Sapphic link love #12

Ms Magazine, The very queer history of the suffrage movement

Waltham Forest Echo, The East End women who fought for gay rights

The Guardian, How lesbian label Olivia shook up music

Believer, Art by women about women making art about women

pop matters, 90 years on ‘Olivia’ remains a classic of lesbian literature

Hyperallergenic, How Tessa Boffin, One of the Leading Lesbian Artists of the AIDS Crisis, Vanished From History (NSFW!)

Autostraddle, An interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt

The Lesbrary, 11 sapphic chefs for your cookbook collection

Country Queer, Amy Ray’s queer country story

Autostraddle, No Adam for Eve: the quiet history of lesbian pulp

Wild Women in Josephine Tey’s ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948)

Josephine Tey’s 1948 mystery, The Franchise Affair, is so well-written, beautifully paced and gripping that I sat down and read it in one afternoon. The novel’s politics are problematic, to say the least, but it’s just so damn enjoyable to read.

Tey’s classic page-turner has stayed with me and, since I finished reading it, I’ve found myself pondering its more disturbing aspects. In her essay, The Lost Girl, the novelist Sarah Waters has written brilliantly about the troubling conservatism of The Franchise Affair, and the classist and misogynist allegiances within its narrative. The novel is packed full of simmering tensions about gender and class which are played out in the stories of two ‘wild’ women, both of whom are trying to live their lives outside the bounds of patriarchally-defined gender roles.

SPOILER ALERT: spoilers for the plot of The Franchise Affair below the cut

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Sunday Post – Signs of Spring

Reeds and branches of budding pussy willow taken against a clear blue sky.

I’ve been feeling exhausted again these last few weeks, which is why I haven’t published any posts since January, despite having several in various stages of draft. I think the fatigue is really kicking in now for a lot of people.

The weather continues mostly cold and blustery here, but it’s the Equinox next weekend and at least there are some signs of spring being on the way.

I turned forty-four in February. It does feel unsettling to realise that I’m only six years away from the fifty mark. It’s not getting older that bothers me (I’m rather enjoying that overall), it’s the sense of time passing and this anxiety about whether I’m doing what I should be doing with my life. Am I wasting time??? But this is probably not the best year for those kinds of worries! Anyway, I had quite a nice ‘lockdown birthday’ in the end.

One of my friends bought me a window bird feeder and now we’re getting daily visits from little blue tits which is cheering. It’s a great idea if you don’t have a garden. I’m seeing more bird activity locally. Lots of greenfinches and goldfinches and a few stonechats.

I managed to have one long walk to a nearby beach and did a little bit of fossil hunting.

One of the highlights of the last couple of months has been ‘rediscovering’ music. I always used to listen to a lot of music, but it’s tailed off over the last couple of years. Working from home has given me the opportunity to have music on in the background while I work and it’s really improved my mood.

This weekend sees the one-year anniversary of the last time I left Cardiff! It’s been twelve months since I went more than three miles from the place where I live. That’s quite a strange thought.

Lockdown restrictions are starting to ease in Wales, but I can’t imagine I’m going to to do anything different, except go for some longer walks and perhaps meet up with a few people outside when that’s allowed again.

Sunday Post

A flowery patterned mug full of bright yellow turmeric tea sitting in a table next to a light blue stump tea pot.
Ginger, turmeric and black pepper tea

We had a dusting of snow this morning. Other parts of Wales got a lot more, but it didn’t last long here. I’ve been feeling sad this week and had a little meltdown last night. Nothing to do with the COVID situation, just the usual stuff. I had some helpful talks with my partner, though, and actually gained some useful insights.

Working from home feels harder at the moment. I’m extremely grateful and privileged to have a job that allows me to work at home, so I feel like I shouldn’t complain, but it is starting to grind me down a bit at this point. I’ve been listening to music in the background while I work which helps lift my mood.

I finished Still Life by Louise Penny which I really enjoyed – very cosy mystery and well-written. I’m working on City of Illusions, the next book in my Ursula Le Guin re-read and I’m enjoying Underland by Robert MacFarlane.

The soundtrack to the week has been Blackbirds and Thrushes by Niamh Parsons. It’s such a beautiful album.

Ursula K Le Guin, Planet of Exile (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #2

Planet of Exile, the second in Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy, is a significant improvement on the first, Rocannon’s World. The story is much more coherent, the world wonderfully drawn, and the characters far better developed than in the first novel. Planet of Exile is actually one of my favourite books by Le Guin; it’s a beautiful, evocative and, at times, frightening story.

Set at the beginning of winter on a planet in which seasons last 5000 days (around fourteen earth years), Rolery, a young woman from an indiginous hunter-gatherer tribe, visits the city of Landin, a place inhabited by aliens who came to her world hundreds of years ago. They keep themselves apart and are known by her people as the Farborns. While walking on the beach below the city, Rolery is almost caught by a fast moving tide and only escapes because one of the Farborns, Jakob Agat, warns her telepathically using mindspeech, inadvertently creating a bond between them.

