Wednesday, 16 November 2011

How living in forests makes your stories refer to conversational, bonneted wolves...

"Totally speculative and extremely ill-founded", said Sarah Maitland, smiling broadly as she contemplated her about-to-be-published work 'Gossip from the Forest'.  "And overwritten", she added. 

Well, I doubt it.

We were listening to the famed author in a lecture theatre on the Crichton Campus, part of Dave Borthwick's excellent series of visiting writers talking about how their work is related to the natural world.  (Good for you Dave, Dumfries & Galloway is suffering a dearth of other lit programming until various powers get their act together again).

Sarah's new book will explore, she says, the impact of landscape on the imagination.  Specifically, it explores 12 walks through forests (yes, that's one for every month) and en route the relationships between such places, their natural science, their atmospheres, sounds, particularities etc - and north European fairy stories. 

She talked about Staverton Forest in Suffolk, with its 4000 ancient pollarded oaks, and expounded on the 'casual' nature of magic in story.  That is to say, it's usually wholly  unearned (by the feckless younger son, or undeserving bossy sister) and doesn't require study for even an OWL at Hogwarts. 

An hour flew by.  Tom Pow contributed the happy thought that fairy stories are there to explain to us that 'shit happens'.  Sarah leapt on this and in seconds they'd constructed the ground-breaking concept of 'Luck and Shit', to encompass all human eventuality.

'Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physics are petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three, Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile,
Tis magic, magic that has ravish'd me'
said Sarah, quoting Kit Marlowe.  

Luck, shit and magic.  I think that covers it, really. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

In Wales in the company of The King of Britain's Daughter

I walked uphill on a muddy green track which might not quite take a small car.  Then it narrowed and became barely suitable for a pony.  I could just see roof timbers higher up.  It was very steep, and there was no sound but the sea, far below.  The green track led to a cottage which someone had begun to renovate.  But not recently.  It was unmistakably a little bereft, a little sad.  Beautiful slabs of stone fenced its tiny garden, and a mighty granite post marked the gate.  I put my hand on a delicate roughness of lichen so white it looked like a splash of paint, and stepped up, but with the odd feeling always present when you know your touch and step is the physical echo of so many others. 

I sat down on a big stone under the empty window of the cottage, looked out to sea and fished a book out of my pocket.  Just out of the wind, and for ten minutes, I enjoyed the company of Gillian Clark. 

Seal's head in water,
Bran's footprint in a slab of rock
Deep enough for a child to swim.
An ess of light as far as Ireland.
Salt in my mouth and the wind to lean on.

Later we climbed Yr Eifl's curving peak and looked down onto the Iron Age ruins of Tre'r Ceiri.

Beached for good on the high-tide line,
the houseboat leaned to sea,
at odds with the level earth
in its ballast of stones
and fishy drifts of sand.

Cargo of cuttlefish,
bladderwrack, blue mussels
the horn of a unicorn,
the skull of a curlew
and maps for the journey,

the King of Britain's daughter
making for open sea
past headlands like drinking dragons,
marked by that neolithic stone
from the giant's pocket.

All week we had stones, sea foam and radio.  We had slate caverns where they played ghostly recordings of Blaenau's male voice choirs, and bookshops in Caernarfon and Porthmadog where readers talked books with the bookseller and no-one had a loyalty card.