The Abbey

I visited the awe-inspiring Furness Abbey last week. It’s one of those places that I find very hard to describe, and although I’m going to try, I don’t feel I’ll come close, so I’ll probably keep this fairly short.

The abbey lies in ruins, but the utter majesty of the place remains. Sandstone soars into the sky in towers, even as the wind and rain carve it back down into organic shapes. It’s humbling beyond measure to walk the grounds, to sit in the buttery, to peer up tiny spiral staircases, to measure spans and arches – to walk the same paths the monks would have walked, centuries ago. A watercourse trickles through the ruins, tight with brick and riddled with tunnels and drains, but also dense with willowherb. It makes the abbey seem both antique and feral. There are plants trickling from upper ledges, and swallows nesting in the cells. There are tunnels and alcoves and windows and doors. What survives of the former halls still feels enclosed. Parts of the abbey are completely removed from the main walkways, and it’s unnerving to stand in silence and stillness and reflect on the hundreds of lives to pass through the same space. It’s crawling with ghosts. They’re in every stone, in every blade of grass. The site is surrounded by trees that hush in the wind, and the place is full of whispers. It embodies that sense of threshold I feel so drawn to. There are blind corners, where the space is shut abruptly out and your skin crawls with presence. Gravity weighs more in the abbey. The stones have grown gaunt on life and death and time.

Time. That’s the abbey means. The whole place aches and creaks with a ferocious sense of time. It’s massive. It echoes, it rebounds from the rock, from the moss. Walking the walls brings our few moments in this world into ferocious, ridiculous focus. It’s magnificent. It’s extraordinary. Go and explore it for yourself.

 

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The destination

The Visitors was officially published on Thursday, and I was away all day on a college trip – for the second year in a row, four of my students had made it to the semi-finals of the World Skills competition. We’d driven down to Hinckley on Wednesday, stayed up till 1am practicing their pitch, then risen at 6am to practice and get to the venue. They had a 5-minute presentation to deliver, and we stayed all day, waiting for feedback. Throughout that time, I was quietly flooded with emails, texts and messages – so many that I felt helpless – I could barely respond. Friends sent me photos of the delivered book – out of my hands, now, and into theirs – and all the while I sat with my students, and talked with other tutors, and wandered round Hinckley College. It felt incredibly weird to be so far removed from the book on its publication day. The students succeeded with their presentation, and won a place at the finals in November. We left at 4pm. It was supposed to be a three-hour drive back to Kendal, but took more than five. The motorway was a purgatory of second gear. It flattened me. I sat in traffic jams and wished I could walk along the central reservation, alone in a sea of stationary cars, the hubcaps and ring pulls and single shoes scattered all around.

Back in Cumbria at last, I dropped off the college car and walked an hour through the gloom to get home to my amazing wife. By the time I turned the computer back on, I’d had scores of congratulations from friends and family. I felt humbled and very lucky. Then, in a mark of the rollercoaster this trip has become, I received an email saying I hadn’t been awarded a Northern Writers’ Award. That’s disappointing, though I’m still very glad I applied.

Thursday was a topsyturvy day, but then I woke on Friday to the news that my short story What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You had been accepted by the National Flash Fiction Day anthology – and then, a few hours later, the amazing Tania Hershman alerted me to the presence of my story Art Is Long, Life Is Short on the BBC Opening Lines longlist. I’d long-since written that off as a rejection. Talk about frazzled. On Friday night, Mon and I drank a bottle of posh fizz and sat and talked it over. That felt good.

I don’t entirely know what to say about The Visitors being published. I’m proud of what I’ve made, and I’m delighted to share it with other people, but my good friend Ali Shaw warned me that it might feel something of an anticlimax, and he was right. I don’t feel any different in myself. I’m still planning lessons, ploughing through my mountain of marking, and stressing about whether my four-month hay meadow time lapse is going to work out. Publication hasn’t changed any of that. But it is an affirmation of all I want to do – to coax the stories in my head out into the light. It has also reminded me how blessed I am in my friends – I feel almost ashamed to have had such support from such incredible people. These few days have made my heart beat bigger, and I’m thankful.

