Books

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

The front cover of the book
A hefty hardback but a light and enjoyable read.

This book had been sitting on a book shelf in our house for quite a while. Anne had read it, of course, many moons ago. She is a much more prolific reader than me.  However she couldn’t remember much about it other than she had enjoyed it, and so I had to go through it myself.

The title certainly grabbed me as I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the fantastical and the prosaic. It sounded like there could be a little magic realism which I often like if it’s done well.

It is set in late eighteenth century London, just after the United States has been born and just before the French revolution. The timing feels important because there is so much about identities in this book: ancient and newly created, and this is a time when the upward mobility of the mercantile class is really starting to happen. With British ships sailing the world over, and trade and slavery bringing new wealth into the pockets of businessmen as well as the nobility.

Mr Hancock is one of these such men but he begins, in the book, as a bit sad and lonely, haunted by the death of his wife in childbirth and his still born son several years back. Fretfully waiting for his ship to literally come in, and living in Deptford, an honest working town in the unfashionable south of the river.

The Mrs Hancock in question is anything but prosaic and for two thirds of the book she is also not Mrs Hancock but a high class, if somewhat frivolous, prostitute called Angelica Neal. She has just returned to society after her previous benefactor died and left her with nothing. Her old pimp Bet Chappell wants her to return to the ‘nunnery’.

How these two unlikely companions come together is the core of this book but there is so much more. Mermaids for a start, and possibly more than one, or possibly none, such is the slippery nature of the beast. In an age when these ships are bringing so many new things from abroad for the delight of the chattering classes and the coffee drinking men of means, mermaids remain a very high possibility.

It is written in the present tense and takes on the viewpoint of various characters allowing the reader to see an interesting cross-section of life. The language is delightfully vivacious and earthy. I have a bad habit of skipping past descriptive sections but I found myself enjoying the writer’s turn of phrase so much that I lapped these parts up as much as the action.

Jane Austen, writing in the same period that this is set may have kept away from some of the more ribald aspects. But she would have recognised the proscriptive place of women. From Mr Hancock’s older sister who inherits nothing of their father’s business to Polly, a child of a slave, picked up and polished to be a sexual curio for wealthy men. From Sukie, Mr Hancock’s niece, pulled out of school for being too clever, to Angelica, supposedly free of society’s repressive constraints but completely at the mercy of a man’s credit.

The book dips into the fantastic, occasionally a little clumsily, but where it stays with reality it paints a very engaging picture of eighteenth century life. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was very pleased to have found it on our bookshelves.

Running

There’s a Stone in my Trainer Dear Reader

I seem to have settled on Fridays as my long run day. It used to be Sundays, then Saturdays. It’s a psychological game I play: if I don’t do it today, I have 2 more days to get it done. If I do do it today, I can have wine. More often than not, that’s a winning argument.

A country road
The road less quite often travelled

The rain was a pattering on the windows while I ate my oats, and it didn’t look terribly appealing. But when I finally laced up just under two hours later, the clouds had parted somewhat.

Now that my long runs are, well, getting longer, I am back to hearing that voice in my head telling me I won’t last the distance or I’ll be too exhausted. It doesn’t help when the first mile or three always feels so laborious. After five minutes of panting, I think: nearly two hours of this is an impossible task!

Then the little miracle happens. I can never put my finger on when, but suddenly, my Runkeeper lady tells me I’ve done 30 minutes and I realise I’m sailing! And I know it will (nearly) always happen but I can’t quite believe it will, and afterwards I have to smile at my lack of faith.

This time around the 30 minute mark I also found that a tiny little stone had jumped into the back of my left trainer. It was wriggling around my heel and lower ankle and I contemplated stopping. But I was in such a nice rhythm that I was loathe to. I figured as it only hurt occasionally I’d use it as an excuse to stop when I was more tired.

It was more annoying than painful really as it slid around my foot, and several times I lost concentration on my podcast (BBC: In Our Time – The Cultural Revolution) as I contemplated its movement  (How many ‘Olds’ did the Red Guard need to get rid of?) but I didn’t stop then, and I didn’t stop later when I was getting tired and losing that rhythm, because by then I felt that I wouldn’t actually get started again.

Plus, I was feeling so tired that I wasn’t sure I could actually bend down to take my shoe off. My total today was 9.25 miles, which although, technically my longest, was not much longer than my recent ones. Then I remembered that I’d done a 20 mile bike ride yesterday and that made me feel loads better.

