Monday, 26 January 2015

A Very English Protest: Anti Fracking Demo at Parliament Square, Monday 26th Jan 2015

I gave this post that title because of the way the protest felt.  This was my first demo in a long time. I missed the infamously huge yet ultimately (and sadly) pointless anti-war one, many years ago, as I was busy that day.  But today, I realised that because mum was about, I was actually able to go to this very important demonstration.  Which was so good natured, we might as well have all had tea and scones.

I won't list the reasons I'm against fracking in the UK.  You only have to look up much of the data coming out of the US to see its not a good idea, dangerous to water table in particular, and the delicate chemical balance beneath the Earth.  There are several good studies available, and clear information from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to name but two (if you're one of the people who thinks they are dangerously militant, ignore this source and find others), our own newspapers, as well as American environmental charities pursuing independent research. Go seek, the internet is out there!  Instead of investing in renewables, as we should have started doing ages ago, people waffle on about what an eyesore wind farms will be (which is very odd, as some of the things fracking has done to the earth are also very ugly, and a damn sight more permanent and do no future good, at all).  So, anyway, mine is not to tub thump all the info that other people have written up far more clearly elsewhere.

Mine is simply to tell you that I got very anxious once I had decided to go and be brave and attend a demo (y'know, I might have to talk to people and suchlike), but I felt I really should stand up for Earth, seeing as I like her so much. And I being a grown up now, and all.  Responsibility.  That saying about 'all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to sit back and do nothing'...or women who like to think they try to be good to hide in their book rooms afraid of a bit of social communication (or kettling), when they really should be out Being Principled.  So I took my shaky self off to Be Principled, reasoning it would be like exercise and I'd feel better afterward.  This turned out to be true.

I met several extremely nice people at the demo, as soon as I got there.  I had trouble finding it to begin with, as I assumed it would be directly on Parliament Square on the grass, instead of off to the side infront of the Houses of Parliament side bit.  I followed other people who were on their way to or coming from it.

Approaching a woman with a child in a pushchair I asked if we were all segmented into different organisations (Greenpeace, 38 Degrees, Friends of the Earth, The Green Party, The Warriors Call [which is pagans united against fracking] - those were just some I saw, there were a few more), but she said nope, it appeared we were all wherever.  Everyone about smiled at me, and the child offered me a half chewed crisp.  The mother had come in from Bromley to protest, feeling this was so important.  She had to be back later to pick her other  child up from school, so like me, couldn't stay long.  There were quite a few mothers with children, some babies in slings too. The women were a brilliant English mix up of tye dyed hippies and middle class women talking to their decorators on the phone while holding a placard. (I know that and am not being mocking, as one woman did have an argument with her decorator in my ear as she held up her placard, she had one of those very peircing voices.)  And between those extremes of people you'd expect were the rest of us - myself and the mum from Bromley, who just really felt this was something she had to make time to come and be seen to be there about, as the damage done could be so permanent and catastrophic. Her little son had his own home-made placard, which was clearly a toy for him, and he was enjoying waving it, and wiping his crispy hands over it.  It said: "No, Dave, No Fracking!" A nice toddler level of disagreement, I felt.
I wandered about a bit more, and a Friends of the Earth woman offered me a placard to hold as I hadn't brought my own.  'The F Word is a Dirty Word', it said.  I liked that, and even though it wasn't on a stick (so I couldn't jab it about with emphasis), it was witty, so I held it contentedly, and promised to put it back in the box where I got it from at the end, so she could take them on to other demos.  A woman from the Green Party was speaking in the centre for a while, then a woman from Greenpeace. I chatted to Bob from Grimsby, a pensioner, who had been travelling round the country visting climate change and fracking protests wherever he was able.  His wife had died last year, and she had been a secondary school science teacher, much concerned about the issues of climate change and our energy options.  He wanted to feel like he was still intercting with her, so had started going on demos about these causes she had explained to him.  He said what gave his life some meaning now, was trying to keep the Earth solid and whole for his grandchildren.  He was a quiet man and didn't want his photo taken for this post, so you can't see him, he melted away into the crowd after we spoke; but he had a another home made placard: "This isn't right, and you can't take it back" it read. Not catchy.  But true.

I stayed on the edge of the demo, as I always remember the time I went to the Notting Hill Carnival and nearly got trampled when a crowd turned round and I was suddenly in the centre.  So I didn't hear many of the speeches at all, I just heard people near the speakers cheer, and chant. I wasn't at the epicentre, but on the outskirts. I just stood and watched and chatted to people.

