A Grand Tour

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If we’re talking cycling (and we probably are, aren’t we?) a Grand Tour is one of the three big ones: the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta a España, or, of course, the Tour de France. Ben, the – hero? anti-hero? narrator, anyway – of A Spoke in the Wheel, never got quite good enough to ride one of those.

If, however, we’re talking travel, a Grand Tour is a circuit of Europe undertaken by the privileged youth of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before they had to settle down and be grown up, sometimes taking several years.

I couldn’t swing more than three weeks off work, but I am spending my Betty Trask prize money going InterRailing. When you read this, I’ll be somewhere between Brussels and Hamburg, assuming no undue disruption from the SNCF strike, of course. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home. (I am aware that I said this about the Camino Inglés. I’m still going to tell you all about that.)

And three weeks from now I’ll have a book to share with you, too. We’ll have a blog tour. A grand one.

Listening to the stories: Our Witness

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Some people have very specific ideas about what a Christian story ought to look like. You can tell by looking at the reviews of Catherine Fox’s books on Amazon. Too much swearing: one star. A story about Christians can never, ever, include the F-word. Other stories are to be ignored, overwritten, or, if the worst comes to the worst and one finds oneself reading one, given a one-star review.

Because Christians don’t swear. Except they do. We do. I do. And if you say you don’t – well, I’ll happily believe you, but it doesn’t stop the rest of us existing. Or swearing.

I really enjoyed the Lent course I attended this year. We started with something constructed by the Diocese of Ely, improvised icebreakers concerning the idiosyncrasies of our socks, ate snacks introduced with increasingly tenuous connections to the themes we were talking about (the Club biscuits – ‘set apart’ in their own wrappers, but yet together in the packet, and therefore an illustration of ‘holiness’, were my personal favourite) and tried to discern our own callings. For many of us, I think, that turned out to be something about being who we were, about not trying to force ourselves into what we thought a Christian ought to look like, about showing up, just as we were, and trusting that this was who we were meant to be.

For me, that was about being out as bisexual. It often is. From curling up in a ball the first week, muttering darkly that actually the Church isn’t necessarily a safe space to be yourself, to outing myself by telling a story of when I outed myself, to making and wearing symbolic jewellery (see picture at the top of this post) being myself as a Christian does tend to involve to ensuring that people know that I’m queer, and that I believe that that’s how God created me.

I’m always aware of a push-pull: the pull of the conviction that what other people think about me is none of my business; the push of knowing that, if I don’t say in so many words that I’m bisexual, people will assume that I’m straight. And – particularly in Christian circles – because I’m bisexual married to a man, if I don’t say that I understand a hypothetical relationship with someone who wasn’t a man to be as valid as the actual one that I have with someone who is, there’s the risk that people will assume that I chose to be with a man because he was a man. As opposed to falling for this person that I happened to live with.

In LGBT Christian jargon this is known as the ‘Side A/Side B’ question. (I have to look up which side is which every time.) Side A is LGB Christians who see no contradiction with same-sex sexual activity. Side B is LGB Christians who accept their identity but who would understand acting on same-sex sexual desires as sinful.

My problem is that I am very much Side A, but I know that in a heteronormative society I look very much Side B. And the only way to correct that assumption is to fill in the gaps, to tell the story. I am always telling stories, both fictional stories and true stories, and it’s almost always because the story that I’m hearing, or that I’m reading, isn’t the whole story. And when stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative – whether that’s Christians don’t say ‘fuck’ or A woman who’s married to a man must be straight or Christians don’t have sex with people of the same gender – are erased, it’s all the more important to keep telling them.

And so we come to Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT Christians. The British edition came out last year; the US edition was released yesterday. Our Witness tells the stories – mine, The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian, and many, many more. The stories are all different, but they resonate with each other. If you’ve already bought the British edition and you only wanted to read my story, you don’t need to read it in the American edition. It’s the same, bar an ‘own goal’ metaphor which didn’t survive the voyage across the Atlantic. If, however, you’re looking for different stories, for a wider sample of all the different voices that make up this communion we call the Church, then read both. Every voice, every story, adds something to the symphony, and the more I listen, the richer the sound becomes.

 

 

A sense of perspective

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A few years ago I read something about a woman who wanted to go to Africa. I forget where I read it, or why the woman wanted to go to Africa in the first place, but I remember that the moral was that she had to become somebody for whom going to Africa was normal. She would never go to Africa until she got to thinking of going to Africa as No Big Deal.

I felt somewhat ambivalent about this at the time, and I still do. On the one hand, I can see the point: if I see a particular ambition, desire, or goal, as being Not For The Likes Of Us, then I’ll never manage it.

On the other, if I see it as No Big Deal, then what on earth is the point of doing it at all?

