An entirely sentimental, non-factual, totally biased view of Europe on the eve of the referendum

While I’ve only been in the UK eleven years, give or take, and I’m not eligible to vote in the referendum this week, my livelihood, and that of my husband, depends on being able to travel and work freely within the EU.
Every time we travel to collaborate with different orchestras and choirs, we learn something, not just because we’re working with a mixture of the world’s best musicians, but because being in a different country is just very good for your brain – it stretches it and challenges it and makes you see yourself in a new way.
Another thing that’s worth thinking about: families these days are more complicated and widespread than they were in the past. Being part of the EU means, to use a tiny example, being able to easily travel to see Bojan’s parents, siblings, and nieces. If we leave the EU, suddenly it will be prohibitively difficult to go and see both his family and mine.
Paola Cuffolo has written something very, very intelligent and emotionally lucid about what it means to be a European living in the UK, someone who holds only an EU passport but has always lived here, and has never needed to be anything other than a European to participate in, and be formed by, British culture.
If you value the arts, travel, communication, and curiosity, this post is worth reading, regardless of how you’re going to vote. Please give it five minutes of your time.


So, indulge me for a minute, if you will. Unless you are clinically dead, you will have noticed that in the UK we are about to vote in a referendum about whether or not we should stay in the EU. Well, I say ‘we’. I am personally not eligible to vote: having spent only 27 and a quarter years out of my 28 in this country, rather than going the whole hog of being born here, I am not entitled to an opinion on the matter, but that’s a fascinating argument for another day. Like everyone else, however, I have read countless facts and figures for both sides, but since both sides seem more interested in beating each other than in the actual question, I thought I would throw all those out the window, for the moment. You’ve all read them, so there’s not much point in me re-iterating them…

View original post 1,607 more words

20 Books of Summer (two weeks late)

Inspired by Eleanor over at Elle Thinks, and in an attempt to escape, if only temporarily, from the unbearable dreadfulness of this week’s events in the world of politics, I’ve put together a list of books to attempt to read for an event run by Cathy at 746 Books: “20 Books of Summer”. I’m technically behind already (the event officially runs between 1 June and 1 September), because the first half of June was the tail end of several weeks of non-stop singing work, but I’m back in the game now (translation: mostly unemployed again, and thus writing/reading to my heart’s content). The Witchy Book continues apace, and I’ve decided to have my “Summer of Reading” coincide, dates-wise, with the last three months of my pregnancy. I’ve just entered the third trimester today, so it seems like nice timing.

[Disappears to assemble pile]

And here they are!

FullSizeRender (17)

Now they’ll probably sit like that on the bedroom floor until somebody (me) trips over them in the middle of the night.

Here are some reasons I haven’t read them yet:

  • being intimidated by their length
  • being ashamed that I didn’t read them when they were a big popular deal [The Goldfinch is a good example] and consequently being too embarrassed to be seen reading them in public “after the moment”
  • being nervous about taking them out of the house because they’re signed copies
  • having started them when I bought them, then getting distracted, and then being too embarrassed to pick them up again, as if they’ll rebuke me when I do. I know, I’m weird. I also used to give my stuffed animals equal time and attention (there was practically a rota) because I was worried about offending them.

The longer they sit on the shelf, of course, the worse it gets.

Here’s the list, in no particular order, with brief notes (some aren’t in the picture; and there are more than twenty, but I’m giving myself some leeway to choose what matches my mood at any given time. I won’t be able to read all of them by the 23rd of September):

