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.

Quick!

Day 6 of my poem a day for a week or so project. Almost there! And this one is a bit of an experiment…

Quick

Quick, the useless and the wistful,

The deceitful and the unwary,

Come now to me, for I must be honest,

For I must write my poem

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I have things to say which I must first discover,

Although this seems to take so long.

But time is perfectly without fault and

Time alone will determine how long I must take.

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I am forever reinventing myself

Plunging in to find out what resonates

Immersing myself in this life

Until I understand or tire of it.

I Made A Vow

Day four of the Poem-A-Day-For-A-Week-Or-So project and a bit of a rush, today, as I’ve been assembling a shed (as you do). Another one, therefore, which will benefit from a revision when I have more time.

In Tripoli I made a vow to travel light, my eyes wide open,

Travel all the time I could, to take my chances when they happened,

Planned to seek out strange new places, take some risks see new horizons,

One thing alone I wanted now, the promise of the unexplored.

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And I remember where I was, the time of day, the type of weather,

Early morning, early March, this was a time of change for me,

A time for taking big decisions, time to turn my life around,

Time to leave things in the past, the time to turn another page.

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At the time I made that vow, I yearned to go along the Silk Road,

Travelling any way I could, and though that sadly never happened,

Other projects came and went, journeys all filled with adventure,

Baking deserts, frozen mountains, close to home and far away.

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I knew the world would not be kind, it would not make my journeys easy,

Whatever it might offer me, I’d leave myself completely open,

Embrace the rain, embrace the wind, embrace the temple and the hillside.

This was my private pact with life and to this day I’ve not yet finished.

Dragon

A Poem a Day For a Week Or So number three. I had fun with this one.

Dragon

This serpentine and massive body,

Tough dark brown scales about its girth,

With emerald green draped carelessly

Lies sinuously upon the earth.

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One huge, long, foot, so saurian,

With wrinkled toes, long tapering claws,

Sweet scented earth clings yet to them and

Rain drips in the shocking maw.

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Cowards’ blades have cruelly felled it

Here, of all enchanted places!

Huge and sad and impotent

Lies still amongst its golden pieces.

Clutch

I thought I would write a poem a day for a week or so. Here is yesterday’s. Of course, if this goes like most of my projects, I’ll probably give up tomorrow. We’ll see.

Clutch

Crook-backed

Misshapen

Bent and jug-eared

Skeletal spindle-shanked and

Shaggy ancient

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Like troll

The rising sun leaves it forever

Frozen on this hillside

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Mid-clutch

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Ice coursed through crippled limbs

Wedged and clinging

Four hundred years too much

In the end

Being Wistful: South Downs 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

Continuing the re-post of this series while we’re in lockdown and looking forward to better times:

Mouse Lane begins in Steyning and runs along the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs, until it climbs a little towards Chanctonbury Ring, an old hill fort. It is a delightful route, as delightful as its name; a sunken lane full of flowers and bees and butterflies (and, no doubt, mice), cool under the overhanging trees in the hot morning’s sun. It would be pleasant to follow it the whole way, but our route takes us along the ridge, and so we leave the lane to take a footpath up the steep scarp slope.

But where we leave the lane, there is a poem inscribed on a stone block. It was written in 1915 during WWI, by a British soldier poet stationed in the Somme. We pause to read it then stand for a while in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts.

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I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summertime, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and, oh, the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair,

My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half-an-hour, and it’s a silly thing:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

Chance memory – John Stanley Purvis 1890 – 1968

Our footpath, ironically, then takes us past an old rifle range. So old, in fact, that according to a walker we stopped to talk with it is still possible to dig musket balls out of the bank behind the range.

On top of the ridge, there is a slight breeze, but it is already very hot and we are clearly in for a hard day’s walking.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, records sleeping in the Ring one night, and being woken at 2 a.m. by blood-chilling screams that seemed to come from above him, and then proceeded to circle the Ring for a quarter of an hour, although he could see nothing that might account for the sounds – he rules out the possibility of a screech owl – until they finally disappeared and he fell asleep again.

I would never have shut my eyes there again, if that were me.

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The Ring has a reputation as the most haunted place in Sussex, with tales of hapless benighted travellers being scared witless for centuries. In 1966, apparently, a group of bikers decided to stay the night there and were forced to flee in terror.

We’ve been to Chanctonbury Ring before and it certainly has an atmosphere. I would have liked to have lingered for a while longer, but the downside of the journey is that we had still to cover quite a few miles in the heat to get to Amberley that afternoon.

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Three years ago when we visited the Ring, the weather was gloomy and somewhat more atmospheric, although we were mercifully left alone by whatever might be lurking around there on the astral plane.

Thankfully, it seems they only come out at night.

 

The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

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Today’s mood music is early Fairport Convention while I tinker around with a poem about crows and contemplate a painting of the same. Sandy Denny’s wonderful voice should lift my spirits a bit. The climate crisis and the dreaded ‘B’ word just leave me feeling depressed and listless.

Perhaps I’ll read something.

Or go for a walk.

I’ll catch up with everyone sometime soon.

The Old Way 5

Poem five out of six.

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The Old Way 5

 

The Old Way now rises,

Leaving the rich damp soil behind

And attacking the ridge.

It becomes a wound, a scar,

A deep, dry incision in the chalk.

It runs up beneath the shelter of ancient trees,

Their roots knotted and matted beside the path,

It passes a mound, faintly visible in the turf;

The ghost of a cottage, if buildings can become ghosts.

Although is there any reason why they shouldn’t?

If they die abandoned, deserted and unloved,

After long years, perhaps only their sadness remains.

 

There are other ghosts here, too.

You might tell me it is only in my imagination

That I hear the plod of hooves, or

Voices speaking in strange tongues,

That I hear the creaking of cart and harness.

But I have heard them.

I know that we are walking in the footsteps of giants,

And giants do not fade away readily.

 

 

Sunday Morning

It’s hard to think that just a few days ago we were enjoying exceptionally warm and sunny days for the time of year. This morning the weather is grey and windy and wet, although it is still quite mild.

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That was then…

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…and this is now.

The cats have made it clear they are not going out this morning. One is at the back door obviously pleading with me to do something about the weather. But he always does that when the weather turns bad. And I suppose it makes sense; he knows we give him food and shelter and all the cushions he can sit on, so we must be gods and can therefore fix anything. Surely?

I want to write a review for a book this morning, but I’m finding it hard to get going. That Sunday morning feeling. Getting up late and taking a long time over coffee, indulging ourselves by listening to choral music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Staring out at the weather.

I am in the process of completing a long poem about a long journey – one that shaped, in many ways, much of the art I practise now. Well, not a long journey in strictly temporal terms, but a bus journey from Delhi to Kathmandu that took about thirty hours, the first of many long bus journeys I have taken in India and Nepal. Sometime afterwards, I had wanted to find a way of recording my impressions of this journey, and toyed with a few earlier poems, and then some watercolour painting, and what amounted to prose in the form of reportage, but nothing seemed to work. This led me to experiment with my painting styles in acrylics, giving rise to the semi-abstract style I have used to paint a number of Indian scenes.

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That was another then. Not the then I was talking about, but another. Quite a similar then, though.

I assumed I’d never get around to recording that journey satisfactorily.

But last month we were travelling home on a bus after dark, going through open countryside near home. I was gazing out of the window into the darkness, when I began to understand exactly how I wanted to write that poem, over *cough* thirty years ago…

And now it is almost finished, with just a bit of tweaking to do.