Water, Swans and Word-Flight

October 3rd was National Poetry Day here in the UK. I’ve been so busy, I didn’t manage to finish writing a Poetry Day celebration post in time (though, thankfully, the ever-enriching words of Seamus Heaney were holding the fort in my previous post, providing poetic sustenance to anyone who found their way here that day).

But, hey – every day is poetry day! So, let’s keep the celebrations rolling…

The theme this year was ‘Water, water’

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

– From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Here’s a lovely film by Leo Crane, with sound by Andrew Hayes – a London Animation Studio production for Forward Arts Foundation – complete with Rachel Rooney’s mermaid, Roger McGough’s handfish, Jacob Polley’s Book of Water – as well as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and other watery treasures…

(A download of the poems featured is available on the National Poetry Day resources section of the Forward Arts Foundation website).

Thinking my way towards a poem through which water glints and slips and brims, The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats quickly surfaced.

My daughter loves it too. She first met it in The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, stunningly illustrated by Jackie Morris.

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats - Illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats – Illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems

Front cover - Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, Illustrated by Jackie Morris (Published by Barefoot Books)

Front cover – Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, Illustrated by Jackie Morris (Published by Barefoot Books)

My knowledge of Yeats is sketchy, but the lovely Coole Park and Gardens website provides an interesting taster of his relationship to Coole in Ireland; how he loved its lakes, woods, wildlife – and the healing calm it provided in the wake of deep exhaustion.

The swans Yeats saw at Coole were probably Whooper swans – but also may have been Bewick’s. Back in February this year, we made a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s centre at Slimbridge, to experience the winter magic both species bring to our shores. It was a stunning day – bright sun, blue sky, mistletoe draping the trees

– and a sunset that blazed the sky, and cast coloured silk on the water.

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The wild swans, shrugging the North through their wings, shook the winter rays deeper into their feathers as they landed in the Rushy Pen to feed. They became part of the water…

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…they became part of the sky:

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Flight

…keeping the Arctic in the turn of their head, in the shards of light in their eye, in the descending beat of their cry. Framed by the window of the Peng Observatory, they transformed the lake at Slimbridge into a Sir Peter Scott painting; the whole scene water-coloured by the light:

Wildfowl on Rushy Pen, Slimbridge WWT

Opposite, an iconic image of a Slimbridge observation tower glowed in a wash of ochre.

Old observatory, Slimbridge WWT

The Bewick’s arrive, they go, arrive and go – travelling with the seasons. Some return and return; some don’t make it. Others survive, but carry shotgun pellets embedded between flesh, bone and feathers. Living targets for those who, beneath the ancient, global turn of the swans’ journey, do not welcome them. Yeats was right to see an echo of mourning in the wild swans’ departure – to fear the doubt of return.

Winged layers and layers of significance take flight through time:

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky:
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lakes edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

By William Butler Yeats.

Now, as I write this, the Bewick’s are, once more, on their way back to our shores – creating an epic shrug of earth-breath southwards; folding the thrill and cry of the North through the quiet, promised chill of our days. We wait, hopeful.

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My other choice of watery poem – this time one of my son’s favourites – is Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from her beautiful picture book, Rhymes for Annie Rose.

Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes - a Ted Smart Publication, originally published by Bodley Head Children's Books, Random House

Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes – a Ted Smart Publication, originally published by Bodley Head Children’s Books, Random House

It seems especially appropriate to choose something from Shirley Hughes, as her work appears on two of the National Poetry Day 2013 posters – each one a wonderful reach-out to a child’s natural readiness for poetry discovery.

Through the story-ways of Shirley Hughes’ picture books, so many children have taken their earliest steps into the magical rhythms, sounds and transports of language. Her words, and the enchantment of her illustrations, brim with the essence of daily childhood; filling both the child and adult reader with such a strong sense of recognition.

Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from Rhymes for Annie Rose

Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from Rhymes for Annie Rose

I love how this poem is, in itself, a constantly remade moment of sharing with my son. He loves its rhythms – and the sturdy and joyful declaration of its tone. I love it too because I remember so vividly that fascination for rainy days I felt as a small child. The rituals of arming ourselves with bright, shiny wellies and waterproofs. The fun of unfurling and twirling umbrellas (or in the case of those domed see-through ones fashionable in the 1970s, balancing them on our heads, hands-free as we splashed in the puddles). Rainy days brought blurred light, jagged and pooling on the pavement; reflections of colour caught in the tarmac; the somehow comforting swish of passing cars, and that happy feeling of escape as we splashed our gladness and felt faintly smug that we weren’t the people hunched inside those cars – but could taste freedom and the smell of grass rising, and could almost see the trees oozing their secret scent into the enticing dampness…

All things from which word-flight – and the flights of our dreams – are made:

Detail from 'Night Flight' by Shirley Hughes (Rhymes for Annie Rose)

Detail from ‘Night Flight’ by Shirley Hughes (Rhymes for Annie Rose)

Happy (across the Nations) Poetry (Every) Day, everyone!

And a very warm welcome to the many new Bookish Nature followers and readers who have found their way here since the blog was (unbelievably!) Freshly Pressed last month. My stats rocketed overnight (quite literally) – and the bar chart for that day unfolded like a Big Friendly Giant, leaving the previous days’ stats peeping, like tiny, nervous Sophies, from under a table loaded with snozzcumbers. My thanks to WordPress, and to everyone who has read/ liked/ followed/ commented. It’s been really rewarding to connect with so many interesting, talented and engaging bloggers and visitors. Please forgive me if it takes me a while to answer comments and to visit blogs etc… Life, always busy, has taken an extra time-filled turn lately. I’m doing my best to keep blog content coming (lots of posts in the pipeline) – though, often, it might be the case – as with National Poetry Day – that I’ll turn up just a bit late to the party!

You can catch up with the latest news about the Bewick’s swans’ migration at the Bewick’s Swan Diary on the WWT Slimbridge web pages.

Another day… (Liebster Award, Part 2)

…And so, following on from my previous post, it’s time (at last!) to answer Aubrey’s questions:

Why did you start blogging?

It all began when Himadri started his excellent blog, The Argumentative Old Git, and invited me to drop by to continue our old habit of bookish discussion on the interweb. As chance would have it, I’d been tentatively mulling over the idea of starting my own blog (as a place to gather my loose, floating thoughts about literature and nature, rather than letting them drift into festering or forgetting) – and Himadri encouraged me to give it a go (thank you, Himadri!)

At that time, lots of vague motivations were swirling around in my head – and I don’t think they really started to cohere until I’d actually been writing Bookish Nature for a while. But I know that, from the beginning, what pushed me most to begin wittering away on the internet, was my firm belief in the vital importance (in Life, living and flourishing) of great literature, story and the imagination; and of deeper connection to the rest of nature.

These things, it seems to me, are keys to a central and crucial doorway – and, in my own small way, I wanted to do my bit to help keep that door open in a world which, so often, seems turned away from its threshold. I’m passionate about this stuff – and I guess I hoped that I could give back to what inspires me.

Starting a blog was also a chance to get back to writing again – and to hold on to something in me that circumstances threatened to overwhelm. My notebooks and pens had been gathering dust for far too long. I’m a very bad blogger – constantly struggling to catch up with the posts teeming in my head, and with all the comments I’d love to leave on the blogs I read and admire. Time and energy often runs out too soon. But it’s been brilliant to discover so many other bloggers who share my passions – and to learn from, and be inspired by, what they write.

Do you find that you usually prefer the book or movie version?

The book – it’s like someone once said about the radio: ‘the pictures are better!’

With the book there is more time, more depth, greater immersion in perspective, more of a journey into the characters’ minds; a closer seeing through their eyes.

And the characters always look how you think they should!

There are times though, when a film has added a priceless cultural layer to the experience of the book (e.g. David Lean’s Great Expectations). And, because a film is a world and a creation in its own right – when it is done well, it stands on its own reputation, and doesn’t need to balance on the shoulders of the book. Then, it becomes possible to forgive it any deviations from the novel, if it goes its own filmic way from time to time…

Are you wearing jewellery now? Bonus points if a parure is involved.

Alas, I cannot claim the bonus points – and must display my ignorance (I had to look up what a parure is!) But, Yes! I love jewellery. I don’t have masses of it, but what I do have I treasure because each piece holds its own story and significance; myriad associations bound up in the twists and turns of its patterns, and in the lustre of its colours. I’m wearing a necklace that is my most treasured favourite, because my daughter chose it as a birthday gift for me when she was just six years old. It’s very, very lovely; a Celtic design in silver (interlacing Celtic knots) set with pieces of amber.

She bought it in her favourite shop at the time – a fossil shop that also sold jewellery. She was mad on collecting fossils at that age (we were convinced she was going to become a palaeontologist!) She would spend every last bit of her pocket money on fossils (ammonites, arthropods, shark’s teeth, you name it) and that year, we booked a holiday cottage near Lyme Regis in Dorset, so that she could scour the beach, pretending to be Mary Anning!

Remarkable Creatures (published by Harper Collins) - Tracy Chevalier's novel about Mary Anning - a remarkable woman and pioneering 19th century palaeontologist from Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Remarkable Creatures (published by Harper Collins) – Tracy Chevalier’s novel about Mary Anning – a remarkable woman and pioneering 19th century palaeontologist from Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Name five places you would never want to visit again.

If I’ve had a bad experience of a place, it’s usually been due to the time or events, rather than a fundamental fault with the location. A case of bad associations! I can’t really think of anywhere that, intrinsically in itself, has been so hideous I’d never return… But I can think of a few places, at specific times, which I would never want to experience again:

1) The secondary modern school I attended in the 1970s/early 1980s. It had some highlights – but I’m glad it’s over!

2) Blackpool, June 1985. I felt so ill after that nightmarish ride on the giant, gyrating spider machine (torture chamber). Pleasure Beach it wasn’t!

3) My Theatre Studies ‘A’ Level audition at the local further education college. Excruciating! I mangled Lady Anne’s speech in Richard III: ‘Set down, set down your honourable load…’ Miraculously, I was accepted on the course (the head of the drama department was a kind soul – he mumbled something about potential, and let me in!) After that, the college became associated with tons of happy memories – so, in real time, I’d actually love to go back there again.

4) Dover in the early 1990s. The tops of the famous white cliffs are lovely (lots of butterflies and wildflowers) – and the castle is forbidding and impressive. But the job that took me to Dover turned out to be an unhappy experience… and the town, at that time, generally wore a gloomy and depressing air.

5) The village donkey derby, around 1980 (when I was a very easily embarrassed teenager, and it seemed that everyone who lived within a five mile radius was present). Let’s just say, I started the race seated on the donkey…!

Ocean or lake?

Ocean – mermaids, tall ships, pirates, the salty spray; the wind caught in the roll of the waves, sand between my toes, whales, dolphins – and white horses chasing the dreams of Poseidon… I love to stand looking out to that wide and wild horizon… and to gaze into sun-warmed rock pools, where beadlet anemones and hermit crabs play out the dramas of a whole other world…

(But… lakes have a big attraction too – mysterious, mirror-still, sometimes the keepers of tantalising treasure islands, or a hidden lady waiting to reveal a magic sword. Swans nesting close to the reeds, kingfishers glinting sapphire, dragonflies clicking their wings on a drowsy summer’s day…)

What can I say? I’m a Piscean… I love the water…

What is the first book you couldn’t live without?

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch.

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch

It spoke to me as if it already knew me, and became a kind of talisman in my reading life; a touchstone from which I travelled into ever widening horizons of the written word. I read it when I was about ten or eleven years old – and the ‘Jinny at Finmory’ series of books, by the wonderful Patricia Leitch, was an absolute embodiment of my fantasy at that time. (Jinny Manders – an imaginative, misfit girl who, like me, goes to an ordinary school, has an ordinary life – is a stranger to the world and psyche of Pony Club and gymkhanas – but who draws horses all day, and dreams of her own horse – is handed a fate that takes her to live in the wilds of Scotland – saving, along the way, a beautiful and spirited Arab mare cruelly trapped in a life at the circus, who becomes both the challenge of Jinny’s life – and the soul-friend of her growing up years).

Jinny at Finmory

Night of the Red Horse was my favourite in the series. It had mystery, archaeology, a hint of myth and magic, Epona and the ancient Celts, worlds of time in overlap and collide, a fiery horse of legend painted on the attic wall at Finmory House (a painting which seemed to come to life – urgent with some disturbing and mysterious message) – and it had the stunning west coast of Scotland, eagles in the sky, white-sand beaches, mountains and purple heather moors; a whole story and landscape of deeply resonating and enthralling ingredients – the perfect, kindred recipe to most inspire the mix that was me.

Are you one of those bloggers that believe that people resemble their icons? Do you, for instance, think that I am wearing a periwig and holding a star?

Aubrey – that’s exactly how I imagine you (now with added parure!) So, I guess the answer has to be yes. Though, it does depend… Often, there is something about an icon that suggests an aspect of the blogger’s personality – and which sparks a vague mental picture of what they may look like. Other times, it might hold no clue at all. Alas, I look nothing like a beautiful blue butterfly!

If you were alive in 1902 would you be tempted to ride in one of those new car-things, or would you prefer to continue driving your four-in-hand?

It would have to be total loyalty to the four-in-hand! No doubt, I would have been one of those types deeply resistant to (and very indignant about) the usurpation of the Horse. I would have gathered my lovely quartet of carriage horses (all greys, resplendent in scarlet nosebands), harnessed them to the ageing barouche – and held up the traffic along the lanes for decades into the new century!

Though, secretly, I would probably have accepted the odd Sunday afternoon jaunt in a daffodil-yellow motor car, driven by some bright-young-thing nephew up from Town (just to see for myself what all that dizzying nonsense was about…)

Which actor has provided you with your favourite rendition of Sherlock Holmes?

Well, until recently, the answer would have been, without hesitation, Jeremy Brett. But I think Benedict Cumberbatch may have stolen the crown… or, at least, now wears it on a time-share basis with Jeremy, whilst I waver between the two.

You’re getting dressed for work. You open your closet and find your clothes are not of this decade. Are you happy about this? What decade do you hope is represented?

I would be happy about that! Very exciting!

Having said in my previous post that I’m not that bothered about foot wear – I remember that, when I was at primary school, I begged my mum to let me have a pair of bright yellow, patent leather, knee-length platform boots. I’d seen them pictured in a clothes catalogue. She told me in no uncertain terms (and quite rightly at the time) that they were totally unsuitable; the platform soles were far too high…

So, I would be delighted if the clothes in the closet were from the 1970s – provided they included that pair of yellow platforms. I’d put up with a return to the huge flares, cheesecloth blouses, home-knitted ponchos and floppy hats for a chance – at last – to wear those boots!

However, if elegance and style were essentials that day, I’d be very happy to find an array of outfits from the 1920s in my wardrobe. I’ve always wanted to wear a cloche hat and a handkerchief skirt!

Have you ever mixed a cocktail – for either yourself or others? And if you have, can you mix a tall Bloody Mary – now? All this writing and thinking has made Aubrey thirsty.

Never mixed a cocktail in my life. Does a Cinzano and lemonade count? With a glace cherry on a stick? (Yes, yes, I know… I have such class…!)

And now for the bloggers to whom I would like to give the Liebster Award:

The Argumentative Old Git

Whistles in the Wind

Amanda Banks

simplyradicalfemale

Daniel Greenwood

The Cheapskate Intellectual

Somewhere Boy

The Mucky Root

Diana J Hale

From Bad to Verse

(Please see my previous post for details of what the Liebster Award entails)

I understand that the award should go to up-and-coming blogs that have fewer than 300 followers. To me, that number seems more like “well-established” than “up-and-coming” – an amazing number of followers to have achieved! But, then, I remember the days when I was happy just talking to myself (and Himadri – bless him!) here on Bookish Nature – and 10 followers seemed like an impossibly high aspiration! Some of you on the list may have more than 300 followers (I wasn’t always sure as to the numbers) – in which case, I hope you don’t mind this award winging its way up there towards the stratosphere!

I think that some of the bloggers I’ve nominated may already have received this award in the past – (Himadri? Diana? Gareth?) and so may not wish to participate again. Also, I’m aware that some folk don’t like to take part in blog awards due to time constraints etc. (I would have nominated Sonya Chasey’s blog, but I know for sure that time is a precluding factor for her) – so, I just want everyone on the list to know that I’ve included your blogs in acknowledgement of how much I admire and enjoy them – and am taking it as a chance to flag up what great corners of the internet there are out there to visit and to discover… There is absolutely no obligation to accept or participate. Please take these nominations as a sign of my appreciation (a kind of honorary Liebster Award, if you’d prefer).

However, should you wish to throw yourself completely into the Liebster pond, my eleven questions to you are:

1) Why did you start blogging?

2) You’re going on an once-in-a-lifetime expedition to a far flung part of the planet. Where would you go? And what would be the one luxury item you would pack in your rucksack?

3) If you lived in the same parallel universe as Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, what animal would your daemon be? Or, put another way, what settled form would you hope it would adopt, and why?

(For those of you who are unfamiliar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a daemon can be very loosely described as a physical manifestation of an individual’s inner self/ character/ soul. During childhood, its form is not fixed, and goes through a fluidity of changes every day, according to the fluctuating possibilities of the young mind – e.g. from moth, to kestrel, to dolphin, to leopard etc. Eventually, as a person reaches adulthood, the daemon takes on a settled form; the animal form which most closely suggests the essence of that person’s character…)

4) If you had the chance to step into a painting, and to spend a magical hour wandering its world, which painting would you choose? Maybe it would be Constable’s Hay Wain? Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Or, perhaps you’d like to join in with Edvard Munch’s Scream?? Or – much more light-heartedly – maybe you’d prefer to go trip-trapping over Monet’s bridge? The possibilities are endless. It’s your choice…

5) The Doctor has invited you to time travel with him on board the Tardis. Which period in history would you most like to visit and why?

6) If Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Will Shakespeare were alive today and were regular tweeters, I’d definitely be persuaded to join Twitter! Is there anyone from pre-internet days who, if they were alive today, you would love to see dazzle us daily with tweets of sheer brilliance and delight? Or are you glad they never had to suffer the tyranny of 140 characters?

7) Which three books and three pieces of music would you take with you to a desert island?

8) Out of all the species of wild animals or birds you have yet to see, which one would you most like to encounter?

9) Which of the following would most closely correspond to your natural habitat?

a) Out on the moors with Heathcliff.

b) In the Forest with Robin Hood.

c) Out at sea with Long John Silver.

d) Cosy by the fireside with a Pickwickian gathering of genial folk, sharing a bottle of your favourite tipple.

e) The bookish calm of a country house study – in mutual retreat with Mr Bennet.

f) Striding across the meadows with Elizabeth Bennet, a healthy glow in your cheeks and mud caking your boots.

g) In the Attic with Jo from Little Women, scribbling stories and dreaming of adventure.

h) Absorbed in the life of the city streets – in the company of a fictional detective of your choice.

i) Roaming Manderley – and the windswept Cornish cliffs – with the second Mrs de Winter.

j) Wandering alongside William and Dorothy Wordsworth, pacing out poetical rhythms on the Cumbrian fells, and waxing lyrical about wild daffodils.

k) In a cave with Gollum.

l) Hey, Mel – I’m an incredibly complicated human being – a mix of all the above holds true. It depends on my mood…

m) I wouldn’t be seen dead with any of them – Bah! Humbug!

10) Where would you rather live and why:

Toad Hall

Bag End

Green Knowe

Little House on the Prairie

Green Gables

Kirrin Island

221B Baker Street

11) If you had to go on a long journey with a fictional character, who would you choose? And what form of transport would you take – ship, hot air balloon, train, canal boat, motorbike, bicycle, gondola, skateboard, horse drawn gypsy caravan? Space ship?

(Just out of interest, I asked my daughter that last question. Her answer: Legolas on a gondola!)

Happy blogging, all!

One day… (Liebster Award, Part 1)

One day – (a very long time ago now!) – Aubrey, of the utterly captivating Café Royal blog, very kindly bestowed the Liebster Award upon Bookish Nature.

Liebster Award

It arrived at a time when I was bleary-eyed and stressed, spending all my days and alternate nights on a hospital ward, taking it in turns with my husband to “sleep” on a fold-out bed alongside our son’s, whilst he underwent lengthy and arduous medical treatment. It was a wonderful boost to receive the award, and my thanks go to Aubrey for sending a spark from her shining star my way. Aubrey’s blog is a place of riches. Of stories and seeing, of intriguing glimpses into worlds of sparkling vision and imagination – a place to step into nature, history, art and into the inspiration of extraordinary lives and adventurous spirits through Time. It is a place of beautiful words.

And now it is midsummer – and unlike Puck, who can ‘put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,’ I have taken the far more wandering route of a Scheherazade and her 1,001 nights…

Arabian Nights Stories - an old edition from the family bookshelves...

Arabian Nights Stories – an old edition from the family bookshelves…

Arabian Nights Stories - Detail from the "Come to Life Panorama"

Arabian Nights Stories – Detail from the “Come to Life Panorama”

….negotiating my way around physiotherapy duties, bouts of illness, huge backlogs of stuff-to-catch-up-on, teenage daughter’s GCSE exams and general family happenings – in order to gather time and stories, and fulfil the criteria of accepting the award, which are:

Give thanks.

Tell 11 things about yourself.

Answer to the best of your ability the 11 questions that are asked of you.

Nominate 11 other bloggers for this award – and let them know.

Ask the above nominees 11 questions of your own, or use the questions you were asked.

And so, we begin – at last! (My apologies for taking so long to finally release the Genie from the lamp):

Arabian Nights Stories - Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Arabian Nights Stories – Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Eleven things about me

One.

I hail from a family of storytellers. Word-weaving folk, who love to share the events of their days. Never in a simple transmission-of-fact-way, as in: “We did this, or saw that today.”

No; everything has to be told from its beginning.

"One January day..." Opening of 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth - 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One January day…” Opening of ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth – 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One day, I was walking by the old wood yard,” my grandad might begin. “And the wind wasn’t half blowing a gale – enough to whip my hat clean off my head! Whoosh,” (cue a brief mime to indicate the trilby’s astonishing trajectory) “away it flew! All the way down to that corner shop where old Smithy used to sell those wonky-handled brooms! Yes, you know the place I mean; next-door to where Mrs. Know-it-All… (her whose son danced the Highland fling after one too many beers)…made toffee so hard, your teeth would threaten mutiny just at the thought of it.” Here, Grandad would pause to whistle his sense of awe through his (false) teeth. “Yep, that wind was a big ‘un. Never thought I’d get my hat back – but, as I grabbed it from the gutter – who do you think I met…?”

That sort of thing.

Sometimes, the ‘one day’ of my grandparents’ tales would be just the previous week – sometimes it would be 1913 or 1930 or 1969…

Snippets of our personal and family histories have always been relayed in this way. Over the years, my mum has often unpacked, detail by detail, a ‘one day’ from when I was four years old, and about to leave nursery school. Mum relates how, on the cusp of that momentous step towards “Big School,” my nursery school teacher fell into a reverie of prediction:

“You know,” Mrs. M said, nodding towards me, “I’m sure, one day, that child’s going to be an actress or a writer.”

Apparently, Mrs. M would often hand over the last tale of Story-Time to me. We would sit on the floor, forming our magic circle around a chosen book – our portal into many worlds.

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

To hold that treasure in my hands, to be right at the hub of where the story’s spell was sparking, was like being a curator of a party of dreams. I loved to “read” to the other kids – to share the book’s jumping off places from where all our imaginations could soar, together.

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

I couldn’t actually decipher more than a few of the words on the page, but I had memorised the stories. And the illustrations were alive; filled with spellbinding detail, movement, texture, colour, light, shade and suggestion. As I “read,” I would add in all sorts of invention, theatrical effects and character voices. I’m told I used to entertain the other children enormously. Personally, I think I must have been a right royal pain! But this anecdote, as well as making me laugh, also fills me with a lovely sense of being found out. Someone else saw an inner something I held dear; noticed that it was there. Witnessed it when it was in the very act of seeking those moments of ‘best living,’ when the very self settles most comfortably, and is happy. But this story also makes me feel a little sad too – because, after I went to “Big School,” I became very, very shy; really quite withdrawn (when at school anyway – at home I was still that same girl).

But, Mrs. M must have been a very astute teacher – because, despite my later shyness, I continued to seek outlets for my inner performer in every school production and play, and went on to do Theatre Studies ‘A’ level.

And, ever since I first realised that books didn’t just appear by magic direct from Fairyland, but were created by someone known as an Author, I’ve always wanted to be a children’s story creator… Mrs M. saw my dream forming before I even knew what name to give it.

Remembering how all that felt has been a good lesson to carry with me. It’s been a constant fuel. A motivator to keep honouring that core wish to reach out through stories; to promote the richness that books hold in keeping us connected to who we really are, to other people – and to our moments of ‘best living.’

And, who knows… though, at this time, I don’t feel I can own that magician’s title of ‘Writer,’ (lots more learning to acquire yet) maybe Mrs. M will be proved right – one day…

…There you are, see what I mean? I couldn’t just tell you that I have a deep-rooted urge to connect to storytelling at almost every level of my life. I had to make a story out of it!

I must make my other answers less epic – or we’ll be here all day!

Two.

I love horses. (There; that was nice and brief) For those of you who also love horses, this will need no explanation. Here’s a beautiful clip that will make you heart sing. And, if you’re not already an admirer of all creatures equine – surely, after witnessing such enchantment, resistance to a conversion will be futile!

Three

Making bread pudding is one of my culinary specialities! It’s a family tradition, handed down the generations. I still use the same oven-proof dish my mum baked her bread puddings in when I was a child. It must be over fifty years old now – it’s certainly older than me.

Four

I’m a bit of a metalhead! Heavy rock music took root very early in my consciousness, due to an older brother who, during our growing up in the 1970s, filled the house with the glorious sounds of Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Jimi Hendrix etc. By the age of six, my musical tastes embraced an eclectic mix – from Purple Haze to Pinky and Perky! When I met my husband, the already powerful appeal of bands such as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rush, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd et al – in all their big musical realness – became even more firmly embedded in the soundtracks of my life. And, from time to time, over-driven guitars play out for real in our house (whenever my Beloved can get the chance to recapture his youth via his Les Paul and Fender Strat!) Now, it’s our son whose favourite songs range wildly from Metallica’s The Unforgiven to CBeebies’ Postman Pat!

I know that heavy metal/ hard rock is not everybody’s cup of tea, but here’s a great video, courtesy of the sublime Bill Bailey, which I think has the power to connect anyone to the largeness of a genre which, on the whole, tends not to take itself too seriously. Everyone can rock out to this:

Enter Sandman (via Bill’s own inimitable style!) ‘…take my hand; we’re off to Never-Never Land!’

Five

As some regular readers at Bookish Nature know, I’m a huge Kate Bush fan – and, when I was a young teenager, I once stood just a few feet away from her (we both happened to be shopping in our local branch of Boots). When she saw my expression of astonishment, she smiled and said hello. She lived a few miles away from us at the time (late ’70s/early ’80s). I remember a dance I made up back then in the privacy of our living room – a wild, whirling set of moves to accompany my frequent listens to Kate’s song Babooshka (luckily, I didn’t feel the urge to unleash my inner performer in Boots that ‘one day’!)

Six

They say you either love or hate Marmite – and I’m a definite love it person. I could eat it by the spoonful! My husband shudders at my foolhardiness.

Seven

I remember reading in Marian Keyes’ warm and uplifting collection of articles, Under the Duvet, her tongue-in-cheek claim that women generally fall into one of two categories: those who love shoes – and those who love bath products. In her experience, the two groups tend not to overlap. It’s an either/ or thing. Whether this bears out as true or not, I have no idea – however I do own very few shoes (and find shoe shopping a tedious experience) – but I’m an absolute sucker for the scented delights of a bottle of mandarin and papaya bubble bath, or a strawberry and vanilla body wash – and other similar concoctions and little luxuries (all environmentally friendly and not tested on animals, of course!)

I trace it back to my mum being such a good Avon customer, and so spawning a childhood fascination with weird and wonderful perfume and bubble bath bottles of light-glinting richness of colour – some shaped like telephones or snowmen or turtles or bells, or pianos, peaches, doves, harps – all manner of surprising things. And then there were the soaps shaped like the seven dwarves, a bath brush shaped like a giraffe, a comb shaped like a caterpillar. And soap-on-a rope! Who could forget soap-on-a-rope? I still own bits and pieces from Avon’s “Small World” childhood range from the 1970s:

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood - Avon children's range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament - from my grandma's dressing table!)

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood – Avon children’s range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament – from my grandma’s dressing table!)

Every few weeks, an impossibly glamorous Avon lady would visit, carrying an intriguing blue check-pattern suitcase laden with such temptations. When its lid was unzipped – voila! – a stunning rainbow of tiny nail-polish bottles was revealed – like an array of magic potions. My mum’s dressing table was a place of wonder!

Eight.

Despite the influences of the Avon lady and my mum’s dressing table, I don’t like wearing make-up. I only ever wear it (grudgingly) on special occasions. I don’t feel comfortable not looking like – well… me. And applying and removing it takes too much precious time when I could be reading!

Nine

I hand reared one of my (late) dogs and her brother. They were brought into the veterinary surgery where I was working at the time, when they were just three days old. Their mother had been unable to feed them, and most of the litter had died or were dying. The owner didn’t want the surviving pups. So, I took on the job of round-the-clock feeding. Their lives hung by a thread at first, but we soon established three hourly feeds, using special canine formula milk. Weeks later, when it was time to find them both a home, I’d formed such a bond with the (utterly scatty) female puppy, I just couldn’t part with her.

My dog's early puppyhood...

My dog’s early puppyhood…

She stayed with us all her life, and lived to a good old age. She never quite lost her scatty ways (a friend of ours from Devon affectionately dubbed her “The Maze Hound”) – but her impeccable behaviour was a marvel to behold after my daughter was born (she transformed into an absolute model of canine calm and instinctive good sense in Bookish Nature Junior’s company, reverting to puppyhood when she wasn’t required to be the Wise Old Pooch of the West). We all miss her.

Ten

My hair is a kind of chestnut brown – but, when the sun shines on it, streaks of fiery russet come out from hiding (along with an increasing number of silvery strands nowadays!) There’s a history of red hair on both sides of the family. I like to think of my fiery highlights as a link to my hidden Boudica (complete with pony-drawn chariot… Did I mention that I love horses?) A whole section of my ancestors came from East Anglia, so maybe some kind of link to the Queen of the Iceni isn’t stretching the fantasy way beyond all plausibility!

Eleven

During my family history research online, I was astonished to discover the existence of a portrait of some of my ancestors! The portrait is unsigned and dates from circa 1830. Looking at various records, I found out that one of my several-times-great aunts married a portrait painter at about that time. So, immediately, my romantic storyteller mode kicked in – casting said aunt as the young woman in the family portrait, and the commissioned artist as the young man she eventually married. Maybe, when I look at that painting, I am witnessing a very significant meeting of eyes across the easel; love blossoming amidst the Kentish meadows… The portrait also revealed one of the sources of the red hair inheritance (there are several auburn mops amongst the children in the posed family group).

My sister-in-law did some investigating and found out that the portrait is kept in the archives of a museum in Kent – and that it is printed on notelets available to buy from the museum’s shop! A whole section of family history, which was never passed on via the inherited storytelling-habit, began to reveal itself. My grandad’s own stories were of growing up in a working class family, his father a jobbing gardener, his mother’s father an itinerant farm labourer. But I discovered a history I don’t think he knew about – that his dad’s father was the son of a gentleman farmer who owned 200 acres of land and lived in a moated farmhouse (originally the site of a medieval manor!) How that story unfolded is yet to be revealed – one day!

Part 2 to follow…

Berlie Doherty’s newsletter, a glacier & some ghosts!

It was a really lovely surprise to see Bookish Nature mentioned in Berlie Doherty’s latest (Feb. 2013) newsletter this week! Many thanks, Berlie – your kind words are much appreciated!

It was also exciting to learn that Berlie’s new novel, The Company of Ghosts (due out in September) is now available for pre-order. She describes it as being set on a Scottish island – and as ‘very spooky.’ Having loved Daughter of the Sea, I’m looking forward to exploring more of her writing – and this new addition sounds so enticing…

You can read the whole newsletter at Berlie’s lovely website, which is a fantastic port of call for anyone who loves voyages of discovery through the vitality and depths of truly good literature for children…

Lately, Fate seems to keep stepping in and causing all sorts of serendipitous events – and Friday evening was no exception. After tea, I was scrolling through the options on the BBC Radio iPlayer, looking for some distraction to lighten the task of washing the dishes, when amongst the programme listings, Berlie Doherty’s name caught my eye. Clicking the link through to Radio 4 Extra, I discovered it was a reading of one of Berlie’s short stories – a perfect invitation to catch up with more of her work! Minutes later, and I was transfixed, hands suspended in soap suds, caught by the fascination of the story’s setting – and so moved by the perceptive clarity and truth of its telling.

