I like a walk to clear my head. Some of my knottiest writing problems have been solved by the simple act of tugging on my boots and disappearing down the road and into the woods. There have also been dishwasher revelations and laundry epiphanies. The thing about writing is the stuff never stops, it never leaves your head. Your stories skulk and prowl and lurk and then jump out on you when you are least expecting it. At the supermarket checkout for instance where you have to hold up the queue with a garbled explanation “I just have to write this down.” before you fumble in your handbag for one of the notebooks and two of the pens (the first one never works!)
Yesterday I left it until late in the afternoon before I took my walk. I nearly didn’t. I sometimes have days when I am reluctant to leave the building. I can go into the garden but, on those odd days, the idea of people and streets is intimidating. These are the days when I most need the walk and yesterday I dragged myself. Three times I headed to the door and thought ‘No, it’s getting dark’ and then once again ‘No. I need to start the tea.’ and finally ‘Get out or else’ which did the trick.
Off I trotted. I have a fitbit which logs my steps and I like it because it is interesting how far you walk in a day, even on the days when you don’t officially, ‘go for a walk’. I try to manage one big circular walk a week and by that I mean heading off up the canal to Bradford on Avon, sometimes further on to Avoncliff. I have arthritis in my knees and so I head off looking like Ranulph Fiennes with my Nordic poles, rattling with Paracetamol. This is an official ‘arthritis management’ scheme taught to me by the lovely lady in Orthopaedics; it is called the 3Ps system: Pace, Poles, Paracetamol. It works, have to admit.
Yesterday I didn’t take the poles as I was only venturing out on a short expedition. I thought I might head off to Biss Meadows and do some kind of circular walk. It is not the best place to walk as the paths have a tendency to lead either to the rear boundary of the housing estate or other less picturesque dead ends. During the summer months there was one dead end which revealed a tent and someone’s neat camp tucked into the cover of the trees at the edge of the river. Few people glimpsed this hideaway. No one took their dogs up the bare dirt path to the bridge, preferring instead the proper, landscaped, gravel path. The bridge doesn’t really lead anywhere once you reach it, it heads out over the field towards the big A road and is not really much of a walk. I turned back of course and that’s when I saw the small camp. They were there all summer, clearly living in the tent. Yesterday there was simply a bare patch on the ground where the tent had killed off the grass. It will cover over again when the spring arrives. I wonder who they were and where they went?
The paths are laid out with edging and gravel here but, as stated, they don’t go anywhere. There is no circular route or plan, you have to back track. Yesterday for instance, I attempted to cross the open grass and found that it was a Tolkienesque bog and the ghostly face looking up at me from the shining quagmire was my own. I dodged and splodged my way across and garnered several disapproving looks from the dog walkers. That is one of the oddities of the dogwalkers around these parts. They don’t understand why you are walking. They stand sentinel as their pooch whizzes about after a whiff of squirrel, a musk of cat, and they look at you with much the same regard as a nightclub bouncer looking at your trainers. I have also found that dogs don’t care for the Nordic poles. I’ve menaced two spaniels and a beagle in recent weeks with the owner rushing to ‘rescue’ the dog from the weird four legged woman. Where’s your dog you big stick insect? You do not have a dog? Why are you out here then? You’re ‘just walking’? Isn’t there a byelaw against that? Are you a terrorist?
I was there to look at the rushing river of course, twisting its way past Tesco. I was here to spot the huge flock of magpies winging their way through the trees. I lost count after fourteen and began to wonder how the rhyme works, seven for a secret, yes, but what are eight for? It was quite fun to trudge along the path and make up the rest. Eight for a journey, Nine for a rest. Ten for a teacup, eleven for a vest? Hm, could do with a vest, it was quite nippy yesterday. No. Something else rhymey but better. Erm. Eleven for a quest. Ha. Twelve for a…twelve for a…? Your mind wanders with your feet and takes flight with the magpies. Twelve for a haunting, thirteen for? Oh heck we’re back to vest again.
I give up on the magpies for now and hurry off to worry a border terrier.
I’m a book pusher. No bones about it. I am the kind of person who can be standing in a bookshop and if you are umming and ahhing about which book to buy I will, unashamedly and without introduction, tell you which one to buy or offer suggestions about the two choices already in your hand and then pick up another volume and offer that. Like a book overdose. That is who I am. There is only one drug rightly called ‘Ecstasy’ for me and that, my dears, is Book.
Books are addictive. I cannot give them up. I have to admit I’ve not actually had any other drugs, except alcohol and so I’m not really an expert on the more chemically based narcotic side of this argument. I have been too busy reading and then writing books so, when it comes to the papery chaptery side of the discussion I am the Empress. I get a rush from a book. I like to get lost in the pages, to roll around in the words, to let the images flicker and flash inside my head. Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Strange loom out of the darkness, Anne Elliot follows behind looking anxious.
It started small. Literally, with the Beatrix Potter books and their exquisite beauty and hint of darkness. The sandy-whiskered gentleman of Jemima Puddleduck was the first storybook villain that I encountered and he was intriguing. Jemima is stupid. Kep is clever. Nature might wear a tweed jacket in a grove of foxgloves but it is red in tooth and claw here. There is blood and guts in Puddleduck along with poke bonnets.
At school there was the 1970s reading scheme which included the epic that was ‘Old Dog Tom’ a tale I remember nothing about now except that it was a book I needed to read, it was another step, a better story, more words. More. More. Give me more words. Longer words. Let me have some syllables. A paragraph. Give them to me.
The books grew thicker and filled with magic and trees, tapped from the typewriter of Ms Enid Blyton. Who doesn’t believe in fairies when they have spent a third of their childhood in the branches of the Magic Faraway Tree? There IS magic. It’s printed onto this page and this, and all of these.
I am not a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory girl, I am a Danny the Champion of the World supporter. My words and my imagination began to outstrip my physical and emotional age. I reached into the Grown Up Word with To Kill a Mockingbird. My mum was also a book pusher in that she would leave tempting tomes lying about open, a page here, a chapter glimpsed there and I was hooked. I stepped up to the much harder drugs of Edna O’Brien.
With book pushing in mind we often trekked into the centre of Manchester where my parents indulged their own book habit by taking me to Willshaw’s on John Dalton Street. Long before Waterstone’s existed this was my teenaged opium den of literature. Room after room it seemed to me, shelf after shelf striped with book after book. Up a little staircase here to find Louise Erdrich and The Beet Queen, down a little staircase there to encounter Carson McCullers and The Ballad of the Sad Café and in those high and far off times O best Beloved, the books were caught in the net book agreement and my pocket money ran to three or four books at a time, more at Christmas and birthdays.
I travelled through Space with Kurt Vonnegut and Time with Charles Dickens. I visited the Jazz Age with Fitzgerald and Loos. The words whispered to me, come here, come over here, this one, pick me, I will change your mind. I will bend your life.
I wanted to be part of that and so I began to collect the words in my head and rearrange them into stories. I began with imitation, telling stories that drew my imagination but I had no ownership of, tales of the Southern Gothic, sweaty with hanging moss until one afternoon in Willshaw’s, Alan Sillitoe whispered The Ragman’s Daughter and I realised where the stories were, my true stories, they were behind me all the time. Waiting.
In the library system here in Wiltshire, in which I am a small and greasy cog, the corporate term for our Borrowers is not actually Borrowers, it is in fact, wait for this, ‘library users’. Yes. Users. Like drug users. Like the lady who said “This Val McDermid is terrible. Really gory and frightening. It gave me nightmares…Have you got any more?” and because I’m a Pusher I led her to the shelf with the white writing, the red writing, the black writing and let her choose her very own poison. Give me more. I want more.We are all in it for the rush of words, the hot spoon of story making our imaginations shimmer. If you approach the counter and I am there, know this, you WILL leave with a book. It might not be the book you came in for. It is the book you were meant to leave with.