Hope is larger


My penultimate day of work, and I spent much of it clearing emails out of my inbox. There’s one that’s been sitting in there for a long time. It’s one of those inspiration-motivation daily quotation emails that I signed up to once upon a time. And with most of those I read them, [nod approvingly/roll my eyes], and delete. But I didn’t delete this one. Was that because I knew I’d want to write about hope sooner or later? Undoubtedly. Was that the only reason? Possibly not.

Hope is not dead, it is just larger than our imaginations

– Kathy Hobaugh

And why not, I ask myself. There are many things that are larger than my imagination. The universe. The divine. Why not hope, too?

Who is Kathy Hobaugh? I’ve no idea. She might be appalling. She might be a genius. She might, in this case, be right.

I’ve been sneaking around the corners of despair and burnout this year, trying to keep my head down, do what I can to improve things within my reach, and not look at Twitter more than is good for my sanity, wondering what the point of it all is. Nevertheless, I have not deleted that email.

All this year I’ve been expecting things to get worse.

Now, I find myself thinking that it’s possible that they might get better.

Always just enough


Another post about the Camino Inglés that isn’t really about the Camino Inglés. It’s about railways and languages and pizza. And I’ve been thinking about all this quite a lot over the past few days, because I’ve just booked myself an InterRail pass.

To begin the Camino Inglés you have to get to either A Coruña or to Ferrol, and, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, my brother and I chose to do this by means of the overnight ferry from Plymouth to Santander and then the narrow gauge railway east to west along the north coast of Spain. This takes two days whichever way you slice it, and on both days we found the trains afflicted by service alterations.

The first was due to line upgrades, and resulted in a very enjoyable rail replacement bus journey through a string of beautiful coastal villages from Llanés to Ribadesella. The second was due to a train failure, and resulted in a rail replacement car from Navia to Ribadeo. (In the picture above you see my brother waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol.)

All this was communicated with some difficulty, given the fact that the key players were:

  • railway staff – no English
  • a cyclist at Ribadeo who was trying to go west-east – no Spanish
  • my brother – no Spanish
  • me – some Spanish

And sometimes we could just follow everyone else, but that didn’t work so well when we were the only passengers going to Ribadeo. And having to explain to the conductor on the subsequent train that the reason that our tickets had been franked was because the previous train had broken down… that was a challenge. But we managed – because, I thought, I had just enough Spanish to manage.

I’ve always felt quite strongly about learning a bit of the language of any country I’m visiting. I’ve told myself that it’s about politeness, but I think it might also be about confidence, about control, about knowing what’s going on. Anyway, I spent the three months before our departure brushing up on my Spanish, and I was glad I did.

(Castilian Spanish, that is. If Duolingo had given me an option for Gallego I’d have taken it up!)

I did most of the talking all along the route – to the hotel proprietors, to the waiters and bar staff, to the lady handing out boiled eggs to pilgrims (who spoke Spanish and Italian, and I think German). And all the way I had just enough Spanish to manage.

But at the end of the fourth day of walking – we were less than 20km from Santiago at this point, and tired – I suddenly found myself unable to remember the Spanish for ‘four’, and therefore unable to order the pizza I wanted. So my brother did it. And of course he managed. He had just enough Spanish to manage.

So did the cyclist at Ribadeo. He didn’t speak any Spanish, and the stationmaster didn’t speak any English, but between them they transmitted the idea that the train was terminating and the cyclist would have to come back in the morning. When we arrived they asked me to translate, but in fact they’d already managed it. They had just enough, even though neither of them had any.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to carry this forwards into 2018. I’m planning on brushing up my German, but even with the best will in the world, I’m not going to be able to learn enough Hungarian to reach my standards of this time last year – and I would quite like to see Budapest. I’m not going to be able to learn enough Danish or Swedish – and I’m planning to start out with Copenhagen and Stockholm. I’m just going to have to trust that what I know is going to be just enough.

The tireless music


This hasn’t been a spectacular year for me, in musical terms. I’ve sung very little that I hadn’t sung before. I’m only a few pages further forward in the Adult Piano Method. I haven’t touched the cello. All the same, I feel as if I’m in a different place, that I’m a better musician, than I was twelve months ago. And I think that that’s largely been down to the simple act of showing up and singing. Consolidation. Every time I sing the Duruflé Requiem, I get better at it. The bits that freaked me out last year are less forbidding this year; the bits I learned in Guildford are old friends. Every time I sing anything, I get better at it, and better at singing.

‘Tireless music’ feels more true than it would have done a year ago. I haven’t had to flake out on choir once this autumn, which is a vast improvement. Eating on the train home before choir practice has really helped. Great Northern trains have not helped so much, but I’ve never been more than a quarter of an hour late.

What else?

  • I replaced a broken cello string and tuned the cello. Haven’t played it yet, but having it playable is a step in the right direction.
  • I led what they call a rousing chorus of Goodnight Irene at a… wake? memorial? celebration? A party, anyway.
  • I had a go with an otamatone, which is a delightfully silly instrument. I have this idea that long acquaintance with a fretless stringed instrument ought to make it fairly easy to get fairly good fairly quickly… I like the theory.

Next year I’d like to develop a reliable top F. I can get a top F at home with the piano; I’d like to get sufficiently comfortable with it that I can also summon it in company, in a cold church. I’d like to sing more appalling Victorian slush (I non-ironically love The Lost Chord, OK?) and get good at it.

I’d like to replace the cello spike. (The current one is too short, and has been since I was fifteen or so.) I’d also like to get to the end of the first volume of the piano tutor.

So much for what I’d like to do. Now for the doing of it. Just keep showing up.


