The paradox

I’ve got to write.

But I don’t.

It feels like the most important part of who I am.

But I do it less than anything else.

Frankly, I write less than the time I spend on the toilet. And it should be noted that I don’t hang about in there. I write less than the time I spend waiting in dank woods for wounded pheasants to fall from the sky so that my dog can make a fist of retrieving them. I write less than the time I spend in school governor meetings, haranguing the children to practise the piano, or buying plants. I certainly write less than the time I spend posting pictures of hedgerows on Instagram.

Writing feels like a calling. When I was in the deepest throes of charismatic Christianity I was prophesied over at the front of a conference hall. The prophet said, ‘You are to write out what you see,’ over and over, while I stood with arms outstretched like the angel of the north, groaning, before lying on the floor on my back, my body jolting with involuntary pulses. When I was 13 I started reading Dickens because we didn’t have a television, and wrote a 9-page essay on Great Expectations, which my teacher branded ‘a real tour de force’, in lieu of actually reading it. I wrote the first draft of a novel. It took years. I built my work pattern around it, working 4 weeks and taking the fifth off, celebrating in Jamie’s Italian when I finished the draft, and soliciting the comment, ‘this is a great story and your intelligence is obvious’ from a well-known writer. If you can do a bunch of things, she said, this will be quite brilliant. I didn’t read the rest of her feedback. When I was on a retreat in Scotland I met my friend’s mum in a small house in Bo’ness. ‘So you’re the writer,’ she said, and even though I wasn’t by any evident measure, I thought yes. Yes I am. I joined a cut-throat workshop in Cambridge with ten women and me, critiquing each others’ writing, enduring the monthly butchery, sharing the brimming ambition, chiselling away at the book chapter by chapter.

And then I stopped. We stepped westward – a wildish destiny – to create a new life in the country. We bought a huge Georgian house with hardly any door handles. We decorated, and made a kitchen garden out the back. We bought a dog. I made a resolution to attend the local pub more, which led to more involvement in the community, as a newspaper editor, a school governor, a volunteer at the Parish church. I took the dog to a local pheasant shoot and became a picker up.

And all the while wrote not a word.

I’m grateful for every nanosecond of every moment with my wife, and boys. For every inch of soggy window pane in the house and every autumn fruiting raspberry in the garden. For being able to work at home. For this genuine, earthy community and the steep, small foothills of Exmoor. I know that there are people everywhere who would love to have this life.

And yet I’m doing nothing to serve my deepest ambition.

The prophet said do not write because you can, but because you must.

I’m not a breakdown kind of guy, even as I hurtle horrifically fast through my forties. But if I was, this would be it. I would set fire to all I have for the lack of the one missing jewel. Leave the ninety-nine sheep behind and leap the dry stone wall.

And yet I haven’t written a thing.

No excuse stands up. An old friend remarked, off-hand, ‘you’ve got the desire but not the will’. Which almost made sense, if I could unpick the dualism of the two. It didn’t help, but made more sense than any other diagnosis.

How to get will?

Just do it?

Because I must.

So on this gloomy September day, with no warmth from the sun but not enough chill to put on the heating, I find myself bored with work, a near-permanent state, staring out of the wet window, and googling life coaches in the area. Over the summer holidays I failed to secure an interview for a corporate job which would have been a big professional leap, with a car and bonus and ridiculous pension, despite spending days on preparatory work and tests for the application. Failure feels horrible inside, but I also know that success would have been the end of any room in my life to pick up the pen again, with longer hours and more travel and stress, to become something that I never wanted to be, except to feed my children.

Maybe it was a lucky miss.

Maybe my will has awakened.

And I don’t need a life coach. I had better coaching in a few weekends in my thirties than most people get in their lifetimes. I know what I need.

I need deadlines.

I need other people.

I need to write.

So I’m starting this blog. It’s for no one but me. It’s a place to write, absolutely anything. I’m not going to clear time for writing by cancelling other commitments. I’m going to write first, and push the other things out of the way one by one. This blog will be my cuckoo baby, fed up until the other chicks have been forced out of the nest.

For deadlines and other people, I need a writing group. The key to overcoming procrastination, of which I am a certified master (procrastinating that is, rather than overcoming), is to identify what the next single action is, and to do it. Instead of life coaches I will google writing groups, and visit a bookshop in Taunton where I believe the owner might know. I will also share this post with some people who will think of all sorts of cleverer ways to proceed than I can.

It is time.

Publish. 

quite brilliant if

Dear Gabriel,

Here it is – at long last. I’m so, so sorry it took so long. This is a great story, and your intelligence is obvious. If you can tone down the language, cut 1/2 of the adjectives and dramatise the great content, this will be quite brilliant.

Yours,

Maria

Hedgerows in bloom

There’s nothing like the hedgerows once the wildflowers start blooming. 