All this has whetted my hunger to push on with the next novel. In that respect, I guess The Visitors is the culmination of the first stage of a long road. More than anything else, I know, with every cord of my being, that this is the right path for me. Writing is a journey, but publication is not a destination. I don’t want it to ever end. I want to walk till my heart gives out.

The Year of the Whale

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Last night, with slightly more than an hour to go before the deadline of the MMU Novella Competition, I finally finished my novella The Year of the Whale. The image above is a randomised cloud of the most common words in the manuscript, which is a really satisfying way to look back on what I’ve made.

I started writing it in 2009, and it has spent entire years untouched, waiting for attention in the dusty recesses of my hard drive. It’s written in first person with a very particular voice, and it’s been strange to return to it so sporadically over the years, and take up the mantle of that voice again. I’ve wanted to finish it for a long time – it was one of my New Year’s resolutions, no less – and I’m thankful to the competition for giving me the spark to get it done. I don’t expect anything to come of it – that way madness lies – but I’m thrilled to have wrapped it up last.

The Year of the Whale is the story of a man called Henry Cowx. He is a fisherman and walking guide in Morecambe Bay, riddled with arthritis and wracked with guilt. His story explores that guilt, and gives some quiet thought to what it means to remember. It’s about walking and place and ghosts and folk tales, and our connections with the land. It’s at the heart of my obsession with threshold spaces. It’s a meditative, elegiac story, and a long way from where I’d like to develop my work – but Henry has never been far from my mind, and I’m glad to give him closure at last.

I discussed some of the genesis of the story in my Thievery post for Kirsty Logan.

I’m working my way through some film jobs at the moment, but it’s almost time to get back into The Hollows.

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I’m honoured and delighted to have contributed a post to Kirsty Logan‘s long-running series of story inspirations, Thievery. It’s entirely possible to drown yourself in the wealth of stories Kirsty has curated, and I thoroughly recommend you do.

For my post, I confessed about a novel I abandoned at 50,000 words, because I no longer knew what it was about. One day, it will be reborn as The Year Of The Whale.

Here’s the story so far: Northern Lights / The Year Of The Whale.

A sealskin coat

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Painting by Jessica Shirley http://jessicashirley.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/selkie-girl.html

The Visitors is a little bit about selkies. Selkies are seals, and they are also people. They have a fur coat that allows them to take the form of a seal. When they step out of the coat, they become human. Selkies can be men or women, but they are always extraordinarily beautiful.

There are a multitude of selkie stories, but the most common starts with a selkie woman removing her coat and dancing on the shore. A young man – usually a fisherman or crofter – spies her dancing, and steals the coat. With her fur held hostage, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man. They live together for a while, but then the selkie finds her skin and escapes back into the sea. The man is left to nurse a broken heart. Often, the couple have children. In some stories, it is a child that finds the coat, and returns it to the mother. Sometimes the selkie takes her children back into the ocean, and sometimes they are left behind. In that version of the story, the mother and children meet in the surf to play.

In the other typical selkie story, an island woman cries seven tears into the sea to attract a selkie mate. Selkie men give children to barren women.

db44_SelkieI love the idea of selkies, but I struggle with some aspects of these traditional stories. They crush female independence. In the first, the selkie is kidnapped and loses years of her life to captivity. The man takes what he wants, and is punished only by the accident of her escape. In the second story, the male selkie is a god, and the woman summons him on bended knee. Either human men dominate supernatural women, or supernatural men dominate human women. Both men and women mean more to me than that. When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted something different from selkie stories. I wanted equality. That’s been my guiding light for the novel, from start to finish. John and Izzy share traditional tales, but Ailsa and Flora question the validity of that tradition, and take a closer look at what it means to be a selkie.

