Settling – part II

Part of feeling at home is finding familiarity in a place.  Recognising the way the sunrise blazes over the brow of a hill, or the path the setting sun takes as it gilds the land.  Knowing that when the sky turns a certain colour and there is a taste of rain in the air, the rainbows will appear like spotlights on the hills.  Hearing the excited bray of Wilbur and Eddie in the morning because it is time for breakfast.  And it is knowing that you are recognised as part of the landscape.  When the songbirds in the garden no longer mind your presence and fly around regardless.   When the song of the wind moans a familiar tune.

But it isn’t only familiarity that makes me feel part of a landscape.  To find my place I have to travel into the heart of it.  To follow an uncertain path to see where it will take me.  To study a map to find its layers of history.  To feel the lay of the land beneath my feet and breathe its scent into my nostrils.  The land requires effort and in that effort I find some of its secrets.

A stile bathed in sunlight leads me into the woods.  There is meant to be a footpath here, but there is no evidence of it.  No groove of earth worn bare by feet, no disturbed vegetation where others have passed.  This place is overgrown by brambles and bracken, the trees moss-crusted and damp.  A rudimentary wooden bench is rotting in the midst of the trees.  If there is a path, it is well hidden, so I make my own, downhill through the undergrowth, steadying myself on the trees.  I hear the burn before I see the peaty brown rush.  And there, in the middle of this forgotten wood, on this forgotten stream, a waterfall spills its secrets to the trees.

Walking back uphill, crackling twigs and rustling vegetation, I disturb a hare.  It gazes at me for a moment before tearing away through the bracken.  I don’t really feel comfortable here.  I’m too noisy, too obtrusive.  I return to the wooden bench.  Too far gone to sit on, but I lean against it to rest.  The rush of the waterfall persists.  Sunlight spears the canopy.  And perhaps because I’m now still and no longer being a disturbance the wood seems to come to life around me.  A veil lifts and suddenly there are clouds of insects dancing in the sunlight.  The wood shimmers with the movement of tiny beings.  When I leave it behind and rejoin the more trodden path, I feel like some small thing has been given to me.

I begin again at a crossroads, those most magical of places, protected by Hecate herself.  Here is a more well-trodden path.  Grooves of worn stone where vehicles have passed, a stripe of grass in the centre.  Drystone walls on each flank.  Past fields of cattle and sheep that regard me with eyes full of challenge, until I reach a gate, held shut by turquoise twine.  An unremarkable threshold of metal and frayed string.  But snaking downwards the path beckons, guarded by hawthorns laden with haws and rowans beginning to turn.  Wizened and windswept, encrusted by lichens, trees that must have guarded this hedgerow for generations.  I ask for safe passage as I descend the steep path.

At the bottom, the path branches left and darkens.  A tangled wood and the faint sound of the river.  A track of uneven cobbles.  The scent of damp stone and rotting vegetation.  Unexpectedly there is a cottage here.  The crossing cottage.  A remnant of an old railway line that once passed through.  It is tucked in a fork in the track, shielded by trees.  A lonely home, inhabited but with little sign of life.  A home not easy to reach or to leave.  A home on the edge of things, or perhaps in the heart of them.

And then I am at the bridge I have been steering towards.  There is no fanfare.  Only a small wooden marker pointed the way.  I walk onto it without knowing, at first, that I have done so because it seems almost to grow out of the land.  A hump-backed bridge that has been enfolded by nature.  The grey stone is whitened by lichens, the floor of the bridge carpeted in grass.  Trees grow out of its cracks.  Another forgotten place.  A gate with a rusted chain bars entry to the track on the other side.  A stile leading down to the river has collapsed.  The bridge is the end of the line.  Below, the river is majestic, a giant sibling to the forgotten burn, but today, I can’t reach it.

It is difficult not to think of layers of time, layers of place.  Does anyone ever cross the bridge anymore except the farmer who works the land?  Does anyone ever stand here and gaze the length of the river?  Once, trains passed nearby daily and the adjacent fields were quarry lands.  Once, this might have been a well-travelled route.  And I wonder if this is why this landscape feels like a challenging place.  The hills are crossed with many paths a person could take and relatively few people to take them.  No wonder many of them seem forgotten.  But if this bridge is forgotten, it is not unwelcoming.  The moment I passed through the gate, the path willed me down towards it.  Rather than feeling like an end point, it feels like a destination, where you are welcome to pass some time.

