Celtic illumination, part 298, Walkies!
John Barton Harvey and myself buried the hatchet the following morning at breakfast, although if the truth be told I could have buried it between his shoulder blades. We accepted that we had a difference of opinion and that we should move on, but he was still right. With breakfast finished we all gathered in the dining room to begin our writing exercises. One of the most common complaints, or problems, you will hear writers speak about is ‘writers block.’ This is where the writer actually blanks out and cannot think of anything to write. This type of situation can then be backed up with quotes from people like Gene Fowler, who I mentioned before, who said that “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
Many writers like to quote stuff like that, to them it shows just how hard writing is. But it isn’t, writing is an adventure, it is satisfying and fulfilling. Yes, the apprenticeship is difficult but the actual job is marvellous. I have never suffered from writers block and I never will for I follow people like William Faulkner. Faulkner is regarded as one of the most important writers in American Literature and also a Pulitzer prize winning Nobel Laureate. Faulkner said, or at least is attributed to have said, “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” For me claiming to have writers block was an excuse. I think many people wish to view writing as a creative, almost whimsical pursuit, whereas it is a serious professional business.
We messed about with various techniques one which was called ‘page ninety seven.’ The theory was that if you suffered writers block you would open any book to page ninety seven, write down the first line on that page and then continue writing. We completed a few exercises and in my opinion were only messing about. Next we were all asked to write a name on a piece of paper. Any name, for any reason and all the names were placed in a hat, well; a saucepan actually. Carol Anne Duffy then explained that she would give each of us a name, we had to make sure that it was not the one we had written, and we would go to one of the writing huts and spend fifteen minutes writing about the name we had been given.
Lumb Bank has twenty acres of ground throughout which are dotted small gardening huts, small sheds with a desk, a chair and a window. The girls were not impressed as the huts tended to be populated with spiders so big they could have given some guard dogs a run for their money. I locked myself inside a nearby hut and sat down. I looked out through the window and saw a hill before me. I noticed the way the stone walls seemed to resemble a net, and I imagined that the net was actually holding the hill down to the earth. It reminded me of rural Ireland, but more than that, for initially I could picture people clearing the fields, bringing the rocks and stones to the edges and building the walls. But now the people were gone, the fields were empty, only memories remained and the people who might have worked the land now were in London, as Christy Moore said, ’Digging, digging, digging,” in his song ‘Don’t forget your shovel.’
And then another Christy Moore song came into my mind called, ‘Missing You.’ “All ye young people now take my advice, Before crossing the ocean you’d better think twice, Cause you can’t live without love, without love alone, The proof is round London in the nobody zone. Where the summer is fine, but the winter’s a fridge, Wrapped up in old cardboard under Charing Cross Bridge, And I’ll never go home now because of the shame, Of misfit’s reflection in a shop window pane.” It reminded me of the loneliness and pain most Irish people would be feeling when they were separated from their homeland. And so I started to write. The name I had been given was Kate. There was no plan, no formalised structure to the story; I just allowed the words to spill out of me. As I wrote the last word I could hear them calling for us to come back in.
We sat around and took it in turns to read what we had written. Some people had written two or three lines of poetry, some had made plans of what they would write about the name they had been given and then they came to me. I had written a short story. It was a complete short story, three hundred and eighty words. Some people accused me of writing it before I had arrived and simply putting Kate as the heading and in the story. I wasn’t interested in what they said; for I knew that ten minutes before hand I had actually sat myself down and written the story Kate. Most people were impressed and I shall add the story Kate to the end of this blog so that you can make up your own minds.
Shields, Paul and myself had to peel off early as we had to prepare the evening meal, the main dish was leek curry, I think Paul did that while Shields prepared rhubarb and custard, I made the starter which was devilled eggs with anchovies. Stop it, they were gorgeous. The meal went down very well, which was probably something to do with the wine. The three of us cleared away and washed and put the dishes away as the others retired to one of the comfortable rooms, lit the candles, poured more wine and began to read to each other. We had been asked to think of our favourite piece of literature or poetry and read it to the group that evening, I decided , without much thought, that I would read ‘An Irish airman foresees his death,’ by W B Yeats.
