Success or sell-out? My journey into print

cover for ebook small

This week sees the publication of my first book, Badger Clan.  It hasn’t been the most straightforward journey, which is why I’ve decided to write about it here.  I hope my experiences will be of use to one or two of my readers.

     The material in my memoir is mainly from 2015.  Why has it taken so long to get it out there?  I finished writing the book in 2016.  By spring 2017 I looked for an agent, and quickly signed with Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency.  I worked on an edit with Anne, which we were both happy with by July of that year.  This isn’t unusual – an agent will be representing many other authors and I had to fit writing around my full teaching schedule.  Submissions started during autumn 2017 (holiday time is ‘dead time’). Many publishers then asked to see the book.

Rejections included,I’m deeply jealous of all that badger action and I would have loved to give this a go, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get the kind of consensus we need to take a book on’ and ‘I really enjoyed reading this and thought it was beautiful but I’m afraid I didn’t love it enough in the end to want to take it on. I hope you find the perfect editor for this special book.’

The book, then known as The Year of the Badger, went to one or two acquisitions meetings.

A certain Mr P, editor from another well-respected publishing house said, ‘This is a really deeply lovely book. Gorgeous writing, hugely engaging, exciting and carefully crafted. The village is alive and nuanced and real in the reader’s mind.’  They were about to re-roll Badgerlands (no clues there, then) and felt unable to help due to a conflict of interests.

Finally, my agent phoned one evening to tell me she’d received a ‘yes’.  ‘Go and celebrate with your family,’ she said.  Something inside me made me hold back from cracking open the champagne; just as well it did.  Despite everything progressing nicely over the weeks that followed, information on where the pictures would go, how many books would be printed and how the book would be marketed, I took another, less positive call a few weeks later.  I remember it well.  It was during my youngest daughter’s birthday tea, February 2018.  The publishing house was having a financial crisis and having to pull out on all new writers.  They told Anne we could be in touch again towards the end of the summer, when, hopefully, their finances would be back on track.

I fought back the tears, lit the candles on the cake and carried it through to the table as if nothing had happened.  My little girl had no idea of the news that felt devastating.  Yet I had much to celebrate too, sang out ‘Happy Birthday’ with the rest of them and sat back, very aware of my blessings. Perhaps, with hindsight, it was the best time to have received the news.

There is a whole lot of waiting for publishers, even without the ‘please get back to us’ scenario.  It helped me to have other writing projects on the go, and to be taking the long view.  We let the summer pass and Anne emailed the publisher in question, then tarried a while but they didn’t respond.  She felt this was signal enough that we’d reached closure with them, and gave me permission to do what I’d been longing to: publish as an indie via KDP.  I had a busy teaching term and wanted to make my own tweaks now that the book was mine again (I had also been through a PhD viva with it and needed to process advice given there).  My goal was to get the book out early in the new year. I contacted Alexi Francis, a name I’d come across through an anthology series we’d both written for, and then Twitter, and asked her to create my cover.  I suggested pen and ink, a design different to the known badger narratives’ covers out there, and said ‘I can imagine some blue in it, with perhaps a night sky and some winter trees.  I do love your Havergate Hare painting.  I think something quite simple with strong, dark colours to make it eye-catching.’  She met the brief and has far exceeded my hopes.  Would a publishing house have given me something I like this much?  They would have been hard pushed to.

So here we are! Annie, my eldest daughter, is now in her second year at university; she was taking her GCSEs in the book, which gives you some idea of how much time has passed.

The route to publication was nothing like I expected, but I’ve learnt a lot on the way.  Enrol on any MA Creative Writing course and you are led to believe that traditional publishing is the most respectable way into print.  How many well-written books are in hiding right now, abandoned with a misplaced sense of shame?  How many writers have given up their calling?  I have been told by many people that my book should be out there, not least my PhD supervisor, Scarlett Thomas, my agent and the publisher who wanted my book, but shall remain nameless: ‘So sorry to excite and deflate like this. But it is a reflection of the life of a small publisher rather than on the book itself, as Caroline writes very well.’  And that is the bottom line – the publishing industry is not in great shape, for publishers, small or large, are not committing to new writers as they did a decade ago. Their bubble may have burst, but as new writers our hopes should not.

