At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.

An Andalusian Adventure (2)

Part 1 can be found here: Part 1

It was a long way to Colmenar. I was walking up into the Malaga Mountains, with no map and no directions other than a road sign at the edge of Malaga suggesting that by following this road I would eventually reach my destination.

I suspect I have undertaken other journeys where I have been better prepared.

But the day was perfect for walking, with high drifting clouds and a light breeze to keep me cool, and having done little for several days other than eat, drink and wander around Malaga, I was feeling fit, fresh, and eager to get going.

As the hours went by and I slowly gained height, the clouds began to build up, and the temperature gradually dropped. About an hour from my destination, it finally began to rain. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and I rapidly went from merely chilled to decidedly cold.

Usually, we approach rain all wrong. Buddhists would say unskilfully. If it begins to rain, we hunch ourselves up, both physically and mentally. We fear becoming cold and wet. We need to let go of this fear. It’s a good lesson to learn. Stop. Take several long, slow, deep, breaths, and let go of this feeling. Let go of this need. We act as though hunching ourselves up will keep us dry and make us warmer. It doesn’t. Unless one can find shelter, it is better to accept the rain and finish the journey.

It is a cliché to speak of heightened awareness, yet that is also a by-product of this letting go. We remove our focus from the rain and instead allow it to go elsewhere, where it is really needed. We should throw back our heads and embrace the rain, enjoy the freshness of the rain on our faces. Listen to the sound of the rain on the ground and the leaves around us.

Back then, I hadn’t learned that lesson. I hurried towards the town as fast as I could.

One of the first buildings I came to was an inn. I went into the bar and asked for a room. The room I was given was reached by leaving the bar again and walking around the side of the building. The door to my room had a gap at the bottom of an inch or two, but otherwise fitted the door frame well enough. It was locked and unlocked by the type of huge key frequently described as a jailor’s key. The room was furnished only with a bed, a chair, and a small chest of drawers. There was a mirror above the chest of drawers and a crucifix above the head of the bed, but other than those the whitewashed walls were bare. There was a small window which was shuttered. The floor was of flagstones, with no carpet or mat. To use toilet or bathroom it was necessary to leave the room again and continue still further around the building to reach a very basic room. But again, it was clean. And there was a toilet that worked, and a sink with a cold tap. There was also a shower set into the ceiling I could have braved, but it felt much too cold for that.

Later, I would occupy rooms like this in many other places, in many other countries. Simple, perfectly clean, and usually very cheap. I am not sure whether it is because they appeal to the minimalist in me, but in many ways I prefer them to more comfortable accommodation.

Whenever I have stayed in one, I have always felt I was carrying too much baggage with me. I have been beset with the feeling I should be throwing out some of the items I have in my bag – do I need all those clothes? All those other items? It has been a recurring regret of mine that I have never managed to live a simpler lifestyle than I have. I have never enjoyed the frenetic hurry and clamour of modern urban life, and I hate how easily my life can become complex and filled with what feels like unnecessary fuss.

Here, even the spartan contents of my rucksack seemed too much. Perhaps I had too many books with me…

But now I was here, I changed out of my wet clothes and opened the shutters so I could look out at the low cloud and misty horizon. The rain drummed comfortingly on the roof and I settled down to read a book for an hour or so. I was content, and that’s a good place to be.

I cannot remember what I had for supper that night, but I do remember I drank a bottle of cheap red wine with it. Perhaps that is the reason.

I rather think I slept well, too.

And as in all good stories, the morning dawned bright and clear, the sun shining low in a clear blue sky. Before I left the town, I passed a couple of shops and bought a few items for my lunch: bread, a huge tomato, a hunk of cheese, a couple of apples, a bottle of cheap wine.

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With the improved weather, and the fact I had more downhill stretches that day than uphill ones, I allowed myself the luxury of returning to Malaga slowly, including a stop for lunch of about an hour. Compared to the UK, Spain is a large country and the rural population is comparatively small. Although I was not far from the city, I saw almost no one else on my walk and I meandered along slowly through a mixture of low trees and bushes, many of them in flower – the distinctive Mediterranean maquis vegetation – rocky outcrops and clumps of flowers, and the occasional lone farmhouse. The ground was dry and dusty, as though the rain of the previous day had never happened, and the sun was hot. With my lunch consisting of about half a bottle of wine as well as the food, I was feeling extremely weary and footsore when I reached Malaga again. I found the hotel I’d stayed in before and got a room on the same floor. After showering, I finished the bread and cheese and decided all I wanted to do was read my book for a while and then have an early night.

There was a knock at the door and when I opened it Matthias was standing there grinning.

‘I saw you arrive earlier. We go for beer, now!’

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 1 – Eastbourne to Steyning

Some of my own response to the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions we all find ourselves under is to revisit my favourite places, in books or thought, films or photographs, or even old blog posts. It is sobering and depressing to realise I may not be able to go more than a few miles from home over the coming months, but this does help a little.

