December Reflections 4: red

This year we moved into the first place we’ve owned, and we brought plenty of stuff with us. The curtains, for example. My mother made them for the high Victorian windows of my childhood home; I used them to cheer up the horrible bedsit I rented when I first moved out; turned them up to fit the french windows in the 1960s maisonette that was our last rented property. They’ve always been comforting: good for hiding behind when I was small; good for keeping the draughts out now; bold and cosy.

A glass-fronted wooden cabinet. Behind it, floor-length wooden curtains in a pattern of blue and red curlicues on a gold ground.

Then there was the pig picture, inherited from my beloved godmother Héloïse. Her house used to be full of vibrant, mischievous pictures: this was my favourite. And there, at the middle of it, is that bright red lobster.

A print of a painting featuring a large pig nosing at a bright red lobster on a picnic cloth while a boy sleeps

This was not the only picture we brought with us. It wasn’t even the only one with a red element to it. We also had a drawing of the two of us that we’d had done, in true tacky tourist fashion, at Montmartre, on our honeymoon.

A drawing in red pencil of a man in glasses and a woman in a headscarf

The new house had its own contributions to make. Most of the fanlights in the conservatory were decorated with a stained glass red rose.

A fanlight with a red rose of Lancaster in stained glass

With all that, it became obvious pretty quickly that the dining room wall – an insipid lavender when we moved in – needed to be red. We bought a pot of paint in our first week, on 17 March. We painted the wall on 25 May, bank holiday Monday.

Room, seen through an arch, with one red-painted wall, dark wood dining table and chairs, just a corner of the curtains from above, and the whole of the print with the pig and the picnic

My new book goes beautifully with my red wall, though in fact I didn’t plan it that way. That started with stained glass flowers rather than with domestic decor. I’d had my eye on the passion flowers in one of the windows of the south aisle at my previous/current church (it’s complicated!) for ages, wanting to replace the more realistic one on the cover of my first book. But if it was going to be a series then I was going to have to find other stained glass flowers to match. I knew I wanted this one to be red, but it was surprisingly difficult to find ones that weren’t roses (made it look too much like a historical novel) or poppies (also made it look too much like a historical novel). I eventually found these ones at a church I popped into on last year’s narrowboat holiday. I’m not sure what they’re meant to be – maybe carnations? – but anyway, I’m really pleased with them.

Really, when it comes to it, I’m just very, very fond of red.

December Reflections 3: best day of 2020

Ladybird on rose leaf

It would probably be cheating to say ‘Sunday’, wouldn’t it?

I remember one day in March, standing on Clifton Suspension Bridge with two of my friends, looking out over the gorge, feeling intensely aware of all the strata of my own past, intensely uncertain of the future, with empty air under the bridge under my feet, feeling faithfully supported.

That one was a Sunday.

And I remember one morning in late July, having been blessed with a visit to the Isle of Wight and my family, revisiting all my favourite spots around Ventnor, spotting lizards, walking the dinosaur labyrinth, drinking coffee on the seafront.

That one wasn’t a Sunday.

But it’s the cumulative effect of those quiet Sunday afternoons at home that feels both the loveliest and the most characteristic of 2020. Sunday afternoons, with a stack of books and a folding chair and the contained space of the garden; the sound of a neighbour’s cockerel; the traffic not too obnoxious; bees and butterflies.

I had to go back through my diary to find the one I was thinking of specifically: 12 July. Earlier in the day, after church, I’d taken my bike out into the fens to the west, climbed the nearest hill and kept going under big fenland sky.

Huge pearly grey-white clouds against a blue sky, over a dark brown ploughed field

And after a shower and lunch I took my chair and my books out into the garden, and sat and read a few lines at a time, and watched the ladybirds crawling over the rose leaves and whizzing around the place in tiny red blurs, and much higher, white birds soaring, and, higher still, gliders circling, winking in and out of sight.

Sunday afternoon.

December Reflections 2: my favourite hobby

three shelves of books; authors include Arthur Ransome, John le Carré, Eva Ibbotson, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, C. S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, and others

I’m never quite sure what makes something a hobby rather than a mere pastime. How seriously does one have to follow it? Does it have to be creative? And of course, one person’s hobby is another person’s livelihood.

So I’m going to go for the very broadest definition and say something that I do because I enjoy it, that nobody pays me for.

