Week-end: equinoctial

A broad sky dappled with white and, nearer, pearly grey clouds

The good

A small family gathering: my mother stayed overnight on her way back south, and the in-laws are staying just up the road. I don’t think we’ve seen them all in the same place for the best part of a decade. We had a very nice morning chatting and eating cake, celebrating Tony’s birthday.

The mixed

A palimpsest of red letter days: the equinox, Tony’s birthday, Bi Visibility Day, the uncompromising autumnal nature of it all and the corresponding wondering about where this year has gone (answer: same as it’s been every time I’ve wondered this).

The difficult and perplexing

I’m really feeling the diminished daylight. It’s difficult to get up in the dark for my office days (and the Great Northern line still isn’t running properly, adding an extra half hour to change at Cambridge in the mornings) and on my work-from-home days I haven’t managed to get out of bed early enough to get a morning walk in.

What’s working

A little at a time. A picture a day. Or, at least, every day that I can.

Reading

Barely anything this week, though I am keeping up with Clorinda. As compensation, I’m going to mention a couple of things I read earlier and then didn’t write about. Firstly, Dust Tracks On A Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography. I get the impression that this was not the best place to start, though I also feel the writer of the introduction (this is a Virago paperback edition) wanted it to be a book that it was never going to be. Also, Tristan and Isolde (Gabriel Bise), a rather odd book which took as its starting point illustrations from a manuscript version in the Duc de Berry’s library and then tried to tell the story with explicit reference to what was going on in the pictures. Sometimes this felt rather like reading a medieval Hello! (“Wearing golden crowns the royal couple stood side by side, Mark wearing a full red cloak lined with vair, Isolde in a pink robe embroidered in gold. Between them, the priest in his blue cape blessed their joined hands while reading from the ritual of the sacramental texts. Behind the king, in a green coat, Tristan shared with Curvenal the anguish which afflicted him…”) and occasionally went all the way into unintentional farce (“disguised as a pilgrim, [King Mark] went with his retinue to the land of Logres. Wearing his gold-crowned helmet he easily disposed of those knights who happened to obstruct his path…”). Really I’d have preferred a straight translation of the actual text in the Duc de Berry’s book.

Writing

More on Book Bus Stories, which is really starting to come together, and a light pass over Starcrossers, which I now know how to cut down to fit into the word limit.

Mending

A visible darn on the elbow of a short stripy blue dress and an invisible mend, picking up a ladder in a little gold cardigan. A couple more subtle darns on one of Tony’s T-shirts and another one on the dress with constellations.

Listening to

The Queen’s funeral. Rather a pedestrian selection of hymns, I thought (much as I love The day thou gavest, I associate it more with Evensong, possibly coupled with an address by Reverend Whatsit from the Missionary Society, and I’m really not sure about descants at a funeral) but the choral stuff was excellent.

Watching

The world road cycling championships, selectively and rather behind the times. Getting up to watch it live isn’t really an option this week, but I’ve enjoyed seeing it in chunks during the evenings. I really do like the mixed relay time trial; it’s a pity it only happens once a year. Now I’ve got the women’s road race on in the background and am enjoying glancing up to see pleasant views of the Australian coastline.

Household

Hanging some family pictures: two of my great-grandmother’s watercolours featuring the great-aunt I’m named after (she doesn’t seem to have painted anybody except her own children; everything else is landscapes); a painting of Kirkstall Abbey which has on the back a list of every address where it’s hung since 1915; a painting of a great-great-great-aunt as a child (and about time: that one’s been sitting on top of the piano for months). Of course I’d forgotten about a framed prayer and a shield of Trinity College Cambridge, and will have to get some more picture hooks.

Cooking

A very large apple crumble.

Eating

Cake. Also Tony cooked venison on Sunday, which made quite a change.

Moving

Special arrangements for the Period of National Mourning meant that Sunday’s regular communion service happened at 4pm, so for once I got a Sunday morning ride in. My usual route heads out to the north-west and proceeds along a series of right-angles. When I get fed up I turn around and go back again. Consequently I am bound to get both headwinds and tailwinds at some point in the trip; this time it was a headwind on the way out and a tailwind on the way back, which, because of the way the hills work, is by far the most fun, and I beat all my Strava numbers in an entirely undeserved manner. Also there was some excellent fenland sky going on (see photo at top of post).

Noticing

Cyclamen under the hazel trees. I do love cyclamen – only the tiny mauve wild ones, though.

In the garden

Still apples, still pears, and a handful of runner beans.

Appreciating

Tailwinds. Family. The comforting delicate web of internet connections.

Acquisitions

The Ffern Autumn 22 perfume arrived. It doesn’t particularly seem to work on my skin, though: pleasantly citrusy for an hour or so, and then gone. I think I’ll work through the sample and return the full bottle.

Hankering

I want one of those plywood contraptions that you put on a table to make it into a standing desk, with your laptop on the highest shelf, your keyboard and mouse halfway down, etc. Not sure that this would actually work with any furniture I actually own, but still, I note this. I also have a hankering after hand-knitted socks, being jealous of my knitting friends. I don’t want to get into knitting socks, though. Etsy may be the answer here. And opera tickets.

Line of the week

From the latest Hidden Europe:

Just south of the estuary of the Adige we come to the Po Delta, where a braided maze of waterways has over the centuries shifted position, leaving spits, sandbars and brackish backwaters where the low line of the horizon is broken only by myriad migrating birds.

Saturday snippet

Having some fun with one of the Book Bus Stories:

He had toiled down to the Riviera, and meandered around Juan-les-Pins and Antibes and Nice in a state of mind as blue as the famous train that had taken him there.

This coming week

A busy work week, and then the Eurostar to Brussels for Brugge and the Belgian Coastal Tramway. I’d like to catch up with Embroidered Sunset, keep going with the drawings, and maybe listen to some music in the evenings.

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

Week-end: in hell

Only in terms of media consumption, though. This hasn’t been a bad week for me.

Cot quilt in patchwork diamonds, mostly blues and greens.

The good

A really lovely meeting yesterday morning with the current spiritual director and the previous lay director of Ely Cursillo. We all turned up in pink tops, entirely coincidentally, and ate delicious brunch, and had the proper catch-up and said the proper thank-you that’s really been waiting since the spring.

And my ma stayed over Thursday night, en route to The North. I like having people to stay.

The mixed

Glamorous as it is to travel to work by hovercraft, the early start that staying on the Isle of Wight implies does leave me very tired at the end of Monday, and then there’s the rest of the week to get through.

The difficult and perplexing

Life would be easier if I didn’t have to turn round half way up the hill and cycle back home to make sure I actually have shut the garage door (of course I had), meaning that I didn’t have time to lock my bike up at the station, meaning that I then couldn’t get the train I’d said I’d catch because it didn’t have room for me and my bicycle. I’m getting better at trusting myself to have done this sort of thing, but I’m not nearly there yet.

And the cat puked extensively over the ground floor this morning. Of the approximately three million things I’d wanted to get done today, cleaning up cat sick wasn’t exactly top of the list. But it had to be.

What’s working

Putting the current ‘to do’ page of my Filofax in between the current two pages of the ‘week on two pages’ diary. I’ve been refining this with different coloured pages for work tasks, immediate priorities, and small steps towards big projects. I watched the official Bullet Journal introduction video and, while I now get how it works, I still don’t think it’s ever going to match the way my mind works. This, however, will do for the moment.

Reading

I’m already behind on The Embroidered Sunset. Yesterday I bought four books in a charity shop and read two of them: The Wire in the Blood (Val McDermid) – very self-consciously darker and edgier, almost approaching self-parody in some places. Anybody who looked like they might die horribly, did; any prospect of justice being served was undermined; and the hero is the saddest sack in the history of sad sacks. And The Climb Up To Hell (Jack Olsen), an account of a 1957 attempt on the north face of the Eiger and the ensuing rescue attempt. The phrase ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ comes to mind. I’ve been interested in the NFotE since 2016 or so, though the closest I have been, and the closest I intend to get, is the railway up to Jungfraujoch. I can’t say that this felt entirely unbiased, but it was certainly absorbing.

Meanwhile, on the subject of hell, cycling through the poetry bookcase brought me back to Inferno, canto VI to be precise.

I started The Voyages of Cinrak The Dapper (A. J. Fitzwater) and will see how twee it gets. I’ve been dipping in and out of A Desire of Tramcars and the French half of De buurtspoorweg|Le vicinal. And also A View To A Kill, Paris Is Well Worth A Bus, and a 1970 guide to Paris that I found in an Ely junk shop. For reasons.

Writing

Book Bus Stories! I printed this off to take down to the Isle of Wight and discovered that it’s almost done! Eighty per cent, I’d say. This looks like it really is going to happen for Ventnor Fringe 2023. Of course, I’d been putting off the trickiest bits, but filling in the gaps has come easier than I’d expected. Next thing is to get out the lino cutters.

Making

As the photograph at the top of this post indicates, I got the mystery patchwork done, and indeed it is no longer a mystery and is now with its recipient. I was up at seven o’clock on Sunday morning getting the edge finished, though.

Watching

Ventnor Arts Club put on a Bicycle Film Festival to mark the passage of the Tour of Britain, and carried on regardless of the cancellation of the race. This meant that I was able to watch A Sunday In Hell, the film about the 1976 Paris-Roubaix race. It’s very good. Sure, on one level it’s just another documentary, but it’s beautifully shot and beautifully paced. And it captures something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on television: the experience of watching a race from the side of a road, waiting and waiting and waiting (there are a couple of people with a card game laid out on a picnic blanket) as well as the more familiar start-to-finish television race.

It’s fascinating to watch it in 2022 and see what still endures (mechanics hanging out of team car windows to fix bikes on the move, for example) and what doesn’t (mechanics riding on team car roofs).

This concludes the … in hell section of this post.

Cooking

Baked apples, with a bit of sliced crystallised ginger in with the sultanas.

Eating

Extremely good scampi at Besty and Spinky’s at Ventnor Haven. I’m quite fond of the little balls of breaded pink paste you get in pubs, but this was something entirely different. This had a coherency and a flavour that I’d never encountered before, and interesting seeded breadcrumbs. The menu promised me that I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I wasn’t.

And extremely good French toast at the community café in Duxford.

Noticing

A just-over-half moon and Mars in among Aldebaran and Elnath (I had to look them up), with Jupiter a little further to the east. Several deer in the fields, and, also, one field with Canada geese followed immediately by a field with the ordinary brown sort.

In the garden

Apples and pears. I need to do some pruning.

Mending

I took my brown leather handbag into the shop where I bought it, and got the handle sewn back in. And there’s a growing pile over the banister that needs attending to…

Appreciating

Photos shared by two of my brothers, who are off on separate heritage transport expeditions.

Acquisitions

I went slightly overboard in Cambridge yesterday (I haven’t been for ages, OK?) – paper tape, a pair of embroidery scissors, some turmeric and a cork yoga brick in Flying Tiger, some DVDs from Fopp, and the aforementioned books from the hospice shop (the other two were A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and one of the Ruth Galloway series).

Hankering

Today I have tried out Tony’s nice German leather pannier bag satchel, and I like it. He’s going to give it to me if he can’t make it fit his bike.

Line of the week

There are some gorgeous descriptions in The Embroidered Sunset: how about this one?

The houses are stone, rising up the steep cliff in tiers, and they have those red pantile roofs, marcelled like mother’s hair in old photographs; smoke rushed hastily from the chimneys, there’s always a strong wind blowing, and the gulls never stop making a row.

Saturday snippet

One of the Book Bus Stories, which is now considerably more of a story than it was:

There was a little eddy of movement inside. She froze; then it was too late to flee. Two of them were coming out, arm in arm, laughing together, but not too absorbed in each other to spare a glance at Althea.

All she could do was endure the disinterest on one striking face and the pity on the other.

This coming week

Ma returns on her way back to The South. The in-laws stop by to celebrate Tony’s birthday. Bi Visibility Day. Some more Book Bus Stories.

And I might listen to the Queen’s funeral (I really don’t like watching church services on TV; it feels terribly intrusive). Or I might go out for a bike ride. Or both.

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

Week-end: sudden standstill

Model San Francisco cable car, with box, in front of a window through which can be seen the sea

The mixed

I’m doing this on my pone so it’s all going in tgether. I am on the Isle of Wight. (This piture shows Ventnor, not San Francisco.) I was meant to be watching the Tour of Britain, which was meant to be crossing the Island and coming through Ventnor tomorrow. However, the Queen died (and that’s quite a thing to get one’s head around in itself) and so it’s cancelled. So it’s turned into a regular Island-weekend-with-family, which is very good in itself, but it would have been even more fun to watch the cycling together.

And because regular Island weekends with family tend to mean clearing my father’s house, we’ve been doing that, and it’s slow going. Yesterday I was close to despairing. Today I took a load of shelves to bits and felt better. But yes, it’s not an easy process. Often aggravating. Occasionally poignant. Sometimes hilarious. We found a little card on which was recorded my first visit to a pub. I was less than a month old. And I have to say that should I have need of a 1950s model San Francisco cable car (this will become relevant later), I have a far greater than average chance of finding one.

Plus the trains have been awful and I’ve been knackered.

What’s working

Pumping up the tyres on my bike. Made it much easier to get up the hill, even with a holdall, a satchel, and a tote bag with a cork yoga block.

Reading

Madame Clorinda is back! Not that she’s been Madame Clorinda for a long time, of course, but she’s been brightening my mornings.

Started The Embroidered Sunset (Joan Aiken) with an online readalong.

Finished Double or Nothing: very good, twisty, introduces some engaging new characters and had me looking forward to seeing more of them.

I also read, and loved, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Malinda Lo), and I would rave about it if I weren’t typing in this hideous mobile interface. Amazing sense of time and place. Let the cable car speak for how much I liked it.

Making

Up against it with this patchwork thing.

Watching

The Tour of Britain, or what there was of it.

Cooking

Beef olives, for the first time ever, and baked figs.

Listening to

Jeremy Wilson talking about Beryl Burton at Ventnor Exchange. Very difficult to stop Beryl Burton, even when all other cycling stops.

Playing

Scrabble, with my mother. I won, largely because I drew J, Q, Z and K.

Appreciating

The full moon over the sea.

Acquisitions

Beryl. Will also be taking some things home from my father’s house…

Hankering

Various dresses on the Joanie site. I don’t really need any new dresses.

Line of the week

From Last Night at the Telegraph Club:

The door was propped open, and inside she saw Shirley’s baby-blue party dress on a hanger hooked over the edge of a locker door, like the shell of a girl floating in midair.

This coming week

Back to the writing. An early bus and an early hovercraft. And a nice quiet Saturday, I hope.

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

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!

Sixteen years (without driving)

A vintage Delage car with the number 116 painted on the side
A car I have not driven. Lovely, though, isn’t it?

Today it is sixteen years since I last drove a car on the road.

That wasn’t deliberate. I only remember the date because it was the day before my graduation, and how could I forget that such an occasion happened on quatorze juillet? I failed my second driving test the day before I graduated, therefore I must have driven for the last time on the thirteenth of July. (In actual fact, I drove a Routemaster around a field a couple of months later, but that’s another story.)

I hadn’t meant that to be the last time I took my driving test. But I was moving out of the city where I’d learned to drive, and that meant that for the next test I’d have to learn a whole new set of test routes. And I’d just graduated and I didn’t have a job, and I never got round to sorting out lessons. My grand plan that year was to walk to Santiago de Compostela, and I didn’t need a car to do that. Then I spent two months in Germany and was thoroughly spoiled by the public transport system.

At the end of all that, seventeen months after failing my second driving test, I moved to Guildford. This is a notoriously expensive place to live and, even though I was living in a horrible bedsit, and even though I signed up with a temp agency fairly promptly, I didn’t have the money to spare for driving lessons.

I moved in with my fiancé. He had a car. I never drove it, though. I think I probably assumed that I would, sooner or later, but money was still tight. He was a PhD student and I was a temp, and we were living in Guildford.

I inherited a car from my godmother, but I swapped it for a piano. (The piano was left to my mother, but she already had one. The car ended up with my father, I think.) I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t play the piano, either.

We moved to Woking, which was marginally cheaper than Guildford, where I was still working. We managed to move everything except the piano in (or, in the case of the double bed, on) the car. Not long after that move, Tony started a different PhD. In London.

Nobody drives into London. Not without a very good reason – disability, say, or actually living there. We did not have a very good reason to drive into London. In fact, we had no good reason to drive at all. I could take the train to Guildford. Tony could take the train to London. We could go pretty much anywhere else we fancied by train, because Woking, while not terribly interesting in itself (unless you’re a Martian invader), is very well-connected. And the car was sitting on the road costing us £600 a year before we’d even put fuel in.

The car went to a couple of affable blokes from somewhere in Wales. Looking back, that was probably the moment that confirmed my non-driving path. Up until then, driving occupied a slot in the ‘get around to it some day’ filing cabinet in my head. If I ever needed to, I’d told myself before, I’d learn to drive. Now I had to ask myself: but what? Tony could, and did, hire a car if he wanted to go somewhere off the public transport network. That wouldn’t have worked for me, because I didn’t have the familiarity with driving that would let me leap into a strange car and go somewhere safely, and now we didn’t have a car I wasn’t going to get it.

We adjusted very smoothly to life without a car. We walked to the shops. We commuted to work by train. We visited family by train. We started getting a veg box delivered. I bought a trike and started cycling. Tony had been cycling for years. We didn’t need a car. Not in Woking, anyway. It would have been a different story in the place where I grew up (a mile to the nearest village).

Not being able to drive might have been career limiting, but I was never terribly interested in the career track that would have required it. (A decade older and a billion times more confident, I think now that I wouldn’t have made a bad stab at it, but I don’t think it would ever have been my ideal future.) That problem disappeared when I moved to my employer’s head office and a job where nobody expected me to drive.

If we didn’t need a car in Woking, we certainly didn’t need one in Cambridge. (That move involved six months in separate temporary addresses, and Tony moved all the furniture except the piano in a hired van.) It is only slightly more advisable to drive into Cambridge than it is to drive into London. And I told myself that if I didn’t start riding a standard, two-wheeled, bike in Cambridge, I’d never do it at all. I did. Suddenly I could get to everything I needed to.

Life works perfectly well for me without driving. Of course, that’s because I’ve managed – first by luck, and later by design – to set it up that way. If I were still in a tiny hamlet in the Marches, I think I’d probably have to drive, or else get used to a very limited existence. As things are, we choose places to live based on walking and cycling distance from the amenities, and we are fortunate enough for that to be financially and logistically feasible.

More recently, I’ve developed intermittent vision loss (very occasional, but inconvenient in its very unpredictability) which makes me wonder whether I’d actually be safe behind a steering wheel. I don’t much like the thought of being suddenly unable to see out of my right eye while bowling down a motorway. Though I’ve heard of someone with the same thing who just pulls over when he notices it coming on.

Not driving does make it harder to visit other people. I have friends whose house I can see from my morning train, yes, but I have family in villages where the bus comes twice a week, or never. There is no point in our getting a National Trust membership, because the great and the good tended to build their stately piles a long way from anything so plebeian as public transport. And I might have been on a retreat in the last decade if so many retreat houses were not buried deep in the countryside with no bus service. (To be fair, the last retreat I went on was a five minute taxi ride from Godalming station, so it may also be that I just haven’t got around to it.)

I fret a lot about Putting People Out. Usually they are lovely and think nothing of going five miles out of their way to get me home. It turns out that five miles isn’t all that far, in a car. Or, in the case of my husband, hiring a car. Of course it does get awkward sometimes, if I’m very tired and would rather be by myself on a nice quiet train. More often, though, I get to know them a lot better, and, as someone to whom socialising doesn’t come naturally, that’s very valuable.

Of course, the longer my not driving goes on, the more it becomes about the environment. I came across The Jump a few months ago, and found it a lot more encouraging and less annoying than a lot of climate rhetoric. It identifies six broad ‘jumps’ (lifestyle changes, I suppose you could call them), one of which is ‘get rid of your personal vehicle’, but is very reassuring about not expecting perfection. Well, the cars we hire these days are electric, and if we ever do buy one (and my eye stops playing up and I learn to drive) it’ll be electric, but there’ll still be cobalt in the battery and rubber particulate to fret about. I fret less these days – or, rather, I have a more realistic sense of my own ability to effect large-scale change and consequently a more realistic sense of my own responsibility – but, having accidentally forged a lifestyle in which I don’t drive and don’t have to, it seems a bit silly not to keep it going.

And it’s gone on a long time. Next year my existence as a non driver will be old enough to drive.

The limits of capacity: post-Covid and writing chronic illness

A fluffy black and white cat on a blanket on a sofa
The view from the sofa

On Easter Monday I reread A Spoke In The Wheel. ASITW, as I shall refer to it henceforth, was my second novel, which dealt with the coming to terms of a disgraced cyclist and a disabled cycling fan. Easter Monday was day 18 of my convalescence, if we’re counting from the first day I tested negative for Covid, and was, like many of the previous 25 days, spent mostly lying on the sofa.

