December Reflections 6: angel

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Nobody gets angels right, particularly around Christmas. No six year old in glittery tulle wings, not this vision in her plastic farthingale, not even Michael Sheen’s Aziraphale, manages to convey the sheer awesomeness of a creature whose first words are very often, ‘Do not be afraid’. Which implies that they are, in fact, something to be afraid of.

Which is something that has been said many times before by many other people. So I won’t labour the point further, or mutter for very long about how the belief that angels are what our deceased loved ones become misses some important points about what it is to be human. (In fact, that’s the thing about all the portrayals of angels I mentioned in the first paragraph: they’re very, very, human.)

Angels in disguise are another matter, of course. If I ever met any, they were carrying umbrellas. (Incidentally, I read somewhere that P. L. Travers thought of Mary Poppins – her Mary Poppins, the mystical, supernatural being of the later books, not Disney’s instrument of 1950s conformity – as one of the archangels. Which makes sense. Benevolent, but still terrifying.)

Angels bring news, instructions. Sometimes you see them in stained glass windows or nativity sets carrying neat little banners saying Gloria in excelsis Deo or Peace on earth, goodwill to all. I’ve been listening out for messages this year. Some of them I haven’t liked at all. Others have not been exactly clear. I have learned over and over again that I am not as good at communicating as I think I am, that I operate on assumptions that turn out to be incorrect. I am trying to keep on listening.

Early in the year, I demanded a neon sign. The next neon sign that I saw read:

Started at the bottom.

Now you’re here.

Which is certainly true as far as it goes. The question is, where exactly is here?

I will keep my ears open. And my eyes.

December Reflections 5: best book of 2019

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As is often the case, my favourite book of the year is one that was actually published several years ago. Eleven, in this case, and the story begins twenty years before that, when the author moves into the Dower Houses at Morville and begins working on the garden. Or hundreds of years before that, when the monastery is built at Morville. Or decades before that, when she’s born. Or hundreds of years before that, when the monastery is built at Morville. Or thousands of years before that, when the Shropshire landscape is formed.

It’s the story of the landscape and the monastery. It’s the story of the author and the garden and her relationship with the garden. It’s about time, measured in days and sunlight and fruit. It’s about people. It raised in me a powerful nostalgia for the place where I grew up, which was not far away, and it observes the changes in society and agriculture with a clear and sometimes regretful eye, but I don’t think it’s nostalgic in itself. It lives too much in the present, and is too conscious of the constancy of change, for that.

December Reflections 4: white

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Today I had to buy a box of tissues, as the cold which has been making me lethargic, despondent and irritable for the last two weeks has finally got to the ‘runny nose’ stage, which for me means nosebleeds too.

Actually, the current bug aside, 2019 hasn’t been too bad for me health wise. A slight iron deficiency got picked up in the summer when I attempted to give blood, and there was another bug which had all the symptoms of a nasty cold except the cough and runny nose, but I think that was about it.

Most excitingly, there was one morning this year when I woke up with the motivation, energy, enthusiasm, everything, squashed by depression, and managed to be kind to myself about it. This is revolutionary.

I think I know how it happened, too. I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing from the perspective of a character who spends much of the action becoming increasingly depressed. I have had to take care to differentiate between her perception of reality and actually reality. It’s hardly surprising if that has helped me get a bit of perspective myself, to remember that what’s really there is bigger than the space in my head. Even if that’s a little bit more difficult when that head is completely bunged up.

December Reflections 3: best day of 2019

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2019 was a year of weddings: four, in fact. Weddings come in waves: the first rush straight after university, then a steady trickle through one’s twenties. It had more or less dried up for us by last year, but this year there were plenty. Some had been a long time coming – no nine years from engagement to wedding, in one case. Each was a very good day.

I identified my cousin Nick’s wedding day as the best day of 2019 when I was flicking back through my diary last night. It sticks in my memory as a long, sunlit, summer day that faded into an evening lit by twinkling lights strung around the garden. I remember sitting around drinking Pimms and lemonade under a shady tree. Trying to dance on a lawn that tilted towards the sea at an angle of about fifteen degrees (and the Gay Gordons is confusing enough on the level). The family, including partners, gathered together for the first time ever. Singing along with the band. A plentiful and eclectic selection of food. Guests from all over the world. My parents agreeing what a nice wedding it was.