I have plenty of hobbies, and I have most of them because I saw something in a book, thought, ‘I could do that’, and tried it. Some of them (crochet) I abandoned again; some (knitting) I do very intermittently; some (making bead jewellery) I do quite often.

Some (teaching myself to play the piano) are part of my regular routine; some (teaching myself to ice skate) have been scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic; some (gardening) have been made very much easier by lockdown; some (doing small drawings) I even do daily.

But really, all of those feel like quite a lot of effort at present. Indeed, at this point in post-launch torpor, I find myself thinking that I only write books because nobody else is writing the precise thing that I want to read. And so I go back to reading.

I’ve read quite a lot in 2020. I note that there’s a ‘best book’ prompt coming up later in the month, so I won’t talk about preferences, but I will recall…

  • taking a folding chair out into the garden to read Julian of Norwich over Holy Week
  • lounging on a blanket on the lawn, reading Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings
  • turning my ebook reader back on after lights out to finish Slippery Creatures
  • sitting in an armchair, legs tucked under me, working through the first seven Bond novels
  • picking up Busman’s Honeymoon to take a photo of it, and the rest of the day just disappearing
  • reading all of Four Quartets out loud to myself, with the rain beating at the roof of the conservatory
  • unable to sleep, making myself a late night cup of peppermint tea, and reading Spiderweb For Two for the first time
  • starting off a Saturday morning by inhaling a Jae or a Jill Mansell
  • bickering amiably online about Madam Will You Talk and The Man In The Brown Suit

I’ve read for research, both for other people’s blogs and my own, to finish things I’ve been meaning to read, and for sheer fun.

I have until the 20th to decide which was my favourite. I’ll let you know.

December Reflections 1: star

a deep blue night sky with three stars in an inverted T shape seen over a pitched roof

I’ve always loved stars, loved looking up into the night sky to see more and more pinpricks of light becoming visible to my adjusting eye.

My ability to recognise the constellations has been limited, however; I’ve known Orion, the Plough/Great Bear/Saucepan, and Cassiopaeia for years, but others have been trickier. Bootes has broad shoulders and slim ankles. The big square one might be some combination of Perseus and Andromeda. My knowledge remains sadly lacking.

What’s really helped has been having a phone with enough memory to cope with Stellarium. (The fact that it has a camera with settings advanced enough to cope with stars has also been a bonus.)

This year I’ve added Cygnus, sort of. There it is, dropping behind our neighbour’s garage. And the planets have been big and bright and hanging around in the same place for long enough that I’ve got used to them. Here are Jupiter and Saturn over the Solent in July. The moon is at the right and looking a bit lopsided; Jupiter is the bright speck about a quarter of the way in from the left; Saturn is just visible as a point about halfway between Jupiter and the left-hand edge.

Seascape at twilight with a bright full moon lighting up a stretch of sea at the right of shot, two ships, and, at the left, one bright speck, and one just-visible point of light

More recently, Mars has been looking very handsome in the south-east.

I could say that this year, when I haven’t really been going anywhere, I’ve been more aware of the stars, but I’m not sure that would be true. I haven’t had my evening bike rides home alongside the Cam, with Orion huge over the opposite bank; I haven’t paused in the back garden to look up before unlocking the shed.

I think, though, that I’ve become more aware of the here and now, and of the stars as a marker, a backdrop, a map, have wanted to know more. Much as I’m grateful for Stellarium, I’m also delighted by this analogue guide to the night sky. The rivet at the Pole Star allows the transparent window to be moved according to the time, day, and month: here I’ve set it at the time I took the photo at the top of this post.

Philips' 'Planisphere' - a star map with a transparent section revealing the stars visible at a particular time

And I’ve been fascinated by the way that humans relate to them. I’ve been reading this book, a history of astronomy that has itself been overtaken by history, one chapter every Sunday afternoon over the last couple of months. I’m still with Copernicus and Galileo, jumping through a new paradigm shift every week.

hardback copy of 'And there was light' by Rudolf Thiel held up in front of the same roof as in the first photo, but in daylight)

Also on Sunday afternoons, I’ve been reading back issues of hidden europe magazine. This week I read about a village called Groβmugl, just outside Vienna, which has become popular as a stargazing site, and where:

locals sometimes refer to the village as ‘Groβmugl an der Milchstraβe’ (Groβmugl on the Milky Way)

“On a Starry Night”, hidden europe issue 54, spring 2018

Well, I immediately wanted to go there (some day, some day, I’ve already promised myself a return to Vienna), but it resonated on a deeper level than that. Like a child adding as many lines as possible to their address, I thought that this could be here, too.

