It’s that time: the annual look-back at 2023, and what the hell just happened. Buckle up!
This year saw the publication of House of Odysseus, book two of the Songs of Penelope. (Book three is out in early spring 2024.) I always feel like I should have more to say on this subject – round-ups of reviews, witty snippets, or even just ‘sales figures have been good, and that feels great’. The reality is there have been many really lovely reviews, and things seem to be going well, but the policy I’ve held since I was first published 23 years ago (goodness I feel old) of not actually looking too closely at any of this, still stands. I have very little influence over how publication goes – the only thing I can control is how much work I put into the book itself, rather than whether it sells a tonne. Equally, with reviews I understand that for everyone who loves a thing, there’ll be someone for whom it wasn’t their cuppa tea, and that’s fine. That’s just being human.
All of which is to say: it sounds like things are going well, hurrah, but I’ve mostly just kept my head down.
What I can tell you is that House of Odysseus was a blast to write, largely courtesy of the narrator being Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire (fully channelling the spirit of Jonathan Van Ness) as well as the appearance of characters such as Menelaus and Helen, with all the potential calamity that implies. Shout-out too to Catrin Walker-Booth, the brilliant audiobook reader, who brings a glorious mix of fabulous and tender to the book and leaves me in awe.
Meanwhile, in something of a sharp left turn, I’ve finished writing my first ever stab at space opera. (Pew pew!) And it was flipping hard. This is the first time I’ve done galaxy-sized world-building and it was brain-melting. With every week that passed, I was reminded how much awe I have for the many wonderful of science fiction writers who seem able to churn out so much dazzling imagination – while also being consistent and coherent. (This is your annual reminder that if you haven’t read the works of Adrian Tchaikovsky, Becky Chambers, Iain M. Banks or Arkady Martine, now’s the time!) I now have to do a lot of editing before sending it off to my publisher for consideration, after which it joins the great big eternal ???? of who even knows what happens next. Watch this space hopefully/maybe/perhaps?
I am aware that this is a blog where I’m meant to talk about writing… but mostly talk about climate change. However as I’m doing a yearly summary, it’s worth reiterating that yeap, there’s been a lot of gigs what I have lit. Some personal highlights include Amigo the Devil, Fenne Lily, and Brother Strut, which while not necessarily what I listen to at home, provided delights as a lighting designer that left me beaming. I now struggle to hear music as anything other than light, with sounds less tinkles of piano or sweeps of song, and more great washes of colour and movement. It is a huge privilege to get paid to both listen to music, and indulge my synaesthesia in a single career. (It also gets me out of the house: very important for a scribbler.)
That said, the live music industry is still reeling from Covid. Audiences are only slowly coming back, and a huge swath of talent left during the pandemic leaving behind a mix of inexperienced new techies, over-worked old techies and a big old pay gap that has absolutely not kept pace with inflation. For me as a venue tech – and someone who refuses to do festivals or touring, as frankly I’m too old and cranky – the work is heavily seasonal. June-August are dead months, which suits me fine as I can write novels, while October-December are rammed, wall-to-wall shifts, which while greatly appreciated also leave me an exhausted mess by the end. Reader: I am knackered.
All of which is to say: if you love music, then do consider supporting those smaller bands that are trying to make touring work; and if you love streaming music then consider trying platforms such as Tidal or even Bandcamp, where more of the profits go to the artists than the mega-corps that host them.
2023 was the year I was diagnosed as autistic.
This is one of those things that changes nothing/everything.
In the nothing bucket: the diagnosis changes nothing about who I am. It is just a note on a record, a little medical tick-box that I don’t even have to disclose if I don’t want to – though I am determined to, primarily for my own ease and honesty and, in a very minor way, ‘cos I think it’s moderately important to challenge assumptions about what autism looks like in what little ways I can.
In the everything bucket: it is hard to express the relief experienced in having a word for the perpetual sense of ‘doing it wrong’ that has been my entire life. It lifts a weight – but also adds another, because the word ‘autistic’ brings a whole new mess of expectations and unhelpful stereotyping, and I’m still unpacking how I feel about all of that. Even in these few months since diagnosis, I have noticed how I can tell people that I am autistic, and rather than asking me about my experience and preferences the reply is ‘of course, I entirely understand!’ followed by a bundle of assumptions that range from the well-intentioned-but-unhelpful through to the bizarre. To quote the wonderful podcast 1800 Seconds on Autism: if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. We are individuals, not just a diagnosis.
That said, diagnosis does make getting some support easier. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a sleep disorder, and for the last few years the NHS has, with the best of intentions, tried to help me with various forms of mindful breathing, CBT-I and meditation. Which while great, bumps up hard against two difficult realities.
- 1. I have already done so, so much work on finding my zen, having meditated for fifteen years, tried CBT-I before, practiced superb sleep hygiene etc. – all of which is lovely and good, but doesn’t fix point 2….
- 2. … genetics. The exact same disorder was apparent in my Granddad, is apparent in my Mum. And while breathing deeply is lovely, it is not an answer for a genetic condition, and the only reason I was prescribed it is because it’s cheaper and easier, rather than appropriate for me.
It is hugely frustrating being told that you are anxious and that’s the only explanation for what you’re experiencing, when you have just scored 1/20 on the NHS’ own anxiety test. It feels like winning mildly-sexist-not-being-listened-to medical bingo in the most depressing of ways.
However. Half-way through 2023 the autism diagnosis came through, and all of a sudden the NHS was intoning back at me the phrase to me that I had been screaming at them: ‘oh, autism correlates with not sleeping, you know!’
It is gutting that it takes a neurological diagnosis to be listened to. It makes me wonder how many other people are not being listened to in a system that is overwhelmed and under-funded from years of government neglect. However, right now, for me, this change in attitude is potentially life-changing and I am incredibly grateful to finally be seeing some light at the end of that tunnel.
Incidentally, if you worry about the NHS… there’s going to be a general election next year.
The Conservative government has deliberately run the NHS into the ground. Theirs is an active effort to force people into private medicine, creating a two-tier system where health is only for the richest. For this cruellest of ideologies, our government is destroying people’s lives. Even if you don’t need the NHS now, you will eventually, so when the election rolls round next year, please remember to bring your (pointless, ridiculously expensive) voter ID, and vote the bastards out.
I was extraordinarily lucky and grateful to have been invited to a few lovely places this year!
Cymera in Edinburgh remains one of the nicest, best-run, most welcoming festivals in the UK, and it is always a treat to go. As well as being a place for geeks, it has a strong emphasis on local writing and community, mixing big ideas with local excellence. The volunteers are fantastic and Ann, the director, pulls off wonders. If you are up north, I cannot recommend Cymera enough. (The local Holyrood Parkrun is also a) one of the most stunning I’ve ever done and b) 99% up to only 1% down, if only in my mind.)
The Celsius 232 festival in Aviles, Spain, is as always an absolute joy. Brilliant people, fantastic events and guests – I think the best way to sum up the experience is that every time you turn a corner there’ll be someone who is pleased to see you, and absolutely wonders if you’d like to join them for a beer/cuppa/churros. That mix of absurdly well-run formality and delightful informal joy makes Celsius a delight. Innumerable people work to make it happen, but as always special shout-outs to Christina, the force of nature who sits at the centre of it all, and Diego, who can translate anything, even the puns.
This year was my first time attending Utopiales in Nantes, France, and having no idea what to expect, I was blown away by the professionalism, warm-welcome and all-round excellence. As someone with basically no French, the simultaneous translation was wonderful (shout-out to Loman and the interpretation team!) and there wasn’t a single discussion I attended where the ideas were anything less than enormous and fascinating. Utopiales also allowed me to travel by train instead of plane and had a strong environmentalist bent which warmed my heart; the walk between Paris Gare du Nord to Montparnasse remains my favourite interchange in Europe.
Finally, for my own joy and not work at all, 2023 was the year I took the train to Munich for a week-long city break. I became a German citizen a few years ago and feel strongly about a) dragging my language skills up to standard and b) spending more time in the country my family came from. The language part… well, I’m working at it, but the grammar. Good grief the grammar! The adventures are far more pleasant, even if on the way out to Munich we found ourselves on a rail-replacement bus service between Duren and Aachen for 45 minutes. (We made it to Munich eventually, only a couple of hours late.) The city itself is a lovely mixture of vibrant and restful, urban and green. A personal highlight was taking the S-Bahn out from the centre of the city to the great lakes that sit between Munich and the Alps. As a Londoner, it blows my mind how near you can be to forested walks through rolling hills, with the mountains themselves clearly visible on the horizon.
At the start of 2023 I passed what’s called ‘TG’ grade in escrima; our 10th grade and equivalent of black belt. It was a long time getting there and I had the clichéd response of on the day feeling like the queen of the world… before waking up the next morning with a cry of ‘what the hell do I do with my life now?’
The answer is: there’s always more to learn in escrima. But in the fog of ‘what now?’ I did a few other things too.
I ran an indoor triathlon, just for my own sake, just to see what it was like. (Sticky. Rushing from a swimming pool to an indoor bike without properly washing chlorine off… very sticky.) At the time I was at rock-bottom in terms of sleep disruption, and under those circumstances I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction of doing something absurdly physical, just to claw back some sense of agency. Will I do a proper, registered, organised triathlon one day? Dunno. Distances seem to start at baby-sized (swim across a pond, jog round the block, cycle to the end of the street) before stepping up to world-shattering (swim twenty miles, cycle up a mountain, run a marathon carrying a hippo, while wearing latex and riding a £3000 bicycle) with not much middle-ground. I loved doing my own thing. Not sure about doing it in a crowd….
However, I also took up muay thai! And then had to quit, for reasons I’ll come to.
I took it up because a) I’d just passed my escrima exam and the world was thus an empty and meaningless place and b) because there are many things I don’t know how to do in martial arts, including: much in the way of grappling, any kicking, or competitive unarmed combat in a ring. (With weapons, if a fight goes on for more than seven seconds, you’re doing it wrong.) I found a lovely all-women muay thai club, which was a breath of fresh air after over a decade of being one women in anywhere from fifteen to thirty men, practiced kicking and was forced to do that most dreadful of deeds: push-ups and burpees. The horror.
After a few months we were sent off to do our white belt. Having slogged through martial arts exams before, I think it would be fair to say that my attitude towards grade 1 was chill. It could not be worse, I figured, than my escrima grade 8, which lasted ten hours and involved at one point fighting up and down stairs while seven of my peers attempted to clobber me. And it was not! At the end of it, I was invited to switch to the intermediate class, which while flattering was a bit unexpected, and off I went… right in time to pick up a stonking shoulder injury, come down with a nasty viral chest infection, get diagnosed with anaemia and reach absolute rock-bottom of the sleep disorder just as gigs were gearing up again. After a few weeks it was clear that something would have to give, and regrettably, that was muay thai. I would still like to learn; 2023, turns out, was not the time.
The Global Dumpster Fire
Finally, it’s worth saying the obvious: that 2023 continued to be a geo-political dumpster-fire. From the ongoing unjustified and barbaric invasion of Ukraine to the brutality of the Israel-Hamas war, with ecological calamities accelerating in number and scale while climate conferences are lead by science-denying oil barons, global news continues to feel like a depressing slog. If my Gran was still with us, she’d be particularly distraught over what’s happening in Gaza. She was a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust on the Kindertransport, the rest of her family dying in the camps. Despite being atheist and frequently serving ham sandwiches on a Saturday, she was embraced by the British Jewish community, and was incredibly grateful to be part of that network of support and connection. But she also frequently donated to Palestinian causes, seeing in their situation the echoes of the oppression, racism and discrimination that she had experienced in Nazi Germany. I cannot imagine how heartbroken she would be to see the crisis unfolding in Gaza, and witness the moral cowardice of our global leaders as they silently look on.
Thinking of moral cowardice… the climate crisis continues with our leaders pedalling the same old BS about how we can’t possibly wean ourselves off fossil fuels, someone else should take responsibility first etc. etc.. The short-termism of this kind of thinking remains both boggling and frightening, as we continue to prioritise enormous five-year profits and next year’s snap election, rather than think ahead to the staggering global costs that are waiting for us only a few years down the line. Any profit anyone makes now is going to be dwarfed by the sheer expenditure of time, energy and resources that we are going to have to spend as a civilization to get through the climate crisis – let alone the loss in human life that we seem prepared to perpetuate in the name of a big bottom line. Acting now isn’t just safer for the planet – it’s literally a better economic investment, and waiting for ‘someone else’ to go first is just another excuse to put off the actions that would be cheaper, easier and smarter to do today.
I aim to never end a rant about the climate crisis without suggesting action, not least as action is genuinely the best way to feel better.
If you are feeling paralysed by the scale of the crisis, then know that that’s a really valid response, and have your annual reminder that you also have agency and your choices matter. Spending mindfully, signing petitions, and above all getting out and voting – it all makes a huge difference. The climate crisis is going to be solved by the actions of billions of people, but those billions are made up nothing more and nothing less than individuals. I always make this point and will make it again – that everyone remembers Martin Luther King Jnr. and the ‘I have a dream’ speech that changed American history. But if a quarter of a million people hadn’t also turned up to listen, Martin Luther King would have been a madman ranting on a street corner by himself. You don’t have to be a hero on a podium making a stand – showing up as one of the crowd changes the world.
For advice on simple, personal changes on a budget, the World Wildlife Fund has some good starting suggestions: https://www.wwf.org.uk/ways-to-help-our-world
For organisations campaigning on a political level, check out 350.org, Friends of the Earth, or your local Green Party – or a local party whose politics you broadly agree with, but who you want to get more Green, be that Labour, Lib Dem – or whatever party you want to be a part of. Alternatively, if you want to get involved in your local community, there are always projects ranging from local gardening groups, clean-up groups, advocacy groups around housing, transport or clean air or even the group I’m hoping to join in 2024 with my meagre technician skills – my local Restart Project, where people come together to help each other fix their broken goods, rather than throw them away.
2023 has felt like… a lot. It has been, fair to say, a personally very bumpy year, and globally there’s not much to cheer for. But since hope is a far better motivator than fear, I am hopeful for better things in 2024 and will as always continue to strive to show up however I can do to my part. In the meantime I am also looking forward to spending a little bit more time mucking around with space opera, and a little less time trying to sleep.
Whatever your 2023 was, and whatever 2024 shall bring, thanks for sticking with me, and I wish you all a Happy New Year!