In recent weeks as the northern hemisphere transitions into winter, wrapping Britain in a damp embrace of fog and grey skies, I’ve been struggling to read. Two weekends ago, having contorted myself and my book to fit under the narrow beam of light cast by the little reading lamp on my bedside table, I found myself lying flat on my back on the floor trying to foam roll my spine into oblivion.
A Sunday afternoon visit to Winterbourne. We’re lucky as there are two botanical gardens in Birmingham, and both are walking distance from home. Each of the gardens has a different character, and Winterbourne is the quieter of the two. I love visiting Winterbourne year round, but especially in late autumn and winter as the glasshouses are a peaceful, bright and warm place to sit and watch the world go by. All that’s missing is a resident cat. A couple of summers ago the caretaker at the private school next door to Winterbourne had a cat, and they would frequent the terraces on busy days, but I haven’t seen them in a long time.
In May I began work on my first feature length documentary. I filmed everything on location between May and August, and I have just finalised the edit. Last night I hosted a private premiere for the stars of the documentary and I wanted to write about the experience because it’s a milestone for me, and one I don’t want to forget.
A woman in her sixties angles her phone camera up at the brick wall of the sports centre as students dressed in an array of pastel hued, skintight sportswear come and go around her. At first I can’t see what’s caught her eye, but then I follow her gaze and spot the patch of dappled sunlight illuminating the brickwork two floors up, and smile. I’m not the only dreamer out today.
Outside the Guild, a group of students gather around a trestle table collecting signatures to petition the Vice Chancellor to declare a climate emergency. All earnest nods and youthful self-belief, they manage to draw a small crowd. In stone washed denim and an oversized Jurassic Park themed Christmas jumper, a floppy haired teenager passes by on his way back to halls from afternoon lectures, phone in hand, eyes glued to the screen.
On the corner of Carpenter and Church as the sun begins to set, a white van eases out into the nose to tail traffic of the school run. In the passenger seat a young boy of eleven or twelve reaches his fingers into a packet of fries, the red of the cardboard matching the shade of his school blazer.
I’ve been looking forward to reading The Secret Commonwealth since I finished the last page of La Belle Sauvage two years ago. I love the original His Dark Materials trilogy, I enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, and The Secret Commonwealth was really good too. It’s much darker than I expected, and between some of the themes and scenes as well as the swearing it’s really not a children’s book (although publishers still bill it as one). My only criticisms are that I think it could have been shorter. I don’t mind long books, but some of the scenes involving the Magisterium introduced lots of new peripheral characters (perhaps they will become more central to the plot in book three) and made the pace drag a little. There were also a couple of encounters that felt improbable even for the HDM world, for example the scene in Prague when Lyra has just arrived by train and is drawn into a strange encounter involving an alchemist. My final issue is Malcolm’s romantic interest in Lyra. It seems unnecessary and a little bit shoehorned in as it doesn’t contribute to the story all that much.
As someone who loves to read, I own surprisingly few books. Part of this is practical. I love physical paper books but they take up space and when you live in an apartment space is at a premium. Another part of it is financial; new books are expensive (I don’t see Amazon as an option). The third reason though is the most important reason for me, and that is that I find by ‘owning’ a book I have paid full price for, I feel compelled to complete it cover to cover and then hang on to it even if I don’t like it. I have wasted months of good reading time trying to force myself through books I don’t enjoy, half a page at a time. The reason I have read fifty books and counting this year is because I have almost exclusively been reading library books. They’re ‘mine’ for four weeks at a time, and if I don’t like something, I simply return it unread. It’s been liberating.
With rain hammering on the corrugated roof covering the vegetable market, two little girls run between stalls, coat pockets stuffed with handfuls of fun snaps. The fruit trader on the end by the bus stop jumps as the girls detonate a snap by his neat greengrocer’s display of apples, oranges and nectarines. Between half-stifled giggles, the girls insist “it wasn’t us” before scurrying away to play the same trick on another trader at the other end of the market.
Framed by plastic sheeting torn away from the unglazed windows on the ninth floor of a block of flats, a lone construction worker watches Saturday morning unfold at the market on Upper Dean Street.