With love from Ely-on-the-Milky-Way,

Kathleen

A story from two blue notebooks

Hardback notebook with a cover pattern of blue and white waves

I was in Paperchase at St Pancras station.

Well, you see, I’d been writing everything, all of this, down in a little book, and I’d nearly finished it, so I went to Paperchase for a new one.

I always end up writing the story that I need to hear. And I don’t know whether I’ll ever be good enough to tell this one in fiction, or even if it’s a story that can work in fiction at all, ever, and it seems possible that someone else needs to hear it sooner than that. After all, I’ve found over and over again that, whatever’s happening, I’m not the only one to whom it’s happening. So I’m telling it now.

And I was looking at the shelves of notebooks, thinking about which one to choose, and I had a sudden, very strong sense that I wouldn’t need another one.

I bought one with a pattern of waves in blue and white. That was the Tuesday.

I’ve told the notebook story five or six times now. It’s a good story, a convincing one. It always surprises me how effective it is. I go in expecting pushback, argument, a compassionate suggestion that perhaps I’m mistaken in what’s going on in my own heart, and every time the other person accepts it.

Well, you’d hope they would. It’s true, after all.

On the Wednesday, I went to church. Lunchtime communion at St Pancras. St Pancras new church. And I was about half way there, walking along the pavement on the north side of the Euston Road, the wind blowing a few dead leaves around my ankles, when I understood.

It wasn’t there any more.

The leaving makes a better story than the arrival did. The arrival was cumulative, a succession of comments, questions, observations, from others.

2017. I’d been leading the twenties-and-thirties Bible study group. The ordinand we had on loan from Westcott said to the youth worker, afterwards, ‘Kathleen’s very good at this. Has she thought about ordained ministry?’

The youth worker reported this conversation to me. ‘And so I said to him, I don’t know, you should ask her!’

I thought it was just that I’d picked up some adult education skills from my day job. And forgot about it.

2018. The curate invited me to a Cursillo weekend. I thought it sounded fantastic. It wasn’t until I was signed up and paid up that she said, ‘Yes, that was where it all started for me.’

Oh, I thought. And then, Oh, well. And forgot about it.

I told a friend about the plot of the novel I was working on, how it all hinged on the fact that you can’t be ordained in the Church of England and be in a same-sex marriage. He asked me if my own vocation was going anywhere.

I’d forgotten that I’d ever told him about that.

I said no, though the curate had said what she’d said about Cursillo. And then I forgot about it.

I undertook tutor training. My first thought was how can I use this for church? It occurred to me that thirty-three was quite an appropriate age for all this to kick off again, really. I forgot about it.

I went on the Cursillo weekend and had my mind and my faith expanded in all sorts of other ways, and forgot about it.

I saw young women in dog collars – one in a bookshop, one on a train – and decided that it was confirmation bias.

I remembered Mary Poppins. The wind changes. I could smell the excitement in the air, and I knew what it was, and I didn’t want to admit it.

Returning to my novel, I asked the youth worker about the selection process. Most of my mind was focused on what I’d got wrong, what was going to screw up the timeline, what was going to rescue the arc. A little part of it was watching myself all the time to see if any of it pinged me as something that I was meant to be doing. It didn’t.

2019. I could feel it, smell it, sense it lurking in the undergrowth, waiting.

I demanded a neon sign. The next neon sign I saw said:

Started at the bottom

Now you’re here

It didn’t really help.

I decided that anything that felt that much like horrible and inevitable doom couldn’t be of divine origin. Possibly it was just that I needed a holiday.

(I did need a holiday.)

I prayed to feel better about it, if it was real.

With the twenties-and-thirties group, I was leading a course called SHAPE, designed to help people explore their gifts and their callings. In my day job, I was testing an online tool called Value My Skills. I was very aware of a parallel existence running alongside the life that I was leading, something that was more than a possibility and less than a probability.

I found myself thinking that if I got to the end of the SHAPE course without anything having come up, I was probably safe.

The week before Holy Week was peculiarly intense. Conversations and experiences piled on top of each other.

‘No, it’s not actually a thing, just a lurking sense of doom,’ I said to someone.

‘I’ve heard it often feels like that,’ they said to me.

I applied for a promotion at work in the knowledge that it was very possible that my future lay elsewhere.

I asked the Cursillo spiritual director about spiritual direction. She asked some questions about my church involvement. I answered: I was leading the twenties-and-thirties group, singing in the choir.

‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘I wonder what God’s got planned for you in, say, three years…’

I thought, oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.

I emailed people. I dragged people out to lunch. Nobody was surprised. Their lack of surprise was both infuriating and gratifying.

I didn’t get shortlisted for the promotion. It was rather a relief: I couldn’t have fitted anything else in my head that week.

I told the curate. She prayed for me, and I, who very rarely got visual images in prayer, saw a small square of fog clear, and a set of railway points switch from one track to another. And I knew then, that if this was going to turn out to be true, that was the moment I knew it. She got me onto the reading rota and the intercessions rota and the PCC; she told the vicar.

The vicar was kindly, thoroughly, interrogative, and made it clear that I was going to have to get used to talking about this. I remembered that this was the part I’d hated the last time round.

I wept through the service. I wept because it was gone.

That was the thing: it wasn’t the first time.

At the beginning I thought I’d be able to treat it as if it was the first time, but it wasn’t long before I found myself saying, ‘Well, the last time this happened…’ and having to explain what happened last time.

‘I suppose it came out in my last year of university. I applied for a few pastoral assistant jobs, but I didn’t get any of them.’

But I couldn’t remember what it was like before. I couldn’t remember why I wanted to do it. I couldn’t remember the wanting to do it, only the desolation afterwards.

‘And it just disappeared. I walked the Camino, and by the time I got to the end it had gone, and I hadn’t noticed.’ And then I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I went to Germany as an au pair, and then I still didn’t know what to do with myself, and the year after that was the worst year of my life.

All I had was bad poetry, and a handful of stories that didn’t quite say what I needed to say. What if the widow had her mite returned to her? What if the big fish had received new orders and spat Jonah out on some beach nowhere near Nineveh? There was Abraham and Isaac, reprieved at the last moment, but that seemed a bit melodramatic. Didn’t it?

It felt like a wonderful secret. It felt terrifying and inevitable. It felt like writing a novel used to, back when I didn’t tell anybody about writing a novel.

Returning to my novel, I was struck by how wrong I’d got it. The point of view character wasn’t the one who had a vocation to ordained ministry; that was her girlfriend. But I’d bestowed on both of them the sense of creeping doom, the malevolent attraction of a black hole, that I associated with a vocation when I didn’t have one. Now I could see that it didn’t feel like that at all. When I was in the middle of the thing, there was an excitement about it, a joyful anticipation, a feeling of rightness, of everything making sense.

I read The Night Manager and for once found myself identifying with the main character accepting the call to adventure, rather than inwardly yelling at him not to do it.

I dragged out boxes of old diaries, started sifting through years’ worth of online journals. How many times had I learned this and forgotten it again? I went to Paperchase and bought a notebook with a gold-dotted blue cover. I promised myself that this time I wouldn’t forget.

I realised that I’d been thinking about it for ages. It was just that the feelings had caught up with me.

I worried about turning into a Church of England pod person with naff coasters with Bible verses on.

I knew I needed to become a person who could talk about it, and I didn’t know how to become a person who could talk about it without ceasing to be myself.

I went to an enquiries evening and was too shy to talk to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations. I learned that the next thing to do was to book myself onto the vocations course.

I was under no illusions – certainly not the ones that would have tripped me up had I gone straight into selection and formation and ministry after university. I follow a lot of Clergy Twitter, after all.

But it seemed plausible that a decade working for a member organisation with big ideals and petty politics, one which depended for its continued operation on the labour of a lot of ageing volunteers, might have been just what I needed to equip me to deal with the Church of England. Last time might have been the wrong time. This might be the right time.

I did not book myself onto the vocations course.

I failed to do anything practical about it at all, just kept writing in my blue notebook with the gold spots.

It felt more and more like where I was going.

The Sunday before Advent, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations was the guest preacher. I talked to her, mentioning a little petulantly that the rest of my life seemed to be trying to happen at the same time (my husband and I had finally scraped together the deposit for a mortgage). She got me booked onto the next term’s vocations course.

