch


I offer you this little list, coyly batting my jet black eyelashes, like a butterfly.  Like a  coy butterfly fluttering on a summer breeze.  Coyly, with my heart pumping.  In my jet black lashy pumpy way.

Things creative writers might want to avoid: 

Face/hair
Emerald/piercing green eyes
Cold grey eyes
Raven/jet black hair/locks
Unruly mops of hair
Unruly wisps of hair (especially if pushed back/tucked behind ear)
Rueful smiles
Lean/chiselled features
Dimpled chins
Pouting
Red lips (especially if parted breathlessly)

Physique
Long slim legs (female)
Broad shoulders (male)
Loose-limbed athletic form (male, especially if trousers/jeans hang from hips)
Curvaceous body (female, especially if seen through flimsy nightgown)

Redundancies
‘She thought to herself’
Murmuring softly
Any expletives shouted angrily

Actions
Catching sight of self in mirror/reflective surface in order to describe appearance to reader
Staring unseeingly
Peeping up at people through lashes
Eye rolling/narrowing/glinting/flashing
Excessive eyebrow raising/arching/quirking (especially if done quizzically)
Swallowing lumps in throat
Head/hair tossing
Choking back tears
Small muscles convulsing in cheek/jaw
Overuse of gastric activity to convey fear/panic/foreboding
Excessive shrugging/smirking during dialogue
Repeated nostril flaring and/or lip twitching
Gritting of teeth

Weather and The Natural World
Anything shrouded in mist
Trees with gnarled bark
Generic smells/aromas wafting
Generic trees rustling in the breeze (NB accidental  rhyme)
Unnamed birds chirping/twittering, (especially in green meadows/dark forests)
Copious amounts of anything