THIS year has been exceptionally good for fungi on the palace lawn. I wish I knew more about them, as I suspect that a whole load of delicious meals are being enjoyed by the squirrels and jays, and not by me. I shared a few photos on social media, and several people — clergy, interestingly — confidently identified one set as Magic Mushrooms. So, for all I know, a whole load of exciting trips are being enjoyed by the squirrels and jays, and not by me.
Confident identification of fungal varieties is what I’m after. Last autumn, I invited my Sheffield-based work colleagues and their families round for afternoon tea. One of them stated: “I am almost 100 per cent certain those ones there are ceps. You should try them. They’ll be delicious!” I said, “By all means help yourself.” He declined. When it comes to mushroom adventures, almost-100-per-cent confidence is not enough for me.
This year, however, a bolder colleague went ahead and took away a bag full of what he was 99 per cent certain were common puffballs, to eat for his tea. After some internet research, I was 99 per cent certain that he was correct, but found I couldn’t quite relax until I’d texted him to check that he was alive. I got the following reply: “We survived the mushrooms. Ate them in a stir-fry. They tasted and felt a bit like tofu. Very nice and so far no side-effeaaaaaagh. . . ” Everyone’s a comedian in the Manchester Writing School.
Flights of fancy
ONE of these days, I’ll sign up for an official fungal foray, with a trained expert. Helpful though internet “Edible British Fungi” guides are, they tend to be peppered with phrases like “Care should be taken with the identification, as Galerina marginata is also called The Funeral Bell.” I must say, whoever had a hand in the naming of mushrooms had a stylish way with words. Names range from RED ALERT (Destroying Angel, Deadly Fibrecap, The Sickener) through whimsically coy (Elfin Saddle, The Blusher) to the frankly hilarious (Stinking Dapperling).
It may well have been the same nutters who came up with the official set of collective nouns. I have long suspected them of having been under the influence of Psilocybe cubensis when they finalised the list. “Duuude — Murder of crows? I see it in the sky, in rainbow letters.” “Whoa! Murder of crows! Awesome.”
The same happy bunch apparently decided that it’s a “troop” of mushrooms. Presumably because they saw them marching through the undergrowth in pursuit of that bouquet of pheasants.
ONCE the list of collective nouns was complete, I’m pretty sure they moved on to inventing bizarre office titles for Church and State. Which of the following is not a real term? (a) Clerk of the Closet (b) Garter (c) The Gentleman Without Trouser. I was about to report that these are all real job titles, but, sadly, it appears that (c) is made up. I’ve Googled it every which way, and it begins to look as though I was suckered by a visiting bishop who managed to convince me of this taradiddle. All the same, if you are The Gentleman Without Trouser and are reading this, do get in touch and tell us what you do
WHO am I to cast the first stone? I earn a living out of making stuff up. That last sentence is a good example. Of course, I don’t actually earn a living doing it. . . Like many other writers, I teach part-time, because earning a living by writing alone is largely a fantasy. You are liable to wake up in the cupboard under the stairs to the realisation that it was all a dream, and you are not a wizard after all.
Novelists can perform the odd magic trick, though. If we’re doing our job well, we can persuade you that our fictional characters are real people, and make you care what happens to them. In those scary years when I was mad enough to think that blogging novels in weekly instalments was a good idea, I could keep tabs on my readers’ responses to my characters. If there was a groundswell of dislike emerging against someone, I could manipulate my readers into feeling sorry for them the following week. Mwa ha ha!
However bad it was trying to blog 2016 in real time, I can only say — from the bottom of my heart — that I’m glad I’m not blogging what’s happening now. Novels require themes and unfolding plotlines that slowly gather weight and tend towards an inherently satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it needs to fit what’s gone before. And for that, the novelist needs to have some sense of where the action is heading.
At the moment, given the high political drama unfurling against a backdrop of climate extinction, I fear I’d be producing a 300-page Munch scream. And you can get that experience already from Twitter.
Days of hope
ADVENT is near again. As Christmas approaches, we will be hearing the old readings about the coming Day of the Lord. This makes me ponder whether a sense of eschatological doom is not a terrible aberration, but the natural milieu of our faith. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Perhaps, when we hear of these things, we should hold our heads up, ears cocked for the message of hope. Our deliverance is at hand. It is not strange, this strangest of times we are called to walk through. Don’t be surprised, beloved, “but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
After all, a novel — even a 300-page Munch scream — has characters through which the themes are mediated. This is the beating heart of faith and fiction. We know the main character already. We are part of a cast of millions, and we glimpse where the action is heading.
Catherine Fox is a writer, and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her husband is the Bishop of Sheffield.