Wallflowers and drinking troughs

When I first started to write, I was living in Paris. What emerged were stories set mainly in London from where I had just moved, Yorkshire, where I grew up, and Ireland, the place of family holidays, memories, roots and history. They were about first loves, family, children— I was in the throes of starting my own family—and my first serious thoughts about what makes us what we are.

In Wicklow ©Harald Hansen
In Wicklow ©Harald Hansen

We moved from Paris to a quiet corner of Picardy. In the walled medieval town, 1.8 kilometres long and less than a kilometre at its widest point, there were 81 historic monuments. You tripped over historic monuments. Many of them were inhabited; many more were in ruins and in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Wild boar, deer, red squirrels and pine martens wandered into the gardens along the ramparts, mistaking the town for an extension of the surrounding woodland.

 Laon: Palais de Justice
Laon: Palais de Justice

My writing turned to Paris, the most recent part of our history, but was tinged with the light and textures of our new home. It was only today, walking past a clump of pink snapdragons growing out of a crack in the pavement, that I was put in mind of the way the walls of our old home were covered in yellow wallflowers (Christine Matthews). I remembered the soft, golden light, the wilderness that had crept up to the grey stone ramparts of the town, and the way we used to watch for signs of spring in the dark loam of the garden.

©Christine Matthews
©Christine Matthews

The south is different. The light is harsher, the heat thick and heavy. Flowers grow everywhere, on window ledges, balconies, around the trees by the roadsides. Hollyhocks push their way out of nothing, in the tiny cracks between house wall and paving stones, lining entire streets with their cottage garden prettiness. Saplings sprout out of old guttering, buddleia from the damp cracks behind drainpipes. Pansies, Jerusalem cherry, all kinds of mallow grow wild—bright, cultivated things, pretty but tame.

Hollyhocks
Hollyhocks

Looking back on how my writing has changed, I can see the influence of environment, and I wonder how I will be writing in ten years time. We absorb, possibly without even being aware of it, the light, the sounds and smells that surround us. The atmosphere shapes the way we see things, alters out state of mind. But it takes time to distil, in my experience at least. I don’t write about the immediate, but the immediate past, the sights and sounds that have been shunted into history because of a change in the immediate, the humdrum and banal.

I have started to wonder about those things that are now history: the walks along the coast at Dingle, or the Hill of Howth; holding laughing babies up to the fountains in Paris parks; taking small children to thrash through the goldenrod to paddle in the ruins of the royal cattle’s drinking troughs, or watch lizards disappearing into the wild wallflowers.

All those things found their way into my stories. Do we have to change, move on, keep our senses ever open to new experiences in order to find inspiration? Or do we reach a point where we go back to the beginning again in our writing, and recall, with hazy inexactitude, those golden summers and crisp winters receding into history? I’d like to think so.

Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

8 thoughts on “Wallflowers and drinking troughs”

  1. A wonderful thoughtful post, perfect for reading on a hot afternoon in South West France surrounded by the things that you describe so eloquently. I believe it is all a big stew, the past and the present and even learned histories. If not how can one write convincingly about WW11 for example. Research can only take one so far and then the feelings of older relatives, films of the events and even to an extent I believe dreams. All grist to the mill.

    1. Thanks Diane. Memories are strange. They become part of you after a while, but so many of them are dormant. I’d forgotten all about the walls covered in yellow flowers until this morning. Well, not forgotten, but tidied away. I’d hate to think that all those things that were so important at one time could get shunted so far back they can never be recalled.

      1. We watched an episode of Sherlock the other night – it was pretty good – it was the Baskerville one and we watched it outside in the dark – but anyway I digress – he had a place that he called his Brain palace and apparently the idea is that when you want to remember something you put it in a place in your mind and then when you want to recall it you can go and get it. When we were in the Middle East we used to do that when we were leaving a place that we knew we couldn’t go back to – just stand for a moment and tell yourself – I’ll remember this – it works quite well. Of course you have to remember to make the deposit in the first place!! 🙂

      2. I read about that on John Collick’s blog. Mind palaces I think he called them. Some people manage to build up the most elaborate ‘buildings’ full of things they want to remember. Pictorially it looks wonderful, but I’m not sure I could discipline my mind well enough to get it to work.

  2. What a beautiful post! Reading this, I can see all those places you’ve lived and written about. As human beings, we take all our experiences with us everywhere we go; as writers, we recall these experiences and use them time and again in our writing.

  3. This beautiful post really resonated with me Jane. As a ‘late bloomer’ to writing, I can now see that it is the experience of life itself which gives us so much to write about and so often it is the simplest of ‘jolts’ (like your snapdragons in the pavement) which trigger the richest of memories.
    PS I adore Hollyhocks! We have visited rural France (Bordeaux Region) a couple of times and I loved the cottage gardens there 🙂

    1. I love hollyhocks too. Down here they grow like weeds. More and more people are letting flowers grow by the side of their houses, even digging up bits of paving stones to give them a better chance. I must admit I do like to see nature fighting back in an urban area, and love seeing ruins taken over by vegetation.

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