Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Walk to the Mill Wood

Just back from a lovely morning walk, coffee, chat and house tour with Ian. Ian is a fantastically imaginative toymaker and wood turner who has lived in the village for 30 years. His partner of 40+ years, Ruth, is a pediatrician who spends most of her time working for a charity in Ethiopia – she’s just been home for one of her month-long visits, and has gone back down south to visit family before flying back to Africa tomorrow. Ian is here for another two weeks, and then will go out there for a few months while the son that works with him (they have four adult children) looks after the business. This morning Ian took me to the ‘Mill Woods’, which I hadn’t visited before. To get there you tramp through the farmyard at Town Head and then along the old - now overgrown - mill ‘road’, which every person in the village with a house the same age as ours has open rights to travel.

The road ends at the river, where the remains of the mill are still visible – two crumbling stone walls and the main shaft with its two large, rusting forged cogs still attached. Beside it runs the river, which a few years back burst its banks in the worst flood the area had seen for decades, changing the landscape of the water route for ever, forcing it now to navigate around bleak islands of washed-out rocks. The earth between the remaining mill walls and the river has eroded more and more, and Ian worries that over the next few years the rest of it will crumble and disappear.

We continue on, following the river through the Mill Wood – a twisted acre or more of hazel and willow, overseen by huge spreading oaks. Ian points out where the bluebells are just starting to sprout through the loam, and where the mouse tracks are still visible, formed as they found new paths between the greenery beneath the January snowfall. “People always worry about how the little animals cope with the snow,” says Ian, “but they’re fine. They can do what they want under there and nothing can see them.” He points out where the wood has grown into what used to be the two old mill ponds, and then we carry on to what the villagers call ‘the swimming pools’ – two wide openings in the river deep enough to swim in when the summer finally arrives. Ian shows me a strange triangular stone formation beside the water’s edge, which he thinks might have been for watercress. Apparently watercress was an important crop for the monastery when the not-too-distant Lanercost Priory was still a religious institution, although why they would have bothered growing it so far upstream, he’s not sure. But he can’t think what else the shallow bed would have been for so close to the water.

We double back over the fell to Field Head, an abandoned farmhouse that Ian and Ruth tried to buy when the first moved to the area 30 years ago, but their plans were blocked by one of the farmers. No one has lived in it for decades, and it is now falling down. We scramble over a rickety wall, down into where there would usually be waist-high nettles, but for the moment is festooned instead with snowdrops. Ian knows that one of the local barn owls has made its home in the traditionally-arched barn and walks inside in the hope that it will fly out of one of the high vents so that I can see it. It drifts, instead, to the other end of the house through one of the now-open walls, and we don’t want to disturb it further so we leave it be. I’ll see it next time. We walk down the track back into the village, Ian pointing out the original water course and stone tank that used to house the village’s water supply when it came from the fell above us instead of all the way from Alston over the pass.

We head back to Ian’s for coffee. I’ve never been inside his house before – it’s a wonderful jumble of soft wooden angles – he’s made all the cabinets by hand. The kitchen units are all rounded, with huge hand-turned hinges holding on doors that don't conform to any particular shape. There are no handles anywhere. (“It’s a tradition in our house. And the big hinges make them easier to climb.”) We sit and talk about Ethiopia – when Ian goes out to visit Ruth, there is a group of locals he helps to leran English, and we discuss what books might be good for the language levels he is working with. Then he gives me a tour of the rest of the house. Every door, every window and every staircase is different and most of the walls have a curve to them, so everything feels organic. The main staircase rises beside a stained glass window edged in hand-turned oak. Everything they’ve done to the house is to let in light or please the children – one of the bedrooms has a zig-zag ceiling, painted like a circus big top. Above the hallway, reaching into the alcove of a skylight, little hands (ones that are now big hands) have painted an undersea scheme that includes a huge orange octopus, a blue whale and a diving dolphin, all surrounded by darting fish. Ian explains that there used to be a low ceiling below this scene – he built it and then put in ladders from one of the bedrooms and a hole in the wall the other side so that the children could have it as a tiny den. Now the ceiling isn’t there, but the paintings still are. “I’ll paint over the dolphins and the fish at some point,” Ian tells me, “but I’ll leave the octopus there. It creates a great orange glow when the sun comes through the skylight.”

Outside, there is a ‘shed’, with a bowed tiled roof that looks as if it’s undulating in the wind sitting over what was once an old stone outhouse Even from the outside it is so beautiful that I would live in that alone. I’ve wanted to see inside it ever since we moved to the village – the road runs right past its large front window, giving a tantalising glimpse of another hand-made staircase within. Inside, there is a second level full of cushions and duvets, opposite another window that looks out over the garden. “The kids used to come out here to camp if ever they got sick of us,” Ian explains.

