Kathleen Jowitt writes contemporary literary fiction exploring themes of identity, redemption, integrity, and politics. Her work has been shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize and the Selfies Award, and her debut novel, Speak Its Name, was the first ever self-published book to receive a Betty Trask Award.
On Easter Monday I reread A Spoke In The Wheel. ASITW, as I shall refer to it henceforth, was my second novel, which dealt with the coming to terms of a disgraced cyclist and a disabled cycling fan. Easter Monday was day 18 of my convalescence, if we’re counting from the first day I tested negative for Covid, and was, like many of the previous 25 days, spent mostly lying on the sofa.
While my main reason for rereading was being in a mood for more cycling after watching both Paris-Roubaix races in the afternoon of Easter Day, and also to see if there was any mileage in a spin-off story for the B couple, it was quite an interesting experience. This is, if not the most ill I’ve been in years, certainly the longest duration of illness I’ve had, and I couldn’t help looking out to see what I’d got wrong.
Of course I’d done my homework at the time, getting two ME sufferers of my acquaintance to check and double-check for errors and faux pas, but this is as close as I’d want to get to experiencing chronic illness for myself. I’m very thankful indeed that I do seem to be getting steadily better. I’m noticing tangible improvements from week to week, if not necessarily from day to day. On Monday I went into the office for the first time since the middle of March. Yesterday I had to have a lie-down as soon as I’d shut down my laptop. Tomorrow I’ll try riding my bike to the station.
So what did I find? Actually, not all that much that spoke directly to my comparatively short experience of illness. The whole point of ASITW was that it was talking about long-term conditions. I was writing about two people who spent most of their lives at the limits of their physical capacity, who were intimately familiar with that territory. It’s new ground for me. Anything I might have added from my current experience would be part of a prequel, or, just about conceivably, a flashback.
My limits are changing all the time. Not, perhaps, so fast as I’d like, certainly not so fast as the Protestant work ethic thinks they should be, but they’re changing. I know about as much about chronic illness from a month of post-Covid as the person who does a one-night fundraising sleepout knows about what it’s like to live on the streets. Which is to say, not much at all. If I were writing ASITW now I’d still need my specialist editors. Maybe even more so than I did before, lest I think I know it all now. (A little learning is a dangerous thing…)
And the other thing is that it came from the point of view of someone who had been disabled and now wasn’t, with all the assumptions that implies. Ben’s experience of disability is far in the past even if his experience of not being able to do everything he wants to do is very recent. He was always going to start out as a clueless git, and being a clueless git is, I would argue, not something that one needs personal experience to write. (I have often been clueless. I have tried not to be a git.) If I’d had this month of fatigue when I was writing ASITW I wouldn’t really have had anywhere to put it. Or, if I had, it would have been a very different book. And, you know, rereading the one I actually wrote, I’m pretty happy with the way it ended up.
Autistic on Wheels – Katherine’s advice and comments were immensely helpful to me when I was writing ASITW. She’s doing important advocacy work.
The rise of sensitivity readers – an article from Independent.ie quoting the formidable Susan Lanigan
I think I’m getting better. I cycled up the hill to the post office this lunchtime. Granted, I also had to have a nap at the end of the working day, but it’s still encouraging. What’s particularly encouraging is the fact that both the bike ride and the nap left me feeling more cheerful. And optimistic.
I’ve been having ideas. I’ve been thinking how remiss it is of spy thriller writers who set their books in 1960s Paris to fail to include a Paris bus. That might be another one for the Book Bus stories. I’ve been thinking what a lovely meet-cute I gave my B couple in A Spoke In The Wheel and wondering if I might write a spin-off. That’s another two ideas to add to ‘something inspired by Saints Felicity and Perpetua’ and ‘something in Victorian Stancester’ for the sapphical-historical anthology I was talking about last time. (I added up all the existing stories that could go in there, by the way. 25,000 words, so I’d want to write at least as much again.)
Ideas are great, but they’re only the beginning. Where I’m having difficulty is developing them into something that’s sturdy enough to support a narrative. That’s the kind of thing that I’d usually work out with myself over the course of a walk, and I haven’t been up to walking. Usually I’d be saying to myself, So, this spy, why is he on this bus? Is he meeting someone? Going somewhere? Half an hour into a walk, I’d have an answer, and with the answer I’d have a plot. But that circuit just isn’t running at the moment.