(It made the front page of the Isle of Wight County Press (‘an Island man married his boyfriend from India’), which is a) hilarious; and b) something that I would never have imagined when I was a teenager, growing up under the shadow of Section 28.)

December Reflections 2: sparkle

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My friend Anne made me this sequinned bauble in the bi pride colours. It’s fabulously sparkly, particularly on a sunny day like today.

I spent a lot of time this summer looking for something that would say, as unambiguously as these words, ‘here is somebody who is both queer and Christian’, while not being confrontational about it. This was for a context where there were rainbows everywhere – and no way of telling what they meant, or, at least, if they might mean any more than a reference to Genesis 9. I wanted to identify myself as a safe person to ask for clarification, if necessary.

I am not sure that I managed it, but something else interesting happened. I found myself enjoying the ambiguity. I found myself wanting to be more visible. I have been wearing rainbows to church (getting compliments on them, too). I don’t know what other people think they mean, if anything, and I find that I’m not bothered by that.

But a bauble in stripes of pink, purple and blue, sparkling joyously in the afternoon sunlight? That’s for me, and I know exactly what it means, and I love it.

December Reflections 1: through the window

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I am a great fan of this Advent calendar, which runs all the way from St Andrew’s day to Epiphany and features an eclectic selection of saints old and new, prophets, and phrases from the liturgy and the Bible behind its doors.

Today’s window shows Rosa Parks outside the bus where she started the historic boycott. I like the text that accompanies it, both the phrasing of ‘kept her seat’ and the choice of the verse from Isaiah: ‘Seek justice’, the implication that seeking justice for oneself is desirable and beneficial for others.

The world is troubled at the moment, with reactionary governments rising to power and injustice on the rise. I cannot imagine being as courageous as Rosa Parks. I can only pray for the courage to seek justice, and not to turn my eyes away from injustice.

Two historical f/f fiction podcasts

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If you like having other people read you historical f/f fiction written by me, November was the month to do it. I don’t think there was any particular reason why it was November; it just worked out that way. But, because the internet is, if not forever, at least reasonably long-lasting, you can still listen to two podcasts featuring stories that I wrote:

  • Prima Donna featured on A Story Most Queer a couple of weeks ago:

Everybody knows why the great Signora Valli left the Licorne opera company. Everybody, that is, except Monsieur Perret, who has taken the brave—some would say, foolish—decision to cast her opposite rising star Delphine Vincent-Leclerc in Rossini’s Tancredi. But what everybody knows is only half the story.

It’s narrated by Julia Rittenberg and you can listen to it here (34 minutes). The story also appears in the anthology Upstaged from Supposed Crimes.

  • The Mermaid was the last of this year’s Lesbian Historical Motif Podcast fiction series:

Salvaging shipwrecks on the coast of the Isle of Wight in the eighteenth century can lead to unexpected treasure.

It’s narrated by Heather Rose Jones and you can listen to it here (18 minutes). You can also read a transcript here.

I’ve always been a bit hesitant about attempting historical fiction: so much to get wrong! So much more research! I don’t know whether I’d ever have the guts to attempt a full-length novel. At any rate, in both of these stories I found a way in through that old chestnut write what you know.

With Prima Donna, what I know is what it’s like to be an alto, to come to terms with the fact that even if you get really good (I never got really good, and also I have the acting ability of the average house brick) you’ll never get the biggest bouquets. It’s also the reading I did about the time when that wasn’t the case: the first few decades of the nineteenth century, when the castrati were dying out and the heroic roles that they had previously sung were now going to female singers. (Actually, those weren’t necessarily altos, either.) Signora Valli is one of those versatile sopranos who could play either hero or heroine. Delphine represents the new order (soprano heroine, tenor hero, villainous bass, and any other women relegated to confidante or crone) – or does she?

(I recommend Voicing Gender by Naomi André, by the way, if you want to know more about this period of opera – and you feel up to some fairly impenetrable academicese.)

Prima Donna

As for The Mermaid, what I know is the south coast of the Isle of Wight, the way that you don’t really trust the sea even on a calm day, the stories of wrecks and wreckers. This is a coast I’ve walked – except it isn’t, because the cliffs that Alice knows in my story will have long since crumbled into the sea. This is the Island before the tourists, before Queen Victoria, before Keats. This is the south west coast before the Napoleonic Wars prompted the construction of the Military Road, when it was even more remote from the rest of the Island, and anything could happen…

The Mermaid