All is God cougarsmall.jpg

Poetry was my first love. For me it is a minimalist art. My aim is to say something beautiful or important is as few words as possible. I scrawl ideas down, cross them out, rewrite until all available space on the paper has been filled with ideas and corrections; you would see lines between lines, margins filled, phrases squeezed in vertically, words struck through and rewritten over and over. Then I write it out fresh, read aloud, cross out what sounds superfluous and finally type up with two fingers on my computer. My originals are hidden away all over the house as they are terrible to behold. Sometimes I write on envelopes, paper bags or restaurant napkins – you don’t always have a notebook to hand. I would hone them down further on the computer and then share. Friends told me I should publish, not an easy task in the UK unless you are very well-connected or have an Oxbridge First and so I learned to self-publish. I made the mistake of not holding back the poems that were more personal than public and was rewarded with a one-star rating and a scathing review that ran into the thousands of words. You learn to deal with it. To annoy someone so intensely is an accomplishment in itself.

My first novel, The Cougar was a different animal altogether. To a minimalist poet the sheer word count of a novel was daunting enough. My main character came to me in a dream one night and literally said “Tell my story.” Berenice was a phantom, a denizen of the temperate rainforest of British Columbia, and it was a labour of love. I wanted the reader to experience the beauty of the forest and Lake Alouette as Berenice does – and as I do also. I am in love and in awe of this great wilderness. Each time I see it is as powerful as the first, existing in a perpetual state of flux, its colours changing from second to second. The forest visibly seems to breathe and is the perfect setting for a shapeshifter. I wanted to make that wilderness real and immediate and for some I did – for others not so much.

My biggest problem was expectation of genre. This is an odd beast for someone of my vintage weaned on literature that has a wider embrace of the possible than the modern “niche” approach. For me, as a poet, writing is about expression and the music behind the words as much as feelings and actions. It was never about marketing. This imperfection was what I brought to Berenice’s story along with a total understanding of what it feels like to be a misfit and never quite belong anywhere.

The Cougar has been called an erotic romance by some, but it is not erotica. It is explicit but romantic. At the heart lie two parallel love stories in different timelines. Berenice is in both and is a loyal and highly principled bisexual woman. That caused me problems with some fantasy readers and Christians who couldn’t cope with LGBT love and ironically it also caused problems with some lesbian readers who couldn’t cope with straight love scenes. Oh boy! Yet again a wicked bisexual predator is at large! There are some other odd love angles in the story because life is strange in my experience and love just is what it is. Perhaps my life as a writer would have been easier if Berenice was straight? She certainly would have done better to be a lesbian from the beginning if that was the target audience. Perhaps she would have done better to choose a more manipulative writer?

In any case, like Berenice, I am a ship at sea in a terrible storm with no apparent safe mooring other than love itself. If she chose me it was for a reason that I will probably never be sure of. Perhaps it is because I too know what it is not to be “amatonormative” (thank you Gabriel Constans for that lovely word). I leave you with the thought that to write an “amatonormative” book requires the author to be in no doubt whatsoever about their own gender identity or sexuality. Where would that leave the Berenices of this world? To force her to be something other than she is would surely be unacceptable in this day and age? Perhaps that is why she chose me after all…

Advertisements

whitby 123

A writer is a dreamer who needs space to dream and sometimes the reality of modern day publishing gets in the way. This is true whether one is self-published or published by one of the very many small presses that specialise in particular genres. These days an author constantly needs to push their own agenda, recommend their own books and those of their associates, attend conferences and conventions and be an expert social mover and shaker. Every day I see examples of excellent but introverted writers struggling constantly while the more pushy ones squeeze them out. Whether it is done consciously or unconsciously I honestly do not know but writers do tend to run in packs. My Twitter pack is a multi-genre pack full of generous and sensitive individuals who are non-judgemental, not genre or publisher biased, and share each other’s posts. I am so glad of it. Without my pack on Twitter I could so easily drown. As it is I can barely keep my head out of the water.

Now in some respects I am a little bit of a rarity amongst writers. Not because I am some sort of special snowflake (I know my limitations and they are Legion), or because I am a multi-genre and cross-genre perpetrator (lots of writers are), and not even because I am also a musician (although it is hard to serve two Muses) but because I put my own name on everything I do. Yes, that’s right. My name. I don’t hide my gender behind vague initials or change my name from book to book in case somebody who enjoys one title hates another and feels betrayed. I am not ashamed to be a poet, to write scifi, horror and romance, to include sweet romance and honest steamy sex scenes, I have a mix of LGBT and straight. I am not ashamed of my music either. It is a part of my soul. I write because I feel driven to and I compose for the very same reason.