One woman, Patricia, had decided, quite rightly, that the demo was facing the wrong way.  They were facing inward, listening to the speakers, which meant their placards and banners were also facing inward; whereas Parliament was across the road.  She was facing out toward the road and holding her sign up high.  A policeman explained to us that the windows we were facing were mostly of some of the offices of the Lords; but we figured this was still useful as this troublesome Trespass Bill is still going to have to go through the Lords at some point, and they often kick back crap that has been wrongly and too quickly put through the Commons...then again, as Patricia and I worried, a lot of the Lords have investments and monies tied up in Cuadrilla and these other fracking companies. We weren't feeling optimistic, but we agreed that you Must Try - even if only so you can say to yourself that you did.  It was good that we were facing outward as drivers going past in taxis and buses and cars were seeing us.  We got a surprising number of encouraging beebs and cheering and some supportive fist waving from passing cars.  "No fracking!" yelled an enthusiastic bus driver, and his passengers waved too.  It also meant that passing workers and tourists on the other side of the road who were wondering what the big crowd was about could see too. Lots of freelance photographers stopped and took pictures.  So did lots of Japanese and American tourists. Clare from New York said it was good we were fighting as fracking was ruining parts of her country.  She shook my hand. I felt a bit tearful.

Patricia and I agreed about a lot of political things, we worried at much that we see being run by money and short term greed, rather than ethics or compassion or fairness these days.  We chatted about vegetarianism and animal treatment, testing, factory farming etc. She was an earnest and humourous woman. One of those people that you could see by her face had no 'side' as my grandmother would have said.  She was honest, and caring.  I liked her a lot, and wished I had taken her email address, I think we could have been friends.  She let me take her pic for this post, so here she is:

Patricia - a really nice person
I stopped one of the photographers with a truly enormous camera and asked him who the pics were for (imagining fame here!).  He said they were just for himself and he put them up on flickr, as he was another one who was interested in the protests against austerity and climate change, and followed them to get images, so people could see that there WAS dissent and were voices raised against so many of these things that just slide through, making us feel powerless.  I lamented the lack of a celebrity here, to bring out the TV big guns.  I joked that we needed Russell Brand to soundbite us, or Billy Bragg to come and sing for us. He nodded at the last suggestion saying that some of the most powerful protests he had attanded were the ones where appropriate songs had been played, that the people could get emotionally attached to. He'd been to a climate change protest last year, asking for more investment in renewables, and when the crowd surged into Trafalgar Square, someone had started singing 'London Calling', and he said it had felt so right, so appropriate. He said he'd get his pics up who knows, I may yet be famous...

(Hilariously, now I am home again, it turns out that as I was standing at the edge of the demo bemoaning the lack of useful celebrities, had I actually gone to the scary centre, I would have seen Caroline Lucas, Head of the Green Party, Vivienne Westwood, and Bianca Jagger.  And there I was missing them all!)

A policeman came to tell Patricia and I we had to step back, he was worried we were standing too close to the road and the traffic, in case the crowd would surge and we might get pushed forward.  "Oh,"  I said, coming over all very polite, as I usually do when surprised, "Am I in the way?"

"No, no!" He answered with the nicest smile, "Just don't want you to forget how close you are to the edge here, come back a little bit."  So we stepped back and he stood with us, in the middle, so he didn't get in the way of the placards and the drivers and passers by could still see them. He said he was happy to be posted to to the demo and unofficially was not at all thinking we were wrong. We chatted back and forth and he was outrageously pleasant and kind.  I asked him if I could take his pic too for the blog, and he didn't mind at all; in fact he was thinking of setting up his own blog, so we talked about that for a little bit.  He had a quick chat on his walkie talkie thing with someone called 'Dangerous Dave'; I joked we had Dangerous Dave up there in Parliament thankyou very much, but his one was a work matter and great nickname. He really was the World's Nicest Policeman.  He was as good as on the demo with us, just facing the wrong way round!  So, here is Grant, the Nice Policeman:

Grant - World's Nicest Policeman
The weirdest thing about the whole demo was how earnest but low-key it was.  It was woefully unattended in the sense that Grant the Policeman reckoned only about 300 were there (and I'm sure the joint organisers had hoped for more, but it know...cold and wintery, and Monday, and term time).  I chatted to so many people and they were all just ordinary people, worried by The Way Things Are Going, and how little say we seem to have as time goes on. Things we should have been consulted or referend-ered about but we weren't (like the selling off of the Post Office - who gave the government ANY mandate for that, that was mentioned nowhere); the way things like TTIP are not even being reported properly by mainstream media. (Indeed, if you do a search right now, at 7.30p.m. today, the 26th, for today's protest at Parliament Square, the only media - i.e.non facebook, non Twitter, mention you'll get is Russia Today online.  This is increasingly the case - things that the government don't want discussing don't get reported either - or they do, but cursorily. Which leaves secondary sources from the edge to pick them up - Russia Today, or Al Jazeera UK- not places where you'd expect reporting free from bias either, but they sometimes report things missed completely elsewhere in the mainstream. The world is getting odder.)