Selkies are special. I watched the seals hunting in the bay at Grogport, and saw them bask and splash in Portnahaven harbour. There is life and knowledge in their eyes. When you look at them, they look back. On Kintyre, we walked the coast around Skipness on a grey, steely day, and we were followed by a seal. For half a mile or more, as we skirted the coast, the seal stayed twenty or thirty yards away from us. It seemed to move without locomotion, so that dark snub head simply kept pace with us, looking towards the shore. We sat on old stones to eat our lunch, and the seal bobbed and ducked at one end of the headland. It didn’t move away until we struck back inland, and then it vanished in a wink. I looked back to seek it out, but the seal had gone.

I asked my friends about seals and selkies, and they swamped me with stories. Chris gave his first pocket money to Save The Seals. Tom talked to the seals in a sealife centre, and the seals talked back. Dan’s friend confused swallows for seals in a dream, so he drew her a picture of a swallow with a seal’s head. Kirstin’s father whistled to the seals in Shetland, and they popped to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Jon was kissed by a sealion. Sakina can’t shake the tale of the seal maiden. Ross works in Copenhagen, and daydreams that commuters with sealskin coats are modern-day selkies. Amy holidayed on Mull when she was seven, and spent the summer playing with a selkie called Della.

Why do we give seals such humanity? They are manifestly foreign to us, but the connection is overwhelming.

When I was 25 or 26, I spent a year working and backpacking in Australia. I remember snorkelling on Ningaloo Reef, diving as far down as I could go. I looked up exactly as the sun dropped behind a cloud. The water turned suddenly cold and pressed against me, and I felt very afraid, scared of the deep and the dark and the cold and the blue. When I think of selkies, they are underwater, floating with perfect neutral buoyancy, and shafts of sunlight sway woozy on the surface above. The darkness drops away behind them, and the selkie exists in two places: as a seal, utterly unafraid, and as a human, drawn against the current, compelled to the surface. Selkies live in thresholds. The selkie woman, when she escapes, returns to embrace her children in the surf. The shoreline, changing always with the tide, is where seals and people meet as selkies. It is a nowhere place, and yet it is all they have.

Faroese_stamp_580_the_seal_womanA hunter doesn’t know his wife is a selkie. While hunting, he sees her as a seal, and harpoons her. She becomes human, and dies in his arms.

The crofter is left heartbroken on the shore, and his selkie wife returns by stealth to see her children.

This selkie is allowed only one night of the year to be human.

Two lovers share a single skin, so that they can never be together in the same form; always one as a seal, and one as a human.

Selkies are born from the souls of drowned sailors.

Selkies are cousins to the muc-sheilche, the kelpie, the nokken, the finfolk. Those creatures are killers and enemies to men. So what makes the seal a victim? A romance? A tragedy?

When we visited Islay, we drove out to Portnhaven. We clambered across the rocks to the weedy edge of the harbour, and we watched the seals. Half a stone’s throw across the water, they gathered to sunbathe by the dozen. They winked as though the Atlantic was a hot tub. They flickered in the water, phantoms bound in straps of kelp. They came so close that I found myself laughing aloud – laughing in wonder, joy and disbelief.

When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted to explore that connection with the seals, that projection of knowledge, and emotion, and empathy. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I’ve fallen more in love with seals and selkies.

My wife found this picture of a seal. It was taken in California, rather than Coll, but it’s the way I see a selkie. Curious and cautious, incredibly close, and impossibly distant.

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A love letter to an island

P1050513The idea for The Visitors fell into my head almost fully formed while on holiday in Grogport, a tiny hamlet on the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and it feels like an island. The beaches are sandy and studded with pebbles. Hills rise steeply from the shore and narrow roads wind around the coast, ducking inland to skirt the inlets. To the east, Arran lurks like a beached whale, and Gigha is smudge in the haze on the horizon to the west. Abandoned crofts explode with rowans, and in places the ferns fall into the road, wet and green.

P1050459My daughter was three months old, and the long drive from Cumbria had unsettled her. She started waking early – around five in the morning – and wouldn’t go back to sleep. My wife and I made coffee and watched the sun rise over Arran, casting blue light on the millpond Kilbrannan Sound. From the kitchen window, we saw herons stalk the surf, lashing down on crabs or minnows. Seals hunted in the bay every evening, and an otter dismembered fish on the shoreline. The garden thronged with little birds, and at one point I saw a kestrel sitting on the washing line, no more than five yards from the house. When we walked around the island, there were butterflies in the gorse, spiders on the sand, bees in the grass, gulls wheeling on the updrafts. I was shaken, at times, by how much life was around me, living as it always had, as though the land itself was alive and conscious. In so many places, it looked as though people, civilisation, had simply given up and moved elsewhere. It felt as though the land was waking after centuries of slumber, and just beginning to stretch.

On the third or fourth morning, watching a seal swim like quicksilver in the bay, the spark of a story flared brightly inside me. It caught fast, and began to smoulder. That story became The Visitors. Selkies, living in Grogport. A murder mystery. A young girl, desperate to leave an island. And it would be an island, I decided; the Kintyre peninsula was beautiful, but didn’t do everything I wanted for the story. I started drafting a sense of what the island looked like. I called it Bancree. As I began to write the story, the island evolved too, morphing into something real enough to touch.

P1050458Bancree is a scrapbook of my Scotland. I grew up in Inverness, where I could see Ben Wyvis from my bedroom window. We walked our dogs on the shingle beach at Ardersier and through the sodden plantations of Culloden. I’ve been canoeing and camping on Loch Maree in torrential rain, and climbed the boulder fields of Torridon and Glen Nevis. I’ve been to the top of Schiehallion, and walked on the clifftops of Dumfries, and fallen out of bars on Tobermory, and seen friends crash cars by the shore of Loch Ness. I’ve taken the train from Edinburgh to Inverness so many times that the journey is engrained in my memory. From the top of Glen Affric, with June snowmelt still feeding the burns, I’ve seen both coasts glitter in the sun. Scotland has a hundred landscapes that sing to me, and I collected something from each of them to build Bancree.

P1050526The island is my love letter to Islay, Jura, Gigha, Mull, Iona, Ullapool, the Highlands, the Black Isle, Moray and the Great Glen – to the landscapes I grew up in, the landscapes I love. I’ve never tried to sketch Bancree or make a map. I know what it looks like, and where to find Grogport, and Tighna, and Izzy’s hut, and the windfarm on the Ben. But more importantly, I can drive the road around Bancree simply by closing my eyes. I can feel the scrunch of shingle underfoot, and the batter and bluster of the Atlantic coast. There is dew sagging on spiderwebs, spun between the thorns of gorse, and rafts of flotsam hefted on the beaches. Dead, empty crabs still scuttle on the breeze. The twiggy scratch of heather, the rivulets of water in the bracken. Titanic clouds, dark and warm and scudding low enough to touch. The fluttering machair, alive with bees. Fog that swallows the tops of trees and telegraph poles. The water in the bog pools, dark with peat, staining all the world around, pouring brown from every tap. Sands that hiss and sing as the wind rolls across the beach in waves.

Bancree is as real as a dream to me. It is vivid and bursting with life. I can feel the rub of sand between my fingers, but there is no map to go there.

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Verbalised

On Saturday, I had the guest headline spot at Verbalise at the Brewery. It was an amazing night, for all the squirming terror I went through in the days before the show. It’s strange to get so nervous before a reading. As a teacher, I address large groups all the time, but everything changes when it’s my writing under the microscope. Usually, it goes like this: in the hours before a reading, I feel a pain low in my stomach, and then my throat grows tighter as those hours dissolve into minutes. When I walk onstage and begin to read, my heart pounds in my larynx. At last, around halfway through the reading, or halfway through my second piece – whichever comes first – something changes. In a matter of heartbeats, the nerves are gone, I calm down and enjoy the stories, enjoy the sound of my own words. My grail is to achieve that sense of enjoyment at the start of the reading, rather than the mid-point, and Verbalise was a big step in the right direction.

Before I talk about my reading, I want to sing the praises of the open mic. It was an absolute cracker, kicked off by flash fiction guru Brindley Hallam Dennis. I’m a huge fan of Brindley’s stories, and it was a thrill to see him performing again. He started with another of Kowalski’s Assertions, then read a gem of flash fiction called The Right Words, which looks like this:

After Brindley, I was doubly delighted that my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet came north for his first Verbalise open mic. He read two of the poems from our challenge series – Cathedrals and Graffiti – which were even better in person than on the page. He was so good that compere Ann asked him back to headline later in the year. Another future headliner was at the open mic, too, in the glorious form of Joy France, and it was a wonder to witness her at work – she performed a wicked little flash piece and this scintillating poem:

 

The open mic also featured ace local poet, journalist and painter Helen Perkins, who read her poem for the Drowned Villages competition. South Lakes poet laureate Kate Davies performed a sinister piece about a caul-shrouded something that nipped at children and crunched their bones, and Luke Brown read a twisted tale of flooding and infanticide. Friend Harriet Fraser read three poems, including the exceptional ‘Michael’ from her project Landkeepers. This brooding piece sees the departure of an experienced farmhand from a remote Cumbrian valley, much to the regret of the farmer who worked with him – set against the Sisyphean job of plugging holes in drystone walls. It’s a beautifully bittersweet metaphor.

Finally and brilliantly, one of my best and oldest friends, Steven Malcolm, had come up for the weekend as well. Steve is a wonderful writer, but had never performed his work before. Verbalise marked his first ever open mic. He read two short stories – the first about a bystander struggling to process the accident they’d witnessed, and the second about a man who married a Volvo. They were dreamy, dark and very good.

After the interval – oh, lawks – it was my turn. I gabbled my way through a hapless introduction, and then I started reading stories from Marrow. For all the fear I’d endured throughout the day, I found my groove fairly quickly. I started with The Black And The White Of It, then read Hutch, then new piece The Jubilee Best Cake Competition. I’d originally planned on performing this last piece with an accent, in the style of a well-to-do Yorkshire dear (more like Alan Bennett, probably) but I bottled it at the last moment. I’ll try and summon courage at my next open mic. Maybe. After those three stories, I made a rare switch to poetry. I read Was I Scottish, which is about the dissonance I feel at being Scottish/English/British/whitever, and then my own entry for the Drowned Villages competition, which is called Coffin Routes. Both seemed to go over quite well. (Curiously, I found the poems much easier to perform than the stories. I’m still not sure why, given how fundamentally unsure I feel about my poetry. I’ll brew on this a wee while longer.)

After the poems, I went back to Marrow. I performed the title story, which I’m pleased to say elicited palpable disgust in the audience, followed it with Circle Stone, then finished with the elegiac After The Rain. I garbled something about my book and my blog, and then I fled the stage. I sat in my chair and stared at the floor for many minutes. I struggled to swallow. 

Here’s the thing. I think it was a good set. But I have no idea of the passage of time for the duration of the performance. I have no idea if I was up there for three minutes or thirty. Quite sincerely, I cannot comprehend how much time went by. My brain eliminated the tick of the clock, sacrificed to a balance of performance, finding the microphone, reading the book, reading the audience, judging myself, monitoring my breath and not falling over. I needed to recover.

Afterwards, still calming down, I nattered with friends old and new. I discovered that the event had sold out, which is most excellent – the Warehouse was over capacity even before a few more folk snuck in to stand. I also sold eight more books. A quarter of my hundred copies have gone in the first week. (If you’d like one, wander this way.) Even better, compere Ann The Poet has asked me back to headline again in 2015.

