Gingerbread

I wake up early. Day seven of lockdown. I’ve been off work for two weeks, and I don’t know when I’ll be going back. I feel a little unhinged from reality, as if I am floating above it all, waiting to crash back down. My partner has been told to stay home too. We live in a flat I affectionately call a postage stamp, and all the usual distractions: work, domestic dramas, visiting friends, very long hikes, are suddenly cut off from us. He, a stoner to the bone, is taking it very well indeed. I, a busy person by nature, am not. I have discovered at twenty-seven years old that I am quite sociable actually, despite my love of solitude. I am trying to carve out a routine, but I am also nervous. Everyone is nervous, I know this. I know too I am lucky, though a little peeved at my space having to be shared, I am relieved. I have friends whose partners are nurses. I cannot even fathom the fear they must feel.

I thought I’d write with this time, finally free, but I’ve only done one article and a handful of editing. I write notes on my government sanctioned walks, but these are only observations of nature, snippets of poetry that may one day blossom, and admonishments about an inappropriate fixation. Outside I find, stories and ideas assail me from every side, in the flat I am deflated, caged. There’s a pressure on artists to create at the moment, instead of just surviving, and I feel that, I feel this strange, gossamer time slipping through my fingers.

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find some flour. I’ve promised to bake for some friends to keep myself busy. I’ve been gritting my teeth against the knowledge that many of those who have panic bought ‘paper-wrapped gold dust’ as a friend called it, will let that bag of flour sit untouched in the back of their cupboard for years, until a school bake sale or its thrown out.

In times of stress I like baking, I like the control it brings. If you follow a cake recipe to the letter you’ll have made something excellent, and that seems to me like a pillar of stability in a chaotic world. There’s witchcraft in it too, I like to think, making something whole out of disparate parts. Though real witchcraft requires intention: stay safe, stay well I will stir into a lemon drizzle for my oldest friend and his fiancé; stay safe, we love you, we’re grateful, into a cake for a friend working in a supermarket. Get the rest you need, be well, in some biscuits for my colleague. Mere minutes after bringing home the flour I baked my partner some chocolate cookies: be peaceful, be happy.

Now I know, before I deal with everyone else, I must bake something for myself. I have craved gingerbread for months, the spiced sweetness of it, the decadence and comfort. I wonder why it’s so evocative to me, and then all of a sudden, as I add the ingredients one by one, I remember.

It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, I stir it, and I start to feel a little peace.

 

Gingerbread has always seemed to me a sort of sacred food, it tastes glorious, it lasts a long time, and it turns up in fairy stories, as quintessential to the genre as princess, knight and cannibal witch. Indeed, one of the earliest arguably gingerbread recipes were the spiced honeycakes left in the tombs of pharaohs. Earliest is apparently from Greece in 2400BC.

When I was very small, our very old Latvian neighbour Irma taught me to cross stitch. I was a bad student, more interested in the garden, or going on walks, or playing rummikub, or hearing stories, or stuffing my face with the glories stocked in her biscuit barrel. Only once did she admonish me for maybe eating a few too many of those biscuits, when I’m sure I ate far too many. The treasure of her trove were tiny bacon and onion stuffed roles, and the gingerbread biscuits. They were soft and chewy and only came around at Christmas when she would bake trays and trays full of the stuff: trees, androgynous little men, and stars. I was probably my most piggy self at these times. My cross stitch has never been anything to write home about (I can’t sit still for long), but my love of gingerbread (and a properly opulent veg patch) has always endured.

 

Gingerbread begins to ease itself into Northern Europe in the eleventh century, on the back of the crusades, but doesn’t become the thing we know today until the fifteenth or sixteenth when it becomes popular at festivals and fairs. Bizarrely, Elizabeth I is credited with being somewhat responsible for the first gingerbread men, which were given as likeness gifts of guests.

I can personally attest to such gifts being delightful: In my final year of university, I finally found some lasting friends. Two girls who I’d had lectures with since first year made it their mission to take me under their wing and after an invitation to a Thanksgiving meal at their home, and a couple of evenings of wine and Nandos, what sealed our friendship was a gingerbread man. They’d baked a load for class, creating gingerbread versions of everyone. Mine had been made first, before the icing had begun to run out (to be fair I was probably one of the most outlandish in dress, so that helped), and my favourite fox jumper and dodgy mohawk had been rendered in meticulous detail. Anxious, isolated, and in the last death gasps of a long and significant relationship, this gesture and their support kept me from disintegrating during one of the most difficult years of my life. My first play is set in their house, and their sofa became the only safe place for a longer time than I can admit.

 

The gingerbread house is generally attributed to German bakers taking influence from Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ It’s an image that endures, the cottage to be devoured, to entice, the ultimate trap. There have been two very good novels published in the last decade called Gingerbread, the first is by Robert Dinsdale and describes the mental disintegration of an old man who takes his grandson out into the forest to live in the wild. It is a strange, brutal book, Dinsdale doesn’t pull any punches with his work. The most recent is by Helen Oyeyemi, and it’s a novel saturated in her usual rich imagery and mythology. Every sentence Helen Oyeyemi writes is delicious. It’s a novel that deals with family, magic, mental health and the huge, difficult desire to know where we come from. In both novels there is a house that looms over the plot, and the sticky sweet smell of gingerbread.

 

In the nineteenth century loaves and cakes instead of biscuits begin to appear with molasses as a cheaper alternative to sugar. Molasses, golden syrup, honey, or some combination of the three is used to make a good, moist ginger cake. I like to go for molasses as it makes it darker and richer. As I started to make a gingerbread loaf this morning I wonder at its history. It lasts, I know that, but the spices and sugar must have been expensive, I think. I cannot work it out. Is it a cake for the rich, or the poor? Where does it come from? Germany has its lebkuchen (the only Christmas confection I tend to go overboard with buying) I know, and Gingerbread houses have that North American candy-encrusted pep to them. It’s a changeable cake, unlike a Victoria sponge. It comes in biscuit form, cake form, as a loaf, the spices can be changed and tweaked at will, as can the use of syrups and honeys. Capricious.

