Consequences: Life After Life and My Real Children

I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing for years now; I picked up a copy of Emotionally Weird in the Waterstones three-for-two offer in 2001, or maybe 2002 (after I’d moved to Oxford, before I married T, that’s all I can remember) and was sold on it a couple of pages in when I realised that (a) one of the characters was called Janice Rand and (b) this was definitely not coincidence. I love the way Atkinson tells stories, teasing the readers with pieces of a picture that we can never quite make out until the very end, mixing in elements from both popular and high culture which resonate and enhance the emotional experience. While I haven’t read the last two of her Jackson Brodie books after finding One Good Turn almost unbearably bleak, I thought Life After Life sounded fascinating and I’m not sure how I managed to have it on my Kindle for two years (almost exactly, I’ve checked the purchase date in my email) before I actually read it.

Life After Life

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, born in 1910 in a Forsterian idyll in the Home Counties; a child during World War 1; in her early 30s during World War 2. Or rather, it’s the stories, of Ursula Todd, as each time she dies (childhood accidents, illnesses, the Blitz) she is immediately reborn, to live her life again, subtly changed. Premonitions and a kind of déja vu help her (sometimes) to avoid the mis-steps that led to her previous death; sometimes the déja vu crystallises into memory and causes her to try to take actions to change a history that, generally, seems to be remarkably sticky (Ursula’s family’s lives appear to be largely unaffected by the changes in her lives, making the same marriages at the same times, having the same children, while the German bombs fall in the same places on the same nights whether Ursula is there or not). Sometimes the book reminded me of playing a computer game, going through the same steps over and over again, trying to find the right move to avoid dying. Sometimes it reminded me of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Life Serial’ (I’m not sure the similarity in titles is a coincidence, either: Atkinson’s short story collection Not The End Of The World is packed with references to Buffy). One bit put me vividly in mind of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’, although re-reading that now I think ‘Daddy’ was also part of what came to mind. It’s not a comfortable or easy book to read; I found myself infected with Ursula’s sense of foreboding, full of dread and anxiety about what might be about to happen, and then later I was overwhelmed with sadness and compassion to a world where senseless, horrible things can happen to good people. The scenes set in the Blitz are compelling, calm, vivid and utterly horrific. (It’s funny, I fear the apocalypse so much, and I forget that actually, my grandparents lived through it.) It left me in tears, and I think it’s a book that will stay with me.

After finishing Life After Life , I was prompted to go back to Jo Walton’s My Real Children, which I’d tried but failed to get into earlier in the summer.

My Real Children

Like Life After Life, My Real Children explores the way different choices can change a life, though in this case there’s only one choice: in 1949, Patricia’s fiancé, met at Oxford, demands that she marry him now or never. After a few initial chapters dealing with Patricia’s childhood and time at university (unremarkable, if oddly religious) the novel proceeds to show us Patricia’s two lives, alternating chapter by chapter between “Tricia” (who got married) and “Pat” (who didn’t). Unlike Ursula, whose different existences leave very few ripples on the fabric of reality, in one of Patricia’s lives the post-war world becomes a left-wing utopia, while in the other the Cold War is punctuated with limited nuclear exchanges, there is widespread terrorism and society becomes increasingly repressive and right-wing. Neither world is the one we live in, and there’s some suggestion that if Patricia could find a middle way in her own dilemma the two worlds would merge into ours, but Walton never really gives any reason why the choice made by one woman, who isn’t involved in politics or anything more than minor local activism, could have such an extreme effect in such a short time. I didn’t dislike the book so much this time round, but it felt stodgy somehow; where Atkinson deftly picks out the significant incidents in a long life, passing over gaps of years with a sentence or two, Walton gives us a solid year-by-year chronicle of Patricia’s two lives. There were also a few odd mentions which threw me out of the text rather (the very religious nature of Patricia’s upbringing, which reminded me of a less miserable Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit but which is never remarked on; people mentioning it being easier for women to get into Oxford during World War 2 because of the men being in the Forces; a high-church Anglican joining the Oxford Christian Union; and a Cambridge without any public parks for children to play in are the ones that come to mind). It’s not a bad book, but Atkinson is clearly the better writer by miles, and I don’t think My Real Children will stay with me like Life After Life will.

Murder Most Unladylike

I wanted something light and fun to read after finishing Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies recently, so I decided to try Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike, which sounded like a fun mash-up of classic murder mystery and school story, two of my favourite genres for comfort reading.

