Why do you write?

This is the question that jumped out at me this week, and the without hesitation response that I heard in my head was

‘to make sense of the world’

Well.  That rather surprised me, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  It doesn’t surprise me that I care about the world – things, people, place – I have a curiosity about all sorts of things.  What I hadn’t connected, was that I write to help to understand.  Why do I write rather than think?  Well, I think that’s so that I can’t escape the thoughts, when they’re written down, you can see in front of you what you thought, and thought, and sometimes in thinking around something, writing about it, you visit it at different levels.  Rather like peeling back an onion skin.  I have some sympathy with this Flannery O’Connor quote.

 

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I’m a keen journaller, which I know helps me stop things circling in my head. I love writing when we go travelling – to capture place, thoughts, reflections as a permanent record.   In moving from the real world, of non-fiction writing to fiction writing, I’m struck that what I write seeks to make sense of something, explain something.  There’s more to writing, for me, than telling a story, it’s about an intention to create something that will impact, and perhaps change in the reader.

This week I heard that I’d been shortlisted in one competition I entered (44 entrants to 8 shortlisted to 3 winners), and I’ve won another (more details on that another time).  I’m thrilled with both.  It’s a real boost to my inner-critic, and a validation that what I write, and the way I write, is well received.  Repeating a comment that came from the organiser of the Bridgend Writers’ Circle, keep writing….

 

 

 

Book Review: All Change (Cazalet Chronicles) by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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All Change is the final instalment of the Cazalet Chronicles, and follows various family members during the period 1956-1958. There is a whole new generation added, and a scattering of other children. This leads to an additional level of complexity, and confusion for the reader. It was reminiscent of reading the first book, The Light Years, constantly flicking back to the family tree to check who’s who. This frustrated me a little, but at last there was a decent family tree (rather than the list of characters as happened in the previous books).

The book opens with the death of The Duchy, which liberates Rachel for the first time to live a life that she choses. Hers is a remarkable story in All Change, perhaps my favourite ‘update’, with a very moving turn of events relating to Sid, her lover. It is through Rachel that the book begins and ends. It is Rachel that we perceive to have lost the most (certainly her brothers and her nieces see it that way). It is Rachel perhaps who has never found herself, with a huge conditional sense of self-worth through others. It is both admirable and tragic, and it makes for interesting reflection as to why Howard chose for us to have this as the last moment in the book, and indeed the series.

All Change, rather like Casting Off, read like another summing up. Only we’d moved forwards 20 years, so there was more to wrap up. This book seemed less of an examination of the role of women in marriage, but looked at the development of the marriages. Edward, having ‘abandoned’ Villy for Diana seems to be in a miserable place, more so when the Cazalet fortunes make a turn for the worst. The households (except Edward and Diana and the Sussex family home of Home Place) no longer have servants and cooks, and we see a different, harder lifestyle for the likes of Clary and Louisa. The lives are more chaotic and more challenging than we have seen before. The only unlikely storyline was in Neville, and what can only be described as incest – this jarred for me, and made me wonder why Howard had included it. We also saw more of Teddy than we’d seen before, a little ‘left stage’ for me, but it served a purpose in dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the issues around abortions in the 1950s. Perhaps this was important to Howard to include.

Home Place sees the vast Cazalet clan descend for the last, perfect Christmas (it snows, of course) where the family reminisce about the glory days and say their goodbyes to the lives they once had. It is sentimental, but this seems true to the characters.

All Change is my least favourite of the Cazalet Chronicles, but overall I still enjoyed it. Howard is a master amateur psychologist, with astute observations of people and their relationships making for interesting and complex characterisation. I believe this is the key strength running through all of the books in the series. I heartily recommend the series.

Creative freedom – a lesson from my grandson

It's a boat... it's a train...
It’s a boat… it’s a train…

We spent a few days in Portsmouth earlier this week with Pete’s daughter and family.  Pete was on DIY detail and I was left to play with George, our grandson.  I loved spending time with him, marvelling at the development in his language and manual dexterity.  Things he couldn’t communicate in December he now does, and things he couldn’t make work he now can.  Being two is a glorious age!

