I discovered a Cretan diary from 2018 in an old notebook, and later on in the same year some notes on our visit to Mull, Iona, Staffa and the Treshnish Islands.
So I’ve decided, once I get these two diaries typed up, to go through all my travel diaries and put them up here in chronological order. They’ll be warts and all, the original notes, not the modified versions, some of which I’ve published as haibun in The Book of Ways. It’ll probably take me a couple of weeks to put them in order and make a start. They’ll be illustrated too.
I discovered a Cretan diary from 2018 in an old notebook, and later on in the same year some notes on our visit to Mull, Iona, Staffa and the Treshnish Islands.
Colin Will Bibliography
II Poems in printed magazines
Black Light Engine Room
Botanical Society of Scotland News
Far Off Poems
New Writing Scotland
Ofi Press Magazine
Poetry Postcard Quarterly
The Edinburgh Geologist
The Eildon Tree
The Linnet’s Wings
West Lothian Life
Windows for Burns Night
There may be some others, but these are the ones of which I have copies.
III Poems in printed anthologies
100 Favourite Scottish Poems to Read Out Loud
A Set of Ribbons
After the Watergaw
Atoms of Delight
Be Not Afraid
Birželio Sodai ‘08
By Grand Central Station We Sat Down and Wept
Don’t Be Afraid; an anthology to Seamus Heaney
Edinburgh; an intimate city
Inspired? Get Writing
Into the Forest
One touch of Nature
Poems for the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology
Poetry and Geology
Present Poets 2
Shared Writing; renga days
Shorelines, Making Waves, Soundwaves (NVP)
Skein of Geese
Strawberries; poems in honour of Edwin Morgan
The Call of the Clerihew
The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry
The Road North
The Way to Cold Mountain
Things Not Seen
Umbrellas of Edinburgh
Untitled Two (Neu Reekie)
Variations on a New Song
Wind Blown Clouds
Writer of the Year (Tyne & Esk Writers)
Again. these are ones I have copies of.
IV: Poems in online mags, webzines and websites
a handful of stones
And Other Poems
Bolts of Silk
Contemporary Haibun Online
Every Day Poems
Ink, Sweat and Tears
New Linear Perspectives
Notes from the Gean
Nutshells and Nuggets
St Abbs Community website
The Fat Damsel
The Linnet’s Wings
The Passionate Transitory
The Periodic Table of Poetry
The Road North
The Stare’s Nest
Usenet Newsgroup rec.arts.poems
World Haiku Review
There are probably others, but these are all in acknowledgements in books.
Rapidly approaching 80 as I am, I thought I’d have a go at assembling a personal bibliography. I’ve had lots of articles on librarianship and information science published in professional journals, and some management papers – corporate plans etc – published in my time with The Botanics, but I’m restricting this to literature – poetry and fiction.
I may at some point try to list the poems and stories I’ve had published in magazines and anthologies but first, these are the monographs.
Colin Will Bibliography (to 2021)
Literary works – Monographs
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Highlands, and more. Diehard. 60pp (paperback)
Flowers of Scotland. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Painted fruits. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Roundabout Livingston. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Landings. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Robin’s Rowan. Calder Wood Press. (Poetry card)
Seven Senses. Diehard. 62pp (hardback, quarter leather)
Six hundred lines; 200 haiku from West Lothian schools (compiled and edited). Calder Wood Press. 17pp (pamphlet)
Mementoliths. Calder Wood Press. 36pp (pamphlet)
Sushi & Chips. Diehard. 60pp (paperback)
Mementoliths 2. Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book)
Recycled Cards. Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book) (collection and revision of Poetry cards)
The floorshow at the Mad Yak Café. Red Squirrel Press. 54pp. (paperback)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Highlands (revised). Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book)
Seven Senses (revised). Calder Wood Press. (Kindle e-book)
The propriety of weeding. Red Squirrel Press. 92pp. (paperback)
The year’s six seasons [East Lothian poems]. Calder Wood Press. 40pp. (pamphlet)
The Book of Ways [haibun]. Red Squirrel Press. 237pp. (paperback)
Getting On [short stories]. Postbox Press. 32pp. (pamphlet)
The night I danced with Maya. Red Squirrel Press. 92pp (paperback)
Wee Poems [12 ‘haiku’]. San Diego, Poems For All #1744. Published for StAnza 2018.
