What To Do?

What can you do when you lose all confidence in your own writing?

Write a post about my inability to write anything, I suppose.

It has been a real struggle for the last six months or so. It would be easy to blame Covid and lockdowns, and they might have played their part, but it goes deeper than that. I could blame some health issues I have, but that’s not the whole story. Every time I sit down to write, I feel stale and uninspired. Even when I have a day that seems to go well, when I read back what I have written later it seems contrived or forced. Uninteresting. I feel I have nothing worth saying; nothing anyone else would want to read.

I try to paint. I have ideas I want to try out, but it just won’t come. No sooner do I pick up a brush or a pencil than I feel I can’t be bothered with it all.

I know what part of the problem is: I want to go travelling. Travelling has always given me the opportunity to press the reset. I travel light. I write. Whether I go on a long walk or a trek, or just visit a place, it gives me the chance to reconnect with the world around me.

I was out for a walk this morning. Autumn has been here for a good six weeks or more, but it isn’t progressing very rapidly yet. Clearly, it is in no hurry. Although there are plenty of berries on the trees, the leaves seem reluctant to turn or to fall. On the other side of the wood I could see the hills towards the south, bluey-green in the distance. I always find this view really evocative, and it makes me want to grab my rucksack and disappear off for a few weeks. And that immediately makes me think of mountains. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Gandalf: ‘I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains‘. He feels stale and tired of the familiar environment where he lives. (There’s more to it than just that in Bilbo’s case, of course.)

Well, that’s me.

Somewhere like this, perhaps!

Perhaps I’ll have a go at writing a few travel posts again. It has been quite a while since the last one. And before that I might re-post one or two of my earlier ones. Just to set the scene, as it were.

This way!

My Books

While I am still sorting out a new paperback printing both for Making Friends With the Crocodile and for The Night Bus, I have put up a listing on my Etsy shop for the last few remaining paperback copies of each that I have. If you fancy grabbing yourself a copy, the links are here: Making Friends With the Crocodile and The Night Bus.

A little reminder of each:

The Night Bus This book is in two parts. A collection of seven short – and not so short – stories, which make up the bulk of the book, followed by a selection of recent poems.

Travel has always been a passion of the author and, one way or another, nearly every piece here is to do with journeys. Some of the stories are quite dark, but the majority of the poems have a lighter touch. Two stories are set in India; in one, a young man goes in search of a mysterious destiny, while in the other a travelling Englishman becomes embroiled in a chilling disappearance. One story speaks of the support and comradeship of a close-knit island community while another tells of jealous intelligences far older than mankind.

There is one long poem, which gives the title to this collection and tells of a journey across India and into the mountains. There is also a short series of poems about the ancient paths and tracks of Britain; in these, especially, a love of the natural world shines through.

Making Friends With the Crocodile There is an Indian proverb: If you live by the banks of a river, make friends with the crocodile.

Set in India, this is a novel about the corrosive relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law, and the contempt in which that society still holds women. Siddiqa’s son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowliest in the household, for she now has a daughter-in-law to assume that role. But when Naira accuses one of her husband’s friends of sexually assaulting her, all their lives begin to spiral out of control.

Making Friends With the Crocodile – Again

Well, it’s only taken me about six months, but I’ve sent the e-book version of Making Friends with the Crocodile out into the world once more. I expect you thought I’d never get around to it.

Actually, I expect you’d completely forgotten about it. I unpublished both my books from Amazon back at the end of February (this post explains why) and since then I’ve explored a number of platforms, and most of them came up short. I’ve gone with Draft2Digital for the e-books, since I can specify they do not appear on Amazon, although even now I’ve an issue with how my second book will be labelled. It means the e-book is now available on a number of platforms, such as Apple, and this link will let you choose one of them.

It seems impossible, though, to find a publisher that doesn’t automatically offer the physical books through Amazon. Much the same as anything one sells anywhere today, either online or offline, can reappear on Amazon and there’s nothing one can do about it. Short of becoming a publishing house myself, I don’t think I can avoid it.

