A Day Later And No Heroes Involved

As storytellers, we need to recognise the best way of telling a story.

We choose our characters and ask them to carry the tale for us the way Frodo carries the One Ring to Mount Doom, although much of the world goes on in the background like Gaffer Gamgee turning over his potato patch and asking if you’ve seen the cost of pipe-weed these days.

My story today isn’t a Frodo story.

No heroes are involved.

Small though it is, a day later and not in the thick of it, this is my potato patch story of September 11.

(I didn’t keep a diary back then, so my recall is a little hazy, but the broad picture is good enough. Think of it as an Afghan kilim, its pattern seen more clearly from a distance than at the eye-level of the knotter.)

Twenty years ago, I was working a temporary job at a freight forwarding agency.

Clerks on the newly-introduced minimum wage, voices raised in a noisy open-plan office with faxes and phones ringing, we arranged space on container ships to send socks from Southampton to Sierra Leone, cocoa to Cadbury’s from Cote d’Ivoire.

Long-distance phone calls via satellite, where the cost of a two-minute call was more than I was paid per hour, with a time delay between every phrase that often led to you talking over each other.

No smartphones back then, nor Skype.

After the attacks on the USA, every consignment became more urgent. With aircraft grounded across much of the world, even for a few days, surface shipping became suddenly popular, and ships filled up fast.

My fellow clerks and I spent a lot of time explaining to new customers that they couldn’t, in fact, put The Thing they wanted to send overseas into a container and hope for the best.

No, it wouldn’t arrive Just In Time; if you’re lucky, it might take a few weeks, but you’re looking at months if it has to go round the long way.

And the paperwork.

So. Much. Paperwork.

Customs forms. Goods declarations. Safety certificates. One pallet of stuff in a single container led to a whole shipment being turned away at the destination port because there was woodworm in the pallet planks. Child’s play compared to the supply chain issues we’re currently facing in Britain, but still awkward.

You couldn’t make it up.

When the invasion of Afghanistan began my colleagues found themselves working long hours as shipping vessels filled up with military hardware, leaving little space for the usual toys for Christmas shops and light-bulbs for Land Rovers.

By that time I’d left the freight office for another job: better paid, with more prospects, more spreadsheets and emails and regular hours. I began writing a novel that would become The Last Rhinemaiden. And I started to dig a potato patch.

Air freight resumed. Bombs fell on Afghanistan. Rubble was cleared, carefully, in New York. The world carried on, as ever, big stories in the news, ordinary lives destroyed or untouched by events.

So many stories surround the events of twenty years ago this weekend.

Many of them are hero stories.

Many of them are potato patch stories that turn into hero stories, years in the making or suddenly, overnight, in the wake of more terrible events.

Half the world today doesn’t remember what happened twenty years ago in a world city they’ll never visit – too young, or not yet born.

Half the world.

Life goes on.

Stories keep being told.

The challenges the world faces every day are not just hero stories but stories of people at potato-patch level – growing melons in the waste-water outflow of a military camp; repairing a makeshift tent on a hillside far from home; packing up troubles in their old kitbag with a smile, smile, smile.

We need to hear these stories and recognise their power. We need to hear stories of ordinary life, life disrupted, life persisting.

Stories that don’t end – or begin – in glory.

We need to hear these stories because small lives matter. A small life is what most of us are born for. Some of us, cast into disruption, yearn for it.

So dig, not too deep. Move on.

And let stories connect us.

Seeing the world move its goods around, still mostly on the high seas like in the days of tramp steamers and clipper ships, was fascinating.

Stories abound. Cargoes embargoed in foreign ports; stowaways risking their lives in containers stacked high on open decks; consignments washed overboard like so many rubber ducks.

When they say “write what you know”, in some cases you’d never believe me, like Jack London skippering a fishing boat in San Franscisco bay before he wrote Call Of The Wild.

Sometimes you’ll just say “potato patch”, and turn the page. The story goes on.

This week’s links:

Take a tip from this writer, and consider keeping a diary – “What exactly have I got to tell this black book about a life that we share all day, every day? What secrets can I possibly be keeping?”

