I’m playing a game of slow compost chess at the moment. Every year or so the bins need emptying from the bottom where the bread crusts, tea leaves, paper scraps, peelings and general leftovers have hopefully coalesced into a sort of nourishing brown sludge. Some of this can be put into bags and left but some needs to go into another bin – and I was all out of bins. It was time for the dalek to come back into play.
I’d abandoned it initially because the badgers kept breaking in but I’m hoping they won’t be interested in the well-rotted stuff as they seem to prefer their compost fresh. Last night passed without incident, so we’ll see.
Had a fairly good weekend, thanks for asking. On Saturday I whizzed round with the vacuum cleaner, watched a bit of tennis and then biffed off to a friend’s house for chat and chaat. Delicious. We watched The Night Managerwhich I had seen when it came out – scarily, 5 years ago! it seems like just before lockdown – and then I caught up with Today at Wimbledon. Yesterday I was a very bad Quaker indeed; I couldn’t concentrate in meeting and ended up looking at my phone instead. I expect to be Eldered very soon. After that I had a blitz on a corner of the garden (bastard bastard bastard) and went for a bike ride. I sorely felt the lack of tennis in the afternoon as it was too wet to go outdoors; at least it kept threatening rain but the real downpour only came in the evening.
Another week of tasty tennis beckons. The second week is always quite different from the first; the field has narrowed and you get a sense of who might make it to the final. All the British men are out of the singles now but the very interesting Emma Raducanu is still in the women’s draw. She’s just 18 but goes at it like a pro, so it’ll be fascinating to see how far she can get. The smart money for the men’s draw has to be on a Federer/Djokovic final (I wouldn’t lay odds on the winner) but the women’s is still quite open with some excellent players like Ash Barty, Coco Gauff and Angelique Kerber. So we’ll see. What’s really sad is that all the British players either come from abroad, grew up abroad or trained abroad (Murray moved to Barcelona aged 15) but it’s not surprising. We simply don’t have the infrastructure here; schools and community centres rarely have tennis courts, not to mention that the weather restricts play to about three months of the year. But, as I was saying to OH, it’s the class system that really did for tennis in this country. I remember as a youngster joining the tennis club next door and being thrown off the courts for wearing black socks (we were just practising, it wasn’t a tournament or anything). The members were very snobbish and unwelcoming and I imagine that was replicated in most places; not to mention that tennis was rarely played outside London and the Home Counties. So not only was the pool of players very small but the ethos was terribly gentlemanly; you used to see British players giving their opponents a nice polite little volley – which of course they dispatched with venom.
To return to the bindweed, as my brain did around 5.30 this morning, the problem is not just that it’s prolific; it’s that OH feels a tender concern for its welfare. OH is always extremely resistant to killing weeds, partly because they have a right to life like anything else, but also because they are a habitat for insects. I try to argue that bindweed and brambles are the Nazis of the weed world, that left unchecked they will destroy everything in their path, but my agonised pleas fall on deaf ears.
And then last night, just as I thought it was safe to look at my phone, I see that a short story has pinged back only two days after submission – and on a Sunday night! Two days – that has to be a record.
I had an unexpectedly good weekend, considering the weather. On Saturday I went for a walk round Watermead Park with a friend; it’s a lovely backwater just North of Leicester comprising the river, the canal and several lakes including King Lear’s lake (King Lear is supposed to have been buried nearby, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth.) I also attacked the bindweed with the strimmer; I tend to get a bit vicious with this as the bindweed has been particularly prolific this year so I swing the strimmer in a wide arc shouting bastard bastard bastard and not stopping until it surrenders. On the Sunday I had my second jab (yay!) then went to visit mother-in-law, pick up a very intrusive chair she’d been wanting to get rid of for ages, and deliver it to a friend of Daniel’s who is in need of just such a chair; all of which was surprisingly satisfying. I wouldn’t have minded having the chair here but it’s a big bastard, one of those chairs that takes up far more room than it should considering only one person can sit in it. I didn’t go for a bike ride over the weekend but I will today I expect.
Politics has become slightly interesting again – as opposed to merely depressing. Cracks are appearing in Johnson’s hitherto teflon surface; not only from Cummings – which may not have much effect overall – but John Bercow, the former Speaker who has now defected to Labour, and most of all the Amersham and Chesham by-election in which the Lib Dems gained a significant victory. There may have been local issues involved, but it’s clear that they don’t like Johnson – and if they don’t like him, who else doesn’t like him? It’s interesting to see that it isn’t all one-way traffic and that the blue wall can look as vulnerable as the red wall.
