Archive for the 'england' Category

i suffer alone, uncomplaining

Having traced my mother’s family to the Kingdom of Mercia I am in gales of laughter over the title of the most important surviving text in the Mercian language: The Old English Martyrology. Even other people who knew my mother and grandmother don’t think it’s as funny as I do. Story of my life.

america is not the heart, by elaine castillo

Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you immigrate, there are countries in you you’ll never leave.

in which i succeed in naming three (3) emotions

I’m sad she’s dead, for the usual human and parasocial reasons.

I’m genuinely curious if also worried about what comes next.

And I’m angry, I am so so angry, about the British empire.

As a white Australian I exist because of what Britain saw as surplus population it could send to administer its stolen wealth. The ways in which my life was predetermined, the ways in which I was raised and educated to be a colonial bureaucrat, were callous and calculating and fundamentally genocidal, and have left me traumatized.

The thing about Elizabeth. The thing! That I managed to grope towards just now, is that she was a human sacrifice to empire. She had no choice and no escape. She had to do her duty.

And she did her duty flawlessly. She was incredible at it. A genuinely awe-inspiring triumph of will.

And she shouldn’t have done that. For two reasons. One (the most important) is because the Empire is a death cult that murdered millions on her watch. The other is that her performance of that duty is and always will be forced on the rest of us as the standard we will inevitably fail to meet.

I admire her. But I will not seek to emulate her. Her indulgence of powerful men and her racism were ruinous even in her immediate family, and catastrophic for the world. What she did so amazingly well is a thing that should never have been done.

Which loops back to sorrow. Those glimpses of the woman she could’ve been: the 18yo ambulance driver, the rider galloping her own racehorse.

What a fucking waste and betrayal of all her strength and integrity, to pour it out in the service of maintaining a corrupt status quo.

What a waste of mine.

grand tour

I realized just before our flight that we would be landing half way through the matinee for which we had tickets; proof if proof were needed of just how badly I needed a break. I called Grant and woke him at 1am to explain, and somehow by the time we landed he had cajoled the theatre into exchanging our cheap-ass matinee tickets for tickets to the evening performance. Grant’s impossible to describe. He’d be one of my favourite people on earth even if he hadn’t introduced me to Jeremy; as it is, he is responsible for most of the great joys of my life.

Our hotel was a stone’s throw from St Pancras. Grant met us there and took us to one of the restaurants on Battlebridge Place, the newly developed expanse of public space between St Pancras and Kings Cross. Miss Jo came to meet us and so did Kirsty, so there I sat in the warm evening with my kids and some of my dearest friends, my Mardi-Gras-and-Burning-Man-crossover friends, bewilderingly happy. Kirsty and her friend Sacha joined us for the show, Lin-Manuel’s other musical, In the Heights; great fun.

As we walked back to our hotel we stopped at the large birdcage covered in rainbow LEDs, and Julia swung on the swing inside.

The next morning we hit in quick succession the British Library Reading Room (pages from Leonardo’s journals, the Magna Carta, Jane Austen’s writing desk and Persuasion in her handwriting), the Wellcome Collection (Napoleon’s toothbrush) and – our overwhelming favourite – the Grant Museum of Zoology, with its quagga and thylacine skeletons and its dodo bones.

Still jetlagged, I dozed off on the Eurostar and woke having no idea what country I was in; southern England looks a lot like Northern France. I had slept through the Channel tunnel! Arriving in Paris by train is infinitely preferable to flying in. We took the Metro from Gare du Nord and walked from Odeon to our apartment.

We travel like such nerds. Picking up where we left off last year in the Louvre, I noticed myself noticing things. Last year, feeling crosser, I was outraged at the self-congratulatory imperialism of places like the British Library and the Louvre. This year, humbler and more grateful, I thought: Yes, and; England and France robbed the world but in their museums, we-the-colonised can look at the things once kept only for our foreign kings. I love palaces made over into public spaces. I love the children in the Grant squealing over the jar of moles, and the black women among the Egyptian antiquities, their hair in cornrows exactly like the people in the friezes.

friday five, but on a monday

  1. Have I really not blogged in three weeks? Oh well it’s not like anything of local or world-historical importance has happened HAHAHAHA dear god
  2. I can’t really bring myself to say anything about Orlando or the assassination of Jo Cox except that AR-15s and high-capacity magazines should have been banned years ago, and all the lobbyists and politicians who have prevented this are little better than murderers themselves.
  3. While I was trying to have a Saturday afternoon nap, much interrupted by sirens, a fire took out most of a block in the heart of our neighborhood, including our beloved local hardware store. We used to shop there even before we moved to Bernal. Several times a day I look at something that needs fixing around the house and have a muscle-memory of buying its replacement at Cole Hardware. All our neighbors got out in time, which is a great mercy.
  4. I had an almost-perfect day at work on Thursday, then came home only to grow increasingly distressed over Brexit, which broke my Judtist heart. David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum now replaces Bush’s invasion of Iraq as the most appalling error of judgment committed by any English-speaking politician in the course of my adult life. Europe is important. Bureaucracies may seem boring and idiotic but they are inexpressibly less boring and idiotic and catastrophic than the world wars that they occasionally, through the great efforts of many kind people and with considerable good luck, replace.
  5. All of this and a lot of other stories that are not mine to tell have made the last few months very difficult, but there have been fierce joys as well: Hillary and Warren campaigning together; the enduring wonderfulness of Ginsberg and Sotomayor; the memory of my mother pouring out all her tremendous capacity for love in her last days, and the knowledge that her example will be with me for the rest of my life.

the yatima book awards of 2015

Best capstone to a trilogy that, unbelievably, saw my OT3 made canon: Ancillary Mercy

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series explores oppression both overt and covert, personhood and autonomy, cruelty and choice. It is also and very intimately about love and trauma and about the slow and painful process of recovering from having been used as a weapon. It is difficult and allusive and strange and I have seldom loved a story more.

Best memoir containing descriptions of the surface of living human brains: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

A few years ago Jeremy and I saw The English Surgeon, a beautiful documentary about Henry Marsh, and this book of his is an extraordinary complement, the effect of which is to make both texts deeper and richer. You walk away from the film thinking that Marsh is some kind of genius angel. The book is all about his fear, doubt and failures, failures that led to the deaths of patients he loved.

Best inspiration for a hit Broadway musical: Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father is fantastic in its own right, but looking at how Lin-Manuel Miranda manipulated the timeline and even the construction of some of the main characters is a master class in creative transformation.

Best book whose first chapter will make you ugly-cry into your latte at Cafe St Jorge, to the mild alarm of your fellow guests: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize this year but be warned: her stories about what actually happened in the aftermath of the explosion, and how social class dictated who suffered and who died, will fuck you right up.

Best and most moving farewell from a writer you have loved all your adult life: On the Move: A Life

What can I add to what has already been written about Oliver Sacks, his imaginative compassion, the generosity of spirit that grew so unexpectedly out of his privileged and circumscribed circumstances? Not much. (In close second place for this category: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia.)

Best gift for your girlfriends of the crazy cat persuasion: The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries

Disappointed in love, the brilliant Jessa Crispin packed up her apartment and couch-surfed her way across Europe, reading in search of reasons to go on living. A manifesto for all of us who are lost, lonely and ugly, outside and in.

Best book you bounced off hard as a stupid kid and now recognize for the straight-up masterpiece it is: Beloved

The insane, vindictive ghost baby? It’s us.

Best book-length elaboration on the theme that Black Lives Matter: Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his son may also turn out to be an enduring masterpiece, but for me the most intimate pleasure of it was its celebration of Paris, a city that for all its fucked-up flaws is one of the finest things human hands have made.

Best book that killed off my favorite character from the previous book in its opening scene: The Philosopher Kings

Jesus, Jo! This series is obviously written for the pure motherfucking joy of it, for the wish-fulfillment of standing shoulder to shoulder with the writers you adored and building a city even more beautiful than Paris. (And then finding out that you had overlooked some very important questions about personhood, autonomy, cruelty and choice.)

Most heartbreaking memorial to our own lost generation: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

An essential book and a companion to the equally essential The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Randy Shilts’ history of the plague documents the appalling cost of it and the sheer inadequacy of our human response.

Most beautiful portrayal of raw grief: Men We Reaped

Five young men close to Jesmyn Ward died in four years, and this devastating meditation on their deaths brings their loss into razor-sharp focus.

Most accurate portrayal of Australia as an airless mining asteroid that turns men’s hearts to stone: This House of Grief

Helen Garner is our Janet Malcolm and this book is our Iphigenia in Forest Hills.

By the numbers:

Books by women: 7. People of color: 3. Gay men: 2. Straight white men: 2. (Is this the most charming sentence in Wikipedia? “Marsh is married to the social anthropologist Kate Fox and spends his spare time making furniture and keeping bees.” Kate Fox wrote Watching the English! BEST DINNER PARTY GUESTS.) I used to joke that I didn’t read books by straight white men because their concerns were too narrow and parochial, but it’s not a joke any more.

Australian writers: 1. Russian: 1. English: 3ish, although Jo Walton is Welsh and lives in Canada and Oliver Sacks spent most of his life in New York. American: 7.

