The Greatest Story Ever Told

I inhabit the borderland between science, education and storytelling. Most of the time, these companions are well-behaved and don’t poke sticks at each other. The last few weeks though, they have collided as I watched my university become a protagonist in its own drama.

If you are UK-based, it is hard to have missed the furore surrounding the Open University – its leadership issues, the effects of a damaging political climate that has become less and less supportive of education as an equal and open right for all individuals, regardless of background, current circumstances or challenges to be overcome. We live now in a political climate where it is fashionable to lay claim to support of equality and opportunity, but where it is acceptable to ignore the reality of the requirements for equity. There have been many eloquent explorations of this and of the challenges that the funding climate raises for the Open University, an organisation dedicated to providing educational opportunity for all. It’s not my intention to add to those here. Instead, I want to delve into the story and the reasons why, in two short weeks, the Open University became a cause to rally behind and a unifying symbol, bringing together diverse individuals across ages, political allegiances, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality and race. Many of us already understood the potential for it to become this and indeed, our outgoing VC fought valiantly for recognition of the issues facing part-time learners and the organisations that teach them in a funding climate that is increasingly putting the weight of that on the students themselves. So why is it only now that the wave of momentum crested and broke nationally? I think the answer to that lies in the art of storytelling.

Writers know that to capture your reader, you need not only a great plot, but a relatable cast of characters that inspire loyalty, hatred, love. Characters that the reader is invested in. As authors, we take these characters and do dreadful things to them. We give them great highs, and diabolical lows. We challenge them with circumstance and write them out of it. We bring them alive and they walk from the pages of the book into the minds of our readers, fully formed and ready to do battle. If you doubt for a moment that characters on a page can inspire great emotion and intense loyalty in their readers, look no further than some of the intense debates that rage over readers’ favourites in some of the intense fandoms on the web. Personally, I have a degree of mistrust for anyone who is unable to instantly recall which Hogwarts house they are in … and no-one trusts a Slytherin. What then does this have to do with the Open University and the issues that have hit the public arena over the last few weeks? Come with me on a journey into one of the greatest stories of recent years.

OU VCs have made the public case for the challenges it faces for many years. It’s not just restricted to our outgoing VC, Peter Horrocks, although he did campaign tirelessly in Westminster in support of the part-time learners’ agenda. There was something missing in the cauldron though – there was bubbling, toiling and troubling but the potion was never quite right. People didn’t know it but what they were really waiting for was a captivating story. It’s fair to say that politicians listen. They suffer from convenient selective deafness though, if public opinion doesn’t drive them to also hear and act. Here begins the greatest underdog story of recent years, with a cast of characters worthy of the chunkiest of NY Times bestsellers.

The Hero

Everyone loves an underdog story. Enter the staff of the Open University. Embattled. Under threat. Fighting for a greater cause than simply their own jobs. In an era where society is looking for reasons to criticise the high earners and to shake the status quo, they were given a character full of attributes we all yearn for. Loyal. Courageous. Potentially selfless. The staff were a collective Gryffindor, forgiven for their impetuousness because it was clear that the fight came from a collective passion for something great, and that it was in defence of those that needed fighting for.

The Villain

For there to be an underdog, there has to be a villain. The power at the university lay with someone who became a true literary nemesis for the valiant heroes fighting their cause. The heroes of this story faced him in battle, and against the odds, came out standing. As with all villains, it served the writer’s purpose to make them on one level complex and believable, but on another to emphasise key traits that make them easy to dislike. We want our readers to be invested in their downfall.

The Supporting Characters

OU students became a fully realised supporting character in this battle. They gave the hero a chance to protect them, and they themselves had a narrative voice in this story.

The Plot

This one was a page-turner. The world-building was exemplary. Our villain, after first attacking our hero, then waged a military campaign to ensure that he retained his position in the world of academia. Together, these characters faced down the illusive ‘Council’. A secret organisation where decisions happened behind closed doors. The valiant Senate, propped up by Faculties and Schools, provided a welcome contrast – filled with familiar faces and people the hero understood. Nonetheless, the fight was hard and culminated in the ultimate denouement – the university Council met to seal the villain’s fate. In the end, the hero won through and lived to fight again in the next book in the series. The villain retreated, but the writer didn’t kill him off. After all, who knows what will happen in the sequel.

