Doughnuts

CheltenhamI have been reading, natch, but that isn’t what I want to write about today.

Ten years ago this weekend was the one I started doing Christmas shopping. It was also the most miserable weekend of my life (up until then). I remember watching people walk around town laden with bags of gifts. Everyone was scurrying too fast, bumping into each other, spending money they didn’t have on things nobody needed. It was raining. The Salvation Army gamely played carols while drizzle collected in their cornets. Sugar crystals glittered in the air by a doughnut stall. Rosy store lights shimmered in the puddles on the pavement. I stumbled around in a daze, tears rolling unchecked down my face, because one of my dearest friends had died following a car accident.

I don’t know if naivete is a blessing or a curse. I had not been prepared for the fact that Rob – 24, a football player, my personal trainer, with huge vivacity for life and a 90 watt grin – might die. He had been so badly injured that he spent two weeks in intensive care. At one point, lying in the hospital bed, he had squeezed his father’s hand and I took this as evidence it was all going to be alright. At the gym where he worked we discussed fundraising for helping him get back on his feet. I arranged workouts with another PT “just until Rob got better”.

Were we all really so gullible? Or was I the only one who genuinely believed what I was saying, and the others were talking thus because nobody could bear to face reality? I won’t ever know the answer. After Rob’s funeral, inexplicably, life went on. Christmas thundered ever closer, with its cosy candle-glow themes of love and togetherness, so excruciatingly painful now. The gym owners organised a Christmas night out for the members, an act of defiance against death. I became frantic, working all the hours I could, exercising maniacally and desperate to spend time with people in case they died. Getting phone calls began to frighten me so much so that my parents got into the habit of saying “Nothing’s wrong” if they left a voicemail. If someone was driving to see me and was a few minutes late my stomach would start a slow twist of fear. I started living on a knife-edge of dread; to this day I struggle to say “see you later” or “see you soon” in case Someone listening takes offence at that arrogant assumption.

Four weeks before Rob’s crash another good friend had died in a motorbike accident. Steve’s death was an enormous tragedy, my first true major bereavement, and a real trauma. Within 3 months a further friend took his own life and another was killed in a helicopter crash. On top of this I lost my little gecko, Dexter, who was indescribably precious to me and upon whom I lavished all the love left in my tattered heart. On the day the vet rang to tell me he’d gone, the sensation was physical; I can only describe it as a piece of bone being chipped off something in my chest.

Writing about this is very difficult, even now.  Not only because of my grief but because of the grief felt by others which was far rawer than mine. Losing a friend is devastating, but it is not losing a partner, a son, a brother. There were so many mourning families whose hearts were more broken than mine, so many tears shed, so many wordless howls which can only be translated as “Why?” I never found the answer to that, either. There is no reason to sudden bereavement. There is no reassuring mathematical algorithm to refer to. A person holding a knife to someone’s throat, relieving them of their wallet, is likely to go home safely and watch TV, while another who has never done anything worse than garner a speeding ticket will plunge to his death into the North Sea. A much-loved, hugely successful young man leaves work one evening and commits suicide, while an individual who cares nothing for others shuffles comfortably into old age, swaddled by a spare tyre of spite.

I haven’t been able to visit the graves of my other friends (Dexter is buried in my parents’ garden) but I regularly go to see Rob, not just on the anniversary of his death, but at Christmas and on his birthday too. On Wednesday, the tenth anniversary, I went up again. It was early in the morning, dull and misty with a muted grey light. The cemetery was deserted. There is a child buried near Rob; helium balloons bobbed gently around her stone. Other graves are decorated with chains, statues, cards and toys: bold declarations of love unfaded, of heartbreak unabated.

I would rather feel this sadness than never have known Rob, and Steve, and Fred, and everyone else for whom I’m lucky enough to grieve. On the day after Rob’s car crash, before I knew anything about it, I drove past a newspaper board for our local paper. The headline was “man fights for life in A40 crash”. I moved on with nary a thought. Rob, of course, was the focus of that headline. I spiralled from a cotton wool comfortable existence into one of constant anxiety. Death was no longer something which happens to Other People.

I walked around town again this morning. Unsurprisingly, it was raining. The doughnut seller had set up and, even though I think half nine is too early for doughnuts, this cheered me. Two children whose existence hadn’t even been dreamt of ten years ago were splashing in puddles. I remembered the despair of that first dreadful day, and thought of everything that has happened, to me and those I love, in the decade between those Saturdays. Some things, myself included, have changed almost beyond recognition. Some are still very much the same. For both these I am grateful. I am grateful for the grief I felt and continue to feel because of the friendship I was given. Everything comes at a cost, but one of the lessons I’ve learned is that bereavement is not too high a price to pay for love.

In 2008 all I could do to assuage my misery was buy a couple of hot doughnuts for the homeless guy opposite the stand. The kind man who owned it gave me two extra for free. There’s a metaphor in that, a parable, or something by Aesop involving a fox and a tortoise. Anyway. I did the same thing today. Unlike everything else, offering kindness to a cold stranger has not risen in price, nor decreased in value, especially when it is done in loving memory.

For Steve, Rob, Fred, Paul and Dexter x

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The ABF Frontline Walk 2018

Good photos – and those with the ABF bootprint logo – are by the  incredible Ed Smith. All the others – the rubbish ones! – are mine.

Turning up at Wellington Barracks early in the morning on 10th October was very different to when I first did so in 2016. I was less apprehensive, and more excited. So much so that within minutes of arriving I had to duck behind an official-looking building to throw up my breakfast; apologies to the horse and carriage trotting genteelly past!

Meeting up with friends I hadn’t seen in 2 years was a joy. My ‘real life’ friend Will was with me, and it was a strange experience being an old hand as opposed to a newbie. I was empathising with what Will was feeling while experiencing all without the “I know nobody” nerves. There was however something fresh for me to contend with: the fact that I was secretly concerned I might not be able to complete this time. A few months after 2016’s walk I had both my kneecaps replaced. This meant that I no longer made the sound of a bag of Quavers with every step, but it resulted in a long period of rehabilitation and pain of a very different nature. In addition to this, my new knees had a significant impact on my gait resulting in my feet experiencing agony similar to that of the Little Mermaid when she gains legs (Disney edited this element of the story from their version of it!). I had found myself, since June, privately worrying how I was going to go about completing 100km.

