COVID, One Year On

Today, 24th January 2021, is exactly one year since I started taking notice of COVID-19. Here’s a little history of the past twelve months (as seen from my writing desk).

painting of flooded flat lands in weak sunlight

Floods in the Arun Valley, by William H Clarkson

One of our visitors that New Year lives in Hong Kong. We’d had a long chat about the protests in parts of the Territories which, at that time, was the biggest news from that part of the world. He flew home in early January.

Then news of the new SARS variant appeared on social media. I emailed his partner to ask if he was safe (yes) and continued doom-scrolling as the disease spread across the Chinese mainland.

Twitter showed eerie footage of Wuhan, a city larger than London.

Empty motorways. Giant machines spraying disinfectant along the streets between darkened, shuttered city blocks. And people in high-rise flats calling out to each other, whistling, cheering, shouting Keep-Calm-And-Carry-On-style slogans across thin air twenty storeys up.

A month later, five hundred million people were in lockdown.

China cancelled Chinese New Year.

There may still be a Wuhan diary online – the link is for Day 6 (28th January 2020), the first post in English – but by the end of February those cheers had turned to cries of “I want to go out”, and stories began to circulate of tragedy unfolding in silence. As ever, those most affected were those reliant on others to care for their needs – children, frail elders, or disabled.

By then, hospitals in other parts of the world had begun to see the new infection seize hold of their vulnerable citizens with alarming impact.

Maybe my research for SHADOWBOX had given me some insight into pandemic disease to which we had little resistance.

Maybe it was history telling how Native American populations were devastated by new illnesses brought by Europeans.

I began to feel wary of the UK response. Our new government seemed blithe, nonchalant – oblivious.

Then, in March, Denmark closed its borders.

Ireland cancelled St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Finally, lockdown – proper, hard, everything-shut lockdown – came to Britain.

In April I walked to the local post office with a parcel. The houses on one residential street were decked with mannequins – on the porch or balcony or front garden – with bunting strewn in the spring sunshine as if there was a royal wedding on the way. NHS rainbows in crayon stuck to front-room windows. Applause, once a week, for care workers, when what they really needed was proper PPE.

Since then, the only reason to go out has been for medical appointments or running the car around the neighbourhood to keep the battery charged.

What was summer like? We stayed at home and kept to ourselves, watching in disbelief as people danced the conga at VE Day celebrations, thronged trains to the coast, jammed themselves into restaurants as if the Masque of the Red Death was a new flavour of sundae.

Enraged, I wrote “The First Ten Thousand Dead” and hoped I was over-reacting.

Autumn came and went. Christmas, New Year, not going out, cautious of strangers and careful to disinfect deliveries.

Now the dreich days of January are back again, floods obscuring the riverbanks like December 2019. A whole year has passed by, time stood still for those of us lucky enough to be safe at home.

Seems like Plague Island is the New Normal, adrift off Europe.

buddha head statue with sage bush backgroundGrim though it feels right now, summer’s coming. We are being vaccinated at pace.

It’s a long way off, but the bright days of sunshine will come again. The wasps in my woodpile will let me know when.

While I have writing goals for this year, I also want to keep up the habit of posting on here at least once a week. Some posts will be long and rambling (like this one), some poems (mine and others), hopefully some updates on progress against the writing goals I set in January.

I will try to be positive and truthful, and endeavour to bring some light in otherwise dark days.

With that in mind, this week’s Three Bright Spots:

  1. The USA Presidential handover. Oh, I know there’s only so much one man (and woman) can do to change the world. But there are challenges right now that need attention, globally, and the focus has been on the wrong subjects for a long time, so any change that might address those challenges in some positive way is welcome. So much to hope for.
  2. Look out of someone else’s windows on Window-Swap
  3. Travel back in time, across (part of) the USA, without leaving your chair: Nomadic Research Labs

Summer’s coming. I promise.


January 2021 – Look Ahead

Last week I looked back at 2020. This week, it’s time to look ahead – a daring suggestion at the moment. But let’s try…

My writing goals for 2021:

  1. One non-fiction project.
  2. Write more, including fiction and poetry.
  3. Submit poetry to online journals. For a long time – many, many years – I’ve avoided submitting my work to any sort of scrutiny. It’s time I did so.