I have to leave it in the oven twenty minutes longer than the recipe asks. Our postage stamp flat, as my partner remarks upon waking, smells like Christmas, a warm, good thing against a blustering March squall, and I have made something for myself out of chaos.

Like magic, like a spark, I want to write again.

 

NB: Take things gently, you are doing so well. This is a frightening time. Stay safe, stay at home where possible. And if you live in Redhill hit me up, I might make you cake!

theolrazzledazzle

(Gingerbread me circa 2014)

Queer As Folklore: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) is a 14th Century chivalric Romance poem written in Middle English. It is best known for the challenge between the two eponymous characters: at Christmas time in King Arthur’s court a terrible green knight appears and asks anyone to strike him a blow with the condition that he may return it. Thinking himself a big man, Gawain severs the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders, and the court is horrified when the knight merely picks up his severed head and leaves, calling on Gawain to keep his end of the bargain by seeking him out in a year’s time. It’s a trope that is seen in a few early Romances, a challenge of courage that seems insurmountable yet is very rarely fatal. There is however an undercurrent of gender subversion and homosexual vs homosocial desire in SGGK that marks out its position at the tail end of chivalric Romance.

It is first important to consider chivalric homosocial culture, as it was more open to men showing affection, being emotionally close, even kissing as part of a culture of brotherhood and support, than many male spaces today. Indeed I know a man who blanches at hugging his own son, as he considers it feminine to show affection. Toxic masculinity prevents heterosexual men from being emotionally intimate with each other. Which of us does not remember every young man they knew saying ‘no homo’ after every interaction they had in 2011? The kissing and camaraderie in SGGK is not necessarily queer, but owing to the growing concerns over homosexuality in the Church at the time, I would argue it is certainly implicitly queer in parts of the poem.

 

The most explicitly homosocial or potentially homoerotic part of the poem is the exchanging of gifts motif between Gawain and Lord Bertilak (who we later discover is the Green Knight), in which Gawain promises to give Bertilak whatever he has received during his stay in exchange for whatever Bertilak has won on his hunt. Each of the three days Gawain stays in Bertilak’s castle, the lord’s wife tries to seduce him, though he manages to only take kisses (and latterly a magic girdle which he keeps hidden). At the end of each day he must give these kisses to Bertilak, the implication of her attempts at seduction being that if Gawain had given in to them, he would have had to perform the same sexual acts with his host. The whole thing does seem a little bit like a badly contrived set up for a threesome, but there we are.

It would be reasonable to think that most of the discourse around the homoeroticism present within the text is focused on this exchange; however, it is considered a show of homosocial norms by most. Though the kisses between the two are given apparent ‘savour’ – there is an underlying desire, one which Bertilak certainly comments upon, Carolyn Dinshaw argues that the ‘unintelligibility’ of the kiss between Gawain and Bertilak contrasts with the overt sexuality of the kisses between Gawain and the Lady: the heterosexual kiss has potential for sex within the poem, where the homosexual one doesn’t. I personally think that the potential for sex would be reduced only by social norms of the time, the poet having to reign in explicit sexual connotations between same sex couples due to contemporary views of homosexuality as sinful.

It is the description of the Green Knight that garners much of the discussion of queer desire in the text. Richard Zeikowitz argues that the Green Knight is a disruption of homosociality, a threat through his attractiveness: the narrator dwells on descriptions of the Green Knight, not only as a marvellous giant, as something out of the ordinary, but something ‘fitly formed’ and attractive, and dressed pleasingly. Indeed, upon our first encounter with the knight the narrator spends multiple stanzas detailing the clothes he wears, his weapons, his looks, almost obsessively. No woman is described with the same attention, though Bertilak is given a similar once over by Gawain himself. Make of that what you will.

 

There is also gender subversion in the text. Gail Ashton argues the queerness present in SGGK is due to Morgan Le Faye, a powerful yet unattractive woman, as outside heterosexual and homosocial norms of the time, as a catalyst for the Green Knight’s transformation. Ashton asserts Morgan is a sort of queer puppeteer of the plot, subverting gender expectations of herself and orchestrating the gender subversion of others. Morgan’s orchestration of the narrative purely to frighten Guinevere could also be read as a queer desire for the other woman’s attention.

The Green Knight is seen as a castrated male figure who instead of perishing, thrives. Dinshaw argues that Gawain’s role in the exchange of gifts motif is symbolically that of a woman: he is the passive recipient of the Lady’s desires, as well as the female role in kissing Bertilak. Gawain’s uneasy seduction is contrasted in the poem with the hunting of does, which are reduced to the role of passive flesh, and portioned up.

David Boyd also picks up on the subversion of Gawain’s gender, not only as the prey of the Lady, but as a potentially passive recipient of the Lord, a reasonably well known trope for the medieval reader: the lecherous old lord using his wife to seduce young men for his own pleasure. Which in my view, somewhat discounts Dinshaw’s unintelligible kiss – readers would have associated it with this trope. Boyd argues that the whole poem is set up as a defence of ever more outdated chivalric values, which the narrator believes have been undermined by queer desire, ultimately the fault of the machinations of women. Morgan creates a situation in which homosexual desire almost wins out over heteronormitivity, and therefore undermines the heroic figure of Gawain with shame and self doubt.

 

I believe it is worth noting that desire in SGGK is seen through the lens of others, not Gawain’s. We are told the desire of the Lady, of Bertilak, of Morgan, but not of Gawain: he brushes off attempts of seduction from both Bertilak and the Lady. The only thing he accepts eagerly is the girdle which might protect his life. Perhaps Gawain then is an asexual character, more interested in honour and adventure than in sex. Indeed, though throughout Arthurian literature he has various lovers, and multiple children, he is one of the knights not tied specifically to a wife. Malory paints him as a ‘Maiden’s Knight’, a champion of all women as declared by Guinevere herself, perhaps as he generally seems to desire no wife he is seen a champion without the ulterior motive of sex.