  • Kelly Link: Magic For Beginners – I’m pretty sure that Eleanor (Elle Thinks) gave me this after she’d reviewed it. I read the first short story: delicious and dark. Can’t wait to finish them all.
  • Katherine Howe: Conversion – Katherine Howe came to my attention about a year or two ago, probably through writing about witches and also being quite academic; she edited the Penguin Book of Witches, whose delectable cover belies its rather desiccated contents (nothing but contemporary accounts of witch trials, which left me yawning, to my shame). Conversion is a YA novel that’s allegedly a sort of modern update of The Crucible, set (I think) in a girls’ school somewhere in New England. She was kind enough to send me some water-transfer temporary tattoos of the gorgeous cover art because she’d run out of signed bookplates. I haven’t used them yet, but I’ll treat myself when I’m reading this.
  • Neil Gaiman: The View from the Cheap SeatsThis just came out. Unfortunately it’s a signed copy, a late birthday gift from me to B, so I can’t take it out of the house. But I’ve used an Audible credit to buy the pleasure of Neil Gaiman reading it aloud to me. I think that counts.
  • Adam Sisman: John Le Carre: The Biography – my dad sent me this last November after my miscarriage to cheer me up – he knows that I always feel better when the subject of spycraft is on the table – and I listened to the first chapter or so in the audiobook version. It’s a huge book, but I’d like to tackle it properly before the baby arrives (though it might be wiser to leave it for middle-of-the-night feeds from October onwards).
  • Melvyn Bragg: The Adventure of English – I started reading this on a tour to America with That Choir back in 2014 (I think?) and lost it in a worryingly luxurious plantation-reminiscent North Carolina hotel bedroom. They promised to post it back, but never did, probably because they figured out what the postage would be to the UK and couldn’t be bothered. It belonged to my husband, so I hastily bought another copy and… promptly forgot about it. I’ve just started reading it again. It’s delightful; so delightful that I might just start from the beginning again for the full effect.
  • Ann Patchett: State of Wonder – embarrassingly, B gave me this wonderful-looking book as a Christmas present in 2013. It went on the list immediately because of the mounting guilt I feel at not having read it. It’s a signed first edition, which is why it hasn’t yet left the house. Which is why it hasn’t yet been read.
  • Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins – I loved Life After Life, although I was also extremely traumatised by one of the final scenes. A God in Ruins came out SOME TIME AGO and I bought a copy immediately, because I’m a hardback fetishist. I then exiled it to the Shelf of Shame (unread books) and promptly forgot about it.
  • Ruth Goodman: How to be a Victorian – this was a Christmas present to myself, er, two years ago, when my dad gave me a nice Amazon voucher and I used it entirely to buy books. I remember hearing a review on NPR. Apparently it’s very down-to-earth and myth-busting, and doesn’t shy away from the gross details of Victorian life. Fun.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant – after listening to/reading Ursula le Guinn’s angry response to this book with utter glee, I started reading it and just stopped.
  • Will Cohu: Nothing But Grass – I have no idea why I own this. I think it was in the Christmas haul a year and a half ago, but I’m not sure.
  • Hilary Mantel: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – again, something I bought very quickly after its release and then was too scared to read, because I missed the moment.
  • Anthony Trevellian: The Weightless World – a book published by the wonderful people at Galley Beggar Press, with whom I have a bizarrely friendly Twitter relationship. I also need to finish How to be a Public Author, the wonderful satirical “non-fiction” book from “Francis Plugg”, but that’s another story.
  • Jonathan Gibbs: Randall – another Galley Beggar book, but I have no idea what it’s about, or why I own it. I have a horrible feeling they may have sent me a copy for review around a year ago. There’s something about the black background with splotches of yellow paint on it that’s unbearably excellent as a cover design.
  • A. L. Kennedy: On Writing – I’m currently halfway through this, so it might be cheating to have it on this list, but this is one of the most wonderful, darkly funny things I’ve ever read about the vicissitudes of being an author. Highly recommended. It’s a collection of her blog posts from several years ago.
  • Hanna Rosin: The End of Men – happily, I knew about this from the Slate Double X Gabfest before it was featured on Orange is the New Black. Bizarrely, I’m a little nervous about being seen with it in public. Ridiculous.
  • Philip Pullman: Northern Lights (Three Novels) – to clarify, I’m halfway through the second book, where I floundered (I felt the plot was getting really tedious), and B is not impressed – he loves all three. I’d like to finish them, at the very least, to get a better insight into my husband’s brain.
  • Susan Cain: Quiet – her Ted Talk was so, so good, and I’m all for championing introverts and the importance of recognising the possibility of success and innovation without having to shout and be super popular and the kind of person who, I don’t know, somehow enjoys public dancing or whatever. I started this over a year ago and… maybe it was the teensy typeface? In any case – time for it to come straight back onto the reading list.
  • Simon Armitage: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – another gift from B, a modern rendering by the inimitable SA of the original tale. He was quite cross that I never read it. I like Arthurian things, and I like SA, so I really ought to get down to it.
  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch – Bought it, shelved it, then saw an amazing mezzo I’m slightly in awe of reading it on a plane on a tour we were on and thought, well, I’ve missed the boat on that one – can’t be seen reading it after her. Utterly ridiculous.
  • Edward St Aubyn: Patrick Melrose Novels – ok, so it’s ridiculous to think that I can get through all five of these this summer, but I’d like to at least try the first one or two. I’ve heard people say that the books made them physically sick because of the abuse that’s catalogued in them (they’re heavily autobiographical fiction), but I’m still intrigued; his send-up of the Booker Prize in Lost for Words was wonderfully spiteful and very, very funny, and I got these after I’d read that one in the hope that I could just bathe in his prose a little more. B is ahead of me on this one, having read the first two or three already.
  • Jessie Burton: The Miniaturist – oh God, she’s already releasing the sequel at the end of this month and I still haven’t read the first one? I think this is at the top of my list in terms of Things That Intimidate Me Because I’m Late To The Party. And her website is so cool, and she’s so casually excellent on Twitter. And ugggghhhhh will I ever be profiled in The Observer as a debut author? Extremely unlikely.

On that depressing note, an additional thought: because I’m hammering away at Draft 2 of Witches Sniping At Each Other Amusingly In Oxford (definitely not the official working title), I won’t have time to write a proper review of each of these books, but I’ll try to put something up on each one – maybe short reviews in batches.

I actually can’t wait – it’ll be so good, so wholesome, somehow, to get back into reading after having slid into the mind-corroding habit of being on my phone all the time because I’ve been commuting between gigs. In the meantime…

Are you doing 20 (or more) Books of Summer? Share your list!


Summer; the witchy book; singing vs writing


Wedding-present roses in our garden. They smell strong and sweet and boozy-syrupy.

It’s summer now, and the weather is (finally) reflecting that: last week I was still sporting my winter coat (which I can just about still zip up with Baby C-B in tow, stubbornly facing the wrong way so that we STILL don’t know its sex, and kicking happily at every opportunity), but it was genuinely hot today, nearly shorts weather [gasp], if I were the sort of person who owned or wore shorts. Caveat: it was only hot by my standards, a neat 24 degrees Celsius while I was at work in London today. We’re getting to the point where, in the UK, the days are so long that it feels surreal: the sun is well and truly up by 5am, and as I sit here and write this on the couch at 9.46, it’s raining, and there’s lightning and thunder outside, but the sky is still reasonably aglow; the sun has only recently set.

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything. I was a little (very) overwhelmed by the heart-rending and generous response from everyone who read the miscarriage piece I wrote in January, and for some reason that meant that I stopped writing here for a few months. Back in early May (or possibly late April), I wrote a very grumpy post while sitting in a hotel room in Bangkok, mostly about how hot it was and how I couldn’t deal with the heat at all, and how I was very dispirited about my singing work and couldn’t figure out what my job was. Because the wifi in the hotel was so bad, the blog post didn’t load, though I thought it had and checked back a week later to see if it had got any views, only to discover it was still in drafts. By that point I’d cheered up and decided to stop complaining, and was grateful for the glitch.

At that point, just over a month ago, I’d stopped feeling sick all day, but I still wasn’t quite having a fun time with my pregnancy. I wasn’t really looking pregnant, as far as I could tell, just moderately fatter than before; and in more existential arenas, I couldn’t figure out who I was. I was waiting for feedback on the first draft of the witchy novel, and I was on a trip to Thailand and China with B, who was working and had brought me along as a plus-one. I knew almost everyone in his orchestra; being around them, though they were all incredibly welcoming, made me feel like a weird non-working hanger-on. It was amazing to be back in Asia, particularly with someone I love, but I was worried about the one reported case of Zika in Thailand, and I was too hot, and the food was making me sick.

Worst, I hadn’t worked properly for a while, and I was beginning to lose sight of my identity. Was I less of a singer if I wasn’t bringing in enough money to even pay my half of the rent? Was I more of a singer because I’d made the decision that it wasn’t morally tenable to keep working for the group I’d just left? Was I a writer? I was certainly spending all my free time writing, or thinking about writing, or making notes for a new book, which (fortuitously, given the trip) was set in China. But being in writer-limbo as I waited for feedback on my book made me uncomfortable, and (well-meaning, lovely) people kept asking about it, and I had nothing to tell them beyond the following stock responses.

“Yes, I think I did everything I could to it. I was pretty happy with the manuscript when I sent it in. But I was also sitting on my couch for three months writing it and trying not to puke the whole time. So…”

“No, I haven’t heard back yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard back. But the London Book Fair sets agents’ schedules back by many weeks.”

“No, I’m not editing it right now, because I want to wait for feedback… Yes, I’m working on something new. No, it’s not a sequel.”

And, most irritably:

“No, I don’t know when I’ll be published. I don’t even know if I’ll be published. No, I don’t have a book deal. An agent is reading the first draft. That’s it. She’s just a nice woman who’s agreed to look over it for me and give me feedback, and she’s very busy, and no, I haven’t heard back, or I’d have told you by now. Who’s been telling you I have a book deal?”

Things are better now. I’m starting to call myself a writer more regularly, which, if you’ve ever dithered and agonised over whether you can do the same, you know is a strangely hard thing to do. After all, there’s no money coming in… but isn’t that the point? How many people get paid to write while they’re also working on a novel? Actually, please don’t answer that if you know someone who does – it’ll just make me feel worse.

I’m still a singer – but that’s winding down, not least because I cancelled a year’s touring when I resigned from That Choir in January, and although the last few weeks have been frantic, the other work that was planned around the year of touring will come to an end around the middle of June. Soon it’ll be baby o’clock. I have maybe two or three projects scheduled for between mid-June and my due date, which is is 23 September, in case you’d like to pester me on Twitter around then with “ANY BABY YET?” and other such questions. (I jest – I’m sure I’ll still want to talk about it, even then.) After that, nothing until April 1st next year. But it’s ok; I’m not panicking. Here’s why.

I had the sort of beautiful, fulfilling day today that I haven’t had in months. I rehearsed with a group I never thought I’d be cool/famous enough to work with, the Early Opera Company, for a concert tomorrow of Monteverdi and Rossi. I spent time with colleagues whose work I love and admire, and who are wonderfully good company, and I sang well, which was a relief after having lost my voice last week due to a new and exciting symptom: pregnancy-related, voice-destroying acid reflux. I’ve made my peace with crunching antacid tablets in large quantities, because hey, they make them in mint flavour in this country! So that’s good.

On the way home, I read a lot of opinion pieces about NBC and the AP pre-emptively calling the nomination for Clinton, and got annoyed, but quite enjoyed it. I’m actively looking forward to the primary race being over, but I’m also deeply (perhaps foolishly) optimistic about Bernie’s chances of getting the nomination in the case of a California win and a contested convention. It’s weird to feel so good about something that’s been shouted about so loudly and nastily over the last few months, and which I’m genuinely tired of hearing about, but I was in a very calm mood about it today. I’m just looking forward to seeing what happens.

There’s something that ties all this together, my feelings about the election and about singing: as I’m about to give up on both things, I’m becoming much more serene about them. Today I proved to myself that I’m still a good singer, that pregnancy can’t stop me from being well prepared or expressive, that I’m still a good colleague – and what my teacher once called me, in a slightly backhanded compliment, a “conductor’s singer”, someone who’s highly attentive to conductor and orchestra, and whose first priority is making collaborative, intelligent music, not Acting And Being A Large/Loud Personality (nobody there today was that sort of singer, but they exist in large numbers, and we are of Different Schools Of Thought). I’m happy about these reminders of who I am as a musician, and they’ve give me the strength to leave music for a while and become a person who primarily writes in the lead-up to the birth. Because I’ve been reminded of who I am, I know I can come back to singing with my identity intact – which means I can leave for a while without freaking out.

Similarly, just as the Sanders campaign is (almost certainly) coming to an end, I’m feeling better about it than ever. It’s been good to have a real progressive in the race, and for him to have lasted so long in spite of all projections to the contrary. He’s changed the party for the better – that’s undeniable. I’m proud of him. I’m proud to have supported him. I look forward to the direction the party takes once this is all over, because I know so many new people, and not just young people, have been energised by the message of social change and social justice. I can feel it happening: people just want the world to be more fair.

Things end; that doesn’t mean they didn’t have value while they lasted.

My favourite thing today was morally suspect, in that it was enjoyment derived from someone else’s inconvenience. I spoke to B on the phone after work (he’s in Glasgow) and he was grumbling about his concert this afternoon having been messy because they hadn’t been able to rehearse properly. Why not? I asked. Because, he said, they had to share their rehearsal space with a coffin, complete with occupant, because there was a funeral planned for the break between the rehearsal and the concert. The coffin was gone by the time the concert started, of course, but it was too late (SO SORRY FOR THE PUN): in the rehearsal, they hadn’t been see each other properly, and the correct set-up was impossible, so the concert didn’t go terribly well. The real kicker is that they have another concert tomorrow, in the same church, and there’s another funeral scheduled at the same time, so the same thing is going to happen. Tee-hee.

In writing news: I came home this evening to a message from a long-lost acquaintance, asking me to be one of the teachers on a creative writing course for high school students to be held in Oxford this summer. I’ve never been more flattered in my life, or felt more simultaneously excited and imposter-syndrome-ridden. But I’ll pour everything I have into creating afternoon workshops for these kids that will make them love telling stories. It was only a tentative enquiry – I still have to send in a workshop plan and talk to the organisers officially – but it’s exciting to think that this is a small step to building up a portfolio.

Oh, and I’ve just realised I never gave you the promised update: I did get feedback on the witchy book. It was good. We had a really productive discussion about the direction for the second draft, and I’m working on it now in the moments between rehearsing and travelling and losing my voice and devouring antacid tablets. Progress is being made. From mid-June, when my singing hiatus begins, it’ll be full steam ahead. I have to credit my dear friend, the wonderful novelist Harriet Smart, who listened patiently to my panic when I’d had an email back from the agent detailing the issues she had with the book, and gave me (over the course of a two-hour phone conversation) some of the best and most generous advice I’ve ever received. She kick-started my imagination, which had sunk into stasis because I’d stared at that book for too long. She is a genius (and also writes some of the yummiest Victorian detective fiction ever).

I’m going to get back into reviewing books again soon, too, as a guest blogger over at Elle Thinks, the internet-home of the divine Eleanor Franzen. She’s one of the best and most intelligent writers (and poets) I know; go and check out her blog for a real treat.

That’s all for now. It’s good to be back in the land of electronic over-share. I’m sorry this isn’t more focussed and topic-specific, but I’m getting back into the swing of things (and it’ll be better once work calms down). Onwards.