Category Archives: Britain

The Artefacts of Power in The Secret of the Tirthas

In The Secret of the Tirthas, the demons and their followers are desperately seeking to capture the Artefacts of Power. These magical items have gained their power from the devotion of worshippers over the centuries.

Each Artefact in the story is based on a real life sacred object, from a different religious tradition. Here’s a list of them, with the culture or religion they came from:

Nkisi statue – a wooden figure from African shamanistic religion. People drove iron nails in to release the power of the ancestor spirit residing in it.

Nkisi statue

Nkisi statue

Hilili Kachina – a raindance doll with a snake hanging out of his mouth, from Native American culture.

Hilili Kachina doll (image: Creative Commons-BY; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 03.325.4648_threequarter_PS6.jpg)

The Holy Grail – a chalice containing the blood of Christ from the Last Supper, much pursued by medieval knights.

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, Rossetti

Easter Island statue (maoi) – over 1,000 of these mysterious statues were constructed by the inhabitants of a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. All the statues look inland, away from the sea. It is thought they represented ancestors, guarding over the islanders.

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Easter Island sculptures from the original Garden of Rooms in Herefordshire

Venus – the statue is based on the famous Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Germany and believed to be 40,000 years old. She was carved from mammoth tusk.

Venus of Hohle Fels

Venus of Hohle Fels (Image: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Green Man – a figure from Western paganism, symbolising the regenerative, mysterious powers of Nature.

Green Man

Green Man from a Herefordshire church

Other Artefacts in The Secret of the Tirthas:

Yingarna – a goddess of creation, who carried children from different Aboriginal tribes in her many bags.

Shiva Lingam – a holy symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, carved from stone.

Buddha’s Tooth – there are several teeth relics of the Buddha, including a very famous one in Sri Lanka.

 

Where do you belong?

Kenilworth castle

Last week I had a short break with my family in Kenilworth, a small town in Warwickshire. I was born in Eastbourne but moved to the Midlands when I was very young, and spent most of my childhood there. Despite not having lived in Kenilworth for 20 years, I was surprised at the deep connection I still felt with the place.

We rented a small cottage near the ruined but impressive Kenilworth castle. The castle was owned in its prime by Robert Dudley, the probable love interest of Queen Elizabeth I. They had been friends ever since they met as prisoners in the Tower of London. We spent a day in the castle, stomping up rickety, often rotten-looking stairways, taking in the magnificent views from the keep and the stately wing that Dudley built for the queen.

We spent a long time at the nearby flooded ford. With a small crowd, we cheered those cars that went for it and booed those that didn’t. (At least until our youngest, ignoring pleas to step back from the railings, was soaked by an SUV.)

We visited Leamington Spa, where the highlight for the boys was not the lovely Georgian Parade but a new rotor-blade swing in Victoria Park. We spent a sunny day in Stratford-on-Avon where the river had flooded its banks. Finally we visited splendid Warwick Castle, which unlike Kenilworth survived the ravages of the English Civil War.

Warwick castle

I was excited to be back in the area I grew up. But I hadn’t expected the depth of connection I felt, run through by the precious seams of so many good – and some not-so-good – memories. I realised that, despite the length of time away, this still felt like my place. I love where I am now, and I’ve loved being in Scotland and London. But these small, Warwickshire towns, and especially Kenilworth, are where I was formed.

They are the places where I will always, to some degree, belong. Where do you belong?

 

Jack

Jack in the dark, fishing the Wandle with Dad.
Some numbers of Jack:
2 (haircut), 11 (age), 7 (fags per day);
3 (Mums, if Edyta has her way).

Jack’s dad rolls a smoke,
pulls up his tracksuit neck,
but there’s no keeping out that damp.
Fetch us that box of bait, Jack –

In the moonlight Jack watches
dimples on the river’s surface –
how far they go, spinning,
till something below changes.

Jack might be young,
with a life nobody’s after,
but he knows something most
take a long time to discover –

impatience is pointless.

Jack waits in the dark,
time unregistered, and ready,
for what might,
or might not, happen next.

This

This

I hope when they arrive they see this first.
The red-and-white lighthouse
tied to the cliff-top,
the Channel slipping away to reveal
a ribbed parchment of sand
weed-streaked rocks
and space for three men,
an arching fishing rod.

They will not see a horizon.
Rather sea, sky, morning in union,
a relaxing of green and grey,
suffused with childhood blue.

It is beautiful and warm.
I hope this is where they come.
I hope this is what they see.

 

Eastbourne, April 2017

Polesden Lacey – English Country House inspiration for my next book

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, the forthcoming book in The Secret of the Tirthas, takes place in a fabulous country house based on Polesden Lacey, a property near Dorking that was almost bequeathed to the Queen but ended up in the hands of the National Trust.

My wife and I take our boys there on a regular basis, as they love amongst other things getting their hands on old stuff, grandfather clocks, the chickens when they’re not away on holidays, and, appropriately, the stone griffins. Plus the grounds are huge, and beautiful, so there’s plenty of space to run around.

I always wanted the series to be very diverse, with equal parts mystery and action, and a strong contrast between the exotic and well-known. After Lizzie’s harrowing ordeal in the Cameroonian jungle in The Dreamer Falls, I decided to revert to a gentler setting, with the emphasis once again on mystery and intriguing characters.

After watching an excellent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (and then reading the no-less-brilliant book) I knew Lizzie’s story leant itself to the same kind of set-up. So I did some research and took a lot of photos of the building, uncovering more of the absorbing story of Margaret Greville, who bought the house with her McEwan’s inheritance (‘I’d rather be a beeress than an heiress’), and who held regular country parties for socialites from London and the wider Empire.

