Whales and worlds

Today the light was soft. Sunlight hazed through billowy clouds, gilding the edges of the harvested fields, getting caught in the golden trees that have already started losing their hair. English weather really. Most mornings, frost glitters on everything, and once the mist clears, the sky is blue as ice.

Quite a lot has happened in the past two weeks. I had my last day of my summer job of proofreading and newsletter writing. Finishing up was actually a bit sad. We made a seriously brilliant newsletter though.

I held a two week old baby. She was beautiful.

I got back from the UK yesterday, a five day trip that started with an essay exam in Leeds, continued through a packed two days of catching up with friends in Leeds and York, and culminated in a lovely weekend involving curry and beer in London with my brother and two cousins and their wives. Family is just the best.

I also squeezed in an exhibition on T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber in the British Library (did you know, there was only ever one Faber but they thought that two Fabers sounded more distinguished). Seeing type-written letters between Eliot and Pound and Stephen Spender and a whole host of other poets was just cool.

And on Tuesday morning I went to the Turner Prize exhibition with my brother. Probably not quite worth the eight quid but fascinating all the same. My favourite was a partial whale skeleton that you could only view through slits in the wall so that you were taken aback by shocking details and strange angles. It was called ‘Leviathan Edge’. The artist had also reproduced Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures in coal dust. My brother preferred a different installation involving an atomized aeroplane scattered on the floor like a desert landscape, and wall sculptures made of a mix of plastic and powdered brain. Actually both installations seemed to be about trapped flight, and movement, and time…

Speaking of flight, that’s what Michael’s been doing – brushing the sunset with his wings. He’s in the States for a conference (and other things), but I couldn’t join this time because of commitments.

I got home last night to a fat package covered in stamps with whales on them. It was a copy of the brand new Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature, which my Grandma very very kindly posted to me. Another world, more than a thousand pages long. I can’t wait to get stuck into it.

I’m happy to be back – happy to be at the kindergarten, and to have two days a week free now for writing. Let’s see where it takes me.

Flowers for Kate

The celebration of Kate’s life was a week ago. I couldn’t make it, but I was thinking of her. I found this beautiful tribute from her supervisor. And I read the transcript of the celebration. They wanted it to be a celebration, because she was a beautiful person and the only way she lives now is in our memories. They asked her friends to bring a garden flower to leave on her grave. These were all I could find.

Kate

I met Kate in the Lake district in autumn. I remember the wet leaves on the paths, the clean air. It was a walk organized by the University of Leeds hiking society.  Kate was friendly, and tall like me, and doing a PhD in chemistry. She told me how much she loved living in her house in Meanwood. When later it turned out that she had spare rooms in the house for the coming academic year, I jumped at the chance.

daff4

Two other brilliantly lovely young women moved in too, and it was the nicest shared house I’d ever lived in. Those are our joint collection of teapots, keeping each other company on the top of the kitchen cupboard.

Kate was always buying flowers and baking cakes. We used to wake up to this amazing smell and a scrawled note to help outselves to home-made bread. We had a cleaning roster we stuck to and the house was always sparkling. We often had house meals – pancakes, waffles. Once Kate made this incredible French Onion soup. I hate onions, but it was amazing. Another time she made vegetarian shepherd’s pie. I made chocolate pudding. Ruth made quinoa. Heather made pizzas from scratch.

Our basement was crammed with bicycles, which we carried carefully over the clean kitchen floor, and balanced precariously down the stairs. It was a fifteen minute bike ride into town or to uni. There was always a copy of the Guardian on the kitchen table. The living room was filled with plants. The pin-up board was covered in postcards from all over the world.

Kate submitted her PhD in atmospheric chemistry (you know, climate change stuff) at the same time I handed in my thesis. Her viva was a couple of weeks before mine. She graduated the week before me, exactly three weeks ago (I stole this picture from her facebook page. I hope this is ok – tell me if it’s not). I didn’t get to see her while I was in Leeds because she was off in Germany checking out her new home. She’d been offered a two year post-doc in Mainz.

kate

One week ago, Kate Furneaux was riding her bike in Leeds and a truck knocked her over and she died.

My other housemate, Ruth, rang to tell me yesterday. I can’t believe it. But it’s true. I am so angry at the world. I want to punch the walls down with my fists.

Kate really was incredible. Any one of her million friends will tell you. She had such enthusiasm, positivity, generosity. I have never met anyone with such lovely energy. She loved the world and her family and the friends she had a habit of collecting from several continents.

She was always last to go to bed, pottering around in the kitchen with a pot of exotic tea, cooking up some ridiculously healthy organic vegetables and chopping salad to take for lunch the next day. In the morning, she usually left the house before the rest of us had stumbled out of bed. She worked hard on her phd, spending long hours in her office at uni. But she was always off doing something exciting on the weekend – hiking or camping or visiting friends, or going to a festival or a football match. She moved out a couple of months before the rest of us did in order to do field work in Borneo. And it feels so hollow to write this because all we can do now is tell stories about her, and it’s not supposed to be like that. She’s supposed to be making her own stories. She’d just turned 27.

I went to yoga last night and I was doing ok, but at the end they played that song by Sting:

On and on the rain will fall

Like tears from a star

like tears from a star

On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are

how fragile we are

It was raining outside. I lay on my mat, breathing and alive, the way Kate should be. I lost it completely.

Because I don’t like how fragile we are. I think it’s crap.

Graduation

Was brilliant. Loved my hat, which in fact was black, not green, but the robes were green which suits me fine. My supervisor said she always associates me with green jewellery.

It’s past bedtime now but I just have to tell you about it. It was very formal, and just so much fun. The staff of the school of English paraded on stage, decked out in all their finery.

It was brilliant to have my brother and Michael there. We went out for lunch with my supervisors, which was so so nice, and can I just say once again how I love them and they are just fantastic and I couldn’t have asked for better, and if I had to do it all again I would, and I’d do it with them.

It rained but I didn’t mind.

And later my friends and I went out for dinner at Hansa’s, which if you are ever in Leeds you must do too.  So it was pretty great. And THANK YOU – to my supervisors, to my sponsors, to my parents and grandparents who were there in spirit, and to my friends and especially J and M for celebrating with me (and for taking the pictures!). It’s been an awesome journey. One part of it is over now. That is a little bit sad as well as exciting, and it was nice to have a ceremony to mark the end of it. But many paths, I hope, have only just begun.

Snapshot

I walk the long way back to the train station. The street is wide and the Victorian shopfronts glow faintly bronze in the fading light. The sky is opaline, scalloped, pink and blue. Two aeroplanes pencil bright orange trails beside the crisp white rind of the moon. My belly is just slightly too full of Hansa’s curries, mango lassi, white wine. My head whirls with the discussion about openness and uncertainty with three sweet Danish girls. Happiness is curry and wine and the slow evening sky so close to the city. I remember the first weeks of my phd, in October, hurrying back to the train station as the sun set earlier every day, watching the fiery clouds touch the buildings. Four winters have passed since then. Now the plane-trails broaden and turn pink. Like paths I could tread.