The South Downs are a favourite, so I’m going to re-post this short series I put up a couple of years ago after our most recent walk along the South Downs Way:

 

Once upon a time, or five or six years ago, if you prefer, I thought I would start up my own outdoor adventure company. It never happened in the end, largely due to the cost of insurance. However, if I had gone through with it I have to admit it would have been largely so I could go on long distance trails both in the UK and overseas without having to pay for it.

Oh, well. It was a nice idea.

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath of one hundred miles in length, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, or Winchester to Eastbourne, if you must, along the top of the South Downs.

Hence the name.

We walked it in May.

It is usual, when writing about a journey – especially a long distance walk – to write in some detail about the scenery and the route, in sequential order. I don’t think I’ll do that this time. Instead I’ll probably jump about all over the place writing about odd things we found particularly interesting.  And post one or two photos of the stunning scenery…

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Such as this one.

So, a few points of interest.

This, then, is a dew pond:

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Chalk is a porous rock, allowing any rainfall to rapidly soak away, so the only way of providing water on the top of the downs is by artificial means. Dew ponds have been made up there for hundreds of years; a hollow is dug and lined with clay, which then fills naturally when the rain falls. Dew is probably not a significant contributor, despite the name. The downside to this simple system is should the pond dry out, then the clay, too, will dry out. When this happens, it will shrink and crack, and subsequent rainfall will leak out.

And while on the subject of rainfall, we didn’t have glorious weather all the way:

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We were forced to seek refuge in a convenient pub at the Devil’s Dyke for a couple of hours, but we made the best of it. This was clearly A Good Move because although it was still pouring with rain when we eventually left the pub, it began to clear up in about an hour and then we had sunshine for the rest of the day.

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These are cowslips. The word comes from the Old English cuslyppe, which means cow dung, because, yes, that’s where they like to grow, apparently. Years ago, before the coming of intensive farming practices and industrial weedkillers, our fields were full of cowslips, but they seem to be met with now primarily in the more open landscapes – like downland. For the first few days of our walk, especially, we saw lots of cowslips.

We had a rest day at Steyning, although we stayed at nearby Bramber.

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Bramber Castle is a strange and mysterious place, which magically energises the over sixties and causes them to revert to their childhood.

Although not for long, sadly.

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.

Sketch n’ Haiku Day

We’ve had all sorts in the last week.

We’ve had cold, bright, sunny days. We’ve had cold snowy sleety days. And today we have lashing rain and wind. It’s milder than it was, but as miserable as sin and the wind still cuts through you!

So here is a sketch for the day – cushions on the sofa to remind me of Nepal, since the top one came from there:

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And here is a haiku for the day, to remind me of summer:

Amidst the traffic,

In the still airs above me,

A lark dripping down.

And a thought for the day? Another haiku, to remind me to slow down sometimes:

Obsession with time

Is climbing trees in autumn

To get down the leaves.

And today I begin the first edit for A Good Place – initially reading it through and thinking about the voice, the narration, to see if it works for me. Next, another read to look for flaws in the plot, redundancies, things to add and take out. Finally, try to knock the grammar into shape. If I’m happy with that, then it’s on to the beta readers.

Hope you all have a good day.

Catharsis

Today is one of those grim and dark autumn days. It isn’t actually raining, but there is a damp chill in the air that seeps into your bones and just makes you feel miserable.

 

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Yesterday wasn’t a whole lot better, although we did see a little of the sun. So what to do when you need to feel a bit better? When you’re feeling a bit down, lethargic…fed up…you know, whatever fails to float your boat at the time.

Me? Go for a walk. Always helps. But I’ve told you that before. There are a few other remedies, though. Throwing stuff out always helps. Even just going around the house and emptying the rubbish bins is a step in the right direction. I’ve long had this dream to live an incredibly minimalist life – just the bare essentials, no real luxuries, no more than I actually need. The problem is, though, the bare essentials seem to involve hundreds and hundreds of books. and…I…just…can’t…

I love Peter Cook’s line: ‘My tragedy is I was an only twin!’, and I think there’s a slight echo of that in that my tragedy is being a minimalist who can’t stop collecting books.

And photos.

And elephants (but that’s a story for another time).

And…

I’m sure you get the idea.

We have an attic space full of all sorts of stuff that needs to be cleared out. Loads of my old paintings, for a start. And all the other junk that tends to accumulate in attic spaces. There are old carpets and window blinds that are of no use to anyone, including us. Tools. An old water tank (How on Earth can I get that out?). Pet carriers – those little cages that are used to take pets to the vets if necessary – our cats rush out of the house and over the horizon if the carriers ever make an appearance; they learn quickly!

And other stuff.

But I chucked a load out yesterday, including some of my old paintings. It felt very cathartic. And I deleted loads of emails. Some of which I’d actually read.

Cathartic.

Loads of old paperwork that was filling up drawers and files.

Cathartic.

