The Christmas question

Christmas tree with decorations

It’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, I’d gripe. In a normal year. (And my clergy and church worker friends, who would have been thinking about Christmas since August if not before, would roll their eyes.) In a normal year I’d have been making excuses to get out of this term’s workplace choir sessions (because weekly Shakin’ Stevens turns out to intersect really, really badly with my tendency to seasonal depression) since September, and right about now I’d be pondering whether it would be more socially awkward to sign up for the Secret Santa and misread my giftee’s preferences than not to sign up at all. I’d also have worked out which branch of the family I’d be spending the actual day with, booked the leave, and had a look at the trains.

But here we are, and a whole load of people are thinking about Christmas vocally, loudly, and argumentatively. We’ve just had a minor hail shower, so one could even argue that the weather’s getting in on the act.

So here are my thoughts about Christmas under Covid-19 restrictions, how I will (attempt to) deal with it myself, and some ideas which anybody’s welcome to act on or not, as they feel would be most helpful.

Feelings

There are many feelings. I’ve been through disappointment (I’d have loved to host a big Christmas gathering in this, our first year in our new house) and am now somewhere between irritation and boredom.

It is OK to be disappointed. It is OK to be irritated. It is OK to be bored. It is OK to be sad. (If you’re somebody who finds it helpful to think about how there are lots of people in the same boat, it might be worth remembering that millions of people are, well, in the same boat. Not to mention folk of other religions who have had to modify their festival celebrations without nearly so much of a fuss having been made.) It is OK to be secretly relieved! (Personally, I’m rather glad that my parents won’t be spending four hours in a car with each other, debating the merits of an outdated satnav and outdated Ordnance Survey maps all the way from the Isle of Wight to the Fens. And I’ll also miss them.)

Anyway, whatever you’re feeling, there’s probably a good reason for that, and, so long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be obnoxious, that’s fine. Not that you need my permission, obviously.

Traditions

What’s going to be weird this year is that thing we always do – which we can’t do, or shouldn’t do, or won’t do.

And I suppose the question to ask oneself, when considering how or whether to replace that thing, is: what is it about this tradition that is important? Why do we do this? What’s the quality, the essence, of this thing that we always do? And can you replicate that in some other way? To pick a very obvious example: if you always visit your great-aunt on Boxing Day, but this year her care home isn’t allowing visitors, well, can you make it a phone call instead? Do you usually bring her a box of marzipan fruits? Put one in the post to her, and get one for yourself too. It won’t be the same, but perhaps it will have enough of the original essence to work. And see Feelings, above: you’re allowed to feel whatever it is you feel about it not being the same.

One of the least negotiable elements of a Jowitt Christmas is the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College on Christmas Eve. The Queen is optional; Doctor Who is dependent on whether we have a working television; the communicant members of the household may or may not be awake enough to go to Midnight Mass; but you’d better believe that at 3pm on Christmas Eve Radio 4 will be playing. We will sing along with the congregational carols (some of us will attempt the descants); we will have grumpy choral opinions about the choir-only carols; we will listen out for our favourite passages (upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude whom no man can number; the weaned child shall put its hand into the cockatrice’s den); we will argue about the correct pronunciation of cockatrice.

When I was a child, we’d decorate the tree (fighting over who got to put up which baubles) while my father lit a fire and my mother iced the cake. Now we all live in different houses, it’s become rather looser. I doubt, for example, that my brother could get Radio 4 when he was working in a ski resort in the French Alps. But it’s still an important part of the festivities. In 2017 my husband and I got up at 5am and queued outside King’s for the tickets to be there live. In 2018 we listened to the broadcast and then went straight on to sing the exact same service at our parish church. Other than that, it tends to be my father and I texting each other ‘Bound!’ when the choir sings Adam lay ybounden. This is a reference to a long-dead dog. Hey, it’s a tradition.

And honestly, a lot of what’s important about that is that we always do it. We: me, my parents, whichever brothers happen to be around. Always: every Christmas. It’s about that shared experience, doing the same thing at the same time. It isn’t so much about the Christmas story, which comes across better to me at live church (more on that further down).

