Friday, April 13, 2007

Writers’ Footsteps

The summer that I was seventeen, recovering from glandular fever, and with family holidays finally put behind us, I was dispatched on my own for a painting holiday at Carole Vincent’s studio in Cornwall. Boscastle’s rocky shores summoned me on a journey in the drought of 1976 with no appetite or energy, teenage recalcitrance and a reluctance to leave my boyfriend. But off I went. It was perhaps on that week that I discovered the joys of walking alone. After a morning spent painting and Carole’s rough hunks of home-made bread and beer for lunch, I went off for the afternoon with my pink-jacketed OS map to explore and extend my knowledge of the area. I gained strength, recovered my appetite and found an independence I didn’t know I had.

In the midst of A-Level English and a study of Return of the Native, I was inevitably drawn away from the village, upstream along the damp shade of the Valency Valley to find St Juliot church. Hardy travelled to his 'Lyonnesse' as a young architect, and met his first wife, Emma – a meeting that generated so much of his poetry and the novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Discovering the places that Hardy wrote about, the soaring Beeny Cliff and shady waterfalls, his 'Castle Boterel', I also seemed to find myself, my feet. Something mysterious happened, and that week took on a magical significance, a kind of falling in love with Hardy, with life, with discovery. A rite of passage I suppose.

When I think of Hardy’s novels now, I see small figures on ancient landscapes and pathways - the long walks his characters often have to take. I associate his work with walking, and with the particularity of places. One of my journeys on this project is going to be a return visit to the Valency Valley, following myself (and my own journal) that summer, pursuing a romance with Hardy.

But it has started a train of thought about following writers, and a reading of Richard Holmes’ fabulous Footsteps, part biography of Stevenson, Shelley etc, part memoir, part travel. And it has made me think of another ‘journey’, a sharing of landscapes with another writer whose work I have only come to know in the last year through adapting a short story of hers for BBC Radio Four, but which I admire enormously.

In 1946, Jessie Kesson took a ‘holiday’ from writing her own life in fiction and radio drama. Her writing career was a triumph over disadvantage and seemed to be born of a need to make sense of her past. Her childhood is described by her biographer Isobel Murray as ‘a series of violent shifts of surroundings and circumstances, with no ongoing family support..’. She was born illegitimate, lived in Elgin slums with her mother before being moved to an orphanage, and spent a year in a mental hospital, at the age of 18.

But in 1946, she took over the ‘Country Dweller’s Year’ in the Scots Magazine from Neil Gunn, and her monthly pieces are a little uncharacteristic of her wider work - exquisite observations of nature and rural custom in her favourite places. I read these recently (sadly only available by retrieving back copies in the National Library of Scotland) and was particularly struck by one passage describing the summer she spent at Abriachan above Loch Ness when she was ‘boarded out’ with an old woman after release from mental hospital. I was partly taken by the sheer exuberance of her experience amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high up that ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’. The same location is featured, again with visceral joy, in her fiction and poetry.

But perhaps I was also drawn to her writing about this location because about ten years before I came across her work, I wrote a short story, Keeping Away from the Water, also concerning childhood at Abriachan. In this story, excerpted below, the landscape plays an important role:

The sudden heat at Easter fells sheep into panting heaps in the shade and drops gifts of frog spawn overnight into the pond. The grip of winter lifts with the early morning mist. I lie on my stomach and gloop the frog spawn with a stick, watching it froth and pulsate. The winds turn sweet and soft, luring everyone out of winter dank cottages to breathe again, the air still clear of summer’s midges. Doors and windows are opened wide for the Spring to sweep through, rocking chairs and lifting papers from table to table, leaving the house smelling of wild garlic and the sea. Down the hill, boats are being re-floated in the loch, our neighbours stand and stare at the soil, appealing to their cold gardens to revive. Birds are careless; tumbling and falling down the steep gap to the water.

Voices burble up with the Spring wind, with the sunshine, in the birch trees. I hear them best if I lay my head in the whipping grasses and close my eyes. They never quite let me hear them directly - who they are, what they’re saying. I crunch down on last year’s bracken by the burn, finding primroses amongst the rusty deadness, turning their pale faces to be licked by the sun. I try to see what’s behind the veil of water, where the singing’s coming from. I peer into dark corners of saturated black and jewel green moss, waiting for the chatter to transform into words.

Particular places have an important impact on us all and I feel a (humble) affinity with Jessie Kesson at this coincidence of our observations. I am hatching a plan to celebrate this, to return to Abriachan and make the journey from village to lochside, the ‘plunge downwards through rough, hairy brackens’ she describes in I to the Hills.

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