I feel my book is as good as any publishing house would have made it.  What I do appreciate is that it is now MY book, not tailored to their whims, but my own.

The would-be published author is made to feel small in the 21st century; like they really need a mainstream publishing house behind them.  Yet I am now actually feeling very excited about launching out without support. I have been interested to discover, too, that self-publishing has the potential to be more lucrative.  A friend told me once she would be receiving ten pence per copy of hardback book sold.  This isn’t outlandish.  A writer will receive perhaps 10% per sale. This doesn’t sound so bad?  It isn’t based on the cover price but rather the price the publisher sells it at.  This could be half the cover price.  Wholesalers can then demand large discounts etc. etc.  The printing cost for my book will be £4.52.  If I sell at £9.99 the royalty on each copy will be £1.47.  I’m yet to see how this pans out, but so far I’m not complaining.

Despite all this, I’m saving the best bit till last.  You see, if I’d like to be known for any writing, it’s my current project.  In 2018 I wrote for a Christian anthology that was published at Christmas (Merry Christmas, Everyone, The Association of Christian Writers).  This unexpectedly kickstarted a new project in me and it has felt like a tremendous release; not that I didn’t enjoy writing Badger Clan, but my new book has been prompted by my own spiritual journey and not someone (who became my PhD supervisor) inviting me to write a book.  My faith grew as I wrote the badger book, and through the rocky road to publication, too.  I sometimes wonder that if Christians always have it easy, what use are we to anyone else?  I can share from my experiences and hopefully be an encouragement to others to see their projects through to a rightful conclusion.

I still expect to write some nature pieces in the future, but I’m not tied into this because it’s what my publisher expects of me.

How will I seek publication for my latest book?  At this stage, I really don’t know.  (When it’s finished I may feel clearer).  But it’s felt more fulfilling than anything to write, and I hope its outworking will do something quite profound; if it can bring greater understanding of the book that’s the most precious to me in the world, and point to the one who changes lives and transforms, then it will be a job well done.  I like the thought of writing something with eternal consequences.   Now that would be success in my mind.

 

thumb nail book cover

Good Friday reflection

This is the one day of the year that makes sense of the rest for me.  That says, there is hope, don’t give in, worse has been endured, your pain is understood, someone has been along and absorbed it all already, scooped up the fall-out and is offering a hand, saying, come on, it’s this way, I’ve been there already and I can lift you out.

It’s not that the world is any less troubled since that first Good Friday.  There’s so pexels-photo-433142.jpegmuch in the world that doesn’t make sense, that seems unfair, that I could take issue with. But I can’t point a finger at a god who doesn’t care because he isn’t there.  Instead I can reach out a hand to God who has walked amongst us, has taken the worst we can throw at him; he has the marks on his hands to prove it.  This is Jesus, not some remote deity who set galaxies spinning and sat back to watch.  It’s Jesus who said, I’ll deal with their brokenness and humanity, I’ll take my share of that – I’ll take their share, too.  I’ll take the hatred, the insults, the suffering, the isolation, the unfair load of worldly grot and I’ll bear it.  I’ll bear it until every last insult has been hurled, every once-sparkling promise broken, every sad violation committed, every injustice dealt and I’ll bear it up to my Father.  I’m big enough to take it.  Then they won’t be able to say I don’t care, I don’t understand, I don’t know how it feels, that I’m distant, unloving, unfair.  They will see my arms stretched wide in welcome, acceptance that comes no bigger…  I’ll die for it, for them.  I’ll clear the blocked passages between them and heaven, let them know they’ll always have a home, not just when their days are done but now, in amongst it all.  This is my refuge: it’s a cloak spread wide above their heads in the rain, that’s wide enough for all humanity as each responds and shares saying, come inside, we’ve a place to shelter.  It’s a canopy that will stretch over the whole earth, each place and person I spoke into being, forgiveness draped over the whole show, nothing, no one beyond its reach.  It says, it is finished.  But my work for them is never done, they will call on me and I will be there.  I’m there already.  They only have to ask.

Kids home, still writing

Coping strategies for a guilt free, child-happy, writing-is-happening time…

The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid. (Article by Lauren Sandler, The Atlantic, 2013).Well that’s me out then. I have four.  And we still have three full weeks of the summer holidays to run. Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying my children’s company. But let’s be honest, it is relentless.