While my main reason for rereading was being in a mood for more cycling after watching both Paris-Roubaix races in the afternoon of Easter Day, and also to see if there was any mileage in a spin-off story for the B couple, it was quite an interesting experience. This is, if not the most ill I’ve been in years, certainly the longest duration of illness I’ve had, and I couldn’t help looking out to see what I’d got wrong.

Of course I’d done my homework at the time, getting two ME sufferers of my acquaintance to check and double-check for errors and faux pas, but this is as close as I’d want to get to experiencing chronic illness for myself. I’m very thankful indeed that I do seem to be getting steadily better. I’m noticing tangible improvements from week to week, if not necessarily from day to day. On Monday I went into the office for the first time since the middle of March. Yesterday I had to have a lie-down as soon as I’d shut down my laptop. Tomorrow I’ll try riding my bike to the station.

So what did I find? Actually, not all that much that spoke directly to my comparatively short experience of illness. The whole point of ASITW was that it was talking about long-term conditions. I was writing about two people who spent most of their lives at the limits of their physical capacity, who were intimately familiar with that territory. It’s new ground for me. Anything I might have added from my current experience would be part of a prequel, or, just about conceivably, a flashback.

My limits are changing all the time. Not, perhaps, so fast as I’d like, certainly not so fast as the Protestant work ethic thinks they should be, but they’re changing. I know about as much about chronic illness from a month of post-Covid as the person who does a one-night fundraising sleepout knows about what it’s like to live on the streets. Which is to say, not much at all. If I were writing ASITW now I’d still need my specialist editors. Maybe even more so than I did before, lest I think I know it all now. (A little learning is a dangerous thing…)

And the other thing is that it came from the point of view of someone who had been disabled and now wasn’t, with all the assumptions that implies. Ben’s experience of disability is far in the past even if his experience of not being able to do everything he wants to do is very recent. He was always going to start out as a clueless git, and being a clueless git is, I would argue, not something that one needs personal experience to write. (I have often been clueless. I have tried not to be a git.) If I’d had this month of fatigue when I was writing ASITW I wouldn’t really have had anywhere to put it. Or, if I had, it would have been a very different book. And, you know, rereading the one I actually wrote, I’m pretty happy with the way it ended up.

Some links

Autistic on Wheels – Katherine’s advice and comments were immensely helpful to me when I was writing ASITW. She’s doing important advocacy work.

The rise of sensitivity readers – an article from Independent.ie quoting the formidable Susan Lanigan

A Spoke in the Wheel

Me and Warren Barguil [filk]

Stained glass artwork showing a cyclist in a yellow jersey traversing a hilly, sunlit landscape, with text 'Yorkshire Grand Depart'

So, the Tour de France. As usual, there seem to be at least two races going on, except one of them isn’t really a race any more. I’m enjoying the other one.

Anyway today’s stage ends in Carcassonne, and this prompted me to spend yesterday lunchtime scrolling back through Facebook to find the following filk, which wrote itself gently over the course of the 2017 and 2018 tours. It didn’t start out being about the 2018 Carcassonne-Bagnères de Luchon stage, but it rather ended up that way. Enjoy.

Busted flat at the flamme rouge, caught up by a train,
feeling cooked as I approached the line,
The peloton came past me while I fumbled with my chain
And I followed them a minute ten behind.
I'd been in a break of two for two hundred K of mountains,
The bunch had let us go because they knew
I was twenty minutes down on that shining yellow jersey
And the other guy was out for mountains too

Stage win's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean, honey, if it ain't GC,
Feeling good was easy when I was in that break of two
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Warren Barguil

From the walls of Carcassonne to the slopes of Col de Menté
Me and Warren shared the brotherhood of the road
Through all kinds of weather, riding hard to get away
We shared the pace, yeah, took turns to bear the load
But once we'd cleared the summit he let me slip away
He wants the KOM and I hope he finds it
But I'd trade all of my stage wins for one shot at the GC
And to wear that yellow jersey 'cross the line

Oh, stage win's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean, honey, if it ain't GC,
Feeling good was easy when I was in that break of two
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Warren Barguil

Credit for the Stage win’s just another word for nothing left to lose line ought to go to my partner, but since he didn’t actually know the rest of the song I’m assimilating it.

Apologies to Kris Kristofferson. And to Warren Barguil, obviously. And to the narrator: actually I think this is a little unfair on him.

