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I remember when this was all just semantic fields

I’ve been visiting The Countryside, where I grew up. I’ve never felt very good at The Countryside. I didn’t spend hours as a kid making rope swings or unsafe rafts, and when I did climb trees or explore woods I felt self-conscious. Was I enjoying it right?

Nature was always mediated for me by texts: Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander, and Susan Cooper, and a dash of Alan Garner. Those writers encouraged me to be open to the magic in nature, which was great, except I found magic to a far greater degree in the books themselves. The enchantments of nature were, for me, the remembered enchantments of reading about it.

At University  I studied the Romantics and the Postmodernists simultaneously and was reassured that the idea of a pre-social connection with Nature was actually a big social construction. I gratefully seized this scholarly excuse, and thought little more about being rubbish at resonating with the greenwood.

Two hills divided by a path, on a Roman Hill fort

Some recent greenery

The recent Folk Horror revival has charmed me (see the recent Penda’s Fen re-release). This is the nearest I’ve come to writing in that genre, but again, it’s social rather than natural. I see folk weirdness and think: Shouldn’t this be ringing more bells? Couldn’t your country childhood it be a source of inspiration, rather than a big green inert slab of memory? 

Ridges under the grass from Roman earthworks

Nice earthworks, but do they stir anything?

These days I try to put words to nature directly, rather than letting it summon up the words of other people. The words are rudimentary. This hacked path, for example, smells like earth and cut grass and honey.


I’m getting better at appreciating the bucolic. But I’m drawn to the flashy stuff: the lark distracting a hawk over a Roman hill-fort. The algae that has turned every tenth flint blood red in the river. Direct eye contact with badgers. This fellow:

Red Admiral butterfly with fuzzy body and striped antennae

I swear I’ll look at smaller things, and try to learn the names of trees. I don’t know if I never had a sense of it, or if I suppressed it, but I will try to get it back, or grow it.


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Fervently expecting the answer yes

I bought a secondhand Paperwhite Kindle and it advertises while it sleeps.

I’m particularly enjoying the romance fiction adverts, as they’re almost always built around a question which assumes the answer ‘yes’.

of course 2

Of course she is.

of course 1

Yeah, he totally will.

of course 3

Undoubtedly. Yes!

It’s an inverted parallel to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines! (“Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’.”)

This advertising strategy is appropriate because a romance plot is (almost) always a pre-answered question. It’s one of those fictional formats which is less concerned with what happens, and more with how it happens – the destination’s the same, how are they going to pull off the journey? So it’s not a disaster if you already know that the answer, and the end of the novel, is ‘yes’.In my experience, Mills and Boon Temptation novels are some of the most sharply engineered, water-tight plot jigsaws out there.

Some of the questions are a touch trickier:

tangential 3

Yes, eventually.


Yes, but ouch.

tangential 2

Yes, but gross.

tangentially 5

…I really hope so?

The inevitable ‘yes’ is doubly appropriate as romance is about saying yes – yes to optimism, the ecstatic ‘yes’ of sexytimes, ‘yes’ to a narrative-concluding marriage proposal (the ultimate question-which-assumes-a-‘yes’, or at least hopes for one). As Molly Bloom ends Ulysses:

and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes

Which is why I found this one advert – which ruins my new rule – a bit off-message:


No, it didn’t! See, doesn’t it feel wrong to push off a romance plot with a negative?

(In a similar vein, a poster for the upcoming Living Marxism conference asked me this:


Again, you know the answer’s going to be ‘yes’, but you’re intrigued to know how the text will get there.)

These books aren’t one word long, though. For the sake of narrative pleasure, you have to stave off the ‘yes’ as long as possible, and make it seem at times implausible. I therefore conclude one of the greatest couples in literature, and a forestalled proposal. Peter Wimsey keeps proposing without hope, and his most artful effort is this, in chapter 15 of Gaudy Night:

One First of April, the question had arrived from Paris in a single Latin sentence, starting off dispiritedly. “Num…?”—a particle which notoriously “expects the answer No.” Harriet, rummaging the Grammar book for “polite negatives,” replied, still more briefly, “Benigne.”




