Art month

Four glass beads on a page of pencil drawings of stones and seashells, on a collage of flyers and stickers

I like July. It’s my birthday month. There’s plenty of daylight. Granted, I am not particularly keen on the heat, but I much prefer it in July, when there’s the imminent prospect of a retreat to the coast and a difference of five degrees or so.

And even now, long after I left full-time education, there’s a glorious sense of end-of-termness about it. Holiday. I can do as I like.

Sometimes that takes more work than you’d think. Sometimes inertia and life in general and notions of extravagance combine to stop me doing as I like. Sometimes I have to make quite an effort, buy myself tickets so that I have to use them rather than talking myself out of going to whatever it was. Prompted by Julia Cameron’s concept of “artist dates” (not a term that comes naturally to me; I have renamed them “rendez-vous”, which strikes the right balance of glamour and self-mocking pretentiousness for me) I try to take myself out once a week for something entertaining or thought-provoking or indulgent.

It’s not as if there’s nothing out there. I work in London, where if it turns out the Somerstown People’s History Museum is closed (it always has been when I’ve tried to go to it, and it’s always open when I dash past on the way to catch my train home) I can look at an exhibition about cancer treatments at the Crick, or if I daren’t go to Gay’s The Word for fear of accidentally spending forty quid I can go to the British Library and stay away from the shop. I live in Ely, which has plenty going on in its own right and is only a quarter of an hour away from Cambridge to boot. I ought to be able to manage something every Thursday (or maybe Friday), even if it’s only an ice cream flavour I haven’t tried before (Ruby Violet in London; Hadi’s Gelato or Ely Fudge Company or Cherry Hill Chocolates in Ely). And when I do, I’m glad I did. I’ve learned something, or seen something differently, or tasted something new. If it hasn’t been fun (and it very often is) or moving, it will at least have been interesting.

July feels like a whole month of that. Somehow, it’s all much easier in July.

In the last few years – let’s say, six – I’ve been visiting some of the artists who take part in Cambridge Open Studios. The definition of ‘Cambridge’ turns out to be rather loose, and there are a dozen or so in Ely too. (One of them, Andrée Bowmer, made the lovely glass beads in the picture at the top of this post.) July 2022 was busier than either of the last two years, but I got around about half the artists in between my other weekend commitments.

Last week I was down on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe. I spend all year looking forward to Fringe and it always passes in a gorgeous haze of seeing things (art, shows) I might otherwise pass by and also lounging around at the Book Bus doing nothing. (This year I sold two books despite doing nothing.) It’s like people put on an entire arts festival just to celebrate my birthday. It’s brilliant. This year I went to two circuses, a drag show, an improvised Importance of Being Earnest, two small solo gigs (one in a barber shop, but not barbershop), no, hang on, I forgot about the vicar singing Dylan (very well), and a concert featuring a Scottish harp and a Finnish kantele.

But now Fringe is over and it’s August. I’m feeling a bit flat, I have to admit. Mind you, I was expecting to. But I’m also feeling the urge to read more, read more of the books that make me stop reading and look out of the window and think, go to the theatre more, and listen to more live music. I could do that. I could do all of that. The house is full of books, some of which I brought home from the Book Bus last week, or last year. There are free organ recitals at the cathedral every Sunday all summer… Last year I managed to get to all six Cambridge Shakespeare Festival shows. Well, this year I’ve missed all the July ones, but August’s still there, and I seem to have a lot more evenings free this month. And it’s still ice cream weather.

Sixteen years (without driving)

A vintage Delage car with the number 116 painted on the side
A car I have not driven. Lovely, though, isn’t it?

Today it is sixteen years since I last drove a car on the road.

That wasn’t deliberate. I only remember the date because it was the day before my graduation, and how could I forget that such an occasion happened on quatorze juillet? I failed my second driving test the day before I graduated, therefore I must have driven for the last time on the thirteenth of July. (In actual fact, I drove a Routemaster around a field a couple of months later, but that’s another story.)

