The Lady and the Hawk

It is surely the last of summer.  The sky is vivid blue and wispy white.  The sun gives off furnace heat and open spaces are bleached with light.  A strip of woodland offers meagre relief.  Speckled wood butterflies dance in shafts of light.  Emerging from the trees, we see her ahead of us: The Lady of the North.  She is one hundred feet high and a quarter of a mile long.  A woman sculpted from stone, clay and soil.  She lies on her back, curves softened by grass.  Paths spiral up to her summits.

It is too hot to climb.  Winston was panting before we even started to walk.  We follow the path around the Lady.  She is surrounded by rough ground, sepia with seed heads and thistledown.  Small tortoiseshells take what they can from the few flowers that remain.  Dragonflies dart across the landscape.  Goldfinches flit in and out of hawthorns laden with berries.  The Lady is reflected in still, clear ponds, amid waterlily pads and a resting group of tufted ducks.

The Lady was designed by Charles Jencks.  She is part of the restoration of land from an adjacent surface mine, designed as something for the community while the mine is still in operation.  She will evolve into the landscape over time.  Right now she doesn’t really speak to me.  She is hard lines and stark paths.  A caricature.  It is in her rough edges that she comes to life, in the dart of dragonfly and goldfinch, and the scrubland where butterflies feed.

Later in the week, we enter another strip of woodland.  A steep and shady lane ends abruptly.  A padlocked wooden gate leads directly onto railway lines.  Paths branch to left and right.  Just beyond, the Tyne flows towards Newcastle.  Trains sound their horns as they clatter past and we hear the warnings of a nearby level crossing.  It is a strange mix of old and new, of tranquillity and noisy civilisation.

We are walking with a hawk.  Horatio is a young Harris Hawk, native to the Argentinian desert.  His plumage is chocolate and chestnut, with splashes of white.  He has yellow-rimmed eyes and a hooked yellow and grey beak.  Long black talons sprout from the end of yellow scaly feet.  We take the left hand path, through rough ground dotted with Himalayan balsam and honeysuckle flowers.  Horatio swoops up into the trees and then back to our gloved hands for morsels of chicken.

We wander up and down winding paths, through beeches and hollies.  Horatio is much lighter and gentler than I would have expected.  He peers into the trees, hunting.  For a while he is distracted by a squirrel.  Later, he is entranced by a pair of woodpigeons.  We cross a stream, skirt the edges of an old churchyard with leaning graves.  In these woods there was once an Edwardian fairground.  There was once an ice rink where curling was played.  And a 17th century battle was fought here leading up to the English Civil War.

Our walk ends with owls.  We meet Sabina, an Indian Eagle Owl and Marty, a young Spectacled Owl.  Both are stunning, but Marty steals our hearts.  It seems the year has come full circle.  Last year I went into autumn seeing images of owls everywhere.  This year, autumn begins in the owls’ amber eyes.

Shifting

It shouldn’t be this hot.  The view is grey.  A fret rolls off the sea.  The piers are  blurry in the mist.  The sun is at my right shoulder, a bright disc among grey clouds.  It shouldn’t be hot, but the humidity is unbearable.  It shouldn’t be bright, but the sun lasers through the clouds to pick out highlights on the water.  In the empty space between the piers I see mirages, columns of white that might be the sails of ships or distant lighthouses.

The tide is in.  Children play on a narrow slice of beach.  Gulls float on the calm water and huddle on what is visible of the notorious black midden rocks.  The massive autoliner carrying cars passes as we arrive and small fishing boats trundle past.  We sit on a bench overlooking the sea, my wife and I.  It is our anniversary, 25 years since we got together and we’re having a celebratory lunch of fish and chips.  25 years seems an unbelievably long time.  If we have been together that long then surely we must be old.  But we aren’t yet.  Not quite.

