“I never knew you were like that…”

Draumr KopaCindy Callens, on the Belgian book review site Draumr Kopa, kindly asked me to do a guest blog. I shared some of the more amusing comments people have made since Saxon’s Bane was launched. Click here for Draumr Kopa.

Here’s what I had to say:

People have said some strange things to me since Saxon’s Bane was published.

“I never knew you were like that,” an elderly lady from my local church said one Sunday.

“Like what?” I asked. The question made me stop in my tracks, and the departing congregation flowed around us.

She shuffled, making that eyes-lowered squirm with which Christian ladies of a certain age simultaneously mention and avoid mentioning delicate subjects. “Well, you know…”

“No, I don’t know. What’s the matter?” I sensed that the subject causing her such embarrassment was of a reprehensible and possibly sexual nature, and my mind raced in a frantic ‘Oh-God-what-have-I-got-to-be-guilty-about’ way. I drew a blank, but the worry remained.

“I read your book.”

Ah. Huge sigh of relief. Saxon’s Bane includes pagan practices and probably isn’t a book that the vicar would read from the pulpit.

“And?”

“Your character, he, err, notices women.”

Oh, that. Perhaps she had an innocent understanding of the male psyche. I explained that the main character was a single, heterosexual man in his thirties who has been cooped up in hospital for four months, when his only female company had arrived carrying a hypodermic needle. He may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, and is certainly a little insecure. He’s courageous but stubborn, emotionally incontinent, and flawed. Yes, he notices women. Is that a problem?

The elderly lady made a slight flutter with her hands, vaguely indicative of an area below the waist, before she repeated herself. “I never knew you were like that.”

It was an early lesson for me in being a published author. The autobiographical element is assumed, but assumed selectively. Female characters may be “well drawn” but the male protagonist can only be me. His strengths are my aspirations, and his weaknesses are mine. I wonder what reaction Sebastian Faulks had after writing his brilliant novel Engleby in the ‘voice’ of a man you’d want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Perhaps after you’ve written Birdsong and Charlotte Gray your readers take a more balanced view. For those of us still establishing our literary credibility, it’s worth remembering that although good stories match flawed good against complex evil, the trick is to make the flaws appealing.

The reality, of course, is that there is inevitably some autobiographical content. As I wrote Saxon’s Bane the characters became so well known to me that I was able to become the individual I had created, even the female ones, and as I set them loose they’d tell me how each scene must develop. The boundary between self and artifice became so blurry that I sometimes had to stand back and unpick myself from this world of my own creation.

I’ve found I can also write from a female point of view, with a little help and critiquing from my wife and from women at my writers’ group. Over half of my next book is written in a female ‘voice’, and I’m told it sounds totally authentic. I shall be fascinated to hear readers’ feedback, if and when it is published. Will the few, lyrically-crafted moments of female sexuality be dismissed as ‘pure male fantasy’? Will someone again say “I never knew…”?

It is a strange and delightful thing, this ability and willingness to craft a female persona from within a male brain. I think that by the time I finished Saxon’s Bane I may even have been a little in love with one of the female protagonists.

“Great character, that Eadlin,” a man said about her after Saxon’s Bane was book of the month at his book club. “Wonderfully fleshed out.”

“Excuse me?” I looked in vain for signs that the double-entendre was intentional. Eadlin’s character, I should explain, has an earthy, girl-next-door sexuality. She has curves.

“No, I mean she’s well rounded.”

It’s great to watch someone else dig themselves into a pit of their own making. I wish, eight months after the book was released, that I’d made notes of the best remarks that have come my way. Some have been amusing, like the ones I’ve shared. Some have been gloriously, ego-boostingly flattering, while some have been crushing, like the local independent bookseller who declined to stock because she was “inundated with local authors”.

But the prize for the funniest has to go to my wife’s mother, who held on for some time to the view that her son-in-law should be out earning a salary rather than indulging in all this writing stuff. My wife rang her up when Solaris bought the English language rights to Saxon’s Bane.

“Wonderful news, Mummy! Geoffrey’s got a publishing contract!”

“Oh.” A pause. “But has he got work?”

 

 

A short story for Remembrance

Poppy DayMy father had excellent care in the final months of his life, but as I watched the nursing staff, I saw that their care was wrapped in the instinctive condescension of youth towards age; the louder tones that assumed deafness, and the same, mildly patronising manner that an adult might use with a petulant, dull-witted infant. One such interaction started me thinking about what my father had been doing when he was the age of his carers.

