Back to Abnormality!

It’s Sunday morning and for the first time in many weeks I’m not sitting down to write the last few chapters of my new book. Because they’re finished! Last night to celebrate we opened a bottle of Champagne which we cheered-up by adding a few wild strawberries from the garden. Trouble was, we haven’t had much sunshine of late; so they were a bit green and under-ripe. Still, it was the thought that counts and the wine was lovely.

Book-writing has been a major part of my life for the past twenty-five years and my daily routine has been the same throughout: I get up early (around 5.30 or 6.00), write for a couple of hours, have breakfast, walk the dogs, return to writing and stop before noon, when I grab a quick cup of tea, before heading out to the farm or garden. If I need to do research I tend to do it in the evening, or the afternoon, if it’s wet. That’s also the routine I have adopted during the Covid lock-down. So on the surface at least, life hasn’t changed much – except, of course, that it has. And profoundly.

I have to say, I find it hard to be my normal, fairly relaxed, relatively care-free self, during lock-down. In the past, the writing of a book has tended to rather dominate my thoughts. And Maisie says I get worse as a book is nearing completion: I even manage to screw-up simple tasks, like the soft-boiling of eggs for breakfast. Over the past month we’ve had to enjoy several hard-boiled egg and mayo salads, for lunch. And God alone knows how many emails, texts and phone calls I’ve failed to respond to. If anything, I think my late-stage-book-writing absent-mindedness has been worse since the pandemic struck. A couple of mornings ago I came downstairs around six o’clock and got on with writing. After about thirty minutes, I reached to one side to finish the last coldish sips from my cup of tea. Glancing up from the laptop, I couldn’t see it. I even lowered the screen and looked behind; but it had completely vanished. So I completed the paragraph and went through to the kitchen to make another cup. And there, alongside the electric kettle, was the cup I had made earlier: full to the brim with near-cold tea. So I had forgotten everything: the pouring of water into the teapot; the removal of a milk bottle from the fridge; finding the mug in all last night’s washing-up; pouring out the tea and adding the milk. Then I must have put the bottle back in the fridge, before returning to my desk, while forgetting to take the tea with me. And if that isn’t absent-minded, I don’t know what is.

My new book is an attempt to pinpoint moments when certain sites, finds, monuments and excavations have given me glimpses of what it might have been like actually to have lived at a particular moment in the prehistoric past. The sort of thing I was trying to nail-down was that temporary moment of madness with the morning teacup. Did people have such moments in the Bronze Age – and if not, why not? Archaeologists are very good at reconstructing the routines of every day life, such as peoples’ diets, the organisation of their households and the layout of their houses and farms, but routines, if anything, tend to de-humanize people for me. They were never machines and they would not have behaved in precisely the same way on the day grandma died, or when the baby had a nasty attack of runny bottom. It was those more spontaneous human moments that I have tried to isolate in my latest book. The basic idea was straightforward enough, but it wasn’t the easiest of books to write and I’m still not one hundred percent confident that I managed to pull it off successfully. I might have a better idea of its success (or lack of it) in a couple of weeks time, when I’ll do the final revision of the first draft. If I’m happy, I’ll say so in this blog. If not, the silence might be deafening…

Revising manuscripts is an integral part of the writing process and it’s one of the things that modern software allows one to do so readily. I’ll never forget when I first started to use a computer-based ‘word-processor’ package, back in the early 1980s, when I was writing the Fourth Fengate Report. I’m reasonably certain that I’d done some of the initial work on an electric typewriter, but I soon transferred the entire manuscript to my new Apple 2 . Soon after that, I transferred to WordStar, the predecessor of Microsoft Word, which I’ve used ever since. The great joy of computerised composition is that re-writing is a such a doddle. It’s so easy! It’s also quite pleasurable, because you don’t have to navigate your way through scorings-out, or follow branching, wobbly arrows or cut-and-pasted paragraphs. All of that’s done for you by the clever algorithms in those tiny microchips. The clean appearance of the page on the laptop allows me to form an immediate impression of how the piece is flowing. Or to put another way, will a certain passage appear rather ‘lumpy’ to my readers? Lumpiness is something I always try to avoid. If I’m reading a book I hate it when I have to re-read a sentence, or worse, paragraph. Sadly, much academic writing is indecipherable without at last three read-throughs, which is never any fun – or pleasure. Reading should always be pleasurable.

So the new book will be released to the editorial teams at Head of Zeus in a few weeks’ time. We’re still not entirely clear when it will actually be published. In normal times I would have said in 8 to 12 months, but these are abnormal times. So the best guess would be around 14 to 16 months, probably in time for Christmas 2021, but that’ll depend on the state of the market: quite often it’s better to publish what one might call serious non-fiction in the spring, because bookshops tend to fill-up with celeb rubbish and picture books (mostly about food or gardens!) at Christmas, when so many people seem to put their brains on hold. But maybe things will be different in 2021. I detect signs that certain attitudes are changing quite fundamentally, especially among more contemplative people. There is, after all, more to life than earning fast bucks, or watching rubbish on TV.

Meanwhile sales of The Fens have continued. A few hardback copies are still available, and the e-book and audiobook are selling nicely. The paperback came out in early April, just after lock-down, and I’m delighted with it and think it’s very reasonably priced (just under £10). Trouble is, I haven’t been able to promote it and have had to cancel signings in Peterborough, two in Wisbech, Chester, Boston, Stamford, Oundle, Wells-next-the-Sea, Downham Market and Leicester. And what about future signings? There is currently talk of halving social-distancing from 2 to 1metre and for easing lock-down; but I have to say I’m very uneasy about these measures, which seem to be determined more by economics and politics than by science. Unless we’re careful, we might find ourselves following in the disastrous footsteps of Brazil and the USA. Speaking entirely for myself, in my mid-seventies, I don’t intend to do any public engagement that involves person-to-person contact until (a) there is a reliable treatment for Covid-19, should anyone be infected, and (b) we can all be immunized with a safe vaccine.

To judge from my Twitter feed and from many emails I have received, The Fens seems still to be going down very well. It also appears to have lifted many spirits during lock-down – and I am so pleased. I had no idea when I wrote it that it could bring comfort to so many people in a time of grim pandemic.

During lock-down we have also had to cancel a number of pre-booked group visits to our garden, on behalf of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). This has been a great shame, not just because the garden is looking great, but because it has deprived some very worthy medical charities of much-needed funds. So my next blog post, which I’ll try to do a bit sooner than this one has been, will be a tour through the garden using pictures taken over the past few weeks. I’ll also include a link so that if you’re feeling generous you can dedicate something to the NGS, who will then distribute it to the many charities they support. I know that video garden tours are currently very fashionable on the NGS website, but I have never felt very comfortable taking them. I understand still-picture photography and know what I’m doing. Every time I see an amateur video I think of the many professional film and TV cameramen I’ve worked with, and how they’d be cringing…

Last Sunday was June 21st, the Summer Solstice, or Mid-Summer’s Day and now we’ve moved out of Early and into High Summer. The next few days promise to be very hot and yesterday (Monday) our neighbour Charles came round in his large green John Deere tractor to cut the hay in our meadow. I think he’s going to get a very good crop for his sheep and cattle to enjoy this winter. Certain things never change: if this had been in the Middle Ages that green tractor would have been a gang of men with scythes, but the end result: contented animals in a sheltered barn in mid-winter, would have been the same. So here’s that picture of yesterday’s hay-making:

Hay-making 2020

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