Even when you feel that there is no movement, the years steam on, until you wonder how you got here so quickly.  Something has shifted in the last fortnight.  I’m moving again.  Perhaps it was our short journey south through fields of gold.  Perhaps it is the shift in the air that follows.  Dark grey clouds gather like a dome.  Winds whip up and rain comes.  But in the end storm Ellen only caresses us.  In the dene it still seems like summer.  The burn is only a trickle, the cascades choked with weed.  A flock of mallards faces off against a flock of moorhens on the pond.

The police helicopter is hovering, its attention focused somewhere north of here.  I’ve spent a lot of time this year like that helicopter, stalled and searching for something to focus on.  But what has often felt like drifting aimlessly has in fact been an absence of the old ‘to do’ lists and wishing time away.  As the world re-opens and structure returns, I’ve been reluctant to embrace the way it was before.

So I shift slowly.  I start to edit my manuscript.  I use my sketch of a woman and cello to create a painting.  I submit some short stories.  It’s a trickle rather than a flood, just like the burn, but it’s a beginning.  The helicopter still hovers, but three swallows are closer.  Like tiny spitfires swooping over the grass.  There is a hint of yellow in the linden trees.  Rosehips and blackberries fatten in the hedgerows.  These swallows are the last of summer, propelling me forward as the seasons turn.

Battling

This is the moment when the year turns to gold.  It is the first harvest.  When the spirit of the corn retreats before the blades into the last sheaves of wheat.  The essence of the sun, the spirit of summer, the promise of spring.  All of these nestle within grain and husk, slumbering through the winter.   It seems an eternity since the last harvest, and yet here we are again.  I see the gold settling over the land and my soul longs for autumn.

It is one of the hottest days of the year and we drive past molten fields.  Past verges stippled purple and yellow with flowers.  Hay pressed into cylinders.  Fields brown with ploughing and still green with crops.  Sheep gather together in the meagre shadow of trees.  It is Winston’s first hydrotherapy session since lockdown.  We can’t enter the building so we wait in the car park for his hydrotherapist to collect him.  A family is saying a final goodbye to their dog and we cry with them as they let him go.  We wander the nearby lane while we wait for Winston.  Sheep trot away as we approach.  A hare bounds across a field of golden stubble.  Winston returns to us tired but with a good report.

In the dene, the landscape is straggly and overgrown.  Unmolested, wildflowers have grown into giants.  Rowans flame with berries.  The burn is virtually dry, flanked by monster willowherbs, dock and bulrushes.  Raspberries droop from the foliage.  There are rustlings in the undergrowth, among seed heads and thistledown.  Butterflies spiral and meander, mostly whites and speckled woods.  The occasional quick whirr of wings and soft tinkling calls are the only things that give the hidden songbirds away.

It has been a battle to get here, to walk along this familiar path.  This time last year I was travelling to a writing conference.  This time last year I had just given my first public reading as a writer.  But that was an eternity ago.  Now I battle ennui.  It is a struggle to get up each morning.  A struggle to stray beyond the end of the street.  Work feels hard.  Creation is even harder.  But I am fighting.  Battling my way out of limbo.

I sit by the pond.  A woodpigeon fusses in the willow above my head.  Two gulls glide in circles as though they own the water.  One of them chases away a youngster that gets too close.  Some years the harvest is meagre and hard won.  This year there will be a harvest but it won’t be a harvest anyone could have expected.   The seeds of early spring have led us into a new way of being in the world.  We are uncertain.  We know there may be more battles ahead  But the seasons still turn.  The land still turns to gold and the spirit of the sun is safe for another year to come.

 

Moving

Days are slow in a year that moves alarmingly fast.  June sizzles.  Days too hot to do much of anything.  Too hot to walk far.  Too humid to move around.  I long for the sea, but reports of crowded beaches keep us away.  Then the heatwave breaks at last.  Wind wicks away heat.  Showers drench and thunder rumbles.  Relief.  But relief doesn’t last long.  June tips over into July and the wind dies.  The air is close and still once more, only the grey-tinged clouds offer any hope of respite.