I just love the opening. It’s so atmospheric with its images of the giant causeway leading out to the tower rock and the roaring of the tide as it chases Rolery back towards the city and Jakob.

Planet of Exile further develops one of Le Guin’s Hainish tropes, ‘Mindspeech’, a form of telepathy which first appears in Rocannon’s World – it becomes apparent that the ‘Farborn’ are the descendents of Semley and Mogian’s people from that novel. Mindspeech seems to be something that most people can develop with practice, but some have a natural aptitude, including Rolery, much to the surprise of the people of Landin who believe only they have the skill.

Planet of Exile is about the relationship between Rolery and Jakob and the relationship between their two peoples, as they prepare for the long winter and face a common enemy, the aggressive Gaal from the South who are coming in vast numbers to invade their lands and take their resources.

The Farborn are a dwindling people, their colony abandoned centuries ago by the League of All Worlds. They don’t know why they have been left in this exile, ‘Their records say only that the ship left. A white spear of metal, longer than a whole city, standing on a feather of fire.’ Now fewer children are born every year, so they turn to the Askatevar for help.

Jakob Agat goes to the chief of Rolery’s people, her father, an old man named Wold, to propose an alliance against the Gaal. Wold listens, but he must convince his own people and the other tribes which will be difficult. Jakob, meanwhile, struggles with the attitudes of his own people who look down on the Askatevarans. Neither really regard the other as ‘human’. Cultural tensions are inflamed by a burgeoning romance between Rolery and Jakob. Before they can heal the divide, the Gaal attack and the surviving Askatevarans take refuge in the city of Landin where both peoples must get over their prejudices and preconceptions and work together as they prepare for siege. The representation of the people of Tevar is deeply imbibed by Le Guin’s interest in anthropology, perhaps so much as to feel a bit unsubtle now.

There is a theme in the book of old ways dying out so that something new can emerge. This is symbolised in the two old leaders, Alla Pasfal in Landin and the old chief Wold in Tevar. Both are stubborn and difficult people and Wold’s attitudes are misogynist, but there is something powerfully moving in his ‘last foray’ as he leads the women with young children across the causeway to the league hall, ‘across the vasty dizzy air-road to the black and terrible house’.

‘To die, then, he must return across the bleak, changeless landscape of his boyhood, he must reenter the white world of the storms.’

The middle section of the book is a long seige of the city which Le Guin manages to make tense and exciting, but perhaps most frightening is the introduction of the Snow Ghouls, terrifying creatues of the winter with their small heads swaying on their long, curving necks as they run across the snow towards their prey.

During this time, Rolery and Jakob establish their relationship as two people who have found freedom in their very differences. Separate, they were frustrated and unhappy with their roles in life, but together they have joy and possiblity. I really like the representation of their love story and, if I have a complaint, I wish Le Guin had given it more time. The novel ends with Jakob and Rolery hopeful that they will be able to have children together, even as they face the daunting prospect of winter: ‘Five thousand nights of winter, five thousand days of it, the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives’.

In some ways, Planet of Exile feels like the precursor to The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an even longer winter, a deep relationship between two people from different worlds and has mindspeech as a central trope. But Planet of Exile is its own book too, one in which we see Le Guin really starting to play to her strengths as a writer of science fiction.

This post is the second in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Sunday Post: Small Celebrations

The sun rising over a calm sea on a clear morning

This week we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our civil partnership. We’re not really into anniversaries, but any excuse to celebrate at the moment, right? So we got some beer, ordered takeout and watched Ocean’s 8.

I’ve been feeling depressed by the state of the UK. The COVID-19 situation continues to be very bad here with the NHS struggling to cope. Plus we’re barely two weeks into Brexit proper and already the UK government wants to reintroduce bee-killing pesticides and is launching an attack on worker’s rights. That didn’t take long.

But one piece of good news for me personally is that my mum got her first dose of vaccine. She lives on her own and has been so good at sticking to the rules, so it’s really cheered her up.

The weather has been rainy, but I managed a few nice early morning walks. In birdwatching news, I saw a redstart for the first time. Plenty of tufted ducks, goosanders, turnstones, little grebes and song thrushes around too.

We did two online yoga classes this week and that definitely helped. I also managed to get some medication to treat my winter patches of ezcema which improved my general mood.

I have a bunch of books on the go. A colleague recommended Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. I’m really enjoying the first one, Still Life, and I think this series might just hit the spot for my bedtime reading. I’m also enjoying Underland by Robert MacFarlane. I finished the second book in my Ursula Le Guin re-read, Planet of Exile, (post to follow soon) and have started the next one, City of Illusions.

A copy of Underland by Robert Macfarlane. The cover is a painting of a path through woodland.

The track of the week is ‘Beginning to Feel the Years’ by Brandi Carlile which feels appropriate for a few reasons!

Sunday Post – Start of the Year

I know the world is on fire, but I hope the first week of the year is treating you relatively gently. Despite everything that’s happening, I’m actually feeling better than I did this time last year when I was in a pretty bad way and suffering from an attack of grief.

But I have been feeling a bit depressed this week. It’s been very cold here and going back to work was harder than I expected. I had a nice break over the holidays, but opening up my laptop in my chilly spare room was not fun and I really struggled. I missed seeing my colleagues, there was no energy, and it felt like a very long week. At least it was quiet.

The best things about this week were the beautiful sunrises I saw during my morning walks. It’s been quite good for birdwatching. I’ve seen little grebes, goosanders, turnstones, a grey heron, tufted ducks, a few potchard, a stonechat, a wren, songthrushes, a few goldfinches and linnets. Most excitingly, I saw a redstart for the first time today.

I did some creative writing and started a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages. We got back to our yoga classes and next week my main goal is to be more proactive about stress management.

The soundtrack to the week has been two of my favourite wintery albums, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s The Letting Go and The Grotto by Kristin Hersh. Top track, ‘Deep Wilson’.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Rocannon’s World (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #1

Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World, is one of those books that now feels more interesting for what it shows us about the development of a great writer, rather than for itself. If Le Guin had published nothing else, I think it would have been forgotten, except perhaps by the most dedicated of science fiction afficionados. This isn’t to say Rocannon’s World is bad – it isn’t – but when you compare it to masterpieces like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, it feels simplistic and underdeveloped. Still, it has good qualities and you can see Le Guin starting to find her voice as a science fiction writer. This book is the first in a loose trilogy of early ‘Hainish’ novels, along with Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967).

Rocannon’s World opens with a prologue, ‘Semley’s Necklace’, which was first published in 1964 as a short story called “Dowry of the Angyar”. A young woman called Semley leaves her pre-industrial, low-tech planet to retrieve a necklace for her dowry, which has fallen into the hands of a galactic power called the League of All Worlds and is being displayed in one of their museums. There she meets Rocannon who gives her the necklace. The story ends in tragedy because Semley cannot foresee the implications of faster than light space travel and returns to find her husband long dead and her baby daughter a young woman. Driven mad by grief, Semley disappears into the forest. ‘Semley’s Necklace’ is a haunting story in which we can already see themes that will feature throughout Le Guin’s work.

Rocannon later goes on an ethnological mission to this unnamed planet, where he discovers that an enemy of the League of All Worlds has established a military base and is killing its people. Rocannon’s ship is destroyed by this enemy and he finds himself alone with no way to contact the League and warn them, unless he can gain access to the enemy’s ‘Ansible’, a device that enables instantaneous communication across space. Rocannon allies with Semley’s people, the feudal Angyar, and with her grandson, Mogien, sets out to try and find the enemy base. He has several adventures along the way and meets the different sentient species that live on the world. Rocannon succeeds in his quest, but the ending, as you might expect, is bittersweet.

Rocannon’s World is still enjoyable to read because, even at this early stage in Le Guin’s career, her writing is lovely and the narrative is well-paced. However, the story feels like a series of scenes which are strung together, the worldbuliding is a bit of a mess (the enemy, for example, are just vague, off-screeen ‘baddies’) and the characters are thinly sketched. We know that the protagonist, Rocannon, is principled and good, but beyond that he’s hardly more than a point of view through which to watch the events of the story unfold. This is very different to the deep and nuanced characters and worlds that appear in the later books. The Angyar ride around on flying tigers called ‘windsteeds’ which is adorable, but not something you’d find in later Le Guin! The League of all Worlds is also a fuzzy, ambigous idea at this point; before developing into the more benevolent Ekumen, it appears to be a rather sinister and ruthless power that may be involved in exploiting less developed planets. The layering of a science fiction story over a high fantasy world is inventive and interesting, but also feels a little odd. It’s like a Tolkein world into which Le Guin has inserted characters with lazer guns.

Having said all of that, parts of the story are really very well done. The bit in which Rocannon and Yahan find themselves in the power of a group of thugs who want to steal the necklace is genuinely tense and scary. For me, the best part of the book is the creepy, mindless, winged beings that take Rocannon and his friends captive. It’s genuinely frightening, although that effect is somewhat spoiled by the introduction, immediately afterwards, of cute little talking furry creatures!

What you do see thoughout the book is the emergence of the powerful themes that will be explored much more deeply in Le Guin’s later works. There is the question of who is ‘human’ and who is ‘alien’? There is the influence of anthropology on her worldbuilding. There are power relations between high and low-tech worlds. There are intense personal relationships between people who come from these different worlds. There is an interest in the ways that perceptions and beliefs about skin colour can structure societies. There is an underlying sense of tragedy and a belief that all actions come with consequences.

