Week-end: pale green, tastes faintly of liquorice

Glass jug of water containing springs of mint and round and long seeds

The good

I had some news about a short story that’s coming up for publication next year. (More news on that in September or October.) That was a welcome interruption to the you never do ANYTHING, you are a failure as a writer chorus. And I learned the theme for the next-but-one anthology, and over the next couple of hours an entire plot and some basic worldbuilding unspooled itself in my head. In the words of Billy Joel, that hasn’t happened in the longest time.

My premium bonds came up. Well, one of them did. Twenty-five quid; thank you, ERNIE.

The mixed

The trains have been all over the place this week. There have been delays and cancellations because of overhead wire failures and points failures and speed restrictions and warm weather, and every day I’ve travelled by train this week there has been some kind of disruption.

However, every train I’ve ended up on has had a seat for me and working air conditioning. This is peak ‘mustn’t grumble’, but still, mustn’t grumble.

The difficult and perplexing

I really don’t like the heat. And seeing everything shrivelled up and yellow is depressing. Ugh. Please could governments and industry take some action on climate change, rather than leaving it all to overworked and guilt-ridden individuals?

My feet continue to discover new and frustrating ways to be painful. Most of this week it’s been the ball of my right foot, as if I’d stood on a drawing pin (I’m sure I haven’t); that’s now eased, but I think I’ve been compensating elsewhere, because now my left knee is very grumbly, particularly when I go up and down stairs.

Reading

If you’re going to be stuck on a train you will do well to have a book with you. For me, Monday’s shenanigans (sitting outside Stevenage for a good hour) provided an opportunity to return to Neither Present Time (Caren J. Werlinger), which I’d started a while ago but abandoned when it turned out I wasn’t in the mood for being shown not told an emotionally abusive relationship. It was actually very readable once I got past the stuck point, and was much better structured than the only other book I’ve read by this author.

I also read European Stories, a freebie from that time I went to the London Book Fair. It’s a collection of five short stories by previous winners of the European Union Prize for Literature, published with an English translation alongside the original text. I had a brief go at reading the original of the one in German, but I wasn’t up to that. I wouldn’t quite say that it filled me with Remourner sadness, because a lot of it was dealing with themes like racism and xenophobia that we know are a problem inside the EU just as much as they are out of it, but there’s definitely a sense of regret about being on the outside of a creative, collaborative project.

And I revisited some stories I wrote about a decade ago. I can in fact write fascinating amoral villains and witty narrators and plot. If I recall correctly, the secret there was not giving a damn what anybody else thought.

Writing

A thousand words yesterday on the new story mentioned at the top of this post, and today a thousand words on the Romeo and Juliet thing. (Current working title: Your Households’ Rancour.)

Making

Still working on the secret patchwork project…

Watching

… the Commonwealth Games (yes, I know they’re over. BBC iPlayer is working hard).

Eating

A very few tiny wild strawberries, straight off the plant.

Looking at

The Breaking the News exhibition at the British Library. This was arranged by theme rather than chronologically, so footage of the aftermath of the Grenfell fire appeared next to a newspaper report on the Tay Bridge disaster, which in turn was next to a report on the Great Fire of London. And so on across Scandal, Celebrity, War, Fake News, etc.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware that we live in history (and not at the very end of it, either), that today’s news is tomorrow’s history just as today’s history is yesterday’s news. Even so, there seemed to be a lot of history in this exhibition that I remember happening at the time, that time being the last five years or so. I suppose it’s compensation for not remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall. And there has been a lot of history going on.

Drinking

A recommendation from a colleague: water chilled with mint (or cucumber, but we have mint), coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and cumin seeds. It’s pale green, tastes faintly of liquorice, and really does have a cooling effect. More so than plain water? I don’t know. It’s certainly more interesting. I recommend pouring it through a tea strainer.

Other ways of staying cool, incidentally: shutting doors and windows and curtains before the inside gets as hot as the outside; taping silver foil over the window that doesn’t have a curtain; putting feet in a basin of cold water; a wet towel around the back of the neck.

Moving

I went swimming today for the first time… since the pandemic? It might well be. It was certainly my first time at our local swimming pool. It’s not the same as a rainy Tuesday morning at Jesus Green Lido, but it was extremely pleasant on a day such as today.

Acquisitions

A different colleague has been clearing out some Body Shop stock, and I have relieved her of some perfumes: White Musk L’Eau, White Musk Flora, and Indian Jasmine. The latter is pretty powerful and indeed very jasminey. I haven’t tried the others yet.