I walk to the river, down to the old docks, under a broiling sky.  Gulls soar and somersault on the air currents.  The river chatters past in grey-blue peaks.  The yellows and purples of summer wildflowers are in evidence, but the gabion baskets have been crisped.  A few hardy clumps of valerian, nipplewort and wild parsnip remain, but mostly the rusty baskets sprout shrivels of yellow and brown.

There are fewer people around than at the beginning of lockdown.  A purple-haired man wobbles towards the ferry singing a song.  Further along, a family is fishing.  There is a cruise ship docked upriver at the marina.  It has been here for weeks.  Usually cruise ships visit for a day or two, but this one has nowhere to go.  I walk to the ferry landing to check on the kittiwakes.  They have made the barest of nests from seaweed.  Now covered in guano, they are like dusty wigs shoved on a shelf.  I think I can see three chicks among the chaos on the sill.

In the passage of this virus, this feels like the strangest time of all.  Everything is changing and yet nothing seems to have changed.  Rules are being relaxed.  I have hugged my mother-in-law.  I have visited work.  Many people are behaving normally.  And yet the virus is still here.  We are moving – sometimes slowly, sometimes too fast – inevitably to some kind of new normal.  I wonder if I have imagined these last few months in which everything was different.

My creativity has flagged.  The painting and drawing has paused.  I still don’t feel like I have anything to say.  My novel has been waiting for review.  Early this year it was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition.  Later,  it was identified as a ‘quality manuscript’ by a manuscript assessment agency.  They’ve asked to see it again once I make some changes, with a view to possibly recommending it to industry contacts.  And yet it sits there untouched, highlighters on top, ready to be looked at again.

I turn from the river and walk up the steep bank towards home.  The empty windows of the old school burst with vegetation.  Bindweed throngs the banks and brambles are in flower.  Halfway up, the rain comes: fat dollops of rain that soak me quickly.  It is the kind of rain that usually accompanies thunder, but there is no storm.  I revel in the reprieve from the heat and keep moving.

 

Draca – an interview with author Geoffrey Gudgion

This week I’m very pleased to welcome author Geoffrey Gudgion to my blog. I came across Geoff’s first book Saxon’s Bane a few years ago and loved the combination of a thriller with British folklore and magic. Geoff’s latest book Draca follows this same format, by weaving Viking folklore into a modern, exciting thriller.

Draca is the story of Jack, a veteran haunted by his service in Afghanistan. It is the story of George, a yachtswoman, born with a caul and able to see things that others can’t. And it is the story of an old sailing cutter that seems to have a life of its own. As Jack restores the old cutter and begins to sail it, the story unfolds. This is not a run-of-the-mill thriller. It deals with serious issues like PTSD, whilst also being a fantastic voyage of escapism that will make you shiver with suspense and keep you on the edge of your seat!

Geoff very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the book, which I’m delighted to share here:

Andrea: Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

GG: Unusually, the setting came before the concept. I was sailing in the English Channel in a friend’s boat, and we anchored one night in Poole Harbour. We found a desolate backwater, a place of crying gulls and salt smells where there was no sight nor sound of humanity, apart from us. We sat drinking whisky with the easy familiarity of long friendship, and watched the sun go down on a long summer evening. The place was so evocative that I had to write it into a story. Then as the tide went out the bones of dead ships appeared in the mud, and I wondered what stories that decaying wood could tell. A few miles away lay Wareham, which was sacked by the Vikings in 876. What if that wood was from a longship? In a moment I had the setting for Draca. There’s even a Dorset saint called Witta who’s said to have walked on water.

The concept took a little longer to crystallise out of two themes that took a lot of stitching together. Firstly, I wanted to explore the idea that an object might be evil, in a Stone Tape kind of way. I once looked at an Aztec stone carving in a museum and that inanimate thing gave me the shivers. I wondered if human atrocity could be stored like an echo in, say, a venerated object, and perhaps influence behaviour millennia afterwards.