Gawain’s shame and awkwardness at the end of the poem is shrugged off by the Green Knight and by Arthur’s court. He wears the girdle as a show of his Christian frailty, his guilt at concealing it from his host. But everyone else sees it as a sign of his courage and honour, as a symbol of an interesting adventure. Perhaps it is something else that puts Gawain at unease: his desire for another man, another man’s wife, or indeed possibly his lack of desire at all in a world that even today, defines men by their ability to want.

 

 

 

Bibliography

  • I used Jessie Weston’s translation of the text, available here: https://www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_weston.pdf
  • The Perverse Dynamics of Gawain and the Green Knight – Gail Ashton
  • A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the GreenKnight –Carolyn Dinshaw
  • The Enigmatic Character of Sir Gawain: Chivalry and the Heroic Knight in the Arthurian Tradition – Amy Katherine Carr
  • Covert Operations: the Medieval Uses of Secrecy – Karma Lochrie
  • Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – David L Boyd

Gawain, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on Wikipedia

The Sexual Politics of Swan Lake

Recently I’ve taken to walking by the lakes on Earlswood Common. I find the broad waters lapping at the land soothing, the sound of the waterfall that separates the two is particularly calming. I go usually in the evening when pale swans show like ghosts against the dusk, and the willows and thorns seem anthropomorphic. There’s a café there, I should go, instead of staining family walks with my scowl as I tramp towards the nearby copse.

I get comments sometimes about my need to walk by myself, the dangers of a woman alone. Quite apart from the fact that I don’t identify as a woman, it’s patronising, as if I must be chaperoned everywhere I go, as if every tree will reveal an attacker. Someone recently told me not to walk in the woods because ‘you never know what might happen out there.’ I was then told I was ‘valuable’ and ‘impressionable.’ I am twenty-seven years old, built like a beech tree, and dress like a goth scarecrow. People are generally afraid of me.

Worse still the knowledge, and it’s knowledge I have first hand, that actually you’re more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone you know, and trust. Someone who is meant to love you, to care about you. April is a difficult month for me, cruel even, and as it approaches, walking is what keeps me sane. The swans on the lake, prowling for breadcrumbs and a fight, give me childish delight when I see them.

I think about swans often, the perfect balance of beauty and hate. Mostly, it is due to a lifelong obsession with Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. People are often surprised to discover my enduring passion for ballet, and had I been shorter and had feet that didn’t settle wrong, I would have loved to pursue it. I love the brutality of it, I love the grace.

 

In 2018 the Royal Ballet produced their first new production of Swan Lake for over thirty years – I went along to a cinema viewing with a friend and was utterly transfixed: the costumes, the set, the Russian Victorian over-the-top-ness of it. It was a fairytale in the opulent, beautiful sense. This is not to mention the dancing, which has always seemed to me perfection, and perfection was achieved.

The swan lake story differs very little from ballet to ballet, but the gist stays the same (excluding the Matthew Bourne production, which we will come to later): Siegfried is a prince celebrating his 21st birthday, he dances with his friends, it is clear he must choose a bride soon, which he is not relishing – he does not want to take on the weight of his duty as a prince. He goes hunting in the woods, sometimes with his friends, sometimes unaccompanied, and there discovers a lake of swans who transform into beautiful maidens. He discovers they are transformed into swans because of a curse – sometimes placed by a wicked stepmother, sometimes by Rothbart himself – and only a marriage proposal can free them. He vows love to Odette, one of the swan maidens, and promises to meet her the next night and declare her his bride. The next night comes, the possible brides are shown off, and Odile, the black swan, appears: Odette’s likeness and her antithesis.

Where Odette is innocent, sorrowful, pure, Odile is the soul of sex, of trickery, of seduction. The prince falls for her, believing her to be his beloved, and Odette looks on in horror and pain. The crowd descends into madness, Rothbart escapes, Siegfried realises what he has done and flees to the lake. Odette is there, crippled by grief: he has failed her. She dies, though in some, in my opinion, weaker versions, she lives.

There is a particularly good moment where the swans rise up in horror at both Rothbart and Siegfried – their friend is dying, it is the fault of men. One finds oneself willing them to rip apart them both: swan-women who have been used and abused by men, taking back their lake… You want them to have agency, because they have had none. In the new Royal ballet production, they whirl about the men in rage, but it is an impotent rage. Rothbart dies, we know not how, but Siegfried takes centre stage, presenting the dead body of his love: her swan figure in the sky, ghost-like.

The 2018 production added a prologue, the original transformation of girl into swan. Standing on stage the thin, pale princess Odette when suddenly the skeletal figure of Rothbart looms crow-like behind her, the music intensifying as her grabs her, they struggle, whirling, and then in an instant she appears – like magic! – Odette the swan in her feathered tutu, a figure of unutterable sorrow.

I cried.

I knew it was a double, but the sheer magic, the tragedy, the beauty of the movement moved me beyond words. The symbolic rape, played for exactly what it was, an irrevocable change.

 

One of the first novels I ever planned (I was fifteen) was about Rothbart: I saw him as a misunderstood, unsociable protector, keeping his swans from the evils of the world, misguided yes, but with the best of intentions. The idea that someone – a man especially – can keep women away from their own womanhood and agency, is now more relevant than ever: the Me Too and Times Up movements have shined a light that cannot be turned off. Rape happens. It happens everywhere. It is in the evil that is Rothbart, it is in the foolishness that is Siegfried. It has pervaded out society.

Siegfried? I hear you ask, what has Siegfried to do with rape? Is he too not a victim? I think not. His love is plainly not a true one, in the realm of fairytales, true love can see through even magic, and would have seen Odile for what she was. He has known Odette for a night, he is 21 years old and inexperienced, he has seen a woman he desires, he believes himself in love… And ultimately, he is not. He has used a woman, promised her he will help her, and he betrays her, albeit without intending to. Symbolically again, it is a rape, it is a betrayal of trust, or love.

Rothbart is the obvious evil, even his role as ‘protector’ in my fifteen year old novel, he is a fool, he is a gatekeeper who ultimately dooms the people he wants to keep from harm: you cannot shield people from the evils of the world, you cannot keep people from falling in love, or having sex. That is life. We cannot tell our young women to dress less provocatively, or learn to fight, or carry their keys in their fist: we have to tell our young men to not fucking rape them. And we have to do so in everything: do not touch someone when they ask you not to, do not pursue someone if they have rejected you, do not get someone drunk enough that they’ll say yes, do not spend hours trying to convince someone to say yes, don’t take advantage of vulnerable people – it is not rocket science, it is common decency.

