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: back on the round world

Stack of books topped with a model bus and two rubber stamps

The good

Two more days of Discworld. And a really useful meeting with my Cursillo secretariat this morning.

Some more rain: the water butt is now full again. Also, my legs are feeling an awful lot better. The left knee’s still a bit dodgy, but the pain in the calves is gone. Hurrah.

The mixed

I seem to have picked up some sort of con crud. But every lateral flow test so far says it isn’t Covid, so that’s something.

The difficult and perplexing

Tuesday and Wednesday were still Too Hot. I’m grateful for the coolth we have at the moment, but I don’t like wishing the year away.

What’s working

Plimsolls. Everything else leaves my feet feeling really weird.

Reading

I picked up Broken Ground (Val McDermid) in a charity shop on Tuesday, and then spent the afternoon reading it. It’s the one with the miners’ strike. I’ve read it before. I thought I might have done. Still worth a reread, and I’m hoping that it’s not going to end up being as prescient as it feels. Then I moved onto Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness (Dorothy L. Sayers). Also rereads, though I don’t turn to them nearly so often as I do some of the other Wimsey books. That’s because I’ve only just got hold of my own copy of Whose Body? (thank you, Nicky!) and Clouds of Witness isn’t really terribly good. I was rather pleased to have been able to read the whole of the French bit in Clouds of Witness without really thinking about it, and certainly without having to refer to the translation. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case last time.

Writing

More on this space opera thing. It’s not going to get done inside the word limit, but I’ll worry about that when I’ve got everything in there that needs to go in there. More on Households’ Rancour. And a rather overdue review of The God Painter.

Listening to

Really interesting talks on bees and why the BBC America The Watch didn’t work. And the ridiculously wide-ranging open mic night that is Toast and Jam. All at DiscworldCon.

Making

Slow progress on the mystery patchwork.

Eating

The last Friday of every month is Foodie Friday at Ely market. We managed to be there for the first time. I had spinach and cheese gozleme followed by a pumpkin dessert with tahini and walnut. This was my first time trying gozleme, and I’m a fan. Next time we might try to arrive earlier, though.

Moving

More hotel swimming. I am pretty sure this is what sorted out the calf pains.

Singing

I’ve had dreadful impostor syndrome around singing these last few months. Lockdown didn’t help, and then I overreached myself badly post-Covid and knocked my confidence. But I sang the Hippopotamus Song at Toast and Jam on Sunday night at the Discworld Convention, and it was fine.

Noticing

A hare lolloping across a stubble field in the morning mist.

In the garden

We came back to find greengages and tomatoes going great guns, and the first pears just about ready.

Appreciating

Two days off work after the con to get my breath back and to get things together for today’s meeting.

Acquisitions

Apart from the Val McDermid, I picked up Without My Cloak (Kate O’Brien) and Dust Tracks on the Road (Zora Neale Hurston) – there’s just something about a green Virago spine – One Pair of Feet (Monica Dickens), about which I keep hearing good things, Seven Ages of Paris (Alistair Horne) – doesn’t appear to say anything about open rear-platformed buses, clearly the most important age of Paris, but one can’t have everything – and Go Spy The Land: being the adventures of I. K. 8 of the British Secret Service (Capt. G. A. Hill), published 1932, with a lovely map of Russia on the endpapers, and which I will have to read with the part of my brain that reads John Buchan. I will be interested to see if Arthur Ransome makes an appearance. I also got two rubber stamps and a stripy vest. With grateful thanks to the charity shops of Ely.

Hankering

Somebody on the DWCon Facebook group is making Society of Chicken Polishers fabric patches. I want one. I’m going to get one when they restock.

Line of the week

And if the pool wishes, let it shiver to the blur of many wings, old swimmers from old places.

River Roads, Carl Sandburg

Saturday snippet

This is from the space opera thing:

I shaved myself and went in for decontamination, stood under the cold pink lights and scrubbed my body under the fierce pulse of the liquid until I wanted to scream. The fingers that had touched the contamination had to be held in a current that burned and licked at my skin like flames. It’s never what you might call a pleasant experience, but it’s usually satisfying, in its own strange way. This time it felt as if I was trying to tear my mind from my body.

This coming week

A short working week, with the bank holiday on Monday and a day off on Friday. Saturday is Ultreya GB (a national Cursillo gathering) hosted by London and Southwark dioceses, and I’m really looking forward to crossing the Millennium Bridge with other rainbow people. I also want to catch up with the Vuelta a España and get that patchwork project closer to done.

