I’m not going to recommend my first book to you because it wasn’t very good. However it was published, and from that day to this I’ve called myself a writer. I'm now the author of eleven novels and much else besides. In recent years I've become an ebook author too. But back in 1970, this is how it all began:
Dave and I had been saving like crazy to take a few months off work and devote ourselves to painting on his count, and writing on mine. We’d found a ruined cottage on a hillside overlooking the Teme Valley and persuaded the farmer who owned it to give us a summer let. Here, with our own damson orchard and a view across half of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire [but no running water, electricity or loo] we hoped to create those works of art and literature that would launch our careers.
The cottage was called Brick Barns. It was one of those treasures of English vernacular architecture that you were still able to find unlived in and abandoned back at the tail end of the ‘60s - a tiny, two-up-two-down, quarry-tiled cottage with a massive ingle-nook fireplace housing a huge old range which was still intact, which meant we were able to cook on it. I remember a scraping old front door with a heavy wooden latch, a tiny winding staircase, a stone sink, and three windows, one up, two down, one of which was broken and leaves kept blowing through.
The cottage was empty and we had to furnish it ourselves. What we had was basic, but turned out to be perfectly adequate for our requirements. We came from cluttered lives in London, and suddenly everything was reduced to a table, two wooden chairs, some pots and pans, some candles and oil lamps, a bed, a ‘beanbag’ made of old curtains and straw, a chest of drawers and a rug. Actually I’m not quite sure about the rug.
We went to bed with the sun, carrying up our candles and lamps, and rose with it too. There would be many a morning when I’d awake to find the valley beneath us white with mist, but the Brick Barns meadow golden with sunlit dew. Not having running water meant we learnt to make the most of what we’d got. I’d head out into the dew with my bar of soap. One memorable morning I took my portable radio with me. I’ll never forget lathering up to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy [never much cared for it before, nor since, but it was perfect for the occasion]. I’ve never felt so clean, inside and out, as I did then.
I remember there was a wild wood down the meadow from us, through which carriages drove in the days of the big house on the next hill. Once there would have been a proper road through the wood for those carriages to drive along, but nothing remained of it now but a ruined bridge, trees growing out of it, stones falling one by one into the stream beneath.
We spent whole days down in that wood. We found a waterfall and a way across it courtesy of a slippery, moss-covered fallen tree. We watched spiders weaving perfect webs that would never be disturbed because nobody would ever come to sweep them away. We took photographs of all the different types of ferns that grew along the side of the stream. I sat staring at it all, drinking it in. Dave sketched. He’d sit so still, for hours at a time, that not even the birds singing all around him seemed to know that he was there. We were young. We were discovering things. There was nothing like it.
And I wrote. I was twenty-one years old and I’d been writing for twelve years with the serious intention of making it my career, and now here I was - I hoped - with my chance to do just that. Over the years I’d mostly written poetry. What I really wanted, though, was to write fiction. I’d never really had the courage though – not, at any rate, to see it through – and I’d never had the time. A poem, it seemed to me, could be picked up and put down again, but writing fiction required the tenacity of a blackbird with a worm, determined and set, pulling and pecking, digging and prepared to get dirty, its livelihood depending on not letting go.
And now here I was, ready to give it my all. But would the fiction come? It would not. All this effort had been made to get me to this perfect place where I’d be creative, but the one thing I hadn’t calculated for was inspiration. I’d assumed, I supposed, that no sooner would the hire van have been disposed of and darkness closed in around us, than some amazing story would just be there.
I’ve not a clue, looking back, what I actually wrote at Brick Barns. I must have written something because I sat down at my typewriter every day. But certainly it wasn’t published, and I haven’t kept it. What I did write, however, was my life. Beyond the need for any words at all, I wrote myself into being, escaping my old life like a crysalis, emerging bright-eyed into a new one - and the story I started then is still running today.
There are things about Brick Barns that I’ll never forget. Even someone as forgetful as me can still conjour up the smell of waking in that cottage and everything being sappy and earthy, wild flowers bursting through the floors and bits of trees through the walls. I’d get up. The door would scrape the quarry tiles as I’d drag it open and step outside. The grass would be wet beneath my feet. Bare-footed, I’d trail through the orchard and the birdsong would be unlike anything I’d ever hear in the long years ahead of me. My days in Brick Barns were as thick with birdsong as my nights were with stars.
