A North Country Lass

The Romans had a phrase for it: genius loci. Their protective spirit found in a specific place has now come to mean the distinctive atmosphere of a given spot. For me, these are faces of the same understanding. There are parts of this small country possessed of their own soul, their own character.

To go farther, all places have their own voices but some are so muffled, I cannot hear them well enough. Perhaps I would need more time. Surrey rarely spoke to me – the odd word on the heathlands, and an occasional whisper beside ponds and rivers.

Ah, but Northumberland! That is a land that sings.

My recent weekend near Seahouses reminded me of that glorious county’s powerful voice. The accents of the people, the strength of the great shoreline castles and the rolling force of the sea. History there is as obvious as the wrinkles on an old man’s hands. I cannot think of it without the echo of reivers, Grace Darling and the stories of Robert Westall. There’s a soundtrack too: the Keelers and the Unthanks, Kathryn Tickell, and David Almond reading his own work in his gentle lilting voice.

I love the space, the harsh honest weather. In one weekend we had gales, snow, hail and a magnificent rainbow over the Farne Isles. Each hour the weather presented a new drama.

Every time I’ve been, it has felt more real. The wheep of oystercatchers on the shore, and the friendly murmur of Cuddy Ducks. The hush of marram grass and the black outlines of winter trees against the enormous sky. Snow on the Cheviots and cheek-polishing wind. The massy stones in quay and castle and saint’s refuge.

It’s a thin place.

How strange such a physical place should be so spiritual too. But the body does not lie – and the senses bring us back to ourselves. Glamours are blown away by walks beside the North Sea,  self-deceit doesn’t stand long against home-cooked food and there aren’t many airs and graces that can fend off a belted-out sea shanty.

I long for that in my writing –  the things that remain, that mean something, the bits that Bede would understand and St Hilda and a kipper smoker from Craster and a little lass of ten from Alnwick. The elemental.

It’s not even my county. The people here feel like kissing cousins. I may not get all the dialect  but the humour’s still there. I am teased and talked to and encouraged to sing. I’m not some fine Southern visitor treated oh-so-politely at arm’s length.

Not all pride is a sin. Love of a place can lead to creativity rather than divisive patriotism. My experience  of Northumberland draws out my pride in my own homeland.

As they say:

You can take the lass out of Yorkshire,

But you can never take the Yorkshire out of the lass.

Is there a homeland in your work?






Reading material

This post owes its parentage to Vanessa Harbour on ‘The importance of reading as a writer’ and Maureen Lynas’s writing about an approach to structure. I thank them both for getting me thinking about what I read and how it affects my writing.

One notable feature of the MA at West Dean was the challenge of reading in new genres. Without that I would never have discovered the emotional intensity of ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ by  R. J. Ellory  or to be honest ,the complex and satisfying structures used by Agatha Christie & Ngaio Marsh. I didn’t ‘do’ crime fiction before. It’s taught me to be an even wider ranging reader.

Now I enjoy being sent books by Vivienne Da Costa for Serendipity Reviews. There are joys like the sheer delight of seeing a much-liked author Chris Priestley come into his own – really using his deep knowledge  to create ‘Mister Creecher’. Or the pleasure of reviewing a colleague’s debut novel like ‘Slated’ by Teri Terry.

I am sent different age-ranges and genres – this helps me to see what I admire, and also what I don’t want to write.

Greg Mosse insists students understand that it’s not what we like in a Reading-Group-glass-of-wine-and-nibbles way that matters, but what works. To my family’s annoyance during the MA year I couldn’t watch anything without taking it apart to see the gears and cogs. I keep quiet now – but I’m still anatomising in my head.

And yet…

It’s not just that, however useful. It’s about inspiration. The things that make me want to write.

This will sound cringeworthy but it is true: I want to pay it forward.

I want to take readers to new worlds.

I loved Narnia and Earthsea and Pern and Middle Earth ( yes I know -it’s our world millenia ago). How wonderful to transport other people somewhere special.

I want to speak with my own voice.

I can hear writers like David Almond and Robert Westall, and Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken. They taught me I can be myself, Northern vowels and all. That you can use language to give flavour and identity. I want to share that.

I want to revel in reworked tradition.

I think of Alan Garner, George Mackay Brown Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and nowadays Katherine Langrish, Jackie Morris and Pat Walsh. They develop shared folklore, myth and legend and keep it alive. It’s too good not to pass on.

I want to express my delight in transformation.

Books move me far more than cinema or TV, they always have done. I can never forget the change in Mary Lennox in ‘The Secret Garden’, or Eustace Clarence Scrubb in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. And I’m still a soppy date about Scrooge & Silas Marner. Who wouldn’t want to show what people can become?

So, in short, I think you have to read and read and read  to be even a halfway decent writer. Or at least I do.

How about you?