Despite the terrors of anticipation, I had a good time. The expansive open mic and the positive response to my own work left me feeling great about stories and writing. I still wish there were more events and open mics in South Lakes – I look to the scenes in Glasgow and Manchester with envious eyes – but what we have in Dreamfired and Verbalise is pretty special.

Here’s a picture of me juggling a pint, a poem and my copy of Marrow.

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Drowned villages

I’m a little ashamed to say that I nearly didn’t post this. It’s probably the most amazing writing competition I’ve ever seen, and I’m so hungry for it that a purely selfish part of me doesn’t want anyone else to know about it. But that’s not how a writing community functions, and I’d rather the prize-winner was the best possible piece of work. So take a look at this: a brand new poetry competition where the top prize is having your work soundtracked by Mogwai.

In case you missed that, I’ll say it again.

THE TOP PRIZE IS HAVING YOUR WORK SOUNDTRACKED BY MOGWAI.

I’ve written about Mogwai before (here and here). They recorded my favourite ever album, Come On Die Young, and they’ve been one of my favourite bands for well over a decade. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have soundtracked around half my writing output. Although I don’t really count myself a poet, this is too good an opportunity to miss. What’s more, the theme is tight and thrilling: the judges are seeking poems about drowned villages, and this is where the competition gets really interesting. There’s a submerged village in Lanarkshire in Scotland; another in Cumbria in England; and a third in Gwynedd in Wales. The competition is only open to library members of those specific regions. By happy coincidence, I’ve been a member of Cumbria Libraries for years.

The judges are Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead, top poet Ian McMillan and Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire. I’ve never known a catchment so small for such an intriguing competition, such big judges and such an amazing prize. The theme really sings to me; I’ve written before about my love of French mystery drama The Returned (also soundtracked by Mogwai) which features a drowned village, and I’ve often been haunted by the thought of steeples emerging from Haweswater.

By weird coincidence, I also have the makings of a poem that fits the theme. A year or so ago, I started work on a piece about the landscapes of the Lakes. While I was pleased with the language and form, I couldn’t find a hook to hang it on, and abandoned it unfinished. This competition gives me the hook.

I’ve spent most of today working on the poem, writing and redrafting and always reading – reading it to myself, reading it to the cats – trying new forms, new phrases. I’m pleased with it, as far as it goes, but I’m really unsure about my poetry, and I don’t know how it will fare against stiff competition. I’m going to revisit several more times over the rest of the month, and submit only when it’s as tight as possible.

Soundtracked by Mogwai. A man can dream…

UPDATE – If you want to see my thoughts on the winning poems, mosey over here.

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Fenland wyrdly

I’ve lived in England for thirteen years, on and off, with stints in Edinburgh, Inverness and Australia. Aside from Cumbria, which is the closest thing to home I’ve felt in my adult life, and London, which is a bubble, I often feel a stranger here. Despite moving around so often, there are big chunks of the country I’ve never seen. East Anglia is one of them. We spent this weekend exploring the area as research for my next novel, which is called Grisleymires. On Friday we drove down a smart diagonal sweep across the country from Burneside in Cumbria to Kirby Cross, almost on the Naze, and stayed the night with friends. On Saturday morning we jagged back up to Wisbech, stopping at Wicken and Ely. For the first time, I’ve been to the Fens.

Grisleymires has been in the back of my head for a while. From the beginning, I knew that it was set in a swamp – the earliest incarnation of the story was essentially Time Bandits with bog bodies. It’s evolved massively since then, but the marsh has been a constant: I want to write about mud and water. I’m now quite secure in the plot, but the location has been troubling me. Location is crucial to the way I write, and I didn’t feel confident in my knowledge of any British bogs. I picked the Fens on instinct, and decided to find out more from there.

