Hobbiton is a long way off

By the time you read this, I should have been at a party.

'Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen', by Peder Severin Krøyer (1888), painting of a garden party with men and women around a table laden with drinks

But: no.

Last week I posted a review of my writing goals at the halfway point in the calendar year. Back in January, in addition to those goals, I also wrote this:

“One breath in the wrong place and you’re infected with COVID. And right now, the UK is near the top of the list of the wrong places.”

After months of a lockdown only half as restrictive as the first (March 2020), the UK is again on a hiding to nothing. Our direction of travel is headed for: No masks, no distancing, no attempt to limit the spread of infection.

“Murderous”

William A Haseltine

There are no visible plans for longer-term management of the pandemic. There seems to be little acknowledgement within the government – however they may have been briefed by scientists and specialists – that this disease is not flu (not even a bad flu, even one as dangerous as the 1918 pandemic as described in the excellent Pale Rider by Laura Spinney).

The words in my head right now are “infected blankets”. Whether or not New World peoples were deliberately given Old World diseases, or we just didn’t know about germs back then, when new populations encounter mature disease for the first time, the disease usually wins.

Part of my studies in ancient history covered human evolution, and I’ve written about genetic evidence for human diversity and how we spread across the planet.

Geneticists point that we survive chickenpox, the common cold, most influenza and other viral diseases because, in the past, those who are vulnerable to childhood diseases have removed themselves from our gene pool.

This thread on Twitter says:

“Think of… hunter-gatherer children, getting the same viruses we all catch in childhood, and those same successful viruses still doing their thing tens of millennia later

Dr C J Houldcroft

Immunity to childhood diseases has been gained over thousands of years, generations of the vulnerable lost through the ages, our lives today a result of our ancestors’ survival.

We don’t have centuries of living with COVID. Cramming a hundred thousand years of death into a couple of years is… scandalous. Especially when we have the wherewithal to avoid it.


line illustration of three crouching figures on a grey background, The Dead Marshes by Cor Blok
The Dead Marshes by Cor Blok

Shortly after I graduated, I applied to work on one excavation which required all staff to have a smallpox vaccination scar before they’d let you onsite.

They were digging up an old cemetery where some of the bodies were thought to be smallpox victims. Even though smallpox has been eradicated from modern life by vaccination, there was enough of a chance of infection from those old graves that the archaeologists were taking no chances.

I didn’t get the job in the end – even thirty years ago I couldn’t afford to live in London, even with a job and only for six months. But the lesson this taught me was that infection with a deadly disease is no simple matter.

Now this latest wave is upon us, even though most of the people I know are double vaccinated, I’ll have to try and keep my household safe.

No going out.

No mingling, no fluffy muffins in a farm shop café, no long summer afternoons in a beer garden watching the world go by and setting it to rights in half-cut hubris.

We are still struggling our way across Mordor. Hobbiton is a long way off.

painting by Ulla Thynell of the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings, marshland with three figures and will-o-the-wisp lights
Frodo and Sam in the Dead Marshes, by Ulla Thynell

This is not a war; the enemy won’t submit to propaganda, or negotiation. The civilian population seem resigned to being herded, not to safety, but into needless peril.

What should have been our Waterloo summer is looking more like Dunkirk, or Gallipoli.

I’m aware how much I rely on others taking risks with their health that I am reluctant to consider with mine, and how much those others may have no option but to continue taking those risks as part of a lesser threat to their prosperity.

I hate that we are being forced to make these choices, by the actions or inaction of the powers that be, when there are alternatives available.

What can we do, though?

The outrage and fury counts for nothing.

Protests have an uneasy taint about them. Viewing the daily statistics in the hope that somehow the outrage might bring down the government won’t help either.

I know people are tired of this now. I’m tired of it too – I want life to return to something like how it was before COVID, even if I don’t intend to visit the cinema or go to a nightclub.

Safe enough to get on a train and meet up with @dawnthepoet and wander round the British Museum.

Safe enough to see my family, and those friends I was meant to be with this weekend, all dressed up in our fancy duds at a garden party in the sun.

Safe enough for my sister-in-law to receive the surgery she needs, not delayed yet again while she’s waiting in agony, disabled and unable to return to the job she loves.

I’d like to see the government take COVID measures by the throat and shake us free.