But here I was, and we were on the coach to the Channel Tunnel. When we emerged into France, our first stop was, as in 2016, Arras Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. The sun lay peacefully across the pure white stones. This was my second visit and again I was struck by its incongruous beauty.

I took only one photograph here. I wanted to experience the place and prepare myself for the days ahead by holding at the forefront of my mind the real reason we were doing this. I watched bees busily buzzing between two graves, blissfully unaware of those either side of them. In the midst of death, we were in life.

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That evening, Steve Roberts explained our route to us, and Bob Semple talked about being kidnapped by Al Qaeda while working in Yemen. Bob was formerly in the Royal Engineers and was held for 18 months in a windowless cell before he was released. He was entitled to no help from the military as he was no longer in active service, but this was where the ABF stepped in: once they were made aware of what had happened to Bob they helped Bob’s family pay everyday bills, as they became impossible for his wife to afford on a single salary. Thankfully, Bob was released and returned to the UK to discover he still had a home, but the scars which cannot be seen are still healing. The ABF continues to support the Semples as they attempt to get their lives back to some semblance of normal.

Bob spoke softly, with little emotion, but the room was spellbound by his words. When he told us how after 18 months of captivity he had been bundled into a car and had felt a hand on his arm before someone told him “You’re safe” every inch of skin on my body prickled and tears stung my eyes. When Bob began mentioning the effect on his loved ones he too welled up. As he thanked the charity he was greeted with a standing ovation. It was a timely reminder that injuries are not always physical and help is not all about bodily rehabilitation. I felt overwhelming pride for the charity I was raising money for, and determined to do them proud.

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We were up before the sun on the first day, gathered at Cambrai Memorial to the Missing. This was built in tribute to the 7,048 UK and South African soldiers who died at the Battle of Cambrai and remained without a known grave. It was cold, and a muted hush fell over the group as we heard Steve Roberts talk about our forthcoming walk.

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I was trying to use my head torch for the very first time, but couldn’t figure out how to tighten it, so it perched high on my temple blinding those around me before it fell unelegantly to sit on my neck.

The day began with a prayer from Andy Herrick, a vicar who had come on 2016’s walk and was a real champion of the events. He was unable to make it this year but Steve had promised to put a cross on the grave of Reverend Shovel who came from Andy’s parish. I took a photo of the tombstone so Andy knew he, and Reverend Shovel, had been in our thoughts.

Then we were off, and as the early morning mist cleared our chins lifted. Our spirits were high, our legs fresh, our feet rested. The terrain soon proved to be hard on our soles and knees though, and we could understand why 100 years ago soldiers had complained about the pave. Plenty of it was still clearly visible under the (comparatively) modern road surface.

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I enjoyed catching up with Brigadier Robin Bacon, CEO of the charity, during much of this walk. We crossed a canal and came to the memorial of the West Riding Division complete with pelican mascot.

Perhaps an incongruo45500318871_6b3562e379_zus emblem, but I could only think this was due to the fact the pelican will give its own blood to its chicks if they are running low on food.

Along the walk Steve Roberts, Vern Littley and Terry Wenham had put out details of particular lives for us to read about. The path was long, and much less broken than 2016’s walk as we were following the advance of the troops rather than the Frontline. Reading about these individuals gave colour to the journey. We really were walking in their footsteps.

Our next stop was The Monument to the Nations which honoured all who fought at Cambrai. It’s built on the site of a windmill which was demolished by the Germans when they were building trenches. The foundations of the windmill were uncovered and preserved. the monument is laid out in the shape of the Union Jack, with each ‘arm’ pointing to a significant area of the battle. It also contains the flags of all nations who fought. The grouping of nations, regardless of who fought against who, was a recurring motif of this walk and something I found particularly moving.

From the monument you can look out to the peaceful, furrowed farmland which was once a battlefield. It was somehow not difficult to picture the clamour, the bloodshed, the explosions of earth and the roar of war, on this tranquil setting.

Thanks to Steve’s efforts, we were thrilled to be able to view Deborah, a WW1 tank which had been rescued and put in a museum at Flesquieres. Beauty is a strange word to use about a tank, but that’s what I thought when I looked at her. She was also a box full of memories; if she could speak, what stories would she tell?

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I was not able to spend as much time with her as I would have liked, as my role of French translator was required! A journalist had heard about our expedition and came to interview us. As a result we were a week later in a French newspaper, but Robin had been promoted to ‘president’ and ‘ancien generale’ of the charity – I’m afraid this is down to my schoolgirl French being severely tested rather than shoddy journalism!

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Lunch was gratefully received by all. I was inducted into the Society for Changing Socks Mid-Day which was to my sore sweaty pieds the equivalent of slipping into cool, freshly laundered sheets.

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The next phase of the walk was a strange journey into the future as well as the past. We walked past a wood where several Resistance fighters had been betrayed and executed by Germans in WW2. Three appeared to be from the same family.

Crest Cemetery for some reason hit me very hard. Men were buried where they’d died, in a massive shellhole. The incongruity of a massive pile of turnips next to the graves did not escape me, but it also felt apt. Life goes on, but the memory of the dead was not dimmed. I liked the fact these men had been buried here; what balm the peace of the land must be to their tortured ears after the scream of shells and cries of their comrades.

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Along our route we saw astonishingly beautiful horses, albeit some of them a bit skinny. 2016’s walk was serene, with muted blues and grays. 2018’s was startling in its palette: golds, greens and rich browns. Life was vibrant even in this season of hibernation.

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The end of the walk was close to a canal. We were tired and warm. The waters of the canal, lazily slipping past us, were tempting. Not for the first time, I wished I were a dog and could jump in. A young and very toned French gentleman obviously felt similarly as he was standing topless on the other bank! I was very sore by now and the end seemed a long way away. More French translation was required by the time we got to the coach, as a photographer had come to take photographs of our “ancient general”.

I was pleased by the state of my feet and my joints thusfar, but I knew from experience the first day was simply a warm up.

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Day two was one of huge emotion. We started at Cambrai East Military Cemetery and this affected me more than anywhere I’ve ever been. Partly because it is an all-nation cemetery, where soldiers who had fought in life lay peacefully together in death. Partly because several who lay buried there had died 100 years ago on the day we were visiting. Partly because of the stones with heartfelt, plaintive words from families. The grief in the air, even 100 years on, was palpable. The graveyard was shrouded in sorrow.

Below are the tributes on the gravestones which particularly affected me. I have put each one up individually to allow them to be more easily read. Embarrassingly, I had a big snotty sobbing fit in the cemetery as I read them, overcome by sadness for those families whose boys had never come home.

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Vern read out this poem which I should perhaps I should keep in mind…

VOICE FROM A WAR GRAVE

Please, don’t lower your voices
As if you’re in some kind of pain.
I can’t tell you how pleased we all are
To see you come back here again.

There’s no need to stop yourself laughing –
We all of us like a good joke.
We used to laugh quite a lot in those days,
Despite all the noise and the smoke.

We’re glad that you come here to see us.
We like to see friends old and new.
So laugh and talk as much as you like,
We wish we could come to see you.

So please don’t lower your voices,
We’re aware of the pain that you feel.
It’s no worse than ours, I can tell you,
And yours is the one that can heal.

George Sewell

44569111_10160964667985483_2462159301729320960_o (1)I was pleased that all the gravestones were white, regardless of which side the soldier had fought on. It made a pleasant change from the dark, dingy markers of the German military cemeteries we had visited in 2016. One of these three men had been sought out, and a descendant had laid a photo on his grave to remind us the enemy too had faces, and were loved.

 

 

 

This was a very, very long day. As I started walking along the field track a tiny, insignificant speck of gravel started niggling at my sole.

I remembered the doctor’s advice about ‘dealing with things before they happen’ so I dutifully undid my boots and removed it. I put them back on and after a few hundred yards my other foot started hurting. So then I undid this boot. Thus began an endless round of being plastered/checking plasters. Craig, the paramedic at the back of the trek, strapped my feet up as best he could. I put on more plasters and they rubbed between my toes. It is hard to describe the pain without sounding utterly pathetic but every step soon became torturous. I stopped noticing where we were walking, finding it difficult to join in conversation, focusing on nothing more than the next step. At lunchtime, the paramedics tended to my feet, which were rubbed raw and bleeding. I wasn’t able to look around Ligny-en-Cambresis Communal cemetery where we stopped; all I wanted to do was sit.

This was the walk which didn’t seem to end. I stopped looking around me. All I could focus on was my feet – oh, and the need to use my SheWee, which was getting stronger every minute. Being at the back of the walk, I ducked behind a haystack and used this piece of modern technology. I’d used it once before and had been impressed by myself and how ‘going behind a bush’ has been made so much easier for the modern woman. This time SheWent, and stumbled. You can imagine the results. I’m afraid I cried (again). I could not face all the other walkers in such a state. It was still fiercely sunny, but I wrapped my fleece around myself and hoped I’d dry off in time. I was mortified.

Around the corner were the friendly faces of Steve and Vern, eagerly waving me forward. Usually I was pleased to see them, but I would have given anything not to have seen anyone for several hours. Vern, kindly, tried to take my bag off me and I wheeled away in panic. Steve was not put off by my howls of, “Don’t come near me! I’m disgusting!” and put his arms around me. Vern supplied Haribo. Thanks to them I recovered my dignity and some of my Stiff Upper Lip, and thanks to the weather my shorts dried off pretty quickly. The late afternoon sun softened but the ground underneath our feet was relentlessly hard and uneven. Both my knees ached, my feet were agony, and I’d pulled a muscle somewhere in my thigh. Even my earlobes were hurting. I developed an odd kind of walk which Rick, who kindly took my bag and was trying to cheer me up, said looked like Big Bird’s gait. I was trying desperately to flex my feet and release my ankle bones while at the same time easing the pressure on my knees and that’s without even starting on those throbbing blisters.

Beth, the doctor, very carefully asked how I thought I’d feel after the next tea break. I knew I couldn’t physically go any further but this was still a tough decision to make. People had sponsored me money in good faith. Everyone else seemed to be doing OK, many with feet in a worse state than mine. Andy Reid had done the Walk in 2016 with only one arm, for heaven’s sake, and here was I whinging about a couple of blisters and aching joints which weren’t even real ones. I loathed myself for it, and cried some more, but I knew I had to give in. I climbed onto the coach and curled up in a seat, not wanting to talk to anyone. I was not alone on it, but I felt like a fraud.

Several hours later the rest of the walkers joined us. All agreed it had been a very, very hard slog. Like the cool kids at school, those at the back of the bus handed out silver flasks of rum, brandy and Schnapps. There was singing on the way home, and general camaraderie, but I felt muted and like I hadn’t earned the right to join in.

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I woke up several times during the night, worrying secretly about my feet. As I hobbled across the bedroom on the third morning I wondered how on earth I was going to complete this final day. Breakfast was for me a subdued affair. There was no doubt in my mind that I had to complete this – too many people had sponsored me for me to let them down. (Plus I am very stubborn.) But I wasn’t quite sure how. I figured if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually I would get to the end.

The walk began calmly enough, at Bavay which was Field Marshall French’s HQ during the Battle of Mons. We were following the path of the last few days of WW1, through which the I and III Canadian Corps had swept 100 years previously. As the war moved so fast at this point, the soldiers had little opportunity to bury their dead and the majority were left where they fell. Some were buried in communal cemeteries such as Quevy-le-Petit (see below) but many others lay beneath our feet. This made walking particularly thought-provoking.

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After a couple of hours it was pointed out to us that we really should pick up our pace as timing was crucial. 2 years ago Andy Reid had said “What the mind believes, the body achieves” and I found that walking at a smarter pace didn’t make the pain any less, but it didn’t make it any worse, either. With cheering words from other walkers, and the reassurance we were all in this together, suddenly I felt lighter, brighter. I was going to complete this. I felt like Pilgrim when he reaches the top of the Hill of Difficulty and his Burden falls off – although I had a kind soul carrying mine for some of the journey! An ebullient mother and son were walking alongside me.

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Their enthusiasm and upbeat humour was infectious. She told me to give my bag to her son for a while and he carried it as if it were featherweight. We watched in awe as she jogged ahead of us to walk with someone else who was alone. The world needs more people like the Callcutt family.

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Several of us chose to detour to Quevy-le-Petit Communal Cemetery where we visited the graves of those who are often neglected as they are not in the military cemeteries. This really bothered me, and I left a poppy for these men.

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We walked through a town, past a school. Children were playing and their laughter came through the air, crisp and golden. This contrasting so strongly with the sombre cemeteries was poignant in its beauty: a metaphor of yesterday’s sacrifice made for today’s children. A woman applauded us, waving a flag out of her window. People often said hello to us, greeting us in curious French. Some asked us for an explanation of what we were doing. Two men who were making cider in their back yard gave out free bottles, and squeezed me a fresh glass of apple juice which tasted ambrosian.

We passed the house of a Belgian paratrooper who had set out cold Coke and biscuits for us. He explained his grandfather had been in WW1 and his family had a military background. This gentleman joined us at the cemetery for the remembrance ceremony at the end of our walk.

Lunch. Spirits were high for most, but some could not do the penultimate stage. There were tears. I will never forget the image of one walker lying flat on her front as the paramedic bound up her broken, battered feet. The determination of everyone to do their very best was extraordinary. I was able to encourage others, to empathise with their disappointment at not being able to do the whole thing, to reassure them we would all be doing the last stretch together.

 

More wee stops, behind greenhouses and rusting tractors. For once, I was not at the back of the trek and was able to hold out an arm for those in tears who’d reached the very edges of endurance. My feet were throbbing but it was manageable. Everything was doable – just!

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Spirit of the walk – nobody was left behind

We paused briefly at a pub, where the barman told us to return the following day for free drinks. Robin and I led a chorus of Tipperary and then we set off for the home stretch. Those who had been at the back of the walk were told to lead the way to the end, and to the Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery.

This was a subdued ending. There were not crowds like at the Menin Gate; there were no cars hooting or strangers applauding us. ABF staff handed out medals and we all clapped each other as we came to the end.

Somehow, this was better. I felt this was more fitting. We were greeted silently by those in whose footsteps we had walked, and were able to pay our final tribute to them as a bugler played the The Last Post. Tesbo and Bob led us in our own service of remembrance.

The cemetery contains both the first and last soldiers who died in WW1.

I chose to leave a poppy in memoriam of my Great-Great Uncle Bertie on the grave of an unknown soldier. Both were remembered. All were remembered.

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Thank you to everyone whose generosity and donations, no matter how small, enabled me to undertake this challenge, and complete it. The messages of support encouraged me on the dark night of Day 2 when I felt so ashamed of myself. Thank you.

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Not for the glory of first place
For everyone finishes the same.
Not for the plaudits of strangers
And the highlighting of ones name

In posts to be ‘liked’ and forgotten;
But for those who lay under the mud.
Who heeded the call of their country
And paid for their brav’ry with blood.

For those who were slaughtered in battle,
For those whose fear could not be borne,
For those who lived on but were shattered
With bodies or minds scarred and torn.

A century’s passed, yet the anguish
Of war continues to resound.
Soldiers still fight their own private battles –
It’s for them that our feet hit the ground.

To those who didn’t stride past a stranger,
But held out a hand to assist,
Who carried a bag, offered comfort,
Who urged one, through pain, to persist;

To those who left crosses by headstones,
To those who stopped, quiet, by a grave;
To those who read somebody’s story;
To those who elected to save

A minute for silent remembrance:
We honoured those fallen men well.
We helped those who walk in their footprints.
We sounded out their passing-bell.

 

With huge thanks to Emma Price, podiatrist supremo of Supafeet Cheltenham, who helped me walk again and my wonderful knee surgeon Mr Harminder Gosal at the Nuffield in Cheltenham. I am not sure if any of his other patients have gone on to complete a challenge like this after he has operated on their knees! This photo is for them:

 

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You can still donate to the Army Benevolent Fund on my page until 31st December 2018: http://fundraising.soldierscharity.org/ellymoo

To learn more about the Army Benevolent Fund and its work please visit https://soldierscharity.org

The walk was run impeccably by the wonderful staff at Classic Challenge.

To date the Frontline Walk, 2014-2018, has raised over £1m to help servicepeople and their families. Which is pretty ace!

Don’t call it a comeback

I’ve been here for years, but to misquote LL Cool J I can’t say I’m rocking my peers, as I have been out of the blogosphere for several months now. A few people have been kind enough to ask where I’ve been (or rather what I’ve been reading). In a nutshell, a major work upheaval took up a huge amount of my time, energy and what passes for brainpower. That, and, if I’m honest, trying to plough through all 10 seasons of Friends on Netflix. But things are calmer now!

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The Dream of the Poet or, The Kiss of the Muse, Cezanne

It’s interesting my last post was about re-reading because currently I’m going through all the Merrily Watkins series (by Phil Rickman) again. I find that I look forward to these books with the same delicious anticipation that I look forward to roast turkey or a twice-baked cheese souffle. I take such joy in the intricacies of the sub-plots, the chill of the supernatural and the warmth of human empathy in these books. They just get better with each read, and I’ve found I missed vital elements of the story which made a lot more sense with a fresh eye. I always bang on about Phil Rickman, but that’s because he deserves a big drum. He should be far better known than he is and it’s a crime (ho ho) that he isn’t on every bookshelf in the land.

I have found some new books though! Rather than bore you to tears with everything I’ve ploughed through, here are some of my personal highlights:

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

I couldn’t believe how much I loved this book and I wasn’t sure why, but i couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I began reading it again as soon as I finished it. There is also a section of short stories based on the book available on BBC iPlayer Radio. If there is one book I want everyone to go out and discover (apart from Phil Rickman’s!) please let it be this. It’s sparse, beautiful, gentle, slightly chilling, heart-warming, heart-breaking.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

This is the story of what Abraham Lincoln’s son might have experienced in limbo, where all souls congregate. I got annoyed with it at first and nearly ditched it; I’m so glad I continued. It’s startlingly original and thoroughly enjoyable.

He – John Connolly

Yes, another of my favourite authors; but this book is a huge step away from the Charlie Parker series. He is a biography of Stan Laurel. Initially I got irritated by the constant referrals to ‘he’ but once I got into it I found this a fascinating history of cinema and also a gut-wrenching look behind the smiles of Laurel and Hardy. A fitting testimonial to one of comedy’s greats.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

A brief history of mankind – and basically how it’s screwed the planet up. Essential reading, but not something to read in a one-er and certainly not advisable bedtime reading if you’re feeling a little melancholy. I felt so ashamed of being a human being by the time I’d finished it that I began my Friends binge-watch.

Eureka – Anthony Quinn

I absolutely loved this! Set in the world of 1960s London, it focuses on a small group of characters and a film which seemingly won’t be made. It’s breath-takingly original, sad and funny.

Winter – Ali Smith

Read back in January but not forgotten. The story of a family gathering, relationships severed being cautiously knitted together, and time skittering back and forth like a skater on thin ice. Ali Smith’s second in her quartet of ‘season’ novels is slim, as if she measures each word very carefully before using it. Mary Berry will tell you that’s the best way to get results, and Winter is a perfectly risen, light but satisfying Victoria Sponge.

At the moment I’m juggling To Dream of the Dead by Rickman and The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp. I have two eyes so why can’t I have two brains enabling me to read both books at the same time?

To see which one I finished first, you’d better check out my next post. Which I promise won’t take me as long to write as this one did!

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As an aside, I have also written a story. I attended a training session as part of my new job and we discussed a fatal helicopter crash.

The incident haunted me so much I went straight home and typed out my story without really thinking much about it – a real Homer moment at the laptop. No it’s not as romantic an image as an artist being visited by a muse, or Ted Hughes’s thought-fox, but it’s a bit more accurate. When I sit up from the keyboard, blinking sleepily, with my mouth as dry as Ghandi’s flip-flop, I know I might have written something good – mainly because I can’t remember writing it.

(Thank you sincerely to the people who wrote saying they missed my blog. That made my day!)

Rereading for Christmas

This post was written over a period of 2 months.

Re-reading is a joy which I don’t often allow myself. As I recuperate from an operation, I have too much to time to think. There’s a perpetual ache I can’t quite handle.  I’m hiding from it by re-reading the Jinny books, which I posted about a couple of months back. I polished all of them off within a couple of days. I remembered phrases, heart-wrenchingly beautiful descriptions, characters as alive as people in my own life, simple, taut plots. It reminded me how much I had admired the author Patricia Leitch and how desperate I had been to write like she did.

I’ve spent a lot of time with my gerbil who is the light of my life; but our partnership is no match for that of Jinny and her Arab horse Shantih.

A quiet day in sounds wonderful, when you spend your life running around. I’ve had four weeks of quiet days and I’m still exhausted! I have watched Alias Grace and Stranger Things 2 on Netflix; I have read Lifers by Geoffrey Wansell which made me feel a bit ill; Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe which was blandly fascinating in the way his books are; Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman (brilliant); The Vampyre by Tom Holland (I never thought I’d enjoy a vampire book); London 1945: Life in the Debris of War by Maureen Waller (excellent); Minette Walters’ latest, The Last Hours, set during the plague  (which left me wanting something. Not the plague, but I felt it was lacking… body).

 

I’m ending the year on The Somme by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. An deep, damning book, and a vital one, but I am so glad it is over. I have not for a long time read something so visceral it plunged me into the heart of the battle, the horror and suffering, the mud and the slaughter. At one point I found that I could smell death, so vivid is the writing. It was a strange feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a book before.

I have closed it with a sigh of relief.

Now, finally, I can relax and become a little more festive. Last night a group of four very close friends was reunited. In the summer we were close to becoming a trio. I squished S’s illness and my worry about her into a a little stream of fear which ran deep in my gut. It was only when I watched her, vibrant with new life and a second chance, opening her Christmas presents that I realised how terrified I had been that we might lose her. That we were indescribably lucky to have her still with us, at a time when many feel an emptiness in their life like the gap where a tooth was, an ache which will never be soothed.

I’ve had significant downs this year; not a life-threatening level, but certainly life-changing. That rivulet of dread has been trickling through my every waking hour for many months. But now for the first time in a very long while I am looking towards my future with hope, and a certain degree of excitement, rather than fear. I feel I’m being given a chance to turn my life into a very different direction and the uncertainty for the first time is an opportunity rather than a blow.

With that in mind, it’s too late for me to decorate for Christmas, but I will be lighting some candles this evening. Plugging in the sadly neglected fairy lights. Heating up some salted caramel & clementine hot chocolate (that’s not an advert, but if Hotel Chocolat want to send me some freebies I won’t rebuff them).

I’ve opened The Children of Green Knowe now, and will settle down with that followed by the best book ever written (in my very humble opinion): A Christmas Carol.

The world is so flooded with new books I feel breathless with the desperation to wallow in them. My wishlist is full of titles I may never get to open. But, at a time when I’m on the edge of a new life, some of the oldest, most familiar stories are what I need most.

Happy reading, and merry Christmas.

Angry Blackberry Picking

This photo is of the tiniest snail ever, which I found on a blackberry bush. I rinsed him in the colander by mistake, then rescued him; then dropped him in the washing up bowl, and rescued him again. Somehow, he survived. I like to think this is a good omen, as most of my life, to the point of OCD, is about seeing omens – none of which are positive ones.

 

I am angry. The blackberries aren’t, or not so far as I know. But they are going over now, and apparently because the devil has spat on them. That is so bloody typical of the devil. Can’t even leave the sodding blackberries alone.

 

Yes, it’s been several months since I last posted. Thank you to the three people who’ve got in touch saying they’ve missed me! I’m afraid while you may have missed my witterings, you haven’t missed me too much. I’m angry and scared and frustrated. But then aren’t most of us nowadays?