But also, we have to stop viewing young women as elegant, breakable swans: something only beautiful. We need to see women as people.

 

In Matthew Bourne’s 1996 production of Swan Lake, the swans are men, and played as male. The central narrative is not just a prince falling in love with a swan, but a prince struggling with his sexuality and the expectations placed upon him as ruler: he falls in love, again with a swan, but the swan is a man. Suddenly, Siegfried’s awkwardness, his ambivalence about marrying makes far more sense: he does not want to marry a woman. It is a more fitting narrative in many ways: Tchaikovsky was homosexual, and people are in two minds whether he found his sexuality difficult or not. He had, either way, not a very happy life. The idea that Odette in Tchaikovsky’s mind could be male is fitting. The malevolence of the setting, of the world, makes more sense. This is not just a man who wants to be free of duty, but who wants to be free of the constrains of a society that would cast him out for his desires.

But Bourne’s swans are different: graceful, yes, beautiful, certainly… But there is something else, they are aggressive, and angry, and animalistic. They are allowed to be funny, ridiculous, as well as these things. They’re multi-faceted. They are the reality of swans: swans that hiss, and fight, and will break your arm with their wing. Swans that are terrifying, evil bastard birds with no care for anyone but their own: the ballerinas we see in most productions of Swan Lake epitomise a beauty and delicacy that neither swans nor women can live up to all the time, and yet they are expected to be so. The swans of Matthew Bourne own their dichotomy of beauty and aggression, and the small, sad, cynic in me knows it is because they are men, and society allows – expects – them to be aggressive. If only it allowed them too to be so beautiful.

 

That is the problem: we expect passive beauty from our women, honourable aggression from our men. Give me delicate male swans, give me a female Siegfried, give me a Rothbart who has a reason for kidnapping women, give me female swans ripping them both to death, owning their swan-ness. But most of all, give me a world without rape culture, a world without petty, gendered boundaries, where we’re all free to be as feminine or masculine as we’d like. Where a woman, or whatever I am, can walk alone in the woods without being policed by others preaching safety.

The Need for Well-being in Interesting Times

Last night I attended a brilliant well-being session with my local XR group – we talked a little about regenerative culture, but focused more on activist burnout, something which I – and I’m sure many of you – have suffered with. When you care about a cause it is difficult sometimes to take a step back and look after ourselves. Often, sacrificing our own well-being might seem like a noble thing, allowing ourselves the space to re-charge may feel selfish. But well-being is incredibly important as activists, especially if – as with Extinction Rebellion – we want to continue to be non-violent in our approach. Burnout can make us angry, irrational, and lash out, it can isolate us and keeps our focus away from the task at hand, often with a touch of righteous indignation, tricking ourselves into thinking that our burnout might be justified, because we care so much.

Regenerative culture is a phrase coined to describe a culture of care within the group, an active listening care that looks out for everyone, keeps everyone calm and physically and emotionally well. It is also about creating a culture of that care within our wider world: moving forward as a society with love for each other and for the planet, working with nature as opposed to against it, recognising our own feelings, and understanding the feelings of others. It is a culture which sustains and regenerates itself, instead of relying on the burn out of the people to sustain it.

One danger is this: I’ll bet you felt a frisson of embarrassment then, caring about other people’s feelings, loving everyone. As a society we are cynical about such things, we repress our natural care for each other. This is in part due to compassion fatigue, something which we all suffer from whether we realise it or not, and in part due to social conditioning – how weird, how hippy-dippy, to care.

And if we do care? Well, most of us are just too bloody tired. We’re burned out anyway, let alone as activists. It is exhausting: for a few months this year I was working full time, writing on the side, and helping to set up an Extinction Rebellion local group (as well as the usual emotional labour of cleaning my home, cooking for myself and my partner, seeing my parents, seeing friends, maintaining my basic relationships). I don’t really know how I did it. I spent most of that time in a haze, and I didn’t do anything as well as I could have. Now, thankfully, I am back down to working four day weeks (one study shows that a four day week makes us much happier and more productive, vive le four day week!) and I can focus a bit more on the things that matter to me: writing, loved ones, activism, art. I am still tired, but it is a little more manageable. I still push myself too hard, but hell, I’m 26 and I can get away with it for a little while, so I will.

But it has never been more clear to me that the capitalist system we live in relies on our burn out to keep us from protesting, keep us from making a fuss and over-throwing those in charge. On the one hand, we are terrified of losing our jobs, of not being able to look after ourselves and those who depend on us. On the other hand, we are too exhausted to stand up and fight. One of the things I find quite telling is that I am the only person I know of in my XR group who works in retail. Most people are self-employed, or work in offices, or in social or pastoral care of some sort, many are retired, and many are students who have the time and energy to devote to the cause. Retail is a horrible industry; you are expected to go above and beyond, whilst constantly being reminded that what you do is unskilled, and that you are replaceable. Everyone at my work is suffering from burnout, and so am I. (No shade on my work, I actually quite enjoy it and I work with lovely people which helps).

What does the capitalist system tell us to do when we’re burned out? Treat ourselves, participate in consumerism: retail therapy, spa days, monetised relaxation, mindfulness colouring books at extortionate prices, expensive holidays in far off places just so you can sit in the sun (well, the world’s warming up guys so, you won’t have to worry about that much longer…). If you haven’t been on holiday abroad this year, you’re considered weird, possibly boring, maybe even a failure. Never mind that flying is one of the worst and most polluting things one can do. How dare we environmentalists take away holidays? Say some critics. (News flash, the puritans did that, we’ve never quite recovered them all, and you can just relax at home or go on daytrips, holy shit – it’s even cheaper and less stressful than flying! Of course I’m not saying you can never fly – but do you really need to have that destination wedding, that week long stag do, that city break, that pricey week in a resort with the kids? Hell, I fly, I allow myself one big carbon blowout a year and visit my best friend in Denmark, I’m just as complicit, but maybe be mindful of your carbon footprint? Idk. I don’t drive, don’t buy new clothes, or eat meat often, so it I like to think it evens out).

Ultimately it all costs money, and all feeds back into the system. The capitalist model expects you to burn yourself out, and then persuades you you’ll feel better if you just spend some money on something. The concept of self care has been lampooned by this – self care should be about checking in on yourself, making sure you’re eating, drinking, washing, looking after emotional needs by – for instance – going on a walk, taking a bath or reading a book; not buying expensive beauty regimes or candles or whatever shit they’re trying to peddle you this time in an attempt to be some semblance of happy. It’s also about stopping yourself from perpetuating harmful behaviours – shopping addiction and over-spending are harmful behaviours, for yourself and the planet, and if you’re justifying them by ‘treating yourself’ you should maybe look deeper into your motives.

(And to be totally transparent, I buy myself books when I’m sad, I get it. But I’m getting better, because I know it’s a behaviour which ultimately makes me feel worse – that money could have gone towards something else, something more important, and that book becomes just another book on the piles of books I have to read at home, another pressure, another personal failing to eat away at my mental well-being.)

There’s a wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin quote (well, there’s thousands, but this one is appropriate to what I’m saying), ‘We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.’ It’s easy to see the problems of the society we are in (have been indoctrinated into since birth) as insurmountable, but if one looks at history, one sees that regimes change constantly, that rebellions can work, and that societies can improve. No movement, no society, is ever going to be perfect, but we owe it to ourselves as some of the most widely educated humans ever, to try to create a better society.

People in the UK (and elsewhere, let’s be honest) today are probably feeling a little disillusioned with the democracy they find themselves in: it has been ruled unanimously by 11 Supreme Court justices that the decision to prorogue parliament was unlawful. Our Prime Minister is unelected by the general population, and whatever your views on Brexit – mine have always solidly been in the, yeah let’s not do that camp (remain) – I think the vast majority of us can agree that in technical terms it’s a colossal fuck up.

I think we should look towards the activism of the moment as our model going forward: listening to the youth, whose future is in our hands, and who have no stakes in anything but their own survival; and for that matter listening to scientists, people who understand the crisis we are living in, and have a better idea of possible solutions; creating citizens assemblies to best reflect the views of the populace and act on those accordingly; and a regenerative culture, a society that cares, a society of people who are brought together if not by love, then mutual respect, and kindness, and understanding.

Rebel Poetry: Notes on Extinction Rebellion

I have been intending to write down my thoughts and experiences of being part of the XR movement. But it is difficult to quantify and explain, a fellow rebel who had been there in April said it best to me a month ago, “You don’t know how to tell people what it was like. So much hope and so much fear.”

Least of all do I know how it will be in just over two weeks time, when we take to the streets again in the October Rebellion. I am afraid – everyone I know is. It has been a tragically awful year for nature – the fires (both man made and wild) that swept across the Amazon, the Congo, the Arctic, Siberia, and countless other places have had a devastating effects. As have massive amounts of ice melting in the Arctic and in the Himalayas. Weather conditions continue to become more extreme across the globe. It is tiring just to write it all out again – you all know this. I know all this. Christ I’m tired.

Still our governments do not care, despite their paltry declaration of climate emergency.

We need as many people out on the streets as possible. We need anger, and rage, but we need it to be productive. We need to use it to make our society better, kinder, more sustainable. We need to turn our anger outwards to the survival of our planet, instead of inwards to poison ourselves with guilt and fear.

I am not very coherent today: I am boundlessly proud of everyone striking for climate (keep at it you beautiful people), and perhaps the emotion has got to me a little, for I find myself a little more afraid than usual. For if the governments and corporations will not listen to all those people pleading, raging, making a stand, then who will they listen to?

 

Rebel Poem

I cannot tell you facts,

Though I know them:

But every time I go to speak

They pour from my skull

like honey from a broken hive.

 

I can try to give you hope.

I am keeping shreds of it here and there for myself,

And sometimes I think it is only as strong as spider silk.

 

But I can tell you of the sighing quiet

Of walking barefoot on the hill.

 

I can tell you of the ache of a hawk’s call,

Or the cracked cry of a crow.

 

I can tell you of the whispered words of the trees

As their tongues trip: help us, help us, somewhere, everywhere,

We are burning.

 

I cannot tell you about God:

That is for you to decide for yourself.

 

But I can tell you about belief:

The swelling of fear and pride –

Like the rise and fall of a chest, or an empire –

The hoarseness in the grieving throat,

Eyes-stinging, ears-ringing, hearts beating

As one, to the sound of many joyful drums.

 

I can tell you of a child running free

Down an empty street;

Of the religious and irreligious

Standing together in the spring rain

Singing in one voice.

 

I can tell you of mornings started early,

Meetings running on late,

The smell of sweat and tea and paint:

Of flapjacks crammed into mourning mouths,

Coffees shared and laughter,

And the unburdening of grief in a sigh.

 

I can tell you I am scared, every single day,

And this imperfect thing is the only thing I can think to do.

 

I cannot give you all the solutions,

But I can help start a conversation,

Be there for the instigation of something hopefully better.

Before we are all scattered across the atoms left over from our fall;

Before the words on this page – and on these lips – mean nothing at all,

Before the children I can never have are grown up and turned to dust.

 

I can tell you I feel very small,

Some days, when it’s all too much.

But that I remember I am a part of something bigger,

One mushroom in the mycelial chain.

I am calling out: it’s happening! The end is coming!

And I hope that we can change.

Notes on Place: Fellands Copse

I live in Surrey, a county famed for being bland and suburban, but in fact a landscape constantly at odds with itself: the suburban, yes, but also the industrial, the agricultural, the urban, and – situated as it is in the fast depleting greenbelt – tracts of ancient woodland, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and deep countryside. From the window of the flat I share with my partner, we are afforded a quite spectacular view of the town we live in and various middle class gardens, but more prominently the Reigate section of the North Downs. Indeed, though miles off, the headlights of doggers in Reigate Hill viewpoint car park shine through our window at night. Lucky us.

