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‘Hope’ is an invigorating word that should be high in every writer’s lexicon. Hope that an agent, then a publisher, then the reading public will like their story. ‘Belief’ is another sustaining word. Belief that after countless hours at a desk that same agent, publisher, and public will indeed revel in the story woven from the writer’s research and imagination.

I have been working on a novel which was to be the first of a trilogy – the second and third are written and published – Fireburn and Transfer. Thank you, OC Publishing, and thank you for believing in me enough to agree to publish the next – with a working title of Emancipation. A hopeful title. It was only later, when I envisaged three spines standing side by side that I realised they would read EFT which, depending on how one’s mind works, could be either a juvenile newt or an electronic funds transfer. Neither very catchy for a boxed set, but I hoped readers would get over that.

Emancipation started with the Portuguese royal family’s arrival in Brazil after fleeing Napoleon’s encroaching army. It told how Anna Clausen’s grandfather accompanied the Prince Regent to Rio and how, as a consequence, he came into his fortune which, in turn, lead to Anna’s Fancy, his sugar plantation on St Croix in the Danish West Indies. It was a hopeful book because it revolved around the ‘rightness’ of emancipation. On reflection, I should have called the book Manumission. I don’t think there is an anagram for MFT.

The title is however a moot point.

I knew I could write about freedom. I know I can write about violence. What I hadn’t realised was that I would struggle to write about sustained cruelty. Graham Greene said that in order to write dispassionately, “A writer must be able to retain a splinter of ice in the heart.” Barry Unsworth in Sacred Hunger was able to delve into the tragedy of slavery and write a riveting book. Marlon James did the same in The Book of Night Women. Whilst not putting myself into the same lofty realms of either author, I have found that Apple Gidley cannot retain that splinter on certain subjects. Part of me is pleased. I don’t want to become inured to horror.

My books are character driven. As I research, characters form. Their backstory becomes part of the plot in minute ways. For example, Anna’s favourite colour is yellow because it reminds her of the glow of the Caribbean sun, or the centre of a white frangipani, and it brings her joy. The character’s foibles, their idiosyncrasies, make them real to me and, hopefully, the reader.

Every story needs tension, so not all characters have to be likable but I have to care about the majority of them. The coffee mat on my desk, courtesy of my son, reads, “Please do not annoy the writer, she may put you in a book and kill you.” It’s true. I had great pleasure killing off Anna’s husband, Carl, in Fireburn, but I can’t murder everybody – I’d be writing slasher novels and not historical fiction. 

And that brings me back to hope. Emancipation was truly a time of hope but the more I wrote the less hopeful I felt. That could be a product of what is happening in America today. I’ve been immersed in writing about the issues of racial inequality 200 years ago, and here we are in 2020 seeing how relatively little has changed and it has made me sick to my stomach. I am well aware I’m not alone in that feeling. An email from an African American friend has been churning in my head the last couple of days. After the outrage in Minneapolis he asked, “Where is God when you need him?” He then asked me to excuse his rage. He is indeed a gracious man, always, but particularly in the face of current events when hope seems hard to come by.

That all sounds pretentious. I don’t mean to be. The Swiss-born, British philosopher, Alain de Botton, says “The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.” I was at the despair stage.

So, this morning I wrote to my publisher and said Emancipation is no more. Then I filed all my research notes and put away reference books that have been stacked on my desk, sticky tags in varying colours forming a frill on each book. Usually the process makes me a little sad. A year invested in my characters, my imagination, shelved, but today I felt relief. 

I have failed in a way but hope is once again returning to my lexicon because now, as I think of Langston Hughes’ words, I am smiling at the thought of the next book to be written.

"Hold fast to dreams, 
For if dreams die 
Life is a broken-winged bird, 
That cannot fly.” 

Words we should hold close in these seemingly hopeless and difficult times.

I had a dream from which I was rudely woken by the dog barking. Clyde has different barks for different threats. A marauding cat produces a breathless swallowed woof. An unknown human, particularly anywhere near the doors or in the garden, allows him an entirely more threatening tenor of which his humans take notice. Last night it was the former.

As I was jerked from sleep the flash of a dream came with me. I was in a dim music room leaning against a grand piano, notepad and pen in hand, watching in awe as Pavarotti played and sang. He glanced up and, as the last notes swayed in the air, he smiled. Ignoring the dog and the perceived violation of the his territory, I stumbled to my desk and, in the half light, wrote on a scrap of paper, ‘interviewing Pav – questions I wish I’d asked’. 