Rocannon’s World also contains ambiguous, post-colonial resonances with it’s depiction of a nameless (?) planet being ‘named’ by the galactic power as ‘Rocannon’s World’ and in it’s opening prologue about a valuable necklace being stolen from a people for display in a museum belonging to that power.

One thing that really struck me on re-reading this book, is Le Guin’s ability to recognise her own good ideas and return to them later. The ansible, for example, functions in Rocannon’s World as a classic ‘MacGugffin’, but she obviously spotted its potential and goes on to put it at the centre of one of her greatest works, The Dispossessed. We never see the flying tigers again, but we do see the development of the ansible. Probably a good call!

I enjoyed re-reading Rocannon’s World more than I expected, but don’t start here if you’re new to Le Guin. Start with one of the later and more famous books.

Next up, Planet of Exile, which I loved reading the first time around.

This post is the first in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish Cycle re-read for 2021

This feels like a good year to re-read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle from Rocannon’s World (1966) to the stories collected in The Birthday of the World (2002).

I’m going to read the books in order of publication because that seems to be the simplest approach:

  1. Rocannon’s World (1966)
  2. Planet of Exile (1966)
  3. City of Illusions (1967)
  4. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  5. The Word for World is Forest (1972)
  6. The Dispossessed (1974)
  7. Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995)
  8. The Telling (2000)
  9. The Birthday of the World (2002)

I’ll use this list to link to any posts about the books.

The Happy Memories Jar

The jar

Last year I decided to start a happy memories jar. As someone prone to bouts of sadness, especially around Christmas and New Year, I thought this would be a nice way to remind myself about good things that have happened during the year.

Well, it certainly turned out to be an interesting time to start this project. I didn’t do it very consistently and I’m sure I missed things but here, in roughly chronological order, are my happy memories from 2020 …

The memories
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Science Fiction & Fantasy from Wales

Excited to discover that Wales now has its own science fiction and fantasy magazine called Gwyllion

Gwyllion is a non-profit, bi-annual genre fiction literary magazine which focuses on publishing science fiction, fantasy and horror from Wales. We publish two online issues a year as well as a limited run of physical copies.

2020 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

An ereader with the cover of Network Effect by Martha Wells. It shows Murderbot standing on top of a space ship.

2020 was the year of Murderbot. I actually read Martha Wells’s delightful series about a grumpy, rogue cyborg and its (not) friends twice during the course of this year. I particularly enjoyed the new novel-length installment, Network Effect, which begins with our hero on the planet of Preservation working for its favourite human, Dr Mensah. Tasked with protecting members of her family while on a research expedition, Murderbot is reunited with its old (not) friend, a ship A.I. known as ART (Asshole Research Transport) and encounters a range of threats, including alien remnants and the usual corporate baddies, all the while trying to stop the stupid humans from getting themselves killed. Wonderful, heartwarming and exactly what I needed to read this year. Book six, Fugitive Telemetry will be published in April.

A copy of Jo Walton's book My Real Children on a table. The cover is a picture of a woman sitting on a suitcase and facing the sea.

However, the prize for the best work of SFF that I read this year has to go to My Real Children (2014) by Jo Walton. I suppose the book could be categorised more as speculative fiction, or alternative history, than strictly science fiction. It has elements of fantasy too. This story about an elderly woman with dementia who realises that she can remember two different lives is so rich, powerful and multilayered. I loved it and I don’t generally like alternative histories. It’s just a brilliant novel about women’s lives. This was my first book by Jo Walton and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

My other favourite this year was Semiosis (2018) by Sue Burke. This is straight up science fiction which takes the classic and well-worn trope of humans trying to establish a colony on a hostile alien world and does something really fresh with it. The story is told over multiple generations of characters resulting in the feel of linked stories that are held together by the colony’s relationship with a sentient plant called Stevland. Great characters and worldbuilding and a narrative that enables Burke to tell different kinds of story. There’s even a murder mystery. I loved it.

I also re-read one of my old favourites A Closed and Common Orbit, the second in Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers series.

The cover of Nalo Hopkinson's collection, Falling in Love with Homonids. It shows a picture of a woman with thick black hair floating above her head.

Another really good read was Nalo Hopkinson’s short story collection Falling in Love with Hominids (2015). Some of the stories are a little closer to horror than I tend to like these days, but I really enjoyed them. The stories, which bring together the modern world with Afro Caribbean folklore, are thought provoking and powerfully imaginative. Some of them have really stayed with me since reading the collection. Check her out if you like short stories by Neil Gaimen, Kelly Link and even Stephen King.

My hand holding a copy of the Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF. The cover if a picture of people looking at a time travel machine.

The only anthology I read this year was The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (2013) edited by Mike Ashley. I love a time travel story and most of the ones collected here are good, so I enjoyed it, although I did notice the lack of authorial diversity on offer. However, a few of the stories are absolutely superb and ‘Red Letter Day’ by Kathryn Kristine Rusch will haunt me forever!

