Walking and writing on small scales

This morning I went walking in the forest near Dilsberg (in southern Germany, where I’m staying on a three-month writers residency). Most of the trees in this forest are oak and beech trees, which makes it feel very different to those at home in Scotland. And walking through this forest I’m noticing very small scale changes, sometimes I can see wide vistas across the valleys to neighbouring hills, other times I can only see a few metres in front of you. Some of the paths are wide and muddy tracks made by logging vehicles, others are steep and narrow. The air temperature changes rapidly as I climb hills, and this means that snow exists in some places, even though it’s melted in other places. Snow patches are often only a few metres across, and right next to them the earth might be warm from the sun.

The ostensible aim of my morning’s walk was to find a stone marked on the map as the ‘Tillystein’, because Commander Tilly (leader of the Catholic Counter-reformation forces) was based here during the Thirty Years War. (He actually stayed in the house where I’m a writer-in-residence, which is why it’s known as the Kommandantenhaus.) But I walk right past the stone before doubling back and realising. It’s a huge outcrop of stone with the word ‘Tillystein’ neatly chiselled on one side.

My walks seem to need an apparent aim to them, no matter how unconnected from my writing those aims are (I know almost nothing about Commander Tilly or his stone, apart from the fact he’s mentioned in Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’), each morning I plan a walk by studying a map while I eat my breakfast.

The Kommandantenhaus itself is large and because it’s right on top of the hill, it can be seen from some distance. (I suppose that’s ideal for spotting your enemies if you are a commander.) Interestingly, it interrupts the wall that otherwise encircles the entire village. That feels a bit like a metaphor for my presence as an outsider, to create something that causes a slight disruption, although I’m not sure how public this disruption is going to be.

The small-scale nature of the changes in the forest appeal to me.  They’re invisible on Google Earth which has a spatial resolution of around 15 metres, and can only show the tops of the trees which look worryingly like some sort of giant broccoli-like vegetable on the screen. There is a truth to the forest that can only be encountered directly and not via the screen. To me, it feels the importance of getting to know small patches of land is the same as the importance of telling individual stories. Small scales are required for the sake of precision, both in walking and writing.

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Shackleton’s great dérive

Over the past couple of months I’ve been doing lots of research for my next novel, and as part of this I’ve been reading about the British explorers of the Antarctic during the so-called ‘heroic’ age of polar exploration (in the early 20th century). I’ve just finished reading Shackleton’s account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, which left Britain in 1914 and aimed to cross the entire polar continent.

But not long after it first reached the Antarctic, the expedition’s ship Endurance got stuck in ice in the Weddell Sea until eventually the crew had to abandon it before it was completely crushed. They lived on various ice floes for several months before managing to launch three lifeboats and reach solid ground, Elephant Island just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. From here, five men including Shackleton, set off to raise help. This epic voyage in a small open boat took two weeks to travel across 800 miles of the South Atlantic and when the men finally arrived at the island of South Georgia they had to climb over a previously uncharted mountain range to reach the port of Stromness. Altogether, Shackleton and his men spent nearly one and a half years drifting in the ice floes of the Antarctic.

Because I’m an inveterate book-hopper, at the same time that I was reading about this absolutely extraordinary journey, I was also reading the ‘Introduction to Psychogeography’ by Merlin Coverley and learning about the dérive, initially configured as a sort of experiment to try and identify the interaction between the human and the city. The dérive can be a way of consciously experiencing (and perhaps resisting) the overriding nature of cities to guide and dominate people’s movements.

Just after the Endurance was finally crushed by ice, Shackleton and his men had to make a decision about whether to stay put on an ice floe and see where it took them, or alternatively to move north under their own volition. But when they tried to do this, they found the ice pack couldn’t bear their weight. They were forced to remain on the firmest ice floe they could find.

