Autumn is approaching in Britain. From my balcony this week I’ve noticed the trees browning day by day, and leaves starting to accumulate on lawns. It seems an opportune moment to share an image of Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness by Guernsey artist Peter Le Vasseur. It was part of a series of 20 paintings in his Wild Britain series that he painted between 2007 and 2010. British subjects were a departure for Peter who by that time had a reputation for large paintings depicting exotic animals in far flung locations, particularly rainforests.
Let us wind back a little. After a year in which almost everything was cancelled, I was desperate to get away. My excavations in Alderney could not take place and I missed my book launch in Guernsey, as well as not seeing my many friends who live in the islands for over six months. My remaining projects were being kept warm remotely by email, but only so much can be achieved by Gmail and Zoom. I spotted a chance to escape to the islands at the start September. There was just one convenient flight that spared me an exhausting cross-country trek and also squeezed into a short window where Guernsey’s strict 14-day quarantine rules were relaxed to seven days plus a negative C-19 test.
Seven days’ isolation needed some mental preparation, especially after such a long period of enforced stasis in the spring. I would be staying in friend’s flat that became fortuitously vacant that week, which had a balcony and views of greenery and the distant sea to keep me sane. So, I treated my trip as a writer’s retreat and healthy detox, without shelling out for a week at a wellness or creative writing holiday.
It concentrated my mind. I had between seven and nine days to fill, with no outdoor exercise or human interaction beyond the internet. On the off-chance my test came back positive it would stretch to a soul-killing 14 days. I cleared my laptop of everything but two projects I was working on and made sure all the software was updated so I didn’t end up spending half a day watching the doughnut of death go round and round. I then made sure I had all the up to date files in case I couldn’t connect to the cloud. With very few distractions I could then simply write.
Being between novels I cracked on with the non-fiction book provisionally entitled Peter Le Vasseur: A Brush With Life. I had already assembled a heap of scruffy notes and hastily typed research files based on my interviews with Peter in Guernsey. I’d also made a scratch catalogue of his major works by sorting through his records, his website and some additional research. The aim is to produce a book primarily focussed on Peter’s environmental art so the text does not need to be extensive. Over those seven days I put together a first draft of 19,000 words. In common with all my first drafts it is still a mess of omissions, repetitions and queries but it now feels I have a book in front of me. I couldn’t have done so much at home, where my house and my garden demand attention, and my hobbies and friends lure me away.
I’ve not been a total workaholic, as my back and my eyes demand time away from the laptop, so I’m working my way through the box set of The Americans, Red Dwarf and some classic French movies. I also have Mick Herron’s Real Tigers and a couple of research books for my next 1930s thriller to read in the breaks. The internet is distracting though – Facebook, Messenger, What’s App, Gmail and Radio 4 have absorbed a great deal of attention in lieu of conversation. Cooking was a staple activity of lockdown but I’ve been challenged this week by living out of a single foodbox delivery without recourse to spices and sauces. It’s not quite been Red Cross rations but has demanded some ingenuity. The detox meant no booze and kicking my Pepsi Max addiction, and I bought just three Toblerones at the airport as my nine day chocolate ration. Okay, they were Giant Toblerones and they only lasted seven days.
Simply travelling was a tense experience. Masks on the near-empty train, masks at the eerily quiet airport, and scary official forms to complete that threatened the careless with huge fines. Even threading my way through the various quarantine rules and fine print of my insurance documents was stressful. On the seventh day I took a taxi for my test, which bizarrely took place with a Red Arrows air display taking place overhead. I posted that I’d been swabbed at the hospital but autocorrect changed this to ‘stabbed’ which would have caused some alarm amongst my relatives if I hadn’t re-read before posting. Then came the wait, hanging onto my phone like a teenager anxiously wanting that text back after a first date. All notion of chilled, relaxed writing went out of the window even as I couldn’t go out of the door.
I’ve learned things on my retreat, or to be more accurate I’ve re-learned things such as my most productive writing time is between 7 and 9 in the evening. Lockdown spring made me listless and the summer of semi-freedom made me seek out every distraction that was allowed but autumn is come and it is time to work.
The original post had a cliffhanger ending, but I had my negative result back an hour after posting, so I’m now free to get on with Phase II of the adventure.