And ideas aren’t even necessarily terribly useful, since there’s at least one school of thought that says that I’d be best off returning to the Romeo and Juliet thing. And I will do that, just as soon as I’ve finished this blog post. But my goodness, it’s nice to have something going on in my head.
I remember that this time last year I was talking about reading St Augustine over Easter. I’m not sure that I’d have managed it even without taking into account a complicated and tiring, though ultimately very enjoyable, family event. The best-laid schemes and all that… But even so, it is spring, and the tulips are out, and so is the apple blossom, and today I saw two goldfinches at the bird feeder, and I have ideas.
In twelve days, it will be Easter. I’m not quite sure how. This year has slipped past without my really noticing.
I noticed Candlemas, because that was the day of Pa’s funeral. I noticed Ash Wednesday, because we had a friend staying and she reminded us about pancakes. I noticed Lady Day (the first day of the year, in old money, and maybe this is a good year to claim that do-over), but I was in no position to do anything about it because I was flat out on the sofa with Covid. And now here we are in April, and this Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and the Sunday after that will be Easter.
2022 has felt rather as if I’m bobbing around on a raft on the ocean, and every time I get myself and my raft the right way up another huge wave has crashed down and swamped me again and all I can do is hang on.
That sounds gloomy, and, oddly enough, I’m not feeling all that gloomy. Not tonight, anyway. I’m reasonably confident that the shore’s over there somewhere and, so long as I keep hold of the rope I’ll wash up on dry land eventually. But the first three months of this year have disappeared in death administration, and fortnightly dashes to the Isle of Wight, and Covid, and I assume I must have been doing my day job in between times.
What I haven’t been doing much of is writing. Or at least I think I haven’t. I never write much on the Isle of Wight. It’s like another dimension. The train journeys have worked their usual magic, it’s true, but I’m way behind on typing up the longhand from those train journeys. I’m very aware that I’ve been neglecting this blog. And the last two weeks have been (wait for it) a write-off. All I managed to write when I had Covid was a report on the event at which I caught Covid.
And I was feeling gloomy about this on Sunday evening.
I had high hopes for this year. I was aiming to get an anthology of short stories out in time for Ventnor Fringe and the Ruritanian novel done for Christmas. Those would have been entirely reasonable goals, if this had turned out to be a usual year. As things are, not only have I lost three months, but those projects have got all tangled up with grief. Technically, they need ruthlessness. Emotionally, they need gentleness. The Book Bus will be at Ventnor Fringe, and I’ll be there too, but there’s no way I’m going to get those little stories finished off and tidied up for July, not when they’ve been joined by hundreds of other stories that perhaps aren’t mine to tell. And really I was writing the Ruritanian thing for myself and for Pa, and at the moment I can’t quite bring myself write Buchanesque chase scenes with trams when I know he won’t read them.
So I’m regrouping. The Ruritanian novel is reclaiming its ‘frivolous side project’ status, and I’ll work on it for fun, when it becomes fun again. The book bus stories will happen one of these years, but it won’t be this year. I’m shifting my focus to the 1920s Romeo and Juliet thing. That’s a little annoying in that I have 26,000 words on that, compared to 58,000 on the Ruritanian thing, but it’s going to be quite a lot easier in that it’s character-driven (very much my strength) as opposed to plot-driven (very much not).
This leaves me with the question of what I publish in 2022. Of course, nothing is an option. But I’ve been publishing a book every even-numbered year since 2016 now, and there’s part of me that’s reluctant to spoil the pattern. One possible answer is an anthology of short stories – not the book bus stories (well, maybe I’ll borrow one of them), but a selection of vaguely sapphic vaguely historical things. Things like Stronger Than Death, which appeared in an anthology by a publisher that has since stopped trading, and The Sisters’ House, which was written for a very specific call for submissions and wasn’t selected, and Prima Donna, for which the rights returned to me ages ago, and The Secret of the Glacier, which has never been published at all. I’d quite like to pull them all together, and write a few more stories to round the collection out. I should be able to manage that over the next eight months. Although, now I come to look at my calendar for May and June and July and August, it might be more of a challenge than you’d think…
I’m about six weeks late with this, but there’s plenty of 2022 still to come, which means that there’s plenty of time still to read books. Plenty of time to take a look at Jae’s Sapphic Book Bingo and mark out a line you might like to fill. There’s still time to fill the whole card, if you’re feeling ambitious.
