In transitiontranslationinterpretation

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I was pleased that Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles won the 2022 Arthur C. Clarke Award. For one thing, at some point during the final months of her life Maureen read the book and was impressed. Secondly, it is formally innovative, more so than any other book I can remember being in contention for the Clarke Award, and I firmly believe that such literary experimentation should be celebrated and rewarded.

But it is only now that I have read the book myself. Despite the relatively few pages, and the high percentage of white space per page, it is not an easy book to read.

As probably everybody knows by now, it is structured as a series of poems written in the Orcadian dialect:

“I sayed tae see wiss at wir best,
no this,” he says. Noor wis waatched
the meeteen, takken notts. Sheu laaghs,
“It’s better than a research committee.”

Each poem is accompanied on the same page by a prose translation into standard English:

“I said to see us at our best, not this,” he says. Noor had watched the meeting, taking notes. She laughs. “It’s better than a research committee.”

But that is to make the whole thing way too simple, and I deliberately chose a relatively straightforward example. Even here there are things to pay attention to. There are two near-identical words with very different meanings, for instance: “wiss” is translated as “us” while “wis” is translated as “had”. Though elsewhere in the novel you will encounter “wis” being translated as “was”, which suggests it is a form of the verb to be, though not necessarily always the same form. The other thing to note is that Noor is a visitor to the space station, so her speech is rendered in standard English. Even this can be deceptive, as your eyes suddenly light upon familiar spellings it can feel as though the whole poem is suddenly opening up to you, becoming accessible. It isn’t.

The problem is that translation is a creative act. It is not simple substitution. As the use of “wis” to mean either “was” or “had” in the above passage indicates, there is never a precise match between words in two different languages. Even languages as close as Orcadian and English can differ in subtle and often not so subtle ways. Take, for instance, the translation that Giles offers for the very next verse after the one quoted above:

Eynar’s head is throbfestering from ringcirclebanging, crowdquarrellurching debate.

The equivalent line on Orcadian is:

Eynar’s heid is tiftan fae ringan and rallyan debate.

So we might conclude, for instance, that “tiftan” could be rendered as either “throbbing” or “festering”, while “ringan” and “rallyan” each have three possible translations. Giles’s habit of running the alternative translations together both emphasises the point and confuses the issue further. After all, throbbing and festering are not synonyms for each other, so which we choose is going to affect the thrust of the entire sentence. There is, of course, the further issue that there are several other synonyms for both throbbing and festering which might, by implication, come into play here. Given that we don’t have the clue that pronunciation might provide, since that avenue is closed to us (unless we are lucky enough to hear Giles, or another Orcadian, read the work aloud), our only guide in making the choice is context. But context doesn’t really help here, since the collision of throbbing and festering takes us straight into two other congeries of not-entirely-synonymous words. In fact in this one sentence we are looking at something like 18 possible readings, and that is assuming that we don’t take into account other possible alternatives for the words on offer.

Sometimes the choice doesn’t matter, or at least it doesn’t seem to. But that’s not always the case. And anyway, can we safely assume that the word choices we make are not just what we would expect to find, and that another choice, which may feel more awkward to the ears of a native English speaker, might not be more appropriate or more revealing?

What we are offered in the English passages, therefore, is not a translation of the Orcadian. It is an opportunity for interpretation, but with no way of knowing how reliable our particular interpretation might be.

At its simplest, therefore, the novel tells us one story in Orcadian and another story in English. We expect one to be a translation of the other, so we expect them to be forms of the same story. But how do we know? And in fact, even assuming that the English resonates with the Orcadian, the multiplicity of choices we have to make in simply reading the English tells us that we are never reading exactly what the Orcadian is saying to us. And that very multiplicity of choices suggests that rather than two versions of something like the same story, what we encounter is in truth an almost infinite variety of versions.

I don’t, therefore, really know what I read. It was thrilling for what it was doing, and even more for what it was making me do. But what it was remains obscure. Two visitors arrive on a wheel-shaped space station somewhere out in the galaxy, a place as distant, as in-turned, as distinct as the Orkney Islands. Here we encounter the trappings of isolated life: tentative romances, tedious local bureaucracy, petty secrets, local rituals and almost orgiastic dances. There is an ordinariness but an inwardness in all we see. And yet what gives life to the station and what threatens it lies outside, in the silent, deadly ocean of space. Just as the Orcadians live and die by thrusting their frail craft out onto the raging sea, so these Orcadians make their living by sailing out into space to harvest wrecked craft and the mysteries of the deep. Here, the thing harvested is known simply as Light, an everyday thing except in deep space where the only light is artificially generated. Light is the essential element in sight, yet when the creatures of Light invade the great wheel they are unseen by its inhabitants.

It is a mysterious story, one whose greatest emphasis is upon the mundane, and whose most science fictional elements are, contrary to the normal practices of the genre, the things least seen, least explained, least rationalised. It is, we must remember, a poem in the original Orcadian, and poetry often progresses by mood, by allusion, by symbol. Story presented through such a mechanism does not work in the way of the usually plain prose of most science fiction. And the prose we have here is less reliable, less accessible simply because it leaves the reader with assumptions to make, choices on offer, that can drastically change the very thing we are reading.

Stories are made up of words, but here the words are not whole, not complete, not reliable. So what does that make of the story?

Dark and Bright

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When, late last year, I was reading The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry, I was very discontented with the book, as I said in my summary of the year’s reading. I felt I was being shortchanged: it was poorly written and it felt poorly argued. For instance, it was obvious, from the title onwards, that the book had been written in opposition to the notion of the Dark Ages, yet it never once discussed the idea of the Dark Ages. So it was only today, reading a book about the interwar years (The Morbid Age by Richard Overy), that I discovered that The Dark Ages as a name for the late-classical and early-medieval period is only common in anglophone historiography. The term was, apparently, first used in Henry Hallam’s History of England in 1837, but it only really became a commonplace at the end of that century when it was used as the title of two popular works, one by Oxford professor Sir Charles Oman in 1893, and one by the philologist William Ker in 1904. Overy does not (at least so far as I have got) make the connection, but I wonder if this apocalyptic sense that the end of a civilisation is marked by a descent into darkness lay behind Sir Edward Grey’s famous remark to the journalist, John Alfred Spender, on the evening of 3rd August 1914, the day before war was declared: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Overy also notes something that you would look for in vain in Gabriele and Perry’s book: that most historians today have been trying to “consign the Dark Ages to the historical waste-paper basket”. After all, one wouldn’t want to get the impression that Gabriele and Perry aren’t actually breaking new ground.

My problem with all this is that, at no point, is it clear what is meant by “Dark”, or, indeed, what is meant by “Bright”. In fact, The Bright Ages opens with an account of a church at Ravenna which is lovingly described in terms of the way gold and mosaics are used in such a way as to catch and refract the light, so you might be forgiven for thinking that “Bright Ages” means they had light. Wow, I’d never have guessed. Were the dark ages dark because, in Edward Grey’s terms, someone had turned out all the lamps?

But Overy’s account of the origins of the term “Dark Ages” sheds light on the question (if you’ll pardon the expression). The way British historians, or more precisely English historians, who grew up in the great days of Victoria’s empire regarded the matter, the dark ages began when the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain. From the perspective of one great empire looking back upon another. the retreat from Britain was the end of empire. The fact that the Roman Empire, in one form or another, continued for more than 1,000 years after this moment is irrelevant. To the Victorian imperialists, Britain’s empire was the natural and inevitable successor to Rome. The two empires were seen in the same light: as the bringers of civilisation, as the guarantors of order and rationality, as the creators of laws and mighty buildings and great armies. All who fall under the sway of such an empire should be grateful for all the glories that it brings to them. And so the retreat of that empire could only mean an end to glory, an end to civilisation.

Oh the imperialists knew – for they had all read Gibbon – that the Roman empire had survived long after the retreat from Britain. But they also knew, thanks to Gibbon, that those long ages were a decline, a fall. Besides, how could an empire truly be great if it had abandoned Britain? And because they looked at the Roman Empire and saw Britain, just as they looked at the British Empire and saw Rome, so they shuddered at the thought of all the glories of empire being lost. Surely that must be the end of civilisation, for without the wise rule, the imperial might, the laws and arts and social organisation imposed by empire how could civilisation survive? There could only be darkness.

And so we believed, right up through my school years and beyond. I remember when my own doubts about this dominant narrative first began to develop. It was in 1969, when I was watching the first episode of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. Here was the period of darkness, of the uncivilised, between the death of one civilisation and the (literal) rebirth of civilisation with the renaissance. And yet, we were seeing exquisite carvings in wood and ivory, complex narratives carved into stone monoliths, gloriously illustrated manuscripts, magnificent buildings that employed extraordinary technological innovations like arches, spires and flying buttresses, all the invention of these supposedly uncivilised ages. It seemed to me that to dismiss the makers of these artworks as uncivilised was stupid. And wasn’t this also the age of Beowulf, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which I read not long after) and the medieval Mystery Plays which fed directly into the theatrical flowering of the later Tudor period. Maybe Gabriele and Perry weren’t too wide of the mark by beginning with that church in Ravenna.

By what measure, then, was this a “dark” age? Was it dark in the same way that a black hole is black, that light could not escape from it. But that late-classical, early-medieval period is not exactly a mystery, and wasn’t even when Hallam coined the term “Dark Ages”. For goodness sake, between 1776 and 1789 Edward Gibbon had published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in six volumes, the vast majority of which is concerned precisely with this period of supposed darkness. There is plenty of light flooding out from those centuries in the form of chronicles and sagas and romances and church records and manor rolls and accounts left by travellers and inscriptions and all sorts of other ways that people found to tell the story of their lives and times. There is plenty of primary material to draw upon, enough at least for us to relate the lives of named individuals with at least as much detail and reliability as we relate the lives of figures from classical history.

Well then, is “dark” perhaps a moral judgement? Was this just a particularly nasty and brutish time? Perhaps, but then, when isn’t? “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire and in the time of Henry David Thoreau just as much as they did under the Anglo-Saxon kings or under Charlemagne. Life is as likely to be “nasty, brutish and short”, in Thomas Hobbes’s term, in medieval Italy or in Victorian London. And yes, the so-called dark ages were times of frequent and brutal warfare, but again, when isn’t? The century and a bit of the Hundred Years War probably had fewer casualties in total than the four years of the Great War. And while early medieval war leaders weren’t particularly careful with the lives of non-combatants that got in their way, and there were plenty of massacres of Moslems during the various crusades, and of Jews in, for instance, medieval York, you’d still have to go a bit to match the sheer brutality of the Armenian genocide, the holocaust, the Soviet famines, or China’s Cultural Revolution in our so much more civilised 20th century.

