I tweeted a link to this some time last year and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it, so here it is again on the blog. Still makes me smile. Oh Newquay, if only you knew…
I tweeted a link to this some time last year and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it, so here it is again on the blog. Still makes me smile. Oh Newquay, if only you knew…
Welcome. I sit, often freezing, in a garret in South London wearing fingerless gloves and writing romantic novels set in Cornwall. A time-honoured tradition, you might think, and despite the resultant penury I am very happy to do this. But alas, it would seem that it is no longer viable for the writer to be a shy and reclusive oddball.
I have long procrastinated over producing a blog since I feared it might become a distraction from the actual business of novel-writing. However the modern world decrees that I must have a ‘platform’. I’m not quite sure what this is, but gather I must raise my head above the hordes upon my online soapbox or virtual fourth plinth. I must also be ‘media savvy’, and I don’t think messing about on Twitter for a year and a half counts.
Ah yes, Twitter. Many of you arriving here will know me by my Twitter ‘persona’ @coradevine. I should say from the off that I had no idea what I was getting into when I first made that innocent foray into the social networking site that is Twitter. I blithely picked a profile name (my pen name, of course, that’ll do). Before I knew it @coradevine rapidly, some might say rampantly, took on a persona of her own. Part Georgian trollop, part medieval princess, she is a schizophrenic splicing of Nell Gwynne, The Lady of Shalott, and would-be surfer girl. I am also upon occasion a Cornish rum-smuggler and a banker-worrying masked highwayman. Somewhere in all this multiple personality mayhem I assume and dare hope is still me, just saying hi to people and ‘clinking’ the occasional glass of virtual wine.
I dwell on the Twitter personality for a reason. When I first signed up to this madness I also carelessly entered the following bio: ‘Renaissance woman: writer, artist, thinker, drinker, rambler, idler, dreamer’. It was a throwaway stream of consciousness; I didn’t care, I had one follower! And as I said, I did not know what I was getting into. With shocking speed I found myself embroiled in a world of mysterious if entertaining historical ‘spectres’, and all because I had tapped out the word ‘Renaissance’. And so, I confess now that this was tongue-in-cheek; a self-mocking gibe at my own pretentiousness. And yet… and yet I am all of those things listed. I love how every corner of interest, whether garnered from the arts, science and literature, or indeed rambling so often correlates, each informing the other. I don’t want to limit myself; I don’t think anyone should. I cannot put it better than Tom Hodgkinson in his wonderfully inspiring book ‘How To Be Free’:
‘It is wise to reject utterly as a piece of bourgeois propaganda the oppressive aphorism ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. No: you can do lots of things. You can chop wood and carry water and write poems. You can combine small holding with software design.’
And so, this blog will also appear multi-faceted. Whilst the main business of my day is the writing and development of my novels, there are, I’m sure you will agree, enough writers out there blogging about the angst of being a writer, and the formidable route to being published. So I thought I’d write about something completely different: my adventures and observations garnered from yomping around this land’s ancient footpaths with a motley bunch of miscreant… I mean friends. But there will also be Art. And there will be revelations of my sordid decline into an unhealthy obsession with surfing culture… and other rants and idle ramblings. But you’ll see. Take a look around; it may all appear a bit ‘rustic’ to begin with, and undoubtedly will require tweaking, but if you like the cut of my jib then please do come back and visit from time to time.
I am intending to e-publish; sample chapters and links to my work will follow once I’ve figured it all out. But in the meantime, if you’re involved in publishing of any kind, pray come hither! Say hello.
Huzzah! For all idlers, ramblers, dreamers and flaneurs, there is now an Idler Academy.
I have a confession to make.
I am a kook. That’s right, a kook, a shubie, a sponge-riding paddlepuss, a shark-biscuit. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about this means that despite an obsession of many years standing, I have never stood up on a surfboard. Oh well, I’ve body-boarded of course, when not tragically padding around the land-locked confines of South London in flip-flops and Finisterre; but I have never stood up. My shame in this is palpable, but somehow I can’t help myself.