I should probably now mention I never interviewed Luciano Pavarotti. Neither did he play the piano, although there is no doubting the greatness of his voice – he was not known as the ‘King of the High C’s’ for nothing. I have always admired him, and do have a number of his CDs – one of my favorites being his Neapolitan songs, of which O Sole Mio is one. Possibly not for the Maestro’s prowess but because I have an evocative memory of my son singing it in the shower whilst on a canal boat cruising across the Yorkshire Dales. The Italian might not have been perfect. Actually, it wasn’t even Italian but words made up to fit the tune and sung with great operatic verve by a six-year-old.

But back to Luciano and why I was dreaming about him. A final glass of rum before bed might have contributed to the vividness of the dream, even though it was monochromatic, down to the white handkerchief he used to mop his brow as he finished playing. As I sipped I had watched a 2013 performance of Nessun Dorma purported to be sung by Pavarotti’s granddaughter, Sislena Caparrosa, on a Spanish talent show. It was a breathtaking performance by a fifteen-year-old, but The Luciano Pavarotti Foundation assured snopes.com that she was no relation to the great man. 

Be that as it may it provoked a question. Pavarotti was a man of large appetites – witness the bacchanalian feast celebrating his 70th birthday with scantily clad wenches in red costumes.

“Luciano,” because in my dream we seemed to be on familiar terms, “I ask this not from some voyeuristic desire to delve into your private life but from an earnest hope there is another Pavarotti voice for future generations to enjoy. DNA, as it were, passed to another generation, as your father’s voice was passed to you.” I pause here, gathering my courage. “So, Luciano, is it in the realms of possibility that you have a granddaughter, the byproduct of a union not documented in your biography?”

If he throws back his head and laughs, I’m okay. Then I’d ask him why he pissed off various opera houses by withdrawing from performances at the last moment enough times to earn another title, ‘The King of Cancellations’. 

“I ask in relation to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, under the directorship of Ardis Krainik, severing their long relationship with you, banning you for life from performing there again. Why, Luciano, why? It would seem such a snub to your myriads of fans.”

And finally, because even I can sense I am beginning to teeter on the edge of his humour and patience, I ask my last question, “I know you told Jeremy Paxman in that 2005 interview for the BBC that you could read music despite allegations to the contrary, but why did you never learn to read orchestral scores? Was it arrogance?”

If the great man growls at the temerity of my question and throws the hanky at me, the interview is over and I will be tossed from the music room with no chance of ever having a private concert again.

I will pick up my notepad and pen, dropped in the roar of his rage, and stagger into the daylight, cursing the day I dreamt of Pavarotti and believed I had the gall to question him. To never have the opportunity to hear him play and sing solely for me. O Sole Mio, the sunshine will have dimmed a little.

My dream did though provoke an interesting take on future interviews – questions I wish I’d asked! My next will be with Jane Austen.

Addenda: Thanks to Chris Lusignan for sending me a link to Pavarotti’s true granddaughter – María Cristina Crucian. My first question is now declared null and void – DNA rules. This little girl has a remarkable voice, just like her grandpa!

Way back in the day, a day in 1966, a chap called Geoff Stephens recorded the album Winchester Cathedral with a group of session musicians, The New Vaudeville Band. On that album was a song Stephens penned with Les Reed, which was covered a year later by Herman’s Hermits and ten years after that by The Carpenters.

It is the first couple of lines that swirl in and out of my mind as around the globe we close our borders, our doors and retreat to the inner sanctum of our families, where possible, and certainly to our thoughts. “There’s a kind of hush, All over the world tonight”.

As I listen to the quiet, my mind wanders and wonders at the fact that in a relatively short period of time, a time when we noisy, intrusive humans have been forced to take a back seat due to COVID-19, the animal world is reasserting itself.

A Malabar civet, critically endangered and not seen since 1990, has been spotted (forgive the pun) sauntering the streets of Kozhikode in the State of Kerala. (I was terribly impressed he was using the pedestrian walkway.) Dolphins cavorting and swans gliding in Italian waterways may not be wholly uncommon but residents have reported seeing more of them in the clearer canals. Manatees are meandering around in the chi-chi waters lapping the docks of the rich and infamous in Miami now that boat engines have been stilled. A puma has broken curfew in the centre of Santiago, Chile. Wild boar, arguably the least attractive of animals, have been seen in Barcelona, perhaps grunting for the right to self-determination, and ducks have waddled near the Comédie Française. And why shouldn’t they? Have not Parisians always flaunted their feathers? 

