Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Home from Northern Ireland

I'm home from a wettish week in Northern Ireland. I wish I didn't have to begin by commenting on the weather - but I can't help being a bit British about this, having a quick moan, mentioning a flood or two and gales that buffeted my little car.

There, having got that out of the way, I'll tell you about some of the lovely places I went to. This is the waterfall at Glengariff - raging after all the rain (oops, hadn't meant to slip in another weather reference), in a little glen than smelled of wet ferns and garlic.

I clambered on up through the soggy trees, and finally emerged to this view - across the top of the glen and down to the sea. For company: skylarks and a few sheep.

Did I get lost? Of course I did. But not hopelessly lost - I came down on the right side of the valley, and knew roughly how to get back to the start. Though, unlike many occasions when I've been lost, I didn't meet an unlikely characters to weave into a story.

This picture is taken at Dunluce Castle. I was trying to capture the cliffs, which looked magnificent and threatening under those grey skies. And the seagull (I must be truthful here) flew across as I pressed the shutter. So this picture is a wonderful accident.

I took this from a rope bridge - so I was swinging about in the wind at the time. But the sea was clear and playing with cliffs. The gulls cried, wind ruffled the grasses and all was right with the world.

Sorry, no pictures of guinness (though I drank plenty). Nor the Giant's Causeway - which is as impressive as all the photos suggest but you know what that looks like. I just wanted to give you a taster of Antrim's beauty.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

First Impressions

Do first impressions matter? Writers are told to grab the reader's attention on the first page. Psychologists tell us we make decisions about the people we meet within second. And towns?

I've been in Carrickfergus, in Northern Ireland, for less than two days. I shall be meeting friends on the north coast on Friday, but came early - to have a potter about. And I came to Carrickfergus because I know the traditional song, especially the version by Jim McCann with The Dubliners (you can hear it here).

The people I've met have been kind and welcoming. But the town itself ... many streets in the town are dug up, with red barriers and uneven pavements and bits of rubble in corners. I haven't seen a notice telling me if this is gas or water or just general mending; I'm sure it has to be done and will be wonderful when it's finished, but it looks a bit ragged and downtrodden at the moment.

I'm not deterred by a few road works. I can see beyond a few holes in the roads (I've been to Nepal, after all!). This is Ireland - I'm here for the craic. So I wandered out in the early evening - about six o'clock, to think where I might eat, if there was a bar with music where I might tap my feet and down a guinness.

To find rows of shuttered shops. Grey shutters, cluttered down and leaving the streets looking abandoned. It's light until after ten o'clock at this time of year - that's hours when people could be out and about, enjoying the evening. But anyone tempted into the town centre is met with grim line of shutters and streets full of rubble.

I've a map, and list of restaurants - the wine bar by the harbour is open in the evenings, as is the Chinese restaurant. And a Weatherspoons. An Italian round the corner from my hotel closes at seven o'clock; the 'bistro' at four-thirty.

I'm only here for a couple of days. Not long enough to understand this history of this shut-upness in the evenings. I haven't met anyone yet I feel able to ask if this goes back to the Troubles, if I'm simply looking in the wrong place to find the craic. I can't get to grips with the story of Carrickfergus that might explain it all.

But as a first impression, it's not good. Which is a shame, as Antrim is beautiful - I spent yesterday walking around the glens, savouring the spray of the waterfalls, the smell of garlic in the forest, the glorious views down to the coast. (Today I spent in the rain. Which is how I had time to write this!)

First impressions can be misleading. I hope mine is. Does anyone have tales of first impressions that are upended when you get to know somewhere better? That includes books, as well as towns.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

I'm off again, but not for long.

I'm going to Ireland, tomorrow, for a week. So this is a short post because I haven't packed yet. Or done the washing. Though I have drooled over the guidebook so know roughly where I'm going. (Well, I've looked at the pictures.)

Why - because a friend (Cath - good to know - and her family, for those of you who have read the book) suggested walking the Antrim coast. I'd be bonkers to turn down an opportunity like that.

And I shall have a few extra days while I'm there. Because ... I can. Do I really need a reason? I've never been to Northern Ireland before, so there's some exploring to do. Stories to discover. Songs to sing. Paths to walk.

I have no idea how things will shape up on the blog-front. If it tips with rain I might be all over the internet. Or I might be too busy with a guinness or two. I know only that I'll have a great time - and I'll post some photos and tell you all about it when I get back.

Well, maybe not all about it. My daughters might be listening.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

What if . . .

Is this a game you play?

What if I were not in this place, with these people, what would I really want to do? It's a cheats' game really, because you are, for whatever reason, in this place with these people - and you must have made some choices along the way for it to be so.

But play it for a moment - if you could choose anything at all, right now, what would you choose to do?

That is what solo travelling is like. For a start, it's scary. There is no-one helping you to make any decisions - there's just you and your Lonely Planet (or whatever guidebook you are using) and your imagination. What do I want to see? Where do I want to go? How shall I get there? With a world-full of choices and no-one but yourself to fall back on (or blame if it all goes wrong) it can feel terrifying. Every day, every decision, is full of risk - simply by being unknown.

But - once you unpick that general terror, that 'I can't' feeling (left over from childhood, when even crossing the road on your own was an adventure), you will realise that you can. You can walk this street, that street, visit this museum, that palace, or simply sit in the other cafe and watch people.

My days always have a rhythm. I stop three times a day, for food - almost always sitting down. That gives me pausing time - time to reflect on how the day is going, maybe rethink what I'm going to do next. It also gives days a structure, which I need (not everyone does). Plus I need little encouragement to stop for tea or coffee.

But, even then, every day has hours when I face the 'what now?' question. What is it that I want to do, with this time of mine, when all I have to fall back on is my guidebook. It is, truly, liberating. I am free to see what I need to see, hear what I need to hear, write what I need to write, talk to whoever I want to talk to, smell what I don't always want to smell . . .

Indulgent? In some ways, yes. And a privilege.

And it sounds hugely self-absorbing. Yet it isn't. For the only way, really, to make sense of this big world we are in is to talk with other people who live in it. To discover that they have different ways of exploring, and explaining, the world to themselves - and will share that with you if you make time to listen.

Of course there are parallels with writing fiction. We throw our characters into the world and try to walk alongside them through all the challenges we hurl their way. But it's not always so easy to do it for ourselves.

So what if ... you were free to do whatever you wanted, right now? Play along, just for five minutes. Scary? Exhilarating? Who, maybe, is the one person you'd love to have a conversation with? And what might he or she teach you?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The dialogue between music, poetry, and prose.

As some of you know, I spent last weekend at a Folk Festival, dossing about like an old hippy and generally enjoying myself. There was singing, and dancing, and storytelling. Some of the songs were new, some of the stories were old ...

And that got me thinking. I wonder how many of you have come across Les Barker. Click here for an extract of his work (those of you outside the UK, or who have never come across the shipping forecast, might struggle to understand in his first poem - fast forward, there is more). He has retired now, but used to appear with a small band called Mrs Ackroyd - who are still setting his poems to music and appearing at festivals (I couldn't find a link with clear diction, and most of the humour is in the wordplay) and are equally funny.

The point? The line between his poetry and the songs are often blurred. I have heard him speak his lines while a chorus sings behind him. And some of his poems melt into stories. This weekend I heard Ursula Holden Gill for the first time - she's a storyteller, who punctuates her performance with clog dances and songs. Her stories are poetic - such is the lyricism of her writing.

So where does song end and poetry begin? Or poems end and story begin?  And does it matter?

No - I would argue that it doesn't. Not in those early, primitive, playing-with-ideas days.

I know - publishers need to slot us into genres. It makes life easier for the marketing gurus. And, if we're chasing sales, then we have to attend to that eventually.

But creativity is different. It begins outside genre boxes, comes from unexpected places that can't be always be slotted into neat categories. We should be able to celebrate such creativity, to play with it, before putting on our sensible hat and thinking about the confines of genre.

And long may the festivals offer platforms to people whose work defies categorisation. (Or are you a planner - who begins with genre and works outwards from there? I'd love to hear a different point of view.)

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A bit of song and dance.

I spent the Bank Holiday at Chippenham Folk Festival. Not to avoid the Jubilee, but because it's how I always spend the late May Bank Holiday.

Some people spend the summer going from festival to festival. Every Friday they pack tents and sleeping bags, dancing kit, fiddles and accordions, and trek off to Towersey or Warwick or Cambridge. I go to just one - that's knackering enough.

Some of you may have seen Jenny Woolf's post about morris dancing (see the link here), with some great clips of dancers in all their finery. What, I wonder, do all those people do in real life? When the boots and bells are packed away, the beards trimmed, flowers plucked from hair - are they accountants? Plumbers? Nursery nurses?

And those of us singing our hearts out? This year saw me joining the chorus of: 'What can you give a nudist for his birthday?', (first sung by Gracie Field - the original is here - so you can seen how flexible the word 'folk' is used) with the same enthusiasm I recently poured into singing Zadok the Priest with a local choir. A couple of years ago I caught myself singing, 'Oh, I'm a one-eyed cormorant looking for a shag!' (sorry, it's not on youtube) and tried to connect this singing woman with the orthodox one who wanders round the supermarket and chooses between trout and salmon.

I love this disconnect. And it's possibly one of the things I love about travelling. That moment of standing a little outside myself and noticing - this is me, doing this thing, singing this song, climbing this mountain, looking for tigers. A multiple personality? No - facets of myself that I let out to play occasionally.

And you - do you go out and surprise yourself? Do you enjoy that 'bloody hell, this is me' moment, or does it send you scuttling home for tea and cake? (Sometimes I do the cake thing sometimes, too!)