I have always been attracted to the surfing lifestyle, from the spiritual ancient Hawaiian Alaia-riders to the easy, laid-back images of sun-bleached California beach boys and girls. But I always felt it was something inaccessible to me. And then I started writing a novel set in Cornwall, and this was to prove my downfall. Surfing is an inherent part of the Cornish culture and, what started as innocuous research soon became rabid addiction. Suddenly I found myself in the unenviable position of beginning to understand, with some fervour, what a glassy wave was without ever having experienced it. Can you imagine the torment?
Photograph by C Devine
In my defence, my dithering is due to… well, fear. Oh, and the fact that for most of the time I am nowhere near a wave. That doesn’t help. And while I’m trawling out the excuses, I should add that for too many years I have always had a young child with me, keeping me largely confined to the white water, or at least within a safe distance should potential rescue from drowning be required. And I believe I’m supposed to keep an eye on her too. One day, I told myself… one day my daughter will be old enough and a strong enough swimmer for us to take surfing lessons together. This plan was three-fold: Not only would we have great fun learning together, but I could hold before me a living sign, a symbol of my late christening to the cult. Here, I could say; look: this is the reason for my delay. But furthermore, I would have a prop; I could not be held up to so much ridicule for my great age, for I could claim to be there in the interests of my daughter; learning with her, taking an interest, helping and encouraging, if you will. What a good sport.
Except after years of having to be dragged protesting and blue from the ocean after hours of body-boarding fun, my daughter reneged on the deal. Last year I spent our usual summer break in Cornwall alone in the waves while she lay snuggled under a duvet in our rented cottage reading the entire collection of some VAMPIRE novels. I know. Frustratingly, everyone I complained to said I should be happy that she was reading anything so avidly. Some even claimed these books were actually quite good. Harrumph. The fact remained I was left in the tricky position of being, well, a middle-aged* woman who wanted to surf. But, like you, I’m not really middle-aged. I’m still a girl in my heart and a surfer girl at that. But people can be so judgmental.
(*I struggled to think of a better phrase than ‘middle aged’, and I don’t think there is one! The best I could come up with was mid-lifer, which is just as bad. It strikes me as odd that the vast part of our lives – you know, that really, really long bit in-between the first spark of youth and the still-burning embers of old age – should be thought of so disparagingly. It’s a hell of a long time to feel negative about yourself. If anyone can provide a more life-affirming word or description I’d be interested to hear it…)
To be fair to the lovely people of Cornwall, nobody has ever laughed, to my face at least, when I’ve been for wetsuit-fittings. Nobody has actually looked openly startled as I have marched, board under arm across the beach towards the ocean. If anything, there is a kindness in their gaze that borders on pity for the poor ‘just-down-from-London’ body-boarder who must fight for a space in the confined, safe pen that the shrewd lifeguards allow us to play in. Because when I say I body-board, I don’t mean real body-boarding, with flippers and everything, in proper green waves; oh no; read on.
There is nothing wrong with having fun in the safe, flagged shallow waters. But with each passing year, this has become an increasing frustration, and I have watched the freedom and space enjoyed by the ‘real’ surfers in the line-up with a jealous eye. No matter how deep I have dared venture, with as I said, one parental eye on my daughter, I would still end up with some over-excited blob of a child and his foam board hitching a ride on my back, or have some idiot father recklessly shove his offspring into the face of the oncoming surf – and myself- in an inflatable dinghy. Time and again I would have to bring up the nose of my board mid-ride to prevent crashing into some lumpen paddling holidaymaker with several shivering toddlers in tow. This was all so far removed from that first time years ago when I had first properly caught a wave and shrieked aloud with delight at the sheer speed and energy that propelled me. This was not the being at one with nature that I sought; nor the serenity and meditative inner peace to be found from deep bonding with the Ocean. I was NOT stoked.
