Amazing what you find when you’re clearing out

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Ten years ago I entered a Sherlock Holmes-inspired flash fiction competition. I forget the exact criteria but I didn’t get anywhere, and never knew what to do with the resulting short tale about the impossibility of time travel. Having finally mothballed my decaying laptop I’m tidying up the file structure on the new (second-hand) desktop and stumbling across forgotten stories, including that one. It’s less than 500 words long, so if you fancy a small piece of Victorian-set SF, read on, and if you enjoy it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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When you’ve eliminated the impossible…

“Carstairs, you simply must come,” insisted young Fotherington. “How could you miss the chance to use a time machine?”


Professor Carstairs sighed. In twenty minutes of argument his delightful cousin’s foolish husband had failed to take on board the basic principle that such a machine was a physical impossibility. It was all the fault of that bounder Wells and his sensational literature. If only more people had read Conan Doyle’s excellent stories in The Strand instead.


“How indeed?” Carstairs said. Fotherington beamed at this apparent capitulation, and set about writing to the friend who had invited them for the weekend.


By the time they boarded the train on Friday, the professor was looking forward to the trip. Since the machine couldn’t really transport anyone through time, he wanted to ascertain whether the perception was created through physical or psychological means. In short, did the experience involve the administration of drugs or a subtle blend of auditory stimuli and the power of suggestion.


They had almost arrived when Fotherington said, “I knew you’d come round in the end, Carstairs.”


“Fotherington, you do understand that the supposed inventor of this machine, your friend’s new acquaintance, is either a fraud or a fool? Or both.”


“Carstairs!”


“There are laws of physics which absolutely forbid -“


“Wasn’t it once a law of physics that the sun went round the earth?” asked Fotherington, his smile suggesting his clever friend had been caught out.


“That wasn’t a law of physics, it was a piece of dogma which has since been overthrown.”

#

The breathless Fotherington found Professor Carstairs prowling their host’s library later that afternoon.


“Carstairs, it was marvellous. I threw back a lever and fetched up in Elizabethan times, I could hear feasting.”


“Hear?” Carstairs raised an eyebrow. This hinted at the drug-free theory of subtle suggestion.


“Yes,” said Fotherington. “The chap said stay in the shadows and don’t interact with anyone.”


Carstairs smiled and followed Fotherington to the contraption which had been built into a closet. He shook hands with the inventor and settled himself inside, nudging the lever gently forwards. There was a prolonged mechanical whirring, a flash of light, and then silence. Carstairs opened the closet door expecting Fotherington, but found an empty room. The light seemed different and he cursed himself – the handshake must have been a means of transferring an hallucinogenic substance.


“…doesn’t matter what I saw on Friday, I’m not convinced, Fotherington.”


Carstairs heard a familiar voice and two sets of footsteps approaching. As the door to the room opened, he came face to face with himself wearing a look of abject horror.

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What makes a satisfying biography?

I was listening to Gideon Coe’s BBC6Music programme on BBCSounds, as I do most days, only for a change I actually listened to the Late Night Book Club segment which he includes from time to time. With apologies to Mr Coe and his no doubt fascinating guests, I generally skip past it because they’re discussing a book about a topic I’m not that bothered about (a band I was never that into, or the Northern Soul scene in Macclesfield one memorable Spring) and I’m there for the music, man. This time, however, it was a biography of an artist I have reasonable familiarity with (including, crucially, some of the bad bits) but have never been what you might call a big fan of, just an occasional listener. In other words I had enough of an interest to listen to the discussion but nothing to lose if there were revelations ahead that would put me off. I’m not going to say who it was (it’s no longer available on Sounds anyway) because I mean no disrespect to the biographer, but you could hear the shine in their eyes as they talked about their subject. It made me wonder what makes someone write a biography, and then I started thinking about why people read biographies (and autobiographies, and memoirs) and why I almost never do.

In my late teens I read biographies of Che Guevara, Billy Bragg, and The Clash, which I’m sure you could have guessed, and I’ve read the odd rock star autobiography since (Morrissey and Chrissie Hynde both of which I wrote about a few years ago, and Bruce Dickinson as pictured above), not to mention Anthony Trollope’s, but the only other biography I can think of that I’ve read is the Richard Ingrams book about William Cobbett. I admired William Cobbett from the little I knew about him at that time, and maybe with him and Che Guevara I already felt there was enough of importance or interest in the work they’d done, that their being revealed as useless fathers for instance couldn’t take away from that. The biography added new information and different perspectives, without diminishing the achievements I already knew about.

So why would you write a biography? Because you’re a shining-eyed fanboy. Because you have an axe to grind or want to prove a point. Because you think other people will be interested and therefore there’s a market for it, but you have no particular stake in the subject yourself. There are problems with all of those approaches, I think, or there can be.

Bias is everywhere, it’s hard to get away from. I’m reading a history at the moment which has reached the Middle Ages and the author seems unduly lenient with the Mongols, justifying every wholesale slaughter of a town’s inhabitants while (rightly) condemning similar behaviour from Crusaders. The partisan biography can be similarly unsatisfying to a reader who doesn’t share their enthusiasm, skating over or playing down dubious behaviour and unpleasant traits. On the other hand the frank portrayal of them can be disappointing if it downgrades a reader’s view of a hero, or off-putting to someone who wasn’t expecting them and didn’t intend to sit down and read the detailed chronicle of a selfish alcoholic or serial adulterer. The selective evidence of the biography attempting to portray its subject as a pioneer in something we hadn’t previously thought of them as being involved in starts to feel strained quite quickly (Frederica Bloggs was fifty years ahead of her time, look, if you squint it sort of looks like she was a precursor to this trend she’d never heard of), and the hurried cash-in on a newly-famous person doesn’t have time to be particularly in depth.

Which brings us, I suppose, to why would you read a biography? Celebrity gossip, a hard-backed Hello magazine? To find out how a favourite artist/musician/writer ticks? To recognise a commonality with them, or to look for evidence of greatness, difference at an early age? As a window onto a particular time or place? With a biography, unless it’s written with a lot of input from the subject or their closest associates, there’s going to be an element of guessing or interpretation; if the subject is dead they have no opportunity to correct any misapprehensions. Most people aren’t saints, and everyone has boring bits. At some point I realised I’m rarely interested enough to read about someone’s early years, while also being detached enough to not be disappointed by the unsavoury revelations. With great figures from history I often want the author to go follow some other person for a while rather than concentrating on a single person’s views, achievements and activities, as they’re not necessarily the most interesting person in every situation.

In the last few years I’ve read a few memoirs, including the sort of nature-writing that’s very author-focused. It’s in the author’s own words, it’s selective so unless it’s actually about their bad behaviour or ill health you probably don’t have to wade through all that, and it’s focused. My life as a birdwatcher. My childhood in the Yorkshire Dales in the late nineteenth century. In search of my sea-faring ancestors. Some were by famous people, some I hadn’t heard of but were released by one of the big publishers, others were small-circulation books for a local audience that I’ve picked up second-hand. Maybe what I’m saying is that I don’t find the entire story of a person that interesting and what I actually find satisfying in a biography is…it not being a biography.

Ifyou have thoughts on what makes good life-writing, let me know in the comments, and if you enjoyed mine you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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While opinionated celebrities carry on, it’s reasoned debate that’s in danger of cancellation

Cries of ‘cancel culture’ from loud-mouthed celebrities who have more outlets than ever for their opinions might be misplaced, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. Quick judgements and condemnation on social media mean the thoughtful, the people who don’t want to be misconstrued and would hate to think they’d genuinely upset anyone, say nothing rather than risk public flaming. What’s that one about evil triumphing when good men do (or say) nothing?