Now the hills are behind me.  I have returned to the landscape I call home.  A place where the skies aren’t so wide, the land not so open.  I will remember the comfortable face of the hills: rainbows, donkeys, the song of the wind.  But I’ll also remember the forgotten places.  They don’t need my attention to exist.  My absence means nothing to them.  But the memory of them will persist, because in its hidden spaces, a landscape is truly itself.

Settling

This is a place of rowdy winds and gaping skies.  There are few trees on these scoured hills so the wind howls and moans unfettered across the landscape.  The sails of wind turbines peek over a nearby hill, spinning in the current.  It is a place where footpaths appear to lead to the sky.  A place of cloud-shadow, where giants throw their shades on the hills like cast off skins.  When it rains, the sky glowers gunmetal and the hills fade into a blurred mist.  In the darkness, the moon is a huge orange globe.

What are the spirits of this place? A brooding horse, forged from horseshoes, guards the threshold and the horses in the fields are aloof, showing no interest in passers by.  Blackbirds lurk in the hedge, furtive with unseen fluttering.  A quiet chirrup comes from something hidden in the long grass.  Sheep complain in the distance.  This seems a lonely place.  A place where the inhabitants are reluctant to reveal themselves.

It takes time to settle into a new landscape.  I had hoped that I would arrive and feel myself exhale into glorious isolation, away from the cares of the commonplace.  But I should have known better.   I’m unsettled, uncomfortable – not physically, but because I don’t yet fit.  My first night is haunted by sleeplessness.  I watch the moon become smaller, higher and brighter as it scales the sky and I long for dawn to come.

In my impatience to leave the world behind, I forgot that you must feel yourself into a place.  It isn’t about the prosaic dos and don’ts.  Those things are necessary, but they aren’t what’s important.  What’s important is to come to terms with the essence of a landscape.  We often assume our right of belonging.  We may dislike a place, but we tell ourselves that is the fault of the place, not us.  But there are places in which we don’t belong at all, and some that make us work hard for that belonging.  I will be here only a short time, but it is only after I open myself up to it and let it know my intentions that it will decide if I’m welcome or not.  I must meet it on its own terms to feel at home here.

Eventually, the land will begin to reveal itself to me.  To give a hint of insight into its secrets.  And it’s then, after a few unsettling days, that I discover this is a place of rainbows.  Huge rainbows at the bookends of the day, that spring vibrantly from the land and span its hills.  Thresholds of sorts, allowing a way in to the landscape.  I discover that this is also a place of swooping swallows and chattering songbirds – the whirr of feathers and bob of tails.  Where a robin serenades the dusk from a nearby willow and the bray of donkeys vibrates the morning.  It is a place where the sky is lit up by a billion stars and where the wind sings an elegy through gaps in drystone walls and across the hills.  This is not an easy landscape, but if I listen I will find my place in it.

The slow work of the soul

August is a month of waiting.   Not the desperate waiting of winter, when you can no longer stand the darkness, but the sweet longing for something anticipated to come.  I look at the calendar and am always surprised that the month isn’t yet over.  There are days in August that seem poised on the edge of time.  Perfect days, like this one, when the sun is hazy and still low in the sky, giving a blurred luminosity to the light.  A day when the earth seems to be holding its breath.  When I feel myself expand out into the silence and every step is like a sigh.

The dene belongs to the birds: gulls, magpies and wood pigeons.  Mallards are motionless on the pond and a blackbird takes a leisurely bath.  A rat dodges two moorhens to reach the undergrowth and a grey wagtail bobs on a rock.  At the marina, the river reflects the hazy light so the world doesn’t feel quite solid.  Swallows chitter and swoop above my head while arctic terns scream.  I watch a gull pluck a crab from the water and devour it as a youngster looks on, crying for its share of the feast.

These are the dog days of summer.  When the hedgerows are lit by the purple and yellow beacons of wild parsnips, melilot, willowherbs and thistles and it seems that autumn may never come.  It is the month when the birds turn silent while they moult, adding to its sense of stillness.  I remind myself to listen for the exact day that their songs cease, but of course it is only afterwards that I notice I haven’t heard the chatter of the sparrows and the goldfinches for days.

Autumn is breathing on the neck of summer.  Already the festival of the first harvest has taken place and the spirit of the sun is captured safely within the corn.  The goldfinches have re-appeared and starlings gather on the chimney pots.  But August lingers and I yearn for autumn’s respite.

