Known Unknowns

I'm in marking purdah, so this isn't a proper post, but I'm just dropping in to record the bare facts that the last two Saturdays took me to two places I seldom or never visit, despite their being so close. I wonder why not, because they're both really nice! It's not as if I'd not heard of them.

Last Saturday I drove Moe on our latest jaunt, this time over the old Severn Bridge to Chepstow - a journey that took, maybe, 25 minutes from my front door. I'm ashamed to say that I'd never been to Chepstow before. (I suppose the recently abolished toll was more offputting than I'd thought.) Although it was a lowering sort of day, that is of course entirely appropriate when looking at instruments of Norman oppression of the Welsh.


(Afterwards we went further up the Wye to look at books in Hay, but of that I have no photographs. Besides, I've been to Hay many times. Fun fact: Hay is the last place I ever used a public urinal! Will there be a plaque one day?)

Yesterday it was Bath - last visited a couple of years ago, maybe? despite being only 12 minutes from Bristol by train... Of course it's a lovely city, and a World Heritage Site and all, but somehow life doesn't take me there very often. This time, however I had lunch with a friend at Comins Tea House - my first time. Reader, if you like tea and you are in Bath, you have to go there. I will say no more than that. (Except that they also have a branch in Sturminster, apparently, so go there if it's more convenient; but go.)


I updated my will recently, which is a rather strange way to spend money, but at least will simplify matters at a time when (I like to imagine) everyone will be too grief-stricken to think straight without my guiding hand reaching out in a calming manner from the grave.

Anyway, the solicitors' firm is also an executor, and when they witnessed the document in their office I expressed mild surprise that they were able to do that, given that they were also named in the will. "But not as a beneficiary," they explained, adding: "If a beneficiary were to witness the will, they would disinherit themselves."

"What?" I replied, letting the implications of this sink in. "You mean, it wouldn't invalidate the will?"

"No. In fact, it's a common problem when people make wills at home. The will is still perfectly legal, but the main beneficiary is disinherited."

Did you know that? It strikes me as counterintuitive, and probably often devastating in its consequences - but also a wonderful opportunity for post-mortem passive aggression.

"Come, Johnny - you always were my favourite grandchild, so I'd like you to be the one to witness my will for me." [Thinks: "Heh heh, this will pay you back for the Tiddles incident."]

Pollyannus Mirabilus

I've seen a few end-of-decade round ups floating about. I'm not much of a one for that kind of cosmic stock-taking, but the last decade was sufficiently eventful that it seemed worth looking back - not, of course, from the fixed point of achieved wisdom (the implied assumption of which, I now realise, is what I have always disliked about those "Letter to my younger self" columns in the otherwise-admirable Big Issue), but merely as a dizzy snatched glance from the twirling Waltzer...

Well, I began doing it, but it soon got far too depressing and whiny. So, instead, I'm just going to list some of the good things about the last decade. You'll have to imagine the long negative shadow that some of these cast - especially the first - but I'm not going into it here. Just take it as read that most important events have negative aspects.

I transitioned in 2011. This isn't a good in itself, but it was definitely the right (probably the only) thing for me to do, and despite all the negative consequences I've never regretted it. The same goes for the confirmation surgery (or whatever you want to call it) five years later: indeed, every day it seems like a kind of miracle. When I transitioned socially, I thought that body dysphoria wasn't that big a problem for me. Now that I don't have it any more I see that was wrong.

I learned Japanese - or at least, started on that long road. It's a) been a lot of fun and b) intellectually fascinating, and has c) introduced me to many new friends, d) given me a new research area, and e) offered an occasional escape from reality (or 現実逃避).

I began the decade as a Senior Lecturer at UWE (which I'd joined 20 years earlier), and am now a Reader at Cardiff University. After 25 years at one place (by the time I moved), this was definitely overdue, though I still miss my UWE colleagues and don't care for the commute. (On the other hand, I don't relish Cardiff quite enough to seriously consider leaving Bristol for it.) Meanwhile, I've published two monographs, in 2012 and 2018, plus the usual rash of chapters and articles and several edited collections. Though I'm definitely a 'resting' novelist at this point, I did at least produce Twisted Winter (2013), featuring original stories by Newbery winner Susan Cooper! Carnegie winner-to-be Frances Hardinge! and Southern Schools Book Award Shortlisted Author [not selected] Catherine Butler.

