Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison | 10th December 2019

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Melissa Harrison:

At the start of 2019 I booked an exotic holiday; towards the end of the year I tried to cancel it. In between, the world had changed – and my life changed, too.

I used to love the festive season, would throw myself into it whole-heartedly and uncritically. Slowly, though, its insistence on convention began to feel at first mildly constricting and then suffocating and harmful. Now, living alone, I need to find my own relationship to this time of year, one that doesn’t leave me feeling – entirely uncharacteristically – as though all my choices in life are wrong. Two solo Christmases in and I haven’t managed it yet.

Early this year I found out that I had won the EU Prize for Literature, and it came with a small prize fund. Fuck it, I thought: I’ll escape Christmas altogether, go somewhere they don’t even have it. Why not? I booked ten days in Bali, half by the sea and half in the jungle. I’ve never been anywhere like that; in fact, I’ve only flown long-haul once before, a trip to Pakistan when I was a teenager, to see where my mum grew up. 

It wasn’t long before the flygskam (flight shame) hit me, part of the great raising of consciousness many of us have undergone in the last 12 months. ‘Offset it,’ I bargained with myself; ‘it’s not like you fly all the time, you barely drive and you don’t have kids.’ But watching the XR protests take off and the environmental crisis at last gain proper traction in the media, it didn’t seem enough.

And then – miraculously, it felt – I bought my first house, with the help of my sister: a tiny Suffolk cottage built in 1701, heated only by a woodburner, with a brick floor, ancient reeds laid under the roof tiles, rusty Crittal windows, a coffin hatch and a stream at the end of the garden. Legal and financial worries drove the creativity clear out of my head for months, making it hard to keep up with my journalism commitments, let alone the in-depth imaginative labour of writing books. But as inspiration fled, necessity came calling in the shape of a dawning realisation about how much work the cottage required. All the more reason to cut my losses and scrap the Christmas escape plan, I decided. I needed money to rewire the two upstairs rooms which only had a 6amp circuit with no modern sockets and, it transpired, a dangling live wire.

As it turned out, though, cancelling a holiday isn’t easy these days. What they wanted to let me out of the travel contract wasn’t just the deposit, but not far off the entire price of the trip. So I’ll be going, but resentfully and unpreparedly, battling my flygskam all the way.

The truth is, it feels like a mistake now to have booked a long-haul holiday; something has changed for me since January 2019. I no longer feel entitled to the life I thought I’d live when I got to be a grown-up: one in which I could have what I liked if I could afford it, in which I would one day travel to experience other countries and continents. This year I’ve looked around and seen similar shifts going on all around me, at varying paces: some of my friends are further along the road of realisation than I am, some are only just beginning to think about the choices they make, while others maybe never will. But we all raise our consciousness at different rates, and while it’s tempting – comforting, perhaps – to berate those who still stand where you once stood, it achieves nothing. Few of us change our habits by being scolded or mocked.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I prepare for the end of 2019 by locking up and leaving my little Suffolk cottage, so newly made a home. The trip will be exciting, I suppose, though I have no mental image at all of the island I’ll be visiting, and a large part of me still wants to stay and hibernate at home. I wonder if it’ll be the last I’ll ever see of the wide world beyond Europe; quite possibly it will. 

And I wonder how things will have changed by next year’s Shadows & Reflections. Change is truly happening, at last, and gathering great momentum. I want to believe in the transformation I’m seeing around me. I have to hope it’ll be enough. 


Since the time of writing, Melissa has discovered that her next PLR payment (public lending right, from library loans) will be enough to cover the cost of rewiring her cottage. She’s very grateful to everyone who’s borrowed one of her books recently.