Category Archives: Britain

A Ghost Story with a difference

Ightham Mote - inspiration for my new ghost story

I’m halfway through writing my next book, which I’m describing as a ghost story – with a difference.

The idea for the story came from a real life event. When I had just started dating my wife she went for an interview for a very intriguing job. It was a Property Manager post in an isolated country house that had recently been given over to the National Trust. There was accommodation for the postholder in the building. For security purposes, she would need to spend most of her time there, day and night. It was a wonderful opportunity, a beautiful property set in remote rural England.

But there was a catch.

The house was still lived in by the previous owners, who had been forced to turn to the Trust when the financial burden of running it became too much. This scenario is not uncommon, as few rich and aristocratic families now have the funds to sustain such enormous, old, leaky buildings. Some manage to generate sufficient income by opening the property up themselves, but not many. Most either get sold on to hotels, or go to into terminal decline and get demolished. A few get passed on to the National Trust.

It was at the job interview that my wife found out more about the set up. She gathered that the previous Property Manager had left under unusual circumstances. A breakdown was even mooted. The implication was that it was not because of the stress of managing the house itself. It was because the former owners had their own ideas as to how the property should (continue to) be run.

They hadn’t let go. And subsequently they made the manager’s life difficult. Very difficult.

My wife was offered the job, but she never took it. I’m glad as it was a long way to travel for us to see each other. Who knows whether our relationship would have survived that distance.

But I’ve always been fascinated by the set up. I’ve always known there was a story in there somewhere. And now, with the addition of a ghost or two, I have it. Why is it a ghost story with a difference? Well let’s just say, she ain’t afraid of ghosts.


Up in the Air – poems on video: The Cormorants

Here’s the second in my series of videos in which I read poems from my book Up in the Air. This time, The Cormorants, one of the first poems I ever had published. It’s a short poem about yearning and restlessness, seabirds, and the remote and lonely Scottish island of Iona.

As always, if you like it, please leave a comment.

You can buy Up in the Air here:

Up in the Air – Poems on video: Weather Map

The first of an occasional series of videos in which I read poems from my book, Up in the Air.

I wrote Weather Map when I was living in a small flintstone folly owned by the National Trust on the edge of a housing estate in London. At the end of the garden was – beyond a tricky pile of thorny scrub – a beautiful and little-known tributary of the Thames, the River Wandle. I had just started going out with the lovely woman who was to become my wife.

So, here is me reading Weather Map. If you like it, leave a comment.


You can purchase a copy of Up in the Air here:

Three Reasons to Love Wordsworth

Wordsworth thinking

I’ve been really pleased by the reception of my first poetry book, Up in the Air, which reached the top ten in Amazon’s ‘Inspirational Poetry’ bestsellers category.

I wrote a post about how I started writing poems here. I mentioned it was climbing Scottish mountains and reading William Wordsworth that kickstarted my love for poetry. But citing Wordsworth as an inspiration is hardly hip these days. So I thought I’d tell you why I like him. Then, hopefully, you will too.

There are three reasons I love Wordsworth:

#1 His Idealism

As a young man in the 1790s, Wordsworth travelled on the continent and was excited by the fresh ideals of the politics he discovered. He believed passionately in the French Revolution, that there would be a new dawn of equality and liberty for all humankind. Unfortunately it was followed by the Reign of Terror and Wordsworth ultimately retreated, disillusioned, to his private sanctuary in the Lake District. I’ve got a feeling quite a few of us would like to do that these days.

#2 His Poetry

Obviously. Wordsworth created some of the most inspired and memorable lines in the English language. Look at these for instance:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

That best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Come forth into the light of things,
Let nature be your teacher.

With an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

#3 Above all, his love of, respect for, and insight into Nature

As one of the greatest Romantic poets, Wordsworth described the inner life and value of Nature like no other:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

He understood the mysterious interplay that our thoughts, our minds, have with Nature. Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey is my favourite poem, and I think the lines about what the eye and ear ‘half create, and what percieve’ is a revelation.

I often re-read Wordsworth’s poems, when I arrive in the mountains, or see a new, inspiring landscape. We can never be sure about the inner life of Nature, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower as Dylan Thomas called it, and what our part in it is. But many of us believe that there is something really there beyond dim, blind, mechanics. And we see that, in a semi-objective, semi-imaginative way, we are not only created by it, but have a mysterious role in creating the world ourselves.

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.

Maoi sculptures

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?

 

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

wp_20160401_008-2

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.