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.

Engaging with the tradition

DSCF8273

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

IMG_20180412_165644_410

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.