Or, Some Things Don’t Change
I blew off handbells today. Shock. Horror. But our usual Friday afternoon handbell madness is occasionally held in Morocco, because one of our regulars lives there, and for her to come here is a very long commute for a couple of hours of somewhat erratic handbells, since we are not all up to Niall’s standard, and occasionally we all go to her instead. Furthermore she has a big garden full of wildlife and if the handbells are going badly someone can always look out the window and say ‘oh, look, a djinn.’
But the days we drive to Morocco are a long commute for those of us coming from New Arcadia and Mauncester. And I, as I have told you, am beginning to do a little story-work again, but it’s kind of a struggle*, and most of this last week has been a non-event due to obsessing about the interment, the interment, and disintegrating after the interment. And while I wasn’t looking, the story that was (I thought) unspooling the most steadily got itself into the most spectacular matted mare’s nest** and yesterday I pulled most of it to pieces trying to figure it out, speaking of morale problems. So when Niall told me handbells were at Jillian’s today I demurred and said I needed to stay home and work.
Well, I did need to stay home and work. This is not necessarily what happened. THIS IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED. What happened is by mid-afternoon I was having difficulty not throwing this ARGLEBARGLEDOODAHBLITZIT object across the room, which is to say my so-called computer***, AND the mare’s nest now resembled a plait of plastic rope that someone has set fire to. Not only is it not pretty and is incapable of holding anything together it PONGS.
So about the time Niall would have been setting off to Morocco I LEAPED INTO WOLFGANG AND WENT TO MAUNCESTER TO LOOK AT STORAGE SOLUTIONS. Such vice! Such wickedness! Where I came in: some things don’t change. I used to do exactly this in similar situations back in Maine. When the pong of melted plastic rope got too much I would leap into Ferdinand and drive to Ellsworth and look at storage solutions, lack of storage having been a guiding principle my entire life. The lilac-covered cottage in Blue Hill was smaller than this one†, but I had fewer bad habits in those days†† and now that I don’t have Peter’s larger house to spill into (and out of) the corners of, um. I also had only one dog in Maine. The hellmob larder situation is extreme AND IS TAKING UP POTENTIAL BOOK SPACE.
I can’t say I solved it, but I did come home with two Very Large Plastic Crates and four small ones. I did not choose these because they were the cheapest bins available, which they were, but because I could get them in purple, turquoise and pink.
Some things don’t change.
* * *
* It’s always a struggle, it’s been a struggle for approximately sixty-three years^ it’s just sometimes my vorpal blade is shining with a burning flame and going snicker-snack and sometimes it is more of an overripe banana going squish. I’m glad that—as someone on the forum has I think said—the Story Council seems to have unearthed my address and has started sending me possible projects again^^ but speaking of things that don’t change I’m working on two short things and a long thing, and the short things are (a) a SEQUEL to another short thing and (b) a retelling of a frelling fairy tale which means these are both RIFE WITH PERIL for someone who doesn’t do the short thing all that well, I mean, even rifer with peril, because a sequel means that there’s more there, you know? Which is how accidents happen. And retelling fairy tales . . . eh. My record here speaks for itself. And the long thing is, well, long. So the Story Council’s latest hot delivery is THANKS SO MUCH YOU GUYS, a novel that has been lurking in the back of my mind and the bottom of my cough-cough-cough-cough filing system for thirty years. Yes. Really. This is something I started poking at after BEAUTY, and then SWORD snatched me away, saying, yes, yes, you said that Damar was scaring you, we let you write BEAUTY to settle you down, now pay attention. This other thing has waved to me from the shadows from time to time since then but . . . GO AWAY. I’M SURE YOU’RE ADORABLE BUT I HAVE ENOUGH GOING ON.^^^
^ My memories of telling myself proto-stories in my crib are comparatively mellow
^^ Although I don’t actually think it’s the Story Council’s fault in this case. I think I’ve been ignoring that slap on the doormat that says INCOMING, unless, of course, it’s a gardening catalogue, a knitting magazine+, or that extra-specially splendid thud that declares A NEW BOOK, because, of course, I need more books, I can’t get up the stairs in either house because of the book boxes++: that is, I can, because I have long legs and I won’t sue myself, but nobody else can. However given that my housekeeping skills have never had a lot of profile and have been almost completely dormant for the last eight or nine months, repelling visitors has become an act of charity since the only loo in either house is . . . upstairs.+++
+ I have something hilarious to tell you. I NEED A NEW KNITTING PROJECT. I NEED A NEW KNITTING PROJECT. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, stop, stop, hahahahaha I can’t stop, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA STOP. Yes. Well. I’m sure I’ve told you that I’ve turned into the Crazy Knitting Lady Super-Extra Model since Peter died because having my head down over a lapful of yarn helps me not cry in public, and knitting through the sermons every week at St Margaret’s has revealed that, because I’m a fidget and sitting still takes effort, knitting furthermore helps me concentrate.# With the unsurprising outcome that I’m getting through rather a lot of it. The shortcoming of this system is that I can only do plain, plain, PLAIN knitting because I am a bear of very little brain and if I’m using knitting to suppress the fidgets as well as the tear ducts while I’m paying attention to something else I can’t do anything clever.##
So, yeah, my house is full of unfinished projects###, like the houses of most knitters I know, but I daren’t risk trying to finish any of these because I will bobble them extremely. So I need A NEW (simple minded) KNITTING PROJECT. Too delicious. And it’s not even on my forbidden-foods list.####
# Although I have to remember not to wave a needle around for emphasis during the discussion afterward.
## The fact that the strips of that infamous baby blanket are different lengths testifies to just how plain the knitting has to be. Counting rows? COUNTING? You mean, like, MATHS? Bad idea. Really, really bad idea.
### Stuffed into an assortment of excellent tote bags emblazoned with slogans like ‘I knit so I don’t kill people’. What a pity it took me so long to discover knitting.
#### It probably should be BUT IT’S NOT.
++ I told you, didn’t I, that Atlas came off his bike about two months ago and broke both wrists?! So the shelf-building has been on hold. It has begun again, now he’s out of plaster, but the Lodge’s walls are even more skew-whiff than the cottage and it’s more sculpture# than carpentry. Which takes longer.
# The local what’s-on New Arcadia magazine this month has an ad for a beginners’ sculpture class. NOOOOOOO. MCKINLEY, IN WHAT TIME? WITH WHAT ENERGY? But I keep thinking about it. Let’s see I could give up . . . um . . . I could give up . . . =
= And it’s worse than that because I’ve started drawing again. In what time and with what energy. And what result must be considered. If my writing is too often adding three words and deleting seventeen, my drawing is adding half a syllable and deleting a page.
+++ They breed, you know, book boxes, like clothes-hangers in neglected closets. Every time I go up to Third House there’s another one in a corner that I’m SURE was clear last time. Empty wrong-sized plant pots do exactly the same thing. Arrrgh.
^^^ Unless of course you promise, word of honour and sealed in blood, that I can write you in six weeks and you will be BRILLIANT and sell 1,000,000,000 copies in the first six months.
** Like necklace chains in the jewellery drawer overnight. How do they DO that? ARRRRRGH.
*** My proper laptop—the ultrabook, laptops are so last decade—is in the frelling shop, because its keyboard went doolally last week. Okay, so, how many people eat at their computer? Like, most of us? And why can’t the idiots in development create a bits-proof keyboard? Now I’m off all cereal grains I’m not even producing many crumbs. Although tahini and pine nuts are probably worse. Anyway. I’m presently attempting to work on my old, reconditioned laptop—back when laptops were laptops—and apparently it liked being retired because It. Is. Not. Cooperating. So when Raphael brings the ultra back with a shiny fresh porous keyboard, he will take AWAAAAAAAY this pigbutt of a machine and whack it around some.
† The kitchen more nearly resembled a kitchen but the house had no attic. Reasons to move to England: public footpath system. Roses. Attics.
I had the best working morning today—you know, story-words on computer screen type working morning—that I’ve had in yonks.* So I thought I’d write a blog post to celebrate.
A lot of my long silences here are just . . . long silences. One foot after the other days** when getting the hellmob even semi-hurtled is the height of my ambition or capacity.*** But some of it, on evenings when brain function is still just about discernible, is not knowing where to start. I’m still programmed to be doing this every night, I just haven’t the time, the energy, or the morale. And I don’t do the graceful summary thing.† I’m missing the wetware interface for graceful summary. So, ahem and apologies, Footnote Delirium ahoy.
But, you know, a good writing day? This deserves some banner-waving affirmation. Maybe I’ll even do it again tomorrow. The story-writing that is. I’d probably break if I wrote a blog post two nights in a row.
Meanwhile . . . hello and whatever and I hope you’re all well and thriving and reading great books out there in on-line land.
* * *
* I’ve been working for a while now, but an awful lot of days it’s more, um, ‘working’. I have lots of days where I write three words and delete seventeen. You have too many days like this you have a bigger problem than when you weren’t ‘working’ at all.
** Sometimes no farther than the sofa, where the feet stop one-after-anothering and cross themselves on the armrest, the hellmob pummels the inert human body into some less than satisfactory semblance of comfy rumpled bedding^, and silence reigns. Except for the soggy pop of gloomy human thoughts exploding, and the hellterror snoring.
^ Fortunately they are mostly tolerant of badly-placed knees and ribcages.