Line of the week

From Out of the Woods by Luke Turner, which I’ve been reading a chapter per week except for when I haven’t been at home on Sundays, and which is therefore taking a while:

The forest and newspaper archives tell of riots, unlicensed preaching, political agitation, robbery, drunkenness, illegal gherkin sellers, poaching, blinding songbirds to use as decoys to attract and then cage more, gambling, prog-rock concerts, female boxing, children trampled by a donkey derby gone out of control, dogging, wiccan rituals, biker meets, an unnatural act with a sheep near Debden, poaching, crazed Aunt Sallies, perverts on bicycles, teenage catapulters of swans, the first motocross race.

This coming week

People! Lots of people! And some fandom, which is made of people.

I’d like it to be less hot, please. Maybe we could have some rain.

I want to keep riding this story wave. And I also want to get the patchwork to a state where I can start quilting it this weekend (in among the fandom and the people, yes).

Notes to self

Green apples growing on a tree

I think I’ve mentioned before that the project I’ve been calling ‘the Romeo and Juliet thing’ is my first attempt at a full-length historical novel. I’m rather enjoying it. Apart from digging around to find out things like how many staff a typical upper-middle class household would have and how many of them would be addressed by their surnames, and what all the relevant railway companies were called, there’s the deeper task of getting into the mindset of a different age. It’s fascinating. (It’s also an excuse to reread a whole load of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries.)

I am well used to writing characters who are simultaneously stuck in their own heads and detached from their own emotions, whether by shame, depression, or the closet, but this is another level: a whole population that just isn’t talking about anything. My hero is slightly more articulate than the type described by George Mikes in How To Be An Alien:

If he wants to marry a girl, he says:

“I say… would you?…”

If he wants to make an indecent proposal:

“I say… what about…”

But not very much more so. It is 1919, after all.

All this sort of thing is surprisingly fun to write, but it leaves a lot to be done by the narration. If the characters aren’t talking, I have to talk for them. If they can’t talk about feelings, I have to show that those feelings exist – because they do, they’re powerful, maybe even dangerous, and perhaps even more so because they’re not fully expressed. I’m using third person omniscient, though it’s pretending to be third person limited most of the time. (That is, I know everything, but I don’t tell it all, and most of the time I restrict myself to what’s going on inside a particular person’s head.)

Anyway, the proposal does happen in actual words. But in a moment of writing cowardice I chickened out of writing the first kiss – which prompts the proposal – and instead left myself a note in square brackets:

[this has to be really hot]

Helpful, no? As the old Nicorette adverts used to say, don’t tell me, tell me how. Of course I rolled my eyes at myself on every subsequent readthrough until eventually I wrote the damn thing and, yes, made it really hot. The current readthrough, however, has prompted the uncomfortable reflection that it hasn’t really been earned. Not yet. If the kiss needs to be really hot, so does everything leading up to it, otherwise it doesn’t work any more than the proposal, and then the decision to accept doesn’t make any sense either. And then the remainder of the book – about four fifths of it, I’d guess – don’t work at all.

And I think I also need to bring in my second point of view earlier, and do more from her perspective. It’s feeling a bit one-sided at the moment, and it’s vital that both parties are seen to be invested.

Time to write myself some more notes.

[this bit also needs to be really hot]

and

[this bit too]

I’m sure I’ll thank myself for it later.

Regrouping, rethinking, reprioritising

a full-blown red rose peeping out from between concrete fence posts

I’ve been writing. I’ve filled eight and a half pages of my current exercise book since Thursday morning. Granted, one of those is taken up with an extremely sketchy sketch map, but the rest are all writing.

And on Thursday, or it might have been Friday, I had one of those lovely moments where a whole chunk of book suddenly makes sense. It’s not finding a missing jigsaw piece, because I am a long way away from knowing how many pieces this puzzle has, let alone that there’s one specific one lurking under the sofa. It’s more like finding that the grey-beige piece you thought was part of a building is actually the sunlit bit of tree and now you can join this bit you’ve already done to that bit and suddenly you understand what’s going on with that weird clump of maroon.

I thought I was writing about sending my heroine away to school. I was writing about sending my heroine away to school. But it turned out that I was also writing about her relationship with her parents, and their relationship with the gap which used to be her brother, and how family solidarity means that she can’t talk about any of that with her new husband.

