December Reflections 4: if I were an animal… and Week-end

Fluffy black and white cat asleep with all her legs stretched out in front of her

The animal I know that’s currently spending as much time as I am asleep on the sofa is the cat, so there we go. Since having Covid in March I’ve been much more conscious of my body’s needs and desires; the thing is; it usually seems to want a nap, particularly at the moment. The next challenge is to roll with this as gracefully as the cat does. I am hopeful that I will have more energy come next year, but I would also like to continue to know what I want and need and to act on that.

The good

Tony’s work Christmas do last night; excellent fun. Let us hope that nobody has caught Covid. Last weekend, reading at both the morning service and the Advent Procession, at which I also served. Also, a very pleasant few days with family on the Isle of Wight. The sun came out on the last day and it was absolutely glorious.

The mixed

Going through boxes of family papers – letters, diaries, sketchbooks, and so forth. It’s fascinating; it’s a chance to get to know relations I barely knew or never met at all; and it’s surprisingly tiring. I more or less gave up for the day when I found my great-aunt Kathleen’s note of what she wanted all her siblings and friends to have after she died (which she did, aged 13 or so, in 1917).

The difficult and perplexing

Cold. Cold and tired. I don’t seem to have many suitable winter clothes at the moment and I’m not sure whether I ever did.

What’s working

Honestly? Napping.

Reading

I demolished Paris Daillencourt Is About To Crumble on the train south on Monday and then regretted it, the way one might regret a slightly-too-large cream cake. It was a bit issueficcy for my taste, though I did appreciate the section where Tariq explains that it is perfectly possible to be a person of faith who is also queer. (This, in my experience, is a conversation that often does have to be had in words of one syllable.) Then I read Poirot Investigates (short stories; Hastings particularly insufferable) and Truly Madly Guilty (Liane Moriarty) when I was on the Isle of Wight. I enjoyed that one; I think it’s the most psychologically plausible of Moriarty’s books that I’ve read so far, even if it isn’t so conventionally suspenseful.

Writing

Absolutely nothing (apart from these blog posts, obviously). I spent the train journey home looking out of the window and not feeling remotely guilty about it. I’m sure my brain will come back sooner or later and in the meantime I’m not going to worry about it.

Making

I took the tacking stitches out of the secret patchwork (the papers are staying in, for support). Pictures coming up in a few days.

Listening to

A couple of bands at the party last night – one dressed as Game of Thrones characters and doing an eclectic variety of covers (Take On Me, I Wanna Be Like You, Proud Mary…) and the other, The Captain’s Beard, dressed as pirates and doing folk rock, generally Irish or seafaring. Extremely good fun.

Cooking

Winter vegetable stew with cheesy dumplings. I cheated magnificently with the vegetable component – found a yellow-stickered bag of pre-prepped casserole veg in Tesco and chucked it into the pan with some oil while I made the dumplings. Worked very nicely.

Eating

There were some very nice canapés last night. Beef with horseradish sour cream. Cauliflower and beetroot. Tomato and feta.

Playing

Rummikub and Scrabble with my mother. We weren’t terribly impressed by Rummikub.

Noticing

An excessive (even for the Isle of Wight) quantity of roadworks. A waxing moon flirting with the clouds. Christmas decorations (today I saw that our opposite neighbours have hung big silver baubles in the bare trees outside their house).

Appreciating

Family, the connectedness of it, and the opportunity to know a little more of who and where I come from. Tony’s employer’s extravagant hospitality. Live music.

Acquisitions

I came home with a little packet of green beads my mother had been saving for me.

Hankering

Some sort of leg covering that keeps my legs warm, that I can cycle in, that fits me comfortably around the abdomen… I have never found trousers that fit me sensibly, and most of the time this isn’t a problem because I live in skirts instead, but at this time of year it doesn’t quite cut it. /goes off to look at woolly tights on Snag.

Line of the week

I’ve been looking at Polish Cooking (Marianna Olszewska Heberle), trying to work out how much of the traditionally meatfree Christmas Eve dinner can be fully veganised. She has this to say about carol singers:

If they sing in front of your house and you don’t give them food or vodka, they might pull your sleigh five houses down, or remove your fence gate, all in good humor.