Word Play [short stories]. Postbox Press. 180pp. [Paperback)
Long Shorts (short stories). Postbox Press. 180pp. (Paperback)
When I finished my novel, The Way We Say Yes, in October last year I had a number of offers to read it from kind friends, but I decided against that. I wanted a totally objective assessment from a stranger, a literary professional. I’d had a good experience with The Literary Consultancy when I was putting my first full-length short story collection – Word Play – together. The report from their reader was invaluable. It resulted in the rewriting of almost all the stories in that book, and in a permanent change in the way I look at my own writing.
I had no qualms about sending them the manuscript of my novel, despite it being around 93,000 words long. They assigned a reader, and I waited, mostly patiently, for his report. I must admit that for the last couple of weeks I was expecting it to arrive at any moment. I was by turns anxious and treating the expectation with my usual sang froid. (Who am I kidding? I was scared stiff.)
The report arrived yesterday, and it’s massive. It’s thorough, painstakingly detailed and – get this – mostly positive and encouraging.
It will take me a couple of weeks to digest it, and longer than that to get down to the rewrite (I have other writing and editing priorities just now), but I will do it.
The novel contains two interwoven timelines; one medieval, the other modern. The reader suggests rebalancing these; more medieval, less modern. I can see how that will work, and I’m already steeped in the events of the Albigensian Crusade, so writing those sections will be a joy. He also recommends cutting some of the modern story, and he’s made some eminently sensible suggestions, only several of which will break my heart.
The upshot is that I can see the second draft being finished in the second half of this year, and it will be slightly smaller; perhaps 86,000 words or so. I’m not even going to think about what happens after that. I can do this.
The storm (Force 11 here) which hit us on the 26th and 27th of November was one of the most destructive I can remember, and I can remember the big one of January 1968, known as Hurricane Low Q.
Wind speeds were between 90 and 100mph when it came ashore on the East coast of Scotland, and that included Dunbar.
The John Muir Country Park plantation of Scots Pine was devastated, with between 80 and 90% of the trees destroyed. It’s still unsafe, so I haven’t seen it for myself.
What I have seen is the damage to buildings and property in Dunbar, and the effects on sea life. A huge volume of kelp was ripped from the holdfasts on the sea-bed and washed ashore. A lot of the creatures which lived in its shelter were battered on rocks or sand, and now litter the beach. Jane and I walked along yesterday, and it was upsetting to see all the dead lobsters of all ages and sizes. Gulls had stripped away the flesh from most of them, leaving only their blue shells.
I know there are lobsters round here, but I’d never thought about octopuses being part of the marine fauna. Yet here they are, at least half a dozen of them, and that’s just on the surface. Below the tangle there may be many more.
What I learned about myself, in the period between 2016 and now, is that I love to tell stories. I love making up characters, settings and situations, the more three-dimensional and true-to-life (as I imagine life), the better.
So if I have to do some research on facts to fit places and events my characters exist in, I’ll do that quite happily. I know some story writers and novelists start with the imagination and stay in it for as long as their tale lasts, that’s not the way it works best for me. It’s even more essential with historical elements in fiction, as in one thread of my novel. Real things happened to real people, and we have records, even if some of them are partial. I have to get at least these bits right. And if I need to know upon which day of the week Hogmanay 1999 fell, so be it. I will find out.
Oh, I know I’ve experimented with “magic realism”, because I’ve read and enjoyed the fictions of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others, but the “magic” bit is always minor, always secondary. Maybe it’s just a wholly implausible thing one of my characters does or says, while the other characters react in a wholly predictable manner – I quite like that technique – like when a wife says, out of the blue, that she needs to go to South America. I may write more of those stories.
The need to have my stories rooted in some version of reality is probably why I’ve never tackled science fiction, although I confess to having read an awful lot in that genre when I was younger. I probably just lack the depth of imagination to create whole worlds where the laws of physics or the inevitabilities of biology don’t apply. I still love the stories and novels of Ray Bradbury, for instance, because he was a masterly story-teller. But I couldn’t write the kinds of stories he wrote,.
I suppose it’s having finished a novel on which much of my time and thought has been focussed for several years that’s made me think about things like this. I do love the craft of writing, as well as the art of it. I want to write better.
I don’t know in which direction my writing will take me next; maybe more stories, or maybe poetry? And if poetry, is that the same as storytelling? I think not. Stories illuminate a character’s actions and intentions in a continuous fashion. Poems are like going for a walk in the hills at night, and only switching on a torch every few hundred metres. They illuminate a thought, a vision, a seeing, something that’s instant and all-pervading. I love that. I’ll try to do more, but it’s a different form of thinking, as well as a different form of writing.
