Glimpses

A story begins with a glimpse.  A glimpse into another world, a glimpse of a character, a glimpse of a narrative.  Sometimes that is all it remains: a half-caught moment that will never become anything more.  A scrawled fragment in a notebook destined never to become a tale.  The trace of a fiction that won’t be fulfilled.

On a gloomy day seeping drizzle my dog and I walk through the dene, challenging the dregs of February.  There is nobody else here.  The world is hushed and the silence pulses with promise.  I stand at the edge of the burn, captivated by the way the gold of the reeds lights up the gloom.  The day feels enchanted and as far as I’m concerned the enchantment is in just this: the reeds and the silence.  But as we walk the meander of the burn, I glimpse the flicker of a vibrant tail.  I gasp, because I’m sure I have seen my first kingfisher, the metallic teal feathers unmistakeable.  Only a glimpse and then the bird is gone, but I return the next day and am rewarded by a longer glimpse of the kingfisher’s back.  It flits off, under the bridge, and though I can see it perched on a branch in the distance, it disappears before I approach.

Glimpses are moments of possibility.  They are often the things that I see when my attention is elsewhere.  Caught by that softness in the vision, when I’m aware of my environment but I’m not trying to look.  Glimpses are suggestions.  They could lead to something, but you don’t yet know what.  My imagination is fired by glimpses: a white-haired woman in a tartan cape cycling through the square; a dawn-lit fox in the undergrowth; a couple taking refuge from the rain under a tree; a trio of roe deer in gossamer-clad fields; an abandoned slipper under a winking streetlight.  Moments that are nothing in themselves, but seem bigger than what they are.  I write them down and they may only ever be small slices of potential – or they may become something more.

It seems that I always want more.  More of the experience.  A closer look.  I want to see more than a glimpse of a kingfisher – I want to see her close up in all her colourful glory.  It’s in our nature to not want to let go.  But sometimes the glimpses are the blessings.  Ephemeral gifts.  Useless to try and hold on.  I’ll never catch that wisp of kingfisher; perhaps she’ll never reveal herself to me.  She was there, in that particular time and place, to let me feel a little of the spirit of the earth, and to remind me of its impermanence.  That’s the magic of the glimpse.  Sometimes I can fashion it into something tangible, sometimes I’m not meant to.  But I will always remember that glimpse of green, spiralling away like a radiant breath at the end of a dreary February.  They may be fleeting, but often the glimpses are the moments I remember the most.

Autumn inspiration

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Autumn was slow to begin, but now it rushes ahead of me, leaves crackling on the ground when I’ve barely witnessed them fall.  The continuing warmth of the days is sandwiched between morning and evening chills.  The harvest is done and we will soon head into the darkness that births new dreams, but before that happens, there is still time to gather in some autumn inspiration to feed the dreams ahead.

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I’ve travelled to London.  Not a place in which I would usually seek inspiration.  I’m no longer used to cities.  Too confined, too many people, too much noise, too much of everything.  I find them overwhelming.  But I’m here for a special event.  Penguin Random House, in partnership with writer development charities, have begun a programme called Write Now to find new writers from communities whose voices are under-represented in publishing.  1,000 writers applied from LGBT, black and minority ethnic, disabled and other marginalised groups and I was one of 50 invited to attend.

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But first, I visit Tate Modern to see an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work.  It’s a relief to reach the river, where the landscape of the city opens up.  I find myself seduced by the  new skyline: the shard, the ‘walkie-talkie’, the Leadenhall building, glistening against the Thames, juxtaposed against Tower Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe.  In the Tate, it’s the sculpture and the installations that attract me today: Cildo Meireles’ Babel, constructed from 800 radios all tuned to a different channel; Sheela Gowda’s Behold, made from human hair and car bumpers; Louise Nevelson’s Black Wall fashioned from scrap timber; Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, made from stuffed fabric.  In this season of earth, I’m drawn by shapes, by the physical, by the tactile.  I’m not concerned by how they might be interpreted, only by my instinctual attraction to them.

I love Georgia O’Keeffe, but have never been particularly enamoured by her famous flowers.  It’s the sensuality of her earth that I love.  Her hills that look like living things.  Her buildings that grow out of the landscape.  Her vibrant autumn leaves.  I’m drawn to her layers, the often stark images that nevertheless appear to be made from flesh.

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The next morning on my way to Penguin, the bells of St Clement Danes are glorious as I walk in the rain along the Strand.  At Write Now, we hear about the publishing process, from author to agent, to editor, to book cover designer.  We hear from authors about their experiences and discuss how the industry can help to get under-represented authors heard.  And then there is a one to one with a Penguin editor, to talk about the work we’ve submitted.  It’s exciting to imagine that this might be my future, a moment to dream that it might be possible.  There will be two more Write Now events around the country, then 10 out of 150 people will be chosen to take part in a year long mentoring programme.  I can only hope that I’ll be one of them.

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I leave London on a quiet train blurring through a rainy landscape.  My mind is full of impressions: modern and old, busy and tranquil, stark and beautiful.  As I stare out of the window, the sun begins to set and the landscape is gilded by the dying sun.  Mist hangs over the fields and the result is a breath-taking golden haze I have never witnessed before.  But the tranquillity is short-lived.  Further north, the train is flooded by football supporters from my local team.  They have won their match and are travelling home, boisterous, drinking and singing football songs.  My head is pounding by the time we reach our destination, but as we pour into the station, the soar of all those male voices singing in the acoustics of the station is electrifying.  This isn’t high music, but the effect is as uplifting as the most sacred of songs.   As the impressions of the weekend sink in, I’m struck by the endless possibilities for inspiration: painting, sculpture, architecture, weather, church bells – and even football songs.

Please take a moment to visit my blogging friend Lori.  Her novel has been accepted for a Kindle Scout campaign and will be published if enough readers nominate it.  There are only 13 days left to nominate her so please visit her at  https://loreezlane.wordpress.com/ where you’ll find more information and the link to follow.

Soul places

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There are places we meet briefly and with which we have short, passionate affairs.  For a period of hours, days, maybe weeks, we love them intensely.  We become so enamoured that we wish we could give up our normal lives and stay there forever.  They have the potential to develop into longer love affairs, but ultimately, we have to leave them behind.

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An oasis on the edge of the Sahara where the silence of the desert is filled with the collective moan of scores of camels.  The eerie, mist-choked hills of Sicily on the road to Mount Etna, green shoots and buildings poking through hardened lava.  The enchanted, forest path to Hareshaw Linn waterfall, so detached that it feels like another dimension.  A string of bays on the Turkish coast where, at night, the fish trail luminescence in the water and meteors light up the sky.

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These are all places I have loved briefly and ardently.  Yet if I ever returned to these fondly remembered places, the chances are that I would never recapture that first magical meeting.  If I was to take up permanent residence, I imagine the love affair would fade, until I would wonder what I ever saw in the place that I gave up everything for.  So although sometimes they may haunt me with their potential, we’re destined not to have a future together.

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There are places with which we develop more lasting relationships.  Perhaps for a discrete period in time when we reside there, perhaps places we visit repeatedly over months or years.  For me, there is the small mining village in Yorkshire that once smelled like the sulphur of the pits before they were all closed.  The wooden cabin in the forest that I often retreat to.  The exuberance and grandeur of Rome.  These are places that court us with memory, with nostalgia.  Places we begin to know a little and imagine that we’re at home there.  They speak to something inside us.

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And then there is that other place: our soul place.  The place we arrive at and exhale; where we sigh with comfort and recognition, because we know we’re home.  The place we go to for solace when we’re miserable.  And where we go to experience joy.  The place that calls you so that you must return, over and over again.  Mine is a small tidal island in the north sea, dominated by a lighthouse.  It is a place that is constant, but constantly shifting.  A place that has many moods.  Its smell is seaweed and salt; its sound is the sea and the birds.