This coming week

Back to work. I’m hoping to get quite a lot of loose ends tied up before Christmas.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

December Reflections 3: best book of 2022

'Double or Nothing' by Kim Sherwood, 'Wanderlust' by Rebecca Solnit', and 'Art and Lies' by Jeanette Winterson

I haven’t had much brain for reading this year. This stack could just as well have been made up of Agatha Christie and K. J. Charles books, if you interpret ‘best’ as ‘most readable’, and why not? Although since all the K. J. Charleses are on my Kobo it wouldn’t have made such a pretty picture. Also on my Kobo is Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford), which was the first work of litfic I managed to read after Pa died, and I could see how it was put together, which suggested that my writing brain hadn’t entirely deserted me either, and which possibly was my best book of 2022. Maybe Sisters of the Vast Black, too.

Anyway. Double Or Nothing was a really interesting development of the Bond tradition. Wanderlust was history and politics and walking and some really gorgeous prose. Art and Lies was hazy and beautiful and I’m still not entirely sure I really followed it but it doesn’t matter. I could make a case for any of those three being the best of the year, although of course Double Or Nothing was the only one actually published this year.

I Did Not Finish Hamnet, because Magrat!Anne Hathaway was just too much for me. I also gave up on The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper, which was just too twee. The most disappointing book that I finished was The Embroidered Sunset, because WTF was that ending?

Week-end will follow tomorrow. I have a cab in ten minutes.

Week-end: fantastic Tangfastic

A packet of Haribo Tangfastics with one sweet that appears to be composed of four individuals stuck together

The good

Co-tutoring a Speaking With Confidence course on Thursday. Helping people feel more able to do their thing and being able to enthuse about how writing works.

The difficult and perplexing

Ugh, the trains home from London afterwards. Apparently there was a bomb scare at New Southgate. Anyway, I didn’t get home until nine at night, and because the train was pretty crowded I couldn’t take my mask off and was getting more and more antsy.

The cat brought up a hairball on my computer keyboard. At least it wasn’t on the laptop, I suppose.

Far more serious than any of that, this week saw a difficult anniversary for some of my in-laws. I’ve been thinking of them a lot.

What’s working

Napping. Tangfastics.

Make-up. I can’t usually be bothered, but I like to put a game face on when I’m delivering training, and I got three separate compliments.

Taking my bike on the train to an appointment on Tuesday evening meant that what would have been a twenty minute walk on an unfamiliar road became a five minute ride on an unfamiliar road, and I was able to get things done and get the next train back.

Reading

I finished Destination Unknown, which I hadn’t exactly meant to do, but the cat was on my lap and there was nothing else within reach. Continuing slowly with Meet Cute. And I got to the Council of Elrond and out the other side.

I forgot to mention last week that I finished The Paris Apartment. Certainly twisty, but I don’t think it’s Foley’s best.

Writing

A tiny, tiny bit on the Romeo and Juliet thing. If I have very little reading brain, my writing brain is barely there at all.

Making

Secret patchwork project is 5/6 done, and I’ll be able to share pictures very soon.

Watching

Eurosport’s winter sports offerings; today, in particular, the Grand Prix Espoo.

Cooking

Supper today was pancakes stuffed with a sausage, tomato and cabbage filling, a bit like bigos except using fresh cabbage instead of sauerkraut. Except I can’t do pancakes, so the filling was on the side.

Eating

I had a really nice piece of Bakewell tart on Thursday. Kudos to the work canteen and whoever they get their cake from.

Noticing

A magnificent mutant Tangfastic (see picture). It seems to have been made of three dinosaurs and a dummy. I’ve eaten it now.

In the garden

The Japanese anemone is flowering. And I really need to sweep up some leaves. And prune the fruit trees.

Appreciating

My big Chinese quilted jacket. I got it for a few quid in a Cambridge charity shop several years ago and it is just the thing for winter.

Acquisitions

A few ebooks that were on sale in Kobo. Today I picked up two Chrestomanci books (Diana Wynne Jones) and a couple of Eva Ibbotsons too in the Ely charity shops. My inner twelve year old is very pleased.

Line of the week

Because the hotel in Destination Unknown sounds heavenly, or, one shoud say, paradisiacal:

This was what a garden was meant to be, a place shut away from the world – full of green and gold.

