Week-end: time slows

Creamy-white rose

The good

Attending the Clausura (closing service) for Ely Cursillo #37. While the church wasn’t packed, people-wise, it was absolutely suffused with joy. It is such a privilege to lead this… movement? group? Community.

And now, winding up and winding down. After a very hectic month, this has been a nice peaceful week. I’m slowing down physically, but this feels appropriate rather than frustrating. Things are taking longer, and that’s fine. Walking thirty-five minutes to a routine ten minute appointment is an opportunity to be out in the sunshine; work tasks are taking as long as they take and the next time they happen it won’t be me doing them. But on the other hand, things that have been hanging over me for ages and which I thought were going to take ages have been tidying themselves up with remarkably little effort. We made a list of things to do this long weekend and got ninety per cent of it done on Friday.

And my concentration seems to be improving. It’s just taking a little effort now to settle down to an activity without trying to do three other things at the same time and check my phone every five minutes.

The mixed

The weather is gorgeous, but I am getting so hot.

The difficult and perplexing

I stubbed my toe on a chair at work. It bled a little at the time, but I thought nothing of it. Now I find that I have split the nail a long way down and half of it is flapping around, or would be if I hadn’t stuck a plaster over it. I have acquired some gauze and micropore tape, with which I hope I will be able to rig up something that will allow it to breathe and heal without catching on things. We’ll see.

What’s working

Immersion in water – whether by putting my feet in a plastic box full of cold water to cool them down, or by putting my entire self into a swimming pool.


I finished Seven Ages of Paris. Depressing (and, I can’t resist saying, not enough about the buses; though I don’t think that I had known that they parked them at fifty metre intervals down the Champs-Élysées to frustrate a German aerial troop landing: much good that did anybody) and, I feel, not entirely unbiased. But also entertaining and informative, and All Gall now makes much more sense to me. (I often feel that any study of mid-twentieth century history is a process of gradually getting more and more of Flanders and Swann’s references.)

And this piece on Soul Survivor (it’s mostly not about the recent revelations of horrible stuff, which does not feel like something that I have any standing to talk about), which made me feel very much as if I’d dodged a bullet. I never went to Soul Survivor, though two of my brothers did. I can see exactly how, in my late teens, I’d have been vulnerable to getting peer pressured into having a significant pseudo faith experience. Even at the advanced age of 37 I found I had a lot of Doing Faith Wrong monsters on the loose this week.


Sewed a button back on.


Still the Giro d’Italia. My goodness, that time trial! I think, that if there had to be a dropped chain in there somewhere, this was the most satisfying way for it to work out. But all the same, argh.

Today is Licence to Queer’s Donate Another Day. I have places to be this morning (specifically, church, and not Our Lady of Smolensk) so I got ahead by watching GoldenEye last night. It’s my favourite of the Brosnan Bonds (and Brosnan is my Bond): such fun, and Natalya is great. Anyway, everyone else kicked off at ten today, and Tomorrow Never Dies starts at one, so join in if you like Bond, and chuck a tenner at Unicef.


Yesterday I gutted and scaled and filleted a fish (a sea bream, to be precise) for the first time. I failed to get some of the flesh along the top side, but I think I’d do better with a proper filleting knife. Maybe I’ll get one. Made stock from the head and bones: risotto tomorrow.

Then I put a slice of prosciutto on top, sprinkled it with breadcrumbs, parsley, and parmesan cheese, and cooked it alongside roast courgette, pepper and onion (recipe from The Hairy Dieters). It was extremely tasty.


See above. Also (for I am not on a diet, hairy or otherwise) yellow-stickered Waitrose cream buns. I am getting massively hungry at the moment.


Swimming. Pilates (this happens every week, but usually on a Tuesday, so I’ve forgotten about it by the time I get to this post. This week’s session was yesterday).


Three small deer (one fawn, and presumably two parents) on the path behind our house. Muntjacs, maybe? I’m not very good at deer.

A train in GWR livery at Cambridge station – rather a long way from home, one would have said.

In the garden

I weeded one raised bed and put in three tomato plants. The other one didn’t need so much in the way of weeding; I put runner beans in it. And I found space for five cosmos plants around the garden.

The first rose is blooming. I think this bush is my favourite, aside from its habit of trying to revert to the rootstock; it has a lovely, faintly lemonish, scent.


Time. Focus. Other people’s gardens.


I finally gave in and ordered three frocks from Joanie. One of them looks more like a tablecloth than I’d anticipated; one will do very nicely for the autumn; and one is fabulous and I’m wearing it now. (I don’t think I mind looking like a tablecloth, but the dress in question doesn’t fit. Yet. I think I’m just getting to the end of the phase where taking my usual size and ensuring it has a very full skirt is working. Still, only another month or so to go…)

From plant stalls outside people’s houses: two chilli pepper plants (one cayenne, one Hungarian something or other); three tomato plants (one Garnet, one Roma, one I’ve forgotten); and a honeysuckle.


Well, a filleting knife, now.

Line of the week

From Rosemary Hill’s piece Consulting the Furniture in the last London Review of Books. (It is about time I went back to Kettle’s Yard. Maybe in a couple of weeks when I am on maternity leave…

Kettle’s Yard’s particular kind of austere elegance suits Cambridge and its Puritan, parliamentary history. It could never have happened in Oxford.

This coming week

Bank holiday. A committee meeting. Some family coming to see us. And, I hope, I’ll get the study sorted.

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

Week-end: so you can cycle while you cycle

Swans' nest, with one bird on the nest and the other swimming in the ditch below, dabbling its beak in the water. There's also a mallard drake, possibly also on a nest.

The good

We had a weekend at a spa! I had never done this before, having mentally classified it under ‘not for the likes of us’ and also been nervous about getting it all wrong and exposing myself as a total fraud, but the in-laws suggested it as a nice thing to do before the baby appears and we disappear into a mountain of laundry, and I had to admit they had a point. So we booked into Quy Mill, just outside Cambridge, for one of the few free weekends we have this summer.

Anyhow, the conversation somehow moved from ‘haha, we could cycle there!’ to ‘actually, we could cycle there!’ and our successful excursion to an antenatal class in Littleport demonstrated that taking the Bromptons on the train and cycling to our destination was perfectly practical. (I know this in theory, but it had been a while since I’d put it into practice.) So we decided to cycle there. And then the purchase of a cargo bike happened rather faster than we’d anticipated, and suddenly it made sense for Tony to pick that up on the way. Fortunately it is large enough to hold one folded Brompton, so he was able to cycle to pick up the new bike and then cycle onwards on the new bike carrying the old one. (Yo dawg, I heard you liked cycling, so I put a cycle in your cycle so you can cycle while you cycle…)

This made it possibly the most Cambridge spa trip imaginable, even if we hadn’t then cycled over to Anglesey Abbey the next day.

It was very pleasant. There was extremely nice food; I had a lot of stress massaged out of my back; I also had my toenails painted. I went swimming twice. And we avoided most of the coronation hoohah. (I am what you might call a pragmatic monarchist: I can quite see that you need someone to cut the ribbons and all that, but my patience for the breathless commentary had been wearing very, very thin.)

Other good things this week: the political news was encouraging; the antenatal class was very interesting; the garden is flourishing.

The mixed

I generally enjoy thunderstorms, but not when I’m trying to get somewhere. I spent quite a long time sheltering in the underpass beneath the A14, 300 metres from my destination, but also 300 metres from the last lightning strike.

Also I got lost in Fen Ditton. This is becoming a habit and I could really do without it. I think I’d have beat the thunderstorm had it not been for that extra two kilometres.

The difficult and perplexing

I haven’t quite got the hang of ‘winding down’; or, rather, I’m doing OK at the doing less, but not so well at the feeling OK about it.

What’s working

Being outside. Using the Brompton rather than the (heavy) town bike.


I’m keeping on with Seven Ages of Paris (Alistair Horne). Have reached the twentieth century. No mention of the buses yet but it may yet happen (we have had the taxis of the Marne). Began Towers in the Mist (Elizabeth Goudge) – more appropriate than I’d realised, since the action begins on May day.

Finished Black Gay British Christian Queer (Jarel Robinson-Brown): very good indeed. Also God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety (Joan M. Nuth); Julian of Norwich continues to be the best.

Read Miss Marple’s Final Cases and finally ran out of steam with Agatha Christie with Murder is Easy.


Never Say Never Again was on telly on bank holiday Monday, so I joined in the Licence To Queer watchalong. I think it’s rather underrated, actually, and I much prefer it to the original Thunderball (omits the coercion and a lot of the tedious shark stuff).

I have been watching the Giro d’Italia with Tony. And we managed to turn on the telly at exactly the right moment to hear the new Vivats in I Was Glad (and then to be irritated by the commentators talking over the rest of it and confirm our decision not to watch any more coronation stuff).

Looking at

The Last Supper, a set of sculptures by Silvy Weatherall, at the cathedral. These are abstract busts made from broken crockery stuck together with gold, kintsugi style. While I could see what she was getting at, I failed to get beyond my initial reaction – which was ‘Doctor Who monsters’.


‘Asian-style aromatic pork’ from one of the slow cooker books – OK but not particularly exciting.


Quy Mill did very nicely by us. I was particularly impressed by the slow-cooked lamb and the (remarkably light) sticky toffee pudding. Last night we went to the White Hart in Fulbourn, and I had a Mediterranean vegetable pizza.


Cycling – nothing further than 8km, but quite a few short journeys. (It’s rather galling to have someone on the exact same bike whoosh past you, but I don’t think he was seven months pregnant…) And swimming.


Nesting swans on Ditton Meadows (when I rode past on Friday evening, the one that wasn’t in charge of the nest was blocking half the cycle path; today, it was swimming in the ditch). A wagtail at the hotel this morning. Very vocal blackbirds. The same graffiti on the Chesterton railway bridge that’s been there as long as I can remember.

In the garden

Loads of apple blossom, and bees enjoying it. Plenty of wisteria flowering too. The white rose that always flowers first has five buds; the others are beginning to think about it.


A four-day week. A weekend of mild hedonism.


I have mentioned the cargo bike – not that I shall be riding it for another couple of months. A couple of small fripperies in the shop at Anglesey Abbey.


We’re considering some garden furniture – the main problem being that ‘big enough to eat dinner off’ and ‘small enough to fit sensibly under the pergola’ are incompatible specifications. Some thought required…

Line of the week

From the London Review of Books, here’s Sam Rose on Clive Bell:

it’s hard to feel very sorry for a man who insisted on having it all, got more than his fair share, and spent his life increasingly embittered about the little that had been denied him.

This coming week

Another bank holiday, another antenatal class, some travel that’s become rather more complicated than it needed to be, and, most excitingly, a wedding.

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

The Reader’s Gazetteer: S

Stack of books: Principal Role by Lorna Hill (with a dustjacket with a ballerina in front of a backdrop showing an Alpine village), Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, and The Rose and the Yew Tree by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.

And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)

Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.

A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.

He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…

The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:

“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”

Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.

When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.

(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)

Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.

Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.

… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.

No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).

As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.

While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.

We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:

The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.

(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.

In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:

It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.

In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:

There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.

This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.

The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.

Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia (not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.

Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.

Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.

Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.

Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.

Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:

The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.

If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.

There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.

detail of a relief map showing Ilchester at the top, Yeovil at the bottom, and, in faint red type, 'STANCHESTER' a third of the way up

Books mentioned in this post

The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie

King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell