Sunday 18 March 2012

The Itinerant Muse - Kathleen Jones Scribbling on Trains and Planes

Thinking, perhaps
I do love  Kathleen Jones' blog. It reflects her life as a  biographer, poet, teacher  and fiction writer of unique vision. Her blog reflects her life travelling the world and expresses her celebratory  and  principled approach to to life and literature. I asked her to be the guest blogger on Life Twice Tasted.

 Welcome Kathy...

'I’m writing this on a train - which is fairly normal for me, since I seem to be almost always on the move.  My partner works in Italy, our home is in the north of England, and my work as a writer takes me frequently to London and beyond.  Research trips for books have taken me to America, New Zealand, most of Europe, Russia, Cambodia and Australia. Before that, in another life, I was an engineer’s wife, trekking my children from one developing country to another across Africa and the Middle East.  You could say that I’ve learned to live like a nomad, with everything I need in my suitcase.
             All this travel is exciting and there’s all the input and stimulus that a writer needs, but it’s also necessary to have quiet, reflective, creative space to actually produce anything.  And that’s the hardest thing to achieve - a block of time to develop an idea in your head and put it down on paper.  I’ve learnt to use ‘transitional moments’ between one place and the next.  Trains and planes, buses and cafes - hours of time in limbo.   When you’re travelling, there’s no nagging list of ‘must do’s’, no washing up, no unexpected visitors.  Switch off the mobile phone and you’re secure.  The mind and imagination float free and - because nature hates a vacuum - all sorts of words and images begin to appear.
          Lots of writers have made use of the in-between spaces.  Katherine Mansfield  sometimes wrote on the staircase, which she saw as a transitional space, like a railway station - one had departed, but not quite arrived, and it became an alternative universe of space and time to be inhabited.   As AA Milne put it:
 Halfway up the stairs isn't up and isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery, it isn't in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head.
It isn't really anywhere, it's somewhere else instead.

            All this travelling has had an effect on the kind of things that I write.  Serendipity.  I’ve never concentrated on one genre, but always taken what turned up.  In the middle east it was English broadcasting for a local government station serving the Arabian Gulf states.  Then it was going a series of programmes for Woman’s Hour on what it was like to be a European woman living in an Arab world.  I’d have a go at almost anything - poetry readings in supermarkets, magazine articles on witchcraft, biographies of other writers I’ve admired, stories dug out of my own weird life.  Maybe I’d have been more successful if I’d stuck to one thing - but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much!
              Although there’s a small part of me that longs to be ‘rooted in one dear, perpetual place’, as Yeats put it, the rest of my personality experiences a thrill of anticipation at the thought of travel - I can’t see a plane overhead, or a lighted train passing in the night, without wanting to be on it.   This passion for travel must be in my DNA - my mother’s family were seafarers who travelled the globe on ships and brought home foreign women as wives.   My father’s family were itinerant Irish, cattle drovers and horse dealers.
            But, for the itinerant writer, what happens to that sense of belonging, of writing out of place, the father/mother-land, believed to be essential for a writer?
             My roots, my sense of belonging, will always be in the north of England, Cumbria, in the wild landscape where I was born and brought up.  But even then we didn’t stay long in one place.  I was born in a farm labourer’s cottage not far from Caldbeck, then taken at the age of 3 to live on a remote croft in the Cheviot hills between England and Scotland.  At the age of 8 we moved back to the lake district, where my father had a farm manager’s job, before he begged and borrowed enough money to buy a small, ruinous (in both senses)  hill farm in the Uldale fells.  Different schools, different houses;  I became very independent and used to relying on my own resources.  Eventually my father went bankrupt and moved again, and I decided to go to London, where my real travelling (and writing) began.
        There are places I can’t write - places too noisy and busy, where I can’t settle.   And I can’t write when I’m stressed and anxious.  It was particularly difficult when my children were small.  We once lived in a hotel room for four months in the middle east, and we were shuffled round a series of rented apartments and other people’s houses - sometimes moving two or three times a year. Electricity and water were fragile things - not to be taken for granted. There was a busy expatriate social life I came to hate.   I learned to write in my head, memorising things to be written down as soon as I could snatch a moment. 
            I discovered that there’s a space inside your head you can go into and close the door, a parallel world of imagination.  Like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement it usually appears when you need it. But no amount of searching will reveal it - the door opens by magic.  I’m always afraid that one day it won’t, and that the impulse to create will have vanished overnight, regardless of where I am at the time.  
            I’ve just written the last paragraphs in the airport departure lounge - plane an hour late - and, though I’m aware of the throng of people around me, it’s as though I’m in a little bubble of time, suspended out of real life for a moment.  In transit.  Very odd, but after so many years I now  recognise that it’s part of how and where I write.

© Kathleen Jones


  1. A lovely piece! Although I don't travel as you do Kathy I really recognise the bubble, something I think many writers develop, rather like a second skin around them. I was always one to be put out by too much noise or distraction - noise pollution as it were - but since I've been writing I've been amazed at how easily I can just switch off from this kind of disruption and slip into that other world.

  2. It's odd isn't it, this bubble. I don't think everyone can do it, but it's very useful!



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