And before you ask, no!

I’ll now have a last scout around the internet to see if I can find a platform for the paperbacks that don’t sell through Amazon, but I suspect I’ll be unlucky. In which case I’ll probably stick with Draft2Digital and ask you nicely, should you buy one of my books, not to buy it through Amazon.

About Making Friends with the Crocodile:

‘There is an Indian proverb: If you live by the banks of a river, make friends with the crocodile.

Set in India, this is a novel about the corrosive relationship between a mother and daughter-in-law, and the contempt in which that society still holds women. Siddiqa’s son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowest in the household, for she now has a daughter-in-law to assume that role. But when Naira accuses one of her husband’s friends of sexually assaulting her, all their lives begin to spiral out of control.’

Jazz – Delicious Hot

…as the Bonzo’s said, many years ago.

I’ve told you before about Paul Gunn. And just in case you’ve forgotten, he and his band, the Paul Gunn Collective, play superb contemporary jazz, described as featuring an edgy vintage piano, classical cello solos with Latin and Rock rhythms. You can listen to – and purchase – Paul’s album here. But now Covid restrictions are all but gone, live gigs in pubs are back. And we went to see the band playing in a pub in Tunbridge Wells yesterday.

The quality of the music, it must be said, was far superior to the quality of my photographs, but it was a very wet, gloomy, day, and the light wasn’t ideal for photography. In fact, it was much better suited to drinking lots of beer and listening to damned good music. That part worked perfectly.

Must do it again soon.

Apocalypse Deferred Just A Tiny Little Bit

Yesterday, I went for a walk around parts of Sussex and Kent. The sun shone – Hooray! I managed the whole walk without aching too much afterwards – Hooray again! I said good morning to some sheep and patted a very nice horse. I just knew it was going to be a Good Day.

At one point I went along a footpath I haven’t used for several years, and was delighted to see this:

And then another four miles or so later there was this:

The council have made this area a Designated Roadside Nature Reserve. Established for several years now, it has a rich variety of wildflowers and grasses, and is fairly humming with insect life.

Perhaps there is a little hope for us, after all.

Chanctonbury Rings

This Tuesday evening just gone. Brighton. 7.30pm. I’m here with my friend Mark to see a gig for the first time since the Pandemic began, a gig I had planned to see last year for my birthday, but which was cancelled – due to the Pandemic, of course. Chanctonbury Rings is a collaboration between writer Justin Hopper, musician Sharron Kraus, and visual artist Wendy Pye, based on extracts from Justin’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion.

Chanctonbury Rings was released (on CD, vinyl and download) by Ghost Box in 2019, and is described on their website as ‘A spoken word and music project by writer Justin Hopper and folk musician Sharron Kraus. It also features Ghost Box’s own Belbury Poly. Based on live performances of Hopper’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, it’s a poetical, autobiographical and psychogeographical account of his experiences at Chanctonbury Ring…‘ It goes on to state: ‘The album is a blend of folk, electronic music, poetry, prose and environmental sound. Kraus’s electro-acoustic soundscapes and songs interweave with Hopper’s rich, intimate narration.’

I first learned of The Old Weird Albion a couple of years ago when I was emailed by a reporter writing a review of the book for the Caught By The River website (which I must post about sometime), who had come across one of my blog posts on Chanctonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort on Chanctonbury Hill, part of the Sussex South Downs. In conversation, he told me of both the book and the music project. Naturally, I ended up buying both. (My review of The Old Weird Albion is here if you wish to learn more about it. Of course you do.)

When I heard it was being performed live, I decided I would have to go to see it. Then the Pandemic intervened and it would be over a year before I had another chance.

So on Tuesday we are in the Brighton Spiegeltent, part of the Brighton Fringe, awaiting the show. Outside, pouring rain and a lot of rather drunken football-related chanting. (I believe there was a game on somewhere.)

Inside, though, Chanctonbury Rings. The piece is built around the section of the book where Justin visits Chanctonbury Ring one May Day, to watch both the sunrise and the Morris dancers celebrating Beltane, the ancient name for the festival held that day. It combines personal experience with myth and legend, Sharron’s music both punctuating and supporting the narrative, and Wendy’s visuals projected on a screen behind the performers.

Incidentally, Sharron is a musician I had not come across before hearing the album, but I have since been captivated by her own stunning albums. If you have any interest in folk, I’d recommend you give them a listen.

Wendy’s visuals were well-judged photographs and film of Chanctonbury Ring and the surrounding area, at times deliberately grainy and vague and at others lusher, although there was perhaps something ghostly about all of them, each choice inevitably suiting the mood of the narrative at that point.

The spoken words, the music and song, and those visuals weaved around each other and blended happily together, elegantly constructing the world as it appeared to one viewer that May Day morning and projecting the audience, for the duration of the performance, into that world too.

It was magical.

The Thick Month

June is the Thick Month. Trees and bushes and stands of wildflowers have acquired a lush density by now, branches and stems encased in full-sized leaves, rich and vividly green. Leaves massed and packed in swaying light-blocking swathes. Nothing has yet faded, although there is a gradual falling away of birdsong now mating is over and broods are being raised, although this is compensated for by what seems to be an increase in insect noise, especially bee hum – certainly in our garden. The flowers are beset by mason, carder and bumblebees, and large numbers of solitary bees which provide a delightful oxymoron for this recorder, at least.

Going out and about through the woods a mile from my home, I feel I could almost be walking indoors, such is the density of the tree canopy above me, and when it begins to rain I do indeed remain dry, other than from the occasional drip finding its way through. But it is muddy underfoot in places, the sheltering swathes also keeping the sun from drying out the ground. The thick wet dark humus-rich soil smells sweet and clean, reminding me of a ‘plum-pudding smell,’ as Kenneth Grahame described the river-bank in The Wind in the Willows.

The fields, too, are thick with wildflowers and grass, as are roadside borders where councils have refrained from scalping them. As much as I rejoice to find the occasional rarer species amongst them, I think my greatest pleasure is just to see masses of the commoner species; buttercups or ox eye daisies, vetches or speedwells.

I generally see nothing rare when I am walking my patch, but I could never think of any of this as ‘ordinary’.

Tree Lurve

About two miles away from our house I came across these two oak trees. The smaller one looks as though it is embracing the larger one.

I wanted to know their stories. Had the smaller one grown from an acorn produced by the larger one? Or from a different tree? Most oaks in Britain grow from acorns that have been gathered and buried by squirrels or jays, and they’d probably not bury them right at the foot of the tree, or would they? Could it be a secondary growth thrown up from a root of the larger tree? And the smaller one has developed in an unusual way – long and straggly as though it aspires to be ivy, or some such climbing plant. Very difficult to assess its age for that reason, although I would guess the larger one to be between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years old. Both are still alive, although it was difficult to spot leaves on the smaller one, as they are mostly high up.

My immediate instinct, or at least idle musing, was to begin to impose various anthropocentric motives to the situation: The larger tree was supporting the smaller for some reason – perhaps it was weak, or diseased. The smaller one was supplying the larger with nutrition of some sort. They were living in a symbiotic relationship and sharing resources…all nonsense, of course. They had grown that way purely by chance.

Surely?

Measurements (a re-post)

After my previous post on the merits of idleness (which was meant seriously, not tongue in cheek, just in case anyone was in doubt), it seemed a good idea to re-post this poem that I put up three years ago.

Happy buffaloes. You just can’t have too many happy buffaloes.

And, of course, by simply re-cycling an old post, I get more leisure time. I think that’s a result.

Measurements

We measure out our time in days,

We measure things so many ways.

We measure distance out in miles,

We measure happiness with smiles.

*

Some think the dollar and the dime

Should be the measure of their time.

The passage of each single hour,

Is marked by exercise of power.

*

I think our time is short enough,

Without recourse to such sad stuff.

I’ll measure my remaining years,

With laughter, books, light rain and beers.