‘Seventh Wave’ Porthmeor. Acrylic on canvas
And yet, on that last summer holiday I still went in the Ocean each day. Our cottage was yards away from the beautiful surfing beach, and I would sneak out each morning at dawn with a mug of tea (whilst SHE festered under the duvet) to wander the, as yet, empty beach, trying to assess the wave quality and watching the few committed surfers already out. I learnt to ‘get in’ early on in the day or later in the evening, missing out on the daytime summer hordes. But time was running out. On the afternoon of the last day of our trip my desperation was manifest. I had loose plans to return in the autumn, but nothing was guaranteed. This could be my last chance for a while. It was overcast, chilly and softly raining Cornish ‘mizzle’. I persuaded the girl onto the beach, book ever present in hand, but not into the water. She sat huddled in the meagre shelter of black granite rock wrapped in a towel and my hoody whilst her mother played in the water. And I never did have so much fun. But I still passed the surf school on the way back and enviously eyed the young students, with all their years of practice and potential ahead of them.
And so what’s stopping me, apart from location? As I said, I may harbour a disproportionate fear of the Ocean caused in some part by an overprotective mother whose advice to my sisters and I when we went swimming would be ‘stay in your depth’, and the rather more succinct ‘Don’t drown’. And yet perversely, the lure is there. I spent most of the first eight years of my life growing up ‘where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’, and so did we; in great gangs of children after school to frolic, unguarded and un-chaperoned (aside from the remonstrance of ‘Don’t drown’ fresh in our ears) in the waves. And despite many years of enforced land-lubbery, the call ‘to go down to the seas again’ is still strong.
So perhaps it is just the age thing. I should say right here, and joking aside, that I do not believe age in itself to be a deterrent (if you start to think like that you would never try anything new, ever). But fitness, now that’s another matter. I am fit enough to hike twenty miles up and down cliff paths with a heavy rucksack on my back without collapsing in a quivering, vomiting heap. And I have always been pretty flexible; but strength? Agility? Of these I am not so sure. In truth, I will probably never stand up on a surf board, but I can at least prepare the way by improving my swimming; by losing those extra pounds, and by practicing pop-ups on the yoga mat. And who knows, small steps may lead to bigger waves… Until then, I shall continue to paint the sea; to photograph it and write about it. I shall paddle vicariously on the shoreline of surfing, where longing is a contrary pleasure in itself.
And I do have one small advantage over ‘real’ surfers. When it’s flat, I am not left climbing the walls. I just go for a swim…
Glencoe Pines, acrylic on canvas
I cannot claim to be a prolific artist, largely due to my other activities and interests, and notwithstanding the slavish devotion to my children. I have never exhibited, and despite my extreme pauperism tend to become attached to my paintings, guarding them jealousy like precious babies. So far, so unprofessional. Nevertheless, on occasion works have been wrenched from my grasp via word of mouth or commission. ‘Glencoe Pines’ the painting shown here, was one such, and I thought I may as well start with it since I have been giving some thought to the nature of commissions following an article by the lovely coastal artist Melanie McDonald, which you can read here http://www.melaniemcdonald.co.uk/commission-paintings-by-melanie-mcdonald.htm
I was interested in Melanie’s wonderfully embracing attitude to the process of collaboration between client and artist, for it is a thing which, if I’m honest, is anathema to me. This probably says more about our relative characters than I might prefer to dwell on, but the truth is, for me, commissions are frustrating affairs. Art is subjective; it evolves from the distinct idiosyncrasies of the artist, which, put simply, is the reason one scene painted by two separate artists at the same time will never look the same, or indeed be admired by any two others equally. The subject has to ‘pass through’ the perpetrator; from observation to thought process, through emotional sinews and personality to interpretation.
And then someone asks you to paint a picture of their dog. Probably with a red velveteen backdrop and a dewy look in its eye. Or wants you to interpret an improbable dream or vision they have had, and by ‘interpret’ I mean relay exactly what they see in their mind’s eye. Which of course you can never do, for you are not in their mind’s eye, you are in your own. Call me stubborn but give me the customer who points admiringly to a seascape and says ‘Do me one of those, please.’
I say all this because ‘Glencoe Pines’, although not originating from an idea of my own, was one that, unusually, I ended up reasonably satisfied with. And here’s why.
The customer was a sports fanatic; a keen runner who also happened to own some property in Scotland, and she loved to go running through these woods in spring, so there were some quite specific requirements. But all she presented me to go on were some black and white scans of photos taken in winter. And lovely as she was, my hackles started to rise. Yet I managed to be a little inspired. I have been a long-time admirer of Gustav Klimt’s landscape paintings (as opposed to the more popular, decorative portraits) and had been meaning to explore similar techniques. So I was thinking: no horizon and pine trees forming abstract pattern.
Birch wood, by Gustav Klimt, oil on canvas 1903
But wait, I said there were requirements. Specific ones. My customer loved to see the spring primroses and rhododendrons on her runs, and these were to be reproduced in all their exacting glory. My Klimtian aspirations (there is clearly no comparison) were slowly dissolved as attempts at suggestion and impression were admired, but could I make it a bit more…detailed. And Brighter. Reader, you have no idea how many times I had to change the colour of those rhododendrons…
Detail from ‘Glencoe Pines’
In the end I found a way, of sorts. I am a huge fan, from childhood, of the Ladybird ‘Well Loved Tales’ series of books with illustrations by Eric Winter, and others. There is a magical quality to these renditions of classic stories, all portrayed in a vivid and glamorous sheen of bright colour. Suddenly my pine wood became a nostalgic fairy-tale setting of enchantment… Or at least, I found a way to work with it; to accept the ideas of another mind in a way that I could get along with. I don’t think it completely sits well; the balance is wrong for a start. But the customer got her primroses and was happy. And me, well I can imagine my handsome Prince come riding by at any moment…
Illustration for Sleeping Beauty by Eric Winter published @ 1965
‘You’re going to do what?’
My friend Liz’s expression was an incredulous leer as her sports car screeched to a halt in the South London traffic.
‘You’re going on The Walk? What do the wives and girlfriends think about that?’ No preliminaries then, no sly references or allusions, but quick, brutal, to the point.
‘I don’t think it’s a problem,’ I asserted, mortified by the angry glares as cars steered around us, and pleading with my eyes that she should move on. But Liz is not one to be rushed or intimidated, especially when she is awaiting an explanation. I had better elaborate, and quick.
Yes, I was going on The Walk, an institution of some years standing begun by friends of mine that I had thus far felt excluded from largely due to its beginnings coinciding with the birth of my daughter. Oh, that and the fact that it was an all-male party. I had not paid much attention at the time of its inception, being otherwise preoccupied with the more pressing requirements of new life, breast-feeding and nappies, but suspected its roots lay in male-bonding and escape. Yet as the years passed, and the legends abounded, my curiosity grew in corresponding alignment with my own desire to break free. What was this ‘Walk’ (capital ‘W’) thing?
Slowly a picture emerged: A twice-yearly long-distance trek; a five-day break from cares and worries to pursue the ancient pastime of rambling. All very innocent-sounding. But there were other stories: tales of reckless mayhem and equally reckless alcohol consumption. Injury, illness, and near death experiences were all to be expected. Part of the challenge appeared to lie in a wilful abandonment of anything resembling a considered plan. ‘Getting lost’, although not officially a deliberate intention, was neither a cause for much concern. Indeed it seemed imperative to give each trip a hefty scope for calamity for the sole purpose of later amusement and anecdote. But most of all, I was told, it was hard.
But let’s backtrack. The first symptom of my restless dissatisfaction was perhaps the bike. I was working from home doing a job I hated and watching as my young daughter grew wild-haired and feral whilst I regularly hiss-screeched at her:
‘Sssshhhhh, Mummy has to make a very important telephone call!’
And I didn’t feel I was getting anything out of the experience except stress, so when I saw the bike, I knew in a moment of wide-eyed lunacy that I had to have it. It was a beautiful Schwinn beach cruiser and I bought it on the spot. That’s right, a beach bike in South London. Friends sniggered over their high-street lattes at the sight of me riding bolt-upright in the fabulously well-sprung saddle through the town centre. As crises go, I may as well have been wearing purple hotpants and a tinted visor. Looking back, it is the only thing remaining that I ever gained from that grim employ, but at the time was clearly indicative of my impending madness. It was while out and about on my bike that I realised with no small degree of panic how adventure had left my life. Bad timing meant there was a large age gap between my two children; a lengthy and impoverished domesticity had ensued, and now I recalled with dismay how long it had been since I had climbed a mountain. And it was while I free-wheeled along under a cerulean sky that the idea to go on the Walk had come to me. But I had tucked it away, secretively. When it was announced that the next Walk was to be in Cornwall, I was resolved. I had not been to the county for many years and yet, out of pure love, romanticism and downright foolhardiness, had decided to set the novel I was writing there. The excuse of ‘research’ was all the persuasion I needed. I called Andy, perhaps my oldest friend in the group and asked him outright if I could come.
