The Luxury of Service

We had a meal, nothing fancy, at table. A white linen tablecloth, shiny cutlery, sparkly glassware and plenty of wine.

But when I laid the food in front of one of our visitors, a sudden wash of surprise overcame him and caught him unawares.

In the months since we’d last seen each other, their household had gone through some tough times, in the midst of what turned out to be a harsh winter and an ever more bleak lockdown.

Remember my posts from back then?

Remember the death tolls rolling out across the days, thousand upon thousand?

The simple act of being served food, like if you’d gone to a restaurant or café. But missing from life for what seemed like a long, hard time.

Many of us take this for granted. We’ve built into our lives – into society – a variety of places to be served a range of items, whether it’s food or drink or entertainment or all of the above.

Un bar aux Folies-Bergère – Manet (Fondation Vuitton, Paris)

Some of us are on the other end of that transaction, juggling knives and potatoes in a dead-end catering job or washing up the dirty plates and pans.

Even those workers have their days off. Most of us can afford a frothy coffee and a fluffy muffin in a museum tea shop or a motorway service station; perhaps a bacon butty from a roadside snack bar or a pie at some sporting event. A breakfast burger wolfed down between parcel deliveries.

Eating out, in its many guises, always involves someone else serving. Round and round it goes.

So what does this bring to our fiction?

Like many people I have a fondness for ensemble stories in films such as Gosford Park, The Remains Of The Day, and The Shooting Party. I’m struck by how the dynamics of the stories often form around the position of service – servant, and those being served.

How marvellous we all could be if we had someone else (or a number of someone elses) to do the daily work!

How witty our repartee, how energetic our discourse, how robust our sense of entitlement.

Downton Abbey carpet-bombed the idea of benign aristocratic paternalism into the ITV viewing proletariat

Stewart Lee, writing in The Guardian

That’s part of the reason I paused writing the Cuckoo Club stories – in SHADOWBOX my hero is a young over-entitled blond from a privileged background, and the world has had enough of them already thank-you. By the time he’s an elderly and much wiser man in THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, he’s mellowed, but his background is still beyond the innate understanding of most people, this author included.

Luncheon in the Studio – Manet

People from his social class hold different expectations of the world from those of a more ordinary background.

If you want to continue a discussion that began over dinner, you don’t have to take it into the kitchen to carry on the discourse while washing up. You just wait until the table is cleared – or ask, and it will be done for you – and continue without a pause.

There’s no second thought about all those dishes piling up in the sink, waiting for you later, because: they’re not.

And so I began to realise that, while what I was writing had its own merits – and I’ll have to write the middle book of Louis Beauregard, because I need to show you how the entitled young frogspawn turned into the wise old warrior – it wasn’t actually what I felt compelled to write.

Petticoat Katie and Sledgehammer Girl have to wait for the weekend to start their Fortean investigations in The Nessie Collector and The Weather Thief. They both have jobs or other responsibilities which preclude haring off on a whim.

painting of a girl at a water fountain
Girl beside a Fountain – Renoir (Kasama Nichido Museum)

The secondary character in SHADOWBOX can barely take time off for a funeral, never mind tracking a murderer across the English Channel and through the inner slums of Paris.

I understand there’s a line to be drawn somewhere. A book about a kitchen porter or an office drone isn’t in my scope either.

Our adventurers take off on their marvellous escapades particularly because they have support staff of one sort or another. How would Holmes manage without Mrs Hudson? Wooster without Jeeves?

The expectation that someone will be around to pick up the slack, to carry the can, to look after the house when the owners are away, shapes our fiction the way a potter shapes clay.

Is there another way to create fiction so that those who do the work tell the story?

On that note, this week’s links:

What shapes the stories we tell? Michael Rosen’s Workers’ Folk Tales, plus a terrific article (“The Red Children“) on the background of the book at The Jacobin magazine.

Kit de Waal asks where are all the working-class writers?

An absolutely tummy-rumbling post from Terri Windling on Literary food – lots of links, and scrumptious photos.

