Some Diary Extracts

April 10th 2022:

A few days ago I dug out all the pastel paintings I have hanging around and put them to one side, the intention being to chuck them all out. As part of managing to get my creative side working properly again, I feel I need to clear out the majority of my old work. I think it is simply preventing me from getting going again – as well as taking up space we don’t really have spare. I’ve always been a little reluctant to just destroy a painting I think I might be able to sell at some point, but that’s something that doesn’t matter to me in the same way any longer.

It’s much the same with writing. Nice if someone buys it and nice, of course, if someone reads it and likes it and, hopefully, gets something from it. But not important in the same way as it used to be. I’ve never wanted to be famous, or sell millions of books (much the same thing, of course), and perhaps this is part of that. If the poetry I’m currently writing is any good, I would like someone to publish it, and if a small audience appreciated it and thought it worthwhile, well, I’d be tickled pink. But it’s not that important.

If I paint again, or carve wood, it will be entirely for me. If someone likes a painting, then perhaps I’ll simply give it to them. I appreciate this isn’t a philosophy that most creatives could adopt, but it’s what I feel I should like to do at the moment.

Wall painting in Amberley Church, Sussex. It dates from around 1300AD, was whitewashed over around 1550, and restored in 1967.

April 11th 2022:

We’re off to Amberley for a couple of days. We should have been walking the South Downs Way at the moment, but Covid has left us too tired for that, so we cancelled our various bookings. But to give ourselves a short break, we kept the Amberley one and booked an extra night.

Yesterday I contemplated completely coming off the internet for a matter of all of about half a second. I find it a huge distraction and much of it incredibly annoying, but like most folk I’m in too deep to extricate myself. We’ve arranged our lives around it over the past twenty years especially, and in my own case I keep in touch with many people that way, I have my blog, which I don’t think I’m ready to give up yet, rely upon it for booking trains and finding train and bus timetables, use it for family research, writing research, and to find and order books and music. None of these would be insurmountable problems, but cumulatively it would just be too much hassle to do without.

But even when I’m using my laptop for writing, I get too easily distracted by the internet and I feel a little like those people who walk through lovely scenery staring down at their mobile phones.

April 15th 2022:

Sunny and clear this morning and the forecast is that the day will be warm and bright. Having had quite a busy day yesterday, I felt quite run down in the evening and this morning feel very tired despite having slept well. It is four weeks until we go to Coll and I hope I’ve got some energy back by then.

It is sunny and, dare I say it, warm all day and despite this being Easter Bank Holiday weekend, the forecast is that it will continue this way.

Strange powers are at work.

Yuck Time

Well, damn this blasted Covid.

March really isn’t going to plan at the moment. Having already messed up my creative plans for the month, even my Plan B has now fallen apart as we’ve coughed and groaned and generally felt sorry for ourselves. I did manage to write a couple of poems before the yuck set in, though, so all was not entirely lost.

We had plans to do some long walks, now the glorious Spring weather has finally arrived, getting ourselves ready for going away to walk some of the South Downs Way again next month.

At least we’ve got a sunny back garden to sit in, I suppose.

In the meantime, here’s an old photo randomly of a decorated window on a house in the Nepalese Himalaya I took in 1988.

Feels like quite a long while ago.

That Project – Into March, Now

February’s project was to finish the final draft of A Good Place. As you may have gathered from my last update post, this wasn’t going too well. By the end of the month, though, I had virtually achieved my aim. I’d chucked out some stuff that wasn’t working, rehashed what was left, and inserted a couple of ideas. It works, but I feel somewhat flat. As I said in that earlier post, it’s just not a story I feel particularly strongly about. If I hadn’t invested so much time in it by now, I’d just scrap it and be done with.

Actually, it’s possible I will do that eventually. I’ve put it aside and I don’t intend to look at it again for ages. Possibly not until next year. But March, I said, would be a month of painting and drawing. So what have I been doing? I’ve been writing poems.

