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!

January. A New Year, a New Project. Well…projects…

Well, here we are again. A New Year. At least we’ve had a few sunny days, recently:

On Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, Sussex.

Heading up on to the South Downs from Clayton, Sussex.

‘Jill’ windmill, near Clayton, South Downs.

‘Jack’ windmill – no longer working, and now a private dwelling.

And another shot of ‘Jill’ – restored and now working

I don’t miss 2021 at all, although I’m sure I’m not alone in that. But I got off much easier than many people, of course. I’m still here, for a start. But I had a few health issues that I’m now stuck with, and these have slowed me down a bit and have forced me to alter my lifestyle in small (but annoying) ways. And I feel old. I am old. If you’re under twenty one, then I’m incredibly old!

And for various reasons I had a very unproductive year in that I found writing really difficult and just couldn’t get my head around any art. Although I don’t make New Year Resolutions as such, I’m tackling the uninspired non-productivity by setting myself, well, not exactly goals, but projects for each month of the year.

I have been researching my family tree, and instead of nice neat charts and tables, I have reams of scrap paper with partly legible duplicated notes (and a few charts and tables). For January, then, I am sorting all of those out and making those nice neat charts and tables, and trying to fill in some of the many gaps I’m discovering as I do so. It’s only halfway through the month and it’s going well, so that’s a success so far. But the rest of the year will comprise creative projects. For the next one – February – I intend to fill all the gaps left in my work in progress, A Good Place (the novel I’ve been working on for four or five years). I won’t get around to editing it, but I intend to complete what I am determined will be the final draft.

And then for March, I shall…well, I’ll tell you that in February.

A Sort of Christmas Post

I’ve had several ideas recently for blog posts, but when I sat down and tried to write them none of them really worked out. I then tried a Christmas short story, but although I was pleased with much of it, I couldn’t get the ending right. I couldn’t get it to say what I wanted it to.

Meh.

I think I’ll just sign off until the new year, and leave you with a festive picture of trees in the mist.

Wishing you all a Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year.

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk (3)

22nd April 1994

Today the intention is to take it as easy as possible.

Loch Duich

Last night, after a fruitless search for treats I cooked myself some supper and then decided to walk on for another half a dozen miles or so with a view to just leaving a token walk into Kyle of Lochalsh. But I’d already done a good twenty miles already, and it was a really stupid move. Eventually I bivvied just off the side of the road, with the weather closing in rapidly. Clouds were rolling down the mountainsides and coming up the loch. By the time I was in my sleeping bag all hell broke loose. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it. The wind howled and shrieked and at times it screamed. And the rain that accompanied it absolutely hammered down. It seemed to go on for most of the night and I lay there unable to sleep for the noise.

Castle Eilean Donnan

But by six the rain had stopped and the wind dropped, although it was still having a good old blow. I got up, packed up, then walked a mile or so back up the road to get a photo of Castle Eilean Donnan which I’d passed in semi-darkness the previous evening.

Through the rest of the morning I walked along the side of the loch through alternate rain and sun and constant gusting winds. Or perhaps ‘limped’ would be a better description, since I was now extremely footsore, and perhaps that contributed to a slight sense of let down when I got to Kyle. Still, that was my target and I’ve achieved it in around three and a half days. I will have covered around eighty to eighty five miles and since a lot of it was over steep hills and bog, I’m quite pleased with that.

Looking down Loch Aish towards the Isle of Skye

I think it’s important to state here that even if I still enjoyed the same levels of fitness and stamina I enjoyed almost thirty years ago, and was able to repeat this walk, I would not do it this way.

I’ve no wish to set records and, really, I did not wish to do so then, but there is a sort of perverse pride that says ‘Look, I can walk thirty miles a day’, although that is not the only reason I covered so much ground each day. It was the middle of summer in Scotland, with very long daylight hours. The temptation to use them to do ‘just another couple of miles’ was too much at times.

Skye from Kyle of Lochalsh

And now I’m in a cheap guest house and about to have a shower and go out to find a café. Or maybe even a pub.

I suspect I’ll sleep well tonight.