Saturday snippet

Here’s a bit from the Romeo and Juliet thing:

He slung his kitbag over the shoulder and crossed the footbridge, the noise of his boots on the iron treads drowned by the yell of the whistle. He paused for a moment at the middle. An express train was hurtling towards him on the up fast line, seeming to gather speed and detail as it approached.

This coming week

Advent starts tomorrow! I seem to be on all the rotas at once, but am departing for the Isle of Wight on Monday morning.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

Week-end: particularly rapid unintelligible patter

The right hand front wall of a large wooden dolls' house stands open. A fluffy black and white cat is sitting in the first floor room

The good

Very enjoyable evening watching The Yeomen of the Guard with one of my brothers (and seeing his partner and son, hurriedly). More on that distributed through this post. Also, a work thing I’d been dreading turned out to be surprisingly fun.

Meanwhile, the Society of Authors’ AGM (for which I’d submitted my proxy vote) saw off two motions, one mealy-mouthed faux-motherhood-and-apple-pie maundering about free speech, one gloves-off nasty attack on Joanne Harris, the chair of the management committee. I think the most useful summary of what actually goes on in the SoA is this thread by Dawn Finch.

The Torygraph (and, to a lesser extent, the Grauniad) is of course reporting this as a victory for cancel culture. Interesting how it’s only cancel culture when it’s a particular set of views that encounter a robust rebuttal.

I often feel like a bit of a fraud as a SoA member, because writing isn’t and probably never will be my main source of income, but I came by my membership honestly and I’m very glad that the Society can continue to standing up for my fellow authors with, I hope, less of this infuriating distraction from a tiny but loud single-issue pressure group.

The mixed

Thursday got dreadfully complicated. It should have been a London day, but I ended up with a mid-morning appointment in Ely. That was positive and useful (and I didn’t particularly mind the half hour walk each way in the rain; I’d have cycled if I had) but it meant a dash down to London at the end of the work day, which meant cycling through an unholy combination of school run and Christmas fair traffic, again in the rain. And a late night, but that was always going to happen (and Tony had forgotten to leave the latch down for me, so I had to phone him to get him out of bed again).

Pleasingly, I got to Wagamama just as J and family got to the front of the queue.

The difficult and perplexing

My horrible noisy front mudguard. I must take a spanner to it. Again.

And I have very limited brain at the moment, and I’m finding it incredibly frustrating. I can get one or two useful/creative things done per day and that’s it.

What’s working

Well, not the bit of string that’s holding my mudguard in place, I can tell you that much. Hmm. Canned soup is proving very useful, though.

Reading

Not a huge amount (see: not much brain). I’m leading the readthrough of Destination Unknown (Agatha Christie) for my online romantic suspense reading group; it’s good fun and extremely of its time (touchingly naive about the McCarthy initiatives, for example). I started reading Meet Cute (ed. Jae), an anthology of extracts from various sapphic books; unfortunately it’s often more like Meet Cringe and hits my embarrassment squick hard. Although it has reminded me that I’ve occasionally thought of giving Vicki and Gianna from A Spoke In The Wheel their own book.

Writing

I returned to the Romeo and Juliet thing on Monday, but haven’t done much since.

Making

Mystery patchwork. One down, five to go.

Watching

The Yeomen of the Guard (English National Opera, London Coliseum) with my brother J. We were rather tight on time (Wagamama took a while to serve us) and got there half way through the welcome, and excoriation of Arts Council cuts, from the director. Which is not bad timing really.

Yeomen isn’t my favourite of the Savoy operas, but this production mitigated most of the reasons I don’t like it. They’d taken most of the thees and thous out of the dialogue (pastiche Tudor: not one of Gilbert’s strengths) and set the action in the febrile post-war period, with Colonel Fairfax a brilliant scientist and suspected spy. (I couldn’t help thinking of Destination Unknown.) This made sense both as an update on his alleged dalliance with the dark arts and of his character: he remains terribly poor stuff, but the ‘asshole genius’ treatment makes sense.

Most importantly, I think, they let it be what it always has been when you scratch the surface: a show about miserable people making terrible decisions. Pretty much everybody would end up happier if nobody took any of the actions they take. Except Fairfax, and he is, as I say, an asshole, not to mention pretty philosophical about dying until someone gives him an alternative.

