On broken things

I’m writing again, the furious first-draft stage of a new novel when it feels as if I’m hacking a path through undergrowth, forcing a way through where there wasn’t one before. I see things differently in writing phases. I see patterns that weren’t there last time I looked, and my daily surroundings and the news seem to be shaping themselves around the new reality in my mind.

Two events made patterns for me today. I walked along the canal with my older son while my partner took the little one to football, which is how our Sunday mornings usually go, and though I can’t see the Grand Union towpath without remembering the years when the South West Coast Path was our daily fare, I’m developing a liking for the canal. I like the way something that was, in the nineteenth century, an eyesore and an insult to the English countryside, has begun to seem natural. I like the sense of the nation’s nerves or veins, because the Grand Union was built and used to move pretty much everything between London and Birmingham for over a hundred years. I’ve always liked footpaths that are going somewhere far away, even if I’m only following them for a few miles before I go home for lunch.

We came upon a group of volunteers dragging rubbish out of the canal, hurling grappling hooks and straining on ropes, gathering to see what would emerge. Distorted supermarket trolleys, mostly, stoved in and wrapped in malodourous black mud. A surprising number of children’s bicycles, some of whose paint was still red and sparkly. Best of all, a motorbike, with a leather jacket still wrapped around its handlebars and a tax disk from 2010 still in its holder. Must have been stolen, my son said, for joy-riding, but we couldn’t see why people would put bikes in the canal. Supermarket trolleys, I suppose, are hard to get rid of once they’ve served their purpose (what purpose?), though I would have thought it would be difficult to get one down to the towpath. We passed the work party and were soon out in what passes in the Midlands for countryside, where there are buds on the hedgerows now and green catkins on the willows. I thought about archaeologists’ interest in middens and rubbish heaps, how what we throw away says more about us than what we keep. I thought about the supermarket trolley in The Road, which has always seemed a heavy-handed piece of symbolism, and about the way we give children bicycles in memory of a time when they were allowed to go out and ride them. I thought that I would find it rather satisfying – though obviously reprehensible and probably criminal – to throw a motorbike into a canal.

Later, setting the table for lunch, my younger son dropped one of my favourite plates, a ‘second’ from the Leach Pottery in St Ives, where we used to call often when we lived in Cornwall. I’ve always liked potters’ ‘seconds’, because you can see the process of making in them. Where something wobbled, where someone was distracted, where the clay just didn’t behave, but on the other hand the glaze came out perfectly and the handle is exactly right. The plates were not completely flat and I liked them that way.

It was an accident. He cried. I took a deep breath, remembered the awfulness of breaking something, the worse awfulness of breaking something that matters to someone who loves you, told him it was all right and hugged him. I told him that potters would much rather people used lovely things and, after a few years, accidentally broke them, than shut them up in boxes and said they were too good for family meals. He was still crying, so I told him about the pot-shards that dominate every archaeological site I’ve ever seen or heard of, representing all those hundreds of generations of people breaking their pots and swearing or crying and feeling sad for a bit before going off to talk to the potter about another one. It doesn’t matter, I said – though it did, a bit – people have been breaking plates since they first made fire. Just think of them all.

It’s the broken things that make patterns. Integrity is a state, not a story.

On smugness at the sales

The January sales make me feel queasy. I was brought up to be parsimonious and remain careful with money, so I like a bargain as much as anyone, but there’s something about the fetish of Christmas shopping followed by the excitement about the sales that proclaims dysfunction. Especially in a country where houses are cramped and we’re all chronically short of space and consuming books and programmes about ‘de-cluttering’, more stuff really isn’t helpful. It’s like over-eating in December so you can purge and starve in January: there’s a cycle here that looks oddly easy to avoid.

