Monday, 27 July 2009

Magpies, Canal Boats, and a Bottle of Red

I was thinking how we writers are like magpies. picking up bright things here and there, shaking them around like bits in a kaleidoscope so to make a grand, brand new pattern. If the shaking up works, then  the diamond seeds of the original  elements will - with luck - create a new truth that shines out and strikes a universal chord in those who encounter it.


Let me travel back with you a month in time: I am walking along a narrow tree-lined path along the Canal du Midi in southern France. The canal glows greenish silver, the nightingales are treating me to the longer version of their song. A turtle  is keeping pace (or is it keeping flipper?) with me in the middle of the canal.

I am relaxed, relishing the experience second by second, but my sharp magpie eyes are missing nothing.


This part of the canal  is lined with boats of all kinds and sizes –many houseboats;  some rather up-market tourist boats; some boats housing summer water gypsies; one boat which looks like a junkyard on water.

On the covered verandah of one houseboat I note DSCN0297 a man of about sixty - a long, fit, silver haired, well-seasoned kind of man in drill trousers and bare feet. He’s lying on a long garden seat with his legs over one end, reading one of those old green and cream Penguin books – battered and well used. He looks English but I would not swear to it.

I walk on and by a long boat I pass a group of men on the bank, barbecuing something that smells of garlic and tomatoes and burnt flesh. Their v0ices rumble. They don’t look like tourists. Just further along is a girl with glossy dark hair swinging from a rope-swing fixed up on one of the great trees that line the canal. On the back- swing of the rope she glances back towards the men, the image of flirting temptation.

FurthDSCN0308er along I note a plump elderly man who  is organising his water bottles on the roof of his narrowboat, filling them from a large container. He smiles politely. ‘   ’jour  Madame!’  I bask in this French politeness and move on.

Half an hour later I return the same way. (I like doing this, whether driving or walking. The perspectives on a return journey are entirely different from those on the outward journey).

Now, the plump old man from the narrow boat is way ahead of me on the path, a bottle of red wine in his hand. The girl on the swing is  talking to the barbequing man.  A small child  is clinging to her, his arm around her neck. When I finally reach the houseboat again, the plump man is sitting at the table with the silver haired man. The bottle of red is open on the table, glasses half full. And these two men are talking, gesticulating. It looks like some pleasurable nightly ritual to me.

So there you are: a magpie’s collection from a summer afternoon walk, ready for the kaleidoscope. One shake of the kaleidoscope and I could have a short story. Another, and I could have the makings of a novel. Another could give me a pilot of a TV Series and … and….

Mrs Wood, my wonderful, very original, art tutor once said. ‘Once you learn how to look, you will never be bored.’  She was right there wasn’t she?



PS To leave a comment - or say hello - click on 'Comments' below. Write your comment in the box and, if you don't have a website, choose to click on Anonymous (below) and leave your name (or nom de plume) at the bottom of the message. Then hit Publish.


  1. I love bright shiny objects and troll the internet looking for them all the time. But I don't find many sparkling jewels like this post of yours. Thanks so much-- I really enjoyed taking that walk with you.

  2. Thankyou Pinpracket. Nice to note another magpie. More walks to come!

  3. Dear Pinkpackrat
    Sorry - got your name wrong first time. (must be about being a lady of a certain age...)
    But then Pinpracket is quite a sweet rendering...

  4. I walked with you. I am also a listener and snippets of a few words overheard can spark off my imagination. How lovely to live on a houseboat. thanks for sharing your thoughts andexperiences. Mary x

  5. This is a wonderful evocation of time and place. How right you are that the smallest observations can transform themselves into stories, and how very wise Mrs Wood was. How can one ever be bored - on a walk, on the bus, picking up a parcel from the post office, standing in a queue at the bank - if one truly knows how to look? How many lives, how many stories, cross our paths every day? That's why it's so amusing when people fall upon writers and say 'I've got a great story for you. You write it and we'll split the profits!' In a single day, a person with a finely tuned'lookometer' can observe more budding stories that one person could ever write in a lifetime.



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