The title is from ‘Saint Paul‘, a long poem by Frederick H. W. Myers. Some other verses from that poem make up ‘Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing’, which is possibly my favourite Advent hymn. Here‘s the tune played by brass band.

Take courage


Courage is a word that I’ve been playing with on and off for three or four years now. I’ve gone from feeling very ambivalent about it to wanting more of it, wanting to put it at north and steer by it.

Today I’m particularly conscious of its connections with cor, coeur, cordaheart. Of late I’ve been feeling more comfortable with hearts – wearing them, drawing them, writing <3.

Today courage feels like what I need to be me, but more so.

My parents couldn’t have known, over thirty years ago, that A F would end up standing for as fuck, and if they had they probably wouldn’t have given me middle names starting with those initials. I noticed the connection earlier this year, and thought it was brilliant. Do I want to be Kathleen af? Yes, yes I do. But it’s going to take courage.

I think that perhaps the opposite of courage – for me, today – is shame. I’ve been thinking about shame quite a lot over the past few days. I seem to be remarkably prone to it, more than seems reasonable. I dwell. Little errors or awkwardnesses, things that (I tell myself) most people would just laugh off and move on from, stay with me for literal years, bring with them resentment and embarrassment. “That person knows about when I did that thing.” I blush and stutter and assume they haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten. (They’ve almost certainly forgotten. I’m the one who’s stuck, ensnared in that shame that’s trying to keep me from letting it ever happen again. Whatever it was.)

I want – in both senses, lack and desire – the courage to let those things exist, to allow them to have existed and to let them go. I want the courage to be most fully myself. I want the courage to be Kathleen af.

The tipping point


As has probably been obvious, I’ve struggled quite a bit with this book, with believing in its quality and in my ability to make it happen. Expectations are higher than they were last time. For a start, there are expectations. Last time round I kept everything under my hat until I had something that I knew was good. This time I’ve had people looking at my work almost from the very beginning. (Next time, I’ll put my hat back on and keep things under it.)

I’ve discovered that with every book there comes a point during editing – for me, anyway – where

‘this can’t go out looking like that!’

tips over into

‘good, yes, let’s polish the rough spots and get the thing out of the door!’

It coincides pretty much exactly with the point where I’ve gone through so many edits myself that I can’t see what’s good and what’s bad any more. The point where I know something still needs fixing, but heaven alone knows what it is.

What I know now is that this is the point at which it makes sense to bring in the editing party, because otherwise the poor things get bombarded. There were times this year when they were getting a new draft every month, although I don’t believe any of them tried to read every one of those. Thank goodness.

Anyway, I reached that tipping point a couple of weeks ago. I can’t see what more I can do with this book. I’m hoping that my editors can. If they can, they’ll be getting gin. (If they can’t – they’ll be getting gin.) But I’m beginning to believe that it might actually be OK.



It is St Lucy’s day, which used to fall on the shortest day of the year before they started messing around with the calendars. John Donne wrote a poem about that. Even today, with a week yet to go until the solstice, it was fairly gloomy, with a great grey raincloud settling down over London and only dispersing half an hour or so before sunset.

But ‘Lucy’ is from ‘lux’: light.

This year, light has come most obviously from the little box on my desk: a grid of bright white LEDs shining up into my eyes. I started switching this on in August. Every day it measures out ninety minutes of light for me.

It’s made a huge difference. I’ve remained cheerful and functional all the way through into December. Oh, I’ve occasionally had to retreat under my headphones, or make a strategic cup of tea, or whatever, but this autumn I have not had to hide in the stairwell and cry. I really am impressed by how well it’s worked.

But I have found light elsewhere, too. All along the waterfront in Ghent (that’s where the blue birds in the picture are). Slanting across the floor of a huge, quiet, Spanish cathedral. Glinting off the river three minutes’ walk from my front door. Through office windows and church windows and on bright seas. After rainstorms. At the end of tunnels. It’s the contrast that does it.

I didn’t realise until this year how much better things could be when I get enough light.



My perception is that 2017 has not been a very good year for noticing. And by ‘not been a very good year’ I mean that I haven’t been very good at it. And by ‘noticing’ I mean that sharp, intense, take-your-breath away sort of awareness, of feeling very much present, of having a sense of the substance and nature of a thing. I’ve written very little poetry this year, and that seems like evidence of my not having noticed very much.

Why might that be? It might partly be because the camera on my phone has got all fuzzed up (Friday afternoon wasn’t nearly as hazy as the picture at the top of this post suggests), and so I’ve stopped looking for things that might make good photos, and so I’ve stopped looking.

It might be that I’ve been forgetting to look.

It might be that I’ve been looking in the wrong places. It might be that looking is the wrong verb. It might be that I need to listen, smell, touch or taste instead.

It might be that what ‘noticing’ means for me now is different from what it meant three years ago – although two striking sunsets (or, more to the point, my reaction to them) suggest that this isn’t necessarily the case.

It might be that most of my noticing happens on the train (the early morning sunset on the Hertfordshire hills is simply glorious) and so I can’t just stand and look at it; I’ve usually been whisked onwards.

It might be that things are generally better for me than they have been in previous years, so I haven’t been noticing my own noticing.

It might be that previous years’ noticings, being the most memorable parts of those years, stick out more and run together until I half-persuade myself that 2014, for example, was a golden succession of constant awareness of the glories of the universe, whereas 2017, at this much closer distance, seems like a couple of interesting moments stuck together with tedium.

All those explanations seem plausible. I don’t know which of them are true, and maybe I never will. And you know, even noticing that I don’t think that I’ve been noticing is in itself noticing, so perhaps I’m not doing as badly as all that.