This accounts for one and a third of those eight pages. Not much, in the grand scheme of things. Maybe about 300 words. But it’s made all four of them (I’m not counting the brother; he gets his moments elsewhere, but the really important thing in this part is that he isn’t there) jump out from the page; it’s made the connections between them make sense.

It was a relief, I can tell you. Nothing like that had happened this year and, while I’ve been grimly plugging away, it was all feeling more and more hopeless. Back at the beginning of April, when I was still having to take a nap after a few hours of doing anything remotely interesting, I wrote:

And as it goes on I feel like less and less of a writer. It’s as if I’m no longer the person who has written and self-published three novels, that was someone else, I don’t know how to do it any more, and really what is the point anyway, only five people are going to like it and I will have to find five different people from last time because yet again I am doing something weird and it won’t sell. Possibly Speak Its Name set my expectations unreasonably high.

By the end of April, I was getting away with fewer naps, but I still had no enthusiasm. There were days when I really did think this was it. I thought I’d had my time as a writer. I’d done my three novels, I’d got on a couple of shortlists, the last one was a bit of a flop anyway, and there wasn’t anything more coming.

I didn’t say so. Not over here. For a start, that would have involved writing. I didn’t have the energy for a big flounce, nor yet to explain myself decently. So I just slipped quietly off the radar for a while. And look, it turns out that I was wrong.

Several things have been going on here. In no particular order…

A grim first third of the year

They usually talk about quarters, don’t they? But between bereavement and lingering Covid, things were horrible all the way through to the end of April. I managed to slog on with a sentence per day on everything through the first three months of it, but Covid did for my physical capacity. And, while it was useful to know there was a good reason for my complete and utter lack of energy and motivation, that didn’t go very far to replace it.

Too many projects on the go

At once point I was working actively on:

  • the Ruritanian thing
  • the Romeo and Juliet thing
  • a non-fiction, how-to, workbook sort of thing about writing a book while doing a job
  • Book Bus Stories
  • a collection of historical sapphic short stories (my mind keeps trying to call this historical sapphical, a genre that Hamlet’s players didn’t quite get around to…)

Not to mention things for work and other occupations, things that might have come out without my name on, but which none the less took up mental energy.

It made sense for a long time. The Ruritanian thing was terribly coy and rarely wanted to be the main act. The how-to thing quite often wrote large chunks of itself without my really noticing. And I’ve always found that the best way to stay invested in a project is to keep working on it. After all, it wasn’t much more difficult to add one sentence each to five projects than it was to add five sentences to one, and some days it was easier.

I’m not sure when it stopped making sense. Probably with Covid. I’d realised I needed to focus more by the beginning of April, which tracks. And really, before then I was too ill for it to be of any benefit anyway.

Your regularly scheduled mid-book slump

This happens every time. Every single time.

It was particularly derailing with Speak Its Name because, this being my first time, I didn’t know that this was a thing that happened. Moreover I hadn’t yet proved to myself that I could finish a book.

This time, though, it really threw me. I’d had two significant life events, one of which knocked me emotionally, and the other physically. Intellectually, too. I had the brain fog, and it is not an asset in writing anything at all. Once again I was in unknown territory, and I had no way of knowing whether I’d be able to find my way back from either of them.

This time I actually have given up on a book

Temporarily, at least. I’ve put the Ruritanian thing on the back burner, and maybe I’ll turn off the gas altogether. We’ll see.

The thing with several of these projects was that they weren’t serving their original purpose. The Ruritanian thing, for example, was meant to be light-hearted fun which I would, eventually, be able to share with my father. Well. And then another person I’d have loved to read it, A. J. Hall, died last month. I’m one of many people who can’t quite believe she’s gone, and, though I didn’t know her nearly so well as some of my friends, there’s a big hole in my reading and writing life. If I ever do finish this wretched book it won’t be as good as A. J. Hall would have made it – nobody had quite the same knack for seeing what I needed to cut and telling me so – and it’ll be dedicated to two people. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be something that I’ll need to finish one day. But it’s certainly stopped being light-hearted fun.

The sapphical historical anthology, meanwhile, was meant to be an easy way to get a book out this year, as the idea was that the greater part of it was already written. Which is true; the only problem is that the rest of it turned out to be ridiculously hard and I can’t be bothered. I have two concepts for additional stories, but I don’t have the plots to go with them. I could make them happen with pure elbow grease, but not at the same time as everything else. It has not turned out to be easy and I’m not going to get a book out this year.

The non-fiction work about how to write your book alongside doing your day job… Well, I was having significant difficulty doing my day job at all, let alone anything else. At some point I’ll add a chapter with the message that sometimes life sucks and you just can’t write; don’t beat yourself up. That can wait, though.

So this time I really have ditched everything except the Romeo and Juliet thing, which, as described at the top of this post, is coming up roses (by that or any other name. Note to self: anything doing with Roses of Picardy?) and made that the main event. And it’s repaying me generously for my undivided attention.

As for Book Bus Stories, well, it’s probably about three quarters done. And I suspect that when I return to the Book Bus it’ll start writing itself again. It usually does. It seems to be perfectly happy looking after itself.

The limits of capacity: post-Covid and writing chronic illness

A fluffy black and white cat on a blanket on a sofa
The view from the sofa

On Easter Monday I reread A Spoke In The Wheel. ASITW, as I shall refer to it henceforth, was my second novel, which dealt with the coming to terms of a disgraced cyclist and a disabled cycling fan. Easter Monday was day 18 of my convalescence, if we’re counting from the first day I tested negative for Covid, and was, like many of the previous 25 days, spent mostly lying on the sofa.

While my main reason for rereading was being in a mood for more cycling after watching both Paris-Roubaix races in the afternoon of Easter Day, and also to see if there was any mileage in a spin-off story for the B couple, it was quite an interesting experience. This is, if not the most ill I’ve been in years, certainly the longest duration of illness I’ve had, and I couldn’t help looking out to see what I’d got wrong.

Of course I’d done my homework at the time, getting two ME sufferers of my acquaintance to check and double-check for errors and faux pas, but this is as close as I’d want to get to experiencing chronic illness for myself. I’m very thankful indeed that I do seem to be getting steadily better. I’m noticing tangible improvements from week to week, if not necessarily from day to day. On Monday I went into the office for the first time since the middle of March. Yesterday I had to have a lie-down as soon as I’d shut down my laptop. Tomorrow I’ll try riding my bike to the station.

So what did I find? Actually, not all that much that spoke directly to my comparatively short experience of illness. The whole point of ASITW was that it was talking about long-term conditions. I was writing about two people who spent most of their lives at the limits of their physical capacity, who were intimately familiar with that territory. It’s new ground for me. Anything I might have added from my current experience would be part of a prequel, or, just about conceivably, a flashback.

My limits are changing all the time. Not, perhaps, so fast as I’d like, certainly not so fast as the Protestant work ethic thinks they should be, but they’re changing. I know about as much about chronic illness from a month of post-Covid as the person who does a one-night fundraising sleepout knows about what it’s like to live on the streets. Which is to say, not much at all. If I were writing ASITW now I’d still need my specialist editors. Maybe even more so than I did before, lest I think I know it all now. (A little learning is a dangerous thing…)

And the other thing is that it came from the point of view of someone who had been disabled and now wasn’t, with all the assumptions that implies. Ben’s experience of disability is far in the past even if his experience of not being able to do everything he wants to do is very recent. He was always going to start out as a clueless git, and being a clueless git is, I would argue, not something that one needs personal experience to write. (I have often been clueless. I have tried not to be a git.) If I’d had this month of fatigue when I was writing ASITW I wouldn’t really have had anywhere to put it. Or, if I had, it would have been a very different book. And, you know, rereading the one I actually wrote, I’m pretty happy with the way it ended up.

Some links

Autistic on Wheels – Katherine’s advice and comments were immensely helpful to me when I was writing ASITW. She’s doing important advocacy work.

The rise of sensitivity readers – an article from Independent.ie quoting the formidable Susan Lanigan

A Spoke in the Wheel

Emerging from the fog

Half-open tulip streaked red and yellow

I think I’m getting better. I cycled up the hill to the post office this lunchtime. Granted, I also had to have a nap at the end of the working day, but it’s still encouraging. What’s particularly encouraging is the fact that both the bike ride and the nap left me feeling more cheerful. And optimistic.

I’ve been having ideas. I’ve been thinking how remiss it is of spy thriller writers who set their books in 1960s Paris to fail to include a Paris bus. That might be another one for the Book Bus stories. I’ve been thinking what a lovely meet-cute I gave my B couple in A Spoke In The Wheel and wondering if I might write a spin-off. That’s another two ideas to add to ‘something inspired by Saints Felicity and Perpetua’ and ‘something in Victorian Stancester’ for the sapphical-historical anthology I was talking about last time. (I added up all the existing stories that could go in there, by the way. 25,000 words, so I’d want to write at least as much again.)

