The Real World: a bisexual book, as it turns out

'The Real World' with two pin badges, one reading 'EMBRACE THE POWER OF "AND"' and the other, 'ASSUME NOTHING'

If you’d asked me, say two years ago, what I was writing about, I would have said, Marriage. And academia. And the Church of England. I might have been clever and summed it up as Institutions. Then I might have added, Impossible choices. And Disillusionment. Six months further on, Vocation. And it is true. The Real World is about all of those things.

What I didn’t quite appreciate until a couple of my beta readers remarked on it was how very much it is a bisexual book. I suppose I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised: two things I knew all along were that Colette, the point of view character, is bisexual, and we spend the whole novel inside her head. And this appears to be one of those things where personal experience does help, because it didn’t take too much work to make it feel right. (Unlike some other things in the book.)

It isn’t really about bisexuality – not as a theme, anyway – but there’s plenty of it in there.

There’s the Invisible Bisexual Blogger, who shows up (in this book, anyway) only in the chapter headings. In an early draft she came to Lydia’s birthday party, but I was introducing too many characters there as it was. She serves the same purpose as she did in the first book, where she was in the main narrative rather than the chapter headings: to demonstrate that there are plenty of LGBTQ Christians hiding in plain sight (and possibly feeling somewhat ambivalent about that fact).

There’s the correlation between bisexuality and depression (which is a statistic I myself resemble, yes). There’s the second-guessing and the self-questioning.

There’s the scene with the celebrity ex-vicar. I regret to say that this is only slightly exaggerated from something that I witnessed in real life. I needed that scene in order to explore one possible future for Lydia and Colette. I didn’t have to make the speaker as biphobic as the real one was, didn’t have to push it that bit further to provoke a minor walkout. But it felt truthful. That sense of never being quite sure whether a putatively LGBTQ space is in fact just LG, whether the welcome that has just been extended to you might be withdrawn when you can’t produce a gold star, that’s something I’m very familiar with. It works in the trajectory of the book, too. This is a point where sources of support are dropping away from Colette, and she’s becoming increasingly isolated; this space that’s a source of support for Lydia turns out not to work for Colette at all.

And then, on the flip side of that, there’s the spontaneous little gathering outside the meeting, where the angry bi people come together to rant. My experience of the bi community, online and offline, has been similar: that wonderful holiday from having to explain yourself.

I didn’t set out to write a bi novel. That happened without my knowing. I didn’t have to wrestle with it, the way I had to wrestle with vocation (in and out of the writing). Actually, those aren’t so very far apart. I have a post to write about my experience of vocation as a queerness, but that’s for another day. If someone asked me today what The Real World is about, maybe I’d say, Institutions. And identity.

Badges in the photo above came from Biscuit (‘Embrace the power of ‘And’) and Uncharted Worlds (‘Assume nothing’).

Read An Ebook Week

Ebook reader showing the first page of 'The Real World'

Apparently it is Read An Ebook Week. I would not have known this had Smashwords not sent me an email to say so, and to invite me to put my books in their sale. I thought I was doing impressively well to remember that both Mothering Sunday and my father’s birthday were approaching; I can’t keep up with anything invented more recently than that.

Anyway, if reading an ebook is a thing you might wish to do this week, you can find both of my Stancester books in the sale. The Real World is at 25% off; Speak Its Name is free. Get them here.

But why don’t they just TALK to each other?

Yes, why didn’t they just TALK to each other about the ham before this?

I haven’t yet got my act together to buy, let alone read, Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. I did, however, read it in its previous incarnation as an original work on Archive Of Our Own, so have been following other people’s reviews with interest. Some of them have been ‘loved it when it was The Course of Honour, love it now.’ Some have been: ‘argh! Miscommunication plot! Why don’t they just TALK to each other?’

Myself, I don’t mind a miscommunication plot. Some of them, of course, are just implausible: the classic example is ‘I saw my young lady embracing another man and I am not going to bother wondering whether it might have been her brother, let alone asking her.’ Sometimes it hits my embarrassment squick and I have to give up, but if I can grit my teeth and get through that, and the miscommunication is because of something that actually makes sense, I have no problem with it.

After all, humans are not all that good at communication. We get stuck in our own assumptions. Last year, for example, I discovered that my husband and I had fundamentally different ideas about the ownership of food in the fridge. And we’ve been together since 2005, and living in the same house as each other since 2004. (That was where the problem arose: I was still operating under university housemate rules, in which you don’t eat it if you didn’t buy it; he’d moved on to couple rules, where if it’s in the fridge it’s there for the eating.)