There’s an irritatingly pious part of me – think first year Hermione Granger, if first year Hermione Granger was into self-help woowoo – that wants to point out that well obviously the moral is that I should try to be more present in everything, because everything is a Big Deal! Which is of course true, every bush is alive with angels and all that, but if she could only be less obnoxious about it then I might be more inclined to pay attention…

All joking aside, it’s very easy for me to forget how far I’ve come.

It’s only in the past few years that things like ‘publish a novel!’ and ‘go InterRailing around Europe!’ have moved out of the ‘things I’d like to do, someday’ category and into ‘things I’m going to do’ – or ‘things I’ve actually done’.

The problem is, the moment they move into ‘things I’ve actually done’, they become No Big Deal. If I can do that, I tell myself, then anybody could.

And I forget. I forget how once it seemed like something that was Not For The Likes Of Us. I forget how many times other people had to tell me, ‘That sounds amazing! You should do it!’ I forget how much work it took to get where I am. I forget that I’m a massive success in the self-publishing world. (It might help if I made more than pocket money from it – but then again, I’d probably think that that was No Big Deal, too.) I forget that I’ve made literal history, that I have been the first person to do this particular something. A small something, admittedly, but still a something.

What’s the answer? Listen to Hermione Granger, I think. Remember to look around, and see what’s there, and enjoy being with it, if possible. Remember to look back, and see how far I’ve come. Remember to look forward, and identify what I want to do, and see that there probably isn’t any particular reason why I shouldn’t.

Pottering

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You know those Saturdays when you don’t really have anything scheduled, but you find yourself busy all the time, and can occasionally display a finished task as proof of your effort? That’s what January has been like for me so far. I’ve been pottering around, doing a thing here, a thing there, hoping that something will get finished sooner or later.

What have I been working on?

  • Well, there’s been the tedious day-to-day stuff of life: cooking, cleaning, keeping the wolf from the door. Sometimes it feels like all my brain goes on the day job and all my time is spent keeping the hamster wheel turning.
  • Speaking of the day job, I’ve been doing a little more at work with my author hat on. Watch this space.
  • A Spoke In The Wheel is out with several different readers, editors and checkers at the moment, so I’m not worrying about it too much. Which is not to say I’m not worrying about it at all. Any of us might miss something! What if I’ve made a mistake, and look stupid? (Then I’ll be no different from the rest of the world, says my partner, and he’s right. But still…)
  • Various elements of the sequel to Speak Its Name have been gathering in my head. Some come in the form of sentences or paragraphs, or even entire pages, which I write down; some are more general insights like ‘Oh! Abby has a blog! An anonymous one!’
  • That means research. I’ve been looking up things like ‘can an international student be a Cambridge choral scholar?’, ‘chemistry PhD subjects’ and ‘Church of England: vocations process’. I’m regretting a few choices I made in Speak Its Name, but I’m stuck with them now.
  • Fandom stuff. I’m very glad to have got back into fandom last year, but it doesn’t half take up a lot of time if I let it.
  • Spending my prize money on an epic European rail adventure. My plan is to book the expensive Scandinavian portion of the trip in advance, and spend the remainder of the time following my nose around central Europe, but this does rather rely on me and my rail map and my diary being in the same place at a time when I have sufficient brain power to know that I’m not going to do something stupid that I can’t cancel. And I still haven’t written up my last epic European adventure. (Which will be worth doing. The photo at the top of this post comes from that, and the tractor sculpture wasn’t even the weirdest thing we saw.)

In February I’ll get going in earnest on the launch procedure for A Spoke In The Wheel. Cover reveal? Blog tour? Who knows? We’ll find out!

Hope is larger

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My penultimate day of work, and I spent much of it clearing emails out of my inbox. There’s one that’s been sitting in there for a long time. It’s one of those inspiration-motivation daily quotation emails that I signed up to once upon a time. And with most of those I read them, [nod approvingly/roll my eyes], and delete. But I didn’t delete this one. Was that because I knew I’d want to write about hope sooner or later? Undoubtedly. Was that the only reason? Possibly not.

Hope is not dead, it is just larger than our imaginations

– Kathy Hobaugh

And why not, I ask myself. There are many things that are larger than my imagination. The universe. The divine. Why not hope, too?

Who is Kathy Hobaugh? I’ve no idea. She might be appalling. She might be a genius. She might, in this case, be right.

I’ve been sneaking around the corners of despair and burnout this year, trying to keep my head down, do what I can to improve things within my reach, and not look at Twitter more than is good for my sanity, wondering what the point of it all is. Nevertheless, I have not deleted that email.

All this year I’ve been expecting things to get worse.

Now, I find myself thinking that it’s possible that they might get better.

