December Reflections 9: shadows


I’ve remarked before how having a camera in my hand makes me pay more attention to everything. I’ve been on the lookout for good shadows over the last couple of days. And the thing that I’ve noticed particularly is that the best ones come when the sun is particularly strong. Inside the house, where there are multiple light sources (overhead lamp, desk lamp, candle) there are shadows all over the place, but outside you don’t get any shadows to speak of unless the sun’s out. And it’s the rich, golden, slantwise sun that makes the really good ones.

My youngest brother has been staying with us, doing a bit of work experience at my office. It’s prompted me to think a bit about the way that I live my life, to remember that early mornings and long journeys aren’t necessarily the way things have to be. I don’t see anything much changing in the next few years. But it’s been good for me to remember that things look different in different lights.

December Reflections 8: biggest surprise of 2018


The biggest surprise of 2018 had to be the moment when the creative writing workshop I was leading turned out to be not, as I’d assumed, adult learners, but a group of thirteen and fifteen year olds. That was a bit of a shock!

More generally, though, I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed teaching and tutoring. And by how much less intimidating it’s been than I would have expected. Then again, my own learning style is very much, ‘read around the subject a bit, and then jump in and have a go’, so I’ve found that it’s really been a question of equipping other people with the confidence to do that.

I’ve led a few creative writing workshops now, and undergone four days of tutor training. It turns out that ‘read around the subject a bit, and then jump in and have a go’ is an approach that lends itself fairly well to learning how to teach adults. Which is fortunate.

And I find myself thinking about how I could apply what I’ve learned in other settings, which in turn seems to be prodding at questions I thought I’d stopped asking years ago… Well, we’ll see what, if anything, happens there. If anything does, it’s going to take its time about it. Long enough for it not to be a surprise. And I’m fine with that.

December Reflections 7: home


Home. It’s a touchy subject for me at the moment – both the concept as a whole, and also the way it currently exists in my life. We have a house inspection tomorrow, and I’m on edge. Part of it’s the whine of the vacuum cleaner, and the way that I keep seeing cobwebs, and dead leaves, and things that I should have washed up. Part of it’s just the knowledge that there’s going to be somebody in my house and there’s nothing I can do about it.

And all the time I’m very aware of how lucky I am compared to others – having a steady job, having a landlady who’s very – pardon the pun – accommodating, having a roof over my head at all. Sometimes, hoping for anything more than that feels flat-out greedy. Sometimes, I’m furious that I haven’t sorted it out yet. In the meantime, I’ve got a place to sit down with a cup of tea.

December Reflections 6: best book of 2018


It’s been another year of ‘reading what I happen to feel like reading‘, an approach which I recommend. Ceasing to feel guilty about the books that I have or haven’t read has been one of the best decisions of my life. Before I set off on my InterRail trip, I asked people to recommend me books that they had enjoyed, and then loaded up my e-reader with the results. I also downloaded a lot of free stuff from Project Gutenberg. More recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading books with particularly convincing imaginary locations, for my Reader’s Gazetteer series.

I’m amused to note that my top three this year have strong f/f themes, which in some ways is very representative of my reading habits, and in other ways leaves a lot out. But there we go.

I’ve already written about Heather Rose Jones’ Alpennia series, and why I enjoy it so much. In fact, I have read the three main books twice within the space of this year, a habit which I thought had gone the way of long school holidays. I’ll repeat what I said before –

If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. –

– and add that I’m very grateful to the person who recommended it based on my enthusiasm for The Prisoner of Zenda.

The King of a Rainy Country (Brigid Brophy) is a book that I’ve had on the bookcase for ages (I was almost certainly drawn to the Virago green spine in a charity shop) and hadn’t got around to reading. It turns out to be a wistful, regretful, funny novel with moments of sheer beauty, in which a young woman drags the young man she isn’t really in a relationship with around Italy in search of the girl she had a (reciprocated) crush on at school.

But I think my favourite book of 2018 was Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. It was one of the ‘InterRail recommendations’ acquisitions – in fact, one friend recommended it, and another chipped in to say how much they had liked it. This was a short book based in San Francisco in 1940, with a convincing evocation of the lesbian scene, and magic applied with a very light hand. I loved it.

My least favourite book, incidentally, was The Way We Live Now, in which I hated everybody except the American adventuress, and was horrified by the anti-semitism. I only kept reading to see who was going to end up marrying whom.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: D


D and E will both feature books from John Buchan’s Dickson McCunn series. I’m not going to apologise for this: I can think of few authors who are so good at landscapes, either real or imaginary, and, if you don’t know the place yourself, it’s difficult to tell where the seam is between the two.

D is for Dalquharter, but it’s interesting to see how Dickson McCunn gets there. He starts in Glasgow – real enough – and takes a train.

A little after midday he descended from a grimy third-class station whose name I have forgotten. In the village near-by he purchased some new-baked buns and ginger biscuits…

We’re already in imaginary countryside. Dickson stays overnight in a village called Cloncae, which Google optimistically suggest might be an anagram of ‘Conceal’, and passes through Kilchrist, which also seems to be fictional. Then he reaches Kirkmichael, which might or might not be this village, and spends the night at the Black Bull before setting out again:

Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flapping listless sails.

And then he gets the map out:

The peninsula was called the Cruives – an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that ‘cruives’ had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind.

By this point I’m very happily convinced. I’ve had my railway journey (and some extra trains), I have a reasonable idea how I’d get there from the real world, and I have been shown the map.

Dickson encounters a poet, John Heritage, who he’s been avoiding, and they speculate about Dalquharter and Dickson’s psyche before heading towards the village.

In front of groves of birch and rowan smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green ‘loaning’, on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it…

… There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office – only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend ‘The Cruives Inn’.

And we’re off. Up until now, Dickson was on holiday; from here on it, it’s an adventure. And this, I think, is why the McCunn stories are my favourites. I don’t have mysterious men getting murdered in my London flat, and I don’t get recruited for spying missions. But I do go on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday turn into an adventure as yet, though there was that time I found myself in Vienna, explaining to an opera singer how to go about organising a strike…

Come to think of it, that’s probably John Buchan’s fault, too. More on that next time.

Books referred to in this post

Huntingtower, John Buchan

December Reflections 5: five things about me


  1. I read a lot, and I own a lot of books that I’ve never read.
  2. I don’t drive, and am perfectly content with that state of affairs.
  3. I enjoy using clothes and accessories to explore and express my identity.
  4. I am easily brought down by pessimism, and find it useful to set up good things for the future.
  5. I like travelling. I don’t go far off the beaten track, but I follow it at my own pace, and on my own, or with only one or two companions.