Ideas are great, but they’re only the beginning. Where I’m having difficulty is developing them into something that’s sturdy enough to support a narrative. That’s the kind of thing that I’d usually work out with myself over the course of a walk, and I haven’t been up to walking. Usually I’d be saying to myself, So, this spy, why is he on this bus? Is he meeting someone? Going somewhere? Half an hour into a walk, I’d have an answer, and with the answer I’d have a plot. But that circuit just isn’t running at the moment.

And ideas aren’t even necessarily terribly useful, since there’s at least one school of thought that says that I’d be best off returning to the Romeo and Juliet thing. And I will do that, just as soon as I’ve finished this blog post. But my goodness, it’s nice to have something going on in my head.

I remember that this time last year I was talking about reading St Augustine over Easter. I’m not sure that I’d have managed it even without taking into account a complicated and tiring, though ultimately very enjoyable, family event. The best-laid schemes and all that… But even so, it is spring, and the tulips are out, and so is the apple blossom, and today I saw two goldfinches at the bird feeder, and I have ideas.

2022: the year that got away?

A tub of tulips, one about to open in a deep pink colour, frosted with raindrops
It must be April. The tulips are flowering.

In twelve days, it will be Easter. I’m not quite sure how. This year has slipped past without my really noticing.

I noticed Candlemas, because that was the day of Pa’s funeral. I noticed Ash Wednesday, because we had a friend staying and she reminded us about pancakes. I noticed Lady Day (the first day of the year, in old money, and maybe this is a good year to claim that do-over), but I was in no position to do anything about it because I was flat out on the sofa with Covid. And now here we are in April, and this Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and the Sunday after that will be Easter.

2022 has felt rather as if I’m bobbing around on a raft on the ocean, and every time I get myself and my raft the right way up another huge wave has crashed down and swamped me again and all I can do is hang on.

That sounds gloomy, and, oddly enough, I’m not feeling all that gloomy. Not tonight, anyway. I’m reasonably confident that the shore’s over there somewhere and, so long as I keep hold of the rope I’ll wash up on dry land eventually. But the first three months of this year have disappeared in death administration, and fortnightly dashes to the Isle of Wight, and Covid, and I assume I must have been doing my day job in between times.

What I haven’t been doing much of is writing. Or at least I think I haven’t. I never write much on the Isle of Wight. It’s like another dimension. The train journeys have worked their usual magic, it’s true, but I’m way behind on typing up the longhand from those train journeys. I’m very aware that I’ve been neglecting this blog. And the last two weeks have been (wait for it) a write-off. All I managed to write when I had Covid was a report on the event at which I caught Covid.

And I was feeling gloomy about this on Sunday evening.

I had high hopes for this year. I was aiming to get an anthology of short stories out in time for Ventnor Fringe and the Ruritanian novel done for Christmas. Those would have been entirely reasonable goals, if this had turned out to be a usual year. As things are, not only have I lost three months, but those projects have got all tangled up with grief. Technically, they need ruthlessness. Emotionally, they need gentleness. The Book Bus will be at Ventnor Fringe, and I’ll be there too, but there’s no way I’m going to get those little stories finished off and tidied up for July, not when they’ve been joined by hundreds of other stories that perhaps aren’t mine to tell. And really I was writing the Ruritanian thing for myself and for Pa, and at the moment I can’t quite bring myself write Buchanesque chase scenes with trams when I know he won’t read them.

So I’m regrouping. The Ruritanian novel is reclaiming its ‘frivolous side project’ status, and I’ll work on it for fun, when it becomes fun again. The book bus stories will happen one of these years, but it won’t be this year. I’m shifting my focus to the 1920s Romeo and Juliet thing. That’s a little annoying in that I have 26,000 words on that, compared to 58,000 on the Ruritanian thing, but it’s going to be quite a lot easier in that it’s character-driven (very much my strength) as opposed to plot-driven (very much not).

