Friday 23 September 2016

The Writer and the Shoreline Ape

One midnight recently I was beguiled by a pair of radio programmes by David Attenborough about the controversial Waterside Ape Theory. (I instantly transposed it in my head to the Shoreline Ape Theory which I like better and I will use here.) These programmes challenged the received and scientifically respectable theory that man evolved from a hair covered quadruped to a smoother skinned bi-ped by surviving on the dry plains of the African Savannah in the end rearing up onto two legs as he went about hunting prey and making bloody scraps available for the less skilled females and children so they could survive into the next generation.

But now the ‘rather suspect’ Shoreline Ape theory has emerged in the last thirty years, supported by the discovery by palaeontologists of fossil remains of hominid bi-peds on the lake and sea shorelines of Africa.

The thought is that here on the shoreline the apelike quadrupeds evolved  into upright ape-like bipeds  supplemented their resources on the lake and sea shorelines by  diving in the shallow waters, harvesting and eating the freely available shellfish from the rocks.  There is logic in this. Standing up on two legs was much easier in the water; finding food to survive in this way reduced the life risks and the hard labour of hunting for food by chasing and killing animals across the threatening savannah.

For the hunter gatherer this easier less physical work meant that as part of this stage of evolution he- or she (now it was very commonly a she) became accustomed to holding their breaths for long periods as they dived for their prey underwater. They developed tiny bones to protect their eardrums, not unlike those developed by modern deep sea divers.

It seems that the shoreline ape-like bipeds, unlike their land based hunting ape cousins, are the only species that has a layer subcutaneous fat under their skins. (Protects them from the cold in the water of course.) Modern women too have this helpful layer of fat.  In this perhaps the shoreline apes were more like their seagoing mammalian cousins, the whale and the dolphin.  This gives us an image of the females buoyed up by water. Even while heavy or pregnant the females could hunt and swim for food to provide for their families on a more than equal footing with the males.

This element of evolutionary theory hints that there is another narrative about how we all evolved. This theory tells us that at least alongside the master-hunter male 'Tarzan' figures of the African Savannah we are also indebted to the much less macho shoreline ape for the fundamentals of our human identity.

This is on my mind now because here I am in the sun on the shores of a sea-lake that leads to the Mediterranean. After that, Africa! In all my life I have taken every opportunity to spend time by the sea, or within sight of other kinds of water such as lakes and rivers. I feel at home there. I have an intense affinity with water.

It so happens that I’ve just published my new novel, The Bad Child, where water and swimming is very significant. In order to get the details of my story right as well as all this palaeontology, I’ve researched our human relationship with swimming, reading in particular contemporary sources which refer to the increasingly popular culture of Wild Swimming where people swim in ponds, lakes and in the sea, seem to find it a deeply satisfying way to spend their time
The literature of Wild Swimming is obsessive, poetic, and even euphoric. Some writers allude to pre-memory memories of water being not just there around and above them but as their natural habitat.

So sitting here by the shoreline I am feeling natural affinity with Dee, my heroine. And my million times grandmother the Shoreline Ape. 

Friday 2 September 2016

Narratives and Magnetic Ideas.

My new novel The Bad Child is  at last out there now strutting her stuff  (I hope you're taking a look at her...) And I've just about completed my creative contribution to the fascinating Damselfly Books Website.  

And now, like other professional writers I find there's this nagging question in my ear. So what next, Wendy. What next? The usually cluttered storytelling attic that is my head is disturbingly empty. But the truth is that the creative nature abhors a vacuum and ideas are beginning to settle in up there, coming into a new life. There they are, swirling about, making patterns in the air.

It seems to me that once an idea has settled there firmly in  my attic  head, it begins to attract fragments of memory and the urge to make notes, read books and absorb further inspiration. These things are like iron filings dancing around in the dusty air, making shapes around the intensely powerful magnet that is the new story idea. The shapes are not fixed. They can change with every movement of the magnet. The iron filings may consist of historical sources, images, artefacts, songs, stories, maps, photographs  and actual landscapes.

This was very much the case  with my Celtic/Roman novel The Pathfinder. The first
The Book
The Kindle
fragment settling clinging to a wall in the attic was an article I read about what are called  Lines of Desire.  Then, somehow, I kept bumping into elements of  this idea in different books, articles in the press and on the Internet.

The term Lines of Desire refers to the facts that, for several thousands of years, straight  roads and pathways were naturally formed by the foot-tread and the wheel marks of generations of men, women and children making their way - not just through Britain -  but throughout Europe and even further afield. These pathways were established as travellers and traders, families and individuals, made their way through the landscape, going about their business of their daily life.

Lines of Desire is still referred to today in urban planning to describe the roads that are made on new ground as people find their own straight way usually the shortest distance between two points in a landscape.

Of course, this ie very efficient,  as the Romans demonstrated this merely two thousand years ago, when they used many of the old straight British paths as the basis for  their straight roads throughout Britain. Of course the business the Romans were going about was the conquest of the then known world. Their roads were certainly their own lines of desire.

In the beginning my novel The Pathfinder was actually entitled Lines of Desire. But as I moved the magnet again around my attic as the story grew, I began to think that title ambiguous, too off-piste

I was becoming fascinated by the complex and interesting lives of the original Pathfinders, often left in the shadow of the powerful Roman definitions of early British history. One more shake of the magnet and out stepped my heroine   Elen,  a great Pathfinder, daughter of another Pathfinder, a powerful British tribal trading king, in in the land we now call Wales.   

At last I could see that my job as a writer was to use my imagination to bring to life this landscape, these people those times, these forefathers of my readers, these unique people. My prose has to allow my readers to experience the reality of Elen’s world, her powerful father, her artistic mother, he warrior brothers; the brother who was a poet and a song-maker. I had  to breathe life into her the man who became her husband, husband a Roman general, and trace their joint pathway through the history of their times. to trace their impact on history,

And now at last I have come to the end of another two years and finished the next
Book and Kindle
 entirely different story The Bad Child. I have spent a year or so in the modern world alongside the rebellious Dee Belasis who has decided not to speak. But she can draw. Boy can she draw!  

But the magnet does its magic again. I was halfway through the novel - still inside  Dee’s un-speaking head - when by accident I heard a Radio 4 programme about drawing and the making of meaning and idea which fitted my story like a glove. It gave another player to the whole narrative.

It’s a funny way to make a living isn’t it?  Playing iron filings and magnets to make my stories swing into real life,.  

And what, you may say, is the next Magnetic Idea ?
I was just asking that myself.


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