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Your relationship with your soul place is a kind of chemistry.  You might visit somewhere similar and not feel it.  I’ve travelled to more than twenty countries and been awe struck and felt glad to be alive, but I haven’t yet found another soul place.  Perhaps it’s about our history: the way I have felt here and the experiences we have had.  Perhaps it’s because I can conjure the moods of this place and know its history in my bones.  Perhaps it is all of these things and none of them.  It’s a connection that I can’t define, but can only feel.  I know that I will always feel different here than in any other place.  The masks drop away and I am myself.  I don’t need anything else except to be here.  In my soul place I am free.

Secrets of Tocil Wood

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There’s a sense of comfort about the familiar walks that I take.  I know where each path will lead and what I can expect to see on the journey.  I know where I’m likely to find particular plants and animals and there is satisfaction in being able to mark their progress.  But the adventure of the path not yet taken is altogether different.  To know roughly where you are, but not quite.  To know that there are secrets yet to discover, which perhaps even those who live here are not aware of.

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I’m walking to Tocil Wood, a patch of ancient woodland in Warwickshire.  I have a rudimentary map in my head and a maze of buildings and footpaths to negotiate.  I could have asked for directions, but I prefer to see a path and wonder where it will lead, so I head off into the unknown, sure that I’ll find what I seek eventually, but with that slight disquiet of not knowing exactly where I am.  The path I take skirts a pond and is bordered by meadow: a profusion of ox-eye daisies, viper’s bugloss, speedwell and poppies.  Rabbits hop among the flowers and scores of waterfowl rummage around the pool.

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There’s a gap in the hedge ahead of me, so of course I go through it, finding a lush green path bordering a field of young crops.  At its end, a wounded tree forms an archway and what more invitation do I need?  Just as I’d suspected it would, this beckoning leads to a moment of magic.  A secret hollow.  An enchanted, perhaps even slightly sinister place that seems detached from the bright, open world beyond.  The hollow is shady, secluded, riddled with rabbit holes and surrounded by steep banks.  A baby rabbit grazes among the undergrowth.  There is a narrow path in the distance, blocked by trees.  But someone has discovered this place, because on the edge of the hollow a swing has been fashioned from wood and rope.  It hangs, empty, waiting for its maker to return.

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Later, I cross a small meadow of buttercups to reach a lake, fringed with reeds and littered with yellow water lilies.  A grey heron is hunched in the trees by the path that leads into the woods, like a grumpy guardian of the border to this arboreal world.  It’s a world of huge, gnarled oaks and papery hazel coppice: a four hundred year old wood with traces of more ancient earthworks beneath it.  A world of bracken and bluebells.  Of small, winding paths.  There is a brackish stream, straddled by an ivy-cloaked tree that has rooted on both sides of the water.

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I follow narrow paths, deeper into the forest, until I come across a clearing.  A glade sheltered by tall old trees that form a natural circle.  The ground is blanketed with bracken and bluebells, the sun slants in hazy beams.  It is a hushed place, steeped in atmosphere.  A space for magic or devotion.  The clearing has been enclosed by a thorny barricade, perhaps to conserve it, perhaps because if I was to step into it, it would transport me to a fairy realm from which I’d never return.  I long to cross into the clearing, to move between pools of sunlight and the shade of those ancient trees.  Instead, I’m stranded at the border, craving the enchantment that is just out of reach.

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I visit Tocil Wood twice, briefly, between the work commitments I’m here for.  I may never come here again.  But already I’ve found my secrets.  Those little pockets of enchantment that will endure in my memory of the place.  If I was to come again, they would be my pilgrimage places, those pauses that we return to again and again because they spark something inside us.  They’ll become part of my memory map of the places I’ve been, the paths I’ve walked, the things I’ve seen, enriching each recollection.

The essence of a house

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Old houses are filled with stories.  We live in them knowing that others, long dead, have lived here before us.  We may never know exactly who they were, what their lives were like, how they lived and died.  But we know that their history has soaked into the walls, their voices have filled the rooms, their journeys have helped the house become what it is today.

