Breathing

In a winter that hasn’t much felt like one, we came close to a white Christmas. It was Christmas Eve, and we had almost reached my favourite part of the movie Meet Me In St. Louis, where Judy Garland, clad in sparkling headscarf, sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Just as she was about to begin, the flakes began to fall. They were thick and fat, but they melted as soon as they hit the pavement. I paused Judy and went to the door, to revel in the falling snow. Across the street, one of the neighbours sat in her window and filmed it on her mobile phone. For a while there was the silent magic of falling snow against a twilight sky. Soon, the fat flakes became tiny balls and the snowstorm was over. I listened to Judy sing about us all being together someday, and thought back to March, when, walking in the dene just before the first lockdown, I had heard Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again floating on the air.

Close to sunset on Christmas Day, when dinner was eaten and gifts opened, I walked with Winston into the town centre. The hush of Christmas Day is usually like no other here. Every business shuttered and no people around. Just a life size decorated Snowman gazing down the empty street and a silence that is profound. But this year the silence isn’t a rarity. This year there have been weeks of silence and empty streets. Some of the shops are now empty permanently. The first lockdown is like a dream: hard, shocking but with a good smattering of optimism and community spirit. I remember the shriek of kittiwakes nesting by the river. The red-haired woman who drove her pony and trap on empty roads each day. The bloom of birdsong that filled the two minutes silence on VE day. Back then there was fear, but there was also the possibility of what we could do with the ‘meanwhile space’ we had been given. Winston barks at the snowman and his bark echoes back at us. Gulls watch from sentry posts on the rooftops. A half moon is visible in the darkening sky. It was a short walk, but I am already numb with cold. As we turn for home it seems as if all the gulls have taken flight and are circling in a feathered tornado before settling to their roosts.

On New Year’s Eve, we moved into the highest tier of alert for Coronavirus in the country. It didn’t make much difference to us on our last walk of the year. Roofs were coated in ice and our breath shivered in the air before us. Trees were silhouetted against a pink and blue pastel-striped sky. The crows followed us around for peanuts. I heard the call of great tits and the woodpecker from above and gulls massing in the distance. Soon, there was a blaze of orange in the west. The year’s last sunset had a flamboyant palette. Later, I would be woken at midnight by the usual roar of fireworks, despite the restrictions, but the sunset was fireworks enough for me.

The new year rides in on storms and hope. We are battered by rain, hail, sleet and snow. The wind moans along empty lanes. We are promised cold and perhaps another Beast from the East. We are told that the virus is out of control and tougher restrictions still may be needed. On those grey days when the light hardly touches the landscape, the world seems stark and unforgiving. But in between the grey, the sun struggles through. What appeared stark becomes nuanced. This year has shown us in horrifying ways what it is to be without the most basic element of survival – the breath – and how quickly that can change everything. But it also gave us a taste of what it is to breathe freely, in unfettered time and in unpolluted air. We had no choice but to live in the moment, because we didn’t know what would come next.

A few days into the year and we are in lockdown once more. The messages are serious, the numbers who have the virus are the highest since the pandemic began. Fear is whipped up by the news and community spirit is fraying at the edges. We are encouraged to stay at home. A TV pundit suggests we keep our Christmas decorations up until Candlemas for some extra cheer. The weather still fluctuates between storm and sun. From my window as I work, I can see the clocktower of the town hall across the river. The shifts in landscape bring me joy. Sometimes it blurs into mist and rain; sometimes it is clear and burnished in sunlight; in the dark the tower is lit up in different colours. The snow that lies further north and south has passed us by. But our first trip of the year to hydrotherapy takes us into a landscape softened and made luminous by snow. Out here, I can breathe in the space and light and forget for a moment the oppressive news. Out here I can remember that I am starting this year in a much better place than I started the last. At heart I’m an optimist, still inhaling hope with each breath.

Seeking light

The lights have become a ritual of the quiet hours. Moving around the house at dawn-break, lighting the Christmas trees and turning on strings of fairy lights. And last thing at night, hours after sunset, settling the house into darkness. It is a ritual I find comforting. I am seeking light in the darkest days of the year. I enjoy the Christmas trees in people’s windows. I watch the bloom of sunrise and the sweep of sunset.

Winter hasn’t settled yet. One morning I wake to roofs stippled in frost. The grass in the park is moulded into frozen spikes, mosses have become miniature winter forests and leaves are sugared with ice. Freezing fog cloaks the river in a soft white haze. The last leaves shiver from the trees, crackling as they hit frozen ground. I hear a loud, unfamiliar cheep in the stripped poplar. The woodpecker is back. I haven’t seen him since spring, when his drumming filled the air. Now he circles the boughs of the poplar, foraging for food.

The frost trails milder but more turbulent air behind it. On another morning, we are blown to the dene by a boisterous wind that feels as though it has a storm within it. There is a watery yellow line on the horizon and the clouds are like layers of broiling waves that obscure the light. The sky is on the edge of rain. A pair of wind turbine foundations docked at the marina rise amid tree skeletons. Most of the trees are bare now. White dead nettle and tiny new cleavers push through fallen leaves. The glossy-leaved holly has shiny berries.

I find myself looking for light in the colours that remain. I look for it in the fresh green of ivy, swaddling the trunks of alders. In the bright yellow of Mahonia blossoms and the more muted bones of ivy flowers. In the yellow-green of willows kissing the pond. Most of the ducks are resting today, but the black-headed gulls squabble, scream and soar on the currents. Suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds. Immediately the landscape changes. Covered in golden light, colours become more vivid, shadows appear and lengthen. Later, the sky will darken and rain will come.

Winter returns later in the week, as we travel down the motorway to Winston’s hydrotherapy. The landscape seems bleached, layered with shades of white and grey. Purple-grey clouds loom above the horizon like echoes of the hills before them. The fields cup rolling clouds of white mist. Icy puddles are like mirror-glass. Soon the orange of sunrise lends colour, until it is leached from the land once more. Canada geese fly low over the landscape.

It’s almost time for the sun to be re-born. The nights will no longer take us further into darkness, but will move towards light. In the meantime, I will seek light in the evergreens that garland the winter landscape, in the glint of a gull’s eye and the ripple of a reflection. The light isn’t gone, it has only retreated, so that others may have a summer too.


Myrtle the Purple Turtle has been a light in the darkness since she first appeared as a story told by a mother to her daughter to combat bullying and to encourage us all to ’embrace the shell we’re in’. Mother and daughter Cynthia Reyes and Lauren Reyes-Grange, have just published Myrtle’s fourth adventure, Myrtle and the Big Mistake, which deals with the subject of harmful gossip in a gentle, caring and sensitive way for young children. Beautifully written and illustrated, this book also has the added bonus of suggested discussion topics in the back to open a dialogue with children on the subject. Available through the usual outlets and you can visit Cynthia HERE.


Songwriter Will McMillan shares another point of light in what many have felt to be a dark year, by sharing a song recorded by him and written by Barbara Baig. It is a song about strength and love, and they have chosen to share it as widely as possible so that it finds those who need it. You can find it HERE.

Rewinding

Halloween blusters in like an unrepentant politician. Wind tears through the canopy, whipping the park into a frenzy. A multitude of privet branches bob like scolding fingers. The lindens, almost shorn of their leaves, sway back and forth like grass skirts. Clumps of bronze seeds wave in the stripped branches of the ashes.

The crows appear. This year’s pair of youngsters are still hanging around near their parents. While the adult birds will approach and wait patiently on a nearby perch, the youngsters are pushy for peanuts. As we walk, we unwittingly play Grandmother’s Footsteps. I stop and look behind me to find they have edged closer. When I turn they hop further away. Winston is very tolerant and only rarely chases them.

A gull cackles. There are three herring gulls worm-charming on the field. It is hard to tell now what is grass and what is leaf. The ground is an autumnal checkerboard. A Moses basket has been abandoned in a quiet corner. Not cradled by bulrushes, but by stinging nettles and dead leaves.

It has been one of the quietest Halloweens that I remember. No decorations. No trick or treaters at the door. No ritual or celebration. The remembering of those who have passed has a particular meaning this year, even if I haven’t lost anyone personally. And on this night when divining the future is usually traditional, it seems folly to try to predict what the coming months will bring. I am filled with nostalgia, as I often am at this time of year. Recollections fuelled by damp, golden afternoons, wind-whipped leaves, rustling pavements and the long-ago scent of candles flickering in turnip lanterns.

The Halloween winds soon fade into days stilled and obscured by mist, but the wind returns mid-month. We walk out to the dene under a dull sun blurred by glowering cloud. Much of the autumn colour is in heaps on the pavements now, but a few trees still glow with unshed leaves. The last of the rosehips and haws shrivel on the branch. Stripped trees are still hung with red berries as though decorated with festive beads. Mahonia bushes bring cheery yellow to the withering landscape. Crispy leaves crackle on branches like quiet applause. The pond is thronged with birds. Mallards, moorhens, tufted ducks, herring and black-headed gulls float and bathe and stake their claim on bordering rocks. Pigeons and gulls line the bridge. All the action is on the pond, the smaller birds well hidden.

Yesterday, we put up the Christmas decorations. This is early for us, but we felt the need for a little cheer. The lights of autumn won’t be with us much longer, as we move towards the darkest weeks of the year. Way back at the beginning of the year – months before all our lives changed – I found fear in the darkness. That fear is fading, but I have learnt to appreciate light in a way that I didn’t before: the expansive days of summer, the golden mornings of autumn, the icy sparkle of fairy lights. I recall the infusion of light on a winter solstice two years ago, when I met the dawn at the mouth of the river and I glowed in the sun’s rebirth. The embers of that light will remain through the darkness, there to call upon when we need it, waiting to flare into life once again.

Glowing

We crunch and rustle along pavements of copper leaves. The sky is filled with diluted denim clouds, the sun a foggy disk slightly brighter than the sky. A strong breeze agitates the leaves. We walk past the war memorial, scattered with curled leaves, the shapes of old wreaths ingrained into the stone by dirt and lichen. Past the stone mason’s studio, where brand new tombstones await epitaphs. Through the iron gates and stone frontage of the cemetery.

Bindweed trumpets wind and bloom along the clipped privet. A few hogweed flowers have not yet withered. Clumps of grass finger out of the dead leaves. The base of a shattered tree hosts a massive crop of fungi. A squirrel, who may have been feeding on it, streaks past and up a neighbouring tree. But there is another squirrel in the grass who hasn’t yet spotted us. Her companion chitters a warning and soon both are beyond reach.

There is still a lot of green in the cemetery, but those trees that have turned are showpieces. Horse chestnuts and maples and lindens and beeches. Yellows and bronzes and coppers and reds. They are beacons of light nearby and in the distance as we walk.

A mischief of magpies crowds on top of one of the graves. There are at least ten of them and I wonder why. When we get closer I see it is planted with a fiery-leaved rowan, still laden with berries. The magpies are feasting on those that have fallen. They aren’t alone. A couple of jackdaws hop nearby and a mob of crows, one of whom nonchalantly grooms himself on top of a gravestone. There are gulls too. One of them eyes us from the top of a tall tombstone. Others squabble and squawk in a rowdy flock. Some of them have the traces of juvenile plumage and I wonder if these are teenagers looking for trouble.

There are points of communion in every special space. Here in the cemetery, there is the fallen tree where fungi grow. The graves that bloom with snakeshead fritillaries. The place behind the chapel where bluebells and cow parsley froth and hoverflies shimmer. In autumn, it is the place of the three maples. They stand in a row, in a slight clearing. Leaves like butterscotch and lemon and honey glow on their branches and form golden pools on the ground. Cow parsley leaves and tiny saplings poke through the leaves. There is a small, dead tree beneath the canopy, gnarled and bent, wrapped in a tendril of ivy. A broken tombstone, its stone cross laid gently against its base. Standing beneath the three maples, the sun gilds the leaves and takes you to another place.

We leave the gilded shelter of the three maples and walk up a narrow path. The sound of a bird singing makes me pause, because until now I have heard only the rough sounds of corvids and gulls. Listening carefully, I realise it is the full song of the blackbird, but sung so quietly that you would not hear it if you weren’t stood next to it. I look up, into a holly tree and immediately see a male blackbird perched there. For a few moments we look at each other and I hear the song again. It isn’t the bird I’m looking at that is singing, but another higher up in the tree. I wonder why it is so quiet. Perhaps I have stumbled on some secret thing. I listen for a few moments then leave them in peace.

There is a funeral about to begin at the crematorium. Two female vicars in billowing vestments stand at the door. A handful of masked guests wait outside. We pass quickly, to the shelter of a towering beech, its trunk like elephant skin, its boughs trailing petticoats of autumn hues. I think of our early morning dog walks, when the sun is just peeping above the houses, bathing the park in golden stripes of light. We wander out of the cemetery on a path of shining beech leaves. The sky is still grey. We are expecting storms this week. But the fire of autumn is glowing within me.

Re-imagining

On the autumn equinox we head for the sea.  Morning breaks on bold blue skies and whipped cream clouds.  Sea and sand sparkle under warm sunlight.   It isn’t quite low tide, but wide expanses of reef are exposed.  The promenade is full of people, who wander over the causeway to the lighthouse.

The beach is almost empty; the sea flat and far away.  The sandscape changes with each tide.  Today it is tossed with boulders swaddled in bladderwrack.  The sand is studded with lugworm casts and bird footprints.  That unmistakeable salt and sweet seaweed scent perfumes the air.  The sand martins that nest in the cliffs are gone, but there are flocks of birds out of reach on the reefs.  A curlew’s cry echoes.  Wind turbines turn slowly beyond the lighthouse and ships break the horizon.

Back on the headland, yellow grass is woven with bronze seed heads.  Yarrow and thistle are still in flower.  Sea buckthorn berries light up the borders.  We sit on the grass and eat ice cream.  There are always starlings here and a mob of them soon moves in.  At one point there are at least forty, hustling for treats.  Once they have decided there is no more, they swarm onto the grass, a sinuous horde, looking for earthier fayre.

The equinox ends with a sky full of storm light.  For two days rain falls and winds blow.  This is not a summer storm.  It is the arrival of autumn.  Outside the air seems charged.  Damp and rich and full of movement.  Though the leaves have barely begun to turn, the atmosphere is bronze.   On a day like this, anything can happen.  The fire hisses flames for the first time since early spring and the dog lies on his side in front of it.  The wind moans in the chimney.  The autumn equinox has passed.  Summer has fled but the season of magic has arrived.

In the aftermath, we walk to the dene.  For a while, our soundtrack is the hubbub of starlings.  I wonder if at dusk they join those at the island to murmur into darkness.  The sky is moody but dry.  A row of linden trees are beginning to curl and brown.  Small tree limbs blown off in the storms cover the ground.  The sports centre around the corner has become a test centre for Covid 19, a white marquee raised next to the skate park.

A gentle cheep greets our entrance to the dene.  Autumn is just flirting here.  Crisp bronze leaves lie in clusters; some of the trees are beginning to turn; but green is still the predominant colour.  Two wind turbine foundations on their way out to sea jut over the trees.  I watch through drooping willows as mallards circle the pond.  A pair of black-headed gulls have taken the high perches on the jetty, but one of them is ousted by another before long.  The moorhens cry occasionally, the gulls scream.

A clump of meadow cranesbill draws my eye to reeds starting to turn yellow.  Sprays of orange lilies and columns of yellow rattle mingle with sienna dock seeds.  Tiny fish dart away from my shadow in the burn.  The edges are full of berries.  Blackberries and rosehips, raspberries and haws, elder and snowberries.  A pair of crows feed on a discarded Yorkshire pudding.  Suddenly, a feather – grey and downy – falls from the sky, in a slow flight right in front of me.  I catch it before it reaches the ground.

On the way home, I notice the weeds between walls and pavement.  It has been the year of the weed.  Fewer grass cuttings and weed spraying has allowed some to appear that wouldn’t normally be seen and others to grow into monsters.

We may be facing another lockdown.  In this area of the country, Covid infections are rising again and there are new restrictions in force.  There is tension between those who think the restrictions are too harsh and those who think we aren’t doing enough.  We are still fighting for balance as we move into the most challenging part of the year.  But this is nothing new.  I watch a documentary that describes how the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century led to revolts and a re-imagining of the world.  That plague stayed for centuries, re-appearing every ten years or so to take its toll once more.  It feels, right now, like Covid is something that won’t disappear, but that we’ll have to come to terms with.

But for now, the seasons turn.  September moves into October and today, it seems, is arrival day.  Not long after dawn we walk to the park at the end of the street under an arrow of squawking geese.  If that wasn’t joy enough, there is soon more squawking in the air.  In the space of ten minutes, five separate skeins of geese fly directly overhead.  They are heading south.  I wonder where they will come in to land and what they will find there. I am thankful that I was here to witness their passing.

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