If you are a writer, have you ever kept a diary? I'm guessing you have. I started one when I was nine. “Mrs Butler’s school,” runs the first entry, “went to Stump Cross Caverns. We went down a long flight of steps and it was quite dark. Some tunnels were borded [sic] up. It felt strange being so far below the ground. There were many stalactites.”
Not very descriptive, but although the entry is pretty laconic, I reckon I was impressed. Impressed enough to want to record it. Anyway, I’ve been going underground in fiction ever since – in ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’, and in my latest book 'Dark Angels' ('The Shadow Hunt' in the States). I’m actually rather claustrophobic, but I do find caves fascinating. Each time I write about them I head off underground to collect first-hand impressions: for Dark Angels this meant a crawl - literally - down a Roman lead-mine in
Shropshire: the entrance tunnel was approximately two feet high. It was wet, stony, uncomfortable, and of course unlit; and I wasn’t at all sure I could do it. But I did. I sat there in the dark and wrote (on a notebook I couldn't see) scrawled and broken sentences about what I could feel and smell and hear. And I swore to myself that there would be no cheating this time – no writing about magical lights or mysterious phosphorescence. Unless they took candles along with them, my characters would be in the dark.
It’s interesting (to me at least) that this fascination with caves started so long ago. I’ve kept a diary on and off ever since, and in my early twenties recorded a number of conversations with a guy I worked with, who belonged to the Cave Rescue. He was for ever being hauled out of bed at to go down pot-holes and drag out people who had got stuck. Sometimes they were alive, sometimes they most definitely weren’t. One night the team was called out to rescue an eighteen-year old girl from a university club who’d fallen down a ninety foot pitch.
“When we looked at her” (he told me) “we could see that if we moved her we were going to kill her, so we stayed with her till the medics came down with oxygen. But even then we were still going to kill her if we moved her, and she died down there about half an hour after we reached her.
“It was pretty wet. Luckily she wasn’t very big, so it was easier getting her out – you know, it’s a pretty tight passage.” He paused. “She didn’t look very good when most people saw her. When we got to her she wasn’t so bad, because the water had washed her clean.” He paused again. “It’s going to be an awful shock for her mother.”
Strong and terse: he was shaken and emotional. I felt the emotion too, but also I was trying to learn how to write dialogue. I would go home and scribble down what I remembered. I wasn't being callous, but this is what writers do. I’m still moved by what he said - even more, if possible, now I have daughters that age myself - but I'd have forgotten about it years ago if I hadn’t written it down.
There's times when it’s handy to turn up an old diary and find something to jog the mind into action. Weather writing, for example. Me and my brother walking on the moors in the heavy winter snow of 1979:
In places the snow looked just like the surface of a clean new mushroom, white and peeling a little all over. Later, coming down the tarn road, shadows on the snow were a luminous, pale violet.
We all think we can remember just how it felt to be young. But a diary is there as a sort of reality check. I said and wrote some things which now seem outrageous - and I'm sure, without the diary there to prove it, I'd have edited them out of my memory. You could say that going back into old diaries is another sort of caving - delving into the past, sometimes crawling into uncomfortable places.
When I was just sixteen I moved to a new school, and one day during an English lesson some of my new friends discovered that I wrote poetry. For fun. I had never thought writing poetry was at all odd; but they were utterly baffled by it; and then I became baffled by their bafflement... we gaped at one another like goldfish in separate bowls. The teacher, who was not more ten years older than us, took advantage of the moment and asked if any of the other girls in the class had ever kept diaries. Several had. She went on gently to suggest that writing a poem might be - in some ways - similar to keeping a diary. A poem might distil an experience, an emotion, a feeling, in the same way that writing a diary entry could preserve a moment of the past. Comprehension dawned on my new friends' faces, and I too had learned something. In some odd way, one of the reasons I write is to preserve life, to create life, to shine light into the dark.
Original Photo from North Wales Caving Club