Kathleen Jowitt writes contemporary fiction about people sorting their heads out and learning to live with who they are.
M is another of those built-up letters. Hardy gives us Marygreen, Melchester and Mellstock. Wikipedia tells me that there was a Maltovia in one of the Biggles books, but if I read it (and I read a lot of Biggles, back in the day) then I don’t remember it. Helena Fairfax gives us Montverrier, and a dedicated exploration of the Ruritania series takes us to Mittenheim. (Well, it doesn’t really; a Grand Duke comes from there, but we never really learn much about it.)
Then there’s Maycomb. Google supplies a wealth of maps (extrapolating them from To Kill A Mockingbird seems to be a popular school activity) but I’m going to quote this lovely train journey from Go Set A Watchman:
The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.
The station at Montgomery nestled in an elbow of the Alabama, and when she got off the train to stretch her legs, the returning familiar with its drabness, lights, and curious odors rose to meet her…
For no reason an ancient fear gnawed her. She had not been in this station for twenty years, but when she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot.
The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.
Although even this train doesn’t quite get us there, and the journey is completed by car:
No trains went there – Maycomb Junction, a courtesy title, was located in Abbott County, twenty miles away. Bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.
To reach Middlemarch these days you’d take a train out of London Euston and you’d be there in about an hour. But at the time that the action is set, the railway has not quite made it. In fact, we see it being built.
It’s not connections or landscape that make Middlemarch a place we can believe in. It’s the people. It’s the systems. It’s the systems in which the people live and move, and the people who make up the systems. There’s the class system, the minute gradations of commerce, the churches and the hospitals, the vain attempt to move up a rung, or at least keep oneself from moving down one, to escape it entirely, and the pettiness of the whole thing…
I know how to get to Middlemarch because I believe the introduction when it tells me it’s basically Coventry with the serial numbers filed off. (Which makes me wonder whether anyone’s written anything set in post-war Middlemarch. Or anything about the Middlemarch bicycle industry…) But I believe in Middlemarch because I believe in the people who live in it and around it.
Books mentioned in this post
Middlemarch, George Eliot
In the Mouth of the Wolf, Helena Fairfax
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope
Biggles Goes To War, Capt. W. E. Johns
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
I felt guilty for years after 2003 because I did not join in the protest march against the Iraq War.
It took me a long time to appreciate the absurdity of my belief that had I gone it might not have happened.
It took me longer still, and a lot more marches, to understand what it is that a march actually does.
It was two years after the Iraq marches that I attended my first actual protest, and it was very small scale by comparison. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter planned to close the Music, Chemistry, and Italian departments. Much of the student body disapproved. We went for a desultory march around campus and rallied outside the Great Hall.
When I started working for a trade union, the protests started coming thick and fast. We marched: for the NHS; against austerity; for a fairer society; probably for some other things I can’t remember now. Some were on my doorstep; some meant a train to London; one meant a train to Manchester. I ended up with my picture in the Morning Star (deflating one of those giant balloons in Hyde Park) and the Guardian (one little figure in a Where’s Wally style crowd scene; you had to know which banner to look for).
As protests became just a part of my job, my feelings changed. I was no longer under the impression that I’d change the world by walking down the street, no matter how amusing my placard (and I saw some good ones). There was inevitably a load of hassle beforehand: phoning union branch secretaries, looking up coach operators, ordering stickers and vuvuzelas and other hideous tat. Usually, by the time the actual day rolled round, I just wanted it to be over. Some I probably shouldn’t have attended: in Manchester, I was going down with a cold, and ended up flat on my back in a park woozily watching the clouds. I did miss the 2018 one, having mashed my foot up falling off a narrow gauge train a few weeks earlier.
There was always a lot of standing around, a lot of stopping and starting, and then more standing around when we got to the other end. And yet I inevitably came away from them feeling energised, buoyed up, ready to go back to work on Monday and keep on going.