Yes, writing poems. But before you all start jeering at me, hear me out. Our spare room is full of books and papers and God only knows what else. Bags and boxes of stuff that need sorting. To get it into some sort of order we need to get a new, large, set of shelves. But to make the most of the space we also needed to get rid of an old computer desk and a cupboard. That we’ve done, but that involved emptying said desk and cupboard, so even more stuff is piled on the floor and any other available surface.

So where on earth can you paint or draw?

Precisely! You see the problem! So, for the time being, change of plan. This month I’m fiddling around with some poems instead – you may have seen one effort on here last post – and leaving the painting for now.

Next month, then?

Um…not necessarily. I do have other plans for April. I’ll let you know what they are later.

On Leaving Home

What would you take if it were us? she asked.

I shook my head.

.

She was silent for a moment, watching the television.

There were adverts: for cars, for perfumes,

For garden furniture and super-sized burgers.

It all seems so petty, she said.

I nodded.

.

What would you take?

.

A handful of photographs, I suppose.

Our papers and bank cards.

Don’t forget the last of that bread.

And put on your warmest coat, a hat,

Your gloves and your boots.

.

Can I take this?

.

No, leave that. We’ve no room.

Maybe we’ll be back sometime.

Maybe as soon as next Spring.

If there’s anything left to return to, that is.

If there’s anyone here who would welcome us back.

.

Where have you come from?

.

I no longer remember the answer to that.

Possibly Sumy or Sana,

On the other hand, Aleppo, or Aden.

It might have been Myanmar,

Conceivably Kyiv or Kandahar.

.

Why should we allow you in? who are you?

.

Who am I? I might be your son,

Your daughter, your wife or your father.

One day, I might even be you.

And on that day, pray for a compassionate welcome,

Pray for the kindness of strangers.

Global Horrors

Amidst the unfolding horrors from Ukraine, please do not forget – or allow the world to forget – the equally terrible horrors still being perpetrated in Syria, in Yemen, in Ethiopia, in Afghanistan, and the human rights abuses taking place across the globe in too many places to mention.

Show compassion and voice anger about the Russian actions in Ukraine, but save also some compassion and anger for these other countries, and do what you can to bring aid to their peoples. Petition your government and contribute towards humanitarian aid.

They are equally deserving of justice.

A Warning To Other Writers

Oh, this sodding book.

I…no, first, a little bit of context.

Those of us who call ourselves creatives, why do we create? Why do we have this need to make things? I know the usual answer is we write / paint / carve / whatever it is we do, because we have to, because there is something inside of us that needs to find an outlet. But what is that something? In my case, as well as a storyline it is frequently a place where I have spent some enjoyable time. It provides me with a comfortable setting in which to tell a story.

Most of what I do, certainly the work I feel is my best, my most successful (in the sense of expressing what I want to express), falls into that category. My long poem The Night Bus, for example, was the result of a thirty year (admittedly intermittent) search for a way to record my experience of a long bus ride across Northern India into Nepal. I attempted prose and paintings without success, although through this I did develop a style of painting I went on to successfully use on many Indian paintings, and had long given up on the project when chance showed me a way into the poem. The poem I completed succeeds in conjuring up (for me) the impressions and feelings I had on that journey; I can relive the journey again by re-reading the poem. Whether it conveys anything of that to other readers, I naturally cannot know.

And my stories, too. I look through Making Friends With The Crocodile, and I am in rural Northern India again. I re-read The Last Viking and can easily feel myself on an island off the west coast of Scotland. This is not to imply any intrinsic merit to my writing, other than its ability to transport myself, at least, into the setting I am attempting to describe.

These stories are a composite of three basics: a setting, as mentioned already, a storyline – and again this needs to be something important to me, or I find it pretty well impossible to put my heart into it, and strong, convincing, characters.