 

 

I am angry about Harvey Weinstein and the fact that the reaction from so many is “Why didn’t they say anything sooner?” rather than “Who the hell did he think he is?” I’m angry at 21 year old me who didn’t complain when she was groped in a club because she thought it was just what men did (and it wasn’t the first time, either) and then didn’t understand, for many years, why other women did speak up. Don’t even get me started on the Chedwyn Evans case (not calling him Ched, he’s no friend of mine) and how it’s impossible for a woman to be raped if she allegedly had and enjoyed sex with other men pre/post alleged assault. That case was the main reason I spend a lot less time online.

I’m angry that I’m being made redundant. That’s all I’m going to put in the public domain about that. I’m scared, too. I am angry at myself that I have screwed up my life so spectacularly that I am facing 40 without a penny (well that’s not true, I do have a pension, but you know, right here and right now!).

I thought going blackberry-picking would assuage this anger but then I saw a collection of beer bottles flung into the hedge and this reignited the rage. WHY? Why treat our beautiful countryside like a rubbish bin? Then I saw signs from the local community campaign group protesting against yet more sodding “affordable” – that’s 3 and 4 bed affordable, you know – homes to be built on greenbelt and I felt red hot rage.

After all that, I picked 12 blackberries. 12! I’m now angry at the bushes for their dearth of berries, and myself for not putting in the devoted picking time I normally do. A few weekends ago a couple starting picking on the same bush as me and I went into picking overdrive, my hand a blur from bramble to bucket. That also made me cross. Though not angry.

Things That Have Made Me Less Angry

A walk at lunchtime, kicking through piles of yellow leaves with the canopy of trees embracing overhead. I’ve rushed through autumn; I’ve missed her beauties, her gentle warmth. Hopefully, if I’m still here next year, I will take more time over her.

Cavalier chocolate – it shouldn’t, but it does. And it doesn’t have sugar in it, which makes it less bad.

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert and The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters, read in tandem. It’s taken me ages to read The Compassionate Mind and I’m very glad I did. Even if the end made me curl up in a little ball of despair because the author is heralding a more compassionate age thanks to the inauguration of Barrack Obama. We all know how long that lasted! A reign of compassion appears to have lit the touchpaper for the intolerant, the ignorant, the racist, the phobic, the selfish, the fascist. It’s an enormous backlash as if certain people just couldn’t stand having a decent human being in charge of their country.

I keep having to reign in my own chimp – the part of my mind which is uncontrolled, which is primitive and works on instinct. For the first time I can separate the Wouldbegood from the Wouldbebad and notice when my chimp gets out of her cage. The chimp has her uses – her instinct is to protect – but she’s left me lonely and bruised, if no longer broken. To have control over her, to be her mistress rather than at her mercy, is something to aim for. Perhaps all this anger isn’t a waste of energy if it means I have heightened awareness of when she’s about to go on the rampage.

Those are the only books I’m going to talk to you about today. I’m done, for now. Off to the gym to be, somehow, less angry. To exercise my chimp in a safe environment so that hopefully tonight, unlike the last few weeks, she gets some sleep.

So the devil wants to spit on my blackberries? Bring it on Lucifer – but you needn’t think I’ll let you do it without protest. Like thousands of other women, I’m done holding my tongue.

We’re angry.

Snog, Marry, Avoid

The last few months’ reading, in a nutshell…

SNOG.

 The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
I haven’t enjoyed the last few of Anita Shreve’s but I felt this one shows her back on form. The story of Grace, Gene and their children in post-war Maine gradually unravels, in a way you don’t expect it to. I had no idea about the great fire of Maine, so I was reading without having the sense of impending doom that others who know its history will experience. This in no way lessens the impact of the writing and the rebirth of the shattered family. Shreve’s prose is spare, which gives every word a heightened resonance, and can be read in one sitting.

Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes
Sarah lives alone, and is not prepared for an old aquaintance coming back into her life. Nobody in her social circle trusts him, and it appears with very good reason… While not hitting the spot the way Into the Darkest Corner did, this is an improvement on her other work and has given me hope we’ll get back to the strength of her debut novel.

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran’s zany bounce does make you want to squash her like a mosquito sometimes, but I enjoy her refreshing zest for life and passion for everything.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
I very much liked the way this novel was written. The comparisons to Angela Carter are spot on as this is in so many ways a twisted fairytale with thorns of truth poking through amongst the roses. The writing is often beautiful and the story of orphans Rose and Pierrot, separated just as their love begins to blossom, is fascinating. Pierrot hides from his past in drugs, Rose in sex, before they are reunited – but we all know real fairytales do not end with ‘happy ever after’.

The story goes on too long, and loses its way. Having initially been desperate to eat it up, I found myself wanting it to end. Nevertheless this is a startlingly beautiful and original story and I have already checked out this this author’s other work from the library.

I’m Right Here by Yvonne Cassidy
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. The tale of a teenage girl who starts hearing the thoughts of a slave-girl from 150 years ago is taut, human and very intelligent. Interwoven into the stories of both Cassie and EL are the experiences of slavery, friendship and family. Cassidy understands all her characters very well, and although there are a few loose ends – the story of EL in itself, and that of Cassie’s grandfather – in a way these don’t matter because the reader draws their own conclusions. I walked away from this powerful story finding that I didn’t leave it alone. I wrote my own ending, thought about the back stories of the characters. This is the sign of a good book and I look forward to reading more from this author.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
A visceral tale about a woman who discovers her father has escaped from prison. The story flags a little, but starts to pick up the pace towards the final third of the book and one twist made me gasp out loud. I would be interested in reading more from this author who displays a confident tone with regards to nature both human and animal.

Howards End on the Landing by Susan Hill
A year of re-reading books – an interesting premise, but perhaps more a memoir than a simple delve into the book shelves. Still, there are authors here I haven’t read, and need to investigate so it is worth a read.

The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis
This is a book aimed at young adults, but I enjoyed it as an oldish adult. Orphans Jennet (could that be a taste of a future Pendle-witches story?) and Ben come to Whitby to live with their great aunt. It soon becomes clear that Aunt Alice is not the harmless old lady she first appears. Not great literature, but very readable.