Even so, I went into town, mostly for fruit and veg from the greengrocer (we live in that sort of town), taking a child whose behaviour suggested a need for fresh air and exercise as a guard against additional shopping. I couldn’t help seeing the shop windows, and when I happened to see a dress I’d admired a few weeks ago discounted by 50% and popped in – leaving a disgruntled child outside the shop – I didn’t feel entirely compromised. It wasn’t as if I had bags full. I’d thought about buying it full price. It’s not, I said to my husband later, that I don’t want stuff as much as most people, I just think it’s undignified to get so excited about buying things. We had a reprise of the Black Friday conversation, and he added that he’d seen in The Guardian an account of a security guard reporting that he’d seen a mother using a pushchair as a battering ram to reach some desired object in a shop. (Quite a lot of what passes for adult conversation these days consists of us telling each other things we read in the Guardian.)

That brought me up short. Not because I was particularly shocked by what the Guardian reports of the huddled masses, but because I recognised the rhetoric. When I was a proper academic doing proper research in eighteenth-century literature, I read and wrote a lot about gender and material culture, looking particularly at the way that era thought about women, money and consumerism. I still think of the 1770s-1780s as the beginning of our own era, with the majority of the British population moving into cities, a mass obsession with celebrity fuelled by new media (print journalism for them), rapidly increasing mobility tending to fracture place-based identity, widening professional and economic opportunities for women, or at least well-educated upper-class women, romantic ideas about country life celebrated mostly by an urban elite…

Anyway, I made a particular study of the way late eighteenth-century journalists and readers worried about what happened when women went into town. They went shopping, that’s what happened. They despoiled their families by lavishing money they couldn’t spare on stuff they didn’t need. They couldn’t stop themselves buying fancy clothes and cosmetics even if their children were malnourished and their husbands sick from over-work. Working-class women’s greed for stuff was why there was no point in trying to feed the poor, because whatever you did they wouldn’t eat cheap, nourishing bean soup (some things never change), because they’d spend every penny on flashy consumer durables. It was a stupid, classist, misogynist rhetoric that constructed the virtuous middle-class mother, devoted to her children’s health and welfare and justly sheltered from the rigours of economic activity, as the opposite of the feckless parasite who lived hand-to-mouth and ignored her children as she grasped for more stuff. Nothing’s changed, or at least, whatever changed during the twentieth century seems to be changing back again. These are the stories that justify ignoring poverty, the lies that tell us there’s some correlation between moral worth and bank balance. Well, bugger that. I’m going to put my blood oranges and my organic kale in a pushchair and use it to take out anyone who gets between me and a pair of entirely unnecessary boots I’ve been ogling since October.

Oh, but I’m too late. Someone less smug with feet the same size as mine got there first.

On getting a cat

First, I have not turned into someone who posts pictures of kittens on the internet. Which is something of a relief to me, since we have a new kitten and she is beguiling and if ever a person were to be moved to post such photos, this would be the time.

I’ve always been ambivalent about pets. I regard dogs with unalloyed fear and loathing. (Yes, even your dog, even if she is terribly friendly really. No, I wouldn’t change my mind if I met her. No, being ‘licked to death’ by a dog is a fate that appeals to me no more than being suffocated to death by a cloud of toxic smoke or squashed to death by a moving vehicle, though thank you for offering.) I am not afraid of hamsters, guinea-pigs and rabbits, and I can see why they would make good transitional objects for children too old for teddies, with the additional bonus – I suppose – of a lesson in sex and death. I don’t see why grownups would want rodents, or anything else, defecating in a house. I don’t see why a person would want to spend time forming a relationship with an animal when there are other people to talk to.

It’s easy, of course, to construct a Marxist argument against pets. Doesn’t it tell you all you might need to know about the decadence of late capitalism that some people buy little pouches of organic, gourmet cat food in the supermarket and then walk past the boxes for donations to the food bank on the way out? (It’s not, really, much better if they stop to put some food into the boxes: we’re still in a world where some people buy luxury food for captive animals while other people can’t buy any food for their children.) It’s easy to construct a vegan argument against pets along the same lines as the vegan argument against farming animals: pets are also creatures removed from a natural habitat and natural behaviours and bred in captivity over generations to gratify the needs of humans. In the case of my new cat, a Siamese, I could also construct a post-colonial argument against pets, since Siamese cats were brought to the UK at the height of mid-nineteenth century Orientalism. There are early photos of them posed against Oriental silk curtains with statues looted from Oriental temples. (I mean, ‘Siamese’ cats. Not Thai.)

