A Story In Bricks And Mortar

The past we see today isn’t always the past as it actually was, even when it’s set in bricks and mortar.

Buildings lie.

Have a look at this old shop front:

Two old red-brick buildings of three floors, the upper floors with three windows in each. The roof has three chimney stacks with four chimney pots each. One building has a dirty green bow-front window, the other three black doors with white fanlight windows over.

The building on the right – the one with the fabulous windows – looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 1960s (so maybe the 90s; how time flies).

Maybe it’s too much Hollywood influence on our pictorial memories, or a flagrant overuse of certain tropes amongst the artists who draw old-style Christmas cards, but those bow-front shop windows are always dredged with snow in the corners.

a colourful illustration of a snowy toy shop with a green facade, a large window and a red door with a wreath. Four children look through the window at toys and a christmas tree.

The buildings lie on an ordinary street, opposite similar houses with a row of shops on the ground floor – an Indian restaurant and a florist and a beauty salon all in close proximity. It’s one of those streets you drive through, or walk along, to reach somewhere else, unless you work in one of the buildings or live above the shops.

You can see the type in this much-photographed Post Office:

a white painted building of two floors with a slate pitched roof and two chimney stacks. The top floor has three identical sash windows each with multiple panes. The ground floor has a central door with two bow windows with multiple panes. A red post box set into a stone pillar stands to one side.

As it turns out, the building in the first picture is from the mid-18th Century, before the Napoleonic Wars. Constructed barely fifteen years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army was halted at Swarkestone Bridge (more a causeway) barely ten miles away.

But the bow-front window?

Nah. Modern.

For 20th-century values of modern, at least.

The original window-and-door combo would have been more like the one on the left. Small sash windows, and a couple of plain wooden doors with fanlights over.

Y’see, back in the early Georgian period there just wasn’t the glass. Not to mention the window tax, which wasn’t repealed until 1851 (on health grounds, FWIW).

Those big bay windows need structural support to maintain them in place, and the brickwork above. A nice solid stone archway and lintels were called for.

Surrounded by other buildings of similar vintage, with deep cellars, those dusty bow windows are only a couple of streets away from the modern town centre with its half-empty shopping malls and fast chicken takeaways. But just a wander around this otherwise workaday town is a historian’s paradise. Like much of the rest of Britain, actually.

a stone wall with a wooden door inset beside a small window

Behind the modern Hippodrome on Bristol’s city centre are stone block facades with tiny barred windows where the merchants would store goods brought into the harbour on the rising tide. Under the city are labyrinths of caves and tunnels, some say built for smuggling.

Culverts hide inconvenient rivers throughout London, including the Fleet which gives Fleet Street its name; embankments channel deep drainage to enable Empire-era shipping into the heart of the city and its vast docklands, now mostly filled in with housing.

Go down the right alley in many of our towns and cities, and the pre-Victorian bones of the place come to light. Look at the maps with a knowledge of geography and you can see where the patterns shift from era to era.

(For more, see The Maps I Used In 1888 and The Maps I Used In 1832)

painting of a man in bed surrounded by books in an attic room, an umbrella above him to keep out the rain

The house at the top of this post was a merchant’s house – on the upper floors you’d find chintz wallpapers and bow-legged furniture, oriental rugs covering the oak floorboards and a coal fire burning in a tiny hearth. Below, the business of brewing beer took over, much like it still does in the Burton Bridge brewery barely a hundred metres away.

On a clear day with the right sort of breeze you can smell the barley mash in the air as you cross the bridge, or stroll along the riverside. A step back in history, just for a moment, and the ongoing sense that this might be part of the future, however that shapes up.

We have a tendency to coddle old buildings in Britain. We think that because something’s been here for a hundred years or more, it’s worth keeping. Sometimes that’s true; in other cases, the buildings have been mouldering since Engels’ time and only need be kept as a warning.

If you know how to look, you can see where the bones of a city or town have been overlaid by new work, propping up the past on iron stilts or painting it over with waterproof paint.

And just because something looks old, doesn’t mean it’s as old as you think.

No End In Sight

Well, it’s been three years now, and there’s no end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic. It isn’t as if we were promised a short, sharp shock.

Other pandemics have ended sooner, simply because the infective thing ran out of people to infect.

COVID isn’t like that.

It’s brand new to humans (still) and has 8 billion of us to play with.

cartoon of a crow on a white background, the planet Earth in its grey beak, its red eye a coronavirus
(c) Ángel Boligán

Most of the diseases we know and try to avoid have been around for millennia. Tens of thousands of people before us have sickened and recovered – or died, taking their vulnerable genetic signature with them.

Thundering through this hundred-thousand-year process in a decade is going to hurt.

And yet, we have the ability to stop this.

Only this week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the infection control measures were clear and straightforward. No access if you had a positive PCR test (your pass was deactivated and you’re tested every day); HEPA filters in every area, far-UV lights in others, and a comprehensive masking policy for larger groupings.

Sure, you saw world leaders and major financial players mingling without face masks like it was 2019. The air they breathed in each other’s faces was about as pure as you’ll find outside the International Space Station these days.

“Risk management” isn’t a dirty word.

These same leaders have done little to apply the mitigations of masking and filtration to schools and workplaces, despite this being cheaper than running healthcare systems into the ground with endless sick absences for workers and learners alike.

People are starting to ask why, in greater numbers than the marginal voices we’ve heard since mid-2020.

It’s not like we haven’t had time.

against a dull background, a group of fishermen lay on a sandy beach watching the sea

Three years ago I was reading the blog of near-future SF author Charles Stross and came across mention of a new virus causing alarm in Wuhan, PRC. Stross is a non-practising pharmacist and knows his pathogens; his reaction was wholly reasonable (see Charlie’s article COVID-19 for more).

Meanwhile, the UK was stuttering into the light of mid-winter with a Smirking Liar in charge of the country, shirking his job and guzzling his way through the wine cellars of Chequers as he tried – and failed – to find a ghost writer for a book he’d been paid to write, struggling to meet a submission deadline to qualify for the next stage payment of an advance he needed to pay divorce lawyers.