As ever with Jae’s challenges, there’s a refreshingly wide choice of themes, and my stories fit into quite a few of them. Such as:
- Speak Its Name is, above all, Lydia’s coming-out story. (It takes her a while to come out even to herself, which was a bit of a challenge when I realised that the whole thing needed to be rewritten and put into her point of view.)
- It’s also an award-winning book. In fact, it was the first self-published book ever shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. Getting shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize means you automatically win a Betty Trask Award. Will I be forever thrilled to have been shortlisted for the same award as Sarah Waters? Oh yes.
- I have a few short stories available for free. Find The Mermaid at The Lesbian Historic Motif podcast or Prima Donna at A Story Most Queer (both historical fiction, both podcasts). Or sign up for my newsletter to download Yay or Nay (historical fiction again) or In Little Space (a Christmassy short set between Speak Its Name and The Real World).
- And you can find Daisy’s Yarn in the new IReadIndies anthology Anything But Romance, free until the end of the month. As you might guess, it’s Not a romance as well as being a free book.
- Are student politics (Speak Its Name) or the intersection between sexual identity and faith (both Speak Its Name and The Real World) out of your comfort zone? There’s another square for you.
- As for different sexual orientation or gender identity, Lydia is a lesbian (Speak Its Name is her book) and Colette is bisexual (The Real World is hers, and it’s very, very bi). They’re both cis.
- They’re an established couple by the time we get to The Real World.
- I think The Real World is probably my author’s pick. I was flicking through it this morning and thinking that it was worth all the anguish after all.
And if you’re going for the trickier Book Unicorn card, either Speak Its Name or The Real World will of course count for Faith. (You might find some other possibilities on my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations post, too.)
There are some that I can’t help you with. I’m too young to have written a sapphic classic, though I’ve read plenty (most recently enjoyed Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder At The Nightwood Bar). I am not a POC author (try Sara Collins, The Confessions of Frannie Langton). Nor am I a newbie (going to have to do some research there). And so forth.
And there are some that are a bit borderline. I’m not sure that I’d count ‘both being rostered to cook baked potatoes’ as a meet-cute, but you might feel differently. (Sadly, my cutest sapphic meet-cute happens in A Spoke in the Wheel, which is not a sapphic book, what with it being narrated by a man and all. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Vicki and Gianna and their background cycling app rivalry meet-cute. Gianna, the silversmith, would be my best shot at an unusual job, too. Oh well.)
If you think one of my books might help you fill a square on your card, you’ll find them, among other places, on Smashwords, where I’m giving a 50% discount to readers playing Sapphic Bingo. Use voucher code TF79U to get the discount.
So that’s it. Have fun. Eyes down.
Once upon a time there was a woman who sold dreams for children. Do not mistake me here. She did not sell dreams to children – children, after all, do not usually have much money to spare – but she sold them for the children. She sold them to the parents.
‘Your daughter could be great,’ she would say. That one, she gave away for free.
‘Your daughter could be the greatest.’ And, to do her justice, it was true. She did not bother with those who had not the matter within themselves to make a return on their parents’ investment.
She rarely said much more than that. Not at first, anyway. She had no need. Everyone knew that, of all the dreams of all the sellers of dreams, hers were by far the most likely to come true.
‘There will be a cost,’ she said, each time.
‘We will pay,’ the parents would say.
She would name the price, and again the parents would say, ‘We will pay.’ Most of them said so, at any rate. As for the others – well, their children are not our concern, and whether that was good for them or whether it was ill is not my concern. My business is to tell you how it went with those who pursued the purchase of a dream. After all, you aren’t interested in the others, are you?