This leaves me with the question of what I publish in 2022. Of course, nothing is an option. But I’ve been publishing a book every even-numbered year since 2016 now, and there’s part of me that’s reluctant to spoil the pattern. One possible answer is an anthology of short stories – not the book bus stories (well, maybe I’ll borrow one of them), but a selection of vaguely sapphic vaguely historical things. Things like Stronger Than Death, which appeared in an anthology by a publisher that has since stopped trading, and The Sisters’ House, which was written for a very specific call for submissions and wasn’t selected, and Prima Donna, for which the rights returned to me ages ago, and The Secret of the Glacier, which has never been published at all. I’d quite like to pull them all together, and write a few more stories to round the collection out. I should be able to manage that over the next eight months. Although, now I come to look at my calendar for May and June and July and August, it might be more of a challenge than you’d think…

The Seller of Dreams: a tale for our times

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 –

What?

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.

The End

A crown embroidered in gold and red thread on a black background

More on the question of sport, and whether it’s worth it all? Try A Spoke In The Wheel:

The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.

The first thing she saw was the doper.

Find out more

Lost and found

Two books, 'Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland', 'Floral Patterns of India', and a white ceramic coaster with a gold letter K, on a padded envelope with 'KAFJ BIRTHDAY 26 JUL 21' written on it in red ballpoint pen

Every time I spoke to Pa over the last few months of his life, he said to me, ‘I still haven’t found your birthday present’. Found, that is, in the room that he used as half study, half bedroom, half model railway layout, and indeed, good luck finding anything in there. He’d given me a hideous charity shop coaster as a sort of joke present on the day itself, but my actual present was lost.

I assumed we’d never find it. Or, rather, I assumed we’d find it and we wouldn’t know. That it would be loose among his own things, indistinguishable from them.

But there it was: a padded envelope, with my initials and the date of my birthday. I cried a bit. Inside: a book of birds, and a book of stickers. Yes. Something I’d like, but something that might have been his own.

We found all sorts of things. There was another envelope, a much older one. Inside was a scarf. The writing on the envelope told us that the scarf was made by my great-grandmother for my grandfather, and it was in remarkably good condition one hundred and twenty years later. Other things were not so well documented. In the same box as the scarf we found several lovely early twentieth century Christmas cards, with no clue as to who sent them, or to whom. Somebody must have kept them for some reason, but I shouldn’t think we’ll ever know now.

We fill our homes with things – because we like them, because somebody important gave them to us, because we don’t get round to getting rid of them. We know what the reasons are; the people who come after us probably won’t, unless we tell them. I can see myself hanging onto that padded envelope; if so, I can see my children, if I have any, chucking it. And we will both be right.

Every item in a house is there for a reason. Some of those reasons are not particularly good ones.

‘Every word on that page is there for a reason,’ my A-level English teacher told me. It was quite possibly the most significant thing I learned at school. Every word represents a choice. Saying it this way, not any of the other ways one might have said it. Keeping it there when you come to reread. Deciding that it needed to be said in the first place.

Pa was an expansive, digressive, eclectic writer. He wrote about all sorts of things, though the nominal subject was usually mass transit. Most of his readers were quite happy to come along for the ride. And I think that his reason for most of the words, like most of the items, was, quite simply, that he liked them.

Here’s something that’s in my house for a reason, a birthday present I most definitely knew about. This was what Pa made me for my fifth birthday. It says so on the back.

A large wooden dolls' house in a cluttered room

Daily Decoration: cumulative icicles

The top portion of a Christmas tree, hung with decorations made from beads threaded on wire and representing icicles

There’s nothing particularly special about these icicles. There are six of them. They always go around the top branches of the tree: their length fills in the gap and they pick up the lights and sparkle pleasingly. They’re made from plastic beads threaded on wire, and they were yet another charity shop find in the penniless Guildford days. The beginning of the collection, if you like. That’s rather appropriate, given the way real icicles form: a drop freezing, another drop running over it and freezing onto it, over and over until it’s an elegant spike. It’s rather appropriate given the way that these were obviously made: a bead after a bead after a bead.