Shipping link of a sort: Lego Lost At Sea on Twitter, regular posts on plastic washed ashore from shipping accidents and just plain litter. Beautiful photos of beachcombing in the Anthropocene.

A story about those who treasure the details of everyday lives: The secret world of diary hunters – “people love a story, they love a narrative, even a mundane diary can turn into a little drama”.

And a bonus extra link – The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K Le Guin (on The Anarchist Library, found via this Twitter thread of storyteller and cartoonist Ramzee).

Published in: on September 12, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Bring Light

There’s a lot of darkness and disaster in the world right now. In fact, there is always a lot of darkness and disaster; we just don’t usually hear about it.

Beside the immediate situation in Afghanistan, the pandemic, and the ravages of climate change, it’s easy to forget that there is still light, and beauty, and hope in the world.

Kind words are all very well but they don’t pay the bills, or mend broken bones, or rebuild homes. As a writer I am often left with a feeling of senselessness – why write, when what’s needed is action? Why write, when others are suffering, and I’m doing nothing but putting words on a page?

We write to make sense of the world.

We write to compel others to feel the same as we do about a situation, or to explain what’s going on, or to heal.

We write to shake ghosts out of our heads and onto paper.

We write to tell others that it’s okay – or wrong – to behave in a certain way, and to show different viewpoints and experiences.

We write to bear witness.

We write, to change the world we live in.

Let’s make it better.

Bring light, and do not shy away from what that shows us.

Let’s try to spread a little of it, even just here, amongst ourselves, without forgetting that others elsewhere are suffering, or enduring hardship, or facing ruin.

To that end, lots of links this week.

artwork showing a defiant woman holding dandelions behind her back while a tank approaches in the background
Art by feminist graffiti artist Shamshia Hassani. Using the bomb-damaged walls of abandoned buildings as her canvases, Hassani paints murals that depict a universal female character whose face, while unveiled, is still obscured apart from lush, expressive eyelashes. Her latest artworks are defiant. I hope she’s all right.

Brainpickings – thirteen life-learnings from thirteen years, including links to some excellent articles on the usefulness of art and literature to maintain culture under duress.

Confessions of a Museum Bunny by Deborah Walker of Milford SF Writers. I’m a big fan of museums as a big source of characters, gadgets and other interesting snippets that may or may not make it into the story final.

DigDelve, an online magazine showcasing the writing of garden designer Dan Pearson. Lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs; also recipes.

Elephant Bike, by Cycle of Good. Working out of a former pottery warehouse in Stoke-on-Trent, and workshops in Malawi, the organisation refurbishes former postal delivery bicycles.

Free resources on Milkwood (Australian permaculture) for home-based living, specifically during the pandemic. Which includes a link to the West Country School of Myth.

Deep Green Permaculture shows us before and after photos of a back-yard transformation, from bare to food forest.

The basic dance steps everyone can follow, part 2 of a brief series on Medium.com about the current phase of the pandemic. Yes, it’s still pestilence.

The Light-Bringers – little needle-felted animals with lanterns might not be your thing, but you can always make space for a weasel or a sweary badger. An uplifting book by artist and author Karin Celestine, available at Celestine & The Hare.

Finally, this week’s music: Bombs Turn Into Roses, by Syrian musician Maya Youssef.

And don’t forget to write.

From the edges of hope to the safety of home, the world needs your voice.

Published in: on August 22, 2021 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Hobbiton is a long way off

By the time you read this, I should have been at a party.

'Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen', by Peder Severin Krøyer (1888), painting of a garden party with men and women around a table laden with drinks

But: no.

Last week I posted a review of my writing goals at the halfway point in the calendar year. Back in January, in addition to those goals, I also wrote this:

“One breath in the wrong place and you’re infected with COVID. And right now, the UK is near the top of the list of the wrong places.”

After months of a lockdown only half as restrictive as the first (March 2020), the UK is again on a hiding to nothing. Our direction of travel is headed for: No masks, no distancing, no attempt to limit the spread of infection.


William A Haseltine

There are no visible plans for longer-term management of the pandemic. There seems to be little acknowledgement within the government – however they may have been briefed by scientists and specialists – that this disease is not flu (not even a bad flu, even one as dangerous as the 1918 pandemic as described in the excellent Pale Rider by Laura Spinney).

The words in my head right now are “infected blankets”. Whether or not New World peoples were deliberately given Old World diseases, or we just didn’t know about germs back then, when new populations encounter mature disease for the first time, the disease usually wins.

Part of my studies in ancient history covered human evolution, and I’ve written about genetic evidence for human diversity and how we spread across the planet.

Geneticists point that we survive chickenpox, the common cold, most influenza and other viral diseases because, in the past, those who are vulnerable to childhood diseases have removed themselves from our gene pool.

This thread on Twitter says:

“Think of… hunter-gatherer children, getting the same viruses we all catch in childhood, and those same successful viruses still doing their thing tens of millennia later

Dr C J Houldcroft

Immunity to childhood diseases has been gained over thousands of years, generations of the vulnerable lost through the ages, our lives today a result of our ancestors’ survival.

We don’t have centuries of living with COVID. Cramming a hundred thousand years of death into a couple of years is… scandalous. Especially when we have the wherewithal to avoid it.

line illustration of three crouching figures on a grey background, The Dead Marshes by Cor Blok
The Dead Marshes by Cor Blok

Shortly after I graduated, I applied to work on one excavation which required all staff to have a smallpox vaccination scar before they’d let you onsite.

They were digging up an old cemetery where some of the bodies were thought to be smallpox victims. Even though smallpox has been eradicated from modern life by vaccination, there was enough of a chance of infection from those old graves that the archaeologists were taking no chances.

I didn’t get the job in the end – even thirty years ago I couldn’t afford to live in London, even with a job and only for six months. But the lesson this taught me was that infection with a deadly disease is no simple matter.

Now this latest wave is upon us, even though most of the people I know are double vaccinated, I’ll have to try and keep my household safe.

No going out.

No mingling, no fluffy muffins in a farm shop café, no long summer afternoons in a beer garden watching the world go by and setting it to rights in half-cut hubris.

We are still struggling our way across Mordor. Hobbiton is a long way off.

painting by Ulla Thynell of the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings, marshland with three figures and will-o-the-wisp lights
Frodo and Sam in the Dead Marshes, by Ulla Thynell

This is not a war; the enemy won’t submit to propaganda, or negotiation. The civilian population seem resigned to being herded, not to safety, but into needless peril.

What should have been our Waterloo summer is looking more like Dunkirk, or Gallipoli.

I’m aware how much I rely on others taking risks with their health that I am reluctant to consider with mine, and how much those others may have no option but to continue taking those risks as part of a lesser threat to their prosperity.

I hate that we are being forced to make these choices, by the actions or inaction of the powers that be, when there are alternatives available.

What can we do, though?

The outrage and fury counts for nothing.

Protests have an uneasy taint about them. Viewing the daily statistics in the hope that somehow the outrage might bring down the government won’t help either.

I know people are tired of this now. I’m tired of it too – I want life to return to something like how it was before COVID, even if I don’t intend to visit the cinema or go to a nightclub.

Safe enough to get on a train and meet up with @dawnthepoet and wander round the British Museum.

Safe enough to see my family, and those friends I was meant to be with this weekend, all dressed up in our fancy duds at a garden party in the sun.

Safe enough for my sister-in-law to receive the surgery she needs, not delayed yet again while she’s waiting in agony, disabled and unable to return to the job she loves.

I’d like to see the government take COVID measures by the throat and shake us free.

Not like this.

black and white illustration by Tove Janssen for Tolkein's The Hobbit showing Smaug the dragon flying over boats on a lake
Smaug, illustration by Tove Janssen

Ooookayyyy, after that I reckon we need some interesting links:

How much did grandmothers influence human evolution? Aunties and grandfathers too! An article in the Smithsonian magazine, found via palaeoanthropologist John Hawks (writing about how long menopause has been going on – too damn long! shout women of a certain age everywhere…).

Vintage artworks illustrating The Hobbit, on BrainPickings. Some of Tolkien’s own artwork can be seen on Museoteca – interestingly, there are none of Mordor or the Dead Marshes. Did he produce any?

The art shop of talented illustrator Ulla Thynell, who produced one of the images of Sam and Frodo featured. I’m rather partial to her “Tiny Elves” making their way through a snowy landscape (yes, the UK is currently in a heatwave).

Discussion of Sam and Frodo’s journey through the marshes on The Fandamentals, from where I found Ulla Thynell.

A list of the independent bookshops of the UK and Ireland, with a map. Because we all need books, with which to fill our hours.

2021 – Updating my intentions

Halfway through the calendar year, I thought it was time I reviewed my writing plans for 2021. I took three posts to get round to stating my intentions.

January 2021 – Look back mostly skimmed over a year tainted with COVID-19. In a moment of hope, which currently seems somewhat over-optimistic, I said:

We expect to remain shielding until everyone is vaccinated and the virus has gone… We realise this may be some time.

Well, bugger. Just when it looked like things were going well, and a visit to friends for the first time in aaages was on the horizon, the Delta variant arrived and scuppered those plans. Back into household lockdown we go. And thankful for the ability to do so, while furious at the mismanagement that failed to mitigate the risks.

I did warn myself:

“there’s also a risk that, as ever, being bogged down in the stories that fill the news… will be detrimental to creativity”

This. So much this.

Like picking at a scab and wondering why it won’t heal, scrolling social media for an echo of the same tale minute by minute just leads to wasted hours with nothing to show for ’em. No creative writing, no tasty meals prepared, no grass mown.

In the same post I wrote:

“…part of my new writing year’s resolutions is to write with more focus on work which can be published, to finish that work, and submit more poetry to online journals.”

Yeah, nice idea. Still, I have half a year left to work on it.

On top of that, I also suggested:

“There’s scope, room, for learning more skills. For reading widely, online and on paper, to research and build the worlds my stories will occupy.”

Illustration by Waltrich - a human figure reading a book

At least I’ve been able to make a start on some of this. Books, fiction and nonfiction, feed the imagination, and I have a stack of ’em to work through. Haven’t kept my Goodreads up to date though.

A trip to a museum is right out at the moment, sadly – I’d love to revisit the magnificent Kelvingrove, for example, and I’ve mothballed a proposed visit to Calke Abbey – but I’ve enjoyed the scenery of far-flung places through the writings of others.

All grist to the mill.

Here’s a reminder of my writing goals for 2021:

  1. One non-fiction project.
  2. Write more, including fiction and poetry.
  3. Submit poetry to online journals.

How have I done so far?


  1. I have more than one non-fiction project on my to-do list. Prioritise!
  2. Yes, I have written more this year than last, including a quarter of a new novel (Project NEVADA, somewhat stalled) and some new poetry.
  3. Umm, I submitted a couple of poems and had them returned.

Ooh, I mustn’t forget the twelve posts I wrote for The Last Rhinemaiden! And the regular posts on here.

Overall, still at “hmm…” though.

Six months to go. Time to get on it (again).

And here’s this week’s links (I think we could do with some cheering up):

A throwback to the 1970s, and a staple of my childhood: The Goodies (YouTube link, surreal humour involved). Also the official fan club, going strong at The Goodies Rule – OK. OMG I feel like I’m ten years old again… Their newsletter is superb!

Take a scroll through the collections at Calke Abbey on the National Trust’s website – I promise, there is so much junk in there that once you’ve stopped going “you what?”, your fingers will be itching to do a Marie Kondo (“The family were avid collectors but also they tended not to throw anything away”). There’s some really nice stuff, and then there’s the cr@p… small fragments of stained glass; rusted iron wotsits; illuminated manuscripts; buttons; and much more, like this:

Paper label "cut out of pheasants throat 1887"
Paper label “cut out of pheasants throat 1887”

Fab biographical article on the multi-talented Robert “Bob” Calvert at Thanet Writers Spotlight. And for those of you anticipating a return to the office once coronavirus has receded, his poem The Clerk.

Published in: on July 11, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Forecast: 1888 Approaching

This week’s post will be brief, because I Am Writing. I have a question to ask, and a promise to make.

When I finished writing SHADOWBOX, the second novel in the Cuckoo Club series, I wrote a set of posts to celebrate and lead up to its publication. You can find these here.

The Last Rhinemaiden: If you think the most sensational events of 1888 were the gruesome murders in Whitechapel, you're wrong.

I also thought it would be quite interesting to do the same for the first novel in the series, The Last Rhinemaiden.

Then, because I had other novels to write – the Petticoat Katie series – I completely forgot about that second suite of blog posts.

Until now.

Och, I know I’m procrastinating. I have writing projects on the back burner that I can’t seem to get into, a handful of half-finished works I think might still have a chance at completion, and I’ve set myself a trio of goals for this year which are rather conveniently unaccountable.

This dry spell has me in its thrall, though.

And at least one of the projects I’ve promised myself I’ll write HAS NO MAGIC IN IT.

None at all.

No fantasy, nothing otherworldly, nothing gothic.

No tentacled monsters, no unquiet gods, and definitely no airships.

The question is:

  • Do I press on with that project although it has nothing magical about it?
  • Or do I leave it on the workbench, a blueprint only?

There’s still some worth in working at it; I know. Easing myself back into the practice of writing, the process of laying down a work of fiction that holds together, building a cathedral one word at a time.

Even setting a blueprint is a form of mapping, another tool in a writer’s toolbox to assess whether a project is worthwhile.

That’s where this series of posts on The Last Rhinemaiden comes in.

Something that sparks my imagination. A gift of time travel, back to when I wrote the novel, further back in time to when it became a story idea, even further back in history – all the way to 1888, the year the action takes place.

I’m working on a set of posts that map across the lifetime of the novel, a dozen posts I’ll hammer out hour by hour across a single day to match the story’s timescale on its fictional anniversary.

Say you’ll join me.

The promise: I’ll try to make it magical.

This week’s links (to whet the appetite):

The Victorian Web – literature, history, & culture in the age of Queen Victoria. Mostly academic, on Twitter @VictorianWeb

The Pre-Raphaelite Society – “… to enjoy the images and explore the personalities of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers through the medium of fine art, the appreciation of good design and the excellence of the traditional arts”. Also on Twitter @PreRaphSoc

Palaeolithic Venus Figurines on Don’s Maps – the entire site is an incredible resource of the Palaeolithic, from Lucy to Lascaux: a true labour of love, over decades.

January 2021 – Look Ahead

Last week I looked back at 2020. This week, it’s time to look ahead – a daring suggestion at the moment. But let’s try…

My writing goals for 2021:

  1. One non-fiction project.
  2. Write more, including fiction and poetry.
  3. Submit poetry to online journals. For a long time – many, many years – I’ve avoided submitting my work to any sort of scrutiny. It’s time I did so.

So far I’ve made a start on all three goals, and have become bogged down in prioritising.

Running around in the background like a headless chicken, of course, is the coronavirus chaos in the UK.

It’s been a year, with no sign of stopping. When I wrote “The First Ten Thousand Dead” back in June 2020, I was angry.

I should be enraged now.

However, here’s three positive items I found online this week:

Sea shanties (try @TheLongestJohns, @MyriahBrynn, or @NathanEvans)

Wildlife in Venice canals

A new Labyrinth in Cornwall

Published in: on January 17, 2021 at 1:00 am  Comments (1)  
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News and tinkerings

You may notice a few changes about the blog over the coming days and weeks.

Stonemasons at work on a tracery window at Guédelon castle, France

Stonemasons at work on a tracery window at Guédelon castle, France

The overall design was set up years ago, to suit the Cuckoo Club novels I was writing, with a focus on Victorian London and the River Thames.

