July brings two endings: the first draft of the new novel and a house move.
As to the novel, of course a first draft is only the beginning of the end. All the business of first readers, publishers, re-drafting and editing lies ahead. But that daily assignment with the eighteenth century, with John Addison and Elizabeth Cresswell and all the others, is over. For the last year or so I have been a part-time resident of another century, allowing its attitudes to usurp my own, learning to lace my stays and practice fortitude. I understand how to set sail on a square-rigged sloop and to estimate longitude. I have seen at first hand the ordeal of pre-modern childbirth and the deadly struggle with smallpox and TB. Their classical but draughty drawing rooms feel as familiar as my twenty-first century kitchen.
Writing historical fiction requires an immersion that brings about an equivocal relationship with reality. The settings and dramas of the imagined world often feel more real than the here and now. After a morning’s writing I have to go and dig the allotment and put out the washing to bring myself back to actuality. Sometimes I feel, guiltily, that this immersion is the very opposite of Zen and being present to the moment. It is a kind of existential cheating, being able to pass through the back of the wardrobe into an alternate universe.
But for now, it is over. For a fortnight or so I suffered a kind of literary empty nest syndrome, my head suddenly empty of the voices that have filled it over the last year. I kept sneaking back to the text to tweak a few paragraphs. But it is better to leave it. There has to be a time of separation to allow a perspective to emerge and objectivity to set in.
And meanwhile, the demands of the here and now are pushing rudely to the fore. Four weeks today the removal vans will be outside the door. Like the novel, it is not a complete ending. We are moving just seven miles away, to a small village in Berwick’s rural hinterland. It’s more of a change of relationship than an end.
When we announced our plans, the news was met with near-universal incredulity and dismay, especially from my family. Everyone loves visiting our house in the old Maltings on Berwick’s waterfront. It has stunning views across the Tweed estuary and down the coast, the sea is practically on the doorstep and the house, in the old Maltings kiln, is full of light and quirky spaces. Why would you ever want to leave it?
When we first moved to Berwick over twenty years ago, it was down-at-heel and economically depressed, with the traditional fishing and malting industries long gone, the last mill closing and Jus-rol Pastry soon to follow suit. It had no obvious tourist attractions apart from the Elizabethan town walls and its main retail offer was charity shops. We thought it an undiscovered gem, with its wonderful Georgian houses, sandy beaches and riverside, but we learned that Berwickers had a low opinion of their town. When we started a holiday let business our accountant, a Berwick man, expressed amazement that anyone would pay money to come and stay in Berwick. Ours was one of only half a dozen.
All that has changed. The last few years has seen an astonishing surge in tourism in the town. If you put a search for Berwick upon Tweed into Airbnb today it brings up 244 results. A new Premier Inn has opened at the end of our street. The High Street is still down-at-heel, but there is a new wave of antique shops, art galleries, bookstores and cafes appearing in the smaller premises. Suddenly the town is full of tourists, none of whom understand how to negotiate the town’s eighteenth-century road system. The pier at the end of our road, once a place for a quiet stroll to look out for dolphins, is now thronged with visitors with large cameras. The beach and dunes just beyond, which used to be deserted and a haven for wildlife, are criss-crossed with new paths. The reed buntings have moved on.
We feel a bit like the reed buntings. The road past our house leads to the pier, and it is now constantly busy with visitors going up and down, with cars looking for parking spaces, with youngsters playing loud music. It is difficult to sit outside with a cup of coffee without feeling conspicuous. Visitors are particularly interested in the locals and like to engage one in conversation, or to peer through the windows to see what our house is like. Some mistake us for a café and come inside asking for two flat whites.
Tourism is generally touted as the answer to Berwick’s problems, and of course it brings business into the town. But it brings other changes. Much of the town’s charm lay in its unspoilt open spaces and old-fashioned neighbourliness. On a walk around the walls you would greet everyone you met. Now you meet strangers who do not say hello. The town becomes something to be observed rather than a place to be lived in.
So we are flitting. In a month’s time we will have a garden of our own and a field beyond, a river to swim in instead of the sea, and not a visitor in sight. Of course, we will miss the view, miss it desperately. But we’re looking forward to welcoming the reed buntings.