My body is ten years older, but so far not noticeably less able to do stuff. I'm told by those in the know that old age will come in a series of sudden drops, precipitated by illness and accident, rather than as a gradual decline - though that will be in the mix too, no doubt. At any rate, I'm not quite there yet, though I'm definitely stiffer than of yore, and must do something about that.

Hmm, that last paragraph was in danger of wriggling its way round to being negative after all, so before we leave the Glad Game I'll add that I've also made many new friends this decade, and seen some interesting new places (not only Japan but Taiwan, Valencia, Columbus Ohio, Toronto, Istanbul, Akureyri, Ankara, Athens and Milton Keynes - all of which I visited for the first time in the name of work - as well as some other places, like the Gower Peninsula, which I got to under my own steam).

Altogether, I have plenty of reasons to be happy.

The Day Before Boxing Day

I hope everyone had a nice day yesterday. This was my first Christmas sans my mother, but I decided to bring her ashes to Brighton so that she could have a last mince pie and glass of wine at my brother's house. By this time next year, I'm sure we'll have scattered her in the usual place...


The rest of us had a good time, too. The weather was preternaturally fine, and the sea off Brighton beach a Mediterranean blue. Here my brother and I contemplate the westering sky.


Tomorrow, it's back to Bristol - but let me leave you with a random question I just asked on Facebook, to (so far) no response. I know of two songs about generation ships: Neil Young's, 'After the Goldrush' and Queen's ''39' (which, unsurprisingly, was written by Brian May). Do you know of any others? Four, and we have an Only Connect music question!

The Rocky Road to Doublin' Down on Your Mistakes

Well, I promised a sequel to yesterday's post, so here it is. This one is a bit more future orientated.

Corbyn and Labour
One thing I've heard a lot is that Corbyn personally was a major (negative) factor on the doorstep. Not the manifesto policies he espoused, which (outside Brexit) were generally popular, but Corbyn the man. I made my own criticisms of his conduct of the campaign, but I remain an admirer and admit I find it hard to understand the visceral nature of some people's reaction to him; or why, if Corbyn's character flaws were a decisive negative factor, Johnson's much more obvious and fundamental character flaws would not be. Corbyn's faults are generally the negative form of his virtues: the point at which "sticking to one's principles" becomes "a stiff-necked inability to listen to others" is a matter of debate, and perhaps of standpoint. Johnson's continual lies, racism and hypocrisy, don't really have a positive aspect. There's also always been a fundamental incoherence to the criticisms of Corbyn: both an ineffectual geography teacher type, and a sinister, ruthless zealot. (It sounds trivial, but I suspect that Corbyn's having a beard will also have been a factor with some, especially older Britons: see the opening pages of The Twits for a rare articulation of this prejudice.)

It's hard to know how much part the constant attacks on Corbyn played, both from inside and outside the party. Certainly he has been more consistently vilified than any leader in my time (including Blair at the time of the Iraq war). I remember being shocked by a Conservative Party Political broadcast in 1983 that showed deliberately unflattering pictures of Michael Foot, Tony Benn and others, but it was a world away from this kind of thing. And while many people will feel themselves too sophisticated to be taken in by such crude propaganda, I've seen too many Derren Brown specials not to know that even apparently self-aware people can be influenced by subtler signals disseminated by social (and other) media over the course of years. If you think the Tory party hasn't been doing that, you need to get real; but they've been ably abetted in the (yes, I'll say it) cult-like anti-Corbynism of many on the Labour right.

Anyway, Corbyn is going, and the question now turns to his replacement. Of course the centrists would like one of their own, so that they can return us to the glory days of 2010 and 2015 (oh, wait), but the membership is unlikely to oblige, especially if the preferred candidate is someone like Jess Phillips, who has spent most of the last four years dissing their previous choice. One thing I will venture to predict is that the new leader will be a woman. Keir Starmer is the only man with a shouting chance, but he is strongly associated with the Brexit policy, and there are several women with an excellent claim. The party now has more female MPs than male, while two thirds of the Tory MPs are men and they are led by a misogynist dead-beat dad who can't even say how many children he has: a female leader could more easily underline and exploit that difference. (Also, Labour is still the only major party never to have had a non-interim female leader, and I think they will be keen to correct that.)

