Whispers and Seaglass
No place has but four seasons, and Alentejo is no different. Summer, yes, of course it is, but it is no longer the days of the wildflower-rich, high-sun summer, nor the screaming swift summer, nor the misty haar-wreathed nights summer. Now is the time for the wind, for warning of extreme fire risk, of small but perfectly succulent blackberries, bursting with flavour, of the nights cooling, and the ever-swelling green globes of the next crop of oranges, hiding in plain sight. This is the summer which whispers of autumn.
The swifts have gone. For a few weeks their numbers had halved, the adults bidding tchau! to their progeny, leaving them to swoop and swallow, to carve the air with new wings, calling to their classmates and then, suddenly, disappear themselves. When this happened, I am unsure. I just noticed they were all gone on the 1st of August, the skies still speckled with swallows and martins, but silent of swifts. The summer whispers of autumn.
At night, the owls call, and the comet has passed, no longer a feature to be admired with naked eyes or, even better, with binoculars. All ages of change have a fiery-tailed star, and ours is no different. I wonder what those in this corner of the world thought of the comet’s last appearance, 6800 years ago? This was also a period of great change, hunter-fisher-gathering beginning to be replaced by farming. Here, in this period, the very first Dolmen, or Cromlech, tombs anywhere in the world were first constructed (and we do not really know if they were tombs, or something else). It is tempting to wonder what this same comet meant to those long ago people. For me, it was a chance to be reminded of how fleeting life is, how marvellous and how wonderful it is to be such a small part of an intricate whole and, I suspect, they felt a similar way. The owls still hoot, as their ancestors undoubtedly did then; they call to one another across the valley, reciting the story of summer, of a summer now whispering of autumn.
As you may, or may not, have noticed, I did not have time to share more words with you last month as I had intended. It was a busy month, with lots achieved but still yet more to do. I also forgot to include the graph of subscribers I mentioned, and I shall save this for another missive at some point, when I talk about promotion, readership, and what works, what does not.
The photos accompanying this piece are the beachcombing trophies, from one small beach in Orkney, earned a few years ago. Seaglass, flotsam and jetsam, and collected beauty have recently been a topic of discussion so, I thought, why not share these photos here? These, along with more pictures of actual beaches, were taken with the intention of illustrating an as-yet-unfinished essay on the subject of beachcombing. For now, they serve as pretty pictures — some of you may have seen these before, but I think they are beautiful enough to warrant another sharing!
The deadline for this newsletter is fast approaching, so let’s get to to the interesting stuff…
TKBaby, my accidental, still-untitled novel has now undergone a rather time-consuming line-edit. The book is not finished yet. As I draft and edit, I keep a separate Scrivener text file, in which I list notes and ideas to return to later in the editing process. This document includes thoughts about character, for example, and, at other times, I may scribble something down about checking my background information, ensuring that the nuts and bolts of the world in which these stories are set fit together to produce a well-oiled machine, rather than a clanking, clunky, error-laden disaster. This might be something as simple as checking the precise details of a location I have already shared in an earlier story — REMEMBER, there are already four Tales of The Lesser Evil out in the world, with another four on their way (FIVE of the final eight will be free!) — or it might be something which will involve considerable research, which interrupts the flow of earlier drafts and edits.
I have this list to tick off but, this week and next, my priority has to be the maps which accompany TKBaby and TKBabyBonus. I am heading to France mid-August, pandemic-restrictions willing and, seeing as the flight is carry-on only, and I’ll be away for a month, I don’t want to have to give space to extra paper, more pens, paints, etc. The map already looks quite good, with a first glimpse of the thousand thousand islands of The Ribbon, and a part of The Interior not-yet-seen.
You shall have further news about these new stories within the next few weeks. Needless to say, I am very excited to share this accidental novel with you. It is breathless, fast-paced and flowing, full of deep fear and constantly propelled by the ragged self-belief and refusal to lose hope of the main character. It is good.
Fantastic Shorts (no, not great summer-wear)
This month, my novella Only One Death is a part of a group promotion over on StoryOrigin, entitled Fantastic Shorts (Quick Fantasy Reads). I like that it has a home here for August, it fits neatly. There are over fifty other stories to choose from you should definitely have a look, after all, these tales are all FREE, simply in exchange for an email address and signing up to an author’s newsletter (from which — like this one — you can always unsubscribe).
Next month, it is likely you shall hear more about book review opportunities — I would like to give away some review copies of Death & Taxes and, once published, TKBaby. If this is something which might interest you, watch this space, or you can even hit reply to this email.
This is me, The Author
In my last newsletter, Time and Magic, I gave a brief run down of my current writing projects for those of you who are new here, There are, at the time of writing, 236 of you receiving this newsletter, which is a delight and a worry at the same time. Delight, because I obviously want to reach as many people as possible with my words, pass on details of my work, try and gain new readers and entertain them, tell them stories that I believe matter. Worry because I am always worried about how others feel. I can’t help it, I have a far too deeply empathetic make up — what if these newsletters no longer entertain, or what if my words upset someone? I worry about these things, then remind myself it is not possible to please everyone, all the time. Then worry again, later.
In keeping with my catch-ups for new newsletter readers, perhaps a potted autobiography will help? I know I, for one, am always interested in the author’s background, what went into the recipe of creation, to produce such a dish? I touched on this last month and expand upon it below. Writing memoir, infused with my observations and thoughts of the world around us, especially historical, cultural, and natural, is something I enjoy immensely. One day, I intend to write several books of memoir, but sadly I do not currently have the time. For this reason, the following condenses decades into paragraphs, a life into a page. A skeleton tale, to later flesh out, missing much, and avoiding some things best left to longer-form writing.
We are all a beach, covered in treasures to be uncovered, pieces of driftwood, rolled seaglass memory, shards of tumbled pottery, old bones and carried seeds, we are all that beach contains, ripe for discovery. Every single one of us is a multitude of tales, constantly washed by waves of time, our stories rearranged by the water, by the scouring winds, slipping sand and stone.
Writers are cannibalistic magpies, collecting, storing, reusing, over and over and, as such, you may find lines I have already crafted, shared again below. Sometimes a sentence sticks. Sometimes there is no need to rewrite, something is as polished as it can be.
I was born in a long-disappeared county of England and lived my first few years on the flatlands of what is now northern Lincolnshire. This place still remembered its days as a huge wetland, a marsh spreading for many miles, before being drained, regulated, straightened, and wizened by Dutch engineers.
Tove Jansson, in one of my favourite books, The Summer Book, writes that, no matter what you do to it, a bog will always go on behaving like a bog. This is true of the vast Humberhead Levels, and The Isle of Axholme (link takes you to a book my Mum has crafted about her own, less hazy and childlike, recollections of this place). This place was and, in its memory remains, a bog. This was obvious to me, growing up there, the black black soil, the huge trees piled at the edge of fields, emerging every year from far below in the peat, and long ago in time, the birds, the reeds, and the colour of the sky, all spoke the language of the marshland. The drains and the damp and the three rivers which moated this Isle left a lasting impression, and were my first, fearful, anchoring connection to the element of water.
In the mid-1980s I graduated from rivers, wetlands, and drains, and headed north, a long, long way north, to move to the island of Mainland, Orkney. Here, we lived in Stromness, then Stenness, and finally Deerness. Stromness, where I went to secondary school, remains the closest place to be a hometown I consider I possess.
Orkney, like the Isle of Axholme, possesses deep, ancient magic. Both places are connected by their closeness to the past, by ancestral memory and whispers of stories, resurfacing again and again, like those peat-bedded trees, or the Neolithic flint tools and scatters which Orkney’s soils release every turn of the sod. Water here is a power beyond almost any other location on our planet. The Pentland Firth, that narrow strip of water between the mainland of Scotland and the islands of Orkney, is a place of ferocious currents, where the Atlantic suddenly tries to funnel its way through to the North Sea, clawing at the seabed and smashing spume fist into cliff.
The wind in Orkney is another story.
You do not grow up on Orkney without an intrinsic tie to nature, to the turning of the year, to the solstices and equinox, to the past, palimpsestrally spread around your day-to-day existence. This does Things to the brain, to the psyche. It implants tales as seeds, to spring forth at unknown times. Here, a broadcast of buildings and flurry of fortifications exist from the first and second world wars, and stretch back to the Napoleonic era, when the Martello towers were built all around the British Empire. There are hints of the Nor-wast, the time when ships left for Canada and a long association with the Hudson Bay Company. The whaling fleet knew Orkney, as did the Armada of Spain. All left their legacy and mark. Before, the time of the Earls of Orkney, the great Sagas, the Vikings, beyond, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, Neolithic and even Mesolithic. All is there. This place is a riot of time, embedded artefacts and remains shuffling to the surface, or remaining hidden. There are crashed warplanes, souterrains, locked tombs and open, rings of stones and dragon carvings.
After leaving the isles, I ventured back south to Derby, as far as Bonnie Prince Charlie once took his forces to push his claim to the throne, before receiving poor advice and turning back to Scotland — when a short push to London could easily have taken the crown. I wanted To Be A Writer, and set about this task in a slapdash manner. I did not finish the degree I had enrolled in, returning to university in Sheffield, some years later and perhaps a little wiser. This second time around I read Archaeology and Prehistory, which made a perfect sort of sense. This time, my twenties, was one of learning who I am, without knowing that was what I was doing. It was, at certain moments, a mess of ill-advised decisions and oft-constant, masking self-medication.
Then, one morning, I awoke, nearly ten years later, still in Sheffield, working for the Civil Service. I chose to uproot myself, caught a train, and headed out to wilder places out on the west coast of Scotland. I have mentioned this recently, as it is nearly ten years since I left for this adventure. I lived alone and built a natural shelter. I gathered and foraged and cooked on a fire, polished my existing bushcraft skills and sought new. I learnt the language of the area, what the birds told me, the whispers of the winds and the call of the clouds. I kept a journal and took many photographs, always testing myself and considering the future, a future where I wanted adventure, where I wanted to share words placed in an order no one had ever heard before.
The following years were mostly enjoyed at my family home, now in Caithness, the topmost tip of the mainland of Scotland. I started to consider my stories, work out what I wanted to share, reconnect with the sea and the shore, with the wind and the wave. Nature and nurture and word after word, until I realised my drafts had passed the million-word mark. I read and I read widely, across time and space, across gender and ethnicity, constantly using the words of others as a gauge, as a way to consider whether I was yet a writer, or simply still wanted to be one, discovering marvel after marvel. Then, one day, when I am not quite sure, I felt I had reached beyond an invisible barrier, a line I had crossed unknown, and found myself in a world where I had the confidence to say yes, I am good enough. I am a writer.
At that point, I was nearing the age of 40, and I knew there was another piece of the puzzle missing, another irregularly-shaped hole which I had to fill. I had always wanted to see more of the world, experience different cultures, different foods and smiles, hear laughter in a tongue I did not speak, witness the winds on other islands, feel the sun in places outwith my latitudinal memory.
The dawn of my 40th birthday found me seated on a plane, beside a small and ever-smiling middle-aged Thai woman, constantly feeding me snacks and talking of Bangkok and Oslo family, as the sun rose over the left wingtip above Burma. I have not returned to live in the UK since, instead I listen and note things down, unpick and rethread my observations, sewing into my work. So many stories, so much tapestry to weave. So many pieces of glass and shell and wood, to line up neatly, then rearrange randomly once more.
As the tagline says, I am not a travel writer, but a writer who travels. Whether through culture and place, or through time and prehistory, each journey is fed into the whole and enriches my fiction and non-fiction both and, I hope, entertains you, the crucial reader. I am not someone who is content to write for myself — I want to be read, I want to share my thoughts and ideas, my sketches, suites and symphonies, my stories.
And I am glad you are reading. Thank you.