It is useful, then, to know where lots of my writing comes from, and what shapes it, what drives it. I have long suspected that this is frequently nostalgia and, recognising that, have wondered whether this might be a bad thing. Nostalgia, after all, has a rather bad press…does it just mean I am living in the past because I am viewing it through rose-tinted spectacles? As a way of not addressing issues of today I should be tackling?

This yearning for nostalgia, though, is a desire for something we see as better than what we have now. To write passionately about something it needs to be something I feel strongly about. Obviously this can also be something we find frightening or abhorrent – dystopian warnings about the future or anger about injustices, for example – but even in those cases the familiar provides a cornerstone of safety, even if only by way of comparison.

This is also true when I paint. I am not someone who can paint to order – if I’m not inspired, it does not work. A number of difficult commissions have proved that point to me. I paint what I like, what moves me. After all, whatever I am creating, it should be foremost for myself.

That book, then…

I began writing it about five years ago for all the wrong reasons. I had self-published Making Friends With The Crocodile and decided my next story should also be set in India, and as a contrast decided to write about British ex-pats living in a hill station in the foothills of the Himalaya. I wanted to write about India again. The trouble was, I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I had no stories that might slot into that setting I felt in any way driven to write; it just seemed to feel appropriate at the time. I was pleased by the reception the first book had and felt I ‘should’ write this one.

What could possibly go wrong?

I spent time putting together a plot, with which I was never wholly satisfied, and began writing. Really, I should have seen the obvious at that point and bailed out. But I carried on, and twice reached a point where I thought I had the final draft.

My beta reader then proceeded to point out all the very glaring faults.

So twice I ripped out a third of it and chucked it away, then re-plotted the second half of the book and got stuck into the re-write. I’m sure you can see part of the problem at this point – I wanted to hang onto as much of the story as I could, instead of just starting completely afresh. And now here I am trying to finish the final draft for the third time, as my February project for this year. And it’s just not working for me. But at this point, after well over a hundred and fifty thousand words (half of which I’ve discarded) I just feel I’ve invested too much time and effort in it to abandon it now. Somehow, it has to get finished. I do have an idea for a couple of quite drastic changes which I’ll try this week, but unless I feel I’m making some real progress I’ll then happily put it aside for a while and concentrate on next month’s project: painting and drawing.

And, to be honest, if it eventually ended up as a story of less than ten thousand words, and if I felt satisfied with it, then I’d take that as a result, now.

And the moral of all this? I’m sure there was a point after a couple of months when I knew I shouldn’t have been writing this book. I should have binned it there and then and saved myself a lot of fruitless trouble, but stubbornly ignored the warning signs.

Wind And Wandering

We went down to Brighton for the weekend. Staying two nights there gave us a chance to watch the starling murmurations that regularly put on amazing displays around the old pier. It also gave us the chance to get up onto the South Downs for a good walk.

On the first evening we walked down to the seafront to await the starlings. It was a lovely sky, but with an extremely keen wind blowing in off the sea. After about half an hour our wait was rewarded with a brief but great display as the starlings whirled and dipped and soared in formation around the Old Pier. But guess who’s camera decided to stop working because of the cold? So, no murmuration photos, I’m afraid.

Next morning we caught the bus up to Ditchling Beacon. We were to walk from there to Devil’s Dyke, then catch another bus back down to Brighton. It was very cold and windy in Brighton, and all the way up gusts of wind buffeted the bus. Not a good omen. Anyway, the bus arrived at the top of the Downs and stopped. We got off the bus.

My God, it was bloody cold!

It was extremely tempting to turn around and get straight back on the bus again, but we (just) resisted it.

No, really, it’s lovely. Quite refreshing. Why do you ask?’

When we last passed this dew pond four or five years ago, the weather was deteriorating and a few wavelets wrinkled the surface, while the sky was largely blue but with a few clouds rolling in. Today the sky was greyer and waves were careering wildly across the water. Does it look cold? It was bloody cold! I may have mentioned that already.