Close my eyes, right here, right now and I can hear the bark of a fox in the dark. Then there’s the rattle of pheasants down in the tangled wild wood, and the cooing of wood pigeons. Open my eyes, and here are bees in the clover, and something very small scampering through the long grass - I can’t see what it is, but I can see blades parting to let it through. And I know that apart from all of this around me, and Dave off somewhere with his easel, and the badgers snoozing in their burrow down the field, and the rooks on the fence post and the swallows nesting in the eaves, I am all alone. And that’s the way I like it.
It took some doing, picking up Brick Barn’s rhythm and learning to live its way. The logistics of life in that cottage involved a precarious, pothole-ridden mile-long track, then a journey across a hilltop where there were no tracks at all, then a steep descent down a series of fields for a further quarter of a mile. Once a family with six children had lived in Brick Barns, wearing a path back and forth to the nearest farm, where the father worked as a labourer. The postman would have walked that path every day, but it has long-since disappeared. And the path we beat that summer is long-since gone as well.
We arrived in July and left at the end of September when we could no longer ignore autumn creeping through the brickwork and blowing down the chimney. Some of our days were grey. I’d sit upstairs and write between drips and saucepans and leaking roof tiles, and Dave would sit downstairs, painting foxgloves and tending the fire. But some of our days were not just sunny but dazzlingly so. Dave would sit outside with his canvasses, painting the cottage in all its different lights, and I’d sit out at my fold-up child’s school desk, violently stabbing the keys of my heavy Olivetti typewriter. I’d be at it for hours. God alone knows what I thought I was doing, but I’d been waiting for this from the age of nine and I didn’t want to waste a minute.
There were days at a time when the valley would fill with mist and nothing seemed to exist beyond the boundary of the orchard. Then there’d be town days when we’d make the long trek by foot to the road, catch the market bus and sit with the old ladies and their fancy hats and baskets of speckled eggs, returning laden with a week’s worth of provisions which we’d haul as far as we could, then hang in trees for sake-keeping, and come back later to collect.
There was always something to collect. Water from the tap by the cattle trough two fields away. Letters from the farm. Logs from the wild wood for the fire. If we ran out of dry wood, there’d be no supper and no way of keeping warm. We quickly learned to take care of ourselves.
I’ll never forget our last few glorious days, spent up the damson trees filling baskets with fruit. For two months we’d watched it ripening, now it was ours. Then on one of those last days, the farmer brought his parents and an old aunt down the fields to see us. They’d farmed this land before him, and remembered Brick Barns being lived in when they were children. Now they wanted to see smoke coming out of its chimney again, fire in the grate and a table set for tea. Their son hitched up a wagon on the back of his tractor and down they bumped and lurched, side by side on bales of hay.
The writing – the real writing, that is – started the moment I left Brick Barns and arrived back in London, penniless and in need of a job. Isn’t that always the way? As soon as I no longer had time to write, there was my first book pleading to be written - a collection of short stories with a linking theme, based on the places I’d left behind. A friend working as an editor at a newly established publishing house asked to see what I was writing. I wouldn’t have submitted it anywhere if she hadn’t asked. In fact even when she asked I wasn’t initially that keen. I’d been trying to get my poetry published for years, but with no success, and my confidence was pretty low. But I showed her what I’d got – and I was in.
We were children of the sixties, Dave and I. He never became a painter but returned to his architectural studies, his love of buildings - especially English vernacular architecture - fired by Bricks Barns. There was a moment after Brick Barns where we almost went our separate ways, but we saw sense, pulled it round or whatever you might want to call the process of recognizing love, and now we’ve been married for over forty years and have a huge family of delightful grown-up children and a scattering of delightful grandchildren too.
And I’ve been writing almost ever since [the ‘almost’ speaking here for the baby years]. I’ve learnt that life is hard sometimes and can be cruel. By no means is it always damson orchards, wild woods or world-class views. But the fear I used to have of writing fiction – that’s gone. The courage to dig deep and dirty and never let go I’ve somehow found. The world is full of stories. Some of them get labeled ‘fiction’. Some of them are simply life.
A couple of years ago, Dave and I returned to Brick Barns. The old farmer and his family had long-since moved on. Their farmhouse had been renovated – and so had Brick Barns. We’d always thought it would quietly crumble into the landscape, but we reckoned without the boom in the property market.
There was even a road down to it.
We didn’t drive down to take a look. Its restoration could have turned Brick Barns into the most beautiful cottage in England, but what it was before felt good enough to us. When we’d moved into Brick Barns we’d no idea how much it would shape our lives. Now even writing about it feels like walking bare-foot across hallowed ground.
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