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James Clelland

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Easter and other Passions

How many types of passions are there? I found seven highly varied meanings of the word, perhaps the widest range of any word in English,I’m not sure, but they sweep all the way from a passion for stamp collecting or Manchester United (both idiotic to me) through sexual passion (not idiotic) and ending appropriately at the topical Passion of Christ (no comment).

I have many passions, from the lady in my life, to writing, reading, fairness, peace, ag, the list could go on. A relatively trivial one is a passion for being on time for meetings, and if I know I’m going to be late, I sweat, feel a huge increase in blood pressure and generally panic. There must be a name for this condition, ontimeitis or something but for me it is physically painful. As an example, last week I sat in the British Consulate Passport Section, waiting. At the gate I’d been given the number 2. Oh, I thought, second in the queue. I’ll be in and out of here quicker than a cop snatches a bribe. Inside there were eight people in front of me in the queue, which fortunately was not a shifting-chairs comedy turn. We sat spread out, like, well, typical Brits, the best queuers in the world, in fact the only patient queuers I know. I watched as number 95 was called, and took twenty minutes at the only operating desk, followed by 96 who took only five minutes. I did a quick calculation and reckoned I’d be out of there with half an hour to spare before my next appointment. Ha, some chance. The remaining people in the queue had that other very annoying British habit of chatting. They stood before the only lady working that morning and asked where the rest of the staff were and, of course,complained about the weather – terrible for this time of year, isn’t it dear? And meanwhile I watched my time being eaten up. Sure enough, the signs of this dreadful affliction started up and despite the many warning notices, I switched on my cell phone – expecting to be arrested for a terrorist offence when it gave that damned merry hello tinkle – and sent my next appointment a text message saying sorry, I’ll be late.

It isn’t easy to leave a queue when you’ve invested an hour in it and are close to the front but all the signs of ontimeitis made me an irritable mess by the time I finally reached the working lady. In all of four minutes I’d been processed and made my next appointment only five minutes late. And a full forty minutes before my appointee, who thought she’d all the time in the world after my text message.

Other passions that can be mentioned in public are crying at Madame Butterfly. I always warn her that Pinkerton is a rat and can’t be trusted, but she never listens. Or cricket, my only sporting passion, thankfully. Rugby is for modern day gladiators who want the freedom to hurt each other, while football is for spoiled little boys who like to whine.

But these are harmless passions, unlike the one that happened in Ficksburg recently, when a passion for his community and for fairness in the provision of services resulted in Andries Tatane being killed by a group of those supposed to protect us from evil, the police. Some have perished for their passions and always will but this poor man was only exercising his right to protest and he paid the ultimate price for it, a shameful thing in a country calling itself democratic.

And as I am a dual national, let me tell you a story of passions in my previous abode of Glasgow. There, for those unaware, passions run deeply across religions, in the guise of two football teams. Celtic play in green and are supported by Catholics while Rangers play in royal blue and are supported by Protestants. Last week the manager of Celtic and two other people associated with the club were sent letter bombs, fortunately all detected and stopped by the post office. (A little aside, can you see that happening here, unless the letter felt like it contained a credit card?) The assumption is that someone supporting Rangers sent the letters, intending to maim or kill, all in the name of a passion bordering on fanaticism for a football team.

Passion is dangerous, it seems, in both of my nations.

Writing and the power of pork saucies

In my day job as a scientist, I’ve become intrigued by what some people can achieve simply by using the power of their mind. I have a friend, for instance, who claims she defeated her malignant melanoma by a combination of meditation, diet and exercise. Now, my scientific training tells me this is hogwash, but she’s been clear for over fifteen years, and now guides others to deal with cancer for the Cancer Association of Australia. What is going on here? What exactly happens when you meditate, or do trance dancing or other new age stuff? Is it all just gobbledegook or is there something in this that we should all harness for whatever purpose we chose?

And before going on, let me declare my interests. I started with Ayurvedic meditation over ten years ago, have visited Buddhist retreats, non-denominational retreats where you pay to garden in the rain for a week, and have flirted with Transcendental Meditation. I also eat mostly and fruit vegetables – apart from a soft spot for pork sausages, a seriously big soft spot – and am thinking of going “raw” – not including pork saucies – having been taught the method recently at a retreat in Australia. Well, at least my right brain is in some sort of balance with that scientific left side, I suppose. So what has meditation given me? If nothing else, I get two sessions of twenty minutes peace and quiet each day, and that’s got to be worth something. There is a sense that it’s made me calmer but I’ve also got ten years older in the last ten years so that’s a factor too. So, in summary, I’m a sceptic who meditates. Take it or leave it.

It’s a cliché that you can make yourself sick or well, but the truth of this can be illustrated by a couple of stories. I read of a clinical trial recently which tested pain assessment. Volunteers had a drip inserted and were also attached to a torque on their lower legs, and as it squeezed them, they were asked to assess the level of pain, from one to a hundred. The average assessment was in the sixties. Some were given pain killers without their knowledge before being subjected to the same level of torque, and then asked to reassess the pain level. It dipped a little to just below sixty. Then, here’s the interesting bit, the subjects were then TOLD they were being given a pain killer – and lo and behold, without anything else changing, the pain assessment was less than 40. What’s going on here? Nothing except the expectation of pain relief! The power of the mind had kicked in and made people feel genuinely less pain.

Is this why some people survive what they are told are fatal cancers, like my friend in Oz? Is this why those who don’t worry about smoking cigarettes for forty years don’t die so often from lung cancer as those who worry – worry themselves sick? – about this potentially fatal habit? And is this why placebo works sometimes?

Placebo is, of course, nothing whatever, except a fake tablet. But it leads to the patient feeling that something is being done to help them, and thus increases expectations of wellness which – ta-ra! – brings about improvement in health. AND almost every trial of a potential new drug is assessed against placebo – and during these lengthy trials, no one knows whether they are receiving the drug or placebo. So, almost every drug on the market is there simply because it is better than nothing – a sobering thought! Some doctors will need reminding of this fact, especially when a patient says they will try alternative mind-power treatments for their condition. Prescription drugs have their place, for sure, and not everyone will be healed without conventional treatment, but simple mind power has its place, a proud place too.

What has this got to do with writing? I’m not sure, but I find anything that cleanses my mind helps my writing, and that can be exercise, meditation, or simply avoiding the latest tragedy on the news or radio before writing. A clean and clear mind is as necessary to my writing as to my health.

One writer who used mind power in an interesting way was John Updike, author of Couples and the wonderful series about Rabbit Angstrom. In his autobiography he wrote that he was terrified to speak in front of people and suffered bad eczema and – dreadful for someone expected to speak in public, he stammered. He created what he termed the “Freedom of the Mask” and adopted another personality, John Updike, Famous Author, distinct from himself, whenever he had to speak in public. Behind the mask hid the real John Updike, scratching and stammering but safe from public scrutiny, while the Famous Author spoke without eczema or a stammer. Quite some mind trick, hey?

So, excuse me, I’m off to continue being between novels, a la Kate, to work for a living, using mind power alone, with just a wee assist from two pork saucies.


A review of seven book reviews

Seven book reviews of the EU Award winner, Deeper than Colour and more than seven opinions. The variation between reviewers has been fascinating, so, to try and make some sense of this huge distribution I have classified all the direct comments into nice and not-nice (sorry, not very original), with a really interesting group in between. So the stats first: Deeper than Colour received eighteen nice comments, nine not-nice comments and four in-between comments. The nice ones are worth dwelling on (I am a writer and have an ego after all) and my favourites are mature, dark, passionate, powerful, beautiful language, compulsively readable and irresistible. A few of those nice comments have never been applied to me before, but I’ll draw a veil over which ones and leave you to work it out for yourself. The not-nice comments, well, I suppose I’d better reluctantly tell you a few of them: contrived, not pleasant, superficial, saturated in ugliness (I almost put that into the nice category) and my especial favourite, sorry, gory, lonely, ugly tale. Yes, that was one comment and at least I knew the comment was accurate enough for me to know that the reviewer had read the book. The in-between comments were disturbing, toxic, bitter and morbid, so you can see that depending on mood, hormone levels and number of whiskies, they could sit quite happily in either category. What is the point of this mini-survey? Well, much chat has taken place on the need for stringent and international standard reviews – okay, no one said that, but it was implied. But it seems that there will always be the individual human opinion involved, as one should expect. We are not robots and humans disagree, which I think is quite healthy. But, my point is, which of these comments is tough and telling it like it is, and which is part of the alledged palsy-walsy act between writers and reviewers? I have no idea. But maybe I should point out that I reviewed fiction for the Rand Daily Mail for years, right up to when it sadly closed despite the fact I’d never completed a novel at that stage of my so-called-writing-career. Did that make me a unsuitable reviewer? Am I more suitable now because one of my several novels has been published? And if so, why? What makes a suitable reviewer anyway?

My own recent and briefl experience illustrates that there are reviewers who write abstract pieces, ones who write personal pieces, some who pick on strange points to disapprove of and some who give the entire story of the novel without expressing an opinion. So, what is right? Or, in the long run, does it matter? Maybe a review is worth something in sales and readership regardless of the opinions expressed in it. Just a thought, use it, lose it. whatever! Time for another whisky, dammit.

New Kid on the Blog

I’m not sure what belonging means – ask Milan Kundera and JM Coetzee, others who’ve also moved from their mother country to elsewhere, in my case from Scotland to South Africa – but since my novel Deeper than Colour won the EU Literary Award and was published by Jacana last year, I guess I’ve earned my literary spurs In South Africa. At last.

My writing career started forty years ago but the sad outcome is that most of the publications I’ve written for have vanished, like Springbok Radio, the Rand Daily Mail and probably Women’s Forum too. Look out Jacana, did you realise the risk you were taking when you published work by James Clelland?

So, this brief blog is to announce the arrival of surely the oldest New Kid on the Blog at a (very) ripe 63 years of age. But who gives a toss about mere numbers? Not I – watch this space for thoughts on publishers, publicity and reviewers!