In Other Prediction News
My record in predictions is patchy. Three years ago, I correctly predicted that Theresa May would become Tory leader. Two years ago, buoyed by this, I made a prediction about the likely course of Brexit negotiations and got it badly wrong, although the underlying analysis was sound. (I knew that the Irish would be betrayed, but I picked the wrong group - it was the Unionists by the Tories, not the Republic by the EU). I hesitate to predict anything about the rest of this year, let alone parliament, but I will note in passing something I've not often seen acknowledged, which is that the EU has played a blinder throughout this whole process. Seriously, they've scarcely put a foot wrong. Admittedly they were negotiating with incompetents who were divided among themselves, but that's not always the easiest position to be in. I see no reason to think that will change. (And I say this as one with no special love of the EU.)

Of course the NHS will not be "sold off" in a visible way, but the processes already long in train will be accelerated, especially now Tory cupidity has the extra incentive of a Trump trade deal. The NHS will be scooped away from the inside, until it is just a shell. Queues will lengthen, services decline, choice (except for those with money) disappear. For the Tories, all this is a feature, not a bug. Also, Johnson lied (of course) when he said he had a plan for social care; he will follow Cameron in postponing action indefinitely.

Similarly, we will not see the next election cancelled, but Johnson will do everything he can to stack the odds in his favour: boundary changes are already in train, but he will also be tying the hands of the Supreme Court, using ID to suppress voting by the poor and the young, abolishing the fixed-term parliament act so that he can call an election whenever it suits him best, and of course cancelling Leveson II (a little-remarked feature of the Tory manifesto, but an obvious bribe to the press for their continuing partisan support).

All right, those were all predictions - but they are at the level of "the sun will rise tomorrow."

Finally, I have been and will no doubt continue to be critical of the BBC, but I would caution those few friends I've seen suggesting a boycott and licence fee cancellations. The BBC is comparable to the NHS in terms of its importance as a cultural institution: you can't reduce it to its UK political reporting, which is a tiny (if important) aspect of its overall activity. You do realise that all your alternatives (Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) are private companies owned by American billionaires, right? Do you really think you'd be better off left to their tender mercies? (You would not.)

You and I have memories, longer than the road that stretches out ahead

I took a day off before commenting on the election, and perhaps should have taken more. Many over on Facebook seem very sure of what went wrong and why, and particularly of who to blame, but I’ll say up front that this is a tentative and provisional assessment. I’m making it now, however, because I suspect that the next tide of events will wipe out of some of these impressions.

Labour’s campaign. I’ve heard several people who want to put the blame for the loss entirely on Brexit point out that it couldn’t have been the fault of the campaign or of Corbyn, because they were essentially unchanged from 2017, when Labour did far better than expected, rather than worse. That, however, is part of the problem - it was something of a repeat performance, and couldn’t hope to have the revelatory freshness of two years ago: even the campaign slogan was recycled. Also, although Corbyn did numerous outdoor events that were well attended (including a very successful rally here in Bristol a few days ago), the fact that it was happening in a cold, wet season, which gets dark at 4.30, meant that the kind of stump campaigning where he excels was necessarily limited. In studio interviews he was far less effective: there were no major gaffes, but he often came across as querulous; and while he was competent enough in the debates, he failed to deliver any killer blow. I know that politicians these days are schooled to stick to a few key messages (e.g. the NHS), but I wish he had done more to highlight the obvious weaknesses of the Tories (their abject economic failure, the many lies and broken promises of their leader, etc.).