And for a little levity. Kashmiri goats have descended from Great Orme, the limestone headland on the north coast of Wales that lours over Llandudno, and have been feasting on leafy delicacies dotting the township’s squares. If you are wondering why there is a herd of goats from the sub-continent roaming a Welsh hillside, it is due to those tandem human traits of envy and avarice. Learning of a herd of goats imported from Kashmir to France in the 1800s, our hero Squire Christopher Tower of Brentwood, Essex wanted a piece of a possibly lucrative wool industry. The two goats he bought soon required a nursery, and so the herd was born. Their wool was turned into the finest cashmere shawl which won the favour of King George IV, who then also wanted goats. Jump forward a few decades and we come to the illustrious Major General Sir Savage Mostyn. He too coveted goats and, so the story goes, was given a couple by Queen Victoria from the royal herd at Windsor. He freed them in the grounds of his ancestral home, Gloddaeth Hall, near Llandudno. Whilst some obviously strayed, ever since a Kashmiri goat has been given the rank of lance-corporal and has served as the Mascot for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Infantry, the Major General’s regiment. How’s that for a shaggy goat story?

But perhaps the most amazing story of animals reclaiming their lands came after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Humans left, and suffered horribly. The animals stayed, and suffered horribly, according to an article recently published in ThoughtCo, by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. called “What We Know About the Chernobyl Animal Mutations” 

What scientists have found through collecting samples of dung and soil and watching animals through camera traps is that, with time, plants and animals have rebounded and reclaimed much of the region. They are of course still radioactive and often have smaller brains, but are breeding though producing fewer young, some of which are deformed. It is the mammals who appear to have adapted best – wolves, badgers, moose, elk, lynx and Przewalski’s horses to name a few. Birds and invertebrates have not faired so well.

The article makes for fascinating reading, but one of Dr Helmenstine’s most chilling sentences was, “Ironically, the damaging effects of radiation inside the zone may be less than the threat posed by humans outside of it.”

Her comments beg the question, when our present restrictions are lifted, will we humans return to our destructive ways? Drive the animals back to the brink of endangered species or worse, extinction. Thankfully, unlike Chernobyl, it appears we will not be contaminated by this current crisis for years. Hopefully will we not recontaminate each other in a rush to demand our spaces back and our reclamation will be gradual. But human mammals are already massing – some never even stopped. China is opening up and we are seeing photos of people gathering in the rush to normalcy, albeit wearing masks.

So perhaps we should listen very carefully, not get too close now, and we might see it isn’t a dream. 

It will be interesting to see if we have learnt anything from this time of hush.

Interregnum

March 25, 2020 — 12 Comments

A recent Sunday morning was spent speaking to a small congregation of Unitarian Universalists, www.uua.org whose seven principles would seem to be a pretty good guide for decent living. I promised that Same View, Different Lens would discuss cultural awareness in a world wherein countries, and some peoples, are reverting to an insular and intolerant outlook.

But this isn’t a piece about the brilliance of my talk! Rather it is the coincidental nature of it as the precursor to the hell happening around the world as COVID-19 shuts down our borders. An action wholly understandable but which threatens to make us more inward looking and parochial, quick to lay blame beyond our boundaries.

Pico Iyer, a philosopher and travel writer I much admire says in his book The Global Soul, “The airport was a rare interregnum– a place between two rival forms of authority– and the airplane itself was a kind of enchanted limbo…. And so, half-inadvertently, not knowing whether I was facing east or west, not knowing whether it was night or day, I slipped into that peculiar state of mind– or no-mind– that belongs to the no-time, no-place of the airport, that out-of-body state in which one’s not quite there, but certainly not elsewhere.”

It is this feeling, this interregnum, in which I find myself now. Not, however, the anticipatory kind of limbo that airports induce but rather in a discombobulated state of nowhereness. I should be used to that feeling. I grew up a ‘Nowherian’ as Derek Walcott, the St Lucian poet called us. An in-betweener, and so am accustomed to often being on the outside looking in, to not always quite fitting into a prescribed mold. 

My family is global. My daughter is married to a Trinidadian and lives in Port of Spain, my son is soon to marry a Polish woman. They live in London. I have no doubt we will continue to live in different parts of the world, that their children will grow up with an inherent cultural awareness and, as I sit fretting at the keyboard, I remind myself that cultural awareness and common sense go hand-in-hand. I just need to get a better handle on the latter in these days of COVID-19 because I have a constant refrain in my head. 

What if they need me?

I know that is highly unlikely. I believe and trust in their ability to deal with anything thrown at them. That was how they were brought up, around the same world they now have the temerity to call their playground. And, in my current state of mind and despite my pride in them, I am to blame for their independence. 

It was only this morning, as I walked my dog along the empty Boardwalk in Christiansted, I realised what is causing my somewhat irrational mood. It is grief. 

