How Many Conundrums Can You Get Into A Mini?

A more intellectual offering this week. It was non-fiction night at my writing group again. The more long-standing of my readers may remember my piece on the history of zero last year. This time round, I thought I might take a look at infinity …

To Infinity And Beyond

The story of infinity has, as you might expect, a middle but no recognisable beginning or end. In its various guises, it weaves its way through time and space, interacting with human history whenever the fancy takes it, and going off on its own adventures for the rest of – and presumably, the bulk of – its existence.

What I have written here is not an attempt at the history of infinity, nor have I striven to paint a complete picture of the complex, yet simple, idea. Rather this is a snapshot of my reflections about, and responses to, the intriguing concept. A piece about infinity.

I begin this way because I wish to point out that it cannot, of course, be a piece of infinity, because that would entail knowing how big infinity is. The construction of a fraction of infinity – indeed, of anything – can only be made by measuring the whole, and if one knew precisely how large infinity is, then it would, by definition, no longer be infinity. Infinity is infinity because it has no limitations or boundaries.

I offer this perplexing paragraph as an introduction because it sums up precisely the conundrums (or should that be ‘conundra’?), fears and ‘incomprehensibles’ that surround the concept of infinity, making it a thoroughly intriguing and challenging idea.

The first recorded writing about infinity comes from an ancient Greek philosopher, Anaximander, but the earliest use of it as a mathematical concept is attributable to Zeno of Elea, who you may remember had a lot to say about zero and the nature of tortoises. In fact, many of his ponderings seem to have included both zero and infinity as essential ingredients in understanding – or misunderstanding – the universe. For even in pre-Socratic circles, there were already a number of different kinds of infinity being defined.

The trouble with infinity is that it defies definition as much as it does measurement, making it a dangerous concept to play with. It is not a straight-forward mathematical notion, veering at will into the worlds of philosophy, metaphysics and spirituality. It just will not behave.

Why, then, bother to include it in such a precise discipline, one may ask. Surely, we’d be better off restricting the numerical world to numbers that actually have tangible meaning? Unfortunately, the blessed construct keeps cropping up of its own accord. For example, one cannot ask perfectly innocent questions such as what is the largest number?, or what do you get if you divide any number by zero?, without automatically arriving at the necessity to answer ‘Infinity’, even though the solution will appear to be imprecise.

Dealing with infinity is rather like trying to get a cat into a bag. Unlike Schrodinger’s cat who was apparently well-trained enough to sit inside a box (albeit managing to be both alive and dead at the same time), more normal cats have an in-built aversion to being contained, and will inevitably either employ shape-shifting qualities to leak through even the smallest opening, or use their excellent teleporting skills to transport themselves to the other side of a closed door, thus rendering it impossible to trap them where they do not wish to be. Infinity behaves in a similar fashion.

Doing mathematics without infinity is impossible, but doing them with it, is almost as difficult. Mathematicians, therefore, cheat. They make useable definitions of infinity, they create categories of infinity and they lie about what it really is.

For example, in the Jain mathematical text, written approximately in the fourth century BCE, all numbers are divided into three categories: enumerable, innumerable and infinite. These categories are further subdivided into three. Enumerable includes lowest, intermediate and highest; innumerable is made up of nearly innumerable, truly innumerable and innumerably innumerable; whilst infinite numbers can be nearly infinite, truly infinite and infinitely infinite.

Such wonderful nonsense persists today, as academicians everywhere attempt to make the unassailable, manageable, in order to practise their craft. The nomenclature of ordinal and cardinal infinites in set theory, the use of countably infinite integers as opposed to the infinite set of uncountable real numbers, and the subtle invention of hyperreal numbers which include infinite numbers of different sizes – are all magnificent illusions which enable mathematicians to do what they do.

Mostly, they seem happy with their tricks, but scepticism about this approach has brought about an extreme form of mathematical philosophy called finitism, with all the turf-wars that entails.

But if you think mathematicians have a problem, spare a thought for the physicists. After all, they have defined their branch of academia as the science of measurement, so they can get really ‘antsy’ when infinity shows up. Some take the simplistic view that if you can’t measure something, it can’t exist, however theoretically valid it might be. Mostly, they propose that using infinite series and the like is tolerable if the end result is physically meaningful.

These are the physicists who aren’t that keen on quantum theory. As you might imagine, infinity – in all its glorious manifestations – inhabits this world in abundance. When it appears as the inevitable consequence of a calculation, it is quickly hijacked and made into something more acceptable. A process known as ‘Normalisation’!