Not like this.

black and white illustration by Tove Janssen for Tolkein's The Hobbit showing Smaug the dragon flying over boats on a lake
Smaug, illustration by Tove Janssen

Ooookayyyy, after that I reckon we need some interesting links:

How much did grandmothers influence human evolution? Aunties and grandfathers too! An article in the Smithsonian magazine, found via palaeoanthropologist John Hawks (writing about how long menopause has been going on – too damn long! shout women of a certain age everywhere…).

Vintage artworks illustrating The Hobbit, on BrainPickings. Some of Tolkien’s own artwork can be seen on Museoteca – interestingly, there are none of Mordor or the Dead Marshes. Did he produce any?

The art shop of talented illustrator Ulla Thynell, who produced one of the images of Sam and Frodo featured. I’m rather partial to her “Tiny Elves” making their way through a snowy landscape (yes, the UK is currently in a heatwave).

Discussion of Sam and Frodo’s journey through the marshes on The Fandamentals, from where I found Ulla Thynell.

A list of the independent bookshops of the UK and Ireland, with a map. Because we all need books, with which to fill our hours.

2021 – Updating my intentions

Halfway through the calendar year, I thought it was time I reviewed my writing plans for 2021. I took three posts to get round to stating my intentions.

January 2021 – Look back mostly skimmed over a year tainted with COVID-19. In a moment of hope, which currently seems somewhat over-optimistic, I said:

We expect to remain shielding until everyone is vaccinated and the virus has gone… We realise this may be some time.

Well, bugger. Just when it looked like things were going well, and a visit to friends for the first time in aaages was on the horizon, the Delta variant arrived and scuppered those plans. Back into household lockdown we go. And thankful for the ability to do so, while furious at the mismanagement that failed to mitigate the risks.

I did warn myself:

“there’s also a risk that, as ever, being bogged down in the stories that fill the news… will be detrimental to creativity”

This. So much this.

Like picking at a scab and wondering why it won’t heal, scrolling social media for an echo of the same tale minute by minute just leads to wasted hours with nothing to show for ’em. No creative writing, no tasty meals prepared, no grass mown.

In the same post I wrote:

“…part of my new writing year’s resolutions is to write with more focus on work which can be published, to finish that work, and submit more poetry to online journals.”

Yeah, nice idea. Still, I have half a year left to work on it.

On top of that, I also suggested:

“There’s scope, room, for learning more skills. For reading widely, online and on paper, to research and build the worlds my stories will occupy.”

Illustration by Waltrich - a human figure reading a book

At least I’ve been able to make a start on some of this. Books, fiction and nonfiction, feed the imagination, and I have a stack of ’em to work through. Haven’t kept my Goodreads up to date though.

A trip to a museum is right out at the moment, sadly – I’d love to revisit the magnificent Kelvingrove, for example, and I’ve mothballed a proposed visit to Calke Abbey – but I’ve enjoyed the scenery of far-flung places through the writings of others.

All grist to the mill.

Here’s a reminder of my writing goals for 2021:

  1. One non-fiction project.
  2. Write more, including fiction and poetry.
  3. Submit poetry to online journals.

How have I done so far?

Hmm…

  1. I have more than one non-fiction project on my to-do list. Prioritise!
  2. Yes, I have written more this year than last, including a quarter of a new novel (Project NEVADA, somewhat stalled) and some new poetry.
  3. Umm, I submitted a couple of poems and had them returned.

Ooh, I mustn’t forget the twelve posts I wrote for The Last Rhinemaiden! And the regular posts on here.

Overall, still at “hmm…” though.

Six months to go. Time to get on it (again).


And here’s this week’s links (I think we could do with some cheering up):

A throwback to the 1970s, and a staple of my childhood: The Goodies (YouTube link, surreal humour involved). Also the official fan club, going strong at The Goodies Rule – OK. OMG I feel like I’m ten years old again… Their newsletter is superb!

Take a scroll through the collections at Calke Abbey on the National Trust’s website – I promise, there is so much junk in there that once you’ve stopped going “you what?”, your fingers will be itching to do a Marie Kondo (“The family were avid collectors but also they tended not to throw anything away”). There’s some really nice stuff, and then there’s the cr@p… small fragments of stained glass; rusted iron wotsits; illuminated manuscripts; buttons; and much more, like this:

Paper label "cut out of pheasants throat 1887"
Paper label “cut out of pheasants throat 1887”

Fab biographical article on the multi-talented Robert “Bob” Calvert at Thanet Writers Spotlight. And for those of you anticipating a return to the office once coronavirus has receded, his poem The Clerk.

