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Thought for today

“Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilisation. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. The same, of course, is true in the other direction. The story of the golden nugget suggests that we cannot help caring about the traditions of “the west” because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry: that would be a good idea. But these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.”

(Taken from the 2016 BBC Reith Lecture, ‘Culture‘, by Kwame Anthony Appiah.)

Thought for the day

“What the west sadly lacks is the humility to accept that it’s actually not in our power to sort out immensely complicated problems in the world. The only thing that we have the power to do, given that we lack a political class of wisdom and grace, is to make the situation worse by destroying infrastructure, by killing and maiming the citizens of a country that we don’t understand in the least, and radicalising and angering people more than they are already.”

Michel Faber, on sending The Book of Strange New Things to David Cameron to help with the war effort.

More brief updates…

I have so many things on the go at the moment that once again I’ve not had time to put together anything substantial for the blog, though hopefully this situation will be put to rights before too long. In the meantime, I can tell you that in terms of non-fiction writing I’m already preparing some posts for the weird fiction reading project/challenge/whatever I’m planning for 2016 (more on that soon), plus this week alone I’ve been drafting another review for Strange Horizons, as well as my Time Pieces column for the January issue of Interzone.

What is it about the end-of-year that always leaves me feeling as if I need a thirteenth month to get everything finished?

Work on The Rift is…exciting. It’s interesting and strange, that moment when a piece of writing begins to feel like a thing in its own right, something that exists apart from you and with its own agenda. There’s still enough new stuff happening in this draft to make it feel risky though, and surprising, to me most of all. Bizarrely, I seem to be enjoying myself.  The third draft is at the halfway mark, give or take a thousand words or so.

Listening to: Joanna Newsom, all the albums including the new one but especially my absolute favourite Ys, which I think may be one of the greatest song-sets ever written. It won’t come as any surprise to anyone, I’m sure, to learn how much I adore Newsom’s sprawling lyrics, which appear loose and anarchic but which are in fact supremely disciplined, supremely composed. Open-ended but intentionally so.

That’s how you write short stories…

 

L’Adieu

J’ai cueilli ce brin de bruyère
L’automne est morte souviens-t’en
Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre
Odeur du temps Brin de bruyère
Et souviens-toi que je t’attends

(Guillaume Apollinaire)

Diary, 8.30 am

,,,red campion, fool’s parsley, hogweed, rough chervil, common evening primrose, foxglove (winding down now), convolvulus (first of the season), tufted vetch, meadow buttercup, leopard’s bane, broad-leaved willowherb…

These are all super-common native plant species of the kind most people call weeds, but for me there are few more thrilling avenues to explore in natural history than these widespread British wildflowers. Of course there are many more spectacular and scientifically interesting species found elsewhere in the world, but none that better define the landscapes I write about, the landscapes I grew up in and that trigger my most immediate, honest response as a writer and as a human being.

The sight of red campion in the hedgerow (at its peak, a couple of weeks ago, it was breathtaking in its profusion) can set my heart racing. The Devon hedgerows themselves, which this spring I’ve been able to watch daily as they’ve thickened and quickened, are so bounteous, so diverse in composition, so vast you could spend most of a day just looking at one small stretch of one, identifying, photographing and cataloguing the plants on display. These hedgerows and the fields beyond form what can rightly be called a Fowlesian landscape, a landscape that is somehow so deeply rooted in many of us Britons that it is instantly recognisable at a level that has more to do with the gut than with the eye, instantly home, even for those who live in the city.

On Tuesday I wandered down a lane that led to a bridleway that led to a meadow bursting with clover and singing with bees. SO many bees here, bees all around us, up first thing in the morning and already about their business.

In that same meadow a pheasant broke cover just yards from my feet. At the end of last week I spotted on one of our garden shrubs a bronze shield bug. Haven’t seen one in years. These things too I find thrilling.

Although my bookshelves contain an ever increasing number of books on natural history (bear in mind that this is someone who requested – and received – W. S. Bristowe’s The World of Spiders for her twelfth birthday and still has that same copy) and though I rejoice in the current upsurge in popularity of nature writing by the likes of Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald and Melissa Harrison, Marianne Taylor, Richard Kerridge, Patrick Barkham and Dave Goulson, I find it practically impossible to write about these landscapes except through fiction. The experience is too intimate, too revealing of self. There is the ever-present danger of slipping into a mode of expression that sounds like sentimentality, when what one wants to express is fierceness. Fierceness and passion and urgent necessity.Cow parsley 20 05 15

I’ve probably just inadvertently listed another ten reasons why I love Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border so much. I could say sorry for harping on this book all the time, but I’m not going to.

The village oak

The oak tree that stands at the centre of our village is more than four hundred years old. It is a magnificent tree. Standing beside it gives you the most extraordinary feeling of being just the very latest point in an ongoing time continuum. I’ve read that the village oak was mentioned in certain accounts of the English Civil War. The tree is a living story, a powerful organic presence a single human being at a single moment in time can only dimly grasp the meaning of.

I lived in Exeter for the better part of twenty years. Throughout that period I worked as a music buyer for an independent chain of record stores, and three or four times each year I would take the Tarka Line train up to Barnstaple to do a stock check at the North Devon branch. I would always gaze out at the stations towards the middle of the route – Morchard Road, Eggesford, King’s Nympton – and think how wonderful it would be to leave the train at one of them, to step out into that landscape of forests and fields and farming hamlets and have somewhere to go.

Travelling home from Exeter after lunch with a friend, this is now exactly what I do. One of the profoundest and most fortuitous instances of deja vu I have ever experienced.

And this is where I go running:

It is remarkable, how swiftly and how entirely we have adapted.

Locus recommends

The annual Locus Recommended Reading list, compiled by Locus magazine’s editors and contributors, has just been released. As always, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the year in SFF, as well as an invaluable reference point for word lengths and first publication details. I’m particularly thrilled to note the presence of both Stardust and Spin on the list, in the Collections and Novellas categories respectively. I feel honoured to be included – the Cellections category in particular showcases some amazing books, and highlights just how important and innovative the collection is becoming as a form. This is a fascinating subject in its own right actually, deserving of a separate blog post – I’ll have a think on it.

In the meantime, you can hear an in-depth discussion of just how the Locus lists are arrived at on the Coode Street Podcast #176

‘…running wildly into Woking.’

Yesterday we went to Woking. Not the most adventurous of day trips on the face of it, but exciting to us, nonetheless. There’s H. G. Wells, for a start. Wells moved to Woking in 1895, the same year The Time Machine was published. He went on to write the three further ‘scientific romances’ that make up the core of his science fiction output in the house he shared with his wife Amy at 143 Maybury Road.

The most famous of these is of course The War of the Worlds, published in 1898 and set in and around Woking, with particular reference to nearby Horsell Common, which is where Wells had his Martians make their landing. I always enjoy visiting sites of special literary interest, and wandering around in the sandpits of Horsell Common was a genuine thrill. Surrey is hopelessly changed now from when Wells lived there, of course – but the peace and beauty of Horsell Common remain. Standing in the dappled sunlight between the trees, it’s still possible to get a sense of the shock and wonder Wells surely aimed to generate by setting his novel of alien invasion here, and our visit to the Common has made this landmark work come newly alive for me. I also greatly enjoyed seeing the ‘Woking Martian’ sculpture by Michael Condron in Woking town centre. It’s a work of great beauty and elegance, and for me it seemed to capture the spirit and the imaginative world of Well’s novel perfectly.

Our main reason for visiting Woking yesterday though was this little chap:

Django, son of Duke

But more of him later this summer.

(You can see Chris’s amazing photo of the Woking Martian and read his thoughts on our Wellsian pilgrimage here.)

 

Lost futures

Churchyard, Lydd, March 2012

Lydd Town station, March 2012

Farm buildings, Lydd, March 2012

Lydd is a small town in Kent, positioned more or less exactly at the centre of the Romney Marshes. There are no major roads that go near it. Its railway station, Lydd Town, was closed to passenger traffic in 1967.

There is an airport at Lydd, named somewhat bizarrely as London Ashford, that operates scheduled weekend flights to Le Touquet. Cottages backing on to the churchyard and in the High Street date from the 15th century. The church tower is one of the tallest in Kent.

It’s a beautiful little town, precisely because it’s miles from anywhere with no through roads. It is a place I loved on sight, a place I instinctively felt was special to me. It came therefore as both a shock and not a shock to learn that I narrowly missed growing up there.

When I described my enthusiasm for Lydd to my mother, soon after my first visit there in 2007, she told me that she and my father very nearly bought a house there, back when we moved south from the Midlands in the early 1970s. ‘We were both very keen to buy it,’ she said. ‘Only in the end we decided it would mean too much driving for your dad because the place was so isolated.’ My father was on the road six days a week then, repping for Bovril and Marlboro and then Domecq Sherry. He would have had to drive the best part of an hour from Lydd, simply to get to where he needed to be to start covering his area. We moved into a house in Ashington, West Sussex, instead.

So Lydd was lost to me, but now feels doubly special. I can never know, but still like to think of what my alternate childhood might have been like: those cottages around the churchyard, those unchanging, narrow lanes, the endless marshes.

It feels right. Perhaps that’s why the place worms its way ever more insistently into my fictions.

The novel has been undergoing a sea change – literally. No doubt I’ll be writing about this in more detail at some point but for now let’s just say I’ve dumped a lot of words and am in the process of writing new ones. Likewise, this feels right, and not unconnected.

Listening to: Schnittke’s piano quintet.

Just about to start reading: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I have his new book of essays to read as well. I loved The Disappointment Artist.