Still, I’ve always wanted a Siamese cat. My grandparents had them. They’re slinky and mildly sinister, visually appealing, and also affectionate and amusing to watch. All the things it would be reprehensible to value in a human being. When we went to choose her, my husband and I were comparing and contrasting what became our cat and her sister. That one has nicer colouring, I said. Yes, but the other one has a pointier profile, he said. Stop it, I said , we’re treating them both as aesthetic objects. Well yes, he said, as opposed to what, exactly?

So that’s the point, I suppose. Pets are a legitimate way to violate your politics, and their cupboard love, born of confinement and dependence, allows us to believe ourselves adored. Anyway, she’s very pretty, and we’re feeding her the really expensive Danish organic cat food to show how much we care. I’ve even found some organically produced biodegradable cat litter. Bring on the revolution.


My new book, Bodies of Light, comes out this week. When I was asked if I wanted to dedicate it to anyone, I said no, as I always do. A dedication seems an odd gift: not for my husband and children, who might reasonably be decidedly ambivalent about my writing. Not for my extended family, who know me in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with books. Not for friends, whom I value for reasons other than their various interests in my work. Non-fiction has many contributors, but a novel isn’t, usually, in anyone’s gift.

I still think that’s probably right, but I keep thinking about the Edinburgh Seven, the first seven women to study for medical degrees in Britain. I decided that because I wanted Bodies of Light to be recognised as a work of art rather than a work of historical scholarship, and because the seven pre-date my heroine’s career and weren’t directly relevant to the story, I wouldn’t mention them. I pursued my usual mode of research and read for the novel exactly as intensively as I would read for an academic monograph, but having done that I wrote, as I always do, into the lacunae in the historical record. Fiction, for me, begins where history falls silent, and the Edinburgh Seven are part of history:

Mary Anderson

Emily Bovell

Matilda Chaplin

Helen Evans

Sophia Jex-Blake

Edith Pechey

Isabel Thorne

In 1869 Sophia Jex-Blake led these women in forcing their way into and through Edinburgh University to study medicine. She had persuaded the University Court to state that it was not opposed to the medical education of women, although the statement added that the University could not make special provision for one woman. 180 male medical students signed a petition against the admission of women, on the grounds that lecturers would have to modify teaching for mixed audiences so that certain subjects could not be covered and that the admission of women would ‘degrade the University.’ Nevertheless, the General Council allowed the women to matriculate (to sit entrance exams), without committing itself to allowing them to graduate. All passed, four among the top seven, and all continued to excel and win prizes when allowed to take examinations, but it was the beginning of three years of misogyny and bullying that is still shocking even in the era of anonymous social networking. Some lecturers encouraged male students to abuse and insult the women as they entered lecture-halls and classrooms. They were assaulted by fellow-students with more or less official support from eminent professors. They had to arrange and pay for their own tuition where they were refused entry to some classes, and all against a background of letters in the medical journals accusing them of unnatural and indecent interest in the male body, stupidity, greed, ugliness and cheating. In 1873 the University ruled that after four years’ study and outstanding results in all examinations, they were not allowed to graduate and would not be able to join the Medical Register or use the title ‘Doctor.’

Most found other ways, graduating instead in America, Ireland, Switzerland or France and then returning to England to practice. Gradually, because of their relentless work and the support of huge numbers of women who wanted to be able to consult female doctors, things began to change, but the resistance of the medical establishment was extraordinary. In 1874, Jex-Blake gave up on existing universities and founded the London School of Medicine for Women, which is the basis of Ally’s medical school in Bodies of Light. So the end of their story is, more or less, where I began. They’re not part of the book, but if I dedicated it to anyone, it would be them.

(There’s surprisingly little accessible scholarship about the first women doctors, but if you want to know more a good place to start is Catriona Blake’s The Charge of the Parasols: Women’s Entry to the Medical Professions, published by The Women’s Press in 1990).


On shopping in Japan

I’m back in Japan, finishing off the research for the sequel to Bodies of Light. This time I’ve come alone and independently, and I’m renting a machiya, a nineteenth-century wooden townhouse, all to myself.

When I planned this trip I imagined that it would be blissful to have eight days alone in Kyoto. It’s the longest I’ve been alone since just before we were married, twelve years ago, and since, like most writers, I cherish solitude, I thought more could only be better. Just before I left home I thought it was obviously a crazy idea to commit myself to loneliness and silence in a place where I can’t communicate, and also that no benefit to the book could justify the evident dismay of my children at my departure. As usual – maybe one day I’ll learn – experience falls between fantasy and dread. I have been lonely,.On the other hand, I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do almost all the time and therefore been enormously productive and covered far more ground (literally) than I could have done under any other circumstances. I’ve looked forward to evenings of reading, writing and catching up on some of the films I always miss because they either start so early I couldn’t eat with the children or end so late I couldn’t cope with work the next day. I’ve taken classes in Japanese paper-craft, lacquer-work, bamboo and sweet-making (it’s all research, honestly). I’ve walked up and down the river, found my way out into the mountains to see a textile factory, admired many temples and gardens (probably not really research, but there’s a momentum about Kyoto and temples that it would be foolish to resist) and spent several days doing proper work in museums.

And I’ve also been shopping. Well, it is nearly Christmas, and I am writing about the European interest in collecting Japanese objects, so that’s kind of research, too. I spent this morning being overwhelmed at a craft market held in the grounds of a temple, where I bought rather a lot. (It was a choice between insufficiently discriminate spending and declaring an overload and running away. With ten days to go, this is my first Christmas shopping.) I bought things from potters – I always buy things from potters, mostly mugs – and wood-turners (so easy to pack!) – and spinners (I can never have too much hand-spun yarn). I looked covetously at leather goods and waxed paper hats and hand-woven scarves and a very appealing rag doll in an ikat kimono and interesting cakes and linen tunics and some other stuff that I could perfectly well make if I really want it. And right at the end, just as I began to realise that I was too cold to think straight and had bought too many fragile pots, I saw a bag. It was made of folding squares of canvas and leather and was utterly beguiling because it had so many pockets. (There’s a terrible delusion that having lots of pockets in a bag means life will be shipshape, rather than that all the pockets will soon contain old receipts and tissues and Very Important Pebbles collected by the children and I still won’t be able to find my keys.) It was also very beautiful, and being sold by a nice young woman who designs them herself. And I walked away, because it cost more than I could justify spending and because I already have many bags and none of them make me a better person, and after ten minutes the bag was calling me and I thought I’d go back and just make sure I really didn’t want it.

I couldn’t find the stall. The market was about as crowded as the Northern Line at 8 am on a weekday, and the lanes were narrow and made odd turns around bits of the temple. I went round again twice on purpose and another time trying to find the exit, and I saw everything else again but not the bag stall, and when I got back to my little wooden machiya I googled several possible sets of terms but of course these particular bags are so special and clever that they don’t exist on the internet, only in the courtyard of this particular temple in Kyoto on this particular day in December. So I’ll never own one now.

Of course it doesn’t matter. There will be another covetable and slightly too expensive object along soon. I don’t need another bag. (I don’t need anything, obviously.) But this, I think, this yearning desire for a thing that somebody designed and made and that I can’t now have, is rather like what my Victorian collectors felt.

Research, after all.

On Coming Home

I had a good summer. For the first time in eight years, we had a holiday just for pleasure. Not one structured around my research or a doomed attempt to appease extended family, but just a place we thought might be fun for the four of us.