The ‘Arthur’ of this story is not my father. Dad’s war was in Africa rather than Korea, but as I watched the nurse leave the room that day, I thought ‘Dear God, if only you knew…’

SHORT BURSTS

“ART’AR?”

The legs standing beside Arthur were clad in blue, uniform slacks above a feminine pair of ankles.  They disrupted his thoughts the way the dawn chorus interrupts a nightmare.

“Wha’ are you doing down there, Art’ar?”  She spoke in a sing-song, Oriental accent, surprise lifting her voice.  Arthur twisted in his corner, trapped in a foetal crouch between sensible shoes and an unyielding wall.  The legs folded gracefully onto their knees, and a face peered into his.  Flat, Chinese features, almond eyes wide and questioning.  Arthur felt his fists unclench where his knuckles had pushed into his temples, but the pounding of a pneumatic drill outside the window made him flinch and squirm again.  She reached forward and rested her fingertips on the back of his hand in a cool, butterfly touch of calm.

“I will shu’ the window.”

The noise outside plummeted from close combat gunfire to an un-silenced motorbike.

“They are mending the road.  Shall I take you to the dayroom?  It is much quieter.”  She pushed his wheelchair in front of him.  Arthur began to feel foolish.  Thank God it was the Chink girl that found him, not that muscle-bound bastard Grice.

“Come on, Art’ar,” she squatted in front of him again, legs demurely together, reaching under his arms, “let me help you.”

The body inside the white, starched tunic seemed delicate, but the upwards pressure was strong.  The movement pushed a plastic name badge towards his face; Mei Li, Care Assistant, it reminded him, in white letters cut into clinical blue.  Arthur wondered how he could recover his dignity.  The hint of a breast behind the badge called to him like a forgotten melody, and he scrambled to find his feet.

“It will be lunchtime, soon.  Steak and kidney pie today.  Good?”  She tucked his feet onto the footrests.  Arthur liked this girl.  She showed respect, and at least she spoke English.  He wondered if he’d faced any of her ancestors in Korea.  They’d been plucky fighters, the Chinks.  Stopping a charge with a bolt action Lee Enfield was like trying to stop a swarm of ants with a pin.  Had Mei Li ever been taught about how seven hundred faced seven thousand on the Imjin?

“There.  A nice place by the window.”  Sunlight streamed into the dayroom.  Blossom the colour of Mei Li’s lipstick cascaded over the lawn, and Arthur struggled to remember the name of the shrub.  No matter.  They all had names like social diseases, anyway.

“I’ve got a nasty dose of wisteria down my left side.”  He chuckled until he saw the looks around him.  He hadn’t realised he’d spoken out loud.  In the sudden silence he heard Mei Li telling the dayroom nurse about how she’d found him.

“I’m not deaf,” he shouted over his shoulder, hearing the betrayal in his voice, then slumped back in his chair when he saw she was talking to Grice.  Arthur’s next words were muttered at the garden.  “And I’m not mad, neither.”

He’d just had a bad turn.  Strange how things came back to you, every ball-tightening moment, even after sixty years.  Nowadays he forgot most stuff in sixty seconds.

ARTHUR JOLTED OUT of a doze, arms flailing, as the lunchtime gong rumbled its summons to the deaf.  His hand connected with a cup and saucer, sending thick, institutional china rolling over the carpet at the end of a splashed parabola of tea.

Every attack started with gongs.  Gongs and bugles, to break your nerve, so that it was a relief when they broke cover and came at you, yelling and screaming in their quilted jackets.

“For fuck’s sake, Arthur.”  Grice knelt with a roll of paper towel, mopping the tea.  “If you’re gonna drop things, I’ll give you a plastic beaker.”  Arthur pulled a face at Grice’s back.  Grice was all mouth.  Dangerous.  Especially when he braced himself over you with one hand on each arm of the wheelchair, pushing his face intimidatingly close.

“How’dya like that, granddad?  Shall I give oo an ickle baby mug?  Wiv a nice ickle spout to drink froo?”

“Don’t talk to me like that.”  Arthur’s bombast sounded querulous, but the memory of youth was strong in his mind.  “You’re supposed to be a ‘Care Assistant’, but we get bugger all care and not much assistance.”