It’s a step in the right direction, anyway. I look at it as trying to take back control of my life.

On the other hand, of course, I could just look at a few somewhat more cheering photos and then get on with writing my book…

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Changtse, Everest, Nuptse and the Khumbu glacier

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Coffee

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Along the South Downs Way, Sussex

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Dozing cat

5 rathas elephant

Stone elephant, Five Rathas, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

That should do it.

South Downs Way 1 – Eastbourne to Steyning

Once upon a time, or five or six years ago, if you prefer, I thought I would start up my own outdoor adventure company. It never happened in the end, largely due to the cost of insurance. However, if I had gone through with it I have to admit it would have been largely so I could go on long distance trails both in the UK and overseas without having to pay for it.

Oh, well. It was a nice idea.

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath of one hundred miles in length, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, or Winchester to Eastbourne, if you must, along the top of the South Downs.

Hence the name.

We walked it in May.

It is usual, when writing about a journey – especially a long distance walk – to write in some detail about the scenery and the route, in sequential order. I don’t think I’ll do that this time. Instead I’ll probably jump about all over the place writing about odd things we found particularly interesting.  And post one or two photos of the stunning scenery…

039a

Such as this one.

So, a few points of interest.

This, then, is a dew pond:

043a

Chalk is a porous rock, allowing any rainfall to rapidly soak away, so the only way of providing water on the top of the downs is by artificial means. Dew ponds have been made up there for hundreds of years; a hollow is dug and lined with clay, which then fills naturally when the rain falls. Dew is probably not a significant contributor, despite the name. The downside to this simple system is should the pond dry out, then the clay, too, will dry out. When this happens, it will shrink and crack, and subsequent rainfall will leak out.

And while on the subject of rainfall, we didn’t have glorious weather all the way:

053a

We were forced to seek refuge in a convenient pub at the Devil’s Dyke for a couple of hours, but we made the best of it. This was clearly A Good Move because although it was still pouring with rain when we eventually left the pub, it began to clear up in about an hour and then we had sunshine for the rest of the day.

008a

These are cowslips. The word comes from the Old English cuslyppe, which means cow dung, because, yes, that’s where they like to grow, apparently. Years ago, before the coming of intensive farming practices and industrial weedkillers, our fields were full of cowslips, but they seem to be met with now primarily in the more open landscapes – like downland. For the first few days of our walk, especially, we saw lots of cowslips.

We had a rest day at Steyning, although we stayed at nearby Bramber.

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Bramber Castle is a strange and mysterious place, which magically energises the over sixties and causes them to revert to their childhood.

Although not for long, sadly.

Measurements

 

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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.

An Old One…

I happened on a notebook of poems I’d written some twenty to twenty five years ago.

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My style has changed somewhat in the intervening years, and most of them seem rather poor now. One or two of them I still like, though, and I think I’ll put them up here now and again.

This one is just called Rain.

I hurried down the road before the storm

– this must be six or seven years ago –

Still silhouettes for trees within the mist,

Around ahead behind me dull and grey.

 

The air was chilled

And in the hills the thunder growled,

A tiger prowled,

In the high forests of the Weald.

A hundred miles away my cottage refuge,

A forlorn hope now far beyond the deluge.

 

Sharp blue electric yellow split the air,

A crack like washing harried by the wind.

Then came swollen lazy drops of water,

Beachballs of rain exploding all around.

 

Dull chattering

The pattering of rain on tiles

After the miles

I’d run through forests of the Weald.

The sound of distant gunfire possibly,

I closed my eyes to see where I might be.

 

 

Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside!

A standalone excerpt from a work in process – a series of linked poems with the overarching title Breeze.

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You see, I never do things by halves. Unfinished novels, short stories and poems, too.

I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day.

On the late season sea-front we press our hats to our heads,

And shout to make ourselves heard.

The rain stings faces, and dribbles miserably down necks

It hoses noisily up and down abandoned streets,

As we struggle to stay on our feet between the chip shop and the variety theatre.

 

‘Shall we go for a drink?’

‘What? I can’t hear you!’

‘I said…’

 

Cables beat maniacally, ringingly,

Against rusting and white paint chipped flagpoles.

 

Piles of deckchairs like collapsed marionettes shift uneasily

On the shingle among the lolly sticks and sweet wrappers,

The bladdery seaweed and the old egg sacs,

Beneath the rounded overhang of the promenade;

Their fabric thrumming and whirring

And flapping.

 

The weather forecast said a thirty percent chance of rain.

 

An empty drinks can follows us noisily across the road.

 

‘That’s better.’

‘Gosh, that wind’s strong today!’

‘It’s almost like winter.’

‘What’ll you have?’

‘Better make it a strong one!’

‘Yeah. Make that two.’

 

Leaning on the bar, waiting for the drinks.

Staring gloomily out of the window.

 

Darting gulls,

Silver light,

Drinking silently,

Glancing at each other.

 

‘Tell you what. Why don’t we just go home?’