However, cosmologists inevitably come to the rescue, spilling the indefinable all over their infinite universe, proclaiming the impossibility of normalising, for example, a black hole and asking difficult questions such as how many stars are there? and how big is the universe?

Because here it becomes nonsensical to insist on limitations. Wherever one puts the end of the universe, there must be something beyond it. Enter the magical world of Topology – that magnificent branch of mathematics that deals with consistent properties of certain objects that remain after transformation, such as connectedness and continuity. We’ve probably all encountered the Möbius strip, that tantalising bit of paper with its single surface and one edge.

These adventurous ideas have allowed cosmologists to point out that the two-dimensional surface of the earth is finite yet it has no edge. Perhaps, they suggest, the universe has a similar topology.

I pondered this one on the park walk with Rosie, my collie, this morning. She very sensibly retorted that if the universe were ball-shaped, there would have to be a dog lurking somewhere nearby, with jaws big enough to clamp its teeth around said object – and where would your finite universe be then?

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Whose Line Is It Anyway?

I had to sit through an extensive, rather stressful meeting yesterday – don’t ask. What was particularly interesting, though, was what I observed about different people’s perceptions, including my own. I was fortunate to have a friend sitting in with me who was able to mitigate the damage between two completely opposite viewpoints of how one sees the world, so that communication became just about possible.

This was not because the two people involved – okay, I admit one of them was me – were in any way trying to create misunderstanding. Alright, another admission – I did get a bit obstreperous at one point, but not because I was deliberately trying to be obtuse. I was merely expressing how I genuinely feel about things. It just happened not to make sense in that particular context to anyone in the room except me.

I have this habit of interpreting things said to me, firstly at a philosophical, ethical or metaphysical level. The practical, pragmatic or physical understanding of the comment arrives somewhat later. This can, I believe, make conversation with me somewhat strange and unpredictable. I experience such dialogue as exciting and adventurous.

I was struck, therefore, by the various viewpoints of the people in the room, in the sense of how they were perceiving and interacting with the flow of the discussion. Perhaps in a way that wouldn’t normally happen for me, since I rarely partake in meetings of this sort.

So that, for example, when the other person asked me whether a particular sum of money would make me happy (again, don’t ask), I replied by assuring said person that my happiness was not in the slightest dependent on any financial considerations. This, my friend interpreted for me, was not what the other person meant – he, apparently, was trying to ascertain whether I considered this sum to be satisfactory.

Do I come over as pedantic, unintelligible or just plain crazy, I wonder? Do I care, if this is the case? And why don’t they have the same questions in their head?

It’s a valuable exercise in viewpoint for a writer, because we are encouraged in contemporary writing to disclose the story from only one – or, at least, only one at a time. When you’re writing a scene between multiple characters, you have to know whose head you are in, and give insights only from there, in order to make your writing flow.

In the various writing groups I have participated in over the last few years, I have seen many aspiring writers struggle with this concept. Interestingly, although I was unaware of it when I first began to write, it was something I learned very quickly.

When people ask me how I manage it, I always say it’s because I get inside that character’s head. I literally see the scene the way they would. Watching from the inside out, if you will. So I never get confused about whose views I need to be expressing.

However, one has to be careful … because sometimes it’s very important to get inside another character’s head and see what’s going on there.

I heard someone recently read a piece that involved three people, telling the story neatly from one person’s viewpoint. This character then left the room, but instead of going out with them, the storytelling continued with the other two having a conversation without her – until she returned, when we, the listeners, were plonked back inside her head again. This is not impossible to do well, but without signalling it clearly, there was a definite ‘clunk’ as we shifted from one head to another.

I like to write my current crime thrillers from three viewpoints, but I will always stick with one per chapter. The three characters involved are usually in different parts of the country, each investigating different bits of the plot, so this can work quite well.

However, I had quite a shock this week when one of my non-viewpoint characters – a young constable acting-up as sergeant, temporarily – suddenly got up to leave the room. I was writing from inside my DI’s head. I knew he was going to query where Maxwell was going, but imagine my surprise when the young man said, ‘I have an idea’!

What?! Who gave you permission to do that? What the hell is your idea? Is it crucial to solving the case, for heavens’ sake? 

Because of the way I write, I let the characters lead the way, and I have very little, sometimes no, idea where the plot is heading. So to hear one of my characters declaring he might know something I don’t, was, to say the least, disconcerting.