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

The God Painter (Jessica Pegis)

Paperback copy of 'The God Painter' by Jessica Pegis

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite like this before. Yet it felt very familiar, as if, even if I hadn’t read something like it in the past, I ought to have done.

The God Painter opens with an unexpected but remarkably ordered evacuation of the inhabitants of Earth – all the people, all the pets – and their arrival on a new planet where they are welcomed by seven strange beings. The two principal characters are something of an odd couple: a lesbian painter who immediately recreates the Torre dei Lamberti to make her new house, and a grieving widower with mixed feelings about his role as Vatican consultant.

And yes, the Vatican still exists. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is taken care of, which leaves the population to carry on with whatever it was doing before: for example, engaging in theological debate about the human body and what it ought and ought not to do. Which is a debate that has got slightly more complicated with the encounter with their new hosts, whose bodies are not very much like human bodies. And the different ways that the various participants engage with the new evidence felt all too plausible. The backdrop might have changed, but human nature hasn’t.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the worldbuilding, or by the necessity for a whole new planet in which to conduct the experiment, but that’s a nitpick. The lush otherworldliness of it might be its own excuse. As a whole, the book worked. I didn’t see the last twist coming at all, though now I know it seems obvious.

I wasn’t quite sure how neatly it was going to fit into my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations, and now that I’ve finished it I can’t quite explain how it does, but you’ll just have to trust me.

The God Painter is a strange and lovely book, with a bittersweet ending. Recommended for those who enjoy a fantastical element in their religious politics and a metaphysical edge to their sci-fi.

Week-end: pale green, tastes faintly of liquorice

Glass jug of water containing springs of mint and round and long seeds

The good

I had some news about a short story that’s coming up for publication next year. (More news on that in September or October.) That was a welcome interruption to the you never do ANYTHING, you are a failure as a writer chorus. And I learned the theme for the next-but-one anthology, and over the next couple of hours an entire plot and some basic worldbuilding unspooled itself in my head. In the words of Billy Joel, that hasn’t happened in the longest time.

My premium bonds came up. Well, one of them did. Twenty-five quid; thank you, ERNIE.

The mixed

The trains have been all over the place this week. There have been delays and cancellations because of overhead wire failures and points failures and speed restrictions and warm weather, and every day I’ve travelled by train this week there has been some kind of disruption.

However, every train I’ve ended up on has had a seat for me and working air conditioning. This is peak ‘mustn’t grumble’, but still, mustn’t grumble.

The difficult and perplexing

I really don’t like the heat. And seeing everything shrivelled up and yellow is depressing. Ugh. Please could governments and industry take some action on climate change, rather than leaving it all to overworked and guilt-ridden individuals?

My feet continue to discover new and frustrating ways to be painful. Most of this week it’s been the ball of my right foot, as if I’d stood on a drawing pin (I’m sure I haven’t); that’s now eased, but I think I’ve been compensating elsewhere, because now my left knee is very grumbly, particularly when I go up and down stairs.

Reading

If you’re going to be stuck on a train you will do well to have a book with you. For me, Monday’s shenanigans (sitting outside Stevenage for a good hour) provided an opportunity to return to Neither Present Time (Caren J. Werlinger), which I’d started a while ago but abandoned when it turned out I wasn’t in the mood for being shown not told an emotionally abusive relationship. It was actually very readable once I got past the stuck point, and was much better structured than the only other book I’ve read by this author.

I also read European Stories, a freebie from that time I went to the London Book Fair. It’s a collection of five short stories by previous winners of the European Union Prize for Literature, published with an English translation alongside the original text. I had a brief go at reading the original of the one in German, but I wasn’t up to that. I wouldn’t quite say that it filled me with Remourner sadness, because a lot of it was dealing with themes like racism and xenophobia that we know are a problem inside the EU just as much as they are out of it, but there’s definitely a sense of regret about being on the outside of a creative, collaborative project.

And I revisited some stories I wrote about a decade ago. I can in fact write fascinating amoral villains and witty narrators and plot. If I recall correctly, the secret there was not giving a damn what anybody else thought.

Writing

A thousand words yesterday on the new story mentioned at the top of this post, and today a thousand words on the Romeo and Juliet thing. (Current working title: Your Households’ Rancour.)

Making

Still working on the secret patchwork project…

Watching

… the Commonwealth Games (yes, I know they’re over. BBC iPlayer is working hard).