Dark, then, in the sense of a lack of learning? Not really. The Athenian age of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle didn’t really survive the emergence of the Roman Empire, but that doesn’t mean that philosophy disappeared. In the same way, the early-modern philosophical flowering of Descartes and Hobbes and Locke didn’t continue at the same intensity as the 17th century reached its end. There was learning during the early-medieval, Augustine, Aquinas, Bacon, so it was no more an intellectual wasteland than any other period. The influence of the church was stultifying, but there have always been orthodoxies (Stalinist Russia, Maoist China) to there is nothing uniquely “dark” in that. And besides, the ideas of Greek science and philosophy survived and were developed in the Moslem world, and filtered through into Christian Europe throughout the period; it wasn’t a sudden flood of new learning that came in with the Renaissance.

Or does “dark” just represent the absence of empire? So it would seem.

Love and Death

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In the most recent part of his major postwar history of Britain, On the Cusp, David Kynaston notes that on Friday, 5th October 1962, (which is, incidentally, not quite two weeks after my tenth birthday) two significant cultural events occurred. “Love Me Do”, the first single by The Beatles, and Dr No, the first film in the James Bond franchise, were both released. Actually, neither of those statements is quite correct. The Beatles, then consisting of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best, had earlier recorded a single, “My Bonnie”, as the backing group for Tony Sheridan while they were in Hamburg, the single was released and largely unnoticed in 1961; and and a television dramatisation of Casino Royale had been broadcast on American television in 1954 with Barry Nelson playing Bond. But in essence it is true: “Love Me Do” was the first Beatles recording with Ringo Starr, and Dr No was the first James Bond feature film.

For Kynaston, the events of 5th October 1962 effectively provide the climax for his book. But for John Higgs, it is the starting point. The full title of Higgs’s book, Love and Let Die: Bond, The Beatles and the British Psyche, pretty well sums up everything in this work. Neither of these beginnings were particularly auspicious. The Beatles had been turned down by most British record labels, and it wasn’t entirely clear whether a band that had a cult following among Liverpool teenagers could turn that popularity into national success, especially when you consider, as one producer told them while rejecting the band, that guitar bands were already a thing of the past. And the James Bond novels had not exactly been setting the literary world alight since Ian Fleming started churning them out in 1953. As one critic rather waspishly but accurately declared, they were about sex, snobbery and sadism, and it was only when President Kennedy declared that he enjoyed them that they began to sell in significant numbers, which is what prompted one film company to take a chance on filming Dr No. If the dice had fallen only slightly differently, 5th October 1962 would have been just another blustery and unmemorable day.

As it was, however, the two works released on that day changed the British cultural landscape forever, and continue to have a profound effect. Consider, 58 years after the death of Bond’s creator, how many column inches are being taken up with arguments about who might take on the role for the next film in the sequence. Consider, 52 years after the Beatles disbanded, how much screen time was taken up showing and reshowing Paul McCartney’s headline performance at last year’s Glastonbury Festival (and, too late for the book, of course, as I write this The Guardian is reporting that the National Portrait Gallery is about to host an exhibition of photographs of the Beatles taken by Paul McCartney in 1963-64). They are still, you might say, in our ears and in our eyes.

Given the subject matter, Higgs inevitably has to deal with the cultural impact of his two subjects. But he does so without much obvious enthusiasm, and nothing much in the way of a critical vocabulary. He tends to deal in broad generalisations: X is now generally regarded as one of the weakest films in the franchise, Y is still loved by fans today. It tells you nothing.

But Higgs has a different subject in mind. He wants to present Bond and the Beatles as representatives of two conflicting aspects of the British psyche. The Beatles represent love, Bond stands for death. It’s okay as far as it goes. There’s an interesting thesis to be wrung out of this, but I don’t think Higgs does the wringing. The book is facile: I kept thinking that’s the kind of thing I might write if I had a thorough knowledge of the Beatles and the James Bond films, and I had done a little dipping into popular books on social history and psychology. It’s readable, it holds together, it keeps hammering home its central idea, but it never feels like you are getting below the surface.

Mostly he wants us to believe that Bond and the Beatles are two sides of the same coin. So there is never a chapter about the Beatles that passes without some reference to Bond; there is never a chapter about Bond that passes without some reference to the Beatles. He makes great and repeated play of the fact that Help! was the Beatles playing at James Bond, and the fact that Paul McCartney recorded the theme of a Bond film. But mostly these cross-references seem like little more than coincidences (Christopher Lee being a Bond villain and appearing on the cover of Band on the Run generates a whole chapter), or the sort of cross-contamination that is probably inevitable in a relatively small cultural pool. All too often I felt that the link he was trying to make between the two was awkward and forced: yes you might suggest that the Beatles doing this echoes Bond doing that, but I can, without effort, think of a dozen other cultural echoes that are clearer and more pertinent.

We are left with a slight popular book that is entertaining in its way, though I doubt that anyone with more than a scanty knowledge of either Bond or the Beatles would be surprised by anything they encountered here. There is something worth exploring here, but it needs a better, deeper, more thoroughly researched book than this one.

Desperate fun

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I am wary of doing this. It seemed like a good idea last year. I would write a blog post about every book I read, which didn’t seem especially difficult or problematic. And, indeed, it started well; I kept up with the project until well into March. But then, in March, things fell apart. No, I don’t think there is a connection, but, well, there is that twisting thread of doubt that starting this same thing all over again can only be tempting fate.

And then there is the other problem: reading. Let’s put it this way, back in my late teens, in the two or three years before I went to university, I kept a list of the books I read. Those lists have long gone, but I know I was regularly getting through 200 books a year back then. How? Today I cannot begin to imagine how I ever found the time. I don’t think I ever came close to matching that score in all the decades since then. Though at the same time, up until lockdown I was consistently getting through 70+ books a year. Again, I now find it hard to imagine how I could do that. Lockdown knocked me back psychologically, and the number of books I was reading tumbled year on year. And then the horrors of last year completed the hatchet job on my psyche. In the last two years together I read fewer books than I would regularly manage in a single year before the world fell apart.

As I start to reinvent a way of living following Maureen’s death, I have begun to learn how to read for pleasure once more. But that doesn’t mean that reading is again quick and easy. Far from it. Reading a book, even when I am enjoying it, is still a painful and laborious process. As I write this, January is just over three weeks old. In that time I have been reading three books simultaneously, a fairly normal practice for me. One of those books, Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson, I finished Sunday, exactly three weeks after I first picked it up. I will be writing more fully about it below, but suffice it to say it is a book I enjoyed, a book that I found to be a real pleasure, where I seemed to be turning the pages eagerly to continue with the story. Another time, another me would have devoured that book in a matter of two or three days at the most; but no, 21 days! Why was it so hard? I don’t know, but the problem lies in me not the novel. A second book, which I began on the same day as the Atkinson, I will finish today (probably before I finish writing this post). That one is non-fiction, but not hard, not particularly demanding. Again, in more normal times another, earlier me would have taken a week at most to read it. But the third book, sitting downstairs on the coffee table in the lounge even as I write this, I began reading back in, I think, November. It is, in truth, a book I admire more than I like, but it is not a hard book, it is a book I want to read, yet in three months I have advance little more than 100 pages into the book.

Why do I find it so hard to read? It is not that I don’t enjoy reading; on the contrary it gives me immense pleasure. It is not that the books themselves are difficult to read; the Atkinson, as I say, is an unalloyed pleasure, she is easily one of my favourite writers and this is a superb example of her craft. It is not that I don’t have the time; quite the opposite, I often have more time than I know what to do with. But when I settle down with a nice cup of tea in one of the tub chairs in the bay window downstairs, I am strangely reluctant to pick up a book to read. Once I get over that initial obstacle I read with pleasure, though not so quickly as I used to. But that obstacle is real and persistent. I can sit for ages with the book within reach and not pick it up. It is something of a cliché that writers will find any excuse to avoid sitting down at an empty page or a blank screen, but these days I find it much much easier to start writing than to start reading. It shouldn’t be that way. I know it is wrong, but that is the way my mind is working, or perhaps more accurately, how my mind is not working. What do I fear in the books? What taboo do I break when I turn the page? It is, I know, somehow connected to the psychological damage of lockdown followed by Maureen’s illness, followed by her death. But I don’t know how it is connected, and I don’t know if there is a way through this tangled labyrinth. I don’t know if I can find the way out, or even if there is an out to be found.

But I persist with the labour of reading, because that is the nourishment my mind craves. And it is supposed to be fun. It is fun. Isn’t it?


Ma Meyrick. You can’t read much about those frenetic, jazz-filled days of the 1920s in London without coming across her. And she keeps cropping up. She has a supporting role in one episode in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, for instance. And now here she is again, at the tremulous heart of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety. Those titular shrines are the nightclubs owned by Ma Meyrick, here renamed Nellie Coker.

Back in the 70s and 80s, when I was first getting into British fandom, any alcohol-fuelled get together, at a party, a bar, or a convention, would be greeted by cries of “fun, desperate fun!” It was a cry that always struck me as rather sad: any fun that is desperate isn’t likely to be fun. But desperate fun seems to epitomise those frantic years between the end of the First World War and Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919 and the Wall Street Crash in 1929. They were years in which the Bright Young Things felt as though they had been born again, having escaped the horrors of trench warfare while the effects of those horrors were all around them in the injured beggars they saw in the streets, in the way that women of a certain age vastly outnumbered men of that same age, in the memorials to the dead that were springing up in every town and village. They had a new lease of life, even though there was a widespread sense (that a number of the Bright Young Things probably believed as well) that they didn’t deserve it, that they had failed in life somehow by not being in the trenches.

They celebrated this ambivalent escape with bright clothes, short skirts, bobbed hair, loud music, sex, and alcohol. It was an age of excess for those rich enough to indulge and young enough to partake. You see it here in a chapter set in a wild party where everyone dresses up as infants and behaves like children, except for the vast quantities of alcohol consumed. It is a party that recalls similar scenes in Brideshead Revisited and some of the early Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy L. Sayers. [And as a totally irrelevant aside, writing that made me think that Agatha Christie, despite her youth when she began The Mysterious Affair at Styles, created old detectives, Poirot already retired, Marple already old; these were not people to participate in, or even fully understand, the excesses of the generation in which Poirot at least initially found himself.] The fun, the brightness, the freedom were desperate because there was still a sense of darkness from the past, and because, I think, they felt it was temporary, that they could not long escape those same shadows, those same trenches.

Ma Coker’s empire of nightclubs was the very locus of that desperate fun. Stumble down a staircase from the street, pay the entrance fee, sweep aside a curtain, and suddenly you were in a different world. It was a world of glitter and glamour, where dance bands played brightly even when a fight broke out, where pretty young women would dance with you for a small fee, where illicit alcohol and drugs were readily available, where you could mingle with the rich and famous, with royalty and with gangsters. After the too recent horrors this was all you wanted of the world, a place where the bright lights chased away the poverty, the industrial unrest, the grime and violence and dullness waiting just up those stairs, just outside in the narrow, ill-lit streets. That Ma Coker’s empire was itself sleazy and criminal and dangerous was irrelevant, it was the illusion that mattered.