That’s the first draft of the novel finished, printed out, proof-read, and now I’ve started a critical read.
I’m more than halfway through the critical read, and I’ve already rewritten several sections that needed substantial revision. I should finish it this weekend.
What then? Frankly, I’m not sure. I didn’t write it with the aim of publication, as I’ve said before, but to get it out of my system, and to prove to myself I can write a novel. I’ve had the idea in my head for a very long time, ever since Jane and I visited the Languedoc and toured round some of the Cathar sites. Discovering that two of the major massacres of the Albigensian Crusade took place on my birthday, albeit in 1209 and 1210, gave me a weird feeling, as if I was somehow destined to write something which contributed to an understanding of the Cathars, their beliefs, and the reasons the Crusaders attacked them with such ferocity and brutality. I also wanted to describe something of the social setting for those living at the time. But I didn’t just want to write about some obscure events which took place in what’s now part of France in the 13th century. I wanted to write a modern story too, and have the Cathar narrative weave in and out of that story.
A lot of my short stories are about couples and their interactions, but they’ve usually been focussed on short time scales. This time I wanted to cover a longer period in the modern story, about thirty years in total, and I’d never attempted anything like that before. But it’s been constantly fascinating as well as challenging. And now it’s done, or at least drafted. At the moment it’s just over 90,000 words, the longest thing I’ve ever written, apart from my PhD thesis..
I’ve had to focus a lot of time and energy on the writing this past year. Fortunately, with the social effects of the pandemic, I haven’t had any real conflicts of interest or time. That’s been a bit of a luxury, I suppose, and I shouldn’t expect that to continue in future. I’ve got some editorial commitments for the next few months, so any writing time I have will be for shorter things.
I feel happy and relieved that I’ve completed what I set out to do, and I’ll consider very carefully what I want to do next, both with the novel and with my writing life. Would I write another novel? Not immediately.
This is part of the ruined Cathar stronghold of Peyrepertuse, the most dramatic of the hilltop castles we visited in the Languedoc in 1998. This is the view from the higher fortifications to the lower ones. It was never captured by the Crusaders, but it was always a remote and difficult site to occupy, and it could never have withstood a siege.
At the moment I’m nearing the end of the first draft of the novel, with nearly 74,000 words written. Of course it will need rewrites and revisions, but I’ll do those based on the first full draft.
Originally I thought the novel would be complete at 80,000 words, but it will probably run to about 86,000.
I know what are the major events which will take place in the next major section, the ante-penultimate one, and I’m working my way through it now. The final section is partly written, but I haven’t even started on the one before that, so it exists only as a title at the moment.
Each section, and there are 14, is between 4,000 and 8,000 words, and will be split into chapters.
The Cathar interludes are all written, and will be tipped in to the main narrative when I assemble le tout ensemble.
Minerve is where the Cather story ends, in 1210, but I won’t say where or when the modern story ends, because that would be a spoiler.
Title: The Way We Say “Yes”
My interest in the Languedoc and its history goes back some considerable time. I read Montaillou, by Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie some time after it was published in English in 1978. I was fascinated by this story of Catharism, the Albigensian Crusade, and the Inquisition.
It stayed in the back of my mind until my wife and I rented a holiday gîte in Paraza, on the Canal du Midi, in 1998. En route we stopped at Beziers and learned of the massacre which took place there on 22nd July 1209. Later, because it was far too hot to hang around, we toured the hilltop fortresses at Queribus, Montsegur and Peyrepertuse, and visited Carcassonne, Mirepoix and Minerve, among other medieval sites. At Minerve I learned of the burning there of 140 Cathars, on the 22nd of July 1210, exactly a year after the massacre at Beziers. My own birthday is the 22nd of July, albeit in 1942. I convinced myself that I was destined to write about the history.
At the time I was still working at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and also very much involved with my profession of librarianship. It didn’t leave me much time for writing, but I was able to fit in some research, decided on a structure for the novel and sketched out my ideas. The novel was to feature a modern story, taking place mostly in the Languedoc. It would also contain a parallel 13th century narrative. I had filled out some of the blanks in my structural diagram, and written some of the easier sections, sometimes on the commuter train between Dunbar and Edinburgh.
Then Kate Mosse published her excellent novel Labyrinth in 2005. It too contained a modern story with Cathar interludes, but it was a totally different book from the one I was writing. What completely knocked the stuffing out of me was that the names of four of her Cathar characters were the same as four of mine. I will freely admit that I’d selected mine from Inquisition records mentioned in Montaillou.
The coincidences, although they are superficial ones, led to me abandoning my novel. and it’s only recently that my interest has been rekindled.
There have been further ups and downs along the way, and a second abandonment in 2019, but now I’ve come back to it with renewed determination to finish it, for my own satisfaction.
Among the sources I’ve found useful are:
Le Roy Ladurie, Emanuel: Maintaillou. 1978
Lambert, Michael: The Cathars. 1998
Mosse, Kate: Labyrinth. 2005
Gougaud, Henri and Sioen, Gérard: Lands of the Cathars. English version 1994
William of Tudela and Anon: Song of the Cathar Wars, Parts 1 and 2. 1213 and ~1275. English version published 1996.
The title? The word for “yes” in Occitan, the langue d’oc, is “oc”. There was no ‘France’ at that time, and the land was a collection of feudal estates originally settled by Frankish tribes, but in most of them, apart from those belonging to the Counts of Toulouse and Foix, the word for “yes” was “oïl”, which became “oui” in modern French. The whole region, southern ‘France’, the ‘kingdom of Aragon’, northeast ‘Spain’, ‘Catalunya’ was flexible, except that allegiances were to specific fiefdoms, which in turn were nominally or actually in vassalage to higher authorities.
I used to keep a diary, just for myself. I wrote down what I was thinking and feeling, not with any purpose in mind, but for the sake of recording my thoughts as time went by. The other evening it occurred to me to restart it. I had the idea of recalling my personal recollections and thoughts about the events of 2020, which has been pretty momentous for so many people. I opened the diary and went back to the last entry in it.
It dated from June 2019, and recorded that we had returned from a short trip to Mull, Iona, Staffa and the Treshnish Islands the previous evening. There was a garbled and almost inaudible message on our phone from brother-in-law David, about his COPD and hospital, and his sodium levels being low. This started alarm bells ringing with me, as I know that low sodium levels can be a sign of cancer. I recalled his previous diagnosis of pancreatitis and the subsequent removal of his gall bladder. I suspected pancreatic cancer.
Jane phoned him that morning, and discovered that he was actually still in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. We drove in to see him, and he did not look good. For the remainder of June, and for the whole of July and August, we visited him in ERI and later in St John’s, Livingston, where he died on the 28th of August from cholangiocarcinoma – cancer of the bile duct. I put the diary on the shelf and somehow never got round to looking at it until now.
So 2019 was a traumatic year for us, but that was on a personal level. We had no idea of the upheavals that 2020 would bring, and on an international scale.
Having worked in scientific institutions for 30 years, I’ve always kept up-to-date with developments in science. My PhD in in the Department of Information Science at Strathclyde was a study of the communication process in science, so it had me researching epistemology – the study of knowledge itself, knowledge creation and knowledge transfer. I had come across the work of an epidemiologist who described parallels between knowledge models and epidemiological models, so it was natural that I would still follow developments in epidemiology, even 30 years after gaining my PhD.
It was in January 2020 that I first read reports of a previously unknown virus which had led to the rapid spread of a disease in a province of China. As the year went on, news reports of the virus itself – SARS-Co-V2, and its related disease, Covid-19 – would become ubiquitous.
In February the city of Wuhan, where the virus had first been recognised, described, categorised and sequenced, was subject to a form of city-wide (later region-wide) quarantine. The word ‘lockdown’ was introduced, disseminated and bandied about by commentators. Pockets of infection were popping up in other Chinese cities, so internal transport was shut down, and the first international spread was acknowledged. At the end of the month, our long ago booked holiday in Tenerife looked close to cancellation when an Italian family staying at the hotel we were due to go to developed the illness, and the hotel was quarantined. Jet2 changed our destination to a different destination on the island and a different hotel. We debated it, and on the balance of probabilities decided to go ahead. It was fine; the hotel was excellent, and we enjoyed our break in the sun, the first trip since our Mull trip the previous June.
We arrived home in the early hours of the 10th of March, the day after Italy declared its first lockdown. I was infuriated on hearing the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser talking about herd immunity. The guy obviously doesn’t understand epidemiology. For herd immunity to work effectively, somewhere between 60 and 80% of the population would have to be infected. For the UK that would work out at around 45 to 60 million. The mortality from covid-19 is between 1 and 2%, so that would imply, taking the lowest of both figures, a death toll of at least 450,000. Simple arithmetic. No politician could possibly find that number ‘acceptable’, and eventually, they decided against that strategy (but the guy is still in his job). Johnson, that inept Upper-Class Twit of the Decade, dithered, but was forced into declaring a UK-wide lockdown from 23rd March.