Eating

A very few tiny wild strawberries, straight off the plant.

Looking at

The Breaking the News exhibition at the British Library. This was arranged by theme rather than chronologically, so footage of the aftermath of the Grenfell fire appeared next to a newspaper report on the Tay Bridge disaster, which in turn was next to a report on the Great Fire of London. And so on across Scandal, Celebrity, War, Fake News, etc.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware that we live in history (and not at the very end of it, either), that today’s news is tomorrow’s history just as today’s history is yesterday’s news. Even so, there seemed to be a lot of history in this exhibition that I remember happening at the time, that time being the last five years or so. I suppose it’s compensation for not remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall. And there has been a lot of history going on.

Drinking

A recommendation from a colleague: water chilled with mint (or cucumber, but we have mint), coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and cumin seeds. It’s pale green, tastes faintly of liquorice, and really does have a cooling effect. More so than plain water? I don’t know. It’s certainly more interesting. I recommend pouring it through a tea strainer.

Other ways of staying cool, incidentally: shutting doors and windows and curtains before the inside gets as hot as the outside; taping silver foil over the window that doesn’t have a curtain; putting feet in a basin of cold water; a wet towel around the back of the neck.

Moving

I went swimming today for the first time… since the pandemic? It might well be. It was certainly my first time at our local swimming pool. It’s not the same as a rainy Tuesday morning at Jesus Green Lido, but it was extremely pleasant on a day such as today.

Acquisitions

A different colleague has been clearing out some Body Shop stock, and I have relieved her of some perfumes: White Musk L’Eau, White Musk Flora, and Indian Jasmine. The latter is pretty powerful and indeed very jasminey. I haven’t tried the others yet.

Line of the week

From Out of the Woods by Luke Turner, which I’ve been reading a chapter per week except for when I haven’t been at home on Sundays, and which is therefore taking a while:

The forest and newspaper archives tell of riots, unlicensed preaching, political agitation, robbery, drunkenness, illegal gherkin sellers, poaching, blinding songbirds to use as decoys to attract and then cage more, gambling, prog-rock concerts, female boxing, children trampled by a donkey derby gone out of control, dogging, wiccan rituals, biker meets, an unnatural act with a sheep near Debden, poaching, crazed Aunt Sallies, perverts on bicycles, teenage catapulters of swans, the first motocross race.

This coming week

People! Lots of people! And some fandom, which is made of people.

I’d like it to be less hot, please. Maybe we could have some rain.

I want to keep riding this story wave. And I also want to get the patchwork to a state where I can start quilting it this weekend (in among the fandom and the people, yes).

Week-end: Pride and preliminaries

Bouquet of flowers in shades of pink, blue, mauve, and pale green, against a red wall

I’ve been wanting to post more on this blog, and also wanting to record more of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve enjoyed. So this is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of weekly… check-ins? reports? I like neither of those terms. But I know what I want to do, even if I can’t describe it. So I’m just going to start doing it. Expect varying length, disparate headings (stolen from various people across the internet), and weeks where nothing happens at all.

The good

Ely Pride. This started last night with a talk at the cathedral from Rev Dr Charlie Bell. I am not sure that I can convey how very good it is to have one’s church say in so many words that LGBT+ people are welcome, so you’ll just have to take it on trust. The main event was today, and it was joyous.

Gorgeous flowers from my in-laws, extending my birthday a little further.

The mixed

Sad to see a great colleague go, but her leaving do was brilliant. A couple of ex-colleagues turned up, too: good to see them again.

The difficult and perplexing

A load of internalised biphobia (this has been going on for a while, and nearly stopped me going to Pride today; I’m glad it didn’t succeed). And a stubbed toe. And an hour of (unfounded) family panic.

Noticing

Dragonflies whizzing around the green spaces. Sunflowers in the allotments (you can see the Royston ones from the train). Starlings.

Reading

Wanderlust: a history of walking, Rebecca Solnit. This was one of the two books I got from the Book Bus. (I am, this year, a model of restraint.) I’m enjoying this: Solnit talks about walking as a political act as much as anything else, and she talks about all sorts of walking. Some things I did know already and a lot that I didn’t.

Rough Music, Patrick Gale. My mother’s been recommending this author to me for ages, largely on account of the Isle of Wight connection, but I finally got around to reading him in this book from the sale at Ely library, and it’s mostly set in Cornwall. Very readable; one of those dual timeline narratives. A potential entry for The Reader’s Gazetteer – B for Barrowcester. Reading the notes at the end, it’s based on Winchester. I didn’t pick that up at all despite having been born in Winchester, but then I’m usually there to look at buses.