Anyway - in an homage to Alan Moore, No Protest Is Over Till A V Mask is Seen.  So here you go, cool, poised and relevant:

Protests also need Big Weird Looking Puppet Type Things, that must represent the Evil Companies, and in this case, someone holding them underneath with a T-shirt that says: 'Touring the UK: Mr Frackhead' (which sadly you can't see in this pic as the man under the ...puppet thing is hidden by the man in the grey hoody in front); but it was a good joke:

I think Friends of the Earth were repsonsible for this odd thing, but not sure

I don't know if the governement will listen to the supposedly 74% of us that are deeply uneasy and against fracking. I have every suspicion that they are just going to go ahead anyway, singing the song that this will lower domestic energy bills and free us from foreign dependency.  And, oh yes, that it's safe.  I bet none of the rich politicians will allow fracking under their homes, their large estates.  Its that short termism again.  Money in each other's pockets and the rest of us can live with the results of their greed. I don't have much hope that we'll win this fracking battle.  But then again, I am aware my thoughts are coloured by anxiety and often downers. So I hope I am wrong. I hope they will listen. I hope more of us will stand up and be counted about the things that are being taken away from us while we sit at home watching Strictly or shopping online.  And I will continue to turn out to demos like this where I can, about all the things that matter to me - because I Have To Try.  If I don't, I'm sodding well complicit; and we can't have that, I have enough angst as it is! So if you come out next time, you might see me (one of the odd ones), or you might see all the others: the ordinary people, who just care enough to take the time to come out - you'll be reminded how many of us there are, and of what we could do if we remembered that, and kept protesting TOGETHER.

Looking slightly less scared, but not much!

UPDATE: This is what happened with the debate in Parliament today, see this breakdown:

Imbolc: The Very Edge of Spring

Imbolc always seems to me, since I started following the Wheel of the Year idea, to be a very light green, snowdrops and simple time of year.  I read of a lovely practice associated with it by Australian Goddess follower Jane Meredith, that felt very appropriate: that of tying wishes into trees, as blessings written on coloured ribbons[1].  Catching on a breeze.

The same author also caught the emotion of the season as I see it: hope in the face of uncertainty,in the face of tragedy and confusion. Trusting that despite rain and frost, killing or war, endless grey days with icy fingers deep in pockets, head down, frozen toes in boots – that all will come good again, eventually.  Or at least good enough.  Better.

Whenever I think long on the Wheel of the Year, I always think its double edged for me.  I am very lucky and grateful that I don’t live in the past, where my community might be wiped out by a bad harvest, or apotato blight taken early in the season from rain (remember Victorian Farm?).  I don’t romanticise the past in that way; though I’m sure I do in other ways.  I also feel that I’m so fortunate to be able to be relatively sure that the shops will continue to be ripe with fruit, and grain and flowers, at all times of year, since I don’t grow my own. (Who are the deities of Commerce and Forced Factory Farming?!)

But of course, in my security, also not living anywhere war-torn or very poor, comes a complacency I can’t hide from.  I DO trust that food will continue to appear in the shops.  Brought by lorries. By sea.  By air.  Bar a Survivors type disaster.

So I am divorced from the urgency of each season melting into the next, what it meant for survival.  The urgency of the Wheel of the Year in the past.  Which is probably why us modern neo-pagans, reconstructionists or eclectic syncretics like this more or less modern invention of the Wheel of the Year so much.  It reminds us of an urgency we no longer always feel with such immediacy, especially if urban.

It reminds us to search for the first patch of snowdrops, if we have a garden.  To look for the first green shoots. It is, this modern paganism, as Professor Ronald Hutton said at his talk on the Wheel of the Year’s historical antecedents at last Witchfest, a “religion of celebration primarily”.  He pointed out that so many of the festivals are borrowed hither and thither and assembled in their current associations only in the last 100years or so, into what we need them to be now (my emphasis), so that we can best appreciate this land we try so hard to control and distance ourselves from so much of the rest of the time.

It’s a bit like Sheldon said in The Big Bang Theory: “If outside is so great, why have we spent hundreds of years perfecting inside?”!!  It’s because, obviously, nature is scary and harsh and too cold, too hot, too wet, too windy, TOO MUCH, so much of the time! We have been trying to get breathing space from it for ages.  And once we had it, we turned our minds to all that could be accomplished with the extra time gained not simply surviving. More rest, sleep, thinking – invention, art, engineering, science.  The sorts of stuff you can think about when you aren’t about to be eaten by a woolly mammoth, or freeze on a hillside, or die of thirst.  

What privilege we have!

How easy it is to forget!

Hence: I like the Wheel of the Year.  Every 6 weeks or so, it reminds me stuff is changing and to pay attention, be interested, be learning, be thankful for the good things.  And here, any minute, at the beginning of February: Imbolc.

The green shoots.  The snowdrops.  The tentative, often unimpressive looking green shoots in leaf mulchy dirt. 

Amongst the mess of my leaf mulchy garden,this is what's growing, currently

The very edge of Spring!


