What do you do with your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?Enter this answer at your own risk. In fact it would be quite a good idea, before you come one word farther in, to leave a letter propped on the mantelpiece telling your nearest and dearest where to come looking for you if you get lost. Not only do I do too much, I like talking about it.
So the basic deal is, I don't have any spare time, probably because I don't have hobbies, I have obsessions. I don't much like the word 'hobby' -- as soon as you call something a 'hobby' it seems to me it loses all substance, all value, and becomes just something that sucks up some hours. Eating chocolate chip cookies or (re)watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a hobby (not simultaneously however: the human nervous system can only bear so much stimulation); cooking and gardening and bell-ringing and riding horses and playing the piano and practising homeopathy -- and reading -- are something else. (I've even been known to embroider pillow-cases and shirt- and throw-cushion-fronts.) But can you have more than one, say, avocation? That sounds a little pretentious. So does Personal Enrichment Programme. I do a lot of stuff with my time besides write books. A lot of the voluntary stuff (ie paying bills or going to the dentist are both necessary I suppose but not what I would call voluntary) also... feeds me. Feeds the person I am, which includes the writer who writes books and has a web site with a FAQ, and now an endlessly hungry blog.
(The last time I updated this, the list of obsessions included running and fencing: if I have to choose, I’ll take homeopathy and the piano over running and fencing. But I don’t have to like making these exclusionary choices. My fencing teacher now lives in Burma or Singapore or some other exotic elsewhere, which helps, although I’m sure there’s a fencing club around here. And I still have fantasies of running again—aside from every Sunday morning on the way to service ring at the church—although even if the ME let me, my knees probably wouldn’t.)
I feel however that my main problem isn't that I'm an obsessive, it's that the stupid day refuses to be any longer than twenty-four hours, week after week and year after year. (What are our scientists doing, that they haven’t knocked a hole in this wall yet?) There are quite a few other things I would be obsessive about too if someone would invent the tesseract soon, please. Photography. Rose breeding (as opposed to just growing phalanxes of the things). I'd probably breed carnivorous plants too, just because they are weird and fascinating. I have several waterproof cachepots of carnivorous plants big enough to take on house flies—the tallest sarracenia is as long as my arm, with pitcher-mouths as big around as a 50p piece, and a bright lime green—and one of my favourite sounds is that of trapped flies buzzing furiously in the throats of my beautiful pitcher plants as I walk past the kitchen window sill at the cottage. I’m an ‘all critters are siblings’ wuss about most things—yes, of course I fish spiders out of the bath—but houseflies, mosquitoes (and rats) are the enemy. I rotate my carnivores, so none has to stay indoors too long. They’re sun lovers. (I also have a Venus flytrap so small it probably has to ask the pansies it usually sits next to for help when it tackles a gnat. But it’s three years old and still producing infinitesimal fringed dumpling-shaped traps, so it’s eating something.)
I'd take up sailing again. I'd go to the opera more often. (The tesseract has to bring a larger bank balance with it.) I'd have learnt to work on the MG myself, instead of girding my loins to sell her ( sob). I'd like more time for drawing—I’d like any time for drawing—and I'd like the excuse to buy some new watercolours; I suspect the last lot have shrivelled up solid. I might conceivably take French lessons, since it's French I theoretically learnt in school, and I am deeply embarrassed at being another of these self-centred English speakers who don't feel they have to learn anybody else's language. But I've never gotten very far doing anything on guilt and good intentions alone, so I'd have to turn out to like it, and I can't do grammar and conjugations (shuuudder) in my own language.
I'd like to finish learning the basics of knitting so I could actually make something. I'd like to learn to make clothes, with buttonholes and zippers and belt loops and all those exciting things, but my inherited sewing machine was previously owned by someone who did know how, and I was so demoralised knowing it despised me that I gave it away when we left the old house to someone with whom I hope it has a rich and happy relationship. I'd like to be able to make an origami crane that didn't fall over. (Origami is very obsessive.) I'd like to learn pottery-making and silver-smithing and how to polish and set stones. I'd like to learn blacksmithing—swordsmithing!—and farriery, but my back wouldn't take it even if my tesseract would. And I would ride every day. Twice a day. I would start doing yoga again. Once upon a long-ago time I could do headstands and the splits (not together). I could also do a Sun Salutation that didn’t change every time I did it because I kept forgetting how it went.
