I am not a great one for slippers. I generally go barefoot, assuming it’s warm enough; slippers are more a way to save my socks when it’s not. I’ve tended to find fluffy moccasins too sweaty (it came as something of a revelation when I tried wearing them with socks and found them deliciously cosy). The ones shown here – purchased, as best I can remember, at a car boot sale in Exeter some time in the early 2000s – are spectacular; they’re also a little too small for me, so that the ends of my heels hang off the back, and the soles are a little slippery on tiles. Nevertheless. I don’t think I’m ever going to find the perfect pair of slippers for me, so I’m going to enjoy the imperfect ones.
I have been writing, on and off, for the last three years at least, about what love is and what love looks like, and this year it’s looked very odd indeed. Staying away from people. (I’ve heard all the introvert jokes, and made quite a lot of them.) I spoke to most of my family earlier: they were eating Christmas dinner outside, in the teeth of a bracing sea breeze off the English Channel. Meanwhile, I continue to lurk in the Fens like Hereward the Wake.
Love doesn’t always look the way we expect it to. I think this is something I learn over and over – but how much more so this year?
One year ago, I was somewhere in Bedfordshire, or Buckinghamshire, or possibly Hertfordshire, visiting in-laws and in-laws’ in-laws. I’d taken the train straight up there from London, and I think we all hopped straight into the car and went to pick up my stepmother-in-law’s brother and then all went to see her brother. There was a lot of travelling that afternoon, anyway. No planes (I haven’t flown since 2007), but trains and automobiles, by all means.
This year, not so much.
It occurred to me earlier just how much travelling there is in the Gospel accounts of the nativity. Mary, going to the hill country to visit Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph, travelling to Bethlehem. Or from Bethlehem to Egypt. The Magi, travelling from the east, via Jerusalem. Even the shepherds go even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that is come to pass. The Gospels disagree about who travels where, but they both agree there’s a lot of travelling. Matthew and Luke, both knowing that Bethlehem is important, both knowing they’ve got to get everybody there somehow, but not sure whether to start them off there and move them to Nazareth later or throw in a census to get them out of Nazareth. I sympathise.
As my Playmobil crib figures hop from bookshelf to bookshelf, traversing the length of the sitting room, I don’t seem to be going very much further myself. This evening I’m travelling vicariously with NORAD Santa. In a normal year I’d be clocking up over a hundred miles every weekday. That all ground to a halt in the middle of March. Actually, I hadn’t done so badly. Work had sent me to Manchester, and then I managed a dash to Bristol for what must have been one of the last full-scale weddings. I’d gone north. I’d gone west. South would come later.
I’m sad not to be seeing people. My in-laws are in tier 4 now; we’ll be in it ourselves from Boxing Day; and such of my family as wasn’t in tier 4 will be moving from tier 1 to tier 3. This isn’t such a wrench as it has been for some people, as we’ve done Christmas on our own before. And goodness knows I’m well off compared to the poor hauliers waiting at Dover. It’s more the not knowing when I will see people again.
Which is not to say that I haven’t found value in staying still, or in traversing the same short distance over and over again. I wrote, some time in the first lockdown,
this time is reminding me very much of my childhood: all the household is at home all the time; there are columbines and copper beech and swelling fruit in the garden; I can hear a cock crowing. Encountering civilisation is a bit of a palaver. I spend most of my time barefoot. Going on holiday is a very remote possibility and will be the Isle of Wight if it ever does happen. People who I love very much are a long way away from where I am, and there’s no prospect of seeing them soon.
I did make it to the Isle of Wight; my middle brother drove up with his fiancée and picked me up. And the journey was the way they always used to be: leaving very early in the chill of a clear summer morning that’s going to be hot later, heading south through long shadows.
Until we got to the ferry terminal, where they were still advertising the Isle of Wight Festival which was never going to happen this year, and there was another brother in the queue…
Soon, soon, we’ll be able to do all that again. And it’s worth waiting for.
There was marzipan left over after icing the Christmas cake, so, for the first time in my life, I made stollen. I used Delia Smith’s recipe, ignoring a couple of the fussier fruit ingredients. I stretched the dough further than it strictly needed to go, and it didn’t rise properly, but it’s really quite tasty. I’ve been eating it for breakfast ever since. (I’m the only one who likes marzipan, so…)
I was looking back at something I wrote earlier in the year in which I claimed that lockdown had, if anything, made me more adventurous in my cooking. From this distance all I can remember is fritters made from tinned sweetcorn. Which weren’t bad, I admit, but if I tried any other new recipes in the first half of the year I couldn’t tell you what they were.
Then things started fruiting. I dealt with a lot of the harvest using methods and recipes that live in my head (freezing; crumbles; freezing; chutneys…), but pickled plums were a new one on me. They turn out to be delicious: sweet-sour, with a delicate, almost floral, flavour underlying the vinegar.
After we’d been in this house for a few months the oven developed an irritating habit of blowing its fuse at unpredictable intervals. It went when I was cooking chocolate puddings; when I was preserving pears; when Tony was cooking sausages; other times I now forget. We weren’t completely deprived of oven in between visits from the electrician and the Samsung specialist (they disagreed what needed to be done to fix it), since our microwave also has an oven function, but it did make me a bit wary of baking. I made a courgette cake in it, but that’s about as far as it went.