Other things I have written about cycling include: a story in the next Bikes In Space anthology, a story in the one after that, and an explanation of how I got into cycling in the first place. And a novel.

Hyperlocal travel writing: the sofa

I have been in Verona.

Not literally.

Well, technically, yes, I’ve stood in a very long queue for the ladies’ at the railway station between getting off a train from Venice and getting on one to Brenner(o). Technically, I have been in Verona. But that wasn’t my point.

Figuratively, I have been in Verona.

Dark screen showing DVD covers for three different versions of Romeo and Juliet, plus other Shakespeare plays

I started off in January in kitschy, fictional, Verona Beach, because I needed to remind myself of Romeo and Juliet in a hurry, and the version that was at that moment the most accessible was the Baz Luhrmann one.

Now, I am just the age to have hit compulsory school Shakespeare when Romeo+Juliet had been out long enough to become the version that English teachers turned to (and Titanic was just out, and Leonardo DiCaprio was a very big thing indeed). My teens are a bit of blur at this point (not for any sex/drugs/rock’n’roll reasons; it’s just that we spent an entire year moving house) but I’m reasonably sure that I studied Romeo and Juliet three times running at three different schools. I only really remember one of those with any clarity (it was, interestingly enough, the school I struggled with the most, but I did enjoy English): we watched the Luhrmann version; we watched the Zeffirelli version, too, but it was the tat-tastic, somewhere-on-the-American-West-Coast, Verona Beach that’s stuck in my memory.

Anyway, that was January. I finished off the thing I’d watched it for in the first place, and I thought no more about it. Then I fell down the rabbit hole. It was the discovery that Alan Rickman had played Tybalt (BBC, 1978) that had me leaving scorched rubber in the search bar and resulted in the delivery of a parcel of DVDs (it comes in a set with the major tragedies, and I thought I might as well add in the Zeffirelli version, not to mention the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, and make the most of the postage charge).

BBC Verona is much like other BBC sets of the seventies: very much a stage set, earnestly reproducing balconies and battlements in painted plywood. Alan Rickman as Tybalt is pretty much exactly how you’d expect Alan Rickman to be as Tybalt. Perfect casting, to my mind.

Reminding myself of Zeffirelli’s Verona, I suddenly saw what the BBC had been going for, how much it owed to the earlier production. It wasn’t filmed in the real Verona but I had to look it up to check. (It’s not like I would know from the railway station lavatories, after all.) This Verona is made of stone: it’s all walls and pavements and battlements, and feels at once very authentic and very claustrophobic.

Then I remembered the existence of the musical. Musicals, plural, if you count West Side Story, which to my mind is one of the best musicals in existence, but is very much not set in any sort of Verona. The Presgurvic musical, though, very much is. Welcome to Verona, my beautiful Verona, the city where the families make the law, the city where everyone hates everyone else. (Translation mine, from the earworm: the original actually rhymes and scans and is probably in a different order.)

I’d watched the Hungarian version years ago and had vague memories of a grungy, punky set and a heart-breakingly optimistic Romeo. It’s still up on Youtube, so I watched it again. My memories were correct; also, there’s a lot of fire. There’s also a real sense of a city that runs on hatred. This isn’t the Sharks and the Jets floating on top of a city that doesn’t know much about them and doesn’t care at all; this is somewhere that wouldn’t even know what it was if it didn’t have the feud. I found the Italian version, too. That’s less fiery, more gothic. This Verona is somewhere between the Middle Ages and the apocalypse.

One cannot watch videos all the time, but one of the great things about working from home is that one can have whatever music one likes in the background (and so can one’s partner, at the other end of the landing). So I’ve been listening to the French version a lot. I have yet to fork out for Spotify Premium, so I get the government popping up and telling me what to do if I’m an EU citizen (alas!) in between Mercutio yelling ‘Je maudit vos familles! Je maudit vos maisons!’ and Romeo losing it. But then I also get people popping up to ask me to sort out their login problems, so somebody’s death scene is always going to get interrupted sooner or later.

Then I found my CD of the Bellini opera. Actually, I found the libretto booklet, which had somehow got separated from the CDs. Flicking through it, I discovered something that made me go, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’

… A grave reason spurs Capulet to this urgency. Maybe a sudden storm hangs over the heads of the Guelphs: maybe the Montagues are rising again in enmity! May they perish, ah! perish, those savage, insolent Ghibellines!