Husband Material, Alexis Hall. Well, this was where my Tuesday evening went. I lounged on the sofa, chuckling away. Delightful. It felt a little strange, because it felt very, very familiar. Hardly surprising: when I was writing The Real World I spent quite a lot of time wondering if after all Richard Curtis hadn’t said it all better in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Husband Material is very much riffing on that seminal romcom. Anyway, it is refreshing to see something else that really digs into the question of marriage. Even if it did get me thinking that it is as well that Issues in Human Sexuality has nothing to say about lemon sorbet. (There’s one other person in the world who’ll find that funny. Oh well.)

Making

Patchwork. Secret project.

Cooking

Pickled plums. And an improvised sort of pie made of plums and very old filo pastry from the freezer. The rest of the plums got frozen, though I should probably go and see what else I can harvest before the wasps get it.

Writing

A post for the Ely Cursillo site.

Looking at

Summer Open Exhibition at Babylon Arts. This was fascinating for the sheer range of artists and styles on show, and my reactions to them. I like bright textiles but not bright acrylics. I like moody pastels of Fenland skies. I dislike the self-consciously quirky except where it was made of steel. I am fascinated by the intricate. I am predisposed to like linocuts. It takes a lot to impress me with a photograph. I did know that @smolrobots is based somewhere in the vicinity, but I’d forgotten. And so on. Eavesdropping on other people’s reactions was also fun.

Listening to

I’ve been to Evensong three times this week (another of those things that I could do far more often than in fact I ever do). There’s been a visiting choir, and they really got into their stride today. Jackson in G (used to sing it at Guildford, but haven’t done it for years) and then something called Song to bring us home by Tamsin Jones.

Drinking

Sidecars. Or, as they somehow ended up getting called, Sidehorses. Don’t ask, or, at least, don’t ask me. I also had a strawberry slushie today, the first in a very, very long time.

Line of the week

This is from the Rebecca Solnit:

Imagine it doing seventy on the interstate, passing mesas and crumbling adobes and cattle and maybe some billboards for fake Indian trading posts, Dairy Queens and cheap motels, an eight-cylinder Sistine Chapel turned inside out and speeding toward a stark horizon under changing skies.

This coming week

More patchwork more patchwork more patchwork.

The broccoli problem (an update to yesterday’s post)

close-up of a romanesco cauliflower
This is not broccoli. I do not have a photograph of broccoli. Although apparently in the 1950s ‘broccoli’ was the name used for cauliflower.

My library fine was 25p.

And my friend Lesley found broccoli in Maria Rundell’s New System of Domestic Cookery, 1819. According to the delightfully cranky food writer Jane Grigson, it was introduced by a seed merchant in the 18th century, with sales bolstered with leaflets on how best to prepare this exotic and delicious vegetable. It would probably show up at show-offy dinner parties, not (as in the book I was reading) as a dull duty vegetable for the children to force down.

So no, it would not be impossible for the characters in the book to eat broccoli. It would, however, be highly unlikely for them to be wasting it on nursery tea, particularly if the ungrateful little brat doesn’t even like it.

And this is why the Tiffany problem is still a problem. The author might very well be correct, but that’s small consolation if the reader has already been hurled out of the book (and sent their friends off down research rabbit holes). Don’t get me wrong: I still think it can be made to work. I just think it takes work. You’d better start off having your Tiffany addressed as Theophania a couple of times before you use the diminutive. Have her born at Epiphany. Then work out how to explain the connection without bringing your whole plot to a stop for a tedious infodump. It ought to be possible. I can’t say that I’m inclined to try.

Which is to say that I’d have been charmed by the appearance of broccoli at a Regency dinner party, particularly if it had been accompanied by some one-upping commentary on how very talented and superior one’s gardeners were, might I help you to a little macaroni, my dear? I just can’t swallow it (ha!) as a way for the cute moppets to get their greens. Other brassicas are available.

But that’s me. What I’ve really learned here is that this author’s historical stories don’t work for me: they’re not interested in the same things as me. A pity, because I’ve enjoyed their contemporaries, but there we go. I shall have to write snobby broccoli stories myself. Or just cook some.

In fact, says Lesley,

Eliza Acton says that it is boiled, if the heads are large served like cauliflower; the stems of branching broccoli peeled and the vegetable tied in bunches, dressed & served like asparagus on toast. Hardly nursery food!

