After the first chill of autumn, comes an interlude of sun and warmth. The tiny creatures respond. On the warm metal of roadside barriers, ladybirds gather. Every foot or so there is another, all with varying colours and arrangements of spots. There are a few ladybird larvae, with their black bodies and orange stripe. Tiny aphids, sunbathing bluebottles, a cranefly and a tiny insect that looks like a stag beetle all share the unexpected warmth.

There is little left in bloom now. A few bindweed trumpets and a single violet among the brambles. A clump of mayweed beside the road. The occasional dandelion shining among fallen leaves and a cluster of wild roses. And yet the violas I planted for summer colour are still in flower and next year’s bulbs have started to shoot. Seeds have been swept up and blown on their way to take their chances. The hogweeds are no more than skeleton spokes and there are only rags of down on the willowherbs.

Summer kept me close to home. I worked from home until September and the heat was too much for adventures. Our walks were short, timed to coincide with cooler parts of the day. I found myself less attentive to the world outside than usual. But I wasn’t idle. The yard has been tidied, weeded and adorned with new plants. I returned to the novel I sent for assessment before lockdown, to complete the suggested revisions. Some of my spring submissions bore fruit. With each rejection I made another submission to keep the work out there. And not everything passed me by. I watched a leaf cutter bee harvest leaves from my rose bush for her nest. I saw a mole building a tunnel on a piece of waste grass, surfacing with a small somersault and retreating underground once more. I watched goldfinches gather on the telegraph wires and sparrows flit through the yard.

In early August, I caught Covid. It seemed ironic after nearly a year and a half of working to keep people safe, a double vaccination and staying close to home, that I caught it at this stage. It was like a bad flu: cough, stuffy nose, congestion, aches and pains, fever, weariness, no appetite. I had bad nights, in which panic attacks returned and I started to worry about the coming winter. I slept and I watched daytime TV. I didn’t have the energy for much more than that. My wife caught it too. As I started to recover, she got the worst of it. But that was nothing. In the same month, a friend of ours in America, also double-jabbed, passed away from the disease.

As summer passed to autumn and the air got cooler, we reclaimed the beach from the crowds. Sanderlings fluted into the silence. A old-fashioned tall ship sailed in front of wind turbines towards the lighthouse. Time has often felt strange during the pandemic, and watching this ship was like seeing another age breaking through. Later, we came upon a group of stones, trailing bladderwrack, planted in a circle, as though the sea gods had placed them there to hold a meeting.

Berries have replaced blooms in the hedgerows. Blackberries are mostly picked or shrivelled on the vine, but there are shiny, plump rosehips, snow berries , haws and elderberries. The ground rustles with leaves and paths are edged with fallen gold, yet looking up, the trees seem as if they are only just on the turn.

I have been languishing in the space between now and normal. But now, everything has changed. If not truly normal, it feels as normal as it will get. I am back in the office for my full working week and have returned to some of my old wandering grounds. I am thinking less about what I have harvested this year and more about what I can do to reap a good harvest in the next. It would be easy to languish here forever, but the season has changed and the winds are calling…

My favourite fairy tale was always Beauty and the Beast, but I was never satisfied when, in the end, the Beast turned into a boring prince. You can read my alternative version, called ‘The Beauty of the Beast’ in the current Firewords magazine, issue 14 on the theme of ‘wild’. You can buy a copy here.

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.


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.


Autumn winds sweep in for a few days, making leaves dance and whipping up dervishes from cut grass.  But the winds can’t sweep away the summer sun.  It is still warm, dry and lazy.  Bees and hoverflies still throng dandelions and sow thistles.  Wherever I step, wasps drowse on the grass.  Speckled woods have replaced painted ladies.  Monster docks sway among the reeds in the burn, the most vivid bronzes and coppers of the season so far.  Two swallows dart over the grass.  Mallards and moorhens float on the pond.  A bird cheeps in the bushes.  Branches bleed with raspberries, rowan berries, rosehips.  The burn is dry, pools still and clear.  I struggle to feel the essence of September amid the lingering heat.

Two glorious weeks of respite from work, but not a straightforward holiday.  My wife is recovering from surgery and I have an ear infection that leaves the world muffled.  But a holiday at home has its advantages.  There is none of the upheaval of packing and going away.  There is the simplicity  of sleeping late in your own bed, pottering and preparing for the crossing between one season and another.  I prune and weed and get rid of rubbish.  Plant a late season rose bush and lavender to fill some empty pots.  I worry how many more of my rose leaves will be eaten.  But I have been pleased to see more insects than before in the yard, particularly moths.  A huge house spider in the bath heralds spider season.  I begin to notice all the tunnel webs on old walls.

On the day of the Harvest Moon, I take a walk back in time.  The church I went to as a child is having an open day.  I haven’t been here since I was nine or ten, when we moved, but I have a couple of clear memories and I want to know if it’s as I remember it.  Walking the streets I grew up on, I pass the traditional bakery, now derelict.  There is no sign of the corner antiques shop where I used to pet Sarah and Spencer the two St. Bernards.  The upstairs flat I lived in, with its floor length windows has been combined with the flat below into a nondescript house.  The sweet shop we used to visit for a 5 pence mix up appears unchanged, but you wouldn’t get much for 5 pence now.

Across the road from the church, the hall where I went to Brownies has been converted into an expensive house – sold off by the church as it was too expensive to maintain.  The church itself is not so different.  I clearly remember the chancel with its iron gates and grey marble floor, carved choir stalls and a relatively simple altar.  I remember the stone pillars in the nave.  But what I didn’t recall were the windows.  Three pairs along each side of the nave, commemorating people who were important to the church’s past.  Above the altar, a triptych of arches: Mary with her spectacular blue, star-studded robe, flanked by the fieriness of the other two windows.  I sit in a pew and enjoy the silence.  I watch trees flutter behind some of the windows, shadows blooming in the coloured glass.   My memories of being here are actually very few, but the building itself is clear in my memory.

Later in the week, an old-fashioned trip to the seaside for fish and chips, ice cream and 2 pence slot machines.  The bright blue sky and wispy white clouds signify a summer day, but there is a slight chill in the breeze.  A handful of swallows dance over the waves.  Two herring gulls perch on gutweed covered rocks.  Out at sea, the ship Aegir might be servicing the wind farm or perhaps extending it.  It will dock at the marina later and I’ll see its crane towering above the roofs in the park.

The sycamore in the park that always heralds autumn is definitely dead.  It has remained bare all year round.  But the new whitebeam has survived.  It boasts orange berries and frilled leaves.  Someone has piled a moat of cut grass in a circle around one of the cherry trees.  Perhaps they remember last autumn when, for a time, it became a portal to another world.  For now, the world still belongs to summer.  I have had the fire on for the first time this season.   At times there is a chill and the air is grey.  But summer lingers, never quite crossing the threshold into autumn.

Blogger book of the month: Alethea Kehas – A Girl Named Truth

Order a Girl Named Truth on AmazonAlethea Kehas is a writer and healer, who writes poetry, memoir and spiritual pieces among other things on her blog.  A Girl Named Truth is a brave and beautiful memoir exploring the nature of truth. The starting point is the author’s name – Alethea – which means ‘truth’. As a child, she feels that because of her name she has an obligation to be truthful, but this is no easy task when she is unable to distinguish the truth of the stories told by those close to her and when their emotional demands cause her to fear speaking out. The author’s life is defined by a mother who runs away with her and her sister, away from her biological father, to set up home with a stepfather the author is in fear of. The memoir explores abuse, bullying, conditional and unconditional love and ultimately healing. The subjects in this book aren’t easy and I felt much sympathy for the dilemmas and events she must face. But nevertheless I found it an easy book to read and wanted to go back to it, hoping for the healing it would bring. The author is clear that this is the truth as she experienced it and I was glad that by the end she had found a resolution and acceptance which was both moving and hopeful.   You can find Alethea here and her books are available on Amazon.


Every year a pair of herring gulls nest on the roof opposite my office.  I watch the transformation of the chicks from grey balls of fluff to birds.  I see the parents, posted at opposite ends of the roof, tirelessly watching over their babies.  The occasional ruckus as another gull or gulls get too close.  A pigeon strolls onto the roof now and again; a jackdaw and a a pied wagtail both visit to forage in the gutters.  But mostly, this roof belongs to the gulls and their offspring.

The chicks no longer have the fluff of childhood.  They are still in their juvenile feathers; still fat, necks hunched into shoulders.  But they have begun to stretch their wings, flapping as they waddle up the slope of the roof.  I have watched one of them almost take off: levitating up the slope, feet an inch off the tiles.  They have been there for weeks now, surveying what goes on above and below.   They can see trees and grass in the square, people and cars moving below, birds flying above.  From their vantage point, they can probably see the sea.  What must it be like to be awaiting flight?  To know that soon the sky will be yours and you will be part of the winged community you have watched each day.  What must it be like to feel the spread of those wings and to sense that they will soon be strong enough to lift you?

The smaller birds have disappeared now for their moult.  As usual, I didn’t spot the day it went quiet, only noticing the absence after the fact.  The sparrows that have fluttered around our street and chirped from the rooftops for months are gone.  But where the sky was filled with songbirds, it is now filled with  painted ladies.  They don’t sing (or at least not so we can hear); the sound of their wings is silent to my ears; but they fill the air with colour and motion.  It has been ten years since so many arrived.  The privet in the park is in motion with bees, wasps, hoverflies, a peacock butterfly and at least 15 painted ladies.  One of them stays overnight in our yard, tucked into a rose.  In the morning, I watch as it vibrates its wings to warm up and then it is off, up over the walls and away into the morning.

I’m starting to look outwards again.  So far, the drift of the year has been inwards, but I’m beginning to pay attention to the world once more.  Summer has begun for hundreds of children and heatwaves bring people out in states of undress.  I usually struggle with this time of year because it always seems like summer should be over by now.  I’ve already celebrated the first harvest at Lammas and I won’t be on holiday until  September.  But I’ve wished away too much of this year.

I try to capture a little of the blithe summer spirit in the pauses of the day.  Moments when I can sit under the shade of a tree and let insects flutter around me, seeking nectar from the white clover dotting the grass.  I watch a jackdaw sunbathe, flinging his wings forward like a magician then fanning them out to display the emeralds and sapphires within the black.  I watch his head droop as he goes into the sun-bathing stupor, then afterwards grooms his feathers.

Sometimes I walk down to Smiths Dock, along a new road that has recently opened.  This was once a place where ships were built and repaired until the yard finally closed in 1987.  Now prefab townhouses and new apartment blocks line the bank.  Wildflowers grow from gaps in the gabion baskets used to shore up the embankment.  The old dry docks are still there, filled with seaweed-stained water and gulls.  I hear the cry of kittiwakes.  Most nest further upriver, under the Tyne Bridge, but a few still find a spot here among the gentrified buildings.  They are the sound of the sea to me, even more than the herring gull.  But this month they will take flight and return to open ocean, not to return until next spring.

The year drifts inevitably towards autumn.  Spring and its burst of new life is long gone.  But summer too is a sky filled with new wings, soaring towards distant horizons.

Back to the land

August is a long, languorous month.  It’s a month in which nothing much seems to happen; a month that usually lasts far too long as I wait impatiently for the delights of September.  But this August was ushered in by a relief of storms: extravagant downpours and gentling drizzles.  Grey skies and showers have tempered the heatwave at last.  Whereas often August seems stuck, this year, it is moving quickly.  I’m losing weeks, convinced there should be more before September is here.

The month ticks by in weekly trips down the motorway for Winston’s hydrotherapy.  I watch golden fields become stubble as the wheat is harvested.  I see fields scattered with cylinders of hay and bale towers.  Barns fill as the hay is gathered, until they bulge with gold.  Then the ploughing begins and the fields turn umber.  I see the season changing in the cycle of the crops and you would think that would bring me closer to the land, but instead, I feel a detachment from it.  It is all behind glass, without the smells, the air, the sensation of my feet on the earth.

How easy it is to become detached from the environment.  Our usual walks are out of bounds, too far for Winston to manage at the moment, so we make do with the small park at the end of the road.  But I fight against the restriction and that pulls me away from the earth.  It’s been more than two months since we last visited the dene.  I see it from the bus, watch a rabbit, two crows and a young  gull grazing on the grass.  I gaze into the landscape through glass and see blackberry jewels and the flame of rowan berries.  I watch baby gulls on the roof opposite my office fledge from balls of fluff to fat, hunched chicks.  Place is something I often come back to: the way we meet it, the way we settle into it, the way it welcomes us – or not.  I’m still here, still passing through the same landscape, yet I’m outside of it.

When I feel the first chill of autumn I know that it’s time to find that connection again.  I go to the sundial because it offers a panorama of my world.  The morning broods.  Deep grey sky in the north, charcoal clouds over the distant Penshaw monument.  Storm-light.  Up here the sky is big and the land small.  The sea is a stripe of watercolour along the horizon.  Pylons are tiny cages scarring the sky.  There are five ships at anchor in the distance and wind turbines turn slowly.  I see a cloud of rooks skimming stubbly corn fields in the east.  Watch the metro weave across the landscape like a toy train.  It is a world in miniature.  I distance myself from the land below to find my way back into it, to feel myself cradled by something timeless.

I listen to the faded cry of gulls, the croak of a crow, the twitter and chitter of goldfinches and tits.  I watch two magpies scale a pine and follow the looping flight of a single goldfinch.  Dried nests of wild carrot are abundant among mahogany heads of desiccated knapweed.  Vetches salt the grass with yellow and meadow cranesbill offers a splash of lilac.  Up here the sky glowers and my skin breaks out in goosepimples.  But there is a moment when the sun, obscured by cloud, transforms a patch of sea into molten gold.  It is just visible between the pylons, this precious echo.   I watch until it fades to silver and I decide it’s time to go.  But the walk has done its trick, I feel calm, connected again to this place in which I belong.

The next morning I follow the pool of gold to the sea.  A flight of swallows surprises me as I reach the edge of the cliffs.  They swoop upwards, curling towards the terrace of houses behind me, then back towards the beach.  I wonder if this group has been gathered here all summer or if they are preparing to leave.  A small murmuration of starlings seeps across the rooftops before splitting up and vanishing.

The colours are intense in the early light.  The sand is flat and rippled, punctured by the casts of lugworms.  The sea is hushed.  The pool of gold is a river from horizon to land.  A curlew and a redshank forage on the rocks, oystercatchers saunter on the shore.  A roost of pigeons has commandeered one of the caves on the beach.  They flutter from its mouth as I approach.  A lone bird remains in a crevice above the entrance, watching me.  I retreat slowly and leave her in peace.

I sit on the rocks beside the pier, watching and letting the landscape soak back into my bones.  This is me: earth and sea and sky.  This is my land and my place.  The trick is to walk in it, to engage with it, otherwise it is just background.  When I feel the sand shift beneath my feet or hear the pipe of a redshank echo across the rocks I know that I’ve returned.



I wait all day for the moon to bleed.  I’m ready to set off, to head for a point high on the banks of the river where I’ll be able to see the horizon.  I’ve watched the sky all day and listened to gentle grumbles of thunder, with growing disappointment, but have never quite given up hope.  Our first rain in weeks is forecast, and though I long for the rain, I hope it will hold off, just for a few hours.  But soon, the sky blooms dirty grey and I know that the moon is lost.

Lightning comes first: flash after flash with barely a pause in between.  It fractures the sky in hot white slashes.  Thunder booms and crashes.  And the rain comes heavy.  We stand outside in it.  After a day so humid it was hard to breathe, this is welcome refreshment.  The sky becomes darker and darker.  It’s difficult to tell where storm ends and twilight begins.  A street light winks on and we stare up, up into the grey, revelling in getting wet.  The air smells like burning.  Celebratory voices waft over the storm.  We marvel at the lightning, and as the thunder vibrates off stone and brick, echoing in the spaces in between, I feel my body vibrating too.  The storm is bombardment: there is violence in it, and abandon, and the joy of long-needed rain.  I don’t remember a storm like it.

The day after the thunderstorm, the air breeds noise.  I hear the distant roar of planes at the air show thirteen miles down the coast, like an echo of last night’s thunder.  The wind flaps and rattles.  The fog horn hums.  The air remains alive: moaning and roaring and singing.

There is talk of climate change on the news, of the heatwaves and wild-fires across the world, of how this could be our new normal.  Nobody says it’s already too late.  They talk in measured tones of getting greenhouse gases under control, but I suspect we’re the proverbial frogs already slowly boiling as the water heats around us.

I love the British seasons.  I love the predictability of the transformation from one to another, but I love the way the weather is never predictable within each one.  I love the way that an obsession with the weather is part of the British psyche.  I fret at the thought of hot, dry summers to come.  But a week after the eclipse, and it seems that the British summer as we know it is here.  The heat hasn’t abated, but it’s punctuated by showers and cooler intervals.

