Daily Decoration: Advent candle

A red candle marked with gold figures up to 24. It has burned down as far as the figure 19. In the foreground, a cardboard angel holds a banner saying FEAR NOT.

‘Ah,’ said Tony, ‘it’s the candle.’

‘Mm?’

‘Something in my brain said, ah, that’s Christmas. It’s the smell of the candle.’

He has a point. For those of us who spent a lot of time in churches in our childhood, candles smell of Christmas all by themselves; there’s no need to add pine or cinnamon and put it in a fancy jar. Although I’m not sure how he hasn’t noticed it before, because, as you see, I’ve been burning this one all through Advent. And in fact it isn’t Christmas yet.

We buy each other chocolate Advent calendars, but I get the candle for myself. I have a fairly well-defined set of preferences. Not white – which usually, as this year, means red. Not conical (I made that mistake one year and regretted it as the time to burn through each number increased daily). Not too hideous. This one’s pretty good, though it could have done with some blank space at the bottom. As things stand, I’m going to have to take it out of its bottle before I get down to 24 and put it in some sand or something. I’d rather not risk cracking the glass.

The bottle is something of a hero of antiquity. It dates from my student years – 2006, to be precise. It says so on the side, courtesy of an Exeter University Methodist and Anglican Society glass painting evening. 2006 was the year I graduated. This year’s Freshers were born the year that I was a Fresher.

This September we went down to the West Country: took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up again on a selection of trains and buses. Excellent fun (I particularly recommend taking the open-topped bus around Land’s End). We stopped off at Exeter and went to Evensong at the university chapel, eighteen years (give or take) after we first met there. A lot has changed – the choir, for a start, is a lot more competent and a lot tidier than we ever were; the room where I painted that bottle has been taken out of use, except for storage – but I had a very strong sense that the important things were still the same.

The glorious ceiling. The high clear windows. Radcliffe responses and Greater love hath no man.

Or, perhaps, the same but more so. The singing better, the choir robed, the new scholars inducted with a formal blessing. The implicit inclusion of queer Anglicans made explicit.

A sense of a beginning.

Daily Decoration: St Etheldreda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exeter Novel Prize

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It’s always good to have an excuse to go to Exeter – to stay with family, to catch up with friends, to see what’s changed since I was a student, and to take this shot of the west front of the cathedral, which was something that apparently I never managed to do in the three years I lived in the city.

And it was very good to attend the awards ceremony for the Exeter Novel Prize, and to read out the first page of A Spoke In The Wheel. As always, I was struck by how happy everybody – shortlisted authors, guests, judges, and audience – was to be there. We were all genuinely pleased to have got on the shortlist, and pleased for the overall winner, Rebecca Kelly, who unfortunately wasn’t able to be present to collect her trophy.

After that, of course, there was the gentle joy of a train journey back through the lush green contours of the West Country, with the setting sun striking the landscape in front of me and turning everything gold. I spent most of it staring out of the window.

I’m calling that ‘research’ for the next Stancester book’.

On the Exeter Novel Prize shortlist

Exeter from Quay bridge cropped

Exeter is one of my favourite cities. It’s where I went to university; it’s where a lot of my friends still live; it’s a lovely place to go back to.

And – as I’ve been fortunate enough to be reminded this year – it’s always nice to be on the shortlist for a literary prize.

So I’m doubly pleased to have had A Spoke In The Wheel shortlisted for the 2018 Exeter Novel Prize. I’m very much looking forward to going down to Exeter for the awards ceremony. It’s a good excuse to revisit old haunts, catch up with some people I haven’t seen for ages, and, I’m sure, meet some new ones.

Incidentally, the price of the paperback edition of A Spoke In The Wheel at Amazon.co.uk continues to drop. At the time of posting it’s down at £4.55. I’ve no idea how long that will last…