Again, things can change, things can be new, different.  The snowdrops may come up a little early, a little late; but they will probably come, we can more or less trust it.  Some green shoots almost certainly will by now.  My daffodils in my back garden: came up very strongly in late January 2013; in 2014 they barely grew at all till fierce flowers in March – this year, no shoots from them at all as yet.  But the snowdrops are starting, just as tiny shoots.

I don’t know how things will develop, but they definitely will.  I have to hope, to try to not be scared of change.

The snowdrops look joyful to me, whenever I see them in pictures.  Every afternoon I watch as the light lasts a little longer, just that bit longer before it goes that oddly absorptive deep blue, before the dark saturates outside and fills all spaces.
I think this year, instead of reading about the Blessing Ribbons, like I did last year, I  will make some.

As author Jane Meredith suggests, I will select my ribbons – 3 I think, by colour that seems right to me.  One to symbolise my wishes for Fluffhead, a thick and shiny satin ribbon of deep blue – about 30 cm long.  I have a fluffy white feather he found in the garden to tie to its end, so my wish, and my blessing can fly in the wind, each time it blows. I will write on my blue ribbon ‘blessings of good health’, in my golden pen.  One for Fry, in happy green fringed with gold, with seeds of sunflowers strung along the end, and written: ‘blessings of expanding horizons’.  And one for Stanley, in rich red, with honey smeared profligately on its tail, with the wish ‘blessings of evergreen love’.

I’ll take them outside when it’s windy, and Fluffhead can watch or help while I tie them high on one of the thinner branches of the cherry blossom tree.  So that whenever he is in my book room, he can watch the wishes catch and move, dart and feint.  Look at those wishes go!

And I shall think of my Herne, striding through the countryside and the cities, touching his fingers along walls and windows, being the reborn Sun, melting frost wherever he passes.

And I shall think of my Hekate, to whom I will leave saffron, as I whisper to her: “Spring is almost here, the time is yours, we’re still between. Help the new things come…” Somewhere a wolf will howl, and TimeTraveller will comment while out with on her walk with muddy happydog Jill, who suddenly starts barking for no reason, that you really can’t be doing without all this, and that tarot designer and author Anna Franklin will tempt me to her food book again, to make me inspired to cook one of her lovely veggie Imbolc dishes[2]. Probably this one, as it really couldn’t be simpler:

Leek Pie
2 lbs. leeks
4oz. grated Red Leicester cheese
2oz.margerine (I’ll use Pure Soy or Pure Sunflower margerine)
Pinch of nutmeg
1 lb. potatoes
1 pint white sauce (I’ll use soy milk for that element and make from scratch)
White pepper

Method: boil the potatoes in a pan and steam the leeks over them until the vegetables are soft.  Remove from the heat and drain the potatoes. 
Arrange the leeks in a greased pie dish and cover them with the white sauce. 
Mash the potatoes and combine with the margarine, cheese, white pepper and nutmeg.
Spread this mixture on top of the leeks and white sauce and bake in a hot oven at 200’C/400’F/Gas Mark 6, until the top is golden.
This is a time when I remember to plant things: to wait for the hyacinth I had given to me for Yule to burst up into growth.  No idea what colour it will be yet.  I wait and I wait and I wait.

 The hyacinth sits patiently next to Herne, who I have a notion likes to sit next to growing things.

I hope and I wish and I trust and I bless, because I can and I feel like it would be a good idea.  I try to recover from fear and to gradually go forth once more and do things, my new friend holding her torches and her keys ahead of me.  My old friend stands behind me with his headdress of staghorns. He nods, he covers my back.

We move forward. Because that’s the direction to go, really.  The past is done, what I do with what remains of its echoes in my head is the choice.  The future will always be there, in one way or other.
And now? Now I watch for the green shoots, hang my ribbons in the wind. And go to the shops, to get leeks.  I have a pie to make.

I've got the ribbons ready early, as I know how disorganized I can be; the pie will obviously have to wait till the day!

[1] Rituals of Celebration, by Jane Meredith, Llewellyn, 2013, pp.79-82, for the Blessing Ribbons full description – it’s as fancy or as simple a practice as you choose to make it.  This is a very good book, full of anecdotes and thought provoking ideas, as well as ritual suggestions if you’re that way inclined. I like the diary sections for each festival and season  in particular.
[2] Pagan Feasts: Seasonal Food for the Eight Festivals, by Anna Franklin and Sue Phillips, Capall Bann, 1997, pp.93-111 for all the Imbolc recipes; p.100 for the Leek Pie.  Read the book and be hungry!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Box of Old Romances: *Massively* Overthinking Harlequin and other American Romances, Part 1!