From the end of winter the carpet flowers arrive, waves of snowdrops followed by primroses, prickly white balls of garlic and eventually bluebells. Later, as spring becomes summer, the tall, architectural plants take over. Towers of foxglove, rosebay willowherb and sanfoin dominate whole sections of the hedges. But in between, delicate pinks, blues, whites and yellows creep forward, sometimes in rashes like the campion and cow parsley, sometimes in shy isolation like the easily overlooked wood avens. 

I only know a few names, and use guides to work them out, and there will be varities that I miss completely. Even with this half knowledge, I took the camera out when walking the dog up Maundown hill and snapped 20 different flowers. 


  1. Yellow archangel
  2. Hawthorn blossom
  3. Bush vetch
  4. Green alkanet
  5. Speedwell
  6. Wood avens
  7. Gorse blossom
  8. Red campion
  9. Bluebells
  10. Honesty
  11. Hybrid campion
  12. Spearwort
  13. Pignut
  14. Welsh poppy
  15. Herb Robert
  16. Stitchwort
  17. Dog violet
  18. Cow parsley

Benevolent beech trees

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Bowled over by the beauty of Pheasant Road today, our nickname for Challick Lane as it climbs up out of Bulland Ford. The beech trees along the top have shed enough leaves to make a bright rusty carpet below yet held on to green, orange and yellow leaves in their branches. Other trees are the same, sporting many colours across one set of leaves. The morning fog has almost cleared but enough mist remained to highlight the rays of sun seeping through the informal avenues.

Bliss.

Saw a local friend who pointed out the unusual state of the beeches. She walked around Clatworthy yesterday and said she has never seen them hold so many leaves at this time of year. Perhaps its the lack of winds or the warm temperature. Whatever it is, the countryside is regaled with their splendour. Cue applause.

To cap it off, a flash of steely blue and dark orange in the hedgerows along Dulverton Lane, as three nuthatches danced up, down and between the boughs.

Nature, I doff my cap.

My first pheasant shoot

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No photos of the shoot but this is what I brought home

If it wasn’t for the dog I wouldn’t have been there. We bought a good pedigree labrador to make sure we got a friendly, biddable family dog. The fact that some of her family line are field trial champions was incidental, until she started getting spotted in the street.

People want to know who the breeder is or when we’re going to have puppies. One lady took one look and invited Tilly up to the pheasant shoot on her farm. There’s breeding for you.

So we went. Try anything once. Here’s how it works (for complete noobs, of which I am one). There are four groups of people on the shoot: the beaters, who drive the pheasants with flags and spaniels over the hill top; the guns, standing at the bottom of a valley shooting the birds as they fly overhead; the pickers-up, positioned behind the guns to watch where the birds fall and send retrievers to collect them; and the organisers, who set positions, provide refreshments, drive the game cart and make sure it all runs smoothly.

So at 9:30am a great congregation of waterproofed people and excited dogs assembled in the farm courtyard. The beaters, including two of my boys, rode in a horse box up to the first hill, while everyone else walked down to their positions in the valley. After the first drive the spoils were collected and the party moved down to a spinney for a cup of hot soup. The beaters travelled to the other side of the estate, flushing the birds over the valley further down (“one of the best drives in Somerset,” I was told, “they come like shit off a shovel”). The third drive was back near the farm after which everyone met in the barn. The wood stove was burning, packed lunches came out and port was offered around the tables. We left early but the shoot went on for another two drives before the group finished with supper.

It was a full day. It takes time to get everyone in position, including the pheasants: they have to be flushed out of the hedges into the main kale fields before being driven over the valley. Guns have to be unpacked and loaded, dogs have to be managed, and the nearest thing to silence achieved before the shooting begins.

And no one was in a rush. I was a little bored because my job was to stand with the pickers-up with the dog on a lead so that she could get used to the clamour. I kept thinking how they could run the operation quicker. On reflection, they probably couldn’t, but to speed up would be to miss the point anyway. The whole exercise was a social event. Most of the 7-8 hours were spent walking together through exquisite autumn countryside, chatting in the valley, eating together in the barn.

It put a dent in my assumption that this sort of thing is elitist. Here was a local family and their friends enjoying a day outside, mixing sport with catching up. There were three generations shooting together (how many other teenagers spend a whole Saturday doing a shared activity with their parents and grandparents?). Other people, like me, who’d come to join in with dogs or to help with the beating were welcomed completely.

Sport, tradition, socialising at an open event. I might feel differently about a large commercial shoot, or one of the celebrity events that also happen in this neck of the woods (latest sightings in the Wivey Gun Shop are Daniel Craig and Vinny Jones), but this shoot felt inclusive and positively egalitarian.

Even the clothes, which might look funny to outsiders, make sense when you’re there. My middle-class-national-trust-photographing Regatta fleece and waterproofs were okay, but for picking through dense brambles, or beating through shoulder-high kale, a thick wax coat would be much better. As would a light shirt, rather than a fleece, so you don’t overheat. And a hat with a brim – useful when hot shot is raining down (many shots are taken almost vertically).

At least I had the right wellies.

I get the appeal of the actual shooting – the birds rise up high over the bank, appearing to pause for a moment before arrowing overhead. It’s about predicting the line and getting an accurate shot away.

And the pheasants themselves? On this shoot, they all get eaten. I came away with two brace and cooked up cassoulet with chorizo and butter beans in the evening. Everyone in the party had their own favourite recipe. The birds start off protected in huge pens, before spending a few weeks in the wild, eventually being shot. They’re free range.

As for the dog, she loved it. There must have been 20 other dogs there at least, mainly labradors and small spaniels, and one young flat-coated retriever. She was giddy at first but the pack calmed her down, with experienced hounds modelling controlled behaviour and giving her the odd warning nip if she became too playful.

For the first drive we stood to the side watching, hearing the guns pretty close. For the second, we stood right between two shooters as they blasted away, and she didn’t bat an eyelid. So she’s not gun-shy. At the third we stayed with a more experienced dog, Tilly remaining on the lead, so that she could see him fetching birds and have a good sniff of the quarry when it returned.

The dogs’ job is simple: sit quietly until asked to retrieve a pheasant. But to train a dog to make no sound at all and sit without moving for half an hour while guns fire and pheasants fly overhead or break for cover on the ground takes some doing. Sometimes the birds are pricked – hit but not killed – and the dogs have to gather them carefully and bring them back still alive. I watched a small black lab do it effortlessly, finding the cockbird in the scrub and holding it up to his master, not dropping it at his feet so it could run away.

So if we go again, and I think we will, Tilly will need some training.

Country talk


Last night I talked with a friend about the community juicing machine that pulps and squeezes your apple glut, and the pasteuriser that goes with it if you want to store the juice for longer. 

It’s just normal, for there to be a common apple juicer. And a community herb garden. And to get stuck behind a tractor taking the potato harvest down the hill to town. We were walking the dog this side of the Brendon Hills at lunchtime today, where it’s all farmland, and a couple of tractors were ferrying the vegetable hoard in massive yellow trailers down the hill. The lane is very narrow despite it being the main road up to Exmoor, but I’m yet to meet a driver round here who won’t immediately attempt to reverse to a passing place or pull in to let you pass, even with tonnes of spuds in his rear view mirror. 

The sun was pure and hot as we walked. Surely the cut hedgerows will start to grow again in this warmth: thin arms reaching ridiculously upwards from the buzzcut bush. And there were new blackberry flowers, just like the second crop on my chilli plants. 

At home I phoned the log guy to order firewood for the winter. It’s a good week to have it delivered even if it’s not yet cold enough to use it. Wood delivery day is one of my favourite days of the year. 

All this is a far cry from conversations about Homebase and movies and restaurants and cycle lanes and the quickest route around town avoiding the traffic jams that we used to have a few years ago. We’re properly in the country now. 

Running around Clatworthy

clatworthy-run

This is the second time I’ve run around Clatworthy Reservoir. It’s almost exactly 5 miles from the car park, clockwise round the lake, to the end of the dam. It’s so inviting: a grassy track, the width of the Ranger’s truck, tracing the water’s edge and tributaries, rising and falling with the hills, and not another person in sight.

Last time there were fishermen standing in the shallows or out in rowing boats; this time I saw no one. Last time the water level was low; this time it was even lower. The reservoir is shaped like a horned lizard, with corners of water at the top making a face and horns, two spurs for legs down the east side, and a sweeping tail at the bottom. After a dry summer the level is so meagre that the horns, face and tail are all dry but for the streams cutting through the mud. The streams are bubbly though after recent rain so the water may be returning.

It also means that the paths are getting muddy, which will put a stop to running. I slipped a little today on the up slopes, and had to leap a couple of boggy patches. But compared to my previous run I’m now half-fit, and pushed myself harder, clocking 43 minutes compared to a laborious 50. Sub 40 minutes on this surface will be a good aim.

I memorised the mile markers before starting off, which helped. I don’t do running technology, because I don’t need it, don’t want look like a prick, and hate having things stuck to me while running. All you need is a proper pair of shoes. It’s a freedom that seems to me to be the spirit of running – free for everyone, to do anywhere.

Miles one and two passed steadily. The third mile looked the easiest, up the back of the lizard to its horns, which you can see ahead. It took ages. The fourth mile looked long, and includes a climb through the trees, but a second wind carried me through. The last mile is the long steep path up the hill of the old fort, which nearly finished me, and the severe descent was no reward either, trying to recover my breath while braking hard with aching calves and trying not to slip on the slaggy mud.

For the joy of seeing all the wildlife though, I’d do it again tomorrow. Two roe deer thundered away across the field next to me, while rabbits and pheasants scattered at almost every turn. The odd grey squirrel ran ahead down the path and all manner of bird calls rung out overhead. At the start, a big old buzzard wheeled over the diminished lake, while a patrol of seagulls marshalled a lone cormorant off the water.

Back in the car Radio 4 was discussing a global survey about rest, finding that being on their own and spending time in a natural environment are the two most restful activities for people (after reading). 16% of people said exercise is restful. A few boxes ticked there then. I’ll tell that to my aching muscles tomorrow.

September: the month of the pheasant

They’re everywhere. Littering the lanes like loose bowling pins, startling out of the undergrowth when we walk past, adorning fence posts and gates, picking their way upright through the fields.

It’s the month of the pheasant. Not long ago they were chicks, hatched in their thousands and nurtured in enclosures around the countryside. Soon they’ll be flushed into the air by slobbering spaniels and shot before they know it. I won’t touch a gun but some will end up on my plate courtesy of my beater friend.

In September the birds are released into the wild to fatten up, grow tail feathers and deepen the hue of their plumage. They don’t stray much further than the feeding stations scattered about the hills. Where the food is close to a road, the fowl spill all over it, bringing traffic to a halt. Some roads are virtually closed. Many carry warning signs. They are stock for the shooting trade: please don’t liquidate them.

I’ve found that driving really slowly doesn’t make them shift. They simply walk ahead of the car with no apparent sense of danger. You have to get the engine bellowing a little, approach with a bit more speed, to scatter them left and right. Just be prepared to brake.

Every day you’ll see a car or two that has a rugby ball sized amendment to its bodywork; airborne pheasants leave a surprisingly big dent. There are plenty dead on the roads, despite the signs. I’ve avoided them so far but it’s only a matter of time.

The dog thinks it is wonderful. Some walks, like the ascent from Waterrow to Chipstable, are so bedecked with cocks and hens that she spends the entire walk darting here and there, flushing out, chasing only a few yards before another bird rears up for her attention. It’s clear that she doesn’t want to catch them though. She has no killer instinct. When she gets close to her prey she slows down, gives it a chance to take flight or squeeze though the fence. Then she speeds up again as though she almost had it this time.

I think pheasants are beautiful. When the male plumage is mature it is a rich suit of colours. Now that I appear to live in the pheasant capital of the world, it’s not such a rare treat to spot one, standing erect like a firebrand in a meadow, but they are handsome creatures nevertheless. I’ve noticed occasional black pheasants and even a single white one in the melee.

September is their heyday. They’ve got it made. Few will survive the autumn but they don’t know that. They’ve had sheltered lives and have now been released into the wild. But they don’t ever really become wild. They never were.

Foraging

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Nothing compares to growing your own food and cooking with it. The garden has started to  yield produce so on top of the early rhubarb we’re eating strawberries, beetroot and salad leaves. The kale is ready and, amazingly, not destroyed by cabbage white caterpillars, and the blueberries are not far off.

Foraged food comes a close second though. There’s something primal about collecting sustenance from the natural land yet the stronger feeling I have is amazement that you can just wander into the countryside and help yourself. It feels too easy, too rewarding, as though its poaching and we’ll eventually get caught. I suppose that feeling will wear off but for now as a supermarket-raised urbanite I’m enjoying every minute of raiding the bounty of the hedgerows and getting away with it.

Earlier in the year we wilted garlic leaves as a side dish (next year I’m told we should make pesto). Last week we picked elderflower heads and steeped them in sugary water to make a delicious cordial; so easy, so fresh. And today I made an Italian torta with wild strawberries. The boys and I cycled to Ford to the array I spotted the other day and picked around 3 or 4 hundred. They’re tiny compared to cultivated strawberries, the size of currants, and have an almost artificial pear-drop edge to their taste.

They look great and the tart is delicious.

Oxenleaze Brake

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Oxenleaze fishing lake

How could you resist a footpath curling through a valley called Oxenleaze Brake? Oxenleaze is a farm just over Heydon Hill below which a semicircular gully with a thin brook leads to three fishing lakes. The name Brake is probably from the archaic word for a thicket, although it’s not impossible that it refers to a place that the stream has been slowed down, or to brake ferns.

It was a picturesque place to discover with the dog and there was not a soul around despite the benches alongside the lakes. The sun was shining while large fish lazed at the surface of the water and lambs, toughening up as spring becomes summer, charged around in groups, not entirely wary of the dog. Rooks wheeled over the fields in a big group and the path eventually led out into open pasture, having tracked the fence of a pheasant enclosure for a while.

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Navelwort

We crossed the field to the lane at the other side where there were two interesting things in the hedgerow: an impressive cluster of navelwort, a demure but pretty flower deserving a more elegant name, and a nest buried deep in the hedge from which I could hear the shrill calls of baby birds. Two adults flew out in a flash of red so impressive that I suspect they were probably bullfinches, although there are some bright chaffinches around too.

On the way back out of the gully the clouds restricted the sunlight to one Refreshers coloured field at a time.