On the Friday, the House of Bishops put out an even more tin-eared statement than usual, and I couldn’t help seeing the funny side. I wore a rainbow skirt to church that Sunday.

I went to the first session of the course.

That was the Wednesday before I went to Paperchase.

I saw the course through, as best I could given the challenges posed by Great Northern Rail (sometimes I got from London to Ely on time, and sometimes I didn’t) and (later) having to join in by Zoom over the phone, because the course had gone online and we didn’t have broadband at the new house. It was interesting, and enjoyable, and, for me, irrelevant.

I stuck around, waiting to see if the vocation was going to come back, whether it had been scared off by my moving house, or lockdown, or something. It didn’t.

I finished the novel. I started telling people that it had gone.

It’s ten months now since it went away; it already feels like another life. After the desolation came the relief. I don’t want to do this. I would have done it if I’d had to, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

The other day I found a mind map that I made when it was there and new and I was trying to make sense of it. There it all was, in my own handwriting, and it was nothing to do with me.

And I still don’t know why it happened: why it came, and why it went away.

Was it a piece of research that got a bit too immersive?

Did I need to know what a vocation felt like in order to know when I didn’t have one?

Am I off on another circuit of the labyrinth, bound to follow a long and winding path to get back to the same place?

The more time elapses, the less I think about those questions. The answer’s always the same, anyway: I don’t know.

And I suspect I won’t, not for a long time.

Advent Sunday

Advent calendar window, lit from behind, labelled 'First Sunday of Advent', with a picture of Christ in majesty with two skeletons.

I’ve shared a picture of my lovely six-sided Advent calendar in previous years. Advent is a season of varying length, of course, so sometimes, as this year, the traditional ‘starts on 1 December’ calendar is missing a few days. This one, however, has doors for St Andrew (30 November) and each Sunday of Advent, so this year it works perfectly. First Sunday of Advent today. St Andrew tomorrow. Then we’re into December.

I don’t have anything terribly original to add to the myriad observations about how weird this year is, the plethora of jokes about how today is March 274. Nevertheless, I have been thinking a lot about time this year. I revisited Waverly Fitzgerald’s lovely Slow Time and David Steindl-Rast’s Music of Silence. Pottering in my garden, I thought about The Morville Hours. Exploring Ely, I found two new sundials. This evening I listened to The Annunciation by Edwin Muir, and noticed myself noticing all the signifiers of time passing in the second half, noticed my mind leaping to a friend’s setting of The Spacious Firmament On High. Time. Time and space.

And where I am I? What have I learned? Nothing more than to try to be here, and now. I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot about that over the next month.

I love Advent. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages. And yet this morning found me late for church (over YouTube, so nobody knew!), pulling my top on as the processional played, breakfasting on cake. Somehow, Advent has crept up on me. It often does.

Even in normal times, time has never behaved the way I’ve thought it should. I remember the Advent calendar that was a pyramid shape, so that each day it had a little more wax to burn, and the closer it got to Christmas the longer I’d have to wait to blow it out. Not the sort of thing that King Alfred would have used for a candle clock.

So here I am. Here and now. I seem to know less than I ever did, and to be far less bothered by that than I’d ever have expected. I’ll be taking part in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections project again this year, looking back over the last twelve months, looking forward to the next twelve months.

To the pedantic western Christians reading this, Happy New Year! To everyone else, I hope March 274th is treating you well.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: S

Stack of books: Principal Role by Lorna Hill (with a dustjacket with a ballerina in front of a backdrop showing an Alpine village), Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, and The Rose and the Yew Tree by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.

And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)

Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.

A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.

He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…

The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:

“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”

Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.

When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.

(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)

Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.

Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.

… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.

No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).

As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.

While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.

We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:

The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.

(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.

In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:

It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.

In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:

There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.

This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.

The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.

Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia (not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.

Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.

Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.

Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.

Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.

Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:

The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.

If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.

There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.

detail of a relief map showing Ilchester at the top, Yeovil at the bottom, and, in faint red type, 'STANCHESTER' a third of the way up

Books mentioned in this post

The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie

King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRS

A #BeautifulStory in which nothing much happens

LGBTQIA Christians on Twitter have been responding to a video from the Church of England Evangelical Council by sharing their experiences as queer people of faith under the hashtag #BeautifulStory. For what it’s worth, here’s mine. I posted it on Twitter yesterday, but it’s probably easier to read here and, because this is the first time I’ve written a lot of it down, I didn’t want to lose it in my feed.