I used to read a lot of romances as a teenager.  When I say romances, I don’t mean Mills and Boon, or the huge bodice-rippers with half dressed women on the front being ravished by pirates; not the English ones - as I quickly came to see that these were beyond wish fulfilment and were a sort of odd exercise in alternate reality, where we were all secretaries falling in love with our bosses, or tennis stars falling in love with our coaches, or businesswomen in a man’s world…falling in love with a man who might as well be our boss.  It was riven with an odd class consciousness (everyone was posh or well bred or rich or wanted to be rich; everyone was very aspirational or terribly beautiful or talented…no one at all was normal or troubled, unless they be beautiful and troubled). No.  I started reading American romances – Harlequin: the intimate Moments, the SuperRomances, the Intrigues, the Special Editions.  For anyone unaware, these subheadings signify different sorts of stories, e.g. the Intrigues were what is known as ‘romantic suspense’, relationship growth with thriller elements – Nora Roberts writes a lot of these nowadays, to name only the most successful one ever!  

The thing is, don’t think I was fooled – the American romances were also full of politics, and class themes, it was just that because they weren’t here, England, I found it easier to ignore obvious BS and enjoy my suspension of disbelief in a well told story where you basically know what you want to happen: you want two people to meet, have a journey together of actual travelling or simply of events they must face singly or together, and at the end you want not too many people to be suffering or dead, and you want the two people to have decided to be a couple.  It’s reassuring. The whole genre is very reassuring.

Now, its ultra reassuring because not only is it filled with tropes we all recognise (amnesia of hero or heroine resulting in behaviour change is an obvious one; rags to riches or vice versa is another incredibly common one), but it guarantees you that no matter what hardship the 2main characters suffer, they will be ok – and not lonely – at the end.  That’s quite powerful, specially when you are having a bad day, or a bad phase in life.

I have continued to indulge my enjoyment of the genre here and there, between other things, sometimes not touching a romance for years, then reading 20 all at once.  Recently, I had one of those astonishing ebay deals you get every now and again: 200 books for not much money at all.  The main haul of titles harked back from a period in life where I used to read a lot of romance as I was finding life hard (the late 90s, early 2000s).  So I got shipped a lot of books that reminded me of a period where I had some hope, but it was dying, and I was trying to find it again, by reading of love love love, over and over again.  Trying to brainwash myself to catch the vibe. (And while it failed, in the sense I eventually completely changed my life instead of staying firm in the face of difficulties, which the rather conservative romances would have wished me to do, I am sure, they none the less gave me many interesting and happy times in the midst of troubles.)

So I gathered up the box and opened it. Sorted, as I do, the books into their concomitant series and sections.  Recognised old covers, old and loved familiar authors. Realised some were in the box from even before I used to read.  I wondered how the tone of these books would change over time.  As each genre - fantasy, sci-fi, romance, all these niche genres – they all tell us so much about whenever they were written. They tell us of an eras dreams, an eras thoughts on relationships both intimate and political, larger.  They tell us about ideas on economics, on poetry. It’s all there, you just have to have one eye on the story and one eye on the subtext. 

I’m going to do an odd thing in these rambly reviews here. I’m going to half tell you about the stories in each of these books, talk about the characters and how I found them shaped - as I can’t help but do this, as a writerly person myself; and I’m going to let you be as amazed as I was to find I keep seeing politics in them, propaganda. Establishment stuff, both harsh and gentle. Read on and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes, you’ll find I got all carried away with the story when I read it; but then spent the entire rambly review talking about the subtext!  This is partly because, as a foreigner, all this stuff is massively interesting as social history from a distance, for me, as an observer of an export of American culture.  I hope any Americans reading find it interesting, and don’t get offended at any speculations I make – or if you do, don’t take it too seriously.  Don’t worry, I find English culture ridiculous in some ways too; remember how I said I can’t even read our romances as they are just too stupid?!  I enjoy yours far more…and have no intention of stopping reading them, so far!
So.  Here is the beginning of another no doubt long and endless occasional series, the Romance Reviews Ridiculously Overthought! Welcome to my overflowing box of old romance books, dated anywhere between late 80s to the late noughties…


