The Skull beneath the Skin

When I go out on a jolly, I usually end up with a theme. Today’s theme was skulls.

Memento Mori – remember you will die

I went to Portsmouth to visit the Cathedral. I love a good Cathedral, and one features in my work-in-progress (currently titled Georgiana and the Municipal Moon). I was on a gargoyle and grotesque hunt, so I walked round the outside first. I came across that wonderful 17th century doorway (detail shown above) – and a tranquil Garden of Remembrance.

I wanted to take pictures of the gravestones but a sign exhorting me to treat it with respect made me hesitate. Was it disrespectful? Grief is grief – two months or two centuries ago, surely? I reflected on this as I walked on the crazy paving made of bomb-damaged tombstones. I recalled the Ancient Egyptian maxim: to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again. I believe telling stories through words or other forms of art does exactly that.

Once inside I found more skulls. I overheard the lovely ladies in the coffee shop remarking on my photography later. It made me pause a little. Am I morbid, overdoing the Goth thing, death obsessed – in this and my writing?

I would argue that children and young people love a bit of gruesome. The bowels of Buckingham ( and his sister) interred there would fascinate most, I think. I recall very clearly finding an ossuary in Ireland by the Kenmare river and being both fascinated and  horrified by the skulls at one and the same time.

This skull sits beneath the urn containing the viscera of the Duke of Buckingham – and that of his sister.

But I think there is more than just pleasurable terror involved in a fascination with bones and the like. There are deeper issues of mortality. These can and should be dealt with in books for younger readers. The bracing comedy of ‘Henry Tumour’, and the powerful honesty of ‘A Monster Calls’ bring hope and strength  to the world, not despair.

I have recently read ‘Constable & Toop’, which also deals with death. There is humour and quiet dignity, and ghosts. (They will be a subject for another post or two). But my point is that children will come across death at some point. Their pets will die, or their grandparents. Perhaps they will see an accident and ask questions. People are fascinated by death – and touching on it with honesty brings depth to a writer’s work.

In the midst of life we are in death.
Book of Common Prayer, Burial Service

Whatever your beliefs, it is inescapable. But in the same way as shadows are the darkest when the sun shines brightest, the thought of Death should bring intensity to Life – in this world and any fictional one.

Betwixt & between

This time of year can make you feel adrift. Though traditionally we are still in Christmastide until Twelfth Night, it now seems more like a form of Limbo – waiting for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. There’s a pause in the circling of the year as it turns over to start all over again.

The colloquial use of Limbo as a place or time when everything is held up may well seem apposite for these days – but it feels more like Purgatory to me. There is a sense of working through things, of heading towards a new destination.

In Science for Year Three, we looked at  the life-cycle of the butterfly. I learned that the caterpillar doesn’t just sprout wings that it already had and fly away. Remarkably, it deconstructs itself, becoming a chrysalis full of insect soup before re-assembling its constituent parts as a butterfly. It strikes me that such a radical transformation is not entirely comfortable.

This time of year is often unsettling. The shades of those who are not here drift across the celebrations. We recall things we wish we had not done – or perhaps regret things we have. The focus on our families and friends can stir up muddier thoughts and feelings than we care to consider aloud. Where are the boundaries?

From a writer’s point of view, this is all good. I make no wonder that there are ghost stories a-plenty – so many secrets, so many hidden things coming to the surface ( see my post from earlier in the month).  As my YA author friends know, The Edge is an interesting place to be.

Yes – emergence is demanding.

So to all my writing friends – and any one with  expectations for 2012:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas

I wish you a brave New Year

May all anguish, pain and sadness

Leave your heart and let your road be clear.

(Greg Lake)