So far I’ve made a start on all three goals, and have become bogged down in prioritising.

Running around in the background like a headless chicken, of course, is the coronavirus chaos in the UK.

It’s been a year, with no sign of stopping. When I wrote “The First Ten Thousand Dead” back in June 2020, I was angry.

I should be enraged now.

However, here’s three positive items I found online this week:

Sea shanties (try @TheLongestJohns, @MyriahBrynn, or @NathanEvans)

Wildlife in Venice canals

A new Labyrinth in Cornwall

Published in: on January 17, 2021 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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January 2021 – Look back

Last year, I wrote about fifty thousand words. Apart from the posts on my blog, none of those words were published. Most of them weren’t publishable – weren’t connected to a novel, or story, or anything else creative. Much of them were journal entries.

There was a lot to muse over. Coronavirus, having appeared, proceeded to sweep across the world and curled itself into a cosy corner of northwestern Europe called the UK, and has been hogging the duvet here ever since. In my household, this is a cause for concern. Hey, if it isn’t a cause for concern in your household, 1. where have you been and 2. don’t bother coming round to explain.

We’ve been shielding since before lockdown in March 2019. We expect to remain shielding until everyone is vaccinated and the virus has gone.

We realise this may be… some time. We are prepared for this.

In terms of creativity, I spent a lot of words noodling over what to write. And why to write. Does my voice matter? (of course it does).text says Write because your voice matters

Of the many stories I have waiting for me to give them form, which of them call me right now? If none, why not? And also, I told myself, why not just come up with some new ideas (e.g. Project NEVADA).

As I wrote here last time, January 2021 – Setting my intentions, nobody wants more junk.

So 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.

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.

Scope, too, for reading the guidance and wisdom shared so freely online by other writers – Joanne Harris, Kris Rusch, Terri Windling. And scope for humility too, accepting that my work isn’t ready, that I need more practise, that I need to take my time to make stories that enhance my body of work, not blight it.

Saying that, even with a whole fresh year ahead of us, how many of us believe time isn’t precious?

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. With six weeks of lockdown now in place over England, the old rules apply – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. (Might be longer than six weeks, but hey; six weeks is an old-skool beach-body diet plan…)

There are tales to be told of life on Plague Island, to be sure. Many will be horror stories, others tragedy. We Brits have a streak of black comedy a mile wide. What tends not to be noticed are the humdrum, daily dull, background stories of ordinary people who are managing, just fine or just coping.

Some of us aren’t struggling, although we’d like to get out more (but daren’t risk the plague).

Some of us can’t get out even if we’d love to (and to Hell with the virus), even in the Old Normal Age when disability kept us enclosed like rare, exotic pets.

Some of us are skating a thin line down the middle of Okay and Not-Okay, wobbling one way or the other from day to day, hour to hour, like a violin saw screeching not wrong but not-quite-right.

But there’s also a risk that, as ever, being bogged down in the stories that fill the news and the airwaves and online media will be detrimental to creativity.

Those fifty thousand words I wrote last year were mostly random musings. Life planning. Thoughts that wouldn’t stop bugging me until I wrote them down, let them flood out of my head through my hands and onto the screen, where I could pin them down like beetles in a Victorian collector’s case.

There’s a risk that this year’s writing might follow a similar path, if I don’t focus on specific goals.

I already have the skills to make this happen. I’ve written before about how I manage writing projects – spanners and screwdrivers at the ready – so I need to take my own advice as well as that of experts. I have to make a start on writing the works I want to see on my own private bookshelf by the end of the year.

More on that next time.

In the meantime, please enjoy the Yorkshire Musical Saw Players performing Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. Yes, indeedy.

Other links I found while researching this post:

The Yorkshire Musical Saw Man(Charles Hindmarsh)

Saw Lady (Natalia Paruz)

Thomas Flynn & Co, the UK’s only musical saw manufacturer

January 2021 – Setting my intentions

Usually at the start of January, I have a burst of creative energy, planning all sorts of creative projects for the year ahead.

Some of these are writing; some are practical, like sorting out home improvements.

There’s a balance to be made between solitary projects and collaboration. Between enjoyable tasks, and chores.

Writing projects on my “Hmm…” list – stories and ideas that I can’t prioritise over any of the others – run to about forty, novels and non-fiction and series, over different genres. Project NEVADA is one of these.

Maybe I just don’t care enough about them. If the writer isn’t excited by the prospect of spending a few months coaxing the characters through the story, then the reader probably won’t want to spend a couple of days – or hours – doing the same.Vintage Typewriter with case

It’s easy to tell myself that if I’d thrown wordcount down on the page for those projects, I’d have something to publish, more novels to add to my body of work.

Another little voice tells me that I might just produce junk.

Nobody wants more junk.

So this year’s plan for creative works will be short.

What’s yours?

Published in: on January 1, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Meditation at the Turning of the Year

The Last of 2020 (Meditation at the Turning of the Year)

The Old Year is over.
Let that sink in.

We can’t see the future;
what lies ahead
we only imagine, usually fear.

Leave it be, for now.
Let the Old Year enjoy its last moments.

Cup your hands round the hours
or the final few minutes;
take a moment to pause
on the brink.
This is the time to be still,
to breathe
and nothing more;
this day this hour this moment
all you have, for now.
hands together,
on tiptoe or crouched in a huddle.
Give yourself the gift of silence.

There’s time and space enough to hold you, briefly, as we all spin round the sun.

Whatever the last year held for you
– harsh words or happiness –
– downfall or triumph –
let go.

Whatever the New Year holds,
let it wait.

Just a moment, just this hour,
take a breath of the planet you’re born for;
feel the world you belong to under your feet.
This is all; this is all that we have.
You belong here.
Take a breath, and relax.
We’ve made it to Now.

Make the last of the old year be: peace.

green hops against a clear blue sky


Published in: on December 31, 2020 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Wasps for Christmas

I keep finding wasps in the woodpile, asleep. Every time I’m reminded of the winter I drove to work listening to Radio 3, when their carol competition featured music to The Bee Carol by Carol Ann Duffy (the link goes to the version I remember best, which wasn’t the actual winner).

by Carol Ann Duffy

Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight’s key;
all the garden locked in ice –
a silver frieze –
except the winter cluster of the bees.

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive –
trembling stars cloistered above –
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.

In early December this little beauty lay amongst the stacked logs, curled up against the cold and dark.

a wasp curled up on a wooden log

wasp, wood, winter

What dreams of summer occupy its tiny mind? Does she dream of nectar from the apple blossom, or sweetness from their fruit?

Will she survive the winter at all?

With that in mind, I gently tapped the log against its fellows, and let the sleeping wasp fall further down between the stacks.

If I don’t check for bees or wasps, they come into the house in the log basket and the warmth wakes them up. Sleepily, they buzz for a while amongst the kindling, then erupt from the log basket and zoom about the room in a daze, seeking light and warmth. You can see their bodies heaving with rapid breaths. Panic – or starvation?

After a while exhaustion sets in and they can be captured with ease, a plastic tub to take them outside onto an ivy-covered wall if it’s sunny, or back to the log store in the dark and cold. Sometimes I’ll tuck them in with a sliver of apple, in case they have the strength to have a nibble and recover some energy before they go back into hibernation.

Am I daft, caring for wasps?

When spring comes again, it isn’t my place to pollinate the flowers that bring me cherries for the birds. I’ve disrupted a bee, or a wasp, when it thought it was in a safe place, and I’m not going to eat it myself. Caretaking the landscape of the garden means more than digging and sowing.

As the poem has it:

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

You can see, in the photo, the fuzzy hairs on top of the wasp’s body. But no wings.

Och, I guess that means some of them are doomed.

[Update: There are wings! Folded neatly underneath the legs and abdomen, safe until Spring. Huzzah! Vive les wasps!]

I’d have to be slightly potty to start beekeeping on top of all my other hobbies and interests. Indeed, keeping domesticated bees may not be the best thing most of us can do for our gardens.

As well as wasps, this garden also has a variety of wild bees. The house is surrounded by gardens all thick with trees and ivy, Victorian red-brick terraces with lots of places for mason bees, ivy bees, ground-dwelling bees, wasps, hoverflies, ladybirds, and beetles. With all that insect activity going on, wild bees don’t need the added competition of honeybees.

A couple of years ago I made a bee hotel like the ones recommended by Jurgen Schwandt (website in German) and David Werner (also in German), who has a multitude of bee hotels on his tiny urban balcony. It was ignored until last summer, when I noticed some distinctive nibbling around the edges of the leaves of a potted nectarine. Leaf-cutter bees!

We also need to remember that the British (and yes, European) insect biome(?) is very different from the rest of the world, something to bear in mind when reading information online.

Other bee-related links I found when composing this post:

Jasna Guy

Margaret Cooter

The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

Adventures in Bee-land – eloquent essays on beekeeping in Cornwall, with lots of photos of bees both wild and kept and flowers (i.e. bee food).

ilustration of bumblebees on flower outlines

Humble-bee by magnoliacollection on Spoonflower – pattern from a vintage illustration of “The Common Humblebee.”

Five films for Yuletide 2020

When you look at the line-up of festive films on TV and online streaming services, do you see nothing but Pixar and action heroes? Films crammed with violence and hyper-drama, tweaking your already-taut stress responses?

Me too.

In response, a few years ago I posted a list of Five Unusual Films For Yuletide to watch over the festive period.

I followed this up with Five more unusual films for Yuletide and Five Festive Films For Yuletide – Again.

For the last couple of years I’ve missed posting this, due to not blogging much.

women at harvest with an ox-drawn cart

The Guardians

But this year, of all recent years, I think we all might need some gentle respite from reality. With that in mind, here’s this year’s list of five films. All of them were chosen for their lack of bam!-pow!-kchuk-kchuk!. Not all of them are available online, and some aren’t in English. There is maybe a little violence in some, but it isn’t the point of the story.

  1. The Doors. Yes, a bundle of young folk making music and conquering the world. Starts off with parties, and the beach scene of California in the 1960s, veers wildly into snowy New York with Andy Warhol and an amazing loft apartment stacked with occult paraphernalia, then the discord of decline in Paris. Music, too, if you like that sort of thing. (link goes to a creatively destructive personal review by author Tom Cox, son of artist Jo Cox)

  2. L’Homme du Train. I could watch Jean Rochefort all day long – one of those actors who seem to inhabit a role and make you forget what you’re watching isn’t real. French film, subtitled, about a chance meeting between two late-middle-aged men, and how this encounter develops into a subtle friendship that changes both their lives.

  3. The Guardians. Another French film, this time about the women left behind to run a rural farm as the Great War engulfed Europe and drained the menfolk into the grasslands around Verdun. As ever, such lives are rarely documented by historians – for example, who worked the fields and ran the great estates when Odysseus and his crew sailed for Troy?

  4. Chocolat. A charming, gentle film – soppy, even – with hints of mystery and magic. The novel, by Joanne Harris, has more depth and less glamour, but both are stuffed with ganache and a peculiar flavour of nostalgia. Let’s overlook the real-life drama that overtook Johnny Depp this year, shall we? Just for a couple of hours. (P.S. Not to be confused with Chocolat, which I have yet to watch but is on The List.)

  5. Neruda. Seedy, sleekit and charmingly political, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda Luis Gnecco and Mercedes Morán in Neruda (2016)was forced into exile for disagreeing with the government of his country. This film (Spanish with subtitles) tells the story of this part of his life, as Gael Garcia Bernal’s detective trails the poet across vibrant cities, lush country houses and into the snows of the Andes on horseback. Look out for the monkey-puzzle trees.

When you need a spot of respite from all that 2020’s thrown at you, a couple of hours with a hot chocolate and a soothing film won’t take the world outside away, but it might make you able to cope with it some more when the music’s over.

Peace, and blessed be.

Peace, and blessed be.

As the year draws to a close – not yet! cry the frantic shoppers – and the impending festive season thunders towards us, filled with joy and dread, I have a small fragment of someone else’s poetry on my mind.

… But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead…

– Rain, by Edward Thomas

Artwork by Bertha Lum; Pines by the Sea; 1912. a row of pine trees by a coast road

Bertha Lum, 1869 – 1954; Pines by the Sea; 1912; Minneapolis Institute of Art

Peace, and Blessed Be.