That sounds rather good.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: V

Red-bound hardback copy of 'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte in two volumes, on an inlaid table

This isn’t quite the oldest work I’ve referred to in this series: The Annals of the Parish has thirty-two years on it. Villette the book was published in 1853; Villette the city has the sense of a long history. ‘The great capital of the great kingdom of Labassecour,’ it’s famously based on Brussels, and Charlotte Brontë’s experiences as a teacher there. At the time of publication, this was only twenty-three years on from the revolution that established Belgium as a nation. This seems to have happened, if rather longer ago, and not in quite the same way, in Villette too:

In past days there had been, said history, an awful crisis in the fate of Labassecour, involving I know not what peril to the rights and liberties of her gallant citizens. Rumours of wars there had been, if not wars themselves; a kind of struggling in the streets – a bustle – a running to and fro, some rearing of barricades, some burgher-rioting, some calling out of troops, much interchange of brickbats, and even a little of shot. Tradition held that patriots had fallen: in the old Basse-Ville was shown an enclosure, solemnly built and set apart, holding, it was said, the sacred bones of martyrs.

Labassecour seems to have been existing uneventfully – dare one say, dully? – for rather longer than Belgium had. All the same, there’s plenty going on beyond the walls of the school where Brontë’s heroine Lucy Snowe teaches. For example:

a concert… a grand affair to be held in the large sall, or hall, of the principal musical society. The most advanced of the pupils of the Conservatoire were to perform: it was to be followed by a lottery “au benefice des pauvre;” and to crown all, the King, Queen and Prince of Labassecour were to be present.

And the place itself seems impressive enough. On her arrival, Lucy passes:

a magnificent street and square, with the grandest houses round, and amidst them the huge outline of more than one over-bearing pile; which might be palace or church…

Unlike Brussels, it seems to be entirely French-speaking: Lucy Snowe has only one new language to learn, and never encounters the ‘should I in fact be attempting Dutch?’ uncertainty that I usually feel in the historically Dutch-speaking, more recently French-speaking, officially bilingual, capital.

There’s a lot of French in Villette, so much so that even this copy, printed in 1900, includes an apologetic appendix with all the translations. It’s effective, though: we never, ever, forget that we’re in a foreign country. Making it a language that we might be expected to know, or at least to be able to learn if we chose, makes it a country that we could plausibly visit. (Although even a little French reveals Villette to be ‘a little town’, and a little more makes Labassecour ‘the farmyard’. Which undermines things rather.)

And religion, my goodness. We are left in no danger of forgetting that Labassecour is a Roman Catholic country, and differences in religion are a major driver of the action in the second half of the book. Nor are we in danger of forgetting that this is something foreign to Lucy Snowe. I often found it uncomfortable reading, and I’m not even Catholic.

Which is all very well, but how do you get there? On impulse, from London. Lucy learns from a waiter that she can take a ship to the Continent landing at Boue-Marine, and boards one a few hours later. Landing in ‘the foreign seaport town’, she spends the rest of the night at a hotel, and then travels forty miles by road to Villette:

Somewhat bare, flat and treeless was the route along which our journey lay; and slimy canals crept, like half-torpid green snakes, beside the road; and formal pollard willows edged level fields, tilled like kitchen-garden beds.

Making allowances for Lucy’s pessimistic worldview, that’s a landscape I can recognise – from the Low Countries through which I was travelling last weekend, as much as from the Fens outside my back door.

And then she arrives in the dark, loses her trunk, and gets very lost: very easy to do in a new town, even if, pre-railways, she doesn’t share my propensity for exiting the wrong side of a station. Which has been one of the interesting things about reading this particular book. But I shouldn’t be surprised if the Eurostar stops in Villette these days.

Books mentioned in this post

Villette, Charlotte Brontë

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Daily Decoration: Alice

A textile Christmas tree decoration representing Lewis Carroll's Alice

Alice came, appropriately enough, from the British Library. So did quite a few of the permanent inhabitants of Wonderland. I picked them up week by week: the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, the flamingo, the Knave of Hearts…

I looked at her just now and the part of my brain that’s always quoting something said, ‘Very Tenniel.’ I first came across Alice in Ballet Shoes, in the excruciatingly embarrassing sequence where Pauline gets the part instead of a friend who’s really better qualified and probably needs the money more, and then gets a severe case of swelled head… I didn’t read Alice in Wonderland until a few years later.