‘Six weeks holiday, six whole weeks!’

‘No it’s not, it’s seven!’

‘I thought it was eight.’

So went the conversation in our house when school broke. Part of me always shares in their euphoria, but another part goes into mild panic. How to be the devoted and attentive mum whilst not letting this time that I also need for my writing disappear? It’s not all bad, I have finished an edit and begun preparations for next term. But I know I won’t get these weeks back and I can be as guilty of wasting time as the rest of them.

My nine-year-old wants me to know of her every thought, which though endearing can be slightly wearing. She defines exuberance. This, of course, blesses me no end but is not without its challenges. My eighteen-year-old wants to talk through the complete range of her potential A level results and the pros and cons of adjustment and clearing, almost daily. My son wants to take things apart and reassemble them, and all four children have an opinion on everything. Tolstoy is said to have written in his diary ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything’. I get where he’s coming from but I have been driven to find some slightly more inspirational comment.

There is sound advice to be had, however.

E.B. White, writer of Charlotte’s Web and co-writer of The Elements of Style has been here, too.  I can relate to what he calls ‘the carnival that is going on all around me’. He tells us, ‘the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to.’ Does this sound familiar? He continues, ‘If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.’ I think he’s right. There’s a lot to be said for grabbing the unexpected five minutes that come our way, wherever we happen to be.

I have taken White’s advice and am developing the ability to work with noise around me. My tactic is to write the essence of the thought that’s hovering in my brain, jotting down the key words and then fine-tuning it during a moment of quiet. I surface before the family when I can, often by 6 a.m., and this gives me my two or three most productive hours of the day. It’s when my thinking is at its sharpest and I spot most of the faults in my work from the day before.

When my youngest is full-on I can still use my lap-top and research themes, read articles and think about my classes. I can also read with chaos all around me, but it’s the creative work that’s often put on hold. I could work in the hut in the garden, but I prefer to save this for when there is a particular deadline. I like to read in there and let the kids join me if they want to (and they do).

There is much to be said for encouraging some early independence. ‘Read your book’, ‘Walk the dog’, ‘Make X a birthday card’, ‘You’ve got one hour to fill on your own, then I’m going to take you out.’ These are all phrases I trot out on a daily basis. It’s still a slog at times though, so please send me yours too.

At the end of the day, I want my kids to remember vibrant, happy summer holidays with a mum who was around for them. And if my writing features in anyone’s memory, then that will be a bonus.

Coping strategies

Making time. What is your best time of day, early morning or late at night? Attempt to surface while the rest of the household sleep, or stay up into the night. Once you’ve had a successful writing time at this hour you’ll do it again. Like me, Toni Morrison has found early mornings to be most useful. In The Paris Review she says, “Writing before dawn began as a necessity–I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama–and that was always around five in the morning.” (The Art of Fiction, no, 134).

Read. If you can’t find the space to write you can always do this. Stephen King says “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

Be realistic. Give yourself a modest, child-accommodating daily word count that you can easily reach. Then congratulate yourself and go and have fun!

 

 

How I found my literary agent

So I have a literary agent: Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency. How did that happen, I have been asked. Isn’t that really hard?

I know I am incredibly lucky. I also know that I have worked incredibly hard, though that doesn’t automatically entitle me to anything. My badger book has been on the go for a couple of years. I have lived and breathed it through that time; it’s a part of me and I am still writing notes on my badger encounters. It has also had that ‘time in the drawer’ that’s always recommended, though, in my case, more through accident than design. Months ago I had a literary agent chase me, which I sat on for a bit, but that’s another story. When I was ready he was about to change agencies, and then went off the boil. That’s okay – I think now I wasn’t right for him. You want an agent to be so certain about your work, and I don’t think he could have been about mine. Anne, on the other hand, said she knew straight away. She was lightning-quick with her responses and left the other agents way behind. Oh yes, the other agents. I had drawn up a shortlist of five with some input from a knowledgeable friend, and over the course of a couple of days wrote to them all.

So how did I find out about Anne? I searched for agents interested in new nature writing and a few names came up. I read her wishlist and then knew she was worth pursuing. She mentioned two of my favourite nature writers whose work I had recently put on a uni module and taught. My heart then started to beat a little faster. To the top of my list she went. Just to be absolutely certain, I read what articles I could about her, any interviews or related blogs that I could find before approaching her by email.