I would certainly read more. A lot more. This would include more subscriptions to more magazines. The ones I have already avalanche off the kitchen table, um, periodically.
However I am taking piano lessons again. I wasn’t going to. I absolutely wasn’t going to. The piano wasn’t just on but was indestructibly welded, with auxiliary bolts, onto the ‘I’m not going to get round to it this life, it’ll have to be the next life’ list. (The list itself is made out of case-hardened steel, to make it both highly resistant to tampering, and utterly impervious to sad, bitter tears.) When we moved out of the old house I gave my baby grand piano to a local school with a pang more of lost dreams and opportunities than of any practical reality. I even thought I was more or less resigned to not having a piano around the place any more, reminding me that I’m not playing it.
Then I started bell ringing again, because what is now my home tower is a relatively short stone’s throw from my cottage, and I’d lasted about six weeks after the house move, listening to the bells, before I was on the phone to the tower secretary asking if they’d take a recidivist ex-beginner. I’d had to give bell-ringing up when the ME knocked me down and sat on me, and one of the things that’s never quite come right again is a tendency to RSI. Starting bell ringing again made my hands hurt. I’m just not going to sit around squeezing a tennis ball, which is one of those physiotherapeutic clichés. (Booo oooooooring. I know. I did it after I broke my hand.) Hmm, I thought, piano players have strong hands. So I went out and bought a cheap electric keyboard and started playing scales. One thing led to another. I’m now the insufferably proud owner of an 1897 Steinway upright, and composing, gods help me, which wasn’t even on the long life list.
I'd take voice lessons again if I could find a teacher with a fabulous enough sense of humour to take me on: that really was on the long list (with the drawing, the knitting, the French, the fencing . . . ) but it has developed a certain painful irony lately. My favoured form of composing is setting poems or reworking folk songs, which involve, you know, words. (The word proclivity carries through apparently.) And both my piano teacher and my husband insist that if I’m going to write songs I have to sing as well as play them. There’s perhaps some excuse for my piano teacher, who is a self-confessed sadist anyway, but the poems I’m setting tend to be Peter’s, and he should have a sufficient sense of self-preservation to say Okay, if you must set them, very well, but for pity’s sake don’t sing them.
My first serious discovery of life outside books had been horses and horseback riding, when I was nine years old and living in Japan where my military father was posted. (Of course I'd been reading about horses for years.) I took my first riding lessons from some Japanese ex-cavalrymen who had set up a riding school for us occupying round eyes; in hindsight I wonder about this, since this was the very early sixties and WWII wasn't all that long ago, but at the time it all seemed friendly enough, at least until your horse refused the fence again because he knew you weren't so sure about it yourself, whereupon the air got, I think, pretty blue, but since it was in Japanese you didn't know for sure. The ex-cavalrymen belonged to the 'put them on a horse and make them jump things until they fall off and then put them back on and make them do it again' school of learning to ride, which was exciting, but rather alarming, and I was a nervy, easily frightened child. Obstinate (I did keep getting back on) but nervy and easily frightened. (I am a nervy, easily frightened, obstinate adult). I do still have a blown-up photo poster of me at eleven jumping a horse named Shadow over a decent sized fence -- which is to say I am somewhere on top of him and he is going over the fence and my hands could have released better and my hard hat is sitting on the back of my head and wouldn't have done me much good if I'd fallen off -- which proves I got that far anyway. I didn't actually learn to ride until almost twenty years later, taking dressage lessons, but that's another story.
I hesitate to mention this because after years of stumbling into philosophical and/or financial holes and making wrong choices I feel rather superstitious about it, but I am presently riding at a very nice yard indeed, with nice normal (well, not too normal) people and a terrific owner who also gives riding lessons. Deep in the Hampshire countryside too, so if you don’t feel like schooling that day you can just go out on a hack. Divine. This is what all those pony books when I read when I was a kid were about (no, not The Black Stallion, but all the Monica Edwards and Pullein-Thompsons), and here I am in one at last.