Published in: on July 11, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Next book or not?

I’ll have to write the middle book of Louis Beauregard, because I need to show you how the entitled young frogspawn (“I’d have to smack this man if I were to meet him in real life” – Goodreads reviewer) turned into the wise old warrior.

I always intended to write at least three of these.

THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN shows Louis as an elderly man, facing his death with the same courage he’d lived his entire life constructing.

SHADOWBOX is Louis as a much younger man, an over-entitled blond with an appetite for life so large he discards friends and lovers like used tissues, accumulating debts financial and human in his rakish progress across Europe while he escapes from a murder he was compelled to commit.

In between? What happens in between, to change the man’s behaviour without affecting his character?

I had a touch at this with All Roads Lead To The River. Louis is no longer young, roaming Egypt as a last resort with the latest group of friends to which he’s hitched his wagon.

But even in that short story, his character is closer to the elderly man than the youngster.

So, other than general ageing and maturing, what happens to him between 1832 and 1852 to turn him from his youthful exuberance towards a stronger, calmer personality?

What makes him into the man who gathers the Cuckoo Club around him like an offshoot of the East India Company with an unhealthy dash of the Freemasons?

And the fictional Cuckoo Club itself – with Louis at the helm – turns from a gentlemen’s club of little standing, a group of hobbyists obsessed with what we’d now consider conspiracy theory, into a titan of the British Empire’s ruling classes.

How. Does. That. Happen?

There’s a foreshadowing of how this might progress in the later chapters of SHADOWBOX.

Louis encounters a man who I now see can become a fearsome mentor – a man whose past includes time in the Grande Armée during the retreat from Moscow, an assassin, a bodyguard, and a man whose impeccable appearance hides a sophisticated and ruthless survivor.

Leo Tolstoy, 1848 - young man seated, facing the camera
Leo Tolstoy, 1848. Not the man with whom Louis will run off to Moscow, but the similarity is uncanny.

How would you like a story that takes in those characters, across the cities and landscape of Eastern Europe, across the Black Sea to Constantinople and thence the Nile?

Ooo, I’m even beginning to convince myself…

Which leaves me now with another question, one I’m approaching with my eyes half-shut and my face turned away like you would opening a shook-up can of skoosh:

One more book; or three?

Maybe I’ll have to do some research.


This week’s links, more of a note to myself:

A Dance To The Music Of Time – long, complicated story of family across generations, adapted by Channel 4 from a series of 12 novels by Anthony Powell. I guess this is the “stately home” version of all those family sagas set in pit villages or pioneer communities, none of which is to my taste. Are the stories just filled with toffs being horrid to one another? (in which case I’ll stick to Aldous Huxley).

The Duellists. In SHADOWBOX, but more so in the hidden parts of his storyline, Louis Beauregard does a lot of duelling. By the time of The Last Rhinemaiden he’s mostly delegated this to others, but he still has to fight for his elderly life on occasion. Bonus link – the film also features Robert Stephens, who played Aragorn in the BBC R4 Lord Of The Rings – now available on Fourble!

(Ooh – while looking for The Duellists, I stumbled upon Barry Lyndon (film) by Stanley Kubrick, which looks delicious…)

Les Miserables. The book by Victor Hugo, not the musical (link to Project Gutenberg version). Hugo wrote the story shortly after the events described in the book, and actually took part in the revolution so vividly described. Not sure I’d like to be so close to such historical upheavals, but then again maybe we don’t always have a choice in these matters.

And maybe we’re going through them right now.

A Walk In The Mesolithic

On my regular walk around the neighbourhood, I climb a gentle hill behind the house which affords me a view of the broad river plain below, stretching across fields and patches of woodland to distant hills, craggy above the mist of miles.

Often I pause at the crest of the hill and just stand there, looking at the hills.

A re-enactment of hunter-gatherers surveying the landscape in authentic costume at the end of the ice age (C) National Geographic
(BTW this is not me, nor are they my local hills – image from NatGeo)

Since lockdown I’ve wondered whether I’m hankering for the farm shops and roadside cafés I know are just waiting for me in those hills, laden with juicy produce and abundant cake. (It will go off if it isn’t eaten, you know.)

Other times, most days in fact, I like to imagine what the view would have been like for an ancestor in the Mesolithic. (No point in imagining the landscape further back in time – it was ice all the way north).

The Mesolithic period in Europe is in some ways even more fascinating than the Palaeolithic. For those new to the subject, the Palaeolithic is the Ice Age way of life, hunkered down in caves hiding from sabre-toothed tigers during winter and out on the tundra hunting reindeer and mammoths in the summer. The Mesolithic came after the ice began to melt, when the landscape began to warm up and change.

Freed from ice and permafrost, the land grew grasses and moss. Later on, shrubs such as hazel and willow appeared, interspersing sedge and reeds to build a dense layer of vegetation that decayed into layers of soil until it was deep enough to support larger trees.

Wildlife adapted too.

Mammoths moved further north and east into the continuing wastes of Siberia and the Arctic. Into the space left by those giants moved smaller creatures – deer, birds migrating and resident, small mammals, lizards, and many mini invertebrates.

Frogs. Newts. Hedgehogs.

Human adaptation also moved with the times.

We know from archaeological record that the stone tools used in hunting became smaller, more adept at bringing down small game birds than larger prey. Harpoons, for fishing in the myriad streams and waters that crept up onto the land when the sea levels rose and the rainfall began to be wet and not dry snow.

The Mesolithic is the time of Doggerland.

A mysterious landscape lost under the North Sea, whose denizens must have left centuries of artefacts behind them in the years between the ice retreating and the sea encroaching. Sometimes fishing boats dredge up remnants from the sea bed, tangled in trawl nets like the bones of some Leviathan.

And this is the world I imagine from the brow of the hill every morning, gazing over the town that hugs the curve of the ridge, spans the wide river, spreads out over the floodplains with one eye on the risk.

I look to the distant hills and imagine myself a Mesolithic traveller, camped on the side of this ridge. The mature woodland behind me shrinks to mere scrub, the flat river valley far below filled with marshes and causeways.

I know that the hills many miles away contain valuable stones – rare resources for shaping into the tips of my arrows, and pretty sparkling pebbles to trade as charms.

In the fresh morning air, above the 21st century, I know there’s no way I’d survive the Mesolithic life. The landscape can’t support many of us in that way – and didn’t, back then. The way of life most of us in the modern world have come to expect was totally unthought of. The resources we have harnessed in the intervening millennia have left us unable to support ourselves in the way people survived back then.

Before farming, before concrete, before oil.

But deep, so very deep, in climate change.

There is no going back to the Mesolithic. When I walk the hill in the clear morning’s silence, I take a path between woodland which didn’t exist even forty years ago and fields of pasture grazed by cattle and horses, bounded by wire and hawthorn hedges.

It feels like it’s been this way forever, like I’m treading an ancient ridgeway path that the Stone Age hunters would have recognised, but I’m wrong. The hills in the distance are clad with barley and wheat, oilseed rape and maize. In between are factories making everything from rubber tyres to supermarket ready meals. The fields are grazed by modern cattle much smaller than the aurochs which once browsed our ancient forests.

Our journey to Now is a story of successful adaptation, of looking at the world and seeing opportunities, and of exploiting what we find to make our lives easier, and now we see the damage done because there’s nowhere new to explore.

We’ve filled the world, edge to edge, enough to anticipate a need for rewilding.(link to Knepp on YouTube)

The journey from Here to the Future will use the same brilliance to overcome the challenges we face as our ancestors harnessed to turn themselves into us.

It will, because it will have to.


This week’s links, marginally connected to the post above:

Searching for the people of Doggerland: article on Current Archaeology. Bonus link: Doggerland Art Project.

A new free MOOC from the University of York: Explore Star Carr, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, and learn what life was like over 10,000 years ago.

Underwater archaeology at Bouldnor Cliff in the English Channel collects evidence of Mesolithic activity, via University of Warwick and a random lobster.

Ravenserodd and other lost settlements of the East Yorkshire coast from the blog of Dr Caitlin Green (@caitlinrgreen).

Also Ravensrodd – The Town Under The Sea from writeonthebeach here on WordPress.

Some of the above via Mesolithic Miscellany on Twitter, with lots of lovely links in their timeline.

Published in: on June 27, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Searching For Innocent Mentors

One thing I’ve forgotten since I stopped writing novels, is the amount of time it takes.

Dingbat - a young woman reading a book
Still reading

I have the notes from when I wrote SHADOWBOX. I have the timetable, and the blog posts, which show that it took me three months to get the word-count onto paper.

But ahead of that, there were months of preparation.

I even found a surprise amount of information in an unexpected source, an exhibition in the British Museum on the early Victorian explorers Dodwell & Pomardi, which I only went to because there was time to spare before the exhibition I’d gone to see let me in (timed ticket, popular exhibition – IIRC it was something about Tutankhamun, #fangirl).

There’s the visit to Bristol City Museum to see first hand the documents from Belzoni’s travelling exhibitions, in the flesh, with a curator talking us through the historical background. On the same trip, a visit to the Georgian House Museum to have a look at how a prosperous house of the early 1800s would look.

Maps, maps, maps. The Maps I Used in 1832.

Time travel.

All those blog posts I wrote as part of the launch timing for SHADOWBOX, keeping myself motivated and counting down to publication day, enjoying the process of sharing my research and documenting my work.

With hindsight, today, writing the above, I see a little about how I work.

I haven’t done anywhere near as much research and planning with the Petticoat Katie novels. I didn’t have to, as I was writing a sort of steampunk fantasy and all I had to do was remove some of the 20th – and 21st – century’s less obliging aspects.

So the idea that I have to get on and write something, especially something ambitious like The Gothic Heart Attack Novel I’ve been musing over for ages, is really not how I do this.

THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN was years in the planning, plotting, characterisation and completion. Maybe fifteen years, all told, with huge gaps in between when I wasn’t writing. Focused instead on making a living, having a life, my mind on a career in an office job because that was where the money was, my home life a balance of spouse and parents.

So now I have no job and a pandemic stash of loo roll and pasta, why do I expect my writing habits to change?

It will take some time before I can consider writing fast again.

The Gothic Heart Attack Novel will take more years before I have a structure, and my imagination is adding layers of texture to the story as time goes by. This is a rich textured work, not a slim here-and-now setting. It’s as deep as SHADOWBOX – deeper, in fact, as I have to build a coherent lifecycle and answer many questions about how the non-human characters live.

These facts may or may not go into the final story. They may be background notes which are never added, but add colour to how I see the non-human folk.

One thing I do need is to focus on one story at a time. The Gothic Heart Attack Novel will filter through the mind as I write, but I have to practise writing, and writing novels, to get my hand in.

One of the other problems I have with The Gothic Heart Attack Novel is understanding where in history to pitch it. How long a timescale do I have to cover in order to tell the story I want?

My head is lining it up to be like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; I have to remember the timescale of that. And it took the author (Susanna Clarke) 12 years to get that into print, and it’s a huge book.

Lanark, much as I hated it, was also a labour of years – decades, even.

I don’t have to write fast. I’m not writing category romance, or a film tie-in SF. The books I’m reading at the moment – The Amtrak Wars series, by Patrick Tilley – are just about the only novels he’s published, in the mid-1980s, and he’s still alive. They’re filled with rich background and texture and characters. The impact of all that is impressive.

So… I have to take my time. I don’t do my best work by throwing words on a page like a hangry pizza-maker. It’s a cathedral, a tapestry, a magnum opus.

I’ll have to frame the work for each novel in terms of the timescale I took for SHADOWBOX, and work back. I can’t think this will be quick. That way leads to frustration and shoddy work.

If I feel the clock ticking, I can try writing short stories in the new universe, which will add to the colour of The Gothic Heart Attack Novel when it happens. I have to accept that my output isn’t going to be a hundred novels in a given genre, or many.

I’m trying to build Chartres cathedral, not the workers’ accommodation.

So… another thing I can do is follow writers who have done this before me. While I may take advice from more prolific writers, who write in category fiction or genre, I should also be looking at the writers who produce fewer works with greater depth.

I have to build up a cadre of influencers, a corps of innocent mentors.

I have to look for guidance from writers who produce the sort of work I want to make myself.

This may involve a lot more reading. I’ve made a start.

Painting by Norman Rockwell, "The Bookworm" - man in a raincoat nose-deep in a book
The bookworm in his natural habitat

And now, this week’s links, all concerning small points of world-building importance, whether or not those facts make it into the finished story:

The cost of making a pair of hand-knitted silk stockings of the sort my older characters in SHADOWBOX would remember wearing – Twitter thread, so many time-absorbing rabbit-holes to go down.

Bread and how it was made – the first in a series of posts about the sheer amount of hard work required to produce the daily basics, which we so often forget about when writing historical fiction or fantasy.

