Friday, January 29, 2010

A Post-Christmas Carol

"Out of the silence the soul startles us by telling us we are safe already, safe in our own experience, even if that may be the path of failure. Soul loves the journey itself." (David Whyte)

My stock answer when I'm asked whether I've finished my book yet, is that writing is a voyage rather than a destination. It's not an original thought and it can come across as a brush off. The irked person may well challenge you, so I've been looking for ways to illustrate how I feel the voyage of writing is maybe more important than the destination (which may well fail, if the perceived destination is publication). Last weekend gave me an example of how 'soul' (has to) love the journey.

I have come to like living in France, in Paris, but I still suffer from 'mal de pays' (homesickness) so every now and then my husband and I drive through the Channel Tunnel for an overnight stay in our nearest favourite town. I like Canterbury for the density of its history, evident in the remains of its medieval ramparts and architecture, public and private; its narrow cobbled streets. Canterbury is the headquarters of the Church of England and much of what goes on revolves around, or revolts against that. For the first time, we stayed in the Canterbury Gate Hotel, which is part of the fabric of and leased from the cathedral complex itself. It has been the hostelry of pilgrims since the days of Chaucer. We'd booked the Nightingale: a suite that slopes into one corner and is dominated by a four-poster bed that groans with protest at one's every movement. Access to Nightingale is via the first floor reception area, then its across the roof, inside again and up a narrow steep winding stairway, down a narrow steep winding stairway ... and I've forgotten the rest. The eccentricities are worth it, for the view and the tollings of the bells of the cathedral, which begins at 8 am Sunday morning and they were still ringing as we entered the 'Qire' for the 11 o'clock service.

After dumping our overnight bag, we set off into town and booked a table for later that evening at an Italian restaurant called 'Ask'. We'd been deluged with rain all the way from Paris but it stopped at Canterbury and the evening though cold was clear, so walking about was quite pleasant. By the time we turned towards our restaurant the streets were crowded with scantily-clad and noisy revellers. (Well, Canterbury is a university town). I was puzzled by the number of men in kilts knocking about - then remembered that January 25th is 'Burns Night', when the anniversary of the birth of Scotland's national poet is celebrated wherever there are gatherings of Scots - with a supper of haggis and neeps (turnips) washed down with large quantities of single malt whisky.

Despite the dark sky and crowds my peripheral vision picked up on a movement near my feet in front of the Beaney building - now used as a library. I stopped and looked. It was a young pigeon. There were two young pigeons, huddled together. One was stark alert, agitated by my stopping and my perusal. The other was still, lay on its side. The eye turned towards me was closed. It was dead. I was saddened, both for the dead bird and for the living one, left behind, alone. As we moved on, feeling helpless, I said to my husband that 'nobody should die like that' which sparked a discussion about how many do die like that and the worst of it, children, born to a short life of disease, starvation, brutality. I wasn't going to enjoy my dinner.

We ordered garlic bread as a starter. The service was not good and when the bread eventually arrived we could barely detect the garlic flavouring. It gave us the idea, however, of taking some of it to the pigeon clinging to the corpse of its sibling. When it came to the bill, the restaurant deducted the cost of the bread in compensation for the poor service. A pleasant surprise. When we returned to the pigeon with our bread offering, there was another - both pigeons sitting bolt upright and each fully alert to our presence.

I was at once reminded, in the image of these two birds sitting side by side, of an element in my novel. I can't describe this without giving something away. I can disclose that one aspect of this element is the development of a relationship between two characters that is similar to the relationship between two characters in a Dickens' novel. When the idea for this came to me, I was reminded how much I had (many years ago) enjoyed reading Dickens' works and decided to try and find the means to buy a complete set.

The next day, after the sunday morning service in the Cathedral - Sung Eucharist - we passed by the spot where the two pigeons had sheltered. There was a sprinkling of tiny white feathers and a flurry of crumbs. We'd left them 'bread given freely' (by the restaurant). I saw a parallel between that bread and that of the Eucharist in the service we'd just attended, how that too was 'bread given freely' in the form of the body of Christ.

I also remembered how, in the process of tearing our offering into manageable portions for the pigeons, two men had passed by. One of them spotted us and he made a critical remark. Why bother about two pigeons when there were so many of them? My blood ran cold. He had almost quoted from Dickens, where, in 'A Christmas Carol', Ebenezer Scrooge, approached for a donation for food for the poor, had expressed the opinion that they had better die "... and decrease the surplus population." Dickens, in these few memorable words, expressed the attitude of a part of society (of myself) that still exists today. I wouldn't have been surprised if the man on the street had shouted, "Bah!" and "Humbug!" as he continued on down the street.

There are a good number of charity shops in Canterbury. A favourite is the Oxfam secondhand book shop. It is situated further on down the street from the Beaney building where our pigeons had made shelter. We drifted into the shop and I made a beeline for the sheet music section at the back. The shop was about to close, however, we learned from the volunteer manning it, so I did an abrupt about turn and was heading back towards the exit when I noticed it, on my right. It was a small pine table. It was loaded up with books. There was a pile underneath, too. It was a set of books. It was a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens. Did my hair stand up on the back of my neck? I picked up a volume and gestured to the assistant with it. It was £12, he responded. The hairs on my neck lay down again. There were at least a dozen books. The set would cost well over £100. I couldn't afford them all and couldn't bear to split the set.

But I was mistaken. £12 was the price for the whole set! And in fact there are 26 books and very beautiful too: dark green, with ornate gilt tooling. The set was published as a special edition to mark the centennial of the death of Dickens. Each novel is introduced by a literary 'worthy'. 'Hard Times' for example is introduced by Sir Osbert Sitwell. All carry the original illustrations by Phiz. Inside two of the novels I found a loose sheet, which adds details to the novel such as the personal circumstances of Dickens when he wrote it. For certain, all the novels would have contained such sheets when the set was published.

We returned to Paris where I fully expect to live happily ever after.

Whenever I have to explain why the 'journey' of my novel is perhaps more important than its 'destination', (publication) I'll hand them a copy of this story by way of example!

"Soul loves the journey itself."

Ann Isik
writing The Laurel Grove Mysteries, book one, 'Flint and Feather'


  1. How lovely. And what a find on the Dickens collection! I would love to collect old books one day.
    Thank you for sharing a bit of your journey with us today.

  2. I LOVE Canterbury! I bought a broach of the inside of the cathedral cupola so I can have a bit of it always with me. The story of the pigeons is lovely. I think we writers view al these little pieces of life differently because we are thinking of them as part of our own story.