We went to Innsbruck, with a few days in a mountain village called Thiersee along the way. Part of Thiersee’s appeal for me was staying in an all-inclusive hotel (I think this is OK when it’s independent, family-run and in Austria. And the food is all both organic and locally sourced.) For three days, I didn’t need to think at all about what to cook or whether we had enough milk for breakfast or whether I’d provided each child with five portions of fruit and veg and if not, why not and could I borrow from tomorrow or yesterday… We went off climbing mountains in the knowledge that there’d be a four-course meal on the table when we came back, and one lovely day, swam in the lake until there was only just time to hurry down the road and shower before dinner.

And then we went to Innsbruck, where we stayed in an apartment, but by then we were ready for less hearty mountain cooking and I’d had a few days off. I like Innsbruck. I’d like to live in Innsbruck. (We were delighted to discover a very old friend who does live in Innsbruck and pines for Munich, so it goes.) From our balcony, we could see mountains in all directions and watch the weather coming down the valley from Italy, and the local trains took us high up the valleys in twenty minutes so we could spend the day hiking and wander around the eighteenth-century old town in the evening. I enjoyed speaking German again and, despite issuing manifestos about accepting translated fiction, I’ve signed up for a German course now.

And now we’re back in what doesn’t quite feel like home. Leamington Spa in general and our new house in particular are perfectly comfortable and pleasant places where any sensible person would be glad to live, and I am glad but I still pine for Falmouth and our small, damp and quirky cottage. I knew I would. The challenge now is to develop a similar affection for a new place, and partly to that end I’ve been cycling to work, eight miles of which half is a quiet country lane lined, at the moment, with damsons, blackberries, rowans and rosehips. We’ve made six kilos of jam, and I have a hunch that eating your environment might be a good way of learning to love it.

In praise of grey skies

I’ve never liked hot weather. It’s probably one of the reasons for my love of North Atlantic islands. It’s much easier to keep warm in cold weather than to keep cool in hot weather, and I don’t like having the shape of my days dictated by the need to stay out of the sun. (Rain is fine. You don’t survive a year in Iceland and three in West Cornwall without being relaxed about rain. It’s only water, won’t go deeper than skin, unlike sunshine which will give you sunburn and skin cancer as well as headaches, dehydration and unseemly clothes).

So I didn’t like the heatwave, and I greet the return of grey skies and cool breezes with much cheer, and the fervent hope that the rest of the summer will stay temperate. As temporary deprivation does, the hot interlude made me think how much I like our usual English climate. Part of my settling in Warwickshire has been to buy a bike – I hadn’t cycled since Iceland because Falmouth is full of steep hills and I just don’t hate myself that much. I bought it planning to cycle to work, the seven miles being too far to walk both ways and the buses being expensive and overcrowded, but I started by exploring some of the roads out of Leamington, and soon found a circular route that takes me along narrow back lanes through hamlets, fields and woodland. It’s not the kind of landscape I usually appreciate much, preferring my countryside bleaker and higher, but I’m beginning to see Warwickshire’s bucolic appeal. There are rolling hills, enough for variety but not exhausting for cyclists, a richness of tall trees, hedgerows and streams. I’ve always enjoyed taking the same routes every couple of days so that I learn to notice small changes, the growing and falling of leaves and flowers, the rise and fall of the water level, the progress of roadworks and house-building and especially the effect of different kinds of light and weather. For two weeks, I had to cycle early in the morning and even then it was too hot. The tarmac melted, I sweated, the sky was one shade of blue and the light was strong and unrelenting. Today was cool and damp. I could go fast without being red-faced and miserable, there were depths of grey and white in the sky and layers of water-colour perspective in the inclines of the land. Looking at England, I thought, teaches you to see subtleties invisible in more extreme climates.

On Going to Japan and Not Reading German

I’ve lost German. I’ve lost French a bit too, but not as much, mostly the accent. I can still read in French. My German was never as good, never really good enough for nineteenth-century novels, with the foolish result that I have read almost no German literature. I knew I ought to read it in German. I knew it would be mere laziness and self-indulgence to use a translation. I wanted to be like the Bronte sisters, like the Rivers women in Jane Eyre, gathering around the fire with Goethe and a German dictionary night after night until they could do it, not because they needed the GCSEs but just for the love of the thing. For self-improvement. I worked my way through the French canon along approximately those lines but my German just wasn’t really there, not enough for Thomas Mann. And I’m a literary critic by training and translations just won’t do. You’re reading for the plot, with a translation, or for the cultural and historical context, or even if the translator’s done a lovely job and you’re reading for the beauty of the thing, it’s not the original beauty. It’s not authentic. (And yes, I do know fairly exactly how problematic is the idea of authenticity.) So German literature, bar a bit of poetry, had to wait until I could read it in German. Twenty years later, it’s still waiting.

Meanwhile, I’m writing this on the train to London on my way to Japan. I haven’t pulled myself together. I haven’t risen like a phoenix from the ashes of my seventeen-year-old self, the one disabled by self-consciousness and the haunting fear that one day someone would see through me. I’m still afraid of making a fool of myself. I’m still scared by the idea of a world in which there are no words for me. But I’m also, now, writing a novel in which someone bigger and braver than me goes to Japan. I’ve gone back to my fascination for the wood-block prints. And while I might have got away with writing Cold Earth without ever going to Greenland because I knew other North Atlantic landscapes pretty well, I don’t think I could write about Japan without ever having set foot in Asia.

There is a solution for people who want to go somewhere but don’t want to be alone in a foreign land. I thought the history of tour groups began with Thomas Cook at the end of the nineteenth century, but on reflection I recall that almost all European travellers in Asia had guides from the very beginning, and usually they took along their own servants as well, to do the laundry and make sure they had nice food and that the sheets were aired and the towels clean. The idea that one could or wish would to travel unescorted and unmediated is a very modern one. I was not brought up to join tours, or indeed groups of any kind. My parents were fully independent, intrepid travellers. We found roads that weren’t on the map and drove along them through the mountains. We camped because we could carry our own tents and sleeping bags and be dependent on and beholden to nobody. (I am reminded of Pa in Little House on the Prairie.) We scorned crowds, tourists, translators. The highest praise for a landscape was that it held no trace of human occupation and that we had it to ourselves.

All that seems pretty misanthropic to me now. Humans are, by and large, sociable animals. Most of us need company as well as solitude. I despise the rhetoric of independence in relation to politics because I am certain that we all have the responsibility of caring for others and the right to be cared for ourselves. I don’t want to live in a society that fetishes independence but one where ordinary human weakness meets with ordinary human mercy and compassion, not because the world is divided into the weak and strong but because we are all weak and strong. Well, I’m a weak traveller, at least according to the definitions with which I grew up. Isolation drives me mad, quite quickly. I worry a lot. I see catastrophes coming from far away. I dislike being unable to communicate. But I would still like to go to Japan, not because I need to prove anything along the lines of independence, intrepidity or general moral worth but because I am a writer and I want to write about it. So I’ve found people who will do the difficult and arduous bit for me so I can concentrate on looking really hard and writing really hard about what I see. I’ll be walking the Nakasendo Way with a company called Walk Japan, staying in interesting and comfortable guesthouses chosen by people who know what they’re doing, having my bags taken ahead by taxi so I can tread lightly without being impeded by impedimenta. They’ve chosen and booked a traditional inn in Kyoto for me, because I reckoned I’d rather rely on someone’s professional expertise than on vindictive or simple-minded Tripadvisor reviews and I want to be well looked-after so I can get on with seeing and writing. And I’ve got The Magic Mountain to read on the plane, in a perfectly adequate English translation.

Growing up is hard to do. But it means I get to go to Japan.

On not going to Japan

As a teenager, I spent several summers in Germany, staying with a family near Dusseldorf. The arrangement began as a language exchange and went on as a friendship. From the age of fourteen, I used to fly from Manchester to Paris, cross Paris on the metro and continue by train to a small village outside Le Mans, where I spent several weeks speaking French, and then back to Paris and on to Dusseldorf to speak German. I thought I was tasting my future as a citizen of Europe, equipping myself with the languages I’d need for the adult life I had all planned out. I fear I may have taken myself even more seriously than most teenagers do.

I finished school as a confident and independent traveller, comfortable with my ability to get myself around pretty much anywhere in western Europe, to read newspapers, watch films and discuss my ideas in three languages. The disadvantage was that my competence depended entirely on words. I’d never had to cope with a place where I couldn’t explain myself, ask for what I wanted and talk my way out of trouble.

One of the museums I visited in Germany was the Museum of East Asian Art. My mother was an art historian and I’d grown up reasonably well educated in the European tradition, but I’d barely seen art from the rest of world. I remember spending the whole day there, fascinated by Japanese woodcuts. I didn’t understand how they could be so compelling without the kind of depth and perspective I was used to, but they kept calling me back. I’d like to say it was the beginning of an amateur expertise, a day that started my development as a connoisseur, but it wasn’t. I bought two prints to take home and went on with my summer.

I put those prints on my bedroom wall when I went home, and they became the inspiration for a series of stories on which I worked, on and off, for a couple of years. I don’t have them now, the stories or the prints, and I doubt the writing was any good, but the experience of looking really hard at something and writing really hard about it, over and over again, might have been the beginning of something recognizably like my writing practice. I read a bit about Japan, admired a silk kimono my grandfather had inherited, and thought how much I’d like to go one day if only I could do so invisibly. I knew I would never be able to cope with finding myself illiterate, clueless and ill-mannered. My fear of my own vulnerability was so very much greater than my desire to see Japan that I knew I’d never go, however much it appealed. That was that.

House hunting

Moving house is distracting. I’m not writing at the moment, which is more or less all right because the next project is still in the research phase, but I’m not reading as much or as attentively as usual either. It’s not that I need absolute peace and hours of seclusion to read and write; any writer who also has a serious job and a family is used to having to make time and to prioritize a creative practice over other, apparently more urgent, activities. I am more than capable of writing instead of cooking, or attending school sports day, or sending Christmas cards. I am not worried by overdue filing or the insistent demands of bureaucracy, and find it often more efficient to let work e-mails build up for a day or two and then answer them all at once when I’ve finished some research or writing.

But there’s something about relocation that’s taking over my mind. I can’t stop myself checking property websites more than once a day, in case the perfect house comes up, and then when it doesn’t, checking for neighbouring towns where we’ve already decided we don’t want to be as well, just in case a house so spectacular as to overcome our objections to the location has appeared since I last looked. When I’m trying to read, I find myself staring at the wall thinking, well, if we put the sofa in that room, where would the children sit to read while I’m cooking? Would my yarn collection start to smell of onions if it lived in an open-plan kitchen/living room? Could we be happy with a very small garden if it faced south and we had lots of indoor plants? I doubt any of it matters all that much; if our family’s happiness really depends on the dimensions of the lawn, we have problems unlikely to be solved by real estate. But I do know, from experience, that domestic architecture makes a huge difference to family life and that some houses make it hard to share or divide everyone’s time and space.

There’s something rather novelistic about all this, the need to call into being parallel lives in different places, to imagine the family future taking shape within new walls, and that’s one of my excuses: relocation is so much like writing a novel that I can’t do both at once. I’ve said to several estate agents that it’s no wonder people tend to behave badly, irrationally, when all of their money and their homes are at stake. I’m sure we could be happy – or unhappy – in most of the houses we’ve considered, and I know we’re lucky to have a choice. My attention, my compulsive attention, to the matter of relocation, is partly a superstitious offering of my creative energies to a time of disruption. If I stop writing, maybe the new house won’t have rising damp, won’t be dazzled nightly by the floodlights on a playing field behind the garden, won’t turn out to have a barking dog next door or – please God deliver us – a midnight television enthusiast on the other side of the party wall. If I stop writing, maybe we’ll find a house where the children’s teenage years will go smoothly, where new friends will become old friends and sickness will pass us by. Writing can be a form of prayer, but sometimes not writing is also a kind of supplication, an offering to other gods.