Sounds like the start of a particularly tortuous Dickens novel. Unfortunately for us, it was the start of the UK’s pandemic response.

On 03 March 2020 I wrote in my diary: “Coronavirus has spread from Wuhan in China, becoming macabre entertainment”. Three weeks later the UK was under a state of emergency, the economy supported by government spending; all but essential shops closed, thousands of ICU patients requiring ventilators for viral pneumonia.

And now, three years on, we’ve had two changes of Prime Minister and a dwindling of public health messages on how best to get on with life while keeping safe from infection with the new plague. We have vaccines, although the take-up rate of boosters is lower than the first time. Face masks are still expected in our overworked hospitals and other medical settings, yet I keep seeing bare faces whenever I go for a medical appointment – often, including the facility staff.

We’re bored and tired and trying to adapt without adequate support or information on the long-term effects of both the disease and its societal impact.

I wonder, has it ever occurred to those who want our NHS to crumble so the US health insurance giants can take over, that in order to have healthcare systems of any sort you have to have a minimum number of capable healthcare workers? Even a private hospital system needs nurses. Not enough nurses = not enough healthcare, however it’s funded.


So, in three years, we have been conned by government ministers backhanding their friends for useless PPE bought off AliExpress. Slowly, the grift is coming to light, led by the Good Law Project and others. Fabulous fortunes have been skimmed off emergency government contracts, disappearing into the blue over Grand Cayman fast as you can say superyacht.

white sandy beach with blue sky and white clouds

Many of us have been infected, some of us more than once, with little or no seeming lasting effects – although at any given time we seem to have about two million people with Long COVID. My own household has so far avoided infection, but we’re outliers; we still don’t go out except to medical appointments, haven’t spent a night away from home (on holiday or visiting friends) since 2019, don’t have school-age children or grandchildren to bring home germs on sticky faces.

We keep to ourselves, visitors rare and considerate. We’re lucky.

Very early in 2020, some grinning philanderer spoke of a nation playing Superman as if we were all ten years old. That hasn’t happened, not under his time as PM nor under the others. Was it really so difficult?

Think of it. You are the leader of one of the world’s most prosperous country. Your universities are amongst the greatest in the world, with some of the world’s best scientists and engineers. When an international pandemic begins and a swift response is required, what do you do?

Do you pick up the phone to your top University of Cleverclogs and say, “I’m the PM with a tricky problem, let me talk to the smartest Professor of Brainyness you’ve got”? Or do you behave as if you are fitting a flat roof over your nan’s patio and rely on someone you know down the pub?

I think we all know the answer. Shameful.

What we needed in 2020 – and have needed every year since, and still need – is a proper strategy to get us out of this mess.

The country needs medical-grade PPE supplies; there are companies who can manufacture these, here in the UK. If they need a little extra support to re-jig their production lines, lend them it. Now that China has begun its own deadly dance with COVID, the potential disruption to global supply lines is increased. Bring the work here, and the jobs to go with it, and a self-reliance of the sort that’s been brayed about by ministers since before they put the hems on Brexit.

Schools and hospitals and workplaces require air purifiers; we have companies who make and supply all sorts of gadgets filled with HEPA filters (Dyson and G-Tech I’m looking at you), and people who fit and maintain air conditioning systems to keep them free of Legionella. (Ladies &) Gentlemen, we have the technology.

We need honesty, too – and this is going to be the most difficult. Difficult to admit that the response has been disastrous on a global scale, and on our little part of it; difficult to admit that mistakes have been made, and many people have died or been disabled as a result. Difficult to lay blame where it’s due – did I mention fortunes and Cayman Islands? – and difficult to tell people that all our infected children may be harbouring long-term health issues that won’t show for a while.

Scaremongering? Who knows. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve denied the impact of a new disease only for it to come back and bite us in the heart (or skin or kidneys).

The Before Times aren’t coming back.

We’ve had three years to deal with this in a sensible manner. Instead, we have a healthcare system staggering under the burden of sickness across all ages, our health workers burnt-out and broken. Years of experience and knowledge, squandered.

We have to learn to live with how the world is now, and I include myself in this. My household is still shielding, still maintaining masks and distancing, still not going out. It’s got beyond tedious. We are already stifled by disability, immune-suppressed and dealing with further complications; and yet, we thrive in our isolation, because we are lucky, and probably introverts. Even so, the pull of beyond is clear.

In a way, lockdown was easier because we knew everyone was in the same boat, staying in, watching out. But lockdown is always a last resort – an admission that our eye was off the ball, that nobody was taking the easy decisions early enough, to bring in lesser mitigations. I don’t want lockdown back; I still recall the feeling of relief when I saw a neighbour returning from town with a shopping bag bulging with loo roll and eggs. Some format of normal, when nothing seemed normal.

illustration of three young women in straw hats and long white dresses, sat at a table in a walled garden, having tea and cake

People want to socialise and meet up – it’s part of human nature. We tend to stick together when times are tough and get together afterwards to talk it over, hug each other, plan a better future.

But there’s no Afterwards coming.

Right now, we have memory of The Before Times. Back when coughs and sneezes were mostly harmless. When we’d look at footage from Japan of people wearing face masks and think it was a bit odd. When a night in the pub or a weekend’s SF convention wasn’t a risk of plague.

Perhaps those of us who’ve been around longer are having trouble adapting, and the young will consider this normal because they have less of the old days to compare. After all, there aren’t many people alive on the planet who remember Britain’s previous King – and yet, here we are, and the nature of our monarchy is changing as King Charles leans into his mantle.

Us olds can’t let go of the times before COVID – and before the final Brexit nail was driven home just before the pandemic arrived.

Once upon a time it was possible to enjoy a couple of beers in the station bar in Brussels before sprinting through the departure lounge to the waiting Eurostar. EU passport controls made this simple – a quick wave of the burgundy and an eyeball with the border control staff. Now, with additional border checks and more disability than back then, I’m sure the process is much longer – and less fun. While the thought of foreign travel remains tantalising, with FFP3 masks and portable HEPA filters just in case, the unforeseen palaver at transport hubs is a deterrent.

