Review of Shadowlands by Matthew Green

In this book Matthew Green charts the decline and eventual abandonment of eight British settlements; a diverse selection ranging from the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, through several Medieval villages and cities and up to the twentieth century, to an area emptied of its inhabitants during the Second World War and a village that was abandoned when the valley it inhabited was flooded to create a reservoir – although in that case ‘abandoned’ is the wrong word, since that particular story is a harrowing tale of folk driven from their homes at the diktat of decision makers far away, not even of their own country.

In each chapter he tells the story of the decline of the settlement drawing upon written records for all but the oldest, Skara Brae, for which he relies upon archaeological evidence, and some of the more recent, for which he uses a mixture of eye-witness accounts and the testimonies of those who had heard their stories at first hand. Of all the stories here, that of Dunwich is probably the most famous, with its myths of bells from long-drowned churches being heard far out under the waves, although the popular description of Dunwich as a ‘drowned city’ is inaccurate, as it fell away into the sea as the cliffs beneath it were eroded away. But much is known of Dunwich, with many extant records and maps of the city, enabling Matthew to chart its decline and eventual end in some detail.

Hirta is the biggest island of the St Kilda archipelago and was occupied for at least two thousand years until 1930, when the final thirty six islanders voted to leave. By then, most of the families and younger residents had left for the mainland, and their traditional way of life had become unsustainable. Until a couple of hundred years ago the islanders were virtually cut off from the rest of Scotland, due to the distance and the difficulty of making a landing at the island. Existing almost exclusively on a diet of seabirds (remarkably, they were apparently lousy fishermen!), the islanders lived a remarkably difficult life and it is no surprise that as they were exposed more and more to the outside world, more and more of the islanders opted to leave for a better life.

I found I was drawn deep into these stories not just because I found them so fascinating, but also because of Matthew’s skilful and easy style. A very well researched and beautifully presented book, I’d definitely give it five stars out of five.

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.

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.

The Teardrop Island

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Ten years ago

We passed the church in Negombo.

It was a sleepy little place,

Where the pace of life was slow

On an island that had just found peace

After years of horror.

 

And now this.

I feel I am enshrouded in cotton wool,

But there is no comfort in that.

There is only numbness and sorrow.

 

But how can I speak of unspeakable things?

And what gives me the right to try?

Beautiful island, the shape of a teardrop.

Weep for Her.