Well, that was then. This is now, and my body of work has expanded to include the Petticoat Katie series of very silly steampunk novels. Future work won’t be set in London – there are a whole host of other places available.

Poems, by their nature being brief and faster to compose, tend to reflect the location where they are written, with allegory and metaphor adding context, e.g. December 2019.

My future plans include non-fiction books, poetry chapbooks, and (heh!) novels. None of these fit in with the theme of the blog, or rather the blog theme doesn’t fit in with the main body of work.

And it’s easier to update the blog than to re-write a novel.

Published in: on December 6, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on News and tinkerings  

Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor

Lockdown, this Autumn, will be harder to endure than the one in Spring.

For many of us the bright days earlier in the year and the prospect of Summer were a gift that helped us cope with Not Going Out. Alas, those days are gone for this year, and the standard British winter is approaching, eight hours of daylight chock-full of grey skies and drizzle.


We need plans to get through this. Books can help.

Non-fiction, to show us how the future can be changed, to remind us that nothing lasts forever, to give us ideas on how to build a new way of life, and to inspire us with the lives of people who have shifted gravity.

Maps and gazeteers and natural history, showing us where to find places for wild swimming or birding or just sitting with a Thermos of tea and a packet of sandwiches watching waves on a beach.

Self-help manuals to guide us if we decide that this time round we will take up yoga, or sourdough, or just focus on our mental health and wellbeing.

Painting by Norman Rockwell, "The Bookworm" - man in a raincoat nose-deep in a book
The bookworm in his natural habitat

Photography, puzzle books, colouring books; blank stamp albums for gradual filling; text books for home schooling; reference books for when you need more information than the internet can provide; music books for when you finally get round to pick up that instrument you’ve been meaning to practise for years.

And, of course, fiction.

Fiction, where marvellous worlds await within the pages, with new cities and familiar places seen through the eyes of heroes and villains; adventures in time and space, on air-balloons or rockets or sailing ships; experiences we will never have – or can remember, or empathise with, or wish on our bitter enemies.

Fiction: journeys, alone or otherwise, to show us how many have travelled such a path as this before us, and how many are with us right now, sharing the light of their lanterns through the darkness ahead.

To remind us that Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor.

This lockdown, please consider buying books from independent bookshops.

The best way to do this is to buy online from the bookshop’s website, if they have one.

Otherwise, you can buy books online from Hive, and choose which bookshop you want to benefit from your transaction. The Hive website will suggest bookshops near your postcode, but you can pick another if it’s special to you.

Published in: on November 2, 2020 at 9:00 am  Comments Off on Hobbiton awaits, at the end of Mordor  
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What’s the world like outside?

I wonder what the world outside looks like now. It’s been months.

Without work or children or elderly parents to care for, this household’s circumstances are rather unusual, but this allows us to limit our contacts as we choose.

Friends came to stay in mid-February for BurtonCon (I sold a couple of books! Yay!), probably the last physical science fiction convention held in the UK – by the time Eastercon came round, the country was in lockdown. Other friends came to visit at the end of February.

Since then, this household has been under lockdown. More severe than recommended by our government, we only leave the house for medical appointments, or trips in the car to keep the battery charged and the moving parts moving. Exercise classes, library visits, taking a walk by the river – all stopped.

Food deliveries from the supermarket, patchy at first, improved when we were added to the “shielding” list. Other essentials came via post. DIY materials ordered online were dropped kerbside.

Summer came and went without us going out.

This year’s plague notwithstanding, difficulties arise when one of you uses a wheelchair to get around. When finding a table becomes an obstacle course, and media reports of crowds without masks or social distancing suggest your local café isn’t worth the risk for a pot of tea and some scones, there doesn’t seem much point in going out.

Although I admit it would be nice to have someone else make me a frothy coffee or surprise me with a menu item I haven’t already thought of, never mind clear the table when I’m finished, I don’t fancy risking coronavirus for a fluffy muffin.

And has the local café survived? Adapted? Will there be honey still for tea?

I have no idea.

