Wednesday, 12 December 2018

In case you're wondering about The Novel

As you may have noticed, I’ve now stopped posting extracts from my novel. This is because I know how difficult it is to follow a novel online so thank you if you’ve persevered.
    It’s been amazingly helpful for my novel-writing knowing that real people are reading the results. I'm now having trouble not slipping back into writing for agents and publishers, which I now realise makes for a much less interesting book.
    (I therefore reserve the right to change my mind about the above and to return to revealing parts of my novel in this blog if I decide to do so!)

If I don’t post again before Christmas, have a good one. Here is a seasonal picture from the National Trust park I mentioned in the post before this one.

Willow Rudolph at the National Trust's Killerton Park, Devon
Willow Rudolph

And here is a wintry picture I took a few days ago when out with Dog on the hill behind our house. 

Monday, 3 December 2018

Adventures in rewilding

Although rewilding is controversial, not to say extremely unpopular in some quarters, I’m a big fan. It seems to me it’s the first ever positive suggestion in the whole six decades of the modern environmental movement, and not just positive but exciting and inspiring.

Feral and Wilding

A few years ago I mentioned how much I enjoyed reading FERAL: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding by George Monbiot. Recently I’ve been reading another exciting rewilding book called WILDING: The return of nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree. In fact it was so exciting that one night I was still reading it at 5am. (Yes, I know. I am a bit weird.)

Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human LifeWilding: The return of nature to a British farm

The Knepp estate

Isabella with her husband Charlie Burrell owns the Knepp estate in West Sussex. For decades because the soil was so poor the farmland had been running at a loss so in 2000 they sold all their equipment and animals, paid off their £1½ million overdraft and with the help of grants (for such things as removing fences and undoing water management) left the land to nature.

Wildlife streamed in almost immediately, including species the Burrells didn’t expect. They introduced free-roaming old breeds (as near as possible to their wild ancestors) of pigs, cattle and ponies which turned the land into a mixture of woodland, wetland, scrub and pasture, which ecologists now believe is its natural state. (Usually considered a nuisance, scrub is actually the richest wildlife area of all and a natural nursery for tree seedlings.) They also discovered new sources of income such as wild meat and safaris. They dream of reintroducing native animals such as wild boar, beaver, lynx and wolf.

I need no persuading about the benefits of wild land. Nature is what keeps me happy and sane(ish) and the wilder it is the more I like it, but for those who need persuasion there are tangible benefits. Wild land can reduce flooding, rejuvenate soil exhausted by farming, bring down carbon-dioxide emissions (through carbon 'sequestration'), decontaminate air and water, safeguard biological diversity and provide pollinating insects. The psychological benefits of being out in nature, especially in the sort of landscape described above, have been proven and, as Isabella Tree says, as humans we have been intimately connected with nature for 99 per cent of our evolution. 'Sever that connection and we are floating in a world where our deepest sense of ourselves is lost.'

Unlike conventional conservation where habitats are maintained artificially – for species which may not actually like those habitats best but have nowhere else to go - rewilding needs little input from humans. We (in the UK and Western Europe) are now so efficient at producing food that we have a surplus. Farmers could be given grants not for farming but for rewilding. We could have a linked series of rewilded areas and rotate them – something which is perfectly possible with modern machinery.

Phew. That’s a very brief summary, and probably full of mistakes. Do read either of the two books I’ve mentioned above if you want to find out more, or you can contact a new charity called Rewilding Britain.

Talking of scrub and wild land, I realised this morning as I walked through this neglected little area tucked into a corner of a manicured National Trust park where Dog and I sometimes go, that it’s one of my favourite parts. 

A forgotten corner of the National Trust's Killerton estate in Devon

And I realised why. It's because nature's taking over and I never know what I'm going to find here. It takes me back to my childhood. It feels real. It's an adventure. And, if that’s not an argument for rewilding, I don’t know what is. (Ellie likes it too. As soon as we arrive, she vanishes at speed into the undergrowth - which is why you can't see her in the picture.)

And here’s Ellie, sitting wistfully under a tree in the official part of the park.

The manicured park in front of the National Trust's Killerton House in Devon

I was going to talk about The Novel as well in this post but I’ve gone on far too long already so perhaps I’ll save that for another day.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

The Banker's Niece 10

This is from the novel I’m working on at the moment.
Please respect my copyright.