I hadn’t meant that to be the last time I took my driving test. But I was moving out of the city where I’d learned to drive, and that meant that for the next test I’d have to learn a whole new set of test routes. And I’d just graduated and I didn’t have a job, and I never got round to sorting out lessons. My grand plan that year was to walk to Santiago de Compostela, and I didn’t need a car to do that. Then I spent two months in Germany and was thoroughly spoiled by the public transport system.

At the end of all that, seventeen months after failing my second driving test, I moved to Guildford. This is a notoriously expensive place to live and, even though I was living in a horrible bedsit, and even though I signed up with a temp agency fairly promptly, I didn’t have the money to spare for driving lessons.

I moved in with my fiancé. He had a car. I never drove it, though. I think I probably assumed that I would, sooner or later, but money was still tight. He was a PhD student and I was a temp, and we were living in Guildford.

I inherited a car from my godmother, but I swapped it for a piano. (The piano was left to my mother, but she already had one. The car ended up with my father, I think.) I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t play the piano, either.

We moved to Woking, which was marginally cheaper than Guildford, where I was still working. We managed to move everything except the piano in (or, in the case of the double bed, on) the car. Not long after that move, Tony started a different PhD. In London.

Nobody drives into London. Not without a very good reason – disability, say, or actually living there. We did not have a very good reason to drive into London. In fact, we had no good reason to drive at all. I could take the train to Guildford. Tony could take the train to London. We could go pretty much anywhere else we fancied by train, because Woking, while not terribly interesting in itself (unless you’re a Martian invader), is very well-connected. And the car was sitting on the road costing us £600 a year before we’d even put fuel in.

The car went to a couple of affable blokes from somewhere in Wales. Looking back, that was probably the moment that confirmed my non-driving path. Up until then, driving occupied a slot in the ‘get around to it some day’ filing cabinet in my head. If I ever needed to, I’d told myself before, I’d learn to drive. Now I had to ask myself: but what? Tony could, and did, hire a car if he wanted to go somewhere off the public transport network. That wouldn’t have worked for me, because I didn’t have the familiarity with driving that would let me leap into a strange car and go somewhere safely, and now we didn’t have a car I wasn’t going to get it.

We adjusted very smoothly to life without a car. We walked to the shops. We commuted to work by train. We visited family by train. We started getting a veg box delivered. I bought a trike and started cycling. Tony had been cycling for years. We didn’t need a car. Not in Woking, anyway. It would have been a different story in the place where I grew up (a mile to the nearest village).

Not being able to drive might have been career limiting, but I was never terribly interested in the career track that would have required it. (A decade older and a billion times more confident, I think now that I wouldn’t have made a bad stab at it, but I don’t think it would ever have been my ideal future.) That problem disappeared when I moved to my employer’s head office and a job where nobody expected me to drive.

If we didn’t need a car in Woking, we certainly didn’t need one in Cambridge. (That move involved six months in separate temporary addresses, and Tony moved all the furniture except the piano in a hired van.) It is only slightly more advisable to drive into Cambridge than it is to drive into London. And I told myself that if I didn’t start riding a standard, two-wheeled, bike in Cambridge, I’d never do it at all. I did. Suddenly I could get to everything I needed to.

Life works perfectly well for me without driving. Of course, that’s because I’ve managed – first by luck, and later by design – to set it up that way. If I were still in a tiny hamlet in the Marches, I think I’d probably have to drive, or else get used to a very limited existence. As things are, we choose places to live based on walking and cycling distance from the amenities, and we are fortunate enough for that to be financially and logistically feasible.

More recently, I’ve developed intermittent vision loss (very occasional, but inconvenient in its very unpredictability) which makes me wonder whether I’d actually be safe behind a steering wheel. I don’t much like the thought of being suddenly unable to see out of my right eye while bowling down a motorway. Though I’ve heard of someone with the same thing who just pulls over when he notices it coming on.

Not driving does make it harder to visit other people. I have friends whose house I can see from my morning train, yes, but I have family in villages where the bus comes twice a week, or never. There is no point in our getting a National Trust membership, because the great and the good tended to build their stately piles a long way from anything so plebeian as public transport. And I might have been on a retreat in the last decade if so many retreat houses were not buried deep in the countryside with no bus service. (To be fair, the last retreat I went on was a five minute taxi ride from Godalming station, so it may also be that I just haven’t got around to it.)