I am envious of Ian and Ruth’s children. I can’t imagine a better way to grow up than in that ever-changing, hand-made house, with the harsh wind whipping off the fell around its gable end, with the swimming in pools over summer, with the handle-less cupboards that are made for climbing, not opening.


Saturday, 31 January 2015

It's a Small World

I have just had one of the strangest experiences of my life.
I live in a very remote village. Like, really remote. Between us and Scotland there's nothing but empty land, cold fells and forest. The next village, a mile and a half along the road, is also very remote, but it has a pub. We go in there periodically. We are on first-name-chatting-terms with the owners, Malcolm and Jayne. We like it there. It serves good beer, good food and always has a warm fire. We take our friends in there when they visit. That's why we were in there tonight - for the first time in 2015 - taking Steve White for a pint or two before dinner.
Ten years ago, my life was very different. I lived a long way away, and I was in an inadvisable relationship with a man 30 years my senior. He is a very talented bass player. He played in a few very good bands. Two of the best local ones were Pass The Cat and Buick Six, both of whom featured a drummer called Liam Genockey. Google him. I don't really need to say any more. He's very, very, very good. Anyway, Liam's a good guy. I always liked him, and he's very close to my ex-partner, but I haven't seen him or spoken to him for ten years. Prior to this evening there was no reason to imagine that I would ever see him again.
Anyway, so we're sitting there in this very remote pub in a very remote village that on a very good night will have 30 customers, and on a January night is empty apart from us and two other couples. Steve and Adam and I are on our second drink and pretty merry with it. And the door opens and I look up and there's Liam walking into this pub in the middle of nowhere. He doesn't look any different. He looks exactly the same. Like, it could have been ten years ago at a Pass The Cat gig at the Wipers in Rye. He is that recognisable.
I can't help myself shouting, "Liam!" in shock, and then going up to him - this woman of almost 36 that was pretty much a child the last time he saw her - and saying, "You won't remember me, but I'm xxxx's ex-girlfriend, and what the hell are you doing here?" And he did remember me - I can genuinely tell that he did, despite all the years and the pints of cider they represent - and we talk and it turns out that he's down the road in Brampton with a whole band to record for a week, and though I don't know them as well, I remember some of them, too.
So we chat and we reminisce a bit and he's very sweet. Liam takes my number and says he'll come for tea some time in the next few days.
And it's just weird, man. It's just weird. It's like the Venn diagram of my life crossed in a new place and I don't really know how to deal with that. I moved to the other end of the country and the world is small. The world is good - my life now is good - but it is SO small.

Monday, 8 December 2014

A Village Full of Stories

Yesterday one of the younger women in the village knocked at the door – very sweetly, she’d bought three copies of The Diamond Thief as Christmas presents for her friends’ children and asked me if I’d sign them. I went along to drop them back this evening. On the way back, Major Jim was putting out his rubbish for tomorrow morning. He convinced me (all right, I’ll be honest: I didn’t need much convincing) to come in for a bit for what he described as a ‘warming’ whisky and ginger. As we chatted, among other things, he asked me what I was working on at the moment. Figuring that he wouldn’t be particularly interested in the YA supernatural Scandi-noir murder mystery I’m currently at second draft with, I described the novella I am planning that is loosely set in our village and even more loosely set around the plane crash that happened on the fell in 1957. (One of several, in fact: there is the lost wreckage of a handful of unrecovered aircraft still hidden in this pockmarked, expansive landscape).

“Ahh,” said Jim. “Yes, I headed the inquest into that. We held it in the village hall.”

This was news to me. He went on to tell me that it was very likely John Thirlwell (the farmer I see on the fell almost every day, and who always stops to say hello) who brought the bodies down on the back of his tractor and that there was someone connected to the village in the crash who is buried in the graveyard.

“But you’ll have to ask Gladys more about that,” he said. “She’ll remember better.”

Gladys is one of the oldest, and most sprightly, inhabitants of the village: I last saw her at the village book club outing on Saturday, in which we sat through a tediously paced yet beautifully staged production of Peter Pan. She’d just returned from an impromptu trip to the Isle of Bute. ‘Glad’, as she’s known, is in her 70s. Her mother is still alive and, at 95, is also still a resident of the village. Gladys has a memory like an elephant. I know from experience, for example, that she remembers the Hungarian family that came to live in the village after the revolution in 1956. There was a husband and wife and a little girl of about three who spoke no English who came out to play with the village children every once in a while. There was also an older teenage boy, who wasn’t of the family but who seemed to have come with them from Hungary in an attempt to escape whatever horrors his own family had experienced there. The two men worked in the coal mines above the village, but it was evident that even in this most rural, most silent corner of the Pennines this boy could not heal from his trauma, because one day he blew himself up with dynamite just to escape whatever demons had followed him from his home country.


For such a tiny, inaccessible place, this place has such stories. I can’t help but think that the older generation, who are fast approaching their final years, will be taking with them an entire library of them as one by one they take their place in our tiny graveyard. Which is why, as soon as I get back after Christmas, I’m going to start constructing an aural history of the village, starting with Gladys and Major Jim.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Power of a Picture

My current read is 'Here I Am', Alan Huffman's biography of the war photographer Tim Hetherington, who met his death while covering the fall of Gaddafi in Misrata, Libya in 2011. I had been meaning to read the book for a while and a few weeks ago a copy came into the shop, so I nabbed it - one of the advantages of having a second hand bookshop in the family.

I've always been interested in war reportage. When I was younger, it was my main reason for starting my first degree in Serbo-Croatian Language and Literature: at that time the civil war was still raging in the former Yugoslavia. I wanted to understand the historical reasons behind the war, but more than that I wanted to be there during the conflict, to talk to the people caught up in it and to hear their stories: I thought I wanted to be a war journalist. I thought that if I spoke the language, coupled with the experience I already had as a published writer, someone might be willing to take me on. It didn't happen - I struggled with the course and ended up transferring to do English Literature at Sussex. Now, I think that if I had ended up in a war zone, I probably wouldn't have dealt with the realities of it at all well, although I was far more bullish about my own security back then. But it has left me with an enduring respect and fascination for those who repeatedly put themselves in harm's way to let the rest of the world see what's happening in conflicts we can barely imagine - and often don't want to.

War reportage is one potent example of a situation where photographs can often be so much more effective than words. The words of a report can easily be drowned out or skimmed over, but an image can stick in the brain after nothing more than a glance. This happened to me with the following photograph:



I first came across it while visiting South Africa in (I think) 2006. It was taken in Liberia some years earlier, at the height of that country's second civil war. A large print of it was was part of a small exhibition in an artsy cafe in Muizenberg, Cape Town. It was framed and for sale, and I was very tempted to buy it. Something about it drew me in - the weird beauty of all that metal turned to lace by bullets, the strange tranquility of the resting rebel beneath the shell holes in the wall, his colourful clothing… it seems to me to capture the many juxtapositions to be found in wartime. The friend I was with at the time couldn't understand why I would want such an image - with its inherent context - on my wall. I think to her, buying it would have somehow meant I was finding something attractive in an entire people's misfortune. Perhaps she was right. Anyway, I didn't buy it. But that image always stayed with me.

Some years later, I searched for it online, starting with the name of the cafe where I first saw it and then looking through hundreds of images of the Liberian conflict. Eventually I found it, but inevitably, if I wrote down the photographer's name, I forgot it sometime later. Reading 'Here I Am' made me think of it again, for Hetherington started his career in Liberia, photographing rebels exactly like the one in this picture. I wondered whether it was him who had taken the shot that had so captured my attention all those years ago, and searched for it.

In fact, this picture wasn't by Hetherington - it was taken by a journalist called Nick Bothma, who is still alive and well - his website, and many galleries of his beautiful images, can be found here. Now he photographs subjects as diverse as honey bees and Usain Bolt. I would love to speak to him, to see if he remembers taking this photograph, and whether how he sees it matches up to how it effected - and still effects - me.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Shibboleth

A new (very) short story of mine is being published by the Extract(s) literary website today. It's based on a fictionalised memory from my childhood. I vividly remember those cherry blossoms, but I only have one brother, not three, and he isn't any of these boys.

The story is here, if you'd like to read it: Shibboleth.

In other news, I have finally managed to read all the way through my complete WiP, making a fair few edits throughout. I'm still terrified about sending it to Ella, but I think I will be doing so sooner rather than later. Fingers crossed…


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

To begin, begin

This week, I have set aside today and tomorrow to do a complete re-read of the full text of the manuscript I finished last week, in preparation for sending it off to my agent, Ella. Having been completely immersed in it for the past couple of months, and intermittently for a year before that, I took most of Sunday and all of yesterday off in the hope that it would clear my mind ready to be able to read it afresh. Now, sitting here at my laptop, I find myself in distinct procrastination mode. I'm finding it very difficult to begin the read-through. I keep finding other things to do instead, like the washing up and making cinder toffee for the village bonfire tomorrow night.

There's a sense of genuine fear bubbling in my gut. This isn't new: confronting my own work is always daunting. What if I read it and despair, thinking it's terrible and unsalvageable? This is a terror I always have, indeed have always had since the very first time I handed in an English essay at school and was completely unable to tell whether it was good or an utter pile of un-markable tosh. This manuscript marks the first time I will have handed a completed manuscript to my agent, and it feels rather like being back at school.

And oh look: this blog has provided another method of procrastination. Sigh.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Adoration of Colonel Spink

Today a very short story of mine is being featured on Flashfictionmagazine.com, a blog that uploads a new piece of flash fiction every day. It's called 'The Adoration of Colonel Spink'.

I'm very new to flash fiction, but I'm really enjoying the challenge of writing so concisely.