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).

In This Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger

I read this in Truro, where we were staying above a pub. I started it in bed, and finished it in the beer garden, with the gentle sound of a little river running past, and the cathedral towering up above the trees, just the other side.

And I was thinking what a pity it is that Susan Howatch, who when she was writing wrote about unconventional clergy relationships like nobody else, never got round to the Bensons.

There are a few plausible reasons why not, of course. Firstly, I’m not sure that anybody would believe in the Bensons if they appeared in a novel. They’re really quite incredible in real life. (Edward White Benson was the first Bishop of Truro – this was why they were on my mind – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to his wife when she was twelve. After his death she set up home with the daughter of a different Archbishop of Canterbury. All the children were as queer as their mother, in every sense. No need to bolt invented polyamory onto the facts here. But even Susan Howatch might not have got away with the Bensons.) Secondly, she writes very heterosexual books. So she was probably never going to take on the Bensons.

Anyway, I was in the mood for something that took a queer, religious, character, that took both the queerness and the religion seriously, and was prepared to delve deep into the psyche of that character.

In This Small Spot hit that, er, spot about eighty per cent of the time.

This isn’t anything like a Howatch. It doesn’t have the snobbery, the psychics, or the daddy issues. And it isn’t so tediously straight. It does have the ‘can’t do anything, got to finish this book’ thing that Howatch manages to do over and over again; which is why I had to finish it in a pub beer garden before we could see any more of Truro. And it was almost but not quite exactly what I wanted.

“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”

Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

I don’t think I’d argue with anything in that blurb. I bought the book on the strength of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be getting its own post if I hadn’t enjoyed it. The calm rhythm of the religious life, the complex relationships between the novices, the developing tension between Sister Michele and another nun, made for an absorbing read. It wasn’t perfect, though, and there were a couple of things that left me wanting to argue.

Firstly, the pacing was a bit off, or the plot. An overuse of ‘Later, Mickey would…’ built up a suspense that was never quite delivered on. Things developed sequentially, one event leading to another, and tending to evolve from characters’ desires and personalities. This suited the setting, but there sometimes seemed to be a reluctance to commit at key points. I said above that I was looking for something that would delve deeply into a character’s psyche. I think that often it didn’t delve deeply enough.

At one point Mickey reflects that the enclosed nature of the abbey makes trivial events take on an inflated importance. Actually, I found the opposite to be true: there would have been space to take much more time to explore the personality clashes and emerging trauma that grew from and drove events.

And then it takes an unexpected turn into melodrama.

Major spoilers follow the picture of Truro cathedral.

A pointy Victorian Gothic cathedral in grey stone, shot from below.

Mickey sustains serious injuries rescuing her love interest from a fire, a combination of events which results in both of them asking to be released from their vows. Mickey returns to medical life. Having both taken time to reflect, the two of them set up house together.

And very shortly afterwards Mickey dies.

Yeah.

In fairness, it didn’t strike me as a stereotypical ‘bury your gays’. There was too much of a sense of the bigger picture for that. The happy ending had already been earned and obtained; in fact, I’d have been perfectly contented had the book ended just a few chapters earlier. What we got, however, was an ambitious ending, and one that I don’t think the author managed to pull off. She didn’t quite earn Anselma/Lauren’s revelation that ‘The tragedy would have been never to have known her at all’. It might have worked, given some more space; as it was, it felt glib.

It was intensely readable, however, and I’ll be buying the sequel. I want to know more.