Author Archives: ryant

On running in the rain

I’ve been running for a few years. I don’t usually write about it because running talk is boring, often even to runners, and I’m sceptical about the frequent suggestion by writers-who-run that there is some causal connection between the two activities. Writing can be compared to almost any other activity; washing up (persist until it’s properly done or you’ll regret it later) or driving (you won’t be able to see your destination when you set off, only the road in front, but you should still know where you’re going) or cleaning out a septic tank (get in there, do what you came for, get out), so there’s no particular need to reach for the self-aggrandising similes of running marathons or giving birth. There are lots of good reasons to make a habit of going for a run, but mostly I do it as self-soothing. I wouldn’t say running makes me calm but it makes me calmer, more patient, more tolerant. It’s much easier to sit through a time-wasting meeting or walk at the pace of a small child if you ran ten miles first.

We’re on holiday in Scotland at the moment, mostly climbing mountains which is mostly what we do on holiday, and it’s been raining rather a lot even by the standards of Scottish walking holidays. I’ve been getting up early to run so it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s day, and a couple of days ago I found myself in my running clothes at 6.30 am, looking out into heavy rain and remarking piteously to my husband that I wished I wasn’t the kind of person who feels driven to run a long way in the rain before breakfast while on holiday. Well then, he said sensibly, don’t be that person, I don’t know what you think you have to prove, I’m going back to bed. I laced up my shoes and went out, telling myself it was fine if I just did 10k since we were after all going to climb a mountain after breakfast, that I could always turn back if it was too horrible, but of course, as I’d known I would, I ran for an hour and a half and, as I’d known, really, I would, came back grinning and glowing as well as wet and muddy.

I still never really believe it before I set off, but running in the rain is the best running. You don’t get cold because you’re running, but also you don’t get hot because of the rain, which means you can go further and faster in greater comfort. Even the dog-walkers prefer to stay in when it rains, which means that when not on the West Highland Way I can run along the canal and in the park and other places normally off limits to anyone afraid of dogs and their owners. It took me a while to learn that you want to wear as little as possible for rain-running, because a thin layer of lycra feels like a swimming costume while any addition layers are just a cold compress that will chafe and make you chilly, so I run in shorts and a vest and feel rain on my skin and in my hair, feel myself almost fully in the weather and moving fast and strong through mud and puddles and not scared of what’s out there but part of it. When we went up the mountain later we were, quite properly, wearing waterproof layers over our thermal layers over our base layers and I had padded hiking socks and wool socks under my hiking boots and all of that kept us safe if not comfortable for a long day high up in wind and rain, but I remembered my bare-shouldered early morning run with a small thrill.

On disposing of books

We have just moved house. I know I said I wouldn’t, ever again, but it’s like giving birth, one says that every time while the pain is fresh and then it begins to seem that although the process is a nuisance, the end result would be such an improvement, would make the lives of all concerned so much pleasanter, that it’s just mindless conservatism to stay put. Ah well, said one of the removal guys, they say we all move house eight times, which prompted me to count and realise that one of my purposes in life is apparently to counter the couples – our new neighbours, mostly – who’ve lived in the same house since 1963. Counting all my student houses as one, I’ve moved house 17 times in my 41 years. If you count them separately, it’s 23. Can you imagine, said my husband after talking to some of those lovely and sessile neighbours, living in one place for fifty years, and we looked around at our new kitchen which is very fine indeed, especially first thing in the morning when the sun’s on the garden, and reckoned we might just about have fifty years, maybe, or at least one of us might just about have fifty years if we make the rash assumption that healthcare will still be available in Britain in the second halves of our lives. Nope, we said, let’s not. We’re already talking about the next house, about how we’ll arrange the next move, which won’t be for a while, probably not until the kids have finished school which gives us eight years here which is twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else.