In reality, there are no heroes and villains. In fact, we are all a little bit of both. But that doesn’t make such a compelling story. The reason the issues our University faces are now reaching the politicians in a way that means they can’t ignore them is because there’s been a perfect storm of public support, cross-party support, news media support (across the news spectrum) and support from the rich and the famous. Politicians are suckers for things that they think will affect their re-election chances. Our VC was right when he campaigned for part-time learners in Westminster. So were his predecessors. I think, though, that the ultimate irony lies in the fact that for the politicians to really take note of what has been said, he needed to become the villain in this piece not the hero. In taking up that role (and we can argue about how much characters in any story are in charge of their own narrative arc), he enabled the Open University to become the hero in a story that has captured the imagination of a nation.

The Open University is looking forwards now. For the first time in a long while, I think it is doing it in a unified way and with a sense of excitement about the challenges we have to face. Whether intentional or unintentional, that’s a direct consequence of the events of the last few weeks. There are many intelligent pieces on the web already addressing what the university needs to move on from here, both from management and from the institution itself. I would like to add my own request to that list. I think that we need leaders and individuals who understand the story and who understand the craft of reaching our audience. We need people who can maintain the momentum that has been gained, not without casualties along the way.

We don’t simply need visionaries, we need storytellers. If we have them, then I can look forward with hope that the university’s tale will be woven into the fabric of our nation for generations to come.

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Monsters

‘It’s the biggest ice cream in the world!’

You looked down at me and I received the offering reverentially.  You knew you had me.  Your eyes crinkled with mischief and, wrapping my free hand in yours, we walked towards the shingle.  Wind whipped my unruly hair.  Sea wind.  Salty.

‘You can’t take it home with you!’

You knew I’d try.  We had the same kind of stubborn in us, you and I.

Your feet outpaced mine.

‘Daddy!’  I stopped, my nose almost touching the carefully crafted frozen edifice.  You watched my eyes expand with anticipation.  The saliva that filled my mouth hid itself away.  My hair refused to behave.  The gusts played with it.  Dancing strands.  Tears dried on my cheeks and you knew you didn’t need to wipe them.

It was over in a moment.  The wind snatched my prize and tossed it to the ground.  There it lay.  Shingle and ice.  You knelt, your eyes meeting mine, and tried to stem the salty waves overflowing.

‘We’ll get another one, sweetheart.’

I knew though, that there are things we can’t replace.

 

Today, I sit typing this in my converted attic room, a warm blanket nurturing my feet, keeping the brutal December wind at bay – it finds its way into cracks that I didn’t know were there. Houses on hills are used to that.  Mine is immune to the rain lashing its sides and beating against the window, overlooking fallow fields and the tantalising walled edge of the deer park.  It knows that I will tolerate the buffeting, wrapping toes and gradually growing layers as the winter draws in, because I find it hard to give up the view.  Houses on hills are known for their view.  The horizon plays with perspective.  The further out I look, the smaller it all seems.  Even as things recede though, there are places that stand proud against the sky.  These are my beacons.

A child of the 70s, I cut my writing teeth on an Olympia Portable Deluxe carefully extracted from its red-felt-lined box and placed on the small table in the front porch where I could type in the sun.  It belonged to my mother.  Cherished.  The rounded indentations on the keys encouraged my small fingers to form words. My writing belonged to my father.  I was born into a house of writing, the books lining the study walls never off-limits but always given the respect due to them.  I was born into a house that wrote.  Stories embossed on paper, each keystroke unleashing a hammer blow, leaving an indelible mark.  Words had permanence.  Sharing was a tactile act, accompanied by smudges of carbon paper, transmitted from hand to hand.  We bore the marks on us too.  It was unavoidable.

 

We talked about that day on the beach often.  It became our litany as you sat by my side at night, keeping the monsters under the bed away.

‘Don’t think about what might be there.  Let’s think about “The Biggest Ice Cream in the World”.’

‘I don’t like the noise.’

‘It’s just the wind, sweetheart, just the wind.’

I closed my eyes.  Your voice rumbled and sometimes I thought I could hear the waves on the shingle.  Sleep stole me.  The monsters daren’t intrude.  When I woke, you had always gone but I could still feel the ghost of your hand on mine.

It wasn’t until my daughter and I found our own litanies, that I truly appreciated what it meant to grow up in a house built of words.  I missed the moment in the years in-between when my hand became the large one and the stories became mine.  She had new monsters for me to chase.

‘Mummy, Tom told me that one day the Sun will become a red giant and swallow the world.  Everything will be gone.’

‘Not for a long while though.  Not for longer than anyone has ever lived.’

‘But I don’t want to be gone.’

I know now that the Biggest Ice Cream in the World was really just an ice cream.  I can’t tell her that one day we won’t be gone.  Instead, I weave tales to transport her, building a shell around us as we snuggle together, hiding from monsters I know are there.

 

We hunted monsters one spring, you and I, in a loch village in Scotland.  Seven-year olds still believe they can slay them.  I was no different as I scanned the water’s edge, waiting for the promised beast to raise its serpentine head above the wavelets as I skimmed Scottish stones across the rippled surface.  I could never make them travel as far as your practiced hand.  It wasn’t until decades later, when I absorbed the lexicon of geology into my own, that I truly understood the magic I had held and cast away from me.  Lewisian gneiss.  Garnet mica schist.  The poetry of rocks was tantalisingly beyond the grasp of my small hands.  The static undulations and complex folds entombed in the stones drew me to them, nonetheless.  The ripples crossing the loch threw back a distorted reflection and I held a moment of time in my fist.  I remember the independence of footsteps where the wavelets broke.  That small girl never looked back though, and now as I do, I see that she was never truly alone.  That wasn’t a summer of ice creams and shingle, but of buzzards lifting upwards from heather-hued Highland slopes, of pebbles and lochs, and a cottage near the water’s edge.

The cottage held treasure.  You knew as soon as we walked into the small study at the front of the house.  Books!  The owners had children slightly older than me.  I dismissed you easily as I catalogued the large bookcase that covered the rear wall.  It was the summer of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and of a dog called Max, tar-black and devoted to me, or so I thought.  I drank in the stories and poured them out again in imagined worlds, certain that the mysterious lady of Mirror Bay would appear one morning floating across the loch.

One night, waiting for the ferry that brought us home, rain lashing around me, a kind man helped me put on my gloves.  You watched us.  I thought I could do it better.  He smelt of whisky, oak-barrelled, aged.  It was a scent of home, made strange by the Scottish wind.

Whisky and Old Spice.  The scent still lingers.

The man on the boat had soft eyes and a Scottish lilt but he cared about my hands even if his own were shaking.

“Someone drove their car off the ferry into the loch.”

Your tone was matter-of-fact.  You didn’t shield me.  Country people understand impermanence.  Perhaps I wondered why anyone would do that, or how sad they must have been.  Now, I would consider their family, left behind to remake a thing that was broken.  All I remember though, is the wind and the rain and the kind Scottish eyes smiling at me.

I still watch buzzards from my window, soaring above the arable land, calling to each other in the wind as they ride the updrafts.  I tell myself that they find joy in flight but I can’t really understand them.  We are all strangers.

 

The night the monsters came, wind lashed the windows, firing raindrops at them like bullets.  I had never learnt to tame my hair.  Strands stuck to my cheeks, channelling salty rivulets that I had carried across miles and years from that windy shoreline.  You told me they didn’t exist.  You lifted the covers and peered into the darkness for me.  That night, I stood in a doorway, afraid to look back.  I never realised that the monsters were coming for you.

My house on the hill is only a mile away from that doorway as the crow flies.  In other ways, it’s a lifetime.  I can no longer remember what it felt like before, when that house was my home and I trusted its walls to keep out the storm.  It has been remade.  The bricks are fragile.

Staring at the horizon now, I can see a young girl standing on the bottom step, peering round the corner.  She can smell the chilli her mother is busy cooking in the galley kitchen at the back of the house.  A hint of a smile touches her face as she looks at her father in his chair by the fire.  Something in his expression though, tells her that this isn’t his idea of a crazy joke.  Her mum drops the spoon.

“Call the doctor! Now!”

As she turns the dial on the now old-fashioned phone, her fingers are suddenly much larger than those that tapped out phrases on the old mechanical typewriter, she repeats in her head the words she will say when the phone is answered.  The phone isn’t answered.  Her fat fingers have failed to dial true and she is met only with the incessant monotone of a dead call.  A hand takes the phone away and she is relieved.  It isn’t her responsibility anymore.  She shrinks back and becomes a child again.  Only she will never be a child again.

I can’t place the moment when I began to see this in the third person.  For years, I lived in first person. Screen memories.  My smile.  His face.  The scent of onions.  A dial tone.  It was the 1980s and, in those days, children remade themselves, block by block, piece by piece, brick by brick.  I remade myself with bricks formed from words that I had inherited from someone who no longer had use for them.  The old typewriter has now been replaced with a modern laptop, somehow though the light touch of fingertip to symbol feels like I am giving words away too cheaply.  I miss the solidity.  The sense of permanence.  In the second decade of the new millennium, I am still patching old holes with new bricks.

Gazing out across the hills from my window, I convince myself if I look back hard enough, I can see the sea, denying the impossibility.  I know though, that somewhere on a windy coastline, alone in the dark, the Biggest Ice Cream in the World lies half-buried on a shingle shore, and I hold the echo of your palm in mine.

Original Soundtrack (Redux)

In the wake of Prince’s demise this week, I’ve been dwelling on the importance of music as an accompaniment to life.  It still amazes me that I have important memories that are intimately tied to Prince’s music from the time I was not much older than my nearly-9 year old daughter is now to the nearly-45 year old I am.  I lament the fact that there’s really no-one in the musical landscape that my daughter inhabits that will have that influence or staying power.  It seemed like a good time to repost something I wrote a while ago that sums up the importance of music to me.

Words on a page don’t do justice to memories. When I peer backwards into my past, there’s a soundtrack. Music and memory are intimately entwined and the link is visceral. The tune, the lyrics, the era – for each person a different catalyst but the physical jolt that occurs years after when a song insinuates itself into your consciousness from a distant radio broadcast or a car passing by as you walk is common to us all, bringing the past so close you can taste it. They are the moments that shaped us and the soundtrack that accompanied them is integral.

Before I became a ‘responsible’ parent, I used to be a ‘girl who gigs’. Live music nourishes me. When I listen to ‘This is the Sea’ by The Waterboys, I’m thirteen again, once again living the moment when this lifetime love affair began. Simple Minds playing at Milton Keynes Bowl – I can feel the butterflies in my stomach even now. It was my first live gig and, even though it was quite obvious that I would die if I didn’t get tickets to go, my Mum couldn’t find the money to pay a small fortune in concert ticket capital. I have never been daunted by circumstance, even at thirteen, and I decided to put my skills to work and earn my ticket (OK, so I filled in a crossword and won them but I have word skills not car cleaning skills). 1986. The year of yellow pastel fishtail skirts, white stilettos and the realisation that a great band can sell themselves to you on an amazing live performance. They weren’t even the headliners but the moment they took to the stage, my life changed in a profound way. I stalked this album after the concert – Saturday afternoons in the local record store avariciously caressing the vinyl dust jacket. The skirt and the shoes were retired – denim and black was now my de facto uniform.

1987 sees a different girl pass under the Wembley lions, clutching a golden ticket, bootleg gig t-shirt casually arranged over her ripped 501s, drawn to her Mecca to see U2 play their Joshua Tree concert. The uncertain steps of the previous year are replaced by a confident saunter as she appraises the ticket touts and merchandising stalls that line the route. Even though my O-levels began that Monday, it never occurred to me that I should be anywhere else. Two and a half decades later, I don’t even remember the exams I sat that Monday but the opening bars of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ transport me back to the Stadium that day. It’s not Bono that I remember so clearly, for all his musical prowess, but the wheelchair-bound man at the back of the pitch, scooped up in the arms of his friend, dancing, lost in the music. I learnt that great music can make you less earthbound, that you can be freed from limitations by a sequence of notes.

The eighties passed but I carried this lesson with me long after the print had been washed off the t-shirts and the jeans had been folded away, replaced by tie-dyed trousers and beaded hair. The early 90s were a bittersweet time of transition, the scar left by the incision made when we left school behind still raw as the brilliance of future possibilities lit the touch-paper that ignited us and sent us skywards to explore the world. Lives are tied to moments that change our paths forever. ‘Under the Bridge’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers brings me back to one of those pivotal times, even now forcing a tightness into my throat as I relive the sadness of the passing of an era. The smell of wood smoke from the log fire in our living room and the grainy odour of malt whiskey in a crystal glass surrounded by a group of friends, mourning the passing of childhood. This was the last time we sat together as allies without the complications of partners, a widening network of friends and a lot of mileage between us. It was the reason I packed this album when I set off around South East Asia later that year, the reason it now has more associations than merely teen-angst, why I now hear it and see children playing with machetes outside a shack in a hill-tribe village in the Golden Triangle north of Chiang-Mai. I had learnt how to fly and the music lifted me.

Everything that takes to the air eventually has to become grounded again and I returned to earth accompanied by the Pearl Jam album ‘Ten’, but it was a colder, harder Eastern European earth on which I landed. November 1st, the ‘Day of the Dead’, nostrils seared by the cold and saturated by the scent of hot wax from the candles that lit the graveyards brighter than any neon could. November in Warsaw is the kind of cold that steals your breath away – Pearl Jam playing live at the Towar arena is the kind of performance that steals your breath away. My future husband and I watched them play the songs that had defined the past 5 years of my life – university, upheaval, the working world, all of these were encapsulated by Eddie Vedder’s rendition of ‘Alive’. As I relived my history, I also forged a new history. As much as the songs then reminded me of the years before, so now I am removed to that cold, cold night asleep on a bench at Warszawa Centralna station surrounded by prostitutes and drunkards, the underbelly of a post-Communist state that few have the opportunity to witness.

This is the mix-tape of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be the same person typing here today and even as I do, I am adding to the playlist – new songs, new memories. As Eddie Vedder sang over a decade ago, ‘I’m still alive’.

Tracks in the Snow

Tracks in the Snow

It snowed in the night.  While we were sleeping, it snuck up on us as the world held its breath.  We woke to a new monochrome morning, the air electric with the possibility of a day unspoilt.  There’s something regenerative about a covering of snow – somehow it erases yesterday, leaving a fresh canvas to mark with tracks.  And tracks there were.  A polka-dotted trail of prints left by our soft-hearted, firm pawed, slightly dimwitted tomcat as he had earlier forged a path across the roof, off to carry out his daily inspection of his extensive lands.

This time last year, BMO and his sister Bellatrix (Trixie) were gracious enough to decide that we have the privilege of being their humans.  “BeeMo” was the result of an 8 year old’s naming decision, the culmination of a fortnight spent compiling a flip chart of potential identities for the tiny black ball of chaos and his sister, rescued from the streets and adopted with glee by us all, condemned as we had been to a temporary feline hiatus.  Since then, BMO and his 8 year old have been inextricably linked by a combination of dogged persistence (the 8 year old), inexhaustible patience (the cat) and Dreamies (also known as ‘cat crack’).

This time last year, it was easy.  BMO was a tiny black ball of crazy with no interest in the outdoors, happy sleeping between us on the pillows at night.  This year though, he’s started to wander further afield.  First came the late nights, although I convinced myself that was just because he was ignoring the call and hiding out in the garage or the orchard.  Then last week, I spotted our practically-challenged black devil at the bottom of the hill.  Quite definitely not in the garage or the orchard and quite obviously most comfortable with that eventuality.  I resisted the urge to bolt out of the car, scoop him up and lock him inside forever.  He’s not an ‘inside-cat’ after all, and to restrict him for protection would, by equal measure, diminish him.  Besides, knowing the great big gallumping oaf, ill could just as easily befall him in the confines of home … he has been known to fall off things and run into doors.  Even if that isn’t his destiny, I was moved to ask myself what I was protecting him from.  So instead, I drove on and waited on tenter hooks until his eager face appeared at the bedroom window, much to my relief.

This morning though, on a day so full of possibilities, he had left us tracks.  Tracks that beckoned seductively, whispering, ‘Follow us’.

This was how we had ended up here, gazing downwards on a snow-covered road, bedecked in all manner of thermally-assistive clothing, following the siren’s call of the little black indentations in the snow.  Tracking something is a strange mix of meditation and serendipity.  Before long, we had fractionated, the 8 year old lured away by pheasant tracks, the loping traces of a rabbit and once, the memory of a fox in the crystalline carpet.  I stuck with BMO though, eager to see if following the ghost of his passing could give me insight into the life he had that was no longer mine.  He zig-zagged, marking his territory with a capricious freedom, drifting from one interest to another until I lost his tracks under a hedgerow in a patch of meltwater where his world became private once more.

I turned around to call back to everyone, to tell them that we’d followed as far as we could, that we’d have to let him go here into his own world.  In that instant, as I looked back up the hill towards a small child bundled up in brightly coloured woollens, scooping up snow with abandon and launching it skywards with a cry of delight, I realised it wasn’t really the cat I was tracking.

I read somewhere recently, that having a child is like taking one of your vital organs out and letting it live on the outside, spending the rest of your life with a deep-rooted fear for it as it will always be integral to your survival.  That resonated.  Just as the cat spread his paws and outgrew the garden, so too will his 8 year old.  In September, there will be new schools and new challenges, buses, distance and freedom.  We are not raising an ‘inside-child’.  BMO needs the sights, scents and secrets of the outdoor world and our daughter needs no less.

Looking back along the path we’ve walked, there’s another set of tracks interspersed with the prints that have led us this far, those of a small person stepping out in the world.  Maybe one day, these will be what we have to follow.  But not this morning.  This morning I scoop up my own handful of possibilities, run back up the hill and throw it high with laughter.

The Anti-Valentine

IMG_1454A day late but I offer up a character study in honour of the most pointlessly commercial day of the year.  It stemmed from a tweet that Jonathan Carroll (@jscarroll) that mentioned the word ‘philematologist’ and I ran from there.  If you’re interested in off-beat, interesting quotes, pictures and links, I can strongly recommend following Jonathan Carroll on Twitter.  If you haven’t read any of his books, I suggest dipping in to ‘Land of Laughs’.

The Philematologist

He called himself a philematologist and for years had moved from girl to girl, formalising his investigation into the power of a kiss.  Tentative first touches that sneaked hesitantly towards each other, unsure of their reception, inhibited by over-analysis.  Shy and unobtrusive, they hid from their full potential.  Then there were embraces that obeyed the laws of physics, tumbling into each other like opposing forces and billowing upwards, a mushroom cloud demolishing everything in their way, toxic particles settling like dust to wreak destruction years from the moment.  Kisses filled with warmth, the comforting scent of a freshly baked muffin on the air, a crisp surface which he gently broke with his lips to reveal a warm, fragrant interior.  He studied kisses of the evening, fruity and tannin-filled.  He chased down kisses of the morning, the scent of dew on crisp air, brief clouds of breath escaping.  Winter trysts, diamond-like snow crystals forming a fragile crust which breaks under pressure to reveal a cold underbelly.  His favourites were the kisses of spring – young and green, they grew like buds burgeoning and straining until they unfurled, fresh and new, untouched.  The kisses of springtime held the potential, unrealised, of great passions and wild affairs.  He called himself a philematologist but she just called him ‘husband’, flawed and damaged but her own cross to bear.

The Landscape of Literature

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In wild places, I find it easier to breathe.  For some people the warmth of city concrete, sustained by the energy of a thousand footfalls, feeds their needs but for me it is wild places.  I can write in wild places.  It gives me the space to hear my thoughts without competition from life.  I think this is why I am so attracted to literature where landscape is brought alive and allowed to sing.

Two of my favourite books are ones where landscape plays a strong role in defining the atmosphere of the story.  A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (reviewed here) is Norman Maclean’s retelling of the events of the summer of 1937, the last summer his family spends together intact before a tragic event that forever marks them.  I grew up in rural England, among boys who fished so I have an affinity for those who treat it like a religion, although all I remember of it was the odd dingy afternoon alongside an English canal, spent with little enthusiasm for the task at hand.  I can imagine, though, how different it would be in the wilds of Montana in a bygone age.  This is eased by Maclean’s beautiful prose.  Whilst the story is very much centred on the family themselves, the landscape they live in is inseparable and this is conveyed so well.

The second novel, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (reviewed here) is a contemporary novel but one that has an equally well-envisaged landscape – this time small community life in the mountains of North Carolina.  Cash, much like Maclean, manages to effortlessly recreate the landscape of his home region and in it, finds a home for the cast of characters who seem to have lived there for generations although we only enter their world for a short time.  The similarities to Maclean’s work are not obvious but they are there nonetheless.  Both these novels deal with issues of religion but in completely different ways.  As an agnostic scientist who borders on atheist but for the fact that I apply scientific method and norms even to my non-belief, I wonder why so often religion in literature pairs so well with landscape.  Certainly, it is tempting to marry internal and external landscapes in a novel and wild places have a grandeur that lends itself to religious comparison.  The wild can bring a sense of peace.  I don’t link this with religious serenity but I can understand that others may and this could explain the subconscious linkage that occurs so often in writing.

Finding a really well-written landscape in a novel is a rarity.  Finding a novelist whose connection with a place is so strong that it enables them to bring it to life without artifice in a text is like discovering diamonds in a kimberlite deposit; a first novel like A Land More Kind Than Home has marked Wiley Cash as a rich vein of language that I want to mine deeper.  For Maclean, unfortunately, the stock of writing is finite – he died in 1990 leaving  very little more than the pieces in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.  I think to truly write a landscape, to paint with your pen that which others craft with oils and brushes on canvas, an author has to love the landscape unconditionally.  Much like a parent and child, a strong connection with the land can be an unconditional bond that nourishes and supports you.  Those that understand that have the ability to see beyond the conventional wisdoms of society, freeing them to use language inventively to express this to readers.  Often there is a musicality about the language of landscape – a balance and sense of rightness that defies criticism.  These authors frequently translate this ability to vivid descriptions of the internal landscape of their characters, bringing them alive with great skill.

Finding wild places isn’t always easy.  They disappear between the demands of a working life and it is all too easy to forget to take the time to rediscover them – hidden, sometimes, in the overgrown corner of a village garden or flying with a pair of kites over an exposed ridge on a crisp autumn morning with a frost on the air.  I will always be grateful to the Landscape of Literature for reminding me they are there.

‘In Memory of the Children of the Ghetto’

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I’ve added this week’s Featured Story,In Memory of the Children of the Ghetto and I wanted to share some of the inspiration behind the story.

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The Lodz ghetto was a very real, very brutal place.  If you are interested in the history of the ghetto, I strongly suggest that you Google it as there are sites that can fill you in on the history of the place with far more skill and detail than I can.  I love Lodz.  I lived there for a number of years and we have family that still live there so we return as often as time and money allows.  The station in the story is a very real memorial place.  It is nestled in the centre of a functional city area and has been made into a very moving memorial museum.  It steals up on you because you’re lulled by the pedestrian nature of the surrounding buildings.  Suddenly the enormity of what happened here during WWII is so apparent because these atrocities were also exacted in a pedestrian background of wartime ‘normality’.

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The branch track is abandoned now and the last time I visited, it was thick with summer flowers.  I am always struck by the loneliness of railway tracks but these tracks seem more isolated, despite the yellow and white blooms between the wooden sleepers.  It’s as if the thousands of names that are listed in the original transport rosters in the small museum are standing guard, unwilling to permit these tracks to reconnect with the modern city.

It is hard to explain the atmosphere of the place.  I think there is a memory of the people who passed through on their way to the death camps that somehow scars the air.  By far the most poignant of the many memorials that adorn the walls, is a black, rectangular plaque mounted on the side wall that simply says ‘In memory of the children of the ghetto‘.  Out of respect, the black stone is polished to mirror-like standard and as you look at the words that are carved there and think about what it really means, what the reality of those words was for the children who lived in Lodz at that time, they are superimposed on your reflection as if acknowledging that they have stamped their indelible mark on you.

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This is the place that has been trying to find its way into a story for a long while.  It took a simple prompt to open the path.