Another example:

(Click for a really fascinating thread)
Published in: on June 20, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Juggling with knives. And potatoes.

With the recent jump in temperature as we approach the summer solstice, and the old adage of Write What You Know uppermost in my mind, I’m reminded of summer jobs I worked at in my youth.

Mostly juggling knives. And potatoes.

Stood between a range cooker and a hostess cabinet serving hot food under hot, bright lights. The kitchens were so hot we’d open the windows for a breeze, then the midges came in and all hell broke loose as we itched and scratched and tried not to look like pariahs. We’d put on the big noisy extractor fans instead, and have to use sign language to make ourselves understood.

Sweat gathering in the folds behind your knees, trickling down your legs as if you’d peed yourself. Still smiling at customers fresh from a dip in the nearby river, leisured holiday-makers paying your wages.

Another kitchen, hovering over a deep-fat fryer the size of a washing machine. Praying a customer would order something other than saveloy-and-chips so I could stand in front of the fridge – or the freezer, yay! – for a few seconds while the cool air seeped out onto my blotchy ankles.

Walking home, the dust on the road sticking to my bare skin and my hair stinking of fryer grease.

Offices too, often too cold in winter and far too hot in summer.

One building with an air-circulation system that moved air from one floor to another – how’s that faring these days, now that COVID is airborne?

Another office, in full sun all day under a corrugated steel roof; we’d trip the electrical circuits using fans where none should have been needed, but the building was made in a time before computers and printers and photocopiers, and designed for half as many people.

I’m mindful of these experiences when I write.

In the Petticoat Katie novels, my characters don’t swan around country houses with servants to bring them iced tea by the pool.

They don’t stride across the countryside with their companions on a quest to throw a gold ring into a volcano.

They don’t zip through time and space in an air-conditioned police box larger on the inside than the out.

My characters have to work for a living.

They travel by Tube, and the journeys are often crowded, hot and gritty.

On other occasions they travel by airship above shimmering city streets or sandwiched between forest and thunderclouds, cocooned: oppressive, humid, inescapable.

a chimpanzee seated at an old-fashioned typewriter

Petticoat Katie has an office filled with monkeys in an inner-city block built in the Victorian era. Small windows, one door, and did I mention the monkeys which must not be allowed to escape?

Sledgehammer Girl spends her spare hours in a cramped cellar workshop inventing cute gadgets. Much activity with hammers and drills and flaming torches of the non-pitchforky kind.

In summer both locations are unbearable, the first too hot with the stench of bananas and typewriter ink, the other too breathless for brazing or fabrication.

Each place is similar enough to where I’ve worked that I can make a guess on its conditions. Where I have to put my characters into an unfamiliar situation – as we all have to as writers, especially SF or historical fiction – there’s always the research of other writers or the testimony of witnesses.

The more you know, the better you can imagine.

(And right now, I’m imagining ice-cream on a seafront promenade with just enough breeze to be comfy.)


This week’s links – happy, happy.

Moderna HIV vaccine to begin trials.

Great news – Laziness Does Not Exist. Interesting article on Medium.com, which emphasises the link between situation and response. Worthwhile reading to consider when you’re creating new characters.

And, while I’m not a big fan of podcasts, there are plenty of interest at Fourble including many BBC radio comedies and drama series. Here’s A Canticle For Liebowitz, an SF classic novel adapted for NPR.

Published in: on June 13, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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One Year On: The First Ten Thousand Dead

Little did I realise, when I wrote this poem and posted it here twelve months ago, that we’d still be in the same position in 2021.

A second summer of COVID and a third – fourth? – wave rolling towards us over the sea of our school-age children. Not the best look, UK, not the best look at all.

Friends visited, all of us double vaccinated, and while it was a little weird to start with – (“will we still like them?”) – all went well in the end. Over thirty years of friendship will do that.

The world of climate emergencies has the potential to brick us up in pandemic isolation more frequently. Best we get prepared, by accepting that for now this world is what we have, and its rules have changed.

Generation X have already adapted – when I first went to university in the mid-80s, the sparse “Welcome Pack” had one of those tombstone AIDS leaflets (“don’t have sex or you’ll die”). By the early 1990s the welcome pack had expanded with freebies to include a Pot Noodle and a packet of condoms.

More so than last summer, I do wonder at the people who insist that The Youth of Today are somehow missing out. Yes, they are not going to enjoy the same experiences of those of us who matured before COVID arrived. But they are going to make their own experiences.

They are building a new world, and good luck to ’em. I hope to live in it for some years yet.


Last year I posted this as an image. This year, I’m posting it as text, to make it more accessible. I suppose the time is ripe to compose a follow-up although I’m risking this becoming an annual occurrence.

THE FIRST TEN THOUSAND DEAD

The first ten thousand dead
Did not impress our leaders, did not sway
Them from their path.
Intent on what?
You ask.
Ten thousand dead –
Mere weeks ago,
Statistics that seemed fanciful
– Outrageous and obscene –
Now look like panacea.
Yet no contrition, nor humility,
For any of the first ten thousand dead.
What makes us think the numbers matter now?

Half-hearted lockdown lifted.
Go out! Go out! And make yourselves resist!
The crowds, the happy crowds,
Crammed onto beaches or in public parks
Breathe deep the summer air,
And with it, life.
Small life, a virus; almost without trace
And yet we notice, with a gasp
Where once was song and laughter.
Indoors, survivors seizing hard-won air,
And months of pain
Endure.
What goodness, now, will come of this?

The longest day – Midsummer – fast upon us
And the nights start drawing in.
All through the summer months
Those dwindling daylight hours will mask
So many sacrifices,
The goodwill of our healthcare workers, spent
As is their strength; resilience
Does not last for ever
Without rest. Applause is not enough.

The first ten thousand dead now seem like martyrs;
The next ten thousand dead, unjust mistakes.
Now forty thousand – forty thousand! – missing, stolen, lost.
A second wave is coming
Closer, every indrawn breath
Daring admission.
Have a heart, and pity us.
How many hundred thousand will it take?


(c) Lee McAulay, June 2020


And now, this week’s links:

One of the many variants of influenza appears to have become extinct – StatNews

“I’m not scared to re-enter society, I’m just not sure I want to” – The Atlantic

And a short piece of electronic music – Nils by Bouvetøya (on SoundCloud)

Published in: on June 6, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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What stories are we missing?

In amongst all the written stories of the pandemic so far, tragedy and outrage are dominant.

Rightly so.

The UK government – and others – spectacularly, disastrously failed to address the problem in a suitable manner. Tens of thousands have died, so far.

Stories which grab the headlines are not in short supply.

It’s fitting that we share the stories of those who have suffered, and you don’t have to go far to find them underlying all the grim statistics. Most of those who died, did so needlessly. Most of those who live with long COVID need not have caught the illness in the first place.

All through the pandemic (so far) I’ve watched the stories in the media play out, tugging attention one way or another, broad generalisations which are meant to apply to the population as a whole without dissent. And I’ve yet to see much that reflects my own experience, and perhaps that means my household is an outlier.

I have not partaken of a single Zoom meeting. I didn’t Eat Out To Help Out (madness), didn’t rush to the pub the minute the doors opened, didn’t hasten back to the shops or the gym or the hairdresser.

Much of that lifestyle didn’t apply before the pandemic arrived, and I ain’t changing my habits now just because there’s plague in the air.

But the stories are there, untold.

Those of us who stayed at home, not chafing against the boundaries suggested to us. Those of us who had a safe home to stay in, with people we love and like, and enough put by to tide us over until restrictions were lifted. Those of us who were not furloughed or trying to run a business, nor in dangerous work, or important jobs which kept the NHS and the economy ticking over.

Those of us who were lucky.

A year before COVID appeared, my situation would have been very different. What seemed like catastrophe (health-related) in 2019 forced changes to our lives that resonate with us still.

My household was lucky.

More than a year later, and as long as COVID is around, that luck may change in a moment with an unguarded breath in a busy place, or a visitor to the house unknowingly infectious, or an unforeseen event that takes us unplanned into a crowded location.

Our lives are not spectacular. Our stories are not told, the headlines given over to those who need action or rescue or simple attention. Quiet, ordinary, cautious, we endure.

And yet we fume against the mass injustices performed upon our fellows.

Let not our quiet watchfulness be taken as approval.

In the meantime we stay alert and stay at home and wonder what the world is like outside. Will there be time, one day, to hear the stories of those like us in times of plague?