The other theme was how differently people can interpret events. They observe the same facts or behaviours, apply their own prejudices or filters, and come up with totally incompatible narratives. I love playing with ambiguity. In Draca there are three main ‘voices’; there’s Jack, the veteran who’s close to breaking, there’s his father who thinks he’s just a pig-headed fool, and there’s George, the feisty yachtswoman. She’s fey, ‘sees’ things no-one else can, and thinks Jack’s passion for his boat has become possession; the boat owns the man. I leave it to the reader to decide who they want to believe. Perhaps they’re all right, some of the time.

Those two themes eventually, with much editing, became Draca.

A: In Draca and your previous book Saxon’s Bane, you weave ancient myth and magic into a modern story, can you explain how that came about?

GG: I’ve always been interested in English history, and the way it is written in the landscape around us. That dates back to University, when I specialised in Historical Geography. I’m also fascinated by faiths, because you can’t understand behaviours without understanding beliefs. How, for example, could Viking warriors face death in battle with such unholy joy?

I also like researching how faith interacts with nature; the medieval wise-woman who muttered a few words and cured a wound by packing it with bog moss might have been burned as a witch. These days we know that sphagnum contains a form of penicillin. I think there’s still a lot that can’t be explained by science, perhaps will never be explained, and personally I keep an open mind. My cultural heritage is Christian, but I have a problem with God giving man dominion over nature and I find the pagan concept of living within nature appealing.

Sorry, that’s a really long answer. Sometimes writing books is a way of working things out in your own head.

A: Are you an avid sailor? If not, how did you research the sailing and boat restoration elements of the story?

GG: For about six years I had annual voyages crewing that friend’s boat in the Channel, Biscay, and the Baltic. I’ve only experienced one storm under sail and I drew on that but mainly relied on research. I found a 1935 book written by a man who sailed a pilot cutter like Draca, so if anyone ever says ’that can’t be right’ then I can point to the writings of a hugely experienced sailor and say ‘oh yes it can’.

A: Your protagonist, Jack, suffers from PTSD and you’ve chosen to share royalties from the book with the veteran’s charity Combat Stress. Why was this important to you?

GG: I’ve lived with PTSD for much of my adult life, though Draca isn’t cathartic; the book isn’t about PTSD per se, it’s about a troubled character who’s haunted by his past, or might be just haunted. Ambiguity again. I drew on personal experience to craft some of that. I’m an ex-serviceman, though I never saw action, so I’m motivated to support those who’ve been damaged in much more heroic circumstances. I won’t put a downer on your blog by spelling out some nasty personal history, but there’s as much as I’m prepared to place in the public domain on my web site here, and yes, the crash scenes in Saxon’s Bane were drawn from life.

But the book is much more about behaviours than trauma; there are family tensions, relationships, love, even a frisson of lust. There are happy moments mixed in with the stresses. A bit like life, really.


Andrea: Thank you to Geoff for sharing some fascinating background to the book. The eloquence of his answers gives you some flavour of the quality of his writing. Please do buy a copy of the book if you can and enjoy!

Buy links:
Amazon paperback here.
Amazon Kindle here.

Waterstones, Foyles, and other retailers here

Walking

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Audre Lorde

 

I walk through the park I walk in almost every day.  I have walked here so many times it must be layered with the imprint of my feet.  The grass has been shorn.  It had crisped and browned in the sun, but three days of showers has re-greened it.  I look out for the crows, tending their nest high up in the canopy.  I notice the clusters of wall barley that have sprouted against walls and around the base of trees.  I enjoy the scatters of daisies and buttercups that have survived the shearing.  I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’m walking, but to the signs of life all around me.

I take walking for granted.  Walking roots me into my landscape.  It keeps me in touch with what is happening from ground level.  It enables me to watch the progress of the seasons.  It confirms that I belong.  Exploring on foot allows me to find those spaces in which I can experience the magic of the natural world.

I take it for granted that I can walk where I want to walk without needing to have an explanation.  I take it for granted that I belong in this space, that I belong in nature and should have a relationship with it.  When I walk, I draw on memory, history, past and present to find my place in the world.  Very occasionally I’ve felt vulnerable, as a woman alone, but in general  I don’t think twice about my safety.  Somehow I feel no harm will come to me among nature.

If I were black – and particularly a black man –  it would be different.  It wouldn’t matter that I’d been born here and lived my whole life in this landscape – my history and my belonging would be in question.  I would have to think about where I was walking.  I would have to think about how to position myself so I couldn’t be mistaken for a criminal.  I would have to consider how I move and interact with other people so that they wouldn’t assume I’m a threat.  I would walk with the knowledge that I might be in danger from those who are supposed to protect me.  Walking could so easily be a matter of life and death.

I write nature.  I didn’t set out to do that, but I found that when I came to write about my experience, it was my place in the landscape that emerged.  I’m not a typical nature writer.  My voice is a different voice, but it isn’t the only voice.  People of colour spend less time in nature than white people.  There are complex reasons for this, but they include experiences of racism and not feeling safe or a sense of belonging in nature.  Ask Christian Cooper, the bird watcher in Central Park who only last month was threatened with the police by a white woman when he asked her to put her dog on a lead.  An organisation was recently set up here in the UK called Wild in the City to encourage more people of colour to enjoy nature.

Nature is where I feel most at home.  The streets and the beaches and the green spaces of this town and its surroundings are where I find belonging.  But it isn’t a safe space for everyone.  Race hate crimes in the wider north east region have tripled in the last 5 years.  There are layers and levels to racism and privilege.  I learned about this by studying the history and experiences of women.  I kept good company: Alice Walker, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Audre Lorde were some of my teachers.  On occasion, when tanned, I have been called racist names, but I’ll never know how it is to walk through the world as a black woman.  I think I am self aware, but I know that I will have biases and prejudices I’m not even aware of.

There are moments in time that feel like tipping points.  Brexit.  Me Too.  The most recent focus on Climate Change.  Covid-19.  All of these have felt, at times, like  momentous changes (for better or worse).  George Floyd’s death brings a rising up of grief and outrage that – it seems – can’t be ignored.  And yet we’ve ignored so many other deaths.  I wonder how history will judge these moments.  I hope they’re enough to change us for the better.

Some further reading on people of colour, nature and walking:

https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/diverse-nature/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/13/hiking-african-american-racism-nature

Meet the group helping black people reconnect with the natural world

Walking While Black

Line and colour

I watched the cherry blossom bloom and fall.  Then came the May blossom, until it too faded.  Dandelion petals shrivelled and became clocks.  The grass, uncut, flowered into lilac ripples.  Clumps of cow parsley unfurled and frothed.  It has rained only once in weeks of hot, dry days.  Plants yellow and crisp.  Leaves are seared from the trees.  Nature shows that time is passing, but there is little else to mark the passage of the season.  A sprained knee has kept me close to home and each day feels much the same.  Days blend into weeks.  The solstice is only a month away.  I’ve found I haven’t much to say.

I have moved from words to vision.  From letter to line.  I painted the songbirds that were my jewels of hope among the thorns of winter.  I drew life models along with thousands of other people through the BBC and had my sketch of a woman with a cello mentioned on the programme!  I imagined a version of ‘home’ in response to a theme on Grayson Perry’s Art Club.  I painted a portrait of Rankin with scores of others through Sky TV.  Now, I am painting illustrations for poems.  I have had nothing to say in words, but my creativity has flowed out in pencil and paint.

When I draw I try not to pursue perfection.  Too often when I want something to be good, it strips away the enjoyment, or stops me from doing it at all.  But there has been no higher purpose to my painting.  There has been just me, sat at the table with a drawing board, overlooking the yard, following lines and colours.   It doesn’t matter if they’re good pictures.  They weren’t made to hang on a wall.  Nor do they have any great meaning.  They are just shapes on paper or canvas that record, if anything, a slice of contentment in my day.

There is a movement towards recovery.  Lockdown is shifting.  We are allowed to go outside all we wish now.  There are dates for the re-opening of schools, shops and, eventually, libraries.  There are more cars on the road.  The grass has been mown in the park.  But mostly, movement is elsewhere.  It is not here, at my dining table, where I work and I paint.  It isn’t out there, where the washing sways in the sun and the plants could do with some water.  The children’s playground is still padlocked and tangled with weeds.  There are still queues to get in the supermarkets.  I’m not ready yet to leave this bubble.  I’ll stay here for as long as I can, in this place where creativity can flourish at its own pace.  

Meanwhile

Suddenly there are leaves.  Tissues of green illuminated by the afternoon light.  Dabs of lime like fireflies strung across dark branches.  Suddenly there are lacy florets waving from boughs of ash.  Spindly posies springing from maple twigs.  And suddenly there is blossom, wanton wild cherry blossom.  The trees have come to life and suddenly we will forget that they were ever bare.

There is a space in the town centre that was once a small bank.  Now, its empty rooms host abstract paintings and strange installations.  In the old, walk-in safe, a video plays of a buoy silently blinking Morse code over a dark sea.  Upstairs, artists work in makeshift studios.  Sometime in the future this will become a shop or a bank once more.  For now, it is known as a ‘meanwhile space’.  It is a pause between two existences: what it was and what it will become.  And in the meanwhile, it is a crucible for creation.

Lockdown is a ‘meanwhile space’.  A time between what we were and what we might become.  Our eyes have been opened to mountain vistas and clear waters, to clean air and wild animals roaming empty streets.  Amid the fear, uncertainty and boredom, many people are using this as ‘meanwhile’ time.  A time to do things they wouldn’t usually have time to do, or to prepare themselves for who they want to be when this is over.  We are baking, dancing, singing, writing.  We are learning and making art.  We have glimpsed the magic of what could be normal if we were to act as though we are a part of the world and not above it.

The physical world has shrunk again.  All the car parks have been closed along the coast to prevent people going there.  Life is something that happens nearby.  The life of my street is more important than ever before.  I pay closer attention to the Herb Robert flowering between the cracks in a neighbour’s path, the tiny hearts of shepherd’s purse in the gutters, the ivy leaved toadflax and dandelions growing out of walls.  The colony of sparrows on our street makes rowdy music as they flutter from the privet at the end of the lane, from roof to roof, all along the road.  Gulls glide over, wings lit up by the sun.  I can hear the crows’ soft caw as an undertone.  And in the night, foxes slink along the middle of the road.

Under the cherry trees in the park, bees hum and blue tits chitter.  The sun blazes white through white.  I sit against a gnarled trunk and feel the levity of the blossom.  The trees are parasols of light, voluptuous with snowy flowers.   It won’t last long, this perfect flowering, when the green of bud gives way to the burst of white.  After only a week there will be a tinge of brown to the blooms.  The ground is already littered with fallen blossom.

The grass hasn’t had its first cut of the season yet.  It is a shaggy hearth rug, patterned with daisies and dandelions.  Clumps of grass grow long and yellow at the tips.  There are whorls of cow parsley and tiny tree saplings that wouldn’t normally have had the chance to grow.  I watch my world from beneath the cherry blossom.  A recent poll showed that only 9% of Britons want to go back to ‘normal’ when this is over.  And yet we haven’t left the world behind, we have only left the way we normally behave in it.  I want to grasp this time, to wring from it anything that is extraordinary.  I want to be changed by it.  But meanwhile, there is cherry blossom and birdsong and the certainty of spring.

Lockdown

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This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Toni Morrison

The gabion baskets burst with wildflowers.  I don’t know if seeds were dropped into the baskets deliberately, or if they have taken the opportunity to root in the cracks.  As yet, they are mostly green.  But there are highlights of yellow,  pink and a touch of red.  So many varieties of flower, some in quantity, some no more than a sprig: coltsfoot, sow thistle and nipplewort, valerian, hairy violet and scarlet pimpernel; ribwort plantain, ragwort and bladder campion.  A handful of poppies has bloomed and soon the wall will be crimson with them.  I see my first ladybird of the year crawling along the wire.  My first butterfly, a red admiral, flutters onto a dandelion.

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It’s taken time to be comfortable at home again, without feeling the rooms were too small and that I had to escape.  When lockdown was just a whisper, I worried whether my panic attacks would allow me to cope with confinement.  Fortunately, they were more under control by the time lockdown became a reality.  I work from home now.  The days are often frantic.  I’m classed as a key worker, helping to provide access to critical services through our libraries.  Things change quickly, requiring a response.  I’m on my phone so often it burns my ear.

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Doggy lockdown is exhausting

But lockdown is also an opportunity.  An extra hour in bed, being at home for Winston, pottering around the house as a break.  Usually when I’m out at work, lunches are taken up with walking home and back to check on Winston.  Now I have the luxury of a half hour walk.  Each day I walk to the river, past the new houses on the bank shored up by the gabion baskets, past the former dry docks and on to the ferry landing.  There’s a steep hill to climb on the way back, so it’s a decent effort for a short walk.  I hear my first kittiwakes of the season.  Most nest further upriver on the Tyne Bridge, but for as long as I can remember there have been kittiwakes nesting on the two tall buildings at Ferry Mews.

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Rainbows painted by children appear in windows.  Every lunch time the clip clop of hooves announces the passing of a horse and gig taking advantage of quiet roads.  In lockdown, every day is Sunday.  Almost – though not quite – the Sundays of childhood, when shops were closed and the day was filled with family duty gatherings and school the next day.  I hated Sundays as a child, but I welcome the enforced Sundays of lockdown.   My days aren’t so different to those before.  Normal had already changed.  As yet, I don’t know anyone who has the virus.  It still seems far away.

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Winter returns for a few bitterly cold days, as it usually does in spring, but then it is gone once more.  In the park, the crows have begun re-building an old nest in a sycamore alongside the railway line.  He brings her twigs as she caws and settles into the nest.  They have become more territorial, chasing away gulls and wood pigeons, but they still swoop down for peanuts.  The celandine and the daisies are flowering.

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Once, I would have debated whether my writing had value in such times as these.  I would have worried that others had more important things to say, that my soft words were irrelevant.  But it’s in these times that we’re compelled to make sense of what is happening to us.  If you’re a writer,  you write.  If I don’t write now, in these strange times, then why write at all?  It doesn’t matter what I write about, it matters that I put one word in front of another.

Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

(Leonard Cohen)

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Spring seeps in through the cracks of the season.  Light creeps in illuminating a changed world.  A world of empty shelves, empty buildings, an empty diary.  The world is different and yet it is the same.  The seagulls are still on the roof opposite, probably the same pair that nest there each year.  The daffodils and crocuses follow the bloom paths of previous springs.  Blackthorn blossom has come, the hawthorns are clothed in green.  And the birds sing for the lives soon to be born.  For the past three months I have been obsessively checking sunrise and sunset times, desperate for the darkness to recede.  Finally light pushes it back.

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Christmas is hardly over when the cracks begin to show.  It is in the early hours of Boxing Day when my panic attacks begin in earnest.  A wave of fear and panic that propels me out of bed, downstairs, turning on every light in the house, then, paradoxically, out into the dark air of the yard.  A desperate need to escape, but there is no escape from the dark until dawn, so the fear remains.   Cold sweat, tingling in my body, pacing and fidgeting, quick breathing, utter dread and despair.  Panic has arrived and come to stay.

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I had an inkling the darkness would be hard for me this year. I tried to accept it.  It worked for a while, but then it came rushing in until I was at its mercy.  The fear isn’t fear of the dark.  I know this. The fear is about being trapped, out of control.  I know that nothing will happen to me. I don’t fear death or disaster.   I fear the feeling of fear and not being able to escape it.  I cry and wail at the  worry that this could be my life now.  I can no longer sleep without a night light.  I go to bed late because I dread waking in the early hours when fear might strike.  The hours between my alarm and dawn are excruciating.

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My fear expands.  From darkness into light.  First the evening, then coming home, then in the heart of the day.  I can’t sit still long enough to eat a meal (my appetite is gone anyway) or to watch a TV programme, before I have to rush outside in panic.  I cling to my partner, afraid to be in the house alone now.  There is a weight in my stomach that twists and burns. I’ve had bouts of depression before over the years and I would trade it in a moment for this panic.  Being outside is the only thing that brings a fleeting modicum of relief.

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I don’t know why this panic has suddenly arrived but I suspect it has grown in the lull after a very challenging couple of years.  A challenging decade.  Now that life has finally let up, there is a vacuum, and the vacuum has cracked.  I try all I can to get relief: meditation, yoga, chamomile and lavender, counselling.  I become worn down by trying to keep the panic at bay.  I am weary and depressed.  I don’t write.  I walk only as far as I have to.  I still go out to work but I am not myself.  Medication helps.  I’ve always avoided medication before, but I will do anything to get rid of the panic.  The anxiety recedes to night times again and is not as sharp.  During the day there is sadness and indifference.

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My dreams are vivid.  In them, I am often being hunted.  I flee from assassination or revenge.  I cross Europe, trying to find a place in which I can settle and be safe.  Unusually, I dream often of my late parents.  In my dreams I am sometimes me, sometimes someone else.  Part of me longs for change, an end to this period of my life, but I’m not ready.  I haven’t found joy yet.  After a few weeks of relief, the anxiety gets worse again.  I start a new medication.

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I don’t panic about the appearance of a new virus.  My internal fear is far worse than a fear of an external disease.  It is only when all our libraries are closed and I see the queues and empty shelves in the supermarkets that I think perhaps this might be serious.  We are told to stay at home as much as we can, but I have agreed with my counsellor to take a longer walk this week, to try to recapture something of the life I had before.  So Winston and I head to the dene.

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The streets are quiet but not empty.  It feels like a Sunday.  I give anyone I see a wide berth.  There will be no doggy greetings today.  Dandelions, daisies and daffodils bloom.  Dog violets peer between the undergrowth.  The blackthorns are just beginning to fade and the cherry blossom is just beginning to flower.  A wood pigeon sits in a hollow in an ivy-covered tree.  Its pecking makes a soft ticking.  A lone coot complains on the pond.  Delicate new fronds of willow catch the light.

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A group of strange mounds on the grass reveal themselves as sleeping mallards, as four small heads pop up to watch us.  We walk through bunches of summer snowflake and fallen poplar catkins.  Marsh marigolds illuminate the burn and a cluster of celandine peeps through ivy.  Suddenly, the voice of Vera Lynn at full volume washes over the park.  She sings about meeting again – of course.  A couple of verses and the last swells with a chorus of voices.  I wonder if this is on the recording, or if these are real people, having a last gathering before saying au revoir.

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I find it hard not to think there is a pattern to existence as there is to the seasons.  In these months in which climate change has been at the top of the news, when we have had some of our worst floods and fires, a virus comes which compels us to act in a way that reduces our impact on the planet.  This is an opportunity for the earth to sigh in relief.  Without wishing to downplay the fear and death the virus brings, I wonder if this should be a hopeful moment for our future.  I wonder if we will come out of it changed.

For now the world seems both different and the same.  My life had already altered before the virus happened and I can’t yet see what I will be when I emerge.  But there is light.  I have picked up a paintbrush again.  I have had good news about some of my writing.  My anxiety is much less than it was three months ago.  I am here, writing words down.  The cracks in our existence have widened this year, but there is always light waiting to pour in