Eventually the Samsung specialist tracked down the problem, replaced the offending component, and fixed the oven. (This is probably not a wise thing to type two days before Christmas, but there we go.) Since then I’ve made mince pies. (Shortcrust pastry, which is another thing I don’t need to look up, and mincemeat from a very elderly jar.) And stollen.
Sparkling. Sparkling wine (no, only the non-alcoholic stuff). Sparkling water (no, can’t stand it). Sparkling conversation (not tonight, I’m too tired). Sparkling wit (see above).
The lights our neighbours have in their tree? No, those twinkle rather than sparkle. Same for the stars, not that you can see them tonight. Candles glow. Our Christmas tree isn’t decorated yet. I suppose I could show you any one of several pairs of earrings, including the ones I’m wearing now (miniature stockings, with a sparkly trim). But what would I say about them?
Sparkling. Sparkling implies movement. It implies that something is reflecting light without necessarily producing it. And this feels rather reassuring. I am not called upon to produce something from nothing, merely to reflect back what is already coming my way. Nor do I have to move all that much. No sustained effort, just going with the flow.
Raindrops on green leaves, a barely perceptible breeze, a bright light in the darkness. That’s the closest to sparkling I can get tonight.
I have made some progress since the last time this prompt came up. I have replaced the desk I was talking about back then, and have obtained a proper adjustable chair. (I’m wearing the same jacket, though.)
It took me seven months of working from home to get round to getting that chair, seven months of telling myself it wasn’t as bad as all that. Probably it wasn’t. I’m very aware of my privilege in being able to work from home at all, when the people whose interests I represent are out on the front line, in hospitals and care homes, collecting the rubbish, giving schoolchildren lunch.
And this makes me think of an older meaning of the word ‘comfort’: comfort as in the Comforter, the one who stirs up, encourages, equips. Today I’m tired, too tired to express myself pithily or eloquently. I have two and a half days left to work, and I’m looking forward to the break. And if I were less tired I would want to say something about how taking a break, sitting in a decent chair, allowing myself to take comfort, equips me to do my job better, write better, serve better. As it is, I’m making this a short post and calling it a night.
I’ve read a lot this year, and taken a lot of pleasure in reading. I’ve enjoyed many books. Even after excluding rereads, I had a lot left to choose from, and I think I’d present this photo more as a representative sample than any sort of top picks.
These aren’t in any particular order, though the top three were all begun and finished before the pandemic really hit the UK. I have a particularly vivid memory of standing on the platform on Cambridge station some time in February, overhearing two men discussing what was going on in China, before I boarded my train and went back to Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel). It’s one of the least depressing post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read, and I was glad to have read it going in: it made the first national lockdown seem tame by comparison.
Trumpet (Jackie Kay) follows the family and friends of a trans man who’s outed after his death: a really good book with a convincing (and often infuriating) array of voices.
Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin) gets points for having not one but two scenes including a proper Paris bus; but it also made me think a lot about relationships, and about what impossible expectations people can place on each other.
Had someone warned me that The Way I Live Now (Meg Rosoff) takes place in World War Three, I would probably not have picked it up. It made for a heavy afternoon, given the circumstances. But it’s so good that I can’t regret it: it has the eccentric, matter-of-fact quality of I Capture The Castle followed up with the devastation of the war narrative.
I read a lot of travel writing early on in lockdown, particularly older work, finding it refreshing to move in time as well as in space. Patrick Leigh Fermor gets the slot here, for the lovely luminous character of his writing.
I was in three book groups/readalongs at one point. One folded after the first book, and I’ve got behind on reading for both of the other two, but it was an absolute joy to read Madam, Will You Talk? (Mary Stewart) with perceptive and witty people on the internet. I even bought a dress because of it.
I’m generally behind everyone else in getting round to reading new releases, and several books that I thought might have been published this year actually date back to 2018 or 2019. But 2020 books that I enjoyed in 2020 included the first two of the Will Darling Adventures (K J Charles) and, particularly, The Gospel of Eve (Rachel Mann), which was a dark, twisty, theological college romp.
I only published one book this year, so obviously The Real World must be simultaneously my best and my worst book of 2020. Actually I think it’s probably the best book I’ve ever written.
Technically a book, although not one to be read as such: My Year in Small Drawings (Matilda Tristram). I’ve had enormous fun with this. There’s something very liberating about allowing yourself to not be very good at something.
Not pictured, because not a book, are any of the issues of hidden europe that I’ve read this year. Not pictured, because I haven’t finished it, is Women and Angels, a Virago anthology of women’s spirituality. Not pictured, because I never read it all in one go, is any of the poetry. Not pictured are the books I bought but haven’t yet got around to. My reading brain has been more or less shot recently; I’ve mostly been watching the skiing instead. Nor have I been doing much writing, apart from this blogging, obviously. I hope to catch up with all of this over the Christmas break and in 2021.