They threw in the patter trio (except they somehow made it a quartet) from Ruddigore as a replacement for Rapture, rapture. I can’t say that Rapture, rapture is much loss. If they’d just skipped it altogether I might have got home half an hour earlier. On the other hand, I’m probably never going to object to the patter trio from Ruddigore.

There was some excellent singing (I was most impressed, I think, by Sergeant Meryll, and he was an understudy), some clever staging, some good acting (Jack Point, in particular), and, in among the misery, a lot of genuinely funny moments.

Cooking

Tagliatelle con cipolle, out of the Diane Seed book. I somehow managed to cook about half the tagliatelle that two reasonable people would want, so we ate in two phases.

Eating

Ginger chicken udon at Wagamama. Not bad, though I had to eat it too fast. Gingerbread fudge from the fudge shop in Ely (very nice; there’s black treacle, or something like it, in there, which makes it taste definitely like gingerbread as opposed to just like ginger). Last night I was too tired to cook so we got Indian delivered: I had chicken tikka makan palak with Bombay aloo.

Playing

Duolingo. Well, I’ve been doing it for ages and have a 600+ day streak, but this week I got the update that everyone’s been whingeing about. I don’t hate it, actually. It’s not as disheartening as the one that added five levels to every skill. I did in fact stop using it for a few years after that one, and then picked it up again when I was bored in lockdown.

Noticing

Long-tailed tits in the pear trees. A squirrel munching away on a bunch of ash keys.

A strange sound from the dolls’ house, which turned out to be the cat getting into the loft. I got a picture of two green eyes peering through the top window, and another of the descent of Ceiling Cat, but neither of them was as good of the one of her in the bathroom, at the top of this post.

Appreciating

The NHS. Affordable opera tickets, dammit (here’s the petition to get the ENO’s funding reinstated). The fact that you can phone people up and pay them money and they will bring you food.

Acquisitions

New bras arrived.

Line of the week

I subscribed to The Marginalian recently. This week they sent me some John Muir:

The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

Saturday snippet

From the Romeo and Juliet thing:

‘I’ve seen him before. Only once, I think.’ She glanced at the closed door, drew a packet of cigarettes from her skirt pocket, and lit up.

This was promising. ‘When? Where?’

Rosa thought that it might have been at somebody’s party, though, now she thought about it, perhaps it was at some club somewhere. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m afraid he didn’t make as much of an impression on me as all that.’

‘Do you know who he is?’

‘Haven’t the foggiest.’ Rosa inhaled deeply and blew the smoke out again before she continued. ‘The odd thing is, he does seem familiar, but I can’t think how I would know him. We’ve certainly never been introduced.’

This coming week

Tidy things up at work before I take a week’s leave. Apart from that, not much. I might try to get to the Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library. And maybe I’ll move the dolls back into the dolls’ house. Will Twitter fall over?

How about you? Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

Week-end: one with the sofa

A cresent moon against a pale peach-coloured sky in the gap between silhouetted bushes.

The good

I didn’t come remotely close to crying at work. The Bicycles and Broomsticks Kickstarter is fully funded, and I had fun watching the numbers go up. I’ve spent a lot of time lounging on the sofa alternating novels and the skating on TV, with the world’s fluffiest cat. Life’s not bad.

The mixed

Still tired, mind you. And a fifty-minute walk leaves me needing a sit-down instead of waking me up, the way it used to. But it is beautiful outside.

Hence the Guilt. I’d meant to be down on the Isle of Wight this weekend, to help out with the continued house clearing. Staying at home was the right decision, but I’d still like to be helping, and I’m still not. And clearly my family don’t need me wailing at them, so I’m not. I’m just wailing over here instead.

The difficult and perplexing

A nasty combination of self-doubt and jealousy of my contemporaries.

What’s working

I got myself a fancy Sicilian soft drink and a packet of pistachio nuts and sat down with a clearer-headed, wiser version of myself who doesn’t give a damn what other authors of my generation are up to. We discovered that what would actually help would be clearing my study up a bit.

Reading

Continuing with Sisters of the Vast Black, which is so lovely that I’ve been saving it for moments when I can devote my attention to it and enjoy it. Coastliners (Joanne Harris) floated to the top of the TBR pile and I read the first few chapters. #ChristieBracket prompted me to reread first The Pale Horse and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? In both cases I’d remembered part, but not all, of the solution. In The Fellowship of the Ring I’ve just got to Rivendell.