We’d never talked about it, because why would we? We’d never talked about it, because it had never been a problem until we both started eating lunch at home every day of the week. Once we did talk about it – beginning with a hurt ‘YOU ATE MY HAM!’ – we sorted it out fast.

And OK, maybe in some books the miscommunication plot would be more like fifteen years of inadvertent ham theft on one side and martyred ham-buying and deep sighs on the other. (Though even that might make a running gag in a sitcom.) But more often it’s something that nobody involved has ever thought to question, because why would they, until bam! there it is.

Ham is something that you can JUST talk about. But it might be that the issue is too fraught, too painful, for you to even know where to start talking about it. Some people really didn’t like the Doctor Who episode where we discovered that Amy and Rory had broken up because she couldn’t have children because of ‘what they did to me at Demon’s Run’. It was never made clear whether the whole doppelganger memory bending assassin pregnancy business had left her physically infertile, or had just (‘just’) been so traumatic that she had never been able to face the idea of childbirth again. ‘Why didn’t they just TALK about it?’, people demanded. For me, the fact that they never had was one of the most convincing aspects of the whole series.

Writing the sort of books that I write, I’m always a bit worried about someone coming back with a ‘But why don’t they just TALK to each other?’ I ended up hanging a lampshade on it in the last book:

Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling like this? No, sorry, that’s a stupid question, you’ve only just worked it out. Why did you think you weren’t allowed to feel like this?

I’m not going to tell you what ‘it’ is, because it’s not really good practice to spoil one’s own books, but I can assure you that I put the work in to get us all there. This conversation comes on page 292. And it’s not as if nobody’s been talking up until that point, either.

The Course of Honour worked for me. The assumptions that underpinned the miscommunication were plausible, stemming from one protagonist’s history and the other’s genuine attempt to respect that. Sometimes it was painful, often it was frustrating, but it worked. I expect Winter’s Orbit will work for me too, assuming Maxwell hasn’t changed that element significantly.

So for me, no, they don’t have to talk to each other. Not straight away. In fact, a book about a relationship where every problem was immediately sorted by talking to each other would be boring as well as implausible. Because it’s never JUST talking.

But WHY don’t they just talk to each other? Ah, that’s the interesting question. Answer that question to my satisfaction, and I’m happy to spend 320 pages finding out.

An uninvited journey: active and inactive protagonists

A child's plastic sled cable-locked to a bike rack on a snow-free pavement

Lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) I came across this thread about inactive protagonists, and this other thread pointing out that it was an extremely Western-centric take. I think that both threads make good points, but the first one offers an extremely limited solution to a genuine problem. (When you have a hammer, etc, etc…) I rather like the way that they’ve both linked to each other, so the conversation rolls round and round forever. And this post isn’t really meant to be an answer to either of them, but more an excursion on my own train of thought.

There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.

And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternative structures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.

Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.

And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)

I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.

Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.

And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.

Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.

Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.

Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021

Stack of books with rainbow-coloured covers and text 'Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021'

This year Jae is running a Sapphic Reading Challenge: 50 categories, from which you can choose to read 10, 20, 50, or 100 books. There’ll be a big giveaway at the end of the year, although, as Jae says, “real prize, of course, is discovering a lot of awesome books and new favorite authors”.

My Stancester books, Speak Its Name and The Real World, fit a few of the categories:

  • Character with a disability or mental illness (7) – depression ended up being a major element of The Real World, though I don’t think I ever actually mentioned the word. I wrote a bit about that here.
  • Character is a book lover (8) – Lydia is doing an English Literature in Speak Its Name. By The Real World she’s mostly reading school stories.
  • Genre you don’t usually read (15) – well, I don’t know what you usually read, but if you don’t usually read literary fiction with overtly religious characters then these might fit.
  • Shy or socially awkward character (27) – Colette. It’s probably more obvious in The Real World, which is told from her point of view.
  • Bisexual or pansexual character (37) – Colette, again.
  • Part of a series (43) – either one would work, obviously! The Real World makes sense without having read Speak Its Name, but you do learn a couple of major plot points that you can’t then unknow.
  • Character works in STEM (48) – Colette’s studying chemistry at undergraduate level in Speak Its Name and working on her PhD in The Real World.