Writers know the importance of rewriting, but even writers don’t spend weeks crafting a tweet or rehearsing a TikTok video. They’re produced quickly, on the move or while half-distracted by something else, and often as an immediate reaction. Yes, there are some people (including some well-known writers) who know exactly what they’re saying, and they really mean it, and it’s not pleasant. But there are plenty who have reacted in good faith to something they’ve misunderstood, or changed their minds about later after reflecting or learning more about it. There’re the hot-headed responses to something that caught a person at a bad time, which they may well apologise for later on. And there’s the stuff that doesn’t quite mean what you meant it to mean. All of us use clumsy wording sometimes, from the unintended double entendre to saying ‘drat, the bulb’s died’ in front of a bereaved friend. Among friends, colleagues, or anyone with empathy who’s willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, it gets laughed off, hugged away, or reworded in a second attempt a moment later. The trouble with social media is, you’re not always in a comparable situation.

It’s sometimes said that there are always people waiting to be offended. While there are the odd few that take everything personally and filter the conversation through the worst possible meanings of the words, there are many more who are looking for scandal and don’t really care what the intention was as long as it causes a stir. Whether gossips or a certain sort of journalist, they pounce on anything that could be used against someone. One of the more innocuous examples of recent weeks is Liz Truss supposedly being greeted by the king with ‘Back again? Dear oh dear.’ Mildly amusing but if you watch the clip it looks an awful lot like he’s just making social noise because he’s not quite sure what’s expected while the cameras are rolling and he can’t start the ‘real’ conversation yet. It was, a BBC correspondent notes, only a couple of hours since he’d last seen her. It all reminds me of primary school where someone might comment that the teacher smells of strawberries today and immediately the troublemaker shoots their hand up, shouting ‘Miss, Miss, she said you smell’.

There are an awful lot of complex issues around and Twitter, even at the increased character limit, isn’t the best place to discuss them. They get oversimplified and mixed together, and the confidently loud tell me that if I think X then I also agree with Y (the implication being that I am therefore a monster). No, there’s more than one reason to think X and some of them might mean you agree with Y, definitely not in my case. The wonderful thing about people is that they’re a mass of contradictions and perfectly capable of holding apparently opposing views at the same time. If it was all so obviously black and white there wouldn’t be so much bickering. No doubt my Twitter followers get a strange sense of my priorities, but I tend not to comment on anything I think would require a few hours’ reflection and an essay to gather my thoughts on, and only weigh in on the simpler issues where I know where I stand and can sum it up in a couple of sentences.

Even keeping out of it doesn’t seem to be an option for everyone at the moment though. People in the public eye (which includes anyone who gets noticed on social media) can’t win. If they say they have nothing to add, haven’t been following the argument, or don’t have a fully-formulated view, both sides see them as the enemy. They failed to condemn the one position and failed to defend the other. Nuance is no longer allowed. You can’t say you disagree with the way someone’s presented an argument and some of their conclusions but you do agree with a kernel of their premise and maybe we should be having a grown-up discussion about it – all that will get out is that you ‘agree with’ them.

I’m pretty left-wing and I think of myself in those terms because I’m interested in politics. Most ordinary people are not, and don’t think much in terms of left and right. They think in terms of the things that bother them and the politicians that promise to listen or to do something about it. Hence the shock of the crumbling of the red wall – it’s not that most of the urban north was committedly left-wing it’s that Labour spoke to their priorities for many years, and then Brexit came along and Labour shied away from talking about the underlying concerns so the voters turned to someone who professed to care. Many on the left forget, or perhaps don’t even believe, that ordinary people who feel silenced, who are told they’re wrong even to question the liberal media view, and that if they think that then they must also think this other awful thing, will eventually turn to the loudmouths who don’t care who they offend because, ‘at least they’re not afraid to talk about it’. And that, I think, should worry us all.

I’ll leave you with this post I wrote at the end of 2016 but never posted, which I’d titled Closed questions, closed minds?

Which camp do you fall in, The Beatles or The Stones? It’s still a question that gets asked, though for a while when I was a teenager the equivalent was the synthetic rivalry between Blur and Oasis. Ironically, given the recent move to add non-binary as a response to gender questions, we seem to be in an increasingly binary mode.

Sweet or savoury? Dogs or cats? Tea or coffee? X Factor or The Voice? In a world of short attention span and Buzzfeed lists it’s as though we only have the capacity for quick decisions, comparisons between two options. Never do we get the idea that it might be acceptable to like both (or indeed neither).

Most families I know who have either a dog or cat have had both at some point. Most people I know who drink tea or coffee will happily drink either, even if they veer more to one than the other. Admittedly my coffee-loving eldest sister is an exception – to my knowledge she has never tasted tea, but she does have an interesting phobia of teabags and I’ve never met anyone else quite like her.

Human beings are complex individuals, still (thankfully) capable of holding contradictory positions and of having nuanced responses to anything from pets to politics. The media presents us with false dichotomies and we react to them. Clinton or Trump, for instance, even when Sanders was still in the running. Until late October from my sheltered position in the UK I had no idea there were more than two parties fielding candidates in the US presidential elections.

We can blame mainstream media for this binary view of the world, where everything is black or white and if you’re not with us you’re against us. Or more often, if you’re not fully opposed to something in an ostentatiously vocal manner, you must be a supporter – witness the ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slurs against certain politicians. We also need to take some responsibility ourselves. Think about our own views and reflect on where the contradictions lie. Consider the shocking possibility that someone could have voted to leave the EU on anticapitalist grounds and is appalled by fellow leave-voters’ racism, and that equally it is possible to be anti-immigration to a racist extent and yet have voted to remain in the EU on economic grounds. At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair, we need to recognise that most of the time there is a third way.

My own answer to The Beatles or The Stones? The Kinks, naturally.

If I’ve made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip

It’s fair to say none of us were expecting the Queen to die last week. From radio and TV schedules to sporting fixtures and parliamentary debates, there’s been a flurry of last-minute cancellations and rearrangements as people either have unexpected tasks (like the PM and the BBC) or don’t want to look disrespectful. Incidentally, there’s a side-note here about nobody quite knowing where the borders of disrespectful are because social expectations around death and mourning have completely changed in the UK in the 70 years since we last had to negotiate this, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

I was listening to a 6Music programme on BBC Sounds (i.e. listen-again) this morning. It had been broadcast last Monday, and included a trailer for live coverage of the Mercury Music Prize which would begin at 7pm on Thursday evening. I haven’t checked, but I’d be willing to bet large sums that the BBC did not in fact switch across to the Mercury Music Prize half an hour after the Queen’s death had been announced to the nation. If, indeed, the prize event went ahead as planned. It made me think of the posters in darkened shop windows at Easter 2020, advertising events in March that never happened because of the national lockdown for the pandemic. That gap between plans and reality, that’s where the stories can be found.

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If you run across a flyer for gigs at a particular venue in November 1995 you probably assume without a second thought that they all went ahead. Likewise past newspaper announcements of forthcoming sales, talks, events. When I’m researching family history the reading of banns, noted in the parish register, is usually enough for me to say that my ancestors got married the following month. But what about the ones that didn’t? It’s not you, Obadiah, it’s me. It’s both a cautionary note about making assumptions in research, and a good starting point for writing a story.

  • Weddings are a category all to themselves. The invites were sent and various plans made, but the wedding didn’t go ahead. Did one of the pair get cold feet and not turn up on the day? Did they have a row (or a heartfelt but amicable talk) and call it off in advance? Was there an illness or accident that threw a spanner in the works? Did the couple get sick of the fuss their families were imposing, and run off for a quiet wedding? Did the reading of the banns turn up someone with objections? Was the church hit by lightning the night before?
  • Anything else that requires an invite and advanced planning can also get scuppered by illness or accident, the venue being unavailable, or a change of heart: christenings, birthday or anniversary parties, graduations. The silver wedding couple decide to get divorced. The soon-to-be-fifty-year-old has a wobble about reaching the half-century. A lorry takes the corner badly and puts the bar out of action for a few weeks.
  • There’s a related category of unused tickets: train, plane, theatre, concert. As above, there’s the possibility of illness, accident, change of heart or unavailable venue, plus a few more besides. Bad weather or strikes mean the transport’s not running (this goes for events as well as train tickets actually – I once bought a theatre ticket I couldn’t use because of train disruption). The local authorities have banned the concert (those infamous Sex Pistols gigs) or the band have split up partway through the tour. There was a terrorist incident the day before and now the ticket-holder daren’t go. Maybe they just got a better offer on the day, bumped into an old friend or a new love. As well as the reasons for not using the ticket, there’s also the possibility that it is kept, in the story – they run across it twenty years later and the memories flood in, or someone else finds it – and why they kept it. What does it mean to them? Or did it get forgotten as a bookmark in an abandoned novel, and the person who finds it reads more significance into it than really exists?
  • These stories can be contemporary, historical, set in other worlds, and there will be specific circumstances that suggest themselves based on the setting. A scientific demonstration in the 17th century might be blockaded by a group from the local church who consider it blasphemy. Anything high-profile in the 1910s is ripe for suffragette disruption. A wormhole collapses unexpectedly, meaning someone can’t travel across the galaxy as planned. An apprentice wizards’ convention blows up the venue as they’re setting up, or accidentally sends the only person who can let them in into a nearby painting.

The possibilities are endless and what’s more, relatable – we’ve all experienced messed-up plans, whether mildly frustrating or heartrendingly tragic. There’s an awful lot of stories lurking in those gaps.

If I’ve given you some inspiration you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Echoes of history

I read a lot of history and historical fiction, and I also read novels that were right up to the minute at the time but were written long ago. Sometimes the whole thing seems wonderfully alien or exotic (the past is a foreign country, etc) but now and then there are such chimes with the present that it makes you glad you read the thing now and not, say, fifteen years ago.

Cover of Illustrated English Social History 2 by GM Trevelyan

I had two such moments in the last few weeks, reading a fabulous social history and also a nineteenth-century French novel.

GM Trevelyan’s illustrated English Social History is well worth digging out, incidentally, if you like Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guides and could stand a more formal and detailed version. Originally from the early 1940s, I believe, the illustrated edition was put together a few years later (I’ve got the 1960s paperbacks in 4 volumes). It is crammed with maps, paintings, woodcuts and manuscripts from the time in question, plus photographs of surviving artefacts and architecture that might help to make the point. Unfortunately the pictures are all black and white except on the cover, but they do help you imagine the period.

Anyway, the point in question in Trevelyan volume 2 was about what you might call levelling up, and the disproportionate amount of land used for raising livestock for meat. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) passed laws dictating Fish Days – days when you couldn’t eat meat and were encouraged to eat fish instead. It sounds superficially Catholic but Elizabeth was very much anti-Catholic and it was in fact to give a boost to fishermen, revive ‘decayed coast towns’ and ‘prevent the too great consumption of beef and mutton which resulted in the conversion of arable into pasture’. She was particularly reliant on the Royal Navy which her father had set up, and the sailors usually came from fishing communities so it makes sense that she wanted a ready supply, which she wouldn’t get if everyone gave up on fishing. It was the revival of coastal towns and the limiting of meat livestock that struck me though.

We actually have a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the UK government at the moment, and as well as the north-south divide one of the problems I think it’s supposed to be addressing is coastal towns, which have tended to be left out and left behind. I’m not clear on why they were decaying in the last Elizabethan period but back then it can’t have been anything to do with cheap package holidays luring holiday-makers abroad. Likewise the limiting of meat wasn’t related to the present-day concerns of climate change and deforestation but the realisation that you could feed more people using the land for growing crops than grazing animals does echo modern thinking (George Monbiot wrote an article decrying beef and lamb only last week). Recent campaigns to reduce the consumption of red meat would be familiar to Elizabethans even if the idea of veganism wouldn’t. I’m not suggesting the government starts decreeing Fish Days but it’s interesting to note that there’s a Golden Age they could hark back to when state intervention to prop up a faltering but necessary industry or address a problem with national implications was acceptable.

The other book I’ve been reading was The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola (Au Bonheur des Dames was the title in the original French), first published in 1883 but set in the 1870s as far as I’m aware. I’d written it on my To Read list a few months ago after reading about it somewhere, but by the time I came to read it I couldn’t remember why. Once I got going I wondered if it had come up online in a discussion about Amazon, and other giants of retail.

The novel itself has a romantic tale at its core that sometimes seems a bit of an afterthought (it was apparently adapted for TV by the BBC about 10 years ago, as The Paradise). However, the main business of the book is the owner, the staff, and the running of the Parisian department store The Ladies Paradise, and the effect it has on the shops and shop-owners in the neighbourhood. As the business grows, it stops specialising in dress fabric and broadens its interest into lace, haberdashery, hosiery, even umbrellas and gloves – anything a woman of fashion (or her children) might want. Consequently the local shops, each with its own niche that has been replaced by a department in The Ladies Paradise, are closing down and leaving an impoverished neighbourhood and less choice.

There are arguments in the book about progress and modernisation, about the convenience and cheap prices for customers, about no small shop ‘deserving’ to stay – they need to adapt or die. All of this is so familiar, particularly in the realm of bookshops but also any small shops that have been struggling in the past couple of years as people speed up their move to online buying or stick to the big superstores rather than use several local shops. It was fascinating in its detail of the day to day running of the department store, but when you read about the 35 clerks employed to work out sales commission (replaced by a spreadsheet or small database now?), the 350 messengers (replaced by phones and then email), the stable hands for the 145 horses for the delivery vans (done away with entirely), you realise that every phase of progress is the future until it isn’t. Books from today will no doubt be just as familiar-but-different to readers in 150 years, living through an era we can’t imagine.

If I’ve helped you find a good book to read, or made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Walking the Wall: now in audio

Having brought you all up to speed on what I’ve been writing this year, I’ve now recorded me reading the almost half-hour journey through time along Hadrian’s Wall that is Walking the Wall (new writing commissioned by Hexham Book Festival this year). You can listen to it at: https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4

It occurred to me that not all of you will be familiar with Hadrian’s Wall, or Northumberland. If you want a bit of scenic inspiration you could try this short video on YouTube which zooms over an iconic rural section of The Wall, and try and picture Sabinus in 122AD stuck somewhere not too different, in the drizzle. I had a look on the North East Film Archive and unfortunately people tend to film Hadrian’s Wall in amongst other landmarks and tourist attractions, but there’s some nice footage about 16 minutes into this fab old documentary.

I don’t mention many places specifically, because I used a bit of artistic licence and blurred nearby places together. Places I do mention are Corbridge (the capital of Northumbria by the late 8th century, burnt down by Robert Bruce in 1312), the Carlisle-Newcastle turnpike (which I think is now the B6318 where I was thinking of), Kielder forest, Heddon on the Wall, Benwell (including the temple), Killingworth, Newcastle upon Tyne (including the Swing Bridge and the university), Wallsend and the fort of Segedunum, Tynemouth priory, and the rivers Tyne, North Tyne, South Tyne. I did have general areas in mind when I was writing the historical fiction elements and the successive flash fictions move eastwards along Hadrian’s Wall. And of course once we’re in modern Wallsend and Richard’s been to the Segedunum museum he heads off to Tynemouth priory to have an ice cream and gaze out to sea.