I’m not sure that mine is a particularly #BeautifulStory. Nor is it a particularly ugly one. It’s a bit awkward, and a bit messy, and for the first twenty years of my life I didn’t know that I had it. I grew up under Section 28, you see.

Consequently, I didn’t come across the word ‘bisexual’ until I was 20. If I’d heard it earlier, my life might have been very different. But then again, it might not, because I had many other things going on in it. Including a lot of Scripture Union books.

My church and family were Church of England, slap bang in the middle of the road. I continued down the middle of that road at university. But it’s very easy to internalise certain interpretations of Scripture, particularly if they seem to be more decisive than the alternative.

Anyway, I’d had a few half-hearted crushes on boys in my teens, so I couldn’t be gay. My cousin asked me (at my 18th birthday party) whether I liked women or men. I do wish he’d given ‘both/and’ as an option – though at that point the honest answer would have been ‘neither’.

(I should probably have said that this isn’t a particularly exciting story, either!)

So I went to university, dodged (or did I???) the Christian Union by sheer luck (was committed to symphony orchestra; both met on Tuesdays), had various crushes on various people, ended up going up with a bloke I lived with. (Who was and continues to be lovely!)

Despite studying English Lit and therefore having at least some exposure to queer theory, the first point at which I was prompted to apply it to myself was a Livejournal meme (the old sort of meme which was a series of statements which you bolded or struck out as appropriate)

One of those statements was ‘I am openly bisexual and have completely different reasons for being attracted to men or women’. I thought about that one for a while. I couldn’t say that it was true, for several reasons, but denying it didn’t feel right either.

And that was as far as it went. Meanwhile, the Christian Union drama went on and on and ended, the year after I graduated, with someone suing the Students’ Guild. The drama had got me to articulate my convictions about faith and sexuality to myself.

This was because the drama had a lot to do with the ‘religious freedom/Biblical teaching/equalities’ faultline, though that wasn’t where it had started. Never mind that. I couldn’t reconcile anti-LGBTQ theology with the Gospel.

I hoped and suspected that same-sex marriage, if it ever happened, would sort things out. What I didn’t do was apply any of my thinking to myself. Because I was in a heterosexual relationship, so why would I need to think about any of that? And for quite a while, I didn’t.

So. Graduated. Got engaged to the chap I mentioned upthread. (What I didn’t say is that we met in chapel choir, and that he was agnostic at the time and is now a churchgoing atheist. Which doesn’t seem to bother anybody…)

The beautiful irony in this #BeautifulStory is the fact that it was Church of England marriage preparation courses that got me to take a long, hard look at myself and appreciate that I couldn’t keep on keeping what I knew about myself to myself. So I came out to my fiancé.

And again, nothing much happened. We got married, moved house several times, sang in the choir together, both knowing I was bi. It didn’t make any difference. As one of my friends once said, being bisexual merely doubles the pool of people with whom one doesn’t commit adultery.

All of that is still true. And yet… It does make a difference. Because knowing I was bi and having my husband know I was bi wasn’t enough. Without realising, I was pushing part of myself down, leaving part of myself outside the church door.

I was thinking that part of myself was not acceptable – despite the fact that I’d have been horrified to catch myself thinking that about any other #FaithfullyLGBT person.

There’s a character in my first novel who’s a bit of a caricature of the Perfect Christian Woman. Wife, mother, pink top, cross pendant, etc. She’s also bi, but nobody knows, because she’s so good at projecting the PCW image. In a way, she’s a rather unflattering self-portrait.

Quite a lot happened the year I turned 30 – in my head and heart, at least. I finally found the gumption to self-publish. And I untangled a whole load of that internalised biphobia. I realised that nobody had hurt me as much as I had hurt myself.

And, self-publishing, on the last but one editing pass, I revisited my self-portrait, my Perfect Christian woman, and thought, Good grief, she sounds miserable. I’d moved on.

In between times, I was coming out to people, some of whom were at church. Sometimes it was awkward, sometimes it was a relief, sometimes it was awful. Every time my knees went wobbly afterwards. After a while I decided that I’d act as if everybody knew, and stop worrying.

