David Tennant’s Richard is the love child of Richmal Crompton’s Violet Elizabeth and Harry Enfield’s Kevin. He’s a spoilt brat surrounded by giggling sycophants who obsequiously applaud each of his successively disastrous decisions. He makes sarcastic asides, is impatient with the old and tumbles blithely into chaos. Even when the game is up, and he’s ordered to submit the crown to Bolingbroke, there’s a suggestion he’s going to stamp his foot and say ‘shan’t’ or ‘it’s so unfair!’ Tennant is very funny, and there are plenty of laughs, but Richard is an unpleasant character and only someone with Tennant’s huge popularity can pull it off.
Monthly Archives: October 2013
Every Good Friday, when I was a child, friends and I used to walk the ten miles or so to the top of Twm Barlwm, a mountain dominating the reclaimed marshlands of south Wales. In my imagination, uncorrupted by historical detail, this is where the Celts stood fast, watching over the slow encroachment of Romans stationed in the fort of Caerleon, just below. It was a mountain of war, and later, in my teens, I witnessed real battles as gangs from nearby towns fought with chains and axes, as determined as the Celts and the Romans not to give an inch. I watched these events from the safety of the ferns, and sometime later, when the gangs had gone, returned with my dog to wander along the mountain’s spine, to the strange mound at its summit. From there, under the steel grey sky, it felt as if all of the world, and the future, was spread out before me.
Arthur Machen’s Hill of Dreams is a book based on his boyhood love of Twm Barlwm, and Machen’s later work, particularly his London Adventure is a hike through the demi-monde of Edwardian London. He was a flaneur who perfected the art of wandering. He wanders London as he wandered the Welsh hills. When, in my early twenties, I followed Machen’s footsteps and moved from south Wales to west London, I worked hard at being a flaneur. I loved strolling aimlessly through the leafy suburbs, and in the city I adored the river’s muddy allure. But I didn’t get to be a seriously good at it, I was Welsh boy in Dr Martens. I didn’t have the style.
After my own decade and a half of London adventure, I moved back to Wales, this time away from the industrial south and into the central wilderness. Here I crave nothing more than to be rambling in the mountains, getting closer to the clouds, and sometimes above them.
I tend to walk with a small bunch of serious hikers. These people have all the kit, the Nordic poles, heavy duty water bottles, stainless steel thermos flasks. They study maps. Some of them have beards. They are not wanderers, they are athletes. Usually these walks take six hours or so, and often cover twenty miles. We struggle up steep slopes and spill over and down them again.
We usually start in a car park and at some point manage to find a pub, often an ancient, hidden place, a few dating back to the thirteenth century, some even earlier. I’ve come upon remote hillside churches with eerie murals, like Death wielding a shovel, or St George slaying what I supposed was a dragon but which looked more like a giant, angry sparrow. I know the twisted spine of Cwmyoy, and the tumbling, secluded magic of Llanthony and Tintern.
Most of my fellow hikers have travelled this way before, and they know the stories. Up high in the mountains I’ve seen the wreck of a Wellington bomber that lost its way in the fog; the caves where the Chartists hid their weapons as they planned revolution. There’s the poet’s chair, and the grave of a famous racehorse. There are standing stones, remnants of Iron Age forts, terraced ramparts, a hermit’s cell. I’ve looked across the plains of Herefordshire and seen the blue remembered hills of Shropshire. Look south and there’s the Severn, glinting.
I like writers who are walkers: Rosseau, Wordsworth, Machen, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald. Wandering has a great pedigree. In their books one phrase reappears time after time: solvitur ambulando – you can solve it by walking. After hiking all day whatever problems you have disappear, and the simple pleasures of sandwiches, or a flask of tea, with the land spinning about you, miles and miles of it, on and on, never ending, whisk all worldly cares up into the clouds, to be lost forever in the vast ancient wilderness.
n.b. this originally appeared in the Awfully Big Adventure Blog.
One thing I love about mountains, and the views from their slopes and summits, is the distance that sparks the imagination. William Hazlitt said most of it in his essay ‘Why Distant Objects Please’. I can populate those distant places, a ship out at sea, a far off hill, with whatever I like. Get closer, and the reality is less alluring. I feel the same way about most things, about characters or places in books and films, or melodies in music. I’d prefer them to remain indistinct. I like murk and fog, I like the swirl of mist, and slippery uncertainties. Even in everyday exchanges, I prefer things left unfinished. Too much detail is like a lamp that’s far too bright. There are exceptions, of course, like following instructions for installing a new printer, but even then, I tend to sort those things out by fumbling, trial and error, and by throwing stuff across the room and so on.
It’s a limbo I’m sure all writers understand. The book is finished, and has been reduced to the essence of what it should be. I’ve always thought writing, or any creative activity, is like alchemy. The alchemist takes raw materials, or base matter, and subjects it to a process of reduction until there is nothing but a purified essence. This, perhaps, is the mysterious white stone. It is everything stripped down to all that matters. I forget who said that good design is the art of knowing when you’ve reached the point where no more can be added, and nothing can be taken away. Perhaps it’s the same for writing a book. I don’t want to add any more, and I dread taking anything else away. Meanwhile I am in limbo, waiting for my agent to reveal to me what she intends to do. Will she represent it? And if so, to whom? Will she be ambitious, cautious, or will every publisher in town get to see it? So I cook boiled eggs and eat toast. I read more. I fidget.
I drove east to Oxford and a party to celebrate 25 years of the Felicity Bryan Agency. It took place in the beautiful, refurbished setting of the Ashmolean Museum. I overdosed on champagne and managed to be articulate enough to talk to a number of agency authors. I chatted with Peter Heather, who very modestly told me he was teacher, which he is, but he is also Professor of Medieval History at King’s College, London. His expertise is the fall of the Roman Empire, so I asked him to tell me, in one word, why the Roman Empire collapsed, he replied ‘Barbarians’ – which I think is the title of one of his books. I want to read it now, not just because I don’t know much about who the Barbarians were, but because Peter was a very amusing bloke. Lydia Syson, an author I hadn’t met before, was embarrassingly nice about my books, and Joanne Owen I discussed being Welsh, and what Wales means to us.
Last week I took my son to start his first term at university. Saying goodbye to the first born was something I was not looking forward to. I wanted him to go, to begin his new life, but knew I’d miss him. He’s been bogged down with school subjects he was never that immersed in, and so to start studying the thing he loves most, politics, means that he is doing what he wants to do. It is such a bittersweet experience. Once upon a time I had an idea of writing a book about our travels together: Battles with My Boy. It was to be a travelogue of journeys across battlefields of Britain, and a commentary on our arguments. We used to argue all the time, about politics, education, how to make tea, where the biscuits have gone.
In June I went to see my agent, Catherine, who, along with Amy Waite, a new member of staff at the agency, sat with me and made some suggestions on what to do with the new book. At the moment it’s called Octopus Crush. I hope it stays that way, but you never can tell with publishers. It’ll probably end up being called Hairy Octopus or His Dank Tentacles.
Catherine wants cuts, and I can understand why. It’s because my book is far too long. One day, perhaps, I will assemble the cuts into Octopus Crush, the Author’s Cut, but it will be rambling and have too many scenes in which nothing happens.
I’ve been reading up on the French Revolution – Hilary Mantel’s colossal A Place of Greater Safety, and Simon Schama’s Citizens. I’m quite obsessed with the character of Robespierre, and sense the germ of an idea for a book, although I have so many germs for books I could start a plague. Ideas, as we all know, are easy. Doing something with them is a different kettle of piranhas.
I’ve been blogging for years for other people. The most popular of these is the Awfully Big Blog Blog Adventure. (http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.co.uk/). I’ve blogged about education, Wales, music, creativity. Many other authors add their thoughts, too. It’s worth a visit.
I haven’t had time to keep fiddling about with Dreamweaver and Photoshop. It’s too time consuming. I’ve decided to use WordPress and see how it goes.