The mutation of an idea

We moved from Edinburgh to Peterborough in January 2000. At that point, my sole experience of the Soke had been a trip a few weeks before, to find a place to live, and as a stop on the East Coast railway line.

The landscape around the town was a revelation, even when just viewed from the train. My only previous visit to East Anglia was fifteen years before, and I’d forgotten in the interim how flat it was. Everyone knows East Anglia is (mostly) flat, but lots of landscapes look flat-ish. This was really flat. As Andrew in Thunder and Lightnings says

“He had always imagined that if you lived in a flat place you could see for miles across the rolling planes but now he found that it wasn’t so. The horizon was in the next field”.

In addition, the earth around Peterborough is a brown so deep it’s almost black. The exposed dark furrows of those winter fields struck a chord within me, and gave me an image – and no more – that I wanted to turn into a story. A story of magic and darkness.

When we moved, I took the train to London every day, a 75-minute commute twice daily1. Until Huntingdon (the first stop), I’d have a carriage all to myself in which I could sit at a table and write. It was bliss, in its way, as the Cambridgeshire (and then Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire) countryside rolled underneath. By the time I got off at Finsbury Park, I would have pages written.

The first thing I attempted to write was something which evoked and explored the feeling those flat, flat fertile plains had stirred in me. I can’t remember now how much I wrote before giving up; 20 pages at most, maybe. I don’t believe every piece of fiction needs fully thought-through before you begin to write, but it needs enough of a skeleton to support its own weight. This didn’t, and it was quietly shelved.

Still the idea, or a mutation of the idea, persisted. Years later (five or six) I started again; the landscape differed (it was set in a generic non-place, though we’d moved back to Edinburgh by then) but the characters that the original image had suggested remained. This story got no further. I resurrected it, with a different slant, different setting, different story – and gradually evolving characters – every winter for the next half dozen years. Like the proverbial grandfather’s axe, the story I was “re-starting” bore no resemblance in any way to the original germ, but in my head it was still the same tale, or at least a direct descendant of it. None of them were ever finished, though well over a hundred pages were written across the years.

The novel I am (slowly) coming towards the climax of, more than three years on, is technically the most recent variant. It contains neither of the original characters, none of the initial motivations or themes or concerns, and takes place entirely in a constructed fantasy world.

Jonathan Coe, in a recent Guardian, said

“Like many authors, I have a stash of unpublished manuscripts in a bottom drawer, and sometimes I cling to the idea that they might be worth exhuming. Of course, they never are.”

He’s right: now and then I look through old notebooks in the hope of finding a lost gem that I can polish, but all I see are ideas on which the dust is so thick its obscured whatever values they may once have had.

However, the nights are almost drawing out again and in those wintry mornings which have a clarity peculiar to the east coast, ideas for a new piece of fiction stir. One which takes that long-faded original idea and adds to it my current interests (and, hopefully, evidence of seventeen years’ more practice), sets it squarely in a locale to which I have a greater connection, and can tie many different things to. I hope I can finally do the idea justice.



1The litany of stations as read by the announcer at Finsbury Park every evening has a rhythm I still find soothing:

“Stevenage Hitchin

Arlesey Biggleswade

Sandy St Neots






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