And I realise now that I have barely told you the substance of the dreams that this woman sold. They were common enough, in that many wanted them. They were rare indeed, in that few could fulfil them. They looked different – to some they seemed like fame, to others, skill, to others, victory, to still others, beauty, and so forth; to one the dream would seem a golden crown to be placed upon her head; to another, a wreath of laurel leaves – but what I mean to say is that all were the same dream, for this was the only dream the woman sold, and all who came to her knew what they were buying. That was why they were happy to pay what she asked.
‘There will be a cost,’ she said, each time.
‘We will pay,’ the parents said.
‘There will be a cost to your child, too.’
They would all look at the child, and see her wide-eyed and dazzled by the golden dream they hung before her. ‘She will pay.’
Perhaps the parents should have asked what that cost would be. Perhaps then they would have heard: her youth. Or, her health. Or, her freedom. Her happiness. Her future. Or her soul. Perhaps some of them did ask. Perhaps some of them thought it better not to know. I can’t say. At any rate, many of them bought that dream.
And many of them were satisfied with the bargain. The dream they had bought for their daughter was golden indeed; given time, it was very clear that she would be great, that she could be the greatest. I heard once that there were some who paid the price and regretted it, but if you were to ask the woman about them you would find that she did not recognise their names, and nor would you recognise their names, and so we must conclude that they are of no concern to us.
Where were we? Ah, yes. The child whose parents bought a dream for her, a golden, gleaming dream; a dream for which they paid with money and for which she paid with her health and her youth, her future and her freedom and her happiness. And, perhaps, her soul. A golden, gleaming dream, a circlet that rested heavily on her head, with the weightiness of skill and beauty, victory and fame. A dream of greatness.
And it was hers. Do not mistake me. It belonged to her, truly, for – this is a fairy tale, so shall we say, a year and a day? Very well. For a year and a day, she was the greatest, and in her golden dream-crown she ruled over all, and all praised her skill and her artistry, her beauty and her fame. And then –
And then? Nobody wants to know what happened next. Are you sure? Well, if you must. When a year and a day had passed, she woke, and she found that her golden circlet had changed into a wreath of dead brown leaves that crumbled into dust when she touched them, and her limbs were racked with pain, and her bones were the bones of an old woman, and no one remembered her name.
And with agony coursing through her with every step, she went to the city that she had ruled and she saw that another girl was the greatest, another girl wore her crown, another girl had bought and had claimed the dream.
Her parents were furious. ‘The woman tricked us!’ they yelled, and they stamped off to complain, their daughter limping behind them. She would have wept, but she had learned that there was no use in weeping.
She did not weep, but the woman smiled. ‘Why are you surprised?’ she asked. ‘Surely you know that a dream only lasts as long as you sleep.’
The parents ranted and fumed. But the woman turned away. She had no time for them. She had another dream to sell.
More on the question of sport, and whether it’s worth it all? Try A Spoke In The Wheel:
The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.
The first thing she saw was the doper.
Every time I spoke to Pa over the last few months of his life, he said to me, ‘I still haven’t found your birthday present’. Found, that is, in the room that he used as half study, half bedroom, half model railway layout, and indeed, good luck finding anything in there. He’d given me a hideous charity shop coaster as a sort of joke present on the day itself, but my actual present was lost.
I assumed we’d never find it. Or, rather, I assumed we’d find it and we wouldn’t know. That it would be loose among his own things, indistinguishable from them.
But there it was: a padded envelope, with my initials and the date of my birthday. I cried a bit. Inside: a book of birds, and a book of stickers. Yes. Something I’d like, but something that might have been his own.
We found all sorts of things. There was another envelope, a much older one. Inside was a scarf. The writing on the envelope told us that the scarf was made by my great-grandmother for my grandfather, and it was in remarkably good condition one hundred and twenty years later. Other things were not so well documented. In the same box as the scarf we found several lovely early twentieth century Christmas cards, with no clue as to who sent them, or to whom. Somebody must have kept them for some reason, but I shouldn’t think we’ll ever know now.
We fill our homes with things – because we like them, because somebody important gave them to us, because we don’t get round to getting rid of them. We know what the reasons are; the people who come after us probably won’t, unless we tell them. I can see myself hanging onto that padded envelope; if so, I can see my children, if I have any, chucking it. And we will both be right.
Every item in a house is there for a reason. Some of those reasons are not particularly good ones.