‘Yes?’ says Jane, putting on her most forbidding face.
    She knows exactly how grim she can look as she’s scared herself many a time when catching sight of herself by accident in the mirror.
    ‘Jane?’ says a man of indeterminate age the other side of the garden gate – which Jane hasn’t yet opened for him.
    He has dead-straight chestnut hair, a swathe of which flops over his eyes.
    ‘That man could do with a good haircut,’ says Jane’s mother’s voice in her head and for once Jane agrees with it.
    A minute ago she was standing on the cottage’s flagstone terrace transfixed by the view: green and more green in all shades from deepest pine to lemon. There wasn’t a house or road in sight and she made another snap decision. (Sharon would be proud of her.) This was where she wanted to live. All this space. All this solitude. She didn’t realise how much she needed them.
    And then, with the shattering roar of some sort of engine, this man arrived.
    Her face is obviously doing its job as he starts to gabble.
    ‘I, er . . . a n-neighbour rang . . . a car parked at the bottom of the track . . . the estate agent said . . . my m-mother . . .’
    By which Jane understands that he has full details of her movements from various sources, as well as knowing who she is. So much for solitude. It’s ironic, seeing as in the city she can do what she likes outside work and no one need be any the wiser.
    She can of course guess his identity as well, even though she’s pretending she can’t. So, in spite of his being the son of a one-time fellow deb of her mother and because he might turn out to be her nearest neighbour, she relents.
    ‘Yes, I’m Jane.’
    She keeps her scary face on. Neighbours in her experience are best kept at a distance, if that isn't contradictory. You don’t want them ‘popping’ in and out of your house. You want to be able to close your door and know that you won’t be disturbed.
    The man wipes his hand on his overalls and holds it out. ‘William.’
    The overalls are faded blue, spattered with brown, and a strong smell of manure has arrived with them. She wonders if it’s safe – from a hygiene point of view - to touch William’s hand but she supposes she has to.
    As she delays, he starts to gabble again. ‘Hope I’m not intruding . . .  can come b-back another time . . . wondered if I could help in any way . . . anything you want to know . . . anything at all -’
    ‘No,’ interrupts Jane, taking his hand and resisting the urge to then wipe hers on her skirt.
    She doesn’t mean to be curt but they can’t both gabble or the conversation will career off the rails, and she honestly doesn’t have any questions. She doesn’t care about the details. All is perfect.
    The garden is sweet, a romantic froth of pink and purple enclosed by a wild hedge, tall enough to give privacy. The house has everything a lone spinster needs: one and a half bedrooms, shower as well as bath, spick-and-span kitchen, sitting-room with open fire, French windows. Far from being full of detritus, it’s empty and spotlessly clean and smells of fresh paint. And on top of all that, there's a small concrete area to one side, in darn sight better nick than the track, just right for Clio.
    The two of them could move in tomorrow.
    The man’s face falls. ‘You d-don’t like the house then?’
    ‘Oh, no, it’s not that,’ she says and then comes to a halt, not sure how to proceed.
    The personal connection has muddied things. Didn’t her father always say ‘Never mix business with friendship’? As the daughter of William’s mother’s one-time fellow deb she can praise the house with impunity but as a possible buyer she should be playing it cool.
    The man looks at her with longing. ‘You d-do like it?’
    He has boyish features, uninteresting in themselves but open in a way most men’s features aren’t. Every emotion is immediately visible. It's hard to be cool with him. It feels cruel, like being cool with a child or an animal - not that she ever has been or ever would be. So she plumps for friendship. Of a distant sort, of course.
    ‘I might,’ she smiles.
    William smiles too. ‘Oh, I’m so glad.’
    And when he smiles his face is transformed. It becomes almost beautiful.
    He’s tall too. Her mother was right. Well over six foot.
    He starts to blush. ‘I, er, n-normally have something to eat around now – when I finish the milking. I w-wondered if you wanted to join me. . . I could tell you about the area . . . But only if you’ve got time, of course . . . You probably need to rush off . . . ’
    She remembers the ballroom dancing classes her mother sent her to when she was eleven or twelve. The boys, of the same age and invariably from single-sex schools, had to ask the girls to dance. Her stomach would be clenched with their embarrassment, not to say terror, and she always said yes in order to spare them.
    But this time, she doesn’t.
    ‘What sort of something?’ she asks.
    She really really doesn’t want to lead William on. It would be so easy to do and such a disaster if she was living next door and it went wrong which it would according to her experience. As her mother used to put it - in order to shock her father, and blaming her brothers for the language - 'Don't shit on your own doorstep.' And, anyway, Jane doesn’t lead men on any more. And, anyway, he’s too nice.
    ‘A fry-up?’ says William.
    She keeps her features neutral. A fry-up is hardly the most romantic of meals, so perhaps she’s safe, but it’s not the most appealing either. She knows what men’s fry-ups consist of. Meat and more meat, and she hasn’t eaten meat since her thirties.
    He tries again. ‘Scrambled eggs? Coffee?’
    Now he’s talking.
    Where?’ she asks. 
    ‘At my house,’ he says, pointing up the track.
    She remembers that track, the stones and the cowpats.
    ‘Is it far?’ she asks.
    ‘I can give you a lift on the quad bike,’ he says.
    So that was the reason for all the noise. She has no idea what a quad bike is and wonders whether her tight denim skirt will be suitable. She supposes she can hitch it up if necessary.
    ‘OK. Thanks. Yes.’
    William almost jumps for joy. ‘Jasper will be so pleased. He likes a bit of company. Don’t you old boy.’
    Jane notices for the first time a fat black Labrador with a greying muzzle sitting at William’s feet. William has bent down and is ruffling the dog’s ears.
    She's glad about Jasper. He makes her feel safe. From what, she’s not sure as William seems harmless enough. She wouldn't be going to his house otherwise. Herself, probably.