On the train, I realise I’m still carrying the thesis. The window takes on a sheen because it’s finally dark, though I hardly notice. I take out the manuscript – fat heavy green thing that it is – to read my favourite poem about the river. But I don’t open it. I hug it. I hug it tight.

Bingley Footbridge, 8am

On one side of the bridge, the misty moon hazed and floated. On the other, the sun thought about emerging. When I returned, ten at night, the moon had shuffled to the other side, and the sun was nowhere to be seen.

(And you all come here for photos of the same places in different lights, don’t you?)

The footpaths are sparkly with frost.

Yesterday, as I walked along, thinking of dear friends, a stranger told me I had a beautiful smile. Which made it all the broader.

I had a two hour meeting with my brilliant (medievalist) supervisor. She identified a couple of places I’d been tying myself in knots, and corrected a couple of generalisations. I felt exhausted afterwards, but now I know exactly where this chapter needs to go, which luckily is not all that far away.

I talked to some fellow phd students and graduates about hopes and fears.

I am on the cusp of something new, standing on the bridge in the changing light.

Walled Cities

I finished reading the most beautiful novel the other day. Gatty’s Tale, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I first realised what a lovely writer he was when I read his translations of Norse Myths, and I vowed to get hold of his King Arthur trilogy. I did, and have read the first one so far, and loved it. Gatty’s Tale is a spin-off from that – a thirteenth-century girl joins a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

There it was!

Jerusalem!

At once Gatty reined in.

There it was, waiting for her.

No need to ask. She recognised it like a home from which, long ago, she had strayed. Its contours were her own heart’s and mind’s contours. She felt like a little girl again. No need to say anything.

The Holy City, golden, grew out of the gentle slopes on which it sat. Or was it the other way round? Did the Holy City, Gatty wondered, come down from God, out of heaven? And did the hillslopes and the valleys and everything else on the earth grow out of it?

All that stood between the pilgrims and the golden domes, the clustered towers and columns and walls was one last shallow valley, dark with olive groves.

I read this on the train, on a very tedious journey from Stansted Airport up to Bingley. Finish the damn thesis, I told myself glumly as I stood in the cold in Peterborough station, waiting for a train that didn’t come, you’ve got to stop doing this. I ended up catching a train up to York, and then another train to Leeds, and then another train to Bingley.

As I waited in York station, I thought about how usually I would feel very sad just to be there. I lived in York for three years. I loved it. It was home. I met Michael there. We lived together in the sweetest little house. We cycled everywhere – to the shops, to the pubs, to the wonderful Baroque concerts with two pound tickets for students. I did my masters there. I finished my novel there. I started my PhD. I would walk on the stone walls, and hang out in my favourite bookshop (now sadly closed). Every time I returned there, after being away, as the taxi swung past the walls and the gates to the city, I would feel a tangible surge of at-homeness. It was so sad to leave.

But – this time I didn’t feel sad. I felt content, in myself. I have a new home now. I am building a new home.

And then, on the train, I read about Gatty in Jerusalem. And my heart surged. I have been there – the centre of the world, as they thought in the Middle Ages. I have stood inside this other walled city. Michael had a two month scholarship to be in Israel, and I went to visit him, and we went to Jerusalem together.

Like Gatty, I had heard about it all my life. The Bible was a big part of my childhood and my early adulthood – I have read the stories over and over. My parents went to Jerusalem when Mum was pregnant with me. Dad bought a little statue of Moses, which has sat in the corner of the lounge room all my life. My Mum bought a big brown coat, like a monk’s cloak, which I wore for a while as a teenager. And there I was, again, the centre of the world.

For Gatty, part of her has always been in Jerusalem, and part of her will always be there. And when she prays inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre – that mazelike, burrow-like place where I too have stood – she prays for all her friends and family at home, for those who could not come to Jerusalem and never will, but when she prays they are there anyway, with her, safe inside the walled city.

And I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say, but I like that idea – of being together even when you’re not together, of being at home even when you’re far away. And there, on the train, between York and Leeds, the journey was a burden no longer, and I gripped the novel firmly, with tears in my eyes.

Christmas lights

They lit the Christmas lights in Leeds last week. There was a party on the street. On every corner you could buy plastic lazer lights or sparkly butterflies. The lights are great. There are giant champaign bottles, and glasses filled with fizzy gold. I overheard some people complaining that this was too early for Christmas. No, no, no! Christmas means so much more up here where it is dark and cold. We know winter’s not going away for six whole months (sad but true) but the sparkly lights say – we don’t care! We will dance and shine and glitter anyway.

The German Christmas market opened today. On the way the way back from the library tonight, I was drawn like a moth to a flame. I managed to resist the gluwein and just stayed long enough to purchase some horribly overpriced domino stones. Ah, domino stones. I must have been grinning like an idiot, because the man who sold them to me said: ‘You are smiling!’ And I was. And I am.

Rare Sunshine

It’s mostly been low clouds and rain you can walk in.

Meeting went well today. They liked my introduction. We went through it together, in detail, and they had lots of minor suggestions to make it better. But they are small things. Stylistic things. (I need to keep an eye on the ends of some paragraphs and where I pick up again after block quotes.) But they said it is good. It is all there. And they really loved the first three pages, which I had revised over and over every time I read through it. Eek! Eek! Eek! (Very pleased with myself. My thesis-zone last time I was in Norway paid off.)

And they think I can make December. I told supervisor two that I didn’t want to hand it in if it isn’t ready. She said it’s never ready. Just do it.

They are very pleased I am staying in the UK next week too and have offered to meet with me again, individually.

Everyone is being very nice to me. Offering me beds to sleep in. Lending me money when the bank refused to give me any without my passport (long story – will bring passport tomorrow). Supervisor two even offered me money (which I refused) and told me I can stay with her if I need. Can I say again, she is one of the nicest, best, cleverest people on earth. (I’m pretty sure they don’t read this, but it’s still true, even if they do.)

I have been thinking about distant friends. Including one who is not well. She had better be ok.

Been thinking about my Mum too. Would be nice to drink tea together. Next year will do, I guess.

And my brother’s art exhibition.

And Michael, teaching in Stavanger.

It was my Grandma’s birthday yesterday. Happy birthday! There were lots of fireworks here, just for you.

I am happy-gleeful-joyful about the election. But not about prop 8.

And now I am calming my buzzing mind and beating heart and preparing to look again at the intro, and thread in all their suggested changes, and look again at my weakest chapters before I meet with them next week. Pity I can’t just smile at the thesis and watch it grow wings. But it will get there. It will.

Planes good, trains bad

I’m back in blighty for a last sustained assault on the library and meetings with my supervisors. My flight got in early yesterday but the utter horribleness of the British train system on Sundays (delayed trains, replacement buses, misleading information) meant it took forever to get back to Bingley. I’m staying here again with my delightful friend Vic, which makes it all better. The trains into Leeds (it’s about twenty minutes) are cheaper after ten though, so I’m going to arrange my working days around that. Or if I decided I need the library in the mornings, I’ll just bite the bullet and pay an extra two quid.

I’ve been reading over the notes my supervisors have made on my various chapters, and can I just say, my supervisors are brilliant. One of them disappeared to New York for a year, but now she’s back and my thesis will be stronger because of it. (The person who replaced her during that time was also great, but C has more to offer my particular topic.) My supervisors are intuitive, thorough, extremely interested in what I’m doing, and push me to be the best I can. I’m meeting with them on Thursday to discuss the latest draft of my introduction.

So. A grey English morning and a library full of books await me. Here goes…

Belonging

This photo was taken yesterday, when the air was clear and cold. Today it was grey and cold and smelled of woodsmoke. The neighbourhood cats with green eyes and pink mouths wait on corners and cry out when we walk past. Purple thistles burst out of their cases and the chestnuts ripen. There are patches of yellow on the trees but the best is still to come. It is dark by 8pm. This is a novelty.

At the closing session of the conference I went to last week, Peter Porter spoke about belonging. How after forty years in England, he can’t call himself English, but that London feels like home. It’s funny, the way places creep inside of you. I’m not English either, but I feel that I belong to the North of England far more than say, someone from the South of England does. Some Southerners think of the North as a far off, wild place, barely civilised, and they never visit it. York got inside me very quickly, and I still feel a rush of at-homeness when I approach its walls. Leeds took longer. It was a place of exile. But – this last time – I felt I belonged.

And what of this little town with its glassy light and odd shaped islands? The seasons fold over one another, the dark chases the light and the light chases the dark. And there is a home somewhere in this, too.

The Beautiful Brotherton

Just to see if I can generate a bit more nostalgia for Leeds in certain readers… Here’s the chestnut tree in front of our red brick terraced English department, looking gorgeous as usual. And here is the beautiful Brotherton Library.

I love love love this library. It has all a library should: marble pillars, high ceilings, parketry floors, natural light. And thousands of books, including obscure Australian journals. It’s perfect just at the moment because the undergraduates haven’t come back yet. Here’s the view from my perch in the Australian literature section.

I had a great four days in Leeds – reading in the library, meeting up with my supervisor, and catching up with lots of lovely ladies with whom I have lived or studied or both over the past five years. And – er – a bit of shopping. Supervisor says thesis is on track to be finished before Christmas (even taking into account my secret and time-consuming plans soon to be revealed). He says it’s been downhill since I was fifteen months in, and all that’s left to do is the last bit of the downhill. Which I imagine will be quite painful none-the-less, but he did a good job at diffusing my terror…

And thank you thank you thank you to my cousin in London who always lets me sleep on his floor, and Vic who let me stay all week.

After boarding two trains, a bus, a plane, a car and a ferry, I’m back in Norway with my favourite person. Bliss.

Last Week

Last week I felt like I was five steps behind, scrambling to catch up all the way. But it was fun all the same. The Medieval Congress in Leeds was much more fun than last year because it was packed with clever Australian medievalists. (‘Isn’t that an oxymoron?’ asked the London-born lass whose sofa I kipped on. No. And no.) There was also a whole day and a half devoted to medievalism of various times and forms, which was amazing, but I have to admit I skipped a couple on Tuesday and went to papers about medieval animals instead. According to an obscure Anglo-Saxon text, I learned during a paper on Anglo-Saxon whales in fact and fiction, at one point God became a Leviathan in order to fight the devil. Some of you might know why I think this is cool.

I also saw some lovely old friends, including Liz, who did the masters in York with me and I hadn’t seen since graduation. And I cycled home in the unseasonable English rain, and got completely drenched, twice.

The paper I think went better the second time. Some interesting points were raised in the questions that will help me if I want to make anything more out of it. I wish I didn’t stammer though. It wasn’t that bad, but a couple of times I’ve given virtually flawless presentations, and I wish that would happen every time. I’m just so bored of dealing with it that I’ve stopped adequately preparing for it. (If I read through the paper over and over and over again before I give it it’s usually smoother. Trouble with this one was I kept changing it so I didn’t have a chance.) I talked about it with a couple of people from the audience afterwards, and one of them asked me if it was stage fright. No. Nothing like that. Of course giving a presentation is more stressful than having a chat to someone, but I don’t get more nervous than anyone else. It’s just that the slightest hint of nerves (or sometimes excitement) somehow manages to break my words into little pieces.

At school, if I ever had to give a presentation, I would dread it for weeks. It’s not like that any more. I really don’t mind. And it’s not like people can’t deal with listening to a minor stammer – I still get my point across. But – I do feel sort of raw and broken afterwards, as though I’ve cracked open and everyone can see inside.

Anyway, loads of people told me they liked the paper – and I don’t think they were just being kind! The poems I was talking about are themselves pretty impressive, so it was fun to share them with people.

I’m back in Norway now, and looking forward to working full-pelt on my thesis tomorrow. After the conferences I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, awash with possibility.

Very excited

This week, some old friends from Adelaide are visiting and we will take them up to the mountains. The same places we took the parents, but weeks have passed and seasons have shifted and it will be different.

Then I’m heading back to England, for two conferences. This in London, and this in Leeds. Here is my session. Very many wonderful people will be there. I can’t wait.

(To clarify: as I told my Mum on skype about the prospect of listening to a day’s worth of papers on Australian animals, M likened my enthusiasm to that of a child’s excitement about going to the zoo. Ahem.)

Then it’s straight back here for serious thesis writing, and unpacking of boxes which hopefully will have arrived by then.

Three people came for dinner last night. Between the five of us, we had strong connections to Norway, Germany, Australia, England, Poland, France, India and the USA. Fun. And we have been cycling, zooming past the lakes in the warm air. It is good to be here, good indeed.

Packing

And posting things, and finding homes for random stuff, and giving away books (sniff), and gathering library books, and saying goodbye to people and places. And cleaning the house. And getting parking fines with my bicycle (what’s all that about?). Back soon…

Visions

Sitting in this room, all my books in place, all my photocopied articles within arm’s reach, the printer nestled on the trestle beneath the desk, my thoughts clear, calm, interested, alive. Connections buzzing. The rest of my thesis slotting together like lego, like a fantastic castle.

Cycling past the long lake that flashes between the birch trees in the strong evening light. Cycling fast, feeling the smoothness of the road between my hands, the air in my throat.

Standing at the top of the fortress, at the top of the world.

Stretching out on the futon in the lounge, watching dvds on the projector screen. Not wanting to be anywhere else.

Hold onto these thoughts.

Any sort of leaving is hard. The objects imprinted with use. The small fragments of kindness I can’t bear to let go of. Everything in chaos. My parents are leaving in a couple of days and I’ve been too stressed to even spend proper time with them this week. My Nanna unwell, and too far away. But… Lists. Lables. Strong tape. An itinerary including the last detail so I don’t even need to think any more.

And… Moments of grace. Phone conversations with my brother and my cousin. And yesterday, coffee with a girl I hardly knew but we suddenly realised our worlds touched. Unplanned, unforced connections. Quiet, and alive.

Hold onto these thoughts.

Exploding Brain

One month from now, Friday July 11, I will be sitting in Manchester airport, waiting to be called for boarding. All I will need to do is take one flight and two train rides to get home. It will be great.

My parents are here till Sunday. One lot of boxes went off yesterday, but I need to send another lot next week. This weekend, they’ll help me take some boxes of books to the second hand shop, and some stuff I don’t need to the tip. This is good. I’m not sure what to do with my desk and my office chair, don’t think they’ll fit in the car. The weekend after, with my housemate, I have to empty and clean this house completely as we are all moving out. M’s arriving on Saturday, and he’ll help me carry some stuff back to Norway on Tuesday. I then have one week in Halden. I’ll have to unpack everything. But I don’t suppose it will take all week. Then we are going back up north with some old friends of mine from Adelaide. I was so, so excited when I worked out I would be able to see them, but right now, it’s feeling like one thing too many. Five days later, on the way back, M will drop me off at the airport, and I fly back to London. I have a one day conference in London, and then a three day conference in Leeds. And then – bliss – an easy train ride to Manchester airport, and I’ll be on my way home.

And all this on top of the hectic month I’ve just had.

In between, I have to sort out five million other things: I need to review an article for a journal (why are they trusting me with this anyway?), find documentation to prove M and I lived together for two years before he moved to Norway, work out how to renew my Australian driver’s license, find accommodation for the London/Leeds trip I mentioned above, finish conference paper for said conferences (luckily I’m giving the same one at both), sort out funding and flights for another conference in September, work out what happened to my pay for teaching last semester, all that packing and cleaning, say goodbye to the lovely Leeds people… Oh, and what was the last thing? That’s right – THESIS. The one thing that’s causing all the little fuses in my brain to snap.

I guess the most important thing is to have a clear plan, and make sure I bring back to Halden with me everything I need. Do some thorough writing preparation, rather than writing as such. I miss the writing. I miss seeing progress. Can’t be helped. I have a whole clear day now, to begin to make a dent in this scary list. Lets go!

One month from now…

Chapters, sunlight, flowers

As may be apparent, it’s been a bit hard to concentrate on my phd lately. I managed to read through the whole thing two weeks ago. Barring one chapter, it’s actually not all that bad. The Webb chapter still needs an illuminating spark, but I can almost touch it. The Murray chapter, which opens the thing, is packed with interesting ideas, and is definitely the right place to begin. The other writers I look at refuse to use medievalism to create an Australian identity in quite the way he does. My Randolph Stow chapter, which was such a joy to write, is still my favourite, but at 24,000 words it needs to lose 5000. It will do this quite happily, as the second half is a little drawn out. The dreaded Webb chapter is third in line. And Kevin Hart is a good way to finish, though – again – the last third of this chapter also needs some smoothing, straightening, redefining.

Overall, the experience of reading the thesis was like listening to an orchestra tuning up. All the instruments are crying out, and there is exciting potential, but they need to be brought together, tuned, made to sing. And then there will be music indeed.

I got back to Leeds on Tuesday, and exactly three weeks from then I will be moving to Norway. Yes I’ll be back two weeks later for the Medieval Congress, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the next two and a half weeks I have to empty my room and my house, post all the important things to Norway, and dispose or donate the rest of them. So. One box at a time. And next week I will think hard about my thesis and my introduction, and scour the library shelves for anything I’ve missed, and check my folders of resources for missing pages and mistakes. And all will be well.

In Halden right now everything is in bloom. Suddenly. In the week we were gone, pink and purple flowers swarmed the hill to the fortress. Now lupins crowd the roadsides like birthday candles. And what are they called – those round things that you blow on and the seeds float away – there are flocks of them glowing like moons, waving all their wishes in the evening light. My head is still full of mountains and green fjords and endless sun. Yes, all will be well.

A weekend of decadence

Just for the record… Afternoon tea in Betty’s stretched for two hours: sundaes, berries and rose-petal tea, followed by smoked salmon sandwiches and vanilla slices. Mmmmmmm…

After that, we sampled the respective glories of York and Leeds: the minster, the corn-exchange, the angels playing bagpipes, the red-brick canal, and opera – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in the refurbished Leeds Grand Opera House.

I’d never walked so far along the canal before, but all these other places are dear to my heart – from music, from countless visits, from the people I’ve met there, from the things that have changed. Places like this don’t disappear when you leave, you carry them with you, like some sort of silent, internal architecture. And – yep – it’s nice to visit them with Mum too. Who told me, the first time I mentioned York – that’s a good idea.


Well, I’m back

I am in Halden. I am seriously happy to be here.

The customary stress of the day-I-leave was compounded by a few things… I didn’t start planning early enough as I was out gallivanting around York and Leeds with Mum (as well I should have been, and very nice it was too). But on Sunday night when I was going put all our pictures in a blog-post and then pack my bags, we had a power failure. It came on again around 11:30, and I woke with a start as my bedside light glared into my face and all the house alarms in the district jumped into action. They gradually quietened, except the one across the street, directly opposite my window. It kept going all night and most of the next day, till about 2pm. This was more than horrible.

Anyway, we made it. On Monday night I had dinner with my parents and my cousin and his new girlfriend in London, and headed towards Stansted bright and early Tuesday morning. My Dad seemed to have had a great weekend in London – he was dressed for a safari with a water-backpack (you know the ones with the little tube you suck the water from) and a compass dangling over his shoulder. He said it had proved necessary on several occasions. Only the backpack had leaked all over a couple of bus seats… They’ve got a few more days in London, and then a week in Finland and Sweden, before meeting up with us here in a week and a half. I can’t wait to show them our little world here. Mum says she’s looking forward to climbing the legendary fortress!

In the confusion I forgot the little usb thingy I need to upload photos to my computer. This seriously annoyed me all the way down to London. Apparently there’s something at M’s work I can use, but after working hours…

I cried my eyes out in Stansted airport as I read the end of The Book Thief, and now I’ve started Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, which I’m in love with already. Reading it makes you feel independent and brave.

Here the birds are happy and the trees are bright and gleaming. We climbed up the fortress last night to see their new dresses, and a spirit of the forest was there to greet us. When I can upload the pictures, I’ll show you. My thesis is at a point where I need to start thinking about the introduction, which is exciting. Spring is everywhere, and best of all, I’m here.