‘Every word on that page is there for a reason,’ my A-level English teacher told me. It was quite possibly the most significant thing I learned at school. Every word represents a choice. Saying it this way, not any of the other ways one might have said it. Keeping it there when you come to reread. Deciding that it needed to be said in the first place.
Pa was an expansive, digressive, eclectic writer. He wrote about all sorts of things, though the nominal subject was usually mass transit. Most of his readers were quite happy to come along for the ride. And I think that his reason for most of the words, like most of the items, was, quite simply, that he liked them.
Here’s something that’s in my house for a reason, a birthday present I most definitely knew about. This was what Pa made me for my fifth birthday. It says so on the back.
My father died sometime in the night of 7-8 January, about as peacefully as it’s possible to do it, and I still don’t quite know what to say.
Not because there’s nothing to say: everybody I hear from who knew him has something lovely to say, some delightful memory to share. Not because there’s nothing to talk about: there are 79 years to talk about, and I was around for slightly less than half of that.
It’s such a cliché to begin by saying that one doesn’t know where to start that I almost don’t want to admit it, but in this case it’s true. My own tactic to deal with that very real dilemma is to start with whatever first comes to mind, and to worry about reordering it later.
So, in that spirit, here are some things that I want to say about my Pa.
- He always was Pa, not Dad or anything else.
- We lived in more or less the same wordscape, sharing hymns and trashy Victorian songs and Shakespeare and quasi-mythological family anecdotes and using quotations as shorthand.
- I wouldn’t be writing something set in modern-day Ruritania now if he hadn’t read me The Prisoner of Zenda when I was nine or ten.
- I’m sure that many people who come across this post will be looking for Robert E. Jowitt the transport author and photographer, and that was indeed very much part of who he was. Both his writing and his photography were as eclectic and idiosyncratic as his reading matter. He liked digressions and very long sentences and quotations.
- If you’d told him that real men don’t read Jilly Cooper he’d have laughed at you.
- There is still a card on the fridge with a list of the OS maps that he was missing from his collection and which I might have wanted to give him for his birthday.
- He had a strong sense of whimsy and, I suppose, sentimentality.
- He was, above all, interested in people. He would quite often ask me about friends of mine who he’d met perhaps twice, five years ago. He could make friends with pretty much anybody. He annoyed transport photography purists by taking pictures with a nun obscuring the numberplate, or a tramp in front of a tram, a shopper or a copper in the way of a tree-lopper. He liked to show public transport in, well, public, putting it in the context of the public it was built to serve and the landscape across which it transported it.
- He claimed not to be terribly interested in buses, though he would take them in the absence of trams, trolleybuses, or steam locomotives. The one exception was Paris buses, the open-platformed 1930s Renaults. He photographed his first one in 1960 and brought it home in 1970. It’s still running.
- He gathered the most extraordinary group of people around the buses, a sort of found family before anybody called it that. Bus people, art people, music people, all sorts of people.
- He never did anything he didn’t want to do.
- He couldn’t sing but he didn’t let that stop him.
- He really was impossible to live with.
- He was interested in birds and ships and architecture and bel canto opera and all sorts of things.
- He was immensely proud of his children and of our achievements, though if he found something where there was room for improvement we’d hear about it.
- He was an entertaining raconteur. I can’t tell the stories half so well.
- The last time we saw each other face to face we talked about We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and teamed up in a family game of Settlers of Catan. The last time we spoke on the phone he thanked me for his Christmas present – the 2022 calendar from A Cambridge Diary – and told me that his favourite picture in it was the housemartins.
Is that everything? No, not at all. I could go on and on and on. But it is something. There’s a big gap in many people’s lives now.
Edited to add: the funeral will take place on Wednesday, 2 February – please see the funeral director’s site for details of how to watch online.
So here we are. I feel more kinship with the Magi than with anybody else in the nativity set: you spend a long, long time getting anywhere, and you go to the wrong place, and then you finally get there and you’re only just in time, everyone else has packed up and gone home, and you get maybe a day before you get put back in your box and put away. And then you do the whole thing again next year. (I wrote a poem about that a few years ago.)