MARRY.

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson
Stretching across gender and class – how people recovered from the catastrophe of World War 1.

A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly
John Connolly just keeps upping his game and this latest Charlie Parker novel is the best to date. Not only is it a tense story about the Brethren, a family linked by dark means to the supernatural, but it is a story of Charlie’s relationship with his daughter Sam and his friends Louis and Angel. There is a hugely unexpected death – one I was surprised I felt saddened by – and I get the sense a denouement is not far away. The story is getting taut and I felt a bit breathless reading it.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant
Fascinating, rich book about the Borgias, particulary Lucrezia in the Italian city of Ferrara. Great stuff!

The Good Daughter – Karin Slaughter
I enjoy Karin Slaughter’s Grant County novels, but I also enjoy it when she goes off piste and writes about other characters. It doesn’t always work well – Coptown was a big disappointment – but The Good Daughter shows Slaughter at her very best. Sisters Charlotte and Samantha Quinn are torn apart both physically and emotionally by what happens one evening in their home. Almost 30 years later they are forced to confront the events of that night, their relationship with their father, and their relationship with each other, when there is a shooting at the local school. As always in Slaughter’s books, things aren’t quite what they appear.

This is a painful book. I found it very hard reading certain scenes, but that is because Slaughter writes so well. She pulls no punches, yet words everything gracefully and tenderly. I gobbled down this book and cannot wait for her next one.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
The emotional side of the book is actually a great deal more interesting than the thriller bit and would have worked perfectly well on its own right. Lehane is such a leader in his genre because of these touches, the care he takes over character history and emotion. I don’t know anyone else who does it so well.

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees
A fascinating study which answered many questions I’d had, thinking of a hopeful “no” as an answer, with  a damning “yes”.

Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes
Fascinating look at Victorian life, blood, guts, beards and all. I will never say “Sweet Fanny Adams” again!

Together by Julia Cohen
This is a book written backwards, with the most dramatic event in the story happening in the early few pages. I like this device, and it encourages the reader to carry on – to find out the WHY. I itched to discover the reason behind Robbie’s suicide and what happened in 1962 throughout the whole book. Cohen doesn’t tease her reader, but she develops her characters and story well, so when the denouement comes, you feel empathy rather than perhaps a more traditional response.

This is beautifully written and while it lost its pace occasionally (the modern family dynamics aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be, and the story stays more in the past than the present) I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also made me think about ethics, morals and all the stuff which appears so clear cut until we’re in these situations. I would recommend this author and read more of her work. While I’m not a big believer in ‘true love’, romance and all that, this book allowed me to suspend my disbelief for a few hours.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Gorgeous, rich, authentic story of two young soldiers during the Civil War.

All That Man Is by Dazid Szalay
Clever, inter-connecting stories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon
NOT a real memoir as I thought! Very convincing though. Michael learns about his past and that of his forebears during the last week of his grandfather’s life.

AVOID.

Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keaneally
This is a worthy book, and similar to Schindler’s List in that it tells of horrendous doings and one man’s attempt to change them, but it leaves the reader strangely unmoved. Perhaps the emotional distance kept by the narrator is what’s needed in this, but I found I was struggling to maintain my interest in the story, which is of a priest who coincidentally meets with several victims of an abusive priest and decides to try and help them bring the perpetrator to justice.

The most interesting thing in this book was the twisted justification used by two of the priests for their actions. Otherwise I, as a reader, felt so much at a distance that I was not drawn into the story at all, and the subject deserves better. A History of Loneliness by John Boyd deals with a similar subject in a much more engaging fashion and with the sensitivity it deserves without shying away from what happened.

Beyond The Wild River by Sarah Maine
On the surface, this is a a pretty interesting story: a young gamekeeper flees the country estate where he has been accused of two murders, and five years later comes face to face with the landowner (Ballantyre) and his daughter. Having said that, the plot meanders. It didn’t grip me and you can see the denouement coming early on. There are a few too many characters thrown into the mix, who aren’t fully developed, although that of Larsen, Ballantyre’s friend, was surprisingly intriguing. I would like to read more about him. The others were not particularly interesting and quickly forgotten.

The book has moments of fine writing, and the book isn’t a failure – it just isn’t one that will stick in my head, and I found myself in a hurry to finish it off. Tighter editing and pacing would help.

City of Masks by S D Spyres
The historical setting of the book is fascinating – Sykes has set Venice up beautifully, and as a lover of the city I really enjoyed the story from this perspective. The plot however is not as interesting, and a little flimsy – I am not doing spoilers, but I saw the denouement coming a mile off. The end was too nearly stitched together. However, the device of the hero’s melancholy is a clever one, and his references to previous crimes he has solved made me idly think about looking out for the two previous novels in the series.

All in all an OK read, but I will not break my neck to find more by this author.

The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont
An investigation into the Polish massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwadbne in 1941, denied by so many and buried for over 60 years. It was hard going to be honest. An important book, but not the most readable.

Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill
Oh dear. What a disappointment! Whimsical, drowsy, dull, obsessed with crows… the second Mrs de Winter loses any sympathy. What a letdown. This has put me off reading anything more by Susan Hill (which is silly) but I need to dive back into Rebecca again to rinse this dreadful sequel out of my brain.

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
Historian Olivia Sweetman, whose father discovered a new breed of dungbeetle, collaborates with awkward, brusque Vivien Tester on a historical book which is going to send her into orbit. All is not well in Olivia’s world though and only Vivien knows. A family holiday in France brings matters to a head. This was not a particularly interesting book, if I’m honest. This just didn’t surprise me enough; I wanted to be on the edge of my seat and I was quite comfortably in the middle of it.

On the plus side, I learned some really interesting things about beetles.