Good things

  • Mum’s here – hurrah! For someone who’s just flown across the globe with two broken arms she’s in astoundingly good shape.

  • Marking is done and dusted.

  • I ate at my favourite vegetarian Indian restaurant two nights in a row. Yum yum yum. It’s official – shrikhand is better than chocolate.

  • My wonderful and never tiring supervisor has told me that September is the month. We shall see… Secretly, my money’s on November. But either way, it’s coming together – hip hip, hooray.

  • It’s still warm, if not sunshiny. The new leaves put on quite a show.

  • I got lots of early birthday presents (thanks Mum & Dad! thanks G&G!), without even having to turn 29. I approve of that.

Colours

All I can offer is more green, I’m afraid. Here it is, illumined by the setting sun, just after eight this evening. I wish I could send you the birdsong. Waking up at the moment is a joy. My window is open to the sweet morning air and the birds. Now, I like the bird-calls in Australia, the cawing of the magpies. My soul feels at home in that sound, and as I try right now, with partial success, to remember what it sounds like, I can smell the Australian morning too, that dusty openness, the tang of eucalypts, the light spreading over the gum trees. But – I can understand why Europeans are non-plussed or unsettled by it. Here, the birdsong is pure as the voices of choir boys. It swells and folds with such sweetness, such clarity, for hours and hours. Francis Webb was on to something.

And then, just when you are used to the green, it all goes white.

Green Mist

After a spectacularly unproductive weekend, I’m going to pretend it’s not a bank holiday tomorrow and get all my marking done. After my great revelation on Friday my mind was in no fit state to do anything with it. So I’ve sent off the chapter, ragged ends and all, pretty confident that one more rewrite will get it in order. Agh! This thing is never ending.

Also proved to myself again that it doesn’t work to try to work every weekend. I’ve been doing that recently to make up for all the weekends I won’t be working in the near future, but that only succeeds up to a point. At least I’ve achieved temporary closure on Webb, and can get stuck into my next-worst chapter in a couple of days time. Marking first though. Have to get this off my back.

It stopped raining for long enough this afternoon for me to go out and check on the progress of all the little leaves. But oh how I long for summer. My bed-time reading at the moment is Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and her descriptions of sunshine on the red grass of the prairie are exactly what I need. But good things are on the horizon. Good things indeed.

Speaking of Green…

Yep, it’s pretty green round here right now. A sort of scraggly, mossy green – not all the trees have leaves yet – but it’s beginning to fill in. Every time I go to the park near my house, some small thing is different.

Time feels like it’s passing so quickly at the moment. I fight a battle with my chapter every day, and at the end of each day it feels like it’s defeated me, but I make a new assault each morning with fresh ammunition. And I’m gaining ground.

I teach my last class tomorrow. Then I just have to mark the essays, and I’m done.

And – I’m beginning to think about leaving. At the end of June, I’m moving to Norway. I’ll still be back here now and again until I hand in my thesis, but I won’t have a base here any more. I’m looking forward to it, but there’ll be things I miss, all the same. I’ve been based in the UK for nearly five years now. Maybe it’s time for a change.

Northern Lights in Adelaide

Clouds and chimney pots.

A long way away from here, it’s the festival. The best time to be in Adelaide. This is what my Mum says:

We went into an outdoor music club set up on the banks of the Torrens by the amphitheatre called the Persian Gardens. They had persian carpets and cushions all over the steps of the amphitheatre, and also carpets and little low tables and small beanbags on the grass under the trees with Persian looking brass lights etc. It was cool down by the river (it’s been very hot here) and was a great atmosphere. All the state buildings on the north side of North Tce are lit up by a light display for the festival called Northern Lights!! They are fabulous and it seemed half of Adelaide’s families were out strolling or driving in a very slow traffic stream down the road to see them. They have generated computer slides that match the building outlines and details and throw different coloured lights (very strong colours) and patterns onto them. The designs change every 5 minutes or so. They all look rather gothic and sort of lurid or ghostly by turns; eg the museum had fossils superimposed all over it, and then spiderwebs and a huge spider. The side of the library had one version that made it look like a huge bookshelf, and Elder Hall had music notes trilling along it. The art gallery looked as if it had very realistic marble statues at the front of its pillars at one stage (people were going closer to check!) and then as if it was a charcoal sketch of the building at another. At other times they just looked like very coloured European buildings but as if the doors and windows were glowing luminescently. It really was incredibly engaging to see buildings we are so familiar with transformed in such ways- and you noticed things about the architecture you always take for granted. Apparently it took a year to develop the concept- money well spent I’d say.

And this is what thirdcat says, and, strangely, fifi is talking about light too. Here are some pictures. Go on, look at them, they’re amazing. I wanted to pinch them for my blog, but they are cleverly protected…

In other news I’m off today to catch up with my cousin in London, and then I’m flying to Norway tomorrow morning. There’s still the small problem of deciding exactly what to take. (Fewer books! Fewer books! I hear you say…) I’ve been quite sick for the past week with a weird cold that just makes you really exhausted (all my housemates have it), so I haven’t been able to achieve quite as much as I wanted. Teaching takes it out of me too. But now I have four uninterrupted weeks to work on the thesis, so I should more than catch up.

I was walking in the park near my house on Sunday, thinking how lucky I was to live in such a genteel neighbourhood. On the way to the park you pass a posh Church of England primary school, and the park was full of families with small dogs and little kids. The park is great – there’s grassy areas, and forest, and a creek lined with daffodils. And then I approached a group of twelve year old boys walking the other way. They crowded the path so it was hard to get through. One of them patted me on the shoulder. Once I passed them, they started throwing twigs and small stones at me. I thought about putting the hood up on my coat, but decided not to.

Rainy Saturday

The blue room is so much nicer when there is a small creature curled up in the corner of it. I cycled home from town today in the rain, my knuckles red and aching with cold, the back of my coat soaked through where the water flicks up from the wheels. And who should I meet at the doorstep but a very wet kitty with a very clear idea of where she belonged…

I’ve had a typical and pleasant Saturday: yoga in the morning, a bike ride to town in the afternoon, braving the ghastly but cheap supermarket on the way back to pick up ingredients for sag paneer (I love my weekly dose of spinach), and an hour or so of inane but pleasant tv in the evening. Last week it was England’s attempt to choose a Eurovision song, this week the double triumph of a Doctor Who special issue of The Weakest Link. Who could ask for more? (Well, Doctor Who itself would have been more fun, but still…)

It’s back to work tomorrow to straighten out the ragged ends of my final chapter so I can send it to my supervisors before I go away. There’s just a few other loose ends to tie up and one more class to teach, and then I’m off to Norway via London. Good.

Daffodil Hunting

Daffodil with students

I had the nicest dream this morning, just before I woke up. I dreamed that someone wanted to publish my novel. In fact – they had already published it, and I held it in my hands. I have actually dreamed this before, more than once. But never before was the dream accompanied by such a feeling of bright sweetness, which did not fade with the day. One day, maybe.

It was probably because I have been reading blog posts about other people’s books being published. And also because last night, for the first time, I piled up all the sections of my thesis, and held the wad of paper in my hands. And hugged it. It is scruffy and covered in notes. But it is a hellova lot of paper! This is exciting but also slightly daunting – all that will need checking, and some of it needs rewriting. But mostly it is exciting. It seems faintly ridiculous – I can’t believe that I have come this far and am actually going to achieve this thing! I will try to keep this feeling of sweet wonder alive, and tap into it when I need encouraging.

Today in my class we discussed Breton lais. The students seemed to like them. I didn’t ride my bike in due to the wind (70kph, says the weatherpixie). Walking home, through swirling eddies of rubbish and the frizzled remains of autumn leaves, I was glad. The wind roared like a low aeroplane. The trees staggered like drunks. I’ll be catching the bus to my dance class.

Daffodils and teapots

I like weekends

Even when I spend most of them working on my thesis. Because I don’t feel guilty about going to yoga on Saturday morning, or the gym on Sunday afternoon. Because watching the thesis grow makes me happy. Because Sunday evenings are sweeter when you’re managing your own time on Monday, no matter how much there is to do. Because Leeds is not so bad.

I like zooming around on my bike, despite the buses and the potholes. I like the other English post-grads. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to really feel at home here with these people, who are wonderful. Approaching the end of my thesis, I see so many others in the same boat – uncertain about the future, but passionate and hopeful. It’s not easy but it’s worth it. Even if things don’t work out the way we hope they will, it will still have been worth it.

These are the nice things I have done in the past few weeks: experienced (this is the right verb) the last night of the York pantomime; learned yoga and how to dance; washed dishes at my friend’s disability conference, in exchange for dinner and wine; talked to my loved one on skype; taught Anglo-saxon poetry and Icelandic sagas; sat in pubs discussing poetry and general silliness; walked in the Dales in the sunshine and snow; listened to papers on radios and medieval animals; and, last night, watched a ballet production of Hamlet. This list isn’t exhaustive. Combing though poems in order to complete my last chapter has been pretty nice too.

Every time I arrive back in Leeds it hurts. Transitions are not easy. Sometimes I wish I had all my life in one place. But I guess there are advantages to this set-up. Only three more weeks of teaching, and then it’s off to Norway for the Easter break. I wonder what spring will have in store for me.

I’ve run out of photos. Maybe I need to go daffodil hunting.

A walk in the park

For two days this week the park by uni was covered in snow, or more precisely, frozen fog. It was beautiful.

Now it has warmed up again but the wind has come back. It shakes my window panes and keeps blowing out the pilot light in our water heater. I have been analysing poems all day and my brain feels as hazy as the sky. But it is nice – to hold the poems lightly in your hands and hear them talk to each other, to coax them out of hiding.

Winter sunlight

A dear friend of mine once wrote: ‘you don’t need a big backyard for sun: a deckchair and a lemon tree, its pockets bulging’. Well, I didn’t even have a lemon tree, but that didn’t stop the sun from warming the kitchen wall all afternoon. I had the house to myself all weekend, and on Sunday I worked in the kitchen, in the sun, next to the heater. Part of me wished I was in the frosty, sparkly dales (it was freezing but bright), but it was good to work on my chapter in calm and quiet.

In the evening I braved the cold and watched the sky blaze tropical, as the streetlights vied with the sunset.

And this was a good week

I met with my supervisors on Wednesday, and they liked my chapter!!! This is my last chapter. It was pretty tough to write and I was worried they’d tear it apart. Instead they said all kinds of nice things like I’m streaming ahead on my own now, they’re happy to sit back and watch! It just needs a little stretching and tidying, no more than ten days work. They reckon if I put my mind to it I could be done in September! So. I’m putting my mind to it. Most of what needs doing is adding in more close analysis of poems, which is my favourite bit anyway.

I taught Beowulf this week. It was so much fun reading it again – apart from reveling in the shiny, heavy language, I kept making all sort of new connections. (New for me, anyway.) I thought it was so interesting the way fratricide is emphasised in the narrative, and how Grendel’s descent from Cain (specifically, from Cain’s murder of Abel) is played against this. He is a monster – an enemy of God, and of the people of the story, but the people of the story commit the same sin which made him a monster in the first place. One of my students asked if this was another example of the Christian author of the poem distancing the Christian audience from the pagan practices of the past. An interesting thought…

I also asked them to read Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, but I told them it was optional – a mistake I will not be making again (none of them read it). I enjoyed rereading that, though, too. When I was an undergraduate, I missed out on the Early Middle Ages module, but I made a point of reading Beowulf and that essay. Beowulf didn’t do a lot for me the first time I read it, but the essay made me shiver with delight. The way he talks about dragons! (I have a fondness for dragons.) This time I couldn’t help noticing how both universalism and nationalism frame his interpretation of the poem. He says it is a poem about man confronting the darkness of impending doom and inevitable death. He says this quite poetically. But – it’s not just that. The poem isn’t just about universal ‘man’. It is about a very specific society, which it goes to great pains to construct. The monsters don’t threaten humanity, but the Scandinavians. Hence my theory about Grendel, which I outlined above…

Anyway. The students weren’t quite as excited about it as I was, but it is a difficult poem and I think they did pretty well. Next week, the sagas….

Poems and pancakes

Teaching went much better this week. In fact it was fun. I found a table in the corner of the room, moved it to the centre of the room, and we all squeezed round it. That was part of the problem last time – no table. It’s much easier to relax around a table (for the students as well as me). We discussed a very old poem based on a very old bible story, which included a feisty lady and some serious head-chopping action. So no surprise, really, that it held everyone’s attention!

I’ve been going Eastern this term in an attempt at a more active lifestyle. Bollywood dancing and yoga. Heh. I’m pretty uncoordinated at the dancing, and yoga has left me with seriously sore shoulders, but also energy and focus and confidence. It’s quite amazing. I’ll keep it up.

This little creature has been guarding our doorstep. Looking much happier today in the sunshine than she has for a while. I wish I could kidnap her. (In reference to a previous discussion, yes, she’s a she!)

I’ve been revising the first chapter I wrote for my thesis, on Francis Webb. His poems are pretty tough, so it’s not surprising that I had trouble with it to begin with. It’s so much easier now to see where I went wrong, and how I can transform the chapter into something quite exciting. So. That’s good too.

The worst thing about being so far from home is missing out on things. The first two members of a new generation of my family arrived the day after I left Adelaide. And an invitation to my cousin’s wedding arrived this week. I would have loved to be there.

