Engaging with the tradition

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A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was writing and what he’d been watching. I’m writing the sequel to Speak Its Name, which in its current state is mostly about vocations and relationships and what they do to each other. He’d been watching Fleabag, and thought that it had quite a lot to say to what I was doing, and had I seen it?

I said that I hardly watch any TV at all, because I lack the staying power. I can keep up with something for one or two episodes, but then life gets in the way and I get behind. (So I mostly watch Doctor Who, where you can dip in and out and it makes just as much sense as if you had managed to see last week’s episode.) So no, I hadn’t seen Fleabag.

But it’s a very good point. Whatever you’re writing about, whatever genre you’re writing in, someone will have been there first. (And if you don’t engage with that tradition, then there’s a very real danger of making yourself look like an utter plonker. See: Ian McEwan and sci-fi.)

Speak Its Name and whatever-the-sequel’s-going-to-be-called sit not quite comfortably within the Barchester genre. And that is a tradition that I’ve been engaging with ever since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation (Fit Persons To Serve In The Sacred Ministry of Thy Church: representations of Anglican clergy 1855-65) if not before (my mother, seeing me with a copy of Glittering Images shortly before my A-level exams, prudently removed it from me). Most recently, of course, there’s been Catherine Fox‘s Lindchester. Sometimes I think I’m engaged not so much in a dialogue with Lindchester as in a stand-up screaming match, while at the same time finding it intensely familiar and moving. So maybe I’ll get round to watching Fleabag, or more probably I won’t, but I think I’ve probably done enough homework there.

A Spoke in the Wheel is slightly different. Not so much in terms of genre – I suppose it’s somewhere between a romance and a social problem novel – but in terms of subject matter. I read loads of cycling books, but they were all non-fiction. Most of them were memoirs.

There isn’t really a tradition, you see. Elsewhere (and elsewhen – almost a decade ago, in fact) on the Internet, William Fotheringham has a list of the top ten cycling novels. They’re a mixed bag, and the diversity of genres represented suggests that he had to scratch around quite a lot to find any ten, let alone a top ten.

If I were feeling inspired I’d try matching the titles to the various roles within a team (sprinter, GC contender, domestique, grimpeur, rouleur, etc), but I’m feeling a bit too tired for that. And I’ve only attempted three of them in recent years. (I’m sure I must have had The Adventure of the Priory School read to me when I was a child, but it hasn’t stuck.)

  • Cat ought to be the sort of thing I’d love, but every time I’ve tried it I’ve foundered on the extended passages in italic type.
  • Three Men on the Bummel is not quite as good as Three Men in a Boat, and contains quite a lot of tedious national stereotyping.
  • The Rider was the one I saved for after I’d finished writing A Spoke In The Wheel, because when something’s been sold as ‘the best cycling novel of all time’, it’s a bit intimidating when you’re just trying to write a decent one.

And I’ve now downloaded The Wheels of Chance (thank you, Project Gutenberg).

Actually, the one cycling book I’m really glad I didn’t read before starting ASITW is Fotheringham‘s own Put Me Back On My Bike. I just don’t think I’d have had the nerve to write about fictional doping with that magnificent and uncomfortably vivid account of the tragedy of Tom Simpson always in the back of my mind.

 

* Having said that, I’ve now watched all of Good Omens, so it turns out that I’m perfectly capable of watching television when somebody else organises it and when it’s a day that I didn’t have earmarked for writing. I’m still two episodes behind on Gentleman Jack, though, and it’ll be three if I don’t get my act together this weekend.

National Reading Group Day giveaway

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Apparently it’s National Reading Group Day. For the next three hours, anyway. I thought about celebrating by putting together a set of reading group questions for each of my books, but I’ve yet to come across a group that actually uses those. In my experience most people are quite capable of talking about what did and didn’t work for them.

One reading group I used to belong to didn’t always get around to talking about the book at all, but I think that was an extreme case.

Instead, I’m going to take advantage of the fact that there is a book group in my latest book, A Spoke In The Wheel. As the old meme (almost) says, I put a book in your book, so you can read while you read… The book group aside, A Spoke In The Wheel is the story of what happens when a disgraced professional cyclist meets a disabled cycling fan; a story of assumptions, of redemption, and of coming to terms with one’s own limitations. And to give you that opportunity to read it, I’m hosting a giveaway.

The book group scene is below. They’re talking about a real book. It isn’t by Ian McEwan, despite what Polly thinks. The first person to identify the book wins a copy. Anyone who comments here with a guess that turns out to be incorrect will be entered into a draw for a second copy.

In short:

  • leave a comment on this post with the title and author of the book that you think this reading group might be discussing
  • the first person to guess correctly wins a copy
  • people who guessed incorrectly are entered into a draw for a second copy
  • if no one guesses correctly then I’ll draw for both copies from the incorrect guesses
  • if you have no idea, take a wild guess. What’s the worst that could happen?
  • this draw will take place on Saturday 23 June
  • I am prepared to send the prizes anywhere in the world

Those present at the discussion that inspired this (they know who they are) will not be eligible. If they feel hard done by they should comment with an alternative book, and if I find their suggestion sufficiently amusing I might enter them into the draw anyway.

 

Vicky texted me later in the day to say that she’d been sent home ill by her boss (who clearly wasn’t such a sadist as she’d made out) and could I pick Polly up on my way home. It seemed that one of Polly’s church ladies was going to drop her off at the Three Bottles after some event, and Vicki was going to pick her up when she got home from work. Quite why the church lady couldn’t take her all the way home I couldn’t work out, but since it wasn’t really any of my business I didn’t ask, just texted back to say that would be no problem. And, because I had a headache, felt slightly virtuous about it.

The Three Bottles was quite lively for a week night. I eventually found Polly at a small table behind a very rowdy book group. The substitution of me for Vicki didn’t seem to be a particular disappointment, so she’d evidently been warned.

She motioned me to sit down, and murmured, ‘I’ve been eavesdropping for the last quarter of an hour. They’ve established that the biscuits were metaphorical, but they can’t work out whether or not the incest was literal.’

‘What on earth are they reading?’ I kept my voice down too, though it was hardly necessary.

‘I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to catch sight of the book. It sounds vaguely like Ian McEwan, but I don’t think it’s one I’ve read, if so. The biscuits don’t sound right. Though the whole group seems to want to stab the hero in the face, which does.’

‘Right,’ I said. I still hadn’t put anything on my new library card, and whatever this book was, it didn’t seem like a very good place to start. ‘What about a drink?’ I offered. Now that I was inside, in the warm, I was reluctant to go out into the rain. My headache was getting worse, though; I hoped I wasn’t coming down with Vicki’s cold. I told myself that it was probably just dehydration.

She smiled. ‘Yeah, why not?’

‘What’s yours?’

‘Orange juice, please.’

I went to the bar. My timing was bad: two of the women from the book club had got up just before me, and were putting in an order for their entire table. I thought I heard someone say my name, but when I looked around nobody seemed to be trying to get my attention. The place was crowded; I’d obviously been mistaken.

 

The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.

The first thing she saw was the doper.

Ben Goddard is an embarrassment – as a cyclist, as an athlete, as a human being. And he knows it.

Now that he’s been exposed by a positive drugs test, his race wins and his work with disabled children mean nothing. He quits professional cycling in a hurry, sticks a pin in a map, and sets out to build a new life in a town where nobody knows who he is or what he’s done.

But when the first person he meets turns out to be a cycling fan, he finds out that it’s not going to be quite as easy as that.

Besides, Polly’s not just a cycling fan, she’s a former medical student with a chronic illness and strong opinions. Particularly when it comes to Ben Goddard…

Blog tour – final stage – excerpt at Books, Teacup and Reviews

ASITW blog tour individual 18 May

We’re nearly there! The very last stop on the blog tour takes A Spoke in the Wheel to Books, Teacup and Reviews, where you can read an excerpt. Yesha will be reviewing the book later in the summer, as well.

Thank you to all the bloggers who have welcomed me – and thank you for joining me on the ride. It’s been fun!

ASITW blog tour LARGE

Blog tour, stages 13 and 14: guest post at Anne Bonny Book Reviews, and review at Odd Socks and Lollipops

ASITW blog tour individual 17 May

It’s the penultimate day of the blog tour! Today I’ve taken A Spoke in the Wheel to Anne Bonny Book Reviews, where I’ve got a guest post on the subject of writing about disability.

And there’s a review at Odd Socks and Lollipops, where Jenni says,

Polly really made the novel for me, and the way in which she is written is so perfect. As a person who suffers with a chronic illness I could so relate to Polly and her experiences. It was so wonderful to see a disabled character written in the story and not have their narrative be there as a prop or so that they could be miraculously fixed. Instead Kathleen has created a wonderfully well developed character who highlighted both to Ben and the reader then challenge that every day life is for some.

You can read the whole review here.

ASITW blog tour LARGE

100 untimed books: driving

17. driving

17. driving

I don’t drive. I do cycle, though. So do many other people in my life. I bought this book for one of them as a birthday present and restrained myself with great difficulty from reading the whole thing before I wrapped it up.

Active Anglicans may well know Dave Walker from his work for the Church Times. His cycling cartoons are just as funny and well-observed.

100 untimed books

Balance

I have resolved that when I move to Cambridge, as I will at some point as yet undetermined, I shall make my bicycle my primary mode of transportation, rather than my tricycle. I love my trike, but it is impossible to get on a train, and occasionally a pain to lock up, and if I can’t ride a bike in Cambridge, the English Amsterdam, I’ll never do it.

To this end, and also because I felt like it, I took my bike to the park when I got back from Farnborough this morning. I got CTony to raise the saddle to something approaching the correct height, walked the bike down to the park, and spent a happy half-hour riding around in circles.

It’s been very interesting, re-learning how to ride a bike as an adult. It is still new enough that I marvel every time that first kick of the pedals sends me forwards, gracefully, not sideways, violently. That’s what it is, ‘learning to ride a bike’, finding that split second of trust and courage that gets you moving fast enough to take both feet off the floor and find you don’t need to put them down again.

I have been thinking today, though, about signalling. Signalling was what stopped me riding a bike ‘properly’. You know: on the road, to get to places. A cyclist who can’t signal is a menace, and I just couldn’t do it. I could manage to get my left hand off the handlebar, but if I tried to lift my right hand, I just went straight over sideways.

I always thought that this was because I am strongly right-handed, and am generally clumsy and unbalanced. All this is true: I am forever walking into things and dropping stuff. It turns out, however, not to be the reason that I can’t signal.

Because I can signal. If a year on the trike has done one thing for me, it has persuaded my brain that I will not fall off if I take a hand off the handlebars. Because whoever fell off a trike? (Me, as it happens, but only once, and it was a stupid bit of path that I should have got off for, really.) On the trike, it is second nature to steer with one hand, and use the other to grab the water bottle, or scratch my nose, or feel my pocket for the umpteenth time to make sure my keys are really in there – or to signal.

On the bike instead of the trike, I forget that if I signal I will fall off. And so I don’t fall off. Silly, but true, and very difficult to teach. It isn’t about balance at all; it’s about confidence, just like being able to ride the damn thing in the first place.