  1. A Holiday Gamble, by Jane Feather (novella), part of the ‘Snowy Night With A Stranger’ Christmas anthology, 2008
    (Let’s start off gentle.  I received the box just before Christmas and there were lots of Christmas romances in it. This one had a beautiful glittery cover.  As I was feeling quite stressed and know Jane Feather to be a reliable author, I picked it straight up.  It’s not a Harlequin series title, as a few of the books in the box were not. Most of the reviews will be of those; but this and a few others will be an exception.  Also, this is a historical, and that will be an exception too.  Most of the titles I look at will be contemporary; not because they tell the times better- no, historicals tell wishes even better than contemporaries; but simply because the box has more contemporaries in it than anything else. This was lovely, very Christmassey.  Loved the female highwayman, caught in a strange trapped situation and having to rob to try and get out of it. It was quite a claustrophobic read, the pair shut in a hall with the dissolute and sinister guests. This didn’t have the annoying tameness that some of the American romances can have, in that it promises a scary or high staked situation, but then deals with it so gently you feel cheated.  This managed to give more depth in a small novella than I have felt from some full length stories of similar plot.  Felt quite real - the bravery of the female lead shone through.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  2. When Sparks Fly, by Sabrina Jeffries (novella), part of the ‘Snowy Night With A Stranger’ Christmas anthology, 2008
    (A very nice Christmas tale with the unlikely plot of the invention of safe explosives for mining work - I do like when historicals teach me something. Which happens a lot with romances, actually. This also taught me about the fire-y and definitely unsafe Xmas game of ’Snapdragon’.  I felt the hero’s guilt here, and it was well played; the heroine’s explanation of his punishing of himself held valid psychological truth – again, this is what romances can do so well, when they bother: emotional intelligence and explanations of behaviour.  It becomes like a puzzle to solve. ACTUAL BOOK.)
  3. The Wallflower, by Jan Freed, Harlequin SuperRomance,1998
    (Bit of a cracker, this one. Lovely strong female lead. 

    Though I did find some very illuminating stuff inside about Republican political bias and views, circa late 90’s.  The author bit stressed that she writes ‘strong sassy females in stories with traditional values’ – which was my first clue.  Then this, on p.21, showed me that I was definitely dealing with a Republican sensibility in the writer, which she had transferred to her characters.  The heroine, masquerading as a school student has a disagreement with the teacher, the hero, who replies: “There’s a great deal in the adult world that is unfair, Sarina.  Some people – the people who form the backbone of our society and economy – learn how to cope with challenge and adversity. Others continually blame circumstances for getting a raw deal and then ride the rest of us piggyback throughout their lives.”  That sounds so reasonable and commonsensical doesn’t it?!  And yet it can lead to so much judgement and harshness and callous behaviour.  There was a later bit where the hero laments the fact he can’t fancy a woman who “shared his traditional values” and wouldn’t mind staying at home and raising his babies and keeping house; instead finding another woman who does like him. The woman was a vice principal of a school – how is he so certain she would give up what the character gives every indication of as a satisfying career? Also, the hero himself accepts that his own woman is forming a new business at the end, just as she already had one and was very successful.

    I can’t help feeling some of these sentiments are contradictory: the traditional value bit seems to indicate that the man goes out to work and does the manly bring home bacon bit, and the woman is the angel in the house – a very important role, but circumscribed, and all manner of guilt implied for trying to do another role as well, or god forbid, instead.  And yet – in every single one of these American romances I read – ALL the women are exceptions to this stay at home rule, all very strong and sassy, all know what they want, none I have read give up their career at the end, and the men learn to work round it with very good grace.  So the values they propose are overturned each and every book.  I’m not sure what it means for the readers who might believe in these ‘values’? If you aren’t terribly sassy and obviously very go gettery, then you are doomed to be content to stay at home with no choice, reading vicariously of these other females living lives with more than one dimension?  Or: that there are always exceptions and they are always welcomed and gloried in by the people, especially the men, who subscribe to these values??  Not sure.  Also it’s women writing these…are they advocating changing the roles of women in families with ‘traditional values’?  Or showing that there is room for allsorts?  Again, not sure, as an outsider looking in.

    This book and the next one [Shenandoah], really got it through to me what is so comforting about these books in times of stress - the lack of movement, the lack of actual freedom, it all being very establishment and very proscribed in terms of roles and expectations.  Having your freedom removed to play a story we know the ending of, or a role we all understand from childhood, is in one way, very comforting. I fall back on these dreams that I know would make me ill if I tried to actually live them, whenever I am stressed. Bit like sexual fantasies, I suspect: not meant to come true, wouldn’t be the same at all!

    Lastly, on the politics bit- which really did quite strongly inform this book, in the background: I read and understood more than I usually do of the Republican ideal – this is why stories are such great teaching methods.  I really and truly think left and right are not that far apart: we place our emphasis differently and we seem to interpret events from different places - but I think we are actually championing similar ideas.  We’ve just got so used to only hearing the extreme views of either side [both stupid and unworkable; both hostile and superior sounding] that we forget we have much in common.  I can see why the right think they are so leader-suited; and why they think the left are weak.  From statements like that I quoted above.  It’s a misapprehension, a harsh judgement on others.  On the other hand - sometimes the left needs to be a damn sight more judgmental and show a bit of backbone – so, in conclusion, I say grandly – this was a FASCINATING bit of background social and political history.  I learned.  Always great.