Plainly, I like moving on, don’t much want to settle. It’s partly the same reason I tend to work quite fast: life is short, the world is wide, there’s a lot to learn and see and say and do and none of us knows how much time is left. (‘Second half’? Maybe, who knows.) But I have opposing tendencies too. I don’t like e-books and I read a lot, less than I used to when I didn’t have kids and a house and a full time job but still two or three bedside novels a week, plus whatever I’m reviewing, plus whatever I’m teaching the following week, plus research for whatever I’m writing which can mean another ten books in a week, easily, if it’s not a teaching week and I’m in a research phase. I use the university library, of course, and all teaching preparation is re-reading, but nonetheless books come into this house faster than most even before you allow for the other bibliophiles who live here. I also knit, which means both that visits to bookshops sometimes result in the purchase of books about Fair Isle patterns or Japanese lace as well as the latest literary fiction, and that I buy yarn considerably faster than I knit it. We have a family mantra, aimed mostly at the well-meant advice of the generation for whom it was the other way around: stuff is cheap and space is expensive. I repeat it to myself at knitting festivals (yes, of course there are knitting festivals, and they make much more sense than music festivals: I promise no-one at a knitting festival will try to sell you mud to put on your face or a mindfulness workshop under a tree), but I still buy too much yarn. Well, frankly I’m at the point where any yarn is too much.

We failed to go through all our stuff before we moved. Term-time, my new book taking shape, the busiest phase of my husband’s working year, school runs and work trips and an on-again, off-again property transaction that meant we didn’t really believe it was happening until it was almost too late. We did sift the books, lugging piles off to Oxfam, but found as we unpacked that we were handling a lot we’d never read again. Who bought this, we demanded of each other, and why? I read it as an undergrad, we said. I really loved it twenty years ago. Or, I hated that, it made me so angry, I can’t think why I’ve kept it so long. Or, oh, that, it was OK, I quite liked it, slow in the second half though. I used to want to keep all the books, to believe that my powers depended on them, that they were a kind of memory bank. Some of them are. I wouldn’t be without the version of the English canon that the Oxford English Faculty gave me: Chaucer and Langland, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Spenser and Milton, Donne and Marvell, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Arnold and Tennyson, the wild battalion of dead white male poets to whose rhythms I walk when comfort is scarce. Break, break, break/ On thy cold grey stones oh sea. The melancholy long withdrawing roar. Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course/ With rocks and stones and trees. Where Alph the sacred river ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea. I hope they’ll be the last words I forget but meanwhile I need them on paper, at my back. (I always hear/ Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.) I like my bashed old student editions, with my witless pencil notes in the margins – did I think my older self would go through with an eraser one day?

I wouldn’t like to face the world without Austen’s complete works on my shelf, or Charlotte Brontë’s, or George Eliot’s. (You can take Hardy. And Henry James.) I disagree with Virginia Woolf quite a lot but I still need her to be there. And TS Eliot, nostalgic old git. And Auden and definitely Derek Walcott, I like reading him alongside Donne. I’ve outgrown Plath, she could probably go to Oxfam now and anyway I’ve got her in my head (Love set you going like a fat gold watch), but I’m holding disloyally on to Ted Hughes; I don’t care, I find, now, if people were wrong as long as they could write.

Do you think, I said to my husband, that if we went on continually packing and unpacking the books we’d eventually lose all of them? No, he said, you’d get down to about five shelves and you’d stop, they’d be the ones you really do want.

I want, it turns out, the canon. I want the tradition I inherited, which is also, increasingly, the one I try to pass on my students. There are few women’s voices on this course, I say, let’s talk about why that is, and then I go ahead and give to them what I was given. Look, I say, a heteronormative discourse, isn’t it beautiful? There’s the homophobia: isn’t it a fine rhyme scheme, do you see what he did with the stressed syllables there? As my country accelerates into a world I recognise only from the darker pages of the history books, I find myself less and less interested in ideological forms of cultural criticism. I want the words we’ve had for centuries, the beautiful ones that tell some truth.

On nostalgia

Of course I was a Remain voter. I’m an academic, well aware that most of the research in this country is funded by the EU. Most of my friends and many colleagues are EU but not UK citizens. I once spoke fluent French and German, can get by in Italian, understand some Spanish, Dutch and Icelandic. I am more bothered when we run out of olive oil than when we run out of milk. I’m the descendant of middle-European refugees, educated at private school and Oxford (the clue was in the languages). I blame those in power for manifest social injustice, not immigrants. I donate to charities helping refugees and campaigning for human rights and have probably not, honestly, paid similar attention to local need, not beyond talking a lot, making a fuss about libraries and putting the odd tin of soup in the food bank. Come the revolution, I’ll be up against the wall. For the first time in my life, I find myself wanting things the way they were.