Murder Most Unladylike

From reviews I’d read, I was expecting something fluffy and cosy, but in fact I found the book quite disturbing in places. The school setting, Deepdean, is no Chalet School; this felt much more like a real school, complete with bullying, racism and relentless social pressure to conform. One of the two heroines, Daisy and Hazel, is frankly unlikeable. And Stevens manages to convey the shock and distress caused by sudden disappearance and death among the members of a small community with an emotional punch that most Golden Age murder mysteries seem to actively avoid. I don’t think this is a bad thing; I went in expecting a romp, and instead I found a much more thoughtful, nuanced novel. I enjoyed it immensely, and have bought both the sequels and look forward to reading them soon(ish*).

*given the number of unread books on my Kindle

P is for Pwani

I have been doing surprisingly well with my resolution not to let the stash keep growing this year, and have bought very little yarn, but when I saw on Twitter (shortly after the nine-foot linen scarf debacle) that Tangled Yarn was doing kits for Clare Devine’s Pwani, using their own wool/cotton blend Mabel & Ivy Coast I couldn’t resist ordering one in lovely restful sea blues (I’m really into blue at the moment, which is something of a surprise because I never used to be a fan).

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The pattern is pretty simple, with alternating sections of garter stitch and lace mesh. It makes good TV and knit night knitting, and the shawl was a quick knit (it took me about three weeks). The yarn is lovely, with the cotton making it nice and cool to knit in summer, and produces a really nice light fabric. I was surprised by the size of the finished shawl; I was consistently getting fewer rows per section than the pattern suggested and expected a shawlette, but after blocking I ended up with a shawl that is a good-sized wrap or oversized scarf.

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I like it a lot, and I’m sure I’ll wear it lots, although at the moment it feels as though every time I decide to wear a scarf the temperatures get up into the 20s and I end up carrying the scarf around all day (on the days when I don’t wear scarves, it stays in the teens and I think how much I wish I’d brought one, because this is England in summer and that’s just how our weather rolls). I’ve been attracted to a much more pared-down style lately – simple shapes, bold colours and patterns, no fuss – and this shawl fits with that much better than some of the lacier shawls I’ve knitted in the past.

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I’m still in a slump; my life has changed so much this year with the change of jobs, and I think I’m struggling to work out where everything else fits in. I don’t know what I want to wear any more, or what I want to knit. I can’t quite work out how to reposition something that used to be an overwhelming obsession as just a hobby. I still think (as per my last post) that the knitting world has changed, but I’ve changed too. I don’t have the time or the mental space for knitting to be the all-consuming passion it used to be. And when knitting and I were everything to each other for so long, I can’t quite see how we can dial things back to just being friends.

Socks and geeks

I haven’t been knitting on the bus to work lately; I’ve gone back to walking half the journey and am finding myself tending to read for the other half, so in nearly two months I’d only managed to knit one of my Dunkerton Sweet socks and the cuff and half of the first leg pattern repeat of the second. And then I went to Nine Worlds yesterday and after knitting my way through panels on Historial Headcanons, Women and Fanfiction, Unlearning Bias and Doctor Who and transhumanism I had finished the second sock and had to sit through the panel on the Fantasy of White History knitting-free (result: one chewed thumb, because I am a fidget and can’t keep my hands still).

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I actually had to start these socks twice; the first time I used a 2.25mm needle, as recommended by the pattern, but the yarn I was using (Brown Sheep Wildfoote) is quite a substantial sock yarn and on a 2.25mm needle it was really hard to work the lace pattern, especially the centred double decreases, so I ripped it out and started again with a 2.5mm needle which was much easier. I found the heel flap a bit fiddly the first time round, but much easier the second time; I also struggled slightly with the question of how to rearrange from having 33 stitches on the top of the foot and 27 on the sole to 30 on each for the toe, though this is mainly because I didn’t follow the pattern’s suggestion to place a start of round marker in the middle of the sole and therefore couldn’t do as suggested and just count stitches from there. In the end I opted to move one stitch from the inside of the foot (where the pattern goes furthest down towards the toe) and two from the outside on each sock, which seems to have worked, but I should probably have used the marker.

As for my first con experience, it was fun but exhausting. Partly that was because I only went for the day, which entailed getting up at 6am, leaving the house at ten past seven to get a bus into town for the 8am coach to Heathrow and getting to the con at 10am, then doing the whole thing in reverse in the evening (though it was quicker then, and I ended up home only two and a quarter hours after heading off at 8pm) which made for a long day. Partly it was because there were so many people around, and there didn’t really seem to be anywhere to just sit and breathe for five minutes; the panels were scheduled with half an hour between them but that really only seemed to be time to find the room where the next panel was, with maybe time to say hello to a couple of people in passing, or go to the loo or get a cup of tea if the queue wasn’t too long, so it very much felt as though I spent 10 hours alternately rushing around and listening to intellectually stimulating discussions. There wasn’t any downtime, and I was glad I’d brought sandwiches with me because not only did there not really seem to be anywhere to buy food (short of a full sit-down meal in one of the hotel restaurants, which I wouldn’t have done on my own, or the McDonalds next door) but there wasn’t time or space to eat it; I ended up eating my first sandwich while standing in a corridor waiting to get in to the Women in Fanfiction panel and the second while sitting in the room for the Fantasy of White History waiting for it to start. It was also a lot less of a social experience than I’d expected it to be; I saw lots of people I knew, but mostly it ended up being hellos in passing while heading in opposite directions, or occasionally ten minutes’ chat while waiting for a panel. I can see that staying in the conference hotel (or one of the other hotels nearby) would have helped a lot with the length-of-day and no-quiet-space problems, although being there for longer would have made bringing food more problematic and I can’t see that it would have helped with the lack of time to socialise. And, of course, it would also have been a lot more expensive.

Still, exhaustion and introvert ambivalence aside, I really enjoyed the day. It was nice to see various people, albeit briefly, and to meet one long-standing internet friend in person for the first time. I loved seeing the various cosplays people had come up with (in the absence of getting to see Liwella‘s Missy costume in person, my favourite was the woman who had knitted her own Wonder Woman outfit, closely followed by the bowl of petunias), and the panels were interesting and seem to have reawoken a critical part of my brain which had been dormant for far too long. With the result that I’m having all kinds of random thoughts, which you lucky people get to hear! (Or not; if you’re only here for the chat about what I’m making you may want to click away now, assuming you didn’t already do that several paragraphs away.)

One thing that impressed me was the democratic nature of fandom. Of course, there were some people on panels and some people listening to panels, but the membrane between “people on panels” and “people listening to panels” was clearly permeable, and in most cases about 40% of time in any session was devoted to audience questions/contributions to the discussion (the exception was the Fantasy of White History panel, where the panel ended up having a fascinating, incredibly enthusiastic discssion among themselves for the whole session; given the topic, and the overpowering whiteness of the audience, this didn’t seem like a bad thing at all). I was particularly struck by some of the comments from the panellists in the Women and Fanfiction panel about how, for them, writing fic was about creating a community of people who loved the same fandoms and characters as they did, and not about “practicing” so they could become professional writers. Somehow, this reminded me of the negative feelings I’ve been experiencing about the knitting world recently (see my post from a few months ago lamenting the decline in amateur blogging and podcasting, if you want the details) and it struck me that maybe the problem is that (even though yesterday was my first con) I’ve been on the outskirts of fandom for longer than I’ve been knitting and I’ve absolutely internalised the idea that activities which are ancillary to the production of the thing the fandom is about (blogging, fic, podcasting, running meetups) should be about creating community and sharing the love, whether that love is for a book, a TV series or a craft, and that I see people who decide to monetise those activities as betraying the community. But then, this morning, I followed a link to this terrific post by Kari Sperring, and I was particularly struck by this:

We are, as I said, an institutionally sexist culture. Women are embedded in this, too. I have had to have brisk conversations with myself more than once as to *why* I find self-promotional posts by women more worrying that those by men, for instance.

It made me ask myself whether, by resenting the monetisation of activities ancillary to my favourite hobby, I’m really being complicit in a culture which systematically devalues women’s inputs to the status of “hobby” rather than accepting them as “businesses” and valuing them accordingly. And then I read this by Maureen Kincaid Speller, which suggests that “ancillary activity as a method of building community” is maybe not as unproblematic in the world of SFF fandom as yesterday’s panellists may have made it appear, and that there are plenty of people there who are blogging as a step to professional reviewing gigs. So maybe the lovely utopian community-creating ideal is one that belongs to the past, or maybe it was always something that happened mostly in female spaces, because culture tells women that (unpaid) community-building is more important/valuable than using our talents to earn a living. (The giant Metafilter thread on emotional labour probably refers here, though I’m afraid I haven’t yet managed to find the time to read all of it.)

So, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, women using their skills and talents to find ways to support themselves financially which work for them and their families? Ways which take crafts which were traditionally seen as female and systematically undervalued because of it and actually make money out of them? Well, that’s great. I ought to be happy about it. But on the other hand, I don’t feel as though the knitting community is a community any more. Obviously, there have always been designers/dyers and then the rest of us, who are “just” knitters, just as in fandom there are authors and fans, but the membrane was permeable: desigers and dyers are also knitters, just as many authors are also fans of other things, and we were united by our common passion. Now, it feels as though a new divide has emerged, and on one side are the people who see knitting and knitting-related activities as their business, who have carefully curated online identities and use their blogs and podcasts and social media to promote each other’s businesses, and on the other are those of us for whom knitting is still just a hobby. I don’t want to make my hobby my business; I happen to be very happy in my job, and I don’t want the thing I do for fun to be tainted by the frustrations attendant on any money-making activity. But the trade-off for that seems to be that I’m no longer a member of a community; over the last six months or so, it’s become increasingly clear that all I am is a consumer, and that’s been making me very sad (and has also been tainting my enjoyment in knitting as a hobby, because that was so bound up with loving being part of the community).

TL;DR: capitalism ruins everything. Bah.

Slump

I have been in something of a slump since I last posted here. I have been knitting; I have even managed to start and finish two projects, but I haven’t been feeling particularly enthusiastic about it.

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Louise Zass-Bangham’s Knit Me in Artisan Yarns laceweight linen. I didn’t much enjoy knitting this; the linen yarn is quite hard and string-like and wasn’t much fun to knit, and to add insult to injury the shawl ended up approximately eight feet long and really really skinny and is therefore not really wearable. When I had the same problem with my Brickless I ended up unravelling it so I could use the yarn for something else, but I have no desire to knit with the line yarn ever again, so it’ll have to stay as it is. It looks OK with the ends wrapped around my neck twice, though I find it awkward to wear scarves that way so I suspect it won’t see much wear.

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More happily, I knitted a cardigan in 19 days. The pattern is Quick Sand by Heidi Kirrmaier, and I used the last of my stash of Rowan Cotton Jeans which is a lovely yarn for summer cardigans, or at least the kind of fairly substantial cardigans that the British summer necessitates (I am wearing it today, along with a pair of handknitted socks, because it really isn’t warm). I love the simple, swingy shape; it’s definitely my new favourite cardigan.

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I also went to a Hat design workshop with Woolly Wormhead at Purlescence and designed and knitted a pixie hat.

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So it’s been quite a productive slump, at any rate!

A dress for someone else’s life

Last weekend I set out to make myself a Myrtle dress, my patterns having finally arrived (thanks to Susan at Sewbox for putting replacements in the post straight away and checking they’d arrived; no thanks to the Post Office for losing the first set). I traced off the pattern, grading from a M at the shoulders to a L at the bust and XL at the waist and hips, cut out my fabric (some purple viscose jersey I bought from Tissu Fabrics ages ago), found my ballpoint and twin needles and started sewing. I struggled a bit with the suggested twin-needle hemming technique on the back bodice but by the time I’d done both armholes and the neckline I’d more or less cracked it, and by the end of the afternoon I had something that looked like a dress.

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Unfortunately, while it may have looked like a dress, it didn’t function like a dress. I’d managed to hold the bodice lining together with the back when I was attaching the skirt, rather than together with the outside of the bodice, the result of which was that there was no gap at the waist for my body to go through. So I spent over an hour yesterday afternoon unpicking the stitching at the wait and tried again, and this time I actually managed to make a dress.

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I’m really pleased with the fit; looking at the photos, I should probably have done a full bust adjustment, but I don’t think it’s too bad as it is. And if the hem is horribly bodged (which it is; I think possibly I should have stretched the fabric as I was sewing it to keep the fold flat, because it kept going a bit wonky and twisted), who looks at the hems of people’s dresses anyway? And it even looks OK from the back.

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The only trouble is that somehow this isn’t the dress I’d envisaged. I’d thought there would be a bit more coverage on the shoulders, that the draped neckline wouldn’t drape down so low, and that the skirt would cover my knees (I did cut out the version which said it should be just below knee-length, so I’m not sure what happened there – it’s not as if I’m particularly tall). In other words, I thought I was making a dress that I could wear to work, but what I appear to have made is a party frock. When I never go to parties.

Shiver my timbers!

After last weekend’s dressmaking/wardrobe musings I ordered copies of the Colette Myrtle and Moneta patterns and was planning on spending this weekend making a Myrtle out of some vibrant purple viscose jersey I bought ages ago. However, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and if the postal service is involved it’s generally a dead cert; even though I ordered the patterns on Monday and they were despatched on Tuesday they haven’t arrived yet, so given that I’d washed the Laura Ashley pirate fabric I decided that I might as well do something with that instead.

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Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be wearing this one for work…

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I used the Colette Ginger pattern; I love the shape of the skirt and I think it probably suits me better than the McCalls A-line which is the other skirt pattern I’ve made, although the front seam does pose some problems when working with a printed fabric.

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It sewed up surprisingly quickly (I think this is probably a sign that I’ve got better at sewing) and it was good to have more practice at inserting an invisible zip, which I’d only done once before.

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I was rather annoyed to discover as I was pressing the back seam that I’d somehow managed to get a small v-shaped tear in the fabric (I suspect I caught it with my scissors); hence the rather visible patch. But I don’t think it matters that much, given that this is very definitely a casual (and extremely silly) skirt anyway…