The Banker's Niece 9

This is from the novel I'm working on at the moment.
Please respect my copyright.


Black Dog 2

Spring 1978

‘Where’s Pa?’ said Rick.
    ‘Oh you know,’ said Peggy. ‘Watching television or something.’
    Rick had explained the system to Jane. Rick’s father lived in the sitting-room, doing God knows what, while his mother lived in the kitchen, reading, doing crosswords and sneaking outside for cigarettes as Philip wouldn’t let her smoke in the house. She was a great reader apparently, especially of any books connected with country life, and Lord of the Rings, which she ploughed through once a year. Jane’s mother was a great reader too but she tended to like the autobiographies of people brought up in stately homes.
    ‘Sit down,’ suggested Rick to Jane, as she hovered next to the sink.
    He pointed to a round table next to the window, covered with a flowered cloth and already laid for lunch. Grateful for the suggestion, she squeezed round the table to the far side, hoping she wasn’t taking anyone’s special place.
    ‘There’s wine in the fridge,’ said Peggy.
    ‘Wine!’ said Rick. ‘Since when did you and Pa drink wine?’
    ‘Since your father got promoted,’ said Peggy.
    ‘Huh,’ said Rick.
    Nevertheless he extracted the wine from the fridge and filled four glasses, before pulling out a chair next to Jane and sitting down.
    Peggy started delving into the oven and placing pans on the peninsula that separated the table from the rest of the kitchen.
    A face and then a body appeared in the kitchen doorway. It was yet another version of Rick, only one with a large stomach, glasses and no hair.
    ‘Where’ve you been?’ demanded Rick. ‘Jane’s here waiting to meet you and Ma’s dishing up.’
    ‘I, er, I was having trouble.’
    ‘Trouble!’ scoffed Rick. ‘What sort of trouble?’
    ‘I was, er, flatulating.’
    ‘Flatulating!’ said Rick. ‘What sort of a word is that? Why can’t you call a spade a spade?’
    ‘Or a fart a fart,’ said Peggy from behind the peninsula where she was doling roast beef, roast potatoes and cabbage on to four plates.
    ‘Ex-actly,’ said Rick. ‘Nothing wrong with “fart”. Good Anglo-Saxon word, “fart”.’
    ‘Well you know,’ said Philip, nodding in Jane’s direction.
    ‘Jane doesn’t care, do you?’ said Rick, turning to look at her.
    Jane shook her head. She was incapable of speech.

In the afternoon Rick drove her round the lanes pointing out landmarks.
    ‘That was where I came off my bicycle and landed in a clump of brambles,’ he said pointing to a muddy ditch.
    ‘That was where I lost the road on the Cub and drove up the bank,’ he said pointing to a sharp corner and a precipitous slope.
    He’d talked about the Cub before. It was a Triumph Tiger Cub motorbike which he’d sold when he left home and still mourned. Jane didn’t know anything about motorbikes except that they were dangerous. Thank goodness the Cub was gone.
    ‘This was where I had my first car crash,’ he said at a T-junction. ‘I pulled out and this pillock came round the corner and smashed into the side of the Mini-van. It was never the same again.’
    Jane didn’t like to ask whose fault it was or whether anyone was hurt.
    Even though he had to sit hunched over because the roofs were too low, he'd had Minis of one sort or another ever since he started work six years earlier. She knew that because he'd described each one in detail to her, down to the registration number. The Clubman was Mini number three.

At teatime Rick went into the sitting-room for what was apparently the traditional argument with his father. Jane and Peggy sat in the kitchen together.
    Peggy patted Jane’s hand. ‘Dear girl. I’m so pleased he’s got you to look after him. We’ve been worried about him.’
    Jane had been worried about him too when they first met. He’d changed a lot though in five months but she didn’t think she could take all the credit for that. How kind Peggy was.
    Nothing about her first visit to Rick’s parents had been what she expected. There’d been no catechism, no polite formality, no sizing her up as a potential daughter-in-law. Instead, it was as if she’d been absorbed into the family exactly as she was.
    Fresh air, albeit of an occasional foetid nature, blew through this house. People said what they thought, did what they wanted. She was happy here.

That evening back in Exeter, as she sat in the bath and as usual surveyed with despair her rolls of stomach fat, she had a revelation. The solution was nothing to do with your size, with eating or not eating. The solution was to love yourself as you were. That was the only starting point.
    Later, as she and Rick lay on their mattress together, his every touch brought a waterfall of colour. And this is just the beginning, she thought.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Banker's Niece 8

This is from the novel I'm working on at the moment.
Please respect my copyright.

Black Dog 1

Spring 1978

‘Black Dog,’ laughed Jane. ‘What sort of a name is that?’
    ‘A Devon one,’ said Rick.
    It was Sunday morning and they were in the Mini (Clubman), travelling at speed – as they always did when Rick was driving – through what Rick called ‘the back roads’ to the village where he’d been brought up and where his parents still lived, so that Jane could meet them for the first time.
    He always travelled by the back roads if he could. He called them the ‘proper Devon’. Jane called them lethal.
    They were always covered in slippery mud. They were one-vehicle wide (if that). Deep shade could turn to bright sun or vice versa in a second and blind you. They twisted like sidewinders and you never knew what you might find round the next twist – a horse, a dog, a deer, a tractor, a child, someone on a bicycle. Occasionally they were so steep Jane wondered if she would have to get out of the Mini and push.
    At first she used to hang on to the door handle and put her hands over her eyes whenever anything scared her, both of which actions annoyed Rick. He saw them as a form of back-seat driving.
    ‘I have rights, even as a passenger.’ she would retort. ‘Especially as a passenger because I feel so powerless.’
    ‘No you don’t,’ said Rick. ‘You just have to trust me.’
    So now she simply shut her eyes at intervals and hoped Rick didn’t notice.
    ‘Why’s the village called Black Dog?’ asked Jane.
    ‘There’s a legend,’ said Rick.
    ‘Ooh,’ said Jane. ‘Tell me.’
    Rick was good on legends. They’d been to Dartmoor a couple of weekends before and as they drove home in the dusk – with the moor black and deserted – Rick had told her about the ‘hairy hand’ that clawed at cars on exactly that stretch of road. They’d laughed together but when Rick wasn’t looking Jane made sure her window was properly closed.
     ‘A young girl was walking home alone in the dark through a wood. She was very frightened,’ began Rick.
    ‘Ooh,’ shivered Jane. She used to have to do the same after school. She knew exactly how the young girl felt.
    ‘But a black dog appeared and walked with her all the way. As soon as she arrived at her door it vanished. Ever since it’s reappeared to help any village girl who’s frightened and alone.’
    ‘Ohh, that’s lovely,’ said Jane.
    Rick laughed and swerved round a pheasant that was standing, bemused, in the middle of the road. He almost drove the Mini up the bank and Jane hoped he didn’t hear her sudden intake of breath.
    ‘Remind me about your family,’ she said to distract herself from Rick’s driving and because a minute ago they’d passed a sign that said ‘Black Dog 2 miles’ and her stomach was starting to flutter.
     ‘Only Ma and Pa will be there today,’ he said. ‘Brother’s in London climbing the greasy pole in the police and last heard of Sis was living in a tepee in Wales.’
    ‘A tepee!’ said Jane.
    ‘It’s a sort of tent.’
    ‘I know what a tepee is. I just thought it sounded, well, rather fun.’
    The nearest she’d got to the alternative lifestyle was being asked by a schoolfriend to go grapepicking in Spain the summer they finished their ‘A’ levels. She didn’t go. She was too keen to leave home and start earning her own money. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the right decision, given what happened in London. Never mind. She was making up for it now.
    ‘Rather you than me,’ said Rick.
    And he was the one who’d been living in a hovel.
    ‘So, what do I call your parents?’ she asked.
    ‘Peggy and Philip, of course,’ said Rick. ‘What else?’
    Jane made a face. She wasn’t used to calling grown-ups by their first names.
    ‘And what are they like?’ she asked.
    ‘Ma’s born and bred in Black Dog,’ said Rick. ‘She was one of six children and the first of her family ever to go to grammar school. She works in the accounts office of a local building firm.’ He sounded so proud of her.
    Jane tried to absorb that information. Peggy couldn’t sound more different from her own mother, who’d travelled the world as a child with her diplomatic father then studied at Oxford University and the Sorbonne in Paris. Since marrying at twenty-four she’d not had a job.
    ‘And your father?’
    ‘He’s a bastard,’ said Rick.
    Rick had said that before but it still gave her a jolt. She’d never realised that you could criticise your parents. It was so ungrateful after all they’d done for you, wasn’t it? Even Shakespeare commented on it, on the awfulness of the ‘thankless child’, and he had to be right, didn’t he?
    She'd never been allowed even to disagree with her parents. They called it 'contradicting' and, along with 'fussing', was one of the worst things she could do.
    ‘Why d’you say that?’ she asked.
    ‘Ma did everything,’ said Rick. ‘Went out to work, looked after us children, paid the bills, cleaned the house. While Pa pretended to be a writer, disappeared whenever he felt like it and saw other women. Then, when she complained, he shouted at her.’
    ‘Ugh.’ Jane felt sick.
    She wondered what sort of a monster she was going to meet.
    ‘He is a bit better now, though,’ said Rick, as if regretting his venom. ‘Well, he’s got a job anyway.’