Despite all that, I am still an introvert and a neurodiverse one at that, being mildly autistic. I hate social occasions. I can only cope in small gatherings unless I am deliberately putting on a show. Then character takes over. It just doesn’t feel comfortable to move around a room pressing hands and making small talk. My best friends and the people I talk to most are my cats. My wildest parties are held on Twitter; openly, in the morning with the news or Victoria Live on the TV or in the evening with Star Trek reruns, my favourite one-starred disaster movies, Casualty or Holby City. I confess I am a bit of a geek. I enjoy science – one of my short stories actually opens with a description of an atomic explosion – and I love doing the research for my stories. It doesn’t all go in of course but I probably err on the side of too much at times.

I don’t really know why I am writing this post except that I do wish self-promotion wasn’t such a “thing” in this world we live in – especially in the arts – schmoozing should not be the artist’s most important weapon but I know I am fighting a lost cause. I do wish readers were the ones to propose books for awards, not authors, and that readers would vote for them, not authors but again, why should they? It is not the norm. It probably never was. OK, I will go back to my lair and hide away for a bit longer; then there’s a grain-free cake to bake, cats to feed and a happy life to live. Have a beautiful day.

…British, gay, lesbian, old, teenagers, religious, asexual… substitute whichever descriptor you find fits you best and then stop and ask why I started my post this way. That’s it, my friends, go on, take a minute, two even. Yes? Got it? It is because we pigeonhole our literature and often we pigeonhole ourselves. We file ourselves away so readily it isn’t funny.

It took me a lifetime to break out of my own little filing cabinet. So much more cramping than a closet don’t you think? I keep getting tidied away in different drawers to this day. There is only one label I own that I can’t actually see myself changing, although I attempted to in The Cougar because Berenice is who I would most like to be. Without getting into Berenice too much today, that label is human and with it comes a whole battery of conflicting and disturbing stuff, the worst of which is being mortal and therefore on borrowed time.

When I started out as a writer, I had no ambition to make money. I was just a simple bard, a poet and story teller in touch with the Seasons and the Soul, and by definition I wrote for me. I wrote about love, small love and great love, and I tied it in with the world I breathed in every day. My words reflected the beauty around me and the sheer gratitude I felt for being alive in this troubled but wonderful world. The words were exuberant and for some readers they reflected a simpler, bygone era. I was being a Romantic I now know, and I was a Romantic in an age of Anti-Romanticism so I got some well-earned stick from my critics which I wear as a badge of honour to this day.

As you get older, time diminishes. Twenty years is still twenty years – but it no longer feels like a lifetime; it feels more like a fleeting moment. The months seem like days and the days have fewer hours in them. We all should know our time here is precious and it passes ever more quickly. Add to that the little bits of wear and tear. I went from fit athlete to fat diabetic in the blink of an eye and the shock was overwhelming. At twenty, you can’t see it coming; at thirty you are still blind to it; at forty you are too busy doing whatever must be done; at fifty you start to realise most of your life is behind you. Then there was Berenice…

If I could transport my home from sunny Bracebridge Heath to the moody temperate rainforest of British Columbia; if I could walk from garden to forest in a breath; transform into any shape I chose; be young and beautiful; swim in pristine lakes whenever I wanted without feeling the cold and love with all my heart and soul I would be Berenice. She came to me in a dream and said “Tell my story” but her story belongs to us all. It is a story of love and loyalty, temptation and deliverance, conscience and awakening to love. It is a story of coming out to one’s own self, of realisation that gender is an accident, compassion is learned and love is all that matters.

I don’t want to stray too far from the opening premise of this post though. I had a long and friendly conversation with a young lesfic writer on Twitter about the dos and don’ts in the genre. It was quite enlightening. I mentioned earlier about pigeonholing ourselves and pigeonholing our literature? It keeps us in our comfort zone but here we have Berenice, bisexual, late awakener, and proud. Should I write about all her experiences? Her great love was a man, her new love a woman. Should I write in the modern way about all the sexual encounters in this story? Should I tone it down, a la Radclyffe Hall, and have no contact at all? No, that would be timid. I chose to go the D.H.Lawrence route and be straightforward and honest. All encounters are equally valid in this novel.

