Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Fire That Consumes

Out here in remotest rural France, seated beside a roaring fire, I feel the warmth of all the good vibes that have been bestowed on me this year - the generosity, support and encouragement from my friends and family. Yet I'm

happy to let their kindness burn up in the wood stove of my ambition. This is my conceit, to be the fire that consumes rather than warms.

I leveled that harsh criticism at a very dear friend of mine recently, someone who's done more to support me these past few years than any other person. At the time, harsh criticism seemed the only way to express my gratitude. But now I'm one dear friend poorer.

That's why I'm determined to get it right this tim e, and pay proper tribute to Martin and Sally for the loan of their cottage in Capelle-lès-Hesdin. Martin, my publisher, is a good friend whom I've known for years. He keeps a steady course and always manages to sail through rough seas with an even keel. Two years ago he rescued me from the clutches of hell, with the offer of a publishing deal for GORILLALAND, and has helped steer me between careers in wildlife conservation and publishing.

Sally's an extraordinary woman, a solicitor who chooses to put her formidable powers of persuasion to rescuing battered women when she could be making a fortune elsewhere. That's why her friendship means so much to me. If it weren't for the two of them - not just their generosity but their understanding - I'd be sizing up the beams.

The idea was to set me up somewhere secluded where I could concentrate on completing the manuscript for PIRATES, my next novel. So, here I am, alone in their 17th Century house in northern France, filling the hours, as I have been doing for the past three weeks, with everything it is possible to do in a place like this, except write my manuscript.

It's not often I experience such solitude. There was the time in 1981 when I spent a few weeks on an island in Lake Ontario, trying to write a play. Then in 1986 at The Quarry at Tuesley Manor in Surrey, and as recently as December 2009 when I spent two weeks alone in a cabin upstate New York. Each occasion was an act of faith and kindness on the part of a friend who believed in my talents. And each time I trusted the results would prove their generosity. But thirty years later and I'm still unable to make isolation work for my writing.

"There were all the technical problems. But the fire and the night and the stars made them all seem small."
- Ernest Hemingway

I just put down Hemingway's True at First Light, and I'm feeling his style. Long sentences that repeat words, sometimes with just one jaded word between them, meandering descriptions of African mornings, hunting prowess, and seemingly harmless conversations with local safari guides. No one comes closer to describing the Africa I know than Papa Hemingway.

Coincidently, the thing that has occupied more of my time than anything else while in Hesdin is my effort to set up a couple of gorilla safaris for some Hollywood clients. They're prepared to pay top dollar but they've just not given me enough time. Communications has been a big challenge. I bought a useful device made by Hwayei, an elegant little white tablet that fits into the palm of your hand. It uses a micro SIM to generate a wireless Internet hub that connects all the computers within range. Bandwidth is seriously lacking though. There's virtually no fast network in this little backwater - not for Orange customers that is. Add the hassle of topping up credit when it runs out, as it just has, when the nearest shop's a half-hour bike ride away, downhill.

It's as peaceful as an ashram here. But for birdsong, lowing and the wind through trees, all is quiet, though my heart pounds like a native drum in the forest. Why such anxiety in so tranquil a place? Is the house haunted? Yes, there are ghosts here, but they're all ones I brought with me. That's just it... I'm never alone.

From time to time I receive curious visitors: the lean and elusive hunting dog that scampers on to the lawn for a shit, the birds that chatter from every branch, and

a family of rabbits straight out of Enid Blyton. But I have never seen any people, not even from the busy farm next door. I hear machines and cows all day and night but, even when I go a roaming with my wireless hub in one hand and my iPad in the other like some lost prophet with asymmetrical laws, no one ever materializes. No need to worry about making impressions then.

I no longer try to make a good impression anywhere but in my novels. I've been conducting myself with dignity, as Kigongo suggested, which is new for me, but I don't give a damn what anyone thinks. All I really want is to retreat to the African wilderness where, like Papa, I'll need do nothing more than listen to wood pigeons and wind in dry grass, and write novels. It's where I feel most at home.

To anyone who has spent a lifetime traveling to the far ends of the earth, as I have, home is an abstract idea. For me, any sense of belonging is always fleeting. Not that I don't crave it. I do, with all the fibre in my heart, body and soul. But I'll throw my hat anywhere I'm allowed to spend the night, and call it home.

This little cottage in Capelle-lès-Hesdin feels like home. There's a simpler vibe here. I'm inconspicuous. Live and let live; love and let love... It's another reason I am so grateful to Martin and Sally, they've given me a home these past three weeks.

It's a peculiar house. The angled windowsills and steep roofing all warn of heavy winter storms. Yet its age and isolation tell another story. It was built around the time Queen Nzinga was on the throne in Angola, pitting the Dutch against the Portuguese, and destroying the Kingdom of Kongo. Thank you France for taking a back seat for the first three hundred years of European colonialism. You were busy fighting the English, I know, and building little houses for your peeps to live in. I understand
It's sometime later and I find myself again cozied up to a blazing fire, sitting with my wireless keyboard on my lap and my iPad on the coffee table next to a half-finished bottle of Black Label, the current issue of The Economist, my moleskin note pad, two phones - one for France, one for Britain - my reading glasses, a small pipe and small stash to burn therein.
There's no better soundtrack for this setting than Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, Fourth Movement. Nothing soothes a homeless heart like sentimental Teutonic strings. Yet the beat goes on.

I'll be leaving in a day's time. Pity. Thank you Martin and Sally for lending me your ancient cottage to write my book. I wish I could have made more of the opportunity, though it has been a balm to this tortured soul, even if I didn't manage to complete my manuscript. I will soon.

How strange the fire recalls the African bush: the last few embers steadily dwindling, along with the contents of a bottle of Scotch, and a sense that other creatures are out there hunting, staying up much later than is sensible - early rise creeping up with the dawn - but reluctant to sleep until the last flames have burned down. And after all the wood is consumed, there is still warmth.
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Location:Rue de l'Obled, Capelle-lès-Hesdin, France