We run the risk of portraying anything before 2020 as halcyon, days of wine and roses, years of freedom and sunshine that wasn’t alarming, when our waterways weren’t full of poo and the ambulances ran on time.

That’s gone now, crushed under the grim reality that neither the pandemic nor Brexit is nearly over. People online growl at each other from opposing camps; in real life, friends bicker when lived experience doesn’t match expectations, or risks for one person are less distinct than for another. Differences spill over into a sense that one side is throwing caution to the wind while the other is dogged by over-cautious restraint.

Is neither wholly true? There’s scope for a middle ground, an understanding and acknowledgement that sometimes risk is negotiable.

small girl in a blue dress and hat, on a beach, looking to the left

I’d like to have the world I knew in early 2020. Back then, half-planned adventures beckoned, reward and respite from the rollercoaster we’d been on the year before.

I had no goals as such, no golden bucket list to tick off one by one, no plans except to move into the future day by day. The future was uncertain, and the wick of my lamp was low.

I look back at my diary notes and see a woman unfolding from years of an unrewarding day job grown tedious and predictable. My optimism for the days ahead is sweet to see, no less for its being disrupted by COVID’s arrival.

But while nostalgia’s a trap we often fall into, not all of it is worthless. We can look back at the early months of the UK’s pandemic response and see that, while government ministers were scrambling to look competent while raiding the coffers to pay their chums for useless PPE, the country was actually capable of a communal response to the pandemic threat.

Companies switched production from gin to hand sanitiser, from children’s clothing to clinical gowns. The sort of wartime spirit normally kept for a jubilee or August Bank Holiday swept across the country. We kept calm and carried on.

Maybe we underestimated how long it takes to achieve victory – and how much it would cost.

Those who set out in 1914 with the jolly expectation that “it’ll all be over by Christmas” were bruised by the time the Armistice fell, continually told the next Big Push would see it ended which never quite came true. The Devil’s Arithmetic said the Allies would win eventually, but by the end of 1917 the plans reached out to 1923, stalemate after stalemate, waiting for the Russian revolution to play itself into stasis and Germany to exhaust its resources.

By the time Europe twisted itself apart in 1939 we’d had years of warning, and still it took five years to end. Those who lived through those years say they had no idea whether the Allies were winning, even after D-Day.

It’s impossible for us now to imagine how much resilience is required to carry on as though the world won’t end, when you can see it fraying at the edges all around you.

Short victorious wars – the current situation in Ukraine was intended as one – are rarely either, and it’s a rare health drive that achieves its goal in a decade. Smallpox was eradicated after two hundred years of vaccination, medical advances and science; polio still not gone, nor malaria, zika, HIV, dengue and many others. We’ll need to work harder to beat COVID in all its mutating forms.

We have years of masking ahead of us, years of vaccines and coughing and overworked hospitals.

Long COVID lurks, waiting, drifting in our indoor air like tiny doodlebugs hovering over our cities.

How much of the wartime spirit was left by 1944?

abstract painting of a seascape with a pale moon over rising smoke clouds turning red with explosions below
(c) Paul Nash, 1944

Tell me why this is interesting

Tell me why this is interesting:

a heap of corroded Bronze Age axe heads photographed against a plain dark background
(archaeologists need not reply)…

What looks at first glance to be an array of identical objects is, in fact, a multi-layered puzzle with fascinating implications.

Really? Read on.

The photo is from the Museum of London, used to illustrate an article in the Independent about the “Havering Hoard” – see more at Mystery over ‘extraordinary’ haul of Bronze Age weapons unearthed in London leaves experts baffled.

As a collection, the axes in this picture show us that at some point in the past, this was the dominant – most popular for some reason – shape of axe. They get everywhere (everywhere you’d expect to find an axehead, and places you… wouldn’t).

There’s a broad band of time during which these items were popular, and there’s a wide range of places these axes have been found in other excavations.

But usually not that wide a range, nor that broad a band. So you can use the discovery of one of these items as a clue. On a simple level, it means you can be reasonably sure about the When of whatever else you have found nearby. Useful.

In the collection above, there are a couple of dozen of these things. And this, friends, is where the subject matter becomes interesting.

Corrosion over time has changed the shape of the surface in subtle ways, each one different. This tells us a different story for each item.

a heavily corroded bronze age axehead
Exhibit One – corroded bronze axe head

Exhibit One has deep corrosion, of the sort we know by chemical analysis to be caused by submersion in acidulated water.

So, at some point, this item has been submerged in acid-y water, for a prolonged period of time.

We start to ask why the water was acid(ish); why the item was submerged; where it was submerged, and is that different to where we found the thing.

We start to unravel the story of this axe-head over a couple of thousand years.

a corroded bronze age axehead
Exhibit Two – slightly corroded bronze axe head

Exhibit Two has light corrosion – the sort we see from being handled regularly, the surface smoothed by frequent use and the corrosion from sweaty hands – or from not being used at all, and stored somewhere dry.

What’s different, between this one and the first?

Light corrosion shows us the item has been in a place that wasn’t very reactive for the last couple of thousand years.

What does this tell us about the people who made this, and the people who used it, and the people who left it behind?

This is a different story to Exhibit One.

a corroded bronze age axehead
Exhibit Three – another bronze axe head

Exhibit Three looks the same as the other two from a distance. There’s nothing new about its surface detail, or its provenance. But look a little closer – draw an accurate diagram – and you notice it’s a subtly different shape.

Hmm. How did that happen?

I mean, aren’t these all meant to be the same?

We’ve become used to conformity over the last four hundred years. Items made by hand can be wildly variant, but manufactured items from moulds and metals and machining are generally identical. You can’t tell one iPod from another.

But in the past, the demand for these items at some point outstripped the ability of one workshop to make them.

Maybe the originator died and took his secret with him and his successors had to work it out for themselves.

Maybe the original mould broke, and another was made which had the subtle difference we see in Exhibit Three.

Or maybe the axe-maker’s apprentice looked at the first few axes and realised the design could be a teensy bit improved here and there.