Always just enough

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Another post about the Camino Inglés that isn’t really about the Camino Inglés. It’s about railways and languages and pizza. And I’ve been thinking about all this quite a lot over the past few days, because I’ve just booked myself an InterRail pass.

To begin the Camino Inglés you have to get to either A Coruña or to Ferrol, and, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, my brother and I chose to do this by means of the overnight ferry from Plymouth to Santander and then the narrow gauge railway east to west along the north coast of Spain. This takes two days whichever way you slice it, and on both days we found the trains afflicted by service alterations.

The first was due to line upgrades, and resulted in a very enjoyable rail replacement bus journey through a string of beautiful coastal villages from Llanés to Ribadesella. The second was due to a train failure, and resulted in a rail replacement car from Navia to Ribadeo. (In the picture above you see my brother waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol.)

All this was communicated with some difficulty, given the fact that the key players were:

  • railway staff – no English
  • a cyclist at Ribadeo who was trying to go west-east – no Spanish
  • my brother – no Spanish
  • me – some Spanish

And sometimes we could just follow everyone else, but that didn’t work so well when we were the only passengers going to Ribadeo. And having to explain to the conductor on the subsequent train that the reason that our tickets had been franked was because the previous train had broken down… that was a challenge. But we managed – because, I thought, I had just enough Spanish to manage.

I’ve always felt quite strongly about learning a bit of the language of any country I’m visiting. I’ve told myself that it’s about politeness, but I think it might also be about confidence, about control, about knowing what’s going on. Anyway, I spent the three months before our departure brushing up on my Spanish, and I was glad I did.

(Castilian Spanish, that is. If Duolingo had given me an option for Gallego I’d have taken it up!)

I did most of the talking all along the route – to the hotel proprietors, to the waiters and bar staff, to the lady handing out boiled eggs to pilgrims (who spoke Spanish and Italian, and I think German). And all the way I had just enough Spanish to manage.

But at the end of the fourth day of walking – we were less than 20km from Santiago at this point, and tired – I suddenly found myself unable to remember the Spanish for ‘four’, and therefore unable to order the pizza I wanted. So my brother did it. And of course he managed. He had just enough Spanish to manage.

So did the cyclist at Ribadeo. He didn’t speak any Spanish, and the stationmaster didn’t speak any English, but between them they transmitted the idea that the train was terminating and the cyclist would have to come back in the morning. When we arrived they asked me to translate, but in fact they’d already managed it. They had just enough, even though neither of them had any.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to carry this forwards into 2018. I’m planning on brushing up my German, but even with the best will in the world, I’m not going to be able to learn enough Hungarian to reach my standards of this time last year – and I would quite like to see Budapest. I’m not going to be able to learn enough Danish or Swedish – and I’m planning to start out with Copenhagen and Stockholm. I’m just going to have to trust that what I know is going to be just enough.

The tireless music

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This hasn’t been a spectacular year for me, in musical terms. I’ve sung very little that I hadn’t sung before. I’m only a few pages further forward in the Adult Piano Method. I haven’t touched the cello. All the same, I feel as if I’m in a different place, that I’m a better musician, than I was twelve months ago. And I think that that’s largely been down to the simple act of showing up and singing. Consolidation. Every time I sing the Duruflé Requiem, I get better at it. The bits that freaked me out last year are less forbidding this year; the bits I learned in Guildford are old friends. Every time I sing anything, I get better at it, and better at singing.

‘Tireless music’ feels more true than it would have done a year ago. I haven’t had to flake out on choir once this autumn, which is a vast improvement. Eating on the train home before choir practice has really helped. Great Northern trains have not helped so much, but I’ve never been more than a quarter of an hour late.

What else?

  • I replaced a broken cello string and tuned the cello. Haven’t played it yet, but having it playable is a step in the right direction.
  • I led what they call a rousing chorus of Goodnight Irene at a… wake? memorial? celebration? A party, anyway.
  • I had a go with an otamatone, which is a delightfully silly instrument. I have this idea that long acquaintance with a fretless stringed instrument ought to make it fairly easy to get fairly good fairly quickly… I like the theory.

Next year I’d like to develop a reliable top F. I can get a top F at home with the piano; I’d like to get sufficiently comfortable with it that I can also summon it in company, in a cold church. I’d like to sing more appalling Victorian slush (I non-ironically love The Lost Chord, OK?) and get good at it.

I’d like to replace the cello spike. (The current one is too short, and has been since I was fifteen or so.) I’d also like to get to the end of the first volume of the piano tutor.

So much for what I’d like to do. Now for the doing of it. Just keep showing up.

 

The title is from ‘Saint Paul‘, a long poem by Frederick H. W. Myers. Some other verses from that poem make up ‘Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing’, which is possibly my favourite Advent hymn. Here‘s the tune played by brass band.