*** Also the way I eat now takes AMAZING amounts of preparation. GOOD GRIEF. Anyone trying to maintain a mostly fresh-organic-fruit-and-veg diet had just better bring her laptop into the kitchen and get it over with because she’s going to be in the kitchen most of the time anyway. In my case this is even more challenging than for someone who has, bless them grrrrrr, a real kitchen rather than a blip with a few cupboards. My only half decent countertop is now my desk. Arrrgh. It’s quite useful to have a sink full of dirty dishes: balance your chopping board on top of it and, lo, counterspace. Arrrrgh. And? And? Why has the British Appliance Agglutination decreed that all electric flexes on countertop appliances should be no more than three inches long^ ??!!??? In this kitchen this means that every time I decide to get my juicer^^ out it’s a major schlep of STUFF . . . mostly onto the floor, so it’s a very good thing that the hellterror has decided that stuff on the floor is not automatically interesting, unless, of course, it smells of foooooood. Chaos, who likes to lie near the Aga occasionally, will sometimes lay his head delicately on a well-placed and –balanced pile of books, magazines, rough drafts, notebooks shedding Notes to Self, prayer plans and private, idiosyncratic modernisations of applicable Psalms+++ and business letters I’m trying to forget. Disturbing a sleeping dog is, of course, not to be thought of, so on these occasions I get a stiff neck, a warped shoulder and a crick in my spine leaning over the sleeping dog to get at the frelling juicer, three inches away from the wall. You’d think the noise of the thing would wake him up and move him on but . . . nooooooooo.
^ ‘eight centimetres’ doesn’t even sound that much longer
^^ Juicing. The faffiest flapdoodling faff of all GOOD FREAKING DOODAH GRIEF. And the FOOTPRINT of your average juicer?! Sixteen hellterrors or a small bus. Unfortunately I’m developing a, you should forgive the term, taste for juicing. Not only, if you get it right, is a barrowload of fresh raw juice an amazing hit+, but if you got a little carried away at the chance-found organic farmer’s market stall or the offers from your on-line organic grocery delivery gang that week, you can always juice your superfluity.++
+ Especially for those of us who can barely remember what chocolate is any more.# Your taste buds really do change. A few months AC## and raw carrot-apple-beetroot-sweet-potato### juice is so frelling sweet you’re sure it must be bad for you.
# In case of accidents, I’ve passed my stash on to the monks.
## After Chocolate
### Raw sweet potato. Yes. Parsnip is supposed to be good too but it was out of season by the time I started getting goofy over juicing.
++ Also there are now worms. Hungry worms. I’ve been threatening a wormery for a while now, as I’ve probably mentioned here: I don’t have room for a compost heap, or several compost heaps, since you have to rotate them#, at either the cottage or the Lodge or the cottage plus Lodge, and I’ve always had a veg-trimmings problem, even before I went doolally in the alkaline-paleo-vegan direction, and with juicing I now REALLY have a problem, and our local recycle guys get cranky if there’s too much kitchen detritus among the rich plunder of triffid-lash nettles, evil creeping buttercup and taking-over-the-universe ground elder.##
BUT I’ve been saying, I’ll buy a wormery later. I’ve got enough going on and besides I can’t afford it, I’ve got all these vegetables I have to buy every week plus lorryloads of hellmob food.###
Meanwhile I am mysteriously on the hot list for ringing weddings this summer. Stay with me here, this is not a non sequitur. My energy levels, including the number of neurons firing in my brain, at any given day/hour/frozen stalactite of time, are both unpredictable and unreliable, and while I haven’t yet missed a wedding by being too wombly to drive to the tower, there have been weddings when I prayed for the rest of the band to be beginners so no one would expect me to ring methods.#### I made a bristling . . . um, compost heap . . . of a couple of pathetically basic methods at a couple of weddings and was totally ready to fall on my sword, except that ringers who are willing to ring weddings must be in short supply around here at the moment or they wouldn’t be asking me in the first place.
So there was a wedding at Crabbiton##### a few weeks ago. And Wild Robert was running the band. And I should be used to his taking-no-prisoners habits by now, but IT’S A WEDDING. Feh. He drove us through methods I can’t ring recognisably on practise nights and I crawled home that night brainlessly high with my preposterous success###### and too exhausted to be sensible. So I bought a wormery. Of course. As you do.####### I’ve even rung enough weddings to cover the cost.
Hey. It’s PINK. No, really. I might not have bought it if it had been a subdued, business-like colour. But PINK? It looks very cute sitting next to the kitchen sink, except for the tripping-over-it, the-kitchen-door-only-opens-halfway part. I also have no idea whether it’s working or not, except for the fact that it smells nice when I open it to throw in some more apple cores and herb stems and armfuls of post-juicing sludge.
# SIGH for the beautiful, built-by-Atlas wood-framed compost heaps at Third House. SIIIIIIIGH.~
~ Note that Brexit is a catastrophe. Including that the real estate market just hit bottom and frelling splattered. You may remember I am trying—I wildly and hysterically need—to sell Third House? But that’s a post for another day. Preferably when I’m feeling stronger. Preferably after the time machine unspools us back to the Wednesday before Really, Really Bad Thursday and this time we stay in the EU, thank you very much. And I’ll think of something else to write a blog post about.=
= No a female Prime Minster is NOT worth it. Especially when she’s another thrice-blasted Tory.%
% I’m also having one of my American moments about the speed at which we acquired a new PM. I’m sure this must be illegal somehow. And the Queen is in on it.
## I almost forgive enchanter’s nightshade for being an ineradicable festering-festering ratbag weed for the excellence of its name.
