Turns out that despite advances in speech recognition, Amazon's Echo seems to think that I am some sort of surly, grunting teenager. Frequently it plays something that I didn't ask for, and sometimes just refuses to acknowledge that I even spoke to it. I don't think that it's showing the emotional intelligence to have taken against me just yet, but I can't help but notice that it takes particular umbrage at me. Having said that, at least one of its other users seems to think that, like the stereotype British person speaking to a foreigner, the way around this problem is to get close, to get slow, and to get loud. And then we get something from The Greatest Showman. I'm on record as saying that I don't like musicals, but that one is so ludicrous that the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the set pieces is not difficult.
In any case, all of this is in celebration of the fact that Spotify (other music streaming services may well be available, but I have enough trouble dealing with just the one) seems to know all the music I used to listen to as a teenager. There are a few odd quirks - Superunknown, for example, exists in a weird anniversary edition so you constantly get random 'bonus' tracks rather than the proper album - and it really struggles with numbers in song titles. "Alexa, play Richard III," results in her moaning that she can't find that track. Ask, instead, for Richard 3, and she rather patronisingly answers with "Playing Richard III by Supergrass." As if that wasn't what I asked for the first time. The front page of this very website has been littered with snippets from the songs we've had on, something that has been a relative rarity in our house since we failed the challenge of arranging the CD collection in an easily accessible way.
So here's a question: I pay to access all this music on Spotify, but I don't own it. Should I care? If I pay for Spotify for the next fifty years at £120 a year, that's a mere £6000 for a lifetime's worth of music. Looking at the redundant CD collection, it can't have cost much less to put together. Oh well, maybe at some point you'll not have to pay any more, or perhaps the notion of ownership of music, film or story will shift. It'll be interesting to see how those with a vested interest in monetising these things react. But that's for the future.
It's the past, dead and buried, that we're contemplating here. Much like my experience at the university a week-and-a-bit ago, there's something about this stuff that was utterly, absolutely central to my identity (yes, really, I would have held my music to be that significant as a teenager). It's like the poems that Hector remembers but never understands, in that you knew the words but only perhaps with another twenty years of life do they come into focus. Chris Cornell's lyrics in the later 80s and early 90s always seemed to me overly dark and unrepresentative of (what I assumed to be) his life experience, because he was intelligent and articulate in a way that a lot of rock musicians just aren't, and I think I assumed that clever people would end up happier as a result. I also assumed that playing music for a living, touring and recording albums, couldn't help but be a happy, exciting lifestyle. Well, now I understand. Not every word, and not that I ever lived that lifestyle, of course, but now, some of those songs mean more than they did when I thought they meant everything.
But every now and then, they get interrupted half way through with something like that one from Moana (that isn't the one that The Rock sings) or the one from Trolls where she doesn't quite get eaten by a flower, and life changes pace again. Fortunately, the little one can't ask for his own tunes yet. But we're trying to train him.
For reasons that can remain obscure, I was back in Cambridge today. Back, I say, because yes, despite the apparent lack of effect on my later standards of either decorum or education, I did in fact study there for three years. I went back to where I had my lectures (relatively infrequent!), and I also went back to where I lived for three years, just round the corner. I was amazed at the welcome I got in the Porters' Lodge simply on the unsubstantiated (but, I repeat, true) claim that I was a former student. They're obviously primed to be nice in case I am some sort of major financial contributor to the place. Let's draw a discreet veil over that, though, because despite some quite persistent efforts on the part of the college, I am not.
It's such a strange experience, though, because that place - the college, not the Sidgwick site where my lectures were - was, twenty years ago, absolutely, utterly mine, shared with a group of 500 or so others. It was ours, a collective ownership not so much of the place, but of the very idea of the college itself. I don't mean that in a proprietorial way, necessarily, because even at the time we were absolutely conscious of the history of the place, and of the fact that we were temporary guests, a congregation that constituted the church for those three years. But the college-ness of it, the fact that we all lived in the college for the full three years made it a part of who we have become, just as we were a part of it for our time there. The postcard-worthy bits, with their vaguely plausible famous connections (no part of the college is named after Edward Strelley, or indeed myself, just yet), stand out just that little bit more, like they did on the interview days, because of the lack of daily familiarity.
It's a fluke, getting a place, because the other people who tried were as good, and they didn't not get in because they weren't as good, and with that in mind the privilege seems even more random. But the presence of others, a new set of owners, the fact that it is now someone else's, is deeply sad whilst also being moving in another, less melancholy way. Looking at my old staircase, I felt acutely the loss of my youth, and the sense of possibility that youth carries with it. I wouldn't have appreciated that I had that sense at the time, but I can see it in my young self now. I went to visit the little staircase in the old bit where I had the first of my interviews. The real tourists thought I was taking some very odd pictures, which I suppose I was. The oddest would be the close-up of the stone lintel against which one of my early corridor-mates banged his head (he was ludicrously tall, and claimed he ended up flat on his back, which may or may not be true; he is also the subject of two of the greatest swearing-related stories I've ever heard). But I was clocked by a member of the staff walking through the college as well, who asked me without any prompting if it brought back memories. I suppose she might have heard me on my way in, but I like to think that former students must stand out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of tourists. Perhaps she had seen me taking the strangely-composed photos.