Atkinson captures those contradictions beautifully, all through the differing characters of Ma Coker’s family, and those that circle around them. Like Kate Meyrick, Nellie Coker was the lone indomitable head of a large family whom she was grooming to inherit her empire. Or to be precise, it was the daughters who were going to inherit. Her eldest son, Niven, had been in the trenches, it had changed him, and though the family were still family, he stood apart from them and from the business empire. The younger son, Ramsey, had also been changed by time abroad, but in his case it was in a Swiss sanatorium, and now his engagement with the business is vague and ineffectual, and his real interest is in becoming a novelist, though he has no discernible literary ability.

The Coker family, the central importance of Nellie and her four daughters, epitomise something important about the novel: this is a world in which women dominate. All the strong central figures, even apart from the Cokers, are women. There is Freda, the waif-like young woman who comes to London seeking stardom on the stage but ends up dancing in one of Coker’s clubs. There is Florence, the clumsy, unimaginative friend who comes to London with Freda, then disappears into the mysteries of those dark streets. And above all there is Gwendolen. Liberated by an unexpected inheritance, she quits her job as a librarian in York and comes to London, supposedly to seek the daughter of a friend, Freda, but really in search of excitement, which she finds variously as a police spy and as the manager of one of Nellie’s clubs. Around these figures dance (and a maypole dance in which Freda once performed in a stage show in York is a repeated figure throughout the novel) a variety of other strong, independent women. There is Freda’s first landlady, a procuress and abortionist; there is the woman with whom Freda had once modelled knitwear and who is now a prostitute who gives Freda a home; there is Nellie’s cell mate at Holloway who has her own criminal network; and there are the “forty thieves”, a loose affiliation of pickpockets and bag snatchers who are not above a little violent mayhem when needed.

Against these women, the men tend to be villains (the corrupt policeman and the gang leader who both, separately, plot to oust Ma Coker and take over her business), victims (the society gossip columnist who meets a grisly and unexpected fate), or hapless onlookers (the unhappily married police inspector who is tasked with rooting out police corruption and who is working with Gwendolen in the hope of finding out why so many young girls are turning up dead in the Thames, but who proves to be ineffectual and unable to control events).

It is a large cast, and to accommodate them there is a large number of intersecting story lines than make for a very complex plot, made the more complex by Atkinson’s delight in shifting the viewpoint character from chapter to chapter (and sometimes within a chapter), plus her liberal use of cliffhangers. Because timelines and stories intermingle so intricately there are moments when, for instance, a minor character expresses sadness at what has happened to X, though it is another two chapters before the focus shifts back to X and we learn what prompted this sadness. The stories we are told are various. There’s a romance (though it would not be quite right to describe it as a love story), there’s mystery (as we try to sort out what has happened to the various missing girls), there’s intrigue (how will the different plots against Ma Coker play out, and how will she respond to them?), there’s coming-of-age (both Freda and Gwendolen grow into roles they could never have expected to play before coming to London), there’s even a ghost story (Nellie Coker is followed throughout by the ghost of a girl she had killed). But it would be wrong to describe the novel as any of these things. The many different stories, just like the many different characters, are just brush strokes delineating a rich, complex, and convincing portrait of one segment of London society at a key moment in the middle of the 1920s.

I find it hard to explain why I find Atkinson’s writing so compelling. The prose isn’t particularly lush, with grace notes that make you stop just to appreciate the beauty or the strangeness of a phrase, yet neither is it spare and precise and purposeful. It works, I think – and this feels like a rather graceless way to describe something that is full of grace – because it has a job to do, and it does that job well. It has a story to tell that is complex and yet never confusing. It has characters to introduce and manipulate yet it does so in a way that makes them feel drawn from life. It has a scene to set that is vivid, colourful, and feels as though you could step into it alongside the characters and witness it through the eyes of the time. It doesn’t race along, it takes its time, and yet it never relaxes its grip on you. It is prose you can relax into, confident in what it is doing, in the effect it is generating. It is simply a pleasure to let her tell you a story and know you believe her, know you trust her.

It helps, of course, that there is an air of tragedy about the book. A tragedy that seems inherent in the time and place: the darkness is too recent and it doesn’t feel like it can be truly over, there is another darkness waiting to return, to reclaim the world, hovering just beyond what we can sense. And for all the artificial gaiety, the desperate fun, there is still an underlying awareness that it cannot last forever. And so you keep reading, aware of the shadow, needing to know who will fall victim to it and who will not. The characters are too well drawn, you are invested in them, you know that doom awaits, but you need to know what doom and who will it claim, who will emerge into the light. With such a large cast you know that some endings will be tragic, some will be happy, but you also know how smoothly Atkinson can whip the rug from under your feet. And she does, of course, and there are tragedies, though not what you expected, and there is happiness but not necessarily what you anticipated. And in the end it just feels like the inevitable consequence of this particular time, this particular place.

And after all that it feels like I ripped through the book in no time, even though it took three weeks.

Memories of a year I’d rather forget

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Well I suppose there’s one bright thought: 2023 cannot be worse than 2022. Frankly, when you have experienced the death of the one person who means more to you than anyone else ever could, it is hard to imagine how things might go further downhill from there. The great demons of our existential despair – death, disease, destitution – seem pretty tame in comparison to the psychic pain I have endured, and continue to endure. I mourn Maureen, and I will surely do so for the rest of my life, but at the same time, to honour her memory, to honour everything that our life together meant to us both, I have to start finding some way back into life. At the moment – baby steps – I am doing that mostly through small routines, small habits.

One such fairly meaningless little habit that I have maintained every year for longer than I care to count, is my New Year practice of recording all of my reading and writing of the previous twelve months. Even this bears testimony to the wretched character of the year. 2020 and 2021, the years of pandemic and lockdown and the psychological dis-ease that swept over us all, had seen the number of books I read fall off a cliff. From well over 70 books read in 2019 (a fairly typical year), the number plunged to less than 60 in 2020, and less than 40 in 2021. 2022 was supposed to be different, in earnest of which I set out to write here about every single book I finished, a practice I was able to maintain until March.

But the world changes in a moment, a second can mark the irreparable transition from one reality into another. One morning in March Maureen turned her head and there was a sharp crack in the neck. That was the first indication we had of the cancer that had already spread from her breast to her bones and her liver. The next six months was a descent into hell, hopes raised and dashed, cancer retreating and returning, other infections cruelly weakening her so that by the end she was too weak to take the chemotherapy that might have extended her life. She died in September, and during that stretch from Spring to Autumn I continued to read, but not much and it was an almost insuperable labour, and though I dutifully noted each title as I finished it, there are books in there that I barely remember. And since then, the final quarter of the year? I have continued to struggle with reading. I have written reviews, most of which are quite substantial (though I can make no claims for their quality), but it is only now, in the last week or so of the year, that I am beginning to rediscover how to read for pleasure.

So this year the total of books finished is roughly the same as last year, though the bulk of that reading came in those first three months when the world still seemed normal.

In some ways, I suppose, it should have been a triumphant year. I actually had two books published, which hasn’t happened before and is unlikely ever to happen again. Yet when they did appear, I barely even noticed. The first, Brian W. Aldiss, part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction Series from University of Illinois Press, arrived during the period when Maureen was at home, in a hospital bed set up in the dining room. I was expecting this one to be controversial, it offers a measured take on his work, praising some and criticising others, and I anticipated that the Aldiss acolytes would condemn the fact that it did not offer unalloyed praise. As it was, the response has been more positive than I predicted, though I was struck by the fact that the two reviews by women that I have seen both pick up on what I call his “priapic masculinity”. One of those reviews, by the way, appeared in the TLS, the first time I’ve been reviewed there which was quite a thrill, though by the time that appeared Maureen was in a care home and I wasn’t really paying that much attention. The second book, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, part of the Palgrave Science Fiction and Fantasy: A New Canon series, arrived when Maureen was in the care home, though I was able to show it to her. Anecdotally it seems to be quite well received, but I’ve seen no reviews so far. And frankly I wasn’t in any sort of state where I could do anything to promote it. I was proud of the book when I wrote it, now it’s just too associated with a bad time.

And that was nearly the sum total of my writing to appear this year. The only review published was this one, written in 2021; none of the things I’ve written this year have so far appeared. There was one essay I put on this blog, “A Taxonomy of Reviewing“, which was something that had been on my mind for a long time. For a while it seemed to attract some attention, but as is the way of things it has since faded from view.

As for my reading, well, as I say, it started optimistically enough …

1: Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton, an account of the division of Berlin after the Second World War, leading up to the Berlin Airlift. I wrote about it here.

2: April in Spain by John Banville, another of his crime novels that would, until recently, have appeared under the Benjamin Black name. I wrote about it here.

3: The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee, a curious but rather charming historical novel about New York that I wrote about here.

4: On the Cusp by David Kynaston, the latest volume in his magisterial Tales of New Jerusalem sequence, though this one concentrates on just a few months in one year, 1962. It was the year I was ten, as I say here.

5: The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan. In previous iterations if this post I would highlight in bold those books that seemed to me particularly significant. It didn’t seem appropriate this year, but any other time this would certainly have been in bold, as I say here.

6: I and My True Love by Helen MacInnes, which I wrote about here.

7: Maigret by Georges Simenon, which I also wrote about here.

8: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. This is one of those big, important books whose importance is not one whit diminished by the fact that I don’t always agree with it. I wrote about it here, and also here.

9: Unquiet Landscape by Christopher Neve. I’ve been finding myself returning again and again to an interest in art, particularly 20th century British art, and this is one of the best books I’ve encountered on the subject, as I explain here.

10: Cecile is Dead by Georges Simenon.

11: The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories by Nina Allan. The second of her books I read this year, and the second that would have been shown in bold in another time. I wrote about it here, but this was where the world went wrong. Everything read after this point was intermittent, and I was able to write about none of them (except for those, later in the year, where I produced reviews).

12: The Cellars of the Majestic by Georges Simenon.

13: The Judge’s House by Georges Simenon.

14: Signed, Picpus by Georges Simenon. While Maureen was increasingly unwell at home, but before she went into hospital for the first time, I would often read to her. What I read was these four Maigret novels, from Cecile is Dead to Signed, Picpus. Now, I remember nothing about them, I could not distinguish one from the other to save my life. We enjoyed them at the time, that is all I know.

15: Witcraft by Jonathan Ree. I referenced this book in the second piece I wrote about The Dawn of Everything, and said I would write at length about the book later. That, now, is not going to happen. But anyone with an interest in the history of British philosophy should read this book, it is endlessly fascinating.