What’s that going to be like this year? I suppose it’s down to King’s and Auntie Beeb. I’m sure there’ll be something in that 3pm slot, whether it’s a smaller, physically distanced choir, or a recording from a previous year, but let’s imagine there isn’t. What might we do instead? Off the top of my head:

  • find a previous year’s service on YouTube, send the link around, and agree to watch that at 3pm
  • conduct our own service (it’s all in the back of the first volume of Carols for Choirs)
  • put on a CD/record/playlist of carols
  • listen to what was being broadcast on the radio instead

By next year, that would probably have become a tradition in its own right. And circumstances that are less than ideal can spawn their own, more optimistic, traditions. For example:

The year my parents separated, there were suddenly two houses and two Christmas trees. And only one of me.

That Christmas was grim, but one thing was worth doing, and has stuck: I bought two identical tree ornaments, one for each of my parent’s Christmas trees. I couldn’t be in two places at once, but I could at least show that I wished I could be.

Over the years, I’ve expanded the practice, and now send tree decorations to both of my parents, the two of my brothers who have moved out, and my in-laws, as well as keeping one for our own tree – so even when I can’t be with someone for Christmas, there can be something of me there.

Sometimes I’ve made decorations. Sometimes I’ve bought several identical ones. Sometimes I’ve got a set and split it up. Glass angels, laser-cut wooden dragons from Ljubljana, crystal stars, iridescent hummingbirds… This year I’ve been threading gorgeous faceted glass beads onto thick silver-plated wire and bending it into abstract spirals. This tradition, born of one of the most painful experiences of my life, has become one of the preparations that I most enjoy.

Cardboard box containing Christmas tree decorations made from faceted glass beads and silver wire.

Enjoyment

I talked about relief, further up the page. And if it’s a relief not to be going home, not to be having the blazing rows over Brexit or your sister’s wedding or why you don’t have children, then make the most of it. This could be the year you break the tradition. You don’t actually have to do things just because you’ve always done them. If you’d actually prefer Christmas at home, Christmas on your own, Christmas with your bubble, then why not go for it? Work out what you want to do, and do that.

Looking out

Christmas is traditionally a time for attempting to make things a little brighter for people one doesn’t know. Here is a seriously incomplete list of ways in which someone who had the time and/or funds might do that, even (particularly!) in such a year as this.

  • Make a donation to your local foodbank. It can’t have escaped many people’s notice that there’s a real problem in this country with poverty, and poverty-related hunger. There are going to be a lot of people this year for whom Christmas is not going to be fun at all. (I have a standing order set up, but I also throw the occasional pack of fun-sized Mars bars into the collection basket at Sainsbury’s, because poverty is miserable enough without being wall-to-wall lentils.)
  • One idea I’ve seen is the ‘reverse Advent calendar’ – put one item aside every day to give to the foodbank. The only problem with this is that, if you want someone who have nice things at Christmas, you need to get it to them in advance, so maybe do it through November instead of Advent.
  • Make a donation to another appropriate charity. Safe Passage, for example.
  • Find out what’s going on near you and who needs help. Is there a befriending service? A Covid mutual aid group? A local newspaper, Facebook group, or community noticeboard should give you some pointers.
  • Here’s an initiative for getting Christmas presents to children and teenagers in mental health units.
  • You’re expecting me to encourage you to fill a shoebox with toys for an underprivileged child. I’m not going to do that. Here’s why. And here’s an alternative if you still want to.

Church

Well, we got through Easter. Easter was before we had proper internet access, so in this house we got through Easter livestreaming a Zoom service via mobile phone tethering, so Christmas ought to be a doddle.

Seriously, though. Nobody seems to know what church services will look like come Christmas, but I think it’s fair to say that they probably won’t look any less weird than they do now. At the moment, in the Church of England, people in church have to wear masks through the service (unless they’re leading, singing, or reading), the congregation isn’t allowed to sing, and numbers are limited – which might mean that, come the big turnout of Christmas, services may have to be ticketed.

If your typical Christmas includes attendance at a church service (crib service, carol service, Midnight Mass, whatever) and you haven’t been to a service since the pandemic hit, you might want to try one in the next few weeks to get the initial weirdness out of the way.

Your church may have something on its website to explain the arrangements. They may also be streaming services. Anyway, it’s extremely unlikely to be the same as normal, and you’re probably better working out how it’s going to be different, and how you feel about that, well before Christmas.