However, I trusted the process, and although I never wrote a single line from Maxwell’s viewpoint, I was determined to sit inside his head until his idea showed itself, and then to describe my DI’s response first hand.

My patience and trust paid dividends, giving us all a vital piece of evidence a few chapters further on. Thank God! You’ve got to love this stuff …

 

To Be Or Not To Be … The Schrodinger Perspective

I have, over the past few years, acquired a new skill. That of following a  tennis Grand Slam in two and a half minute bursts.

There was a time when the BBC deigned to share the evening matches at the Australian Open with the British public through their red button service. That privilege suddenly disappeared, and for those of us dependent on Freeview, our only available option then was to access the tournament’s own website.

Here, one could find videos of almost any match of significance – but only handpicked highlights, reduced to perhaps one ‘best shot’ per set plus the final point, accompanied, if you were lucky, by commentary and the whole event lasting somewhere between two, and two and a half, minutes. It’s definitely an practised art to follow, and make sense of, a two week-long contest using this offering. Still, better than nothing …

This year, however, the Beeb upped their game, and during the second week of the competition, condensed a day’s play into an hour or so of highlights, each afternoon. So I was able to enjoy a fair dollop of the men’s final on Sunday and witness Federer’s historic twentieth triumph at this level, securing him, perhaps for ever, as the highest scoring male player in Grand Slam titles.

The problem with having access only to highlights is that they don’t tell the whole story. However well the entire event has been edited, the end result is never going to be the same as sitting anxiously through a long drawn-out five-setter, that might go on for several hours.

So, it was not easy to tell whether the sudden comeback on Cilic’s part during the fourth set, was really down to a better attempt on his part to play well, or a drop in intensity of the part of last year’s champion. I found myself wondering whether the enormity of what he was about to achieve, suddenly became frighteningly apparent to Federer, and his concentration – his ability to be fully present – was temporarily thrown.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced such moments. Occasions when we know, beyond all doubt, that the next few minutes will change our lives for ever. Attending an interview, giving birth, stepping off the kerb… The examples are endless, and sometimes we recognise there was such a moment when we have to face the consequences. Like backing into someone else’s car! If only we could turn the clock back a few seconds …

In the high-adrenaline minutes before something dramatic happens, it can sometimes seem as if we’re moving through treacle, as we wait for events to play themselves out. We know there will be a far-reaching conclusion, but we don’t know exactly what it will be.

I was reminded, recently, of the delightful concept of Schrodinger’s cat. (I was researching quantum entanglement – stuff for another blog, I think). It’s quite a popular idea these days, cropping up all over the place. Devised originally as way to illustrate a problem with a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, it has become a useful way of approaching any kind of paradoxical situation in which the outcome may be positive or negative.

The cat in the original scenario – poor thing is shut in a box with a potentially lethal set of apparatus – may be alive or dead. In fact, could technically be considered as both alive and dead. The only way to resolve the dilemma is to open the box and observe firsthand. The cat, at that point, would then be alive or dead, thus resolving the paradox.

I wondered if this was the kind of ‘angst’ that Federer was experiencing during that fourth set. He knew there would definitely be an outcome to the match, and he could, at that stage, envisage it both as winning and losing, but until the final point was played, he couldn’t know for certain what the end result would be.

This is a brilliant place, I think, for writers to inhabit. The world of potentiality. If, like me, you write the story as you go, you will find yourself continually taking the Schrodinger perspective, when, at every stroke of the pen, or tap of the keyboard, you could change for ever the fate of your characters.

And even if you write to a fully-drawn-up synopsis, you still have to convey to your reader that sense of multiple possible storylines, else they may not stay with you and read to the end. It’s that unravelling, unwrapping, slowly discovering, journey that makes your writing worth the patience taken.

And that’s just not possible if you open the box too early.

A Critical Point

Recently, I received my first negative review on Amazon. At least, they counted it as negative. It was only three stars, and since all the rest of my reviews so far (for The White And Silver Shore) have been five stars, they classed it as ‘highest negative review’. Well, if that’s the worst I get, I shan’t mind.

And that ‘I shan’t mind’ marks a critical point for me. I find I am extremely glad that I haven’t received a ‘negative’ review up until now, because I think I might have been profoundly affected by it, had it appeared previously.

Despite my belief in what I’m doing, and my love of writing, putting myself ‘out there’ requires supreme confidence, and maybe, just maybe, a negative review arriving earlier in the process would have subtly undermined my determination to push ahead.

I have a rather sad history of listening too hard to other people’s comments, when often they are just that – comments; and I’ve, all too often, ended up being super-critical of myself as a result, and lost my way.

Nowadays, I am much more willing to listen to my intuition. Indeed, I’m much more able to hear it. I guess that skill comes with practice, and the more you’re willing to heed those inner messages, the more they become available. However it works, it works really well now.

So, it was quite interesting to read this review, and to reflect on what it said. The key point – the only really critical point – which the author made was to say that, like all first novels, it would have benefited from some serious editing. A point with which, at some levels, I am now able to agree without detrimental derailment.

But … I also disagree.

It all depends on what you want a first novel to do. Sure, in terms of marketability, or attaining the heights of literary fiction, most first novels will fail miserably. And I certainly never aspired to fulfil the second category with my first attempt. (In fact, I’m not sure it’s a field I particularly want to be part of; but that’s a subject for another blog.)

For me, and I’m sure for many other first novelists, it was an exploratory venture. A initial enterprise to discover just what I could write – having never attempted to do so before. I found it strange, exciting, unnerving, dangerous, to let myself loose with a pen within the realms of fiction. I could literally write whatever I wanted to, make it up as I went along. Which, of course, is what I did.

But what else I discovered – as I began to take on the concept that my initial short exercise stretched into the beginnings of a story, and then expanded into a chapter, before declaring its intent to become a novel – was that I had a need to say a lot of things I’d never had the chance to say out loud before.

Some of these things were personal – insights about life, recollections of experiences, wishful ‘thinkings’. Some were experiments – creating dialogue,  setting up a murder investigation (could I make it unravel satisfactorily?). Some were me trying to convince other people of the beauty of my favourite place – or maybe I just needed to describe my love of Skye for myself.

And that’s the point, I think, of a first novel. Somehow, it’s about saying all those things – for yourself. Just because you can. And sometimes, that will produce a lovely book that other people want to read. And sometimes, that just doesn’t matter. The point is to do it.

Because once you’ve written one, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t write another, and then another, and …

And the more you do so, the less impact the criticism will have detrimentally, and the more you’ll be able to access it in a positive way. Because now you’re in charge of what’s happening. You will have passed that critical point where there’s no stopping you …

Mirror Mirror …

Those of you who, like me, have been following and thoroughly enjoying Star Trek Discovery over the past few months, will be aware that the crew have recently visited  – indeed, appear to be stuck in – a very dark and dangerous universe, completely alien to their own.

The Mirror Universe is a plot line well-visited on Star Trek, but rarely has it grabbed hold of its entire crew and kept them there for more than a single episode. (I confess here to not having watched every episode of every incarnation of the franchise, so I may be mistaken and am willing to be corrected.)

However, the latest unfortunate adventure sees the starship and its inhabitants well and truly entrenched in this malevolent, disturbing place, and it looks like we may not be leaving for a few episodes yet.

The idea of a mirror universe is a fabulous one. Most of us as writers are familiar with the idea of a person’s shadow – that part of our character which we would rather not have to admit to and which we often find very difficult to face, let alone reconcile. This makes for a very useful way into a story when one is exploring a specific character.

What is so fascinating about the mirror universe is that it takes this concept one step further. Everyone in the universe is a weird transformation of who they present as in the ‘real’ world. Obviously, the ‘goodies’ come over as less than favourable, but those who are normally recognisable as dodgy, dubious or downright evil have a chance here to become champions and heroes.

Take Voq, for instance, a fairly typical un-politically-correct Klingon, who majors in trying to put down all and sundry in the name of Kahless, including his fellow warriors. In the mirror universe, he gets to be a leader of the  rebellion, uniting any number of alien species against the ruthless Terran empire. Oh yes, it’s the humans who have relinquished any idea of respect or peace in this world.

Interestingly, when Michael challenges him to explain how he has come to be in this position, he still talks about the importance of unity within the Klingon tribes under the ideals of Kahless, but now states that because the Klingons are at one within themselves, they are able to be open to others from outside their race.

This is the beauty of the idea of the mirror universe. It is not a straight reversal of the original, nor is it, for each individual, a simple visit ‘to the dark side’ (to mix my sci-fi references). As a concept, it has innumerable places to go because each of us is a complex person. And in our writing, so should our characters be, if they are to be life-like.