Writing

Some more on Starcrossers (now two and a half thousand words too long…) and an explanation for my pitiful absence of sales strategy.

Making

A new mystery patchwork project. This one’s rather smaller than the last. Good job too: it has a tight deadline.

Watching

Doctor Who! Having rather fallen out of the most recent series, I really enjoyed that. It was ninety per cent fanservice and I’m not thinking too hard about the plot, but it was a load of fun.

Also, lots of skating.

Cooking

I have a pancetta and blue cheese risotto going in the slow cooker at the moment. We’ll see how it turns out. (You cook the whole lot and throw the cheese in at the last minute.)

Noticing

A low young moon.

In the garden

Still two white roses. This is always the first bush to bloom, but it’s not usually the last to stop. Lovely, anyway.

Appreciating

Fluffiness of cat. Fit of new tights.

Acquisitions

Some frippery from Paperchase – a stamp set and washi tapes. The parcel I missed turned out to be, as expected, a hoodie from Quires & Places Where They Meme (look, if other people can have Christmas jumpers then I can have an Advent hoodie). A new shredder (had nearly been running out of shredded paper to feed to the compost bin since the last one broke!) and a plywood contraption to raise my laptop to shoulder height. It’s bigger than I’d expected. We’ll see how it goes: work days will be the real test.

Picked up Golden Hill (Francis Spufford) and a DVD of Chorus Line in Oxfam this morning. And a solar lantern in Mountain Warehouse. This is of course prepping for the threatened power cuts this winter, but it’s already proved useful for picking thyme in the dark.

Line of the week

This is from Sisters of the Vast Black:

The moon was just spinning into springtime, but the wine warmed her straight through from her tongue to her fingertips.

Saturday snippet

Still on Starcrossers:

I’d seen the news pieces. I knew that there’d been a lot of clearage and repair. And I’d reminded myself that I would have to go in at the citizens’ gate. All of which is to say, I expected it to be achingly familiar and horribly changed, and I was right, and I don’t think expecting it helped at all. I couldn’t go into the inner hall (though if I was going to be Leader we were going to have to work something out) but looking from the promenade I could see the shimmering cover that patched the hole where there had once been a column and a graceful arching roof…

This coming week

The clocks go back; we move into November. Usually I count this as the beginning of winter, but it’s still so warm that maybe I won’t just for the minute. But it’s going to be quite a busy, social week, with a milestone (a transition, perhaps?) to be marked and negotiated as well.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

The library routine, comfort reading, and what I read for: six months of books

A brightly coloured striped deckchair with a book in the seat, on a grassy lawn

When I’ve finished writing this post, I’ll be off to the library to return A Place of Greater Safety and, very likely, pay a small fine. I have had it on loan for ages and run out of renewals on it. Granted, it’s a very thick book. I started reading it on the fourth of June. Then I put it down. Then I picked it up again when I got the email to say that my books were due. I lost the game of chicken, but only just.

My usual practice when I visit the library is to choose something light, something heavy, and some non-fiction. The first two categories are pretty subjective, it has to be said. The current something light is Val McDermid’s Broken Ground, which I’m expecting to get quite dark, actually. Something heavy is, of course, A Place of Greater Safety.

I don’t think I was entirely over Covid when I got it out, and as best I recall my thought process went something like: oh yes, a big fat Hilary Mantel book. I’m not sure that I remembered that it was actually about the French Revolution until I got it home and started reading it.

(If you’re wondering about the non-fiction, it’s usually pop history, often about some bit of Europe I’m vaguely meaning to visit. Or travel writing about some bit of Europe I’m vaguely meaning to visit. At the moment it’s Lotharingia: a personal history of Europe’s lost country.)

The last couple of months have been incredibly busy. I got over Covid, I went on holiday, and since then I’ve been up to my eyes. Some of that’s been work stuff, but I’ve also become a lot more involved in the Cursillo movement this year and that’s meant that a load of my Saturdays have disappeared. And of course there have been the ongoing emotional and practical after-effects of bereavement, though Covid did a number on my capacity to cart boxes full of family papers/beer mats/model railway track and, in the early days, to travel at all.

