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.
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.
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.
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.
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.