A Rainbow New Year

When the Chinese want to lay a curse on you they pray that you live in ‘interesting times’. Times could hardly be more interesting than they have been this year. Although astrologers have long been saying that the Age of Aquarius will be characterised by fluidity and the breakdown of rigid institutions, I never in my life expected to see Europe on a wobble, or  Japan being swallowed by a wave. But while the world reshapes itself around us, here on the ground things are interesting for a different reason, for they signify new life and a change in consciousness. While thousands risk their lives across the Middle East fighting for good government, I’m knitting jackets for battery hens. It’s all related somehow.

A really tough assignment: a jacket for a bald rescue hen

Whatever is happening in the present, the past is always so much more interesting. Things were more colourful then, more exciting. My interest in history switches off so violently with the twentieth century that I can’t even accept that that period is history. OK, some of it is to do with the media of historical record. If we contact the past through images then we are looking at paintings right up to the invention of photography when, suddenly, the past becomes black, white and shades of grey, so our perception of the period between the invention of photography and the invention of colour photography is decidedly colourless. I think this has an effect. But it is also true to say that we were more colourless, and still are despite the invention of computer-enhanced graphics and colour saturation. When did men stop dressing like peacocks? The Civil War? Isn’t it time to get over puritanism? We had a breakout in the 60s, which I am so utterly grateful to have been part of, but it was swiftly followed by the rise of the Goth, white faces and black lips.

It seems we are depressed as a society, that cynicism has robbed us of belief in humanity, in nation, in our selves. What writer doesn’t have to start each day psyching up against the idea that we’re being self-indulgent, that it’s all hopeless anyway and can never be published in today’s conditions. We have to grope through swirling fogs of negativity to get back to where we left off the day before. This is not personal. This is the age.

In the past they believed in something: the Virgin Mary, heaven and hell, the king, the country, virtue. There’s colour for you, and an enriched life.

Illumination by Meister des Hildegardis Codex

It’s odd but colourlessness seems to be a mark of wealth. Films about traditional India or Africa (I say ‘traditional’ advisedly, because a mark of a developing country is its loss of colour) shows you don’t have to be rich to be beautiful. All those saffrons, pinks, roses and golds of India, the baked-earth vibrancy of traditional African dress – that’s what it looks like to be natural, and it’s peculiar to neither male nor female. Everyone’s in on it, this celebration of life in colour. And everyone’s giving it up to be modern.

There are signs of change however. Perhaps because of the internet and social networks, we have better knowledge of each other and what I see and glory in is the creativity of friends and family. Is it growing or are we just noticing it more? The great baking revival in the UK is part of it, where you are no longer betraying your feminist principles if you make cupcakes. Handmade cards and crackers abounded this year. Personally I got caught up in the knitting revival and have had a wonderful time making such necessary items as a jacket for my Kindle and, now, jackets for featherless battery hens.

A great many crafts on the brink of extinction are being saved. On the allotments we are witnessing such a renaissance: old skills are being learnt just as they were about to be forgotten forever, and they are being mixed with new knowledge coming from science and experience, especially in the field of organics. When we started on the allotment, there were old codgers about as there always had been. Now we are the old codgers but the ones coming in are much, much younger than ever before. We’re not only learning to grow, we’re learning to cook and to preserve. And if we get stuck on how to do something, there’s always YouTube. Seriously, you’d be surprised how many old ladies are learning new knitting techniques sitting in front of their computers.

The Nectar Bar for bees on our allotment. Bees like colour. Be like the bees.

I got a sheep fleece for a fiver in the summer, washed it, tried carding it but didn’t like scraping my knuckles on hundreds of sharp pins. Then I discovered peg loom weaving where you don’t have to card the wool. Affordable rugs are on their way!

These are interesting times. It’s an age of transition from an unsustainable lifestyle to a sustainable one. I only hope we make it across and we aren’t tumbling to the cliff edge in one great romantic dream of self-sufficiency.

For the New Year I wish for Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Colour. For myself, I resolve to get out of the ‘flattering’ dowdies of blue, black and dark green. I would love to go swathed in a saffron sari, just love it, with a bright pink hat to match. Who knows what the year may bring?