But I have been reading. I’ve spent a lot of time on trains, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the sofa, and both of those are good environments for reading. In the early part of the year it was K. J. Charles: I got through most of the Sins of the Cities series on the way to and from the Isle of Wight, thinking I don’t know how she’s going to get them out of this, but I am confident that she will find a way and I can’t wait to see what it is. Which was pretty much what I needed at the time.

I’ve read loads of Agatha Christie. I’m counting some of this as research as well, since getting into the head of over-privileged 1920s rich kids is very much on point for the current book.

I’ve read my grandmother’s memoirs, also for research, but found them fascinating in their own right.

I was greatly reassure to discover that my brain hadn’t melted away entirely when I tried Light Perpetual and found that, not only could I read it, I could also see how it worked as a book.

I’ve read two Persuasion retellings in which Frederick Wentworth is an ice hockey player (very different, but both good).

I’ve read The God Painter, which will get its own post sooner or later.

I have followed along with The Company of Heaven.

I’ve started Hamnet and got stuck on Magrat Garlick’s ideal self, sorry, I mean Anne Hathaway. I might go back to it, but then again I might not.

I’ve done that thing where you pick up a book because the premise looks really intriguing but the execution isn’t quite there but you keep reading because it’s not quite bad enough to stop and you want to know how it’s going to work out and there’s only a little bit more to go and then it’s one in the morning and you hate yourself because, as it turns out, it wasn’t even a good book.

I’ve also been thrown out of a historical novel by the mention of broccoli in about 1830. Personally, I would consider broccoli daring and exotic in 1930. Maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s the Tiffany problem in action, but anyway, I was thrown out.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort reading, because my goodness, has this been the year for it. Mind you, I’ve been thinking about it on and off since 2020 at least, when I read A Prince on Paper and came away with a profound feeling of gloom. If only the monarchy really were like that, I thought. But it isn’t. And the disconnect between fiction and reality became, for me, painful in itself. I note that I followed it up with Fair Play, which was a better fit for my mood. Crotchety lesbians in Helsinki or a cabin on an island, working around each other’s artistic temperaments. It hit the spot. For me, anyway.

Of course, books hit you differently at different times. I reread We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea last October and surprised myself greatly by crying all through the second half. Because… because my head always does weird things in autumn, and there’s something about knowing that it’s all going to turn out OK? I don’t know. We’ll see what happens next time. Maybe this wasn’t the moment for A Place of Greater Safety, as much as my library card whispers, if not now, when?

Rachel Manija Brown says, of horror:

Sometimes we want to hear that everything will be fine. But sometimes the only way anything can ever be fine is if we admit that everything isn’t fine right now. Horror tells us that everything isn’t fine, and we should start listening to the people who’ve been saying so all along. And if we are those people, it tells us what we most need to hear: “I believe you.”

On Horror

Horror fiction doesn’t do much for me, but I recognise that mindset. The message I need/want to hear is, I think, something like:

No, everything is not fine at the moment, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. And you are human, and so you too will contribute to its not being fine. Nevertheless, it is worth hoping and striving for a world in which things are better. And you can begin now – not, perhaps, in huge, heroic acts, not by single-handedly bringing about revolution, but by doing the best you can in the life that you have.

Is that what I read? I think so, though it doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes I want genre fic that follows the rules all the way to the happy ending. Sometimes I want litfic that breaks them in interesting ways. Either way, I want it to acknowledge the fact that actually things aren’t easy, not at all. And it’s certainly what I write.

Maybe it’s time I reread Middlemarch. It usually is.

And as it turned out, A Place of Greater Safety was a very appropriate read for the last few days. And the contrast between the current clown-car succession of resignations (and the clown-in-chief’s inability even to resign properly) and the Terror’s queue for the guillotine is one that I can live with quite happily.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: S

Stack of books: Principal Role by Lorna Hill (with a dustjacket with a ballerina in front of a backdrop showing an Alpine village), Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, and The Rose and the Yew Tree by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.

And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)

Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.

A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.

He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…

The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:

“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”

Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.

When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.

(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)

Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.

Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.

… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.

No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).

As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.

While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.

We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:

The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.

(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.

In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:

It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.

In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:

There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.

This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.

The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.

Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia (not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.

Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.

Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.

Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.

Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.

Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:

The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.

If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.

There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.

detail of a relief map showing Ilchester at the top, Yeovil at the bottom, and, in faint red type, 'STANCHESTER' a third of the way up

Books mentioned in this post

The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie

King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell

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