My brain’s a bit funny tonight. Must be all the exercise. The only other thing of note this week is pancakes. Tuesday was pancake day. We ate pancakes with mushrooms and spinach and feta, pancakes with warm cherries and greek yoghurt and hot chocolate sauce, and, best of all, pancakes with lemon and sugar. No photos, we were too busy gobbling.

The last day of January


Eee, just look at that weather. That stuff can’t decide if it’s rain or hail or snow. Even leeds-girl has her coat out. All that and seriously windy too. Roar down the side-streets, rattle the windows, wail in the chimney, shake you off your bike windy. And I cycled all the way to uni and back again.

The Wallet Fairy

I arrived back in Leeds this evening feeling slightly sheepish and very grateful. After lugging my heavy backpack and overstuffed shoulder bag all over the station, I finally got on my train. And left my wallet sitting on the bench outside. With my money and credit card and student card and train ticket. Some nice people found it, opened it, saw my drivers license, recognized me, and gave it back!!!

This is not the first time something like this has happened. When I first arrived in London four and a half years ago, groggy with travel and not really sure what I was doing, overladen with books and clothes and an old brick of a laptop, I dropped my wallet as I searched for my Youth Hostel. (Directions are not my strong point.) Someone came running up behind me and gave it back. My housemate says I must have very good karma. My boyfriend says I always carry too many books.

Just as I got settled…

I got back Tuesday. I recovered from jetlag. I went to a gym induction and booked into dance classes. I made an admirable start to my less chocolate more vegetable (and more variety) new year eating regime. It’s all about sustainability, I decided. The grey stopped getting me down. Cycling to uni on the icy streets, past frosted grass and bare trees cloaked in mist started to be fun. I confronted the dread of my tangled chapter, and faced up admirably to the recurring doubts which are surely part and parcel to a phd. I vowed to stay in the same country for at least two months (novel thought I know). And then – I realised seminar teaching didn’t start for two and a half weeks. And there was a cheap ticket to Norway. This afternoon…

Lots of good stuff

Pink clouds above the red terrace.

I am very excited. On Monday it finally started to sink in that I’m going to Australia. I’m heading down to London tomorrow night, and we fly out on Sunday. We have a day and a night in LA, and six days in New Zealand with my parents, before heading to Adelaide for Christmas. After Christmas, we’re going up to Queensland to hopefully get some paragliding in. Not only do I get a slice of summer and Christmas with my family, but I’ll be will the lovie for a whole month. Hurrah!

I taught my last writing workshop today and it was great fun. We discussed the students’ essay plans. Actually the disparate topics had some interesting connections: one was on ‘ancestry’ in slavery narratives, and one was on ‘modern heroism’ in Lord of the Rings. Both to do with interactions between the past and the present – my specialty. Fun fun fun. Tolkien taught at Leeds for a while. Apparently he hated it, and jumped on the train to Oxford at every opportunity. In its ‘dark satanic mills’ he saw an image of Mordor. Bah, I say, bah. Studying and teaching at Leeds has made me realise how completely brilliant it would be to do an undergraduate degree in English here – so much choice!

Anyway, if I teach essay writing workshops again, I’ll do more of this kind of hands-on approach to the students’ own work, and getting them to help each other. It’s often easier to see how to improve someone else’s essay than your own. I’d quite like to teach this again, because helping people to write is exciting. Such a nice change from staring at my own words.

A good work day. The trinity of computer, note-book, and printed draft seemed to go together well – three different places to write.

The other completely brilliant piece of news is that my supervisors loved my Stow chapter redraft. It’s too long now, and needs to lose about 5000 words, but when I’ve done that next year, it will be a pretty spiffy chapter. I’m exorbitantly pleased with it, and just so happy that all my hard work paid off. Reworking it took longer than I thought it would, but now every bit of it is interesting, and it hangs together, and I was able to refine my ideas and develop some new ones. Three cheers for clarity. That’s what I told my students today – keep an eye out for hazy statements and generalizations – it’s when you think carefully about what you really mean that you come up with the best ideas.

With that in mind, my Francis Webb chapter (the first one I wrote) will be in for a pretty hefty rewrite next year. I had a brief look at it yesterday, and it’s full of hazy metaphors likening time to chiming bells. Hmmmm. I’m glad it was enough to get me through my upgrade procedure, and supervisor one says he’s impressed with the way I read Webb’s poems (admittedly pretty complex stuff), but I can see why every time I showed it to them they told me it wasn’t quite there. Bring it on, I say (after my holiday, that is).

Now I just have to concentrate my mind enough to shave some rough edges off my Kevin Hart chapter, and send it to my supervisors before I leave. It’s not a whole chapter draft – more like two thirds – but I’ve worked through some of the difficult bits, and at least I’ll come back to a solid piece of work to build on. That’s 50,000 words I’ve written this year, including two chapters which are pretty much done apart from some minor tuning and pruning. And I’ve worked out what a chapter is really supposed to be – something I didn’t know nine months ago. I’ve almost got the whole thing in draft form. Next year will be a lot of work, but all going well, I will definitely be finished by this time next year. Hurrah!

Okay, enough gloating. Back to work…

Kitty Watching

Today, between sentences, I watched our neighbourhood tortoiseshell patrol our street. He likes to keep an eye one things. He strolls in and out of the little yards, and sits on the low walls. Whenever anyone walks past, he trots along with them for a little way. When I came back from the library, he was waiting, and accompanied me to my door, purring like a tractor. He wouldn’t stay still, but I think he knew how dashing he looked among the leaves.

He snuck in as I maneuvered the bike through the door. He explored all the corners, but we barred him from the food cupboard and the basement. He didn’t get any tuna, because he is fat and glossy, unlike my old friend Mr Cat, who clearly needed it. He wouldn’t stop purring, and curled on the couch. We put him outside.

But we hope he comes back.

Virtual Hikes and other Exciting Adventures

I had decided to console myself for my valiant decision to go to the library instead of hiking in the dales by posting a virtual hike – photos of my favourite walk ever. But the website which housed the photos has disappeared! Only one remains, pictured above. That day, the hills were frosted, icicles glistened on the gates and the puddles were as hard and bright as glass. And if it’s that pretty at the bottom of the hills, just think what it looked like from the top! A different shade of crystallized grass or rock or slope or sky everywhere you looked. One of those days when the landscape is music that you walk through.

No matter. Dedicated student that I am, I went to the library. At lunch time, as the cafe at uni was closed, I wandered into town and stumbled upon a German Christmas market. Not quite the same as being in Germany, but almost. I indulged in garlic mushrooms and fried potatoes and Glühwein (mulled wine), and bought some ridiculously overpriced domino stones. They were worth it. (These small cubes of soft gingerbread, fruit jelly and marzipan covered in dark chocolate are seriously wonderful. I’ve already eaten all the ones I brought back from Berlin.) I always thought the German word for mulled wine was a bit weird, sounding, as it does, like glue-wine, but actually the ‘glüh’ means ‘glow’. So it’s glowing wine. Which is exactly what it does, in your cold hands and in your belly. I then floated back to uni in a mulled wine haze for another two hours of photocopying and traipsing up and down stairs, accidentally causing an avalanche of over-stacked books-for-reshelving. All in a day’s work.

Opera North

Opera North doesn’t have much in common with the Angel of the North except its name, and the fact that it’s located in Northern England. But the name is wonderful. Rugged and transcendent at the same time. Tonight I saw a production of The Fortunes of King Croesus, by the long forgotten German composer Reinhard Keiser. Apparently he influenced Handel. This was an English translation, and it was super. It’s a love story and a pride-comes-before-a-fall story, set against a backdrop of war. The props and sets were great – little golden fighter-planes in the first half, and a huge golden broken plane wing in the second half, spanning the stage. The five pound student ticket almost made up for the fact that I was seated next to all the other cheap-skate students, checking their mobile phones and unwrapping crinkly sweets.

The Grand Opera House is just amazing – red and green and gilded gold with chandeliers… It’s just been refurbished, and the seats are comfy now. It was fun to be there. It reminded me of another time, three and a half years ago, when something rather lovely happened. And the music was transporting. I’d forgotten what it can do to you. It actually transported me slightly too far, as I wasn’t concentrating as I rode home and nearly caused an accident. But all is well. I’m still smiling.

Of Disappearing Deposits

The company who rented us our problematic last house owes students over 200,000 pounds in unreturned deposits. Including ours. We plan to fight it.

While I was desperately and unsuccessfully looking for a copy of the contract among my, er, perfectly ordered important documents, I came across a copy of the letter informing me of my scholarships from the University of Leeds. I remember the strange and fierce joy when I first opened it, to find more than I dared hope for. It must have been a Saturday morning, and the lovie was vacuuming, and I ran up to him and said: stop, stop, look at this, look! And the house was spinning.

In the meantime, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century German mystic, says:

Now suppose a man has a hundred marks. He loses forty and keeps sixty. If this man thinks continually of the forty that he has lost, he will remain in despair and grief. How could he be comforted and free from sorrow if he turns to his loss and his pain and pictures it to himself and himself in it, and looks at it, and it looks at him again and talks to him? He speaks to his loss and the loss talks to him again, and they see each other face to face. But if he were to turn his attention to the sixty marks that he still has and if he turned his back on the forty that are lost, concentrating on the sixty and looking at them face to face and talking to them, he would certainly be comforted.

Sensible fellow.

Goodbye for Now

Well, I’m back. That’s the last sentence of The Lord of the Rings. It reduced my poor twelve year old soul to a quivering mess when I first read those words on my parents’ fat, threadbare armchair. Whatever Sam might be satisfied with, I didn’t want to be back. I wanted to stay in the magical land with the elves and the enchanted rings. What was so great about reality?

Luckily Norway isn’t actually an imaginary land, and Leeds isn’t so bad. They are both as real as each other, but when I am in one place, the other begins to seem like a dream. Halden is a nice dream: crisp lines and golden light and autumn leaves like jewels. I think my love for the place has become entwined with my love for the person who lives there. I felt a bit sad, coming back, but have learned not to give in to this feeling. I let it fly and twist beside me, a pale Chinese dragon, and I know it will quieten enough to let me get on with things. This is the way things are.

The lovie left for America yesterday morning, so I had the day to myself. Last night I visited Wendy, whose husband had also left for the states. They’re American, and just in Norway for the year. We played lego, and ate brownies and chocolate icecream, and watched a very inventive puppet show by her son, with cameo appearances from her daughter and the princess puppet. We also gossiped about the men. Despite being very clever with psychology and computers and international conferences and lots of other things, they appear to have similar problems with laundry baskets. It was fun. I wish we’d got to know each other better earlier. I love Halden, but I can see how it’s been trying for her. Maybe there are some advantaged to being half time…

So. I’ve washed off the travel grime (buses and trains times two, a plane, a taxi, platforms and departure lounges). I’ve snuggled into bed. Tomorrow I throw myself headlong into niggling jobs that need sorting (passport renewals, retrieving elusive deposits), and then into my valiant twelve month plan to finish my thesis. But right now, I’ll have another cup of tea.

In the blue room

I sit in my blue room, with my grey bird for company, and I write. And read, and think. Today it is autumn, and the air is cold on my hands when I ride my bike. But mostly, there is the blue room, and the words. The words come slowly, or in bursts, and the chapter grows like a living thing. It grows slowly, every day. It will need pruning. It will need its tendrils to be tied to stakes. It demands constant attention. But it grows.

I’m having a lot of fun with Randolph Stow. These are my two favourite quotes from the articles I read about him:

‘He has (in a masculine way) some of Emily Bronte’s wildness.’

That one (written in the fifties, can you guess?) just cracks me up every time. I can’t remember who wrote it. I have to fit it into my chapter somehow.

‘…his poetic sense of language and absolutely certain ear for tonal effects – he has, it seems, the linguistic equivalent of perfect pitch – mean that . . . his work is never marred by over-writing.’

Bruce Clunies Ross.

That one, I think, is just true. You can hear it in his titles: Girl Green as Elderflower. You can hear it in the first page of Tourmaline. And you can hear it, most of all, in his poetry.

My mare turns back her ears

and hears the land she leaves

as grievous music.

-‘Outrider’

I just love the assonance and the slow shifts of vowel sounds here, like some strange, tonal, grievous music.

I feel very calm. I am almost in my third year of my phd. Everyone warned me of the second year drought. Oh no, I thought, not me. But it was. But right now, it feels good. It feels purposeful. I am happy.

The red-brick terrace

I live in a red-brick terrace on a cobble-stone street. Outside my window there’s a tree with wobbly branches and wibbly leaves. I look past it, to the chimney pots and tangled gardens of the opposite terrace.

There is something quite wonderful about these red terraces. Three stories high, with pointed slate roofs. They zig-zag all over my suburb, and up the next hill. I have never lived amid such a profusion of chimney-pots. The contrast between the red brick and the green trees is so cheering. I bet they’re even nice in winter. I’d love to see them topped with snow.

I spent my first year in Leeds mourning for York. While this was partly due to York’s loveliness, it was mainly due to the fact that I had moved to an inner-city council estate that could have passed for one of the outer circles of Hell. It was grey, and smelly, and bleak, littered with broken glass, prowled by rude nine-year-olds, and dark figures in hooded jumpers. The contrast nearly killed me, not to mention the poor lovie. But it turns out that’s not Leeds, after all. This Leeds I like. England is suddenly a novelty again. On my way to uni, there are second-hand bookshops, and cafés with wooden tables and yellow walls. And squirrels. Plenty of squirrels.