The serious study of history is probably the best protection against nostalgia. It helps if you’re a woman working in a profoundly conservative field; the gender pay gap in academia is apparently intractable and surprisingly wide. Many of the senior men earning fifty per cent more than I do for the same work are loudly nostalgic for the golden age of academia in which their working lives were unregulated and unaccounted, which also happen to be years in which academia was even more white, male and upper-class than it is now. These men’s outrage at the end of the university as gentlemen’s club is unceasing, and often dressed in the language of Marxism in which, despite six-figure salaries and hours arranged to suit their convenience, some professors are able to imagine themselves as the oppressed proletariat. I have always been awed by the privileges of academic life, grateful to be well paid for work I enjoy and in no way able to imagine my position in the world as unfortunate or oppressed. Any turning back of a historical clock would give me fewer opportunities and a harder time, because however much I might enjoy resenting the baby-boomers for their free education, ride on the property market and final salary pension schemes, the women of that generation opened doors for their daughters and the women and men leave us equal opportunities legislation that makes it harder for racists, misogynists and homophobes to order our society.

There are plenty of less individual, less class-specific, reasons to disdain nostalgia. I am not suggesting that the apex of progress is the admission of half-Jewish middle-class white women to the professoriat. Here and now we have clean water, indoor plumbing, sterile surgery, antibiotics. Contraception, dishwashers. State education. The Clean Air Acts (at least we know how to deal with air pollution now, and please note that all of these useful things come to us through academic research of the sort for which this country now has no plans). If I could choose to live anywhere in the world at any time in history and could not choose my position in the hierarchy or my state of health, despite all the rage and despair of the last few weeks and months and years I would still choose to be in northern Europe in the early twenty-first century. Probably not in Britain, though for a British writer being here still has some fairly obvious advantages because writers make and feed on national stories and local languages, but not very far away.

So I would really like to find a way to move away from my newfound nostalgia, from my persistent sense that things are worse now than they were and that my children’s lives will be harder than mine has been and that the students whose graduation I will attend later this week have been exploited and betrayed by those whose deepest human instincts as well as professional responsibilities should have been to protect and inspire. I do not wish to spend the second half of my life pining for what I did not recognise at the time as an era of hope. I do not want to despair of England now and I do not want to become conservative. I would like to find intelligent reason for hope and to remain progressive.

On not writing

Someone, another writer who wanted me to do something for which he thought himself too busy, recently said ‘Goodness me, you are prolific.’ I was, perhaps unreasonably, annoyed. He sounded like the lord of the manor talking about an fecklessly fertile peasant (male poets do sometimes have that air as they speak of female novelists). I came home and expressed my views, perhaps at some length, and was reminded that I have published eight books in the last seven years and that, however irritating the conversation might have been, that’s quite a lot. Yes, I said, but one of those books is very short and co-authored (with Alec Badenoch, who did at least half of the work), and one is an academic monograph whose research predates my career as a writer, and anyway the point is that ‘prolific’ makes it sound easy, as if I just fart and another book comes out. Now, compared to almost every other way of making a living, of course there’s a sense in which writing books is easy. You can do it in cafés while sipping something nice, at home wearing pyjamas with a cat on your lap, in a beautiful old library where silence is the rule and no-one’s allowed to bother you. You can stop at any moment to go for a walk in the sunshine or get your hair cut or nip round the shops on a weekday morning while it’s quiet. This is not nursing or mining or primary school teaching. It’s not general practice or banking. There are no hours, no dress-code and no line-managers. I am not suggesting that in those terms, writing, or for the matter of that most other creative practices (we might exempt dance, perhaps), are ‘hard work.’