Anne was quick to request the full manuscript. While she was reading I heard from the other four, and three of them wanted the rest soon after. There was one very enthusiastic young agent from CB who totally charmed me, and an agent representing many UK nature writers who told me she would read, but there would be a delay as she was very busy.

Anne came back with a positive email in just under three weeks, having read the complete manuscript. We arranged to talk on the phone, when she sounded me out more fully and said she’d like to offer me representation. I was thrilled.

Since then we have met in London and chatted about the book in detail. I have also written to those agents and told them the news. That was a scary moment, but I feel sure I am in the best possible hands. I know some people would have chased the other agents and stirred things up, but I had already heard from my first choice. I guess if I was unsure about her I could have stalled for time, but all of this feels quite underhand and wasn’t needed anyway.

I know that this is just the beginning and the hard work begins here. Hearing the news has brought renewed energy though – I have already got back to the manuscript and the ideas are firing.

If you are reading this and wanting to find an agent, be encouraged. Write what you love, and let the first draft be wholly for yourself, you don’t need an audience in mind at all. Then, when you’ve been through your work several times, have run home for it, edited and lost sleep, ask yourself if it’s as good as it possibly can be. That is the point when you need to look for your agent. Good luck!

‘I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life… if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.’ Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald.

 

For the love of sparrows

This house sparrow was caught on our Bushnell nature cam, seed in her mouth, her relaxed feet hanging loose as her wings do what comes naturally to them, beating perhaps fifteen times a second. These short wings allow for a quick lift off, though she’s not built for speed, rather a swift exit when the neighbourhood cats are out. For once the humble sparrow looked exotic to me, like a new species of bat or four-winged bird.

We are lucky here, our garden could be known as sparrow central, and my nine-year-old counted nineteen of them during the Big Garden Bird Watch. They like nesting in our old eaves, and for me, they signify home. They are seen from the moment I lift the latch on the front gate, witnessed from every window, heard tweeting on the roof via the wood-burner in the sitting room. Our space is theirs, and generations of sparrows have grown up here, for they do not venture far. It is said that the fiercely defended territory of a male sparrow ‘really only consists of the nesting hole and a very small area around it.’ (BTO)

There is a danger that, like all things familiar, the humble sparrow is taken for granted. It’s an age-old problem; in Luke’s gospel Jesus says, ‘Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.’ Then they were sold for sacrifice.

In England from the 1700s (and perhaps earlier) they were so plentiful they were considered a pest by farmers, and there was a bounty on their heads; Sparrow Clubs existed, not as appreciation societies but with the sole purpose of killing as many as possible, while parish payments were available to anyone producing evidence.  The Stone Street Club near me in Kent lasted until 2003, though perhaps in name only. These clubs often collected rats tails too, which may account for this local group’s longevity.

Now sparrows are protected in the UK, though not all of Europe is quite so respectful. A student in one of my creative writing groups told me of an experience that disturbed her as a child. In Italy when she grew up, she said, sparrows were a delicacy and commonly eaten. She can still remember the horrid crunch of the little bones. She was made to sit there and eat, though her father would get up and walk out. Now she won’t touch poultry. I completely understand.

If, like me, you are alarmed by the sparrow’s rapid decline, consider what you can do to help them. If your house doesn’t hold nooks for them to nest in, think about putting up a sparrow nesting box. These are of a specific design – think of the sparrow’s sense of community – and look like a small bird terrace with at least three holes. Mealworms are thought to provide sparrow chicks with an increased chance of survival, and avoid pesticides in your garden, as there will be less insects for your sparrows to feed on. Introduce a wild zone in your garden, where you let things go. Choose butterfly-attracting plants and allow flower heads to go to seed.

Footnotes:

Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife by Roger Lovegrove

https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/a-z-garden-birds/house-sparrow

Luke 12:6-7.

sparrow-1617709_640

Out-pranking a nine-year-old

Lion, Drink, Zoo, Cat

 

A Saturday morning and a voice calls out from the downstairs loo – ‘It’s like a murder scene in here, ketchup everywhere. Clean it up Jemima.’