Lately I have been feeling the speed of the world.  I’m young enough to have used computers for two thirds of my life; old enough to remember when shops closed on Sundays, when letters were written by hand to far-flung penfriends, when, if you needed information, you had no choice but to visit a library.  Lately, the world often seems ‘too much’ and I long to return to what I remember as a slower time.

British artist Chris Ofili recently unveiled a tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song at the National Gallery.  I watch a documentary about its construction.  Four weavers laboured by hand for nearly three years to create it, unable to see whether they had captured the final image accurately until they had finished and the tapestry was unrolled.  The artist commented that he thought there was something about the slowness of the work that meant the soul of the weavers was woven into it.  I marvelled at their monumental patience and faith.  No wonder that over that period of time, so immersed in colour, line and thread, the soul would seep in.

I lack the kind of patience displayed by those weavers.    And yet, my writing has always taken its time.  Sometimes a story arrives fully formed, but more often it needs to gestate.  The words need to be chosen carefully and woven in the same way as a tapestry, with infinite patience and without knowing what it will look like at the end.  If you live with a story for a long time, your life is woven through it.  The story is who you are now and who you were then.   Some stories are those of an instant, completely of their time.  Others have lingered and breathed with you, absorbing experience and memory and more than a little of your soul along the way.  Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.

The Return of the Courtesan: a guest post by Victoria Blake

The Venice of my imagination is a mysterious place.  A place of watery reflections, swirling fog and twisting canal-ways.  I have visited twice, both times in summer, and I didn’t find this Venice.  But fortunately, there are other versions of the city, more like those of my dreams.  One of these is the Venice of Victoria Blake.  Victoria’s novel: The Return of the Courtesan (published previously in hardback as Titian’s Boatman) has just been published in paperback.  The story weaves together the lives of an intriguing array of characters in 16th Century Venice, modern day New York and London.  The Venice depicted here drips with atmosphere: plague-ridden but opulent, beautiful but corrupt. Its characters are as well-drawn and evocative as the city.   I can’t recommend this book highly enough and encourage you to read it.  If you like history, art, Venice or just a good story well told, this book offers it.  So I’m very pleased to welcome Victoria Blake with a taster to whet your appetite. 

Now over to Victoria to introduce the courtesan of the title…


In the sixteenth century, Venice was notorious for its courtesans. So notorious that when Shakespeare had Othello say to Desdemona, “ I took you for that cunning whore of Venice,” everyone, from the groundlings up, would have understood the allusion. In the early part of the century there were said to be roughly 11,000 prostitutes in a city of 100,000 people and the writers of the time were obsessed with them. Here is Tomaso Garzoni in 1585: ‘More menacing than a lightning bolt, more horrifying than an earthquake, more venomous than a snake …’ That’s an immense amount of power to hand over to a working woman! But it also clearly shows male fear of women’s ‘unbridled’ sexuality.

My courtesan Tullia Buffo is modeled on the real life courtesan Veronica Franco. She was a woman who single-handedly supported three children, a large extended family and a household of servants. She was a respected poet and member of one of the leading literary salons of the day. She was a great supporter of other women and she tried to encourage the authorities to set up a refuge for women fallen on hard times. She was a cortigiana onesta an “honoured courtesan”. Thus the source of her income was arranging to have sex for a high fee with the elite of Venice and the many kinds of people who passed through the city which included a king, Henry III of France.

The fact that she could read or write at all was in itself remarkable. In Venice in the 1580s literacy amongst women was only 10-12 percent. Her intellectual life began by being privately tutored with her brothers and then continued when she was taken up by the patrician and celebrated patron of letters, Domenico Venier, who ran a literary salon at his palace, Ca’ Venier. He not only encouraged her he also published her and by her mid twenties she was well known as a poet.

Her prominence however generated great jealously from Venier’s nephew Maffio, who in 1575 wrote a series of misogynistic verses, mocking her: ‘Your mouth is as foul as rotten mud…your breasts hang low enough to row a boat on the canal…Your eyes bulge out of your head as if a priest were exorcising you of all your sins…’

Oh, Maffio, really!

But Franco refused to be shamed or silenced. These outrageous slurs spurred her on and she came out all guns blazing, challenging him to a poetic duel. “I now challenge you to single combat: gird yourself with weapons and valour. I’ll show you how far the female sex excels your own. Arm yourself however you please and take good heed for your survival …”

What a wonderful response! This is not a woman who would have been driven off twitter by trolls.