    Annoyingly, I have banged on for so long about the political bits of this book I have not actually mentioned it had a basic if utterly cracking and well executed plot, seething with brilliant sub-characters [liked the bit when Fred went all cowboy on the bad character who was going to date rape Kate], and was fluid and without cliché in the writing.  The self-improvement aspects were wonderful too, a really positive message.  Totally recommended. If you like romance and are on the right- you’ll enjoy and agree with everything; if you like romance and are on the left – you’ll understand those others better!  Really can’t complain: very strong book
  4.  Shenandoah Christmas, by Lynette Kent, Harlequin SuperRomance, 2001
    (This was lovely too. Not quite sure why it didn’t annoy me, as one of the plot’s major sub characters was a Pastor [not a species I generally enjoy, though the TV show Rev softened me up recently], and the writer was clearly Christian, though it wasn’t overly played upon, despite the whole subject of the book being a Christmas Pageant involving a nativity play. I mention it as I generally try to avoid romances with religious overtones; I find they detract from me feeling that the characters are finding each other. It becomes too preachy.  It’s a fine line to walk.

    The really strong thing here was the main character, Cait Gregory – she just sailed off the page as strong but vulnerable, and not prepared to give up her career that she had had to fight for in the first place and had worked a lot to get to this point for.  I really liked her. I was rather surprised she did so well with the Thanksgiving dinner when she’d never done one before [there my enjoyably vicarious identification with her failed; I couldn’t see myself doing that well!], but she was characterised as someone who would succeed at anything she tried her hand at if she was determined. 

    Her musical leanings were really well done.  As were the children, and the non-talking Shep in particular. A very good all round family drama, with issues of sudden enforced retirement and depression, theft of community money, reasons for disliking Christmas, and family vs. career explored well. One of the strengths of romances can be the family focus; sometimes it can feel cloying, but in this case, I simply felt it as believable.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  5. Merry’s Christmas, by Pamela Bauer, Harlequin SuperRomance, 1995
    (Fascinating - just when I thought I would never like a man with a moustache ever again, who was NOT Tom Selleck; along comes hero Holden!  Oddly, this romantic hero was never fully physically described, just dark, tall, ‘tachey, and abandoned as a child, so sharing a huge bond from an early age with the heroine, with whom he spent a portion of his childhood in a foster home.  I am bit perplexed as to how he afforded to become a top lawyer when he came from absolutely nothing, but I know the genre’s belief in the power of the American dream wants me to gloss over this and believe he worked 90 jobs while studying college and making valuable contacts that usually only money would procure, in order to become the amazing success story he is at the start.

    Hmm.  It’s also fascinating that I am never this cynical while reading these rather lovely stories – in this case, the hero and the heroine only ever meet at Christmas, and are reunited for a last Christmas at the start as she is getting married to someone else unsuitable [too old and dry], and he takes it upon his Holden self to apprise her of this, hence Christmas story.  The added element of the foster child Holly and the heroine’s wish to help her, was very sweetly and oddly realistically done, till the treacley end.  But…this story, whilst not passing any reality tests, felt very real while reading and I enjoyed it very much.  A caring heroine, the musical Merry, who has CDs out but still plays in department stores on large pianos in a sequinned dress [lovely imagery there in those scenes].  I enjoyed the sleigh ride [sounded wonderful, sniff, real dream stuff].

    I find I am very much enjoying the variety of scenarios and the greater depth of tone in these SuperRomances set in the late 80s through to late 90s.  They feel much more real than the later ones; not sure why.  I started one the other day that began with a violent car crash and a theft - that would not happen in a modern one: too much.  The old ones seem to be able to peel romance and hope from anywhere; the newer ones have a limited range of acceptable scenarios and heroes, especially (Navy SEAL anyone?).  The older stories also have better titles: Merry’s Christmas is oddly inspired!  I criticise this books tenuous hold on reality; but I really did love it.  So there’s my schizo opinion; seek out this book for a good Christmas romance.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  6. A Christmas to Remember, by Kay Stockham, Harlequin SuperRomance, 2007
    (The last one I will read in 2014, which whispered in with my finishing it just before New Year. I liked the idea of a man with amnesia waking up to be a much better person and realising his past self had done awful things; namely to the woman he is now falling in love with. Of course, it all became rather preposterous when it turned out he really wasn’t that man, and was another man altogether, who had always been decent, though obviously also had his own problems. It, when you think about it, overrode the whole need for forgiveness to get over events of the past that was one of the overweening messages of this book. I’m discovering that a lot of these later SuperRomances, are very Christian in tone, just in the background, moreso than the older ones [which were more overtly Republican in tone than the modern ones, as if they have swapped one version of an ideology for another as time moved on; noticeably from the late 80s-90’s to the mid 90’sthrough to early 2000’s].

    Anyway, the funny thing is, whenever I come to review these books I always start talking about the messages and themes in the background, which of course I am noticing whilst I read them, but on the other hand, as I read, I am usually completely caught up in the story and the character. This one I read in 2 days, one half in just one evening, as the characters were so very readable.

    The heroine, Mallery, suffered a bloody awful family, especially her mother and father, that just would not let her forget an event of her past, getting pregnant on the eve of college from a quick relationship - that had been very painful for her as well, but they acted like it was this big shame on their entire family…move along from tribal times, people, enter the 21st century.  Family pride always sounds good, but it leads to such harsh judgement. I wanted to really yell at her parents.  Anyway, she managed to do a very good thing for her mother, despite the woman’s annoyingness [the story actually tried to handle the theme of depression here, and as a frequently depressed person, I likely should have been a lot more sympathetic to the mother, but I just found her annoying…ah well, no one likes a mirror!]  Good book, enjoyable, if a bit overwrought emotionally – then again, had I not eaten it up so fast, I might not feel that way about it; if I had read it slower I might not have been so overwhelmed by the wrenching, that is, after all, a big part of this genre here and there…ACTUAL BOOK.)

    And lastly, for this post:
7. Sunflower, by Margot Dalton, Harlequin SuperRomance, 1992
(This was a lovely time capsule gem of a romance.  They don’t write them this way anymore!  The main character experienced a car crash and major theft as the starter, then inherited a rodeo horse and becomes a travelling rodeo helper out of a desire to help the horse away from that life. And to be nearer the hero who is disarmingly genuine and easy company. 

The car crash and theft at the start was quite wrenching, and a good sudden explosive beginning.  It reminded me how tame and derivative a lot of the more modern romances can be.  The old ones basically pick any scenario, craft a heroine we feel we know and could almost be – never too thin or beautiful, simply genuine and with dreams and hopes; and a hero who could almost be real, he’s just a touch larger than life.  They may well have a formula, these older books, but the formula has definitely changed in modern times, and I think I prefer the old.  So much more setting, scenery backdrop, portraits of communities of people [as opposed to communities of values, which ends up preachy].

The nicest thing about this entire romance was the sense of the wider company conveyed. Not only the other rodeo riders, male and female, but the people watching, the sense of being involved in events, involved in a whole scene.  You really felt you were there, and you shared the heroine’s experiences of feeling part of something [and face it – why are we reading these books if we don’t want to feel part of something?].  There was an epic scale to the way some of the events were told, a sense of pulling back and surveying the wider scene that I really enjoyed, it felt real and authentic, emotionally [which is where it needs to feel real, in these stories].

The next thing to mention was the excellent portrayal of two characters, subsidiary but vital to the plot action: Clem and Cody.  Clem is a rodeo clown who is losing his nerve, and he is painted so incredibly well: I felt his small wiry physicality, his passion for another better life [he wants to start dog kennels], and his bravery at the last, saving Robin from the also incredibly well painted bull, Whirlwind.  Excellent characterization of an animal- not anthropomorphised, just told and told well. I felt the animal too.  The whole scene where Clem goes up against the bull at the end was so well done, it was actually like my first ever watching of Titanic: as in, I got so involved in the story of Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio and Billy Zane, that I completely FORGOT [yes truly I did, that first time] that the ship was going to sink, and I was surprised when it started to!!  I actually forgot I was reading a romance, where things mostly are guaranteed to end up well, and thought Clem was going to die.  When he went into the field, I actually stopped reading, put the book down and started crying, as I really thought that was the end of him, and I had to prepare myself!  I was amazed when he made it through.  Now, THAT level of involvement is Damn Good Storytelling.  Damn good storytelling can show [of course,] in any genre, but I’m always so happy when it does show up in a romance, as it can be a very lazy genre, especially nowadays.  This book Had Me Going, I was fooled.  I’m impressed.

Then of course, there’s Cody, a very underplayed sociopath.  He was very nicely done - he wasn’t over the top, as so many of romance’s villains are; he didn’t speechify…he was simply gradually laid out, till you became more and more uneasy at the way he didn’t quite make sense or add up as a sum of his actions. And then he had a psycho fit at the end, and you realized he was a completely different kettle of fish to what you had thought; and that the hero Matt, had been correct to get angry with Robin and warn her away from him from the start.

And then it ends, quietly and calmly and nicely.  We go from thinking gentle Clem will die, from finding a stabbed body, from Robin being gored by that bad bull…which is all pretty heavygoing action for what has become a lighter and fluffier genre by the moment [unless you class some of the rougher new paranormals or suspenses, in terms of action] – to everyone getting explained and calmed and off they go. And even though it’s all pretty unbelievable, in terms of the high drama and of the happy ending, you just flow right along with it, as it’s so well written and convincing.  Emotionally.

I think Margot Dalton is the best of this old box of books I’ve read so far. I’m hugely hugely impressed.  This book was magic. 

Also: Sunflower – that is a much better title for a romance, or any book, than the usual titles romances get these days!)

And that’s it for this first outing of this occasional series. These will get read between other things, and when I feel down – as they do perk you up.  So I won’t overburden you with loads of these reviews.  But if you’re into romance, you could do worse than look out some of these oldies.  

Yes, old romances have covers where men are sewing!  What a different world we live in!