Week-end: ancestral

Head and front half of large eel made from tie-dye fabric with several pairs of human legs visible beneath

The good and the mixed

Spending time with family (and the friends who might as well be family). We buried Pa’s ashes in the family plot, as he’d always wanted, on the most beautiful April day with the bluebells coming out and a cherry tree in blossom, and had a long late lunch afterwards.

Then there was a theatre trip with the brothers – of which more later.

And it was a good week. But everything felt like a dreadful rush, somehow. (Bolting a meal at Wagamama and dashing to the theatre is fast becoming a tradition for me and my eldest brother…) I didn’t speak to many people for as long as I’d have liked, and I have a nagging sense of having missed opportunities. Part of it, of course, is being tired (partly because it’s a lot of rushing around, partly because I am just tired all the time these days) and therefore not being able to engage as fully as I might otherwise; and part of it is pure practicalities: it’s difficult to talk to people when they’re at the opposite end of the table from you, and of course you can’t talk in the theatre.

The difficult and perplexing

I could really have done without skinning my knees again. I suppose there’s a certain symmetry in bookending my week with sticking plasters.

What’s working

Naps. Naps continue to improve everything.


I finished Wildfire at Midnight. Hmm. Personally I’d have murdered some other characters, but there we go. It’s a very compelling read. Then I finished Bad to the Bone. This was excellent: a five-minutes-into-the-future (at least, at the time of publication), quasi-surreal account by an anonymous narrator of a doping(ish) scandal in the professional cycling peloton. The prose was excellent and, while the mechanics were far-fetched, the racing felt incredibly real. I feel that it could have tried to answer a few more questions, though.

Yesterday I had a ‘lounge in bed’ sort of a day, and read a lot of Agatha Christie: A Murder is Announced (very good, but I remembered too many of the twists from last time for it to be surprising), Ordeal by Innocence (not one of her best, and very of-its-time in the way it thinks about adoption), and Appointment with Death (OK, but not brilliant).


Some things that have been waiting for a very long time – Tony’s dressing gown, a fancy T-shirt, the collar of my Apollo blueprint dress.


Sweeney Todd – subtitled The Victorian Melodrama, and sub-subtitled NOT the musical by Stephen Sondheim (Opera della Luna). This took the script of the original 1847 production and added – as seems to have been consistent with period practice – background music from a small orchestra. The music came from various (higher-brow) composers of the era, including my great-great-great-grandfather Julius Benedict. Hence our going to see it: I may never hear Benedict’s music performed live by professionals again. Of course, the problem with its being so very obscure is that I couldn’t distinguish it from that of the other composers (though I did recognise Home Sweet Home – Bishop – and When Other Lips – Balfe). But anyway, it all sounded great, and the orchestra also did sterling service making the sound effects.

Quite apart from family pride, it was extremely enjoyable as a piece of theatre – a proper old-fashioned hiss-the-villain fun, with a small and talented company playing a very large cast. The theatre (Wilton’s Music Hall, in the East End) is a fantastic building.

And today Tony and I went to watch the eel parade, which is one of those delightfully specific local celebrations. The eel was constructed along the lines of Chinese New Year dragons, and followed by: representatives of the Royal British Legion; a samba band; a couple of dance schools; and Brownies/Guides/Rainbows. And one enterprising youngster had a smaller papier maché eel. Very much like Remembrance Day, except for all the ways in which it wasn’t.

Looking at

St Swithun’s, Martyr Worthy, which is a delightful little church with a Norman door. According to the lay reader who took the ceremony for us, it’s still regularly used and there is a decent variety of services. There’s a monument to someone from Sir John Moore’s company – Pa was always interested in the retreat from Coruña and I wonder if that was where that started.

I was interested to see that the visitors’ book was chock full of people walking St James’ Way, which seems to have really taken off since I did it in 2015. (For starters, I don’t think the church was open then, or I’d have looked in; these days it has a sello.)


Not much this week, as I’ve mostly been out, but I did rösti with purple sprouting broccoli and fried eggs yesterday. Pretty good.


Scampi and chips in Winchester; ramen with vegetable gyoza at Wagamama; Scotch egg from the market today.


A bush with blue flowers and loads of bees. From the train, several deer. In a charity shop in Sutton, several James Bond tie-in model cars.

In the garden

I did quite a lot this afternoon: trimmed a couple of bushes, sowed sweet pea and nasturtium seeds, watered the pear trees, pulled up some weeds. I also repotted the agave and aloe veras. Our predecessors’ compost bin has obligingly produced a load of compost (I’m not sure I looked into it at all last year). The wisteria is looking likely to produce more flowers than we’ve ever had here; the lily-of-the-valley is beginning to flower, and I think the peony may not be dead after all.


Sunshine. Small towns. The way you don’t need to explain family to family.


Two parcels today: a new bra and Run Away Home.


I was rather taken by a lampshade with a print of eels. I shall continue to think about it. It would certainly be an improvement on the ribbon-and-plastic-bead monstrosity that’s currently in my study.

Line of the week

There were several candidates from Bad to the Bone.

Their nerves are running on ninety seven per cent adrenalin, their fuses so short that if they were off their bikes and a leaf fell on their head they’d beat it to a pulp; and then somewhere inside someone’s head the little glass capsule shatters, the acid snaps the spring, muscles convulse, tyres lash tarmac and they’re on their own, elbows overlapping, bikes barrelling through forty five degrees beneath them as they screw them left and right, arms heaving, feet whipping, riding inside the arc of each other’s elbows, trying to get down the inside, through the gap that opens and closes three times a second, round the outside of a guy who’s going nearly as much across the road as along it because he’s got his head down between his knees because that way he can concentrate exclusively on pulling the bars off his machine without distraction.

This coming week

Bank holiday. Antenatal class. Midwife appointment. And we are going to a spa.

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

December Reflections 20: best book of 2020

Trumpet - Jackie Kay
Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin
How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff
Between The Woods And The Water - Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Gospel Of Eve - Rachel Mann i Madam, Will You Talk? - Mary Stewart
The Real World - Kathleen Jowitt
My Year In Small Drawings - Matilda Tristram

I’ve read a lot this year, and taken a lot of pleasure in reading. I’ve enjoyed many books. Even after excluding rereads, I had a lot left to choose from, and I think I’d present this photo more as a representative sample than any sort of top picks.

These aren’t in any particular order, though the top three were all begun and finished before the pandemic really hit the UK. I have a particularly vivid memory of standing on the platform on Cambridge station some time in February, overhearing two men discussing what was going on in China, before I boarded my train and went back to Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel). It’s one of the least depressing post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read, and I was glad to have read it going in: it made the first national lockdown seem tame by comparison.

Trumpet (Jackie Kay) follows the family and friends of a trans man who’s outed after his death: a really good book with a convincing (and often infuriating) array of voices.

Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin) gets points for having not one but two scenes including a proper Paris bus; but it also made me think a lot about relationships, and about what impossible expectations people can place on each other.

Had someone warned me that The Way I Live Now (Meg Rosoff) takes place in World War Three, I would probably not have picked it up. It made for a heavy afternoon, given the circumstances. But it’s so good that I can’t regret it: it has the eccentric, matter-of-fact quality of I Capture The Castle followed up with the devastation of the war narrative.

I read a lot of travel writing early on in lockdown, particularly older work, finding it refreshing to move in time as well as in space. Patrick Leigh Fermor gets the slot here, for the lovely luminous character of his writing.

I was in three book groups/readalongs at one point. One folded after the first book, and I’ve got behind on reading for both of the other two, but it was an absolute joy to read Madam, Will You Talk? (Mary Stewart) with perceptive and witty people on the internet. I even bought a dress because of it.

I’m generally behind everyone else in getting round to reading new releases, and several books that I thought might have been published this year actually date back to 2018 or 2019. But 2020 books that I enjoyed in 2020 included the first two of the Will Darling Adventures (K J Charles) and, particularly, The Gospel of Eve (Rachel Mann), which was a dark, twisty, theological college romp.

I only published one book this year, so obviously The Real World must be simultaneously my best and my worst book of 2020. Actually I think it’s probably the best book I’ve ever written.

Technically a book, although not one to be read as such: My Year in Small Drawings (Matilda Tristram). I’ve had enormous fun with this. There’s something very liberating about allowing yourself to not be very good at something.

Not pictured, because not a book, are any of the issues of hidden europe that I’ve read this year. Not pictured, because I haven’t finished it, is Women and Angels, a Virago anthology of women’s spirituality. Not pictured, because I never read it all in one go, is any of the poetry. Not pictured are the books I bought but haven’t yet got around to. My reading brain has been more or less shot recently; I’ve mostly been watching the skiing instead. Nor have I been doing much writing, apart from this blogging, obviously. I hope to catch up with all of this over the Christmas break and in 2021.