Week-end: doubly literary

Hardback copy of 'Double or Nothing' by Kim Sherwood, paperback copy of 'CATS: Cycling Across Time and Space' edited by Elly Blue, small metal cat with crystal eyes

The good

On Thursday night I went to the launch (or at least the second night of it – it seemed to be a multi-day event) of Double Or Nothing at the British Library. So did a lot of James Bond fandom. I got to meet David of Licence To Queer in person for the first time, and some of the other LtQ contributors and other denizens of Bond Twitter. Bond fandom is great. We are all well aware that our fave is problematic as all get out, and that saves a lot of time and bad feeling and lets us get on with the actually interesting conversations. And these conversations were very interesting indeed. In one of the non-Bond-related ones it turned out that two of us had stories in the same small press feline feminist cycling anthology. (What are the odds? Double or nothing on that one if you dare. There are only eleven pieces in the thing!) So I ended up feeling even more literary than I’d expected to.

The mixed

One of these days I’ll manage to find the balance between the things I want to do, the things I need to do, and accounting for my limited capacity. None of the days this week was that day.

Today was Ultreya GB, the gathering of Cursillos from across the UK, hosted by London and Southwark Cursillos, beginning at St Paul’s and ending up at Southwark cathedral. It was a great day, and I was very proud to carry the banner for Ely, but I was tired when I left this morning and am very tired indeed now.

The difficult and perplexing

Monday was grim. At one point I said, ‘There is nothing that I want to do, and everything that I should do is BORING.’ Then I sulked in bed for an hour or so, then did some things. The most memorable one was paying the council tax.

What’s working

Making sure I eat something every three hours. Though this is a bit double-edged, as I’m really noticing when I fail to do that now.

Reading

I finished Wanderlust. And (presciently, it now appears) CATS: Cycling Across Time and Space. Began Double or Nothing, obviously. And Havi’s new post.

Writing

Half a blog post on my pet cover copy peeves. You might get the whole thing next week.

Making

Good progress on the secret patchwork, in spite of the cat’s best efforts.

Watching

Only Connect is back on! And so is Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Looking at

Some lovely pieces by Ely Guild of Woodturners, who had an exhibition at the Lamb over the bank holiday weekend.

Cooking

Orchard fruit (i.e. apple, pear and greengage) crumble.

Eating

Crumble. Good for pudding and breakfast. Beef rendang from Borough Market this lunchtime.

Moving

I took the road bike out for the first time since I had it serviced in the summer. It turns out that hauling a town bike up Back Hill twice a week has made tackling the Coveney hill on a road bike a mere triviality by comparison. Maybe I should start logging my commute on Strava. Or not.

Noticing

I saw Hodge the cat when we arrived at Southwark cathedral, but he scarpered pretty quickly.

In the garden

The roses have returned for a second round. The vine has produced a load of very small pippy bitter grapes. I can’t face attempting home winemaking, so it’s a free for all for the birds. We continue to get tomatoes and French beans and greengages.

Appreciating

The little leather bag I got in Heidelberg. Into this I can fit my phone, my ridiculous bunch of keys, and a cereal bar, and it buckles under the saddle of my bike. I was hoping it would go over the handlebars, but the straps aren’t quite long enough. Never mind. It does very nicely under the saddle.

Planning

Christmas. Expedition to Belgium. Expedition to the South of France. Keeping some weekends free for Pete’s sake.

Acquisitions

A nice metal mop bucket to replace the plastic horror from Tesco that I’ve been cursing for the last seven years. (Every time you squeeze the mop out in the strainer thingy and then try removing the mop, the strainer comes with it. It’s infuriating.) Double or Nothing.

Hankering

There was a rather lovely carved stone nativity set in the gift shop at Southwark cathedral. But it was more than I would want to spend on a nativity set, and I might be at the point where my Playmobil one has become the correct one and doesn’t need replacing.

Line of the week

Oh, Babette, you cool kid sprawling in your honest cotton-shirted grime, boy, I never had a chance. I wasn’t from your neighborhood, where everything had pockets: coarse pants, softball gloves, subway corners, airshafts between women’s bars, where delis sat at the edge of high-rises feeding siren music to the pavement. All-night groceries with strong meats, girly calendars, an angry wilderness of empty lots and broken family hearts.

This is from a story called ‘Tank Top Tomboy’ in an anthology called 52 Pickup by Bonnie Morris and E. B. Casey. Honestly, I don’t know why I was still reading this, because most of the stories are dire. The last one had a romantic interest with ‘ebony pools’. And then suddenly I run up against this. Sheer poetry. Will I finish the book now? Probably. Will I be disappointed? Inevitably.

This coming week

Tour of Britain! Some in-person training. And I could really do with an early night or three.