Arthur was proud of that.  He’d been practising those words in his head, but hadn’t been brave enough to say them.  Around him several residents cackled with delight, and for a moment Arthur felt a hero.  A drip of cold tea fell onto his forearm as Grice gripped the paper towel more tightly.

“I think you’d better cool off a bit before I take you into lunch.  If I’m feeling kind I might remember you.  But there again, I might not.”

Stupid bloody gesture.  He’d done something even sillier that day in Korea, and got away with it.  He’d heard a Bren gunner hosing his fire across the field, wasting ammunition, so he’d walked up behind him, in full view of the enemy, and kicked him in the arse.

“Short bursts, you wanker,” he’d shouted, then dropped into cover as bullets smacked the air past his head.  The man was pale and sweating like stale cheese, his fear almost disintegrating into panic.

“Move over, I’ll show you.  Magazine.”  The reassuring weight of the butt nestled into his shoulder, the wood hard against his cheek.  Oh, that glorious smell of hot, oiled metal and cordite.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  Tattap.  Tattattap.  The gun chattered to him like a lover.  He counted twelve bursts out of a thirty round magazine, and eight of them knocked over a Chink.  “Now you do it.”  Smart Arse Sergeant Major.  God, if only they knew.  He’d grabbed that Bren to stave off his own funk.  Now he just remembered how the bodies lay, humped in the killing ground.

LUNCH WAS FINISHED.  Grice hadn’t come back for him.  Outside a blackbird started singing; liquid gold in the shrubbery.  A bird had sung that day, too, warbling peace over a hillside of huddled dead and bleating wounded.  He’d shut his eyes then, as now, to savour the sound, to isolate it.  If you concentrated, you could ignore the metallic scrape of magazines being reloaded, and the dry sound of boots on rock as their dead were lifted to the rear.  It had flown away when the gongs started again.  Sensible bird.

VISITING TIME.  Relatives were spending an awkward hour with the inconveniently old.  In the corner a middle-aged woman was holding the hand of, of…  Names.  He couldn’t remember them any more, not unless they were in your face like the badge on Mei Li’s tit.

“Wake up Arthur, Harry’s here.”  Grice spoke in the gentle, caring tones he put on for visitors.  “He’s been a bit strange today,” he added to the grey-haired man fetching an armchair.  “Didn’t want his lunch.”

The vaguely-familiar man stretched to squeeze Arthur’s hand, smiling, but his greeting froze on his lips as Arthur spoke.

“Harry’s dead.”

He’d never forget that name.  Harry Brooks.  Brooksie.  Best mates.  Harry died after the third wave.  Arthur had found him thrashing on the ground, mumbling like a spastic with half his face shot away and his brains trickling into his hair.  Arthur took one look at that wrecked head and slammed in the morphine, over and over again, then held his hand and forced himself to look into Harry’s remaining eye until the light went out.

“Harry’s dead,” he repeated, less confidently now because the man was staring at him as if he’d been struck.

“Dad, it’s Harry.  Your son, Harry.”

Arthur felt his face dissolve.

“Don’t cry, Dad.  It’s all right.”  A hand gripped his arm, squeezing reassurance.

“I killed him.”  The pressure to unburden rose like a balloon of gas in his gut.

“Dad, please.”

“With morphine.”  Shouting now.

“Calm down, Dad.  You’ll make yourself ill.”

“Getting a bit upset, are we?”  Grice appeared beside them, releasing the brakes on Arthur’s wheelchair.  “You’re disturbing everyone, Arthur.  I think you should go back to your room for a nice, quiet rest.  Gimme five to settle him, Harry, then come through.”  The words were spoken over Arthur’s head as the grey-haired, sad-eyed Harry rotated out of sight.

“Bloody hell, it stinks in here.”  Grice strode to Arthur’s window and opened it, just as the pneumatic drill opened up in a sustained judder of noise, shaking photo frames into motion along a shelf.  Even Grice changed his mind and shut the window before turning back into the room.

“What’s that, Granddad?  Short bursts?  Whadya mean, short bursts?  Oh, for fuck’s sake, you’ve pissed yourself.  That wasn’t a short burst, was it, you senile git?  You’ve fucking sprayed it everywhere.”

Mei Li cleaned him up.  Arthur gripped her hands as she helped him into clean trousers.

“Forgive me.”

“Art’ar, there is nothing to forgive.”

Arthur shut his eyes.  He didn’t have the words to explain.

**********

Short Bursts is available for free download within an ebook of my short stories, published by Solaris in both Kindle and iBook formats. Click the poppy below for more details.