I fret a lot about Putting People Out. Usually they are lovely and think nothing of going five miles out of their way to get me home. It turns out that five miles isn’t all that far, in a car. Or, in the case of my husband, hiring a car. Of course it does get awkward sometimes, if I’m very tired and would rather be by myself on a nice quiet train. More often, though, I get to know them a lot better, and, as someone to whom socialising doesn’t come naturally, that’s very valuable.

Of course, the longer my not driving goes on, the more it becomes about the environment. I came across The Jump a few months ago, and found it a lot more encouraging and less annoying than a lot of climate rhetoric. It identifies six broad ‘jumps’ (lifestyle changes, I suppose you could call them), one of which is ‘get rid of your personal vehicle’, but is very reassuring about not expecting perfection. Well, the cars we hire these days are electric, and if we ever do buy one (and my eye stops playing up and I learn to drive) it’ll be electric, but there’ll still be cobalt in the battery and rubber particulate to fret about. I fret less these days – or, rather, I have a more realistic sense of my own ability to effect large-scale change and consequently a more realistic sense of my own responsibility – but, having accidentally forged a lifestyle in which I don’t drive and don’t have to, it seems a bit silly not to keep it going.

And it’s gone on a long time. Next year my existence as a non driver will be old enough to drive.

Robert E. Jowitt, 1942-2022

A man in a green cap and jacket leans o the radiator of a 1930s bus with a protruding nose and boxy cab

My father died sometime in the night of 7-8 January, about as peacefully as it’s possible to do it, and I still don’t quite know what to say.

Not because there’s nothing to say: everybody I hear from who knew him has something lovely to say, some delightful memory to share. Not because there’s nothing to talk about: there are 79 years to talk about, and I was around for slightly less than half of that.

It’s such a cliché to begin by saying that one doesn’t know where to start that I almost don’t want to admit it, but in this case it’s true. My own tactic to deal with that very real dilemma is to start with whatever first comes to mind, and to worry about reordering it later.

So, in that spirit, here are some things that I want to say about my Pa.

  • He always was Pa, not Dad or anything else.
  • We lived in more or less the same wordscape, sharing hymns and trashy Victorian songs and Shakespeare and quasi-mythological family anecdotes and using quotations as shorthand.
  • I wouldn’t be writing something set in modern-day Ruritania now if he hadn’t read me The Prisoner of Zenda when I was nine or ten.
  • I’m sure that many people who come across this post will be looking for Robert E. Jowitt the transport author and photographer, and that was indeed very much part of who he was. Both his writing and his photography were as eclectic and idiosyncratic as his reading matter. He liked digressions and very long sentences and quotations.
  • If you’d told him that real men don’t read Jilly Cooper he’d have laughed at you.
  • There is still a card on the fridge with a list of the OS maps that he was missing from his collection and which I might have wanted to give him for his birthday.
  • He had a strong sense of whimsy and, I suppose, sentimentality.
  • He was, above all, interested in people. He would quite often ask me about friends of mine who he’d met perhaps twice, five years ago. He could make friends with pretty much anybody. He annoyed transport photography purists by taking pictures with a nun obscuring the numberplate, or a tramp in front of a tram, a shopper or a copper in the way of a tree-lopper. He liked to show public transport in, well, public, putting it in the context of the public it was built to serve and the landscape across which it transported it.
  • He claimed not to be terribly interested in buses, though he would take them in the absence of trams, trolleybuses, or steam locomotives. The one exception was Paris buses, the open-platformed 1930s Renaults. He photographed his first one in 1960 and brought it home in 1970. It’s still running.
  • He gathered the most extraordinary group of people around the buses, a sort of found family before anybody called it that. Bus people, art people, music people, all sorts of people.
  • He never did anything he didn’t want to do.
  • He couldn’t sing but he didn’t let that stop him.
  • He really was impossible to live with.
  • He was interested in birds and ships and architecture and bel canto opera and all sorts of things.
  • He was immensely proud of his children and of our achievements, though if he found something where there was room for improvement we’d hear about it.
  • He was an entertaining raconteur. I can’t tell the stories half so well.
  • The last time we saw each other face to face we talked about We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and teamed up in a family game of Settlers of Catan. The last time we spoke on the phone he thanked me for his Christmas present – the 2022 calendar from A Cambridge Diary – and told me that his favourite picture in it was the housemartins.

