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How I Work

It’s one of the questions that all published writers are most frequently asked: how do you work? What is your daily routine? When do you have a break for coffee, wine, sleep, sex, and DVD box sets? And it’s a very fair and wholly understandable question, because being-an-author is cagily mysterious and intriguingly opaque to most non-writers: who often have a 9-5 routine handed to them, for good or ill.

But it ain’t just the mystique that motivates this curiosity. Another reason people ask the question is, I think, a form of jealousy – they envy what they see as the leisured freedom of the writer. They envy “the sh*t in his shuttered chateau, who does his 500 words” – as Philip Larkin put it (Larkin was an impoverished poet, forced to work in a library by day, so he envied his richer, professional, novel-writing friends, like Kingsley Amis).

So here’s my routine. In the early stages of a book, I do act like the kind of writer that irked Philip Larkin. I get up at about 9.30-10am, have oodles of coffee, and then go straight to it. Straight to the desk.

Then there’s an almighty, Wagnerian struggle not to spend five hours on the internet (a war I sadly lose, at least twice a week). If I do manage to avoid Twitter, Facebook, obscure online arguments, and that video of a dog rescued from a tornado in Oklahoma, I then go to work, and I write hard and solidly for about…. Two or three hours. Then I knock off, and do other stuff. Swim, walk, chat. Sleep.

I know, I know. Two hours! That’s my working day. At first. And I do two or three hours (at most) because that’s all the creative time and energy I have in my brain, to conjure things ex nihilo, to make stuff  up – character, dialogue, plot, setting, weird creepy children – from absolutely nothing.

It sounds ludicrously short, but the funny thing is I am not alone in this routine. Lots of other fiction writers have reported that all they can manage is two or three hours of imaginative creation, then they collapse backwards on to the chaise longue, like the spent and semelparous salmon, dying in the shallows of his Alaskan stream. Roald Dahl, for instance, famously said: “Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people.”

Some analysts actually believe there is a “two hour rule” – trying to write first draft original fiction for longer than that is futile. See here:

OK, so now you are jealous. But let me reassure you. Those two-three hours can be quite exhausting. Sometimes I literally slump forward at my desk, head rested on the laptop, which I have hopefully closed. Other times there is an enormous urge, at the end of that shift, to be a bit daft – to get very drunk or indulge/reward yourself in some other way. If I’m feeling like I’ve done really good work I will award myself a couple of glasses of wine. At lunch. Or maybe before.

Sounds bad. But you know what? – I’m a lightweight. Many other writers were way more hedonistic, or idiotic (take your pick). F Scott Fitzgerald gargled neat gin from lunch to supper. William Faulkner preferred whiskey. By contrast, Marcel Proust inhaled opium-based powders and adored caffeine tablets (though he supposedly survived, food-wise, on a total of one croissant every 18 hours).

And it goes on. Balzac was definitely your coffee kind of guy – he sank 60 cups a day. Samuel Beckett slurped red wine every night til 5am. The Italian poet d’Annunzio had cocaine-fuelled orgies. Graham Greene was a Benzedrine addict. Truman Capote devoured any pill he could get his hands on. James Joyce would visit a brothel.

That’s why I’m sticking with my two glasses of wine. Doesn’t seem so bad, when you read the daily routines of the greats.

But enough of the bad artistic habits: what happens later in the writing-process, when it comes to the multiple rewrites, the myriad redrafts, the endless copy-edits and proof-edits? This is when it gets way tougher, at least in terms of time utilised. During the most intense period of editing, I can sometimes work for 16 hours in one day. Then again the next day. Then the next. At times I’ve worked so hard I’ve knackered my immune system and ended up with really quite nasty bugs.

And then, at the end of it, you get your reward, a book which probably doesn’t quite match the original conception, a book which, perhaps, very slightly disappoints you, but heck – you’ve WRITTEN A BOOK! That’s the time to properly crack open the champagne. Even if it’s not Ulysses, you’ve achieved something quite rare. Every writer should indulge herself at that moment.

Because, the very next day, you’ve got to wake up and have a brilliant new idea. And that’s the hardest task of all.

Mysterious Dartmoor

A Weekend in Dartmoor

S K Tremayne

I’m lost. I’m standing on a sunlit slope of ochre grass, surrounded by endless, identical, gently rolling hills, and I haven’t a clue which way to go. To make it worse, I thought I knew the route: I’m headed for a pair of stone circles, Grey Wethers, in the remote north-east of Dartmoor, and I’ve been here several times before: I know I have to park my car in tiny Frenchbeer, march through the pines of Fernworthy Forest, then trek west across the sedge….

Fishing in my pocket, I pull out my phone. No signal, no GPS. Still lost.

This is annoying, this is also, in its way, rather perfect. I’ve recently written a thriller set on Dartmoor – Just Before I Died – and one of the reasons I chose Dartmoor is precisely because it is one of the very, very few places in England where you can still get truly, scarily lost – in authentic wilderness. A second reason is that Dartmoor is generously stuffed with sinister legends, dangerous mires, terrifying history, rumours of witchcraft, and it boasts a uniquely daunting topography, with its dramatic granite peaks, called tors (from the Celtic for “towers”).

I’m not making it sound very inviting, am I? If so, don’t worry, there is a third reason to come here for a weekend, besides austere grandeur, and haunted pubs. For all its challenges, Dartmoor is often exceptionally pretty. It is also home to some of Britain’s best hotels and restaurants.

And now, at last, I’ve found Grey Wethers, with a final sweep of my binoculars. Yomping through the swampiness, I approach the faintly melancholic, delicately twinned, 4000 year old stone circles, sleeping in their silence under the sun.

It’s a classic Dartmoor moment. As I stand here, I sense the isolation: the mile after mile of nothing, all around: no one to be seen, nothing to be done. All I can hear is the whirr and murmur of insects, maybe the trill of a stream. That, and the always moving clouds, and my own beating heart.

Also, a rumbling stomach. It’s time to eat and drink, and I know just the place. Hiking back to the car I navigate the fiendishly narrow roads and bridges (built for wild Dartmoor ponies to pass, not two BMWs), and rock up the looooong drive to one of my favourite hotels in the world, Gidleigh Park, near the sweet, chic, bohemian little town of Chagford.

What is it that makes Gidleigh so special? Is it the luscious chunk of river-running woodland at the back, which leads directly up to sacred Kes Tor, and the wistful stone circle of Scorhill? Is it the magnificent view from the main terrace, down a cradling green valley, over the croquet lawn? Maybe it is the remarkable wine list, and the revered kitchen. Famous chefs like Michael Caine and Michael Wignall have worked here (acquiring two Michelin stars on the way), new guy Chris Simpson (previously under Nathan Outlaw) is determined to match their standards.

After a very good night’s sleep (a day of Dartmoor air, and an evening of excellent Rioja, make a great knockout pill) I head for a very different destination, The Two Bridges Hotel, at the wild throbbing heart of the moor. Rambling, dilapidated, splendidly atmospheric, full of ticking grandfather clocks, great gins (try the Salcombe), and dead pheasants in vitrines, this is an excellent place to base yourself for a Dartmoor break, especially if you want something a little cheaper.

My intention is not to sleep: I’m doing the much-loved three hour there-and-back hike (which begins at Two Bridges), to Wistman’s Wood, a miraculous but deeply spooky remnant of primordial, 10,000 year old oak-forest. Over the centuries, Dartmoor’s brutal climate has turned Wistman’s tangled trees into gnarled, arthritic, moss-hung apparitions, their branches clutching the air in a near humanlike way. It’s no surprise the word Wistman derives from “whisht” – meaning “uncanny, eerie, full of pixies”. Brrrr. It’s a great place to bring kids (they love to climb the boulders, and shiver at the ghost stories) then haul them back to the Two Bridges for a lash-up Devonshire cream tea. Bliss.

I’ve got one more night on the moor. I could stay at splendid Bovey Castle, with its golf course, great grub, excellent martinis and its Valhalla meets PG Wodehouse ambience – and its perfect location for famed Dartmoor sights like Haytor (a must-climb) and Dartmeet (have a picnic where the rivers twain!) but my thriller-writing heart is pulling me west, through some of Dartmoor’s darker places.
First, Princetown, surely the grimmest settlement in Britain, with its endless crawling fogs and brooding Georgian prison, which lours over everything, like the mad black castle of a despot on a hill. You might not want to linger, but everyone should see Princetown – once.

Onwards, and the road brings me to Merrivale. The cheerful name belies the sinister truth. Surrounded by classic Dartmoor bleakscape, Merrivale is a wistful row of Neolithic megaliths, with a so-called kistvaen (a stone chest where corpses were interred, possibly after human sacrifice). During the Black Death Merrivale was also known as Plague Market. Why? Because infected people on the coast came up to take food left by uninfected people on the moor. The lowlanders left gold coins in vinegar, as payment, hoping not to spread the germs. Everyone died, anyway.

And now I’m done. I’d like to spend a week here (there’s so much more to see, from legend-filled Lydford Gorge, to exquisite Widecombe, to the tranquil waters of Lake Burrator) but I have a night in maybe the best value hotel in the UK. Boringdon Hall, where the moorland descends to the grey suburbs of Plymouth.

Boringdon has five Stars. It’s also a genuine Elizabethan manor, visited by Queen Bess herself. It even has a minstrel’s gallery, where they serve delicious, inventive food. Best of all it has a world class spa, where you can sit outside in the hot tub, watching the dying summer twilight over the tors. The moorland people have a delightful word for this special light. Dimmity.

So there you are, that’s Dartmoor in one weekend. Now come see it for yourself; I promise it isn’t that scary.

St Agnes to St Mawes: the Epic Minescapes of West Cornwall

The cowslips are out by Jericho Cottage, the forget-me-nots glow in the hedgerows of Trewartha. It’s a perfect late Spring day, and as I amble down the exquisite, tumbling-stream valley of Trevellas Coombe, towards the distant Atlantic, it’s difficult for me to believe this snoozing corner of west Cornwall has been anything but lovely, remote, and serene.

Another hundred yards shows me that this is an illusion. Suddenly the trees surrender to slopes of scree, and I am surrounded by gaunt and ivy-clad ruins, random chimneys and haphazard spoil-heaps. The tallest and noblest of these derelictions are the engine houses. Featured in many backdrops of the TV series Poldark (whose second season begins next week) these structures were raised to shelter enormous pumps and wheels: used for winching men underground.

Because this is – or was – mining country.

A hundred and fifty years ago this part of Cornwall was exactly the opposite of “serene”. It was one of the noisiest, most industrious places on earth, producing half the world’s tin and most of the world’s copper. It was a place of suffering and strife, of arsenic pits and fierce poverty, a place where ten-year-old girls – barefoot “bal maidens” – hammered ore-bearing rocks in the open air, a land where thousands of men died before they reached 40.

Clearly, touristic West Cornwall sounds less appealing, when you describe it like that – as a post-industrial landscape par excellence. After all, people flock to England’s gilded southwest for cream teas and gnarly surf breaks, for the fishing villages and Poldark and Cornwall’s fashionable new restaurants. They don’t want to hear about young boys working in tunnels. And yet, if you follow the epic, UNESCO-listed heritage of Cornish mining, around this coast, from St Agnes to St Mawes, via Zennor and Penzance, it can take you to some of Cornwall’s finest yet least-known landscapes. And you still get to visit pretty hamlets, and eat the freshest scallops.

So that’s what I am doing; and this will be a rather personal journey. Because many of my Cornish ancestors worked these pits. In fact, my grandmother Annie Jory was a bal maiden in these same clifftop mines of Trevellas. Now I’ve written about this brutally unique mining heritage, in a novel – The Fire Child – published this summer. So I am revisiting the grandeur.

And what grandeur it is. A short hike eastwards, up the sea-pinked, bluebelled cliffs, towards Porthcurno – and the view opens out. Gazing west, I can see right along the coast, from charmingly scruffy, boozily bohemian St Agnes, past the Romanesque arches of Wheal Coates tin mine, high above Chapel Porth (great for surfing), to the wide golden arc of Hayle sands, shimmering in the afternoon sun.

It’s time to return to my hotel, Rose-in-Vale, lost in its dappled gardens, there to eat some razor clams and chorizo, washed down by Tribute, a crisp and delicious pale ale, brewed in St Austell. The name “Tribute” comes from the Tributers: the freelance miners who risked their necks for a slice of mining profits.

Next morning, I wake to more blazing Spring sunshine. I’m heading to Carbis Bay, with its laid-back beach cafés, rather chic hotels, and Celto-Ibizan buzz – and a gorgeous half-hour coastal walk into St Ives.

The footpath curves in and out of tamarisk woods, above coves of pale emerald sea-waters, and arrives at Porthminster Beach, in St Ives, where they’re having a food festival on the sands. It costs me two pounds to get in (“but you can come and go as much as you like”, says the smiley lady with the coins in her bucket, “don’t want you goin hungry, my lover”).

There’s little chance of my goin hungry. In recent decades Cornish food has undergone a splendid transformation: where once all was cod & chips and too many carbs, now you can’t move for craft beers and artisanal cheeses, Cornish perry and Knightor brut, and, of course, all that world-class seafood: Helford oysters, Fal River mussels, Coverack sea bass, Port Isaac lobsters.

Getting progressively happier (OK, progressively squiffier) I wander from stall to stall, sampling Tarquin’s Cornish gin, Katie’s Cornish hotpots, Polgoon’s Cornish Cider, Harding’s Cornish charcuterie, Emmental Cornish gin (or was it Tarquin’s again, I forget) and I end up watching Ping the 2014  Masterchef Champion show everyone how to cook tamarind, in an airy marquee, as the angled sun slants over Virginia Woolf’s beloved lighthouse: Godrevy.

Unsurprisingly, this day of indulgence earns me a hangover, but I know exactly how to sweat it off. By tackling the cobweb-clearing cliffs that begin just outside St Ives. The wild land of West Penwith.

If you want to understand Cornwall’s history, and how it intertwines with mining, you really must come here. For starters, Cornish metal extraction began on Penwith’s haunted coastal moors – with rudimentary tin streaming, sometime around 2000BC. The same men who flushed the glittering black tin, from the granite, also built the characteristic moorstone field-walls around Zennor village (with its brilliant pub, The Tinners – make sure you stop for lunch). These walls are possibly the world’s oldest human artefacts still being used for their original purpose.

The superlatives peak at Botallack. Comprising two engine houses perched spectacularly on a daunting cliffside, with tunnels that stretch for a mile under the roiling sea, Botallack’s twilight-of-the-Gods architecture has been attracting sightseers for 200 years.

One visitor, who came here in the heyday of tinning in the 1840s, describes how boats would sail up the night-time coast, and then drop anchor, to gaze in astonishment, at the sight of Botallack mine: blazing away without cease on the soaring cliffs.

It was, surely, one of the great spectacles of the early industrial world: the rising and falling beams of the fire-whims, the red-hot glare from boiler house doors, the never-ending crashing of the stamps. And then, most magnificent of all, the mighty fires of the smelting houses lit by fountains of molten metal, springing up fifteen feet into the midnight air, then splashing back into the basin, like majestic geysers of quicksilver.

Now, incredibly, all is quiet. As I stand here on the edge of the cliffs, the only sound is the drift of the sea, which sings its consolation to the ruins.

The day has turned cold, and maybe drizzly: it’s time to head round the Victorian chimneys and Neolithic tumuli of Cape Cornwall (much superior in grandeur to Land’s End), and make for the softer, southern coast. En route, I pass through salty, characterful Penzance – once the point of departure for 50,000 Cornish miners, who lit out for the world when their own mines went bust; I also get a glimpse of St Michael’s Mount, which is probably the Isle of Ictis: used for tin-trading by the Romans.

My final destination is Idle Rocks Hotel. One of the best new small hotels in Europe (with a restaurant to match), perfectly located above the dainty harbour of prosperous, yachty St Mawes, it seems a world away from the grisly tin trade – especially when you sit on the sun-blessed terrace and guzzle native oysters with silver ice-buckets of Cornish bubbly. Yet the history of Cornwall’s mineral riches has a part to play here, too.

Across St Mawes harbour lies St Anthony Head. On my last morning I walk the coastal path from St Anthony lighthouse, towards Place Manor (a private country house, right on the sea). The route is deeply inviting and agreeably quiet – copses of pine and oak gather around coves seemingly purpose-built for secretly amorous picnics. Then the path curves onto a tiny, sheltered beach.  The waves are mere whispers. A stillness prevails in the trees. I am alone with the statued herons.

It feels like a sacred place, and it is. Because this tiny beach is where, it is said, Jesus landed as a boy, with his Uncle: Joseph of Arimathea. After Jesus died, Joseph supposedly remembered this sweet Cornish strand, and returned, this time bearing the Grail, which he then transported across country to Glastonbury. This beach is, in other words, the cradle of the same ancient fairy story which inspired William Blake’s Jerusalem, and so many Grail legends.

Why would Joseph of Arimathea come here, even in legend? Because he was a tin trader – he came for the metal. Which really proves the point: even in its most romantic, important myths, tin is deeply woven into Cornwall’s history, it’s a crucial part of what makes Cornwall special, strange, compelling. Take the mining away, and Cornwall is diminished.

What’s more, as I make my way home along the cow-parsleyed lane, thinking of my grandmother Annie Jory, working as a barefoot girl amidst the fearsome mine-heads of Trevellas, it occurs to me that Cornwall is perhaps the first place in the world where a tormented, post-industrial landscape has finally become poetic, maybe even sublime. Which is surely something worth celebrating. Perhaps with Porthilly oysters, and Camel Valley wine.

The Strange World of Twins

Twins, especially identical twins, have fascinated humanity since the dawn of time. Sometimes twins are feared, sometimes twins are revered. Pre-colonial Brazilians thought twins were a product of adultery: often the mother of twins was executed. Some primitive African societies abhorred twins, because of the way multiple births resemble an animal’s litter; the unlucky children might be killed, the mother exiled.

Other cultures had more positive reactions to “identicals”. In Greek mythology, twins were the product of human intercourse with the gods: twins were therefore sacred. Ancient Slavs maintained that twins shared one special soul. The Yoruba of Nigeria were particularly obsessed, and believed that twins had magical powers, potentially bestowing health and happiness on a family.

Modern science has inherited this fascination. In 1875, Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin) published the first study on twin-ness, as a way of exploring heredity. His theories were embraced, and perverted, by the Nazis at Auschwitz. There they conducted cruel experiments on twins, in a fevered and doomed attempt to discern the “truth” of identicality. In recent years, kinder forms of science have studied twins, to broaden our knowledge of genetic traits, from intelligence to alcoholism (startling fact: if one identical twin has manic depression, the chances of the other suffering the same are about 60-80%).

And yet, despite all this interest, we remain mystified, emotionally and scientifically, by identicals. I know this because I recently spent a year researching a thriller, called The Ice Twins. And the deeper I dug the more I realised: we are only beginning to grasp how strange twins are, and, perhaps, quite why they interest the rest of us so much.

Take the vital question of identicality. Not all “monozygotic” twins (i.e. twins born from a single fertilised egg) are truly identical. Some are “mirror image” twins. This means that in one twin the hair might swirl clockwise, in the other twin, it will swirl anticlockwise: but it will swirl in exactly the same way. For one twin, the left side of the mouth might curve upwards, in the other twin, the right side of the mouth does precisely the same curve. This peculiar “looking glass effect” extends to the positioning of internal organs.

But many identicals are truly and purely identical, in ways we are still uncovering.

Obviously, identical twins share facial characteristics. And general size and body-shape. But they also share virtually identical DNA: meaning they are more closely related to each other than to anyone else, including their parents, or their own children. There are cases of twins being acquitted of crimes even when police have DNA evidence, proving that one twin is guilty. Because the twins share the same DNA, no one can be certain which of the twins has committed the crime.

And so it goes on. Identicals also share the same blood group, the same hormones, the same serum proteins; they are also alike in heart rate, blood pressure, brain waves, respiratory rate, and digestive process. They even breathe alike.

Such is the similarity of some identicals, hospitals commonly advise the parents to discreetly tattoo one twin, so that in future the children can be differentiated. Understandably, parents often refuse – believing they will be able to distinguish their twins as they age (not least, by dressing their kids differently). This, however, can be a mistake because twins often grow more identical over time (as their identical DNA asserts itself, following different levels of nourishment in the womb). And twins often end up being dressed in exactly the same clothes, anyway, lest one twin become jealous of the other getting “better” treatment.

Here we enter the peculiar world of twin psychology. Over recent decades, scientists like Thomas Bouchard (of the famous Minnesota Twin Research Center) have analysed the personalities of twins and discovered seriously uncanny facts.

Take the classic example of twins separated at birth. The extent to which they can echo each other in later life is breathtaking. One of my favourite cases is the separated twins who discovered, when reunited, that they both liked entering the sea, on beach holidays, by wading backwards up to their knees. Another, darker, example is the 72 year old twin brothers in Finland. In 2002 they were killed on their bicycles on the same road in northern Finland, in two accidents, just two hours apart.

Probably the most famous case of eerie identicality is that of Jim Lewis and Jim Springer. These identical American twins were separated when four weeks old, and adopted by different families in different parts of Ohio. When the Lewis-Springer twins were reunited at the age of 39, in 1979, they discovered that both of them were prone to biting their nails. Also, both of them suffered from tension headaches, both had worked as sheriff’s deputies, and both smoked Salem cigarettes. They also drove exactly the same kind of car and they both did serious woodworking in the garage.

And it didn’t end there. Both had been named James by their respective adoptive parents. Both of the twins had married twice. Both had married firstly to women named Linda, secondly to women named Betty. Both had produced sons named “James Allan”. Both had at one time owned dogs named Toy. And they both took their holidays at the very same beach in Florida.

Is this all down to genetics, and coincidence, and to similar environments in the womb? Scientifically speaking, it must be. Yet there are stories which could give a convinced materialist like Richard Dawkins pause for thought.

Some parents of twins have reported their children having identical dreams. Others recount twins suffering simultaneous pains, in the same part of the body. when only one twin is hurt. Doctors who observe twins in the womb have watched identicals do a strange kind of twin dance: the fetal twins come close to each other, face to face, then one of the twins makes a circle, and the other does the very same. It as if they are, in utero, telepathically aware of each other’s movements.

Even in grief twins possess an oddness which startles. Joan Woodward, in her study of twin bereavement (The Lone Twin) reports several striking examples of twin reaction to the death of a co-twin.

Some young twins simply do not believe the death, and continue to act as if the lost twin is alive (talking to the dead twin at breakfast, in a shared twin language, for instance). Other infant twins seem painfully confused as to whether their dead twin is really dead, because they keep seeing the living image of their dead sibling in the mirror, or in a reflecting window – when they see themselves, they see the sibling. By contrast, a few bereaved twin children deliberately seek out mirrors: to reassure themselves their dead twin lives on. They want to see the living ghost.

Other twins react differently still. Woodward records how some twins, following the death of a co-twin, take over their lost sibling’s characteristics, growing more like the twin that died, as if trying to make up for the loss by actually becoming the dead twin. One twin whose brother died at the age of 12 became so eerily like his dead sibling his parents were convinced he had the ‘spirit of his brother within him’. Another female twin who lost her sister was so grief-stricken she took her dead sister’s name, and abandoned her own.

These strange reactions, surrounding the deaths of identicals, can have affects beyond the twins themselves. During my research I came across one wholly remarkable example of twin confusion, following a death. It happened in California in the 1990s (though the details and names have been protected by authorities, for obvious reasons).

One day, driving off on holiday, the Andersons – father, mother and their twin daughters, Samantha and Katie – had a terrible crash. An ambulance was called and the victims were cut from the car. However, after reaching the hospital Samantha soon died, and Katie was left in a coma.

It was a horrific loss, but life had to go on. The family concentrated on their grieving, and with helping their surviving and hospitalised twin, Samantha, get over the death of Katie. A funeral for dead Katie was held at the local church.

And yet, as the surviving twin improved, the twins’ mother Sally found it strange that “Samantha” behaved so much like her dead sister “Katie”. Finally Sally studied her child’s birthmark very closely (the twins had similar but not identical birthmarks) and she realised a terrible mistake had been made – Katie had survived and Samantha had died. They had misidentified the dead twin. This realisation occurred two weeks after the accident and ten days after the funeral. The Andersons had therefore buried the “wrong” daughter. Now the dead daughter had come back to life. And the living daughter died all over again.

It was reading that extraordinary true life story – and all these other facts – that gave me the idea for a thriller. What would happen if the Andersons’ experience was repeated, but the family only discovered their error a year later? What ghostly consequences might ensue?

Whatever the answer: one thing I know for sure is that twins will continue to fascinate us, because they ask so many profound and unsettling questions. What is to be related? What is to be alone? When we are all so interlinked, can anybody be truly individual?

A Little Island Off Skye

My personal association with the beautiful, inaccessible tidal islet of Eilean Sionnach, just off Isle Ornsay in Skye, goes back to my own childhood. Though I didn’t know it at the time. And I certainly didn’t know that I would one day write a thriller set there (gently fictionalised as “Torran Island”).

To explain. I was seven years old, and my sister ten, when my mother took us to see a film called Ring of Bright Water. Released in the late 60s, this film is an adaptation of Scottish author Gavin Maxwell’s autobiographical classic, about a lonely man’s relationship with a wild otter. The movie starred Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers from the African lion epic Born Free.

Mostly, my sister and I loved this movie. We were thrilled by the playfulness of the otter. We delighted in the scenes where Mij the otter misbehaves: on a fight to London, on a night train to Scotland. Indeed we gurgled quite happily until the final scenes of the film, when, quite suddenly, Mij is killed by a labourer: sliced in half with a spade.

At this point, my sister and I stared at the cinema screen, stunned. When it became apparent Mij wasn’t coming back, that they really had just killed him, we started crying – big gulping sobs. My mum urgently hustled us out of the Odeon in Hereford, along with lots of other mothers with lots of other crying children, but outside, in the car, and all the way home, my sister and I continued to howl. We were wholly inconsolable. It took a good few days for us to calm down.

Yet I remained perplexed by the way the movie had affected me. It stuck in my mind the way few kids’ movies do.

Fast forward fifteen years. When I was 22 an older friend of mine told me she had bought a little tidal island off Skye, called Sionnach. Shortly afterwards, she invited me and a few mates to stay on her island, to row to the pub in Isle Ornsay, to fall in the freezing seas, to hunt for antlers on the silver beaches, and to wrestle with the lack of reliable electricity. Here’s a picture of us, looking ridiculously young, outside the cottage. I’m third from the right.

Naturally, we had a great time: we were all in our early 20s. Yet as the days went by I realised I was distantly troubled by Sionnach, it was touching me in an unexpected and disquieting way.

And that’s when I sat down at my friend’s bookshelves, by the big windows, gazing over the Sound of Sleat, and I saw a dozen titles by Gavin Maxwell, and it belatedly dawned on me: this was the real-life setting for Ring of Bright Water. Gavin Maxwell had once owned Sionnach itself (his big wooden bed was actually my temporary bed) and the place where he lived with the otter, Mij, was Sandaig Bay (“Camusfearna” in the book). Sandaig was just across the Sound  – actually visible from Sionnach on a good day.

It was the beginning of a mild but lifelong obsession with Sionnach, Maxwell, and the Hebrides. Over the course of many return visits to the Highlands and Islands, I pieced together Maxwell’s life, and tried to work out why his book – and the consequent movie – and the piercing beauty of the Hebrides – had such potency.

To put it as briefly as possible (if you want more information, see the excellent biography by Douglas Botting), Gavin Maxwell was a troubled man with a troubled background, a snobbish, boozy, charming, chain-smoking, manipulative, nihilistic, manic-depressive gay loner. A young man given to drunkenly racing his various sports cars at 150 mph.

What saved Maxwell was the war – and Maxwell’s love and understanding of the natural world. In 1940 Maxwell was made an officer in the Special Operations Executive, training agents in the remote but glorious Scottish peninsula of Knoydart. When the war ended, Maxwell opted to stay in this place he now loved so much: the inner Hebrides. He bought a boat, intended to hunt basking sharks off Soay, near Skye. The business failed, but it produced his first best-selling book, Harpoon at a Venture.

The slender blond aristocrat was now a literary celebrity, travelling the globe, writing about Morocco, Sicily, and Arabia. It was in the last place that Maxwell met the love of his life. A baby otter from the Iraqi marshlands, named Mijbil – ‘Mij’ for short. Capriciously, Maxwell opted to take the playful, wilful Mij from Basra to Cairo, then all the way to London and Scotland. It was this remarkable and hair-raising journey that became the famous scenes in the eventual movie.

Despite their mishaps, the pair safely attained their new home,  Sandaig Bay, just across from Eilean Sionnach – “Torran Island” in The Ice Twins.

Like Sionnach, Sandaig was devoid of electricity or telephones, and at least an hour’s hike from the next human being. Yet it was a paradise for otters. There was a waterfall at the back, two burns either side, a ribbon of rabbity dune, and a stretch of private coastline endowed with seals, eider ducks, rorqual whales, and lots of fish.

For one long, glorious Hebridean summer Gavin Maxwell lived totally alone with what was essentially a wild animal. This was not a human/pet relationship, but a friendship, a partnership, perhaps even a kind of love affair.

The eccentric idyll couldn’t last: human relationships intervened. In the spring of 1957, Maxwell was obliged by business to leave a friend alone at Sandaig with Mijbil. A few days later Maxwell’s friend, the poet Kathleen Raine, lost track of Mij. The wandering otter was killed by a roadmender that same afternoon.

In the years following Mijbil’s death, it is fair to say Gavin Maxwell fell out with Fate. Maxwell acquired more otters, but they turned on their keepers, attacking Maxwell’s friends, once almost fatally. In the early 1960s Maxwell took a wife, but there were no children. Soon after this awkwardly brief marriage, Maxwell crashed a car. The accident left him semi-crippled.

Even Maxwell’s literary success came at a cost. His account of life with Mij, Ring of Bright Water (the phrase came from a poem by Raine, a description of the burns that circled Sandaig) sold two million copies, making him the biggest selling author in the world.

But this fame meant fans, and fans meant that Sandaig’s once splendid isolation was compromised by endless visitors. The house at Sandaig burned down in October 1968: which is why Maxwell bought Sionnach. But he never had time to enjoy the cottage across the Sound, even though he described its location as being even more beautiful than Sandaig. A few months after the awful fire, the weary Maxwell yielded, with dignity, to lung cancer – aged 55. He lived just long enough to applaud the film adaptation of the famous book.

So what does this intense, and rather tragic life story say about Sionnach and the Inner Hebrides? How does it relate to the genesis of The Ice Twins?

Thirty years after visiting Sionnach with my boozy pals, I revisited it with my daughter Lucy. That’s us in the second photo, standing in the exact same place as the first photo.

By the time of that visit with Lucy, I had begun to understand the symbolic power behind Maxwell’s masculine yet lyrical prose. And this was because I was now a father: responsible for the happiness of a wild and beloved creature, my six year old daughter. I had, in other words, realised that Maxwell’s description of his remarkable, deeply personal relationship with the playful, liberated, funny, vulnerable, precious, untameable animal is a brilliant and perhaps unwitting allegory for any parent’s life with a swaddled newborn, an incomprehensible toddler, a feral infant. You look after this strange amazing creature, because you love them, because they mean everything to you, but in the end you have to let them go.

And there’s the second key. You have to let them go. At some point the child grows up, their marvellous unselfconsciousness departs, they become an adult. In Maxwell’s book this moment of necessary loss is represented as an actual death. Mij is killed.

That summer of 2012, when I played with Lucy in the rockpools of Sionnach, wondering how long she would remain so sweetly  innocent, so singularly enchanted by Nature (“Daddy Daddy there are crabs here, crabs!”) I realised that Ring of Bright Water was and is a new version of the Fall. It talks to us all, because we are all creatures in exile: we all yearn to stay in Eden, and then to be reunited in Eden.

Crucial to the power of Maxwell’s book is his choice of location. The Inner Hebrides have a very particular beauty: at once melancholy and sublime, lovely yet cruel. A paradise which always recedes from us, in the endless rains and fogs. Therefore an ideal backdrop to a tale of human loss, and forsaken happiness.

I vividly remember the last morning of that little holiday with my daughter. We had intended to stay five days, but we cut it to three. Despite the amazing beauty of Sionnach, its austerities had defeated us: the battering winds, the lack of proper electricity and phone lines, the water which tasted of salt, the saucepans which tasted of fish. At lowtide I yomped across the mudflats, and asked a friend to come and fetch us in his boat, to rescue my daughter and her mother with all our bags.

We were happy to leave Sionnach, yet deeply regretful at the same time. Paradise Lost. As my friend poled the boat from the little beach, into the cold clear waters, I looked back at the cottage under the lighthouse, and wondered how beautiful and horrible it must be in the depths of December.

At that moment I knew I would return to experience a winter week, alone in Sonniach. Because, at that same moment, I got the first sense of a story I could write. A tale of domestic tragedy, and parental guilt, and potential ghostliness. Faintly discerned through a freezing mist.

Plotting Is All

Whenever I’m struggling with some writing, I like to read how great writers really struggled with writing. And one of my favourite examples is P G Wodehouse. Because, if you read Wodehouse’s immortal books, it all seems so effortless and blithe, so seamless and easy, and yet that wasn’t the case. Wodehouse sometimes struggled with his craft, and he always struggled with creating plot.

Incredibly, Wodehouse would often take two years to get a plot right; once he had had it nailed down, he would do the actual writing, which took mere months. But he laboured on those plots, because he knew that plot is everything. Get the story right, and the world will beat a path to your door.

This is not, however, what we are taught as students; it’s not what I learned when I was growing up. In lecture halls and schoolrooms – and when it comes to esteemed literary prizes – the emphasis is on fine writing and polished prose, on elegance and experiment. If anything, plot is actively looked down upon, as a gimmick and a trick, suitable for thrillers and kids’ books.

Why is this? I think it might be something to do with literary Modernism. In the past, great novelists were unashamed to use the most rip-roaring plots. If you take apart Pride and Prejudice, say, there is a brilliantly devious plot, whirring away beneath the exquisite prose. Pride and Prejudice is almost a thriller in its pacing, as the true personality of Darcy is teasingly revealed to the reader. Every sentence advances the delicious narrative. This is surely why it is one of the most beloved books of all time.

And it’s not just Jane Austen. From Dickens to Tolstoy to Hardy – they all had stirring plots to match their memorable characters or imperious perspectives. But then, around 1920, Joyce and Proust came along, and suddenly telling a tale became infra dig. Almost indecent.

Of course, if you are a genius modernist like James Joyce, not having a plot doesn’t really matter. Ulysses is a great novel, despite its lack of story. But vanishingly few people can write like James Joyce, and, moreover, readers still like plots, and still want them. There is a universal human craving for story, which plotless fiction cannot satisfy. This dislocation between readerly desires and literary delusions bedevils us to this day.

Nor am I excepting myself from this delusion. For many years, I also looked down on plot, like an idiot. And then the doubts crept up. I began to wonder why I wasn’t enjoying much-lauded novels. Why I preferred to watch TV drama series.

It was around this time that I read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Everyone with a Phd was telling me how awful this book was, how the prose was laughable, and the dialogue lamentable. But its success piqued my curiosity, so I picked it up, and – cliche of cliches – I couldn’t put it down.

Sure, the prose was a little wooden, and the love interest unconvincing, but what the hell: the plot just sang. It was superbly constructed, and splendidly accomplished. In terms of story-telling, it was, and is, a masterpiece. Better than lots of acclaimed novels I had abandoned, in a state of irritated mystification.

So that was my epiphany. That’s when I realised I wanted to tell stories, not write sentences. But that was also the beginning of my troubles. Because it is quite easy to write nice sentences, and yet, as Wodehouse knew all-too-well, it is bloody difficult to construct a decent plot.

How to be scary: What I learned when writing The Ice Twins

How can a writer be scary? How can you evoke a sense of fear or menace with the printed word? It is, of course, the question all aspiring authors of a ghost story, or a psychological chiller, must ask themselves. And I was no different.

In the past – in my other books, written under different names – I have sought to entertain, or amuse, or maybe just to divert and inform. But when I sat down to write The Ice Twins I knew that I was seeking a very different reaction. I wanted my readers to be gripped, but frightened. I wanted to make the reader deliciously uncomfortable.

So how to do it? Truth be told, I had no idea. All I had was a location: a very real, very beautiful tidal island (closely associated with Scottish author Gavin “Ring of Bright Water” Maxwell) off the Sleat Peninsula in Skye. The island, owned by friends of mine for 30 years, which I have been visiting all my life, is tiny, remote, inaccessible for much of the day (thanks to those tides); it also boasts a lighthouse, ruined gardens, the odd dead seal on its little silver beaches, and a sturdy yet rundown cottage with a dodgy phone line and very unreliable electricity.

In short, it is the ideal, isolated location for something scary to happen. But what was going to happen on that island? And how could I charge it with literary menace?

The solution was plain. By way of education, I had to read all the classic “scary” novels and stories, to see what they could teach me.

And the first thing they taught me is that writing something sincerely scary is truly difficult. Probably as hard, or harder, as writing something that is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Too many of the supposedly “classic” chillers, thrillers and ghost stories turned out to be anything but fearsome. They were often well-crafted, some were masterpieces, but they didn’t send a shiver down my reading spine.

In the end I found just five novels and stories that gave me a frisson, and they each taught me something different.

First, The Monkey’s Paw. This is a classic Victorian ghost story, penned by the otherwise entirely obscure W W Jacobs. It concerns a noisome talisman, the severed monkey’s paw of the title, which allows the owner to make three wishes. And yet the wishes always turn out to be a curse: the owner pays a violent price for this gruesome magic charm. I won’t give away the plot, but suffice to say Jacobs invokes an atmosphere of total dread in just five pages. A phenomenal achievement.

From this story I learned the importance of having a creepy high concept at the heart of my book. Soon after that I alighted on my own concept: parents of a dead identical twin, who later realise they might have misidentified the twin that died. So which twin is still with them?

My next successful task was reading The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood, a celebrated short story from 1907. It taught me the importance of creating dark moods through small details of weather and landscape. I don’t mean the clichés of “a dark and stormy night” (though I do have one of those) but a more nuanced ambience of sadness and unease. Grey and wistful drizzle. Ominous but distant thunder. Boats floating alone and unmoored.

Luckily, my northern Scottish location pretty much insisted that I mention the weather. A lot. So including this was easy.

The third book that truly gave me a chill was The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s much-loved novella of an historic and rural haunting. From this I gleaned how crucial it is to keep the plot tight and twisty. Sometimes you have to throttle back on the spooky atmos, to keep the narrative racing.

My penultimate title was The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, which has now been made into two Hollywood movies (the initial 60s movie is marvellous; avoid the terrible 90s remake). Jackson’s skill was in creating subtly flaky, unreliable characters. I copied this shamelessly. As it disorientates the reader.

Finally, and fifthly, I read what, to my mind, is not just the greatest chiller of all, but one of the finest (and most underrated) novels of the 20th century: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty.

I’ve always loved the amazing movie made from this book, but I’d never read the original, best-selling novel before. When I did, I realised that much of the film’s Satanic energy comes directly from the novel. Blatty’s genius was to give his evil presence a personality. The demon possessing the little girl is a living, breathing character, with a dry wit, even a horrible charisma. And yet the demon is properly evil, nonetheless.

The Exorcist taught me that I had to personalise the sense of menace in my book, give the faintly sinister presence a believable human voice. That voice belongs, I hope, to the ice twins. As they finally melt, one into the other.

Did I succeed in writing a scary book? That’s for you to decide. But whatever your opinion, I heartily recommend you try The Exorcist. It really is that good.

My Grandmother: the Bal Maiden

Picture Cornwall, and what do you see? If you’re one of the millions of visitors the Duchy welcomes every year, you probably imagine clotted cream teas and winsome fishing villages, lush river valleys leading to wide golden beaches. If you’re one of the many fans of Poldark – and sexy Aidan Turner, and beautiful Demelza, and the wicked Warleggans (who all return to our TV screens this September) you probably add romantic gallops on stormy clifftops, and bare-chested gentry scything sunlit wheat.

But let me stop you there. Because those idyllic coves and seaside farms, those glamorously windswept moors, have a much darker story to tell, a story pretty much unparalleled in its grandeur and, sometimes, its horror. It’s the brutal history of Cornish hard rock mining – the lightly sketched backdrop to the Poldark saga.

I am Cornish, and I grew up surrounded by the faded memories of Cornish industry: uncles who knew all about metallurgy, great aunts who could talk knowledgeably of “the deads” (the spoil from a Cornish mine). But it was only when I properly researched the subject for a novel, The Fire Child, published this summer, that I realized the epic, terrifying scale of Cornwall’s metal-mining past, and the way it poignantly intertwines with my immediate family.

For an industry which only closed in the 1970s – when the last Cornish mines yielded to competition from Malaysia, and Australia – the tale of Cornish mining goes back a long time: all the way to the Bronze Age. On the drizzly moors of West Penwith, between St Ives and Land’s End, it is thought men were streaming tin as early as 2000BC.

Twenty centuries later, the Romans came, and they came specifically for tin. St Michael’s Mount, that picturesque adornment to many a Penzance postcard, is probably the fabled “Isle of Ictis”, mentioned by classical writers as a centre of the metal trade.

Even Jesus gets a look in. During Roman times, so the venerable legend goes, Joseph of Arimathea, Christ’s uncle, brought the young Jesus to Cornwall; the beach where they supposedly landed is just across the bay from yachty St Mawes. Why did they come here? Because Joseph of Arimathea was a tin trader. This is the same legend, of Jesus in England, which later inspired Blake’s poem Jerusalem, and, in effect, all the Arthurian grail myths.

After the Romans, and Jesus, the tin trade continued through the Dark Ages, and into medieval times, often making the Dukes of Cornwall very rich indeed.

And this is where the story blackens. By the17th century Cornish mining was halfway industrialised: in 1630 a visitor to Cornwall talks of a “a little hamlet on the coaste of the Irishe Sea, much visited with tinners, where they lodge and feede, being near theyre mines.” If that same visitor had returned 150 years later, he’d have seen something much more imposing: Cornish mining at the beginning of its first, enormous copper boom.

We’ve now reached the Poldark era, a time of relative plenty – at least for some lucky mine owners, and some fortunate “tributers” (a specifically Cornish form of freelance miner, who took a share of the profits he hewed from the granite). These were the glory days, when messengers were despatched on horseback in the middle of the night – to stir a drowsy but delighted mine captain, and tell him of a lavish new lode. When this happened, when the mine was “cutting rich”, an ensign was hung from the top of the engine house, and the Cornish pubs – or “winks” – were full of miners, and their sweethearts, drinking gin-and-treacle, and hot rum punch.

These days of celebration were, of course, very much the exception. For most miners, most of the time, life was unimaginably hard. Rising at dawn, in a shivering moorland cottage, a typical Cornish miner would walk five miles across rough country, to reach his mine: Wheal Voe or Wheal Coates, Providence or Godolphin. He would then climb down a shaft, on a rope, like a monkey. If lucky, he descended a ladder. It is estimated the average Cornish miner of the time climbed 1200 feet of a morning: the maximum permitted in a Victorian workhouse in a day. And this is before the tinner began his proper toil.

Having reached the bottom of the shaft, he then had to crawl, virtually naked, on his knees, down an often broiling tunnel, until at last he reached the seams of copper glistening in the rockface. Now his shift could officially begin – in almost total darkness. The only light came from the feeble flicker of little candles, stuck onto the miner’s hard felt hats.

If his mine was one of the great undersea mines – like Botallack, or Levant – where the tunnels extend for a mile under the ocean, the miner, who might have been a boy aged eight, had to endure an extra dimension of oppression: the sound of the ocean riding and bucking above him. Even the most toughened miners were terrified by the booms of the great Atlantic storms, which rolled boulders overhead, and constantly threatened to break through the ceiling. Many were drowned.

It was, in all ways, the most punishing work. And to sustain them in this work, according to contemporary sources, the miners consumed this: for breakfast a cup of tea made from mugwort, probably taken with a hunk of barley bread. At midday they found an alcove in the tunnels and crouched over a “hoggan”: a baked pastry containing currants, figs, or pork – classic Cornish pasties came along later. When they got home, having climbed another 1200 feet, and walked another five miles across the moors, the average man had a supper of salt fish, potatoes, and some more mugwort tea.

Unsurprisingly, these tinners died young, commonly before 30. If they weren’t killed by the awful labour, or the lack of sun, they were slaughtered by accidents and disease. A traveller who visited Cornwall in the 1840s, when Cornwall was producing two thirds of the world’s copper, and making “£500 a fathom” for the gloating owners, describes the mining districts as being peopled by numberless men “with faces blackened and blinded in one or both eyes. Or else lacking two fingers of the right hand, from shooting the rocks with gunpowder”. When the same traveller went through mining villages, he encountered hundreds of cripples “being led about by boys, eking out a living by selling tea from house to house”.

Despite the squalor, and the horror, there was also an occasional glimpse of beauty. Sometimes this was spiritual. As copper surrendered to tin, and Methodism fought the gin, the men would sing hymns together as they climbed up and down the mines. The harmonious sound of this singing, as it came up the shafts, was said to be “out of this world”: a music so unearthly yet so very lovely that unbelievers were, reportedly, converted on the spot.

This splendour was also directly visual. In the 1890s a pioneering Victorian photographer, J C Burrows, went down four of Cornwall’s deepest mines and took a series of remarkable and haunting photos (the photographs on this page). One of the most arresting aspects of these unique images is that the same moment when Burrows’ magnesium flash went off, bathing the mineworks in a brief rhapsodic light, must have been the one and only moment when those miners would have truly seen where they worked: where they spent the bulk of their darkened lives.

Another beauty was visible at night, by those Satanic clifftop mines: Botallack, Geevor, Levant.

In the 19th century it is said boats would sail up the night-time coast, then abruptly drop anchor, to gaze in astonishment, at the unprecedented sight of these cliffside mines blazing away without cease, 24/7. For people unused to industry it must have been an unbelievable vision: the rising and falling beams of the fire whims, the red hot glare from boiler house doors, the crashing of the stamps and the rattle of the cages, and – most magnificent of all – the mighty fires of the smelting houses, lit by fountains of molten metal, springing up fifteen feet into the air, then splashing back into the basin, like majestic geysers of quicksilver. Amongst it all, you could just about make out pale and shadowy ghosts: the faces of the workers. Hundreds of men, women, boys – and little girls.

This is where my own family history intersects with Cornish mining history. When I was researching the book, I asked my family if they had personal memories of mining. My dad told me his father never forgot the sight of dying miners standing at open windows, in their cottages, desperately trying to suck in air, to clear their diseased lungs.

This was impressive enough, in a very dark way, but then my mum told me her mother was a “bal maiden”.

I already knew a bit about bal maidens. I knew that they were young girls, employed from the age of six, to break rocks with heavy hammers – while standing barefoot in the open air. I knew they endured lives as hard as any miner: that they were often rendered infertile by the arsenic and sulphur of their environment, I knew that the sound of the stamps was so loud some went deaf – so they developed their own sign language. I knew all this. But could bal maidens, essentially a kind of child slave labour, really be a thing of living memory, in the United Kingdom?

Research told me: Yes. It turned out my grandmother, Anne Jory, worked the clifftop mines of St Agnes at the beginning of the 20th century. If she hadn’t married, she might have carried on working as a maiden until her death. Because some of her exact contemporaries did precisely that. The last working bal maiden stopped her hammering at Geevor, in 1951, and the very last bal maiden to draw breath, was born in Camborne around the same time as my grandmother, and this woman died in Redruth in 1968, after my own birthday.

A sobering discovery. What I had thought was a cruel but distant history, a terrible narrative of early Victorian exploitation, actually overlapped with my own lifespan, and encompassed my mother’s mother.

This, then, is the other story of Cornwall, the grander and sadder story. And when you next take a holiday in the far southwest, it is worth, perhaps, a moment of your reflection. As you picnic by the sea at Mullion Cove or Perranporth, imagine the sight of the mines, all around you, on a stormy night in maybe 1851: when the anxious wives of the miners would gather on the cliffs, clutching candles stuck in treacle tins: so this pitiful little constellation of lights would guide the husbands safely up the perilous cliffs. And then homewards, through the rain, across the wildness of the moors.