16: Home is the Hunter by Helen MacInnes. This is, so far as I am aware, the only play that Helen MacInnes wrote, and the only thing not set in the contemporary or near-contemporary world. It is, in fact, a comedy that usurps the common story told of the return of Odysseus to Ithaka, and it played with time sufficiently for me to suggest to John Clute that I write an entry on it for the SF Encyclopedia.

17: The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler. No, sorry, my mind is a blank. I like Ambler and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this when I read it, but I have no memory of the story whatsoever.

18: If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. Was this the one set on Cuba? These are good books, well written, tightly plotted, it seems wrong that this has so thoroughly and so quickly fled my memory.

19: Inspector Cadaver by Georges Simenon. By now, Maureen was in hospital, and as it turned out I wouldn’t read to her again. She had already read this, so I picked it up in order to keep up with the series. Not one of the really good ones, I’m afraid.

20: American Stutter 2019-2021 by Steve Erickson. Maureen gave me this, not quite the last book she gave me but close. It is Erickson, of course I was eager to read it, and it is typically excellent, an idiosyncratic personal account of the politics at the end of the Trump era. I wish I had read it in better circumstances, I would have had so much more to say.

21: Checkmate to Murder by E.C.R. Lorac. Maureen came across this somehow, and I read it out of curiosity. Lorac (a pseudonym, it will surprise you to learn) wrote a whole string of crime novels around mid-century. A number of them have been republished by the British Library, I’m not sure I would have bothered. The writing is pedestrian and the plotting lame.

22: The China Governess by Marjory Allingham. To make up for the dull taste left by Lorac, I turned back to Allingham. This is another of her stories set in a small social circle, this time one with money. It is not among her best, I think, but it is so much more satisfying than the Lorac.

23: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. During the weeks when she was at home during the summer, Maureen got all of the Night Watch novels that we didn’t already have. She really enjoyed them, and at her insistence I tried this one. I can appreciate why people like them, but it doesn’t really work for me. But that is something I have found with practically everything by Pratchett that I’ve read. I can sit back and recognise how good they are technically, but I’ve never really been able to immerse myself in them.

24: The Club by Leo Damrosch. The Club was a prototypical gentleman’s club founded in 1764, mainly as a device to lift Samuel Johnson out of one of his depressions and which continued for several decades. It’s members included Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, Charles James Fox, Adam Smith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Joseph Banks and others. In other words, it is a remarkable cross-section of the literary and political world of the late 18th century. A fascinating subject for a book, you might think, and that is indeed what this volume purports to be. Except it isn’t. Damrosch uses the Club as an excuse for one more book about Dr Johnson and James Boswell (who wasn’t even invited to join the Club until nearly ten years after it was founded). There are rather grudging chapters that divert our attention to others – Reynolds, Garrick, Gibbon – but he quickly get back to telling us about Johnson and Boswell. Indeed most of the book hardly even mentions the Club. The style is journalistic, not always convincing, and mostly concerns the individual endeavours of the various members while telling us next to nothing about how the Club operated and any sense of collective endeavour associated with it. It is a big, well-reviewed and ultimately disappointing book.

25: While We Still Live by Helen MacInnes. Maureen had been giving me a MacInnes book every birthday and Christmas for some years, and she had completed the set, in a uniform Titan edition, just before she fell ill. This one was an early novel written during the war about Polish resistance to the initial Nazi invasion. It had been initially published as While Still We Live, a line from the Polish national anthem. I first encountered it, back in the 70s, as The Unconquerable. The latest Titan reprint has opted for a slightly distorted and clumsier version of the original title. It is the longest book she wrote, and you can tell it’s early (the immediacy of the parts of the book set just before the invasion make me wonder if it wasn’t the first thing she tried to write, a novel perhaps put aside for what would be her first published novel, Above Suspicion), it reads like an apprentice work, over-long, unsteady in its pacing, and definitely getting more dramatic as it progresses.

26: Expect Me Tomorrow by Christopher Priest. I reviewed this, and conducted a parallel interview with Chris, for Interzone. I’m not sure when it is due to appear, but I certainly haven’t seen it yet.

27: Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis. Around the time I started reading this, Maureen had been rushed back into hospital with pneumonia; by the time I finished she was being transferred to the care home where she would spend the last weeks of her life. Not ideal circumstances for reading about someone I consider a comic genius. But this is certainly an excellent biography.

28: Space for Peace by Richard Howard. Throughout those last weeks, whenever I needed to leave Maureen’s room while she was attended by the care assistants or the psychiatrist or the doctor or what have you, I would be sitting in the lounge making notes about this book, and the next one on the list, for reviews that were already over-due. This is a book about Bob Shaw and James White, considering them more from the perspective of Irish literature than British science fiction. An interesting take, if not always convincing. I reviewed it for Foundation.

29: The Rise of the Cyberzines by Mike Ashley. This was the book I was reading when she died. It is the final volume in Ashley’s five-volume history of sf magazines. I have issues with the whole series, and this volume exemplifies them all. It is valuable as a data set and terrible as a history. But I had the chance to express all that in a long review for SF Studies.

30: Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes.

31: The Hidden Target by Helen MacInnes. The last two Helen MacInnes novels that Maureen had collected for me, and basically all that I was capable of reading in the weeks immediately after her death. They are both relatively late works, so not novels I had encountered during my binge-reading of MacInnes back in the early 70s, but they are both good examples of her style.

32: The War of Nerves by Martin Sixsmith. I suppose this is where I, very tentatively, started reading for pleasure again. But it was tentative and, with the exception of a couple of review books, my taste led me instinctively to non-fiction. This is one of those areas of 20th century history that I have found myself coming back to again and again, often in very different aspects. I first got interested in the Cold War through my interest in espionage, but that led me to deception, and through that to the way culture was was shaped, sometimes deliberately, by government agencies and by those things that were commanding popular attention. Hence Louis Menand’s The Free World, which I read last year. This feels like something of a companion volume, a look at the Cold War years from a psychological perspective. It is particularly interesting in its discussions of the way both East and West consistently misread the fears and intentions of the other side. There were occasions when you sense that if one side or the other had only begun to pay attention to what was motivating the other side there wouldn’t have been a Cold War at all.

33: Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson. Let me explain: I really like Hutch’s writing, and the Fractured Europe sequence is, I believe, one of the most important text’s in contemporary science fiction. And this late addition to the sequence is, in some ways, one of the best. So it will demonstrate something of my mental state when I say that I began reading this in the middle of October (probably around the time of the funeral), and only finished it late in November. Yet in some ways I felt I was racing through it, I was so caught up in the story. I reviewed the novel for Locus.

34: The World Set Free by H.G. Wells. Another review, this one for the BSFA.

35: The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry. In a sense this doesn’t belong on the list since I didn’t actually finish it. My copy of the book (an American first edition hardcover) turned out to have a signature missing, 16 pages absent from the book, which meant I was lacking the majority of the last chapter and the opening of the Epilogue. But by the time I discovered this, I had so many arguments and frustrations with the book that I couldn’t be arsed to contact the publisher for a complete edition. In a sense this is trying to do for medieval history what The Dawn of Everything was doing for ancient history: challenging accepted views and suggesting that we need to look at the so-called Dark Ages with new eyes. Now I am up for this approach, I am very sympathetic to the aim of this book, but … and it is a very, very big BUT … it is so clumsily done. They don’t spell out the analyses they are arguing against, and they counter these analyses with broad generalisations rather than well presented research. The quality of the writing is – shall we be polite – poor. And all too often I found myself unconvinced by arguments I wanted to believe. What they are arguing in this book is, I think, correct, it’s just that we need a far more thorough and systematic presentation of that argument.

36: The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture by Mark Bould. The title is almost longer than the book, which is very short, really just an extended essay. It is also the best thing I have read by Mark, and I was crying out for more, more, more. At some point during the last months of her life, Maureen read this and raved about it, and she was right. I have a feeling that ideas from this book will pervade my thinking for some time to come.

37: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and all that Jazz by Kevin Jackson. The last book of the year, finished in the early evening of the last day of the year, and the first of my Christmas presents to myself. We seek patterns, it’s one of the ways we try to make sense of the world, and one of the patterns we look for is a starting point. In truth, to say X began then is usually wrong, things tend to evolve over time, but there are moments when things seem to come together in a significant way. The windy October day in 1962, for instance, when the first Bond movie and the first Beatles single were released on the same day. Or, 40 years earlier, when Modernism took root. Oh Modernism wasn’t born in 1922, there are traces of it back into the previous century, and the First World War played a major part in its development, but 1922 was the year it all seemed to come together, forging a way into public consciousness and creating a template that others would follow. 1922 was the year when Ulysses by James Joyce, “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence were all published, when the BBC was founded and broadcast radio began, when Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago and became a star, when the Irish Free State was formed and the civil war began and W.B. Yeats became an Irish Senator, when Andre Breton began the movement that would become surrealism, and more and more and more. This book is a day-by-day record of that year: it is light, engaging, opinionated, sometimes wrong (the hero of Agatha Christie’s second novel was not “Hercules Poirot”), often funny, and always readable. I’m a sucker for the sorts of coincidences that turn up on every page, and boy did 1922 seem to attract coincidences, a century later we have seen nothing on a par with the intellectual and creative ferment of that year.

And that is it. 2022 is over, 2023 has now begun. And speaking personally it could not possibly be as bad as last year. So we head on into the sunrise and try to be optimistic.

Guitarists

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When I say I play guitar, what I mean is that I can form a pretty wide selection of open chords and a fair number of barre chords; I can change between chords with reasonable ease; and I can play a few simple tunes well enough to be fairly recogniseable, at least to me. I play purely for my own pleasure, and I have no intention of playing when anyone else can hear me, so you will have to take all of that on trust.

For reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has noticed the most recent posts on this blog, I have barely touched a guitar for several months. When I did pick the guitar up again the other day I found myself fumbling chords, but before this hiatus I was moderately competent playing things like “Fast Car”, “Blackbird”, “Alone Again Or”, “The End of the Line”, “Beware of the Beautiful Stranger”, “Diamonds and Rust” and such like. I clearly need to get back into practice even if it is just to manage a decent stab at these basics.

I got my first guitar, a rather battered old nylon-strung classical, back in the late 60s. It was good enough to learn the songs of Leonard Cohen (and I still find myself defaulting to his sometimes idiosyncratic picking pattern when I play today), but was perhaps less good for anything more rock and roll. As a guitar player I tended towards folk idioms: basic chords, simple picking patterns. These were things I could manage, not brilliantly but well enough to please me. Yet when I listened to guitarists (and I am making a crucial distinction here between someone playing a guitar like I did, and a guitarist who could wrest wonders from the instrument), I found myself drawn to people like John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia or Al Di Meola, whose mastery of the instrument I knew right from the start I would never come within a million miles of replicating.

