I’ve produced a lot of words over the last two decades. This is not an archive of all of them, but you might call it the edited highlights.
It includes reportage from Britain and the wider world, book reviews, interviews, debates, talks and other ephemera, culled from Fleet Street papers, magazines, books, the programmes of plays, websites and more.
Some time ago I also put together some advice for writers, and thoughts on the writing life.
I live in a small market town in south Cumbria.
The town sits in a low agricultural bowl, surrounded by rivers which rise from the surrounding hills and flow under, through and around the town and out to the sea. Five miles to the north, the Lake District fells begin. Less than two miles to the south is Morecambe Bay.
Before I moved here, I had no real awareness of the Bay. I knew that Morecambe was a seaside town, but I’d never been there. I heard on the news about the deaths of the Chinese cockle pickers here a few years back, and that seemed grim and strange. But I didn’t know how big and curious and captivating a place the Bay was.
I am, slowly, beginning to get it. I am beginning to see that the Bay is a great entity in itself, a living system; not just a backdrop to human activities but a parallel world. This is the largest continual intertidal area in Britain; more than 300 square kilometres of shifting mud and sand, river estuaries, saltmarshes and sea life. The weather can change its character in minutes, and the position of the sun, the time of year, alters its look and feel. But the sea, above all, sets the mood. High tide down at Bardsea brings the waters almost to the edge of the sea road, with only a barrier of silted rushes between solid land and salt water. But at low tide, everything changes. At low tide Morecambe Bay becomes liminal space, a universe entire of itself.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a hermit. I can remember in particular a strange background desire I had for some years to live alone in a pine forest. Why a pine forest? I have no real idea. I have never spent much time at all in a real pine forest (as opposed to the serried ranks of plantation pines which layer the hills of the north of England.) But that was where I wanted to be. I could imagine myself dwelling in the dark, dank heart of a pinewood. Life there, I knew, would be more intense, more magical, than life at home.
For a time, as a romantic and imaginative child, I entertained the idea that my desire to be surrounded by pines was due to my having been a Viking in a previous life. I was fascinated by the Vikings: their gods and their runes and the dark magic in their cold fjord culture. Looking back now, I suspect that the root cause was more likely to be an overdose of Tolkien, followed later by Stephen Donaldson and Ursula Le Guin. There were a lot of wizards in my childhood.
The handle, which varies in length according to the height of its user, and in some cases is made by that user to his or her specifications, is like most of the other parts of the tool in that it has a name and thus a character of its own. I call it the snath, as do most of us in this country, though variations include the snathe, the snaithe, the snead and the sned. Onto the snath are attached two hand grips, adjusted for the height of the user. On the bottom of the snath is a small hole, a rubberised protector and a metal D-ring with two hex sockets. Into this little assemblage slides the tang of the blade.
This thin crescent of steel is the fulcrum of the whole tool. From the genus blade fans out a number of ever-evolving species, each seeking out and colonising new niches. My collection includes a number of grass blades of varying styles &emdash; a Luxor, a Profisense, an Austrian and a new, elegant Concari Felice blade that I’ve not even tried yet &emdash; whose lengths vary between 60 and 85 centimetres. I also have a couple of ditch blades (which despite the name are not used for mowing ditches particularly, but are all-purpose cutting tools which can manage anything from fine grass to tousled brambles) and a bush blade, which is as thick as a billhook and can take down small trees. These are the big mammals you can see and hear. Beneath and around them scuttle any number of harder-to-spot competitors for the summer grass, all finding their place in the ecosystem of the tool.
The coming loss of the ash tree is a mythological blow
What is the Green Man: an old nature spirit, or a symbol of resistance to the Norman oppression of the English?
An interview with Doug and Kris Tompkins, the founders of one of the world’s most remarkable conservation efforts