Now, all I know about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines comes from reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ introduction to her translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy several years ago, and about all I had remembered was that they were opposing parties. It hadn’t occurred to me that the feud in Shakespeare might have had anything to do with real world partisanship, but it seemed really insultingly obvious now. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and there it was staring me in the face: Ghibelline swallow-tailed merlons on the ‘Casa di Romeo’, of the Montecchi family of Verona.

Small collection of clutter including a battered paperback copy of 'The Divine Comedy: Hell' by Dante, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, and the insert from a CD of I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini.

I picked up Dante again – I’d been thinking of reading it over Easter anyway – and reread the introduction. I hadn’t remembered entirely accurately: there were plenty of family feuds going on alongside the Guelph-Ghibelline stuff:

… the Italian nobility was violently divided by internecine clan feuds like those of the Campbells and MacGregors, so that each great family was a law unto itself and its followers, overriding the native constitution, bearing rule according to its own tribal custom, and indulging in perpetual raids and vendettas against its rivals…

After setting out the broader political context, Sayers focuses on Dante’s life, following him from Florence into exile in (wouldn’t you know) Verona and, ultimately, Ravenna. Then I spent three quarters of an hour listening to Dr Eleanor Janega tell me about Boccaccio’s Florence, and now I’m trying to remember why it is that Ravenna’s stuck in my memory. Maybe the Diarmaid McCullough History of Christianity…?

Meanwhile, cycling season has been getting underway. I like watching the cycling: often it’s two hours of scenery followed by ten minutes of excitement, but the scenery’s worth it. Strade Bianche: the white roads around Siena. Tirreno-Adriatico: west to east, sea to sea, cypress trees and red roofs, hilltop villages, Roman ruins… This weekend, it’s Milan-Sanremo. Par for the course for a spring in which I’ve been seeing a rather lot of Italy, not to mention a whole lot of Veronas, from my sofa.

Map showing main rail lines in northern Italy

December Reflections 19: cold

IMG_20191219_195701_369

September 2019. A trip we’d been planning ever since we heard the world road cycling championships were going to be in Yorkshire this year.

On most days we went to the finish line in Harrogate.  For the women’s time trial, we went to the start of the route, in Ripon. It was a funny old week, weather-wise. There was one day of blazing sunshine, and then several of rain. This was one of those rainy days.

We went to Ripon and skirted several puddles; ate some lunch; waited for the start of the event, which was delayed due to the weather; visited the cathedral; watched the cyclists leave; watched part of the rest of the course on the big screen; watched part of Labour conference on the big screen when the coverage got a bit confused…

Got cold.

One of the things that I particularly love about cycling – as a spectator, rather than a participant, I mean – is the way that you can, without paying a penny, turn up at the side of an ordinary road and watch some of the best sportspeople in the world pass by within a few feet of you. The World Championships joins a list including the Olympics, the Tour of Britain, the Women’s Tour, and the Tour de France that I’ve managed to see without even having to leave the country. Not to mention the Tour Series, which was so very much right there that I turned up to it by accident, and that’s how I got into cycling in the first place.

Anyway, it’s worth getting a bit chilly for.

December Reflections 18: favourite photo of me

IMG_20191218_201141_486

This year I bought a road bike – my first ever. It took me a couple of years to psych myself up to it. I’ve become a reasonably competent cyclist since moving to Cambridge (I told myself when I moved here that if I couldn’t get used to riding a bicycle here, I’d never do it anywhere) but a road bike, I thought, would be lightweight and flighty and difficult to get on and off. But this year I got there.

Then I started riding it. We have a thing called the Guided Busway near us, and it has a cycleway/footpath running all the way alongside it to St Ives. I have been riding up and down that. Slowly, at first, getting the hang of it, getting the feel of it, working out which way to move the levers to change gear, cursing the toe clips, getting my shoelaces caught in the toe clips, not falling over, thinking that perhaps I might be able to manage cleated pedals one day… But not this day. Not quite yet. I haven’t got as far as St Ives yet (and haven’t met the man with seven wives, either…)

But there I am, sometime in June, somewhere between Cambridge and Impington, wearing sunglasses on a grey day, a bit flushed, not quite sure what angle I’m trying to be at, with concrete and cow parsley in the background, getting the hang of this thing.