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:
LGBTQIA Christians on Twitter have been responding to a video from the Church of England Evangelical Council by sharing their experiences as queer people of faith under the hashtag #BeautifulStory. For what it’s worth, here’s mine. I posted it on Twitter yesterday, but it’s probably easier to read here and, because this is the first time I’ve written a lot of it down, I didn’t want to lose it in my feed.
I’m not sure that mine is a particularly #BeautifulStory. Nor is it a particularly ugly one. It’s a bit awkward, and a bit messy, and for the first twenty years of my life I didn’t know that I had it. I grew up under Section 28, you see.
Consequently, I didn’t come across the word ‘bisexual’ until I was 20. If I’d heard it earlier, my life might have been very different. But then again, it might not, because I had many other things going on in it. Including a lot of Scripture Union books.
My church and family were Church of England, slap bang in the middle of the road. I continued down the middle of that road at university. But it’s very easy to internalise certain interpretations of Scripture, particularly if they seem to be more decisive than the alternative.
Anyway, I’d had a few half-hearted crushes on boys in my teens, so I couldn’t be gay. My cousin asked me (at my 18th birthday party) whether I liked women or men. I do wish he’d given ‘both/and’ as an option – though at that point the honest answer would have been ‘neither’.
(I should probably have said that this isn’t a particularly exciting story, either!)
So I went to university, dodged (or did I???) the Christian Union by sheer luck (was committed to symphony orchestra; both met on Tuesdays), had various crushes on various people, ended up going up with a bloke I lived with. (Who was and continues to be lovely!)
Despite studying English Lit and therefore having at least some exposure to queer theory, the first point at which I was prompted to apply it to myself was a Livejournal meme (the old sort of meme which was a series of statements which you bolded or struck out as appropriate)
One of those statements was ‘I am openly bisexual and have completely different reasons for being attracted to men or women’. I thought about that one for a while. I couldn’t say that it was true, for several reasons, but denying it didn’t feel right either.
And that was as far as it went. Meanwhile, the Christian Union drama went on and on and ended, the year after I graduated, with someone suing the Students’ Guild. The drama had got me to articulate my convictions about faith and sexuality to myself.
This was because the drama had a lot to do with the ‘religious freedom/Biblical teaching/equalities’ faultline, though that wasn’t where it had started. Never mind that. I couldn’t reconcile anti-LGBTQ theology with the Gospel.
I hoped and suspected that same-sex marriage, if it ever happened, would sort things out. What I didn’t do was apply any of my thinking to myself. Because I was in a heterosexual relationship, so why would I need to think about any of that? And for quite a while, I didn’t.
So. Graduated. Got engaged to the chap I mentioned upthread. (What I didn’t say is that we met in chapel choir, and that he was agnostic at the time and is now a churchgoing atheist. Which doesn’t seem to bother anybody…)
The beautiful irony in this #BeautifulStory is the fact that it was Church of England marriage preparation courses that got me to take a long, hard look at myself and appreciate that I couldn’t keep on keeping what I knew about myself to myself. So I came out to my fiancé.
And again, nothing much happened. We got married, moved house several times, sang in the choir together, both knowing I was bi. It didn’t make any difference. As one of my friends once said, being bisexual merely doubles the pool of people with whom one doesn’t commit adultery.
All of that is still true. And yet… It does make a difference. Because knowing I was bi and having my husband know I was bi wasn’t enough. Without realising, I was pushing part of myself down, leaving part of myself outside the church door.
I was thinking that part of myself was not acceptable – despite the fact that I’d have been horrified to catch myself thinking that about any other #FaithfullyLGBT person.
There’s a character in my first novel who’s a bit of a caricature of the Perfect Christian Woman. Wife, mother, pink top, cross pendant, etc. She’s also bi, but nobody knows, because she’s so good at projecting the PCW image. In a way, she’s a rather unflattering self-portrait.
And, self-publishing, on the last but one editing pass, I revisited my self-portrait, my Perfect Christian woman, and thought, Good grief, she sounds miserable. I’d moved on.
In between times, I was coming out to people, some of whom were at church. Sometimes it was awkward, sometimes it was a relief, sometimes it was awful. Every time my knees went wobbly afterwards. After a while I decided that I’d act as if everybody knew, and stop worrying.
But of course heteronormativity plus a different-sex partner meant that people always assumed – actually, ‘assumed’ is too strong a word – that I was straight, so I kept having to come out. I came out online, I came out offline. I came out to my family, to clergy, to colleagues.
I came out so many times to my (high turnover) Bible study group that I started to wonder if my purpose on earth was to demonstrate to ordinands (this was a Cambridge church, so got a lot on placements) that they were likely to encounter bolshy queer laypeople.
Now I’ve moved and will have to do it all over again. I have a few lapel badges to assist me. And it does get easier with practice (and not caring so much what people think, or whether they even think it.)
And this is really what my #BeautifulStory has been. From the outside, it looks very similar to the way it looked 15 years ago. But inside I am constantly being renewed and transformed.
I am constantly coming to understand more of who and what I am, and how that glorifies God much more than my previous half-life. I take all of myself to church, these days.
My novels tend to have more action than this. If you want a fictional#BeautifulStory, try Speak Its Name. If you want to know why this is still a big deal in the Church of England, The Real Worldis out now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week I told my faithful beta reader Sam that I would have something ready for him to read fairly shortly, and gave him the blurb (at least, as far as I could remember it off the top of my head).
Well, there’s a story I can relate to! Not the being a lesbian part, or the doing the PhD, or wanting to talk to a dead person… just the real world being a bit of a confusing mess! And that seems like it might be the joy of the story. Personally, I can’t relate to anything you just said in that blurb other than the real world being a crazy place, but I do feel I can relate to the whole thing still. So something’s right with it all!
And this strikes, albeit at something of an angle, at something that has been worrying me a little bit about my book. It’s something that worries me a little bit about every book that I write: what if X reads Y and thinks it’s about them?
I don’t mean the deliberate things. I borrowed the wheelchair conga line in the last book knowing exactly what I was doing. (I still have very fond memories of that party!) This time round I emailed somebody to ask, ‘Do you mind if I appropriate your church’s backstory?’ I don’t mean things like that. I mean the occasions when I go, ‘hang on, that thing happened! to X! I wasn’t thinking about X when I wrote it! oh shit! what if they think it’s about them and then they hate me?’
It’s usually something that was quite an obvious way to take the story, something that was quite easy to write. It hits me when most of the plot’s nailed down and I can’t easily take it out.
The thing is, whatever Y is, it probably also happened to several other people.
One’s early twenties are a confusing, difficult time. It’s the combination of having to deal with money, large amounts of money, or the lack of large amounts of money when one needs them to survive, and coming to understand that one’s parents are human and have human failings and are mortal and will eventually die, and wondering what on earth one’s going to do with the rest of one’s life, and encountering failure, and learning how to deal with serious relationships, and, and, and…
For some people it happens earlier; for some, it happens later. Personally, I spent the year after I turned 21 letting go of what I thought I was meant to be doing, and 22-23 just about clinging on to what remained. There are whole chunks of time that I just can’t remember at all. (This is a little irritating, because some of them would have made good material for this!) I look back at diary entries from that period and think, goodness, I really should have talked to somebody about that. And of course some people have more going on, more to deal with, than others.
But it’s very likely that what I’m writing about is going to match up with somebody’s history more closely than I’d intended. And on the one hand that’s good – as Sam points out, I’m trying to write things that people can relate to! And on the other I am hoping and trying not to inflict needless hurt.
Which brings me on to something that was originally going to be a separate blog post, but what the hell.
Yesterday the House of Bishops released some ‘pastoral’ guidance responding to the fact that opposite-sex civil partnerships are now possible in the UK.
It didn’t say much that we didn’t already know, but it said it in a spectacularly insensitive fashion, which has inevitably and deservedly been reported as ‘sex only for opposite-sex marriage, say bishops’. And there are a lot of LGBT+ Anglicans who are feeling pretty hurt and angry, and a lot of allies who are being very vocal too. It hurts. I have dodged a load of bullets and it still hurts. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are right in the firing line.
Meanwhile, lit Twitter was talking about American Dirt, which I don’t think I shall bother reading. I was particularly struck by this piece, which actually predates the current kerfuffle, but which got linked to illustrate the point that books about marginalised people don’t need to be trauma porn to be important. Life isn’t, and literature doesn’t have to be, wall-to-wall misery for immigrants, for queer people, for anyone. And the message that you’re doomed to unhappiness simply because of who you are is… not one that I would wish to endorse.
This is a balance that I’m trying to strike.
One of the major points of conflict in The Real World is the fact that ordained ministers in the Church of England are not allowed to marry someone of the same sex. This is a source of grief and pain in the real world; it’s destroying relationships and distorting lives. I have done my best to work with this and still write a book in which the richness and beauty and joy and delight of queer relationships can be discerned.
Whether I have succeeded… is the wrong question. Whether I will have succeeded, we’ll find out. It still needs work. I’m still filling in holes in the text, even as Sam looks at what I’ve done so far (‘seventeen pages of red marks’, he says). It is a way off being finished; a long way off being as good as I can get it; further away still from being as good as it can be.
(And then sometimes I think that all I’ve done is written a less posh, more liturgically accurate, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But that’s another story.)
Terrible puns aside, this is the first aloe vera plant I’ve ever owned. I brought it home from the pub, the day that Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament. It was one of those informal arrangements where you stick a quid in the charity jar and pick the pot you fancy; except this was the last in the tray.
Often in recent months I’ve been saying to myself, And yet I will not despair. I said it on that evening, when I claimed the aloe vera plant.
And yet I will not despair.
A few weeks later, Lady Hale pinned on her spider brooch and announced that, legally speaking, it had never happened.
I will notdespair.
It’s an attitude that works for me: acknowledging the fact that the news is often depressing, often overwhelming, that often I can’t see how things can get better – but I can still trust that there’s a reality that’s bigger than my current perception.
Friday’s election result was the opposite of what I’d hoped for. So many people, believing so many lies. Actually, I don’t know what I’d hoped for, apart from a miracle.
I didn’t get a miracle. I can’t see the way out of here.
And yet I will not despair.
The aloe vera seems to be putting out tiny little leaves.
This is perhaps unfair. Christian Union kerfuffles can happen at any British university, at any time, and anyone who happened to be even tangentially involved – on any side – will shudder gently to themselves at the memory and consider pouring a stiff drink. Many readers have told me, ‘Oh, I remember something just like this happening at __________ in the mid ____ies…’
On the other hand, perhaps it is fair. So far as I know, nobody apart from me has written about them in fiction. I can’t imagine why. (Other than the fact that they turn out to be very difficult to get published, I mean.) They generally attract enough drama, misunderstanding, and deeply felt and opposing idealism to fuel an epic.
It’s easy to understand why. Universities are full of people who have time, energy, and deeply held beliefs, who may be homesick or lonely or vulnerable, whose horizons have been suddenly and forcibly widened. There’s always a kerfuffle waiting to happen.
The most recent one happened at Balliol College, Oxford, earlier this term. I am not qualified to make a specific comment on the events at Balliol, for the following reasons:
it’s over a decade since I graduated
I went to a redbrick university, not Oxbridge
I live in Cambridge these days
What did I do when I read the story, then? I shuddered gently at the memory and considered pouring myself a stiff drink. It’s a general response to a general occurrence. As is this:
Over the years that I’ve been keeping an eye on these events I’ve developed a set of questions that I ask when I read stories like these. This is the big one:
Is this a simple question of secular versus sacred?
Because the story almost always appears to be about the Students’ Union versus the Christian Union, and it’s almost always a whole lot more complicated than that.
Whose voices are we not hearing?
What voices from other faiths?
Come to that, what about other Christian voices? Do we have a Roman Catholic take on the situation? Quaker? Orthodox? No? Well, what about the college chaplain?
If not, why not?
Is this particular Christian Union representative of all Christians?
Who’s affiliated to what? Do those affiliations tell us anything about the approaches, beliefs, or behaviour that can be expected?
Is everybody who they say they are? Are they as immediately involved as they claim to be?
I tried to give a fuller answer than we usually get to all of those questions when I wrote about a fictional kerfuffle at a fictional university. No, Stancester isn’t real, and nor is anything that happens there. But for all that it’s a familiar story, and it could have happened anywhere.
I’m Christian. I’m bisexual. I’m a member of the Labour party. And I am finding the tone of the commentary surrounding Tim Farron’s resignation somewhat upsetting.
I am not qualified to make pronouncements on Tim Farron’s beliefs. (Not that this seems to be stopping anyone else.) And so I’m just going to make a couple of observations, in what’s probably a pointless effort to introduce some nuance to the debate. One:
In Church language, ‘We’re all sinners’ is usually code for ‘I wish to describe some other group of people as sinful, but know that this will be frowned upon.’ Usually, but not always. However, even if one is inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt, this was at best a massive error of judgement.
Two, and I fear I’m going to be saying this for the rest of my life:
The assumption that LGBTQ and religious identities are mutually exclusive does not make life easier for those who happen to have both.
The next book – after A Spoke in the Wheel, I mean – looks like it’s going to be the sequel to Speak Its Name. I like knowing what the next thing is, and I like having a first draft to turn to when I’m fed up with editing, and vice versa; but on the other hand, there are some things I am going to have to think about pretty sharpish.
The big one is this: Speak Its Name is set at a deliberately vague point in time. It’s set after same-sex marriage became legal in the UK but while the Church of England is still being obstructive. So that would be any point between 2013 and now, really. And that works, because student politics are somewhat detached from the real world, and what happens in Speak Its Name really could happen in any year. But my characters are going to have to grow up and go out into the real world, and so the sequel is going to have to be more firmly tied in to wider Church of England politics. Not just the Church of England. The Anglican Communion.
Some interesting things have happened there this week.
For those of my readers who weren’t frantically refreshing the #pisky feed on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, and who missed the news in the general General Election hoo-hah, the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to allow same-sex weddings. That’s the sort of thing that my characters would have opinions about. I don’t think anybody would be moving to Scotland (Lydia’s far too low church to cope as a Pisky) but it would definitely come up in conversation.
Other things have happened this year. There was the finale of the Shared Conversations, a vote Not To Take Notice, another depressing chapter in the Jeffrey John saga, the tired old question of whether one can be an evangelical Christian and behave decently to LGBT people (spoiler: yes), and now, God help us all, a Tory/DUP coalition. I have strong opinions on all those things, and, my characters being who they are, most of them will have to as well.
Of course, that’s assuming the action of the sequel is happening this year. Last year the picture was different; next year it will be different again.
Another minor problem might arise from the fact that I’ve probably overwritten the Bishop of Bath and Wells (the real one, not the baby-eating one) by putting a cathedral city down on top of Ilchester. Can Somerset support that many cathedrals? Quite possibly not.
At the time of writing I’ve got about a thousand words down. Before I can go much further I’m going to have to make a firm decision about when things happen. I couldn’t do a Catherine Fox and write in real time – I’m too much of a chopper and changer for that – but I do need to have a better idea of how the plot fits into current affairs.
On one level it really doesn’t matter. I know the basic arc of the plot, and that won’t really change. (Is that a spoiler? It might be a spoiler.) On another, it’s integral to the whole thing. The obstacles along the way are going to change depending on precisely when I set it, and, unless I move it to another universe entirely, I have to take current affairs into account. Things are happening that I can’t ignore, not if I want to write a novel that has anything to say about what life’s like in the Church at the moment. And I do.
Speak Its Name was a finalist in the 2016 North Street Book Prize for self-published books (scroll down to the bottom of the page – then scroll back up and read about the actual winners). I’m very pleased about this indeed.
News from the Church of England is also good, though I find myself less excited than I might perhaps have been a couple of years ago. This time around, I got so frustrated by the bi erasure from both sides that I never managed to get into the debate. And I can’t help feeling that things have come to a pretty pass when Synod opt not to note a report that was so dreadful that the Bishops felt that they had to apologise for it and we feel obliged to be grateful for this.
I’m thinking a lot about the Syro-Phoenician woman, thinking about the tables that I sit at and the ones whose legs I prowl around hopefully. Some time over the last few years, it seems, I started wanting more than crumbs.
Tomorrow evening my church choir will be singing Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. It’s an oddly appropriate choice for Remembrance Sunday, and it feels even more so given recent events: it was commissioned by the Vichy government in 1941, but Duruflé only finished it in 1947, after the war was over and the world was picking up the pieces.
Part of that, I suspect, is because Duruflé had a tendency to drag his feet on things he didn’t want to do. Only one of his works, the Notre Père, is not based on Gregorian chant, and that is because he only finished it after his wife had started writing it for him, having been requested repeatedly to set the Lord’s Prayer in the vernacular.
But part of it is the simple fact that art takes time. To create, to perform, to consume art, absorbs our attention for long enough to give us a new perspective. The six years that it took Duruflé to write the Requiem, the forty minutes that it takes to sing or to listen to it – that time makes space for things to change, for us to change.
For a couple of years I had a habit of picking up The Count of Monte Cristo in about October, when the days were getting shorter and my mood was getting lower. It’s about 1100 pages long; by the time I got to the end, something would have shifted.
One of the greatest gifts of art is the way that it takes us out of what we think is our own timeline; shows us – sometimes quite literally – the bigger picture; allows us to step back from the overwhelming emotion. Sometimes that feels like a betrayal: how can we possibly feel any less angry, any less hurt, any less scared, than we do at the moment? Surely this devastating news deserves nothing less than everything we have?
The last news story that made me cry was the murder of Jo Cox MP, just before the referendum in which the UK voted to leave the European Union. After that, nothing has really surprised me. Disappointed me, yes, but not surprised me.
The one before that was the General Synod decision in 2012, the one that voted against the appointment of women bishops. That was a November vote, too.
From where I am now, I am thinking, gosh, was that all I had to cry about in 2012? But it only seems trivial now because I know what happened next. When I’d cried about it, I wrote a blog post. Having written the blog post, I found that I was still hurt and angry, still feeling rejected because of a fundamental part of my own identity, and the only thing I could think of to do with that was write fiction.
Lydia choked, rolled onto her side, and sat up. ‘I never realised,’ she said wonderingly, ‘how much it was going to hurt. It goes right into the heart. They don’t want me. They were OK with the person they thought I was, so long as she stayed in her place, and was happy to teach the approved version of events and not rock the boat, but they don’t want the person I really am. I always knew, in theory, that I was only there on sufferance, that as soon as anyone worked out who I really was I’d be out on my ear, but it didn’t hit me until today how terrible it was, when you understand the reality that nobody wants you.’
That was where I began with the final draft. It went on from there: a year of writing; a year of editing; a year of becoming brave enough to put it out under my own name. I burned up the anger that had first fuelled it; I put it all into the text.
By the time I published Speak Its Name on 2 February 2016, six women had been consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. While I was writing, things had changed.
I’m not saying that things will magically become better if we can only wait it out. For some people it is, indeed, already too late. I am not saying that art can fix everything. There are some things that are just wrong. Nevertheless, it is the best tool that I have to make something good, something useful, perhaps even something beautiful, out of emotions that, left unchecked or harnessed for ill, will destroy the world.