Total books read: about 120. Either I am slowing down or I lose 30 books’ worth of capacity in each year in which one of my parents dies. Guess we’ll find out!

yatima’s mostly-nondenominational northern hemisphere midwinter festival playlist

2000 miles

“I can hear people singing,” (and since I’m not allowed to listen to this playlist until after Thanksgiving) “it must be” Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival “Time.” Chrissie Hynde wrote this after The Pretenders’ first lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose; as you’ll see, I like the sad carols. The ending of this song is sublimely 1980s; the band just repeats the chorus over and over until they end on a resounding chord. Jazz hands!

Chiron Beta Prime

So much for being nondenominational: because I’m a lapsed Anglican nerd, I sometimes wonder whether Jonathan Coulton (suspicious initials, those) named his protagonists the Andersons because it means “Son of Man” and whether he chose Chiron because Chi-Rho was a Greek monogram for Christ. That said, the song works equally well as an anticapitalist anthem, with the robot overlords representing limited liability corporations. Oh, and it’s hilarious.

Fairytale of New York

Mandatory, obvi. I usually start crying around “I could’ve been someone./ Well so could anyone.” Reminds me of when Rajit Singh returned our lost luggage and, years before that, when I met Shane MacGowan in Dublin, his broken teeth like tombstones on the red hills of his gums. I wish Kirsty MacColl were still alive.


This one makes me think of Jamey, who gave it to me, and of my mum, whose story it is. Tracey Thorn’s voice is a silver thread running through my marriage, from “Protection” as the anthem of our first year together to “Hatfield, 1980” for the summer we lived in Cambridge. Mum would have loved the lines: “We face down all the coming years/ And all that they destroy/ And in their face we throw our joy.” That was her basic rationale for all the mah jongg and Bailey’s.


Tracey’s Tinsel and Lights is such a great album that three tracks off it have landed on my playlist. This is a Joni Mitchell cover that earned its place for the lyrics: “I’m so hard to handle/ I’m selfish and I’m sad.” (No, YOU are.) I always think of Emma Thompson’s wonderful line from the mostly-reprehensible Love, Actually: “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”

Sister Winter

A Sufjan Stevens cover, but I heard Tracey’s version first so it’s definitive to me. I love the strangeness and sensuality of the lyrics – “I kissed your ankle” – and Sister Winter as darkness and heartbreak, but also as an intimate relation. I love the friends waiting patiently for the suffering heart to recover. Demeter and Persephone are here, and so is Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America with its call for the communalization of trauma.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

Speaking of, that summer in Cambridge I wanted to hear the King’s College choir at last, but I was urged by a smiling Anglican to keep the girls behind the screen where we wouldn’t disturb the other congregants. Ah, the established church, ever eager to tuck its women and children away out of sight. Against that, though, set the pageant I attended at Holy Innocents in San Francisco, where the congregation discovered six-week-old Julia in her sling and urged me to take the role of Mary. I declined – I’m not that reconciled to my church damage – but I still have the tinsel crown Claire wore as a three-year-old angel. This strange old poem was given a mid-20thc setting by Elizabeth Poston. “It keeps my dying faith alive” – we’ll see, I guess.


Another silver thread through my life: My parents playing Steeleye Span when I was still too young to recognize the electric guitars and folk songs as incongruous with one another. Me carolling in York Street with the choir of Christchurch St Lawrence. Alex and I in Dublin discovering that we both loved this song. Maddy Pryor’s incredible voice was probably the prototype for my love for Kirsty Maccoll, Tracey Thorn and Vienna Teng. The ending of this song is ridiculously 1970s; the audio engineer just fades the choir out and you have to pretend that they’re walking away from you still singing.

O Holy Night

This one makes me think of Salome, because sometimes we read each others’ minds. Talk about incongruity, the ukuleles and xylophones making it sound like a school play. Yet everything that makes the Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival important to me is here: the long dark, the beloved dead, the newborn baby, the terrifying angels and their incomprehensible message. The star and our journey.

Atheist Christmas Carol

The newest addition, which I heard for the first time live on Boxing Day last year at the Freight & Salvage, with Claire in my arms. I gave this one to Tina after we rode our bikes to the Forest of Wind Chimes at Wilbur Hot Springs and cried for Jen. “It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind/ And knowing we are not alone in fear/ Not alone in the dark.” That’s all I got. Grace coming out of the void, for some reason. It’s so cold now but spring will come again. Not a metaphor: physics.

a glass of blessings/no fond return of love, by barbara pym

We’re back in the first person. Wilmet, the narrator of Glass, is the smuggest and most unpleasant of Pym’s heroines. I should confess to my own feelings of unpleasant smugness when she gets her (surprisingly progressive) comeuppance.

I’m hugely enjoying the continuity in the Pym universe. Wilmet is Archdeacon Hoccleve’s distant cousin. She and her friend Rowena knew Rocky Napier in Italy, and Wilmet’s husband Rodney has a dalliance with Prudence. Best of all, Rowena reads to Wilmet out of a magazine, and what she reads is Catherine Oliphant’s fictionalized account of the moussaka scene.

But the weirdest moment by far in Glass is when *I* show up in it.

I thought he might be a colonial, perhaps a New Zealander. I remembered clever moody passionate girls, like Katherine Mansfield, striving to break away from the narrowness of their environment, almost nineteenth century Russian in their yearnings, hating the traditional English Christmas in the middle of summer and the sentimental attitude toward the Mother Country.

Since women like me are represented in English literature with considerably less frequency than most breeds of dog, it always comes as a bit of a shock.

Austen parallel: Mansfield Park. (It’s “about ordination.”)

Dulcie, the protagonist of Fond, is a tragic figure because she lives in a world without Google. Her ability to Googlestalk before the fact is both impressive and creepy. She gets one of the best proposal-rejection scenes so far. I was starting to think that this novel took place outside the Pymiverse until Dulcie ran into Wilmet at a castle.

Austen parallel: Dulcie thinks she’s in Persuasion, but I think she’s in Northanger Abbey.

This marks the break in Pym’s career. She was bumped off the midlist after Fond and didn’t get anything published for another eighteen years. A good time for me to take a break too, I think.

less than angels, by barbara pym

Sexy, independent Catherine Oliphant is the best Pym heroine so far. No frustrated literary yearnings for her: she writes romantic fiction for women’s magazines. Even as she catches her beloved in the act of having an intimate dinner with her replacement, she thinks to herself that their moussaka will be getting cold. She chooses her next crush on the basis of his resemblance to an Easter Island statue. I adore her.

The church takes a step back in this book and the vacuum is filled by anthropology. The resulting shabby-intellectual milieu is surprisingly reminiscent of Iris Murdoch.

jane and prudence, by barbara pym

This is a lot of people’s favourite Pym novel, including Jilly Cooper’s and Pym’s herself. Maybe that’s because it is in part a retelling of Emma, one of Austen’s most charming books. As well as shuffling her own deck of archetypes, Pym has shuffled in several from Austen’s pack.

Prudence disliked being called ‘Miss Bates’; if she resembled any character in fiction, it was certainly not poor silly Miss Bates.

No, when she thought it over, Jane decided that she was really much more like Emma Woodhouse.

The romantic stranger is the widower Fabian Driver, who was serially unfaithful to his dead wife Constance (ouch.) The clergyman is married again, but Jane, his wife, is neither fish nor fowl: too ineffectual to be a helpmeet like Agatha Hoccleve, too lazy to be a thinker like Helena Napier. In her notes on the novel, Pym’s thumbnail sketch of Jane is devastating in its cruelty:

The wife sits on committees. Is literary, but no time for that now – perhaps had even wanted to do research (‘The influence of Somebody on Something’). Missed opportunities. Jane felt she has not been really successful – but a happy marriage and a child, people might say rather reproachfully, wasn’t that something?

And yet readers love Jane, and for good reason. Like the children of Elfine Starkadder and Richard Hawk-Monitor, she blazes with poetry in her soul. Her well-intentioned but blundering efforts to hook Prudence up are, like Emma Woodhouse’s, not punished with success. Only one marriage proposal is accepted in this book, and it is heartily regretted by almost all concerned.

Cameos: Dora’s awful brother William interrupts Prudence and Geoffrey to warn them against ordering the pate. We are given tragic news about Mildred Lathbury.

some tame gazelle, by barbara pym

‘Miss Liversidge is really splendid,’ she declared and then wondered why one always said that Edith was ‘splendid’. It was probably because she hadn’t very much money, was tough and wiry, dug vigorously in her garden and kept goats.

Barbara Pym is the most badass writer who ever lived and I am going to tell you why.

He was smiling to himself in a sardonic way that Belinda found very disconcerting. It was unsuitable for a clergyman to look sardonic.

This sardonic clergyman is a very lightly fictionalized Henry Harvey, the great love of Pym’s life. She met him at Oxford and he sounds like a right tosser. Pym handles this so well! She vivisects and impales him both here and in her own journals with unflinching and scientific rigour. It is very suitable for a novelist to be sardonic; it is an especially suitable posture for a novelist in love.

Like Jane Austen, though, Pym is frequently misconstrued as cosy. It’s all in the subject matter: gossipy Church of England parishioners. If you find such people charming, you might miss the sharpness in Pym. If they make you think of serial murderers and Hot Fuzz then come, sit by me.

Sharp and unflinching as she is, Pym is not herself a serial murderer but something closer to a vet. Consider this curious passage:

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding-place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh, well …’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so.

‘Perhaps you would like to go and have tea,’ said Agatha, who was having difficulty with the bulk of the marrows and the fragility of the tissue paper and did not want Belinda to see.

You’d never get away with a passage like this nowadays (Some Tame Gazelle took fifteen years to find a publisher but eventually came out in 1950). Your editor would tell you you’d made a mistake in the last sentence, where the narrative suddenly switches to Agatha’s point of view.

This is, of course, bullshit. Pym is one of the most controlled and surgical of writers. She wields third person omniscient like an edged weapon. If the POV switches it’s because she meant it to switch.

So who’s talking? Whose gaze is it that pierces both Belinda and Agatha right through to the bone (“all this fuss about two marrows”)? Who measures the tension between them (Agatha has been married to Belinda’s beloved Henry for thirty years) and all their weaknesses and evasions, and yet doesn’t condemn them? By whom are they so seen and known and accepted for what they are?

Barbara Pym is the most badass writer because her books are told from the point of view of God.

there was something about anarchy, i remember that much

Kirsty is a force of nature. I’ve been meaning to go up to Edinburgh since Alex and Ioanna moved there from Ireland years ago, but the details eluded me. When I mentioned it in passing to Kirsty the whole thing was organized in what seemed like sixty seconds. I flew in early for the London conference I come to every April, and Kirsty and I caught the train to Edinburgh.

The journey was gorgeous and fascinating. “Green and pleasant land,” I tweeted as we left London, then “dark Satanic Mills!” as we crossed the midlands and I saw four huge power stations (Eggborough and friends maybe?) belching steam into an otherwise cloudless sky. As we sped to Scotland we saw Durham Cathedral, the Angel of the North (which I have loved since first seeing pictures of it and which came as a completely unexpected treat), beautiful steampunk Newcastle, Lindisfarne like something from a Miyazaki film or happy dream, the sun sparkling on the mouth of the Tweed at Berwick, and the looming bulk of the Torness Nuclear Plant.

Motion sickness got to me after a while. (The hangover from the night before probably didn’t help. That was Grant’s fault.) I thought I was going to hurl all over Waverley Station. I took my first steps in Scotland trying not to puke and telling myself “Don’t mention their accents don’t mention their accents,” so of course when I called Alex I blurted out “you sound very Irish.” I guess at least I didn’t vomit?

When I had recovered myself somewhat Kirsty and I had fun storming Edinburgh castle, and when we finally did make it to Alex’s house the awkwardness of nine years’ separation did not survive its first encounter with a pretty decent Sangiovese I’d brought out from California. Alex made osso buco. It was delicious. Ioanna is delightful and their daughter Lena is so best. We figured out how to fix capitalism but I didn’t write it down, so that’s a pity.

frequent flyer

And then I went to Seattle and then I went to London and now I am back.

Took Rose and the girls to CuriOdyssey. River otters high-fived my dottirs.

time travel

Saturday was my best visit ever to the Dickens Fair. I found a bodice that almost exactly matches my silver-grey skirt, and wore them with a white peasant blouse and a black leather belt and high-heeled boots and a couple of strings of jet that used to be Mum’s. I looked adorably steampunk.

The kids are old enough now that I don’t panic as much when they are out of sight, mostly, and they don’t whine or need to be carried, as much. This has had an enormously positive effect on my wellbeing. It’s most noticeable with the things we do once a year. I started going to the Fair when Julia was a babe in arms, and two or three hours used to be a long visit for us. This year we were there when it opened and almost closed it down. I don’t get as tired or irritable, and I don’t get that terrible feeling of having heavy weights hanging off me all the time, so that my very skin aches. Small children are an unimaginable amount of work. But my children are not small any more. Vast relief, and of course also, great ruefulness and sentimentality.

We got to do many more things. We heard Rudyard Kipling read The Elephant’s Child, and sketched live models in a Pre-Raphaelite Salon. Burne-Jones was there, and William Morris. And I learned how to waltz! I’ve waltzed before, but I can’t turn my head fast enough. So my lovely partner said “Just look into my eyes,” and so I did and the camera swirled around us and the music soared and I laughed my fool head off, and he said “Yes! This is how Victorians got high!” and I said “I finally get why it was so scandalous!”