… this lovely stretch of river. If you were to walk along this path and follow it around the bend, you’d see the railway cross the river on a big green-and-white painted steel bridge. If you were to leave the path just before you got to the bridge, turn right at the road, turn left just before you got to the level crossing, take the first right, and walk until you got to the first street light, you’d find yourself opposite the flat we lived in for almost six years.
It wasn’t meant to be that long. We hoped it was going to be the last place we rented before we bought somewhere, but I’m glad I didn’t know back in 2014 that it was going to take us that long to save up a deposit. That’s what comes of living in a place like Cambridge. That’s why we don’t live in Cambridge any more.
But six years of this wasn’t so bad. Six years of walking or cycling alongside this stretch of the Cam to get to the station or the shop or the pub or the church. Following the river upstream into the city, or downstream just for a walk.
I miss the river. I’m not that far away from it, really: the Cam flows into the Ouse, and the Ouse is about a half hour’s walk from where we are now. But it’s not there, the way it used to be. I’m glad I enjoyed it while I had it.
Ely cathedral. Not for the first time – I’d had my fingers nibbled by a duck on the cathedral green back in April 2014, and sneaked in after hours at the Christmas fair when I was doing my Cursillo weekend – but it’s different when you live in the city.
I’ve lived in a few cathedral cities in my time. None of their cathedrals has had quite the same imposing quality as Ely. I was born in Winchester, but we moved away when I was small and came back for bus running days, so in my mind the centre of the city is the statue of King Alfred on the Broadway. I went to university in Exeter: it was there that the ‘city on a hill‘ parable really started to have resonance for me, but in my mind the light streams out from the windows of the university chapel, not the cathedral. Guildford: yes, that’s a cathedral on a hill, but it’s rather remote from the city (not a city, but never mind). I used to sing at the church that served as the pro-cathedral before they built the new one; that’s on a hill, too, right in the middle of town, but surprisingly easy to miss.
But Ely is a small city, a city on a hill in the middle of flat, flat land, and the cathedral is the tallest building, and it’s very much in the middle of things. You can’t quite see it from everywhere, but you can see it from all sorts of places. A corner of the west tower and a corner of the lantern, from our bedroom window. The lopsided west front, as soon as you look up into town. Head out towards the river and look back over your shoulder, and it looks like a fairy tale castle across the water at Roswell Pits. Head out the other way, into the fens, and it joins the earth to the sky. Head up Downham Road and look back over your shoulder, and there it is rising from the swell of the ground. Not so much the Ship of the Fens as the Submarine of the Fens.
I’m still coming to understand what it means to live in this landscape that’s so flat and so much shaped by human intervention, where just the other side of the road the height markings on the Ordnance Survey map have minus signs in front of them. I know about cathedral cities. I know about agricultural landscapes, too. I know about living on the edges of things (the border between England and Wales; the south coast of the Isle of Wight), and I know about living in places that are vulnerable to the elements (bits frequently drop off the south coast of the Isle of Wight). But this particular combination, a cathedral on an island in a swamp that was drained for farmland, that’s something I’m still feeling my way into. It feels like all the places I’ve lived before, and it feels like none of them.
And the cathedral feels very much like the centre of things. This year I’ve been much more aware of the compass directions, being orientated, if you like. I’ve noticed the morning sun coming in at the front of the house and the evening sun lighting up my study. And I’ve returned to Slow Time and the monastic hours. Gratefulness.org restored the Angels of the Hours. The calendar was strange this year, but I marked the quarter days and the cross quarter days.
The cathedral, and particularly the octagon at its crossing, has felt like the centre of the compass. North, North East, East, South East, South, South West, West, North West. Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. Christmas and New Year, Candlemas, Lady Day and Easter, May Day, Midsummer and St John the Baptist, St James and my birthday and Lammas, Michaelmas, All Saints. I pack a lot into each of the eight sides; and they’re definitely sides, not points.
I don’t feel quite settled yet. This year, this unexpected nine months’ grounding, has made it easier to get to know this new city in some ways, but much more difficult in others. And after a lifetime of moving and an adulthood of renting it feels very odd to have finally bought a house in a place where we intend to stay for a long time. I haven’t quite got used to that, but I don’t think it matters. The sun’s going to keep on rising in the east, just beyond the far end of the cathedral.
I did make it to Ventnor, and was very glad to do so, but of course the Fringe was cancelled. I was able to see my family, but I missed the buzz and the music and the hanging around at the Book Bus drinking Belgian beer until it was time to go and watch something strange or brilliant or completely whack. There were a lot of holes in the calendar this year: Ventnor Fringe; our housewarming party; the Discworld convention; the national Ultreya. Whole months went by without my looking at the calendar at all.
I missed the things I’d promised myself I’d do more of – live theatre, yes (I saw two operas in two weeks back in February, though I wasn’t intending to maintain that ratio), but ice skating, too, cinema (we live five minutes from a cinema now!), taking trains to places on the Continent. I missed the things I took for granted: a pint at the pub, being able to sing in church.
I’ve said a few times that I’m quite prepared to continue being an antisocial cow for as long as it takes, and that’s true. But there are things I’m missing a lot, and I shall be very glad to do them again when it’s safe.