I started cooking pretty young too. I have always liked to eat, and once you figure out how, you can have exactly what you want by making it yourself (one of my better memories of an extremely unpleasant adolescence is making cakes and pies to Saturday morning cartoons), and you may find that half the fun is diddling around with a series of recipes till you achieve your aim via your own adaptations and evolving marginal commentary. Although despite the Betty Crockers and Joys of Cooking and Julia Childs and Delia Smiths and so on it still seems to me there's a huge credibility gap between the pages of most cookbooks and the hasn't-a-clue, um, boil water?, learner. Knead your bread till it's the texture of an ear lobe? A vivid image but not one I can recommend as practical. Bread making books go on too much about kneading anyway. (They can't all be in the pay of the bread-making machine industry.) Almost nobody points out that if you let your sponge do most of the work you don't have to. (Although I actually enjoy beating the bejeezus out of bread dough. It's an excellent counterpoint to long hours at your desk.) I love baking generally. My husband and I observe a strict turn and turn about in the bread making but all the cookies and desserts and puddings and sweets are my territory (he does usually make the Christmas pudding but then I'm busy making acres of Christmas cookies and moaning).
Gardening was an accident of circumstance. The last summer I lived in Maine it had sort of semi occurred to me that there was, you know, um, earth out there and I could probably grow something in it. My little house was pretty heavily shaded by lilac hedges and an enormous maple tree, and the soil was the standard Maine granite bedrock with a few crumbly bits on top to mislead the unwary, but it still could be done. I put in a few snapdragons and carnations, bought from the straggly on-sale table at the local garden centre, and watched in fascination while it took them really quite a surprisingly long time to die. Maybe I was on to something here. Then Peter, my gardening-mad husband, happened unexpectedly, and I found myself plonked down over here in southern England in the middle of a two-and-a-quarter-acre southern English jungle. And I instantly went mad for roses. Well of course. The longer version of this story is somewhere else on this web site -- the essay on how I wrote Rose Daughter , which is a longer version of the afterword in the book itself (both leave out the fact that Peter's first fiance's gift to me was a pair of secateurs, so his protests about my not having to take on gardening to please him may perhaps be viewed with a certain benign suspicion) -- but the point is, there I was, sink or swim. I swam.
I’m still swimming, although we left the old house and the two and a quarter acres several years ago. Peter suddenly began feeling his age, and decided that his idea of growing old gracefully was living within walking distance of the shops. So we moved into town, into (ahem) a range of little houses with little gardens. I’m now conducting a scientific experiment in growing the optimum number of roses in the minimum amount of space. (Pots as a layering device.)
As you will have gathered by now I am a dilettante obsessive, which is probably the worst kind. I didn't need any more interesting occupations to bore my friends and loved ones with (Peter, so far as I can tell, cannot be bored with conversation about gardening and gardens, although I'm still trying) but my butterfly mind will keep flapping.
I could drone on for a very long time indeed about bell ringing—and regularly do on the blog. That I got started on it at all was another accident. (Yes, many of the important decisions in my life have been made by accident.) A lot of years ago Peter and I went to visit a garden in a neighbouring village on its open day. When we got there it turned out that it was not a garden but fourteen local gardens and a change ringing demonstration at the local church. I'd read Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors at an impressionable age so I had been primed way back in the days when I was a mere tourist over here to love change-ringing at first listen. That first listen had serendipitously happened when I still was a tourist, and I remember stopping dead to listen, because in the first few moments I had no idea what I was hearing. Change-ringing is a shouting, jubilant, waterfally sort of noise (at least when the ringers know what they're about; if they don't, it can be really awful, especially if you live near the church), like nothing else, and perhaps somewhat prone to provoking coup de foudre responses in besotted foreigners.
So I had to go to this demo because while I'd heard plenty of change ringing by then -- this area of southern England is thick with bell towers -- I'd never been up into a change-ringing belfry. I have the usual human craving to enter forbidden territory, and the stairs or ladders that lead to bell towers are deeply intriguing. You expect Merlin (or Nimue) to be lurking on the other side of your average English ringing chamber door. At the top of this particular ladder there were a group of (anticlimactically ordinary-looking) people standing in a circle pulling on these heavy ropes, each rope curiously adorned with a fuzzy striped hand grip, which are a bit dizzying to watch as the ropes bob up and down as the ringers pull and the bells go 'bong'. There was a poster on the wall saying 'we can always use ringers'. And I went away with my ears still full of the lovely hypnotic noise of change patterns, and thinking 'hmm'. (It was Peter who finally made the first phone call to discover the bell secretary's name. He was tired of listening to me wandering around the house going 'hmm'.)
I loved bell ringing pretty much immediately, as I had immediately loved the sound it made. I loved it for a little over a year, and then the ME closed me down. And I didn’t go back to it even when I was more or less upright and walking again; various life events got in the way, and ME is a terrible party pooper. Once it has your address it never really goes away again. Just when you’re beginning to have a good time, it bangs on the door and says Keep it down in there or I’m calling the cops! And you do because you have to. You may be able to convince the cops you’re a model citizen really; nobody ever got round a bout of ME that way.
But then, as I say, we moved into town, and the bells were right there, and I started again because I couldn’t stay away. One of the additional reasons why I hadn’t been back when we lived in the old house, out of earshot of any bell towers, is because the ME had been eating my brain for an unknown number of months before I collapsed physically, and bell ringing is very hard mental work for anyone who doesn’t easily grasp mathematical patterns which I do not. Ordinary people like me can learn to ring—and many do—but it is harder. And I had crashed and burned at the ‘ringing inside’ barrier. Any change-ringing person with an ordinary, non-mathematical-pattern-oriented brain will laugh hollowly at this remark. Making the leap from being a ‘treble-only’ ringer to ringing ‘inside’ is the single hairiest, deadliest, awfullest thing about learning to ring—in some cases it may be the single greatest intellectual challenge of our entire ordinary LIVES—and it’s true that not everybody makes it successfully. Not, I think, because they can’t, but because it looks way too much like work—which it is—and many people feel they get plenty of that in their daily life, thank you very much. After I started ringing again, and after I caught up to where I’d been when I quit the first time, I wasted a lot of energy agonising over the possibility that I wouldn’t make it this time either. Because it was going to be too hard for me, me with my fairy-tale-telling-shaped brain; no integers, no split-second timing, no sense of rhythm and no physical coordination need apply. But I did get through. I’m not a great ringer—I will never be a great ringer—but I’m not a beginner any more. I ring inside. And that even in spite of occasional malevolent incursions of ME.
Bells are alive. You logic crunchers can sneer all you like, but they are. Our tower's bells -- as I know from ringing elsewhere -- are a very nice bunch, good-natured and well-mannered and gorgeous to listen to (if you don't have too many beginners going 'clank'). You know where you are with our bells. But they all still have individual personalities, and when you 'take hold' you know it. One of the clichés about learning to handle a bell rope is that it's like feeling your horse's mouth with the rein against the bit; and every horse is different. But somehow this is more acceptable in a creature that eats and breathes and runs around than in cast metal that lies veiled in the dark of a belfry. So the stolid may explain it in terms of the fact that bells are individually cast and each one is physically a little different from every other one, even one of precisely the same weight; and it won't be precisely the same weight anyway after it's been tuned to its ring (its group of bells) since tuning is done by shaving bits of metal off. A ring is also always a range of sizes; the littlest (called the treble) of our eight bells is about 300 pounds, and the biggest (called the tenor) is about 2000; so you could also say, if you have not a quarter-ounce of romance in your soul, that the varying personalities in a group of bells are just the variation of weight against your hand when you take hold. (There is also the maddening variability of bell ropes.) None of the rest of my band of ringers writes fantasy for a living, so probably none of the rest of them imagine low chiming conversations under the tower roof when there are no humans around; but I would expect them in their heart of hearts not to be surprised if the bells were careless one evening and we heard them.
I used to have this theory that the old guard among bell ringers are self-selected for unnatural patience with the endless tides of hapless beginners; which was going to be very bad news for me since I’m a little patience-challenged generally. I was perhaps being indirectly told I was never going to make it to old guard status. But I have begun to notice, as a member now of what you might call the middle-aged guard, which means I now also ring hours and hours of plain hunt and plain bob doubles for beginners to bounce off of, that you do go into a kind of hypnotic trance . . . which in fact is dangerous, because if you trance out too far you start ringing Grandsire when you should be ringing plain bob, or when the beginner goes wrong you absent-mindedly follow them. But there is a kind of Unnatural Patience substitute for those of us who get far enough to be useful: which is that you’re painfully aware of the hours and hours and hours that other ringers put into you, and so by the time you get to where you can ring for beginners you’re probably pretty well pining to give something back.
And it’s a good thing too, because barring the young and fabulously talented—not all the young are fabulously talented, but most of the fabulously talented are young too, and therefore middle age is another of my excuses—beginning ringers need a lot of time on a rope. Hey, no-longer-beginner ringers need a lot of time on a rope too. Change ringing is fabulously complex. When you have your first lessons in How Not to Strangle Yourself or Others in Your Bell Rope they don't waste much time warning you what you're getting yourself into -- a few months later when you are initiated into the mysteries of leading, and shortly thereafter those of ringing treble, which means you are at last approaching the Holy Grail of your first real change pattern, the gates of the Castle of Carbonek will suddenly open and a bright light stream out and ZAP: you are either gloriously transformed into a dedicated ringer (unfortunately this splendid vision doesn't seem to improve your practical ability any) or you realise that you are out of your mind and you go home and take up knitting. (One of the old guard at my first tower told me his wife picked up change ringing very quickly because she was good at knitting patterns. Maybe I really should take up knitting again. Sigh.)
Oh yes . . . and I also ring handbells. No, no, not tunes. Change patterns. Just like tower bells, only much, much worse, because you have to keep track of two different paths through the patterns because you’re ringing two different bells—one in each hand—and at a speed that makes the one-third of a second you have in the tower to get your (single) ‘dong’ in the right place look leisurely. It’s all very well taking on challenges to broaden your mental horizons, but remember my saying something about not having the right-shaped brain for learning mathematical patterns? My choosing to attempt change ringing on handbells is blunt proof of insanity. I was bleeding brain cells out my ears for months, learning my first pattern. I did it, yes. But it’s like those people who do things like cross Mongolia on a pogo stick or go down the Marianas Trench in a diving bell. Maybe they do it, but— why? Well . . . it’s fun, she says in a very small voice.
In an earlier era when I still found time for TV I used to watch Deep Space Nine and Buffy with rapt attention (except when the story line went stupid and then I threw popcorn at the screen and shouted 'Hire me!'). I no longer seem to find time for anything except the occasional run through of a back issue of Buffy (of course I have them all on DVD). Most of this is because there never are any gaps in the schedule, and on the rare occasions I find myself on the sofa with the TV remote in reach, my hands tend to be magnetically attracted to the nearest book instead. There is also the fact that the new canine generation doesn’t fit on the TV-watching sofa as well as the previous canine generation did. Two hellhounds are approximately equivalent to four whippets, and we only had three. And if I can’t watch TV with dogs I’d rather play the piano. I’d probably rather play the piano anyway. I really liked the new Battlestar Galactica . . . but I kept finding myself playing the piano. With occasional harmony from hellhounds.
I go to the movies occasionally (where I try to restrain myself from shouting and throwing popcorn), and live theatre occasionally (where I behave better because the oppression of ticket prices weighs me down). Although Peter and I share the useful ability of being able to walk out at intermission if we aren't having a good time, feeling that wasting money on a bad show is not worth compounding by wasting hours out of our lives too. One of our great early bonding experiences was back in Maine when we went to see Thelma and Louise because we were curious about what all the hoopla was about, and walked out in irritable disbelief after the smart one goes off to spend some time with her boyfriend leaving the dumb one behind in the hotel room with the cute hitchhiker and the money. I've always hated plots where, when you have a hostile alien hiding somewhere on your spaceship which has already proven it's faster on the draw than you are, you split everybody up and go looking for it, having thoughtfully turned all the lights down really low first.
Generally speaking my attention span is not of the longest for stuff on stage -- one of the reasons I am not a Shakespeare fan is because he goes on so -- but there is an exception to this rule. Opera. I adore opera, especially the vast wallowy Verdi operas -- Verdi would be my desert island composer (and I'll take his Otello to Shakespeare's Othello any day, although even Verdi can't save Falstaff for me. I loathe the play and can just about listen to the opera on CD in Italian where I can pretend I don't know what's going on and concentrate on the tunes). Other composers have their moments -- Mozart for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Rossini for The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola (well, I would like an opera about Cinderella, wouldn't I? And, speaking of fairy tales, a very honourable mention for Dvorak's Rusalka), Donizetti for Lucia di Lammermoor and L'Elisir d'Amore, Puccini for Tosca and La Boheme, Gluck for Orfeo et Eurydice, Bizet for Carmen. Historically I’ve had a problem with the Germans, but after two decades of listening to several hours a day of Radio Three I’ve even finally begun to get it about Wagner.
A few years ago Radio Three did the entire Ring cycle in one day. I can’t remember now if it was literally 24 hours or not, or if I missed the beginning. I do know that I thought they were mad . . . and I also remember that I was so drawn in (although the occasional cuts of Anna Russell that Radio Three good-humouredly inserted probably oiled the way) that I fished out one of those teeny portable radios I have for some reason (I never use the things; they’re probably from an episode of FREE IF YOU BUY SIX FLY SWATTERS AND A PAIR OF SHOES or something) from the tangle of superfluous cables and tech kit and took it with me when I went for my afternoon walk. (That was my between-dogs year: I could afford to be paying attention to the radio.) And stayed up late that night to hear the end. This despite the fact that I still feel he is neck and neck with Shakespeare for culpable going-onness.
And Richard Strauss, well, I’ve always had a big problem with the plot of Der Rosencavalier: I want to tell the Marchellin to lighten up, and I want to drown both der Rosencavalier himself and the ghastly Sophie. That last scene where the Marchellin is handing over her young lover to his even younger true love makes me feel ill. But with time and Radio Three—and a Renee Fleming CD of Strauss heroines—the beauty of the music, and the discovery of some of his other operas, have brought me round. I still have the plot-obstructs-music-appreciation reaction to Cosi fan tutte -- yuck -- and even more so The Magic Flute (which is even in German), all that grotesque business of yielding up your life and will into the hands of some unknown dad who obviously has serious control freak issues -- while the dad figure for reasons that escape me is supposed to be all wonderful and all good and mom for reasons which equally escape me is all vindictive shrew. And I adore Mozart—he’s probably the only composer seriously to give Verdi a run for the title of The Man (and did Verdi ever write anything for the piano?)—but his idea of a great libretto plot is not mine.
Verdi's still the man. After all my protests about plot, I have no idea why I completely dote on that old war-horse La Traviata—La Trav is comfort listening for me like Jane Eyre is comfort reading. Violetta is surrounded by such schmucks, that brat Alfredo, and -- speaking of control freaks -- his father. But to my ear if people in love were by it given voices to sing it, they would sound like Violetta and Alfredo singing over the camellia she's just given him to bring back to her tomorrow. And -- this is kinky, I know -- I don't think there's anything anywhere more romantic than Aida creeping into the sealed-up room to smother to death in the arms of Rhadames; and I feel exalted, another deeply kinky moment, every time Gilda knocks on the door of that inn, and you know and she knows she's about to die, and the music soars off with her and her assassin and his sister and the despicable duke singing away with the storm in the background -- whew. Throw some cold water over me, now.
We mostly stay home, any more, but we still go to the opera occasionally. Peter has the odd failing, here and there, barely worth mentioning, but he would be forgiven some quite serious vices for going to the opera with me as faithfully and uncomplainingly as he has done. It was his idea we go to Glyndebourne for our anniversary (our summer anniversary: we have two a year); the first time was such a resounding success it has since, I hope, become a tradition. Peter is not an opera person. And every now and again he gets really bent out of shape over the libretto -- I admit I think that Verdi was not very well served by most of his librettists -- and if he's not being rude about one of my sacred cows on the way home we will sometimes do a rewrite. Our version of Don Pasquale (neither a sacred cow nor Verdi) is hugely better than the original.
If I'm really desperate for something to do I may do housework. I don’t mind housework that much; I mind the time it takes. But I'm not that desperate very often.