So how is it less melancholy? If you look at the experience through the lens of thirty-something responsibility, lack of sleep due to children, work, relative lack of disposable income (now, not then - everything I had then could go on beer or guitars), it seems a halcyon, absolutely to be recreated if possible. But looked at as a contributor to who I am now, it is only pleasantly positive. There is a bit of me that wishes I could go back, be (that) young again, actually go to most of the lectures and spend the appropriate amount of time on the work. But that sort-of misses the point, because that's what I chose, that's what I did, and without that, I wouldn't be who or what I am now. That's the point of the quote on the front page, I suppose, but it happened to be on the radio on the way home (as if they knew, somehow, that only nostalgic folk listen to the radio in the mid-afternoon slot). My old college will always have a bit of my heart, for all those reasons and many more, but as Lennon says, you can make those reflections affectionately and still be happy with what's now. Being happy with now is another matter entirely, of course...
Nothing on the news feed for nearly a fortnight, then two posts come along at once. Turns out I've used the phrase 'God loves you' no less than 7 times so far in the writing of book IV. Some sort of reflection, no doubt, on my own thoughts since beginning the writing of it a year or so ago. Of those, one is spoken by Edward Strelley and six are spoken to him. It's impossible for us, in this atheistic, secular world where participation in organised religion is reasonably scarce and full-blooded metaphysical commitment to the existence of a creator God even more so, to appreciate exactly the role played by religion in the past. I've said before that for Strelley to seriously contemplate that the world is truly without God is a much more significant conflict than it is for us in the 21st century. The paradigm, the background assumptions and, crucially I think, the framework of day-to-day life are all radically different. The passages from the Book of Common Prayer, the Lord's Prayer, the bible verses that evoke my own long-gone school days all seem to affect me so much precisely because, at a formative (vulnerable, perhaps) time in my life, they formed part of the backbone of my experience. The Philippians quote that recently adorned the front page (whatsoever things are pure, lovely and of good report) was a regular with my old headmaster, generally at either the start or end of a term. I will own that for fifteen years between leaving school and about three years ago, I would have heard or read it and it might have triggered a little reminisce, but now I can barely read the whole verse without losing it altogether.
Strelley asks over and again for God's love and forgiveness, but he complains that he does not hear the voice of God in reply. Cranmer advises him that the voice of God is still and small, and that if he expects thunder and fire, he will not get it. Let us hope for Strelley's sake that God does love and forgive him!
There will be a day when I manage to offer free print copies of the books. That day has not yet arrived, though, so instead how about a free ebook of No Evil? You might even trouble yourself to read the first couple as well while you're at it. It's only seven or eight years' worth of writing effort for the princely sum of about £2. I won't be giving up the day job just yet.
I will, however, offer the following observations having re-read the later part of the Harry Potter series. I have possibly suggested that some of the writing in those books is somehow inadequate, clunky or inelegant. There are a few places where that might be a legitimate criticism, but you have to be looking for it to notice. What I think is quite interesting is exactly how invested you feel in a few of the characters and their relationships as you read towards the end. They're more subtle than some of the caricaturing of either the early books or the films, with a bit more depth and personality. But it's their stories that matter, and there is a very real sense of attachment that isn't just due to familiarity.
I'm more susceptible than I used to be when it comes to emotional engagement in books or films or TV, more likely to weep at a death or a moment of kindness. That is certainly true. One of my work colleagues described me relatively recently as so human, which I think she meant as a compliment, but she was definitely describing this aspect of me, my emotional investment in things and my inability or my refusal to detach myself. It makes writing harder, because I do feel like I'm inflicting the suffering on my characters, but it also means that their triumphs, their smiles, their laughs and their loves matter that much more to me. I might be accused of being too sentimental, or too romantic (in the Dumas / Walter Scott sense), even. I don't think that's a bad thing. What would be the point of writing about these characters if they didn't matter? That's the sentiment of the quotations about reading: I prefer reading to life precisely because reading lets the characters matter. You can experience their entire lives, loves and adventures in a few short hours. Real life can be - it is - desperately sad, frustrating, wonderful, exciting and heartbreaking. But it's very rarely all of those things in a few hours.
No title yet, but some new bits from Book IV. I've found myself drawn recently to some of the characters that aren't the four heroes, and have spent a bit of time plotting and planning for them. This is from a scene between Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, Edward VI, as we see, Anne (known across the board as Stanhope, despite the fact that she would have been Seymour) his wife.
After a brief moment, Edward Seymour’s wife, Anne, enters the room. She is wearing some jewels that once belonged to Queen Catherine, Henry’s widow, before she died in childbirth the previous year, and an expression on her face that suggests that her aggression towards the guard outside will continue in the presence of both her husband and the king himself.
“Edward,” she says, looking at Somerset, “have you sent anyone to Mary yet? I have just had another letter to say that she is still hearing the Mass every day.”
“Anne,” Seymour says, rising from his chair, “I wonder if it is truly your place to spy for me? I know that she hears the Mass, as does his Majesty the king. So if you hoped to surprise us with this information, you have not succeeded.”