Advent

My plan for this year is to lean hard on Advent. Possibly harder than I usually do. As I hinted at the top of this post, I don’t deal terribly well with the festive pre-Christmas season, and I just don’t have the energy to celebrate all the way from mid-November. I get sick of the parties and the music and the constant expectation that I be cheerful and sociable all the time. So this is one of the aspects of normal Christmas that I’m rather relieved to escape this year.

In a normal year, I lean hard on Advent. To quote something I wrote last year,

Advent suits my mood. The readings are apocalyptic, saved from despair by the hope that something better is coming, is on the way even now, if I can only keep hanging on until I see it. The music is alternately spare and intense. I shut myself in the study each evening and take time to be where I really am. Advent comes a day at a time, a door on the calendar, a centimetre on the candle. A square inch of sweetness, which is about all I can manage while others around me are already on the mince pies and gingerbread liqueur.

Advent leaves space for me to rant and rage and demand why everything is awful. Advent lets me admit that things are awful. Advent acknowledges the hole in my life. It doesn’t demand false cheer. And very often I find that, little by little, it makes room in my life for something that is genuinely joyful, whenever that comes.

And if that was true last year, how much more so this year?

Come and grump with me! Tell me what I’ve forgotten, or about new practices or traditions you’re inventing this year. Comments are open.

Heading vaguely in the direction of a launch

Cardboard box containing a stack of paperback copies of 'The Real World'

It’s almost a month since I uploaded the finalised files for The Real World. The wheels are turning, and, though I’m never quite confident that the book is going to appear on the sites I want it to until it, you know, appears on the sites I want it to, I think it’s all heading in the right direction.

I’ve approached some bloggers and reviewers, some of whom have previously enjoyed Speak Its Name, and some who I’ve only recently come across. And apart from that, I’ve just got to hurry up and wait.

In the meantime…

… I’ve put an extract – the first thousand words or so – up. Find it here.

… I’m going to be having a launch party over on Facebook. Time: 8.30pm GMT. Date: 2 November 2020. I’ll be reading a bit (the awkward party scene seems appropriate) and answering some questions. Bring your own fizz and canapés. And questions. RSVP here.

… I’m doing a giveaway of some ebook copies over at LibraryThing. Scroll about half way down this page to find it.

Wings Over The Plain: new story at Enchanted Conversations

Storks on the bell tower at Belorado
Storks on the bell tower at Belorado

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve had a story published today over at Enchanted Conversations. If you haven’t come across it before, the site is an utter delight – a treasure trove of stories new and old, essays, poems, and other material related to fairy tales.

Wings Over The Plain is a story that was inspired by the Camino de Santiago – specifically, the long drag of the Camino Frances across the meseta, the plain that forms much of the province of Castilla y Leon. It’s inspired by the landscape, and the skyscape, the longstanding association of the Camino with the Milky Way. But most of all it’s inspired by the storks who build their nests on any elevated corner they can find and who, for me at least, were one of the loveliest sights of a lovely journey.

Winter is harsh out on the high, broad, plain of Castile. There’s nothing to stop the wind: it blows in cold from the sea, and becomes colder still as it crosses the mountains. Sometimes it brings snow; sometimes it just sweeps bitingly around every hunched tree and huddled building, and the people get through the winter as best they can. And on those long, cold, nights, the sky breaks into stars, more of them than you could count, brighter than you can imagine, showing a westward path that only the very devout or the very foolish follow at this time of year…

Read Wings Over The Plain here

Page 69, revisited

Remember the Page 69 test? It’s where you:

Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.

Marshall McLuhan, quoted in ‘How To Read A Novel’ by John Sutherland

Last time round, I put both my existing books through the test, showed you what would have been page 69 had The Real World gone to print as it stood, and promised to be back ‘in a few months’ with the final page 69.

Well, just over a year later, here we are.

Page of a book. The text is transcribed below.

… make a great sermon illustration. You could demonstrate a miracle.’

Lydia sniggered. ‘And I noticed they weren’t using actual custard. Does actual custard not work? Or is it too expensive to make a whole paddling pool full?’

Colette thought about it. ‘Do you know, I’m not sure. The egg might do something weird…’ She frowned at her diagram: she’d missed a bond somewhere. When she next looked at the screen, an Asian woman was talking enthusiastically about the properties of wood. Barry did not appear again.

*

‘Are you up to anything interesting today?’ Colette asked the next morning.

‘Not at work. But I’m going to have lunch with Felicity, and bring her up to date with all the discernment stuff.’

‘Ah.’ Colette felt faintly put out. It wasn’t really fair, she knew: Felicity had as much right as anybody to know what was going on in Lydia’s life, and more than most. Felicity had been the one who had started all this, had been the one to say to Lydia, ‘So have you ever thought about ordination?’

‘Is that OK? I did mention it a few days ago.’

Colette remembered, and quashed an irrational surge of resentment. Why shouldn’t Lydia talk to Felicity? Why shouldn’t she let off steam? Why shouldn’t she complain to Felicity about the arcane processes of their Church, and the fact that she wouldn’t be getting married any time soon? ‘You did. It’s fine. Are you still going to want dinner when you get home?’

Lydia stretched up to kiss her cheek. ‘If you’re cooking.’

It was her turn. ‘I’ll sort something out.’

*

It was a grey day, and colder outside than it looked. Colette regretted walking up to campus, but told herself that waiting for the bus on Southview would be even colder. She buttoned her coat up to…

Well, other than the fact that this one also begins and ends mid-sentence, I think it works better than the previous page 69. It’s more representative. We get a hint of Colette’s academic trials (Barry, who has just pulled a disappearing act, is her PhD supervisor) and also see her being more absorbed than strictly necessary in an intriguing but unimportant question; we do get the Church of England and the discernment process this time. We lose James, but we gain Felicity. (They’re both new supporting characters, and I’m quite fond of both of them.) There’s also more of a sense of place, which is something I’ve been working on quite a bit lately.

If you preferred the previous page 69, well, it’s all still there. It’s just on page 76 now. And I’ve replaced [thing] with spike.

If you like it, buy the book, says Marshall McLuhan. Well, you’ll be able to do that in just under a month. If you want a reminder on the day, sign up for my newsletter.

Visibility, possibility: links for bi visibility day

I put the finishing touches to The Real World a week ago, and since then I’ve been doing my best to do very little. Writing this book has taken an awful lot out of me, and I’m trying to make up for that by sitting in a deckchair on the lawn, reading other people’s books.

But I do also write things that aren’t 94,000 word novels, and I’m very pleased to have two pieces to share for Bi Visiblity Day. As I wrote in one of these,

my experience of being bisexual has been the ever-present consciousness of other possibilities. I’ve made a particular series of choices, my life has unfolded in a particular way – but I’m always aware that I could have made other choices, that my life might look very different today if… If I hadn’t grown up under Section 28. If I’d heard the word ‘bisexual’ before the age of 20. If, if, if.

I might have taken the road more travelled by, but that doesn’t mean all the other roads disappear from existence. (They closed the road through the woods…) Both of these pieces explore that sense of possibility, in fiction and in non-fiction (A merry road, a mazy road…).

The first one is perhaps more bi audibility than visibility, as it’s a podcast. This is the second story I’ve had featured at A Story Most Queer (the first was Prima Donna), but my first to be premiered there. I’ve added a PDF version too. It’s a fairy tale about a young woman who sets out to look for her friend who’s gone missing…

Daisy’s Yarn (podcast)

Daisy’s Yarn (PDF download)

The second piece is a guest post at Licence To Queer, where I wander all over the 007 canon, both book and film, looking for bisexual possibilities and revisiting my Eng Lit past. I even gave it a proper Eng Lit essay title with a colon in the middle. If that sounds a bit dry, I should also warn you that I fail to answer the question of what Felix Leiter was doing in Bond’s hotel room, and that I do pick up on a surprising allusion to the Book of Common Prayer. Fortunately David’s added some pictures.

“What makes you think this is the first time?”: assumption, possibility, and bisexuality in Bond

If you’re at all interested in James Bond and queer themes I recommend the whole Licence To Queer site heartily: it’s a joyful deep dive into the world of 007 – with some intriguing cocktail recipes too.

Interestingly, while The Real World has turned out to be an extremely bi novel in other ways, the sense of possibility isn’t nearly so present. Except, perhaps, as a sense of something missing, something distorted… Ah, you’ll see.

Annoying pricing news

Corner bookshelf stacked with books

I’m sorry to say that the prices of Lulu’s paperback books have gone up quite a lot. I’d intended to price The Real World at £8.99, the same as the other two, but I find upon uploading the file that it won’t let me put it on at anything under £13.06. Which is a silly price, liable to change with exchange rates. And it’s a bit demoralising for me not to be paid anything at all, so I’m afraid that when it appears it’ll be £13.99.

Worse news: the other two books will also have to go up, because the current cover price isn’t covering the printing and distributor costs. (This might explain why I don’t seem to have been paid for any Amazon sales recently.) Oh, well: I suppose I was making new covers anyway (a complete redesign for Speak Its Name, and adding an award badge to A Spoke In The Wheel) – so I might as well add the updated prices.

I do understand that there’s a pandemic on, and no doubt printers’ costs have gone up the same as everything else, but I feel that fourteen quid is a bit steep for a paperback myself. So I’m going to knock another quid off the price of the ebook. I also understand that ebooks don’t work for everybody, and fourteen quid is still a bit steep for a paperback. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s worth waiting for Lulu to do a 10% or 15% off promotion, which happens quite frequently (though you may still get dinged on the postage). If you’re really not in a hurry, Amazon occasionally makes substantial reductions on POD paperbacks (I note for the benefit of fellow Clorinda Cathcart fans that A Man of Independent Mind is currently down to £3.37, for example) but I can discern no rhyme or reason to this, and it may never happen to any given book.

I’ve no desire to set myself up as a bookshop, but in exceptional circumstances I’ll consider supplying the paperback at [cost price] + [postage and packing]. If, when the time comes, you’re someone for whom the difference between £8.99 and £13.99 is really quite a big one, drop me an email and I’ll see what I can do.

In the meantime, you can find a number of free reads (and listens!) linked from the menu at the top of this site, and there are a couple of exclusive ones available if you sign up to my newsletter. Which I really must get round to sending, as I have a couple of things to announce…

The Real World: cover reveal (and one for luck!)

Speak Its Name wasn’t meant to have a sequel. I thought I’d made all the points I’d wanted to make, answered all the questions I’d raised in it, had taken the characters as far as they needed to go.

Ninety-four thousand words say otherwise. I was wrong. Stancester was a city I hadn’t finished with – and perhaps still haven’t finished with. The Real World, which picks up the action three years later, works as a standalone, but adds something to Speak Its Name, makes it something more than it was before. And so it seemed appropriate to create not one but two covers.

Here’s The Real World:

Book cover: 'The Real World' by Kathleen Jowitt, featuring a red stained glass flower with green leaves on a red, floral patterned, background.

Colette is trying to finish her PhD and trying not to think about what happens next. Her girlfriend wants to get married – but she also wants to become a vicar, and she can’t do both. Her ex-girlfriend never wanted to get married, but apparently she does now. Her supervisor is more interested in his TV career than in what she’s up to, and, of her two best friends, one’s two hundred miles away, and the other one’s dead.

Welcome to…

The Real World.

And here’s Speak Its Name:

Book cover: 'Speak Its Name' by Kathleen Jowitt, featuring a stained glass passion flower on a magenta background with a floral print

A new year at the University of Stancester, and Lydia Hawkins is trying to balance the demands of her studies with her responsibilities as an officer for the Christian Fellowship. Her mission: to make sure all the Christians in her hall stay on the straight and narrow, and to convert the remaining residents if possible. To pass her second year. And to ensure a certain secret stays very secret indeed.

When she encounters the eccentric, ecumenical student household at 27 Alma Road, Lydia is forced to expand her assumptions about who’s a Christian to include radical Quaker activist Becky, bells-and-smells bus-spotter Peter, and out (bisexual) and proud (Methodist) Colette. As the year unfolds, Lydia discovers that there are more ways to be Christian – and more ways to be herself – than she had ever imagined.

Then a disgruntled member of the Catholic Society starts asking whether the Christian Fellowship is really as Christian as it claims to be, and Lydia finds herself at the centre of a row that will reach far beyond the campus. Speak Its Name explores what happens when faith, love and politics mix and explode.

I’ll be uploading the new cover for Speak Its Name at the same time as sending The Real World live (give or take – I may need a bit of a lie down in between), meaning that they should both be available on 2 November.

In the meantime, you can add The Real World to Goodreads, or join my mailing list, or, of course, both.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: R

DSCF7432

Ruritania is, for me, where it all started. My father read The Prisoner of Zenda to me when I was perhaps ten or eleven, and it’s stuck.

Anthony Hope presents the kingdom of Ruritania as if we already know about it, introducing his narrator, Rudolf Rassendyll, and the Rassendylls in general with reference to

an highly interesting and important kingdom, one which had played no small part in European history, and might do the like again

The journey to Ruritania occupies the first half of chapter 2. Rudolf goes via Paris and Dresden – a city from which, in the reality we currently inhabit, one can go east into Poland or south into Czechia. (The train in the photo at the top of this post is waiting at Dresden Hauptbahnhof before heading south to Prague.) South feels more likely to me. Ruritania is implied to be, if not huge, reasonably expansive in terms of territory: Zenda is ten miles from the frontier, and Strelsau, the capital, fifty miles further than that. And there’s no suggestion that Strelsau is very close to any other frontier.

In fact, Hope uses a pretty light touch all round. The descriptions in The Prisoner of Zenda are reserved for smaller geographical features – woods, castles, cities – which I’ll come to later in the series. Paradoxically, that’s part of what makes Ruritania feel real. You don’t need to be told what it looks like. It isn’t Anthony Hope’s fault that you weren’t paying attention in Geography. Or History. But the imaginative landscape is huge.

Philip Pullman doesn’t stray so very far either from this locale or from this model for Razkavia, in The Tin Princess. He shies away from doing anything drastic to the map of Europe, squeezing it in between Prussia and Bohemia, and making it ‘hardly bigger than Berkshire’.

But he has put some thought into other aspects of geography:

The country wasn’t especially prosperous. There had once been rich mines in the Karlstein mountains, producing copper and a little silver, but as long as two centuries before they had begun to run out, at least of copper. There was plenty of some ore that looked like copper but wasn’t, and which poisoned the miners who worked it. It was so useless and unpleasant that they called it Kupfer-Nickel, or devil’s copper, and left it well alone. Much later someone discovered that Kupfer-Nickel was a compound of arsenic and a new metal, which they called nickel,  and by the beginning of the nineteenth century they’d found some uses for it, so the mines of Karlstein began to work again.

This will, of course, be important later, but in the meantime:

The people milked the cows that grazed on the upland pastures, made wine from the grapes that grew on the slopes of the Elpenbach Valley, and hunted the game in the forests. In the capital, Eschtenburg, there was an opera house, where the composer Weber had once conducted; there was a theatre and a cathedral and a pretty baroque palace, all fantastic columns and fountains and icing-sugar plasterwork; and there was a park with a grotto-pavilion built by Razkavia’s one mad king, who had been fairly harmless, as mad kings went. In the 1840s, the younger set of the aristocracy, tired of the stuffy life around the king and his conservative court, tried to establish a little spa called Andersbad, down the Elpenbach Valley, as a centre of fashion. There was a casino; Johann Strauss had played there with his orchestra and they’d even paid him to write an Andersbad Waltz, although it wasn’t one of his best.

I should have used this book for A and E, as well. Never mind. Here’s Weber, in Dresden again.

DSCF7403

I’ve mentioned Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia a few times in this series, but it seems remiss not to talk about Rotenek and, in particular, the Rotein. The river shapes the city, and the society, and, quite often, the plot. The social calendar is driven by the flooding; so is religious observance; so is public health (or lack of it).

High in the mountains to the east and south of Alpennia, spring rains and warming winds wash the winter’s snow from the peaks and send it tumbling down the valleys. The melt gathers in rivulets; rivulets turn to streams; streams feed rivers. The Esikon, the Tupe and the Innek swell the Rotein, which flows through the heart of the city of Rotenek. And the city flows through the Rotein: in barges bringing goods up from French ports, in riverboats rowing passengers along the banks and up the narrow chanulezes that thread through the neighborhoods of both the upper and lower town.

They celebrate floodtide in Rotenek when the waters turn muddy and rise along the steps of the Nikuleplaiz as far as the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, who watches over the marketplace. Sometimes the floods come higher and wash through Nikule’s church and along the basements of the great houses along the Vezenaf. Then the streets of the lower town merge with the chanulezes, and all the putrid mud from the banks and canals is stirred up, bringing the threat of river fever. For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.