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

Daily Decoration: St Etheldreda

Textile Christmas tree ornament representing a woman in a purple robe, holding a book and a sceptre, and with a gold halo

Saint Etheldreda here is my second-newest decoration. (The newest one is the latest in the now-traditional I-can’t-be-with-you-for-Christmas-but-this-ornament-can series, and will probably appear in a later post.)

The St Nicholas decorations are great fun, very beautifully made, and rather expensive. Expensive, I think, because they’re beautifully made, but nevertheless outside what I think of as a sensible price for a Christmas tree ornament. I bought several of the Alice in Wonderland ones a couple of years ago, week by week, and had to write them into my budget.

However! I went into the cathedral shop several months ago, and there was an Etheldreda in the sale, so I bought her.

St Etheldreda was a princess of East Anglia and, after a vow of chastity, two marriages, and no children, founded the monastic house that became, several hundred years later, Ely Cathedral. Of course it’s difficult to pick one’s way between histories and hagiographies, and this is the period of English history where plenty of rulers ended up as saints. I’ve devoted very little time to research, but I get the impression that she was a formidable woman. All her sisters ended up as saints. I think they must have been quite formidable, too.

I’ve lived in a few cathedral cities in my time – Winchester, Exeter, Guildford (look, I’m not going to be picky), and now Ely. We left Winchester before I could read, and almost every time we’ve gone back it’s been to ride on buses. In Exeter, I lived most of my life on the university campus. Guildford’s only had a diocese since the twentieth century, and the cathedral is somewhat set apart, up on a hill.

In Ely, though, I get the sense of a city that exists because of its cathedral and because of its market. Ely is tiny as cities go: it can’t get much bigger because most of the land around it is below sea level. The big expansion has happened fifteen miles south, around Cambridge. In Ely I get the sense of a city that exists in very much the same way that it has for centuries. These days the cathedral brings in tourists as well as pilgrims and the market… well, the market attracts people wishing to buy stuff, some of which the medievals would have recognised and some of which they wouldn’t.

In some ways, Ely feels like everywhere I’ve ever lived, all at once: the rich light on old stone of Winchester and Exeter and Cambridge, the proximity to agriculture (tractors!) of the Welsh borders and the Isle of Wight, the excellent rail connections of Woking, the hills and the cobbles of Guildford. In others, it feels like nowhere else.

Etheldreda wouldn’t recognise the lush farmland and the complex system of drainage ditches that supports it. She’d be completely boggled by the railway, the fact that I can get to London in little more than an hour. She’d be bewildered by my bicycle, come to that. But there’s not much you can do to that big wide sky. Contrails aside, she’d recognise that.

One last thing: it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that St Etheldreda was also, later, known as St Audrey. St Audrey as in St Audrey’s Fair. St Audrey as in tawdry. The absolute blinginess that the designers have endowed her with her is really rather fitting.

While I’m on the subject of cathedrals, I loved Dr Eleanor Janega’s latest piece. (Even if she doesn’t talk about Winchester, Exeter, Guildford or Ely.)

Hyperlocal travel writing: Ely cathedral

cathedral in grey-yellow stone against a blue sky

It’s the first thing you see. Coming in by road or rail it’s the biggest thing on the horizon.

They call it the Ship of the Fens. It’s a big ship, a container ship or an oil tanker, with a long, flat profile except for the bulk of the west tower and the blob of the lantern; perhaps it’s even more like a steam locomotive missing the funnel.

But that’s only one side of it, or perhaps two: south and north. Come from the west, the way I do most days, you see the lopsided, broken west front, a stark diagonal line where the north-west tower ought to be. Cross the green and you meet an incongruous-but-somehow-not Crimean war cannon.

In the town, you look up, and there’s the octagon peering over the rooftops.

Walk out to the north-west, towards Little Downham, and look back, and the cathedral is more like the submarine of the Fens, emerging from the folds of ground in a geographical peculiarity I still don’t quite understand.

If you’re down by the river on a sunny day, you can look across the meadows and the railway line to see it hovering on the higher ground in a kind of fairy-tale lightness of glittering glass and flying buttresses that leaves Neuschwanstein in the shade.

It isn’t fussy: you can see it from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s and the station and the Fens and the top floor of Topping’s. The whole city huddles around it.

Inside, the light congregates at the crossing, flowing in from the nave and the choir and the north and south transepts, running up and down the octagon like the angels going up and down Jacob’s ladder.

I keep finding new angles to look from.

Cathedral seen across an expanse of water, with green bushes in the foreground
White van parked next a bench. The octagon of Ely cathedral is visible in the background.
A flat landscape of open fields with deep ditches. On the horizon there is a city with a prominent tower.

December Reflections 18: I said hello to…

Ely cathedral, seen from the south side, with the west tower partly hidden by a tree, but with a good view of the lantern across a green field

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.