Trying to enjoy some living

Busy busy busy busy busy. This is what I am. I’m finalising my long-running hay meadows film for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, and I’ve just started work on another piece, a film I’m co-directing with my friend Dom Bush about an 1870s animal handler who bought an elephant at auction in Edinburgh, then walked it to Manchester; and the fantastic graphic novelist Oliver East who is retreading the same journey to write a new book. Perfectly normal stuff.

I’m still plugging away with my writing in the mornings, though it’s been slightly more erratic since the clocks went forward. I’ve struggled to catch up on that hour, but my body clock is finally starting to fall back into line. I’m making cautiously good progress. I still haven’t reached that tipping point I crave in my writing, but my new draft of The Hollows is up to about 55,000 words, which I reckon is pretty good going for two months of part-time work. I think I’m about halfway there. It’s starting to get exciting.

So all that, plus college, makes for the busy busy busy. Despite it all, we decided to flee for a couple of nights camping in Buttermere this week, and it was a glorious decision. We only went for two nights, but the lakes, the hills, were entirely perfect. Warm sun, tree swings, cold beers, cooking on a campfire. The forests around Loweswater and Buttermere resounded with woodpeckers. Each evening, we watched the farmer drive his eight cows past the campsite, through the car park, and up to the barns for milking.

The happiest part of the trip was seeing Dora playing outdoors. On a forest path or a pebble beach, her relentless curiosity has an infinite playground of climbing, counting, songs and stories. She tells herself stories, makes nests of magic twigs, decides where the treasure is hidden, then goes to find it.

We chatted to the farmer on our last morning as the tops of the mountains turned amber in sunrise. It’s been good to get away for a bit, we said. And Dora’s had a great time, too.

“Aye,” he said. “Well that’s what it’s all about. Trying to enjoy some living.”

On our last afternoon, we scratched letters to the universe on pebbles and skimmed them into Crummock Water. I hope the universe will write back.

Memory

Memory is the major theme of my current work-in-progress, The Hollows – how memory moves, evolves, adapts to be what it wants to be. Writer friend Kirsty Logan posted this the other day, and it’s too good not to share it further. I love how we tend to think of memories as the bricks that make up our experience, when really they’re no better than quicksand. In which case, what are we truly made of?

My life in… Fiction

Here’s a nice interview I did with Sue Allan of Cumbria Life last year. It was very weird going out for my first proper photo shoot, standing on the shores of Wet Sleddale, in sight of the farm where Withnail & I was shot, clouds luminous with light, icy winds sweeping across Shap Fell. I even shaved and everything.

138 my life in...138 my life in... p2

Terry Pratchett

I have an abominable memory – almost nothing has survived from before the time I was ten or so. But Terry Pratchett is there, in his black broad-brimmed hat and his carnivorous plants in the greenhouse. He’s absolutely present throughout my adolescence and my early twenties, when I devoured his Discworld books over and over again. He’s there in the first time I read Small Gods, and didn’t get it at all, although it didn’t matter because it was such a good story; and he’s there in the third time I read it, and got it completely. I haven’t read one of his books for several years, now, but they’re still there – on my shelf for when I need them. He taught me irreverence, fantasy, imagination, justice. He created a world I could lose myself in for hours at a time. He was ferocious, and he was a wonder.

When I was about fourteen, I went on a month-long exchange trip to France. I’d put about dozen books to one side to take with me, but forgot to pack them. The only book I had was Pratchett’s Soul Music, which I read cover to cover at least a dozen times over the next weeks, starting it again as soon as I’d finished it. It was already a dogeared brick before the roof leaked in a thunderstorm and glued it into pulp – but I still couldn’t throw it out. I don’t know where it is, now. It’s the only Pratchett I don’t have – except for Sir Terry himself, who has died after a long and vocal battle with Alzheimer’s. I’m sad, and I will miss him, but I also see him peeking out from Death’s cloak, wry grin on his face, pen in one hand and paper in the other. Terry Pratchett lives on in the Discworld – in the Luggage and the Librarian – in Ridcully and Rincewind, in Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, in Vetinari and Vimes – in Death – and in us.

Verbalise at the Brewery

Last night was my third reading in a week, returning to Verbalise in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. It was a quieter night, after a couple of busy ones, but I enjoyed it. I read from The Hollows for the first time – a draft piece about exploring something like a haunted house, which was a lot of fun to read. I also brought out a couple of older pieces for the first time. Books Like Grains Of Sand and Tank Trap are both flash stories in Marrow. I’ve never read them before, as I’ve always thought they were too weird, too abstract for performance. But after what happened with Dora and The Sea Tiger this week, I also wanted to draw a line in the sand for myself – to remember that magic and wonder is why I write. I’m not going to be scared of reading those pieces anymore. And in the end, I think they went better than I’d dared to hope. I’ve felt just slightly off the boil with my last few readings, but I enjoyed last night a lot. Dora’s given me courage. 

I also sold three copies of Marrow, which was lovely – I now have fewer than ten copies for sale, so if you want one, get amongst it while you can.

Next gig is at the end of the month in Lancaster – Working Title in The Three Mariners – be great to see some of you hobbitses there.



Joan Shelley at Penrith Old Fire Station

Last night, I had the second of three gigs this week, supporting Joan Shelley at Penrith’s Old Fire Station for Eden Arts and New Writing Cumbria. I rattled through new stories, Marrow stories and selkie stories from The Visitors. I think it went OK. I always misplace my critical faculties while reading. I simply have no sense of how it’s gone across, whether people have liked it, hated it, how long I was reading for – nothing. But I think, I hope, it went well. Here’s the space and me wittering on about something:

simon in penrith

The headline act was just fantastic. Joan Shelley’s low-key, heart-rending folk and country songs were absolutely wonderful, at once crystalline and compelling, delicate and beautifully raw. She was joined by multi-instrumentalist Colm O’Herlihy for a few pieces, bringing new depths into the sound. Banjos and guitars, foot taps, a box of harmonic tones. It was mesmerising.

Have a listen here:

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It was an honour and a privilege to share a stage with Joan and Colm, as well as a reminder to keep striving, to keep aiming high.

We drove to Penrith in dusk. On the way past Shap, we passed right beneath a gigantic murmuration of starlings – perhaps the biggest I’ve seen firsthand – curving and ballooning in twilight, speckles of black against the blue. We drove back beneath a full moon, trees silhouetted against the night, clouds above in grey and silver, an ocean lapping at the shores of the horizon. The mornings are beginning to bloom.