The mouth of the Tyne from Tynemouth priory, taken by JY Saville

I was inspired along the way by: an actual account of a wren’s nest being found in a skull, though this was in an abandoned chapel not at a battle site; farmhouses built from Hadrian’s Wall stones; the Tyne Flood of November 1771 when ‘coffins were torn out of the ground, and the living and the dead were swirled away in the torrent’; Syrian archers at a fort near Birdoswald; Frenchmen’s Row in Heddon on the Wall which had housed ‘French royalist priests’ who fled the revolution; a Roman hoard dug up near Killingworth in 1811, a couple of years before George Stephenson built his first locomotive there; the battle of Otterburn and other border skirmishes; and twenty-odd years of brief visits to Tynemouth and Wallsend.

If all this has intrigued you, you can either listen to me reading Walking the Wall at https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4 or read it for yourself at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8c710378-92c6-4194-8186-cbd38fa87397 and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Long time no waffle

You may have noticed – possibly to your relief – that it’s been a bit quiet around here. I managed one excited post about my Hexham Book Festival commission, but that was typed laboriously on my phone (yes, I got a smartphone. Wonders will never cease). Manageable in a fix, but not something I’d choose to do. The problem is, I make do. I make things last, get my money’s worth (and beyond), and my laptop having already given up on video, got so that it couldn’t handle the new WordPress interface. I remember having a conversation 5 years ago at the Penguin WriteNow day about my laptop and its tendency to colour everything cyan unless you got the angle of the screen spot on, and how I’d have to shell out for a new one soon. Its long goodbye is reminiscent of those aunts that spend longer perched on the arm of the settee with their coat on, turning down offers of further refreshment with ‘no, I must go’, than they do sat comfortably in the armchair. It’s still here, with its intermittent wi-fi and preference for cyan, but I’ve also been given a desktop computer that has a passing familiarity with the modern world. I mean, it’s about the same age as my laptop but it’s a higher spec and has lasted better so I’m back on WordPress without one-fingered typing on a tiny screen. Did you miss me?

You may well have missed the Hexham commission, so let me put that right. Hexham Book Festival commissioned 3 writers and an illustrator to celebrate “the diverse and fascinating county of Northumberland, its inhabitants, its agricultural Heritage and historical connections with particular emphasis on Hadrian’s Wall and its upcoming celebration of 1900 years”. Beyond that, we all developed our work in isolation and yet when we got together in June we realised there were common themes: the colour red, thin patches in time, modern-day walkers alongside the Wall. You can read the patchwork pieces from me (Walking the Wall) and Bridget Hamilton (This Next Hill), the children’s story from Garry Lyons (Lupa, inspired by a mountain rescue dog who was present at our reading in June) and the illustrated booklet from Deborah Snell at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/writing-commissions. My favourite of Deborah’s illustrations is the stoat at the end (I think it’s a stoat. As my dad always says, Weasels are weasely recognised whereas stoats are stoatally different).

Deborah Snell, JY Saville, Susie Troup, Garry Lyons, Bridget Hamilton at Hexham Book Festival June 2022

Months and months ago I mentioned in passing that I was a winner in the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020, but obviously there was a delay in recording the programmes due to the small matter of the pandemic. Well, this Spring they finally got made and made well. It was such a thrill to hear the finished recording of mine (Playing With My Heart), it had been so long since I wrote it that it almost felt like it was by someone else. The theme of the competition was ‘vision’ and it was supposed to be on the radio in January 2021 so I set it in January as someone’s putting their Christmas decorations back in the loft. You will notice that the title refers to the theme song by the Eurythmics, which refers to the subject matter (angels playing with your heart). It’s got time-slips in again, like Walking the Wall. Chapel FM put out an interesting programme about the making of the four winning dramas, in which each of them was played out in full (they were each less than 10 minutes long), but if you want to go directly to listen to mine you can hear it on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/user-803061228/playing-with-my-heart (promise me you’ll go listen to the others when you have time though, they’re good).

For the first time in a long time I’ve also had flash fiction out there. A dreamy little flash called Hair Spread Like Sea Fronds is free to read at Ellipsis Zine: “The way she remembers it can’t be the way it happened, but it’s the way it creeps into her dreams, soundless and in filtered blue-green light…” It mentions an Indian silver anklet of elephants, which was inspired by my mum’s constant wearing of jangly silver anklets, though I don’t remember if any had elephants on.

I’d love to know what you thought of this year’s writing so far, and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Dreaming about Northumberland

Just before Christmas I applied to Hexham book festival for a writing commission for this summer’s festival, and in January I read the acceptance email with a mixture of shock and excitement. This is the first time I’ve had new fiction commissioned, rather than writing something and sending it off to people in the hope they’d like it enough to publish it and maybe, if I was really lucky, also pay me. For a while the thought that this needed to be special, and somehow worthy of the fee, froze my creativity. Until OneMonkey helpfully pointed out that: I’ve written loads of stuff that people have liked before; I had sent writing samples with my application which they must have thought were good; I’ve successfully blended fiction and non-fiction a few times at live events, like at York Festival of Ideas.

The festival is taking place in the context of the Hadrian 1900 celebration of 1900 years since Hadrian’s Wall began to be built, and what I’d promised was this:

To create several connected short prose pieces, a blend of fiction and creative non-fiction aimed at adults but accessible to older children. Highlighting continuity and illustrating change, the fluidity of time slip fiction interspersed with a celebration of the natural world – a dreamlike exploration of Northumberland focused along the Wall.

My first ports of call

If you’ve seen photos of my bookshelves you’ll know I had plenty of resources to get me started, and I immediately pulled a likely pile from the shelves, including the wonderful Northumberland volume of the King’s England series of county guides. I also went to the Internet Archive and found eighteenth and early nineteenth century books on the natural history, history, agriculture and songs of the northern English counties. I read about fish and butterflies, archaeological investigations, battles and ballads, inquisitive antiquarians, and sheep-breeding. You won’t be surprised to know I went down a few rabbit holes that had little to do with the matter in hand, but it all adds to the mix. I ended up with pages of scribbled notes of interesting places and odd facts, and then I had to decide on a structure and a thread. I wrote a list of all the bits of history that I might be interested in touching on, and picked six time-periods that weren’t too cramped together, to meld into five pieces of flash fiction.

Blame my fascination with local and family history, but sometimes I become acutely aware of the crisscrossing paths layered in time, all the people who’ve been at a particular location before me. I liked the idea of somehow all the points in history being there at once, in key places along the Wall, and occasional seepage from one time into another. The thread became a student in a red cagoule who’s walking the Hadrian’s Wall path from west to east, experiencing weird time-slips along the way, although he thinks it’s the isolation making him see things.

Undoubtedly an influence but I didn’t dip back in

So much for the fiction. What about the creative non-fiction? I took my inspiration from the events I’ve done with Alice Courvoisier at the York Festival of Ideas among other places, where we’ve interspersed fiction and non-fiction to tell a patchwork story or explore a theme. Sandwiched between each pair of flash fictions is a flash CNF, on birds, forests, farming, and the Tyne. They connect to the surrounding fiction by image or theme – a circling bird, a darting deer, a discussion on eighteenth century agricultural improvement…

Surprise inspiration in the form of venison pasties

Once I’d started writing, my reading kept feeding in and I changed tack completely here and there. So many things I wanted to include I didn’t have room for, and so many fabulous things I found out that I want to use somewhere in future but were never going to be relevant here (take this as advance notice of future stories and local history articles about Northumberland).