What I enjoyed most was witnessing the freedom of his mind.  It knows no limits, and his sense of improvisation deeply impressed me.  In fact, I was a bit envious.  The cushion in the photo became a train and a boat.  You needed tickets to ride it (obviously).  Georgie was always the driver, and his passengers varied.  Mostly Grandpa, often Granny, and always a toy – bear or triceratops (or otter, once he had a nappy put on him to stop him pooing everywhere).  “Off we go..” and then we’d be off, on an adventure to anywhere.  It didn’t much matter to Georgie.  He saw possibility in everything, and you could spend hours having an imaginary picnic on the beach, or riding the train through the mountains – even better, the train safari.  Sometimes when we got to the beach, we’d have to dive into the sea (the rug) and look at fishes.  He had a feather duster, used for sweeping, but also for catching fish.  He got really excited when he landed a big one, and a bit cross when they got away.

Yes, you might well say that I was envious at the creativity in his young mind.  But then I figured that it was well within my reach to allow myself the same freedoms.  Two days with Georgie has done more for my creativity than random prompts from a creativity book.  Perhaps it is no coincidence, but I’m also following the creativity programme with Andy Puddicombe at Headspace, and trying to bring about the qualities of lightness, brightness and space.  Perhaps it is the way I experienced being with Georgie because of the Headspace, but whatever, I really noticed that the wow and wonder of a child is a joyous thing.

I may not have done a whole lot of writing this week, but my imagination has been given a royal work out.  It has been a gift of a week.

If you haven’t seen Andy Puddicombe, I highly recommend this TedTalk.

Book Review: Casting Off (The Cazalet Chronicles) by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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Casting Off is the fourth in the series of the Cazalet Chronicles, and until 2013 when EJH added a fifth book, the final instalment for the Cazalets.  It brings back some of the ‘minor’ characters as well as the stories of the main characters – Polly, Clary and Louise.  It does have the feeling of wrapping up the lives of the Cazalets, and had this been the last, I think I would have been satisfied by it.

During Casting Off, I was a little disgruntled to be spending time with the likes of some of the other cousins (Nora, Simon, Christopher, even Angela), but it did tie everything together neatly.  I had grown fond of Polly, Clary and Louise, and it was their lives that interested me the most.  I was not disappointed.

In Casting Off, Howard’s themes are nonetheless significant, and she continues to explore the role of women in marriage and society in this post-war world.  The opening deals with the return of Rupert, revealing his story to us (readers) and to the family confidant Archie.  Howard’s examination of the painful reconciliation between Rupert and Zoe is wonderful, both of them lost in their own loss and withdrawn from each other.   Witnessing their relationship develop was one of the highlights in Casting Off for me.

Howard continues with her theme of infidelity, and moves things on for Edward and Diana, casting off Villy in the process.  Villy becomes an embittered woman, living with Miss Milliment and her son, Roland.  No one much likes Edward, who’s life becomes isolated from the Cazalets.  You have the feeling that it will come back to haunt him, and certainly I had no time or affection for the rather vulgar Diana.  I didn’t much feel sorry for Villy either, but rather saddened by the sorry state of things.

Both Polly and Clary experience pain and rejection in their first loves, beautifully observed by Howard.  Clary’s chaotic, impressionable, vulnerable character comes through, to disastrous consequences for her – events that made me weep for her.  The ultimate resolution for her, even though she achieved success in writing in the process, was perhaps a little farfetched for me, but it tied things off.

Archie plays a significant part in Casting Off, as harborer of secrets, and also rather more of a white knight.  Of all the characters, I think Howard was most sympathetic to him.

Casting Off is a wonderful book, and is an equal match to its predecessors.  Having read All Change, the final installment, if you wanted to end here, you could easily.  All Change is good, but the others are great.

Book review: Confusion (The Cazalet Chronicles) by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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Confusion is the third in the series of the Cazalet Chronicles.  The book follows the Cazalets through the long dark days of the Second World War, with the focus on the lives of Louise, Polly and Clary.  The yearning of the adolescence girls, Polly and Clary, gives way to their first taste of independence in London, but it is not as they imagined.  Polly is wrapt up in the death of her mother and her concern for her grieving father, and the responsibility she feels for her younger siblings.  Clary remains the only Cazalet that seems to believe her father is not dead.  Both girls form a growing attachment to Archie, the friend and confidant of the Cazalets.

Perhaps the most surprising turn is that Louise abandons her ideas of the stage and enters into a society marriage, with a famous painter, Michael, which quickly fails to live up to her expectations.  Louise is fighting a losing battle for her husband’s affections with Zee, his domineering mother.  Louise performs her duties well, and delivers a son, but Louise makes no attachment with him.   Louise’s marriage becomes sour, and she falls for one of Michael’s cousins, to tragic end for Louise.

