Margaret Forster:

For years I’d been trained the way mothers of small children are, not to waste a moment of child-free time, and so I’d always got straight down to it, and the habit had carried on even after there was no real need to be so concentrated. But now, I was tired. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t produce the ten A4 pages in a morning which I’d been used to. I tried to persuade myself that, through being so slow now, every word would mean more, be more tellingly crafted. Not true. My old, rapid, if careless, style of writing was better by far than the halting, lame stuff I was turning out, crawling hesitantly over one mere page in three hours. Why bother doing it? Why expend precious energy, of which there was so little, on writing, when it would be better conserved for other things? Yet each morning the lure of the desk and the pen drew me up to that room, and I gave into it. Sometimes, sitting was painful, which made sticking to the writing ridiculous. It wasn’t even as though I thought I was turning out anything special enough to justify this regime—it was simply that for some strange reason I wanted to be there, doing it.

My Life in Houses, pp. 254-5.

A week on

Somehow I didn’t do one of these posts last weekend, because . . . Life Stuff . . . or just general feebleness. And now the quotation I want to quote about writing seems silly and trivial, but let us imagine it being offered in a stiff-upper-lip, there-will-always-be-an-England sort of spirit, so I can register world events yet carry on with my trivial semi-academic posts.

This is from Robert Liddell’s book Elizabeth and Ivy, about his friendships with the novelists Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett; he is quoting a letter written by art historian Roger Hinks “about a meeting with Ivy at Madge Ashton’s when there was some talk about Angus Wilson.”

“Madge said: ‘I hear he wrote it [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes] in four months, between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.’ ‘Really?’ observed Ivy; ‘one cannot imagine anyone doing anything in the afternoon between 2 and 4, except hoping that tea would be at 4 rather than at 5.’ There was talk about how many words people wrote an hour. ‘How many do you write, Miss Compton-Burnett?’ said someone. ‘Ten,’ said Ivy, in the tone of an editor saying that this correspondence was now closed.”

Robert Liddell, Elizabeth and Ivy (London: Peter Owen, 1986), 54-55.

This does rather illustrate my life lately, except that I feel more despairing than editorial.

Clothes in books!

I recently discovered this awesome blog, from which I am getting many ideas for fun reading: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/

It also inspired me to post the following passage from a 1930s novel that I read recently when I was supposed to be working. (I was minding my own business, looking for books about something else entirely, when this one leapt from the library shelves into my arms . . . what could I do?) It recounts a day in the life of an MP, his family and his servants, and a nearby poor family, one of whose members applies for a job in the MP’s household. It has a lot of fascinating quotidian details, including clothing for the lady of the house:

“Mary went to the cupboard and fetched the two-piece grey stockinet dress with the white net frills sewn in round the V-neck, and put out the grey stockings and the black patent shoes with steel buckles, and got out a clean handkerchief and put it ready on the dressing table. When Mary had gone Blanche got out of bed and put on her slippers and went to the washstand behind the screen. . . . [She] took off her nightdress and put on a pair of thin pink woolen combinations, and then a white batiste chemise edged with Valenciennes, and stays and stockings, and white batiste drawers, and over them a pair of black satin knickers which buttoned at the knees. She never wore crepe de Chine underclothes because you couldn’t boil them when they were washed, and linen or batiste was really much daintier, and she wore a clean set every day. She put on a grey silk petticoat over the knickers and then slipped on a muslin dressing jacket and sat down at the dressing table and began to brush her hair.”

Sylvia Thompson, Breakfast in Bed (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934), pp. 128-9.

Happy things

I feel well, the sun is shining, flowers are flowering, birds are twittering, I’ve done a whole lot of stuff today including some things I really didn’t want to and also some things I enjoyed, I found that I forgot to record a substantial deposit some time ago and that’s why the bank thinks we have more money than I thought we should (so no more waiting for something to clear or worrying about mistakes), and there’s still time in the day to get some more useful and enjoyable things done. I’m reading a delightful book, a memoir by L. M. Boston called Perverse and Foolish, which is broken into little chunks that can be enjoyed either in a few minutes between other things or at longer stretches.

It looks as if the summer teaching abroad program has enough students to run, and though I have batches of grading to get through they are smaller batches than at the beginning of the term because I “forgot” to point out to students until after spring break that whereas there are five (say) assignments of Type X on the syllabus they only have to do four of them, so now lots of them are breathing sighs of relief and ceasing to turn in work, except for those who want extra credit, and those are usually the better students anyway.