It was not that my presence, one person more or less in a million-strong crowd, would change the outcome of the issue. It was that it changed my perception of the fight.
I was not the only person who was angry. I was not the only person who cared. It was worth carrying on with this.
Did the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter care what the students thought about his plans to close the Music, Chemistry and Italian departments? Probably not. Did he care after we protested, noisily, against them? Still probably not. Italian was saved by some revised plans by the department itself; Music and Chemistry went. Austerity continues to bite; the NHS wobbles; society seems rather less fair than it did even when I started protesting about things.
But I continue to care.
Protests change things not by sending a message to those in power, but by equipping the rest of us with hope. They say yes, I care, and yes, I’m angry, and then, yes, we care, and yes, we’re angry, and then we keep on going.
Anyway, I’m about to clean my teeth and put a hat on and go and protest against prorogation. If you’re about to do that too, then good luck and stay safe, and maybe I’ll see you there.
And if you want to be or you think you should be but you aren’t, if you can’t because you’re busy, or you can’t do crowds, or you’re looking after the children, or you’re working, or you’re ill, or it isn’t safe for you, or if (like me in 2003) you have no idea where to start, or if it’s just too much, or for any other reason that I haven’t thought of, then know that I understand, that I’ve been there (or, rather, not been there) myself, and I’m protesting for you, too.
Keep on going.
L takes us back to Britain and back to the ecclesiastical shenanigans novel in Catherine Fox’s Lindchester series.
Lindchester is explicitly in the same universe as Barchester, and it has a rather more explicit location:
The diocese of Lindchester is not large, squashed as it is between Lichfield to the south and Chester to the north; so don’t worry, we will not be travelling far.
This locates it, unusually for an ecclesiastical shenanigans novel, in the northern province. The Archbishop of Canterbury surely has quite enough to deal with in Barchester, Christminster, Starbridge and Torminster. It’s only fair that the Archbishop of York gets to fret about Lindchester’s problems.
Transport links? If you were starting in London, you’d get a train out of Euston. Euston is horrible. Maybe don’t start in London. Change at Crewe.
I’ve been using ‘Lindchester’ as shorthand for the locale in which the action happens. This is not limited to the town of Lindchester itself; it encompasses the whole diocese: Lindchester, Lindford, Cardingforth… (In fact, the narrator is scrupulous about not depicting anything that happens beyond the diocesan boundaries.)
Recently, I’ve been mulling over a hypothesis about fictional places, about the difference between Barchester and Ruritania (I know we haven’t got to the latter yet). And I’m not convinced it’s entirely down to geography. It’s not the difference between a city and a state – in fact, so many modern Ruritanias are so tiny that they basically are cities. I think it’s more to do with the way that the characters – and particularly the protagonist – interacts with the place.
If you’re the protagonist, Ruritania is the place you visit. You might have a longstanding connection with the place, your visit may have a disproportionate effect on the place, and you might very well get more than you bargained for on that visit, but you’re essentially an outsider. Barchester is the place where you live, very probably the place where you were born. In Barchester, you’re a part of the system, the whole complicated interconnected web of human relationships. You may well be able to effect change, but the system is something that has shaped you. You can’t just pass through it.
That’s because the place itself exists within a larger system, whether that’s political, religious, social, or any combination. It’s a system that the author suspects that many of their readers know well, might themselves exist within. Lindchester is a diocese within the Church of England. It operates in a similar way to any other diocese in the Church of England. Happy endings are very much a possibility, but they have to be negotiated within the constraints of the real-life system. The author has control of the fates of the individual characters, but they don’t mess around with the way we all know things work. That would be cheating. That would be far less satisfying.
Books referred to in this post
Lindchester series (Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory), Catherine Fox
Barchester series, Anthony Trollope
Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy Seeger enjoyed a childhood steeped in music and politics. Her father was the noted musicologist Charles Seeger; her mother, the modernist composer Ruth Crawford; and her brother Pete, the celebrated writer of protest songs.