Rupert is getting ready for work, and none too pleased. Now he’s joining me in the upstairs bathroom. ‘Sorry, can I just get in and wash my hands? She’s got it everywhere, handprints on the door, smears all over the basin.’

I head downstairs, my routine can wait, and I need my early morning tea. Jemima has an eager look on her face, like she’s expecting something.

Then I realize.

‘Jem, there’s ketchup all over the milk! This isn’t how you do April Fools.’

‘It is.’

‘It’s really not, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.’

‘No, you have.’

The argument escalates and I send her up to her room, then find myself distracted by the dishwasher that needs emptying. But soon enough I open the cupboard for the tea bags, and am showered in home-made confetti. This time I do actually laugh, a severe headache hasn’t been helping my sense of humour failure.

She’d rigged a toilet tube inside the cupboard, attaching it with wool to the door, so that once opened the contents fall on an unsuspecting head. Snippets of wool, the contents of the hole-punch and a rubber crab litter the work surface and fall from my hair.

I think it’s my turn. What can I possibly do? I like the story of the washing of the lions, a prank in the 1800s, when, it was claimed, lions were ceremonially bathed in the moat outside the Tower of London. A quick search on the internet and I’m looking at a ticket online – it is stamped by a Perry B Greville. There’s scope here for a family yarn, perhaps Rupert will feel like taking this on when he’s in a better mood.

Jemima might fool for it, but she’d be expecting a trip to London, and it’s not the day for it. It does need to be something visual for her, something immediate. I know. I type in a few words and I’m all set.

‘Jemima, I’ve got something to show you.’

The sound of a small stampede and she’s back downstairs.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s about a special harvest, I thought you might be interested. It happens about now.’

‘Ooh.’

She climbs up onto the sofa and pulls her knees into her chest, expecting a nice long viewing.

‘Is that what spaghetti looks like when it’s growing?’

‘I guess so,’ I say, in a non-committal kind of way. If she glances at my face I’m sprung. I try to smile on one side of my face only, it sort of works.

‘I want to eat it straight off the tree.’

‘It would be nice, wouldn’t it?’

The clip ends and she hasn’t guessed.

‘That was a bit boring,’ she says.

That was a bit easy, I think to myself.

She’s in the kitchen banging cupboards again. I wonder what’s next.

‘Oh, I spent ages doing that,’ she says.

I join her and see her looking into her now empty toilet role tube.

‘That was a good one,’ I tell her. ‘It was the surprise of it. It’s not meant to be a terrible shock.’

‘Oh.’

I grab a pen and notepad and start my shopping list. ‘Spaghetti,’ I write at the top. I’ll cook it tonight, then I really should tell her. But I might not.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmZNcg0t_Hs

 

 

International Random Acts of Kindness Day

kindness

Februrary 17th, 2017. Mark the date and be on your guard. Today is the day ‘gestures of kindness’ will be performed in our unsuspecting communities: International Random Acts of Kindness Day is here. The picture above is of course very heart-warming. But my stomach is turning in anticipation of people following up on the official suggestions – I don’t want a stranger to give me a hug, or to tell me how nice I look today. That’s just plain weird. I don’t even want the person in front of me to pay for my groceries. Not surprisingly this idea stems from a cliché on a placemat in California: ‘practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.’ I think what gets to me is the pre-conceivedness of it – shouldn’t we always be on the look out for ways to help a stranger? I guess I’m happy with it if it’s a consistent outlook, and our actions will make a genuine difference to someone. The real danger is that we will just make them cringe.

I have just told Jemima, my eight-year-old about it, and now I wonder if I am being a little harsh. ‘Oh, Mr H did this,’ she replied. ‘He’s the best teacher ever. He paid an old lady’s parking fine. He had some money left so he bought someone a coffee.’ I want to know if this was really in response to a day like this, or if he’s just a nice guy. From what I know of him I think it’s the latter.

Selflessness has to be one of the most admirable traits. The literary character who impressed me the most in my teenage years was Sydney Carton, Dickens’ drunkard-turned-good lawyer in A Tale of Two Cities. He still does, though I’ve encountered a few more to rival him. Perhaps I like him now for his reluctance to people-please early in the novel – he “care[s] for no man on earth and no man on earth cares for [him]”. Yes, I know that’s not at all selfless, and I wouldn’t love him so if he stayed like this. He reminds me that no one is set in their flaws forever. Carton disguises himself as his friend and goes to the guillotine in his place. In a Christ-like resignation he sacrifices all that he is for the happiness of others. We read, ‘They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.’

We like to feel reassured about human nature in real life, too. Last month there was the news story about Alex from Reading whose bicycle was stolen. He wrote a note and taped it to the scene of the crime, and soon a kind woman began crowd-funding for him. You can watch a clip online as the replacement bike is given to him.

Selflessness is not exclusively a human trait, though many scientists argue that animal ‘kindness’ is merely a display of altruism. I like to think that there is some generosity in the equation. Vampire bats give blood to those in their group who haven’t eaten in a few days. Long-tailed tits sometimes rear their siblings children, rather than attempt a new brood of their own. Occasionally we read of a swimmer saved from a shark by a dolphin, or watch a bird revive another bird as I have today. These instances are at their most beautiful when they are not the norm, but prompted by a spontaneous urge that makes us think ‘I want to be like that’. I hope it will never be because an international organization has told us to.

Clip filmed in Saudi Arabia and posted on LiveLeak. Please let me know if this is your footage and I will attribute more fully!

The Secret Life of Sheep

https://i0.wp.com/thefamilywithoutborders.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/10_New_Zealand_Wildlife_Sheep-650x433.jpg

The other day I witnessed a display of sheep affection. A potato field has been given over to a flock of sheep, and there at the edge two ewes stood nose to muzzle in a lingering moment of closeness. They were in no hurry to move on, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I had to head home, and left the sheep to their togetherness. Perhaps they are there still. Then there was the fun-loving sheep today, running alongside the car and shaking its head with that girl-in-a-shampoo-ad motion. I wondered if it had a brain injury, sadly, or or if it were the ‘wild child’ of the flock.

We like to think of sheep as all the same, assume we know ‘the character of sheep’, that there is nothing more to tell. But these are not the only times I have found sheep betraying their conventional image. No longer are they docile and stupid in my mind, but misunderstood. In fact, I think they have the intelligence to portray themselves as one thing, giving themselves a cover to be something altogether different.

Have you seen the clip of sheep bounding along a line of hay bales? These are no ordinary bales, but between five and seven feet in diameter, and the sheep jump aboard like they are well-practiced – except this time Joe Blogs has his video camera. A momentary slip in the usual sheep-are-trustworthy cover, but then even phones film these days. I think the sheep can be forgiven for not noticing, especially as the bales had been laid out in such a tempting fashion.

My sheep suspicion has led me into a little research and my theories have been confirmed. A report in the National Geographic (2001) tells of the Cambridge Babraham Institute discovery that sheep can identify faces (fifty,to be precise) and remember them for two years or more. I wish they would give me the training. Then there are sheep that tackle mazes. In 1925 Howard S. Liddell wrote up his study, ‘The Behaviour of Sheep and Goats in Learning a Simple Maze’, research that has been tested more recently in Australia. Closer to home, sheep in the Yorkshire Moors have learnt how to roll over metal cattle grids and so avail themselves of the locals’ garden produce. You have to admire them for it.

I wonder if our concept of well-behaved, law abiding sheep comes from the Biblical view of them – ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ – and all those pastoral scenes in which sheep are of course still. How many of us have bothered to watch them long enough to see what they really get up to? They just look so darned innocent, a little vacant, and let’s be honest, dim.

Candlemas

Thursday 2nd February, 2017: ‘The feest of candlemas, or meetynge of candelles’.(1.)

I drive through the little village of Coldred on my way to work, a place that according to Wikipedia holds ‘the county record for the longevity of its inhabitants’. It is claimed this title stretches back as far as 1700. There on the village green is a sign advertising a Candlemas service in the village church. I have never been inside though it’s only a mile or two from home, and old English traditions intrigue me. I even wonder if such observances and the relaxed pace of life could contribute to the suggested health of the village. I slow for the community of ducks that loiter in the middle of the road and make a mental note to return.

Candlemas won’t leave me alone and I begin to search it on the computer before my class arrive. This is one of my adult ed groups, and only last week in a session on the countryside we came across the following quote:
‘If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;’
I show them my search at break-time. ‘If it’s sunny before 11 does it count?’ says Jenni. We all agree that the rain has really set in and winter has to be on its way out.
I continue my research at home and try to find a few recruits at suppertime. ‘Does anyone want to come to a Candlemas service with me tonight?’
‘Candle-what?’
‘When does it start?’
‘7.30.’
‘Sounds way too far up the candle for me,’ says Rupert.
‘I’ll come,’ says Maddy.
‘What, really?’
‘Well you’ll look a bit batty on your own. Like some weird old spinster or something.’
‘Nothing new there then,’ comes a voice.

The rain has stopped when we set out and we pull up on a muddy bank, the car tilting like a fairground ride on the rise. This little church has no car park but my daughter’s health issue means it would be difficult to walk, and unwise anyway as there is no pavement on this road out through the woods. We hear a single bell tolling and walk towards it with a torch, not knowing if it will be round the next bend or not. The old church has a stone bell-cote, the bell always on display and exposed to the elements, though too far from most houses to be heard. The bell is getting louder and there is a break in the hedge. We follow the lichen-covered path to the old door. We pause and glance at each other before I take the handle and stumble down a step. Several heads turn to look at us and smile.

This church can’t have changed much since it was built back in the 11th century. I want to take it all in, though it feels a little nosey. A man stands at the back pulling the bell rope and a lady dressed in a robe volunteers to take over – she sets a fast pace, as quick as CPR I think as we sit behind the local first aid lady known to us. There aren’t many of us – perhaps thirteen – but it doesn’t feel empty as the space is so small. It is how you feel in a light aircraft, shoulder to shoulder and glad of the intimacy, as if it carries with it a sense of privilege.

This church really is beautiful. White candles with pale flames fill every available space. They sit in alcoves, and atop several wrought iron holders that are attached to the walls. They line the pews and windowsills, amid displays of ivy and jam jars brimming with snowdrops. Snowdrops are known as ‘Candlemas bells’, the flower associated with this time of year. Superstition has it that it’s unlucky to bring them into the house before Candlemas, but I can’t think why you would want to pick them anyway. ‘Leave them for other people to enjoy,’ my mum told me on walks when I was small. They are protected by European law, not that this will count for much for long. As I look around I decide this is the perfect old English church. It is not ornate, which doesn’t sit well with me, but rustic, with an atmosphere of purity. The walls are of a simple whitewash and old brown beams line the roof-space.

Soon the service starts. It is Evensong which Maddy has never heard before, and I am out of practice. We bumble our way through it, though we are familiar with many of the prayers and most of the hymns. The lady vicar gives a five-minute address on the meaning of Candlemas. She doesn’t dwell on the old tradition in the Middle Ages of bringing your candles along to be blessed, but tells us instead about how this marks the bringing of Jesus into the temple as an infant, and Mary’s purification rite. Mary would have had a public bath as part of her ceremony, we learn. That’s one rite of passage we are best off without.

I feel sorry that the service is ending and fumble in my purse for an offering, barely able to make out what’s inside. I realize I’m about to pull out a sheet of stamps at the last minute and stop myself. I’m reminded of the detail my search brought up earlier in the day: long ago children would bring in coins for their teacher in competition to become Candlemas king or queen. ‘The king, i.e. he who pays most, reigns for six weeks.’(2.) The teacher was supposed to buy treats for the children with the money. It’s one way to brighten up a dull winter’s day I suppose. Now the dish is held up above head-height at the altar before the congregation are blessed and dismissed.

Maddy and I make our way back down the lichen path. ‘Are they snowdrops?’ I say to her, and we crouch low with the torch. ‘It’s hard to see if it’s rain glimmering at the end of the green tips or something more.’
‘It’s them,’ says Maddy, and as my eyes adjust to the darkness around us I see that she is right. It’s like that first movement in the womb, the knowledge that something is on the way, and it bodes good.

1. 1500: Ortus Voc. in Cath. Angl. 52 (Oxford English Dictionary online.)

2. 1794: J. SINCLAIR Statist. Acct. Scotl. XIII. 211. (Oxford English Dictionary online.)

PAINTING BY MARIANNE STOKES, CANDLEMAS DAY.