The first person I spoke to about Fenland felt so negatively about it that he could only laugh hysterically. He’s one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met, and he simply couldn’t formulate words to describe how powerfully it repelled him. That was exactly the sort of start I was hoping for. Since then, people have told me that the Fens are creepy, strange, powerful and weird. Everyone talks about ‘big skies’. Now that I’ve driven through them, I can understand why. It’s the flattest landscape I’ve ever seen. The horizon is broader, the perspective unnerving, the sky an impossible bowl. There are miles at a time without undulation – miles without trees. Ditches run in straight lines to vanishing points. In places, roads run lower than canals, with dykes and bridges guiding the contours. It’s especially strange near the coast, where the horizon is curtailed by the shore.

We stopped at Wicken Fen, where I stood in the blustering wind and stared into the winter sun. Tall grass became an ocean and hissed at me in waves. I never expected so much noise from emptiness. The sun turned orange, and the dusk turned blue, and pylons hung like giants against the scraps of cirrus. At one point, we drove along beneath a dyke for a mile or more. The road turned sharply up the bank and at the top, blinded by sunset, the world opened up like Noah’s flood – the entire horizon drowned in water, withered trees and battered shrubs emerging in silhouette against the sun. That was the road to Wisbech, submerged in wetlands.

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We drove the alternative route to Wisbech on undulating single track roads lined with Nissen huts and broken hedgerows, tumbledown houses and gigantic piles of sugar beet, surrounded all the while by thousands upon thousands of acres of thick, turned loam.

Wisbech was a strange town. The B&B was huge and empty. When we went to look for food, we found ourselves in what seemed to be a red light district. Drunken Polish men yelled at each other across the street, while girls on corners danced to techno on CD stereos. On Friday night, above the Naze, the stars were clearer than I’d seen in years; on Saturday, the sky was full of murk. On Sunday morning, we drove on Droves – lumpy roads, arrow straight for five miles or more, then zigzagging madly to meet the next. They separate broad strips of industrial agriculture, riven with canals, ditches and soakaways. All the trees wear killing coats of ivy. For the most part, we drove in silence, occasionally pointing things out to each other. The landscape was relentless without becoming monotonous.

The Fens is witchcraft and weak bridges; rotten thatch and revolution; gallows and windmills. At one point, we passed a narrowboat moored beneath a sickly weeping willow. It looked like it was about to break in half and sink. It was small, and covered with lichen, but I could still make out the name: it was called Icarus.

I don’t know if the Fens are creepy, but they are profoundly strange. We felt edgy all the time. We’re used to the cradle of the mountains, a constant presence in our peripheral vision. It’s incredibly strange to be without that subconscious company. Mon pointed out that the sheer amount of space makes you feel exposed – vulnerable. We didn’t find it creepy, so much as missing. It’s an absence, a nothing, a void. It felt like a sort of purgatory; fields unfolding endlessly, stretching on forever.

I went on this trip hoping for a sort of Green Venice, but that’s not what the Fens are about. They aren’t what I expected, or what I wanted, but maybe this trip has been exactly what I need, and here’s why:

I invented Bancree for The Visitors. It’s an amalgam of Islay, Jura, Gigha, Kintyre and the Black Isle, plus a host of other Scottish spots; and I’m already planning a novel set in a fictional city, based around my short story Vanishings. The point is this: I thought nothing of creating an island, and I can’t wait to write a city. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to consider inventing a Fenland of my own. Writing a new region into an existing geography feels more daunting than something as self-contained as an island, but that would give me the perfect environment for Grisleymires.

I’ve only started considering this today, but it’s already gathering weight. It would let me combine the heat and life of Green Venice with the sodden bogs of Islay and the upland Cumbrian basin mires with the Fens and Norfolk Broads. I could do as I pleased with accents and geography and culture, and that’s a real magnet for me. I’d be sad to leave or even dilute the Fenland folklore, though – I’ve grown attached to Tiddy Mun and Old Shuck.