Or somebody asked for an axe their elderly aunt could use to chop kindling, and the other ones were too heavy, and the axe-maker sighed and rolled up his sleeves and got to work, grumbling under his breath.

(I think that’s enough pictures of Bronze Age axe-heads for now. I’ll let you imagine similar axeheads for the rest of this post. Anyhoo…)

Imagine Exhibits Four, Five, Six and Seven are all copies of Exhibit Two, but they’ve been exposed to some pretty nasty work. Chopping lumps out of trees, or bones, or other axes. Dents and dings and full-on chunks deform the blade, while the neck on Axe Five looks like a horse stood on it.

Imagine Exhibit Eight. This looks like it fits right in with the rest of the display, but take a good look. Compare this one with the first one. See the difference? See how the shape has changed, while the function has not?


Each axe has its own microbiology to explore. Buried within the corrosion is a secret trove of story, telling us where the axe lay, what it was most used for, what the world was like in the surroundings of its use and the climate of its origin. Pollen and soil type and microbes.

We can also examine the metal itself for clues. Where did the ores come from which made up the metal? How was the mixture balanced? And, if the ores come from some distance away from where we found the axe-heads, we know that some valuable gunk dug out of the earth many miles away somehow arrived here.

And we know it’s valuable gunk.

You don’t dig inedible gunk out of the ground unless it’s getting between you and the food, or is otherwise useful.

For example, the soil in my garden occasionally throws up brittle chunks of gypsum bigger than a football (any sort, take your pick), no use to me but for someone who really really needs gypsum for some reason it would be valuable.

So: the inedible gunk you dig up might be worth trading some food for.

Maybe even gold. Or slaves.

You start to realise that someone digging up this gunk and flogging it abroad isn’t watching the flocks, or weeding the crops.

They’re a surplus set of hands, in a landscape where food and shelter is available, or worth fighting for, and their food and shelter is provided by others who tend the flocks and weed the crops.

Hell, they might even be wizards or early kings, these metalworkers who know where the best gunk can be dug up.

People who others like to have around. On their side. And will pay for this, in labour and materials, which means some sort of barter or currency arrangements. And so on.

Over time, it becomes worthwhile to settle in these areas, build forts like Los Millares, extract tithes from the farmers and herders which is easier because you have all these metal axes.

And they don’t.

a painted image of a hillfort with three concentric circular walls surrounding a village of thatched round houses on a forested hilltop
(Los Millares, in Spain. Image is from Wikipedia but go to Ancient-Wisdom for words)

You even have enough metal axes to bury a few hundred in a pottery vessel and forget about them for a few thousand years.

Is this money to be hoarded? Or just wealth to be displayed and discarded because you can, the way some folk today are buried in Cadillacs?


So next time you see an image like the one at the head of this post, stop and ponder what story it tells us, and wonder what story our equivalent artefacts tell us about ourselves.

plastic-heaped landfill with a digger teetering on top

Happy Early January Birthday?

According to family who have experience in these matters, a birthday in early January isn’t easy to celebrate.

painting of a bored girl with a bowl and a spoon

For nigh over a month before now, from the office Christmas party to the bells at Hogmanay, we’ve been encouraged to overeat, and over-drink, and over-enjoy ourselves. In the first few days of January, blinking at the rain-soaked mornings as we try to stick to New Year’s resolutions, the awful realisation hits us: we’re skint. And bloated. And tired.

Everyone who works is back at work. The weather in the Northern Hemisphere is generally dank, and cold, and the nights are long. Only the foolhardy or desperate are still raging to go to the pub.

Especially midweek. Or on Sunday.

Meanwhile, people have made New Year’s resolutions. Most are still sticking to them.

Dry January, the month which shrinks to a week or the first few days of sobriety, otherwise stretches out ahead of the regular imbiber like a path into the Gobi desert. A whole month without a drink? Impossible. Except for those first few days when good intentions are still to the fore, our spirits all tonic.

So, wanna come out for a drink to celebrate my January birthday?

Erm, no.

Then there’s the alternative, grown-up version: the birthday meal.

In Veganuary.

[As a vegetarian of many years’ endurance, I have grown tired of the chef’s cheat version of The Only Veggie Dish On The Menu, which makes the absence of meat on the plate even more miserable by removing the cheese as well. I tried veganism some time in the early 1990s and had to go buy cheese before I committed random acts of violence on unsuspecting housemates. Vegans, I admire your fortitude, while I shun your extruded meat-substitutes.]

Okay. Wanna come out for a meal to celebrate my January birthday?

Erm, no, still got Christmas pounds to lose, still sticking to the New Year’s diet resolution. And yes, we are trying to do Veganuary to impress someone, maybe even win an argument or a bet.

And everyone’s skint. All those festive gifts have come home to roost on the credit card bill – all those last-minute overpriced gifts, the family meals down the pub which disappear from your memory in a rush of carbs and gravy, the extra petrol you put in the car for cross-country visits or outings to pop-up ice rinks. This year, too, those eye-watering fuel bills for cooking the turkey and warming up the glazed carrots, never mind the utterly ridiculous (and rightly ridiculed) ironing the creases out of your old wrapping paper so it can be used again.

What about saying “aw hell, let’s fly somewhere hot”?

Arriving with too little sleep and hopelessly over-dressed for the temperature, do we hit the beach or the bars? It’s not in my nature, this overseas heatwave in January. Holidays are another reason to over-indulge in the good bad things, and did I mention we’re all skint after Christmas?

Some of us have splashed out on new clothes for the party season, or sparkly shoes. Some of us haven’t snipped off the labels, so we can return said items to the shop for a refund, hoping any slight damage isn’t obvious.

We’ve already got buyer’s remorse on stuff that long ago left our systems, leaving only the bloat behind.

In our house it’s festive nibbles – crisps, nuts, a whopping 9lb Christmas cake from the BBC’s Mary Berry recipe started back in late October and fed religiously with brandy every weekend since; pigs in blankets, chocolates, cheese and biscuits, Twiglets and cheese footballs and far too many mince pies.

Oooookayyyyy… So, wanna come round mine for a big slice of birthday cake, thick with cream frosting?