Foxhunting and waltzing and Jane Austen. The pommification is starting to take.

beyond black, by hilary mantel

I can’t figure out how to recommend this book without spoiling it, or how to provide sufficiently graphic trigger warnings without doing the same. So let’s just call it Northanger Abbey meets Being Human, with a generous side-helping of We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s hilarious, but the comedy is (sorry) beyond black.

windsor knot, by christopher wilson

I felt yucky reading this. Regarding the British monarchy as my own private soap opera is all fun and games until someone gets hurt. And this is not the sort of book you can faux-justify to yourself as having any literary or historical merit. I might stick to the dead ones from now on. Dead plus thirty years.

This book was published in 2003 and in retrospect, all the guff about the Tampax and Squidgygate tapes being security intercepts or whatever is such obvious and weaksauce misdirection, how can we possibly have credited it for a nanosecond? Thanks for dulling our critical faculties, Murdoch, you poltroon.

oh, and a title here, maybe

Long trek out to Hampton Court Palace; a pilgrimage in honour of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I read last year and Jeremy is reading as I blog. Hedge maze, formal gardens, Royal Chapel with its piecework ceiling so blue and geometric it looked almost Islamic, J pointed out. “It’s trying to be the Hagia Sofia and the Sistine Chapel,” I said. “It’s too small!” said J, but it isn’t: not to me. It was the first Church of England and I grew up in its shadow. Claire read every single sign in Henry VIII’s apartments, looking like a girl in a Vermeer painting with the light angling through the diamond-paned windows. I resolved to love beauty more, and to read more history, although upon reflection loving beauty and reading history is what got me into all this trouble in the first place. I didn’t like the Christopher Wren bits much. I said so, later, at a picnic in Richmond, forgetting that the Baroque is Hannah’s area of expertise. It took us seven million billion years to get back to Bloomsbury and there were drunk young men on the train and my back is still aching from the armoured spines I sprouted in response, but there was good sushi for dinner, yes, and cold sauvignon blanc. And so to bed.

so! we are in london, and such

Can I say again how woefully, how pathetically grateful I am that the kids are such stoic little travellers? Sleeping where they can, soaking up the seat-back video, willing to be entertained at the baggage carousel, enthralled by the spectacle out the window of the Heathrow Express. The night after we arrived was a little Gothic. We had a great dinner with Grant on Store Street – Julia is still head over heels in love with him, and as McKenze said, her irises turn into little cartoon hearts when she looks at him – and we all got to bed at a reasonable hour. Then we all woke up again, and when Julia started crying for food at 3am I had to walk to the nearest 24 hour grocery store, which turned out to be across the street from Kings Cross station, which is about a million billion trillion light years from our hotel.

The Euston Road is different at night; also, it was incredibly hot. I was in a tank top. Apparently I am still, just barely, cute enough for various handsome young Londoners to take a chance on, at least in dim light when there are no other girls around. Every neon light turned out to be a place of business that was closed. The store, when I found it, was twenty yards past where I had already given up once. I caught a black cab home because my feet were a mass of blisters. When the cab driver dropped me at the hotel with my plastic bag full of cornflakes and milk and yogurt and orange juice, he asked “Going to work?” and I had a very complicated reaction of “No my jetlagged kids are in there but as a FEMINIST I totally support all the women who ARE.” Which was probably a bit too nuanced a message for 4am, judging by his expression.

At 8am I was at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone wearing my new Calvin Klein pleated little black dress and t-strap heels over the blisters. The conference went very well, I thought, although I was flying on empty for most of it. There was an especially nice moment in the bar at the end when I was reminded that (dear God I hope they never read this) I genuinely like and respect several of my colleagues to the point of near-friendship.

Oh! Our fancy schmancy speaker was Professor Brian Cox, of D:Ream keyboard and Manchester physics fame, so Jeremy and Kirsty and the kids came along to join the fun. The girls hid behind my skirt when I introduced them to him, and afterwards Julia said: “That was really cool for you, wasn’t it, mama?” Can we at least PRETEND I am doing this for the sake of the children? No? OKAY THEN. Brian Cox is a great speaker, do hire him, he made us do math, but then he had me at his first slide, which was the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Respect, sir.

We took the girls out for pizza that night and Turkish the next night and altogether too many glasses of Marlborough sauvignon blanc were involved, so that by 3am Thursday I awoke with a mighty hangover as well as jetlag and the standard post-conference loss of the will to live. I couldn’t get back to sleep either, so I slithered into the office at 9am and sat shivering at my desk till 3pm before slithering home to sleep. Jeremy and the girls came home at 5pm, joyous after a day at the science museum, and we all trundled out to Grant’s place for more sauvignon blanc. I thought I would surely die of jetlag, but was revived by meringues and double cream, and came home to sleep a SOLID NINE HOURS and now I feel like a valid and worthwhile human being once again.

