I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea, lately — I was lucky to be given several books about the sea for Christmas presents, and then my excellent wife tracked this stunner down for me too —
The next story I write will be about the sea — the idea fell into my head, perfect as a cowrie, while I was working on the closing chapters of my last book. And although I was planning another novel altogether for my next one, the sea book has overtaken it. I’m excited.
I’m desperately trying to finish off a film edit right now, so bear with me — I’ll write more about the sea another time. For now, I’ll leave you with this — a quick mix I threw together of ocean songs, featuring British Sea Power, Bat For Lashes, Modest Mouse, Frightened Rabbit, James Yorkston, The Waterboys and many more. Enjoy.
I woke early and spent a few minutes listening to the sparrows, then made a cup of tea and settled down to work. With a first draft complete, The Hollows is off to one side, ready for a redraft when it has finished steeping. At something of a loss for what to do, I worked on an older piece, making some overdue tweaks. It was slow, frustrating progress and I was relieved, an hour or so later, when Dora thundered on the ceiling overhead. She clattered down the stairs and burst into the room, as she does every morning, and threw herself at me.
‘Morning sweetheart. It’s good to see you. Did you have any dreams?’
‘Good dreams or bad dreams?’
‘It was a bad dream.’
‘Oh no. What happened?’
Her face fuzzled as she remembered it.
‘There was a big swamp. And a little girl went into the swamp, and she stole a ribbon.’
I frowned. This reminded me of something. Dora continued:
‘And the little girl was chased in the swamp by a very bad man.’
I realised what she was saying. I knew what she would say next. My skin began to tingle, crawling upwards from my ankles.
‘And the bad man took the ribbon, and he took the little girl as well, and then there was nothing but the swamp.’
My four-year-old daughter had just relayed to me the plot of the first chapter of The Hollows. Which would be fine, except for the fact that no one else knows it but me. I haven’t shared it with anyone. No one has read it, and I’m the only person in the entire world who knows what happens.
I’ve been ransacking my brain to work out what happened. I’ve never told Dora any part of the story, and she can’t read for herself. Mon hasn’t seen it yet, so she couldn’t have told Dora either, and no one else has access to my computer. I have no idea how she knew this part of the plot. There must be a rational explanation, but I can’t work it out.
There’s just no way. There is simply no way it could have happened.
And yet it did.
A woman always, always tripped on the bottom tread of the stairs in her new house, her muscle memory convinced and compelled to make an extra step for a stair that wasn’t there. This happened for years. When the house was renovated, and the floor was lifted, the builders discovered an extra step at the bottom of the flight. People wake from comas speaking Latin, or dream across a continent of their brother drowning at sea, and wake to bad news on the phone.
I don’t believe in ghosts as sentient beings. I don’t believe in the supernatural as an anthropology. But human imagination is an engine of staggering power, and we are utterly corruptible. The weight of human history drops away below our feet, and we walk in the shadows and the hollows of what has gone before. Like crossing a clay field after the rain, it sticks to our feet in clumps.
Holloways are ancient droving roads. The weight of carts and cattle through the roads caused the ground below to erode and sink, even as the verges to the side of the road stayed the same. Protected from the passing herds, trees grew on the verges and knotted overhead, while below, the path continued to erode, ground away by centuries of cattle, and so, over time, the roads became tunnels: hollow ways.
That’s where we are, all of us. The trees have been cut and the verges levelled and all of it coated with tarmac, but we still walk along the holloways. A sideways glimpse is all it takes to see the fleeting, teeming strata of the lives we’ve lived before.
After mugging my way through a wonderful intimate spoken word night at Sprint Mill last year as part of the C-Art Open Studios, I’m delighted to say that I’ve thrown myself into running a follow-up event.
Solstice Songs will be held on midsummer’s eve in the amazing 18th century Sprint Mill near Burneside in Cumbria. I’ve gathered the estimable talents of some wonderful writers throughout the northwest and Scotland to read at the event, and you – yes, you – should come along and hear them do their thing.
I’m honoured to share the line-up. In alphabetical order, we have:
Edward Acland The owner and curator of Sprint Mill shares his startling, disarming and heartfelt reflections on people and place, distilling a lifetime of collection into magical focus.
BigCharlie Poet As well as hosting and running Lancaster’s Working Title night, BigCharlie Poet is a ferocious slam poet with word-perfect visions of life and love, all skewed nicely through a balance of wit and wonder.
Alan Bissett Fresh from having a street in his native Falkirk named after him, we’re thrilled to be joined by the multi-award-winning playwright, actor, poet, novelist, essayist and consummate performer Alan Bissett. I don’t know what he’s going to read, but whatever it is will be good.
Luke Brown Writing without exaggeration, I consider Luke to be a true heir to Roald Dahl. He is a superb storyteller of the macabre, bringing a host of weird and wonderful alter-egos to life in his darkly humorous tales.
Joy France The inexhaustible slam-winning poetry powerhouse that is Joy France joins us from Wigan with her witty and reflective take on life – life in the world, in the north, in the past, in the present, and in the weirder corners of her own wonderful mind. Here she is performing one of her signature poems, Hey Mrs B:
Harriet Fraser A multi-media poet of landscape, dreamscape, place and unusual word projects of all sorts: this summer she is poet in residence for a hay meadow, and one of Harriet’s most recent canvases was a herd of sheep.
Jonathan Humble Following the launch of his excellent debut collection My Camel’s Name Is Brian, the Tripe Poet Laureate™ brings his brilliant, laugh aloud ballads of tea cosies, leeks and rhubarb.
Kirstin Innes The multi-award-winning journalist, essayist, playwright and novelist brings her astonishing new novel Fishnet to Sprint Mill. Meticulously researched and brilliantly observed, Fishnet ducks sensationalism to explore the sex industry through the prism of a missing person.
Ann Wilson Fresh from the launch of her second collection Straight Bananas, the former South Lakes Poet Laureate and driving force behind spoken word night Verbalise delivers her unique blend of stand-up, song and rhyme.
…and me. Just me. (Sorry.)
All this wondrous wordsmithery comes for FREE, so bring a bottle, bring yourself, and shake your rump. Let’s get pagan.
Solstice Songs | Sunday 21st June | 7pm | Sprint Mill near Burneside, Cumbria
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.
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:
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:
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.
Bangkok is smoke, Samui is steam. Flying into the airport was like flying into Jurassic Park. Even as we arrived, a cloudburst yammered on the tarmac, and the airport sprouted with gigantic, alien plants I’d never seen before, spines folded back on themselves like Escher prints. Samui has mountains in its interior, all pasted in dense jungle, crisscrossed with broken roads and coconut plantations. The coast is a ring road of shacks, tourist bars and holiday resorts. We stayed on the north-eastern tip of the island in an apartment overlooking the sea. On our first day, we saw Brahminy kites cruising above directly above us, hanging on the breezes, terrifying the coast. Tiny tailor birds perched on palm fronds beside the balcony, and myna birds hung upside-down from the rafters while we drank our beers and watched the sea.
I’m not very good at relaxing. Even the things I do for fun – writing, climbing, drinking with my friend Banks – are bruising, high-impact activities. So it was strange to have so much enforced time away from home, away from work, away from my computer. I even felt a little edgy during the first few days, but soon drifted into a gentle routine of swimming, reading, telling stories, and writing. The writing in particular was vital time for me. I sat with my pen and notebook and spent a few hours every day battering out what The Hollows is about.
Each night, we went to eat in local restaurants or hooked up with with friends. We’d gone to Samui in particular because our pals Helen and Michael were getting married on the beach. We spent a few days either side of the celebration with their excellent Australian mates – really good people. On the way back from their wonderful wedding, we were driven by the craziest taxi driver I’ve ever met. He laughed without pause for the entire twenty minute ride. He had a photo of his son on the dashboard.
‘What’s your boy called?’ I said.
‘His name is Mr. iPhone,’ said the driver, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. ‘England is cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold!’
Ang Thong marine park is an extraordinary place. After a stomach-churning ninety minute boat ride to the first of the two islands we were allowed to visit, we climbed lethally steep stairs to a viewpoint, overlooking a hidden lagoon on one side and the marine park archipelago on the other. With a little help, Dora counted off every one of the hundred and fifty steps, chanting all the way. Having climbed down to the lagoon, we told her about pirates and mermaids and the giant fish that eats little girls who don’t listen to their mummies and daddies about not swimming in the water because that’s what the sign says, poppet.
On the second island we visited, we stood no more than two metres away from wild monkeys. They sat at head height in scrubby trees above the flat white sand, eating figs. They weren’t even slightly interested in us. We watched them for a long time before they disappeared into the jungle. In the trees behind them, set back from the beach, was a shrine. Dolphin skulls, monkey skulls. Shrines everywhere.
The sea had blown up by the time we had to leave. We’d taken seasickness tablets, and Dora promptly passed out on me, but there were people screaming as this horrible damned tub of a boat skidded and crashed and shuddered in the waves. There were three Irish women on the boat – a mother and two daughters, I think – and they started singing in Gaelic, sweet and soft as nursery rhymes. I don’t know if it helped the shrieking Finnish lady, but it helped me. I believed them to be songs of sailors’ wives, praying for the safe return of their men from stormy seas. They might have been pop songs, I guess, but hopefully I’ll never know.
On our third-to-last day, we had the truly bittersweet experience of taking a Samui tour. Every island tour offers elephant and monkey shows. You can’t do it without. So we went, agreeing that we simply weren’t going to take part in the animal shows.
The first part of the trip was a visit to some extraordinary floating temples. We’d driven past them in tuk-tuks a dozen times without knowing they were even there, these gigantic statues of Buddha. That was special. I have no religious faith, but I respect and enjoy the measured spectacle of religious achievement – of cathedrals, of temples, of such conviction. Wandering amongst the statues in the fire of early morning – the first of the day’s tourists, joined only by the temple dogs – was awe-inspiring in the true sense of the word.
The elephant show was next on the itinerary. We were swept along with the crowd, and ended up watching it. There were two elephants. They were brought from different parts of the compound. As soon as they met, they touched trunks, then their handlers finagled them into jigs, into standing on their hind legs, their fore legs. One kicked footballs. One of them was bleeding from the skull. A string of cheery, gormless volunteers came down from the crowd, and the elephants placed a foot on their backs. One elephant pretended to give a honeymoon massage, rubbing a man’s penis with her trunk. We felt humiliated for her. What was worse was realising that at least the show was something to do. Immediately afterwards, the elephants were chained up again – far apart – and each began a heartbreaking, relentless, moronic swaying. One elephant waved her head for a minute or so, then lifted her trunk, as though she’d heard something – and resumed her swaying. I watched her repeat this for twenty minutes. The other did an imbecile dance, lifting her left foreleg, waggling it in the air, replacing it, lifting it, replacing it, lifting it. It was depressing beyond measure.
We explained to Dora that the elephants were unhappy. She was at first puzzled, then very upset. When we came to the monkey show, the first thing anyone heard was Dora, asking why the sad monkey had a chain around his neck.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said the Australian lady beside us, ‘if a three-year-old can see it, what’s wrong with the rest of them?’
There’s nothing to say to that.
After these miseries, we powered up and down gut-squeezing mountain roads in ferocious 4x4s. A Latvian girl we’d collected from a yoga retreat (‘I no eat, I no eat, I on detox, of course!’) had a shrieking meltdown when we went off-road, and demanded to be let out and abandoned in the middle of the jungle. ‘Faster, faster!’ yelled Dora. The Thai drivers adored her for that.
Orchids overgrowing in the road. Bamboo exploding skywards in thickets too dense for light. Coffee growing wild in the hills. Palm trees fifteen metres high, clustered with coconuts. The mummified monk. He claimed he knew he was about to die, so had the others build a glass case around him, and spent his last months meditating inside. That was forty years ago. The case was only opened to give him sunglasses after his eyes had desiccated. The heat, the haze. I dropped our camera in the river. We swam in a waterfall, against the current, with the setting sun glittering in the top few metres of the water and the rest of it falling into jungle gloom.
The hours before evening, when the heat had gone from the sun, and the wet fragrance of the jungle filled our lungs. Arguing with drivers, taking the tuk-tuk into town, decoding every menu for vegetarian options. The warmth of night envelops and cradles and doesn’t want to let you go.
We found a thousand shells on the beach, all their perfect whorls and spirals broken open by the sea. I found ten metres of rope, as thick as my wrist, and dragged it along the beach in an anaconda trail. I left it in a spiral. The plastic bottles that wash up in the foam, each encrusted with a hundred tiny mussels. I found a shark’s tooth and a sunhat.
Mosquitoes. The microcosm of expats. A wasp, longer than my finger, black as jet, trapped beneath a glass and rattling a fury.
‘Of course, I emigrated when they started letting just anyone into Britain,’ he said without irony. ‘I couldn’t handle it now.’
A butterfly, purple and white, the size of both palms together, shadow shapes on candlelit walls. The beaming Thai waitress, eight months’ pregnant, pointing a lost Westerner towards his friends. He didn’t give her so much as a look in acknowledgment.
‘The slitty-eyed gits,’ said another. ‘They’ve stitched me up again.’
Everywhere we went, the Thais continued to be the friendliest, most welcoming people we’d ever met. In one local restaurant, where they spoke no English and we communicated in gestures and smiles, they took Dora off to play. In another, they brought her nine peeled tangerines. She ate them in a state of grateful awe, watching the ceiling fan spin beneath the palm frond ceiling. Pat and Enjoy, the girls who ran the cafe where we ate our breakfast, took endless pictures of her running around the garden, leaping between stepping stones, a bundle of sweat and freckles. One morning, she spontaneously told us her first ever story.
We couldn’t escape the end. It gathered into the last days, mountains on a long-distance drive. Normally I sleep like a bag of bricks, but for some weird reason, on our last night on Samui, and then again at our stopover in Bangkok, I managed only two hours a night; and none at all on the 14-hour flight home. I was in something of a delirium by the time we actually made it back. In Heathrow, a drunk man had been stopped at Arrivals, and was howling at a security guard.
‘I’m a citizen of the UK! This never happened before we let people like you come in here!’
Welcome home. I can’t even use the word Great anymore. It was great meeting my dad in Manchester airport, though, and catching up with our families over the next days; then floating back to ground, restocking the fridge, washing our clothes, putting the suitcases away, putting the books back on the shelf.
I usually read relentlessly on holiday, but this time was different. The only book I really enjoyed was the incomparable Wolf Hall. I spent far more time with pen and paper, working on The Hollows. I’m not going to talk much about it, this time. I feel very much like I overextended myself in discussing the book prior to the Kate Mosse incident, and I’m not going to do that again, other than to say that I talked it through at great length with Mon, who is the most amazing reader I could ever ask for. I’m excited by what I have planned, and I’ve written the first 12,000 words in three days. In this respect, jet lag has been a friend to me; I’ve been waking at 5.30 in the morning, ready for my day, and writing before I go to work. I’ve always been envious of writers who wake early to write – it’s never worked for me before – but it’s working this time. I’m not going to set an alarm for it, but if my body keeps waking, I’ll keep writing. No matter how rough my day at college, there’s a little kernel in my heart that knows I’ve written something, anything – a hundred words, five hundred words. That burns inside me even if I’m too wasted to write at night.
So that was Thailand. Every travel, every trip, is an inherent contradiction, both coming and going. The xenophobic ex-pats were outnumbered a thousand times over by the honest, open smiles of friends and strangers; for every caged bird and poor demented elephant, there were Brahminy kites, indigo butterflies and geckos inside paper lanterns.
When I first left Britain, I was wired with stress, working too much, making myself ill. Thailand gave me the space to recover, to triangulate the things I want to do, and to spend time with the people who matter most to me. That’s what this life is about, if it’s about anything at all. Ultimately, I don’t feel like I’ve travelled very far, because distance is measured from home, and I took mine with me.
Birds called from the web of girders inside the airport. The taxi ride into the city gave us billboards as long as sports fields, shanty towns on roadsides, golden Buddhas measuring every hundred metres of motorway. Bangkok itself was a sprawling, smoky, humid assault on the senses. Our hotel, crisp and air-conditioned, perched beside a lurid grey canal. The surface rippled constantly with the motions of a million tiny fish, while white and orange carp lazed at the surface, ghosts in the murk. A minute’s walk in either direction led to shanties of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. We wandered the neighbourhood. There was a temple on the other side of the block. There were temples everywhere. A minute away, a shop sold pictures of the king, four or five metres high, in ornate gilt frames. Thais are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, though Dora definitely helped us through the city. Her hair is such an unusual colour that people stopped us in the street to say hello, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka. Mopeds use pavements like roads. Pedestrians take their chances in every crossing. We ate in open kitchens off the street, the smells of onions and ginger and drains all mingling into one rich fug. We met a man selling pad thai from a street cart. It was the best pad thai we’d ever eaten. He was the fourth generation of his family to sell pad thai on the streets of Bangkok, and he’d been doing it for forty years. Beside him, his mother, the third generation, a walnut of a woman, grinned and bowed as we devoured the noodles, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka.
A young man with grey hair followed us from the hotel to the boat pier, stopping when we stopped. When we reached the river, we watched a metre-long monitor lizard slip into the water. We took the express boat from Banglumpo to Ko Wat, crowded in with tourists and Thais. The helmsman and the skipper communicated over the engine roar with a code of shrieking whistles. Egrets bobbed on rafts of vegetation and polystyrene. We spent the day marvelling at the cloisters of golden Buddhas, ate our first ever guava, and made friends with a Cambodian couple who crossed a park to take pictures of Dora. We dropped 108 coins in the 108 bowls that run alongside the reclining Buddha.
We walked back through Banglumpo markets. A man sold insects on skewers from a food cart – locusts, spiders, shiny black scorpions. The sign on his cart said photos cost 10 baht. I bet he makes more from photos than from food. A few stalls down from him, a beggar called out, baht, baht, baht, baht. He had long legs, though very thin, and long arms, but his torso was little bigger than his head. I watched a thickset American study him for minutes, then cross the road to give him several folded notes. The beggar said nothing, zipped the money into a small purse, and rattled his cup again. Baht, baht, baht, baht. The American scowled and walked away. The beggar’s face was at the height of the car exhausts. When they passed, he studied himself in the fleeting, warped reflection. Then he rattled his cup.
We picked up a flyer for a vegetarian cafe called Mango. It was some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten, fierce with ginger and sopped up with crispy dumplings. It was so good I wanted to hug the owner, Doo. He told us about his farm in the mountains, where they grow all their own food – everything they use comes from the farm. Four hip backpackers, wrapped up in finding themselves, complained that there wasn’t enough potato in their curry. Doo apologised, and they didn’t even acknowledge him. When we left, he was off to one side. He was sculpting, with his studio open onto the restaurant. He was making a beautiful goddamn elephant, and it was as perfect as his food.
Entire neighbourhoods built on stilts, thriving in the shadow of the underpass. Herons fishing from the bamboo rafts that trap sewage on the river. Duk-duk drivers hawking on the ground when we turned them down. Monks taking selfies. A tree surgeon, five metres up, without a harness, one foot on a stump and the other on a telegraph cable, leaning up to cut the branch above his head. Skinny cats, their tails lost to traffic. School kids chasing us to say hello to Dora. Families of five on mopeds. The rangy man who followed us, always ten paces behind, stopping when we stopped.
Jet lag kills me. When I first went to Australia, I didn’t sleep at all for two days, then slept almost continually for a week. In Bangkok, I kept waking in the night, and lying awake while cats yowled in alleyways and the roads hummed with mopeds. I thought I had a handle on Charlie Hebdo, until I saw some French language news on the television. They ran through some of the cartoons drawn in response. They showed one of Asterix and Obelix, simply bowing, and I burst into tears.
Bangkok is a riot of sight and sound and colour and taste and especially smell. Acrid exhaust fumes, the sharp twist of boiling oil, honey frangipani, frying garlic. The people who watched us, morose, from their open front rooms, then burst into smiles when they saw my daughter. It has been a truly extraordinary experience. I’ve never known anything like it. We wish we were staying longer.
Next stop, Koh Samui.