No longer scouring saucepans, but clinging to the raw majesty of a mountain glacier, I was there with the story’s characters; two women – strangers to each other – each, and together, confronting their own frozen dams of emotion. I won’t say any more. When entering a short story, you need to be in the moment; to arrive where it begins – its invitation glittering in the distance – and your expectations of where it will take you completely open…

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, you can listen to Crossing the Glacier here (now just a few days left to listen).

Advent Windows of Story – Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come

Wintry reads and curl-up-by-the-fireside-words have a special hold during this season of retreat and dreaming…

They push through into magic lands of imagination, treading patterns of memory which – like the ghosts of Christmas – explore story past, present, future through the long nights and snowy paths of winter.

Back cover design of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Back cover design of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Before the minutes began to run like loose glitter through school concerts, Christmas letter writing, billows of washing to prepare the house for the gathering of the clan, I was working on a couple of long, exploratory posts – which now don’t seem appropriate for this time of heading-for-bolt-holes and home; and of nuggets of thought to toast by the fire.

Now, words spill into the festive season and come out in the shape of carols and family conversation and plans, and daft paper crowns, and pulled crackers spilling laughter…

So, here are some nuggets of winter reading to aid the dreaming and the journeys through snow-filled imaginings. Nuggets that speak for themselves; marsh-mallow pieces of story-delight to stick on the end of your toasting fork of dreams, and gently melt and savour into Christmas…

(The long, winding posts of literary investigation can wait for the long, winding paths beyond New Year’s soon-to-open doors…)

In the meantime, happy dreaming – and happy reading. Hope you enjoy peeking through these advent windows into the worlds of various books – where Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come all become one, blended like a warm festive drink in the magic punch bowl that is memory and imagination:

(There are more story advent windows here than there are days left until Christmas – but I couldn’t resist adding in some extra!)

It was late afternoon before they finished the Christmas tree, and it was growing dark. They lit the old red Chinese lantern and many candles so that they could see to work. There were no glaring electric bulbs on this tree. Mrs Oldknow had boxes of coloured glass ornaments, each wrapped separately in tissue paper and put carefully away from year to year. Some were very old and precious indeed. There were glass balls, stars, fir-cones, acorns and bells in all colours and all sizes. There were also silver medallions of angels. Of course the most beautiful star was fixed at the very top, with gold and silver suns and stars beneath and around it. Each glass treasure, as light as an eggshell and as brittle, was hung on a loop of black cotton that had to be coaxed over the prickly fingers of the tree. Tolly took them carefully out of their tissue paper and Mrs Oldknow hung them up. The tiny glass bell-clappers tinkled when a branch was touched. When it was all finished, there were no lights on the tree itself, but the candles in the room were reflected in each glass bauble on it, and seemed in those soft deep colours to be shining from an immense distance away, as if the tree were a cloudy night sky full of stars. They sat down together to look at their work. Tolly thought it so beautiful he could say nothing, he could hardly believe his eyes.’

From The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

Front cover - The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Front cover – The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

‘Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.’

From The Dark is Rising (Part Two, The Learning – Christmas Eve) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition, illustration by Laura Carlin

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition, illustration by Laura Carlin

‘He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before. Now and forever, he knew, he inhabited a different time-scale from that of everyone he had ever known or loved… But he managed to turn his thoughts away from all these things, even from the two invading, threatening figures of the Dark. For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was on the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside.

Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living-room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down. Will lay on his back on the hearth-rug staring into the smoke wreathing up the chimney, and was suddenly very sleepy indeed.’

From The Dark is Rising (Part Two, The Learning – Betrayal) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition - title page and illustration by Laura Carlin

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition – title page and illustration by Laura Carlin

There they go, Moss and Blister, hurrying up Blackfriar’s Stairs and on through the dark streets, under a sky fairly peppered with stars as cold as frozen sparks. Up Coalman’s Alley, across Bristol Street…

“ ‘Appy Christmas, marm – and a nappy Christmas to you, miss!” bellowed a bellman, coming out of an alehouse and wagging his bell like a swollen brass finger.

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given!” He hiccupped, and drew out a little Christmas poem of his own composing, while Moss and Blister stood stock-still and listened. Then he held out his hand, and Moss put a sixpence in it, for it was Christmas Eve, and Moss, who was a midwife, felt holy and important.

Ordinarily, Moss was brisk and businesslike to a degree, but on this one night of the year she was as soft as butter and gave her services for nothing. She lived in hopes of being summoned to a stable and delivering the Son of God.

“It’s written down, Blister,” she said to her apprentice after the bellman had weaved away. “It’s all written down. Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time.”

Blister, a tall, thin girl with sticking-out ears and saucer eyes, who flapped and stalked after stubby Moss like a loose umbrella, said “Yus’m!” and looked frightened to death. Blister also had her dream of Christmas Eve and a stable, but it was not quite the same as Moss’s. She dreamed that Moss would be delivering her of the marvelous Child.

Naturally, she kept her ambition a deep secret from Moss, so that the dreamy frown that sometimes settled on her face led Moss to surmise that her apprentice was a deep one…..

…..At the end of every March, she’d lie in her bed, waiting with ghostly urgency for Moss to appear beside her, for Moss had a gift like the angel of the annunciation. She could tell, long before it showed, if any female had a bun in the oven, a cargo in the hold, or a deposit in the vault – depending on the trade concerned…..

…..But she never looked at Blister in that certain way, and every Christmas Eve Blister would grow frightened that someone else had been chosen to bear the glory of the world.’

From The Apprentices – Moss and Blister, by Leon Garfield

The Apprentices by Leon Garfield, published by William Heinemann, 1982 edition. Jacket painting by Stefen Bernath

The Apprentices by Leon Garfield, published by William Heinemann, 1982 edition. Jacket painting by Stefen Bernath

It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.

Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’

From The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Chapter One) by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, Red Fox Books 2004 edition, published by Random House Children's Books.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, Red Fox Books 2004 edition, published by Random House Children’s Books.

“I am going mad.” Aunt Valentina fell into a chair, shot up as a cat yowled and escaped, sank down again with her doeskin boots stuck out. “It’s too much. I am going mad.”