In the aftermath of the plague of 1575-1577 she was put on trial by the Inquisition. She survived – just, but her reputation was damaged. She died at the age of 44 in a poorer part of Venice. But through her poetry and her letters she comes down to us, dignified, combative, witty and flirtatious. In an era where women in the public eye are often vilified for how they look there is a lot we can learn from Franco’s verses.   I like to think she would have been out there taking part in the Women’s March earlier this year, proudly wearing a pink pussy hat.

Although I used Franco as the basis for Tullia Buffo, the courtesan in my book, I give Buffo a much happier ending. One of the rewards of fiction is having the ability to re-write history. I wasn’t going to have Tullia die in a poor part of the city. I hope Franco would approve. And I very much hope you enjoy reading my book.

https://victoriablakewriter.wordpress.com

https://twitter.com/VM_Blake @VM_Blake

https://www.facebook.com/victoriablakeauthor/

 

Thank you for your visit Victoria.  The Return of the Courtesan is easily available to buy on Amazon, including Amazon UK here and Amazon USA here and you can visit Victoria at the links above.

 

Brief delights

Summer is a season of brief delights.  Tiny beings on gossamer wings cloud the air for fleeting moments.  Meadows undulate in an abrupt dazzle of colour.  Birds swoop in from their long journeys to a frenzy of feasting and breeding.  It is a season where things appear like magic, before vanishing as though they were never there.  Where do they come from – the flies and the beetles and the butterflies?  Where do they go to when their season has ended?  They appear and then they fade, leaving behind traces on the air and the memory of wings.  Summer’s long, light days can seem tantalisingly slow, and many of us remember treacly summers of our youth that were never-ending.  But summer’s delights are ephemeral and the season rarely seems to linger in the way the dark, raw days of winter do.

In the long, slow turn of the seasons, I see the pattern of a writer’s life.  A cycle of hope and despair, of tunnelling inwards to find a nugget of wisdom and reluctantly re-emerging to display it to the world.  But if the writing life is a long game, then summer is those brief, dazzling moments of success.  It is the moment when you write ‘the end‘; the competition prize or commendation; the moment when you see your words in print; the pleasing comment or review.  For most of us it isn’t a best-selling novel or Pulitzer Prize, it is a series of brief delights, that dazzle us temporarily, before we head once more into the doubt doldrums or the hard work of putting one word after another.  Sometimes these dazzling moments seem far apart, like midwinter yearning for spring.

Summer is a season of expansiveness.  A time to use the long hours of light and warmth to replenish us for the winter ahead.  In this season, I feel the hope of sending my work out into the world.  The stories jostling for a home will find one; the manuscript waiting for an agent won’t be discarded.  That hope and what it may bring sustains me as a writer, just as the memory of summer comforts me when the light is low and the cold chatters my bones.

Of course summer’s brief delights don’t appear from nowhere, and nor do those of a writer’s life.  They are the result of months, even years, of preparation.  The larvae creeping through the mud, waiting for wings.  The seed incubating in the earth, waiting for petals.  The story percolating in the mind, waiting for its words.  Their magic is that of toil and transformation.  So it is no wonder there is delight when they finally emerge.  No wonder summer has a frivolity lacking in all the other seasons.  It is a time to bask in these transient delights.   We will bid them farewell soon enough and move towards the bittersweet dark.  And as we do, perhaps we will cast a wistful look behind us and remember the dazzle of the light.

Many thanks to James Clark for recommending this post to WordPress Discover.  James is very generous in highlighting the work of other bloggers, why not pay him a visit at https://jamesclarkthenextiteration.wordpress.com

The whisper of the sea

I have neglected the sea.  It whispers to me, always, from just beyond the piers, but I have ignored it, without consciously doing so.  I have wandered in the dappling of trees, under opulent greenery.  I have sauntered through parks and leafy lanes.  In this ambivalent summer that has veered between intense heat and thrashing rain, I have felt the urge to be enfolded in all this greenery.  Occasionally, I have walked by the river, within the stone embrace of the piers.  I have seen the sea from a distance, behind the glass of a passing train.  But for months, I have abandoned it, ignoring its insistent whisper.

I wake to the sound of a ship’s horn moaning on the river and know by its rhythm that I will be greeted by fog.  I wake to thin, drenching rain, rain that has fallen for three days.  The kind that could be rain or could be mist, but is in fact a mixture of both.  Rain that seems barely a sigh on the air, yet will leave me soaked in minutes.  But the sea calls all the same.  It will brook no further delay.

