Thursday, 23 April 2009

Happy/Glad/Joyful/Cheerful/Content/Jovial St. George's Day

I recently unveiled my rather spiffing new website - . On the “Tips for Aspiring Authors” page I included the suggestion that I have found most helpful in my writing career – adding the Thesaurus feature to the Word toolbar. Or, if you do not have the technology, investing in a good Thesaurus. Reading one of my favourite books, by one of my favourite authors (Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson) this morning, however, I discovered that speakers of languages other than English have no idea that such things as Thesauri exist. (or at least, that if they did they are now extinct.)

English has the biggest vocabulary of any language in the world. French has about 100,000 words in common use; English has double that number. What a wonderful blessing I consider it to be that English is my mother tongue. When I count my blessings each day, it’s right up there with “I don’t live in Rhyl”.

When I am attempting to write moving and pertinent prose, I have a huge wealth of words, nuances and subtle distinctions on which I can call. The incredible scope of the language affords the writer the opportunity to pack so much more meaning into a single word, just by careful choice of the appropriate synonym. (Why isn’t there another word for synonym?)

Take, for example, the words “She smiled.” Let’s say character A, a dashing gentleman, has just said something to character B, our heroine, and she smiles in response. Were I writing in Welsh – the only other language in which I have any proficiency – I would use the verb gwenu – “To smile”. As far as I am aware, it is the only word for “smile” in Welsh. Now look what happens when I choose to use one of the many synonyms available in English, and how much more it tells us about our heroine’s response to A’s words.

  • “She smiled” (She’s happy, or being polite)
  • “She beamed” (She’s really happy!)
  • “She grinned” (She found it funny)
  • “She smirked” (She’s disdainful; what he said wasn’t funny or clever)

Today is St. George’s Day, and is reputed also to be Shakespeare’s Birthday, so I thought it a particularly appropriate time to celebrate the wonderful diversity of the English language, and perhaps also the fact that I have the privilege of being born English, and thus don’t have to learn it the hard way!

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Pride Comes Before A Fall

I cancelled the piano tuner. It may not sound like much, but it was almost traumatic. He comes every six months to tune our ancient piano, and he charges £40 for doing so. But with the recession even reaching his usual workplaces of Russia and Azerbaijan, Hubby Dearest hasn’t had any work since November, so we are having to tighten our belts. That means luxuries like piano tuning, have to go.

Actually I’m tone deaf and wouldn’t know whether or not the piano is in tune. In fact, for all I know, the piano tuner could has been scamming me for years and laughing quietly to himself when I declared “That sounds so much better!” and handed over the cash equivalent of half our weekly food budget. But even so, it was very difficult for me to phone him up and ask him not to come next month, as scheduled, because we couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Whilst it’s easier to admit to the necessity of such cutbacks when everyone is in the same boat, it is never easy to tell others that things are difficult. Especially when those people also need to come up with cash for their weekly food budget. I was quite pleased to have to deliver the message to the answering machine rather than the man in person. (And if he has indeed been scamming me for years, it serves him right.)

C.S. Lewis once said: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” In other words, the only reason it was difficult for me to tell the piano tuner’s answering machine that I couldn’t afford to pay him his fee was because I somehow considered it important to be seen by him as someone who had plenty of money to splash around on luxuries like a tuneful piano. And now I think about it, that is about the crux of it.

About three years ago our Ward Choir was conducted by an incredibly talented Sister called Holly Carter. She knew all about proper warm-up exercises, harmonies, everything - she could evne tell when someone was singing out of tune! My eldest daughter loved singing in her choir especially when they performed the most amazing and complex piece absolutely perfectly for Stake Conference. I sought out Sister Carter afterwards and told her how proud she must feel.

"No," she replied. "I refuse to feel pride." And she directed me to a talk given by President Ezra Taft Benson in April 1989 by way of explaination. I am ashamed to say that I didn't read it then. Since then, several other people have referred to in in Sacrament talks and just general conversation, but I didn't read it.

Today I read it and it is as powerfiul as I suspected it would be. In a nutshell, President Benson tells us that pride is a sin. The entire message of the scriptures is that pride in oneself leads to destruction, and humility and repentance leads to eternal life. There is no such thing as "righteous pride" because pride is about trying to be better than others, and wanting to impress man rather than serve God. Pride destroys relationships, causes offence, prevents forgiveness, and is ugly.

I hope that my out-of-tune piano will serve to remind me of the dangers of pride for years to come.

Friday, 3 April 2009

School Holidays! Hurrah!

Any moment now, my thirteen year old daughter will come running through the door waving her hands in the air and cheering as though she's won the lottery (despite never have bought a ticket). I am anticipating her joy, and sharing it, because the schools break up today for the two-week Easter Break, and I love the school holidays.