Brexit. This was almost certainly the most important factor. Both major parties were split by Brexit, but there was an asymmetry that was fatal for Labour. Johnson could afford to be ruthless with his remain wing (sacking 22 MPs, for example) and still be sure that a) he’d keep the vast majority of Tory voters, and b) maybe attract some Leave-supporting Labour voters into the bargain. Corbyn’s voters were split far more evenly, and he had to try to please both, with the predictable result. Nor could he count on picking up disaffected Tory Remainers in the way that Johnson could absorb Labour leavers, since they had an alternative home in the form of the LibDems. Finally, the Brexit party was able to mop up a small but, in many constituencies, decisive number of Labour leavers who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Tory. The idea, being floated by several FB friends, that Labour would have walked the election had it been led by a centrist Remainer, just doesn’t stack up: anyone would have been caught on this particular forked stick, and the only comforts are that a) by the next election Brexit will, presumably, not be an issue and b) many of those Tory majorities in Labour heartlands are very small and eminently win-backable. (I do think, though, that Corbyn would have been far better advised to promise a quick referendum on Johnson’s deal vs. Remain, rather than offering to negotiate a Leave deal of his own, which he would then be neutral on. The effect of that was beyond messy.)

Mendacity and the media. I’m not going to complain about media bias, which in the UK is just a fact of political life - most obviously, but by no means exclusively, in the printed press. However, the media as a whole, and broadcasters in particular, appear to have been badly wrongfooted (why I don’t know, since it was entirely predictable) by the Tory policy of mendacity on a Trump/Bannon scale. In interview after interview, Johnson and others were allowed to lie unchallenged, as well as being able to renege on agreements (e.g. the Andrew Neil interview) without consequence. BBC reporting was particularly supine, Channel 4 rather more robust. When Johnson denied that there would be checks for goods entering N. Ireland, for example, contradicting the deal that he had himself reached with the EU, the BBC website tucked the fact that it was untrue into the tenth paragraph of its report, headlining instead with Johnson’s words. Another example, that in some ways sums up the rest, is the reporting in recent days of the result of a fact-checking investigation into campaign ads, which showed that 88% of Tory ads had contained untrue statements, the figure for Labour being 0%. The BBC website apparently thought that balanced reporting of this finding required them to state that there had been mendacity “across the political spectrum.” That is not what good journalism looks like, and in times like these we need good journalism.

I’m sure there are other important factors, but these three seem to me the most decisive, with the second probably preeminent. If I have time, I may do a second post to pair with this one, looking to the future - but it will be shorter.

Dogged by Dirty Beasts

There's a nice John Finnemore sketch in which Pachelbel gets annoyed by people only ever wanting to hear his Canon and ignoring his more ambitious work. This is of course a common phenomenon. My brother, serious contemporary composer, is dogged by his setting of Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts poems (initially narrated by the author himself), which has been performed and recorded far more than his other pieces. Richmal Crompton came to resent William Brown, Conan Doyle couldn't shake off Sherlock Holmes, and so on. Rather than be grateful for having had one more hit than most people, it's easy to focus on the fact that you are going to be remembered for something you don't consider your best work.

My father greatly took to a picture I drew at primary school, a portrait in pastels of six duckling chicks which had recently taking to wandering up our lawn. He framed it and hung it on the wall, perhaps as an earnest of things to come. Later, when I was a published novelist, he would still hark back to that picture in a way that clearly implied my creative output had been going downhill ever since.

You are Not to Agree with Him

So anyway, I was looking at my page just now, and had a similar sensation. Not everything I've put up there is for download, but of those that are the top 3 are an eclectic mix, and don't necessarily represent anything like what I'd have predicted or think of as my best:

1: 'Tolkien and Worldbuilding' - 3,920 views.

This 2013 casebook essay is far and away my most read piece. I think it's a pretty solid piece of work, but why so much more successful than the rest? I suppose it got on some reading lists.

2. ‘“You are feeling very sleepy…”: hypnosis, enchantment and mind-control in children’s fiction’ 1,435 views.

This is a surprise entry - from an article published in 2005 (and written three years earlier). It doesn't connect to any of my main research themes, but it's an original piece. I once saw it recommended on a page written by a hypnotist, which I found flattering - perhaps it's mostly hypnotists who download it?

3. ‘Experimental Girls: Feminist and Transgender Discourses in Bill’s New Frock and Marvin Redpost: Is He a Girl?’ - 530 views

This 2009 article is to date my only publication on gender stuff, and has done pretty well in download terms - I assume for the theme rather than because the world is awash with Fine or Sachar researchers.