I also read and enjoyed two works of high fantasy, although its very far from being my favourite genre. I found Babara Hambly’s Dragonsbane (1985) hugely enjoyable. Set in an alternative medieval Scotland, a witch called Jenny Waynest and her partner, John Avesin, a noted dragonslayer, are persuaded by a young man to go back to his kingdom and kill a dragon. Of course they find that there are far worse things than dragons! A cracking fantasy adventure with a middle-aged couple at its heart which manages to say something quite profound about women and power.

The other work of high fantasy (and the oldest book I read in this genre) was The Dancers of Arun (1979) which is the second in Elizabeth A Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy. I didn’t like it as much as the first one, Watchtower. The characters weren’t as interesting to me and the protagonist has a relationship which is, how shall I put it? … extremely slashy! But like all Lynn’s work it’s so beautifully written that it just carries you along. I probably will read the third book.

Moving on to books that didn’t work so well for me, there was the final installment in Theodora Goss’s Athena Club trilogy, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (2019). I loved the first book and liked the second but I’m not sure how I feel about the third. I quite enjoyed reading it and, in a way, I think it’s the tightest of the trilogy. Alice is a delight of a character. However, there were issues, including an evil ancient Egyptian woman (did we need this really?), a weird valorisation of the British empire (why?) and a painfully clunky romance between the protagonist and Sherlock Holmes. I’m sorry, but if you want to involve Sherlock Holmes in a heterosexual romance you need to do a LOT of work to develop that and make it work, not just throw it in with hardly a conversation between the characters and hope for the best. Overall, I found it a rather disappointing end to a trilogy that started out with a lot of potential.

A copy of Melmoth by Sarah Perry lying on a table. It has a black cover with a gold embossed pattern.

Then there were two books which might have disappointed me more because they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype than anything else! I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens (2019) enjoyable to read in the sense that it was very clever and had glittering prose, but it felt like more style than substance to me. Although the modern part of the story had some moving and powerful moments, the Tudor bits never really worked for me and got increasingly messy as it went on. Melmoth (2018) by Sarah Perry also rather disappointed me. It’s very well-written, but it just had this tone of “I am using genre fiction in a clever way to convey very imporant points about history”. I felt like I was being thumped around the head. Both left me rather cold. It seems odd to be putting such lauded books on my ‘disappointing’ pile but there you go.

An ereader showing the cover of A Memory Called Empire. It shows a figure approaching an enormous spiked throne.

Finally, I’m sad to say that I did not enjoy Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (2019). I was looking forward to this book. An ambassador getting involved in intrigue on an alien world sounds like just my kind of thing. Great ideas, but personally I found the characters and the world increasingly dull as it progressed.The only character I liked was dead for most of the story. I slogged all the way to the end and it felt like a very long haul for not much reward. Everyone else seemed to LOVE it though, so don’t let me put you off. Perhaps I’m just missing something with this one.

So overall, a mixed bag for science fiction and fantasy in 2020. Looking forward to more dragons, space ships, aliens and rogue cyborgs in 2021.

Winter Solstice reading

Nina Macloughlin’s absolutely gorgeous series of columns in the Paris Review: Inhale the Darkness, The Shadows before the Shadows, In Winter we Get Inside Each Other, Burn Something Today.

Anita Sethi, Dispatches from Darkness and Light

Phillip Metres, Solstice Prayer (excerpt, but the poet has kindly shared the rest on twitter)

A Solstice story from Nicola Griffith, Cold Wind

October Cooking

Autumn and winter are probably my favourite seasons for cooking. Lots of big soups, stews, curries and pies. Rich sauces and tons of vegetables. Here are some of the best things I made during October.

Curried parsnip and apple soup

This is an old favourite and a recipe I know off by heart. I think it originally came from an old Readers Digest cookbook belonging to my mother. With just parsnips, apples, spices, it’s simple, warming, comforting and filling.

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Where did October go?

A tree covered in lots of red berries and small orange leaves photographed against a clear, blue sky.

Seriously, what happened to October? I can’t believe I haven’t posted anything here since September.

I’ve certainly been keeping busy. October and November are always two of my busiest months at work. I have lots of events and webinars to organise, as well as ongoing projects and work with various groups I’ve volunteered for.

We finally got the spare room turned into a decent home office which helps. It now feels like a pleasant space to be in, rather than just a junk room with a desk. This is good because it looks like we’ll be using it until at least the spring.

I went to the launch of the Psychologists for Change Cymru manifesto launch. I hope to be able to support their work making connections between social justice, equality and mental health. I also attended ‘A Conversation between Angela Davis and Jackie Kay’ at Manchester Literature Festival which was very inspiring.

I did a course on meditation during September and October which was actually pretty tough. Now I’m doing a course on creative writing. We also did a series of one-to-one yoga classes with a teacher, which I think has been really beneficial. I feel a lot more confident about my yoga practice now.

Birdwatching continues to be a source of solace. Over the last month, I’ve seen goosanders, stonechats, grey wagtails, turnstones, little grebes, a lovely kestral and, perhaps most excitingly, we glimpsed a very elusive water rail.

I offered to rehome one of the office plants as we prepare to move out of the building permanently. The photograph was a little deceiving as to scale and we now have a three foot tall polka dot begonia in the corner of our living room. Once we all got over the surprise, “Dottie” settled in well.

I found this article helpful for thinking about getting through the winter, If You’re Already Dreading Winter, Here Are Some Small Ways to Prepare Now (buy the damn string lights!). Fortunately for me, I’m a homebody who likes the winter, but it’s going to be a long one and especially tough on people who live alone.

Sharon Olds, Selected Poems (2005)

A copy of Selected Poems by Sharon Olds. The cover is black and features a burning sparkler.

This collection brings together poems published between 1980 and 2002. I hadn’t read much poetry by Sharon Olds until now and I don’t think she’s particularly well known in the UK. I only came across her when I started seeing admiring comments from poets on twitter.

Olds is a superb poet who is also very readable. Her main subject is herself. She is an autobiographical poet who mines her own life experiences to create poems that are both profoundly intimate and absolutely ruthless in their honesty about life: from her difficult childhood and her parents’ miserable marriage, to her father’s alcoholism, her sexual awakening and fulfilment, to raising her children and aging.

She is a tremendous poet of the body, heterosexual desire and motherhood, not all of which resonates with me for obvious reasons. But what did resonate throughout the collection was the way she conveys the truth of experinece and what it is to fully engage with life in all its joys and difficulties. I also admire her willingness to go there, to say things that most of us hardly feel able to admit privately to ourselves, let alone publish in a book.

It’s hard to pick out specific poems because there are so many good ones, but ‘After 37 years my mother apologizes for my childhood’ just takes my breath away. I mean, good grief Sharon Olds!

The series of beautiful and brutal poems about her father’s illness and death also stand out as something quite astonishing.

‘I might have wished to trade places with anyone raised on love,/ but how would anyone raised on love/ bear this death?’

‘Wonder’, p. 52.

When Olds does move beyond the personal, she’s just as good. The poem ‘Bible Study: 71 B.C.E’ about the crucifixion of 6000 members of Spartacus’s army is one that will haunt me.

I suspect that I will like her later poems even more. I’m very much looking forward to reading Stag’s Leap (2012) which is about the breakdown of her marriage and Odes (2016) which addresses the body.

I read this collecton for #20BooksOfSummer20

Sunday Post: Back in lockdown

A view of the sunrise form Cardiff Bay Barrage

The birds are returning. Last week, I mentioned seeing a Little Egret and a Wheatear. This week I’ve seen Little Grebes, Goosanders, a group of Stonechats, Ceti’s warblers, a Kingfisher and finally, after months of looking out for one, a Yellow Wagtail.

Tuesday was the autumn equinox. The weather has continued to be nice, but it already feels colder. I got my roll neck jumpers and corderoy skirts out of storage.

We are back in a ‘local lockdown’ from this evening. Not at all surprising and doesn’t really affect us, but it’s still unsettling. We’ve continued to suffer from disrupted sleep, resulting in tiredness and moodiness. I’ve also been feeling very anxious, so I do think the constant sense of looming uncertainty, plus information overload, is getting to us. I’m going to start being much stricter about time spent on social media and where I get my news. I’m also going to take regular digital detoxes and improve my sleep hygiene.

Cooking

A rectangular cake which is nicely browned on top and studded with burst blueberries

My partner made a blueberry cake for the equinox. We were going to make a spiced apple cake, but we couldn’t get any wholemeal flour locally.

The best thing I made this week was the courgette kofta in a tomato and ginger sauce from Meera Sodha’s Fresh India. I grated my thumb in the process and it was still totally worth it.

Reading

I finished Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie and Long Gone by Alafair Burke. Death on the Nile is just classic Christie – not much to say about that. Long Gone is a preposterous, but slick and enjoyable thriller (CN: themes of child abuse and rape though).

Watching

We made the mistake of choosing the 2015 adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd for the our Friday night movie. Having read a lot of Hardy when I was a teenager, I remembered this as the ‘happy’ one, but actually it’s very traumatic; it just has a less tragic ending than the others. Anyway, I thought it was a decent adaptation overall, although Seargant Troy wasn’t very good, making Bathesheba seem absolutely daft to be marrying him, and Michael Sheen was a bit too sympathetic as Mr Boldwood.

Podcasts

The best thing I listened to this week was a delightful interview with Madhur Jaffrey on The Spendid Table podcast.

Listening

I haven’t been listening to much music this week, so here’s an old favourite from First Aid that also feels quite apt at the moment

But don’t you come here and say I didn’t warn you
About the way your world can alter
And oh how you try to command it all still
Every single time it all shifts one way or the other

Sunday Post: Autumn in the Air

A view from Cardiff Bay Barrage at sunrise looking out over smooth water

It’s noticeably darker in the mornings now and there has been a definite crispness in the air. I’ve been enjoying watching a group of turnstones pecking around at the water’s edge. This week I saw a wheatear and, best of all, a beautiful Little Egret on the wetlands reserve.

I finally got my hair cut. I’m pretty low maintanance, so I held off and let the truly desperate people go first, but it was still a big relief. I hadn’t realised quite how much the long scraggly hair was bothering me.

I started the first of my autumn courses which is on Buddhism and meditation. I’ve been reading dharma books and listening to podcasts off and on for a few years and decided I should learn more about it. I have a creative writing class starting in a couple of weeks time and we’re also investing in some one-to-one yoga classes with a teacher. Since we won’t be having a holiday this year we’ve decided to spend a bit of money on ourselves.

Like most people, my energy levels and ability to focus go up and down. Sometimes I feel good and sometimes I feel absolutely exhausted. I have been waking up in the middle of the night for an hour or two fairly regularly. It could be COVID anxiety, it could be hormones! Whatever it is, I’m going to try and reframe it as an opportunity to stretch, eat toast and watch Star Trek.

I’ve made the decision to cancel the renewal of my gym membership. I do feel a bit bad about it, but I just don’t feel comfortable, especially since it’s a gym with no natural ventilation or light. Even if I went, I think I’d just be worried and hypervigilant the whole time which would defy the point, considering I was going mainly for the mental health benefits. I seem to have got into a good exercise routine now anyway, so don’t feel I need it as much.

I made some progress on the domestic front. I bought and put together some side tables, bought a new hoover after ours sadly broke, and got some rubbish taken away. My next goal is to sort out the spare room and make it nice.

Cooking

A large round saucepan containing a dry potato curry. The potatoes are golden with turmeric and flecked with fried onions.

The most interesting thing I cooked was a recipe for beetroot fritters by Anna Jones. They were delicious and even my partner – a beetroot sceptic – enjoyed them. I made Ruby Tandoh’s extremely moreish curried new potatoes (pictured) which is an old favourite. I’ve been managing to do some batch cooking and hope to increase that over the autumn to cut down on the amount of cooking I do in the evening.

Reading

I’m currently re-reading A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers and Long Gone, a slick thriller by Alafair Burke.

Watching

We really enjoyed The Old Guard. It’s a tight little fantasy action movie, strong on women and queer characters and light on annoying tropes. Much better than I expected.

Otherwise, we’re continuing with our Star Trek: Enterprise re-watch. It isn’t quite as terrible as I remember, but I would still argue that it’s one of the weakest outings.

Podcasts

This week I’ve mainly been listening to The Splendid Table which is a very interesting food podcast.

Listening

Throwing Muses have a new album out, Sun Racket, which is always an event, so I’ve been listening that a lot this week.

Sunday Post: New season, new journal

My hand turning on a red moleskin journal which is resting on a wooden table

I’m kicking off September with a new journal. Fire engine red for a change. I’m trying to get back to daily journalling and also weekly posts here. It just keeps me a bit more grounded and present when I make an effort to record what’s happening in my life.

Lots of interesting projects going on at work, so it’s also really busy. I popped into the office for a morning. It did feel strange, but I’m hoping to go in a bit more during the autumn, just to get a change of scene and see a few colleages (from a safe distance of course). We’ve started a book club at work which is fun but seems to be expanding everyone’s TBR lists at a frightening rate.

Cases of COVID-19 are rising again in South East Wales, so we’re being extremely cautious. But I did go to the dentist and everything is okay, thank goodness. After last year’s broken tooth disaster, I was really anxious about having a dental emergency during lockdown. I’ve got a haircut scheduled early next week too. I thought I’d better get it done now in case there’s another lockdown.

The weather has been good and my morning walks have been gorgeous all week.

A view from Cardiff Bay Barrage with the sun rising behind clouds over the water

Reading

#20BooksOfSummer came to an end. I finished sixteen books which was the minimum I wanted to read and two more than last year. I will post a round-up of thoughts on the books when I have a moment, but overall I enjoyed it.

Watching

The best thing I watched this week was a documentary about Virginia Woolf called What was Virginia Woolf Afraid of? (CN: sexual abuse). Very interesting and made me want to read a good biography.

Otherwise, we have been mostly rewatching Star Trek: Enterprise, which isn’t actually as bad as I remember, and some odd adaptations of Agatha Christie’s standalone novels where they’ve inserted Miss Marple into the story.

Oh, and the new Lucy Lawless show, My Life is Murder which feels like Xena AU fanfiction and, let’s be honest, we are only watching it for that reason.

Podcasts

I’ve been listening to the Blank Podcast and How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, both recommended by friends and colleagues. If you want a taster, I loved Blank Podcast’s interview with Dawn French and the How to Fail episode with Nigel Slater.