Writing may not be hard work, but it is difficult work. I have trouble imagining reading or writing an ‘easy’ book that is not also a bad book: predictable, formulaic, derivative? The difficult part of writing is making a new thing – the creative act, in fact – so if it’s not difficult, it’s probably not writing in the form that interests me. None of my books was easy to write, and if I make books fast I’d say it has more to do with being driven than being ‘prolific.’ With taking life fast, because it’s short. With glimpsing mortality standing always behind the curtains, and having things to say before I meet it face to face. Kathleen Jamie, one of my favourite writers, in one of my favourite books writes:

Once, I asked my friend John–half in jest–why we are so driven. By day, John counsels drug addicts; by night he is a poet. He wrote back, half in jest: “You know, my job isn’t to provide answers, only more questions. Like: why are we not more driven? Consider: the atoms of you have been fizzing about for a bit less than five billion years, and for forty-odd of those years, they’ve been pretty well as self-aware as you. But soon enough they’ll go fizzing off again into the grasses and whatever, and they’ll never, ever know themselves as the sum of you again. That’s it. And you ask me why we’re driven? Why aren’t more folk driven? Whatever are they thinking about?”

That said, I’m going to try to be less driven this time. The new book having gone away, I am bereft of the other world in my head and my impulse is set to and make another one, fast. I don’t remember how to manage daily life without the parallel world of a novel-in-progress running at the same time, and I don’t know why I would want to do so anyway. But for six months I’m going to try to reallocate my writing time to reading. I’m going to try not to write, and we’ll see what happens.

On finishing a book

I have just finished a new book. Well, sort of. Finishing a book, like starting one, is rarely categorical. I tend to approach sideways, gaze averted, perhaps humming a little tune, as if I might be doing something perfectly innocent, at the beginning just trying out a sentence or two to see how it looks, later wondering if anything really needs to come after this full stop on page three hundred, if perhaps it might be, if not exactly The Ending, at least an interesting place to pause.

Some writers, I understand, begin to write a book at the beginning and set down one hard-working sentence after another, slowly and methodically, until they come to the end, when the book is finished and perfect and woe betide anyone who suggests changing anything. They tend to write more slowly than I do, leading me to suspect that if I could slow down I might be able to learn a more elegant and efficient approach to the whole business, because my method is, and remains after five novels, messy and inefficient. I spend a couple of years reading, both ‘doing research’ as my academic training taught me and observing the craft of other writers who are good at whatever particular thing it is I’m trying to do. I go into bookshops and ask for literary novels in which a bad thing happens at the beginning and the rest is aftermath, or for male-narrated historical fiction that’s not about war, or for whatever they’ve got that has two narrators speaking from different places at the same time. (You need a good indie bookshop for this kind of thing. There isn’t one in Leamington so I stock up outrageously on trips to Oxford and London. If anyone feels like opening one, maybe with knitting supplies and cake in another room, I promise to spend lots of money.)

Then I set to with my notebook and my laptop and a proliferation of post-its and write the thing. The first draft is just a job of work, summoning a new reality into being sentence by sentence and page by page. I try to do it more slowly than comes naturally because I hope that going more slowly means I’m less likely to get it wrong, or at least more likely to notice I’ve got it wrong before the mistake turns into a major structural problem. Almost every time I fail (Bodies of Light was the exception). I’ll know before I’ve finished the first draft that the second is going to be mostly retrospective structural work that would have been much easier to get right first time, a bit like finishing building a house and then thinking that actually it needs a bathroom on the first floor. Comes a point where it’s easier just to take the roof off and try again. After that, the drafts are hard to count. I just keep going over it and over it, making changes suggested by my agent and editor but also lots of other changes too, round and round until I’m not doing anything to the chapters but only to the paragraphs, then not the paragraphs but only the sentences, and then not the words but only the punctuation, and then putting things back the way they were last week. Sometime around then, my lovely editor gently takes it away, but even then the book’s not exactly ‘finished.’ There is still copy-editing, where I get to argue passionately about punctuation again, and then proof-reading, which they prefer me not to mess with because I’m often still wanting to get my hands on a particular set of parentheses which, on several months reflection, really should have been a separate sentence, and meanwhile there are discussions about catalogue and cover copy, which aren’t exactly part of the book but kind of are, because they’re there on the cover, words on the page.

So I haven’t really finished a book. It’s just gone away for a little while. There’s still time to move a semi-colon or two.

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.