In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments:
Six Miss Havershams trail their white skirts in the mud, sipping mulled wine as they go. A few have trickles of eye liner running down their cheeks, perhaps in sympathy with the original Miss Havisham. A girl resembling Little Nell sings Christmas carols with some other well dressed waifs, watching beady eyed as coins tinkle into their box. As dusk closes round the valley and the mist curls down the streets, food and wine sellers vie for the final custom of the afternoon and we shiver round a brazier with other revellers. The Grassington Dickensian Christmas fair is full of local cheer but there is nothing remotely Dickensian about it. I like the Miss Havershams though, no grieving indoors for them.
After our dog has attacked three others and snatched a pie from a child’s hand, we stagger home across a darkened field, our bellies full of wine and pie. A few crazy kayakers sweep down river, calling excitedly to one another in the darkness. Fortunately, they have the good sense to climb out before they reach Linton Falls.
Writing for Caught by the River has certainly been a highlight of 2012. It has encouraged me to be more observant when out walking than I might usually be, to dig beneath the green turf of fields and moors to unearth a little local history to enrich my blogs. My sixteen year old son, Joel, is my photographer, so it has got us out wandering together more, with a shared objective. It’s a great pleasure to feel part of a creative community of talented writers and photographers and reading the newsletter provides a diversion from my main goal this year, which was to finish my novel The Lovebegot.
The characters in The Lovebegot have haunted my nights and my waking hours for three years. Like puppets in a shadow theatre who require their animator to breathe life into them, they are always waiting for me. They have become bigger than the fictional world that holds them, and have acquired an importance (for me) that far exceeds their significance. In my peripheral vision, they appear as shadows on the wall, dancing in the light and eluding my pen, which wishes to pin and hold them down. This year I thought I’d completed the novel, but every time I think I’ve put the characters in their place, I discover that one of them does not fit, or that their actions have engendered a series of events that is out of sync with the historical time frame or the palate of potential readers. Sometimes, the shadow puppets tower over me; taller than the walls they leer at me from the ceiling, taunting me. Other times though, they shrink to Mrs Pepperpot size and I can move them about and place them where I like, mould them as I please. The hours of sunrise and sundown are my most productive times for writing, when shadows are sharper and can mutate quickly. Writing notes by flickering firelight is also a favourite method, because mine is a romantic ghost novel, and the shapes of a room in firelight can shift and shrink in the blink of an eye.
I won’t dwell on the personal side of 2012, as it has not been a good year for the family and we’re eager to move on to 2013. This is a place to reflect on my writing life, littered as it is with the ghosts of stories half-imagined and waiting to be written, for whom there are not enough waking hours to breathe life into. I dream of a writing life in the future, of a working life that is not bound by the needs of students and lectures to write and deliver, but perhaps the writing space I carve into my busy working and family life is richer because it is scarce. Perhaps the unwritten stories will be all the better for their long fermentation, and one day readers will savour my stories like a rich port by firelight.
The ghosts of family and trees have been on my mind a lot lately. Over thirty years ago in 1978, my late uncle, Gerald Wilkinson, wrote his book Epitaph for the Elm in which he described ‘Rich corners of rural England… as bare as battlefields.’ Dutch elm disease swept across Britain in the 60s and 70s, changing the landscape of Britain, just as it is predicted the ash epidemic will do. Who will write Epitaph for the Ash? And will we manage to regenerate the ash trees of Britain during the coming decades?