As a research trip, it’s thrown up more questions than it’s answered. But that, in itself, is part of the journey.

pylons1

Resolve

I’ve always been a little dismissive of New Year’s Resolutions, because if I want to make a change in my life, that can happen any time I choose. That remains true, but there are things I want to do differently going into 2014. Post-Christmas binging is a natural place to draw a line and make a start, and I quite like the idea of formalising the changes I want to make. So here’s what’s going to happen this year:

Exercise

Because I don’t really do any, other than the odd Lakes walk and the exhaustive mania of teaching. I’ve already started walking the 2 miles to work – which I enjoy for the headspace as much as the activity – but I miss my bike and I miss my climbing. So I’m going to start cycling the long way to work and back. That’s only about 6 miles a day, so it’s not a great deal really, but it’s more than I’m doing at the moment. I’m also really keen to get back to my climbing. When I lived in London, I climbed four or five times a week. Now it’s four or five times a year. I’m going to start going for a few hours at least once a week. That, supplemented by some pull-ups at home and the cycling, should be steps in the right direction. I might even join Mon for the odd yoga, too.

Writing

The best I can hope for here is more of the same, I think. I crave more time to write, but the day jobs don’t allow it. In a good week, I get two days and two nights on my stories every week. Within that, I have specific aims for 2014. First and most important, I want Grisleymires finished in a year. This is a big ask, but it’s well planned, I’m excited by the story, and I can do it if I work hard. Research trip to the Fens in January!

Second, I want to have my flash fiction collection Marrow typeset and printed by the end of February. I’m reading at Spoken Word at the Brewery on Saturday 22nd, and I want it in my hands by then. This isn’t as big a deal as it seems; the stories are written and redrafted ten times over, and having typeset it once already as practice, I know glimmers of InDesign. With some guidance from knowledgeable friends and a few late nights, I think I can send the manuscript off to Inky Little Fingers in a few weeks. I’ve already saved most of the £225 it’ll cost to print 100 copies, so that’s not going to hurt my wallet too much.

Third, I want to keep on performing. 2013 was a turning point for me in reading my work aloud, and I want to push that as far as I can. Reading live brings an entirely new aspect to the way I write, and this is something I want to keep developing – pushing towards more theatrical performance where my confidence allows it.

Fourth, I want to submit my work to more competitions. I’ve never entered any of the big short story competitions before now, and I’m going to try and start this year. And I want to write new pieces, too, if the ideas keep coming to me. I’m not going to rehash old stories. I’ve pretty much drawn a line under my older work, but for two particular pieces: the excellent people at Comma Press have been considering my short story Every State In America for their delayed Reveal anthology for a couple of years. They’ll have first refusal on it for as long as it takes; being published by Comma would be an incredible honour. The other piece is called Art Is Long, Life Is Short, which is perhaps three years old and freshly redrafted for the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines strand. That’s ready to go when the submission window opens in January.

Fifth, I want to finish Year Of The Whale, my long-running novella about a whale beached in Morecambe Bay. It’s been work in progress for three or four years, and it’s overdue. But writing resolutions one through four come first.

That’s lots of resolutions wrapped up in two strands, really. Writing and exercise. I’m only going to buy the time for everything else if I start saying no to low-paid film jobs, so I’m not doing any freebies/cheapies this year unless they have a clear benefit further down the line. I’m also going to try and rein in my irrational compulsion to reply to emails RIGHT THIS SECOND. I just don’t have the time. Most of the email I receive can probably wait until I’m ready. The point of all of this is to spend more quality time with Mon and Dora. Unless deadlines get in the way for either of us, we’re generally good at keeping weekends as family time, and I want that set in stone. There are a host of other things I can do towards this – less time online, for a start – and turning off the computer on free evenings. I want to read more, too.

I guess I’ve picked out goals, rather than resolutions, but it’s all the same in the end. I haven’t kept a blog to monitor resolutions before; I’m curious to see to whether writing about my success or lack thereof will impact on my success or lack thereof. Gazing into the void and so on.

2013 was a great year in many ways. Here’s to 2014, people. Be safe, be happy. Here’s a 1921 picture of a cat and a goblin in a tree:

goblin