Monthly Archives: March 2016

Nature Writing

img_3846-1_25682732186_oI’ve decided to start writing a post every couple of weeks or so about the woods nearby. I found I was writing far too much setting in my novel, waffling on about skies and trees so I decided to put the urge to better creative use.

It’ll also help me to pull together some ideas for my next novel.

‘Lost in a Forest‘ is the first post. Enjoy!

Lost in a Forest

It’s a cold March. The sky is set to TV interference grey and there’s snow falling, enough to lightly cover the newly emerged bulbs of crocus and daffodil. As I slip and slide down the path towards Birley Spa Woods I can hardly feel my fingers, clutching the camera in case I lose it in the quagmire.

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These woods lie at the south-eastern tip of Sheffield. They would have been part of Derbyshire in the 1960s before the boundaries were redefined. They remind me of the forests of fairy tales, the way the brambles and branches, as well as the strange urban geography has kept them hidden from most people, lost and a little forgotten. I think that’s why I love them so much. They are neglected and abused (children and teens regularly set fire to rubbish here or ride off road bikes and butcher the trees) and there’s something a little melancholic about them. They don’t have the attention lavished on them as say, Ecclesall Woods, but they have a charm all of their own.

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Behind the primary school is the disused Victorian Spa. It’s fenced off and chained, sitting in beautifully haunting grounds. I used to think there was something menacing about the place but I think that I just misunderstood the place. It’s sad, neglected, and the ghosts of the Victorian and Pre-War day trippers are almost tangible around the old boating lake and spring. Nearby is the strange fossilised tree where they used to leave tokens and the ruins of the children’s paddling pool, graced by the splash of feet over eighty years ago.

The story of the Spa, a Grade II listed building is a fascinating one. Purportedly there was a stone, part of the lake wall, now gone, that had the date 1701 inscribed on it meaning that the spa and grounds might date back to the beginning of the 1700s but the first documentation of the site is in 1734 in a book about the mineral waters of England where it is called ‘Burleigh Spa’. There are records showing that people came from Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century to bathe and drink the waters for therapeutic purposes.

The current building on the site dates from 1842. There were two bridges over the stream in the grounds along with walks through the wooded valley and seven grottoes. The building contained two pools; one marble and one stone. Only the stone one remains. The bath house and hotel was eventually sold along with the cottages known as Rose Cottages and turned into pleasure grounds.

A boating lake, sandpits, rocking boats, see-saws and swimming in the ‘Roman’ bath were all advertised as part of ‘The Children’s Paradise – Birley Spa’. The pleasure grounds were closed to the public at the outbreak of war in 1939 and when the council housing was built in Hackenthorpe in the late 1940s and 1950s and the Sheffield Corporation became the owners.

(Shire Brook – The Forgotten Valley 2007)

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As I move around the wrought iron fence of the Spa, I disturb the huge guard dogs that reside behind the security fencing of a modern house, now built upon the site of the old Rose cottage. For a moment, I am a little scared but then I marvel what it must be like for a modern family, surrounded by flat screen TVs and shiny granite worktops with all the mod cons, to be isolated and submerged in the woods like this. It reminds me of George Huxley’s house set in Ryhope Wood in Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’.

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Just a few days later, I am back in the woods with friends and it’s discernibly warmer. We stand and watch a frog emerging from hibernation in the shallow waters of the old boating lake. There are stickleback darting and nibbling at a crumb of bread. Above us, in the trees we hear the sounds of woodpeckers at work. Spring is definitely arriving.

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A Book Is a Loaded Gun In The House Next Door

‘A book is a loaded gun in the house next door’ (Ray Bradbury – Farenheit 451)

Three Authors that Rocked My Writing World

Books and reading have been at the centre of my life, for over thirty-five years. There are photos of me as a child and awkward early teen, book clutched in hand, not even aware of the camera as I’m so absorbed in a book. I can identify parts of my life by what I was reading at the time. I can think of a book I read and the feelings and emotions of the time come flooding back, much the way smell evokes memory.

There are many books and many authors which I have been moved by, inspired by, changed in some way by but there are only three that I would say really inspired me to pick up a pen and write.

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The first is Ray Bradbury. I read some of his many collections of short stories as a young teen and was hooked by his creative use of language. Ray Bradbury was more than a wordsmith. He took ideas, crazy, big, weird ideas, and brought them to life with beautiful but honest language. One of my favourite stories of his is ‘And the Sailor Home from Sea’ in ‘Machineries of Joy’. I love his description of the prairie, like the rolling sea and the wooden house, creaking like a ship. He turned the midwest of America into something weird and wonderful, created a whole new mythology of landscape for it.

‘Trembling in his bed, he whispered, No, no, it can’t be – I’m mad! But…listen!