Of course I could.
‘Andy’: pastel on chipboard
It was that easy. If Andy had had any reservations he hid them with aplomb. He explained how it was open to all, indeed wives and girlfriends had been before, but usually just for a day, and mostly, tellingly, never to return. But this was the difference: I was not a partner, an ‘other-half’, and as such was the source of Liz’s entertainment. Liz’s idea of a holiday was a month on a beach in Florida with a stack of paperbacks, so the idea that anyone would choose to go hiking with a bunch of men was instantly suspect in her eyes. And well, yes, okay, I had dated a couple of the guys before but that was way back in another lifetime. And I may have harboured a tiny crush on one or two of the others at times… But no; these were my buddies, my mates. They were the boys of my youth that I had gone to gigs with, stood around charcoal burners in donkey jackets on picket lines with, hung out in corners at parties trying to look moody and interesting with. We had argued, fallen out, and at times lost touch. We had shared flats, and shared problems. But most of all there had been fun, laughter and good times. And I knew and was friendly with all of their partners, so despite Liz managing to raise a small blush to my cheek, I was not about to rise to insinuation. I was no Jezebel. No, the desire to escape had been strong, and if I’d had any small doubt that my motives might cause suspicion, it had been quietly repressed.
And how hard could it be?
I have always been attracted to roaming; a vagabond heart that always wanted to see the view from the top of the hill, or find out what lay at the end of that eerie tunnel of trees, or beyond that rusting iron gate. But back-packing around youth-hostels as a teenager I most certainly did not associate myself with the middle-aged ‘rambler’ types you would see lining a distant hill-top with their funny trousers, hats and sticks. Oh no… I was an adventurer; I had climbed Ben Nevis, and Snowdon. I had traipsed around the Greek Islands for long months, sleeping under the stars and with nothing in the world but what I carried in an old army rucksack on my back. And they thought they could scare me? Hah!
Phone calls were made, and I was guided through the dark streets of Old London Town to an ancient gin-palace of a pub for a pre-walk meet. Ostensibly this was a chance to reacquaint and do some serious Enid Blyton-style map-poring; in reality, an ill-disguised test of my drinking prowess; a limber-up if you will, and an opportunity to test my mettle with yet more fearsome tales. By candlelight in a hobbit-hole corner at an old wooden table, I listened and nodded, sensing that with barely a toe in the door, this was not the time to ridicule. Yet inwardly I scoffed; they were making it up, the bunch of Jessies. I didn’t drive a car and walked everywhere as it was, and surely it was just a question of putting one foot in front of the other? Hard, indeed! I’d climbed Ben Nevis! – And Snowdon.
A rehearsal run was arranged for the following weekend on Box Hill, a popular Surrey area of wood and chalk downland, and it was deemed imperative that I get me to a hiking shop for some essential kit. Much attention was given over to my basic equipment, and most importantly, my footwear. It was all about the socks and boots apparently. But mostly the socks. In case this had not been made perfectly clear on the night, it was followed up by an emotional telephone call the following day from Kev, barely disguising his shrill panic as he emphasized ‘Bridgedale! They must be Bridgedale!’ I reassured him that his own ghastly experience of the wrong socks had not fallen on deaf ears and that the suffering would not have been in vain. I don’t like to see a grown man cry.
Liz helpfully (some might say salaciously) offered to lend me her pink Timberland boots ‘to match my knickers’. Naturally I loftily declined…
My bike. (And yes, well spotted, it’s a man’s bike. Such was the impulse I could not wait for them to order a woman’s model, which incidentally also cost almost a third more!)