Everything closed, apart from shops selling essentials. Near the beginning I said I’d do all the shopping, and for a couple of weeks I did. Then Jane tried it – we were supposed to shop alone – and it freaked her out. So I kept on doing the shopping, until we were allowed to shop together as a household. That was better. Now it’s fine. I’ve never considered having groceries delivered.
We walked together, a lot, down by the sea or inland. It was great. More than great, it was wonderful. The spring flowers were opening, the resident birds were establishing territories, and the weather was good. There was hardly any traffic noise, because there was hardly any traffic. The air smelled good for the same reason. The skies were spectacular, because there were very few aircraft polluting the atmosphere. Best of all, the golf course was closed, so we could walk along the shore at the edge of the rough, without having to keep out of the way of golfers. We watched the shore birds, the waders, ducks and swans. We found a previously unvisited wood, its floor strewn with wild garlic and primroses.
The gym closed, but I had my allotment, so I had my permitted exercise there. The ground had never been so thoroughly prepared before, and I could still buy vegetable seeds locally. May was wonderful, warm and sunny, although June was cooler. In July the first easing of the pandemic rules took place, and for the first time I realised, as did many others living in Scotland, that our nation could do things differently from the way things were done in Englandshire, and that the outcomes were better. Our First Minister was someone I felt I could trust and respect, unlike Boris the Balloon and his incompetent, dishonest, corrupt and crooked cabinet colleagues. In my view they are arrogant, stupid, uncaring, unscrupulous, and mendacious, a government vile and rotten to the core.
July was when Nicola said we should wear masks, and that made a lot of sense to me. Naturally Dumbo Johnson was late to the party, but even he, with his useless advisors, eventually joined in.
Further lockdown easing took place, and then the inevitable second wave started in September. Lockdown levels were introduced, and they’ve fluctuated back and forth since then. In late October we had our own sobering close shave. One of our friends had invited us to join her for coffee at a café in Midlothian, at a time when that was permitted, subject to distancing, masks and hand cleaning. We had a very pleasant hour with her, catching up on news. That was on a Thursday. By Saturday our friend had developed a cough, and she was advised to go for a covid test. The positive result came through the following day, and she phoned us to tell us, and to say that she had reported us as two of her contacts. On the Monday the NHS Scotland app on my phone alerted us, and said we had to isolate for 14 days from the date of contact. So we stayed at home, taking our temperatures daily. They remained normal, and we did not develop symptoms. We regarded it as a lucky escape. Our friend has recovered.
By December all four administrations agreed a five-day Christmas break from the most stringent rules, and that was a stupid decision, soon rescinded as infectivity levels soared. As Christmas neared, rates increased in our own county of East Lothian as a result of people breaking the rules by travelling in to Edinburgh for Christmas shopping. The Christmas break was reduced to one day – Christmas Day itself, which meant our planned family get-together on the 23rd had to be cancelled. Our son came through on Christmas Day to join us for lunch, but he couldn’t stay, as he was due to prepare the Christmas lunch for his own family.
So it was mostly just the two of us, as it has been all year. We have supported each other, made each other laugh, kept ourselves going. And we’ve talked. All the time. I can’t remember a time when we’ve talked to each other so much. Oh, it’s not always lovey-dovey and cheerful – we have had the occasional falling-out, but in nearly 55 years of married life we’ve learned the best ways of dealing with that. We’ll get through this, and we have the vaccinations to look forward to. And since we’re both over 75, we’ll be vaccinated earlier than most.
I am acutely aware that it’s been easier for us to get through 2020 because we’re a couple, and because we’re both healthy and reasonably fit. Many of our friends and neighbours live on their own, and I can appreciate how hard it is for them to face their fears and insecurities in isolation. I am very sympathetic. Also, both our sons and their partners are working, and dealing with the complications that brings. As pensioners, we don’t have these pressures.
But still, there are very real risks associated with the virus, particularly for the elderly, like us. There is a chance that we might not both make it unscathed. We mitigate these risks by being as careful as we can be. We stick to the rules, because they seem to us to be appropriate and sensible. But that might not be enough. I worry about the consequences if one or other, or both of us, become seriously ill. But I don’t dwell on it.
Here’s to 2021 being a better year.