Some background behind writing the first draft of Black Box.
As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘fling’ would involve a 9-10 day solo writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross. Boy, I know how to party! Actually, I can’t think of anything more pleasurable (solo). It would be my third visit to the croft – a private residence and long-time family shieling which I had the good fortune to gain access to through a chance encounter at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend, where I was performing five years ago. Belonging to a musician and eco-minded soul, the old fisherman’s cottage, nestled within its private cove at the end of ¾ miles of rocky track overlooking Gairloch Bay, radiates many a well-spent summer, family holiday and contentedly peaceful time simply looking out over the sea-loch. That view – from the conservatory – would be all mine for the next few days as I wrote at the desk there. Rush-hour at the croft would involve a family of sheep munching their way past (or, excitingly, a pine-marten hopping over the shore-line, a heron taking flight, a pod of porpoises breaking, a seal spyhopping, or a shy sea-otter ruckling the smooth membrane of the brine).
Every couple of days the local fisherman would come and check on his lobster pots – perhaps the only person I’d see from one day to the next, unless I trekked the seven or eight miles into town to check my emails and recharge my phone at the Gale Centre, a fabulous community initiative located in the old tourist information centre, or savouring the soul coffee, ‘mountain scones’ and ambience of the hip Mountain Coffee Company, with its John Muir quotes and well-stocked bookshop. The croft has no electricity – only gas, for the oven, and, mercifully, shower. So I couldn’t rely upon my netbook to stay the distance. The last thing I wanted was for it to cut out half-way through a chapter. So I wrote long-hand, which I got into after the initial sluggishness melted away. I would heat a hot-water bottle in the day to keep warm when the temperature dropped (it was at times ten degrees cooler than the south) and fire up the log-burner at night. Gas-light and candle-light made some evening reading possible, but not much writing, so I mainly worked in the mornings, making the most of the light and a fresh-head (well, not that fresh after a wee dram or two for a night-cap). But a pot of strong coffee soon enabled my brain to achieve lift-off.
For it was in this low-tech setting that I worked upon my new science fiction novel, which has suddenly found its way to the top of my ‘to do’ list after winning Literature Works’ One Giant Write SF novel competition, which I entered in the summer with three chapters and a synopsis, not suspecting I was actually going to win. I’ve entered so many such competitions, so I usually try and forget about them after I’ve sent off my entry. I literally discovered I’d won a couple of days before heading north, so rapidly had to prepare materials for my three-week trip, in case inspiration struck.
And it did! Well, I would say it didn’t exactly strike: I had to cosh it over the head and drag it back to the croft – press-ganging it into service on a daily basis whether it wanted to or not. Perhaps the Muse had other plans and was just about to gambol over the hill to shower her favours on some wandering poet. Instead I forced her into my chilly, hellish paradigm – subjecting her to long exposure to deep space and nightmarish scenarios. Poor gal! And yet she did oblige me, after some cajoling (i.e. Apollo levels of ‘rocket fuel’).
At first, sitting down at that desk, staring at that blank page, was, I have to admit daunting. There I was, ten-days in a croft, with nowhere to hide. It was like looking at a map of Antarctica. But, one step at a time, even the vastest continent can be crossed. And so I plodded on, pushing ink, dragging my sled of ideas. I find it can often take a day or two to get into the zone. At first it feels impossible to write – what an absurd notion! Who are you kidding? You’re not Hemingway, standing manfully at your Remington, hammering away, chomping a cigar, but a sleepy Slow Loris, gummy-eyed in your hammock of dreams. The page yawns. The impotent pen hangs there uselessly. One wades through the bog of ineloquence. But eventually, almost always, something happens, and you start to bog-trot, jog, run, and then, next thing you know, you’re flying.
I found my remote location, and the logistics it entails – long exhausting treks to the nearest town for provisions, lugging back groceries over the rocky track; lashing the cover to my bike in high winds; drying dripping clothes by the fire; going to the loo beneath profoundly dark skies slashed open by the bright wound of the Milky Way; the endless soundtrack of buffeting wind, rain rattling on the conservatory roof, big humanless silences – strangely apt and very conducive to my project.
There is something perhaps blindingly obvious about the massive, dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Scotland that makes you think big, outside of the box, beyond the human. Dwarfed by the mountains – in Gairloch’s case, the jagged peaks of the Torridons – the human presence on the face of the planet is put into perspective. We are less important than we realise. The fragile structures we create are shanty towns compared to the majesty and magnitude of the natural world. And yet humans are undeniably having a significant and long-lasting effect on the biosphere. The mess we have made of this, our one precious home, will outlive us for millennia. This is indeed the Age of the Anthropocene. The outlook does look bleak. Boltholes like the croft are certainly enticing when one thinks of things to come. Some have already gone off grid, or are skilling up for power down. It is enough to bring out the survivalist in all of us – but unless you have the skills, land and community to match, it is a delusional fantasy. And a misanthropic one. No man is an island. When one lives in such an isolated place one realizes how important human contact is, how vital a friendly neighbour. Paradoxically, the further away from people you live, the more you need them. To jumpstart your car if you have flat-batteries, to pick up some groceries if lacking mobility, some medicine if illness strikes, call a doctor, or simply to spend a few minutes chatting, asking how you’re fairing, maintain your connection with the human race.
In contemplating bleak outlooks for humanity, I realised I was following, in my own small way, in the giant footsteps of George Orwell, who, during 1946-1949, spent time on the isle of Jura, at Barnhill, whilst working on his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. I can see why his location would have served him well. But I found myself seeing beyond the ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, as Orwell’s big brother imagined the future. Instead of a (predictable, default) dystopia, or a naïve utopia, I found myself envisioning something more balanced, or subjective, an ‘Ustopia’ perhaps, to use Margaret Atwood’s witty, hybrid term. One (wo)man’s utopia is another wo(man)’s dystopia, after all. And we carry our demons with us. A central idea of my novel is that: no matter how far in the universe we travel we will always have to confront our shadow.
The paradox of paradise is – if you find it, you destroy it. But I was determined not to leave this little Eden any the worse for my visit, which meant emptying the loo, replenishing the log-pile and packing out all my rubbish and recycling, as well as the usual cleaning, turning off of gas and water, ensuring all surfaces were free of mice-temptation, and any preservable food-stuffs sealed safely away. It reminded me of living on a narrow-boat. You had to take care of everything yourself – living lightly, leaving only diminishing ripples and good will in your wake.
I left the croft after nine nights and ten mornings with a third of my novel written (at least in ‘dirty first draft’ form). However squawling, red-faced and ugly my words at this stage, I had made a start. My last full day was blessed with golden sunshine and a glorious sunset. I girded my loins for the long ride south (over 600 miles on two wheels), but for one last evening, savoured the stillness, the silence and the solitude.
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