Midsummer scrivenings

Let’s clear something up straight away. Today is the summer solstice, the longest day when the sun stands still awhile in a reflective pause. On Friday it is St John’s Day, which is the Christian festival most closely associated with solstice. Either today, or Friday, or anywhere in between or all of it is called ‘midsummer’, depending on your culture.

It is a mirror image of winter solstice (21st to 25th December being ‘midwinter’) and shares many of its attributes: the sense of hanging fire, pausing, holding the breath before the great cycle continues, the sense of nothing happening.


In the garden, the spring flowers have gone and the early summer poppies and buttercups are dying. Suddenly this week some yellow things appeared in my ‘nectar bed’ on the allotment, challenging those gurus who say that nothing in nature clashes. Put a marigold, a nasturtium with a face painted in Brahmin colours, an evening primrose and a buttery escholzia (spelling?) in a bed of blowsy scarlet poppies and sweet williams the colour of Indian restaurants and ‘clash’ is too sweet a word for the eye-popping effect.

Mullein on our neighbour's allotment

Sweet Williams

The yellow and the orange are the season’s markers, everywhere the yellow mullein like gothic spires attracting the bees.

Solstice was a major festival in the old days when every settlement had its stone circle the way every parish has its church. It was a day when people came together to mark time: the rest of the year they were probably a bit woolly as to whether it was Woden’s day or Thor’s day (or Celtic equivalents) except a village elder probably had the duty of keeping track. But when the sun rose or set at midsummer or midwinter, aligning with your stone clock, then for that moment you all came together, drawing disparate lives back into unity, and paused with the sun to take stock, either literally counting the cattle or metaphorically working out where your life stands.

Serpents and circles at Avebury by William Stukeley

After the horrors of last week, I’ve abandoned my Lippi book. Pamela Tudor Craig did send a postcard saying that the new version was wonderful. I read it once and didn’t think about it again. Isn’t it always like that? Praise evaporates while criticism sticks like tar. We almost prefer the criticism – the old black dog is a familar companion we’re quite fond of. But I got hauled out of it by Steven Pressfield’s new book, ‘Do the Work’ (highly recommended), and turned to my next project. ‘Don’t set yourself a start date,’ he advised, just as I was thinking, ‘Hmmm, I’ll read all summer and start at the equinox.’ ‘Start now,’ he said. So I did.

I am growing old. My powers are in decline. I don’t have the wherewithal to write another dense and complex trilogy – I simply can’t remember things well enough. My note taking these days is like that of the Sibyl of Cumaea, who wrote her wisdom down on tissue-thin leaves. Whenever anyone came to consult her and opened the door to her cave, the leaves whirled up into the air and came down in no order at all. My brain is the Cumaean cave when anyone says, ‘Got a minute?’, or when the phone rings. After any interruption, I can’t get the leaves to make sense again.

The Cumaean Sibyl, by the way, was an old crone, not the sexy young thing depicted by Renaissance painters. My mother’s name was Sybil. She came to me in a dream last night, aged about 75 and looking quite recovered from her death at 93. I do believe our ancestors get younger in the afterlife, and come to a rest around their prime (my father always appears in his 40s or 50s).

In the face of my own impending crone-hood, my plan is to write a book set in my locality, more or less, to cut down on travel. No more trips to Italy, then (sob). I also plan to write for young adults, aiming at simplicity and pace, hoping to surrender complexity for depth. I am not going my old route of writing first and structuring later. This time I’m structuring first, and I’m on day two of a trial of Scrivener.

Anyone else using this programme? It takes a lot of learning but so far I have hope that it will provide what I need: an external brain not susceptible to sudden gusts of wind, a programme which will keep all notes in one place, all web-snatches, post-its, midnight thoughts, character pages, plot ideas; then, having worked scene by scene to fill out my bare-bones structure, Scrivener will finally run it all together as a novel. Whoooooo! (Why do I doubt this is going to work?)

So almost all planting is now done in the garden and allotment. By the end of this week, the brassicas and leeks will be in, and winter crops sown. I read recently that local festivals coincide with the dragon force (fertility) in those particular areas. Our village festival is going on right now. I also read, on Facebook of all places, that broad beans grow from the seed of dismembered Osiris, hence the ‘agricultural embarrassment’ of their shape. I remembered all this as I picked our supper yesterday afternoon, crawling round the phallic beans thinking of Osiris and dragons.