For future reference: after the piddling little sleeps on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon I kept waking up and feeling worse and worse, which confused me because all I wanted was sleep, and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized the problem was I wasn’t getting a long enough sleep in a single go. I needed a couple of REM cycles or whatever to reset my clock.

did i mention the apricots? god!

Um, and so. France was freakin amazing. I set up shop in the kitchen of the flat and cranked out words and words and words. Janny had a couple of friends with pools: Annette, with a walled garden on a hill surrounded by vineyards and wind farms; Ian and Jill, with a pool among prickly pears on the downslope of Villerouge. The kids swam every day, I think, which was lucky because temperatures were in the thirties, or hundreds, depending on where I am. We climbed the hill and sat in the window of the ruined castle. My God, France is just beyond gorgeous, the red earth and the ink-green forests and the vines in their lime-green lines. And yellow grass and the bronze-bright sky.

We had lunches in the cool dining room and dinners on the terrace looking out over a yellow field of grass next door. My God, the food. Tomatoes and cucumbers and greens and avocados and hard boiled eggs and black olives. Cheese! Creamy brie and nutty gruyere. Dense rich baguettes. Jesus God the stone fruit: nectarines so juicy eating them was like trying to eat a mango. Apricots jumping out of Jan’s tree, red-speckled and hot from the sun, intense as concentrate.

We didn’t do much else but eat and talk. I read A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel – this after reading her Tudor novel Wolf Hall in England. Best holiday reading since Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in Paris. We bought a game of Carcassonne in Cambridge and found it to be great fun, like mah jongg; we played it for an hour every day after lunch. Jan took me to the market in Lezignan-Corbieres, where I bought a quilt for our bed that may be the most beautiful and grownup thing I have ever owned. It cost fifty euros.

McKenze and I were chatting so hard we missed the exit to Carcassonne airport. Being Californians, we assumed the autoroute was like the freeway and that we would be able to turn around in a few miles; in fact, it was 17km to the next exit… we made our flight, which was late anyway, and Jan and Jeremy were having fewer kittens than I would have expected. I would have had dozens of kittens, me. A tearful farewell ensued. Jan will be visiting us in San Francisco soon.

Ryanair is horrible. Stansted is miraculous and the express to Liverpool Street was at least fast, but then we were on the Underground in rush hour with all our luggage, and that blew. I remembered we could get out at Lancaster Gate and walk, and that saved us a transfer and four stops, which was good. Our hotel was expensive and our room was tiny, but very very welcome. Grant and Jo met us at a funny little Italian place around the corner and we had a very merry dinner.

Our one day in London was way too long and intense from my trying to pack too much in; but the girls got to see Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge, at least from a distance, and we met Cait and Nora and James and rode on the London Eye, and then Grant and Christian met us for lunch at Canteen and I had Eton Mess, which is always a highlight. Then we caught the bus to the British Museum and I showed the girls the Parthenon Frieze and the Rosetta Stone. And Kirsty and Chris met us in the Great Court for tea and scones. And then we went to Kensington Gardens and had a bottle of wine while the kids played in the playground there, so very civilized, and then we went to a Thai restaurant, and then I had to take the kids back to the hotel and collapse.

And then we came home. The flight was fine/awful. The cat is overjoyed that we are home and I have the scars to prove it. Monday was a public holiday, luckily, so I did two loads of washing and weeded the flower garden and went to the vegetable garden with Salome and Kathy and all the kids, and we harvested the arugula and had that for dinner last night. Yesterday morning I rode Bella, far better than I expected to, but we did have a parting of ways after she took a long spot at a fence and I lost my balance. Talk about coming back to earth with a crash. I’m a little bit gimpy but fine.

paradise is from ancient persian and means a walled garden

Oh, God, where did I leave you? Shoreditch? Damn. We struggled back to Cambridge that night and got the girls to sleep by about a million o’clock. Monday they played, we worked. Tuesday I schlepped down to London again for work. I’d booked a hotel for Tuesday night, then changed my mind and tried to cancel, then realized it was already too late to cancel without paying in full, so I lured Jeremy down to the Big Smoke to keep me company. Thanks to confused arrangements I sat in Gower Street for twenty minutes growing increasingly cross, then walked around the corner to Paradiso to find Jeremy and Grant already seated at an outdoor table.

“We were about to call the hotel and ask if there was a woman sitting outside looking VERY ANGRY,” said Grant.

I ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio. It was an incomparably mild and lovely London night. Miss Ghostwood 2010, the beautiful Tallulah Mockingbird, was gracious enough to join us. We talked about every possible thing: Books (we all worship Hilary Mantel with an unholy passion and have progressed beyond Wolf Hall into her memoir and her earlier novel, A Place of Greater Safety. Edward St Aubyn is clever and bitchy and shallow but fun reading for a middle-aged European trip), People We Know (we love you all and are thrilled you’re doing so well. Except for that one guy, we hate that guy), Marriage And Relationships And Kids And So Forth, and Stuff We Are Planning To Wow The World With (no spoilers, sweetie!)

The hotel was, well, cheap. And close to work. And breakfast was included, and the full English was pretty much a full English, you can’t go far wrong. But the liquid purporting to be coffee was, how shall I say? Regrettable. J and I snuck off to the British Museum for a quick culture-gorge. They’ve planted a Representative South African Garden out the front, with jade plants and agapanthus and rare precious Elephant Foot Plants. J said: “The bees have been visiting all differently-coloured flowers and have stratified pollen sediments on their legs. You can see the different layers.”

Reader, I married him.

We started at the Royal Graves of Ur – irresistible carnelian and lapis lazuli and gold – and walked through rooms and rooms of Sumerian and Assyrian and Lydian and Phrygian art. Walls and walls of cuneiform, part of Assyria’s royal library: sketchy, inaccurate astronomical observations and thousands of words on the meaning of entrails, deformed babies, other omens:

“So many sophisticated civilizations,” said Jeremy, “almost no science.” They were doing pretty well by the standards of their day – fire, agriculture, writing, cities, leisure, art. But how frightening it must have been, the unknowable world; eclipses, fire flood and famine, the world beyond the walls. On to the Oxus Treasure, four horses driven abreast, a chariot worked in gold. Wicked Lord Lytton looted another like it when he was Viceroy of a famished India.

And suddenly we are in Ancient Europe, with the birth of farming in Iran – the garden of Eden, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Room after room, culture overload. At last, Sutton Hoo. We spent a long time looking at the cloisonne work on the shoulder clasps. You can’t see it, but the blue squares are themselves checkered dark and light blue: it is millefiori glass. The workmanship. Jeremy said he couldn’t figure out how the thing was made. It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Too Much British Museum Girl! Work, back to Cambridge, last day in Cambridge, work, lunch with the XenSourcers and their babies. Packing, too much stuff, bags too heavy. Jeremy threw up all night the night before we left. Taxi to the station, train to Stansted, easy well-designed interchange to the terminal, standardly horrible Ryanair flight to Carcassonne. Julia whined all the way: “I want my Janny NOW!” That’ll teach me to call it a short flight. Ninety minutes is long when you are four.

Janny! And Julia’s comical Joy Face. Hiccups with the car rental nobly surmounted, culminating in us pushing away an abandoned rental that was parking us in. A Peugeot 305! Brand new and great fun to drive. The children were each allowed to choose one name for it; they both chose Twinkle; so it is Twinkle Twinkle, Little Car. Les Oliviers and its large cool rooms and breakfasts and dinners on the terrace. It is too hot at lunch time. All the trees came down and now there is a view across a fallow field to a stand of trees with the hills beyond. Oh my God, the food: pistachios and olives and creamy Brie. Apricots and nectarines that you can’t eat without juice running down your chin. Crisp cucumbers, unctuous avocados, sausages, ham, hard boiled eggs, hummus, lashings of rose wine: it is Elizabeth David and Enid Blyton all rolled into one.

Saturday night, a party in the village square. Tomato salad with mozzarella and black olives, roasted leg of duck with green olives. Dancing and dancing and dancing, a smoke machine, lasers, the macarena, conga lines. Three generations of Fitzes getting their funk on. Carrying Julia home, where she fell asleep instantly in my arms. Sunday afternoon, a visit to one of Jan’s friends. Swimming in her pool in a walled garden on a hill surrounded by vineyards. The garden itself, cherry and apple and almond trees, rose rooms, a gate with frog ornaments, a green porcelain lion. The wind farms turning in the distance. This morning, climbing the hill to the ruined castle. The village full of walled gardens. The girls sitting in the window of the curtain wall.

The first time I came to Les Oliviers, a girlfriend, not even a daughter-in-law, I looked at the yellow-walled room with the twin beds in it; and the thought that I might one day fill them with Jan’s grandchildren was too presumptuous even to be allowed to form.

I forgot to say that they were selling little bronze horse votives in the shop at the British Museum; and that Jeremy bought me one.