But of course heteronormativity plus a different-sex partner meant that people always assumed – actually, ‘assumed’ is too strong a word – that I was straight, so I kept having to come out. I came out online, I came out offline. I came out to my family, to clergy, to colleagues.

I came out so many times to my (high turnover) Bible study group that I started to wonder if my purpose on earth was to demonstrate to ordinands (this was a Cambridge church, so got a lot on placements) that they were likely to encounter bolshy queer laypeople.

Now I’ve moved and will have to do it all over again. I have a few lapel badges to assist me. And it does get easier with practice (and not caring so much what people think, or whether they even think it.)

And this is really what my #BeautifulStory has been. From the outside, it looks very similar to the way it looked 15 years ago. But inside I am constantly being renewed and transformed.

I am constantly coming to understand more of who and what I am, and how that glorifies God much more than my previous half-life. I take all of myself to church, these days.

My novels tend to have more action than this. If you want a fictional #BeautifulStory, try Speak Its Name. If you want to know why this is still a big deal in the Church of England, The Real World is out now.

The Real World: book tour on Instagram

If you’ve been around a while, you might remember that when I launched A Spoke In The Wheel I did a blog tour. This was a whole load of fun, but it was also a whole load of admin, of pitching and chasing and writing.

This time I thought I’d get someone else to do the hard work, and so I approached Sasha at Pride Book Tours. The result? Beautiful. Two weeks of photographs over at Instagram. We’re only a couple of days in and I’m already delighted by the photographic skill and the artistic eye of these bookstagrammers.

Here’s the schedule:

I’ll come back every day and add a link to the new photo. If the two I’ve seen so far are anything to go by, we’re in for a real treat.

The Real World is a contemporary novel about institutions, integrity, depression, and learning to own your decisions and desires. It’s available now.

The miracle

A deciduous tree, with most of its leaves gone, with three cormorants perching in the upper branches. It is lit up by rose-gold morning light.

Last year. An autumn morning, probably very much like this one. Sunday. October, rather than November, because the clocks hadn’t gone back. A slow morning. Not the morning, really. Me. Sluggish. Lethargic. I couldn’t summon the energy to get out of bed because getting out of bed meant crossing the room to find my dressing gown and then I would have to have a shower and how do you even take a shower, I’d have to take my pyjamas off and step into the bath and ugh, then decide which clothes to wear, as if anybody cared, and eat something, and probably I hadn’t done any washing up, and could I face making toast…

But something wonderful had happened. Something had changed. All that was true, but I no longer felt like the worst person in the world. The moral judgement that usually accompanied such a morning had evaporated. It was as if someone who actually liked me had taken charge, someone who thought it was perfectly reasonable to take an hour to get out of bed if that was what was needed.

Every book I write disentangles something in my mind in some way. Speak Its Name sorted out a lot of internalised biphobia. A Spoke In The Wheel showed me how to deal with burnout and overcommitment. And The Real World seems to have taught me about depression.

The Real World is very much a book about depression. I’m not sure that I even mention the word in the text, but it shapes the protagonist’s experiences and, even more, her perceptions, in a way that’s almost bigger than the text. I nearly painted myself into a corner with it; had to tear the walls down to get us all out of there. There are several levels of irony to the title, and one of them is the fact that depression creates a world that isn’t real at all and keeps you trapped in it.

Writing about a fictional character’s depression, writing both the world she’s moving through and the world she’s limited to, reaching deep into my own experience to convey the sheer awkward clumsy fatigued too-bloody-muchness of it all, the way it narrows your horizons and stalls your momentum until it’s as much as you can do to put one foot in front of the other, I was able to find the compassion for her that I’d never been able to find for myself. Writing about someone who loved her and could see her as she was, not as she thought she was, helped me understand that I, too, could be loved as I was. And something inside me, something wiser than my rational brain, was able to apply it to me, too.

It’s still here. Even having been relieved of my 6am alarm and my commute by the lockdown, I’m still finding mornings difficult. I prickle at sympathy and suspect well-wishers of wanting to fix me, of thinking me unacceptable unless better. But my miracle is here, too, singing its serene quiet song: I am loved. I am enough.

This was not the only interesting thing that writing The Real World did to my head. I’ll tell you about the other thing another time. But I’m not sure it wasn’t the most important one.