Seems strange to be heading into autumn without all the usual milestones of summer – no weekends away at music festivals, no pub visits, no visiting friends for garden parties or board games; no holiday abroad.

The wide world outside is barred at the moment, and I start to understand what it’s like for those who can’t go out at all.

At least I can garden. While the good weather was here, I finished some craft projects and some household DIY. The trees produced ample supplies of fruit to make jam, now squirrelled away in the store cupboard, and the small greenhouse helped a host of chilli plants into a bumper harvest.

Now summer is over, the dark days are ahead, the clocks have gone back and it’s dark at half four. Once I’ve swept up autumn’s leaves (for leaf-mould), my household won’t be out there again until Spring. At least we are still here, for now.

COVID is on the rise again, fast and overwhelming. Sudden spike in cases over the last week, and new restrictions short of lockdown come into place at midnight.

The New Normal is here, whether we like it or not, and those who are swift to adapt to it will be better off than those who ignore it or can’t afford to make adjustments.

I hope we are in the adapting cohort.

"Philae" oil painting by Veillon, a woman sitting on a riverbank at sunrise with temples and palm trees in the distance
(Artwork: “Philae” by Veillon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Published in: on October 30, 2020 at 11:00 pm  Comments (3)  


At night, where I live now, I can hear church bells from town a mile away. In another direction, over a wooded hill – another church, still a mile distant. I hear my neighbours through the walls, and over garden fences, sitting on their back step smoking.

During the day, however: lots and lots of traffic noise. School run traffic, delivery vehicles from the freight distribution yards dotted around town, large lorries into and out of the supermarkets and factories and railyards.

Birdsong has to compete with this traffic noise, so birds sing extra loud to make themselves heard.

Under lockdown, with that traffic gone, that extra-loud birdsong soared over the gardens and woodlands, all the way down to the river. Birds who were used to challenging their near neighbours to a duel, or inviting the bird-next-door for a bit of hankypanky, yelling over now-vanished traffic noise.

Our local birds can hear birds from the other side of the valley now. More threats, more challenges, more invitations.

Those first two weeks of lockdown were more silent than I’ve heard this town since we moved here.

Late at night, even the distance was silent – the distance where the major A-road hums at all hours. Just a hiss, a breeze in the trees, and a gentle rumble of a taxi taking key workers to their shift. A zip-shriek of motorbike taking the chance to ride faster than light, maybe two miles off; heavy thunderous whine of aircraft engines dwindling to a whisper as it drops to land at the airport, fifteen miles north.

This is what life sounds like on the Scottish islands. This quiet – not silence – of the natural world, of which we are a part. On the mainland of the UK, in the heart of our cities and towns, we often don’t hear the world this quiet. Even behind woodland walks which seem peaceful I’ve noticed the hum of distant traffic, like a constant threat of rain.

This is the sound of modern urban life, the constant disturbance. A time-traveller from a hundred years ago would find our lives unbearably noisy.

Now the traffic’s back and it seems louder than ever. We kept track of how much was moving on the road outside the house, and noticed as it crept up week by week, and pedestrians fewer now than during that first month.

The birds are mostly quiet too, the songs and sounds to feed fledglings in summer much less intense than the proud boasts of early spring.

But at dusk the blackbirds call across the hedges. Near midnight, two types of owl pass by, muted by the woodland on the hill behind the house. At sunrise, and all day, sparrows chatter in the ivy on the wall between our house and its neighbour.

The birds are still singing. How many of us have stopped listening?

Everyone suddenly burst out singing; And I was filled with such delight As prisoned birds must find in freedom, Winging wildly across the white Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight. Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted; And beauty came like the setting sun: My heart was shaken like tears; and horror Drifted away… O, but Everyone Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done. (Everyone Sang, by Siegfried Sassoon)

I’m not an expert on birds, so what I say should be tempered with the understanding that I’m just pontificating here. The notion that under lockdown the birds were singing louder – was it just that we could hear them, for once?

Published in: on June 30, 2020 at 12:01 am  Comments Off on Birdsong  
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