He opened the farmhouse door to look upon the land. He stepped out on the porch, spelled by this thing he had done without knowing it. He held to the porch rail and blinked, wet-eyed, out beyond his house.

There, in the moonlight, hill after slow-rising hill of wheat blew in tidal winds with the motion of waves. An immense pacific of grain shimmered off beyond seeing, with his house, his now recognized ship, be-calmed in its midst.’

I also love what Bradbury had to say about writing. His quotes still move and inspire me now.

‘I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them.’

And about reading and the change in culture, the move away from it as a lifetime habit;

‘The problem… isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.’

‘Farenheit 451’ is one of my favourite novels of all time. I would argue that it is in fact the most important science fiction novel of all time. Sheer genius. If you haven’t read it – shame on you! – go and get a copy now.

The second author who inspired me and continues to inspire me (He still writes – his last novel published in 2012 ‘Boneland’) is Alan Garner. It was a friend of my sister’s, visiting from University who introduced me to Garner when I was aged about twelve. The first book I read was ‘Elidor’ – I hesitate to say it is a children’s book because Garner doesn’t like that distinction and I think I have to agree with him there. A good book is a good book. If you have to dumb down your writing for younger audiences then it is not a good book.

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‘Elidor’ was my first taste of fantasy. I had an old copy of the first edition that I bought second hand from the library. It’s about four children in Manchester who enter a fantasy world, fulfill a quest and return to find the enemy has followed them back. Written in 1965, it might even be the first British urban fantasy novel.

I believe it is based on the English Folktale ‘Childe Rowlande’ and quotes Shakespeare in the epigraph:

‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came – ” KING LEAR, act iii, sc. 4’

This is one of my favourite passages in the book. I love the description of foreboding and imagery of static electricity, the way Garner drip feeds the feeling that something is  not quite right as Roland returns to his house.

‘After the first pulse of horror Roland did not move.

He saw every detail of plaster on the wall: he heard every sound in the house and in the road outside. He did not breathe: his mind raced so that every second was ten.

The shadows were not anybody in the room. It was too small and bare for anybody to be in it unseen. And they would have to be between the torch and the wall to make shadows.

This was my bedroom. There’s nothing to be frightened of here. They’re marks on the wall. Damp patches because the house is empty.

He went closer. They remained the same size. Flat shadows on the wall: motionless, sharp and black.’

I also loved ‘The Owl Service’. The idea of the eternal love triangle of Blodeuwedd, Lleu and Gronw that comes from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion is something that influences my writing to this day. Garner is a folklorist and that is clear in his writing. His interweave of landscape, folklore and myth is something I relate to on a personal level as it is the place where all my writing springs from too. It is what moves me to write.

To give you an idea where Garner’s inspiration comes from and how meticulous he is with research;

‘I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten’s War Requiem nearly every day.’

(Times Literary Supplement 1968)

If you are a writer, be sure to read ‘The Voice That Thunders’; his essays on writing amongst other diverse subjects such as folklore, archaeology, mental health and language. A truly brilliant writer.

The third is Robert Holdstock. Continuing with the theme of mythology, the British landscape and folklore, The ‘Mythago Wood Cycle’ of books includes; ‘Lavondyss’, ‘The Bone Forest’, ‘The Hollowing’, ‘Merlin’s Wood’, ‘Avilion’ and ‘Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn’

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Set in the Herefordshire ancient woodland known as ‘Ryhope Wood’. It tells the story of Stephen Huxley, his brother Christian and their father George. Stephen returns home from World War Two to find his brother Christian has become obsessed with the woods that surround their home Oak Lodge. He tells Stephen of his encounters with the ‘Mythagos’, creatures (humans, monsters and animals) created from ancient memory, myth and subconscious of nearby human minds. Seen as some as a metaphor of the journey into the heartwood of the psyche, the wood can only be accessed by four tracks. Anyone who doesn’t use these tracks has great difficulty accessing the heart of the wood.

Re-reading it now, I am still deeply moved by it. Holdstock captured something truly amazing, primal and mythologically resonating. It still, on a subconscious level, along with Garner influences my own storytelling today. When I read it as a teen, I wanted to go into Ryhope Wood, to see it’s secrets for myself and I still have that urge today.

Read it, if you can, even if you’re not a fan of fantasy. It’s about so much more.

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Writing this post has made me go back and re-read the books of my favourite authors. They stand the test of time and still feed my imagination. They reminded me of where my origins and influences are, between which pages to look for inspiration.

One thing that has occurred to me is ‘Where are the woman authors?’ It just so happened that my favourites were men. They didn’t have to be. I just haven’t discovered the women writers yet who weave together landscape, mythology and story in the same way. If you have any suggestions – please leave a comment – I would love to read them!