I believe the idea of a mirror universe could be a utilised as a fantastic writing aid, because it allows each character’s potential to be fully explored. If you were to try writing your character from within this perception, you would begin to clarify quite clearly who this person could be if they chose differently, and therefore define who they definitely are not in their current situation.

I would think – I have yet to try this out – the technique would help tremendously in enriching the persona of a novel or short story, enabling one to avoid thin, superficial characters and to create a rich canvas for each personality, even if most of it never reached the page.

As I have said before, I don’t believe good writing features its people in a vacuum. We need to know much more about the characters we create, than we actually spell out, if they are to be credible.A visit to their individual mirror universe could be just the treatment they need to achieve this.

If nothing else, it could allow us to envisage new perceptions which might influence the story we’re telling. Remember, after all, what happened to Alice, not to mention Snow White.

 

Where Do I Start?

After all the shenanigans of the holidays, the much-treasured rest from deadlines and to-do lists, and recovering from excessive relatives, many people at this time of year, despite their best intentions, find themselves at a loss.

The pondered, proposed and pontificated upon New Year Resolutions already feel a light-year away. The holiday season is a distant memory, and for many, they are already in the throes of an unwelcome return to work.

Whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself, as your world gets up and running again, you have to determine a sense of direction, then couple that with appropriate motivation, if you are not going to succumb to a despairing sense of ‘same old, same old’.

Trying to force yourself into new habits, or to clear out no-longer-needed items, not to mention making major life-reforms – all of these traditional New Year activities also require a starting point which may not be easy to see, if you are too swamped by an old life you wish to change.

Personally, I really enjoy this time of year – the opportunity to do things differently, to explore a new aspect of who I am, to take on new challenges, to empty the closet of old rubbish. Even to look at what was once cherished and to name it as rubbish, can be very liberating.

But finding a starting point, and utilising it well, are difficult skills to acquire without practice. Too many of us fall by the wayside because we begin a new regime too enthusiastically and find we cannot sustain it, or because we have attempted to take on something too unfamiliar and suddenly find ourselves feeling very uncomfortable and searching for a way back to more solid ground.

Knowing how to change is a valuable piece of knowledge, and one which I think can only be obtained by experience. It’s almost as if discovering how not to do it, provides the mechanism for learning how it is best done. For me, finally recognising that the baby steps approach actually works, was a life-changing event in its own right.

It is, I guess, rather like beginning a new piece of writing. That completely blank page in front of you is both magically enticing and scarily intimidating. I know many ‘writers’ who never get past the blank page. It is very important to see it as an opportunity rather than an injunction, if one is to make use of it.

I have reflected a lot this week on how best to get a story going. I have met fellow writers who insist on ‘setting out their stall’ at the start of a new piece. They feel they cannot move into the unknown world stretching out before them without first anchoring themselves in something solid. So they create beginnings along the lines of: Maureen was thirty five and a housewife. She had short brown hair and was slightly over-weight. She had two young children, one aged two and one, only thirteen months. 

When I read something like this, I always hope the next sentence is going to be – She was bored with her life and had decided to change it.

Within the various writing groups I have belonged to over the last few years, the vexed question of ‘how do I start?’ is probably the most commonly raised. And there will always be those mentors and tutors who are ready with rules and suggestions to get the new (or the old) writer going.

For what it’s worth, my take on this is that one is best starting in the middle. Even if you feel it is helpful to have some outlines for your character to hand, make their first visit to your page one where they are already in action. Put them in a situation, or a dilemma, or a conversation. Then write your way out of it.

Your characters should not, I believe, exist in a vacuum, as if there were not alive before you penned them. They were already there, waiting for you to notice them, busy doing … whatever they were doing before you switched on to their existence.

Make your opening salvo a piece of dialogue, or a startling observation. Something to capture your reader’s interest or empathy. Place Maureen in the supermarket, struggling to manage her children, or playing with them happily in the park, or talking with a friend about the shock of finding herself a mother unexpectedly, just when her career was taking off.

The best beginnings, I always think, are those that give us a glimpse of knowledge about a situation but without sufficient facts for a full understanding of it. That way, we are hooked.

For example: When my captor brings my evening meal, he leaves the door ajar for just a moment as he places the tray on the table with a thud. No words pass between us. This is the routine we have established over the last two days. He comes in, he brings food, he leaves.

Or perhaps: Glenda, or to give her her full title, Baroness Glendifera Saxon-Burleigh, would not stop scratching. Mitch was gutted and embarrassed in equal proportions. Shows like this didn’t come around every week.