I remember the autumn evening, ten years ago, when this house became our home.  We hadn’t yet moved in, so it was empty of furniture, but we lit the fire and sat on the floor in the sitting room.  The décor was dark and ugly, there was much to do to make it ours, but I remember the feeling of contentment at knowing this was our home.  When we moved in we set to with paint before we even settled, divesting the house of its last occupants.  But over time, our enthusiasm to complete the many jobs and overcome the many quirks of workmanship waned.  Over time I became disconnected from that initial contentment: the weight of unfinished jobs, nuisance neighbours and the routines of life made me forget the promise the house once held.  I dreamed of moving away, to a rural retreat by the sea.  But lately, I’ve begun to re-connect to this old house and its history.

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It was built in 1879, an old terrace, its footprint much the same now as it would have been then.  The kitchen and bathroom are recent additions and it’s difficult to see through the modern appearance to the house it once was.  But the ghost of a door blocked up in the sitting room, traces of old hearths in the bedrooms, parquet flooring in the hall and a disused chimney at the back of the house hint at the way it would have been originally.

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For many years, this was a street of craftspeople, business people and ‘gentlemen’.  In its first three decades my house was inhabited by a draper, a fitter, an accountant’s clerk and a ‘water boat’ owner.  But the residents that I feel most strongly connected to are two widows who lived here in the first half of the twentieth century.  Catherine Cowen Gray lived here from around 1917 until 1927.  Edith Wilberforce Culyer moved in after Catherine’s departure and stayed until 1939.  Edith’s husband was a butcher from Woolwich and he died in the year she moved here.  She had two daughters, Constance and Nancy and a son Henry, named after his father.  We know little more about Edith than that, but we have more of an insight into events in Catherine’s life.  She wasn’t a widow when she arrived.  Her husband Adam was a warrant engineer in the Royal Naval Reserve and they had three children: James, Margaret and Thomas.  Both Adam and James died in the local asylum as a result of World War One.  Adam’s injuries aren’t known, but we know James was discharged from the Scottish Rifles after a gas attack in France in 1917 and died aged 21 ‘after 12 months suffering from gas and shellshock’.

I think of Catherine and Edith often, these two women similar in age to me who cared for this house before me.  And although they’re long gone and neither of them died here, I like to think that something of their spirit remains.

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The houses we live in affect us, infusing our memories.  If we’re lucky, they’re the place above all others that is our sanctuary.  We can leave the world and its tribulations at the door.  They can stir our creativity or hinder it.  And we leave our mark on them, not only physically, but by the way we live, what we take with us and what we leave behind.

Home isn’t only a place of slate and stone, it’s the fiery centre inside us where our creative force lies.  Vesta is the guardian of this space.  She is the goddess of the hearth: the sacred fire that is the source of life.  Vesta was a powerful goddess, protecting not only the home, but also the ‘hearth’ of the city of Rome.

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I believe a house has its own essence, with a temperament that either welcomes us in or repels.  After ten years, my house and I are still getting acquainted, but when I’m alone and the house is silent I know that I was meant to call it home.

The wonderful La Sabrosona over at My Spanglish Familia nominated me for the Encouraging Thunder award.  Although I don’t ‘do’ awards, please take the time to visit her eclectic, entertaining and passionate blog.

Fledging

Sometimes, the earth conspires in gracious serendipity so that you think it’s sending a message just for you.  On the week that I begin writing again I witness so many tiny wonders that it seems like a sign, dovetailing with my newly awakened inspiration.

The day after inspiration strikes, I am greeted by the first goslings of the year.  A pair of Canada Geese stand guard as their brood peck nonchalantly at the grass.  Later, they slip into the water to pirouette around the pond, the parents heads bobbing, as though pointing the right direction, a gentle honk calling back any stragglers.  On another pond, the punk orange heads of baby Coots and Moorhen chicks peeking through the reeds.  The smaller birds are harder to see at this time of year, but I can hear their ardent songs and glimpse them high in the trees.  And at the end of this enchanted week, the first of the swallow family appear: sand martins flitting around the cliffs at the coast.