I have put a nice Pouilly Fume in the fridge to chill as it’s Friday and my work is done!

Running

A Real Race

I had a little boost to my running mojo this week when I booked our hotel in Edinburgh for this September. The Scottish Half Marathon, which got cancelled last year, will be my first race in nearly 2 years!

Edinburgh castle from lower down the hill.
Edinburgh castle in a cloudless day, as it will be in September! –
Image by Walkerssk from Pixabay 

I know it’s absolutely ages away but still, a shining beacon of hope, no? After these crazy unprecedented times, I have possibly, hopefully, maybe got a little something to work towards again.

The irony is, that before this big world shut-down (or at least the shut-down of those parts of the world that were particularly pants at dealing with the virus), I was getting a little disaffected by the big races. They were expensive, busy, created ten ton of rubbish and were getting more and more corporate.

But having had nothing for so long, I am ready to mingle with the multitudes at the starting line again.

Metaphorically that is. The reality is I’m normally standing more than 500 metres back with the rest of the tortoises making way for the hares and the gazelles to speed away while we shuffle forward a bit at time, until we finally actually make it to the front. We’re knackered before we’ve even begun!

That, however, is beside the point. I will enjoy it all. The queues for the portaloos; the fiddling with the safety pins (for the number bibs); the standing around and interminable waiting before the start; the faint waft of Deep Heat mixed with varying levels of anxiety.

And of course the excitement. The culmination (if you’ve not been a lazy arse) of the hard work and training you’ve put in, ready to be put to the test. The knowledge that you and several thousand other people are collectively committing to this endeavour. It sometimes, in rare moments of softness, brings a lump to my throat.

I have been on so many runs where I have randomly chatted to lovely people along the way (once your breathing settles, it is possible to say a few words without gasping) and sometimes someone has pulled me psychologically to the finishing line when I’ve felt I can’t go on. Once, I even managed to pay it forward with another random stranger.

Then, crossing that line and knowing you’ve made it in hopefully a time that you’re happy with, or at least knowing that you’re done and you get to have a beer soon is wonderful. The nerves, and the anticipation is over and you can relax for just a little while.

All this and much more is why I just cannot wait for September.

Life

Reclaim?

I’ve had a bit of a knot in my stomach all week because of the stories in the UK news about the vigils for the murdered woman, Sarah Everard.

There was so much anger and resentment thrown up in the public domain from both the women at the main vigil in Clapham Common and the police at the event, that I’m not going to repeat them again here.

A candle in the window.
A candle lit for Sarah Everard

One Facebook post defending the police said that some of the women who were shouting obscenities were not there for Sarah’s family. They probably weren’t. They were there for themselves, as women, as any one of them could have been Sarah Everard.

I don’t condone violence or obscenities thrown about to incite anger. But I also think there should be a space to vent anger and frustration when something like this has happened, even during lockdown if it was fully outside and if people generally kept their distance and wore masks­1. Especially when the murderer was allegedly a serving member of the Metropolitan Police Force.

If I look at the statistics of UK murders2, three times as many men are likely to be killed than women so you might ask why the uproar.

Because women don’t need to just worry about being killed. The number of deaths is relatively quite low for the population (roughly 11 in every million people). But the number of recorded rapes is over 58,000 (over 850 in every million people)3 –  that number doesn’t include the unreported rapes and the assaults.

Following the attacks by Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) in the 70s, many women took part in Reclaim the Night marches, including my Anne who was a student there and lived round the corner from The Gaiety, where one of his victims was picked up. Leeds Police did not really put a huge deal of weight into investigating his crimes until “innocent young girls” and not just sex workers were being killed. Their ‘advice’ to women was to stay indoors after dark.

I feel safer when I see police on the streets. I know there have been huge improvements since the 70s, in methods of policing and attempts of outreach towards different communities.  I know, given the stats of things like Stop and Search, that there is plenty more to do.

I hope that there is more education in schools around pornography given that it is so prevalent. I hope that more men call out other men for words and actions that are not okay4. I know that all the close men in my life would.

I would like to feel safe enough to run in total isolation in the night time but I don’t yet.


  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-55680305
  2. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2020
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48095118
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/10/women-tell-men-how-to-make-them-feel-safe-after-sarah-everard-disappearance
Running

If the cap fits, still check the weather

Okay, so I got told that my previous post about Spring wasn’t really about Spring at all, but, yawn … running again. I think she made it sound more polite than that but I took this to be the inference.

A running cap and a woolly hat
My slim stock of running headwear

This blog is about hats, but then again it’s about running as well, as the only time I consistently wear one is when I run. A woolly one for the winter and my peaked cap for the summer. My hair is not super short nor long enough, most of the time, to fully tie back and the most annoying thing is those escaped wisps tickling your eyes or slapping at your cheeks if the wind is up.

Today, the wind was up, it is still March after all, and I pulled the woolly hat back out from the bottom of my running drawer and tugged it snugly on. I may not have had to worry about my hair giving me whiplash but the trees have been shakin’ their thang rather vigorously and I contemplated putting my bike helmet on as extra protection but decided that it was better to die from flying debris than look a twonk.

It felt good to be out for a short little two miler, as I’d had another attack of the CBAs this week, and despite Bev trying to entice me several times, I wasn’t having it. Partly because it was my time of the month, and partly because it was rainy and miserable and who in their right mind would venture out voluntarily in skimpy clothing in this kind of weather anyway!

Today’s blustery but not freezing wind just felt invigorating, even when it buffeted me. But it was not a cap day. If you can see what the wind did to this fence, you can imagine the kind of lift-off my peak would have given.

A fence panel fallen down
Wind damage or dodgy carpentry? You decide.

It is quite astonishing sometimes how a mood can affect me. Yesterday, I wasn’t exactly low, but I definitely wanted to hunker down and keep myself contained. Whereas today, I felt like dancing with the bud laden branches, and hollering in the breeze!


There are many poems about March winds, but this little ditty captures the current mood of the day:

March wind is a jolly fellow,
He likes to joke and play.
He turns umbrellas inside out
And blows men’s hats away.

He calls the pussy willows
And whispers in each ear
‘Wake up you lazy little seeds,
Don’t you know that Spring is here?’

Anon
Running

Spring is in the Air

I am just watching the pigeons. Three were sat merrily on my neighbour’s apple tree just now, when a fourth landed in the vicinity. It sidled up to each and they all flew away one by one as it got close. I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing a bully or a failed attempt at pigeon chat up lines. ‘Tis the season after all.

It is a rare moment of wilful idleness as I’ve been unusually busy but after my long run this morning (I got to 9 miles), I feel like I can put my feet up for a bit.

It took me 1 hour 45 minutes ish and I realised that I’d need to start taking a gel in the middle of my long runs now as my quads (or ‘thighs’ to normal people) were starting to turn to rubber. That may also be because I’d been for my first proper cycle ride of the year yesterday. It was just under 12 miles done in a leisurely 1.5 hours and by the end my thighs (or ‘quadriceps femoris‘ if you want to be technical) were very happy to see the bike go back in the shed, as were my buttocks.

Now, for me, gels are tolerable but many people find them sickly. There are a ton of makes and flavours etc. and I use the SIS ones as I tried them first and I didn’t throw up, so. They definitely help me get a little more energy in my slow but steady legs and I would recommend them, ( or dextrose, or chewy sweets, or whatever works without making you barf), for any run that is going to take you well over the hour mark. I’ve heard of some people use them for a 10k, or even a 5k. If your 10k takes you an hour and a half then maybe. But, otherwise, I’d go for porridge (or other real carbs) a couple of hours before you run and that should be enough. I personally only take these gels while I’m running, probably around 45 mins in, and then 40/45 mins apart. They do help but they don’t give you superpowers and they’re full of artificial shite.

PLUS, the other thing to remember, is to put the packet, once tipped into your gullet, in a BIN or in your POCKET.

The amount of empty gel packets lashed onto the ground, even during races, should not be allowed. We have enough of a problem with litter and fly-tipping without adding to it.

I’ve come back to this blog this evening, while watching an episode of Drag Race UK (weirdly compelling). It looks like I was about to rant about litter, as it is a REAL bugbear of mine. But instead of that I shall keep it positive. Yesterday my biking buddy Gary told me about a facebook group, the Wirral Wombles, an incredible local group that goes around picking up a lot of this rubbish that people throw, to make our streets and country lanes nicer places. I’m going to join it and get out there with them.


You can read a little more about gels here.