I always think of September into October as the start of the year, November and December the stepping stones to Christmas. The real start of the year, January, has its cold charms of course but September is always, I feel, a time for renewal. All summer we long for shade and then it comes in swathes punctuated by the cool clear light of an Autumn sun. The summer stretches back behind me like trail of breadcrumbs and this year more than ever I’m trying to see it as a way to find my way back to the warmth.
For one reason and another, October doesn’t feel so much like a beginning this year and I find that as it’s getting colder I am looking back to the summer through the prism of nostalgia. Over the summer I went to places one after the other for a few days and then came back, the breaks here and there were small retreats, a space for the writing to sneak itself in. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how to grab time from no time, how to create a ‘retreat’ in the midst of life. It is, after all, the writer’s constant challenge. You have to find inspiration and space to write where you can.
So, August brought the Edinburgh Festival and we were lucky to have a base in the Stockbridge in Edinburgh from where we could walk into the city. I was still working on the draft of my mermaid manuscript ‘Of his bones are coral made’ my reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ which I’m working on with the artist Natalie Sirett and I found mermaids still swimming in my head. Through serendipity I found a monologue, ‘Drenched’, being performed by Dan Frost in the Pleasance Courtyard about one of the stories I’ve been researching, the most famous mermaid in England, the Mermaid of Zennor. It’s the mermaid’s beautiful voice that captured young Matthew Trewella and he fell in love with her as is the way with mermaids. She lured him into the depths and sang him to his death. It was a really good show, funny and dark by turns, oddly believable and even though we were crammed hugger mugger into a tiny cellar bar, airless and black in the middle of the day, I swear I could hear the waves crashing on the Cornish shore.
I’d been struggling with my story, how to make it believable (because it has to be believable) and then I remembered the seal we saw swimming off the coast of Ardglass in County Down in July at the River Mill retreat, the seals I’ve seen many times off Cardigan Bay in Wales, off the Isle of Mull with the children when they were small. I’ve been thinking a lot about the origins of stories since starting this collaboration with Natalie, fairy tales and folk tales, where do they start? They start with seals and sea water and end up being about something else entirely.
I need to forget the reasons why I don’t have time to write and remember why I started this business of writing in the first place and why it matters. Maybe that’s my September ‘beginning’ this year, slipping through October and into November on the coat tails of a fairy tale, a storytelling month if ever there was one. Stories are why it matters. So that’s my challenge to myself, as Philip Pullman says in ‘Daemon Voices’, ‘So: where are you going to start? and what are you going to say?’ Let’s see…
An October sea on the Sefton coast