### What I want to know is why, when the hellhounds don’t eat, we seem to get through SO MUCH dog food. ::Eyes the hellterror::
#### Also, stage fright. If you bollix it up on practise night, eh, it’s practise night. If you bollix it up for a wedding EVERYONE HATES YOU, except the bride, the groom, and the wedding party, who don’t notice. But how many frelling weddings have I rung over the years? I still get stage fright. And open ground floor rings are my deepest, bursting-galaxies nightmare, because everyone comes down to your end and leans on the barrier rope and stares at you and PROBABLY TAKES PICTURES. WITHOUT ASKING, OF COURSE, BECAUSE YOU’RE PART OF THE MULTI-MEDIA ENTERTAINMENT. Crabbiton is a ground floor ring.
##### See: ground floor ring. See: stage fright.
###### Wild Robert is a sorcerer. It’s the only explanation.
####### In the old days I’d’ve had to wait till the shops opened the next day, by which time I might have reclaimed my common sense, or cast an eye over my bank balance. On line shopping is also a Borg invention. Or possibly a critical factor in turning the human population into mush-minded proto-slaves, primed and ready for the return of Cthulhu.
+++ The ranting, miserable-sod ones of course. ‘Heal me, o God, for my bones are troubled.’
† The WHAT? What was that word before ‘summary’? Keep it away from me, I have sensitive skin, I’m sure it would burn.^
^ And, not speaking [of] the e-word, it’s also guaranteed that the day I put on clean jeans will be the day the hellterror and I have the kind of adventure which requires I pick her up and rest her muddy feet on my hip to ensure our best odds for survival. ARRRRRRGH. We met two women with five loose dogs—five large loose dogs—on the barely-one-thin-person-wide river path a few days ago, and the women were so profoundly engaged in their conversation that the hellterror and I had pied-pipered their flock of hairy, oversized rats some considerable distance before they even NOTICED. Arrrrrrrrrrgh.#
# And two days ago the hellhounds and I were walking across one of the little rec grounds in town when an idiot woman with a terrier on a lead and a spaniel off lead came through the gate. Hellhounds and I, a good thirty feet away, paused warily . . . and the gorblimey spaniel came hell-for-leather at us, barking and snarling, and circling closer and closer and closer . . . CALL YOUR [*******] DOG, I said, and Ms Porridge-Brain said something like, oh now, Sweetbuns, that’s not necessary, in this placatory voice, and Sweetbuns of course ignored her entirely, making little rushes and snatches at my dogs and me.
So I kicked the bugger.
Ms Porridge-Brain melted down. I melted down right back at her. He was only protecting me! she yelled in outrage. PROTECTING YOU? YOU ARE THIRTY FEET AWAY AND HE WAS [*******] THREATENING MY DOGS, I yelled back. HE IS OFF LEAD AND MINE ARE ON LEAD. The exchange may have deteriorated from that high point of communicatory clarity. And I’m still angry.
. . . Um. Not a good way to end a blog post. Um? La la la la la la la. . . . I’ve just memorised the lyrics to ‘Lord of the Dance’, I could sing . . .
Writer and Seer: Peter’s literary works*
Now, for this next piece I need you to imagine that I’m voicing over the sound of a typewriter. It’s coming from up a stairway or behind a study door, and it sounds like this:
Chack-chack-chack-chak. (Pause for thought.) Chackchackchackchackchackchack…
Peter did not have typist’s hands. He said his fingers were like a sculptor’s, thick and stubby**. He typed from the elbow, two fingers, hitting the keys so hard that he could break them in ways that the repair people had never seen before.
He wrote books, but not only books. He wrote scripts for plays: amateur productions that we performed with our friends the Stuart-Smiths at their house at Serge Hill***; and for the highly-talented children’s opera group who performed in St James’ Church in London W11†. He wrote a screenplay for a TV series called Mandog, and drove our little Morris Minor as an extra in one of the chase scenes.
And he wrote poems. When he was re-roofing our large and leaky house at Bramdean††, he wrote poems about it on slates and hid them under the tiles for future generations to find. He wrote a clutch of painful little poems after the tragic death of Mary Rose in 1988, and more when Robin crossed the Atlantic to join her life with his. Many of these are in his collection The Weir.
But his books were the main thing. He would write two a year, one adult mystery, one children’s fiction, like a farmer rotating the crops in his field. Often he’d start with just an idea, and no notion of where it would take him. He said he could write a third of a murder novel without knowing who had killed whom or why.†††
His imagination was bold, far-reaching and quirky. He would follow a story set in a Scottish Loch with one in sixth century Byzantium. He wrote about the near future and also about the dawn of humanity. He did light romance in the General Strike and science fiction in an apartheid Britain where some skins were green. He loved to set his stories in country houses like this one.‡ And if when you’re looking around you see a drop of fresh oil on a weapon in a display case – that’s the clue!
His characters were complex, his prose rhythmic, his ideas tantalising. He would do nothing obvious or cheap. For him, all worthwhile moral questions were complicated and ambivalent. But he did not want to lecture his readers. He took them round the byways, through the wild woods of imagination, and if they came to ask themselves the sort of questions that he was asking – as it were, by accident – that was all he could hope for.