How do I assign a genre to The Cougar ? (Or that matter to The Wings to Fly ). In all honesty I can’t. I tried fantasy and paranormal but the lesbian and trans scenes are no go areas for the usual swords, elves and kingdoms reader. If I go LGBT I will be disappointing the M/M fans who seem to dominate the genre and if I try lesfic, even though it has a lesbian romance at its very heart, I will be upsetting those readers who don’t like to read about straight sex. Biphobia and bi-erasure are still so widespread. There is a non-con marital scene in that has disturbed some readers although I think it needs to be in so that we can understand Owen and Angela’s situation and what motivates their later actions.

It seems that I have a story that refuses to fit in anywhere and yet it is an honest story, written from an honest perspective. Perhaps you will read The Cougar and decide for yourself but only if you are prepared to be open to the desire for immortality and the notion that love is all and all is love.

Benjamin and the Frog. Hmmm… Sounds like a children’s story doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, having recovered from a really sleepless night and an exciting day in The Out, I thought I would tell you all about my meeting with poet, Benjamin Zephaniah at Blackfriars Arts Centre in Boston, and a meeting with a little frog the night before.

I was very excited that I was going to read my poetry to Benjamin Zephaniah. He is someone Colin and I worshipped from afar in the 1980s, those heady days of alternative cabaret and comedy. Tadpole and Co majored in disasters set to jazz and poetry, such as Herculaneum and the Titanic. These were surprisingly popular considering they were in very bad taste. Those days in the mid-eighties were brief but happy times brought to a premature end by the surge in interest in samba bands and the desertion of our percussionist, Richard Bett, aka Riccardo Thunderfingers. He was the only man I have ever met who was capable of sustaining a rhythm on congas whilst simultaneously being thousands of people going down with a ship or getting buried by volcanic ash.

Yes, we certainly did some crazy back stuff then. We performed music and poetry in gigs and literature festivals from Hastings to Edinburgh. Some of it was even quite good but it was the comedic disasters that earned us our Yorkshire bookings, courtesy of Wild Willie, and the opportunity to share the stage with such worthies as Henry Normal and Jo Brand. We never performed with Ben, but he was “Up there!” and when the opportunity came to meet him at Boston, read some serious poetry and discuss it we leaped at the chance.

The night before recording the interview I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous, excited and in that terrible place where the more you try to sleep the less likely it is to come. Add to that an annoying tune that kept running through my head courtesy of an advert on TV… you get the picture. Eventually I must have dozed off and about three thirty to four in the morning I was woken by a cat coughing. Now, when said cat is a Himalayan and there is a history of heart murmurs in the breed you worry, so I got up to check on him.

He seemed fine, but was scrabbling around his water bowl. Then he pounced on a blanket I had hanging over a box full of stuff I really ought to sort through, donate, throw away… you know the sort of thing. I lifted the blanket and in the semi-darkness of my Pusheen nightlight, I saw what looked like a pile of poop.
“Urgh”, I said, turning the main light on, but it wasn’t poop, it was a frog! We have an empty vegetable container we use for trapping and releasing flies so I grabbed it quickly and, with the aid of a piece of card, I easily caught the sleepy looking frog.

By this time Colin was up and about and wandered into the bathroom.
“You wouldn’t believe what I just caught in my bed room,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he grumbled.
He must have been half asleep because the surprise of finding a frog in the house didn’t register. Nor did he offer to do the gentlemanly thing and put it out for me. So here I was, standing in my nightie and slippers in the twilight before dawn, trying to unlock the front door while Froggie got more and more excited and jumped up and down in his box. He was released to the water feature by the pond (I know frogs hide in there). I was surprised that he made no attempt to escape after the first hop. I guess he is a very laid back frog and in my experience frogs are not scared of people.

P1060681

Now, I have no idea how a frog came to be in my bedroom, nor do I have any idea how long he was in residence. All I know is that he certainly seemed settled under the blanket and that one of the cat water bowls showed signs of dust-bunnies and what I assumed was a frog poop right in the middle. Cue vigorous cat bowl scrubbing and changing of water… I then went back to bed and caught about three hours sleep before I had to get up for an early start and our journey to Boston where we were due to read poems and discuss immigration, Pilgrim Fathers and Boston amongst other things.