Music

The album of the week is Tanya Donelly & The Parkington Sisters, a beautiful collection of cover versions. Top track, ‘Automatic’ (originally by The Go-Go’s).

More Nice Things

A few more nice things that have cheered me up recently.

Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway’s joyful podcast Home Cooking is back with more episodes. I’m so glad they didn’t stop at four. If you only listen to one episode, make it the one with Nadiya Hussain.

If you’re interested in trying some new recipes, the Community Comfort cookbook that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago is fantastic – 100 recipes inspired by global heritage. Profits raise funds for the bereaved healthcare colleagues and families of Black, Asian and Ethnic minority victims of Covid-19.

I think I’ve decided that ‘bird twitter’ is one of the best twitter communities (along with poetry twitter but that’s a different story). The bird enthusiasts and photographers of twitter give me life. Some of my favourite accounts are @CarlBovisNature @CardiffBirder @theowlwhistler @Jamesoneillii

On a related note, if you’re local #WildCardiffHour is one of the most delightful, heartwarming social media events of the week. It takes place from 7pm to 8pm on Tuesdays and is just people sharing photographs of the wildlife they’ve spotted around Cardiff from the previous week. Follow @wildcardiffhour

One of my other favourite twitter accounts at the moment is @wikivictorian which shares beautifully curated ‘random’ stuff from the 19th century to the 1920s. Entertaining, startling and thought-provoking all at once.

I have a nice-things-only rule for Instagram and spent yesterday evening chuckling at my latest follow ratethisbench an account set up by Sam Wilmot to, well, rate benches. It is hilarious and rather touching.

If you’re looking for something fun to read, I recommend the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. I re-read all the novellas recently and just finished the fifth book, which is a novel, and it gave me all the feels in a good way. No grimdark, just a cranky cyborg with a past trying to prevent its humans from geting killed.

End of Summer

A view from Cardiff Bay Barrage early in the morning showing the sum shining through soft clouds over a calm sea

August is a month that always seems to pass me by. Possibly because it’s the end of summer and I’m already looking forward to the arrival of my favourite season, autumn.

August feels like an in-between month, but this year, I tried to be more present. I noticed the change in the light. The mornings are a little darker, the days slightly shorter. I’ve been finding it harder to wake up.

The birds are quieter. Red berries have appeared. Late summer butterflies are sunning themselves on the flowers, which look wilder somehow, less lush, but more colourful.

A tortoishell butterfly with its wings open sitting on a pink flower

Runner beans, beetroot and courgettes are showing up in the vege box. I have no idea what to do with the runner beans.

Work is busy. The idea that late summer will be ‘quiet’ seems to be a myth. But much of it is preparation for things to come in the autumn. I’ve booked myself onto courses starting in September and October.

This has been one of the strangest summers of my life. I’m not looking forward to autumn as much as a I usually do. I’m worried it will bring a resurgence of the coronavirus. But I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me busy for the next few months.

‘We know next to nothing. That’s how we feel.’

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As we ease out of lockdown, I’ve been struggling with anxiety about the question of what I should be doing. Should I continue to stay home most of the time to keep safe? Should I go out shopping, or to a restaurant, to support the economy? Should I go back to the gym, or not? I have a powerful fear of getting it wrong, which is not surprising, when the stakes involve the risk of getting very ill, infecting other people, or even death.

Anyway, I found this essay helpful for explaining the weird pandemic experience of information overload combined with feeling like we know nothing. As the writer says, we’ve all had to become our own policy analysts.

No one is helping us. That’s how we feel. Innocent actions, like collecting the daily mail, now come fraught with questions (Can I touch this? Should I wash that?), even as the mail itself contains bills that may not be payable. This gap between what we know and what we need to know gets filled, as all vacuums do, variably. The news media do what they can, but their ability to translate the technical language of science, especially biomedical research, has always been hampered by a tendency to miss the finer nuances. Now, at a time when those nuances really matter, we’re seeing repeated instances where, between the pre-review publication of breaking research and the rolling cycle of online news platforms, between the expert testimony offered at press conferences and the evening news, things get distorted.

All we really know for certain is that the reality of the pandemic has been lost behind a fog of confusion, uncertainty, and doubt. Without a consistent national policy, we’ve all had to become our own policy analysts. We may not know all the facts of this new disease science is just beginning to study, or be equipped to understand, much less critique, the conduct of that research. What we can make sense of, however, is just how the results of that research are presented to us—the rhetoric shaping what we are being told, the ways information is distorted.

Given the massive failure of any central authority to assume responsibility for what are literally life-or-death decisions, those decisions are now up to each of us. But how do we decide wisely, given the rhetorical fog clouding so much of what we’re told? I offer here a brief guide to some of the distortions shaping the fog of bad news.

Terrence Holt, With Pandemic Information Overload How Can We Tell What is Real?