Overnight, new life has appeared.  The pinks have begun to join the yellows, with an abundance of campion lining the paths.  A handful of delicate cuckoo flowers contrast with monstrous butterbur leaves.  I see my first orange-tipped butterflies and a comma feeding on the dandelions and watch cabbage whites dance together in delicate spirals.  It is blossom season, but this year I’ve been more attentive to the subtler flowers of the trees.  The flowers that we don’t always notice: the broccoli like florets of the ash and the tiny green sprays of the sycamore.  I saw my first hawthorn blossom at the rubbish dump, of all places, brightening up the wait to get rid of our clutter.

This year I’ve struggled to re-balance after the winter.  I began the season with a box of dreams sown in the dark months and an impatience to bring them to life.  Instead, I fell into a fallow period that persisted for the first quarter of the year.  Spring has been slow to come, not in the earth but in my spirit.  My creativity has gone, not into my craft, but into my home.  An extended period of nesting: weeks of wallpaper, paint, carpets and curtains.  Bags and bags of clutter divested, clearing a space for other things to come in.  But now I’m fledging the nest.  Beltane is the start of summer, the first big festival of the light half of the year.  It came and went without much ceremony.  But I was waiting, I think, for the earth to let me know it was time to give birth to my plans.

In another moment of serendipity, after writing about ruins, I have cause to visit the 7th century priory that broods over the mouth of the river.  I wander ruins overgrown by Alexander flowers, unconsciously absorbing history and landscape.  And it is the ruins that wake my creativity, insinuating themselves into the half-written second novel that has waited for attention since last year, taking it into a more satisfying direction.  So as the signs of new life flourish, I find myself in that magical space at the beginning of a creative adventure, at the point where ideas might take flight or never leave the ground.  I hope they soar.

Fragments

“I love ruins because they are always doing what everything really wants to do all the time: returning themselves to the earth, melting back into the landscape.” Roger Deakin – Wildwood

I live in a land of ruins.  A land where the shades of ancient monks, warriors and queens still walk among the remnants of their former homes.  Coasts littered with fragments of castles; valleys and cliffs strewn with the wreckage of abbeys.  Where crenelated towers and skeletal arches rise out of the earth.  Time, weather, neglect and the dramas of history have scattered this land with relics.  Traces on the landscape of a world long gone yet still with us.  The ruins are more than a pile of stones, they are a story in the landscape.  They are the things they were and the things they are now, sometimes forgotten, sometimes legendary.  They are a slice of time as it was then and will never be again.

Nature is quick to reclaim ruins and we indulge it, in a way we don’t with the buildings that we use.  We allow it to ramble through glassless windows, blanket fallen stones, ooze through cracks.  The spirits that dwell in the ruined places are kept company by the birds and the weeds.  Though nature itself is destroying them, breaking them down, cracking stones, forcing itself through mortar, taking the ruins back to itself.  Ruins soar out of the land but they have also become part of it.  It is easy to imagine that they have always been there.  They have become organic, so that they no longer quite seem man-made, but are like trees of stone, sprouted into symmetry.  A reminder that nothing is permanent, but that we leave a trace of what we were behind us forever.

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Our built history is relatively young, yet I often suspect its best is over.  The ruins we live with now were born of a slower age, when the time and effort it took to build them seems unimaginable.  When to build something of substance and beauty was considered a worthy endeavour.  I suspect the ruins of the future won’t be as enduring or evocative.  I suspect that many of the things we build now will fade away quickly without fanfare or regret.  And a landscape stripped of its history would be a poorer place.  Easy to forget all that has come before without those reminders in the earth.  They are here among us, pulling our attention whether we recognise it or not.  Yet if they had a choice, I wonder if the ruins would want to remain, decayed and divested of their former purpose, or would rather retire into the landscape and be no more.

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Ruins are a gift to writers.  They are a spur to the imagination, with their stark beauty and layers of stories.  They hold the traces of those who passed through and the possibility of those to come.  A crumbling canvas on which we can scribe tales not yet written.  They stir wonder or dread, influencing us whether we know it or not.  Through them, I have walked alongside those who walked the land before me.  I have absorbed the stories imprinted in stone.   And though eventually the earth will claim them they will live on in the stories yet to be told.