But sometimes floodtide fails to come. […]

This ambivalent relationship between the river and the citizens is so central to the books that it took me a while to find a passage that encapsulated it. It makes the series. And it makes the city.

Finally, I’m heading back north and west. I commented over at Licence To Queer how muted in tone Casino Royale feels in contrast to the rest of the Bond books – a result, I think, of its being the first of the series, where Fleming’s still finding his way in, and its having been written and published so soon after the end of the Second World War, in a Europe that was still working out how it was going to rebuild itself. And Royale-les-Eaux typifies that. This isn’t the Côte d’Azur, it’s the opposite side of France, and it’s grey and shabby:

Royale-les-Eaux, which lies near the mouth of the Somme before the flat coast-line soars up from the beaches of southern Picardy to the Brittany cliffs which run on to Le Havre, had experienced much the same fortunes at Trouville.

Royale (without the ‘Eaux’) also started as a small fishing village and its rise to fame as a fashionable watering place during the Second Empire was as meteoric as that of Trouville. But as Deauville killed Trouville, so, after a long period of decline, did Le Touquet kill Royale.

At the turn of the century, when things were going badly for the little seaside town and when the fashion was to combine pleasure with a ‘cure’, a natural spring in the hills behind Royale was discovered to contain enough diluted sulphur to have a beneficent effect on the liver. […]

It did not long withstand the powerful combines of Vichy and Perrier and Vittel. There came a series of lawsuits, a number of people lost a lot of money and very soon its sale was again entirely local. Royale fell back on the takings from the French and English families during the summer, on its fishing-fleet in winter and on the crumbs which fell to its elegantly dilapidated Casino from the table at Le Touquet.

Here Fleming uses not only familiar names and places in which to ground his fictional town (some of them with ominous resonances), he gives it a mineral water too. And, more importantly, a plausible past. I always have a soft spot for a run-down seaside town. Though the 2p machines are more my level.

 

Books mentioned in this post

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Alpennia series, Heather Rose Jones (passage quoted is from Mother of Souls)

The Tin Princess, Philip Pullman

 

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Getting ready for The Real World

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been going back through old journals. A little over two years ago, at the end of July 2018, I wrote:

I am feeling ready to start the new books. They are both feeling pretty huge and intimidating, as if the end of them is a long way off, but that’s to be expected.

Yes, that’s books, plural. One of them was ‘the Ruritanian thing’. The end of that is still a long way off: it’s sitting at 12,500 words, and I haven’t done nearly as much work on it as I’d expected.

But the other one was what is now The Real World. And it’s done.

I’m always surprised by the way I suddenly know that a book’s finished. It’s a pleasant surprise, because it’s characterised by the departure of worry. I stop worrying about whether it’s any good or not. I stop worrying about who I might have offended and what I might have got wrong. I stop worrying about what people might make of it. It’s not that I stop caring – I still care, very much, about making this book good – but I stop worrying. It’s a painless separation, and it happens when the book is ready and not before.

When I say it’s done, I mean that I’ve got the text as good as I, personally, can make it. I may still change things. I have the usual cohort of beta readers and editors and nitpickers looking at it at the moment, and I may draft more in.

And I still have all the typesetting and design work, all the fiddly stuff that comes before pressing the ‘publish’ button, to be done. The cover is, I think, nearly there (of course assuming that I don’t look back at it in a month and decide that actually it’s irredeemably naff), but there are a lot of other things to be done.

But I’m confident enough that I’ve got something decent that I’ve committed to a publication date.

2 November 2020.

Mark your calendar, sign up for my newsletter, add it to Goodreads, whatever. Or just pop back closer to the time. It’s going to happen.

Three quick links

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Firstly, I’ve finally sorted myself out with a mailing list. This is solely for the purpose of letting people know when I’ve got new stories available – my between-times burblings will remain here on the blog. If you want to receive a very occasional email letting you know that I’ve got a new book out, or a piece in someone else’s podcast or anthology, and also to read subscriber-only short stories, sign up to my mailing list

Secondly, Ezvid Wiki think I’m generating a lot of buzz.

Thirdly, this is the last week in which Speak Its Name and A Spoke In The Wheel are free.