I think it was Alice Thomas Ellis who, when asked ‘where do you get your ideas?’, replied ‘Harrods’. People often ask me, ‘where do you get your ideas?’… Sometimes this is done with a disbelieving shake of the head and proper emphasis on ‘Where’ and a notion that perhaps I should have kept the receipt. At other times it is done with a genuine interest. How the hell do you crack this stuff out of your skull?
A lot of my ideas began in museums. It’s a sort of wormhole effect, you troll into the museum and already, if you are in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, your heart takes flight with the paper and balsa wood contraption that is the Bristol Box Kite. It looks as fragile as an insect but it flew. Already my writer’s head is spinning and I’m not in the museum proper yet. Possible stories that pop in: what if you did fly this gadget indoors? Are you indoors because you have come through a timetunnel?
This museum has featured as a backdrop in two of my books –The Extra Large Medium where it gets a mention as The Alice Museum, and it is where Ruby goes to work in The Stopping Place. I love this place. I love the stone building, the cathedral like interior and the old world period detail of the public loos.
While some people think of museums as dusty old fogey places only good for sheltering from the rain, I see them as a repository for memory, history and treasure and everyone who goes in there finds different treasure.
My favourite in the Bristol Museum is the Giant Irish Deer, a skeleton made up from several different bits of different deer, in fact, and crowned with a vast pair of antlers. This is, if you want to take a look, a proper mythical beast. I like to imagine that the scenery it wandered through was that of Finn McCool or Cuchulain, a land of geis and magic coloured with lichen and the bright gold of the flag iris.
Also, due to its slightly jumbled heritage, it is in fact almost a herd of deer. I like to sit, and they provide a lovely banquette nearby, and imagine all the deer unclicking themselves from the one skeleton, finding their ghost selves and manifesting. Within seconds the museum falls away and I am with the deer in the bogland, with myrtle and heather and I can smell the peat and the brackish water and the hoofsteps of the deer. The clouds of breath in the cold air.
This is where the skeleton takes me, it holds magic in these old bones. It has travelled through a lot of time to be here.
Another favourite is the gypsy caravan which stands on the landing in a corner as if it might roll off at any moment. This is very museumy as, due to its fragility you can’t go into it, however, you can stand on the landing beside it and imagine who might come out of it. It was a big inspiration point for the fate of one of the characters in The Stopping Place.
And in the Natural History department there is a vast collection of taxidermy. They are of their time, and, whilst I know many disapprove of such collections I’m of the view that they should be kept as it is more of a waste to destroy them. They are what they are and we know better now. There is a sad beauty to them, from the faded tiger who is a ghost of himself to the exhibit that my children liked best, Alfred. Alfred used to live at Bristol Zoo and then he died and was stuffed. There really is no dignified way to put that.
One day, as we approached Alfred, there was a middle-aged lady standing by the case looking very serene and as my children showed some enthusiasm, about the exhibits in general and Alfred in particular, she spoke to us.
“He used to live at the zoo and I would visit with my grandad. Every time I’m in town I have to pop in and see him and say hello.” This is Alfred’s afterlife, where old friends pop in to say hello as he resides in his quaint and otherworldly glass jungle. This gorilla has an important job, he holds memories.
My ideas come from objects themselves and the fact that you alter your vision in a museum. You look in. You look into the cases, you can even open drawers at Bristol museum and they offer up clusters of butterflies and moths. You think about time. You think about the stories of the objects, of the roman heads dressed by the combs, of the Saxon neck these beads once hung around, of the Georgian gentleman who sipped port from this glass. I like personal items very much, they have a lot of humanity. Who made this? Who loved it? Who gave it? Who stole it?
A museum is a tardis, a repository for the objects that have travelled time to be there and if you head inside, you too can be a time traveller.
I’ve been putting the finishing touches (blood, sweat and a few tears) to a new book, part of a series called ‘Witch Ways Whispers’ out shortly, titled ‘The Ice King’. The books have a contemporary setting but I notice that as well as my usual wolf obsession, once again I’ve managed to fly a few crows in there. I’m also writing another ‘Whisper’ book where I’ve structured the chapters around the magpie rhyme ‘One for sorrow…two for joy’ etc. I can’t, it seems, write a book without a crow in it.
I’m a bit of a birdwatcher, not a twitcher, I don’t have a massive telescope so that I can see arctic skuas in Orkney from my back garden, but I do have a top set of binoculars. I use them, a lot of the time, for gawping at various members of the crow family. Or genus if I’m being scientific.
So, white coat on, clipboard in hand, the scientific genus is ‘Corvid’ and it encompasses some of the most beautiful and intelligent bird life there is. It seems that beauty and intelligence lend these birds a supernatural quality that places them at the heart of superstition and myth. That heart tends to be dark, the birds carrying associations of war and death. This isn’t surprising, crows, all the sorts, are carrion birds so if you had a battlefield littered with the dead you were going to see a lot of crows. You might, in your defeated and weary battle state take comfort from the fact that there was a crow for each body, perhaps the embodiment of the soul flying out, carried in a crow. Not a bad way to travel to the Otherworld.
Is it because crows wear black? Except look at a crow feather and by crow I mean any and all of the family (white coat off, black witchy type cloak on now) and you will see that they don’t only wear black, that when the light catches the feather they flash, green and bronze, navy and ink, steely grey. Iridescent. That’s the thing about our eyes, we don’t see the whole spectrum, we don’t see all the light. Imagine what a magpie looks like to a creature that can see on the ultraviolet spectrum? Ooh hang on, that’s a bit sciencey. Only a bit.
The birds Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) were Odin’s helpmeets. Some of the less corvid inclined might call them spies as they flew around the world bringing Odin word of all that was happening. I think it depends on your turn of mind. ‘Spy’ has a peevish tone to it, Lookout fits the bill better. I love the idea of Thought and Memory wheeling around the world and each time I hear a raven kronking overhead I think of Odin with his one eye, looking out on the world. ( Actually, eyepatches, that’s another obsession, but we won’t go into that here. Did I mention kilts too? Note to psychiatrist: You’re going to need a bigger couch….)
At the moment there are jackdaws nesting in my chimney. We have a lot of jackdaws and shortly when the chicks hatch we will be woken each morning by their calls for food. I can’t think of a better alarm clock.
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They have forecast thunder for later today. Whilst many others are grumping into their morning coffee and are disappointed that it isn’t going to be blazing sun, I’m getting my cagoule out.
I love the rain. No. Listen to me, I am serious, really serious. I LOVE the rain. It is, above all other weathers, the triumphant champion. It has sound, it has colour, it has scent, it has taste, it soaks you to your skin and if the five ordinary senses weren’t enough it has, for me anyway, the power to reach right inside to what I call my soul but a scientist would probably pinpoint as my hippocampus or my amygdala, or whichever bit of my brain it is that houses the primal, the deep rooted, the sensual.
I herald originally from a small town, Heywood, just outside Manchester itself and as many people know from their history books, Manchester was King Cotton, the heartland of the cotton industry. It became such chiefly because of its, some would say, ‘inclement’ weather. The damp air of the rainy city lent itself to the spinning of cotton. Damp kept the threads supple and workable and less prone to snapping. What this meant for me was that my childhood was washed and tided by rain. Our holidays were spent in the Lake District (there’s a reason those lakes are so FULL) and also in Wales.
If you check out online resources (e.g. Sue Clifford and Angela King (ed.), Local Distinctiveness: Place, Particularity and Identity (London: Common Ground, 1993) you discover that as the Inuit have fifty words for snow, so the Welsh have a fair few for the different types of rain. My favourites are hegar law (heg-ar laow)– fierce rain and tywallt – (ti-wacked) thrashing down although curlaw (kir-laow) – beating rain has its charms.
Rain is a full sensory experience. Sun is just, well, hot and gold. I’m not a great one for lying around in the sun, I get restless. I can read but I can’t just lie and roast. I don’t have the elephant skin for it, I am, essentially lobster. Sun makes me hot and red. On a holiday in Tunisia many years ago my husband and I spent our time trekking round Roman ruins at Carthage and Dougga after which I was quite hot and a little bit red despite being dressed up like Lawrence of Arabia’s scruffy cousin. The best weather we had that week was a vast thunderstorm that turned the sky bruised black and threw down enough rain to make you feel as if you were walking in a waterfall. Where everyone else in Hammamet, locals and tourists alike, ran for cover, myself and my husband, a Welshman, were enjoying the torrent. The air was heavy and crackling with swords of lightning. Bliss.
The fact that my husband is Welsh means he is partial to the rain too and is at all times prepared for it with his waterproof trousers and his range of Goretex clothing. They are kinky like that in Wales. Once we visited Carreg Cennen, the most spectacular castle in Wales in a major rainstorm. Carreg Cennen is built into a hilltop and there was no escape from the spears of water. It pulsed. It rattled. It took your breath away. We stood on the wooden gantry at the entrance looking out across the landscape and an older couple beside us were taking in the view, both, as we, zipped into their rainwear.
“I’d rather be here than in Majorca.” the gentleman declared, with no trace of irony, only of deep joy. How right he was, a Welsh castle and a rainstorm are the perfect setting.
The rain. It brings the shining silver wet, ruffles the earth so that it gives up its scent of worms and sap, it hammers, it splashes, it drums. It is alive. Open the door. Let me get out in it.