My short story Prima Donna appears in Supposed Crimes’ anthology Upstaged: an anthology of queer women and the performing arts, which would fit Anthology, short story collection, or novella (50).

And of course I might be a new-to-you author (45).

Jae also has a giveaway running now, so if you fancy winning a special journal in which to track your challenge progress, see this post.

Enjoy!

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

square of blue-painted cardboard with a compass rose, labyrinth, stylised shell, and the names of the monastic hours and the quarter and cross-quarter days added in metallic paint

… time and space.

Thank you for the protection and privilege of being able to work from home.

Thank you for the opportunity to settle gently into our new home. Thank you for the business of settling in, as a distraction from the culture shock outside.

Thank you for the neighbours we’ve sort of met.

Thank you for the time to get another book done and out in the world.

Thank you for the time to reread Agatha Christie novels and watch skiing and generally do nothing of importance at all.

Thank you for the gift of three hours every working day.

Thank you for the garden, and books, and books in the garden.

Thank you for here. Thank you for now.

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.

December Reflections 4: red

This year we moved into the first place we’ve owned, and we brought plenty of stuff with us. The curtains, for example. My mother made them for the high Victorian windows of my childhood home; I used them to cheer up the horrible bedsit I rented when I first moved out; turned them up to fit the french windows in the 1960s maisonette that was our last rented property. They’ve always been comforting: good for hiding behind when I was small; good for keeping the draughts out now; bold and cosy.

A glass-fronted wooden cabinet. Behind it, floor-length wooden curtains in a pattern of blue and red curlicues on a gold ground.

Then there was the pig picture, inherited from my beloved godmother Héloïse. Her house used to be full of vibrant, mischievous pictures: this was my favourite. And there, at the middle of it, is that bright red lobster.

A print of a painting featuring a large pig nosing at a bright red lobster on a picnic cloth while a boy sleeps

This was not the only picture we brought with us. It wasn’t even the only one with a red element to it. We also had a drawing of the two of us that we’d had done, in true tacky tourist fashion, at Montmartre, on our honeymoon.

A drawing in red pencil of a man in glasses and a woman in a headscarf

The new house had its own contributions to make. Most of the fanlights in the conservatory were decorated with a stained glass red rose.

A fanlight with a red rose of Lancaster in stained glass

With all that, it became obvious pretty quickly that the dining room wall – an insipid lavender when we moved in – needed to be red. We bought a pot of paint in our first week, on 17 March. We painted the wall on 25 May, bank holiday Monday.

Room, seen through an arch, with one red-painted wall, dark wood dining table and chairs, just a corner of the curtains from above, and the whole of the print with the pig and the picnic

My new book goes beautifully with my red wall, though in fact I didn’t plan it that way. That started with stained glass flowers rather than with domestic decor. I’d had my eye on the passion flowers in one of the windows of the south aisle at my previous/current church (it’s complicated!) for ages, wanting to replace the more realistic one on the cover of my first book. But if it was going to be a series then I was going to have to find other stained glass flowers to match. I knew I wanted this one to be red, but it was surprisingly difficult to find ones that weren’t roses (made it look too much like a historical novel) or poppies (also made it look too much like a historical novel). I eventually found these ones at a church I popped into on last year’s narrowboat holiday. I’m not sure what they’re meant to be – maybe carnations? – but anyway, I’m really pleased with them.

Really, when it comes to it, I’m just very, very fond of red.

A story from two blue notebooks

Hardback notebook with a cover pattern of blue and white waves

I was in Paperchase at St Pancras station.

Well, you see, I’d been writing everything, all of this, down in a little book, and I’d nearly finished it, so I went to Paperchase for a new one.

I always end up writing the story that I need to hear. And I don’t know whether I’ll ever be good enough to tell this one in fiction, or even if it’s a story that can work in fiction at all, ever, and it seems possible that someone else needs to hear it sooner than that. After all, I’ve found over and over again that, whatever’s happening, I’m not the only one to whom it’s happening. So I’m telling it now.

And I was looking at the shelves of notebooks, thinking about which one to choose, and I had a sudden, very strong sense that I wouldn’t need another one.

I bought one with a pattern of waves in blue and white. That was the Tuesday.

I’ve told the notebook story five or six times now. It’s a good story, a convincing one. It always surprises me how effective it is. I go in expecting pushback, argument, a compassionate suggestion that perhaps I’m mistaken in what’s going on in my own heart, and every time the other person accepts it.

Well, you’d hope they would. It’s true, after all.

On the Wednesday, I went to church. Lunchtime communion at St Pancras. St Pancras new church. And I was about half way there, walking along the pavement on the north side of the Euston Road, the wind blowing a few dead leaves around my ankles, when I understood.

It wasn’t there any more.

The leaving makes a better story than the arrival did. The arrival was cumulative, a succession of comments, questions, observations, from others.

2017. I’d been leading the twenties-and-thirties Bible study group. The ordinand we had on loan from Westcott said to the youth worker, afterwards, ‘Kathleen’s very good at this. Has she thought about ordained ministry?’

The youth worker reported this conversation to me. ‘And so I said to him, I don’t know, you should ask her!’

I thought it was just that I’d picked up some adult education skills from my day job. And forgot about it.

2018. The curate invited me to a Cursillo weekend. I thought it sounded fantastic. It wasn’t until I was signed up and paid up that she said, ‘Yes, that was where it all started for me.’

Oh, I thought. And then, Oh, well. And forgot about it.

I told a friend about the plot of the novel I was working on, how it all hinged on the fact that you can’t be ordained in the Church of England and be in a same-sex marriage. He asked me if my own vocation was going anywhere.

I’d forgotten that I’d ever told him about that.

I said no, though the curate had said what she’d said about Cursillo. And then I forgot about it.

I undertook tutor training. My first thought was how can I use this for church? It occurred to me that thirty-three was quite an appropriate age for all this to kick off again, really. I forgot about it.

I went on the Cursillo weekend and had my mind and my faith expanded in all sorts of other ways, and forgot about it.

I saw young women in dog collars – one in a bookshop, one on a train – and decided that it was confirmation bias.

I remembered Mary Poppins. The wind changes. I could smell the excitement in the air, and I knew what it was, and I didn’t want to admit it.

Returning to my novel, I asked the youth worker about the selection process. Most of my mind was focused on what I’d got wrong, what was going to screw up the timeline, what was going to rescue the arc. A little part of it was watching myself all the time to see if any of it pinged me as something that I was meant to be doing. It didn’t.

2019. I could feel it, smell it, sense it lurking in the undergrowth, waiting.

I demanded a neon sign. The next neon sign I saw said:

Started at the bottom

Now you’re here

It didn’t really help.

I decided that anything that felt that much like horrible and inevitable doom couldn’t be of divine origin. Possibly it was just that I needed a holiday.

(I did need a holiday.)

I prayed to feel better about it, if it was real.

With the twenties-and-thirties group, I was leading a course called SHAPE, designed to help people explore their gifts and their callings. In my day job, I was testing an online tool called Value My Skills. I was very aware of a parallel existence running alongside the life that I was leading, something that was more than a possibility and less than a probability.

I found myself thinking that if I got to the end of the SHAPE course without anything having come up, I was probably safe.

The week before Holy Week was peculiarly intense. Conversations and experiences piled on top of each other.

‘No, it’s not actually a thing, just a lurking sense of doom,’ I said to someone.

‘I’ve heard it often feels like that,’ they said to me.

I applied for a promotion at work in the knowledge that it was very possible that my future lay elsewhere.

I asked the Cursillo spiritual director about spiritual direction. She asked some questions about my church involvement. I answered: I was leading the twenties-and-thirties group, singing in the choir.

‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘I wonder what God’s got planned for you in, say, three years…’

I thought, oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.

I emailed people. I dragged people out to lunch. Nobody was surprised. Their lack of surprise was both infuriating and gratifying.

I didn’t get shortlisted for the promotion. It was rather a relief: I couldn’t have fitted anything else in my head that week.

I told the curate. She prayed for me, and I, who very rarely got visual images in prayer, saw a small square of fog clear, and a set of railway points switch from one track to another. And I knew then, that if this was going to turn out to be true, that was the moment I knew it. She got me onto the reading rota and the intercessions rota and the PCC; she told the vicar.

The vicar was kindly, thoroughly, interrogative, and made it clear that I was going to have to get used to talking about this. I remembered that this was the part I’d hated the last time round.

I wept through the service. I wept because it was gone.

That was the thing: it wasn’t the first time.

At the beginning I thought I’d be able to treat it as if it was the first time, but it wasn’t long before I found myself saying, ‘Well, the last time this happened…’ and having to explain what happened last time.