They reached the outskirts of the village and Rick turned into a street of large modern bungalows, every one different and every one immaculate, with velvety lawns, gleaming windows and fresh paint on all the walls.
    ‘Wow,’ said Jane.
    She knew what her mother would say about them. She’d call them ‘common’. Houses like clothes should be of the best quality, but battered. Being immaculate was vulgar. Nouveau riche.
    Jane thought of her parents’ Victorian mansion with its draughts, unpredictable plumbing and frightening creaks and groans, and knew which sort of house she’d prefer.
    Rick made a face. ‘I know. They’re a bit much, aren’t they.’
    Jane looked at him in surprise.
    ‘Pa’s choice. His family gave them some money. They moved here after we all left home.’
    ‘Were your father’s family rich then?’
    ‘They ran a chain of local shops. Thought they were the bee’s knees. Disapproved of Ma. Called her a “dance-hall pickup”.’ He snorted.
    But Rick’s parents still married, thought Jane, in spite of family disapproval, and by the sounds of it his mother although of lowly origin was the better person.
    ‘What sort of a place did you live in before?’ she asked.
    ‘A proper Devon cottage,’ said Rick. ‘In the village high street, next door to Grandma and Gramp, Ma’s parents.’
    She wondered what sort of a house she and Rick would live in, when they acquired somewhere of their own.
    Rick slammed the brakes on and stopped outside one of the smaller bungalows – matching blue-painted gutters, downpipes and garage door.
    Leaping out of the car, he led her round to a side-door and into a bright blue and white kitchen. There at the sink was a female version of Rick. The same green eyes, the same generous mouth and the same fluffy hair, only hers was blonde not brown.
    She came towards them, wiping her hands on her apron, and patted Rick on both cheeks. ‘Dear boy.’
    ‘This is Jane,’ said Rick putting his hands on Jane’s shoulders and pushing her forward. ‘We love each other and we want to get married.’
    ‘I can see that,’ said Peggy.
    She touched Jane on the cheek. ‘Dear girl.’