Nah, thanks. (Dry heaves aside). Even meeting for a birthday breakfast is a bit much TBH. And did I mention Veganuary? Not even a bacon buttie or a roll-n-square-slice to cheer us up.

So pity the poor folk with birthdays in early January, when the rest of us are practising our best Puritan kick. How to assuage their peeve? Suggest they do like the Royals, and have an official birthday as well. Some time in June or July, when the summer’s arrived and nobody’s counting the cost.

It’s the least we can do.

Oh, and happy birthday.

Happy New Year! – and, Writing Goals for 2023

And so, to the start of 2023, I bid yeez all greetings. What’s the plan, eh?

How about another year of nonsense and wizardry? I have a bundle of posts lined up to be edited for the next few weeks. I’ll fill the posts with art, links to music I want to share, book recommendations and tips from other writers.

No matter what the year holds, let’s go.

2023’s Writing Goals are the same as last year’s:

  1. Write more.
  2. Publish what I write.
  3. Keep up the blog posts.

Last year I wrote over two hundred thousand words, many of them posted on here. Some of the posts I’ve written aren’t for publication – more a sort of essay, almost memoirs, formulating my thoughts in writing to pin them in place so I can go over them with a magnifying glass later, or lock them away in a glass case.

It’s all practice. Learning to shape themes and arguments, to focus on one over another, to spot where I start to digress and steer myself back on topic. It’s a surprise to me, that the process I’ve found to work for long fiction also works for essays. Hehe.

I intend to have fun with my writing in 2023. To share what I’m working on, maybe format these weekly updates a little differently and include links to music, art and performance that have inspired me or caught my attention.

At the start of 2021, for example, do you remember the sea-shanties on TikTok? Part of a point upon which the world pivoted, lockdowns we’ve abandoned across the planet, a glimpse of another life soon shuttered by pressure and need.

And last year, my writing goals for 2022, blithe and carefree despite us still swamped with COVID hospitalisations and a Festival Boyfriend as Prime Minister, optimistic enough for future plans that were woefully unfulfilled. World events over which I had no control, and to which I had no personal connection, stole my attention (again).

Am I daft, to plan for the year ahead and expect something different? Maybe. I’ll take my guide this year from Vaughn Williams and Shostakovich (amongst others), to boost my creativity in challenging times. Because despite what we’d like to believe, or what others would like to tell us, we are still living in a pandemic; and the progress of climate change is unstoppable.

I’ll leave you with a quote I found on a news article, and thought poignant enough to share:

In the early months of the second world war, George VI evoked the largely forgotten verse of Minnie Louise Haskins, a former sociologist at the London School of Economics, to drum up courage and resolve in what was then a largely Christian country:

“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown’”

“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown’” - Minnie Louise Haskins. Illustrated by a cloaked figure with a staff holding up a lantern, based on the "Hermit" Tarot card by Pamela Coleman Smith from 1909.
Artwork adapted from “The Hermit”, No.9 of the Major Arcana in the Tarot of Pamela Coleman Smith, 1909 – see also “The Art of Pamela Coleman Smith

2022 – My Writing Year In Review

Was there ever a year in which we couldn’t write: “phew, what a year”?

Before I start my usual meanderings, here’s the Writing goals for 2022 I set myself at the start of the year – and my assessment of how much I actually got done (excuses at the end).

1. Write more.

Yes! Achieved! This year, over 200K words, not all of them on one project. Plenty have been published as posts on here, and more are just journalling. But the purpose of this goal was always to prompt me to simply Write More, whatever it may be, and I can definitely say this has been achieved – and I’ve improved on last year’s wordcount too. Bronze Medal? I’d say.

2. Publish.

Yes! By the middle of February I had published an edited volume of posts from 2021, the first full Plague Year of the 21st Century, in The Cuckoo Club Archives 2021. Later in the year I managed to upload and publish The Petticoat Katie Trilogy – a compilation of the first three Petticoat Katie novels – after much vacillation and fiddling about with the cover art. Here’s what both books look like:

3. Poetry.

Expect more of this sort of art in 2023…

Umm… I’ve written more poetry, and finally worked out how I want the covers to look for a series of chapbooks already planned (Art Nouveau posters, really).

I spent far too much time trying to find a photograph for part of the cover of the first one, because I know how I want it to look. I may have to try one of those AI Image Generators that erupted this year. Dall-E, Wombo, whatever – might give me the image I want, so I can unblock this goal in 2023 and finally get some of these into the public sphere.

(I realise this is me writing about cover art and not about poetry… I did write some poems, including a couple I’m pleased with.)

Addendum: publish one post a week here.

Yes! Achieved so far, including a series of posts on the Petticoat Katie books – The Story So Far is a summary from early September.

So now to the excuses.

Excuse Number One is the still-ongoing COVID pandemic, which was rife in the first three months of 2022 and still hasn’t gone away – our government (more of which later) seems to have decided a moderate level of repeated infection across the country is a better prospect than one giant overwhelming wave in winter. Shame the virus and people’s behaviour patterns have failed to comply. My household is still secluded, still wary of disease.

Mind you, excuse number three (yes I know I skipped #2, I’ll get back to that) is – Politics Rant Alert – the utter shambles of the UK government (Westminster). I make no apology for this lot – I didn’t vote for ’em – and I feel sorry for the civil servants who are trying to make progress on so many issues in the shadow of a revolving door that spits out fawning grifters into high office every so often. Plus:

Monarch’s Diamond Jubilee? Tick.

Dead monarch? Tick.

Three PMs in a year? Tick.

Wilful sabotage of UK economy by at least one of the three? Tick.

Unprecedented heatwave and drought? Tick.

Something has gone badly wrong in this country and when the pustule burst we were left raging at the lack of bandages (because: profiteering). Mutter, mumble, only fifteen months to the next General Election and the hope that some grown-ups get hold of the country’s controls…

At least the demise of Queen Elizabeth the Second seems to have deflated a balloon of jingoism that had begun to seem poisonous. Like it or lump it, the new King seems determined to change the dialogue. The “national treasure” tag will never be hung around his neck – the tabloids have a long history of chausing him for “talking to plants”. I’d like him to channel the spirit of his youth and change the National Anthem to this:

Imagine singing this at every sporting event instead of the dirge the English team have at the moment… never mind the Haka, just think of the hilarity!

Excuse number two (finally!): War in Ukraine. I am reminded of the exchange in Eat The Rich between Home Secretary Nosher Powell and the ambassadors of two unidentified warring (Middle East?) nations:

“You? Give ‘im back ‘is country!
– And you? Smarten yerself up!”

This war grinds on, and shows no sign of abating. As a historian, albeit one who looks deep into the past, I see tangled threads that no-one wants to pull, and a threat hanging over Europe which will take a decade or more to resolve. As ever we are prepared to re-fight the last one instead of seeing this as a whole new scenario, more Balkans and Syria than WW2. And the UK is not currently at war. Although it has begun to seem tiresome to many, because of a stalemate we can’t really touch, and disappears from the news headlines until another atrocity or cute-kitten-rescue-video grabs the attention.

As concerns Excuse Number Two, I have to remind myself that creativity in challenging times is not only possible but should be positively encouraged. If the Ukrainians can find a way to light a Christmas tree using bicycle power in a city under bombardment, and the Russians are prepared to be imprisoned for holding up blank placards, writers in peacebound countries can damn well pick up a pencil or two. Remembering, of course, that propaganda is the first tool of warfare, whichever side it’s produced by.

And that’s my writing year. I will sign off this post, and 2022, with the messages below:

Please, fellow artists and art lovers, keep seeking out, spreading, and making beauty.
Don’t stop. We all need you.

Terri Windling

Five Films For Yuletide 2022

How do I choose a film for these annual recommendations? What does a film have to have so much of that I’ll stick my neck out and say they’re worth watching?

More than anything, I choose films that are gentle and relaxing – no wham-boom here, thanks. There’s enough of that for those who want it. We don’t all enjoy Christmas the same way, and some people find the festive jollity and enforced fraternising just a tad overwhelming. If you’re like this, have a look at the links at the end of this post for some more suggestions.

Pretty films, mostly, with a story that doesn’t always rely on a superhero to save the world. Here’s my five for 2022.

1. Wings Of Desire. What do I need to write about this, which hasn’t already been said? Angels walk among us, with a purpose and a film-noir style that references early German films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. My favourite scene: breezing round an airy, multi-level library, where everyone respects the space of others – I can almost feel the peace of learning and knowledge. A trapeze artist hangs in mid-air, an elephant balances in a car park, and I realise this is the first of the circus-related films to recommend this year.

2. Water For Elephants. After reading the novel upon which this film is based – and I admit, I have A Thing about stories set in travelling circuses and fairs – I found this on DVD in a charity shop. Onto the shelf it went, awaiting a time I needed something uplifting to watch. There’s a bit of violence and some nastiness – the Baddie’s grin still gives me shudders – and a twist that makes you cheer. Not as good as the book, perhaps, but still a nice way to spend a couple of hours. (See Roger Ebert’s review for more). Here’s a clip of the soundtrack:

Ramanujan Art by Megan Lee – more scientists available, see link to Etsy

3. The Man Who Knew Infinity. Not strong on female characters, this one, the biography of mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his time at Cambridge University in the early 20th Century. Toby Jones and Jeremy Irons provide academic support to Dev Patel’s Indian student; cultural differences abound, while the characters bond over shared knowledge more akin to alchemy to most of us. (Stephen Wolfram’s Who Was Ramanujan? has more detail on the maths than many of us can handle, but do visit for the biographies and the story of Ramanujan’s discoveries.)

4. A Little Chaos. Kate Winslet’s not afraid to get her hands dirty in this – much as she does in Ammonite, which I would recommend if it didn’t annoy me so much – as a female landscape gardener who’s hired to work for Alan Rickman’s Louis XIV in the construction of Versailles. The plot’s not complicated; there’s a lot of mud, mostly on Kate. Possibly a bit gentle for some tastes – the headline link takes you to a review which panned it breathlessly.

5. The Bed Sitting Room. Want to see where Monty Python found their inspiration? One of those late-Sixties anti-Establishment films by Richard Lester (when he wasn’t directing The Three Musketeers). As post-apocalyptic films go, this is a totally hatstand story written by Spike Milligan, filmed in what looks like the 1970s-Dr-Who quarry, about a man who believes he is turning into a bedsit. Is it a homage to Kafka’s story about the beetle? Is it an excuse for a bundle of well-known actors to play around in mud (yes, there’s that mud again, but no circus)? And where are the antimacassars?

(N.B. for those of you who don’t know, an anti-macassar was a slip of embroidery you put over the back of your armchair to stop the fabric being stained by macassar hair oil, popular amongst gents for that slicked-back look.).

That’s it for this year. Here’s the films I recommended in previous years:

(Yes, I missed a few years. Sometimes real life stories take over.)

Hope we all have a safe, quiet, gentle Christmas, in many ways.

A Brueghel Frost

For the past week, this neighbourhood has looked like one of those paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Rooftops crusted with frost. Trees, stark against white. Birds subdued or absent, autumn’s dead leaves rimed underfoot.

People joke about global warming as if this isn’t the cause. Oboy, have I got news…

My usual walk has been resumed, as the muddy path over the hill has frozen solid. Pavements are still walkable because we’ve had no rain, or snow, and the clear skies bring enough warmth from the sun to heat the tarmac.

In some ways it’s been charming. In other ways, not so much.

The household stock of logs has reached the point where I’m finding wasps in the woodpile again. It’s a shame to tap them off into the depths of the logs where they might be susceptible to spiders, given they chose that particular spot in the woodpile to curl up in safety, thinking they’d last all winter there.

I’m reluctant to bring them indoors, or place them anywhere warm, as they will wake up and start to look for food which doesn’t exist at this time of year. Really, I’m thinking of how much that situation reflects life in general.

We find ourselves a cosy nook – if we’re lucky, and try hard – and settle down hoping for a safe haven. Whether that’s a solid house or a nomadic lifestyle, the key part is the fixed notion of “home”. When that’s disrupted or threatened – unsettled – this spreads into other parts of our lives, often unnoticed.