Grief for a world that has changed beyond anything I could have imagined. No one knows how long borders or skies will be closed. A sorrow for those whose family and friends have died from this rampant virus. But my newly understood grief is also selfish one. It is grief at the freedoms I have lost, the freedom to hop a plane to see my children. It has sent me to find words vaguely remembered from when my father died. In his desk I had found a book of quotes, snippets of Latin and Greek, Malay and Urdu, he jotted down. Words that took his fancy. The words I wanted were written by the British doctor and eugenicist – not a science I agree with but, in the current context, wise words nonetheless, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” 

So in this interregnum, this limbo, I must accept that some things have changed, maybe forever. That is the grief. I must embrace the ease of virtual communication which, for a while, is replacing the joy of real and tactile social intercourse. With vigilance COVID-19 will be contained and once it has run its course our borders will be reopened, and our minds once more excited about the infinite possibilities and cultural awareness that travel provides. But for now it is a time of letting go, and holding on, and remembering we see the same views through different lenses.

It’s been a turbulent few weeks on either side of the Atlantic. Britain has left the European Union. The United States has been embroiled in an unseemly farrago wherein any semblance of gravitas and civility has been shredded from those, we the people, have put into office. I have been feeling overwhelmed. In despair that the country in which I currently live is lead by a bear-of-very-little brain. Except Winnie-the-Pooh knew his limitations.

“When you are Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

I doubt A A Milne’s wise words have been read by the man in the White House. And I was close to sticking my head in the honey pot, or perhaps deep in the Caribbean sand.

And so, last night, I took myself on a magical mystery tour.

The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands at St George Village on St Croix is home to over a thousand varieties of plants on 16 acres of what was a Danish colonial sugarcane plantation. The ruins, an important part of the island’s heritage, are surrounded by plants and trees that reinforce their value as a source of food, medicine, fiber and dyes. Crucian culture was also on display with Lucien Downes’ latest works on the walls. Magic in the plant and art kingdom.

The magic didn’t end there.

The squalls, prevalent at this time of year, stayed away. The evening was balmy with just enough breeze to keep mosquitoes at bay. Palms were encircled by shimmering lights and there was a pleasant hubbub from those present.

A man in black settled himself on a chair, cleared his throat, picked up the mic and, at first, spoke with a hesitancy wholly unfounded. Søren Madsen, who is Danish, has a facility with English that puts many native speakers to shame. He was self-deprecating, and delighted to be in the USA for the first time. Comments called from the audience intimated he was in the best part of America. I am inclined to agree.

He began to play. His instrument? The Spanish guitar. He drew us in, some might say with emotional blackmail, when he played Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. Hauntingly beautiful and, which Mr Madsen explained, is in minor keys. “We Scandinavians are melancholic,” he said.

Madsen laughingly told us he plays “Mozart to Metallica”, and he surely does. Stevie Wonder came next, then a Beatles medley. The magical mystery tour was in full swing. Chirruping crickets and cicadas provided the chorus and Madsen’s fingers flew along the frets, his hand lifting from the neck of the guitar with a smooth grace. He never once flinched when bats swooped in joyous abandon under the marquee. 

I too have an eclectic musical taste but had never been a fan of heavy metal until Metallica came along in the 90’s. I am not the only person to be a convert because Madsen told the story of how when he played his arrangement of Unforgiven in a Danish hospice, a 94 year-old gentleman told him, “Now I like heavy metal.” The comment was however followed by another elderly patient saying, “The best part is the last chord!”

The first all the way through to the last chord of Madsen’s rendition of Nothing Else Matters was pure lyrical magic. I closed my eyes and the shenanigans swamping the world, and which had been absorbing me, drifted away on his notes.

Trained in classical guitar at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, where he was awarded a unanimous vote of excellence, Madsen continued his musical education in Basel, Vienna and Prague. Not only a soloist, he has played with the Danish Guitar Duo, Duo Paganini and The Blackbirds – a Danish nod to the Beatles, and he shares his talent with students. Playing a composition of his own, Malaguena, in honour of his Spanish guitar, proved his virtuosity as a composer as well as an arranger.

We heard La Cumparsita, a tango by Rodriguez, swiftly followed by Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Coldplay, ABBA, the BeeGees, more Beatles. Even Elvis came into play. An old Danish folksong medley was made timeless, and it seemed as if countless guitars were under the tent competing in singing strings. And who can miss the opening chords of Hotel California? I never wanted to check out.

Søren Madsen played the final piece. The magic dissipated into the evening air dripping with the scent of night blooms. But as The Botanical Garden of the Virgin Islands emptied, Nothing Else Matters remained. I wondered if James Hetfield, who wrote the song in 1990 whilst on the phone to his then girlfriend, and Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, ever imagined their melody, also in a melancholic minor chord, would find its way to a seductive Caribbean island. 

“Life is ours, we live it our way…. ….. Forever trusting who we are No, nothing else matters.”