The lighthouse, dirty white against a washed out sky, is hardly more than a shimmer in the mist.  The waves are industrial; rough and grey, white spume smashing against rock.  A ship smudges the horizon.  The birds are subdued.  Herring gulls glide silently on the wind, while a gaggle of oystercatchers and eider ducks repose on rocks on the far side of the causeway.  The sand martins that nest in holes in the cliffs are absent, perhaps tucked up in their burrows.  There isn’t much of a beach; the wild winds of the last few days have left the sand strewn with a quilt of rusty kelp.

I once lived in a city whose water was packaged and tamed in canals.  A city that was too far from the sea for me to visit.  The brick and the concrete burdened me.  There wasn’t the air to breathe.  I was packaged and tamed like the water around me.  I couldn’t wait to leave.  Now I am never far from the unfettered air of the sea.  The town’s heartbeat is the cry of gulls and the blurt of horns.  Sea frets roll in and blur its edges.  This is a liminal place, a mirage of water, sky and land.  I can cloak myself in green, but the blue is never far away.

When you grow up with the sea, you can never be comfortable anywhere else.  The air will always be too thick.  You will miss the scent of salt-scoured skin.  You will miss the dust of sand beneath your fingers and the simmer of sea-blown limbs.  The sea opens you up and returns you to yourself.  How could I have forgotten this?

All my life I have talked to the sea.  The sea listens and carries my words away.  It shatters them on the rocks, scatters them in the spray.  And then it returns, carrying new words back, words tinged with salt and magic, creeping over the sand like offerings.  Summer is my hardest season.  When my soul revels in light and warmth but still longs for the delicious introversion of autumn.  I fight against the exposure of the season, but the sea offers a kind of truce, reminding me of who I am.  I have always been small here, but the sea fills me up and expands me until I am everywhere.

Cold Iron

It’s almost midnight.  Sky and sea are faded to indigo, as though there is nothing beyond.  A moon just past full wallows in the sky.  The church is the highest point on the coast.  It’s spire is a beacon on the landscape, visible from sea or land from miles distant.  A violet blush illuminates its windows from within, hinting at something taking place inside.  At this time of night on a Saturday, the coast isn’t quiet.  Revellers weave along the sea front, making their way home from a night out.  Cars pull up in the car park, their owners greeting one another before pumping away along the coast road.  Soon they will all be gone, leaving this domain to the gulls and the crows once more, but first, I have an appointment with some ghosts.

Cold IronTonight is the launch of Cold Iron, an anthology of 21st Century ghost stories, in which my story The Last Bus Home appears. The launch is part of the Iron in the Soul festival, a series of literary events taking place across the town of Cullercoats.  Cullercoats has a history as a cultural centre.  Founded in 1539 to support fishing, coal and salt mining, it is little more than a small village, perched above a crescent shaped beach surrounded by caves.   But from 1870 to 1920, it was an artists’ colony and Winslow Homer lived here for two years, painting the fishwives as they worked on the beach.

The launch takes place at St George’s Church, a large, French Gothic church built in1884 by the Duke of Northumberland in memory of his father.  Inside, the church soars on sandstone arches, with high windows.  There is a sense of height and narrowness, the curves drawing your eye up to the ceiling.  Most of the church is in darkness, but there is a purple cast to the apse and three sanctuary lamps burn red before the altar.  As we enter, the organ soars.  It is considered one of the best church organs in the country and fills the space with deep, rich notes.

I’ve always been interested in ghosts.  I like their magic and their mystery, though I don’t know whether I believe they are the spirits of departed souls.  My story is set on a bus, the last bus home of the title.  There is something lonely and eerie about an empty bus, travelling through the darkness, particularly on a rainy night.  The drone of the engine, the gentle movement, transporting you to another place.  There is something about a bus that encourages reverie.  A bus is full of anonymous people thrown together by their need to get somewhere.  You don’t know what their story is or who – or what – they are.

The readings introduce us to a variety of ghosts, all in modern settings.  In between, we drink hot chocolate and listen to the moan of the organ music.  When we emerge into the night, the revellers have gone and the coast is quiet.  The sound of the organ still vibrates, along with the gentle roar of the sea.  We have listened to their stories and now we leave the night to its ghosts.

Cold Iron is available to buy now from Amazon here or through the publisher here.