Contrarwise, the lowest scoring piece is the only one that ever actually won an award: ‘Alan Garner’s Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of “Tam Lin”’ was ChLA Honor Article in 2002, and is about one of the authors on whom my critical reputation rests. It has 47 views.

Go figure.

My Bookshelf is an Ossuary

Well, it’s very strange to think that I’ll never be going back to the house where I spent most of my childhood (from the age of 8, but even before that it was my grandmother’s for a while). When the sale finally completes on Friday, I’ll have no official connection left to Romsey, and no urgent reason to there again – although, since it lies halfway between Bristol and Brighton, my brother and I have agreed to meet there regularly and chew a wad of melancholy fat.

Meanwhile, my mother’s ashes sit in a pot, in a jute bag, on a shelf above my sofa. We’ll get round to scattering them at some point, but there’s no hurry. Various piece of furniture are in storage in Bristol, my current house being too small for them. I ended up taking more mementos than I’d meant, on the principle that I could get rid of them later if they turned out not to spark joy (or even memory). My mother was not sentimental about objects, though, and her house was not exactly awash with keepsakes. We left much of the bulky brown furniture that she herself inherited, but I took the cabinet that used to house my grandmother’s television, and that my mother had had made into a cupboard for glasses. I took her childhood copies of The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh; some of my father’s pots. My daughter, whose eye is excellent, had the run of her clothes.

I thought I was handling it all rather well till I burst into tears on the threshold as I was leaving for the last time, but that’s to be expected.

In other news, I am watching another in the Fate franchise on Netflix – a series that pits “heroic spirits” from myth and history against each other in a war for the Holy Grail. If mythic eclecticism and gender bending are your bag, you’re in for a treat: the last episode pit Chiron, Joan of Arc, and Astolfo (goofiest of the champions in Orlando Furioso – hippogriff included!) against Jack the Ripper, who was ably supported by Atalanta. Astolfo and Jack are both female* in this version, as for that matter is Mordred. I remember when I first watched a Fate anime, I was surprised to find Cúchulainn and Gilgamesh in the same show – but that was just the beginning.

* Jack is a small girl, who embodies the misery and anger of the poor in Victorian London. As good a theory as many.

An Area the Size of Wales

Today I'm in my mother's house for the last time ever. All being well, the sale should go through next Friday, and I don't expect to be here again before that. I'll write a proper post when I have more time, but before I head back to Bristol I just want to share this, from her official Welsh school atlas (published 1936). You know how people always talk about geography, rain forest loss, etc., in terms of "an area the size of Wales"? Well, in 1930s Wrexham that comparison was gloriously realised in page after page. Here, for example, is the map of northern Africa:

Wales map

But what's that indomitable splodge of pink in the bottom left-hand corner? You guessed it...

Wales map crop

There were giants in those days.

Anglo-Saxon Attitude

I had no idea until today that the word "Anglo-Saxon" was in any way controversial. Apparently it's because I hang out in the wrong part of the internet.

Anyway, I learned from a colleague that "Anglo-Saxon" has been co-opted by white supremacists in America, and that because of this there are demands that the term be dropped by scholars (e.g. historians of Britain between 500-1100C.E.) generally. My colleague is writing about just that period, and is having difficulty finding acceptable alternatives.

Is that a fair summary of the situation, or am I missing important context?

I feel fairly conflicted. On the one hand, if a term is being used by racists I'd rather avoid it, to avoid a) giving them credibility and b) appearing racist myself.

On the other hand...

a) I'm not sure what alternative terms are both available and widely understood.
b) Racists have also adopted terms such as "English" and "British," but there's no demand to drop them: why is this different? (Also, letting racists effectively dictate what words can be used seems like a kind of capitulation.)
c) There seems something imperialist in the idea that because something is unacceptable in the USA it must be so throughout the world. (I was sad to read that the Japanese government intended to efface the swastika symbol from tourist maps - where it indicates a Buddhist temple - because it might be misinterpreted by Westerners. Isn't this similar?)

Anyway, I'm sure neither of the facts nor of my own opinion, so I'd appreciate any help in clarifying either.