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.
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.
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.