2021 was very much a year to be got through one day at a time. While 2020 is, in my head, a timeless, expansive, almost gentle, stretch of enforced freedom, 2021 seemed to call for gritted teeth and the continual effort of putting one foot in front of the other in front of the other in front of the other…

Early on in the year, someone I follow on the internet mentioned that they were aiming to add one sentence to their work in progress every day. I liked the sound of this. As mentioned elsewhere, I have more than one work in progress, and I thought this seemed like a good way of keeping faith with all of them. It has been. I’ve written short stories, fanfic, an essay, one sentence at a time. I’ve written twenty-six thousand words of one novel. I can’t remember the starting wordcount on the other one, but I do know it’s longer than it was. One sentence, one sentence, one sentence. Maybe two if they seem to come as a pair. Maybe more. Even when I didn’t know what I was doing at all, there’s been something to add. A line of description. A line of dialogue. After a while the thing gathers enough momentum to unspool itself into whole paragraphs, chapters, and I can sit down with it for a couple of hours and finish it off. Or else it runs down again, and once again I add another sentence. Just one today. Just one more tomorrow. Open the document. Add a sentence. Save the document. Close the document.

I decided that I wanted to read more poetry. I have loads of poetry books but the imagined sunny afternoons with a glass of white wine and an hour to dip in didn’t materialise nearly often enough. I started to work my way along the bookcase. The next book along. One poem. Tomorrow, the book after that. Today, Amy Clampitt. Yesterday, Kate Spencer. Tomorrow, Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald) and the day after, Mary Oliver.

Last year one of my brothers gave me a book called My Year In Small Drawings. I can’t really draw but with a space that’s maybe two inches by three inches it doesn’t really matter. Yesterday I drew a man using a laptop from a stock photo. Today I will draw a picture of a picture. I still can’t really draw but that stops being important.

Duolingo. I can tell you that the boy is eating an apple in Polish, Italian, Spanish, French, and German. (Il ragazzo mangia una mela.) I can tell the cat that she is a cat. (She might not know. It’s best to be sure. Jestesz kotem.) Well, I had an A level in French already (le chat mange une pomme) so that doesn’t really count, but as far as the rest of them go I’m building on, at most, a couple of terms of formal learning plus a couple of months in the country in question. Well, there’s a pandemic on, but I can sort out my verb endings while I make my coffee (le chat ne mange pas des pommes; le chat préfère la nourriture sèche).

Teaching myself the piano. A twenty minute timer, and Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Method. I have yet to master Home On The Range, but I’m getting there faster than I would if I were doing nothing.

Filling in my diary. I use an ordinary engagement diary, A5, week to view, and it’s part scrapbook, part commonplace book, part record of days. That way I can look back and see when was the last time I gathered the compost and when was the last time my right eye did its funny loss of vision thing and when it was I started reading the book I’ve just finished. And I can write down the quotation I want to remember, and I can stick in the pretty oddment that would otherwise be floating around my desk forever.

It hasn’t been every day. Of course it hasn’t. At present everything to the right of middle C is blocked off by the Christmas tree. Some days I’m too tired to write. Some days it is raining and I do not wish to go out to draw strangers using their phones. Some days I forget to read a poem. The diary tends to get updated all at once in front of whatever’s on Eurosport on a Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter. If I miss a day, if I miss a week, a month – no guilt. Any day is a good day to do it again.

A poem.

A phrase.

A drawing.

A sentence.

A drop.

Daily Decoration: blue velvet star

Christmas tree decoration in the shape of a five-pointed star, made from blue velvet and embroidered with beads and copper thread

I thought I’d carry this series on until Epiphany. I’m sure I can think of something to say about five more items.

Today’s ornament is this blue velvet star. This came from Oxfam – new. It’s rather fine, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. I love this sort of rich decoration, the sumptuousness of it, particularly at this time of year. I like it in the same sort of way that I like cherry vodka and dark chocolate and going to the theatre and the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. I wouldn’t want very much of it, and I wouldn’t want it all the time, but once in a while it’s marvellous.

In November, alerted by David at Licence To Queer, I went to see the Noël Coward: Art and Style exhibition at the Guildhall in London. It was excellent – wonderful clothes, fascinating detail about the theatre – but really, my main takeaway was the following:

it is perfectly possible to be a wildly successful polymath while spending most of one’s life in a dressing gown

There was at least one of his dressing gowns on display, as well as some modern ones inspired by Coward’s style. And – which was perhaps equally inspiring – a picture of him sitting up in bed, working, in what looked like a very fancy apartment but was actually a room in the boarding house his mother ran.

This is very much about image, of course, the swan gliding across the surface of the water while paddling furiously underneath. All the dressing gowns in the world can’t replace hard work and talent. (Though I should say that for the next two weeks I intend to read and watch and listen rather than write.) But at the same time, you don’t need to be miserable while doing that hard work. You don’t need to have wall to wall luxury. But if you’re wearing a nice dressing gown, you’re taking your luxury with you.