Like riding a bike…

 

Schifanoia

Thanks to Ali Smith and her beautiful, intelligent, ground-breaking, startlingly simple complex How to be Both, I am in Ferrara. Somewhere I had never heard of before I read this book. When I saw Ali Smith at the Cheltenham Literary Festival she encouraged everyone to go to Ferrara and see the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos before they disappeared. That was the same night that she talked about how she had made herself ill by not writing, and that made me cry, and I went to get my copy of How to be Both signed by her, and I cried again in front of everyone explaining how she had spoken what was hidden deep in the reddest bits of my heart under yellow layers of visceral fat, and she came round from behind the desk and hugged me.

I wrote to her some months later thanking her for her kindness, and got a lovely note back. This evening  I wrote her a postcard tellng her she had brought me to Ferrara, to the frescoes, to the richest most beautiful art I have ever seen, and how I sat in a restaurant and started writing a book – and then stopped and started planning it. Something I haven’t really done before.

Travelling alone is exciting. Unnerving. Exhilarating. Freeing. Above all, it is a recipe for getting lost if you have my complete inability to read maps. It must be some sort of dyslexia with directions; I find them impossible to take in. I listen politely and my eyebrows raise in grateful comprehension but my eyes glaze over. Then the person goes on their way, pleased to have helped me, and I stay still, as lost as I ever was, but now raging at myself because of this failing. The “15 minute” walk to my hotel took an hour. Someone kindly asked me if I was lost and I blithely replied I was fine, smacking myself across the face with the hopeless map once he had gone on his way. I hauled my suitcase up and down cobbled streets, loathing everyone who was ambling or trotting or jogging or cycling because they all knew exactly where they were going.

The following day I set off to view the frescoes and I dressed carefully, as if I were going to an assignation with a lover (I imagine, having never had one. OK so I’ve had a couple of dates so I felt like I was going on a date: putting lipstick on, choosing a fitted shirt rather than the casual top I had originally flung on). It took me half an hour to walk there, and that delicious pre-date anticipation was with me as I climbed the stairs – stairs which led to a surprisingly small room, a room designed to ‘alleviate boredom’ (a translation of Schifanoia). Two walls of frescoes have been destroyed, and the beauty of those which remain emphasises this loss. They are simply extraordinary. The rich velvet blue of the background; the minute detail of a crowd of ducks; the vivid imagination which went into the designs; the utterly human faces. I greeted the full-lipped, androgynous beauty of Ali Smith’s Francesco/Francesca del Cossa like an old friend; a haughty looking youth whose snooty expression made me laugh out loud; I regarded the genial Bose with one eyebrow raised remembering Francesca’s view of him. I felt the heat of the furious Gemini twins as they wrestled with each other; I envied a benevolent woman her clear-eyed beauty. I could drink from these pictures all day, like Joni Mitchell’s “a case of you”.

But Ferrara has more to offer me. Reluctantly I drag myself away to explore further. The mellow-stoned city is so full of art, history, architecture, all to be enjoyed, that I feel as if I will burst from the desire to see it all.  I proceed from one place to another, not noticing how much my feet hurt, how much my poor knee has seized up, until I finally sit down in a cafe. Then I find it hard to stand up again. It’s cold; I am dressed for the sun which teased me for the first half hour of my walk and then hid itself for the rest of the day. I dive into a lingerie shop, ignoring the delicate lace bras and thongs made for women half my size, and pounce on a functional, utterly unsexy vest. Putting it on is delicious. I buy a cardigan too. Wearing both is of some comfort to my icy frame but my feet, in open-toe sandals, showing off my ‘hot chilli’ pedicure, cannot be comforted this way. As I get more and more lost, the whale-grey sky swells with rain, and bursts just when I am trying to decide whether to go left or right down a medieval cobbled street. I swear profusely and go straight on out of sheer pique. Ironically that turns out to be the right way.  I see the sign for my hotel and, trembling and soaked, burst through the door, gasping for a cup of tea in the life-or-death manner only the English can. The kettle provided is the slowest kettle IN THE WORLD and I am so cold I find it hard to hold the mug. I have a long, hot shower, feeling the strength return to my fingers and joints, but not my feet. I fill the bidet with warm water, balance precariously on the edge of the loo and soak my feet until they have thawed out. It’s the first time I have used a bidet. It’s probably the first time the bidet has been used as a foot spa, so a new experience for us both.

I take a bicycle into town to find somewhere to eat. I’ve found I am thinking too much – mainly about all the bad things I have ever done – and I have made a concerted effort to think about anything *but* myself. Characters have sprung into my head. A story has knocked on my door and is shyly peering around the frame, waiting for me to invite it in. I sit at a restaurant and write the opening pages – then stop, turn to the back of my nnotebook and start planning the story. I have never done this before and to give my story structure builds a little faith in it. I’ve tended to leave the story to my characters to tell, but that rarely works – the two books I wrote during my GCSEs were luck and also due to the fact that I wrote so much it was second nature to me. I didn’t have to work at it, then.   I’m out of practice now.

Riding a bike through Ferrara at first was frightening. I was scared of falling off (and of course I did, though fortunately not where anyone could see me). I was scared of being told off for going somewhere I shouldn’t. I was scared of colliding with someone who would insult me in rippling, florid words I couldn’t comprehend (probably just as well). But none of these things happened. Today I cycled nonstop and enjoyed it. I had forgotten how good it fels to have fresh air whorling into your ears. How quickly you can get somewhere. How if you go the wrong way you simply turn around and pedal quickly to find the right direction. I feel comfortable cycling now, although I haven’t done it in over 20 years. Writing is the same. I haven’t properly done it in so long. I’m rusty at it. In an article on writing I read, “You don’t do other things because you ae good at them. Swimming, running, drawing – you do these things because you enjoy them, not thinking whether you are good at them or not. Writing should be the same.” With that in mind, I have stopped writing thinking – does this work? Would people read this? Would someone publish it? – and have stopped thinking writing. I am merely doing. Like cycling, it takes practice. It’s nervewracking starting again, acknowledging the spiteful monkey whispering in your ear: you know that thing you did with no trouble at all when you were little? Well, you can’t do it anymore. You’ve lost the knack. You’re too old. It’s too late. But only by acknowledging that fear and attempting what you’re scared/longing to do will you find out if you are actually much, much better than you ever dreamed you could be.

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Hmm; not a bad title for a book.