He kept it up, for over sixty novels. That’s a gravity-defying career by all standards. They’re all still available – just go to Open Road Media – Peter Dickinson or find his website Peter Dickinson . [Fixed – Blogmom] (Here we (*&^%$£”!!!! go again: I can’t make the suckers live. Time to call in Blogmom. Apologies.] Some of them won prizes. Tulku and City of Gold won the Carnegie in consecutive years. Others did not, but his quality was always high. Have you tried The Last Houseparty? Ah, you should.
Phil and Polly remember accompanying him to Crime Writers’ Association dinners and rubbing shoulders with the greats like Harry Keating and Dick Francis.‡‡ James and I remember our excitement when he fell into a correspondence with Richard Adams (I think Peter was less than excited about this, actually). He served as Chair of the Society of Authors. He went on lecture tours, he was awarded the OBE for services to literature. But he was no highbrow.
He won prizes, he said, because his books were the sort that adults thought children ought to read.‡‡‡ He was ambivalent about that. He told an Exeter conference in 1970 that the danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature was that “not enough rubbish is being produced.”
And he added:
“Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.”
Back then that was fighting talk, and he had to defend it. Which he did. It wasn’t in his commercial interest, but it was what he believed.
So we thought we’d give you a bit of Peter’ essay “A Defence of Rubbish”. Here he is, the writer’s writer, the librarian’s favourite, up and fighting for children to be allowed what the hell they liked, even if, to the adult eye, it contained no value either aesthetic or educational.
…Third, I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things for themselves. However tactfully an adult may push them towards discoveries in literature, these do not have quite the treasure trove value of the books picked up wholly by accident. This can only be done by random sampling on the part of the children, and it is inevitable that a high proportion of what they read will be rubbish, by any standard. But in the process they will learn the art of comparison.
Fourth comes a psychological point. Children have a very varying need of security, but almost all children feel the need of security and reassurance some time. One can often tell how happy or insecure a child is feeling simply by what she is reading. And sometimes she may need to reread something well known but which makes absolutely no intellectual or emotional demand. Rubbish has this negative virtue, and I would be very chary of interfering with a child who felt an obvious need of rubbish.
My fifth point is more nebulous. There is no proof, or even arguing about it. But I am fairly sure in my own mind that a diet of plums is bad for you, and that any rational reading system needs to include a considerable amount of pap or roughage—call it what you will. I know very few adults who do not have some secret cultural vice, and they are all the better for it. I would instantly suspect an adult all of whose cultural activities were high, remote and perfect.
I have to take the podium again to make my confession here. I spent a fair amount of my childhood re-reading football comics. I was probably aware that I was being allowed to get away with it. I had no idea at all that I owed it to his faith in intellectual freedom.
Books, Peter said, are like leaves. They fall from the tree that made them and for a little while they lie golden on the ground. But very soon they are buried by the next layer of books, which of course are doomed to be buried in their turn. It’s a melancholy but realistic reflection on how much of a monument a writer can expect from his own works.
But of course, the monument is not really in the book at all. It’s in the readers who found that treasure trove and were touched by what was in it. Even if they can no longer remember the title or the author’s name. And sometimes they do. A few years ago I met a young writer who said: ‘Peter Dickinson? We had one of his books in the school library when I was twelve. It was called The Gift. I loved it.’
The Gift. Ah yes. Thank you, Peter. For that one too.
* * *
* by Peter’s son John, yes, that John Dickinson: Books by John Dickinson
He has a blog and a website, but they have been a trifle neglected: he says himself that do something about this has been top of the list for . . . er . . . quite some time.
And here is a BBC interview John did about Peter right after he died: Peter Dickinson OBE
The bit about Peter starts eleven minutes in. Several people have told me it’s good. I haven’t listened to it—I can’t bear to—so don’t talk to me about it.
** Peter had gigantic hands. My hands are big enough I can only get into size large dishwashing gloves but he could swallow one of my hands in one of his. Walking down the street holding hands we had to do it palm to palm like you do with a kiddie: if we tried to lace our fingers together I’d dislocate my knuckles. I’m wearing his wedding ring on a chain around my neck.^^ I could almost wear it as a coronet.
^ Trying to find dishwashing gloves that would fit him was epic. The holy grail was nothing on trying to find dishwashing gloves for Peter.
^^ Sigh. . . .
*** Hertfordshire. North of London.^
† Notting Hill. Next to Holland Park, as previous.^
^ . . . apologies to my English readers. But the majority of this blog’s readers are American and I’m making the assumption that they don’t know any more about English geographic niceties than I did thirty years ago. About the Europeans, Australians, Asians, Africans, Antarcticans and Martians who read this blog I will not hazard a guess.
†† And he did a VERY GOOD JOB. It DID NOT LEAK in my era.
††† I’m pretty sure I’ve told the blog this story: Peter lived with me in Maine for a couple of months while I finished DEERSKIN before packing up to move to England (eeeeeeeeeep). He borrowed my old manual typewriter [sic] and started typing (as above: CHACK CHACK). After a few days he gave me the first chapter of what would become THE YELLOW ROOM CONSPIRACY. Since it’s the first chapter it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that it ends with the two main characters saying calmly to each other ‘I thought you murdered so and so.’ I looked at Peter with very large eyes: Wow! What happens? Who did it? —I have no idea, replied Peter.
‡ Avington Park, where the memorial service was held, and which is so much more fabulous than its web site makes out. Some day when I’m feeling jolly and expansive I’ll tell you about finding it.
‡‡ I met Harold Pinter at one of these things. I didn’t take to him. But then he didn’t take to me. Harry Keating was a sweetie.
‡‡‡ Ahem. He also won prizes for his murder mysteries. Ahem.
Have I told you I’ve gone back into therapy because I Am Not Coping with Reality Very Well Right Now?* I went in for an assessment a while ago but it took them some time to find a slot for me.** I’ve seen Metis a few times now and like her—if ‘like’ is quite the word you want to apply to your shrink—and have some hope that she’ll crack me open like whacking off the top of your soft-boiled egg with an egg-spoon.*** But it’s still early days. Yesterday she taught me a relaxation technique. Chiefly it served to demonstrate that I do not relax. Nadia could have told her this. Sigh.†
But weekly therapy meetings are one more thing on the schedule. And in the last fortnight I seem also to have been to three concerts†† and not merely done my standard weekly Sam duty but the frelling occasional-required long overnight duty which reduces you to a little pile of sticky ashes even if you’re healthy††† plus picking up an extra (late, not everyone’s favourite time of day for some reason) duty when someone went down sick at the last minute.‡
And of course there’s still monks. And singing.‡‡ And the hellmob. And the garden, which is booming into early summer. And bell ringing, although tower ringing has taken a hit the last fortnight due to all the other excitements. But handbells . . . it’s Friday. There were handbells.‡‡‡
* * *
* I’m an American, we believe in therapy. And my best friend is a New Yorker and everyone in Manhattan is in therapy, it’s a civic ordinance. You want to live there, you need to sign up with a therapist before you try to find a place to live. Your rental agreement or your mortgage application will have a query on it something like ‘Are you currently actively engaged in seeking self-development by way of a professional relationship with a psychotherapist whose name appears on this year’s list of Persons Licensed to Charge More Than $1000 an Hour which you gladly disburse for the Privilege of Discovering What a Hopeless Dolt You Are?’ You need to be able to fill in the ‘yes’ box. Residents of the Tri-State Area are given a tax rebate for being in therapy, although it doesn’t run to $4000 a month. Hey, what do you want, healthy, well nourished children and a car that runs^ or greater self awareness?^^
^ All the festering DRIVING involved in my proliferating life-enrichment programmes is a pain. It’s worth it but IT IS A PAIN. And while I’m both a careful and a law-abiding driver I do kind of yell a lot. I had a Classic Robin Moment on my way to my last voice lesson. I was late, of course, because I’m always late, and I got stuck behind this moron going thirty-five miles an hour in a SIXTY MILE AN HOUR ZONE. I was not doing my singing voice any good in my description of his heritage and his likely future. Then we hit town—I’ve tried going the back way and all that happens is that I get stuck behind tractors, and that doesn’t do my singing voice or my blood pressure any favours either—and the slow wiggly main road was made even slower and wigglier by the plethora of frelling LORRIES parked on it while they unloaded shoes and sausages and hammers and mattresses into all the frelling shops. So you and your soon to be overheating car are ducking back and forth from one single lane to the other, depending on where the latest lorry is parked and you are getting later and later for your voice lesson and CRANKIER AND CRANKIER. Now, despite my malevolent views of other drivers, I’m quite the—ahem!—Samaritan about letting other drivers in, especially in a situation like this one where we’re all suffering. Well I’d got stuck behind the final lorry and no one was letting me into the other lane. Guess who finally did. Yep. Thirty Five Miles an Hour in a Sixty Mile an Hour Zone Man. I waved gratefully but I hope he doesn’t lip-read.
^^ Note that Metis’ practise does not charge £646 an hour. Trust me, I would not be there.
** It’s a group practise. I imagine them sitting around at their admin meeting and saying, okay, we have an axe murderer, a pathological collector of HP Lovecraft t shirts^, someone who thinks they’re Napoleon/Marie Stopes/Edward Cullen and a writer with writer’s block . . . and a chorus of voices reply eagerly, I’ll take the axe murderer! I’ll take Lovecraft, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is the best novel of the 20th century! I’ll take Marie Stopes! . . . Silence. I am fully booked, says the person remaining. I totally must shampoo the cat, and then sort the contents of the kibble bin by size. Fluffy is so particular. I can’t consider taking on a new client till someone else has been desperate enough to take the wri—I mean, probably not till next year.
*** Personally I scramble my eggs. But Peter does the egg-spoon trick.
† Note to self: Metis and Nadia must never meet.
†† If Jackie Oates http://www.jackieoates.co.uk/live-dates/ comes anywhere near you and/or you have a friend who is willing to do the driving, speaking of driving,^ and unless you are one of these poor sad creatures who doesn’t get good folk music, go. And listen especially closely to the newly arranged and adapted 21st-century lyrics to A Cornish Young Man, which are delicious.
^ Fiona and I found a new yarn shop. I was doing pretty well+ till I made the mistake of checking out the sale bin again. I had thought on the way in that the Yarn Pet percentage might be a little perilous but at that point I had a whole shop to be endangered by and adrenaline was running high. And I then managed (mostly) to resist the breathtakingly gorgeous single-skein small-local-indie-dyers gauntlet, chiefly because I have some self-protective resistance to spending more than a New York City shrink’s hourly rate on a one-off that there isn’t even enough of to make a scarf. A fichu maybe.++
AND THEN I WENT BACK TO THE FRELLING SALE BIN. Alpaca is evil. Especially when it is mixed in big fat fluffy skeins with merino. You can frelling hear it purring when you cradle it in your arms.+++
+ I say nothing about how Fiona was doing
++ If you’re small and flat-chested.
+++ Dogs purr too, you know. At least every dog I’ve ever had purrs when it settles in your lap. Whether it fits in your lap or not.
††† And/or stay up late and don’t do mornings anyway. Although some annoying person^ has pointed out that I do do mornings, I do a lot of mornings, I just do the, you know, little end.
^ I never name names on this blog but this particular person is very annoying about handbells.+
+ What do you mean you can’t ring handbells tomorrow, the next day, the day after that and three times on Madnessday? —GO AWAY. YOU’RE RETIRED. SOME OF US ARE STILL WORKING FOR A LIVING# AND FURTHERMORE MAY POSSIBLY DO OTHER THINGS IN THEIR SPARE [SIC] TIME THAT AREN’T HANDBELLS. ##
# Or at least staring despairingly at an empty computer screen regularly.
## Aren’t . . . handbells? this person murmurs brokenly.
‡ And this potent sacrifice was absolutely worth it for the barrage of brownie points thus accrued. I can probably spill scalding coffee on the director/the fancy new computer/the delicately poised for heightened reactivity electronic fire alarm and no one will say anything.
‡‡ Your Body Is Your Instrument I Wish I Had Taken up the Guitar When I Was a Teenager Like Everyone Else Did. Nadia told me the last time I was beating up Batti Batti O Bel Masetto to skip the allegro, which has all those frelling runs in it AND goes up to a high B. Last time, as I recall, I did leave it alone. This time I was idly leafing through it again when a little light went on and I said, Hey! It’s a B flat! I can (usually) get to B flat! —So, occasionally, late at night^, when my voice is feeling all relaxed^^ and warm and willing I sing the allegro. I can’t frelling sing and play the piano at the same time, but I do have a finger poised to hit that B flat to make sure I’m hitting it, if you follow me. I usually am, in my squeaky un-self-confident and death-defying-not-in-a-good-way way^^^.
And next time through I can’t hit G. I can always hit a friggleblasting doodahing G, give me a flapdoodling BREAK. Yes, I can always hit a G, except right after I’ve hit an A sharp/B flat and my voice says NO WE DON’T DO THAT and shuts down. That’s SHUTS. DOWN. Arrrrrrgh. And then it’s back to Edwardian parlour ballads till it forgives me. ARRRRRRGH.
^ Or in a little morning hour
^^^ Yes I can hear the unglefrakking difference when Nadia manages to persuade me to float down from above a note rather than ramping up at it from underneath like a guerrilla attack on a dangerous enemy. Sigh. Sometimes I’m very flat indeed. Sometimes I just . . . sound like I’m attacking an enemy I’m terrified of.+ SIGH.
+ I also indulge in a concomitant worry that St Margaret’s will decide they’re not that desperate for singers at the evening service.
‡‡‡ And brownies. I had told Niall firmly that if there were no brownies I would remember a prior engagement. What prior engagement? said Niall suspiciously. Well, I forget, I said, there are brownies, right?
HERO won the Newbery thirty years ago. Thirty. How scary is that.
Anyway some silly person thought it might be amusing to interview me on the subject. Fortunately they sent me a list of questions which enabled me to choose questions I could, you know, answer. The Tor list a few weeks ago was way too full of pop-culture questions I couldn’t answer; this one was full of state-of-the-YA-book-world questions and I HAVE NO CLUE. I read what I read when I read it, because I saw it on the library shelf, because another unsteady crag of books at the cottage overbalanced and cannoned across the room and I had an ‘oooh, shiny’ reaction, because someone recommended it/sent me a copy, because the Kindle ebook was too cheap to ignore. At the moment I’m reading a Barbara Hambly I seem to have missed (cannoning crag), catching up on the Dana Stabenows that have come out since I wandered away from murder mysteries about a decade ago (you have to pass through the mystery section at the library to get to the F&SF section), OUTPOST which is a post-apocalyptic thriller by new writer Adam Baker (I DON’T READ POST-APOCALYPTIC THRILLERS but I picked it up off the library shelf and liked the first few pages—especially that a male thriller writer should start his first novel writing sympathetically about a fat woman) and QUIET by Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking** (cheap Kindle, but I was going to read it anyway)***. I’ve just finished SCULPTOR by Scott McCloud (amazing graphic novel, an early copy arrived unsolicited in the post, THANK YOU First Second Books) and have started THE HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT OF DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, BIPOLAR DISORDER AND OTHER MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS by two homeopaths I’ve been reading for years, and am about halfway through HOMEOPATHY FOR TODAY’S WORLD by another homeopath I’ve been reading for years. Not a YA in sight. Not this week. Ask me next week. I’m trying to remember the last YA I read—Jacqueline Wilson’s MY SISTER JODIE, possibly, but she’s not even YA: she’s kids. She’s real stuff, real life for kids, and I love her for it. †
Anyway. Don’t ask me about any state of any book world, because I won’t know. But here’s an interview with me on the subject of winning a Newbery and, you know, writing stories and stuff.