We finally got around to watching the Paris-Roubaix bike race and I think it was the most boring Paris-Roubaix I have ever watched but at least it wasn’t heart-breaking; no one was seriously injured. Paris-Roubaix is called “the Hell of the North” and runs over 25-29 cobblestoned sectors that are brutal; when it’s raining or has rained recently it’s incredibly muddy, slippery, and awful, and when it’s dry it’s incredibly dusty, slippery, and awful. When it’s windy the winds can blow the race apart even without the cobblestones. I still remember vividly watching Frank Schleck crash and break his collarbone in three places. Anyway, this year it wasn’t muddy or windy and was only a little dusty and it seemed like everything went very well, and I’m glad no one got badly hurt.

Reina is snoozing on a chair and Glendower is dozing in a cat carrier with his head poking out just a little so I can see his tufty ears. It’s nice to have their company. Research . . . well, I should do some. I gave a talk this week that went well but it has just dawned on me that I’m supposed to contribute to my writing group this week so I can’t rest on my laurels. It’s a good thing there’s still some time today!

Doing and dreaming

There are those who do, and those who dream.

It has taken much of my life to realize that there are very few things I’d rather do than read about doing. That number keeps shrinking. You might think eating would be a definite Do, but as I am at present on a fairly restricted diet, there are a lot of foods I enjoy only vicariously, by reading about other people’s enjoyment of them. Easy country walks fall into both categories; travel to countries other than those in Europe and North America, however, is strictly Read/Dream. I also love reading about detectives solving murder mysteries, and about Bren Cameron translating for aliens, but I have zero desire to do either, myself.

Currently I have tabs open for four gardening blogs, whose archives I am reading with considerable pleasure. And then I look at my own garden, and wonder how much work it needs to make it possible to offload it, along with this house, onto someone else, and how much of that work I’m willing to pay someone else to do. Despite all my efforts, the garden is still afflicted with creeping bellflower and bishop’s weed; various ornamental grasses and flowers that dry to ornamental interest need to be cut back now that it’s spring; the lawn is patchy; the flowerbeds are covered in last year’s leaf mulch, though some bulbs are popping bravely through.

The gardening blogs I’m dipping into are almost entirely those of people living in the U.K., with a far kinder climate than U.S. zone whatever I’m in (five? six?). Their “winter garden” pictures are of greenery artistically rimed with frost, at times when my garden is usually under a foot or two of snow. At the end of February, their gardens are farther along than mine is in April, and their idea of a baking summer afternoon is what the thermometer here hits by 10:00 a.m. on a July morning before soaring into temperatures that demand drawn curtains and air conditioning.

Possibly in other circumstances, I would be a gardener, as in other circumstances, I might be a number of other things that, either by decision or happenstance, I am not: a mother, an interpreter, an accountant, a superstar scholar, a third-grade teacher. But I think I should pay more attention to what I like to do, and not assume that the things that interest me in print are things I want to do IRL. Gardening is hard on back, hands, fingernails and complexion. I am fair-skinned and not particularly sturdy, in fact in some ways rather fragile. I can see that there must be great creative satisfaction in producing a glorious garden, but it is clear to me that what I like most is reading. I’m just as happy to spend my outdoor time going for walks on which I admire other people’s gardens. I do want some small private place where I can sit outdoors to read on a nice day without being spare-changed or otherwise harassed, as too often happens in parks, but a balcony, patio or front stoop would suit me fine.

Spring break, day 4

I did several loads of laundry, put in about 45 minutes on a research project, wrote a couple of long e-mails regarding a summer program, went to the gym, went to the bank, and packed two boxes of my clothing for storage. This entailed trying on a few items. Three skirts will be given away, but my flirty little black dress still fits and looks good. I also finished shredding the clean paper from basement boxes.

It seems like not very much.

In the evening I tried to figure out the extent of my clear memories of the Foreigner series. I had forgotten that there were so many books after the return to the planet. Lots of atevi politics, mostly taking place during a very short time. People like Sir John, who love plot, no doubt prefer these. Given my bent, I like the earlier books, where Bren is still learning the fine points of the language and culture.

Spring break, day 3

I spoke too soon about being done with the boxes of moldy stuff. I found two more yesterday, and dealt with them. Both were drier on the top layers than previous ones, so I was able to salvage more items.

One that cannot be salvaged, but which inspired a bit of mental time-traveling, is a bound copy of the 1961 dissertation of the professor who directed the dissertation of Sir John’s witness at our wedding. I took a class with that man (not the witness, his diss director) when I was an undergrad. I can still picture the classroom, the prof with his distinctive hair and mannerisms, the chalkboard, a few of my classmates; can still remember some of my thoughts and feelings as I took notes: trying to focus without thinking about my recently-ex-boyfriend, wondering why topics seemed so clear in the classroom and so difficult when I tried to do homework, fascination with some of the aspects of the class mixed with distaste for the professor. If I could somehow have known that one day I would marry the friend of one of the prof’s graduate students, I expect I would have tried to get to know his students (it wouldn’t have been hard; I was friends with a couple of my TAs) and figure out who their friends were. But Sir John hadn’t yet met the man who witnessed our wedding, so that wouldn’t have helped me fast-forward my life.

I also picked up some items that didn’t make it onto the weekend grocery list, and discovered that my library card has expired. I couldn’t renew it, because I have been using the card from the town where I used to live. It is recognized by a consortium of local libraries, which is why I hadn’t bothered to get a new one. Or, more accurately, that is why I didn’t need to get a new one when we moved. The real reason I didn’t get a new one is that by the time I got around to dealing with that sort of paperwork, I was sulking about having to move from a house I did like, with wonderful neighbors, in a town with very friendly Town Hall staff, into a house that has been an albatross around our necks, with neighbors ranging from nasty to indifferent, in a larger town with more reserved and perfunctory official staff. Using my old library card consoled me, a tiny bit. Or let me keep a tiny corner of denial, I suppose.

It would take about ten minutes to get a new library card for this town. But I think I’m not going to get one. I’m taking the expiration as encouragement to get out of this house. I’ll get a library card after we move.

Or, I suppose, if the house doesn’t sell and we have to stay here another year, after that becomes clear.

I did spend awhile in the library looking at recent issues in Cherryh’s Foreigner series and realized I’m several behind. In fact, in April I’ll be a whole trilogy behind. I wasn’t sure about one book, which seemed somewhat but not wholly familiar; back at home, I found that I own it. Brain, do try and keep up. I’ll re-read that one, and maybe at the end of term I’ll have a binge on the most recent three.

I watched the last stage of Paris-Nice, which was very exciting thanks to Alberto Contador (but I’m glad Henao kept the yellow jersey), and took another long bath.

Spring break, day 1

I’m a copy-cat. Clarissa reported on her spring break, last week, so I’ll do the same this week. The exciting life of a professor on break. I’m sure you can hardly wait to hear what I’ve been up to.

I worked out, bought cat treats, re-tested a new food that I think will make it back into my diet, cooked a meal that will provide leftovers for several more meals, and sorted through five boxes and three bags in the basement. This means I’m done with the nasty ones that got wet and subsequently moldy, following the Great Basement Flood of almost two years ago. Done! Obviously neither one of us was really eager to deal with these boxes. Fortunately nothing crucial was damaged or lost. Most of what I looked at can go into the trash, no bother, and I have managed to save a few sentimental items.

There’s still a lot of stuff in the basement to go through, and either give away, throw away, or re-pack. But the really icky part is now over.

Then I watched a stage of Paris-Nice and stayed up too late re-reading a favorite book, one of Cherryh’s Er-series (ForeignER, DefendER, etc). I love this series because the main character is a fragile, scholarly translator-diplomat plunged into highly dramatic space opera involving aliens, shooting wars, and tense political negotiation. It’s his skill with words and languages that repeatedly staves off disaster.

Golden Days

“On the whole, they say, people got what they expected. The generals and the military were very hard hit. A certain kind of women and children were devastated. . . . But, as in any catastrophe, there were the crackpots who hadn’t paid much attention; the ones who, in a sense, went on playing poker through the quake. They were the dumb ones, the sissies, the . . . hedonists who were too enchanted by their own lives to get excited by Death descending.

“The ones I know who lived were the ones who had been making love, or napping, or fixing dinner, when the End came, or the ones at the beach—who still talked about the great crystallization of the sand, the ones far out windsurfing who dove beneath the waves and felt the whole Pacific turn lukewarm, the ones whose boats were out on the far side of Catalina when it happened and hove to, sailing back out of pure curiosity. And, of course, all of the scrabbling canyon weirdos, who saw the whole global collapse as just another brush fire.”

Carolyn See (1934-2016), Golden Days (McGraw Hill, 1987), 192-193.

Living in the past

“The reading of jestbooks could be, and was, justified on the ground that they were pills to purge melancholy and thus (since the Elizabethans were firm believers in psychosomatic medicine) could improve one’s physical health. Similarly, because the reading of history was recommended as perfectly safe and useful, it was possible to take up with a clear conscience any book, however fantastic, that had the word ‘history’ displayed on its title page.” Richard Altick,  The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (1957; rpt. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1998), 42.

It’s the same principle as looking at photographs of kittens, and supports me in reading history as escape/distraction. I would like to urge my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers to subtitle their works with “A history of . . . .” Would it work just to write in my own sub-titles? “An alternative history of Regency England.” “A History of Riverside.” “A History of the Hidden Land.”