Yellow nasturtium

Start now!

When I finished The Botticelli Trilogy, I had a few months worrying about what I was going to do next before the idea for a novel about Filippo Lippi and Cosimo de’ Medici was suggested to me. I thought it would be quick and short compared to the others, but it must be five years now since I started. About a year ago I thought I was close to finishing but then I decided to go the last inch, not realising how long an inch can take.

Last week the first fifth of the text went to the editor, which looks to me like closure, at least the first stage of it. And when she phoned the next day to put my mind at rest by telling me she was enjoying it, I thought – and please forgive the hubris – but I thought, ‘and why wouldn’t you?’ How’s that for arrogance? Except, when your self esteem has all the height and bounce of a flattened slug, that kind of thought is real gold because it is the voice of confidence. If I like my book, anyone else liking it is a bonus; that’s the stage I’ve come to and why I know I’ve just about finished. Something could happen (or not) in the last hundred pages I have to read through with my Best Beloved, but I feel confident about that too. I can smell the finish line.

Ah ha! A shelf on top of the shelves.

In the summer I read Steven Pressfield’s latest motivator for writers called Do the Work. I was mulling the next story but keeping a barge pole between me and it, not wishing to be distracted from the task in hand. I was also chary of what ‘research’ can do to your working space.  Before I took up the Lippi story I’d dipped into the 16th/17th century and I’d paddled in medieval France. Now just a gentle enquiry somehow spawns a shelf-load of books, but my shelves were full with the Renaissance. To accommodate the fruit of these two sorties, I’d created a row of books on top of the bookshelves, and a freestanding row behind the usual pile of pending paper and techno must-haves that somehow never get out of their box.

In my L-shaped room, I am stuffed. I am grid-locked by piles of who-knows-what and have to walk sideways to reach my desk. There is space for no more books and the teddies must surely go. How did I accumulate so many teddy bears? Why? Of course, when I say ‘go’, I mean to the attic. Big Ted is 60 years old and I’m putting him in the attic, wrapped in a plastic sack, only for his safety: here he just collects dust.

The teddies must go! Mustn't they?

Getting a Kindle has helped, and if I’m buying books and there is a reasonably priced Kindle edition (i.e. not something only 5op cheaper than the book), I’ll get it. I’m also getting back into the library habit, reading at the Sackler Classics Library rather than here, which I would do more often if the chairs weren’t crippling. (I shall do a piece soon on the dichotomy between interior and exterior architecture, how something that looks so fine on the outside is just horrible on the inside).

Nevertheless, the books are beginning to arrive for the new topic. For, in reading Pressfield’s book, I got to the main message fairly early on, which is START NOW. So I did, months before I’d finished on the Lippi. The trick worked and eagerness to get on with the new cut through the nervous procrastination, the fear of finishing the old.

No room for the next project. The library must be culled.

And so, for the fifth time in forty years, here we go again. It’s what idiots call ‘thinking up a story’. ‘How did you think that one up, then?’ Well, I didn’t. I tracked it, I quested for it, I followed its footprints through the forest, my ears growing ever more acute, listening for that whisper of an idea, interpreting it when it came. And then you glimpse the hart caught by a shaft of sunlight in the clearing; one step towards it and it’s gone. But at least you know it’s there, it exists.

Now I’m at that blissful stage where the universe becomes your puppy dog and presents you with gifts each bright morning. A trip into Gloucestershire to buy a cooker and ideas are springing up like mushrooms. A philosophical retreat ends up with quite a profound conversation with a tree, who was auditioning for a part as a character. A glimpse of someone limping as I passed through Moreton-in-the-Marsh in the car and my hero has his sidekick. And then salmon leaping suddenly, off every page of every book I browsed in the library on one particular morning.

How do stories form? It’s a great question, and I’ll hazard a guess next time. For now it’s back to John North’s hefty and wide-girthed Stonehenge – neolithic man and the cosmos. And no, I’m not going to be writing about Stonehenge.

Florence has to share her chair with some homeless directories.