Nomads, ancient and modern, have homes too. Familiar spaces in the landscape – seasonal caves to shelter in, favourite trees to climb or harvest, water sources in places where water is scarce or overly-abundant. People, too, friends and acquaintances and old rivals we meet on the road, or at great festivals.

Whether we carry our precious belongings in a backpack or a wagon, we all have belongings we treasure. Some of those are ephemera, like printed bank statements. Others, precious amulets to keep us safe.

It’s a rare person who thrives without a talisman of some sort.

In THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, one set of characters are homeless; women classed as “unfortunates” by the Victorians, who had no safety net beyond others in the same situation, unreliable and shifting. I set the novel in March, when frosty nights disguised the deeds of the novel’s antagonist and kept my fictional women walking the streets to stay warm. They had their amulets too, their talismans, as did the Lady of the novel’s title.

Frost was the least of their problems.

broken pack ice on a darkened sea

Last week the outside temperature fell to -7C. For the UK, that’s unusual. Winter here is usually damp and dreich and December is a time for soft rain, the occasional sleet shower, for walking to the pub with your head down or a crisp frosty morning refresher. Rarely do we see snow in most parts of the country, and if we do, it never lasts longer than a handful of days.

[Spouse reminds me: “it’s winter, this is what happens”. I nod, and go fetch more logs.]

We’re fortunate to have a stash of fuel put by. Lucky to have the wherewithal. Cautious enough to have settled in a house with the option.

At certain points in history, I wasn’t.

History isn’t just somewhere to use as a backdrop for fiction. History isn’t all about the lives of Great Men, or Women, or those whose memoirs were published so we hear their side of the story, however far from the truth that may be.

History is how we got here. Winter, and summer, is meant to follow a pattern. Often that pattern lingers in public consciousness long after the actual memories have disappeared, and we’re left with someone else’s record of a White Christmas or a long, hot summer.

Those patterns are disrupted now.

Maybe they always were.

My reading list this year included 1491, a convincing description of how the Americas were full of people who died of plague before they even saw a European, so that by the time the first white folk got to the interior of both continents, the landscape was empty. The disappearance of so many people has been suggested as a cause for the Little Ice Age of the 17th century.

The stories we have tell us how to live with the world as our forefathers knew it, with only a handful of strange incidences that everyone remembered as if it were yesterday. The heatwave of 1976 was bandied about in the UK over our long hot summer this year. Most people alive now weren’t born before 1996, never mind 1976.

Patterns appear, in life and in fiction. Stories tell us how to deal with change, and there’s usually an end point, where we close the book and leave it on a shelf, or hand it on to another reader. We need this in real life too.

Those patterns have a rhythm and a purpose, a set of rules for life if that’s your thing, guidelines if it isn’t – or too many all at once. Thousands of years ago we had the same rhythms, those seasonal changes which drove us from one part of the world to another as food grew scarce. Longer rhythms too, birth and life and death. We created stories to guide us then, and we will create stories to guide us into the future.

Will we remember, as a species, all the stories we told? I doubt it.

Creating Magic

A while ago, after following a link off Widdershins World to YouTube and then a few sideways moves, I was struck by how much of my youth was sound-tracked by John Williams. Here’s the man himself conducting the Vienna Philharmonic playing the theme to Jurassic Park.

John Williams – how much of the formative times of my life have been sound-tracked by this clever man?

It began with Superman (the Christopher Reeve version, with all its now-cheesy bluescreen effects – it is a cartoon, after all, and I was ten), and continued for the next couple of decades all the way to Jurassic Park and a bundle of others via Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Schindler’s List. I’m sure it would have gone on further had I kept going to the pictures.

Testament to the man’s skill in composition, his music works just as well with a live orchestra as it does in the big sound systems of a 1970s cinema. Modern giant screen TVs, home sound systems, just aren’t the same as that seat-shaking thunder that comes out of the walls, or the physical force of a full orchestra.

And, because it coincided with me re-reading Anne Rice’s magnificent Cry To Heaven, I began to think about the creation of wonder.

We all want to do it.

As storytellers, isn’t it our goal to transport our readers to another place and time, to spend our lives with characters we love or hate? Maybe not to travel across galaxies and destroy planets, or resurrect long-dead dinosaurs, but something similar.

We want to create magic.

I was one of those kids who loved to watch “The Making Of…” programmes on TV. More often than I saw the actual films, in fact. From these I discovered Ray Harryhausen and the magic of stop-motion animation; saw all the good bits of Indiana Jones before I ever got round to watching the film, saw the James Bond stunts without having to put up with the rest of the wrapping around them (Favourite: the corkscrew-twisting car leap in The Man With The Golden Gun).

I’m in awe of film-makers who have the organisational skills and the vision to make such wonders as Lawrence of Arabia, Pan’s Labyrinth, and even films which seemed great when I was a kid and are now cheesy like Clash Of The Titans. The amount of effort involved in a 90-minute epic, or even a mysterious film like A Field In England, is breathtaking.

If you don’t think so, I recommend watching Lost In La Mancha, a documentary about the abortive first attempt to make what became Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

You get the impression stuff isn’t going well when Jean Rochefort, cast as the lead, suffers such terrible back pain on horseback that it’s visible even while he acts. Johnny Depp repeatedly performs in a poncho under a waterfall talking to a fish while the cameras film from different angles. (Watching that scene and Depp’s meetings with Gilliam at the start of the project, before there’s even a script, where he tries to get his head around Gilliam’s imagination and effectively gives up – I begin to see how film actors go nuts).

There’s an ill air about the project, struggling against misfortune until the moment when a flash-flood washes away most of the film equipment in Bardenas Reales – at that point, we realise this film is doomed, doomed, doomed. And the remainder of Lost In La Mancha just shows us how the project unravels, while Terry Gilliam grows ever more agitated and unlikeable. Guess that’s to be expected.

When Gilliam finally managed to finish the film, it had a different cast and the script seemed patchy, as if it had been stitched together by accident. Still fun, but not one of his best. Cervantes’ novel had already been eviscerated by Gilliam trying too hard to make it a modern parable, trying to add spectacular images to a story whose magic existed only in Don Quixote’s head.

