The other morning, I climbed Glastonbury Tor. As anyone who follows me on Twitter might know, this is not unusual. I love the Tor; it’s a special place for me and people I’m close to. The view from the top is never the same. Every time we go we see something we never saw before, as in the rest of the world but somehow more explicit. So, it was the Tor again: the difference that day was the weather. I’ve never deliberately been up the Tor in the rain (although I have written a short story about it). But that day, rain threatened. It had already tipped it down earlier in the morning, though by mid-morning, the sun had broken through and the sky was brilliant with receding dark clouds and shattering blue sliced through with acidic beams. The high street in Glastonbury wakes later than in other places on a Saturday, so I decided to risk the ascent and go shopping later.
As I started up the lower slopes, I could see a curtain of rain sweeping in from the west, across the Levels. A low scurry of cloud. I wondered if I could make it up the Tor and down again before the weather turned, decided I could. The wind was blustery and cold, but not too strong, and I strode forth. On the lower part of the path there are concrete steps, and valiant worms were stretched across almost every one, glistening pink, making a sunlit dash from one sodden patch of soil to the next. Risking everything.
As I neared the summit, the light changed dramatically, and I knew I wasn’t going to be quick enough to beat the weather. I’d been crazily optimistic to entertain the possibility. I wasn’t wearing wet-weather gear, just a duffle coat and woolly hat. But I wasn’t too worried. On the top of the Tor is a tower, roofless and open to the sky, but tall enough to provide shelter from slanting rain. The only other person at the top was a man in hiking trousers, a flapping oilskin mac and bum-length dreadlocks that streamed out around him as he leaned into the wind with his eyes closed. I could see him through the two openings in the base of the tower, a doorway on either side like the eye in a needle.
As I entered the tower the first spits of rain came, and I was blown almost off my feet by the wind, accelerated through the tunnel created by the opposing openings. I laughed out loud and held on to the wall to keep from falling over. I pressed myself into the side of the tower and wondered how long I would have to wait out the weather. I thought of all the storms the tower had survived, and marvelled that the stones didn’t shudder in their foundations under the force of the gusts. They were absolutely steadfast.
Soon enough, the clouds swept past and the wind, while still strong, began to abate. Little rain had fallen on the Tor, it had passed by to the south. I went and stood in the doorway that faced west, and pressed my hands against the stone frame on either side, and leaned into the wind with my head down, letting the cold rush past me; resting, resisting. I stood like that for about two minutes, feeling nothing but absolute happiness and as if my soul had been washed, and then I walked out into brilliant sunshine, back down the hill into town for a coffee.
Yesterday, I was shredding invoices from 2008. (It’s been a year of clearing out, tidying up, making good, weathering. Regeneration.) The invoices made me sad, in a way. So many small jobs, or pieces of larger jobs. So many books read, so many that I’ve forgotten. People I still work with. Others who’ve moved on. People I haven’t heard from in seven or eight years, and I don’t really know why. Evidence and records of weirdly arbitrary amounts of money paid for portions of my time on this Earth. The traces of a working life, now largely meaningless, expended. I’ve moved on too. They are pure ephemera.
And yet, I am still here, editing. Eating, sleeping, editing. The jobs have changed, and many of the personnel. Last autumn, the boiler man came for the annual service. He took a swig of coffee, patted the familiar boiler, and looked around the kitchen. His eyes came to rest on my partner, about to leave for work. “I don’t recognise him,” he said. “There was a different one here before.”
“Yes,’ I told him. “There’s been a change of personnel. Same old boiler, though.” He nodded and went back to drinking his coffee and tightening valves.
