Landscape has always been very important to me. As a child living in a remote Norfolk village (with no motorway in the entire county, no trains or buses from our village) I learnt to be pretty self-sufficient. I developed the habit of walking the dog for miles while reflecting on books I was reading, or working on an ongoing inner narrative that might one day find its way onto the page.
It’s strange to me that I’m still doing that nowadays, but in a different landscape entirely. Instead of the flat marshes and misty fenland with its endless mudflats, I have the crisp clear heights of Scotland, but I’m still walking the dog (a different dog!!!), and I’m still working on that inner-narrative, some of which makes its way onto the page.
When I was a teenager, I hoped to be a novelist one day. It was my dream. Now I write novels for a living, but the reality is different to what I imagined it. When I was a young hopeful, I wrote to Anita Brookner telling her of my ambition, and she wrote back saying “A writer’s life is full of disappointments.” She had won prizes, published novels, had reviews in all the major newspapers and magazines. I didn’t know what she meant. Now I do… But the one thing which hasn’t changed, and which remains a constant is this deep abiding love I have for landscape, and for this landscape in particular… Scotland.
Every day I walk, and every day I find inspiration and beauty, no matter what the weather. A neighbour said to me this morning “Another lovely day!” He was being sarcastic, of course, because the light powdery snow had turned into a fine mist of rain, but I felt uplifted by my encounter with the outdoors, even ecstatic after having taken photos of the sky and clouds… and I was looking forward to getting back to my desk.
I often have a moan about social media, but taking photos can focus the eye, make you notice details, and is a modern way of cataloguing, collecting and recording our own thoughts. What the camera cannot do, however, is capture the smell of peaty water flavoured with minerals and moss, and nothing beats the sound of trickling water coursing its way down the mountain paths, slowly shifting gravel, grain by grain, to carve a landscape. We need narrative for that… books, literature, prose.
In Norfolk as a child I was surrounded by slow fenland waters, and the sea. Here in Scotland the rumble and cascade of water is everywhere, but it’s different. It’s restless, powerful, scouring lanes through the rocks. But it was this landscape I first wrote about, and the one which gave me consolation. When I was a teenager, my family used to say “One day, you’ll take off with your typewriter up to the moors in Derbyshire or Yorkshire and find your own Wuthering Heights.” Well, it was a laptop in the end, (as well as a posh pen and a posh notebook,) and my Wuthering Heights lay waiting for me in Scotland.
The sigh of the wind in the treetops and the glint of a pale winter sun through pencil-thin trees are the kind of things I try to capture in my writing. For me, it’s like painting a picture – with words. It’s what makes me tick. If I come across a fallen tree in the woods, I try to imagine what it sounded like when there was no one there to hear it falling – the rending of boughs in the silence. But I never feel that I quite capture what I’m after. I never feel satisfied… as if there is one more novel, one piece of prose that will reach the standard I’m after.
I suppose in an age when the world is after a quick sell, I’m a conondrum. I don’t necessarily fit in the commercial world of publishing on some level. But I don’t care. I’m a philosopher always in need of a place of quietness, and I find it… right here, under my nose.
I value this quietness.