Howard continues to explore the role of women in marriage and society in Confusion, showing considerable parallels across generations of Cazalet women in dutiful marriages, from the Duchy, through Villy and now Louise.  There is a great sense of love and of loss in this book.

It is the character of Zoe that develops the most in complexity, as she battles through her grief through the love of her daughter, Jules.  It is the Duchy who ‘saves’ Zoe, and in the process, puts her in the path of an American serviceman.  Zoe embarks on a passionate love affair, which ends in tragedy, with the ever-loyal Archie as the bearer of the news.

Howard shows us various love affairs, as adultery seems rife in many relationships – Jessica, Angela, Sid, Zoe, Edward and Louise – all behind the veils of a seemingly prudent and prudish society.

I enjoyed Confusion as much as I did Marking Time.  There is a twist at the end of the novel that made me wish it wouldn’t end – fortunately Casting Off was waiting on the book shelf.  Confusion is delightful reading and Howard’s writing is clean and beautifully observed.  She truly is a master of her craft.

#100happydays

 

The happy tagline...
The happy tagline…

Last year I watched a friend of mine take part in this, and enjoyed some of her simple observations.  I didn’t Instagram then, so I was a mere observer.  Towards the end of the year an old friend persuaded me to join Instagram, and when the new year clicked around, it seemed obvious to connect the two.  If I was on Instagram, I may as well do something useful with it.  And so began my #100happydays.

I’ve had 15 days of happy posts, and, much to my surprise, I think it’s making a difference to my perceived happiness.  I start from the position of being a generally positive person, always looking for the upside, rather than the downside, but the act of seeking out a photograph to capture a moment has really encouraged me to be active in the positive – happy even.  I notice more, I appreciate more, and therefore I think that I actually am more happy.  Who’d’ve thought it could be so simple?  I’m really pleased that I’ve joined in.  I don’t much mind that no one particularly likes or follows, this time it’s all about and for me!

For more information go to 100happydays or to see what I’m capturing find me @juliawebbharvey on Instagram.  What is there to lose?

Book Review: Marking Time (The Cazalet Chronicles) by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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Marking Time is the second in the series of The Cazalet Chronicles.  The book begins at the outbreak of war in 1939, and life has changed for the Cazalets.  Howard tells the stories of the humdrum of life as a consequence of war.  The heady days of ‘the light years’ are behind them, as the war brings on the evacuation of the family to Sussex, and the restrictions due to rationing of food, fuel and of opportunity.  Howard captures the initial fear of war, which then gives way to a boredom – particularly experienced by the adolescence girls.  Their gender means that they are not sent away to school (although the boys hate it), and they are bored by the routines of life.  They are marking time to become adults, yearning for freedom of choice.

The narrators in Marking Time are largely, Louise, Polly and Clary.  As a result, the book is less sprawling than The Light Years, as the focus on fewer characters lends itself to greater depth.  There is also a more definitive narrative arc, as the events of the war, and of life stages happening to some of the characters – Louise, Clary, Zoe, Polly..

The outbreak of war gives rise to different perspectives for the men in the series.  Hugh, injured in the First World War must sit out service.  Edward goes into service, but comes out to help the family timber business.  Rupert, the youngest, joins up but goes missing in action as Zoe gives birth to their daughter.  Howard’s exploration of this loss through the eyes of Clary, his daughter, is very moving, as she clings to the idea that he must be still alive.  In her exchanges with her step-mother (Zoe), she seems to have the greater maturity, as Zoe disappears into the small world of her first born child.  Howard makes her characters suffer, and life is not straightforward for Polly, whose mother is gravely ill.  Again, Howard’s observations of a couple, Sybil and Hugh, not communicating well with each other, or with Polly, is so poignant, and is mirrored in the friendship between Polly and Clary, who declare that they must always be open with each other.

The theme of the feminist agenda, and what it was like for the women in the era, continues from the stoic Duchy, her sisters, the dutiful Villy and Rachel, and even with the rather destitute Miss Milliment (the governess).  There is also the running theme of ‘marking time,’ of growing up, of loss and of love.

I enjoyed Marking Time more than The Light Years.  It was more involved and more gritty.  I was in a rush against fading light to finish Marking Time on a long car journey, and when I did, I didn’t much want to say anything to anyone.  If Confusion is anything like this one, I’m in for a treat.