We’re very up-to-date with the news in this house because over the weekend we bought not only the Guardian but also the Observer. On the whole I prefer the Observer to the Saturday Guardian; on the other hand I like doing the Prize crossword by hand and reading all the supplements (apart from what we call the ‘handy throwaway sections’ – sport, cooking, adverts) as it gives me something to do on a gadget-free Saturday. Speaking of which I found it pretty dull this time, especially on the Friday night; not having TV or radio or phone or music is a bit trying especially if you don’t have anything to read (as my current books are audio books on my phone that was out.) In the end we played pen and paper games like hangman and boxes, like I remember doing on a dull and wet Sunday afternoon, and went to bed early. Still, there’s no doubt it is good for us to have a digital detox; it kind of re-sets the brain.
Having cycled 18 miles or so over the (admittedly long) weekend I’m going to have a rest today. I was going to cycle to Barrow yesterday, meet a friend, have lunch and then over to Quorn and back via the road, but this proved to be a little overambitious. It’s a lovely ride along the canal to Barrow – I’ve walked it many a time – but what I had forgotten is that the path crosses over at Pillings Lock and there’s a Bloody Great Bridge over which bikes must be carried. I reached it; I looked at it, I looked at the map and I thought ‘nah. This is far enough.’ So back I went, and far enough it jolly well was.
I’ve been thinking, as one does at this time of year, about holidays and travel. Like most of us I imagine I’d really like to get away but apart from the fact that nobody really knows what’s going to happen with Covid, I’m beginning to rethink tourism altogether because as a tourist you feel like a walking consumer. There are, it’s true, delightful holidays where you don’t have to feel that way at all – hiking in the Dales, climbing Monroes in Scotland, renting a cottage in the depths of France – but on most holidays you tend to feel like a walking market in which people are always trying to sell things. Buy this! Eat this! Look at this! Get the t-shirt! You can’t blame them – it’s the way most of them make money – but it’s not a pleasant experience. But though tourism may bring income to an area or country there are many hidden costs, not the least of which is accommodation. Last time I went to Southwold I felt very sad as I walked around and realised how many of the lovely houses near the sea front were actually holiday lets. Instead of staying in the heart of a town we were living in a tourist village where most of the locals had probably been completely priced out. I have very strong feelings about second homes too – appealing though it is to have a pied-a-terre somewhere delightful, it often means that local people are priced out and that you end up living in a community of city dwellers who only come down at the weekends. Besides, people have no business owning two homes when some people don’t even have one.
We’re going to have to stop flying anyway, so why not rethink tourism altogether? Instead of regarding the world as a spectacle to be consumed, see it as a place to be discovered. Instead of photographing everything, see and interact. Let’s forget tourism and bring back travel: in fact, let’s regard travel as a form of reconnaissance. Then again perhaps it’s like one of those irregular verbs: I am doing reconnaissance, you are a traveller, they are tourists.
And how was my weekend? I hear you cry. It was… disappointing. I’d hoped to do lots of cycling but thanks to the weather and an energy dip I only managed about 3 miles. And yesterday I forced myself (and OH) to get out into the garden and tackle the weeds which are rapidly becoming unfeasible, after which I was too tired to cycle and anyway it rained for the rest of the day. I do find this weather depressing.
The thing that bugs me about gardening is that the longer you leave it the harder it gets. But also, the more you do, the more you see that needs doing. I find this very depressing as well. Nevertheless, the garden is now somewhat tamed and I can forget about it for a week or two before it starts bugging me again.
I think the garden I grew up with probably has an effect on my attitude. The vicarage garden was half an acre divided into wilderness on one side (appropriately biblical) and lawn on the other. The lawn was massive and took most of a day to mow, besides being lumpy and bumpy (I once borrowed the roller from the cricket ground next door and we heaved it up and down; it made not a blind bit of difference). But the wilderness was the worst place. There was a no-go area in the middle with a concrete air-raid shelter and the rest was just weeds from hedge to glass-topped wall. From this area our mother tried despairingly to raise veg, with unremitting effort and some success – so I think my idea of gardening has always been of unremitting effort; not enjoyable in the least. I find the rewards do not match the work. I’m aware there are people in the world who enjoy gardening and I keep hoping it will rub off on me but so far it hasn’t really. So this year we’re limited to OH’s efforts which so far are potatoes in tyres (more or less foolproof) and some dying tomato plants. Well, at least I managed to make some compost successfully; that’s something. But I must say I do feel a failure at gardening.
Anyway, that’s not what I was going to write about today. My topic for today is the perennial tussle for the artist between inspiration and self-discipline. Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could just sit down and be overtaken by a wonderful flow of inspiration whenever you wanted? Wouldn’t it be great if ideas came just at the most convenient moment? If you didn’t have to get to your desk every day and work at it, wouldn’t that be amazing? But it doesn’t happen, so you have to develop discipline, and these two have to be kept in constant balance. Inspiration without discipline can leave you feeling unbalanced and chaotic with loads of unfinished projects: discipline without flow is sterile and joyless. It’s a difficult juggling act; you can show up at your desk by nine am and stay there all day, but if the muse don’t show up you won’t produce anything worthwhile. Then again sometimes, if you start off writing any old nonsense sometimes you can get into the flow that way. But I’ve learned the hard way that discipline is necessary; if you live your life waiting for inspiration to strike – sure, it may strike, but you won’t know what to do with it when it does. For years my output consisted of random phrases and ideas because I didn’t have what Alan Bennett calls ‘the habit of art‘. I like that phrase because as every artist knows, art is first and foremost a habit, one which you have to cultivate.