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Fields above Oxenleaze Brake

Hedgerows and the seeds that float


The hedgerows are bursting with pink, cream and yellow flowers, with cow parsley craning out into the road and bluebells hiding at its feet. The lanes are suddenly only half as wide and every bank is a display surpassing the best Chelsea show garden; for originality, spontaneity and vivacity. These ensembles cost nothing to create and will last for weeks.

Not forever though – at some point the farmers will tidy up the lanes and cut them back with tractor-mounted mowers.

The relatively modest hedgerow above is in Raddington, to whose tiny, wonky windowed church we walked down a long hill. We met yet another friendly landowner. Part of the footpath between two gates was being used to contain sheep having their feet done; the farmer apologised profusely and led us instead through her chicken enclosure, a polytunnel, and finally the goat paddock to rejoin the path.

We stopped halfway down the hill to rest and drink from the stream. White seeds floated gently by on the breeze. Nothing says summer like seeds drifting past in the air. Why are they so evocative and soothing? Perhaps both seeds and snowflakes remind us that we move and breathe in air as they fall softly through it, demonstrating its resistance, its support. They show up something that is often invisible about nature: it’s kindness. In the heat or warmth of the year the air freely, surreptitiously, sustains our life.

Or maybe it just reminds me of sitting in a sunny beer garden with a pint.

Bluebells

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I have been stunned by the bluebells. I don’t remember them growing up in Northumberland and I always assumed that the classic photo of them – a rich purple carpet fitted around the trees and stretching off into the wood – was the careful composition of a photographer working with a small, rare patch of flowers.

Not so. At least, not in West Somerset. This year, I see bluebells every time I leave the house. If I walk the dog near woodland, then we find a sea of bluebells worthy of any professional photoshoot. It feels indulgent and almost embarrassing for nature to put on such a luxuriant display.

I walked last week from Monksilver up Bird Hill towards Ralegh’s Cross. The path ascends through thick woodland with only an occasional glimpse through the branches across to Minehead and the South Wales coast. And for almost a mile, the path was flanked by a wide stream of bluebells on both sides, stacking up on the hill to the left and flowing down among the trees to the right. It’s by far the largest display I’ve seen, and as with most of the beautiful walks around here, I had it completely to myself. Well, apart from the dog.

I still love cut flowers in the house, but it does seem little silly to pay for a few stems that last only a week when the countryside is lavishing waves of primroses, wild garlic flowers and bluebells on every hedgerow and under every tree.

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‘Youngleaf autumn’

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This is not the picture I wanted to show you.

A week ago I walked the dog up from Fitzhead and along the ridge towards Milverton. The tracks impassable in winter due to the high mud were finally solid enough to walk on. Some of the fields were freshly ploughed and others were blossoming with oilseed adding earthy red and bright yellow to the patchwork of colours.

It was around 5pm when I drove back towards home, coming down off the ridge down this lane towards Croford.

That’s when the magic happened.

As we dipped down the hill the sun was low on the left, dodging through thin, hazy clouds which instead of washing everything out scattered the light in such a way that the colours of the quilted landscape became iridescent. This strange light, falling on the young leaves of the trees, which carry many more colours than green alone as they emerge, highlighted the yellows and oranges and browns of the wood that you can see on the hilltop – the site of an old fort – so that the view became autumnal; but instead of the bright colours of decay, that final flourish of dry gaudiness before the fall, this display was born of new life shimmering into existence on the delicate tips of woody fingers.

It was like nothing I’ve seen before in England, reminding me instead of the light in Provence, and yet more timid and ephemeral. In the spirit of naming things, let’s christen this a youngleaf autumn.

I was driving so I didn’t photograph it. Then I was away. When I finally got back up there today, the sun was higher in the sky and the leaves already conforming to the verdant scene, so that there was nothing to see except a hill and a winding lane and that will have to do.

But earlier in the day I was up the beech avenue on Heydon Hill just as the midday sun forced its way through the diaphanous young beech leaves, and that was pretty special too, and this time I did take a shot.

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Is the country better for writing?

And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny.

William Wordsworth

At the end of July we’re moving to the county where Henry Fielding was born and where Chaucer worked as a forester whilst writing The Canterbury Tales. It is the county in which Thomas Hardy dwelt for a time, where Arthur C. Clarke grew up, where John Steinbeck stayed to research and where T.S. Eliot chose to have his ashes interred. More recently, it is where Terry Pratchett dreamt up Discworld, where John Le Carré resided and where Fay Weldon and Charlotte Bingham are united in prolificacy, if not in style.

Specifically, we’re heading to the hills and moors where Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was penned, where his friend Wordsworth moped about for a year, in the wild country of Lorna Doone.

We have just been filmed for a TV property show about the move (on your telly in December) in which the storyline of ‘writer moving to country for inspiration’ will play a part.

It’s a pervasive myth, that the countryside is more inspiring for writing. I adore the graphic novel Tamara Drewe, with its old Dorset guest home packed full of frustrated novelists retreating to the pastoral to find the space to work.

But is the country really a better place to get writing done?