When I applied for the commission, I fully expected to have moved to Hexham by June and to be strolling down the road to the New Writing event to read my piece. Nearly six months on, circumstances have changed so we’re going to be staying in West Yorkshire for a while longer. So apart from being great fun to research and write, Walking the Wall will stand as a reminder of That Time I Was About To Move To Hexham.

If you’re in the vicinity of Hexham on June 11th, you can book a free ticket to the festival event at which I’ll be reading a ten minute extract (roughly a third) of Walking the Wall.

K is for Kellogg’s Variety Pack

For one week of each summer holiday when I was a kid, I was allowed a Kellogg’s variety pack: 8 small boxes of unfamiliar cereal at an inflated price. There was the one that was supposed to make exciting noises when you poured the milk on, the one so chocolatey it turned the milk brown, the boring plain cornflakes, and some others I’ve forgotten. I’d have had more consistently tasty (and cheaper) breakfasts if I had a normal size box of Coco Pops but that wasn’t the point. Those miniature cereal boxes and the delight of choosing which order to eat them in made the whole week feel special and even now I think of long, lazy summer days when I see a variety pack.

Photo by Lucas on Pexels.com

Every so often a bunch of working class writers start chatting on Twitter and the food reminiscences come up. Some people find it tiresome – surely we’re past Angel Delight as a big Sunday treat – but there’s a reason Proust kicks off the enormous Remembrance of Things Past with a mouthful of cake and not, say, as he puts on a favourite pair of shoes or picks up his hairbrush. Food, and particularly the food of childhood treats, takes us right back in an instant. Other things I was allowed now and then during the holidays included tinned hot dog sausages (I didn’t stop eating meat till I was a teenager), miniature Hovis wholemeal loaves, and mint choc chip ice cream. All of which still seem like the height of wild abandon.

Tinned pears currently in my kitchen

Tinned pears, on the other hand, were what we got whenever we ate with my dad’s parents, usually with one of those bricks of vanilla ice cream wrapped in card. Not an everyday item but not once a year either. I could have tinned pears every day now if I wanted to, but I don’t because then they wouldn’t feel special and transporting. I have them now and then, same as I do with buttered malt loaf or a salt and vinegar crisp sandwich. I can taste each one of these as I write, and they drop the flood defences and let memories wash over me, mostly from childhood but now overlaid with more recent times too, just like Proust’s madeleine. I wonder what Proust would have got out of a whole variety pack.

K could also have been for Keswick, knitting or kitchen sink, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I’d seen Helen Macdonald give a reading at one of the festivals that had gone online in 2020 or ’21, from the title essay of this book, and I decided to buy it with my birthday money. Vesper Flights is one of the longer pieces in the book and contains some enchanting imagery related to swifts and their flight. Many of the essays feature birds, as you might expect from someone who is known for a book called H is for Hawk, but there are also fungi, deer, a wild boar and a fair few people.

I started reading it a couple of days before Christmas, thinking it would be just the thing for the six or seven hours’ return train journey to see OneMonkey’s dad. It’s a little less than three-quarters of an inch thick, about 260 pages, but what with my slowed-down reading speed and pauses to look out at the scenery of North Yorkshire and County Durham or ponder what I’d read, I only got halfway through. The other half then took me another three weeks, an essay or short musing slipped in between work and tea or washing up and bed.

The book is one that might be referred to as not really a nature book, in Richard Smyth’s 2017 essay on the limitations of nature writing. All the pieces except one (The Student’s Tale) contain ‘nature’ if you like – observations on a species or habitat, information about a study carried out in the distant past, an account of a trip to a nature reserve – but few of them are solely about the species or habitat in question, though the paperback says ‘nature writing’ on the back cover next to the price. Many of the pieces put me in mind of the kind of article I might read in the weekend edition of a newspaper, not because the topic particularly interested me but because I was idly browsing and the first paragraph caught my attention. Indeed, I believe a lot of them were written for The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman, i.e. for a general readership.

This is a book then for the curious non-specialist. Someone with a passing interest in nature, perhaps, eager to read descriptions of it by someone more deeply immersed – a casual dipper, willing to be drawn in. Or someone like me who shies away from Latin names and technical terms (despite being a trained scientist who has studied Latin) but is keen to learn more about the wondrous things they see while out walking, or watching from an upstairs window while working from home. And Macdonald does talk of wondrous things, and of the need for both science and a dash of magic, of awe.

In my experience if you go out hoping for revelation you will merely get rained upon.

Helen Macdonald, The Numinous Ordinary in Vesper Flights

One of the aspects I enjoyed was the accessibility of most of the experiences in Vesper Flights. Sometimes it feels as though nature writing is all about wealthy chaps communing in the wilderness (see Richard Smyth’s other delightful essay, The State of Nature). Although there is a trip to South America and to the Empire State Building in Vesper Flights, for the most part these are urban and suburban adventures in the UK. Watching peregrine falcons on the other side of a metal fence at a disused power station, or a small flock of migrating birds outside a shopping centre, doesn’t feel like the preserve of a particular strata of society. However, that the author is middle-class and Cambridge educated does come forcibly to the fore in Birds, Tabled which is mainly about caged songbirds kept by ‘the working classes’, and which I found patronising and slightly offensive. It reminded me that authors assume a shared understanding of the world with their readers, and when that isn’t the case the reader can feel excluded at best. It’s also good evidence for why the recent push for working class nature writers isn’t as daft as some people seem to think.

Because this is nature-based writing for a general readership, Macdonald often weaves topics together to make the reader look at the world differently. For instance, migrating birds and migrating people, or the onset of migraines and the onset of climate catastrophe. One theme that recurs is how our cultural context shapes our interpretation of animal behaviour, which was interesting. Current affairs naturally creep in (the dates of each piece for context would have been nice, but I say that about most collections) and you can spot recurring fears and preoccupations like Brexit, the plight of refugees, Donald Trump – if you’re not centre-left some of it will start to irritate you, I imagine. I found The Student’s Tale jarringly out of place: a nicely written piece but I bought this book as ‘nature writing’ and couldn’t understand why an account of an epidemiology student seeking asylum in the UK had been included.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I learnt some scientific and historical facts, I looked at a few things differently, and on the way I enjoyed some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of animals and places, that were at times quite magical. I haven’t read many books that would be classed as nature writing and purists might dismiss this collection but if it encourages a wider readership to take notice of their surroundings and the effects of their choices as homeowners or consumers then that has to be a good thing.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald

I’ve read a fair few of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels over the past 10 years courtesy of the Library of Mum and Dad but I think I’ve only reviewed one (The Barbarous Coast) so it felt like it was about time I recommended another. The Way Some People Die is an excellent slice of hard-boiled noir from 1951 featuring juvenile delinquents, drugs and exploited women, with the bodies piling up as Archer drives up and down the Californian coast getting confused and misled. It starts, as many do, with a missing girl…

As with Philip Marlowe, there is a chivalry at the core of Lew Archer that gets him into trouble. Also like Marlowe, I would say Archer is a cynical optimist – while he’s painfully aware that many people would sell their own grandmother for half an hour’s excitement, he believes that most (definitely not all) people are worth saving, if he can. It’s that blend of gunning for the truly bad guys while trying to save the others from themselves that makes Archer worth spending time with. There’s double-crossing aplenty, the odd wisecrack, and some lovely description.

I’ve written before about the sense of place in detective novels, and this is no exception. The landscape, weather, and particularly the sea play a large part in the atmosphere of the book. He doesn’t have Raymond Chandler’s terse style but he can conjure a nice image nevertheless, from driving ‘under the smothering gray sky’ to meeting someone with grey hair ‘like iron filings tempted by a magnet’ to this description of Pacific Point: ‘It rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory’. When Archer mentions how recently some small town was bare desert it hit me how fast-changing that whole area was, and I wondered if some of it would seem as exotic to a local now as it does to me 5,000 miles away.

If you’re looking for happy endings this isn’t the place to find them, but if you like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett I can heartily recommend both this novel and Ross Macdonald in general. I believe he wrote a couple of dozen novels between the 1940s and 1970s though not all of them are Lew Archer cases.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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J is for Jumpers

Not unusually for the 1980s, both my grandmothers were keen knitters. Nana was seldom seen at rest without knitting needles in her hands, and it was Grandma’s main hobby apart from crosswords, swimming at the local baths, or tending her vegetable garden. Although I do remember Grandma knitting leg-warmers for my cousin and Nana knitting the odd skirt, both of them concentrated on jumpers and cardigans.

One of Nana’s many knitting patterns. I remember my parents wearing all of these.

They each had favourite patterns that they’d either bought (like the slim booklet of Aran patterns pictured above) or ripped out of magazines – Woman’s Weekly in Nana’s case and probably Family Circle in Grandma’s. Of course what with this and hand-me-downs the entire extended family could end up wearing matching pullovers as though we were auditioning to be the smiling family group on the knitting patterns. There might be some variation in colour for other patterns, but Nana always knit Arans in traditional cream (Grandma branched out into navy as I recall), and she usually knit them on the large side. My parents still wear Nana-knit jumpers that are older than me.

My dad in one of his Aran jumpers, as Nana holds a newborn me. My mum is dreadful for chopping people off photos.

Grandma followed trends a bit more than Nana did, and went through a phase of knitting enormous bat-wing jumpers in the eighties for my mum and older cousins. She also bought wooden needles thicker than her thumb, on which she’d produce open, lacy jumpers which wouldn’t even keep the chill off on a summer evening. I was too young for those, I got Rupert Bear’s face on a pale blue background, or a cartoon squirrel, each with a label sewn in that had ‘Hand-knitted by’ and her name next to a stylized ball of wool. My mum even tried knitting when I was little, and the part-finished My Little Pony jumper that I’d grown out of before she got halfway down the front (“It’ll stretch, it’ll be fine”) became the stuff of family legend. When I was in my twenties we persuaded her to throw it out. She never did get to the sleeves.

As I grew Nana would take a jumper off me, unravel it, and knit a bigger version in summer supplemented with an additional ball of yarn. Unfortunately she stopped knitting before I stopped growing and I don’t have any of her jumpers left. I do have an Aran sweater that OneMonkey’s mum knit me about twenty years ago, several sizes bigger than me because that’s the way I like them. It’s burgundy, so I stand out.

J could also have been for jam tarts, Jester badge, jigsaws or jelly and ice cream, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Reading my way through 2021, slowly

After the hellish plague-year that was 2020 I was struggling with reading, particularly fiction. I couldn’t quite muster the necessary concentration to parse words on a page, and there were certainly times when it felt like I had too much going on in my own life to start ferretting around for empathy I could spend on imaginary people. To make my reading year seem less overwhelming, and to allow for the fact I was still doing a big clearout of books with the vague intention of moving house sometime later in the year (which I haven’t done but plans are afoot), I decided to look at it quarterly.

Books I finished in the first quarter of 2021

Up to the end of March I’d only read 4 physical books (pictured above) and 3 ebooks but I reviewed most of them at the time. You can find out what I thought of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Ben Aaronovitch story collection Tales From the Folly in my first review of 2021 (short version: they were ok but didn’t make my heart sing). I wrote at length about Ur of the Chaldees in February, popular archaeology from the 1920s and one for the Time Team fans. In March I shared my enthusiasm for The Bone Ships by RJ Barker, the first volume in a nautical other-world fantasy trilogy. Since then I’ve read volume 2, Call of the Bone Ships (even better) but not dared embark on the final volume as everyone who mentions it on Twitter talks about how much they cried! I reviewed the novella-in-flash Straw Gods for TSS, and you can read that review here.

I re-read Down With Skool! after listening to an episode of the Backlisted podcast about the collected Willans and Searle Molesworth books and it was comforting in its way but I gave up partway through the follow-up Whizz for Atoms as 1950s prep school boys began to seem too far removed from my life to bother with. When I last read the Molesworth books it was the 1980s and my staple reading included The Beano, Just William, Billy Bunter and Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. How times have changed.

Physical books read in the 2nd quarter of 2021

The re-reading continued with Reaper Man in the second quarter (Terry Pratchett at his best was sublime), when I read 3 physical books and 5 ebooks, 4 of which I reviewed here on the blog. They were the Teesside-set Ironopolis by Glen James Brown (“Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales”); Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty whose title is self-explanatory; The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton set in 17th century Amsterdam and relating to the Dutch East India Company; and spy thriller Slow Horses by Mick Herron. I also reviewed the short story collection Everyone Worth Knowing for TSS.

As usual I read a few history books this year. Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades is a three-volume set which OneMonkey bought (and part-read) twenty years ago when he had a daily train commute. I enjoyed Volume 1 which, despite being from the 1950s, seemed remarkably even-handed in its treatment of the various parties and he comes across as rightly disgusted by the behaviour of some of the supposedly Christian crusaders. It covers a lot of background and context, whereas Volume 2 (where I stalled about a third of the way through) felt more like a blow by blow account of pitched battles and sieges undertaken by people with frustratingly similar names – way too many people called Baldwin or Ralph. See also The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, which I read in the autumn. I did read that one all the way to the end but I kept getting bogged down in battle detail and similarly-named leaders and generals. It was a fascinating (and horrifying) account of the East India Company’s takeover of a huge chunk of India, which I had only a passing acquaintance with but ought to be taught in British schools.

Books read in the third quarter of 2021

In the third quarter I read 5 physical books and 3 ebooks. Airedale is a sci-fi police procedural set in Yorkshire, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed it – I even bought a copy for The Nephew for Christmas. I also gave rom com a go and ended up reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which turned out not to be my cup of tea and The Split by Laura Kay which was most enjoyable and quite funny (no coincidence that it’s set in Yorkshire). The Economic Development of France and Germany was dry, old-fashioned history (written between the wars) full of tables of wheat production and steam engines per head of population. When I’m in the right mood I love that stuff, and I learnt so much about the textile industries of France and Germany as compared to Yorkshire (and he does indeed compare them to Yorkshire and sometimes specifically Bradford), and agricultural methods compared to the small amount I know about England. If you like that kind of detail I recommend it.

Books read in the final quarter of 2021

Interestingly I read 5 physical books and 3 ebooks in the last quarter of the year as well, including a couple of Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, and Christopher Eccleston’s raw memoir I Love the Bones of You which wasn’t an easy read.

As well as Maigret I’ve been comfort-reading in the form of children’s books and more Jodi Taylor. Jodi Taylor writes deceptively simple fantasy novels that you can reliably turn to. In The Chronicles of St Mary’s we follow Max (Dr Maxwell) as she does historical research in contemporary time – don’t call her a time-traveller. Someone will probably die, others will be in deadly peril, they’ll visit some famous moments in history, and Max will be inappropriately flippant. It’s usually an enjoyable romp with heart-wrenching moments. This year I read book 5, I’ve got books 6 and 7 on the To Read shelf, there are short stories available too, and she writes other related strands (like Torchwood or the Sarah Jane Adventures are to Doctor Who).

David Almond came to one of the New Writing North How to Start Writing the Climate workshops during the summer to talk about his new YA novel Bone Music. Set in the north-east of England (Kielder I think) it’s about a city girl who goes on climate marches but is used to all mod cons. She spends a short time in the tiny village where her mum was born and deepens her connection to nature, helped by a lad of her age who plays an ancient bone flute. It has a great sense of place, some lovely description and plenty to think about.

I was disappointed with both The Nanny State Made Me, and The Northern Question, in part because I had unreasonably high expectations. I’m not a professional historian, but neither are Maconie or Hazeldine and I’ve probably read the same books and articles as they have, for the most part. Other than the anecdotes from interviews, I learnt nothing new from Stuart Maconie’s book, and the history in the Northern Question up to about the 1970s was largely familiar to me as well. I like Stuart Maconie’s affectionately irreverent style but it was not on show in Nanny State, I think the subject matter meant too much to him to step back and treat it even-handedly and it verged on hagiography at times. Consequently, I’m not sure who the book is aimed at; fans of the welfare state will learn little they didn’t already know, and those he’s seeking to persuade will spot the rose-tinted view of the flaws and wonder if he’s also over-egged the upside. Hazeldine’s book was good on the subtle machinations of post-war politics (I mean, it was good at summarising the centuries before that too, but I knew most of that stuff) and made me properly angry at a selection of ministers, not just Mrs Thatcher. I did get annoyed at his use of the term ‘rustbelt’ to refer to the post-industrial north (with friends like these, etc…) but I’d recommend it particularly to left-wingers who are under thirty-five or not from the north of England and don’t quite understand the context for Brexit and the ‘crumbling of the red wall’.

As usual, about two-thirds of my reading this year was fiction but unusually, less than half of that was SFF. I finished fewer books than usual: 31, my lowest annual total since 2006 which was the year I parachuted out of my PhD with my sanity barely intact. However, what doesn’t usually get mentioned in the end-of-year round-up are the books I started but gave up on. As well as the couple I’ve referred to above, I abandoned a book on the geology of England and Wales after about 50 pages; gave up on a book of SJ Parris novellas which I wrote about anyway; I tried a few Maxim Gorki novels inherited from my great-uncle and decided I didn’t like his writing style; there were a couple of Doctor Who novels I just couldn’t get into; a couple of dry old-fashioned history books that somehow didn’t grab me like The Economic Development of France and Germany did. And those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I’ve also been darting about this year, instead of only having one book on the go at once (or one fiction and one non-fiction, occasionally) I’m currently partway through two local history books, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, and Mordew by Alex Pheby, and I fully intend to finish them all. Just not yet.

Here’s to the new year, may it be kinder to all of us. I hope you find some enjoyable books to read, and if I’ve helped you along in that respect you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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I is for Icicles

“You don’t get icicles like you did when I was a girl,” OneMonkey’s mum (born in the 1940s) used to say. The changing climate and rose-tinted hindsight both play their part I’m sure, but I’m starting to agree with her and I was born thirty-odd years later.

Icicles from my childhood, as photographed by my dad

I vividly remember my dad driving us through the dusk sometime in 1985, somewhere in Cornwall, and passing a wall of icicles as big as me, covering a cliff face. Admittedly I wasn’t very big at the time but they were still impressive icicles and gave me a considerable Wow moment. Even then I didn’t see icicles very often, despite expecting to be able to build snowmen each winter. They were magical sparkly reminders of fairytales or Narnia or Superman’s hideout in the Christopher Reeve film. Whereas snow could be stomped in and built with, icicles didn’t have a purpose, they just were.

Icicles at our old place, 2010

I still find snow a magical and wondrous thing, though I dare say I wouldn’t if I had to drive in it. Maybe if I lived in the parts of Canada or Scandinavia where the snow arrives weeks before Christmas and stays till the Spring thaw I’d get used to it, stop noticing its softening magnificence. Here at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales though it’s an occasional visitor that rarely outstays its welcome and I will happily watch descending snowflakes or marvel at fresh-fallen snow the way I did twenty, thirty or forty years ago. Icicles are rarer still and I can’t help taking pictures of any I encounter that are more than about an inch and a half long.

Icicles outside the window, 2018

Of course, the fact that I can remember those specific icicles in 1985 suggests they were pretty out of the ordinary. No doubt there were several winters in my childhood where I saw smaller icicles or none at all. Still, I look at the more recent ones and think, They’re just not as good as the icicles when I was a girl.

I could also have been for icing, illness or I believe in Father Christmas but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Meditation on stone

It may look like a shrivelled mouldy potato now, bluish purple with a few streaks of pink, but on the beach, shiny with seawater, it was stone-washed denim with red veins. I shifted other stones in my search for fossils and it caught my eye, caught my heart. I brought it home by train across the county and forgot about it.

I’d like to say I gaze upon it and ponder the vastness of geological time, the insignificance of man in earth’s history, but it’s a stone among stones. It has no special place like the few treasured fossils in the glass-fronted cabinet, handed down the generations, or the ones under the glass dome of the thimble-stand that we found ourselves. It doesn’t even have the status of the plainer ammonites in the glass vase on the hearth. It is a stone in a small basket of stones, picked for its colour and kept for its holiday memories which have now faded with its hue. I can’t tell you when I found it, or if it was in Whitby or Filey. It is overlooked, another piece of clutter.

Holding it now, it feels like a pumice stone, light and pitted. It fits in my hand like an unyielding stress-ball covered in a light film of dust – who dusts their basket of stones? Who has a basket of stones? It is a small piece of the earth which has tumbled down a cliff, rumbled under water. It is a shrunken asteroid, an inhospitable mining planet from 70s sci-fi. If I tasted it would I taste salt and seaweed and fish and chips? Would I get an electric jolt as though it was a 9V battery? Would I convince myself it was a mouldy potato and spit it out? Would I lap up the discarded body parts of tiny long-dead creatures?

Do you miss the sea? Can you hear its shush-shush in your dreams? Do stones dream? Can you hear me? Where does a stone’s soul go when it splinters and crumbles to dust?

I imagine the stone maintains a dignified silence, and then it hits me: on its timescale I am inaudible, a microsecond’s squeak, and even if it did hear, and understand, and choose to reply, it would take aeons for its thought processes to grind together into something resembling words, and by then I would have splintered and crumbled to dust.

This post began as an exercise in the New Writing North How to Start Writing the Climate workshop in July 2021. If you enjoyed it you can always buy me a cuppa…

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H is for Hindu godfather

When you’re a kid you think your family’s normal. It’s the yardstick by which you measure everything else, adjusting as necessary when you discover that no, the rest of the class don’t carry their pet goldfish in a bucket of water when they go on a caravan holiday, nor do they mix an extended family’s worth of Christmas pudding mixture each year in a Victorian baby bath. Nobody else had a Hindu godfather either, not even my Hindu friends.

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

In the years running up to my birth my mum worked with a man from Sri Lanka and our families became close. Although the Sri Lankan civil war didn’t begin until the early 80s, once the demand had been made for a separate Tamil state in 1975 I’m told life wasn’t particularly comfortable for Tamils like my ‘Uncle S’. He, his wife ‘Aunty G’ and their three children came to Britain; when he was born, Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it then was) was part of the British empire so it was an obvious choice.

I’m not a Christian but as I understand it, it’s quite an honour to be asked to be the godparent of a friend’s baby, and my mum (my dad being an atheist) wasn’t going to let a little thing like religion get in the way. Clearly I can’t remember what happened at the ceremony but I have seen a photo of a beaming Uncle S in the church. He had a big influence on my early life though not on my religion, and he certainly broadened my outlook. He moved to London when he retired, to be near his grandchildren, so I haven’t seen him for a few years. However, I always have a box of the sandalwood incense his house used to smell of and I light some when I want to feel closer to him. If only I also had some of Aunty G’s rosewater-soaked Christmas cake.