Novelists try to make that spectacle happen in someone else’s head.

In The Lies of Locke Lamora and its two sequels, Scott Lynch conjures up an exclusive guild of ambitious thieves (the Gentlemen Bastards), a city built upon glass towers of ancient and mysterious origin, and a social structure akin to the height of the Venetian Republic. The characters meet a pirate queen and a hunted orphan heroine and pull off the most elaborate stunts of thievery with a sense of humour and the darkest of tragedies intertwined. (Yes, I’m a fan.)

Likewise the Foundryside trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett. The heroine sees each mechanism and construction across the city illuminated with inscribed magical instructions. The great citadels of the merchant families rise above the ordinary houses, walled like the cities of Myst. A broad silver bay under the moon where ships head for the dockside warehouses, a violent trade in people and artefacts, and a lead character with darkness locked inside.

Maybe I’m too focused on the effect that the written word has on my mind. I’m one of those visual readers – I can’t read the heating instructions on a tin of beans without seeing pictures in my head.

So when a novelist manages to paint a picture inside my skull with words and nothing more, it’s a dream come true. My brain tingles. There’s magic afoot.

When I write, I want to make my own magic. I want to translate the images in my head, the characters I overhear, the problems they solve and the world they create. To shape them on a page like John Williams and other composers shape music for films, transporting readers into another world that seems real, feels powerful, can’t be forgotten when the final page turns.

Maybe that’s the disappointment we write about, amongst ourselves, that we’re never satisfied with our own books. The magic we see on the page is a pale imitation of the worlds in our mind, and we can’t control how others see it.

I believe in magic.

As storytellers, don’t we all?

Bonus: Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to Dune:

Finally, those gawdawful books

Have I told you the one about the publisher, the monkeys and the atrocious novelettes?

One of the major parts of the Petticoat Katie stories are the hundred monkeys she’s gifted by the loathsome Ditto Sloth, right at the start of Maiden Flight.

“Victoria? What is it?”
“It’s a room full of monkeys.”
Katie stared at her. “Monkeys,” she repeated, as if she had misheard.
Victoria nodded. “Monkeys. Must be a hundred of them.”

The monkeys type novelettes. Romantic fiction of the most formulaic kind, a running joke that continues throughout the trilogy and beyond.

“They say if you put a hundred monkeys in a room with a hundred typewriters and have them type for a hundred years, they’ll produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.”

Now, these novelettes are awful. Even Petticoat Katie accepts this. In fact, it’s how she meets Ditto Sloth in the first place – ‘tis the whole story of The Monkeys Of Ditto Sloth.

Against one wall of the office, a bookcase groaned under stacks of the sort of Penny Dreadfuls mothers warned their offspring about.

illustration of a girl in an armchair reading a book by lamplight
The Little Reader, (c) Maja Lindberg

The novelettes were truly atrocious.
The reading public loved them.

“I read a lot of novelettes, and these are
the worst I’ve ever spent a penny on.”

When Petticoat Katie starts to take care of the monkeys, she tries to improve their habitat, their diet and their downtime. She introduces some culture, in the hope they enjoy it, and start to copy it in their output, and maybe give her products an edge over the competition. After all, the Mabel Slaters and the Clapham Stranglers might put her out of business, and what will the monkeys do then, poor things?

But these novels are dreadful – the pulp equivalent of those ebooks culled from Wikipedia articles, or written by AI – or, even worse, by literate folk desperate for money writing by formula for a flat fee.

Badly spelled and poorly typeset, as if the words themselves were trying to crawl off the paper in shame, each volume was as atrocious as the next.

…there was so little plot in any of her novelettes it was hard for even a lost soul not to find its way to the end with the ease of a join-the-dots puzzle

Of course Petticoat Katie’s novelettes have to be Romance. When I started writing the Petticoat Katie stories, all the self-pub platforms were “flooded” with Romance novels, at which many other novelists became quite sniffy. (yeah, probably me too). Kindle wouldn’t have taken off without ’em. Romance readers, and writers, didn’t give a damn.

The Word Witch, (c) David Wyatt

I’m in awe of romance novels, and their fierce readers. I can’t stand the genre myself. I don’t have a problem with many many romance books telling their variations of boy-meets-gurl etc. They aren’t my competition, and even the most prolific romance writer can’t keep up with the reading appetite of fans.

The prospect of a new batch of racy novelettes always whetted her appetite in a way that good literature simply couldn’t match.

A book a day, people? Remember having the time to read that?

“I like my stories to be quick and to the point. I like to be able to read a story in an afternoon – in fact, almost while one waits for an omnibus.” Katie glanced up. “I like a feisty heroine, a handsome hero, a dastardly villain and a bit of a plot.

I have no idea whether my depiction of the publishing industry is any way accurate. I glean what information I can mostly from Kris Rusch’s Business Musings posts on Thursdays, and The Passive Voice. Since I started self-pub – and especially since I haven’t published anything for a few years – I don’t get so drawn in to the mainstream publishing business news. Maybe something about not wanting it to seem like work; I dunno.

“Is this what printers get out of bed for in the morning?”

Anyway, Petticoat Katie’s Penny Dreadfuls are truly dreadful, and they’re popular, and they have to keep coming.

She stared in dismay at the box of Sloth Enterprises books, a horrid sinking feeling in her stomach. “I suppose I’m responsible for this,” she said, waving at the box of paperback atrocities.
Mr Sutin replaced the book and wiped his hand on his waistcoat like he’d touched something unpleasant. “Never mind,” he said as he tied up her order with string, “At least you don’t have to read them any more.

As an ongoing plot device, the awful novelettes provide plenty of scope for humour and ever more ridiculous solutions to the question of the monkeys’ welfare.

Because without the revenue from Sloth Enterprise’s crimes against woodpulp, the monkeys will starve. And nobody wants that, do they?

Katie cleared her throat. “Are you still publishing those awful novelettes, Dr Sloth?”
He leered at her. “Are you still buying them?”