Daily Decoration: augmented

Gold plastic Christmas tree bauble ringed with a strip of diamanté trim. Reflected in the bauble is a woman holding a mobile phone.

Nothing special about this bauble: it’s a bog-standard plastic thing. The diamanté trim, however, has a story of sorts. Originally it was attached to the little clutch bag I bought to go with my going-away outfit. I felt that it was a bit too gaudy for the occasion and removed it. After that it hung around the place doing nothing very useful until it occurred to me that I could add it to a Christmas tree bauble, and did. I think I might have had to snip off a couple of jewels from one end to make it fit properly. If so, I chucked them. Even I’m not that much of a hoarder.

I had my booster vaccination this afternoon. Consequently I am feeling somewhat less sparkly than usual, particularly around the left shoulder. Nevertheless, I trust that I will shortly be augmented with enhanced immunity, and will therefore be able to partake more fully and more confidently in life.

Daily Decoration: dire tinplate squirrel

Christmas tree decoration representing a squirrel sitting in a red boot

Things are getting a bit desperate here. I had to get this squirrel out of the box and hang it on the tree today. It didn’t go up on Christmas Eve because I don’t actually like it very much. But I think I’ll just about manage to find a decoration for each of the last few days of Christmas.

Today has been the last day before I start work again and, after weeks of dense grey cloud alternating with heavy rain, it’s been beautiful. I went out for my first bike ride of the year in the morning (who needs hills when you have Fenland winds?) and this afternoon Tony and I spent a cheerful hour and a half pruning the most awkward of the apple trees and destraggling the wisteria and the vine that grow over the pergola.

Hence the squirrel. We have a couple of visiting grey squirrels who scamper along the fences and steal from the birdfeeders. Today I saw one of them squatting on the pergola, nibbling away at something, I couldn’t see what.

Having spent a significant part of my life on the Isle of Wight, I’m honour bound to disapprove of grey squirrels, invasive species that they are. Particularly when they start stealing from the birdfeeders. On the mainland, however, I have to admit that I quite enjoy watching them. It’s particularly amusing when the Slinky that we installed on the birdfeeder pole does its job and stops them climbing up it from the ground (the squirrel’s own weight stretches the spring and deposits it gently back on the floor), though they’re quite capable of reaching their goal from any of the nearby trees and bushes.

As for the birds, we get sparrows and starlings, great tits (I think), blue tits (I’m almost sure), robins, blackbirds, goldfinches (occasionally), collared doves and wood pigeons, and once, very excitingly, a green woodpecker. Although since it was neither pecking wood nor looking particularly green I had to ask the internet for confirmation. I’ve heard what I think was a hedgehog and have seen what was definitely a hedgehog – twice. The second time was in daylight, though, which is a bit worrying. I put some cat food out for it. The cat food disappeared, but that might just have been cats.

Anyway, it’s been very pleasant to spend some time outdoors today, and I intend to do more of that this year. Perhaps in three months or so I’ll take a deckchair out, and a book.

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.

Daily Decoration: wild bird, wild bells

Christmas tree decoration representing a small pink bird, with tiny metal bells dangling from its feet

This seems to be the closest thing on the Christmas tree to wild bells. And I would like to share wild bells tonight in homage to Tennyson and In Memoriam. Some years I try to read the whole thing on New Year’s Eve; this, too, might be a good year for it, because I’m not boostered yet so we’re not going out.

I’m not quite sure what sort of a bird this is meant to be. I bought it from the fair trade shop in York. Shared Earth, that’s the name of it. Is it a wild bird? Who knows? And those are tiny little bells. They tinkle rather than ring.

It’s been a funny year. It’s felt like an extension of 2020, except that, where 2020 felt like a year to do nothing, in 2021 I felt like I should be doing something but I didn’t know what. 2020 was a year of major personal life events – a house purchase, a new novel – whereas 2021 has all happened at a remove. We cancelled the housewarming party. Some of my friends are out on the town while others are still shielding, and I’m not sure I’ve found the balance. I’ve been living in a walled garden and haven’t even kept up with the pruning. (This sentence is part metaphorical, part literal.) Or so it seems from the rather melancholy mood I inhabit today.

I am not sure that I should be trusting that perception implicitly. When I stop to think, I remember. I have had two coronavirus vaccinations, and the fact that the next one won’t happen until the 4th doesn’t undo that. As of this morning’s lateral flow test, I’ve remained Covid-free. We successfully took possession of a cat. We got a new sofa bed and have had people staying on it. I fell head over heels for a new project in a way that I haven’t done for years. That project’s sitting at 26,000 words, and the other one’s at 56,000 words, and that means that one of them can happen next year. In fact, I wrote loads, and just because I haven’t shared all of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. I went to see three films at the cinema, which is three more than I did last year. And I saw live theatre and live music at Ventnor Fringe, and that was fabulous. It isn’t even as if I didn’t have any adventures, because we went to Cornwall, and visited St Michael’s Mount (which I’ve wanted to do forever) and Penzance and Marazion and the Lost Gardens of Heligan (and isn’t that a wonderful name?) and went on an open-topped bus around Land’s End. It’s been a quiet year, but it hasn’t been a non-year.

Ring out, ring out, my mournful rhymes/And ring the fuller minstrel in.

And on the other side of the wall… Well. There’s the gap, I think. I’d like to feel a little less detached this coming year. That detachment is partly an illusion – I’m sitting on the new sofa that friends have already slept on; looking around the room, I see Christmas cards from plenty of people I’ve seen this year; we’ve had wine with neighbours this very evening – but I think there’s something there that’s worth following. The larger heart, the kindlier hand. And yes:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

In fact, here’s the whole lot – recorded by me and my husband last year. (I’d like to do more singing next year, that’s another thing.) Perhaps they aren’t wild bells, but they’re ringing.

Daily Decoration: deer and cheese

Playmobil crib scene in which Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus have been joined by a deer and a fawn with a basket of cheese

This one is going to take a bit of explaining.

You might or might not be familiar with the Christmas carol Past Three A Clock (and a cold frosty morning…) If you are, apologies for the earworm. If not, here’s a video. The tune and the chorus are traditional. The verses, however, were added on at a later date by G. R. Woodward and, while they’re a lovely bit of poetry, I’m not sure that I’d have put some of them quite in the following order.

Hinds o’er the pearly

dewy lawn early

seek the high stranger

laid in the manger.

(Past three a clock, etc)

Cheese from the dairy

bring they for Mary,

And, not for money,

butter and honey…

I assume that the ‘they’ is meant to refer to the dairy workers, perhaps before they get caught up in the Twelve Days of Christmas, but the way it’s written it does look rather like it’s the hinds.

Which when we copped onto this last year meant two things. Firstly, stealing the deer from the royal ice skating Playmobil scene and ordering some Playmobil cheese for them. And secondly, a bred lik poem:

My name is dere

and wen it dawn

and wen the baby

Saviour born

and all the humans

on ther nees

I join them ther

with stolen chees.

Daily Decoration: iridescent plastic hummingbird

Iridescent plastic ornament representing a hummingbird, hanging from an evergreen tree

I bought this one from the British Library. I think it was in 2019, but it might have been a year or so earlier. There were four or five others like it which went to various family households, as is tradition.

I bought it because I liked it. (I do sometimes feel a bit odd about imposing my own very specific taste on my nearest and dearest, but I tell myself that they don’t have to display these things if they don’t want to. Usually they seem to.) I bought it because there was something about the depth of the colours and the gleam of the surface and the grace of the shape that appealed to me. There wasn’t any particular meaning; as far as I’m aware, none of us have any particular feelings about hummingbirds. I just liked it.

I think it’s now fair to say that my last book hasn’t done as well as I’d hoped. Sales haven’t been great; it has yet to be shortlisted for anything; reviews have been favourable but very sparse. One might use the word flop. There are various reasons for this. One big one was the SNAFU that was getting the damn thing out in ebook format, which eventually resulted in my pulling all my paperbacks from Amazon. Another, probably equally big, was the timing. Eight months into a pandemic, people were not terribly interested in reading about institutional inertia and a slow slide into depression. And much of the core, queer Christian, audience was distracted by Living in Love and Faith.

I still think it’s good. I still think it’s the best one so far. I think I managed to say something important. And most of the time I manage not to care what anyone else thinks. But it was a lot of hard work. It was very personal – more personal than I’d thought, going in – and it meant spending time in depressing places.

But it’s done. And it’s been something of a relief this year to find myself writing things just because I want to. Silly things. Frivolous things. Next door to fanfic, really. Yes, fine, in one I find myself gently making the same marriage: maybe won’t fix everything? point, and in the other I find myself looking at the inadequacies of yet another political system, so it’s business as usual. And next door to fanfic they might be, but since I’m still having to fill in characters, history, and geography on a blank sheet, they aren’t any less work.

I’m putting that work in. These are going to be good. They may or may not end up saying anything important. I’m alternating between having a huge amount of fun and tearing my hair out – over the thriller plot, over how to resolve the other one, over how clever is too clever and how many Easter eggs is too many. And once you’re this far into a book it doesn’t really matter why you started it: finishing it is going to be hard work. It’s going to be a lovely thing once it’s finished, though.

If you want to give The Real World a go regardless, it’s currently half price at Smashwords.

Daily Decoration: Santa Ballycumber

Christmas tree decoration made of a square of translucent plastic upon which is a picture of a red book with arms and legs, wearing a Santa hat

I didn’t say where I got yesterday’s ornament. It was, like today’s, a present from a BookCrosser.

This book usually appears in yellow, and hatless. His name is Ballycumber, and he is the BookCrossing logo.

I joined BookCrossing about a decade ago now, with the intention of moving some books out of the house. This worked, in that I got some books out of the house. It backfired somewhat, in that a whole lot more books came in. More to the point, it was an awful lot of fun. I joined in bookrings and bookrays, bookboxes, swaps and sweepstakes. This decoration came in an ornament swap. Yesterday’s was a thank-you for taking part in the Twelve Days of Christmas exchange.

I haven’t been so involved in BookCrossing lately. Part of that’s been the rising cost of postage. Part of it’s just been general pandemic incoherence. Things slip. I let things drift. I’d quite like to pull some of them back next year. And perhaps get involved in some new things, too.

Daily Decoration: a swan a-swimming (not on the seventh day)

A flat wooden Christmas tree decoration with a swan and the figure 7 in gold on a green background

Today is not the seventh day of Christmas. But this is the only Twelve Days of Christmas ornament I have, and today I have seen a very large number of geese. Not a-laying, but a lot more than six of them. Two hundred, at least. I thought for a long time that they were swans, until four or five of them flew overhead, and the sound was wrong – honking, not the whirring noise that swans’ wings make – and the beaks were wrong. So the day’s wrong and the numbers are wrong and the birds are wrong, and none of them were either a-swimming or a-laying.

But it was great. You can’t argue with a field of two hundred waterfowl, and besides, I was out on a decent walk, an hour out, an hour back, and that’s something I haven’t done as much as I’d like this year. I’ve done a lot of quick morning walks – twenty-five minutes out, twenty-five minutes back – but not much new territory. I think part of that’s a hangover from last year. I got out of the habit of walking to places in lockdown, when the pubs were shut and the trains were for essential travel only, and so any walk had to be short and circular.

Today’s walk wasn’t a new one. Coveney and back again: I’ve done that plenty of times, on foot and on my bike. But it was time and space to think about the adventures I might yet take. It’s tricky, obviously, with the Continent shutting down every few months. Maybe 2022 is the year we go down the Rhine. And I have this idea of cycling from Ghent to Aachen. And I’m less interested than I used to be in crossing one route after another off a list. That means going to places because I want to go to them – but knowing what I want to do can still be a challenge sometimes. It needs to be a bit more specific than ‘somewhere new’.

More than anything, I think, it needs a change in mindset. Adventure happens when I’m adventurous. And in the meantime, perhaps, I can be preparing. Getting my road bike serviced. Looking at maps. Going a little bit further, a little bit longer. Expanding my comfort zone a bit at a time. And in the meantime, there are hundreds of geese if I only walk half an hour from my front door.

Daily Decoration: portraits of unknown ladies

Two decorations representing Tudor ladies, one in purple and one in white, hanging on a Christmas tree

I don’t know who these ladies are. They might be two of Henry VIII’s wives; they look rather Tudor, with their stand-up collars and what might be meant to be French hoods. It doesn’t matter. The galleries are full of portraits of unknown ladies; why shouldn’t I have a couple on my Christmas tree, too?

The reason that I don’t know who they are is that I bought them in Oxfam, so they had no labels. They came together with the King of Hearts. Or it might have been the Knave of Hearts. I can’t remember. I bought them last year, in Ely Oxfam. But how could I have bought them last year? All the shops were shut last year. Or I didn’t go to any shops last year. Then maybe it was the year before. Did we go to Oxfam when we were househunting? No. It was last year. I know that really.

It’s just that my mind wants to shuffle all occasions involving shops out of 2020. It’s already refusing to believe that I was only in the office on one day between 13 March 2020 and 16 August 2021: four months of the London commute have overwritten all of that. Give it a couple of years and I’ll be convinced I bought these ladies in 2021, and I’ll be reading back through this blog and learn that no, this year they came out of the Christmas box, and surprise myself.

That used to happen a lot before pandemic times; it’s even more the case now, with so many points of reference disappeared or eroded. I’m glad I got a lot down on paper or pixels, whether in public here or in private elsewhere on the internet or offline; it’s been good to be able to check my internal memory against my external memory, to see where I’ve stretched out one nice week into a glorious month, where I’ve moved an event from April to August, where I was massively excited about something I’ve since forgotten, or the first signs of what turned out to be the next major enthusiasm.

Sometimes I read something and think it could have been written by a different person, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s right there in my own handwriting. Sometimes I discover a revelation written down that I’d swear I’d only just had, but no, apparently this is something I’ve discovered before, and thought was important enough to record. Sometimes it’s plain reassuring, to see that I’ve been here before and found a way out again. That I’ve been here before several times and get better at finding my way out every time. I’m glad I record things.

Mind you, if I didn’t, would I ever know how wrong I can be about my own life?