Or one of my favourites: ‘Stop!’ he shouted. I froze, my heart pounding loudly in my ears. Now I was for it. ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going?’              ‘Nowhere in particular.’ I shrugged, trying to make light of my arrested flight from the scene.                                                                                                                         ‘What do you mean – nowhere?’ he asked, menacingly. He moved closer, and in the dim street lighting, I saw the glint of what I took to be a pistol sticking out from under his jacket. His hand was moving slowly towards it.                       I felt myself gulping. Need to change these dynamics. I turned to view him full in the face and put out my hand. ‘Name’s Gene,’ I said. ‘Clarity Gene. I’m so sorry – did I disturb you?’

Just as with a mandala, all of these three beginnings draws me in, with plenty of unknowns to explore from the core outwards. As a reader, I wonder who these characters are, how did they come to be in this scenario, how will they move on from it – or, indeed, will they? As a writer, I long to explore what might happen next. Incidentally, these are all beginnings that are still waiting for me to do just that, having originally been written as exercises in response to specific stimuli.

I have wandered far from my starting point in this blog. Doesn’t that just say it all? I invite you to relish this time of new beginnings, to treat each with the respect it deserves and to explore the excitement waiting for you if you can make your first steps with care this new year. I know that is my New Year Intention. I wish you well with yours.

 

Will That Be One Sugar Or Two?

I’m such a sucker for Christmas films. You know, those sugary-sweet, one-and-a-half-hour, TV stories where you wonder if the girl will get the boy (no, you don’t), if the grumpy-knickers will reform in time (still not wondering) and if the new, updated Santa will find a way to deliver the presents at the last minute (of course, she will).

I love it that the same old, same old, gets delightful new twists, that the ‘bad’ ex-boyfriend always receives his just deserts, and that the kids will inevitably acquire a new ‘mum’. There is something unbelievably reassuring about a story that can only have one, entirely predictable, ending, despite the turmoil through which the key characters must pass to get there.

I particularly love the way that – for just a limited season – I can turn on the TV and know that I can find a film operating with the basic premise that there’s more to life than material possessions, and that available cinematic storylines will contain scenarios other than violence, greed and self-serving sex, albeit dished up with an unhealthy dollop of saccharine!

Because in between the sticky sentimentalism, corny conversations and obvious outcomes, there are some wonderful moments and some fabulous characters. Take Mrs.Miracle, for example. One of my favourites.

With the inimitable Doris Roberts in the lead, a film that has all the potential of invoking nausea, it turns – for me, at least – into a delicious romp through personal agonies, difficult decisions and spectacular household disasters, ending, at it should, with everyone forgiving everyone, including themselves, and stepping into a bright new future.

Along the way, there are some inspiring lines delivered, and some interesting ideas explores, but what is most lovely about the film is the true sentiment expressed by Doris’s character. In the midst of increasing chaos, she remains solid, dependable and unexpectedly – magic! I even enjoyed the sequel. I only wish I could be half so open to the people I meet.

There is now, it seems, a huge industry for Christmas films. Indeed, I could watch – if I was daft enough – every day for the two months leading up to Christmas and never see the same film twice. I’m actually quite in awe of the writers who take the same unsurprising plot and turn it into something I didn’t anticipate. There’s a real skill in that.

Writing an original story for Christmas is a massive challenge, I think. I have come across a few gems over the years. I really enjoyed Jodie Taylor’s When A Child Is Born, which I read last year but I guess you’d need to be a follower of her St Mary’s novels to fully appreciate it.

I am, of course, tempted to have a go. Not this year, though. Not enough time now to investigate my own take on the annual delivery of treacly wordage and candied characters. Perhaps I should add my desire to produce a suitably syrupy story to my New Year resolutions …

I cannot, however, let the blog close ( I have to go and put up my tree in a minute) without mentioning what is possibly the best, and the most loved, Christmas film of all time: It’s A Wonderful Life. I have loved this film for almost my entire life. I first came across it on TV when I was a teenager, I think, and already a great James Stewart fan – mostly because he had that ability I mentioned above. The ability to take sentimental dialogue and convey real sentiment.

It remains for me an extraordinary film. I find something new to reflect on every time I watch it, and it still has the capacity to reduce me to tears. I have veered, over the years, from believing at times that Jimmy’s character was week-minded and foolish in not pursuing his dreams, to recognising the essential happiness waiting to be experienced when one is fully present within the life one actually has.

There are few better Christmas messages than that. Have a good one!