Portrait of Margaret Greville, Polesden Lacey

Margaret Greville collected ‘people with the unerring eye of a stamp-collector’ according to the Evening Standard, and her guests included European Ambassadors, Earls and Countesses, writers and poets – and Maharajahs. A perfect mix for an intense and suspenseful story, in which Lizzie is left wondering whether guests are who they say they are – or whether they are demons in disguise, come searching for a lost Artefact of Power.

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask will be out in the early summer. The final book in the series (currently with numerous working titles!) will be out early next year.

Margaret loved her dogs, all of whom ended up in Polesden’s famous pet cemetery.

The Old Man

I used to do a lot of hill walking when I lived in the right places, principally Stirling, where I went up into the Highlands, and Cardiff, where I used to drive to the Brecon Beacons. The Surrey Hills, where I live now, are good – but they’re not quite the same. There’s nothing like proper mountains for a sense of freedom.

The old man in this short poem is the the Old Man of Coniston. Those who know that fine mountain in the English Lake District will also know that this photo is not taken there, as I don’t have any digital photos from that walk, which was done a long time ago. (It’s in the Brecon Beacons, near Pen y Fan).

The Old Man first appeared in Orbis poetry magazine, no.88.

The Old Man

In stride pale valleys grow before us,
smoothed between slumbering beasts,
and exciting strange pools of thoughts;
after roaming the Old Man and returning
like water we fall together
by a crumbling river and you sing,
a silly song, into my ear
as I rest my thoughtless head in your lap.

Who are you to me?
Dreaming child, self-absorbed,
before eroded thoughtways
you sing the possibility of freedom.

Rise

Rise

The vegetation, air is damp.
Branches move slightly
and the sky is grey.
Christmas is coming,
feel the mind rise.

A blackbird silhouette
jumping under the laurel.
The cut log stained black
with age and rain.
The robin around,
quick with his feathers.
Christmas is…
…the mind rise.

The river swells, gloomy grey,
and a fox, ears high,
lopes to a sibling,
fidgeting in a daytime dream.
Christmas…
…rise.

Hedgelayer

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This poem was written during a time when I did a lot of volunteering for wildlife trusts and other environmental groups. Amongst other things, I learned how to build a drystone wall, coppice woodland, and lay hedges, in some beautiful parts of the country. There was always something magical about being outside, working with a group of like-minded people, whatever the weather.

Hedgelayer

A man, a man I could have loved
starts to shade, to shade the morning mist.

He is beating stakes, stakes into the clay
forcing them past stones, stones and steady roots,
the things weak within the earth
and the things that hate to move.

As I approach he takes his shape assuredly
from the frail and wet white air,
a seamster weaving hazel whips through the hedge,
outwitting the final challenge of scratch and rip.

In defeat the hawthorn rests its useless claws
uneasily against itself, uncertain how to act.
Then feels the sap rise, rise again in its veins,
and knows that it is elect.

The real “Garden of Rooms”

I have already posted about the amazing ‘garden of rooms’ in Herefordshire that inspired The Secret of the Tirthas here. Now there are two more books out, I thought I’d share a few more photos of the garden, including some of the rooms that feature in those books.

22_DSC0010ABOVE: The Wedding Cake Tree in the real Miss Day’s Garden. I’ve no idea who the real Miss Day was though – there’s no clues on the Garden’s original map, so she remains a mystery. In The Book of Life this garden is overgrown, abandoned by Evelyn Hartley when her cowardly brother fled the World War One draft through the tirtha to Louisiana.

P1010172ABOVE: The view that inspired the scene when Lizzie looks out of her bedroom window on her first night in Rowan Cottage and sees the criss-crossing hedges in the moonlight. The garden right below her is the Sun Garden.

P1010078ABOVE: Two South American gods who haven’t (as yet) featured in the stories. And BELOW a photo of them as they are now in a different garden – always pretty glum, but now somehow glummer!

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BELOW: The Rill looking up towards The Tower – this place is going to get a lot more important later on.

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BELOW: Excerpt from the original list of the Garden Rooms. The Edwardian Path features at the start of the forthcoming book, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask. The Gothic Garden will come into its own soon, too.

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BELOW: The plan of the whole garden is on the first post I mentioned above, but here’s a detail of the Sun Garden and area beyond. It includes the Gothic Garden, and the site where I imagined the Indian Garden.

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BELOW: As I wrote in my previous post, the garden has sadly now been mostly grubbed up. Here’s one of the rescued Easter Island heads (the middle one, I think, that Lizzie jumped on to on her way to activating the tirtha…)

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BELOW: Some of the garden’s lovely flowers and trees

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P1010060And finally me, working on the first draft of The City of Light in the garden.

 

 

The Welsh Marches – Photoblog

Rowan Cottage, the house that Lizzie inherits in The City of Light, is set near the fictional village of Hebley, loosely based on the black-and-white village of Weobley. I’ve already posted about the real garden of rooms that The Secret of the Tirthas is based on here, but here’s a few photos of the remote, beautiful, and occasionally austere area known as the Welsh Marches, which serves as a backdrop to the books:

Looking towards Hay Bluff and Twmpa, at the western edge of the Black Mountains

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The Golden Valley

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Across the border in Wales: Herefordshire bull, Vale of Ewyas

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Ruins of Llanthony Priory, Vale of Ewyas

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Pen y Fan, the highest of the Black Mountains

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