I was the last one to leave the kitchen and hurriedly joined the group who were slurping away at the wine while individuals read their piece, by candlelight. When it came to my turn I opened the poetry book I had and turned to the appropriate page. I began to read out loud. I read the first line, “I know that I shall meet my fate, somewhere among the clouds above.” As I began reading the second line, “Those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love,” It was like having an out of body experience for I could see myself sitting there with tears streaming down my face. Most of the group were stunned, so was I. It was like understanding the poem for the very first time and knowing how relevant it was to my life. People asked if I would like to stop, but I carried on. When I finished it was agreed that we should have a break, the centre directors had told us that in the local village of Heptonstall that evening all the artists, sculptors, painters, writers and musicians would meet up for a social evening. The one time in the week that the artistic community got together.
Shields was concerned about me, but I explained to him that you should embrace your emotions, not hide them away, it’s what makes you strong. I felt an enormous amount of emotion while reading the poem, now I would have some quiet reflection on why it happened and what it meant to me, when I was ready. However we had more important things to concentrate on, we were going to the pub. I couldn’t wait to meet some of these artists for many are truly eccentric and wonderfully interesting. My favourite eccentric writer would have been the Frenchman, Gerard de Nerval, who used to take his pet lobster, Thibault, for walks, on the end of a blue silk ribbon, in the Palais Royal gardens in Paris. When asked why he walked a lobster he replied, “Because they are peaceful serious creatures, they know the secrets of the sea, and they don’t bark.”
The local pub, The White Lion, Heptonstall, was a large and comfortable establishment, what you would expect from an English country pub, exposed beams, a roaring open fire and a warm welcome. It filled up quite quickly and sure enough the place was full of artists and sculptors and writers, painters and musicians. The musicians knew each other and quickly clubbed together and began to play music. I, along with Shields and Paul began some serious beer tasting. Red wine and vegetarian food is fine for most people, but beer and a bacon sandwich does the soul a power of good. Satisfied and winded we relaxed and joined in with the atmosphere. The musicians were asking for someone to take a turn, give us a song. Well; you know me, you only have to ask once, and sometimes not at all.
I took to my feet, the feet at the end of the loveliest legs in Ireland, and began to sing my heart out. Just like giving an after dinner speech I worked the room singing ‘Whiskey on a Sunday,’ encouraging everyone to join in with the chorus. From the look on Shields face I could tell that I was in fine voice and as a representative of my own little island I did my countrymen proud. Of course they asked for more and as is my nature I followed up with the frivolous ‘Weela, Weela, Wallia.’ The crowd loved it and despite the calls for ‘more’ I followed the old adage of leaving them wanting more. It was a grand night out and the three of us staggered back to Lumb Bank at the end of a wonderful day. I had impressed almost everyone on the course with my writing, I had even impressed the locals with my singing, all I had to do now was work on impressing John Barton Harvey.
I looked at my hands. They were rough, they were dry, but that’s what happens after years of moving stones, mixing cement and digging in all weathers. When she touched my hands I could not feel her softness. It wasn’t often that I got to touch her. Once a year, in the foul season, I would always return home, but not forever. The taxi drivers normally refused to take me to the door; instead they would drop me where the path and the road met. The path was overgrown, but not hidden.
Two parallel ruts snaked away, dipping and turning. Somehow my memories slipped. The cottage always changed. It remained static as in foundation but the roof sagged. Some years the weeds and brambles attacked and like a fierce squall I arrived to rip and slash and kill. The water butt was gone, although some pieces remained; yet in my mind it was complete.
The stone walls, guy ropes for the cottage, crumbled and a sea of weeds washed around me. Inside it would take time, time to adjust. With the fire set and its powerful glow pushing against the walls I could hear her in the scullery. The clink of wet china, the soft humming of happiness and the music of aroma.
Like a pack of wild dogs the elements would gather together and attack. A bluster of wind would gush down the chimney. A salvo of raindrops would pepper the windows and door. We were safe, nothing could hurt us. My mind would wander away to Kilburn and Guinness and building sites. It seemed to be warm there. Perhaps I was warning myself that I had to go back, back to routine, loneliness and constant pain.
Often I would cry. I would sob myself into a headache that would be so heavy only prayer could lift it, or an angel. An angel like Kate, who had been taken from me all those years ago. I cried because I hadn’t the strength to join her. I suppose my pain gave me hope. Hope that she would appear. I would go to the scullery, hope suffocating my heart and the dust bitter on my tongue. I could sense her, but I couldn’t join her. Dear Kate, my life, my death, my all.