Adverts featured were for the following novels

Something More Than This by Barbie Bohrman

Texas Rose Forever by Katie Graykowski

The Wedding Pearls by Carolyn Brown

House by the Lake by Ellen Carey

Shattered Virtue by Magda Alexander

Violet’s Wish by Carolyn Brown

Secret Healer by Ellin Casta

That Way Again by Carolyn Brown


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Enjoying reading with spoilers: total, considerable, none

(An account of encounters with, and spoilers for: Dracula, The Boys from Brazil and a page of The Intutionist. Also, spoilers for the gist of Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby)

At an antiques fair, I once saw a first edition of Dracula. It cost about £10,000 (Abebooks can get you something similar). I’ve never been interested in first editions, but poking gingerly at the yellow binding, I felt a thrill.

Because someone could have read this book, reached the climactic revelation scene, and thought: “Bloody hell! Dracula’s a vampire! He drinks blood! Surely not?! You could knock me down with a feather!” (etc.)

No reader has been able to feel that surprise for years.

I’ve known the basic plot of The Boys from Brazil for as long as I can remember. I wanted to read it despite that lack of novelty – I really rate the author, Ira Levin. (I’m in awe that one dude could pinpoint two such specific gendered fears in the 1960s-70s: Firstly, your husband would rather you were a sexbot, and secondly, you really don’t know what you’re gestating?).

It was a strange reading experience. I couldn’t lose my hyper-awareness of the big plot. It was like watching the Zapruder footage, waiting for Kennedy to be shot. The novel opens with a team of men moving deftly around a room in a restaurant. Their movement are described, but not explained:

The black-haired man closed the door, and facing it, raised his hands high curved his fingers, and set the tips of them on top of the doorframe as if to play a keyboard there.

…BECAUSE NAZIS. Right? Because NAZIS! I thought.

He inspected the frame, turned it over to look at its bottom…

BECAUSE NAZIS! It was a deafening voice in my reading ear and it’s a credit to Levin’s pacing that the novel drew me in anyway. And then I failed to spot the mechanics, and was surprised at the plot twists. Brilliant.

I started The Intuitionist knowing nothing except that I liked Colson Whitehead and wanted to read his debut novel. The title made me think of music-hall mind-readers, maybe of Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist.

The opening doesn’t give you too many clues – again, it’s mostly small-scale detail. A woman has arrived at a building, 125 Walker. She doesn’t like the old guard where she works. The language is lush.
Then, the first sentence of the second paragraph:

All the inspectors who have visited 125 Walker in the past have been Empiricists.

I swear all my skin tingled. They were Empiricists. So she’s the Intuitionist. And there are more of them? There are – rival groups? Actually, I don’t think I was smart enough to piece that together. But the title of the novel settled onto the main character like a crown and I wanted to know more about her.

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One ring to rule, or not

I was a kid hopped up on Tolkien and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence. I had a dream which was immense, epic, and embarrassingly derivative, in which I had to collect magical rings. One was a plain band of wood.

One looked like this:

Ring 1

I’ve thought about this ring, on and off, for thirty years. I’ve wondered about commissioning a silversmith to make it – that seemed slightly magical in itself, to bring something not just out of my imagination, but out of a weird semi-controlled part of my imagination, and make it tangible.

Then recently I discovered silver metal clay. This stuff feels like (super-expensive) blu-tack; when you fire it, it becomes solid silver.

So I made my own imaginary magical ring this weekend! See above photo.

Even though the main part of the process is basically (super-expensive) playdough, there are still gratifyingly alchemical moments. I fired it over a gas ring and it obligingly turned a Tolkienesque glowing rose, the indentations showing white against the glow. Then I dipped it in liver of sulphur and it went rich gold with oily rainbows.

RING Tolkien.jpgRING rainbows

I’ve bought myself rings to affirm significant things about myself, before. Here’s the one bought after a significant project, to say to myself: ‘I’m competent’. I lost it, replaced it, found the original and wore them both at once for a while (super-competent).

Ring 2

This latest ring is, I suppose, saying ‘I make things from my IMAGINATION’. Which is to say, a portable reminder to stop procrastinating and write more stuff.

But as I sintered and buffed it, ‘I MAKE THINGS’ came to seem like less of a claim. Everyone makes things from their imagination. I’m making rhubarb crumble, later today, and that’ll be me bringing into being something that wasn’t there before. Gaze upon the pudding I have wrought.

Possibly this is less about my ability to put things into the world, and more about the capacity of other people to colonise my imagination. After all, this isn’t just a thing from my imagination, nor even a thing from my dreams, but a thing from my shamelessly plagiarised dream. It’s the tyre-tracks of Tolkien and Cooper parking themselves in my subconscious.

The reverse of that: a couple of people have had dreams ‘set’ in worlds I’ve written. That was not something I ever planned for, and was a bloody brilliant feeling.

So maybe this ring is a symbol not of the amazingness of making things, but a recognition that things are the only way for stuff to pass from mind to mind. A constant loop of imagination > physical object > back into someone else’s imagination again. We communicate through things! That’s kind of obvious, and not strikingly profound, but the ring’s really shiny.

I’ll wear it for a bit and see if I become impossibly powerful or monstrously corrupt.

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More great libraries, their downfalls

(Previously at-risk libraries.)

Two more historical libraries have crossed my path, both of which had a dismal time in the 16th century.

On a trip to Ghent, I was told about the downfall of the Dominican library. In the Iconoclastic Fury of 1556, 30,000 handwritten books were chucked out of the windows of the monastery, into the river Leie.


These windows

My tour guide said that it was possible to cross the river at that time without getting your feet wet. Imagine the vellum crumpling under the soles of your bare feet. You’re really sad, obviously, but you’ll never get to do anything like this again, so you’re tucking up your trouser legs and walking gingerly across…

Here’s a bit of the library which still remains in that excellent building:


Also, the tour guide also said that now they have very intelligent fish, so I don’t totally trust her.

I also went to an excellent exhibition (in London) about John Dee. I really like Dee, I’ve written fiction on Dee, and yet somehow I’d forgotten that:

  • He had a library of 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts, in his specially extended house at Mortlake
  • He left them in the care of his brother-in-law while he travelled Europe
  • When he came back, he no longer had a library of 3,000 books etc.

His bro-in-law either flogged the books, or took backhanders to let a bunch of pseudo-chums, ex-pupils and randos into the Dee library to help themselves. Dee said he ‘unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away’. Dee clawed back a few books from friends, but most were gone.

A moment’s silence for Dee, allegedly the model for Prospero, having his life’s accumulated texts spirited away.

UEL Prospero tiles

Prospero-quoting tiles at the University of East London

Two other facts I learned about Dee, from the same excellent exhibition:

  1. Dee tried to persuade Elizabeth I to start a kind of British Library, drawing back together the texts scattered when Henry dissolved the monasteries. Hurrah! (She declined.)
  2. Dee was the first to use (in print) the phrase ‘British Empire’, or as he had it, Brytish Impire. Damn! He advocated for Britain to use the Pacific as a source of wealth to establish global dominance, and overtake the Spanish. (Elizabeth I was more keen on this idea.)

It’s a facile comparison, but I do keep picturing the polymath colonialist wizard:

  • banging on about how great it is to barge into someone else’s country and take their mineral reserves/anything else not tied down
  • coming home and finding that his priceless library’s been nicked.

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I am a (badly edited) conversation

When friends recommended Steven Universe I was ambivalent. It all sounded too complicated – there are different ‘gems’? The gems are somehow also people. They can turn into other ‘gems’?! There was a lot of specialist terminology.

I was totally wrong! Within two episodes, I was utterly hooked! Yes, there’s world-building and backstory, but it’s ultimately about a kid (Steven) growing up, raised by three magical women (fairy godmothers?) and his dad. Steven is lovely – rather like Bart Simpson without the cynicism.

It’s quite queer. It’s about a bunch of people in ambiguous friendly and romantic relationships creating a family. I’m livid that the Cartoon Network UK has chosen to edit out some of the queerness.

One episode in particular affected me. (It’s called ‘Fusion Cuisine’ – spoilers follow, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.) Steven is invited to meet his friend’s parents. But his friend’s family are very conservative – his friend asks Steven to pretend he has one Mum and one Dad.

Steven can’t choose between the three women parenting him. They find a magical solution – they merge into a single person. But this person isn’t very maternal. She’s a twenty foot mantis-woman with six arms, permanently arguing with herself. Steven’s dad gamely sits next to this creature telling cute ‘how we met’ stories. It’s a very daft episode and (of course) the act falls to pieces.

But halfway through the meal, there’s a moment when Steven’s friend takes him aside and demands: why couldn’t you just have brought one of the women?

Steven says: because that would be a lie.

I welled up at that line. It wasn’t about a giant blue-haired Mum, it was about kids who are proud of their families not having to misrepresent them.

I very much hope CN UK don’t continue to try to edit the series. I’m not even sure how they could, as it has queer values woven into it in warm ways. It’s not (just) about who kisses who – it’s present in the characters’ love, loyalty, jealousy, and parenting.

There’s always a tension in queer stuff – do you want to show happy queer characters getting on with their adventures, or do you want to rage against injustice? Steven Universe balances both. My favourite character, at one of my favourite moments, says something pertinent. The character Garnet has a couple of distinct sides to her personality. In an end-of-season song, she explains that she’s not just hot-headed, or hyper-reasonable. Rather, she is the productive tension between those extremes. I am their fury, I am their patience; I am a conversation.

Steven Universe is mostly queer patience: the thoughtful work of depicting complex, loving families. Rarely, it’s queer fury: showing how being different nudges up against the world’s hostility. But always, it is the conversation between both. That will be impossible to edit out.

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Great libraries and my part in their downfall

I’ve got a story out in the Journal of Unlikely Academia about a library. Writing it reminded me of the solid materiality, the intangible amazingness, and the ultimate fragility of collections of knowledge.
I know that people are more important than books, but the destruction of libraries – and museums, and other cultural archives – gets me in a sensitive spot.

I have never knowingly destroyed a library. But I do have a kind of partial collective guilt for the destruction of many libraries, due to the West’s habits of colonialism and interference. For instance, the Mayan codices destroyed by Bishop de Landa in July 1562:

as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

An amazing degree. Astounding how much they minded their books being burned.

Most recently, the library in Mosul has been gutted by ISIS. I voted for New Labour at least once, and while I protested the Iraq War (most memorably on a march between a women’s choir and some elves) I don’t think that lets me and the UK off the hook for messing in the region.

Leaving aside the complex issue of colonial responsibility, here are some libraries I’ve actually interacted with, and the times they’ve come closest to doom.

Heythrop College

This college had a huge collection of theological works for teaching Jesuits. The college had to move from place to place to avoid persecution, and sometimes en route the collection was slashed. From the Heythrop website:

We know that some boxes of books, and those thought at the time to be the most precious, were sent in 1794 to a house outside Liège for their safety – and then, when the staff and students left, they seem to have been forgotten. Moreover, the barges on which those fleeing the French were to travel … were over-loaded, and more boxes were sold on the quay…

I worked at Heythrop library. However, during that period, no boxes of books were carelessly shipped to houses in Belgium, or flogged at the dockside! I also diligently summoned back and questioned anyone who set off the library security alarms. I’m not culpable for this library’s problems!

(Also, I was keen to see Heythrop’s incredible collection of incunabula – early printed books – as I knew that Lord Peter Wimsey, my favourite fictional detective, collected them. They’re very rare and highly prized. Having seen the collection, I can say: they’re also dull as hell! Visually speaking. Pages of cramped black text and no pics. Illuminated manuscripts still have my heart.)

London public libraries

Many of these have closed in the last six years, due to cuts to local services. I could definitely do more to campaign to keep them open, or support the ones which are now community-run.

Sussex University Library

I was, for a while, the Night Librarian (working from 6-10pm). I had to patrol the library, checking that those who’d fallen asleep in the stacks wouldn’t get locked in.

One night, there’d been a fire alarm. I walked around the library as usual, a lovely big modern airy building. The aisles were dark and quiet, and the air smelt fantastic: crisp, like being in a park at night. Far too crisp, in fact, for an indoor space.

I looked up and realised that during the fire alarm, huge vents in the roof had opened. And were still open. And while I looked up from the reference section straight into the night sky, I felt tiny drops of rain fall on my face.

I found the security guard and we frantically phoned the alarm company, to find out how to shut the bloody roof. I fantasised about huge tarpaulins to save the collection, then (guiltily) of which books I’d be prepared to sacrifice to keep the rain off other books. In the end, nothing was needed, and the library was closed to the elements.

Lewisham micro-library (see below)

I pop in and tidy this tiny bookswap from time to time, and I drop off books after I’ve read them. Is this a library which I’m actually building, not diminishing (or allowing to be diminished)?

Sort of. I’m pulling my weight, but there’s a local reviewer – specialising in science fiction and fantasy, no less – who leaves their ARCs in here. Pristine copies of not-yet-published SciFi. So I’m still getting more out than I’m putting in. I am a selfish lover of libraries, and hereby swear to do better.

Bonus thoughts from my colleagues in the Journal of Unlikely Academia

Eric Schwitzgebel musing on memory and mind transfer

Abra Staffin-Wiebe plays with other definitions of family

Julia August stares down the apocalypse

Sean Robinson supplements his strange beastliness

self in phonebox


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