Poor Val. She did have bad luck. When she and Rudolf came to World’s End, which was only just often enough to remind everybody whose house it was, she was either chased by the ram, butted by the goat, tipped off the donkey, or had her foot trodden on by a horse. Today when she arrived loaded with Christmas spirit and parcels, with miniature golden angels dangling from her ears, she ran full tilt into Tom carrying a dead dog, Carrie and Em and Michael behind him with candles, chanting.

Val’s Christmas spirit left her in a flash. “I am going mad.”

The procession went on out of the side door to the place under the weeping willow where dead animals rested, and where Michael had asked to be buried, ‘when my time comes’. He had already made his own gravestone, the blade of a broken oar stuck into the ground and painted with the message, ‘Micel Fidling. At Rest With His Frends’.

At Dusty’s graveside, Carrie recited a short poem she had quickly run up when he died at noon:

‘Here the good old friend of Liza Jones,
A wanderer dog lays down his weary bones.
He mustn’t be forgotten, must he?
For all his name, he was not so dusty.’

When they went back in, Valentina had recovered from the shock of having a dead body carried out as she came in, but she started up again when Dad lit the candles on the tree. The other lights were out, and it looked heavenly, the small pure flames like stars.

But Val screamed, “Fire! It will catch fire!”

She lunged forward to blow out the candles, and knocked one off the tree. It set light to a piece of tissue paper on the floor.

“Leave it alone, Val.” Jerome Fielding put out the small fire with his foot. “We’ll blow them out when they get lower.”

“Go ahead, Jerry.” Uncle Rudolf was genial enough today, though his marble head and stiff back were not made for it. “The insurance money is worth more to me than the house.”

From World’s End in Winter (Chapter 18) by Monica Dickens

World's End in Winter by Monica Dickens, 1972 edition, published by William Heinemann

World’s End in Winter by Monica Dickens, 1972 edition, published by William Heinemann

For a beautiful winter solstice-time post about Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising – slip through this portal to the Whistles in the Wind blog.

And for another The Dark is Rising related treat – and lots of winter woods enchantment – find your way through the back of the magic wardrobe to this post by Diana J Hale.

Daughter of the Sea by Berlie Doherty

‘My tale is of the sea. It takes place in the far north, where ice has broken land into jagged rocks, and where black and fierce tides wash the shores. Hail is flung far on lashing winds, and winters are long and dark. Men haunt the sea, and the sea gives up a glittering harvest. And it is said that the people of the sea haunt the land.’

As we said a sad-sweet goodbye to the Angel of the North…

The Angel of the North – sculpture by Antony Gormley, near the A1 at Gateshead.

… (our annual ritual of leaving and returning…)

…something made me turn to those opening words of the prologue to Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea.

This 1998 Puffin paperback edition…

1998 Puffin Books paperback edition of Daughter of the Sea by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Sian Bailey

…was nestled in a bag by my feet in the car – along with all my other Barter Books summer finds. We were driving away from the far north of England and towards the autumn; the winter already a furthest-north-thought creeping steadily southward from invisible horizons behind us.

I discovered a few years ago, on another long road journey, that I’m able to read in the car as long as we’re still on the motorways; twisting lanes play havoc with my head if I try to focus on the page. But with three hundred miles of motorway from the North-East back to the South-West ahead of us, it felt like a good journey of the mind, and an honour paid to an always complex sense of parting, to allow this tale of the sea, and of rugged northern lands, to carry me home.

And so it was that, as we passed through a bright land of harvest and surreal summer-green (the trees and hedgerows kept strangely lush and leaf-abundant by exceptional amounts of rain) my thoughts were called towards ice, and crofters living close to the rock-rimed bones of remote islands; edgelands where the breath of survival moves with the sea.

In her Author’s Note at the back of the novel, Berlie Doherty tells us that: ‘Some of the stories woven into Daughter of the Sea are based on ancient tales from Iceland, Scotland and Ireland.’ And in the narrative, she achieves that feeling of a generic North – an evocation of shared cultural strands that knit place, experience and a Far North landscape of mind.

Philip Pullman, quoted in the blurb on the back cover, describes the ingredients of the book’s atmosphere perfectly:

‘Tension, emotional honesty and more than a touch of cold northern poetry as well.’

– Philip Pullman, Guardian.

A slender book, ostensibly for children, but with tendrils of deep archetypal concern that hold fast for readers of all ages, Daughter of the Sea casts its net far around a teeming weight of significance – just as the tight-woven, sparse words of folktale reach to catch big ideas, glinting with truth and meaning.

Berlie Doherty tells a tale of humans and selkies locked in an interrelationship which both washes towards the land, and pulls away into unknown deeps. People of the land are drawn to the sea, and the people of the sea are drawn to the land. The netted strands that join them are irresistible – and yet fraught with difficulty and danger. It is a relationship of both gifts and destruction; of both lifeblood and the ever-present threat of death.

It is an interdependence that reveals the very edges of life; the deepest concerns of spirit and survival, where the natural order is broken at your peril. The people in this novel’s pages live with a heavy sense of submission to what the sea must take in return for what the sea relinquishes. They live with a pact that, if broken, exacts terrible price – great sorrow and loss. But, it is also a pact that can bring vital restoration and healing. In these natural cycles of giving and taking, there is a balance of joy and sadness; of wishes and what must be; of possession and letting go.

Daughter of the Sea is written with a lilting call of voice. Its prose is an invitation to the fireside, whilst the snow and ice grips the darkness in the howl of the wind outside. The sea not only haunts the book’s characters and story, but its whole tone too. We feel the touch of ancient depths of human experience in its telling; the accumulated voices of many folk long gone, as the waves of the narrative take up each character and deliver the timeless and interwoven longings and acceptances of their lives…

…The life of Gioga, the daughter of the sea – delivered up by the waves to the yearnings of a childless couple; of Eilean o da Freya, the ‘crab-woman,’ who guards a secret, and lives alone in a den beneath an upturned boat, her story told in the ‘language of her singing’ which ‘has lilts and hisses in it, as if she has listened too long to the sea.’ And Hill Marliner, the mysterious white haired stranger who wears ‘a full grey cloak’ and whose appearance answers to the descriptions in Eilean’s tales of ‘the lord of the oceans’ who ‘rides the waves from morning to night, from ice to ice, from the world’s end to the world’s end.’ And of the islanders, who weave their tales through the cycles of nature; cycles that permeate every moment of their existence:

‘My tale is of the daughter of the sea. The best way to hear the tale is to creep into the lee of the rocks when the herring boats have just landed. The gulls will be keening around you. The women hone knives on the stones, and their hands will be brown from the wind and the fish-gut slime. And as they work they talk to each other of the things they’ve always known.

That’s when the story’s told.’

– (Berlie Doherty, opening to ‘Daughter of the Sea.’)

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

We returned from one of our regular trips to the library recently – me with a bagful of poetry – and my daughter with White Crow, a young adult novel with a dark, portentous cover…

As soon as we were through the front door, my daughter disappeared to her room, clutching the book like a prize – and by tea time, she had already read half way through it. By the end of the day, she had finished it, and was wearing that enigmatic expression of a reader just emerged from a journey somewhere inward, challenging and rewarding…

She mentioned an elfin-like girl named Ferelith – and mysteries that had gripped so much, she had been unable to put the book down… But she didn’t want to spoil it for me if I decided to read it too… (I’ve been careful not to include any potential spoilers in the following review, for the same reason…)

In the library, I’d only taken in a general impression of the book’s cover and title. Now, looking at it again, I fully registered who the author was – and recognised Marcus Sedgwick’s name as one that often crops up on children’s book recommendations and shortlists for book awards, including the Carnegie Medal. I checked my bookshelves – and yes, I was right, I have one of his other novels, The Dark Horse, which I bought a while back and still haven’t got round to reading.

Intrigued, I borrowed White Crow from my daughter a few days later – and, like her, found it was one of those gobble-up books that won’t let you go. I’m not quite sure who or what did the devouring – whether I gobbled up the book, or whether it gobbled me. All I know is that I was edgily compelled to turn just one more page, to read just one more chapter – unable to let it go. The book has an uneasy hold on you – circling you first with intrigue, and then moving in ever closer, to enmesh you in a growing sense of troubling darkness.

And as the story progresses, we are moving into very dark and disturbing stuff indeed. At the climax of the novel, Sedgwick heightens the tension to such a degree, my fear for the protagonist became oppressive, almost physical. Mistrust, the sinister and the malign are pitched to an all pervasive sense of dread; an almost unbearable suspense.

Reading this book, I felt increasingly on shifting ground – metaphorically and, in terms of the characters’ location, quite literally. The story is set in the village of Winterfold, based on Dunwich in Suffolk:

Once upon a time there was a whole town here, not just a handful of houses. A town with twelve churches and thousands of people, dozens of streets, and a busy harbour.

And then the sea ate it.

Storm by storm, year by year, the cliffs collapsed into the advancing sea, taking the town with it, house by house and street by street…

We see a landscape where the last remaining church in the village is half eaten away by cliff erosion, its eastern end gaping open to sea, moon and stars; where the graves and bones of the long dead are poised to fall into the sea – and where subterranean secrets of the past are about to be exposed in all their horror.

This is a novel of big themes and big questions. It’s about the inevitability of death and loss – and about human questioning beyond the boundaries of that inevitability. Opposites constantly fray each other’s edges – life and death, sea and land, love and hate, good and evil, trust and mistrust, choice and fate, hope and despair, heaven and hell – angels and devils.

Sixteen year old Rebecca arrives in Winterfold with her father, their relationship also fraying at the edges of love, mistrust and resentment. Her father is a police officer, under suspicion for some kind of dereliction of duty that may have led to the death of a young girl. In Winterfold, they are looking for a retreat from the hell of their situation in London.

Rebecca meets Ferelith, a local girl with an ethereal, other-worldly quality, who is:

‘…strange-looking; there’s something elfin about her. Everything ends in points; her nose, her eyes, her chin, her lips, her fingers, the spikes of her long tresses of black hair…… her teeth, not quite a vampire’s, but not far short.’

Ferelith is a highly intelligent young woman who, having gained her ‘A’ levels at the age of fourteen has taken herself out of school, bored with it limitations. What interest her are big questions. Is there a God? If there is a guiding force in the universe, is it benign? Is the universe just a big cosmic accident? Is there a purpose to life? What are the implications of all the possibilities? She becomes obsessed with the question of life after death, wrapping up her thoughts in stories that surround the old, ruined manor in Winterfold; stories of a man called Dr Barrieux who arrived in Winterfold in the eighteenth century, fresh from the French Revolution, amid rumours that he was conducting sinister experiments into the possibilities of life after death.

An exploration of the philosophy of William James (philosopher and psychologist brother of the novelist Henry James) also runs through the fabric of the novel; Ferelith is very interested in choice and how it determines the future – and bound up in her obsession with questions about the afterlife, is William James’s analogy of the white crow. As Ferelith explains it in the novel:

‘You might say that although you have not seen every crow in the whole world, every crow you have ever seen is black. Therefore the chances are very great that all crows are black. In fact, you have decided that all crows are black. Now of course, if someone could show you a white crow, everything would be overturned in a moment.

But all crows are black.

And in the same way, you conclude that no one lives after death. There is no ‘other side’. There is no white crow.

But, supposing I said I had seen a white crow? Just one. A single white crow.

What then?’

There is a leaden weight of sadness and suffering behind both girls’ histories, and a longing to love underlies their troubled paths. In their developing friendship, there is a moving, tentative reaching out through the ravages of damage, whilst manipulation and detachment , threat, cruelty, power-play and vulnerability become a shifting counter current in that connection between them.

The summer in which the story takes place is unrelentingly hot, dry and parched – but, like everything in the book, the unease between states is held on a knife edge and Winterfold, living up to its name, retains ‘a cold embrace, and like the snows of winter, it does not let you go easily.’

The language is tight, edgy; it makes you jittery and unsure. There are three narrators – an omnipotent narrator, telling the story in third person present tense, an eighteenth century priest telling his story in diary form – and Ferelith, narrating in first person past tense. Like the unstable landscape, the unsettling dance between the narratives adds to the shifting feel of the book – and the reasons for the differing tenses become startlingly exposed by the end of the novel. The very structure of the book fulfils the interplay of its explorations.

All the time, as I raced through the book, I was aware that Marcus Sedgwick was layering the narrative with meaning and significance, with clues and pointers; food for endlessly questioning thought. For instance, each of the chapters narrated by Ferelith is headed by a song title, which I’m sure on further investigation, will throw up some deeper significance. So far, in hindsight, I’ve realised how one is a major clue.

It is a book that deserves a second – slower and closer – reading. Its structure is layered with fraught possibilities, working on many levels simultaneously. The symbolic and apparent, the psychological and physical, the natural and supernatural draw the reader to their tipping points, challenging interpretation. Taking us on subterranean journeys of the human mind, Sedgwick offers up an unsettling exploration of the unanswerable, and leaves our perceptions teetering on that ever present knife edge of doubt and insight.

This is territory suitable for older children and adults. Dark, disturbing and leading into gruesome and horrifying recesses of humanity, it is a troubling read, but one that nags at the edges of the mind and sets a deep questioning to eat away at assumptions and veiled possibilities, exposing them to the light of scrutiny, just as the sea in the book relentlessly uncovers what’s hidden, and the storms force us to look and see.