P.S. Petticoat Katie & Sledgehammer Girl live on toasted teacakes and peppermint creams…

Published in: on August 15, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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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
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
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  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  Comments Off on Creativity makes us human  
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Christmas is coming, somewhere else.

Christmas is coming, somewhere else.

Usually the shops are full of lights and dazzle. The pavements may be slick with rain, the skies grey with more, but windows bright and sparkling.

Even when it isn’t stuff you want to buy, the appeal is infectious.

Winter in the UK is generally a miserable thing. Evenings close in early. Mornings start sluggish, and often don’t fulfil their promise. Days pass without sunshine.

Painting - "On the river" by Bertha Lum (Brooklyn Museum) - watercolour of japanese women on a boat, with yellow lanterns
“On the river” by Bertha Lum (Brooklyn Museum)

Bright shop windows and Christmas lights are the sparkly antidote we’ve invented.

Stories familiar from childhood, such as A Christmas Carol or pantomime, dust us with imaginary snow. Many of the stories come from places – or moments in history – where winter is more defined.

Painting - "The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch" by Henry Raeburn, man in black clothing skating on an icy pond
Not your usual Scottish winter. Not any more.

Snow on fir trees.

Icicles hanging from rooftops and eaves.

The Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch.

For those of us brought up on such tales, Christmas celebrations from Australia and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere can be awkwardly enticing. Santa hat and Speedos for a festive beachside barbie?


Spain’s festive celebrations are generally short-lived, beginning at Advent, and prominently Roman Catholic. Perhaps being on the Mediterranean, albeit the opposite side to the Roman province of Palestine, helps interpret a winter story from a warmer climate.

Sweden celebrates the Feast of St Lucia, when young girls in candle headdresses parade through crisp deep snow at the start of December. Perhaps some remnant of a pre-Calvinist celebration, you really need a lot of snow to make it look impressive.

The UK’s Christmas preparations start after Bonfire Night and last all the way through to Hogmanay.

We need it.

Temperatures rarely fall below freezing for long enough to make a snowy difference. I’m sure this is an advantage in agricultural terms, but it makes a White Christmas unlikely most years.

The standard UK definition of a White Christmas is a single snowflake observed falling to the ground on the roof of the BBC’s Broadcasting House in the centre of London; while I’ve stood on the South Bank in the depths of December watching sleet obscure the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, our cities are heat islands. That single snowflake has to have a lot of luck.

Scotland’s daylight hours in winter are the same as those in Moscow, but the hours of sunshine are markedly lower. Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up, indeed.

Festive lights are the antidote, with baubles and tinsel and crisp panes of crumpled cellophane tied with colourful ribbons. Candles, real or fake, flickering with the promise of warmth and cosiness. Log fires. Yule log cakes.

We even set fire to our desserts; what else is Christmas pudding but a bonfire of the calories?

This year will probably be different. Already, supermarket adverts – a Christmas mainstay in the UK entertainment calendar – have shown how quickly we adapt. From Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot struggling to get home in time for a family dinner, to the John Lewis Partnership’s multiple format campaign spreading the funds (and love) amongst struggling creative studios.

For many of us, this festive period will indeed be about the struggle.

Christmas markets have been cancelled in many places, or have moved online.

Cut-me-own-throat-Dibbler selling German sausage from a stand slung over his shoulders isn’t coming anywhere near you, nor a row of repurposed sheds garlanded with fake pine branches flogging overpriced wooden spoons, glühwein, or chocolate hammers.

No elegant stalls with hand-poured candles, hand-knitted woollens from homegrown sheep, microbrewery beers, one of a kind jewellery, or framed Japanese silks – you’ll have to go to Etsy for those.

Pantomime, that traditional excuse to exercise your inner child in a warm dark safe space, doesn’t look likely either. No Babes in the Wood or Peter Pan. No work for dressmakers, scriptwriters, lighting technicians; panto is often the only show making money for theatres – and actors – which funds the rest of the year’s performances.

Panto stories tell us how children survive hardship and overcome challenges – stories even more relevant for many of us this year.

I’m sure we’re all longing for the chance to stand up and shout at 2020 and the pandemic, “It’s behind you!”.

I have a horrible suspicion that the response will be “Oh no it isn’t!”.

For more on the festive traditions surrounding Christmas and the Winter Solstice, try Terri Windling’s A Winter’s Tale – not least for the gorgeous illustrations.

Published in: on November 29, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Christmas is coming, somewhere else.  
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Companions in our solitude, and travels in lockdown

What makes us add a book to our favourites?

Those books we return to time after time, even though we know the story and the characters, how it progresses and how it ends.

Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor, setting off from the Shire with barely half an idea of what might lie ahead; or the young Edmond Dantès in the sunlight of Marseilles, surrounded by friends as he celebrates his engagement.

Unaware of the challenges lurking in the next few hundred pages.

Following them further into the story, knowing there’s hardship ahead, without any sign of good news, when the shit hits the fan and our favourite characters are pitched into struggles we hope we’ll never have to face ourselves.

We know there’s a Lion as well as a Witch in the wardrobe. We know there’s an end to the war, a cure for the sick, and justice for the wronged.

So often in life, when we need those most, we are disappointed.

We can’t know, ahead of events, whether COVID will be cured or will turn into something more deadly.

We can’t know how much of our lifestyles will be altered by climate change.

We don’t have much idea of the future, personal or global, when an illness can take away our loved ones in the space of a few days or a river rises to sweep away our homes.

Our favourite stories are familiar, comforting, predictable.

As writers, don’t we all want to create new favourites?

Characters we want to spend time with, like old friends.

Places we want to revisit, again and again, walking their streets and alleys, or climbing the rigging, or driving their fantastic machines, as we read.

Crimes we want to solve, mischief we want to share, love without disruption.

Our favourite stories give us hope in defiance of despair, companions in our solitude.

Travel in our lockdowns.

Sunlit stone staircase rising through trees into the distance
“There’s magic everywhere, if you look.”
― Terri Windling

[Edit, later: I also found this – Difficult Times – by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Enjoy.]

Published in: on November 22, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Companions in our solitude, and travels in lockdown  
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Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor

Lockdown, this Autumn, will be harder to endure than the one in Spring.

For many of us the bright days earlier in the year and the prospect of Summer were a gift that helped us cope with Not Going Out. Alas, those days are gone for this year, and the standard British winter is approaching, eight hours of daylight chock-full of grey skies and drizzle.


We need plans to get through this. Books can help.

Non-fiction, to show us how the future can be changed, to remind us that nothing lasts forever, to give us ideas on how to build a new way of life, and to inspire us with the lives of people who have shifted gravity.

Maps and gazeteers and natural history, showing us where to find places for wild swimming or birding or just sitting with a Thermos of tea and a packet of sandwiches watching waves on a beach.

Self-help manuals to guide us if we decide that this time round we will take up yoga, or sourdough, or just focus on our mental health and wellbeing.

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

Photography, puzzle books, colouring books; blank stamp albums for gradual filling; text books for home schooling; reference books for when you need more information than the internet can provide; music books for when you finally get round to pick up that instrument you’ve been meaning to practise for years.

And, of course, fiction.

Fiction, where marvellous worlds await within the pages, with new cities and familiar places seen through the eyes of heroes and villains; adventures in time and space, on air-balloons or rockets or sailing ships; experiences we will never have – or can remember, or empathise with, or wish on our bitter enemies.

Fiction: journeys, alone or otherwise, to show us how many have travelled such a path as this before us, and how many are with us right now, sharing the light of their lanterns through the darkness ahead.

To remind us that Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor.

This lockdown, please consider buying books from independent bookshops.

The best way to do this is to buy online from the bookshop’s website, if they have one.

Otherwise, you can buy books online from Hive, and choose which bookshop you want to benefit from your transaction. The Hive website will suggest bookshops near your postcode, but you can pick another if it’s special to you.

Published in: on November 2, 2020 at 9:00 am  Comments Off on Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor  
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