Is that everything? No, not at all. I could go on and on and on. But it is something. There’s a big gap in many people’s lives now.

Edited to add: the funeral will take place on Wednesday, 2 February – please see the funeral director’s site for details of how to watch online.

Meanwhile, in the real world…

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Do you remember how, back at the beginning of lockdown, various obnoxious productivity types were telling us all that if we didn’t come out of it with a new skill or a novel then we were all pathetic failures? I haven’t heard so much from them recently. That may have something to do with my spending less time on Twitter. Or the obnoxious types may have discovered that in fact it’s not so easy to get things done with a global crisis going on outside, and have shut up.

As it happens, I’ve learned a few new skills – painting walls, making curtains, changing taps – but they’ve had more to do with having just moved house than with enforced leisure. I’ve continued to work full time, so, apart from the commute (which I’ve gleefully replaced with an additional daily hour in bed) I haven’t had much in the way of enforced leisure. Anyway, I went into lockdown with a novel, or, at least, 93,000 words of one, so it would be a bit of a cheat to claim that it had anything to do with coronavirus. If anything, I was hoping to make it shorter. As it is, I’ve now got 94,661 words. They’re better, though. They’re quite a lot better.

They’re good enough for me to say, tentatively, that this book’s going to come out this year.

I’m aiming for a release date in November. Of course, this means that I need to have everything done in September, which means that I’ve only got a couple of months to get things done. But that feels achievable, now, in a way that it didn’t at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, my existing books will remain free to download from Lulu until the end of this month. After that they’ll go back to full price. Consider this fair warning, and, if you haven’t grabbed them already, you can find them here:

Going forward

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‘Well,’ my manager often says after some particularly unfortunate circumstance has come to light, ‘we are where we are.’

This post is going to be less about where we are (goodness knows we could argue about that for the next decade and more) and more about where I’m going to go from here. If you’d like to join me, I’d be glad of the company, but this is primarily a personal response.

I’m operating under two assumptions. Firstly, that life is going to get generally worse for people under the current government and outside the European Union. Secondly, that the referendum was not won on truths, or lies, or facts, but values.

If I’m wrong about either of those… well, it doesn’t actually make much difference. If life in fact gets better for more people, then I’ll be delighted, and the referendum is done, if not done with.

So what do I do with that?

I intend to work – to continue working – to make life better for as many people as I possibly can. At the moment I think that what that looks like is to continue turning up to my day job in trade union education, where we work to equip people with the skills, the knowledge, the confidence that the education system failed to give them. I think it looks like campaigning to rejoin the European Union. I think it looks like working damned hard to protect our rights in the meantime. In any case, I commit to responding to suffering with kindness rather than cruelty (and I think that means never, never, saying ‘I told you so,’ no matter how tempting that might be). I commit to operating from hope.

And I intend to talk more about my values. I believe in openness, open-mindedness, justice, kindness, equality, fulfillment, respect, redemption, transformation, hope, love. I think that I need to talk more about why I believe in those things, and what that means for me.

I find myself without a snappy line to finish this post off, and I suppose that isn’t really surprising. Because I don’t really know what happens next. I don’t know what the end looks like. All I can do is set a course forward.

 

hear the prayer we offer (and the one we don’t)

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I have a rather tiresome cough at the moment, which has made singing in the church choir… interesting. On Sunday I’d got to the point where the singing was mostly OK, but I was paying for it in the spoken bits. I don’t understand the physiology enough to explain why I could force my way through the Gloria (sung) but was having to miss whole chunks of the Creed (said) in order to cough.

Anyway, I suspect nobody in the congregation actually noticed, particularly over the sound of the rain, but I was aware that it must have sounded rather as if I was having theological objections to some of the least controversial bits of the Creed. I coughed through ‘and was buried’, for example, but managed ‘and the Son’, ‘the holy, catholic and apostolic Church’, and ‘the communion of saints’ with no problems at all.

That reminded me of someone I knew at a previous church who refused to say the line about ‘the resurrection of the body’, because she didn’t believe in it, which then reminded me of a story the rector of that church told about a couple whose thoughts about Firmly I believe and truly used to be very audible, because they just stopped singing when they got to a bit they didn’t believe in.

Personally I can do most of Firmly I believe and truly, though I do mentally cross my fingers when I get to ‘and her teachings as his own’.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike a hymn beside theological or moral objections. Clumsy use of language. A melody line that goes too high or too low (I cannot tell manages to be both, for a lot of people), or is simply banal. (Brother, sister, let me serve you, I’m looking at you.)

There are various different ways to deal with the discovery that a hymn you really dislike is coming up next. You could walk out (though you probably won’t). You could sing the bits you agree with and keep your mouth shut for the bits you don’t. You could spend the whole thing looking for cash for the collection. You could rewrite the words on the fly. I’ve used all those tactics except the first one on the second verse of In Christ Alone.

I try to avoid altogether any kind of service where there’s a danger of I vow to thee, my country. I refuse to offer my country ‘the love that asks no question’: that kind of idolatry is how we end up with the mess we’re in now. And Thaxted is a tune that wasn’t written for the human voice, and it shows.

So far, so uncontroversial. Or, I suppose, so predictably controversial. But my own particular peeve is a hymn that’s sung a lot in ordinary Church of England parish churches, particularly during Lent. Father, hear the prayer we offer.

It’s the first verse that annoys me: Not for ease that prayer shall be/But for strength…

The subtext of this hymn is: I could cope with this, if only you would make me stronger. I don’t know much about the life of Love Maria Willis, the writer: it’s quite possible that it wasn’t easy; that she had to put up with a lot and not complain about it. But this – like I vow to thee, my country, in fact – is mixing up the human values of a bygone century with the values of the kingdom of heaven.

I want to ask: what’s wrong with praying for ease? What’s wrong with praying for things to be easier? That prayer may not be answered, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy prayer.

The assumption that there is something wrong with it drives me up the wall. I think it’s picky and prideful; it’s that old human fault of telling God how to fix things.

What would happen if, rather than assuming that we aren’t strong enough, we entertained the possibility that actually, this situation is intolerable?

I know.

But we worship one whose strength was made perfect in weakness, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. God does not tell us to put up and shut up, but Come unto me, ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Our insistence on our own strength is risible in the face of that almighty understanding.

No, give me the steep and rugged pathways and the green pastures. To be fair, the rest of the hymn does; it’s just the first verse that I object to.

Fortunately, it’s easily fixed:

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Both for ease that prayer shall be,
And for strength that we may ever
Live our lives rejoicingly.

See you on the Book Bus

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Later this week I’ll be back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe, an independent arts festival that turns every conceivable nook and cranny in this delightfully higgledy-piggledy Victorian resort into a performance space. Ventnor is possibly my favourite town in the entire country, but I have never yet managed to make it down there for the Fringe. Until now.

You may well find me in the Book Bus in St Catherine’s churchyard, where I’ll have copies of both my books on sale. (Mine are new. Everything else on there is second hand.) The bus (which is the one in the picture above) will be there all week, and is open from 10am to 6pm; I have to eat and sleep and would quite like to see some of the other events as well, so I can’t guarantee that I’ll necessarily be there when you happen to turn up. But hey, it’s a bus full of books; you don’t need me to be around to have a whale of a time there.

All this talk of independent events reminds me of an initiative I came across via Twitter this week, Just A Card. The idea is that if everybody who came into a [studio/craft shop/art gallery/bookshop] bought ‘just a [card/brooch/fridge magnet/book]’, that establishment would be able to remain in business for rather longer than it would otherwise.

Obviously I’m not advocating filling your house up with useless crap that you hate, particularly not if money’s tight; but if you find something cheap and pleasing, something that you think that a friend or family member might appreciate even if it’s not your thing, then buying it might go a little way to keeping an independent business going.

(Connoisseurs of British seaside towns may legitimately point out that this is obviously Brighton, not Ventnor. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the bus in Ventnor, although by this time next week I almost certainly will have fixed that.)

