Caught by the River

Pleasures of…April

3rd May 2018

Windswept daffodils, walks through Glasgow and birthing a book: Malachy Tallack shares recollections of April.

The month began and ended on islands: the first familiar, the second entirely new to me.

After several years of living elsewhere, I was delighted to spend an extended period back home in Shetland, from January until early April. It felt, in fact, like a long and necessary sigh, and was particularly welcome after a winter of wandering and writing abroad.

Ostensibly, I was working – redrafting one novel, while preparing to publish another – but it’s fair to say I spent rather a lot of time looking out of the window, at a view I know better than almost any other. It is a view of hillsides, of fields, and of slate-blue sea. From my seat beside the window, I watched the days follow one another through the valley.

Spring comes slowly that far north, and the first hints of it feel tentative and uncertain. There is a particular kind of impatience that grows in this time, when growth itself seems sluggish. You wait and wait for signs of it, for promises that change is coming. But often those promises are more like rumours, ready always to be disproved.

Daffodils, those emblems of the season, which elsewhere are heedless and flamboyant, seem more careful in the islands. They creep upwards, as though conscious, somehow, of the dangers of decapitation. One gale-force wind and they’ll be gone, their yellow nodding heads blown seawards like spindrift.

No such caution is required in Glasgow, where I returned a few days into the month. Here the blooms were riotous, the brightest yellows echoed, here and there, in ragged spindles of forsythia overhanging the pavements. There are cherry blossoms and magnolias in the parks. There are snake’s-head fritillaries, if you know where to look.

I have spent much of this month reorienting myself in the city, taking walks I’ve missed in the six months of my absence, finding again the pace of the place. It feels good to be reacquainted, to be reminded of details that had faded with distance.

But it’s strange, still, to be here, as I think back to my time in Shetland, and think ahead to the launch of a novel that is set there, in the home where I don’t live. I am not yet fully arrived. I am not yet in place. 

Besides these long walks, these wanders around the city, I have spent too much of my time caught up in that strange, anticipatory procrastination that comes – for me – before any publication, when all other work gets pushed aside in favour of…well, in favour of waiting, really. Nervously waiting.

I’ve heard it said that publishing a book is rather like having a baby. Each is a part of, and yet ultimately separate from oneself. And the arrival of each is preceded by the same anxious expectation, the same worry and excitement.

Having never actually brought a child into the world, I am not in the ideal position to test this analogy. But my suspicion is that it does not entirely hold true.

For one thing, babies do not get reviewed, either online or in national newspapers. New parents have to worry about all kinds of things, but they do not have to worry about hearing their offsprings’ flaws enumerated in public. (To be honest, I don’t think it would be such a bad thing if they did. But so far there is no established outlet for that kind of criticism.)

For another, new parents are not required to go out and talk to audiences about their babies, in the hope of selling them to strangers. The success or otherwise of their creation is largely in their own hands; it is not reliant on the fickle tastes of the purchasing public.

These, I suspect, are not the only differences between babies and books. But nor are they inconsiderable ones. These are the things that concern me, that disrupt my sleep, as I think ahead to the launch of a book that I spent two years of my life writing.

And so I end my month en route to the island of Colonsay, off the west coast of Scotland, where I will do what I am often asked to do: to talk about the words I have put in print. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see parts of this country I might never otherwise have explored. There are book festivals now in the most surprising corners of Scotland, and Colonsay – an island of 130 people – is one of them. It is perhaps inevitable that this place, more than most, will remind me of home.


Malachy Tallack’s novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World, is published today by Canongate.

Malachy’s website/Twitter account