After studying at Radcliffe College, in 1955 Peggy left to travel the world. It was in England that she met the man, some two decades older and with a wife and family, with whom she would share the next thirty-three years: the actor, playwright and songwriter Ewan MacColl. Together, Peggy and Ewan helped lay the foundations of the British folk revival, through the formative – and controversial – Critics Group and the landmark BBC Radio Ballads programmes. And as Ewan’s muse, Peggy inspired one of the twentieth century’s greatest love songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.
Peggy’s life comprises art and passion, family and separation, tragedy, celebration and the unexpected – and irresistible – force of love. It would by any standards be an extraordinary story, but what elevates her account is the beauty of the writing: it is clear-eyed and playful, luminous and melodic, fearless, funny and always truthful, from the first word to the last.
Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.
How I got this book
Around my way, there’s a tradition of leaving unwanted items outside one’s front gate in case someone else likes the look of it and takes it away. I liked the look of this and took it away.
The bingo card
This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; possibly ‘Biography’, though Seeger in fact recommends someone else’s biography of her to be read alongside this to fill in the gaps; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, despite the blurb’s strenuous attempt to ignore the fact, ‘LGBTQIA’.
I think Peggy Seeger is great. I saw her perform at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago, and when I asked her to sign one of her CDs she complimented my hat. So there. Anyway, she’s a member of a great musical dynasty and she’s a great musical figure in her own right. In this book she looks back on a long life, with a complete absence of self-pity and an honesty that sometimes made me wince. There was much that resonated, including the thoughts on class, and the impulse to hope that keeps you writing in the face of looming political despair. It’s fascinating as history and as a reflection on the art of performing music and, most of all, as a portrait of the development of a person.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
The author and publisher
Jane Davis is the author of eight novels; her first novel won the Daily Mail First Novel Award; her seventh was Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year 2016; and Smash All The Windows won the first ever Selfies Award.
She’s someone who takes writing and self-publishing very seriously, and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her at the London Book Fair earlier this year.
I bought the ebook version from the Kobo store.
The bingo card
This could count towards: ‘A Women’s Press’; ‘A New To You Press’; ‘An Award-Winner’, or ‘Book from a micro press’.
This is a really good book. It takes as its starting point an imagined crush disaster in a London tube station, and follows the families of the victims as they variously seek the facts, campaign for justice, and come to terms with their loss. Sometimes diving deep into the day of the disaster, sometimes looking several years beyond it, the interweaving strands are easy to follow, and the characters are well delineated and all very human.
There were times when I forgot that I was reading fiction, and found myself wanting to go to Wikipedia to find out more about the disaster. Jane Davis says that she thinks of fiction as ‘made-up truth’. She’s certainly achieved that here.
My love is older than the rocks:
I planted it when life was young
and watched it bloom with new delight
where a new, hopeful, stream had sprung.
I kept it close through seismic shocks:
betrayal; anger; pain; relief;
then sent it whirling into flight
to take its chance with joy or grief.
Now you can hold it in your hand,
washed clean, worn smooth, by time and tears.
An age of time, a flash of art
brought it to you from dust and sand.
It’s grounded by the weight of years
and rests contented in your heart.
This is another one written for a Lioness Challenge. There’s something about Elise’s pieces that gets me experimenting with tight forms that I’d usually write off as ‘too much like hard work’ or ‘not for the likes of us’. But in this case, with dinosaur bones for inspiration, it had to be a hoary old form like a sonnet.
Well, I have to admit it: I’m stuck. I couldn’t think of a single fictional place beginning with J. Nor could my father, who has got enthusiastically into this excursion, as will be seen from his postcard.
And I think I can explain why they’re so difficult to find.
I’ve said before that the thing about fictional places is that you have to be able to believe in them. And it’s difficult to believe in a place if you’re not sure how you’re meant to pronounce it.
J – believe me, I know – is not an obvious letter. (The number of places in which I’ve been addressed tentatively as ‘Miss… er, Yo-veet?’…!) Is it the English dg sound? The French zh? The German y? Maybe even the Spanish hk? Or perhaps it’s more like Latin and you should treat it as another form of i. Well, you might be able to work it out from the location or the language, but you might equally well not, and it’s a bit distracting to spend the whole book wondering whether you’re pronouncing the site of the action correctly. I can see why authors don’t take the risk.
(In fairness, I should add that the ever-entertaining Smart Bitches, Trashy Books came up with a post that led me to a book set in somewhere called Jura, but I haven’t got round to following it up, so I don’t know whether it’s pronounced like the Hebridean island or the French mountain range or something else entirely.)
Next time: K. You know where you are with K. (Except in Swedish.)
Books mentioned in this post
The English Bride (Royal Bride), Joan Wolf
It’s a wet Saturday afternoon, so let’s have a meme! Comment with a number and I’ll answer the question.
1: What book did you last finish? When was that?
2: What are you currently reading?
3: What book are you planning to read next?
4: What was the last book you added to your tbr?
5: Which book did you last re-read?
6: Which book was the last one you really, really loved?
7: What was/were the last book/books you bought?
8: Paperback or hardcover? Why?
9: YA, NA or Adult? Why?
10: Sci-Fi or fantasy? Why?
11: Classic or modern? Why?
12: Political memoirs or comedic memoirs?
13: Name a book with a really bad movie/tv adaption
14: Name a book where the movie/tv adaption actually was better than the original
15: What book changed your life?
16: If you could bring three books to a deserted island which would you bring and why?
17: If you owned a bookshop what would you call it?
18: Which character from a book is the most like you?
19: Which character from a book is the least like you?
20: Best summer read?
21: Best winter read?
22: Pro or anti e-readers? Why?
23: Bookdepository or Amazon?
24: Do you prefer to buy books online or in a bookshop?
25: If you could be a character from a book for just one day who would you be and why? (Bonus: any specific day in the story?)
26: If you could be a character from a book for their entire life who would you be and why?
27: If you could change one thing about mainstream literature what would you change? (i.e. more diversity, better writing, better plot etc.)
28: How many books have you read so far this year?
29: How do you sort your shelves? (i.e. by color, author, title etc.)
30: Who’s your favourite author?
31: Who’s your favourite contemporary author?
32: Who’s your favourite fantasy author?
33: Who’s your favourite Sci-Fi author?
34: List five OTPs
35: Name a book you consider to be terribly underrated
36: Name a book you consider to be terribly overrated
37: How many books are actually in your bookshelf/shelves right now?
38: What language do you (most often) read in?
39: Name one of your favorite childhood books
40: Name one of your favorite books from your teenage years
41: Do you own a library card? How often do you use it?
42: Which was the best book you had to read in school?
43: Are you the kind of person who reads several books at once or the kind of person who can only read one book at a time?
44: Do you like to listen to music when you read?
45: What is your favorite thing to eat when you read?
46: What is your favorite thing to drink when you read?
47: What do you do to get out of a reading slump?
48: Where is your favorite place to read?
49: When is your favorite time to read?
50: Why do you love to read?
16 May 2017
At the end of Monday I was still not famous. On Tuesday morning we had a train to catch, so didn’t check. We ate breakfast in the café in the station, and then boarded a train headed eastwards. It trundled along at 80km/h for the first couple of hours, then slowed and crept along the sides of steep wooded valleys, following a river. Then it went through Astorga and out onto the meseta, and I sat watching intently out of the window for landmarks I might have seen ten years before, walking the other way. I couldn’t swear to any particular landmark, but I saw some storks’ nests for certain, and was glad.
We came out into Palencia in the early afternoon, and found intense heat, and pale stone buildings, and a park with a retired steamroller mounted in it, and old men sitting on benches. ‘This is what Spain is meant to be like,’ John said, not entirely joking.
It was siesta hour. I’d been the one to resort to Booking.com this time, and had found us a room in a rather quiet, tired, hotel. We found it and checked in – and found the wi-fi.
Now, it turned out, I was famous. The Society of Authors had put out a press release, and I learned that I was the first ever self-published author to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. I had emails, Twitter notifications. I sent text messages to my parents, linked the story on Facebook and my blog, and watched the notifications roll in for a bit.
Then we went out to look at the cathedral.
Palencia immediately went to the top of my ‘favourite Spanish cathedrals’ list, knocking Burgos down into second place. It was cool and quiet, with far more stained glass than any other I’d visited, beautiful ceilings, and an actual sensible system for keeping the frivolous out of the way of the devout (or vice versa) – separate doors, sending the latter to a chapel right in the middle of of the cathedral, rather than shoved in a (tiny) chapel opposite the main doors as an embarrassment, as at St Paul’s in London. We came in as tourists, and didn’t have to pay because it was a Tuesday. For us, too, there was huge, silent space, and brightness through high windows.
In the evening we ate at a table under a canopy in the square, with too-sweet white Rioja (which I suppose I should have expected, with a name like ‘Diamante’), and liqueurs on the house, and talked about how to spend my winnings. ‘If I win the whole thing,’ I said, ‘I’ll go to Brazil, and if I don’t, I’ll go InterRailing.’
17 May 2017
The next morning was cloudy and considerably cooler. We explored some more of the city, looking at an exhibition about the Spanish air force, walking by the river, going into normal shops (I came away with pyrite beads and owl-shaped ceramic beads; John, with a fidget spinner), drinking coffee and watching storks in their nests on the corners of church belfries.
Afterwards, we sat in the cafeteria in Palencia station watching the rain and waiting for our train. The incoming train from A Coruña and Santiago got later and later, and we became increasingly thankful that we hadn’t attempted to do the whole journey in one day. Eventually our train to Santander turned up and the Coruña train still hadn’t come, and we felt very thankful indeed.
The Santander train was much quicker, of course; it was a much shorter journey. A documentary about Coco Chanel was being shown on the screens overhead. I was quite interested, but the file had some glitch that kept sending it back to the beginning.
Once more in Santander, we returned to Café Royalty for a quick supper before boarding the Pont Aven and investigating all its questionable delights: the duty-free shop, the bars, and the cinemas. The choice of films was, of course, fairly limited: the choice that evening was between the live-action Beauty and the Beast and some action movie I now forget. John and I, possibly compensating for our television-deprived childhood, went for the Disney, and, at the appointed hour, we duly filed into our seats.
Then somebody said my name. ‘Kathleen?’
It turned out to be Father Paul, who had been the Catholic chaplain at my university, and who was walking the Camino del Norte in stages. I introduced John. We attempted to catch up on ten years worth of life and several hundred miles of walking in three minutes before the film started, which didn’t really work.
He was not interested in Beauty and the Beast, though, so he withdrew to the other cinema to watch the action movie. John and I quite enjoyed Beauty and the Beast, and then went to bed.
18 May 2017
I got up earlier than I needed to in order to see the tip of Brittany as the ship passed close in to the shore; but it was good to have the sea to myself for a couple of hours; well, me and the woman hoovering the carpet in the bar, and the rep from the whale charity, and a few other early risers. It was a big ship. John appeared somewhere between ten and eleven and was still in time to see France pass by.
I couldn’t get onto the internet, which was probably good for my peace of mind. I read Madensky Square (acquired from the duty free shop) instead, just sitting there with the sea outside the window and a book and a cup of coffee and no work that I could practicably do. There would be plenty of it when I got back to dry land.
When I packed Four Quartets, I’d expected ‘Little Gidding’ to be the one that had the most to say to me, to be thinking about roses and yew trees and the end of all our exploring. And yet, from the fog-choked eucalyptus of the FEVE, to here, taking the voyage of ten days ago in reverse, my identity as a writer rewritten, it had been ‘The Dry Salvages’ all the way:
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.