All these things will be forgotten if we don’t keep memory alive. That’s what makes the job of the historical novelist a service to all mankind. That’s what I’m thinking, anyway, as I eat a bowl of cherries.

Happy summer everyone.

A New Beginning

My very long stint using Editor finished two days ago and coincided with my friend Dr Pamela Tudor Craig coming to stay for a night so that she could attend Jay Wilson’s funeral. A time of endings, then. Pamela is an art historian and has helped and encouraged me for years. She speaks as she finds and if she becomes rapturous about your work, she means it. This is tempered by her speaking the truth equally forcefully when she is not enraptured.

‘Where’s your Lippi book?’ she demanded as I brought her some coffee and said I was just off to make supper. She can be more imperious than the Queen (when she’s not being Dr Tudor Craig, she’s being Pamela Lady Wedgwood).¬† An hour later, when I returned with a dish of quiche, she pronounced in a doomy voice that I’d lost my touch, this was just the bare bones, it lacked all atmosphere and if you’re going to have a rogue as a hero, make him lovable. She repeated herself several times over supper.

I went to bed depressed, of course, compounded by having been charged ¬£62 ‘no show’ fee at a bed and breakfast I’d cancelled two months ago. And then, whoopee, the next day dawned and we had a funeral to go to. I hardly knew Jay but had liked him a lot and he was a fan of the trilogy. As a minister at St Mary Magdalene in the centre of Oxford, he got a full requiem mass. This jolly, rotund neo-platonic septuagenarian was sent off with Bob Dylan and Mozart. The times they are a-changing…

His friend Colin Dexter gave a little speech from the pulpit. Now Colin is famous and presumes everyone knows it and plays to the spotlight, so the talk was very entertaining, but afterwards people – cultured intellectuals but from London, not Oxford, where Colin is infamous – were asking ‘Who was that man?’ and I went amongst them saying, ‘He wrote Inspector Morse.’

I know most people are oblivious to the authors of the books they are reading (and enjoying) but I thought everyone knew Colin Dexter and they don’t – how depressing is that? Authors overshadowed by the characters they’ve created – there’s a thesis in that. And so cast down with post-funeral blues and this opening chasm where yesterday my confidence had been, we came home, and on the bus Pamela wondered out loud (very loud) how my novel could be improved, and even if it can be. Are my powers spent? Is it one trilogy and out? After all, it was true of Tolkien and looks to be true of Philip Pullman (both Oxford men) so to live around here and write a trilogy, well… ‘Be content with what you have done and between now and your own funeral¬† just concentrate on some little things, like Lyra’s Oxford, or Leaf by Niggle.’

I went to bed last night feeling sick with the glums. But I’d got the seed of an idea during the funeral, and this morning I tried it on paper and wrote a new first chapter. It took five hours. It was the best writing I’ve done for years. It was certainly the longest stint at one sitting. There’s nothing like being beaten up to put the fight back in you.

I printed it out and gave it to David when he went for his afternoon nap. When I passed by (OK, looked in hopefully) five minutes later, he had that look on his face, that ‘Oh, really!’ look of the offended critic. ‘To start a novel with the word He is such a cliche.’ Damned on the first word?! I staggered away trying to laugh it off. A few minutes later he called out, ‘There are ten hes in the first paragraph! Such a cliche! All bad books start that way! Why are you withholding his name?’ If it then went quiet it was because he’d fallen asleep.

But I know in the pit of me that I’ve answered all Pamela’s justified complaints about the first chapter and that the book, which I was never quite sure of, no matter how often I edited it, is now fine.

There are three validations. Third party validation is the one we all crave, where the world shouts ‘hosanna!’ at our work (and a week later crucifies us); second party is our friends and family, who usually say only good things, and therefore can’t be relied upon (unlike my dear husband, who is nothing if not reliable). But the real validation, the only one of worth, is first party, when we know in the pit of ourselves, ‘this is fine’.

I’ve got there, I know I have, but I just need to read through now and make sure the edifice sits well on the new foundation… And I suppose I should send a copy to Pamela. And then of course I have to change the first word.

It’s a true friend who tells you the truth.