I know many parents dread them, but I have ten reasons for rejoicing about having the children home for a fortnight.
  1. I hate doing the school run. I don't have a car at the moment, so it involves cycling a total of two miles, often in the rain. Twice a day. Four times on Monday when Hari has Brownies too.
  2. My children are rubbish at getting up in the morning, and I don't like dragging them out from under their duvets when they look so cosy and peaceful.
  3. I don't like having to drag myself out from under my duvet in the morning either. If I don't have to get the children ready, I can have a lie in!
  4. Making sure their uniforms are clean, ironed and ready is a real chore. There is always a tie missing, or a button hanging off a blouse.
  5. Not having to take the children to and from school gets me an extra hour and a half in free time. That means I might actually get to write some novel!
  6. No more making packed lunches at midnight, only to discover that the fridge is empty and I have no idea what to put in said lunches, or that I've lost a flask.
  7. I struggle to help them with their homework. Gwen knows better than to ask, but Angharad likes me to help her with her Maths homework and, frankly, it is beyond my ability or understanding. Angharad is 8. But no homework in the holidays!
  8. I'm not very organised, and I can never remember who has a school trip, or swimming lesson, or needs to take their recorder.
  9. Since I finish work at 2.30 the afternoon is then free for us to do things together as a family.
  10. I love my children, and I like spending more time with them.

OK, so ten weeks from now I will probably be rejoicing that they are going back again. Watch this space!

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Safety in Numbers

Democracy works! I know, I was surprised too, and quite thrilled to have made that discovery last year.

Here’s how it happened: Recycling services in our area were really quite poor. The council collected paper, cardboard, glass and green waste, but most of us could never remember what was being collected which week, and what colour box or bag it was supposed to be in. And they didn’t collect cans and plastic bottles. Being a responsible sort of soul, each time I visited friends in the next borough (where they do have collection facilities for such items) I took along my empties. I was extremely popular, as you might imagine, arriving with three noisy children and four bin bags full of mouldy tins and festering milk bottles, then eating all the cheesecake and going home leaving the smelly rubbish, and occasionally a child or two, behind.

But last May I actually took the time to read through the “Vote for Me” leaflets which came through my door from potential local counsellors. You know the type – community minded individuals who have served on every local PTA, planted 50 trees, scrubbed graffiti off the village hall and raised £500,000 for the local hospital before lunch. One of them was promising that, if elected, she would improve recycling collections. So I voted for her. So did everyone else, it seems, because she won. And so now I can proudly put out my pink sack containing paper, cardboard, glass, cans and plastics, all mixed up together, safe in the knowledge that a gleaming yellow truck will come and take it all away to be recycled.

What this has taught me (and I know you knew this already) is that if enough people want something, and are capable of saying so, then it has a very good chance of happening. Now, I don't live in California (although I would love to) but I did follow all the fuss about proposition 8 with mild interest, and I'm finding it all the more interesting that those of us (well, you Californians, actually) who believe in the sanctity of God-ordained marriage between a man and a woman outnumbered those who don't. Democracy demonstrated this, and those who are making clear their unhappiness at losing need to understand that they can't have it both ways. If you live in a democracy you have to succumb to the will of the majority. Sometimes, that majority will include you, and sometimes it won't.

Right now I live in a democracy where marriage is only between a man and a woman (although the Government did rather sneak the whole Civil Partnership thing through the back door) and where my recycling is collected alongside my rubbish. So actually, I'm quite liking this whole democracy thing. And hey, isn't your new President cool!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

A Beautiful History

Last Wednesday I attended a meeting in central London, an hour away from home on the train. The meeting was held in a glorious old building in Westminster, inside which was a modern law firm. Getting there involved me walking past the Houses of Parliament. Whatever your opinion of what goes on inside it, the building itself is stunning. I walked past Westminster Abbey, which was also breathtaking. It was almost strange to see so many buses, taxis, cars and people plodding blithely past as though there was nothing to stop and stare in wonder at. Happily, of course, there were also plenty of tourists stopping and staring.

I’ve lived in the South East for many years, and been to London many times, but luckily I’m not yet at the stage where all the amazing ancient architecture is just some blargh background to my life.I was reminded on the way home that wonderful historic structures are not confined to London. Walking back from Rayleigh Station I passed “The Round House” which is indeed circular and is dated “1615”. And last weekend we drove through the Suffolk village of Somerleyton which seemed to consist of a handful of beautiful whitewashed thatched cottages set around a village green, and a large manor house in extensive gardens.

One thing which struck me in London as being different from, say, America, is that our historic buildings are still in use. The Houses of Parliament are the seat of government, religious worship still takes place in Westminster Abbey, The Round House is occupied by Fay Laflin who shows curious visitors round her home once a week, and Somerleyton has a thatched primary school (see picture). There has been a lot of fuss recently about the demolition of a village to make way for Heathrow’s eighteenth runway (or whatever, I can’t keep up). The village apparently includes a sixteenth-century pub. Can you imagine a sixteenth-century pub in America being razed to make way for an airport? But because sixteenth-century pubs are ten a penny here it seems that losing one doesn’t matter.

We take our history and gorgeous architecture very much for granted here, and we shouldn’t. One thing I really enjoyed about writing Easterfield was imagining how things would have looked; picturing what Westleigh would be like, or Easterfield village square where the story opens, or the grandeur of Easterfield Hall. As I drive through the glorious English countryside I occasionally see houses, villages, or simple church buildings which, were Speilberg (or Halestorm) to offer me a large advance for the film rights, I might suggest as perfect locations. So much of our land still looks as it did 200 years ago - even if the 1615 Round House does now have Wireless Internet and gas central heating.