The Procession by Bertha Lum

This week’s links:

Life Beyond Act One: Why We Need More Stories About Older Women – Why have so many authors, past and present, refused to let their heroines age? (Note that the beloved Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg began as older women, and just improved)

The Charitable Brotherhood of St Eloi – a Grauniad article from 2020, on “the French brotherhood burying the dead – rich or poor – since 1188”.

Workhouses – an incredible website on workhouses and their ilk, including stories of emigration and destitution from centuries of small lives lived in the shadow of misfortune and poverty.

Published in: on May 30, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Maintaining a streak

Nope, don’t have much to say this week. Only posting to maintain my streak – every Sunday this year – and I’ll cut myself some slack for it.

My household has had both doses of COVID vaccine. We are expecting visitors within the week. This is the first time in almost ten months since we’ve had people round, and of course we don’t go out. Things will seem a little… weird, at first.

And, of course, there’s the recent surge of the “Indian” variant in the UK, which threatens to send us into a tailspin yet again, vaccinated or not. Och, there’s always more disaster if you go looking.

"You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting." - T H White, the author of The Sword In The Stone

Lessons from last time: take care, be aware, and don’t keep keeking at the internet to see if there’s doom in the air.


With that said, here’s this week’s links:

Yersina pestis and other plagues – an interesting post from a blog that seems abandoned now, written before our current pandemic was even a twinkle in a bat’s eye.

Bandwagon jumping with this one, sourced via a recent tweet from Terri Windling: Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy, wherein author Lev Grossman discusses C S Lewis and the impact of Narnia on his own writing. See also my own post, Narnia Underground. There’s more than an element of J M Barrie about Narnia, too.

An archived BBC article by Mike Harding, skipping across Laurie Lee’s autobiography As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. I originally chose this link for a different post, which I didn’t have the oomph to complete to my satisfaction, but the link is still good. The unvarnished nature of some folk singing. The blog finished in 2010, but you can still find @MikeHarding on Twitter and elsewhere.

Published in: on May 23, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Bones of a City

What makes us know a city inside out?

Paris, with its catacombs, the Bastille, the sexy Metro.

London: Big Ben, the Tube, Carnaby Street in the ’60s.

Vienna, high architecture and Spanish horses, the big wheel in the Prater turning slowly, forever.

All three of them underpinned by big modern sewer systems you can track The Third Man through, or a Spoonsize Boy.

The Spoonsize Boys - Illustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm
The Spoonsize BoysIllustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm

What makes a city so memorable – and what makes it like nothing else on earth?

I’m intrigued by this for a number of reasons. I may not be about to list them all…

First, the sheer amount of stories set in particular cities which dominate all other locations. I’ve mentioned this before.

Second, I’d like to work out how that influence is constructed. Does the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes arise from the pages of Conan Doyle, or early-morning film productions in the misty hills of 1930s Hollywood? Or even weirder, from the smogs of Edinburgh’s Old Town where Robert Louis Stevenson set Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde?

Third, once I’ve worked this out, how do I produce it in my own writing?

How do I build a city magnificent enough to carry and hold its own myths?


The question first pushed itself to the forefront of my mind in 2019, after reading Glasgow belongs to us – a Guardian article on the Alasdair Gray novel, “Lanark”.

Now, I loathed the book. I only read it after Gray died, and I finished it in much the same way I persevered with Moby Dick – read it once, so I’ll never have to read it again, and can own my loathing as a gift of that perseverance.

But in the words of Janice Galloway, who wrote the article I came across after Gray’s death, quoting from the novel itself:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”
“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw… “Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

– from Janice Galloway’s introduction to the 2002 edition of “Lanark” [my bold]

So… I know it’s easier to set a novel in Paris, or London, or even Moscow. We have shorthand for those places already.

As a novelist, you can lift the bones of a city into your story far easier if those bones have been sorted through already by earlier novelists.

But building a new city of your own? Even one based on a real city, with added magic and mystery and myth, takes a lot of heavy lifting.

Like building a cathedral, one stone at a time, if we want those cities to exist we have to create them. On foot, from maps, from history and our bold imaginations.

Who’s up for the journey?

Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov, painting of a busy street market in a Russian town
Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov

This week’s links:

Capitalism by Gaslight – The Shadow Economies of 19th- Century America* (another example of a common shorthand, in this case referring to the USA, not all or any other of the Americas)

The Official Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – SPFBO – hosted by author Mark Lawrence.

Dark Roasted Blend. In case I haven’t linked here before (but maybe I have).

Published in: on May 16, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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