I walk in the country park in the rain.  I don’t mind getting soaked.  It’s still warm and the rain is still a relief after such a long absence.  It patters and drips from the trees.  Drops are cupped in the flowers of wild roses.  The hedgerows aren’t yet in their full August colours of yellow and purple.  The purples of greater willowherb and knapweed have arrived, but the yellows are mostly absent.  I hear the coo of a wood-pigeon hidden in the canopy as I walk the overgrown paths, and the occasional cluck of a moorhen, but otherwise the birds are silently moulting, not even a blackbird serenading the rain.  At the pond, I watch a moorhen guiding her chick on the grass with soft clicks.  A mallard shepherds a brood of teens – I can’t tell which is the adult.  I watch a crow bathe in a gutter.  Rain must be a relief to all of them.

Lammas has come and gone with its promise of transformation.  It is the first in my favourite cycle of festivals and heralds the harvest to come.  There have been warnings this week about food stocks for animals being dangerously low, and while I think about the harvest of my own achievements, I also wonder what this year of strange weather will mean for the other gatherings to come.   But the final harvest isn’t here yet, there is still time to make a difference to the reckoning, and for now, the storms are the only help I need.




In the heart of the heatwave, our usual walks are too exposed to the glare of the sun.  My dog doesn’t like the heat and neither do I.  Seeking relief, we visit one of our less frequent haunts.  The path was once a railway line, hauling coal to the coast.  Here there is shade and shadow under bridges and trees.  The hedgerows burst with bramble and bindweed blossoms.  Stinging nettles as high as my waist and wild roses like vintage china.  Speckled wood butterflies and hoverflies like lozenges of amber.  Though the sun is blazing, the fog horn signals a sea fret in the distance.  It is still too hot, even in the shade.  A blackbird sunbathes at the edge of the path. He’s a beauty, with glossy feathers and a bright orange bill. He spreads out his wings and lies with his back to the sun, in a posture thought to get rid of parasites and spread the preening oil in his feathers.


We are used to a more temperate heat.  Not this dry glare that continues for weeks with no forecast for rain.  The grass parches and begins to yellow.  Leaves droop and curl.  On the moors in the north west of the country, a fire rages.  I find spiders drowned in my dog’s water bowl in their search for refreshment.  Amid nights of disturbed sleep, there are strange, vivid dreams: I watch volcanic ash tumble down like snow; I climb precarious wooden structures to escape grizzly bears circling below.  And I dream of rain: heavy, drenching rain that washes away the heat.  I fill the watering can and water spilled on stone gives off the soothing petrichor smell of rain like a false prophet.  Morning sea frets bring some relief.  But there is no hope of rain for a while yet.
I struggle to find poetry in the glare of the sun, when it is too hot to breathe or to think.  I walk with eyes scrunched against the dazzle.  The landscapes this sun reveals are too harsh, too flat.  Fire is the element I’m least drawn to, and when I am, it’s the flame of a fire on a cold day or the dance of candlelight, not the unrelenting heat.  Time seems to pass more slowly in this heat – particularly when I don’t want it to.  It saps energy and inspiration.  This hottest part of summer isn’t conducive to creating.  It seems designed for lethargy.


But there is a poetry to the sun, and to me, its poetry is in its nuances of light.  It is not in the noon brilliance, but at the book ends of the day when the air is golden or gauzy blue.  It is in the deep pooling of darkness within the light, the relief of shade, the shape of shadows.  The falling of light on a leaf, making it translucent, the way it gilds a buttercup.  The dappling of light and the way it shafts through the canopy to highlight the undergrowth.  Dandelion clocks become spheres of quartz in the morning sun.  Gold washes the underside of seagulls’ wings near sunset.  Stone becomes honey and the sky blushes.


Without these patterns of the sun, the world would have only one note.  It is in the contrasts and the wavering spectrum of light that the landscape finds its character.  It is easy to forget the life-giving properties of the sun when it seems only to desiccate and deplete, but in the depths of December, when my bones are chilled, I will appreciate that my skin was touched by its warmth.  When the nights grow long and I feel that I have always woken to darkness, I will remember waking to the shimmer of dawn.


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.

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.

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