Poppy Day

Literature, Genre, and Geeks

In the last week, there have been a lot of threads on Facebook and writers’ sites about genre, and the challenges of classifying books. Back in August, the Hugo Award-winning SF & Fantasy site, SF Signal, asked me to write a guest blog on the subject. Here are my thoughts; click the image for the original article.

SFS

Literature, Genre, and Geeks

Tag me with a genre label and I’ll probably wince. They’re like that childhood game of pinning the tail on the donkey, blindfold, except I’m the donkey. Every now and then there’s a pinprick and I find another useless appendage dangling from my ear or nostril. HF, UF, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy…I’ve been stuck with them all.

My irritation with labels began with the slight sneer of superiority about genre; that sense, on my journey to publication, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. I had this bizarre vision of being greeted by a marketing executive at a great but imaginary literary establishment. “Literary Fiction? Over there, sir, the smart chaps in suits and cufflinks. Historical? Down the passage, mate, look for the swords, sandals, and bodices. Fantasy? Downstairs, guv. We don’t let no geeks up ‘ere.”

Literary snobbishness aside, the real problem with genre labels is that this convenient, box-ticking marketing machine has little room for grey areas. It seems to be designed for publishers’, distributors’, and retailers’ convenience. By superimposing structure onto a craft that is inherently qualitative, it primarily benefits the publishing machine, not the author or the reader. It thinks in lists; the SF list, the HF list, the Chic Lit list (and I couldn’t say that after a glass of wine), whereas writers create word pictures that should be art rather than paint-by-numbers. We need the freedom to stray across boundaries.

I like ambiguity, you see. I inhabit the hinterland where history becomes fantasy, and both cross the border into literature. I enjoy ghost stories where a plausible explanation still lingers in the background, or the kind of fantasy where the real world is touched by magic the way sunlight glints on water. Blink and the light may have gone, but the scent of an otherness remains.

I suppose I should blame the world I live in. The real one, that is, not the caverns of half-constructed mental space called ‘Works In Progress’. My real world has history written across its landscape; place names that tell of Saxon settlements, winding lanes that an English drunkard made as he lurched home from the mead hall. The past lives around us in the present, but what if those distant ancestors could speak to us? What stories would come alive?

So much of writing, I find, starts with that question “what if…” Take the village of Allingley, for example, a dreamy place on the banks of the Swanbourne. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of the folk of Aegl. What if this was the Aegl of Saxon legend, the mighty archer whose love was Olrun, the Swan Maiden?

I like joining the dots, even if the dots sit in different boxes of the marketing machine. When Saxon’s Bane was still a vague idea, I saw an article about the millennia-old bodies that are occasionally found in peat bogs, with their features sometimes so well preserved that they seem simply to be sleeping. Many of them were ritually slaughtered. Now, what if a peat-preserved Saxon grave was discovered on the outskirts of Allingley? What if an archaeologist developed a preternatural understanding of her project? What if the present day started to mirror the ancient, bloody past?

I’m back with the marketing exec. “Bit historical, are we?” he asks in a tone of voice that suggests ‘historical’ is a nervous condition. “But set in the present day? That won’t do, then…” Much sucking of teeth as he looks down his lists. “And a ghost, you say? That’ll be fantasy, then. Mind the steps; it’s a bit dark down there.”

I know, I know; genre labels help to point readers towards books they might like. Labels become banners under which people of similar interests can congregate, for example in forums like this one. But sticking a genre label on a book is not an indicator of quality. A bad book doesn’t become an Iain M Banks classic just by labeling it ‘SF’. A good publisher, on the other hand, is highly selective, invests in its authors, and won’t touch cr@p. First division authors such as the late and much loved Iain B are sufficiently established to have a brand of their own, but for the rest of us, being associated with a publisher’s brand helps us towards stardom. Maybe there’s a case for publishers to promote their brand values a little more? More branding, less tagging?

And in the mean time, I’m writing fantasy. With more than a dash of history. It’s quite literary, I’m told, but reads like a thriller. Oh, and there’s a dash of romance thrown in.

Hell, it’s a ghost story.

 

When I were a lad…

After Niall Alexander kindly reviewed Saxon’s Bane on his brilliant site ‘The Speculative Scotsman’, (click the image to read it) he kindly invited me to write a guest post. He even gave me the subject of ‘History in Fiction’ to link in to previous posts.

scotspec

The subject started me thinking. Here, with Niall’s permission, are the results:

“Ee, when I were a lad…”

Elderly relatives used to start their reminiscences like that when, er, I was a lad. I remember folding my face into an attitude of dutiful attention as I wondered how long I’d have to endure some fragment of ‘ancient’ history. After a while, I’d squirm and find an excuse to slip away. After all, I was force-fed enough history at school, fact by repetitive fact.

“Kings of England, William the Conqueror onwards!” a master would bark. The Norman Conquest was, after all, the date when all history started, as every English schoolboy knows. “Who can tell me?”

“Sir, sir, me sir! William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John…”

I don’t think I differentiated between taught history and living history, as a boy. History was all about facts to be regurgitated, not experiences to be felt. What could those relatives tell me? First hand accounts of battles would have been interesting. In my childhood, there were still old folks alive who’d fought in the First World War. One relative had even survived both Flanders trenches and the Russian Revolution. My father fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa. Frustratingly, none of them wanted to talk about their battles, at least not in the heroic language a schoolboy craves. They’d flinch away from a direct question, but as I grew older, fragments of their memories sometimes fell in softly spoken words, and the mood would go still, tightening into itself. In that silence I glimpsed the stuttering terror of close-range tracer fire in the night, or felt the anguish of a survivor of atrocity. But by the time I was mature enough to listen, many of the stories would never be told again.

I think those fragments roused my interest not in ‘what happened’, but in what it felt like to be there while it happened. The perspective of the peasant, not the lord, the common soldier rather than the general. I also came to understand the impact on people, who seem with hindsight rather like trees that have survived the crushing weight of a boulder; take away the stone and the tree may thrive again, but not always in the pure shape that nature intended.

When I were a lad… we were taught the sequence of history. It might only have started in 1066, but that rote learning gave us a framework on which to hang deeper study. It might have been an overwhelmingly English framework, but I feel no need to apologise for my schoolmasters of old. They in turn had grown up in a place and an era of Imperial hubris, a time when God was an Englishman and had commissioned the British to civilise the world in their image. My offspring react with understandable horror to the mores of Empire, since in today’s era of the educational project or module, they have little understanding of trajectory or context. If I try to explain the attitudes of British society in my childhood, during that brief era between the end of Empire and the advent of mass immigration, they react as if I’d tried to deny the holocaust. They can describe immensely important subjects like the slave trade, but have no knowledge of the origins of their own people.

So what has all this to do with writing fiction?

At the risk of sounding grandiose, history is the backstory we all share. Villages in my part of England can often be traced to a Saxon warlord who chose the spot to ground his spear and plant his generations. That winding country lane has probably been there since an ox cart found the easiest route through the woods. Those invaders, settlers, and opportunists were storytellers, not writers, and they told their stories in the West Saxon tongue that would become the first global language, Ænglisc. They kept their own history alive in legends, some of which yet survive. Beowulf, Weyland the Smith, and Weyland’s brother Egil or Ægl who married the swan-maiden Olrun. Historical fiction was a dominant cultural force millennia before publishers called it ‘genre’ and eased it into the literary sidelines.

Personally, I like to write stories that have an echo of the past; not so much historical fiction as history in fiction. So I set Saxon’s Bane in a village called Allingley, which would have been Ægl-ingas-leah or ‘the clearing of Ægl’s folk’ in Anglo Saxon, a sleepy village on the banks of the Swanbourne. It was fun to reach back to the origins of the Ænglisc and to bring a legend to life in the present day. They’d have been just like us, those distant ancestors. Their fear would have been the same, even though the aggressor carried an axe rather than a machine pistol. All it takes to go back there and to make history come alive is a framework of facts and a little imagination. The imagination that sees an old veteran, perhaps, who sits by a fire and stares dewy-eyed into his mead, and says to the youth in the rushes at his feet, ‘now, when I were a lad…’

“Nú, hwonne ic waes cnap…”

The (equine) inspiration

Since Saxon’s Bane was released the question I’ve been asked most frequently has been “what was your inspiration?” The literary answer has been covered elsewhere in several guest blogs, but I have to admit that one character in the book was drawn from life, in the shape of a four-legged, 700 kilo friend who is exceptionally fond of Polo Mints.

Bally & helmetSeveral reviewers and bloggers have commented on the way Saxon’s Bane touches on the healing power of horses. It isn’t the primary theme of the book, but much of the plot is set in a stables, and the main character Fergus’s growing bond with a horse is a factor in his journey towards wellbeing. In his first encounter with a horse, he finds the touch ‘unexpectedly comforting, like a distant echo of childhood, as if he was once again a hurt infant who had found a soothing presence that was large and gentle and warm. […] the horse lifted its head and touched its muzzle into the angle of Fergus’s neck, holding it there so that the warmth of its breath brushed over his skin. A strange sense of harmony started to fill Fergus’s mind at this unquestioning animal contact. It made him feel naked, with the essence of his being visible to the animal. Not judged, simply known, and accepted.’

I have not, in the years that I’ve been riding, been in the same need of healing as Fergus, but I have seen the transformative power that horses can have on damaged people, at both an emotional and physical level. What better excuse to write a friend into the story?

Bally ODESo let me introduce Bally, or Ballycormac Boy to give him his full name, who’s a 17.1 hands Irish Hunter that I bought in Ireland in 2005. He now belongs to a very good friend and his wife, who are kind enough to let me ride him regularly. We even compete from time to time, at a very local, amateur level.

Bally now lives on the edge of Hodgemoor Woods in Buckinghamshire. The Hodgemoor Riding Association (HRA) works in partnership with the Forestry Commission, raising funds from members to maintain the woodland tracks for all users. A local retailer is co-operating with HRA to offer signed copies of Saxon’s Bane at £6.99, including UK postage, of which £1.00 will be donated to Hodgemoor Riding Association.

If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, click on the small horse’s head image below (yes, that’s Bally!) and you’ll be redirected to the relevant page on the HRA site.

Bally
HRA

Weighing Anchor

The excitement is always the same; that sense of anticipation, of adventure, of setting out on the next leg of a voyage.

It starts perhaps in darkness, with the boat snubbing at its anchor chain, making irregular swoops under the conflicting pressures of wind and tide.  The cabin seems fixed, solid, a warm, sea-scented fug of damp wool and coffee; it is the world outside that moves around us. A pool of light over the chart table shines on polished teak and racks of almanacs, a timeless image that Scott or Shackleton would recognise. The sea sloshes against the hull, plopping and dripping as if we were trapped in some celestial cistern. Movements are hushed, purposeful.

On deck, it is the noise that you notice first; thousands upon thousands of seagulls, roosting on some island nearby and calling into the ghost-light before dawn. It is an eerie sound, and suddenly I understand the old sea-stories about seagulls holding the spirits of dead sailors. And beneath this cacophony, there is the electric hum of wind through tight rigging.

Then there are the lights. There are navigation buoys all around us, winking red, green or white, and a lighthouse that sweeps its searchlight beam over all, marking our course to the open sea. We work in the dancing beams of torches hung from our necks, no hands to spare. ‘One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship.’ Otherwise, the horizon-less world is seen in tones of grey; the sky, lightening in the East, the sea, oily dark, reflecting the lights, and the land, low, humped, charcoal-black. Far away, a necklace of streetlights is an intrusion.

You know the instant when the boat comes alive. One moment, she is tugging at her anchor chain, impatient, captive, and the next she is free. Already her bow swings out of the wind, running for the sea before her anchor is fully shipped like an escaped horse trailing its tether. Now the pattern of lights moves around us, signposting the channel. By the time the sails are set it is dawn; the gleam of the lighthouse fades into a lonely grey behind us, and the horizon lightens into silver ahead, as the boat puts her shoulder down and runs. More coffee, clasped two-handed, warming, and as we lift our noses from our mugs the wind carries the fading smell of the land.

That atmosphere was always there for the brief time I spent at sea in an old friend’s boat, the same sense of adventure whether we were pointing her bow towards Lezardrieux, or L’Aber Vrac’h, or the rocky rip-tides of Raz de Sein (fortunately taken at slack water). Then, at journey’s end in La Rochelle, I saw a poem by Baudelaire, set in ugly, vomit-green plastic on a beautiful old tower. It captured that mood rather well. It may lose something in translation, especially if it’s me that’s doing the translating, but as far as I can make out, it says

But the true travellers are those who leave only for leaving; light-hearted, like balloons, never straying from their fate and, without knowing why, say always “Let’s go!”

IMG_0216

A Test of Friendship

I fear I’ve tested an old and good friendship.