I’ve written before about mental resilience and making peace with uncertainty. I’ve also written about editing in times of darkness (this one looks quite quaint), about trying to keep going as the world seems to grow ever more unstable and hostile. This week, this month, this year is shaping up to be one of those times. Honestly, I thought it looked pretty bad in 2016. But it’s a whole lot worse now! Ecological disaster, Brexit, coronavirus, crumbling infrastructure, other shitstorms of varying scales I can’t be arsed to enumerate. Turns out 2016 was just the little aperitif. And I have no pithy advice on how to keep an editorial business (or any other kind of business) going in such interesting times. No way of rationalising our editorial work as somehow being meaningful on a deeper level. No further comment at all on how we can stop the torrent of bullshit armed only with a red pen. I guess it’s just a case of seeing what happens, and being ready to react to change.
Recently, we’ve been playing chess in the evenings. I can chart the course of my more serious romantic relationships via chess. In my first marriage, we used to play chess while drinking, to keep ourselves from arguing. He always won, because I’d never taken the time to read up on even any very basic theory. I was just winging it, seeing what happened, in every aspect of my life. Throwing all my pieces into the battle without any kind of forward planning or self-care at all, never giving a toss if they were trapped or taken. I kidded myself that this was a noble ethos, but it wasn’t a whole or nourishing way to live. The marriage ended, nearly taking me with it, but I carried on. Editing saved me; my job was the only fragment of stability I had left.
Around the time I started seeing my next partner, I was actually writing a book about chess. This meant I had more of a grasp of actual tactics, and so when we played chess, I won every time. I must have been insufferable, and after a few weeks of this he refused to play me any more. He accused me of having “memorised all the moves”, which just made me laugh because it was so ludicrous, and that made things worse. We put the chess board away and the relationship staggered on for another five years.
My second husband refused to play chess, describing it as “the worst thing you can possibly do with your brain”. I didn’t agree with him, but I respected his right to hold this opinion, and we played Metroid Prime instead, until the demands of two small children and various freelance and voluntary work consumed pretty much everything else. Later, everything imploded. Again, editing kind of saved me, if only because I had to keep getting up to do it to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, which meant I couldn’t just give up. We’re still on good terms. Perhaps we wouldn’t be if we’d played chess.
Now, in a different relationship, I’m interested to see where the chess takes us. Nine times out of ten, perhaps nineteen times out of twenty, he beats me. I’ve forgotten pretty much everything I ever wrote on the subject. But I can feel it stretching my brain, like muscles after a run. There are times when I have my pieces in such a position on the board that I can feel the possibility of being able to do something unexpected, incredible – though (most of the time) I can’t quite leverage it. It’s a delicious feeling, still, of potential.
One lunchtime, I started googling for chess tips, and I came across a little trailer for an online series of masterclasses presented by Garry Kasparov. Back in the day, when I was researching the chess book, I had become a little obsessed with Kasparov; it was a running joke with some friends at work. I thought he was cute, but mainly inspiring. And listening to him talk about creativity and inventiveness when playing chess, watching him banging the pieces across the board towards some inevitable and beautiful checkmate, I got fired up all over again. It’s not only about forward planning. It’s about reacting to what happens, accepting it, and then using it to make something new and unforeseen.
Now when we play chess in the evenings, we laugh about my subscription to the masterclass (which I didn’t take out, yet, but I think he doesn’t quite believe me). We reference my little imaginary Skype chats with Garry, in which I pick the master’s brains about how to more effectively beat my boyfriend. It’s a bit of light relief; total flippancy. But secretly, when I do get into an impossible tangle (on the chessboard and elsewhere), with all my pieces bunched in one corner and his queen on the attack, I think about what Kasparov might do, and invoke his spirit – and I’m kind of joking, and I’m kind of not.
As I grow older I’m trying hard not to see a loss, or a potential loss, as being outwitted or outsmarted, a total catastrophe – but rather as holding me in a state of not having got there yet. It might happen. It might not happen. But whatever my opponent does next, whatever comes, perhaps I can use it in order to do something interesting myself. Positivity out of negativity. Never giving up. That feeling of latent creativity keeps me from feeling utterly powerless, keeps me from being scared. It’s a secret weapon. It turns me on.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She’s never talked to Garry Kasparov on Skype. Yet.