Anyway, I played guitar fairly consistently from the late-60s through to the early-80s. I never became proficient, but I could knock out a Dylan track well enough and there were even one or two Joni Mitchell tunes I could essay (though I never tried to reproduce her often eccentric tunings, and I simplified some of the more baroque chords). But by the early-80s I was playing guitar less and less, and sometime around the middle of that decade the instrument simply disappeared.

Around ten years ago, Maureen and I started spending our holidays in a cottage in North Wales, and there was an acoustic guitar in the lounge. After a while I picked it up. Of course I did, it was like the gun on the wall in a Chekov play, you can’t just leave a guitar like that untouched. And I was surprised by how many chords I could remember, C and G and Dm, A7 and Em and F#m. So that became a regular part of our holidays: on my tablet I would find the chords for a song I knew and then strum away in the evening.

As we came up towards my 65th birthday, Maureen decided she was going to buy me a guitar of my own. And she did, a cheap steel-strung acoustic with a surprisingly nice tone. I took it up quite seriously, scouring the web for online guitar lessons, even learning some basic music theory. I learned what every guitarist needs to know, the names of the strings (E, A, D, G, B, E), and the notes along the high and low E strings, though try as I might I can never fix in my mind the rest of the fretboard. And I played things that interested me. I managed a reasonable version of “Can’t Find My Way Home”, and I started to learn the Bert Jansch version of “Anji”, and the Rolling Stones version of “Angie”. Since then I’ve added an electric guitar (guitar players are collectors, didn’t you know that? You can’t have just one guitar, there is something unnatural about that.)

Yet, much as I enjoy watching the guitar work of people as varied as John Mayer or Brandi Carlyle, the people I found myself most drawn to were the ones who were as far from what I could do as John McLaughlin had been in the 70s. I know John Mayer is infinitely better than anything I could manage, but you watch him and you know what he’s doing and there’s a part of me thinking that yes, in time I could imagine myself doing something like that. But the guitarists I keep going back to are the ones that mystify. The ones who, if I were serious about becoming a good guitarist, would make me give up on the spot.

The first of these I discovered was the English guitarist, Mike Dawes. I’ve seen quite a lot of his YouTube videos now, but this is the one that first caught my attention. It’s a version of Van Halen’s “Jump”, but watch: he’s playing on a battered old acoustic guitar, but he is playing rhythm, melody and percussion all at the same time. It’s just breathtaking.

Or then there’s this video, aptly entitled “Playing the Impossible on Guitar”, which helps to explain why people like Rick Beato have labelled him perhaps the world’s greatest acoustic guitarist.

Dawes led me, through this glorious collaboration on the Gotye song, “Somebody That I Used to Know”, to Tommy Emmanuel. I recognised the name, but I’m blowed if I can say where or how I heard it. Emmanuel’s spirited version of “Classical Gas”, which I remember in the Mason Williams original, is just one example of how good his guitar playing is.

Even so, Emmanuel and even Dawes are fairly conventional guitarists compared to my next discovery. I kept coming across references to a band called Polyphia (as with the acapella group Pentatonix, it’s amazing how many reaction videos you can watch in which people enthuse about the musicianship without recognising, or often even being able to pronounce, the musical reference hidden in plain sight in their name). I have seen their music described in many different ways, such as Trap or Math Rock, neither of which I have previously encountered, though the first video of theirs I saw, “Playing God”, contains clear echoes of both Spanish music and free-form jazz.

From those who know about such things I gather that the bassist, Clay Gober, and the drummer, Clay Aeschliman, are exceptionally good at what they do. But though I am bowled over by the effect, I am not familiar enough with technique to be able to comment on their virtuosity. But the guitarists, Tim Henson and Scott LePage, that I can appreciate, and it boggles the mind. Both play unusual guitars: in “Playing God” they use solid-body acoustic guitars with nylon strings, a very peculiar set-up; in other videos I’ve seen both of them play seven-string guitars, and on at least one occasion I will swear that Henson played an eight-string guitar. No, I’ve no idea how you do such a thing. But it is not just the equipment that is stunning, but what they do with it. There are passages in “Playing God” where Henson seems to be playing chords and harmonics at exactly the same time. That should be impossible: playing a chord involves holding a string down against a fret, playing harmonics involves touching the string lightly above the fret and then lifting the finger away. In other words, two diametrically opposite actions are taking place at the same time. Yeah, you do want to give up guitar, don’t you.

LePage is at least as good a guitarist as Henson, he’s got to be to keep up with him, but it’s Henson who gets all the attention. Perhaps because he has his own YouTube channel and keeps producing solo stuff (like “Quintuplet Meditation”, another outing for that signature Ibanez nylon-strung guitar, in which typically he plays along to a pre-recorded track), or collaborations with contemporaries who are also performing wonders with the guitar.

Here, for instance, he is with Plini (who is good but not always to my taste) and Cory Wong (who I’ve not otherwise encountered).

And if you keep going down this particular rabbithole you will find that this is an amazing time for extraordinary guitarists, like the Japanese guitarist, Ichika Nito, who also, curiously, plays a signature Ibanez guitar.

And I watch these people. I keep coming back to them like an addict. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched “Playing God” or “Jump”. Yet I don’t think there is any connection between what they do and what I am attempting to do when I pick up one of my guitars. I am not trying to emulate them, I have no desire to do what they do. It is just something to admire, something that leaves you amazed, it is not something to aspire towards. It is not just that my fingers will not move that way, but I really do not want to play like that. It is far better to watch and wonder. If I were to attempt to replicate what they do, even in a fumbling manner, it would spoil the mystery. They are not playing the guitar, they are doing something completely different. There is no connection between what they do and what I might wish to do even if I were capable. It just makes you appreciate the magic of the instrument in your hand.

Eulogy

It was agonisingly drawn out and brutally swift. I have already written about the onset of Maureen’s illness, but it didn’t progress the way we had hoped.

For a while, at home, things seemed to settle into a regime of slow improvement. Then, out of the blue, we both came down with covid. In both cases it was mild, though it was enough to cause Maureen to miss a chemotherapy session. But not long after recovering from that, she got pneumonia. That was bad. When, at 1am one morning, we decided that I had to call an ambulance, I used our new oxymeter and found her blood oxygen level was 62. She very nearly died then, but the ambulance arrived in time, with an oxygen bottle, and three strong firemen to help raise her into a carrychair to get out to the ambulance. The next few weeks helped to stabilise her, but the cancer was still there and she was no longer physically strong enough to get about. When the time came to discharge her, she wasn’t coming home but to a care home where she could be assessed for future needs.

The next six or seven weeks at Hawkinge House, she was in a comfortable environment and very caring hands, but things didn’t really get better. She caught a urinary tract infection, which knocked her back a bit, then she developed two allergic reactions, one was to the starch used in the bedclothes which was easily fixed, but the other, more worryingly, was to one of the cocktail of drugs that was part of her chemotherapy.

Then came the assessment for her future care needs, someone from the home (who was very much on our side), someone from the NHS, and someone from social services. It was a tick box exercise, and the questions were clearly designed to avoid paying out. I knew from very early on in the meeting what the result would be: she wasn’t ill enough to warrant continuing care, we would have to pay for any future care she received.

But she wasn’t getting better; she was getting worse, noticeably and rapidly. Exactly one week after that meeting had decided she wasn’t ill enough for continuing care, I sat in on a meeting with the care team at the home and her oncologist at the hospital. The cancer, that had for a while been in retreat, was now back worse than ever. But because of all the infections she had suffered over the summer she was too weak to undergo any further chemotherapy. All they could do was keep her as comfortable and as pain-free as possible. They put another bed in her room so I could move in permanently.

I am not sure how much she was aware of. She was already very confused because of the bone cancer, and she was on a high dose of morphine which left her dopey and asleep most of the time. That final meeting was on Thursday. On Sunday, at exactly 10pm, there was a loud, gurgling gasp of breath and she shuddered and fell silent. Some minutes later, there was another rattling gasp for breath and that was it.

That was Sunday 18th September, the day before the Queen’s funeral (which I very carefully did not watch). My own time, since then, has been taken up with organising her own funeral, which took place yesterday, Thursday 20th October, before a bigger and more varied crowd than I had anticipated.

Organising this was not as miserable a task as I had thought it might be. I had to choose music for the ceremony. At first I thought of finding something by Gerald Finzi, her favourite composer, but I don’t know his work well enough to think of something appropriate. So I reverted to the folk music she had always loved, and here there was almost an embarrassment of riches. I knew instantly that the exit music at the end was going to be “Farewell, Farewell” by Fairport Convention, the version from Liege and Lief because I wanted Sandy Denny singing rather than Simon Nicol. Then there had to be something by Nic Jones, who was probably her absolute favourite performer, and I settled on “Farewell to the Gold” from Penguin Eggs if only because of the word “farewell” in the title. The third choice was more difficult. One of the things that united us when we were first getting together was love of Mr. Fox (in fact I think I was the only other person Maureen had met at that time who even knew who Mr Fox were). But none of the Mr Fox tracks seemed quite right, so I looked to Bob Pegg’s later solo work, and settled on “Starchild” from Keeper of the Fire.

Photo by Leigh Kennedy

The other thing I had to do, which was even more of a pleasure, was choose photographs for a slideshow to be shown during the ceremony. There was so much to choose from, and I was struck by how many of them showed her laughing. I’ll be using a few of the ones I found to illustrate this post.

This is the order of the ceremony:

I used “Starchild” by Bob Pegg to accompany the entry of the coffin into the chapel. It was a wicker casket: she had seen one at Rob Holdstock’s funeral and declared there and then that was what she wanted for herself.

There were brief remarks by the Celebrant, Geoff Stephens. I had met him some weeks before, and I specified that I wanted this to celebrate Maureen, not mourn her, and that it was to be strictly non-religious since neither of us had any religious belief. And he tried, bless him.

Then it was my turn. After a lot of humming and haaing I decided I wanted to deliver the eulogy myself, because Maureen had been involved in so many different things and I wasn’t sure who else might be able to encompass it all. In the end, this is what I said:


I wasn’t planning to do this. My original idea was to invite a bunch of people who knew Maureen in different contexts to come up and say a few words about her.

Then I started to think about how many different aspects there were to her life. If I missed out some, it wouldn’t give a true picture of who she was. But if I tried to find people to talk about everything from family and fandom to politics and cooking, we’d probably still be here tomorrow.

So in the end, you get me. And like that old Monty Python sketch about the Summarizing Proust Competition, I am going to try to – I don’t know – encapsulate that whole, glorious, multifarious woman who was Maureen Speller.