I suppose I was a bit ring-eyed and stupid for my interview with Ben. It took me a long time to relax and come out of my shell, but he is a lovely, genuine man and seemed interested in my poems and Colin’s too. When it was all over the three of us chatted for a little while about the eighties, alternative cabaret and the parallel universes we seemed to exist in. Somehow we never shared the stage with Benjamin Zephaniah back then. Hopefully when the programme comes out, we will finally get that wish.

Boston Calling airs on Radio 4 at 4-30pm on Sunday 20th August. I can’t guarantee the Tadpoles will feature, but I can promise you a good programme if you enjoy poetry, politics or Benjamin Zephaniah.

The other day one of my readers said:
“I enjoyed The Wings to Fly but there’s a lot about flying in it, isn’t there?”
“Yes, there is.” I said.
“It’s different. It’s not often you read a historical romance with much history in these days. They tend to about the chase and the catch and the good sex at the end.”
“Well, that’s your standard romance isn’t it? Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, things happen, boy gets girl back, happy ever after?”
“Yours isn’t like that though.”
“Why? What do you mean? Apart from the girls of course…”
She went on to explain that she felt this was more about a group of people, real people and their lives. Romance was a strong element but not the main one and there were boy/girl romances everywhere, plus a couple of girl/girl ones and not too much action between the sheets. I asked her if she was OK with that.
“Isn’t that what life’s like? It’s not just about two people between the sheets, it’s about all of us, our friends and what happens around us,” she replied.

I had to admit that was true; that we don’t all fit into convenient pigeon holes anymore than The Wings to Fly fits into a convenient genre. Life is full of awakenings, discoveries, disappointments, tragedies and, in time, true happiness when we eventually find love.

“But what about the flying? Why was that so important to you?”
“I suppose it was the flying that brought the whole thing about. The book I mean. Without feeling the inspiration of those early aviation pioneers, the tragedy of war and the heroism of combat and ferry pilots I confess I’d just have finished my second vampire novel instead.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, I’m not too keen on horror, but that enthusiasm certainly comes through in The Wings to Fly . I really wanted to be up in the air with Midge in the Tiger Moth – and touch the clouds with John Magee in his Spitfire – I loved Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart. I could almost feel the wind in my hair in that biplane.”
“Really? That is just what I wanted. I can think of nothing more wonderful than flying a plane like that. Not a big commercial plane though. To me that’s like being on a bus in the air and it’s a little scary being out of control. But to feel the response of a Spitfire or the lightness of a Tiger Moth in the wind? Now that’s the romance of flight, that overwhelming sensation of freedom most of us only get when we do truly fall in love.”

The Wings to Fly is available on Kindle and in paperback and you can read it free with Kindle Unlimited and Amazon Prime. I hope you will and that you will enjoy it.


The words of I Vow To Thee, My Country sung so beautifully by Katherine Jenkins were written by Cecil Spring Rice in 1908 and define an era when the world was a very different place. It was a world that was very class conscious, where Empires ruled and where innocence existed alongside a great sense of adventure. There was still much to discover, enormous scientific discoveries had been made or were on the verge of being made, The Titanic had yet to be built, let alone sink, and the ravages of World War were as yet unthinkable. When Gustav Holst wrote the music to Jupiter from the Planets Suite the melody for “I vow to thee, my country” was forever set.

Now here I nail my colours firmly to the mast as a person of a certain age, brought up in a forces family during the twilight years of the British Empire and being made to sing this song in a primary school choir. It is a beautiful tune and a beautiful but, for many, an undoubtedly dated lyric. I learned to play Holst’s melody on recorder, melodica and piano by ear, note by painful note. It brought tears to my eyes but not before it had brought tears to others and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. To this day I believe it gives Jerusalem a run for its money as an English National Anthem but it is considered flawed and therefore rejected.

I am not a fan of nationalism. In an era when we need to act local but think global the last thing we need is national fervour any more than we need proselytizing religions fighting it out for supremacy in the Middle East or anywhere else. What the world needs is less “us and them” and more freedom and working together. This beautiful song has even been called heresy by those who hate jingoist philosophies but on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War I wanted to think of those words as a poet and look for a different meaning. I truly believe that Cecil Spring Rice’s words have been taken purely at face value for a long time yet beneath them lies something universal and very spiritual. So for better, for worse, here is my take on what could have been an English National Anthem but for it being considered too patriotic.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

This has been labelled by one churchman as heresy, but it refers to all earthly things. In the Christian tradition and understanding that means rendering unto Caesar all things that are Caesar’s. Earthly things are material, not spiritual. It says that my love should be entire and whole and perfect and if love is less than those things it cannot be love can it?