This enforced dérive is as geographically and psychologically removed from the streets of Paris or London as it’s possible to imagine. And yet it is a true drift. Shackleton and his men were subject to the currents of the ice and the sea, and could only work out their position on a map by using a sextant. They were connected to their surroundings, including the stars above them which were essential to their understanding of their geographical location. They didn’t want to be drifters. But drifting was imposed upon them.

And why is this important? Because, quite frankly Shackleton comes across as a bit of a dodgy customer. He was always on the lookout for a quick buck and getting involved in dubious business deals that invariably fell through. He wasn’t particularly interested in polar exploration for its own sake, but he saw in it a chance to make his name. (The same could also be said of Scott.)

But this terrible random journey through the Antarctic sea, adrift on an ice floe, was where he came into his own. His men all testified how he looked after them. He kept them alive, not just physically but also psychologically, he kept their hopes up and stopped them from despairing. None of the men under his direct command died. This dérive is what made Shackleton’s name as an Antarctic legend.



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writer in residence at Heidelberg

I’m hugely excited about my upcoming residency in Heidelberg (actually in a little village nearby) thanks to the City of Literature Heidelberg, as part of a joint scholarship with Kulturstiftung Rhein-Neckar-Kreis e.V. I’ll be staying there for 3 months from the beginning of February, and I’m hoping to work on two projects during that time. My paternal grandfather came from Offenbach am Main, not far from Heidelberg, and I’m planning to write a non-fiction piece about his emigration to England in the 1930s. I’ll also be working on the Next Novel – which is still at a very embryonic stage – all I know is that it’s set in the Antarctic.

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Shoreline of Infinity Issue 9

I’ve got a short story ‘Lowland Clearances’ in the latest issue of Edinburgh’s best (and only?) SF magazine Shoreline of Infinity. It’s about sheep. Sort of.

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Midlothian Science Festival

I’m giving a talk with Matjaz Vidmar at the Midlothian Science Festival on 17 October – about the human exploration of outer space. We’ll be exploring some of the legal and social issues around exploring other planets and we’ll be using a mixure of fact and fiction.

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The Reader Berlin

Super-happy to have my story ‘Unsettled’ short-listed for The Reader Berlin’s competition, and it will included in their anthology to be published next year 🙂

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Orkney Science Festival

I’m returning to the Orkney Science festival in a few weeks, to take part in an event with Matjaz Vidmar about the exploration of outer space.

Some facts and maybe some fiction…

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Journey to outer space from Edinburgh this August

Lots of rather wonderful outer-space themed events on at the Edinburgh festivals this year.

Here’s one that I’ve been involved in – Transmission‘s immersive theatrical experience is running throughout August, and listen to their podcasts to get a taster.

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (organised by Beltane) is running a series of stand-up comedy/discussion events and I’m doing one (with Matjaz Vidmar) about outer space and whether it’s a Good Idea for humans to boldly go there. What’s to stop us destroying alien life? What rules apply in outer space? Is human space travel more science fiction than science fact? (On August 5th at 1:50pm in the New Town Theatre.)

And I’m chairing one of a series of events at the Book Festival programmed by Ken MacLeod about science fiction: come and listen to him, Charlie Stross, Nalo Hopkinson and Ada Palmer talk about hopeful futures on 18 August at 6:30pm.

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Best Scottish Poems 2016

My poem ‘Physics for the unwary student’ has been chosen as one of the 20 Best Scottish Poems for 2016! This selection is made each year by a different editor, this year’s was Catherine Lockerbie. My poem was published in the House of Three anthology, volume 2 (editors Kevin Cadwallender, Annie Kelly)

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The Big Bang is scheduled to happen in Wigtown!

I’m taking part in a weekend of women talking about science at Wigtown. The Big Bang weekend is happening on 27-29 January and there’ll be talks on dark matter, astronomy and literature, deep sea exploration, the search for life on other planets and lots of other stuff. Also talking are Dr Amy Hofmann and Dr Maya Tolstoy, and the whole extravaganza is the brain-child of Jessica Fox (of ‘Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets‘ fame).

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