Maureen, Elaine and baby Derek

Or perhaps I should say the woman who became Maureen Speller. She began as Maureen Brown, and then, during a brief and rather disastrous first marriage, she was Maureen Porter, which was how I first knew her. At that time she had been, I suppose you’d say alienated, from her family for some years, largely because of her mother. But gradually she began to reconnect with her siblings, her brother Derek and then her sister, Elaine. When Maureen and Elaine began to get really close again in the last few months, you could close your eyes and not know which of them was talking. One of the things that made Maureen really happy towards the end was planning a big family get together, while this only child of an only child was beginning to wonder what on earth I’d got myself into.

Living in Oxford, as she did, Maureen found herself gravitating towards the university, which she worked for in several capacities, from serving at tables to being a librarian in the Bodleian. Here she made early but lifelong friends, like Sara Fletcher. And she also discovered OUSFG, the Oxford University Science Fiction Group. I have a feeling she was the only non-student who was a member of the group, and that led her into fandom. One of the things that really touched me among all the many tributes paid to her online after her death was the number of people who talked about how important she was as the person who introduced them to fandom, who welcomed them to fandom, who made it worthwhile getting involved in that very peculiar institution.

Fandom, like so much else associated with science fiction, has always placed a high value on writing, and on this score Maureen certainly did not disappoint. The early 80s was the high water mark of APAs in Britain, Amateur Publishing Associations as they were called. She was a mainstay of two of the best, the feminist Women’s Periodical (she was always emphatically feminist in her politics), and Greg Pickersgill’s Frank’s Apa. I remember one issue of Frank’s in which she and I both wrote about a Bruce Springsteen concert we had attended, then published them under each other’s names; the deception lasted about a second, one tends to forget how distinctive one’s own writing style can be. And it wasn’t long before she established her own APA, Acnestis, whose roster of contributors included such prestigious names as Chris Priest. Acnestis had a literary critical aspect, not quite where her critical writing started but a very good platform upon which to establish what she wanted to say.

Maureen in a Tiptree jacket, Madison

Also in fandom she produced her own fanzines, including Snufkin’s Bum which went on to win a Nova Award, and she won TAFF, the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, which took her to the Worldcon in Baltimore and then on a three-month trip that took in New York, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and god knows how many other places. It was her first visit to America (practically her first flight in a plane) and it awakened a love of the country that took us back there several times in the years that followed.

That fanzine I mentioned, Snufkin’s Bum, was, of course, named for one of her cats at the time, Snufkin, a criminal mastermind who could open any fridge. From her first cat in childhood, Tomlin, I don’t think there was ever a time when she didn’t have at least one cat in her life. And she wrote about them consistently, with wit and sympathy, and an awareness that every cat has its own very distinctive personality. There was one famous example in which she described the ineffable Nicodemus leaping from a window ledge, sliding helplessly down a sloping roof, tumbling to the ground, then looking around at the other watching cats as if to say: “I do all my own stunts, you know.” I tried several times to persuade her to put together a collection of her writing on cats. There were several books on that topic around at the time and I’m sure she would have had a market. But she just said she didn’t want to be known for comic writing about cats. Which is, I have to say, our loss.

I was more successful earlier, not long after we first met, in fact, when I persuaded her to try her hand at reviewing. At the time I was Reviews Editor for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, and in seemingly no time Maureen became one of my best and most reliable reviewers. She also became involved in the BSFA as an organisation, becoming first the editor of the newszine, Matrix, then taking on the administration of the organisation as a whole. This was typical of Maureen. She firmly believed in putting something back in to such bodies, even, perhaps especially, taking on the necessary, unsung, behind-the-scenes jobs that attract very little public notice or attention. It was an attitude that led her to other backroom jobs, Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, Assistant Editor at Foundation, and so on. She recognized, perhaps with a modicum of regret, that this approach was never going to win her plaudits or awards. Which is why it was such a shock, and of course a delight, when on what turned out to be the very last morning of her life, I opened Facebook and discovered that the British Fantasy Society had, just the evening before, awarded Maureen the Karl Edward Wagner Award for her services to the genre. I did tell her about this several times that morning, but at that stage I really have no idea how much she was taking in.

Anyway, this sense of working behind the scenes also led her to acquire formal qualifications in proof reading and copy editing, and then to set up her own freelance business, Speller Editorial Services. It never made us a fortune, but then again it never left us in debt. And it kept going from 1987 right up to the time of her death. What she learned doing that, of course, fed directly into the unsung work she did for various publishers, including Gollancz, for Writers’ Services, and for journals like Strange Horizons and Foundation. Again, going back to the online comments after her death, I saw so many saying things like: she edited my first book and made me a much better writer, or: I so valued her editorial input into my reviews. Writing is a very solitary business, but there are always others who interact with the writing. Maureen was one of those. And even living with her, I was unaware of quite how much her input was valued by the different writers she interacted with. Though I do know that my own writing from this point on will be immeasureably poorer because of her absence.

Then there was her own writing, a whole string of essays and reviews and blog posts and articles. She wrote about Alan Garner, Weird fiction, African science fiction, Shakespeare, Native American literature, and so much more. Whatever she wrote, she brought to it the clear-eyed critical attention of a first-rate academic combined with the wit and sympathy evident in her writing about cats. She was just very good at what she did, whenever she asked me to look over some work in progress I was left feeling there was nothing I could say, no improvement I might suggest. I just wish I was able to write as well as she did.

It is a measure of the ability and the intelligence that she brought to her writing that when she was at last persuaded to go to the University of Kent at Canterbury as a mature student she came away with the highest first class degree of the entire year. She went on to do a Masters degree, and had started a PhD in Native American literature when I was made redundant and financial realities forced her to withdraw.

And what does all of this amount to? Maybe at best a quarter or a third of the Maureen Speller I’m trying to tell you about here, trying to memorialize. I hope you all remembered to bring a packed lunch and a sleeping bag.

I’ll try to be a little quicker. Back when we went on the big march against the Iraq War, she very carefully noted all that was going on around the protest. She spotted, for instance, that the political party that had most got its act together for the march was the Liberal Democrats. So she joined the LibDems, going on to be an officer in the local association, active in the regional party, and an occasional candidate in elections she was certain she would not win. Though what I remember most were the party dinners she produced alongside our friend Darren Briddock. Representatives from LibDems in neighbouring constituencies would often complement us on the quality of our dinners, which anyone who ever came for a meal will, I’m sure, readily agree with. One other memory from that time: I recall travelling with Maureen and Darren in his van, going, I think, to set up one of those party dinners, in which our entire conversation the whole way was made up of quotations from The Beiderbecke Connection. Those years in local politics were fun, and even after we left the party Maureen loved to catch up on gossip and natter about the idiocy of local politics of whatever party.

So politics, yes, cooking, yes. She even catered our wedding (which was on 26th June 1993, not 23rd as I mistyped on the slide show captions coming up). One of the things I’m going to miss is the barbecue, something I have never mastered, but which she took to like a duck to water. Of course, the garden in which these barbecues took place remained a work in progress, never quite reaching the state she dreamed of (and circumstances in the last couple of years have meant that the garden is currently in worse state than ever: Maureen would not approve). But the garden was what led her to take a part time job at Victoriana, where she started mostly looking after the website and ended mostly sorting out seeds. But an awful lot of Victoriana seemed to find its way to our garden, and Maureen left behind, as she did everywhere she went, yet more lasting friendships, notably with Tracey Fagg.

And there is so much more. I haven’t mentioned her love of Wales, and the friends we made there, Stu and Ady and Teddy the Welsh Terrier; I haven’t mentioned her delight in watching ospreys. But I’ve been going on long enough. Still there is one key aspect of Maureen I haven’t really mentioned yet. I’ve alluded to her gift for friendship, but what I will always miss is something even more. We met in 1984 at a party in Leeds. I was in the kitchen talking to an Australian visitor, Justin Ackroyd, who was at least partly an excuse for the party. Suddenly he said, there’s somebody you have to meet, and then he disappeared into the rest of the house. A few moments later, Maureen wandered into the kitchen. I’ve always assumed that she was the person Justin had gone to find; she always insisted not. But we said hello and, in that moment, we both experienced something that neither of us believed in: love at first sight. And it is love that has endured, undimmed, through all the years since that meeting. I love you, Maureen. I always have. I always will. And since she always claimed that I first seduced her by reading Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, it seems appropriate to end:

Data Dayadhvam Damyata

Shantih Shantih Shantih

Farewell!


[Apparently, Justin Ackroyd was watching the ceremony online, and I learned at the pub afterwards that he had confirmed that it was, indeed, Maureen he had gone to fine. So it was a wonderful coincidence.]

Next came the slideshow of photographs from Maureen’s life, accompanied by “Farewell to the Gold” by Nic Jones.

Then there was the committal, which, to be honest and for reasons I’m not sure I can explain, would have made me very uncomfortable if not for the cat. The cat belongs to a nearby house, but it often comes to the crematorium because it gets a fuss there. Normally the cat is not allowed into the chapel. But I was the last person to enter, following the casket, and the cat was already inside. It had first gone to Derek, Maureen’s brother, then it came to me, then it moved past me to see Elaine, Maureen’s sister. When it came to the committal, the cat went to sit beside the coffin staring out at the audience, and stayed there without moving until the committal was over. It was both spooky and wonderful, and I know Maureen would have appreciated it.

Finally came “Farewell, Farewell” by Fairport Convention, and after a few moments of not quite knowing what to do, we all trooped outside, where I solemnly shook the hand or hugged everyone who had turned up, before we all set off for the pub.

It was only as I entered the pub that I learned that Liz Truss had resigned. Oh frabjous day! I came close to ordering champagne all round. If I’d known in advance, I’d have added something into my eulogy, because Maureen would have been delighted by this turn of events. There is still a bottle of champagne in the cellar which we got ready to celebrate Boris’s departure, only Maureen was not in a state to have any when that joyous day actually arrived. I suspect that champagne might get drunk up this weekend.

And at the wake I talked to as many people as I could, I drank too much wine, and I felt so much better. So thank you to everyone who turned up. Thank you to everyone who watched the ceremony online and left so many welcome comments. And now, I suppose, I start learning how to think of the future once more.

Six weeks, four weeks, two weeks …

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It didn’t begin then. In fact we have no idea when it began. But when we became aware that things were wrong happened on a Thursday in March. Maureen was feeling a little stiff. She turned her head sharply in an effort to relieve the ache and there was a loud crack. Instantly, her neck seemed to lock in place. She could still move her hands and feet (the first thing we checked), but she could barely move her head left or right, up or down.