The occasions on which I’ve written productively in remote places in the past owe a lot to being away: away from family and work life, with nothing else to think about. This time the crew are coming too. I’ll be working still, with a much longer commute. There’ll be all the resettling of kids into schools and possibly all the work involved in modernising a historic building.

It certainly won’t be a retreat. The first time that we have to drain the septic tank will put paid to any romantic notions of the rural writing life.

As for whether or not it is a more inspiring setting, it is said that some authors face the window and some face the wall. There are those for whom a landscape stirs creative thoughts and those for whom it distracts. Looking out at the fields does not make me want to write: it makes me want to go out in the fields. The inspiration for my books is inside me. Writing needs no external vista: it is more the discipline of shutting out the view to single-mindedly type the internal ideas out.

More to the point, for an urban novel you’re probably better off in a city. And if you get energy from interacting with people and culture and ideas then you need to be around those too.

Plus there are the issues of improving as an author and getting published. Isolation is good for neither. In Cambridge I have been part of a writing group that has been critical for my novel in at least two positive senses of that word.

Of course, there is the Internet for research and culture and connection to other writers – as long as you can get it in your village. Practical considerations such as broadband access and the temperature of the room will have far more influence over my productivity than the scenic location. The discipline of creative writing is largely a practical one: arranging a warm, quiet, uninterrupted space in which to tap the keys.

On the flip side, as long as the practicalities are available, space is one thing that the country move will deliver in spades. I’m ridiculously excited about having my own study or shed to make into the perfect creative den (facing the wall, not the window).

And there’s more to the countryside than that. I find a pastoral setting the perfect place to clear my head and make good decisions. Writing is writing wherever you do it but I’m looking forward to cultivating a clear and focused mind for the work at hand.

Above all, it’s an exhilarating move all round; a new chapter of life after 17 years in a university city. It might not be the dream ticket that country life is often romantically conceived to be, but change and a new adventure are good.

Wordsworth did the same, living in Somerset for a time after studying in Cambridge. And it’s his ‘Stepping Westward’ that’s rattling round my head while we plan this move.

Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?

The power of the physical book

Books have power.

Not as much as stories. Stories predate books, and will outlive them too. The most important thing about the inevitable decline of books is that stories continue to be told, in whatever form keeps them alive, in the greatest number of minds. I don’t have a book fetish.

But there is no doubt that the physical book – the bound paper artefact – has power.

Today my photo book arrived. It tells the story of an adventure that my wife, four kids and I had in New Zealand. It tells it in photographs that I already posted on Flickr, and in words that I have already published on my blog. It goes into only a tiny amount of the detail we have related to our friends over dinner.

And yet.

And yet, it is a beautiful thing to behold. It is a beautiful thing to hold. It has weight, and sheen, and smell. I can flick through it, jump backwards and forwards among the pages, pass it to another person and watch her smile. I can crease it at my favourite pages, display it proudly on my bookshelf, write ‘Happy Birthday’ to my wife in the front. I can glimpse it in the corner and think, ‘there’s a thing that I made.’

I can’t imagine my children throwing this one away, as they clear out the attic when my wife and I are dead. They’ll flick through the pages too, and wonder at their young selves, and show their own offspring the time that Grandad marched them in the rain to see their first glacier.

Beyond that, who knows? But books have power, far more than the sum of the words within.

Annus (partim) horribilis

I’ve had better years than 2012. Apart from an amazing adventure in New Zealand back in April, which was unforgettably exciting, it has rained more often than not, I’ve made little headway on the second draft of the novel, and I’ve seen the inside of hospitals and clinics more these three months than the preceding three decades combined.

In October I started struggling to cycle and to concentrate, and my heart was beating fast. The GP thought it must be asthma. My being out of breath got so bad that Mary insisted I phone the emergency doctor straight away. The nurse who called back said, “I can hear you’re out of breath – what have you just done?” When I told her I had only stood up to answer the phone, she arranged my first ever trip in an ambulance.

I had pulmonary emboli – multiple blood clots in both lungs. Often clots are only found postmortem, having caused fatal heart attacks or strokes. I was lucky not to have died. Apparently I have a strong heart. It’s rare for a 35-year old to suffer clots, and my age is probably one of the reasons I’m still alive.

Me, with pulmonary emboli, earlier

The strangest part of the condition is that we couldn’t identify a cause. No major injury or (recent) long haul flying, no history of embolism in the family. In May, when I’m off the anticoagulants, I’ll be tested for hereditary factors that may have allowed the clotting, perhaps needing the medicine for life. If it isn’t genetic, then the worry is that the same situation could arise again.

The hardest part has been the recovery – the grey area between serious illness and fitness. In hospital you know where you stand, or lie, with oxygen tubes and heart monitors and 17 syringes of your blood taken at once. And at some point in the future, I’ll be back on my bike, racing up Histon Road to the office, and throwing the children in the air when I get home.

But in between? In between is tricky.

