Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Shining a light into the dark

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 2 am 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


  1. The words the Cave Rescue man used to describe the accident are so chilling and perfect- from a writing point of view--it would be hard to come up with anything better straight from the imagination. I was touched and saddened by the story.
    I used to keep a diary (mostly god-awful poetry about the moon and shadows) and later I wrote songs expressing the surge and turmoil of my teenage emotion. I have a couple of journals around somewhere.
    It makes sense especially for writers who write children's fiction and are always struggling to remember and define things from a child's point of view.

  2. I've tried and failed to keep diaries ever since I was about 9. The most I've ever managed was till March 25th. Poetry is where I record stuff that interests me--I had a poem diary with, variously, Twelfth Night, my aunt's funeral, planting (and harvesting) pumpkins and an unexpected hurricane in Selsey. When I was doing a lot of shamanic stuff, everyone seemed to 'journal' (not a verb, but that's what they called it). I did it in the moment, but, again, never kept on. Sometimes I wish I had as it would be good to look back on things and wonder. But I guess I'm just not that type.

    Lucy @ http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com

    PS my favourite word in the world is spelunking, talking of caves...!

  3. Spelunking is a darned good word, Lucy!
    But a poem diary is a wonderful idea. I sometimes wonder if I could/should try writing poems again. I wrote mine in the golden ages of childhood and adolescence when 'bad' and 'good', as critical terms, are meaningless.

  4. And - I meant to add, but hit the button without thinking - that's why your youthful poetry wasn't god-awful at all, Jo. Not while you were pouring yourself heart and soul into it, it wasn't!
    By the way, anyone remember Noel's marvellously bad but heartfelt poems in 'The Treasure Seekers'?

  5. I am a claustrophobic (and can't even be a closet one because I have to get OUT!)

    So caves, potholes, tunnels all appall me.When I visited the Great Pyramid at Giza, the guide said not to go inside if you didn't like tight enclosed spaces so I was content to admire it from outside.

    I know this means I miss things that can only be seen this way but it's a bargain I'm willing to make.

    So in reading, I have to be careful - a bit of it is OK but the first Tunnels book was too much for me.

  6. Yoikes, that is quite a story about the poor girl. The chillingest fictional person-trapped below-ground story that I know of is that of Phillipa's son in In This House of Brede--the sort of story that I vaugly wish I had never read, especially now that I have boys of my own...

  7. Yes, I think I too might be a bit cautious about going into a pyramid. The thing which would put me off would be if there were a lot of people behind me preventing me from changing my mind and coming back out. The dome of St Paul's is a bit like that, and so is the inside of the Statue of Liberty - the stairs are so steep, they are one-way only, and once embarked, you have to keep going.

    Charlotte, yes, it was a dreadfully sad story, and I still think about it. The point the guy made to me, was that university caving teams tend to be inexperienced as there's rarely anyone in them who's been doing it for more than 3 years.

  8. Catching up with all the exciting posts on your blog! Very fascinating, every one. And thanks for the wonderful interview too. I wish wish wish I'd kept a diary, not so much of my schooldays which I find I remember quite a lot of, but of my adult life. My children, now mothers themselves, ask me perfectly simple questions, like "What age was I when I was weaned? When did I sit up?" etc. Factual things which I have quite forgotten. I did make a list of my elder daughters words at 17 months because it was so impressive but I've lost that, too! I am now keeping grandchildren's written things in a file...must keep better track of it. Time bears all its sons away all right...and their memories and possessions with them. Writing can capture a bit here or there but not the whole thing by any means.

  9. Missing apostrophe in DAUGHTER'S which I can't let pass...it allows me also to say that I've written six books from the points of view of various cats and it was huge fun!