My next read, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, fell through the letterbox on Saturday and I spent the morning getting through an alarming number of pages. At this rate I thought, it’ll only last me a day. I’d better ration it – and so I put it away and took out Heresy by S J Parris. This work of historical fiction (the initials perhaps a wish to disguise gender since studies have shown that male or gender-neutral names do better with publishers) was given away by Waterstones with each copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and I’m not sure it entirely did it a service since it almost looks likehow to do historical fiction alongside how not to do it. I find it inexplicable how writers are often praised who have an unbearably clunky style, who tell instead of showing and who have characters conveniently calling each other by their full names so that we know exactly who they are (‘Ah, Sir Phillip Sidney! How goes the poetry?’ ‘Ah, Giordano Bruno, as I live and breathe! So you have come to speak about Copernicus’ theory that the Earth goes round the sun?’) OK so that’s not an exact quote, but it’s not far off. Still, in spite of all that it’s a reasonably good read – and I may come back to the question of how to and how not to do historical fiction. Not that I’ve attempted it myself; far too much research for my liking.
So what else did I do with my weekend? Saturday involved a lot of sitting in the garden, but by Sunday I could no longer ignore the rampant convolvulus and (gnashes teeth) horsetail and so I did enter the shed, gird myself with gloves and wellies, arm myself with the strimmer and sally forth to do battle with the bastards. I have driven them back but have no doubt they will advance again – are even now preparing an advance – and we shall have to do battle many more times ere the summer is done. Which at this rate will be November.
Weeds aside, there has been a Nigerian theme to this weekend. It is a frequent rallying cry of OH that men cannot be feminists because they cannot truly understand the female experience; OH therefore had a big problem with Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie’s talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ (I had not so long ago read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun about the brief history of Biafra.) The Nigerian author delivered this TED talk to an audience of mostly black women (and some men) and there was a great deal of delighted laughter when she spoke about attitudes in Nigeria which, from what she said, seem to be parallel to attitudes here in the ‘fifties (I don’t say that to be disparaging, it’s just an observation.) Much of what she said was therefore familiar to a Western audience; but her insistence that men should be feminists also and that they have nothing to lose by so doing, was an important one, and something I feel we have yet to learn. It remains a source of regret to me that feminism in the West came of age concurrently with global capitalism and so has become imbued with the spirit of individualism and competition that Thatcher so vividly personified. We need to rediscover cooperation – and perhaps now is the time to do it.
Speaking of which I rounded off the day with this documentary on Dominic Cummings. I haven’t finished it yet but if I ever wondered whether people were caricaturing him unfairly, I wonder no longer. It’s a horror story. More of this anon when I’ve finished watching it but for now, tatty-bye and have a good week.
Urg. Now I’ve gone and reminded myself of Ken Dodd.
How was your weekend? Mine was – well, it made me appreciate the pleasures of doing nothing very much and not trying to fill the time with Meaningful Activity. Apart from an hour spent on a wobbly phone at Quaker Meeting and a Facetime with family I had no scheduled activities at all. Previously this would have filled me with dread but right now it feels great because I don’t have to do anything except eat, sleep and entertain myself. I can watch the clouds go by or take a walk round the park and look at the blossom (it’s good this year but the magnolias got caught by the frost), I can make pizza and eat it while watching Breaking Bad with my family; I can hang out with Daniel and watch him play – not Animal Crossing, some other game where you make like Robinson Crusoe and build civilisation on an island, only sans Man Friday, I can’t remember what it’s called; I can read another hundred pages of Ducks, Newburyport, and I can garden.
I may not have the greenest fingers and after last year I felt that I’d earned a year off and needed to lie fallow for a while. But in light of potential food shortages that didn’t seem to make sense, so I decided I’d sling a few spuds in tyres like last year and run a few beans up poles and see if anyone saluted them. But could I get any seed potatoes? I could not. B&Qappeared to deny the existence of any such thing (seed potatoes? Never ‘eard of ’em) and sent me instead to some hanging baskets, while Wilko’s merely gave me a box to tick underneath each selection saying ’email when in stock.’ OK then…
But some tasks cannot be ignored. The lawn was screaming to be mown, so I got out the Great Green Goddess and chugged up and down the bumpy overgrown surface grunting bastard bastard bastard as I went. Mowing our lawn is a little like pushing a buggy over sand dunes – if you were trying to flatten the sand dunes at the same time and had to empty the basket every twenty seconds. No wonder this is my least favourite job. I don’t even like the lawn; since half the garden is flagged we never sit on it and to be honest, if things got so bad that the nation got into a dig for victory kick, I’d be quite happy to dig the bastard up and grow stuff on it. Provided I could get the seeds…
Anyway, having done that and tidied up the compost after the depredations of some local badgers, I felt I’d earned a rest. Daniel pruned the bush by the back door and then had a rest with me. That’s one great advantage of this lockdown – we’re spending more time together.
I wish I hadn’t put ‘…a Little Bit Rock’n’Roll’ in the title of the last post because every time I read it I think of this song. Anodyne and sickly as the Osmonds were, there’s nothing worse than them also pretending to be rock’n’roll.Which means I have to write another post, and that’s hard because I’m in a fallow phase. You know your brain’s getting stuck when you get a song going round inside it; in the last few days I’ve had the Gentleman Jack theme song followed by this one, which I don’t even like.In my experience when the mind goes round like a record on repeat it’s trying to make sense of something and the best thing is to leave it alone. Get on with something else. So that is what I shall do.
As far as work goes I’ve finished Chapter 34 of the Tapestry novel. Chapter 34 is the ninth chapter and will be followed by the tenth, Chapter 55 which in theory should be 55,000 words long but won’t be (if you’re confused, imagine how I feel.) Not wishing to try the patience of the reader the final chapter will be fragmented just as our world is fragmented, with pieces tailing off, unravelling, lost…
The novel aims to be a portrait of modern Britain centring on Brexit. It’s a book of voices, everyone giving their own account of themselves, their thoughts and experiences. From the Queen to a homeless man, from a refugee to Tommy Robinson and including some famous ghosts, these voices make up the Tapestry of Britain today.
And that’s me up to date. Today I shall be mostly… tinkering with things, going for coffee and catching up with the weeds which are always one step ahead…
I learned yesterday about a saying in German where if something goes wrong someone will say ‘That wouldn’t have happened if you’d put your glasses on.’ I don’t know what it is in German but it’s good to have a phrase like this which smooths away conflict, a joke which everyone recognises as such and which creates common ground where there might have been argument. This happens in families too: like most families I suspect, we have catch-phrases that have to be said in a given set of circumstances. When coffee grounds spill somebody will always say‘that’s grounds for divorce!’ and when things go wrong on a Thursday it is compulsory to comment ‘I never could get the hang of Thursdays.’ And on The Simpsons, Homer comes up with the phrase ‘it’s my first day’ which people start using all over the world to justify the most horrendous cock-ups.
So it is inevitable when I tell OH that I’ve spent the afternoon gathering comfrey that I will hear the phrase ‘it doesn’t come free, you know.’Which is funny but entirely untrue because it is free and it grows all over the place. I now have a bag-full of the stuff which will be melted down – well, left to liquefy anyway – and then added to water to fertilise our plants. Comfrey leaves are high in nitrogen and make an excellent plant food. You can place the leaves round the base of a plant as well if you don’t want to go to the trouble of making the liquid.
And that was Monday. It’s bloody wet here, what’s it like where you are?
My copy of Mslexiamagazine arrived today, another issue in which I have unaccountably failed to appear. I haven’t been entirely unsuccessful with them; a couple of years ago they published a poem of mine and a year before that I was their guest blogger on the theme of gender issues, so I thought I had a good chance with this issue as the theme was ‘Clothes’ and I had a short story and two poems on exactly that theme all raring to go out into the world and seek their fortune. Sadly in their infinite wisdom Mslexia declined to publish.Hey ho.
But it set me thinking about the different stages of writing, particularly writing short stories. These stages are analogous to growing veg: the first, the seed stage, is the idea. It may be a wild one, blown on the winds and self-seeded in rough soil, or it may be deliberately planted from a packet. At this stage you have an image of how it may turn out but whether or not it does what it says on the tin remains to be seen. Out of this idea comes a rough draft like a pair of leaves poking through the soil and at this stage it’s very hard to see what the story will become. But when it grows a little more, when the leaves assume distinctive shapes and the stem grows tall or winds in spirals or becomes short and stout, you begin to discern the shape. Aha! You think, I know just what to do with you! This leads on to the lengthiest stage of all, the editing, the rewriting, the pruning and weeding and feeding, until the plant reaches its full height after which, eventually, it will begin to bear fruit. At this stage the work is sent out into the big wide world with a hanky on a stick to seek its fortune.
Just as with gardening, the goal is to have pieces of work at each stage; ideas, drafts, stories in progress and work ready to send off. Writing’s just gardening really, when you think about it. Makes me feel like Peter Sellers inBeing There.