* * *
* Alcestis’ funeral went off very well, I think. The speakers knew what they were doing, and Alcestis had an interesting life and so no struggling for material was necessary. There were even some good laughs. There were photos of her all over the walls which I couldn’t bear to look at—Admetus has promised me a private showing some time—and the day was clear and lovely and not too cold, and the track down to the tree she’d chosen to be buried under was not too muddy. She’d said she’d chosen it for the view, and it has a good view: but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that everything about the funeral was to her plans and instructions; I could hear her saying that she’d chosen that tree and this view.
There was a Land Rover to take anyone who didn’t want to struggle with the footing—and the hill—and that included Peter. The car followed us down to the gravesite, but preceded us going back up again, which meant I went frelling HARING up the blasted hill so Peter didn’t have to sit around in the empty café wondering if I’d fallen into a ravine or something. I should have just gone in the car too.
** I ranked 18 out of 20 again on the standard introvert test: the only questions I have to answer ‘no’ to are, do my friends find me self-effacing and laid back? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA and, would I rather die than do public speaking? No. It’s not that big a deal. Which I’ve told you before always makes me feel like someone else is living in my body with me. This personality should not be able to do public speaking but it/we can.
*** It’s even better than I’d hoped. The problem with the current fashion in popular science is that certain of the tropes MAKE ME NUTS, like the way everyone the author interviews has to have their clothing and their twinkling eyes described. Cut to the chase. I usually object to the author writing him/herself into the story constantly too but in this case it works a treat because Cain is writing as an introvert in an extrovert-preferring world. I was reading an article in TIME recently^ about the internet-fueled explosion of grass-roots sharing, bartering, selling. One of the fastest growers in this market is car pooling and the author remarks blandly and cluelessly that of course commuting in company is preferable because driving by yourself is SO BORING. There speaks the unthinking extrovert. Driving is bad enough without having to make frelling conversation.
^ Mind you the magazine could be anything up to years old. Speaking of unsteady crags of reading material.
† Um . . . actually I do remember the last YA I read. It’s by a VERY FAMOUS WRITER and I HATED IT. IT WAS BLISTERINGLY FRELLING TERRIBLE AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHY IT WAS EVEN PUBLISHED AND I WILL NEVER READ ANOTHER BOOK BY THIS INCOMPETENT CREEP OF AN AUTHOR EVER AGAIN.
†† And there’s also this, which several more people have sent me links to since Open Road first pointed it out:
And it’s lovely, and I know I’m being a black hole of negativity but . . . she read it when she was eight? I know precocious preteens read it all over the map and that’s great, the sooner and oftener girls growing up get told that girls do things too^ the better, but EIGHT? She was precocious even as precocious goes. And this fills me with dread and trembling for a whole fresh onslaught of angry eight year olds and their teachers, parents and librarians telling me that HERO is too hard for children. Well yes, it is. It’s not for children. I got entire classrooms of kids writing me letters of protest when HERO’s Newbery was new: the Newbery does say children’s literature. I hope maybe that people reading the TIME article will go, oh, wow, well, she grew up to be a writer, so she was probably a precocious reader, and the headline does say YA novels . . . Listen, everyone, it’s really depressing getting bashed for something you wrote for any reason^^, but it’s extra depressing when you think, guys, if you’d only waited a few years. . . .
^ I’ve said this a gazillion times on the blog, but when I was a Young Writer Starting Out I assumed my generation of writers would have totally solved the Active Protagonist Gender Bias. This hasn’t happened. There are still a lot of frelling wet girls out there, including in books written recently. So we still need heroines that do their own dragon-whacking. Aerin has plenty of company . . . but not enough company. Okay, you following generations of writers. Get with the programme.^
^ Although I’m preaching to the converted on this blog. Fans of Elsie Dinsmore or Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa are not subscribers.
^^ Except sheer jerkitude. ‘I didn’t finish your stupid book because I wanted to read endless mushy romance when they stand around staring into each other’s eyes for chapters and chapters and the dragon was REALLY BORING!’ +
+ You’d be surprised. Except for the ‘mushy’ this is nearly word for word.
††† The bio is about forty years out of date. I will ask them to let me bring it up to 2015.^ And I don’t put commas before ‘too’. That’s a copyeditor following house style.
^ YAAAAY. They did. Thank you!