I was thinking this evening about the gifts that the Magi bring: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the primary school nativity plays I participated in they were represented by cardboard boxes covered in shiny paper. It doesn’t go very far in conveying the weight and gleam of gold, the heavy scent of myrrh or frankincense; it doesn’t do much more than the plastic containers the Playmobil figures are carrying.
This Advent I – along with much of the rest of the Church of England, no doubt – read Music of Eternity, a curated and adapted collection of writing by Evelyn Underhill, the twentieth century mystic. I found it, by turns, thought-provoking, gently challenging, and really quite difficult, and at some point it managed to press some buttons which then stayed pressed all the way through Christmas. I’m not sure it was even the fault of the book; it just managed to convey to me the impression that there is a right way and there is a wrong way, and you, not doing it the right way, are doing it the wrong way. And that took me back to all the churches that have not been the right church for me, but which managed to convey me that I was doing it wrong. Whatever it was.
Evelyn Underhill talks a lot about being self-oblivious and, while I know in my head what she was getting at, me attempting to be self-oblivious summons a persona who really shouldn’t be running the show. (The key word here is, of course, attempting, but this was the kind of response that I observed myself having.) She ran it from when I was about fourteen up until my late twenties, and it was very tiring being her. She was always trying to fit in, she was always trying to be right. She was trying to please, she was trying to protect, but the only way she knew how to protect was to suppress (herself and others) and she did as much damaging suppressing as she would have done by leaving people unprotected. And she ran on weapons grade, grudging, effort. She was trying. She really was trying. She was very trying.
One of the most humbling and delightful discoveries of the last decade has been that God isn’t at all interested in her. God is interested in me. And other people have seen through her to me, and liked me. One of the things that I discovered when I stopped putting all my energy into being her was that other people also had trouble with not being XYZ enough, whatever XYZ was for them, and actually admitting to being human and having trouble with stuff was a far better way to make friends than whatever it was I’d been trying before.
The trouble is that when this persona gets hold of an idea like being self-oblivious as something that is desirable to be, and sees the current-me, who has a much better idea of who she is, well, there’s trouble. Because I can’t be doing with her yelling you’re doing it wrong!!!! at me all the time, I haven’t been doing much at all. And probably I should have a conversation with her and see if she wouldn’t rather be off-duty with a pile of comics and a glass of lemonade, because she shouldn’t have had to be on duty all those years, that wasn’t fair, but I’ve only just recognised her modus operandi.
Anyway, she quietened down this evening, maybe just because I went to church. Epiphany. We got there. Just in time. (Metaphorically, that is. Literally I had five minutes to spare.) And I thought about how tactile, how sensory, the gifts of the Magi were. How very material the Incarnation is. That, while I can conceive of a reality that is so real that compared to it flesh and blood is plastic and gold and myrrh are cardboard boxes, I can only get there through this reality. The way in for me is through who I am and through what is there.
I bought this little star, and a few others like it, from a member of the regional women’s committee back in the day when I was looking after the regional women’s committee.
Working for a trade union, you meet all sorts of people. It’s one of the really interesting things about the job, and it’s been particularly good for me. If I am less stand-offish, shy, or socially awkward than I was a decade ago, a large part of that’s down to the people I’ve worked with and for, union staff and union members. (And a lot of the rest of it is down to my fellow weirdoes on the internet.)
I’d meant to write more, but I’m feeling woozy and achy after yesterday’s jab, and my thoughts are wandering all over the place. So this short and sweet post will have to do, together, of course, with a solid day’s work tomorrow. Side-effects permitting.
Nothing special about this bauble: it’s a bog-standard plastic thing. The diamanté trim, however, has a story of sorts. Originally it was attached to the little clutch bag I bought to go with my going-away outfit. I felt that it was a bit too gaudy for the occasion and removed it. After that it hung around the place doing nothing very useful until it occurred to me that I could add it to a Christmas tree bauble, and did. I think I might have had to snip off a couple of jewels from one end to make it fit properly. If so, I chucked them. Even I’m not that much of a hoarder.
I had my booster vaccination this afternoon. Consequently I am feeling somewhat less sparkly than usual, particularly around the left shoulder. Nevertheless, I trust that I will shortly be augmented with enhanced immunity, and will therefore be able to partake more fully and more confidently in life.