The stiffness in her neck began to ease over the next few days, only to be replaced with pain in the lower back and in the leg. Movement, just getting out of bed, became difficult. “Bones,” the doctor said helpfully when we got to see her, and Maureen was prescribed painkillers. The painkillers didn’t make much difference, and over time stronger and stronger painkillers were prescribed. I assumed it was the effect of these ever stronger painkillers that left Maureen increasingly dazed and confused. She became unable to tell the difference between dreams and reality, and her speech became slurred. She also lost her appetite. In the week before things came to a head she ate, in total, two teaspoons of jelly.

I was becoming ever more worried. I knew Maureen’s mother had had alzheimer’s, and it was something Maureen was afraid of, and this increasing confusion was beginning to look alarmingly like alzheimer’s. So, six weeks to the day after that crack in the neck, I phoned the doctor yet again and described Maureen’s symptoms. The response was not what I expected: “Get her to A&E straight away, she could be having a stroke.” To this day, Maureen is convinced that my phone call, and my rush in getting her to hospital, probably saved her life.

I called 999, the first time I have ever done so. I was told an ambulance would be here in 20 minutes, it was actually sitting outside our house just five minutes later. That was the first of a string of interactions with ambulance drivers and hospital transport that have been almost unfailingly positive. But then, everyone we met after this point was wonderful.

We spent that afternoon sitting in A&E at the William Harvey Hospital, Maureen getting increasingly restless in a wheelchair, me just wondering what on earth was happening. Periodically, Maureen would be wheeled away for some test or other. After a while, we got to talk with a doctor, who asked her some simple questions: spell your name backwards, she couldn’t. Was it alzheimer’s? No. Was it a stroke? No. But he was going to keep her in overnight. This seemed like good news, but I wasn’t sure I felt reassured.

Late that afternoon we were taken to a small ward where Maureen got out of the wheelchair to sit in a comfortable chair while we waited for her to be admitted. At this point she was offered, and ate, a cheese sandwich, the first solid food she had eaten in a week. Also at this point the fire alarm went off. None of the people in the ward was in a position to move easily or quickly, so we sat looking at each other wondering what to do. By the time someone appeared with a trolley to move Maureen, the alarm was over and we all returned to our seats.

Then Maureen was wheeled away to start receiving treatment. When I was able to join her, briefly, a little later, I was told that her blood salts were way out of alignment. The potassium was too low, the calcium way, way too high, and this would cause confusion. They would need to sort this out before they could begin to find out what else was wrong with her.

The next day, when I went in to visit her, not knowing if she would be coming home or staying in or anything else come to that, I found she had been moved to the Richard Stevens Ward. Go right down that corridor to the end, turn left then keep on right down that corridor to the end, then left again and immediately right, then down the stairs and turn right. I found it. But Richard Stevens was a closed ward and they were reluctant to let me in. Visiting was strictly limited and had to be booked in advance. But because she had only just arrived on the ward (less than an hour before I turned up) they decided to bend the rules. Over the next few weeks they would bend the rules many times in our favour.

That first day I’m not sure she knew I was there, or who I was. A young man, who I would only see again once just before Maureen came home, was trying to get her to eat and at the same time fighting to stop her pulling out her catheter. A doctor spoke to me, but he couldn’t give me a prognosis because as yet they didn’t even have a diagnosis. But he did say they were going to put mittens on her to stop her pulling out the various lines plugged into her body.

Over the next few visits, there were slow signs of improvement, but she was still confused. I heard stories of strange nighttime escapades, of all the nursing staff walking out on strike, of an unlikely expedition to Greenwich, and once, when her brother was visiting with me, I received detailed instructions about a book she wanted me to find for her, a romantic novel set during the early days of aerial mapping in British archaeology. I looked, believe me. She was aware of me, aware of her surroundings, aware that she was ill but not exactly sure what that illness might be. There were glimmers of the old Maureen emerging, but not yet consistently or for long.

It was during this period that one of her doctors, a very nice woman of Iraqi origin, took me to one side. “You know it’s cancer,” she told me. I didn’t know. The calcium that was in her blood causing the confusion had been leeched from her bones by the cancer. The cancer was widespread, it was in her liver and in her breast. It was too widespread to be eradicated. The condition was terminal.

That night, and for a couple of days that followed, I did my mourning before Maureen even knew what was wrong with her. And yet at precisely this time the old Maureen was returning, and she seemed better every day I visited. And yet, I wasn’t really seeing any improvement, only an end.

All this time the confusion was in retreat. A few days after I heard the news, I was there when Maureen was compos mentis enough to be told about the cancer. She took it better than I had. But then, the news as it was related to her, seemed somewhat less cataclysmic than I had heard. She was very positive, talked determinedly of seeing my 70th birthday this autumn, our 30th wedding anniversary next summer, her 65th birthday the following spring. But there was inevitably an emotional toll that she mostly kept secret. It was around this time that I received a phone call from her one morning, she felt bad, she was convinced she was on the point of death, I must come and see her now. I called the ward: yes, do come in; she’s fine, but your presence will help. I got there mid-morning and spent three hours, I think, talking calmly and feeding her very thin slices of apple. That, I think, was the turning point. From that moment on the improvement in her condition came rapidly. The confusion disappeared more or less completely. She began demanding clothes so that she could get out of bed and sit in an arm chair during the day. And she wanted me to bring food in (the catering staff were generous and helpful and did their best to find the sorts of things she could enjoy, but hospital food is hospital food, so she wanted egg mayo sandwiches and chocolate and fruit and so on). And she wanted books and newspapers and other stuff.

She was undergoing all sorts of tests throughout this period. She was taken away for scans (I visited once when she had just returned from such a scan and she slept throughout the entire hour we were allotted), PET and MRI and whatever else they had. Blood was being taken every day. She developed a massive bruise probably a couple of inches across just below the elbow on her left arm, which took nearly four weeks to fade away. And occupational therapy were taking her away to walk a few steps along the corridor or climb a set of stairs. It was becoming routine for people who had seen her when she first arrived on the ward to turn up and tell her how much better she was looking. She was looking very well.

By now, oncology had mostly taken over her case. They were concerned that the cancer in her bones might have weakened the spine, so they took her to be fitted with a back brace, which she called her exo-skeleton, and later, more prosaically, her jacket. Also, because of how advanced the cancer was in her liver, they wanted to start chemotherapy right away, before they even had full results from the biopsy they had taken.

At the same time, they were now starting to talk about her coming home. I had a visit from one of the occupational therapy team. Yes, the house was fine. They could set up a bed in the dining room. Everything we needed would be provided. They could arrange for grab rails to be set up along the steps up to the front door. This was where I could go to get a wheelchair. The only sticking point was the care package. The initial thinking was for three home visits a day, but that could take several weeks to arrange. Over the next week the care package requirements went steadily down. Oh she probably only needs someone to come in first thing to help her get up in the morning. Oh, we’re impressed with how well she’s doing, so we can get away without a care package.

Meanwhile, at home, I had people come in to quote for a stairlift. It was all possible, but we would need to demolish a cupboard at the top of the stairs. And so, one day short of four weeks after we rushed Maureen in to A&E, our mate Gareth was busy knocking down the cupboard when I got a phone call. “This is William Harvey. Have the guys been yet about the bed?” Some men had been in first thing that morning to take our dining table apart and move it, and the carpet, upstairs. But there had been no word about the bed. “Er, no. Why?” “Oh, we’re sending Maureen home this afternoon.” Maureen, I knew, was having her second session of chemotherapy that morning. I would need to go in to be with her, because if nothing else I would need to take a case in order to bring home all her stuff, including what the rest of the ward had taken to calling her library. To allow time for the chemo session to end, I would need to be there around 2pm, which would mean getting a train around 12.30. But first I had to be there for the bed to arrive and be set up. It came just before 12. It came complete with armchair, foot stool, commode that doubles as a wheelchair, waterproof stool for showering and a couple of other things. It was all set up very efficiently, but I was beginning to fret about time. Then Gareth said, “Don’t worry, I’ll drive you there in the van.” He checked with Shaun, the builder who has overseen all the work we’ve had done in the house over the last few years, and all the work we’re planning to have over the rest of this year. But there was never any question, Shaun just said drop everything and go. So I rode up to William Harvey Hospital in a slightly ricketty builder’s van.

I reached Richard Stevens ward dead on two o’clock, left a couple of big boxes of chocolate with the nurses who have all been marvellous, and went to see Maureen. She had just got back from chemo, had a belated lunch, and was contemplating a nap before I was due for my usual visit at 3. When I walked in with a suitcase she looked at me as if she had no idea what was going on. Then two people from occupational therapy bustled up behind me. They had not been able to find her all day while she was in chemo, so they hadn’t yet told her she was going home. Then they hurried her away to do one last set of exercises climbing stairs while I got on with packing. We managed to say goodbye to only a few of the staff Maureen wanted to thank, then she was put into a wheelchair and we started away. At the last moment one of the occupational therapy people asked if they had left a walker along with the bed. I said no. “Oh you must have one. Here, take this,” grabbing a walking frame seemingly at random.

At first it seemed like we were being taken to the oncology unit, but at the last minute we veered off into what was called the Discharge Lounge, though I found myself unable to stop thinking about it as the Departure Lounge. And here we sat and waited, and sat and waited. It took something like two and a half hours for Maureen’s cornucopia of medications to arrive from the pharmacy, and another hour after that, with the Discharge Lounge almost emptied out and getting ready to close for the evening, before our transport home arrive. The two guys on the transport, along with just about every other member of their species we have encountered, were chatty, funny, and incredibly helpful. I’m not sure Maureen would have been able to climb the steps into our house without them. She was exhausted by now, spent a couple of hours in the armchair before finally managing to lever herself up onto the bed, and I was beginning to wonder whether we should have insisted on that care package after all, and whether I would be strong enough to cope.

The next couple of days were really stressful for both of us, as I spent my time worrying that I had taken on far more than I could manage. I was moving furniture around, cooking meals while slowly trying to take on board the fact that chemotherapy had changed Maureen’s tastes, and unpacking all the things that we had bought to make our lives easier while the hall filled up with cardboard. Perhaps the best purchase I made was a selection of Amazon Echo Dots and Echo Flexes, which gave us Alexa throughout the house. The fact that we could talk to each other even when we were in different rooms made a massive difference. And by that first weekend we were starting to get to grips with our new daily routine. Things were very different, and always would be, but at least we were fitting in with the new necessities and starting to find time to relax together again.

Then, on that first Monday, we both went back to William Harvey for a meeting with Maureen’s oncologist, which turned out to be the most positive event since this whole mess started. We learned that, even after only two chemo sessions, the cancer in the liver was responding well. We found out that a bone specialist had looked at Maureen’s scans and decided that the spine was nowhere near as fragile as had been thought, indeed it was pretty near normal, so she no longer had to wear the back brace. And, perhaps best of all, they had identified the breast cancer that started all this as the most common type, and that is one that responds well to hormone treatment. What this might mean in the long term we don’t know, but at least we can start thinking about a long term.