It began when a friend I’ve known since university days asked me to crew for him when he sailed his yacht from Portsmouth to La Rochelle. But, I pointed out, I haven’t sailed since I was an eighteen-year-old Royal Naval cadet, and that was so long ago that Chief Petty Officers wore bushy beards and had fond memories of battleships and the rum ration. About the only advice I could still remember was when one such grizzled character said “always remember, lad, when you see the seagulls walking, it’s time to go about.”

No problem, said my chum, you’ll soon pick it up again. So at first light one morning, which at this time of the year is so early that even the seagulls asked us to keep the noise down, we left the Needles rocks astern and slipped down the English Channel, with the hilltops of Wight shrouded in cloud behind us.

No problem, I agreed, when Alderney lay abeam after just 11 hours of good sailing, and we decided to push on to Guernsey. With hindsight, we’d have been better off in Alderney, because even the best and most experienced sailors (and my host has spent half his life at sea) suffer the occasional ‘unforecast blow’.

“I think we’ll take in a reef,” he said as the boat put her shoulder down and charged the waves like a rugby player trying to break through the opposing pack. We were in, he explained, the Alderney Race. This, I gather, has nothing to do with an amiable local sporting competition, but is a body of water that surges North at anything up to six knots (seven mph to we landlubbers), then turns around and charges back South again at a similar speed. The trick is to make the flow work for you, and at all costs avoid battling ‘wind over tide’, when the sea conditions can become seriously nasty.

“Perhaps another reef.” A wind speed indicator made a brief appearance and registered thirty knots. Force six, gusting seven, which seems to inspire respect among yachties, especially when it hits you across the tide in the Alderney Race. Waves came at us straight out of a Japanese woodcut; big, growly bastards with their tops tumbling white above the boat’s cockpit. In the canyons of water between them, the boat would come more upright, sheltered from the wind, until they lifted us to their summits and slid beneath us, angry, all piss and vinegar. And on these summits the wind would hit us full on, blowing the boat on its side so that we stood on the edges of the cockpit benches with the deck at our backs. Division of labour was required. My friend handled the complicated stuff like navigating and working the sails. My job was simply to steer to a given course.

I was not a great success. “Steer for Herm,” he said, pointing at a low smudge of darker grey in the driving rain, marginally more solid than the cloud. “We’ll shelter in its lee.”

At which point we dropped into a trough between the waves that would have swallowed a London bus, soared up the valley wall, and were hit by another wave. It’s not the big bastards that irritate me, it’s the sneaky ones that jump up at the last minute to slap the side of the hull and send water spraying into your face. We dropped into the trough, spitting sea,all points of reference gone. At the top of the next wave, sure enough, there was the charcoal smudge of land, and I aimed at it.

“That’s Sark, not Herm!” My friend called in exasperation as he emerged from the chart table a few minutes later. A lesser man would have added ‘you idiot’. He didn’t. I did. “Can’t you feel the wind on your cheek?”

Wind on my cheek? Yes, I could feel the wind on my cheek. I gather it’s an aid to navigation. I could also feel more rain on my face than would be delivered by the average power shower, and I had half the English Channel inside my foul weather gear. But hey, ho! We altered course for Herm.

I can’t believe I did it again. But as we emerged from a trough, only one island was visible in the murk, and I steered for it. Alas, it was Sark again, not Herm. Long, uncomfortable tacks crawling our way sideways into the wind were wasted in a dash for the wrong rock. Unbelievably, he didn’t shout. He didn’t even reprimand. He just stared at Herm with water running down his face, and probably did a very slow count to ten.

His trial was not yet over. If you sail West at 5 knots, and there is a current to the North of 5 knots, your course over the ground will be North West. You can sail towards safety and go straight over rocks. By the time we were approaching our anchorage in the lee of Herm, both my glasses and the tiny ‘Course over Ground’ indicator were crusted with salt, and running with water. Clear instructions like “come to starboard to a course of 280” were wasted on a trainee helmsman who was effectively blind. Anchoring did not go well, even after we resorted to landlubber-friendly instructions such as “aim for the pair of rocks that look like a dog’s b****ks.”

Still, amazingly, there was no shouting. Just a sense of relief that was almost palpable when we were finally secure, although the mood in the cabin was initially subdued. Then a bottle of Scotland’s finest appeared, and we retold each other our own story. With the second glass, and the second retelling, the laughter began; great belly laughs as whisky and long friendship turned potential disaster into real humour.

I sense that the story of the man who couldn’t tell Herm from Sark will enliven his dinner table for years.

And mine.