Learning, past, present and future: judging the UNISON writing competition

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Last month I had the very great privilege of announcing the winner of UNISON’s first-ever creative writing competition at National Delegate Conference in Brighton.

I’d never judged anything before, and this was an enjoyable, if intimidating, place to start. We’d asked entrants to work with the theme of ‘Learning: past, present, and future’. My fellow judges were Genevieve Clarke, from The Reading Agency, Andrew Jennison, UNISON learning rep at De Montfort University and mastermind of the #DMUReads scheme, and Kirsi Kekki, Policy Officer for English and maths learning at Unionlearn.

Reading through all the entries was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and rereading and deliberating over my choices occupied my mind for the next couple of weeks. Names were removed, along with other identifying information, before the entries were passed to the judges. There were also a couple of genuinely anonymous entries, which we couldn’t consider. I took a look at those, too, out of interest, and I think one of them might have made the final six if it had only been sent in with a name attached. The moral of that is: be brave!

Interestingly enough, deciding on the winner was easy. There was only one entry that all four of us had on our own personal shortlists. It was agreeing on the rest of the shortlist that was difficult. Some of us had firm favourites that didn’t appear at all on others’ lists. And I certainly looked at a couple of other lists, saw entries that I hadn’t included, and said, ‘Yeah, good point…’ Writing is such a subjective thing to judge; readers’ tastes vary so much. At least, ours did!

What made the winning entry stand out from the rest of the field? In a word, consistency. Conservative Party Conference 2050 started strongly, with an attention-grabbing burst of onomatopoeia, and it never faltered. It built on that with a rousing testament to the power of learning, and finished with a twist that had more than one of us laughing out loud. There isn’t a weak word in it.

As for the rest of the shortlist, we tended to favour pieces that took risks, or that went in a slightly different direction from the obvious. Petrichor, for example, was the only entry that had a narrator who wasn’t human.

Three personal accounts of learning made it into the final shortlist, reflecting a heavy weighting of entries with that theme. However, one of those, A Teacher Prepares, was written from a teacher’s point of view rather than a student’s, and another, Learning: a love story, drew the theme of learning into all aspects of the writer’s life with rueful, self-deprecating humour.

With all that said, There, Inside Of Me didn’t try anything fancy, just told the poet’s own learning story in a few well-chosen words. And we had a few submissions involving post-apocalyptic visions of education; of these, A Different Class stood out because of its strong worldbuilding and bleak humour.

I got to announce the shortlist and the winner. My colleague Clair got to read the winning entry out, and had far too much fun pretending to be a Tory MP.

I very much enjoyed being a judge, although it did tie up more of my work time than I’d expected. Out of curiosity, I went Googling to see how the real pros do it. This is what one of the 2014 Man Booker Prize judges said:

All six judges read 156 books submitted by 94 publishing imprints, and argued about them. That sentence makes this part sound rather breezy. For just over six months, I read a novel a day.

Whew. Reading that, I’m very glad that we imposed a 1500 word limit on our competition.

Listening to the stories: Our Witness

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Some people have very specific ideas about what a Christian story ought to look like. You can tell by looking at the reviews of Catherine Fox’s books on Amazon. Too much swearing: one star. A story about Christians can never, ever, include the F-word. Other stories are to be ignored, overwritten, or, if the worst comes to the worst and one finds oneself reading one, given a one-star review.

Because Christians don’t swear. Except they do. We do. I do. And if you say you don’t – well, I’ll happily believe you, but it doesn’t stop the rest of us existing. Or swearing.

I really enjoyed the Lent course I attended this year. We started with something constructed by the Diocese of Ely, improvised icebreakers concerning the idiosyncrasies of our socks, ate snacks introduced with increasingly tenuous connections to the themes we were talking about (the Club biscuits – ‘set apart’ in their own wrappers, but yet together in the packet, and therefore an illustration of ‘holiness’, were my personal favourite) and tried to discern our own callings. For many of us, I think, that turned out to be something about being who we were, about not trying to force ourselves into what we thought a Christian ought to look like, about showing up, just as we were, and trusting that this was who we were meant to be.

For me, that was about being out as bisexual. It often is. From curling up in a ball the first week, muttering darkly that actually the Church isn’t necessarily a safe space to be yourself, to outing myself by telling a story of when I outed myself, to making and wearing symbolic jewellery (see picture at the top of this post) being myself as a Christian does tend to involve to ensuring that people know that I’m queer, and that I believe that that’s how God created me.

I’m always aware of a push-pull: the pull of the conviction that what other people think about me is none of my business; the push of knowing that, if I don’t say in so many words that I’m bisexual, people will assume that I’m straight. And – particularly in Christian circles – because I’m bisexual married to a man, if I don’t say that I understand a hypothetical relationship with someone who wasn’t a man to be as valid as the actual one that I have with someone who is, there’s the risk that people will assume that I chose to be with a man because he was a man. As opposed to falling for this person that I happened to live with.

In LGBT Christian jargon this is known as the ‘Side A/Side B’ question. (I have to look up which side is which every time.) Side A is LGB Christians who see no contradiction with same-sex sexual activity. Side B is LGB Christians who accept their identity but who would understand acting on same-sex sexual desires as sinful.

My problem is that I am very much Side A, but I know that in a heteronormative society I look very much Side B. And the only way to correct that assumption is to fill in the gaps, to tell the story. I am always telling stories, both fictional stories and true stories, and it’s almost always because the story that I’m hearing, or that I’m reading, isn’t the whole story. And when stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative – whether that’s Christians don’t say ‘fuck’ or A woman who’s married to a man must be straight or Christians don’t have sex with people of the same gender – are erased, it’s all the more important to keep telling them.

And so we come to Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT Christians. The British edition came out last year; the US edition was released yesterday. Our Witness tells the stories – mine, The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian, and many, many more. The stories are all different, but they resonate with each other. If you’ve already bought the British edition and you only wanted to read my story, you don’t need to read it in the American edition. It’s the same, bar an ‘own goal’ metaphor which didn’t survive the voyage across the Atlantic. If, however, you’re looking for different stories, for a wider sample of all the different voices that make up this communion we call the Church, then read both. Every voice, every story, adds something to the symphony, and the more I listen, the richer the sound becomes.

 

 

A sense of perspective

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A few years ago I read something about a woman who wanted to go to Africa. I forget where I read it, or why the woman wanted to go to Africa in the first place, but I remember that the moral was that she had to become somebody for whom going to Africa was normal. She would never go to Africa until she got to thinking of going to Africa as No Big Deal.

I felt somewhat ambivalent about this at the time, and I still do. On the one hand, I can see the point: if I see a particular ambition, desire, or goal, as being Not For The Likes Of Us, then I’ll never manage it.

On the other, if I see it as No Big Deal, then what on earth is the point of doing it at all?

There’s an irritatingly pious part of me – think first year Hermione Granger, if first year Hermione Granger was into self-help woowoo – that wants to point out that well obviously the moral is that I should try to be more present in everything, because everything is a Big Deal! Which is of course true, every bush is alive with angels and all that, but if she could only be less obnoxious about it then I might be more inclined to pay attention…

All joking aside, it’s very easy for me to forget how far I’ve come.

It’s only in the past few years that things like ‘publish a novel!’ and ‘go InterRailing around Europe!’ have moved out of the ‘things I’d like to do, someday’ category and into ‘things I’m going to do’ – or ‘things I’ve actually done’.

The problem is, the moment they move into ‘things I’ve actually done’, they become No Big Deal. If I can do that, I tell myself, then anybody could.

And I forget. I forget how once it seemed like something that was Not For The Likes Of Us. I forget how many times other people had to tell me, ‘That sounds amazing! You should do it!’ I forget how much work it took to get where I am. I forget that I’m a massive success in the self-publishing world. (It might help if I made more than pocket money from it – but then again, I’d probably think that that was No Big Deal, too.) I forget that I’ve made literal history, that I have been the first person to do this particular something. A small something, admittedly, but still a something.

What’s the answer? Listen to Hermione Granger, I think. Remember to look around, and see what’s there, and enjoy being with it, if possible. Remember to look back, and see how far I’ve come. Remember to look forward, and identify what I want to do, and see that there probably isn’t any particular reason why I shouldn’t.