H could also have been for Hungry Hippos, hats or hedgehogs but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Rediscovering Maigret

The only Maigret paperback I have ever owned

This year after not reading any of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels for years I’ve read three as ebooks from the library: Maigret and the Man on the Bench, Maigret Takes a Room, and Maigret’s Mistake. I’d forgotten how gently melancholy they could be, as Maigret sits and ponders in cafes or his office, smoking his pipe. Rather than running around chasing people he seems to potter around Paris asking questions, slotting pieces of the puzzle together, occasionally sending his assistant Janvier off to track someone down. When they do corner the villain, Maigret is usually more disappointed than angry, particularly if they are young. I hadn’t picked up on his underlying sadness at never having children, before, but it is mentioned in all three books I think.

I used to read Maigret as a child, probably even before I started on Agatha Christie at eleven or so. My dad borrowed them from the library and before I had my own adult borrower’s card I would read some of them too before he returned them. I dare say the racier themes passed me by but the atmosphere and the central characters stayed with me, and when Michael Gambon starred in the TV adaptation in the early 90s my dad and I watched them together. For years, it was Gambon who portrayed Jules Maigret in my head when I read the books, but this year he was replaced by Rowan Atkinson’s kind paternalism. That change made me realise how wonderfully Atkinson had portrayed Maigret in the ITV adaptations a few years ago. We watched them at the time with OneMonkey’s parents, as I recall, and now OneMonkey’s dad has started reading the novels on my recommendation.

I turned to Maigret as a literary comfort blanket, an easy throwback to childhood without going the full Paddington. It worked on that level but I also enjoyed the story on its own terms, hence returning for more. They’re not cosy crime, the three I’ve read this year date from the 1950s and have sordid and grubby elements, hunger and desperation. It’s Maigret’s attitude, his understanding, that makes them in any way comforting. In these days of paperback door-stoppers the Maigret novels are refreshingly short, a wet weekend read that I can immerse myself in. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered Simenon’s Maigret. Thankfully he wrote more than seventy novels in the series so there are plenty more for me to revisit.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite detective, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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G is for Golden Guernsey Goats

“Don’t tell people we let the goats come in the house!”

This was a familiar wail from my mother during a short section of my childhood. Along with not telling people how much money I had in my purse or the building society, or had received for Christmas, there were a host of other obscure rules that I never quite grasped about what we couldn’t reveal to all and sundry. Particularly the one about not telling people that my sisters were my sisters – Big Brother never really mixed with people who hadn’t known him since childhood so he didn’t pose a problem. I was probably in my teens before I realised that this was because, being technically my cousins and born before my parents got married, it made my mum look like a teenage mother and she was mortified, but of course she never explained this and so I kept on telling everyone I met about my fabulous big sisters. It’s a good job social media wasn’t around when I was a child, is all I can say.

But, you may well be asking, why were there goats in the house in the first place? Well, obviously it’s because they didn’t want to be outside in all weathers, though I doubt it was much warmer in the house than it was in their shelter. We lived in Cornwall at the time in a big house with a small field, on a clifftop. It had two open fires and a range downstairs, and no heating at all upstairs. The wind – often gale-force – howled between the sections of the sash windows. For reasons known only to my late Nana, the kitchen door was often wide open. Hence the goats could wander in when they pleased, up the back stairs to curl up on the bath-mat for an afternoon nap.

Yes, I hear you say with waning patience, but why goats at all, and what are Golden Guernseys? Golden Guernseys are a rare breed of dairy goat: small, coarse-haired and ginger and full of personality. By which I mean, mischievous and destructive. As for why we had a nanny and kid for several months, I’m not sure. They belonged to a couple my parents knew, who I think had a farm or smallholding. We ended up with just over a dozen of their Jacob sheep for a while too. There will have been some practical reason like they were getting a cess pit replaced or having a barn repaired and we had just enough field to help them out, but at the age of six I wasn’t party to the boring grown-up stuff. All I knew was that for a while I almost didn’t mind that we couldn’t spend much time at Uncle Bob’s farm in Cumbria, because I had farm animals right outside my door. And on many a rainy afternoon, inside it as well.

Golden Guernsey nanny tethered near the open kitchen door

G could also have been for glockenspiel but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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I Love The Bones Of You by Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.

Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.

There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.

Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.

I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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F is for family history

It was my Nana that instilled a sense of my family’s history in me. When I was about twelve my grandad gave me photocopies of his parents’ marriage and death certificates which helped me get started on proper family history research later, but I don’t remember him or my grandma talking about their childhoods. Nana, on the other hand… When I was little we were inseparable and she was a chatterbox. I spent my pre-school days and then my weekends, evenings and school holidays with her and assorted friends and relations of her generation. Man, could they talk. Sometimes they’d natter away and forget I was there, and I absorbed favourite reminiscences and old gossip. Often though, they’d deliberately tell stories to the wide-eyed child who hadn’t heard them a hundred times before.

Now and then they’d tell me what they remembered, or had been told, about older generations, in fact I mentioned a few years ago some of the family tales and phrases that had been passed down that way. Thus Nana’s cousin Jo Jo described the goalkeeping skills of my great-grandad for the Atherton Codders in the 1920s, eyes shining like he could still see the pitch in front of him. I heard about Nana and Jo Jo being taken on a seaside holiday by their grandparents, and about my great-grandad’s budgies in a walk-in cage in the back garden. Usually they related funny or memorable events from their own youth. Nana’s lifelong friend Alice in particular told hilarious tales absolutely deadpan and was a master of pacing and scene-setting. I can still picture her landing at the feet of a surprised old couple in 1930s Derbyshire when her husband applied the brakes too hard on the tandem after a handlebar mishap.

It had been long enough since the war (forty years or more) that I got the amusing anecdotes about misadventure and misunderstanding: “Bombing at random again?” said my great-grandma, listening to the radio. “There’ll be nobody left there. Where is Random, anyway?”. My Nana’s youngest sister using gravy browning and an eyebrow pencil to mock up seamed stockings on her bare legs. Filling the butter dish with lard to teach a small child not to filch rationed butter from the sideboard. My Royal Marine grandad getting drunk, losing his ship and having to hitch a lift on another one. Nobody talked about the sick fear, the disruption and hardship. What’s the use of dragging all that up again? And yet, even though I was a child I didn’t only get the polite or sugar-coated version of history. Nana was completely open with me about her brother having a different dad who her mum hadn’t been allowed to marry. And about the suicide of her great-grandad about a decade before she was born.

I took these facts as they were given, crucial pieces of the story that I wouldn’t find written down anywhere, but nothing shocking. It’s only looking back now I’m older that I’m amazed, thinking about how in the 1980s we still referred to children ‘born out of wedlock’, and how much stigma is even now attached to suicide which was – lest we forget – illegal until the 1960s. Not only did my Nana happily pass this information on to me when I was still at primary school, but she knew it in the first place! Her mum got married during the first world war and openly brought with her the son she’d had with a previous boyfriend in another village. No passing him off as her little brother or an orphaned nephew, or leaving him to be brought up by someone else while she got on with her new life as many others did. And as for the story about Nana’s great-grandad, she got that from her grandma Emily whose father it was.

Nana with her grandma Emily in 1920

It was passed to me as I imagine it was passed to Nana, with sadness but no shame or condemnation. Emily found her father’s body and understood what had driven him to desperation. Perhaps the village doctor understood too, because the death certificate uses fancy medical terms for ‘died of old age’ whereas it must have been obvious what had happened. Emily clearly loved him and didn’t want the truth to be forgotten. Thus, even though Emily died nearly forty years before I was born I feel a connection with her, and thanks to the passed-down story I know that her dad had his troubles but did his best. Which I’m sure she would appreciate.

F could also have been for Ford Fiesta, fireworks, fish and chips, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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