After an hour or so, we dropped down to the village of Pyecombe and had a quick look around the lovely old church. Then the long, slow walk back up onto the Downs on the other side of the valley. At this point on our previous walk the rain had been pouring down and the clouds getting lower and lower. This time, despite the cold (I have mentioned that, haven’t I?) it was clear and sunny. And by this time, thankfully, we had warmed up somewhat.

Our route took us down a lovely sheltered holloway to another valley, where we began the final walk up to Devil’s Dyke.

By now it was sunny and despite the wind it was lovely. We felt we could have stood there and just looked at it all day. However, we had a pub with hot soup and cold beer to get to before our bus trip back down to Brighton, so we hurried on.

Yesterday’s Walk

We’ve had rain recently, and everywhere was muddy again. Much more like I would expect February to be. The ground had dried out quite a lot over January, but the soil was still saturated just beneath the surface and it doesn’t take much for it to turn back to thick, claggy, mud. But the weather was better than had been forecast; and as I set out the sun was glinting on the stubble fields and in the shadows there was just the faintest blue hint of frost. It felt so Spring-like. Everything was suddenly green and growing.

Soon, I was much too warm in all my layers. Mornings like this inevitably remind me of other favourite walks; long walks on sunny, clear days. I walked through a valley which was filled with birdsong – blackbirds, robins, blue tits, the demented cackle of a green woodpecker, and the determined drumming of a greater spotted one. In the future I will probably take walks that remind me of this one.

I must sometimes be a frustrating person to walk with – I like to stop frequently and just look around me. Absorb the landscape. The air smells fresh, now, but without the over-sharp coldness that stings the nostrils. Even though it is too early to smell flowers in the air, there is something on the breeze…Something evocative, much like the scent of woodsmoke causes me to instantly think of trekking in Nepal, or campfires closer to home in Sussex.

Suddenly there is a kestrel overhead…I never seem to get those shots of foxes or buzzards and don’t know whether I’m just too slow or if everyone else just walks along with their cameras in their hands, ready to take that photo.

At least flowers and trees tend to keep still. I do find my camera can be an unwanted distraction, though. If I am walking along looking for something to photograph, I feel I’m not really seeing the landscape around me. I’m just searching for a subject. For that reason, I often don’t take a camera with me on walks.

The first peacock, in fact the first butterfly of any kind I’ve seen this year. But talking of green woodpeckers and kestrels, I think there is a case for replacing all their somewhat dull modern names with the ones they used to have in the past: the green woodpecker was the yaffle, named for its wonderful manic call, the kestrel used to be called the windhover – how wonderful is that? And in the seventeenth century it was actually commonly known as the windf*cker. Perhaps the prudish Victorians banished that name the same as they changed the perfectly named white arse to the bland (and meaningless) wheatear.

I think we should reclaim the names; they add extra interest to a long walk.

So, That Project…

January’s project was to tidy up the scrappy notes I had on my family tree and fill in a few of the gaps. Successful? I reckon so.

Parish Register from the eighteenth century – not one of my scrappy notes

It’s in much better shape than it was this time a month ago, and I feel I now have a developing narrative; I’m beginning to know a bit about the day to day lives of some of my ancestors, in a way that makes them real people rather than just a series of names and dates. Working class folk in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – poverty, sickness and, frequently, early death. Large families. Both rural and urban poor.

Then we had some milder, sunnier, days, and I guess I got a little distracted, going out and walking as often as I could. It was good to get some miles into my legs.

February’s project, then, is to finish the final draft of A Good Place ready for the final round of editing. Currently I’m reading through the manuscript and making notes, and will hopefully get down to some serious writing in a couple of days. I know what I want to do with the storyline, and it’s really just a matter of filling in some gaps.

Other than the editing, of course.

If all continues to go well, my project for March will be to spend the month painting and drawing. I’m not sure what the thrust of it will be, but at the moment I’m thinking skies and evenings and trees, or maybe a whole load of other things. We’ll see.

And then April? Whoa! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves!