“It is the dark time of the year and there’s a fire aglow in the orchard; I hear fox.
As evening slides into night, I put on my coat and head out into the street. The night is sepia and a sleepy half-moon rests its belly upon the chimney pots of the houses opposite.”
So begins my piece, Fox, written for the Creative Future’s Literary Awards. I was so pleased, it won first prize for fiction, a Platinum award. At the Awards Ceremony and Showcase, in London a week or so ago, I received my award and read out my piece in front of an audience along with the eleven other finalists. Lemn Sissay introduced the evening and read along with Maggie Gee, both also contributed to an anthology of all the finalists’ work, titled Impossible Things.
Here is a video of me reading “Fox” at the Creative Futures Awards Ceremony. I’m a bit serious!
As a child I loved pop-up books. A friend once sent me a pop-up postcard of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain featuring a thoughtful, solitary figure. It was a beautiful, inspiring card. I have mislaid my card but I found a photo of it on the web:
I am now altering books. I made my first altered book, angel wings a few years ago. Now I am working in pen and ink and with the forest as my inspiration, I’ve started with a square paperback book, a sort of thick pamphlet.
Altering a book is like creating a stage-set, a little window on to life or on to a dream. Life seems very much like that at the moment, I am in the wings, I have a secret view into a strange, alternative world that is sleeping or buzzing, busy with dreaming, busy with weaving dreams. (I am reminded of a lovely folktale from the Isle of Skye called The Dream Makers. It is about deer too. Sharon Blackie has written a lovely version of it on her blog here.)
I am fascinated by burrows, badger setts and secret havens. I like to find signs of the presense of animals – smeuses (gaps in vegetation made by the passage of animals), ‘couches’ of flattened grass where animals like badgers have lain while away from the sett; feeding signs. It is interesting to think that beneath my feet, along a woodland trail, might sleep a badger.
I bought a couple of the small Observer field guides secondhand. They’re not rare or valuable but I do like them and treasure copies I’ve had for decades. I thought that I’d work with an image that I’ve drawn recently, of a badger sleeping beneath tree roots which is inked in with a gold sky:
With another old book, I have created a forest scene, again with deer and a central tree with spreading branches and roots. I cannot decide whether to complete the picture behind the deer or leave the pages of text. I quite like seeing the writing, the essence of the book still evident.
The book of the forest. I have other ideas for altered books – portraits, goddesses, icons – but I don’t think I have quite finished with forests, trees and deer yet.
Deer. Signs of their presense, torn bark, a trail of hoof prints through the trees, a shed antler. Deer are elusive, highly tuned to the slightest sound or movement; a delight to come across.
It is easy to understand how deer are often seen as magical creatures in myths and stories, connected with the spiritual, supernatural world. Often in these stories and myths they are white, a brilliant, glowing white. In Celtic mythology, they are seen as ‘fairy cattle’ that are milked by mystical women – sometimes banshees – who themselves shapeshift into deer. I am fascinated by shapeshifting in any form and by the crossing of the subtle veil between worlds.
I have been collaborating with the author and storyteller Roselle Angwin. Once I had written my book, The Memory Tree, Roselle proof-read it. She liked my artwork and suggested that we work on something together; I would illustrate one of her stories. As she lives close to Dartmoor, she chose an old Dartmoor tale that she first heard from Dartmoor storyteller, Mavis Hewitt. The story is about a man’s encounter with a magical deer. Stories with this theme occur all over Europe.
Here are some photos of our booklet fresh from the printer. It is available in my Folksy shop and in my shop on this website.
I have just finished reading “A Walk Between Heaven and Earth” by Burghild Nina Holzer. It is a lovely book about how to write a creative journal, written in the way of a journal. Burghild’s writing shines in its simplicity and beauty. There are many passages I like, such as the quote on the back of the book:
Talking to paper is talking to the divine. Paper is infinitely patient. Each time you scratch on it, you trace part of yourself, and thus part of the world, and thus part of the grammar of the universe.
There are many passages I relate to. One in particular, about when the author spends time beside a river, reminds me of my time beside the River Bure. Here is an extract from page 107:
On the last day of my journey I sat by a river with long green hair. It was like the hair of some wild river woman, swirling at my feet, as if she wanted to caress me. And the river woman whispered to me, she said, “Put your feet in the water, put your hands in.” And as soon as I did I saw the fish….And the green hair caressed my feet, and I forgot about time. And when I finally turned to go, I saw that my backpack had fallen into the water, as if the wild woman wanted to claim it, as if she wanted to claim my journal and make the task of translation impossible…”
“Beneath every river there is another river and all of them flow into the Lake of Time”.
This is a quote from the book The River Wife by Heather Rose that I have just finished reading. I feel close to this book, it’s taken me back to a more aqueous time, a time when I would find myself beside rivers gazing into their depths, day dreaming up my river goddess projects. (Perhaps my river goddess was not a goddess at all, but more like a “river wife”, as in the book, a tender of the river, collecting, sorting, weaving the stories told and unheard.) It is a beautiful book and reads like the gentle, mesmerising flow of a river. The river wife is a woman by day, but returns to the river, to moonpools and the vastness of lakes, as a fish by night. She falls in love with a man who comes to stay in a house by the river and gradually the timeless patterns of nature start to unravel. It is a story of magical realism, an enchanting, adult fairytale, tender and melancholy. Within it there is a timelessness, like any fairytale, and a depth; it hints at eternity, of a place before and after Time, a numinous, archaic place beyond the known. But most of all, it’s about the mysteries of water and love.
“Water is message. It is truth that asks nothing, a story older than people and older than mountains, a holder and deliverer of memories beyond time.”
“…some would say any story of water is always a story of magic, and others would say any story of love was the same…”
I cannot remember how I bought my copy, I know that it came from Australia as it’s not possible to buy it here in the UK. I’m so glad that I made the effort to get it. I hestitated before reading it as I thought it might influence a story that I’ve begun to write that I’m calling “The Fisherman’s Dream”, a magical story that is inspired by the life cycle of the brown/sea trout. Hopefully I’ll get around to working on it, and to investigating the mysterious spawning grounds of the trout, which include some remote chalk streams here in Sussex. (That will be another project to add to my jumble of other half-finshed projects.)