Published in: on December 20, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Creativity makes us human

Creativity is what makes us human.

Some of us are good enough at it that others will pay for our ideas; most of us haven’t the stamina, or patience, or whatever, to keep at it long enough. Often it isn’t the result that matters, but the act of creation, the habit. Keeping your hands busy to stave off boredom, or improve mental health, or feed your folk.

Early humans created the stone tools they needed to dominate their world; they would have made wooden tools, and fabric, and rope, twine and nets, but we don’t find those in the archaeological record (except in Siberia).

Cave painting at Lascaux, Megaloceros prehistoric deer with huge antlers
Megaloceros at Lascaux Cave, painted by hand by humans

They did not care that their hand axe was perfect – although some would have been, and everyone would have acknowledged this.

They spun stories out of the night sky and the forests. They remembered their ancestors and tended their loved ones. They laughed over silly things, and cried over their losses, and shared gossip around their camp fire.

They didn’t let a lack of skill stop them from telling stories – although some people would have had more imagination, more memory, which everyone recognised. Nobody told a shaggy dog story quite like Uncle Bernard. Nobody can ruin a joke as badly as Betty does.

If their fishing line was a bit rough, did it matter when it caught a fish that day?

Likewise, if a home-baked pie or cake isn’t the best – and Bake Off has shown us some real shockers, for sure – it’s still a pie (and pie can always be rescued by enough custard).

To be human, to feel alive, we all need to create.

We need to share our creations, especially those of which we are proud.

As the first lockdown rolled over us, people all over the country took to stitching facemasks, fixing up their houses, turning their gardens into outdoor spaces for socialising or laying the foundations for a hot-tub-and-fire-pit combo. TV adverts began reflecting that activity, which became easier once the shops opened again and you could buy cement.

I’m aware that people socialised over the summer – we had friends to visit, twice, both times with appropriate quarantine before and after. Others met up in greater numbers.

Some, not many amongst my cohort, partied like it was 1999.

Some people will choose to party as a means of coping with the immensity of it all; and who’s to say they’re wrong, if it gives them a reason to live, while plague still stalks the land? Some of those on beaches and foreign holidays will have been health workers at the end of a long spring filled with death.

That was spring, and summer, when the light was good and the air warm enough for T-shirts.

Winter will be hard this year.

Many people have lost loved ones over the summer, and many more will in the horrid months to come.

Job losses, money worries, instability at home, ordinary sickness and injury – all will seem worse this year, and may be truthfully worse, magnified by COVID raging through the population.

Creativity can often seem trivial when compared to the day jobs of essential workers and medics. But when people go home from a stressful job and have little energy to spare, there’s comfort to be had in art and music and stories. Shared by others or enduring works of our own, uplifting or stimulating or relaxing or cathartic: planned activity to anticipate, or take part in, like yarnbombing the new Mary Wollestonecraft statue.

I’ve done little writing this year. Mostly my creativity has gone into gardening and craft work: building raised beds and a cold frame; stitching face masks.

I’m eager for the dark evenings and a reason to snuggle down by the hearth, pen poised, while the world outside rages.

There are stories to tell.

Some of them might even be true.

Published in: on December 13, 2020 at 4:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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News and tinkerings

You may notice a few changes about the blog over the coming days and weeks.

Stonemasons at work on a tracery window at Guédelon castle, France

Stonemasons at work on a tracery window at Guédelon castle, France

The overall design was set up years ago, to suit the Cuckoo Club novels I was writing, with a focus on Victorian London and the River Thames.

Well, that was then. This is now, and my body of work has expanded to include the Petticoat Katie series of very silly steampunk novels. Future work won’t be set in London – there are a whole host of other places available.

Poems, by their nature being brief and faster to compose, tend to reflect the location where they are written, with allegory and metaphor adding context, e.g. December 2019.

My future plans include non-fiction books, poetry chapbooks, and (heh!) novels. None of these fit in with the theme of the blog, or rather the blog theme doesn’t fit in with the main body of work.

And it’s easier to update the blog than to re-write a novel.

Published in: on December 6, 2020 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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