Actually, I’m not sure that this Alice is very Tenniel; she seems rather calm and unruffled, as if she’s never fallen down a rabbithole in her life. I’m very fond of book!Alice, largely because of how logical and observant she is, and the way she approaches confusing and frightening situations: wanders around and asks questions. And occasionally cries. It’s as good a philosophy as any.

In This Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger

I read this in Truro, where we were staying above a pub. I started it in bed, and finished it in the beer garden, with the gentle sound of a little river running past, and the cathedral towering up above the trees, just the other side.

And I was thinking what a pity it is that Susan Howatch, who when she was writing wrote about unconventional clergy relationships like nobody else, never got round to the Bensons.

There are a few plausible reasons why not, of course. Firstly, I’m not sure that anybody would believe in the Bensons if they appeared in a novel. They’re really quite incredible in real life. (Edward White Benson was the first Bishop of Truro – this was why they were on my mind – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to his wife when she was twelve. After his death she set up home with the daughter of a different Archbishop of Canterbury. All the children were as queer as their mother, in every sense. No need to bolt invented polyamory onto the facts here. But even Susan Howatch might not have got away with the Bensons.) Secondly, she writes very heterosexual books. So she was probably never going to take on the Bensons.

Anyway, I was in the mood for something that took a queer, religious, character, that took both the queerness and the religion seriously, and was prepared to delve deep into the psyche of that character.

In This Small Spot hit that, er, spot about eighty per cent of the time.

This isn’t anything like a Howatch. It doesn’t have the snobbery, the psychics, or the daddy issues. And it isn’t so tediously straight. It does have the ‘can’t do anything, got to finish this book’ thing that Howatch manages to do over and over again; which is why I had to finish it in a pub beer garden before we could see any more of Truro. And it was almost but not quite exactly what I wanted.

“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”

Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

I don’t think I’d argue with anything in that blurb. I bought the book on the strength of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be getting its own post if I hadn’t enjoyed it. The calm rhythm of the religious life, the complex relationships between the novices, the developing tension between Sister Michele and another nun, made for an absorbing read. It wasn’t perfect, though, and there were a couple of things that left me wanting to argue.

Firstly, the pacing was a bit off, or the plot. An overuse of ‘Later, Mickey would…’ built up a suspense that was never quite delivered on. Things developed sequentially, one event leading to another, and tending to evolve from characters’ desires and personalities. This suited the setting, but there sometimes seemed to be a reluctance to commit at key points. I said above that I was looking for something that would delve deeply into a character’s psyche. I think that often it didn’t delve deeply enough.

At one point Mickey reflects that the enclosed nature of the abbey makes trivial events take on an inflated importance. Actually, I found the opposite to be true: there would have been space to take much more time to explore the personality clashes and emerging trauma that grew from and drove events.

And then it takes an unexpected turn into melodrama.

Major spoilers follow the picture of Truro cathedral.

A pointy Victorian Gothic cathedral in grey stone, shot from below.

Mickey sustains serious injuries rescuing her love interest from a fire, a combination of events which results in both of them asking to be released from their vows. Mickey returns to medical life. Having both taken time to reflect, the two of them set up house together.

And very shortly afterwards Mickey dies.

Yeah.

In fairness, it didn’t strike me as a stereotypical ‘bury your gays’. There was too much of a sense of the bigger picture for that. The happy ending had already been earned and obtained; in fact, I’d have been perfectly contented had the book ended just a few chapters earlier. What we got, however, was an ambitious ending, and one that I don’t think the author managed to pull off. She didn’t quite earn Anselma/Lauren’s revelation that ‘The tragedy would have been never to have known her at all’. It might have worked, given some more space; as it was, it felt glib.

It was intensely readable, however, and I’ll be buying the sequel. I want to know more.

SOLD BY NOBODY: an unintentional affirmation from a tiny book

Two tiny books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Church Seasons in Verse by Christina Rossetti, with a penny for scale

In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)

Two of the tiny books were by the Brontë children. There was an issue of the Blackwoods Young Men’s Magazine by Charlotte and Branwell. And there was The Search After Happiness by Charlotte, with the following magnificent title page:

THE SEARCH AFTER HAPINESS

A TALE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

PRINTED BY HERSELF

AND SOLD BY

NOBODY

Now, that is an attitude I aspire to. Never mind fretting about taking one’s books off Amazon; this is SOLD BY NOBODY and proud of it.

Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.

Thank you, tiny book, for a new perspective.