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Oh my, think of those words in the context of the First World War? It never ceases to amaze me how many wonderful and talented young lives were cut short in the carnage born out of a conglomeration of diplomatic mistakes and proud rulers. This was indeed a powerful call to service and a call that most young men would have responded to without question. I think of this poem in a different context though, remember it was written during peace time? I think of it as saying love is not love if it only exists in easy circumstances. This could be just as easily extrapolated to a marriage, a deep friendship, living donation of transplant organs, a hero risking his or her life to save the innocent. It is about being prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve something better. That is a concept much bandied about by those who do not truly look to the greater good, but when sacrifice is truly made in the name of life, not power and certainly not to inflict death, then that is a form of profound love.

The second verse is rarely if ever sung. I certainly cannot remember singing it and this may be because of the military references. Pretending it doesn’t exist is not the answer though. An attempt at understanding it might be better even if we choose not to sing those words.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Only someone who has been an expat can truly understand that profound feeling of homesickness. I knew it as a child. There is something magical about the land of our birth wherever that may be and however flawed our homeland might be. Like salmon we are all programmed with the homing instinct. It is in our very genes.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

There is little doubt that these lines are an appeal to youth to protect their country as they would a mother. That may not be a fashionable statement, but it is one soldiers of all nations will be able to relate to.

Now what follows are the lines that to this day bring tears to my eyes. Cecil Spring Rice extrapolates those feelings of love, sacrifice, loyalty, family and bravery to a whole different level. This is a spiritual level and no doubt he made it in the context of Christian belief but I don’t think it excludes any other belief, including humanism or atheism.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

In other words, the country of our birth or affiliation is not the most important thing in the world. That is a country within the mind, the heart, the soul; a country that has no boundaries; a country that not everyone knows, but those who do love it will love it more than anything else.

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

This country Spring Rice speaks of is not defined by power, by the might of armies or the pomp and ceremony of royalty and government. Her fortress is a faithful heart, not a nuclear deterrent; her pride is suffering, not the defeat of others. These lines are telling us that deep within the human spirit is the greatest country of all and that often the human spirit cannot be defeated.

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

And one by one we will all learn to realise that there is more than one village, one town, one country, one race, one species because in fact we are all one. We are one because our lives and the impact of our thoughts and actions impinge on the entire globe, its weather systems, its flora and fauna. This new country of ours, the country of the mind and heart that seems so sadly distant at times, is within our grasp and our own making and one by one, soul by soul, this is what all right thinking men and women will come to see. The ways of this country are not those of conquest, they do not involve the domination of one race or religion over others; they are the ways of gentleness and above all they are the paths to peace if only we open our hearts to all.

Grief is grief whether we are allowed to feel it or not; it is intense whether a sexual relationship exists or not; it is real whether the relationship is open and sanctioned by marriage, blood ties or other formality or whether it is kept hidden for personal or professional reasons.

I was moved to buy and read Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS' Wildfire Days by a poem that Nancy Bevilaqua had shared on Goodreads. The poem made me cry which is unusual. I am often moved to tears by sad films and classical music, but rarely by poetry. Initially I thought I was going to buy a poetry anthology because I wanted to read more by this poet. When I read the description I realised I was buying a memoir.

Memoir and biography are genres I dip into occasionally so I thought “What the hey! Let’s give it a try!” It was only sleepiness that prevented me reading the whole thing in one sitting. It was not so much the short length as the power of the story and the depth of skill in Nancy Bevilaqua’s prose. It was almost like being her- certainly like being with her-as she performed the daily tasks of looking after David who was an AIDs sufferer. The first half of her book held me wrapt, the second half had me curious to learn more and share her journey of discovery into David’s background.

The theme of disenfranchised grief is one that resonates with me personally. The total isolation, lack of understanding of others and difficulty of sharing with those closest to you is therefore a familiar theme. This is intense and intimate writing about a personal loss that is not for those who are easily upset. Nevertheless there is a brutal honesty in this story that will strike a chord with anyone who has a heart and the reality of the AIDs epidemic before drug treatments controlled symptoms and prolonged life is certainly something I well remember.

Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS' Wildfire Days is a book that I will hold in my heart for some time to come and that I can heartily recommend to anyone interested in this period of history or tragic personal memoirs that are beautifully stated.