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Posts from the ‘The Somerset Levels’ Category

Look, what I really mean is…(reading the subtext)

The biggest problem with writing is it depends on words.
“Well Duh,” I hear you say, but what I mean is everything I write is mashed up into an approximation of meaning and delivered to you, the reader. You then put your understanding on the words and it is a miracle we ever communicate at all. Not only are there as many meanings for each word as there are people, there’s context, experience, bloody awful computer dictionaries and – THE SUBTEXT.

We might say one thing – “Go and make a cup of tea”, for example, but we actually mean something very different. What we really mean is “Go and make enough tea for us both/(insert as many people as are in the room at the time here). Get milk in a jug or some suitable container, bring sugar for the unreconstructed over 40s, remember teaspoons, put all on a tray preferably with saucers if you are actually using cups and bring it back here as fast as you can. And don’t forget the biscuits”.

Now most of us understand this type of verbal shorthand or pick it up as we go along. Some poor souls never get the hang of it and spend their lives in a fog of misery, probably in fairly menial jobs because exam papers are stuffed full of this sort of subtext.

And then there are things you see that tell a whole, horribly and often hilarious story in a single word. I understand there are signs under the gel dispensers in many southern hospitals warning people not to drink it (I know Рdisgusting).  Well, up here in the North-East we have neat little notices saying :

DO NOT SMOKE OR USE NAKED FLAMES FOR TEN MINUTES AFTER APPLICATION.

Nothing more needs to be said. Twelve words telling a vivid and rather horrible story.

I was visiting a minor stately home in Essex recently and picked up a leaflet outlining their summer attractions. Falconry displays! Oh, my favourite! Then I read down the page to see the following note.

PLEASE DO NOT BRING SMALL PETS TO THE FLYING DISPLAYS EVEN IF THEY ARE ON LEADS.

A vision flashed through my head – “Fluffy!!! Noooo….”

Fishing sign

Overhead power lines

On a recent trip to the Levels I came across a sign beside a lovely, calm bit of the canal. I am so stealing this one for a cameo in the fourth Somerset book.

Just two short sentences can mean so much and we all have our own pictures, conjured up by our own experiences and lives. Maybe this is what “Death of the Author” entails. I can be as descriptive and eloquent as I want but in the end what you, the reader, experience is not what I really mean but what it means to you. A symbiotic partnership, when it works. So thank you for all the work you put into my books. They wouldn’t be at all successful without you.

Return to the Levels

I have wanted to return to the Levels in Somerset for some time. When I began writing the “Alex Hastings” books in 2010 my tutor, Carol Clewlow, told me I needed to find a setting strong enough to be another character in the story and the Levels soon became just that. I left Somerset twenty five years ago and apart from a quick trip by car one day whilst staying near Bath have not been back. Instead I hunted through second-hand shops for maps and picture books dated around 1980 and used the internet to look at locations and older photographs. Mixing this together with my memories and a pinch of imagination, I have written about the Levels for the last four years but I got a bit concerned I might be using too much imagination as the memories began to fade.

The chance to revisit this beautiful area came in the form of the annual rail excursion arranged by our local train enthusiasts. Not only could I get down to Somerset for a weekend, I could do it in style as the train uses first class Pullman carriages. The chance was too good to miss and I set off to see if I had somehow dreamed this mystical landscape. I hadn’t.
Levels 2015
We spent a long, gloriously sunny day driving across the Levels, stopping for me to photograph at intervals. Some pictures were obvious and attractive – the encircling hills, Glastonbury Tor in the distance. Others probably have less universal appeal – the rusty sluice gate, for example. And the drowned cygnet. As we bounced along one road (it did have grass growing down the middle so probably should have been avoided) I spotted some peat workings, a fascinating mix of rich dark earth, rushes and water oozing from the torn land. Leaping out I began to photograph, much to the interest of a lady who had set up a picnic table and chairs by the road. As I looked around I realized I was standing opposite the exact building I had used in “The Drowners” as Derek Johns’ hiding place, only then it had been closed according to the pictures on the net. The lady beckoned me over and asked what I was doing. I tried to explain and she laughed. “That’s my father’s business,” she said. I told her it was in a crime novel and gave her a bookmark. Strange how things can happen like that.
Levels 2015 2
And the image of the Levels I brought back? Despite the terrible floods, scars from which can still be seen in a number of areas, they are still quite lovely. The breeze blows almost constantly but on a fine day this sets up just a whisper in the warm air. It is hard to believe there are so many greens in the world, so varied is the foliage. There are vivid patches of golden hay, red and black cows and delightful, playful cream and tan goats. Swans drift in the canals and streams that catch the sunlight and send it, broken and glittering across the eyes. I saw so many tiny paths and little bridges and wanted to follow and cross them all. I will be going back soon, to explore some more but for now I have the Levels in my heart and my mind. it’s time to get serious about the next book.