“No, Edward,” she says, still ignoring the king, who is watching her with narrowed eyes, “I bring you this information to remind you that Mary still does as she pleases, and it is time that you brought a stop to it. She behaves like she is queen.”
Edward Seymour takes a half-step closer to his wife, and turns her towards the door. “His Majesty and I have much state business to attend, Anne. We appreciate your concern,” he adds, dragging her away from the king, “and we shall be pleased to inform you of the outcome of the actions we are taking in so far as they concern you. Good night, Madam.”
Anne turns again in the doorway, looks at the king with an expression approaching disdain, and then at her husband. “This realm needs an iron fist, Edward, not a velvet glove.”
“My Lady, if you persist in addressing me by my Christian name and not my title, I shall remove you to the bedroom where it might be more appropriate. You,” he adds, pointing at the guard, “are not in future to credit the lady’s suggestion that she has urgent business of the most significant kind with me or the king.” Seymour smiles, dismissing his wife with a gesture. She glowers back at him, then arranges her face into haughty contempt, and sweeps away. “The next time,” Seymour adds to the guard when she is out of earshot, “you remove her, by force if necessary.”
This is (SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN'T READ BOOKS 1-3, GO AND DO THAT BEFORE READING THIS NEXT BIT!!!) Strelley's mother having a go at him for reappearing six months after apparently drowning in the Thames.
“Edward,” his mother says, finding a moment of composure, “why did the Baron of Sudeley want you dead?”
“Because I was a rival for the affections of someone. Someone important.”
“Please do not be cryptic, Edward.” Margaret Strelley sits herself upright. “You have never been good at dissimulating.” Then, she considers, frowning. “Edward…”
“Mother,” he returns. “Yes. Her.”
“She is a princess of royal blood. You are not to meddle with her. It is treason.” Her tone is even and calm. “I understand your need to to hide yourself away. Do not now commit the crime for which you have served this sentence.”
“I will not. For her sake.”
Strelley’s mother screws up her eyes closed. “Damn you, Edward!” Behind him, Longshawe raises his eyebrows at de Winter. Strelley himself stands still, waiting for whatever comes next. “We have mourned you for six months, my son. Your father has gone back to Berwick thinking you are gone.”
“My father,” Strelley interrupts, a real edge in his voice, “does not reckon me worth a hair.”
“This is not,” Margaret Strelley says, with the ghost of a smile, “the time for quoting dead poets.” She stops, and smiles properly. “I am glad to see you, Edward. Now it is your responsibility to ensure that the rest of your life is of value.”
Edward Strelley bows, but says nothing.
“Go and see your sister.”
“She is with Caroline and Lucy, is she? At the old house?”
“With my books.”
“They had finished with that library years ago. It is not only you that has a mind to read, Edward. Those books are back where you left them.”
Strelley looks a little put out, but does not speak again. He nods his head.
“Edward, I am unwell, but I am not dying. You can do me the most good by going now to see her, and coming back to me once more before you go away again. I shall make you promise to be good, and to be careful. I cannot lose you a second time.”
And, finally, shortly after the scene above, Strelley talking to his sister about her namesake Elizabeth:
“Did you tell her?” Elizabeth Strelley’s voice isn’t indignant, with no hint of accusation or jealousy. She watches his face. “You did. Well, perhaps you shouldn’t have. It might have been easier on her if she thought you were dead and gone.”
“I thought that too. But Grindal was dying. She had to have some comfort. I did not go to her to tell her… But I made sure she knew I was alive. Before I went, I didn’t understand how I felt.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was only when I was a thousand miles away,” Edward Strelley says, “without her, and thinking about what to do next. Then I realised. Then I knew. And when I came back, she was in prison, alone and frightened. And I could not bear to hold it in me any longer.”
“You love her.”
“Desperately. So that I can think of little else.”
“Does she know that?”
“And? Does she feel the same?”
“I hope not.”
“I hope that the feeling has gone. I hope that she no longer thinks of me, or if she does, it is a distant and faded memory. That she is free of this, whatever it is.”
“So that she does not suffer. I see. And you refuse to entertain any hope of being together. She may not. I mean, she may continue to wish for it.”
“She may. I hope rather that God has heard me when I say that I would gladly bear suffering enough for both of us, and granted me my wish.”
“You are a fool, Edward. If she felt as you did, it will not have gone away. She will wish that you were with her, she will plot and plan ways that she might see you, or spend hours lamenting that she cannot.”
“Then what do I do? How do I protect her from this feeling?”
Elizabeth Strelley puts her hand gently on her brother’s arm. “Perhaps you can’t. You shouldn’t underestimate her strength. Perhaps the best you can do is to protect yourself.”
“How? It is as though every place in my mind has her in it. I can’t consider anything for a minute without her wandering into my thoughts. I smile when I see her face in my mind’s eye. And then I remember, and I am sad again.”
“You must take your mind elsewhere. Find something to do. Something important.”
“I shall try.”
“I have never seen you like this before, Edward. Lost.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been lost before. I will write.”
“That may be true. But it will not be often.”
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought