Personal News

Ceredigion, December 2007

For most of this year, I have been on sabbatical, excused all teaching except PhD students, and working on a historical novel set in Wales and London in the seventeenth century. While I have written historical pieces before, I’ve never had to research them to this extent, and am finding it fascinating. Historians often don’t tell you the kind of things you need to know to write a novel, but I’ve started to find other sources, such as the pamphlets produced by historical re-enactors like the Sealed Knot and contemporary woodcuts of London scenes. I now know how to castrate a sheep (with your teeth) and what colour aprons the Fairies wear (blue or green). I work every day in the National Library of Wales, a beautiful Neo-Classical building with the best view in Aberystwyth and the pervasive smell of pink blancmange from some kind of disinfectant they use. I have to go back to work in February, by which time I hope to have finished about a quarter of the novel in draft form.

My poetic sequence Mandeville has at last been accepted by Faber after an agonizing wait, and will be coming out in March. We hope to hold a launch for it at the National Library. I’ve waited even longer to find a publisher for my collection of short stories Singing a Man to Death (short stories are very hard to publish in Britain), but thanks to the kindness of the poet Philip Gross who acted as intermediary, I now have an acceptance from the Bristol-based press Bluechrome. This is particularly exciting for me as I love short stories; also I teach a course in them, and was beginning to feel a bit of a fraud. Creina, meanwhile, has started to write her memoirs, inspired by the current fashion for them, and the fact that she has had a very eventful life, including foraging for chicken and Chablis during the 1968 revolution in France and coming under artillery fire during the civil war in what was then Rhodesia.

At the beginning of the year I was suffering from pains in the shoulder and arm which my physiotherapist told me were caused by a trapped nerve in the neck. However a scan at the hospital and subsequent visit to a specialist revealed that the problem was in fact tendinitis, which is much less serious, and it has been getting gradually better ever since. I now have no pain and my arm, which at one time I couldn’t lift from my side, is almost restored to full mobility. In the autumn, Creina had a bout of flu which wouldn’t go away – she had a temperature for weeks and coughed so much at night I had to move to the spare room. It was the Aberystwyth Four-Week Flu, and was only finally shifted with the help of steroids. My mother has also been ill with a blood complaint recently, and has had a couple of stays in hospital in Portsmouth, but steroids are helping her too. We all know a lot more about platelets than we did before.

Puffin In May we had a holiday in the Isles of Scilly. The flowers everywhere were wonderful, and we saw our first puffin. We had intended to have another holiday in Tuscany, but had to cancel it because of Creina’s flu. In October we replaced our rotten porch, marking the end of four years’ work on the house.

I had to give up badminton for more than a year because of my shoulder injury, and, feeling the urge to replace it with something, I sought out the chess club in Aberystwyth. I used to be a very keen, though blunder-prone, player at school and university, and have started playing on the internet over the last couple of years. Now I am hooked again. I have been playing in tournaments, and even won a share of first prize in one (£52.50, enough to pay for the shirt I bought that weekend). I have seen my first Russian grandmaster, a crewcut young man in shoes with very complicated straps, accompanied by an older but lower-ranking master in a Hawaiian shirt. I was discussing a game with one of my clubmates when a Chinese lady who had been competing in the highest-level tournament ran past in tears. ‘She cries when she loses,’ my friend explained. ‘Actually she howls.’ I was relieved that her eleven-year-old son, whom I beat in the next round, didn’t have the same habit, though he had the equally disconcerting one of breaking into a delighted smile when studying the position, as if he had suddenly seen a foolproof way to win. One player of about my age said to me, ‘Think of all the years I wasted drinking with my mates, when I could’ve been playing chess!’ Creina comes with me to most of the tournaments, which gives her a chance to go shopping in places like Swansea and Hereford that have branches of Marks and Spencer’s.

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