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Friday, 15 March 2019

A Creative Retreat in Scotland

We arrived in the Highlands in the most glorious weather. When you’re driving towards a remote cottage with no electricity in the middle of winter, it helps. 

If you wait long enough - or you're lucky - you will get moments like this

The first job, after we’ve checked that the water (it comes direct from the stream) hasn’t frozen up, is always to get the coal fire going. It’s so cheering to look up and see a smoking chimney.

An uplifting sight
This year there were no mice in residence, so we were very soon settled. Only one problem for me: when I opened my laptop (it runs from a small solar panel, via a car battery) I discovered that I hadn’t got the files I thought I had and was therefore unable to do the writing I had planned.

Well, it turned out to be a blessing. Over the last fifty years I have entertained (or bored) any number of people with stories about my time as a kid from a council estate (public housing, if you’re American) on a scholarship at a public (i.e., private and posh) school. I have written many and many an opening passage to a book on the subject, but all of them degenerated into a rant about privilege, disaffection and social displacement. Once I’d got over the shock of seeing a blank space where the transferred files ought to have been it seemed as if a door had opened up. So much so that I had to talk a walk up a mountain and think about it.
It's hard not to be contemplative when you are confronted with a view like this
Over the next weeks I wrote a thousand words a day about my experiences at boarding school. I didn’t rant, I didn’t beat my breast and threaten to bring down a plague of boils on the teachers and prefects who made life so unpleasant back then. Instead I created a fictional lead character, wrote about him in the third person, and tried to see things through his eyes. I developed a supporting cast of characters - good guys and bad - and considered all the many things – good and bad – that I might do to them over the course of 300 pages. Such fun, even to think about it! I wove in as many references as I could to the times they lived in, because I think they were momentous. Thinking about the period 1961-3, I was able to reference: the assassination of Kennedy; the coldest winter in 300 years; the beginning of the British satire boom and the disintegration of the Conservative government; the explosion of media activity that heralded the arrival of the Beatles; the Great Train Robbery, the Cuban Missile Crisis; the shock of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight; the thrilling exposures of the Profumo scandal (who had ever imagined that posh people were so lascivious?) and the startling impact of the first Doctor Who episode on BBC TV.

I don’t know what it’ll come to, but I am enjoying it. More than that, I feel relieved of a burden. I feel liberated. I have rarely written fiction – just two novels, a few stories and that’s about it – but I am warming to the idea.
There was a winter flowering cherry outside, struggling to bloom. We did a little pruning... and brought a few stems inside



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  2. Alan: Obviously, your muse was tired of the plan and wanted to roam a bit. As a writer of personal essays, I have learned that nobody is interested in rants, so one has to find another way. Everybody loves a story (nonfiction or fiction) so if you can turn your vengeful thoughts into a story, it's much better. Sounds like you've managed that.

    P.S. Thanks for explaining "council estate." I would have been picturing a Downton Abbey setup :-)


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