‘I suppose it came out in my last year of university. I applied for a few pastoral assistant jobs, but I didn’t get any of them.’

But I couldn’t remember what it was like before. I couldn’t remember why I wanted to do it. I couldn’t remember the wanting to do it, only the desolation afterwards.

‘And it just disappeared. I walked the Camino, and by the time I got to the end it had gone, and I hadn’t noticed.’ And then I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I went to Germany as an au pair, and then I still didn’t know what to do with myself, and the year after that was the worst year of my life.

All I had was bad poetry, and a handful of stories that didn’t quite say what I needed to say. What if the widow had her mite returned to her? What if the big fish had received new orders and spat Jonah out on some beach nowhere near Nineveh? There was Abraham and Isaac, reprieved at the last moment, but that seemed a bit melodramatic. Didn’t it?

It felt like a wonderful secret. It felt terrifying and inevitable. It felt like writing a novel used to, back when I didn’t tell anybody about writing a novel.

Returning to my novel, I was struck by how wrong I’d got it. The point of view character wasn’t the one who had a vocation to ordained ministry; that was her girlfriend. But I’d bestowed on both of them the sense of creeping doom, the malevolent attraction of a black hole, that I associated with a vocation when I didn’t have one. Now I could see that it didn’t feel like that at all. When I was in the middle of the thing, there was an excitement about it, a joyful anticipation, a feeling of rightness, of everything making sense.

I read The Night Manager and for once found myself identifying with the main character accepting the call to adventure, rather than inwardly yelling at him not to do it.

I dragged out boxes of old diaries, started sifting through years’ worth of online journals. How many times had I learned this and forgotten it again? I went to Paperchase and bought a notebook with a gold-dotted blue cover. I promised myself that this time I wouldn’t forget.

I realised that I’d been thinking about it for ages. It was just that the feelings had caught up with me.

I worried about turning into a Church of England pod person with naff coasters with Bible verses on.

I knew I needed to become a person who could talk about it, and I didn’t know how to become a person who could talk about it without ceasing to be myself.

I went to an enquiries evening and was too shy to talk to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations. I learned that the next thing to do was to book myself onto the vocations course.

I was under no illusions – certainly not the ones that would have tripped me up had I gone straight into selection and formation and ministry after university. I follow a lot of Clergy Twitter, after all.

But it seemed plausible that a decade working for a member organisation with big ideals and petty politics, one which depended for its continued operation on the labour of a lot of ageing volunteers, might have been just what I needed to equip me to deal with the Church of England. Last time might have been the wrong time. This might be the right time.

I did not book myself onto the vocations course.

I failed to do anything practical about it at all, just kept writing in my blue notebook with the gold spots.

It felt more and more like where I was going.

The Sunday before Advent, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations was the guest preacher. I talked to her, mentioning a little petulantly that the rest of my life seemed to be trying to happen at the same time (my husband and I had finally scraped together the deposit for a mortgage). She got me booked onto the next term’s vocations course.

On the Friday, the House of Bishops put out an even more tin-eared statement than usual, and I couldn’t help seeing the funny side. I wore a rainbow skirt to church that Sunday.

I went to the first session of the course.

That was the Wednesday before I went to Paperchase.

I saw the course through, as best I could given the challenges posed by Great Northern Rail (sometimes I got from London to Ely on time, and sometimes I didn’t) and (later) having to join in by Zoom over the phone, because the course had gone online and we didn’t have broadband at the new house. It was interesting, and enjoyable, and, for me, irrelevant.

I stuck around, waiting to see if the vocation was going to come back, whether it had been scared off by my moving house, or lockdown, or something. It didn’t.

I finished the novel. I started telling people that it had gone.

It’s ten months now since it went away; it already feels like another life. After the desolation came the relief. I don’t want to do this. I would have done it if I’d had to, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

The other day I found a mind map that I made when it was there and new and I was trying to make sense of it. There it all was, in my own handwriting, and it was nothing to do with me.

And I still don’t know why it happened: why it came, and why it went away.

Was it a piece of research that got a bit too immersive?

Did I need to know what a vocation felt like in order to know when I didn’t have one?

Am I off on another circuit of the labyrinth, bound to follow a long and winding path to get back to the same place?

The more time elapses, the less I think about those questions. The answer’s always the same, anyway: I don’t know.

And I suspect I won’t, not for a long time.

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

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