And so it goes on. It is now just over two weeks since Maureen came home, and just over twelve weeks since that click in the neck that started it all. We are still learning how to cope, we are still experimenting with what food and drink works best for her. We have had issues. One of the tablets that Maureen has to take twice a day ran out. Our GP is supposed to renew the prescriptions, but hadn’t bothered (no surprise there: our GP surgery is one of the worst rated in the country, but provision of GPs in Folkestone is so bad that there is no chance of changing to a better surgery). So I contacted the oncology department at William Harvey, who in turn found a doctor at Kent and Canterbury hospital who would write a prescription for us. So yesterday, I had to go over to Canterbury to collect the prescription, then I went to get it filled. Except it was a bank holiday, so our usual pharmacy was closed. One of the pharmacies that was open in town was at Sainsbury’s, so when I went shopping I called in there: but they didn’t have the drug in question in stock. So I had to make yet another expedition to find that Boots in town was open and, after a lot of waiting around (the drug in question is a morphine derivative so there was a lot of checking involved), I finally came away with the necessary drug. But there have been good times also. We are tentatively starting to have visitors. On Tuesday our friend Tracey (who was a godsend while Maureen was in hospital) came to visit; and on Wednesday Maureen’s brother and sister-in-law spent the afternoon here. Two visits on consecutive days was probably a bad idea, Maureen was tired out most of yesterday, but they were also invigorating. We’re hoping to have one or two more visitors over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile the transformation of the house by Shaun and Gareth is starting. Most of this is stuff we planned long before Maureen fell ill, but surprisingly the plans work really well at future-proofing the house to accommodate Maureen’s new circumstances (and perhaps also my increasing age). It seems odd to say it, given the situation, but life is good.

A Web of Absence

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When I read Nina Allan’s latest novel recently, I noted that her work occupies two worlds, one is our everyday reality and the other is somewhere or somewhen else. We doubt this other world, but not sufficiently to dismiss it out of hand. There is an ambivalence which leaves the reader uncertain what to trust.

It is a delicate balancing act, but one that Nina Allan treads with remarkable aplomb. And it invariably leaves me wondering whether I am in fact reading mainstream fiction or genre fiction. No, that’s not quite right, better to say: it leaves me wondering whether I should read the work as mainstream fiction or as genre fiction. What matters in her work is not what the fiction is doing, but the perspective from which the reader approaches the fiction.

And now I have read The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories, which is, frankly, the best collection of short fiction I have read in years. There isn’t a dud here, but I remain uncertain what I have actually read. Turn to the back of the book and read the details of where these stories first appeared: Interzone and Clarkesworld and tor.com and so on. From the credits these are without exception science fiction or horror or fantasy or some such permutation of the fantastic. Yet I don’t believe I can read any of these stories as science fiction or fantasy or what have you. Oh the genre elements are there, but as a decorative detail hung in the background; what is in the foreground, what makes these stories what they are, is a strong sense of the psychological cost of living in quotidian reality. The genre doesn’t matter, we may be reading of a post-apocalyptic future or a landscape with fairies, but that is never what the story is about; what matters is the sense of reality.

The two worlds I talked about in relation to the novel are here, in practically every one of these stories. And what makes the story genre (if we are to approach it from that perspective) is invariably part of that second world, the world of doubt and uncertainty.

One of the things about stories is that they necessarily condense things that might otherwise be dissipated across the greater length and scope of a novel. You can see the shapes more clearly. So as I was reading these stories I became aware that my suggestion of two worlds was really too simple a reading of the work. The extra thing I noticed was that there is always an absence: somebody or something is missing from the protagonist’s picture of the world. More often that not that absence is family: there are missing parents through this book, but also siblings, friends, lovers. And the second world, the thing that promises to take the protagonist out of mundane reality, is connected with this absence, a way of coping with it. It is where the absent person has gone, or how they might be remembered. It is a place of doubt but also of hope, but it is a place that can never be reached, often because it is symbolically the place of death. Or perhaps it would be better to say it is the place where death would be if there were any certainty in this life. In “The Gift of Angels: An Introduction”, for example, the protagonist is a 50-odd-year-old science fiction writer, but the absence is his mother. When the protagonist was a child, she was part of what was meant to be the first manned expedition to Mars, but all communication with the ship was lost shortly before they were due to land on Mars. It is assumed she is dead, it is assumed they all died, but we don’t know; they may be there, still, just silent. And she is not the only character in this collection who is assumed to have died, but without anyone knowing for sure.

“The Gift of Angels: An Introduction” is a sequel of sorts (there are several stories in this collection that share characters and references without specifically continuing the same story) to the title story, which is, to my mind, perhaps the best story here. “The Art of Space Travel” is a perfect example of the generic ambiguity of these stories, and of the role that absence plays in the psychological reality we explore. At first blush, this seems perfectly science fictional (the story first appeared at tor.com): we are some way in the future. Years ago, the first manned flight to Mars was destroyed, perhaps by terrorist action; now, years later, a second expedition is being planned. Except that all of that is largely irrelevant to the story. The setting is a Heathrow hotel where two members of the Mars crew will be staying for just one night on their way to the launch facilities. The two crew members are celebrities, and so the hotel is besieged by cameramen and journalists. But none of this is centre stage, our attention is on Emily, the young woman who is in charge of the housekeeping staff at the hotel. There are two absences in her life. One is her mother, Moolie, who has dementia, which is a great demand on Emily’s life, as Moolie gradually withdraws from this reality. The second is the father Emily has never known. When younger, Moolie was a scientist peripherally involved with the first Mars mission, and there is a suggestion that the father might have been one of the astronauts who died, or at least one of her colleagues. The Mars mission, encapsulated in a book Emily has had since infancy called The Art of Space Travel, becomes the second parallel reality that helps her cope with the absences in this reality. The truth, of course, turns out to be rather more mundane than Emily might like, but that is often the way in Allan’s fiction as the non-mundane fades from view.

Much the same can be said for the other story that vies for my attention here, “The Science of Chance”. The setting is Moscow in an alternate reality in which an atomic bomb was dropped on the city during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, many years later, the city is pretty much back to normal when a child is discovered standing outside a subway station that miraculously escaped destruction in the bomb blast. The child cannot or will not speak, and the only clue to her identity is a purse she clutches ferociously, and which contains nothing but an old newspaper clipping. The clipping dates from just before the bomb, and by following up on it the investigator begins to sense that the child has actually slipped through time from the moment of the explosion. The absence in this story is, of course, the loss of an entire world that might have been had the bomb not fallen, and the child as a revenant from that world-changing moment is the secondary reality. Of course the truth is much more mundane, but we sense that giving up on this dream of a secondary reality is harder than facing up to the absence in quotidian reality.

Tempting as it might be to go on about how much I love each of the other stories in turn (I was particularly struck by “Heroes”, Microcosmos”, and “A Princess of Mars: Svetlana Belkina and Tarkovsky’s lost movie Aelita“), I will resist that temptation. But there is one last thing: what’s with all the spiders? They play a significant role in at least two of the stories here, “A Thread of Truth” and “Four Abstracts”, and I remember quite a few years ago when I was asked to blurb Allan’s novella, Spin, which also has an arachnid fascination. Someday I must find out what’s going on here.

In the beginning

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Let me cast my mind back a few weeks to when I was reading The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I persist in thinking that this is a fine and important book, despite the comment my post attracted (which I deleted) from some right-wing troll whose main beef with the book seemed to be that Graeber had written an article saying that the pandemic should be the springboard for a major change in society. Yes, well, I happen to agree with Graeber on that, and I remain unutterably sad and angry at the speed with which our serially incompetent politicians set the new normal as being exactly like the old normal, except worse.

Anyway, that aside, I said at the time that the book was at its best when it was raising doubts and questions and hesitations, and at its worst when it was being every bit as dogmatic as the people it criticised. One of the problems I couldn’t articulate came right at the start of the book, their particular origin story, if you like. They started with European Enlightenment ideas about the origins of society building on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (“nasty, brutish, and short”) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“noble savage”). These ideas became a fixed view of how society developed that continue to plague theoretical work in anthropology and archaeology to this day.

Now, that last part may well be true, and the legacy of Hobbesian and Rousseauvian thought may be as toxic as they say. But I felt dissatisfied with their characterisation of Hobbes and Rousseau and their contemporaries without quite being able to put my finger on why.

However, I am currently reading Witcraft by Jonathan Rée. This is a big, marvellous, contextualizing history of philosophy in Britain from Bacon to Wittgenstein, and I really wish I had had the book 50 years ago when I was trying to study philosophy, it would have made a lot of sense of a lot of things. I will be writing about the book at greater length at some point, but that may be some months away; I’m only 200 pages into the book and I feel like I’ve barely begun.

The point is that I am currently revisiting a period in philosophy that was at the core of one of the first courses I took: the period from John Locke through George Berkley to David Hume and Adam Smith, essentially the period when British epistemology really took shape. One of the things that Rée makes clear is the historical perspective in this new philosophy that began with Bacon. There is a consistent quest to get to the origin of everything. It is there in Descarte’s cogito ergo sum, the attempt to strip away everything to get to the origin of our being; Locke was building on a similar idea with his tabula rasa, the proposal that our mind is a blank slate until experience starts to give us the wherewithal from which to build ideas.

Reading this, revisiting these ideas, I suddenly realized why I had been discontent with the first chapter of The Dawn of Everything. In anthropological and archaeological terms it may have been a perfectly fair reading, not so much of Hobbes and Rousseau but of the aftermath of their work. But in philosophical terms it was wide of the mark. What they were doing was part of the philosophical movement of the time. The quest for the origin of human identity, marked by the cogito and the tabula rasa, but common to most philosophical writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, was commonly extended to all aspects of human life. In his Two Treatises on Government, Locke effectively extended the idea of the tabula rasa, the blank starting point upon which everything learned has to be written, to human society. Hobbes was doing the same; his “nasty, brutish and short” characterization of early humanity is like the Cartesian cogito: stripping back all the accretions of modern life in order to identify what, at base, is human society. The images of early human society – hunter-gatherer becoming herder becoming farmer becoming city dweller – that you find in Hume and Smith as well as Hobbes and Rousseau, was a thought experiment. It wasn’t, this is how things started, so much as, this is what you are left with when you strip away what we know as civilization. Just as, for Descartes and for Locke, the mind is empty until it is filled, so society is empty until it is filled.

This is what Hobbes and Rousseau were writing about. They were not laying out a plan for how the evolution of society had to happen, they were presenting a schema for examining what lay under the political nature of their contemporary English and French society. If subsequent anthropologists and archaeologists took this as a plan for how the past actually worked, they were wrong; and if Graeber and Wengrow thought this was what Hobbes and Rousseau thought they were doing, then they were wrong also.