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).

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.