One of my favourite places to walk is an odd strip of woodland nestled between the sewage works, the golf course cum common, and Woodhatch, which is sort of like the seventh circle of hell and was built mainly because people stayed after all the raves that happened there in the nineties. It is the working class shame of the very self-important Reigate, and equally working class but more insular Redhill. Everyone knows everyone in Woodhatch, my partner grew up there and if I mention his name to anyone, they know exactly who he is. Woodhatch is weird.

Hatchford – or to use its proper name, Fellands Copse – is weirder. Usually blessed with a more than sensible sense of direction, it is the only place I ever get lost.

I was first introduced to it in May 2016 by my partner (though we were still dancing around that issue then). I had taken him camping in some woods local to the village I grew up in, and he had felt the need to show me some of the natural world of his adolescence.

We dragged his new tent (purchased especially for Download Festival which was fast approaching) and various camping accoutrements through the common, across the golf course, and through labyrinthine suburbs. But in one step we had gone from red brick council houses to undulating green fields, and the glint of sluggish river mole.

I recognised the place, a field off Lonesome Lane (what a street name!) where I had disgraced myself in front of him and his friends when I was seventeen and stupidly in love, and had afterwards sworn to never speak to him again (which clearly worked brilliantly, as here we are a decade later, sharing a flat) as he had – in my eyes – spurned me in favour of another. I later found out he had been injured quite severely that evening and had better things to think about than people mooning after him. I was a little nonplussed at first, though I knew he’d forgotten the incident. (I have since gone back and purged the place of the shame of being a teenager; there is a lovely willow you can sit in, dangling your feet over the river).

Thankfully we walked on, into tall fields of wheat (ugh, another thing Teresa May ruined for us) and meadows full of frenetic rabbits, and past allotments peopled by threadbare scarecrows until we got to a small footbridge, and the wood loomed over us like a promise.

I was shown around with strange enthusiasm, ‘Here’s where we used to smoke and watch Reno 911… Here’s where I used to leave clues for another tracker – we circled around each other for months, it was cool… Here’s where we’d see the orbs…’

‘Orbs?’ Now my partner is nothing if not brutally realistic (almost too realistic for his own good) and though a little pickled from all the substances, if he saw orbs, he probably did.

‘Yeah, lights used to float down and sort of… stare at us for a while, and then float away.’

Huh, I thought, but continued on through the woods. We set up camp in a field on the edge of the wood, and were disturbed by neither man nor beast nor spirit. I only got a little lost, when I went on walking on my own.

 

A little of the ecology of Fellands Copse: a coppiced ancient, semi-natural oak wood sloping up from the river, its soil is rich and dark. Bluebells proliferate in spring. There are a few wide, delicious clearings crowded with nettles. I have seen deer, and rabbits, the usual squirrels, and vast clouds of cabbages whites. There are stately rowan trees with their bloody berries, and one small, dirty pond full of rotting wood. Towards the south there is a sudden wall of birches, tight and slender, divided by a thin path. There are a few of these plantations, probably grown for timber. Pylons wander through the trees, their tethering cables gouging lines through the tree cover. Further south the wood abruptly stops for twenty or thirty feet, pylon cable overhead, and then begins again. It is an odd, measly strip of land. In the south-eastern corner there is a tight network of hawthorns. Paths go into these that can only be followed at certain times of year, on certain days, when the moon and the hour are correct. Dogs will stop short of taking these paths; will look at you warily if you wander towards them.

 

I went back about a year later, we had just moved in together, and all the pressure of being a Proper Grown Up was beginning to weigh on me. I walked south, along the river, making my way past the stinking pool, I found a felled tree across the river, and rather than cross it, began to navigate the brambled way ahead of me. I stopped halfway down the path, now surrounded by thorns.

‘Something dead is down there,’ I thought, and wisely turned back.

I walked towards the birch plantation, to see if I could make anymore sense of it: none, but I discovered a small shed in the field where we camped. The grasses had grown so high you could not see across the field, and I wondered what might be lurking in them. There was a gate – old and rusted – in the south west that had not been there before. Brutal signs declaring PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO    TRESPASSING were hung along the track there. I turned back. Two crows bickered in the trees above. In the next field I came to sudden stop, a roe deer had come to a halt not ten feet from me. We eyed each other cautiously, and it sniffed the air between us before bounding off again, into the woods. I walked north, but came out again at the south-eastern corner. i felt oddly harried. Time to go home; I stopped only to eat my apple by the river.

 

A month or so later I visited with my partner, though nothing of note happened. Largely, we walked north.

 

It was April last that I went back, the cold still clawing out with cruel fingers. I wanted to see if I could get past the brambles. I did not care about the dead thing: whatever it was would be rotted away by now. I hoped. I knew in winter it might be a little more accessible, and now was my last chance.

I almost didn’t go. I was restless, and very sad. I’d walked out to the common in the way of Yeats’ wandering Aengus, ‘because a fire was in my head.’ But I’d come to the edge of Earlswood Common where I’d seen more than usual level of shelters built from stray wood, and the eerie was in my blood. I wanted to get lost.

Crossing the road and making my way through the allotments and football fields, I wended my way back, excitement bubbling in my throat.

The pond was a little clearer, but still murky and evil looking; the tree across the river had become a little less picturesque. The path ahead lay open as a door. Gone were the brambles and nettles, the great, crushing green of the summer: but it was not as if it had been cut back, or died away, but crawled back, drawn aside like the curtains of a stage.

I walked on, finding the paths to the hawthorns, robed as they were in white flowers, and following until they sank down, only accessible if you crawled. I was not prepared to crawl through thorns that day. Perhaps one day I will be.

At the junction of two paths, and the wires of two different pylons, there was a sunken, mossy dip, about the height of a man, and I wondered if I had found my dead thing. Above this was a perfect blue egg with a hole clean though it, like a hag stone. I carried it a little way, and then gave it back to the land. I could never take anything from this landscape, I am afraid of what I might bring back with me.