You can’t magic blood clots away. Anticoagulants prevent any new clots forming and allow existing clots to naturally dissolve. But that takes time. Months, in fact. Plus my heart and lungs have taken one hell of a beating, and need time to repair. After a few fatigued weeks I pitched up to the office, only to end up back at the doctor with wildly irregular heartbeats. They were benign – but a wake up call that my major organs were trying to get better and I wasn’t giving them a decent break.

It’s frustrating. Especially when, having rested, I feel bright, only to get exhausted a day after doing normal things again. I find it hard to do nothing when I’m feeling okay in the moment. I’ve tidied every cupboard in the house. Some pulmonary embolism survivors take 18 months to recover. I’m not up for that.

It might be denial but I’ve never felt ill in myself, that is, my body has been struggling but I’ve felt perfectly well inside. Only on the first night in hospital did I consider that I might be dying – I thought how much better it would be to die now and have people say, “he could have been such an amazing novelist!” than to reach old age and prove without doubt that I’m not – although I did think how awful it would be for Mary. But since that night, and the disgusting hospital breakfast that followed, I have considered myself to be basically okay and waiting for normal life to resume.

I wish it would come quicker. I don’t feel like a lucky survivor. I feel on hold, annoyed at all this unexpected inconvenience. I can’t drink over Christmas or even next Easter, on holiday with friends. I haven’t worked a full week yet. I’ve had to cancel things I really wanted to do – from applying to a Creative Writing course and attending a writers’ workshop to running some fun new training for Fluent. I’ve had plenty of time off but been unable to write. We’re in Snowdonia at Christmas but I won’t be climbing any hills. And my wife is still having to do most of the work at home.

Mary has been incredible; quite apart from saving my life in the first place by making me phone the doctor (I’m not even the first person in the family for whom she has done that). Colleagues, friends and family have been tremendously supportive. I’m grateful for all of them, and for the myriad blessings of which my life is made – energetic children, living in Cambridge, Artificial Eye DVDs, friends releasing poetry collections and albums, cooking and eating fresh mushroom soup.

But I’m ready to feel completely better. So I’m writing off the second half of 2012, doing very little over Christmas, and hoping to hit January with more gusto. Here’s to more energy, more writing, more fun. I’m wishing you all what I want for myself – a happy new year.

Envelove

In 1994, as teenagers, my now wife and I started going out. We lived 320 miles apart, and in the first year wrote 110 letters between us. 

For my letters to her, I made my own envelopes. It was a flirting thing, and a creative one. Also, I didn’t have any proper envelopes. So I grabbed whatever was around my desk  – manuscript paper, magazines, plastic folders, and used them instead.

Looking back at them now, they represent a slice of my teenage life. They’ve got my infatuation, my love of adverts, my lack of money and my procrastination from school work written all over them. They also reveal a time when tobacco was widely advertised, when the Post Office promoted post codes and products in their franking, and when diligent postmen would try their hardest to get a letter to the correct address (their pen marks are visible on some of the less legible designs). 

Would I write these letters and make these envelopes as a teenager today, with the Internet and mobile phones at my disposal? Unlikely.

Some of this collection are from the years following, when Mary went to nursing college and I took a gap year before heading to Cambridge. (I’ve redacted house numbers from personal addresses). It still amazes me, given how some of them are addressed, that every single letter got through.

See the whole collection.

I am me, doing this now

I love that. Christopher Eccleston, in the This Much I Know interview in the Observer, says that his earliest memory is:

turning right at the top of our path on my bike and saying to myself: “I am me, doing this now.” I was about four. I turned right, said that to myself and shot off.

His simple, non-specific definitions of identity and activity perfectly convey the sense of being fully in the moment. This is what children do. Usually without the words. Reading this took me instantly to a handful of strong childhood memories, times of a strong sense of me-ness and now-ness: knocking yellow plums from a tree with my school bag on the walk back home; skateboarding down a long, gently sloping lane, sitting between my sisters on the board as we steadily picked up speed; squeezing through the cool gap filled with pencil-thin branches behind the shed in the garden.

I find myself reaching in my writing for moments like this. Not literally, because my childhood is scarcely big enough for a bookful of characters and stories, but in creating episodes that have a similar nature; a quality of immediate, body-stored immanence like those childlike saturated moments.

Moments that stand irrefutably as testaments to life, to reality, to truth. Moments that just are.

Of course, the paradox is that to describe the time in writing is to stand outside of it, to judge it from an older, removed standpoint. To take what was actually in the muscle and the nerves and translate it into words for the mind. To be through time instead of in it.

<As soon as a writer thinks about how she will describe an experience later that she is now, the moment is lost. Incessant notetakers and analysts become the photographer who is always there but never in any of the pictures, and whose subjects always look first and foremost like they are being photographed.

The four-year-old Eccleston had perfect words at the time for his moment, although the power of them is brought through a description that he gives us as an adult. At some point I’d like to write  a book in the first person present tense exactly to capture that immediacy and identity.

But how to convey it now, in the third person, past tense?

Eccleston’s words reminded me of Dave Eggers, in a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, when he somehow makes a moment more vivid by positioning us at some distance from the scene.

Please look. Can you see us? Can you see us, in our little red car? Picture us from above, as if you were flying above us, in, say, a helicopter, or on the back of a bird, as our car hurtles, low to the ground, straining on the slow upward trajectory but still at sixty, sixty-five, around the relentless, sometimes ridiculous bends of Highway 1.

This is ludicrously clever, conveying the sensation of driving by observing from a distance, yet by imagining oneself flying in a helicopter or fantastically on a bird’s back, projecting the experience of motion and giddiness and thrill onto what one sees.

He gives the reader a position from which the moment comes alive.

I’m trying in my own writing to take a position inside the musculature of the characters, to feel the physical sensations of the moment. How successful this is, I don’t know yet. But that’s how I’m trying to do it.

And I am me, writing this now.

Succeed as a writer: stop wanting to be one

Bowling with my son at his friend’s birthday party at the weekend I met a published novelist who also teaches English and creative writing. I won’t name her because I’m not entirely comfortable with reproducing private conversations in public without permission, but I thought that you might find something she said interesting.

She has held positions at both universities in Cambridge and has ambivalent feelings about teaching creative writing (although from her tone and the look on her face on Sunday I would say that the negative feelings are winning out). I asked her if that was because you can’t really teach talent.

‘No’, she said, ‘because you can teach technique. The reason I hate teaching creative writing is the high levels of delusion among the students. They want to be writers.’

They picture satisfied authors whose works of fiction are published and admired, who have made it, to the point of being able to devote themselves to penning whatever they want for the rest of their lives.

And that’s not how it works for most people.

So she tries to instill some realism. About most people who create fiction having to do it in their spare time. About the fill-in jobs and the bits and pieces that you have to do if you do want to make writing pay. About the hard work to produce a book that you are actually proud of, and then the small likelihood that anyone will want to publish it.

None of this will be new to you, if you’re writing yourself, or if you’ve heard me whining on about how hard it can be, but the next thing she said was more surprising:

‘The ones who are just doing the course for fun are the best, or the ones who are using the course to get something finished; because they don’t have unrealistic expectations, and because they actually get on and write.’

If you want to be a writer you’ve got the wrong focus. You’ve got to want to write, and then actually do it. Almost as though there is a paradox that to become a writer you’ve got to stop wanting it, and just start writing instead.

You’ve got to write because you want to, not because of something you want to become.

I talk about both on this blog: writing and being a writer. I do want to be an author but am realistic (I think) about the path I’m on. It takes time. There are no guarantees. My first novel may not get published. Nor my second. I already know how many I’ll produce without publication before giving up on that particular form. Then I’ll try something else.

So a good reminder, as my son came last in the bowling and I encouraged him that I was pretty sure he had scored more than the last time he played. Don’t worry about being a bowler, son, just keep on bowling.

Most people have got what they wanted

You’re a writer. You should write. Some people write just anything – the important thing is that they’re doing it. Others only want to write certain things. I’m like that. I want to write novels. If you’re like that you’ve got to get serious, organise your life around it, enrol your wife in the vision, find a way to make it work.

It won’t work without commitment. Not passion-commitment or persistence-commitment, but the kind of commitment that is a decision from which you will never back down. You choose to make this work – and that’s that. I suspect this only works when the decision connects with the deeper commitments of who God has made you to be. Don’t wait for God. He moves when you commit.

Realise that the writers who get published are the ones who keep writing, keep editing and keep trying to get published, not the ones who are the best at writing.

It’s important to be realistic. Writing is hard work and it might not make you happy. Who would read or buy what you’re writing anyway? What are you aiming for here – is it possible and does it ever happen?

You’ve got to decide what you want. Getting published is easier than ever. You can self-publish online, either as a blog, or a free e-book, or with no overheads through a publish-on-demand service. Getting published with a traditional publisher is still very hard. Making a little money off writing is pretty easy. Making a lot is difficult, but possible.

Make the most of opportunities to write while the risk is low. You should always start with a back up plan, not because you’ll quit trying to write, but because there are many variables and success might take time to come.

And it takes time to learn how to work at writing. I started my novel in 2007 and then quit for a whole year when #3 son was born. It wasn’t going very well anyway – I hadn’t learned how to sit down and write. I started the whole thing again in Sep 08 and again took about a year to produce not very much. But I was learning what my demons are, and how they win, and how to beat them sometimes, and how to carry on regardless. I still struggle but have written with much more discipline over the last 8 months. I feel like I’m starting to get there – learning the trade.

I just wrote this to a friend who wants to be a writer (personal references removed). The thing I forgot to add was that life is too short to think about being a writer instead of getting on and doing it. You have to want it enough. You have to want it more that the type of safe, uncreative job that most people prefer (whatever they say). And then you have to do it.