Just south of the hawthorns, I found myself in oak wood again, exactly the same wood as one came through from the birch wall; no birches were there, but large metal signs PRIVATE PROPERTY

NO

T RES PA S

S

I

N

G////

 

I turned back, again, though I am no stranger to trespassing. Indeed, I consider it a hobby. Growing up in ‘the sticks’ before the internet really caught on left what I call Common People Things (you dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do) and trespassing. We did both, (what can I say, we were the last generation of teenage delinquents, it was practically a requirement.) I have spent a large amount of my social life breaking into old industrial buildings and asylums, climbing up on church roofs, trying to get into rich people’s swimming pools, roving across farmland, and getting into every wood that I could. There’s always a frisson of nerves with these things, but the desire to see something beautiful, delight in something forbidden, has always won out.

But those signs, just out of reach, almost out of sight, with a well trodden path beyond them made the hair on the back of my neck bristle.

 

Further investigation that day turned up a piece of fox pelvis, multiple NO

PUBLIC

RIGHT

OF

WAY

signs, the inexplicable break in the woods, and a path. I’d passed through the birch wall, crossed the empty meadow, into another wood. I knew I was closing in on the territory of the ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’ again, and was about to turn back at the sight of another metal sign nailed into a tree, when I saw it had been blacked out. All of them had. Painted over. There was a small bridge across a stream. The right path. The path they wanted you to take.

I followed it gingerly for a little way, looking around constantly, worried someone with a gun might appear: it happens more than you’d think in shooting country. My nerves jangled especially at the sight of a house in the distance. I was unsure of whether or not to continue. I had no idea this part of the woods was even here, indeed, on previous visits, I hadn’t even seen it on google maps. Ahead of me, in pure Lewisian weirdness, was a lamppost, unlit, and beneath that, a manhole cover.

I left the path and bolted, catching myself on the reaching hands of hawthorn, and leaping over the stream – which felt to me like a boundary – back towards woods I knew better. When I crossed back through the birch wall, back into dog-walker territory, I felt a little easier.

On my walk home I saw twenty swans congregated by the lake.

 

What I know of the place: it’s been around for a long time, and the wood managed there is used across Surrey, especially in fencing. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was isolation hospital there, probably for military use. There’s very little written about it, and the local guide gives the wrong postcode to get there. I can’t imagine being isolated in such a strange place did the patients any good: whatever is in those woods is far from benevolent, though I would not say it was entirely made of malice either.

People go missing there, my partner once said, or if people go missing, it’s where they’re probably buried. And you shouldn’t trust dogs off the lead, he says, some locals out towards Leigh have trained them to take down deer, to be vicious things made of teeth.

I don’t know if that’s true, or just something used to frighten me: there is something worrying, I know, in my pathological need to go off walking on my own. A lot of people tell me I am brave, which I have always thought ridiculous (anything can be an adventure if you want it to be). There’s a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline which states, “when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” Which is right, but the same sort of thing could easily be described as bloody stupid. I should know: whatever is in that wood scares the shit out of me, but it calls out to me, and one day I won’t be able resist.

Novels, Gender, and Inspiration

Last year I wrote a novel, that’s something you don’t often hear writers say when they’re starting out – usually there’s the interminable, ‘so I’m writing a novel…’ and that novel never ends, and it’s constantly being researched and tweaked and prodded. If I am honest, I have plenty of such novels sitting there, waiting, judging. But I have two finished novels, judging me harder still, because I haven’t published them.

The first is a deeply personal, drearily introspective fairytale anthology with a frame story that takes most of its inspiration from the brutal break up I had just been through, and my obsessive need to break down the world around me into archetypes. I doubt I’ll publish it for a long time, and I’ll most likely cannibalise it for parts.

The second novel, I wrote in three weeks. I had a dream one night, and fixated. Then both my parents became quite ill, and instead of being of any use to them, I fixated harder. It was that terrible too-hot June last year. I wrote about 70,000 words. I barely ate, I slept fitfully, but I finished it, and then I edited it, and edited it, and edited until now, a year later, and the final edit is there.

I’ve sent it off to a handful of agents already; one even told me I was a ‘talented writer’ but no dice. That’s fine; publishing is a notoriously difficult world to get into, especially when what you’re writing is niche. And I’m stubborn; I’ll get published one way or another. I haven’t given myself any other choice.

The cynic in me thinks any traditional publisher won’t touch this book because the main character is a trans woman, unless of course that publisher specialises in YA literature, which somehow has more nous when it comes to breaking the mould in mainstream media. But this book is really not young adult – it’s pretty fucking gruesome in places, I would not give it to any of my teenage relatives. I would probably hesitate from giving it to some of my adult relatives.

The problem for me is this; it is a total departure from my usual remit (short form folklore and fairytales, forays into the grotesque, and nature poetry). It’s an epistolary gothic novel about a Victorian explorer who falls in love with his footman, who is a trans woman, and all the melodramatic adventures they go on: they get married as a huge fuck you to Victorian society, at some point they kill a mass rapist, all within a framework of academic discovery.

It’s bonkers, but I love it, and I want other people to love it. So far, people do…

Where my first novel I kept close (to date only two others have read it), the moment I had finished this I was sending it to bloody everyone. Over a year later I can still read it and think, ‘fuck yes!’ and not ‘oh sweet Christ what is wrong with you.’ I love this mad, ridiculous book. I love its characters. If I can’t sleep, I stage conversations with favourite characters from books in my head, and since I wrote the novel, these characters have been my go to.

Looking deeper, I love what it’s taught me about myself, because you can’t write a 70,000 word book about the trans experience and not take a step back and think, ‘why do I empathise with this so much? Oh… wait a minute.’ And then have a tiny bit of a gender panic (jury’s still out on that one, by the way).

But I don’t know what to do with it, this weird, wonderful story that somehow I carved out onto the page: so I am sending it to all the LGBT publishers I can find, and I’m writing and writing all I can: all my usual stuff, my fairytales and poetry, and long, lovelorn essays on nature and gender.

I think it’s important as artists, as writers, and musicians, and dreamers, not to box ourselves in too much with genre. I know I can be guilty of it. We all have particular interests which inspire us; we all have an idea of what we would like to create. But we shouldn’t shy away from inspiration even if what we create is not what we ever expected. I have a book on my hands, the like of which I never anticipated, and that – if nothing else – is really quite exciting.

The Consequences of Convenience: Happy Solstice

The winter solstice is upon us, the shortest day of the year, grey-dark and frost-cold, ushering back in the light, the earth tipping its axis, the northern hemisphere bows towards the sun. It is not surprising that our most historically prominent religious festivals in the west happen at this time of year: Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Yule, Christmas… It is a celebration of light, warmth in the darkness, hope after months of grim weather, plenty shared in the wake of barrenness.

I was meant to be going to a protest today, invited by a friend who I haven’t seen properly for the best part of a decade. Extinction Rebellion are rallying to protest the lack of interest the BBC is showing for the very real climate emergency we are now in. It’s a good cause, one that is a genuine worry – what with the dawn of the post-truth era and ‘fake news,’ all the picking and choosing of which facts to believe, our media seem more corrupt, more nerve-wracking than ever. For the first time, every news outlet clearly and openly has an agenda, and everyone has sunk into an echo chamber of their own internet opinions… But that is a rant for another, more eloquent, day.

I was meant to be going to a protest, but in truth I am so exhausted the idea of being around so many strangers makes my chest start to flutter. I work in retail, it is Christmas. You probably think that is explanation enough.

It shouldn’t be.

I, working the four day week that I generally do, should not be so tired I can barely do the shopping. (I must have looked a state handing over my vouchers at the counter at Waterstones, wide-eyed and mumbling my thanks as the cashier gave me my change. I must have looked a little feral as I wandered the sterile aisles of Sainsbury’s, staring at the flaccid, wet meat in its clinical portioned packaging, the too perfect vegetables laid out row upon row. One woman actually ran over my foot with her buggy and I apologised.) I do not lay the fault of my tiredness at the feet of my employers – most of whom are just as exhausted as I, and more so. I lay the collective inertia of society at the feet of a system which requires our tiredness to keep us down, because everyone I know is tired, from the unemployed to the earning far more than I will ever earn. They are exhausted. They feel they must exhaust themselves for the sake of money, the company, the life that the modern day has carved out for us all.

And our prize for our obedience?

Convenience.

The easy, the simple, the just-popping-to-the-shops-at-ten-o-clock-at-night. Everything is pre-packaged, pre-made, dropped at your doorstep, at any time. And we expect this, we are used to this, we believe we are entitled to it: to mobile phones and Amazon Prime and a car in every household. We expect the impossible of our planet, and its people – because it is people who sacrifice their time and well-being so we might get a coffee at two in the morning.

In folklore there is a trope – most famously in Russian fairytales – of being sent out to find strawberries in midwinter. It is an impossible task, a ridiculous request meant to force the protagonist (usually a young woman) into dying out in the cold. When they find the fruit – usually bestowed by a forest or winter spirit in return for an act of kindness – it is a miracle. We expect our strawberries in winter now. They sit in their plastic tubs like bloody teeth leering up at us.

I read an article recently about the effect of the popularity of avocados on Central America – it is terrifying, and a perfect example of how even our more health-conscious eating habits are destructive. I have since – and it was hard, I went to Goldsmiths for crying out loud, the hipster in me is strong – given up avocados, and will only revisit them in summer, possibly, if I can find an ethical source.

Perhaps I am becoming a little too preachy by saying that the feast days of winter are no longer about plenty in barrenness, light in darkness, but excess, and over-spending, over-eating, glutting ourselves, sacrificing ourselves up to money under the guise of showing that we care about others.

These are some of the many reasons I believe we should all, even in small ways, strive towards living seasonally: the strain we are putting on our planet to provide food for us is killing people, and it is killing ecosystems, and cultures.

I know I am guilty of bowing to convenience, as I said before, I am very, very tired, and so despite the shame I felt today when I ran into Sainsbury’s to pick up the last few staples for Christmas (and a not insignificant amount of cheese…) I did it anyway. Because I am tired. Because it is convenient. The cycle continues. I hope that sharing my experiences here will keep me more accountable, will break the cycle somewhat for me. Today, I did not do so well by the planet. But I will try better tomorrow: daylight is returning, and with it, hope.

 

Manifesto (ish)

The world has changed: important glaciers are melting, extreme weather systems are becoming more prevalent: look at the typhoons in Japan, the wildfires in America, the flooding across Asia. On a smaller scale, we in Britain (and across Northern Europe) experienced drought and heatwave the likes of which many of us have never experienced. As someone who prefers the bluster of autumn and spring, the murk and mizzle of winter, this last summer was particularly galling.

But it is not an outlier. It heralds in the first noticeable changes for the layman – climate scientists were right: climate change is here, and this year, we’ve all felt it, and if we don’t start living more ethically, more seasonally, more sensibly, it will only get worse…

I see a lot of posts saying – quite rightly – that the problem of climate change is the fault of the few, the businessmen, the oil-men, the corporate machine. But then these posts shrug off the efforts of every day people as a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. I think this outlook is foolish, if you rob people of the simplest change they might make, then how will they ever make the bigger changes to develop a society which cares for this planet and its people?

This is a small change, on my part, to do better by the planet. This blog serves as a means to make myself accountable to my goals.

I intend to start 2019 with a view to living more ethically, eating seasonally and locally, avoiding the mass-produced whilst living on a shoe-string, and campaigning more vocally for real change in the world. So that we might preserve our earth for generations to come, and set an example of stewardship and care.

Let me make myself clear from the outset, this blog is not here to make you comfortable: I believe that capitalism can no longer in any way be ethical in the industrialised world, that we should be doing all we can to dismantle a society that fundamentally preys on the weak and oppressed, and that we should all be making a conscious effort to be kinder to the planet, each other, and ourselves.

With this in mind, I do not intend to preach or seem sanctimonious – I know many cannot make the changes they would like towards living a more environmentally friendly existence for manifold reasons, including funds, accessibility (or lack thereof) and situation. This blog merely serves to document my attempt to change, in the hope it may inspire the same in others.